This is a piece I wrote back in the end of 2011, but never published for reasons now unknown to me. I thought I might as well do it now all the same, so here you are.
Although I enjoyed some competitive road and track racing in 2011, it wasn’t all about pushing the limits to the point of sweat, blood and tears on smooth surfaces. There was also some off-road action to ensure that fun remained the centre piece staple ingredient.
Biking.ie organised a series of races in the early season, four in total, known as the Biking Blitz in order to promote racing for beginners, yet catering for seasoned racer heads alike. The format was simple: Use the four existing Irish mountain bike trail centres and hold a race on each one. I volunteered as a marshal for round 1 in Ballinastoe, skipped round 2 in Ballyhoura and round 3 in Derroura and decided to ride round 4 in Ticknock, which also happened to coincide with the official unveiling of the trail centre by Minister Leo Varadkar TD, Minister for Transport, Tourism & Sport.
It was my first XC MTB race since 1997 (excluding a couple of marathon distance races I did in 2009 and 2010). I entered the 1 lap race as I had no interest in doing anything longer than 30mins. It was a really fun event and as I came to take the chequered flag in my race, I decided to pop a wheelie for some style. It all went pear shaped as I lost balance and veered off to the right heading straight towards Minister Leo Varadkar TD who was enjoying the proceedings until that point. He had to jump out of my way, slipping on the grass in the process and ending up on the ground. Thankfully nobody was hurt and he saw the funny side of it and we all had a laugh about it afterwards.
Next up were the Étape du Tour events, this year for the first time taking in two stages of the Tour de France. At the beginning of the year, I had arranged to ride these with two of my French Road Rage rivals and buddies, Guillaume Gualandi and David Lacoste from Cantal Team Road. For those of you who do not know, every year Amury Sports Organisation (ASO), organisers of the worlds biggest annual sporting event, the Tour de France, hold a fully supported stage open to amateurs to ride. It is the exact same stage as the pros ride, and usually the hardest stage of the Tour. The first Étape du Tour stage (Acte 1) was a 109km stretch in the high alps between Modane and l’Alpe d’Huez, crossing over the 1556m Col du Télégraphe and the 2645m Col du Galibier along the way. The second stage (Acte 2) would follow a week later in the Massif Central with a 208km route (the longest in the history of the Étape du Tour) between Issoire and Saint-Flour, crossing over the major climbs of 1589m Col du Pas de Peyrol (Puy Mary), the 1309m Col du Perthus, the 1392m Col de Prat de Bouc (Plomb du Cantal) along with some lesser climbs.
Acte 1: It was an early morning start in the sleepy village of Modane. 10,000 enthusiastic amateurs had turned up to ride the stage. The route took off down the valley to Saint Michel de Maurienne, before heading up the first challange of the day, the Col du Télégraphe. I settled into a steady rhythm to ensure I got up ok. Once over the top, it was a short descent to the foot of the giant Col du Galibier. Again a cautious approach was taken with a steady manageable pace. It was enough to summit without getting into any difficulty. Now it was time for the real fun to start, with a 40+km descent, first down to the Col du Lautaret and then on to Le Bourg d’Oisans at the foot of l’Alpe d’Huez. I made the best of my descending skills to make up good time and passed rider after rider on the way down. Thankfully, I had my GoPro with me to record the descent, which you can watch here. Once arrived at the bottom of the valley in Le Bourg d’Oisans, it was the final challange of the day, up arguably the most famous climb in TdF history, the Alpe d’Huez. It finished without incident as I crossed the line at the top, tired but happy.
Acte 2: A cold rainy day greeted the riders in Issoire. Of the ca. 7000 riders that had signed up, only ca. 4000 decided it was worth turning up to ride in these conditions. To add insult to injury, we had to battle into a fierce headwind until the first feed stop at just over 81km. At that stage, I was so cold and wet, I decided it wasn’t worth torturing myslef for many more hours over the climbs in these conditions. Along with over 3000 other participants, I climbed off my bike and called it a day. When I later heard about the conditions up on the Puy Mary, (4°C, high winds, and thick cloud cover), I knew I had made the right decision. Also, the only place I would normally be able to make up time, on the descents, would have been treacherous and just too dangerous to attempt anything. There’s always next time.
The highlight of the Irish mountain bike season would undoubtedly have to have been the arrival of the World Singlespeed Championships, a celebration of the counter-culture of off-road cycling. All the world’s single speed specialists and aficionados were present for one big party. The special thing about this race is that the person who has the most fun ‘wins’ as opposed to the first person across the line like in the more traditional races. That is not to say that there wasn’t a ‘traditional winner’ in that sense., but the prize is also a little bit different, namely a tattoo. The unspoken rule is that if you don’t want the winner’s tattoo, then whatever you do, just don’t cross the finishing line in first place.
The nearly 500 strong troop of riders from across the globe were lead from Kilfinane village with a Garda escort to the Ballyhoura MTB trail centre. The race started with a Le Mans style start, but there was a twist. The surprise element was that your bike may not have been in the same place as you left it as the organisers had thought it would be more interesting to mix up all the bikes and stack them in big piles!
The race covered 2 full laps of the 17km brown loop, otherwise known as the Mountrussel Loop. It was a hard fought battle out front, with Ireland’s very own Niall Davis from Biking.ie taking the title of Singlespeed World Champion much to the delight of the home crowd, followed naturally by the winner’s tattoo (see below)! Katie Holmes from the USA took the women’s title. The partying before, during and after the race was equally as hard as the race itself and everybody had great craic in true Irish style, making everybody a winner in the end. Click here for event video.
The next big event on the Irish mountain bike racing calendar was the now legendary Epic Blast, Ireland’s answer to the Megavalanche. First run in 2005, it had become a staple in the Irish MTB scene. Run by club Epic MTB, it is a mass start downhill race held in Ballinastoe, County Wicklow every September. This year had something special about it, as downhill mountain bike 2008 World Champion and 2010 World Cup winner and Gee Atherton and his younger brother were in attendance.
There were two different races within the event, first the “heats” where small groups of 10 or so riders raced each other to then be split up according to their finishing position within their heat. Then all those who finished first in their heat were sent racing against each other, all those who finished second raced against their peers, and so on. This meant if you had a bad run in the first heat, you would have an ‘easier’ second round and a better chance at doing well. Once all the heats had run their course, it was time for the main event, The Blast. Here everyone raced against each other at the same time, but this year there was a twist! Gee Atherton would be given a handicap of 12-15 seconds and then would have to pass as many riders as possible on the way down. It was dubbed the “Fox Hunt” only this time with the roles reversed, with the fox (Gee) hunting down the hounds (all the other riders) ahead of him. In the end it was the 17 time national XC MTB Irish Champion Robin Seymor who took top spot just ahead of Dan Atherton in 2nd, with Gee finishing in 6th place. Click here for the event video.