The village of Crowcombe, nestled in between the Quantock Hills and Exmoor National Park was our designated meeting point, one grey friday lunchtime.
Our plan was to recce a circular 200km route around Exmoor – a ‘DIY Permanent’ – that we had curated to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Audax Altitude Award (AAA) which was established on the Exmoor 200 Audax back in 1986. Following airy chats about planning a Weekender together, our touring collective of: Mike from Boneshaker Magasine; Will from Brother Cycles; Danny from Always Riding; and Harry and Stefan from Pannier had been waiting in the wings for a while, so it was great to finally ride together. The five of us hadn’t booked any accommodation; we’d just hit the road and see what happened…
Researching more into Audax, and the AAA, we stumbled across the history sections on their official websites and it turned out that 2016 was not just the 30th anniversary of the AAA, but also the 40th anniversary of Audax UK (AUK) itself, which was established in 1976 following a well-worded plea from Steve Nicholas in a 1975 issue of Cycletouring magazine:
“Whilst one appreciates that many cyclists just like to ride where and how the whim may take them, I feel that there needs to be a series of events wherein those who wish may test themselves and also gather to meet kindred spirits. What I have in mind is something like the Brevets de Randonneurs Francais over distances of 62, 125, 187, 250, and 375 miles (roughly equivalent to 100, 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometres) which may be covered at random speeds averaging 10 to 12 mph minimum either alone or in company. The time taken to complete a brevet is immaterial so long as it is within the time allowed, there being no ‘classification of honours’. The major consideration should be participation in the event … The beginning need only be modest, but it could lead to something worthwhile.”
And that was that; AUK was born the year after as an organisation for overseeing the validation, running and recording of long-distance cycling events in the UK. Now, Audax rides are available as organised weekend events, or Permanents where pre-officiated routes can be ridden at any time of the year, with riders needing to provide proof of passage through checkpoints. Ten years after setting up, AUK established the AAA to “encourage participation in hilly events by offering a challenge to regular long distance riders and also to those who do not ride the longest events but who enjoy hard riding”. To qualify for the AAA, a route must be hilly enough – hilliness is measured by the rate of climbing and scores 1 point for every thousand metres of climbing, rounded to the nearest quarter point. So an event that does 2,124m of climbing is worth 2 points, and an event that does 2,126m of climbing is worth 2.25 points. There are minimums involved; for our 200km ride, we would need to incorporate 2800m+ of climbing…
Part of our interest in the AAA system was curating a route using the AUK official methods: contour counting and even plugging data into their complex Excel spreadsheet for working out climbing stats. Given that we were trying to celebrate the fact that the AAA is 30 years old, Stefan managed to get in touch with The Boons (via Ian Hennessey) who organised the Exmoor 200 Event when Francis Cooke introduced the first counting AAA ride, with Dave Pountney completing the first ever AAA card:
Stefan: “Are there any records of the original Exmoor 200 AAA routes that have survived?”
Ian: “I am afraid not. That one is long gone. It ran on various routes over Exmoor and was pretty tough. There is no permanent version. However, The Boons (the original Routemasters) have managed to find a box of random brevet cards in the loft, which included the 1982 Exmoor 200 Audax:”
1982 | Crowcombe > Exebridge (31km) > Secret > Blackmoor Gate (76km) > Secret > Porlock (146km) > Crowcombe
So, guided by the checkpoints of the old 1982 Exmoor 200, we curated our own qualifying route – a ‘DIY Permanent’ – basically a 200km ride in and out of Crowcombe, with shed-loads of climbing. The route planning started with a couple of 1:50,000 OS Landranger maps on the kitchen table, a distance wheel, and time well spent contour-counting and highlighting points of interest, before joining the dots with the most intriguing roads and tracks. Hitting the official Audax checkpoints gave the circular route an initial structure, and the ‘Secrets’ gave us the chance to add two of our own. We chose the source of the River Exe just north of Simonsbath, and the seafront town of Lynmouth where we knew we could guarantee refreshments in a picturesque setting. Once we’d manually worked out a potential route, plotting the route as a GPX file to confirm the data, we ended up with a 202km ride with nearly 4000m of climbing & 4 AAA points; perfect.
The five of us thought we’d ride our new 200km route as a tour over a couple of days – incongruous with Audax, we know – but we were interested in scouting out our own route to do in future, and using the interesting methods for working out AAA compatibility. We were basically on a recce; and out for a great weekend of riding. To put our journey into perspective, the lengthy famous Audax ride in the UK is the 600km Brian Chapman, and the holy grail of long-distance cycling is the Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) which is 1200km of riding in one 80 – 90 hour stint…
Given the theme of our Weekender, in true Audax spirit, our unwritten rules were:
1. Our start point should be a passé building – a village hall, scout hut, community centre, or cricket club; tick
2. We would hit all the checkpoints – Crowcombe > Exebridge > Simonsbath > Blackmoor Gate > Lynmouth > Porlock > Crowcombe – and provide proof of passage.
3. We would ride through all weather conditions, however adverse.
4. We would do our very best to finish with some beans on toast at the last checkpoint.
As you can see from our proof of passage receipts littered with Otters, Landlords, espressos, cream teas and ploughman’s lunches, we didn’t ride the route in one stint; these establishments dotted across Exmoor provided sheltered havens for drying off in front of a warm fire, out of the prevailing wet-and-wild weather. At points, we’d have conversations on the road about out why a ‘tourer’s’ lunch hadn’t been established yet and what it might consist of? Flapjack? Tuna pasta? Surely that would be more appropriate than a ploughman’s lunch? Suggestions on a postcard please.
