‘What’s your favourite season?’ MrsMakingUpTheNumbers asks.
Every fibre of my being wants to respond with ‘race season’ but as I open my mouth, I think better of it. ‘Spring’.
Tension has been building over the past few weeks. We’ve not talked about it but we both know it’s nearly time for me to go racing again; which means I’ll be away, on average, every other weekend for the next six months and she’ll be home alone with Ottilie, our 19-month-old wrecking ball.
‘Spring? Why’s that then?’
‘Erm, dunno really; new beginnings, everything resets, and we get the chance to start again…’
The offseason seems to have gone by in a flash this time around. It started with something I’ve never gotten close to on the race track, a win at the Singletrack Reader Awards; thank you again to everyone who voted.
Then, the next few weeks were spent converting the Nicolai Geometron G19 into a G29. There’s no manual for this but it’s actually quite a simple process made possible by chainstay “mutators” and the first-generation Fox 49 lowers fitting a 650b fork. Being tall, the bigger wheels suits me better and I’ve had them on the trail bike for a while, but I was a bit concerned about the effect the transformation would have on the bike. Lengthening the chainstays and not the seat stays slackened the head angle, but that was pretty easily fixed with an angleset.
The major quandary was the bottom bracket height which was now at a lofty 355mm. It felt fine to me but I’m no expert. Offset bushings? Well, they would drop the bottom bracket down, but they would also slacken the head angle further, so I stuck with it. Then, a few weeks later Santa Cruz launched the new V10, a bike that three of the best riders in the world had spent 18 months refining. The geometry on the XL V10 is scarily close to what I’ve created, including a BB height of 351 in the Low setting (356 in High), so “if it’s good enough for them” etc.
Although I haven’t ridden the new setup in anger, I have spent quite a bit of time on it and the overriding feeling is that I have a lot more grip. That’s quite a big deal when you’re 6’6” and 17 stone. It’s probably mainly down to the tyre’s larger contact patch with the ground but having the correct spring on the shock might also be playing a part. After dropping the shock in with JTech for a service, James rang to tell me that the spring I’d been running bound 11mm before bottom out which meant I was only getting circa 160mm of travel. It was quite a difficult conversation but ‘we see it all the time’ he reassured me. They probably don’t. I didn’t mention that I’d been riding it like that for 18 months…
To The Manor Born
Although it’s been over five months since the last race, I don’t feel prepared. The team jerseys only arrived back last Friday, the bed isn’t back in the van yet and I haven’t even got started on the intervals I was planning to do. The plan was to travel up to Ae on Friday afternoon, but the forecast was grim. My abiding memory of last season’s opening race is the temperature gauge showing -8°C when I turned the engine off at 8pm. Another year older and maybe a little bit wiser I ditched any thoughts of sleeping in the van and booked a bed and breakfast for Saturday night. The last time we did this, we left it so late the only place within driving distance was a Manor House. Binnsy enjoyed the fine dining; probably the only time a DH racer has had Pigeon Breast with a Redcurrant Jus the night before a race run. He’s not here this weekend though. Having ripped his kitchen out he needs to get the new one installed ASAP. I’m sure if the weather had been nicer this could’ve waited.
Neil’s broken his shoulder taking a pro line on his hardtail and our new team rider (all will be revealed in the forthcoming team launch video) lives a long way from Scotland and only makes it north of the border for Nationals and World Cups. I thought that MrsMakingUpTheNumbers would be pleased to have me home for an extra evening on Friday but as we got into bed, she said “You’ve done the square root of shit-all to help with Ottie tonight, you may as well not have been here”. Right then.
Going To Work On An Egg
It’s a 4am alarm on Saturday and a three hour drive north. Upon arrival I’m greeted by the ever chipper Lewis Jones. “I’ll have a bacon roll, with an egg” he informs the lady in the café. “Also known as a bacon and egg roll” I shout. He’s obviously not been awake that long. We track walk and it’s a typical Ae track: tight and twisty at the top but pretty much one line all the way down to the fire road. Then it’s the infamous rock garden, before a bit of off piste woods action leads into the step down, then there’s a reshaped double that’s been pretty poorly reshaped so it’s actually now a step up, before finishing on a mini version of The Elevator.
Over 175 riders have registered, which isn’t a bad turn out given how early in the season it is and the horrendous forecast. The first race of the season is always interesting as it highlights who’s been training hard during the off season. The Elite Men’s field is pretty strong. First year Elite Henry Kerr finished 2nd Junior in last year’s World Cup overall so it will be interesting to see how he gets on; then there are World Cup regulars Adam Brayton, George Gannicott, Kenta Gallagher, Greg Williamson and Reece Wilson. Brayton’s wearing black pants and white overshoes for practice which has everyone wondering if he’s seen Annie and if she’s OK? Adam “Smithy” Smith has also moved up to Elite after a couple of seasons in Expert and acknowledges that he’ll do well to be anything but #makingupthenumbers this season.
