Sunday, May 22, 2016

UK Enduro Series vs British Enduro Series: Clash of the titans

You couldn't make it up. Within weeks of the demise of the once-popular UK Gravity Enduro series, not one but two new national enduro series are announced within days of each other: the British Enduro Series and, er, the British Enduro Series. Yes, not only do they have near-identical logos featuring the same bit of freebie clipart, they both launch under exactly the same name...

This was, I assume, just an unfortunate coincidence. Neil Delafield of Red Kite/Mondraker Enduro fame/infamy and Si Paton of UKDH fame/infamy must have been beavering away on their respective series for months (booking venues, negotiating with landowners, sweet-talking sponsors, building websites, hiring portaloos, making up rules, forgetting to order tape). And all credit to them both - organising just one race must be a massive undertaking.

Needless to say, though, the Twattersphere goes into overdrive. Misinformation rules, opinions polarise, war is declared. Who are you with - Little Hitler or the Rogue Cowboy? When the debate starts to trend higher than "Paris Hilton breaks fingernail", there are calls for the UN to intervene. But not even British Cycling are interested, despite all they've done for women's cycling.

A stand-off ensues. Who will back down on the name? Both sides claim to have got there first. Eventually the bigger man (literally, at least) breaks eye contact and backs down. And thus the British Enduro Series and the UK Enduro Series are born - two imaginatively named series for the price of one!
I should perhaps stress that the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my sponsors. Or even my own.

I also have something to declare beyond ten crates of vodka and half a dozen immigrants under a blanket in the boot. I ride for UK Enduro's own race team, and Neil Delafield is my friend. I don't work for FIFA, though, so I'd like to think I'm still capable of being impartial. Suck it and see.
Following this false start, the two series were at pains to project a unique identity, suggesting that they would be more complementary than direct competitors. While UKE was all talk of "riding with your mates", BES was busy announcing cash prizes. When UKE launched its hashtag #fortheriders, BES responded with #fortheracers. It seemed that one was about the taking part, and the other was about the winning.

But what would this mean in practice? Only one way to find out. Some poor sod would have to ride them both and report back. Hmm, spend two entire weekends messing around on bikes, or crack on with the DIY? After much soul-searching, I selflessly stepped up to the plate - but would I smash it?

Triscombe in a nutshell. 
Don't worry, this wasn't me. I was going too slowly to crash. Check out the dust.
Photo: Dan Wyre Photography.

Star date: 23-24 April 2016
Location: Triscombe, Somerset
Event: Rocky Mountain UK Enduro round 2
Weapon of choice: Mondraker Foxy with RRP mudguard and Absolute Black oval chain ring
Result: 19th vet

First impressions on Friday afternoon were not good. The Quantocks aren't the most imposing range of hills, more of a freak pimple on the arse of England. The venue might have looked like Hogwarts but was actually more real-world boarding school, with the heating set to absolute zero and rampant bum fun in the showers. And it was raining.

But it turned out to be a really fantastic event.

Having everyone eating, drinking and sleeping together in the old school made it a much more social occasion with a decent atmosphere both day and night. Less event village and more holiday village.

Nor was the rain a problem. Partly because it stopped, giving way to a weekend of non-stop sunshine. Also because the soil there is so absorbent they used to mine it for Pampers. Things were still a little greasy in practice, but we were treated to bone-dry race runs bar a couple of short fresh-cut sections of slippety-sloppety slapstick fun.

And the lack of elevation may even have been a good thing. The climbs were that much more manageable, and the stages were still a good length. While round 1 of the series (see my report here - no, go on, please do, it's had so few hits I don't know why I bothered) was all about Neil Delafield's 100% home-made loamy tracks, here in the Quantocks he was limited to adding a few short sections to the existing network of downhill tracks. But what great tracks they were. Some heart-in-mouth steep and twisty bits, some easy flat-out blasts. Lots and lots of roots. With a side-serving of more roots. And drops and jumps and steps. A bit of everything really. And fast. With not a trail-centre descent in sight.

I won't bore you with a detailed breakdown of the stages - I'm too old to remember them all in any case - but you can get a taste from these videos:

Some helmet-cam highlights courtesy of Wheelies team rider Ben Stallwood.

The end of stage 3 courtesy of marshal Fred Cook. The steep bit (from 5 minutes in) was more than a little scary and ace fun. Sadly the stage had to be abandoned on Sunday because some scrote half-inched one of the timing beacons. Wonder what they'll make of that at Cash Generator?

I particularly enjoyed the fast 'n' furious stages 5 to 7, ridden blind on the Sunday. When you're hurtling down the bottom section of the already super-hairy stage 7 at 20mph (OK, in my case maybe 10mph) and you suddenly find the Grand Canyon opening up before you, there's only one thing you can do - go for it. Trust the bike, feel the fear - and then feel on top of the world when you make it through unscathed, grinning from ear to ear. You just can't beat that feeling!

Which makes me wonder whether enduro stages shouldn't always be raced blind. No weekend-before recces, no practice sessions, no track walks, nothing.

One drawback, of course, is that you have to work harder on navigation. As a geriatric with more than enough on his hands dealing with the trail immediately in front of me, I find the additional complication of looking ahead to see where I'm supposed to go next (let alone spot alternative lines) a massive test for my limited multi-tasking abilities. It's like opening too many windows on your PC - eventually everything just grinds to a halt.

So I could have done with a whole lot more tape to show me where to go. Whereas the top racers could have done with a whole lot more tape to show them where not to go.

What I saw as a mildy disconcerting absence of directional cues was seen by some as an opportunity for the ultimate Strava line, cutting straight down through the trees and completely missing out the twists and turns of the actual track - eventually triggering a 20-strong protest train of riders whizzing down the hill to harangue the organiser into cancelling the stage, plus a whole lotta bitching on social media.

Click here for a video of the offending section courtesy of James Scott.

Ultimately, though, it was a storm in a teacup, and I've no doubt that lessons have been learned and future rounds will be taped up tighter than a Tory MP in Mistress Whippy's dungeon of dodgy desires.

And I still thought stage 7 was the absolute bollocks, rounding off a perfect weekend's riding.

Once again I was completely outclassed, and I couldn't believe how slow my times were when I checked them, but I had such fun riding the stages that I just didn't care. Could that be what #fortheriders is all about?

Dyfi in a nutshell.
Tracey Moseley has been world enduro champion every year since 1947, and if she looks knackered at the end...

Star date: 7-8 May 2016
Location: Dyfi Forest, Mid Wales
Event: Cannondale British Enduro round 2
Weapon of choice: Mondraker Foxy with RRP mudguard and Absolute Black oval chain ring
Result: 15th vet

"How are you feeling, Chris?" asks the MC.

At precisely 8.36 and 20 seconds on a Sunday morning after a night in a field with no showers on the back of the toughest practice loop of all time? Forgive me if I don't pull a wheelie off the start ramp.

The pre-race interview is part of the ritual here, part of the show. This isn't just a bike race, it's an event, a happening, a big deal. There's a clear aspiration to be the best (in the country, the world, the universe), a super-slick and super-pro mini-EWS or World Cup. And in fairness, it is all very well organised, with an impressive start/finish arena with massive sponsor presence and loads of trade stands and a huge crew telling you where to park and restocking the bogroll in the portaloos and otherwise keeping things running smoothly. The timing beacon thief wouldn't have stood a chance here. And they've certainly attracted a big field of elite riders who are very much the centre of attention - to the point where I grew pretty sick of hearing about Jerome this and Jerome that. What about Robson, I wondered.

