Monday, 17 October 2016

Opening Your Options

It’s all too easy to get in a bit of a rut with any route you ride regularly. Once you’ve gone to the effort of pouring over the map to plan it out and then riding it to find out that it works it’s tempting to keep repeating the same ride over and over again. This has advantages as you’ll navigate effortlessly round it and know what to expect, but it does mean you might have missed something great. Perhaps on rides further from home this is why it might make sense to look at what other people have done, or recommend, but on your local trails you have the opportunity to keep exploring.

Look at the map again. There are probably a few other options to take to link things together at some points. It’s worth trying them and you’ll end up with a stronger knowledge of all the ridable paths in the area and you’ll open up more variation.

I’m very guilty of this and since mapping out the ride from Watton-at-Stone I had only varied it once. Basically the ride looks like this:

It’s really not a bad ride and has a lot of good fast (albeit pretty flat) riding along the way. It shouldn’t take an irritation to change it, but there was one bit I hadn’t quite been happy with. A double-back up a field which is now ploughed over followed by lines across the middle of other fields, all with a tendency to get clogged with mud as things get damper, had the potential to ruin the ride. There was an obvious detour that could cut out that section and I decided to try it out before the conditions deteriorated too much into winter. For good measure there was an alternative end to the ride that I thought I might as well try.

The verdict? The first alternative route is much better and I think will stand up to winter a little better. To be honest it is generally better, adding in a rooty section, open field ridge, and a fast stony track to replace the slight slog before. We’ll call it now option A for the ride and retire the other version for use if I get bored or in the blazing middle of summer where carving through leg-whipping crops seems fun. The alternative ending has nothing much to recommend it over the existing option. It includes more tarmac and replaces field crossings with a stony track. In my head this is now classified as the wet-weather option and good to have in the back pocket for when the ideal option seems too clogged with mud.

I’ve come off the ride with a better understanding of the possible routes out there and that’s a good thing. The links I’ve ridden now also pull in ideas for shorter rides if they’re needed, escape routes, and other things to think about.


Monday, 3 October 2016

Going to the Limit

Some days it’s worth finding an adventure in the relatively mundane. Regular readers will know that I’ve been riding a lot in Hertfordshire on the occasions I can’t get away further for more exciting riding. I’m in the process of turning some of that riding into route guides, available through this site, for people who have the same challenge to grab mountain biking close to North London. If you’re paying attention you may have noticed these appearing on the nav bar over to the right here. Look forward to more.

The more I rode these routes the more I wonder how far I can take them. This nagging idea has been kicking around in the back of my mind all summer. As I became aware of the impending end of the good weather I had been thinking more and more about the opportunity for adventure in the woods and fields of the county. In the end, almost on a whim, I set out on Sunday morning to ride the outer limits of the rides I’ve come to know well.

As a responsible mountain biker I would not exactly recommend my approach. Yes I was dressed appropriately and had a good bike for the ride but I’d been short of food to take along, so only had a couple of cereal bars in my bag. It also turns out I had neglected to pick up a multi-tool and may have also forgotten tyre levers or a chain tool so was woefully underprepared for any mechanical emergency. On the plus side again I had plenty to drink with me and I was riding well known tracks. I also had, for once, remembered my wallet so could potentially spend my way out of trouble if it came to that.

I had a vague idea of the distance – I’d done a couple of extended rides that pushed towards 60km out here and I had a blurry feeling that the total would add maybe 10km to this. This was a bit of an underestimate, as I started to realise as I reached the end of the first section. In my mental map of the area I had split out the ride into sections that related to individual rides I’d been doing, this segmentation would become more and more important as I went on, in order to keep myself going and not lose heart. At the junction to link the first ride to the second I checked my GPS watch. I had racked up a fast 20Km already, even as I tried to coach myself to slow down to save energy it was hard to resist the lure of known tracks in the dusty sunshine, and I was blasting along at a decent rate. I was still very much heading away from the car and so quick calculations started to make me realise I was in for a bigger ride than I expected. I resolved to not look at the watch again as I felt like knowing how far I’d gone with the knowledge of how far I had to go would be a tough psychological barrier to overcome.

I began to force myself to think no further than the next section of the ride, only looking to the next village at most, while setting some bigger landmarks to tick off. Much Hadham would be a first target but until there I would think no further than the next junction. I let each turn fall into my mind with the directions from there as they arrived and just settled to enjoy riding and to ride what was in front of me. This strategy worked well to keep me going and I rolled on through the changing landscape of Hertfordshire, pushing on as it tried unsuccessfully to rain. The variety of what I was riding struck me as I moved from the wooded south west to the open fields of the north and east. Some sections surprised me as they had slipped from my forward planning, but there’s a strange peace to be found in being committed to just riding.

With the long open top section ridden with a very helpful tailwind in place I crossed the major roads that head north from here and eventually dropped into Much Hadham. This represented another opportunity to cut the ride short, but whether through stubbornness or something else I found the bike always turning to keep going on the longer option. Climbing back out of the village I stopped to refuel as best I could with my limited provisions. My hydration pack was empty and I switched to a bottle along with the cereal bars, them remounted and rolled further out along field edges.

