My last race two months ago, was slap bang in the middle of the Beast from the East, at a freezing cold Bikepark Wales. Fast forward 8 weeks, and Afan Forest, hosting the third round of the Welsh Gravity Enduro Series, was baking in 23°C temperatures and blue sky for miles.
There was even dust. Pffft, yeah! Bloody dry dust! Not the usual ‘Welsh sunshine’ dust, but actual, genuine hero dirt!
Unfortunately, I had to miss Round 2 of the Series at the Glyncorrwg end of the valley after it was rescheduled to Easter Sunday (sorry, but a man had chocolate eggs to scoff), so whilst Round 1 became Round 2, and what was going to be Round 2 became race 1 for me, this here Round 3 was my race 2.
Errr…does that make sense?!
So anyway, unlike a good number of people who seem to come up/go down/roll across on the Saturday for a cheeky practice, I headed up the A30/M5/M4 in the late afternoon on quiet roads thanks to the Royal wedding (good timing Harry), and checked in overnight at the Travelodge at Pencoed. With a Harvester next door and being the only non-vegetarian in a veggie household, needless to say, I was all over the triple chicken combo like a tramp on chips…or more like like ‘a non-veggie from a veggie house in a chicken shop’. I also used it as an excuse to fuel up proper for the next day…it wasn’t going to be many miles but I’ve got into a bad habit lately of riding for hours on not much food and wondering why my head feels like it’s going to implode after. Idiot.
Winner, winner… Instagram dinner
The next day, the sun was shining (“and the weather was sweet yeah. It make me wanna move my dancing feet yeah”) and I was looking forward to getting some riding in. My aim for this race was to just be consistent. It’s felt like the last few races I’ve just being trying too hard and then making stupid mistakes, so this time I was aiming for some smooth riding and hopefully stay in the top half of Masters…I haven’t really got a clue where I sit in the pecking order these days so top ‘fiddy percent’ would be good. Kitting up, I realised I was parked next to Iain, a fellow new member of the Royal Racing Roots clan, so we chatted and then headed out on to the sun-drenched trails.
Stage 3 was the longest so I figured seeing as I was still fueled up on the power of three chickenz (and a ridiculous amount of all-you-can-eat continental breakfast pastry from breakfast), it was best getting a couple of runs in early on it whilst I had plenty of energy. Sorry for the unusual amount of food talk – I shouldn’t write this when hungry! Stage 3 began on ‘373’ trail of The Wall trail with a pedal fest, as there wasn’t much elevation change, before peeling off down a short, steep, wooded and rooty link into a full on pedal like your life depended on it sprint, intersped with a couple of bus stop chicanes. Into a short and twisty wood section and then spat out onto the top of the Afan 4X track with its signature over-and-under bridge, some step-ups and a rock garden to finish. The surface of the 4X track was loose as hell with the dust and marbles in the berms, so a bit of care had to be taken to avoid washing out onto your face. How the 4X riders race this four abreast, I don’t know, but then, Afan isn’t normally THIS dry!
Dry me a river…of dirt
With a Stage 3 sighting run done I went back up for a faster attempt which started well, but I overshot an early corner and nearly ended up in Pembrokeshire. “Come on Andy… consistency remember!” I’d need a do-over at some point later in the day but headed over to Stage 2 which was a short pedal away. This started on ‘Graveyard’, a narrow, rocky sprint with an awkward flat 180° hairpin to start with. More pedalling like crazy on 12″ of rocky trail with a large drop down the hillside to the left to keep you focussed and then…the goodness happened. Just a couple of days earlier, a brand new, fresh cut section called ‘6 Feet Under’ was opened, just in time for the race. Dropping off Graveyard, the new trail went steeply down via a series of tight berms in the fresh dirt with just the right amount of flow added. Man, it was good and definitely the riders’ favourite! A quick look at the live timings whilst helping a rider fix a puncture at the bottom and I was 14th fastest at the time on that stage, so that had me feeling pumped and itching to ride it again now that I knew what I was in for.
Gotta smile when the weather is this good
Up to Stage 1 which was a run down one of the trails at the Afan Bike Park, right next to Bryn Bettws. It was nice enough, a series of fast berms and rollers snaking down through the woods but quite short. My sighting run was alright and with it being short and close by, multiple attempts throughout the day would be easy to do.
