Mini Enduro - Forest of Dean
Date: Sunday 20th October 2019
Race category: Hardtail
Riding: Smokestone Henderson
These popular regional races run here twice yearly, one in March and one in October, these times can bring either dusty dry trails…. or really really muddy tracks, it was definitely the latter this time!
All 4 can be reasonably well summarised by saying; lung busting pedal to start, into a steep (soon to be rutted) section, both in sloppy mud traversing rooty off camber conditions. Each stage tended to have one standout “feature” to keep riders on their toes (or backsides!)
After feedback from riders who had ridden on Saturday, the organisers cut out a 45 second undulating pedal section from the start of stage 1, it was a very welcome modification. The main feature to overcome on this stage was a couple of tight corners then a longish off camber traverse finishing with a sloppy bowl of wet mud.
Stage 2 was a little different, a 30 second pedal/flow section without too much gradient but a couple of slippy root gardens to carefully air over, it then crossed a fire road where a couple of flat, wide corners allow a brief moment to breathe and compose before the main feature, a steep series of tights corners that meander all the way to the bottom.
Stage 3 had the least pedal start (woohoo!) but soon gets down to business, a couple of fire road crossings with the second leading into a steep little chute with a 90deg right hander at the bottom, a brief stint on the pedals led to the main feature; a high pile of off camber roots that really needs to be jumped to carry pace and avoid sliding down the camber, tricky on it’s own but immediately leading into a short steeper section with another large mud bowl to negotiate, this time with a mild dose of uphill requiring either full commitment upon entry or smart shifting prior. The stage then traversed a little before some more steeper corners to finish.
Stage 4 was the ever popular “y2k” track, the slight twist was not starting from the tall roll in, nor the old fire road crossing, but along the bottom of the bank that the roll in sits on, this made for a tricky 90 deg flat corner just before some long tables, back on the pedals to negotiate those, a nice little gap jump for the paparazzi then holding speed on a jumpy traverse before dropping into the steeper and off camber sections. Tricky section on this stage was a couple of tightish switchbacks with some off camber roots and a precariously close tree right between them.
Transitions - rideable when it’s dry…. Everything was so wet and torn up that there was zero to be gained from trying, walk and chat was order of the day(s).
Base settings on my bike rarely change, being a fat bike, the crucial adjustment is tyre pressure, now I’d like to run real soft for sloppy mud and off camper…. But was aware of a few hard root impacts and potential for botched landings, I’m currently testing a Huck Norris insert in my rear tyre (I believe it saved the day on a recent outing but it’s definitely not indestructible) which allowed me to settle on 9.5psi for the rear, enough squidge for compliance whilst offering some high speed support and protection. Slightly softer up front with 7psi, the 140mm Mastodon fork helps absorb impacts there.
I also made a slight adjustment to my brakes, with the Hope systems being so adjustable I was able to bring the reach and bite point in really close to the bar, this was to try and introduce more modulation and less skidding, as fun as skids are, it is a race after all, and front wheel off camber drifts are never the look to go for!
I was nearby on Saturday and all stages were taped and signed so a cheeky peek was not to be missed, 20 seconds into stage one I loudly and rudely proclaimed to absolutely no one that this must be some sort of joke, luckily that section was subsequently removed.
Into the off camber section I quickly found a pile of bikes and bodies in the muddy bowl, it really was that wet and slippery! I left stage 1 questioning my eligibility and sanity, I find the mental side of racing the hardest, in my experience, positivity brings confidence, which brings (mental) relaxation, which brings smooth riding, and smooth is fast in my book.
Luckily stages 2 and 3 were slightly more positive experiences albeit fraught with the classic tripod technique, so I went into stage 4 (which I know reasonably well) feeling better about the entire situation. I also bumped into some friends, James and Rachel, so I joined them in chin scratching and some trial and error line choices through the tricky switchbacks.
Feeling a bit more upbeat about things I trundled off home for my athlete’s dinner of curry and beer.
After sign on and general chatting, including being asked “Are you racing on that??” practice was very similar to Saturday but a few more bodies on track, and wow, how the lines had changed since yesterday, certainly something to remember for later. I arrived later than my friends (planned may I add haha) so went around a lap on my own, I soon bumped into them in on stage 3 where major head scratching was taking place by the high roots and steep bomb hole section, the low line had totally disappeared since yesterday so the line was commit or quit, I’m better at the latter than the former so planned to take full advantage of race run adrenaline to tackle this bit, more on that later.
