“I think I’d probably just prefer to just stay in the van.” It’s 10am on Sunday morning and Binnsy’s trying to talk me into going up for a practice run. I’m not averse to a bit of rain but it’s bucketing it down. It’s so wet, wet, wet that I’m half expecting Marti Pellow and co. to appear from behind a bush and start singing. Welcome to Ae Forest and the first Scottish Downhill Association (SDA) race of 2017. Thankfully, I’ve remembered to bring my wellies.
I still distinctly remember my first visit to Ae. Looking at the infamous step down and thinking “ride a bike off that, yeah right, you must be mad”. It’s probably 8ft high but the gap to the landing is nearly double that so you can’t just plop off it, you have to go into it pretty fast to clear it. Fast forward a few years to our first season racing and Mr WeRide aka Ben Newton and I are sat some 50 yards above the step down, staring at it. We’ve bottled it a couple of times already and we’re both praying that the other says “next run, yeah?” A few moments later, a little lad rides past us. He must be 13 to be racing but I’d put him at 11. He’s on a bike that’s a couple of sizes too big for him and Ben chirps up “if he does it, we’ll have to do it won’t we”. I agree, but he’s not going to do it, there’s no way.
And there he goes. Casually sailing off it like it’s a kerb or something. I turned to Ben and said “right then, best do it” but he swears that conversation only ever took place in my head and all he saw was me doing up my helmet and leaving him there hanging. I still don’t think he’s ever properly forgiven me.
The SDA events are a bit less serious than the BDS and these races are where we cut our teeth (and knees, hands and faces) in our first season of racing, back when you needed to accrue points to get into the BDS. Alongside the fun vibes there’s a couple of things that they do differently to other race organisers. The Vets and the Grand Vets are grouped together in one category, so Binnsy and I are racing each other properly, and they don’t bother with a seeding run, instead they have a ‘best of two-race runs’ format; so if you balls it up or have a mechanical you get another go.
Neither of these things work in my favour. If you’re still racing bikes down hills at gone 50 you’re probably pretty good at it and Binnsy and Alastair Maclennan certainly are, so that’s another two places further down the order. The two-race run format also eliminates the chance of an upset. A crash; a puncture; catching another rider and getting held up, you’d be really unlucky for it to happen twice. Sad to say, but my decent results have generally been due to the misfortune of others.
Saturday wasn’t the best day. Intermittent showers for most of the day; Binnsy got a parking ticket that cost more than his race entry in Portugal a fortnight ago “Welcome to Scotland!” he declares. And I’m not quite sure what was going on with the uplift but we were out for seven hours and we only managed five runs down the hill. The uplift at Ae never seems to run super smoothly for any race organiser but this was particularly slow. The track was great though. Classic Ae but with a new section in the lower woods that had been cut in especially for the race. I use the expression “cut in” loosely as by Saturday afternoon it had just turned into thick, claggy mud, which made things interesting. I’ve fallen to pieces on sections like this before. I don’t know whether it’s my size or lack of ability or both, but tight, twisty, steep muddy sections are usually my nemesis.
It’s not just me who was having problems though, it was changing so much between runs that very few riders seemed to have their lines sorted. This section leads into a big double that they put in for the BDS race last year and it pushes that beyond our skill level. With a nice dry run into it we might have had a go. We’ve done bigger, but we’re leaving the muddy section so slowly that we can’t generate enough speed and you don’t really want to come up short on it. Again, we don’t feel too bad as much better riders than us aren’t doing it either. Then there is the aforementioned step down which leads into a smaller double and the elevator. The elevator is much steeper than I remember and it’s full of mud at the bottom. It’s a great place to spectate, if you like watching people crash that is.
Saturday comes to a close and we’re reminded how early in the season it still is. The clocks haven’t gone forward yet so it’s dark by 7pm and I’m asleep in the van by 9. I’m awoken throughout the night though by the rain hammering on the roof.
I’ve only used my mud tyres once in the last two seasons but overnight I’ve decided “if you’re not gonna use them now, when are you gonna to use them?”, so they’re going on.
When we finally manage to summon up the courage to go for a practice run on Sunday morning we discover that the rain had thinned out all that claggy mud and made the section in the lower woods much easier. I somehow manage to make it through the slop without dabbing so the mud tyres are staying on for the race. A brief look down the uplift queue shows that roughly 50% of the riders are with me. Jason Shill has gone the opposite way though. A puncture has forced him to throw his spare back wheel on and he thinks he’s faster on a dry tyre so who knows, a lot of it is in the mind.
By the time we start racing the weather has eased off and the sun has come out. With the two-race run format we decide to put a safe one in first and then go for it on the second run. I have an OK run; one big mistake casually headbutting a tree in the top woods before finishing with a 3:03 which puts me in 10th/13. Binnsy is 6th on 2:55 but Uncle Albert is on fire, which is kind of ironic for a naval officer. He’s in 5th with a 2:53. G’wan Albert! Chris Whitfield, on a brand new Orange 324 that he finished building in the car park on Friday night has smoked us all though with a 2:20.
Quite a few riders seem to be sacking off their second run and heading home. None of them are Vets though, unfortunately. The Vets all seem to have a “once more unto the breach dear friends” mentality. (A bit of Shakespeare in a race report, looks like my English degree has finally served a purpose).
The best thing that has come out of this entire weekend is that I seem to have finally ditched the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) syndrome. I spend all winter thinking “I’m just going to go for it next season” and then I start racing and instantly think “best not crash, I don’t want to injure myself and miss this race or that race” and then ride conservatively. So, in a bid to get under three minutes I went for it on the second run. Pushing as hard as I could I lasted about 20 seconds before I made a mistake which lead to a crash. I was down for a while so that was it really. I waited to let the next rider through; no point spoiling his run as well. Binnsy was next so I followed him down, catching him up when he crashed in the top woods. I think the people watching us come through the bottom woods together thought I was catching him so they cheered me on. It’s the first time anyone has ever cheered my riding and it was all under false pretences.
Binnsy managed to go a second quicker so Uncle Albert took the spoils in our little mini league and Greg Kerr and Martin Roberts both held on for full runs pushing me down into 12th. John Young tried in vain to beat Chris’ time but that 2:20 was just too quick. ‘Grand Vet’ Alastair Maclennan took 3rd. In the Elite category, Mr Crossfit, Hope’s Adam Brayton took the win but there was under a second between the top three with Ben Cathro in 2nd and Lachlan Blair in 3rd. George Gannicott, who recorded our exclusive track preview came home in 4th. Quite how someone goes down that track 50% quicker than me I just don’t know, but that’s why he gets paid to ride his bike and I’ve got a blog called #makingupthenumbers. It really is true.
Reece Langhorn won Expert by almost six seconds with a time that would have put him 5th in Elite. Greg’s son Henry Kerr won Juniors by over 4 seconds with an amazing 2:10. Shilly’s dry tyre might have been just the advantage he needed as he took the win by over five seconds in Masters. In the Senior Women category, Steve Peat Syndicate rider Becci Skelton took the prize with a 2:46. Elena Melton came in 2nd and Louise Ferguson in 3rd.
A few thank you’s. Firstly to all the organisers and marshals. If going home early crossed my mind at one point, I’m pretty sure it will have crossed your minds as well, so thanks for staying. To Callum in the bike shop for fixing my gears just before race runs and to George Gannicott for braving the conditions on Friday and doing us a track preview which you can watch here.
We’ll be back in a couple of weeks for the first BDS of the season at Nant G. In the meantime, there’s an Exxon Valdez scale clean up needed.