Your Card Is Marked
The Vets and Grand Vets are grouped together in a 40+ category and it’s pretty strong. Masters World Champion Mark Weightman’s here. Of course he is, the weather’s terrible and the course is tricky. Then there’s multiple World Champion Alastair Maclennan, 2018 National Series winner Marky Neal and the fastest man still on 26” wheels, John Young. Add in Stevie Cousins and that’s probably going to be the top 5. Dave Ingelby’s here despite it being his 18th wedding anniversary, which some might think is quite a big deal. He’s been left reeling because Mrs Ingleby handed him a card as he was leaving. ‘We don’t do cards’ he tells us, which is code for ‘I didn’t get her one’. I’m sure it will be fine. I’m sure.
In previous seasons the major complaint about Ae has always been the uplift, a mix of cattle trucks and buses that mean limited runs, scratched bikes and one year a 50-seater coach going off the side of the fire road and somehow ending up with only one wheel on the ground. Adrenalin Uplift are running it now though and it runs like clockwork. Handy to know as we’re back here for the final National of the season in September.
First run of the weekend and I slash the rear tyre on a rock whilst still in sight of the start hut. Procore allows me to nurse it down to the bottom; it would probably allow me to do a bit more than that but I don’t want to kill a wheel on a practice run. Hose the bike down for the first time, stick a fresh wheel in and off we go again, but as I shift down to pedal across the fire road the chain slips and genitals meet stem. Once the hollow feeling subsides, I’m left a bit confused because it’s a brand new drive train. Next run the chain jumps into the frame. Very strange. Hose the bike down again and have another look at it. The long and short of it is that I’ve committed one of the cardinal sins of racing; I’ve messed with a bike that was running perfectly well on Tuesday. It turns out the SRAM 7 speed DH cassette I’ve installed isn’t spaced the same as the SRAM 10 speed cassettes that I’ve been running as 7 speed. I should’ve realised when it needed an 11 speed chain rather that a 10 speed one. The 10 speed mech doesn’t like the new set up and I haven’t brought any of the bits I took off with me. It seems to be fine so long as I don’t change gear, so I push on. Run 4 I crash on the top section and run 5 there’s that much mud and water on my shorts they fall down and hook over my saddle just as I’m about to follow Dave Ingleby off the step down.
I’ve had enough by this point. Hosing the bike off for a third time I head up to take some photos. The weather’s now completely balmy; “Four seasons in one day” I heard someone say. The hail showers are getting more frequent though and the wind’s getting up. The marshal tells me it’s caused a couple of big crashes on the step down. It’s bitterly cold but Weightman’s still only sporting a gillet. Christ knows what conditions have to be like for him to get a coat out. As I take a few pictures of riders hitting the step down he peels off and heads down another way. Have I just witnessed the man who raced Fort William the other year with a broken eye socket lose his bottle? No, he’s snapped a pedal, like you do.
The bed and breakfast is worth its weight in gold, but they don’t start serving breakfast until 8am and I’m long gone by that point. It’s been a cold night in the van for Marky Neal. As we’re eating breakfast, we bump into Jess Stone who Binnsy and I used to chat to in our first year of racing. She’s back racing now after an extended break. ‘It’s surprising how little I’ve improved in the four years you’ve been away’ I remark. No one argues.
Ae-bandon Ye All Hope
By this point snow is falling pretty heavily and we all know what’s coming. If it’s snowing like this at the bottom it will be much worse at the top and the chances of being able to deliver a safe race, one where they could get an injured rider down the hill, diminish. Within an hour it’s cancelled. ‘What? No! I’m ready for it’ Weightman was heard to remark. It’s the right call though and I’m glad they’ve made it before we’ve all been up and done a practice run and got covered in crap.
For the first time ever, I got fully kitted up before travelling to the race so I didn’t have to get changed in the cold. I now have to get changed in the cold before making the long trip home.
So, for the second season running the first race of the season has been cancelled. I got away with one this time though. Ae’s got quite a few big features and it’s always nice to be able to put a couple of cranks in if you need them.
‘What time did you get back?’ I message Dave Ingleby. ‘A lot sooner than Mark’ comes the response. Weightman’s broken down on the way home and after a several hours at the side of the A66 and then several more on a trailer he’s still not home. I didn’t have the best weekend, but there are others who had it worse…
Next up for us is Round 1 of the Gravity Events Series at Hamsterley on 30/31 March. If you’re thinking about giving DH racing a try this season, Hamsterley is a great place to start as the track’s pretty short with no big features. Hopefully we’ll see you there…
Thank you to all our sponsors this season: Singletrack, Revolution Bike Park, Geometron Bikes, Commencal, Schwalbe and Tyre Yoghurt. Don’t forget to follow @makingupthenumbersracing on Instagram for additional content.