“You’ll need to take it easy in the van this weekend, it’s making a funny noise”, announced Dan, two days before I was due to make the six-hour journey down to South Wales for Round One of the BEMBA British National Enduro Series.
Great. Not only was I going to be travelling to a big race in an unfamiliar part of the country, by myself, but I was going to be doing so in a dodgy van. However, I’d been gearing up for the new BEMBA British National Enduro Series since it had been announced last year, so there was no way I was missing the first round.
Despite the aforementioned noise serving as a constant reminder that things could go horribly wrong at any moment, I made it down to Afan without incident, and was comfortably installed in the event campsite before the sun went down.
Due to the fact that they were holding a mash-up enduro event on the Saturday, practice also ended up being a bit of a mash-up. After queuing to sign on for almost an hour, I only had time to practice one of the stages that was being used in the mash-up before they closed, so was left with only two others to check out before the others opened again at 3.30pm.
With plenty of time to kill, I started the long transition over to Stage 1, which consisted of an endless fireroad across an exposed and extremely windy plateau that was, unsurprisingly, used as a wind farm. Fortunately, the reward at the end of it was worthwhile, consisting of a long, rocky descent that snaked down the open hillside, with loads of tight corners and drops off big boulders. Being so rough, it required a fair amount of pedalling to keep any flow, and I arrived at the bottom exhilarated, but exhausted.
The rest of the stages were concentrated around the event base, so by the time we’d got back over there, we’d covered 20 of the course’s 34 km distance.
Stage 4 was the only other one that wasn’t included in the mash-up, so I headed there next, keen to check out what was being touted as the steepest and most difficult of all the stages. It started with a pedally section through the trees, with plenty of tight corners and awkwardly positioned roots, which called for some careful line choices. Then things started to get spicy, with a rock drop into a very steep, narrow chute that was punctuated by a series of extremely tight corners. Just as the arms were starting to burn, we popped out onto the open hillside for a rocky traverse with some big rough steps, before tipping down the fall line again and snaking down the rough, loose trail to the bottom, leaving a cloud of dust in our wake. By the time I got to the end, I was absolutely buzzing, and couldn’t wait to ride it again. While I’m usually conscious of not overdoing it in practice, I still had an hour or so until I could ride the other stages, so decided to head back up and ride it again, and then again!
By comparison, Stage 3 was a bit of a let down. The short, mini bike park format was neither challenging, nor exciting, and some ridiculously tight unbanked corners ruined any kind of flow.
Fortunately though, Stage 2 turned out to be well worth the wait, combining some fast, flowing singletrack with a couple of steep, technical sections to spice things up a bit.
By the time the stages closed for practice at 5pm, I’d covered 40km and 1400m elevation over the course of 6 hours, so it was time to chill, before doing all again the next day.
With the women’s categories being amongst the first to set off the next morning, I was up early and on the start line for 9am. Despite it being dry and bright, there was a bitterly cold wind that was certain to make the first transition interesting.
As we emerged from the trees, we were hit with an icy headwind, which put paid to any kind of warm up. It was a relief to make it over to the other side of the wind farm, where we were able to seek shelter in the trees again before hitting Stage 1.
Besides forgetting to don my goggles before setting off, and having to deal with streaming eyes all the way down, Stage 1 went pretty well, until, that is, the final corner. It was a sharp right hander that I’d identified the previous day as being something to slow down for, but sadly didn’t put this into practice, and ended up over the bars just metres from the finish line. Frustrating, to say the least. Fortunately I was able to pick myself up pretty quickly and scrabble across the line, but it definitely wasn’t the best start.
After a bit of internal self flagellation, I set off for Stage 2, hopeful for an improvement on the last one. However, this time, despite a good start, I only made around a third of the way down before I fell foul, quite literally, of another sharp corner.
“Oh no! What a shame”, I heard from a spectator, and fortunately not a photographer, which was an infinitely more polite version of the words that escaped my lips. Again, I was able to scrape myself up pretty swiftly, and managed to hold it together for the rest of the stage, but two crashes in the first two stages was certainly not how I’d hoped this was going to pan out.
Fortunately things picked up from there on in, and I managed clean runs down the other three stages. Having never raced a Welsh Gravity Enduro race before, and not knowing any of the ladies I was competing against, I had no idea how I might place, especially after two offs, so was delighted to discover that I’d come third, behind Kate Wakely and Lucy Bell, who I’d ridden round the course with, and knew would provide some tough competition.
With the podiums not being until 5pm, it was around 6pm before I set off on the long drive back home, with the prospect of van malfunction weighing heavy on my mind. It wasn’t long before my fears were confirmed, when a long standing gear box issue impeded me from making it up the steep hill out of Pontrhydyfen. After a couple of failed attempts, it became clear that a route change was necessary, adding even more time on to an already lengthy drive. Fortunately the other route out of the valley was slightly less precipitous, and I managed to limp the van up to the motorway. Unfortunately limp was how it remained, and as I struggled to reach 40mph, it dawned on me that this was going to be a much longer journey than anticipated. After chugging along for what seemed like an eternity, but having only made it as far as Cardiff, I started to accept that it wasn’t going to miraculously fix itself, and pulled into the services to take the most obvious course of action – call Dan.
“Oh, I know what’s wrong”, he said.
“One of the injectors has probably become detached. It’s happened before. If I was there, I’d be able to sort it”.
However, thanks to the wonders of FaceTime, he was able to talk me through pulling the engine to bits and re-attaching said injector. Half an hour later, my black, oil stained hands were back on the wheel and I was pulling out of the services at a sensible speed, beaming with self satisfaction.
By the time 11pm came around, the smile had long since disappeared, and I was counting down the miles to home, which still hadn’t dropped below three figures. In a desperate attempt to stay alert, Madonna’s Immaculate Collection (the ultimate driving album) had gone on at full blast, but amidst the familiar chords of “Vogue” I could hear a faint clattering sound. Putting it down to some loose cutlery rattling around in the sink, I ignored it until it started to become more annoying than Madge warbling her way through “Holiday”, necessitating another emergency services stop.
When there was no loose cutlery to be found, it dawned on me that the rattling might be coming from an altogether more sinister source. A glance underneath the van confirmed my worst suspicions, with the sight of the exhaust pipe resting proudly on the tarmac. Superb.
Lying under the van in a cold, dark, deserted car park trying to secure the pipe to the underside of the van with a bungee cord, I would’ve given anything to be lying under my warm duvet instead. Fortunately my bungee tying skills were up to scratch, and the the remainder of the journey went without incident, but it was after 2am before I eventually made it to bed.
By the next day, the race seemed like a distant memory, having become somewhat overshadowed by the epic journey home. However, as pictures started to appear on Roots and Rain, I was reminded of what an awesome event it had been.
Massive thanks to Welsh Gravity Enduro and Afan – I’ll definitely be back, but next time, in a more road worthy vehicle!