Posted by: Ian | October 31, 2011

My 2011 Exmoor Beast

At last year’s Exmoor Beast I rode my Astraeus, only two days after taking it out of the box it was shipped in. That didn’t go so well but with over 2,500 miles of running in since then I was tempted to use the Astraeus again this year. However, the weather forecast suggested that we might avoid the rain and on dry roads the Felt is lighter and livelier; so in the end I plumped to give the Felt what is likely to be its last outing before winter. As a concession to the autumnal debris on the roads – not to mention the probability that the weather forecast would be wrong (forecasts for Exmoor being meaningless) – I switched the more robust tyres from the Astraeus over to the Felt. This is the same combination that I’ve been using on the Tempo for relatively puncture-free riding around London for several months: a 25mm Conti 4 Seasons on the back and a 23mm Gatorskin Hardshell on the front.

On Saturday I prepped the Felt for the ride. Once it was all cleaned, degreased and lubed I had a residual squeak from inside the headtube. Feeling a bit nervous about the headset, I ran it down to Bicycle Chain in Taunton, where Brian took apart and greased the so-called sealed bearings, which had run dry. Long live the LBS!

While I was there, I asked Alex, who is probably the most active cyclist in the shop, whether he would be cycling the Beast. He said not, explaining that somehow it always came at an awkward time at the end of the season when he didn’t feel good for the ride. As soon as he said it, I felt that he was right on the money: it does just feel like the wrong ride at the wrong time. Over the past couple of weekends I’ve had some lovely rides around Somerset, Devon and Dorset, including a 43 miler down to Lyme Regis, stopping at Axminster for a pie and Lyme for an ice cream, and a super 65 miler down to Burton Bradstock, taking lunch at the Hive Beach cafe. They were great. Jumping ahead, those rides had similar levels of hilliness to the Beast (~1,000 feet of ascent per 10 miles ridden) and I rode them at similar average speeds (though with breaks) – and enjoyed them more. Strangely, my form just seemed to slide downhill over the closing days of October: a week and a half before the Beast I did my slowest Park Loops ride since April and on the Thursday just beforehand none of us felt like doing Park Loops at all and, for the first time this year, we wimped it and did 2.5 instead of the usual 3.5 laps of Regent’s Park.

Nonetheless, I wanted to beat my 2010 time for the Beast. Then, I had come in at 5:02, according to the organiser, just missing out by two minutes on what they then classed as a Silver time. This had irked me because my Garmin was telling me I was within the time. On the faster Felt this year I was sure that I would finish inside the five hours, and that became my target.

On the road just after the starting gate the Felt felt good and the Fulcrum wheels sounded better than the Astraeus’s noisy (though otherwise excellent) Mavics. Before leaving Minehead the A39 undulates and on an upslope I heard one girl asking her riding companion whether this was Dunkery Beacon – it was heart-breaking. But Dunkery Beacon comes soon enough. The first time I cycled up it I found it surprisingly easy. Then, I had started from the bottom, just off the A39 and only went up and down so I didn’t need to hold anything in reserve. Also, I did it on my Specialized Tricross and, although I never use the granny ring at the front, I could slip into the massive 34t ring on the cassette, which really makes a big difference. I can see why SRAM are now selling a cassette for normal road bikes that has a larger sprocket even than the 28t many of us have for these events. I’m not sure that I know what gradient Dunkery has at the first cattle grid but it’s steep and, on the Felt or the Astraeus, which both lack the 34t sprocket, it’s hard going. Several people had dismounted and I had to call to one walker-cyclist who had drifted to the right hand side of the narrow road to get over. A guy who was riding faster than I was and went past me as I squeezed past the walker called out jokingly, “Triathletes to the left”.

I pressed on and kept ticking over to the top. It felt as hard as ever but I was less tired than I have sometimes been once the climbing was over. Most of the times I go up Dunkery, though, I take the route used in the Tour of Wessex, which is harder. Anyhow, the transition over to the A39 was less of a struggle and on the A39 I found it easy to keep up a good speed, which probably indicates a tailwind. Countisbury, where Emily broke ribs a couple of years ago, came quickly and I made the descent into Lynmouth, which was the site of the first feeding station this year, in good time.

