Over the weekend of the 7th and 8th of October, over 200 women descended on a muddy hillside in Machynlleth, Wales, for the women’s edition of the Red Bull Fox Hunt. The concept is simple: a reverse fox hunt where the hunters become the hunted. It’s a mass start race where the ‘hunters’ – the participants – are chased by the fox – a pro rider – down the course. The fox must try and overtake as many hunters as she can.
Despite the original Fox, Rachel Atherton, sustaining a broken shoulder at the World Champs in Australia, the event went ahead with new Fox Katy Winton. Winton, who placed third overall in the 2017 Enduro World Series, was delighted to be part of an event that has become a fixture of the women’s racing scene, and which sees riders across the spectrum of experience and ability coming together for a weekend of camaraderie and racing.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Winton, “but I knew it would be a fun weekend with a bunch of rad women who like riding bikes, and I like riding bikes. I was honoured to be asked! Here you have people who are keen for a race and want to improve their skills, and people who are new to riding bikes, and they’ve come to this event to ride with other women and try and push their limits. I think that makes for a very supportive environment where people want the best for each other. It’s a really nice event.”
The event took place in Rachel Atherton’s home town of Machynlleth, Wales, and combined open off-camber grassy sections with winding tracks through the trees, rocky sections and several more technical areas with A and B lines on offer. The Fox Hunt has traditionally had a festival feeling, with riders camping around a teepee where they can meet, mingle, eat, drink and chat with Atherton and Winton. Many also took the opportunity to ask advice on how to ride in the tricky conditions.
The best way to describe the course would be ‘slippery mud-fest’. Most riders struggled for traction, many ended up having to stop mid-ride to scrape clags of debris from their fork arches and rear suspension, and mudguards were abandoned left, right and centre. “We made the course a little bit harder,” commented Atherton. “We wanted people to really achieve something, to leave the weekend feeling like they were better riders for it. Then the rain came and made the course so muddy and so hard, really slippery, and it was more technical. The girls were really struggling.”
“We were up on the course all weekend trying to coach them through it, trying to give them some advice and tips. It was one of the most challenging Fox Hunts there has ever been, and everyone dug deep, and found another level. More commitment, more determination; it was really cool!” Despite the conditions, and a few tents springing leaks in the wet weather, come race day, there were smiles, hugs, and cheers all round for each rider as they crossed the line – once they’d recovered their breath!
First across the line was Mille Johnset, Atherton Academy member. “It was so much fun!” Johnset smiled. “I crashed in the first training run, and at the start I was really nervous. It was so cool seeing so many women, but I was so nervous!”
Close behind came Rosie Monaghan in second and Claire Bennet in third. The encouraging atmosphere was something many riders cited as their main motivation for coming along, plus the opportunity to chat and ask questions to pro riders.
Hannah Prestidge, who only started downhill racing this year, found the event ‘incredible’. “Rachel and Katy have been so cool all weekend, helping with little tips. As soon as you start all the nerves and nervous energy give you adrenaline, and I was like ‘aim for the gaps’, Katy told me! You don’t get this in any other sport – elite riders who are willing to help!” For local rider Clare Mitchell, the atmosphere was a big selling point. “All the girls have been so supportive. Would I do it again next year? Definitely!”
There is a flip side, however. While the majority of riders had a fun, albeit wild, ride, a significant number didn’t have the experience they’d signed up for. The increased technicality of the course over previous years, which wasn’t clearly flagged up in the pre-event info, combined with difficult conditions, bottlenecks at technical sections and a schedule change, meant getting down the course was slow going, and many riders only managed one or two practice runs at most.
Having a more technical course in itself isn’t an issue, though it might be said that cutting a fresh new course into a hill for an event in North Wales in October with several hundred riders was a recipe for a mud-fest. We’re all for events that encourage and develop new skills, but in this context, where many riders try this as their first event, being unable to ride sections and spending a lot of time standing around waiting to go through technical features was disheartening, and we know of several riders who left the event early, choosing not to seed or race.
The addition of an another day of coaching in those conditions, or a period of time set aside purely for sessioning features, might have helped mitigate this. That said, Atherton has hinted that Machynlleth may become the home of the women’s Fox Hunt, at least until next year, and with a bit more bedding in that course would be fun for riders of every level.
There were also whispers that the event might shift to a late spring date which, given how the seasons run in the UK, could be more likely to deliver good weather and better track conditions. One issue that was resolved over the 2016 event is the uplift. Provided by the experts from Antur Stiniog, this ran smoothly with a number of minibuses with bike trailers shuttling riders up the hill. And the number of high fives, cheers and smiles at the finish line shows that for those who did ride the track, the experience was worth it.
Overall, what this event demonstrates is that given the right support, facilities and atmosphere, it’s perfectly possible to get over 200 women at a race event, and hopefully for many this first taste of racing and the community that goes with it will encourage them to try other events. For anyone thinking of signing up next year, Milly Johnset has this to say: “Just go for it! Because if you want to just have fun or you want to race, it’s the perfect place. You can just take it at your speed.”