Soaking up the picturesque view of Loch Leven snaking into the distance, from high up in the Mamores mountains, it was almost possible to forget about the epic climb required to get up there. However, after the sixth time in thirty six hours, the novelty was starting to wear off, and I couldn’t wait to be back down by the shores of that expansive loch, with a cold beer in hand. There was just the small matter of a long, technical and, at times, terrifying race stage to overcome first. Round Three of the Scottish Enduro Series / Round Four of the BEMBA British National Enduro Series in Kinlochleven had turned out to be the toughest race I’d ever done, and I, like many of my fellow competitors was exhausted, both physically and mentally.
The mammoth climb from the village to the top of each stage was draining enough, but it was the four race stages themselves that presented the biggest challenge, particularly in their current state. Several days of heavy rain had made an already tough course, harder still, adding mud chutes, bogs and wet slabs to stages that were already packed with huge boulders, deep ruts, loose rocky chutes, tight corners, and savage climbs.
The 32km loop racked up 1245m elevation, which made for some long old stages, which offered very little respite along the way. Stage One was the farthest flung, and a fair old trek from the top of the initial climb, along some rocky singletrack and many a peaty bog. On arriving at the top on practice day, We were greeted by an ominously long queue and the news that the stage was closed. It hadn’t taken long for the course to claim its first victim. Walking down the top of the track to see what lay in wait, it wasn’t hard to see why. After a short section of tight singletrack, the tape steered us onto an outcrop of exposed rock with some big boulders, steep drops and tight corners to negotiate. One in particular had everyone gathered round, deliberating over how the hell it was even possible to get round the tight chasm with a boulder that was perfectly positioned to devour pedals. Little did I know at the time, but it was just the first of many such corners. When the stage eventually opened, watching the first few riders come down did little to reassure me that both my bike and I would get down it unscathed. Somehow I did, but there was no time to reflect on how, as I was already hurtling over more rocks towards yet more steep rocky corners with muddy ruts thrown in for good measure. The rest of the stage continued in the much the same vein, with tech on every corner, and in between. By the time I got to the bottom, I was exhausted from trying to figure out how to get down, as much as hanging on for dear life.
The bottom of Stage One brought us out just metres from the top of Stage Two, in what was the shortest transition ever. The next stage couldn’t have been more different from the last, but was just as challenging in its own way. Instead of steep, gnarly descending, we were faced with several long climbs, which even required a dismount and push at one point. Brutal. Fortunately, what there was in the way of descending wasn’t super technical, so allowed for some recovery, but there was no doubt it was going to be a killer on race day.
Stage Three started from high up in the mountains again, and began with a fast descent over loose rocks and big boulders, before hitting a network of massive ruts that required some careful line choice. From there, a blind brow gave way to a mud chute and a sudden change in direction, which resulted in me sliding through the tape. Next the trail led us into the trees for some tight, rooty corners, with one in particular that was clearly taped by a sadist.
Stage Four saw us back up top for another wild blast down some awesome rocky singletrack that snaked down the open mountainside before hitting yet more giant ruts; some of which were best followed, and others avoided. Further down, the gradient eased off for a long pedally section with some pretty nasty bogs, which I believe claimed a few victims, and a sharp climb up a large slab, which I didn’t even attempt to clean. Eventually the pitch increased again, and continued to do so until the final section, which consisted of a series of extremely steep, tight and rocky corners through the trees. One of these corners was so tricky, it instilled fear in even the most capable riders, and was even being branded “unrideable” by some. After a steep, rocky run-in, we were faced with a sizeable drop off a sheer slab, on a sharp right hand corner, with a steep drop over the edge if you didn’t make it round. After sizing it up, most sensible people were choosing to walk it, however I decided to throw caution to the wind and give it a go. There was a rideable line on the outside, but if you didn’t get it, or turn tightly enough, it was gonna hurt. Miraculously, I managed to make it round, although my heart was definitely in my mouth as I rode it out. It felt good to nail it, although whether or not i’d be able to do it again was questionable. There were still a couple of seriously techy corners to negotiate before the end, but with adrenaline flowing and the unrideable ridden, they didn’t seem quite so bad.
I arrived at the bottom with my nerves in tatters and a bike looking like it had been ridden through a swamp, which I guess it had. It was undoubtedly the hardest enduro course that I’d ever ridden, and in a matter of hours, I was going to have to try to race it. I was slightly reassured by the fact that everyone I spoke to was saying the same thing, but it didn’t stop me lying awake that night thinking about all the tricky lines, particularly ‘that’ corner on Stage Four.
The next morning I was rudely awakened at 5am, for the second night running, by the incessant screeching of a nesting seagull, at which point the semi-conscious course dissection resumed. By the time I actually had to get up and ready to race, I’d ridden the offending corner umpteen times in my head, and was still undecided whether or not I should actually attempt it again, or just play it safe and walk it. With three long climbs over the course of the day, there would be plenty more time to deliberate further, but with so much to remember in each stage, there was plenty to distract me from those dreaded final corners in the meantime.
