Wednesday, 23 September 2015

UK Gravity Enduro #5 Nat Champs 2015, Dyfi Forest

This weekend past played host to the final round of the season of the UK Gravity Enduro series, doubling as the National Championships, and also, sadly, their final ever round. This race was fairly close to home, and as it happened to be the final ever event, I decided that it would be rude not to attend, having had to cancel my entry the previous year due to an administrative cock-up on my part. UKGE is/was the only national level gravity enduro series, and is regarded as one of the toughest ones going, so I felt that I should at least have some experience of it before there were no more, and I'm glad I did. I had an amazing, albeit hard, weekend. Compared to some of my previous experiences racing gravity enduro, this race was much bigger and more professional than what I'm typically used to, usually being single-day mini events. UKGE is at least one full day of practice and a full day of racing, some people practicing for another day beforehand as well. This was no event to enter light-heartedly.

The Dyfi forest is fairly well regarded as a MTB mecca of sorts, known only to the initiated, being pretty hardcore in terms of both quality and gradient of the trails, and the regular UKGE round here is no exception. There are trails scattered all over the forest (and a big forest it is too), but you really have to earn your turns. Though there are plenty of fire roads to winch up on, each descent is worth around 300m of climbing. Every time. There are no complaints from this writer though, the trails in the Dyfi forest are incredible, it has everything; fast trail centre, super-fast shaley moto ruts, steep rooty tech, and everything in between. A veritable smorgasbord of trails, and the UKGE round used a bit of all of them!

For anyone who has gotten this far and is asking "what on earth is this 'gravity enduro' he keeps banging on about?", please refer to my previous blog post for an explanation. This particular round was approximately 38km in length, with around 1600m of climbing for 5 timed stages. It may not sound like much, but that's a fair amount of climbing, and when you're riding each stage at race-pace, without much break in between aside from the odd queue at the start gates, you'll quickly understand why this race has a reputation for being pretty hardcore.

The views that greeted me at the top of S5 as I walked it on the Friday evening
Welcome to the Dyfi Forest, big and remote.

So into the stages - my memory of these isn't quite so photographic as previous races, mostly because the stages were so long, varied, and I didn't get much chance to practice them!

Stage 1 started off flat, tight and rooty, into a super-fast rutted straight line descent where the name of the game is simply holding the brakes open and mashing the pedals, and into a bottom half that mostly consisted of lovely loamy, rooty turns. A nice bit of natural tech that, despite being a bit rutted and muddy in places, actually gripped really nicely and had a really fun, flowy feel to it. This was my favourite trail of the weekend, an amazing bit of trail.

Stage 2 was the final descent of the Climachx trail, starting after the flat parts were out of the way. For a trail centre descent, it's a lot of fun, flows really nicely, and very fast. There are some funny rocks near the top though, that you approach blind and have some nasty sharp bits on the other side. The rest of the trail consisted of 3 or 4 long straights with some fun jumps/drops and small rocky obstacles, ending with a load of fun, loose switchbacks near the bottom. Some nice inside lines here, if you spotted them in time.

Stage 3 started off on a long fast straight rut, but quickly turned into a tight, rooty mud-fest of a trail. Not enough to stop your wheels turning, but enough to cause a bit of drama for some riders, myself included, in the slippery slop. This dropped away onto a short fire road sprint with some marshalls cheering riders on (thanks girls, much needed after that muddy mess), and back into some really fun rooty tech again. Started off a bit flat, but really flowy if you managed to keep your momentum, and fires riders into some lovely fun corners, the first of which you could absolutely slam into, bottom out all your suspension and come out laughing your head off that anyone could build such a ridiculously fun trail! After the corners, a short flat section spat riders into the final steep rutted section, with some lovely loose, shaley, rooty corners. My approach here was to just take it steady and stay on the bike! A final tight corner dropped riders across the finish line, to be greeted by some friendly folks on a feed station with bars and gels. This was a welcome sight for most racers, as by now we had climbed the best part of 1000m and still had two stages left to go, with the toughest transfer ahead of us!

