MIJ Summe Series, Forest of Dean

Flow MTB riders Kate and Rebecca entered the Red Bull Foxhunt in Machynlleth, North Wales

Due to injury in the Downhill World Champs Rachel Atherton had to stand down as the fox for the 2017 Red Bull Foxhunt, an all-female mass-start mountain bike race. Enduro racer and Trek Racing team mate Katy Winton stepped in as the fox and chased 172 women down the Welsh mountain with Rachel cheering the women on from the track.

Mille Johnset was the first woman down the hill with a time of 00.03.50, with Rosy Monaghan in second with 00.04.23 closely followed by Claire Bennett in third place with a time of 00.04.25. Katy Winton managed to catch a number of the women and crossed the line in 21st place, posting a time of 00.05.41.

Two of the Flow MTB race team, Kate and Rebecca, signed up for the race here’s how they summed up their weekend.

Kate

It’s that time of year again, time for the annual Red Bull Foxhunt. It’s the Foxhunt that got me where I am with today with cycling. I made a whole heap of new like-minded friends, joined women’s mountain bike communities on social media and started racing some downhill with the support of Flow MTB behind me, so I was very excited to bag a ticket for myself again this year! I was also lucky enough to be staying with a group in a cottage WITH A HOT TUB OVERLOOKING THE MOUNTAINS (just saying!) and only 10 minutes drive from the event at Dyfi Forest near Machynllth in Wales. Super!

Red Bull Foxhunt is where the ‘hunted’ becomes the ‘hunter’ with the riders taking on the role of the hounds and enduro racer Katy Winton, stepping in for the injured Rachel Atherton, as the fox. The hounds would be released in a mass start and be closely followed by the super skilled Katy who will hunt down as many girls as she can. The first over the line claims the winning spot! Sounds easy, right?

With a change in schedule Saturday we were up earlier than expected, fed, dressed and heading to the tipi for our rider briefing. Actually getting our vehicles across the field set a precedent for the weekend ahead – no brakes and just go for it!

It was great to see all the friendly faces of the girls race scene, faces that have been absent for a year and girls I’ve only spoken to on the likes of Facebook or Instagram. After high fives, hugs and a quick catch up we headed over to the uplift.

The Devon girls I haven’t seen for a whole year!

 

This year the uplift was run by the guys from Antur Stiniog, they would take us as far as they could and then there was a 15 minute push up to the start line. A lot better than the mountain hike of last year! The views were amazing at the top too!

I was pleased to look down the hill into the open grassland (very wet grassland) with twists and turns, we could enjoy that off camber action I haven’t had the opportunity to ride since the last Foxhunt. The course was set over 2km with the wide off camber grass start, we would be funnelled into a tighter track in the woodlands after hitting the first berm you had the option of an A and B line. The A line was a rollable drop with a rock above it – pretty straight forward if you had the confidence and scrubbed your speed down before the rock. With the amount of mud braking on the rock would be quite risky making it a little trickier. The B line was meant to be easier – it was easier being a flat winding track between the trees however mix this with the muddy conditions (and I mean really muddy) girls were finding it difficult to make the turns without crashing! I actually think the A line was more straight forward if you were confident enough over the rock and down the drop without touching your brakes. There was a straight C line added later in the day after this section caused some rather large, timely blockages on the track. Continuing through the woods the next section was narrow and flat if you couldn’t keep your momentum it was difficult to pedal without sliding out.

The next A and B section was the choice of A – a rather large rock drop, gulp! Or B – a muddy chute round a gradual bend. It was at this point my bike got completely clogged up and again I slid out only to have my legs taken from under me by my team mate Rebecca who just couldn’t stop or avoid me much to the amusement of the marshal, certainly made us both chuckle too. One for the team! Haha. As we came out of the woodland we were greeted by a fairly steep S bend out onto a grassland sprint to a rock drop and another steep chute, again being spat out onto another grassland sprint over a rock garden the next bit was a little tricky. A small climb up to a ridge which had splippy roots on the one side there was a direct right turn down a very splippy chute so you needed to be lined up on your bike ready and leave off the brakes to avoid losing what traction you had and sliding off. The last part of the track was an energy sapping grass sprint over the finish line and boy was I blowing after my race run!

