Back in March, after a particularly fun ride with Mike Fitzgerald (Dad of Scott Fitzgerald, founder of Southern Enduro) and my mate Ben, it was jokingly suggested that I should enter the Southern Enduro series. Denise (Mike’s wife, Scott’s Mum) told me what a brilliant bunch of women had rode in the series and that I’d love it. I smiled and said maybe, all the while thinking, really?! Me?! No, I’m not up to that! However, like the seed of all challenging ideas it bedded in and started to germinate. If Mike, Denise and Ben all thought I could do it, then maybe I could after all? Wasn’t I looking for a challenge this summer? Wouldn’t it give me the impetus to improve my riding and the chance to meet more riders and ride in interesting places? Don’t I pride myself on looking fear in the face and saying, you don’t scare me! So, a few weeks later I emailed Mike and said ‘you’re on! I’m up for the challenge!’. I didn’t look back for a second after that.
Maybe I should tell you a bit about myself. I’m a mum of two from Kent, UK. My kids are 14 and 11. Part of my doubt over whether I could do this probably comes from the fact that for the last 14 years I’ve pretty much just been a Mum-warrior for my kids’ health needs (my eldest had life threatening allergies from birth and my youngest has learning and physical difficulties resulting from a unique genetic mutation). But that’s not the whole story, the reason why my love affair with mountain biking has hit me so hard – it is my escape. When I’m riding I can’t think of anything other than what’s in front of me and how I’m going to get past it, over it, under it (pesky branches) or around it! I am more present in that moment than I ever have been in any other. Clearly though, it hasn’t always been bikes; I grew up dinghy sailing and racing! Like every child, I mucked around on bikes with my brother, building ramps and dragging each other on skateboards etc. They were also my first taste of freedom – biking 5 miles down the dirt track to sail my boat on my own at the age of 12 – but at this stage it wasn’t my passion.
Most people I ride with seem to have grown up mountain biking and it’s given them innate skills and abilities just like I have with sailing. My doubts arose largely from whether, as an adult and a mum, I could overcome these hurdles and ride downhill well enough to join in. Did I leave it too late in life to become any good? As a mother, is my sense of self-preservation going to be too much to overcome? Going uphill is fine – that just requires fitness, and has become something I actually enjoy. Feel the burn, baby! Feel the burn!
Scott put me in touch with Adel Tyson Bloor who rode in my category and we exchanged emails about what I could expect from the racing and what I should do to prepare. Her calm confidence reassured me that it was all rollable and the training I was doing physically would deliver the fitness. However, as I’d only been mountain biking seriously since the previous autumn I realised that I needed to get out there and ride as much as possible. I enlisted my principle biking buddy, Ben, and took every opportunity to ride in different places all the while continuing to train and get as many hours on the bike as I could. I ride with a couple of local groups – Biketart MTB group on alternate Saturdays and Kent Trails on Thursday nights. The Biketart gang helped me with downhills and the Kent Trails guys will forever be known to me as my ‘secret weapons’ for teaching me to weave fast through our tight, twisty trails in Blean Woods. I still wasn’t particularly fast downhill but my confidence was growing and my love of the sport was exploding. I’d found something that made me fit, reminded me who I was, provided a bunch of like-minded friends and made me feel like I was 14 again! What’s not to love?!
In April I joined the Dames coaching day at Redhill Extreme near Forest of Dean. During the session I met Katie who was also riding the Southern Enduro series and lives near Okeford. My abiding memory is her saying ‘it’s bloody steep there!’. Right, OK, steep! Yes, need to address some issues with that then as it’s been one of my mental blocks! After the day’s coaching with Katy Curd and Phil Atwill I realised that regular coaching was going to make a big difference and so I booked a 1:1 session with Katy and convinced my friend, Fergus Walker (Trail Days MTB Coaching) to give me sessions locally in Kent.
In the meantime, it was dawning on me that having not worked for years, whilst my kids were young, I wanted to get back to work and, if possible, work in the bike industry and explore my new-found love of bike mechanics. Whilst sweating away on another friend’s Wattbike a plan was hatched, what if I could combine it all? Training, riding and work?! Having got to know the team at Biketart I approached them with a suggestion that I would tell everyone at Southern Enduro how amazing they are if they would give me some work experience? Biketart is a great part of the Canterbury cycling community and a perfect example of what a local bike shop should be, how hard would it be to shout about them as I always do anyway? I was blown away when they came back to me and said better than that, they’d help me with a new bike AND work experience! My faithful 2014 Boardman Pro Full Suss which I’d bought second hand last year would be retired and replaced with a lovely, new, spangly Juliana Roubion! It felt (and still does) like all my Christmas’ had come at once. While riding with the Biketart crew and chatting about my future in Enduro, they christened me ‘Enduromum’!
