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Practice Report & Track Preview: British Downhill Series Round 1 Rheola

Apr 13, 2024 at 14:56
by Nick Bentley  
photo

On a typically Welsh-weather day, the British National Downhill Series returned with a day of practice before racing begins on Sunday at Rheola in Wales. Rheola, once again, is the opening round in the National DH series which is always one of the toughest tests for riders in the UK.

The track here at Rheola has a mixture of everything. The upper section is full of fast rock gardens with tonnes of grip, followed by some tight technical sections through the middle of the track, culminating in a really steep rock drop heading into the infamous Star Wars section which is a root-infested, mud-filled test of anybody's ability to ride a mountain bike. Then we head into the lower woods where riders gather pace and head for the jumps and drops into the finish arena.

The track at Rheola has been a firm favourite with riders for a while. It does however come with a downside. Rheola has become synonymous with red flags and big crashes, and today was no exception. Unfortunately, there were some serious crashes and we wish those riders well in their recovery. Nobody likes to see people leaving in ambulances, it is especially galling at the first race of the year. However, tomorrow promises to be a bit of a better day weather-wise and with the current World Champion in attendance, along with a smattering of World Cup talent including former World Champion Reece Wilson, it promises to be one hell of a race tomorrow. But today, everybody did battle with the Welsh elements and the hillside, trying to get to grips with this daunting track.

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Jack Reading and Thomas Westgate from Gravity School Racing take us for a lap of the Rheola track for the 2024 National Downhill Series Round 1.

If anything this bike is more intriguing now the covers are off
If anything this bike is more intriguing now the covers are off

Jordan Williams is on one of the new Specialized DH bikes
Jordan Williams is on one of the new Specialized DH bikes

Charlie Hatton trying to keep his grips dry on his way up to the start
Charlie Hatton trying to keep his grips dry on his way up to the start

Just two World Champions hanging out
Just two World Champions hanging out

Plenty of bike washing from the mechanics today
Plenty of bike washing from the mechanics today

Dec Willicombe looking surprisingly guilty as his bike was being hastily rebuilt
Dec Willicombe looking surprisingly guilty as his bike was being hastily rebuilt

Plenty of tyre options in the Trek pits
Plenty of tyre options in the Trek pits

Not an easy day for the commissaires and the organisers with plenty of crashes meaning keeping racing running smoothly was not an easy task. The team at Gravity Events and the British Cycling Commissaires supported by the medics did an amazing job at keeping racing going today
Not an easy day for the commissaires and the organisers, with plenty of crashes meaning keeping the racing running smoothly was not an easy task. The team at Gravity Events and the British Cycling Commissaires, supported by the medics, did an amazing job at keeping racing going today

The new Atherton S.170 was just chilling outside the pits
The new Atherton S.170 was just chilling outside the pits

Dirty bikes everywhere - just how it should be
Dirty bikes everywhere - just how it should be

Fresh set of rims incoming in the Maddison pits
Fresh set of rims incoming in the Maddison pits

The welcome sight of bikes on a Pearce uplift trailer an image synonymous with British Downhill racing
The welcome sight of bikes on a Pearce uplift trailer, an image synonymous with British Downhill racing

Unlucky number 13 this year for Joe Smith
Unlucky number 13 this year for Joe Smith

Jordan Williams casually looking after somebody else s bike in the uplift queue
Jordan Williams casually looking after somebody else's bike in the uplift queue

Trusty Pearce Landrovers were out providing a really smooth uplift service not matter the conditions
Trusty Pearce Landrovers were out providing a really smooth uplift service no matter the conditions

The rock slab was taking no prisoners today
The rock slab was taking no prisoners today

This was a tricky gap out of the woods heading towards the finishing jumps. Riders could either take a very long way round to riders left grab on the brakes and slow right down to roll down the drop or take on this gap to a very small landing
This was a tricky gap out of the woods heading towards the finishing jumps. Riders could either take a very long way round (to riders left), grab on the brakes and slow right down to roll down the drop, or take on this gap to a very small landing

Heather Williams battling through the dark. One of the many Scottish riders loving the conditions today
Heather Willson battling through the dark. One of the many Scottish riders loving the conditions today

The upper section of the track was bathed in deep mist for most of the afternoon making an already difficult section of the track just that little bit harder
The upper section of the track was bathed in deep mist for most of the afternoon, making an already difficult section of the track just that little bit harder

No mistaking who this helmet belongs to - great to see the World Champion out racing at the National series
No mistaking who this helmet belongs to - great to see the World Champion out racing at the National series

Arm pump is real
Arm pump is real!