I only managed one and half practice runs in four hours which wasn’t great. There was a fair bit of waiting around on the track with red flags, girls looking at features, some girls finding the track difficult. I did even see a few tears, so I was glad I could try and help with any difficulty they might be having. One things for sure, at Foxhunt you are never left to struggle on your own. Even if you don’t know anyone like my situation last year, the girls are ace as was Katy and Rachel and hopefully you will never feel alone. It’s almost like a team race. I actually waited for a girl that was having trouble on one section that you couldn’t session to practice, there’s nothing wrong with sliding down steep sections with your bike in tow especially when it’s so muddy and that’s exactly what she decided to do and had a big grin on her face as a result of getting down the track.

Kate in action

 

I was still buzzing about the course and couldn’t wait to get up for my seeding run, with a great start, I really enjoyed the off camber sections and into the woods I had moments where I didn’t have much control over my bike and I was on a hope and prayer but I was loving it, I needed to stop smiling as I was eating so much mud! Unfortunately I ran into a red flag on my seeding run and had to wait for a while which affected my time. I was a little deflated as I felt so good on my seeding and would have liked the opportunity to go again. Turns out I managed to seed 24th so I was mega chuffed with that. I think I seeded 120th last year so a good improvement and thumbs up! Time to celebrate in the hot tub then! Thanks again Anthea for organising such a great place to stay!

Race day arrived and I was determined to have a practice run down in the morning. I jumped on the uplift and set off down a practice run with Maria who I had met only a few weeks before at a coaching course. You only have to watch her head cam footage of how much fun we had – a practically empty track, so no queuing we could appreciate the track for what it was. I couldn’t stop smiling even though I crashed into a tree! Our run certainly got the juices flowing and I was eager to get to the start line.

Rachel Atherton cheering the hounds on

 

Having seeded well I managed to get on the second row at the start line. Looking behind me at all those girls was a little scary (I actually decided to put my body armour on with the slippy conditions I was worried about riding over someone so I thought it best in case I got rode over) 172 all setting off at the same time – Wahoooo! Adrenaline was pumping – I was a bit wobbly, scared, excited, wondering if I was good enough to be near the front with these rad girls – you name it I was thinking it. The atmosphere was great up there and I was glad to be part of it.

Rachel Atherton stood on a big rock in the middle of the track with the horn to set us all off – I bet Katy was feeling the nerves sat above 172 girls waiting to pounce! Unfortunately that big rock was right in my path. I wanted to go to the right of it but as it was mass start that didn’t happen. I was slow off the blocks when the horn sounded and lost a lot of ground, it didn’t take me long to get into my flow and I was battling it out to get those better lines with friends, I hit my A line again which helped me pass a queue forming only to ride at speed into that same tree again – my poor bike, I also felt someone plough into the back of me! After a quick glance and shout back ‘are you alright’ I continued on. For the first time ever it was easier to run with my bike until I could get enough momentum to hop on. I cut out some of the turns and shot down rocks to instead to make more direct lines. It was like a kamikaze run. Katy caught me on the steep S bend and she left total devastation behind. With girls littering the floor I managed to track stand long enough to see a route through. My team mate Rebecca cheered me on as I went past which was nice to hear and the track started to get a little less congested for me – that final sprint was a killer to the finish line but it felt so good!

Katy Winton leaving devastation in her path!

