I toyed with a few subtitles for this report; “The hot and hard one”, “Fifty shades of Graythwaite”, “Can you have too much of a good thing?”. But instead I decided to make it all about me.
The prospect of racing five stages of fresh, hand-cut trail was a tantalising one – and with the weather staying dry for about a fortnight beforehand it looked like the gods were smiling on this race and rewarding the team for their bold move in staging such an ambitious event.
Arriving in the pretty grounds of the estate, the sun was shining, the mercury was already nudging 25 degrees and my Mackerel & Laphroaig teammate Neal was kitted up and waiting for me – despite me being just 10 minutes late (not bad for me).
Our practice loop revealed that the conditions were indeed dry. A short pedal along the road led to a stiff climb, then an even stiffer push up through the dense pines, with a bouncy and bone-dry carpet of soft needles under our feet.
Not really knowing what to expect, we found the stages were loose, steep, tight and mentally demanding – with very few places to let your guard down.
We finished the practice loop, just seven miles but with 750m ascent, feeling cream-crackered – and I honestly could have had a nap if Neal had let me.
He wouldn’t though, the swine, so we set off about 90 minutes later – and it was clear from the first time that I’d have to pace myself on the transitions.
It was nice to be among the shady trees for the push up to stage one – although my heart rate was hitting 160bpm just on the transition, which was a bit of a worry.
We’d both commented after practice that stage one was probably the hardest to ride, with lots of sudden twists and awkwardly placed rocks to negotiate on the way down.
I’d expected it might be a bit easier going faster, but somehow managed to start making mistakes from the first corner – leading to dabbing, scooting and swearing in an attempt to keep some kind of momentum.
Cocking up an awkward rocky corner that I’d ridden fine in practice, I committed to the following chute – but somehow managed to plant my front wheel in a hole and go pivoting over the bars, narrowly missing a tree as I did a perfect Superman impression into the loam and rocks.
Badly winded, I couldn’t move for a few seconds and then found my foot had got tangled in my control cables – and the nearby marshall had to come and extract it as I flailed around like a mackerel on dry land, trying to get off the track. Unfortunately the rider behind was on a stormer of a run and did lose a bit of time – sorry again mate!
After sitting down for a minute or so I remounted and finished the stage, immediately opting for a further sit down to regain my senses a bit.
On to stage two – which was quite a contrast with a gentler gradient, a more open trail and the ability to carry a lot more speed. The loose surface made things slightly sketchy, but this was a nice fun stage to ride and one that I know I’d want to do again and again if it was in my local woods.
After a shaky start, probably the after effects of my stack, I started to feel like I was getting some flow on by the time the finish post loomed into sight.
Unfortunately I didn’t make it that far before crash number two, caused by my front wheel lodging sideways in the thick dust. On the floor with my bike behind me, it was easier to thrust my arm across the line than get back on board and pedal across.
Fortunately the marshall found this funny rather than DQing me.
Next came a long, hot transition to stage three and I was starting to feel really tired now – needing repeated stops in the shade to try to cool down. The distance and ascent shouldn’t have been a problem for me, but the heat must have been taking its toll because I was not feeling right.
Despite the heat and the demanding transitions, most of the other riders around me seemed to be coping well enough, with the majority of the chit-chat being about the weather (we are British) and pooling of resources to try to remember what each upcoming stage held.
A safe bet being: “Erm, I think this one is probably loose and tight with some steep chutes.”
After soldiering up to the start of the stage I set off down the trail, which began fast with a couple of little drops before getting much steeper with an off camber turn covered with thick dust – which I completely messed up.
Shortly after this came a little rock drop and then probably some more turns and steep bits – my memory’s gone a bit hazy but I do know there was a flatter bit because the rider behind caught me just before that and spurred me on to chase him to the finish line.
Slightly reinvigorated by having stayed on the bike for a whole stage, I opted to head up to stage four – having enjoyed it in practice – and luckily the push up through the trees seemed easier the second time round.
This was another challenging one, starting fast and twisty with a few very steep, dusty chutes to negotiate before finally emerging from the trees down a steep, curved line thick with dust to the finish – and a fire road full of spectators cheering and jeering the riders down to the line.
It was here that I decided to throw in the towel and notch up my first ever DNF – so despite the push up to stage five not being that far (compared to the others), I headed down the hill instead, passing organiser Kev on sweeper duties pedalling up.
Yes I missed the fun top section of stage five, but I wasn’t so sad to miss the cheeky climb/push before the final drop into the finish arena. Bit of a shame, but my overall time was ruined anyway and I was wary of pushing myself too far and getting ill again, following a miserable spring with a virus I couldn’t get rid of.
While it wasn’t the longest loop or the most climbing and descending of any enduro I’ve ridden, it was absolutely the toughest – partly thanks to the weather but mainly because there was nowhere on the stages to mentally relax and so little margin for error.
To be honest, I enjoy riding these kind of trails but couldn’t get to grips with racing on such committing terrain – especially with an MTB holiday coming up in a few weeks’ time, which a broken limb would really screw up.
So back to that alternative title then. Can you have too much of a good thing?
Of course not. PMBA and their eager helpers pulled off something really special by hosting a race entirely on fresh cut trails, creating a unique and challenging event that pushed a lot of riders like me out of their comfort zones. I’m a bit out of the loop with what the other enduro race organisers are putting on in the UK at the moment, but I can’t imagine there’s anything much more challenging and wild than this.
PS. Yes the trails are awesome but they are on a private estate so please don’t go nabbing people’s Strava routes and trying to ride at Graythwaite, the PMBA team worked so hard and you could be risking their chances of securing a repeat event.
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