Posted by: Ian | November 5, 2009

The Exmoor Beast

The primary social purpose of a blog is to save people from having to listen to you.  If every time someone played a round of golf, for example, they had to write about it instead of telling you every detail to your face the world might be improved.  It’s like being on the radio: not so much for the celebrity of it but because there’s an Off button and a choice of channels, and no-one has to feign interest or even attention. Now it happens that I actually quite like to hear, stroke by tortured stroke, about how well you were keeping your round together until your ball plugged in the fairway on the swampy 13th, but the point stands.

So the reason for setting up this blog is to be able to go on at as much length as I want to about bikes, bike gear and bike rides without boring anyone who, in honesty, doesn’t care.  If the hit rate stays low and most visits to it are fleeting then the site will be doing what it should. The second purpose for the site is to advertise upcoming training rides and sportives for the few of us who participate together. These posts will be practical, and shorter.

So far I’ve been in two sportives. The first was at Blenheim Palace, which I did with Martin and Emily; there may be a separate post on that later. The more recent one was the Exmoor Beast, which Emily, Stuart and I entered last weekend. Paula drove us to Butlins in Minehead for a start at 7ish. This was delayed for an hour or so due to bad weather, we were told, up on the moors. They also announced that the longer of the two rides – the 100 mile – was being cancelled so all cyclists were to do the 100 km ride, as we had planned anyway. When considering entering one of these events you inevitably wonder how serious the other entrants are: are they, in fact, just entrants or are they competitors? The hall at Butlins where we all waited to hear when we could get going was as good a place as any to find out. On the one hand, there were plenty of people who needed advice on how to attach their timing chips to their bikes. This group included me: at Blenheim I had put mine in the wedgie bag under my saddle and persuaded Martin to do the same. The upshot of this was that only Emily (who had attached hers to her shoe) recorded a time as we cycled over the finishing mat. At Butlins, there were also several entrants who were wheeling along heavy, fat-tyred mountain bikes – which, given the weather, was looking sensible – and one pair on a tandem. On the other hand, most people were on serious-in-the-sense-of-expensive road bikes (also like us) and wearing the kind of bike gear that’s not optimised for visits to the loo while you hang around drinking tea before the off. Many were wearing bike shoes with soles so stiff – for ensuring no Watt of power gets dissipated between leg and crank – that you can’t really walk in them. We knew this because we saw some of them fly A over T when they left the grippy safety of the carpet and had to make it across the hard floor. But on balance, despite a hint of sniffiness from the organiser about those of us who had chosen rather than been compelled to do the shorter 100 km ride, the atmosphere was overwhelmingly friendly and mutually supportive.

Last year’s Beast went up Porlock Hill, which is seriously steep. The route this time didn’t seem so bad, although the profile in BikeHike looks quite sharp:

Exmoor Beast profileIn the weeks before the sportive I cycled up both of the two conspicuous hills and they were easier than they look. As you can see, you’re on the first one very quickly. If you look carefully at the profile map you can see that it goes almost vertical shortly after the start. Without seeing it, it’s hard to assess how steep this is because BikeHike draws whatever you throw at it in rectangles of the same aspect. In reality, the slope at that point, according to the road sign, is 17%, which was comfortably manageable even on my Tricross without hitting the lowest gears. But on the day it was completely different (and this will be a theme). The roads were wetter, they were covered in leaves and as it started to steepen riders were beginning to dismount. There’s a cattle grid a short way into this stretch and when we reached it – Stuart, Emily and I being together still at this stage – there was a knot of walking cyclists who completely blocked the road. There was no alternative but to get off and walk through them before getting back on again and starting back up the 17% slope.

About halfway up that first slope you can see a short section of respite where the road briefly goes downhill. By the time this started, I had made my way ahead of Emily and Stuart and stopped to wait for them to alert them to the cobbled ford that ran across the road shortly ahead.  As I watched from the roadside one cyclist sped past. He was wearing bike-specific face-hugging specs that the wind, which by now was getting fierce as we passed through occasional gaps in the woodland, ripped from him. He looked round, saw them flying across the verge, and decided to press on without stopping to retrieve them.

