On the May bank holiday of this year, myself and the rest of team Vivi took on our first cycling challenge of the year: the Sustrans coast to coast cycle route in Devon. Our two-day challenge included the extremities of good old British weather and the ‘rolling hills’ of Devon – both beautiful and deadly.
The challenge began at 5am in London, and once our last-minute kit checks were complete and bikes loaded on the cars, everyone was keen to hit the road to begin our five-hour journey. Despite the early start, our journey was plagued with traffic and a troublesome bike rack, costing us an extra 1-2 hours of time.
Eventually pulling up at Barnstaple station just before midday, our spirits were high as we all looked forward to getting started on what would turn out to be a long day. The bikes were unloaded, panniers set, and after a quick team toilet trip, we were ready to go. As we chose to drive, we began the challenge at Barnstaple as the station was an ideal location to leave our car (we got the train back from our final destination in Plymouth to pick the cars back up).
The weather could not have been better for our first day. We cycled north towards Ilfracombe as that is where the official start point is, before doubling back and beginning on the Tarka Trail; which we would follow for the next 40k of our trip.
The Tarka Trail is based on a disused railway line and is a great route for cyclists of any ability. A lot of work has been put into maintaining the track over the last few years and this has paid off as the track is now suitable for all types of bike – credit to Sustrans. With the sun beating down, it was a fantastic start that showcased a beautiful cycling route and the best of British weather. After cycling from Braunton to Barnstaple, an unplanned tour of Barnstaple town centre set us back around 30 minutes. This was partly down to a lack of signage but mainly due to our below-par map reading skills. Barnstaple proved to be a nice stop, however, so unfazed and refuelled we were soon on our way again.
The next leg of our journey saw us follow the River Taw out towards the coast, providing us with some fantastic views. The trail was smooth and flat and our pace was high, we even joked that if it stayed like this we would make it to Okehampton in a couple of hours; a joke which we would later regret… Upon reaching Instow we turned inland and followed the River Torridge to Bideford where we stopped for our scheduled lunch break.
We enjoyed a rather large pub lunch; however, I’m sure a few members of team Vivi would not recommend eating copious amounts of cheese when you are not even halfway through a cycling tour! Perhaps to be expected given the amount of food that was eaten, the pace slowed slightly after our break but we were still thoroughly enjoying ourselves. Aside from a few pannier rack related issues and a couple of near misses with stray dogs in old railway tunnels, things were smooth sailing at this stage.
We continued to follow the Tarka trail throughout the afternoon; it was towards the end of the trail where the going got a little more difficult. The track became a lot more gravelly and not as suitable for road bikes as we had hoped. Never the less we carried on and miraculously made it through with no one getting a puncture! It was at Petrockstow where we left the Tarka Trail and quickly found ourselves back on an improved road surface. With it starting to get late in the day we were keen to make good progress.
It was then that the rolling hills, which we had been warned about, began. With the whole trip so far being on flats, our first ascent was a bit of a shock to the system! However, the big climbs did provide us with some fun descents and the route we took through the quiet back lanes made this much more enjoyable. We had underestimated how long this part of the trip would take and our ETA was getting later and later. To top it off we were running low on water and being in the middle of nowhere we were struggling to find anywhere to refill. In the end, we were revived by some friendly locals who allowed us to top up our water bottles before the final push into Okehampton.
After seven hours of cycling, some 82k later (and 900m climbed), we finally freewheeled into Okehampton looking forward to some food and a few well-earned beers. It was at this point that we discovered we had one last obstacle to face. The hill up to our hostel (Okehampton Youth Hostel) next to the train station would be our biggest climb of the day and too much for some. It was like climbing the slopes of Mount Doom, but we managed to reach the top with minutes to spare before check-in closed.
