It is three days since Grinduro. I’m still trying to answer the same question that I asked on the day. What makes this event so beautifully special? I’m not sure if I’m closer to an answer, but the process of writing down the experience has cemented in my mind that it is special, beautiful even, and is exactly why I love racing so much.
Rain lashed my face harder than it had done all day. My legs felt like they didn’t quite belong to me – a dull ache replacing any other sensation. I wished I’d done a little research and noted how long this stage was. I was sure that the route description had said something about downhill fireroad. Climbing out of the saddle to flush out the building lactic, the headwind grew and I blinked through grit, grime and spray thrown up from my front wheel. Passing the 500m to go sign I kicked once more, hoping that the track would turn down once more. It did, but not before my legs started to fail, their cadence more reminiscent of the London Eye than Marcel Kittel bearing down on the line.
You can only go so far when planning an event. You can pick a magical location, you can plot a course with something for everyone that makes the most of that somewhere special you’ve discovered, you can use a race format that is as equally weighted towards fun and socialising as it is balls-out racing, you can nail every minor logistical headache perfectly, but – and it’s a big but – you can’t control the weather. The west coast of Scotland isn’t exactly famed for a settled climate, so if you are going to host an internationally attended race, you better make sure all the other ingredients are bang on.
Two days before the race. I joined a handful of journalists as the guests of Fabric and Charge, arriving early on Arran under the guise of being shown some new products and bikes. After a morning of presentations and technology, we all needed some fresh air. Leaving the relative bustle of Brodick (home of the ferry terminal) behind took minutes. The road clung to the northeast coast of the island, rusty red rocks separating us from a mirror-smooth sea. One eye on the look-out for seals, the other on the rolling hill that pulled us away up and over to the distillery, we spun along together under the Saltire blue skies* that only the west coast of Scotland can provide.
The premise of Grinduro is simple, particularly if you have ever ridden a mountain bike enduro. Complete a lap of a marked course, in this case all 76km of it, 90% off road. Take as long as you like. Maxin’ and Relaxin’ as the Grinduro team put it. Race-wise – and for some it really was a race – all that matters are four timed stages. Cumulative times are calculated over a 5km fireroad climb, a technical singletrack descent, a fire road descent and a final climb.
Heading south, we climbed through forested hills, talking away on the kind of singletrack climb that benefits from a little concentration, but not tongue-out levels. Spat out onto fireroad, the stage start came sooner than expected and I pulled up just before to remove layers and get a run up. What was that about some people taking this seriously? Pedal hard, but not too hard. 5km is a long way if you’ve set fire to the entire matchbook up the first 500m of distance. Legs not quite awake to what was being asked of them complained. The low cloud was both a blessing and a curse. The top of the hill was hidden by murk. It was hard to tell exactly how much pain there was still to come. But it came, and as riders slouched over their bars to catch their breath, the wind tore at us a little stronger, whisking away expelled air as quickly as we could draw in fresh.
The Isle of Arran
Arran is an island surrounded by mainland. Sitting in the Firth of Clyde, Kintyre wraps a comforting arm around it and the coastline of Ayrshire is only a few miles away. It’s a cliche, but a fairly accurate description to call it Scotland in miniature. With a mountainous north, and a relatively flat south, it is easy to move from contrast to contrast. From tropical-looking palm trees in the sheltered lee of the east, to the rugged, muscular Goat Fell, bare rock stacked upon bare rock. It is a special place. Back to the event though, and the Grinduro route started near enough plum in the middle, at the coastal village of Lamlash.
It isn’t really about the racing. We bundled into Velo Cafe, the cyclists’ coffee shop that hosted a feed stop 20km or so in. Jerseys steamed, the stone floor gathered puddles. Coffee orders were shouted across the busy bar. Laughter filled the room, along with the kind of conversation that new friends have. Fast and frenzied, pauses, shared experiences. We huddled in a corner tucking into an unconventional combination of americano, Irn Bru and Norwegian Kit-Kat. For a few minutes, the race was forgotten and we enjoyed the simple pleasure of being warm, in the dry and with good company.
Not Stage 2
It took definite effort to drag ourselves out of the coffee shop. Thick drizzle had become heavy rain and an involuntary shiver shook my body as I saddled up. Fortunately a couple of miles of gentle road climbing was enough to build body heat. We swept along narrow roads, flanked by hedges. Mist stripped away any sense of place until – imperceptibly at first – grey clouds were replaced by a concrete-coloured sea. It was only the torn edges of shore that added contrast to the watery view. Turning offroad, climbing perfect singletrack, descending tight bermed hairpins, we worked our way to the second stage. Often the transitions between stages were where the real beauty was held. Maybe it was simply because our heads were lifted a little higher, without the distraction of racing; maybe it was that these were the moments shared, there was always someone else to express your wonder to.
The centre of events
Lamlash is one of those villages that spreads around the bay, because why would you want to live away from a view of the sea if you live on an island? At first passing, it therefore gives the impression of being larger than it actually is, until you realise that there are no sidestreets, just the coastal road. Having said that, it has the largest population on Arran, and is home to the island’s secondary school, which for the weekend, was the temporary home of Grinduro HQ. Camping, eating, partying, the whole lot. The local ‘Heather Queen’ was crowned that day by the beach, as 200 or so riders were playing in the hills. It felt like perfect synergy that the purple of the Grinduro logo should match the shade of the little wildflowers.
