“Why not”, I replied to Danny’s text when he suggested riding the Penmachno round of the Welsh Mountain Bike Enduro Series.
More used to long distance XC marathon events, I still felt an urge to see how I’d stack up (no pun intended) in a more downhill biased event so was really up for the challenge.
For those unfamiliar with the popular Enduro discipline, think of it like a car rally. Go flat out against the clock on a handful of predominantly long downhill stages, link them up with transitions that can be ridden leisurely on a set course with a generous time limit by which you must be present and ready to go on the next timed stage. To weigh the odds in favour of all-rounders and to keep the pure downhillers on specialist bikes honest, timed stages nearly always include sections of uphill or rolling terrain.
In fact its just about the nearest thing to why many of us started mountain biking. Ride socially with your mates in a relaxed environment, and then launch yourself as fast as your skill or bravery allows for 5 or more mins of butt-clenching, roller coaster ride through the North Wales scenery that you just hope not to be seeing particularly close up. Hell it sounds exactly what me and Jason Aspden have been doing for years…WHAT THE HECK I’M IN !!
I’ve ridden the Penmachno trails a fair bit, and they do rank among my favourite trails in North Wales. However they are also known to be possibly the wettest places on earth (that aren’t technically under a major named body of water). Even with this small element of local knowledge, I still hoped in vain that we may get to ride them against the clock when they weren’t at their most familiar slippery and life threatening wettest ! This is Penmachno however and I felt I was being naively optimistic.
“Don’t go out on Sunday in North Wales without your factor 50 suncream”. Whoa easy there, did I hear that correctly ? is Wales Today’s Benhaz Akhgar having a late April fool wind-up. Now I would forgive bubbly bouncy forecaster Benhaz many things, but she should know better than to mess with my forecast.
But I did hear right, it would appear that this time its for real. Sun cream at the ready, North Sea survival suit staying at home just this once. As the tabloids say “Its gonna be a Sizzler”
The Melyd representation consisted of a trio of veterans, Myself, The extremely fast Justin Hughes who is a podium regular when things point downhill and Danny who had a monkey to get off his back from this event having competed last year and whilst riding in a top 20 position a terminal mechanical relegated him to the back of the field.
In another group the non Vets and Melyd dream team of Si Parkinson (former World Cup Downhiller and all round speed machine) and Rhys, a superfast mountain biker up and downhill !
All the Melyd were signed on early by 8:45 am, as afternoon race start slots were allocated in blocks of 10 riders on a first come first served basis, we all wanted to be out early to avoid a long delay between practice and race runs.
Kitted up and with nothing better to do than show each other our dibbers, we decided to head off on our compulsory practice loop, which was all but a short section of loop 1 of the Penmachno trails.
Having spoken to others and studied some Strava data from last year, I was confident that I knew where the timed sections were likely to be. They were all sections I’d had a couple of practice laps on a couple of weeks ago. During the practice run it was confirmed, I was in luck nothing had been altered since last years event. The sections they use for the 3 timed stages are the showpiece signature singletracks and take in the two long final descents which feature hairpins and scary high speed runs through the woods with blind drop offs and off camber rock landings that have Ysbyty Gwynedd written all over them ! (metaphorically speaking).
Practice run completed safely and with an opportunity to discuss better lines and more importantly things like sharp bits of Snowdonia to avoid, we all settled down back at base camp, for a bite to eat, tyre pressure checks, suspension tweaks and a re-lube before the run proper which the Melyd Vets team were scheduled off at 12:40pm, with Si Parkinson and Rhys off a group or two ahead.
Race run proper –
The official starter dibbed our dibbers into his dibberhole, and we were sent on our way up the long uphill transition to stage 1. Less chatty this time, each man thinking of their own timed sections, and how best to go quicker than before and perhaps most importantly to us over 40’s how to avoid an impromptu meeting with HRH Prince William and a trip home in his chopper !
We arrived at the start of stage 1 to a small queue at the entrance of the section and timing gate, and was surprised to see Si and Rhys, who I thought would have been well on their way to stage 2 by now. Rhys had completed his run and returned to the top. Si had obviously not gone very far in the section at all, having punctured early doors. When we spoke he was preparing for the re-run that he was entitled to. Not a great start and knowing how that would have affected my own concentration I felt bad for the hand that ladyluck had dealt him so early on in the day.
Back to business though, head down and concentrate on yourself Dan. My turn now, a quick sprint away from the start line, a tell tale beep from my dibber as I pass through the timing gate a few yards later and boom my Enduro career begins ! An uneventful run followed, through a sector that should create more than its fair share of squeeky bum moments, it all felt a bit too in control. So on finishing reflected on my conservative run. A bit over cautious here, one or two confidence brake drags too many there, and I really felt I’d not done myself justice on Stage 1 that should have been a lot more cavalier. In the meantime while waiting for Justin and Danny to finish their runs I was able to watch some other riders come through the finish, all snot, snarls and fur flying, I knew straight away that I’d need to up the aggression a bit.
Lesson learnt, try more commitment next time Dan !
One down, two to go.
