Photos by Digi Dave’s Photos
I was going to write about being stupid. I was going to tell you how I was one of those people who turns up at a race on a totally inappropriate bike and suffers horrendously, but claims it was totally worth it, because kudos, yeah? All of the above did kind of happen (except there was little suffering… this is riding bikes after all), but that’s not my lasting memory of one of the best races on the calendar.
Brighton Big Dog is now in its ninth year. Despite this, 2017 was actually only the second year I’ve raced it. The south coast is quite a long way from Yorkshire. Summer is busy. Excuses. The first time I made the long trip, I didn’t even bloody turn a pedal. A broken collarbone (or was it humerus? – that was a sucky summer. Back-to-back breakages are not humorous.) put paid to any plans of riding. That trip meant more though. It was with my then-girlfriend, Jenn. It was the first time I met many of her friends from another life, one lived long before she met me. I sat swinging my legs in a deckchair in the sun, cheering her and friend Biff as they raced pairs. Even then, the event felt special.
It was two long years before I returned. Two years that saw my girlfriend become my wife, be diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and die. I’m still shocked by the brevity of the time we had when I see it written down. All of a sudden, the life that she had before we met took on new meaning to me. It felt like it was part of my history and something to cling on to. Jenn’s friends were now my friends. One was my race partner. Biff and I raced singlespeed pairs…stopping to hug and chat after each lap. Bittersweet doesn’t come close. The memories I have of twelve months ago are less of the racing or the course, but more of the snatched conversations, swigs of beer and hugs in between laps. And the afterparty – the legendary afterparty. Pints of wine by the beach and then a sunrise shared with good people. I would return.
This year. This year felt hard. How can you match perfection? I didn’t get round to sorting out a partner until the week before, when a friendly nudge from a friendly person suggested that Oli from Morvelo was up for doing more than selling rad kit this year, and wanted to get some laps in. A plan was quickly formed. A bike was needed, but Brighton based Kinesis had a Tripster ATR ready and waiting for me to test. Destiny, or something like that.
Shall we back up a little? Brighton Big Dog is a mountain bike race. It lasts for six hours and takes in a sinuous lap of the wooded trails of Stanmer Park, to the north of Brighton. The course is characterised by twisting, jinking singletrack. Roots lay in waiting for the careless, but a smooth line can be found with a bit of skill and a keen eye. The clock starts at midday and stops at exactly 6pm. If you happen to cross the line at 18:00:01, tough luck sweetcheeks, that lap doesn’t count. Next to the start line a huge tea tent is manned by volunteers, each handing out enormous slabs of cake that require an entire urn of tea to wash down. The Diprose brothers (of Ride Journal fame) DJ in the middle of the field – unless one of them chooses to sneak out for a cheeky lap. Almost most importantly, the sun always shines (in my limited experience).
A rain shower had just passed over when I arrived at Stanmer this year. Arse, there goes that theory. Apparently the trails were fine, if a little greasy, according to those who were feeling energetic enough to do a practice lap. I had more important things to worry about, like fitting pedals to a brand new bike and doing a few other tweaks, all the while chatting to folk – “Has it really been a year?” Somewhere, I found time to enjoy a can of beer and change into my skinsuit…kind of halfway to being a proper racer.
The racing was racing. The bike was a bike. The course favoured precision, especially with narrow tyres and aggressive angles. Despite being a phenomenally capable gravel bike, the Tripster ATR is still a gravel bike. Pinning down twisting singletrack, veined with roots, descents felt a little like juggling with knives. Exhilarating and satisfying, but with a high potential for hurtiness if everything went wrong.
In between the racing, alongside the scramble to eat and drink in the 35 minute window that Oli was unhelpfully giving me (note to self – pick a slower partner next year), there were the snatched conversations. The friend who was racing her first mountain bike race; the three who had returned from the Transcontinental Race the day before, blinking away the fatigue. More beers were consumed, leading to the woods echoing with belches for the first 10 minutes of each subsequent lap.
Time ticked. Legs got a little bit crampy. The rain stayed away and the sun shone. It always shines at Big Dog – I told you. I set off on what would be our last lap, with a good 15 minutes in hand before the cut off. Sit up, say thanks to the marshalls, try and catch the friend who set off a few minutes earlier to give her some words of encouragement. End up gasping a “keep going” on a climb. Fight cramping fingers on the last descent and sprint for the line, for no other reason than sprinting is fun, especially when it is meaningless.
We lay on the grass at the end, jersey (and skinsuits) unzipped, sweat still glistening in the sun. No need to rush now. It is these summer memories that I will draw upon in January. The high-saturation blues and greens hashtag-no-filter, impressions of blades of grass on pink skin, a crisp sunset during the podiums.
Many hours later, grass will be swapped for pebbles on the beach. Once again, wine is passed around in inappropriately large drinking receptacles. Friends for life sit in a line, facing the waves staring out at the darkness. Idyllic. Well, sort of. Bad music pounds from a bar behind us. At least one of our group is asleep. It’s actually a little bit chilly now you mention it. Anyone for some food? And that is how we ended up in a seafront greasy-spoon at 3am. One day I might tell you about ill-advised food choices, the sitting up sleeping man, the stolen pizza (missing its pepperoni) and the fight. To be honest though, they are all about as important as the bike I chose to ride a few laps of a race on. Notes in the margins. As always, it’s the people that make the story. Brighton Big Dog has the right people. I’ll be back next year, the sun will shine and we’ll almost certainly end up in the same bad greasy spoon. It’ll be perfect.