Steel City Downhill - Misty In T'Roots
Dirt takes on Sheffield's downhill track...
From Dirt Issue 111 - May 2011
Words by Rod Fountain and Nick Hamilton. Photos by Grant Robinson.
Driving north from London towards Sheffield and Peaty’s Steel City event, film maker Noel Hines and I were trying to get the race a shout out on Annie Macs’ show. It was to help promote the event but mainly because the shoutee would qualify to rest their racer’s bones in the only spare bed at race organiser Nick Hamilton’s filthy mining cottage. Thing was, we were struggling to give the event a radio friendly definition. The track was no mystery; anyone who’d seen the head–cam footage of Peaty following Mitch Ropelato down the proposed line knew it was pedally, and since it was in Sheffield it was definitely going to be underwater which would add a bit of grarrr, but slow things down.
It was also no secret that the start list ranged from 10 year olds to pros and that there would be a World Cup style big finish. But what kind of race was it: a Mates’ Race? I’ve known organiser Nick for ages so maybe it was, but he’s mates with Peaty who was bringing a load of his really fast mates along, but that doesn’t make them my mates. Was it a Mini–DH? Probably not because pros have little need of those. As the weekend rolled on it became pretty obvious that the ‘This Is Sheffield’ collective had bolted a new dimension onto Chris Roberts’ original Mini–DH format and come up with a mould breaking new class of racing: Mini–World Cup DH. Not that Annie Mac was interested.
So what was the point of driving north to race in whatever this was? Ed Cooke, long time Ragger and part–time bike philosopher had an angle on it, “Yet again I’ve paid £20, had to drive 200 miles and will sleep on a floor just to ride someone else’s line through a wood fewer times than I would if I was just out with mates. And anyway, seeing tape makes me ride like shite."
Believe it or not, he wasn’t moaning, just pointing out that getting between the tape is fast becoming a calling that an ever increasing number of riders can’t ignore. It’s an easy way to connect with what’s a hugely influential and arguably essential part of ‘this side’ of Mountain Biking without the risk of getting hospitalised by a proper track and having to spend four grand on a weekend only bike to be in with a shot at the podium.
After failing to get the bed I woke up on Nick’s sofa on race day. Organising duty meant he was long gone, which made me feel I was missing out on something and so with nervous haste I headed into town for coffee and then out again to register. I loathe registration on race morning because it reminds me of being around people just before an exam and hearing them talk super intelligently about a topic you thought you’d revised but suddenly feel clueless about.
Everyone was on the right bike, in the right gear and talking about the right stuff. Just before the ritual of badly zip–tying my number to my bars I realised I was racing as ‘Dirt Magazine’ rather than ‘S.E. Ragger’ which I’d definitely put on my entry form.
This coveted ‘full factory’ ride involved me driving my own car to the race, paying my own entry fee, racing in my own clothes and using my only bike, a hardtail singlespeed with 120mm Floats instead of one of the off–the–peg racers they, sorry ‘we’, had tested that month. So there’s no ‘I’ in team’ eh? Bollocks: ‘I’ represented the entire team because Jon the Designer was stranded in Lincolnshire with a flat battery and even ‘Style for Miles’ Seb Kemp, signed up with no mention of Dirt. ‘No pressure then’ I thought as the massive Singletrack van rolled in and the issue of magazine bragging rights pulled at my pads thanks to Nick’s duplicitous, possibly illegal tweaking of my entry form.
Leaving the car park with my new burden I slipped into the Sheffield mushy pea–souper. I found the start line hiding in a cloud and pissed myself when I saw that some cheeky bastards had strapped flashing red commuting lights, Formula 1, style to their seatposts. Nice touch. Finding a gap between bikes with more inches of travel than there were teeth on my suddenly inappropriate single rear cog I had the strap–line from that Cove advert in my mind: the one about not taking a toothpick to a gunfight.
