Monday, 28 May 2012

Combe Gibbet and Streatley Hill

On the 24th May I used a pre-arranged journey to get the rides on Combe Gibbet and Streatley Hill under my belt. Unfortunately it was quite a long journey and so by the time I got to the foot of the climb up to Combe Gibbet I’d been in the car for nearly three hours, it was three o’clock in the afternoon and the heat had been building all day.

                                          Mobile HQ in yet another remote country layby

We've had some very hot weather recently and I don’t generally fare well in hot conditions. Sure enough by the time I’d got the bike out of the car and carried out a brief warm up ride up and down the country lane leading to the climb I was already feeling cooked.

Combe Gibbet should be a very quick and easy climb. It is steep but nothing too severe and it is also very short. My time up wasn't too bad, about eight minutes but I suffered for every pedal stroke. I really do seem to be a cold weather person. Once at the top however I was able to admire the views as it was such a fine day. Seeing as I was on my Surly Cross Check which is rather good at gravel roads I decided to make up for my slow performance on the tarmac section of the climb up to the Gibbet and ride along the public byway to get to the actual Gibbet itself. This part isn't in the 100 climbs book but I thought I may as well get the maximum benefit for my efforts.

                                 The Cross Check in it's natural habitat; propped against a fence

After descending from Combe Gibbet I got straight back in the car and headed to Streatley. I didn't really get much chance to cool down and as a result Streatley was just an unpleasant experience all round. I got to the climb for about 4.30pm and the traffic was already starting to get heavy. Like Combe Gibbet the heat had been rising all day and the fact that Streatley Hill is a sheltered climb with lots of trees didn’t help as it meant there was no breeze available to circulate the air. It felt pretty airless and I suffered really badly. I did complete the climb but I’m very disappointed with how it went. I regularly ride up a road similar to Streatley Hill on training rides and I can get up it quickly and easily. In the heat I struggled up Streatley like a dying man (which is roughly how I felt once I got to the top). I should have been able to dispatch the climb easily and instead it very nearly dispatched me! I may have the chance to take it on again as I’m quite often in the area for work. I just feel I can do it so much better. Likewise I would like to return to Combe Gibbet. The climb is in a lovely area and I can see the climb featuring in a nice autumn ride around some of the nearby villages.

Some valuable lessons were learnt however and I know now that if I'm going to be travelling long distances any climbs will need to wait until after a sufficient rest. Sitting in a car for three hours and then trying to ride up steep hills almost immediately doesn't work, no matter how much of a warm up I do on a country lane before hand.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The weeks ahead

Right, time for an update I think. I still have 5 climbs to finish off in the South West and I anticipate them being dealt with in the next couple of weeks. I’m hoping to climb Crowcombe and Weston Hill next week if all goes to plan with Haytor Vale and Salcombe Hill following shortly after. I suspect an upcoming business trip will give me the chance to deal with Dover’s Hill in the very near future. I’d just better make sure I ride the hill after my meeting as sweaty cycling gear isn’t a good look in a boardroom setting!

It is however time to get serious and start tackling the climbs outside of my home region. Riding the climbs close to home has been good preparation and taught me a lot about choice of equipment and how to reduce the faffing time associated with getting the bike and camera out of the car and set up. It has also been useful in showing me what my own limitations are (and they are many believe me!). Now is the time to start using that approach further a field.

This Thursday I have reason to travel up to South Oxfordshire and so I’ll be taking on the climbs at Streatley and Combe Gibbet en route. Well, there will be a bit of a detour involved but nothing too ridiculous. Neither of the two hills look particularly threatening and I’m actually quite looking forward to them both.

In early June things will get a bit more intensive when I spend a couple of days up in Derbyshire in an attempt to take on 7 of the climbs over the course of two days. Some of the climbs I‘ll be taking on have fairly high ratings out of 10 in the little black book of pain so it is going to be an interesting trip.

