Words: Paul Trimble
To quote John “Hannibal” Smith, ‘I love it when a plan comes together’. And it’s so true. Some things in the plan we can influence, others are in the lap of the gods, but when all the parts align you can have an excellent time. And for the 400 or so lucky people who signed up in the middle of a wet, dank and generally crappy winter to put their luck in the unpredictable early spring weather of South Wales, it really was a bit of a gamble.
So winter 2014, bit damp wasn’t it? I had been one of the ones to sign up to the Goshawk Challenge in late December, and it had given me a bit of motivation to try and get in some sort of shape for what is an event very early in the year and one that the organisers claim to be a “tough event”. So basically I did not want to die on my arse on the first climb, and spend the event wondering why I appeared to have the lung capacity of an asthmatic gerbil. My winter training plan started, and to increase my motivation I even told the Bike Magic Editor about it, who published my good intentions for all to see. Immediately I hit problems. The whole aim of my training was to try and use up all my dead time; it was not to in any way intrude on my busy family life. The wife is understandably not too keen on being left with a 3 year old and 6 year old, as ‘Daddy’ spends a Saturday or Sunday creating a small mountain of dirty laundry. For that reason, my main plan was to use my shift days, where I do not have to get to work until 2p.m. and therefore have a whole morning free to ride. I had plans of doing 5 – 6 hours in the Chilterns, Cotswolds and the Ridgeway, doing big hill climbs etc. Plans which were brought to an abrupt halt as the day after I told James of Bike Magic my plans (roughly the 6th of January) my shift work was cancelled for the next 5 months. With this option gone it was back to the night riding. I managed twice a week for a few hours, pretty much averaging 60kms a week on my own, but oh it was wet! Going off-road was pointless. My local woods resembled a mangrove swamp, so I was stuck with small country lanes and the hills provided by the West Cotswolds. My ideals of commuting to work were drowned at birth through the almost constant rain, and my fantasy of taking the bike to work and riding in my lunch hour was quenched by the fact almost every circular route involves crossing Old Man Thames (which had failed completely to stay within its banks and that made all the crossings impossible). Luckily my other option, an “indoor group” cycling class (or ‘Spinning’) meant that I could make the time (Wednesday evening for one hour after the kids were in bed) and manage to stay dry. So from January to March that was my cycling: outside in the dark and the wet, and indoors with disco lights, loud music, and extremely sweaty bodies! I even threw in some lunchtime yoga sessions at work once a week (and some of those poses really stretch you – although it seems I am more flexible then I thought!) I think the last time I did a shoulder stand I may have been eight.
So having at least managed to ride my bike before the event, although no more than a couple of hours at a time, the first week of March came, and it stopped raining! My mate Dan and I spotted photos posted of Wentwood, and I know it’s the centenary of WW1, but I was less than keen to ride my bike through a replica of the tracks and trails of war-torn France. But then amazingly it all started to dry out, and since Wales is so good at being wet, it stands to reason it must also be good at drying.
Onto the 9th of March, and all the plans, whims of the gods and just a bit of luck started to align, and we were met with the warmest day of the year so far. 16 degrees, and not a cloud in the sky. A dry week before, and the little dials showing the ground conditions on the Goshawk challenge slowly moved from red, into the yellow, and I can cope with that.
Wentwood is situated just off the A48, about 15 minutes from Chepstow, just over the old Severn Bridge and the M48. It is amazingly easy and quick to get to, taking me and Dan well under 2 hours from west Oxfordshire. Its location makes this a very accessible ride for anyone along the M4 or M5 motorways, demonstrated by the strong showing from Swindon MTB club.
Once you arrive at the start point it was all wonderfully organised. Admittedly the car park was a farmer’s field, but its right next to the A48, the signing in was done slickly and you were presented with a bag, labelled with your number and containing your event class, zip ties and T-shirt (if you ordered one) plus the PayPal receipt from your order. A couple of food stalls and a bike maintenance area completed the group of tents and trailers. With a start time of 10.30am me and Dan faffed with bikes, packed and then repacked bags, met up with a couple of friends then headed off to the start line which was a country lane that had been closed for the event. Then after the kind of safety brief all events should have, i.e. a brief one telling you basically not to be a prat and take care, we were off.
All good rides need a way of spreading out the field, and the Goshawk challenge uses a very simple one: the first 3kms are uphill small lane climbing, and then you hit the woods. Entering on small stoned tracks, the first area of woodland really showed evidence of the tree felling that had been moving through the woods all winter, but surprisingly the tracks were rideable, muddy but rideable, and the route soon took us off the larger tracks and onto the small ones. For the first 7 or 8kms of the ride we felt like we were exploring the woods, and it seemed we were in a less used section of the forest. The trails were narrow and didn’t show much sign of regular use, with a few sections looking like they had only recently been cut through the woods. Sometimes it seemed that the signs had just been put in and we were just expected to find our own way though. One particularly amusing downhill section of the trail had people with their legs outstretched doing their best junior kick start slides down the hill; attempting to miss the stumps, roots, logs, branches and holes that littered the ground, with brakes squealing like vuvuzela’s, but again it was doable.
