We piled out of the van, click under the chin, click into the pedal and off we pushed.
Rockets and Rascals was buzzing with a nervous excitement, from the chatter of togged up riders discussing strategies to the avid onlookers and supporters wishing them well. The light was fading now as we rolled into the shop, bikes leant up with the many others laden with gear for the weekend. It was immediately apparent that there would be quite some diversity in approaches between the riders, each set out to ride to their own regime.
At the sign on, a brown paper bag was handed to each of us, complete with a brevet card, Rockets and Rascals cap, packet of crisps and a bottle of Sharp’s Wolf Rock. Not now, I thought, leaving the beer and snack behind, but swapping out my cap in favour of a new one for the event.
Mingling with the other riders before the off, there were one or two familiar faces and many new. Some had their route and estimated timings planned to the nth degree, others hadn’t much of a plan at all. The Finisterre boys were there, Todd and Lawrence, bikes laden with camping gear, tent poles strapped to the downtubes, enamel mugs swinging off the back of their seatpost bags. These guys were certainly in for an adventure.
It was ten to nine, as we amassed outside the shop, a sea of HiVis and flashing red lights. Rockets and Rascals owner and MTB legend Steve Toze, who’d conceived the Trans Kernow, gave a very brief and light hearted address, which essentially went along the lines of ‘you’re on your own’. A strange sensation grew in my stomach as I realised how much of a stretch this might turn out to be.
With no great fanfare or much procession, riders started to roll out over the cobbles of the Barbican and into the darkened streets of Plymouth. From a mass of twenty cyclists, the stream thinned out, with some heading for the Tamar Bridge and others the Torpoint Ferry. Some even lost already, evidently not used to inner city navigation…
Stage 1: Plymouth to St Ives
Was it a race? Well of course the official line is no. British law and the intricacies of insurance dictate that we say so, but this means nothing to some riders, for whom the sole aim is to be the first back to Plymouth, with a brevet card full of stamps and sense of unbeaten glory. Steve had encouraged us to take the road less travelled, to explore the county and dare to adventure off the well known through routes in favour for the quaint back country lanes and rugged, devilishly steep coastal roads. For some it was simply about getting back to Plymouth at all.
We weren’t racing, but the anticipation of what lay ahead had me spinning out faster than Jon, my other half for the ride who I would come to rely on so much. He reeled me back in and we settled into a much more sensible pace on the short few kilometres to the ferry crossing. Joined by Tom Probert, a 2017 Transcontinental Race hopeful, Titus, the London policeman, lightweight riders Roger and Simon, Dan, laden with a huge backpack, a pair of local ladies and team Finisterre, we nattered across the short journey before officially landing in Cornwall on the other side of the water.
It was only the first climb when I shifted into the little ring and threw the chain straight off, jamming between the chainset and the frame. Still a bit shaky from the excitement of the start and the chill in the sea air, Jon and I watched despairingly as the other riders carried off into the night whilst we carefully prised the chain free and got back on our way.
Heading out into the ever darker country roads through Antony and deeper into the more rural lanes, we were soon thankful for Jon’s dynamo light, with a broad, powerful beam that lit up the road and every pothole or patch of gravel. My own two lights were pretty pathetic in comparison, so I clung to Jon’s back wheel, looking at the road ahead of us as we steadily climbed and quickly descended. We caught up with team Finisterre and backpack Dan at the top of one of the climbs, joining them for a fun main road descent, but soon learnt that their heavy haulage option would hold them back on the ascents, so carried on just the pair of us.
A twisting section of lanes followed past Hessenford and we soon learnt that when you roll over a bridge and see a house, it’s time to change into the little ring, and quick. They’re about the only recognisable things that you can make out in the dark of night, accompanied by the smell of wild garlic and the sound of trickling water to tell you you’re in the bottom of the valley. It’s Cornwall, so expect the way out to be sharp.
Riding all through the night was a first for both of us, and we were making good progress. Stopping for a rest in Widegates after 50km we snaffled the jam and marmalade sandwiches from my musette, and then paused again at 2am in St Newlyn East. It’s surprising how comfortable a patch of grass in front of a car dealership on the edge of the main road can be. After a 5 minutes of shut-eye I was woken by the yell of a passing rider – “Geddon!” – we sat bolt upright to see Steve himself in his bright yellow outfit plugging his way into the night.
Reassured to see another rider and chat to Steve on the road a while, we had a new burst of energy to crack on, now well into our first and longest leg. Our Plymouth to St Ives route skirted parallel to the A30, Perranzabuloe, Redruth and Cambourne. Little life stirred through these towns in the early hours before the first light of day.
You could smell the sea before you saw it. Responsible for the navigation, I could see on my Garmin 810 that we were nearing St Ives, next to the wide open water at Lelant Saltings. As we flew down the hill we could see a bright white light coming towards us. Could it be another rider, having checked in and already off to Falmouth? Too fast to tell who it was, we exchanged a cheered salute with the rider who was equally as crazy as we were.