I felt good at this stage 25 miles in and had decided not to stop. Unfortunately, my provisioning strategy for eating while I rode was highly flawed and this proved to be a turning point. I’d had one gel already after Dunkery but the two others that I had with me got lost in the useless pockets of my gilet. I also had a fancy chocolate bar that I’d bought at Look Mum No Hands in the week. I’d initially balked at the ridiculous cost – £2.95! – but because the shop guy had offered me a 50p discount I’d felt obliged to buy it. It came in a nice box but the bar itself was nothing special and I’d have been better off with a Marathon. The night before I’d made myself a ham roll but, since the ham, the roll and the cucumber were all out of date and much the worse for it, it held no appeal. That left me with three slices of Soreen. I had one of them along with some (but not all) of my disappointing and quite sickening chocolate.

In the past there have been times when I’ve felt pretty strong going up the long hill out of Lynmouth. This time I didn’t. I got in a low gear and had several riders, no doubt replenished at the feed station, come past me. Where the road turns left and steepens I’ve seen plenty of cyclists dismount and walk in prior years, but this year I was much more frequently passed than passing. At the “top”, where it keeps rising but at a very gentle gradient, I still found the going hard and struggled until the descent into Simonsbath.

At least my clothing was okay in the changeable conditions, which were generally pleasant on the lower levels and rainy up on the moors. The gilet with the crap pockets is a Hincapie. It’s a nice fit and layers well but has only two shallow pockets that are in totally the wrong place. Beside that, I had Rapha 3/4 bibs, touring shorts, long sleeve basie, long sleeve jersey and light Stowaway rain cheater. I noticed many more people wearing Rapha gear than I’ve seen before. Typically Rapha gets 6 or 7 out of 10 in magazine reviews: great clothing, they say, but too expensive. It gets regularly outscored by equivalent, though cheaper and less performant, items from Endura and DHB. Personally, I wear the stuff enough that I’m prepared to pay the extra, and it seems that other cyclists are increasingly also voting with their credit cards.

Paula had been kind enough to drive me to the start and I knew that she would be watching for me at Wheddon Cross, which comes at 45 miles. My Garmin had some technical moments after Simonsbath so I wasn’t exactly sure when this would be but I also knew that from the top of the second climb onto Exmoor there were only four rises before the descent to the finish, and that none of these was particularly steep or long. Last year I had developed bad cramp on the climb at Exford so this year I did some stretching on the bike. While stretching my quads (by bringing my toes, one foot at a time, on the saddle) I got, unusually, a spasm in my left hamstring so stopped to do some better stretching at the roadside. I also took out the stale roll I’d prepared. I forced myself to eat almost half of it before tossing the rest (being biodegradable) into a hedge.

I made the ascent out of Exford without incident but on the next one, out of Luckwell Bridge, I stood on the pedals to climb and was rewarded with my quads turning into extremely painful solid lumps. I stood over the bike for a bit – I could do nothing else – and a friendly female rider asked me if I needed any food as she cycled past. I declined and ate my two remaining slices of Soreen. Ironically, I was outside a house called Conquest.

When the cramps passed I carried on and decided that my mistake had been to fear cramp too much. (In reality, my mistake was to have too little food but there was nothing to be done about that.) From then on, whenever I felt cramp coming on I just peddled faster to drive it away. However, my already reduced power output took a further big ratchet downward for the rest of the ride.

Shortly after Luckwell Bridge I passed Paula at Wheddon Cross. She was standing by the roadside with a family with two young girls who had been encouraging the participants. I thought about stopping to get some food or re-load with water but I was too tired to make any decision other than to keep on turning the pedals.

In a few miles time, after the penultimate hill, I came to the second feed station. I’d given it no thought at all until I saw the sign for it but on impulse decided to turn in and get water since I’d got through both my bottles of sports drink. While I was queueing for water I could have been eating bananas or flapjack, or even more malt loaf, but I didn’t; I don’t know why.

Upon leaving the feed station a marshall announced that it was 10 miles to the finish line. I knew that I had one more longish shallowish climb and then it would be downhill most of the way to the end. Although I wasn’t suffering, I was glad to get to the top of the long run in.

The speed at which some of the cyclists took the steep down slopes was astonishing. I’m not too much of a slouch on the longer gentler descents: the Garmin was AWOL on the fast run in to Simonsbath but recorded a max speed of over 40 mph near the start of the final descent. After that I ran into a bike jam behind a Land Rover, which paraded us down the steep part of the hill. Other riders were bridling at the hold-up more than I was. The two fastest descenders I saw on the course were both on mountain bikes with fat tyres and disk brakes, which is unusual. Paula heard someone boasting of touching 57 or 59 mph. She also heard of a broken femur, a broken wrist and another bad spill with torn clothing and unspecified bodily toll. I guess we all go at the speed we think we can manage/risk.

