I had mixed emotions going into the seventh and final round of the 2016 PMBA Enduro Series. On one hand, I was excited at the prospect of another race at Grizedale, which, despite a lukewarm first impression earlier in the year, has now become one of my absolute favourite places to ride. However, the excitement was also tinged with a slight feeling of unease, which I was able to attribute to a number of factors. Having raced at Grizedale earlier in the season and explored more of the area’s natural trails since then, I was fairly sure it was going to be a tough race, so there were definitely some nerves at play, particularly as this final race would determine placing in the overall series. I was also pretty gutted that, after an awesome summer of regular races, the series, and indeed race season, was coming to an end. However, perhaps most significant of all was the fact that Round 7 was being held on the last day of my thirties, and I was in no hurry whatsoever for that day to come around.
At 23km with 860m elevation, it was a fairly long course for a one-day event, so a week or so before race day, it was announced that the some of the stages would be open for practice on the Saturday. Sadly I had to work, so was going to have to make the decision to either practice them all on the Sunday morning and risk being knackered for the race, or race some of the stages blind.
On the morning of the race we arrived at the venue uncharacteristically early, and even had time for a cuppa and catch up with friends before setting off to practice. Once again we’d lucked out with the weather and it was a beautiful sunny day, although I knew this was unlikely to do much to reverse the effects of recent heavy rain.
Stage 1 was a trail that hadn’t been used before, over on the Satterthwaite side of the forest. The stage had been christened ‘Deerhunter’, presumably because it descended through a series of deer gates, and the pre-race teasers had hinted that it was pretty tough. However, far from being the bum twitcher that I’d imagined, it turned out to be a fantastic fast blast down a rocky and wet trail, with plenty of interesting, but easily ride-able features. At times it did feel like being on a water ride though, so I made a mental note to wear goggles for my race run.
The only thing to ruin it for me was the realisation, shortly after setting off, that there was something seriously wrong with my fork, which was clunking heavily each time I went over the slightest drop. It turned out the damper had packed in, and I was going to have to do the race with pogo stick style suspension. Awesome.
Stage 2 was on the downhill lines at Satterthwaite, which we’d discovered a couple of weeks previously and had quickly become a favourite. I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be quite so much fun with dodgy suspension though. The trails are accessed from the fire road through a little gap in the trees, and if it wasn’t for the Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe-esque lamp posts that mark the entry point, it’d be easy to miss on a normal day. After pushing through the undergrowth for around 100m, you eventually arrive at a big rock platform that marks the start of the descent. After dropping over another big rock, the trail bends sharp left then straight down until you reach a fork in the trail. We’d generally been taking the left hand trail, which has a nice drop through a collapsed stone wall, but this time the tape steered us right, through a muddy, rooty section to a couple of massive boulders with a narrow channel down the middle that didn’t leave much margin for error. It was probably the most technical section of the stage, but there were also another couple of tricky bits further down including some steep muddy chutes and slippy roots.
After Stage 2 we followed a bridleway over to the other side of the forest, which took us out near the top of the initial climb of The North Face Trail. Stage 3 consisted of a footpath that runs fairly close to that section of The North Face Trail, and was familiar with PMBA stalwarts. I’d ridden it a couple of times before whilst exploring the area, and knew it didn’t pose anything too challenging. It started with a short but steep uphill climb, followed by a couple of boggy sections and some awkwardly positioned roots, before you were able to pick up the pace and blast down with minimal braking. Other than a couple of stream crossings and some rocky sections there wasn’t much to disrupt the flow, and I arrived at the bottom buzzing with adrenaline.
Stage 4 was a long descent down to Coniston Water, known as ‘Viking’, and had also been used in the last PMBA Grizedale race, so as we were running out of time and wanted to conserve a bit of energy for the race, I reluctantly decided to skip doing a practice run.
Stage 5 consisted of a few sections of trail that I knew, including a couple that were used in the last race, so with time and energy at a premium, we made the decision not to bother practicing that either.
Rather than our usual mad dash back to the van to grab some food and replenish water supplies before the race, we actually had time to sit and chill in the sun for a bit, while the mechanically minded boys gathered round my bike to determine whether or not there was anything that could be done about my fork before the race. Sadly there wasn’t.
