The Old World Mountain Bike Championships - an alternative affair…

September 08 2010

It was with trepidation that Ben and I headed towards the Retrobike tent in the corner of the Betws-y-Coed car park. We thought to carry frames over, not because we needed to in our initial introductions, but to ward off the soul piercing eyes of those with such a depravity they’d search out our retro innocence in seconds. Confident my hairline would belay my age, we met those eager to show off their dated wares, but straight away the curiosity rather than desire which filled my bike filled eyes exposed my inexperience. To me they were brands I recognised, but products with which I couldn’t identify, mere pieces of metal that looked like bikes in those old mags you occasionally tripped over in the attic of an old bike shop. Ben was a little more convincing, having 15 years of citrus experience, everything Orange was within his grasp. Me on the other hand, this was not only going to be a lesson, but a new module, a new subject, another language…they’re just old bikes right? I don’t get it.

The Old World MTB Championships is an event in its infancy, run by a small group of highly motivated individuals who seek renaissance in history. A passion for bikes which perhaps symbolised their youth, opened up the doors of the countryside, gave them aspirations beyond the norm, and allowed them an avenue to express creativity and individuality. Whatever their motive, they get no greater satisfaction than painstakingly piecing together a masterpiece of period perfection. The idea is to create a bike so perfect there is nothing to tell it from the catalogue original, or so completely individual the rarity makes it spectacular to the retro-believers. What surprised me about this bunch was though they had their masterpieces in perfect condition, they were willing to take them onto the rocky Welsh trails, pride for most wasn’t about the aesthetic alone, but the overall ‘feeling’. The academic side of the Retrobike scene is perplexing, and while the silliness of the event hides it, the care taken in the Alpinestars talk that night was testament to the accuracy and care these guys put into their, well, illness. So is there a cure? Yes, and this is it, the OWMTBC, an avenue to go wild with biking indecency and exchange stories of the old. One thing I can say about the whole experience from the start, comedy…

Kicking off the OWMTBC weekend was a brief retro rattle around the Marin trail from Betws-y-Coed, an opportunity to meet each other and assess the lycra situation. Everyone suitably horrendously clad, the tone seemed to have been set for the rest of the weekend. Ben and I weren’t able to make the ride, but the aftermath seemed to be one of fever as everyone’s excitement built towards the concours evening. A concours, for those inexperienced in the art of showing off, is an opportunity to display your vehicle and have a very serious Dutch man (nationality is largely interchangeable, doesn’t have to be Dutch, could be French…) rip it to pieces based on nothing but his own whim. The man this weekend was a cool customer by the name of Mel, giving an atmosphere of indifference, his bike assessments were calm, calculated, and downright hilarious at times. A constant barrage of disapprovement as he looked at everything from cable ends to non-period accessories – get that light off Jon! In the words of Mel, “…and you think that’s enough for the concours”. Our Tushingham was met with intrigue, watch the video for his reaction.

Concours over and as with all the mountain bike fraternity, a love of beer becomes a common leveler. Old and young, experienced and inexperienced, normal and eccentric…everyone likes good ale. But while comforting, drinking alone was not enough, Ben and I were to be set a night of complete retrofication, whatever that would come to mean. A talk on Alpinestars was first up, given with special guest Tim Davies on hand to qualify the impressive presentation Mark Sinnet put together. But, as interesting as it may have been, I couldn’t help wondering what the pull of the past held over these people. But then like football, tennis, motor or any other enthusiast, why not revel in an era that spawned your passion and invoked such strong memories? The period Mark and Tim spoke about was of particular interest, a time that saw mountain biking leap boldly towards professionalism, then rebel against the road-bred format of sponsorship. Tim Davies, a name I must confess to not knowing properly before, was of particular interest; after winning the National title on an Orange, he went on to bridge the gap between the two-team corporate race of the time, and the less glamorous world of the relative privateer. I could go on but no, this is sounding like genuine interest - these retro weirdoes are grooming an innocent…

The rest of the evening was filled with a wondrous pub quiz, it wasn’t based around 80’s pop bands but a concoction of the obscure headed by Retrobike founder and nice guy John Vallins. So how did we do? How do you think? A spectacular effort saw the ‘Yorkshire Retro Pro’ team come in last, possibly something to be proud of in this context, but still…

So to the main event, the one we’d all been waiting for, time to put foot to pedal and challenge for the OWMTBC overall. Bikes had been assessed, now it was the riding which would be the decider, Ben and I were confident we could put in a good show…

