by Julia Browne
I thought we’d got away with Friday the 13th. Nothing especially nasty happened, and on Saturday the 14th a new rear tyre went on the XL with barely a murmur, and although the front wheel bearings put up a fight at every step, they lost the argument and were installed whether they liked it or not. On Sunday the 15th was the Exmoor Clouds… It had been raining all week and yet I never thought that perhaps I should just stay home and avoid a confrontation with the conditions on that Sunday. It stayed dark and wet all morning. Not the fire-hose of Celia’s famous Edinburgh report but a steady thick drizzle that found every entry point in your clothing and exploited it. When we got to the start at Ralegh’s Cross, a mere twenty miles up the road, we were already soaked to the skin and unable to see a blooming thing through our once clean and de-misted goggles.
The first special test was getting our numbers to stick to the wet bikes. However carefully dried with bog roll from the ladies, they remained too damp for the insulating tape and it was only by using half the roll that we ever succeeded. We took so long that our start times soon came up and we were on our way to the first section, Steep Lane at Wimbleball. It was a bit more challenging than last year, but still not too much trouble. (Although, when even Buster was footing on the way to the ‘Section Begins’, I began to wonder how the day would fare.)
Port Lane came up nice and early this year, and to minimise the delays, the policy was that, if you footed, you would be politely but firmly told to turn around and not be allowed to clog up the upper end of the lane. A handful of people inexplicably cleaned Port Lane – amongst them Buster (naturally), Ray Gerring and Clif Jones on his WR400. Mike went up ahead of me, vanished into the gloom and mist … and by virtue of great speed, some dabbing and gobs of bloody mindedness, got all the way to the top before anyone could stop him. I’ve never climbed Bury even in the dry, I wasn’t going to improve on a day like this.
At Northmoor Mike got a nice wide line through the deep mud off the start and cleaned it. I copied his line but my front wheel washed out and I collected my first – but not last – 12 of the day. We rode up the steep side of Court Down, and down to South Hill. It proved to be needlessly difficult for me. I got around the first corner on the grassy track and spun to a stop. Then I fell off. Then I couldn’t get moving again. Then Mike came roaring past me screaming, “Baulk! Baulk!” which made me feel really good. I eventually found enough grip to pull away again and met him at the top. We all know that my self-inflicted problem is that I don’t ride aggressively enough to stay out of trouble, and I suddenly felt that I should be at home playing with my dolls and not out mixing it with the big boys. However, we pushed on down Yellowcombe and on to Ski Slope.
The marshal was obviously concerned with keeping everyone moving, as he gave us a useful tip about where people were getting into trouble. Heeding his advice we both gunned up clean, and got airborne over the hummocks at the top. At Pin Quarry, which Mike cleaned and I paddled, I began to understand the value of using the clutch as a brake when you are stuck and the bike starts to roll backwards and you can’t get a foot onto the back brake to stop it sliding away. A skill which would be useful later… It took us half an hour and many miles to find Allercott. We followed the ‘clears’ instructions out of Pin Quarry but actually took the ‘fails’ route, and this messed us up a treat. We ended up riding Stone Lane – meeting loads of cyclists riding a two-day Polaris Trailquest – instead of a completely different RUPP, because the route card actually matched what was on the ground! As we passed the top of Weber’s Post in the certain knowledge that something had gone seriously adrift with our route-finding we took the decision to head for Wheddon Cross and pick up from there.
I didn’t remember Allercott all that well; the mud at the start was the same, then I got dumped on the first climb and struggled for several minutes to walk the bike backwards down the gradient to a point where I could get back on and beat a retreat. I was knackered by the time I got it facing downhill and of course there was no way it was going to start again. (Why the hell have I got an XR600 at home when I still can’t manage this bloody thing?) Only the start marshal offering to kick it for me persuaded it to fire into life. At the road, Mike was nowhere to be seen. My debacle had taken so long that he’d gone looking for me, he even rode the section again as none of the marshals had seen me. I wanted to go home. No-one forced either of us to sign up on an XL500, and I’m not looking for the sympathy vote, but by God we were finding it hard going.
The way to Muddlecombe was unclear but we did find it, a right-angled bend through a hedge followed by a straight blast up the bracken-covered hillside, nearly as steep as Ski Slope. I got through the hedge and looked up (and up and up) and I saw Mike at the top making a gesture which I took to mean “Get a move on!” – and it did – so I cracked it open. The bike dug in and started to fly (as I remember it) and the next thing I’m clear about is sitting in a dazed heap under the bike at the top looking up at the marshal saying, “Did I clear the ‘Section Ends’?” I wasn’t the only rider to get to the top and fall over, and Geoff Tipper buried himself so deep in the bracken that only the top his head was visible! After this treatment Hindon Farm was a nice non-threatening section – and the threats were far from over.
The route card sent us though Minehead, where I heard the first metallic rattling sounds of imminent mechanical failure, and chose to pretend I hadn’t. We rode up over Timberscombe and picked up the road to Aville Ball, where I was trying hard to pretend that the noises were my keys rattling, or my fillings, or anything except the recognisable sound of a chain beginning to snap. At Aville Ball I asked Mike for the adjustable wrench, saying, “My chain is making self-destruct noises; I need to tighten it right now,” and Mike said, “For God’s sake, woman, stop fussing, it’s not going to come off.” Then we saw the snapped link, still holding on by a few millimetres. A couple of minutes work with a spare split link saw the thing nailed back together and we were on our way.