 

I had a great time this weekend, not everybody did for different reasons. For some people it was a rollercoaster of emotions. The track was challenging in those conditions and I really enjoyed it. You need a challenge to get something out of it. I have benefited from riding in the mud all weekend and hopefully it’s made me a better rider. The girls that struggled with the track but still raced should be proud they did so. Redbull Foxhunt is a great event and I will be waiting at my computer to get a ticket next year – thank you to Rachel, Katy, and everyone for bringing so many girls together on one Welsh hill.

And as for mass start – I wish there were more races like it in the UK I think it’s like marmite you either love it or hate it – I hate marmite but I love the buzz of a mass start race.

Kate

Flow MTB Rider

Rebecca

The Redbull Foxhunt is a one of a kind event, celebrating everything that is good about womens riding in the UK. It is a mass start race for women at every level but has traditionally been aimed at non-racers and novice racers. The Fox aka a pro racer starts behind the other riders and the aim is for her to overtake as many riders as possible and get down the hill first. In previous years the fox has been Rachel Atherton but due to injury this year it was the rapid enduro rider Katy Winton.

I’ve seen the ladies racing scene grow over the last few years and the supportive camaraderie is just fantastic. The ladies generally practise together, helping with line choice and calming nerves. More experienced racers explain race rules and what to expect and everyone cheers each other over the finish line. An event that promoted womens participation sounded great and a weekend of riding with other women, catching up with friends, making new ones and generally having fun sounded perfect to me.

I had been invited to join a group of ladies in a luxurious cottage near the event. Initially I’d worried I would miss out on the atmosphere and then I remembered that the event was in October in Wales and the creature comforts of a fire, soft beds and a hot tub won me over! I arrived late on Friday night, tired from a long week and thoroughly looking forward to a lie in the next day as the event was due to start at 1pm with a rider briefing and riding then starting at 1.30pm. I was greeted with the information that all the timings had changed and briefing was now 8am. My lie in vanished but I was happy that we had more time to ride the track. However not everyone was so pleased as lots of people were travelling the next morning or had no idea the timings had changed. The internet exploded with worry and anger. A few hours later an email finally came round reassuring people you could still arrive according to the original schedule.

The next morning after an early start I looked properly at the new timings and realised we only got an extra 30 minutes to ride as they had just bought everything forward. Anyone arriving at the original timings was going to struggle to do any practise since it was now scheduled to finish at 12.30pm, 1 hour before it was originally supposed to start! The new schedule had removed the opportunity for a track walk so the A and B line options were going to need to be viewed as part of that first ride down. There were 2 places where the track split into A and B options so I figured they’d be pretty busy early in the day as people pulled over to have a look and watch what everyone else did.

We joined the uplift queue to go up for our first run and waited for a very long time. The uplift was being run by Antur Stiniog and was very well organised but there were only 4 buses and they had to drive in pairs as the single track lane to get up to the drop off meant they couldn’t pass each other. I didn’t mind queueing as I met some lovely ladies and I figured we’d have time for a quite a few runs, after all the track was only 2km long. Getting off the uplift we had a 15-20 minute walk/ride uphill to the start. The scenery was beautiful and I couldn’t wait to get on track.

A number of ladies were waiting nervously at the top before setting off in twos or threes. We set off down the track flying through the first sets of corners and boggy hillside. It was fast with off camber slidey corners that begged for some foot out action and by the time we entered the woods we were grinning from ear to ear.

We approached the first A and B line split and there were bikes and people all over the track so we pulled over to get a look encouraging others to move their bikes off the track so riders could get through. Both lines looked steep and muddy and it was a choice between a rooty rocky corner with a drop part way down in to very soft mud (A line) or steep, winding single track between trees (B line). In the dry the B line might have been fine but in the wet people were struggling to make the corners around the trees and were sliding everywhere. The Fox was up there reassuring people and discussing lines but the gang watching was getting bigger by the minute as people tried and failed to commit to the top of the B line or crashed part way down it. People were trying to walk and failing, arriving in a heap at the bottom with their bikes. We quickly realised we needed to get out of the way and shot off down the A line, sliding round the trees at the bottom and on to the next section.