In spite of the disconcertingly clunky suspension, my race run went ok. Stage 1 went without incident and I felt pretty good splashing down the rocky trail, even managing to maintain my composure when a dollop of mud splatted right in the middle of my goggle lens, making it particularly difficult to see. Better that than in the eye though, I guess. Stage 2 didn’t go quite so well, and although I’d ridden it fine in practice, I managed to come off twice in my race run, which was pretty frustrating. I fared better on Stage 3, and other than losing a bit of speed in a bog near the top, there were no major issues.
Having not ridden it in practice, Stage 4 was the one I was most nervous about, especially the top section, which I remembered being particularly tricky, and that was before it had turned into a giant waterfall. The top had changed slightly from last time, and rather than having to negotiate a slippery rooty section first, it now dropped straight into a steep, deep rut with a series of big steps cut into it. Sometimes I find it easier to ride sections like this blind so that I don’t end up freaking out over its difficulty, and just ride it. It seemed to work this time, and I managed to clunk down ok, blissfully unaware of any tricky roots or rocks that were submerged. It would’ve been good to be able to use the same approach for the fallen tree that came next, but prior knowledge of its existence, and the fact that I’d gone over the bars on it in the last race meant that I bottled it and took the chicken line. What I didn’t know was that the chicken line not only involved a detour, but also went through a bog, which added much more time than I’d envisaged. Had I known, I think I’d just have taken a chance on the log, which just goes to show why a practice run is a generally a good idea…
The middle section wasn’t as steep, but was even muddier, with plenty of slippery off camber roots thrown in for good measure. I’d ridden this section quite a few times, so knew what to expect, although it was probably the boggiest I’ve ever seen it. I was also pretty familiar with the last section, but once again, I was caught out by not having practiced it when I discovered that a line I normally take was outside the tape. I must have been starting to fatigue from the length of the stage, as this was enough to result in a little head plant in the mud. In my panic to get going again, I neglected to straighten my goggles and helmet, which had migrated across my face, making for an interesting end to the stage. Despite a couple of hiccups, it was probably my favourite stage, although it probably would’ve gone a hell of a lot better if I’d practiced it.
However, given that severe cramp set in as I started the final climb up to Stage 5, I might not even have got that far if I had. I’d never experienced cramp like it before – right down my inside thigh, leaving me unable walk, let alone pedal uphill. Fortunately I was able to stretch it out, and managed to keep it at bay by eating a bit of salty food.
The no-practice strategy worked a little better on Stage 5, and I managed to stay on my bike for the duration. It started on a section known to the locals as ‘Tight Brown’, which is a fast rocky trail with some tight, steep corners that are easy to overcook if you’re not careful. Before I knew it, I’d popped out onto the fireroad for a long uphill sprint, which was the last thing I needed at this stage in the day. Just when I felt my lungs were about to burst, we were directed off the road again and back into the trees for another familiar section known as ‘Bluebells’. It was another muddy section with a few tricky bits to negotiate, but before long it dropped down onto the last bit of the North Face Trail for a final sprint to the finish.
I ended up finishing in seventh place for this final round, which I guess wasn’t bad for a soon-to-be middle aged woman with dodgy suspension… and a broken fork. Boom boom. It’s just a shame there wasn’t a pogo stick category. I also managed to finish in fourth place for the overall series, which I was pretty happy about. Sadly there were only three places on the series podium, so I consoled myself with the knowledge that, had there been a vet women’s category, or even a junior women’s, I’d have been up there. First, second and third places in the open women’s category went to Abi Lawton, Katie Clark and Becky Cook respectively, all of whom have raced consistently well throughout the series and thoroughly deserved their places. Congratulations, girls!
With the race was over, it was time to face up to the rapid onset of middle age, but that was made all the more tolerable with a stay in a fancy hotel, being wined and dined. The next morning, I was certainly feeling my age, but after a bit of pampering in the spa, I felt rejuvenated. As it turned out, coming to the end of the race series felt much worse than reaching the end of my thirties, but as with getting older, I’ve learned a lot that I’ll be able to take forward to the next one. Not only have I improved my riding and learned to race, but I’ve also been introduced to some awesome trails, and people, that I may not have encountered otherwise. And, most importantly, I’ve had a lot of fun in the process.
Massive thanks to the organisers, venues, marshals, medics, caterers, supporters, fellow riders and everyone else who helped to make the 2016 PMBA Enduro Series epic. Look forward to seeing you all next year for what promises to be even better!
Now that I’m over the hill, I’m hoping that it really is all downhill from here… or should that be enduro?!