Before I started to write about this ride – my second attempt at the Crackpot – I thought I’d do some research. What exactly is a Crackpot ? I wanted to know. I wondered why Shawn opted for that name. So I looked the word up in a few dictionaries. First results weren’t encouraging: a silly or stupid person, said the Cambridge Dictionary; a crack-brain, crazy creature, a crank, according to the OED. Not such an encouraging description of a rider. Dictionary.com suggested: a person who is eccentric, unrealistic or fanatical. That was more like it, I felt. But who is the Crackpot here ? Is it the rider who sets out on this route, what he or she will become during the ride, or maybe the creator himself even ? I didn’t know, but I might have found out just over half way round, without realizing it at the time.
I decided to have another go at The Crackpot in mid-September, for various reasons to do with family commitments, available holidays and when the moon would be at its brightest. The 14th seemed to fit best. A Sunday evening start – not from Poole though, rather just south of Keynsham. Why? As it’s a DIY Perm under Audax UK rules, I could start it wherever suited me best and I just didn’t have the time to ride down to Poole this time. A Keynsham start isn’t in the spirit of Shawn’s route which rushes you out to Exmoor after softening you up on the way – whilst demanding a 15kph minimum until Axminster. So was my ride the Crackpot at all? Not exactly – but switching the Minehead-Bovey Tracey stretch to half way into the 1000k ride wasn’t going to do me any favours. Keynsham it was going to have to be – for this ride anyway.
I rolled out on a warm, late summer’s Sunday evening and joined the Crackpot route near Queen Charlton. I was apprehensive, but also confident. I had a new drink regime and new way of carrying food, so I wouldn’t have to stop so frequently and lose my momentum. I also had a method of keeping the pace up now, thanks to riding the Dutch Capitals with Ray. I was carrying as little as I could get away with and was on my cyclocross bike, which was even lighter than usual because it had no mudguards. I was determined I wouldn’t be beaten this time. I even had a schedule. Well, actually I had three with different average speeds, because I’d also learnt this year during several long rides, that schedules generally get thrown out of the window pretty early on. If I had three schedules, I’d have a good idea of how I was doing after 24 hours when the effort started to take its toll.
The first few stages down to Dorchester were familiar to me, because much of it is local, which helps. It helps with navigation, speed and knowing what’s coming up. A-roads, hills, farmyard slurry or gravelly lanes – whatever it was, I wouldn’t be that surprised by it. The night was clear, but the moon wasn’t that bright, as it was four days away from being full and it was also quite low in the sky. Still, a few bat sightings and a scurrying badger later, I was at Michaelwood services. Frome by 1 am was going to be a doddle. Rolling over the moonlit Cotswolds, the M4 and ever Southwards I went, skirting Bath and maintaining (for me) a good pace.
I was through Frome half an hour ahead of my most optimistic schedule. The weather was balmy but the moon unexpectedly started to set. I’d forgotten about that: there’s no guarantee that the moon will stay in the sky all night. With my B&M Luxos though, it really didn’t matter. That light’s transformed night riding for me. On an open road it’s almost like having a car headlight.
I was snacking regularly. Quick hand grabs into my waist-mounted bum-bag for food was a time saver. I’d noticed other riders doing it this year and thought I’d give it another try. I’d used this method previously but hadn’t got on with it, so I’d stopped. A regular, timed mouthful of easily accessed, but foul-tasting sis bar mixed in with a powerbar gel shot, or a fun-size mars, or a mini fruit flapjack from Sainsburys; and my energy levels were being maintained just fine. My regular 15 minute intake of a mouthful of ‘Nuun-tabbed’ water – (and, yes that is a genuine verb – I just invented it myself) – was also working out just fine. I wasn’t constantly stopping for a ‘comfort break’ and I wasn’t becoming dehydrated. I seemed to have found the perfect balance of movement with energy and fluid replenishment. Heaven knows, it’d taken me long enough to get here and find out what worked, but it was actually working well.
At Zeals I loaded the next map and took off again after charging down a side street before the track stopped. I can’t remember where I got this route from, but there were anomalies every so often. Still, it got me to West Stafford before 4 am. I was on a charge. At Shillingstone less than an hour later I hit the first of many diversions.
