Posted by: Ian | September 12, 2011

My Black Rat North Devon Ride

I tell myself at the start of every long distance bike ride not to set off too quickly. With 100 tough miles ahead of me yesterday morning I was even more determined not to get tired out at the start – even so I found myself making up places as we followed the road through Croyde and round the beautiful North Devon coastline. Being alone, I had no one to check my pace against and I had no appetite for setting a speed, cadence or power target on my Garmin – in any case, that would be futile on the Devon roads, which are euphemistically described as “rolling”.

My first marker point was joining the end of the route that runs from the Valley of the Rocks at Lynton along or parallel to the North Devon coast. I had cycled this a couple of days after my cast came off earlier this year and ended up short-cutting to Barnstaple for an 80 mile ride instead of the full 200 km of the Valley of the Rocks audax. At the time I ascribed the difficulty I experienced to my weeks off the bike while my wrist was recovering. Coming to the route again, I can see now that it’s just hard. The general level of fitness amongst the riders out on the Black Rat sportive yesterday appeared very high but even so I passed one guy who was pushing his Cervelo, without much loss of time, up one of the slopes.

Until we got to it, I was wondering how I’d find the ramp up from Hunter’s Inn. At the Valley of the Rocks audax it became the first hill I’d ever got off my bike to walk down, as far as I can recall. The combination of narrowness, a gradient of 25%+ and a covering of loose wet gravel had looked too treacherous when I knew that I probably shouldn’t be doing the ride anyway. Yesterday as I reached it I rode past two riders who promptly dismounted at the bottom. I cycled up for a hundred metres or so then saw three more participants ahead, all pushing their bikes. Usually that would motivate me to ride on by but given that (a) the other riders seemed generally at least as fit as me, (b) all those I’d spoken to were local, (c) it was very hard and (d) I was resolved not to tire myself out with 80 miles left to go, the hill brought out another sportive first for me: I got off and walked it too.

I was glad to get to the first feed stop at 30 miles. Although it had been a tough stretch up to then I wasn’t tempted to fork off onto the 100 km route but instead headed up Countisbury Hill. Again, the challenge of the gradient (25%) and the squally, indeterminate weather was moderated by the beauty of the sea views to the left. Riding alone along the undulating A39, I found it impossible to settle into any kind of rhythm. Approaching one bend I made a little push to lift myself out of the slow pace I was falling into and was rewarded by seeing the Rapha Condor team sweep round the corner. They looked fresh and their kit newer than new, and their waves and smiles gave my flagging spirits a little boost.

Before Porlock the route turned right over the moors and from here on the gruelling lack of flat was compounded by a relentless headwind. My Garmin, which had had trouble locating me and dropped about 10 miles as far as I could tell, only made it seem more hopeless. Vaguely aware that I was only about 40 miles in and finding my speed embarrassingly slow, I started to doubt that I would finish the sportive. I could only surmise that the reason I wasn’t seeing other cyclists streaming past me must be that large numbers had sensibly switched to the 60 mile course while they still could.

Eventually one other rider from the North Devon Wheelers did catch me up and we rode in to the second feed station together. There we learned that only 25 of the 82 riders who had signed up to the 100 mile event had come through, which made me feel less miserable.

Now, Paula had driven me over to the start at Braunton in the morning. Her plan for the day was to scope out the course of a triathlon in Bideford that she’s doing soon and to ride the bike section. We had planned that we could meet up at Simonsbath, around 75 miles into my ride, where I could pick up a roll to fortify me for the last part of my ride. By now I knew that I could be very late for our rendez-vous. Of course, there was no phone signal anywhere nearby. I left the feeding station before my recent riding companion and rode up yet another steep hill to find myself at a crossroads on the moor. The road signs indicated that I could get to Simonsbath directly in a few miles by turning right. Since there was no sportive sign, the logical choice would be to go straight ahead. However, my unreliable Garmin indicated that I should turn left, towards Dulverton and away from Simonsbath. I felt this was probably correct but it was too depressing and I waited for about 10 or 15 minutes until the North Devon Wheeler appeared. My suspicion that plenty of riders would have saved themselves about 20 miles by turning right here was strengthened by Paula who saw several cyclists with Black Rat numbers coming into Simonsbath from this direction, which she noticed since it was neither the 100 mile nor the 100 km route. I predict that if the organisers post times with a split at the second feed station (where there was a transponder mat) more than a few will appear disproportionately quick over the second half.

