Now in its 3rd year, the Hamsterley Beast mountain bike challenge has gone from strength to strength.
The event was set up as a way to raise funds for the Great North Air Ambulance. In 2015 the first event attracted 150 riders, 2016 saw 350 riders raise over £17,500. 2017 saw rider numbers capped at 500, with camping available the night before for those travelling from further afield.
I first heard about the event through social media and with the rumours about it being fun and very well organised, entering was a no brainer. The entry process couldn't have been easier, no queueing at daft o'clock in the morning continually refreshing the web in the vain hope that you'll fill in your entry form in time. British Cycling took up the role of entry form duties.
Most Challenge events, are around the 30 mile mark but 2017's Beast was going to be different. It promised 40 miles of trail centre riding plus a little off piste thrown in for good measure. At 40 miles, I was going to have to make sure I hit my peak to enjoy the event and give myself a good shot at posting a respectable time without suffering too much.
With a few 20 milers in the bag, I grabbed the chance the week before the event to ride Cut Gate in the Peak District, starting from Langsett and with a lunch stop at Cafe Adventure in Hope. I made a day of it covering just shy of 40 miles and 1500m of ascent. I felt confident I could take on the Beast.
Saturday 13th May arrived and my Cotic Rocket was prepped with new tyres: Maxxis Shorty for the front and Minnion DHF taking care of duties on the rear. It also had the recently fitted new drivetrain, including a OneUp components oval chainring (see Cotic Owners Club blog for more on this).
We packed up the van with camping kit and headed north.
Pulling up at the Grove parking area (Challenge HQ for the weekend) we were directed to the camping field. Already quite busy we opted for a spot in the middle of the field.
With the tent pitched, we went for a wander to get our bearings for tomorrow morning and help Jacquie plan what she was going to do after she'd waved me off. Having never visited the area before, we both commented on how the place reminded us of the Frankejura - a beautiful forested area of Germany, with occasional breaks in the woodland which farms have cleared for cattle to graze. Peaceful.
Back to the tent and it was time for some food.
Opting out of the temptation of the burger van, it was chicken fried rice on the Trangia, followed by several beers from the pop up bar in the cow shed, aptly renamed ‘The Beasts Head’. We then kicked back for the evening listening to the bands. All in all, it was a superb night with several of the organisers coming over for a friendly chat, making sure that we were ok and enjoying the night.
With registration opening at 7am the following morning, it was going to be an early start and despite the overnight rain drumming on the tent (who doesn't like the sound rain makes on the tent fly sheet) I awoke fresh and alert just after six. Coffee on the go, I relaxed while the mist slowly burnt off the forest canopy.
7am soon came around.
Registration was a painless task, no queueing up, just pick up your envelope containing race number plate, cable ties and timing chip, sign the disclaimer and that was that.
Back at the van, people were starting to emerge from their tents and vans, and the pre race faff began. With my number plate attached, I started lending out my track pump and various other tools. The people camped near us (who borrowed tools, extra cable ties, etc) commented on how organised I was, enquiring whether I did these events often. I do like to be sorted well before the start time so that I can relax knowing everything is in place to enjoy the day.
9:15am and it was time to head to the start for the rider briefing. With the start paddock crammed, I sat on the forest fire road with several other riders. Another Cotic Rocket owner came by and asked for a photo of us together, some joke with his mate about not seeing many Rockets.
With over 500 entrants there was a vast array of different brands on display, the usual suspects SantaCruz and Orange probably being the most common. The steel hard tail is definitely the bike of choice for many as there were plenty there that day, most notably the Cotic Bfe, although I do tend to keep an eye out for other Cotic owners.
9:30am and we were off. A steady start as everyone filed over the start mat. Then followed a long fire road climb, great for spreading out the field and warming up the legs, followed by the first of the singletrack sections.
Back through the start arena and out on loop number 2, a steep road climb soon turned into an off road 4x4 track. By now the field was well spread out so there were very few bottlenecks.
What followed, I can only describe as the most varied riding I've ever fit into one ride. From fast and loose fire road descents to tricky technical climbs, stream crossings, open moorland, old quarries and what could quite possibly be the longest climb I've ever ridden (the continuous headwind won't have helped).
At one point, after riding through the car park of Danny Hart's "Descend Hamsterley", we were ushered by a Marshal into the trees onto a trail that wasn't really there - you really had to use the force to find your way through the trees. With no one in front of me it was a game of chance that I took the right turning, eventually being spat out onto more fire road and the usual trail centre red grade stuff.
At another point, we were treated to riding what will eventually become a bike park style section of trail, massive table tops and huge berms all perfectly rollable but if taken at speed there was plenty of air to be caught.
After a shade over 5 hours, I crossed the finish line and collapsed in the sunshine reflecting on what had been a brilliant day's riding. A burger and coke started the recovery process, followed by a leg massage from the onsite therapist. All that was left was to pack up the camping kit and head home, buzzing from another brilliant weekend of biking.
I've got to say big thank to you the organisers, volunteers, marshals and sponsors for making it the such a great event.
Roll on Hamsterley Beast 2018, with the goal of breaking the 5 hour barrier as well as raising funds for Great North Air Ambulance.