Whilst events all across the country were being cancelled due to the last minute freak snow storms, Afan seemed to be surrounded by a protective barrier, fortunately keeping the white stuff away for the whole weekend! But believe me, although the snow was abated, the cold weather definitely wasn’t, with temperatures varying from 2 degrees in the forest to a  bone chilling minus 3 up the tops of the mountains, man it was Baltic!


 Neil Donoghue cutting loose!  Photo by Doc Ward (doc-photography.com)

We were all expecting a pedal-fest of a track, but what was thrown upon us was more than just tough, with the cold weather sapping the lung-needing oxygen and making riding even more laboured. The order of the weekend was the same as ever, five stages, all to be ridden and timed on during Sunday, the fifth of which we were timed on Saturday afternoon after practice to get our seeding order, with that time also going towards our overall time.


 Tough climbs in the Afan Trail Centre! Photo by Doc Ward (doc-photography.com)

Over the course of the weekend I was amazed just to see the amount of old-skool UK Downhillers that were making a comeback into racing, it was amazing to see and catch up with these people. The trail centre seemed alive with the hustle and bustle of riders making their first appearance with their new (and some older) steeds, all brimming with the anticipation of whether they had done enough over the winter to cut it at such a tough Enduro race! This thing is definitely getting bigger, with a presence from Mavic, Shimano and Team GT, with set-ups dotted around the paddock amongst the smaller players like Horizon Motorhomes, Doc Ward Photography and Twelve50 Bikes.


 Also amongst the mix was a stand where Empire Cycles were sporting their new MX-6 Enduro bike (watch this space for future factory tour!) Photo by Doc Ward (doc-photography.com)

Then there were the riders, could Tracy Moseley show the rest of the female elite riders her usual dominance, could Neil Donoghue on his first 29er outing give Dan Atherton a run for his money, Dan sporting a rather special medium wheel sized GT! What about Richi Lewis, doing his 1st ever elite race at the fresh young age of 44, could he cut the mustard?!! The amount of bigger wheeled bikes was impressive, but not really a surprise, at this, the toughest of tracks, when it comes to long uphill sections.


 Mud glorious mud!  Photo by Doc Ward (doc-photography.com)


The other four stages were all within a relatively short distance from the race village and over the zero degrees bracket, but Stage one, “oh my god” I thought I was going to ride back to my house before I got there at one point! The fire tracks that took you up and up out into the open just seemed to go on forever, as you passed the massive wind turbines and the temperature dropped and dropped. Lots of riders (as this was probably the simplest of “trail centre” style stages) chose to conserve their energy and ride this blind on race day, after nearly two hours there and back, in hindsight, I’d say they were right!


 Dan looking to kick of his season with a win!   Photo by Doc Ward (doc-photography.com)


More trail centre stone stuff, some fast and flowing, but other bits flat and uphill to bust your lungs and drain your legs, pretty simple if you were out on a trail ride, but (as ever) a hell of a lot tougher under race conditions!


 Tough conditions for racing!  Photo by Doc Ward (doc-photography.com)


Starting off with some lovely  flowing bermed-up stone corners in the first section, the buzz of which was soon the last thing on your mind, as the 200 metre sprint (or more like sat down man dying on a bike impression, making bag-pipe noises from me) then it was down onto the second section, where things speeded up and got fast and furious, with gnarly trail centre type stuff, but to be honest I found myself just hanging on like a passenger down there trying to recover from the fire road!


 Dan on his way to victory! Photo by Doc Ward (doc-photography.com)


Now what can I say about this stage, let’s just say this is the one that got everyone talking, with lots moaning! The first half was more of the same similar to the first three stages, but ending in some real snotty, natural soil and rooted corners. Down a bermed-up, stone corner section, cross the road and the controversial section began. To be honest in practice it was much worse, it was downhill of sorts, no stone at all, natural being the definitive word, with roots everywhere, to make it interesting. The first 3/4 of this section was worked on between practice and race day and made much more ride-able for a decent level of rider, but the last quarter is when the fun really began. This consisted of mud deeper than Cyprus’s national dept, virtually impossible to ride, even Dan Atherton had to get off and run with the bike here! But in my opinion people need to get over it, realise that time was put into it to try and fix it and at the end of the day, it’s the same for everyone!


 There was plenty of comedy action on display! Photo by Doc Ward (doc-photography.com)

STAGE 5 (qualifying stage)

This was another lung buster, it started off much of the same again, nice flowing rocky stuff, which got steeper and just more fun, until it was broken up by the first, short fire-road onto another section the same as the start. This brought you out onto a downhill, straight fire-road for a few hundred meters, where the fun was put to an abrupt halt by the 90% right, then a gruelling, killer uphill sprint (try doing this on 5 psi, after a tubeless tyre burp in qualifying!) Following this it dropped down a long, straight, natural, soil rut, ending up with another short, natural, snotty climb through the mud, finally dropping down through some very tricky mud corners, onto the final duel track section into the arena. The duel track was tough after such a beasting, jumps were just things in the way and big bermed corners being the type you didn’t quite know whether to cut or rail! Eventually it was a nice, manmade, big rock section and a nasty compression to break the timing beam, this compression caught out so many riders just metres from the line!


 The man behind the UK Gravity Enduro Series, Steve Parr!  Photo by Doc Ward (doc-photography.com)

The racing went on thick and fast through the day, I think the general consensus was that the transitions were slack enough to not be a problem and things seemed to run pretty tight, there was an hour delay in the final results after racing, this being a glitch Steve Parr says will be sorted for the next round. In the Womens, Sally Evamy took the win, Under 18 saw Leigh Johnson in top spot, Grand Vet winner was Chris Norman, Vets saw Robert Carr take the win from Andy Sadler, in Masters ex-DH ace Lee Kermode took the win with Ian Hopkins then David Mirfield close behind, Seniors had Mathew Fretwell as the winner over Rupert Fowler, Elite women had Tracy Moseley get the win over Helen Gaskell and Cheri Mills. Finally it was the big guns, the Elite Males and Dan Atherton took the win 34 seconds ahead of Neil Donoghue, who himself was 41 seconds ahead of Hope’s Sam Flanagan, with Joe Rafferty, Mark Scott and Alex Stock all trailing with mega-close times! Also worth a mention, Andrew Titley (in his first Enduro) was a bit gutted to have (as many did with the cold and mud) a mechanical, putting him way down the results after an impressive third fastest Master in qualifying. Also Richi Lewis had mechanicals with chain problems, after 15th fastest time on Stage 1 in his first elite race.

I think the cold mixed with the toughness of the track, saw everyone just wanting to get through the day, but hey, that’s Enduro for you! Roll on Innerleithen for the next round, where the Downhill skills will shine through and the XC boys can get back in their shell from where they emerged!! Big thanks for Steve Parr, Charlie Williams and Chris Roberts for the organising, the Forestry Commission  and Bryn Betws Lodge for the use of the land and facilities, Shimano, Mavic, the category sponsors and of course, huge props for all the riders who made all the five stages, that in itself deserves a medal!!!

Words : Jim Buchanan

Photos : Doc Ward (doc-photography.com)

For more information on the next event, check out http://www.ukgravityenduro.com/


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