Sunday, May 22, 2016

UK Enduro Series vs British Enduro Series: Clash of the titans

You couldn't make it up. Within weeks of the demise of the once-popular UK Gravity Enduro series, not one but two new national enduro series are announced within days of each other: the British Enduro Series and, er, the British Enduro Series. Yes, not only do they have near-identical logos featuring the same bit of freebie clipart, they both launch under exactly the same name...

This was, I assume, just an unfortunate coincidence. Neil Delafield of Red Kite/Mondraker Enduro fame/infamy and Si Paton of UKDH fame/infamy must have been beavering away on their respective series for months (booking venues, negotiating with landowners, sweet-talking sponsors, building websites, hiring portaloos, making up rules, forgetting to order tape). And all credit to them both - organising just one race must be a massive undertaking.

Needless to say, though, the Twattersphere goes into overdrive. Misinformation rules, opinions polarise, war is declared. Who are you with - Little Hitler or the Rogue Cowboy? When the debate starts to trend higher than "Paris Hilton breaks fingernail", there are calls for the UN to intervene. But not even British Cycling are interested, despite all they've done for women's cycling.

A stand-off ensues. Who will back down on the name? Both sides claim to have got there first. Eventually the bigger man (literally, at least) breaks eye contact and backs down. And thus the British Enduro Series and the UK Enduro Series are born - two imaginatively named series for the price of one!
I should perhaps stress that the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my sponsors. Or even my own.

I also have something to declare beyond ten crates of vodka and half a dozen immigrants under a blanket in the boot. I ride for UK Enduro's own race team, and Neil Delafield is my friend. I don't work for FIFA, though, so I'd like to think I'm still capable of being impartial. Suck it and see.
Following this false start, the two series were at pains to project a unique identity, suggesting that they would be more complementary than direct competitors. While UKE was all talk of "riding with your mates", BES was busy announcing cash prizes. When UKE launched its hashtag #fortheriders, BES responded with #fortheracers. It seemed that one was about the taking part, and the other was about the winning.

But what would this mean in practice? Only one way to find out. Some poor sod would have to ride them both and report back. Hmm, spend two entire weekends messing around on bikes, or crack on with the DIY? After much soul-searching, I selflessly stepped up to the plate - but would I smash it?

Triscombe in a nutshell. 
Don't worry, this wasn't me. I was going too slowly to crash. Check out the dust.
Photo: Dan Wyre Photography.

Star date: 23-24 April 2016
Location: Triscombe, Somerset
Event: Rocky Mountain UK Enduro round 2
Weapon of choice: Mondraker Foxy with RRP mudguard and Absolute Black oval chain ring
Result: 19th vet

First impressions on Friday afternoon were not good. The Quantocks aren't the most imposing range of hills, more of a freak pimple on the arse of England. The venue might have looked like Hogwarts but was actually more real-world boarding school, with the heating set to absolute zero and rampant bum fun in the showers. And it was raining.

But it turned out to be a really fantastic event.

Having everyone eating, drinking and sleeping together in the old school made it a much more social occasion with a decent atmosphere both day and night. Less event village and more holiday village.

Nor was the rain a problem. Partly because it stopped, giving way to a weekend of non-stop sunshine. Also because the soil there is so absorbent they used to mine it for Pampers. Things were still a little greasy in practice, but we were treated to bone-dry race runs bar a couple of short fresh-cut sections of slippety-sloppety slapstick fun.

And the lack of elevation may even have been a good thing. The climbs were that much more manageable, and the stages were still a good length. While round 1 of the series (see my report here - no, go on, please do, it's had so few hits I don't know why I bothered) was all about Neil Delafield's 100% home-made loamy tracks, here in the Quantocks he was limited to adding a few short sections to the existing network of downhill tracks. But what great tracks they were. Some heart-in-mouth steep and twisty bits, some easy flat-out blasts. Lots and lots of roots. With a side-serving of more roots. And drops and jumps and steps. A bit of everything really. And fast. With not a trail-centre descent in sight.