After a couple of miles of casually paced uphill transition, we were met with some news from a marshal about the first part of the long stage 2, the stage had be shortened slightly to avoid a fallen tree at head height across the trail. It would now miss out a bit of early pedalling which would have been to my advantage, however this is supposed to be fun not life and death and I’d rather keep the top of my head attached than gain a few seconds !
Stage 2 starts with Craig Wen a high speed pedally flat to downhill into the first of the new manicured sections with wide man made features and a skittish fine gravel top surface that tests front wheel grip. Clear this section and sprint across the fireroad, into the first of the signature singletracks of Penmachno’s last sectors, Hafod Fraith. Hafod is an extremely narrow technical ribbon of singletrack hanging onto the side of a steep hill, of which the first third is steep downhill with plenty of drops, rocks and other unfriendly geology challenging you to see how long you can stay off the brakes ! I could see a rider in front I was gaining on, but figured it wouldn’t affect my run as we were nearing the end of this long stage. At this point the trail goes from downhill to a grim flowless uphill toward a tight hairpin including step ups and rocks to clamber over with no rhythm to benefit from, just vomit enducing leg and body efforts with little reward. I was gaining on the man ahead faster than I hoped and by the hairpin that signifies the end of the up and the start of the final short section of technical downhill I was nearly with him, but with such a short bit of trail remaining that everybody was carrying plenty of speed down, I doubted whether there was any advantage to asking to pass which would have meant a slow down for both of us, so I maintained position and we came through to finish together, with probably only 5-10 secs lost.
Two down one to go and all limbs intact.
During the short uphill transition, I was greeted by Si Parkinson again, he was having the day from hell, the early puncture, then a fault on his right hand pedal on the 2nd stage meaning he had to ride the it with one foot unable to clip in properly ! We rode to the beginning of Stage 3 together and for somebody of his race winning potential and ability I felt for him. With such small windows of opportunity to make time this type of race format is unforgiving of any mechanical mishaps.
The final one, the biggest, best and most sketchy !
A lung busting first uphill half mile through the newest sections of man made trail with un-Penmachnolike width and multiple line choices brings you two huge high banked 180 degree corners, If you can keep off the brakes here you are hurled round like the Waltzers at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, and you are spat out onto a short fireroad sprint to the last and most famous of Penmachno’s singletrack. The run to the end (Allt Du) !! This section above all was the one non-locals and locals alike were most wary of riding at 100% after the mornings practice. In and out of the woods it switches dry to wet with alarming inconsistency. Lots of drops and jumps at high speed with landings on anything from perfectly flat and dry earth to off camber wet slabs ready to send you into the foliage if you’re lucky, or over the bars onto the rock trail if you’re not ! so in a nutshell its ace ! It starts with 3 extremely tight downhill switchbacks. The short and rocky run between switchbacks no’s 2 and 3 were once famous for claiming a Melyd club member with an undignified trip down a bank on a Sunday Social ride some years back, who had to be helped dazed out of the bushes in a rather ungentlemanly manner unfitting of a Melyd legend. (It would of course be disloyal to compromise the identity of this club member, Maybe later ;)
Back to the race…Just the fast section to go, with some nasty blind landings, breathing out of my ears now, just need keep it out of the greenery…Finish in sight now….. I know there’s no more hazards now.. SPRINT TO THE LINE !!! A beep from my wrist mounted timing chip / dibber and I was done. Still intact yet too knackered to grin (yet) but inside absolutely buzzing.
Dibber returned, data uploaded, then all off to the realtime scoring screens at the event HQ with guys and girls huddling round to see how they’d faired. Currently placed there as 3rd Vet, I knew as an early starter that as more and more riders finished I was going to plummet down the leader board like United Kingdoms Eurovision entry.
As it transpired it did go down, but remarkably not nearly as much as I feared and when the last man came in I was perfectly satisfied with a 14th in Vets Category for my first attempt (but definitely not last) at this discipline. A chat with Si Parkinson also suggested that despite his shocking run of bad luck he was right up there in the overall and currently top of the pile in the Masters category.
Sitting in my back garden later that Afternoon with a well earned beer (now grinning) the full finish list came in online, and for a predominantly road based club the VC Melyd results looked pretty damn impressive amongst the list of purely mountain bike organisations.
Senior Open Category
Rhys Wainright (9th from 43 competitors)
Simon Parkinson (1st from 63 competitors)
What’s left to say ! Riding a hardtail, and with a run of mechanical bad luck that most would have not recovered from, he bags the win. Pure class through and through.
Justin Hughes (4th from 45 competitors)
Great result just missing out on a podium.
Dan Liddle (me) (14th from 45 competitors)
Danny Hold (19th from 45 competitors)
Bagging that top 20 he deserved from last year, and thrashing me on Stage 1
What a day, sunshine, great atmosphere, no crashes in our group, brilliant organisation.
Finally for fans of challenging cryptic puzzles. The anonymous club legend who was last seen visiting greater Snowdonia rubber side very much up with only Ronseal Rich Teak coloured lady smooth legs to give us a clue of where he entered the undergrowth has a name that rhymes suspiciously like Callum Schmoversan.
If you get it, Mums the word ! don’t tell a soul. ;)