Thursday, August 14, 2014

Empire Cycles Enduro Round 2: The need for speed

Star date: 26-27 July 2014
Location: Crychan Forest, Mid Wales
Event: Empire Cycles Enduro Round 2
Weapon of choice: Rigid singlespeed on day 1, sensible bike on day 2
Greatest achievement: Stayin' alive (ah, ha, ha, ha)
Greatest weakness: Take a bow Captain Slow
Result: Mid-table

There’s something rather special that happens as you stand there on the start line, watching the previous rider sprint away into the distance and out of sight. Time slows down, the banter of the queue suddenly fades away, the lights dim, tunnel vision descends, the thousand-yard stare rules. Welcome to The Zone. You are transformed – now you are Steve Peat, Usain Bolt, maybe Eddie the Eagle in my case. Total focus. Nothing else matters. This is what it’s all been leading up to. A three-minute high-speed balls-out blast to the bottom of the hill. The descent ahead of you is not there to be merely enjoyed, or survived, but a sacrificial lamb waiting to be slaughtered. You are a riding god, you are the best, the daddy, you are going to fly down that track at warp speed. Nothing and nobody can stop you. This is your World Cup, your Olympic Final, your Big Moment. No second chances. No margin for error. No possibility of error. Final check – saddle, suspension, gearing, pads, helmet. Inch closer to the line. Clip in. Deep breath. Quick prayer perhaps.

5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – Blast Off!

Welcome to enduro, baby.

Great chest-cam video of the stages courtesy of James Scott from MTB Swindon
It was just like this, only steeper (and, in my case, slightly slower).

The pootle-and-plummet format of nu-skool enduro is a world away from what I usually do, but I’m finding those three-minute adrenaline shots horribly addictive.

On the surface, it’s like everyday trail riding. But it isn’t at all the same. You simply don’t push yourself as hard normally. When racing against the clock, you get carried away, you lose your inhibitions and relax into it, like being drunk but without the loss of control. Those rocks and roots that might normally have given you cause for concern? You just blast straight over them. Doing it as part of an event makes you feel safer and more confident, and not just because there’s an ambulance at the foot of the hill. That’s not to say you’re necessarily riding beyond your safe limits – your limits are completely redefined. At least, that’s how it was for me.

It really is a kind of DH lite. Downhill racing on everyday bikes on red-graded rather than black-graded tracks. Tracks that pretty much anyone can get down, at least slowly. You just decide what is stupid-fast for you – and go a bit faster. I was pretty slow by most people’s standards, but bloody quick by mine. I had no idea you could ride a bike that fast and live. What a rush.

My usual discipline of XC/endurance racing – my comfort zone – is like running a marathon. There’s always an element of pacing and self-preservation, and I take a relatively passive approach to descending. Having half-killed myself getting up a hill, the way back down is a chance for a breather before heading up the next climb. So I tend to freewheel and let gravity do the work, my main input being braking. Which is all a bit negative.

Enduro racing is more like doing the 100 metres, as you go hell for leather from start to finish. Here, descending is not an exercise in controlling your speed but a constant quest to go even faster. I learned this very quickly during practice. I tried following a couple of guys down the first stage, and while I would ordinarily stop pedalling after 50 yards once I've got to a decent speed and then pretty much coast from there, they just kept on pedalling even when the track started getting quite lumpy. In fact they only stopped pedalling when up in the air (which was quite a lot of the time) and when scraping the dirt on tight turns. For these guys, fast is never fast enough.

18-year-old Peter Lloyd shows how it’s done.
Cracking photo by Carol Cobbett at CAC Photography.

My more XC-oriented approach to the same little drop.
Photo by Carol Cobbett at CAC Photography.

While enduro is to some extent a retirement home for ex-downhill racers – think Radio 2 – there are some amazing kids out there too, and in this event they ruled the roost. But even the other wrinklies were absolutely mental and supremely skilled. And fit: even on the pedalliest stage, where I would have expected my fitness to make up for my inferior bike-handling skills, I was miles slower than the best riders.

With me, there comes a point where I start to worry about the consequences of getting things wrong and ease off. Crashing never seems to cross these guys’ minds, though, they're too busy looking ahead for ways of finding more speed. While I still tend to get sidetracked by obstacles right in front of me, they just let the bike do the work and pedal a bit more.

Even (or perhaps especially) at my level/age, the whole speed, speed and yet more speed thing is incredibly exciting. Liberating, even. And, as I've said before, it's so good to be able to stop at the bottom to whoop and grin like a Cheshire cat and exchange war stories rather than head straight up the next effing climb gurning XC-style. Which has left me questioning what I want out of mountain biking. I climb like a goat but I’d rather descend like an animal!

Uh-oh, I seem to be going through another mid-life crisis. I think I want to be a downhiller!

But can you teach an old dog new tricks? I’m not a natural daredevil, bungee-jumping and sky-diving and getting fired out of cannons. And having misspent my youth studying rather than hanging down the skate park doing skids and wheelies, I lack the natural balance, flow and confidence that marks out the best riders. They’re the ones who don’t look at their hands when playing the piano, who don’t need to remember the F-sharp. Hell, they probably never learned to read music. I’m descending better all the time, but I suspect it's like learning languages – it comes so much easier when you’re a kid. I imagine I’ll always ride with that telltale foreign accent.

