'Ard Rock and roll
Words: Dan Trent | Photos: Mick Kirkman/’Ard Rock
It started as a race but is now much, much more – how Ard Rock became the biking festival of choice for both pros and have-a-go heroes alike.
There are plenty of mountain bike races going on up and down the country all year long. But not since the heady days of the original (and recently reborn) Malverns Classic has one struck a chord like the Ard Rock, this winning combination of enduro racing and Yorkshire grit riding the crest of the wave as riders seek an event in tune with the sport’s broader direction of travel.
Things change, things stay the same but it’s clear many who two decades ago were dossing in cheap two-man tents and drunkenly back-flipping their Pro-Flexes into the Malverns lake haven’t lost their appetite for riding hard and partying even harder. It’s just now they turn up in convoys of posh camper vans, sip artisan lattes served from Citroen H-vans and happily pay a premium for a wood-fired pizza where in a previous life would have been happy with chips in a polystyrene tray and a carrier bag of Fosters.
Much as Glastonbury has evolved from a bunch of stoned hippies shuffling around in a muddy cow field into a global event with megastars, corporate sponsors, VIP laminates and helicopter transfers so have mountain bike festivals grown into something rather more slick. None more so than Ard Rock.
2018’s event was the sixth in its history but it already feels part of the British mountain-biking landscape and a go-to event for everyone from serious raceheads to enthusiastic amateurs. This year it’s grown even bigger, demand for places in the competitive events inspiring the return of the cross-country Marathon, a demo loop for testing out bikes and extra ‘Enduro Intro’ for those who didn’t get a place in the existing three-stage Sprint or fancy going all-in with the seven-stage Enduro or Enduro Sport.
Pausing for breath at the top of the first major climb I get a real sense of the scale of this event. I’d arrived the previous evening in my borrowed Mercedes Marco Polo camper van, possibly hitting peak Ard Rock before I’d even turned a pedal in terms of campsite posing power. But I’d not really taken in quite how big Ard Rock has become. The event village beside the Dales Bike Centre is the beating heart but the ranks of tents, motorhomes and camper vans now stretch across pretty much the whole valley floor, annexing more and more of the adjoining fields to cater to the estimated 15,000 people who now attend. Ard Rock is defined by its Yorkshireness but walking around the campsite it’s clear from the accents – and languages – there are people here from all over.
In many ways it was right time, right place for the Ard Rock. Enduro is the perfect hook on which to hang an event pitched at a generally older, more affluent crowd willing to open their wallets for an event with an unabashed premium vibe. But there’s also a bigger picture here, thanks in no small part to the location and identity Ard Rock trades on.
Cycling has always been big in these parts but after the Grand Départ in 2014 and success of the Tour de Yorkshire the region has asserted itself as the centre of British cycling, with a huge push to portray itself as a destination for pedal pushers of all persuasions. This may have raised a few eyebrows in other parts of the country with equally well-established cycling scenes but, if there’s one thing for sure, we Yorkshire folk are masters of banging on about how wonderful Yorkshire is compared with anywhere else. It’s not known as god’s own country for nothing. Sorry, nowt.
The positive expression of that is an intense pride in showcasing this spectacularly beautiful corner of the Dales and hoped-for benefits that come from a large influx of people intent on having a great time. And while the natural terrain isn’t lacking in hills or public rights of way the Ard Rock’s real USP is dedicated, purpose-built stages on normally private land. This is what makes the event special, the timed stages carved into the brutally steep and rocky terrain and sympathetically working in natural features with man-made obstacles like launches over collapsed dry-stone walls and loose, gravelly berms through old mine workings.
Chatting with organiser Joe Rafferty explains a lot about why these trails have scored so well with the riders. Designed from scratch by a team with years of riding and racing all over the world, a great deal of thought goes into the flow, not just on an individual stage but over the entire course of the event. Which is why the first three stages major on height drop, exposure, rocks and technicality with big, tough transitions. But as you progress things mellow out a tad, before a spectacular final stage that combines all of the above into one thrilling, flat-out plunge back to the event village.
Which is where it morphs from regular race into full-blown festival, moshpit included for those wanting to put the rock into Ard Rock. Joe explains the motivation for expanding the original event from a race into something broader as “putting on a barbecue and some music” because it seemed like a fun thing to do. “And that was the budget blown,” he laughs. It went down a storm and he realised they might be onto something. “Word got around and out of those original 400 people we had folk coming from Devon, from overseas and all over. There’s probably that many serious riders within 10 miles of here but we thought we’ve got something special here and if people are going to come that far we have to do something special for them to make it worthwhile.” Ride hard, party hard – it’s all part of the event mindset and there’s a real sense riders make the trip for a weekend of escapism on and off the bike. A proper festival, in other words.