Everything, but everything, is more serious than at UKE. There are an awful lot of rules, with seeding by age category and exact start times for every stage - and rapidly escalating time penalties (even disqualification) if you miss them. I'm still an XC racer at heart, so I'd thought the fixed start times would mean having to spend ages hanging about, but actually the transitions were pretty tight. Riding at an economical pace I only had a few minutes to spare before most of the stages. In fact it was very like an XC race where you only ever snatch a few words with riders here and there. There certainly wasn't time to deal with a mechanical or help someone else with theirs - you had to look out for number one.

The loop itself was tough, very tough, with over 50km and 1,500m of climbing each day. The first two stages in the forest were both preceded by a gruelling 350m ascent, and the arena was a full 5 miles of dull, cruelly undulating tarmac from the forest. The weather didn't really play ball either, drizzling down most of Saturday, and despite blazing sunshine on Sunday the fireroads remained sticky, hard work on a heavy enduro rig with soft mud tyres and flat pedals.

First stage on Sunday. I said conditions were sticky.
Photo: Peter Jones, organiser of the incomparable Dyfi Winter Warm Up.

What made it really, really, really hard, though, was doing all that climbing in a full-face helmet in 25°C sunshine. Yes, I could have taken a separate trail helmet for the climbs, but that would have required me to wear a backpack so I'd have ended up just as hot, and anyway how safe is it to crash on a race run with a spare helmet digging into your back?

The "full-face on stages and helmet on transitions" rule simply has to be revisited. Not only is it illogical (it's fine for us to push our limits on some seriously sketchy shit on the stages but we're not trusted to pootle up a fireroad transition without falling off?) but it's dangerous: hot, bothered and blinded by sweat is no way to start a downhill run. It's not surprising so many people binned it on the final stage of the day, and I'm surprised nobody collapsed from heat exhaustion or drowned in a river of other people's sweat on the way there.

Me and the two riders I overtook on the final stage. Far too little, far too late.

Now maybe it's my XC background, or just my contrary gene, but I actually liked being under pressure the whole time on race day, I loved the physicality of the loop, and I really enjoyed the weekend. I don't mind riding on my own, and I'm happy with it being all about me, me, me. 

And the race stages were brilliant. BES and UKE may be like chalk and cheese in other respects, but the actual racing was very similar - varied, challenging, scary at times, fun throughout and a world away from your typical trail-centre enduro.

Stage 1/6 was the best - a fresh-cut old-skool DH track with hairy steep turns on slick clay lined with enthusiastic spectators and finishing with a proper knackering grassy sprint into the arena. Even the one trail-centre stage was good fun - just how fast dare you go? And I'm glad they kept in the controversial slopfest at the top of stage 3, which I found unrideable but hilarious, spending most of it on my arse.

After five (yes, five) people passed me on that one section, my chances of an overall win were slim, despite Dan Atherton pulling a sickie immediately after seeing me nail stage 4 in practice. A coincidence? I think not.

Click here for gavskxf's video of "carnage corner" on the seeding stage, which I rather overcomplicated by getting the nose of my saddle wedged somewhere it really shouldn't have been.

In reality, all my times were woeful, but I still ended up halfway up the vets category after exhaustion caused quite a few to pull out early or crash out of the final stage. But I'll take that. It's supposed to be hard and it's supposed to hurt. Sport should reward fitness as well as skill. You want skill without fitness, go play darts. (In my head right now is a Baywatch slow-mo of manboobs in motion as Jocky Wilson sprints 100m to the oche... Sorry, had to share.)

One thing I've missed with enduro until now - and at UKE in particular - is that feeling of being completely, totally and utterly shattered at the end of a race day, hobbling home having given it your absolute all. I guess that must be what #fortheracers is all about.

I gave it everything.

So... UKE or BES?

With the stages themselves being very similar in nature and standard, it has to be down to the rest of the weekend outside the 30 minutes you're actually racing.

If you don't want to be rushing to stages to make an allotted start time, or you want to ride with your mates, or you're not very fit, the more grass-rootsy UKE is for you. There's even a handy Sunday-only option for those who can't make the whole weekend.

But if you're secretly fed up of having to wait for your mates on every climb, fancy your chances of bagging some serious prize money, or prefer a structured approach to life, you might want to look at the more corporate BES. 

As a rider, I enjoyed the more laid-back atmosphere of UKE. As a racer, I enjoyed the more intense atmosphere of BES. But which is better? I guess there's only one way to find out... FIGHT!

UK Enduro heads back to the loamy trails of the Crychan Forest in Mid Wales this coming weekend 28-29 May (Triscombe sold out, so best enter sharpish!). The next British Enduro round is at Afan in South Wales on 11-12 June.
Featured sponsor - Wickens & Söderström

Their chain lube is like totally amazeballs.
Even in the buried-alive mudfest that was stage 3 in the Dyfi, it kept my chain and cassette squeaky clean. Without the squeak.
I can wholeheartedly recommend it.
And finally a BIG THANKS to Dan Wyre for letting me use his fantastic photos!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

UK Enduro Round 1: Humbled

Star date: 19-20 March 2016
Location: Crychan Forest, Mid Wales
Event: UK Enduro Round 1
Weapon of choice: Mondraker Foxy with RRP mudguard and Absolute Black oval chain ring
Greatest strength: Bouncing
Greatest weakness: Speed
Result: 6th vet

We’re at the top of stage 3. “Want to go first, Chris?” asks Rowan Sorrell.

Yes, that Rowan Sorrell. Globe-trotting elite downhiller turned trail-builder extraordinaire. The guy behind Bike Park Wales. The guy who built my local trails at Brechfa, the whole reason why I started mountain biking. The guy who has just celebrated a return to racing after shattering his leg into a million tiny pieces a couple of years ago – twice (duh!) – with an overall win at the BPW Mini Enduro, where he finished a whopping 90 seconds ahead of yours truly.

Going first would be like trying to outrun a bullet train on a handcar.

“Nah, you’re OK,” I say. “I’ll leave a good gap.” Ho, ho, ho.

And off he goes.

I give him a couple of seconds (well, you never know) and shoot off in pursuit. Needless to say, after the first corner he’s out of sight. And with the steady barrage of sniper roots and kamikaze drops and you-gotta-be-kidding twists and turns on the event's all-natural tracks, he’s very quickly out of mind.

Roots, loam and clearly something alarming coming right up.
The full-face soon came off. It was just too sunny. I know. 

It was an odd chain of events – involving an ageing hippie, a missing roof, my awkward gene and clocks in the South Wales Valleys running a good two hours behind GMT – that led to me spending much of my first official outing as a member of Team UK Enduro riding not with my teammates but in a group that included local downhill heroes Duncan Porter and Sam Robson (you know, the kind who build tracks down a near-vertical slope and then think what they really need is some six-foot drop-offs in the middle) and, on Sunday, the aforementioned Mr Sorrell. Plus my regular enduro-buddy Gary Allen battling terrier-like to stay with them, and little old me trailing along behind.

Which would never happen at The Other National Enduro Series with its rigid categories and start times and seeding. Which is a shame. Because when you’re only actually racing for 20-30 minutes over an entire weekend, the social side is all-important.

The pasta party kicks off at the Drover’s Rest
Much has already been made of the “ride with your mates” approach of the UK Enduro series. Do the stages in whatever order you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want. Seed yourselves – fastest mate goes first. And when you do need to pass someone, generous taping means it’s no biggie.

The chilled vibe only goes so far, of course. As soon as you start down a stage, the gloves are off. It’s the same focus, the same determination. But three minutes later there you are at the bottom, whooping and hell-yeahing and sharing war stories with your mates and complete strangers alike as you winch back up the hill.

