Monday, 23 January 2017

Mud and Ice (mostly Mud)

After a flurry of activity to get me to 2017KM in 2016 I have been off the mountain bike for a few weeks. This has been down to a never-ending cold, but mostly to the weather. When it’s cold and raining it is hard to gather the enthusiasm to get back out into the mud.

This week I kicked off what some might call my 2017 campaign. With a heavy frost and bright sunshine it seemed like a good day to get wrapped up and go riding. I even banked on the thick clay on some of the fields on the ride to the East of Hertfordshire being frozen solid and ridable.

This was a major mistake.

The first few sections were beautifully frozen. Iced-over puddles thrillingly held my weight and creaked under the wheels. Mud was formed into hard-edged grippy ridges, like riding rocks in the middle of summer. I was smiling and cruising along battered by the ruts but skipping over the land.

This continued for a while and I elected to risk a section that should really only be reserved for the dry of the summer or a hard frost. There are a number of field crossings, skirting along the edge of ploughed up earth, sometimes cut up by horses and always based on clay. It started well and shady patches were frozen hard but more and more out in the winter sun the ground was thawing. All too soon the bike was clogging up. Huge lumps of clay jammed themselves into the crown of the fork and in between the seat- and chain-stays until the wheels stopped going round at all.

Climbing off and scooping huge handfuls of mud off the bike allowed maybe a half wheel turn before it all jammed up again and in the end I was reduced to pushing and dragging the bike along, now both about three times its usual weight and with tyres dragging through the mud rather than rolling over it. I was trying to find the small patches on the shady side of small ruts that stayed frozen and seeking out the icy puddles that either helped me drag the bike forward or broke through and added some water to release the clogging. This was not in the plan of a light skipping, sparkling ride.

There are two or three sections like this and they seemed to go on for ever before I found firmer land and was able to free the bike up and ride on, with my shoes widened by the clay and rubbing on the cranks. Sapped of energy through these sections I hung on to make it back, muddy and tired, to the car.

There are lessons to learn and they are either to go very early before the ground thaws at all, or to keep those paths for the summer and focus my winter riding on the firmer-based tracks all over the county. However, let’s not forget the fun of those moments riding through a sparkling frozen wonderland of the countryside with the low hazy winter sun meaning I could go back to sunglasses for a brief memory of the summer.


Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Chasing 2K - Happy New Year

Approaching the end of November I happened to realise that across the year so far I had ridden over 1,800km on mountain bikes. On Strava I had only been recording the “proper” rides, ignoring the commutes or BMX rides that would have ramped things up even more. This posed an interesting challenge. Could I get to 2,000km by the end of the year, or was that a bit too far. I worked out I’d have to ride a solid 30 or so kilometres each week to get there, assuming I could ride every weekend. It was a pretty big ask and there were a number of weekends that were out of the question. When I could I started to fit in the rides, while trying to keep in mind that I was doing it for fun, not to hit the miles.

As December came around I kept it interesting, trying to find variations on rides I’ve done before. I set out to link a couple together, hampered by a major road awkwardly positioned in the middle of the loop.

On the plus side this ride was perfect for the winter, as the majority of the tracks involved had a firm base, mud sprayed around but the going remained possible all the way round, with no bogging down into the mud. It added 40-odd km to the total, which I extended a week later with a twin-set of classic Chilterns rides, bringing the bigger bike along to join the fun.

Adding another 60km in total these were old favourites, executed in fog which clung to the beech woodlands. It was muddy and slippery on chalk and roots, with visibility down to much less than it should be and atmosphere in buckets. Things were starting to look likely if I put in a bit of a final push.

That push started on Christmas day. I’ve traditionally ridden in the morning on this day every year and I extended the usual Mendip loop out a little. The usual fun and brilliance of Blackdown took me clattering down and round the valleys, then climbing and throwing the bike down a cheeky downhill. Dropping right from the top the extension heads into Cheddar down a track that is fast and rocky in the dry and like riding on ice in any type of damp as the limestone loses all grip. Of course it was wet and I clung on bravely to get down incident-free. Heading back up the gorge is always a tricky decision, with no option that doesn’t involve a big tough climb. I elected for the route set back from the edge, climbed mostly successfully and then cruised across the top to finish in a surprise sideways rain storm back at the car.

Around 20km on the board and a little break for Christmas, before I was back on the bike on the 27th at Cwm Carn.

I can only put the speed on the climb down to carb-loading in the previous couple of days, especially on turkey. I couldn’t resist taking the Pedalhounds DH option back down the hill, shortening the total distance, but keeping it fun, and putting 13km down.

