Putting up a tent in torrential rain is not the best way to start a weekend away, but that is where I found myself on the Thursday evening before the final round of the Gravity Enduro series at Afan.

I had snuck out of work early, packed the car and hit the road hoping to beat the Thursday night traffic, fat chance!

Stuck on the M25 crawling along at a snails pace had dampened my spirits somewhat, and to find myself 5 hours later in pitch black torrential rain wrestling my tent to life was, frankly, laughable compared to my vision of cold beer in hand, watching the sunset over welsh valleys I had pictured the night before.

Earlier in the year I had entered the Howies Dyfi Enduro. Having not really done my research, I found myself slogging up hill for about 40k, suffering with cramp and barely making it round the 60k. Looking back, yeah it was fun, a real challenge, it pretty much broke me and my spirit, but my riding has always been more gravity based and the downs make me smile way more than the ups.

So the Gravity Enduro, yes, this was my thing, why I ride my bike, what makes it all fit together for me, the reason on a freezing winter morning I get up and get out at silly o’clock, while my friends are sleeping off hangovers. The buzz of the down. Way better than any drug, any night out, the buzz I get from hitting a trail hard, pushing my limits, sometimes hurting myself, but always smiling. That is why I ride my bike. I am never going to be downhill racer, I frankly do not have the balls for it, launching myself 30ft over a road gap, nope, never going to happen, but I love to ride, and we can’t all do that can we.

Sitting in the awning of my tent soaked to the skin, sipping a beer in the dark, knowing I was going to take it down in the morning and move to the Gravity Enduro camping area, made me wonder why I had just not driven up Friday morning, but you can’t beat waking up under canvas (or anti flammable polyester more likely), cooking your breakfast on a trangia and views of misty valleys. Perfect.

Friday morning we moved and set up camp for the weekend with the view of Afan 4x track bearing down on us. We were the first people there and sat chatting about what lay ahead. We got speaking to a local guy who said we needed to check out Stage 2 of the race as it was the only new part of the course, the other stages being on the existing trail centre network. In his own words ‘Fucking Horrible’.

We grabbed the bikes and headed out, Stage 1, no big problem, we had done it before a few years earlier on a stag do. Just a case of how fast you can go without crashing really. Then we headed over to Stage 2. My oh my. I had not prepared for this…. Looking back I have found this description from ex Downhill World Cup Racer Neil Donoghue which pretty much sums it up. “There was a quick sprint and tuck down a fast fire road and then you dropped in to the mother of all muddy, rooty bastard downhill tracks you have ever seen.”

Frankly it scared me, it was going to be the make or break of most peoples race. I felt pretty despondent when we got to the bottom, I had pretty much walked down it scared for my life. Craig was keen to do it again, but if I never saw it again it would of been too soon.

That night I lay awake, thinking I could do the other 4 sections, yeah I would not be fast, but for me it was about taking part, I had never done anything like this before and knew it was going to test me and I like that. But Stage 2, Stage 2 had me properly questioning my ability to ride my bike. Saturday arrived soon enough and we decided to beat the crowds and head back to Stage 2 for some practice. It had been a calmer night and it felt like it was drying out a bit, I managed to get down about 60% of it, a great improvement on the previous days effort. We headed over to stage 5 and what was to be the afternoons seeding run leading down into the 4x track and finish line.

Always at the back of my mind stage 2, stage bloody 2.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO! Brilliant.

Seeding was fun, I have never been counted down into a run before so was enjoying the feeling of being in a race.  My run was pretty lame, but I was having fun.

Saturday night brought a feast of food, a few beers and trying not to think about Stage 2. It had rained hard on and off over the weekend, but the rain of Saturday night was incredible, you could hear it thundering up the valley like a fighter jet. All of a sudden your tent would become engulfed in the heaviest rain I have ever had the displeasure to find myself in. Secretly part of me wanted the race to be called off, or at least Stage 2 moved, the other parts of the race would be fine, Wales is used to a bit of rain, but this new section, it just was not built to withstand it. They had to move it surely?

