Where & when: Dartmoor, May 26 2011
Distance: 170km (106 miles)
Next on my hit-list of the UK’s uber sportives was the Dartmoor Classic, so I headed off to the South-West to see if it would live up to the hype. Now in its fifth year, this event is famed for its tough but beautiful route, flawless organisation, and the festival atmosphere at the start.
I’d had a good look at the route and there wasn’t an inch of flat until the last 10 miles, but on the plus side, everyone I talked to said there were no real killer climbs: Lots of gentle drags and a few short, sharp leg-stingers, but nothing outrageous.
A thick veil of mist hung in the air first thing, but having looked at the forecast I was sure it would burn off. In fact, it would benefit us by keeping us cool for a while.
I waited at the start for a couple of mates who were running late, but this allowed several hundred riders to get a good head start on us and give us plenty to chase once we were away.
Once I’d hooked up with my partners for the day, Jules and James, we headed to the start pens. Here’s a tip for you: if you’re led through a narrow gap across the first timing zone and into a bottleneck, hang back. The worst thing you can do is set the timer running then stand around waiting for the traffic to clear. It’s not a race, but every second counts.
We set off at pace; the first five miles to Bovey Tracy provide an excellent warm-up. It’s pretty benign, but we began at such speed I was already breathing hard by the time we hit the first climb. And it’s a long one, almost constantly uphill for the next 15 miles until the hair-raising descent to Holne Bridge. Then it’s the toughest climb of the day – good to get it over with early. Once at the top, the mist that had been protecting us from the sun’s rays had cleared, and the wonderful scenery was there for all to admire.
My jaded memories of riding Dartmoor a couple of years ago had left me with the image of a conical mound with all roads climbing gently to the peak at Princetown, then falling away to the towns at its base. This isn’t the case: each route to the top comes in multiple stages. It’s two steps up, one step down.
Again and again you climb, until you finally reach the summit. And once there, you’re treated to the first feed, and what a beautifully organised affair it was. You are ushered in down one route and directed to the bike hangers. All the food was neatly organised, water and energy drinks were in plentiful supply, and it worked like clockwork. We were soon out and on our way.
Next, following the ride down into Tavistock, is the extra loop that the 100km ride misses out. Although not as hilly as the crossing of Dartmoor itself, this section packed many a surprise. Especially after the second timing checkpoint, a really sharp ramp to test our aching legs. Our starting group of three was now reduced to two; James’s legs had had enough after a hard day’s racing the day before, and I was struggling to hold the pace set by Jules, but he waited for me and dragged me to the top of Rundlestone and the last feed, again at Princetown.
Following a quick stop, Jules was free to really stretch his legs. Having let him go, I made my own way down to Moretonhampstead via the Warren Inn. Did I say down? For a while, it was no such thing. You hit climb after climb, and the stretch up to Post Bridge had me on my knees. It was like riding through quicksand.
Finally you reach the long descent into Moretonhampstead. I thought, maybe after this the rest of the ride will be flat? Almost. There’s just one more big test, a beauty of a climb out of the town. If my legs hadn’t been in such a state, the mild slopes and sweeping corners would have been a joy to ride.
Rolling over the top, you’re on the home stretch. It’s 16 miles and all downhill. The miles were ticking by, the end was in sight, then I saw the ‘10 miles to go’ sign. Still 10 miles? Surely not! My head dropped, I was spent, and I wanted out. These final 10 miles were going to be purgatory.
My saving grace was finding myself in a strong group, all willing to share the pace and help each other. But still it lasted a lifetime, and that final turn into the finish enclosure was a joy.
What a course. It releases its anger throughout its duration, and is a top-class event. It was a joy from the moment I signed on. I’d like to say a big thank you to Chris Bittlestone and the Mid-Devon Cycling Club for their fantastic generosity and hospitality. I urge everyone to try to ride this event, you will not be disappointed.
Event website: www.dartmoorclassic.co.uk
What’s so special? The village
The start village at the Dartmoor Classic has a real buzz. There are over two dozen stalls. You can stock up on food, get an extra tube or even have your legs shaved! Adding further to the festival atmosphere, there’s constant live music, and even a long row of portaloos. The Trophy, a small, mounted chunk of Dartmoor rock, makes a fantastic memento, too.