Now we all know that mountain biking is all about finding your sweet spot in a huge range of options - whether that’s pressures and damping clicks on suspension or where you sit on the skin suit and heart rate monitor to stretch jeans and shr-edit spectrum. There’s also a lot of emotional engineering going on when you ride whether that’s the calmness of a slacker head angle at speed or the pep and pop of a slightly tighter compression tune for that racer vibe. These choices and feels also apply to the events we do or watch and how we engage with them and enjoy them.
But while all eyes will be on the end of season World Cup showdowns at Snowshoe in the USA this weekend, an event that went on in a quiet corner of Somerset last weekend highlights that sometimes it’s not hype that makes for an awesome atmosphere, but homegrown.
The Merida EX Enduro powered by Shimano Steps (to give it its full name) is an enduro mountain biking race that almost certainly won’t ever get EWS status or Red Bull coverage but it’s been delighting the riders who are in on its secret charms since 2016. A small band - the maximum rider limit is just 80 racers - who fully appreciate the work that Mike and his tiny events team put into crafting 110km of classic English wood and moorland singletrack and DH around the steep valleys of Exmoor.
People who love the fact you get proper cups of tea served in china cups and utterly English ‘cricket-club-style' catering at the feed stops and that the night stages on the Friday night finish at a barbecue. No girls in tight tops handing out Red Bull or DJs sponsored by Monster, just cups of tea. Oh and free craft beer from sponsors the Bristol Beer Factory all weekend because the riding is hard enough and the riders responsible enough not to get so wasted they spoil the fun of threading through trees and surfing the loam the next day. Also, there’s not just one day of racing. There are three, meaning a lot of stages and a lot of riding that you’ll never normally have access to, making the trip to the event and the entry fee an absolute bargain in terms of spend for the experience you’ll have.
In the same way as keeping riding groups as small raiding parties of people you know/trust and who match your thoughts about gate stop chats, constant clothing alterations, and general faff (I’m not judging here, faff if you want, but just don’t invite me) the small scale of the event is what makes it work so well when you’re riding. There are no hour-long queues at the top of each stage or just to get into or out of the venue. Even if it’s your first time you’ll probably know half the people at the event within the first couple of stage transitions and by the time the embers are cooling on the Friday night BBQ you’ll be bantering with everyone. The competition is certainly fierce and the Golden Stag trophies are fantastic, but the lack of series points or national glory means it always stays the right side of fun. It also means the organizers can have fun with the format too, so don’t be surprised if you find the ghouls in dark robes haunting the darkest of woods on the Exposure Lights night stages.
It can also be integrated into the local community without creating the kind of headache that means it might not be welcome the next year. And again the fact that this event creates people who appreciate a good cup of tea and delicious homemade cake makes it a lot easier for everyone to get along with in an area that looks more like a setting for Midsomer Murders (ie exceptionally quaint and British) than some of the best event-only riding in the UK. And if it means the local library gets a bit of extra biscuit tin money by doubling as the ‘media center’ for the weekend and the National Trust are happy for some of the trails to tiptoe through their carefully curated landscapes then that’s great.
It’s not just me raving about the EX either, several riders we spoke to who have ridden and raced all over the world put this event right up there on their must-do list and agree that it’s partly the size of the event that gives it it’s compelling charm and character:
One of the riders, Tom, told us “Sometimes events that don't draw the crowds are the ones to aim for. While the buzz from a huge event village can get you hyped, smaller events, such as The Ex simply have that friendly atmosphere bigger events often struggle to match. While on-track rivalries are as fierce as ever, as soon as the times are in, it's all smiles. By day two you're best mates with your closest competitor, you've said a few dozen 'hellos' as you grab your second coffee that morning from the barista, you're on first name terms with the team filming and photographing the event and the MC during presentations is already taking the mick out of you (in a friendly manner). And then there's the riding. With fewer competitors the trails are far less hammered by the end of the day, you get to ride tracks that not many people get the chance to race on, and queues at the start of stages? What queues?!"
And our mate Mick from MBR who was just back from riding the most epic trails imaginable at the Trans Savoie - and had a seven-hour drive down to The EX from a week riding and photo shooting in the Lakes - thought the travel was totally worth it.
“I’d say the best aspect is the amount of riding you’re forced to compress into a long weekend and the way you swap about between groups and chat on the long days out. There were 23 sweet stages, mostly in beautiful English woods, with a good mix of rooty singletrack and some more chunky man-made enduro tracks. The food, free booze all weekend and general good vibes flow easily, and then extra touches like daily yoga stretching before you go out each day, a ‘pub quiz’, and the barbecue at the amazing barn after the night ride stages all just add that extra special touch. It’s a great way to spend a weekend for sure.”
And while we’re specifically hyped about The EX at the moment, the great news is that events like these are the absolute bedrock of mountain biking and the core vibe that makes it so good to be part of. Whether you’re an endurance bikepacker at the Jenn ride, you love joining the map dots at MTBO events, you’re a regular at the Crank It XC race series in Lancashire or the legendary Pearce Cycles DH races in Shropshire, you chose to do the Dukes Weekender event instead of Dirty Reiver last weekend or I’ll be seeing you at the Ard Moors Enduro next weekend, there are tons of awesome small scale events to choose from.
Because as I said at the start, mountain biking is a massive world to play in, but it’s when you find the sweet spots that really suit you, that’s when it’s really brilliant.