Back for its 3rd year, the Red Bull Foxhunt with World Champion, Rachel Atherton, was bigger than ever. With a new venue and even more riders entered, we headed up to Cumbria to check out the most anticipated women's MTB event of the year.
It's a wonderful feeling to be a female mountain biker today. Our fledgling industry is rapidly growing with new riders picking up a bike every day. We're bound and proud to the passion for the trails, and we're beginning to see brands take notice, and events take place to nurture our rabble of dirt divas.
It was 3 years ago when Rachel Atherton decided to follow in her older brother's footsteps, and host her own Foxhunt which would rival Gee Atherton's all male event. The Foxhunt is a mass start event with riders from all over trying to make it to the bottom of the course whilst the World Champion chases them down, trying to overtake as many as possible. With overwhelming rider numbers and a wonderful sense of community, the women's Red Bull Foxhunt has been going from strength to strength.
For the past two years, the Foxhunt chase has taken place on the rolling hills surrounding Edinburgh. However, to accommodate larger numbers of women and make the event even bigger, a new venue was chosen in the stunning landscapes of the Lakes in Cumbria for 2016.
Over 250 women flooded the Red Bull Foxhunt website back in August to snap up one of these hot tickets. In a matter of hours, the event was a sell out. With the weeks counting down until the 2 day event, social media anticipation and excitement was at an all time high. But did the new venue and larger mass start meet expectations?
Saturday: Red Bull Foxhunt 2016
Having attended the Foxhunt last year, I already had a good idea of what to expect for the weekend. With registration opening from Friday evening, the majority of riders were camping in the adjoining field to the main area.
The event kicked off on Saturday morning with breakfast and a briefing from Rachel, and the event staff. A timetable was set in place so riders knew where they needed to be, and when. After an enthusiastic welcome was given by the World Champ, the Saturday practice session began.
In true Lakes nature, the weather had been quite grim in the lead up to the weekend so the uplifts could not run as the Jeeps weren't able to make it up the track. To compensate for the additional push up time, Red Bull extended practice time by an hour.
Despite the muddy climb, spirits were high amongst the women who knuckled down and pushed on. The practice time gave all riders the opportunity to walk the track, session some features and learn some top tips from the Rachel, who stationed herself in more techy areas to offer guidance.
The Red Bull Foxhunt isn't just about bringing female mountain bikers together to ride alongside the World Champion. It's about encouraging women to have a go at riding in a race environment, without having the intense race pressure you find elsewhere.
Rachel had a lot of input with the track build and wanted to achieve a balance between having challenging features for experienced riders, and a ride-able track for everyone to make it down on . It's a tall order to meet when you have over 250 women of all abilities and backgrounds to accommodate for though.
The 2km track began with a wide open pedally stretch of grassland. Riders swooped down the mountain side dodging some hidden rocks and straight into the Scar. This feature was split into a more difficult A line, and easier B line depending on your ability. A tight corner and rocky shoot led riders down onto a narrow single-track before approaching a blind hump.
With more grassy steep sections, the track wrapped around to the second split feature which provided the riders with a blind steep shoot, or a blind rocky drop off. Both features landed you onto a somewhat awkward off-camber corner which continued at a steep gradient. Definitely a section which most riders struggled with.
From the off-camber carnage, the course veered off into a built up dirt track with some fun rollers to pump through, and then a short drop into the finishing area.
Although the track featured a little bit of everything, there were some areas which definitly caught riders out. From speaking with a number of girls, the biggest area for concern was the off-camber section which seemed to have a lot of riders sliding out. Fortunately the open track meant that you slid out into more grass, rather than a tree or obstacle. During the race itself, many riders got off and walked this whole section.
It's a very hard balance to get right with an event like this. You want to create a nurturing environment for new racers to grow, but you want to provide a challenge for those who are already seasoned. Whilst many riders felt the track was more challenging than in previous years, and featured some hair-raising sections, I can't deny that they did a good job when the event is such a difficult one to cater for.
Saturday: Red Bull Foxhunt 2016 Seeding
After practise time was over, the girls headed back to the event ti-pi for some seriously healthy lunch to fuel them for their seeding run. As the weather had begun to clear up and dry out the track, everyone was relieved to hear that the uplifts were up and running... part of the way at least.
Event staff announced that seeding runs had to be taken in order to race on Sunday. These runs would assess your course speed and place you in the appropriate starting line for the race itself. With that, the women were back out on the mountain side trying to place as best time as they could.
