The fourth 200 of the calendar year… A dry forecast, so I could take the proper audax bike rather than the tourer… This was going to be easy, right?
I’d not ridden the Mad March 200 from Exeter before. It has come to my notice that Devon consists mostly of slightly miniaturised Alps, which—these days—I winch myself up at an appropriately glacial pace. However, the Mad March is “rolling” rather than “hilly.” Allegedly. I got out the maps and route sheet. Half an hour later I was able to append an important caveat to “rolling”: “for Devon.”
The morning was dry but misty, and as Ian blatted along the A30 from Honiton the temperature gauge in the car gradually rose to a spring-like minus 1. I thought with regret of the nice warm bed I’d levered myself out of for the sake of cycling “fun.” Judging by the number of DNS on the start sheet, I wasn’t the only one entertaining doubts whether so cold a day would fall within even the elastic audax conception of fun. I picked up my brevet card from organiser Pippa, and began the pre-event party game of attempting to recognise other riders from their eyes—generally the only features visible between buff and hat.
Within a couple of km, it became apparent I was seriously under-gloved. On the other hand, the roads were pretty dry. Which was just as well since the temperature was obviously still below zero. I settled into a cruise, the imaginary speedo hovering between “Steady” and “Slow.” Richard Harding shot past. A few minutes later I trundled past him. Etc. The route wiggled on quiet lanes to Woodbury common, which I last crossed (shortly after sunset, in the opposite direction) on the 1995 Brimstone 600, in the company of Mark Waters, Robert Watson, and a gloomy Mancunian dressed in black who shortly announced: “I’m packing.” In full, if wan, daylight it was clear that Woodbury common was significantly high ground. But don’t worry, this ride is merely “rolling”—for Devon.
The first visit to the seaside—always an added attraction on a route—came at Budleigh Salterton. The problem with seaside, of course, it that it tends to be at sea level, so the next few km featured more up than down, as well as a job lot of improbably pretty villages apparently supplied wholesale by the English Tourist Board. There was a bit more reverse Brimstone in Otterton—fortunately the route then turned left rather than ascend the Hill From Hell—then some comically rural lanes to Ottery. Thick drifts of sandy red earth and stones across the road were a regular feature. I walked a couple of short stretches, not having cyclocross tyres on the bike and being allergic to falling off.
A brief stop at the garage control in Ottery, then back to lanes and picturesque villages, this time without occasional bits of cyclocross. A young rider in a Serpentine jersey—I recognised him from Ian Hennessey’s 300—slowed for a few km to chat and ask about my Arkel rack pack, then eventually stomped off. I trundled on, relishing the day and the countryside, and had one of those sudden surges of joy that keep me motivated to ride.
Once again, I encountered a stretch of road I’d previously ridden only in the opposite direction and in the dark: between Cullompton and Tiverton. I still bear the mental scars from encountering this road on the final stage of Ian’s old “easy” (cue hollow laughter) 300, when it came as an unpleasant surprise to encounter a big 25% climb followed shortly by a big 20% climb. In this direction those climbs would be descents of course, so this really would be easy.
Yeah, right… The ascents might be a bit less steep in this direction, but they were long enough to begin to outstay their welcome. At least I just about avoided visiting granny. I did the stamp n’go at the Tiverton control—it was so cold I thought it was better to keep moving.
