Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 1: Better than ever

Star date: 30 November 2014
Location: Coed Trallwm, Mid Wales
Event: Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 1
Weapon of choice: Carbon 26" singlespeed
Greatest strength: Determination
Greatest weakness: Legs
Result: 2nd

Conditions were perfect for the return of Britain's most laid-back race series. Dry, mild and sunny. In Wales. On the last day of November.

One obvious cloud on the horizon, though, was the presence of Rob Williams - no chance of a win then! Since leaving me for dead on both the climbs and the descents last time he was up this way in January (see here), the former World Cup downhiller has been busy setting KOMs at Bike Park Wales and getting himself crowned winner of the 2014 European Enduro Series. Respect - we were in the presence of royalty. Otherwise, though, it was the usual rag-tag bunch of around 50 amateur racers and weekend warriors.

Letting the boy racers sprint off ahead at the start, I settled into the usual steady rhythm up the usual 20-mile fireroad climb and soon started picking off the overambitious, hitting the top clear in second place with Rob Williams way off in the distance. Which is how it stayed for the whole five laps.

Auditioning for Planet of the Apes.
Photo courtesy of Carol Cobbett at CAC Photography. Another 1,057 photos of the event here.

With no other riders ever close enough to worry about, the only real battle was with my mind. Am I the only one who goes through a stage several times every race where I ask why on Earth I'm putting myself through this hell and decide to give up racing for good? I felt terrible on all the subsequent climbs and put it down to the usual scapegoats (too much geared riding, stupid choice of bike, old age, general decrepitude) but in hindsight I probably just went out a bit fast. Although I could barely turn the pedals on the last two climbs, turn those pedals I did. For some reason my oxygen-starved brain decided I owed it to the various lappees I was still passing not to hop off and walk. But trust me, I wanted to.

The highlight of the day (apart from beating Jon Roberts for the first time this year) was the first descent: a fun new line through the trees (all roots, moss and loam) followed by the top section of the sketchy old-skool enduro descent (see here) and rounded off with a blast down the rough surfaced tracks of the trail centre's black descent. A really uplifting mix of tricky 'n' techy and fast 'n' furious that made all the climbing worthwhile. All told, the course was very well balanced and I really enjoyed it.

Apparently a tweaked version of the same course will feature at round 2 on 14 December. And I hear whispers that the long fireroad climb might soon be broken up with some sweet new technical singletrack...

Mildly apprehensive at times but not scared witless throughout. Progress.
Photo courtesy of Carol Cobbett at CAC Photography.

Pos Total Lap 1 Lap 2 Lap 3 Lap 4 Lap 5
1 WILLIAMS Robert 1:58:43 21:43 24:05 23:45 24:06 25:03
2 SCHRODER Chris 2:06:54 23:06 24:52 25:23 26:36 26:55
3 JOYCE James 2:09:54 23:59 25:30 26:13 26:19 27:50
4 REESE NIck 2:10:16 24:18 25:49 26:02 26:53 27:11
5 ROBERTS Jon 2:11:08 23:46 25:26 26:27 26:59 28:28
6 PRITCHARD James 2:12:39 23:56 26:21 27:11 27:28 27:41


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Empire Cycles Enduro Round 3: Wolf in sheep's clothing

Star date: 25-26 October 2014
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.

Looking up the middle section. It was steeper than it looks.

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!  