The climb into St Ives wasn’t as bad as I had feared, with the adrenaline of reaching the first checkpoint powering me on. Titus was climbing out of the town as we headed down through the maze of shop-lined streets in search of the Lifeboat Station, of Mark ‘Hanky’ Hancock and a good sit down. It was dark when I closed my eyes, curled up next to Jon on the smoothed stones of the harbour wall. When I opened them, it was not.
Stage 2: St Ives to Falmouth
After the 15 minute power nap and a fair amount of trail mix, we saluted Steve, Janie, and a couple of others who were just rolling in, and headed on to Falmouth. With only 39km on this leg to ride from the North coast to the South, we were eager to get it completed and finally be able to stop where a cafe would be open serving something other than toffee waffles and fig rolls.
Climbing out of this idyllic seaside town at five-something in the morning revealed the start of a glorious sunrise, only the bakers up early enough to witness it with us. Retracing our steps to Leedstown, we then cut across directly East to Penryn, descending down into Falmouth and along the Penryn River to the harbour in search of Hand Bar where we knew Duncan would be setting up his checkpoint for the day.
With the second checkpoint conveniently next to the only cafe open so early on a Saturday morning, we delighted in some of the most high-class poached eggs on toast, adorned with wild flowers, beetroot puree and a wild garlic pesto. The Kitchen did serve us well, although to be honest, even a greasy spoon would have been great after riding through the night.
With Jon on high pastry alert, we popped by the local bakery on our way out of the town to pick up a jersey pocket stash, bid our farewells to the marvellous Duncan and set off for Bude.
Stage 3: Falmouth to Widemouth Bay
Planning the route stage by stage, we’d estimated some timings for each checkpoint and mid-stage breaks, calculating that we should be able to ride the whole 350km route in one go. With slightly longer breaks than anticipated for our weary, hill-beaten legs and tired eyes, we were a couple of hours behind, but it was no issue. We hadn’t planned to race the Trans Kernow, only to succeed in completing it. That was before we saw the weather report, which we checked daily in the days preceding the ride. There was no escaping the fact that monsoon-like conditions were forecast for Sunday, so our weekend ride turned into a race against the weather. Riding in that would be no fun at all.
Heading North from Falmouth at 10am, it wasn’t long before we rolled through the Cathedral City of Truro. Splitting this long, 118km leg down into manageable chunks, we aimed for Bodmin at 60km in, where the lure of a pasty for lunch kept us going. The plotted route took us down some narrow, but very pretty ‘Quiet Lanes’, with hidden characterful cottages nestled in the bluebell covered woodlands.
Despite the original forecast for cloud, the sun was making a strong appearance and starting to really warm things up. We were soon stripping off jackets, sleeves and leg warmers like no tomorrow, a stark contrast to the night before, where we rode even in down jackets to try and keep warm.
At midday I lay for a short while in some long grass at the side of a lane, warming sun on my face and a soft mattress of vegetation willing me to sleep. The hills, which had been my main concern, were nothing compared to the ordeal of sleep deprivation. I hadn’t been as comfortable as usual on my bike either, which was peculiar, with both my best-trusted Assos shorts and a reliable saddle.
Hunger struck before Bodmin, so we took our chance at the glamourous Roche Services for a pasty and hot chocolate each. Even laden as we were with all the snacks you could imagine, there’s no substitute for a proper meal, and breakfast had maybe been a little small for our appetites.
A change of plan
We didn’t roll into Bodmin, we crawled. If the pace had been any slower, we would have been going backwards. With 250 hilly kilometres already in our legs, Bodmin was the ‘do or die’ point; past here the number of towns and villages petered out to nearly none at all, with support options dwindling. When we pulled over, I saw my own expression mirrored in Jon’s face; exhaustion with a hint of defeat.
Quitting was not an option. I had never even considered that we might not make it, perhaps over optimistically? The mileage was greater than I’d attempted before, likewise the hills, but not so much greater that I thought it would be out of my reach.
Within minutes we’d made the decision, and the room was booked. It was a bit of a nightmare to find the Premier Inn, and the receptionist did look at us a little strangely, but it was so worth it. A soothing, hot shower each and climbing into clean bedclothes felt like finding an oasis in the desert. I checked Instagram which revealed that Roger had already made it back to Plymouth, having ridden solidly through the night and the following day. The finish seemed like a long way from us right now.
We tried to discuss what we should do, but without knowing how we might feel after some rest, it was impossible to tell if we would be able to go on or not. Jon was not in a good way and I was certainly not feeling too good either. After a three hour kip, we awoke at 8pm, and with the light fading outside it was decision time.
I desperately wanted to finish. I imagined the end; not glory, no banners or balloons, no cheers or music, but the sense of achievement that I would feel having completed such a mammoth challenge. I also imagined how it would feel to quit having made it this far, having done so well already. Having to tell everyone that I wasn’t strong enough, determined enough. How could I be Super Randonneur material if I couldn’t even manage 350km?
We entered as a team, and we vowed that whatever decision we would take, it would be together. Despite the sleep, Jon was still feeling rough, so I subtly tried to talk him into agreeing to continue. We might be able to get to Widemouth Bay near Bude for midnight or so, up one long big hill over Bodmin Common, and then the last leg was just homewards, albeit into a growing headwind. Staying the night and cycling in the morning would be no less distance, only with buckets of rain.
