Ever wondered what it takes to prepare for a professional downhill race?
Well obviously it involves hitting the right fitness level, some logistical planning, getting your head in the right space to hit those big jumps and sharp turns. But most importantly, there's getting the right bike. Now try and get all that sorted in 2 weeks and travel across the world to compete. Our good friend Ben Moore gives us an insight into his recent invitational to the longest urban downhill in the world. Colombia's iconic Monserrate downhill in Bogotá.
One Gear, No Idea
‘Crack!’, the wire snapped, dropping the chain into the highest gear. I’m sure it’s my imagination but I could have sworn the noise echoed off the mountains around me. It actually shouldn’t make a noise at all but in my heightened state I was in tune with the vehicle that I had my life in its saddle. With that development, the last of my far fetched hopes of qualifying vanished into the distance like the ghost of my run had I been on the right bike. To know how I came to be riding an enduro bike with very little suspension and one gear down a Colombian mountain, we must go back a bit.
Two Weeks Until the Race
As with many other lines of work, the ability to do my job has been hampered by the pandemic. I shan’t for one second suggest that what I do is particularly important, but for months I had been desperate for the chance to race again. After all, I’m not getting any younger. Who knows how many more opportunities I will have?
Training becomes difficult when there is no race in sight. Throughout the winter, I had been keeping up my regime on the bikes as well as training hard in the gym. I’m glad I did because one Saturday night whilst eating dinner, I received an invitation for the renowned Monserrate downhill in Bogotá, the longest urban downhill race in the world. My excitement was audible and perhaps a little frustrating for my wife. I could barely finish my dinner as I thought about everything I would need to do to get to that start line.
First step - I needed a bike. After chatting to Orange, they started putting together a prototype that would be perfect for the steep descent and able to take in the impact of the endless jagged steps carved into the face of Monserrate. A twenty nine inch front wheel, twenty seven and a half on the back. Nearly 200mm of travel. A close ratio seven speed drivetrain. For anybody that doesn’t know what this means, basically faster downhill with lots of bouncy suspension. An exquisite piece of engineering personalised just for me. In moments like these, my fifteen year old self would scorn me with envy.
As I’m still waiting for confirmation of my residency here in Spain, there was a real worry I would not be able to get back into the country and thus not be able to see my wife for a while. I talked it through with her, and we decided it was a risk worth taking. I’ll have the rest of my life in her company, Monserrate might only happen once!
Next, I needed to change up my training. Short powerful exercises that would enable my fitness to peak in time for the race. Gyms in Spain had just closed due to new regulations. Luckily, Fit4racing made a plan that I could do without any equipment. It suited me perfectly even if it did take me to the verge of throwing up. The following week consisted of gruelling training sessions. The only upside being I could do them on a beach under the Spanish sun.
One Week Until the Race
I received word from Orange that the bike was ready and had been shipped to Spain. I was to leave for Colombia early Thursday morning but the courier, TNT, had assured them the bike would arrive on Tuesday. I had scaled back my training, planned what I would need to take, and made my peace with the idea of being rejected re-entry to Spain. All that was left now was the bike. Tuesday came about and the TNT app claimed the bike had been in Paris and was now in Cologne. I started to panic. They told me it was on its way and there was nothing else they could do.
On Wednesday morning, the app suggested that the bike had left Barcelona during the night and should shortly be in Alicante. I rushed down to the depot hoping I could grab it and start getting it race ready. I spoke to a stout man who upon taking my reference number, shuffled into a back room. I shouldn’t have got my hopes up. He came into sight again empty handed and muttered that all too frequent and disheartening Spanish word - ‘mañana’... tomorrow. It transpired that police were checking everything on the lorry and it hadn’t left Barcelona. He suggested going there to collect it after I told him tomorrow would be too late.
A good friend who lives in Barcelona spent the whole day trying to help me. The TNT office said they would let him know when the police had finished with their checks. In the afternoon my friend phoned me. ‘Come to Barcelona, they’ve released the bike’. Five hour drive, pick up the bike, sleep in the van, drive to Madrid (another five hours), fly to Colombia. It wasn’t ideal preparation before a big race.
Nearing Valencia, Robert called. ‘Bad news, TNT won’t let the bike off the lorry’. I was deflated but I sensed one last glimmer of hope.
‘What time will it arrive in Alicante? I could grab it in the early morning’.
‘They said it won’t leave until tomorrow, they’re waiting for a full load’.
