Just over there, just over that hill is Dyfi. Dyfi forest. Two words that bring both wonder and woe to the minds of rally drivers from across the globe. The road that brought us here, had we carried on a few miles more, would have landed at the Cross Foxes – the place where, every Rally GB, Elfyn Evans would stop to say hello to his gran.
This is rally country. Hardcore rally country. A British Jämsä or Digne-les-Bains, if you like. A place the World Rally Championship gravitates to every November. Or September at a push. A place where it’s usually raining. But nobody cares.
Today’s different. Today’s a cloudless blue sky and a temperature knocking on the door of 86F.
Seeing a place out of context is odd. It’s Torsby, in shorts and T-shirts. Even more odd, there are no cars around. Only bikes. At least there’s Elfyn. And Gee.
Of the two, Evans is the better known rally driver.
Gee Atherton’s done a bit too. More than a bit. Across two and a bit years, the Geeman found his feet on four wheels and became a regular class winner in his Ford Fiesta R2.
But he’s better on a bike. Especially coming down hills.
He is, in fact, a double downhill world champion on a mountain bike. Atherton is kind of Mr Mountain Bike. Ordinarily, he’d be riding one of his own Atherton Bikes at this event he helps organize with his similarly famous sister Rachel and brother Dan.
Today he’s swapped two wheels for a similar number of crutches. This is why.
Atherton’s a warrior. Today, I’m surrounded by them at Red Bull Hardline.
Welcome to the Dyfi Valley, summer edit.
I told a colleague I was going to Hardline for the first time early last week. This colleague puts the hard into hardcore, which is why Kris Meeke looks up to him. He solos the Baja 1000 on a motorbike and rides up El Condor when he gets an afternoon off at Rally Argentina.
He was impressed.
His final message said it all: “Jasus! You’re in with proper boys there!!! Enjoy it, it’s a tough business. These guys are massively committed in racing and training.”
It’s a bike. And a hill. With gravity playing its part, how hard can it be?
The hard part, surely, was getting up the hill and for that, bikes and riders relied on four-wheel drive and a trailer.
I relied on a Land Rover Defender 110 that was almost as old as me.
If I was here to be impressed, this was a good place to start. On a Safari-spec road that was seriously steep (I’m not very good with gradients, but if I wouldn’t have wanted to walk up it…), in low range and with the diffs locked, the Landie just kept on going.
Ears popping, the land levelled out at what was being called the step up. That’s when I began to understand that this thing really is on another level.
The ‘step’ part of the step up is a ramp that must be 12-feet tall. It’s mental. Then there’s nothing. Then there’s a place to land. Between the two, you could probably drive a double-decker bus. Before and after, there’s more madness.
There’s nothing normal about Hardline. It is, quite literally, what it is: the hardest line. A good run from top to bottom is sub 2m40s. But actually, a good run is just getting to the bottom on the bike with the vast majority of bodily functions still online.
Driving along the A470 – a road regularly overflown by some of the world’s fastest fighter jets as it dissects what’s known as the Mach Loop, a low-level training area for the military – you’re surrounded by mountains. Nice to look at, but not an obvious place to ride a bike.
Atherton explains the thinking. It’s not complicated.
“Basically, we found the biggest mountain in this valley and then found a way to ride down it,” he said.
Off the top (and the start is on top of the mountain) you’re down a couple of features through some grass across a rock face and into the trees. After some technical stuff, you need speed. You need speed for the canon. The canon is a jump that fires you out of the trees and into a long left-hander on the approach to the step up.
“We’ve stretched some of the features a bit this year, made them tougher – this is the most extreme year,” added Atherton.
Stretching some of the features means an extra meter between step up and landing zone. And that extra meter makes braking impossible through the sweeping left.
“You need to be hitting the step at around 40mph,” said Atherton Racing star Charlie Hatton. “You’re brain is just like: ‘What are you doing?’”
I’ve been fortunate enough to watch the world’s best rally drivers deal with long left-handers just like this one, on surfaces identical.
Watching those bikes last weekend was every bit as spectacular. The control and commitment as the bikes squirmed and moved under the rider was intense – more so because you knew that they knew if they bottled it and touched the brakes, they’d fall short on the jump and slam head first into a wooden wall.
