Our man Joe Finney was on hand at the 2021 edition of Merida’s three-day The Ex Enduro and came away with a win in the Vets category.
Three days of racing in the Exmoor National Park awaited our man Joe Finney, who came away with a suitably tasty win for his troubles. Here’s his report from this year’s Merida The Ex Powered by Shimano STEPS.
Photos by Paul Box.
Four weeks ago I was lucky enough to get an invite to 2021 MERIDA EX ENDURO powered by Shimano STEPS to report back for Wideopenmag. The Ex is a multi-stage enduro with the emphasis on keeping the vibe friendly and more like an event, or mini festival, than a race. Don’t get me wrong, it was definitely a race once you heard the on the start line, but the general feeling through the whole weekend was a relaxed and friendly atmosphere.
A cap of 80 paying riders meant the organisers could focus all their efforts on making it an extra special experience for everyone.
The main event ran from Friday, but food and camping was provided from the Thursday night, although I arrive just a little too late for the food, but there was still plenty of beer and cider in the fridge. Around 60 of the 80 riders arrived on the Thursday night so there was already a great atmosphere in the marquee and around the camp fire when I arrived.
Once I was signed on I was presented with a logo’d up riding jersey, a reusable pint glass for the all-inclusive beer, a bottle of Juice Lubes chain oil, number board and timing dibber, which was worn on the wrist.
Thursday evening was spent catching up with friends, both old and new over a few ciders around the camp fire. Not a bad way to start the weekend at all.
The venue was in the small village of Allerford on the edge of Exmoor, on the village sports ground with use of the clubhouse for sign on and catering etc. There was a large marquee, an arena area with some of the sponsors displaying product and offering technical support. Camping space around the edge of the field was provided, and I think most people chose to stay on site to make the most of pretty much unlimited beer and cider courtesy of sponsor Bristol Beer Factory.
Each morning was kicked off with a fantastic cooked breakfast, followed by a yoga session to loosen things up for the upcoming day on the bike.
Friday’s riding kicked off at 12.00, and started with an uplift to the highest point on Exmoor accessible by road, followed by a short ride to the top of Dunkery Beacon. Once at the top, there was no set start order so we were free to ride with mates and figure out a running order ourselves as the day went on. It was then up to us to follow the way markers and navigate our way around the 28km course and 1050m of climbing.
Stage one started with a flat out blast down the open moor hopping drainage ruts and trying not to get stuck in rain gulleys at 25mph. The rain had also come in so visibility was horrendous, eyewear was no use whatsoever, so it got pretty wild. Big shout out to Paul Catchlove who had the worst luck with his chain deciding to cheese wire his carbon frame about 20 seconds into the 3 days of riding, leaving him with nearly a 2 hour walk to be picked up by the support van. Luckily he managed to borrow an ebike to compete the Saturday and Sunday so his entire weekend wasn’t wasted.
My day started similar to most with a wild ride down off the moor with more than a few heart in mouth moments, trying to blink out the mud and make a quick decision on which rain gully to follow, some of which would have led to a ride in an ambulance I am sure. Turns out though I had a pretty good run and put down a time that placed me 3rd overall and joint 1st in the Vets class. The transition to stage 2 took in a lovely natural bridleway trail, undulating and traversing along the edge of the moor.
We were then into the Bratton Woods, where the National Enduro Champs took place earlier in the summer. Due to land owner issues relating to Covid restrictions, the organisers were unable to use some of the trials used previously, so most of the days riding was on trails within the small woodland area. The climbs were punchy and I spent a fair amount of time walking to be honest, to save the legs for the descents, but there was no rush as there were no start times to adhere to.
In general, most of the trails within the woods started fairly mellow, with a bit of a pedal before dropping into some tighter, rooty technical stuff. The final climb of the day took us up towards Selworthy Beacon, with some spectacular views across the Bristol Channel to Wales, before dropping into stage 6, which was completely different to what we had been riding earlier in the day. Fast flowing single track, loose and dusty, led into some steep, mega tight and loose switchbacks. With little support, littered with golf ball size rocks and riding it blind it was tricky not to blow out these turns. Slow in, fast out was the key here, difficult to master when you didn’t know what was coming at you.
This final stage of the say popped us out into the village of Allerford and straight back to the race village. Timers dibbed in, the chilled vibe of the day suddenly turned, and my race head was back on, eager to see how I had placed.
Following a quick debate with the timing guys over a hicup on stage 3 where I got stuck behind a forestry vehicle on the fire road sprint, my time had been rectified and I was leading the Vets class buy 13 seconds. Second place was fellow media guru and former elite DH rider of the late nighties, Mick Kirkman so I was chuffed to be in the lead after. Overall leader of the day was Moss Macriner with a healthy lead over Ash Mullane. Also, big shout to my old uni housemate Dave Wall who took 3rd in the hardtail class.
You would think the day was over, but no, we had a few hours to chill before heading out for a further two night stages, sponsored by Exposure Lights. Stage 1 was a slightly weird and awkward trail centre trail with flat loose corners and what seemed like a lot of pedalling, before dropping into some cool turns, rollers and bomb holes. On the way to stage 2 we passed through a spooky wood where a dedicated few of the Ex crew lay in waiting to try and scare us with some freaky costumes and horror movie music. Nice try guys but my heart rate was already through the roof from stage 1, and adrenaline levels heightened from racing blind in the dark, we just though there were some weird locals lurking in the woods.
Stage 2 was a wild, flat out ride down a double track path, a few sweeping bends and blind rocky crests, it was all about who could pedal hardest to get up to speed and have the nerve to stay off the brakes to the bottom. Speeds of 50kph were being talked about so as you can imagine there was a significant buzz at the finish. From there it was a short roll down the road to a local farm where a delicious BBQ awaited us, served up by the Ex crew, and a fire pit and DJ topped it off. What a way to end the first day, and it wasn’t even the weekend yet.
