The Exmoor Explorer

The Exmoor Explorer is a ‘non-race’ around the amazing trails of Exmoor, starting from Minehead.

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What is a non-race, I hear you ask? Archaic English land laws prevent competitions on public rights of way. This means races are restricted to private properties, and anything using the extensive and fantastic network of trails we have has to be called an ‘event’, rather than a ‘race’. It’s a quirky system, but it has some advantages. The first, exemplified by the Explorer, is that friendly events attract a huge range of people, from first timers to seasoned experts. The second is that because events on public paths are rare, they get a great turn out, are well organised, and are supported by the local community.

The logistics of organising a ‘non-race’ are pretty funny. It’s like a race in most respects. There’s a start line. There’s 500 riders with numbers attached to their bikes, and there’s a start, like any other. The organiser annouced before the race event that it was ‘non competitive’ to a few chuckles from the racers participants. There’s also a finish line, and results. So it’s a little bit like a race, really.

We started through town of Minehead behind the neutral car. For once the pace actually was neutral, and we rode steadily to the base of North Hill, a 15 minute climb onto the coastal hills above the town. I didn’t know what to expect from the start, but got a surprise when everyone decided that 700 watts was the appropriate effort for the start of a ‘non-race’. It soon settled down, and I was left with a young and enthusiastic rider who was rallying the descents to suggest he’d ridden them before, and a self confessed ‘veteran’ who was being cheered on by all the marshals, so he was definitely local.

We rode into the first check point (it’s timed, but it’s not a race) to the surprise of the marshals, who quickly worked out how to scan our tags and sent us out onto loop number two. This one was longer, taking in forest roads and some tight single-track through a plantation. I got a gap on a couple of the shorter climbs and just kept riding. The non-competitive part of the event made me hesitate for a second or two. Through the first check point I’d waited up for everyone to get scanned, and we left smiling and chatting. The first couple of gates we went through were opened and closed together. So it seemed almost rude to go ahead and ride off. But then I realised I was being slightly too British, and I should ride at my own pace. I did so, enjoying myself a lot more when I realised that the trails on Exmoor are best ridden at full speed and nothing slower!

The three loops came back to the same feed zone each time. It seemed like some people had a different order of priorities than I did!
The three loops came back to the same feed zone each time. It seemed like some people had a different order of priorities than I did!

I came through the check point at the end of the second loop to see a huge mass of people heading out to start it. The directions given for the third loop were “Follow the road until you see the Fish and Chip shop, then take a left and the course markings start”. This was accurate, but the friendly marshal didn’t tell me that the left turn would lead me to a 15 minute climb that gradually got steeper and steeper, with no corners whatsoever, and a slick moss covered surface that had been lovingly churned by the lead moto.

From here on I could enjoy myself. The trails on the last loop were sublime; hidden wet roots underneath pine needles, and tree stumps on the apexes of off camber corners. I enjoyed it. The course did some gratuitous climbing to make up the miles, zigzagging back and forth through a small section of forest. Each up was followed by an awesome down, though. It would have been better with someone to ride it with, as the trails sapped all speed and energy out of your legs, leaving you floundering without momentum on heavy, damp soil.

The race crossed the Knowle Plantation above Minehead a number of times, taking in all the good trails and some hard climbs between. This is the view due north, looking across the Bristol channel with Wales just clear in the distance
The race crossed the Knowle Plantation above Minehead a number of times, taking in all the good trails and some hard climbs between. This is the view due north, looking across the Bristol channel with Wales just clear in the distance

I knew the final climb was over when I crested it to see the Bristol channel staring back at me. The Sea! From here it was all downhill back into Minehead, where I was greeted by endless cake, and tea from my favourite tea company, Miles.

Endless Miles tea in the feed zones. This event is great
Endless Miles tea in the feed zones. This event is great

The Exmoor Explorer is a fantastic event run for all the right reasons. Although I feel it would be enhanced by becoming an official race, there are lots of people who disagree. Its current format allows a wider range of abilities to take part, which is certainly the aim at the end of the day. I had great pleasure in propping my Turner up in the finish area and watching successive groups of riders come over to stare at it – it garnered a lot of attention in a short space of time!

