Okay, downhill racing might not be the most ‘Singletrack’ thing to do in the world, but we’re not all about big wheels, singlespeeds and ‘cross bikes you know. We do like big bikes, going fast and going off reasonably sweet jumps from time to time.
I’d been down to preview the track a few days earlier and ended up helping out with a tiny bit of digging of the last huck into the finish arena. The course was actually rather unlike what I’d ridden at Wharncliffe previously – basically a lack of stupid steep wet mud run ins to hyper tech rock drops – which was welcome as I didn’t fancy racing on that kind of thing.
Instead, the course had a moderate gradient much better suited to a Mini Downhill course and the range of abilities that draws. It wound through the trees, through a couple of slightly rocky bits and finally off a bit of a step down. It was a fairly pedally (understatement) course but it had a few nice little lines and the emergence of spring in our little corner of the valley made me fairly confident that it’d dry out a little bit come race day.
Of course, that was the first mistake – Matt came by to collect my other half and me in the Singletrack van on one of the coldest mornings for a while. My bed-dazed mind had already thrown water all over the kitchen by picking the kettle up by the lid and it was only winter-induced force of habit that made me grab my super light Rab Cirrus Pertex windproof. Spring was here, it wa going to be nice. Obviously I’d just need my jersey for race run and the jacket for hanging about it.
After a coffee fuelled drive down the M1 we arrived with a little bit of long wheelbase Sprinter drifting into the grassy carpark – thanks to everyone that pushed us along – and realised how incredibly cold it was. And how much we’d be needing mud tyres.
I’d already gone for a moderately spiky Maxxis Swamp Thing on the front of my old Orange Patriot (33.1lbs donchaknow) but had kept my Minion on the back “so it’ll roll faster”, a property I probably wouldn’t need in the freezing grey drizzlemist and slick mud. Matt was sticking on his new and very spiky Michelin Wild Dig’r mud tyre on his Lapierre Spicy and I felt a great sense of longing. Pure rubber envy, it’s a horrible thing. Benji, who’d elected to keep a Crossmark on the rear of his Saracen Ariel, was probably in a worse place.
Anyway, after a walk down the course we’d got our lines sorted – basically we were going to try not to die of hypothermia at the top, get in the nicest looking muddy rut and then pedal like buggery all the way down – simple.
This is the point that I always regret entering a race. Sat, freezing cold at the top of the course, going to squeeze out a tiny little wee of nervousness in the woods every ten minutes, wondering if I’ve missed my slot (I haven’t) and looking at other riders starting and wondering how fast I would be compared to that. It’s hateful – a full roller coaster of emotion, veering between hope, wild overconfidence and then pure inadequacy.
Line up, see the lights, hear the beeps and pedal. Spin out (but is it just slipping in mud?), crunch down another gear, pedal hard. Try and hit the less muddy line, try to pump and
push and pull but the bike is all over the place. Emerge from the bracken, blow my foot off the pedal, put it back on and pedal hard again. Quite out of control through a few rooty sections, hit the next couple of berms in a pleasing way, sit down on the saddle before remembering it’s a race and getting up and pedalling hard with the taste of metal in my mouth. Spot the last berm, go wide, think about braking for the drop but instead try and keep it low, suprisingly stay on bike despite feeling the tyres load up and drift in landing and remember to try and pedal again. I then cross the line and feel quite sick.
Matt’s pleased with his run – he caught the guy in front of him – and we lurk about chatting away until the times appear. I’m pleased – 10th place in Senior is something I’m happy with – and Matt has got 3rd in his category. Feeling pleased that downhill racing is fun after all, I skip off to tell Matt before remembering I should probably get the times too – and find myself beaten by over a second. My buzz is instantly crushed. Why wasn’t I faster? I want my second run now – but I have to wait. In the cold at the top, as determination turns back to nerves.
My second run involves veering wildy off the track in the even deeper mud on a straight (how? why?) then swearing loudly (sorry) and then feeling real determination after the thought registered that I’d blown it. From that moment on it feels like I really put the run together, hitting lines, pedalling harder, going faster. I am quite out of shape over the last drop and I think that somehow I might have pulled it back, before the commentator kindly points out that I was slower on that run. And that Matt had beaten me. Cheers.
