“I like Making Up The Numbers; it’s funny. It’s like a soap opera. Not like EastEnders though as there’s no arguments. It’s like Coronation Street. It’s the Corrie of race reports.” It’s Saturday afternoon and we’re at Cwmcarn for Round One of the highly anticipated HSBC National Downhill Series and Mr Gas To Flat, Hope’s Adam Brayton is waxing lyrical in his Keswick twang about this very blog…
It’s at least four years since Binnsy and I last made the trip down to South Wales and up Forest Drive to Cwmcarn. That trip was called “Nicky’s Revenge”. One of our riding buddies at the time had broken his wrist on the drop off after the fire road a year earlier and was preparing to exact his revenge upon the track, hence the name of the trip. Things didn’t turn out quite how Nicky had hoped though as he broke both wrists on the exact same feature and I don’t think we’ve ever seen him since. They’ve done a huge amount of work to the track in the meantime though; the bottom section in particular, where all the tracks converge seems to have been rebuilt entirely.
Our race is down the black which can be split into three chunks. It starts with a twisty top section with one incredibly tight turn and the Quarry Gap; a drop off a stone wall into a load of roots. We’re not doing it. I’m not sure why because we could do it but we just don’t seem to be prepared to risk it this early in the season. (At this point, Editor-in-Chief Mrs MakingUpTheNumbers interjects and says “you can’t risk it at any point in the season, you have a baby now!”) The second section is a traverse back along the hill. It’s off camber, narrow singletrack with loads of little kinks; which for someone standing at 6’ 6” and 17 stone are a bit of a pain in the arse to get round. Then there’s the bottom section which is basically five or six huge jumps (which we are doing). It’s all pretty straightforward as there’s no real line choice. Without wanting to dumb it down, the top two sections are a bit like a trail centre red; “it’s full armour though” Binnsy declares, as it’s flat out from start to finish.
Saturday started wet but having dodged the first few uplifts we still managed to get six runs in and we could’ve managed a seventh but there didn’t really seem to be anything else to learn. If I was fitter, I’d have done it just for fun but I’m not so I didn’t. For some unknown reason, and most unlike me I’m just doing full runs and my times are coming down 3:40, 3:35, 3:34, 3:32. I’m absolutely loving it. Binnsy’s struggling to get to grips with it though. He’s done even less training than me over the winter and this really isn’t his type of track. “This could be your race” he declares, implying that I might finally beat him. He’s said this probably 30 times before to either me or our mate Ben Newton and it basically means we won’t.
After Saturday’s aggregation of marginal gains, Sunday didn’t start too well. First run down I was as stiff as a board. I imagine this was partly due to the fact I haven’t ridden bikes for two days in a row since last October and partly due to the fact it was pre 9am and I hadn’t woken up properly. Having kept her upright all weekend so far I decided to go for it on the second run and see if I could go faster but I crashed twice. The first was nothing really, the front end slid out on a rock; the second was a bit more severe, coming on the big hip jump near the bottom. I’d been getting more and more confident on it with every run but I can’t do hips properly so I was just jumping straight and landing in all the shrapnel in the bottom and then turning. There’s a limit to how much you can turn on shrapnel though and I found it; ending up over the fence and down the banking. Luckily Steve Felstead was following me with a Go Pro on his bars so you can see the footage here. Then, thanks to Adrian Scott there’s a further video of me trying to, I’d like to say “scramble back up” but in reality I look more like a baby elephant trying to negotiate a dry stone wall.
Post-crash we headed straight back up for seeding. Now, you wouldn’t think it, but it turns out that Mark Weightman, the hardest man in Downhill, is one of those people who fills their car up with petrol and then sits on the station forecourt and fills out his expenses before starting the engine; even if there’s a queue behind. “They can beep at me all they want, there’s no point getting upset about petty things like that” he says. I’ve somewhat optimistically been given the 705 plate so I’m off a minute before Mark in seeding and a large part of me really wants to wait at the start of the singletrack traverse and jump in just ahead of him, so when he’s whooping and hollering to get past I can shout “there’s no point getting upset about petty things Mark” but I don’t. I bag another 3:32 instead. Binnsy’s does a 3:30. He can always find that extra few seconds. The sod.
I would tell you where we came in our respective categories at this point but it’s kind of inconsequential because we’re now into our 4th year of racing and we’ve never seen a Vets or a Grand Vets field like this one. This is a proper National. By the time we start the race there are 20 riders left in Vets and they’re all better than me. Not just like a bit better, but loads better. As a guide, Dave List has moved down from Expert into Vets this season and he doesn’t make the podium. Bill Young who is usually just off the podium at a National is 18th. The top seven are all under three minutes. All the people I usually battle with are either not racing this round, have moved up to Grand Vets or they’ve injured themselves and gone home. My pre-season ambition of a top 10 finish on British Cycling looks absolutely doomed. Cocky aka Graeme Cochrane suggests we create the “Double Digit Gang” where we ignore the Top 10 and just have our own little mini-league from 11th down. Then he busts his knee on one of the jumps and pulls out, as does Dean Jones leaving me battling with the aforementioned Bill Young for last place. I say last place, I actually finished 19th/20. I’m unsure what happened to Lee Nevard in his race run but he seeded with a 3:13 so he would’ve beaten me anyway.
