4th Nello Century Cycle Challenge

Topsham, Devon, 29 June, 2003 It hardly seems possible that another year has come and gone. (Indeed, it honestly seems only yesteryear that Nello and I set out from Topsham Quay on our cycle to Venice, our ‘Ride for Life’ in aid of Force that summer of 1997.) It is hard to believe that this is already the 4th Nello Century Cycle Challenge in memory of Nello.

Like a long and winding cycle ride, life moves forward sometimes to unimagined destinations. But no matter how hard or arduous the journey, or how many or steep the hills along the way, there are always moments of supreme beauty and grandeur that make the effort all worthwhile. The Nello century route is rather like this. For everyone, from the most experienced to the least, this challenge is a journey that explores both the external road that lies ahead as well as internal spaces within each of us to discover (sometimes quite painfully) the frontiers of individual possibility — both physical and mental.

For me, the very best part of the day is seeing such a vast number (230 cyclists in all this year, including the ‘55ers’ as well as the Fun Ride cyclists) as they roll in on Sunday morning, eager to take on the Nello challenge. Some are in full-on racing lycra, champing at the bit in eager anticipation, can hardly wait to get going; others are nervous, downright scared, unsure of what lies ahead. Some see the day as a big social event and enjoy the craic amongst friends; others stand in quiet and solitary concentration. The array of bicycles is amazing: there are the most beautiful and expensive racing bikes — Litespeeds, Colnagos, Bianchis, Treks, Principias, Airbornes; yet there are equally plenty of old tourers with mudguards and toeclips, hybrids with straight bars and even mountain bikes. This year there were eight tandems (including a vintage 1940s model, with riders in flat caps and corduroy). Another chap turned up on a vintage 1930s cycle, ready to take on the century!

As usual, late entries came flooding in over the final few days and hours, and a good number simply showed up on the line (according to Jane, Catherine, Kathryn and Meriel, who undertook registration of all the cyclists on the morning). This last minute influx had also caused Pete a sleepless night or two as he calculated and divvied up the array of exceptionally delicious baked goodies that people had dropped in to his house to be given to the support teams (thanks to Richard for a generous donation of 200 bananas and to Billingtons for supply of sugar for the bakers). Kim meanwhile had had to guestimate on late entrants for t-shirts and medals (as it turned out, remarkably accurately). The immense popularity of ‘The Nello’ seems assured, for it has clearly captured the imagination not just of the cycling community but of many who are by no means regular cyclists but who feel the desire to take on such new physical challenges. Perhaps they’d all heard of the fantastic support stops, those homebaked goodies and drinks and comfort along the way. Or perhaps they knew too that the only way to attend the now famous Nello pasta feast was to cycle a hundred blinking miles. And that yes, no matter how hard and painful, it would certainly be worth it.

Some people have asked me if we ever get tired of this particular Nello century route from Topsham over the roof of Exmoor and back, and if we’d ever consider changing it. My answer is, Why? For in truth, we know from cycling widely throughout these areas that this route is an absolute classic. Quite simply, it’s the finest century route around, and one that is universally enjoyed, and by cyclists of all abilities. There is something, too, to having a route that is constant, for though it stays the same, each year’s ride is always different depending on any number of factors: the weather, how you’re feeling, whether you trained sufficiently or even at all, who you ride with, whether you have mechanical or physical problems, or how many cakes you stop to eat.

Force patron and Ex-Lord Mayor Val Dixon kindly turned up on the Quay to say a few words to the assembled cyclists before setting us on our way. The start is always exhilarating and emotional. This year, for Kim and I, together on the tandem, the weeks of preparation and effort came together in a joyous moment as we rolled off the start line and surged ahead with the massed peleton of cyclists, streaming out in an immensely long and colourful train down Holman Way. Riding in such formation is a rare privilege and it’s good on these early miles to meet and see any number of friends and new acquaintances along the way. Inevitably, too, the group energy of such a mass of cyclists drives the train along with its own seeming internal combustion so that collective efforts are shared, and a tremendous average speed is maintained with seeming little individual toil. At such times cycling seems almost effortless and wholly exhilarating!

First stop at Tiverton Safeway was once again set up and run by Silvia Burn together with the FORCE team. This first stop always sets the tone for the entire ride, and Silvia takes the greatest care to make cyclists welcome: this year her theme was an Italian café. She had written a menu in Italian and she even had copies of La Repubblica and other Italian newspapers out for any who cared to sit down and catch up on the news of the day. Bravissima, Silvia!

