Ard Rock Enduro is the biggest mountain bike race weekend of the year with incredible tracks carved out of the Yorkshire Dales setting the stage for some superb enduro mountain biking and a fantastic festival atmosphere. What did four days rallying around Swaledale tell us about the state of mountain biking in terms of tech, demographics and how we’re seen by the outside world?
It’s good to be back
The most obvious aspect was how good it felt to be back in a field or out on the hills with mates on mountain bikes after so long in isolation. It was particularly special this year as the 2019 event had to be canceled with 24 hours to go as extreme storms and flooding ripped Swaledale apart. Even though restrictions are largely lifted now, organizer Joe Rafferty was also super aware of trying to keep things as Covid responsible as possible. That meant a much smaller racers-only event rather than families and friends tagging along too and anyone attending needed to either be double vaccinated or freshly tested.
COVID-19 also meant the normally massive demo bike fleets were absent and “don’t ask about availability or lead times” should have been the official T-shirt for most exhibitors. Everyone from event sponsors Santa Cruz to growing brands such as Can’t Quit Cartel clothing was saying how good it was to actually meet people for real again. With only riders on-site, it was a real chance to see how much women’s riding is growing in strength and numbers too. All the women’s races and categories were hard-fought by seriously rapid riders and the trails were loaded with lasses of all experience levels enjoying riding mountain bikes. There seemed to be a better ethnic mix too, although mountain biking clearly has a long way to go to match athletics, football and other sports in terms of diversity and inclusion.
As far as the good folks of Swaledale are concerned anyone from the other side of the steeply-sided, rock-studded valley was ‘an incomer’ but it’s clear that if they’re on a mountain bike they’re very welcome. The event has grown massively since its start in 2013 with a few industry gazebos around the Dales Bike Centre and few hundred riders tackling four stages cut into the surrounding hills. Thankfully the behavior of those riders means that even with thousands of riders now riding seven stages on three different hills means the reputation of mountain bikers is better than ever.
When chatting to the owner of the Red Lion pub that’s perfectly placed on one of the transition sections for early refreshment she told us “It’s so nice to have you all back. You’re always so lovely, never any trouble and very polite.’ The fact that she does as much business from a bar that’s basically in her front room on Ard Rock weekend as she does for the rest of the year no doubt helps her opinion of mountain bikers, too, but it’s nice to know we’re behaving. That realization of what a hungry, economy-boosting bunch we are was echoed by the on-site food vendors. Many of them had to re-supply from local supermarkets after having a normal festival weekend’s worth of food eaten by Friday evening and Red Bull ran out of handouts well before the last riders finished. We’ve seen that in the wake of other events in Wales and it definitely helps build the profile of mountain biking as a crop worth encouraging the growth of.
Ard Rock and its riders also raised over £50,000 for the local community to recover from the 2019 flooding - the team also worked alongside locals and rescue workers during the disaster itself. At the other end of the scale, it was great to find only one livestock gate left open all weekend and that was by someone who knew we were following close behind. Apart from some jerk (you know who you are) who’d left an inner tube, C02 canister and sealant sachet ‘hidden’ in a cattle grid near the end of stage one and another discarded inner tube at the end of stage two (it’s called Ard Rock for a reason) I rode about 150km over four days without seeing any rider related litter.
Leaving nothing but full tills, empty shelves and good memories is vital for the return of the race and It’s great to feel such reflected positivity from farmers you pass or folk having a coffee in their cottage garden. Especially when in other areas illegal trail building, irresponsible parking, littering and other anti-social behavior by riders are causing real issues. Elsewhere in the ‘dales roadies did their reputations no favors by extending their essential exercise out into areas where getting ill is a real issue in terms of medical cover and livelihood.
After previous issues with people returning to ride the courses outside the event, upsetting livestock and landowners and putting its future in jeopardy the ‘Strava off, rideable one weekend only’ message seems to have got across. The fact that Stu at Dales Bike Centre can guide you around a whole load of awesome and totally legal trails in the area is increasing traffic and income locally right through the year, too.
Maybe it was the ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ effect but everyone seemed more grateful for the sheer amount of effort involved in putting on an event like this. Joe describes the two-year process as “an absolute rollercoaster that wouldn’t have been possible without a massive team effort”. That includes negotiating on-off access onto private land for the stages, sorting out catering, entertaining, exhibitors, marshalls, mountain rescue teams, festival facilities plus months of hard graft carving the superb, infamously challenging tracks often in the terrible weather this remote area can generate. That’s a huge investment of time and money that previous years have made seem more of a risky gamble than ever and right up until Friday he was flinching visibly as the threatened heavy rain rattled off the horsebox housed event HQ. Thankfully the weather turned out to be a typical Dales mix of everything from hammering rain and throw you off line winds to scorching sun every hour and while there were some literal dark moments, it was pretty good overall.
Out on the hill, the rapidly changing conditions made the different skill levels of Ard Rockers very clear. Pro riders and podium winners were completing all seven stages in under twenty minutes while some riders were taking longer than that to slither, walk and tentatively roll down just one stage. Whether it was racing mates, going for a podium spot or just trying to stay on at the bottom of stage two when it got wet and silly slippery meant there were a lot of emotions out on the hills, too.
But that mix of riders and reasons is exactly what can make Enduro events so great. Punters get to pedal alongside or chat over a pint with pros and people who’ve never met team up to get each other through the toughest sections or just share that whoop and holler end of stage stoke. You can get inspiration from everyone too. Watching the super-skilled riders steeze and speed through the excellent daily post-event videos or standing trackside in ‘carnage woods’ is a great way to see how it should be done.
Sweeping the stages at the end as the safety rider lets you meet the really determined heroes of the event though. Having a heavy metal singalong with Kai as he pushed his leopard-skin wrapped bike up the endless hill to the top of stage three. Teaming up with Sarah who’d ‘never done an event like this before’ and Joe who was airlifted out of his last Ard Rock with several fractures and a burst spleen to fight through some savage weather and get all seven stages done was a real honor. It was also a great way to share the euphoria that really big achievements on a bike can bring.
There’s a big variety in terms of tech too, from the coil-shock monsters to slim-steel hardtails and everything in between. With nearly 50km of stages and transfers, including four serious climbs, the extremes of travel, weight and capability all have advantages at different points, too. What’s clear is that best enduro bikes and contemporary aggro trail bikes with their increasingly confident handling and evolved suspension are definitely better suited to the stages than most bikes were when the event started. While I might sometimes curse about heavy-duty tires as standard killing the vibe of a bike, they are definitely the order of the day to survive the savage rock gardens of Swaledale.
Test riding five different bikes over the course of the weekend underlined that while twin 29er setups definitely have the smoothness and easy roll advantage, the instant agility of a smaller rear wheel rig really is a blast when you’re shredding unseen trails or tight switchbacks flat out. It also proved - yet again - that correct tuning and setup can be much more important than price when it comes to overall and suspension performance. But that’s something we’ll be going into in more detail on upcoming tests and features.
For now, though, sign up to a quality event like Ard Rock whether as a rider or an essential marshall and get yourself a big slice of the feel-good mountain biking vibe that I’m still buzzing off three days after packing up the tent and starting on several laundry loads of filthy kit.