The time just flies during race season, it seemed that soon as we were getting over the ups and downs of the previous round, way up in Innerleithen, the next one was upon us, in the beautiful rural spot of Hamsterley Forest. A three and a half hour journey for us Shropshire lot was soon over, us being, bike breaker Bush, Bellis, little Vini and Neil (The Don) Donoghue. This time we chose the Friday morning option, as opposed to the Thursday evening when we travelled to Bonny Jockland the month before. We arrived at 1:30, unloaded, ate, then hit the race site to see what lay ahead. Steve Parr was his usual jolly self, finishing off putting together the MDE Carve 29er I had on test for the weekend (see separate test article) We were soon hitting the trails, with the first impression being how different Steve had got this event from the other two previous ones. It seemed to take me a good hour to get my brain out of driving mode and into riding mode, but as the enjoyment of the trails kicked in, the riding head soon followed.
Stage 1 Steep at first, natural woodland roots and rocks, pedally as hell after first quarter, tricky and pretty short.
Stage 2 Pretty much like Stage 1, but with an open stump garden, longer than Stage 1, lots of crafty off-camber straight grassy lines and a very tricky bit through an old wall, which bruised me and Bush up. Fresh cut track and a bit steeper at the bottom.
Stage 3 Started off on a 4x track, through some trees, steepened up, tricky rocky turns, then a bit of trail centre type stuff with loads of dodgy fly-off jumps over rocks and into bowls, technical, speeded up at the bottom with a nice drop and a few choices of lines on corners.
Stage 4 Bit more traily, some good fast stuff, with a nasty mid-way climb to sort out the leg merchants, then faster again to the bottom.
Stage 5 Now this (to me) was the best of the lot, loads of bermed trail centre type tuns, jumps and drops everywhere, so fast and flowing, so much fun.
The weather was pretty shitty all day, with the waterproof coming on and off like a hooker’s knickers, we were all done by 5pm, so it was back to the digs for bike wash and prep, ready for the following warm day ahead, yipee!
The sun was out right from the get go, this just improved things no end, we don’t get much of a summer over here, but on the sunny days, it makes it so worth while. On arrival I was blown away by how professional the whole race village is starting to look at these events, with more stands popping up here and there, we had the usuals of Twelve50 Bikes, Shimano, Billy Can, Whackjob, Empire Cycles, Horizon Motorhomes, Exempt Clothing and RWD Braking, but newbies included Sram, Whyte Bikes, Nuke Proof and Od-Pod bike stands. With the sun shining bright in the sky the atmosphere just seemed perfect, all riders and spectators seemed that much happier.
Up we went to do some stages, but didn’t really think it through, in hindsight we realise we should have done it in the order, stage 3, 4, 5 then 1 and 2, as 1 and 2 took most of the day to dry out. We ended up doing 1 and 2 first, and they were still wet and shitty, so we knew it would be “suck it and see” on race day. We decided to leave out Stage 4, as 5 seemed more essential for the seeding and myself and Bellis were tiring a little around midday.
It was unreal how much Stage 5 had dried out for the start of seeding at 3.30, I nailed it off the start to nearly loose it on the first corner, regained control kept her lit and pedalled my little heart out on the nifty MDE 29er. 3\4 the way down there was a 10 mtr line of rocks, which had to be ridden across at speed, I rode off the side of these to nearly stop and virtually bust my knees trying to get up to speed again in the wrong gear. Shortly after that I was in the finish arena where there was a right buzz of people sharing stories of their runs, I came in in 4th, STOKED! Little Vini (riding my GT on loan) placed a respectable 5th in U18, Bellis was none too chuffed with his run, Bush crashed as usual and The Don (after waiting a while to find out, due to the timing going down) came in 1st, 2 seconds up on Alex Stock. Unbelievably the top Master (and local boy!) Lee Kermode was only 1 second off the Don, you’d never catch us doing loads of practice if it was our local; Eastridge, honest!
