Monday, January 1, 2018

Rumble in the Jungle 2017.

“Do you fancy going out to Sri Lanka for The Rumble?” was a bolt out of the blue from my friend, the Race Director at Yak Attack(MTB Worldwide), Phil Evans. “In fact we’re going out three weeks early to recce the trails if you fancy that too?” was his second question.
“Erm… not sure. I’d like to… err… fuck it, yeah” My initial hesitation was due to the fact that I had an impending shoulder operation (which I’ve been putting off for four years) and really I needed to get it done. However, the “fuck it” principle came into effect and bypassed any modicum of common sense.
The timing was also perfect, I was working away in London and we would be flying out exactly a week after my contract finished.

I fished my bike from the travel bag in the garage, it hadn’t actually been unpacked since returning from my previous trip, to Nepal, four months before, and some TLC was required. A thorough service, a new front rotor (thank you baggage handlers), and some fresh Alpkit stickers had it looking trail-worthy in no time (I’m partnered with Alpkit). I managed to fall off on a short test ride and scuff my leg, which was ideal preparation, and then re-packed it ready for the ten hour flight to Colombo a few days later.

The Rumble in the Jungle is a four day stage race through the Sri Lankan highlands, I raced the inaugural event in 2014, and to be honest it’s a bit of a bruiser. My recollections of it, although occluded by the passing of time, were of the savage heat in the jungle stage, brutal climbs throughout, and a couple of truly great descents. Pound-for-pound it’s probably one of the hardest races out there. At just four days, even though it’s tough, it is still perfectly within the realms of any decent recreational rider.

Our mission, Phil, myself, and - Nepal National Champion – Ajay Pandit Chhetri, was to recon the existing routes and then see if we could find some new stuff to freshen it up a bit.
Technology is a wonderful thing and we spent a lot of time scouring Google Earth in the evenings, and Google Maps during our rides, to sniff out potential trails. We chased a few ghosts, found great sections that we couldn’t quite link up (partially due to a thousand foot drop), had a particularly interesting altercation with a Tamil village which concluded with twenty people and a priest getting arrested – I’ll tell the story sometime - and plotted an entirely new Stage Four which we couldn’t use in the end due to being refused permission from one tea plantation superintendent (the meany).
We did eventually manage to put it all together. A minor change to Stage One kept riders on dirt instead of black-top. Stages Two and Three had about 50% new trail each, which the racers loved. And Stage Four had to stay the same – hopefully next year the permissions will be in place and it will finish the race off really nicely.

My job during the race, over the 300 or so kilometres of riding and 8500m of climbing, was to act as race sweeper, present the stage briefings (Phil hates public speaking), and field front-line questions from the riders. Sweeping can usually mean a very long day and this time was no exception.

Me, Phil, and Ajay

Beware The Sweeper!
Stage One – 75km/2386m - Kuda Oya to Haputale (#RideForCharlie memorial stage) has a very flat start (about the first 25km) before it starts to rise up through tough jungle singletrack, and then rise some more, and then some more. Couple this with the intense heat & humidity and it is probably the hardest stage of the race for most people. It takes a lot of the riders by surprise.
My main companion for the day was Dan Stauthamer, an American ex-pat living in Abu Dhabi. Dan was a lovely guy, unfortunately he was hopelessly out of his depth; it turned out that he had only started mountainbiking about two or three months previously (Abu Dhabi is also very flat) but had somehow slipped through the application filter. He was raising a lot of money for charity and he had such a positive attitude to the whole adventure that I couldn’t really hold it against him, he was great company. He trundled along the flat, slowed considerably through the jungle section, and then crawled painfully up to the summit of the first climb. Once we started to climb I stretched my legs a little and passed a few of the suffering stragglers on the way up (we have motorbikes following through so I wasn’t entirely abandoning my charges).
At the first water station I was saddened to see my buddy Ajay sat in the broomwagon. He sustained a head injury during our pre-race recce and was suffering with severe throbbing pains (I suspect the crippling heat was the contributing factor). He is an elite level athlete and a smart racer; although disappointed he knows when to make to the right call and live to fight another day. I waited an age for everyone to pass through before assuming my position at the back again.