My secret weapon was going to be several days riding in Wales to try and hit the total with the maximum of fun riding. On cold frosty mornings with the car thermometer reading in the negatives I rolled out, first, onto the trail centre of Nant Yr Arian. This is an interesting trail centre, the singletrack is good, but limited, with the real highlight being the Mask of Zorro section, and there is a brutal fireroad climb at the end to really make you feel the riding. The real beauty is the extension out into the wild. From the top of the centre a track takes you out into the hills. It takes mostly wide tracks around higher hills, along rocky trails that were frozen and beautiful in the low-angled bright winter sun.

It was a taste of wild mid Wales that would be a precursor to a return to the Mach 3 trail at Machynlleth on the following day. The last time I rode here I was out in the hills for 5 hours so it was going to be a big challenge. This time it was a far quicker, thanks to riding alone, and having an idea where I was going (with one navigation error). It remains a big day out, big long tough climbs, and steep loose descents are the order of the day resulting in a satisfying ride that feels remote for much of the time on the bike.

Rolling into the car park I was just 7km short of the overall target. I woke up with a cold and a plan to stop off at Shropshire on the way back East. Lemsipped up and parked in Carding Mill Valley I elected to go for a shortened version of what I’ve done before. This meant a hard climb up the road, a helter-skelter run down Minton Batch, then a fireroad ascent. At this point I had hit the total and started some other calculations. Could I make it to a very neat 2,016km for 2016? Watching the distance tip over I reckoned I’d be close, so stopped thinking about it and tipped over onto the hugely fun, rocky, fast but annoyingly busy with unobservant walkers, descent down Carding Mill Valley. Clattering down avoiding the hikers I still got some big grin factor and forgot the cold for a bit until I carved into the carpark and looked at the total.

There it was. 2,017.3km. A little over the perfect number, but worth a video.


Monday, 28 November 2016


The days are resolutely getting shorter and riding bikes is a matter of finding daylight, avoiding as much mud as possible and trying not to get rained on. Riding local bridleways is still fun, but needs some added interest. One way to do this is to ride everything backwards.

I’m not talking about trick cycling but actually just going the “wrong” way round some local routes. As ever this isn’t as stupid as it sounds. Inevitably the first time you try a ride you will do it one way or the other. In my case I have a propensity to ride clockwise round a loop. I don’t know why, but as a default this just feels right in some way.

To mix things up I went and did a couple of my favourites anti-clockwise. You never know what you might find by doing this – maybe a climb is better as a downhill, or a skipping descent might be better as a climb. Maybe some corners work better the other way, and the overall feel and balance of the ride might be better.

Both rides seemed actually harder the wrong way, which might be down to the extra mud, or the balance of hills. There were bits that were fun and it’s good to see a different perspective. Perhaps due to the “wrong way round” nature of the riding I got some fast times on Strava, with less competition on every section, so perhaps that’s a secret to getting some cheeky KOMs. At the moment it’s getting dark at about 4pm so most rides end up with a bit of half an eye on the setting sun. This means riding through some of the most beautiful autumnal light, but adds a stressful element in terms of not ending up in the dark. Riding a track covered in leaf litter in the failing light is a serious challenge, but slightly safer than cruising the roads without lights as you try to make it back to the car.

Both are things I have been forced to do as the inevitable march of time and the rotating of the tilted world beat my attempts to ride over it.


Monday, 21 November 2016

Back to Winter Riding

At the last second I dragged the bike back into shape, got my weight back to counter the fork-dive from the heavy front braking, and narrowly avoided the trees. This wasn’t a technical section, aside from the narrow gaps between the trunks but I was riding it like I’d never been on a bike before. My balance was all off, I couldn’t find any flow and I was fighting everything. It might have been the drive in the rain up to Cannock that had thrown me off, it might have been just the build-up of work stress, but most likely it was the brutal hangover I was still feeling into the afternoon.

Riding the Chase is perfect for a wet afternoon. The built trails drain well, apart from the puddles and the main challenge is a lack of grip on the wet hard-pack. I chased the light around the red trail, forgetting how long the route is. Cannock has some technical sections and needs concentration, as well as fitness to get up the surprising amount of climbing. I was lacking a bit of both but I fought through the day, managing to make a navigational error on a marked trail, which I think shows commitment to the lack of focus.

Occasional groups of riders slowed me down and I feel any PRs here slightly flatter me, possibly more due to the large number of punctures I got last time round, or some residual fitness behind the pain, but for all that it was a good ride, wet, fast, technical and just good to be on a bike as ever. I briefly flirted with the black diversion but had to decide it was beyond me for the day leaving me with a slightly embarrassing push back up to the red trail.