Riding through the mist to what has turned out to be one of the most difficult sections today down the rock slab at the midpoint of the track
Riding through the mist to what has turned out to be one of the most difficult sections today down the rock slab at the midpoint of the track

Sometimes bikes need a less than gentle touch to get fixed
Sometimes bikes need a less than gentle touch to get fixed

An unfortunately familiar sight of a marshall with a red flag at Rheola however the marshalls and the team behind the event supported by the medics did their upmost to keep everybody safe
An unfortunately familiar sight of a marshall with a red flag at Rheola, however, the marshalls and the team behind the event, supported by the medics, did their utmost to keep everybody safe

The punishing roots through Star Wars not only took their toll on riders but bikes too
The punishing roots through Star Wars not only took their toll on riders but bikes too

Charlie Hatton has had plenty of success here at Rheola. Can the World Champion start his season off with a win here on Sunday
Charlie Hatton has had plenty of success here at Rheola. Can the World Champion start his season off with a win here on Sunday?

There were a lot of riders staring at patches of mud trying to figure out just what had caught them out in the last section that they rode
There were a lot of riders staring at patches of mud trying to figure out just what had caught them out in the last section that they rode

Every riders eyes were focussed hunting for sniper roots hiding in the mud
Every rider's eyes were focused on hunting for sniper roots hiding in the mud

The slightly safer is to riders left - it means you don t have to do a gap even if it does look a little bit more complicated than riders right
The slightly safer is to riders left - it means you don't have to do a gap even if it does look a little bit more complicated than riders right

Plenty of riders were trying to gap their way through the roots this wasn t always the best idea
Plenty of riders were trying to gap their way through the roots, this wasn't always the best idea

Somehow this rider got up and not only walked away but finished riding the rest of the track
Somehow this rider got up and not only walked away but finished riding the rest of the track

There was plenty of puzzling going on in the woods today
There was plenty of puzzling going on in the woods today

This rider did not have a great day thankfully the helmet did it s job
This rider did not have a great day, thankfully the helmet did its job

Just a bike chilling out in it s natural habitat
Just a bike chilling out in its natural habitat

The Star Wars woods get their name from their look but they are definitely a battle for any rider to get through and sometimes a cheeky foot dab comes in handy
The Star Wars woods get their name from their look, but they are definitely a battle for any rider to get through and sometimes a cheeky foot dab comes in handy

Gapping into Star Wars is not for the faint hearted
Gapping into Star Wars is not for the faint-hearted

Rheola is as famous for its gullies from years of racing here as it is for its roots. Both will catch you out if you re not on your game
Rheola is as famous for its gullies from years of racing here as it is for its roots. Both will catch you out if you're not on your game

Buried underneath the mud were plenty of roots to keep riders on their toes
Buried underneath the mud were plenty of roots to keep riders on their toes

Jordan Williams was hauling today
Jordan Williams was hauling today

Despite the upper section of the track being quite technical there were still some opportunities to send it
Despite the upper section of the track being quite technical, there were still some opportunities to send it

It is definitely a clear lens kind of day
It is definitely a clear lens kind of day

Plenty of riders took on gapping off the rock slab in practice today
Plenty of riders took on gapping off the rock slab in practice today

National Champion Hattie Harnden choosing to use her Enduro bike this weekend. This track will definitely be a good test before Hattie takes on the Enduro World Series this year
National Champion Hattie Harnden choosing to use her Enduro bike this weekend. This track will definitely be a good test before Hattie takes on the Enduro World Series this year

A rare smooth bit of track at Rheola gave the riders the opportunity to relax before they dropped into the final jumps
A rare smooth bit of track at Rheola gave the riders the opportunity to relax before they dropped into the final jumps

