Friday, 2 November 2012

Out on the wiley, windy moors - The Exmoor Beast 28/10/12

Hi, Captain Tardy has been given a few days off and the Pixie is going to write a blog post about an event that only happened a few days ago - Don't get excited or expect this type of thing to become a regular occurrence, I'm sure Captain Tardy will be back soon!

I entered the Exmoor Beast Sportive sometime during the late summer, thinking it would be a good event to finish the main riding season off with and to use as a bit of a measure of how I was progressing as a Sportive rider. My original plan was to ride the event on my own and simply take any opportunity to ride with other people if they arose on the day.

Following on from my ride with Alex and Tony on the Cotswold Classic I had been out for a further two or three rides with them and some of their other riding buddies. During the first of these rides it transpired that Tony and a couple of the other guys had also entered the event and were also doing the 100k route. 

A plan was soon formed to travel down the afternoon before and try to do the ride together or at least all start together. Our group for the day would consist of Tony, Chris, Welli, Cal and the Pixie, with all of us excepting Welli travelling to Minehead the day before to complete registration and generally prepare ourselves for the following days exertions. Welli was working on the Saturday night and had decided to elect for a 5:00am alarm call and a two hour drive on the morning of the event to allow him to get to Minehead in time for the start of the event.

The event start and finish was in Butlins holiday camp on the outskirts of Minehead and close to the sea front. Having the event HQ in Butlins meant that there were plentiful facilities for riders to get breakfast prior to the event and most importantly there were plenty of toilets that weren't of the portaloo variety.

The weather forecast had been very favourable for the week leading up to the event, however the forecast changed dramatically during the 24 hours prior to the start with torrential rain and relatively high winds being forecast for race day. 

Sunday dawned and the weather forecast had been right, it was raining and it was a windy enough to make riding a bike into the wind "interesting" Actually "rainy and windy" doesn't really do the weather on the day justice, "miserable, grey and gloomy" probably describe the conditions more accurately.

The following photograph of the moors was taken by freelance photographer Andrew Hobbs on the morning of the event and I think it really portrays the type of weather and conditions that competitors would be enduring for much of the day. More of Andrews photo's of the event can be found at  

We had intended to start as close to the 7:00am opening time for the start as possible, however Welli was delayed on his journey down and we eventually got away in what must have been one of the last groups to get away before the 8:00am cut off time for starting the event.

The start of the route takes you around the outside of Minehead on the main road before heading towards the moors. Ordinarily you would think early on a Sunday morning that this would be a safe environment for "competent" cyclists who are about to take on the task of "taming the Beast", but no, within minutes of the start I could hear the unmistakable sound of bike frames scraping on tarmac, wheels becoming entangled in other bikes and the dull thud of human bodies landing on wet tarmac. Swift avoiding action was required to miss the heap of bikes and bodies that had resulted from somebody losing concentration while opening a packet of jelly beans. Everybody involved in the incident seemed to be fine and it was a timely reminder that today was not a day for day dreaming.

The initial part of the route was an easy run up to the edge of the moors on A and B roads. At around the 7 mile mark we arrived at the first real test of the day Crook Horn Hill. 

The gradient on Crook Horn Hill varies between 10% and 14% as it works its way up through some woodland. On a dry day, it would be a challenge, on a wet day in autumn with leaves and mud on the road it was carnage! The combination of the weather, the road conditions and hundreds of riders in such a small space meant that for many riders the hill had to be walked and for some it meant accidents and intimate contact with the ground. It was at this point that our group got split up with Tony and myself making good progress through the crowd and surviving the crossing of the cattle grid to make it to the top in one piece and having not suffered to much (if an average heart rate of 179 beats per minute during the climb isn't suffering!)

The route then took us further into the woods and onto the famous river crossing that features in so many reports on this event. There are two options for crossing the river, a foot bridge, which requires dismounting and walking across or riding through the Ford - slowing down to queue for a bridge was never going to be an option, so the ford it was...

Following the crossing of the river the route took us on long climb up through the woodlands and out onto the open moorland where we found ourselves riding in wind and driving rain. The severity of climbing relented for a short while until in the distance we could see a steady stream of cyclists working their way up a long gradual ascent. Looking at my Strava records the hill in question was only around 6% but on the day it felt much steeper and longer than it actually was. The following photo is a shot of the hill viewed from the direction we were coming from and the photo immediately after it, is yours truly cresting the top of the hill.    

 Thankfully there was now a respite from continual climbing as we headed out across the moors and onto the coast road as we made our way to the first feed station at Lynton. The going was pretty tough on the coast road as we struggled into a headwind and continuous rain, whilst trying to reclaim some lost time and increase our average speed. Tony and I took turns at leading and punching into the head wind and wherever possible we briefly rode with other groups as we caught them on the road.