Such is the Spirit of Enduro – and the reason why I’ve switched completely from XC in 2016.

Seems I've mastered the art of looking scared even when I'm not.

But it isn’t just as an example of the Brotherhood of Enduro that I mention riding with Rowan. Nor is it just namedropping, although I do admit to being somewhat star-struck (to his credit, he didn’t visibly wince when I told him he’d changed my life).

No, the main reason is that riding with the likes of Rowan Sorrell and Duncan Porter (and indeed my teammate Ben Jones) is jaw-droppingly inspiring – and humbling.

They’re just so incredibly bloody quick!

And the thing is, they make it look easy.

Whereas I’m fighting my bike like a bucking bronco, they’re so smooth they’d already have five babes in the jacuzzi by the time I plucked up the courage to speak to the geeky plain girl in the corner.

Even on the flat sections, they hardly seem to pedal. Whereas I grab every opportunity to spin like a dervish to make up a fraction of a second before the next root-infested corner forces me to grab the brakes or be pinged into oblivion, these guys barely turn the cranks.

The amount of speed they carry, with seemingly nonchalant ease, is untrue.

And with the UK Enduro format, I get to witness it close up. I get invited into the jacuzzi.

Too much pedalling and not enough flow. I'm working on it.
Nice kit, though, thanks to Flare Clothing.

Zigzagging down through the woods to make the best use of natural features such as stumps, logs, fallen-tree bombholes, ancient hedge banks, streams, root after root and general Welsh steepness, and evolving over the weekend along with your riding, Neil Delafield’s all-natural stages are a far cry from the predictability of trail centre descents. This isn’t DH, so everything is rollable, but the tracks throw up a steady stream of technical challenges to test your mettle. Importantly, though, it’s fun-technical, not scary-technical, so you don’t have to be the world’s best rider to get down them. I'm the living proof.

Kudos to Richard Thomas for letting me use his warts'n'all footage of stage 2.

And a blooper reel from Steven Baldock, one of the better riders.

Whatever your level, it doesn’t half help to have the right bike and the right tyres, so a big shout out here to my Mondraker Foxy with Onza Greina mud tyre up front, which, unlike me, never put a foot wrong all weekend.

Mondraker are well-known for pushing the limits of bike geometry. 
But next time, Mum, ask before you borrow it, eh?

At race pace (even my race pace), it’s still a white-knuckle ride. Like one of my kids’ high-speed computer games (without the spare lives), the obstacles fly at you thick and fast, giving you no time to think and barely enough to react.

Unless, of course, you’re one of the fast guys, who use their bionic vision to focus three corners down the track, casually floating over everything in the meantime as though on a hovercraft.

I get to one of Neil’s signature point-and-pray off-camber turns and tentatively slide the rear wheel round at a speed where if it all goes pear-shaped at least it won’t hurt. What do they do? Do they slow down? Do they hell. Half the time they don’t even slide round the corners but give two fingers to the laws of physics and turn in mid-air.

They could probably also do a back flip and triple somersault in the process, but they don’t. They just get the business done, no showboating. Sure, on the transitions Rowan and Duncan seized every conceivable (and inconceivable) opportunity to pull wheelies and flicks and huck off pretty much everything, but on the race runs they were supremely economical, silky smooth.

As you might have guessed, I want to be like that.

More loam than you could shake a whole forest of sticks at.
Photo: Victoria Dawes, better known for her role on Shooting Stars.

While I didn’t exactly rule the roost (see what I did there?), I could sense my riding coming along over the course of the weekend. I’m beginning to get a feel for riding loam. Spaghetti roots are fine, but the anacondas still freak me out. I need to learn to bunny-hop properly and I need to man up and commit more on off-camber corners.

Ultimately we’re talking skids and tricks, all the things I didn’t learn during a childhood misspent swotting. It’s a whole new way of riding, and I’m loving it.

Teammate Ben on the top step. I won’t mention his height in case he gets a complex.
Note the Julbo glasses he still has surgically attached to his face.

This weekend was the maiden outing for the UK Enduro race team, including new arrival Bond, Gemma Bond, licensed to thrill. And what a successful weekend it was for the team, with two out of four making the podium. Ben won the senior male category and was fifth overall, Gemma finished third elite female, and Ceri was an impressive ninth in masters, the largest category, a good three minutes ahead of me. I ended up sixth in vets and 56th overall in the two-day race, the very definition of mid-table mediocrity and way better than I’d expected.

And in my group, Rowan was the overall winner of the Sunday race, Duncan was first master, Sam was third senior and Gary was second grand vet. That’s pretty illustrious company, so perhaps it’s not surprising I couldn’t keep up!

I said there were steep bits. 
Photo: Shaun Rutherford in between marshalling, heckling and checking his Tinder.

The great news for those who enjoyed - or missed - Round 1 is that Round 3 of the UK Enduro has now had to be moved from the Dyfi and will also be in the Crychan with at least one brand-new track. Round 2 is at Triscombe in Somerset on April 23-24. Get your entries in now!

Finally, a big thanks to the team’s growing list of sponsors.
  • UK Enduro – purveyors of the finest mountain bike events this side of the EWS
  • Wheelies – purveyors of the finest bikes and stuff in South Wales if not the Universe
  • Flare Clothing – purveyors of the finest MTB clothing
  • Julbo – purveyors of the finest eyeware
  • Sealskinz – purveyors of the finest gloves and socks
  • RRP – purveyors of the finest lightweight mudguards
  • Absolute Black – purveyors of the finest oval chain rings 
  • Airshot – purveyors of the finest tubeless tyre inflators 
  • Dan Wyre Photography – purveyors of the finest action photography
  • Sixth Element – purveyors of the finest carbon wheels
  • Rocky Mountain – purveyors of the finest mountain bikes
Now also featuring:
  • Wickens & Söderström – purveyors of the finest bottled magic (totally unprompted, a mate of mine said yesterday that their lube is “life-changing”; insert smutty comment of choice)
The weekend's star freebie without a doubt was my Flare Clothing team top. I always seemed to be at just the right temperature – and suddenly now everyone seems to know my name!

Other race reports worth checking out:
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(Though I'd go elsewhere for web design.)

Friday, February 26, 2016

The one where Chris sells his soul: UK Enduro launch

Anyone know where to source cheap needles now I’ve gone pro? Oh yes, it’s official, at long last my prodigious mountain biking talents have been recognised. I’ve only gone and been snapped up by Britain’s hottest, coolest and sexiest enduro race team: Team UK Enduro!

When UK Enduro series organiser Neil Delafield started singing down the phone, “Boys, do you wanna be in my gang, my gang, my gang?”, naturally we told the old perv to sod off. “What, even if you get a load of free shit?” Free shit? Oh, all right then.

And thus Team UK Enduro was born: the world’s tallest person (Ben Jones), the world’s fastest talker (Ceri Lewis) and the eye candy (me, obvs), plus Mr Wheelies (Dawie Davies) and a possible token female to be announced later. Needless to say, I’m super stoked to be hitting the dirt with such a sick crew. My special role will be to do the race reports, as I’m the only one who can spel.

Chasing down teammate Ceri (photo: Dan Wyre Photography)

We’ll be ripping up a whole heap of events this year, with the focus on the UK’s premier national enduro series – you guessed it – UK Enduro. Hitting the sweet spot between XC and DH, enduro is the race format that’s taking the world by storm because it actually makes racing fun, and the UK Enduro series will be enduro at its finest, with no fewer than seven races this year at venues across Britain (yes, they’ve even managed to find some hills in England). I’m especially looking forward to being crowned national champ at Revolution Bike Park in September.

