After a four years racing in the UK I had finally gathered enough points and experience to tackle a world event. Some good podiums in 2018 meant I had made it on to the qualifiers list for 2019, and geographically the closest round to where I would be was round one – Rotorua. Taking the plunge I signed myself up for my first ever EWS. I knew this would be tough, and certainly at the edge of my abilities, even with all the training I could manage in the months leading up to it, I still felt my fitness wasn’t there. Too many months in the bike park meant I had all the technical skill to complete the course, but none of the pedal fitness required to actually make the transition times. As I was only doing one round, and no one was counting on me to actually do well I made the decision to drop to the EWS100 category. This meant I did all the same stages on the same day as the pros, but I didn’t have any time pressures on the transitions. This didn’t exactly go to plan.
The women’s categories were due to leave the start line last at 8:45, and due to a few delays it was later than this. Stage one closed to use at 9:25, so by the time we reached the start of the first stage we only had 3 minutes to drop in. From this point we were trying to stay ahead of the clock all day, which certainly made the first few stages a bit stressful, and exactly what I was trying to avoid. Stage one started in a field above the Skyline bike park, a short burst across an off-camber grassy field and then in to the pine trees. During practice the loam in this section was hub deep, giving a strange sensation which felt like riding in deep mud, but actually gripped in all the corners. I think this is what you would call true hero dirt. However a decent amount of rain overnight had packed this down in to a solid and fast running forest trail. More off-camber sections with some chunky tree roots made it technical enough. After dropping on to an uphill fire road sprint it became a bit steeper, with tight switchbacks and an off-camber rock section. The last section continued with the off-camber forest theme and eventually dropped riders on to the Crankworx pumptrack straight, which made for a fun finish line.
Due to two of the stages being held at the Skyline bike park and three of the stages in the Whakawearwa forest riders were shuttled across town. So we jumped in to the minibus and rushed down the state highway to the bottom of the next hill where we sprinted to the top of stage two. Still against the clock we got to the start of stage two with 6 minutes to spare. The top half of stage two had a freshly cut new section, and once again continuing with the theme of off-camber and lots of tree roots, now extra slippy from last nights rain. Most of these were absolutely fine, apart from one, which somehow sent me over the bars, and even more confusingly ended up with my bike hanging by its back wheel in a tree. So I lost quite a bit of time trying to untangle my bike, and straighten the bars back out again. The bottom half of stage two though made me forget completely about my crash. Seriously fun corners and fast straights, this trail is how forest trails should be built. The slog up to stage 3 though was not so fun.
Stage 3 was also the longest of all the race stages. Despite its length it made good use of the relatively shallow gradient. Lots of pumping though the trail, hopping roots, and dropping the odd fallen tree. The middle section of forest had recently been felled, so the exposed soil had turned to sandy dust, making this part of the trail, fast, open, bumpy, and as dusty as a desert sand storm. It didn’t last long until we were back in to the trees pumping and pedalling our way through the windy forest trail. A gap jump and a couple of fast steep sections kept the track interesting, and despite its length I still felt disappointed when it finished (a clear sign that I am having way to much fun, and not pedalling hard enough).
Stage four started at the same point stage three had, but it dropped down the opposite side of the hill. It still meant we had to the hardest climb to do a second time that day. Stage four was a Jekal and Hyde trail, the top half pretty flat, and required a lot of work just to find the flow between all the awkward flat turns and tree roots. The bottom half however was a different beast, fast and steep with lots of tight turns with big drops over the tree roots in the middle of each corner. I think this was probably the most technical of all the stages, but it was also the most fun, requiring lots of commitment, as there was no way you could remember all the corners coming up. This was also where I had my second big crash, taking the inside line on hecklers corner (so named because it is the steepest most technical corner on the track, and all the spectators come to this one point to heckle the riders), I clipped a tree on the inside with my bars, causing the bike to spin across the track, and leave me clinging on to the tree.
At this point we were 45km through the course, and very grateful to see the shuttle bus waiting at the finish of stage 4. Being driven back across town was a luxury, as we had a chance to rest and eat without losing time, it got even better as we then used the gondola to get half way up the hill towards stage 5. The final stage started 60meleveation above the stage one, but was still off camber grassy field. This was made even more exciting as it had started to rain again, and the grass had turned in to water slide, and this was where I made my third big mistake. Going for the highline might have worked if I had a bit more pace, instead I went high on the grass bank, and my bike decided to go low, leaving my rolling around in the grass like a kid. After that though I relaxed a bit and started clawing back some time. The middle section was running fast, all the soft loam had packed down and was running perfectly, this then dropped riders in to the bike park, the only time this entire race my bike park skills started paying off as I bounced through all the hard pack berms and jumps towards the final finish line.
As far as a first attempt at an EWS went, I thought it was brilliant. I don’t remember the last time I had so much fun during the actual race day. Taking the stress off myself by switching to the EWS100 was definitely the right call as it meant I could really appreciate riding the stages. It also meant I could enjoy all the other Crankworx events that were going on around the same time. So although my result wasn’t anything outstanding (8th), I did prove to myself that I could complete an EWS, including all the climbs and descents within the time limits, and although my times would have put me last in the pros category, I don’t feel I was too far off the pace. Now I know what I need to work on, in a couple of years I might be able to take it seriously.