We hit a section of slight uphill and stopped behind a group pushing up it. We followed them expecting to get back on at the top of the rise only to be greeted by a queue snaking away through the trees. We took the opportunity to check out the A and B split. A was a very steep rock slide and B was a wide swooping corner that was super muddy and slippery. We stood and waited in the queue. Then we waited some more. Rumours drifted back of someone injuring themselves further down the course. Red flags always happen at race events so we settled down and waited hoping the rider was ok. Finally the queue started moving but it quickly became clear that again some people could neither ride nor walk down the B line and it took a long time for it to be our turn. We set off in a train as usual which was fine until my team mate Kate slid out part way down the chute and I couldn’t stop. I swept her legs out from under her as I slid my back wheel round into the rut and left her laughing on the floor as I ploughed round the corner shouting apologies over my shoulder.

I rode straight in to the back of another queue, struggling to avoid smashing people down like skittles. I had ridden 50 metres. That was weird, either the track was open or it wasn’t but it made no sense to queue at a red flag then have to stop again immediately. Peering along it became obvious that there was another steep muddy chute and it was causing the same issues as the last one. The sight of the steep drop sign, other people crashing and the long wait had the fear level rising in the crowd. I expected to be able to ride the next section but I could feel the nerves rising as I stood and waited. We shot off down the next section but pushing our bikes slowly through the slop in the queue took its toll and our wheels were refusing to go round as the mud built up. We came out on to a fire road and were redirected off the course towards the farm yard. There were no signs or marshals and the angry farmer had to point people in the right direction to stop them riding through his yard. We rode into the arena having missed the last section of course which was undergoing some maintenance.

The course was difficult to session. There was no pushing back up allowed through the woods meaning the steeper sections couldn’t be sessioned. On other sections it was difficult to push up off the track because of the terrain. This meant getting a number of practise runs in was crucial. It also meant that people struggling to ride the sections were having a tough time as there was no opportunity to stay and practise the part they were struggling with.

We joined the uplift queue eager for another run and hoping that this one would be faster without the red flag we’d had in our first run. We got to the top and it was super quiet, so we hooned off down the top of the track whooping and sliding round the corners and in to the woods. We negotiated our way around the crowd to fly off the first A line choice and fought to avoid the trees so we carried speed for the uphill in to the rooty off camber through the woods…..and then we stopped again. Further back than we had last time.

The marshal explained that the track was busy as the steep sections were bottle necks due to riders crashing or walking down them. We chatted and tried to keep positive but as frustrations grew people started trying to push past and the nice friendly ladies race scene was nowhere to be found. People were cold, frustrated and the fear was rising again. I was struggling to keep my injured shoulder warm and as the pain caused by the stop start riding increased so did my frustration.

The marshal was calling riders forward as the chute was clear but yet again we rode around the corner straight in to the back of the next queue. I couldn’t understand why they were doing that rather than waiting until the track was clear, it made no sense. Our clear tyres bogged down pushing along the queue so even once we got the all clear to start we couldn’t get the speed on the flat section to clear our tyres. We made it down to the start of the last section which we had yet to ride and straight into another queue. Every feature that was steep and muddy had a huge queue as the riders struggled to cope with the conditions. People were crying in fear and frustration at not being able to ride a course they had expected to be within their ability.

We finally got into the field and I could barely contain my anger. It had taken just under 2 hours to do the first run and over 2 hours to do the second. I loved the course and desperately wanted to ride it but couldn’t ride it due to all the queuing and walking. I couldn’t believe they had designed the course so badly. It has been raining since July and although the weather and mud were not under the control of the organisers the track choice was. They had designed a track that had intimidating, steep and hard features in the wet conditions. For an event aimed at novice racers they had woefully underestimated how hard the track was and it was the riders who were paying for it. People were leaving, some were crying and the atmosphere was not the fun supportive one I had come to expect from UK racing. I bumped in to some friends who were similarly unhappy. It was an event for novices and they couldn’t ride the track so they felt it must mean they were really rubbish riders. I reassured them that they were good and it was a hard track but they were demoralised and talking of leaving.

