Internet Armchair Feature: Polaris Challenge

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Welcome to our new and irregular feature for the web. Taking it’s inspiration from the magazine’s old Armchair Feature it’s designed to help you fritter away a lunchtime or evening with plenty of words and pictures.

First up it’s a tale of culture clash with Jon “nu skool” Woodhouse entering the decidedly old skool Polaris Challenge.

I am an unashamedly new school rider. I like to get my thrills going downhill and if that involves a push, climb or carry then that’s something that will just have to be tolerated, rather than enjoyed. I’m not coy about my preference for taking a motorised uplift or using a ski lift instead of sweating my eyeballs out up a climb just to be righteous. I’ll use an OS map to get into the real countryside but mainly to find the easiest way up to the most nadgery descent available. My idea of a big day in the mountains generally involves a three hour push and carry and then 20 minutes of plummeting right back to where I started. Trail centres are excellent for the sheer ease of being able to get out and ride and I’m quite happy to spend a full day going round and round a pump track or riding down the same downhill run over and over again. This will probably give you some idea of how much interest I had in the world of mountain bike orienteering and also explain my perception of the entrants as usually being wiry, bearded men on prehistoric mountain bikes that look like they’ve been ramraided into the accessory section of a bike shop.

The Polaris Challenge was first started in autumn 1991 and was the world’s first mountain bike orienteering event. The emphasis was and still is on self reliance with competitors doing all their own navigation as part of a pair or solo, travelling to different checkpoints where they ‘dib’ their electronic ‘dibber’ to show they’ve been there. The checkpoints vary in value – hard to reach or very distant checkpoints will score higher than easy ones – and to make route finding that little bit more rushed competitors only find out the value of the different checkpoints when the race has started. All this needs to be done within a set amount of time, with the Summer event giving riders seven hours on the Saturday and five on the Sunday. You camp overnight in a field between the days although on the more involved Spring and Autumn events you are required to take your camping gear riding with you.

Happy faces..

While other staff in the office were giggling at my discomfort and inquiring where my late 90’s Mount Vision was and if I’d need some bar ends for it, Chipps came through with some good advice. Back in the day, Chipps and Nick used to pootle about Polarii on a tandem, mixing checkpoints with cake stops and the odd beer. Despite a slightly relaxed approach to competition, they’d never come last as there was always someone who’d be back hours after the set finish time with the huge penalty putting them out of the running entirely. This was clearly Useful Knowledge if I wanted to avoid looking completely rubbish.

Tools of the trade.

After getting my large laminated map through the post as well as the kit list and location of the overnight camping, Polaris Will wisely emailed to check I’d got it and that I could actually read it (assumption is the mother of all f**k ups after all) and I took this opportunity to enquire what sort of mileage the average Polaris-er did, just so I’d know how much suffering lay in store. He replied that he’d done “70 miles on one event (Saturday), but I died a bit on the Sunday.”

Erm, yes.

He did continue though; “It’s better to plan the route right than do lots of miles. I reckon most people do between 25 and 50 miles on the Saturday and 20 and 40 on the Sunday”

Emergency kit

So I had my target – 30 miles or so on the first day and then a gentle 20 or so on Sunday. A decidedly average finish and I’d be happy. I would also be no more than ten minutes later – a feat of timekeeping that anyone who knows me would think was pushing it a bit, but still…

Next up was kit. Moore and Large sorted me out some Lake MX 330C shoes and I went hunting in the garage until I found a pair Crank Brothers Candy pedals to replace my usual 5.10s and flats, then I went up to the office to search a suitable bike underneath the piles of SRAM XX, 2011 XTR, scantily clad ladies and gold bullion that we keep there. I came up trumps with the Ghost AMR Lector 7700 from the Issue 58 grouptest. With 120mm travel front and rear to give comfort without too much squidge, a carbon front triangle for light weight and some vibration mitigation and some new 2.4 WTB Weirwolf tyres on it for a bit of grip and pinch uncture protection. I reckoned it would be lightweight, good to pedal and most importantly, fun to ride. I also found a list of useful kit and some very handy advice HERE, including this gem of understatement; “It is rarely wise to assume that the map is wrong”.

Chatsworth House haunted by the Ghost

After a last minute kit check – I had all my riding and camping gear, plus the mandatory 50p for a phone call – I set off to a field near Bakewell in the White Peak, Derbyshire. On the way I bought a large amount of pasta, noodles, Tunnocks bars and Jelly babies as well as a few cans of fizzy, alcoholic carb drink to rehydrate with after the event. After passing the first challenge of finding the field I would be camping in with flying colours, I set up my tent and got some noodles and stir fry on the go. It was a very well appointed field, with plenty of clean portable loos, hot food on offer as well as beer and spare bike parts if you needed. I then went and signed in, only to realise that as I’d failed to download the checkpoints and plot them onto the map previously, that would be the evening’s homework. So much for an easy evening ‘carb loading’ a few cans down my neck. A few hours and 36 grid references later, I was done and very thankful for a youth well spent in the Army Cadets – not only for the mapreading skills but also because that’s where I’d nicked my compass from. Following my internet advice I then cut off the bits of map that didn’t have crosses on them to make it more manageable, then did a last kit check, set the bike up and oiled the working bits and packed my rucksack past full with sweets.

