Cyclo-Sportive: The Exmoor Beast
Braving roaring winds, torrential rain and super-steep hills, 71-year-old Ron Keegan joins more than 1,000 hardy souls to do battle with the Beast and beat it
I did the Etape du Tour in 2000, when the weather was so bad they closed the Ventoux before half the field got up it - conditions for the Exmoor Beast were worse. I can honestly say it was the hardest day I've ever spent on a bike, and in my youth I raced some pro-ams with the likes of Ron Coe. But in a strange, macabre way I enjoyed it. It was one of those days you can look back on and say "I was there".
There should have been two ‘Beasts' - a 100 mile and a 100 kilometre - but when the day dawned with storm force winds and torrential rain it didn't look like there'd be any Beasts at all. I have to declare a vested interest because the organiser, Marcus Di Vincenzo, is also my son-in-law; but how he dealt with the situation was brilliant.
In these days of rigorous health and safety, and attendant blame culture, the easiest thing for Marcus to do would have been abandon the event. The weather was certainly bad enough. Instead, knowing that a lot of people had come a long way to ride, he decided to pool all his resources for the 100-kilometre ride.
Nearly 2,000 riders entered and 600 decided discretion was the best part of valour, thinking at least that they'd live to fight another day. Amazingly, though, of the thousand or so who did start, most battled through. It was as though we had all made some sort of grizzly pact to not give in and not to let the day beat us.
I rode a hybrid bike, which turned out just right for the job, and as I was riding with my daughter Janine, we planned to take it steady and get through, come what may. I felt in control in the wind and the low gears meant I kept riding where others walked.
I'll never forget going up Dunkery Beacon. Out of the mist a woman was standing beside the cattle grid, dressed in a trench coat and riding hat, saying in a posh voice: "Do be careful, it's like a skating rink," to every rider who passed. It was one of those days for seeing things like that.
Dunkery was a pivotal point of the ride. Despite the conditions, some still wanted to do the 100 miles, but Dunkery put them straight. Wheels were spinning on the slick surface, riders just got off mid pedal, causing those behind to do the same. And all the time a 50mph headwind lashed stinging rain into our faces. Nobody wanted to do the 100 after Dunkery, and it took some as much as four hours to complete the first 35 miles.
Things improved at Simonsbath, where the organisers set up wood-burning stoves and served hot soup to everyone who got there. That was a nice prelude to the best bit, as the wind now blew behind us and 25mph was easy on the road to Wheddon Cross.
Finally we reached the last descent and the indoor finish at the Butlins holiday camp in Minehead, where everyone clutched their ‘I Tamed the Beast' kit bag, sipped Champagne and shared memories.
Mine will include descending at 48mph, seeing someone riding uphill with his arms outstretched, and Steve Joughin, who was there selling clothes, telling his umpteenth customer that he hadn't any overshoes left. "Go to the shop and get a roll of tin foil and a roll of cling film. Wrap your feet in the cling film, put your socks on, then wrap the tin foil around them and put your shoes on. You'll be as warm as toast, plus it's eco-friendly because you can use the foil to cook the Sunday roast and wrap the leftovers in the cling film," he told them.
Another story came from a support crew, who, on seeing two bikes leaned up outside a pub, went inside to check if their owners were OK. There they found a couple of ‘Beasters' enjoying a pint and tucking into cheesy chips.
For me the day will always be summed up in the words of a guy in that big hall at Butlins, when he said: "This was a day when God said, ‘No, you can't,' and 1,000 cyclists said, ‘Oh, yes, we can.'"
What's so special?
North Somerset and Devon coast
Normally this is the spectacular part of the Beast and it was on November 1 this year, but for different reasons. Normally you ride the cliff-tops with huge views across the Bristol Channel to South Wales. This year, though, it was like riding in a wind tunnel while being jet-washed and occasionally smacked in the face with a chamois wash leather.
Sportive Sound Bites
"The weather was hideous. Twice the amount of people were riding, so on Dunkery you had to pick through bodies stopping mid-climb in front of you. It was all strangely exhilarating, though."
"I definitely wasn't ready for it. I've cycled off and on for a few years, and thought the ride would be a challenge, but in that wind it was beyond me. It was an amazing experience, though, and I'm thinking of coming back next year; but I'll do more training.
"I'm quite new to cycling. I used to play team sports, but an ankle injury resulted in me having my ankle fused, so I can't run any more. I'll definitely be back for more cyclosportives. The weather was terrible, but that just added to the satisfaction of finishing. It's the first time on a bike that I've had lactic acid burn in my triceps. My arms ached more than my legs. It was really worth it when I found I'd done a gold standard time."