One particularly amusing downhill section of the trail had people with their legs outstretched doing their best junior kick start slides down the hill
The route continued like this, up small tracks, down even smaller ones, until we reached the north east corner of the wood where a wonderfully narrow piece of trail took us along the edge of the woodland. There was enough gradient to make carrying speed easy, and the trail was open enough to be able to see what was coming. Unfortunately at this point another rider who must also have been enjoying the trail lost it completely. I rode past as he was being looked after by a small group of riders. Hopefully he wasn’t badly hurt, but was nice to see a medic coming up the track only a minute or so after. With this in my mind the trail exited the woodland to lead onto a small stony track, with much steeper gradient, gully style with rock drops, mud and mulch, and it was great fun to just scrub some of the speed and guide the front wheel with your weight back.
A short road section had us entering the woodland again on a much larger fire road. Here I collected my coloured zip tie at the check point (which is a brilliantly simple way of recording a rider’s distance by the way). Then we were off on an extended fire road climb, here I encountered Strava Signing, letting you know when you were entering and exciting KOM sections, probably giving Racing Snakes a huge boost as they attempted to beat personal bests or maybe hit that KOM slot.
From that point the trails headed more into the centre, and more regularly used section of the forest. Highlights here were a wonderfully eroded track descent, with people slipping and sliding at the edges, but as I took the centre line it allowed me to do my best Danny Hart impression of letting off the brakes and going with the flow. Then after a fire road climb, we were on singletrack running along the edge of a forested section. The trail was narrow, twisting, and again had just enough gradient to start to build speed without it running away from you. This then dived into a section of what appeared to be freshly cut trail, brambles and vegetation cleared a meter either side of a small track that looked like it had only really emerged that day. To me it appeared to follow the line of what was possibly an old DH track, long forgotten but still showing some signs of bank corners (or it may just have been my imagination!). By now we were about 15kms in, and I was feeling good. I was making the climbs and noticed fellow riders who appeared to be struggling more than me. I put my mind to trying to clean every climb I could, and managed one that had all around me walking up (well almost) until I was taken off by a piece of errant bracken, but I restarted and made it to the top. Now I am not saying these were the most technical or steepest climbs, they were not. I kept waiting for the trail to suddenly point up at some impossible angle and keep going for miles and miles, the kind of thing you find in Wales, but it never happened. To me all the climbs were doable. I think I may just have been benefiting from all that early season training.
Then I came to the food stop, and at 20kms I was feeling OK. I had eaten most of the food in my bag and had planned on filling up at the feed stop, but seeing my mate Dan who had arrived ahead of me I wolfed down some lemon cake, grabbed some cookies and a glass of isotonic drink and we set off on the 35km route thinking we would be back to the feed stop before the 45km split.
The 35km route immediately entered another twisting single track descent. This was where the photographers seemed to have gathered. It had enough gradient to really get you going without worrying about the bike getting too carried away, but it was one that could still easily grab a wheel and have you off. I was really starting to enjoy this type of trail. This took us to what looked like an older section of woodland, with larger trees and a forest floor carpeted in what will be a riot of bluebells in a few weeks. Certainly some sections of the trails had mud I think you may have been able to drown in if you fell off, but generally a drier line was developing at the edges. And as long as you kept going you could kind of paddle through ok. Unfortunately by now I was starting to become aware that something was not right and, watching riders stop on the climbs with cramps, I could feel my left knee feeling tighter than it should. The long gradual fire road climbs became granny gear spins, and photo stops confirmed my knee was hurting, probably as a result of a comedy SPD moment that saw me attempting to twist both feet off the pedals to stop a fall, but with the left refusing to release.
I could feel my left knee feeling tighter than it should
After regaining all the height we had lost, and passing through a section of forest that must have borne the full brunt of the winter storms with hundreds of trees down (someone had been very busy with a chainsaw to reopen the trail), we reached the 45km split. We were not by the food stop as I was expecting, so I had a choice: 7kms back to the finish, with the food stop 2kms away, or 17kms and another 12 to any food. Dan was no help at all, letting me make the choice, and my flagging energy levels, aching knee and lack of food, had me choosing discretion over valour. We plummeted down a short trail section onto a tarmac road, with a steady climb and then a final off road track climb back to the food stop. Here I was delighted to find a single piece of lemon cake left, so I grabbed some water, and the cake, and not wanting my knee to seize up completely me and Dan headed down out of the woods. This was again on one of those thin singletrack trails that had really made this ride, and we sped down the trail with the words of the food stop helpers in our ears, “it’s all downhill, you do not even need to pedal”! And it almost was. On exciting the wood, via our lovely singletrack, we were next to a road but some caring locals had created another section of trail just behind the verge. After a series of twists and turns, small drops, and with gradient on our side we were spat out onto the country lanes that would take us past the small reservoir and onto the finish with only a few small road climbs in the way (when someone tells you it’s all downhill, it’s always a lie).
Here I was delighted to find a single piece of lemon cake left
The finish area was scattered with riders, all with smiles on their faces, enjoying the sun and the great food available from the on-site caterers. Our arrival was greeted with cheers and claps and the whole place reflected the mood of riders who have just enjoyed a cracking event and a fun day’s riding.
Thanks to Huw Fairclough for some cracking photos,
And Robert Storey from the Wentwood 50 group for route map and for helping to do such a good event!