Rude ramblers?

I woke up to glorious blue skies and mellow weather. A cup of coffee and a good dollop of porridge later I was ready for my 9pm start. I was a little bit nervous – would I get horribly lost? Would I score a shameful amount of points? Would I get bored to tears?

I gathered with my fellow start group on the line, dibbed my dibber and then we set off to the give out point which was a quick spin down the road. As expected, the high scoring checkpoints were at the top of the map and I was at the bottom. It was time to route plan, but instead I just started riding north – there was one checkpoint on the way up to the one I really fancied, which was at the Wellington Monument, worth 30 points. I reckoned I could do a couple of those, get a decent number of points and then pootle back down in time for pasta and a nice warm can of lager. After dibbing my first real dibber and collecting my first points I was starting to enjoy myself. I was out in some lovely countryside riding some lovely trails, it was sunny and the Ghost was great fun to be on. I was also enjoying the extra power of using cleats and the rather unusual experience of having a large chainring, which managed to make any road sections less tedious.

My very first dibber.

Where I was getting frustrated was with my lack of mapboard. I was using a hiker-style mapcase hung around my neck and it was proving difficult to navigate on the fly as well as keeping it out of the way when riding down trails. Having taken the mickey out of them I was feeling a bit sheepish. I was also thinking how useful a saddlebag would be, what with my rucksack full of first aid kit, spare tubes, jacket, tools and so on. Mudguards as well – imagine if it rained. I snapped out of it and fumbled about with my map before stuffing it in the straps of my pack and heading for the next checkpoint.

Sneaky, sneaky..

My fellow competitors weren’t what I expected either – there was a huge range of bikes and riders, from serious XC types to people with adjustable seatposts and 160mm of travel just out for a fun day. There was much less competitive behaviour than I’d experienced in more normal races – in fact one other solo competitor called me back after I overshot a checkpoint and we ended up riding together until we reached the momument. I decided to keep heading further north having become addicted to dibbing and the lure of big point checkpoints. This, in hindsight, was a mistake. It was now well past midday and rather than plotting how to make a clever, point scoring route back I was still heading further north with no real idea or what to do. I managed a couple more checkpoints and still felt good but then I made a little booboo and took a wrong track which led to much wasted time looking for a non existent checkpoint and then a large detour to get back on track. This compounded my next mistake, which has been made the night before. In my hurry to get the grid references down I’d switched some numbers – my next checkpoint was at 331 east, while I’d marked 311 down on the map. I then spent more time looking for another checkpoint that wasn’t there, before cutting my losses, pedalling up a climb to get to the first missed checkpoint, then backtracking and much to my shame, blindly following some people to the next checkpoint where I realised my number swapping error and did a little bit of swearing. It was now time to head homewards but the lure of extra checkpoints struck again and I pushed on a little further out of the way. I bagged another couple and then started to realise I had my work cut out to get home. My difficulties were being compounded by the lack of mapboard and although I was riding reasonably fast I was wasting a lot of time trying to keep myself placed on the map and I was leapfrogging back and forth with more efficient navigators. As I went up the climb back up past Chatsworth House I was starting to tire and it looked like I would need to put in a bit of a sprint for the finish. As I ground up off the road, onto the grass and then into the woods there were lots of tired looking faces dragging themselves along with myself. The reward for suffering was more points and then a lovely swoopy and rocky descent, which was so enjoyable I almost missed the checkpoint as I flew past, only to be called back. It was time to get a move on now and I headed into Bakewell, thinking I was well on the home straight. Having made a mess of navigating through the town, I was seriously pushed for time. Fifteen minutes was all I had and it wasn’t going to be enough, so I just had to hope I could push a big gear hard enough to get back before the relatively modest time penalty for being 10 minutes late finished and I starting getting seriously penalised. I’d kind of forgotten that it was a fairly large climb back up from Bakewell to the start point and I was soon reminded, being ground down through the cassette, gear by gear, despite having the fuel of panic (and a stream of jelly babies) in the tank. I did my best Miguel Indurain impression and got back out of the saddle and tapped it out through short breaths and sweat to cross the line 11 and a half minutes late. As the pair in front were given a score in the 400s, I got my ticket – 276, with a 14 point penalty. I have to admit I was gutted – after all that suffering I’d got what looked a pretty sad score.

Dinner didn’t last long..

