No matter how innately competitive (or not) you might be, there's always a part of you that wonders just how fast you could be on a bike if you put your mind to it. Follow our Jon as he tries to take it seriously for once with a season of enduro racing. In part four, it's on to the second round of the National Series and a rather technical challenge...
It's fairly telling that the second round of the British National Enduro Series was billed as 'The Epic' by organisers PMBA, while still saying that it'd been toned down over the previous year, due to that being too hard. The fact it's the one round that you could pick up some Enduro World Series qualifying points should also have been a pretty good indicator of what to expect - namely a serious technical, all-natural challenge.
After a fairly pedally start to the season with the Afan round, I was really looking forward to something with a bit less sprinting and a bit more plummeting as I was hoping that might suit me a bit better, though as with these things, I really should have been careful about what I wished for as it delivered that in spades. And roots and mud.
Anyway, held in the extremely picturesque surrounds of the Graythwaite Estate near the shores of Lake Windermere in the Lake District, the race was title sponsored by local metal whittlers Hope. It had a pretty huge field too, with over 500 racers lining up for a weekend's racing, no doubt helped by the fact that it was a bank holiday weekend - something that meant dragging my other half and dog (separate entities, before you ask) up all the way from Bristol wasn't too much of an issue, even though the former's interest in bikes is zero and the latter's presence was expressly forbidden on course.
Thanks to a North Wales press trip earlier in the week I was already halfway up the country, though it did mean that I'd put in a fair few miles in on the bike beforehand - training is training though, right? On that note, I'd managed to get in a good few gym sessions since the last round, so I was feeling pretty good about things and was totally happy with my bike setup too.
I also managed to get there in good time for practice and met up with some friends to loop about with. The trails, despite being relatively dry, instantly lived up to the reputation, with it quickly being apparent that this - for me at least - was going to more about trying to get down cleanly without crashing than pushing hard.
The trails were all completely natural and most seemed fairly freshly cut and not heavily ridden - they are on private land, after all - which meant lots of loam with fresh little roots webbed atop, most of which were still slightly damp once you got into the deepest parts of the wood.
There was a fair bit of stop and push back up action going on which, with some fairly serious sections and big drops in places, seemed a wise move but didn't make it the easiest to get a flowing run and you had to keep your eyes peeled for other riders eyeballing sections.
Having set off slightly late in the day, it required a bit of urgency to get around all six stages and with around 1,000m of climbing (and pushing) my legs were feeling it by the end of practice - and so was my head and leg, having bounced both off the ground when a soggy root and an excess of speed and enthusiasm had me straight out the front door on stage six. That left me a bit wobbly, though I managed to get my head back in the game for the remaining two stages, but not without a bit of anticipation about race day.
Race day cometh
After gorging myself in classic Lakeland pub style followed by plenty of 'brufen chasers for my quite sore bits, it was up at a very reasonable time as the self-seeded system meant there were only late time slots left, I assume because all the fast boys and girls wanted to get off early too.
I'm usually a nervous wreck before a race starts but as I'm getting used to it I've started to get some coping mechanisms, mainly ensuring that all my kit is picked out the evening before, the bike is running smoothly with only a quick check of tyre pressures to do and then basically distracting myself with a walk and warm up stretch until it's time to pedal off the start line.
The first stage was apparently running a bit greasier than in practice according to people on their way to stage two and three, which meant dropping in was slightly nervewracking. It certainly was a bit greasier, but I managed to keep it together, hit the 'Ride Slovenia' drop fairly nicely and then managed to keep off the brakes on the long off-camber section before the finish line.
It was then on to stage two, which had some extended steep sections where keeping a high line was important to prevent getting pushed off the edge of the track, While I was all focused on this, I'd forgotten the massive pedally flat section that preceded it and managed to lose a whole load of time being in the wrong gear and having to get off and run for a bit, despite my strong feeling that sort of thing should be confined to cyclocross.
That said, I was pretty pleased with the steep sections, managing to nail most of my lines, trying to stay clean and smooth rather than trying to push hard and risk getting off track or seriously out of shape. That said, I did introduce my mech to a rock in a fairly major way, but it survived pretty well - who says XX1 Eagle mechs are fragile eh?