Aville Ball claimed marks from every solo in the field, and not all of them from the restart. Mike Crocker and Trevor Griffiths on their Yamaha Wasp were one of only two cleans, the other being Courtney Yandle’s Norton Wasp. Where the section changes tracks sharp left then right through the trees and starts to climb, I didn’t shut off, vaguely saw someone running for cover – sorry – and gunned on to the restart box, where I had a fight to get going again. I made good use of my newly-found skill of using the clutch as a brake and eventually paddled up to the top. Mike wasn’t so lucky. The bike stalled in the box, he couldn’t hold it on the front brake while he tried to start it, and it slid away from him, only stopping when it came up against a tree. I ran down through the trees to help and found a hissy-fit in progress. He got it restarted after about quarter of an hour. I think I heard a touch of valve-float as he rode it up, and they were definitely floating as he gave it a good kicking at the top.
Vinegar Hill had a restart this time, and I saw from Mike’s head that he was having great trouble with it. By now I was just riding to survive, so I made the decision to ride straight through, and not to tire myself further struggling with something I would never beat. When I got back down to the bottom of Vinegar Hill I was greeted by Vinegar Woman. “You didn’t do the restart,” she accused me. I agreed. “You’ve got a fail,” she said abruptly. She was very cross.
At the second special test at Maddocks I was waiting for Mike, saw him going great guns up the track and start to turn, when his chain jumped clean off the sprocket and he began to roll back down the hill. I intended to throw my bike up against a tree and run to help him, but at this stage it turned into a comedy of errors. As I threw the bike I fell over, the bike fell on top of me, pinning me by one foot, and at the same time Mike lost the fight to stop his bike rolling away and fell over as well. The Timekeeper was marvellous, didn’t laugh, but equally, didn’t know which of us to pick up first!
We tightened the chain so it could never come off again and rode on to Druids which turned into another nightmare. Mike struggled all the way up with his, and then had to come back and struggle up the second half with mine. By now Mike and I were both aware that we were losing the fight with the bikes and had gone into survival mode, grimly trying to finish. No heroes on solos cleaned Druids, and only Mike Crocker and his flying machine were unpenalised on this section.
Tarr Cott is a long section, and so there is a bit of a delay at the bottom. We took the opportunity to have a sugar-fix, but I was so tired that I even made a hash of unwrapping my crunch bar. The section was a joy to ride. The restart was cancelled – it all helps – and so it was a straight run up a nicely surfaced track and out into the field at the top. By eventually ignoring the route-card, we got to the final section at Tim Wood, where we found the Lidstone boys (who had taken the correct route, and thought the route-card was fine) and nothing else. No marshals. No-one. We were gradually joined by other riders and two of the cyclists on the Polaris Trailquest. One of the cyclists was in a real mess with exhaustion, and her friend asked if someone could give her a lift back to the top of the long hill that they had – wrongly – just descended. We sensed a kindred, worn out, spirit, so Mike took the girl up to the top and then managed to carry her bicycle up as well! He didn’t say it was easy.
After we had been waiting for half an hour or so, a unanimous decision was reached: that Stan Howitt and Zoe Elsmore would ride their outfit up, and then mark the section to get the trial moving again. The section was much steeper than it looked and by virtue of my passive riding I nearly ran out of momentum on the second half. By luck alone I got through the section-ends board unassisted (Zoe doesn’t know how much luck!) It was a long ride out to the road, and I got baulked by Mike on a sharp slippery bend; baulked, that is, and then blasted with bits of mud and gravel. As I wobbled my way feebly up the track to the top I was struck by an idea; if I fell off now, I was too tired to pick the bike up and get it started again. Mike was a long way ahead and he wouldn’t be rushing back down to see where I was and I had no idea if anyone was behind me. So – don’t fall off, Browne.
Rarely have we been so glad to see the finish of a trial. There had been moments of triumph – getting up Port Lane, for Mike – and moments where dolls house collecting seemed like an appealing pastime. A real bonus was that as we signed off, Mike was given his trophy for winning the class last year. I think he deserved it for this year, having ridden two bikes (his own and mine) around parts of the course.
The cyclists at the finish were interested in what we had been doing and a German cyclist with his beard in a plait was intrigued that you could ride a motorbike on a bridle-way… I’m not sure that he quite understood the difference between a bridle-way and a RUPP even after a long chat because he concluded, “In Germany, they would shoot you for riding over country like this!” Perhaps we are luckier than we think, and not only because of our facial hair.
Mike Crocker and Trevor Griffiths must have worked very hard for their first place overall, with only a six on Muddlecombe to blot their scoresheet and recording special test times not far adrift of the faster solos. Tiddles and Ian Bell won the Sidecars. KMX mounted Ray Gerring came out on top of class A1 with Buster lying second, only three points behind him and Dick Lidstone third. Class A2 was won by Clif Jones with his very nice-looking WR400F (and any time he wants to swap bikes, let me know…) while Chris Groves was second and Andrew Fowler third. Class B was won by Mike Maddocks on an XL500 which is now free to any sort of home…
It’s been a long time since the bike has managed to give me this much of a kicking. I haven’t been able to run up stairs all today; sitting on my bicycle this morning was uncomfortable, and pushing the pedals around was downright painful. Having said that, Jack Pouncy once told me that life’s pleasurable memories are made up of the times that you were fighting adversity. I know we are going to talk about this one for a while.