As an elite XC racer, I have always found my strengths to be on the more technically challenging courses, which are often where I produce my best race results and are typically the races I enjoy the most.
Thanks to Jon Brooke, www.rightplacerighttime.co.uk for this image.
This season, the XC National Series, my main focus for the year, finished just short of the Olympics in July, which left the end of the season wide open to get my teeth into some different events, which I wouldn’t normally have the chance to do. After a friend invited me on a trip to compete in the Mega Avalanche in France, an event I had always aspired to, I couldn’t refuse. This combined nicely with a number of the UK Gravity Enduro series rounds local to home, following shortly after the Mega Avalanche. I got on the phone to Whyte and sorted a 146X; a lightweight 150mm suspension travel trail bike which set me up to begin my gravity enduro campaign.
Mega Avalanche, Alpe D’Heuz, French Alps: This world renowned, unique event boasts an incredible format; a mass start enduro downhill race over a 30km course starting on the permanent glacier of Pic Blanc at 3300 metres and finishing at Allemont at 770 metres, a loss of over 2500 metres in height, during which rider’s fitness, technical skills and race head are tested to the limit. The Mega has often been named the true test of the all round bike rider.
Due to the popularity of the event, attracting an international field of close to 2000 riders, the event is split into two halves; a series of qualification heats which determine which main race you will compete in followed by the main race. So, to get into the main ‘A’ final and race with some of the top riders in the world you have to qualify first! Qualification takes place in heats of 200 on a slightly shorter but more technically challenging course, where riders have to finish within the top 35 to qualify for a place in the main final. For me, my qualification couldn’t have gone much better; my elite XC licence gave me a front row grid position, although lining up on the same row as world Cup downhill racer, (now enduro specialist) Dan Atherton, was a slightly daunting experience! The gun went and I aimed to get a clean start knowing that the fire road section, around 1km in, would be my chance to really make places before the singletrack.
My plan couldn’t have come off any better, entering the singletrack in 5th place. I then had a clean run before washing my front wheel out on a dusty flat corner towards the bottom of the course, costing me a couple of positions. I crossed the line ecstatic with an 8th place finish (my aim had been just to finish in the top 35!) which gave me a 3rd row grid position for the main event.
The race was held a couple of days later; a 5am start and an early lift to the top saw me on the gondola with some of the top mountain bikers in the world including Multiple World Champion Downhiller, Nicholas Vouillioz, who was stood next to me, which was quite a surreal experience! Getting out to the gondola at Pic Blanc and seeing panoramic views of snow capped mountain, as the sun rose, was incredible. When it came to gridding I positioned myself on the snow behind some of the riders who had been gridded first, thinking this would be the best idea. The video below illustrated the carnage that ensued far better than I can explain.
After freeing myself from the mess and getting onto my bike, there were a good few hundred riders already well on their way to the bottom of the hill, so I got back to the job in hand and did my best to claw back what positions I could. After a couple of kilometres on the glacier, riders funneled into a rocky and technical section of singletrack where passing is almost impossible (or results in a crash as I quickly found!). As you come around level with Alpe D’Heuz, the track goes from exposed traverse to alpine meadows and flattens off; this was where I made up a great number of places before a short climb, due to the nature of the section it had to be ridden flat out, at close to 2000 metres the altitude really took effect as you sucked in every available bit of oxygen as quickly as possible. As I crested the climb with burning legs and lungs, I was then fired into wooded sections of the course at high speed, with plenty of tight switchbacks and rooty off-camber sections.
As I entered the lower sections of the course, arm pump became a real issue as the upper sections of the course had taken their toll on my XC upper body, close to the bottom of the course my arms were starting to get blown off the bars so I was please to roll in 83rd out of 300 riders, just over 11 minutes down on the winners after 52 minutes of racing.
UK Gravity Enduro, Eastridge Forest: A venue which is just a 5 minute ride up the road from my house on some trails I have helped to build. This was my first chance to try the format in the UK and, fresh off the Mega, I was thoroughly looking forward to it. The UK Gravity Enduro format consists of riders being timed over special sections of a loop with untimed transitions, typically the special stages being mini downhill tracks. After a few days practice, I was up to speed and, with the sun shining on race day, I put in the best runs I could. With quite short technical stages I went for a reasonably conservative approach, aiming to trying to ride as smoothly as possible, avoiding making too many mistakes or tiring myself too early in stages. My plan worked well and, apart from a small dab on one stage, I finished 6th in elite and 9th overall – 42seconds off winner Neil Donoughue after just over 14 minutes of racing. I was pretty happy with this result and my first idea of how I could fair on the UK scene.
