Words by Grace Zarczynska
For many mountain bikers, the last event of the summer season is the World Champs every year. However, for many brave women, Red Bull Foxhunt marks the transition to Winter. Just like Megavalanche, it is a mass start event, although perhaps that is where the comparisons end. The Red bull Foxhunt is all about a keen and hungry fox trying to overtake hundreds of hunters in a downhill race.
It is clear that Foxhunt remains an important date in the women’s mountain bike calendar (yes, we have a calendar). The sight of around 250 female mountain bikers all in one place to shred and have a good time is wonderful, if sadly still very rare.
Rachel Atherton has made no secret about wanting to improve female access and participation in mountain biking and Foxhunt plays a key role in doing so. The event will have a different importance for different people but it offers the opportunity for women to dip their toe into competitive riding without too much pressure.
Now in its fourth year, the venue has moved from grassy steep hills of Cumbria to beautiful Snowdonia, close by to Rachel Atherton’s home in Machynlleth. The camp was based just on the outskirts of the town, although considering the size of Machynlleth, this meant also being near the centre of town.
Last year 250 women attended the event, which appears to be the maximum capacity, so there was no increase in numbers for 2017. With that in mind, you had to be super quick to buy a ticket as they sold out in minutes.
A Few weeks before the event the news broke that Rachel Atherton has broken her clavicle during her practice run at the World Champs in Cairns. When it became clear that Rachel would not be able to take part she reached out to Katy Winton, the EWS podium placer from the Trek Racing enduro team, and happily, she agreed to fill Rachel’s shoes. I spoke with Katy before the race and she was very excited, if a little apprehensive, to be the fox, “Especially stepping up for Rachel, as those are big shoes to fill"
I arrived at the site in Machynlleth on Friday to find ample space to pitch my tent, although actually doing that was easier said than done. I was pleased to see that there were good quality showers and toilets this year and the big Red Bull tent made a return appearance.
Red Bull Foxhunt: Day One
In a typically Welsh way, a giant storm arrived at the camp the night before proceedings got underway. The wind kept most of the campers awake and the rain was testing the waterproofing of my hastily bought tent to its limit.
Unfortunately, my tent turned out to be only drizzle-proof resulting in my airbed turning in a water float and my towels into water retention devices. As the water levels continued to rise in my tent throughout the night so did my apprehensions regarding the status of the track. The tension amongst the ladies kept growing on Saturday morning and after a briefing, we all headed out in uplift vans to the top of our first try of the descent. It was good to see that the team behind Antur Stiniog were responsible for shuttling duties this year.
We were dropped off and after a 10-minute pootle up the hill, we were at the top. After fully submerging your feet in the deep mud around the start it was time to try out the 2017 Red Bull Fox Hunt track.
Red Bull Foxhunt: The Track
From the starting point, the track weaved through moorland over the top of the hill intermixed with tight corners and steep grassy descents. Coming down off the top, the riders entered the forest which is where we were properly introduced to the aftermath of last night’s rainfall.
There was mud. A lot of mud. The mud had me quickly ripping off my mudguard as my wheels squelched to a halt. The track narrowed becoming single file and making swift progress very often depended on what was happening out front. At the start of the forest, there was a small hip jump that led to the first of many lines with a rollable drop and rocky features, the alternative was an easier B line, though in the thick slop it was difficult to tell which line was easier.
If you managed to keep your wheels rolling, or like me gracefully tripoded down the slopes, you were met with another option of either an A-line involving a drop that you could roll (or at least it is what Rachel told me) but you really needed speed to get to it as the drop was just over the brow of an off-camber uphill. In increasingly greasy conditions, the track flowed into two steep muddy corners that, even on the first day, seemed fairly rutted as a result of rain.
If you survived the quagmires along the way the final part of the track opened up a little bit with a rocky canyon-like chute filled with mud (and riders) and a turn across the crest of a hill that led you to a muddy bottom section that would test the riders stamina as they churned their way through the slop to the finish line. If it wasn't’ clear there was a lot of mud on the track.