Yesterday was the big UK Enduro press launch bash, with journalists, sponsors, forestry bigwigs and top Welsh Assembly totty gathering for nibbles and a good schmooze at the Drover’s Rest in Llanwrtyd Wells before heading out to test a selection of hand-crafted stages set to feature in the first round.

I don't remember it being that green (Photo: Dan Wyre Photography)

The tracks were the usual challenging-but-rideable fare familiar from Neil’s previous events, but longer and running faster thanks to more support on the corners. If loamy, rooty, twisty, steep, techy, off-camber, all-natural hooning about in the woods with mates is your bag, you really must come to the Crychan Forest on 19-20 March. Be there or be square.

To finish, I’d like to say a quick thanks to God and my family for making it all possible, but most of all to the sponsors for the free shit:
  • UK Enduro – purveyors of the finest mountain bike events this side of the EWS
  • Wheelies – purveyors of the finest bikes and stuff in South Wales if not the Universe
  • Flare Clothing – purveyors of the finest MTB clothing
  • Julbo – purveyors of the finest eyeware
  • Sealskinz – purveyors of the finest gloves and socks
  • RRP – purveyors of the finest lightweight mudguards
  • Absolute Black – purveyors of the finest oval chain rings 
  • Airshot – purveyors of the finest tubeless tyre inflators 
  • Dan Wyre Photography – purveyors of the finest action photography
  • Sixth Element – purveyors of the finest carbon wheels
  • Rocky Mountain – purveyors of the finest mountain bikes
(I should add that I haven’t actually had any freebies from the last two yet. Get your fingers out, boys. What's a few grand between friends?)

You know, yesterday's ride just wouldn't have been the same without my Absolute Black chainring, RRP mudguard, Julbo goggles and Flare Clothing top! Or my Mondraker bike, for that matter, but I had to pay for that so they don't get a link.

Also a special shout out to Drover Cycles, purveyors of the finest mechanical assistance and lentil dishes, for lending me various bouncy bikes over the years until I finally stumped up for one of my own.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Red Kite Techie Devil 50km: Marmite

Star date: 12 July 2015
Location: Irfon Forest, Mid Wales
Event: Red Kite Events Techie Devil
Weapon gratefully borrowed: Pyga OneTwenty from Drover Cycles
Greatest strength: Growing a pair
Greatest weakness: Growing them a bit late in the day
Result: Need new trousers

This one really divided opinion. Who needs Kim Kardashian to break the Internet when you have the Techie Devil, eh? Listen to some people and you'd be forgiven for thinking it was like this:

On paper, it was a great idea. Take one of the country's most demanding old-skool enduro loops and spice it up with some hardcore nu-skool enduro descents hand-built for this year's Mondraker Series.

Lots of natural rocky goodness + Lots of twisty rooty goodness = Just what the doctor ordered!

Unfortunately the weather threw a spanner in the works, with heavy overnight rain sending some of the tracks deep into slapstick territory. The Mondraker Series is very much at the technical end of the enduro spectrum even in the dry (read what I made of round 1 here) and many riders soon found they'd bitten off way more than they wanted to chew...

The rain actually held off during the ride and there was even some sunshine.

My day didn't start too well either. On arrival, I had to sit in the car for ten minutes because it was raining so hard. A quarter of an hour into the ride, I was part of a group that missed a sign and headed the wrong way for a mile and a half. And sandwiched between the two was the Garn, a killer tarmac climb that soon has your legs screaming for mercy - and leads onto a loose rocky climb that demands levels of oomph and momentum your legs no longer want to deliver. I'm not surprised everyone else I saw was walking, but they could've moved out of the bloody way. I may well have lost traction at some point anyway, but after all that gurning effort I wasn't a happy bunny to be blocked off!

The first whiff of a descent then brought the first sign that not everyone was expecting the event to do what it said on the tin, as I (yes, me) whizzed past another rider. And on both the first proper descent (which I found pretty innocuous) and the first gnarly bedrock section, I passed people walking. As it happened, I cocked up the bedrock section - I picked a terrible line, got stuck in a cleft so deep there were kangaroos waving back up at me, and had to bail. So I too decided to walk... back up to the top so I could ride it again! I totally understand the need for self-preservation but it is called The Techie Devil ffs...

Little old me riding the unrideable descent.
Photo by Dan Wyre

Next up, though, was the now-infamous mudslide. I knew something was up from the queue at the top - and all the way to the bottom. Neil the organiser had told me it was his best track yet, but on the day it was mostly a slip 'n' slide scramble down 150 hard-won vertical metres. It really was very steep, winding tightly round the trees without berms or other support, and peppered with drops that seemed to need speed I'd never be able to scrub off afterwards. After numerous failed attempts to get going, I decided it was indeed beyond me and joined the procession trudging down the hill grumbling quietly. But then, towards the bottom, I spied event photographer Dan Wyre ahead. Quick, back on the bike for the camera! I actually then managed to ride 30 yards round several corners before losing it again, a huge improvement on my record of about 10 feet further up. Which goes to show that even an unrideable descent can be rideable if you have a big enough incentive...

Forget scratch 'n' sniff, try tilt 'n' weep. Go on, tilt your head/monitor/phone/tablet until the trees are vertical. The fact I'm on the bike means it's actually the flattest part of the descent...
Photo by Dan Wyre

It was a shame the rain ruined this descent. Not only would it have been a scary-but-doable cracker in the dry, but it seemed to dampen everyone's spirits and pave the way for a whole lot of negativity. Neil would have done everyone a favour by taking it out and sending us another way down the hill - which, to be fair, he did on the return leg.

The next two descents were built for round 2 of the Mondraker Series. They too were incredibly slippery in parts, especially after everyone else's locked-out rear wheels and flailing buttocks had rubbed away all the lovely grippy loam of summer to leave the slick, polished clay of winter freshly coated with anti-climb paint. It gave the opposite of grip, actively pinging you off the trail like two magnets repelling each other. And it was a helluva job to remount, not only you and your bike but even the trees seemed to be sliding down the hill.

I must've come off half a dozen times on the last descent before lunch (Mondraker stage 4). I was like a clown on an icerink. But I did ride all of it. In short bursts. Faced with an audience, I even did the rather scary drops at the top and bottom, with mixed success. It was a real handful but also an absolute cracker and my highlight of the day. Normally you surf down the best descents on a wave of euphoria rather than wobbling around like a hysterical clotz, but I'll take that.

Lunch at Coed Trallwm café was followed by one last hand-cut enduro descent (entirely rideable) and a rerouted trip home with two very big climbs, some very big puddles and two big but not overly technical descents that would, ironically, have been ideal for the riders who threw in the towel half way and took the road back.
A little something for the weekend

Once again Drover Cycles in Hay-on-Wye very kindly lent me their all-conquering Pyga OneTwenty trail bruiser to help compensate for my lack of sick skillz, this time fitted with the latest Pike-slaying Fox 34 forks.

Once again the bike performed impeccably despite a relatively modest 140/120mm of travel. Its surefooted indestructibility gave me the confidence to let fly like never before on the bedrock sections on the return leg, and even the most seriously ill-judged, potentially tyre-shredding, wheel-mangling, frame-cracking, bone-breaking line choices elicited nothing more than a Gallic shrug. Is there anything this bike can't handle?

Photo by Dan Wyre

The silky-smooth forks not only soaked up the big hits but were impressive on persistent road-drill rockiness, as confirmed by three comfortably dingless runs down the notorious Rim Dinger at Bike Park Wales two days earlier. They're still unnecessarily complicated, though, with three main settings and an "additional 22 clicks of low-speed compression adjust". The only settings I ever need are "on" and "off".