Lloyd Pete 18 MALE both 00:08:55 00:14:00 00:22:55 1
Yapp Jack 17 MALE both 00:08:58 00:14:07 00:23:05 2
Bulman Oliver 34 MALE both 00:09:41 00:14:58 00:24:39 3
Dobson James 30 MALE both 00:09:48 00:15:03 00:24:51 4
Allum Phil MALE both 00:10:01 00:15:05 00:25:06 5
Frewin Taff 35 MALE both 00:10:01 00:15:08 00:25:09 6
Scott James 30 MALE both 00:09:50 00:15:20 00:25:10 7
Bewick Tom 17 MALE both 00:09:52 00:15:23 00:25:15 8
Goulson David 41 MALE both 00:09:36 00:15:39 00:25:15 8
Robinson Jay 33 MALE both 00:09:58 00:15:26 00:25:24 10
Ridley Jon 23 MALE both 00:09:42 00:15:58 00:25:40 11
Thomas Robert  33 MALE both 00:09:58 00:15:46 00:25:44 12
Tweedie Alan 31 MALE both 00:10:20 00:15:58 00:26:18 13
Walker Sean 36 MALE both 00:10:20 00:15:58 00:26:18 13
Coop James 27 MALE both 00:10:13 00:16:10 00:26:23 15
Gardner Graham 44 MALE both 00:10:23 00:16:02 00:26:25 16
Forrest Ryan 31 MALE both 00:10:57 00:15:42 00:26:39 17
Staple Jesse 32 MALE both 00:10:37 00:16:42 00:27:19 18
Baraona Rebecca 21 FEMALE both 00:11:05 00:16:20 00:27:25 19
Jones Matthew 29 MALE both 00:10:37 00:17:00 00:27:37 20
Parry Daniel 32 MALE both 00:10:55 00:16:47 00:27:42 21
Eve Bradley 17 MALE both 00:10:51 00:16:54 00:27:45 22
Christian Mark 41 MALE both 00:10:48 00:16:58 00:27:46 23
Watkins Alex 15 MALE both 00:11:18 00:16:41 00:27:59 24
Salmon Austin 17 MALE both 00:12:50 00:15:22 00:28:12 25
Cardy-Stewart Leon 32 MALE both 00:11:15 00:17:06 00:28:21 26
Greenland Sam 30 MALE both 00:11:45 00:16:51 00:28:36 27
Boote Joe MALE both 00:11:41 00:17:03 00:28:44 28
Randell Dennis 38 MALE both 00:11:50 00:17:11 00:29:01 29
Humphreys Adam 43 MALE both 00:11:48 00:17:20 00:29:08 30
Hill Rob W 25 MALE both 00:11:38 00:17:59 00:29:37 31
Garrood Nigel 47 MALE both 00:11:53 00:17:53 00:29:46 32
Rollason Jon 36 MALE both 00:12:05 00:17:43 00:29:48 33
Schroder Chris 44 MALE both 00:11:32 00:18:35 00:30:07 34

Friday, October 17, 2014

Coed y Brenin Enduro: The Bermuda Triangle revisited

Star date: 5 October 2014
Location: Coed y Brenin, North Wales
Event: Trek Coed y Brenin Enduro 55km
Weapon of choice: Carbon 29er hardtail with 30 gears
Greatest achievement: Holding back the tears
Greatest weakness: Puncture management
Result: 182nd

Pretty much my whole body is black and blue right now. Not from falling off but from kicking myself.

Like every good disaster movie, it all started swimmingly. I managed to break away from a strong field on the inevitable monster climb at the start, right on the wheel of some young whippetsnapper (see what I did there?), and although he then pulled away with alarming ease as I opted for an impromptu roller session on the steeper, rougher, wetter Roman Road section at the top, and familiar foe Jon Roberts caught and passed me as the track levelled off, I was very happy to hit the river crossing well clear of the rest.

At the bottom of the first proper descent, part earthy leafy rooty loveliness and part fast rutted stony track, I found the early leader repairing a puncture. What awful bad luck. Minutes later, my heart still bleeding, I was surprised to see Jon heading back towards me on a two-way section. On reaching spaghetti junction moments later it seemed to me that he'd missed a sign meant for now and instead followed a sign meant for later... I shouted and shouted for him but he was long gone. It was looking like my lucky day. Suddenly I was way out in front all on my own!

Or was I? As I headed on up the hill, my mind started playing games - what if Jon was right and I was wrong? I spotted a marshal and tried to explain the problem, but to no avail. So it was with less than full conviction and at less than full speed that I headed back down the other side onto the Beginning of the End descent, all rocks and steps that make you feel all Winnie the Pooh going down the stairs:

Hard work on a low-slung hardtail but really good fun even in the circumstances. Only snag was that it took me straight back down to the visitor centre carpark, and last year we didn't do that until much, much later in the race. Nagging fear became blind panic. But as I paused at the bottom to take deep breaths into an imaginary paper bag, clattering down the steps behind me came the next two riders, Gareth Jones and James Joyce (not that one). What with Gareth and Jon being best buddies with matching kit and matching bikes, I'd expected at least an inkling of concern about his errant partner, but he was, like, whatever. I guess that's racing.

Initial relief at being on the right track after all was quickly superseded by dismay at throwing away a healthy lead, but this soon took a back seat as the three of us pressed on at speed under the A470 to the Dark Side of Coed y Brenin, home to myriad race disasters for me over the past four years. It really is my own personal Bermuda Triangle:
  • 12 punctures
  • 1 chain snapped
  • 1 brake lever busted
  • 1 saddle dislocated
  • 1 Garmin smashed
  • 1 flash pair of glasses lost
  • 1 head concussed
  • 1 gold medal awarded and then cruelly snatched away
  • 1 national champion's jersey ditto
And so it was, riding well within my comfort zone in a group of three and pondering when to make a break, that we came to the trio of short rocky descents known as Snap, Crackle and Pop, which I used to find a right handful but now seemed pretty innocuous. I was just thinking how far I'd come over the past four years of racing when, oh-so-predictably, a sudden hiss of escaping air and rhythmic spatter of tyre sealant on the back of my calves announced in no uncertain terms that Pop had lived up to its name.

