Race Report | Mondraker Red Kite Enduro, Blind Racing
My official trade, other than that of MTB journalist (is that a trade?) is a fully qualified Tree Surgeon, something I still put my hand to a bit, even nowadays at the tender age of 44 years old. As you can imagine a job that involves climbing and felling all types of dangerous trees using chainsaws is an absolute health and safety/insurance nightmare. The ‘safety Sids’ of this world hate it, Tree Surgeons have to work to certain guidelines, but once you’re up that tree your safety really is in you own hands, having to call on all your experience from the past, so as not to cause damage or (more importantly) seriously hurt yourself. This same theory has to apply when racing an enduro completely without any prior knowledge of the terrain or direction, but I had to admit my heart was in my mouth as we headed over to our very first seven-staged, one-day Red Kite enduro race over in the heart of mid Wales. All we knew was that the Red Kite chaps don’t fuck around when it comes to technical tracks and we were in for a treat, but would it be a step too far? We surely were in at the deep end!
Over in the UK there is definitely a growing amount of race organizers, putting their hands to the (still very new) sport of enduro racing, lots are similar, with a race now seeming to be on every weekend in some area of our homeland during the summer months. Blind racing is in fact nothing new, having been a part of racing over in other parts of Europe for several years now and also being the format put on by another organizer down in the south of England for a while too. But believe me there is a massive difference between the kinds of tracks down in the south to those of the un-tamed sparsely inhabited, vast forestry areas of mid Wales, as we found out at our first (2-day practiced) Red Kite race we entered. Previous Red Kite event- here
Red Kite prides itself on being the series dedicated to the gnarlier of riders, the ones who want to be tested to the full, on trails that are so tough to ride without crashing that you are at the limit of your skills just trying to stay on the bike. So throw in the mix, no practice and no idea of what was coming up and things get very interesting indeed! In my mind I had two questions, ‘would it be dangerous, ridiculous, scary type gnarly, or would it be fun, techy, difficult type gnarly?
All I knew prior to the race, was that it was set in Welsh forestry, It was due to be a bit wet, there weren’t to be any hard-pack bike-centre type stages and double jumps were a definite no-no. A Michelin mud tyre was fitted up-front, I knew this would get me out of the shit on any surprising off-camber loam or mud. To the rear I fitted the great Shwalbe Rock Razor to ease the uphill transitions and pedally parts of stage. To be honest I couldn’t really think of anything else I could do to prepare for a blind race, it was happening and that was that.
Fortunately none of the transitions were too big, I mean the longest one was around the twenty minute mark. This was very well received by my mate Stu Hughes, a top downhill veteran, dipping his toes into the world of enduro for only the third time borrowing my long-term-test Marin, as I rode my trick Marin (it’s a tough life!) We knew after talking to other racers from the previous day that the first stage was the only pedally one, flat out along a fire-road until it dropped down to some scary fast rutted corners to finish. It felt so weird at the top of the stage as we readied ourselves; me, Stu, Bush, Doose and Coynie; we were about to go as fast as we could down a totally unknown track.
Set the usual fifth gear, suspension in trail-mode for the big pedal, Bell chin-piece clipped on, goggles cleaned and fitted, with much apprehension it was time to hit the trail. Bush led out first, we all knew he was the mental one, who had that fearless attitude when tackling anything for the first time; the type who puts cracking runs in if he can avoid his usual crashes! With the use of the timing chips we could follow each other down the stages, so to bring my speed on I tried to tag onto the back of Bush; this in itself is certainly a scary option. We had only been riding about 15 minutes up a fire-road, now I was going as fast as I could watching my mate slowly pull away from me, I felt so rigid and un-relaxed, blowing out a few turns, then hitting other sections wishing I had held more speed. I tried to regain momentum by pedaling hard out of the over-shot turns, then finally we all made it down intact, out of breath but buzzing.
The pedally one was over, we were like a bunch of excited kids, all telling stories of how our first runs went. All agreed that none of us were warmed up enough for such a big pedal and the high speed of the first couple of fire-road turns. But we were now totally into it, as we cranked our way up to stage 2, this one was to be repeated as stage 6 as was stage 4 becoming stage 7; so at least the last two stages were ridden with one previous practice/race run. Stage 2 (like all its following stages) was the first technical stage, this head the most roots out of any of the stages, but also like the rest of the stages it turned out to be more technical than fast, keeping the speed low, but the difficulty was high. The roots were everywhere, all in awkward spots on corners, Jees this blind racing really is an acquired skill, with the art of looking further ahead being the highest skill on the agenda. At one tricky part I looked down, went straight through the tapes and was struggling to get back on the track, losing all my rhythm, finally reaching the bottom with less flow than a garden pond!