The organisers must have realised something was going on as they were coming round saying that people who felt confident should go up to do their seeding run first rather than in number order. I asked if they had cleared the track and they had no idea the track was blocked with big queues! What the hell was going on, surely the marshalls were telling them? They went away and came back explaining they would wait to clear the track and riders would be held at the top. Great, more standing round getting cold.

Most people had done 1 or 2 practise runs, without a track walk this was nowhere near enough. The bottom of the course had been closed on our first run and we’d had to queue through the bottom on the second run. I was happy I could ride the track blind, I might not get the best lines but I could ride it. Other people were unsure, scared and struggling. I wondered if I had expected too much but given the scale of the event it should be well organised, people should get more than 1 or 2 practise runs and the course should be suitable for the standard of riders it was aimed at. I didn’t think that was expecting much at all.

Suddenly people were discussing whether to do seeding runs or not. Some couldn’t ride the track and weren’t sure it was worth it. Others couldn’t face more standing around. I was one of those. My shoulder was hurting as I couldn’t keep warmed up and if I went up to do a seeding run and had to stand around for another few hours I was risking a big injury and I’d already spent most of the year unable to ride.

I suddenly realised I was not having fun. I began to question why I was there, riding is supposed to be fun and this was not. I’ve never given up at anything before and as I stood there trying to decide what to do I got more frustrated. I wanted to do it but I was unhappy and making my shoulder worse. I’d driven 4 hours to get there and paid my entry fee, could I really walk away now or should I just suck it up and get on with it? My competitive chimp was jumping up and down demanding I get on with it, we wanted to win! I felt a sense of crushing disappointment. My expectations were high and this fell far short. I was trying to work through the head games of giving up and feeling increasingly unhappy as I did so.

I was furious at the organisers for organising it so badly. I was sad that ladies were upset and having a rubbish time. It was supposed to showcase ladies racing and it was the least supportive and most unfriendly atmosphere I’d seen at a race. I was struggling between my desire to leave and my competitive nature that hates giving up. I realised it wasn’t worth it and started putting my bike away. I changed my mind and waited for a bit. The uplift queue waited as well. 1 hour passed and still they hadn’t gone. I was freezing cold and thoroughly unhappy so I finally put my bike in the car and drove back to the cottage. I couldn’t remember a time I had been more frustrated and disappointed.

The cottage was empty and I had a lot of time on my own to come to terms with my decision. I nearly drove back to the event twice and I was running through the reasons that justified my choice. I felt like I needed to justify it. I knew that it was no-ones choice but my own but still I felt the pressure of needing to succeed. I felt like a failure and that was a hard feeling to live with. It was new to me. I’ve literally never given up at anything before, sometimes to my own detriment.

The other riders came back in dribs and drabs and no one was happy. 2 decided to call it a day and were going to ride elsewhere the next day. 1 had dropped out due to injury and one had seeded but was cross to be red flagged and not given an opportunity for another run. Another had seeded but was frustrated that they didn’t know passing etiquette so not only had they been held up but they had also been yelled at by another rider. My mood dropped further and I considered going home.

Results of seeding were celebrated until rumours came over the internet that positions were changing as the timings were wrong. They had missed some people out, got times wrong for others and were asking people what time they thought they might have had?! Dinner started early, another change to the schedule and confusion about seeding positions increased. I made my decision not to race but to go and watch. I wasn’t sure it was the right decision but the thought of standing at the top for hours then queuing down the track made me grumpy so it was the only decision that made sense. I hated it but I was going to have to live with it.

