For those that haven’t heard of it, the “Batch Burner” (www.batchburner.org.uk) is an organised 48km MTB Challenge that runs over the Long Mynd hill range in Shropshire (the below picture giving you an idea of what sort of hills we’re talking about) during the first Saturday in June and was started in 2013.
For those that haven’t heard of me, I’m Peter Flint a 37 year old XC rider in my second season of competing in XC type events, having taken up cycling in January 2012 following an operation on my back and as a way of keeping a decent standard of fitness and core strength, before that it was 1991 since I last rode a bike round the woods... and its wasn’t very well even back then! These shortcomings make sense a bit further on.
I took part in my first Batch Burner in 2014 and “had a mare”, initially with the front group we found ourselves going up the wrong “hill” due to a slight lack in signage, then being sent down another the wrong way courtesy of some pesky local scamps and their idea of a practical joke (I remember how hilarious I found that when my HR was 185bpm+ coming back up it) and no sooner had I joined up with the other riders and made my way towards the front following that then I ripped the side of my ‘oh-so-flimsy’ Rocket Ron TLR tubeless tyre (I thought they were supposed to have thicker sidewalls?!) cue spending an inordinate amount of time at the side of a soaking wet Carding Mill Valley putting an inner tube into the rear wheel then trying desperately to warm up enough to finish the rest of the challenge.
Anyway! That was all last year and despite it I was really looking forward to this year’s event.
I arrived an hour and half prior to the mass start (the event is strictly limited to 350 riders to minimise impact on local trails and this year the event sold out within 26 hours!) to ensure my usual pre race rituals could all be fitted in. My customised Canyon Lux 29er frameset replaced the hard tailed version I had used last year (and found more than a bit bumpy on the descents) but unfortunately Round 4 of the Southern XC at Bordon (I ride Sport Cat at present) and a local blat earlier in the week had taken its toll on my shift cable, internal grime made shifting down the cassette more and more of a mission and today the smallest cog wouldn’t engage at all and the second from bottom wasn’t overly keen either, with the 4 hour delay on the M40 the day before meaning I couldn’t get it to an LBS in time to rectify the issue it would be riding but not as you’d want it.
After the rest of the pre ride prep I lined up at the front of the amassed riders with the other lycra wearers (spotting some familiar sponsored riders from last year) and at 10am we were off!
The first couple of miles were country lanes, tracks and a couple of fields and by the time we hit the first of four Cat 3 climbs, the “Plowden Puff”, which took us initially up a couple of farm tracks, I had settled a few riders back, pulling in behind one of the ‘Trailhead’ riders “Dave” who had a good piston-pumping type fast cadence and still upper body, this guy, I thought, will be a good gauge/canary down the mine to follow behind, so I settled in and tried to calm the breathing down. A couple of hundred metres further on I got that “I can go quicker than this” feeling; and, knowing most of these guys will eclipse me on the descents, I attacked the climb and pulled off the front and made some headway whilst trying to concentrate on breathing, keeping the cadence up and legs pumping as the lactate started to flow and quads started to burn! I took a left as guided by the marshals and it was out onto fields, climbing up to the top of the picturesque Long Mynd plateau with an impressive crosswind I was able to lean into, I glanced behind and could see I’d put around 30 metres into the next rider and although I was only half way up I began to think “This might be easier than I thought!” clearly failing to notice I’d only covered around 4 miles – schoolboy error. In went a Torq Gel anyway, I was going to need every ounce of energy today.
As I got another 150 metres on I had another quick glance behind only to see “Dave” was now only a few metres behind, I’d pulled some time on the rest but Dave clearly wasn’t here for the scenery. As he pulled alongside we exchanged a quick “Hi” and as friendly a smile as I could manage as my HR hit and settled around 187bpm. As we finished Plowden Puff, Dave had taken a few feet of lead and it was now a gradual but fast descent across the plateau and through the next couple of check points and a nice chance to have a quick glance at the stunning scenery that brings walkers and hikers from far and wide - it’s easy to see why! The weather was a breezy 13 degrees but the sun was out and in its glare I had quickly realised the base layer was a mistake.
The next couple of miles followed the sheep trails across the tops of the hills, (time for another Torq Gel) but the first steep descent then presented itself with a couple of hair pins and I now struggled to hold Dave and slowly watched him pull away down into Carding Mill Valley (memories of my puncture last year at this spot still fresh in my mind)
Towards the bottom I was impressed with a gutsy off-trail overtake from another rider and even though I was concentrating on not losing my front or rear end on the loose trail, the fact this other rider was on a hard tail didn’t escape me! I took the knock and continued “Riding my ride” and could see the friendly marshals at the bottom pointing Dave and the speedy hardtailer up the bank, I duly followed but now some 20 seconds back. Having negotiated the steep bank powered by pure frustration, the ride joined a farm track onto a country B road and I put the power down and popped an SiS Caffeine Gel as I pulled back to Dave and Mr Hardtail (who was introduced at the end as Darren) who I noted was riding a very trick Orange Clockwork Anniversary (love those bikes!), I broke the silence with a loud “Wish I could go down hills quickly gents!” which received giggles and nods before we all settled into the next Cat 3 “Long Mynd Climb”. A couple of hundred metres into it I decided I needed to adopt the same approach and attack the climb to make some time up that I now knew I’d lose on the next steep descent, so I stood up on the pedals and began the familiar breathing/burning combo as I pulled away. At the end of the climb some 600 metres further, I could see I was clear of the other two and enjoyed the hill check point on my own. The next descent was almost immediate and was also almost a repeat of last time, only this time I was overtaken half way down by Darren and another rider (introduced afterwards as Dave as well – let’s call him Dave2) Where did he come from?! All I knew was my descending “skills” were sadly lacking and I couldn’t just switch off and attack them Downhill stylee as the others seemed to.