In a way, the bike and forks really came into their own towards the end of the ride on the less technical White Bridge and Preacher's Path descents, which were so overgrown in parts that you had no idea what in the way of rocks/logs/holes/monsters might lurk beneath. Completely letting go of the brakes and trusting the bike to get on with it in such circumstances was most unlike me.

While the Bionicon Alva I took down White Bridge last year was like floating on a magic carpet, the Pyga is much more involving and sticks to the ground like glue. Unless, of course, you don't want it to. I made a real breakthrough at Bike Park Wales getting a handle on that whole if-you-don't-like-the-look-of-it-just-jump-over-it approach. This bike has opened my eyes to a new way of riding.

Photo by Dan Wyre.

That said, I still hated the Havoc bars and I had a nightmare hauling the bike up all those hills. It's not especially heavy at 30lb, but I'm used to dancing up climbs on a 20lb featherweight and don't normally have to carry water on my back, which made me a right sweaty betty from the word go. It gave me a real insight into why so many people creep up the hills at events like these - seems it's not just down to too many pies. Even with the suspension locked out, much of the power I was putting down was getting lost in the mix. I never thought I'd need a XX1 cassette's 42t crawler sprocket, but I certainly did on the persistently steep and hurty bridleway climb at Coed Trallwm. As I didn't spin out at all, some would argue that the bike climbs well. For me, the fact that I eventually had to stop for a 10-second breather says otherwise. Let's call it a draw.

But like Margie Melons down the docks, the Pyga's very, very good when going down.
Fewer than half the starters completed the course. So did the haters have a point? Were the descents unrideable? Did the organiser get it all wrong?

As riders, we have to accept that it might occasionally rain in Wales. But it's very rare for the weather to actually wreck an event (Red Kite's own Little Devil in April springs to mind - so horrid were its constant rain and impossible headwinds that I still can't bring myself to blog about it). I've done plenty of XC races that have been total mudbaths, and you just have to get over it - or go online and slag off the organiser.

Of course, organisers too need to allow for the weather. The mudslide descent may still have been rideable for the likes of Dan Atherton after the night's rain (bet he'd have dabbed though), but it wasn't for the mere mortals who entered the event, so clearly it should've been pulled or made optional. But that was just one descent, what about the other 49½km?

 The mudslide. Bearded rider shows how it should be done.
Photo by Dan Wyre.

The whole point of the event was to go beyond trail centre predictability and really test people's skills/bottle. You have to expect an event called The Techie Devil to put you out of your comfort zone. And it did.

Of course, picking just the right level of difficulty is always going to be tricky. Did the organiser read his ridership wrong? There were certainly some who were walking the "easy" stuff and should probably have stayed at home. But even if we assume that the rest were still only of my very average standard, what are we left with?

Well, everything bar the mudslide was entirely rideable. Yes, I struggled to stay upright on some sections. Yes, I scared myself silly on some of the drops. But then that whole "I can't do that, I'm not doing that, no way - oh wait, I just did" buzz is what I come for. Isn't that what it's all about?

I think most of us ended up on our arses at some point.
Photo by Dan Wyre.
Maybe some people were disappointed to find they weren't quite as good as they thought they were (I was mostly delighted to find that I wasn't quite as bad as I thought I was). Which is kind of understandable, as those slippy-slidey descents were a far cry from the all-weather tracks you get at trail centres, whatever shade of black they may be graded.

And maybe the route was simply too long for many of the riders. I'm fit as **** and I found it physically draining on a trail bike. And it wasn't just the whopping 2,000 metres of climbing, some of it quite technical and very steep. The intense concentration required on the descents also took its toll.

So when you then hit Puddle Alley without a snorkel, do you have a hissy fit or get the giggles? I know from my guiding (shameless plug for Epic Rides Wales) that once fatigue levels get to a certain point, a complete sense-of-humour failure is all but guaranteed.

To be honest, the flowers and the scenery went unnoticed at the time.
Photo by Dan Wyre

So, lessons to be learned on both sides. But ultimately you can't please all of the people all of the time. In the immortal words of Taylor Swift:

The haters gonna hate, hate, hate
Baby I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake
Shake it off

I do hope there's another Techie Devil. I hope the weather plays ball, I hope the route is less punishing, I hope entrants will have realistic expectations, and I hope the descents continue to push my limits and develop my riding. The end.

P.S. Quote of the day: "Yeah, fine thanks, mate, just picking pine needles out of my arse."

If you're man or mad enough, the fourth round of the Mondraker Enduro Series is on 22/23 August.


Thursday, June 25, 2015

Bristol Bikefest 12-hour solo: Too much of a good thing

Star date: 13 June 2015
Event: Bristol Bikefest 12-hour solo 
Weapon of choice: Fully rigid 26" singlespeed
Greatest strength: Finishing
Greatest weakness: Entering
Result: Knackered

Warning: Contains nuts (and bad language)

As regular readers will know, I rather like mountain biking. Indeed I can't get enough of it. So a whole 12 hours of it at the Bristol Bikefest seemed like a really good idea. It's also a proper race (not some namby-pamby "challenge") and even has an official singlespeed category for the beardy-weirdies purists.

But while extreme endurance events, like bondage parlours, have long held a certain weird appeal, I’d always thought that people who enjoy such proclivities must have something very wrong with them. Without wanting to give too much away at this early stage, I was right. And I didn't get a happy ending.

Of course, I knew it would be tough - despite appearances I'm not entirely stupid - but I really didn't bargain with the complete loss of any semblance of enjoyment (and eventually any capacity whatsoever for emotion) as you embark on yet another stuporous lap, the will to live but a fleeting memory. It was a daft idea, I should've known better, and I will never* do anything like it again.

*Well, not this year, anyway.
Each year the Bikefest brings together around 1,000 riders to race solo or, more sensibly, in teams of two or four at Ashton Court, a large park with fine views over central Bristol and just a stone’s throw from the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge.

With maybe 400 riders on the 10 km course at any one time across four separate distances (12, six and three hours plus a 9½-hour ciderthon) all finishing at the same time, it's definitely not one of those events where you get away from it all. You're almost constantly overtaking and being overtaken, sometimes with less grace than others.

Predominantly purpose-built all-weather singletrack, the trail is blue-graded (easy but fun) with a few red-graded features (mainly small rock steps) which are all easily rollable (and mostly rollroundable). Although perched on the side of a bloody great hill, the course contrives to be almost completely flat, which is great if you don't like climbing but not so great if you want big descents or if climbing is your forte.

The lap format makes for a great atmosphere. Passing through the event village to cowbells and cheering every 30-40 minutes gives you a real lift, as well as regular opportunities to grab more food and drink, brave the portaloos, have a quick cuddle, or just jump in the car and drive home. On the other hand, all those laps do bring a certain sense of déjà vu.

The official event video can be found here. I make a few passing appearances but sadly not while styling it up. There are only so many backflips you can do to get attention.

Laps 1-3: It's not a sprint, you know

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the early stages.
Photo by official event photographer Rob Barker. Thousands more like it here.

I'd been warned about the Le Mans-style start. I expected something grander, but basically we all ambled down a bit of a hill, dumped our bikes on the grass alongside the track and lined up haphazardly at the bottom, ready to sprint back up, jump on and go-go-go to beat the infamous congestion on the first singletrack section. Everyone had the same advice: leave your bike as far down the hill as possible, we're cyclists not runners. Fortunately my preferred approach to advice is to listen politely and then ignore it, so I opted for half-way down (or was that half-way up?).