Not forgetting the racing side of things, Oliver Mckenna set the fastest time over the two stages in the E-bike class, but in the Vets Ben Warrick put down two storming runs and took 20 seconds out of Guy Chandler and myself. He must have been eating his carrots that’s for sure. Winners of each class took home a rather nice Exposure light for their efforts.
Saturday morning saw some sore heads, and I certainly wouldn’t want to have started the day with a hangover that’s for sure. 1900m of climbing and 45km law in wait, with no uplift to start the day. 5 stages in the same woods as Friday, followed by a long ride up to a view point near the South West Coast Path led into stage 6, a flat out sprint and across the open moorland, and then a savage pedal before dropping into the woods and a series of loose drifty turns to the finish line.
Stages 1-5 were a really nice mix of the local built trails, using some sections we had ridden the day before, but mixing it up by splitting off into different trails half way down. Stage 2 seemed to get us buzzing the most, with some really fast off camber; knowing where to hold the high line or use the low line to carry speed was key on this one, and there was some good heckling going on where it crossed the climb back out of the valley.
Stage 5 dropped us straight at the door of The Ex main man Mike’s house for the legendary afternoon tea stop, served up by his fantastically dedicated wife. A full spread of traditional English afternoon tea lay in wait. Sandwiches, scones (cream on first Mr Mackie J) tea, coffee, tiered cake stands, it had it all. Not what you would expect at an average mountain bike race, but then the Ex isn’t an average race.
After lunch we returned to the woods for stages 6 & 7 although the climb back up felt a lot slower than earlier thanks to the cream tea. The trails were drying out nicely by now, with less greasy sniper roots, with some lovely loam and dust starting to make an appearance. I did find it tricky to keep a flow on some of these trails, some of them were particularly loose and it was easy to push too hard and run wide, killing speed in critical places, but that is part of blind racing, reading the trails, and sometimes having to go slower to go fast.
The final stage took us back up to Selworthy Beacon again for a super fast and loose stage 7 all the way back down to Allerford again and a water splash through the ford to cool off if you so desired.
Saturday evening was spent comparing times over a few beers or ciders thanks to event sponsor Bristol Beer Factory, before a sit down dinner with table service followed by a quiz, enduro specific of course, plus a prize ceremony for the days racing. Saturday saw Ash Mullane (Orange Bikes / Rockin Bikes) take the win over Moss Macriner (Kustom Bikes). In the Vets my few blown out corners resulted in a drop to 3rd behind Guy Chandler (Ace Bicycles) and Mick Kirkman (MBR Magazine), but somehow managed to finish the day leading the overall race with a 4 second lead over Mick Kirkman, pretty tight over 44 minutes of racing.
An uplift on Sunday morning was a welcome start for the many nursing a sore head, but there was still a punchy climb to the start of stage 1 of the day. We were once again back in the same woods, on a combination of some stages repeated from the previous days and some new. The weather had improved and the sun was shining, drying up the trails, but there were still some sniper roots waiting to catch you out when least expecting it.
Again, the day was broken up with a vintage tea stop, this time followed by a long and steep climb up to Selworthy Beacon for the final stage of the weekend. Mike had thrown in a ‘fun’ climb stage to tackle named the Vominator, which was a brutal 300m long section of grassy bridleway to grind up for those with sadistic tendencies. It was hard enough just walking up it, so hats off to those that cleaned it, and for their efforts they took home a 4 pack of cider.
Stage 7, and the final stage of the weekend was a cracker. A few flat turns through the woods led into a flat out blast down a bridleway. One of the scariest parts of trail over the entire weekend, there were long sweeping blind corners with a big drop to one side, so having the nerve to stay off the brakes was absolutely key. I’d love to ride it again knowing where to let off the brakes properly. A couple of tight switchbacks thrown in to the mix meant you really had to look ahead and be prepared to anchor on when required.
And that was that. 3 days, 23 stages, 110km and 4500m of climbing over. I think most people were glad to get round in one piece. I certainly was, and to get round without cramping up. Back to the race village to dib in, tuck in to yet more amazing food whilst comparing times and nervously wait for the last few people to arrive before seeing the final results.
Once everyone was safely back and re-fuelled, the prize giving commenced. Top 3 in each class received prizes for the days racing, and trophies for the overall event result. Moss Macriner took the open men class (and overall event) win, with Ash Mullane second and James Anderson in third. In the Open Women class Anna Cipullo (Singletrack/Cannondale/MucOff) took a convincing win on all three days to take the overall win. E-bike class was won by Oliver Mckenna (Merida Hunt), with Rob Berger and Paul Mackie (Merida Bikes UK) completing the podium spots.
In the Vets class, Mick Kirkman (MBR) unfortunately had a mechanical on the Sunday, which left him in 6th on the day and 3rd overall, with Ben Warick in second and myself with the win! Happy days. It’s a shame to win at the cost of someone else but a win’s a win. It would have been a real close battle if Mick hadn’t had a mechanical. I think if we discount his mechanical stage, we would have been within 2 seconds over 1 hour of racing, now that is close racing.
Now, I must say a big thanks to Mike and his team for putting on such a well organised event, the marshals in particular for giving up their time, traipsing around the hill side from stage to stage. They must have covered some distance too, riding out to and between the stages each day.
Overall the 2021 MERIDA EX ENDURO powered by Shimano STEPS is one of the best events I have been to, not just from a riding point of view but the whole feel of the event. Treating it like a bike review…
Could do better:
Not much, let’s just get Covid out the way and next time there should be a wider range of trails to ride.
You can check out everything 2021 MERIDA EX ENDURO powered by Shimano STEPS-related on their website here.