A quick round of showers later, we ordered a taxi and got ready to sample the delights of Okehampton. An interesting trip in a taxi (the driver regaled us with stories about local villages fighting each other) down the hill to the town centre soon made us realise that Okehampton actually has very little to offer. We found most restaurants and pubs had stopped serving food and after being turned away from the only one that hadn’t, we headed to Tesco, determined to refuel properly and pick up some supplies for the following day. After stocking up, we headed back to the hostel to cook ourselves some much-needed food and get a much needed nights sleep. It is fair to say that the first day in the saddle was a tale of two stories. The first part of the day was some of the best cycling we have seen in the UK – combining great weather, great views and a great trail. The second part was a much harder affair, and its safe to say that whilst we expected hills, the climbing had really taken its toll by the time we collapsed on our bunk beds!
On the second day, we awoke to drizzly rain, but morale had improved and we were all still looking forward to what, on paper, was a much easier day than the first. Getting back on the saddle was a sore experience, but after 20 minutes or so our rear ends had gone numb again – happy days. The designated cycle path took us south from Okehampton and down towards Dartmoor National Park. The scenery and views from the top of a number of viaducts on the route definitely made up for the weather! We reached Dartmoor as the weather started to clear and although the going was tough the roads were smooth, traffic free and personally my favourite part of the trip.
Our progress through Dartmoor was slowed by another wrong turn and we were soon wheeling our bikes down footpaths unable to decide whether to turn back or not. We never like to take the easy option at Vivi Nation but soon we rejoined the road and continued our progress. It is fair to say that by the time we reached our lunch stop in Tavistock we were all soaked through. Fortunately, we managed to find a restaurant that would allow six very wet cyclists to enter, so having locked up the bikes we had some much-needed food! Most of the group thoroughly enjoyed their lunch, however, two of the team had suddenly remembered they had forgotten to renew their parking ticket from Barnstaple station… the thought of returning back to a parking fine was not how we had planned for the trip ending. After lunch, we had a quick change of clothes and all felt much better about completing the last stretch of our trip.
The majority of the final stretch would be on another designated cycle path. In my opinion, it was the best of the trip – the majority was downhill with any uphill sections only being a gradual gradient. The route took us down the River Plym and allowed us to scurt round the edge of Plymouth which would be our final destination. We did, surprisingly, only make one wrong turn in Plymouth but it did end with something we had successfully avoided our entire trip… a puncture! The repair stop allowed us to get our bearings and we soon had a route planned to our hotel. Successfully navigating the busy roads of Plymouth, we made it unscathed to our hotel in good time.
The tour was complete! We had a final 20 minutes of fun trying to lock 6 bikes securely to a quad bike in the hotels cosy back garden. After getting ready we headed to Plymouth town centre for some food and well-earned beers. The nightlife in Plymouth was a little different to that of Okehampton…. and we all had to restrain ourselves with the thought of the early train the next day. In the morning we managed to drag ourselves out of bed and made our way to the train station for the journey back up to Barnstaple. Some of us had to wait longer than others as our train only had a few designated bike bays. The train journey was a quiet one with most people getting some much-needed rest. We reached Barnstaple at 11am, loaded up the bikes on the cars, and finally began the long journey back to London with some great memories from the two previous days.
Sustrans have done a great job with the Devon coast to coast route. When the weather was good, it really was a joy to behold. I will say, however, that sings could be better in certain parts and there are sections that aren’t really suitable for road bikes. Additionally, the trails are used by a lot of walkers and families – which significantly slows down progress. Throughout the challenge, we actually only saw one other group that was doing it in 2 days – so if you aren’t a strong cyclist I would recommend attempting the challenge over 3 days to break up the hill climbing a bit.
Below are a few tips that we are going to take forward for the next trip.
- Water: Always ensure you have enough water, take more than you think you will need and always refill at every opportunity. The end of our first day would have been a lot easier if we had enough water with us.
- Food: During a day of cycling you could easily burn up to 3000 calories! It is important to eat throughout the day, even if you don’t feel hungry. We were much better prepared for the second day, and snacking regularly meant we had a lot more energy.
- Route: Planning the route should be one of the highest priorities when organising a trip. There is nothing worse than having to keep stopping to make sure you are going the right way and nothing more soul destroying than realising you have gone the wrong way.
- Alternative Transport: We made an error in not pre-booking slots on the return journey for our bikes, if you are going to use other modes of transport on you trip always ensure they are bike friendly before you leave.