Not even the heaviest rainfall in 5 years could dampen the spirits of the 350 field of excited riders who turned up to race in the Irish National Champs yesterday. To the enduro mad locals, this was more important than the Football World Cup, more prestigious than the commonwealth games, and it was all going to play out in the emerald woodland of Djouce, just west of Wicklow. The challenging conditions of deep mud and rain made for a heady cocktail of action, and one rider summed up the conditions perfectly, “fun but also dangerous, like a shark with a funny hat on”.
This was my first riding trip to Ireland, and from the minute I arrived I was impressed by the passion and dedication of the local riders. The National Champs is run by Niall Davis from www.gravityenduro.ie and his crew of 25 hard working marshals, and has become one of the most popular events of the racing calendar. Normally Djouce is bone dry and dusty during this time of year, and indeed it was a couple of days before practice, but it seemed that the weather had other plans. As practice began on Saturday the skies opened and on came the rain. However, it was still all smiles as riders headed up onto the hill and started to try and scope lines in the mud.
It was pretty clear from practice that the average level of riding was really high, and not many people seemed to be struggling that much in the challenging conditions. It was clear that enduro is alive and well in Ireland, and everyone was up for the craic. It was certainly one of the most welcoming events I had raced so far. There is such a passionate tight knit community of riders, everyone knows everyone, and all are keen to see both friends and rivals do well.
After a tough days practice, wheel holes had become huge, and the carnage level had switched from humorous to a full on carnival. Everyone knew the tracks were going to be a mess come race day, and there were many different opinions on whether it would be better if it stayed wet, or if the sun would dry it out a bit. Luckily, even though the trails were really wet, there was still plenty of traction, there was still grip rather than grime. I had a lot of fun chasing the Scottish ringer I had arrived with, James Knowles, hailing from Innerleithen he was going to be a deadly weapon in the mud. After an awesome day on the pedals Djouce forest had certainly not disappointed, with amazing trails and an epic waterfall.
As I passed trail after trail, I was blown away with how much work had gone into making the trails flow as well as they did. Fast and entertaining natural trails were everywhere, and there was a huge amount of roots and rocks to keep things spicy. With 6 stages and a healthy amount of climbing most riders headed home to get set for a big day of racing ahead. With both Dan Wolfe and Gav Carroll fresh from solid results representing in the EWS, it was sure to be an exciting day of racing. We popped down to Poppies Café for a huge slice of Guinness and beef pie, then went in search of a Guinness chaser.
The morning brought better weather, but the trails were still decidedly soggy. The timing system was perfect, using a transponder chip that flashed red as you passed through the finishing gates. Gone was the entertaining dibber dance as you frantically tried to make sure you checked in at the end of each stage. After a sweet rolling start, Stage one started out with a flat-out pedal over a slippery section, back end kicking out all over the place, then soon turned rowdy as it dived down over some big, rooty muddy passages, where none of the lines really worked. There were a few sections where you had to thread the needle through tight rock gardens at speed and a couple of exciting steep muddy chutes to test your resolve.
I had plenty of action myself, I should have known from the start that the guy 3 riders in front of me wearing a piss-pot helmet painted like a watermelon was going to be a rascal. About half way down the stage I rounded the corner into the steepest chute, the hollering spectators were shouting something that I hoped to be encouragement. Keen to put on a show I pinned into the chute only to find Mr Watermelon Head clawing frantically back up to his bike that was laid neatly right across the middle of the trail. Comedy ineffectual breaking ensued, before I inevitably collected his bike as a hat. After a quick de-tangle and some good natured banter it was a sprint to the finish. A couple of high fives with my new friend marked the end of an awesome stage.
Stages two, three and four were also great fun, with short transfers and intense action. A great collection of mud, berms, roots and relentless fun, it was seat of the pants riding and from the vibe on the hill, everyone was having a ball. Whenever the trails crossed the fireroad, there would be a collection of spectators who were out in force despite the weather. Camaraderie was high and when I had a puncture everyone stopped to ask if I had everything I needed. The crew from Dublin based club MADmtb were out in force and it was great to catch up with the good-time lads.
Stage five was a different beast altogether, after a big old haul over to the other side of the hill, Niall had turned the gnar right up to 11. Starting out with a hectic blast over endless webs of criss-crossed slippery roots, good tyres or ninja reactions were essential, it was total purgatory if you were a rider that believed in control or a sense of direction. The track suddenly pitched down steeply and things got a little crazy. Then came the crux, and the one that I had heard discussed throughout the day, after a short fireroad blast, the trial fell down a savage double step, full of roots holes and deep mud. Racer after racer charged into this with shouts of “rider”, before being ejected over the bars to join the rest of the breast stroking racers. This had attracted quite the crowd of spectators, torn between baying for carnage and applauding the successful. Most rolled into the bottom of the stage, plastered in mud, bruised and grinning from ear to ear. Stage six was more of an expo stage, a fast blast back to the arena, with the tunes pumping, and a welcome non-alcoholic beer.
It was great checking out the Irish enduro scene, these folk love their bikes and can certainly ride, from watching the top riders and the amazing juniors, I would put money on one of the next big EWS stars coming from the Emerald Isle. Despite the weather the day was a great success, if you have not been over to Ireland yet, get yourself signed up for one of the events. You will be sure of a very welcome reception, though let me warn you, if you intend to go out drinking with these lads, start practicing now; they are champions!
Your New Irish Champions
There were many standout performances over the day, Dan and Gav fought it out and in the end it was Dan who put down the most power to take the victory on his Enduro 29er. In the women’s category Leah Maunsell dominated, winning every stage. And watch out for the rapid juniors, David Conroy, Conor Lavelle and Killian Callaghan, these guys were rapid.
Full results can be downloaded here
For more information about the series check out: http://www.gravityenduro.ie/
Words: Trev Worsey
Photos: Cat Smith