‘Ard Rock came around faster than I thought it would… Grand plans of mastering loose rocky drops and regular bike maintenance were replaced with a touch of oil here and there and a few extra sessions down at Wharncliffe Woods!
Joking aside, I have actually been training for this for ages and really trying to up my skills… But ever the optimist thought I would have time to fit in more than I have. Since signing up for the Saturday Enduro (a 45km loop with five downhill timed stages) I’ve been pretty nervous – I was worried I had bitten off more than I could chew…
Anyway, before I knew it, I was en-route to Reeth! First impressions were good – it was busy but well organised, and everyone I met was really up for the weekend. It was buzzing!
Having not got much time before the course shut for practice, I threw on my kit and headed out for the Friday warm up. Fellow teammates Conor and Patrick had already been out that morning and had devised a plan; this was to ride Stage 1 first as it was supposed to be the hardest. Then we would tackle Stage 2 and/or 5 if there was time. I was nervous.
Reaching the bottom of Stage 1, I was totally torn between feeling pretty out of my depth (my biggest fear), terrified and keen to try it again. Luckily there was just enough time to whizz down Stage 5, which reminded me I could actually ride a bike! All that remained was to prep for tomorrow and get a good night’s sleep before the race.
Next morning, despite being in the last wave of the day, I was up early. However, this gave me plenty of time to debate which snazzy new Flare Clothing top went best with my bike. Don’t laugh – I have a serious nervous shopping habit, and we all know new kit makes you faster!
At 11.40 our team made up of Tom, Conor, Patrick and I, mounted our majestic steeds and gathered on the start line. I was surprised to see I was the only women in our wave. Soon we were off – the energy was high, and everyone seemed psyched. But our first challenge came far far sooner than expected…
Only meters from the start line Tom’s bike fell apart. With the ‘Grim Sweeper’, a formidable duo on a tandem mountain bike, only minutes behind I continued with the others, hoping somehow that Tom would be able to make up the distance.
After a steep road climb, we reached the top of Stage 1 – this was it…! Unsure of quite how I felt the plan was to attack the course with full power excluding one short section. This was the steepest bit of the course, a tight corner into a rocky gully. I had already decided I was going to push down this bit – this was not something I was happy about, but I didn’t feel I could confidently ride off the top of it and didn’t want to obstruct anyone on the course.
Through the start gates, things were going okay. I was not travelling at lightening speed but also not going the snail pace I would have been four months ago. Jumping off at the planned point, I quickly moved off the course so not to hold up any riders. Embarrassingly, I then proceeded to fall down the side of the descent in front of the slightly disappointed crowd… Trying not to be put off by this I hopped back on with extra gusto and peddled off (styling things out has never been my strong point)!
The next slight mishap occurred halfway down the course heading off a very steep rocky drop with a right turn and stone wall at the bottom. Since practising the ground had changed considerably – as soon as I had committed to my line I knew I had messed up. Hitting the loose rocks that had fallen off the wall at the bottom, I hit the deck. It was the biggest fall I have ever had but luckily despite hurting a lot all the important bits seemed to be in one piece.
Back on the bike, the rest of Stage 1 was slow with jelly legs. Annoyingly my confidence had taken a knock, and I had to push down a rooty section in the woods (with a very vocal crowd!) I had ridden the day before.
Keen to put things behind me Transition 1 – 2 allowed me just enough time to collect myself before having to take on Stage 2. Things were looking up – after all, I am not sure it was possible to embarrass myself anymore, so what did I have to lose! I had heard mixed opinions about Stage 2 – some said it was easier than Stage 1, others swore the opposite, and the word ‘exposure’ was generally bandied around a lot! Having not had time to check it out the day before I crossed my fingers and set off. The top section was beautiful with some awesome switchbacks, this then flowed into a less steep but equally fun rockier phase. Overall I was still very slow from the fall, but the legs certainly seemed to be a bit more solid.
Halfway down I had also spotted Patrick – this was unexpected (he’s rapid!) – unfortunately, he had become another victim of the rocky terrain and had picked up a puncture. This presented a dilemma – over the radio there were talks of the Grim Sweeper still following close behind, did we stick together and risk being knocked out or keep going. After a quick debate, Conor sent me on my way while he waited for Patrick with a spare inner tube.
So there I was, only an hour or so in, three team mates down! This had not been the plan and also knocked my confidence a bit – the others had been great at keeping me from overthinking the task in hand and pepping me up when I was nervous. However surrounded by stunning landscape in the sunshine it was hard to be down for long. Plus I was really enjoying the transitions. Despite being apprehensive about the climbs, it turned out these were no problem at all and where I actually excelled (just a shame it was not timed up)!
Nearing the top of Stage 3, I was suddenly caught out of the blue by someone shouting at me – it was Tom! Somehow he had been allowed to re-start in the Sprint course (a shorter race) but had overtaken the sweepers and was now back on track to complete the full Enduro. Excited to hear Conor and Patrick had also managed to recover I bombed down Stage 3 with new confidence. More flowy than the other sections this actually went okay, and I got the bottom whooping at the fact I hadn’t fallen off.
After a quick stop at the aid station, it was time for another climb to Stage 4. Looking back this had to be my favourite of all the stages. Not only was the situation cool, but the route also flowed really nicely and I even found myself going down some sections I would normally bottle out of.
Reaching the gates at the bottom, it was time for a bit of a hike-a-bike. Personally, I quite enjoyed this bit and loved the more remote location – it felt like a real adventure. After a shaky start at the beginning of the day, I absolutely loved it. In fact I was a bit gutted that there was only one more stage to go.
Setting off down the last stage of the day, I was conscious I needed to keep my focus until the very end. The finish seemed tantalisingly close, but there were still a number of obstacles in my way! Turning the last corner with a debatable amount of style I was down in one piece – now it was just a cruise to the finish. I couldn’t believe I had actually done it – over the course of the day I had got round some of the hardest riding I have ever done. Even better our whole team had somehow made it across the finish relatively unscathed; the bikes were debatably a little worse for wear but nothing too bad. It was time for a celebratory beverage!
Pizza in one hand, beer in the other, still covered in mud (sorry Mum, not your favourite look I know!) I felt dead chuffed. Within my section, I was the 9th lady, which meant I could even say I finished in the top ten. Despite the doubts I had underestimated what I was capable of and it taught me a lesson that I should have a little more confidence in entering these things in the first place.
Over the course of the weekend, 2000 riders took part in the various races – only 87 of these were women!! While I am proud to be one of these, I would love to see more ladies taking part in these events. From my point of view, despite seeming a little intimidating on the onset, the whole event was by no means aimed at men with Flare Clothing and Juliana Bicycles repping all things awesome for female mountain bikers and Tracey Mosley’s performance in the Saturday event providing bags of inspiration.
‘Ard Rock is definitely not for the faint-hearted but if you are game for some of the best natural riding in the country and a cracking weekend on the bike, I highly suggest you set your alarms for 5.45am the morning the 2017 entries open – I know I will be!