It’s the banging on the safety barriers that tells us they are coming. A wave of frenetic beating rising up from below, masking the announcer’s urgent voice and even threatening the pumping music which is bouncing around the concrete walls of the multi-storey carpark. Overhead a police helicopter clatters, searching for something off near The River whilst just to the North the clustered towers of The City glare provocatively in the fading dusk light, finally hiding the last of the unseasonal October sun which followed the earlier autumnal rain. The announcer’s muffled exhortations become ever more drowned out by the banging as the riders approach the roof but then, as they burst out of the dark cavern-like mouth onto level 10, the crescendo dissipates as it released from the pressured confines of below and the experience becomes visual. Two riders, almost side by side, flash past our vantage point, caught in the arc-lights illuminating the course. The first is clad in a vest top – a stark contrast to the full face helmets, goggles and body armour that many are wearing – crouched low over his bike, legs pumping like pistons as he tries to keep up with his low single gear; the other is up higher on a 24-inch wheeled trail bike, wearing jeans, ponytail tied back away from her exposed face, which is a study of concentration as she looks for a line through the twisting turns ahead. It’s like a still shot from a wider movie, a blurred sports photo. A fraction of a second later they are over the jumps and looping around the roof, preparing to plunge back down into the dry-iced darkness for a surging run to the finish line on Level 0. No quarter is being asked for and none is being given. We hear the barrier noise recede, following the riders as the dive downwards, and the announcer’s words come back into clarity. She’s overtaken her rival on the descent and takes the win. She will race again. He’s out. The announcer calls for “Energy, Energy, Energy” and the music is notched up another level as the next riders head to the start gate. Welcome to Parkour Ride.
Bike racing usually follows a set of prescribed rules. Road bikes race against other road bikes on roads. BMX’ers take on fellow BMX’ers on BMX tracks, Mountain bikes ride mountain trails and Fixed Geared bikes pit themselves against the cross-town traffic and each other in city centre ‘Alley Cat’ races. And never the twain shall meet. Until now that is. ParkourRide is a new concept for bike racing – bringing together all these disciplines and pitting them against each other in a venue which is part race-track and part nightclub. And it goes further than that by giving amateur riders the chance to qualify to ride against the top pro riders in the evening finals. Conceived and now realised by FACE Partnership, the promotion company behind the Revolution and Nocturne Series events, it’s certainly a winning idea on paper. The Jersey Pocket went over to Tobacco Dock in Wapping last weekend to see how it worked in practice.
Tobacco Dock is located pretty much in the heart of London but is nonetheless overlooked. Cut off by the river to the South, the A1205 Highway road to the North and with old docks to both the East and the West, it’s one of those lost areas that fell into decay some years ago and hasn’t yet hauled itself out. A protrusion left behind by the loss of river traffic. There are now some new trendy developments on the riverside itself but head in the opposite direction from Wapping rail station and the grittiness ramps up as quickly as the inclines in the unused car-park that is Parkour Ride’s home for the weekend. Two full size pirate ships – built as an attraction for the long since doomed shopping centre which the carpark was built for – lie marooned in concrete next door. Hand-painted signs have long since half bleached out in the sun, leaving cryptic messages and glyphs for pondering over, whilst the early day rain lends a forlorn air to the puddled streets outside. At least it’s dry inside.
Don’t get me wrong – this is the perfect place for Parkour Ride. There is no-one within hearing distance to mind the loud music and the tight, twisting turns of the multi-storey car-park will present some real challenges to the riders. I arrive in the early afternoon just as the second round of amateur rider time trials are getting underway. One hundred have turned up to contest the top 20 spots which will be given a crack at the pro-riders in front of the paying punters in the evening session. The time trials are just a single rider against the clock. The battles with two riders going head-to-head will also come later.
