Nothing fills me with more fear and excitement than the words ‘mass start’. This is the fourth year in a row that I have raced the Red Bull Foxhunt and it has a new home in Machynlleth, Wales. Bringing it to the home town of Rachel Atherton. The fox; Rachel Atherton had unfortunately broken her collarbone so new fox to the chase is Trek team mate Katy Winton.
In the same way as the previous years, I arrived Friday evening with plenty of time to sign on and pitch the tent. Saturday morning started with rider briefings before jumping on the uplift (supplied by Antur Stiniog), and heading for the top. We had a 15-minute pedal from the drop off point to the start line where we could practice throughout the morning before our seeding run in the afternoon. Each rider is given one run of the track to get the best time they could manage. The time you get on the Saturday determines where on the grid you start on Sunday. The top 15 riders take the first row, those who ranked from 16-30 take the second, and so on up to the 60th rider. After that the rest of the riders organise themselves in to a free for all.
As with the previous years the course started on wide open hillside. The track wound across the hill hoping over the bogs, heather, and occasional lost sheep. After a couple of turns the track opened in to an extremely fast motorway section where a lot of time could be made. Turning in to a series of off camber switch backs through the bracken, where riders able to trust the grip in their tyres could cut the corners tight. There was an absolute requirement for running soft tyre pressures along the whole course, if it wasn’t for getting grip on the boggy corners then it was defiantly required for staying afloat on the mud for the second half of the corner. As the track entered the trees the mud spread. Not the nice wet sloppy kind of mud you can cut through, but the clay that binds your wheels and chain together. This mud left you with two options either carry enough speed to shake the mud lose, or let it clog up to the point that the wheels stopped turning, and your tyres have turned in to slicks.
What appeared to be the only majorly constructed part of the trail, a berm that launched riders over a double, was so stuck down with clay that no one had enough speed to clear it. At this point we were given the first of our line options. The B line wound its way smoothly between the trees. The A line took a steeper line requiring some quick turns between the rocks and roots before a straight line joined back with the B line. Continuing to work its way through the trees and mud, the trail took to a slight incline just to slow the riders down before the next line choice. The B line was a lower route on a sticky blown out berm, the A line, who only a few dared take, a steep chute followed by a drop requiring courage and commitment, but was at lease dry enough to keep the wheels running freely. The trails merged just before a section of track that caused more problems than any other. A right hand off camber turn on to a steep descent, which over the weekend turned in a giant mud slide, many decided it was easier to slide down on their bums rather than their bikes. As the trees opened up in to the lower fields the trail lost the momentum caused by gravity and the ladies had to utilise what energy they had left in their legs to pedal through what can best be described as peanut butter. The track continued with a small energy sapping climb between the last set of trees, and over some smooth rock slabs and down on to the final sprint across the field to the finish line.
The mud caused the downfall of many riders this weekend, myself included. Because of the number of riders on the track it was very difficult to keep the speed up and keep the wheels running freely. On my second practice run the mud around by drive chain was so bad it resulted in sheering the chain guard off and snapping the chain in two (which resulted in an amusing balance bike run to the bottom with my chain in my hand). I was able to fix the chain with a quick link and bodge a chain device together out of half a tooth paste tube and zip ties. Then came the seeding run. My makeshift chain guard held together for over half of the seeding run before the mud became too much and my chain came off. I unfortunately lost around a minute and a half trying to get it back on. This meant that I ended up placed 28th after seeding and on the second row of the starting grid.
In some very challenging conditions it was any ones guess how the results were going to work out. With so many crashes and mechanicals in seeding the line up on the starting grid was a mixed one.
The countdown to the start is the only time the ladies are quiet all weekend, and as the horn blows it’s time to put on the race face. The race out the start line is on of the most thrilling things you can do, especially knowing that my seeding had given me a difficult starting point, I knew I was up against it to pull back some places. After a gruelling 5 minuets battling it out with some extremely skilled ladies I managed to cross the finish line in 11th place, only 10 places in front of fox Katy Winton.
Results aside, even though the course was one of the most challenging courses the Fox Hunt has dealt us, not least because of the mud, the atmosphere is always superb with everyone in high spirits, hugging and cheering on the ladies as the cross the line. There is no other event in the calendar like this one and I will be hoping to make it back again in 2018.