Stage three involved a section I simply couldn't get right in practice, with some tricky rooty expanses where, once again, staying high was the aim of the game. I battered through this in less than fine style, usually with just one or no feet on the pedals, making it look like much harder work than it really was for the assembled spectators. There was some high quality heckling at the start, however, and the rest of the stage was a super high-speed bit of singletrack with some lovely drifty bits - all followed by one tight jink around the tree that I promptly pissed all my speed away on, forcing me to crunch the pedals to the finish line.
Stages four and five were pretty mild by the standards of the day, with some nice flowing singletrack, off-camber rocks at high speed and a few nice lines that'd save you a fair amount of effort on the pedally bits - these were apparently the two changed stages over last year and I could see why they'd be a nice morale boost if you'd been having a nightmare of a day on the others.
Number six was my nemesis and I wasn't really that pumped for it, having crashed twice on the same section in practice. While the upper section had some big, exposed rooty bits to bump through followed by some steeper and faster bits with rocky drop-offs before getting stuck into the woods. I managed to stay together on the bit I crashed on, but still wasn't confident enough to take the root hopping corner cut that would have saved a lot of time, even though I knew it was very much do-able. Better safe (and slow) than sorry.
Stage six was also the only time I encountered any traffic, catching the rider in front on a small climb, which was conveniently the only place it'd have been possible to get by. It also worked as a nice ego boost that my slow and steady approach wasn't too slow and steady, which was promptly was deflated when he came through the finish behind me raging, it turning out he'd dropped his chain much earlier, rather than having succumbed to my mad skills.
Seven is the number of the beast
The end was now in sight, but not before arguably the tastiest and most technical stage of all, number seven. Some flat out flowing corners led into a techy little drop past a tree and then a super steep switchback before going into some seriously rooty chaos, a bit of a pedal and an absolutely delightful stream crossing that could be filed under 'frame snappers' thanks to an unforgiving transition. There was a faster but highly committing line into the switchback that I missed, but the lower half went surprisingly well.
Stage eight was called 'Sadists Surprise' and for good reason, with a fast upper section followed by a woodsy pedal and then an absolute shitter of a climb - well, a push or carry - before getting back into the finish arena via a big leap down a grassy bank. With my legs already quite empty, despite the constant munching of Clif's actually very tasty Shot Bloks, I was not looking forward to it - and the reality was much, much worse.
Thankfully, the kind marshall at the top of the push was full of encouraging abuse - and also the helpful tip to keep running with the bike until well past the brow of the hill. That said, poor gear selection in one area before this meant I was off and running there, plus I had a very lame stack right at the bottom of the push. Still, there's nothing like knowing it's all about to end to get the best from your legs and it was a very welcome and almost vomit-tastic sprint to the finish to be welcomed by a cold beer - which I kept for later, for obvious reasons.
How did it go?
It seemed that my steady away plan worked pretty well and despite not pushing it to the ragged edge on most stages, I was reasonably consistent, ending up with 69th (LOLZ) position in masters, which put me within spitting distance of the top third of the field - well, actually just inside the top 40%. That's a fair bit better than round one and gives me some hope of eventually progressing to the top 25%, which is where I'd like to be.
Interestingly, it was the flatter and faster stages four and five that I was slower on, which either speaks to my lack of pedalling fitness or the fact I generally prefer slow'n'steep to absolutely flat out. That's obviously something I need to work on - I think that sort of riding is much riskier than the techy gnar that most people don't like, simply because of the speed means much bigger consequences when it does go wrong.
It was quite revealing listening to a couple of young-ish but obviously, fast lads on the practise day discussing their training. When one mentioned to the other that he was putting in around 15 hours of training a week, it made me realise that the 2-3 hours of training and 4-5 hours of riding I do (optimistically) a week leaves something to be desired. Being a (relative) grown up with a job really does get in the way...
Even so, I've got my homework - it involves more pedalling, more training and trying to find harder and sketchier tracks to push myself on. Despite the constant low levels of fear, the Graythwaite round was a really good fun enduro that provided a proper technical challenge. If you find a bit of fear a lot of fun, it's highly recommended.
Thanks to Dialled In Photography for the pics and PMBA for having me along. Round three in Minehead beckons...
All the previous instalments can be found here:
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