Mountain Biking is an interesting sport. You hardly ever take the path of least resistance. And when you do, that’s just a better line choice, which only really matters when you’re fighting for seconds rather than minutes. You see a wall, you drop off of it. You see big rocky obstacles and you speed up instead of slowing down. You constantly look ahead instead of right in front of you. In my two and a little bit years of learning how to ride a mountain bike, while I may have organised a downhill race, I hadn’t actually raced myself yet. For someone who finds clearing MTB features hard enough and who enjoys writing risk assessments, you can only imagine that throwing caution into the wind wouldn’t quite be my thing. All of that changed after racing the Ard Rock Enduro.
What is the Ard Rock Enduro?
Ard Rock Enduro is a 40km loop in Yorkshire Dales National Park, consisting of seven timed downhill stages (some including an occasional flat sprint) and monster climbs in between the stages. One can expect steep rocky chutes, steep gullies, fun off-camber sections, some flat, grassy corners and a few drops and rollable jumps. Ideally, if you’re doing the full enduro, you get to practice four stages and you race the remaining three blind. Racing aside, there are live bands, a ton of bike brands, bike demo opportunities, a licensed bar and great food. All in all, a party vibe that you can actually enjoy if you’ve got much left in the tank after the practice day or race day. There are several other categories that cater for the needs of folks with all levels of riding abilities. Loads of big names were present for the 2022 race including Tracey Moseley, Josh Bryceland, Joe Barnes, Matt Jones, Katy Curd, Helen Gaskell and Ben Deakin. The fastest men's finisher was Fergus Lamb and the fastest female was Helen Gaskell.
Is this a race for someone with no experience?
In true Vedangi-fashion, I jumped into the deep end with this race. I knew it’d be challenging, and I had watched more than enough videos that gave me some idea. On the practice day, I had a terrible time. I didn’t really understand the rules of the enduro game. It was rather daunting to line-up at the start of every stage with hundreds of others waiting. And it was demoralizing when folks overtook me during the stages. I came in with an intention of learning how to race and what it entails. Whilst that was clear to me by the end of practice day, I still had no clue if I could ride that stuff fast when it was time to actually race.
Moral of the story is that there are easier races with a 'mashup' format where you can have many goes on the same stage and the stages are shorter. You can race Ard Rock with your mates, which actually makes it a very friendly experience. On the race day, I also found it useful to tell folks behind me to leave a huge gap so that their run isn’t interrupted by them catching me. What I can promise you is that over the seven stages of Ard Rock, you’ll know what you’re capable of a little bit better, and you’ll be surprised to know that you, indeed, are much tougher than you give yourself credit for.
The long climbs
In general, one can expect steep road climbs with some fire-roads thrown into the mix. There’s a bit of hike-a-bike involved, mostly on the way up to stage 2 and stage 5. The total elevation gain is about 1,500 meters. Most of the long climbs are the ones where you can see majority of the way to the top, and tiny riders that are slowly making their way up it. But I’d have that any day compared to a climb that makes me wonder however much longer I’ve got to keep going to reach the top. My strategy for traversing between segments was to get into a rhythm that would help me recover, rather than pushing hard. Stage 3 is at the furthest point from the event village. Every stage after that, you are inching towards the start point.
The gnarly downhills
The timed downhill stages include a mix of steep chutes, loose rocks, lots of slippy mud in the woods sections, a few drops, grassy corners, off-camber sections, rock slabs and rollable jumps. Stages 1, and 2 included a steep top section. Especially in stage 2, the four steep corners at the top can seem a bit sketchy if you aren’t sure how to tackle them safely. I made the mistake of stopping at the wrong place to let some riders pass and had to walk down one of them, which had a bit of a step down that was nothing worse than riding off a curb, but with a ruined flow, I just didn’t trust myself enough. Something to look out for is the ruts and holes along the way. That’s exactly how I went over the bars in the bottom section of stage 2. I winded myself and bruised my ribs in the crash.
The blind stages don’t have many sketchy features along the way. The steep chutes are straightforward enough to ride and it’s easy to find your flow in these three stages that you don’t get to ride during practice. Stage 3 put a massive smile on my face, and I realized that the sheer effort of getting to the start of it was absolutely worth it.
Similarly, the off-camber section in stage 7 can easily throw you off your line if you don’t manage your weight on the bike optimally. Lower down the trail, there’s a slippy rock slab that’ll take you down if you grab your brakes. Just before the finish, there’s a roll-able rocky drop right under the Ard Rock arch. I loved the vibe there, especially when people cheered the riders on.
Worth the effort
Everything that I’ve learnt from endurance cycling came in handy when racing Ard Rock. The key factor was knowing when to conserve energy and how to spend it efficiently. For example, on a longer stage with a sketchy woods section, I’d try to go full-on in the top section, take it ever-so-slightly easy in the middle so that I have got something left in the tank to not make any grave errors at the bottom. It was also worth recognizing how I felt throughout the race and sorting out any issues as and when they occurred. Hydration and fueling was the priority. Especially considering the lack of that on practice day and how awful I felt as a result.
The full loop makes you realize that we already have got what it takes to complete this challenge. The first three stages seem impossibly long, but then you pick up the pace and it does get easier. Being on the move more and stopping less is definitely a good idea.
Finally, I learnt that unless you’ve trained for this and you’re fighting for seconds to hopefully place well, where you place really doesn’t matter. It’s a festival with a race in it and largely, the point is to have fun. Of course, when I found out that after all my efforts, I placed second to last, I didn’t feel great and even had a little cry. But upon reflection, I couldn’t have gone faster than I did. And for my first ever race, even the fact that I enjoyed it for most part and am keen to do it all over again is a huge win!