Just a walk in the park.
This was team-mate Martin’s analysis of how easy next years race would be as compared to the 24 hours of circular insanity we’d just participated in. I couldn’t help but point out that a) I had absolutely no intention of testing that theory and b) a ‘walk in the park’ well described my time out on the course.
Eastnor is many things. Spectacularly beautiful nestled as it is under the stunning Malvern Hills. Ideally set up for large scale events. Sufficiently lumpy to create interesting mountain bike courses*. All of these things and more. What it isn’t is particularly weatherproof, especially on the end of the wettest spring since Noah was a lad. The estate doesn’t allow for built trails, leaving the course to be cut through wood and shrubbery all joined by stony tracks.
So with rain comes mud as water floods off the hills creating a thousand rivers funnelling into freshly felled singletrack. 700+ riders out on the course for the full twenty four hours will deepen ruts in the middle and extend the mud out to the trail margins. That mud will either turn your bike into a static 40lb brown behemoth or you into something from a low budget swamp monster flick.
Mayhem being a bit muddy isn’t a new thing. But 2012 will be a high water mark for as much dread and horror mixing rain and dirt can bring. Some people love that kind of challenge. Team Mate Sean is one of those nutters who relishes challenging himself in yet more terminally stupid ways. His event bike sported a set of race tyres, bugger all frame clearance, a rear brake some ten years old and steering geometry even more venerable that that.
He was our fastest rider, the one who had the best accident, the muddiest after a spectacularly grim final lap, the most innovative in terms of bike washing and personal hygiene** and the man most likely to declare himself ‘fit and ready‘ to get back into the rain and shit, the damp and slip, the pain and suffering. And all the time he’d be smiling, grinning, absolutely loving it.
I’m not like that. Wish I was. But my attitude can be pretty much summed up by the ethic that while I accept working hard pays off in the long run, cheating works right now. Give me a challenge to hurdle and I’ll run round the outside clutching a book of excuses. Pit me against difficulty when there’s an easier option and find me slacking off, beer in hand honing displacement techniques.
Don’t like racing. Don’t like being crap at racing. Don’t like tents. Don’t like rain. Don’t like carrying my bike. Not bustingly keen on sliding head first into trees. Can find other more interesting things to do than ruining a hundred quids worth of drivetrain in single digit kilometres. And mud, especially that endless five foot river of slime and slop? Christ no, I’ve clearly been reincarnated from a Californian.
My laps (yes there was more than one, no not that many more) had a number of highlights. T-boning some poor rider who fell in front of me some five minutes in was the first; an accident which would have been more amusing had I not performed involuntary keyhole surgery with a brake lever as I exited stage front. The mud quickly closed over my bleeding knee but failed to offer any anaesthetic qualities. I am unique in my ability to ride while limping, which is as close to anything famous about the rest of the laps.
I found myself laughing a lot tho. Because there were many brave riders working harder than I and none of them were crying, so I settled for a happy grimace. I laughed at pro riders falling over and struggling to get back up. I laughed at how bloody accomplished these same riders were carrying speed through sections I was hobby-horsing through – testicles on the top tube and feet quicksanding into bottomless gloop. I laughed at and with everyone else being mostly sideways almost all of the time.
I even managed a grin when I was overtaken by someone who was walking. While I was still riding. That’s classy Al I thought, can’t even beat a bloke who is carrying his bike, if you were a racehorse they’d just shoot you now. Something I’d have gladly accepted – nay begged for – come the climb out of the campsite for the 2nd half of the lap. I know this area very well, yet never realised there were four obelisks on the top of that hill. Either than or we attacked them in some kind of bastard pincer movement.
Quite slowly it has to be said, except for a triple-arrowed ‘DANGER‘ marked rocky descent which us Malvern-boys eat for breakfast*** where great satisfaction was had blasting past those on the mincing line. However such was the uncontrolled speed of Team Antler (long story, now I can’t pass any of my team without making the sign of the horns. It’s not something a 44 year old man should be doing apparently) riders that the normal instruction of ‘passing on your right or on your left‘ was not really appropriate.
Which is why I’m fairly sure, in the entire history of mountain bike racing, any poor bugger has had to content with “ON YOUR BEHIND” before a wild eyed man barely clinging to the bucking ugly-stick bounced flashed by jauntily punching him in the ribs with the handlebars. He overtook me on one of the endless climbs between then and post lap beer therapy. It was him all right, I could feel the hate.
The rest of it was fairly bloody miserable. There’s all this bullshit that ‘you take your own weather with you in your mind‘ positive thinking, but my counter-argument is the ACTUAL weather is waiting for you on arrival. It’s hard to get excited about a 16k lap which takes nearly two hours, the reason for which is simply that walking in knee deep mud takes a while.
If it was just me, it’d have been just me going home. Assuming I turned up in the first place. But my team was simply too brilliant to let down even by a man rarely troubled by any feelings of guilt. Sean – we’ve established – team nutter, relentlessly positive supported ably by his wife Kay who makes the BEST BREAKFAST IN HEREFORDSHIRE, and can be relied on to locate the ‘you know long metally thing with a spike on the end‘ during periods of desperate pre-lap maintenance.
Martin is impossible to faze. I think it’s spending his working life with sheep that allows him to suffer sleep deprivation, seas of mud and broken machinery with unfailing humour. While, like me, he didn’t enjoy much of the lap, the good bits were more than good enough to make up for the trudgery (new word, OED informed!) of the other 90%. Sean’s Lad – Kieron – was impervious to dampness and difficulty tackling the course in a pair of tractionless trainers, while attacking the descents with the immortality of youth.
And with various friends popping in to point and laugh, it made for a brilliant atmosphere that was reflected across most of the teams. We were parked up next to Team Sumo who – with their glitterball and 80s back catalogue – cheered us during the exceptionally trying periods, as did their incessant “JUMP JUMP JUMP” chant as riders passed their hastily assembled ramp.
Me? I was essentially bipolar; going from adrenaline fuelled machismo to chin-in-hands depression hating everything that was hard. Until I gave myself a talking too, got my arse out of bed at 4am and went back out there not because I wanted to, but because everyone else was doing so without complaint. And you know what? It wasn’t quite as fucking awful as I expected. There’s probably a lesson to be learned there.
So in summary- Fucking Dreadful. Slightly less summarised – as I slithered out of a car park full of wrecked bikes, marooned cars and endless – and I MEAN ENDLESS – mud, I found myself somewhere between happy and relieved. Happy that it was over, relieved I didn’t really let anyone down. Happy that I’d been a part of something that will soon pass into legend, relieved it wasn’t because I’d smacked myself in the head with a tree. Happy to see so many riders of all abilities just bloody well get on with it, relieved I had a team of friends who made sure I did the same.
Oh yeah and this. Somehow – and I place 100% of the blame on my team mates here – we ended up 40th in our Category. From a pool of 180. That’s so inadequately slack I’m quite upset about it. Something I might have to put right next year.
If I wasn’t retired.
* Some of you would argue that the Mountain Mayhem course is not interesting. I would then direct you to the Marin Rough Ride and rest my case.
** By throwing the bike into the lake and diving in after it. I love Sean, he’s my kind of bonkers.
*** Sometimes through the simple approach of smashing into it face first.