If I had to choose one word to sum up Round Four of the PMBA Enduro Series, it would be ‘sweaty’. It might have had something to do with all the steep push-ups in between stages, but both days were possibly the hottest and stickiest I’ve ever experienced in the UK.
The sweating began, at least metaphorically speaking, a week before the event when chatting to Mike Marsden at Round 2 of the Welsh Enduro Series. Being careful not to divulge too much about the secret event, he did go as far as to say that a couple of the stages scared him, which wasn’t really what I wanted to hear from one of the organisers!
As Round 4 was also being billed as the Northern Champs, Mike and Kev had stepped things up a notch and pulled out all the stops to host one of their best events yet, which, given their track record, really is saying something.
In an effort to make it an even playing field, or at least as much as possible, the exact location of the race was kept secret right up until the race info was released a few days before the event. All we knew was that is would be on freshly cut tracks somewhere in the Lake District. A few teasers had been released leading up to the race, including footage of a big drop that had been built by John Thorpe, aka Farmer John. It had been made it clear in the pre race promo that this round wasn’t a ‘grass roots’ level race, and this behemoth towering above the finish line certainly seemed testament to that
Although only a short course of 7.5 miles, there was also 2500ft elevation, with most of the climbs being so steep that you had to push up or even hike to the top. Steep climbs also made for even steeper descents, and what the stages lacked in length, they made up for it difficulty. As it was a fairly challenging course, both physically and technically, it was open for practice on both Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, as it would have been pretty tough to practice and race it all on the same day, especially in the heat and humidity.
When we rocked up at Graythwaite Estate, near Grizedale, on Saturday morning, the Farmer John’s KS Drop was one of the first things that I saw. Having psyched myself up to hit it all week, with that first glance I quickly changed my mind. However, I decided to reserve judgment until having a look from the top, and I had the rest of the course to check out first.
After a leisurely pedal through the estate and surrounding roads, we turned off onto forest tracks, which eventually led to the first push-up section, which we would end up doing several times over the course of the weekend. The push-up was pretty steep in places, and by the top we were in hike-a-bike territory. The intense heat and humidity made it even tougher, and even in the shade of the trees, I was sweating more than I thought possible.
The view from the top was stunning, and almost worth the climb alone, but it was the descent that we’d come for, and it easily surpassed all expectations. Although not the steepest of the stages, I probably found stage one the most difficult. After a short, steep descent down the open hillside from the top, the tape led you up and over a collapsed dry stone wall into the forest where the trail wound through tight trees on undulating terrain. You really had to keep your wits about you to make sure you were staying on track, and in the right gear to deal with any peaks and troughs. There were a couple of tricky obstacles to negotiate including a tight gap/drop between a vertical slab and tree, and a non-rollable rock drop, which had potential for going OTB if you didn’t approach it with enough speed, as I found out. Although most of the tricky sections on the course had chicken lines, they were invariably so difficult to negotiate that to bottle out of the main feature would result in a huge time penalty, which was not something I could really afford to do. The stage ended on a really steep chute out of the woods, with had a stone wall at the bottom, but fortunately the bleeper was positioned near the top, so there was plenty of time to control your speed to avoid ploughing into it.
After having made a bit of meal of Stage 1 in practice, Stage 2 seemed much easier by comparison, and I flew down without incident. There were a few tricky bits, including some steep rocky chutes, but on the whole, it was a fun blast that flowed nicely.
Stage 3 started in the same vicinity as Stage 1, and once again we were rewarded for the epic push-up/hike with stunning views of Lake Windermere. The stage started on some fast loamy singletrack that wound down the open hillside, taking in a couple of drops and berms before plunging down a steep twisty section with a tight corner at the bottom that many people overshot, including myself. There were plenty of marshals and trail builders on hand to warn of what lay ahead, and the team were even reshaping it as people went down, according to how it was being ridden.
Before long there was another obstacle to negotiate in the form of a sharp drop, and there was another marshal on hand to coax us over it, assuring that it was rollable, while a photographer lay in wait at the bottom to capture our expressions as we trustingly took the plunge.
Stages 4 and 5 were on a different hill but still required a lot of pushing up to get to the respective start points. The bottom of the climb went past the end of Stage 4, which was a steep, off camber descent out of the forest, and as we stood and watched for a while, we witnessed quite a few riders being chewed up and spat off the dusty trail. Fortunately I managed to hold it together on that section in both practice and my race run, although sadly the same couldn’t be said for a rocky feature higher up, which claimed me quite spectacularly.