My anger for the ineptitude of the courier company made way and I came to terms with the fact that I would be riding my usual bike - an Orange Switch Six. A terrific enduro bike but not one suited to the course I would be riding. The lack of suspension (145mm rear) was my main concern. I made some changes to limit the bike to the four bottom gears and I decreased rebound damping on the suspension. Basically it would act more like a pogo stick, springing up from one step to the next.
The next morning I flew to Bogotá.
Two Days Until the Race
The plane threaded itself between the enormous luscious green mountains and landed in the sprawling hive of the capital. It was as if a spirit level had been used when building the city, its flatness in direct contrast to the surrounding mountains.
The extremely professional race organisers had put us up in a comfortable hotel in the university quarter at the foot of the mountain I would be riding down. It’s great facade aggressively squared up to us. With everything needed right where I was, I went about getting a good night’s sleep.
On Friday, a doctor came to my hotel room to administer a PCR covid test; luckily I received a negative result and was given the green light to race.
It was time for my first look at what I would be descending. As I walked down the track, I noticed three things. Three sections that scared me. One, a wall ride. Large jump onto a damp and mossy slope. Two, a cliff. Nearly vertical, it would require faith when jumping into the blind abyss. Three, a jump over a toll booth. Ten metres up, if anything went wrong, I would be seeing the inside of a Colombian hospital... at best.
I didn’t have long to ruminate over the treacherous path. We had a riders briefing shortly after in which they spoke very fast spanish for twenty minutes. Along with the South Americans, the Frenchman, Adrien Loron, understood everything. I was the odd one out. One of the riders said something incomprehensible. ‘Bla bla bla bla bla bla bla Ben Moore?’. It transpired that he was looking out for me. ‘Ah sorry Ben, did you understand everything?’ a race organiser enquired. I stood up and said proudly one of the few Spanish words I know. ‘Sí!’. The riders erupted with laughter.
All that was left on the eve of the race was a light gym session. Stretching, pedalling, lifting; that would do.
As an early bird, the six a.m. meeting at the bottom of the mountain didn’t bother me. We took a gondola to the top. Terrifyingly vertical, it gave the impression that if anything snapped we were done for. I couldn’t wait to get back to the foot of the mountain. We exited the cabin and as I inhaled, nothing much happened. Someone had clearly forgotten to switch on the oxygen. At 3200 metres, it was far higher than I had ever raced before.
On my practice run, disaster struck. The gear cable snapped. I decided to roll down and miss any feature that would require pedalling. One of the best bike mechanics I have ever seen set me up with a new gear cable.
When I arrived at the top, they had closed the track in preparation for qualifying. I pleaded with them to let me have a run. There was no way I could qualify without having gone over the jumps. They obliged and I dropped into the course. You know what happened next. I cannot overstate the sheer improbability of breaking a gear cable in two consecutive runs. I learned as much as I could from the track and when I finished, the mechanic locked the mech into gear eight. This would put me in the best gear on average for the course.
As soon as I got to the top, I heard them shout ‘Ben, you’re up’. I jumped on and tried to focus my mind. It’s a funny job that I have. You train hard for months doing everything you can to enter the big races. And then you get to the start line. Just you, a bike, and a path in front of you. Knowing that the next few minutes can decide how successful you are as an athlete. Three, two, one...I kicked down the ramp. The limit screw which was keeping me in gear eight gave way. The derailleur jumped into gear twelve. I gave all my force just like a leg press in the gym and pedalled down the opening section. It probably looked like I was cycling in slow motion. I focused on doing the best job I could despite the setbacks.
As I learned that I was outside the top ten, many emotions overtook me. I was in despair that I had travelled all this way and failed to qualify. I was embarrassed. Many friends and family were watching the TV hoping to see me. I then realised they wouldn’t find out why I hadn’t qualified and would be worried about me. With no signal, I had no way of assuaging their concerns.
‘Ben, can I have a photo?’, a fan shouted from over the barrier. I agreed to his request on the basis he let me connect to his hotspot. He obliged and I spoke to my number one supporter, my darling wife Suzy. ‘Ben, you’re a champion in our eyes’, her muffled voice exclaimed through the phone. And with that my disappointments shrank like a deflating beach ball and I couldn’t wait to get back to her. Did the Spanish authorities let me back in the country? Of course they did. As they say in Spain, there are lots of rules but nobody really follows them!
Every failure leads me one step closer to success. Bring on the next one. And watch out guys, I have the bike ready to go!