We all passed over the ford, which was thankfully dry, without incident, although shortly afterwards Emily found that her back brake had some rubbish caught up in it and was making a noise. I stopped to look at it with her while Stuart, who was going very well, pressed on up the hill unaware. After poking around at the pads inconclusively we re-started and Emily settled into a good rhythm, staying in the saddle and steadily passing a stream of struggling riders. I kept on her back wheel to see if I could hear any more noise from the brakes. After, I guess, a mile or so of this I was beginning to tire while Emily still kept the same pace, her back perfectly neutral, not rising from the saddle at all. I eased back, figuring that I could catch up later as the hill re-steepened for the last section before reaching the moors proper. Within a few moments, Emily was through a glut of riders around another cattle grid and away.

Slower now, I pulled out the first of two energy bars that I had in my back pocket to give myself a boost. Passing over the cattle grid, the cover of the woods gave way completely and the wind ripped ferociously across the road. Ahead of me a cyclist and his bike were picked up and blown onto the righthand verge. I hunkered down and peddled on. Then it happened to someone else. When I’d cycled this hill before there were blue skies and sun and it had been so much easier: it was incredible how much difference the wind made. Looking along the road ahead as it ribboned up the final stretch of incline, I tried to make out Stuart and Emily, whom I assumed had re-combined. They were wearing yellow, like just about everyone else.  Occasionally, I’d think I could make them out, only to find that I was mistaken. Putting on a spurt was impossible. The best that I could hope for was not to join the demoralising procession of one cyclist after another who was dismounting at the roadside. Some of them seemed to be pushing their bikes as quickly as I could ride.

Finally, I reached the top – but it didn’t get any easier.  A few weeks before at that stage I’d slipped onto my large chainring and sped down towards Simonsbath.  Now, even the levels roads and the slight downhill were hard work.  I expected that Emily and Stuart, seeing my orange top from ahead, would be waiting for me before too long; but they weren’t.  As the road turned across the moor it began an undulating stretch where I was sure I would catch them, if only because I could attack the downhill sections more.  Again, this didn’t happen – the wind was pushing my bike across the wet road as I rode so “attacking” was somewhat constrained and in any case the best stretches for making progress were all clogged with cautious riders.  I was becoming aware that something wasn’t right since we had an informal pact to stay more or less together.

Presently, as the north Somerset coastline came into view, I caught up with Stuart. Emily wasn’t with him, and he had no clue whether she was ahead or behind. We cycled along together, heading, we knew, towards the steep hill down into Lynmouth. We speculated inconclusively about Emily’s position on the course and stopped to check for calls or texts – there weren’t any. The wind did not abate and Stuart was very clear about the fact that, for him, this was not an enjoyable ride.  As he told me this, it strengthened my own realisation, a little guiltily, that I liked the horrible weather and the impossibility of it.  I saw on my Polar that we had passed the 20 mile mark, less than one third of the way round, and kept the observation to myself.  On the other side of the road we saw several cyclists heading back to Minehead – they had evidently had enough.

As we approached the descent to Lynmouth I kept my eyes open for our third rider but with no expectation any longer of seeing her: if she were there she would have waited for us, a long time ago. Coming towards Lynmouth the road drops off steeply to the right to the sea hundreds of feet below. There is a curve where you can see the road sweep down to the village at sea level and I saw two riders in yellow, one of whom I thought might be Emily. By now I was making progress again, while Stu was making more prudent use of his brakes. I sped past the escape runs to the left of the road, carved into the hill to save vehicles out of control, and the Cyclists Dismount sign. Down at Lydmouth, the road we had to follow bears round to the left, past a car park and a cafe before heading up to the Beast’s second major climb.  To the right is another road: yellow-jacketed marshalls stood across it.  I thought about asking them if they had seen Emily go past, but the question seemed absurd.  I waited by the cafe until Stu came down, checking again for messages and pulling out a gel chew.  Then we set off up the hill.

