Friday, 6 December 2013

Julia's First Enduro!

Despite guiding all summer on one of the most well-known Enduro format races, and spending May to October in an area famous for being the birthplace of Enduro racing, with races nearby almost every other week, I’d never actually raced myself until late November this year.

Photo/Banner: Gordon Mackintosh
I’d seen and heard about the Dudes of Hazzard enduro race up in Scotland from a few friends who’d raced last year, and I liked the sound of the relaxed social atmosphere, and the chance to ride some more trails around Kinlochleven. I passed through here on the West Highland Way when I rode from Lands End to John O groats last year, and the descent down to the little town nestled at the foot of the Mamore hills and the head of the loch, was one of the best of the trip, so I was keen to see what else the area had in store.

I’d been wanting to enter an Enduro race for a while, just never had chance, most of the races are throughout the summer when I’ve been working. As a bit of a “Jack of all trades, master of none” I thought Enduro racing might suit me quite well…I’m reasonably fit, good at pedalling, and have a good amount of endurance, and I can ride most stuff technically ok, with a reasonable amount of speed. I’m no Cross Country whippet, or Downhill machine, but I’m ok at both. Plus, I like the opportunity to push myself in different ways, and racing every so often is always a good way to do that! Most of all, they just sounded like great fun!

Stage start and finish signs - Dudes of Hazzard style!
The format was 3 timed predominantly downhill special stages, linked by 3 rideable climbs as liaisons. Overall the distance was only about 25km, but with over 1000m climbing, and punishing, technical descents, that was a deceptive distance. Saturday was open practice day on the three trails, and Sunday race day, so effectively, most people, including me, did the full route twice, as there were no short cuts to reach the top of the stages…you had to pedal the full route to get to them, meaning you were only like to ride each one once.

I decided to get out early on Saturday, as the weather looked set to worsen during the day. The great thing about this race format, is you get to meet and chat to people during the practice day, and on the liaisons, as there’s no time pressure, and I was soon pedalling alongside a group of guys from Wick, chatting about bikes, trails, bike holidays, the weather, all sorts, as we headed up to the start of one of the stages.

That stage, (number 2, the furthest away so I wanted to practice it first) was called “The Kennels”, no idea why, and was the longest of the 3 timed sections, but definitely my favourite. It started off straightforward enough, rocky, a few drops, nice corners, couple of drainage ditches to hop over, but soon became increasingly difficult, with multiple deep, rutted, rubbly lines, front-wheel-sinking boggy drops, slimy rock slabs covered in greasy off-camber tree was brilliant J To end with, there were some muddy, slippery switchbacks…such a good trail. There was no point in trying to remember specific lines…it was too long and there were too many options to remember for the race run, so I just enjoyed the run down, feeling like I was riding pretty smoothly.

Slippy-slidey rocks on stage 2! Photo: Alba In Focus
Stage 3, Sook’s Pipes was next, and it couldn’t have been more different! I witnessed about 3 people go swan-diving over their bars within 10 m of the start, and I’m sure many more followed. The reason was a deceptively deep patch of moss covered bog, lurking at the bottom of a steep roll-in, ready to catch out anyone who hadn’t thrown their weight off the back of the bike to prevent the front wheel from nose diving. I silently thanked those 3 poor riders in front of me for alerting me to the fact it was there! The first half of the stage was all like this…boggy, super-slippery, sketchy riding, with tight turns around trees ready to grab your handlebars if the mud sent you skidding slightly off your line. It was carnage…there were people lying in piles of mud and heather all the way down! I managed to stay on my bike for most of it, and then the bottom half had a flat-out pedally section, into some nice smooth-ish gravel trail. I finished and immediately predicted I would spend more time falling off my bike in the race during that stage than on it!

No expense spared on the race signage ;) Photo: Andy McCandlish
By the time I got to stage 1,The Grey Mare’s Tail, it was grim, the rain was horizontal, in a way that only Scotland seems to be able to provide, and you had to pedal directly into the wind and the rain. The trail was loose rubbly rock, which resembled riding in a deep stream there was that much water in it. Further down, it became steeper and rockier, and threw in a couple of technical rock garden corners, that I decided I was quicker jumping around than the speed I could ride them!

