The fact this photo exists at all is no small miracle. Firstly because it’s taken by my good friend Martin who cannot count, amongst his many talents, any photographic ability whatsoever. This is his first recorded image where both wheels have been in the same shot. And the riders head is a lucky bonus. Secondly that setting sun had been well hidden behind a curtain of rain driven sideways by gale force winds for most of the day.
A small window of riding opportunity opened up between getting wet and going dark, so we jumped right through it. The rain may have stopped but the wind was still brisk enough to have us seek shelter under the muscley shoulders of the Malvern Hills. The first descent through the storm blown treeline was an exercise in amused terror. Terror because of the rain-slicked service offering grip levels between variable and none, amusement because Martin as designated ‘grip tester’ was lamenting his decision to stick with a balding rear tyre.
Stick isn’t the right word really. Because it wasn’t sticky at all – more sashaying in a parabolic arc in an attempt to inform the desperate rider that all was not well out back. Except for the bloke a bit further out back displacing his own traction issues by simple dint of laughing at Martin’s predicament. Ten minutes earlier, I really hadn’t been keen to ride at all. Too cold, a bit hungover, concerned the mech bodge was merely repressed exploding metal, and a bored of the slop and the grime.
Ten minutes after that, with views opening up over the Black Mountains on one side and the Cotswolds on the other, there was nothing which could have bettered it. Riding back on some of my favourite trails and reacquainting myself with the joys of the sorted hardtail, the climbs passed quickly enough and the descents were desperately funny tip-toeing between every corner feeling for grip and ready to catch the inevitable slide. It was the opposite of fast, clean fun and all the better for it. The essence of why we ride mountain bikes can be distilled from the feeling of riding crazily slippy dirt on engineering masterpieces with your friends.
Which isn’t something so easily attained when natural trails are replaced by those made especially for us. For a while, I’ve been a bit snooty and dismissive of trail centres – some of which is because there is so much brilliant riding to be had not graded and signposted. But it’s a bit more than that.
As the sun fell behind the mountains to the west, my dislike of trail centres found something more rationale than ‘well it’s not proper mountain biking is it?‘. That’s a lazy curmudgeon view of MTB ghetto’s which offer weather independent fun and year round ridability. The first trail centres – before the Forresty Commission got wind of their financial prospects – felt like the best natural singletrack but cleverly engineered against erosion and decay. The final descent on the Wall, Sidewinder and Dead Sheep Gully at Afan, the original beast at Coed Y Brenin, Heartbreak Ridge at Kirroughtree and many more were absolutely worth the drive and price of entry.
The new stuff tho – all rollers, massive berms and so industrially created leave me cold. They seem carved unsympathetically out of the hillside and don’t feel natural at all. Maybe trail centres have moved on and I’m stuck in the past, maybe I just don’t ride them fast enough, maybe this new stuff is what the majority of trail centre riders want. Whatever, it isn’t for me, and sitting on my bike atop the Worcester Beacon ready to chase the sun home, a second conclusion was belatedly reached.
Virtually ever minute I spend on a bike is a good one. But the absolute best ones have always been in the middle of bloody nowhere, not quite sure what might be coming next, no idea when we’re getting home and only a vague one of which way it might be. More of that please – 2014 shall be the year of ‘Adventuring by Bicycle’.
Probably need a new bike for that I would have thought?
* not the mythical missing Star Wars episode, more a bike handling approach when slithering through tyre deep mud.