A 4:45am alarm. Well, it would have been if the combination of the storm outside and the turmoil inside hadn’t removed any ability to fall asleep naturally, so I’d had to resort to a little white pill, on the basis that riding around Exmoor for the day on no sleep at all seemed like a really bad idea. It worked. It also meant that the alarm took 12 minutes to get through the many layers and drag my consciousness into the light. Well, not light. It’s no more light at 4:57 than it would have been at 4:45! 😉
Still, as always, I had pretty much prepped the night before, so all I had to do was dress, eat cereal, and wait for Chris to turn up and load my rather dirty winter bike into the back of his car. To give me some credit, I had warned him about its state, and what with it being dark, maybe it didn’t look as bad as it really was. This is however the man that couldn’t bear to let me ride the Quebrantahuesos with my cassette the way it was, and insisted on cleaning it to within an inch of its life for me before I rode again. He did a very good job of not commenting though as the bike, and various bags, were loaded up. Probably because no-one is that chatty at that time of the morning. Robin Williams had it right, OMG it was early!
HQ for the Exmoor Beast used to be at Butlins in Minehead, a town that can be somewhat tricky to get to thanks to the joys of the A39. It now starts from Tiverton, in Devon, which is beyond easy to get to. Straight down the M5, and you’re practically there. In fact Guy was there well before us, stayed ahead of us all day and was never to be seen. Well it’s hard enough to find an individual cyclist at an event when it isn’t pitch black and everyone is wearing matching or co-ordinating shades of luminous whatever!
Parking up was easy. We were marshalled on to the sports court along with everyone else, in plenty of time to head for registration, via the facilities. There was no queue, other than us two making our own of two, both being Ts! I’d been a bit worried about that as there were time limits in place for getting everyone away and so on, and queuing could have cut into those. But no problem, here’s your envelope, go over there to check it works, and you’re done. Alright then. We were done. We bumped into Gaz on the way back out to the car, though unlike Guy, we were destined to see him at least again! We then faffed so efficiently that it probably can’t even be called faffing really. In no time at all we were heading for the start, and marshalled into what was probably the third pen to be let go. After a bit of hanging around, presumably to allow time for the previous pens to spread out a bit, we were given our briefing and sent off into the damp Devon countryside, a little after 7:00am.
The Exmoor Beast has a fairly fearsome reputation. Not only is it pretty lumpy but the weather in October frequently ain’t great, which tends to make the whole thing even more challenging. I was supposed to do it last year and had to bail due to ill health, so it was my last remaining unfinished business ride, having got the Magnificat out of my system earlier this year. Predictably the forecast was horrible. In fact that being the case was so predictable that I wasn’t even troubled by it. Rain, wind? Put on the layers and stash the waterproof – just like the last few rides in fact. It was still due to be fairly mild to go with it, which always helps and, let’s face it, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve ridden around Exmoor in miserable weather, and I’ve survived so far!
As we set off it was, as I believe I may mentioned, dark. It’s a good thing my new pair of Knog strobe lights turned up on Saturday morning. A stream of flashing red lights illuminated the road ahead and it was, for those of us that don’t commute, a fairly novel experience. Somehow the miles seem to pass faster, even when going uphill as things started to do fairly quickly, when you can’t see where you’re going and have to concentrate on the road. It was damp under wheel, and behind wheel, and occasionally from above, but there wasn’t much of it and it was definitely too mild for the waterproof. There was quite a lot of up to make you warmer too, but I don’t remember any of it being more painful than usual. Maybe I should ride in the dark more often?
We kept going up, and the sun came up too, or at least it must have done to make it light. I climbed the hills at my usual sloth like pace, but mostly I kinda liked them, in so far as I ever like hills. They were long and not that steep and just plod alongish…while Chris practiced his low cadence high resistance work to give him something to do whilst keeping me company. The weather deteriorated though and being as I was already damp, I started to turn into also being cold, and the rain was getting heavier… So as we neared the top of wherever, which may have been Wimbleball Lake, we stopped, I put the waterproof on, and we both grabbed a bite to eat. I seem to recall not wanting to go anywhere near this place again after the last time, but then I swore I wouldn’t do the Tour of Wessex that took me there again, and I’m going to!