In other news my hill killing lightweight Bianchi has been finished and…er…doesn’t work very well. It is nice and light and fits in the car beautifully but my gradient munching gears are a bigger mess than they look. I’m going to have to swallow my pride and get my local bike shop to look at it. I’m sure that once they have stopped laughing it will only take them a few minutes to sort out. After swearing at various drive train components in the garage and trying several different configurations I still can’t get all of the gears to engage smoothly so it is time to call in some help. On the positive side it is nice and light compared to the trusty Cross Check and it is (when everything works) fast. In fact I had forgotten just how fast and sweet handling a bike it is. I’m hoping to have it sorted and on the road for Crowcombe next week.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Challacombe - The Return

Despite having a rather unpleasant time of it the last time I rode up Challacombe Hill I managed to complete it a second time today. I was up in Woolacombe to say hello to Steve Benton and wish him well on the truly astonishing challenge he has set himself of completing all 100 climbs in 13 days.   Like me Steve is taking on the climbs for charity and judging by the speed with which he went up Challacombe he is well up for the task. I didn't ride up with Steve as my approach is rather more sedate than his and I would only have gotten in the way (my low speed zig zagging up a steep gradient is almost an art form).

I decided to ride half way up the climb to cheer Steve on and after he went past I figured I was most of the way up so I may as well complete the climb. Getting going on a 25% gradient is never much fun but at least this time around I didn't have a howling gale and torrential rain to deal with. Challacombe as ever was a nasty little climb to tackle but as with all steep hills there was payback for my efforts in the form of a fun high speed descent. I may not get up the climbs quickly but with nice powerful brakes on my Cross Check and a weight advantage (when it comes to going downhill at least) I managed to cruise into Woolacombe with a smile on my face and red hot wheel rims. All in all a good morning out. I don't intend to take on that damn hill again though...

Wednesday, 16 May 2012


This was my last climb on the 12th May. I had intended to follow it with the climb up to Haytor Vale but after a few twinges from my knee I decided to be sensible and be happy with ticking another three off the list.

Widecombe is a pretty place, the climb up out of it less so. The view from up top is great but on the climb I struggled to look at anything other that the 6 feet of tarmac in front of me.

Widecombe is a very busy place, the roads around it are narrow and there is a regular bus service which chugs up and down the hill every so often. I even managed to get held up leaving the village because of said bus. Check out the dog in the back of the Fiat, he doesn't seem to impressed at the sight of a sweaty cyclist.

Monday, 14 May 2012


Dartmeet was my second climb on the 12th May. It has a 20% gradient from the start and doesn't let you ease off the gas until the very top. That said, the scenery and the fact it is only a short climb took the edge off a bit. I wouldn't say I enjoyed it but I can think of worse climbs to tackle.

For some reason my helmet camera gets a bit jumpy from time to time and the sound goes a bit screwy. For all of you who think I breath at 300 miles an hour it is quite often the amazingly crappy mic on the camera distorting things. Honest.

Not sure how long it took me to get up this one but you can be sure it was longer than the time set out in the 100 Greatest Climbs book. I sometimes struggle to descend the climbs in the time Simon Warren has ridden up them! My excuse is I'm enjoying the stunning views (and trying hard not to end up embedded in them).

A grand day out on Dartmoor

So far I've only been able to get a video put together for the Rundlestone climb but whilst I'm editing the other videos from the weekend I thought an update was in order.

It was my initial intention to take on four climbs on Dartmoor; Rundlestone, Dartmeet, Widecombe and Haytor Vale. As it turned out I only managed the first three. My knee started hurting on the Widecombe climb and I thought it was better to end the days riding on a high rather than grovelling my way up to Haytor Vale with a knackered knee.


I started out early and was on the base of the first climb up to Rundlestone by 8am. The weather was a bit chilly but otherwise perfect for a days riding on Dartmoor. There was a bit of a breeze but nothing too strong. I figured Rundlestone would be the longest climb of the day so it was good to get it out of the way first.

The gradients encountered on the road up to the top of Rundlestone aren't necessarily that steep. I think they top out at around 13% This is a long climb however and the steeper sections go on for long enough to start sapping your energy the further you climb.

The views up the top were spectacular and unlike my last attempt when low cloud obscured the view of pretty much everything I was able to spot the transmission mast that marked the top of the climb pretty early on. I could also spot the long stretch of road snaking its way up to it as well unfortunately which was a bit off putting. I've never ridden up Mount Ventoux but I reckon Rundlestone may be the South West equivalent.
Apart from being passed by some ultra fit roadies on carbon fibre road bikes I was the only cyclist on the hill and there weren't any pensioners on shopping bikes to over take me this time around. There was only the sound of bird song, the wind, my gasping for breath and a squeaky pedal cleat to distract me from the task at hand.

