It’s testament to the enduring popularity of Saab Salomon Mountain Mayhem that the 2005 event was still hugely oversubscribed, even after the mudbath of 2004. A total of 1,894 riders (419 teams and 101 soloists) showed up at Eastnor Deer Park on the Malvern Hills to test their powers of endurance on the 10.5mile (16.8km) lap. And any of them that arrived on Friday morning could have been forgiven for turning around and heading straight home again – storms sweeping up from the south-west dumped a huge amount of rain over the whole area, and it kept raining on and off for much of the day. We were reassured by two things – the weather forecast, which claimed the weather would improve over the weekend, and our conviction that it couldn’t possibly be as muddy as last year…
Riders coming in from practice laps or circuits of the Dirt Demo loop on test bikes were looking pretty filthy, though. Team BM took an executive decision not to pre-ride the course and to mooch around the arena instead. And very worthwhile it was too – SSMM has the biggest, slickest setup of any UK event bar the travelling World Cup circuit, and the arena’s like a mini bike show. Plenty of stuff to see and, if you didn’t mind the wet, plenty of bikes to ride. Handily, SRAM was giving away beer and pasta, so that was dinner sorted before retiring to the campsite for more essential pre-race refreshment.
Saturday dawned grey and a little damp, but it brightened up during the morning. It’s odd arriving the day before the start, you seem to have endless time to faff about, ponder the suitability of your tyres and generally fritter the morning away until all of a sudden you’ve only got ten minutes to the start and you’re in a real hurry. It’s all in the preparation.
Team riders Dave and Matt had been out for a recce and come back covered in felge, resulting in me forgoing my traditional “run what you brung” tyre strategy in favour of a pair of old IRC MudMads that were kicking around the workshop. They turned out to be a splendid choice, but we’re not going to witter on about tyres, that’d be dull.
The 10.5mile course had been tweaked slightly from 2004, with a new start loop, a new climb up from the other side of the hill, some extra singletrack and last year’s Powerbar Climb was split into two Kenda Climbs – the top half first and then the bottom half as a sting in the tail right at the end of the lap. All the climbs added up to a substantial 500m (meaning that solo winner Tinker Juarez climbed 8,500m, or not far shy of the height of Everest). The cornfield descent had gone, but the legendary Land Rover track climb was still there, as was the bombhole. It was pretty good, ridable even in the wet (although you needed a clear run and a healthy dose of skill or luck to make the Land Rover climb) and generally well-received. An Eastnor course is never going to be a monster tech-fest, but it was interesting enough without being actually hazardous in the dark. As a 24 hour race course, we liked it.
Even better, it didn’t rain from Friday night onwards, so the track was drying out all the time. Not that that necessarily made it any faster – some bits went from sloppy to sticky and got harder. But by Sunday most of the course was running fast. Obviously by that point a lot of the riders were flagging a bit, but you were definitely getting the most out of whatever energy you could put in.
One of the attractions of Mountain Mayhem is that you’re racing on the same course as the professionals at the same time, which isn’t something that happens very often. No matter how fast you think you are, at some point Barrie Clarke or Oli Beckingsale or someone’ll come past you like you’re standing still. Even more scary, most riders will have found themselves outpaced by the leading soloists – Tinker Juarez did as many laps as Team Bikemagic, and Jenn O’Connor only did one less.
As ever, it’s the night laps that are the tough part, even if you’re in a team. As darkness fell, the ever-so-slightly surreal spectacle of a subset of the London Philharmonic Orchestra playing a selection of pop hits from the 60s to the 90s kept the arena entertained, and just as it got properly dark a fireworks display kicked off from the hillside opposite. You don’t get that at most bike races…
The dawn lap is a perennial favourite – riding through the woods to the accompaniment of birdsong, before emerging from the trees into beautiful orangey sunlight. It can’t be beaten. Warm, sunny weather on Sunday meant that the course started to dry out in earnest – even the Land Rover climb was firming up by the end, and all the stuff out in the open was proper hardpack by the time the finish drew close. Cue the traditional split in the field between those lurking to avoid doing another lap and those hammering it round to get back in time to do another lap, and then it’s all over. Organiser Pat Adams did his usual handshake with everyone crossing the line as they streamed across. Some people won overall, some won their own little battles but everyone achieved something.
We don’t know what it was, but somehow Mountain Mayhem seemed to move up a gear this year. Maybe it was the all-weekend Dirt Demo attracting more of the industry, maybe it was the better weather, but everything just hung together – it was competitive without being over-serious, there was some great camaraderie out on the course and pretty much everyone was having fun. Bring on 2006…
“Do you know this is a bicycle race?” “No, but you hum it and we’ll play along”
Something a little out of the Ordinary
Riders in the night
We had a photographer out on the course taking pictures of as many riders as possible – see if you can find yourself in the SSMM gallery.
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