Last year I didn’t get chance to go to the Red Bull Foxhunt, and when Jen Purcell’s race report came in I decided it had to be on my to do list for this year. Having spent the year trying a bit harder, getting to grips with steeper and more technical stuff, and generally trying to push myself a bit more, the Red Bull Foxhunt seemed like a good finale to the year before winter darkness and slop sets in. As it would turn out, the slop had well and truly arrived by race day.
Arriving in the dark after a long drive after a long day which started out with me feeling quite fragile after the Singletrack Reader Awards the night before, I bedded down in the back of the Singletrack van for some much needed sleep. Outside, some riders were having a bit of a party, despite the hammering rain and increasing wind, but generally it seemed that most riders were trying to grab some sleep rather than hanging out in the tepee. Sleep was hard won however, even in the van, as the wind shunted the sides and the rain came down in such sheets that I feared a flash flood was surely imminent. There’s nothing quite like the sound of running water down your van to usher you from your sleeping bag in the morning for an early wee, and my trot across the field confirmed that leaving my wellies at home was a very foolish mistake. The registration tent appeared to have blown down overnight, along with some of the barriers round the campsite. A couple of tents had near misses when they came down, and fortunately no one had pitched their tent in what had now become a small pond. The main routes to the loos and into the teepees were swiftly becoming muddy swamps. It was clear that, whatever course had been designed, things were likely to be interesting.
In previous years the event has been billed as an all-comers, come and have a go, all welcome event. This year the course had been stepped up a notch, designed to give riders more of a challenge. However, the addition of the wet weather probably took things up a few more notches than anticipated…
Uplifts were run by the gang from Antur Stiniog, carefully coordinating the shuttles up and down in flurries of Welsh so that there were no log jams on the single track road and track up to the drop off point. From there it was a slippery climb up to the start – personally I enjoyed the challenge and warm up of clearing the ruts, puddles and slop of the climb, though others took it at a walk and a push.
A final check that we’d not left our suspension locked out and that our tyres were soft enough, and it was time to roll down the course for a first look. The initial trail was wide and largely grassy, with sections mown or strimmed through the bracken. A couple of slippery turns and a slightly surprising drop, and we were into the slip and slide of the woods and the first A-Line/B-Line route choice. After a bit of a queue and a bit of a look, and quite a lot of thought, I gave the A-Line a go, nearly made it, but slid out at the bottom in a slightly wild landing. Crash One.
Onwards through the woods into a soul sapping off camber section through sticky slippy mud – encountering another queue was a relief as it gave an excuse to get off and push – if you could stay on your feet. Another A-Line/B-Line choice ahead, but this time it was an easy one for me to make. The A-Line had an off camber sloppy climb to a high but just and so rollable drop off, onto a slippery turn. Getting to the top of the drop with both feet on the pedals looked like enough of a challenge, nevermind the drop, so I headed round the steep and deeply muddy B-Line. Whooping and slithering, foot out, back end sliding – definitely not touching the front brake – I was pleased to have got round this corner in one piece, and in future runs would enjoy taking it at greater speeds. Meanwhile others were tackling the A-Line, egged on by this year’s stand in ‘fox’ Katy Winton – fair play to all those who gave it a go.
The mud started to take its toll, and the next section of trail was blocked by people clearing their stuck solid back wheels of mud. Marshals appeared with snippers to cut off front mudguards, and beyond the queue was an intimidating snaking drop of thick mud. As it turned out, it was thick mud with a hidden rock slab leading to a tree stump, and on seeing me fly over the bars (Crash Two) Rachel Atherton (watching trackside, she did at least give me kudos for going for it!) arranged for the stump to be chainsawed off. A few minutes later I tackled the turn again, only to slide out sideways, giving my head enough of a knock that I continued down the trail with a bit of a headache. Crash Three.
Past that tight wooded section things opened out a little more and I had the track to myself, giving me a clear view to tackle the various drops and chutes ahead. Muddy slithers through soupy gateways, a couple of ‘just held it’ fast turns, at I was at the end. Practice one done.
The second practice run saw me slide out on one of the initial grassy corners – lesson learnt, Crash Four – and break my number board going over the bars on the first B-Line (Crash Five). It seemed that the mud was making both routes very difficult, and a new C-Line had been created, which proved tricky to get on to, but fast to roll down. More slipping and sliding and queuing through the woods led to where the steep snake had now been dug into more of a trench – heeding the words of skills coach Andrew Mee, I followed the rut and kept off my brakes, emerging victorious at the bottom of the corner. There may have been some whooping.
It’s a funny thing about seeing others ride – sometimes it shows you the way and makes something seem easy, and other times it makes you fear what previously wasn’t an issue. A queue had formed at the final rooty ridge into a shaley drop, and got me worrying about a section of trail that I hadn’t even registered as being an issue on my first run. Forcing myself on, I finished the second practice run and headed off to sort out a replacement number for my smashed board.
By now the slipperyness of the course was affecting morale. Fast riders were frustrated at having to queue to get down the hill, nervous riders were frustrated at not being able to ride or even walk down some of the harder sections. Reports of tears being shed circulated. In the wind and damp, cold riders decided against another practice run, or against a seeding run. If we went up to seed, would we just end up queueing again? Would we even get down before dark? I was persuaded to go for it, and I’m glad I did – what ensued were some of the most exhilarating minutes I’ve ever had on a bike.
