by XC National champ and NPS champion Jenny Copnall
I decided to race this event, held the day before the UK round of the Exterra World Series, back in July, when the weather was endlessly sunny and a day riding in the Welsh mountains seemed too good to turn down. That was in July. Oh how things change.. this weekend saw some of the most extreme weather that the region has experienced all year, with 70mph gales on the mountain tops and driving rain throughout race day. For me, the event went from being a fast training stint / race to what felt like a survival course of epic proportions!
I did see the weather report mid week before the event. I considered abandoning the trip before I had begun. This was an “optional extra” to my schedule after all. Eventually I decided to head to Wales in the hope that the forecast would be exaggerated. I had confirmed that I would be at the event and I felt obliged to honour my commitment. I packed all the waterproofs that I own, protective seat covers for the car, wellies and a crud guard.
The day before the event I arrived to register and check out some of the course. As I arrived the heavens opened and I opted to save my energies and kit for race day.
Race day dawned windy, wet and gloomy. The race started at 9am and, half an hour before this, riders began to congregate in the field, huddling under the exhibitors’ tents to savour a few more minutes of being dry and comfortable. Such were the conditions and location that I decided to wear full waterproofs to race in. I was gambling that the weather would not improve. While many chose to wear their usual lycra jerseys and shorts with little protection from the elements, I had a feeling that this event was going to prove more than a little extreme and wanted to be prepared and fully self sufficient.
As the gun went riders romped out of the start field. I started as I meant to go on, at a steady pace that would see me through the day. I was racing this event off the back of a big block of training in preparation for next week’s World Cup Final, and knew that I would have a degree of heaviness in my legs. On the first climb US Marathon Champ Melissa Thomas stormed past me. She was dressed for racing and was clearly taking the considerable prize fund seriously! I had no option but to let her go, hoping that she may come back to me in the later stages of the event.
The course was 99% fire road, some quite steep and rocky, some fast and smooth. The race did an initial 27km loop and then a big 47km loop. The first loop felt like any other enduro. There were plenty of people, marshals, motorbikes etc en route and I could see riders up ahead and behind me. The weather was appalling but having people around always tames the environment. Riding at a steady pace I was dry, comfortable and happy to ride my Raceday bike all day long.
The second loop began by climbing a 2500ft climb. As I rode over the rocky sections I became aware of my rear tyre squirming. I tried to ignore it. Perhaps it was just the suspension working to gain traction. As the climb flattened out I stopped and found that I had a slow flat. I added air to the tyre to see whether this would solve the problem, hoping the sealant may fix the hole. I continued up the climb but, by the top, knew that I’d have to put a tube into the tyre as it was rapidly going down again.
By this point the weather had completely closed in. I had not passed a marshal for miles and no other riders were anywhere to be seen. The mist reduced visability to 20 metres or so and the winds were flattening small trees and bushes to the ground. It had also got colder and the rain had got harder. I stopped by a rock crop and set about sorting out the problem. This took quite some time. Things kept blowing away, I was getting cold and my gas canisters were very low on air. I resorted to my last “emergency” canister (a mere 60g) and eventually managed to get just enough air into the tyre to ride on. I was now completely out of air. I had 40km to ride on a soft rear tyre. I was in the middle of nowhere in a storm and completely reliant on laminated blue direction arrows pinned to trees to keep me on course. I couldn’t have another flat. I decided at this moment that I simply had to get to the finish of this event. In my mind this was no longer a race, it was a bloody survival mission! I was now glad of my full waterproofs!
The final 40km was simply epic. I still saw no other riders until the finish and had to stop numerous times to fold back direction arrows to see where they were pointing. I hoped that none blew away completely! I didn’t know how high up the mountain I was, or on what side since the mist was too thick. The wind was phenomenal! One moment I’d be getting pushed all the way up a climb not needing to pedal, the next I was spending 10 minutes to get along a section of flat fire road, with my hand shielding my eyes from the driving rain.
Eventually I started to see marshals again (I must be nearer the bottom!) and the mist lifted a little. I could hear a road and began to pass buildings. I knew I must be back in the valley and thus not too far from the end. The final 5km were punishing. Just as I thought I was on the home run a series of “kicker” climbs sapped any remaining energy from my legs. I actually caught a guy a few hundred yards from the finish line but had not seen him for hours!
I crossed the line second. Melissa had ridden a strong race and my flat had removed any hope that I had of making up ground in the second half of the event. I’d love to race her again sometime in the future, hopefully in more normal conditions.
After the event had ended, and I’d got back, I didn’t feel my usual self at all and, alas, that night the dreaded lurgy came out in full force. By morning I had a full on head cold. I’d thought that my legs had felt “off” for the past week but put it down to tiredness from the training build up. This event had obviously been the last straw for my body’s defences. Now I have a few days to get well again and hope to be okay to travel to Schladming mid week for the World Cup on Saturday. I should just about make it if my body plays ball.