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.

Strava:

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.
Results:





Full results here

Strava: 


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.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 5: Serial killer

Star date: 22 February 2015
Location: Coed Trallwm, Mid Wales
Event: Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 4
Weapon of choice: 29er hardtail 1x10
Greatest strength: Finishing
Greatest weakness: Body, mind and soul
Result: 5th overall, 2nd vet

The omens weren't the best:
  1. I was in the throes of man flu
  2. I was nursing bruised ribs
  3. The forecast was for really foul weather
  4. I'd been doing my own bike maintenance
So I really should have spent the day tucked up in bed mainlining Lemsip, but with the series title at stake, that wasn't ever going to happen.

Cracking photo (of another rider) courtesy of The Valley Photographer on her final mission. Another 314 photos of the event here.

The weather was, if anything, even more foul than promised, treating us to a crash course in meteorology on every lap, as rain at the bottom gradually morphed into sleet and eventually into snow as we gained height, all topped off with an Arctic headwind on the most exposed section. This gradually took its toll on both riders and trail. No winter wonderland and polar bears this time around: I'm convinced I rode over a hippo or two on the woodsy sections as mossy loam was churned into wallowy slop, and even the surfaced tracks metamorphosed into little brown streams that filled up all the puddles and ensured a proper soaking from both above and below, waterproof kit be damned.

Despite this, the first half of the race was fun: I didn't feel too bad, I was in the thick of things, I was still warm and dry. But the second half of the race was horrid: I got weaker and weaker, I lost touch with the leaders, I was soaked from head to toe*, and my hands grew desperately cold. By the end of lap 4 I was struggling to change gear (not the end of the world in itself given my singlespeed leanings, but this is often swiftly followed by struggling to brake, which is never good news), so I stopped by the car for a change of gloves - only to have a comic struggle to get the dry ones on as the lining clung Velcro-like to my damp fingers. It took what felt like a couple of hours of whole-body wriggling and jiggling to get them half on and be able to ride off, followed by an entire climb of non-stop wiggling of fingers and thumbs to get them on the rest of the way - all of which served to thaw the whole of me out quite effectively and see me through the final tortuous lap.

*In the name of science, I weighed my kit when I got home. Shoes, clothing and helmet came to 14lb! Once clean and dry, they were back down to 7lb, a difference of half a stone or three litres of water. Now that's what I call soaked. Maybe it's time to invest in some less absorbent winter kit...

 
Shadowing Huw Thomas on the first lap. Photo courtesy of The Valley Photographer.

I'd started pretty well. After a warm-up that consisted chiefly of hanging around the wood-burner in the café, I chased former European 24-hour champion Huw Thomas up the first climb and into the first singletrack sections, with Jon Roberts not far behind. For a while it was the three of us together and I felt good. But come the second lap I started to drop back. Nick "Steady Eddy" Reese then passed me on his way to catch Jon Roberts at the death and claim the win; and on the third lap the Karate Kid appeared out of nowhere to give me the chop this time and finish an impressive third ahead of Huw Thomas.

Although it was frustrating not being able to put up a better fight, I was really pleased just to finish, especially as quite a few healthy lads didn't. Having all but drowned in the night in a sea of mucus, I thought I'd be firing snot-rockets left, right and centre before collapsing mummified half-way through, but my nose miraculously dried up for the duration of the race - I guess my body knows its priorities! Similarly, my ribs held up fine, despite a last-lap mishap that saw me skid into a tree trunk and somersault over the bars to land on my head some 20 feet down the trail. Ouch. All that hard work over the past three weeks developing revolutionary new sneeze-suppression techniques to protect my ribs was so nearly undone in an instant, but in the end I was fine. My heart was no longer in it, though, and I pootled back to the finish in the manner of my dear departed Grandad, whose main claim to fame, apart from consistently voting National Front, was cycling between gas meter readings at less than walking pace. And he then had the nerve to blame immigration for the country going down the pan...

Second lap - beginning to get squelchy. Photo courtesy of The Valley Photographer.

My ribs were also the main reason I didn't take the singlespeed (again). But I was also keen to test my new 1x10 conversion*, which I'd done all by myself. This was quite a gamble, as I am notoriously mechanically inept. As a kid I spent months making a bird-table at school, only to find one day that someone had mistaken it for scrap and chucked it out. [Cue violins.] But I'm pleased and proud to report that the conversion worked perfectly. Put a clutz in charge of maintenance, and I finally get a race without any mechanicals whatsoever!

*Translation for non-biking readers: I threw away my front gears. And spent an outrageous amount of money doing so. Why? Well, it leaves one less thing to go wrong and saves a tiny amount of weight. Also, 1x10 is very much en vogue, and as you can see below I'm a dedicated follower of fashion. Trust me, you can't get much more "now" than an elliptical narrow-wide chain ring and clutch mech.