Fast forward to June and with Ben roped in to enjoy the fun and provide moral support, we arrived at Okeford Hill Bike Park on a sunny Saturday morning. After driving through Dorset we came to a massive hill. As a coastal Hampshire lass and we don’t do hills, fair to say, Katie’s description was made reality! If the trails were in the woods over there, it was going to be steep. The plan was to ride the trails a few times on Saturday afternoon. Find our feet and then eat the customary post biking burger before getting ready for the big day. As soon as we arrived the Southern Enduro atmosphere enveloped us. Mike and Denise’s friendly welcome relaxed me, followed by a welcome from Scott and a big grin before he carried on organising. My apprehension was fading and I remembered my goal of simply enjoying the experience and doing my best. The Roubion was still cruising the Atlantic so it was just me and the trusty Boardman for this first event. As it turned out, I was quite grateful to be throwing the old faithful down the side of the steepest hill I’d ever seen, rather than my new baby!
We met the Okeford Bike Park guys and bought uplift passes (Ben and I both enjoy climbing hills but we thought we’d be decadent, save our legs and indulge in an uplift or five). Stage 1 was open and was the gentlest (if that counts for much at Okeford!), Stage 2 wasn’t open yet, Stages 3 and 4 were open but crazy steep so we decided to leave those for a bit later on, once we’d got our trail eyes in.
Part way down Stage 1 we stopped at a drop/rooty section to pick a line and session it, I was chuffed to bits to find that this was the only section of Stage 1 that phased me – little did I know what challenges Stages 3 & 4 held in store! While discussing lines, we got chatting to another couple of riders who were also intimidated by this section. Seeing other people stop and question the best way to approach the drop and/or roots began to build my confidence and realism that it wasn’t just me who was worried by things – while discussing line choice, more riders came haring down the trail, one stopped at the edge of the drop, looked over and said ‘f**k that!’ I instantly felt better!
Having never done uplifts I hadn’t appreciated the fun banter that can be found squashed in the back of a landy going up a stupidly steep track! Ben assures me that this is more down to the amazing bond that women MTB riders form rather than being the norm, but we found ourselves squashed in with Katie, Emma, Mollie, Heather, Nikki and Martin. We agreed that the hill and tracks were bonkers and that tomorrow would just be a matter of survival. Katie and Emma had already ridden all the stages and suggested that our newly formed gang of four should do the Stage 3 next, as it was the hardest, so that Stage 4 would feel ‘easy’! Sounded like my kind of logic and the four of us set off down Stage 3. After a minor cartwheel with my bike, I made it down and declared it survivable! We next did Stage 4 and I survived that too. Back at the top of the trails it became apparent that some sections were simply beyond the capabilities of some of us. We comforted ourselves by telling each other that if Manon Carpenter could run with her bike at Fort William we were perfectly justified in doing the same here! I made peace with my competitive nature, agreeing that this was my race strategy and that I would NOT beat myself up over it.
After heavy rain overnight, we all arrived early on Sunday morning for the briefing. Nerves were showing amongst many riders and several had dropped out after practice. There was just shy of 300 riders there and a really great bunch of gutsy MTB women, just as Mike and Denise had promised. We practiced the newly opened Stage 2, which I loved and then tackled the evil Stage 4 (strangely, this was my worst and Ben’s best stage by the end of the day). I eventually got to the bottom and informed Ben that I had “clearly forgotten how to ride my bike”, because that had been horrendous! He reminded me that, no, I could ride my bike, just that that we were riding the most technical downhill I’d ridden since we descended Snowdon in March!
Eventually practice was over and it was time to race my first Enduro. The women’s categories all went first, for which I’m supremely grateful as I was able to carry the momentum through from the practice to the race. In a typically female fashion, we all apologised to the rider behind us in case we held them up at all and laughed with those in front that there was no chance we’d catch them up! As I sat on my trusty steed at the top of Stage 1, I loved the happy chatter from Cornelius (the start gate man), looking down, I saw both Denise and Mike waiting below to cheer me on. What I had not anticipated was the feeling of being a goddess riding down that ramp to cheers and screams. Whatever happened after that I knew I could face it because I was amongst friends and nothing would be a problem. The adrenaline kicked in and I was off. It felt like magic!
In what was later nicknamed a ‘downduro’ because of its steepness, I found solace and time to reset while pedalling back up for the next stage. It was a chance to drink water, munch a flapjack, think about the stage ahead and natter to those who were walking up. Years of dinghy racing had shown me the fun of all being in a competition together but I can honestly say that nothing comes close to the camaraderie I experienced in the Southern Enduro that day. Everyone recognised the spirit and courage of each other in throwing ourselves down the stages. We were all in this together, part of the amazing global MTB community. As Ben had helped me get into mountain biking in the UK, I’d asked him to come to keep me company and be part of my first race but I now have no doubt that I would have been just fine on my own – that’s the magic of the Southern Enduro series.
To top it all, I came third in my category and got to stand on the podium. Did it matter that there were only three of us in the category? Not at all! I had ridden trails that I never expected to and had loved every single minute of it! In my book we all deserved to stand on a podium, wave our arms in the air and have our photos taken. I am super proud that I faced my fears, embraced my dreams and proved that I can do this! Bring on Round 2, I can’t wait to see my friends and push my boundaries again.