Double Take..

Best way to describe the FoD return ride today. Except the trails were even dryer, the car was frost free when we left and my attempts to conquer the Downhill courses started small and worked down from there. I added another Tim (that’s him above) and nature gave freely of her spring bounty. Dust motes flashed in the weak spring sunlight and shone on white knobbly knees which powered black knobbly tyres.

FoD 14th March FoD 14th March

FoD 14th March FoD 14th March

Even Mono-Lung appeared to embrace it’s lost twin and for most of the ride, I was blessed with most of my aerobic capacity. Careful use of the word “Most” there, but I’m increasingly hopeful the worst is behind me. Generally struggling to breathe and making gasping noises. See how tomorrow’s ride to work goes, six am has not generally been associated with a peak flow much more than a coughing squirrel so we’ll be leaving the cold beer on ice for a while.

FoD 14th March FoD 14th March

Riding was good tho. Spring feels really well earned and the harshness of the winter places the firmness of trail and warmth of rider into pretty stark relief.

FoD 14th March FoD 14th March

You never know, maybe we’ll even get a summer this year. I’ve just taken the mudguards off my road bike, which confirms a mental state on the rubber roomed side of delusional.

Spring Therapy

Forget the seasonal pedants – for anyone with a love of outside, March 1 is the unofficial start of Spring. And, whilst we know it is irrational, the expectation is for the hedgerows to explode into growth, the sun to come – and stay – out, the trails to dry up overnight and with all this, seven months of uninterrupted MTB goodness to begin.

For those of us with a real weariness of winter, these changes cannot come too soon. With two events already entered, both with the number ‘100’ in their distance classification*, and the first of which is less than six weeks away, I’ve been upping my riding frequency as soon as the clock struck March. This has already included a Malverns death march, and two commutes that are mildly life-affirming, but generally undertaken in the dark, cold, wind and rain.

Through such trails and tribulations, it’s important to remember why you’re doing this; increased fitness, good summer base, miles in the legs, pounds off the belly, all that sort of stuff. But I have two problems with that; the first is MouseLung(tm) has played the Squatters’ Card so I’m struggling with about 80{45ac9c3234d371044e23e276755ef3a4dde8f1068375defba7d385ca3cd4deb2} lung capacity**, and secondly that’s not what I ride a bike for.

Time for a change then. Today I needed to tap back into my woody roots, get back to setting off with no plan, no target mileage, no goal for vertical distance. Just go and do what started me on this ten year journey of fun and frolics; messing about in the woods if you will. And there is no better mate for that sort of thing than TimH of this parish, who greeted my question of “What’s the plan then?” with an airy digit waving in the direction of some trees.

No ride with Tim is complete without some hike-a-bike/trail finding action, and no sooner that we’d spun up a sun-splattered fireroad had he dived off into the bushes promising “There’s a trail in here somewhere“. Indeed there was, and more than one frozen solid but lightly warmed by a weak sun and shielded from the bitter wind. Tim found us a fun little bombhole to play in, which we did for quite a while even getting the cameras out. Obviously we were both WAY better before new-media was there to catch our efforts.

FoD March 2010 FoD March 2010

A little more perambulation round some recent logging had Tim apologising for missing some tasty singletrack action, but I didn’t care one jot. Bike, Hard Dirt, Narrow Ribbon of Singletrack, Woods, Mate, Sunshine, Bacon Butties to follow. Doesn’t just tick all the boxes, but writes mile high in neon crayon “I REMEMBER NOW WHY BIKES ARE ACE

And they are, especially when thrown roughly at a couple of the FC sanctioned DH tracks. First up “Corkscrew” a belter of tabletops, berms and one fairly “woooah where’s the bottom of that?” drop. It’s all rollable – ask me how – but a second and third run had me hanging onto Tim’s wheels, as his lines tore up the trail and beat down the obstacles. We approached the drop at a speed entirely inappropriate for a man of my bravery, but – as ever – enthusiasm had taken over from common sense.

There are points when you are riding trails on the limit of your ability when you need all your bike skills RIGHT NOW. As we cleared all three foot of the drop, this was clearly one of these times. I landed near the trails edge facing a tree, with my rear wheel locked up. A moment of adrenaline fuelled clarity sequenced a brake release/turn in/push down/grit teeth approach which gained me the corner, but lost me too much time to catch Tim.

FoD March 2010 FoD March 2010

I kept trying tho on the next DH trail named somewhat extravagantly “Sheep Skull“. I didn’t see one of those, but what with everything else going on including steeps, exposure, encroaching trees and relentless roots, I’m probably not the most reliable witness.

DH Sated for the time being, we headed off to the next valley searching for the next slice of singletrack – allegedly totalling over 200k in the entire Forest. After some more tree wiggling joy, time and tiring legs conspired to place Tea and Medals in our immediate future, but we were high on the ridge now – cold out of the sun and in the wind – searching for the most fun way down.

This appeared to be a mellow top section which dropped into a close contoured hairpin alley. Two of these steep and loose exposed scaries had to be conquered before plunging into a high speed chute over another maelstrom of interlocking roots. I’ll not document the rider who managed to do it first time, mainly because Tim had shown me a clean pair of wheels all day, and I reckon he was just trying to salve my ego a little!