Whenever I see a ‘Road Closed’ sign I often smile to myself rather smugly and think – ‘for cars maybe, but haha, I’m on a bike, I can walk round it, at worst’ – or something along those self-satisfied lines. At Shillingstone, the road couldn’t have been more closed if they’d put an armed guard on it. This closure meant business – but why? Then after examining the Garmin for alternative routes, I noticed the river. The penny dropped – there was probably no usable bridge. Balls. Further north was Hammoon – a place I’d ridden through many times. So, I headed along the A-road, turned right onto my well-trodden path and crossed the Stour there. I added 15 minutes to my ride, maybe. It wasn’t the end of the World. I had plenty of time in hand on even my most ambitious schedule. 200K in and I’d been on the road for 9 hours. I was making decent time for such a hilly ride in the dark, and I wasn’t exhausting myself either.
As the sun started to lighten the sky, the landscape started to change. Over Cranbourne Chase and towards Codford and Salisbury Plain I went. Another map change, a longer pause while my Garmin attempted to save its map (it goes nuts over 300K’s recording so I never let it get that far). A few abortive reboots and 15 minutes later I was finally off again. Another delay, but I was still feeling great and was still on schedule.
Climbing up onto the chalk hills I disturbed two dopey hares who looked at me as I approached them and turned away – seemingly carrying on a conversation – until they then both looked again and suddenly realised I was rapidly bearing down on them. The one with some sense immediately ran left into a field, while the other one decided to see if it could outrun me. By now I was on the flat and having to freewheel because I didn’t want to harm the daft creature. After about 500m it did the sensible thing and darted right, off into a field. It made a change to share the road with a live creature rather than the road kill I’d seen so much of so far on the ride. Some of these lanes are clearly used as rat runs by some impatient folk who barely wanted to hesitate for me. Animals didn’t stand a chance. What value life ?
I pondered such things as I rode north and also started fantasising about coffee, pastries and such things for breakfast. I knew there was a drive-in Starbucks at Membury Services. That was where I’d stop – briefly. Through Marlborough – still ahead of schedule – and I had to endure the busy and unpleasant A346 which links the town to the M4. I thought of the hares that had the sense to get off the road earlier and would’ve liked to have emulated them. Maybe the calendar Crackpot riders generally rode this earlier in the day or late at night? Either way, I didn’t want to be on this road for a minute longer. Being close-passed by articulated lorries and backing-up impatient commuters is not my idea of fun. Thankfully the turn off to Aldbourne arrived soon enough.
I pootled through, past a deli / coffee shop and started to wonder whether I should stop there rather than add to an American corporation’s balance sheet. Being sleep and coffee deprived I found myself climbing a hill which made my mind up for me: I wasn’t going to ride up this again for the sake of middle class rural gentrification. The gentlefolk of Aldbourne would have to keep that deli going without my help.
Motorway services are amusing by bike. You sneak in through the back and get various glances and double takes from ‘proper’ motorway users. I inadvertently magnified the usual incredulity by suddenly popping up at the Starbucks drive-in window. The young baristas were somewhat surprised by my appearance and then bemused when I told them of my daft plan, but they were also keen to help me. Randonneuring is an absolute tonic for my faith in humanity for this reason. Whenever I go out on a long ride, every time I meet people and actually talk with them, as soon as they hear about what I’m doing, they always respond positively and encouragingly – even if they also think I’m quite bonkers. It’s as if our randonneuring eccentricities spark something in others – hinting at possibilities perhaps ? Maybe …
Although I was enjoying eating my croissants and drinking my coffees under gathering clouds, whilst being gawped at, it was soon time to move on. The next sections from Membury to Poole were quite forgettable. Amport, Sandy Balls and Fordingbridge came and went and I was through the New Forest in a flash it seems. I had a truly vile MacDonalds at Ower (who could’ve guessed??) and I arrived at Poole at about 6 p.m.-ish. 450K in 22hours. Not rocket fast, but ok, and I was still feeling fine. Now it was time for the Crackpot to actually start.
I changed the Garmin’s map outside Poole General, and I was off. Through Poole, Hamworthy & Upton and onto the wondrous joys of the A35 to Bere Regis. It was as busy as I’ve ever experienced it on a bike, and as unpleasant too, but before I knew it I was through Bere Regis itself and at Milborne St Andrew. The fun was about to start again. The steep rolling terrain familiar to Hard Boiled riders loomed before me as the sun started to set.
These hills are followed by howling descents – not made any easier by darkness. I was often white-knuckling the drops, my brakes screeching, clinging on for dear life whilst swerving and squirming, trying to avoid the worst of the gravel. And the climb out of Sydling St Nicholas reminded me that my legs had now done 500K with no rest. The Crackpot had finally started to work its dark magic. But over the A37 and it all calmed down again, thankfully. Through rolling dark lanes I went, nearing Halstock with dreams of doing this section of the ride in the times a fresh Crackpot rider would.
