How difficult can Porlock Hill be?
With a 9 month old now with us, our holidays have changed considerably - starting from now! So last week we found ourselves in a place called 'Blackborough' quite near Cullompton in Mid-Devon. Along with the baby paraphenalia we brought with us, I also took the executive decision of bringing 'precious' in the hope I might steal a few hours in the saddle sometime. I had two targets, working on the premise I could mangle them both into one ride. I would ride towards Tiverton and head North to Minehead - although that town was not the target. Rather Porlock was, home to the first 'hill'. With a height gain of about 370 meters over 4.5 km it read like a real challenge. Afterwards I would head towards Dunkery Beacon. This sounded even tougher. In '100 Greatest Climbs' by Simon Warren, this route is graded 10/10 (Porlock scores 9/10). Dunkery Beacon is 3.5km long with a height gain of about 330 meters but in places has gradient well in excess of 17%. Both hills were not for the faint-hearted. I figured that afterwards I would just want to cycle home and put my feet up. What follows is my account of how I performed on that ride.
Wednesday 8th September - Heading North to Porlock.
It was a sunny morning, I'd loaded up on pasta and I was ready for a big ride. I had been studying the map quite intently since we'd arrived so I had a good idea of the terrain and how exactly I would make it to the North Somerset coast. I navigated my way through the very narrow lanes to the A363 and headed towards Cullompton. I crossed the M5 and cut into town and found the back road I'd found on a recce the previous day. This route allowed me to get to Tiverton in about 6 miles and meant I could avoid the Mid Devon link road - which is a very grand title for a busy dual carriageway. I climbed to the top and coasted over the brow of the hill - and was surprised to see a 20% descent ahead. Good start. The inevitable side was that there was a fairly stiff incline the other side - leading to another descent - but this time 25%. I had to be careful - it felt dangerously steep and I was hard on the brakes for most of the time. I could not imagine how tough it would be do attempt the reverse! Upon entering Tiverton I found the A396 and headed North. Minehead was about 40 - ish km away and I intended to maintain a steady pace.
The A396 gently undulates throughout its course. I was lucky - people travelling to Minehead seemingly do not use this road very much - there was hardly anything (other than me) on the road. I got to Wheddon Cross, Tiverton about 50 minutes behind me. I was making good time, but I noticed the clouds were steadily changing colour. Most were grey now. There was a junction with Porlock signposted on it - 5 miles - perfect. It DID say the road was closed but I thought I'd worry about that when I got there. True enough, the road was closed. Water pipe maintenance or something. Anyway, I sneaked the bike round the JCB in the middle of the road and continued on. Another sneaky little short-cut later I was descending the 1:6 hill into Porlock. I was getting close. Porlock looked picturesque. It was full of tourists all eager to spend their holiday money. At the foot of the hill I did alittle piece to camera and started the climb.
I have never stopped cycling up a hill.
But I did that day. The first set of bends were nothing short of savage. Cars were taking them in first gear. I was in the lowest gear I had and I was already out of the seat. It was relentless. I clawed my way up. Lungs bursting with the effort, I demanded more from my legs - and it was not forthcoming. I was beginning to realise the 'impossible' - I was going to STOP! And then I did. I was annoyed, but that was it. I needed a rest. I got myself together, clipped in again and continued. Round the second bend. Same again. Lungs bursting, no power in the legs. I stopped again. After a few moments and a couple of cars going past I started once more. I could see the top but it seemed like along way away. I am pretty sure flies were overtaking me up the hill. I wanted to stop - but enough was enough - I had to concentrate and focus on the climb. At last - the left hand bend came and went - giving way to a 'normal' steep hill. I slogged it all the way to the top where the A39 meets the woodland toll road. I had done it, but not in the fashion I wanted to. That was a hard climb. And perhaps I needed a change of plan.
