Is Ard Rock mountain biking’s answer to Glastonbury?
Buying tickets certainly makes it feel like it!
Up early with the page open on multiple devices, refreshing repeatedly.
WhatsApp group buzzing, hoping we’d land some tickets.
Unfortunately, this time we were too slow to get enduro tickets, but we did grab some for the sprint, the rad little sister which would see us taking in 3 of the 7 stages. Still a decent pedal at 30km and 1000m climbing and, as we were to find out, it makes for a more relaxed weekend.
I'd previously competed at Ard Rock in 2015 (pre-30s, pre-covid, pre-parenthood) so rolling up to find a camping spot this year was a huge surprise. It seems like the footprint of the event in Swaledale has grown about 5 times over and driving through the campsite was like driving through a small town. We pitched up with the gang and settled in for a weekend of fun. We were a group of 4 riders, partners and my little girl.
Friday was practice day.
Stages 1 and 2 were open to get a feel for things and stretch the legs a little. Riding in the sprint event meant that start times each day were around lunch time, so we could take our time getting up and ready, even have an early lunch before getting out on the trails.
Stage 1 of practice started with a bang. Literally. Dickie snapped his chain within 2 seconds of starting, much to the amusement of the everyone waiting, who gave the customary cheer as if a barman had dropped a glass. Chain patched up and a gentler approach taken and we were rolling onto the course, classic Ard Rock stage 1: First section from the top of Fremington edge starts fairly flat but then quickly plummets down the loose face, with tight hairpins and techy entries to contend with. It then opens up to a flatter sprint across some off camber grass, which was sure to burn the legs when pushing harder during the race. A flat out grassy turn leads to a wall drop and into the infamous Heckler’s wood, to tackle the rocks.
A decent climb up a rocky fire road takes you back up to the top of Fremington Edge and to the start of stage 2. Not too dissimilar to stage 1, lovely techy turns and rock chutes to blast down. Opening up again across flatter off camber grass, and then back into some tech to finish. We didn’t break this one up as much as the first stage, and we were all starting to feel some arm pump by the end. Definitely a good test of fitness, with huge grin factor.
That was it for practice. It was still early afternoon so we headed to Grinton and met up with the gang for a couple of drinks. A lovely way to start the event.
We headed back to the vans, had a splash in the todger-shrinking Swale and headed into the main event site. There were loads of food options to choose from, tons of different brands ready to offer support or sell you some new goodies. Pump track challenge, live music. And of course the good folk at Hope Technology offering coaching through the Hope Academy and guided rides with Hope Women. So plenty to do, even for those who weren’t racing.
Some rain over night meant a wet start on Saturday. But with the sprint event’s lunchtime start, we happily chilled out with a coffee in the drizzle as we watched those on the Enduro event rush to get chaines lubed and tyres pumped up early doors.
One of the nice things about the event is you can pick a team name and ride as a group. So we all had a 12:25 start time and would be able to set off at the same time onto each stage. So after a reminder not to damage any chains and to open up your shock, we dived into stage 1. I felt like I had a pretty solid first stage, catching a few riders and getting through cleanly. A big slide (it felt like speedway) on the wide open grassy turn gave me a fright but I pulled out my rodeo card and got over the drop with only a little bit of speed lost. Entering Heckler’s Wood was ace. Loads of noise and encouragement gave ne a boost and I carried good momentum through the rocks to catch a couple more riders. My wife and friends were in there screaming at me, but I was so focused I totally missed them.
After regrouping for the transition to stage 2, everybody was buzzing. For the other three guys it was their first enduro and the race adrenaline was kicking in. The heavens opened and we got on with the transition up to stage 2 whilst chatting about how good stage 1 had been.
Not long later, we were sat at stage 2 start. Apart from catching a couple of riders at the top of the stage I had clear track in front of me and was able to put a pretty clean run down. I arrived at the bottom of stage two absolutely blowing. I bumped into a rider (sorry I don’t know your name) from the previous day who’d broken some ribs. I attempted some conversation as I gasped for air, and did the mean thing of trying to make her laugh - hoping you’re all healed up now. The rest of the gang finished up and we promptly went the wrong way on the transition for a few hundred meters before we started to think it was a bit quiet. Not an easy mistake to make, with the well marked transitions and constant flow of riders along it make navigation very simple.
We were off into unknown territory now. A lengthy transition with another big climb lay ahead so we bowed our heads and took things steady on the climb. A welcome water stop and a few wild raspberries later, we were there.
Stage 3 was familiar to me from 2015, so I did my best to explain what I thought it was like to the group. “There are a few whoops at the start… I think, maybe some steep bits… then it opens up and is really fast. There are definitely gravel turns at the bottom… I crashed on those last time”. Obviously with a detailed description like that, everyone was ready. It was time to hit the final stage. It was weird to be starting the last stage feeling so fresh, so it was time to give it some. While being able to ride in a group is ace, it can also mean there is traffic on the stage. In our haste we didn’t leave enough time to the riders in front and caught a small group picking their way through the technical section at the top. I needed to find ways past 4 riders - I did so, which was great fun, but it definitely cost me some time. Then my memory laid out the fast open bit in front of me…I cranked into it and then let the bike do it’s thing over the rough ground, making a mental note to slow down for the gravel corners at the end of the stage and not wash out in front of an audience.
Jelly babies scoffed at the feed station, we got on the road back to the festival site where we were met with the rain-soaked but smiling faces of our friends and family as we scanned back in across the line. My nearly-two-year-old daughter, more excited to see my bike than me, reached for the top tube. A cursory (on her side) hug out of the way, she grinned out of the top of her oversized biking t-shirt as we slowly pedalled off to hand in timing chips and find the bar.
The evening at Ard Rock is easily as entertaining as the race itself. Give aways, music, great food, beer and a field full of like-minded people. It’s just a really nice atmosphere and a lot of fun. My little girl absolutely lost her mind with excitement at the DJs and threw some crazy breakdance/riverdance hybrid for the next hour and a half.
We had a fantastic time, possibly made even better by doing the sprint and being able to enjoy more time as a group.
Ard Rock 2023 WhatsApp group already set up, we’re all hoping to do it again next year, and I can’t wait for Ard Moors too.
A great weekend for all the family and, to top it off, some great success for Hope Technology, with Fergus Lamb taking the win the in Enduro aboard his HB.916.
Ard Rock 2022
Is Ard Rock mountain biking’s answer to Glastonbury?