Pretty quickly it became obvious that whilst no–one would be cooking their brakes on this track anyone who didn’t attack ‘till the point of puking would be stuck making excuses for an embarrassingly slow time on this ‘easy’ track. A few were unlucky and few were dangerously complacent, meaning that some of the baying, heckling crowd are going to be £250 better off for capturing the kind of get–off that makes half the nation wince on a Saturday tea time.
Some of the pros pushed crazy hard, which was mind–blowing to watch…but even the mighty fall: Chris Akrigg came–to not knowing if he was in the Steel City or the Emerald one, Josh Bryceland’s concussion from an equally big stack might be partly responsible for the shapes he was making at the Showroom bar later that night, and Rowan Sorrell railed a turn so hard he rolled his back tyre off the rim mid G–out and went down hard.
From my violently vibrating point of view getting a hardtail down in a decent time was hard work and my stolen plan of ‘double up, pump and carry speed’ went the way of most really good plans thought up in pubs. Rain, mist, flat light and 150 riders practicing over three hours made it a riot of a hardtail track, not that I could really see its rocks, braking bumps and roots through the mist and under the mud. I was having a ball, albeit a pin–ball, just barrelling down beyond the edge of control and unable to see or stop laughing. I had mud on my teeth from grinning and am smiling now as I remember it. I got the occasional ‘nice line’ shout when I mowed the heather or sketched between rocks, safe in the knowledge that I had no mech’ to lose.
Lines? These were just crashes I didn’t fall off on. Hardtails rule, making all tracks interesting and showing that occasionally too much travel kills the fun. They suck too though because a carelessly placed rock saw me flat in my first run. That said, the cloud we were racing in did have a silver lining which was meeting Paul and the lads from JE James Cycles in their EZ–Up where for £2 a pop (ahem) I got a tube fitted without having to get my hands dirty which added to the Mini–World Cup DH delusion I was wrapped up in; until my dad popped the silver lining by having to lend me the £2. As Paul fettled the bike my dad reminded me that almost 30 years ago we were doing the race thing, not far from Sheffield in the NWBMXA series and that even then I raced Curtis.
With unpuncturable psi for my race run I failed to sketch my latest Curtis down into a podium, maybe because I caught up with a bloke untangling himself from a crash. Ordinarily this wouldn’t have mattered but thanks to Nick I’d bought into the whole Team Dirt thing and it definitely hurt to hand bragging rights to Singletrack, the ignominy of which will be refreshed every month because I won a year’s subscription to their mag in the raffle, but it was my dad who delivered the coup de grace. He was swapping stories with Dr Denis (who was marshalling) and looked like a tree in a hat and hi–vis vest when he spotted me and said ‘I’ve come a long way to not see you on the podium, son.’
Watching the podium (from afar, damn it) added another layer to the Mini–World Cup DH illusion. By this point all the racers had spent the day hauling on the same side of the tape as the pros, had got used to seeing Alex Rankin and Rob Warner filming for Freecaster on the other side of it and had dropped into the jaws of the 500 strong crowd in that mental finish area. From this point on life began to imitate art as the Steel City DH circus spilled down the hill and back into town for Alex Rankin’s Sprung/Earth retrospective at the Showroom cinema. After sharing a track with a few of the people on the screen we were now in the cinema with them watching their histories unfold and a couple of hours later were hooning around on the dance floor together in yet more scenes reminiscent of the on screen post–race action from a million World Cup parties.
If the night before was the main feature then the scenes next morning in the field behind Peaty’s house for the Dual World Championships were the DVD extras. Car after car arrived and deposited stinking, hungover dualers onto the grass for an extra bit of pre–racing R ‘n’ R under uncharacteristically clear blue skies. In this field my bike was suddenly less silly and I was hoping to right the wrongs of yesterday on the 12 second grippy as hell track. I scraped through qualifying only to end up in the dirt for run 1 and schooled by schoolboy Joe Mallinson in run 2. Seb Kemp, the eventual winner, and the rest of the railing top 8 were almost using their bars as ploughs and getting grip from a room that I don’t have a key to. A 16" wheel BMX was lying about which Trek’s Gravity Girl Jess Stone got to grips with, proving that if you’re really, really good on a bike it doesn’t matter what that bike is. For the record, Seb was a second off qualifying on it.