Sliding your way through the trees
Sliding your way through the trees

Clear goggles really do let you see what the riders are really feeling - the focus of Seth Pettifer is quite clear to see
Clear goggles really do let you see what the riders are really feeling - the focus of Seth Pettifer is quite clear to see

For all the difficulty of the Rheola track it really is a beautiful place to ride bikes
For all the difficulty of the Rheola track, it really is a beautiful place to ride bikes

Daniel Maplesden carving his way through the lower section of the track
Daniel Maplesden carving his way through the lower section of the track

The best way to deal with roots is to not touch them at all
The best way to deal with roots is to not touch them at all

It s always great to see riders back out on the gas through the woods
It's always great to see riders back out on the gas through the woods

However this is Rheola so there are roots just waiting around the corner - in this case some nice off-camber chunky roots to contend with
However, this is Rheola so there are roots just waiting around the corner - in this case some nice off-camber chunky roots to contend with

The bottom section of the track gives the riders the opportunity to let loose and send it
The bottom section of the track gives the riders the opportunity to let loose and send it

Liv Taylor charging as hard as ever
Liv Taylor charging as hard as ever

Despite the mud there was still plenty of grip hiding if you just trusted your tyres
Despite the mud, there was still plenty of grip hiding if you just trusted your tyres

Monika Mixova had a bit of a spill late in the day up at the rock slab but before that she seemed on her game
Monika Mixova had a bit of a spill late in the day up at the rock slab, but before that, she seemed on her game

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33 Comments
  • 27 0
 I’ll say it then, looks horrible
  • 10 0
 God yeah, full marks to everyone who got off their sofa and raced in that!
  • 4 1
 Damn, yes, it looks a nightmare. I cannot believe people actually enjoy stuff like that, but fair play to anyone who raced.
  • 6 0
 My lads first National and a baptism of fire !
Didn’t get a full run on Saturday due to red flags but put in a decent seeded run and was feeling good for the race run but it wasn’t to be unfortunately. There was an unofficial race at the end though when the marshal on a quad instructed all the riders up at the start to follow him down the fire road with absolutely no overtaking. You know the rest, the poor guy didn’t stand a chance with fifty odd ready to go teenagers
  • 4 0
 Nathan was part of that and rumour has it he was first to reach the bottom. Hands down the best 5 minutes of the whole weekend for him Wink
  • 3 0
 @trailrippers: Mark the marshall pulled up next to me at the bottom and was shaking his head "they're all bloody nutters" Big Grin Big Grin
  • 1 0
 @weeksy59: they certainly are
  • 4 0
 I was watching the live timing yesterday and noticed that the timing stopped very early during race runs. Hope everyone who crashed are relatively unscathed. Wonder if having practice on Friday and having seeding on Saturday would allow a time contingency for red flags/injuries etc on the Sunday, although I imagine some riders were grateful of Race Runs being cancelled.
  • 5 1
 1. It seems from paddock talk there's a fair few broken bones, broken bikes and stuff, i repaired a few bikes for people this weekend but i don't fix humans Smile
2. It was hard from an organiser perspective as they have to get people off the hill, sorted out and back up with medics etc... I kinda get it. We've had some shit-shows with Gravity, but this weekend wasn't on them (sort of)
3. Part of the problem was a couple of new 'features' they'd added this year, however without being too brutal, they were a sodding disaster build, they were a complete and utter disgrace and should never have been signed off by British Cycling. At least 50% of the crashes were on newly built features... Not because they were new, but because they were poorly built/planned.
4. You're not wrong, my lad came down after being at the top for 90 mins and not getting to race, first thing he said was "well, at least i didn't have to ride it again" LOL.
5. friday would be tough as people work, school, college etc... I couldn't pull my lad out of school for example as he has his GCSEs in a couple of month.
  • 6 0
 @weeksy59: They could have had more medics, as soon as the medics left the venue to do a handover the track is closed until they return. MX etc have more teams so there is always a team ready to go (cost saving here)

This is the nationals, pinnacle of UK DH and the course between the new features showed how great of a DH track it is.

Nobody wants to see the elites sumping out their cranks & OTB in ruts just before the finish line because the organisers didn't build well or maintain the new features. The new wet double at the top just before the fire road would get ripped out of the local forest for being unsafe, yet we're hitting it in race runs?

