Location: Coed Trallwm, Mid Wales
Event: Empire Cycles Enduro Round 3
Weapons of necessity: 26" XC hardtail on day 1, 29" XC hardtail on day 2
Greatest achievement: Trying
Greatest weakness: Failing
Result: Mid-table, again
Once upon a time there was a national downhill racer called Neil. Like anyone who gets their kicks riding bikes off cliffs, he must have had a screw loose to start with, but after one face-plant too many he tragically had to hang up his Lycra and spend the next 15 years muzzled and under constant sedation in an institution (contrary to popular belief, not actually the Drover's Rest).
Eventually released as part of Care in the Community, an ostensibly cooler, calmer Neil began organising grass-roots MTB events - but with a difference. Events with an unusually chilled and welcoming vibe but with a lurking menace and an undeniable sadistic streak. Yes, behind that urbane and amiable facade, there still skulks the mentalist of yesteryear.
First came a series of relaxed XC events peppered with the odd totally demented descent - and now, many beers later, a series of relaxed enduro events also peppered with the odd totally demented descent. Like the family Rottweiler - tickle my tummy then watch me savage your baby.
This event is very much a case in point. On the one hand, it was chill-out central. All five stages were within spitting distance of the Coed Trallwm trail centre café rather than dotted around a big loop, so it was a case of ride what you want, when you want, making things even more sociable and relaxed than ever. Timing was suitably old-skool in the form of synchronised Casios, and I particularly liked how the only sponsorship presence, a rail of (highly recommended super-soft organic bamboo) T-shirts, was largely left unattended because Trail 42 were taking part themselves.
Most of the stages presented little to worry about either, lightly spiced-up versions of the centre's existing descents that were well within the average rider's comfort zone. While competition was fierce at the sharp end with plenty of intimidating Transformers-style body armour floating around, the majority of us were indeed average riders there for the challenge, for the craic. Desperately hoping to put in some good times, of course, but not overly surprised or bothered when we didn't.
All of which made for a bong-tastic weekend of coffee, chat, ride, cake, repeat. And check out the views:
On the other hand, there was the utterly bonkers demolition derby of a first stage. That Neil just can't help himself. Talk about a baptism of fire. An insanely full-on steep muddy rootfest that belonged in a downhill race and so-like-totally sorted the men from the boys, with even the best riders taking the odd tumble and us lesser mortals being batted around and spat out the bottom as though caught in a giant pinball machine. I make no apologies for focusing on this stage. It was the daddy of the descents, completely overshadowing the rest, and was all anyone talked about all weekend.
Big kudos to Steven Sproat for daring to share this chest cam footage of stage 1 (Sunday's version), as I suspect that, like me, he will never trouble the podium at the World Enduro Series.
Warning: Contains bad language (but not nearly as much as I used).
Before I give the wrong impression, let me stress that the stage was mental-fun, not mental-dangerous. More Insane in the Brain than Killed by Death. Yes, it was very steep in places, but there were no kamikaze road gaps. Everything was rollable. You could always just stick out a foot or two (and now and again a hand or a head) or hop off the bike and run/scramble. What made it so challenging, and so much fun, was that it was just so unpredictable. A never-ending succession of off-camber roots, sketchy drops, steep/tight slidey turns and just plain ol' mud meant that you never really knew what was going to happen next. One minute you were slithering over/round/down said trail features without any major problems; the next, you suddenly found yourself pointing back where you came from - or up at the sky - and wondering just how you got there. And as error piled upon error, initial four-letter frustration morphed into a kind of giggly hysteria. I finished my first practice run declaring it the best descent ever.
Sliding down the "easy" top section.
Photo courtesy of Carol Cobbett at CAC Photography.
Although parts of it had appeared previously in XC races and the first round of the enduro series back in April, the trail pixies had clearly been dropping acid all summer, adding some wild new features and extending the track right down the hill to create an absolute monster of a run that felt completely fresh.
The top section had undergone a major makeover to make it more durable in wet conditions with some strategically positioned mini rock gardens and chicken-wired timber offcut steps, plus a few extra little ups and downs to make it a full 3D experience. I first described it in February 2013 as "a twisty, turny beast of a section, all stumps and roots and steps down onto a deeply corrugated traverse which was rather like riding on oval wheels" - and that still pretty much sums it up.
The middle section was where it got steep. Really steep. And slippery. Really slippery. Imagine a series of tight switchbacks, some rutted or bermed and some with no support at all, down a 1-in-3 ice rink. It was mental. I mean, what sane person would choose to slalom down a ski jump on a f******* bicycle?! Ultimately there were still sufficient traces of the lush loamy leafmould of summer to offer a modicum of grip on the steepest parts, but the super-techy entry down a drop and straight over a big lump into a tight bermed-right-to-flat-left zigzag was pure clay, freshly buffed into a leap of faith. The coaching manuals tell you that if you point your eyes, hips and front wheel where you want to go, that's where you'll go. Well, whoever wrote that had clearly never ridden this track! Despite repeated attempts, I could never quite flick my body round fast enough for the second turn, with the result that the bike wanted to carry straight on down the hill - backwards. The natural, indeed the only, response was to send out an urgent steadying foot or two. But pride was restored only temporarily, because in these conditions my shoes were like superpowered mud magnets and instantly doubled in size, so it was then like trying to ride in a pair of these:
Struggling to clip back into your pedals while navigating tricky off-camber roots is the last thing you need at the best of times - and certainly not when it's just about to get properly steep:
Looking down part of the middle section at the one ski-turn that didn't cause me any problems. It really was steeper than it looks.