I’d talked him round, so we started to pack up our bags. Long distance cycling is not glamorous; we pulled on our odorous, dirty kit and prepared lights for the growing darkness outside. In a complete role-reversal, I was now the one unable to face the thought of having to sit back on my saddle, so Jon coaxed me into it. We waved the same, bemused receptionist goodbye, popped into the shop to pick up some precautionary paracetamol and headed off again, riding into the night for a second time.
Stage 3: Falmouth to Widemouth Bay – Part II
What a difference a sleep makes. I recalled the time I heard Emily Chappell talk about the mistake she had made on her first Transcontinental Race by underestimating sleep, and had had an encouraging message from my long distance mentor Jack. ‘Sleep is a weapon’ rung true, as somehow we were now smashing it along the Camel Trail, a gravel track through the woods, carbon race bike and GP4000’s or otherwise.
The sleep had not only rejuvenated our legs, but even more importantly our minds. Having come so close to throwing in the towel, it now felt incredible that we were still riding, and positively certain that we’d get through to the end. Yes, we’d miss the sights of North Cornwall, the seaside in the dark, and we’d probably be back in Plymouth before anyone was awake let alone in the shop to greet us, but that wasn’t what had brought us here. The challenge had.
The road that climbs up and over the North West of Bodmin Moor is definitely one that I’d like to ride again in the light, and perhaps without the blustering wind. It twisted and turned between the gorse bushes and great lumps of granite, with cattle grids giving way to herds of wild ponies grazing silently in the darkness.
A helicopter roared overhead as we neared the Davidstow Aerodrome. I warned Jon that we were turning into the headwind for just a few short kilometres, and then out of it again, but what ensued felt like an hour-long battle and royally sapped our energy. The M&Ms that we had stowed away as a treat for reaching the top of the hill were snatched from Jon’s frame bag as soon as we turned out of the wind, and we refuelled accordingly.
The last few kilometres before Widemouth Bay were spent imagining finding Chris King at the cafe checkpoint, relaying our story and getting some moral support. Descending sharply to the pitch black beach, with no sign of life at the checkpoint at all, we resigned ourselves to the toffee waffles alone whilst we texted Chris to self-certify our location.
1am, Widemouth Bay, 300km.
Stage 4: Widemouth Bay to Plymouth
The end was in sight! Onto the last leg and Southbound, we were excited to finish the 68km stage but somewhat anxious about the impending 22mph headwind, given our aerodrome experience. Setting intermediate goals in Launceston and Callington, the stage was broken down into 20 or 30km chunks, with each demi-stage analysed for route info and gradient; essentially anything to keep us interested, awake and give a shred of hope that we could make it.
The climb into Launceston looked fishy on the Garmin; a perfectly symmetrical hill up and down before the town. It turned out to be a real beauty, with the newly tarmaced road bearing a gentle gradient to the top, overlooking the twinkling lights of the town. The descent was much enjoyed on the smooth, wide road, and we rested for fifteen minutes or so in the light of a closed petrol garage, as glamorous as ever. The rain had just started, not as heavy as forecast for later on, so we knew to push on would be the wisest move.
From here to Saltash we were following the A388, so navigation was no longer a worry as we picked up speed along the deserted main road. Still feeling good at Callington we continued on, starting to sense a lift in the light at around 5.30am, much before the sun rose. Our spirits rose even more so too, as I caught sight of pink streaks in the sky over Dartmoor to the East, and knew that we really weren’t far from the end. Not far from a hot shower, a change of clothes, and a proper, and relaxed, breakfast.
The last part of the road to Saltash was more undulating than anticipated, and with sore legs and sore saddles we rolled slowly through the town to find the Tamar Bridge. Plymouth was a welcome sight, although again hillier than expected, as we finally made our way back to where it all began; 7am on the cobbles of the Barbican, and a job well done.
* * *
After a brief rest and freshen up, we headed to Rockets and Rascals for a two course breakfast as the rain hammered down on the grey streets of the harbour. Families and couples sat enjoying an informal bank holiday Sunday brunch, oblivious to the scene that was about to unfold. Sat by the window, we saw them approach one by one; first Tom, then Titus, Bob and the ladies, a little while later Steve, Matt and George. All wet as drowned rats, leaving trails and puddles wherever they went. Changing into warmer and thankfully drier gear, with warming coffees thrust into their hands, we shared our stories of the Trans Kernow. Having been through a ride like that, and not even having ridden with these other cyclists, there’s a strange sense of camaraderie – a bond that I can’t quite describe. The Pioneers of Trans Kernow.
A huge thanks to all involved; Steve Toze, Chris King, Jennifer Harrison and the whole Rockets and Rascals crew, Mark and Duncan on the checkpoints, and all who encouraged us along the way.
If you’re mad enough to be interested in taking on the challenge for yourself, put 4th May 2018 in your diary, where the event will return for it’s second edition with a twist; Trans Devon.
The Trans Kernow, and how to survive your first multi day event
Riders of the Trans Kernow