We were riding up a steep hill on a narrow lane. It was windy and raining. The road was covered in a carpet of leaves, which made for lurching wheel-spins when standing on the pedals. Half way up the hill was a cattle grid, its metal bars as slippery as ice under the wet foliage. Crossing it without sliding off was like attempting some bizarre fairground attraction. On the other side of the grid, the hill got steeper. Riders strained on too-high gears, or gave up and walked. A handy sign on a road-side tree announced: ‘Now you know why it’s called the Exmoor Beast’. I should co-co.
The Exmoor Beast is one of the last sportives of the season. The hills are testing, yes, but it’s usually the weather that makes this event so… well, beastly. In November the storms blow straight off the Atlantic onto the Southwest Peninsula. Great for surfers. Not so great for bike-riders.
And last Sunday was no exception. Long before dawn, high winds and torrential rain battered the event HQ at Butlins Holiday Park in Minehead. But this didn’t quell the energy of 1200 starters – most wrapped in waterproofs and overshoes – all keen to hit the road in the 7am-8am start window. The really sensible guys were on training bikes with mudguards. There were quite a few hybrids and mountain bikes too.
The organisers appreciated the enthusiasm, but put the start back an hour to give the bad weather a chance to blow through. They also decided to cut the 100-mile option, so everyone was doing 100km. Some riders greeted this decision with relief, others with disappointment, but after hanging around for an hour it was just good to get going.
The first few miles were easy enough. The rain was still falling, although the wind seemed to be easing a bit. We headed westbound out of Minehead, before turning inland to tackle the climb up to Dunkery Beacon. At one point, the road dipped to cross a ford, inexplicably bone-dry, but paved with rough cobbles. A rider behind me charged across shouting “Paris-Roubais”, followed by another loud utterance as he slid into the ditch. Spring Classic material? I don’t think so.
Near the top of the hill, the road left the shelter of the trees, and we realised the ‘easing’ wind was an illusion. A tempest was barrelling across the open moor. In front, I saw two cyclists of slight stature almost picked up by the gale and deposited on the muddy verge. The big guys didn’t escape either; they were catching more wind and many were blown off their bikes too. With small riders and tall riders all having problems, it was a good day to be average.
And that set the tone for the next hour or so: Huge gusts. Driving rain. Head down. Hold the bars tight. Lean into it. Grit teeth. Pedal on.
After about 25 miles we descended Countisbury Hill to almost touch the sea at Lynmouth, then started climbing up the pretty cliff-lined Watersmeet road, back on to the moor once again. Thankfully we were heading south now, so the wind was less of a problem. Nonetheless, everyone in our little group was glad to reach the first feed at Simonsbath – a chance to get out of the rain, grab some cake or enjoy the hot soup being ladled out of giant mess-tins.
Then it was wind behind across the heart of Exmoor, through Exford and Weddon Cross, up a couple of steady climbs where we’d seen the Tour of Britain in 2007, and round three sides of a triangle on the edge of the Brendon Hills, before turning north for the last 10 miles or so towards home.
With the end in sight, riders were perking up. By around noon, the rain had stopped, the wind had eased – genuinely, this time – and the roads were drying out. Those gales on Dunkery Beacon were already a distant memory, and the sections along the lanes to Timberscombe were delightful. To polish it off, from the top of the last hill just past Dunster we saw a rainbow with one end sitting slap bang on the white tent-like towers of Minehead Butlins – a suitably dramatic finish to the ride.
Was there gold at the end of the rainbow? Only if you’d done the 100km route in less than about four-and-a-half hours. Respect to the 205 riders who managed this, fully deserving their gold standard certificate – and chapeau to the 30 that got round in under four hours. Another 190 hardy souls finished within the silver standard time of around 5 hours, and another 550 earned bronze. Of the 1200 starters, there were 1089 finishers, and every single person deserves congratulations for completing the route.
Congratulations also to MIG, the event promoters. Their military background showed, and this sportive was impressively organised. The route was well signed and the feeds were well stocked, with a battalion of marshals, helpers and safety vehicles on hand. Butlins was a great ‘depart village’, with plenty of parking and facilities. Many riders were disappointed that the 100-miler was cancelled – especially when the weather improved in the afternoon - but all agreed that it was the right call at the time. For keen sportivistes, it’s probably even more incentive to come back to ‘tame the beast’ again next year.