Michael Regan checks in with a report from the Redbull Foxhunt in Belfast..
The Redbull Foxhunt is a format into its second year. Following on from a successful first year the Redbull crew in association with Plush MTB Club moved the venue to Cavehill Country Park, Belfast. A park with some breathtaking views across the city of Belfast, sprawling woodland and a majestic castle in an exquisite garden setting.
The format is a simple role reversal of the controversial Foxhunt. This format the hunters become the hunted. The Fox – former world champion Mountain Biker Gee Atherton. The hunters – A collection of Amateur and semi professional mountain bikers from Ireland, UK and Europe. The 120 hunters start in a mass start with the Fox starting 10 seconds after. Gee rides the course trying to pick off as many of the hunters as possible before the finish.
This event was held over the weekend of 24th and 25th November. The real work began 6 months prior to this, getting permits and a full backing from Belfast City Council. The organizers (Plush MTB club) addressed the issues that some of the local conservation groups forwarded. When the Council where happy that everything was in place the proposal went to Council Meeting for a vote and the event was passed unanimously.
The weather before the event wasn’t the greatest with heavy rain. The organizers done a lot of hard work preparing the course to have as little impact on the area as possible. Clearing over grown areas piping drainage away from water logged areas and generally cleaning up an already eroded trail (From many years of walkers) This is the type of work that goes unnoticed by the majority. The type of work that some of us may take for granted but without this there wouldn’t be an event.
Saturday would be practice day with a category seeding race in the afternoon. The morning was cold but dry and a little over cast. The event village was the grounds of Cavehill Primary School which backs onto the park. I arrived early to get registered and get the bike ready. Riders were arriving from all over smiling with anticipation, story’s of the seasons races rang out as riders were reunited from previous races. Some new faces riding an event like this for the first time myself being one of them. We just took it all in chomping at the bit to get onto the mountain. After we registered and received our number plates and arm band it was time to get ready. Numbers zip tied to the bars, chain lubed, tire pressure dropped for more traction, forks and shock set. Before riders could ride into the park all bikes went through the power wash to reduce the risk of potentially spreading the tree disease in the area. Another step the organizers took which showed just how professional and well run the event was.
Leaving the event village it was a short ride to the uplift track. The uplifts are tractors and trailers with riders and bikes loading up to save the energy for the descent. Myself and other keen riders where the first up the mountain. We arrived at McArts fort on the top of Cavehill, the trailer door open and riders hopped out to get a look at the start of the course. The view from here is spectacular with the mountain dropping away below our feet. The woodland carpets the land below stretching out to the suburbs of Belfast. The city of Belfast is within touching distance yet feels so far away from this heather and mountainous terrain. Belfast Lough stretches out below as far as the eye can see. To the south east Northern Ireland’s highest peak Slieve Donard dominants the horizon with its tip covered in snow. Its not every day you can race in a setting like this and as the trailers kept arriving it became apparent the riders appreciated just how special this setting was. Everyone stopped to take in the views, pause for a second to marvel in the surroundings before getting their race face on.
I was the first to leave the start area, as this is a local track I know it fairly well so I pushed hard across the first section. Open mountain quickly filtered into the narrow single track that skirts the edge of the mountain face. This is usually a very fast section but conditions were tricky and as it was practice the pace dropped slightly. Reaching the top of the famous quarry trail a marshal stepped out to tell us the track hadn’t been open yet. Some walkers where still on the track and we would stop to give them time to clear. We got the all clear and as no one was edging forward to go I took off down what is my favorite part of the track. The narrow single track hooks around the hill to the right with a series of banked corners cutting through the bedrock that can be taken flat out. The track from here opens into a mixture of soil and rock. It is quiet technical with bumps and a large rut cut down the middle. It is a very fast section that falls away with corners right and left before two lines open up. A steep drop into a step up jump or a flatter corner with a small kicker on the top. As the trail merges there is another series of tight corners with a few small drops and rocks that can catch you out. After this there is a long right hand corner before yet another set of tight fast flowing corners with a pitched almost berm like side so riders could keep the pace through here. The track narrowed with a fence to the left and the quarry to the right. It swooped down between some trees and across a burn on a grassy descent. A small jump lead into the next section which would turn into the scene of some amazing crashes as the weekend unfolded.
