After having been pretty lucky with the weather for each round of last year’s PMBA Enduro series, we were probably due some more characteristically British conditions, which is exactly what we got for round one of the 2017 series at Gisburn. I’d been checking the weather forecast religiously in the days leading up to the race, in the vain hope that the symbols for heavy rain and strong winds would morph into suns, or at least droplet-free clouds, but instead they just seemed to multiply. Not only was it forecast to piss down all day Sunday, but also Friday and Saturday, which didn’t bode well for the state of the trails.
When we set off on Sunday morning, I was still clinging to the remote possibility that it might not turn out to be quite as bad as predicted, but driving through horizontal rain, past flooded rivers, roads and fields, it looked like it was going to be every bit as grim as I’d feared, if not more so.
The biblical weather didn’t seem to have deterred many people and when we arrived at Gisburn there were vehicles parked in every available space, and loads of riders milling around, already soaked through. However, the prospect of spending the rest of the day like that, sliding around in the slop, was obviously too much for some, who decided to sack it off, which at least meant we were able to get parked.
After queuing in the rain to register, getting cold and wet, we were desperate to get moving, so set off on our practice lap with minimal faffing.
Having competed in the past two PMBA enduros at Gisburn, I’d ridden most of the stages before, with the exception of stage one. To say I’d never ridden it isn’t strictly true, as I’d done it many times before in the opposite direction, in its usual capacity as the Homebaked climb on ‘The 8’ red trail centre route. On first seeing it marked on the route map, I was skeptical about how good a stage it would be, but the features that make it a great climb helped to make it an equally good, if a touch pedally, stage that was much more fun than I’d expected. Although not particularly technical, its length made it more a test of stamina than anything else, but there were still some tight corners, tricky rock gardens, water filled dips and troublesome roots to interrupt your flow. Plus, it was also extremely wet.
I didn’t think it was possible to get any wetter than the saturated state I was already in, but by the end of my first practice run, I was not only soaked to the skin, but carrying two balloons of water inside my “waterproof” socks. Not only were my new cankles particularly unflattering, but also extremely heavy, and after trying to pedal uphill with them sloshing around, I eventually had to stop and drain them.
Of course, there wasn’t just water in abundance, but also lots and lots of watery mud. One particularly bad area was the top of Stages 1 and 2, where the once grassy forest floor had started to resemble Willy Wonka’s chocolate river. Judging by the state of people’s faces, many had given it a taste, with some seemingly having gone the same way as Augustus Gloop.
Stage 2 was on a classic section of Gisburn trail known as Homebaked. It’s a great, twisty, rooty descent through the trees with some tight bends and a steep rocky staircase towards the end. Well known to many of the people racing, it was certain to see some fast times, and although I hadn’t ridden it for a while, a quick practice lap was enough to refamiliarise myself.
Stage 3 started up on Whelpstone Crag and was another familiar section of trail that had been used in previous races, in some shape or form. With the weather being so grim we decided not to bother practicing it, and headed straight to Stage 4, which we felt was more worth while checking out, given the conditions. We also wanted to make sure we had plenty time to change into some dry clothes and warm up a bit before our race run, for what it was worth.
Stage 4 started at the top of the downhill line and was supposed to continue down some natural trails through the trees, but this section had apparently become so muddy that they’d had to cut the stage short. I’d ridden the downhill line plenty of times in drier conditions, but was a little apprehensive about launching myself off the not-inconsiderably-sized drops in horizontal rain and landing in deep, slippery mud. My fears were confirmed when, after landing one of the first drops, I slipped off the track and into the bushes. Fortunately there was no photographer around, so I was at least able to carry on with my dignity intact, even if my confidence was in tatters. After sliding my way down the rest of the stage without incident, I decided to leave it at that and head back to the van to try to dry out and warm up as much as possible before the race.
Thankfully I’d brought a change of (non-waterproof) socks, liner shorts and base layer, even if I did have to put my soaking outer layers back on top. Within minutes of starting the race I was soaked through again, but it was nice while it lasted, and I was, at least, able to enjoy a cankle-free race.
Any hopes of the weather improving for the race had long since gone, and once resigned to the conditions, it was actually quite good fun splashing and sliding around the course. Other than nearly bursting my lungs on Stage 1, the first couple went fairly well, and despite not having ridden Stage 3 in practice, it too, went ok. It did, however, throw up one little surprise in the form of a small lake that had formed in a dip in the trail. The section is a notorious water trap, but I’ve never before seen it quite so flooded. Seeing no easy way to get round, I braced myself for submersion, but shortly after taking the plunge, I was stopped dead by what felt like a wall of water. Fortunately I’d stuck close to the edge, so was able to hop off onto the banks rather than having to wade through the thigh deep water. It undoubtedly lost me a few seconds, but a quick post-stage debrief with a couple of fellow riders revealed that I wasn’t the only one to befall the same fate. Deep mud in Hully Gully made it even more wild than usual, but after the punishing mid-stage uphill fireroad sprint, being flung around the mud chutes was light relief.
By the time it came to racing Stage 4, it had diminished in length further still, as the end of the downhill line had become a total mud bath. This time the sideways rain and slippery landings didn’t pose any problems, and I made it down the mud chute without any problem. Although it would’ve been great to ride the stage in its entirety, by that point in the day, the sound of the final bleeper was music to my ears.
When I got back to the event base and handed in my transponder, I was delighted to learn that I’d finished first in my category and fourth woman overall. After chasing a top three spot on the podium all last year, I was over the moon that, thanks to the introduction of age categories for women, in line with those for men, I’d finally fulfilled my ambition. Sadly, whilst changing out of my saturated kit, I managed to miss my moment on the top step! I did manage to clamber up for a quick photo op at the end of the prize giving though, and was delighted to be awarded a Hope Tech Enduro wheel.
Despite the difficult conditions, it was fantastic to be back racing again, and I’m now super excited about the season ahead. More than ever, I’d like to say a massive thanks to all those who made it happen, particularly the marshals, who stood out in the pouring rain all day long. Next up it’s the National Enduro Championships at Grizedale and Graythwaite, which, at 55km long with 10 tough stages, is going to be an altogether different challenge!