That’s the thing with my love/hate relationship with racing – it’s like a moth to the flame. Every time I race I hate it – I get filled with nerves, try so hard I feel deeply unwell and then have that pain replaced with crushing a sense of disappointment and inadequacy. And then I want to do it all over again.
Racing aside, it was an ace day out. A really good vibe, beer from Bradford Brewery, green juice for ‘dem yute from Monster, loads of prizes from Royal, SRAM, 18 Bikes, The Bike Tree, O’Neal, Polaris, Five Ten, Cotic, Chromag, Smartwool, Monster, Arcteryx and even we threw in a few Subs In A Bottle for raffle prizes too.
Here’s Matt ‘Podium’ Letch’s version of events…
“That’s the second downhill race I’ve done then.
The one thing that they’ve both had in common is mud – acres of it – Like the Somme for Generation X, except we make a lot more fuss about sliding down a muddy slope than our great Grandfathers did about “going over the top” and the worst casualty of our ensuing war is probably your bearings and deflated bank balance on Monday.
Anyway. Last downhill race I did was a few years ago at Hopton Wood. Well it wasn’t really race even, at least not for me – I crashed so hard on the first corner of my first run I thought that I may be a candidate for gender reassignment and then tried desperately for the rest of the race make up for time lost – so more crashing. A very good attempt at putting a seat and seat-post through my face and it was over..
I came second from last in that race and was – well devastated. Now I’m no Sam Hill But I like to think of myself as a pretty good bike handler and while I’ll quite happily be the last to wheeze to the top of the hill, I kind of take riding down stuff a bit more seriously.
When Jonny said we were racing this weekend, three really important things happened for me – I instantly forgot all about it until about Thursday and secondly I decided I was going to go and enjoy it and not take it all so seriously. Finally I changed my front tyre to a full on mud tyre.
Back to the Somme.. A muddy trail of slop lead to a minefield of hidden stumps in the middle of the run with a final baying for blood huck into “the Kill Zone”.
The practise runs had me pretty boss-eyed. It was hard work. You could roll it but you weren’t going to keep your speed up – you needed to pedal as much as you could, as often as you could if you were going to get any kind of time at all. The huck into the finish wasn’t as bad as it looked and the atmosphere amongst the competitors was great – there was as much pressure as you wanted – or not if you chose.
There is something odd about sitting in front of the three lights waiting for that bleep though.. For me all the outside noises go quiet and I can hear my breathing (which already sounds ragged for some reason)
Beep beep …BEEP!! 1.55 minutes later I’m at the bottom with quite a bad taste of sick in my mouth and very happy that I caught the guy in front of me at the end of the course!
Second run was scrappier but I stayed on. The mud was muddier and I felt even more spent (and to think how much I take the piss out of Matt Hart and his fitness tips) and I was done.
Jonny didn’t look that happy when he told me not only was I third – I’D BEATEN HIM BY A SECOND!
That’s all really – it was ace to podium (I’ve never done that before) and I’m looking forward to the phone ringing about all the product endorsements – maybe I need a manager ;]
Thank you so much to everyone that made the Steel City happen – to the organisers, the poor hypothermic marshals, the Burger van – it was a fantastic day and I hope I’ll see you all again next year ;]
There were plenty of big name racers present too – Steve Peat (who won), Josh Bryceland, Rowan Sorrell, Chris Akrigg and the wild card of Nick Craig – whose son Thomas took first place in Juvenile…
There are full results up on the stat-tastic and aptly named www.RootsAndRain.co.uk site if you want to see how well (or otherwise) we did – we’d also like to point out that we were faster than the competition from Dirt Magazine. So there.
Big thanks to the guys from This Is Sheffield, Ride Sheffield, the Woodland Trust, all the marshals, MIJ Timing for accurate and hassle free timing – and everyone else who came to watch for creating a brilliant race and atmosphere. Hopefully it’ll be the first of many Steel City Mini DH races – and raise lots of money for the Greno Woods Appeal.
Will from Polaris Apparel has got a race report and some snaps up HERE too…