After dropping down almost as far as Dulverton, the official route headed straight back up onto the moor and along roads that I know and, on better days, like. Before getting to the descent into Simonsbath I ran into Paula, who had had lunch in the village and then driven out to find out where I was. I had a quick cup of tea, saying goodbye to the guy who I had ridden in for several miles. Inexplicably given the strong winds, we had not drafted each other at all, which was a lost opportunity.

After my tea Paula headed off in the car and I pushed off towards Simonsbath. With what felt like bad luck, as I got to the top of the descent where I thought I could maybe catch up again with the Wheeler, I got hit by a hailstorm that made it almost impossible to see, let alone speed down a long hill at full tilt. Nonetheless, despite being drenched when I got to Simonsbath my legs felt good for the last 25 miles and I set off at my best pace for several hours.

At the top of the first hill I had some more bad luck – a puncture. For some reason I was riding without a pump and only had a CO2 inflator. But I found the shard of glass that had caused the puncture and fixed it quite quickly, although my attempts to partially inflate the tube led me, no doubt due to incompetence, to needing to use a second one to finish the repair. However, no other riders passed me while I was at the roadside and the feeling that there were only 26 cyclists on the road ahead of me was encouraging.

Less luckily, a few miles on I had a puncture in the other tyre. Again, I repaired it quite quickly, using the half used CO2 bulb to partially inflate the tyre and my last full cartridge to inflate it fully. But when the tyre inflated it blew out at the valve. I now had no spare tube (though I did have patches) and no CO2 cartridge or pump. I also found I had no phone signal. All I could do was pick up the bike and the wheel and start to walk. By now quite a lot of riders had caught me up and were cycling past me as I trudged along the road. Eventually I came to the top of a hill and managed to get a phone signal. I called Paula, whom I knew must be relatively nearby.  Unfortunately, she was out of signal. I picked the bike up again and continued walking. In about a mile, just as I was wondering whether I would be able to finish in time, I was passed by the support van and they stopped and fixed my puncture for me. I was so grateful.

A while later Paula did track me down me, though my texts didn’t reach her until we were  well into the drive home, but I didn’t stop again until the finish. After my third and final puncture fix I rode back quickly, passing many of the riders who had passed me. But I guess I had wasted an hour or more on puncture shenanigans and I wasn’t ever getting that back. With about ten miles to go I joined up with a friendly rider in a grey Rapha stowaway and we took it in turns to ride up front and draft for the remaining miles to the end.

Will I do it again next year? It’s a beautiful ride and a friendly one but it is very hard. My unreliable Garmin records just over 10,000 feet of ascent, and the organiser’s GPX has over 11,000. I burned 4,000 cals and, for the record, hit a top speed of 43 mph. The Garmin shows my ride time as a shade over 7 hours. I don’t know whether this loses anything to the times it had trouble fixing my location, and in any case with two feed stops and the puncture fun my elapsed time was nearer 9 hours. I think the answer to my question is that I might do it again but I’m not doing another ride that’s that long and that hard on my own.



  1. Great. I’m only doing the 60 mile on this one. I’ll drop u an email before then if that’s ok.

  2. Cool. Let me know if you’re entering the Exmoor Beast this year. I’ll see how long I can stay on your wheel!

    • I will be entering and it would be good to meet up. Cheers.

  3. That’s a fantastic time and no stopping! Thanks for the Garmin link – shows me what I have to do next time (if Dumbledore gives me a magic bike).

    • Thanks. I really enjoyed reading your write up and just wanted to share that my time was genuine and I wasn’t one of the short-cutters.

      I do ride on Exmoor a lot, about 100,000 miles at the last count, which helps. On a flat course I would struggle to hang on for sure.

  4. Well done mate. It is a bl00dy tough ride.

    I too rode the full route without short-cutting and thankfully without puncture. Here’s my ride:

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