The next sunken lane gave me reason to think about the distance again as this was where I had dramatically punctured a few weeks before. I knew that this meant I was 20km out from Stansted Margarets. Starting to feel the miles in my legs and reminding myself that the car wasn’t parked there, but further on at Goffs Oak, this was where it started to get harder. From here there are also a succession of fields that are dried to ridged and rutted struggles. In addition I’d swung round into the wind that had been so helpful earlier.

A section of headwind put the first doubts into my head that I would make, but it also made me more determined that this ride wouldn’t beat me. I dropped into St Margarets and mentally double checked that the car wasn’t there. I also remembered the jelly babies in the glove box at this point, which made it harder to accept that the car was further on. After a brief break for a level crossing I kicked out of town and back onto scrappy bridleways to link up with a moment in the grounds of Haileybury College and then onto the dead-straight Ermine Street track which felt like starting to get back to the start. Each rise on the Roman road was starting to be an effort and I had the final climb in my head, knowing that I’d have to climb up through Wormley Wood to get back to the car.

That climb came all too soon on legs not fully recovered even on the previous descent. I dragged myself up it the slowest than I’ve ever climbed the path and emerged onto the road. Finally I looked down at my watch to see what the damage was. Just short of the car I was already clocking over 92km and I felt my tiredness was justified. I rolled back to the car. Sat on the floor and ate all of the jelly babies straight out of the glovebox to get the energy to drive home.

Just a bit gutted that I was 7.5km short of the 100…


Monday, 26 September 2016

Parks, Ridges and Trails

If you were paying attention you’ll know I went to Wales at the start of the “summer” in torrential rain.

Last weekend offered a chance to go back and ride in much better weather. Tagged onto a boys’ weekend away there was the chance of riding of all types; Bike park, natural, and trail centre.

First was Bike Park Wales. For the first time I consented to an uplift day and I have to grudgingly admit it was brilliant. I couldn’t help myself riding up once to settle the nerves and to get dialled in (or so I told everyone, the reality was I felt like it was cheating not to), but then we settled into a full day of being shuttled to the top of the hill before finding all the different ways down. On my first run I made the possible error of going straight for the only new red-graded run I’ve not ridden before, and got a crash out of the way early. From then it was a fun day of friends, friendly competition and a battering from the technical trails. After hours of riding we were all sore but happy, with Gethin woods living up to its reputation yet again.

Saturday was yet another beautiful day on the Gower and I was aching for the excellent mix of ridge-riding and seaside views that the peninsular offers. Sneaking away from a morning of football-golf I headed to the start of the ride, bashed the scab off a cut on my hand, pulled a glove on over the blood and threw my hangover at the first steep climb.

From here there were glorious ridgetop cruises, hidden technical dips, and a brilliant track across the top of Rhossili beach that showed off the best of the Welsh coastline. In essence everything that can be brilliant about Wales in the sunshine.

On Sunday my hangover was too big to even contemplate the bike, and it seemed nice to be sociable, but that meant I was excited for Monday and Afan. The first loop here was a rerun of the May trip, with a trip out on Penhydd. I can confirm that this is much, much better when you can see more than 20 metres and don’t have freezing rain being driven into your ear. It seems like quite a simple trail, with climbing largely dealt with on fireroads and then rolling descents that flow together, eventually dropping you onto a more technical final section.

With that loop knocked out in an hour I drove up the road to Glyncorrwg to head out on Blade. I had forgotten this track’s ability to find more and more climbing when you think there can be no more. It uses the long climb for Whites Level and then just seems to continue to climb. There are, in fact, a few downhill sections in the middle but it leaves you with the impression you have climbed solidly for all but the last 5km or so. Looping round the area where new wind turbines are being erected adds to the feeling of seekingout the climbing. Those last km are on a steep rocky tumbling drop back to the valley bottom. With my legs feeling the previous rides and my hands and arms still carrying the battering from Bike Park Wales it was a ride that left me more than satisfactorily tired, back at the car scoffing jelly babies.

It would be impossible for me to drive back from Swansea without being tempted by the riding on the way and so Tuesday saw me turning off the M4 towards Cwm Carn for a last hit. Recently I’ve almost exclusively ridden Cafall here, but I decided to go back to the older Twrch trail. It’s a testament to the time I’ve spent on the newer trail that all of the areas cleared of trees since I was last up there look established and mature as open land, rather than scarred by the deforestation. The climb is tough and long, but like remembering an old friend (maybe one who likes to stab you in the leg with a fork for fun), and the pay-off starts with Airstream that flows across the top of the hill in a series of swooping jumps and berms. From here it’s all fun until it’s abruptly brought to an end by a brutal diversion down the hill, missing a trip over the shoulder of the hill due to forestry works.

My emotions back at the car were mixed. I felt a bit cheated that the trail was cut short and sad about the end of a few days of good riding. I sat for a moment eating my cheese sandwiches and debated Cafall as a consolation. With my parking running out and my legs suggesting I didn’t have another big climb in them, I loaded up and swept back towards the motorway trying to focus on all the riding over the long weekend and the best of what South Wales can offer, at least until Newbury where the threat of London loomed large again.