I went back to my tent, stretched out tired legs and got the first round of pasta on the boil – no sooner was that down than a second went on. It was still lovely sunshine and despite the fatigue I though I’d at least earned a beer from the tent. I supped a nice cold pint and sat on the grass and all was well with the world. Another beer followed that one and I began to recline even more – maybe I was quite tired after all. My spirit were lifted when I took a look at the scoreboard and discovered I’d actually done better than I’d thought – the provisional scores had me within the top 30 and certainly in the upper half of the field and those boys that came through in front of me were probably the leaders. Dave offered the advice to press the advantage on the second day when the others would be weak – I could see his logic but I was probably grouped in with the weak after my ill-advised road sprint back. It was straight to bed for a quick read and then sleep..

My Day 1 Results

The next day I woke up and although tired I didn’t ache as much as I was expecting but even after the morning’s coffee and porridge I wasn’t quite as bouncy as I’d been yesterday. Maybe I’d take it easy. I went to the give out and took a more relaxed look at the points – I’d decided that I’d break 100 points or so and then call it a day. The checkpoints were the same but the points for them were different and although I’d planned to head east to sample the riding there I again headed north, but with a better planned loop in mind. All went well and I pottered from checkpoint to checkpoint with plenty of food stops and breathers and then headed back home with time to spare. On the road climb back out of Bakewell I realised how tired I was – I was at least a full chainring lower than the previous day. Just as well I’d left plenty of time. I returned, collected my 155 points and began packing away, although I was slightly regretful I hadn’t gone for the one last checkpoint – I’d probably have made it..

So on the first day I took 276 points which made 17th in category and on my second relaxed day I paid the price for slackness with 29th position. Overall, I came 19th out of 61 in my category – a top third finish and probably the best I’ve done in any race. More to the point, did I enjoy it? Wholeheartedly. Despite the uncool connotations, it’s brilliant fun. You can make it as competitive or relaxed as you like, you’re taken round some lovely countryside and some excellent trails and there’s a good natured feel the event. Organisation is excellent and the whole thing, from the fast timing and results to the entertaining sneaky places the checkpoints are placed. Would I do it again? Without doubt. It’s great fun and that’s what riding bikes is mean to be about. It gets you riding places you might not usually and the navigation and self reliance aspects are a welcome antidote to the sometimes bland culture of trail centre riding. That said, I think next time I’ll bring a mapboard and a partner…

Big thanks to Will at Polaris Apparel and all of the other people that put in their time and effort to make the event happen. I’d also like to thank the people that stopped me going past those checkpoints…

Comments (8)

    well done Jon, that’s just how I feel, the first day’s easy, but everything you say about the second day is true. The hills are steeper, the techy bits are harder and by and large it’s a bit of a slog to the finish. But it’s bloody good when you do finish.
    I, at a stupidly advanced age, am doing the Transwales, will you or any of your colleagues be there?

    Nice write up Jon.

    Good effort.
    It’s amazing what you’ll enjoy when you give it a try!
    [pedant] That wasn’t really a Polaris Challenge as you didn’t carry all your overnight kit. That was the easy ‘Summer’ version. [/pedant]
    The real fun is in October/March when you’ve pushed the lightweight camping too far and you play spoons with you stinky mate to survive the night. Then the riding on Sunday becomes the enjoyable finale…

    I too came top 1/3rd last year on my 1st Polaris with no map board (stuffing it up yer top is not a sound move every time).
    Made a last dash from 90 minutes out from the finish & came in with about 27 seconds to spare – cream crackered!
    We managed a shower by standing in the local river, in our b’day suits, locals not withstanding – now that was the picture to take!

    A good w/end’s riding over some cracking scenery.

    Good effort.
    It’s amazing what you’ll enjoy when you give it a try!
    [pedant] That wasn’t really a Polaris Challenge as you didn’t carry all your overnight kit. That was the easy ‘Summer’ version. [/pedant]
    The real fun is in October/March when you’ve pushed the lightweight camping too far and you play spoons with you stinky mate to survive the night. Then the riding on Sunday becomes the enjoyable finale…

    Well the problem with that full on event is that they don’t get the entries to support doing it. With the summer event you don’t need to invest bags of money on equipment you might not have just to give it a go. I think the future of the event is in the summer format. The organisers seem to agree as the Autumn one this year is cancelled and the next event will be in a summer format and run in conjunction with OMM

    the Autumn one this year is cancelled and the next event will be in a summer format and run in conjunction with OMM

    Really? Any idea where?

    It is a shame the proper ones have died. The kit’s not that expensive – you need camping kit anyway to camp ‘at base’ on the summer format

    I think a lot of people felt lugging around panniers and/or a rucksack impacted on the fun of the ride, and maybe forced them into using an older bike with rack mounts etc. rather than their spangly nice bike.

    Personally think that was some of the appeal of the event, what set it apart from the normal event circuit, but commercial realities will always bite I guess.

    I hung around to collect my prize at the end of the event and they told us about the Autumn cancellation and future plans. I think the focus on Summer rules is good for now, as it has the best chance of attracting more people.

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