Rest Day 1 (Or, a Bit of a Rant about the UK’s Cycling Infrastructure)

It feels like a couple of days ago that I started. It feels like months ago that I started.

Bike touring’s time-mutating magic has kicked in. On the road, a day flashes past, while a single hill or town can take ages to get through. On a rest day (like yesterday), time drags itself out, and you wonder how you’re not making more distance when you ride all day.

The hills and towns of southern Devon have been the backdrop for the last few days, and have certainly made their contribution to things taking longer than expected.

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First up was the relatively small city of Plymouth (above), which took ages to get across, despite apparently having loads of cycle routes. As is depressingly usual in the UK, spotty bits of randomly-disappearing (and / or poor-quality, badly-signposted) bike infrastructure are the problem. It’s not specifically Plymouth’s fault; it’s a general urban UK issue. But having to stop 10+ times to map-check when crossing a city centre is clearly not going to encourage more cycling.

Plymouth Hoe, where the picture was taken, is where Francis Drake was allegedly playing bowls when the Spanish Armada was sighted. It’s just as well he didn’t have to get to his ship on a bike, or the UK would by now have a long tradition of afternoon siestas.

You can probably see that the clouds were threatening already. Once finally free of Plymouth, I’ve felt like I’ve been stalked by heavy showers ever since, although they didn’t properly catch up with me until yesterday, as I fled eastwards.

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I had a bit of deja-vu while lumping up and down the hills after Plymouth; there was a long-ish stretch where I was following exactly the same route along the fringes of Dartmoor as I did in 2015 (on the Scilly to Shetland ride). And it was drizzling a little, just like it was back then. Soon enough, though, it was time to peel off back towards the coast (above), and the Starcross Ferry across the river Exe estuary.

You might well expect a ferry which is heavily used by cyclists to avoid a detour around the estuary to be easy to access for touring cyclists? Well the crew on the boat were all great, and dealt with the large number of bikes (plus one idiot with a trailer) excellently. But… to access the western side of the crossing, you need to carry your bike (and trailer, or bags, or anything else heavy and bulky you have) up about forty steps, over a railway footbridge, and back down again – beware if you’re running a heavy touring rig!

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Once across the Exe, you’re in Exmouth. It’s a fairly small town, and seems pleasant enough, but is plagued with some of the same cycling issues as Plymouth. On the road out of the centre to rendezvous with a nice bike track on a disused railway, I suddenly noticed a brand new, wide shared bike and pedestrian path right next to me. I had no clue where it began, as I’d seen no signs, and I couldn’t get on it, as there was no access from the road. Grrr!! And when, just a few minutes later, I came across the astonishing piece of ‘infrastructure’ pictured above, I had to actually laugh at it.

The abomination above actually comes between two sections of a traffic-free railway path, which is actually very nice (see below). But between them, the two pictures encapsulate the problem with UK cycling infrastructure; it’s good to ride anywhere where there are no cars. But if you’re anywhere near a road, expect cycling to be a time consuming 2nd class hassle, unless you’re willing to play with the traffic on the main roads.

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Phew. Think that’s rant over on the infrastructure. Devon’s other time-bending tool is the hills. I’ve got one more big set to go today, as I (hopefully) shoot eastwards. They do hurt (especially when they start at 8%, and just get steeper and steeper before maxing out at 20% ish, like the one below). And they’re not that quick on the way down, either, as the trailer needs a little bit of management at higher speeds.

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But, although they slow you down, the hills do give you some lovely views of the countryside, which has been pretty throughout. There have been thatched villages and rolling farmland, and a full-on Fawlty Towers guesthouse experience in Torquay. Devon’s been pretty good in general.

Having avoided the first wet day of the trip by having a rest yesterday, it’s back on the road today into Dorset. There’s another, bigger, storm coming in tomorrow, so it looks like the first phase of the flatter run along the south coast may be a little disrupted.

On the plus side, the rain is rolling in on rapid tailwinds at the moment, so it could be that the time-bending can continue, and surprising amounts of progress can be made. Who knows?

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