The Tour of Britain cycle race has reached nothing like the fame of the Tour de France, a sad reflection on the status of cycling in Britain. But that said, with so many successful Olympian cyclists, and with campaigns such as the Cycling City of Excellence, I can detect a slight shift. And yesterday’s turn out in Exmouth for the end of Stage Five was heartening in that respect.
The cyclists had to do 112 miles, which is quite definitely the long way round, encompassing as it did large parts of Dartmoor. I decided that I would see them at the start, at 10:15, and then race them to the finish via the short route, meaning that I had around 4 hours to cycle 12 miles. Well according to the route plan I found it was 12 flat miles and they said allow 3 hours for cycling. I’m not sure who cycles that slowly, unless they were including a 2 hour lunch break at the Puffing Billy. Also, having done it, that is a very, very strange definition of ‘flat’. The route is flat in the same way that Jayne Mansfield was flat. Anyway, courtesy of the utter lack of publicity I forgot what day the stage five was occurring, made plans to go horse riding instead and then realised that I would have to miss the start and just meet them for the end of the race.
It was a beautiful autumn morning and as I set out on leg 1 of my journey, a 6 mile warm up to get to the stables, I noticed an increased number of cyclists. Cyclists in Devon generally are cheery and wave and say hello quite a lot. Club cyclists are either surly or cheery, I guess depending on how seriously they are taking themselves. I also think I might have seen some of the tour cyclists warming up. I like to think that’s who they were. I got to the stables in record time in part because I decided it was bad form to let the East Devon Cycling Club pull away from me up hill. This was stupid of me, given that I have a badly maintained 8-year old Dawes hybrid called Dobbin whereas they had non-squeaky clean Specialized road bikes which, if I were naming them, would be called things like Nijinsky and Shergar. Well maybe not Shergar, that’s just asking for your bike to disappear mysteriously into the night.
It felt like a day for cycling though. You hope for just one day when no-one randomly has a go at you for being ‘in the way’ or abuses you for cycling on a footpath, even though said footpath is clearly marked for shared cycling—pedestrian use and is not in fact a footpath. And indeed as I tagged along after the East Devon I was reminded of the importance of critical mass. We approached a junction at which the main road bends around to the right. There is a left turn but, unless you observe the road markings, it looks as if the main road carries straight on. It doesn’t and the road markings make that clear but every bloody time I go to follow the main road around to the right you can guarantee that the numpty driver behind me will try to turn left over the top of me. Even if they find road markings confusing, and let’s face it many drivers do, you would hope they would follow the Highway Code and not overtake at a junction. Except yesterday morning, faced with 20 cyclists in a group the drivers behind were finally intimidated into behaving themselves and waiting until we were clear of the junction before turning off.
Having completely knackered my legs by exercising some real horses, rather than iron ones, I got back on Dobbin and set out for Leg 2, 14 miles down the Exe Valley and along the river into Exmouth. I didn’t actually know where I was going. I have done parts of the route before, as far as Lympstone, but not all of it by any means. I picked up the Exeter-Exmouth cycle route at Countess Weir. I was aided by the fact that previous experience suggests it is best to read the signs backwards. Cycling from Exeter to Topsham, National Cycle Route two is an un-signposted magical mystery tour around odd bits of suburbia. If you cycle the reverse route from Topsham to Exeter you realise that all the signposts are facing that way. So you get a signposted magical mystery tour of suburbia, unless you give up and just go on the main road on the grounds that it’s easier and frankly cyclists shouldn’t be shuffled off onto the back streets as if they are some sort of embarrassment that periodically get in the way of ‘proper’ forms of transport.
I stopped for an apple, nicked from someone’s orchard, although I promptly dropped it on the road and had to eat it regardless of whatever grit it had rolled in. I’m sure the proper riders don’t do this. In fact I’ve seen them cycling hands-free eating bananas. Still, each to their own and I am on a hybrid bike called Dobbin, not mounted on the flying Nijinsky. I scout around for someone going at roughly my speed who is heading for the race end, but they’re all either much faster, or look as if they will take the full three hours without stopping at the Puffing Billy for so much as a swift half. Finally, through the busy bit of Topsham I find two riders going a bit faster than I’m comfortable with who say they know where they are going. They look less like Hyperion and more like local point-to-pointers so Dobbin is confident he can keep up.
We commence an interesting demonstration of why the tortoise sometimes wins, with me in the tortoise role. First they get caught at a set of red lights. An increasing number of cyclists flock there, to the extent that the motorised traffic actually backs off a bit. It looks as if most of the cycling clubs in Devon are out watching the race. Some of the club cyclists opt for the road route, whilst myself and these two opt to turn left onto NCR 2 just before Darts Farm. Frankly it feels as if we’re cycling down someone’s back alleyway and I briefly wonder if Devon County Council did in fact requisition parts of people’s back gardens to make up the path. But Dobbin is made for this kind of terrain. In France he would be a Velo tous Terrain and he is quite happy pinging from tarmac to gravel in a way that I’m sure must be uncomfortable on skinny tyres.
And then there are the chicanes because god forbid that the British should build a cycle path such that cyclists can go fast. Dobbin and I have been together for 8 years and I know exactly how to swing him through the nastiest acute angled chicanes, designed to make cyclists dismount. For something with a relatively long wheel base he’s surprisingly handy and is having no trouble keeping up with the thoroughbreds. Speedy Cyclist 1 doesn’t seem to mind his inability to drop me, but Speedy 2 is becoming increasingly grumpy. I don’t really care. It is a public path. I suspect he’s just professionally grumpy anyway.
Somewhere round the back end of Lympstone the path disappears and deposits us onto the main road. Speedy 1 doesn’t care, Speedy 2 asks where the bloody hell the bike path went. I point out that this is Britain, where bike paths frequently end in brick walls or telephone boxes, so depositing us on a main A road is hardly a surprise. They hare off up the road and I leave them to it. From the route map I have I should be able to pick the cycle path back up on the other side of Lympstone and even if I can’t, I’ll be on the main road heading into Exmouth.
Down the next hill (flat my elbow), Speedy 2 is just visible in the distance whilst Speedy 1 is ahead of him and climbing the next hill. Then disaster strikes. Speedy 2 attempts to hop up a kerb, loses his balance, does not unclip from his pedal in time and gently keels over. As any cyclist who clips on will tell you, there is at least one time when you fall off as you fail to unclip and it is always when there is an embarrassing audience. I stop to check he is OK, which he seems to be but I don’t think my presence will help at all with his embarrassment factor, so I leave him checking his bike over.
Further on, Speedy 1 has disconsolately stopped. I don’t think this is what happens in proper races. I’m sure Cav doesn’t get tailed by strange women and then have to go back and pick up his team mates. I let Speedy 1 know what has happened and he goes back to find his friend. I carry on into Exmouth on my own.
I completely fail to find the way back onto NCR2. There are a couple of signs pointing out an alternative route to the seafront and the end of the race, but they cease at a roundabout. I give up and follow my nose. I figure if I can smell the sea I’m probably heading the right way. I make it to the seafront eventually, with an hour to spare, having covered 14 miles in an hour. OK so it’s not going to break any records but it’s a good time for me and Dobbin, especially with a pannier full of whatever it is I usually lug around.
Dobbin and I find a gap in the crowds. Sort of. Exmouth is packed. Jammed in between the wall to the beach and the barriers keeping us away from the road are what look like thousands of people. According to the commentator the riders are an hour away. Just to keep us entertained the commentator tells the crowd to make lots of noise by banging on the barriers. I settle down to take photos, and wait for the riders.