Ard Rock Enduro is a weekend long bike festival in Fremington, North Yorkshire with four sold out races hosting some 4,000 riders. I loved the event last year, but a sliced tyre on stage 1 killed any hopes of posting a respectable time, so I was looking forward to having another crack.
I joined a group of mates from the Isle of Man to ride the main enduro; 6 stages through slag heaps, old quarries and farmland spread over a 25 mile loop with almost 4,800ft of climbing. Stages 1, 2 and 6 were open to practice on Friday, but the remaining three were to be rode blind, making it that little bit harder to ride at race pace.
With practice on the Friday, I decided to take Thursday off work to allow myself plenty of time for the 300 mile drive. I arrived in Fremington late afternoon, but there wasn’t too much going on, so I had a great idea to kill a bit of time – I walked up to the end of the last stage to stash a few beers to share with the boys at the end of the race.
After a relaxed morning getting the bikes prepped and signing on, we went out for practice about 11. The night’s rain had disappeared but there was still a breeze in the valley, which had become a strong wind by the time we reached the top of Fremington Edge, the hill that held stages 1, 2 and 6.
Stage 1 seemed a little shorter than last year. It was still going to be an exhausting stage with a decent length mid-stage pedal, but a short climb had been removed. I was glad to see that the small rock garden which sliced my tyre last year had received some changes which now gave us the option to hit a jump and fly over the rocks.
The transition to stage 2 was a killer; a long climb then a slog across boggy moorland. The stage had a good mix of riding; flat out fields, fast singletrack, alpine switchbacks and technical rock sections, much of which would become far faster by knowing it better. I’d have liked to take a second practice run, but I couldn’t face riding across the marshes again.
Stage 6 was largely the same fast, grassy trail as last year, with the addition of a couple of new jumps and the finish being moved to a field further down the hill. The stage highlight is a drop into a steep descent with a big compression at the bottom. Every part of your brain is screaming “BRAKE!”, but to carry speed through the next section you need to keep it pinned.
When we got back to the campsite I noticed one pedal felt like it was working itself loose. Ison, the UK distributor for HT Components, were displaying in the race village so I popped in to see if there was anything they could do. They advised that the internals needed servicing but they didn’t have any spares with them. Since the pedals were in warranty, the guys kindly provided me with a new pair to ensure I could race. This was very much appreciated, and the kind of customer service that carries a lot of weight when looking at future purchases.
Our race day started at 10.15, and despite the long climb which normally spreads the field, there was still a big queue for stage 1. I set off after Corkish, allowing him a decent gap but still close enough so I had someone to chase.
I was a bit too casual through the old quarry sections at the top, but something clicked and I remembered I was there to race and stepped it up a level. I put in a good shift along the flat section and passed three people, in addition to the one in the quarry, so I knew I was going alright. I was probably pushing a little too hard as I entered the trees at the end of the stage. I clattered through the rocks completely ragged with both feet bouncing off the pedals, much to the amusement of the crowd. I managed to recover and crossed the line feeling like I’d had a decent run (60th out of 230 in class).
I followed ‘Tesco’ Dave down stage 2 but couldn’t match his pace when we hit the exposed singletrack. Instead of risking a crash trying to keep up, I eased off and had a pretty unspectacular run, not making any mistakes but knowing I could have pushed much harder (61st).
We took our time on the next transition, allowing us all to regroup having split on the way up to 2. Once all together there was no chance we would be riding past the Red Lion without stopping to ‘refuel’. I enjoyed a sandwich to keep energy up, a bag of ready salted to prevent cramp, and a pint of Black Sheep to wash it down before readying myself for the long climb ahead.
Stage 3 is rode blind but was similar to last year, a narrow, rocky line meandering through a gully before a flat out wide track to finish. It’s not the most difficult of trails, but the amount of rocks littering the track can be quite intimidating, so it’s the sort of stage that rewards the brave, not one of my strong points.
I set off chasing down Pat, telling myself to commit to the trail, knowing I’m more than capable enough to ride it at speed. Unfortunately, there is a downside to being overly committed on a blind stage – I flew down a bank and ploughed full speed into a massive swampy puddle. BANG. I felt my front wheel smash into a big rock. By the time I’d made it through the puddle and up the bank on the other side, both wheels were losing air. The impact was significant enough to dent my front rim.
