DISTANCE 100km (67m)
MAIN CLIMB Luccombe Hill, 441m above sea level
ACHTUNG! Westerly headwinds on the moors
One of the greatest English thinkers, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was high on opiates in a farmhouse near Porlock in the summer of 1797 when he wrote ‘Kubla Khan’. He was famously interrupted by a visitor from Porlock, but not before he had penned enough to leave the legacy of Xanadu to the world of rock (Rush) and to the cinema (Citizen Kane).
What Coleridge did not do was climb out of Porlock on a bike. When I did, as part of the Exmoor Beast, the last cyclo-sportive of the 2007 season, I could have done with some of Coleridge’s medication.
The Brendon Hills above Porlock are the first upward hike in this lovely sportive, rising up onto the high plateau in the centre of Exmoor. The event is brilliantly organised by ex-marine and events specialist Marcus Di Vincenzo, and run by a team of Royal Marines.
It is so well conceived, and so well executed, that you can’t help feeling that the RM should run the UK. Di Vincenzo is no cyclist, so he brings none of the preconceptions one might have about the cycling community’s culture – this was part festival, part celebration, part race; a fabulous experience in all.
The route was stunning. Exmoor has some of the finest open scenery in England, and long vistas of moor and sea, bosky combes vibrant with autumn colours, and sinuous lush rivers; it is relatively unspoilt as an environment, although you can feel the pressure of people around the edges. But look up, and there is the north Somerset coast, with wooded hills rolling down to the Bristol Channel.
Planned with precision
The route starts out from Dunster, winding out of the castle grounds and through the town. It then heads north to the coast, then west skimming along the flat road to Minehead. Beyond Minehead, the route turns inland and follows a steep climb to the south.
This is Luccombe Hill, and while it is stiff, it is by no means impossible – just arduous enough to give a glow of achievement at the top.
Then it’s up towards Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on Exmoor (519m), and across Exmoor into a sapping wind.
The area is called the Codsend Moors, mostly heather and gorse; but – if you’re going slowly enough – there are grasses, sedges and mosses to catch your eye.
The plunge into Lynmouth, Countisbury Hill, bristles with highways warning signs and escape roads.
If you don’t mind the smell of burning brake blocks, it is quite safe; if you can’t bring yourself to slow down (or enjoy the coastline to the east), then it is a very fast descent indeed.
So imagine dragging a 10-ton lifeboat up the 25 per cent Countisbury gradient, at night, in a storm. Exactly what the lifeboat crew did in 1899 in order to save a ship in trouble off Porlock Weir.
Thirteen miles through the night, 20 horses, 100 men and a road-widening team sent ahead. Then down to Porlock. Two horses died, but the ship and crew were saved.Perhaps a man-powered charity race with boats over Exmoor might be an idea for next year!
Up from Lynmouth, above the river Lyn that swept away the village in 1952, the ride climbs beautifully up through woods of oak, hazel and ash. This is the best section of the day: sustained and yet manageable, quiet, smooth, and intimate in contrast to the wide open spaces. Back on the moor, the route heads south in a steady slog via Simonsbath, the first feeding station. Beyond that, the route divides.
The 100km riders head east and then south to Dulverton, and finally north along the Quarme Valley (by far the worst of the road surfaces, local authorities take note). The 100m riders head south-east towards Dulverton and then follow loop back via Bampton to rejoin the route north. The finish is back at the start, Dunster Castle.
It had been a superb ride, the crowning triumph of an event that was faultlessly planned from start to finish.
The pre-ride information pack was exemplary, with clear information on timetable, parking and route. On the evening before the ride, waiting with information screens and local advice, Marcus and his wife were on duty in Dunster.
On the morning of the ride, marshals (marines, of course) did a great job of directing the traffic and getting everyone settled. There were bike racks and loos at the feed stations, there were mechanics and medics on call throughout, and the route itself was clearly marked and also easy to follow on a route card.
Hot soup and bacon rolls were hugely welcome at the feed stop, a cafe in Simonsbath. And a beer/burger tent at the finish gave the event a festival feel.
The ambition of this event was truly admirable, a lesson – that others organisers could learn from – in how to turn a mere event into a truly memorable occasion.
Di Vincenzo explains: “We want to make this the ultimate end-of-season event. But it’s not just about the bike, everything is catered for: safety, feeding and enjoyment. With the Exmoor Beast you have it all.” I agree.
The 100km (67.26m) route:
From Dunster Castle go through the high street and take the A39 west towards Lynmouth. Turn L at 6.09miles (m) to Luccombe. Turn R at 7.33m to Dunkery Beacon. Turn L for Dunkery Beacon at 7.89m. Down towards Exford at 8.51m. Take R for Porlock at 13.05. Take L for Lynton on A39 at 17.27.
Down Contisbury Hill to Lynmouth at 24.86m, then L on A59 for Barnstaple at 26.66m. Turn L uphill on B3223 for Simonsbath at 28.46m. Turn R on B3223 at 39.26m for Dulverton. Take sharp L at 48.91m in Dulverton on B3222 for Minehead. L at 50.15m on A396 for Dunster. R at Wheddon Cross at 58.60m. L for Timberscombe at Heath Poult Cross at 60.34m. R at 64.59m, then R onto A396 at 64.71m for Dunster.
WANT TO RIDE IT?
The Exmoor Beast set-up is online at www.exmoorbeast.org and at www.activexmoor.com. Online entry is easy and cost £27 this year (the VAT on entries goes to Bike Somerset). It is organised by Marcus Di Vincenzo (email@example.com) and supported by Bike Somerset (www.visitsomerset.co.uk/bikesomerset) and Wildoo (www.wildoo.co.uk). Accommodation can be scarce, so book early in the Dunster and Minehead area (www.visitsomerset.co.uk).