Blessed with dry trails for the duration, Pete’s experience of the Ard Rock Enduro differed slightly from those racing at the weekend.
Four years since his last race, our man Pete takes on the 2023 Ard Rock Enduro Epic on the Friday before the rains came.
Having not raced since 2019 and never having done Ard Rock before, it would have been pretty easy to say that I was out of my depth when it came to having a pop at the Ard Rock Epic, a 42km, 1500m +/- day where you’d get a time for the full lap as well as the stages. Ard Rock main man Joe Rafferty indicated that this would essentially be my normal riding with tape, timing and other people. Couldn’t be that hard, right?
I cruised down on the Thursday night and had a terrible night’s sleep in my van for reasons I still can’t quite fathom. I awoke on Friday morning slightly overwhelmed by the enormity of the camping fields surrounding the event arena. Having turned into somewhat of a hermit in recent years, I knew full well I’d get completely overstimulated like I did at the first EWS and Fort William World Cup races after lockdown lifted.
It wasn’t long before I’d seen more people whilst in the queue for registration than I’d seen in the last year, complete with Guy Kesteven on crowd control adorned in high vis over his granny gown. With a race number now attached to my bike for the first time in four years, I found myself faffing like a champ instead of actually doing anything useful.
With the forecast looking patchy for the day and the sun out in force as we got our briefing, I decided to not wait to Jamie (Wideopenmag owner) and his crew, opting to just crack on whilst the rain stayed away. I promised myself that I’d just ride the day like I do any other, few stops only to take on fuel and water. I’d ridden in Swaledale once before and knew the climbs were fierce but the day would take in plenty of stingers, rewarded by some cracking descents.
The opening climb was, stiff… The road was lined with riders as far as the eye could see and as we gained height, the full size of the event was now apparent… The signage meant that you didn’t need to think much but I really had no idea where I was going.
I was at the bottom of stage one before I knew it. I’d been so focused on going forwards I hadn’t taken it in. The fast, bright, dry, rocky upper turns were in full contrast to the greasy darkness of the lower woods. I dig deep when I needed to put the power down, told myself to get over the bars and just plugged away trying to stay smooth without doing anything stupid. Six to go.
The greasy climb out from stage one soon turned into more stiff tarmac that then gave way to an access track that could be seen from the pits. I told myself here that I was going to try not to put my feet down for the rest of the day. With the climb cleaned and moving a fair way through the earlier waves as I went, I just kept plugging away. Stage two had a good old dollop of exposure and I did find a rider on his face next to the catch netting when I got there. Two seemed to mirror stage one. Fast and open before being thrown into the slickness once you’d recalibrated for dust and rock.
Such was the distance between stages two and three that I sort of lost track of where I was in the day. The pub at the riverside was jammed so I pushed on, the heavens opening as we left the tarmac behind to climb through the mine tailings to the top of three. It was here I was glad to be lugging downhill tyres around as this warp speed run through the spoil had so many blind crests and jagged edges. Beyond the thrill of galloping down here, we were rewarded with the spiciest jelly beans going before another stiff road climb to stage four.
Stage four was a peach and really fired me up. It had a bit of everything that made Swaledale great. Flat out, open, pedally moorland; benchcuts through the mine workings, rocks, switchbacks and high speed in every flavour. You got out what you put in here. Definitely the highlight so far. The only climb I didn’t clean was the climb out onto the tops from four. The grass was slick and my legs needed fuel. I opted to stuff my face and get moving onto five.
Stage five needed the legs back. Fairly flat, with some decent jumps, this would have been so much easier earlier in the race but then you’d be cooked for the harder stuff… I was happy to get the hammer down but jumps are not my forte. Happy to keep it low and fast, five was over in a flash of almost losing your front wheel as the gravel gave way on a blind rise.
Six was much the same but with more jumps and a bit more incline. I found myself still quite incapable of jumping anything convincingly, and after a few buckaroo moments opted to manual everything like I meant it.
A cup of Red Bull, slightly flat, vanished down me and really was exactly what I needed before stage seven. On the fire track to the final stage, I found myself alone for the first time in about five hours and had no idea where I was. I really couldn’t be hooped at this stage riding back up the climb as the mild panic set in. Luckily I had gone the right way, and the thought of breaded chicken filled my mind.
With crispy chicken on the brain, and as riders, ever polite offered others to head down seven, I opted to take the clear air on track. Seven was all of Ard Rock distilled into a few minutes of giving everything you’ve got. I felt like I rode this well, but blind fly-offs are my achilles heel. Despite this, and feeling like I emptied the tank well whenever the pedals called for it, I charged at the drop between the trees like a man possessed. As I approached the lip, I realised I had no clue what lay beyond. Luckily the Spesh Enduro had enough travel to deal with it and the lethal final grass turns didn’t bite.
Riding and racing that loop blind was mint. I rarely had to think about where I was going, the marshalls were stoked, the trails were wicked and I kicked my own ass for almost six hours whilst chatting shite with an ever-changing set of riders I found myself alongside. Sadly I had to gallop home to animal sit, so I missed the Friday and Saturday evening vibes but I’m sure it went off, the energy around the valley was incredible.
Let’s not call it a comeback… I think next year I’ll bring some pals, or wait for the ones that were there already. I think I’d run chunky tyres but on a far lighter bike. The Enduro was mint but it’s a big old bike to lug around that kind of loop. I think I’d stop more. I felt like I never quite had enough food or water in me, but that’s not unique to this race. That’s just me. Maybe I’d not try and no dab 42km next time? Maybe I’d save some juice for the stages? Who knows… I’ll definitely stay and soak in the vibes next time too.
I’d cross the line 58th out of 114 riders, some 5 hours 49 minutes and 51 seconds after setting off. My stop for the guy on his face on stage 2 cost me with the rest of my times being pretty decent.
You can check out the full Ard Rock Enduro results here.