With sunlight flooding through the window and birds cheeping loudly outside, I hardly needed my 6.30am alarm call on Sunday morning. In fact, I was even scrolling through Facebook before the usually dreaded sound of my phone’s alarm sounded. “Today is the first day of spring”, was the announcement at the top of my news feed, as well as a notification to alert me to the fact that I was racing in the first round of the PMBA Enduro Series at Gisburn. Thank god for Facebook, eh?
Just as I didn’t need an alarm, I certainly didn’t need a reminder about the day’s events. I’d been looking forward to it since we decided to enter the series back in November, right after competing in the last round of the 2015 series. Indeed, the anticipation (a combination of nerves and excitement) of competing in my first race of the season was also partially responsible for my early awakening. That, and the neck and back pain from having crashed my bike a couple of days previously, in a perhaps counterproductive attempt to reacquaint myself with the downhill lines at Gisburn after a winter hiatus. Turns out the expression ‘just like riding a bike’ doesn’t necessarily apply to riding a bike over three foot drops, although I blame the guy lurking below with a camera for distracting me!
Despite having avoided the downhill lines and muddy off piste, we’d ridden at Gisburn forest a fair bit over the winter, so it was nice to be starting the race season on familiar ground, even if was much drier and looser ground to what we were used to.
When we arrived at 9.30am, parking spaces were already at a premium, and practice was well under way, so after squeezing the car into the first spot we could find, registering, and picking up our race transponders, we set off for a practice lap of the course. The weather was certainly befitting of the first day of spring, with blue skies, mild temperatures and next to no wind – couldn’t have asked for better really.
As with the last PMBA Enduro race at Gisburn, Stage 1 consisted of a muddy, rooty, technical trail through the forest that was built for last season’s enduro series, and appropriately christened Loamudgeddon. After struggling on it in last year’s race, I vowed to practice riding this kind of terrain more ahead of this season, but with all the wet weather we had over the winter, it never seemed very appealing. We spent a bit of time making line choices and sessioning a few of the trickier sections, but I eventually had to resign myself to the fact that the chances were fairly high that I’d get stuck in a rut or thick mud at some point in my race run, and move on to the next stage.
Stage 2 was on the ‘Home Baked’ section of ‘The 8’ trail centre route. Built by local volunteers, it’s a tight, twisty descent through the trees with a steep rock garden section near the bottom. Rather than ending at the fire road, the stage continued on to the little ‘Short Cut’ section, which required a bit of pedaling to power through to the finish. All in all, there was nothing too challenging, although there was potential for seconds to be lost on the final section with a bad gear choice or lack of fitness.
Like last year, Stage 3 started at the top of ‘The Slab’ on Whelpstone Crag, which provided some acceleration to blast along the swoopy, but not particularly steep first section, before winding down the loose, stony singletrack to the fire road at the bottom. The dry conditions meant you had to take it a bit easy on the flat corners to avoid the risk of washing out, but otherwise it was another pretty straightforward stage.
This year we were spared the uphill fire road sprint straight into Hully Gully that led to much lung squealing in last year’s mega-stage. Instead we were afforded the luxury of a leisurely climb up to the start of Stage 4 and time for a short breather at the top before plunging into the, always enjoyable, rollercoaster ride that is Hully Gully. Other than less mud splattering to the face, the dry conditions didn’t really have much bearing on the way this section could be ridden, and I was able to do it at a fairly fast pace. Lulled into a false sense of security I was still going pretty fast when I popped out through the ruined building at the end onto the flat pedally section and didn’t account for the sharp bend in the trail, which I hit far too fast for the dry, loose conditions, resulting in my bike and I parting company rather abruptly.
Relatively unscathed, I jumped straight back on my bike and pedaled to the river crossing that marked the end of the section, trying to ignore the fact that my bars were totally squint. Overhearing me cursing myself for having crashed in such a stupid place, the marshal reassured me she’d seen loads of people do exactly the same thing, although she might have just been trying to make me feel better. That’s what practice is for though, I guess!
After a quick adjustment and tightening of my bars, we continued on to the fifth and final stage of the course, on the downhill lines. With the exception of the top section, the stage was the same as one from last year’s race. I usually really enjoy the downhill lines at Gisburn but after crashing on one of the drops a couple of days previously, I wasn’t feeling quite as happy about this stage as I would normally. However, as it turned out, it wasn’t the drops that I had to worry about. Before I’d even got that far, I skidded out (again) coming out of the top section, this time leaving a load of skin on the trail. Conveniently there was medical assistance on hand to get my wound cleaned up, and after letting a little air out of my front tyre, I was back on track within minutes. Fuelled by post-crash determination I flew over the drops with no problem, and even made it over the tricky rooted section that I’d struggled with earlier in the week, determined to get my shit together before the race.
With a race start time of 2.20pm, we were in one of the last groups to set off, but by the time we arrived at the start of Stage 1, we appeared to have caught up with most of the rest of the field who were lined up in a massive queue waiting to start. Being the first stage, and the one I knew I was most likely to mess up, the half hour wait did nothing for my nerves, so when I finally reached the end of the queue, I was more than ready to get going. As expected, I did get stuck in the mud a couple of times, even having to get off my bike at one point, but on the whole I managed to make most of the lines I’d picked and made it up the other side of the big off camber dip towards the end, which I was happy with. It was never going to be my best stage, so I was just relieved to have not messed it up too much and have it out the way.
The start of Stage 2 was also backed up quite a long way, but as I wasn’t so nervous about this one, the wait wasn’t so bad. Other than making a bit of a meal of the final uphill push at the end, which would’ve lost me a few precious seconds, stage two went pretty much according to plan.
Next was the long climb up to Whelpstone Crag for Stage 3. By the time we reached the top, I was starting to feel a little short on energy, so was actually pretty relieved to see another tailback at the start. Typically though, it wasn’t a very long one, and we were off again sooner than I’d have liked! Despite nearly overcooking the first bend after the slab, I felt pretty good about Stage 3 when I reached the end, and it must have gone ok as I ended up coming first in the women’s category on that stage.
Stage 4 down Hully Gully also went well and I managed to stay on my bike this time to finish second in my category.
By the time we got to stage 5, fatigue was definitely starting to set in and I was feeling the effects of the previous week’s splitboarding adventure in the Austrian Alps. I’d convinced myself that it would be good pre-race training, but in reality it probably had the reverse effect. Anyway, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it!
However, other than dabbing a couple of times in the lower section, I got down fine, landing all the drops easily enough, and most importantly, staying on my bike! I just felt that I wasn’t giving it as much as I would normally, and I didn’t have as much left in my legs as I’d have liked.
When handing in my transponder at the finish, I was therefore surprised and delighted to find out that I was currently sitting in fourth place in my category. Knowing that there were still a few speedy ladies behind me, it was an anxious wait to see if I’d get my first ever podium finish. When it was announced that all the riders were back, I’d been knocked down to fifth place, but was still going to get on that podium, or at least stand beside it! A podium finish had been my goal for the series, so to get there in the first race felt great, especially alongside some super fast ladies. The next challenge is to get up on the step!
Did you ride in Round One of the 2016 PMBA Enduro Series? How did you find it?