Setting off at 30 second intervals gave me a clear run at the track and it felt like I was really travelling as I headed down the grassy slopes, passing a rider on the way. It wasn’t the perfect run, and I missed the turn into the C-Line at the top of the wooded section, but tripoded round and was soon on my way again, weaving between the trees and enjoying the ‘keep off the brakes’ sensation in the flat sections of mud. The practice runs came together and I had a clear run through all the main obstacles, passed a few more riders, and panted my way right to the finish line. It felt great – the first time I’ve really felt that desire to go fast, and faster, and keep pushing, focussed on keeping going rather than self preservation or stopping to think about the consequences of crashing.
While the course was slippery and muddy, it was relatively comfortable to crash on – not too many rocks or edges to hurt yourself on. That’s not to say I’m not bruised – I certainly am, though mostly as a result of landing on my bars. In that respect, if you could overcome the desire to grab the brakes and instead just go with the slither, it was a great opportunity to find the limits of your abilities. That said, between the steepness and narrowness of the wooded section, sessioning opportunities were all but nil, compounded by the slippery mud, and I can see why some riders found it too intimidating.
On discovering I had seeded 27th my elation from the ride itself was boosted. Never ever did I expect myself to make the grid at the start. However this did add pressure to the day two proceedings, so between that and the constant war of attrition with the mud, I had an early night. I imagine that in better weather I would have been tempted to stay and hang out in the tepee, drink a few beers round the fire, and generally chat the night away, but in all honesty I was finding just walking round the site pretty exhausting. Heavy shoes dragging at my feet, everything that touched the ground got covered in mud, everything that touched anything that had touched the ground also got covered in mud. I couldn’t even face the faff of trying to get out of my shoes and into the on site sauna, then back into my shoes again. Oh for a pair of wellies.
Worn out and with a belly full of rather good chilli, I carefully separated myself from my muddy outer layer and settled down for a nervous night of sleep. Dry and silent, the night passed and I awoke slightly chilled to clear skies and a sea of ever stickier mud. The dry weather overnight meant that the mud was a bit less splashy, but generally no less slippery or sticky. I went for one final practice run before the race. Knowing I could make it down if I got a shot at all the lines I wanted, I figured that I’d best have a go at riding whatever appeared in front of me – as I would have to do in the mass start. At this point I lose track of the crashes, though I do remember a particularly big one where my front wheel got swallowed up in a gap beside a mat and I went from flying along to flying through the air. A few more mats had appeared overnight in some of the soupier sections, and I decided I much preferred the soup to the mats. The final practice done, it was time to head to the top for the mass start.
I’m not ashamed to say that I was very nervous about the mass start. As they called the riders up one by one, I was quite sure that they were all significantly handier riders than me. Suffering a major bout of imposter syndrome, I felt that my seeding was a lucky fluke. The first few rows of gridded riders were a real mixture of women – young riders, riders with ‘rad’ shaved haircuts, riders with piercings, riders with make up and nice lippy, glamorous riders, older riders, heavier riders, skinnier riders. Even the bikes were a mix of old and new, hard tails and full suspension, coil springs and air shocks. There were no common elements except we were all women there to ride bikes.
What came next was carnage. Slipping, sliding, riders coming from left and right, riders pushing through, falling through, controlled, wild, whooping, shrieking. I got taken out, I took others out. Most annoyingly of all I came off on that rooty ridge that hadn’t bothered me on my first run. Toppling down the side of the ridge, I couldn’t get back on without pushing in and holding up the whole race. Rider after rider came through until eventually someone else wobbled to a halt and I took advantage of their hesitation to get back up and finish the race. 67th. Rubbish compared to my 27th place seeding, but still way better than I’d have dreamt of had you asked me how I might do on Friday.
The race was won by Mille Johnset, an Atherton Academy protégée (who was too young to race last year but at 16 was allowed in this year), in a time of 3:50, nearly a minute faster than her second place seeding time, with Katy Winton coming in 21st, having worked her way through the rest of the field. I didn’t even see her pass, but my helmet cam footage shows she threaded her way through the carnage as I and half a dozen others were lying on the ground and sliding down the hillside at the bottom end of the woods section.
Would I do it all again? Hmm…I’m not sure. It’s given me a taste for racing, and more confidence in the slither, but I’m not sure I’d be in a rush to do another mass start. I’m more comfortable with the idea of me versus the ground than I am with all the other things there are to contend with in a mass start – but then I am a bit of a control freak. I really enjoyed the experience of trying to find the best line, then seeing how fast I could take it, then trying to string all those lines together into one perfect run. I’m not saying I’m going to do one, but a future Downhill race doesn’t seem like a total impossibility. An enduro definitely seems likely – one where I actually try and race, rather than just get round.
Competitors this year were treated to the double whammy of having both Rachel Atherton and Katy Winton to chat to, take selfies with, and generally enjoy having around for advice and encouragement. A triple whammy if you count the presence of Dan Atherton on the Sunday afternoon. But while it was great to meet your idols, what was better was seeing so many women riding difficult stuff. If you’re like me and rarely venture from your local trails and onto the race circuit, encountering kick ass women (like Foxhunt was crawling with) can be a relatively rare occurrence. Red Bull Foxhunt brings together scores of women who don’t just ride bikes, they live them – they have multiple bikes, they don’t blink at five foot drop offs, they fix their own mechanicals, they tune their own suspension, and they own their own adventure wagons. Dammit, I want to be like them.