Special sections of the trip? The moorland and tracks up to Simonsbath from Tarr Steps, the north coastline from Hunters Inn all the way to Porlock (including the Valley of Rocks, Contisbury Hill Climb and Worthy Toll Road) and the evening socials, of course…
My cycling ‘career’ has taken me all over the UK; there are few things I enjoy more than heading off to explore this island of ours by bike. Yes, the mountain roads of Switzerland are stunning and the never-ending sunshine in Italy is fantastic, but I find that all too straightforward. Given the choice I’d choose a rough gravel farm track and the famous British drizzle every time. Nothing great ever came from being comfortable; our unreliable weather and tough conditions just make the pint at the end of the day all the more rewarding.
Looking back, that is what this trip was all about – a bunch of travelling cyclists coming together to celebrate cycling in Britain and the hardships that come with it. To me Audax rides are a mythical underworld of the cycling community – small groups of hardened cyclists putting themselves through 100’s of kilometres of cycling, often in gritty winter conditions, with very little reward at the end of it. For some reason it’s something I’ve always wanted to have a crack at, so to do a 200km route over our time constraints of a couple of days was a good teaser; knowing I’d need to do this route within 12 hours on an official Audax ride.
Unsurprisingly the weather threw everything it had at us during our days on Exmoor. From the start we had to battle with strong headwinds, rain storms and a sea mist that rolled in, sapping all warmth from our bodies. As a result our plans pretty much changed from the start; we didn’t hit our distance targets to reach roughly-planned camp spots. But rather than let it get us down we simply adapted as we went, took the hard times on the chin and enjoyed the occasional tea and beer stops all the more for it!
I won’t pretend that we all loved every minute of it. There were few smiles as we pushed through the rain on day one, our legs already aching after only 20 miles of riding. However it was once we accepted the fact that our original plans would change, that the good weather we thought we’d catch would never materialise, once we stopped checking our distances and instead started living in the moment on the road that we were able to really enjoy the experience.
Things rarely go to plan on a winter tour like this, however that’s exactly what is so special: the small country pub at the Tarr Steps who took us in when darkness halted our progress; the eerie crossing of the moorlands cloaked in a heavy mist; and the endless process of drying our socks and gloves in pubs and tea rooms along the way. All experiences that we had not planned for but that came together to make a truly memorable weekend. For me this is cycling in Britain at its best. It’s cold, tough and totally unpredictable, but wouldn’t it be boring if everything went to plan…
Adverse conditions can dominate a ride, and it would be odd not to introduce our part in the Pannier Exmoor 200 with what was one of the key influential aspects of the trip. The simple truth is that in bad weather, more can go wrong. However, having ridden a few Audax Permanents before, the schedule seemed sensible with some good stops and a relaxed ‘touring’ pace planned.
Natural nervous energy was calmed by a sense of collective confidence at the start, and a refusal to be phased by the weatherman’s forecast. Our approach was to uphold a cheery demeanour and solve any problems that might arise without being phased by the climbing ahead. Neither hardened explorers nor racers we were still happy to have a crack at 33% gradients, ride through a ford or skid our way down a narrow coastal footpath in the wet. Hit the checkpoints and secure that all-important receipt as proof of passage – a helpful excuse when tempted by local ales.
Pitching tents in the dark, wind and rain became mere background noise as intuition told us where pole meets peg and outer meets inner. Our willingness pushed us not to sleep on a pub floor but to find shelter by a riverbank among the trees – a decision rewarded with the sound of running water as we awoke Saturday morning.
After making short work of buttery bacon sarnies, we rode up into the moors and miles of exposed terrain. Wind and rain accompanied us on the road, keeping ramblers by fireplaces, but not a murmur of negativity was expelled from our cold lips as jokes from the previous night were re-told. The day to come was wet, very wet; conversation slowed as we pedaled onwards to our scheduled stops where we’d pause, dry off as best we could and refuel. We arrived at the Valley of Rocks in eerily misty conditions, almost perfect weather to take in such a jagged and exposed crop of coastline.
The final day proved drier, yet winds whistled off the moors and out to sea, threatening to take us with them as we climbed out of Lynmouth. Tea stops were plenty, fleeting sunshine returned, and we arrived back in Crowcombe to the same pleasant greyness in which we’d started. As we packed for the return journey home we reflected on our weekend. Even out on the moors in the worst conditions some of us had ever experienced on the bike, given the choice of a lift, we’d have politely declined and ridden on.
Heading out and ‘doing’ rather than ‘training’ is at the centre of Audax and cycle touring. Kit lists and fiddling with racks, brakes and mudguards are done long before the physical exertions begin, but the preparation is just as enjoyable as every hill conquered, cup of tea drunk or pint sunk.
Our Exmoor 200 route, based on the 1982 Audax checkpoints, is an enjoyable yet challenging ride, especially if you officially earn yourself all the AAA points by doing it all in one day. We rode this route in 2 full days:
Friday (Half Day) | Crowcombe – Tarr Steps
Saturday | Tarr Steps – Lynton
Sunday (Half Day) | Lynton – Crowcombe
Looking back, we never did have those beans on toast at the end…