The historic Cheddar Challenge used to be the unofficial end of the UK mountain bike season. Sadly it ceased to be a few years ago, despite the organisers of the popular and successful Bristol Bikefest taking over the organisational reins for the last couple of years of its existence. They decided what was needed was to shift the event back to their home turf and the event has been run in the grounds of Ashton Court for a while now.
I had been looking for an event that would nicely bring some closure to the mountain bike season. You could argue that increasingly the start and finish of the ‘season’ is getting more blurred, but still traditional dictates that it’s good to have a final blow-out before settling into the winter grind.
After riding the Stan’s NoTubes Oktoberfest powered by Mercedes-Benz Vito Sport event, I’ve found an event that can proudly claim the unofficial job of bringing the curtain down on the mountain bike season. It’s got everything such an event needs: a chilled atmosphere, fantastic course, smooth organisation, and thankfully good weather.
The Oktoberfest really follows the same format as the Bristol Bikefest but with shorter eight and four hour rides to choose from. But why is it called Oktoberfest? That’s a question we put to organiser Mike Wilkens.
“Our first thought was to call it Midfest but then we thought that might send the wrong message. We wanted to stick to the ‘Fest’ theme and by running the event in October and the Oktoberfest being a well recognised name we thought that it would do the trick. The fact that I am German and we have lots of King Ludwig flags out is kind of secondary. It shows however the more relaxed atmosphere of the event.”
And that relaxed atmosphere shows. I got there early Saturday morning and already the event arena was buzzing with activity and excitement. With fewer highly-strung Lycra-clad whippets and definitely more baggy shorts and hydration packs on show, it was drawing in the more casual trail riders looking to challenge themselves, rather than race for the top spots.
The format is pretty simple. You choose from the eight or four hour category, and decide if you’re going to ride solo, pairs with a friend/partner or in a team of four. There seemed to be a good mix of solo riders and teams, judging from the different pace of people on the course.
As for the course, well that’s classic Bikefest fare. Using the Ashton Court circuit, now a fully way-marked and surfaced trail, meant that despite the conditions the course was riding well. Just a few squidgy bits through the camp site challenged the grip of your tyres, but mostly it was all fast running and plentiful traction.
The days leading up to the event had been a mixed old bag with bouts of torrential rain and bursts of sunshine. Still that didn’t deter some 1,200 riders from turning up, though you would never have known that from riding the course.
Sure the start was a chaotic mess with bikes and bodies everywhere in the ridiculous Le Mans start. It got busy out on the course at times, with some sections of trail causing bottlenecks. But mostly the speeds were more or less similar enough to not cause too much of a problem.
In a funny old season, I somehow haven’t done a lot of racing since my fifth place in the Bristol Bikefest back in May. Having always enjoyed the course and the slick organisation, I got my entry in and lined up for the four-hour solo race.
I opted for the earlier start figuring the course might be in better condition for the first four hours compared to the second four-hour stint. I was right, the course was very slippery for the first couple of laps, with the surface wet and the rocks slick. After a while it got grippier as a racing line developed, but traction noticeably deteriorated towards the end of the race, with mud from the camp site section being dragged onto the surfaced course.
Overtaking here is always tricky and while some struggle to hide their frustration, most people are well-mannered enough and just relax and take their time. The key is, if you’re trying to race fast, is to blast up the three hills on the course and make sure to get ahead of any riders ahead before entering the next section of singletrack.
Opting for a casual ride rather than an out-and-out race effort I walked, rather than ran, the Le Mans-style start. The first lap was chaotic with riders jostling for position and slow starting speed whippets trying to carve through the melee. After a couple of laps the pace settles down nicely and what follows is several enjoyable hours of mountain biking.
All in it’s a great fun day out with a cracking good course, super chilled atmosphere, loads of supportive marshals and spectators and the riders clearly enjoying themselves. It’s a vibrant event and I’ll be back next year. I suggest you do too.
And just like at a beer festival from which the event takes its name, every entrant received a nice memorabilia pint glass. Nice.