But who cares as long as you’re having fun (and not in hospital)?

Me looking a bit more enduro on day 2.
Photo by Carol Cobbett at CAC Photography.

Enough navel-gazing, what were the stages like? Well, fantastic, really. Exhilarating and exhausting. An unprecedented spell of good weather meant the ground was dry as a bone, with almost infinite grip and only one foot-soaking puddle in the whole event. Many of the tracks were loose rocky affairs very reminiscent of the Dyfi Enduro (without the congestion) and familiar from previous endurance events in the Crychan, but the highlights for me were the twisty, rutted, rooty sections purpose-built for the event.

I was reasonably pleased with my performance. At times I missed having the Bionicon Alva 180mm full-susser I borrowed for round 1 of the series in April (as chronicled here). This time I opted on day 1 for a ready-made excuse for slow times in the form of a fully-rigid singlespeed XC bike, which would have been immeasurably cool if somehow I’d been able to put in some fast times, but ended up making me look a bit daft to be honest, especially when I punctured on the first timed run.

On day 2 I brought my very first mountain bike out of retirement, a shagged 2005-vintage budget Trek full-susser with a whopping 100mm suspension at the back and maybe 50mm at the front. This did make quite a difference to the feel of the tracks and encouraged a more devil-may-care attitude on the rough stuff, but in the end I made so many little mistakes that my times weren’t that much faster. I also managed to puncture again on stage 3, which made for a very long run carrying a very heavy bike.

I’d like to think I’d have done better on my 29er had it not still been out of action, but ultimately I have to accept that I was the limiting factor.

It was a long way down from here – and this wasn’t even the top of the climb!

Outside the actual stages, the Empire Cycles Enduro series is a very relaxed, friendly and inclusive affair. The format is practice and two timed stages on day 1, and five timed stages on day 2. Riders were even encouraged to drive up to the forest on day 1 to save their legs. Being a hard nut, I opted to ride up anyway and try to bag a KOM, only to find the hill in question wasn’t registered as a segment (it is now!). On day 2 everyone had to do the full 40km loop, which was pretty hilly, but you could take as long as you wanted on the transitions.

The apr├Ęs-ride consisted of a free beer at event HQ followed by a choice of pasta dishes at the Drovers’ Rest in town and an airing of the new Steve Peat film, which included some great archive footage of downhill racing on rigid bikes in the 1990s – see, it’s not just me! Some of us watched the video out on the balcony above the river; the Midlands crew just got drunk (which didn’t seem to affect them unduly the next day); others had an early night. In the end I chose not to camp this time, but to relax and breakfast in en-suite luxury at the Drovers’ Rest for a very reasonable £30.

Waiting to ride the lumpy, loamy first stage. I must have ridden this section seven or eight times over the two days and loved it every time.

What an amazing weekend of riding it was! I loved the first round back in April, but this time was even better. The weather was better, the descents were better, the transitions were better. But more than anything, there were twice as many competitors, so I got to spend more time watching other people ride and/or failing to keep up with them. It was truly inspiring to be among so many talented riders who are just so damned fast.

A couple of minor caveats to the advertorial above: there were a few timing-related hold-ups, some of the marshals’ radios couldn’t get reception, the ambulance driver should have had a map, and the absence of a podium (however unattainable for me) made the finish something of an anticlimax. But on balance it was a well-organised event.

Once again, thanks to all the lovely people at Red Kite Events and their merry band of marshals, all the lovely people at the Drovers’ Rest for great food and accommodation, all the lovely Carol Cobbett for the photos, all my lovely family for the weekend pass, and all my lovely fellow enduroists for the company and inspiration. I had a blast.


The top 30:



