Last weekend saw the ever popular, unique and not to be under estimated MaXx Exposure night enduro take place along the South Downs Way. Rob Dean was there, and here’s how his evening went.
The 80 miles of the MaXx Exposure have always been a highlight in my race calendar, it takes in a healthy chunk of my local SDW and even about five miles of my early morning daily commute! It comes late in the season and the rare opportunity of a long solo night time ride is as much a test of how well I have looked after myself through the summer as much as any form in my legs. I also have a particular soft spot for the race as it was my first top three finish in a solo event and the moment I really started to believe I could compete at the front.
I always begin to look forward to the race weeks in advance, particularly the first hour-and-a-half. Starting from the windswept cliffs of Beachy Head makes the race feel like an adventure before it’s even started and the three hours it takes the coach to get from finish to start before the off only reinforces in one’s mind just how far this event stretches. A particular highlight for me is the ride along Firle ridge, at just over an hour in; riding along the ridge into sunset, with the Downs ridge visible and curving in front of the riders is a spectacular sight and one everyone should experience at least once. Me, I’m hooked and it’s one I’ll be doing for many years to come.
I was particularly looking forward to the ride this year. I have been lucky enough that I have been supported by Santacruz, and riding the new Tallboy with its combination of VPP and 29er wheels has really helped keep my fresh through the year and I was looking forward to unleashing my bike, nicknamed the “General Lee” by my friends onto the trail. It’d been a busy time with work so, to make sure I was as well prepared as I could do I put a little more thought than normal into my eating for the ride. SIS have been supporting me through the year and I supplemented my normal routine with a couple of their new burner gels. I was ready to go!
Standing on the start line the General Lee was getting its normal unfair share of the attention when, as with all best laid plans…. Ian Leitch, my friend and Indy Fab rider (and the only man to ride the SDD faster than me) turned up, a last minute change of plan he explained. Damn, suddenly I had a real race on my hands, a ride into sunset was going to get double tough. What was worse was my secret weapon, the new Exposure 6-Pack that I had been given the day before, straight off the production line and something I had hoped would give me an advantage over the field suddenly had an equal. Ian, never one to miss an opportunity to make his bike go faster, and someone who has, like me been an adopter of the extra speed of 29ers (my other advantage nullified), had one fastened to his bars too. Drat.
As soon as we were set off the tone of the race was set, 10 seconds in and Ian and I had a gap, and it was widening fast, worrying about an early attack from Ian, I pushed on and before long, alarmingly soon in fact, we had lost sight of the rest of the field. This was going to be a long night in the office!
We chatted, casually, each one looking to see how hard the other was working, sussing out each others form, facades relaxed, but each pedal stroke was made with a definite determination to push on. And then, on the steep climb out of Alfriston Ian launched what proved to be the decisive move and opened a gap. I kept my effort under control – my hard night just got harder – and once I got to the top of the ridge I pushed on, to try and close the gap, stealing moments to peer at the sunset and admire the Downs stretching out in front of me.
And then, disaster. I had descended to Southease, Ian’s light were back in sight, I got to the level crossing…. and a train came! I must have ridden this piece if trail over a hundred times and never have I met a train at the halt at Southease. Still, I kept reminding myself, this is never an event where a minute or two makes the difference between the first few finishers and I had all night ahead of me. I ate, I breathed deeply and once I could cross I used my fresh fuelled legs to ride harder before the gap got too large to bridge. I knew at the same time Ian would be pushing, trying to make his break decisive.
I got to the first checkpoint, legs feeling good, but I was over thinking, I rushed, I wasted time and cursed as I rode away, took a deep breath, calmed down and remembered that, above all, I was going to enjoy the ride. I relaxed and settled into my rhythm finally. Looking back I could see a large stretch of the Downs behind me as I climbed above Lewes; no lights, this was going to be a lonely (but peaceful) ride. As I relaxed I began to enjoy the night, a badger crossed my path and I slowed and watched it scurry to the edge of the 6-Pack’s (prodigious) flood of light before disappearing into the undergrowth and I remembered why I had entered the event, it certainly wasn’t with “racing” in the purest sense of the word as the only thing on the agenda.
As I rode over Brighton I met a few riders out, also enjoying the (almost) full moon and clear-ish sky and, after they’d complained about how bright my lights were (even in the 10hr setting!) we exchanged greetings and disappeared silently into the night.
Pfut, pfut, pfut, pfut… that could only mean one thing; puncture! I rode for a while, gently until the tyre became soft, popped some air in my front tyre and crossed my fingers. After a few minutes I was happy it had held – maybe it would be my night after all. Pfut, pfut, pfut, pfut… maybe not. More air, rear tyre this time. Not so lucky second time, you’ve got to love that flint and how ruthlessly effective it is at slashing tyres. My bike was popped upside down and I threw in a tube hoping I’d be strapping my pump back to the frame for the final time.
I reached the second feed station and after an enthusiastic greeting I was in and out in a jiffy thanks to some great work by what seemed like everyone there and I was set off with an enthusiastic wave off from the super cheery and enthusiastic guys egging me on to chase Ian down.
I struggled to keep a rhythm going into the headwind, which I tried not to get on top of my head. A run in with an Owl and then a stag – which I had a stare-out with when he jumped over a fence in front of me and who reminded me just how great night riding is. Although it’s not clear whether the stag or I was the most startled thing out on the trail! The most enthusiastic feed station of the night came just before Alfriston from the guys at Quest Adventure.
When I reached the final feed station at Cocking I was relieved to see my friends from Exposure, they packed me on my way, shouting me up one of my final climbs of the night – I never fail to be surprised just how much climbing the South Downs Way hides away!
And then the final stretch: I left what remained in my legs on the trail and pushed on. I rolled down to the finish line with a huge, satisfied smile on my face. Ian and the guys from Trailbreak were there to greet me with a cup of tea and a burger that never tasted so good.
We chatted to the guys from the MaXx loop, swapping stories, tales of near misses, punctures, wildlife, feed station conversations, tumbles and heart in the mouth moments. We even explored our inner bike geeks 29ers vs. 26” and the tyres of the Tallboy were thoroughly kicked.
What seemed like five minutes, but what turned out to be three hours later, we’d dissected every aspect of the ride and our bikes. I’d come second, losing too much time to Ian with my mechanical and level crossing issues, but to be honest with myself he’d taken a few minutes out of me at each leg, but I had a “healthy” one hour and seven minutes on third place and it turns out Ian set a new course record to beat me. I guess it was always going to take a big ride to beat the Tallboy armed with a 6-Pack! All in all a good night’s work and a great night out on the Downs. I’ve already got it in the race calendar for next year – the General Lee and I are looking forward to seeing you there!