There were 130 kilometres on the clock, and some 3,200m of climbing metres to boot, in a thoroughly exhausting day’s work when the heavens opened to stick in the knife.
Oh, and I’d also run out of food, and there were 30km still to go.
My legs trembled with each pedal stroke, on the cusp of cramping.
I wasn’t climbing any Alpine or Andean monster, rather the steepest hills of Cornwall, and frankly, in that moment, I didn’t know which was worse.
“It always rains in Holsworthy!” A bellow through the fog, as we tipped over into Devon, briefly jolted me into life.
It came from my day’s road captain, local Strava legend Craig Harper, who was cranking up the tempo.
Craig is always sphinx-like, with no grimaces or visible signs of pain across his face at any point. He appeared annoyingly fresh.
He must have been feeling it, though, as this had been a monstrous day in the saddle for the pair of us.
We’d set off much earlier that day from the centre of the coastal town of Bude with a bold plan: 160km and 3,500m of elevation.
There’d been no gradual easing into these numbers, either, as the road reared up immediately following a fast descent towards the wide, sandy and rocky Widemouth beach, and straight into one of the steepest climbs of the day.
Millook is gracefully short at 750 metres in distance, but its 14.4 per cent average gradient bites hard and thunders straight into 30 per cent pitches.
It’s tough on a dry day, but in these wet and humid conditions part of the fight was devoted to keeping your front wheel and the tarmac acquainted.
Craig set the tone for the day with a no-fuss seated grind to the summit, while I scampered around in his wake.
Following this rude awakening in Millook, there was no time to settle back down, with a steep descent down into the gratifyingly named coastal village of Crackington Haven.
This cove is quintessential Cornwall: crystal-clear waters dominated by dramatic cliffs. However, we had no time for a dip, nor was it particularly inviting.
There was a gentle drizzle on the horizon, and another 4km climb lay in wait.
This was to High Cliff, Cornwall’s loftiest rock face at 223 metres, and a road that feels as though it goes on and on.
You reach a point that you think is the top, only to find that there’s plenty more to come.
Big day, long day
By the summit, we’d clocked our first hour’s riding at a snail’s pace of 17km/h. Today was going to be a long one…
Our average speed – and our morale – received a shot in the arm with a long and fast swoop down into Boscastle, despite the arrival of that foreseen rain.
We quickly passed through the picturesque fishing village where novelist and poet Thomas Hardy met his wife Emma in 1870.
It’s now home to The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, which we swooped past just before another magical coastal outpost: Tintagel. Despite sounding like a remedy for greying hair, Tintagel has links with something far less mundane – Arthurian legend.
Tintagel Castle’s ruins lie atop a small island separated by only a few metres of swirling sea from the coast.
These medieval ruins are listed and protected by English Heritage, and a new pedestrian suspension bridge was built in 2019 to facilitate access to what in Cornish means ‘fortress of the narrow entrance’ (Din Tagell).
Our own impenetrable fortress that needed to be scaled was just outside Tintagel: Trebarwith.
This climb is only a couple of hundred metres long but was plenty to push our heart rates – and our gears – to their outer limits, spinning faster than a hummingbird’s wings.
As is customary in these parts, the road goes up all at once, causing my rear wheel to slip and slide more than in Millook. The only way to push through was to stay in the saddle and grind.
A walker greeted us politely, but I was unable to return the gesture, the all-out effort necessitating the most Neanderthal-like grunt.
Even Craig, who had been a picture of serenity on the bike until now, furrowed his brow.
Ports of call
These brutal climbs – narrow, short and steep – are emblematic of the region, but their rough edges are softened by bountiful descents and delightful fishing villages along the way.
This theme continued into the attractive village of Port Isaac, known for the TV series Doc Martin and its crab sandwich kiosks.
Sadly for us, it was still only 9.30am and they were closed – not exactly the hour for a crab appetiser.
After being catapulted inland and then sling-shotted back to the coast, we found ourselves in the fishing hamlet of Port Quin, quite likely the cutest settlement of the whole ride.
A handful of houses and a few bobbing boats were the only things we saw while whizzing in and out of the small harbour.
This picture-postcard feel changed noticeably at the 50km mark – almost three hours into what was set, unbeknown to us, to be an extraordinarily long day.
The quaint, historic villages gave way to up-and-coming ones such as Polzeath.
New buildings made of stone and wood made it look more like a ski resort than a Cornish village, and the pop-up coffee and pizza places on the beach seemed to have emerged from a trendy and gentrified neighbourhood.
We stopped to refill our water bottles and later decided to grab an early lunch in Wadebridge, 20km down the road.
A calmness then descended on some more welcoming roads, which boosted conversation between Craig and I.
