They say you always remember your first time.
In the afterglow, when we were all still electrified by 48 hours beneath moody Lancashire skies, tearing down gritstone, moorland and through thick mud, Jim called the experience ‘potent’.
It was clear something was different from the very beginning. Waiting in line at sign-on, I watched a guy pulling a wheelie, mobile in one hand, the fingers of the other twirling the ends of a funky mustache, while on the crumbling pad of concrete that acted as race HQ, a kid was doing tricks I don’t even have names for. The queue was a line of broad shoulders in jerseys brightly emblazoned with logos, team names and sponsors. Many hid their eyes behind mirrored lenses. And while some were silent, others filled the morning air with confident drawl, punctuated by the sharp bang of the portaloo door. We had entered a new world.
I looked to my mates – Scott, Jim and Phil – concerned that they were about to make a run for it. Instead, Jim pointed out a bogey on the end of my nose. I rubbed furiously while Phil laughed in my face, but secretly I’m reassured.
With six stages over a 23 mile loop, we opted to drive between them on practice day, believing it would save time (and energy). But by 14:00 we were still trying to find Stage Three and the mood was low. We had spent the morning at Havok Bike Park, home to stages four and five. While four, a man-made bouncy berm-fest, was fun, Stage Five (a.k.a. The Beast) was not. A mud slicked gouge between the trees, complicated by roots, rocks, drops and off camber steeps, only Scott nailed it. I walked a section, while Phil and Jim declared they would not be riding it come race day. Only two stages in, this did not bode well.
When I snuggled down in the back of my Caddy that night, the campsite was serious in its stillness. Curry and beer had restored our spirits but part of me was still on the course. Earlier, after the roller coaster relief of Stage Three had restored smiles to our faces I had ditched practice to have a bulge in my back tyre sorted by local bike shop, Ride On. I would have to ride stages one, two and six blind on race day. While sleep stayed just out of reach, The Beast capered in all its slippery glory along with the steep chutes Scott warned of on Stage Six (‘it’s all rideable, but –‘) and the fierce rock-filled gullies rumoured to feature on Stage Two.
On race day we chose to set off in one of the last groups. Surely, the most serious competitors would head out early? In reality, it left us with pressure to complete the course before Stage Six closed for business. But we did not know that when we set off, pedalling gently uphill, stopping to huddle beneath a hawthorn from a heavy rain shower.
Stage One was a warm up, borrowing from the flowing gritstone tracks of the quarry before leading us to the bottom of the jump section. I dithered without any sense of where the fastest lines were, often only seeing the markers at the last minute. As we pedalled up again, this time in search of Stage Two, the Cotic team, a riot of orange against the grey quarry stone and the inky sky, were grinding up to Stage One leaving a trail of testosterone in their wake. So much for our theory about serious competitors.
Over boggy moorland Stage Two was identified by one white stake and the long queue of riders straddling down from the headland, a few of whom stood apart, backs turned, peeing into the wind. Jim and I peered down the trail, having abandoned our bikes further up the hill. The track followed a scar into a small valley then quickly disappeared from sight. When I ride it I’m into the cleft before I know it, processing steeps, turns, rocks. There’s a marshal singing through a megaphone and when he’s done he starts to shout: ‘WHAT HAVE I GOT MYSELF INTO?!’ His voice echoing my thoughts and the few metres of rock and dirt ahead of my front wheel are all I know. My brain is flipping like a landed fish; danger, relief, danger, relief. Right up until those rocks -the ones that kept me up all night – grab my front wheel. I’m down. I pick myself up, I take the bike and scramble until I can get on.
‘That makes Stage Five look like a basket of kittens,’ Scott said at the bottom, watching the last steep descent for signs of Jim and Phil, as the chat of other riders washed past us.
Stage Three was the most fun. An off-camber entrance into a natural berm lead to a twisting, popping, swooping ride with the intermission of a pedal and technical climb. Mindful of the techy up, but forgetting the gradual climb into it I knocked the bike into an easy gear before I set off. When I got there I spun out, knocked it down and then struggled and dabbed on the rocky section, losing precious seconds. I rode the final section aided by the momentum of my shaking head.
Pedalling between three and four we were a sparse flock, the tail end of the race. The climbing seemed relentless but it was gentle, and in truth, I enjoyed it as an antidote to the strung-out adrenalin saturation of the stages. This is just a ride out out with friends.
On arrival at Havok I was desperate to put The Beast behind me but I had to get through Stage Four first. Shuffling in the queue I listened to booming conversation about a competition in Madeira, ’10 minute stages,’ a guy tells his mates, ‘hardest thing I have ridden.’ I’m struggling with three minute stages. Scott knows I’m worried and suggests I follow him down but after we set off he’s just a flash of yellow between the tree trunks as I concentrate on keeping traction on the slick rocks, picking lines on a trail that wants to be ridden harder than I am able to. I only catch him when he goes down on a slippery corner. But cat-like he’s the right way up in seconds and riding as if it never happened.
When we push up towards The Beast, stopping to refill with water, we find Jim. He’s cradling his wrist and tells us he fell off. We can see he’s in pain but he assures us he’s not broken and we leave him among the chat and strewn water bottles to go slay The Beast.
Off the start line I lost Scott as I struggled to find flow through slick corners. Steady and on the bike; that was the plan. The two sections likely to foil it were the rocks and the narrow sticky steep I had walked the day before. The rocks were simple but the bike spilled me on the steep. I scrambled back on and slid down, fighting for balance before the next sticky bobble. The bike spewed me again and I got to me feet, cursing for all the marshals to hear.
Having hauled ourselves out of Havoc we rode towards Bacup with only an hour before the final stage was due to close, passing other ridings streaked with dirt; stained with the mark of The Beast.
Back on quarry land, sunshine spilled between the clouds as we watched the Cotic team roll into the first gritstone corner of the final stage, one after another, railing it before pivoting for the next. I was watching a dance; tyres together with the trail one moment, releasing into the air only to meet it again, pressing, going light, twisting to create something that was almost as fluid and free as flying.
As I set off I’m aware I’m approaching the final hurdle; the chute. ‘It is steep, but just manage your speed because you have to get round a tight right hand corner,’ Scott had said the day before. I’d had several chances to look at it, and yes, it was steep. My back wheel skittered as I entered, but I controlled it and made the corner. Up and over a knuckle to the final drop. Phased, I was looking just in front of my wheel, slowing, losing balance, stiffening – ‘Just let it go!’ men called from below. There was a flash of fear before I released the brake, my suspension compressing as I was spat onto the fire road. They cheered. I smiled, where I would normally have berated them for patronising me. In truth I was grateful, to them and because I had made it and was heading for the finish line.
Two days later, we were all still talking about it. And it was clear we were a little bit in love (with the event, not each other – obvs).
It is still vibrating in me now. I wanted to capture it here, write a love letter to it, explain helplessly how it woke me up and reminded me why I spend so much time and money on mountain biking. It showed me the grace that bike riding can bring (both in friendship and physical ability) and fueled my longing to know how it feels to fly. It filled me up and still it left me feeling a little less than complete, desperate for the next time.