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


Thursday, January 8, 2015

Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 2: Shoulda taken the singlespeed

Star date: 14 December 2014
Location: Coed Trallwm, Mid Wales
Event: Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 2
Weapon of choice: Loadsagears 29" hardtail
Greatest strength: Finishing
Greatest weakness: Chain
Result: 7th

A forecast of wet and windy weather sorted the men from the boyos even before the infamous first climb. Most of the Valleys crowd cried off to go Xmas shoplifting instead, leaving it to a select bunch of hardier mountain men (and woman) from Welshie Wales and Hereford, home of the SAS, to step up to the plate - and smash it.

And a right mountain man I was too, not having shaved for a month and starting to look a little like a cross between Kenny Rogers and a bearded collie:

Kenny Rogers

Bearded collie

I mention this not out of vanity (cough) but because it dictated my choice of steed for this race. As you know, singlespeeds and beards go together like gin and tonic, Hale and Pace, priest and choirboy, Robson and Jerome. So, being the contrary sod I am, I took the geared bike.

And I really wish I hadn't, because if I'd taken the singlespeed I wouldn't have lost half an hour to a mechanical...

Photo courtesy of the newly rebranded Carol Cobbett. RIP CAC Photography; world domination awaits for The Valley Photographer. Another 507 photos of the event here.

The course was a longer version of the previous round's loop, chopped and changed quite a bit to break up the long climb (except on the first mini-lap) and extended to include the top of the black descent and a tricky where's-my-line-dude boggy section. The rough-cut rooty sections were in and riding better and better. Fun but testing.

I finished the first climb clear in second behind the Enduracell Bunny, Rob Williams, but then made a mess of the bog (so that's where my kids get it from) and first descent, allowing Jon Roberts to catch me. But Mr Enduro was still only 150 yards ahead, so as Jon and I headed down the second descent together I started thinking maybe we could have him this time. Which is when my pedals suddenly stopped working.

Suspecting a dropped chain, I pulled over to find ... no chain at all. The bugger had snapped and fallen off somewhere. Trudging back up the trail to look for it, I actually managed to walk straight past the damned thing despite its sparkly shininess, but luckily an eagle-eyed Nick Reese spotted it on his way through to catch and pass Jon and finish a strong second in the race. So then I just had to run/walk/scoot/coast half a mile back to the toolbox in the car and set about repairing said chain.

First I pushed the pin out of the wrong end of the chain, so I had to take another link out. My sausage fingers then struggled for about three months to get the PowerLink chain connector to engage. At which point I found I'd wound the chain the wrong way round the rear derailleur and had to start again. Disconnect, wind round, reconnect. Only to find I'd done exactly the same thing again. Turns out I was the weakest link...

Random fact: Anne Robinson is disturbingly like my mother, which may explain a lot.

By the time I finished and returned to where I'd left the course, I'd lost the best part of a lap on the leaders. While there was no chance now of getting a result, there was still the small matter of whether I could avoid the further humiliation of being lapped. It was a close-run thing, with Mr Enduro closing me down rapidly on the last descent, but I was damned if I was going to let him catch me, and he didn't.

My reward was an utterly miserable final lap. It was now raining properly and very windy in places, I was cold and tired and unmotivated, and the climbs were a punishing ordeal. Still, I made up half a dozen places by the finish and even scraped onto the vets podium (yes, at my suggestion Red Kite Events have invested in an actual proper mahoosive podium to help boost my self-worth) and got to take home a can of shiny spray to go with my can of degreasy spray and can of oily spray from round 1, so I guess it was worth plodding on.

Tramp chic.
Photo courtesy of The Valley Photographer.

I now totally get why beards and singlespeeds go together. It's that whole back-to-basics crusty Paleo thing. Simple, lazy, easy, natural.
  • Beard: No farting around at the start of the day. You just get up and go. 
  • Singlespeed: No farting around at the end of the day. You just chuck it in the shed. 
  • Beard: No worrying about a power cut when you've only done one side. 
  • Singlespeed: No worrying about snapping a chain, derailleur or cable.
  • Both: You feel inexplicably drawn to real ales. 
On the other hand, there is that nagging fear of errant sesame seeds taking root, and the various females in my life wasted no time in informing me that not only did I look like a tramp but I felt like a hedgehog. Which reminded me all too clearly of my horror as a teenager when I first discovered that ladies' nether regions aren't at all soft and downy like their feline namesakes. So, with regret, I've now gone back to the full Brazilian.

But I still plan to singlespeed the next round of the XC series. See you at Coed Trallwm on 18 January.


Pos Last Name First Name Category Time Lap 1 Lap 2 Lap 3 Lap 4
1 WILLIAMS Robert Expert 1:45:22 7:38 31:25 32:59 33:18
2 REESE Nick Senior 1:47:43 8:55 32:53 32:54 32:59
3 ROBERTS Jon  Vet 1:51:47 8:19 33:26 33:57 36:04
4 PRITCHARD Charlie Senior 2:01:41 10:31 35:47 36:18 39:04
5 FIRMAN Andy Vet 2:08:40 13:29 37:29 38:04 39:37
6 SMART Andrew Senior 2:20:14 15:04 39:23 41:49 43:57
7 SCHRODER Chris Vet 2:20:30 8:15 62:18 34:11 35:36
8 LLOYD Tom Senior 2:21:07 14:51 40:10 42:10 43:55
9 BUSBY Jos Senior 2:23:57 13:52 40:24 41:50 47:48
10 BUCHANAN James Senior 2:26:22 15:20 41:21 43:24 46:16


Cross Mountain 55km: Lost for words

Star date: 9 November 2014
Location: Llandovery, Wales
Event: Cross Mountain 55km challenge
Weapon of choice: Geared 29er MTB
Result: 4th overall, 2nd veteran

The latest in a series of imaginative events from professional endurance racer Matt Page, Cross Mountain was designed to be equally well suited to cyclocross and mountain bikes, hence the name.

The weather gods had other ideas, however, November traditionally being monsoon season in Wales, and although the day itself was dry, the ground was wetter than a haddock's bathing costume. The cross riders were soon reaching for snorkles and even us MTBers frequently got bogged down and had to walk long sections.

Ultimately it was very like an MTB Marathon event: well organised, lots of scenic open moorland, nothing scary, just steady old-skool cross-country riding - thrill-seekers need not apply. That said, after all the rain, the first descent down to Myddfai was a rather kerrazy water slide and the final rocky descent off the moor was pretty wild in places with a very wet sting in the tail. Against expectations, I enjoyed it.

And for once I had a perfect race. I had my best result of the year, beating some very quick riders, and absolutely nothing went wrong. Which leaves me rather short of a story...

Luckily this guy stepped into the breach and took one for the team. Read it and weep:

The first five:
Ben Wadey 2:34:32
Gareth Payne 2:34:35
Ben Eardley 2:35:46
Chris Schroder 2:36:31
Carwyn Davies 2:38:26