It may have been the effect of the gentle coastal scenery near Rock and Padstow (where Gordon Ramsay has said he stops for a flapjack when he’s cycling around here), but we both seemed more relaxed and talkative.
Despite being retired for seven years, Craig is still only 47. He left the world of work after a year-long backpacking trip around the world that changed his life.
Upon returning home, he decided to quit his job in the mezzanine floor industry in Hertfordshire and travelled with his wife Jodie and their two dogs in their RV before setting up home in Bude. They’ve never left, and it really isn’t hard to understand why.
Legion of doom
Just before Wadebridge, we got a glimpse of the Doom Bar, a notorious shoal sandbar that has caused more than 600 wrecks since records began in the early 19th century.
Legend says that the mermaid of Padstow created the shoal as a curse after being shot by a local man. And as you may rightly guess, the shoal has given name to one of the most popular ales in the UK.
It was still far too early in the ride to consider such a beverage, but it certainly planted the seed for the post-ride pint.
After more than three hours of riding – and still not at the halfway point of the ride – we made it to Wadebridge, where Craig led me to Behind the Bike Sheds bike cafe so I could swiftly devour a panini and coffee.
I passed on the scone, but had I not, I’d have been sure to make a point of putting the jam on first.
A recent advert run in the Truro Sainsbury’s made the grievous mistake of using a picture of a scone with jam on top of the cream – the method in neighbouring Devon.
Customer protests ensued, forcing an apology from the supermarket and the removal of the heretical advert.
We departed Wadebridge before being sucked into any local delicatessen scandals and made our way to Bodmin, where the old county jail, closed since 1927, is still a sombre and imposing presence, what with all the public hangings held there.
The stretch of road between Wadebridge and Bodmin was welcomingly uneventful, and the gentler gradients were to be hugged close.
Moor, moor, moor
This serenity came to an abrupt end as we began climbing the foothills of Bodmin Moor. The morning clouds and rain had evolved into a gloopy mist that engulfed the majestic moor.
On a clearer day, the granite moorland is a constant presence in the distance, a towering and reassuring landmass that helps with navigation and serves as a reminder of our effort.
We passed the quiet and dormant villages of Mount, Pantersbridge and St Neot on metaphorical tiptoe, so as not to disturb the tranquillity, before finding ourselves on the longest challenge of the day: the 10km ascent to Minions (no relation to the small yellow cartoon characters).
When there are no clouds, you can always spot the end of the climb, with its antenna at the summit – I’ve christened it the Cornish Mont Ventoux – and it keeps your hopes and expectations in check.
We had no such luck on our ride, as the thick mist limited our view to a few metres in front of our front wheels.
To fortify ourselves, we paused for more coffee at the Cheesewring, a distinctive rock formation of granite slabs.
On a sunny day in Minions, you can clearly see ancient stone circles (the Hurlers and the Pipers) and admire the remnants of the old mining engine houses.
This is also where some of the first season of BBC’s Poldark – which gives a fictional glimpse of the Cornish love affair with mining – was filmed.
But today, with the impenetrable mist, we needed our imaginations to fill in the gaps. It was an anticlimax, and we needed something to boost our morale.
What better way than with a descent from Minions into warmer temperatures and the undulating hills towards Launceston?
From here, the final stretches back to Holsworthy and Bude were the least scenic, and the grey clouds were turning black.
With faster roads came greater speed and purpose, but the rigours of the day were catching up with me.
Despite what I thought was adequate fuelling, my motor was starting to splutter.
I used the last of my gels before Holsworthy and prayed it was enough. Craig remained a powerful presence, so I let him go at his own pace while I focused on turning the pedals.
When we hit single-digits in the countdown to the finish, I felt energy flood my body. Maybe it was prospect of finishing.
More likely, it was the thought of finally wrapping my lips around that promised beer and pasty…
Distance: 158.7km / 99 miles
Total Elevation: 3,664m
Grade: Hard. Lots of climbs, some 30 per cent in gradient
Route: Download the full route on Komoot
Getting there: Bude is on the north coast, 50 miles west of Exeter, which is the closest train station. Then there’s the bus: two hours and over 70 stops along the way!
Getting spare tubes: The only cycling shop in town is Ride It Cycles. The staff are friendly and always keen for a chat.
Where to eat: The best pizza in town is hands down La Bocca, while for coffee and cake don’t miss the Electric Bakery. If you’re into Mexican the shack at the Cerenity Campsite is among the best I’ve tried, while for the view you can’t beat Life’s A Beach (cafe and bistro). For a more gourmet dinner try the Tree Bistro in Stratton or the Long Bar and Restaurant in Boscastle (24km from Bude).
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