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East Devon

East Devon is famous for the imposing cliffs and fossils of its dramatic Jurassic Coast, picturesque villages with whitewashed thatched cottages and narrow lanes with old trees, not to mention its cream teas, but what about mountain biking there? The mountain biking does of course give a good excuse for the cream teas, but is that all? It is true that East Devon is somewhat overshadowed by the more popular routes in West Devon (Dartmoor and Exmoor) but that doesn't mean that there is nowhere to cycle off-road in the East of Devon. Certainly not! For a start, the narrow lanes might have tarmac on them, but there are few cars. This is because, as you drive along, your wing-mirrors sometimes brush the vegetation on both sides of the road at once and if you meet oncoming traffic, you have to be prepared to reverse quite some way, neither of which makes them popular with city drivers. And those lanes are spectacular, deeply sunken after years of usage, packed with seriously ancient trees and lined with ferns. The number of woody species in a 30m stretch of hedgerow gives an indication of the centuries of age and without trying too hard we found some hedges of almost a thousand years old. There is also a good assortment of bridleways, which are officially for pedestrians, horses and bikes although in practice I mostly saw walkers on them. One dog-walker exclaimed "that's a first" as I cycled past him on a beautiful piece of singletrack on the East Hills Strips. I also discovered that just because a track is marked on the map, that does not mean that it really exists. There was one which had a style at one end, a gate at the other and even a gate half way down but in between nothing but shoulder-high bracken, prickly gorse and purple moor-grass tussocks. It took me over an hour to traverse one kilometre, mostly with the bike on my shoulders, except for the section where I could crawl under the low boughs of a row of beech trees. That would also have been easier if I had not had a bike with me.

Sid Valley Devon

Some very helpful people on the Singletrack Forum pointed me in the direction of Woodbury Common, and that indeed turned out to be The Place To Ride.

Woodbury Common

Woodbury is a area of pebble heathland and mixed forest. When I was there in July the bell heather and gorse was flowering, which was a spectacular colour combination, especially on views looking out towards the sea and there were also loads of dragon flies and butterflies. Unfortunately they were there in part because of the dense brambles, which apparently thought it was entertaining to put out strong prickly shoots across the paths at ankle level, meaning that I ended the rides with impressive quantities of scratches and blood. It was worth it though, with great trails ticking all the boxes; amazing views, swooping downhills, challenging uphills, small stream crossings (always fun), varied woodland, and diverse surfaces underwheel but little tarmac.

Woodland river, Woodbury Common

Healthland on Woodbury Common

Here is one route I took on Woodbury Common, and here is an extra bit. (To download, right-click the links then download as). It is also on gpsies.

Haldon Forest and Dartmoor

Of course, whilst in East Devon, you and your bike really ought to head west over to Dartmoor. There are all sorts of possibilities there. Just to the west of Exeter there is the Haldon Forest trail centre. The routes are clearly signed, though it helps if you realise that the orange walking route is not actually the red mountain biking route. The red trail, "hard", is definitely the most fun, though the "moderate" Kiddens trail is also pretty good.  However, the other "moderate" trail "Spicers", is actually pretty easy and the enjoyment comes more from the views and landscape than the cycling. The more difficult routes certainly make you work hard and concentrate with twisty tracks, lots of up and down and even a few bumpy bits which you can jump over if you're feeling adventurous, or just roll over if not. And of course, that great advantage of a trail centre, a decent cafe, is also a bonus.

Haldon Forest

But it must be said, the excellent cafe at Haldon Forest has nothing on the "Hound of the Basketmeals" on Hound Tor (where else?) on Dartmoor. Not only does it have a completely brilliant name, but food is just what a hungry mountain biker needs after toiling up and down the moors. I was following the route described as "the toughest of all the Dartmoor rides" in Nick Cotton and Tom Fenton's book. I had foolishly imagined that this would be possible by the end of my holiday, but the ridiculously long steep hills certainly had me struggling. Of course the payback in terms of vast views and incredible long downhills was amazing. Seeing it was in the holiday period and I was following a route in a popular book, I had expected to see quite a lot of mountain bikers, but I came across only one other (from Melbourne, Australia as it happens). But I did see deer, rabbits, stoats, a mouse and a mole, which is not bad, though I have to admit I'm not 100% sure the mole was alive. It was also a ride of great contrasts, from impressive ancient woodland to wonderful old lanes

Dartmoor

to huge open spaces on the tops of the moors. Definitely worthwhile!

