Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Taming the Exmoor Beast

The Exmoor Beast is a cycling event renowned for its tough climbs and descents. I had entered it excitedly after listening to Leo and Nicky saying how brilliant it was. We all signed up for the 100km (66mile) route, which takes in somewhere around 1700m of elevation gain.

I had good intentions all summer of doing a few organised rides but for one reason or another, these never came to fruition so the Beast was my first venture into the wonderful world of cyclosportive.

Every cyclist I spoke to kept talking to me about my gears and getting the right ratios for those sorts of hills and blah blah blah. I had no idea what they were talking about, and to be honest I didn’t think I would have a problem with my current gears; I hardly ever go into the easiest one as it is. However, just over a week before the event I did start to get concerned as more and more people were doing that annoying sharp intake of breath thing when I told them what gearing I’d be using.

After another chat with the long-suffering Leo and Nicky, we eventually came to the conclusion that it might be easier to do the ride on the mountain bike as there are so many more gears available. Then to my surprise and delight, Leo announced he had gotten hold of an appropriately sized cassette (the cogs on the back... I didn’t know either) that would work for this course AND he would fit it on for me – awesome.

So I took Bianca over to have her new cassette fitted. As soon as Leo looked at it he realised there was a problem. The problem was that I am apparently unable to count; I had told him I had a seven-speed rather than an eight-speed. Luckily with a bit of shifting around and engineering genius, he made it fit and we were ready to tackle the beast. I still wasn’t completely convinced that this marginally different sized metalwork would make any difference to my ride but I really do know absolutely nothing about bicycle mechanics and if anything, at least it was new and shiny.

Before we arrived at our B&B on Saturday, we took a little detour to have a look at the first climb that we would be coming to the next morning. The realisation hit me. This really was going to be a tough ride. A gradient of 1:6 was awaiting us less than 5 miles in on a muddy, thin and wet leaf covered road leading up to Dunkery Beacon.

I knew one thing for sure; we needed to be properly fuelled for this. We hit the pub-grub and I managed to stay strong and avoid dessert whilst all around me cheesecake and ice-cream was flowing. With a full stomach and a head full of nervous excitement, I hit the sack and made the most of the extra hour in bed.

With fuelling still on my mind (surprise surprise) in the morning, I had myself a lovely three course breakfast and just prayed I wouldn’t be regurgitating sausage halfway up that first incline.

We set off gently; my plan was that I would try not to go too fast at the start so that I had enough left at the end. As soon as I turned the corner into the Dunkery Beacon road that plan went out the window, mostly because it’s impossible to take it easy going up there. You either have to give it everything you’ve got or give up and walk. It was at this point I became eternally thankful for the extra gears. I bottomed out immediately, got my head down and just pushed for the top.

I eventually made it, and I think it’s quite possible that my heart has never worked that hard. I could feel my whole body pulsating and a wash of adrenaline-filled elation swept over me, yes this was only the first hill of many but this one was achievable, me and my bottom gear could probably do anything!

The next bit was a narrow, winding affair that I imagine is absolutely cracking when it’s dry but the wet leaves and mud were making every corner a dicey one. This didn’t last long though, before I knew it the gradient started to build again and the pace slowed. You celebrate the end of this endless elevation by popping over a cattle grid and once you emerge from the trees you realise you’re right up on the moors. I glanced down at my GPS and was horrified to see that in just over an hour of really hard cycling, I’d managed to travel all of about 8 miles (about 13km). This was going to be a long day.

The next bit was absolutely superb, a meandering road drifting through the fog, I’m sure it would have been gorgeous if you could see any of the countryside but I was enjoying the road itself because it was flat and it was fast. I’d soon forgotten all of the pain I’d suffered in the first hour!

At the 2 hour mark I checked the GPS again, I’d done 40km. I had to check again. Now that was a much more reasonable pace. I worked out that if I could keep up an average pace like that and just push a bit harder I could maybe even get the gold standard time of 4hr55mins.

The rest of the ride took in gorges, quaint villages, lots of fun chats with other cyclists, a crazy steep 25% descent that was the most awesome bit of downhill I’ve ever seen on a road bike and some brilliant moments of overtaking men with enormous calves on their carbon bikes – marvellous.

I reached the sign that said there were only 10 miles until the end. I had 40 minutes to make it. I started pushing harder up the hills and then there was a great section of fast back roads, I was absolutely flying and loving it. However, moments before the 5 mile marker I managed to skid out on a bend and hit the tarmac. Two cyclists in front stopped to see if I was ok, and thankfully, I was. I brushed off the muck and cautiously got back on the bike. My legs were shaking uncontrollably from the shock of coming off but the urge to make the cut off was strong and once I managed to cleat my quivering feet back in, I was going for it.

I pulled into the finish completely and utterly exhausted. My heart and lungs were actually aching. I went to find out what my time was and was ecstatic with 4hours 49mins and 47 seconds. We piled up our plates with lovely carvery on the way home (still dessertless, boo) and I was dead to the world until the next morning.

It’s Wednesday now and I still ache, but it was totally worth it and I’m already gearing up for next year and busy scouting the internet for other sportives I can take part in.

The final count for October bike miles was 580 too, well over the 500 I’d wanted to do! I think November could be the month of leg resting..

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