As I reached the top the gradient slackened off and with a final click up a couple of gears I was at the summit of the climb which is marked by the start of a private road leading to the communications mast. It took me much longer than the twenty eight minutes Simon Warren managed it in but that came as no surprise. I get the impression he is fitter and ligher than me.
I didn't film much of the descent as I wanted to conserve the battery in my helmet camera for later in the day so you'll just have to take my word for it when I say the views on the way back down to Tavistock were stunning, especially at high speed.
Starting off early meant I could get back to the car in Tavistock and make a move towards the second climb of the day at Dartmeet before the traffic in Tavistock got too bad. Don't get me wrong, I like the place but there are so many pedestrian crossings it sometimes seems to be down to luck as to whether you can actually escape the place.


The drive across Dartmoor to Dartmeet was great fun. It was such a clear day you could see for miles and blanket speed limit of 40mph suits my underpowered little Fiat. Not sure some of the impatient motorists who passed me would agree. It was good to see lots of other cyclists out on Dartmoor as my drive to Dartmeet went on. It was also good to see most of them were struggling with the gradients as well.
Dartmeet is an ancient little place on a crossing of the River Dart. You descend into Dartmeet via a steep road, cross over a little stone bridge and the climb starts straight away. There is a car park at the bottom but I thought I would try the tactic of driving to the car park at the top. It would give me a chance to recce the climb and have something to aim at up top, namely my lunch.

The climb up from Dartmeet is only short. It starts off at a 20% and stays there but there are plenty of bends in the road to help you break up the climb into manageable chunks. After parking up and rolling down the hill I tried to warm up a bit in a big car park in the bottom. As soon as I rumbled over the cattle grid at the foot of the climb it became apparent it hadn't done much to help. I was soon in bottom gear and gurning like a fool as I span my way up to the top.

Having the car parked at the top proved to be a real advantage. It meant I knew exactly how far I had to go and psychologically it gave me a bit of a boost as the only way I could get to my car and move on to the next climb was to get to the top of the hill. It is a tactic I'll be using on other climbs where it is possible.

The climb up from Dartmeet was over relatively quickly. It isn't that long a climb and after a brief rest and a look at the scenery at the top it was back into the car and onto Widecombe-in-the-Moor for climb number three.


Widecombe in the Moor is a pretty little place seemingly populated exclusively by coffee shop staff as I don't think I saw a single building there that wasn't used to sell hot drinks and cream teas. I can't imagine they all commute there as Widecombe is hardly easy to get to. The climb out of the village is slightly less appealing on the eye and rises up in plain site as you drive through the village. In fact it is a rather daunting site. Having covered a few miles in the car after an early morning start I was starting to feel a bit knackered and the Widecombe climb had last hill of the day written all over it. It was another 20% gradient hill and as I got my bike out of the car at the top of the hill I realised I would be pushing my luck, and my knee, if I tried to tackle the Haytor Vale climb as well.

A high speed ride down the hill into the village was followed by a quick turnaround where I stopped briefly to turn on my helmet camera and then straight back up again. Well, straight back up with a bit of zigzagging thrown in. Maybe its just me but some hills with a gradient of 20% seem steeper than others. The fact that the whole climb is there for you to see as you attempt to winch your way up it is also slightly off putting. At least on Dartmeet I had a pleasant valley to ride up through with lots of bends to hide some of the gradient. On the Widecombe climb there is no hiding place and as I reached the top I was going so slowly I was only technically a cyclist because I was on a bike. Walking would have been faster. Knowing my car was parked just over the final rise did help keep me going but it didn't help me go any faster. Chris Boardman when he was at the height of his powers climbed Widecombe in four minutes ten seconds according to the little black book of pain. I don't think the local buses that were going up and down the hill could manage that time. I certainly couldn't (not that I was trying). My knee had started throbbing half way up and as I reached the car I decided that Haytor Vale had better wait for another day. Best not to push my knee too far too soon.