Farmer Giles enjoys his moment of glory next to close runner-up and wannabe catalogue model Jon Roberts. Not sure why the Teen Dream is on the big boys' podium, though.
Cameraphone image courtesy of The Disappearing Photographer. Best of luck with your plans, Carol.

Limping home in fifth was enough to claim the series win and add to my burgeoning collection of bike-cleaning products from Muc-Off (no excuses for a dirty bike now!). Admittedly it was a slightly weather-assisted win, as Jon Roberts missed one round after being snowed in, but I did beat him the one time I had no mechanicals or deadly agues, and I kinda feel I deserved it just for completing this last round. God, it was tough. Racing at Trallwm is always tough - big climbs and physically demanding descents - but the weather on this occasion made it an absolute killer.

A massive thanks to Neil the organiser and his merry band of marshals and helpers (Chris, Shaun, Kyle, Amber, Michelle and the others whose names I don't know) for running the races, Coed Trallwm Mountain Bike Centre for hosting them and Carol The Valley Photographer for capturing them on film. It had everything you could possibly hope for from a winter series - great courses, good company and some really s**t weather. I was going to end by saying "Roll on next November!" but then I remembered this is Wales, so I won't have to wait that long...

Next up for me: Mondraker Enduro Round 1 at Coed Trallwm on 21-22 March and the Little Devil 60km at Nant yr Arian, Aberystwyth, on 29 March. 


Results:
Now where did I put them? To follow...

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 4: Eating yellow snow

Star date: 19 January 2015
Location: Coed Trallwm, Mid Wales
Event: Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 3
Weapon of choice: 29er hardtail with semi-automatic transmission
Greatest strength: Persevering
Greatest weakness: Chain
Result: 5th

Finally a spot of proper winter weather and a chance to angst all night about whether I'd make it to the race at all. In the end, though, the main roads were as over-salted as your average bag of chips - other than the odd patch of ice and slush it was more like driving on the beach.

Coed Trallwm, on the other hand, had been transformed into a magical winter wonderland. Glorious sunshine, a three-inch carpet of fresh snow, Bambi off in the distance frolicking with some polar bears, stunning.

Q. How did King Wenceslas like his pizza?
A. Deep and crisp and even.

Photo courtesy of The Frozen Photographer. Another 347 photos of the event here.

Messing around on bikes in the snow is just the best, like going sledging. You slide and skid about, not caring about your speed or the cold, and taking risks you never normally would, confident that if it does all go tits up at least you'll have a soft landing.

Racing in the snow is a different matter, generally progressing from tough to fun to scary to horrid as the race progresses. On the first lap, you have to contend with the unparalleled energy-sapping qualities of virgin snow, which really ought to have military applications. Even downhill, it can be like riding uphill through treacle with the brakes on - while pulling a freight train. On the second lap, the snow is nicely compacted; let the fun begin. But after that the course tends to mutate first into an icy luge track and finally into wet, cold, sticky, slimy, brown slush from hell. Apart from that brief interlude of perfection on the second lap, racing in the snow is best described as character-building.

Today, though, with a much-depleted turnout and the right kind of snow, it was surprisingly good fun to race on throughout. The packed snow/ice left by the organiser's 4x4 on the main climb offered surprising traction; the section of fluffy virgin snow at the far end of the course was short enough to be a fun challenge rather than a tortuous ordeal, the steep bits at the top becoming increasingly rideable as the race went on; and the snow offered surprising support and grip as I careered round the flat corners unclipped on the black descent, although I did have a couple of speedway moments. It was snow-free under the trees, though, which presented a challenge in itself as you dived into the gloom to find yourself worryingly snowblind. But ultimately I had more issues on the A483 than out on the course.

With neither Enduro Man nor Jon Roberts in attendance, I got to the start thinking victory could finally be mine. Don't I ever learn? Three riders shot off alarmingly quickly up the opening climb; I followed warily at a distance, assuming they'd run out of puff; which they didn't, so eventually I had to speed up, catching them near the top to form a mini-peleton. It was shaping up to be a five-way battle for supremacy.

Photo courtesy of The Frozen Photographer.

The cast:

James Pritchard 

 Scott "I live 17 miles south of Brecon" Cornish


James Joyce


The weakest link? That'll be me then.

And Hereford's Nick Reese, lurking sinisterly in the background

Predictably, the Karate Kid shot his load too early, confirming every prejudice we have about teenagers, and ran out of steam on the second lap. F. Scott Fitzgerald had a good stab at writing his name in the history books to finish a strong third, while Andy McNab was readying his grenades for a final murderous push for victory when Merthyr Man heard one of his neighbours had been spotted in the car park. Fearing for his stereo, he flew off to finish over a minute clear.