Finished off the practice lap by enjoying stage 4 and kidding myself I had a gameplan, time for lunch.
12:43:20 was my start time, yes, I was on time, good start! Some good nervous banter with the fellow racers in hardtail mens, of 23 entered, 16 turned up on the day, there were over 100 no shows in total which was a shame as numbers were limited and the event sold out, the conditions were so much worse than the pictures show though, check out the official video on the mini enduro website.
I was the only fatty which wasn’t too surprising, I was expecting some ribbing but the ebikes were setting off before us so luckily all the macho trash talk was aimed at them and i just had some genuine chat about tyre pressures. Looking at some racey and somewhat boutique hardtails, it’s fair to say that nerves were creeping in a little, heart rate felt around 160bpm whilst the marshal tee’d me up!
S1 - Got the pedalling done, into the tricky traverse at a good pace, a marshal knew me and bellowed encouragement as I passed a fallen comrade (no remorse, he was fine, and it’s a race remember) in full speed tripod mode and just got my attack position clicked as I dropped toward the muddy bowl, good thing I did too because in practice there were always people blocking this section and now I was hauling race pace, it was like riding into a jelly wall but I managed to avoid getting bucked, once I remembered to breathe I settled into some smoother lines and got to the finish unscathed.
S2 - Full beans on the pedals, jumped the roots I needed to and quickly got to the fire road, damn, forgot to breathe again! Some very brief respite on the open corners then down to business on the switchbacks, a defined rut was prevalent here and many more roots were emerging so I played it safe and committed to the trodden path rather than getting creative. I quite like the steeper sections and felt like I was flowing OK so finished that one happy with my efforts too.
Halftime - The organiser scheduled in a 30 min break to alleviate queues, smart move, I headed back to the pits to clean all the mud out of my derailleur while I had the opportunity. Bumped into friends again, I had resolutely told myself not to look at the timing screen but others were gathered there so I took a sneaky peek.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, I was in 2nd place somehow! Cue more nerves, I do a few races each year but never vie for actual positions, this was a shock to say the least.
S3 - Relieved to sprint less at the start of this stage but very wary of my race position, all I could think about was getting over the blasted high roots and smoothly through the bomb hole without stalling. Came across the fire road and into the first chute with a bit too much vigour, in my defence there were both a cheering crowd and a photographer to please. Just about got around the corner and onto the traverse, one more little corner before the section I was committing too…. One little corner too many, went for the middle line and missed, on to the low line, past the low line and front wheel sliding down the camber, not ideal. A still moving rendition of Bambi on ice kept some momentum but I was heading toward the tricky section with much less pace than desired. Going too slow to jump the roots I decide to come in with my foot out ready to take the weight off the bike when it slid down the roots, and slide it did. More Bambi time, however, this opened up an opportunity to get on the (untested by me) high line around the bomb hole, I’d seen it done it in practice but it looked painfully slow compared to the main line, I didn’t have much to lose as I knew I’d stall through the compression if I went straight.
The high line rocketed me into the next corner so I quickly got on with smoothing out the rest of the track, at the finish I felt OK, there’d been a time penalty for sure but that cheeky highline felt like it wasn’t a total loss, up to the final stage.
S4 - Checked out that first corner whilst waiting, definitely had butterflies in my stomach so pacing around bit was better than just waiting. Go time, just about stuck my line on the corner and got into the pedalling, a last minute bar turn over the jump for the camera then tried to catch my breath for the steeper bit. The tricky switchbacks arrived quickly, not fast enough for the high line over the roots I went for the pre planned foot down technique I’d used in practice, although frustratingly clipped a pedal this time and ended up off balance on my heels down the chute! Feet shuffled and chest down I got back up to speed for the last bit and was very relieved to drop into the finish without tasting dirt.
I watched the rest of the guys in HT come down and we trekked back up the hill to the timing tent, elated to be outside of the ambulance and able to recount our tales of near death, all secretly very nervous of what the clock would say.
3rd place, very happy with that, it had been emotional and times were tight!
Photography - Michael Maben
A great day after some apprehension of conditions and popping my hardtail category cherry, the immense feeling of relief when getting safely past the finish line was true euphoria, the sprints, the steep transitions, cheering on others, and the elevated heart rates from near spills had taken their toll on energy reserves for sure. It was a great event, it really shone a light on how supportive the MTB community is, competitive events turn out to be so friendly, I caught up with old friends and made new ones too.
Looking forward to the next one!
Written by Liam Crook