The evening drew in and the atmosphere was electric with excitement in the main ti-pi. It's such a brilliant experience to be surrounded by so many amazing women, all with their own experiences and stories to share amongst one another. The wind, rain, mud and sketchy course sections barely made a chink in the armour of this incredible bunch of women.
Sunday: Race Day
Cumbria is stunning. We woke up to rolling clouds and veils of mist rising up from the valleys. Behind these floating curtains, the sun was waiting to warm up, and dry out the ground, ready for race action.
With breakfast and briefing out of the way, a short practice session was held. The race had been brought forward, from 14:00 to 13:00 - so uplifts would begin carting up the riders from 11:00, leaving little practise time.
The race uplifts began by taking up those who seeded with the slowest times. This was so they would form the back lines of the mass, with the quicker riders heading the front. Contrary to the previous days announcement, riders who didn't complete a seeded run were in fact allowed to race, and they too were taken up first.
Despite the shining sun, there appeared to be some major set backs in the uplift procedure. The delays pushed back the race start - causing a couple of riders to head back down the mountain in search of food and information.
After a delayed 90 mins, however, the race began. A mass of women descended the mountain side, jostling one another and desperately looking for those over-taking opportunities. The first rider made it through the finishing line with a quick succession of riders in her wake. The World Champ herself suffered a puncture on the course and 80 riders beat her to the end.
As riders sailed through the finish line, it seemed that the delayed start was a thing of the past. Pure elation swept over the crowd of women who successfully made it down the track, and those who outfoxed Rachel. The atmosphere was incredible as riders high-5'd and hugged their way through the crowds with a buzzing Rachel who seemed to not care about her puncture run, and just be happy to be amongst such a large and bristling bunch of riders.
Hiccups and High-5's
Admittedly, I've struggled a tad writing up this race report. While I thoroughly enjoyed my experience with the Red Bull Foxhunt last year, I did feel that this year the event's organisation let the event down somewhat.
Although there are camping facilities provided for the Foxhunt, previous years have allowed riders to attend each day separately. Perfect if you live close by, or if you fancy getting a cosy bed in a hotel for the night. This year though, it was unclear as to whether this was a camping-only event.
When I arrived on Saturday morning, I was turned away from the car park by a Red Bull member of staff who told me that parking is only available for campers. If I wanted to park my car on site, I wouldn't be allowed to get it back out until Sunday afternoon. When I asked where I could park, I was told "I dunno. Up the road, on the side somewhere". So that's what me and a number of people had to do, park precariously on the edge of a 60mph country road.
I contacted Red Bull after the event for some clarification on the parking: "The designated field for parking was badly affected by the heavy rain and we diverted parking into the adjacent field which was much firmer ground. Advice to people parking throughout the weekend, whether on site or not, was that assistance for people exiting the site would be provided on Sunday afternoon only, and those people wishing to leave before this would be parking in the knowledge that that there would be no support for vehicles exiting the site until this point." - Although this would have been an acceptable word of caution, it wasn't what was relayed to myself, and others looking to park for individual days.
For many people, getting time off work and organising transport can be an issue which is why in previous years, riders have turned up blind on the Sunday and just raced the course. With the Saturday lunchtime announcement informing riders that "you don't seed, you don't race", we were under the impression that was the bottom line. However, when race day approached, un-seeded riders were suddenly allowed to ride in the actual race.
Having contacted Red Bull to query this over-ruling, they said: "The decision to reverse the ruling that only seeded riders could compete on Sunday was made following the uplift difficulties on Saturday during practice. Acknowledging that it had not been possible for all riders to practice as they had hoped, we felt it fair to allow non-seeded riders to participate in the main race if they wished. We endeavoured to communicate this to riders as best as possible but recognise that this information may not have been relayed to all as it was after the rider briefing. We apologise to any participants who were not updated."
While I can't help but feel angry for those few who couldn't ride the event owing to poor event communication, I also can't deny the brilliant power of community that the Red Bull Foxhunt instils.
For many of us, the Red Bull Foxhunt is our guilt free ladies weekend away. Women gather from all over to meet, make friends and ride bikes. It's the perfect chance to meet those who you've only spoken to online, and even I've made life-long friends from the event in the past. It's worth the hype and the year long anticipation, so any disappointment is keenly felt. Unlike other races in the calendar, this one means so much more than just riding bikes to our growing fledgling community.
Let's go back North next year (or find somewhere totally new!) - at least there was a Costa nearby.
Check out the full gallery below for more photos from the weekend's events.