Reece Wilson is muddy and tired, his heart thumping in his chest. “I’m getting used to it now,” he says, managing a smile. “It actually feels like I’m riding as opposed to just holding on.” Wilson, just 19 and fresh from his first full season of pro-level downhill racing, has never seen anything like the Red Bull Hardline track, which clings to the almost vertical hillside of the Dyfi Valley in Mid Wales. It’s a downhill mountain-bike race free from the rules and regulations of the mainstay UCI MTB World Cup series. Here, almost anything goes. Common sense has been suspended. Wilson is happy to have survived the first day’s practice, but he and the other 12 invited riders know the real test – race day – still lies ahead.
Hardline is the brainchild of Dan Atherton, a top-level racer turned trail builder who has transformed his backyard into one of the toughest bike tests there is. While shovel-wielders the world over smooth and sculpt in search of the elusive ‘flow’, Atherton has created something more ambitious and brutal: a track that will push him and his superstar siblings Gee and Rachel, both UCI World Champions, to the limits of what’s possible on a bike.
For Atherton, the project is about pushing not only his family’s riding limits, but what’s accepted as achievable in the sport. However, widening the boundaries of bike racing has come at a cost: as the ‘lucky’ few invited riders have been trying out the Hardline track, Atherton has been notable by his absence.
The first victim of his own punishing creation, he’s in a Manchester hospital having an operation on his shoulder after overcooking things and jettisoning his bike mid-air while testing one of the jumps. Not exactly the most encouraging news for the riders about to take on this beast themselves.
Hardline made headlines at last year’s inaugural event for its impossibly big road-gap jump and the punishing terrain, and this year Atherton and his team have raised the level a couple more notches. The course is a rolling horror show of high-speed jumps, drops and gaps punctuated by steep rock ledges and bordered by hefty Welsh pine. The morning’s rain has coated it all in mud for good measure. Despite the unpredictable September weather and remote location, hundreds of spectators have made the trek to watch today’s qualifying action. Tomorrow, the race of the year will rank its world-class riders according to their ability to conquer this unique test of skill and nerve.
Spectators and crew gather on a muddy forest road towards the end of the track as a low-flying RAF jet lets out a roar on its way to a nearby base. All eyes on are one imposing wooden structure. Supported by an assortment of telegraph pole sections, the take-off point for the road-gap jump sits 18m from the landing, which is some 9m below on the other side of the road. It looks impossible, verging on the ridiculous. In this race, blind faith plays as big a part as skill.
The tell-tale rumble of rubber on wooden slats heralds the moment the crowd have been waiting for. A marshal’s whistle indicates that the first rider is set to take the plunge. Joe Smith – a Hardline veteran, having ridden last year – rolls into view. Everything goes quiet. There’s an almost audible collective intake of breath accompanied by the soft whirring of Smith’s rear wheel. The 25-year-old Welshman hangs in the air for an unfeasibly long time, then, just as he vanishes from sight below the road, the dull thwack of contact signals his success. His brakes give a high-pitched squeal as he carves through the arching turn below. The crowd, open-mouthed, show their relief.
Come race day, there’s a twitchiness around the eight remaining riders. From the initial group of 13, Hardline’s unpredictable track has weeded out all but the best. Dan Atherton’s brother, Gee, finished as fastest qualifier, with Smith in second and Wilson in fifth. Canadian Mark Wallace, whose nickname, The Spartan, is at odds with his softly spoken manner, has travelled the furthest of any of the riders. But today he’s been reduced to a spectator after a crash in practice.
“As a racer, it doesn’t get much worse than watching something that you want to be a part of,” he says. “Pretty much any track you go to after this will feel easy. This is intimidating. It’s the track you’re competing against, not the other riders.”
One section seems to be causing the most worry among riders. The Renegade Step-up is a steep ramp with a landing, some 25m away, that’s higher than the takeoff point. There’s absolutely no room for error – you make the gap or face a brutal drop to the hard Welsh ground. The changeable weather has left the Renegade without so much as a tyre mark. Even in this lawless environment, it may prove too extreme. During his full run in practice yesterday, Gee swerved the Renegade. If the racers are trying to beat the track, the track is still winning.
