Location: Crychan Forest, Mid Wales
Event: Red Kite Events Frozen Devil 50km challenge
Weapon of choice: Unavailable
Weapon of necessity: Fully rigid 26" singlespeed
Greatest strength: Perseverance
Greatest weakness: Legs
Result: 5th overall, 1st vet, 1st singlespeed
I suppose the Frozen Devil was supposed to be something like this:
But lately the weather has been more like this:
And the forecast was for this:
So only about half those who entered actually turned up. Shame, because the weather held up much better than expected, even allowing this baby to make a slightly surreal appearance at event HQ:
That said, the weather wasn't exactly balmy - cold and damp with odd patches of drizzle, and the ground was absolutely saturated, making the ups sticky, the downs sketchy and the flats a sprayfest. Despite being shortened from 55km to 50km to avoid ice and fallen trees, the course felt like 80km.
After paying dearly for a lack of preparation last time out, I was ready for the worst:
- 1 waterproof jacket
- 2 pairs of gloves
- 1 pair long waterproof shorts
- 1 pair leg warmers
- 2 pairs of socks (one waterproof)
- 1 pair of shoes waterproofed with duct tape
A quick rummage in the kit box threw up a pair of never-before-used leg warmers. And to be fair they were lovely and soft and flexy and warm. However, I wish they'd come with a garter belt. I must have stopped a dozen times around the course to hitch them up. I know my legs are skinny, but even so. Any suggestions from female readers (or male for that matter) for how to get hold-ups to hold up would be very welcome!
Still not confident the 29er was quite right, and not really wanting to get it dirty anyway, I also took a bike with absolutely none of these things to go wrong:
- Rear suspension
- Front suspension
- Inner tubes
- Dropper post
Rigid singlespeed leads the way out of Llanwrtyd. How manly was I?
Event photos by Carol Corbett
Event photos by Carol Corbett
I set off at a sedate pace along the opening road section, surprised to find no smooth-chested gear boys taking off ahead, but just as I was beginning to think that maybe nobody fast had turned up, a voice said hello and professional endurance racer Matt Page drew alongside. Bugger. What I did next probably wasn't the brightest of ideas. Yes, I bested Matt Page up the first climb. It wasn't deliberate (well, maybe just a bit). It was just a fun climb (Oxymorons R Us) up a rough track with a heady mixture of bedrock and ruts and mud and puddles and streaming water and sheep poo and thorns and steep bits, and I had to maintain a certain pace on the singlespeed just to keep going. Somehow I was also getting better traction despite still being on semi-slick summer tyres, and I got carried away.
Anyway, it proved a Pyrrhic victory (private education not entirely wasted) because it led onto a road descent where he and James Green, the eventual one-two, flew past. I caught them soon after as we headed up the big climb to the forest, but it got very steep at one point and I decided to hop off the bike and push a short section to conserve energy. I wish now that I'd thrown caution to the wind, because they then had 50 yards on me by the time we hit the trees and I never saw them again. I went on to struggle with every single climb after that anyway, and it would've been fun to at least try to shadow Matt down the first descent, which was a muddy, rooty, slippery, rutted cracker.
I fell off near the bottom anyway, when my rear wheel decided to overtake the front wheel, allowing two more riders to catch me. We traded places for a while through some more muddy, rooty, slippery, rutted stuff until we hit the big - make that BIG - climb up what is normally an exhilarating three-part descent. They rode most of it and I walked all of it; my legs had gone.
I suspect this was the moment I spotted the feed station.
The Crychan Forest is in many ways the best place in Wales to ride a mountain bike, because it is absolutely riddled with trails: disused fireroads, cheeky MTB singletrack, rocky MX enduro runs, enticing quarries, lumpy bridleways, even a Roman road with a free bath and mudpack every 50 yards - something around every corner and down every hill. Like the Dyfi Forest, only more compact. The sheer density of downhills that make you want to punch the air (though obviously you don't because then you'd crash and die) never ceases to amaze.
And if there's one thing Red Kite do well, it's putting together a loop that leaves you knackered but smiling. I've ridden extensively in the Crychan (have I mentioned before that I am a fully MBLA-qualified and very reasonably priced MTB guide?) but the course still took in a fair few sections that were new to me. One area I haven't previously explored is the eastern fringe of the forest, where the trails skirt the edge of the Eppynt military ranges, complete with warning signs about live ammunition. I didn't notice any of those fake Balkan villages reputed to nestle somewhere in the valley below, but there were plenty of oddly named farms around: No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, etc. Makes you wonder just what they might be raising there. A crack team of WMD-detecting sniffer sheep, perhaps, those that fail to make the grade left dotted around the hillsides for target practice. I was a little disappointed not to see any soldiers running around with twigs on their heads; clearly their camouflage worked. But I know they were out there, I could hear the gunfire later as they picked off stragglers (think Southern Comfort in reverse), which would account for why there were so few finishers.
Descending into Hades
The highlight of the day for me was the final descent, culminating in a super-steep windy run down through the trees over mud and roots. Last time I tried it I was pleased to make it halfway down in one piece. Although the über-nasty rooty drop in the middle had been cordoned off, it was still the epitome of gnarly. You just have to keep going and pray. But first the comedy sketch. My dropper post has been suffering from erectile dysfunction recently, and I wasn't keen to follow suit, so I stopped to lower my saddle for this one. Which meant getting an Allen key out of my pocket. Sounds easy, but try doing that in a hurry with two pairs of wet gloves on (mid-race brain fog preventing you from clocking the obvious solution of taking said gloves off). And then I had to get the Allen key back into the pocket, which has a magnetic closure that just wouldn't let go of the damned thing... All to be repeated, at length, once I got to the bottom and put the saddle back up. As for the descent itself, well, I went straight down first time, no drama, no dabbing, World Cup DH here I come!
Action photo of the bike at the second feed station while I stuffed my face with cake.
Red Kite Events boldly claim to offer probably the best feed stations in Britain. Well, if Carlsberg did feed stations, I imagine I'd be able to refill my water bottle faster than drip by drip (and with lager). But the food was good, very good. The cupcakes even had arty decorations on them. Free energy gels, energy drink, fruit, various cakes, flapjacks, quiche, 20 different kinds of falafel. OK, one of those isn't true. I passed on the food on the way out when I was still racing (in fifth place, third and fourth in sight), but stopped for a cake or two on the return leg when I'd given up racing (still in fifth place, third and fourth still in sight - is there a message in there somewhere?). I should also add that there was free tea, coffee and toast (albeit white bread - er, hello!) in the school before the race, and a free bowl of pasta from the owner of the Drover's Rest inn after the race. All in all, we were exceedingly well catered for (I would say "pampered" but that prompts flashbacks to the full-nappy feel of my padded shorts for 90% of this event).
Although the myriad descents were the best bit, duh, perhaps the cleverest part of the course design was the run-in from the second feed station at 37km - mainly steady, flattish fire road, bridleway and then tarmac gradually winding back down to Llanwrtyd with no nasty surprises for tired legs. The only change I might have made would be to have the initial loop in reverse at the very end, giving one less nasty climb up front for prats on singlespeeds and one final breathtaking plummet down the hill to the finish.
All told, tough but not horrendous conditions, great trails, good food and organisation, and a genuine challenge - the last rider back took over six hours to get round. Another great day out in the woods for racers and weekend warriors alike.
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