2016. Bring on the new UK Enduro Series! Oh…errrr…epic fail.

2017. Yeah boi! Gimme whatchyagot new British Enduro Series! Ummmmm. Fail.

2018. Whooop! UK Gravity Enduro Series is BACK! Now we’re talking! Huh?! What? Fail.

The above timeline is an all too familiar sight for British enduro racers. Big fanfare…poor turnout…collapsed series. It’s been a difficult monster, this premier UK enduro race series, to set up and maintain and it’s become evident that for whatever reason, UK enduro racers and even the the UK MTB industry, are not generally that keen on stumping up cash up front for a National series, which led to effectively crowd-funded unoffical ‘Nationals’ being set up in the vain hope that if you create it, they will come.

They didn’t.

In the mean time, the market flourished with smaller, regional enduros…great for some competitive mates racing and even likely to tempt local Strava warriors, jibbers, downhillers and former freeriders to give it an occasional go. But racing a ‘national’?…well…it’s a ‘national’ and you ‘have’ to be fit and you ‘have’ to fast, don’t you… or why bother? That’s been the general feeling.

Anyway, learning from these issues, the new 2019 British National Enduro Series is trying where the others have failed by using a similar set up to the Enduro World Series. Piggyback existing successful enduro race events and use their race or event, as a round of the Nationals, and so the first round of the British National Enduro Series took place in the middle of April at Afan Forest, South Wales, piggybacking the first round of the Welsh Gravity Enduro ‘mash up’ Series.

WGES organiser Charlie Williams has a massive amount of enduro race organisation experience, but I have to admit, when race info came out at the end of 2018 and how these two races would co-exist in one weekend, I did wonder if he’d bitten off more than he could chew. After all, Southern Enduro, PMBA, No Fuss Events and Tweedlove were each just using one of their existing races and labeling it part of the national series.

It would be a brave way to start things off that’s for sure. Would it work? Or would it fail and crash? Here’s how my weekend of racing went down…

Saturday – Welsh Gravity Enduro Series, Round 1

This wasn’t the first race of the year for me, as in March I had raced the first round of the new Southwest Kenda Enduro Series (finishing 22nd of 56) and also the new Kernow Enduro (finishing 3rd of 17), but riding has been a lot more limited this year so I wasn’t coming into this race feeling in decent race shape quite so much….a lot fresher shall we say maybe but less fitter! Preparation the week before hadn’t gone great either, as I blew my freshly serviced shock the weekend before so was in a state of mild panic as to whether I could get it fixed in time for the double-header. Despite best efforts, the shock wasn’t fixed in time so a call to Unit Cycles for help, resulted in me borrowing their demo Orbea Rallon R5 for the weekend. To be honest, I wasn’t that disappointed my shock wasn’t fixed in time in the end for some reason!

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Shiny bike. Blue sky. Happy days.

Myself and race partner in crime, Southwest Syndicate’s Lawrence Jones, headed up from the bowels of the southwest on Friday night ‘camping out’ in a pub in Port Talbot. After years of pitching tents and sleeping on punctured air beds, I think it’s safe to say that we’re both well and truly over race event camping. A decent breakfast, a proper bed and a flushing toilet makes SUCH a difference to minimising pre-race stress and faff!

With two races in two days and the WGES race doubling as practice for the BNES race, tactics were discussed. Do we save energy for Sunday by doing minimal practice on Saturday? But Saturday is a race so you can’t cruise around otherwise what’s the point of entering?! We ultimately came to the conclusion that we didn’t know how to play it and regardless, legs would tired come Sunday anyway. Lets just go riding some fecking bikes.

We arrived at Bryn Bettws on a cold but sunny Saturday morning and jumped on the end of the queue for sign-on. Nearly an HOUR later of standing around and getting cold, we had our number boards so it was a quick return to the car to get bikes set up and get warmed up with some riding. By now, it was about 10am so only an hour until the Mash Up race started but we decided to head over to BNES Stage 1, a 45 minute fire road transfer over to Glyncorrwyg, passing directly underneath whirring wind turbine bladesv on the hill top, to get a practice run out of the way, then return to Bryn Bettws where all the other stages were focused around. Very isolated from the other stages, Stage 1, consisting of Happy Life and Jetlag from the Blade Trail and felt like a bit of an outcast from the other stages (and arguably added in to make up some mileage to qualify as a National race for Sunday) Although purely trail centre with no line options, it was quite brutal stage actually due to the rocky nature of the surface and the need to pedal up hill at one early point. It definitely got the max heart rate going full effect right from the start!

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Heading back from Stage 1, Lawrence is feeling warmed up

After a bit of suspension tweaking on the demo bike, we headed back to the main area to ride Stage 2, which by now was live for race timing. This stage consisted of Graveyard and 6 Feet Under (which was brand spanking new last year for WGES) but with an additional steep, bermy section down Resurrection. Fresh and clean last year, 6 Feet Under was looking a little more worn now and as I swung left and right down through the lovely steep turns, one in particular, which didn’t have much of an edge to it, caught me out slightly with the front wheel going off the edge of the turn. I had to slam on the brakes, stop, and pull the front end back on to the track to continue. Aargh! I was having an awesome run up to that point, feeling like the 29er wheels were flattering me along the initial pedally, flowy trail centre section but hey…at least it’s the Mash Up format, so I could go and have another go later.