Even by multi-storey car-park standards Tobacco Dock is a challenging course. It’s not big, it’s not wide and (apart from the very odd steel-beamed carpark at Bridgwater Services on the M5) it’s also the lowest car park I can think of. Riders wearing Go-Pro’s on top of their helmets were in serious danger of losing them to the arching concrete on the ceilings as they strove to post a time of around one minute to make the cut. FACE had spent much of Friday making things even harder for the riders; adding rollers, jumps, berms, narrowed areas and cross-over points. The riders would have use of one set of car ramps as their course whilst the punters would have the other, spiralling up and down through various levels of bars and sponsored activity areas. Not that there is much activity for now. With the crowds yet to come the amateurs are having to do with impressing the remains of the set-up crew, a small army of stewards and the usual few hangers-on who have come in early. I count myself in that last lot.
There are a few familiar faces amongst the amateurs: roadies and fixed-gear nuts who have crossed my path before. There are also lot of strange looking creatures flying around the course, the likes of whom I rarely get to meet. BMX’ers. MTB’ers, Trials-riders and Paramedics. What’s that? Paramedics? Yep, one of the bike-riding members of the St John’s Ambulance team has donned a race number and headed out on the course on his work bike with the full paramedic pannier set up. Incredibly he catches some air off the roof-top ramp and posts a time of 1’02” to slot neatly into the current Top 20. I grab him at the finish line to get the lowdown on this two-wheeled ‘Air Ambulance’. He’s standing with Dave Hemmings – the former MTB British champion who is currently lying in 3rd place – who is as impressed with the ride as I am. It turns out that the medic has a bit of form; Tom Lynch is also a former British Champion (in BMX) but his impromptu entry sums up everything that is good about the inclusive nature of the event for me. As the afternoon progresses his time doggedly hangs on in the Top 20 and cuttingly it’s only the very last amateur ride of the second session who squeezes him out. Ryan Stack’s run not only edges Tom into 21st place but also pushes everyone down one place as he posts the fastest time of the day. The rain had stopped by this time and there’s no doubt that the drying track was running faster but Stack’s time of 56″.107 is almost a second faster than Rob Reed’s second place. The young BMX’er from London is obviously one to keep an eye on later in the day.
As the final times come in there is chance to take stock and see how the different bike disciplines fared. None of the fixed or road riders were able to make it into the finals so they will only be represented by George Garnier, the sole pro who is riding fixed, and recently retired Garmin-Sharp road rider David Millar, whose connection with FACE goes back over a decade and who is here already, sinking a beer on the roof, accompanied by his wife, sister and mum. The tightness of the course has obviously favoured the smaller bikes and already FACE are thinking about how to even up the odds for next year. Starting the race from lower down in the carpark is suggested, as is making the BMX’ers go a longer way around. It’s clear that the organisers want a fairer fight..
Amongst those who missed out on the finals this time are Jess Morgan and Sam Dunn – the only two women who rode the amateur heats. FACE have made sure that two of the ten pro riders are female; Downhill World Champ Manon Carpenter and Team MuleBar rider & TV presenter Anna Glowinski; but only four out of almost 110 riders is something else that the organisers should look to improve. Both Jess and Sam – good friends, whose times were split by exactly one-tenth of a second – were happy to be flying the flag for the girls though and turned their competitive energies to the Rollapaluza stand instead. I was all for the girls vs guys scenario on the night as it seemed a natural extension of the “Choose Your Weapon” tagline that FACE had devised to promote the Road vs Fixed vs MTB vs BMX ethos of the event. Everyone lumped in together and battling hard. But Anna gave me a different take on it later, which FACE may want to ponder before holding the next event. “I always kick up a fuss when there aren’t separate male and female races; I don’t think it’s a good thing for encouraging women to give it a go. With a two storey sprint up a hill the guys are gonna be a lot faster. What chance then do ordinary females have of qualifying?! An event I did once with Red Bull – The Fox Hunt with Gee Atherton – was open to all and only 2 girls raced. Last weekend Red Bull did the same event, just for women, with [his sister] Rachael Atherton…150 women raced! I believe separate categories are needed to get women racing.”