I was deluded. My lack of sleep started to tell and at Halstock I had to stop for a snooze in the fabulous bus shelter just off the village green. It was still early and there was plenty of life in the village still. I couldn’t stay there long, but I just had to close my eyes for a snooze – to revive my senses. I was soon off again, and changed my maps outside the village hall with an audience of local youth, smoking and chattering away in the dark next to their mopeds.
Over the bridge and up the steep, crazy lane (and part-time river bed by the looks of it) and over the railway line, and I was at Hardington Mandeville. Next stop Minehead, about 60 K away. In my mind I had a plan to keep going until the bus shelters on the A358 near Williton. But I just couldn’t do it. I was too tired and needed a break before then and stopped near Taunton at a playground, or something, where there was what looked like a bike shelter with a table in it. Perched on there in my bivvy bag, I managed 45 minutes. Enough to get me going again.
I ploughed on. Thoughts of maintaining the original schedule were dwindling. I was still miles away from Williton – where I knew I’d have to sleep again – let alone Minehead. I tried to put the hammer down, but in reality I was just gritting my teeth and ploughing on in an effort to get to Minehead before dawn. I did sleep at the shelter near Williton and had another 40 minutes or so, disturbed by the roar of tyres and blare of lights from passing traffic, which would have to do for now. I got up, brushed my grungy teeth and pressed on.
I changed my maps at Minehead and stayed on the A39 this time. The delights of the town weren’t remotely tempting in the pre-dawn light. Nothing would’ve been open anyway. The sky was lightening and by the time I turned off towards Luccombe, it was quite light. The climb to Dunkery Beacon is quite magical. Yes, it’s a relentless, often steep, climb, but at that time of day there’s nothing stirring but the wildlife. I had disturbed two herons, countless rabbits and a few Exmoor ponies by the time I reached the open expanses of grass and gorse near the top. The large sun started to burn through the eastern sky. I felt like I was going to make it this time. I’d ridden 600K, and although I had most of the toughest stage still ahead of me, I felt ok.
Clouds started to gather once through Exford though. Up and down some stupidly steep valleys – why did they lay the roads straight up the slopes ? A few switch backs would’ve helped ! I passed a 1 in 3 sign, but that wasn’t the only slope that steep and then bang, there was the sound of thunder. And then came the rain – plenty of it. I knew this would probably happen, but it wasn’t predicted to last all day, so I’d stuck with my no mudguard plan. I’d forgotten that it’s not fresh rainwater that comes up from the roads in the these parts – especially on a laney Wessex ride – and before long I was covered with the pent-up out-pourings of the countryside. From then until nightfall, despite the fact that it didn’t rain much more after mid-morning, I was being sprayed with the delights of the countryside.
Up and down muddy tracks I went. The ups were abrupt and hard, the downs were slippery and slow. I began to get frustrated as the average speed began to drop ever lower. At one point during this time, I also had to stop for a comfort break. The sun had come out, it was getting warm and I was literally spattered with shit. The horseflies were loving it – I’ve never been so popular! I’d swat one on one leg and discover another two on the other. I had to get moving or I’d be eaten alive.
Eventually, though, the damp muddy lanes came to an end. After another ludicrous climb outside Bovey Tracy, I was in the town itself and looking for wet wipes so I could clean myself up. The pharmacy had the choice of baby wipes or hand wipes. I didn’t want to smell like a baby’s freshly cleaned backside, so I went for the hand wipes. The staff didn’t seem surprised by having to serve a poo-covered, lycra-clad middle-aged man. Maybe anything goes in Bovey? A Spitfire flew overhead and I ducked into a deli / coffee shop in search of fresh food. It didn’t look that promising at first, and the smile from the chap at the counter seemed to say to me, ‘we’ve got another one here …’, but I couldn’t have been more wrong – they liked cyclists and even encouraged them to bring their bikes in. The food and coffee were excellent too. I sat down and rewarded myself with a rest and decent food – satisfied that I’d got through the toughest stage.