Sunday morning, race day. No cancellation, no moving of the stage, it was time to meet fear face to face and see who wins! Craig and I set of early for stage 1, so we could have a nice relaxing ride over. I could feel the nerves building, but it felt great to be doing this, my first proper Gravity race. Stage 1 came and went, I waited for craig at the bottom, but no sign of him and I had to be at Stage 2 so headed over on my own, fear bubbling away.

There was no getting away from this, I found myself at the start line thinking, just do your best, nobody can ask for more than that, it’s not as if you are going to be challenging for honours, just get round, that is why you are here.

So here it was, Stage 2 my nemesis. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO! Shit. It was happening.

You start at 20 second intervals, and from seeding, you are set in your ability level.  So stage 1,  I got a glimpse of the guy ahead of me, but did not catch him, nor was I caught by the guy behind. The hunter and the hunted, it’s a strange feeling.

Racing down the forest road, water spraying in my eyes, this was it, just relax and have fun I thought. I summoned the spirit of Danny Hart and just went for it. I caught the guy in front of me 20 metres into the mud, then just tried to stay focused on the job in hand.  I caught another, people were really struggling to stay on their bikes, by the bottom I had overtaken 6 people and was shaking like a leaf, but utterly blown away with the trail, I wanted to do it again. I don’t think I have felt excitement like that ever, I was shaking all the way to the next stage.

Soon enough the race was over and I had finished 137th out of about 164 people who had completed the race, pretty shabby effort, but something to build from, it was my first gravity race and definitely not my last.

I guess the lessoned learned, face your fear, it may not as bad as it seems.

Writing this now, a few weeks have passed, I do find myself looking forward to next year. I heard over the weekend that it may well change shape and organiser, Dirt magazine were mentioned, but fingers crossed it does appear, I may do more than one if I get the chance.

We wanted to do something different for one of our best mates 40th birthday, what should we do, beers down the pub, nice meal, camping, blah blah blah… Trevor trumped us all with the stunning Hunter Gatherer Cook, in a flash we had all of the above, in one neat package, a real adventure!

The course is based just down the road from Brighton so nice and simple to get to, getting a date 6 of us could do, that was the tricky part! A few emails and several week passed until we got something firm in the diary.

The big day arrived with Oli still none the wiser as to what we were doing, we did consider kidnapping him and chucking him in the back of the car blindfolded, but it was maybe a bit OTT.

We turned up at Hunter Gatherer HQ in the pouring rain, fearing the worst we all donned waterproofs, but within minutes the weather had cleared. Nick Weston, who runs the course, gave us an introduction into the weekend and we headed out to the woods to get cracking.

Now, I have to say at this point I am more than a little squeamish, so walking into the camp unsettled me slightly. We were greeted by several dead rabbits, pigeons and an 80kg Buck hanging from the main frame.

I kept my distance, but all too soon I realised we were going to have to prepare this food and when I say prepare, I mean skin and portion.

A brew was put on and we got down to it. We split ourselves into pairs and Nick expertly showed us how to prepare the rabbit, as I say, I am somewhat squeamish so to find myself skinning a rabbit 10 mins later was somewhat of a shock, I fully expected to faint or be ill or some utter faux pas, but actually made it through with a great sense of achievement. If you are going to eat meat you should surely be comfortable with preparing it right? Well I have not even walked into butchers for years.

After the Rabbit we moved onto the Venison, now this was an altogether different ball game, this felt like dealing with something that could take me out if it wanted to, and well, had been alive. Ash (Nick’s  assistant) the expert in this field, gave us the low down on the do’s and don’ts and again we were in at the deep end, experiencing what it was like to prepare a carcass.