Amateur rider Jess Morgan agrees, but qualifies that by saying that she is also conflicted about whether a separate Women’s Event would be best. “On one hand I really liked the lack of segregation as it echoed the lack of boundaries between the amateurs and pro’s and type of bikes used – the race was about as meritocratic as you could possibly get – but, on the other hand, I [was the] the fastest amateur female [and] came #82 out of #88 overall. Strength is relative and in a female-only category you’ll see aggressive and exciting racing, whereas in mixed races all too often it’s the girls who are unceremoniously spat out of the back. It’s a bit of a catch 22. You can keep the structure as it is and accept that the majority of women will fail to qualify, or you can segregate it which would probably attract more women to enter but lose the ‘lack of boundaries concept’ which makes it so appealing in the first place. In the end I’d go for the latter, to draw attention to women’s cycling, to make the racing more exciting, to get more women in the final event and to give the spectators more races to watch.”
In the deepest bowels of the carpark, below the ground level where there are at least some half-barred windows letting in light, are the Rider’s Pits. Without the glamour of the disco lighting of the public areas above but with the music constantly reminding everyone what is happening up top, the area has the feeling of the staging areas below the Colosseum. Incongruities abound. Bikes, helmets and other kit lies around, awaiting retrieval. A full-sus MTB, finished in three different shades of outrageous neon, stands next to a stripped-down fixie; like a pumped-up mastiff glaring over a cocksure whippet. Nearby David Millar’s $15,000 Cervelo S5 is casually tucked between a steel protection barrier and a grimy wall. Across the dingy space a single mechanic, from sponsors Giant, does the few adjustments and repairs that are required. It’s a far cry from the start village of a Grand Tour. And all the better for it.
Down here too, in the murky area below the arena where the dry ice sinks and obscures the vision, are our Gladiators. They cluster in small circles, sitting on their top tubes, sharing stories with each other; comparing equipment, techniques and times. And, of course, eyeing up the opposition. Head-to-head racing is an unusually confrontational format for bikes and by the time the evening session starts the tension is palpable. This is something totally new thing for both the Pro’s and the Amateurs alike. The Rule Book is yet to be written and, at this stage at least, anything could happen. An increase in activity from the announcer let’s us know that the crowds are coming in and the real racing is about to get started.
The pro-riders get their chance to have a go on the course as the sun-sinks and the car-park fills up. Just like the amateurs they get one slow-paced orientation run and then an individual timed run which will slot them into the seedings for the head-to-heads. Unsurprisingly World BMX No. 1 and, perhaps more importantly for today, Parkour Ride course designer Liam Phillips posts the best time which is more than two and half seconds better the next pro, MTB’er Ricky Crompton, and a whopping 3 seconds faster than Ryan Stack amateur benchmark. As fastest pro’s Phillips and Crompton get a bye from the first round of head-to heads and of the other pro’s only Anna Glowinski’s time is slower than that of ousted paramedic Tom Lynch but her passage to the next round at least is guaranteed.
Glowinski was nervous before her first race; she had told me as much before she headed up out of the pits to the starting gate for her match against one of the middle ranked amateurs. She felt conscious that her pro status meant that she was being judged as equal to “Real World champions” but her first effort, when she came from behind on that first match up, did much to set aside the doubts that she had unnecessarily harboured. “I was convinced I was going to really embarrass myself! I really, really had low expectations for myself, esepcially being in the “Pro” catagory but I knew a load of friends would be there and I was really excited about trying something new on a bike so I really wanted to get stuck in. It was having a crowd there that made me nervous, not the course; that was just really fun. And in the end it worked out fine, I raced well and had a right laugh.” A chest infection can’t have helped either but Glowinski was glowing with pride and exhilaration by the time she made it back down from that run and she would approach her next match-up (against fellow pro rider Sam Pilgrim) with far more confidence.
