Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Making it out of Winter?

After experimenting with several options to the North of Hertfordshire I finally pulled together a winterproof route that felt like it had the right balance between distance, a bit of fun and, most importantly, didn’t drop me into the depths of a field full of clay.

This feels like the culmination of several weeks’ work and it’s always good to get to the end of a project and have another good loop to ride in the future.

Having done all of this I realised I’d already got a pretty good winter ride in the books already, and so I went and rode that one as well. This one is the classic loop with a couple of bits that could get muddy but somehow never get too bad. Having abandoned it for a while with my Northern exploration I hadn’t experienced the work that’s going on here. First-up the overgrown riverside run has been cleared and opened up, which changes the feel of the track, but offers some less muddy options.

More dramatically a bridleway, and indeed a whole road, was closed by bridge repair. Large work equipment including huge cranes very effectively shut off the way through. I diverted along a footpath I’d discovered in the past. Carefully walking it to stay on the moral high ground (and manhandling the bike over the gates) I made it to the road and then down a track decorated by a Ford Fiesta lying in a ditch to join up with the usual trails.

So, having just found two solid winter options the weather decided I had achieved enough for that season and threw in a day off work that was definitely, suddenly Spring. The temperature on the dashboard was pushing over 16 degrees and the sun was streaming when I turned into the carpark at Swinley. Rolling out on a decidedly soft rear shock (I’d left the shock pump at home) I was in short sleeves again and excited to be carving into damp, grippy berms with tyres buzzing on the hard-packed surface. It could have almost been summer as I hit the tank trap section and then carried on round the 20 km of trails. Here, as well, there had been work, a couple of new drop-offs and berms had quietly arrived, perhaps to keep the red-graded trail status in place.

The soft shock meant grippy downhill runs but a slightly worrying thump as I dropped off the biggest features, but there’s a point where you just ride what you have and that’s the important bit of being out on the bike, not that everything runs right all the time.

Just maybe Spring is here to stay and the riding will only get dustier and better from here on out, but perhaps there’s a last sting in the Winter and it’s not the end of the cold and mud.


Wednesday, 8 February 2017


Over the years I’ve searched for the ideal local winterproof ride. I’ve spent months mentally marking the map with all the sections where the clay gets so thick it turns the bike into a heavy immovable lump that I could barely drag across the fields. The result of getting this wrong has left me with a bike that I got home with an entire waste basket full of clay attached to it on more than one occasion. I’ve gambled on firmer lines on certain fields that turned out to have been given a going over by horses, and just meant another section to consign to summer riding.

This loop was one of those. I thought I had it nailed, but the risk I took did not pay off and I had to stop and even remove the chain device in order to get the bike running again. However, it did teach me another point to avoid and encouraged me to explore further find a way around. Not satisfied with just one new section I decided to approach this by riding a different combination of tracks. I couldn’t get away from my obsession with riding clockwise, and in order to try out some new sections I had to factor in a lot of road time, but I added new options to consider and made a step closer to that perfect winterproof ride. Admittedly one new section got dangerously close to being a clayfest, but my curiosity about it was satisfied. The real key was the diversion to the West that was a triumph of solid-based tracks that ran fast and firm, while staying happily muddy and hilly.

With some thought to minimise the boredom of the road sections and make the most of these firm tracks I’m looking forward to piecing together that ideal winter ride, probably just in time for the winter to end.


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.