“Fancy doing this?” read the message, followed by a link to a mountain biking Facebook page. “Places are going fast, so we’ll have to make a decision quickly”. I clicked on the link and had barely read the first paragraph when my phone rang. It was Dan. “So, are you up for it?” By making a quick decision, I thought he’d meant sometime in the next few days, but apparently it meant straight away.
“Umm, yeeeeah… maybe”, I replied trying to be as non-committal as possible, without sounding too unenthusiastic. From what I’d managed to deduce from the Facebook page, the event was an enduro in Penmachno,Wales, mid-November.
We’d been talking about entering an enduro (a mountain bike race that tests endurance and bike handling skills with a series of timed downhill stages within an otherwise untimed circuit) all summer, but now that the season was over I thought I’d now have until spring to hone my skills a bit more before entering something so scary sounding.
“Well, what do you reckon” he urged as I desperately tried to find out a bit more about what I might be letting myself in for. Last time I said yes to something like this, I found myself riding in a sportive incorporating the toughest road climb in the UK.
“Umm, okay then…” I heard myself reply, not entirely convincingly. And that was it. Within ten minutes I was signed up to do my first mountain biking race.
Entries for the event closed minutes after Dan signed us up and there was a moment when I thought we hadn’t got places after all. But rather than feeling relieved, I was disappointed, which made me realise that deep down I obviously did really want to do it. I love organised events and am intrigued to see how I fare against other female mountain bikers. I’ve been doing a fair bit of riding over the past year and feel like I’ve improved loads, but other than through Strava results, I haven’t really been able to see how I compare to anyone other than Dan (who’s much better than me) and a handful of other guys who we’ve ridden with.
However, as the race approaches, I’ve been feeling an increasingly nervous. I’m worried that everyone else will have been riding for way longer than me and be loads better; worried that everyone else will have been competing in enduros for ages; worried that everyone else will be familiar with the trails; worried that I’ll mess it up and not do very well; and most of all, worried that my competitive nature overrides my sense of self preservation and I injure myself, again.
In order to eliminate one of the unknown entities that was giving me the fear, we decided to pay a visit to Penmachno to check out the trails. We’d already planned to tag a bit of mountain biking in Wales onto a trip to Liverpool so we figured we might as well go there.
Penmachno is a little village near Betws-y-Coed in Snowdonia, and around one and a half hours drive from Liverpool. The mountain biking trails are independently run and refreshingly non-commercialised. As you drive out of Penmachno, an unpretentious handwritten sign directs you up a fire road to an information board and space for dozen or so cars to park. There are no ticket machines, just a slot on the board in which to post a small donation towards the upkeep of the trails.
The contents of the donation box must have stretched a long way, as the local trail fairies have been extremely busy lately building two whole new sections of singletrack to add to an already extensive network of trails.
The trails are split into two red-graded loops, which can either be ridden separately or as a complete 30km circuit. From the car park you join the 19km ‘Dolen Machno’ trail, or ‘loop 1’ which, after a fairly grueling stretch of fire road, takes you into the forest for some enjoyably technical stretches of singletrack. Unfortunately the first proper descent was closed due to felling so we had to continue up the fire road until the end of the diversion.
About half way round the loop, you meet the start of ‘Dolen Eryri’ or ‘loop 2’, which takes you deeper into the forest for a further 11km. It’s a great trail that leads you through thick wooded areas and open stretches of younger forest, over exposed rock and deep water-filled troughs. The scenery is stunning and other than the wildlife, we felt totally alone, and most probably were.
Eventually you pop out onto the fire road again and rejoin ‘loop 1’ to climb up to the top of a rocky ridge. From here it’s pretty much down hill all the way, although the first stretch still requires a fair bit of pedaling and negotiating rocky outcrops. However, when the downhill proper starts, it’s a fast, flowing, fun ride that will leave you grinning from ear to ear.
Unfortunately by this point the sun was starting to descend as rapidly as we were, something we hadn’t fully appreciated until we plunged into the darkness of the forest and had to rely on blind faith to get us down. The challenge was intensified by fact that the heavens had opened and heavy rain was penetrating the thick canopy and turning the trail into even more of a mud chute. It was still great fun though, and I felt reassured by the fact that conditions were unlikely to be any worse than this on the day of the enduro! As we got further down, we hit one of the new sections, which swooped through the trees in a series of impeccably manicured berms.
By now, the rain had intensified and the combination of low sun and rain clouds had made the sky even darker. We were soaked through and getting pretty cold so decided to skip the last section and head straight back to the car via the fire road. On the way we caught a glimpse of more of the new trails that we were missing out on and cursed ourselves for not getting there earlier.
The next day, we had planned to head to Coed-y-Brenin, but after having had to cut short our ride at Penmachno, we decided to go back and do loop 1 again. It was a really fun ride that was definitely enhanced by being able to see this time! The end of the loop consisted of a nice mix of smooth new trails and rougher, more technical sections, and while I tend to prefer the latter, it was definitely fun to blast down the rollercoaster-esque new bits.
It was great to be able to check out the trails at Penmachno before the enduro, and although we won’t know the exact route until the day of the race, I at least feel reassured that there’s nothing there I can’t handle. I still feel slightly apprehensive about how I’ll do on the day, and the butterflies will no doubt be fluttering frantically as the event draws ever closer, but more than anything I’m just excited to ride those trails again!