It wasn't a sprint and it wasn't very far. A 100-metre trot followed by a mad melée as those who'd parked their steeds lower down attempted the impossible task of climbing and staying on amidst dozens of others doing the same plus dozens of runners all desperately trying to spot their bike in the grass rather than looking where they were going. I was near the front and I still had to run round a few fallers. So if you take anything away from this, even if you're on crutches leave your bike at the top!

While the run wasn't a sprint, the first couple of laps on the bike most definitely were. It was like an XC race as we all jockeyed for position, a triumph of testosterone over reason given that we literally had all day to sort out the pecking order. I successfully avoided full-on gridlock but was still caught in an über-frustrating procession through the early singletrack sections, interspersed with pointless short sharp bursts to gain or lose a place or two when the track opened out a bit. I felt like one of the grumpy trucks being shunted around in Thomas the Tank Engine, and it seemed to take ages for the field to thin out enough that you could actually see the trail in front of you rather than blindly trust the rider in front.

I caught one of my main rivals, hyperactive South Wales fireman and newly converted singlespeed nut Paul Slade, half-way through the first lap. "Hi Paul, crazy pace, isn't it?" I called out, while casually accelerating clear up the hill. High five, Chris. On the next lap I caught another singlespeed nut, veteran ultra-endurance junkie Mark Goldie. I knew he was the man to beat, and I had visions of us riding together until I oh-so-reluctantly had to pull away on the final straight to claim victory. In reality, as soon as we hit the next fast singletrack section he left me for dead. Damn, he had skills as well as staying power. So unless he had a major disaster, I was racing for second place.

Laps 4-7: Settling in for the duration

Still smiling.
Photo by kind permission of Graham Haller who has generously given away all his shots from the event. Another 2,000 or so here.

As time went on and the initial adrenaline rush faded, I was acutely aware that a whopping 18 km/h average speed (don't laugh, roadies) was unsustainable. I needed to ease off. Only I felt so good on the climbs, such as they were, and was finally now able to let loose more on the descents, such as they were. Chasing faster riders on the twisty singletrack was a whole lotta fun, but less than ideal in terms of energy conservation, every slightly overcooked corner requiring those extra pedal strokes to get back up to speed. My rigid front end was also quite a handful (oo-er) on flat corners in the damp conditions, and I had to work much harder than riders with suspension forks on the bumpy bits.

What I failed to appreciate at the time was that I wasn't really racing against any of these faster riders. They weren't solo singlespeeders, they weren't even solo gearboys, they were team riders. With eight legs to share the burden, an endless supply of clean dry kit and clean freshly prepped bikes, and probably a Gaggia, a chef and a team masseuse in their fancy trackside marquees, they were only ever out for a couple of laps at a time, so they were always on fresh legs.

Pacing myself against these riders was therefore a big mistake. I should have ignored them and concentrated on my average speed or lap time or heart rate. With so many different categories, it wasn't so much a race as some weird never-ending time trial, only really competing against yourself and having no idea how you or other people are doing. But time trials are boring and races are fun, so I'm glad I made that mistake.

I did ease off a little after about three hours, but this was too little too late, the damage already done, and around four hours in I started feeling peckish, which I know from experience is a BAD SIGN. It didn't mean it was lunchtime (although it was), it meant I was running out of fuel. And just like when the petrol light comes on in your car, you never really know how much is left in the tank.
Hydration and fuelling

Not to put too fine a point on it, how the hell do other people manage it?

Despite drinking so much that I had to stop for a wee four times during the race, each one taking a good ten minutes, my pee still ended up the colour of best bitter and my mouth and throat dry as the Sahara. This made it impossible to swallow solid food on the go and left me at the mercy of sports nutrition products (liquid sugar) which always make my guts antsy.

During the race I consumed:
  • 4 bottles of Torq energy drink (posh squash)
  • 3 bottles of 50/50 orange juice and water (the natural alternative)
  • 1 bottle of water (keeping it simple)
  • 3 cans of Coke (great caffeine hit but triggered belching in sonic boom territory)
  • 1 ham and cheese sandwich (which I almost gagged on)
  • 6 ginger cream biscuits (only palatable once soggy after a lap or two in my back pocket)
  • 2 packets of crisps (source of electrolytes, OK?)
  • 2 tins of fruit salad (find of the century: so easy to swallow)
  • 2 pots of Ambrosia rice pudding (ditto, hot tip from another rider) 
  • 1 Torq rhubarb and custard gel (good pick-me-up, but too many can easily become a puke-me-up)
During the race I ignored:
  • Jam tarts and the rest of my sandwiches (too dry)
  • The rest of my gels (see above)
During the race I really craved:
  • A big bag of chips and a nice cup of tea 
I wish I'd taken:
  • Boiled new potatoes, sausage rolls and some Ready-brek (!)

Laps 8-11: Are we nearly there yet?

The afternoon look - still determined but not entirely happy.
Photo by Graham Haller after he stopped flashing people in the woods.

I therefore decided to take a proper break and have a little sit down while I wolfed down some solids. I also learned my race position for the first and last time. As I'd hoped and prayed, second singlespeed. I didn't expect to catch Mark Goldie, but reckoned that the others must be behind me for a reason, so if I could just keep going then I should make the podium. This was perhaps a little naive given that it was only four hours into the race - and the longest I've ever raced before is, er, four hours. There was still rather a long way to go.

And that preyed increasingly on my mind as I continued to tick off lap after lap. After those early 31-minute blasts, I now settled into a consistent 35-minute rhythm, which was a much more comfortable pace - little more than bimbling really - but my legs and my guts were still starting to complain and the whole exercise was beginning to lose its novelty. The fun was now sporadic at best; it was all becoming a bit of a chore. And somebody must have slipped my dropper post some Viagra, as it was now stuck in the up position, forcing me to be a little more cautious on the fast bits.

I felt like the kids on a long car journey: "Are we nearly there yet?" Obviously I responded with a "No, and the more you moan, the longer it will take!" but that didn't help much. It doesn't with the kids either.

Laps 12-15: Losing the plot

This was as gnarly as it got. That's not ironic trepidation; I can only guess I was passing wind and trying not to follow through.
Another photo by Sir Graham Haller.

When you get past six hours, the battle is not a physical one. It's a given that pretty much every part of you will be somewhere on the scale between rather achy and very hurty. The real battle now is mental, and it was one I was losing.

What I would have given for some proper climbs and some proper descents to keep me interested during those dark days. Ashton Court is entertaining ridden at speed, but at a more sedate pace you might as well be on the road.

That said, I didn't take any suspension to Bristol (lighter, tougher, immeasurably cooler), and even on a course this tame, after eight hours my hands and wrists were like limp lettuce. My human suspension was failing and I was rattling myself to pieces. I began to dread every little step, every root, every lump and bump. God knows what I would have been like on a proper MTB course.

Boredom gradually gave way to hatred, and I seriously considered giving up. What's the point in doing something if you're not enjoying it? Then again, did I really want to throw away all my hard work over the last 8-9 hours? I was too tired to continue the argument though, and for want of a better idea I just plodded on. As Magnus Magnusson always used to say: "I've started so I might as well sodding finish."

And then the unthinkable happened. Mark Goldie pulled alongside with a cheery "Hello, my singlespeed friend." Bastard. Utter bastard. He'd only gone and lapped me. Shame I was just too knackered to administer the five point palm exploding heart technique...

