In contrast to last weekend’s rain-lashed PMBA enduro at Gisburn, the venue for Hit The North 5 on Saturday basked in calm sunshine. I did have to scrape ice off the van when I left the house at seven, but by the time I’d signed on things were warming up nicely for the loveliest day of the year so far. The excellent course was mostly dry and fast when I rode a reconnaissance lap, although there was still a bit of mud about the place from the past few weeks of rain to keep things interesting. Having checked out the course and met up with various friends, everyone rolled out to the start straight, and I took up my position well out of the way of the fast boys, near the back.
With a couple of hundred riders bashing their way around, things dried out further over the two hours, and apart from at a couple of stubborn swampy bits the going was pretty good. The worst of the bogs was at the bottom of an entertainingly rutted and slippy downhill, resulting in numerous comedy dismounts and over-bar ejections, happily all filmed and photographed by one diligent spectator. Please note that whilst I am not featured in this marvellous montage of ineptitude, I did manage to hit the deck elsewhere on the course, and I didn’t even get a nice soft muddy landing, choosing instead to bin it on a load of rocks, as usual. My left side is once again nicely bruised, and I won’t be leaning on my elbow for a week or two.
Given that I didn’t stand a chance of placing anywhere remotely respectable, I decided that the best bike for this race would be my Surly Krampus single speed, a rigid steel 29+ barge with full mudguards and dynamo lights. Having ridden much of this course previously on a number of different bikes I have to say that the Krampus does actually make these trails entertaining, and it turned out to be a better choice than might have been expected. Whilst not particularly fast on hills and flat-out pedally bits, I was pleasantly surprised by it in a few spots. Most remarkably, on the muddy field that the route crossed twice each lap I regularly shot past struggling skinny-tyred CX bikes and more normal MTBs, the Surly’s massive 3″ tractor-tread rubber flywheeling me over the tussocks and puddles with ease, gaining me several places every time. Similarly, in rutted, muddy woodland the bike battered its way past struggling XC whippets, and the huge tyres obviously stick like the proverbial on corners, making the many singletrack sections very enjoyable . As soon as the course headed uphill the tables were turned, though; with one gear and inadequate training I struggled with the hefty 15kg bike, off and pushing and losing position, and on smooth, flat tracks I span out quickly. But competitive advantage wasn’t really the point, and I had an absolute blast riding this slightly daft contraption in a proper race.
The bike wasn’t the only bit of daftness – as you can just about see in the above photo, I rode with a small plastic aeroplane zip-tied to my helmet, complete with a spinning propeller that caused an interesting buzzing sensation at speed, rather like having a head full of bees. Throughout the race people yelled encouragement at “Aeroplane man!” which was greatly heartening, and I even started making “Neeeeeoooooowwwww” sound effects to myself round corners. When I discovered that one of my cranks was disintegrating and the pedal was about to part company with the rest of the bike, I thought about throwing in the towel, but the idea of letting down my legions of cheering fans was enough to keep me going, and I ground manfully on to the finish. Sadly, somewhere around the final descent, the plane’s propeller was lost after clipping a bit of vegetation, so it won’t be flying again. I shall have to come up with something else to drum up crowd support next time.
It turns out that I came 84th out of 143 finishers (and 173 starters), two laps down on the winners. Given that I started pretty much at the back of the field, rode a thoroughly unsuitable bike which started falling apart, ran out of water, and stopped for a chat at a couple of points, I’m pretty pleased with that. I had forgotten how fun it is to just pedal like stink and try to catch the rider in front of you, who knows, maybe I’ll do some more XC racing at some point.
The organisation by Jason Miles and team was excellent, the course was smashing, the marshals were all lovely and friendly and encouraging, and the atmosphere was absolutely splendid. The only real negative is that Hit The North doesn’t happen more often – although I hear rumblings that the gap to the next one might be rather less than the four years or so since HTN4, which can only be a good thing.