The transfer from stage 3 to stage 4 wasn't exactly favoured by a lot of racers, it took riders out of the forest and across the moors on a big climb to the top of S4. There was 1hr:45 allocated for it, to give an idea of length. I actually quite enjoyed it, but then maybe I'm a bit of a sadist... There were some incredible views however.  Stage 4 was another natural, steep rooty mud-fest, almost from top to bottom, with a couple of fire-road crossings, and a long pedal/climb in the middle, with a fun bus-stop that must have been about 10ft high and required a good bit of speed to get up!

The transfer to S4 - looking towards the Irish Sea.

Did I mention that it's beautiful here?

Saracen Club.

Stage 5 was the final one of the day, starting high up in a farmer's field and ending in the finish arena/campsite. It was open most of the way down, with some grassy/rocky drops at the top with some nasty compressions, one of which could be doubled up. The general rule for these seemed to be that speed is your friend! After these, some big wide sweeping grassy turns, into a long steep left-hander with a sniper rut at the end that you needed to get into if you wanted to carry any speed without crashing into a fence, a long straight sprint, into a couple of steeper wooded corners, a couple more long grassy corners, one last long flat sprint and riders dropped into the last couple of turns to the finish arena and across the line. Done!

Them's some big transfer times...

I arrived at the race on Friday evening hoping to practice S5 a little, as this was to be used as the seeding run on Saturday afternoon to determine start times for Sunday, and also counted towards overall times. I arrived a little late though - but it turned out a lot of people had spent all of friday practicing! Just before I had gotten there however, it had tipped it down with rain, turning the top of stage 4 from what was a dry, loose trail, into a swampy mud fest that most riders struggled to even ride, let alone race. The decision was taken to take it out of the race, though racers would still have to ride down it to get to the top of S4. I'll be honest, it was a hoot to ride, though I'm not sure I'd want to race it. Weather on the Saturday however was great, sunny all day, though some delays in seeding meant that by the time the Elites came down, the sun had gone down and dew had settled on the grass, leading to some of them crashing and seeding poorly.

Sunday started off good, nice and warm, but half-way through the day the clouds drew in, and it started to rain on and off all day. This made no real difference to most of the stages, none of which would have been particularly dry, even before the Friday downpour, but it meant that S5 was interesting, making the grass pretty slick, and also making the transfer to S4 pretty grim out on the open moors!

It was less nice than it looks here...

Spot the riders?

There's one!

My race didn't go so well either way, I managed to puncture on S2, had a small crash at the top of S4 on a particularly tight corner, and puncture again at the top of S5, though by this point I had gotten a bit fed up of my bad luck, and decided to just ride it down to the finish anyway, which was interesting to say the least.

In terms of kit, I was racing on the Saracen Ariel 151 again, which made a worthy steed and didn't let me down all weekend, or feel at all overwhelmed. The punctures were my own fault really, the bike didn't skip a beat.
I got to try out a couple of bits of camping kit - the Wild Country Coshee 3 tent, a budget lightweight 3-person backpacking tent. Despite it's £140 RRP, it was surprisingly lightweight, and packed down really small (it also fit back in the bag it came out of, which is always nice). More than roomy enough for one for a weekend.
I also used an Exped UL 7LW sleeping mat. I'd only previously used cheaper self-inflating mats, much thinner than these, but with a much larger pack-size. The Exped seriously impressed with its tiny pack size, but large volume once inflated. I tend to get trouble with my back when sleeping on cheaper mats, but this seriously impressed, giving me a nice firm, but well cushioned surface to sleep on. This seems like a great bit of backpacking kit, being nice and lightweight, and very effective! Nothing ruins a weekend like a bad back. None of that to report this weekend - happy days.

My little set-up for the weekend

Anyway, back to the racing.
I won't even mention my result, I did pretty badly, needless to say.

Heading up the Elite podium were:
Matty Stuttard
Sam Shucksmith
Joel Chidley
Robert Williams
Phil Shucksmith

On the women's elite podium were:
Helen Gaskell
Carrie Poole
Claire Bennett
Rebecca Baraona
Traharn Chidley

The rest of the results can be found here

Overall, I had a great weekend, despite several poor race runs. The amazing trails more than made up for it, as did the company and atmosphere of the race. It was certainly a tough weekend, but I'd recommend it to anyone looking to move on from the smaller mini races. Just make sure to do a bit of training, it's not easy!

Have a panorama, because why not?

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