With comic timing, my ropey music collection threw this track up from the legendary if aged rockers AC/DC* as a ferocious storm was thrown down from under a brutal sky. The car rocked to the beat of a stubborn jet stream as endless rain cascaded manically seeking out something dry to wet. It was at least a month too late with everything horizontal either saturated or already under water.
My resolve to ride wasn’t tested though. Sufficient time had passed to dull the memory of a desperate trudge on washed out trails being chased by vengeful weather systems. Since then, scheduled rides have taken rain checks with the only sunny evening spent instead getting fat on summer beer. I had worked out that waiting for the rain to stop would mean my next ride might be in October. Or Spain.
So it was with low expectations I headed deep into soaking hills fully grim-equipped with winter boots, waterproof socks and shorts, stout rain jacket and full on mud tyres. These expectations were more than met with the full shitty experience from trenchfoot through gritty arse crack, 6 foot or organic mud pack, boil in the bag sweating and occasional progress hard earned on slop where dust should be. This was setting up to be one of those death marches which fully tests the rule that ‘riding is always better than not riding‘
It didn’t. And not for the reasons you might think. After an hour of sliding around in obvious distress, we found a track deep in mud and possibility. Tracing it back through face high stingers, we were rewarded with a line of jumps and drops that – with a little light shovel work – have the potential to be full on shits and giggles. But that’s not the real reason either.
Ask any rider what they love about Mountain Biking and themes will coalesce around rock-hard trails, dust, drifting tyres, jumps and drops, perfect sunsets, summer breezes, a thin ribbon of dirt snaking through the bluebells, the bullshit of your friends, the oh-fuck-me not quite crash moments, the glove-tan, the oh-so-earned post ride cold ones. the craic, the new bikes, the old bikes, the places you’ve been and those you will one day go.
If alcohol is involved, a whiff of pretension will waft eulogies on being out there, being something others are not, surfing on the wave of differentiation, the impossible to explain joy of riding bikes. I get all that, of course I do, and if you’ve ever ridden a bike for fun not transport you’ll get that too. And we’ll talk of mountain biking and an antithesis of our stressful lives, every pedal revolution unwinding the ball of weekday angst bound tight in heads too full of the wrong stuff.
And we’d be wrong. Absolutely and utterly. Missed the point by about 30 years. Because if you distil riding bikes into its purest form, you won’t find any of those things. It is nothing more than playing outside with a bit of the possibility of adventure thrown in. This base element is packaged for 11 year old children and that’s why we love it. Well it’s why I love it anyway and if you don’t, there is nothing you will read next that can convince you otherwise. And for that you have my sympathy
Mountain Biking is marketed as an arms race. New is good, different is better, you’re one credit card transaction from nirvana. You’re one skills course from riding perfection. You’re one winter training ride from the podium, one muscle supplement from a perfect athlete, one visualisation from a perfect downhill run. Spend, Train, Work your way to being the best you can. Because when you’re there, then you are absolutely there, nothing can make it any better. Except maybe hitting reset and starting the whole thing again. No wonder it’s called a cycle.
I’m calling that bollocks and bullshit. It’s about feeling eleven years old. It’s about playing outside when you should be doing something adult and responsible. It’s about exploring and making fishy ‘new line’ gestures, giggling and pointing. I’m lucky enough to be a parent of a child that age and I envy her view on the world; it’s exciting, it’s ever different, it’s relentlessly positive, it’s going to change and I’m ready to change with it, it’s simple and I know what I like, but I might like something else tomorrow. Bring it on.
Next month I’ll be 45 years old. I don’t care about that while I can still ride my mountain bike. Because that connects me to the eleven year old that laughs when he falls off, tramps off up unlikely looking paths with a spring in his step, rides back down them foot out and grinning. Christ, I’ll go and build a den if I like. It’s not a middle aged crisis or a second childhood – it’s making bloody sure you don’t lose sight of the first one. It’s not serious and it’s not competitive, and it’s not a salve for a distressed moral conscience.
It’s playing outside with your friends. And a bicycle. There is no mud, rain or cold that can touch that.
Thunderstruck? You bet.
* A bit like myself. Old, passed their best, living on past glories, quite loud. Difference being the ‘legendary’ bit.