The last little rise of the day came in Dunster. I remember it from last year when I was riding in with sporadic continuing cramp and this final hill was cruelly unexpected. This time, coming to the same place I continued with my cramp denial strategy and stood on the pedals and turned them quickly enough to prevent the cramp that I could feel starting from settling in. It worked.

In the end I rolled in with a time of 4:54 – under my five hour target. The banding system this year has categories A to D for each gender/age band instead of last year’s Gold/Silver/Bronze. I was pretty sure that I’d end up in B as it ran from 4:45 to 5:15 – I was unlikely to take as long as 5:15 unless I had an accident or a mechanical and, while I’m sure I have a sub 4:45 in me (fresher legs must be good for nine minutes), I didn’t feel it on the day.

After crossing the line and getting my little ticket with my finish time and category letter (B, as expected) on it, Paula gave me a very welcome cup of tea that I drank by the car looking out over the beach at Minehead.

This evening, after writing this, I’ve been looking online at the results. The site ( doesn’t seem to facilitate any kind of download, which, especially given its impoverished set of analyses, is a crime. The best (3:33) and longest (10:31) times are very similar to last year. I’d drill into the results more if I could get my hands on the data. But I’m not optimistic about the data quality – although they’ve kept my B category, they’ve mysteriously added on almost an hour to my time since issuing my ticket off the same system yesterday. If the rest of the data are somehow right (which I doubt – I’m betting they incorrectly calculated Finish times on the website from the event start at 7 am rather than each cyclist’s actual start time), I came 53rd out of 290 finishers in the “men in their Forties” band and 134th out of 790 finishers altogether. In addition, 139 people either No Showed or didn’t finish.

UPDATE: I suspect that the race timings may now be correct. Mine is now right and the rest look more reasonable, though see also the comment from Robin S. According to the new results set, I came 238th out of 790 finishers overall and 104th out of 290 men in their Forties who completed the event. I still can’t see how to download the data to do some analysis of more general interest.



  1. […] 2010 – the fabulous Tour of Wessex, some great long rides in the South West, Blenheim, the Exmoor Beast, weekly loops round Regent’s Park – and some innovations – outstanding riding in […]

  2. It works for me, I always carry them on hot days as my calves can sometimes start to cramp; it’s a very quick fix.

    During the Dartmoor Classic I rode up beside a guy who was suffering really bad cramp, I gave him some peanuts and carried on climbing. 10 minutes later he caught me on the descent and said his cramps had gone within 30 seconds of eating the peanuts.

  3. Never really thought about setting up mile splits – I’ll sort that out. Thanks.

    The HRM strap no longer works for my Garmin and I haven’t bothered replacing it, although I did try changing the battery ; ) I’ve never worried about cadence and at 10 st and 5′ 11″ (I’m 47) I try not to worry too much about calories.

    Cheers, Robin

    • I see what you mean about the cals. I’m the same age, a couple of inches or so taller but about 2.5 stones heavier!

      • Forgot to mention as soon as you feel cramp coming on eat some salted peanuts; it works!

      • If that works it’s my hint of the year!

  4. Hi Ian, great write up!

    Sorry not to get in touch about meeting up at the beast however I had a tumble in September and had stitches in my left knee; consequently I haven’t really ridden since the Black Rat.

    I only decided to ride last week and signed up just before they closed the registrations. I felt pretty fresh for 5 hours (must have needed the rest) but my lack of recent riding really told in the last hour.

    BTW the results are all over the place; the 5.07 100 mile guy took 3 hours to get to Simonsbath and then just an hour to get to the second feed and they’ve credited him with the fastest 100 mile time. I’m credited with a 100km time at the moment!

    Anyway here’s my 100 mile Garmin file:

    Best regards

    • Thanks for that and well done on the ride – 6:14 sounds great to me!!

      I don’t know whether all of the timing data have been corrected but I can see that they at least have mine right now so it’s possible that it’s been properly fixed. I note that you don’t have your Garmin set to put in mile splits and that you don’t use a heart rate monitor (or cadence detector) – any reason for that? The HRM will give you a much better calorie read, if you care about that. All the best, Ian

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