9 Dec 2013

Inter-Services Downhill Champs 2013

This year the Inter-Services Downhill Mountain Bike Championships were held over the 22nd - 23rd October at Revolution Bikepark in Wales, and the event saw higher levels of attendance by service personnel than ever before. Organised this year by the Army, this standalone event in which 60 competitors took part is a clear sign that Downhill Mountain Bike racing is going from strength to strength, and this was echoed in the skill levels of the riders, all pushing it to the limit to make it from the top of the course to the finish line in the fastest possible time.

(Report by Si Ward)

This season the RAF dominated the Combined Services Racing Series; the top 3 competitors all riding for the RAF Cycling Association. This success was something the team were keen to continue, with riders putting in the hours on the bike and in the gym to make sure they were in the best possible form coming into the event.


(Pops Larkin styles it up in Vets)
RAF Riders from all over the UK descended on Capel Curig AT Centre the day before the event; this was to be our base for the next few days. The anticipation was obvious as riders prepped their bikes for the coming race. All talk was of tyre choice, the weather, and the track – a real test of skill, fitness and courage; it had high speed jumps, and a good mix of technical, steep, and rooty sections, along with the occasional flat sprint in case your legs weren’t already exhausted! 

 (Close inspection of the track from all angles is essential)

Practise day came, and having rained all night, the track was lethal. Riding quite fast at first, as more and more riders came down, the ruts began to form and the mud began to get deeper; and eventually riders were being chucked off the bike by the sheer amount of mud clogging their wheels in “that middle section”. The uplift on the other hand was incredible, one of the quickest in the UK without doubt, riders could go from the bottom to the top in no more than 15 minutes, all without a scratch on their precious bikes! Andy MacMillan managed the most runs of all during practise, notching an impressive 14 runs, and due to the failure of his goggles, doing some substantial damage to his eyes in the process. All in all, Tuesday was a fantastic day’s practise with some witty inter-service banter (or not in the Army’s case), unfortunately Matt Cook had a nasty off and seriously hurt his ankle, ruling him out for racing the following day.
(Slip sliding away)
The following day was race day, and despite patchy rain throughout the day, the sun was drying out and changing the track, making the mud thicker and the track more difficult to ride, and maintaining good momentum through the dreaded tight, steep, and gloopy section to keep the tyres clear was paramount to ensuring grip.

First race runs came around and the RAF senior category (aged 19-29) were the first to go down, laying down some quick times. Andy Lochhead was sitting in first place for some time after his first run with a time of 3:36. This time was eventually beaten by Army riders Brian Anderson (3:19) and Matt Forster (3:30), but with second runs still to come and the track drying out by the minute, it was all to play for. Lewis Wighton put in a great run with a 4.05, showing his dirt jumping influences with some serious style over the fast flowing finishing section of the track.

(Si Ward on course to 3rd overall)
The masters category (aged 30-39), turned out to be a much smaller group than anticipated; the benefit being that they all managed to squeeze into the Defender uplift together! With experienced riders such as Gaz Lake and Ste “Tinks” Taylor representing the Army, and an unknown Navy rider, only Chris Penneck and Kris Benson were out to fly the flag for the RAF. The track had certainly seen far too many wheels from the senior category, and the gloop from the 1st runs dragged almost all of the masters into the muddy abyss. It was hard not to chuckle at the start line while witnessing Gaz jump onto Brian Anderson’s turbo trainer and bust out some leg circles – the last laugh of course was not shared by Kris, as a mistake in line choice led to a standstill on a very unwelcomed sharp rise in the track, followed by the remainder of the race run being breathed through ones rear hind!
Times were looking average from the masters, with Kris Benson sitting in 2nd place, and Chris Penneck posting a 05:24:89, it was Gaz filling the top spot with a time of around 04:05

(Tough race conditions)
Second runs came around and most riders went quicker. Having crashed in his first run, Si Ward came down with a 3:27, enough to put him into second place. Andrew Lochhead’s second run didn’t go to plan and a crash saw him come in with a 3:48. All eyes turned to the Army riders to see what they could do. Brian Anderson went even quicker, laying down a blistering time of 3:09, leaving everyone in no doubt as to who is the fastest rider in the Armed Forces. Matt Forster shaved 6 seconds of his first run, and his 3:24 was enough to take 2nd place and bump Si Ward down into 3rd.

The race was on, and everyone in Masters was keen to get on it. There was talk of a few folk missing their second run, but with a full wagon like before, not just riders and bikes but mud too, we were off to the top like a rocket.

Once again Chris Penneck was the first to head off down the track, previously finding his chain incorrectly routed through his rear derailleur, this time round all was in order and off he went at race pace. Then it was Kris’s turn, and being the remaining RAF racer left at the top, there was only a few seconds for reflection before the stopwatch ticked down and he was getting hot on the gas for the first few tabletops of the course. The pace was rapid (for a master with a bag of excuses that contains minimal race experience, skill, fitness and the list continues), but an unfortunate off still left Kris well and truly wrapped up in race tape and trees to end any chance of beating his initial time. Yet again the RAF were bumped down into 3rd place, with Gaz Lake taking second place with 03:51:71 and our unknown quantity in the Navy, John Bennett taking the top spot with a cheeky 03:51:68.  Chris unfortunately didn’t manage to beat his first run with a second run time of 05:27:14 but still beating two of our Army competitors all the same!

Usually the veterans (aged 40-49) are one of the first categories to race, but here they were the last and after grumblings of cold old bones, runs started to take place. Perhaps prior knowledge from a coaching event at this very location earlier in the year led to the Army guys all putting in good runs and taking the top two spots: Justin Revell first with a 4.01:21 and Zak Needham second with a 4.05:45. Andy MacMillian capitalised fully from his exhaustive practice day by putting in 2 nice runs and finishing third vet and fastest RAF Vet with a time of 4.06:14. After having to stop and unblock mud and slate choked wheels, with time bleeding away on the first run, Pops Larkin managed to improve slightly and get down the course in 5.14:54 on the second run, which included a couple of crashes in ‘that middle section’, finishing sixth vet and second RAF vet. Martin Parsons also fell victim to the middle section on both of his runs, with a couple of frustrating spills, finishing seventh vet and third RAF vet with a time of 5.43:45.

("Did anyone else notice mud on the track?")
Unfortunately, some team riders were injured in the run up to the event, but they still came along to support; Phil Ashcroft and Paul Rogers were instrumental in the timing on race day, which ran smoother than it does at most national races, thanks very much guys!

The RAF Downhill team has had an incredible year, and this is due in no small part to the support we have received from our sponsors, so a huge shout out to Decade-Europe, J-Tech Suspension, Burgtec and Haven Distribution.

The team is now heading into winter training time full of motivation and looking forward to competing at races throughout the UK in 2014, and a training trip to Malaga as well! Here’s to another great year!