And the weakest link? Well, I struggled with the pace from the off. After getting held up by a couple of the others on the early singletrack sections (a novelty that soon wore off), I eventually gave the Karate Kid the chop but just couldn't close the gap on the others to less than 100 yards. And then, at exactly the same point on the course as in round 2, my chain did a runner. I managed to fix it at only the second attempt and in less than half the time it took before, but combined with a mysterious flat tyre half a mile later, intermittently frozen gears that I'd naively done nothing about since the Frozen Devil, a saddle that wouldn't stay up, issues with ice in my cleats on the snowy top section, and general knackeredness... I was a spent force, once again suffering with cramp and limping round the last two laps to finish fifth, only just avoiding being lapped. All horribly reminiscent of round 2. A part of me really wanted to give up and go home - but then the rest of me just wanted to get back up the top and play in the snow some more!

Photo courtesy of The Frozen Photographer.

Competition time!
Solve the Mystery of the Flat Tyre and you could win ... moderate gratitude from me and the adulation of both my readers. The scenario: All the air leaks audibly out of a nearly new tubeless tyre over a period of say 30 seconds while I'm riding on packed snow up a smooth fireroad. There are no tears in the tyre, the bead is still seated in the rim, the top of the valve is screwed in properly, and once reinflated the tyre stays up for the rest of the race (and has been fine ever since). So what happened?
Answers on a postcard please...

See you at Coed Trallwm on 22 February for the final round of the XC series. And I really will be taking the singlespeed next time; I just don't know what's come over me of late.


The top 5:

Time Lap 1 Lap 2 Lap 3 Lap 4 Lap 5
1 CORNISH Scott Vet 2:16:23 22:06 28:36 0:28:35 25:15 29:13
2 REESE Nick Senior 2:18:08 21:51 28:38 28:56 28:12 30:28
3 JOYCE James Vet 2:19:27 22:09 28:41 28:37 28:40 31:19
4 PRITCHARD James Junior 2:35:39 22:16 32:58 32:00 33:44 34:40
5 SCHRODER Chris Vet 2:16:03 22:12 29:57 48:54 34:59

Strava:

Friday, January 23, 2015

Red Kite Events Frozen Devil 55km: A day of extremes

Star date: 4 January 2015
Location: Irfon Forest, Mid Wales
Event: Red Kite Events Frozen Devil 55km challenge
Weapon of choice: 29er hardtail with 30 gears at times
Greatest weakness: Stopping at the Drover's Rest 
Greatest strength: Leaving the Drover's Rest
Result: 2nd, 3rd and 4th

It was always going to be on the extreme side, riding 35 miles up and down big hills in the wildest wilds of Wales in the midst of winter, plastered with mud, soaked to the skin, chilled to the bone, cramping all over and begging for mercy.

And as usual Red Kite Events had thrown in some pretty hostile terrain along the way that seemed hell-bent on killing you. Assuming you managed to avoid dying of boredom on the world's longest fire road climbs or drowning in the world's coldest puddles, the alternately muddy/icy/rooty/loggy descents then did their damnedest to fling you into the abyss - and that was even before you got to the malaria-infested swamps with their giant mutant leaches and man-eating crocodiles.

Now while all this dicing with death was of course hugely enjoyable, somehow I don't think it's what this event will mainly be remembered for.

Near the start at Coed Trallwm. Photo courtesy of The Valley Photographer, who somehow contrived to get cold and wet despite never venturing more than 30 feet from the café...
Another 450 photos here.

Red Kite Events have long claimed to have the best feed stations around thanks to their partnership with the award-winning Drover's Rest restaurant in Llanwrtyd Wells. And with some justification, although A Cycling's home-made cakes and soup could definitely also stake a claim after the feast they laid on at Cross Mountain.

The problem with feed stations, though, whatever the quality and variety of the food, is that they are never going to be more than a couple of grub-laden tables perched in the middle of nowhere, generally the bleakest and most inhospitable point on the whole course, so you just don’t want to hang around. You quickly stuff a couple of flapjacks in your mouth, furtively shove a few more in your pockets that you then forget to eat (I once found a feed-station banana in a coat pocket when I got my kit out of the washing machine… and ate it), quickly top up your water and ride straight off again into the sunset before the wind-chill freezes you into Iceland party food.


Drover's Rest proprietor, award-winning chef and all-round good guy Peter James, a man with more letters after his name than in his name thanks to his services to tourism, came up with a solution. Why not invite riders into his nice warm restaurant conveniently situated halfway round the course – and, what’s more, feed them a proper dinner?

