Ritchey Trailmasters: Singletrack In The Hills

The other week Jon snuck out of the office and headed to the heart of Wales. He was off to Llanwrytd Wells, a place where mountain biking has been part of the landscape for the past thirty years, to have a little taster of a thoroughly modern event.

Pic by www.rightplacerighttime.co.uk/

The Ritchey TrailMasters was born from the week long epic that was the TransWales, but condensed into a shorter, three-day format, centred around a single event village. Each day, riders would take in a big loop in the surrounding hills, complete with one or more timed stages, which could be uphill, downhill, along or any combination of those. The same would happen at night, with loops taking place during the evening hours.

The easiest way to think of it is as an endurance-enduro – combining a classically long and reasonably tough ride with a competitive edge. The untimed linking sections mean that you can enjoy a big day out with time to chat with friends, admire the scenery and so forth, while still getting to release your competitive urges (or otherwise).

Here’s what Jon thought:

“It’s a fair while since I’ve done anything that sits on the endurance side of the enduro coin, but when organiser Mike Wilkens invited us along to sample the Trail Masters format, I was rather intrigued. I like big days out in the hills with friends and I also don’t mind a bit of competitive sprinting – though I do my best to suppress those urges  – and it seemed like this could be an excellent mix of both.

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On Jon’s brief taster of the Ritchey Trail Masters event, he hooked up part way round the course with fellow Megavalanche 2012 racer Ben Price of Torq – who as well as being a dab hand at full-on Alpine enduro racing, also turned out to be the Master of the Trails, taking the overall win. Here’s his report on the event:

“Last weekend saw the launch of the inaugural Ritchey Trail Masters, a condensed replacement to the former Trans Wales, spread over 3 days and boasting an exciting new race format. The event centred on Llanwrtyd Wells in the Cambrian Mountains, an area with an exceptional network of natural trails…

Over the 3 days riders completed 4 separate routes made up of non competitive’ linking stages’ and 6 ‘special stages’, where riders were up against the clock and racing for the titles, within their respective categories (solo, pairs and teams of 3).  These stages were designed to take in the best sections of trail on the ride and be ridden as fast as possible. This meant that, although the routes were normal marathon distances, it was only relatively short sections that counted toward the race. These sections demanded a combination of good fitness and technical skills which provided a true test of who was the ‘Trail Master’. Elite level fitness or technical skills alone wouldn’t win you the race! The real beauty of this format was that it allowed you to relax, take in the scenery and enjoy riding with friends on the linking stages, which gave the event a friendly atmosphere. Well, before allowing the red mist to descend as you ride the special stages as fast as possible.

Day one kicked off at midday, with rain falling for most of the previous night it was going to be a wet one!  A 55km stage was planned with one 3km special stage in the middle of the route to kick off the racing. The linking stage to the one special stage of the day took in some excellent natural riding with tricky, slippery descents (one of which had me accelerating in a two wheel drift towards a partially open gate with my brakes on full lock!) and some challenging off road climbs. The special stage itself was about 3km long, starting on a rutted, rooty, wet and slippery descent through a fresh coppice of trees before dropping into a rolling, puddle strewn, double track with some challenging rock drops, before a final section of fire road that had your legs burning all the way to the line.  With finishing times upwards of 8 minutes for the fastest riders, it was a tough stage to start! As every special stage in the race was ridden completely blind, it did add to the excitement, as each rider tried to hit the sections as fast as possible with no idea of what is around the corner! After stage one the linking stage back to the arena included some great singletrack trails, broken up with some fire road climbs, and saw riders finishing in around 3-4 hours.

No rest for the wicked with the night stage to look forward to. Pic by www.rightplacerighttime.co.uk/

After finishing the first very wet stage by mid afternoon on Friday, we were due to head back out for the Exposure Lights Night Ride, once darkness had set in. Shortly after Jon left, and as everyone tucked into the evening meal, the rain stepped up a gear to the point where the noise of it hitting the main tent drowned out all other sounds and the arena turned into watery mess! After an already very wet day in the saddle and the forecast for Saturday looking promising, the decision was taken to postpone it until Saturday. The new plan was to ride the night stage in combination with Sunday’s slightly shorter loop, rather than the single 85km, 7hour epic that had been on the cards. News of this came as a welcome relief to many already saturated riders!

Saturday dawned to some light rain showers and remained overcast until lunchtime, when it started to brighten up and return to the weather you would expect in August. From the camp organiser John Lloyd led us off on the back roads through the local village and onto a rocky ‘Roman Road’ littered with deep puddles (you know they are deep when they come above the axles of a 29er!). Stage one was located relatively close to the start, so we were on to it quite early. A relatively short stage, starting with a steep, muddy chute before diving into a dark wood, onto a track scattered with wet, slippery tree roots and stumps. As you entered the woods it was all downhill and, with a plethora of interesting line options, no one rider took the same route. Finishing times were upwards of 2.30minutes for the fastest riders, with the stage playing into the hands of the technically gifted. The following linking stages took in some of the great riding on offer in the woods much of which, like many Mid Wales forests, has been cut with enduro motorbikes. These trails typically consist of very fast chutes with plenty of exposed rocks and roots to keep you on your toes and with the weekend’s wet weather, made for some interesting riding. Stage 2 of the day was a short XC loop, starting on a section of muddy single track through the woods before dropping down onto a fire road climb for a sprint back to the finish. Success on this stage was all about carrying speed with the mud sapping any forward movement and plenty of stumps and fallen trees ready to catch you out.

That evening the rescheduled Exposure Lights Night ride went ahead. With clear skies, riders rode to the start as the sun went down, greeted by a stunning red sunset. With the amount of water on the trails the linking stages were shortened but importantly the timed stage was kept the same. A gradual leg burner of a climb fired you into a fast and loose descent with some tricky, flat turns before a rocky chute sent you at full tilt into a deep stream crossing. A short climb followed by a fast downhill fire road sprint saw riders flying over in the line in upwards of 8 minutes.

Sunday again started with more rain, the 85km epic loop had been on the cards but with the route very slow going in the wet and difficult to shorten, the team behind the event worked hard to set up a whole new stage. As always they did a great job of adapting to the condition, ensuring that everyone enjoyed the event and got the best out of the local riding on offer. The new loop consisted of an interesting 60kms with two special stages. Stage one started with a short and fast climb before disappearing into a rocky narrow gully to the finish with plenty of slippery roots and rocks to catch you out, holding the line and not clipping pedals was key to success. The final stage of the race was also quite short, playing more into the hands of the technically gifted; taking in a narrow rocky section of singletrack before firing you into a series of quite deep puddles, some of which almost brought you to a complete stand still! This then lead to a short climb back to the finish.

Ben atop the poidum, with some hard earned 'energy drink'. Pic by www.rightplacerighttime.co.uk/

After 3 days of riding and 6 special stages, racing came down to the wire with many of the podium positions separated by mere seconds! Overall the team behind the event did an excellent job of laying on some of the best riding in the area and adapting to the conditions on the day, with everything running smoothly. For me personally I thoroughly enjoyed the event, an opinion mirrored by many of the people I spoke to. Personally the event was made even more enjoyable by taking the win in the solo men category. Having the special stages format really allowed you to get out and enjoy some great riding and incorporate the race element with less of an emphasis on fitness. With the feedback from many of the riders I am sure this is an event that will be back in force in 2013.

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