And this is where my luck appeared to run out.
On that sighting run, through a couple of the berms lower down, the back end of my Rallon felt loose, like it wanted to steer in the opposite direction to the front, almost like I had a puncture. I glanced down but the tyre was up so carried on to the end. I put it down to just loose dirt in the turns giving that feeling, so I rolled back to the car for some drink and an enduro-banana. Whilst there, I caught up with Dru who was battling with Tom Dunn for the W in the hardtail cat, then Tom rolled past on his way up to Stage 3; “You coming up?” he called. “Yeah man, just a second” I replied. It was at this point, I realised the rear wheel was properly loose. “What the…?!” I thought so I whipped out the multi tool and checked the rear axel was up tight…it was. I checked (almost) all the pivot bolts…all good. Rear shock bolted in tight? Yarp. Then, I noticed the problem. The end cap bolt on the driveside axel pivot, was missing. Basically, there was nothing keeping the chainstay connected to the seatstay on one side.
Shit. No wonder I had two wheel steering.
My race was over.
The Rallon…officially ‘off it’s nut’
I rolled the bike over to Dru, who by now was chatting to a bloke and his daughter by his van, and showed him my problem. Chatting to Unit Cycles team mate, Chris Cooke next door as well, I then remembered the flat tyre feeling I had on Stage 1. “Ah, I bet that’s where the bugger dropped out” I thought. Maybe, juuuuust maybe, if I walk back up the stage (being careful not to get in the way of riders coming down obvs)…AND a miracle happens, maybe I’ll find it.
I walked carefully up and then back down the stage looking and metaphorically praying that, like a capitalistic squirrel, I would find the golden nut of dreams…but no such luck. It was like trying to find a green needle (or a brainstorm) in a haystack. Yep, that’s it, my race was definitely over.
Abandoned trail – a beautiful yet sad sight
Back to the car, feeling resigned, I put the bike away, snapped off my timing transponder and started to get changed, thinking at least I’d be back home in good time.
“Is this yours?”
Out of the corner of my eye, brandishing the golden nut of destiny, was a young girl with her dad. In fact they were the two who were sat with Dru earlier. What the actual chuff?!! Unbelievably, she found it at the top of Stage 2 lying on the ground and fortunately for me, they knew who it might belong to. It was also fortunate that I hadn’t yet vacated the area in a cloud of dust and disappointment…as I literally wasn’t long from it!
I’m not religious in anyway shape or form, but this girl was my saviour..a race angel…’lady luck’ herself!
In dust we trust Photo: Doc Ward
With an hour left of timing, the race was back on. So, bike back off the car roof….riding kit back on…back to race timing central to grab some cable ties to strap my transponder back on…and I was back on my way up to the top of Stage 3 to get a clean run. Thanks to having a good old rest for the last hour, I was still feeling fresh and ready to crank this mutha out, I just had to keep it clean this time. Into the stage, maxing out my heart rate for 3 minutes, with no mistakes this time and I crossed the line to knock nearly 12 seconds off the earlier attempt. Boom! Up to Stage 2 for a proper run and I slipped over the start timing mat with 5 minutes left, laying it down for another clean run, though maybe a little ragged in places, but knocking another 4 seconds of my earlier time. Stoked with those efforts, I’d hoped to get back up and wang in a quick second run of Stage 1 where I could’ve gotten another quicker run, but argh…I’d run out of time.
Checking my transponder back in and I was 22nd in Masters of 53 so well in the top half and not too far off the top third times I’ve been capable of in the past. Times were tight at that end; another quick run on Stage 1 and I could well have snuck in the top 20 which would have been good but considering the events of the last hour. I could’ve been much lower and 60 miles on my way back to Kernowfornia, so I was happy with that.
The awesome weather, perfect riding conditions and a half decent result for me helped make racing bikes feel good again and it was encouraging to not be making silly mistakes, like I have done over my recent races it feels.
Hopefully I can continue that consistent and more controlled approach to the National Champs in Scotland in a few weeks, and hope it pays off with another respectable result. Good times are still the priority though. As always. 🤘
I hear the climbs are neverending in the Tweed Valley but the descents are worth it, so I might have to stock up on plenty of chicken and smash some more killer combos to get me up them….and enjoy those steep and loamy stages.
Buk buk Buckah!