A very steep climb welcomes the racers back to reality before the road undulates for a while, I rode it mostly with Dan again. The broomwagon eventually caught up with us somewhere along the way and I was then free to race the last (mostly uphill) thirty kilometres or so. Enthusiasm (and mild relief) got the better of me and I stomped on the pedals. The final part of the climb, about 8 or 9km, comes just after the last water station, is very rough, brutally steep, and known as Cramp Hill; I got cramp. I had to constantly change my position on the bike and even stopped a couple of times to try and stretch it out. The group of youngsters walking home from school who kept passing me must have wondered why I bothered to keep pedalling. The reward for all this misery is a scintillating high speed descent all the way in to town, I managed to reel in a couple more riders on the way down.
Five riders dropped out on stage one proving just how tough it is (only one more rider retired during the rest of the race). Ajay(Nepal) retired; Dan, his friend Neil Reynolds(UK), and Zia Hasan(Bangladesh) all missed the 4.00pm cut-off time at the final water station. Roel Joling(Netherlands) dropped at the final water station with heat exhaustion.

Fittingly Multiple National Champion Nick Craig(UK) won the stage (named in honour of his late son Charlie) in a determined fashion in 4h01m54s. The slowest finisher came in at 8h43m46s.
Laxmi Magar (Nepal) won the women’s battle in 5h56m20s.

For Stage Two (Haputale) – 52km/2292m - Lipton’s Loop – we get to stay two nights in the same hotel which is always nice; on most stage races you move hotels every day.
The stage starts just out of town on the edge of a tea plantation and pretty much consists of three massive climbs (500m, 700m, 500m respectively) and three massive descents. It’s a fantastic route and has a bit of everything. The riders loved it.
I again kept the company of Dan on the first climb, for the most part; the exception being a short interlude with Usha Kanal (Nepal) after she suffered a puncture on a short rocky descent. Dan and I summited the climb together and I then dropped the hammer and told him I’d wait at the water station 16kms below us. It was time to have some fun. The descent drops 1200m and is rocky and tough. I love it. The chance to race and catch a few backmarkers was too much to resist; I managed five on the way down including a mid-air pass of Spanish racer Pamela Zuloaga when a nice smooth transition presented itself perfectly on the trail.
I hung out the water station until everyone came through and then once again assumed my position at the back of the field.
The second climb is a long and brutal affair, fortunately for me the broomwagon caught us up fairly quickly and told me to bugger off. I didn’t need telling twice. I’d learned my lesson from day one’s exuberance and took off at a more reasonable clip, trail pace rather than race pace, and thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the stage. Tough rocky climbs, some great singletrack, a bit of road here and there to help the muscles recover, a stunning climb through the welcome shade of dense forest, and then the final descent (mostly) back down to Haputale which eventually re-traces its steps back through the tea plantations to finish exactly where we started 52kms previously. Brilliant. It’s a proper riders stage in every sense.

Stage winner Claire Demarquet leading the charge.
World 24-hour Champion Cory Wallace (Canada) won the stage with nine minutes to spare in 3h07m20s. The last rider cruised in at 7h49m35s.
Claire Demarquet, a French ex-pat living in the UK, claimed top spot in the Women’s category in 5h27m21s just 15 seconds up on Laxmi.

Stage Three – 60km/2780m - Kalupahana to Nuwara Eliya (Gamini De Silva memorial stage) – takes in the stunning Horton Plains National Park at 2100m above sea level and offers the riders a chance to spot wild elephants if they’re lucky. The route takes in Sri Lanka’s highest waterfall, Bambarakanda, crosses the highest plateau, and finishes in the highest town, Nuwara Eliya; with a few other highs and lows in between.
We began with an 18km downhill group ride then straight in to an uphill rolling start. 1300m of ascent over 17km. It’s another of those infernal climbs that gets harder as you go higher (I like them, but I’m an idiot). It begins on black-top before progressively deteriorating (or improving) to concrete and finally to a great rocky trail (the top section is very similar to some of my local Peak District trails so I’m right at home on it). It’s also brutally steep in places but undulates enough to get in periods of recovery too. It’s a great climber’s climb. I spent the early part of the climb in the company of a few new riders, I think most were being cautious, but the pack soon began to split and I was left with Shanith Muhandiramge (Sri Lanka) and Pamela Zuloaga (Spain). Pamela had been unsure about tackling todays “Queen” stage so it was great to be able to give her some encouragement. In my experience the women always prove to be tougher than the men and it’s very rare that a female racer ever drops out. Perhaps halfway up the climb Pamela’s partner Alfredo was waiting for her so that they could ride the stage together (he’s a very nice guy). The climb pops out on to a sealed road that bisects the park and to the handily positioned water station. I hung out for a while chatting with some of the LSR team (LSR do the logistics for us) until everyone went past. The water station is something of a false summit and the climbing continues sharply on the road for quite a while before it rolls a little more gently across the high plateau. Sadly the elephants were conspicuous only by their absence, fortunately the views across the open plain more than made up for it; Sri Lanka is a stunningly diverse island.