Stage 3 was a minute and a half bermy sprint down through the Afan Bike Park, with an awkward fresh-cut tight and nadgery bit half way down. It wasn’t a test for bike handling skills and you wouldn’t make up any time on it (though you could easily lose it if you took it for granted) but the fast berms were fun enough. One practice/race run on that was enough.

Stage 5 was the same as last year’s race using 373 into Bus Stop but avoided the 4X track into the arena with a fresh-cut loamy run through the adjacent tree line. A long and pedally stage but quite fun. Again, we did just one run, wanting to have a quick lunch stop and get another run in on Stage 2 before the Mash Up race closed.

Another run on Stage 2 and I was having another good top section and dropping back into 6 Feet Under, I wanted to make sure I hit that turn right that caught me out the last time. Did I?

Did I balls.

Same corner, same crappy line in and same result missing the following corner. And this time, it took me longer to get back on the track and get going again. Argh…you big bollocks!! With two really good (single and blind) times on the other stages, it was frustrating to cock up this one again. Typically with the Mash Up format, I’d go back up and do another run, but we still had BNES Stage 4 to practice and we were trying to save the legs a little. Oh well, that would be it for the Mash Up race for me today, just gonna have to let it slide.

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29er wheels finding the grip on Stage 4’s loose corners Photo: Mike Maben Photography

Back to the top as the Mash Up was closing and we dropped into Stage 4 for a single practice run. Stage 4 was originally created for the UK Gravity Enduro a few years ago I believe and is an awesome, very steep stage with a mixture of drop-offs and rooty options as you plummet down the hillside. I’d ridden it before but the hill was covered in trees then and now it was a barren dusty slide all the way down following recent deforestation. I’d been having some brake issues all day to be honest, the down side of a having a demo bike was that whoever had the bike previously seemed to have got a bit OTT with the cleaning products which had led to contaminated brake pads. I was running 4 pot Shimano XT brakes with a 200mm rotor up front but the headwind that day was having more success slowing me down!

Intending on a relatively easy day, we still finished the day with 28 miles and 1,500m of climbing! For the Mash Up race, I finished 23rd of 65 which was a good result…but I was miffed at the poor effort of Stage 2, as it really could’ve been a top 20 result!

Sunday – British National Enduro Series, Round 1

Sunday morning arrived and with slightly tired legs, we returned to Day 2 and Race 2. An 8am breakfast, a 20 minute drive and a 9.36am start time for me, meant pre-race bike faff was rushed and I was a little late to the start, but the atmosphere was very relaxed and it wasn’t an issue. Fortunately my lateness meant I could ride with Lee from back home in Cornwall, so we headed off together on an even colder and even windier than yesterday transition to Stage 1. This went well enough for me and I felt a solid if unspectacular time set me up well to start the day. Stage 2 felt good and I hit ‘that’ corner right this time so thought I was on for a much better time than the previous day – well, it should be as I didn’t go off the track this bloody time! However, my mind was completely blown later when I found out, I was actually slower than yesterday! WTF?!…but I didn’t crash?!? Stage 3 was fine but also a touch slower than my Mash Up time, Stage 4 was fun and clean and at the bottom of the brake dragging stage, the XT brakes had finally burnt off the crap and were now working nicely. Stage 5 was also good, helped in part by familiar Cornwall Freerider face, Hazel, on marshal duty with some positive heckling aimed at my Cornish ass…but argh, again, a slower time than yesterday!

Crossing the line into the arena, I handed my timing chip in and looked at my times and current position and to be honest, felt quite disappointed. I’d had 5 clean stages with no mistakes and yet my times were slower all round than yesterday’s race runs. Later that evening, upon reflection, the disappointment went away somewhat as I realised my 43rd of 106 was actually my best result at a National Series race so in all fairness, it was a very good result for me.

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To know where you are going, one must know where they came from. Err…from up there mate! Photo: Dialled In UK

So, two races in one weekend…one kind of doubling up as practice for the other…did it work? For the most part, yes. There was plenty of time to practice all BNES stages at least once and the Mash Up stages were compact enough that doing one or two more runs was possible. The downside to doing both races was having to prioritise one over the other to an extent and inevitably, BNES took priority over WGES, so racing both felt a little compromised. The other issue was registering on Saturday morning; with most riders turning up first thing to effectively sign on for two events, either racing the WGES or practicing the BNES, so the queue was long and led to valuable time being wasted – again compromising the day a little.

As mentioned, it’s only the two WGES/BNES rounds that have this set up and it’ll be interesting to see how it works for the final race at Dyfi Forest. Traditionally, races there consist of a proper ‘out there’ (backcountry brah) enduro loop rather than a compact winch and plummet multi-stage DH type affair so I hope the compromise is minimised.

It was great to have a National Series back and good for me to be back doing it for the first time since 2015. Each round will have something a little unique to the others so things are shaping up to be interesting. Round 2 is at the start of May at Graythwaite in the Lake District, hosted by PMBA and reverts back to the standard Saturday practice/Sunday race format. With 8 timed, natural stages and the infamous ‘KS Drop’ into the finish arena, it should be a great event based on past experience and I’m looking forward to the road trip ‘oop north’.

Wales never fails and the Lake District ain’t no limp biscuit!

24

BNES Round 1 Afan race route

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