It’d be poignant to say that unlike a bike movie, the weekend can’t be re–played from the beginning. But if you made it to the Steel City that weekend the memories of it will blur over time and get embellished until one day, when you’re old and mad, you’ll tell your grandkids that you once raced in a World Cup, partied with Peaty and featured in one of Alex Rankin’s films; only this time, you did. Sort of.
Words by Nick Hamilton
Stood up on the podium about to address the crowd was one of those moments when events flash before your eyes. It’d been a long time coming and a lot of hard work to get here but the day had gone amazingly well and I was greeted by a sea of smiling faces. With the help of my fellow organisers, Peaty, Joe, Henry and Steve, we’d done it: the transition from mates’ race to Race was complete. The inaugural Steel City Series event, Peaty’s Steel City DH, was done.
From the Crookes Gentleman’s Cycling Club to This is Sheffield, Bashup’s to Ghetto Dual, my bit of the Steel City’s bike scene has progressed a lot over the past couple of years. The idea for the Steel City race actually came from Henry Norman, Sustrans officer, bike aficionado and long time racer. He’d been in touch with the legend that is Alex Rankin about putting together a montage of Sprung and Earthed movies to show the progression of mountain biking over the last 10 years. Henry suggested I hold a dual race to coincide with the showing of the movie. What a great idea, race during the day then get pissed and watch bike movies in a cinema at night. Simple.
For the Wharncliffe Weekender a few years back Peaty and a team of lads had built the most amazing dual track on Farmer Jack’s land. The original idea was that this could be the venue and that the race could serve as the final for the Winter Ghetto dual series. Over a few beers in the Lescar, The Steel City Series’ celestial home, other venue ideas were hatched. Henry had got Dr Peat (Phd) involved with the Rankin review and convinced him to do an interview at the end of the movie. Peaty was very keen on the idea of a grass roots race in his back yard and offered his might and influence to the organizing team, which was our first major coup. The biggest name in mountain biking was on the team and psyched. Also integral to the bunch was Joe Bowman, This is Sheffield’s main man, part time pinner and PR guru. Joe’s enthusiasm for life/bikes is endless and as BigStone, UK distributor for 5:10, he knows a plenty of folk. The final member was Steve Hardcastle, the voice on the mic’ at many a UK downhill race. His race expertise, connections and happily unemployed status made him the ideal accomplice and our commissar.
Henry had spoken with Roy Mosley of the Wildlife Trust who manages Greno woods. They are attempting to buy the woods from the present owners to keep them accessible to all current users and return them to their natural state after years of commercial foresting. To do this they need to raise £1 million from donations and grants. After a few pints we came up with the idea of holding a Mini Downhill race in the woods and it seemed that the Wildlife Trust might be up for it. Making the race official would be great for us and allow us to raise the profile of the Grenowoods.com appeal as well as donating cash. We put together an application to hold a race and Roy submitted it to the board, thankfully they said yes. The race was on.
Our next meeting in the Lescar was a real brain storming session. So many ideas, so many possibilities; how do we make this an event to remember? Sheffield hasn’t had a proper mountain bike race for many years despite being known as biking city. With all our hills, World Cup champion, proximity to the Peak District and many amazing riding locations, we had a responsibility to make this a good one. Peaty had a track in mind in Greno that was part of his regular training ride and finished in an old quarry which would give it that big World Cup finish.
