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.