Laps 16-18: The end is nigh

By now I was in a right state. I was struggling to see and struggling to steer. I couldn't give two hoots about my position - no longer was I checking out every passing rider's rear end* to see if they were a rival singlespeeder. I was in a trance, a zombie - the pedals were turning but there was no-one home. I was also having a little sit-down in the pits at the end of every lap, filling my bottle and scoffing Ambrosia in painfully slow motion. Was this lethargy down to poor nutrition or was I just plain knackered?

The drizzle from the first eight hours of the race was also back, the army cadets on marshalling duties had finally stopped calling out "Well done, sir!" and all I could hear was the distant tolling of a funeral bell...

I did at least have the good sense to stop counting how many laps I'd done and start counting down how many I had left. This felt much more positive. I was also able to tick off a number of milestones: 160 km (100 miles), 10h18m (the longest I'd ever ridden before), 169 km (the furthest I'd ever ridden before)...

*For a derailleur!

This one says it all. It's getting dark, I'm plastered with mud, absolutely knackered and still fucking going.
Photo by Rob Barker.

Laps 19-20: The end is nigher than expected

Those precious minutes trying and failing to find a spoon for my Ambrosia and then having to scoop it out with my fingers like a punch-drunk chimpanzee at the end of laps 17 and 18 were not without their consequences. At the start of lap 19 I suddenly realised in a brief moment of mathematical lucidity that I wouldn't now quite have time to complete my target of 20 laps.

I briefly contemplated going all out for a fast final lap but decided I couldn't be arsed. To my credit, though, I did remain pig-headed enough to keep on riding the only stiff climb on the course, which had the "fun" riders walking three laps in.

Despite managing to ride straight off the trail a couple of times as the light faded, I eventually limped over the finish line, and 11½ hours of Mizzrle Drizzle in Brizzle was finally at an end.
Lessons learned
 (apart from 12 hours is a stupid idea)
  • Try to organise or share a pit crew - someone to hand you food and drink, give you encouragement, track your position and times, and above all keep you on your bike and moving
  • Don't neglect your home comforts - I could usefully have brought suspension forks, extra arse cream for saddle sores, and more than one spoon
  • Keep fuelling right to the end - I clearly didn't get enough fuel in during the final third
  • Train properly - breaking your collarbone two months beforehand is a bad idea, as two eight-hour training rides just ain't enough

The after-party

The 12-hour singlespeed podium: 1st Mark Goldie, 2nd Me, 3rd Paul Slade.
Photo courtesy of Paul's mate.

I was in a bad way at the finish - wobbly as hell on my feet and shaking uncontrollably. So much so that a kind lady even offered me her burger. It took me a full half-hour to get changed, shivering and quivering and trying not to keel over. I must've looked like I'd gone ten rounds with Mohammed Ali. I certainly felt like it. Utterly, dangerously exhausted.

But I made it to the presentation, dressed for winter, hoping for the best, and was delighted to find that I had indeed clung on to second place - but only just. Paul Slade had been steadily reeling me in over the last few laps and was only five minutes behind at the end. That might not sound like a narrow margin, but if I'd bought one more pot of Ambrosia...

Now if my dropper hadn't failed, and I hadn't had to stop to retighten my cleats four times or have all those wees, and if I'd had suspension forks and gears, and remembered an extra spoon, fuelled better, not lost a month of training to injury and not started tired from work, then... Mark Goldie would still have beaten me. Well done, mate. Total legend. You wouldn't have bloody lapped me though!

So, a rematch next year? Oh no, NEVER AGAIN!!!!!

Then again, never say never, eh?
Special thanks to Louis Preece, third in the three-hour race, for checking my race position; to his dad Brian Preece, winner of the "proper old gits" category in the 12-hour race, for being as welcoming and unintelligible as ever; to Paul Slade for the podium photo and not catching me; and to Graham Haller for the free photos.

Full results here


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Mondraker Enduro Round 1: Hear me roar!

Star date: 21-22 March 2015
Location: Coed Trallwm, Mid Wales
Event: Mondraker Enduro Round 1
Weapon gratefully borrowed: Mondraker Foxy XR Carbon Pyga OneTwenty
Greatest strength: Riding fast
Greatest weakness: Not riding fast enough
Result: Mid-table

Photo: Shaun Rutherford Sports Photography.

Q. Why the photo from the sun-scorched dusty desert canyons of Colorado, Chris?
A. Actually, Dearest Reader, that's Mid Wales. Coed Trallwm, to be exact, Rain Capital of the Universe. In March. I kid you not.

Q. But what was Cam Zink* doing in Mid Wales, in March?
A. It's not actually Cam Zink. That's little old me getting all slopestyle, innit.

*I so need a cool name like that. How about Bud Craic?

But wait, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Rewind a few weeks. The phone rings and the conversation goes something like this:
Neil: "Gonna ride my enduro in March, Bud?"
Me: "Sorry, Neil, I'm planning to spend that weekend getting sand in all the wrong places with my shaven-legged XC chums and a bunch of Belgian roadies in Smurf-like gimp suits at Battle on the Beach."
Neil: "What if I sort you a £6000 Mondraker superbike from the sponsors and get Kyle the Trail Pixie to build some proper scary stuff?"
Me: "Oh, all right then, if I must. But I'm not coming if it isn't beach weather."
Had it not been for the glaring omission of naughty blonde twins and a hot tub, I might've thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

Not that it was all plain sailing. No sooner had I taken delivery of said superbike than she had to go back, double-booked with a demo day helping loadsamoney Brummies tame the fabled Himalayan Braking Bumps of Cannock Chase. Step forward co-sponsors Drover Cycles of Hay-on-Wye to save the day with a top-notch substitute in the form of a Pyga OneTwenty all the way from Sath Ifrica (more about that later).

Meanwhile, as everyone got all excited about the aurora borealis, Parisian smog and the triple-whammy of super moon, spring equinox and solar eclipse, the real celestial miracle of March was three weeks of bone-dry weather and a forecast of brilliant sunshine. As a result, the riding conditions could not have been any better. The scene was well and truly set for the most awesomest weekend of racing.

I ordered sunshine and I got it.
Photo: Tom Stickland. Another 200 photos and Tom's own report on the event here.

With me being like a sponsored rider now, the pressure was on. Not only would I have to man up and do the bike justice (and endure a whole load of heckling), but I'd have to say nice things here about the event even if it was shit.

But d'you know what? Hand on heart, the only negative I can come up with for the whole weekend is that I came out of it wanting more - which is actually a good thing...

My cat was sad because he went to an enduro without putting the peak back on his helmet.
Photo: Shaun Rutherford.

The flexible race format (ride one or both days), laid-back atmosphere (no fixed run times, sensible number of riders) and central base camp (all five tracks finishing within a stone's throw of a warm café and your car) were thankfully unchanged from the enduro at the same venue last October (chronicled in quite considerable detail here). But there were two notable differences:

One was a move into the 21st century with some impressive electronic timing wizardry from Sportident. Simply get your wrist tag switched on at the start, whizz past the automatic sensors at the start and end of each timed run, plug it back into the machine at the end - and out pops a natty little printout with all your times down to the nearest nanosecond together with your race position. This was almost as exciting as using the self-service checkout at the supermarket for the first time, only without the screaming frustration of having an unexpected item in the bagging area such as, um, a bag (so tempting to give them something truly unexpected, like a nice fresh turd).

The other change was that the hand-cut super-techy steep rooty twisty mother of a first stage that had the better of me last time around had spawned two possibly even eviller babies - with another two due to arrive in time for the next round in April. Relentlessly technical, and about as close to my comfort zone as Alpha Centauri, they really put you to the test in ways that trail centres cannot, or dare not, which is exactly what we came for. Well, most of us - a few people threw in the towel after practice and went home. Which is a crying shame, because while these three stages were undeniably tricky and a little scary in places, they were 100% rideable even for someone with my limited skills, and I know from regular experience that overcoming your initial doubts/fears/terror to take the plunge and find you can actually swim is just the biggest confidence booster around.

