With the van packed with the tent and bikes, we left the sunny South in search of good times, both on and off the bike up North in the Yorkshire Dales.
Leaving the South after lunch on Friday, it took us 7 hours of bike chat and British motorway road works to reach our destination. Funny as earlier that week, looking at a map I had decided it was not that far away (compared to the weeks before annual road trip to the Alps). I found myself wondering why I don’t make more use of the terrain further North. Down South, here on the English Riviera we class North as “anything up from the M4 motorway!”. The Friday afternoon reaffirmed why as we sat there barely moving as what felt like the entire country attempted to squeeze through endless sections of road works on the M1 motorway.
When we finally arrived in the Dales, both Martyn (Top dog at Rockets and Rascals in Poole, Dorset and previously of Santa Cruz Syndicate fame as Josh Bryceland’s mechanic, not to mention other teams and racers on the world cup Downhill scene) and I commented how we hadn’t seen much in the way of signs to set our minds at ease and clarify we were in fact in the right part of the world for what had been described as “a must do!” event.
We drove through idyllic countryside of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and village after village. The road reached the cosy Bridge Inn pub of Grinton on our right hand side we looked left past the 12th century Church of St. Andrew as our eyes were greeted to a mass of tents, vans and people as far as you could see, we had arrived.
Friday night we had just about enough daylight time to erect the tent and get ourselves familiar with the lay of the land before the tractor beam of the event village bar pulled us in for a couple of ales each. The ales only aided in my first nights sleep in the tent.
We woke up, scrambled from our sleeping bags and climbed out of the tent to be welcomed by a beautiful morning with the sun shining and light fluffy clouds over head. After breakfast we geared up and headed out on the bikes to spin our legs off and spread our wings a little around the short one hour demo loop. The loop was popular enough to keep the festival feel whilst out and away from the event village, with people about all enjoying both the weather and the trails in equal measures.
The loop took us out through Grinton and across a bridge over the picturesque River Swale and past the pub before we started the climb which is made up of a steady ride-able gradient up to the top of moorland hill covered in heather in its purple bloom. We had a job finding the trail that dropped down off the hill, but when we finally did we were treated to a mixture of rock strewn single track to dry ruts beneath the heather, passing through a gate and then contouring the hillside with a smattering of rocks and wetter sections of trail before it turns down through a number of farmer’s undulating fields. It was fast and furious with all the lower gates propped open by the local land owner assisting us to keep our speed until it reached the road. We turned right, rolled along and before we knew it we were back at the Bridge Inn for a cheeky couple of well-earned beers. The pub was busy by this point with riders all making the most of Saturday’s conditions and getting their eye in on local trails.
After riding a stroll around the many exhibitors in the event village was a must. Taking in new products and ranges for 2018 on show from the likes of Santa Cruz, Whyte, Orange, Specialized and Hope Technology plus many more.
Dinner, beers and live music was the order for Saturday night. With the Maxxis pump track challenge taking place that evening too. With a years full sponsorship deal on offer from the tyre manufacturing supremo Maxxis making for a fierce battle after the majority of the participants had ridden the arduous 45km Enduro race a few hours before. But it was the DMR team rider Jono Jones who took the top honours on the pump track and the 2018 maxxis deal.
Ard Rock runs the 45km main Enduro race on the Saturday, riders then get to relax, wind down and listen to the live music. We witnessed quite a mosh pit and a number of individuals getting carried away with the crowd surfing whilst on our best behaviour the night before our Sport enduro race.
Early Sunday morning and we were woken by the pitter patter of rain on the outside of the tent. No point in festering in there we got up and fuelled up with breakfast and coffee, readying ourselves for what will be a long day on the push irons.
Once registered, we eagerly mustered on the start line ready to race the 6 stages blind. We set off at 10.20am. The rain had passed now, but the clouds over head still had a threatening look to them. We left the event village and gently warmed up as we climbed the road on the untimed transition to the start of stage 1 passing some riders who had already taken the decision to dismount and push their ride. For some it was gonna be a very long day out.
Stage 1 was the longest and included off camber open sections. On occassion crossing sections of fist sized rocks laid across the line and between the race tape. We entered the field, swung 90 degress to the left on a flat greasy grass turn, sprinting hard before getting on the brakes tipping in left again but this time on slippery muddy, flat corner and then I found myself in the dark amongst the trees and catching slower riders in front. The stage dropped steeply once in the woods, with rocks covered in mud, waiting in hiding to claim their next victim. By now we were close again to the event village and the woods were full of goading spectators. They eagerly waited for riders to fall foul in the slippery, steep section. No such luck from me. I kept it rubber side down for the time being. Crossing the line, I was buzzing. What an opening stage!
Onwards to stage 2. Here we were greeted to a slow rolling flat boggy grass sprint at the start to really get your heart rate up before you enter a section of steep switch back corners and a traverse across the hill. This traverse had it all; a never ending off camber section, then a brutal boulder field to rattle through and followed by a couple of short climbs to challenge you and knock off any of the speed you were carrying. Once over this section it began to really speed up, with undulating, fast grassy turns. I found myself clattering the marker poles with both sides of my handle bars as I fought to stay as tight to them as possible. Just as you reach the bottom of the stage you smash quickly through yet another rock garden before ducking right and crossing the line. WOW!
