An intense clattering and whirring makes a solid knot of spectators crane their necks towards a narrow path where a mountain bike rider hammers through a tightly packed rock garden, shoulders bunched and arms set to absorb the shock.
Rider and bike cannon past, just metres from the faces in the crowd, so fast and so close that the only way to process the movement is like a camera in ‘burst’ mode. The rider drops onto a long wooden ramp and, legs pistoning, accelerates hard before sailing into the void, trusting to power and providence that he’s done enough to cross the seemingly unbridgeable 60ft chasm.
This is the Road Gap at Red Bull Hardline 2016, deep in Wales’s Dyfi Valley, where watching riders launch themselves high above the ground to cross such a distance unaided is a genuine ‘you have to see it to believe it’ moment. It’s a leviathan of a jump and begs the question of whether the competitors prepping for their first runs on the daunting course are truly aware of just how fearsome a challenge they’ve taken on.
The answer comes from Australian rider ‘Sik Mik’ Mick Hannah: “It’s impossible to gauge what we do on camera – photos and videos really mellow it out. I got here and I was like: ‘Whoa, that is big.’” From a man who finished second in the 2013 MTB World Championship and third in this year’s World Cup round in Cairns, Australia it’s quite an admission. The riders assembled here are seasoned World Cup downhill racing pros, yet at Red Bull Hardline they’re in awe of the course, and have to push their limits just to compete.
Stretching the competitors to those limits is MTB star Dan Atherton. In 2013, when Atherton decided to build a downhill course in his backyard, he wanted to create a real challenge for the best riders in the world – but even he didn’t realise how big it would get. “I’ve created a bit of a monster and it’s taken on a life of its own,” he admits.
“It’s definitely next level,” confirms Hannah. “The jumps aren’t the biggest and the technical stuff isn’t the hardest, but the combination of woods, rocks, drops, step-ups, step-downs and doubles, all of which you have to adjust your technique for, is what makes it so challenging.”
The mountains of the Dyfi Valley may look rounded and gentle, but they’ve steered torrents of water out to sea for aeons, creating steep, plunging slopes perfect for shredding on a mountain bike. And they are high, too – the course has more vertical drop than the World Cup at Fort William. Mastering the vertiginous declines and yawning jumps stretches every rider – be they wily seasoned campaigner or ultra-confident young gun.
On practice day, the warm autumn sun burns off the cloud while a cool breeze flows down the mountain. The conditions are near perfect and in diametric opposition to last year when wind, torrential rain and jumps chewed up and spat out the riders.
“Last year there was an element of survival,” says surprise 2015 winner Ruaridh Cunningham. “Practice was like The Hunger Games, with people hitting jumps, but then disappearing off into the trees left and right. This year it’s a really good atmosphere – I’m pushing my limits, but when the jumps are the biggest you have ever done, it’s pretty damn fun.”
The mood is light as the riders attack the course in groups, a far cry from the shuttered, hypercompetitive atmosphere of the World Cup circuit where, Cunningham says, “you’d never [ride together] because nobody wants to give their lines away”.
Beneath all the good-natured camaraderie, however, no one is taking the course lightly, as Cunningham admits: “The big features are intimidating, but when you take those away it’s still a hell of a track – really technical,” he says. “The middle section of the course in the open is super steep, really rocky and narrow, plus our bikes have higher tyre pressures and harder suspension to cope with the bigger jumps, gee outs and hits – [Dan Atherton] has built some monster, but we’re here to tackle it.”
The Scot has triumphed here before, however, and is convinced that he has the measure of the monster. “It’s not all about winning,” he says cautiously, “but if I stick to my gameplan and put together the run that I think I am capable of, I do believe I can win. When I get in the gate tomorrow and the clock starts ticking down, I’ll be ready.”
Guaranteed to be in hot pursuit is Bernard Kerr, the English rider who has had a breakthrough season in the World Cup circuit finishing 15th, and who is known to be comfortable with huge amplitude, but the course has already bitten him – hard.
“I had a massive crash yesterday,” Kerr says ruefully. “I hit the Renegade Step Up really well three times and then I was just too chilled coming into it the next time and came up way too short.