This was a steep grassy hill, in the middle a large rut, to the left and right slippery grass and at the bottom a tight right hand corner. This would lead onto another muddy slope across a river. Get it right and this was a very fast section get it wrong and it was carnage. First time through I made the jump staying to the right of the rut meant a tighter cut into the corner but I got around fine. As I dropped down the slope to the river the back wheel locked up and I ended up going down the slope sideways, a direction that I would become accustomed too by the end of Sunday. This was one of the sections the Plush crew had worked on and the gravel hard core meant we could ride out of the river and onto the flat section and around the bottom of the quarry. Back onto a grassy surface the pedaling became harder as the mud clogged the grip on the back wheel. The lower section of the quarry was a fast flat flowing section. I made the most of my Reverb Dropper seat post along this section pedaling hard. At the end of this I dropped the saddle for a drop and a small bridge across the stream. Another section I love is this narrow single track with steps dropping down and natural steps in the form of the exposed tree roots. A left hand corner which before the event was very narrow. Again the Plush crew made a great job of restoring a worn path and building up the sides of this section. This was the first section of the trail a fast technical and narrow trail leading from the open mountain to the forest woodland.
I was loving it and despite the rain the track was quiet grippy and riding well at this stage. I smiled as I rode knowing this was just the start of an epic weekend. We now joined the Belfast castle gravel based paths that would link the top quarry trail with the final single track river trail. This was I think every riders least favorite part of the track. A long section of rolling hills that had every rider gasping for air. The climbs weren’t too steep but the pace before and the technicality of the track meant you were working hard from the word go. So reaching this stage the heart and lungs had already been pushing to there limits. Some areas of the path had steps but a gravel ramp had been filled so riders could stay in the saddle and pedal through. This was the case for the first practice anyway. After this tiring riders opted to walk the short climb and jump back on at the top. With 75% of the track complete we now dropped of the main walking path into the forest proper. The natural track meandered through the trees with a large natural roller jump.
The trail then fell away between more trees and dipping down into the river eventually crossing the walking path and into a final tree section. From here we followed the road through the castle car park we then skirted the grass lawns and back onto the path around the castle. By this stage we could tell we had been working hard and this was just a practice. I eased back to get my breath and a few riders joined me to look down the lawn towards the finish line jump through the Redbull arch. As I got my breath one of the riders took off down the hill with me and the other close behind. Over the jump and into the finish area. A lap complete and time for more practice before the seeding heats in the afternoon.
The seeding run was a mass start in our categories. As we lined up the elites took of first followed by the seniors which I was in. I hadn’t the best of starts as both feet were on the ground as Colin shouted go taking me by surprise. By the first corner I had clawed my way back up to the top 20. I had great ride the rest of the course with only a couple of small incidents picking off rider after rider I eventually finished 11th. Saturday done and my face sore from smiling all day. We returned to the event village to give the bikes a much needed wash and load up to get some sleep before race day.
Sunday was a hive of activity from very early morning. Riders setting up, international camera crews and security loading golf buggies with cameras and equipment which would record the race for a global audience. Looking around it was almost surreal to be part of this and on my door step. This is the type of event I normally see on TV from central Europe or further afield. Mountain biking has come a long way and to see and be part of this event was amazing. This race wasn’t just special for the riders. Spectators both young and old could get up close with a former world champion and possible future world champions. A format never seen before in the North of Ireland meant riders of all abilities could ride together to the entertainment of the crowds. People that may become inspired to pick up the sport and give it ago after seeing such a spectacle.
The Sunday schedule was a quick practice followed by the category races and then the main event of the weekend the Foxhunt. As time was limited we rode the lower section before taking the up lift. Heavy rain over night had made conditions worse with a slick muddy surface. Race day was going to be fun either in the saddle or out. The crowds where noticeably bigger on the Sunday with spectators lining the course from top to bottom.
We lined up on the start line in our categories in rows of 5 in the order we finished the heats, I was in row three and picked a nice line off the heather onto the path. It felt like we were gladiators getting ready to go into battle. The bikes rocking back and forward as we pushed the pedals getting ready for the start. The elites got under way and after a short pause Colin let out a yell “Gooo” for my category to start. The first row go, quickly followed by the second row and then my row. Just as the first row started two riders tangled and crashed. I quickly passed them by as they bounced straight back up and onto the bikes. A good start but only a couple of places gained. As we dropped into the next section another crash had me passing riders. I was aware of a few riders close behind but I was concentrating on my own lines. At the first small climb I got a good line and passed a few more. Shortly after this on a very fast section a rider in front crashed and as I was going past tangled with me and I went down. Quickly back on but a number of riders had past. On another section a rider again crashed but before I had time to go round two had crashed into me from behind. I can only describe it as exciting carnage. Although crashes were happening most of the riders laughed and joked as they got on with it. A tough middle section had me tiring for the last river trail. As I approached the roller I pedaled hard for a big jump. I went big having landed this all day Saturday. Big mistake as I landed hard my front wheel washed out. I remember seeing two kids dive for cover as me and the bike bounced out of control. As I hit the ground I bounced back to my feet raising my hands and cheering to the crowd “Best twenty pounds I’ve ever spent” I got a good laugh at that and jumped back on the bike to finish the race. As I pedaled the next section I noticed the gears slipping. A combination of a bent hanger from the crash, thick muck, grass and twigs caked into the cassette meant the gears weren’t at their best. We rode straight back to the tractors for the uplifts for the main event of the day. Unbeknown to us most went back to wash the bikes so their gears would work again.