After stage 2 there was a long transition to the 3rd. With the rain in the morning, this transition was slick and slippery to start. What would be a beautiful singletrack section had been turned into a death trap of wet, muddy grass and numerous streams and water splashes. Never the less both Martyn and I made our way through it unscathed. Together the transition followed beside the river before we joined the road. We passed dozens of “racers” seeking a well deserved refreshment break in the Red Lion Inn in High Green. This goes some way to explaining the difference between the ‘Main’ enduro race on Saturday and the ‘Sport’ race on Sunday. The same 6 stages within the same total length (45km), but its more of a mates race, relaxed atmosphere.
After what felt like forever climbing up to the start of the quarry like stage 3, I grabbed a brief snack and few gulps of water, just about caught my breathe and I was off again. This was a stage with a lot of rock and steep technical chutes. One chute dropped you into a particularly wet, flooded section, I struggled here. As a marshal screamed “stay to the right!!!” Too late I was committed and splashed right through the deepest part knocking off all my speed causing me to take a foot off the pedal in panic and i grounded to a halt almost whilst rising up out of the ‘pond’.
It eventually dropped you out onto double track path that forced you to attack with everything you had in the tank. Racing blind brings out the best in your riding as long as you can lay everything down on the stage. I love it, but its a fine line balancing how deep you go on sections like this. “How long will this last?”
Luckily not much further. Stage 3 you really had to attack. But the final tight flat corner was slippery and caught out a number of quick riders. There was a sprinkling of tiny stones like cat litter on the already wet surface. Try to take too much speed in the final corner before the line could spell disaster for your time. I skidded to halt after I crossed the line. my best stage stage so far.
The organisers laid on a much need feed station at the finish of stage 3. I re filled my bladder in my bag and rolled on down to the road. We decended with speed down to the bottom of the road turned left and began the climb to the start of stage 4. What a climb it was. I began to struggle with a back injury i had suffered a few weeks before at this point in the race. Just as i swung my leg off my bike to stop and stretch my back out. “BANG”! my quads in both legs cramped up. Leaving me just stood there, helpless.
The next minute there were five guys all suffering the same crippling cramp as myself. Screams of pain sounded out from a couple of the lads. They had this a lot worse than myself. I remounted and gently got going again up the climb. It soon wore off and I was away again trying to keep up with Martyn.
After my stage 3 performance I felt much better about my riding and I felt like I had finally got into the race. Bit late now I know, It’s something I always struggle with and Ard Rock was no different. I dropped into stage 4, it was wildly fast with the stage being relativily straight and with no slowing down for tight corners. Up here on stage 4 the wind was the only thing to slow us down. By now there were four of us in a freight train rattling down the stage. We caught some slower riders and positioned myself too far to the right on the last steep roll in before the small rise. I looked well ahead, off to the right I went to line up for the next corner after the rise to make a safe pass. Before I knew it I was out of the front door and heavily winded on the ground. Luckily I was so far off line I was not an obstruction. Well that hurt alot. I straightened my bars and got sheepishly going again. My front brake lever and shifter were both facing skyward. I got finished. I had lost a lot of time and I was in trouble. Martyn and the boys pulled me and my bike together and we pushed out of the finish area of stage 4.
Once out of the steep, narrow gorge we remounted and rolled down a double track. I was battling to stay in this race now. I was struggling to lift my right arm and hold my bars. But if i could get to the next stage start I could make the decision to retire from the race or continue.
After what felt like an eternity we reached stage 5. I had decided to roll down. Stage 5 was the least technical, but was insanely fast if you weren’t crocked. Little blind crests and small lips were along the entire stage. I cautiously got through it. Definetly not riding my bike and not attacking the stage, I just held on and rolled down. I only had one more stage to go, I could do this, I could finish.
The start of stage 6 was not far from the finish area of number 5. I got on and pedalled up to the start. From up there you could clearly see the event village and all the camping fields. We dropped in with me at the back of the train of four. Through a gate and turned right, straight into the roaring wind. It instantly caught my 29 inch wheels and blew me off line to the left. We had heard from the night before that stage 6 had some fast open grass turns and it would be the person who could risk staying off the brakes in the slick conditions today who would do well on this final stage. I managed to pass a couple of slower riders again on this stage with my adrelin buzz you would never of thought I had been considering retiring about 40 minutes earlier. This stage reminded me of old downhill races of old. Fast and with your inside foot out and just let the bike run as much as you’d dare. I crossed the line, done. I finished and survived (just). Six awesome stages and 45km of great trails and brilliant racing.
We were lucky with the weather as it never really rained to the point that i needed a jacket and it would have meant for an even longer than the six hours in the saddle. I was even more lucky to have only come away with two cracked ribs, a dislocated collarbone and a dented ego. Things could have been a lot worse.
So as I sit here, one handed typing this story, I look back on an awesome weekend and one adventure I hope to relive (obviously not the crashing part) again next year.
Thanks for reading!
Dean Hersey- Pedal Addict