Wow. What a weekend I’ve had. To say I’ve spent a weekend racing in Minehead is underplaying this glorious event. Today I wake up with genuine post-holiday blues, not unlike the type I get from the European multi-day events I have missed over the last year or so. The Merida Ex powered by Shimano Steps Enduro is more than just a race, it is easily one of the top five cycling events in the UK. Let me explain why…
The Merida Ex Enduro is a three-day enduro race based around the north coast of Devon near Minehead. For 2021 we were treated with 110km of trails over the three days, totalling around 4,000m of climbing. Each day offered 7-9 timed descents with transitions being taken at a leisurely pace with no cut-off times in place. All food, camping and even free beer was included in the ticket cost, and for the first time this year the event also included two night time stages, sponsored by Exposure Lights.
The race began on the Friday and started at midday to allow people more flexibility in getting to the quaint little village of Allerford in Devon. My friends and I had arrived on Thursday night assuming we’d have to fend for ourselves, but the food tent was already up and the chef was cooking up a storm for all the early attendees. The free beer had already begun too, with the fridge full of Bristol Beer Factory’s finest tinnies for everyone to help themselves to. The next morning we were treated to a hearty English breakfast, proper barista coffee, and a heap of cereals, pastries, fruit and porridge to fill up on. By this point, the event was already a favourite.
After a spot of yoga put on by the event, we bundled into coaches for our first uplift of the weekend. We headed to the top of Dunkery Beacon, which is the highest point in the county. Dunkery is a beautiful moorland with views stretching over Bristol’s estuary all the way to Wales. The first stage of the weekend was a rather rude awakening down a fast and bumpy bridleway with drainage ditches hidden here and there. It had started raining at this point, but spirits were scarce dampened as we gently traversed from the finish line though heather and wild flowers toward the sea to get to our next hill. Stages 2-5 were held near the popular mountain biking spot near Hopcott Road, with typically English rooty trails on offer. The rain had made roots slick, but the dirt was otherwise well draining and pretty grippy. For those familiar with the area, the legendary Magic Carpet trail was used with no opportunity given to straight-line the meandering singletrack.
As a finale, we were directed back through the valley in order to finish the afternoon on a descent right above the campsite. These woods hold some of the steepest of the weekends’ trails and often ended being the favourites of the days. A mix of worn out wooden steps and rock-infested switchbacks plummeted us to our final destination with nearly 30km in the legs and around 1,000m of climbing.
The Night Stages
We took a few hours to rest after day one’s events. I got changed, had a snack and regrouped for two more stages in the dark. It was a long climb up the hill, but the organisers had put on a bit of a fright-night experience to keep us entertained, complete with flashing lights, spooky noises from speakers hidden in the trees, and event staff popping out of bushes with scary masks on. The stages were fast, flow-tastic sprints that ended up back in the valley at an old barn ready for dinner and a dance. We had the poshest barbecue ever, with farm grade burgers and sausages, homemade rolls and an array of hearty chickpea, couscous and potato salads, and of course the free beer continued to flow. Presentations were the following morning in case anyone wanted to go to bed early, and prizes were top notch with winners walking away with a £400+ Exposure Six Pack light etched with The Ex Enduro logo.
The second day promised to be the biggest and started with a long pedal straight out of camp. The descents were much longer, but also a lot drier with the sun peeking out from behind the odd cloud. With around 1,900m of climbing that day my friends and I chose to ride steady and even walk when the climbs when they got steep. After a bit of a queue at the first stage, we barely saw a soul after that, rolling up to stages with only a lonely marshal to greet us. The organiser had deliberately chosen to keep the entrants low at 80 participants, which gave a great family feel to post-riding activities, but was also greatly appreciated when it came to flowing around the course; at no point did we ever feel bored or rushed.
Halfway through the day we were treated to the infamous tea stop. A feed station had been set up outside the organiser’s house so that they could serve us proper tea and coffee in proper china cups. Homemade flapjacks, carrot cake and scones were on offer amidst the usual bowls of nuts, jelly beans and crisps, not to mention triangles of freshly prepared sandwiches served on tiered cake stands. It was a very civilised and British affair that set us up well for the final climb and the final steep descent back into camp. That evening I took a hot shower and washed the bike, and we settled into the food tent for a sit-down dinner and an enduro-themed pub quiz. More winners were presented with great prizes for the day’s racing, this time sponsor Fenwicks provided tools, pumps and cleaning products, before we tucked into a three-course meal served by the volunteers in white shirts and bowties.
As we brushed off our hangovers for the third and final day we were delighted to learn that another uplift was in store for us. We headed over to Hopcott Road, a favourite parking spot for enduro riders in the area, and slowly made our way up to the top for eight more stages. As the Forestry Commission were still a bit wary of holding events post-COVID19, we were restricted to the private woods. This meant more rooty singletrack trails through deciduous woodlands. The organiser did an excellent job keeping the trails varied considering we weren’t privy to the classic Minehead trails through the pine forests, however, I do hope these will be resumed next year, as the famous Quadzilla, 999 and Doris-Doris trails were sorely missed after having sampled them in the 2018 edition.
Later in the afternoon we stopped for our final cream tea lunch in the village before heading up the hill to “the Vominator”; a bonus climbing stage that held no bearing on your final result, but was there merely to test your skills (and your stomach after lunch) and win a four-pack of cider for the honour of completing it cleanly. The final liaison then meandered high up along the moors near the edge of the coastal cliff. In the sun, through the heather and gorse bushes, it was a beautiful way to take in the sea views on one side and the rolling hills on the other before the evening’s impending drive home. The final descent was everything you’d hope it to be; a little loose, a little wild, and fast, fast, fast. At the end of the day we rolled into camp for the final meal of the weekend and sat on the grass in the sun with a bunch of sweaty yet happy bikers.
Let’s Do It Again
This event sold out in under six minutes, and it has always been a sell-out event since its inception. A show of hands in the first briefing proved that around two thirds of the entrants had already participated in the event some time in the past. If these two facts aren’t enough of a seal of approval for the event, then you’ll just have to take my word for it that this is one of the best mountain biking events in the UK. Sure, 1,500-2,000m days (or the £300 entry fee) won’t be for everyone, but the long days and relaxed attitude means that most people with a reasonable all-day riding fitness base will find this to be very achievable at a leisurely pace. If not, there is always the e-bike category!
It’s so good to see a multi-day stage race in the UK, and the organisers and staff did such a good job of making everything feel very effortless. The small field of entrants kept everything feeling very friendly and family-like, and indeed families were actively encourage to come along with many kids playing in the field after the racing was done. I think you’d be hard pressed to get a weekend of riding, guiding, camping and food for the amount The Ex Enduro tickets cost, so it’s well-worth considering if budget allows. It’s also a great way to dip your toe into multi-day events without flying to Europe. I for one will be registering my interest for 2022.