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.

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