by Malcolm Rigby
For an ageing occasional cyclist, riding to the top of Porlock Hill without getting off to walk gives you the sense of elation that a person might feel on reaching the peak of Everest! The Exmoor Cycle Route (ECR) takes you along New Road via the toll booth rather than along the A39, zigzagging you through wonderful woodland and covering four miles for a journey that would take a crow just one. Take your eye off the road for a second and the green of the vegetation melts into the blue of Porlock Bay. The climb epitomises cycling on Exmoor – stunning but hard.
On Tuesday 11 September 2007 this was the route the peloton of the Tour of Britain took in what was considered the defining stage of the race and which became known as the Exmoor stage. Active Exmoor have teamed up with other local organisations to make ‘permanent’ the 60-mile circular course around the National Park.
Apparently a really good cyclist working with a group can do it in under four hours; for the unfit casual cyclist (that’s me) you need a couple of days and to resign yourself to a certain amount of walking and freewheeling.
Mike Bishop of Active Exmoor said: “Following the success of the Tour of Britain in 2007 and the return of the race in 2008 and 2009, the Tour of Britain is set to become a regular fixture on the sporting calendar for Exmoor. The permanent route was established for non-pro cyclists as a legacy to the 2007 route, to taste what the pros had to achieve. The route was the most challenging and spectacular stage of the 2007 race and is now estimated to attract hundreds of cyclists every year.”
It is, he insisted, for the ‘serious’ cyclist and not a family ride and yet there is no reason why the enthusiastic amateur should not have a go as long as the bike is in good working order. After Porlock Hill there is a section of relative flat until you meet the steep descent of Countisbury Hill that takes you into Lynmouth. So sharp is the decline that at one point there is a sign advising cyclists to dismount – I decided that the Tour of Britain riders would not have dismounted so carried on. At the bottom my aching hands felt raw and I thanked my brakes.
Stephen Crossman is a keen cyclist who was instrumental in establishing the Exmoor Cycle Route: “We wanted it to be open to anyone – if you fancy it, have a go. The ECR is designed along these lines, open all the time for people to sample.” He is also responsible for organising the ‘Exmoor Explorer,’ an annual off-road mountain bike event of 25 or 35 miles; it’s not a race but a marathon type activity which goes across country on public rights of way.
Another relatively new cycling event to the area is the ‘Exmoor Beast’. Now in its fourth year, the Beast is either 100 miles in distance, or 100 kilometres long for the not so crazy. The route starts in Minehead, takes everyone over Dunkery Beacon and on to Simonsbath and then splits. No less than 500 enthusiasts started the first one; this year they are expecting over 2,000.
Stephen tells me that interest in sportive cycling is growing, but at the level below that it is increasing even faster.
Carved in wood, the signposts along the Exmoor Cycle Route are tasteful and discreet. Stephen says: “The signs are designed to be inconspicuous, to be helpful without polluting the countryside with more metal signs.” There are not many of the signs, but then again there is no need as the route is fairly obvious. Having said that, you need to take a left turning in Lynmouth to follow the river and I didn’t see a sign. Anyone planning to take on the journey is advised to consult the map on the Active Exmoor website.
Good and quiet ‘B’ roads lead you on to Simonsbath and then Exford, where the route was formally launched in 2008 and where an almost mandatory pint awaited. At this point I decided to head back across the moors to my Porlock base, peaking at Lucott Cross, a mere 1,527 feet – wondrously exposed and eerily quiet.
So what are the local benefits of the route? Mike Bishop says: “Many accommodation providers are reporting an increase in cyclists staying in the area, some in groups from cycling clubs.
“Cycle tourism in the UK is currently valued at £635 million per year. The potential for growth here is huge – the forecast for cycle tourism right across Europe is £14 billion per year within 20 years. With potential economic benefits on this scale it is not surprising that there is keen interest in how to develop routes to attract visitors and tourists, and how to market these effectively. The benefits of cycle tourism include reductions in pollution and traffic congestion, economic regeneration and better health.”
John Dyke, Chairman of the Exmoor National Park Authority, was equally enthusiastic: “The Tour of Britain which passed through Exmoor in 2007 drew no less than 30,000 spectators. Amongst other things, this demonstrated what fantastic opportunities there are for cycling on Exmoor and taking in our wonderful countryside at close quarters. I am sure that the new route will encourage more and more cyclists to experience at first hand
the challenges and keep-fit opportunities which exist here.”
If If there is a flaw in the Exmoor route, and the founders will admit this, it is that between Washford and Porlock you have to follow the relatively busy and mundane A39. So for day two I decided to create my own circular route, coming off the ECR shortly after Wheddon Cross and heading down to Luxborough. The lane here along to Roadwater, slightly descending and secluded by cool woodland, is simply fabulous. The price to pay for this ecstasy was a cruel climb up to Raleigh’s Cross, fortunately endowed with an inn for refreshment. And then it was an as near as normal, ie flat, cycle back to Wheddon Cross.
According to Birgit Hughes, Tour of Britain project officer, who works for Somerset County Council, the British tour might not follow the ECR exactly for some time to come as they need to spread the opportunities around, but there will always be part of a stage in the area: “Exmoor is absolutely crucial because it is king of the mountains class one – it’s as good as it gets.”
For the occasional amateur the answer seems to be, set the pace you are comfortable with – cycling on Exmoor might not be easy at times but is always exhilarating.
An off-road cycling event held in early August.
Can you tame the beast? An annual cycling challenge for the committed, which took place in 2010 on 31 October.