"Go on lad!" cries a cloth-capped man from behind a farm gate. I'm two climbs into a punishing three-hill trifecta and I'm wondering if I've got the legs to make it to my hotel tonight. As yet another precipitous incline looms into view I start fantasising about curling up on the roadside and ordering a takeaway pizza.
It turns out that Devon, the county that forms the "knee" of the leg-shaped peninsula that sticks out of south-west England, is quite hilly. I probably should have researched this before embarking on a 159-kilometre bike ride between its north and south coasts, but given it's a national cycle trail I'd hoped someone might have tunnelled through the lumpy bits.
I'm tackling the route over three days and to be fair this middle day is by far the most vertiginous. The silver lining is that it's also the most scenic. So far I've skirted idyllic inlets dotted with colourful fishing boats, cycled through tiny hamlets of thatched cottages and admired sweeping coastal views across golden crescents of sand.
Between these highlights have been sections of blissful rural solitude. For the last 40 minutes I've cycled along a meandering, hedge-lined road without passing another soul. That doesn't happen much in the south of England.
The Devon Coast to Coast (C2C) doesn't get the same attention as Britain's other long-distance cycle routes and as such it's quite tricky to organise. No one appears to provide guided trips and I could only find one operator that offers scheduled departures. Sadly, when I inquired several months beforehand, they were already full. All of which meant I ended up in the knowledgeable embrace of EOS Cycling and its enthusiastic owner Eric van der Horst, a Dutchman who has been running cycle trips in England since 2008.
Eric grew up in the Netherlands where people basically cycle out of the womb. He spent his formative years exploring the region on two wheels before embarking on several epic rides, including cycling from Adelaide to Sydney and a mammoth 8000-kilometre trip from Washington DC to Los Angeles.
In 2011 he developed a guidebook for riding from London to Land's End and has since supplemented it with a section for tackling the C2C. The book is incredibly detailed, with maps, photos and turn-by-turn instructions for the entire route.
This might seem like an unnecessary indulgence given the C2C is a signposted national cycle trail but – trust me – it isn't. When you're deep in the Devon countryside with no phone or GPS signal and have just missed a sign that was buried in a hedgerow, having an old-fashioned paper map is a godsend.
I first meet Eric at Barnstaple, North Devon's biggest town, where he kits me out with a sturdy 24-gear hybrid touring bike with two panniers. Part of the challenge of this route is the logistics of transporting luggage so Eric will take my main bag from here to the end point in Plymouth while I cycle for the next two days with what I need on the bike.
We drive to Ilfracombe, the ride's official start point and take a commemorative photo by Damien Hirst's Verity, a striking 20-metre-high bronze sculpture of a sword-wielding pregnant woman that guards the entrance to the town's picturesque harbour.
Eric originally suggested I start in Barnstaple and I can now see why. Getting out of Ilfracombe is a messy uphill zigzag that at one point involves pushing the bike up a steep set of stairs and through a church graveyard.
Eventually, I reach the Tarka Trail, a delightful repurposed railway line named after Henry Williamson's Tarka the Otter, a popular 1927 children's book that was based in the area.
While the C2C largely follows route 27 of the National Cycle Network, there are many worthwhile detours. One such diversion is Woolacombe, a seaside resort that's home to one of Britain's finest beaches.
On this warm summer's day, its wide expanse of sand is full of families sunbathing behind colourful windbreaks and children paddling in the sea. Surfers watch the swell from VW Kombi vans in the car park while paragliders descend from the surrounding cliff tops. It's a glorious scene that's marred only slightly when I'm forced to part with several hundred dollars for a soft serve ice-cream. OK, five, to be precise.
At only 33 kilometres, the ride from Ilfracombe to my B&B in Barnstaple is just a warm-up compared to the two days ahead. Still, I don't let that stop me devouring an enormous serving of pork belly for dinner in Claytons, an unexpectedly upscale lounge bar in the centre of town.
At breakfast the next day I meet two South Australian women who are walking part of the South West Coast Path, a 1000-kilometre trail that follows the coastline from Somerset round to Dorset. Their only complaint isn't something you hear from Australians in England that often. Apparently, it's too hot.
