Way back in the dim and distant mists of time, when a DH bike had 6″ of travel, 150mm disk brakes, a 69 degree head angle and Steve Peat was only in his mid to late 20’s, I raced downhill.
Back then nobody trained (or at least, nobody admitted it, turns out quite a few were cheating with a road bike), if you were lucky you had a couple of spare tires, but certainly not any spare wheels and, in Scotland at least, you were racing on some of the best DH tracks ever made. Raw, loose and fast.
Then I got the chance to race in the British national series. The tracks were shit, if you didn’t have a wheen of money to bring spare parts you didn’t have a hope, people were taking it seriously. I wasn’t having fun so sold my DH bike and just rode street and trials.
Jump forward a few years. An enduro/trail bike has 6″ or more of travel, 203mm disk brakes, 66 degree head angle and Steve Peat is still racing world cups. I guess I should race downhill again.
I’ve ridden plenty of world cup and iXS level DH tracks over the last few years. Some I’ve thought were amazing (hello Pila) some I’ve been less impressed with (looking at you Val d’Isere) some of my favourites don’t feature on any calendars (Vallorcine, really, in it’s prime that was such a grand course) and as a rule I prefer as little building work as possible. Partly because I seem to be better at riding natural terrain, mostly because big jumps scare the crap out of me.
Hence, it was with just a wee amount of trepidation I signed up for the Crankworx DH in Les Gets, I mean, it’s kinda known for being a jump, berm, jump, berm, jump style bike park.
Shouldn’t have worried.
I’ll rephrase that. I shouldn’t have worried about it being a bike park course. Turned out there were plenty other things to worry about. The track still had a few big ol’ jumps, fortunately 6 chicken lines had been built for chickens like me. But the rest of the course was wide taped, fast, loose and raw.
Having missed track walk, I rolled in off the start ramp built over the Grand Ourse restaurant terrace with little idea what was to come, but battered off down the track with the intention of having a fun fast lap to see where the ground went.
After skipping round the initial road gap you held on and hoped for the best as you bounced over the as yet un-worn open hillside. Using the natural shape of the hill to help you gain and lose speed without the need for pedalling, the course kept rhythm until dropping, literally, into the woods.
Again, the track was barely ridden in with just some catch berms and small jumps added to keep things flowing, and some great steep inside lines though the still present and only slightly damp loam. Joining the original 2004 world champs course canyon section the speed picked up even more as you rattled through the massive berms, over a drop and then launched out into the open.
From here the course returned to the football pitch wide taping higher up, but with some small stream gap jumps even I could hit blind on the first lap. What I couldn’t hit first lap was the wooden road gap/drop that ended up claiming so many elite riders race runs by Sunday or the natural cliff drop into the finish arena, but that’s what chicken lines are for.
I was feeling pretty happy about things coming into the end of the first practice session, I’d still not hit the first big jump (It was closed for most of my laps whilst the initial guinea pigs were scraped up off the landing, hopefully no one got hurt) but even with the track rapidly cutting up it was still fun riding.
The fun came to an abrupt end as I ran out of ability towards the end of the woods and landed on, as a friend once explained to an exasperated head teacher following a primary school fight, “a delicate area of the male anatomy” before seeing my bike launch over my head. Freed of it’s pilot it tried to prove that modern trail bikes are faster than their owners can ride them and shot off down the trail at a good pace. This didn’t last long and the bike then also crashed, ripping the hose out of the front brake in a spray of mineral oil.
Practice over for the day, bike and rider limp off to get fixed. It rains overnight.
Saturday wasn’t quite as wet as Friday, which initially seemed like a good thing. The slopestyle comp might actually happen and the track might dry out for seeding.
The slopestyle didn’t happen, and whilst the track did dry out for seeding, it transformed into an unrideable gloop. Turns out #enduro bikes don’t have the same tyre clearance as a DH bike. The mud was so thick the wheels hardly turned and I was pedalling hard down some fairly steep slopes just to keep moving. Once in the lower open slopes even that wasn’t happening and the wheels just refused to budge. I couldn’t even push the bike, so I tried to pick it up and run down, but it weighed too much for my feeble ski bum arms to lift, so I left the track, dug all the mud out, went for a spin up and down the road for a bit to clear the wheels, then eventually finished my inglorious lap.
I wasn’t the only person suffering, anyone with poor mud clearance or just a bit scrawny was having a poor time of it on Saturday. It’s rare that there’s one “best” bike for a track, but if you owned an Orange 324, Manitou Shiver forks, 26″ wheels and a pair of the original Michelin DH Mud tyres you were sorted.
Not often you’ll hear that….
The mud raised the most frustrating thing about the weekend for me and many other riders. If you had the skill and balls to keep it lit for an entire lap then you were going to get a great time. Unfortunately as soon as you slowed down, the mud had a chance to build up on the bike and the tyres, making the bike heavier and slowing it down. As soon as this happened, you get more mud build up and….. You get the idea.
As a result a slip off line, a near stall, was enough to end your run. And if you crashed, then you were going to crash a few more times as a result. Once the mud was blocking up the frame and forks, it had the effect of dragging your brakes constantly, and what’s the main thing you shouldn’t do in slippy condition. Exactly.
So, when you watch the videos of races in stupidly muddy condition or see the massive spread of times in the result sheets, don’t just assume that the riders canny ride in the mud. There were a lot of folk looking very average on a bike when if you could just have magic’d away 20kg of mud and let their wheels turn, well, they’d be much happier.
Crankworx is about more than the racing mind, so Saturday did also involve wandering about Les Gets, bumping into friends, drinking beer, watching the pump track challenge, questioning just why people still take chainsaws to bike races, drinking beer and generally not getting cold wet and muddy for a while.
Sunday morning brought us back to the cold wet and muddy game. Torrential rain overnight had removed almost all the traction there was on the course, but more importantly for me had thinned out the mud nicely from crunchy peanut butter to a good seafood chowder. I was also now riding with Sam who was definitely more up to speed than me.
I might not have been having the best of times all weekend on the course, but ragging down the upper sections of the track, holding my poor battered bike wide open as I tried to keep sight of Sam on his beast of a Orange 324 (Fox 40’s not Shivers) was ace. If terrifying. Even the lower sections were more fun again now the gloop could be blasted though without bringing you to a complete halt.
The race run didn’t go quite as well. The upper section was super grippy and riding as well as it had at any point of the weekend, but from there down the track had headed back to heavy gloop. Somewhere in the woods my chain fell off, I considered putting it back on, but I couldn’t find the cranks under the mud, so gave up on that and scooted off down the track, having to push and carry the bike through far too many sections to mention.
An hour later and I was feeling fairly smug, stomping about the course in my winter boots whilst others fell about in skate shoes, and watching the top elites deal with the conditions. There’s not many sports where you can as directly compare your abilities to the best of the world, they’re coming down the same course as you, their bikes are better but not that much better. Aye, you’ll be found wanting for the skills, but far too many folks get away with thinking their mediocrity makes them special in some way so it’s good to be firmly put back in your place. It was interesting how much some were struggling, not due to a lack of ability, just due to a combination of their sponsors bike not having mud tyre clearance and an error at some point dragging them down.
Les Gets has a 3 year contract for the Crankworx, here’s hoping we can hit the trail in the dry in 2017. And does anyone want to sell me a cheap DH bike?