On the day went, stages 3 and 4 had lots of short steep turns, which were literally on the boundaries of all of our riding abilities, every one of us experiencing crashes here and there, not one managing the whole day ‘rubber side down’. We seemed to love it more and more as we got through the stages though. It was more like an unknown adventure and as we rode then talked about the days activities on the many climbs, it soon dawned on us that it really wasn’t anywhere near dangerous at all. It definitely came into the bracket of ‘fun, techy difficult gnarly’, this may sound a bit unbelievable as after my talk of steep, nearly un-ride-able sections, that even the overall winner Luther Griffiths crashed eight times on the following day and still led day one! You see the difference was, although it was steep and difficult, the stages were made very cleverly, so as on the toughest bits you were never going fast enough to hurt yourself. Not one of us hurt ourselves from crashing, we just kind of rolled off onto the soft loam, having to scramble back up to the bike with the use of the many pine trees for grip; and of course as we realized this our confidence grew.
Once your confidence grows, you become so much more relaxed, this was suiting me fine, as I seemed to get better as we busted our way through the stages. Stu (the ex-pro DH racer) rode the first few stages great, even overtaking me on the one where I crashed. But as we got through the day I felt myself getting faster and then Stu started to crash as cramp set in and he started to tire; not used to the uphill pedaling in any way. I thought to myself ‘could this be the first time ever in the twenty years racing together that I could finally beat him, what would our mates say, could I get on the top step of the Vets category with the guy who has so many elite DH old-skool wins to his name, the guy who taught me to race; that would be mental!’
Also the difference in racing stages 6 and 7 after having ridden them once before was just immense, it really is amazing after riding the others blind just how much you remember when it comes to a repeat run. We finished up all so happy, we had had such an amazing day together, just best mates riding bikes, laughing, crashing and generally putting the world to rights. Stu had crashed a lot on the last few, Bush (who normally crashes everywhere) had stayed on most of the time and was so hard to keep with, Doose (king of smooth riding) had ridden well, having only crashing once. Poor old Coynie (the race newbie) had spent the day crashing his brains out!
I handed over my timing chip, excited to see if the seemingly impossible Stu-defeat was on the cards……….I HAD NO TIMES! It turns out you had to swipe your timing chip across two separate sensors to activate it, I had only done the one; I hadn’t listened properly when signing on. As an avid user of Strava I sometimes feel like a ride kind-of doesn’t count if your Strava failed, as I’m sure many have experienced. Well times that feeling of disappointment by about million and you can imagine how I felt. I had to go to the van, sit down on my own and wait for the feeling of pure anger to disperse, before going back and congratulating Stu on his Veteran win, Bush on his Masters win and Doose on his Masters 3rd. As for my no-result, it was my own fault, but is still an extremely bitter pill to swallow!
I caught up with organizer Neil Delafield for a quick chat about his blind racing format.
How’s the day gone today here at Crychan Forest?
It’s been really good, I’m really happy we’ve built some good tracks to test the riders. I’m always a bit worried before the event that they are too hard, but people got down them with no-one injured, so it was a good day.
Obviously you may get some criticism from other enduro race organizers about holding an event blind, what do you have to say in your defense about holding this style of racing?
To be honest it’s hard to take sometimes, getting criticism like that off other organizers, but we stick to our guns and we do what we do. We make technical tracks and do the one-day blind format, which is totally normal throughout the rest of Europe. The insurers are happy, we risk assess it and they are 100% behind us.
What about your next round?
The next round is back here in the Crychan Forest, more of the same, five new tracks with two repeated again on the Sunday, the two-day guys will do their normal 11 stages, but yet again we will go steep and we’ll go technical.
At the beginning of the day’s racing we weren’t sure about the blind format, not that we though it was dangerous, as others may think, more the fact that it was hard to be relaxed on the first couple of stages. But during the following days after the race and as we all messaged each other, we had one thing in definite agreement, we loved it, it was the best fun, seriously challenging and we most certainly will be doing it again!
Race Organizers: www.redkiteevents.co.uk
Words: Jim Buchanan
Pics : Dan Wyre, Jim Buchanan