Singletrack Issue 119: Was It All A Dream

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Chipps looks back at the colossal impact of the original Malvern Classic event and asks if the ‘new’ one can ever live up to the hype.

Words chipps Photography Geoff Waugh and steve behr/stockfile

Remember those long, hot summers of your youth? The sun shone brightly every endless day and you got to ride your best bike all day on baked-hard dirt, worn bald of grass by the constant passing of feet and tyres.

On a grassy hillside, you’d set up a dual eliminator slalom course, with friends riding elbow to elbow for bragging rights. And on those really hot days you’d set up a shonky ramp and launch someone else’s old BMX into the lake to cool off, putting in an X-up for good measure before you splashed down to the cheer of the crowd. 

And then, as the sun went down, you’d crack open a few beers and sit on the grass by your Vauxhall Nova, its sound system pumping out the latest dance tunes. Life was good. 

And this did actually happen. For a few brief years between the late ’80s and mid ’90s, Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire was the site of a now-iconic event that happened every summer, nearly always in perfect weather. This event was both inspirational and massively influential for the British mountain bike scene and those who went to it.  

The event, of course, was the original Malvern Hills Classic and it seemed to have captured the zeitgeist of British mountain biking at the time. Of course, pre-emptively calling it a ‘Classic’ didn’t hurt, but it really was the, THE, event to be at every year if you were a British mountain biker. 

Now, on the eve of the return of the Malverns Classic (note the new ‘s’), we’ve looked back to see just what made it such a cult event and what we can expect from the 2018 reboot.

Take me back.

There are many reasons why the Malverns reached such a zenith of popularity. Don’t remember it? Or don’t remember it being that popular? To remind you, this was an event where 400-strong Sports Class racers would line up on the Saturday for a chance to qualify for the final 200 riders racing in the following day’s Sports Class cross-country race… 

Before I go into the whys, let’s look at the what. The Malvern Classic was an event first held in the late 1980s at the start of mountain biking’s stratospheric soar. It was initially ‘just’ a cross-country race – because that was the only mountain bike discipline back then – but it soon gained sideshow events like trials, dual slalom and even downhill racing from the heady 240m heights of the Eastnor Obelisk. It was more than that, though…

In those pre-internet days, the flow of news and information was a magnitude less than it is now. Event reports took months, not seconds to come through. News of the rapidly accelerating improvements in mountain bike technology, news of national and international racing, and just plain old gossip would take weeks to propagate, via the pages of Mountain Biker International magazine or MBUK. 

Social media didn’t exist, so any contact you had with your riding friends that wasn’t face to face, would have been by phoning them up (or writing a letter…), and a chance like this to see everyone in the cycling scene – friends, bike companies, your riding peers and cycling heroes – didn’t happen often. And so the Malverns became a festival, exhibition and mid-season party all wrapped up in one. 

Larger than life.

And what heroes we had then! Unlike today, where your social media and magazine pages are bombarding you with hundreds of riders over several different disciplines vying for attention, all great and all beautifully shot and lit, back then the mountain bike hero scene was more limited in scope. It was a smaller scene, with fewer disciplines, so the riders at the top were all in sharp focus. Because much of the scene then was cross-country racing-based, the upper dozen or so riders of both sexes were all well known to the cycling public. Race winners would swap weekly and we’d read about them all. 

So, having all of those riders in one place for a weekend of riding was quite a treat for any mountain bike fan. Being able to race the lower classes in the morning and see your heroes race on the same trails in the afternoon had a magic that’s hard to explain. 

We got to see epic battles as Tim Gould battled David Baker and Barrie Clarke for national titles. We saw Deb Murrell and Sian Roberts battling with Caroline Alexander and Isla Rowntree. There were other VIPs who rode or competed, or just hung out at the event. Seeing Steve Peat, Jason McRoy and Rob Warner racing downhill or flat-out dual slalom were things you wouldn’t forget in a hurry. Jez Avery, arguably the best trials rider in the country, performing for the crowds was impressive enough, without Hans Rey (arguably the best trials rider in the world then) showing up one year for an epic trials battle. Both riders were deities in our small world. There were no sick edits or flattering camera angles to hide behind back then – you could either ride, or you couldn’t. And if you couldn’t, then you watched in awe at those who could. 

You’d return home from the Malverns sunburned, dehydrated and probably scuffed up from an ill-advised bit of flair out of the bombhole, but you’d return invigorated, inspired to ride and overwhelmed with this amazing, growing sport that you were part of. 

The scene.

Another thing growing at the same time as the mountain bike scene was the dance music and rave scene and it wasn’t uncommon in the event’s latter years to see complete non-cycling locals and friends of riders drawn to the event with the lure of a music tent and a bar. The organisers soon learned that abruptly stopping the music and the bar at the same time soon led to chaos as partygoers left en masse, looking for further stimulation, and after a night of continued partying, riders would wake up to find that the arena was now floating in the lake or had been borrowed and burned in a bonfire. 

The end of the Malvern Classic in the mid-nineties was abrupt and tragic, with a young man stabbed to death on the Saturday night. The event was immediately cancelled and never ran again. This changed race weekends forever, with the mountain bike promoters who came after it more aware of safety, security and the need to promote bike racing first and the partying second. It was 15 years from the first Mountain Mayhem before Pat Adams allowed a bar at his events. 

