Rain was falling. It wasn’t hard rain, but it was remorseless. In the pre-dawn gloom, there was no chance of staying in the garage and waiting for the weather to blow over.
The only comfort in putting my wet kit back on was to hit the trail as soon as possible and start generating heat. Rocky descents ran with braided water as Steve and I set off together. There was little to say to each other. The riding was sometimes great, but the cold and the wet crowded out almost every other thought. Visions of tea rooms danced in our heads.
We followed a bridleway along a river for a while. The roots were so thick and the natural steps so large that it was hard to know whether hiking the bike or riding between the pushing parts would be faster. Out of stubbornness, I rode and pushed and rode and pushed. The landscape was beautifully free. Untamed paths and boiling water. Rubble and mystery. It felt special but there was no doubt – the miles were coming slowly.
A long section of bog came as a severe test of patience. Little manuals and kicks kept the front wheel aloft sometimes but it was tiring work. Trudges bridged the gaps. Hunting around for a driest line was like trying to pick the shortest queue at the supermarket – every other one looked better.
The descent off Dunkery Beacon was outstanding. No time to let the tyres touch any ground between the rocks, just skimming over them and drawing broad strokes across the trail. The turns tightened and the angle steepened until the trail finally stopped going down. With that reminder of what it’s all about ringing in my legs and hands, I slowly wound back up the inevitable climb. It felt more populated, like we were off the moor and maybe in range of breakfast.
Zooming and twisting the GPS, I tried to check the coffee and cake possibilities: Dunster.
Steve and I rolled up dripping mud onto the, already wet, pavement. Shedding waterproof shorts and jackets to keep the worst of the mud outside, we were finally rewarded with breakfast. It turned out that ordering coffee got you some scalding milk with a hint of brown. I took satisfaction from the progress made so far in the face of deeply unpleasant conditions. Other people in the tearoom politely avoided commenting on the smell emanating from our table.
The hills from here to the Quantocks were positively Sisyphean. On occasions, singletrack would tease along a contour providing reasons to smile. But more often the trail would slog straight at the contours. With feet sucking into brick-red mud, one hill would simply trudge into another with walls of brambles and nettles holding us back. And I knew that I had made the actual Quantocks route from a loop that, maddeningly, nearly touched back on itself.
There is good riding to be had in those hills and there were moments of brilliance, but the hurt in the legs and the need to make miles was more important in my mind than fun. When we passed within a few metres of where the trail would return to in an hour, I had one route-change for next year planned already.
With dark clouds in the sky, the thick woods made it hard to pick out the trail. And the trail seemed to zig-zag across a river repeatedly. Fortunately, we couldn’t get any wetter. By the time we finally left the Quantocks and pushed over the last hill, the soles of my feet were pounding. My stomach was grumbling. And my head was spinning to adjust to new goals of how many miles could be made per day.
Finally arriving in Bridgwater, it was time to stock up on the usual suspects. Chocolate milk, an apple (trying to mitigate the feeling of unhealth), toffee waffles, pretzels, coke. It was a big heap of empty calories, but exactly what was required.
Steve and I had our hot meal from a chip shop and it was clear that neither of us would race away today. We cruised away from Bridgewater, looking out for a covered spot to bivi. It wasn’t raining now, and the chance to hang up our wet gear would be glorious. Unfortunately, we’d hit the Somerset Levels where everything was flat and agricultural. With no woods in sight, we started looking for an urban bivi.
In a small village, we found it. An “industrial” estate where the entrance was a 3ft gate had a couple of shipping containers for their recycling. One was empty, the other filled with cardboard. Hobo bed! Grabbing some ironic bike boxes, we lay them out in the empty container to make beds. Our gear could be unpacked, bikes inspected, and hopefully things would be drier in the morning…