(If you’re a Singletrack regular then you’ll recognise a new name in the byline above. I’m Finlay Tusting, and I’m the Singletrack intern for this week).
It is 10:55am on Saturday the 5th of August in Fremington, I’m waiting at the start line for the ‘Ard rock, and I had yet to realise what I have got myself into.
Anyway, back to the race. The first climb out of the event village is a nice mellow warm up that rises up to a up a 17% incline on the road. After this hellish first climb there was an easy grass section to the first stage. Once at the first stage you wait in the queue to arrive at the start gate. For me, racing comes naturally as I am a generally competitive person so being in the start gate is no bother at all. The marshal counts me down; 5,4,3,2,1…GO! I pedal as hard I can around the first corner and then the wind hit me. Stages 1 and 2 were up high on Fremington edge, where the wind is strong and is gusting at 30 mph which means that pedalling into it makes you feel as if you are going nowhere.
Back to racing, the mid section of stage 1 in the iconic Ard rock terrain which is the steep gravel chutes that are a blast to ride, and scary when in the heat of racing. After this section, there is a long, lung-busting pedal section. So much so, that when a large rock stopped my front wheel dead, I had a full over-the-bars moment in which I landed at the feet of a bystander. I got up, dusted myself off and set back to trying to regain some lost time. I then went into the woods section in which the stage finished. it took me a good few minutes to recover from the stage, and I knew the coming climb coming was a tough one.
The climb to stage two was a road that slowly becomes a full blown jeep track with cricket ball size rocks. That track is most definitely a walker, but the people with legs of steel were clearing it. After a very boggy ride along the top of Fremington Edge, I arrived at the top of stage 2. This stage was characterised by very steep switchbacks, and steep sections with some rock gardens that were just waiting to puncture any tire that dared to put tread down there. After stage two there are four kilometres of singletrack before you arrived at the road. The organisers had done a good job at putting the pub along the route, which meant that every single racer stopped to for a pint, myself included (of Coca Cola, don’t worry), Some people took this to another level, the person in front of me in the queue asked for four cokes and a shot of Drambuie.
With a belly full of coke sloshing around and the sugar starting to course through my veins, I made my way up to stage 3. This stage was on the adjacent side of the valley on Great Pinseat. This stage dropped down the northern side of the mountain. This trail is cut into a deep rocky gully, in which keeping speed is essential other wise the big rocks will halt you.
The bottom of this stage is along a rocky fire road, on which I hit 30mph, as recorded on Strava. At the bottom of the fire road, the gradient levels out and you are left to go into an all out sprint. Finally, it spits you out onto a slag heap car park and the finish line awaits.
After recovering from the sprint, I was treated to a free Clif Bar at the water stop. A road descent down to the next leg burning incline was a welcome break, but after arriving at the bottom I had to winch myself up a 16% road climb while being passed most of the time, as I was suffering and everyone else seemed to be absolutely fine. Once at the top of the road climb, there was a short stretch of track along the level gradient. At this time I was rather enjoying myself until I felt some rain in the wind, I turned around and a heavy shower was rumbling it way down the valley. Within a few minutes it would arrive at the start of stage 4, where I was racing. Stage four was one of the best; fast and technical with sharp rocks. I came over a rise, pushed down into a compression, and an extremely sharp rock was just waiting to tear my poor innocent tyre to shreds. The slash was too large for my sealant to fix, so I tried plugging the hole, still too big, so in the end I had to resort to a good old fashioned tube. While I was toiling with fixing my flat, someone emerged from the rain to see what had happened.
That person just so happened to be Joe Flanagan of the Trippin Fellaz, and thanks to him I managed to get my flat fixed back out on to the stage. Because of that pesky puncture I lost around ten minutes even with Joes help, the rest of the stage was really nice with some steep grassy switchbacks that I was really able to drift into and have a good time trying to control the bike, with roughly ten PSI in the rear as the CO2 canister didn’t inflate it as much as I would have liked. Thankfully at the bottom, there was a track pump waiting for those who were unfortunate enough to flat like me. While I was by the side of the trail fixing it, three other people flatted on the same exact rock!
After pumping my tyre up to about 60 PSI to stop punctures being possible (and any grip for that matter) I made my way to stage five. The transition to stage five in not the longest (two to three is longer). This was absolutely soul-destroying, as a number of descents on the transition meant losing a large chunk of elevation. It didn’t help that on the final climb of that transition, I was about to bonk and had to stuff my mouth with as much food as I could get my hands on. After gorging on caffeinated jellies and Clif bar I made it to the top of stage five. I was still hungry at this point, not for food but a certain level of redemption for my puncture on stage four. Stage five had a long pedal at the top which then turned into a fast and flowing descent on mellow terrain. Out of the start gate, I could still see the person that had set off before me, and was determined to catch him and overtake. As soon I started pedalling I was going harder than I ever had before, which meant the red mist descended and I forgot all self-regard and went as hard as I could. I caught him with 45 secs of the start and then proceeded to pass two of his friends afterwards. This felt good, really good… unexpectedly a large ditch appeared on the trail, I saw it and had to put all my strength the biggest bunny hop I could do. Thankfully, I cleared it just fine, and within a few more seconds arrived at the finish, very happy with my performance.
After not really recovering for long enough, adrenaline still buzzing through me, I set off for the final stage: a short transition over hill and mostly downhill. This meant I could almost relax and get ready for the final stage, looking forward to a cold drink at the finish line. I arrived at stage six and almost immediately sent my self down the fastest of all the stages.
It wasn’t particularly technical, but it made up for lack of tech with its all out speed. The trail sped up and turned into lots of chutes, one after another with flat grass turns that made it even more fun.
After finishing the stage the relief of finishing such a massive loop arrives and you can almost taste the cold beer (er, cola – Ed) waiting for you at the finish line. Thankfully the route back is all downhill, and you can just free wheel down back to the event village. Once I had rehydrated (with cola – Ed) and got into to civvies I had a bite to eat and just started taking my surroundings in: live music, the smells from the food vendors, and all the exhibitors there. Rather conveniently, my local bike shop (Brink Cycle Works) had a stand at the show, as they’re an Ohlins distributor and so were the tech centre for them at the event. Their stand naturally became the hub for where all the Chicksands (my local in Bedfordshire) locals hung out, and luckily we were able to watch the top 20 men at the Mont-Sainte-Anne World Cup on the livestream.
There were other stands offering service and support there too: I have to say a big thank you to the Specialized guys for help sorting out my dropper, the Shimano guys for fixing my destroyed brakes, and (though he didn’t have a stand), Joe for helping with the puncture on stage four.
The ‘Ard Rock is just as hard as people say it is!