At the far end of this beautiful traverse is the piece de resistance; the best descent of the whole race, it’s unbelievably good. It’s a forbidden trail that can only be ridden during the race with special permission from the parks authority. If you want to ride it then you’ll have to enter the race. In 2014 I screamed into the finish, pulled a massive skid, jumped off the bike, and told Phil Evans that he was a genius and that he’d pulled off a masterstroke. It made Phil’s day because another rider had crossed the line a few minutes before me, burst into tears, and wailed that “It’s too hard!”
So, once again, I stomped on the pedals and went as fast as I could through the jungle; it’s still ace. The noodling trail ends suddenly and pops out into a tea plantation where I pulled up and waited for Alberto and Pamela to catch up. From here the trail continues its downward trajectory for quite a few miles on super-fast plantation roads, I told Alberto to go and enjoy himself whilst I coached Pamela on the art of flow, by the time we reached the valley she was definitely letting go of the brakes a bit more.

Pamela and Alfredo at the bottom of the epic singletrack
In the mountains, as I’m sure you all know, there is a price to be paid for such a fantastic descent and we all began the steady climb upwards to another 2000m summit. Thankfully this one is much more amenable and rises on a forgiving gradient through the Diyagama West tea plantation,for about 12 or thirteen kilometres, passing a stunning waterfall on the way, and then peters out to a ribbon of singletrack for another three kilometres. 

The singletrack is great, quite steep and tricky to begin with, then a fun challenge to the top, and finally the reward of a fairly short but very fast descent to the New Zealand Dairy Farm, and the oddest landscape in Sri Lanka. It wasn’t for the occasional exotic tree you might easily believe that you were riding your bike through the English countryside; it’s all rolling green fields dotted with the distinctive black and white of Friesian dairy cows. I was half expecting to see a buxom wench with a milking stool and a bucket at any minute.
At this point the race follows fast sealed roads until we turn off at a Military barracks for the final leg into town. Surprisingly the gravel track had been sealed in the few weeks between our recce and the race. As we meandered down it became clear that it was still a work in progress because the road gang were waving and shouting at us (in a friendly way) not to continue. The hot black asphalt was still steaming and sticky. Much to the delight of a local farmer we had to shoulder our bikes across his potato patch and pass them down a near vertical ten foot bank to get back on the road further below. The stage has one last sting in the tail; a short but mercilessly steep climb up a concrete road and I spurred Alberto in to attacking it with one last push. Both of us slumped, gasping, across our handlebars at the top and tried get our breath back as we waited for Pamela to catch up.
From here on in we followed another stretch of black top to Nuwara Eliya, around the tranquil Lake Gregory, and over the line at The Galway Hotel. For the first time in the race the sweeper actually swept in last.

Cory Wallace won his second stage in 3h43m39s
Laxmi Magar also took her second stage win in 5h54m36s
Pamela Zuloaga and Alfredo Laguia brought up the rear in 8h24m26s

Race winner Cory Wallace (Canada) with San Kapil (UK)
Stage Four – 52km/1046m – Ramboda to Kandy – The mostly downhill one!
Most people are looking forward to this one, partly because it’s the last day and their suffering is over and partly because it’s the easiest stage. Of the 52km there is probably 30km of descent and only one tough climb, a trifling 8km/600m right at the start.
The standard group ride to start line at the Bluefields Tea Plantation is about 24km; it climbs out of town for about 6km before whizzing down a swoopy alpine-style highway for another 18km.