At Tiverton, the route splits with the 55ers heading up the Long Drag to Nomansland and the centurions continuing up the Exe Valley to Dulverton and Exmoor. The latter is always a particularly lovely stretch of the route and those who want to ride briskly usually forge ahead here. It’s hard to resist stopping in Dulverton itself, so pretty and inviting is the park with its little stream and shady lawn. But the massive climb of Winsford Hill begins straight out of town, so many know from experience that it’s best to resist temptation and just keep on going. For us the climb this year was particularly gruelling (tandems are very hard work on hills), but as always, the reward on reaching the open moor made the effort more than worthwhile.

This was the first time, in fact, that we have managed to arrive here in fine weather (first year the cyclists endured a storm of biblical proportions over the moor; last year there was thick, atmospheric mist when we passed through). But today the open countryside was simply glorious, there were sheep and lambs along the way (and often lying in the road on the warm tarmac), and the views were fantastic: we really felt as if we had cycled to the top of some strange and different world. But it’s a tough stretch, no doubt, very up and down, and we were glad to stop for refreshments at Comer’s Gate. Here, Jilly, Mary and Roger, Joan and Gal, and Jo had set up another magnificent stop. The food, mostly produced by themselves, was sensational: sandwiches, roast potatoes, cheese scones, flapjacks and much more. And of course this stop boasts the most gorgeous open-air loo in the world, with unrivalled moorland vistas and a gentle zephyr to cool down sore backsides, just over the hedgerow behind the carpark…

On then, across the moor and down to Simonsbath, back up again, down and then back up (and it’s that last little up which you always forget and which is always the worst of all). And then that magnificent straight massive descent, a good four miles long: this is a road made for tandems, and we tucked in, didn’t touch the brakes and hit a good 50mph plus, flying down this glorious stretch, ears popping as we made up in part for the effort and heavy slog of the hills that we’d earlier endured.

The stop in a lay-by at the entrance to South Molton has its own unique character and the considerable style and panache of those who run it: Anna, Jo and Jane, assisted once more by Anna’s parents. A row of chairs was set out considerately for tired cyclists (very welcome at this point), and the tables were groaning with an array of sweet and savoury goodies. Mike and Ro had delivered tea urns for a very welcome cup of cha. Little Martha and Jessie were running around, offering to help. ("Hello Marc," said Martha, "Where’s Bella?") South Molton is at mile 60, and by now many cyclists were feeling the pain and the strain. This also seems to be a point where mechanical repairs often need to be carried out (lots of punctures this year with Geoff suffering four, count ‘em four, along the way).

Tandems are curious bicycles and it is usually difficult to ride with others on single bikes, for tandems are way too slow on the rises and exceptionally speedy on the downs and flats. For us, therefore, it was great to team up with Ben and Sal for the return 40 miles. After the beauty of the Exe Valley and the drama and majesty of Exmoor, many consider the stretch from South Molton to Copplestone to be something of a let-down, miles to be endured rather than enjoyed. But this has always been a favourite stretch of mine, and we enjoyed an exceptional ride, the tandems working, well, in tandem with the luxury of good hard riding and good company as well. This after all is what the Nello is about.

Our final stop was in the carpark of The Cross Inn at Copplestone, where Clare and Graham had set up once more, quite early in order to cater for the ‘55ers’ as well as centurions, with Carolin and Sally coming along later for the second shift. We’re grateful to the new landlords, the Gooderhams, for allowing us to use this space (as well as the pub toilets), for this is an important stop, giving cyclists the chance to restore energy levels before the final push home.

The last 18 miles from Copplestone back to Topsham Quay are never easy by any means. Legs and lungs are tired, and there are some short and cruelly sharp hills along the way (such as out of Newton St Cyres). We almost always seem to agree to ride back sedately, but inevitably the adrenaline rush of the approaching finish kicks in and it is a mad and hard dash at near maximum limit! So it proved for us this year.

The scenes at the finish on Topsham Quay are always exceptional, with cyclists proudly wearing this year’s black CIV t-shirts and medals with Italian ribbon and a piece of macaroni (medals made by Michele, Chloe and Kim and presented to the cyclists by Kathryn, Brendan, Jane, Catherine, Meriel and others). Job completed, the early arrivals had the luxury of lounging around, drinking a pint or two, and raising huge cheers as new and sometimes utterly exhausted arrivals rolled in. This continued throughout the afternoon and there was an amazing festival atmosphere on Topsham Quay that was just brilliant.

The 55ers were mainly back by the time we arrived and by all accounts they too enjoyed a spectacular ride across deepest mid-Devon. One comment I have since received sums it up: "Even through the red mists of pain on the numerous climbs, I could see and enjoy the stunning countryside — pure poetry." We were also pleased to be back in time to see the arrival of the Family Fun Ride cyclists as they pedalled on to the Quay. This ride, organised superbly by Ian, Jane and Andy, was by all accounts a huge success, truly a ‘fun’ fun ride primarily for children, with a stop at the Double Locks for refreshments and games. A big thanks to Colin Lewis for donating cycling prizes for the children.