I won't bore you with a detailed breakdown of the stages - I'm too old to remember them all in any case - but you can get a taste from these videos:

Some helmet-cam highlights courtesy of Wheelies team rider Ben Stallwood.

The end of stage 3 courtesy of marshal Fred Cook. The steep bit (from 5 minutes in) was more than a little scary and ace fun. Sadly the stage had to be abandoned on Sunday because some scrote half-inched one of the timing beacons. Wonder what they'll make of that at Cash Generator?

I particularly enjoyed the fast 'n' furious stages 5 to 7, ridden blind on the Sunday. When you're hurtling down the bottom section of the already super-hairy stage 7 at 20mph (OK, in my case maybe 10mph) and you suddenly find the Grand Canyon opening up before you, there's only one thing you can do - go for it. Trust the bike, feel the fear - and then feel on top of the world when you make it through unscathed, grinning from ear to ear. You just can't beat that feeling!

Which makes me wonder whether enduro stages shouldn't always be raced blind. No weekend-before recces, no practice sessions, no track walks, nothing.

One drawback, of course, is that you have to work harder on navigation. As a geriatric with more than enough on his hands dealing with the trail immediately in front of me, I find the additional complication of looking ahead to see where I'm supposed to go next (let alone spot alternative lines) a massive test for my limited multi-tasking abilities. It's like opening too many windows on your PC - eventually everything just grinds to a halt.

So I could have done with a whole lot more tape to show me where to go. Whereas the top racers could have done with a whole lot more tape to show them where not to go.

What I saw as a mildy disconcerting absence of directional cues was seen by some as an opportunity for the ultimate Strava line, cutting straight down through the trees and completely missing out the twists and turns of the actual track - eventually triggering a 20-strong protest train of riders whizzing down the hill to harangue the organiser into cancelling the stage, plus a whole lotta bitching on social media.

Click here for a video of the offending section courtesy of James Scott.

Ultimately, though, it was a storm in a teacup, and I've no doubt that lessons have been learned and future rounds will be taped up tighter than a Tory MP in Mistress Whippy's dungeon of dodgy desires.

And I still thought stage 7 was the absolute bollocks, rounding off a perfect weekend's riding.

Once again I was completely outclassed, and I couldn't believe how slow my times were when I checked them, but I had such fun riding the stages that I just didn't care. Could that be what #fortheriders is all about?

Dyfi in a nutshell.
Tracey Moseley has been world enduro champion every year since 1947, and if she looks knackered at the end...

Star date: 7-8 May 2016
Location: Dyfi Forest, Mid Wales
Event: Cannondale British Enduro round 2
Weapon of choice: Mondraker Foxy with RRP mudguard and Absolute Black oval chain ring
Result: 15th vet

"How are you feeling, Chris?" asks the MC.

At precisely 8.36 and 20 seconds on a Sunday morning after a night in a field with no showers on the back of the toughest practice loop of all time? Forgive me if I don't pull a wheelie off the start ramp.

The pre-race interview is part of the ritual here, part of the show. This isn't just a bike race, it's an event, a happening, a big deal. There's a clear aspiration to be the best (in the country, the world, the universe), a super-slick and super-pro mini-EWS or World Cup. And in fairness, it is all very well organised, with an impressive start/finish arena with massive sponsor presence and loads of trade stands and a huge crew telling you where to park and restocking the bogroll in the portaloos and otherwise keeping things running smoothly. The timing beacon thief wouldn't have stood a chance here. And they've certainly attracted a big field of elite riders who are very much the centre of attention - to the point where I grew pretty sick of hearing about Jerome this and Jerome that. What about Robson, I wondered.