First name Last name No Gender Stage 1 Finish Split Time Day 1 Stage 2 Finish Split Time Day 1 Stage 1 Finish Split Time Day 2 Stage 2 Finish Split Time Day 2 stage 3 Finish Split Time Day 2 Stage 4 Finish Split Time Day 2 Stage 5 Finish Split Time Day 2 Day 1 Time Day 1 Pos Day 2 Time Day 2 Pos Combined Time Overal Position
Heathcote Paul 29 Male 00:01:43 00:01:40 00:01:35 00:01:35 00:02:10 00:02:41 00:02:09 00:03:23 4 00:10:10 1 00:13:33 1
Goodey Nick 32 Male 00:01:40 00:01:54 00:01:36 00:01:37 00:02:08 00:02:37 00:02:16 00:03:34 8 00:10:15 2 00:13:49 2
Baldock Steven 16 Male 00:01:43 00:01:38 00:01:35 00:01:38 00:02:15 00:02:45 00:02:21 00:03:21 3 00:10:34 3 00:13:55 3
Sutton Rhys 8 Male 00:01:43 00:01:36 00:01:41 00:01:39 00:02:18 00:02:42 00:02:21 00:03:19 1 00:10:41 4 00:14:00 4
Lloyd Peter 6 Male 00:01:41 00:01:38 00:01:36 00:01:39 00:02:16 00:02:46 00:02:42 00:03:19 2 00:11:00 7 00:14:19 5
Love Matt 22 Male 00:01:50 00:01:49 00:01:42 00:01:47 00:02:16 00:02:38 00:02:31 00:03:39 10 00:10:53 6 00:14:32 6
Bolton Joe 26 Male 00:01:43 00:01:41 00:01:40 00:02:08 00:02:16 00:02:42 00:02:26 00:03:24 5 00:11:11 10 00:14:35 7
Kay Christopher 37 Male 00:01:50 00:01:46 00:01:51 00:01:51 00:02:18 00:02:40 00:02:29 00:03:36 9 00:11:08 9 00:14:44 8
Phil Allum 42 Male 00:02:02 00:01:50 00:01:45 00:01:48 00:02:22 00:02:44 00:02:22 00:03:52 18 00:11:01 8 00:14:53 9
Allen Gary 28 Male 00:01:56 00:01:48 00:01:48 00:01:54 00:02:21 00:02:51 00:02:27 00:03:44 16 00:11:21 13 00:15:05 10
James Scott 43 Male 00:01:54 00:02:00 00:01:47 00:01:53 00:02:19 00:02:49 00:02:24 00:03:54 19 00:11:12 11 00:15:06 11
Aucock Ste 7 Male 00:01:57 00:01:51 00:01:56 00:01:52 00:02:22 00:02:47 00:02:31 00:03:48 17 00:11:28 15 00:15:16 12
Heathcote Jamie 31 Male 00:01:47 00:01:54 00:01:49 00:01:47 00:02:38 00:02:51 00:02:37 00:03:41 12 00:11:42 16 00:15:23 13
Walker Sean 18 Male 00:01:59 00:01:43 00:01:41 00:01:41 00:02:18 00:03:47 00:02:18 00:03:42 13 00:11:45 17 00:15:27 14
Salmon TOM 11 Male 00:01:56 00:01:35 00:01:49 00:01:49 00:03:10 00:02:54 00:02:33 00:03:31 7 00:12:15 18 00:15:46 15
Eve Bradley 35 Male 00:02:05 00:02:02 00:01:52 00:02:01 00:02:44 00:03:03 00:02:56 00:04:07 23 00:12:37 19 00:16:44 16
Richards Eif 38 Male 00:02:04 00:01:59 00:02:02 00:02:04 00:02:53 00:03:04 00:02:45 00:04:03 22 00:12:49 20 00:16:52 17
Taylor Conrad 10 Male 00:02:21 00:01:23 00:02:15 00:02:07 00:02:49 00:03:10 00:02:53 00:03:44 15 00:13:14 24 00:16:58 18
Woods Mike 27 Male 00:02:06 00:02:03 00:01:56 00:02:10 00:02:41 00:03:15 00:02:57 00:04:09 25 00:13:00 22 00:17:09 19
Hawkins Will 17 Male 00:02:10 00:02:11 00:02:01 00:02:07 00:02:41 00:02:58 00:03:16 00:04:21 28 00:13:03 23 00:17:24 20
Houldsworth Ben 33 Male 00:02:15 00:02:00 00:02:09 00:02:09 00:03:00 00:03:19 00:03:08 00:04:15 26 00:13:45 25 00:18:00 21
Hill Rob W 14 Male 00:02:07 00:02:01 00:02:06 00:02:10 00:02:50 00:04:09 00:02:49 00:04:08 24 00:14:04 29 00:18:12 22
Mutlow Tom 15 Male 00:02:14 00:02:17 00:02:14 00:02:13 00:02:54 00:03:22 00:03:14 00:04:31 30 00:13:56 27 00:18:27 23
Schroder Chris 4 Male 00:02:20 00:02:14 00:02:11 00:02:07 00:03:37 00:03:05 00:02:54 00:04:34 32 00:13:54 26 00:18:28 24
Lee Gary 40 Male 00:02:11 00:02:12 00:02:09 00:02:26 00:02:57 00:03:17 00:03:23 00:04:23 29 00:14:11 30 00:18:34 25
Stockton Ashley 36 Male 00:02:07 00:01:54 00:01:50 00:02:20 00:05:22 00:03:08 00:02:41 00:04:01 20 00:15:20 33 00:19:21 26
Seymour Nathan 9 Male 00:03:40 00:02:20 00:02:30 00:02:19 00:02:58 00:03:16 00:02:56 00:06:00 35 00:13:59 28 00:19:59 27
Crametz Jerome 39 Male 00:02:37 00:02:29 00:02:39 00:02:28 00:03:02 00:03:20 00:04:11 00:05:06 33 00:15:39 36 00:20:45 28
Jenkins Tomas 19 Male 00:02:44 00:02:37 00:02:28 00:02:08 00:03:13 00:03:29 00:04:14 00:05:21 34 00:15:32 35 00:20:53 29
John Calvert 44 Male 00:02:21 00:01:55 00:02:32 00:02:28 00:03:55 00:04:00 00:04:00 00:04:16 27 00:16:55 38 00:21:11 30