The numbers were also up in the Grand Vets with 10 riders. Binnsy’s used to just having to roll down to podium but not this time. He can only manage seventh despite going seven seconds quicker in his race run. Which meant he beat me. Again.
The racing was ace fun but the most memorable parts of the weekend came from the craic and both involved Marky Neal. Winner of the Masters Category at last season’s BDS, Marky’s moved up to Vets this season and will undoubtedly be challenging for the win at every race. So, rewind to 8pm on Saturday evening and he turns up at Adam Smith’s van with a pair of seized Fox 40’s. “I can service them for you now” Smithy offers, which they proceed to do in the dark. Marky has a problem in his seeding run though and seeds in last place behind me. Now, this next bit probably doesn’t paint me in a very good light but upon Smithy hearing about Marky’s misfortune I may have suggested that the lowers had come off his forks on one of the jumps. A tense few minutes ensued, I mean no one pointed any fingers but there was only one person spannering the fork service so… anyway when I eventually admitted that I was joking it was a bit like seeing steam coming out of a kettle. A bunch of expletives followed.
The other highlight, well it was just the fact Marky seeded last really. Marky takes his racing pretty seriously and is super consistent. Two weeks ago he was Instagramming split screen helmet cams of himself vs last year’s Elite Men BDS Winner Charlie Hatton after an uplift on this very track and now he’s having to endure the indignation of being the first Vet down in race runs. From shouts of “lead us out Marky” “welcome to the Vets” and “if you do hear someoneshout rider you will move over won’t you?” to having to have me explain the protocol of being at this end of the field… “Having seeded last you’ll be going off first in your race run so you’ll need to leave a two-minute gap between the fastest rider in the last category and the slowest in this category. Which of course would be you.”
Marky handles the pressure though, coming in with a 2:51 which placed him fourth. Andrew Titley (who else) takes the win from Tim Ponting with Stu Hughes in third. All three are separated by under a second. 20 years ago they were all battling for the win in Elite, Titley tells me.
Talking of Elites, the fastest time of the day went to Matt Walker who took the win in Elite Men with a 2:29. His first ever race in Elite having stepped up from Juniors last season and the only person to go under 2:30 all weekend. Danny Hart was second and Mike Jones third. Watching the Elites in practice, Danny was the only person we saw going inside/inside after the road and manage to hold it for the roots. “There’s magic in those tyres” I thought at the time.
After an injury hit 2017 everyone wanted to see if Rachel Atherton was back up to speed but both she and Tahnee Seagrave were red flagged in their seeding runs and neither opted to take a re-run so it all came down to the race itself. Rachel is indeed back, taking the win by 2.8 seconds with Katy Curd in third just another 3 seconds back.
Shout out to the flying moustache Will Soffe who took the win in Expert on his trail bike with a 2:42; if you’re fast, you’re fast. Other standout performances include Chris Cumming taking the win in the Youth category with a 2:37 which would’ve placed him 16th in Elite. He’s either 15 or 16 years old. Kade Edwards took the win in Junior Men with first year Junior Morgan Tyrrell only 2 seconds back. Cai Grocott smoked the rest of the Seniors by over 7 seconds as did Maya Atkinson in the Junior Women category.
This year, the National Series is returning to a couple of tracks that haven’t been used as race venues for a long time. Cwmcarn was the first of those two venues, Rheola will be the second. The reasons why they haven’t been used as race venues became pretty evident over the weekend. The parking is a bit of a nightmare. We paid for team pits but others were hit with parking fines or had to park miles away. The place where the uplift usually picks up at the bottom of the track is now the finish arena and team pits so the uplift picks up in a 20-minute uphill pedal/walk away. Add on a bit of a queue for the uplift and the 15-minute drive to the top and it’s basically a run an hour max. Then there was the finish time. I’m not sure what happened but everything got massively behind and the Elite Men didn’t do their race runs until gone 6pm. By this point I was already half way home. Much as I’d have liked to stay for the podiums, having been away for the best part of a fortnight with work and then this, MrsMakingUpTheNumbers was basically at her wit’s end with our 8 month old so I had to shoot (hence the lack of podium shots).
As a season opener though I thought it was great. It was an all-weather track so had the weather been terrible it would’ve held up. The South Wales location seemed to be accessible for lots of people thus the turnout was incredible, fully sold out in advance. It actually felt like I was racing a National (which hasn’t always been the case) and Downhill was on the up (which we were concerned about last season). In short, I had an amazing weekend. With Rd 2 in Fort William also close to selling out hopefully we can maintain the momentum for the whole season.
My race run was another 3:32. Out of 10 timed runs over the weekend 5 of them were 3:32 and the one time I pushed a bit harder I crashed twice so like it or lump it, that was my time. It’s undoubtedly the happiest I’ve ever been with a 19th.
Onwards to Llangollen for the first round of Brian Mundy’s Proper Downhill Series on the infamous Ride Portugal track. I can’t bloody wait. See you in May…