Friday, 16 May 2014

Racing in France in the Bluegrass Enduro Tour

Ever since getting back from Chile, I’ve been feeling really motivated for racing. I guess I can’t deny that I’m a quietly competitive person, always have been…from being determined to be Primary school sports day champion, wanting to play in every school team, swimming competitively until I was 18, taking up adventure racing, and more recently all sorts of bike races. And even though I only dabble in races every now and then, when I find a good one, it reminds me what I love about it.

It’s not just the feeling of pushing yourself as hard as you can, it’s the whole atmosphere, from the pre-race nerves, start-line anxieties and worries that everyone is better and faster than you, the thrill of racing at your limit, the relief at finishing, the post-race adrenalin-fuelled chatter and friendships made while struggling up a hill together, or celebrating with fellow competitors at surviving another stage, or in the queue for the bike wash or tea van. It’s the satisfying feeling of exhaustion at the end of the day, and the sense of achievement no matter whether you’ve won or just finished, and many more things as well. I don’t think it matters what level you race at, those elements are still present, and what make racing special and different from just going out for a leisurely ride with friends.

When you throw in the fact that you are racing blind, ie on tracks you’ve never ridden before, then those start line emotions are quadrupled as you wait nervously for your turn, with no idea whether you’ll be able to ride what’s ahead, and the relief at surviving each stage is enormous.  There’s an even greater sense of camaraderie through the shared experience, the tougher the race, the more you feel a bond with your fellow competitors! For me as well, it’s good to race every so often, as when you work as a guide, yes you ride a lot, but you get used to riding well within your comfort zone and never pushing yourself…you have a responsibility for looking after a group of guests and can’t afford to be the one falling off all the time! You can then get pretty stuck at only riding at guiding speed so doing a race every once in a while reminds you what the thrill of riding at your limit feels like! However, I was a little bit conscious of the fact that I was about to start a summer of guiding, and falling off and hurting myself in a race before the season even started would not be good! Then again, those kind of injuries can happen anytime you’re out riding, not just in races, so there’s no point not racing for fear of what could happen!

I’d raced up in Scotland in the first round of the Scottish enduro series the weekend I got back from Chile, and whilst it was a fun weekend riding with friends in the rain, it just felt like a bit of an anticlimax after Chile. Now don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Scotland and the riding there, and No-Fuss are one of the best events organisers out there, but the race just didn’t get me excited. I know everyone has a different idea of what “Enduro racing” is, but I realised that weekend that events at Trail Centres aren’t mine! So I decided to look for some events that sounded a bit different. Which was when I came across the Bluegrass Enduro Tour. A series of events around Europe that are one day, blind racing Enduro events. A quick look at some videos from previous events, and I was sold on giving one a go.

It just so happened that there was an event in the Alsace region of France, at a place called Rombach-le-franc, in the week before I needed to be down in the South of France to start guiding for the summer again. Perfect! I knew nothing about the area, but had heard good things from people I knew who’d raced there before, and as much as anything, one of the great things about racing is the new places it takes you and the new people you meet. The race looked much more like what I’d been searching for, 5 special stages of varied riding, linked by some tough climbs on the liaisons, testing fitness, nerve, and skill. Plus, in my experience, races in France are crazy….there are no sanitized trails, they will happily send thousands of competitors down steep mountainsides on tiny goat tracks that would never be included in UK races for health and safety reasons!

Now I didn’t have the best start to the race, as 2 days before, I spent the night on the bathroom floor with the worst stomach bug I’ve had since being in Morrocco…not nice. Fortunately after starving myself, and sleeping 14 hours on the ferry to Zeebrugge, I felt much better the next day, just weak! I was still feeling a bit unsure about racing, but I don’t get chance to do loads of races as they are mostly on when I’m busy in the summer, so I didn’t want to miss this one!

Ready to go...
The day started warm and sunny, and it was great to catch up with familiar faces from Chile and the Trans Provence, and practice my French by chatting to some of the other girls who were riding. There were only 16 of us, and about 300 guys, so we were definitely in the minority, but worryingly, all of them seemed to have done way more enduro racing than me…

The first climb took us up a long way, and within minutes my legs felt empty and devoid of any strength or energy…it was going to be a long day. I guess I’d underestimated how much 2 days of not eating would affect me. Fortunately the climbs were untimed so I put my head down, and settled into my own very slow rhythm. When I finally got to the start of the 1st special stage, I was really lightheaded, and feeling pretty nervous about the descent, knowing I was tired and likely to make mistakes, yet also knowing that once the timing chip beeped at the start, I wouldn’t be able to make myself hold back and ride sensibly!

The stage started with some technical rocky sections, soon morphing into steep loamy corners that were super tight and filled with gnarly off-camber roots. The trail was narrow and twisty and really slippery, and my inside foot was out in lots of the corners in preparation for the back end skidding out on the roots! I got about half way down before I clipped the end of my handlebar on a tree coming out of a tight corner, spinning the bars round and going head first into a rotten tree stump…thank goodness for full-face helmets! I was annoyed with myself for making the mistake and worse, I lost a lot of time having to straighten my bars, but at least I’d gotten down in one piece. One down, four to go…

How it should be ridden! (Image courtesy of
Another long climb followed, which even despite shoving down a banana, some haribo and a gel, felt way harder than it should have done. Stage 2 was really good though and soon made me forget my fatigue and nausea…tight switchbacks which you had to take the steep inside line or end up not making the turn (I get plenty of practice on these on the TransProvence route!),  less rooty and more muddy and rocky which suited me well. Unfortunately there was a 600m uphill pedalling sprint in the middle of the stage, where I actually felt like I was stationary I was going so slowly, so any time gains I’d made up with my smooth cornering were probably lost here! Anyway, I survived the stage with no crashes, and feeling better knowing the number of hills left to climb was slowly decreasing!