The Czar garners an audience pretty much everywhere it goes
The Czar garners an audience pretty much everywhere it goes

Road riding on Exmoor – a biased review

Which way? There's almost always more than one way to connect each village. The options spread the few visitors out even further, leaving you with endless roads to yourself

The Exmoor coast is the most primitive shoreline left in England. The huge cliffs have protected 35 miles of coastline from development, and the result is one of the most one unique landscapes in the UK. The cliffs role inland onto huge flat-topped hills. The relentless atlantic storms and long winters have scoured the vegetation from the tops of the moorland, leaving hardy plants and wildlife. The wooded valleys cutting between these hills are a contrast – part of the huge variety of terrain you’ll see if you cross Exmoor by bike.

Countisbury Hill is famous in the UK as one of the hardest climbs. The first mile is at 25% gradient

The Tour of Britain has visited Exmoor on every iteration since it’s rebirth, and it’s easy to see why. The roads cutting straight up and down the hills create 25% gradients that are impossible to ride easily. With all elevation starting from absolute zero – sea level – and rising to 1600 feet, the climbs are bigger than they appear on the map, and some of the most challenging in the UK.

Towards the top of Dunkery Beacon. Most climbs on Exmoor are devoid of switchbacks; instead, small roads wind directly up the barren faces of the hills
Towards the top of Dunkery Beacon. Most climbs on Exmoor are devoid of switchbacks; instead, small roads wind directly up the barren faces of the hills

As soon as you travel off the top of the moor, the trees grow taller, plant species become more numerous, and the weather a little gentler. The weather is fast-moving and unpredictable on Exmoor. The storms moved rapidly off the atlantic and over the coast, dropping heavy rain any time of the year. The wooded valleys are the protection from the elements, and it’s not uncommon to have different weather at the bottom of the hill from at the top.

In the bottom of the valley's, it's sometimes impossible to tell what the weather is doing just 1000 feet above
In the bottom of the valley’s, it’s sometimes impossible to tell what the weather is doing just 1000 feet above

The inaccessible coastline was further protected when Exmoor became a national park. Unlike the Wildernesses that make up American national parks, in the UK the national parks are living places filled with farms and industry. The protection comes from stopping development that would ruin what is already there. As such, Exmoor is filled with small villages, each with its own identity. Some of the villages are just a couple of miles apart, separated by open moorland and winding roads. These winding roads have often been replaced by (slightly) larger roads that now carry cars around the park, leaving winding country lanes to the bikes and horses. It takes a lot of local knowledge to successfully piece together a route through the best parts of Exmoor, and it takes a strong pair of legs to carry out the planned ride.

Trentishoe Down is at the western edge of Exmoor, where the unrelenting hills finally subside into the friendlier North Devon countryside
Trentishoe Down is at the western edge of Exmoor, where the unrelenting hills finally subside into the friendlier North Devon countryside

With Weather and fitness on your side, there are endless options for riding, taking in the busier coastal areas, or the quieter high moorland.

Porlock Hill has a warning for cyclists to dismount. It's hilarious for an experienced rider, but casual bike riders will struggle on Exmoor
Porlock Hill has a warning for cyclists to dismount. It’s hilarious for an experienced rider, but casual bike riders will struggle on Exmoor

I’ve been riding and walking on Exmoor for a long time, but it’s only recently that I’ve truly appreciated Exmoor for what it offers to cyclists. The variable weather that can never be predicted is the biggest factor in keeping people from coming to this part of the world – it seems that sunshine is often the determining factor when riders decide where to visit. Hot summers days might be the easiest time to enjoy the riding, but some of the best days are the ones where you’re the only person around for miles, the roads are your own, and the bleak moorland rolls on for days.

The heather, bracken, and gorse bushes are the natural flora of Exmoor. Hardy plants that can survive the harsh winters and bloom in the warm summers
The heather, bracken, and gorse bushes are the natural flora of Exmoor. Hardy plants that can survive the harsh winters and bloom in the warm summers