Earlier in the year my friends talked me into racing the ArdRock enduro. Ok it didn’t take much convincing; a weekend away with friends, a chilled out race, a biking festival and beer, what could be better? They got up at stupid o clock to ensure we got entries as we knew it sold out within minutes. We all got tickets for the sprint event and we had a few months to go until the big weekend arrived.
I knew enduro had a different format to downhill racing. Downhill is about picking the perfect line, practising it all weekend and then racing against the clock on that line. Enduro is more of an all-day outing with a longer route that is split into stages and transitions. The transitions are mainly uphill sections that you ride in a group with your friends to get to the next stage where you race against the clock. Each stage is mostly downhill with some small climbs and the time from each stage is added together to give you a final time which decides whether you get medals or not. You often get time to practise but due to the length of the route you probably only ride each stage once before the actual race and some stages are designed to be raced blind so you’re not allowed to practise them at all. It is quite similar to going out riding with a bunch of friends where you ride together, do some uphill and some downhill and often haven’t seen the trail before. In theory it should be a friendly informal atmosphere unless you’re up there racing in the national or world series.
We entered the sprint which was billed as around 30km with approximately 1000m of climbing and 3 timed stages on gnarly rock strewn terrain. The full event was 7 stages and around 45km of riding but that sounded a bit much for a first attempt. Although I race downhill I often go out trail and road riding so I’m no stranger to pedalling or climbing but I have to admit it isn’t my strongest point. Some relish the challenge of a climb and it is the main event of a ride for them but I bludgeon my way up in order to get to the down hills. In theory the stages are mostly downhill with the untimed transitions on the climbs so I figured it was a case of doing the climb to get to the descent…
After a few logistical challenges, such as realising we needed to go Thursday night not Friday morning, we wove through sleepy Yorkshire villages to arrive at a huge festival venue on Friday morning. We pitched tents, got number boards and peered up at a long ridge line above us. Apparently the start of the first stage was at the top of the ridge and the first transition was a long road slog followed by a climb through moorland to the top. The weather was hot but feeling excited we joined a crowd of people slogging up the hill and felt suitably proud of ourselves for riding all of it. We donned goggles and set off down stage 1, it was awesome! Fast, rocky and steep it cut across the open moor land before finishing through some loamy turns in a wood. It was totally worth the long climb and I couldn’t wait for stage 2.
Buzzing and recounting tales of stage 1 we started up a steep lane on the transition. This was a short push and we were soon back on our bikes slogging up tarmac. We rounded a corner and watched as the road became off-road and cut a relentless line straight up the hill side back to the top of the ridge. With the sun beating down on us we pushed our bikes up the hill. I hate pushing my bike uphill more than I hate riding uphill but I just wasn’t fit enough to ride that hill and neither were 99% of the people there judging by the fact I only saw one person ride it. The sweat was dripping off my eyelashes and by the time we got to the top we were all feeling a little worse for wear.
We set off down stage 2 and it was even better than stage 1! The track switch backed down the open hillside before again ending through drifty loamy woods. There was less uphill and it was steep, really steep which I just loved. It was over too soon and we sat in the field at the bottom to get our breath back before pedalling back to the venue. Stage 3 was a blind stage and so was not open for practise, I was grateful as it was bloomin miles away and I didn’t want to ride all the way over there anyway haha!
We spent the rest of the day catching up with friends, checking out the stalls in the arena and generally chilling out. On Saturday our start time wasn’t until 12.40 so we had a strangely chilled morning which was nothing like being at a downhill race where Saturday tends to start early. It was even hotter than Friday and although I was looking forward to the stages I was not looking forward to the climbs. I now knew how steep they were and no longer had to guess about not enjoying them, I knew I wouldn’t enjoy them!
After a very leisurely lunch the 4 of us set off up that first road slog to meet up with 3 other friends who started in the wave before us. It was hotter than the day before and with yesterdays riding in our legs it felt even harder. We all made it to the top of the road dripping and out of breath so we stopped for a rest before we pedalled up the easier slope through the moorland to the first stage.
We joined the queue for the start line, put ourselves in rough speed order and dropped in to our first timed stage, we were racing now! I was following Eri and we played cat and mouse down the stage. I caught up on every downhill section and she pulled away on every climb so we crossed the line a similar distance apart from what we started with. The descent was fun but the thought of the next long push uphill was taking the edge off the fun.
I slogged up the transition hating it more than yesterday. It was hotter, more humid and I knew how long it was. I put my head down and got on with it but I had a few sweary moments on the way up and my friends laughed at my unimpressed face as I made it on to the top of the ridge once again. I wasn’t the only unhappy face and I only saw 2 people riding it so again deduced that most people couldn’t/wouldn’t.