Bike Hire

I hired a bike from Soanes Cycles in Coylton (near Axminster and Sidmouth). They were friendly and helpful and booking the bike by mail went fine. The bike was adequate but with weaker brakes than I'm used to, only 8x3 gears and poor suspension, so in the beginning I was worried that would be a problem.  The lack of gears did mean that I had to walk up some hills I might have otherwise managed to cycle, but with slopes of 25-30% in the region you are probably going to be doing some walking anyway and in the end the brakes performed fine down huge steep hills. The big advantage was that the price was very good, so I could afford to hire it for most of the holiday.

Forest Cycle Hire at Haldon Forest Park has good quality hardtails for hire.  They did not respond to my mail reserving a bike to hire but when we turned up they had plenty so it was not a problem.

Do remember that if you're from Wageningen (or much or the rest of the world), the brakes on UK bikes are swapped; the right lever is the front brake.

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Not too late to sign up for hell

 

Tour Club Wageningen

The 'Hell from Ede-Wageningen' is always a highlight of the year, and because the organisers have arranged a few extra tickets, it is still possible to sign up for the tour on 25th June (at least on the day this blog was published, 19 June). Yesterday we checked out the southern part of the loop with a small group and I was reminded again just what a good route it is.  Lots of twisty singletrack, varied terrain of heathland, woodland, small fields and minimal tarmac. We have had some heavy rain storms in the last couple of days so yesterday everything was really wet and muddy, making it quite hard work to plough through the sand and mud. But we are promised a reasonably dry week so by Saturday the conditions should be optimal.  So sign up now, you won't regret it! And if you are cycling the section south of the railway line after midday, maybe I will see you there.

 

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Giro in Gelderland

I have never seen so much pink my my life. Pink balloons, pink banners, pink bikes and a large proportion of the half million spectators wearing pink. I was lucky enough to be one of the thousand volunteers that helped in the three days that the Giro d'Italia was in Gelderland, and it was a wonderful atmosphere. The perfect weather helped, bringing out more than 100 000 spectators more than expected (despite the Dutch railways deciding on that weekend to do engineering works on the railways leading from the main cities towards Gelderland).  The large number of people meant that on the first couple of days it was difficult to get a good view, but fortunately on the final day I was positioned at the back door of the station, which had a combination of not many people (they all headed up the hill to watch the final ascent) and the course going within centimeters of where I was standing.

 Giro in Arnhem

Of course, what made it even better was the success of the Dutch cyclists. Tom Dumoulin won the time trial on the first day and to everyone's astonishment managed to hang on to the pink jersey for almost a week afterwards, despite assuring the media beforehand that he was only interested in the time trials.  And Maartin Tjallingii who lives in Arnhem, triumphed on the Posbank coming into Arnhem, in his last Giro, to win the Blue jersey for the best on the 'mountains'. 

Giro in Apeldoorn

All in all it was an unforgettable experience, really quite something.

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Anti-stress

The Internet keeps pushing adverts at me for t-shirts with 'mountain biking is cheaper than therapy – oh wait, no it isn't'.  Maybe the all-seeing eyes of Google have seen my calendar this week and worked out that with five major deadlines this week it must have been pretty stressful.  Indeed come Friday evening I sunk into my arm-chair with the feeling that there was no way I would have the energy to wake up and go cycling the next morning. Nevertheless, the next morning I was awake in time, so crawled out of bed in time to go out with the club. We set off along the dike as usual, with spectacular views of the sun shining through the mist that was still hanging over the floodplain as a heron swooped in front of us so close that I almost ducked. Once into the woods the mist was gone and it was springtime everywhere. All the trees were showing points of green at their buds, or even already burgeoning into leaf, woodpeckers were calling to each other and drilling out their nest holes and chaffinches with their bright breeding plumage were so busy chasing each other that they did not notice they were almost flying into us. And on top of that, we were out on our bikes in the woods! Despite the rain of the last week, it was not too soggy under our wheels and despite the sunshine we hardly saw any other people, at least until we were virtually back home again. Our route took us along plenty of twisty bits through heathland and woodland, where steering required some proper concentration, enough in the way of small hills to get us out of breath and even the nearby sand crater where the sides of loose sand are steep enough so that you really have to do your best to get up them. All in all, you cannot get a much better way of washing away the stress of the working week than that.

Spring

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Ballyhoura, Ireland

The Ballyhoura mountains (or An Sliabh Riabhach in Irish) are in between Cork and Limerick in southwestern Ireland.  They rise out of a green agricultural plain to a height of about 500 m and host the largest trail centre of Ireland, the Ballyhoura Mountain Bike Park. There is a bike rental shop at the trail head, as well as showers.