Of course, a puncture is not an insurmountable problem. It's just that one tends to lead to another (as documented here). Ten minutes later, almost screaming with frustration at being stuck behind a lengthy funeral procession down what should've been some fun, fast singletrack, I attempted an ambitious overtaking manoeuvre over some loose rocks and punctured again.

I'd only brought one spare tube, so now it was time for glue and patches. "Apply to a dry surface" - easier said than done when your tyre and tube are swimming in sealant, your gloves and hands are puddle-soaked, your clothing is saturated with sweat, and the moss and grass are still dripping wet from the morning's rain... The patches duly lasted just ten minutes before flat number three. At this rate I was going to have to register as a landlord (boom, boom)! So back out with the glue...

After eventually making it back to the other side of the A470, I made a detour to the car to grab a spare tube - and promptly punctured yet again on the way back to the course. Whereupon I threw all my toys out of the pram, loudly, and came thiiiis close to driving straight home.

Eventually, though, armed to the effing teeth with spare tubes and gas canisters and what have you, and having pumped my tyres up to a good 7000psi, I headed back to the course - and Sod's law saw me round the second half without any problems whatsoever. Although delayed by a good 90 minutes at this stage, I went off like a whirling dervish, but every descent seemed now to be clogged with budding undertakers. So when I then ran across some people I knew, I decided to back off and treat it as the social ride it was always intended to be. 

I have to admit that, as usual, this made the whole thing a lot more fun than racing. Coed y Brenin is the Kellogg's cornflakes of trail centres (the original and best) and boasts an amazing network of technical trails. Once again the enduro took in the best of these man-made tracks plus various chunks of bridleway, some brand-new rooty woodland bits and, of course, the infamous kamikaze section down to the stream, which I managed to get half way down this year before getting up close and personal with a tree; next year I think I'll have it licked. The best bit by far, though, was attempting to shadow local bike mechanic and trials expert Martin Walker down the last couple of descents at speeds I would never have dreamed of attempting on my own. Absolutely fabulous, darling.

So, no regrets? Well, if you know me at all, you'll know I have them by the bucketload. If only, if only... Chris Purt, the guy who punctured on the very first descent, recovered from that to claim the win. I can't help thinking that could or should have been me. But then again, as the organisers are always at pains to point out, it wasn't a race anyway :-)


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Brecon Beast 50km: Unbeatable

Star date: 14 September 2014
Location: Brecon Beacons
Event: Brecon Beast 50km
Weapon of choice: Carbon 29er hardtail
Greatest achievement: Winning!
Greatest weakness: Following arrows
Result: 1st

You may remember that I really didn't rate last year's Beast. More than half of it was on the road, which was bizarre for a mountain bike event and desperately frustrating on a singlespeed, and the usual highlight of the event - the Gap descent - was omitted. Credit to the organisers, though, they listened to riders' feedback and came up with a really fantastic route this year.
As the eagle-eyed will already have registered, I finished first out of about 400 riders on the 50km route, woo-hoo. But I really didn't make it easy for myself:
  • 5 days before the event I spent ten hours on a rigid singlespeed taking 40 minutes off the record for the 170km Trans Cambrian Way ITT, easily the biggest ride of my life (more about that when I find the time)
  • 1 day before the event I did 40km off-piste guiding for a frustrated Dutch hillclimber in Brechfa Forest
  • A mile after taking the lead, I missed a turning and lost a good 30 places
Yep, soon after the pace car pulled over at 2½ miles, the leading pack was climbing so sluggishly I decided to break off my conversation and move things along a bit, quickly building up a 100-yard lead and keeping it for all of about a mile before missing not only an arrow but also an army cadet pointing the way onto the first offroad section. Sod's law dictated that my detour took me down a steepish hill. By the time I clocked my mistake at the next junction and got back up to the top, not only the leading pack but also a whole load of slower riders had passed through, and what would have been a clear run at a straightforward chunk of singletrack was now a sedate procession with no chance of overtaking. I just had to bite back my frustration (it was, after all, my own fault I was in this position) and wait for the next road section, where I shot off like a rocket to make up lost time.

