Last year saw the first successful series of downhill mountainboard competitions ever held in the UK. This year is looking like it’s going to be just as good. Let’s take a look back at the history of Downhill comps.
2005 – The history
The first ever UK downhill competition was held in Scotland in 2005. I wasn’t there, but there is video:
By all accounts it was pretty memorable with very few riders making it down the track clean. But then, not much happened in Downhilling for a few years.
2009 – Sewing the seeds
I spent quite a bit of 2009 exploring new places to mountainboard, with more than a few of them in Wales. I started riding long Welsh firetracks with Joe and learning techniques from him. I remember us riding a track called ‘Ballbearing’ because it was covered in small round gravel. I had harder tyres and so should have been going faster (I thought, anyway), but Joe started pumping his board side-to-side and accelerating away from me. I was amazed. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I had a lot to learn from Joe.
The more time I spent riding with Joe the more I realised we shared a lot of the same ideas about mountainboarding. We spent many evenings in various pubs around Wales talking about all sorts; from getting regular freeride meets going, to how mountainboarders had shifted to riding in collectives rather than clubs, to where we saw mountainboarding going in the future. Some of our ideas were a little more outlandish than others. The mountainboard rally may never be more than a few pencil marks on a map, but a lot of the things we talked about set the foundations for how we would come to organise Downhill comps. Using synchronised watches to time riders was one of those eureka moment ideas that should have been obvious long before all the walkie-talkie-stopwatch experiments. Running all the riders together so we didn’t have to worry about which category they were in, or whether they had brakes or not, was also something we thought a good idea. All we needed was somewhere to do it.
Joe was the one who first found Dave. As soon as he told me about it, I had to get over there and ride it. Firetracks, by their very nature, can be quite dull to ride. They are pretty much just a slightly uneven road, without any features or obstacles. Of all the firetracks we had ridden, Dave was the most varied and more interesting. Each corner was different, some were tight and rocky, others were wide and slidey. It had a chicane, fast straights, slow sections, and was without a doubt one of the best firetracks to ride. But at the time, I didn’t even think of putting on a competition there. If I was going to do a competition, I wanted it to be quintessential English Freeride (leafy woodland), and I wanted it to be amazing. Oh, the vanity…
2010 – Don’t say the ‘C’ word
We found out about Cheddar from a guy who runs bike endurance competitions. We checked it out, figured we could put in a pretty awesome track, that we could run an uplift with a minibus, and that the campsite at the bottom of the hill would be the perfect place for the riders to stay. All we needed was permission. We spoke to the campsite owners who said ‘Yes’. Yes, we could all stay at the campsite. And, Yes, we could could clear a track down that there gnarly hill.
It was an awesome track (the videos don’t show just how fast, technically difficult, and physically demanding it was). Anyway, as it turned out, the campsite didn’t actually own the hill and the quarrying company that did were less than pleased about us being there and threatened to sue us if we ever returned. In some ways, I think, we were lucky it didn’t go ahead. The course was a bit too gnarly for a first venture into downhilling. It would have only attracted a very small minority of riders who like gnarly singletrack in the woods, would have had lots of falling off, would have cost more money than it made, and would have most likely set downhilling in the UK back even further than not having a comp at all. So, undeterred, we set out to find somewhere else. It had to have a cool track, that would work for both brake and no-brake riders. It needed to have a way of running an uplift, and somewhere nearby to camp. Surely not too much to ask.
2011 – Time for something different
After what seemed like ages spent searching the internet, driving all over the place, and hiking up and down plenty of hills, we found somewhere with potential. It was a bike track in Somerset, and they already held mountainbike competitions so getting a mountainboard comp there shouldn’t have been too difficult.
Unfortunately the place was owned by a crazy millionaire land-owner who would only communicate through letters, and despite site visits, test rides, and numerous letters, I eventually had to accept that it was going nowhere. For a while I was struggling to see how we could ever get DH comps going, and then, finally I realised my mistake. I had been trying to take the way we do comp’s at centres and move it into a remote location, one without power, water, toilets, etc. I was trying to be too big too soon. It just wasn’t viable, financially or logistically. It was never going to work. We needed a different way of doing things.
