After missing out on last year’s Redbull Foxhunt, there was no way I was going to let the chance to take part in a downhill mountain bike race alongside world champion, Rachel Atherton and 125 other female riders on the outskirts of my hometown pass me by again. So, when the tickets went on sale, I signed up straight away, and was glad I did, as the event sold out within 24 hours.
As with most mountain biking races, the event took place over two days, with practice and seeding on the Saturday and the actual race on Sunday. And with women coming from all over the UK, there were camping facilities, meals and activities laid on for the whole weekend. The race itself was a mass start event based loosely around a fox hunt, but with the fox, Rachel Atherton, chasing us, the hounds, from the top of Caerketton Hill to the finish at Lothianburn golf club, with the aim of overtaking as many of us as possible.
When I pitched up at 8.30am on the Saturday morning, the car park was buzzing with excitement. There were familiar faces everywhere; some of whom I knew from other mountain biking events and others who I just recognised from women’s mountain biking groups on social media.
After breakfast and a welcome briefing from Rachel and the event organisers, uplift began for the practice runs. As Jeep was also sponsoring the event, there was a fleet of luxury 4×4 vehicles to whisk us, and our bikes up the hill in style. It was the first time I’d had uplift in the UK but I’m pretty sure leather seats, digital radio, air con and refreshments (Red Bull, obvs) are not the norm. The cars made light work of the steep and rough terrain but when they were unable to take us any further, there were buggies to carry our bikes a bit further while we followed them up on foot. The final section was too steep for any vehicle so we had to push up the rest of the way.
The course started with a steep descent through the heather followed by a sharp incline, which required a decent amount of momentum and/or good gear selection to get up the other side. It was immediately apparent that this was going to cause chaos in the race.
I’d never ridden over heather before and it was easier than I thought, until, that is, you hit a hidden rock or bump, which could throw you, quite literally! Once out of the steep heather covered sections, the course continued down grassy open hillside, where it was possible to pick up a fair bit of speed, although you had to keep an eye out for big rocks and ruts, which were the cause of several injuries throughout the weekend.
Next up was a flat section through the golf course, where you had to pedal like mad to keep up as much speed as possible, especially as it was followed by a climb into the wooded section, which, although short, was a bit of a killer. Fortunately it wasn’t long before we were hurting downhill again, and after a couple of sharp turns through the trees, there was a small rock garden/collapsed dry stone wall to negotiate before the first of three jumps. From this point onwards was by far my favourite, but for those not quite so keen on jumps, there were also alternative ‘B’ lines to take in order to avoid them.
After another fast section over the grass, there were a couple of dirt rollers, closely followed by jump number two. Next it was into a series of parallel berms, which could be used for overtaking, or just picking the best line, before a last blast to the final and biggest jump, and into the final sprint.
It was such a fun course that I couldn’t wait to do it again, so got straight back in the queue for the uplift. The schedule allowed for two to three practice runs before seeding that afternoon, which was plenty to get a good feel for the course, although not enough to sus out every potential line choice. I decided just to have fun and blast it a few times, trying out a few variations along the way.
In many ways, seeding the most important run of the weekend as it would determine our starting position for the actual race, and with 125 women all starting at the same time, the further forward in the pack you were able to start, the easier it would be to get a clear run. With this in mind, I went for it in my seeding run, flying down the steep sections as fast as I dared and pedaling as hard as I could on the flat and the climb. On one of the fastest and most rutted sections I felt my chain jam, and my heart sank. Visions of doing an Aaron Gwin, and completing the course without a chain, flashed through my head, before I remembered that, for starters, he’s one of the best downhill mountain bikers in the world and I’m a total noob, and secondly, I still had the flat section and climb to negotiate. With hopes of a good seeding run disappearing as fast as my momentum, I tentatively tried a pedal stroke and miraculously it freed up. Unable to believe my good fortune I put my feet on the gas once again, determined to make the most of my second chance.
That evening when the results of seeding were posted I was both shocked and delighted to see that I’d come 11th out of 125, just missing out on a place on the front row. Feeling elated that I’d got a fast time and relieved that I wasn’t going to have to be stuck too deep in the pack, I was able to sleep easy that night, happy with how I’d done regardless of what happened the next day. Or at least I would have been able to, had I not drunk so much Red Bull!
