Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Social Swinley and Sunshine Spines

There are rides that remind you to enjoy being on a bike. On short notice a friend decided to test ride a new bike he might (definitely will) buy. He could do this at Swinley, so I took the day off and went to help him check it out.

He wanted a playful bike and the Bird Aeris with modern slack angles and a bright orange frame seemed to fit the bill and supported my theory that when you ride the right bike to buy you just know. The thing is that the fun factor easily rubs off when you ride in that way and I found myself popping off all the lips I could find. This meant a slower, more social and relaxed ride, which somehow also ended up being quicker on the fun downhill sections.

We tried some new angles with the GoPro, although plans to use two cameras was spoilt by Joe failing to bring anything to attach his camera to anything, so the result was a little linear, but shows the fun of a test bike, I think.

After a fun, poppy dusty ride there I was off to Dorset. Saturday dawned sunny, but slightly hungover in my case, but with kit on and sunglasses in place I rolled out to link up to a ride I’d last been on over a New Year. Bright, sunny weather brought out the full potential of the Isle of Purbeck and was far better than the sideways hail I’d hit last time out. I slightly misjudged the length of the road ride in to the ride, but I was eventually on the end of a track that would lead me along the spine of the peninsular, dropping in past Corfe Castle and then rolling on out with amazing views towards the end. After several ricocheting downhills and a couple of steep climbs I turned off what I’d done before to pick up a beautiful bridleway heading south. I would like to emphasise that it was a bridleway to reinforce my point to the walkers who tried to block my way through on the basis that it was a footpath. To reaffirm, it was a bridleway.

Quickly rolling through Swanage I climbed onto the ridge along the coast. Rolling along dusty tracks I soon began to climb up to a final viewpoint where, fuelled by a quick lunch, I was able to look along the coast to beautiful coves before flowing fast and loose down to the road. From there it was a case of digging in and getting through the road section back to the hotel, holding on to the memories of the hills as I ground out the last of the tarmac.

Rides on dusty tracks with sunshine soaked views of the sea never fail to leave some pretty amazing memories to think about for the next week and talk about in the pub later.


Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Downhill with no Brakes

Following the fork problems I was hoping for a trouble-free weekend of riding as I headed to Bristol and then to an uplift day at the Forest of Dean. This was not entirely going to be the case.

A bunch of time on the hardtail meant that I wanted a moment to reacquaint myself with the wider bars and softer ride of the bigger bike, so I stopped off on the way to Bristol to get a big open space ride from the historic standing stones of Avebury. It was clear that things weren’t great already as the dropper post started slipping on road sections, leaving me hoiking it up like a woman in slightly over-sized tights every few minutes. Otherwise I got a sunny, windy ride on open tracks before driving on to Bristol for the night.

The next day with no extra preparation I drove on to Wales to get in some climbing ahead of the day of riding downhill on Saturday. Ambitiously I approached a ride which started with a loop of the Blorenge. The climb up to the top is brutal by any account, on road and then tracks, followed by a cruise across the top and an awesome singletrack descent which throws in a bit of beautiful riding with views that are much, much better when you can see them.

After the first loop the ride went back through the village where I’d parked and then out on roads towards the Black Mountain. I started the road section with trepidation and tired legs. Having committed I wasn’t going to turn back and dragged my way up the road then a push up the steep rocky track to the moor on top. All of this led to a flowing dipping run over the shoulder of the hill and down back to the road for a grind back to the car, via a pork pie, pasty and crisps from a garage.

Saturday was a day where a slipping dropper post wouldn’t matter as the seat post would be slammed all day, however there would be other problems at the Forest of Dean. Slippery trails and roots were the order of the day after each ride up in the minibus and the first few runs were tentative but fun. As the day went on we probably got better, as we dialled in the trails, but still found them technical, especially as the rain made everything even more challenging. Maybe I should have run a softer fork or tyre but I, for one, struggled to get comfy.

Before long it became clear that things would get harder as my rear brake stopped working altogether. To make up for missed riding I cruised out onto a lap of the cross country loop, as my downhill runs were clearly over. It turns out that even cross country downhills are pretty sketchy with only front wheel braking so it was a distinct challenge.

So, with all plans of riding on Sunday abandoned due to a broken bike I drove back to London and ordered a bleed kit for the brakes. While I waited I gave the seatpost a strip and rebuild with fresh grease and a new remote cable. To my great surprise this worked well and the bike was waiting by the end of Sunday with a working dropper post that didn’t slip. Once the kit arrived this was added to with surprisingly easy brake bleed and working brakes. To celebrate I went and rode the other bike over beautifully dried out fields above Ware in the bright Spring sunshine.