Peter James about to prepare dinner.

Let’s just get this straight. On a rare day when he was not up at Buckingham Palace collecting another MBE, Peter
  • closed his restaurant to the public for Sunday lunch
  • welcomed in over 100 muddy-as-**** mountain bikers
Just to make it absolutely clear, he took this:


and filled it with people looking like this:


Because after riding 30 km up hill and down dale through mud, puddles and the odd patch of snow, we weren't exactly dressed for dinner. OK, the restaurant has a stone floor, so all he had to do was go all feng shui and stack the tables out of the way, pop a buffet along one wall, and get busy with the mop afterwards.

But no. We arrived to find tables laid, napkins origamified, the works. Peter was offering us a proper sit-down meal… And all that protected his lovely restaurant from our muddy behinds was a sheet of newspaper on each upholstered chair (rather aptly, it was the Daily Mail, which is, of course, only fit to wipe your arse with).

Apart from the best china, Peter also laid on his hottest waitresses:


Oops, wrong pic. How did that get out of my private collection? No, I'm sure this is the one who served me:


It might as well have been one of the first bunch, though. After 30 km in wintry conditions, let's just say every extremity was verging on frostbitten...

It was all a bit surreal. “Tea or coffee?” asks one waitress. A cafetière magically materialises. We sit down, gingerly, as though we all had piles. We sip from proper cups, with saucers, and genteelly crook slowly thawing little fingers. “Fresh parmesan on your pasta?” asks another waitress. “Warm ciabatta roll and butter?”

We are, of course, ravenous and the food soon disappears. And then comes the big decision: to stay or not to stay. Leaving the welcoming bosoms of the Drover's Rest was not going to be easy. Baby, it was cold outside.

But then Jon Roberts announced he wanted to leave before his legs (at least I think it was his legs) stiffened up. So I had to go too. And so did Jared Linden and Nick Reese. Strange as it might seem, and it seemed very strange at the time, the four of us were halfway through a keenly fought race, you know. It was all rather like that Christmas Day truce in World War One when the two armies downed arms to play football.

And it must have looked like the Somme too by the time the other 100 riders had been through. I think everyone’s favourite restaurateur will have to scratch Cleanest Restaurant Furniture of the Year off his list for 2015... and settle for another trip to see Ma’am, this time maybe finally bagging that elusive knighthood for services to hungry mountain bikers.

St Peter James after we’d finished. (I know, wrong war, but hey ho.)

I think everyone loved the idea of a proper sit-down meal as part of the event – it’s great to catch up and swap war stories over a decent bite to eat - and everyone enjoyed it. But the consensus even among the more casual riders is that it would’ve been better to have it at the end after we’d cleaned up. I know for a fact that some of the riders doing the event are complete animals - you know who you are - but even they felt a little sheepish sitting there in a sea of mud and sweat fumes.

Meanwhile, the truce was off and it was back over the top. Young Jared soon disappeared off ahead; Jon, Nick and I were together for ages, but on the last big fire road climb I started to drop back due to cramp. Although I caught them up on a mad technical dash up what is normally a wild descent, packed with monster puddles and rocky steps and no end of mud and roots and all the other things I love about mountain biking, I then lost them again to reach the finish a couple of minutes adrift.

So in the end I was second on the morning’s official timed section; third before lunch; and fourth after lunch. Confused? I’m still pretty dazed as well.

The event was extremely tough. Too tough for many, with half the starters failing to complete the whole course. The descents were all pretty wild and a lot of fun, but in the Irfon Forest you do really have to earn them; it's not as compact as the Crychan Forest down the road, but then it does get you that much more "out there".

The event attracted every kind of rider. Photo courtesy of The Valley Photographer.

Red Kite Events supremo Neil Delafield tells me he wants to be known for extreme events where merely finishing is an achievement. And I have to say he’s doing a good job. I’m pretty fit these days, but I hurt every bit as much as anyone else out there by the end. I finished smiling but absolutely drained and riddled with cramp. I haven't been that knackered for ages. Nice one.

So I’m looking forward to the similar Little Devil event on 29 March starting from Bwlch Nant yr Arian near Aberystwyth.

Top 10 on the timed section (I only came second because Jon fell off):

1 Linden Jared 00:43:31
2 Schroder Chris 00:44:57
3 Roberts Jon 00:45:08
4 Reese Nick 00:47:20
5 Hawthorne Lewis 00:49:27
6 Chapman Shuan 00:50:15
7 Pritchard  Charlie 00:52:56
8 Brewer Stephen 00:53:08
9 Jones Nicholas 00:53:09
10 Allen David 00:53:13

Strava: