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July 09, 2021

UK's Toughest Group Ride - Exmoor

As band of climbers headed to the most southerly start location of our group ride tour, the weather turned. heavy rain fell from dark skies as we drove through somerset to the start line in dulverton.

we arrived in the pretty village half expecting only a hardy few riders to show up. but no, a solid group of riders appeared, rain jackets at the ready, for a big day of climbing. What lay ahead was 100km and 2600m of climbing.

We had been looking forward to this ride for months. This ride had something that no other group ride of ours had - coastal views and high climbs. Sadly, those views would hardly materialise on the ride due to the heavy rain and dark sky.

After heavy rain poured down en route to the start line, the conditions dried out somewhat as the ride got underway. Rain jackets were packed away into back pockets and summer kit prevailed again, for now. We set off from Dulverton towards the north Somerset and Devon coastline. Immediately up the climb of Bury Hill. 1.5km at over 8%.

The route we planned was quite different to any of the other rides in our Summer of Steep. Where many of the rides were packed with up to 20 short, steep ascents, this Exmoor route featured 3 distinct, long ascents, much longer than anything else we had faced on our tour. Each ascent was longer than the last too, before regular service was resumed and the short, steep climbs followed in the final third of the ride.

The first of the days 'big climbs' followed after a nice and fast descent of Wheddon Cross. A 5km ascent of Putham Lane, averaging over 6%. This was a nice and quiet ascent, with no cars passing us on the whole climb. The only distraction was some motor-cross riders tearing through an adjacent field, the occasional lump of mud coming flying over the high hedges in our direction.

After a repeat of the Wheddon Cross descent, we headed towards the usually picturesque ascent of Drapers Way, which takes up the famous Dunkery Beacon. The Strava segment showing 2.8km at almost 4%. The summit of the climb usually offering a stunning view over the Bristol Channel, towards Cardiff. Paul, from Minehead CC tells us that it's possible to see the Millenium Stadium from here on a clear day. Not a chance of that on todays ride though. We can barely see the beaches down below us. A quick regroup at the top to take in the views, and down we went.

The descent off Dunkery Beacon was superb. Fast, flowing, and technical in parts too. A tractor slowed us down towards the bottom, but with wet roads it was a somewhat welcome delay. At the foot of the descent, we rolled along to the town of Porlock, where we had a decision to make in planning this route.

The only way to get out of Porlock is to climb, and if you're heading to Lyton, as our route was, you have two choices:

Option 1, is the steepest A road in England. Porlock Hill. 2.6km at almost 12%, with sections over 25%.

Option 2, is the much prettier, much quieter and gentler Porlock Toll Road. 6.6% at 5.5%, which as it turns out, is simply superb.

The Porlock Toll Road is exactly that, a private road with a toll booth half way up. All users of the road, including cyclists must pay a toll. For riders, it's £1, and it may be the best £1 you've ever spent on cycling. The climb is phenomenal. It feels like an Alpine climb. Buttery smooth tarmac, switchbacks, steady gradients, and stunning views of the Bristol Channel as you round corner after corner.

For us however, those views were shortlived, as around half way up the climb, the heavens opened, and the rain came darting down, and that heavy rain would be a constant feature of the 2nd half of the ride.

After the ascent of the Porlock Toll Road, we rolled over the A39 down to Lynmouth. The descent of Countisbury Hill being one of the descents we had been warned about, as it's fast, flowing and steep in parts, with incredible views over the coastline beneath us. On our ride, there was rain pelting us in the face, with visibility down to 5-10m, it was a case of keeping full focus on getting down the hill safely.

With everyone down safely into Lynmouth, we took shelter where we could. The OTE Sports Feed Station provided some welcome relief, with the van boot providing shelter from the rain. A nearby coffee shop also providing hot drinks for others who had caught a chill on the descent. With anytime bars and caffeine gels packed into our pockets, we set off up the biggest climb of the day, right over Exmoor.

The final climb of the day was the longest climb of our entire Group Ride tour. Exmoor Forest. Over 11km at almost 4%. Relatively steep to begin with, it eased off to more of a false flat towards the top. Still, 11km climbs are pretty rare in the UK so this is one to be savoured.

With heavy rain pouring down, there was to be no KOM hunting today. The climb itself was still stunning, even with the rain, fog and mist surrounding us. Wide open views of Devon and Somerset appeared at the summit, with a fast and flowing descent to follow.

After two further steep climbs and the crossing of a Ford which was particularly deep, it was time for the final descent to Dulverton, which would have been a joy on smooth tarmac, however the rough surface took the thrill out of the final drop, with maximum concentration required to keep the hands on the bars thanks to the wet conditions. At the finish, there was a chance to swap stories and memories of the day, before all the riders took home their Band of Climbers Merch Bags.  

What a ride, and what a route. We're already making plans to head back and ride it in the summer to see those views we missed out on. See you back there soon, Exmoor.


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