I ditched the bike in mid air to bail off, came down on the back of the landing and then almost got landed on by two other riders. It rattles you a bit and it makes you nervous. I have a sore neck and back, but I’ve ridden today, so it’s all good.”
While Kerr was able to shrug off the Renegade’s first assault, French rider Alex Fayolle, teammate to Hannah, carries too much speed into the jump and massively overshoots the landing. He takes a big hit and is knocked cold. In double-quick time he’s airlifted off the course to hospital. It’s a dispiriting moment. “Alex had been one of the smoothest, most in-control riders out there – he was looking really good. But that’s the thing with this course, it really can bite you,” says Dan Atherton.
As the light begins to fade and the skies above begin to darken, so too does the mood on the mountain.
The following morning there’s good news – Fayolle has been released from hospital and while he won’t race today, the word is he’s OK. It’s a relief for Hannah.
“I basically live with Alex throughout the season and really enjoy having him as a teammate,” he says, while admitting the crash has had an affect. “It’s hard to bounce back from something like that and get into a stable state of mind to go and ride your bike yourself. It’s a reminder that although the course is within our capabilities, when it goes wrong it can go badly wrong. That’s something that you have to respect.”
So how does the veteran rider push past the doubts and throw himself into competition? “It’s really important to separate your body from your thoughts because of all of the nerves, the knots in your stomach, the adrenalin. It’s important to remember the facts – you can ride a bike, you are prepared. Because confidence isn’t just a feeling; it’s based on truth and proven facts.”
And then it’s time. Time for the riders to put that truth to the test: against the clock, against each other, but most of all against the course. However, because this track is so demanding some of the riders’ qualifying runs will also be their first non-stop runs.
“That was my first full run,” says Ruaridh Cunningham of his descent. “Physically it’s pretty tough to ride because there’s nowhere to rest – if you’ve got anything close to rest it’s because you’re in the air! This race is won and lost in the bits between the jumps, the technical bits no one is talking about – I had a few bobbles there in this run and lost a bit of time.”
Cunningham’s strategy reflects what the riders have learned about the jumps on Red Bull Hardline. They have a set speed – too slow and you ‘case it’, too fast and you overshoot. But the shifting wind is altering that split-second calculation.
It’s Dan Atherton’s brother, Gee, who sets the pace, pushing past the pain of a shoulder injury sustained in practice to set a marker that raises eyebrows among the other competitors.
It takes a scorching run from Cunningham to knock Atherton off top spot, but the younger rider admits afterwards that he had to find a new level to take the lead and it almost cost him.
“It was wild – I made some big mistakes,” he says. “It made me angry and I tried to make up for it by going even harder. That wasn’t working and on the run in to the Renegade Step Up I told myself to relax. From there down it was pretty smooth.”
In the end, fighting for and finding that control is the biggest victory of the weekend for Cunningham. “I honestly thought I’d blown it up top, so to turn it round was awesome,” he says contentedly.
Of the 20 riders who started the week, only 14 are left at the finish – it’s a high attrition rate and one you would bet would include anyone gung-ho enough to really let it all hang out on a final race run. But that’s exactly what Bernard Kerr’s victorious, charging finale looks like – bold, loose and exhilarating to watch. It’s incredibly quick too, and if the look in his eye at the finish is anything to go by, then it was also hairy as hell.
“It was sketchy man, really sketchy!” he says. ‘My qualifying time gave me confidence, but I’ve been saying all weekend that I’ve been having fun and I think that really helps me to go faster.”
In the end, Kerr eclipses Cunningham by just over two seconds to take victory. Over such a technically challenging course it’s a small margin and the gap to those behind is even slimmer, with just a second separating Cunningham from third-placed Adam Brayton and Gee Atherton in fourth. However, it’s possible that in that gap rests the edge needed to translate an ability to ride the tiger into truly taming the beast. It lies somewhere between a wild ride on the ragged edge and the knowledge of when to turn exuberant confidence into control. In Kerr and Cunningham, and ultimately in the gifts of every rider who braved the world’s toughest downhill race, those seemingly opposing forces produced a mighty spectacle.