The Dartmoor Devil

Sunday October the 28th saw the fifteenth running of the Dartmoor Devil – a classic Audax Super Grimpeur (uber-hilly bike ride) that utilises some of the steepest, narrowest, most debris-strewn lanes on the moor. The weather at the end of October (the DD is always held on the Sunday nearest Halloween) can be a bit grim, especially on Dartmoor where storm force winds and lashing rain forced the retirement of most of the field in the 2000 event.  This year looked set for some typical Dartmoor conditions: strong sou’westerlies and horizontal rain, so i’d chosen the layers underneath my goretex jacket with care.

I was accompanied as usual, by fellow Audax regular John Morse of PZ Cycle Centre. As we’d signed on for the 8:00am start (such is the popularity of the DD, there are two – 8 and 9am), we arrived at the Kestor Inn at Manaton, where the event finishes, just after 7:00. The event actually starts at Bovey Tracey, 5 miles down the road, but past experience has taught us that it’s better to have your dry clothes and transport close to hand at the finish.

Once we’d assembled the bikes and stashed the car, we made our way down to Bovey where there was just time to sign in and say hello to a few familiar faces before the off. The ride starts as it means to go on, up a 1:4 hill called Hind Street! This year’s route (there are 5, used in rotation) would take us first to Drewsteignton, via Moretonhampstead. I’d been on this route 3 times before, and although it’s arguably the easiest, there are some tooth-grinding descents on poorly surfaced road to contend with. The first of these is the long slippery drop down to Clifford Bridge, after Moretonhampstead. The Autumnal wind and rain had papered the potholed surface of this 1:4 lane with a treacherous film of soggy leaves, beech nut cases and pine needles. I zipped downward, gathering speed despite braking with both hands, while my life flashed before me at 30 frames a second. On the rare patches of visible dry tarmac I squeezed the brake levers extra hard to scrub off some speed, as the tight bend at the end of the lane approached. Having survived this first major test of bike control, you endure two similar descents on even slippier surfaces before the long bottom gear slog up to Drewsteignton. An array of home baked cakes were on offer at the first control, and I took the opportunity to power up before heading onward to the next control near Ashburton.

The route heads on up past the stately bulk of Castle Drogo, (which sounds like it ought to be the home of a Bond villain), before returning to the bleak moors o’er many a cattle grid. Passing close to the event’s finish at Manaton, we encountered the spooky  Jay’s Grave , complete with fresh flowers, and enjoyed misty views of the majestic Hound Tor to our left. The Ashburton control, near the half way point of ride, was at The Lavender House Hotel.  Dispensing a welcome cup of hot soup to a steady stream of bedraggled riders, this new control venue may have had second thoughts about agreeing to help out,  given the amount of water we dripped onto their parquet flooring!

The climbs out of Ashburton over Holne Moor are memorably tough (look at all the black arrows on an OS map), with many a 1:4 and 1:5 grind, and it took nearly 2 hours against a howling headwind to reach the penultimate control at Princetown, all of 21km away. I made my customary stop at the Fox Tor cafe for some stodge to keep me going over the last 20 miles. Treacle pud and custard worked the required magic, and I left the dank and rainswept home of Dartmoor Jail with fresh legs. The strong headwind became a tailwind as we forged our way across the High Moor towards the Warren House Inn, and 10 miles of undulating road was covered at Time Trial pace. The tailwind assistance came to an end (like all good things)  near Challacombe Cross when we battled back into a headwind towards a date with Widecombe in the Moor’s famous hill.

I narrowly avoided calamity en route, when a bovine blockade hoved into view around a blind corner. “COWS!!!” came the shout, almost too late as my rain sodden brakes brought me juddering to a halt, right up against 500lbs of bemused looking heifer. Having escaped a charge of involuntary cowslaughter by the narrowest of squeaks, I continued on my way, nerves a-jangle.

The normally touristy Widecombe,  was unusually quiet as we dropped down to the bottom of the final serious climb of the day. With the wind on our side once more, the lengthy drag towards Haytor Rocks was less of a chore than is usual, and soon enough we were whizzing down the lanes above Manaton toward the welcome sign of the Kestor Inn. A quick change out of my sopping kit, a feed, and some Otter Ale enabled me to make light of the day’s exertions and cow-inspired hijinks.

The Dartmoor Devil is much more fun than it sounds, and the 200 places soon fill up, so if you fancy a go next year be sure and enter early.