When the alarm went off at 6.25am, I jumped out of bed, raring to go. Competition was fierce and I knew I’d have to be fast in order to succeed, but I had tactics in place, and was determined to nail it this time.
Alas, it wasn’t to be.
“Entries for this event are sold out” was the message I received when logging on to the Ard Rock website at 6.30am on that cold, dark morning back in November, just after sales for the 2018 Ard Rock Enduro were due to have gone on sale. Refusing to believe that they’d sold out already, I kept trying for the next fifteen minutes or so, before eventually admitting defeat. Had I been a little more persistent, or not had to get to work, I may have eventually secured a place as entries dropped out of virtual baskets, but as it stood, I was faced with missing out on the UK’s biggest enduro, once again, and I was gutted.
However, nine months later, here I was at the massive Ard Rock event village just outside the North Yorkshire town of Reeth, along with what seemed like the entire UK mountain biking community, and their families. The awesome guys at Jungle Products had come to the rescue with an entry to the main enduro for me and my Biketreks team mate, Chris, and I couldn’t wait to see if it lived up to the hype.
Practice was on the Friday, but unlike most other races, where you can practice everything, only four of the seven stages were open to ride. As someone who had a tendency to over-practice, then not have enough left in the tank come race day, this actually turned out to be a bit of a blessing. The practice loop was around 25km, taking in stages 1, 2, 6 and 7, avoiding a couple of killer transitions, which were saved for the 40km/1500m elevation race loop.
Having never ridden in this part of the country before, I couldn’t wait to find out just how ‘ard and rocky it was, so with tyre pressures checked and spare tubes packed, I set off up the steep road climb out of Reeth, which took us up onto the moors for the fun stuff. The warm, dry and still conditions of the past couple of months were set to continue throughout the weekend, and ten minutes in, I was already “glowing” profusely.
Some strenuous climbs were rewarded with awesome fast descents, packed full of tight dusty corners, steep chutes, jumps, drops, and, of course, plenty of rocks. The highlight for me was stage six – a fast rollercoaster ride with fantastic flow and loads of opportunities to airborne, and judging by the buzz at the end, everyone else seemed to have had as much fun as me.
With practice done and, quite literally, dusted, I headed back home to Kendal for the night, wishing that I’d been organised enough to arrange accommodation or at least bring a tent so that I could have stayed to enjoy the evening’s entertainment.
With around one thousand riders entered to race the main enduro, proceedings got underway bright and early on Saturday morning, with the first wave of riders setting off around 7am. As a late entry to the race, I was in the final wave at 11.40am, which actually suited me well considering I had to drive back through from Kendal, as well as fit in a bit of last minute suspension tweaking. The downside to leaving last was that the course had inevitably become backed up, and on arrival at the top of stage one, we were greeted with an almighty queue. Fortunately it moved fairly quickly, and before long I was tearing off down the dusty trail towards the series of peaks and troughs that kicked the stage off. Any momentum that was gained in those first few hundred metres was then killed by a tight left hander through a gate, which led to a stretch of flat and featureless moorland that called for more frantic pedalling. Gradually the rock count increased and the dusty trail began to swoop down through piles of rubble, which I rattled down, leaving clouds of dust in my wake. After a while the gradient eased off again for another pedally traverse across the open moor, but just as my legs were starting to tire, the pitch increased and the trail began to flow nicely again, without the need for quite as much pedal power. After dropping off a collapsed dry stone wall, the trail turned sharply into the woods for some steep, dusty turns through the trees to finish.
Whilst gasping for breath in the final moments before crossing the line, I managed to inhale some dust, which left me coughing and spluttering all the way up the steep climb to the top of stage two, making an already arduous transition, all the more challenging. Once again, we were met by another queue at the start of stage two, but it at least it gave me the opportunity to try and rid my lungs of dust before setting off again.
Stage two wasn’t too dissimilar from one, starting with a pedal over the open moorland before becoming increasingly steep and rocky. After a couple of off -camber traverses, we dropped into a series of tight, steep, dusty corners that you really didn’t want to overcook, despite the safety netting. After yet more traversing of grassy sections interspersed with savage rock gardens, we once again found ourselves dropping into the trees, for a steeper and more twisty dash to the end.
From here, us Ard Rock virgins entered the unknown, with three stages that were to be ridden blind. But first, we had to get there. The transition to stage three had looked like a long way on the map, but what that simple line drawing hadn’t revealed was the punishing long road climb that comprised a large chunk of it. Those who were aware of their fate had stopped at the pub at the foot of the climb to replenish essential carbohydrate and electrolyte stores before embarking on the ascent, or perhaps just numb the pain. However, it was merely delaying the inevitable. From the top of the road climb, the ordeal continued with another long slog up onto the top of the moors, where we eventually reached our destination.