A new start. 

Those days and those scenes are behind us now, and enough water has gone under the bridge that it might be time to have another go at it. An experienced organiser has stepped up to the plate to run an event at the same venue, even promising many of the same events (and some of the same people…).

Expectations, however, are high and the organisers of the ‘new’ Malverns Classic have a seemingly impossible task ahead of them. Putting it into retro historical context, it’s like the dilemma faced by the new sponsors of Henrik Djernis at the 1995 World Championships. He’d won the cross-country championships in 1992, 1993 and 1994 riding for Ritchey. In 1995 he signed for Proflex. If he’d won again in 1995, then the public would just assume that he would win on any bike. If he’d not won (he didn’t even podium), then the public would blame his new bike brand. Whatever happened, Proflex couldn’t win.

And so it is with Si Paton’s team at the new Malverns Classic 2018. It’s a poisoned (or at least spiked) chalice. If the event is the greatest success, then it will merely live up to everyone’s expectations, such are our rosy memories of an event that last ran over 20 years ago. 

But if there’s one spot of rain – actually, if there’s even a cloud – or the spontaneous bunnyhop event isn’t spontaneous enough, or the display of retro bikes isn’t retro enough, then it will have failed everyone’s collective memory (the one where you’ve mashed up four or five different years into a ‘best of’ that the original could never have been).

I’m hoping there’ll be a good crowd. There should be, with no Mayhem – nothing major to clash with, and a month of great events preceding it, like Fort William and TweedLove. But who will be there? With a new event, it’s always hard to tell, but I reckon there will be an odd mix of attendees. Many will fall into these groups:

Retroheads: There will obviously be a crowd of hardcore retroheads going. They’ll be riding (or pushing) their time-machine perfect re-creations of the bikes they really wanted when they were impressionable 15-year-olds. So expect to see a lot of pristine Kleins and polished Paces. Will they cross it up through the bombhole though? 

The once-rad: The mountain bike lifers who were there first time (‘you had to be there, man…’) and who once raced the cross-country, and dual slalom AND jumped in the lake after having cider and a fag for breakfast. That was in 1993 though. This year they will now be attending with the family in tow for a nice barbecue, a few beers and an early night. 

The confused youth: Anyone under 25 there, drawn in by the promise of Rat Boy and friends doing the slalom, will be seen wandering around wondering what all the fuss was about. Trying to explain why this relatively flat, non-technical grassy bowl was once the epicentre of British mountain biking is going to be a hard job. Explaining those halcyon days to them will be like explaining a cartoon over the phone to your gran. Hopefully, though, they’ll have a great time and form their own awesome memories and the 2018 year will be the next ‘Wow, you were actually there that year?’ milestone in our sport. 

The cynics: There are bound to be people who go along purely to prove that it can’t be as good as it was in ‘their’ day. These are the least likely to jump into the lake, but probably the most likely to get thrown into it. 

Bring your best attitude, a bike and a sunhat.

You’ll never be able to recreate a perfect moment. You can only try to create new ones. Those early half-dozen years will always be indelibly etched on my mind. The people, the events, the actual (rather than organised) spontaneity, the riding and the racing, and the friendships formed there that will last forever. 

Looking back at photos of many still familiar faces, I can occasionally pull back enough to realise just how ridiculous we all looked in our Rox T-shirts, Hammer knee pads, Been Bag shorts and Bula hats, but that was how we looked. And it’s how we will have looked. Nothing can ever change that, so we should embrace it. And boy, do we look young and handsome and energetic and optimistic. 

If the new coming of the Malverns can make us realise how our sport has come so far and how we ourselves have come so far, then it will be a roaring success. We should be heading there, not to expect the next Tim Gould vs Nick Craig battle, or to be sorry we missed it last time, but simply going there to celebrate mountain biking in all of its diverse forms, to forge friendships that’ll last us another 20 years and perhaps catch a glimpse of the next battle royale that we’ll be talking about then. 

Chipps

Singletrack Editor

Chipps wasn’t around for the dawn of mountain biking in the UK, but he likes to claim that he arrived in time for second breakfast (about the time he shows up for work, then…) starting in the bike trade in 1990 and becoming a full time mountain bike journalist at the start of 1994. Over the subsequent quarter century, he has seen mountain bike culture flourish and diversify and bike technology go from rigid steel frames to fully suspended carbon fibre (and sometimes back to rigid steel as well.)

His riding style is best described as ‘medium, wheels on the ground, trail riding’ though he’s been spotted doing everything from endurance downhill racing to 24 hour cross country racing. He favours mid-travel trail bikes and claims to be wheel-size, gear, brake and tyre agnostic. In fact, his garage spans most bicycle flavours, taking in steel hardtails, carbon trail bikes, even a mountain bike tandem, along with road, touring and gravel/cyclocross bikes.

While he’s happy to chat about bikes all day, his real interest is in the people and places that bikes can introduce you to and he talks as fondly about the trails he’s ridden and riders he’s met as the bikes that took him there.

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