Everything, but everything, is more serious than at UKE. There are an awful lot of rules, with seeding by age category and exact start times for every stage - and rapidly escalating time penalties (even disqualification) if you miss them. I'm still an XC racer at heart, so I'd thought the fixed start times would mean having to spend ages hanging about, but actually the transitions were pretty tight. Riding at an economical pace I only had a few minutes to spare before most of the stages. In fact it was very like an XC race where you only ever snatch a few words with riders here and there. There certainly wasn't time to deal with a mechanical or help someone else with theirs - you had to look out for number one.

The loop itself was tough, very tough, with over 50km and 1,500m of climbing each day. The first two stages in the forest were both preceded by a gruelling 350m ascent, and the arena was a full 5 miles of dull, cruelly undulating tarmac from the forest. The weather didn't really play ball either, drizzling down most of Saturday, and despite blazing sunshine on Sunday the fireroads remained sticky, hard work on a heavy enduro rig with soft mud tyres and flat pedals.

First stage on Sunday. I said conditions were sticky.
Photo: Peter Jones, organiser of the incomparable Dyfi Winter Warm Up.

What made it really, really, really hard, though, was doing all that climbing in a full-face helmet in 25°C sunshine. Yes, I could have taken a separate trail helmet for the climbs, but that would have required me to wear a backpack so I'd have ended up just as hot, and anyway how safe is it to crash on a race run with a spare helmet digging into your back?

The "full-face on stages and helmet on transitions" rule simply has to be revisited. Not only is it illogical (it's fine for us to push our limits on some seriously sketchy shit on the stages but we're not trusted to pootle up a fireroad transition without falling off?) but it's dangerous: hot, bothered and blinded by sweat is no way to start a downhill run. It's not surprising so many people binned it on the final stage of the day, and I'm surprised nobody collapsed from heat exhaustion or drowned in a river of other people's sweat on the way there.

Me and the two riders I overtook on the final stage. Far too little, far too late.

Now maybe it's my XC background, or just my contrary gene, but I actually liked being under pressure the whole time on race day, I loved the physicality of the loop, and I really enjoyed the weekend. I don't mind riding on my own, and I'm happy with it being all about me, me, me. 

And the race stages were brilliant. BES and UKE may be like chalk and cheese in other respects, but the actual racing was very similar - varied, challenging, scary at times, fun throughout and a world away from your typical trail-centre enduro.

Stage 1/6 was the best - a fresh-cut old-skool DH track with hairy steep turns on slick clay lined with enthusiastic spectators and finishing with a proper knackering grassy sprint into the arena. Even the one trail-centre stage was good fun - just how fast dare you go? And I'm glad they kept in the controversial slopfest at the top of stage 3, which I found unrideable but hilarious, spending most of it on my arse.

After five (yes, five) people passed me on that one section, my chances of an overall win were slim, despite Dan Atherton pulling a sickie immediately after seeing me nail stage 4 in practice. A coincidence? I think not.

Click here for gavskxf's video of "carnage corner" on the seeding stage, which I rather overcomplicated by getting the nose of my saddle wedged somewhere it really shouldn't have been.

In reality, all my times were woeful, but I still ended up halfway up the vets category after exhaustion caused quite a few to pull out early or crash out of the final stage. But I'll take that. It's supposed to be hard and it's supposed to hurt. Sport should reward fitness as well as skill. You want skill without fitness, go play darts. (In my head right now is a Baywatch slow-mo of manboobs in motion as Jocky Wilson sprints 100m to the oche... Sorry, had to share.)

One thing I've missed with enduro until now - and at UKE in particular - is that feeling of being completely, totally and utterly shattered at the end of a race day, hobbling home having given it your absolute all. I guess that must be what #fortheracers is all about.

I gave it everything.

So... UKE or BES?

With the stages themselves being very similar in nature and standard, it has to be down to the rest of the weekend outside the 30 minutes you're actually racing.

If you don't want to be rushing to stages to make an allotted start time, or you want to ride with your mates, or you're not very fit, the more grass-rootsy UKE is for you. There's even a handy Sunday-only option for those who can't make the whole weekend.