I was glad to get back to the race base at the Ice Factor Climbing Centre, where hot showers, bacon rolls and mugs of tea awaited J. Conveniently my van was parked up for sleeping in the car park, so I stayed and chatted to a few other racers at Saturday night’s party before being able to crawl into my cosy van and get a good night’s sleep ready for race day.

Sunday dawned dry but very cold, and with a start time of after 10am, it was hard to drag myself out from a 4 season down sleeping bag, even though I could hear the Red Bull Truck playing music and people getting ready to set off. When I eventually did, and started to get ready, I learnt the first of many lessons that I would take away from the day…

Lesson 1: It is wise when racing over 2 days in Scotland in Winter, to bring 2 full changes of kit….including shoes and knee pads, so you don’t suffer on day 2!

Pulling on almost frozen, heavy-with-water knee pads, and putting my feet into sodden cold shoes was grim, and my feet failed to warm up all day! Not a good start!

We were set off in groups of about 8, at 3 minute intervals, with alternate groups going to stage 1 or stage 3 first…the idea being to spread the field out and minimise the chance of everyone queuing at one stage. Our group naturally split after a while as we all had different paces that we were comfortable to climb at..unfortunately on stage 1, I spent a bit too long riding at a pace that was too slow for me, and therefore I was barely warmed up, and shivering with cold hands and feet by the time I reached the start of the timed stage…..(although I had made some new friends!)

A rider on the stream crossing of stage 1 Photo: Alba In Focus
I was also suddenly REALLY nervous. I’d had a couple of messages from friends who were seasoned Enduro experts the day before with some pro tips: Don’t tense up because you’re against the clock, ride smooth, stay loose and relaxed on the bike…..all of which I forgot as soon as my timing chip beeped at the start L

I rode terribly….I was nervous, tense, making mistakes on every section, crashing multiple times, then scrabbling around trying to get back on the bike, conscious of being timed, and also of being caught by the person setting off 30 seconds behind me. I found bits which I’d cruised through in practice really difficult, and then crashed on the last corner in front of lots of people watching, and spent about 20 seconds repeatedly falling over as I couldn’t get onto my feet on the muddy slippery hill! And then to top it all off, I couldn’t find my timing chip under my jacket to “check-out” of the stage and stop the clock,(I was looking on the wrong arm…) and when I did, I was holding it in the wrong place on the timing box, so it failed to register for another 10 seconds! I felt rubbish…I knew I could ride so much better than that, I felt like a complete beginner with the number of crashes I’d had and mistakes I’d made. More lessons to learn…

Joe Barnes shows how it should be done on stage 1
Lesson 2: Make sure your timing chip is secure, easily accessible, and most importantly you remember which arm it’s on, so you can end your timed stage when you ACTUALLY finish, and not 10 seconds later!

Lesson 3: Calm down, relax, and ride smoother and slower to go faster!

After a slightly faster paced ride up to stage 2, I felt a bit better, and had been chatting to a guy who’d had an even worse run than me, puncturing right at the start, and then having to run down because his pump was broken, after he’d already replaced the tube! I was determined to just enjoy this stage, forget I was being timed, and just ride it as though it was a test to ride as smoothly and stylishly as possible. And apart from one more small lesson learned, I did J I whooped off drops, held my speed round corners, took good lines through the technical sections and ruts, and was slick with dibbing my timing chip in and out at the start and end of the stage. 

Not me, but another rider enjoying the amazing views, cracking riding, and muddy fun of stage 2. Photo: Andy McCandlish
I was grinning from ear to ear by the time I’d finished, completely out of breath from the sprint to the finish, and having to peel my hands off the bars they were so pumped after 7 minutes of fast technical downhill riding. I felt like I’d been super smooth and relaxed, and hadn’t thought about being timed at all, I’d just enjoyed riding the trail in one go, as fast as I could. The only way I would have been faster, was if I’d known lesson 4, before starting.