With only a couple of months remaining to get everything sorted our meetings in ‘The Lezzer’ became more frequent, which wasn’t a hardship. Our next big coup was snagging an ultra high profile media sponsor. Steve Peat sold the idea of covering the race to Freecaster, normally associated with covering the Downhill World Cup. Raymond Dulieu and Will Ockelton saw a mutually beneficial opportunity to be involved with a high profile grass roots event and suddenly we were ‘Powered by Freecaster’. Things were starting to get a bit crazy and everyone we’d approached was completely behind the idea. We’d been waiting for the first cock–up, but it just wasn’t coming, we just sat excitedly giggling.
In a matter of a few days we had registration sorted, a press release written, I’d done all the graphics and we were just waiting for the website to go live. We’d contacted a load of potential sponsors for category prizes and their generosity was overwhelming. The days ticked by and we were itching to let the world know. We’d made the decision to avoid nepotism and not let all our mates enter before everyone else. To widen the appeal still further we organised a video and photo contest with amazing prizes to encourage spectators to get involved as well as raffles and auctions. Then finally, at 5pm on 26th January registration went live and I sent out the press release. Eight hours later the race was sold out with all 150 places gone thanks to twenty first century style word of mouth.
The next month was a blur of organisation, making sure some of ideas became reality. Freecaster brought in Alex Rankin to film and edit a feature of the day with Rob Warner interviewing and adding his own brand of commentary. All the nitty gritty of running a race got sorted: radios, marshals, MIJ on the timing beams, dull disclaimers, risk assessments, toilets, insurance, catering and most importantly…the beer tent. We’d managed to get a pretty stacked Pro–Am field with Peaty, Bryceland, Akrigg, Sorrell, Wardell and even Nick Craig.
6am on the morning of the race following a late night in the Lescar was hard work, especially opening the blinds and seeing through the mist to see it was raining. My first three hours of the day were spent up in the car park and by registration getting everyone sorted. Friends and family gave up their time to lend a hand and made the whole day possible. With registration closed I jumped on the quad and headed down to finish arena, which is when the enormity of what we’d done finally hit me: it had atmosphere by the lorry load. The rest of the lads had managed to squeeze all the exhibitors in and around finish and it looked incredible with all the stalls, banners, catering and beer tents, racers and spectators. By nine there was already a real buzz in the air. Everyone was grinning and congratulating us way before the beeps began calling people down the hill, but some faces were ashen, namely my mate Tom and his colleagues who were providing medical cover. “Nick, you can’t do this. This is madness. People are going to kill themselves". His tent was, deliberately, next to the drop off into the finish, which was getting greasier by the minute. Despite the chicken run to the side a lot of racers hadn’t walked the course before starting out and four had face–planted first run! Thankfully no one was badly hurt and once people knew the course better the face–plants stopped.
Racing got underway on a very muddy course. With 150 riders and Mother Nature taking the piss, the track was slippy. First runs went well and fast times were posted, however quite a few of the big names stacked and hurt themselves. The atmosphere around the finish was amazing with big jeers and cheers as each of the racers hit the drop surrounded on all sides by spectators. With a quick comfort break for our incredible marshals before the second runs, banter on the radios rose to new heights of comedy. The weather lifted a little and the rain stopped, clagging up the mud. With about 500 spectators on course and around the finish it was never quiet. With old frames, cowbells and cans as noise makers the racers were encouraged and heckled in equal measures. The racing finished with Peaty victorious by a staggering nine seconds over second place local pinner James Swinden with Dave Wardell in third. The ladies was won by Emily Horridge over Jess Stone and Amie Wills.
Following the podium prize giving, raffle draw and thank–yous we had to get packed up quickly and get off to the Showroom in town for the Rankin Review. It was a great end to the day with Warner and Peaty answering questions about the old times. We supped plenty of well deserved ale, viewed the entries to the photo and video contest and danced on in to the night.
We’ve had so much positive feedback from the race that it seems to have exceeded our wildest dreams. The atmosphere alone was worth all the graft. It just remains for me to thank anyone and everyone that contributed to making it happen. We couldn’t have done it without so much support and generosity, head over to ThisISheffield.co.uk for a list of everyone involved. Until the next time…