There’s been a salient and sombre overtone in a few articles on this site and others recently about the death of mountain bike racing. Falling numbers, lower participation, and the diminution of the excitement and the vibe. In the midst of these tails, I’ve noticed a bit of an aberration in the strength of smaller club events.
The Ashburton 6 Hour ran across my radar as a nice little race close to home, located on the town straddling a river in the Canterbury plains. My immediate concern was how much fun the trails could be in the pancake flat plains environment. Driving in on a frosty morning, this was compounded by some localised fog which clung to the town with alarming discrimination. A coffee and very organised layout later, and things were starting to improve.
I was pleasantly surprised by the number of cars – for a small south island club event, 377 riders in total were present, and around a quarter of the teams riders were school teams. While the numbers may be dropping off from large events at both sides of the ditch, this was a fantastic turn-out.
When the fog cleared up, we were soon lining up for a fast and furious lap of a soggy footy field, before filing out on the course. With trails jammed between the river and the levee bank protecting against spring floods, a 9km course soon wound its way out along the river. With minor climbs and swooping descents along the way, the course was complemented by small whoops, jumps, berms and turns, set against a back drop of turning autumnal forecast colours, and scrabbling over the rocky surface of a braided river bed.
Batman out on the trails – photo by Megan Ellis Photography
While the absence of climbing seemed at the outset to be a benefit for a solo rider, and had inspired me to bring my hardtail along, it soon transpired that this also equated to a complete lack of recovery, with constant pedalling and pumping along the course challenging for smooth pedalling rhythm and climbs. In the first few laps, I went for the “fun is fast and fast is fun” mentality, playing with team riders, drafting like mad, and trying to nurse a back injury around the course.
After a few laps with fellow Cantabrian Mike Smart I tried to jump on a fast team rider to break away. I had joked to Mike that I’d probably blow up with disturbing and prophetic cheerfulness. While the choice of the hardtail offered an excellent braced-riding position which seemed to keep the back injury in check, I soon began to encounter other problems. I’d failed to align my front brake properly so was riding around with a squeaking front rotor that, while useful for passing, was also rather akin to a drill through the brain.
Dad: tell ém what you did, Dale!
Dale: (beaming with pride): I dug a hole!
Dad: you hear that? Dale dug a hole!
After 2 hours things started to degenerate rather rapidly. 25 minute lap times became 27s and I soon realised I hadn’t eaten enough and had probably begun to go into a sugar crash – or the time eternal bonk. Expecting Mike to come blowing by and floating somewhere above Ashburton in the morning sky, my addled brain made a gasping coherent thought: bananas.
With an improvement in spirit and energy levels befitting of a Durian Rider Youtube post, things began to improve again a little and the prospect of pedalling turned from drudgery back to enjoyable. The sun was shining, the day was fresh, and it was a lovely day to be out on the bike, and the squeaking brake could be musical in its own screeching atonal way.
Finding a Crampy Hole
Of course, I had actually dug myself another hole in the sunshine, and had failed to drink enough. With a very cool morning I’d rugged up with a merino base layer and was soon baking beneath the almighty wilting strength of a 14 degree sunny day. With a wee un-clip mistake, epic cramping soon followed.
With my stock of bananas depleted, I began to up my electrolyte content in a desperate attempt to keep things ticking over. Bottle after bottle was downed and the inevitable bloating soon resulted. Rolling through the laps and desparately head-checking, I was counting down laps for the finish, and trying desperately to constrain pedal force load that could bring the cramps back.
A Philosophical Conclusion
When the 6 hour mark rolled around I was relieved to have finished an exercise in how to do everything wrong. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much experience you have – focus and discipline is key to these races, and not getting things wrong. Equally key however is the ability to understand that things can turn around, and ride the rollercoaster of ups and downs, and manage as best as possible – and in this case, I’d clung on for a win ahead of singlespeeding Ritchie Bath, a lap down on the charging teams.
It would be hard to call mountain bike racing art, but in its own way, it does imitate life – the rollercoaster of emotions, but contained in a way that combines fun exertion, enjoyable descents, and a beautiful natural setting. Hopefully that combination doesn’t end any time soon!
A big thanks for Mid Canterbury Mountain Bike Club for the excellent day out – with quality races like this at a club level I have plenty of confidence for the future of MTB racing in NZ.
How’s the Serenity!