If only it had been straight down the hill. That way you could just cling on and pray. And on the Sunday it was. But Neil the mentalist had other ideas on the Saturday, cruel ones, adding in an extra zig-zag round a tree over a ten-inch root that was desperate to grab your chain ring and catapult you into the air. Again, I never made the second turn. Logic and physics told me I was going to carry straight on and crash into a tree, and I don't like to disappoint, so that's exactly what I did. The bit pictured above, though, was more straightforward, at least at a snail's pace, and I managed to slide down with a degree of control and even dodge the trolls to get onto and over the bridge at the bottom unscathed.
See, I said it was steeper than it looked. This was the 180° Turn from Hell. Unfortunately the Root of All Evil is partially obscured here. #DavidBailey
They thought it was all over - but there was more. Brand new for this event, the bottom section began with a couple of really big man-made features...
OK, not actually Kim Kardashian's bootilicious buttocks, but a huge speed-scrubbing "bus-stop" up and down a pretty sheer 10-foot bank, followed by a 20-foot loose stony drop that did its damnedest to send you into a tree stump.
... before going all natural along a muddy, rooty, mossy, puddly straight section full of boggy wheel-grabbing holes to the finish.
What an absolutely mental, brilliant, exhilarating descent! It's amazing what mountain biking can do to your brain chemistry - I can't believe any drug could deliver that kind of high. Depending on how much of a pickle you got yourself into, it offered somewhere between three and five minutes of 100% wholegrain downhill goodness, and for my first one-and-a-bit runs it was pure magic.
Then came the hiccup. I'm not sure what happened. Somehow this:
Turned into this:
Both shots courtesy of the cannily but cruelly positioned Carol Cobbett from CAC Photography.
And before I knew it, I was lying on my side with a tree stump poking me in the kidneys and ribs and threatening to do this:
I exaggerate, of course, but it still hurts a fortnight later, and I'm still struggling to put down any real power through the pedals. That said, I'm not sure the physical injury slowed me down that much in the enduro. A timed run is a bit like sex: your mind is on other things and temporarily switches off any aches and pains you might have. The mental wound was a different story. I eventually limped down the rest of the descent, legs akimbo, balance awry, never expecting to make it round the corners or up the bus-stop or miss the stump after the big drop - and I didn't. I arrived back at the café a quivering, nervous, simpering wreck. I had completely lost my bottle, my marbles were threatening to go the same way, and I just wanted to go home.
Regular readers will know I'm no stranger to a bit of a wobble at the top of an unfamiliar steep drop, and I like to think that's an entirely normal and natural response. But this was more serious, not so much "I'd rather not" as "I can't". I still had to do two timed runs of that descent, though, so I desperately needed to man up somehow. I started with every biker's first port of call - cake - but appeared to have developed immunity. When the shakes eventually receded to the point where I could carry a coffee and only spill half of it, I retired to a quiet corner of the café and tried to go to a place of inner strength, only to find I didn't have one.
Turns out I'm not a man but a wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie.
I did eventually summon up just enough courage to go back over the top, and I even squeezed in an extra practice run between my two timed runs. Every time, though, however much I told my body to just do it, my newly liberated inner wuss just said no. I was rigid with fear even on the easier top section, which caused me to skitter all over the place and stall constantly, and when I got to the steep section, my feet wouldn't stay on the pedals no matter how hard I tried and how much verbal abuse I gave myself, which was rather a lot. It was deeply, crushingly humiliating. That hill well and truly had the better of me.
In wartime, I'd probably have been shot for cowardice. Fortunately the penalties in enduro are not quite as harsh and I had a chance to redeem myself on the other stages, which I did, making the top 20 on the pedallier ones and ending up mid-table overall out of about 80 riders. Which isn't too shabby, considering that enduro is not what I normally do or what my XC bikes and XC tyres were designed for. And on balance I did actually enjoy the weekend hugely - a well-organised event, great tracks, great venue, great atmosphere, no caveats.
I always knew I'd left it a bit late to become a World Cup downhiller, and I think now I have to accept it might never happen. That said, time heals all wounds, including dented pride, and I'm actually now itching to have another go at that descent. And when I do, I'll f****** have you, you b******!
I'd like to dedicate this post to fellow Red Kite Events regular Jason Moseley (clearly no relation) who managed to break his leg in two places on a fire road the weekend before the event - get well soon, mate!