Last Saturday saw the biggest small race event in the country go off in a small bit of woodland near Sheffield. With a roster of athletes taking part that included a World Champion and a fair number of non-athletes that included our very own Benji, Jon and Matt, once again Steve Peat’s Steel City Mini Downhill has created a buzz out of all proportion to its modest size.
After last year’s muddy death match, the later date was welcome and the weather – surprisingly enough – came through, with a damp track but plenty of sunshine instead of freezing fog. The hard work of the girls and boys of Ride Sheffield and ThisISheffield along the efforts of trailbuilders BikeTrack.org meant that there was a new track for this year’s race, sharing only the spectator friendly and bike punishing bomb hole drop-in at the finish line arena. As well as giving his name to the event, Steve Peat also gave a hand building and designing the track – how many World Champs do you see picking up a shovel down the local woods?
The race was again in aid of the Greno Woods Appeal and although there’s been enough money raised to purchase the largest portion of the woods the appeal still aims to raise the full £1m needed to purchase a total of 169 hectares plus fund work to repair and improve access to, and the ecology of this ancient woodland. You can find more about their efforts here.
The unofficial (but lovely) video by xtrailfilms.com
After Matt soundly thrashed Jon last year in the Somme-like conditions despite an age disadvantage of over a decade, a grudge match had been set in motion between the two – not by each other, but by friends, colleagues, internet commentators and complete strangers. Would this year settle it? Or would age and experience win again?
“I hate racing” I mumbled as Jonny picked me up for my second Steel City DH. I do, I really do, but in the same way as people can’t really remember how much breaking a bone hurts or women can’t remember the pain of childbirth – I seem to quickly forget the feeling of nausea that a start line and a number board fill me with (not to mention weak knees, small lungs, apathy and lack of ambition) that’s how I found myself at some god awful hour on my way Sheffield again to slither down a slope.
Last year by some statistical freak and maybe the ability to pedal to near vomiting point, I got my once only in a whole life time podium position (third in Vets) and I suspect there was a small part of me that wanted to go back and see if I could do it again. Jon certainly wanted me to come back to smash an old man in to the ground and redeem his tattered ego (to be fair he’d been baited fairly endlessly since last year and the organisers of the event seemed to have carried this on up to the day) .
Cometh the day and the knowledge of last year’s third place seemed to have completely drained me of the ability to pedal or steer or even think properly , that and a proper start ramp to pedal your stomach lining out from all combined to make for a sweaty without pedalling, lump of jelly.
If the weather the week previously had been good, I reckon the course would be fast as hell, but as it was it was once again claggy and pedally. A big gap jump (which I only looked at, I couldn’t work out how fast you needed to go to clear it, but clearly faster than I was going!) a few smaller jumps and the now infamous bomb hole in to the finish arena.
After two practise runs I realised riding it was just going to tire me out more than help, so we spent an hour drinking coffee and visiting the portable loo and getting myself in to a state really.
First run went ok – I didn’t fall off, pedalled like my life depended on it and 1.56.13 seconds later I was boss eyed, panting and with a taste of blood in my mouth , but finished.
The year before I was a second faster and third in my category – this year I was running currently 9th .
With my shoulders bowed to the inevitable I rode up for my second run and flailed down the course, feet falling off the pedals occasionally rubbing my groin against the stem as I hit hidden rocks and generally concentrating on staying on rather than the fast line.
And then it was over. 2.00.05 and a tenth place – soundly beaten by Jonny (he got an amazing 1.43.16) and another year over. My only consolation was that “we” still beat Dirt and I don’t have to do it again next year…
…but you know what? It wasn’t that bad…
After last year’s hypothermic mud slog followed by a full twelve months of being reminded that I’d lost to a man would could just about be my father, I can’t say I was looking forward to this year’s Steel City. What hadn’t helped was returning to the scene to do a bit of filming at the peak of summer, when the original track was bone dry, super fast and made from joy; basically the complete opposite to how it had been for race day. The chances of a buff track this year were equally slim, despite assurances from the organisers that the new track was much more weather proof.