Described as a technical descent, it more than lived up to its billing. Built by the local mountain bike club (there’s probably a clue there), it would have been a fast, flowing and challenging trail in the dry. As it was, deep mud and loam grabbed wheels, wet roots spat riders off at 90º to the trail. It turned out that tyres designed for hardpack struggled somewhat in the kind of slop that you might expect at a winter CX race. Who knew? End of stage comments were generally along the lines of “stupid”, “crazy”, “unrideable”, “sketchy as hell”, “so, so rad”, “brilliant”, “hell yeah” … mostly all uttered by the same person in a frenzied, adrenaline-filled commentary to those gathered. It may have had little to do with gravel, but it was the stage that would remain etched on memories long after the event.
Food was to be a running theme throughout the event. After the first, southern lap of the course (which included stages one and two), we returned to base and another food stop. Warm stew was shovelled in and for the first time conversation seemed to die as the primal urge to eat took over. While we were sat inside, the weather cleared briefly, skies lightening and bringing a feel of calm over the festival village. Bikes were piled across the school yard, all looking significantly worse for wear after a mere 38kms. The SRAM support truck was kept busy, mostly changing brake pads, but also repairing wheels and rear mechs. This event was already taking its toll. The variety in bike choice was huge, from mountain bikes to ‘cross bikes to singlespeeds and a couple of loons on fixed wheel beasts. There were of course gravel bikes, in all of their genres; handmade steel to off-the-peg carbon. Racing to touring. Rando classics to hipster sleds. A special mention goes to a certain Clive Gosling, who despite having access to the full range of Cannondale’s highly capable off-road bikes, chose to bring a brand new Synapse with 30c slicks. And Speedplay road pedals. That kind of heroism stupidity takes a special kind of man. We were held back briefly as the Heather Queen was paraded down the street, cultures not quite colliding, just intermingling. As we headed out on our northern loop and stages three and four the clouds closed back in and sheets of rain fell once more.
Stage 4 – Or, how not to prepare for an intense five minute climbing effort on the bike
Take full advantage of the feed station conveniently placed at the start. Enjoy a Tunnocks teacake washed down with Irn Bru. Eat a few Haribo and a slice of flapjack. Spot the cold brew coffee and take your time over one before knocking another back. Wait until your legs have gone a little cold, but not long enough to have even started digesting your feast. Climb on to bike, and start pedalling as hard as you can. Forget how long the stage is. Fight back the urge to puke, ease up in case you’ve misjudged the distance, spot the finish line late and put in an ineffectual last minute sprint. Textbook.
Adventure is always better than the easy option
There’s a balance to be found when routing an event like Grinduro, especially in the UK, where gravel roads are not exactly in abundance. Do you take in the most scenic route, and risk that sections are out of the comfort zone of many gravel bikes (especially if/when the weather isn’t favourable) or do you take a safer option and maybe more road? The Grinduro organisers decided on the former. Despite stage four being the last, there were 20km to cover to get back to base. 20km of slithering singletrack, long climbs and an exposed, rutted descent above high sea cliffs. It was utterly brilliant. Tired bodies and bikes that were complaining about the abuse they’d been handed out (metal on metal braking action, anyone?) made things hard work at times, as did the relentless wind and rain. Tumbles were taken by most, but I only ever saw smiles on the faces of those picking themselves up. Reaching the bottom of the last descent, a couple of kilometres shoreline spin away from Lamlash, it seemed like an appropriate time to take a swig or two of whisky, shared around the rag-tag bunch that made it to the bottom at around the same time. #partypacewinstherace!
All too often the end of a bike race is an anti-climax. Racers clean up, load up, head home. At the end of the race, Grinduro was only half done. Maybe one of the benefits to hosting it on an island was the effort required to get there meant that people chose to make a weekend of it. Many had no choice; ferries stop running early in the evening. No matter though, as big portions of warm food and seconds were served up. Riders sat together and shared stories, laughed, made plans for next year. A bar stocked high with local beers was hit hard and frequently, conversations and laughter rising in volume as beer stocks declined. Bands rocked, then DJs played as those with the energy partied. Others sat and talked further, forging new friendships. The Bicycle Academy set up shop with brazing lessons for those who could maintain a steady enough hand after a wee dram or three of Isle of Arran whisky. Personally, I didn’t quite manage to drag myself away from the bar. Too many people to share stories with, make the kind of plans with that are forgotten by the morning but you know will come to fruition one day, and thrust just ‘one last drink’ into each other’s hands.
Homebound with fresh memories
Standing waiting for the ferry back to the mainland on Sunday morning, the fresh air helped clear my spinning head. The day had dawned as still, clear and bright as the day before had been wild, dark and moody. This is what you could’a’ won. It didn’t matter; not one bit. It’s not as if we needed one, but we’d just have to return next year.
*technically the Saltire is the white cross on the blue background of the Scottish flag – please forgive me for this wee artistic indulgence.
Tom’s accommodation was covered by Fabric, and entry fee by Fabric and Grinduro. All photos: russellburton.com
Full results are here.