Because of the way the track was put together, there was little chance to test the track and re-do technical features. The tight nature of the middle section of the forest meant you had to wait a significant amount of time to try out a section and it was hard to piece it all together.Whilst it was slow going it was vital to make sure that everyone had a go at the trickier sections without any pressure or hurrying, with amazing coaching from both Rachel and Katy along with the way. “Keep it loose" and “let go of your brakes" could be heard echoing around most of the technical features throughout practice.
After a quick break for lunch, we all headed back to the top to do our seeding runs. This year it was not an absolute requirement to do a seeding run however for many riders it was probably the first time that they managed to put a run together, so it was definitely worth a try.
After a bike clean and a shower, the mud free girls gathered in the tent to eat a delicious dinner, cake and chat to Rachel and Katy. Both of them were lovely and made every effort to help out the hundreds of women with the following day’s race looming over them. The pro girls provided helpful insight into bike setup, getting loose and letting off the brakes. All of which would be key to getting down in one piece come race day. We watched a film and the party finished fairly early as everyone was tired after a long day of riding and sliding.
Red Bull Foxhunt: Day Two
The weather slightly improved for race day albeit it still managed to drizzle every now and then but my tent was just slightly damp rather than a raging river. I cursed myself in vain as I begrudgingly slipped into my wet and cold riding shoes but I was determined to do well today and soggy shoes were not about to put me off.
In the morning there was the opportunity to take part in yoga to stretch out those tired legs from the previous day. Then finally it was time for breakfast. Delicious blueberry pancakes and porridge got us all “shredy" for, well… shredding.
Training runs began early and continued until 11:00 when the uplift for the main event started. Those who seeded with slower times or did not decide to seed were taken up the hill first to make space out the front for the faster riders. The excitement kept growing every second at the top of the hill, but thankfully there was cake available to eat which certainly helped calm my nerves.
At 1 pm Rachel Atherton sounded the horn and released the hounds. Ladies in red sprinted down the hill with the aim of outrunning the fox. In the end, only 20 made it down quicker than Katy Winton this year. Mille Johnset came in first with Rosy Monaghan and Claire Bennet following closely behind to make up the podium.
I placed just a fraction off the podium and ended with a ladylike 119th out of approximately 172 finishers, not my best result but the conditions were challenging and if I am being honest Foxhunt is far more about getting together with other women than it is about the actual results. At least that is what I will keep telling myself.
There were definitely a few hiccups regarding the Saturday morning’s practice and there were scheduling changes prior to the event which left people who had planned to arrive on Saturday with some concerns.
However, Red Bull was quick to respond and sent out an email to clarify the changes. Scheduling issues aside the main issue throughout the weekend was the fact that some seeding times appeared to have been recorded incorrectly which left riders questioning their results. Although, in comparison to last year, the organisation has improved significantly.
That said, the track was probably one of the hardest since the women's Foxhunt began. There were positives and negatives to increase the difficulty level. Rachel was very keen for the race track to challenge and push the riders, the aim being that they would feel like they had really achieved something. “That to me is real mountain biking, and I wanted people to realise that there is more to it than trail centre riding".
In future years, I think organisers will have to think more clearly about quite who the event is aimed at. It appears that in the current location it is difficult to devise a track that appeals to both novice and more experienced riders alike. Will the aim be to lure new participants into the sport or to progress those already shredding on two wheels? Can an event, and a track in particular, manage to be all things to all women?
Nevertheless, Foxhunt continues to sell out faster than most other organised mountain bike events and it remains a great place for women to meet with friends, make new ones or finally meet your internet buddies. There was still a great camaraderie with so many women facing their fears together. There were many opportunities to learn new things intermingled with yoga sessions, cake and beer.
I look forward to Foxhunt 2018 and hope to see you all there.