Feeling very accomplished I could only finish off the weekend with a hot summer-style morning on the BMX track, finally getting the courage to nail the first three doubles, jumped one after the other.


Monday, 10 April 2017

Fork Problems

Spring so far has been slightly dominated by mechanical incidents, mixed in with some excellent sunshine riding.

For a while the forks on the hardtail have been a little sticky to say the least. By “sticky” I mean that they were entirely seizing up between rides, to only be freed up each week by a liberal application of my entire body weight to get them going again. Clearly this wasn’t ideal, and I had been toying with the idea of replacing them, or, perhaps facing the disgust of a bike shop to get them serviced, when my hand was slightly forced.

It was during this muddy and drizzly ride that things came apart a little.

The dust seal on one leg became detached and it was followed by the remnants of the sponge lubrication thing below. Luckily the fork still managed to work for the remains of the ride, but it was definitely time to consider my options around them.

In the next week a new set of forks arrived after I ordered a very reasonably priced Rock Shox Recon, which, while looking cheap, offered 100mm of new smooth air travel. While I was at it I got a new headset, for two very good reasons. Firstly, I really couldn’t be bothered with trying to remove the crown race from the old forks, and secondly the bottom bearing race on the old headset appeared to be totally unmoving as well. All of these new parts set up a fun morning of the scariest type of bike maintenance. Basically all of the jobs involved in fitting a new fork and headset involve bashing stuff pretty hard, so i was slightly nervous as I approached the Saturday morning session.

Taking the fork out was straight forward and I was quickly into the hitting a screwdriver hard to remove the headset cups bit. This went well, and the new ones went in with a bit of bashing and a lot of pressing with an improvised big bolt and washers set-up. The next scary job is to take the brand new fork you’ve just bought and chop a lump of it off with a hacksaw. I got through this with minimal sweating and a slightly sharp edge left on the steerer to cut my finger on. Bleeding but unbowed I found a hoover tube and used it to subtly bash the new crownrace into place. After more bashing to get the star nut in place, more or less, I slotted everything together in a final flurry of bolting rather than bashing, and went for a ride.

Very pleasingly nothing fell apart and I didn’t fall catastrophically through the front of the bike wrecking my face or anything else I might have used to break my fall, so I finished the ride pretty pleased with my competency as a bike mechanic. Also, I had a revitalised front end to the bike which ran much smoother than the last fork.

That previous fork was ripe for some servicing, not least to see what might be wrong with it. After some research and more bashing over a few days I was able to remove the lowers and find the cause of the sticking. It would seem that the forks had been running for a long while only lubricated by some brown sludge, which might explain the performance issues. I’m debating rebuilding them, but it may be a lost cause.


Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Badger Lynching

March, the most teasing of months, is in full swing. One minute you dare to dream of summer as a commute is bright enough for sunglasses and you almost make it home in not total darkness, and then it throws it all back at you with rain and wind.

The riding is as varied as the weather. Early in the month I had a beautifully constructed plan to collect someone from Heathrow, via a cheeky lap of Swinley. On paper this was perfect, as the trails are roughly 20minutes from the airport. It all went well down to Bracknell, and round the wet tracks which were pleasingly much less crowded than the carpark suggested. Reasonably fast and flowing this was fun even with half an eye on the time.

As I arrived back to the car to a couple of missed calls to tell me the plane had landed ahead of schedule things were still on track as I would get there well before customs and baggage reclaim were negotiated. Pleased with myself I swept out of the carpark and towards the airport.

Whether I missed the junction or it was closed is something I’ve refused to go back and check, at risk of discovering that the outcome was down to me rather than the upgrading of the M3. Either way instead of arriving at Heathrow in perfect time I found myself a junction further up the M3 in stationary traffic for a solid two and a half hours. Any of the hard-won calm that riding provides rapidly evaporated into the anger of being helplessly stuck, in the rain, watching the rear lights of the car in front for hours.

A week or so later it was time to ride again. The weekend was a mixed bag, with Saturday taken up with other sport and beautiful, warm and full of hope, followed by Sunday which was damp and drizzly all morning. By early afternoon I was fed up of watching cars go past on a wet road and judging the level of rain by the speed of their windscreen wipers and decided that the only real answer was to go out and ride anyway.

As is so often the case being in the rain was less bad then you imagine from the way it looks on the windscreen and wearing the right kit works wonders for your ability to ride through it. In any case I hardly noticed as the rain stopped a few minutes in and after the initial shock of getting sprayed with wet mud it’s easy to get used to it when it’s warm enough. A couple of hours being liberally coated in muddy water is perhaps the epitome of British mountain biking and can be fun as long as you know you have somewhere to get warm, clean, and dry afterwards.