When it came to Stage One, I may as well not have bothered practicing it, let alone desperately trying to memorise the lines, as it had all turned to shit within a minute of setting off. Things started to unravel when, predictably enough, I managed to clip my pedal on the first killer corner and was ejected from the bike. Despite being a bit flustered, I managed to successfully negotiate the next few bits, until I encountered a man who’d crashed on another tricky corner, and was obstructing the only line down. With no other option than to try to squeeze down the inside, I ended up over the bars and down the embankment, with my bike on top of me. In my haste to get going again, I didn’t notice that my bumbag had come loose, and set off with it swinging round in front of me. By this point I was properly flustered and far from pinned. I’d just about managed to regain my composure when I encountered the same man as before floundering apologetically on the next difficult feature. This time I somehow managed to tripod past him, but it definitely wasn’t the most graceful or direct of lines, and I only managed to hold it together until the next savage corner, when I ended up over the bars anyway.
By the time I got to the end, I felt thoroughly frustrated, and if we hadn’t already been at the top of the next stage, I might’ve been tempted to throw in the towel. Instead, I took some deep breaths, straightened my handlebars and helmet peak, and tightened up my bumbag, for what I hoped would be a less eventful Stage Two.
Fortunately there wasn’t much of a queue, so when the midges started to descend, I took that as my cue to go. Stage Two was as much of a suffer fest as i’d imagined. I had to push my bike more than I’d have liked, and my legs and lungs were screaming by the top of the climb, but at least there were no unexpected obstacles on the track, and no crashes.
Onwards and upwards, for quite some way, to Stage Three. Unfortunately, just as we were ready to race, the marshal informed us that, due to some timing issues, they were having to close the stage for a while. The weather had been typically Scottish all day, with sunshine one minute and showers the next, but as we waited, the heavens opened for a proper downpour. It was, however, better than being eaten alive by midges. The marshal had clearly done it before, as she was decked out in a poncho and midge net, ready for all eventualities.
It was still pissing down when we were eventually able to set off, which made for an wetter and wilder descent than before. It was all going fairly well until I reached the mud chute, which was now even slicker than the previous day, and spat me and my bike into a massive ditch. In my panic to get back up and running, I’d failed to notice that my handlebars were squint, but rather than lose even more time by stopping to straighten them, decided to carry on regardless. Had the rest of the stage been relatively straightforward, this might’ve been fine, but there was still quite a way to go down some pretty technical terrain, which made for an interesting end to the stage. Unfortunately this was also where the majority of photographers seemed to have congregated, so my wonky bars and petrified expression were captured for posterity as I pedalled the gauntlet.
Now there was just one stage to go, and by this point, I just wanted to get it done. There was only the small matter of a big climb, and an even bigger descent to contend with first. I’d ridden round the last two stages with some of the other girls, and we were all feeling apprehensive about the end of Stage Four. As we neared the top of the climb, we joined Jess in a rendition of “I Will Survive”, which helped to ease the nerves, particularly as she was still singing it as she set off for on her race run.
Survive we did, although for some of us, it wasn’t pretty. Most of the top section went according to plan, and I managed to make it through the bogs without landing in them. Even an unexpected OTB on the fast rutted section did little to faze me, and I jumped back on the bike pretty quickly. As I entered the dreaded lower section, I encountered a couple of riders off their bikes, but managed to get past them without much difficulty. I was feeling pretty good as I approached ‘the’ corner, and even metres from it, I was still undecided as to whether I should attempt it or not. Sadly my sensible head didn’t prevail, and before I knew it, I found myself tipping off the slab, still aboard my bike. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be the case for long, as I failed to nail the same line that I had the previous day, and carried on tipping, right over the bars. I must’ve landed pretty heavily on the bars, or failed to tighten them enough after the last incident, as once I’d managed to untangle myself from the bike and clamber to my feet, I discovered they were twisted even worse than before. In my flustered state, I tried, and failed, to yank them back into position, but with the threat of the next rider approaching at any moment, decided I was just going to have to try to tackle the rest of the tech with very squint bars. Given that it was tough enough on a properly aligned steed, it was a touch ambitious, and I limped my way to the finish line.
As is always the case with tough races, I was overcome with a sense of relief and elation after crossing that line, and there were hugs and fist bumps all round from the other girls, who were clearly experiencing the same emotions. Despite more than my fair share of mishaps, I finished third in my category, although managed to miss the podium presentation whilst queuing to wash my bike!
You can always rely on the Scottish Enduro Series to raise the bar, and Round Four of the British National Enduro Series was definitely the toughest so far. Although difficult to race, Kinlochleven had some awesome trails, which I’d love to go back and ride some time, in a slightly more relaxed fashion. And now that the mud’s settled, I’d also love to race it again.
It was fun. Type two fun.
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