Tuesday, March 29, 2016

UK Enduro Round 1: Humbled

Star date: 19-20 March 2016
Location: Crychan Forest, Mid Wales
Event: UK Enduro Round 1
Weapon of choice: Mondraker Foxy with RRP mudguard and Absolute Black oval chain ring
Greatest strength: Bouncing
Greatest weakness: Speed
Result: 6th vet

We’re at the top of stage 3. “Want to go first, Chris?” asks Rowan Sorrell.

Yes, that Rowan Sorrell. Globe-trotting elite downhiller turned trail-builder extraordinaire. The guy behind Bike Park Wales. The guy who built my local trails at Brechfa, the whole reason why I started mountain biking. The guy who has just celebrated a return to racing after shattering his leg into a million tiny pieces a couple of years ago – twice (duh!) – with an overall win at the BPW Mini Enduro, where he finished a whopping 90 seconds ahead of yours truly.

Going first would be like trying to outrun a bullet train on a handcar.

“Nah, you’re OK,” I say. “I’ll leave a good gap.” Ho, ho, ho.

And off he goes.

I give him a couple of seconds (well, you never know) and shoot off in pursuit. Needless to say, after the first corner he’s out of sight. And with the steady barrage of sniper roots and kamikaze drops and you-gotta-be-kidding twists and turns on the event's all-natural tracks, he’s very quickly out of mind.

Roots, loam and clearly something alarming coming right up.
The full-face soon came off. It was just too sunny. I know. 

It was an odd chain of events – involving an ageing hippie, a missing roof, my awkward gene and clocks in the South Wales Valleys running a good two hours behind GMT – that led to me spending much of my first official outing as a member of Team UK Enduro riding not with my teammates but in a group that included local downhill heroes Duncan Porter and Sam Robson (you know, the kind who build tracks down a near-vertical slope and then think what they really need is some six-foot drop-offs in the middle) and, on Sunday, the aforementioned Mr Sorrell. Plus my regular enduro-buddy Gary Allen battling terrier-like to stay with them, and little old me trailing along behind.

Which would never happen at The Other National Enduro Series with its rigid categories and start times and seeding. Which is a shame. Because when you’re only actually racing for 20-30 minutes over an entire weekend, the social side is all-important.

The pasta party kicks off at the Drover’s Rest
Much has already been made of the “ride with your mates” approach of the UK Enduro series. Do the stages in whatever order you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want. Seed yourselves – fastest mate goes first. And when you do need to pass someone, generous taping means it’s no biggie.

The chilled vibe only goes so far, of course. As soon as you start down a stage, the gloves are off. It’s the same focus, the same determination. But three minutes later there you are at the bottom, whooping and hell-yeahing and sharing war stories with your mates and complete strangers alike as you winch back up the hill.

Such is the Spirit of Enduro – and the reason why I’ve switched completely from XC in 2016.

Seems I've mastered the art of looking scared even when I'm not.

But it isn’t just as an example of the Brotherhood of Enduro that I mention riding with Rowan. Nor is it just namedropping, although I do admit to being somewhat star-struck (to his credit, he didn’t visibly wince when I told him he’d changed my life).

No, the main reason is that riding with the likes of Rowan Sorrell and Duncan Porter (and indeed my teammate Ben Jones) is jaw-droppingly inspiring – and humbling.

They’re just so incredibly bloody quick!

And the thing is, they make it look easy.

Whereas I’m fighting my bike like a bucking bronco, they’re so smooth they’d already have five babes in the jacuzzi by the time I plucked up the courage to speak to the geeky plain girl in the corner.

Even on the flat sections, they hardly seem to pedal. Whereas I grab every opportunity to spin like a dervish to make up a fraction of a second before the next root-infested corner forces me to grab the brakes or be pinged into oblivion, these guys barely turn the cranks.

The amount of speed they carry, with seemingly nonchalant ease, is untrue.

And with the UK Enduro format, I get to witness it close up. I get invited into the jacuzzi.

Too much pedalling and not enough flow. I'm working on it.
Nice kit, though, thanks to Flare Clothing.

Zigzagging down through the woods to make the best use of natural features such as stumps, logs, fallen-tree bombholes, ancient hedge banks, streams, root after root and general Welsh steepness, and evolving over the weekend along with your riding, Neil Delafield’s all-natural stages are a far cry from the predictability of trail centre descents. This isn’t DH, so everything is rollable, but the tracks throw up a steady stream of technical challenges to test your mettle. Importantly, though, it’s fun-technical, not scary-technical, so you don’t have to be the world’s best rider to get down them. I'm the living proof.

