Daniel Groves

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Gearless

Published: 4 November 2015 · Tags: photography, dartmoor, bikepacking

A singlespeed bikepacking microadventure to Great Mis Tor within the Dartmoor National Park.

I was a little apprehensive about this weekends adventures as I stood in my living room on thursday evening, methodically prepping my rigid mountain bike by fitting my Alpkit bikepacking luggage. I was working around the bike taping off the areas where the luggage would make contact while thinking about the plans for the weekend.

My main bike has no gears; it’s what’s known as a singlespeed. I put a lot of miles on this bike, but normally add gears for my bikepacking miles. I’d decided to make this weekend a bit of an experiment, and hopefully save some time in the evening, by keeping my bike in its normal configuration.

I was planning to go bikepacking on a singlespeed. This doesn’t sound dramatic, but it was going to be hard work. Most people won’t ride singlespeeds; they think they’re hard work and rather limiting by the relatively slow pace. They’re not wrong by the pace, on the flat at least. It’s rather nice to be riding something so simple in a modern world where everything seems to be getting more complicated.

Given I normally ride this bike, why was I so worried about this particular trip? Singlespeed bikes are hard work at the best of times; add an additional ten kilograms of food, water and camping equipment and you’ve got a lot more work to do on the same gear. There’s no bailing options either; no simple downshift to make that hill just a little bit easier. It’s all or nothing.

Ten kilograms may not sound a lot, but let’s think about this for a moment or two: my bike weighs 12 kilograms. That means that the additional equipment I need for a trip increases its weight by over 80%. And that’s before you even consider the five-or-so kilograms of camera gear I’ll have on my back. All in I’ll be looking at around 15 kilograms of additional equipment.

Thankfully, although the trip proved to be hard work, it wasn’t quite as bad as I had feared.

Saturday

It’s Saturday morning. Luke had come down from his home in Somerset the previous afternoon, arriving at mine just as I finished work. Both of the bikes were now almost ready to go as we ate breakfast. We quickly made our lunch for both days as proceeded to wedge it into any free space we could find among our bike luggage.

A surprising amount of time is often spent faffing at this point; picking up all those odds and ends that somehow never get remembered when you’re supposed to be doing the packing. A little while later we’re ready.

The bike is surprisingly easy to move as we head off, but I know that’ll change once we’ve got the first climb out of the way. We make quick work of a trip to Evans Cycles in town before heading out towards Dartmoor. The first short climb on the way out of Plymouth soon proves my concerns — my gear is going to be right on the limit of my abilities for this trip.

Once we’re rolling along the steady gradient of the Plym Bridge trail the heavy bike is much less of an issue for my single gear. It takes us about an hour to make our way up to the end of the Plym Bridge Trail, limited on pace by how fast I can comfortably spin.

 alt: Bikes on NCN27 cycle route.  alt: Bike above Burrator.

At Clearbrook we pickup the first real hill; it’s by no means long, but starts off as a road section, before turning off onto steeper and energy-sucking moorland at the best of times. At this point I’m leaning right over the front and stood-up to keep the bike moving with any kind of pace, but it’s proving to be easier than I had anticipated. This pace is key to hold the momentum I know I’m going to need when I reach the bridge at the top which has a step-up onto the concrete structure.

Once we’ve regrouped on the paved cycle-track again we roll steadily into a short climb onto a piece of small singletrack that cuts out several gates, a corner, and adds a whole lot of fun. It’s a short but steep climb, so I start it in a sprint, giving a good amount of speed to make it up the steepest part before picking my way carefully through the roots along the top. Rolling out the other side I try and follow my normal routine and pop the front wheel up; the bike proves too heavy for that today though.

It only takes a few minutes to spin into Yelverton along a combination of road and cycle paths.

Turning right onto the main road I quickly spin the bike up-to-speed; limited by my gear ratio once again. That’s fine though, there’s no rush, and I’d rather preserve my energy for later on. Within a minute or two we’re rolling down the hill and hang a hard-right onto Lake Lane, cutting out a slog uphill on a busy road. At the end of the road we go straight over, aiming to leave the roads as soon as possible.

Our next obstacle is a short and sharp technical climb; it’s steep in places, has step-ups and is loose making grip hard to come by in places. This went exactly as I expected. A fast run-up followed by bailing part-way up as I ran out of momentum before jumping back on and proceeding to twist and turn my way along my carefully chosen line to the top.

We now proceed to cut straight over the open moorland, weaving between gorse and ferns as I pickup speed, trusting the tires to find grip on the slick grass and piles of dust before running out of trail. I hit the bridge at speed — Luke close behind, knowing there’s a drop on the other side — before aiming for the small gap in the bank. We both resume our position on the old railway line, plodding our way steadily upwards towards Princetown.

Progress is fast now; the gravel track may be tiring on a rigid mountain bike, but its firm and requires minimal effort to keep moving. The biggest delays are now the numerous gates between us and our turn-off at the bottom of the Kings Tor.