Like their Mama, who put in a welcome reappearance with some impressive cosmetic enhancements, Damian 1 and Damian 2 were packed with super-tight slidey corners, off-camber shenanigans, random humps and lumps and bumps, rock gardens (more like rock piles) and short sharp drops, all littered with awkward roots desperate to ping you in the wrong direction. Ace!

Photo: Shaun Rutherford.

The clever thing about the two new tracks was that they both dropped steeply down through a small quarry to cross the fire road leading to the top of four of the five stages. This provided a perfect focal point for spectators - a steady stream of riders slowly making their way up to the top plus a gaggle of supporters, marshals, medics and photographers, alternately scrutinising, wincing, gasping, encouraging, heckling and snapping/filming away. No pressure, then.
Photo: Shaun Rutherford.

While it's tempting to give it a doom-laden name like the Quarry of Reckoning, and it certainly freaked some people out when they got to the top and looked down, then deciding to walk it and ending up spinning down somewhat inelegantly on their backsides (all very It's a Knockout), the quarry didn't faze me at all. A couple of years ago it would have been a different story, but I've had to deal with so many similar drops in XC races now, with little or no suspension and the saddle jammed a good 12 inches up my colon, that it just didn't seem that big a deal. OK, my heart was still in my mouth the first time I launched myself over the edge, especially on Damian 2's twisty triple-drop with the big pile of hay bales at the bottom to catch anyone missing the turn and flying off the edge... but ultimately all you had to do was drop your heels and plan your exit. It all made for some good photos though.

Not everyone got it right, but nobody got hurt.
Photos: Shaun Rutherford.

What did freak me out was the steep tight low-speed corner just after the quarry over what everyone thought was just a big fat root but was actually a real live anaconda, hibernating. Although bloodymindedness saw me round just fine in the race runs, overthinking led to three consecutive fails during practice:

Photo: Shaun Rutherford.

If we'd had normal March weather, it would have been carnage out there and I might have had a very different tale to tell - one a bit like last time I suppose. But as it was, the tracks got faster and faster over the weekend as they bedded in, passing tyres carving support into the loam on the off-camber sections and the bonkers point-and-pray corners becoming increasingly predictable. I grew more and more confident and more and more comfortable sliding round corners over the course of the weekend - and I've carried that into my riding since. Racing gravity enduros has taught me so much more than coaching ever has. Even so, my priority on the first three stages was just to make it down in one piece without too many mistakes, which I did. I was neither fast nor stylish, but I got the job done. Result.

Some great GoPro footage of the stages, including the odd tumble, from rider Craig Perks.

After the intense concentration demanded throughout the squirrelly squirminess of the three hand-cut stages, the flat-out pedally blasts on stages 4 and 5, based on the red and black trail centre descents I've ridden regularly in previous XC races, brought a return to my comfort zone and a welcome chance to relax. If the first three stages were like surfing giant buttered fusilli, the last two were like skiing down uncooked spaghetti - straight down the line. Albeit with the odd surprise kink or kicker to catch you out. I should add that stages 4 and 5 were ridden blind*. In fact the Sunday-only riders had to do all five stages blind, which was not for the faint-hearted, as some parts of the tracks definitely warranted a quick look before launching yourself into them. Of course, that didn't stop some of them putting in waaaay faster times than me - respect!

*Not literally. Though it was tempting to shut your eyes here and there. 

All told, it was a great weekend. The stages were fantastic, the Red Kite Events team are a pretty slick operation these days, and there was a great atmosphere. Nice touches included the mayor in his ceremonial bling doing the Saturday night podium presentations in the town square... as ever the free pasta meal and after-party at The Drover's Rest... mechanical assistance (and a bike in my case) from Drover Cycles... even Muc-Off shower scrub in my hotel room...

To sum up: Top tracks, top bike, top weather, top people, top weekend. Nuff said.

The Great British Bike Off

So how did I get on with the bike I didn't ride and the one I did?

In the blue corner: the Pyga OneTwenty with alloy frame, 650b wheels, 120mm rear travel and 150mm Pike forks, ridden four times

In the red corner: the Mondraker Foxy XR with carbon frame, 650b wheels, 140mm rear travel and 140/160mm Talas forks, ridden twice

Both were kitted out with high-end bling, including full XX1 drivetrain. Both had the same "Rocks? What rocks?" attitude. Both were capable of flattering me into believing I was the long-lost Fourth Atherton. But they were also like chalk and cheese. 

The Pyga OneTwenty was a fighter, a burly bomb-proof bruiser with a square jaw and tattoos, hewn from a block of solid Kryptonite. The front end felt a little twitchy on my first outing on the groomed trails at Cwm Rhaeadr, but ridden aggressively on the rougher stuff in Brechfa Forest the beast came into its own. I pushed as hard as I dared and then some, and the bike just laughed at me. With practice, we really could have gone places.

At 30lb it was a tad sluggish on the climbs, and I would definitely change the Easton Havoc handlebar, which looked and felt like a piece of scaffolding and left me with numb hands. There was also precious little clearance for 2.4" tyres. But on the twisty stuff the Pyga proved surprisingly nimble and during the whole of the enduro it never put a foot wrong. Despite "only" 120mm of travel, the bike consistently went where I pointed it without any fuss, which is all I could have asked of it. Thank you so much for the loan, Drover Cycles.

I think Katy Perry hit the nail on the head:

I got the eye of the tiger loan of a Pyga, a fighter, dancing through the fire
'Cause I am a champion and you're gonna hear me roar
Louder, louder than a lion
'Cause I am a champion and you're gonna hear me roar
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
You're gonna hear me roar

Silly name aside (Citizen Smith anyone?!), the Foxy was a sophisticated thoroughbred. While the Pyga was clearly a he, the Foxy was a she. The carbon frame was a thing of beauty, all sleek lines and curves so lush you wanted to lick them clean. The Pyga would be at home in the rough harbourside bars of Marseilles, but the Foxy belonged in Cannes.

But even posh girls love to be ridden hard. Like the Pyga, she shrugged off ruts and boulders and remained poised and balanced at all times. Mondrakers are famously long, but I felt at home from the word go, maybe because I'm used to XC bikes. The Pyga rode like a 26" bike, the Foxy like a 29er.

OK, so the handlebars were cluttered and only a rapper would dig the gold spokey-dokeys and the £5999 price tag is just silly. And as a 650b and XX1 virgin, I was a little underwhelmed to find that on both bikes all they did was go round and change gear when you wanted to - I'd been expecting fireworks.
Both bikes made me feel like I could walk on water. Not once did I have to back off for fear of running off line or something breaking, as I so often do on my XC featherweights. Both were super bikes. But ultimately it was the Black Beauty that captured my heart.

So I guess it's over to Roxette:

It must have been love but it's over now.
It must have been good but I lost it somehow.
It must have been love but it's over now.
From the moment we touched, 'til the time had run out.

Freshly licked clean.

I really did fall head-over-heels in love with that bike and plan to test-ride some of her cheaper stablemates just as soon as I can...

PS: Confession time... I touched up one of the photos because my bald head was too shiny. So here's the question: If I took drastic action, would it be the first toupée in enduro?

Results here

Other event reports here, here, here and here (I got competition!)

The second round of the Mondraker Enduro Series will now also be at Coed Trallwm, with two all-new tracks, on 18-19 April. Do it.