The organisers had a regional the week before to see what they'd built didn't work but either didn't listen or want to change for the national and a lot of this could have been avoided!
  • 3 0
 @smithfeeble: I'm not going to argue with any of that fella. We were there the weekend before and i pointed out several of your points (as i'm sure did others)

The point about it being the highest level DH, you couldn't be more correct... it's a poor showing that these things are being done on the fly rather than proper thought/planning and testing etc

The double was poor according to everyone i spoke to and again, why not have it built months ago and bedded in, or just remove the sodding thing. If 95% of your riders are not hitting it, that tells you something doesn't it ?

There was a fair few medics, looking at Roots and Rain there were 110 people who DNF/DNS and that's potentially a LOT of injuries and medics (ignore mechanicals and frustrated riders who went home early)
  • 1 0
 @weeksy59: Out of interest mate, what features in particular are you most pissed about? Obviously that sketchy double before the road, but anything else?
  • 2 0
 @Jaib06: The root drop into the carpet covered double was in honesty a crap-shoot. Due to the entry only about 20% of riders were getting over it as you couldn't carry enough speed. Well, you could if it was dry, but clearly it wasn't. My lad was one who was able to clear it, but then it was closed as rider after rider stacked it on there.
Watching in practice was a comedy as rider after rider nearly exploded their forks and shock on compression after coming off the roots and landing with an almighty explosion.

But as i wasn't racing it's not really my place, i made a few points to the organisers over the weekend about the track and the organisation. The biggest issue yesterday (and last weekend) was the utter lack of communication. The tannoy was pathetic and when it did work it was some random bloke talking about Charlie Hatton, not about "there's going to be an approx 45 mins delay as we have to...... " At times the riders were up at the top for 90minutes, but could easily have been a lot less if it had been communicated better to them. But as i'm guessing you know, we've had communication problems for the last 2 years at Rheola and the organisers don't seem to resolve the situation. I understand that they're busy... but surely one of the staff is able to do it ? Yesterday we waited an hour after the Juvenile and Youth were supposed to go up for race run. I spoke to the organiser and the answer to when they're going up was "well they should be up there now"... Yes if it was running to schedule they should, but i was standing looking at 10 of the Elites who hadn't even gone up yet and they were before the Juvenile/Youths.

I'm not pissed off about any of it fella... I'm more disappointed that the track wasn't IMO fully finished. I understand the reason for a lot of that was likely the weather, but if that's the case, leave them out (but leave them out nicely) you/whoever could have diverted that lower section earlier like previous years and given a better run into the left line/jump.
  • 2 0
 @weeksy59: I think its just the wrong time of year to be building any new features out of dirt - Rheola is one of those tracks that doesnt really need anymore features, bit of maintenance on drainage, dig ruts etc and its good! We used to uplift that track every month in mainly wet conditions and it used to run well but yeah these track changes have changed that from what I can see
  • 5 0
 Great report. Can't wait to see today's race report. Even though the rain held off the carnage was real.
  • 3 0
 One of my toughest weekends as a parent/spanner/support crew. It was hell for the riders
In Youth there were 20 DNF/DNS
  • 1 0
 rode this in the dry a few years back. Was terrifying and that was back when my brain wasn't formed enough to understand risk. I'll stick to watching the talented cream of the crop send it.
  • 1 0
 mad respect to the riders that test their mettle on that track! seems like it would be a real trick to dial the susp and attempt to float thru those rooted sections
  • 3 1
 It's stuff like this that leads to British World Champs and WC winners! Well done for everyone who gave it a good crack!
  • 1 0
 Star wars was rough as a badgers arse years ago, got filled in a bit, but looks back to its usual rodeo!
  • 2 2
 note to all you non UKers: climate change seems to have made/is making our already rainy climate even more rainy and miserable. Unremitting wet bleak weather since October
  • 2 0
 Fkin evil place at the best of times!
  • 2 0
 Great report and photos
  • 1 0
 Where were Ohlins I thought they were sponsoring the event
  • 1 0
 Really outstanding photos. Great work!
  • 1 1
 Heather Williams! Jordan Williams sister....just throwing it out there????
  • 1 0
 typo, should be heather wilson
  • 1 0
 That looks brutal!
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