Day Six – Taunton to Land’s End – 234.3 km (146 miles)

I was slow off the mark for the final day.  Every other day I had managed to slip away a few minutes before the planned 06:00 but today I was uncannily precise: my ‘off we go’ text was timed at 06:00:01.

I was clearly distracted early on because I sent a second text within a few minutes and another half an hour later announcing I was back in my home county of Devon.  Only two counties to go!  It was just a shame that there probably aren’t another two counties in the country with a greater distance to traverse them.

The early morning was a complete misery.  Maybe it was because it was the final day and I just wanted to get down the road.  Or maybe I just had 750 miles in my legs already and could have done with some more sleep.

I had worked out that if I managed the same speed as the day before I could be finishing by 18:00 but I just couldn’t seem to push the pedals around.  Probably because the road was rolling up and down much more than it had been over the last few days, making the load on the back feel like lead. 

Psychologically things took a major plummet around Bickleigh. I was cutting through small lanes on a local Audax route which would take me to Whiddon Down and the A30. The Audax route kept to the lanes but I remembered it as quite hilly so when I planned this section of the route I had decided to divert to the main road from Bickleigh to Crediton: I reasoned that whilst it would be further to cycle it would be much flatter, being a main road.

I had selected the shortest route possible from the Audax route to Bickleigh. Unfortunately on Google map there was no way to tell it was a 25% hill. Having been up nothing steeper than 13% all week it was a severe shock to the system. Now the one good thing about really steep hills is that they aren’t very long because they tackle the hill by a very direct route. But this one seemed to drag on forever. As I rounded each bend I was sure I would see the top, only to see the hill ramping up to the next bend. In Devon they always say there are three tops to any hill: where you think the top is, where you hope the top is and finally where the actual top is. I think this one must have had at least seven tops. I have since been emailed by Mike, a local, to say that the hill is affectionately known by the local cycling group as 'The Butterleigh Bastard'.

When I finally dragged myself over the top to plunge down the other side into Bickleigh I managed a rueful smile. ‘Oh well,’ I thought, ‘that’s Devon for you – never take a direct route it’ll only mean hills. But it will be worth it to be able to take the main road and avoid all those other hills.’

But when I turned onto the A3072 to Crediton it just went up and up and up at 15% without end. I was going really slowly now, my legs being shredded by the hills after so much relative flat along the rest of the route from John O’Groats. And when I reached the top the road still seemed to be bucking like a rollercoaster, but that was probably bad mental and fatigue.

When I finally rolled into Crediton I had been on the road for nearly 3 hours and covered only 50 km, which works out about 10½ mph. A far cry from yesterday’s 14½ mph. By the time I dragged myself a further 10 miles to Whiddon Down my average speed had dropped to 10 mph and I called home to adjust my eta. If I maintained this speed till the end it would take me another 10½ hours, plus any stoppage time. I hoped the A30 would be faster and guestimated a finish time of 21:00.

The initial few miles on the A30 had me chugging up and down hills but they were much smoother in their profile. Not the short sharp jagged peaks of the lanes but much longer, gentler drags which were much easier on my tired legs because I could settle into the rhythm of each hill. And once I passed Okehampton there was a gloriously long gradual decent which seemed to go on for mile after mile. My speed since joining the A30 had increased significantly and I began to think that I might still be able to finish before my originally scheduled 20:00.

My main concerns for the next few hours were tedium and refueling. My route sheet could have finished at 67 km with: follow A30 till Land’s End. I had put in a few towns long the way merely to give some impression of progress. In retrospect I should have put in more.

The A30 bypasses all the towns along its route so to refuel I would have to sidetrack off the road. With my poor start to the day weighing heavily on my mind I was loath to do this and kept pushing on, trying to make up time. But, like passing services on the motorway when you’re low on fuel, you then have to make it to the next one before you run out or you’re stuffed. At one point I had drained both my water bottles and had been running dry for half an hour and the next town was still some miles down the road. Thirst was really biting now and I knew I was getting badly dehydrated.

I was starting to think I would have to climb over the barrier at the next industrial unit the road passed and beg water from the first business I came to when I spotted a roadside café in a layby at the bottom of a long drop. Whilst it was annoying having to brake from 40 mph and lose all that lovely momentum I was very relived to stop.

I had a bit of banter with the owner over a Scottish bank note but I think it was friendly because he gave me the most bumper bacon sandwich I think I have ever eaten. I can’t even remember where this was but it might have been around Bodmin because there was a text from there [which just read – ‘Bodmin’].

By my next stop, a couple of hours down the road, I was able to get a good estimate on my final eta at Land’s End, based on my progress along the A30, and phone home to let the collection party know I would probably be there by 19:30 but could arrive by 19:00 if I got some kind of adrenaline rush near the end. I shouldn’t have worried, the welcoming committee were already on the road and would try and find me on the A30.

Much buoyed I remounted and sped off down the road. I was looking forward to seeing my wife and kids again. It had only been 6 days but felt like a lot longer.

I was also looking forward to getting rid of my bag.

Half an hour later the cavalry arrived, tooted on the way past and waited in the next layby. Much joy and hugs. Quick chat. Dumped bag in the boot and continued.

A word of warning here. I was prepared for the difference in the handling of my bike when I put the bag on. I was not prepared for the difference when it came off. My body must have got so used to compensating for the extra weight that when I set off I almost pulled myself over and then overcompensated the other way. So I wobbled precariously as I set off and it took a while to settle into things again. It felt a bit like when you’ve been on a boat for a long time and then come ashore: the land seems to bob up and down whilst the boat had become quite stable.

I practically flew up the next hill.

The support car [gosh, that sounded good!] played leap frog with me, hopping from layby to layby. My wife took some photos but I had to slow down to a virtual standstill before she managed get me in shot properly. It wasn’t easy trying to maintain a speedy looking tuck at ½ mph with cars zipping past my right shoulder I can assure you.

After a while the support car disappeared. I was later to discover that this was for a toilet break. They caught up with me again about an hour later when I was only 4 miles from the finish. Fortunately I hadn’t punctured seeing as my repair kit was in my bag in the boot of the car!

Despite the climb in the last few miles I was feeling on a high. I bent over the bars and sprinted the last half mile or so and entered Land’s End at speed. But I wasn’t sure where to go and there were no directions to the famous signpost. Or if there were they weren’t obvious to a fatigued cyclist. I ended up crossing the car park and then having to get off my bike and walk down some steps before remounting to cycle the last few metres to the end. Which was a bit of a shame after cycling nearly 900 miles.

Anyway, the obligatory photos were taken and then it off to Mc Donald’s for a celebration supper [kids’ idea not mine].

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