Stage 2 was steep with less uphill so based on stage 1 I left a bigger gap before following Eri into the first turns. I hadn’t left a big enough gap and caught her up before losing her again on the next climb. However it was a short climb and I soon caught her back up and couldn’t decide whether to ask to go past or not. At a downhill race it wouldn’t occur to me not to but this was with friends, I wasn’t expecting a result and was happy to sit back. I also didn’t want to stop her getting a good time so I decided to enjoy the ride, besides she was shifting and it wasn’t going to change my time much. Unfortunately on one of the last corners Eri slid out and I couldn’t avoid her so rode straight into the back of her. Eri was back on track much quicker than me, I was still treating it like we were out riding together so I chased her down over the finish line apologising profusely for running her over!
We set off on the next transition and my smile started to fade. It was loose and narrow and I considered picking up my bike up rather than pushing as it was so steep. This wasn’t fun but then we turned a corner into some awesome techy single track which was mainly uphill but still great fun. We dropped in to a field and pedalled alongside a lovely cool inviting river before hitting another tarmac climb. I knew this was supposed to be the longest transition and it wasn’t long before I was grumbling at the relentless climb. We got to the top of a small rise and the road carried on up as far as I could see. I started swearing more earnestly and was no longer having fun. I wanted it to be over and wasn’t sure the next descent could be good enough to make up for this.
We got to the “top” of the hill only to see it stretch off into the distance again. I was now swearing a lot and relying solely on grit and determination to keep my pedals spinning. As we neared the next “top” and group of people I glanced to my right and saw the track switchback alongside us before climbing even higher and more steeply off road. At that point I totally lost my sense of humour and my sweary phrases became more creative. It then became a case of can’t cook won’t cook. I could ride the next section but I wasn’t going to. I admitted defeat and got off and joined the other people walking. Rarely had I been having less fun, if I wanted to take my bike for a walk I would have entered a walking event and worn trainers not SPD shoes!
We were strung out over the climb and as we arrived at the top I no longer cared about the next stage I just wanted it to be over, I had completely had enough. I had done several much longer rides with more climbing over recent months but I had at least been able to ride the climbs. I felt dejected and frustrated. I like my bike, I enter bike events as I like riding it and I don’t like pushing it. We had also ridden a lot of tarmac, fine on my road bike but not what I wanted from a day out on my mountain bike. I was really disappointed at the course.
The last stage was great but it was too short to justify the long slog to get to it. We gathered at the bottom and fixed Anna’s puncture, it was the only one in our group all day and compared to the number of smashed wheels and punctures we had seen this was some kind of miracle. We now had another long climb to get back to the venue so with much swearing I persuaded my sore bum to sit on the saddle and dug in for another tarmac climb. Our group finally pulled back in to the race venue, I was desperate for a shower and to rest my aching feet. We downloaded our results and I was surprised to see I was sat in 2nd place less than 1 second behind Eri. We had no idea how many riders were still to finish and where we’d both end up so we went for showers, food and prosecco before making our way back to the arena.
I checked the results and I had finished 2nd. I couldn’t believe it and for the first time all day felt the elation that good results brings. Out of our group of 7 we had some excellent results as Eri finished first in master women ahead of me in 2nd, Anna finished 3rd in the senior women and Beth finished 2nd in veteran women.
We joined the crowd in front of the stage and waited for podiums to start. Climbing on to that podium in front of hundreds of people made me feel like a rock star! Normally the crowd is small and the podium is little but we were in front of a sea of people, it was unreal! We got drunk, queued forever to get food from stalls that were running out of food and spent the night catching up with friends while the band played.
Lots of people have asked if I would do it again and I’m honestly not sure. I’m not convinced that the amount of bike pushing and tarmac was worth it even though the descents were epic. This felt like doing a day of downhill but having to walk the uplift; I had expected a day of downhill stages with riding in between. Longer transitions that were more rideable would probably not add any time to the overall event since people can ride faster than walking but would be a lot more enjoyable. This event is supposed to be Ard so maybe I just didn’t get it? I didn’t know what to expect so perhaps I was in the minority in expecting to be able to ride the climbs too?
I did enjoy myself overall and I also learnt a lot. I need to be fitter and better at climbing if I want to do more enduros. I was there for fun so approached my timed stages that way but I have to admit knowing that I could have won if I had been a bit more ruthless/serious was tricky. On the one hand I only went for a chilled out ride with friends but on the other hand I am competitive and winning is winning. I have also learnt that the transitions aren’t what I thought they would be and perhaps I’ll stick to downhill and trail events. That said I suspect it is like any type 2 fun, once you’ve forgotten the bits you hated you decide it was fun and find yourself signing up again after all!
So will I go again? No for now but ask me again in a few weeks…