Four words to strike terror into the heart of any committed fair weather fairy/hardy mountain biker despite the heuristic proof that they are nothing more than Electronic Wizardry looking out of a virtual window, before making something up. So when, four days ago, a flutter of net pidginary cemented a Welsh trail centre rendezvous despite dire warnings of frozen fire and sleety brimstone, we rightly expected at worst cold and clear, and at best – well – Spring.
As usual, the prevailing weather conditions had nothing whatsoever to do with the Met Office’s finest lying machine, and everything to do with my utterance of the “S” word while being lightly warmed under sunny skies on a Devon beach some two days earlier. So it was a disappointment – if not a surprise – to find myself driving through a wall of snow some two valleys upstream from CwmCarn this morning. My riding Pal – who shared the last proper winter experience and the birth of the grim-o-meter – was running late, leaving me ample time to sulk in the car park as a volley of small arms fire was unleashed on the truck.
No way that was merely rain. Nothing as soft as H20 can create a racket quite that hard and so devastatingly depressing. Here we were then; in a never-ending winter, at ground zero of a rain event that can surely only end in flooding , and awaiting Nigel “the weather Jonah” Parker. As we’ve said so many times before “What could possibly go wrong?”
Not much actually. On the upside, waterproofs were exactly that, gears shifted, suspension reliably bonged up and down, tyres kept us in touch with the trail and brakes stopped us flying off it. On the downside, it was a bit wet and muddy. There is a rather snooty stance, generally dispensed bravely from behind an Internet keyboard, that trail centres are identikit scalextric tracks – the domain of the poseurs and poorly skilled, somehow unworthy of proper riders. And you know, under the pompous bullshit, there’s a nugget of truth there especially if you are surrounded with such helpful MTB geography as I am.
But not today, five minutes into the first climb we were both immersed in splashing through puddles and searching for grip. Experts in the former, rather less successful locating the latter leading both of us to wonder if today was “National Can’t Ride for Shit Day“. Really didn’t matter as all though as we crested the snowline and made fresh tracks for the summit. We’d be following five or six tyre indents since mud gave way to the white stuff, but come the first descent, fresh tracks were ours.
This was properly atmospheric riding, snow tamping down all noise except the hiss of our tyres, low lying trees brushing clothes and depositing freshies in your helmet*, and the trail lost under a carpet of late winter. Neither of us have ever ridden that descent quite so slowly nor been quite so close to a whole range of interesting accidents. Slowly it dawned on me, that your best UK rides are invariably undertaken in less than perfect conditions. And this is a good thing, because who would want dust and firm trails all year round eh?**
Something else began to nudge my hindbrain as well, and that was simply the ST4 is one brilliant bike. I’ve ridden CwmCarn on a range of MTB’s from short travel singlespeed through ever more exotic hardtails, and a slew of full suspension bikes. And one section in particular has always found them out – the exposed ridge hanging over the valley and made up of fast chutes, exposed turns and a whole bunch of pointy shaped rocks. Hardtails are hard work here as a few bits are pedally and all of it is pretty bouncy. Full Suss bikes don’t snap out of the bends, and feel a bit too magic carpet for the trail. Singlespeeds are just silly.
But the ST4 is not like any of those. It encourages pumping the trail**, taking more aggressive lines and being rather too brave carving through the turns. It’s differently great because you cease to think about the bike and what it can and you can’t do. You just ride and grin and ride and ride and grin some more until the world becomes a better place. You can’t explain why, but you don’t care much about that either. At the trails’ end, I was a little disappointed to see Nig only 50 yards behind on his hardtail. He did however have the decency to look proper bolloxed.
The homeward trail has been groomed and improved to deal with those who confuse braking with turning, and those of us who’ve *ahem* ridden off the edge after failing to bridge the gap between confidence and skill over the little jumps. Nig and I went at it line astern, fully dialled in to the level of grip and estatic in the knowledge that there is nothing but downhill hoonery between us and a huge mug of tea.
It didn’t last long enough, but it lasted long enough to validate why riding is always better than not riding. To reinforce the truth that is dicking about with your friends beats sitting around bemoaning the bloody British Weather. To make me wonder if it’ll always be like this, or whether one day I’ll accept middle age, living between the lines, lose the incredulation of my peers who pityingly ask whether it’s time to increase your medication, find stuff people find important is important to me, conform to social norms, stop breaking the washing machine, that kind of thing.
But laughing at Nig with his full body mud pack – the signature look for a Winter Mountain Biker – and having another head full of fantastic memories, I think it’s pretty sodding unlikely for a while yet.
* This is not rude. It was, however, exceptionally cold.
** Okay, okay fair enough but you’d need to share it with a bunch of Californians’. Hah, that’s shut you up.
*** No this isn’t rude either but it’s huge fun, and you can do it standing up so….