The next morning the sun was shining as everyone converged on the race village and it was clear that it was going to be a glorious day. After another briefing and a bit of motivation from Rachel and the team, uplift began for a couple of warm up runs before the race. With 125 of us to get to the top of Caerketton Hill, they had to start uplift a good while before the race, with those at the back of the pack being taken up first. Having a bit of time to kill provided the perfect opportunity to catch up with some of the other riders, many of whom I knew by name or recognised from Facebook or Instagram, but hadn’t met before. The whole weekend had been great for this. There’s a fantastic community of female mountain bikers in the UK and everyone is so friendly and supportive, both out on the trails and from behind the keypad. It was also great to speak to people who’d read my blog and, better still, enjoyed it!
A bit of a chat was perfect for settling the nerves, and by the time we got near the top, I’d almost forgotten about the race, or at least my mind had. My body, on the other hand, was expressing signs of anxiety with an untimely urge to pee. As it turned out, I wasn’t alone and as I glanced around the open hillside for discrete place to relieve myself, I became aware of around ten other girls unabashedly squatting amongst the heather – certainly not something you’d see at a mixed event! While not uncommon to see a line of blokes lined up peeing by the start line, us girls usually have to scurry off into the undergrowth to find a secluded spot, or just put up with the discomfort, so this was a very refreshing change.
Arriving at the top, we were greeted by a sea of women being lined up in rows of ten. When it came to my turn, I ended up being moved forward to the front row, which was great, although I was right on the end, which wasn’t going to set me up with the best line for the first section. However, it was a hell of a lot better than being in the same position further back, and it felt great to be at the front alongside a group of super speedy ladies.
After waiting, poised and ready to go, for what felt like ages, butterflies not only fluttering in my stomach but down through my legs, the starting horn finally sounded. My choice of gear hadn’t really accounted for having jelly legs and it felt like I took ages to get going, but before long I was bouncing down through the heather with over a hundred other ‘hounds’ in hot pursuit. The line I’d been forced to take was really bumpy and near the bottom of the dip, I hit a big mound badly, causing me to lose momentum at the critical time when I needed it to get up the other side. I knew this bit had potential to cause problems, but having done it ok each time in practice, I’d hoped I had it down. But that’s the thing with mass start races – you just don’t know what’s going to happen! I lost a bit of time, but it was nothing compared to the girls further back who were caught up in total carnage as other riders fell foul of the dreaded dip.
Having seen quite a few people get past me at the top of the dip, I knew I had quite a lot of ground to make up, so pedalled like mad down the next section, taking lines that were way off the ones I’d tried in practice in order to overtake some of the riders who’d got past me. The terrain was pretty sketchy in places but I managed to stay on and get past quite a few people as well as dodging an abandoned bike and a collision that happened right in front of me. It felt like riding in the Grand National.
After a while the pack spread out a bit and I was able to stick to the more obvious line choices. I managed to make up a bit more ground on the flat section, even overtaking someone on the climb, then relaxed a bit for the fun final section. There were spectators cheering us on for most of the route, but most had gathered around the berms and jumps towards the end to offer some very welcome support and spur us on to the finish line.
As we regrouped past the finish line everyone was gasping for breath but absolutely buzzing from an exhilarating, adrenaline-charged past few minutes. I ended up finishing 17th overall with a time of 4.47 minutes, which I was pretty happy with considering the set back near the start. Most importantly, I didn’t get caught by the fox, Rachel, who came in 35th – pretty impressive given that she had 125 riders, and a whole lot of carnage, to get past! The race was won easily by Elite Enduro racer Bex Baraona, with Cheri Mills and Fiona Beattie finishing neck and neck to take second and third respectively.
It may be a bit a cliché, and I certainly don’t want to take anything away from the very worthy winners, but this was one event that was all about the taking part. The idea was to bring together women of varying abilities and give them the opportunity to compete in a downhill race without feeling intimidated, whilst also having loads of fun. On a personal level, to do relatively well, particularly in seeding, was certainly a bonus, and a bit of a confidence boost, but above all, it was the chance to spend the weekend doing what I love with some awesome like-minded ladies that made it such a great event.
But most significant of all was the recognition and support of women’s mountain biking from such huge industry figures as Red Bull and Rachel Atherton. This, in turn, led to fantastic media coverage that will undoubtedly help to increase the profile of women’s mountain biking and encourage more women to give it a go.
Something tells me it’s going to sell out even quicker next year!
Did you take part in the Redbull Foxhunt? How did you find it?