BEMBA British National Enduro Series, Round 2 – Graythwaite

Graythwaite. It’s a name that fills British enduro racers with both excitement and dread. Renowned for its super techy, awkward, steep, and at times, downright ruthless natural trails, this private estate on the shores of Lake Windermere opened its gates on the first May Bank Holiday weekend to welcome mountain bikers from across the country for round two of the PMBA Enduro Series and BEMBA British National Enduro Series. Now in its fourth year, the Graythwaite PMBA is recognised as being one of the toughest in the UK, and as such, this year’s race had been designated as an EWS qualifier, for those looking to step up to the international race circuit.

Despite this, organiser Kev had actually toned down the course after feedback from last year’s race that it was too tough, although to what extent remained to be seen.

Photo: Lewis Gregory

As always seems to be the case, the sun was shining on the beautiful Graythwaite estate when we arrived for sign-on and practice on Saturday. With 500 riders due to be scrutinising the 24km eight stage course, we deliberately set off as late as possible, with the hope of avoiding the worst of the crowds. While we did manage to get a relatively clear run at most of the stages, practicing all the tricky lines took much longer than anticipated, and we only managed to ride seven of the eight stages before they closed for the day. You win some, you lose some!

In addition to the classic Graythwaite stages, ‘Sublime’, ‘Scorpion’, ‘Gary the Polar Bear’ and ‘Nick’s Party Time’, local trail builders had been hard at work building three brand new stages for this year’s race. The first of these was Stage 1, which had been christened ‘Vinnie’s Divorce Settlement’, due to the amount of time that Vinnie “the human JCB” Leonard had invested in its creation. VDS was the perfect marriage of tech and flow, which is a bit of a rarity on Graythwaite’s notoriously nadgery hillsides, and is testament to Vinnie’s hard work, dedication, and fabled separation. Some nicely shaped corners provided the flow, while the tech came courtesy of some tricky roots, steep chutes, and a sizeable rock drop.

Also new to the proceedings were Stages 3 and 4, which were fast, fun, and flowing, providing some light relief amidst an otherwise tech-heavy course.

Stage 2 had been dubbed “Tamed Scorpion”, having had had the sting taken out of its tail with a slightly less technical steep section towards the end. Sadly though, nothing had changed about the flat, off-camber, rooty traverse near the top that I, and I believe many others, find almost impossible to ride. After sessioning it a few times in practice, and cleaning it only once, I resigned myself to the fact that I’d most likely end up having to push my bike up the final incline, and moved on, feeling somewhat frustrated. Fortunately the gradient picked up from there on, making the tight, nadgery trail infinitely more ridable, not to mention race-able, and by the time we got to the final section, it was even fast and flowing.

Stage 3 was on another Graythwaite classic, “Gary the Polar Bear”. Other than a few tricky lines and a fast off-camber stretch, this trail is relatively straightforward, with the exception of a notoriously difficult first corner, which I watched even some of the best riders mess up. After negotiating it relatively successfully on my second attempt in practice, I made the mistake of going back and trying it again, only to fail repeatedly and have to move on, once again, resigned to the likelihood of having to fumble my way round it on my race run.

Stage 6 was on “Nick’s Party Time” – a trail that had been built for last year’s race. Named after one half of the dynamic trail building duo responsible for many of Grizedale’s nicest and gnarliest natural trails, including Stage 7, these were undoubtedly the most technically challenging of the stages.

Starting from the top of a deforested mound overlooking Lake Windermere, the first section involved picking our way down the root, rock and tree stump strewn hillside, trying to figure out which of the myriad lines presented the fewest obstacles. Having crashed on this section in last year’s race, I was particularly aware of the sniper roots that lay in wait for anyone making a wrong move.

After a sharp climb on to another mound, we were able to pick up a bit more pace before a couple of tight corners and a series of drops led us into the trees for some more tech, including off camber roots, a couple of tight, steep corners, and a brutal climb.

Stage 7 was on ‘Sublime’, another of Nick and Nige’s masterpieces and a Graythwaite classic, which is infamous for a steep snaking chute that’s given me several bruises and sleepless nights. After attempting it in practice, I decided that I’d probably be safer to take the B line on my race run, which was a bit slower, but probably faster than scraping myself off the ground after plunging over the edge of the catch berm. Having made that decision, the pressure was off, and other than a nasty rooty section, there was nothing else to worry about until the very aptly titled final stage, “Sadist’s Surprise”.