Kudos to Richard Thomas for letting me use his warts'n'all footage of stage 2.

And a blooper reel from Steven Baldock, one of the better riders.

Whatever your level, it doesn’t half help to have the right bike and the right tyres, so a big shout out here to my Mondraker Foxy with Onza Greina mud tyre up front, which, unlike me, never put a foot wrong all weekend.

Mondraker are well-known for pushing the limits of bike geometry. 
But next time, Mum, ask before you borrow it, eh?

At race pace (even my race pace), it’s still a white-knuckle ride. Like one of my kids’ high-speed computer games (without the spare lives), the obstacles fly at you thick and fast, giving you no time to think and barely enough to react.

Unless, of course, you’re one of the fast guys, who use their bionic vision to focus three corners down the track, casually floating over everything in the meantime as though on a hovercraft.

I get to one of Neil’s signature point-and-pray off-camber turns and tentatively slide the rear wheel round at a speed where if it all goes pear-shaped at least it won’t hurt. What do they do? Do they slow down? Do they hell. Half the time they don’t even slide round the corners but give two fingers to the laws of physics and turn in mid-air.

They could probably also do a back flip and triple somersault in the process, but they don’t. They just get the business done, no showboating. Sure, on the transitions Rowan and Duncan seized every conceivable (and inconceivable) opportunity to pull wheelies and flicks and huck off pretty much everything, but on the race runs they were supremely economical, silky smooth.

As you might have guessed, I want to be like that.

More loam than you could shake a whole forest of sticks at.
Photo: Victoria Dawes, better known for her role on Shooting Stars.

While I didn’t exactly rule the roost (see what I did there?), I could sense my riding coming along over the course of the weekend. I’m beginning to get a feel for riding loam. Spaghetti roots are fine, but the anacondas still freak me out. I need to learn to bunny-hop properly and I need to man up and commit more on off-camber corners.

Ultimately we’re talking skids and tricks, all the things I didn’t learn during a childhood misspent swotting. It’s a whole new way of riding, and I’m loving it.

Teammate Ben on the top step. I won’t mention his height in case he gets a complex.
Note the Julbo glasses he still has surgically attached to his face.

This weekend was the maiden outing for the UK Enduro race team, including new arrival Bond, Gemma Bond, licensed to thrill. And what a successful weekend it was for the team, with two out of four making the podium. Ben won the senior male category and was fifth overall, Gemma finished third elite female, and Ceri was an impressive ninth in masters, the largest category, a good three minutes ahead of me. I ended up sixth in vets and 56th overall in the two-day race, the very definition of mid-table mediocrity and way better than I’d expected.

And in my group, Rowan was the overall winner of the Sunday race, Duncan was first master, Sam was third senior and Gary was second grand vet. That’s pretty illustrious company, so perhaps it’s not surprising I couldn’t keep up!

I said there were steep bits. 
Photo: Shaun Rutherford in between marshalling, heckling and checking his Tinder.

The great news for those who enjoyed - or missed - Round 1 is that Round 3 of the UK Enduro has now had to be moved from the Dyfi and will also be in the Crychan with at least one brand-new track. Round 2 is at Triscombe in Somerset on April 23-24. Get your entries in now!

Finally, a big thanks to the team’s growing list of sponsors.
  • UK Enduro – purveyors of the finest mountain bike events this side of the EWS
  • Wheelies – purveyors of the finest bikes and stuff in South Wales if not the Universe
  • Flare Clothing – purveyors of the finest MTB clothing
  • Julbo – purveyors of the finest eyeware
  • Sealskinz – purveyors of the finest gloves and socks
  • RRP – purveyors of the finest lightweight mudguards
  • Absolute Black – purveyors of the finest oval chain rings 
  • Airshot – purveyors of the finest tubeless tyre inflators 
  • Dan Wyre Photography – purveyors of the finest action photography
  • Sixth Element – purveyors of the finest carbon wheels
  • Rocky Mountain – purveyors of the finest mountain bikes
Now also featuring:
  • Wickens & Söderström – purveyors of the finest bottled magic (totally unprompted, a mate of mine said yesterday that their lube is “life-changing”; insert smutty comment of choice)
The weekend's star freebie without a doubt was my Flare Clothing team top. I always seemed to be at just the right temperature – and suddenly now everyone seems to know my name!

Other race reports worth checking out:
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  1. Nice race report, sounds like you had as much fun as I did! Thanks for the link to mine as well :-)

    1. Unfortunately not :-( Had to get my CX wheels rebuilt this week which cost twice as much as expected, so that's my money gone for this month! Have a good one :-D