Noticeable things on the day were more old faces seeming to show up out of the woodwork, like ex-BMX ace Chico Hook and a good old friend of mine, Nick Bayliss, co owner and original designer of Royal Racing, it never ceases to amaze me the variety of faces showing at these races. Hope had their riders out in force, from The Gaffer (and fast old bugger) Simon Sharp and their PR guru Rachael Walker who were out riding round with their top (but very cheeky!) rider Sam Flanagan, It still impresses me how such a big well known brand is owned and ran by grass roots, down to earth riders. I also had a good chat with Chris from Empire Cycles about a very exciting project I am planning for the most British bike out their (watch this space)
I was buzzing and Don just seemed like it was all in a days work, we hung around the pits for a while, mingling and chilling, then it was back to the digs for a much valued outside meal, looking over the beautiful rolling hills of County Durham.It just felt like it was what the weekend was all about, sat chilling with your mates in a beautiful spot, sharing stories on the ups and downs of the days riding, perfect!
Up earlier and it was apparent from the get go that it was going to be a scorcher, brilliant. Back on the trail after filling in my nifty little time-card supplied at sign-on, and it was great to think there was no stress about reaching any of the stages on time, due to the nice short transitions. Stages 1 and 2 had dried out considerably and were a totally different ball game, these are the two I dreaded after struggling in the mud before and crashing through the broken wall. I flew through them well and my confidence grew. It was great to be riding with the top Vets boys, Rob Carr on his battered old Scott Ransome with antique forks (what a nice guy), Gary Britton, Rich King and my old mate (rum lad!) Julian Poffley. We all being 40+ yr old big kids trading banter all day. After Stage 2 Rob, Gary and Rich told me how they had all had problems on stages 1 + 2 and it was my turn next, sure as the Pope’s catholic I went down near the end of Stage 3, straight over the bars as I tried to take a ridiculous tight line I hadn’t practiced, gutted. I span the bars back round 360 (all the time counting the seconds lost out loud) got back on after reaching about 7 secs then finished the run. Well some people might say that 29ers are a bit gay, and they may be right, as the tip of the seat had embarrassingly tried to insert itself where the sun don’t shine, shit man that hurt, as did my pride, well the boys were right! Crash out of the way and I finished Stage 4 and 5 a bit steadier with no dramas.
The bike was put away, armour top removed, vest on and it was time to check out the rest of the categories, as they came through to the excitement of the large crowds of spectators and racers hanging around the arena, with the sun at full power the atmosphere was perfect, that was until the live feed was lost, the times for the Seniors and Elite not being available as they came through. Timing problems is a real shame when it happens, and the hour+ wait at the end can be a real party pooper, I just hope it’s sorted for the next one. Donny told me how riders kept their phones on them at Punta Ala and were texted the results from each previous stage during the day, now that’s progress!
Women’s category saw Sally Evamy take the top spot over Liz Simmons, Under 18’s had a clear leader in DH ace Stu Wilcox over Joe Harrison and our very own Vini achieved his 1st podium on my GT (watch this kid, he has potential) Grand Vets had Simon (Mr Hope) Sharp take the win again with Howard Stuttard and (my old mate) Kev Baines in 3rd. I managed my best yet in Vets with 6th, Gary Britton was 1st, Michael Hodgeson 2nd and very pleased with his 1st podium was Julian Poffley in 3rd (nice one butt!) In Masters Lee Kermode smoked the competition with a 1min 12sec lead over Chay (Mr Cotic Rocket nice guy) Granby, Chey had a smile from ear to ear with his 1st UKGE podium, David Mirfield was 3rd. Bush had come in 26th Master after his usual crash-fest! Seniors had Andy Walker in 1st, ahead of Ben Slinger and Mat Fretwell. Helen Gaskell took her usual comfortable 2nd in Elite Women with T-Mo dominating again with nearly a minute advantage. When it came to the Elite men, Joe Rafferty must have been surprised to be knocked off the podium by 3rd placed XC ace Martyn Brookes, with the consistent Alex Stock in 2nd and our man Neil (The Don) Donoghue stamping his authority with an awesome display of riding perfection in the top spot and a 22 second advantage.
Big thanks to all that made this the best yet in my eyes, Steve Parr, Forestry Commission, all the event sponsors and exhibitors and most of all whichever supreme being you believe in (or not) for making it bright and sunny all weekend.
Words: Jim Buchanan Photos: Doc Ward (http://www.doc-photography.com/)