Sunday was time for something a bit bigger. It’s not too far beyond Birmingham to the Peak District where I had a choice to make. Often I have ridden the same routes here, sticking to what I know is good in the bigger hills, but I was tempted to try something new. There is another well-known route form Hope around the Ladybower reservoir that I’ve never ridden and I wanted to try it out. I was concerned it would be a disappointment but I needn’t have worried.

Climbing out of Hope was a muddy slog to start with, getting firmer, but wetter as I got higher. I enjoy a wet rocky climb on grippy gritstone and it delivered that in spades. At the top the track headed downhill on loose boulders and rocks, offering another challenge that briefly went a bit wrong as I hit my knee, but continued down with wide open views. I climbed again and then was directed onto the least inspiring-looking of the tracks. With fingers crossed I rolled out along this until it started to get decidedly more interesting with another rollercoaster descent to the road and the reservoir.

Some tourist-dodging along the road took me to the bottom of a brutally steep climb that I had to walk in sections as the missing fitness and skill from the previous day returned. At the top a beautiful contour in the dropping sun and temperature was the prelude to a rolling, boggy, rock-strewn downhill over heather moorland then into a valley and rock-slabs to the road. The ride ended on tarmac for longer than ideal, but the satisfaction of the big hills and hard descents remained through the last miles and back to the car where cake and dry clothes were waiting to help with the dark motorway drive home.


Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Making Weekend Plans

What do you do when you get to a weekend and realise you have no plans. Well the best plan in my opinion is to go riding a lot.

I was at Heathrow early on Saturday morning, so the obvious first step was to head to Bracknell, which is surprisingly close to the airport. Based on this if you are planning a trip to the UK for some riding you could do a lot worse than rebuilding the bike when your flight lands and getting a first opportunity to ride it within a few miles of the runway. I arrived at Swinley not long after the gates opened and rolled out into the misty woods as the sun slanted and spattered through the trees.

There’s not much to say about Swinley that I’ve not written before, but the ride was a nice early morning loop before it got busy, the ground well drained but damp enough to be grippy, and the morning sun lighting up the fog was beautiful. As autumn settles in the section closed all summer for nesting birds was reopened as is the old first section of the red trail, now re-signposted as the end. This is a nice swoopy scar-ride that still probably works better as the start of the trail, not an afterthought.

After the ride around Swinley it was still early, and it seemed a shame to waste the day so after setting up beers and a bed for the evening, I jumped on the M4 with an excellent podcast for company and was soon changing tops and shoes in another carpark before attacking the rocky lift up onto the edge of Blackdown. The Mendips are getting muddy and are just on the edge of being ridable before the winter makes it worth switching to the road diversion. This time I went over the top, and ploughed through the deepening peat. On top of the hill I lined up for the flowing, rolling descent that always sits somewhere in the back of my head as a benchmark for fun.

Back at the car some gingernuts made an early lunch and I settled into being a non-cyclist for the rest of the day. As ever that’s not something that lasts long and on Sunday morning I woke up in a 6-year-old’s bed (the usual occupant was camping out on his brother’s floor) next to a cuddly stegosaurus with the need to go riding back in my legs. I got up, folded back the vehicle-themed duvet and got ready to get back on the bike.

Breakfast and an hour or so later I was changing again in the third carpark of the weekend, then kicked out onto the Cwmcarn Cafall trail. Tech issues and huge groups of slow riders blighted my early climb, but both were left behind for a bit on the switchbacks. I climbed clumsily through the remains of my beer and curry hangover and got caught behind another slow group who seemed oblivious to my stalling out behind them as the inched along the trail. A muttered passive aggressive comment was all I could manage as they eventually stopped in the middle of the track with their friends and I was free for a bit of riding at my own pace, luckily dropping one rooty section next to yet another guy pushing his expensive bike down.

After this frustration I decided to take a friend’s advice and head down the hill on the Pedalhounds DH track. I have to confess to having been intimidated by the DH rating in the past due to an underestimation of my ability or an over-exaggeration of the technical level that it represented, but this DH run was well within my capabilities and was a whole load of fun. Winding between trees, dropping steep chutes, rocks, berms and a series of fast drop-offs, the track drops fast and engagingly down the valley. It’s a shorter, faster way down than the rest of the Cafall trail but it’ll be hard in future to avoid taking that option again.

Oh and for the record I beat my friend’s time down the track.