There were some nice descents to be had during the day, although I was grateful of my winter tyres and my natural tendency to be somewhat over-cautious when I can’t see what’s coming next. A couple of times my rear wheel hinted that it might like to be somewhere other than where I would like it to be, but never more than that. I gather there were some that weren’t so lucky, and on the long descent towards Dunster there was one nasty bend which I bet caught some out. I was being careful and as I went around slightly wide nonetheless, found the road was blocked by a group of riders going down and a car that had presumably stopped on meeting them, coming up. It looked like there had been an accident…but there hadn’t, so I’m not sure what was going on there. A near miss presumably? There nearly was an accident as we, and others behind us, came around that corner and nearly piled into them all though. One descent where a few “CAUTION” signs or a flag waving marshal would have come in useful, and it wasn’t the only one. There were a few “SLOW” signs dotted around en route, and I gather the residents are quite keen on removing signs, but even so, I think a few more would have been good today, especially when the roads, though generally pretty good on the surface front, were wet and covered with whatever crap the recent bad weather had brought down.
Maybe these hills would have troubled me more if I hadn’t known that the real killer of the day was still ahead of us, so there was no point protesting too much… Maybe there’s something to be said for having low expectations. If you expect it to be a crap and miserable day in the saddle and it isn’t actually as bad as it could be, well, I guess that has to be quite good for the PMA? Whatever the reason, I was actually feeling pretty good about it, which I hadn’t been expecting to be the case at all!
Around halfway through the ride came the first food stop, by which time it had actually brightened up considerably and, having just gone downhill for quite a while, so had I ;). Talk about well equipped. As well as a row of portable toilets there were several tents dishing out water, Accelerade, even hot soup! There were also little lunch bags for everyone which, though it sounds like a good idea, was proving to be quite wasteful. Each bag had a banana, flapjack, piece of cake, and a sausage roll, and a lot of folk were just taking the elements of choice – a banana in my case – and jettisoning the rest, which seemed a bit sad after all the effort that must have gone into bagging it all up. I think there was mechanical support there too; there certainly was at HQ and there were outriders and medical support on the route too. As we milled around, we found Gaz there, as well as lots of other riders variously stripping off as the many layers being worn proved altogether superfluous. I joined them, stuffing my waterproof and gilet back in the saddle bag.
After chatting for a bit, it was time to head for the roads around Minehead which, thanks to having ridden around here before with Gaz and also for the Exmoor Beast preview ride last year, are quite familiar. So I wasn’t going to be pushing it, as I knew what was coming all too shortly! Having done my fair share of climbing already it became clear that life was getting a little more painful and some shiny pills might be a good idea. I managed to drop my bottle whilst failing to co-ordinate washing them down with being distracted by two riders going past me and suggesting my back brake wasn’t down. It was! I’m still bemused by that one… Having left Gaz a little way behind he was perfectly placed to pick it up for me though – ta! 🙂 Right. Dunkery Beacon here we come. *gulp*. I’ve ridden the first section before which did mean I knew that bit at least could be done, but I was still a bit apprehensive about it. There was a marshall guiding riders over the matting covering the cattle grid at the bottom and I had my heart in my mouth riding so slowly over it, but I did manage to stay upright. The road loomed up ahead – steep, wet, and with plenty of other riders around to add to the challenge. Avoid the walkers, the zig zaggers, the cars having the audacity to use the road at the same time as us, feel the front wheel lifting, adjust balance, and just keep going…
It’s a hill of two halves. There’s that bit, familiar, now under my belt, going up through the trees to the fork in the road. Where she chose left, not down. Not that there was any choice, I do what I’m told and that’s what the arrows said, however much more down might have appealed. There’s a brief flatter bit here, time to catch your breath a little, and then it starts all over again. Constantly steep, climbing out of the trees, able to see far too clearly what lies ahead of you, and it just goes on and on and on. But I wasn’t going to walk. I knew that Phil (of sportivephoto fame) was going to be immortalising us all at the top, and could in fact see the flashbulbs firing in the distance. I may have jested with him last week that in that case he could take photos of me walking, but there was no way I was going to let that actually happen. So I kept going, unlike many which, like it or not, is good for the ego. I knew where I was aiming for, I had company, and something to laugh at – watching Chris trying to ride as slowly as me is actually quite amusing. And it’s only a hill right? 😉 I hailed Phil as I went past grinning, and he said if I was still smiling it couldn’t be that hard ;). That was a smile of achievement that was, but somewhat impressively still a smile, not a grimace.
