Not so much a comment on my mental state, more a crisp summary of a fantastic ride under blue skies in a county that was once my home, and is now a playground to throw mountain bikes at. I could leave it at that, but that’s not the way of the hedgehog, so strap on your virtual ears while I tell you – yet again – why riding bikes is just so bloody brilliant.
The Peak District doesn’t have any mountains, and with eighteen months of summiting the upper slopes of the Malvern Alps under my belt, hoisting myself and the Pace up a few hundred feet of loose, rocky escarpment wasn’t quite the shock it once was when transitioning from the flat Chilterns. But it still felt bloody hard, body not yet warm enough to generate efficient pedalling power, muscles criminally unstretched due to selecting the “extra tea ration”, and a pace set by our guide who is acclimatised to the brutal gradients thrown up by any climb from the valley floor.
And like all great rides, we set the “push precedent” early on as Dirtlow Rake became steeper, rockier and full of boulder spitting motorcross bikes. A breather at the top reminded us that blue skies in winter bring with it chilly days and icy winds so we pushed on, up to the rocky horror show that is the Cavedale descent. I absolutely love the start and end of this trail, but the middle (hard) bit always vexes me to the point of cursing. The month of rain had deepend the ruts, turned the grass frictionless and brought speeds down giving me ample time to have a good look at the steep lineless section.
Apparently there are two approaches to a dab-less clearing of the section; either attack it at full speed trusting your bike to smooth out the jagged lumps and boulders that block your path, or to go slow in a trials style, hopping, track standing and lunging over obstacles. I have not the bravery for the first, or the skill for the second, so inevitably my first stall some hundred yards in was where the riding stopped and the walking started. But nowadays, I’m comfortable with my limitations, and still rode more of it – in a reasonably brisk manner – than normal, and, come the bottom, felt about twice as alive as I had some five minutes earlier.
The payback for that joy is of course another toiling climb, this time up the broken road to Mam Tor. Nige was struggling a bit with not enough sleep and a dodgy tummy, while I could use neither of those excuses for my increasingly one paced, granny ring* slog past the site of my famous “teeth saving drop of doom” – where years ago I’d somehow kept my meat chewers on the inside after a one mph plunge off about four foot of un-noticed drop – and up to Mam Tor through some amusingly viscous mud and the odd bemused walker.
Cashing in those hard earned gravity credits saw us drop off the side of the hill where I spent many happy minutes going as much sideways as forwards, concentrating on not much else than stopping the bike swapping ends. A riding condition I now think of as “slideways” and it was good to see my buddies suffering in the same comedic manner. Dave abandoned ship at one point into a puddle that appeared to draught about five fathoms. So impressed with his technique, 20 seconds later he did exactly the same thing again, which drew rapturous applause and much mirth from all watching.
The Cafe called and we answered with a swift chain gang for soup and sustenance. Dave complained of cold feet which allowed me to trump his previous mockery of my “clown shoes clearly designed by a special needs nutter” with a long, descriptive verbal passage of exactly how toasty I was from the ankles down. I’ve always said half the fun of riding is where you are, and the other half is who you’re with. And long-known friends all understand the value of the Mock and the Counter-Mock, the latter always best served once the original Mocker is showing the first signs of annoying smugness.
Smug we weren’t heading back up to Hope Cross. Snug in awesome winter gear but body warmth taking a while to provide the personal central heating demanded by days like this. Nige was really struggling now, although he perked up a little after a long climb was rewarded with a short, steep water bar jumping descent into the river where James refused to fall into even tho I had the camera out. More climbing took us to the top of “The Beast“. An almost mythical trail fully of rocky goodness, shouldered by hidden woody singletrack. Having the big bike and big ego, I set off first to again be truly astonished by how good full suspension bikes are.
As a rider, my job was to look up at the tastiest lines, shift a bit of body mass as obstacles passed fast under wheel and giggle a lot. The bike was rather more engaged, putting all those hours of suspension design to a proper test and flying its’ colours with top marks and not too much drama. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t boring or undemanding because there was still much going on, but the bike gives you confidence to try and find a flowing line over the rock avalanche while being supremely unconcerned that your bravado will ever outstrip the technical brilliance of the frame.
It’s not all about the bike though. A rejuvenated Nige steamed past a stranded rider who was loudly complaining that this trail was not ridable on a hardtail. That’s Nige, right there on his, er, hardtail and maintaining an velocity of more than adequate briskness.
Not much briskness going on heading up to Lockerbrook, as we engaged the pushing gear early on and pretty much left it there for the next ten minutes as a much loved descent from Hagg Farm became a calf straining walk with the bike, but still no chore swapping bullshit and tall tales happy under wintry blue skies.
The start of probably my favourite descent in the entire Peak District was inauspiciously derailed by a few hundred yards of trail wide mud that had the signature of recent heavy logging activity. But by now our slideways radar was perfectly aligned and once dablessly cleared, the track opened up and dropped down. First an almost trail centre smoothness under heavy pine trees speeds the bike and sets it up for a natural berm marking the transition from easy and fast to committed and hard. From there two lines present; the right offers a jumble of smaller – but still potentially lethal – rocks arranged in mini-mountain range formation that favours hardtails and smoothness.
The alternative is basically the fall line throwing up all sorts of challenges set in stone – ohfuckme drops, fat, smooth boulders hiding sharp and jagged gritstone, sudden changes in gradient and traction all washed up in a stream of icy hill water run off. That’s my kind of line and one I chucked the SX trail at a couple of years ago resulting in a shit eating grin I couldn’t shift for days. I’m happy to report the Pace offered exactly the same level of lunacy to the power of bonkers when pointed straight down, brakes off and brain out. I like to think I’m normally a courteous trail rider, but I must publicly apologise to the blameless innocents pushing up in the crosshairs of a steaming composite juggernaut of awesome bicycle and middle aged fool.
No idea at all what I shouted, seemed to do trick tho as the path cleared and the speed increased to the point where everything seems to slow down. It’s an odd sensation and not one often visited upon my no-better-than-average riding psyche. But when it does, you get the briefest glimpse of how fucking ace it must be to ride like that ALL THE BLOODY TIME. I’ll climb endless hills, freeze on bleak ridges, suffer trenchfoot, moist-arse, stinging rain eye and chapped fingers for ten seconds of that adrenaline hit thank you very much. For that’s about all it was before the gate stopped me dead and real time rushed back in.
Much enjoyment was shared as we spun along the road past the dam where 617 squadron practised for the Mohne raid and some of that was based on the realisation that we risked serious chance of benighment if an attempt on a cheeky extension to Whinston Lee Tor was attempted. And based on the parlous state of my knees on the ride back to Hope, it became absolutely clear that this was the right decision not to attempt it. Cars were packed in fast fading light, goodbyes made to James who’d provided the links between the bits I can remember and some amusement with his challenges at riding them on a 100mm FS race bike with Californian tyres, before we decamped to the pub.
Where – in an absolute mirror image of every other time we’ve ridden together – Dave and I talked a load of bollocks for a few hours, while Nige fell into one of his self induced comas. Happy days indeed.
I realised this ride was pretty much the same as this one here. The hope is I’ll still be having this much fun for many more years yet.
* Dave and I think that in a lost dimension somewhere a “Super Granny Ring” exists, and finding it feels like it may become my life’s work.