Still, three climbs ticked off the list in one day and some fantastic weather and scenery to ride through means I'm pretty pleased with how the day went. The Dartmeet and Widecombe videos will be up in the next couple of days once I can get my video editing software to stop crashing.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

A short update...

Since my knee when pop on Dartmoor the other week I've limited my riding to short local training rides whilst my knee recovers. I've had some good rides in the last few days and I'm confident I'll be back to tackle the Dartmoor rides on the 12th May. My knee seems to be settling down nicely and I think the problem was down to a bit of inflammation.

When not gently spinning my way round the North Devon lanes I've been busy piecing together my old Bianchi ML3 with a mix of old and new components. Whilst my Surly Cross Check is a hugely versatile and comfortable machine I want to have a lighter more responsive bike for those days when I feel the need for a bit more speed. A lighter bike will also be an advantage on some of the longer climbs I'll be tackling later in the year. The Bianchi should also be easier to fit in the car which is actually quite an important consideration when thinking about travelling long distances with a bike and additional luggage.

Anyway, the bike is still a work in progress but is very nearly there so I thought I'd report on progress. My approach to the build was if I already had something in the garage that would do the job it would be used. This is after all a bike that is going to be slung in the back of the car a great deal over the next twelve months and there is no point getting precious about how it looks. Sticking top end bling components on a scuffed old frame also seems a bit pointless. Besides I like the shabby thrown together in a shed look. It sadly matches how I look generally...

                                    Very much a work in progress but about 90% complete.

The eagle eyed among you will notice that I've committed cycling heresy and combined road and MTB components in an attempt to get the wide range of gears I want for the steep stuff. I was intrigued by the SRAM WiFLi wide ratio road gears that are now available and thought I would bodge together a cheaper version of my own. Even more blasphemous is the use of a Campagnolo front mech with a predominantly Shimano set up. My reasoning behind this choice is that the Campag mech was in the garage and fits the frame and as I'll be using down tube shifters I should be able to get around any compatibility problems (I hope). It should be OK with the Shimano Sora compact chainset. I say should as I forgot to buy a chain before starting the build. Doh!

Road, MTB, Shimano, Campagnolo. I thought why not? Stick it all on. The question is will it all work?

I've gone for down tube shifters for a few reasons. Firstly I know from experience that they can handle a mix of road and MTB derailleurs. They are also light and cheap and leave me with the scope to fiddle around with different handle bar set ups if I decide to change things around at some point. The one problem I found with fitting the down tube shifters is that they don't fit flush against the Bianchi's oversized aluminium down tube. A quick bodge with some rubber washers seems to have helped them fit more securely.

The wheels were lying around in the garage not doing much and apart from a bearing service being needed for the front wheel seem to be up to the job. The saddle and seat post are the Bianchi originals. The SRAM Rival brakes (I already have Shimano and Campag on there so I may as well complete the holy trinity of group set manufacturers) I'm particularly pleased with as I got them half price. I've got some old levers somewhere in the back of the garage that will be going on as soon as I can find them.

              Off road drops on an Italian road bike? Thats just how I roll. They are comfy, honest

The handle bar set up is one that will probably have cycling purists crying out 'my eyes, my eyes' but in my defence it is still a work in progress. I have left the steerer tube long until I fine tune the riding position. I suspect that the bars will long term remain fairly high. A low front end when climbing up hill seems counter productive and wide and high bars allow you to open your chest up a bit more and breath more easily. Lets face it, the heavy breathing on my videos shows I need all the help I can get. The mix of different headset spacers (I was amazed at how many I had knocking about in various tool boxes) does look scruffy but will have to do for now. The handle bar is an On One Midge bar. It is a drop bar designed for off road use but having used one on the Cross Check for a couple of years I've come to love it. It is a nice wide bar with plenty of space for your hands on the tops. The wide flare to the drops also allows you to have a nice secure handhold when descending on rough roads. It feels right and so its staying.

So, thats the bike so far. I'm hoping to have it ready for the end of the month when I have an epic day out covering climbs in Somerset, Avon and Gloucestershire planned. That sort of time scale gives me enough time to get it running smoothly and iron out any bugs. Right, back to the garage.