I was furious. A sliced tyre had ruined my event last year so I’d spent a chunk of money on two brand new tyres for Ard Rock but punctures had stole the show again. Luckily I had 2 spare tubes so could continue, but my race was over. I popped the tubes in and rushed to get some air in with my mini pump, knowing I just needed to get to the bottom where I’d be able to use a track pump to get the tyres to a more suitable pressure.
After getting going and riding one chute, I realised I was risking further punctures riding on low pressure, so I pulled in to pump up my tyres properly. At this point I knew my chances of a reasonable finish were over, so I relaxed, took my time and had a chat with a marshal and some other people that were stopped with mechanicals. Two lads were having to call it a day so kindly offered me an inner tube each, providing me with reassurance that I had spares in case of another puncture.
I rolled into the bottom of the stage some 32 minutes after starting, amazed to see that Pat and Moore had waited for me, cheers boys.
Just as we set off, the heavens opened and we were instantly soaked. The breeze seemed to be doing a good job of keeping the clouds moving and by the time we reached the top of stage 4 the showers had passed.
Stage 4 was another blind stage; in and out of a rocky gully a couple of times then onto a grassy hillside with a couple of switchbacks and back into the rocks to finish. I was sketchy at the top and ran off course at one point, no doubt riding too tight after the frustration of 3. As the trail reached the grass section I went to get on the power but my chain had come off. I’m still not sure how this happened, I use a chain guide to stop the chain bouncing off the chainring, and the only time I’ve ever lost a chain before was in the Southern Enduro where I crashed and my chain guide had clogged with mud.
As I replaced my chain, I was passed by Pat, Moore and one other guy. I quickly caught the other guy but didn’t push to get past him, my race was over by this point, and I didn’t want to risk another puncture going off line. I eventually passed him on the 2nd switchback but as I rolled down the final chute I felt my rear tyre getting soft. I couldn’t believe I’d got another puncture, but at least it was right at the end of the stage (163rd).
The climb from the bottom of 4 was impressive, we crossed a river then climbed a rocky footpath that skirted round the outside of the hill. A million miles away from what I see on my Surrey Hills rides!
Stage 5 was a new addition this year. We watched a few set off and the trail appeared to be almost flat as it flowed through slag heaps before disappearing out of sight. I am usually pretty handy at these fast flowing stages, where I can use my power to my advantage, so I was keen to make amends for the previous two stages.
We had no idea how long the stage was, but I didn’t worry about saving energy, putting in hard cranks to get up to speed as soon as possible. The gradient soon took over as the trail dropped into a gully. I missed one opportunity to make up time, foolishly following the worn track round a hairpin when there was the option to blast straight through the middle, but apart from that I felt good and was carrying lots of speed.
Lower down the stage was lined with riders shouting encouragement as they made their way back up the hill. As the trail followed a narrow line through the heather, the shouts of “pedal” caused me to get a bit carried away. I pushed too hard and was sent flying when my front wheel ran wide and clipped the heather. Luckily I landed in one of the only soft spots on the Ard Rock (it is as ‘ard and rocky as the name suggests) so was unhurt but wasted a few seconds getting back on the bike. I reached the finish and collapsed in a heap – half exhausted, half winded (96th).
Stage 6 was my best stage last year, and as it was the end of the day, I know I could push without worrying about puncturing. I set off handy enough, but was caught out at one of the collapsed stone walls, where some large rocks had moved, making it far trickier than in practice. I hit both of the jumps fairly well and kept it tidy to the finish, where the rest of the lads were waiting with a beer (77th).
We watched a few riders come through before making our way back to the event village for the presentations and an evening of beer and live music.
If it weren’t for the disastrous stages 3 and 4, I’d be on course to finish in the top 1/3, a result I would have would been delighted with. This is however, an irrelevant point as avoiding mechanicals and making it round the full loop is all part of the game.
It looks like I’ve still got unfinished business, so I’ll be doing my best to get an entry to tackle the Ard Rock beast for a third time.