After the carnage in the category races this was only going to get worse. Riders started gathering back at the start area. Excitement and tension building the buzz of the helicopter chattered in the clear blue skies. As the helicopter flew in over the castle it pitched up and circled above us. Cheers went up as riders waved for the cameras. Spectators, Friends and families shouting their good lucks for the riders. I glanced over to the highest point on McArts fort and could see Gee “The Fox” Atherton getting ready on the side of the cliff edge. Marshals Ready, Cameras Ready, Riders Set. The Hunter with his horn ready to start the race on Colin’s say. 120 riders starting together trying to filter into one single track all at once. Before the start you pick your line and have it worked out in your head.
The horn went with a few sharp blasts and it was go. As the race starts that line you picked goes straight out the window and you try aim for any space there is which there isn’t much. This isn’t the type of race to make friends. Every rider for himself, elbows, bar ends, knees and toes anything that you can use to get in front and stay in front. It may be looked at as aggressive but in a competitive way and not a nasty way. Inexperience on my behalf left me leaving the door open on too many occasions. I let riders take my line and push me onto a line I hadn’t used before. I got swallowed up and into the back of the pack. Two into one doesn’t go and as the open mountain filtered into the single track that became apparent. Riders collided causing a bottle neck. Some tried to pass on the outside of the trail but crashed or got stuck in the longer grass. Bikes and bodies toppled like dominoes. I spotted an opening and took it. Across a bike and onto an open bit of track. Riders on the left and right of me. Elbows touching as we all struggled for grip. Pedaling hard into the first rise before the quarry trail the pace dropped and I had to jump off and run up the hill due to no traction. As I jumped back on the bike I pedaled around the right hander. I stuck my tongue out for the camera and got ready for the descent.
I came round the corner to another bottle neck. The descent along the quarry trail was very slow, passing was at the risk of wheels getting stuck in the ruts. Some managed it some fell into the gorse. I passed bikes and bodies as riders scrambled to get back on the bikes. No serious crashes just slippery conditions and different paced riders. As the race opened out a bit we had a bit more space. Being so far back some of the riders spent most of the time on the brakes with feet on the ground. It was hard to get into a good pace to use the bikes grip. The slower I went due to slower riders the harder to find grip. By the time I reached the flat quarry section there was a good gap to the next set of riders. I used this section to try and get caught up a bit. I tried to change the gears and they start catching and skipping. Nothing was going right at this stage so I just settled into my pedal strokes and eased my way back towards the river trail. I had another crash through the trees with a rider stopping in front of me. I went left but ended up bouncing of a tree. As I reached the finish line the chain was slipping so bad I had to roll over the jump.
Foxhunt 2012 finished with a smile. Well down the pack but one of the best weekends on a Mountain Bike I have ever had.
1st Greg Callaghan 2nd Gee Atherton 3rd Glyn O’Brien
Greg Callaghan – Redbull Foxhunt Winner 2012 Photo: M. Regan
Massive thanks to Colin Finley, Stephen Davidson, Ricky McKillen and all the others at Plush MTB club like the young marshals and helpers. A special thanks to Belfast City Council for letting us host such an amazing event in the City. Hopefully this event has showcased what we can host and the huge success it was. Thanks also to the Redbull team, Eventsec security and Cavehill Primary school for the event village.
Rick McKee Chairman of the Northern Ireland Mountain Biking Alliance said “The legacy of this event will be long-lasting, with some of the world’s leading action photographers recording the business of the weekend (from ground and air!), so this will go viral on the web and social media for many months to come. Good for mountain biking, and good for North Belfast, which has a chance to really show its resources and its hospitality at this globally unique event.”