Bluegrass Glen Coe Enduro - by No-fuss Events
Billed as real mountain biking in its essence: riding a bike down a mountain, this event grew from the No-Fuss MacAvalanche. The MacAvalanche itself was inspired by the Megavalanche in it's concept of a mass start race in snow, and this is retained in the 3rd Stage of the Bluegrass Glen Coe Enduro.
I entered this event, knowing the above, and having ridden in a number of No-Fuss events, but having trawled the internet, still unclear about stages 1&2. Being reasonably familiar with Fraser, Spook and Fiona and their very friendly and inclusive manner I also knew that this would be something a little different; their events always are, but I knew that we'd be well looked after, and the event would be well organised, and this was definitely the case.
So what did I know? - Blind event with no practice, mass start on snow on the Glen Coe Ski area, at some point riding some of the Red Downhill route (now open all summer folks!!), big sections of open mountainside with no marked trail, and that's about it. With that and the No-Fuss penchant for a generous slice of bonkers, then I knew this would be challenging, hard work, maybe a bit scary, fun, and good craic.
I don't know why I was so worried then, as I was completely correct in my assumption!
Fraser's Riders Briefing in the Car Park at Glen Coe
Briefing over, we were given notice of the three start times for the sections spread through the day, and really only taking away "beware the ditch of doom" from Fraser's address.
I jumped on the chair and chilled out to the glorious views around me. We'd bagged what promised to be one of those beautiful blue sky days that ruins you for ever. I could see the central highlands, Ben Nevis, and over to the western highlands, and all in their marbled spring colouring, the best time of year with ginger grasses and snow filled gullies and winter caps on the mountains - absolutely stunning.
Promising great things on the way up in the chairlift - (and no my bike hadn't had a proper clean since Dunkeld)
Reaching the plateau, we headed up to the next single 'bucket' seat chairlift (clinging to the bike!) and then a short walk through the snow to what was clearly the top of stage 1. The start was cunningly placed about 20 metres from a rise, and therefore the only part of the route that you could see from this point was so far away that the pros who had already left were just dots in the distance below.
An amazing backdrop - Ben Nevis is above my right shoulder - who knows where the trail is
So a little shuffling, wrist to the dibber, "beep" and we're off! - straight into a bog.
This inauspicious start then led to a rise, rapidly followed by the full dawning of what I'd let myself in for. Ahead of me was the whole side of the mountain, dotted with fellow riders sent off ahead of me and nothing but tiny red flags stuck in the ground seemingly at random to guide me in the general direction of the finish dibber. Fraser had said "pure mountain biking" and he wasn't lying.
Anyone who's ventured onto these mountains will know that the mountainsides rarely offer one type of terrain consistently, and this was no exception. Dry grassy hummocks gave way to boggy drops, gravel fields, rocky bands and small snowfields, all interspersed with little red flags and the occasional taped barrier to guide us into a specific area. After pulling an Endo in the middle of a patch of snow I was quickly convinced of the need to avoid snow wherever possible, and was swiftly starting to feel at home in terrain familiar to my local hills. This was starkly interrupted however by the appearance of flat ground, and then a hill! Riders used this as an opportunity to pass, with some still riding as others walked but eventually we all had to concede and join in on foot to get to the summit of the hill in front. A sharp right turn at the summit then saw us head across to a waving Marshall and the horizon - always a bit nerve wracking on a blind course.
'Cresting the rise' delivered a sharply downward trajectory, and my first off of the day trying a 'smart' overtaking move. On this steepness of terrain, I had to sprint a good way back up the hill to retrieve the steed calmly waiting for me. Back on again, I worked hard to regain some ground as we levelled into another boggy area, and negotiated bogs, burns and bridges on our way to the chairlift station.
Stage 1 - from centre left, to the top of the hill in the middle, then down the skyline to the right and .......
I'll admit that at this point I was wondering where the finish line was - I'd been pushing hard up to now, aiming for the chairlift, but as I came onto the access track , I realised the full scale of what I'd entered into. Expecting waiting Marshalls and a nicely taped finishing line as I got to the chairlift I rounded the corner to find tapes pointing me straight at the Red Downhill track. I realised now that I was only just over Half way down the section!
The Glen Coe Red Downhill is set in a spectacular position, roughly running one huge zig-zag across the side of the mountain above the Glen. It's a hugely varied trail as it essentially traverses the spoil washed off the mountain above over millions of years. Unexpectedly there's lots of rock, from bedrock to boulders, but also a good smattering of good old mud and bog on occasion too. It's a rough old track, but it's also remarkably tame for a Downhill route, with jumps you can see, and routes round them all that are pretty obvious.