The second offroad section up and over Allt yr Esgair above Llangors Lake was a gem: a tough 200 metre technical bridleway ascent followed by a long, fast, fun, grassy descent onto a Roman road. I was surprised to see riders in front of me struggling so badly on the climb. Yes, it was fairly steep, and it was very rough in places with steps and lumps of rock to negotiate, and a few false summits to get your head around, but after such a long dry spell there was plenty of traction, so it was entirely rideable. Some seemed to be walking pretty much from the start, but thankfully shuffled out of the way quickly enough when called. Others seemed to spin out in front of me at regular intervals, but I was absolutely determined to keep going come what may and managed to squeeze round them. Others again were still pedalling, but slowly, and it was hard at times to find the space to accelerate round them. Without wanting to blow my own trumpet (too much), I made it to the top without either foot leaving the pedals - a tribute to the power of bloodymindedness! And as the path headed out onto open moorland I finally broke free of traffic and was able to blast down the grassy descent, chasing a good rider, and only being held up a little by slower riders towards the end. It was a great descent, but probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing, as it would've been pants without all the cadets holding the gates open for us! As it was, that hill was worth the entry fee on its own.

Although it was frustrating to be held up by other riders like this and lose even more time (about five minutes in total):
  1. It turns out I got off lightly: further back there would be queues of up to an hour just to get onto these first two offroad sections, most of which then had to be walked!
  2. Beasting that climb and descent had put the smile back on my face, the chase was on.
The layout of the Brecon Beacons trails means that there is always going to be the odd long, flattish linking section (which is why I brought gears), and one of these was up next. A quick climb up through Bwlch on the road passing a few familiar faces (I was now back in the thick of things), a long gentle descent on fireroad in a group of three, and then getting dropped on the blast along the road across to Talybont, as I just don't have the thighs to compete on flat tarmac.

Overtaking on a blind corner out of Bwlch. Incidentally, the "w" is pronounced like an "oo" not an "e"!
Photo courtesy of Roy Bevis.

Next up was the Brinore tramroad - a straight, rocky, almost cobbled track climbing 400 metres up into the hills. It's a steady climb, never too steep but never really letting up and very, very long, and I did most of it standing singlespeed-style because it was too bumpy for my bottom. Nice KOM as a result. Back in my element, I soon caught and passed the riders who dropped me on the road, and then spotted a familiar figure up ahead - local rival Dylan Stephens, who I promptly caught, shadowed and dropped. I was on fire.

At the start I'd been in two minds about whether to do the long route (greater challenge, more bang for your bucks) or the short route (unfinished business after last year's nightmare). In the end I opted for the latter in light of the previous day's exertions, the inexplicable decision to have the long route's feed station as late as 50km (well beyond the range of my two water bottles), and all the extra effort I'd had to put in to catch up after my stupid, stupid early navigational error. The marshal at the split told me I was the first rider through, so it was now going to be a straight fight with Dylan. We're pretty evenly matched: I tend to have a slight edge uphill, while Dylan as an ex-motocrosser is much faster downhill, which is how he won our last duel at the Dyfi Enduro in May. True to form, I seemed to spend the next half-hour pulling away into a 100-yard lead on every climb, with Dylan then closing the gap again on the downs.

The next few miles very gradually losing height across the moors offered a welcome chance for a breather (while still pushing on reasonably hard to keep up the pressure on Dylan). With no big climbs or descents, it was a matter of ticking off the miles on a rocky moorland track that was far from taxing but technical enough to keep you entertained and avert your mind from the various aches and pains around your body. There would doubtless have been great views too had it not been for the mist.

We hit the feed station at 30km together. Luckily Dylan too needed water, as we caught the marshal napping and I seemed to spend an age frantically tearing the water bottles from their wrapping and getting one open and pouring. If I was to beat Dylan from here, I needed to top up quickly and make the break now - as I'm sure he was well aware. We both knew the route from here, and he'd be quicker on the two big technical descents and maybe also on the road sections, so I absolutely had to drop him on the climb up to the Gap.

First up was a long fireroad grind, with Dylan again sitting a constant 100 yards behind me. Then a short dash down through some forestry onto the Gap climb proper, which starts by dropping into a big hole. I got to the edge, saw the Grand Canyon open up in front of me and thought something unprintable, but quickly spotted a line on the left and plummeted down without mishap. Up the other side is a carry, though, whether you like it or not. I was just about at the top when I heard Dylan clattering down the ravine behind me. I had maybe 30 seconds on him. The time to go was now!