How nice was it to have that behind me? Very! Especially as after a bit more of a climb around Exford, it’s pretty much flat and downhill from there all the way to the end. 20+ miles of fast? Don’t mind if I do :). I’d like to pretend it was all going so well that we were tempted to take the longer route when we reached the route split, but I’d be lying through my teeth. Given a choice between 20 more miles or 60 it was, again, no choice at all. The 100 mile route never had appealed, and it still didn’t. Since it was going well, there seemed no point pushing that envelope. T’aint broke, don’t fix it! Time to sprint for the finish. Kinda ;). I even took my turn at the front from time to time. Chris reckons that’s because I like to be the one at the front as we go rabbit chasing, and he may have a point… ;). There wasn’t much left in my legs on the climbing front, so on the odd couple of occasions where we did hit an up, I went backwards as usual, but that did break up the competitive mini-peloton that had formed around us and which was pushing me just that little bit more than I wanted, so it was all good. Other than that, and getting a little tired towards the end, it was an absolute blast! Exmoor was looking pretty, the skies were at least partially blue, and considering the day had been supposed to be hideous, we were getting away with it.
I think the locals had been at it again on the way back into Tiverton as just towards the end the signs vanished. Luckily Chris has done this before and knew where he was going. I haven’t, but I know how to follow Chris! And there we were, back at HQ, rolling over the timing mat and into, yes into, the sports hall. We dismounted as instructed, shook hands, and the tannoy lady announced our arrival, which nearly made me jump out of my skin! Welcoming everyone in was a nice touch though. Almost as nice as the free Exmoor Beast tankard to be filled with free Exmoor Beast ale to be drunk as we hung around and kicked back for a bit. We also printed out our times, to discover we’d scraped in under 5 hours by the skin of our teeth, which was oddly satisfying. Guy was already on his way home, and after a while Gaz arrived back and joined us. We were frequently reminded to drink responsibly, which we did. I was responsible for drinking and Chris was responsible for getting me home in one piece! 😉 Free beer with a chauffeur? One way to guarantee a post ride nap when you get home! More sensible folk were eating, or having a massage, or admiring the shiny kit and bikes on offer.
After a while the hall filled up and as a result warmed up, but we were inevitably starting to get a tad chilly, and much more Exmoor Beast would probably have been ill advised. It was time to load up the car, change into something marginally more presentably but much warmer and drier in the Ladies, and then be driven all the way home.
Cycling time: 4:37 hrs.
Official time: 4:59 hrs
Distance: 66.1 miles.
Avs: 14.3 mph.
ODO: 16672.9 miles.
I know this is going to sound weird, but it just wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard work, as it was, but actually it went pretty well, and I think I can even say I enjoyed it. Mad. Who’d a thought it? Unfinished business – finished! Many thanks to the ever-patient Chris for the ride there and back, and the tow around :D. Only one more sportive to go this season, and he’s stuck with me for that one too! *grin*.