From Tiverton the route followed the A road to Wheddon Cross, a long and mostly gentle climb up the river valley I’d only done previously in the dark, on the Avalon Sunrise. It came as a surprise how close the road kept to the river. The young racing snake caught me again, and we resumed our chat until the gradient steepened. It occurred to me that I seem to have turned into Keith Smallwood. Keith (I think he lived in a hobbit hole in the Forest of Dean) was a fixture on rides during my first few seasons. I would catch him, slow to chat for a bit, then stomp off. Keith would never come past me on the road. Then, a few km later, there he was in front of me again. Stealth cycling…
On the approach to Dulverton signs warned repeatedly that the road ahead was closed. Pshaw! It was Sunday—though there was evidence of tree-clearing work, nothing would be happening today. That was true, but the closure turned out to be not tree-related, but a reconstruction job on a stretch of road that had decided to slip down into the valley. Fortunately enough road was left for bikes to pass easily. Ish…
I was shivering my way down the descent from Wheddon Cross when Ian popped up on my wheel. Descending ceased abruptly after the turnoff for Blue Anchor bay, but nothing a bit of grunting and swearing couldn’t cope with. Then it was a frigid plummet to the lunch control at Blue Anchor station, where I hung around outside for a minute or two to watch a steam train puff into the opposite platform. Hmm, trains from this platform would head to Bishop’s Lydeard… This would be placing temptation in the path of a weary randonneur if there were more than a couple per afternoon.
Pam Almond was supplying tea, rolls, and cake to thawing randonneurs in the ticket office-cum-waiting room. I inhaled a cheese and pickle roll and bakewell tart in approximately five (5) seconds, then tried to summon the will to head back out into the cold. To my surprise, I succeeded…
Not to my surprise—we were back at sea level, after all—there was a substantial climb out of Blue Anchor, past uninviting phalanxes of mobile homes perched overlooking a chilly grey sea. Then an icy plummet down to Watchet. Oh good, sea level again. And another substantial climb. Thank goodness this wasn’t a hilly ride. I began to regret not having eaten another roll or seven in Blue Anchor. Ian and Bikey-Mikey materialized on my wheel, chatting nonchalantly, while I was spraining a lung and pedalling squares.
The undulations continued even after we reached the A road. I surreptitiously dropped behind, rather than risk coughing up a vital organ. Bikey-Mikey and a couple of other riders were stopped at the info control at the turn off the main road. I ate an energy bar, dispensed a little mock gloom and despondency (I had a shrewd idea of what was coming), and engaged low gear.
The long climb through the woods to Dead Woman’s Ditch was hard going, but the moorland views at the summit provided a reward. As a further bonus, there was no sign of the Gurt Wyrm that is reputed to haunt the woods. The Wyrm may have been scared off by the swarm of undeleted expletives proceeding up the climb at a stately pace that—oddly—exactly matched mine.
What goes up must come down… In this case, at 25%, again. I suspect my scream when I realised there was a T junction at the bottom was audible across the Bristol Channel in Wales. That was it—I was over the last major climb of the ride. Big ring all the way back.
Er, no. A minor lump or two took me past the tiny village of Combe Florey, the site of one major war and a minor war. Sorry—one major Waugh and a minor Waugh. Then it was onto roads familiar from events of Ian’s and Shawn Shaw’s. So no possibility of significant hills there then. Ha!
Though the climbs made for slow going, there was no getting away from the fact that I was enjoying myself. To the point where I appeared to have lost the power of speech. I tottered into the penultimate control—a house in the woods near Uffculme. Ian was seated in the cosy living room, trading banter—when he could get a word in edgeways—with four ebullient elderly controllers. I subsided gratefully and sweatily into an armchair and sat staring vacantly into space. It seemed to be the appropriate thing to do. Well, actually, it was about all I could manage.
After a while I revived sufficiently to engulf my body weight in cake and a couple of mugs of tea. My power of speech restored, I made my thanks and sidled out into the dusk, reckoning Ian would follow shortly and catch me. I was glad to be riding the potholed, gravelly lanes to Uffculme in the light—they’d have been slow going after dark even with good lights. Ian caught me within a couple of km, and we made good time back to the finish on the B road, despite the road surfaces (“This is a local 10 course,” Ian said as we crashed from pothole to pothole). As we rolled into the Barn Owl, I realised I was feeling almost frisky. Perhaps fitness is just around the corner…
There’s something to be said for events that finish in a pub. And that something is beer. There’s also something—quite a lot—to be said for the Mad March. It’s a varied and scenic route, and provides an excellent but attainable early-season challenge. I’ll be back next year…