Last week I had to go to Cork for my work, so I was lucky enough to be able to squeeze in a few hours mountain biking there and cycled the white (Garrane) loop. It goes without saying that it was very different from mountain biking here in the Netherlands.  Real mountains, with significant slopes and gradients, for a start. The trail website describes it as "long and demanding climbs", so I was fearing the worst, but it was actually not so bad compared with trails just over the border in the Eifel or Ardennes. Nevertheless it was certainly demanding enough to make it enjoyable.  That also meant that when you come out of the woods, there are some quite spectacular views, especially if the rain is not too heavy at that moment.

View from Ballyhoura

The woodland there is something really special, you really feel like you're cycling through a Tolkien novel with giant spiders and Ents likely to be found round any corner. The trees are dense, so that it's quite atmospherically gloomy in places, but above all, the high rainfall (two meters a year!) means that the trees are draped in a variety of beautiful moss species, which is quite spectacular, as well as some rare lichens like Usnea, aka beard lichen.

Mossy forest, Ballyhoura

Usnea

Despite the differences in landscape, what made it feel really different from here was the rocky surface to the paths. We are used to sand, mud and sometimes snow under our wheels, but these tracks varied from some (but not too many) fire roads to singletrack 'rock gardens' with an uneven rocky surface, to great rock slabs laid across the paths.  Especially with the latter, I was a bit nervous the first time I went over them, it was sloping, wet and polished smooth, so would I just slide off, with one or the other of my wheels sliding out from under me?  To my delight, the Mountain King tyres on my rental bike gripped through the surface water just as if it was dry and flat, it was quite remarkable. The bike had more problems with the uneven rock elsewhere; its fork was definitely its weak point and bounced me around somewhat, making me appreciate just how good my own bike is.  Probably the more expensive fullys also available to hire would have given a gentler ride, but rear suspension is certainly not necessary.  Incidentally, the hire shop was certainly very helpful, both by mail beforehand and when I was there, for instance helping me to put my own SPD pedals on the bike. I forgot to ask them about swapping the brakes around (UK and Ireland brakes are opposite to ones here regarding right/left front/rear), but that was not really a problem.

Ballyhoura

The other 'special' surface was the boardwalk laid out in some places.  I was wondering how slippery the wood would be in the non-stop Irish precipitation, but in fact they were covered either in old tyres or a sort of sandpaper, making them exceedingly grippy. It was surprising how, considering the boardwalk was very broad and even, just how more scary it feels than if it was the same path at ground level. I suppose you would get used to it soon enough, but I certainly found myself slowing to a lower speed than normal, and restrained myself from gazing at the magnificent banks of Sphagnum moss until I was safely at the other side. The boardwalk covers a few places (mostly bridges) as you go round and then a couple of longer stretches of a few hundred meters when you are nearly back.

Boardwalk Ballyhoura

Ireland is quite popular with Dutch tourists, so for those readers of my blog who are going there, I would unreservedly recommend a visit to the trail centre. If you go mid-week and off-season like I did, there is no need to make a reservation to rent a bike, otherwise that is certainly a good idea. If you take your own bike, you still need to pay €5 (in coins) for the parking and €2 (more coins) for the showers. The signposting is excellent, but it is still an idea to print out the trail map so that you can take a short cut back if it takes longer than you expected. But definitely go there, you will not be disappointed.

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Leersum

Leersum ranks number 3 on mtbroutes.nl, so when my daughter and I took advantage of the school holidays last week to visit it, we had high expectations. We knew it received a makeover by the same team which had made the route at Rhenen and upgraded the Amerongen route, so were definitely hoping for something good. We were not disappointed! For a start, the woods there are beautiful. Damp areas coated with moss (mostly Hypnum in the photo below, seeing you ask) alternate with more open and drier woodland with patches of heath. Secondly, the trail makers really have made the best of the possibilities available, so that you are continually twisting round and going up and down. My GPS claimed that there were only 250 height meters in the 20 km long trail, but all the small hills of about 5 meters which you go up and down all the time were invisible to it, so it must have been a lot more. Certainly my legs felt like it was a lot more and our average speed was more what we normally do in the hills on holiday in Germany than round here. But if you have more energy you can easily combine Leersum with Amerongen. All in all, the route definitely gets a strong recommendation from me, the trail builders have done a super job!

Leersum MTB

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