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

Back at it

I’m back to riding a lot after the Christmas break, and it feels great! My experimentation with the cyclocross season ended well, and I’m hooked for life on that sport. It left me confused on fitness and motivation levels though. By the beginning of December I’d lost the sharp speed I needed for cross season, and had no motivation for longer rides. I tried a couple times to get back into it with some two hour jaunts in the rain, but I wasn’t feeling it. I had to walk away for a while.

Reading over some old blog posts, I realised I had felt pretty similar at the same time last year, and the cure had been a really good rest. With the new year ticking around, the rain relenting, and renewed vigour, I finally had all the pieces in place to ride properly. No more motivational speeches to myself, no more ‘why am I doing this?’ in the back on my mind, finally I was riding because that’s what I wanted to do. I’m happiest when I’m riding. Just ask anyone who knows me how grumpy I am when I haven’t had any exercise!

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This week I had the pleasure of a riding companion. Rob (/) is an Exmoor local who has ridden more miles around here than almost anyone else. I’m excellent at the off-road topography, but his knowledge of every road name, every connector, and the gradient profile of each climb was excellent. After I contacted him out the blue, he planned a long route on Saturday, and we headed off for a full day. I knew I was in trouble when he turned up on a road bike. The silent whoosh of his tyres along the road amplified the buzz coming off of mine. I’d told him I wanted a hard ride though, and that’s what we both got.

Exmoor Road Cycling Ride Lynton Exford Dulverton Porlock

We headed up and away from the coast towards the high ridge separating Exmoor from the rest of Devon; the boundary between rough moorland and the productive and fertile farmland to the south. We managed to find the clouds and mist, even on a relatively clear day. The view south, which can stretch over 50 miles, was shorter today but still wonderful to look over the rolling green hills. We dipped down into Dulverton, a market town on the southern end of the National Park, then climbed back up within sight of the coast. From there down to Porlock is an undulating descent through well kept farmland and pretty little villages. This area in the summer is prime tourist land, and it was a relief to see many more horses and cyclists than cars. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that many cyclists out on Exmoor as I did today.

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I’m sure Rob had intentionally included the longest climb on the Moor on our first ride. I wasn’t perturbed though; it’s a beautiful road, winding through a couple hidden valleys before skirting around Dunkery beacon. After a month of non stop rain, I couldn’t help but enjoy the uninterrupted views across the Bristol channel, even as far as Wales.

Porlock and bristol channel from top of Mill Lane, Dunery Beacon, Exmoor National Park

From there it was a fast ride west, back towards Lynton and Combe Martin. Rob’s road tyres came in useful for both of us; for him it meant cruising along at 18 mph, for me it meant unashamed wheel-sucking and enjoying the draft. I hate riding alone.

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I’d aimed for four hours on the bike, but realistically knew it was going to be further. After parting ways with Rob in Barbrook, I ate my Emergency chocolate rations (few people know this, but I rarely ride without chocolate in my pocket!) and rolled home to Combe Martin. I felt really good. Refreshed. I was expecting to be completely worked over, but I felt the opposite. Sometimes what you need is exactly what you think you don’t need.

Lovely weekend on Exmoor!