There’s a race to do before I can enjoy that side though. I’m riding the full seven-stage Saturday Enduro, the most fiercely competitive of the various options on offer and packed with salty former downhill champions, up to and including the likes of Steve Peat and Tracy Moseley. Practice is open from the Friday but my first taste of a stage will be on Saturday as part of my competitive run. I’ve previously done the three-stage Enduro Sport so I at least have a sense of what’s coming, which is just as well because I’ve missed Friday practice. This is a worry, given the tracks are tweaked and modified each year so I have to find the right balance between maximum attack and keeping enough margin for error.
About 30 seconds into stage one I find exactly where that margin is, albeit the hard way. There are no soft landings here and as my bike clatters over the rubble I get an intimate sense of why they call it Ard Rock. Cursing and with fresh scratches on body and bike I’m back up and running in no time, an odd combination of adrenaline-fuelled rage and freshly blooded caution seeing me through the rest of the stage safely.
Although I’m riding on my own the sociable nature of the event shows itself on the transfers and climbs where an informal chinwag can take the edge off some of the more brutal ascents, like the haul over the scree to the top of stage two. There’s the downhiller suffering on the climbs but confident his years of racing will reap rewards on the stages and the ex-para riding for the forces mental health charity Combat Stress. He’s not having a great time on the ups either but tells me riding and racing help him, others with similar demons, focus on something more positive than the traumas they’ve experienced in active service.
Further along I bump into organiser Joe supervising a film crew from Channel 4 and chatting with Tracy Moseley, find myself in the queue for stage six with a bunch of pros from Trek, Whyte and DMR and then freewheel to the start of stage seven alongside former pro-downhiller Karen van Meerbeeck. A local face from my early years riding, this is only her third enduro but she’s enjoying the chance to dust off her old skills and put them to new use. As is that other face from back in the day, the lanky lad from Sheffield I remember as a cross-country racer for Langsett Cycles and hoping to show young upstarts like Danny Hart what proper mountain biking is about.
And that’s the beauty of an event with pulling power like Ard Rock. Sure, it’s a race. But globe-trotting pros like Peaty and Hart have busy schedules and there must be more to it than that for them to make time to ride, hang out and generally get involved seemingly for the craic. It also gives me a cast iron excuse when the results come in, given Peat is riding in the same Vets category as I am.
My early morning start time means I clatter back into the event village wide-eyed and streaked in dust, blood and sweat a little after lunch time on the Saturday. Leaving me plenty of time to enjoy the festival side of the action too. But not until I’ve enjoyed a cold beer back at the camper van and then a proper hot shower in the mobile, on-site block. OK, it costs three quid and, like any festival, nothing comes cheap in the event village. But, as Joe points out, it’s the kind of difference he and the organising team want to make and the investment on stuff like this and making sure the portaloos are vaguely habitable even by the second day is what keeps people coming back. Sneer at the ‘glamping’ overtones if you like but it’s worth it if you’re trying to tease folk out of their comfort zones.
Which is what the Ard Rock is all about, thanks in part to the necessarily macho tone of the event literature, publicity material, photos and stories that support it. Those taking part in the competitive elements are there to test themselves and from the pros I’m racing against to the first-timers chancing it on the Sunday Enduro Sport there’s a shared sense of achievement. It’s clearly something Joe and his team have thought hard about with the course designs too, the stages carefully designed to deliver on the fear factor that gets the adrenaline pumping but without being unnecessarily dangerous. The trick is making the intimidation factor something each rider can choose for themselves, Joe saying there are sections they deliberately make flat out for the pros to hit at 40mph that are still fun for average riders at half that speed.
Offering a sense of that to those not quite ready to chance it between the tapes is what elevates Ard Rock into an event worth attending for the two thirds of people not competing. To do that you need to offer visitors something to do beyond fancy food outlets and a chance to rub shoulders with the pros, the demo loop and manufacturers offering test rides on everything from e-bikes to hardcore hardtails all doing brisk business. This year saw everyone from big-hitters like Specialized and Canyon to relative minnows like Sonder and Cotic letting people try their bikes for size.
And having tasted the terrain and had a feel for participating in a big event the hope is there that a few of those may be inspired to progress to either the organised Marathon – basically a way-marked, Dales XC loop with an Ard Rock numberboard – or even try one of the more competitive options available. Assuming you can get a slot, the bunfight for race places reaching a level of hysteria matching that for Glastonbury tickets. How to manage that fine line between supply and demand? Joe’s response indicates he’s had more than a few sleepless nights pondering that one.
Like many at Ard Rock I’ve been camping out in fields and racing bikes around for longer than I’d care to remember. But there’s something about this event that overcomes any ‘been there, done that’ cynicism, the number of old faces from back in the day proving I’m not the only one. For those fresher to the sport or looking in from the outside it showcases mountain biking on equal terms with more mainstream events like the Tour de Yorkshire, with huge benefits to the region and cycling as a whole. You’ll indulge a bit of local pride in that.
‘Ard Rock 2019 date and entry details
The 2019 ‘Ard Rock Enduro Festival will take place from 2-4 August. The usual cocktail of riding, racing, live music and expo stands.