This one was steadier than the first – just a longish grind – and the weather was starting to get better too. By comparison, we made it up quite easily. At the top, I had gained a little on Stuart and so re-checked my phone to see if Paula had texted to indicate that she was on her way back and to see if there was word from Emily. By the time Stuart caught up the mystery of Emily’s disappearance was solved: she was in an ambulance in Lynmouth. Thinking that we were both ahead of her, she had pressed on. On the 25% downhill her brakes completely failed.  With a calamitous drop to the sea to one side and cyclists to the other, she had bravely/rationally rolled off her bike – what else can you do?

As we sped back down the hill, riders looked at us with puzzlement. They looked extremely tired. Several of them were pushing their bikes – one of these was wearing an “I conquered the Exmoor Beast” t-shirt, and he probably did. Emily was not in a great state, and is still very bruised, but fortunately no bones with broken. We went into the cafe to wait for Paula in the rescue vehicle – luckily, she was already at Minehead. Emily was wrapped in silver foil and crying. After about 20 minutes the girl behind the counter rushed into action to get her a coffee.

Paula arrived in the Q5 with heated seats and high quality flapjack from Waitrose. We went home, dropping off our timing chips at Butlins en route. Stu and I had done about 35 miles in about 3.5 hours. The sun came out and the sky turned blue. One bike was broken – the rear mech mangled – and one person was injured.

She cycled to work the next morning on her single-speed.

For some inspiration, since this account may otherwise be motivationally deficient, here’s Zoe, then aged 13, cycling up a 20% incline on a bike costing about a tenth of my Felt, carrying panniers.

Zoe near Bude

It was fun, really.



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  3. […] Last year I battled round it the day after I unboxed my Astraeus and suffered from a dodgy set-up. The year before Emily had her dreadful accident. I’m hoping it’s third time lucky. I’m signing up […]

  4. […] More significantly, she also completed the long descent pretty briskly. Since her bad accident at the Exmoor Beast in 2009 Emily has been apprehensive down steep hills and it was good to see her tackling them with more […]

  5. […] same climb that Zoe and I had done two year ago on heavy bikes with all our gear and a tent. The first photo posted on this site was of this very climb. It’s quite steep but really, all of the moaning about it now seems […]

  6. […] route to the West that goes through the cobbled brook. Far and away the most difficult time was on last year’s Exmoor Beast, when riders ahead of me were literally getting blown off their bikes. Then, the route bore no […]

  7. […] of these options is available on the Exmoor Beast, which is four weeks later on the 31st October. Last year Stu, Emily and I entered in the worst of all weathers and conquered Dunkery Beacon. Unfortunately, […]

  8. […] precious and unhardy, and this impression was borne out by Emily’s crash in last year’s Exmoor Beast, after which her Scott was judged irreparable despite there being no obvious damage to […]

  9. […] Dunkery Beacon at Exmoor. Together with Stu and Emily, I had experienced Dunkery Beacon before at last year’s Exmoor Beast sportive, but the ToW takes it a different way, passing the beacon to the East rather than the West. Much of […]

  10. […] Hell of the Ashdown If the Blenheim 100 km was an enjoyable Sunday blast and the Exmoor Beast was a hard slog in absurd weather that you press through until one of your team breaks a bone, then […]

  11. […] May. The second is to complete one of the big winter sportives, probably the Best of Exmoor, which ended unluckily in 2009. Along the way, I’ve entered a number of other sportives, as described previously; […]

  12. […] pain, no gain If you’ve read Ian’s post on the Exmoor Beast, you may be aware that I came off my bike quite spectacularly on one of the dowhnhills. Although I […]

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