“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, 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… stuff 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 “stuff it” principle (or similar words) 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 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.
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.
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.