After over half an hour or so, I got going again. I had to keep pressing on. It had got cloudy and it didn’t look too promising. The Spitfire zoomed overhead again, and shortly afterwards the heavens opened. It was a relief to see some of the rural accumulations being washed off my legs, but later I noticed that it’d merely been rinsed to the back of them. My calves now had a mane of mud and poo. Glamorous …
Someone in a previous write-up from the Crackpot’s calendar era had said that the Bovey-Culmstock leg was also tough. It didn’t look that bad on the map, I’d thought, but again, it was a delusion. More up and down laney action started to make itself felt. The frustration I’d felt between Minehead and Bovey was stoked up. Muddy slurry lakes had to be negotiated, the sun had come out again and there were even a few road closures to contend with – who on earth route-checked this ? Oh yes – that would’ve been 16 years ago …
Eventually I reached Culmstock. It was as lively as a frozen corpse on a Sunday. I hadn’t expected Las Vegas, but there really was nothing going on there, although I took the opportunity to change maps and socks – and to try and dry out my shoes a little. I’d had wet feet since the morning and it was adding to my growing list of irritations. I’d actually started to become angry at the whole thing. Why did the ride have to go through such crap roads ? I was wet and still had 300 K to go. Why was I doing this to myself ? I silently cursed away, but put my head down and just gritted my teeth and kept on pedalling.
The afternoon was waning and the warm, wet day started to change into a cold, damp evening. At Bishops Lydeard I crossed the route I’d taken on the outward leg. Heading north towards Bridgwater, I had no idea how the route would cross the Quantocks – I hadn’t even bothered to look. I found out soon enough. Looming on the horizon was one of those dark silhouettes of hills that make your heart sink after you’ve ridden 700K. Gawd, not again …
I got up off the saddle and tried to keep up the tempo as I headed into the wooded slopes that reminded me of one of the climbs on PBP for some reason – probably related to the suffering I had to endure on it. At one point I looked up and the road was so steep it just disappeared into the tree-line directly ahead of me. In the fading light, it looked like a wall of tarmac. I did eventually top out near a pub – sweaty and cold and by now in the dark. All my lights and clothes went on. The descent was going to be cold.
I was in Bridgwater before I knew it. What an unexpected metropolis it is ! Dual carriageways – eateries – supermarkets – traffic lights – blocks of flats ! I couldn’t wait to get back out on the country lanes and into the dark and on my own again. Soon enough I was away from the traffic and back onto the Somerset Levels.
The Levels are flat, and they’re familiar because for me, they’re local. This is where the thoughts of abandoning started to kick in. It was dark, I was cold and damp, and I wasn’t far from home in Bristol. “Go on”, said the voice of the quitter inside me, “just keep going north and you’ll be back in your lovely warm bed by midnight”. “Yes, but how would I feel the next morning ?!”, my conscientious self kept responding. It was an internal debate that intermittently kicked in for the next few hours until I’d reached Axminster. I had to keep going. Samuel Beckett came to mind, “On. Somehow on. Anyhow on”.
In the all-encompassing late night darkness of the levels, the last thing you want to see (again) is a ‘Road Ahead Closed’ sign. My usual smugness about this had long since evaporated. The M5 was up ahead. I just knew that the bridge over it would be where the closure was. I reached the bridge and the barriers, ignored the whispers urging me straight to Bristol, and examined the Garmin for an alternative crossing. Rain drops started to fall and the wind picked up. Would this night/ride/agony* ever end (*delete as preferred) ?
But soon, I was over the M5 and into the bright, lurid charms of an out of hours motorway services. More coffee, double-takes and cake and I was refreshed and ready for the next stage to Axminster. I was going to do it now – there was no way I was going to quit this far into a 1000 K – especially not this one after it had defeated me once already.
Back into the dark I started to notice that I was wandering a bit – not advisable when you’re a metre away from a drainage ditch full of squalid water. I tried to focus and keep my concentration. I had a plan to get to Axminster by 2 am and to do that I had to keep it going. The first upward slope for ages signalled my exit from the Levels. For a while I’d been noticing frogs on the road, or so I’d thought. I stopped to examine one and take a photo. The camera on my phone was stuck and unable to take photos for some reason. A reboot could’ve fixed it but I had Garmin Connect’s tracker set up and was reluctant to stop it because my family would wonder what was going on – the next morning anyway – I doubted they were watching my progress live at just after midnight …. so, I have no proof if the road was dotted with such frogs, or whether I was imagining it. I’ve imagined weirder stuff on rides, but it would’ve been nice now to have had some proof either way.