Still, knowing the ribbing I’d get if I failed to put in a decent performance, I was taking things seriously. Well, not seriously enough to train and create some sort of actual advantage, but seriously enough to fill a fairly sizeable van with a selection of tyres for all seasons, spraying my bike with silicon to stop mud sticking (I’d seen it on a World Cup team mechanic video, okay?) and spending the previous night servicing my forks, much to the annoyance of my other half.
After we’d got up at an unpleasant hour, stopped at most of the services down the M1 for coffee, toilet breaks and food, picked up our numberplates and then procrastinated as much as possible in the car park, there was nothing else for it. Time to take all the warm clothing in a drybag, pack our spare tyres and roll down the road to the Woodland of Destiny – or would it be the Copse of Broken Dreams?
For this year the organisers had invested in a fancy start ramp made from scaffold, which made setting off briefly easier before the magic of mud-suction dragged you back down. I set off on a gentle run down with my other half, in for her first ever mountain bike race, following behind – or so I thought. The track started off with a few fast berms and tabletops split up with the odd greasy rock. That opened into a reasonable chunky gap jump followed by moorland free-for-all then back into the woods for more berms, jumps and sprinting. It was certainly less boggy that the last year but even so there was a good amount of squirrelling about, possibly not helped by the large bag of clothes and the spare tyre on my back. There were plenty of fun bits and some opportunity for some cheeky lines here and there – but it was going to come down to how hard you could pedal once again. Every cigarette I’ve ever smoked suddenly made itself known in my tight feeling chest. I was only cruising too, the thought of a race run had me feeling knackered already. Matt’s uncanny ability to pedal through vomiting would be rather useful today.
On getting to the bottom, my other half Jenny was nowhere to be seen, which was odd, because she’d been behind me when I was on the ramp. After a few minutes waiting at the bottom I was starting to get a bit twitchy. This was supposed to be a pleasant introduction into racing bicycles. Surely it was too long for her to have stopped to check something out. Was it a mechanical? What if she’d crashed? Either way, it didn’t look like a great start to the day.
After a swift pedal back to the top she was nowhere to be seen – oh, in fact she was, sat by the start gate surrounded by concerned looking physios, a doctor and shortly after, members of Woodhead Mountain Rescue team. This really didn’t bode well. Through a grimace she explained that a back twinge had turned into a full on spasm when she pushed her bike up the ramp, she’d collapsed and almost fainted with pain – this had happened just as I’d pedalled off the ramp. I’m not blessed with timing.
Oh the bright side, she was surrounded by the most highly qualified people you could hope to bump into when in any woodland – and they’d brought an excellent selection of drugs. After a trip down to the bottom of the hill – the look of horror on rider’s faces when they saw a stretcher was priceless – she’d be sitting out the race on the sidelines but was happy to hang around, as long as I promised to beat Matt. There’s motivation for you.
After a second run down the hill, I decided that I was practised enough and I’d be better off saving myself for the real thing. The main things to avoid were stuck in my head – mostly revolving around pedalling like buggery into the gap jump and avoiding the handy hole on the inside of one of the berms that looked like an excellent cut through line until you fell into it – so it was time for coffee and some butties.
Usually by this point in a race I would be a nervous wreck, fretting about lines, fitness, how I’d do, what I should have done, whether my tyres were right and if the rotation of the earth might negatively affect my run – but having a partner in masses of agony proved sufficient distraction and my flapping about and nervous breathlessness was kept to a minimum. Top tip for the nervous racer there – find someone worse off than yourself.
Time inevitably drew on and the moment (or two minutes) of truth approached. Matt was off first, so we all pushed up and then Benji and myself went to support him like only friends can: namely by shouting helpful ‘encouragement’ at him. However, helping Matt achieve his full potential mean I had missed the slot for my first race run. Heckling can be bad, kids. I slotted into the queue and had only the best part of 30 seconds for that cold hot feeling of nervousness to rush over me and make my heart feel all funny.
Beeps pinged, light flashed and the nerves were replaced by tunnel vision. Try to suck up the first jumps without losing speed, hit the berms flat out, get out of shape on the rocks before the gap jump, slip a pedal, realise there’s no way I’ll clear it, skirt round, curse myself. The moorland involves trying to pick a clean line and get some pedal strokes in. I was already hanging by this point and the real pedalling hadn’t even started.