There was something surreal about sitting in the corner of a field surrounded by a group of slightly eccentric looking predominantly lycra clad men (luckily punctuated with a smattering of women to help make us look slightly less questionable, or indeed arrestable). Ed Edwards was the man with the plan, with the help of his trusty course setters he had hatched a plan to truly test the riding credentials of the OWMTBC crew. Basically, I’ll slow down if this gets too complicated, you ride around some tape and pick up items of veg off a wheelie bin while your partner puts them back on said refuse disposal apparatus. Oh yeah, and as you negotiate your way back into the Orange start gate, you head-butt a bell for no other reason other than the hilarity of watching people grimace. The scoring system, who knows…

Ben and I performed averagely at best; I have a feeling points were deducted for our non-period dress and a lack of flair in performing the task. We did our best but being the third or fourth team, we didn’t have the advantage of watching many runs to properly plan our lines, this was all deadly serious. Then to the more orthodox riding; first a hill climb to separate the wheat from the chaff in a test of mental and physical attrition. To some this was a climb of massive proportions requiring dexterity and gall, for others, more of a pedal up a short tarmac climb…

Points were totted up and it was time for the main event, the first of the XC stages designed to test fitness and technical ability around a large section of the Betws-y-coed man-made trail. No problem, Ben and I smashed the first climb, our retro beasties were charging up the climb like the 22.2lb early-90s dream machines they were. I rode a Vit-T last raced by Orange co-founder Steve Wade, Ben borrowed a bike from the Orange aficionado and bike addict, John Herring (check the video to hear more from John – top guy). Climb slayed, we hit the descent, the area we both knew we would excel and destroy our retro fluro friends. Bang! Damn those green team issue Michelin ‘Wild Slippers’ – it seems there’s more skill than meets the eye to this retro bike riding, you have to account for the fact they’re pretty rubbish…

Puncture repaired and we were back on the gas, taking back the places we’d lost in a bid to improve our time. The end in sight we powered up to the finish to be greeted by the fast guys at the front. “Who’s taking the times?” erm, nobody. It would be nice to think we were so quick that Ed and Neil couldn’t reach the end in time, in reality, nobody really cared. Stage two, same deal, why didn’t we learn and slow down after the first non-timed timed section?! Then to finish the ‘race’ in style, Ben blew the sidewall off Jon’s bike a mile or two before the finish. All was not lost though, luckily I was carrying a spent tube of Aquafresh (period of course) to boot the tyre and get us to the finish. But what of the riding experience? To be completely honest it was truly horrific, an abrasion on body and mind as frustration hit on every descent. Strangely though, empathy rather than anger built somewhere in the dirtier recesses of my albeit small brain. Ben and I both felt the same thing, a loving appreciation for the limitations of the bike and a love of the pain they inflicted. The tame XC trail became a genuine challenge and rather than being a trail centre roller coaster, it was more of an ill made cattle grid with holes that grab your wheel in an effort to throw you off (Steve providing real proof with his dislocated shoulder). But as we speak, Ben has found an old P7 and some rigid forks for his winter thrash, we’ve both been turned…

What of the rest of the night, well, that’s a story the video better tells, the prize giving was as alternative as you’d expect, the bear was in full effect distributing prizes to those he saw fit. As for the OWMTBC winner, that went to Gav and his Whiskey Town Racer (it may or many not have been a Whiskey Town Racer, hmmm...); seeing his surprise was as entertaining as receiving it from the bear – he genuinely had no idea on what criteria his award was based. The whole sentiment of the event was summed up nicely in Gav’s win, it wasn’t about show, speed or attitude, but about being part of a scene where the only priority is enjoyment and friendship. The people at this event and behind it had a genuine camaraderie that’s unusual in any field, these people are here to have a good time. While I still think their illness depraved, it is incredibly contagious. What’s that lurking in the bottom draw? Some original Assos lycra neatly folded for my trip to next year’s event in Cali…I’ll self diagnose…

The video

Be warned, this is something of an epic so make yourself a brew and watch the videographic evidence of the OWMTBC weekend. Much of it only really makes sense if you were there, and even then...

The Old World MTB Championships - there's a whole other world out there...and a bear... from David Flynn on Vimeo.

If you want an alternative view on the event with a few of the entrants waxing lyrical about proceedings, visit the always entertaining RetroBike forum and the aftermath thread.

If the video wasn't enough for your retro fix, visit our Facebook page for more photos.

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