A couple of weeks ago I did my first mountain biking Enduro race and enjoyed it so much, I’ve already signed up to do another! The race was held at Penmachno mountain bike trails in North Wales and was not only my first mountain biking race, but the first to be held there.
We’d driven down to Liverpool to stay with family a couple of days earlier but still had to get up at 5.30am to make it to Penmachno for an 8.30am start. By the time we crossed the border into Wales the sun was on its way up, and without a cloud in the sky, it soon became apparent that we’d totally lucked out with the weather.
As we’d done a recce a few weeks before, we knew where we were going, but as we drove out of the tiny village of Penmachno towards the trails, it looked completely different to the modestly signposted fire road that we’d encountered on our last visit. A local farmer had allowed the organisers to use his two adjacent fields for parking, camping and event base, and judging by the quantities of horse shit we had to dodge, its usual residents had only recently been evicted.
After registering, we set off on a practice run of the course, which was compulsory for everyone. As with any Enduro race, the route and timed sections aren’t disclosed until a couple of days before the race, although I suspect most people already had a fairly good idea, particularly the locals. One of the reasons for holding the event was to showcase a load of new trails that have just been built, so we knew that those sections would be included. What we hadn’t anticipated was just how long each of the timed sections would be, and after talking to more experienced enduro riders and the organisers, we learned that they were considerably longer, and flatter, than most enduro stages.
One of my biggest worries in the build up to the race was that I’d fall and mess up my timed run, something that proved to be a legitimate concern when, 20 minutes into the practice lap, I hit a root badly and toppled off the trail down a steep bank! Fortunately, other than a rather large bump on my shin and a bit of a scrape, both the bike and I were ok and I quickly clambered back onto the trail before anyone saw! Initially I thought this might not bode too well for the rest of the event, but fortunately it wasn’t a sign of things to come and I managed to stay on my bike for the rest of the day.
When we got back to the base we had an hour or so to wait until our allotted departure time for the timed loop so we grabbed a bite to eat and chilled out, quite literally, in the winter sun.
As our departure time approached I started to get a few butterflies, but the whole thing was so relaxed that they soon disappeared. And besides, we had a fair bit of climbing to do before the first of our three timed descents anyway. We set off in groups of ten people, ten minutes apart, in order to reduce congestion, and although everyone went round the course at a different pace, we pretty much stuck with the same bunch all the way round. I’d noticed at registration, and from general observation, that out of over 200 entrants, less than 20 were girls, so it was nice to see that three of them had chosen to depart at the same time as us.
When we arrived at the start of the first timed section there was a queue of people waiting to set off, which gave us the perfect excuse for a breather before what was commonly being referred to as “the killer” section. Although classed as downhill, it wasn’t all that steep and even had some short uphill stretches, so required a lot of pedaling if you wanted to get a decent time. When my turn came I dibbed in and started pedaling frantically down the rocky trail as if my life depended on it, my old hardtail bike rattling all over the place. When it got steeper I eased off the pedaling to focus on negotiating the obstacles, but as soon I was able, I spun the cranks as fast as I could. By the end of the section I could actually hear my lungs screaming, so when the finish came into view, it was quite a relief. I clearly wasn’t alone as at the end was a congregation of other riders recovering from their exertions before embarking on the next climb, which was also a bit of a killer.
After a steep slog of a fire road it felt good to arrive at the start of the next timed section, especially as it was my favourite of the three. Like the last, it was also quite a long one that required a fair bit of pedaling in places, but there was also plenty of fun downhill to blast down. When we did this section on our recce a few weeks previously, it had been practically dark and pouring with rain so this was a piece of cake by comparison.
The stage started with an older stretch of narrow, rocky singletrack through thick forest before giving way to the first section of new trail – a series of smooth swooping berms that are great fun to ride. After popping out onto the fire road, which you could have been forgiven for thinking was the end of the section (I did in practice!) we were directed back onto the older trail again for another pedal-intensive section before the final descent to the end. I got so carried away that I nearly went flying past the dibber, but fared much better than the poor girl in front who went flying over the handlebars on the final drop. She managed to pick herself up though and hobble to the dibber on foot to clock her time. Respect.
The climb to the final timed section was another stretch of fire road but was nowhere near as much of a slog as the last one, which was just as well, as I was starting to feel a little weary by that point. After popping an energy gel to I set off on the final section, which started with another section of smooth new trails. After a series of berms, whoops and drops, the trail climbed a bit (something I hadn’t even noticed before, but really felt this time!) before a series of massive swooping berms that eventually spat you out onto the fire road again to join the final stage of singletrack. This last bit had some really tight switchbacks to negotiate, but was otherwise pretty straightforward. I didn’t have much left in the tank but kept pedaling as fast as I could whilst telling myself not to mess it up now. I would have been gutted to fall or anything so close to the end after having had a pretty good run until then. As it turned out, the unthinkable had happened to Dan as he’d got a puncture just before the end and had to finish the final stretch, which involved a short but rocky climb, with a flat tyre.
As I dibbed out for the final time I felt pretty happy with how it had gone. I’d given it my all, had no real mechanicals (other than a slow puncture that I discovered later), and had managed to stay on my bike the whole way round! Result. Out of around 20 girls who took part (only two of us on a hardtail) I finished around half way down the field, which I figured it wasn’t too bad for a first shot.
The Enduro season is now over for this year, but entries are already starting to open, and close, for next season. We managed to sign up for the Scottish Open King & Queen of the Hill race in the Tweed Valley in August just before it sold out, so can’t wait for that, and will hopefully get a few more in the diary before then too. Until then, there’s lots of winter riding to enjoy, on both bikes and boards!