But if you're secretly fed up of having to wait for your mates on every climb, fancy your chances of bagging some serious prize money, or prefer a structured approach to life, you might want to look at the more corporate BES. 

As a rider, I enjoyed the more laid-back atmosphere of UKE. As a racer, I enjoyed the more intense atmosphere of BES. But which is better? I guess there's only one way to find out... FIGHT!

UK Enduro heads back to the loamy trails of the Crychan Forest in Mid Wales this coming weekend 28-29 May (Triscombe sold out, so best enter sharpish!). The next British Enduro round is at Afan in South Wales on 11-12 June.
Featured sponsor - Wickens & Söderström

Their chain lube is like totally amazeballs.
Even in the buried-alive mudfest that was stage 3 in the Dyfi, it kept my chain and cassette squeaky clean. Without the squeak.
I can wholeheartedly recommend it.
And finally a BIG THANKS to Dan Wyre for letting me use his fantastic photos!

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:
Advertising feature

Fancy some more Welsh MTB goodness?

Contact Epic Rides Wales now for the ultimate guided ride!

(Though I'd go elsewhere for web design.)

Friday, February 26, 2016

The one where Chris sells his soul: UK Enduro launch

Anyone know where to source cheap needles now I’ve gone pro? Oh yes, it’s official, at long last my prodigious mountain biking talents have been recognised. I’ve only gone and been snapped up by Britain’s hottest, coolest and sexiest enduro race team: Team UK Enduro!

When UK Enduro series organiser Neil Delafield started singing down the phone, “Boys, do you wanna be in my gang, my gang, my gang?”, naturally we told the old perv to sod off. “What, even if you get a load of free shit?” Free shit? Oh, all right then.

And thus Team UK Enduro was born: the world’s tallest person (Ben Jones), the world’s fastest talker (Ceri Lewis) and the eye candy (me, obvs), plus Mr Wheelies (Dawie Davies) and a possible token female to be announced later. Needless to say, I’m super stoked to be hitting the dirt with such a sick crew. My special role will be to do the race reports, as I’m the only one who can spel.

Chasing down teammate Ceri (photo: Dan Wyre Photography)

We’ll be ripping up a whole heap of events this year, with the focus on the UK’s premier national enduro series – you guessed it – UK Enduro. Hitting the sweet spot between XC and DH, enduro is the race format that’s taking the world by storm because it actually makes racing fun, and the UK Enduro series will be enduro at its finest, with no fewer than seven races this year at venues across Britain (yes, they’ve even managed to find some hills in England). I’m especially looking forward to being crowned national champ at Revolution Bike Park in September.

Yesterday was the big UK Enduro press launch bash, with journalists, sponsors, forestry bigwigs and top Welsh Assembly totty gathering for nibbles and a good schmooze at the Drover’s Rest in Llanwrtyd Wells before heading out to test a selection of hand-crafted stages set to feature in the first round.

I don't remember it being that green (Photo: Dan Wyre Photography)

The tracks were the usual challenging-but-rideable fare familiar from Neil’s previous events, but longer and running faster thanks to more support on the corners. If loamy, rooty, twisty, steep, techy, off-camber, all-natural hooning about in the woods with mates is your bag, you really must come to the Crychan Forest on 19-20 March. Be there or be square.

To finish, I’d like to say a quick thanks to God and my family for making it all possible, but most of all to the sponsors for the free shit:
  • 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
(I should add that I haven’t actually had any freebies from the last two yet. Get your fingers out, boys. What's a few grand between friends?)

You know, yesterday's ride just wouldn't have been the same without my Absolute Black chainring, RRP mudguard, Julbo goggles and Flare Clothing top! Or my Mondraker bike, for that matter, but I had to pay for that so they don't get a link.

Also a special shout out to Drover Cycles, purveyors of the finest mechanical assistance and lentil dishes, for lending me various bouncy bikes over the years until I finally stumped up for one of my own.