Only I was in no shape physically to push particularly hard. The climb up to the Gap is a long, steady slog. Both times I've done it have been on tired legs, making it feel twice as long as the two miles it actually is. It's a rough old track, with the winter rains each year adding and removing soil and gravel and dumping random stones and bits of rock here, there and everywhere. You end up weaving constantly from side to side, seeking the smoothest and most efficient line so that your rear wheel doesn't skip and skitter around squandering your limited remaining reserves of energy. Maybe on a full-suspension bike you could sit and spin, but I was out of the saddle the whole way up, stomping in a relatively high gear, effectively singlespeeding. It's my comfort zone.

The climb seemed doubly endless on this occasion because the mist meant I couldn't see the top, so I had no idea how much was left. I could no longer see Dylan behind me either, and presumably he could no longer see me. Psychologically, that must have been in my favour, but it didn't seem so at the time. I had to assume he was just 50 yards behind and keep pressing.

When I finally got to the top, 600 metres above sea level, to a welcome round of applause from some first aiders, it was time to engage the afterburners. The Gap descent is a classic. Only one corner and a pretty gentle gradient for the most part, but long and fast and rough. Bloody rough. It's steepest at the start with big random rocks to judder over. No line to follow, just point the front wheel and let the bike do the work. The rocks then get smaller, lines start to appear, first left, then right. Do you zigzag or blast straight over? Then it flattens and you have to pedal for a while. No sign of Dylan, I'd expected him to be breathing down my neck on that early moonscape, but so far, so good. Then the track heads down again. I whizzed down at warp speed for me, keeping off the brakes as much as possible and praying the bike could handle it. In places you can ride the grass next to the track for respite from the road-drill effect, but mainly it's just plain rocky. Here and there, deepish drainage gullies cross the track; I managed to hop two but hit the third hard. Luck was with me, the tyres coped. Still no sign of Dylan.

Part of the Gap descent, courtesy of Richard Li. It's really about time the council did something about those potholes...

I'm feeling bolder now. The faster I go, the smoother the track feels. A few walkers start to appear, some cyclists pushing up (and not getting out of the way!), marshals, supporters. Time to go into full enduro mode. Right off the brakes, speed is your friend. A bit more applause. Sorry not to acknowledge with a wave. I listen out but hear no applause behind me, what's happened to Dylan?! The track gives way to grass and becomes a very narrow road between tall banks, still heading steeply downhill. A car appears around the corner. Shit. Brakes on, heels down, two-wheel skid, just manage to hip-steer the bike through the eye of the needle to the left of the car. That was scary. But no time to get shaky, Dylan could be coming. Next up is a 4x4 which just stops in the middle of the road leaving me no room to ride through. Come on, damn you, move!

There's a long flat straight on the road after that, and I know that if there's still no sign of him when I get to the end of it, victory will be mine. And there isn't. I pussyfoot down the final offroad descent, saving the bike, desperate not to flat and throw it all away. Shame, really, because it's a really fun blast down a green lane littered with rocks and begging to be ridden hard, but tactics are now paramount. Into Brecon, through the town centre, overtake a couple of cars, hop off at a red light and run across as a pedestrian, stomp up the hill. Onto the sportsground, over the finishing line, another "non-race" won.

Er, hello, is there anybody there? Anyone?

Oh, yes, hello, er, well done! Would sir care for a thankfully-less-garish-than-last-year T-shirt?

Two minutes later Dylan rolls in. We wait ten minutes for third to show up but then give up and head home. Strava tells me I pulled those two minutes ahead on the Gap climb - and then made it down the Gap descent fractionally faster than Dylan (bagging 29th out of 1,200 on Strava - wow!). That's testimony to the power of fear, the fear of being caught and throwing away the win. All very negative, but I just seem to work better as the hare than the hound...

A cracking course, dusty trails, perfect weather conditions, the right bike for the job (gears for the linking sections, big wheels and suspension forks for the rocky descents), a great duel with Dylan ending in victory for me this time - and home in time for lunch! A top morning!

To see lots of helmet-cam (is it only me who wants to snigger?) footage of people riding this event a lot more slowly than me, click here.

The top 10:

564 Chris Schröder 2.35
445 Dylan Stephens 2.37
697 Ben Dunster 2.56
670 Martin Meadham 3.01
811 Matthew Challenger 3.09
525 Jamie Price 3.11
6 Stephen Trott 3.11
833 James Hargreaves 3.12
185 Alex Roberts 3.16
569 Andrew Davies 3.18

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Empire Cycles Enduro Round 2: The need for speed

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

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

5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – Blast Off!

Welcome to enduro, baby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The top 30:

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