Back in the woods I try to hit some clean lines like in practise, but shoot wide, feet bouncing everywhere. Try to stay tight but run wide and find myself set up for the small series of berm by the thinnest of margins. I bounce through gracelessly and get on the pedals, doing that special stand-up-sit-down cadence reserved for the truly knackered. My vision starts to go a bit fuzzy as I buckaroo the last few corners past the crowds and hit the final berm then try and squash the drop as much as possible. I’m feeling wonky but the end is nigh, still trying to accelerate as I cross the finish line grabbing a handful of brake, which sends me onto the floor and my bike towards the timing tent. If I hadn’t felt like puking very hard I’d have felt embarrassed for the lame crash and finish line knee slide.
It’s then I hear the sweetest words from the announcer: “Jon from Singletrack Magazine – he’s faster than Matt Letch”
The pain in my chest and taste of metal seem to dissolve slightly with relief. Two years running would have been hard to live down. The sun is shining and I only feel slightly sick. I can’t say that I felt pleased for beating Matt, just more relief at not being beaten. I reckon there’s a lot to be said for losing as better motivation to try hard than winning – shame possibly being more efficient than glory – I’m not sure if that sentiment is shared by proper athletes though…
Early mornings and excitement took their toll – trying to see what time I needed to be up the top for the second run I spotted that it was at 1:46 – I look at my watch and panic. It’s 1:43 – I can’t miss my slot again. Panicking slightly I ride up the hill, trying to balance speed against how tired I’ll be when I get there, only to arrive and find that the first runs aren’t complete. After a bit of flapping about it hits me – 1.46 was the time of my first run. Idiot.There’s loads of time, so I leave the bike there and potter down, chatting to a few familiar faces. It’s amazing how small the world of mountain biking is and it’s possibly the nicest thing about races – the community of people it brings together.
Fed, watered and with the knowledge of my actual start time (3 o’clock as it happens) it was back up for the moment of truth. Will Matt pull out a Herculean effort and make up his time? The track was much drier thanks to the sunshine so there’s less skittering about and I actually line up the gap jump and hit it. I think I used my rear suspension quite heavily in the landing but I’m still upright and riding, sprinting down the course, rattling over the rocks, jumps and finally the finish drop. I’ve gone a bit faster at 1:43.6 but I can feel a dry heave rising in my throat and go off to stand very still for a few minutes. Once I’ve recovered, Matt, Benji and Calderdale local Rich are by the finish line, sipping cold beers. It seems a fitting end to the race. Rich has scooped a third in Masters, I’m behind him in fifth and I’ve come 19th overall. Possibly my best result ever, so I’m chuffed to bits.
It’s over for another year and at an even score, there’s no need for Matt and myself to compete again. Races can ruin friendships – it’s the hidden cost of competition. I should point out Benji also beat Matt this year. Just saying. Jenny is slowly learning to walk again and I’ve no plans to go head to head with my colleagues any more. Until next year.”
In the real race, Steve Peat took victory on his 29er Santa Cruz Tallboy (is that the first downhill race win for a big wheeler?) with Kona Bikes enduro specialist Alex Stock in second and Andrew Devine of Crosstrax in third overall. None of them were heard complaining about how pedally it was either.
In the ladies competition Carrie Poole came first, Jo Page second and MTBCut‘s Hannah Barnes in third.
For a full breakdown of results and loads of pics of the event, head to Roots & Rain.
Thanks go again to the organisers (Ride Sheffield and ThisISheffield), Mr Steve Peat, all the marshals and other people who’ve volunteered their time to organise a cracking day. Thanks are also due to BikeTrack.org for their work on the track, The Wildlife Trust for Sheffield and Rotherham for allowing the event to take place on their land and especially Woodhead Mountain Rescue Team along with the doctors and physios present.
Thanks also to all the brands and exhibitors that turned up to help create a great atmosphere and loads of great prizes for both the raffle and the winners.
You can read the Steel City DH forum thread on the race here and see some STWers photos from the event…