Although nowhere near as steep as the previous stage, Stage 5 had its own challenges – most notably some awkward little techy climbs in the woods that required a bit of oomph and the right gearing, and a killer of a steep climb that could only be undertaken on foot. And then, of course, were the drops just before the finish line, which fortunately looked much more do-able from the top. After scoping out the big one, I decided it was probably within my capabilities and pushed back up to give it a go. Fortunately it was, and I didn’t embarrass myself in front of everyone gathered around it. I do love a good drop, and it was just the right height, with the perfect gradient of landing – great job, Farmer John!
Feeling exhausted, elated and extremely sweaty, we headed back to the van for a nice cold beer. Having only just acquired the van, the fridge was still a big novelty, and at that moment it was worth the expenditure for that alone. Sadly the luxury didn’t extend to showering facilities as Dan had decided that the trickle from our broken bike wash would be adequate for cleaning us as well as our steeds. However, he clearly hadn’t accounted for the levels of saltiness that were going to be reached over the weekend. Fortunately our friends took pity on us and let us use the shower in their fancy motorhome. It was up there with one of the best showers I’ve ever had, not only because it was so well needed, but because I couldn’t get over the fact that it was a proper shower, in a proper little shower room… inside a van. Sorry, motorhome. I had no idea such luxury was possible, and all of a sudden our Vito felt distinctly average.
Not only was it missing a shower, but some black out blinds wouldn’t have gone amiss either, as by 5am the next morning the sun was already blazing in and depriving me of my well needed power sleep. Despite having woken at the crack of dawn, we only managed to revisit one of the stages before the race began around midday. Having ballsed up Stage 1 the previous day, I’d wanted to give it another go before the race but just after we arrived at the top, someone fell badly and they had to close the stage. Instead, we had to come down Stage 3, which was no bad thing, as there were parts of that I needed to practice too.
Race day was just as hot and humid as the day before, if not more so, and feeling a little weary from the previous day’s exertions and lack of sleep, the mega push-ups were all the more exhausting.
As feared, I had a bit of a shocker on Stage 1. It was all going fine until I got into the trees, but I managed to get my gearing wrong on one of the ups and lost whatever cool was left in me. From then on I felt as though I fumbled my way down the rest of the stage, making bad line choices left, right and centre.
As Stage 2 had gone well in practice, I felt ok about the race run, but I ended up messing that up too by crashing on a sharp drop down an old stone wall. Although I picked myself up straight away, assuring the marshal that I was ok, I lost a fair bit of time in the process. The rest of the stage went fine, and it was only when I got to the end that I realised that the little finger on one of my gloves was saturated with blood. Dreading discovering what lay underneath, I slowly peeled off my glove to reveal a mangled pinkie. Initially it looked like there was bone sticking out from beneath my partially detached nail, but on closer inspection we deduced that it was just the nail bed protruding, so I got Dan to push it back in and bandage it up so we could continue on. I’d deal with it, and my lacerated arm, later.
At this point it was possible to skip Stage 3 to do a ‘lite’ version of the course, or miss out 3 and 4 for an ‘extra light’ option, but was going to take more than a broken nail to stop me doing the whole course!
Although one of the most difficult, Stage 3 ended up being my best, and I managed a clean run, even on the notoriously steep section with the tight turn at the bottom. Special thanks to the marshals there for the encouragement and cheers, as it definitely helped!
Unfortunately my run of good luck skill was shortlived and I managed to crash again on Stage 4. I’ve no idea what happened, but I managed to fall from quite a height. I was up straight away again though and at least managed to finish the stage with relative composure.
By the time we got to Stage 5, it definitely felt like we were on the home straight. With the steepest of the gradient out of the way, there was just the killer climb and the drops to contend with. After scrambling to the top of the climb, the end was almost in sight, and as I gathered momentum again and got my breath back, I started to hear the horns and cheering from the finish line. My heart was racing as I entered the arena and charged down the open hillside towards the two ramps. Having only ridden the bigger of the two in practice, I figured it was best to stick to what I knew so headed for that. It felt great to fly off the huge ramp with the crowd cheering, but even better to land it and sprint to the finish line.
I finished half way down the field in 7th place, which probably wasn’t too bad considering I crashed in 3 out of 5 stages! My only consolation was that I was apparently one of only two girls to hit the big KS Drop. Shame there’s no bonus points for that though! Massive congrats to Claire Bennett, Rach Simpson, Abigail Lawton, Ella Taylor and Melissa Pearson who finished 1st – 5th respectively, and, of course, all the other riders who smashed it.
This time Mike and Kev truly excelled themselves in putting on a superb event that was definitely worth missing the Downhill World Cup in Fort Bill for. Yep, that good. The amount of work that went into building an entirely new course of that standard, from scratch, was phenomenal. Huge thanks to everyone who helped make it happen, from the trail builders to the marshals, and with a special shout out to the medics who helped patch me up afterwards.
Over the weekend there may have been blood and a LOT of sweat, but there were definitely no tears.