UK Gravity Enduro, Dyfi Forest: Having raced the Howies Dyfi Enduro on my XC bike a few months previous (where I took 2nd), which the gravity enduro shared many of the stages with, stood me in good stead; a big loop with some long stages suited my XC legs well. The majority of the stages were on wide tracks with a bed of loose slate, cut through the woods by 4×4’s and motor bikes. The style of riding meant that winner on the day came down to the bravest rider with the strongest legs! After a reasonable qualification on Saturday, I went into the Sunday with my conservative riding style, which really didn’t suit the course, a few sustained physical sections helped but, at the end of the day, I finished 10th elite, although slightly disappointingly 27th overall, a good minute off the pace. Despite this, I had a tough but enjoyable weekend and gained the realisation of the importance of properly practicing the course.
Pearce Cycles Enduro, Hopton Woods: This was another event local to home and on trails I had raced previously at the National XC series back in May. The course consisted of two stages which each rider rode twice, with plenty of pedalling in both stages and some good technically challenging terrain – both stages suited me well. Mid Wales/Shropshire has possibly one of the world’s highest concentrations of top level, world cup, downhill racers and the start list for the elite category reflected this with GT Racing Marc Beaumont and CRC Nukeproofs Joe Smith, to name a couple!
I put in a couple of good race runs, which were both thoroughly enjoyable and massively physically challenging, getting to the bottom of runs gasping for air and needing a good 5 minute sit down! The pedaling on stage one really allowed me to make up time on the more technically gifted and I eventually rolled in 5th place Elite/Overall, which was just over 2 minutes down on eventual winner Marc Beaumont (GT Racing).
Overall the sheer physicality of the discipline has been a massive surprise, both at events at home and abroad. Sections of pedalling on the courses are relatively short which means, to make them count, you have to dig deep, which has left me pedalling harder, breathing harder and in more pain than I ever would in any elite XC race! Not only do the timed sections of the course take it out of you but the overall fitness required to get enough practice in on a Saturday, and then get round the course on the Sunday, has been a real eye opener. The step up in terms of technical ability also leaves me with plenty to work on; with the discipline attracting plenty of world cup downhill riders, the standard is high!
A big thanks to Whyte for the 146X – the bike and setup have been close to perfection for the UK, offering a perfect balance of ample suspension travel in a lightweight package that is happy to be ridden all day. The geometry has inspired confidence and left me incredibly impressed with what the bike is capable of. In a full week of alpine riding, there was never a time where I felt under biked – a stead that can not only be competitive but an incredible amount of fun! Thanks also to Stans No Tubes for the wheels and Schwalbe for the tyres, this is always a winning combination regardless of the discipline.
Next year will see the launch of the TORQ’s first ever Gravity Team, taking on a full calendar of Gravity Enduro events. Watch this space!
With thanks to our sponsors as ever:
www.whytebikes.com – Frames
www.shimano.com – Drivetrain & Brakes
www.limarhelmets.com – Helmets
www.ritcheylogic.com – Handlebars, Stems, Saddles, Seatposts & Grips
www.max-mediagroup.co.uk – Team PR
www.schwalbe.com – Tyres
www.lezyne.com – Pumps, Tools and Bottle Cages
www.champ-sys.com – Performance Cycle Clothing
www.srsuntour-cycling.com – SR Suntour Suspension Forks
www.exposurelights.com – Advanced Lighting
www.juicelubes.co.uk – Lubrication
www.lakecycling.com – Shoes
www.jagwireusa.com – Cables & Housing
www.crankbrothers.com – Pedals
www.cleecycles.com – KCNC Skewers & Bottom Brackets
www.sapim.be – Spokes
www.stradawheels.co.uk – Wheel Builder
www.joolzedymond.com – Photography
www.cycleops.com – Power Measurement and Turbo Training
www.notubes.com – Tyre Sealant, Rims & Hubs
www.dare2be.com – Casual Clothing
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