Having moved the event out of the autumn and into the summer, the nature of the course has become more Acropolis than RAC. Not that all Welsh July weekends are as baking as the last one.
“The move has definitely changed the way you work with the tires,” Gee explained. “Because there’s more rocks around in the dry, you’re running a higher pressure, but that compromises traction.”
That all sounds very familiar, especially for some of the Rally Estonia runners who might have got their fingers burned playing with tire pressures in Tartu.
After the high-speed bravery comes a new-for-2021 rock drop, where the riders pop over the edge and plummet 40 feet to the ground. But you can’t drop straight down. You need to come in with some speed to carry the bike forwards for a cleaner landing. From take-off to landing, it’s 60 feet.
A few years ago, Rally Finland organizers turned the Ouninpohja stage around for the first time in years. There was some debate about the famous yellow house jump and what it would be like in the opposite direction.
Waiting for the pre-event press conference, the drivers were all there, huddled together talking through their thoughts on this stage and that jump. Flat? Not flat? Left-side entry or straight down the middle. Nobody knew. And they wouldn’t really know until they arrived, flat-in-top. Meeke nailed it.
Watching the riders gathered at the top of this new rock drop, the feeling was exactly the same. Nobody knew. Somebody had to go. In went Brage Vestavik. His bike dragged on landing, straight over the bars. He ripped his cords.
Seriously, a Norwegian who races in corduroy trousers. How cool is that?
Unhappy at the soft landing, the riders got together and worked on the course to make it right. How refreshing to see a group of competitors coming together for the common good. Remind me, how is that WRC drivers’ group coming along…
Having landed a 60-footer and continued down the mountain, plenty more lunacy lay in wait.
Like I said, I’ve seen and done some incredible stuff in my time in rallying, but this topped it all.
Especially when, having tripped and tumbled my way down the mountain on foot I arrived at another hideously complex drop through the rocks into the genuine meaning of a boardwalk from hell.
Reece Wilson, a downhill world champion himself, was commentating for Red Bull at the weekend. He’s done it twice before, but not this year. He stood on the boardwalk and stared down the barrel of Hardline’s most famous feature: the road gap.
With a wry smile and a shake of the head, he grins the grin of a man quite happy to be talking about a 55-foot leap across a road and onto a landing so steep you can barely stand up on it.
“That’s nuts,” said the Scot.
Making this one even bigger was Dan Atherton’s idea.
“The first time you hit it, you’re really nervous,” said Dan. “But once you’ve done it a few times, you get quite comfortable with it. It’s one of the few jumps though where there’s no pulling out.
“That’s always scary as a rider, to know that you’re 100% committed.”
Preparing to watch the first rider through, I build that mental picture. I’ve done it a thousand times, standing on a corner or a jump waiting for the first World Rally Car through.
Once again, I’m blown away. Clean, clean away.
Bernard Kerr flies through the air, way above my head, hits the deck and just accelerates down the landing area, compressing the bike and powering it into a banked right-hander.
These boys are on another level.
Kerr wins and now, moments after he’s come top to bottom, he’s standing in front of me.
I’m largely lost for words. Fortunately, he’s not.
“That was sketchy, if I’m honest,” he told DirtFish. “I blew my foot on the road gap, but I just got it back in in time…”
Blew my foot on the road gap… his foot came off the pedals just as he was taking off for one of the biggest jumps of his life.
I’d go with sketchy.
“It’s been a bit of a weird one in these conditions. It was so loose in places. It was kind of like mud in terms of how slippery, but there was more grip on the rocks. It was tough. But of all the races I do all year, this is way sicker than anything else. I really love it.”
He’s not the only one. I’m a fan too now.
Every now and then you see something that brings a completely different perspective. Not to mention a totally fresh appreciation of what skill, bravery, commitment and some cutting edge suspension can do.
It’s just a mountain. It’s just a bike. But these riders are the best in the world at what they do.
It was Elfyn Evans who encouraged me to come along to Hardline last year. Evans is a big mountain biker – currently partnered by Canyon – and a mate of the Athertons.
“You need to see it,” he told me. “It’s not like anything else.”
Afterwards, no words were needed. Just a nod.
Hardline. It’s not like anything else.