Dave Hemmings had taken a lot of confidence into his first head to head against fellow MTB amateur James Parsons but an overcooked corner saw him take the first nasty looking fall of the day. The multi-level racing meant that, despite reasonably extensive closed circuit TV coverage showing the action form the various levels on screens around the site, it was easy to miss some key moments. I didn’t understand what had befallen Dave until I saw him later on – out of his race kit and back in the Vulpine clothing of the company he now works for – and he showed me the road rash. He remained philosophical about his untimely exit whilst praising the event in general. “[It was] rider error; I caught some white paint and the front wheel went away so fast that I had no reaction to it. My hands were still on the bars as I went under the barriers upside down. I feel confident I would have made it to the quarters [but then] I would have raced Liam Phillips, I would have gone out for sure in that round. The atmosphere is amazing and the vibe is great between all riders. The course was good going up. I would have made it at least another two floors of upward racing to give the MTB’s and road bikes a better chance against the BMX’s and I would have liked to have had more than just one practise run to fully set my bike up for the conditions. The whole event has so much scope. I can’t wait to do the next one..”
The organisers had actually expected a lot more spills and had built in plenty of time to deal with them. The lack of accident related downtime though did mean that there were longer periods between races at times and the atmosphere did dip somewhat at these moments. A shorter timescale, or some kind of exhibition riding between races would maybe have helped keep the event building towards the dramatic climax.
David Millar and George Garnier weren’t able to make it out of their first head-to-heads. Millar had put in a storming time trial qualifier; going sub 58″ seconds on a road bike was an outstanding ride giving the course and the obstacles that had to be negotiated. He reckoned that he made up most of the time he had lost on the technical roof section with a barn-storming descent but he couldn’t repeat the trick against a mountain bike rode by amateur David Jacquin, who took an early lead over the lumps and held off the popular pro rider for the win. In all 8 of the 20 amateurs made it through the second knock-out round making it an even split in the last 16.
Manon Carpenter, resplendent in her rainbow stripes, won her second matchup but then came up against the mighty Liam Phillips, who must have already had one eye on the final. Tom Dowie, the third fastest pro qualifier was also making good progress through the round. Dowie, a bearded MTB rider was easy to spot amongst the increasingly common BMX helmets, and he made it through to the semi-finals alongside Phillips, local pro- rider Tre Whyte and our friend from the amateur heats Ryan Stack. Stack had already beaten an MTB and a couple of BMX’s on his way to the semi’s and now would face a best of three race-off against Dowie for one of the final spots. Phillips cooly dispatched Trey Whyte 2-0 on his side of the draw but Dowie fought back against Stack – confidently making the most of the inside lane in their second match – to take it to a popular decider. To the delight of the crowd, who were now mainly thronged around the start and finish lines, Stack prevailed to give the organisers a dream ticket final of the top ranked pro facing off against someone who had gone all the way through the afternoon qualifiers. As Dowie and Whyte raced each other for the third place honours (a battle which Whyte would win), Phillips took a moment alone behind the start line to compose himself. He looked pretty majestic waiting there, whilst Stack looked like a man who already had three more races in his legs than the favourite. “I never thought I would get this far” he confided whilst still remaining upbeat about his chances in the final race-off.
So, here it was. BMX vs BMX. Top pro against top amateur. Twice they blasted out from the automatic start gate and twice they disappeared into the darkness out upon the roof jockeying for position but each time Phillips returned marginally ahead and stayed upright to the finish. Stack was never far off but at the end of a long and exhilarating day Phillips’ record was undefeated in all his races and a worthy champion.
After the presentations and a couple of last banging tracks from the Red Bull DJ’s, the crowd spilled out of the carpark back into the bleakness of a Wapping night with something akin to a post-club buzz going on. Ears still rang with the sounds of the evening, drinks were still in hand and plans were being made for what was to happen next. For many, Parkour Ride had been a great way to kick-off a long weekend and I reckon it’s fair to say that of the event as a whole: a great first time that was enjoyed by all but, having stood there with the crowds who were all just realising how big and crazy and loud and sweaty and messy it could be, you came away with the feeling that, with a few tweaks and a bit of a bigger budget, next time this thing will be massive..
Photos by AE Photos, Jake Lewis and Scott Pattenden. Used courtesy of FACE.
Additional Photography by Howard Smith & David Loosmore. Crash Photo via Dave Hemmings
More about history of Tobacco Dock here