The realisation that we didn’t need to use the two-day centre-based way of organising comps and could in fact do a downhill comp in one-day was a pivotal point, and actually came as a bit of a shock to me. It changed the way I thought about things and opened up the possibility of a downhill comp actually happening. Joe and I began talking more seriously, and Joe’s project planning skills came in really handy. We began to work out what were the important parts of a downhill comp. We only wanted the vital aspects, nothing extra. Just what the riders really wanted, rather than what we thought would make a comp look impressive. And if there was something that we could do, but it didn’t add any real value to the comp, it was thrown out.
We decided that rather than having to arrange things like a campsite, catering and toilets, we could let the riders take care of themselves. We’d point them in the direction of a local campsite, but one of the benefits of doing the comp in a day was that riders could turn up just for the day if they wanted. We threw out the idea of practice runs. Why did we need to waste riding time practicing when those runs might as well be timed? We wanted riders to get as many runs for their entry fee as possible and a quick bit of maths said we could aim for at least five runs. We didn’t need a complicated digital timing system, synchronised watches and paper would do just fine. We didn’t need a huge team of volunteers. The comp could be run with two people; one at the bottom recording the finish times, and another driving the uplift and recording the start times. We knew our ‘minimum viable product’, to use entrepreneurial speak, would be a standalone downhill comp that could be run by two people with basic timing and an uplift. All we needed was the riders.
Twenty four riders competed at the first ‘Dave’ comp. We were expecting eighteen. They all piled in the back of my car with smiles on their their faces and rode a dusty Dave again and again. To no ones surprise JC won with a time that was 14 seconds ahead of second place. Seeing him riding was like seeing some rare animal released back into it’s natural environment. Pretty much everyone seemed to have a good time and encouraged us to want to do more downhill comps.
Dave was undoubtedly a success. It got the UK Downhill ball rolling. But if we were going to grow Downhilling we would need to learn from Dave so we could improve. So, using Eric Reis’ Build-Measure-Learn loop as a model we surveyed those twenty four riders, thought about what told us, and gave ourselves realistic feedback. We decided that next year we needed to use riders numbers to make it easier for the person doing the timing to identify riders, we needed a bigger uplift, and a quicker and more reliable way of working out the times. And we needed more comps.
2012 – The Three Nations
For 2012, we wanted a Series of three comps. Having one in England, one in Wales, and one in Scotland seemed geographically fair, and gave us more scope for finding places to hold comps. The comp in the Lake District came about because while a group of us were riding there one day, the head ranger offered us a lift over to a track on the far side of the hill at Whinlatter Forest. He said that if we ever wanted to organise anything there, to send him an email. So we did. Riding at Dave was an easy choice for Wales. We already knew the track, the ranger, and how to run a comp there. And for Scotland Dave and Allan wanted to resurrect the track used in 2005, albeit tamed down a bit.
The work that went on behind each comp had it’s challenges. Even though all three comps were on Forestry Commission managed land, each FC Office had their own way of doing things and their own rules that had to be had to be followed. In Scotland, the uplift had to have seat belts, which is how we hit upon the idea of getting a minibus to take riders from down south up to there in the most cost effective way, and use it for the uplift too. We didn’t get enough people interested in getting a minibus to Scotland, but at least we know that now (and it’s all about failing fast and learning lots in new endeavours). Wales is the most expensive with CROW access (gotta let the birds in). The Lake District had its own logistical challenges including lots of walkers.
We had seventy nine entries over all three comps, and just over 20% of those riders had never competed in centre-based comps. That’s a pretty good growth in competitor numbers and proved to us that the riders want Downhill comps. The problem for us was that we realised that we had reached maximum capacity with about thirty riders. Any more than that and we wouldn’t be able to get them to the top of track and set them off quick enough.
2013 – Where do we go from here?
We don’t really want to keep going back to the same places and riding the same tracks year after year. That’s one of the things that limits BoarderX and Freestyle, but with Downhill finding tracks of the right length and technical difficulty that we can actually get permission to ride is getting harder and harder. Having done firetracks, the 2013 DH comps to go in a slightly different direction, into the woods, and perhaps even up a mountain. We’ve chosen tracks would that aren’t too hard nor too easy as we still want to encourage people who aren’t into hardcore DH to give it ago. This way, the Downhill comps can grow with the riders. As they get better, the tracks will get harder. We’ve also got a lot of work ahead liaising with organisations like the Forestry Commission and the National Trust to build a legacy and make sure we’ve got places to go in future years.