When it comes to finding new venues and building new race tracks in the UK perhaps no organiser is more prolific in doing so than the bunch at Northerndownhill. With several venues to their name already they set their sights on Kielder a few years ago, running a test event on an existing piece of track back in 2010. However, they were always honest that the real goal was to be allowed access to the full hill which they believed to be capable of holding a four minute plus course. Work started on this course early in 2012 and we were lucky to see it during the progression from blank canvas to race ready. Seeing what we did filled us with excitement and not a little nervous anticipation of what a monster it could turn out to be.
Fast forward to October for the race and thanks to some serious efforts from just a handful of bodies, the track was ready. This is the largest expanse of forest in the UK, and Kielder and October usually means rain and bitterly cold weather. Luckily, the rain disappeared early on and the cold seemed to stay at bay, once the sun came up from behind the hill, melting the overnight frost off the cars and vans and leaving a more pleasant place to go riding bikes.
It’s fair to say that this new course was a challenge for many, with the wet ground and ruts doing nothing to aid them. Carl and the rest of his crew have never been ones to shy away from building a testing track for their races and there was a definite continuation of that theme in this Northumbrian trail. Rocky, rooty and rutted with some steep chutes and more line choice than you could shake a stick at certainly did nothing to flatter riders. Because of that, it was interesting to hear the varying comments as riders came down the track. Some riders who should have had no problems, seemed to be struggling and were content to blame the track - while others who were struggling and perhaps a little out of their depth, were happy to say how much they loved and relished the challenge.
Reduced numbers on Sunday showed just how much of a struggle many found the rocks and roots to be, but the general consensus seemed to be that the track was a real gem and exhibited huge potential for further development. While still needing work to improve a few speed sapping sections, it really was an incredible achievement for a course built with just a handful of workers.
The Pinkbike opinion? We need more challenging tracks like this, maybe even more so after Masters winner Mark Weightman commented ‘it feels like some of the XC riding I do’ - a comment that left most riders within earshot questioning his sanity, especially when some of them had resorted to walking sections of the course! One of the many great things about downhill is the variety of trails you have a chance to ride and race. One week you could be on a European mountain with dust, high speed, big jumps and a chairlift; the next weekend, turning up to a windswept hill to ride a slower and infinitely more technical offering. Variety is the spice of life and seeing a venue such as Kielder brought online, certainly spices venues up in the north of England. As it stands now, it’s a work in progress, but Rome wasn't built in a day and what’s on show is a more than stellar effort. It’ll be great to see this course develop as a venue as, even with the remoteness, it could easily become a viable National Standard track.
By the time racing rolled round there were certainly lower numbers of riders left, whether that be because the track had scared or scarred them. Jack Tennyson was the first to step on the podium in Juveniles for third place, Ross Swinton taking second place with their times 5:45 and 5:09 respectively. However, the most impressive action came from James Purvis who is absolutely one to watch in 2013; he won with a 3:32 - a winning margin of over a minute and a half!
Ben Mitchinson was third in Youth with a 4:47, second placed Brad Swinbank ahead by nearly a minute on a 3:50. Given the relatively large gaps between the times of other riders the 5.5s to winner Lewis Murphy could almost be considered slim. In Junior Liam McDermott took third with a 3:33, James Wilson slipped into second just a tenth up and Ruaridh McRitchie took a well-deserved win on a 3:20 thanks to a flat out first run. Perhaps it was the reputation which put off more girls from entering but the solitary entry of Rhona Stewart put some of the guys to shame by actually racing on Sunday!
Dave Ingleby in Veteran took third with a 4:13, pipped to second by Ian Horton on a 4:10. Dave English has been racing for years and as a result is a familiar face at races but this proved to be his first win with a clear margin of 19 seconds on a 3:50 time.
Mark Gibson took third in Masters on a 3:51 but the two riders most worthy of mention are Phil Grimes in second and Mark Weightman who took the win. Phil is one of the main men behind the track and rather than practice spent all of Saturday digging and sorting out problem areas, areas which only became apparent after a number of riders had helped ride the track in which was a commodity unavailable in the trails development. The winner, Mark, produced the petulant run on his XC bike, having broken his DH bike in practice.
Andy Kipling in Seniors put in a 3:20 for third while a name from the past, Lee Kermode, took second on a 3:15 and Matt Hakes the win on a 3:11. With the Expert category all that remained, Nick Turner was third on a 3:38 thanks to a first run that was a full three minutes quicker than his second. On the middle step of the podium was Steven Turnbull on a 3:22 while Calum McRitchie took the win with a 3:08.
There’s no denying that massively technical and challenging trails such as Kielder aren’t everyone’s preference, but they definitely have a welcome place on the calendar and it was fantastic to see the efforts of the NDH team come together for such a wild monster of a track. How much it develops in the future will arguably be down to how much effort is put in by volunteers over and above the current team. This would all help the trail become more rideable for a greater spectrum of competitors, without removing the inherent challenge offered to more able riders. We await these developments with baited breath.
More race images here