The second day with Red Bull and the Athertons didn’t disappoint. The first was great so I had big expectations for the second.
We got up ready for breakfast and then headed out to meet Gee and walk the Hardline course. It was baking hot – back home the temperatures hit the low forties but in South Wales they were high thirties. I’ve seen Hardline it on TV over the years and knew it was going to be unreal, but I didn’t realise quite how much so. Sure, I’d heard of riders deciding they’re not going to race it on the day but I thought that was more to do with the weather than the course.
We met in the finish field and went to the top via the uplift Landrover. The valley unfolded below us as we climbed higher and higher, right to the top where the forest road stopped. Looking out, there wasn’t an awful lot above us but, below us, the military jets trained by flying through the valley. It was really surreal to be stood at the top, looking down on jets, waiting to start walking perhaps the most difficult mountain biking trail in the world.
Walking wasn’t easy so I can’t imagine riding down it. TV really doesn’t do justice to the steepness of the course and there were plenty of the group that spent time on their backs after slipping on the way down. The course took us from the top through some wooded sections and exposed areas. It’s no wonder that windy and wet weather really disrupts the riding up there; there’s no hiding out of the way. It’s not like you can just put on your big coat and battle on when you’re jumping thirty feet into the air and there’s a steep mountain side waiting for you.
Deep in one wooded section was a rock drop which must be somewhere around fifteen feet tall. Gee explained that it’s not a particularly difficult drop in itself – the speed can be managed on approach – but it catches everyone out every year because of the landing. We peered over the edge and saw a sharp right hand turn with a well-built berm but it was only three feet from the landing. There’s no real time, especially not when you’re riding as fast as some of the athletes do, to set up ready for the turn so it’s a case of having to know the track. Not only that, there’s no cutting the corner short and slamming the berm because there’s a great boulder sat on the inside of the turn. There were some tools nearby and it looked like it was being dug out but whether it’ll there on race day or not, I don’t know.
A bit further down the course, near one of the large jumps, Dan joined us. The temperature had got up by this point and we were all sweating on the descent which took us down past the steep drops, past some of the larger jumps (including the iconic hip over the drystone wall) and back into the woods.
We saw the road gap too. The size really surprised me. It seemed huge. I guess, on the TV the riders are only on the wooden section for seconds before they launch over the road, where the spectators gather, and land in the woods below. The group spent at least fifteen minutes there, in awe of the build. How anyone ever trains to have the skill to hit something like that I’ll never know but I’d be happy to take half of that skill. What surprised me even more than the road gap was the run in to the road gap. It was hard to see where the trail went and there were literally boulders to cross whilst maintaining the speed to hit the jump. Incredible.
Eventually, we reached the bottom part of the track. It didn’t mellow much before the finish line and included a cannon followed by some more gaps. Gee told us all that this section, including some of the gaps which must’ve been twenty feet, wasn’t really an issue. Apparently, the speed at which you’re travelling at this point means that you just gap the distances without even realising your wheels are off the ground and then go through the finish line.
I left Hardline, and the pub where we ate lunch together, with a huge sense of appreciation for the best riders in the world. They make things like Hardline look manageable, almost to the point where I watch the TV and think “hey, I could do that bit!” The reality is that they’re pushing the boundaries. They’re pushing the limits of what’s possible on a bike and, to make sure this continues, Dan and the other builders keep making the track more and more challenging. On the way down, we were privy to some potential changes in the course and when we asked why these might be done the answer was always “to make it better, to make it harder.”
I guess that’s why they call it Hardline.