“If you close your eyes, it feels like you could easily be in the Alps” said Jess, as we pedalled across the moors in the scorching heat. Even with open eyes, the scene was much more reminiscent of scorched alpine pastures than this usually bleak and boggy landscape. The dry, loose trails were quite a contrast to the mud that we’d encountered at the last round of the PMBA Enduro series at Grizedale a few weeks previously, although almost at slippy.
The only hint that we were actually in Lancashire – Lee Quarry, near Bacup, to be precise – was the wind, which, for once, was very welcome. Fortunately though, it wasn’t as strong as it had been during practice the previous day when I’d ground to a halt half way through one of the stages, pedalling frantically into an almighty headwind, and been blown sideways half way through a jump. This was more of a refreshing breeze.
Having ridden at Lee Quarry two or three times before, I was intrigued as to why the PMBA had chosen is as the venue for the only two-day event in their 2016 Enduro Series. I’d really enjoyed the rides we’d had there, but having only followed the short marked loops and messed around on the jumps and pump tracks, it didn’t seem like the kind of place that would lend itself to hosting an enduro, let alone an epic six stage event. However, as with the last stage at Grizedale, it turned out I’d grossly underestimated the extent of terrain that Lee Quarry has to offer, and we’d barely scratched the surface on our previous visits.
Stage 1 started in familiar territory, at the top of one of the red marked descents, but after a series of swooping rocky berms, it went ‘off piste’ down some fast and loose open hillside before joining the final section of singletrack, which had been spiced up by a large landslide that had ploughed through it earlier in the year.
After climbing back up to the top, we left the comfort of the quarry and onto the open moors for Stage 2. Judging by size of the ruts cut into the hillside, this area was obviously regularly frequented by motocrossers. The stage started by following these ruts before plunging into a steep rutted and rocky bowl littered with large boulders to make line choices just that little more difficult. At the bottom you were funnelled down more big ruts and even bigger boulders to a stream crossing, followed by a sharp climb out again. In practice it was one of those spots where everyone congregates to pick and session the best line, or just stand around getting in the way. On arrival I was advised, somewhat patronisingly, by a fellow (male) rider to “just get off and run, love”, which instantly made me determined not to have to. However, after witnessing a few riders (sadly, not him) go OTB into the stream or struggle up the other side, I reluctantly decided that a bit of cyclocross action was probably going to be the fastest and least risky way to negotiate this tricky little bit. The rest of the stage included a few more dips and sharp climbs but fortunately nothing else that required a dismount.
It was more than could be said for the killer climb up to the top of Stage 3 that had everyone off their bikes and pushing up a long, straight, and very steep calf burner of a track. However, although tough at the time, it was well worth it for the awesome descent that followed.
One of the many things I love about riding enduros is getting to ride awesome sections of trail that I would never have known about otherwise, and this was a prime example. Cutting through the undergrowth, you’d never have known there was anything rideable ahead, until you caught sight of a narrow trail disappearing into the bushes, which led to a fast, fun blast, that certainly wasn’t for the faint hearted. The top section was a rollercoaster ride of tight berms, off camber drops, gaps, sharp ups and steep downs, culminating in a big jump. If you weren’t careful, it was easy to end up in a trough of loose rocks, which was the last thing you needed to get up the technical little climb ahead.
Despite managing to stay high and keep my speed up, it was a tough climb up over the rocks. With the patronising quip from the previous day still ringing in my ears, I gritted my teeth and tried to power over the obstacles, but even with shouts of encouragement from one of the more vocal marshals over the loud speaker, I eventually had to admit defeat and carry my bike up the last little bit, spurred on by cries of “run, run, run” blaring after me. When the trail levelled out, I hopped back on my bike and pedalled frantically, before dropping back into the trees for a fast, fun finale.
In addition to four stages in and around Lee Quarry, two were being held across the moor at Havok Bike Park near Todmorden, although there was also the option of doing a ‘lite’ version of the course that skipped stages three and four, for those who didn’t fancy the long transition, or big jumps.
With the sun beating down and a light breeze, the transition across the moor was a far cry from the arduous slog that it would’ve been in the usual conditions, and I’d even go as far as to say it was quite enjoyable.
We entered Havok Bike Park from the top and before long were at the start of Stage 4. As a big fan of jumps, drops and general air time, I’d really enjoyed this stage in practice, so was looking forward to riding it again in my race run, now I knew what to expect. The runs were also reminiscent of riding in the Alps, although I thought it was probably best not to close my eyes to evoke that particular feeling. With berms, ramps, northshore features, gap jump and a massive 22-foot booter, there wasn’t a dull moment on this fast blast through the forest. Or at least, it was fast until I nearly overshot a sharp turn in the trail, resulting in an abrupt loss of speed. It was a turning point in more ways than one, and what had started as a good run, started to deteriorate. The final part of the stage was all about the steep stuff, and on one particularly precipitous section I encountered someone who’d crashed. Fortunately they were being helped by an onlooker but rather than risk getting too close, I took the even steeper inside line and found myself descending on my front wheel, in some kind of involuntary slo-mo stoppie, straight towards a tree. Although I managed to avoid wrapping myself around said tree, I did end up off my bike, wasting valuable seconds in the process. In the fracas, my chain also got jammed resulting in me having to freewheel down the rest of the stage, which did, at least, still have a fair bit of gradient. However, needless to say, it didn’t turn out to be my best stage.
Stage 5 was a much less bike park-y than Stage 4, and was more about negotiating roots and rocks than railing berms and sending jumps. The stand out feature was a big rock garden, and by that, I mean the rocks were BIG. A few of the better riders were attempting to gap it, but most of us just braced ourselves for a rocky ride and rolled it. Otherwise, it was a nice loamy descent with a few tricky roots and steeps to keep you on your toes. The stage finished half way down a really steep section, and was the scene of much carnage as weary riders desperately tried to hold it together and get down with dignity intact, with very few succeeding. Despite not making it down the final chute in the most graceful fashion, I actually had a pretty clean run on stage five, finally!
After pushing our way back to the top, we retraced our steps across the moor back to Lee Quarry for the final stage. Stage 6 was another great fun descent, which started on another of the rocky trails that swooped down from the top over a series of undulating berms, whoops and rocky outcrops, before deviating from the usual route to plunge down a narrow rocky trail cut into the steep hillside. It was one of those spots where spectators congregate to cheer the riders bouncing down with ease; offer moral support to those looking a bit wobbly; and indulge in a touch of shadenfreude when the inevitable few poor sods fall victim, quite literally, to the gradient.
If the prospect of public humiliation, and worse still, injury weren’t incentive enough to keep you rubber side down, having it caught on camera by one of the photographers lying in wait, certainly was. To my relief, I made it down with my pride intact, and had a couple of moments to compose myself before running the next gauntlet of photographers on the jump section. Fortunately the wind had died down a bit since the previous day, and I managed to hold my line, as well a satisfactory pose (gurning aside) for most of the photos.
When I handed in my transponder at the end of the race, I was excited to see that I was sitting in third place, however my hopes of getting a bit further up the podium were dashed when two girls came in a bit faster right at the end, and just to rub salt in the wound, I missed out on fourth place by a split second! I was still happy to finish in fifth place again though and resume my familiar little spot next podium.
Thanks once again to Mike and Kev from PMBA for organising yet another fantastic race, and I’m already getting excited about the next round, which takes place on 5th June at a secret venue in the Lake District, on some trails that are being freshly cut for the event.
Havok Bike Park also reopens officially on 28th May with a big event over the bank holiday weekend, and I, for one, can’t wait to get down there and hit those trails again.
With all this on the doorstep, who needs the Alps?!