“Some of the guys have been retching with nerves,” says Wilson. “The mood in the camp is definitely quieter today. Breakfast was a lot harder to get down this morning. It’s becoming a reality now; we’re here, it’s the last day. I told myself that I wouldn’t be fussed about racing it, I’d just ride it and get down. But we’re all racers at heart and…” he trails off, eyes locked on his Trek bike. His 26-year-old teammate, Ruaridh Cunningham, stands close by, fiddling with the tape holding his shoulder in place after clipping a tree in mid-air the day before.
The sun stays out and the wind dips long enough for the riders to get in their practice runs. They pile into the Jeep vehicles that will take them to the start line, knowing their journey back down will be quicker, but rather less comfortable. Smith, second down the hill to avoid watching other riders do battle before him, makes it to the finish. He rolls through the steadily growing crowd and back to his pit, his bike caked in thick, claggy mud. “He’s not too dirty though, which is a good sign,” jokes his mechanic, Owen.
Smith pulls off his goggles and hands Owen his bike. “Could you give it a wash, please,” he says. “And I’ve cracked the mudguard.” Smith has had a crash, but only a small one by Hardline standards. He’s fared well compared with many of his rivals – on the other side of the tented pit area, bikes are appearing in states of disrepair, ranging from broken chainrings to snapped frames. The mechanics scratch their heads, looking bemused. As the mud is blasted off by pressure washers, the scale of the damage becomes clearer.
“This is one of the mad things,” says Wilson, watching one of the teams busily strip down two broken bikes and attempt to craft one working machine that’ll give him a final run before practice ends. “There are loads of bikes from so many different brands here and they’re all breaking. None of them can cope with the demands of this track.”
Having won a painful battle to get down his own bumpy driveway, and still feeling the effects of the post-surgery morphine, Dan Atherton appears in the Hardline pits, his arm in a black sling. “I knew we’d done a good job with the track,” he says, “but there was a BMX-style hip jump that got me. It wasn’t massive, it was just technical. I’d become a bit blasé, jumping everything as I made my way down the track, so I wasn’t really thinking too much about my set-up. I should have had more air in my back tyre and it just blew out on the way up that jump – and here I am!”
Atherton settles gingerly into a folding chair and the racing begins. Through a chink in the tree line, the crowd at the finish arena can just about make out the riders as they plummet over the road gap. Although most riders suffer at least one crash on their way down, they are reaching the finish line. Second man down Adam Brayton sails over the final jump, taking a hand off the bar to punch the air in celebration. His time is virtually irrelevant – he’s celebrating survival.
Cunningham emerges into view and stops the clock an incredible 17 seconds quicker than the leader. Despite the sensational margin, his is a muted celebration and the Scot puffs out his cheeks – the course has clearly taken everything out of him. He and the crowd wait to see if he’s done enough.
One by one, riders fail to beat his time, and when home favourite Gee has his rear tyre blown off, wrapping it around the back end of his GT, it becomes clear that the Hardline trophy belongs to Cunningham.
“About 30 seconds in, I smashed my foot into a stump,” says a champagne-sodden Cunningham. “But I just blanked it out and focused on putting it all together. The big thing is that we’re all here and safe. I haven’t got any elation out of winning yet, just relief that it’s over! It’s pushed me harder than anything before. But the sport needs more of this. It’s how we’ll progress. We need to be here.”
Red Bull Hardline has been as much a battle as a race, demanding new levels of performance from its competitors and forcing them to dig deeper than ever before. The Renegade remains unchristened, perhaps waiting for its creator to heal. But as the final eight riders who survived Hardline’s brutality celebrate and pose for selfies with fans in the early evening sun, the camaraderie that the race has produced among the finishers is clear to see. The weekend wasn’t about winning, it was about redefining their sport, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible on two wheels.