The eagerly awaited Vitus First Tracks Enduro cup kicked off in Castlewellan on the weekend of 28th & 29th March for Round 1. Glyn O'Brien and his team had been working hard on the tracks in the lead up to the event and there was a great buzz of excitement in the build up.
The practise session on the Saturday was an informal run out for most. I missed the practise due to work commitments but this may have been a blessing in disguise due to the conditions. A wet and windy weekend meant the open natural sections got a bit sticky and rutted in places.
This stage started on natural grass and mud trails and finished on trail centre hard packed trail. I rolled up to the start area and the marshal told me the location of the timing box and how the stage was shaping up. I had heard some horror stories from practise due to the muck and wet conditions. I checked the forks, shock and took a deep breath and powered off the start line and into stage 1. The conditions were slippy from the word go and with rocks, roots and other hazards meant this open section was a ride and a half. I dived straight into the steep section and with my Vitus Sommet working well under me tried to get the flow going but keep it fast to pull over the tricky sections. The stage was running well but with multiple line choices it was hard to pick the right line. There was more lines here than at a Pete Doherty after party. I had been doing well until I took the inside line on a corner with a tree. The exposed roots caught me out and getting the leg trapped behind the back wheel and saddle I high sided and shot across to the left. Somehow I managed to hold it without completely coming off and kept moving. Hanging back in behind the saddle for another steep section with hucks and drops I let the bike go and think the faster pace saved me on a few knocks. The Vitus Sommet was made for this type of steep technical riding and was working well. The rockshox Pike RCT3 solo air and Monarch plus RC3 Debonair took the rough terrain with ease. Damping and rebound were set pretty much perfect for this. Just before the crossing into the trail centre section I caught a root and had to dab the foot to keep moving. I was through the worst of stage one and on a familiar section I got the power down and tried to push hard along this hard packed gravel trail centre surface. I spotted another rider ahead and give a clear shout for rider up. The rider pulled to the side and give me a clear run (Cheers for that) The last bombhole section took us off the trail centre and back onto the small drop and jump to the finish. Stage 1 was an action packed stage with a bit of everything, really good to ride.
I waited on the others then we climbed back up to start stage 2. The transitions were good craic and you could hear stories of how stage 1 went for others. Mental was a word I heard on numerous occasions. We got up to the start of stage 2 and again there was a small queue. Just enough time to take a drink and dry out the goggles.
This stage started on the trail centre black before dropping into a natural section. Goggles on pedal ready and boom into stage two. The trail centre hard pack gravel was fast flowing and a few small rock gardens at the start were all we had to worry about. This was all about flow and hard pedalling on every section. I was conscious of saving some energy for the natural section which had a few technical off camber and rises to contend with. My 760mm Nukeproof warhead bars are a great feel but with a few tight trees almost caught me out in the middle section. I pushed hard along the trail and when I seen the tape indicating the turn into the natural trail got myself set up for the drop down into a rooty washed out corner. I dropped down into the corner and with only a bit of rear wheel drift pulled it through the corner. I got on the pedals and hammered across the walking path onto a grassy section that was caked in muck. I tried to keep traction and pedalled up over a wee rise. As I pushed through a tricky uphill bit I clipped a pedal and got sent off the trail. I scrambled back onto the bike trying to save any lost time. Into another off camber section there was a top, middle or bottom line. Unlike Michael Barrymore I decided against the bottom and went high into a tight hairpin. As I railed into the corner the bike just went were I wanted it to go. Another tight hairpin left and one last push across the finish.
We waited for the others and with a short delay while Damien fixed his puncture we soon got on the move again for the climb up to stage 3
The familiar face of Keith Williams marshaling set us off into one of my favourite sections. The top section of this trail was all natural but with tree cover had held up well despite the rain. I set myself up and tore off into the tree lined trail. Sweeping corners with bermed kickers, rocky drops and a soft pine covered surface. Hammering into a tight hairpin and hopping the ruts I kept the power down as the bike seemed to grip well on the forest floor. The steep drop into an open section had caught me out in the past. I took a tighter line staying out of a rut and this kept me steaming across the open for a jump and hard right back into the trees. Another lovely tight section with a double drop and a rockgarden huck finished through a series of sweeping corners. Half way through and now we joined the trail centre. This started with a hard pedal then into a rock garden. I got the power down and kept it flat into the next rock garden with a pre jump I sent it into the first section. The bike skipped around below me and no sign of the end of the rock garden I thought I over cooked it. There was no good line and if I am honest I was on auto-pilot. I was just glad it skipped through without getting caught up. What seemed like an age the small bermed corner at the end was a relief railing me into the smooth trail. The trail ramped up and this really worked the legs. My heart rate went through the roof but with the end in sight I pushed on across the line.
