Pete reprises his race career and heads a fair old way south and west to see what if the three-day The Merida Ex Enduro lives up to the hype.
Having only ever heard good things about The Merida Ex Enduro, Pete loads the van and makes the nine hour drive to Exmoor to see what all the fuss is about.
Photos by Paul Box.
As the sun shone on Allerford on the Thursday afternoon, the playing fields gradually filled with campers and racers for the 2023 edition of The Merida Ex presented by Shimano. One of the few multi-day enduro events here in the UK was in its seventh edition and more than a few riders I spoke to were returning to race this for the fourth or fifth time.
So what’s The Merida Ex then? Well, it’s a three day enduro that takes in the best Exmoor has to offer the mountain biker. With the help of Exposure Lights, there’s also the night stages on the Friday night. There’s far more to The Ex than the racing though, although Exmoor provides its own unique charm in that regards, the food at The Ex is legendary. Whether its the tea stops served with fine china, or the culinary delights of Ian Luff and his team, you’re well fuelled at every juncture.
Having been given the pick of the two bikes we tested earlier in the week, I’d opt to head into my second race of the year aboard the Merida OneTwenty 700, preferring the bike that would cover the ground better than one that would deal with the downs that bit better. Mostly due to the fact that I was informed that there were few big hits or drops on the race track.
As I stumbled out of my van on Friday morning, legs already stiff from two big days testing bikes, we were greeted by the feast that Ian Luff and his team had put on. The catering is definitely one of the places where The Ex stands out from the rest of the pack. You’ll never go hungry here. With coffee and fuel down the hatch, I prepped myself for the day ahead.
Friday consisted of both day and night stages. Winching up the first of wat would turn out to be many climbs that weren’t very pleasant, the sun shone and the air had a familiar summer humidity to it.
What happens next is mostly a blur. I remember staring hard at my front wheel on stage one, meaning everything caught me out. Even the straights. I certainly hadn’t woken up yet and my time suffered as a result. I would go into stage two far more aware of my surroundings though.
While I don’t race often, I just approached this in very much the same vein as I did the Ard Rock Enduro. Just a big pedal where I’d slightly increase my output on the downs, unless I felt a wave of confidence arrive, it would simply be another bike ride with timing.
The trails during daylight were a peach. Absolute all time loamer conditions, lots of line choice and no real idea where the finish was in relation to the start. The feed station was very well received. Cool cans of pop going down smooth in the increasing stickiness of the day.
By the time the night stages arrived. I was ready to turn in, the climbs had been stiff and the stages fierce but great fun. We’d have three more to tackle before the next feast arrived though. We’d make the top of the first night stage as the sun dipped into the sea and darkness fell. I’d be aided by some very fancy AI-equipped Exposure Lights that helped me see all the bushes I tried to crash into.
Cooked meat and more potato salad than I knew what to do with were consumed ahead of diving back into the van for a well-earned nap. I’d drift off knowing full well that a monster day ahead awaited. 42km of Exmoor’s finest lay ahead with the feed station a full 28km in.
As it would turn out, Saturday would be the mix of the two days in terms of weather. Hot and sticky but with a fair dollop of low cloud and rain. There was never going to be the right clothes for this day but cracked on I did. I was glad to have a Kryptotal on the front instead of the Maxxis Forekaster as grip seemingly vanished in the night.
Even before we’d set off on Saturday I knew I’d be struggling so worked in a stop at the village stores after stage three. This was a lifesaver. My metabolism had shot up in the previous three days and while the food on tap seemed never-ending, I found myself in a hole early on Saturday morning.
Wooten Courtenay was awash with muddy cyclists and those attending a wedding. Quite the juxtaposition. After a swift refuel under the confused gaze of the wedding guests, we embarked on another climb that we were told was ‘chill’. It was not. Through the mist we climbed for what seemed like forever.
Yet again it was worth it though, and the trails that we enjoyed from the top of the hill were a riot. Wide taping, multiple lines and a surface that generally held up well despite the rain and the traffic. It was usually just he organic matter atop the bike that held it back.
I was very glad to arrive at the feed station. All hot drinks served on fine china, with a serious dollop of scones, cakes and other excellent items to throw down the hatch. This is a The Ex Enduro staple. Another unique feature that makes this race stand head and shoulders above the rest.
The high point above Allerford now felt very familiar but was mostly lost in the fog and visibility was down to a few metres in places. Thankfully the excellent signage kept us going the right way throughout the day despite the weather.
Rolling back into Allerford, I was aware I had ridden my bike a fair way, dropped the bike off with the Merida team and lined up for a much needed shower. Then it was on to the now obligatory feed that felt better-earned in many ways than the previous night. I’d slip into the van very much cramping like a champ.
I was awoken on Sunday to an almighty downpour. The hardest rain I’d seen in a while but for a short moment. The forecast said rain but we had no idea it would be quite as much as there was to come. Breakfast was dispatched in the usual manner.
I had to spend more time trying to wake my legs up after the monster that was Saturday. I definitely rinsed the tank the previous day and Sunday, while shorter, wasn’t anything to sniff at. As the rain returned, everyone peered through the marquee door with increasing skepticism. The uplift vehicles arrived and few were brave enough to venture out, until it was obvious this rain was going nowhere.
Put simply, everything was a river for the next four hours. The rain only then turned from biblical to once in a generation by the time we’d made the feed station. all before tackling ‘The Vominator’. This is a Michael Wilkens classic. Fill you up to the ears then send you up and almighty stinker of a climb. I gave it a good shot but my legs gave out on a steep, slick punch at the eleventh hour.
I remember failing to ride the way I wanted due to not being able to see a thing. The double Continental rubber doing its best to keep me upright. I was soaked to the skin within seconds of leaving the pits and that didn’t change for the remainder of the day.
The climbs and descents became a blur, beyond one trail, littered with roots that may or may not have been pre lunch, but it was a treat if you could open the corners out. I kept getting distracted by the reams of chanterelle mushrooms on the flanks of the trail.
Several hours later, I returned to the pits and couldn’t face a shower. I didn’t want to be wet again. I simply dried myself off and cleaned myself up in the back of the van, trying not to cover everything else in slop as I went. I feared the state of this bag of kit on my return from a week away… Would it be a biohazard when I got home?
Strangely, despite being utterly wrecked, soaked through and not really being big into tracing my bicycle anymore these days, something gnawed at me to immediately sign up to this race again. The low entry numbers, high quality trail, mountains of food and all the other little intricacies that Mike and has his team have weaved into this race has me wanting more.
You can find out everything there is to know about The Merida Ex Enduro over on their website here.