Like just about every other human upon the planet, I’m determined that 2019 is going to be different. Yes, I’ve made all sorts of silly New Year’s resolutions goaded on by a waistline and blank sheet of paper labelled “Achievements 2018”. The difference in my case is that I really am going to stop being soft [(c) Stuart Wright – Bearbonesbikepacking]. I’ve been far too soft in recent years, especially the previous one where I came home from three major bike rides early laden with excuses rather than battle scars. I’ve definitely got a lot softer in my fifties mostly down to pre-ride-thinking that I’m about twenty years younger then quickly discovering the converse. I find myself in a state of physical and mental exhaustion that seems inexplicable. I’m sure I didn’t used to feel like that before? Well I did, but twenty years previously I just got on with it instead of phoning my wife or baling onto a train.
This just won’t do anymore. I need to re-programme my aging mind to forget the younger man and deal with the practicalities of the decrepit body it currently controls. It needs to accept the current limitations yet push on regardless. Basically, get used to things feeling hard and staying that way for a long time. As that’s how it is for us aging fellows in all but one department.
So I decided to start 2019 by a bit of a bikepacking adventure to kickstart the toughening up process. A friend had made me aware of a route called the Southern Way. Lands End to Dover a lot of it off road. Seeing as I now lived in Brixham, I could knock off some of this route over a couple of days. I just needed to get myself west and ride bike home, using the route to take me most of the way. I bribed Helen with the promise of chips and at least 24 hours of Dave free bliss. She willingly agreed, it was definitely the chips.
Then I went to the basement of dreams to decide which steed would be accompanying me upon this great adventure. Seeing as I’m not being soft anymore I picked the heaviest and slowest of them all, my plus bike. I made it considerably more heavy with two days worth of camping kit, food and warm clothes. It’s January after all and multiple sleeping bags might be a good idea.
And before you could say a “massive writing cliche like fast forward” I was leaving Penzance at 8pm in the dark, full of chips and following the line of the Southern Way. My plan was a ride of about 8 miles to a bivy spot near Gurlyn. I’d scouted this previously using Google maps and it looked to be a small clearing away from the road but bang on route. On arrival I found the farmer had place a portaloo exactly on the spot. Now that’s service. But he’d placed it there by doing donuts in a JCB and the ground was entirely unsuitable for my tent. So I toddled on a bit more, enjoying the crisp night air and the rumble of my fatish tyres upon the narrow roads. A section of manky bridleway upped the not being soft training and covered me and the bike in shite. Brilliant, less than 10 miles into the route and I’d transformed into full tramp.
I was scanning hedgerows like a shit lighthouse with my helmet lamp when a wooden building in trees caught my eye. It looked a bit like a toilet block in the middle of a campsite. Which was a fantastic coincidence as it was. The site was fenced off and clearly shut, but a huge firepit evidenced recent activity. I explored further and it appeared to be fair game. The only sign I found warned me of CCTV, I then found the camera pointing at the moon. Clearly hacked by the Chinese. So I decided this would do for the night and set up my bivy bag upon a wooden porch. This was bikepacking luxury, the stop being soft training could take a back seat tonight. I was in bed by 10pm and out like a light.
An early start the next day propelled me to Troon in the dark. I fuelled the system with a corner shop bacon roll and some chocolate milk. My plan was a full english as soon as I found a decent open cafe. But they’d all gone into hiding. No matter as the abandoned mine workings of Goon Gumpus distracted me, as did the excellent hard pack trails that traversed them. Counter to my stop being soft training I was actually having some fun. This just would not do and I looked to Truro to put paid to that. Which it did. I completed 3 to 4 circuits of the town looking for a full english. All I found were chain coffee shops and artisan cafes. In the end I settled for an artisan bacon and egg butty with latte on the side. It looked like half a breakfast in between two slices of Kingsmill, I guess the artisan bit was the price.
Some more road was banged out then the Goss Moor Trail past Indian Queens. Everything seemed to be going reasonable well and the only issue I had was a severe case of the Nora Battys as my leg warmers kept falling down my legs and out of my shorts. I was making decent progress and arrived at my planned lunch spot earlier than anticipated.
Sadly, Lanhydrock House tearoom was a poor choice in the school holidays. It was littered with abandoned bikes and rammed with children being herded by parents on mobile phones. Hunter wellies were everywhere and the prices matched the plumby accents. I’d fucked up big time. The serving staff were clearly overwhelmed and I joined a long queue knowing that hot food was well out of the question. So I chose a bit of cake and tea instead, signed a loan agreement to pay for them, savoured every tiny morsel and headed off to Callywith Wood and the mountain bike trails.
The trails were ace. Perfect for bikepackers. Not too challenging for the fully laden but a welcome bit of uppy/downy that wasn’t comprised entirely of mud or tussock. I really enjoyed my fleeting acquaintance with them and will definitely be back. Interestingly the car park was full and the trails empty.
Then things got really lumpy. I was getting closer to Devon which comes with a distinct lack of anything flat. A series of long steep road climbs worked hard on my stop being soft. A real fascist had me walking a small bit and the climb into Minions was every bit as horrid as the £2.50 I paid for two soft drinks in the shop at the top. The light began to fade as I honed in on Devon and got a taste of jelly legs climbing through Bray Shop, Stoke Climsland and down to the border at Horsebridge. It was properly dark when I entered Blanchdown Wood, all on my own. This was a shame as I was now on gravel trails and the riding felt pretty epic, but all I saw was the few small metres of trail my lights could afford. Onwards to the A390 and dismall ride down into Tavistock that I shared with the Friday evening commuter traffic.
I’d hoped for a cafe or pub on arrival. All I found was a Spar. My route was heading left on NCN 27 and my Truro experience dissuaded me from a circuit of the town in search of hot food. The odometer said 72 miles, it was 5.30pm, I had a choice, a few more hours then bivy, or stop being soft and ride for home over 45 miles away. Fuck it, let’s give it a go.
Things went well initially as I was riding a flat cycle track that took me to Horrabridge. Then it all went a bit horrible, a mess of hills towards Ivybridge and then tons and tons more before I grovelled into Dartington, late at night and a mess of lactic acid. I’d 100% stopped being soft by riding a laden semi-fat bike with big knobbly over those hills on roads. There was a brief respite on a railway track to Totnes, then a final set of calve punches on the hills into Brixham. These last few hills hurt more than any others. Simply because I’d ridden them many times before. The dispiriting lack of speed and energy was compounded by memories of a previous Dave who’d lithly sprinted up them in the past. But I wasn’t being soft anymore so resisted the call to Helen. That’s not true actually, I may have texted her hinting at an early return and a need for beer.
And beer is what I got somewhere around 10:30pm. A very long day of not being soft added 121 miles to my legs along with a shitload of gravity overcome. The technical term for my condition on arrival back home is utterly fucked. But that’s fine when you’re not being soft and that ride was a pretty decent start to my process of hardening.
As for the Southern Way. It’s a belter and a perfect winter bikepacking route. I only swore mildly on a few sections of unctuous bridleway, most of it is decent track or quiet lanes. Dare I say “gravel bike” friendly? (maybe later in the year). My Southern Way experience ended at Tavistock. But I already have a cunning plan to finish it in pieces as the year goes on. More details at http://www.mtbepicsuk.co.uk/the-books/#southernway if you’re tempted.