Meanwhile as the cyclists came in, all over town there was an immense amount of activity behind the scenes in preparation for the evening Nello pasta feast and picnic on Topsham Recreation Ground. Force had booked an excellent jazz band and Ben Cornish, the children’s entertainer. Roger, with the considerable help of Brian, had borrowed tents and cookers from the Marines and had a team on hand to help to erect them (among numerous other tasks that Roger took on himself). Matt, Tony and Phil had sorted out and stocked the bar with beer, soft drinks and wine, supplied by Andy. A FORCE team was on hand to collect strawberries handpicked that morning by the Boyces of Shillingford St George to go with a freshly made tray of Devon clotted cream.

As to the Nello pasta feast itself, there was a mountain of magnificent Tuscan sausages made by Arthur’s to be roasted then braised in red wine and porcini mushrooms. In our kitchen and garden, meanwhile, Rosie and Christine (assisted by Annie and by Jane, who did so many other tasks as well) were preparing the most amazing array of pasta and salads from vegetables donated by Darts and herbs from Christine’s garden. These included chickpeas with organic greens, preserved lemon, wild thyme and hyssop; pasta with broad beans, pancetta, wild rocket, and shaved parmesean; penne with fresh tomatoes, garlic, basil and red chilli; an immense pot of ratatouille scented with marjoram, oregano, thyme and garlic chives; baked beetroot with allspice, lemon juice and olive oil. Michele cooked a fresh summery pasta while Barry, virtually straight after stepping off his tandem with Kathy, managed to produce two delicious trays of excellent vegetarian pasta. Liz from The Globe meanwhile turned up with an amazingly delicious tray of creamy pasta with huge chunks of smoked salmon. We’d earlier made a big pot of Tuscan beans with fresh sage and tomato, and of course we had to have polenta al forno. This is the Nello after all, and it’s always been a hugely important feature of the event that the food is exceptionally good.

Did it rain in the evening? You know, I really don’t remember. Perhaps it did but no one seemed to mind too much. There are plenty of trees under which to take shelter. Others had set up gazebos or large umbrellas. The band played on, the wine and Branoc flowed, the FORCE team together with May served foods with such friendly efficiency, and Kevin ran the raffle with his inimitable style and panache. Most importantly, the cyclists had the chance, while eating and drinking copiously, to meet friends and new friends and acquaintances, and to recollect and share their own personal stories of the day in the company of others who had similar yet uniquely different experiences of their own. Meanwhile, at around 8pm, the Woolner family arrived on the Rec, John and Chanty on the tandem, and 10 year old Ben completing the century yet again! Well done to the Woolners!

It’s worth recalling that the first time we actually rode this route was in 1997 when Nello and I were training for our cycle to Venice. A number of Topsham friends joined us on that original ride. Afterwards we all got together at, where else, Nello’s Ristorante, to enjoy camaraderie, great foods and wines, and the satisfaction of sharing physical challenge and endeavour with likeminded friends.

I am proud above all that we’ve been able to maintain this core spirit that is, at its essence, ‘the Nello’. Yet at the same time, it is great to see how our event has grown and evolved into something considerably larger than originally envisaged. We can all be proud that through the efforts of the Topsham community this is now an established feature on the Exeter sporting challenge calendar. It has also become a hugely important fundraising vehicle through Ride for Life in aid of FORCE. Once funds are all in for this year, our four annual Nello rides will have raised well in excess of £50,000 for FORCE. So thanks to all of you for your immense efforts in helping us to achieve this.

Clearly it’s time to move this event on. I am delighted that, in the future, FORCE, in the capable hands of Meriel, Mervyn and Caro, will take over the running of this event, thus ensuring that it will continue. I’m wholly confident that they will do so mindful of the essential spirit that is ‘The Nello’, whatever changes they see fit to make. This undertaking has been a massive community effort and I’m equally confident that the individuals who have done so much to make it what it is as well as newcomers who would like to get actively involved will continue to ensure that it carries on. Indeed, if you would like to get involved in any way, please email Meriel at FORCE (fcc2000@dircon.co.uk). Or drop me an email at marc@quaypress.com.

Kim and I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has been involved in this event in whatever way over the past four years. From the generous local business that have donated raffle prizes, bananas, vegetables and more, to the dedicated individuals who have helped in so many ways, you have made the whole task hugely enjoyable. And especially to Pete, Phil, Jane, Roger, Jo, Ugo, Catherine, Michele and others: you are a great team and we couldn’t have done it without you.

Thanks above all to all you cyclists who ride, eat, raise money and a glass in honour of Nello. Kim and I are looking forward to riding alongside you again next year (and yes, we’ll definitely be on the tandem!)So here’s to Nello. Salute.

Marc and Kim

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