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Exmouth Exodus – Andy Lulham

CyclingWords by Andy Lulham

I have done sportives all over the south of England and some further afield, exploring country lanes and gurning up challenging climbs from the Romney Marshes to the New Forest, the South Downs to the Peak District.

I’ve breathed in pollen from a dozen counties and chattered my teeth and bones down some pretty poor road surfaces, yet one factor remained constant: all of these rides were essentially circular, out and back efforts that required nothing more navigationally challenging than back-tracking to the last fluorescent arrow on a lamp post or traffic sign. And they were in daylight.

Quite what possessed me to sign up for an overnight, 100-mile, non-signed event is lost in a mist of bravado and inexperience-fuelled stupidity.

There are two famously idiotic ventures to choose from – the Dunwich Dynamo and the Exmouth Exodus. The Dynamo, or DD, is a north-easterly trek from London to the Norfolk Coast, and it was Obsessive/Compulsive Cycling Disorder’s Dave Barter and his account of the DD that I think inspired me to try it, London being nearest to me. Sadly, the date was not compatible with holidays, so my attention was then focused upon the Exodus.

I’ve done a few ‘Imperial Centuries’, all-day affairs punctuated with excessive tea stops, but never was I more than 20 miles from home and the potential saviour of public transport or a disgruntled spouse with a cycle carrier. The Exodus was a different beast altogether.

The Exodus is a 100-mile reliability trial from Bristol to Exmouth, through Cheddar Gorge and bordering on Exmoor. The terrain itself was slightly daunting, but factor in lack of local knowledge and the element of darkness and it becomes a challenge of epic proportions for all but the most committed and, some would say, mental of cyclists.

Challenge on
My first challenge was to get to the start: Channing’s Hotel above the centre of Bristol and close to the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Driving would be an option, but I had to consider the possibility that I may (would) be too tired to drive home when I eventually got back to the start… ah, back to the start… did I mention it’s not a circular route?

So driving to the South-West was not an option and I decided that a train to Bristol, and maybe back from Exmouth, would be the best way to go. However, it appeared that although service between home and the start was good, being a Sunday, the journey back from the seaside might prove more of a challenge. Thankfully, the event organisers had a wealth of interest in hired transport to ship back weary cyclists and their bikes, so I was duly booked into that. That in itself was a milestone as up until that point it was merely an ambition – parting with money to reunite me with my luggage at the Channing’s was tantamount to commitment.

In the weeks before the ride I spent most time pondering what equipment to buy and take. I needed a good set of lights and some appropriate clothing and my birthday list made for some interesting reading. The journey from Sussex to Bristol was pretty stress free, aside from a rushed connection at Reading, and even the weather seemed to be favourable, the rainy forecast never fulfilling its potential.

I arrived at the Channing’s after getting lost from Temple Meads station (not a good omen) to find their beer garden already heaving with cyclists of all persuasions – roadies, mtb’ers, commuters, tandems, even a Brompton – and in the middle, Dave: local cycling journalist and one of the organisers with a pot of donations, a ream of route notes and a blackboard like a racecourse bookie. I had a sudden feeling he was taking odds on anything from first puncture to first fatality, but thankfully this wasn’t the case. I signed my name on the attendance sheet and hobbled off to the gents to change into my overnight gear and stash the rest behind the bar.

When I returned to order some food, I found the bar itself totally rammed. Thinking there must be something important on the TV (‘Golden Saturday’ was unfolding before us and Ennis was winning the gold for the heptathlon), it wasn’t until I tried to get out to my bike I realised the biblical theme of the ride now included the rainfall. As what sun there was went down and we all began to steam gently.

I was impressed by the lack of ‘sod that’ being displayed – I’m guessing some of them had fortified themselves with more than burger and chips. I dutifully clipped in and waited in the gutter, my spokes trapping increasing amounts of water-propelled plant debris with my shirt and chamois soaking up, it seemed, most of the evening’s precipitation. Then with more a shrug and a sigh than a fanfare, a dozen or so of us resigned to getting wetter than an octopus’s wellies and we were off. At least the rain was warm.

Despite the weather, I made good progress and perhaps ignoring one of my cardinal sportive rules, went off at quite a pace, chasing the hypnotic flashes of LEDs that bounced, flashed and swayed along the road ahead of me. I guessed that there would be enough people to light my way, but was undone within the first 10 miles and with Karma biting my bum, I had to retrace my route until I found a stream of neon pouring off the main road and onto the country lane I’d zoomed past while chasing what was probably a slow car or a local on their way back from the pub.

Dutifully humbled, I made sure that I rode within the groups that formed and fractured along the way as we began the trek south-west. The rain had stopped, the moon was out and the traffic subsided so all you could hear was the whirring of free hubs, the moan of brakes and the occasionally yelp of an unseen pot-hole. Mindful of my detour, I was swept up and adopted by a triumvirate of cyclist from Exmouth, who shepherded me with a combination of heroic trust in the course notes, allied to part-remembered landmarks from last year’s ride.

I was thankful of the local knowledge imparted by Stu as we descended ‘The Cheddar’ – a full-moon is no good to you when walls of stone block out light there is, and you’re only as good as the lumens you throw out in front of you. What didn’t help was the sudden absence of road markings down the steepest section, and I’m sure if the Cubs running the teastop in Cheddar Village had been selling replacement underwear that night, they’d have made a fortune.

Much of the remainder of the ride was taken up with the kind of pointless chatter you indulge in on a ride, massively important at the time but hard to recall after the pedals have stopped turning. The thing that I remember the most, though, was the sheer number of slugs and snails that were strewn along the road. Many perished that night.

One more climb
Close on half-way, we rolled into North Curry for an ironic bowl of chilli which at the time was the most challenging part of the event, having spent the previous five hours sucking on energy gels and forcing down saliva-sapping cereal bars. One more epic climb was on the cards and the promise of a daybreak gut-buster beckoned at the seafront.

Big-ring riding was shunned at even the smallest of inclines until the outskirts of Exmouth when I was assured that it really was downhill all the way. The weather had a final rainy card to play and wretchedly drenched us all the way to the Harbour View. The staff manfully went like the clappers to serve up dozens of hearty meals and mugs of tea and once more we sat and steamed in our own fug and puddles, physically and metaphorically applauding the achievements of each rider who took their number at the servery and waited for it to be called back with breakfasty rewards.

As the day got older and the flood of cyclists abated, those that had booked were all loaded up for our return to Bristol. Somehow the seats in the coach seemed more uncomfortable than the 10 hours we’d just spent perched and pedalling – sleep was almost impossible as overtiredness bit.

Back at the start I said my goodbyes as we dispersed and started home, with thoughts of a hot shower and a comfy bed displaced for an agonising time by the wet-dog smell of kit and train seats, and the prospect of scraping molluscs off my brakes and frame. Despite the pain and discomfort on the day, all I can recall is the sense of achievement and the camaraderie so my thoughts are already turning to next summer and of giving it another try, just to see what it’s like when it doesn’t rain. I’ll never know unless I do it again, will I?

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