After starting with a quick pedal over the rolling moors, stage three dropped us into an extremely rocky gully for a wild rollercoaster ride with plenty of swooping corners, blind summits and many, many jagged rocks. With puncture potential high, I hung on and hoped for the best as I pinged over rock after rock, rattling past many a poor sod by the side of the trail, whose tyres had not held up as well as mine appeared to be doing. After emerging from the gully, the trail opened up for a flat-out blast to the finish line, requiring a bit of pedalling in places in order to maintain momentum. By the time I neared the end, I was travelling at quite a rate of knots, and certainly too fast for the bend in the trail that suddenly appeared before me. In a split second my bike washed out from under me and I hit the deck. Devastated to have crashed so close to the finish line, I scraped myself and my bike off the ground and limped to the end, with my bars at a very unorthodox angle.
After checking over my bike and body (in that order) I was relieved to find that, other than my wonky bars, I’d emerged relatively unscathed, but the welcome sight of the water and feed station gave me the perfect excuse to take a breather, and handful of Haribo, before pushing on to stage four.
Once again, I dropped into stage four with no idea what lay ahead. As it turned out, it was fairly similar to the previous one, starting with a pedal over the open moors before dipping into more rocky gullies for another wild ride. After emerging from the gullies, the fun continued with a bumpy singletrack trail that hugged the steep hillside, before a series of tight switchbacks snaked down to the home straight.
Although much shorter than the previous two transitions, the link to stage five consisted of an arduous push up a steep singletrack trail that wound back up to the moortop plateau. Stage five was a completely new stage that would have to be ridden blind by everyone, and with Steve Peat having put his name to it, expectations were high. After another pedally start along a narrow rocky channel through the heather, things started to get interesting with a series jumps to send. As we were racing it blind, there was nothing too gnarly, although some of them were definitely leaps of faith. Peaty’s reputation obviously precedes him, as I did get stuck behind a couple of riders who were approaching the jumps with extreme caution. That aside, the stage was fast, flowing and lots of fun.
After a relatively easy transition, it was back to familiar territory for stage six, which had been my favourite stage in practice. With plenty of bumps, jumps and swooping bends, it was another fast rollercoaster ride of a stage that left me quivering with adrenaline and excitement by the end.
With the end very nearly in sight, I began the short hop up and over the moor to the seventh and final stage. As I approached the top, I could hear the noise from the event village, and couldn’t wait to get down there, partly due to the fun descent that was in store, but also for the cold beer that lay in wait at the end.
Like stages one and two, stage seven took us down Fremington Edge, winding round some tight corners and sending us over a number of collapsed walls that had been turned into drops and jumps. As we got closer to the finish line, the numbers of supporters lining the track increased, and we were serenaded down to the sound of cow bells and clanging of old rims. With one final hop through a crumbling wall, I arrived at the finish line, elated, and thirsty!
On returning to the event village, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one, as there was a massive queue of riders at the beer tent. I handed in my transponder and was delighted to find that I was sitting in second place in my category. However, with a number of riders still to finish, I had to wait a couple of hours to find out whether or not I’d managed to hang in there. Had it not been for the guys at Jungle I may have had to spend those two hours in the queue for the bar, but thankfully they sorted me out with beer from their stand’s own taps! After whiling away the time milling around the village catching up with people and chilling in the sun, I checked the results board, and I was relieved to find I was still second. Not only that, but I was second to ex-pro downhill champ, Karen Van Meerbeek, which I was more than happy to take.
The podium presentations took place on a big stage in front of a huge crowd, which was pretty cool, as were the trophies that we were awarded. For everyone else, there were some awesome prizes to be won in the raffle, as well as loads of freebies that were lobbed into the crowd.
And while that was the end of my first Ard Rock experience, there was still more live music to keep the crowds entertained into the night, and another whole day of racing the next day for those taking part in the ‘Sport’ event.
For such a big event, with five big races, loads of demos and a whole village of stands, catering and entertainment, it was run seamlessly. Despite the huge number of visitors, there were no issues getting to and from the event, and other than the queue for beer and the odd race stage, the huge scale was never an issue.
I’ve heard Ard Rock being described as “the Glastonbury of mountain biking”, which isn’t a bad comparison, whichever way you choose to interpret that. It’s popular, accessible, appeals to a wide audience, sells out within minutes, and this year, there was even a Foo Fighters tribute band headlining. I guess the main difference was the distinct lack of mud, although I daresay that could just as easily be on the list! I’ve never actually been to Glastonbury, but if it’s anywhere near as good as Ard Rock, I might just enter the tickets race for that next year too!