After a leisurely morning following the Tarka Trail along the River Taw, I'm lured off it again by the only town in Britain whose name contains a punctuation mark.
Westward Ho! is named after the 1855 bestselling book by Charles Kingsley. It's a popular seaside resort with a sweeping three-kilometre-long beach and a coastal view so compelling it enticed Eric to move here from the Netherlands.
From here the trail delivers delightful cycling as it follows the lush, green Torridge Valley, criss-crossing the narrowing River Torridge on a flat, shaded cycle path that has some lovely rest stops along the way.
In preparation for the day's hilly culmination I pause at Yarde Orchard for an ice-cream and an organic lemonade. I'm sorely tempted by one of its local ciders but am painfully aware that the hardest part of the ride is still to come.
When I finally reach the Fountain Inn in Okehampton at 6.30pm, I'm well and truly cream-crackered. I later discover that Eric rode the C2C recently with his nine-year-old son, whom I can only assume is some sort of Ironboy.
After two days of glorious weather, it was inevitable my luck would change. I wake the next morning to grey skies and persistent drizzle, which if nothing else provides an appropriately moody backdrop as I climb up onto the Granite Way, an 18-kilometre traffic-free cycleway that skirts the western edge of Dartmoor National Park.
The route takes me over a series of soaring Victorian viaducts, past weathered stone churches and through fields studded with granite boulders and clusters of hardy sheep.
If the weather had been better I might have stopped for a stroll through Lydford Gorge, a beautiful National Trust-owned valley with a spectacular 30-metre waterfall, or nosed around the 12th-century pannier market in the lovely market town of Tavistock. Instead, I pause briefly for a Cornish pasty and a coffee and push on towards Plymouth.
From here, the C2C follows Drake's Trail (named after the famous Elizabethan seafarer Sir Francis Drake, who was born in Tavistock), a well-signposted purpose-built cycle path that for the most part is welcomingly downhill.
This section of the route is much improved thanks to millions of pounds of EU investment that helped build the impressive 305-metre-long Gem Bridge and relocate a colony of bats from the Brunel-built Grenofen Tunnel.
After three days of cycling through glorious countryside, the DIY superstores and fast food joints on the outskirts of Plymouth are a rude awakening. Things improve once I reach the city centre and discover a pretty harbour and a cobblestoned old town with a rich maritime history.
Overall, the trip has been an invigorating romp through some of Britain's prettiest scenery. I genuinely can't think of another English county that delivers such a variety of landscapes.
My delight in finishing is tarnished by two things. The first is that despite an extensive search I can't find the route's official end point – it just fizzles out near Royal William Yard on Plymouth's foreshore. The second is the news that greets my shaky-legged arrival at my guesthouse. "Sorry love, the only room we have left is on the sixth floor."
Rob McFarland was a guest of British Airways and Visit Britain.
FIVE MORE MULTI-DAY UK CYCLING TRIPS
WAY OF THE ROSES
This 273-kilometre alternative to the classic Coast to Coast cycle crosses the majestic Yorkshire Dales as it meanders from Morecambe in Lancashire to Bridlington in Yorkshire. See www.peak-tours.com
SOUTH DOWNS WAY
Weaving its way for 160 kilometres over the chalky ridges of the South Downs in Hampshire and Sussex, this is the only National Trail entirely accessible by bike. See www.walkandcycle.co.uk
LAND'S END TO JOHN O'GROATS
The ultimate UK cross-country cycle – a two-week, 1000-kilometre trip between the UK's southwest and northeast extremities. See www.peak-tours.com
DOVER TO CAPE WRATH
Ticked off Lands End to John O'Groats? Then go the other way, from Dover in the southeast to the UK's most northwesterly point, Cape Wrath. See www.peak-tours.com
Another epic coast-to-coast cycle, this time following Hadrian's Wall from Ravenglass on the west coast to South Shields on the east. See hadrian-guide.co.uk
For more info, see www.sustrans.co.uk
British Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to London via Singapore. London to Exeter takes just over two hours by train. Phone 1300 767 177, www.britishairways.com
EOS Cycling can arrange bike hire, accommodation and luggage transfers. For a three-day C2C trip including B&B accommodation, selected transfers and a detailed guidebook, prices start at £309 per person. See www.eoscycling.com