FoD March 2010

Giggling like the inner children we are, big hand waving ideas of where we were going to explore next time, accompanied big handfuls of tea and pig-inna-bun. We hadn’t ridden that far, or for that long, or climbed very much, nor maintained a high average speed. And you know what I’m going to say next – it mattered not at all.

This was a ride which reminded me why I ride. Last week a different Tim and I messed about in a similar manner on the fall lines in the Malvern hills. In between I feel like I’ve been trying to damn hard for something I’m not that bothered about.

More Spring is good. Less targets are welcome. Bikes are ace. I’ll not be taking myself too seriously again any time soon.

* and one is more than that in real non metric miles. Gulp.

** Which, with Asthma, is about sufficient to tackle a difficult set of stairs.

Long Term Weather Forecast.

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.

Suits me.

* 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….

Beyond Thawderdome

Certain combinations work well together; the world would be a far inferior places if Scones weren’t accompanied by Cream, Spring un-carpeted by Bluebells, or beer not matched with, er, more beer. But the flip-side reveals such horrors Brown Sauce on Bacon Sandwiches and Train Timetables accompanied by Seasonal Emergencies. Feel free to add your own, while I fuse together the grim composites of cold and dark with Seven am and Sunday Morning. It’s hard to be positive over any future experience when you’re clumsily loading the bike trailer, with five minutes vigorous ice scraping to follow. All with a head-torch and a mentally disturbed mutt chewing your tyres – another combination that entirely misses the sweet spot.

Driving in the midst of a thaw/freeze cycle scores nought when compared to the warm bed and wife you’ve just abandoned, and riding in such conditions seems as impossibly dim as the halo of road illuminated by frozen lenses. I expected things to improve as the sun struggled over the horizon, and – as usual – I was wrong. Firstly the temperature actually dropped back below freezing before a chirp from my mobile phone triggered barely repressed fury that my frost bound pal was bugging out. Not so, he was merely late and tremendously hungover* which improved my lot no end.

Malvern Ride - Jan 17 Malvern Ride - Jan 17

Improved is not a word that you could even charitably apply to the trails after bucket-loads of snow, weeks of icy temperatures and a thaw so fast we’re twinning Herefordshire with Atlantis. The first climb used to be a tarmac road but was now a stream of broken aggregates flowing between banks of slush and ice. Heading quickly onto dirt, we were soon slowed by sideways action mud clearly imported from the Chiltern Hills. Struggling past that, we were eventually un-horsed by a ribbon of ice too challenging for the latterly unridden and recently hungover.

Malvern Ride - Jan 17 Malvern Ride - Jan 17

Dawn made a grudging effort to punt the sun skywards and we headed down through woods offering mud, ice and snow all within in a 100 yards. Three seasons in a single trail – this was obviously going to be our lucky day, proven once more after a much reduced pace gave sufficient time to stop before being decapitated by a fallen tree. Hitting that at normal trail speeds would have ended with body parts flung about in a post-modern ironic interpretation of the phrase “Blast Radius“.

Malvern Ride - Jan 17 Malvern Ride - Jan 17

Half way up the next climb, suffering for our art seemed an entirely appropriate metaphor as we discussed the questionable benefits of re-instating the 7:30am Sunday ride. It ticks all the boxes in terms of poaching trails before the rambler hoards are even poaching breakfast eggs, and being done and dusty before our own families have found time to complain about absent husbands and fathers. Again. In summer, it rocks as well as ticks, early sun drenched blasts on firm trails with hard muscles and seasonal fitness. In winter, it’s winching up buckets of karma from deep, frozen wells, sticking two fingers up at the three seasons MTBr’s, and pumping miles into legs that’ll hate you now but love you come Spring.

Malvern Ride - Jan 17 Malvern Ride - Jan 17

On days like today, it’s quite scary too with every descent offering multiple ways to impale you on a rock or tree of Fate’s choice. When the snow finally gave way to a different trail surface, this was invariably wet grass which needs no introduction as the mountain biker’s most hated ground condition. I remember covering the brakes on some descents then thinking I’d be better off sorting out coverage of a different sort, namely insurance and specifically hospital cover.

Malvern Ride - Jan 17 Malvern Ride - Jan 17

I loved it though. Not in a “yeah was good, glad we put a shift in, reward in future, feeling worthy” kind of loved it. Nope, was just bloody happy to be riding my bike with a good mate, and soaking in the slither of sunlight on offer. Having the new MTB is of course a novelty that has yet to wear off, which considering how much money it cost is a damn good thing!

Malvern Ride - Jan 17

More of that please. Less of the 0553 to London tomorrow. Ah well, one out of two ain’t bad**

* After promising abstinence on Saturday night, I switched to white wine as it’s less dreadful come morning. Jezz, and far play to him for this, had downed about half of his entire alcohol stock in a single session. I’m assuming he was drinking to forget the insanity of a decision to enter the Etape.

** As Meatloaf would have said if he could have counted properly.