After putting the riders under starters orders I hung around for ten minutes before pursuing the tail enders up the climb. Neil. Dan, Shanith, and Pamela, where all quite close together and I flitted up and down amongst the group. Alfredo was again waiting for Pamela further up the hill (he’s marriage material that lad!) and after cresting the hill and passing through the first water station I was free to race.
I put on my metaphorical rabbit chasing hat and went all out for the next 25km. I caught a lot of rabbits. The trail follows rough plantation roads before morphing into a concrete sealed tuk-tuk road, and finally to black-top, and it’s as fast as you want it to be. It was great to push hard all the way and I had great memories flooding back to the 2014 event where I raced my buddy Eric Coomer, right on the rivet, for miles.
At the bottom the trail goes back into jungle and I slowed down to a steady spin to wait for San Kapil(UK) to catch up. I hadn’t spent much time on the trail with San and I fancied riding into the finish with him. It used to be all singletrack but unfortunately progress has significantly altered this part of the course and it’s now a gravel road that I suspect will be sealed by the time next year’s event comes around (We really need those permissions for the new stage in 2018). San and I were treated to a deluge of rain that came down so hard that even my feet were wet in the end. Eventually we dropped on to the highway and rolled up and down on the smooth surface to the finish line at Peradeniya University on the outskirts of Kandy. We had a little sprint just for the cameras and then swapped high-fives and man hugs.

Cory Wallace again snaffled the stage win in 2.08.31.
Tenacious Tan Tryhorn triumphed over the ladies in 2.56.49.
Todays Lantern Rouge was lit by Pamela and Alfredo in 4.27.43.

It was now a matter of transferring to the hotel and having a few beers.
We spent the night in Kandy and then took the slow train through the mountains back to Columbo for the presentation ceremony hosted by the race sponsor Sri Lankan Airlines at the prestigious Galadari Hotel.

Men’s podium:
1st Cory Wallace (Can) - 13.08.45.
2nd Nick Craig (UK) - 13.24.34.
3rd Alexander Geelhhar (Germany) – 13.50.53.
4th Albert Kikstra (Netherlands) – 15.36.55.
5th Thomas Begert (Germany) – 16.10.55.

Women’s Podium:
1st Laxmi Magar (Nepal) – 20.20.18.
2nd Tan Tryhorn (Australia) – 21.08.03.
3rd Claire Demarquet (France) – 21.39.11.

Best placed Sri Lankan Rider:
Dane Steve Nugera – 16.13.44 (6th overall).

Best Young Rider:
Akshit Gaur (India) Aged 17 – 18.27.13. (10th overall).

The biggest surprise at the ceremony (for me at least) was being presented with the “Riders Rider Award”. I’m still overwhelmed with the honour of it, and I will cherish my magnificent elephant trophy forever.
Even though I’m not much of a racer (I’m solid mid-pack) I really enjoy the impetus that racing brings and I get a great deal of pleasure from encouraging and seeing normal people achieve things that they weren’t sure were possible when they started. I like to see, and help, people to reset their limits.
Although I think it may have been my less-than-sympathetic race briefings each evening that swung the vote.

I've called him Charlie.
Me and my elephant with Ajay and Laxmi
My overriding memories of Sri Lanka are of the great people we met along the way(always), the infectious enthusiasm of kids wherever we went, the consistently delicious food, the truly beautiful and diverse tropical landscapes, the most amazing butterflies I’ve ever seen, and some of the finest tea you will drink anywhere.

Lots more images below.

The 2018 edition is now confirmed as a five-stage event with a new stage in The Knuckles Range. I always felt that four stages was a little to short so it should be really great now. Check it out here

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Consume less, live more. Plant more trees.

Images from the recce:


The youngest rider - Akshit Guar from India

Stage Two Haputale:

Styling it for the camera

StageThree - Haputale to Nuwara Eliya:

Stage Four - Newara Eliya to Kandy:

Nick Craig and Meg Carrigan

I love riding my bike :)

Me (left) and San Kapil at the finish line

With Alfredo and Pamela

The presentation:

The whole gang

Until next time...

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