Lesson 4: If someone asks if they can go in front of you whilst you are queuing at the start of a timed stage, unless you know they are a pro, or have seen them riding and know they are a lot faster than you, then you should not feel intimidated and say yes.

Unfortunately, after feeling pretty rubbish at the end of stage 1, when the two guys behind me asked if they could start stage 2 before me, I assumed it was because they must be really good, and as I didn’t want to hold anyone up, I agreed. Stupid really, as they didn’t ask any of the blokes in front of me if they could go past them too…they’d just assumed that because I was a girl, I was going to be slow and get in their way. Actually it was exactly the opposite. I caught the one who’d started 30 seconds in front of me after a couple of minutes, and spent 20 seconds or so waiting for him to find a spot to pull over and let me past while he continued to mince his way down the course, then caught his friend who’d started a minute ahead, not long after him. He was even slower, but fortunately I spotted a cheeky inside line on a corner and pulled off an overtaking manouvre that Gareth would have been proud off (he was renowned for his cheeky “race tactics”). I was a bit frustrated with myself for letting myself be intimidated, and ultimately, losing a bit of time because of them, but also secretly smug that I hope they were feeling stupid for assuming I was slow, and gutted for being overtaken by a girl…ha!

Anyway, then it was on to stage 3, where having started in one of the last groups, I was one of the last people to go down. This was where I learnt lesson 5.

Lovely Scottish bog...not sure it's great for bike components though! Photo: Trev Worsey
Lesson 5: If there is a particularly boggy, slippery, muddy stage, and during practice day it rains heavily whilst 350 people are riding down it, then that is probably the reason people are choosing to go to that stage first on race day.

I hadn’t really thought it’d matter what time I started, or what stage I did first, so I’d not requested a start time, or stage preference like some people in the know had. But when I got to the start of stage 3, I soon realised my error. It was unlike anything I have ever seen, including the infamous 24 hour race at Mtn Mayhem that I did, which until now, held the record for muddiest race ever. You could even see it from the other side of the hill as you pedalled up…tape marking out a wide black streak all the way down the hillside. No pictures could show how bad it really was…it was so bad it was funny. In fact it was completely ridiculous! 

Stage 3 mud...this wasn't even the worst bit! Photo: Andy McCandlish
For the whole of the first half of the stage, the track varied between a sheer, super slippery mud slope with no way of braking or gaining any traction, unless you hit a tree, interspersed with sections of shin deep bog, usually at the bottom of the steep sections, so that anyone who was riding ended up being thrown over the bars when their front wheel stuck solid in the bog. As the day had progressed, racers had obviously ridden wider and wider within the tape, desperately seeking a less boggy, more rideable line, but by the time I got there, there was no-where left to ride! I ended up running/bum sliding down most of it, and was even complimented by a few spectators that I had been one of the fastest down that particular section because I hadn’t even tried to ride it!!! Anyway, after this, there was a lung-burning flat out pedal on a flat gravel track, followed by some quite nice swoopy fast trail to finish. When I did finally get to the end, all I could do was lie down and laugh at how crazy a stage it was.

I was glad to have survived the event in one piece, and actually, after the disappointment of letting my nerves get to me on the first stage and riding so badly, I’d had a brilliant day. I had no expectations of having done very well in the results after all the crashes, bum sliding, timing chip faffing, slithering about trying to get back on my feet after coming off etc, but I didn’t actually care! In the end, there had been a fault in one of the timing boxes, so no-one knew the results for a couple of days, and it was actually really nice not knowing, and instead just being content with having had just about the most amount of fun I think I’ve had at any kind of race before, regardless of the results J

I eventually came 6th in the women’s, which wasn’t as bad as I thought I’d have done, and quite encouraging given how much time I know I’d have saved from all the totally amateur mistakes I made, without even riding any faster! I will definitely be entering some more Enduro races, and almost certainly going back to next year’s Dude of Hazzard Enduro if I get the chance! And hopefully remembering what I’ve learnt from my first Enduro experience!

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