As everything settled at the bottom and I again made up the lost ground, we began the third Cat 3 “Sandbatch Slog” - the longest of the four major climbs but my legs now really feeling the burn. Dave2 was at the lead and through a boggy lane I had my way to his wheel with Darren and Dave now behind me but thankfully no one else in view. Sandbatch Slog really lived up to its name, at the bottom of it we’d made it to almost half way at 15 miles, as I looked up I could only see an impressively steep and rocky trail which was more than a little daunting, so I instead focused on Dave2’s wheel and just kept repeating “Just follow the wheel, follow the wheel”. As the climb double backed on itself and got steeper again half way up, I realised for the first time in the last 12 months I was in the biggest cog on the cassette yet the burning just continued, I was now panting for all I was worth, as my HR hit 189 Dave2’s wheel started to speed up out of the climb but I wasn’t about to let it go now so I dug in and a quick look showed we’d made a good 75 metres on the other two, which for me were vital seconds I knew they’d make up on the down.
The next few miles were again beautiful and although my legs were now hammered the views over the sun blessed valley really helped lighten the mood; Britain up here is truly beautiful I thought. The next thing I could hear was music and as I went through the midway check point and feeding station I could see it was equipped with its very own brass band! Now at full bore trying to keep Dave2 only a few seconds in front of me, I couldn’t even shout a request only a quick “No Thanks” as the locals were there with arms outstretched with cups of water and sweets.
The next descent was more manageable but on a sheer hillside with only a small sheep track between you and a fall that would only come to a stop at the valley bottom, found me again on the brakes and I could see Dave2 had come to an abrupt stop in front of me at a 50/50 fork in the path – which way do we go? Signage this year had been very good, but right now we needed the right direction. Dave and Darren had caught up and we all decided on the very slightly better trodden path up the bank with me knowing I had my work cut out to stay with this group as the second part of the descent started. Sure enough Dave2 and Darren took full advantage of it and made seconds of lead up as I struggled to hold them, fatigue was really starting to set in so I took my second caffeine gel out and consumed –yuk! The acrid flavour hit me (won’t be trying that brand again), washed down with the Torq energy drink from the Camelbak (I seemed to be one of the few lead riders with these, others having team mates and family members to help with speedy bottle changes at check points)
The journey now came back in to the main entrance to the Carding Mill Valley and its Cat 3 climb, I knew what was ahead as I’d been on a walking holiday in this area years ago and also remembered the ride last year had followed the main footpath ascent, but unlike last year where the climb was early on I’d now been riding hard for 1 hour 50 minutes and was beginning to seriously flag. I was trying desperately to keep my legs pumping and keep the lactic acid flushed, but the path up the hill had rocks across it in places that would require a quick dismount and as I reached them and swung my leg back over the bike I felt my hamstrings cramping up and the lumber region of my back was now getting very painful, I quickly tried to stretch both but could see Dave only a little way behind me and with the constant flow of walkers clapping and giving me the usual “Well done, keep it going” I ignored any further body warnings and tried to make headway on the climb. I could see 75 metres in front Dave2 and Darren disappear over the top but the pain was really kicking in - this wasn’t happening I thought as I had to dismount again and repeat the earlier stretches before negotiating the rocks that covered the path once more. As I remounted I realised I was now in a world of pain, I started slowly peddling but was quickly been joined by Dave at which point I managed to muster “That was seriously hard!” – Dave clearly agreed.
Still that was it for the hard climbs so time to “Man Up” and finish this challenge properly, through the last couple of checkpoints and a welcomed gradual farm track descent. I could feel an inner rejuvenation, the lactic was shifting fast and a look at my Garmin showed 26 miles and confirmed the pain would soon be a distant memory, I glanced behind as we reached the other end of the track before the final smaller climb and couldn’t see anyone, I was feeling my power returning by the second and decided to capitalise on this and bury myself into the final more gradual climb, I got up on the pedals and gave it everything making some ground on Dave by the end of it. The descent had now hit the country B roads and despite my rear mech refusing to give me the smallest cogs, I pumped for all I was worth in the smallest that would engage and made the most of the change to easier terrain for the last 2-3 miles. The Start/Finish area has never felt more welcoming when it arrived further on, I’d managed 3rd place in a time of 2h 33:47 minutes with Dave2 crossing the line 3 minutes 47 seconds earlier – a well deserved victory!
There were claps and cheers and a fantastic band playing, I was presented with a mug, voucher for food and a choice of prizes, selecting my choice of SealSkinz items before it was over for a much needed recovery shake whilst the local Scout Group took the Canyon off for its post ride clean.
The Sun was shining, the weather was sweet and the smell of the BBQ was waiting for me as soon as I got off the floor from my impromptu but much needed stretching whilst being accompanied by the band playing a fantastic cover of “Valerie”.
Batch Burner is a fantastic event and great for XC and Marathon training, I found the organisers (PTA and friends from Norbury Primary School with some help from Plush Cycles) really friendly bunch and can thoroughly recommend the event and will be sure to be returning in 2016!
The 2016 Batch Burner will be held Saturday 5th June, entries go live in January 2016
Words - Peter Flint