When we were told that the Stage 8 had closed for practice, I was secretly quite pleased not to have to head up there for the push and pedal fest, even if it meant not getting a preview of the KS Drop into the arena.

It had been a long day, and in only a matter of hours, we’d be doing it all again for the race, so it was time for some well needed chill time.

Photo: Dialled In UK

By 11am the next morning, we were already at the top of Stage 1, waiting to drop in. I’m not sure whether the track had changed from the day before or I just hadn’t woken up yet, but after the first couple of corners, I felt like I might as well have been riding it blind. With very little light penetrating the thick canopy, I could barely make out the tight gaps between the trees and plethora of slippery roots, and felt on the edge of control as I ploughed over and around them, missing lines that I’d identified in practice. While there were no major mistakes, I definitely didn’t feel like I’d ridden it as well as I had in practice, and set off back up the push-up to the top of Stage 2 feeling a little deflated.

Had I known how Stage 2 was going to pan out, I might not have bothered, but as I slogged up that relentless climb, I was blissfully unaware that within seconds of entering the woods, I’d flounder on a boulder and have to get off and push for much of the dreaded flat off-camber rooty section, which would, in turn, lead to me being caught by a couple of more able riders, and wrapping myself round a tree in a flustered attempt to get out of their way. Fortunately, I was able to get my shit together in time for the steep section, and had a more successful second half, but by the time I finished the stage, I was so worked up that I threw my bike down in some kind of enduro diva strop, which was a little out of character!

After a few deep breaths, my sense of humour and perspective returned, and I set off for Stage 3, eager to see how badly I could mess that up too. Tripoding round the first corner was a given, but I managed not to let that fluster me too much, and had a reasonable enough run down the rest of the stage.

From then on, things started to improve, with Stages 4 and 5 going without incident, and I even managed a clean run on 6, which I’d pinpointed as being one of the most difficult. With 6 out the way, I felt much more chilled about the rest of the race, especially as i’d decided not to tackle the gnarly chute on Stage 7. Or, at least, that was the plan… However, in my relaxed state, I found myself sailing past the turn off for the B line, and straight towards the dreaded chute. As I slid past the “caution” sign, I glanced back up to see if there was any way of getting out of it, but it was too late; this was happening. “SHIIIT!”.

Perhaps they heard the string of expletives, or saw the look of terror in my eyes, but the supporters/hecklers lining the chute coaxed me down with shouts of encouragement, and incredibly, I made it. Gotta love a bit of adrenaline! After that, the rest of the stage seemed like a breeze, and I couldn’t help laughing to myself all the way down.

Photo: Dialled In UK

Now there was just the dreaded Stage 8 to get through, then we were done. By the time I’d climbed to the top of the final stage, fatigue was starting to set in, so I took a bit of a breather before setting off on what was by far the most physical of all the stages. Despite having raced it a few times before, I’d forgotten just how brutal it is, especially at this stage in the proceedings. After a fast start, it’s not long before you’re pedalling along the flat forest floor, desperately trying to gain momentum to carry you up the first of several techy climbs. I had so little in the tank, I didn’t even make it to the top of the first one without having to get off and push. The next climb came immediately after a tricky chute and tight left hander, and given that I nearly went into a tree on the way down, there was no way I was going to make it up the other side aboard my bike. After scrabbling up, there was another fast blast, which I hoped would allow me time to muster enough energy to make it up the wall that lay in wait. As if the push-up itself wasn’t bad enough, a muddy trough had developed just where you had to dismount. Unaware of its presence, I managed to get my front wheel lodged, and ended up on my hands and knees in the bog, in front of the assembled hecklers and photographers. Clambering clumsily to my feet, I picked up my bike and began pushing it desperately up the steep hill, but despite my best efforts, and shouts of encouragement from the sidelines, I felt like I was getting nowhere fast.

By the time I got to the top, there was virtually nothing left in the tank, but with the end in sight, I was able manage some semblance of a sprint down the final section to the arena and send it off the KS Drop to the finish line.

After such a fraught race, I was just happy to make it round, and really wasn’t expecting a great result, so when I handed in my dibber and discovered I was sitting in second place, I was very surprised. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one to have an “eventful” race, with most people I spoke to having had “moments” at some point or other, invariably in exactly the same spots.

Once again, Graythwaite upheld its reputation for being one of the toughest courses on the UK Enduro circuit, both in terms of distance/elevation and technicality. But that’s what’s so great about it. And when you enter the arena at the end of the race, you well and truly feel like you’ve earned your finishers’ beer!

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