I got up the next day and went to the event village. There were people milling about that were super excited, they had done amazing seeding runs on an empty track and had fun doing morning practise on an empty track, they were loving it. I questioned my decision. Again.

There were other people not racing who couldn’t ride the track, were feeling inadequate and couldn’t cope with the stress of trying to race it. One girl was very upset as she wanted to race but couldn’t ride one section and was scared and frustrated. There were grumpy people who had been to other races and couldn’t quite believe the shambles they were experiencing. All it needed was some properly easy lines that people could ride or walk down to keep everyone moving and remove some of the fear and it would have been a different event. Someone came down injured and rumours spread that a marshal grabbed her bike trying to help her not crash but of course she hadn’t expected it and came off worse than falling. I had no idea if it was true but I could barely believe that could happen at what was supposed to be a professionally run event. Another girl told me the same happened to her but she didn’t hurt herself. What the hell was going on?

I tried to encourage people and describe the atmosphere, camaraderie and friendly support at other events. I think I might have convinced a few people to try a future event but others said they wouldn’t do anymore racing. The opportunity to showcase our sport had been lost and although some had a fantastic time a large group of women left thinking that this event was normal UK racing and would never do another one.

I stayed to watch the race and as the atmosphere built I felt sad to be missing out. Maybe I should have just joined in and got over myself? Everyone was having fun and the camaraderie and joy was finally present. As people cheered each other down I questioned my choice yet again. Then the carnage started with people trying to get off and walk down the track in front of riders. People were flying off the track as they tried to avoid those stopping and the queuing started. I thought my decision was probably right after all. My shoulder was feeling worse than it had at the harder races I had done the last couple of weekends. The stop starting had taken its toll and I was relieved to finally feel like I had made the right decision.

I got in my car to drive home feeling overwhelmed by the whole weekend. I felt defeated, angry, sad and disappointed.

The internet has been filled with posts saying how much fun the race was and how it made the whole weekend worthwhile. Lots of posts say that although the race was amazing the rest of the event was not fun and they had thought about leaving. I’m happy that people loved the race but surely the whole event should be good not just the last hour? Other people are disappointed as the fox did not start after everyone had gone past so they never got the chance to try and outrun her. The whole point of the event was to be chased down by the fox, changing it so that most people didn’t get chased by her seemed a weird choice.

A few days on the anger has subsided and I’m left feeling sad and shocked. For me it was never about racing, it was about meeting lots of new friends, feeling part of a great event and having fun riding bikes. I’m sad that people will think this is what racing is like and I’m disappointed that instead of leaving with the joy of success a large number of ladies left feeling like failures.

Previous events have been marred by bad organisation, uplifts that didn’t work or damaged bikes, food that ran out and yet this event still sold out in 12 minutes. I’m hopeful that means that ladies will still want to do events and perhaps the organisers will learn some important lessons from this weekend. Around 250 ladies entered but only people 173 finished the race. I’m sure that not everyone turned up and some will have got injured and been unable to race but nearly a third didn’t race whatever the reason.

To all those ladies out there reading this having experienced this weekend and also thinking they will never go again. Please come to small regional downhill races or the many enduros that are happening. Good ones that I know of are the mini downhills at the Forest of Dean, Ladies days at 417 or BPW (not races but great fun with likeminded people), Racers Guild downhill winter series at Stile cop and Forest of Dean enduros. Apparently the Hope and PMBA enduros are also amazing. People are friendly and the atmosphere is great. There are proper practise sessions to ride the track and there are always easier line options and places to walk down if that is what you want to do. The race scene is awesome fun, well organised and super supportive.

To all those that completed it, amazing, you guys should be super proud of yourselves for getting down that track.

I’m still questioning my decision. Although I am now sure it was the right, I still don’t like it. Will I go again? Not a chance.

Rebecca

Flow MTB Rider

Photo credits: I.S.T Photos, Dave Price, Dyfi Winter Warm Up, Leo Francis, Gavin Pugh

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