Except one gap jump over a burn about half way along the top half of the traverse. The smoother line had seen me move over to the left hand side of the trail and I cautiously crested the short slope ahead of me only to find a sudden gap jump over a burn in front of me.
Eject!! The second running off of the day; fortunately across the slope with a shorter run back for the bike this time, check for following riders, and jump back on again.
The bend of the zig-zag was the muddiest bit, but was dry enough to stay off the front brake and ride the ruts smoothly down to the return half, and this was just fun. Banked berms, rocky traverses and the big bottom gap jump taped off meant that having survived this far I could let go a little more down to the final jumps and berms and into the finishing arch to dib myself in. I was knackered. This was the longest run I've done for ages in the UK, and the roughest I've done since the Fort William World Cup course (which I rode on a proper Downhill bike - those extra inches of travel make a real difference!), and of course, twice as far as I was expecting when I went through the start gates.
Elated with great stage times, knackered, or just happy to be alive - the finish line is where it ended
At the end of stage 1 in the arena, I discovered how civilised the event was, as I was informed that I now had over an hour until the lifts started to stage 2. A feed, stretch, drink and sit down were in order before it was back on again.
This time, the stage start was on snow so there was no avoiding it, and the whole stage was set out below us traversing the plateau ski area, and descending the main track at speed. This time we were presuming it then headed back down the red route again.
No avoiding the snow on this leg, time to get a grip on the snow skills..
Watching a couple of riders ahead attempt and mostly fail to ride the traversing start, by the time came for me to start the established method of beginning seemed to be on foot, so I launched myself off until I could ride the grass on the other side, grass, bogs and rocks to the turn, and then spot the starting point on the snow (not the massive muddy rut) and go for it off the brakes.
Just when I thought I had it taped, the front wheel went out from under me and I ended up in the snow, and was forced to run again until I could get back on to complete the traverse across the bogs. Mud and snow in a narrowing taped corridor spat us all out down gravel onto the main track in the ski area and time to razz as fast as possible on the approach to the downhill course again. Approaching knowing what was coming I realised that I was now really in tune with the terrain at last and really started to flow on the trail.
Right up to the point (just past the gap jump) where I got my double puncture. This very effectively saw the end of any kind of competitive effort but I still went at it at full pace to get myself back on the trail - after all you never know what's really happening around you, and I'd overtaken and been overtaken on multiple occasions. Notably a number of my fellow competitors checked I was ok as they went past.
Back on the bike again I was able to enjoy the second half of the Red descent knowing what was ahead of me, and it does really flow well.
Another 40 minute rest at the car then saw us back on the way up to gather together before the mass start on the upper slopes of the ski area.
Waiting for the climb to the mass start of stage 3
Together we all made the brutal climb up to the staging area for the mass start. Here, all the competitors amassed on a huge snow patch in good humour waiting for the off. The first 4 rows were seeded according to their times on stages 1 & 2, and the rest of us gathered behind.
Gathering, ready for carnage
And then we were off!
We knew there were two dog-legs on the initial section, and so we all rode (better riders) and ran (the rest of us) down the slopes in a mass of bikes and bodies, on, off, slide, and finally properly on the bike on the snow embracing the slide, and properly off. The snow slopes and gullies eventually led us back to the saddle area of stage 1 and we were back on familiar territory.
Sprinting up the hill I may have left a lung behind just keeping my place amongst fellow competitors, and soon I was again on familiar terrain, riding as fast as possible. All knowledge of the lack of need for competitiveness lost in the red mist of the race.
Back on the downhill course I used what knowledge I'd gleaned on the first two legs - concerned about flats I pushed hard but with more care, and soon enough the turn came into new territory. A wide open gully of bogs heading down to the lower track, this must have been the "ditch of doom" that three of us were battling down. Swapping sides, hitting new and uncut lines while we tried to pass each other and avoid the deepest bogs, we were spat out on the return leg of the downhill course for the race to the finishing line.
Back on the last section of the downhill course I held my own with fellow riders as we raced for the final line together.
Sun, snow, superb riding
Congratulations to the winners, especially to the youth winners riding amazingly well on a tough and demanding course on a stunning and beautiful day. Cheesy it may be, but it is nevertheless true that with the organisation, routes, location and weather that on this day we were all winners. Thanks very much to the headline sponsors Bluegrass, and to Met Helmets, and of course to Fraser, Fiona and spook and the No-Fuss team of organisers and Marshalls who made this special day possible - a day that was so good that 3 offs and 3 flats didn't spoil the fun. See you next year! (running bigger triple ply tyres and tubeless).