Giving Dunkery Beacon a miss (this time)
Judging by what I had just experienced, I didn't think Dunkery Beacon was a genuine option. I was about 75km from home and it was meant to be even tougher than Porlock. Another time. Regroup, learn from it and get home safely. After a bit of quality map time I decided a cross country route over Exmoor to Exford and then Dulverton looked like the decent option. It was still going to be hilly - just not as savage as was first planned. I bobbled along at about 400- 450 meters and entered Exford. Wet. Infact very wet. The heavens finally did what they had been threatening all day - and it poured. I was utterly soaked in minutes. I hadn't eaten and I was getting hungry - so a breif stopoff in the local stores to fuel up on a pasty helped improve spirits. I got chatting to a dirt monkey who'd turned up with his mountain bike hooked on his boot. We had done the off road version of what I had originally intended. I didn't let on I stopped. "It makes you feel alive," he said. Ummm, something like that. He also informed me I had a climb ahead of me. Immediately ahead of me. I traversed the Winsford Hill, inbetween a heavy downpours and fleeting sunshine. The descent into Dulverton was fun. Lots of detritus on the road and potholes all over the show. If you find yourself on the B3327 and you are on a bike - beware! Dulverton looked like a lovely village - worth visiting properly - especially since I spotted a bakery shop that advertised home-made pasties. It had my name written all over it! Tiverton was now signposted - so I knew I was on the home leg.
Flooding and a 17%er
I don't like retracing my steps, ie, using the same bit of road twice when I am out on the bike. Because of this personality quirk I decided to 'small lane it' from Bampton back to Tiverton. Bampton came and went and I was back on the tracks and in the rain. I was getting a bit brassed off with the rain. I was relentless - a bit like Porlock Hill! I made my way to a small village (a couple of houses and a church) called Chevithorne where I was greeted with a couple of cars reversing down the road. A woman was across the road, standing in her front garden, so I decided to do the tourist bit. "How come?" I asked. Apparently the volume of water that had fallen had caused a flood further down the road - to the point where 'normal' cars - not Land Rovers - were turning back. I decided that was a good option. I was wet enough already, so I headed into Tiverton, comfortable that I knew my way home from there. I also knew there were potentially 2 climbs of 20% and 25% respectively waiting for me. It was an easy decision to make. I had cycled nearly 130 km - and didn't fancy walking up any more hills - so I opted for the 'easy' 17% towards Butterleigh. It was still 500 meters long. I was out of the saddle the majority of the way. Legs and lungs were burning. It was a successful climb though and gently meandered my way to Cullompton. It was raining again, but I didn't care. I could not get any wetter. Back over the M5, I took the turning North towards Kentisbeare - and in ten minutes I was home. Door to door I had been out 8 hours - riding for 7.5. 143 km - so a full day in the saddle. I was tired - pleased with the day - and happy to be home. It had been tougher than I had imagined though.
Friday 10th September
So baring all of the above in mind, I was still smarting from having to rest during my Porlock Hill ascent. Was I actually strong enough to manage a 25% incline? Or was I just fatigued and not ready for the combination of aggressive bends and gradient? I decided I would find out. As I mentioned there was a 25% and 20% on the ride out from Tiverton to Cullompton. It meant about a 40 km round trip - perfect for what I wanted. I headed out again, but with only one intention.
It's not a flat road from Cullompton to Tiverton. I had already decided to go via Butterleigh so I would not retrace my steps. It took me slightly longer than expected to get to the outskirts of Tiverton - ungraded but steep hills to be negotiated regardless. I sailed down the 17%er and turned immediately right - heading towards the target. It was about a click away and I cycled gently towards it. I had been well warmed up by the previous inclines. I eventually got to the foot of the hill and it immediately climbed into the distance. I was in the granny gear again and my legs (and my head) knew what was coming. Out of the saddle. Grinding away. I was not going to stop this time.
It cannot be compared the Porlock. Distance alone sets it and Porlock apart. However, the gradient IS the same. And the distance travelled at the 25% incline I would say is similar. And I did not stop. The climb had two bends, but this time I just ground them out. At last! The summit! A cheery sight. But the 20%er was to quickly follow. A swift but relatively lengthy descent and I was climbing again. Much, much shorter this time around, though I was relieved to see the top. Another hill conquered. My parents had stopped off en route and my Dad took a few photos of me in the process of ascending. I gave a champions wave at the top - and caught my breath. Afterwards I sailed home, taking in the undulations as I went.
So actually, I could tame a 25%er. I was pleased with that. Maybe not as extreme as Porlock but then it's a special hill. And there's always next time. Anyone who knows me knows I won't be able to let that go until it gets properly ridden.
To be continued......
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'100 Greatest Cycling Climbs - A Road Cyclist's Guide to Britain's Hills' by Simon Warren, published by Frances Lincoln Ltd should provide a lifetime of hill climbing challenges.