A much needed rest and time to fuel up at the feed station. While waiting on the others I took on some water and Bananas. Damien arrived at the end with another puncture. When your lucks out it really is out. This was his second or third of the day. We waited around till he got sorted and started the climb up to stage 4. Stage 4 and 5 started in an area that resembled a forest hit by a hurricane. Fallen trees zig zagged the path and the only way in was up a steep rocky incline. This bit got us warmed up after a long stop at the end of stage 3.
Steve Bell give us the heads up about the start. He showed us a good starting point avoiding a rut that had caught out a few riders even before the start beacon. I give the rider in front a hefty start and then dropped into the technical start. Smooth corners giveway to rocky ruts and washed out berms. Two fast sweeping corners and already I seen the rider in front. I give a quick call and he stayed left I got down the inside. This was just in time for a steep rock drop and into a fast technical off camber corner. Roots on the inside and a two wheel drift got the pulse racing but thankfully the ramp of mud on the corner held my wheels and kept me in the trail. Another fast flowy section before crossing the walking paths and the infamous Moorish Tower (Paul Cromie your secrets safe with me) It was great to have marshal Dermot Devine shouting words of encouragement just in time for a wee rise in the trail. A much needed gee up at the right time and I drove the pedals hard before turning left into a steep rough section. Fast as I could push it through this section. The bike was gripping when I wanted and turning when I wanted, it was the confidence I needed to give it some more. This bike just wants to be pushed hard on the steep stuff. A tight left hander before dropping onto the fireroad past the feed station and linking onto the lower section of trail centre for a hard push to the finish.
The legs really felt the burn at the end of that stage and with only two more left I hoped I had something left in the tank. We got moving and headed back up the hill to the hike a bike section. Again a tight wee pull with the bike on the shoulder really stretched the legs.
This was another quality stage starting in technical natural trails. Later finishing with a lung busting pull up the moorish return. I had a technical line sussed in a previous weeks practice. A steep drop with a tree stump half way down and a tree on the right. I knew it cut a big chunk of time on the strava segment and having done it any time I rode it before that was the line I wanted to ride. I started ok and was just getting into the flow when I nearly binned it on a deep rut. It unsettled me a bit but I got on the power again getting ready to set up for the drop. Looking up ahead I noticed the steeper line was taped off. I tipped it around the corner and pedalled on trying to put it out of my head. I hadnt rode this wee bit but pushed on regardless before rejoining the exit point I was used too. The line seemed to set me up wrong for a tight tree lined rocky section and getting crossed up lost all flow. I pushed on through another new section that took us to the moorish return. I knew the pain was about to begin with a long pull up a rise in the trial centre. Slacking means lost time and as heavy as the legs felt I tried to drive it on. I heard the familiar voice of the bashed up Wayne Davidson encouraging us to push hard for the finish. I felt like I had a strong finish to that stage and with only one to go the adrenaline was pumping. Another small delay for the unluckiest Klunker of the day Damien with yet another puncture. The wait give me time to get chatting to the boys of Carn wheelers and East tyrone Cycling club. We all got moving again and joined the final queue of the day.
This was a trail centre flat section to the finish. I got on the pedals and pushed as hard as I could to get moving. The legs were screaming at this stage but I knew the end was near. I tried to make it flow rather than stay on the gas the whole way. As the trail started to descend towards the pump track I got a chance to free wheel and pump the bermed corners keeping the pace up. A rocky end to the trail which had caught me out before had me braking to avoid getting caught up. A quick dip of the bars to take me around the rocks and into the pumptrack. I pushed it into the pump track doubling the first section and then sweeping through the rest as I started to slow I just got on the pedals to take me over the last big whips. It was great to hear the final beep at the end of stage 6.
We handed back our number boards and rode across to the race village for our times. With the timing system in full flow and riders still on the course I knew the time didnt mean much until it was over. I seen 9th in class and 53rd overall. I was delighted but expected this to fall with a fair few riders left out on course. There was smiles all round and the area was really buzzing. After a shower and a coffee we headed back up to check out the times and see the prize giving. With all riders in I had finished 11th in my Class (Masters B)and 63rd overall. I was shocked with the time and really delighted to have been able to keep it steady through the day. I had the odd mistake here and there and a few hold ups but think I know where I can improve.
The event went well and the trails held up despite the rain. Really enjoyable event and looking forward to the next one.
Glyn O'Brien and his team have done a smashing job. Round 1 in the bag and more of the same to come. Bring it on!!!!!!