It took a while to get through the Venison, it was quit some beast, but this meant time for our first food delight and we cut up the venison fillet, marinated it in chilli, made some skewers and on the BBQ it went. At this point Nick broke out some nettle beer, I have to say I was very impressed and will definitely be trying to make some of this in the future.

The day was pressing on and we headed out into the woods to forage for a wild salad, Nick talked us through loads of varieties of flowers, leafs and mushrooms and we soon had a basket full of ingredients to add to the meal.

Arriving back at camp we were met with rabbit pie that Ash had cooked in a dutch oven, my first ever taste of rabbit and it was damn good. Ash has also been experimenting with home brew and the ginger beer was divvied up, again a lovely drop and well worth trying at home at a later date.

After the food break, we needed to make our camp before the light was lost for the evening, so we set about building a frame against some trees and tying tarp over it, building wind breaks and filling the side and floor with bracken for insulation. Time was marching on and there was no time to reflect proudly on our home for the night. Nick helped us set up night lines for fish in the lake, showed us how to make fire the proper way (no matches) and set traps.

Light was fading fast, so we headed back to the camp, next up, plucking pigeons and de-breasting them. An actually surprising easy task.

More food was in its way, this time the Venison (another first for me) we had prepared earlier, cooked in a fire pit for several hours, some of the most tender meat I have ever tasted. Pan fried pigeon followed on a base of puffball mushroom, collected earlier in the day, with black current sauce and wild salad.

Wow! What a day, we cracked open some beers and sat around the table reflecting on what was an extremely busy day, the temperature seemed to drop and we headed over to our home for the night and the comfort of our fire.

I think we were all pretty bushed and did not stay up long, we found out from Ash that the temperature had dropped to 2 degrees in the night and we were thankful for the fire beside us.

Morning brought yet another feast, rabbit, mushroom and truffle with scrambled eggs! Was this ever going to end?

As with all good things sadly it did, and 24 hours later, we had skinned, foraged, built and burnt our way through an amazing time, learnt so much and all left tired but buzzing from a great experience smelling of fires but with a new found respect for the animals we eat and the countryside around us.

If you fancy a great weekend away I cant recommend this enough Nick and Ash were great hosts and you can tailor the course to your wants/needs. It is quite possibly the most, fun and insightful weekend I have ever had.

You can read about Nick and his background and courses here http://huntergathercook.typepad.com/

Ash also has a great blog on life in the great outdoors here http://ashonthefire.typepad.com/

Images courtesy of Nick Weston and Neil Tugwell.

I approached Jimbo from Sussex MTB about a skills course for my better half Sue, she was getting more into riding and I felt it would be beneficial to learn how to do things right at an early stage, and not learn too many bad habits and also thought it would make a different gift.

I asked Jimbo if he had any space available the following month as money was tight and it would need to come out of next months wages, it was then he suggested a swap of skills, Sussex MTB needed a new jersey designed and I needed some coaching, how about a spot of bartering. The deal was done.

The day arrived and although Sue felt nervous I knew she would come out the other side with a big smile on her face, she did laughingly say a Spa day would of made a good gift.

We met at Whiteways Lodge, had a chat and a cuppa, then off we went into the woods, when we arrived at Jimbo’s preferred training ground I went off on my own and basically spent a few hours getting very lost and chased by dogs.

About 4 hours later a beaming face came out of the woods and Sue had had a great morning learning the basics of how to ride properly, from footwork and positioning to cornering and manuals and beyond. We sat down for some tea and cake and I showed Jimbo my initial ideas for the jersey. It makes it all worthwhile when you see someone really excited by your ideas and a few emails and tweaks later we had a final approved design.

Can’t wait to see and wear the final thing, knowing that no money changed hands and we both got what we wanted from the barter is great way to do business.

If you are looking for some coaching down on the south coast give Jimbo a buzz, a great guy and great skills coaching from someone who eats and sleeps bikes.

Below is the final design visual, I will post pictures of the actual jersey when they land.

South Downs MTB Skills

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.