Soon we were on the approach to Lynton and the descent down Countisbury hill. As you can see from the following photographs Countisbury hill is quite steep and on the day the road surface was more than a little bit damp. 

This photo taken by Andrew Hobbs really portrays what type of day it was and the bleakness of Countisbury hill on the day of the event More of Andrews work can be found here Hobbs Photography 
The Feed station at Lynton was particularly busy so Tony and I decided that we would only stop long enough for him to fill his water bottle. Even with my limited Sportive experience, I have learnt that you can lose an awful lot of time stopping at feed stations and if a personal best time is being chased it is best to carry what you will need with you.

The route out of Lynton took us back up over a particularly steep feeling climb ( Strava says between 10 and 11%) and out onto the open moorland where we were once again riding in the driving rain and wind. At this point the field had become more drawn out and it was becoming clear to us that there must have been a significant number of people dropping out and abandoning the event. The run across the moor was tough but it was also an experience to be remembered, it's not often that you find yourself in such a remote place in conditions that actually lend the landscape a sense of majesty and history.

After around 45 minutes the route was taking us off of the top of the moor and into small villages and farm land, the change in scenery also brought a well received respite in the weather, with the rain relenting and the wind was dropping.

Despite not being on the top of the moor or on the coast, the route still managed to throw up a good number of testing hills with one in particular at around 45 miles, which was only around 7%, however when your tired and wet, 7% suddenly feels like 14%. My legs were tired, arms were tired, head was aching (I think it was the constant cold and damp) and my feet felt like blocks of ice, the last thing I needed was another long steep(ish) hill!

I don't know who the chap behind me in black is, but he does look as though he was pretty determined to stay on my back wheel! Tony is behind the chap in black and no he wasn't being scruffy with his jacket open like that - the zip broke early on in the event and as a result Tony was probably wetter and colder than I was. 

With around 53 miles covered the route takes a very welcome turn back towards Minehead and descends for around four miles towards the village of Timberscombe. The descent is very fast and spends much of its route threading it way down narrow tree lined lanes. Remember what I said earlier about rain, mud and leaves, and the fact that they make riding a bike uphill a little more treacherous than in the dry? Yep, it's true going downhill as well. 

On our descent I was following Tony, accelerating a little, then on the brakes, then leaning over for a corner, then accelerating some more, whooshing downhill like a pro on an alpine descent, then a corner tightens mid bend and there is mud on the road. Heart is thumping, I'm wrestling with the bike and I know I can't lean any more or I'll be off. The mud bank opposite is getting larger and closer, I need to slow down but using the brakes will lead to an "off" There's nothing for it, I'll have to lean it over and hope I get around without coming off - I have a moment where the back wheel is coming round to meet the front and I skirt the edge of the mud bank, but I'm still on the bike and heading in a straight line down the hill. Did I slow up after this? Nope, Tony was pulling away from me and that will never do! 

The descent takes us into Timberscombe and my arms and hands are aching from the constant braking, my legs are aching even more than before and then I spot the event photographer. Can I summon up enough energy to try and look like I'm not hurting and I'm attacking the last leg of the route?

The remainder of the route took us into Dunster and then through some country lanes that emerged on the outskirts of Minehead. The run into Minehead and back into Butlins was completed without any dramas and soon we find ourselves riding into the indoor finishing area. The indoor finishing area certainly makes the Exmoor Beast stand out from some of the other events on the Sportive calendar and it was certainly very nice to be finishing inside rather than outside in the wind and damp.

So how did we do? Tony and I finished the 100k in 5 hours and 2 minutes which placed Tony 123rd in his age group and 303rd overall and I was placed 42nd in my age group and 304th overall. There were a total of 1650 entries for the event so although I missed a gold standard by 7 minutes, I'm actually quite pleased with that result.

The rest of our group all individually had eventful days with Chris being knocked off of his bike on Crook Horn hill, he did however get back on and finish the event in 6 hours 32 minutes. Welli had an encounter with a hedge on the long descent into Timberscombe and finished in 5 hours 51 minutes. Cal had problems early on in the event with his breakfast and ended up feeding the local wildlife finishing ahead of Welli (I don't have a time for Cal at the time of writing)

How tough is the Exmoor Beast compared to other Sportives? It's a tough event, the running of the event in the autumn means the weather is likely to be poor and the route is a lot hillier than some of the "flatter" routes used by other Sportives. To be able to finish even the 100k route most people will need to do some training beforehand.

Elevation Profile of the Exmoor Beast 100k route

The event has a reputation for being run with military precision and this reputation is well deserved. Will I be back next year? Absolutely and probably to do the 100 mile route.

As always thanks for taking the time to take a look at my blog and read the rambling thoughts of the Pixie as he continues on his journey to l'etape 2013. 

I hope you are able to come back to read more Pixie ramblings some time in the future.

Dha weles diwettha






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