I was tired though. Wandering in the road and mild hallucinations (if that’s what the small brown frogs were), were symptoms of a lack of proper sleep over the previous 52 hours. Rolling south, I started to look for somewhere – anywhere – I could put my head down for a short time just to reset myself. Eventually I rolled into Ilminster, in the dark, damp midnight. There was a bench. I sat down and propped my head against my hand – apparently for 40 minutes! I abruptly woke up feeling cold, clammy and stiff. Back on the bike and away I went.
Axminster was initially quieter than the grave. I stopped for a map change near some hoardings and was quite unsettled by odd shuffling sounds coming from the other side of it. I doubted I’d wandered into a George A. Romero film and was about to face a zombie apocalypse, but I didn’t fancy any nocturnal encounters in the small hours. I got going pretty quickly and then found myself on Sector Lane yet again. I don’t know how many times I’ve ridden up it, but it still keeps on surprising me. Just when you think it’s nearly over, there’s another kick upwards.
Eventually I reached the top though and shot through the woods as quickly as I could, having been spooked by the Axminster rustler and then childhood memories of an Enid Blyton Noddy story in which Noddy is lost in the woods with Big Ears and is frightened by Golly-wogs that emerge from the shadows. Funny how such memories stay with you.
As I rode further into darkest Dorset, I began to realise that I was wandering in the road again. I had to stop and sleep yet again. At Clapton, I got in the bivvy, leant against a fence and nodded off for 20 minutes. It was enough for now, but dawn really couldn’t come soon enough. I’d noticed the traffic levels had started to gradually creep up too. Folk were going to work to start early shifts. Crewkerne came and went – with more shuffling in a cemetery when a gate-rattler also said ‘hey, you come back here’. I didn’t go back! More imaginary tricks perhaps ? It seemed real enough at the time.
By Martock I’d finally decided I needed a reasonable sleep. Andy Curran, Audax legend, had previously mentioned to me that church porches in the night can be decent emergency sleep stops. The church at Martock loomed out of the mists that had started to thicken as dawn approached. If I was going to sleep, this church was as good as I was going to get. I went through the gate to get to the porch. It was gated. Balls. This didn’t put me off though. I went round the side of the porch, laid in the bivvy and immediately went to sleep under the watchful eyes of the gargoyles overhead. I woke with a start when the bells rang out to signal half past the hour. I’d forgotten some churches still do that all through the night. What surprised me though, is the fact that I’d slept through 5:15’s signal.
Dawn was starting to break. I rode on. Signs started to warn me of yet another road closure – at the bizarrely named Long Load. I wasn’t in the mood for diversions. I kept going. It turned out they were re-laying drain pipes, so half of the road was up. I rode through it and back onto the levels between it and Somerton and then onto Wells.
I know the route between Wells and Somerton well. I saw Shawn’s route, and having ridden it before, decided to stick with the A-road. It wasn’t pleasant, but was steady and direct. I dodged Glastonbury’s bypass but was soon back on the main road heading into Wells, amongst commuters, trucks and more impatient white vans.
Once at Wells, I didn’t stop and just kept going. I had to climb up onto the Mendips again – on the Old Bristol Road – a road I know well, yet one I never look forward to riding. It’s steep and just keeps on giving. I put my head down, got up from the saddle and kept pushing down on the pedals. I knew I’d done it now. I just had to keep going through this last mad Mendip mud-fest and I’d be home and dry.
Over the top and past Drew Buck’s house and further into the hills. After a wrong turn through a massive muddy puddle, I back-tracked and immediately started up the last crazy hill I had to endure – the one between South Widcombe and Hinton Blewitt. The sun had really come out now and it was starting to warm up again. Nearly there. I knew all the roads between here and home.
Bishops Sutton, Stanton Wick and then Pensford. One more daft climb – Woollard Lane – and I was back where I’d started 61 hours before – just south of Keynsham. I’d actually done it. Through Queen Charlton and off home, I was back on my commuting route. I could practically sleep now and still ride home. I didn’t, obviously – my mind was too alive with thoughts of what I’d eat, how long I’d sleep and that bath I’d been promising myself for the last 30 hours.
So, what of the not-quite-the-Crackpot ? It was a challenging ride. Long and hilly enough to test even the most confident rider I think. It can and does throw anything at you and makes you question how much you want to complete it. ‘Suffering the agonies of the damned’, as Shawn put it, isn’t just reserved for those who aren’t prepared and struggle to complete it. It pushes anyone to their limit in its own unhinged way. I now know that you have to be eccentric, unrealistic and fanatical to complete it – just like the dictionary definition. I found that out between Minehead and Bovey.
And if anyone tells you it’s easy, they’re lying.