The climb to stage 3 was pretty much all pushing for me…on a normal day I’d probably have pedalled it but the legs were saying a definite “No”! This stage was freshly cut trail snaking it’s way down a steep slope. It was pretty much all off-camber grass and mud, and given that it had started raining pretty heavily, you can probably imagine the consequences! It was hilarious…I giggled the whole way down, barely able to stay upright, in fact spending most of the time lying on my side with the wheels having slid out underneath me. My tyres were fully clogged and whilst they’d been chosen for riding in dry, rocky Trans-Provence country and will be great there, they were less well suited to the claggy mud! The stage ended on a couple of wooden jumps and a wall-ride in front of the main race start/finish area, and pretty much everyone was filthy and in hysterics at the end of it! It must have looked like complete comedy to the people watching on the sides.

Liam Myonihan of the Dudes of Hazzard had ventured over from Scotland for the race too (Image from
For me, one of the good things about blind racing, is that if it’s a race, I see something and just ride it without letting myself get psyched out by it….sometimes this doesn’t end well but I’m normally going too fast to change my mind about it until I’m committed! There are plenty of places where I scrape through by the skin of my teeth, and know that if I were to ride the same section again, I’d probably be pretty worried knowing how difficult some of the upcoming sections were, and maybe hesitate enough to bottle it! That might not make sense to a lot of people, but I prefer it! Anyway, there were definitely a few places in this race where if I hadn’t been racing I’d have stopped and taken a while to work out how or even if, I was going to ride them!

The organisers had kindly organised a shuttle most of the way up to stage 4, phew, what a relief for my tired legs! So after some refuelling at the feed station and more chattering with other racers, we enjoyed the comfort of sitting in a coach and being whisked up the hill! By this point it was chucking it down, and stage 4 was actually some of stage 1 repeated and then extended. It was going to be mega-slippery…

Rooty singletrack in the woods :) (Image coutesy of
At pretty much the same point I’d crashed on stage 1, I went down again. This time landing headfirst in the mud in front of my bike…again, thank goodness for full-face helmets. My bars hadn’t spun but it took me a while to get up and get going as I was pretty shaken and wobbly. Someone overtook me as I was getting up, and I set off behind him, only for him to do pretty much exactly the same as me just further down! I had to come to a complete stop as his bike was wedged horizontal between two trees across the trail, and it took a while to move it. By this point I’d relaxed a bit, realising everyone was finding the riding slippery and sketchy, and I’d lost so much time that any chances of doing well were gone, so I may as well just enjoy it, and despite the crashes, I really was! I think I crashed another couple of times, including one just before a short steep rise, which meant I had no speed to make it up the slope, and instead was reduced to grovelling up on my knees clawing at anything I could to stop sliding back down the muddy slide…very undignified but at least I was laughing at how daft I must have looked! From the skids and handprints and shoemarks on the slope, I’d say I probably wasn’t the only one! To top off the stage, the organisers had thrown in a set of stairs which you had to run up right near the end, just when you were completely exhausted…torture!

The ride (push) up to stage 5 was thankfully short, and as it was now completely pouring down, I somehow seemed to make myself move faster up it to reach the start of the timed section. It was another stage like stage3, freshly cut and taped off camber corners on a steep grassy slope that resembled one large muddy slide. It was actually great fun, and with the finish right in the centre of the village and your name being announced as you rode into view of the large crowd of spectators, it was a good end to the day.

Overall winner Remy Absalon crossing the finish line in the pouring rain (Image from
As with many French races, there was a meal to enjoy with fellow racers once you’d finished, with everyone comparing stage times and waiting to hear the results, a really sociable atmosphere. I made a whole load of new friends from lots of different places, came a pretty respectable 5th woman given how awful I’d felt at the start of the day, had a fantastic time riding the trails even if I wasn’t at my best, and definitely had the satisfying end-of-race fatigue that meant I knew I’d be sleeping well that night!

The race was brilliantly well organised and went smoothly from start to finish, and it’s no surprise that the Bluegrass races in France sell out when you know you can expect such great riding and racing for your money…I hope I can fit in another one at some point!

Once again, my Juliana bike was AMAZING!! It most definitely saved me from many more crashes than I actually had, was as fun as ever to ride, and drew lots of attention from other racers wanting to know about it or just generally admiring it’s loveliness! Unbelievably, despite the number of times it’s been crashed into and onto trees, rocks, and other obstacles, and the amount of hard riding it’s already done in the 4 short months since I’ve had it, it still looks like new thanks to the Invisiframe taping protecting the frame. I can’t help but think this would be very different if that wasn’t there…especially given that the only paint chips that are visible are on the tiny sections the Invisiframe doesn’t cover! To anyone getting an expensive new bike I seriously recommend this stuff!( )

Tired but happy to have finished in one piece!
Well, only a few days until I start work again for the summer, and I can’t wait to be out guiding again on the awesome trails of the Maritime Alps. With a few more races, some other exciting work, and several different trips to guide this summer, it’s going to be a busy one, but hopefully a lot of fun… Ciao for now!

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