Ae Forest; queues, queues, the dreaded elevator and more queues but what a belter of a track for the final round of the 2019 National series. Oh and I collected a bit of trophy bling despite some awesome squid moves wahoooo!
The final round of the national series was at Ae forest in bonnie Scotland. I hadn’t been to Ae before but team mate Emily had been a few weeks previously and the track sounded amazing. The forecast also looked amazing and I was excited to see if I could put down a good result and finish on a high. I packed my kit for a dry race but since we were going to Scotland I added my wet weather gear just in case.
The drive up went on forever as the traffic got worse and worse. The blue skies and sunshine outside taunted us as we sat in queue after queue and the satnav time went the wrong way with every mile. The traffic swallowed my plans for a leisurely track walk, afternoon nap and lazing in the sunshine. Still as we finally drove into the finishing field the evening was a stunner and track walk beckoned. Until…hang on a minute, Emily what the hell is that?! We were both stunned at the sight of what looked like the finish to the track. It was taped and riders were standing at the top looking at lines so we must be riding down it but blimey it looked like a vertical wall of tussocky grass. Emily had not ridden it the other week and we established that the track normally finished to the side but this was “The Elevator” and apparently the standard finish for races at Ae.
With the elevator looming above us we found space for our tent in a field that wasn’t anywhere near big enough for a national series round and set off up the track. Standing at the top of the elevator it looked even worse than from below as we realised the top actually overhung a little and the compression at the bottom looked hideous. Whilst it would be intimidating in the dry it should be fun and everyone was clear it was fine in the dry.
Then we heard it was not going to be dry on Sunday. Whaaaaaat?! How had I missed the changing forecast?! Ok so now the elevator looked bloody terrifying and I had no idea how you were supposed to get down it and through the compression in a swamp? Trying hard to ignore it we walked the rest of the track.
Emily had explained about a huge step down that I had already guessed I wouldn’t want to ride. Standing at the top of it I absolutely wasn’t riding it which left me with a slow flat turn across the take off before weaving around the drop and tentatively heading back on to the landing hoping not to get squashed as riders came in blindly. I knew that was not going to be the fastest option but having never hit anything as big as the stepdown before I figured I had little choice. The rest of the track looked amazing with rocky corners, greasy chutes, roots galore and even a bit of off camber grass thrown in for good measure. I just had to hope I could ride the track fast enough to make up for the chicken line on the step down….
Saturday dawned the most perfect blue sky day as the sunshine burnt off the mist and we nervously got ready to get on track. We had thought that avoiding the elevator in the wet morning grass was a sensible idea so planned on starting a little after the first uplift. I watched people ride the elevator from my tent and it didn’t look too bad until a girl crashed and knocked herself out. The track had been open for 15 minutes. Great, I could hardly wait!
But wait we did! For bloody hours and hours on the fire road all day! The uplift had a long way to go with few passing places and the queue was unbelievable! Alongside the nerves of needing to get that first run out of the way we were now faced with the reality that we would struggle to get many runs in on a track we didn’t know. Apparently this was standard for Ae and locals were explaining how it was fine because they always raced the same track so everyone knew it. In a quiet voice I explained I hadn’t been before….ah yes they could see how that would be problematic but at least the track was fun! Great, the day was getting better and better!
Finally we were at the start tent waiting to set off. We rolled into the first tight rocky corner and I hit the highline confidently starting as I meant to go on before slamming on the brakes to avoid running into Emily trying to avoid a fallen rider. The rest of the track was surprisingly greasy but less slippery overall than I expected. The line around the step down was terrifying as I crossed back on to the track watching over my shoulder for incoming riders. Perhaps it would be easier to hit it but I wasn’t brave enough to try. I felt quite a lot of pressure to do it knowing it was so much faster but I bravely swallowed it down and stuck with the chicken line.
I rolled into the elevator and just went for it. I knew that if I stopped and looked I would never do it and trying to get clipped back in just above it was enough to discourage me from stopping. I crept over the edge at snails pace and accelerated into the compression. It was a rough old ride but not as bad as I thought and I was so happy to be safely down it. One down, many more to go!
We joined the back of the ever growing queue for the uplift and waited in the baking sunshine chatting to other riders which was hard to complain about. Run 2 was better than run one with a bit more pace. The top of the track was starting to come together but I was still didn’t know the track and found myself casing jumps, missing lines and lacking flow. Hopefully we’d manage another 2 or 3 runs if we were willing to queue for them and some of that would settle down.
After 4 runs I was feeling pretty good on track. My lines were settled, I was still terrified of the elevator but riding it cleanly and overall I was feeling happy but very tired. The long drive, standing round for hours in the sunshine (literally 1-2h per uplift) and a physical track, which I was never warmed up for given the wait at the bottom, were taking their toll. We managed to squeeze in a 5th run before calling it a day. A track walk late evening got a little hairy as we nearly got mown down by a pack of elite riders. The track was shut, the marshals and commissaires walking down, but lack of organisation meant a last uplift had dropped them a group off at the top and they didn’t know the track was closed!
I woke up early to the sound of heavy rain but by the time my alarm went off the morning had dawned and was really quite pleasant. We got ready to get on track hoping to avoid some queues and make the first uplift. As we left the tents the heavens opened and the rain was torrential. We joined the back of a soggy queue and stood around for 40 mins waiting as the rain dripped steadily down our necks whenever we moved. I hadn’t changed to flat pedals and was a little nervous of riding a steep wet track in my clips but I wasn’t going to the back of the queue so there was no choice. Besides, when I thought about it, I rarely put my foot down on track anyway so it was no different to normal.
