Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Enduro Hucks the Ditch

Ollie hooks a wooden berm on his way to finishing run #1
Photo Joshua Nicholson
From my remote observation post in Sydney, I’ve watched the burgeoning kiwi enduro scene with envy. Races seem to be popping up all over the country, followed by the inevitable wave of social media containing smiling faces at the end of epic bar clenching runs. Championed by pinners like privateer turned pro Jamie Nicoll, the scene seems to go from strength to strength. With ample shredworthy tracks and a growing disillusionment with the cross country norm of mass market gravel-fests and mind numbingly repetitive circuits, it is not really a surprise.

Shuttles make for good effort/stoke ratio
Photo Joshua Nicholson
So when the gravity enduro phenomenon hucked the ditch to New South Wales like a supercharged skippy the kangaroo, I was fizzing to get amongst it. The first round of Rocky Trail Entertainment’s Rollercoaster series was held at the trails of Ourimbah, a club built network consisting of all sorts of flowing trails, the perfect setting to introduce the masses to the fun format.

Lumpy tree and shredding rider
Photo Joshua Nicholson
The course started with a shuttle to the top of a gnarly downhill track dubbed CBD after the Sydney bike shop. It started with steep swooping drop into dusty berms, followed by sizable jumps that rewarded bravado rather than finesse, then a fast rocky section and an energy sapping final sprint over ladder bridges to stop the clock. This first trail suited bigger bikes, while the second run was a much flatter pedal fest that left those on downhill bikes suffering through waves of pedal bob and drowning in fullface perspiration. And that was only in the ride to the start! While a bit short at only 12 minutes of time at race pace,  the combined courses made for an ideal mix, with parts of the track favouring pedalling, and others just good old fashioned chutzpah.
Course for the day. Short but sweet.
Photo Joshua Nicholson
I hadn’t raced downhill in anger since the Trans-Savoie in France which was a mind blowing 6 days of riding which left me flowing natural gnar like Sam Hill (at least in my mind!). As such, my expectations of both the course and my own enduro pace were low, but I’m pleased to report I came out pleasantly surprised on both counts. I finished up 7th equal in Elite, and on buckling over my bars at the second stage finish I’m certain I couldn’t have eeked out any more pedal strokes.  The other course of action would have been to get off the brakes, but the amount of time I’d spent with the scary/fun feeling of drifting my rear tire through corners told me that any less braking would have been to tempt fate!

This sign proved prophetic
Photo Joshua Nicholson
Perhaps the coolest experience was just hanging at the finishing tent and sponging up the buzz of everyone’s post-race stoke. While the potential for crashes is high in races downhill against the clock, it seemed everyone kept the rubber side down and lived to tell stories of saved nose cases, high speed punctures and brief off track excursions. With the event selling out with over 200 riders, there was plenty of stoke to go around, and you’d be hard pressed to find a frown amongst the sweaty faces.

So when work and time allows you can bet I’ll be strapping on the kneepads and saddling up my squishy bike, looking  to claw back seconds against the proper brave loonies who seem to float down the trails. Gravity endure is pretty rad and I’m stoked it has made it to Australia!

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Home is where the gnar is

Ollie & Michi  (+ Dan) reunite for some descending action
The festive season presented me with an opportunity to return to the very singletrack which had sparked my passion for technical riding. The New Zealand backcountry routes of Cass Lagoon and Mount Oxford are gnarly root infested trails of unmatched epicness. So epic in fact, that despite the ardouous bike carries required to get to the rideable sections, the question of point is rarely if ever raised. The end of arm pumping inducing trails always justifies the means of back breaking carry.

I had expected that bicycles were to be absent from the break, with family time and wedding preparations the focus. Thanks to fiancé Heidi understanding my need for man-time in the wilderness, I reunited with best-man and bike packing aficionado Michi (who recently became Dr Michi) to shred some of the old favourites. This came as a fantastic bonus, and while precipitation threatened to wash out the adventure, we persevered and were rewarded with giggle inducing slippery trails.

Dr Michi does a post Cass-Lagoon grimfie (grimace+selfie)
With my own El chucho trail bike at home in Sydney, I called upon Michi’s generosity to borrow one of his steeds, a well-loved Rohloff equipped El Commandante (29er hardtail). Sporting skinny race tires, 100mm of travel and an undersized (for me) frame, I adjusted my expectations of pace and fun accordingly, but was pleasantly surprised that the trails still had me descending with an ear to ear grin. Usually 160mm travel at front and back (like Michi's El Terremoto) is a minimum standard for enjoyment of these trails, with fat sticky rubber to keep speed under control. The slick conditions we experienced required smooth line choice that suited the little hardtail. I’m always surprised at their capability in the wet, and they are high on my list of bikes to have if I ever suffered the misfortune of having to choose just one.

El Comm hardtail proved less sketchy than expected
Dan gets enduro specific
Tagging along on our Mt Oxford ride was Dan, who as Michi tactfully put it, was well overdue to lose his hike-a-bike v plates.  The soggy conditions weren’t an ideal introduction, but as we pulled into the car park we were all fizzing, me especially so. This was quickly replaced with the huff puff, and dead armed poses induced by the skyward carry. On summitting the peak some 2 hours later we discovered the trig had been blown off the side, a testament to the savagery of recent wind storms.

Dan tops out at the summit
Manually dropping my seat (which was a surprising chore for my dropper accustomed self) and pointing downwards, I was stoked to pass the first freeriding test intact. Dan however was not so fortunate, riding off line whist trying to clip in and endoing over an unflinching tussock. He’d left his knee pads in the car and as if to prove Murphy’s hypothesis, struck his knee, forcing a painful and cautious descent on the remainder of the long trail back to the car.

Ollie + wet roots = Stoked
Taking care to stop and help Dan through the gnarlier bits, Michi and I proceeded to slither our way down the trail. Riding Oxford was like re acquainting myself with an old friend. My vague recollection of its idiosyncrasies including drops and pinch climbs didn't match the order they appeared in reality, but as the trail edged downwards I remembered why I’d grown to love the trail in the first place. All the things I love about backcountry singletrack was evident; the balance required between cautiousness and bravado, the desperate search for traction, and the rush from making it down sketchy sections with skin intact.

Michi slaying the trail
The day after Michi and I left Dan to lick his wounds, heading for Cass for a long loop in spite of the heavy rain forecast. The trails were damp, even more so than Oxford, but the sensations of rediscover of an old friend were the same. For the eight or so hours we were riding and clambering we were rained on for only a few, with every minute a blissful mix of exertion and elation. The loop had undergone some changes with a number of tree falls and reroutes adding new features. A reroute along the swampy sidle from Lagoon shelter quickly petered out, linking to the dreadful tussock lined and wheel swallowing bogs which my memory had chosen to forget. This was the closest I got to question the rationality of our route, but on reaching the tree line all negativity was quashed. The root gnarled switchbacks to the highway were the perfect way to end the epic Cass loop.

Top of Cass Saddle. Ready to party.
So starting my holiday thinking they’d be precious little biking in store, revisiting some of Canterbury’s backcountry gems proved to be nice Christmas bonus. While the trails change due to slips and tree-fall, just like my life does, it is nice to know that you can always go back and enjoy the simple pleasures which helped grow my passion for riding. It is no surprise then that our wedding ended up close by and sharing the thrill of these trails which will always be my biking home gets me pretty darn excited!

Ollie and Michi reigniting the bromance