Wow! What a weekend that was. I have been all over the place, I knew that things would be tough and busy for me last weekend but nothing prepared me for it.
The journey started late on friday afternoon. I picked up my bike from Hart's Cyclery where it had been given the full works before the UK Gravity Enduro at Ae forest at the weekend. I drove down to Ae on the friday to get some practice in as I knew I would have limited time on saturday due to RedBull Hill chasers on Saturday morning in Edinburgh.
I checked out stages 1 and 4 as they were situated close to each other and went for a few practice runs. Stage 1 was very fast, rocky, DH type terrain with some big corners early on. It meandered its way down the hill with a few taped out "bus stops" to keep things technical (and awkward), before a fire road sprint, you then dropped into a really fast section with jumps and nasty compressions which had me using all 110mm of my bikes travel. The track then dropped into some fresh cut natural ruts, terrain which is typical of the tweed valley this time of year, so I immediately felt right at home.
Stage 4 was a slightly different affair. It was old - school DH, the kind the existed before I was born, mud, roots and ruts were the order of the day in the fairly flat top section. I struggled here alot during practice and took more than a few spills. Then you were spat onto a brief fire road crossing and back into the ruts. But the ruts in this section were easier to ride due to the extra gradient provided by the hill. You could sit back and rail from rut to rut like you were motor-crossing, my big 29er wheels hooked up really well here providing plenty of grip in places. A brief stint on some jumpy trail centre terrain to finish off and that was stage 4.
I spent a few hours at Ae setting up the bike and getting lines dialled on 1 and 4, but I was conscious I still had saturday and sunday to get through.
Early saturday morning I was up and on the road to Edinburgh for RedBull hill chasers qualifying. I wanted to get this over with quickly as saturday was the main practice day for the enduro at Ae and I needed to be back there ASAP. I brought my road bike with me as my weapon of choice. The atmosphere on 'the mound' was buzzing with all sorts turning out to give qualifying a go. Road bikes, mountain bikes, BMX's, commuters, think I even saw a dad with his two kids strapped to the back of the bike having a go.
I felt nervous, as I do before any race. But I went for it. I had an ok sprint up the hill but nothing great. I did a 30 second run which seemed to be the ball park for qualification but I wouldn't know for sure until later. For the time being I had to get back to Ae!
I got to Ae just after 2:00pm. I was one of the last riders to get signed on, I grabbed my number board and quickly got out on the trails as I had only got limited time on the course on friday.
I looked at the course map and it was immediately apparent that I would not be able to ride stage 3 at all due to how far away it was from the rest on the stages. It was a good 30-45mins away (60mins for most people) and I just didn't have the time or energy to spare. I decided to go for stage 2 and 5, the seeding stage and have another look at my lines on stage 4.
Stage 2 was a flat cornered, pedally barrel of laughs. It was a section of the red climb ridden backwards. Not the kind of track people like to ride, but the type of trial I personally believe is essential in Enduro racing to keep racers honest and on their toes. It was a stage I knew which played to my strengths so I wasn't complaining.
Stage 5, the seeding stage was effectively a national DH track which they ran a few years back and you could tell. It was rough, rocky and difficult in places. This is the kind of terrain I struggle on compared to some of my competitors so I worked hard on finding lines which I could make some time on.
Seeding for me would be at 5:33pm, unfortunately that meant that even if I had qualified for RedBull Hill chasers I would never make it back to Edinburgh for 6:00pm. Sure enough I received a text from RedBull at 4:30pm confirming I had in fact made the finals. "Gutted". At least I still had UKGE seeding to look forward to. I made my way to the top of the hill at a steady pace, replaying the track in my mind. My goal was to not push too hard and keep things steady.
I reached the top of the hill and all of a sudden it was my turn to go. 'Beep...beep...beep...Go!' I pushed on my pedals, churning up the damp ground beneath me. The sidewind was strong but I used my momentum and weight well and stayed on line. I made it round the first deadly right hander and settled into my run. I kept things steady but ended up catching the rider in front of me. Despite my protests he would not move off the line. I took a higher line, passed a spot where the spectators had gathered and gained enough speed to beat him to the corner at which point his tyre exploded, Karma strikes! He should have moved... Despite being slowed by the ,'not so local talent', I qualified 10th, 13.79 seconds back. Not great, but not a disaster. I knew I had some places where I could make up time on Sunday.
Race day rolled around and I was keen for it. I set off from the pits and went out on my ride. I met Ed Roberts (who ended up 2nd). We ended up riding the whole loop together, chatting and swapping stories as we went. This is what enduro is all about. Competitive racing but making friends and having fun as you go.
Stage 1 loomed and I was nervous. I rattled down the first few sections keeping tight lines and making a few small mistakes. I pulled back some time on the fire road sprint and came across the line in 5th, a good start.
Stage 2, the flat pedally one. No dramas here but I didn't really push hard enough. I felt I had more to give but I came in 4th so I was at least clawing back time from my 10th seeding.
The leading group of seniors rode off the stage 3 together. It was a fair distance away but the time went by quickly. When I saw stage 3 for the first time I immediately knew it was one I could do well on. Flat and pedally into a headwind to begin with before dropping into what was effectively a big BMX track with some of the worst designed jumps in history. I cracked on out of the gate and was sprinting hard along the hard packed, wind dust trail surface. Then I made a huge mistake, I blew right off the trail, overshooting one of the corners and riding straight into a big ditch. Practicing this stage would have really benefited me, but this was my first time on the trail, not ideal. With my legs burning I kept pushing right to the end and ended up 3rd, 2 seconds off the stage win. A shame as my mistake would have cost me at least 5 seconds.
Back towards the event centre for stage 4. I knew I was going well at this point, but I didn't know how well. If I made it through stage 4 I knew I would at least be on for a top 10, maybe more.
At the top of 4 I was feeling the pressure. I walked the first bit of the track just to check for some last minute line choices and headed back up to the start. Out the gate I eased into my run quickly and took a few good lines, but I cut one of the corners too tight and caught the tape in my bike, it began to tangle in the wheel and I hoped and preyed it would not go near my cassette or brakes, it didn't, but the distraction had cost me some time. I railed all the ruts straight down the hill and made the fire road with a clean run going.
It was here I decided to really push hard. I decided that I must try and push for a top result here and now. I came into the second segment of trail super quick, nailing each rutted corner, taking insides, outsides, everything to carry more speed. Then it happened. I pushed hard and the ground pushed back. I went down, hard on my newly mended pinkie. I quickly gathered myself and remounted my bike. I must have lost 10 seconds here, I came across the line in 6th with the crash.
One more stage to go then, stage 5 again. I wanted to improve on my 10th place on the stage in seeding and knew others would be tired after having ridden 25miles prior to tackling the stage for the second time during the weekend.
I gave it my all and made no real big mistakes. I pulled out a 2.49.19, beating my seeding time on the same stage of 2.49.69, putting me 7th for that stage. It's encouraging that I seem to go faster with 25miles in my legs and everyone else goes slower.
My overall time gave me 4th place in seniors, which I was pleased with knowing I had made a few mistakes, but that's racing.
Thanks to Kona Grassroots, Hart's cyclery, CycleLawScotland, High5 Sports nutrition and my Mum, Dad and Sister who came to cheer me on.