The water was running down the track and yesterdays greasy chutes were now rivers and less slippery. The dusty corners and roots however were a different matter and the off camber grassy section was rapidly turning into a bog. I had a great run down the track, finding grip where it was unexpected and generally nailing my lines but approaching the elevator I was feeling extremely unsure! I rolled over the top opening up a view of muddy ruts where there had been dusty grass yesterday. Repeating the mantra no brakes, no brakes, no brakes I rolled down the slope, held my bike as it bucked out over the compression and slid to a stop at the railings with a deep sigh of relief before lining up in the uplift queue to do it all over again! The second run was even wilder as the track grew ruts and holes amongst the bogs. I narrowly missed the barriers on the way down the elevator as I slid sideways and hoped for the best. I went back to my tent, washed my bike off, stripped my muddy kit off, dumped it outside in the rain and tried to get some food in before qualifying.
A message went out that a storm was expected at 1pm so qualifying might be our race run. Normally I would be a bit sad about that but the thought of only needing 1 good run was appealing and I settled myself at the top ready for a race run glad it meant we could get home earlier. The rain had eased off a little as we stood at the top waiting for qualifying. My googles were safely stowed in my pocket inside a dog poo bag (clean obviously!) to stay dry and I whipped them out at the last moment before getting on the start ramp.
The beeps sounded and I realised that although nervous I hadn’t called them dreaded beeps so I guess that’s progress! I convinced myself there was loads of grip and committed to the track right out of the start gate. I zipped over roots, railed the off camber swamp, sent the little stream gap beautifully into the berm, hit the step ups with no brake checking, took the chicken line round the step down and generally loved every second. I took a deep breath and practically stopped at the top of the elevator which had the crowd shouting “come on love you can do it!” as I rolled in to the steepest mud slide ever. My reflexes corrected the bike as it bucked and slewed across the line and with shaky hands I removed my googles to see I had put down a pretty good time.
I realised just how good my time was as others came in behind me and I was sat in 3rd place! Emily and I had ridden together all weekend and it showed with less than 0.1 seconds between us! I was so pleased until I heard the organiser announce that second runs were going ahead. I swore loudly much to the surprise and laughter of the crowd. I did not want to ride that elevator again, it was so unpredictable that I really couldn’t tell if I would make it or not. Line choice seemed irrelevant and the track was getting worse as the rain stayed light and things turned claggy. Oh well we had 2 hours and the storm might arrive.
I spent 2h sat in my underwear and knee pads hoping for rain to keep the mud wet rather than claggy. Emily and I laughed hard as one of Astons team mates popped his head into the tent looking for Aston only to be met by us sporting socks, knee pads, wet muddy undershorts and sports bras haha we were so classy! Watching the elevator from the door of our tent we could see deep ruts forming that would be impossible to see on the run in as riders slid out in the mud and had to run over the finish line. It’s the first race I have done where the commentator could repeatedly be heard saying “rider Joe Bloggs has made it safely over the line”. Great, it looked like we’d get claggy race runs and be lucky to cross the line upright.
The rain was barely there as we lined up again at the top for what would actually be race runs this time. I slid my goggles out of my dog poo bag at the last minute for the second time and sat waiting for the beeps. I again committed straight out of the gate and had another awesome run that felt even faster than the first until I came in a bit hot to a set of very tight very muddy corners in the bottom third of the track. I somehow made it round the first one but went wide on the second, clipping a tree stump which fired me back across the track into a tree (I always love a good tree hug) and I went down into the bank next to the track. Feeling pleased I was mostly upright I stood up only to have my bike slide over the drop I was perched above with me sat on the saddle, feet flailing. Through some exceptional squid moves I stayed upright and frantically tried to clip on the way into the next boggy steep corner coming to pretty much a standstill as I finally pushed through the mud in my cleats and got my right foot in. I rode the rest of the track, took another deep breath on the way into the elevator and slid across the line grateful to be in one piece.
I looked up at my time and was pleased to see I was only 3 seconds slower than qualifying despite my crash which confirmed my feeling that I had been flying for the rest of the track. I had only been 0.1 seconds ahead of Emily in qualifying so I figured that was my 3rd place gone. Emily crossed the line safely and somehow I had managed to hang on to 3rd place and I stayed there as the other riders crossed the line. I was bouncing! Not only would 3rd be my best result at a national but team mate Emily and I would finally get on a podium together!
We frantically washed bikes, threw muddy kit in bags, took down the tent and tried to wipe mud off our faces so we were ready for our podiums and the long drive home. It was my third podium out of 5 rounds at nationals which meant I got to climb on a second podium for a huge trophy and 4th overall in the series! I had done it! I met my goals of a series podium at nationals wahoooo! The drive home went on forever and my eyelids were dropping as I finally pulled up on my drive at 1.20am with a full day at work ahead of me. I was met by 2 very excited springers who bounced around on my head as I crawled in to bed still coated in mud and not caring in the slightest.
I’ve got a couple of local races still to go but that is the last of the long drives to nationals for another year. I might have done the riding but I can’t thank my sponsors enough for their support and help to get me here. Flow MTB provided another year of support with the best set of race kit on the circuit for the second year running. It is a great team to be part of and I feel lucky to have their support and belief not to mention all the other sponsors that support the team providing kit and training to help us look smart and cosy both on and off track. Matt at the Physio Clinic delivered another amazing training programme with personalised strength and conditioning coaching to keep me interested and strong enough to take hit after hit over the whole season and stay in one piece. Matt and the team also provided sports massage and rehab keeping me in tip top condition. Ash helped me sort out my diet and mental resilience keeping me strong and healthy over a tiring season and also helping me have less fat to lug down those tracks. My race pants look nicer too haha!
I’m looking forward to a bit of a rest before off season training starts but first I’ve got a few more muddy tracks to slide down and then a season of nice dry indoor netball! No rest for the wicked.