The contrasts of this time of year were brought in to focus on Monday when a warm, sunny, Spring day, exactly as forecast dawned. Heading towards Kent, I decided to check out more of the riding that the North Downs can offer. After an hour escaping London I set off to follow the guide book I obtained last year. I was reminded that the author enjoys a good hard climb as straight from the car it went up on a track that was pretty much unridable in the conditions. I was starting to doubt whether this had been a sensible choice, but pressed on to find a broadly dried-out, flowing and fun loop that took me through woods enjoying the hint of spring as much as I was, through villages and past incredible houses. The ride even threw in some technical parts that had me wishing I’d brought the bigger bike along, rather than the hardtail I elected to ride. The downhills were stepped in many cases and a great opportunity to remember how to ride them without the benefit of 140mm of air suspension to help.

Broadly the mud was not too sticky to get through or over and in between the worst patches it was a ride skipping and rolling through the Kent countryside. I mean I could have done without the badger strung up by the neck overhanging the path, but otherwise it was excellent.


Thursday, 2 March 2017

Deeply back into the Winter

You might remember (and if not you can scroll down and read) that I hoped spring was on its way a week ago.

Off the back off this I made an optimistic plan to have a few days riding around Bristol. However, I was very wrong about the end of winter and my dreams of slightly damp trails ridden in the sunshine were not to come true. Perhaps I should have remembered that it was the end of February, and actually still likely to be wet and cold.

In true style the moment I got through the toll gates on the Severn Bridge it started to rain but I pressed on to Cwm Carn, got ready and pushed out onto the damp Cafall trail. It was a damp but warm climb, and I was in the mood to hurt myself up the hill, so it flew by in a blur of big-ring cranking. It started to hurt more towards the final sections but I was soon onto the pay-off in the shape of Pedalhounds.

On this occasion it was wetter than I’ve ridden it before and the roots covered with leaf litter were a real slippery challenge. The first drop-off had me slipping out just after the landing, and put my elbow in the dirt leaving the tell-tale marks of a failed downhill run on my arm for any imaginary commentators to mention as a reason for my slow time.

From then on it was a solid run, over the wet roots, hitting the drop offs and getting back to the carpark liberally sprayed with mud and ready to drive to a friends’ to abuse their shower before lunch.

Overall this wasn’t wet enough to put me off and a couple of days later I was all up for another winter ride.

This experience reminded me of some really important life lessons. Firstly, however quick you want to make your pre-ride wee due to the cold you should be careful of pushing everything too hard as you may get more than you bargained for, but that’s another story. More importantly, even if you leave home on a crisp, bright, frozen morning that does not mean the hills will be frozen and fast to ride. In fact there’s a chance that there will be snow on the ground and freezing water and mud to spray everywhere.

The Quantocks were white over and liberally soaked, making navigation and enthusiasm for riding both pretty tricky. The Triscombe DH tracks were all closed for logging work and so I bypassed that area and rode on to get up to a highpoint and enjoy the stunning views.

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After a clattering downhill I took some wrong turns in the untouched snow, cast around and finally tracked down the start of a coombe descent. This dropped me out of the snow but was still a soggy experience, dampening the excitement but still making it a fun swoopy flowing downhill to the stream. I climbed back up and cast out on some tracks that kept me below the snow, contouring around the hill and looking for some options to drop down the coombes and climb back up. This had mixed success but I found the occasional fun then pushed back up to the road. This was broken up with a pause for some definitely sketchy moments as a pack of fox hounds swarmed across the hill. It makes for a moment of question as the quiet is broken by dogs barking and a stream of them flow around the steep valley sides. The dogs had no interest in me and flowed past leaving me to climb back to the road and start turning the pedals up the tarmac.

At this point it started to rain. I climbed on into the wind and the rain turned to sleet. At around this point I decided I was over the ride with wet, cold feet and no hope of drying out. On the positive side I was wearing my new howies waterproof which was doing a stellar job at keeping out the weather as the rain and sleep pooled on the surface and kept my baselayers dry and warm, so I was getting the chance to do some sort of extreme product testing. Dry from the waist up at least I headed back to the car, feeling like I’d let myself down a little with the ride and with bailing out. At the car I attempted to keep clean bits that way as I got back into the warm. This was work that would be almost entirely undone as I met a tractor on a narrow lane and had to back the car into a muddy gateway.

Overall this was not the most successful riding trip ever, with bad riding on my part and bad behaviour from the weather. It has set me up for wanting badly to plan more trips as the weather gets better.