The trail we use as a shortcut here took everything I had to make it up. It’s loose, it’s steep and it’s not as simple as pointing up and peddling. The first ten meters are simple gravel, each stone a little larger than the last. At the same time the trail steadily gets steeper, with lines of bedrock building miniature ledges which are impossible to ride directly up without gears. This isn’t just a case of raw-power. It’s more delicate than that; this is a game of juggling power, grip, and balance in order to navigate up without stalling or wheel spinning.

As I approached the top my thighs were on fire, the burning steadily spreading as I asked just one more — there’s always just one more — turn out of my legs before giving up. I was pulling hard on the handlebars as I tried to keep the wheels moving, just waiting for my hands to fly off, leaving me in a heap on the ground. Somehow that moment never came as I made it to the top.

 alt: Some amazing light shafts formed at sunset. This shot is looking towards Tavistock from the top of Great Mis Tor.
Some amazing light shafts formed at sunset. This shot is looking towards Tavistock from the top of Great Mis Tor.

Before long we were sat in the now halloween themed Fox Tor Cafe — the blueberry and lime cake is amazing — reflecting on the day so far. My thighs were still burning, subtly reminding me of the days abuse.

As we left the weather had changed dramatically from when we entered. The low and dull clouds had now been all but blown away leaving the low sun to dance across the land casting long wintery shadows.

As we began the ascent to the top of Great Mis Tor the game of bog-dodging began. This is a precarious game where an unfortunate volunteer — me — has to roll carefully through each bog trying to find the careful balance between care and speed. If you get it wrong one of two things will happen: you’ll be turned into a human catapult as the front wheel disappears, or you’ll stop and have to sink a foot into he depths of the bog. Neither are particularly pleasant options.

Somehow we both made to it dry up to the bottom of the rock garden, where we pushed the last few meters up to the top. We both quickly erected our tents on a flat and relatively sheltered area before I shot off to start shooting the sunset.

 alt: Both of the tents pitched during the night. Mine is lit while I was lying inside reading during the evening.
Both of the tents pitched during the night. Mine is lit while I was lying inside reading during the evening.

Sunday

Day two started early. The sunrise was at 7:30, which meant I had a 6:15 alarm set. I’d intentionally set my alarm a few minutes earlier than normal to get a brew on before shooting the sunrise. As I unzipped the tent door I quickly noticed the entire sky was on fire, and I’d probably missed the best part of the show.

I now moved quickly, scrambling out of my sleeping bag and pulling on my down jacket. Thankfully I’ve gotten into the habit recently of checking all my camera gear is ready to go before I go to bed when I’m wild camping. Normally there’s plenty of time to setup, but it’s worth it for the odd time, like today, where you really can’t afford any delays.

I moved around quickly shooting several different compositions before finding something I was truly happy with. I’ve grown to love this time of day recently. It’s a quite, peaceful time of day where there is little around to distract. It was just me and my thoughts.

It was a while before Luke appeared. When he did appear we didn’t hang around too long as despite the clear conditions that morning; it was forecast to deteriorate in the afternoon.

 alt: Sunrise
 alt: Sunrise  alt: Sunrise

The initial descent was exactly that which we rode up the previous evening, as we tried to remember where it was safe to pass through the bogs, but naturally ended up taking a completely different route through.

From here we took the access road to the FM radio mast on North Hessary Tor. The descent down the other side is a fast one which comes out on the road near to the hostel tap in Princetown where we filled up with water.

The ground from here was well known to us both. This made for quick progress to the top of the infamous Widowmaker descent, helped by the recent new surfacing over South Hessary Tor.

We both entered the Widowmaker at speed with a couple of minutes between us. We were leap frogging each other to give each their own chance to take any pictures they wanted. This passed almost incident free as I managed to puncture my front tyre — something which was quickly rectified by the tubeless tyre sealant without so much as a pause.

The descent comes out onto the road at the back of Burrator Reservoir, leaving us with an easy ride back into Plymouth.

 alt: Luke  alt: Luke on the last couple of meters of the Widowmaker before it rejoins the road around Burrator.

Route Information

This route leaves central Plymouth and takes the national cycle network route 27 out to Yelverton. From there are a few short road miles to Burrator before picking up the dismantled railway to Princetown. Another mile or so on the road sees you taking the bridleway up to Great Mis Tor. The return journey starts off with similar terrain, but the Widowmaker descent to Burrator should be avoided if you’re not confident off road. This route is easily achievable in a day for frequent cyclists.

You will need Ordnance Survey maps Dartmoor OL28 and Plymouth and Tamar Valley Explorer 108 for this route.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Luke Shackleton for coming down from Somerset to join me on this one. It’s always good to have someone to hurl abuse at on trips like this. Secondly, thanks to Nick Charlton being my editor once again.