Biking from Canterbury to Belfast
Bob Moen's Tour de U.K. 1998
Friday, May 29th, 1998 - Dispatch #2
I've spent the past two days riding the countryside of Cornwall and Devon. There is none more beautiful in the world!...until it rains and you're on a bicycle. As I write this, I'm sitting in an Internet Express Café in Exeter hoping all these "new miracle fabrics" I'm wearing soon dry. I'm so wet my feet squish with every step. But more about that later.
The day started sunny enough in Travistock, a beautiful, semi-tourist town where I want to live if I ever move to England: large enough to host the Steam Tractor Festival this weekend but small enough to escape big city life. I arrived there about 8PM the night before, bone tired and starved. Immediately I sought out an Italian restaurant to refuel on carbohydrates, the source of my energy. Because I still had on my biking shorts I chose to have my food in the bar, where I could also keep an eye on my bike chained to a light post across the street. I was about half-through my pasta when I realized I was the only man in the bar. The other 2 dozen patrons were young women. I had stumbled into "ladies night" at the Smashing Pumpkin. All in all, I must say, I had the best legs in the house.
This morning I lingered in town just kind of exploring about. The shops were bustling and it is a very pretty town, but I could stall only so long. I had to face up to the challenge of climbing 1000 feet within about 4 miles to get up to the Dartmoor National Park. Since my new policy (more about that later) is that its better that I push my bike up a hill at 2 or 3 miles an hour, than grind up it at 4 or 5 miles an hour, I did plenty of walking today. It allowed me to enjoy the Moor more.
Dartmoor is a grass and shrub-covered moor measuring about 20 by 20 miles, littered liberally with chunks of granite. It is the most unspoiled area in England, I've read. Inhabited by hundreds, maybe thousands of wild ponies and an equal number of sheep, in many places the grass is grazed front-lawn short. In fact, at times it appears to be an endless golf course. I'll bet many an English duffer comes here to practice his drives on imaginary fairways that stretch for miles. Looks like a par 57 to me.
The following is from Dartmoor Park literature:
"The tors (granite outcrops) of Dartmoor stand magnificently on the edges of its high plateau and on may high, exposed ridges. They are the visible tips of a gigantic mass of granite, which lies under Dartmoor and Cornwall. Their strange shapes have developed through thousands of years of weathering. Strewn on many of the hillsides below are boulders that broke away from the tors during the weathering process."
(The computer next to me just started making all kinds of explosion noises and the 15-year-old kid sitting is yelling "all right". Apparently his commando team just blew up several coastal gun emplacements. The boy's a hero, but wait, all is not well. His paid time ran out before he saved his score. Now, his mates will never believe his achievement. He announced that he was really "ticked off" and stormed out the door. Man, being a Royal Commando sure has its ups and downs.)
"The ruins of prehistoric huts, enclosures, burial monuments, ritualistic stone rows and circles are found in greater numbers on Dartmoor than anywhere else in Europe. During the Iron Age, defensive forts were built around the perimeter of Dartmoor and the massive earthworks can still be traced.
"The Moor has nurtured many industries, quarrying and mining enterprises in the past. Evidence of tin mining can be seen in nearly every valley, with spoil heaps and ruins of blowing houses and well prits. Leats (the artificial water channels built to provide water power for these industries) can be seen all over the Moor."
In the middle of the Moor I stumbled upon Dartmoor Prison. I sprung the 3 to visit the museum. It turns out that we Americans have close ties to the prison's history. After 1776, when Britain could no longer ship its criminals to America, it built Dartmoor prison. During the War of 1812, the British captured about 500 American merchant seaman and housed them at Dartmoor. According to their literature, "the French prisoners were passive and easy to house, but the Americans were headstrong and rebellious, always trying to escape. In 1815, because the British were taking so long in releasing them after the war ended, the Americans orchestrated a massive breakout. The guards panicked and starting shooting. Fifteen Americans died and many more were wounded. This has become to be known as the 'Princetown Massacre'."
It was while walking up the steep hills of the Moor, that I got thinking how I was tracing the exact footpaths of the thirteenth century monks as they hiked between the abbey in Tavistock and Exeter. With all this treeless, open area they certainly were sitting ducks for bandits and other hazards of their day. Occasionally I came across stone markers from that era. One crude, stone bridge still survives. But I don't think the monks were eating ice cream cones as they crossed it, as today's tourists were.
It was when I started dropping off the Moor that the rain began. But I refused to let the stinging raindrops slow my 40 MPH descent--I'd worked too hard getting up there. Hell, my brakes don't work very well in the rain, anyway.
Soon I caught up with a fellow biker. He was riding home from a day's work at the teapot factory. How English. We rode together in the rain, visiting for a few miles. But I was worried. My map showed we were approaching a steep climb and, given my new resolve to walk steep grades, I didn't quite know what to do. Save face and try to hang with this guy who rides the road every, or just say "Good bye. Nice talking to you" and let him go on without me.
Let me digress for just a moment and recall my earlier meeting with Francois, the Belgium cyclist (See my Day 1 dispatch). Even though I speak no French and Francois spoke little English, he warmed up to me because I was riding an Eddy Merckx brand bicycle. Eddy Merckx, "the cannibal", was a 1970's bike racer from Belgium. One of their national heroes, he's still considered by many as the greatest bike racer in history. As soon as Francois saw my bike he started the chant "ed-DEE, ed-DEE, ed-DEE". This was our bridge to getting to know each other a bit.
So here I am, riding with the teapot maker, when in my mind, I hear Francois chanting "ed-DEE, ed-DEE, ed-DEE." Instantly Bob "the cannibal" Moen went from hanging with the tea pot maker to burying him. Boys will be boys. I quickened my pace and soon he was history.
Now, before I get labeled as a Neanderthal, let me point out that: 1. There seems to be no such thing as two men riding side-by-side, it's just not in our genes (that India/Pakistan thing.) 2. He was fair game: twenty years younger than me and riding a race bike. 3. He certainly did not slow his pace to allow me to catch up with him, in the first place.
Now let me discuss yesterday's events:
While the scenery was beautiful the ride was a day in hell. All day long I rode the rolling hills of Cornwall, roughly paralleling its southern coast. I was constantly crossing streams and rivers as they headed for the sea, which meant I would climb to the top of a 500-foot hill only to drop back down to sea level on the other side. It was a day of 12% and 17% grades. They mark them here, I figure, so that drivers know to hit their brakes and slow my descents.
The long and short of it is that, late in the day, I "bonked" (hit the wall). The first sign that I was not playing with a full deck was when I saw an advertisement for McDonald's and the arches were on a blue background. "How interesting," I thought. "They use a different color scheme here." Upon closer inspection I realized that what I had taken for arches was really a big "H" at a Honda dealer. At the next village, I gobbled a few bananas in an effort to get some energy into my system in the form of quickly assimilated carbs.
But it was too little, too late. Within about five miles more of hills I started seeing double. I recalled how the blond, Olympic, woman runner of a few years ago collapsed and went into convulsions within sight of the finish line, when she bonked. I pulled off the road at an entrance to a farmer's field to regroup. There I found some cookies I was keeping for just such an emergency. As I was eating the cookies and resting I looked up only to see a herd of cattle running at me. I had visions of soccer rioters rushing the gate, trampling anyone who got in their way. But, just as the cattle were about to crash through the gate and trample me, they realized that I couldn't be carrying hay on a bicycle. They stopped, gave a few disappointed "moo's" and I went on my way.
I got to Tavistock at about 8 PM, sought out dinner, then found a £25 B&B. The room was a double, but I was too tired to look further.
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