Top rookie tip: do not start your riding life on the roads in north Devon. North Devon is rookie hell; north Devon is one of the most under-appreciated beauty spots in the country, it certainly boasts one of the most dramatic coastlines but, for the cyclist, it probably helps to know that what north Devon certainly cannot boast is flat. Nothing is flat. If I have missed it, please drop me a line. It is only up and down, and the gradients are not forgiving. Don’t get me wrong, I have grown to know the love of climbing, but can’t you let us hold the altitude for just a pleasant, restorative mile or three? Not in north Devon, you can’t.
No one told me this. Big rookie error. My bike was new (Specialized Allez, classic starter bike), my shoes were shiny and I was training to join a charity ride on a stage of the 2006 Tour de France. At the end of an 80-mile north Devon day, Steve, our lovable and infuriatingly over-enthusiastic guide/shepherd was taking us up the long and unforgiving hill out of Ilfracombe, telling us cheerfully: “There it is, the brow of the hill.” No it bloody isn’t, Steve.
You know the feeling: every time you think you have scaled the mountain, you turn another bend and see it still towering before you. That is how it is in north Devon; inexorably so.
But north Devon did not kill me off. And yet I still would not recommend it to a rookie as fresh and naïve as I was. It really hurt. But today I can boast with pride that last year I cycled in a team that completed the Race Across America — all 3,013 coast-to-coast miles of it. So no, I owe north Devon big time. That ride infected me and I still carry the bug. And I hope soon to return and replicate the exact same route.You can split it or connect it however you like, short loops or one long one. But here are two majestic stretches of road.
One: hugging the coast as closely as possible, from Saunton to Croyde Bay and then Woolacombe. Turn left early out of Woolacombe, that climb is a killer, then down (steep) to Lee Bay (stunning, quiet), up again, down to Ilfracombe and up the other side where Steve tells you that you have crested the hill, but you know he is lying.
Two: from sea-level, Lynmouth, take the Watersmeet Road up the right hand side of the East Lyn river. This is a long, slow climb, though not Devon at its steepest, and it takes you through woodland, high above the babbling brook. As you leave the river road, make sure you are on the B3223 for this is where the trees quit and you feel you are on top of the world, in the rolling, elemental Exmoor country.
Here commences another chapter: Exmoor, Porlock Hill, Winsford Hill, masochism in the lap of beauty. That’s for another day. If it hasn’t killed you off already.