Salisbury Plain Challenge 2003 - Bike Magic

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Salisbury Plain Challenge 2003

Catering with comedy

What with all the enduro action around the UK at the moment you’d be forgiven for thinking that big long MTB events were a new thing. Think again, for the Salisbury Plain Challenge has been going for 11 years, on and off. On and off because on the odd occasion it’s had to be cancelled, for instance when thick ice on all the tracks stopped emergency vehicles getting on to the Plain. Ice? Oh yes, for uniquely among enduros the Challenge takes place in winter, generally on one of the first weekends after Christmas. And with Salisbury Plain being a legendarily exposed bit of the country that makes the Challenge as much about battling the elements as other riders.

There’s a choice of three distances – 25, 38 or 50km. Technically the 50km event’s a race, but apart from a few keen types at the front, no-one really treats it as such. Just getting around is enough for most people… And in 2003 there was no shortage of entries, with a grand total of 1,325 people gathering on the frosty morning of January 5. At least half of whom hadn’t pre-entered, leading to big queues at the signing-on tent.

Clear, cold and crisp

It was certainly cold – it had taken us fifteen minutes to get the car doors open before setting off from home – but in the weird and wonderful world of the Challenge, Cold Is Good. Cold means frozen ground, and frozen ground means easier going. For large parts of the course are on tank tracks or grassy stretches that have in the past been sticky to the point of immobility. Chuck in the notorious Salisbury Plain headwinds (and they’re always headwinds regardless of which way you’re pointing) and the Challenge isn’t to be taken lightly.

But of course cold also means clear which means dry and still, and so it proved to be. Once we’d actually started moving, which thanks to the size of the field didn’t happen until several minutes after the appointed hour, it was clear that conditions were pretty much as good as they get. Once we’d actually got on to the Plain, that is – there’s a mile-long Tarmac climb to winch up first, complete with lots and lots of people on it. If you find yourself going faster than the people around you it’s a question of remaining vigilant, finding space and going for it. Or just ride slower.

Once out on the Plain things open out a bit. The course is pretty unique. Most of it you can’t ride at any other time, being as it is a big loop around the Army’s training ground and firing ranges. There are dire warnings about venturing off the trail, what with all the unexploded ordnance around the place. And there aren’t many races that take you past recently-built but deserted villages comprising houses with no windows. Or tanks, come to that.

Danger UXB

One thing the Challenge isn’t is technical. Not in the twisty, turny, rocky, rooty sense, anyway. That’s not to say that no skill is required – you need to be pretty deft to negotiate off-camber frozen jeep ruts – but most of the challenge to the Challenge is keeping going. There’s no shortage of flat bits in the course but the descents and climbs are fairly substantial.

At the top of the second main climb, a tussocky grassy number, there was a healthy number of riders rapidly removing excess hats, gloves and Buffs. The sun was out and the effort being expended meant that suddenly it wasn’t quite as cold. Still cold enough to keep things rolling nicely, although as the day wore on the ground in the sun gradually began to thaw leading to entertaining splattiness on some stretches. It never got swampy, though, which is nice.

Freezing conditions do, of course, bring their own hazards. BMer Mike Lawrence was one of several to come a cropper on a frozen puddle by a road crossing, cunningly placed at the bottom of a fast downhill.

“It just went quiet, for maybe a second, then BANG! The awful sound of sliding nylon and that low roar of your crash helmet grinding along Tarmac. Then THUD into one of the big yellow tank bollards,” says Mike. Fortunately he wasn’t hurt and continued to finish, despite chucking his guts up in the later stages…

Other BM members suffered performance-unenhancing mishaps. Richard Ford lost the bite valve off his Camelbak 15 miles in but managed to finish despite no small measure of dehydration. Dave Arthur didn’t have any problems except frozen feet, a fairly common difficulty. More dramatically, Phil Baker managed to snap the top of his steerer tube (the bit that the stem goes on) off with the inevitable loss of control. He was lucky not to sustain a nasty injury there.

The descent before the half-way refreshment stop (hot soup, just the job) was fairly incident-packed too. It was a fall-line drop down your chosen frozen, chalky rut with loose bits in the bottom. Keep it straight and let it roll – any attempt to brake hard or change direction was likely to end in disaster…

Wide open spaces

Plenty of other people found the going tough. And the climb that we passed Phil on was where lots of them noticed how tough they were finding it. It was the last big climb of the route up through a valley onto the ridge overlooking the finish. Not all that steep, fairly smooth and plenty of grip but long and relentless and following a series of gentle curves that always had a bit more climb around them that gradually revealed itself to you. If you were flagging a bit by this point then this was the killer. Lots of people were struggling, but it was worth sticking it out.

Once up on the ridge there was a lovely flat bit to recover on before a couple of short climbs to the final drop into the trees. By this time the ground was getting quite soft, and the chalk track was distinctly slimy. But it led into a short but sweet bit of singletrack before the final 3km to the finish and more soup…

We love frosty, winter rides and the Salisbury Plain Challenge had everything that makes them great. With the added bonus of several hundred like-minded souls to share it all with. Great camaraderie, great organisation from Stewart Sidebottom and his team and great support from all the motocross outriders, catering people, marshals, first aiders and everyone else. And of course congratulations to the frighteningly fast Zak Toogood who tore round the 50km course in just 1hr 55min.

Want to know more? There are also reports elsewhere on the web from Dave Arthur and Elite racer Jon Webb. And of course the full results (well, nearly full – they’re inexplicably missing me…) are at See you next year…



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