Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Badger Lynching

March, the most teasing of months, is in full swing. One minute you dare to dream of summer as a commute is bright enough for sunglasses and you almost make it home in not total darkness, and then it throws it all back at you with rain and wind.

The riding is as varied as the weather. Early in the month I had a beautifully constructed plan to collect someone from Heathrow, via a cheeky lap of Swinley. On paper this was perfect, as the trails are roughly 20minutes from the airport. It all went well down to Bracknell, and round the wet tracks which were pleasingly much less crowded than the carpark suggested. Reasonably fast and flowing this was fun even with half an eye on the time.

As I arrived back to the car to a couple of missed calls to tell me the plane had landed ahead of schedule things were still on track as I would get there well before customs and baggage reclaim were negotiated. Pleased with myself I swept out of the carpark and towards the airport.

Whether I missed the junction or it was closed is something I’ve refused to go back and check, at risk of discovering that the outcome was down to me rather than the upgrading of the M3. Either way instead of arriving at Heathrow in perfect time I found myself a junction further up the M3 in stationary traffic for a solid two and a half hours. Any of the hard-won calm that riding provides rapidly evaporated into the anger of being helplessly stuck, in the rain, watching the rear lights of the car in front for hours.

A week or so later it was time to ride again. The weekend was a mixed bag, with Saturday taken up with other sport and beautiful, warm and full of hope, followed by Sunday which was damp and drizzly all morning. By early afternoon I was fed up of watching cars go past on a wet road and judging the level of rain by the speed of their windscreen wipers and decided that the only real answer was to go out and ride anyway.

As is so often the case being in the rain was less bad then you imagine from the way it looks on the windscreen and wearing the right kit works wonders for your ability to ride through it. In any case I hardly noticed as the rain stopped a few minutes in and after the initial shock of getting sprayed with wet mud it’s easy to get used to it when it’s warm enough. A couple of hours being liberally coated in muddy water is perhaps the epitome of British mountain biking and can be fun as long as you know you have somewhere to get warm, clean, and dry afterwards.

The contrasts of this time of year were brought in to focus on Monday when a warm, sunny, Spring day, exactly as forecast dawned. Heading towards Kent, I decided to check out more of the riding that the North Downs can offer. After an hour escaping London I set off to follow the guide book I obtained last year. I was reminded that the author enjoys a good hard climb as straight from the car it went up on a track that was pretty much unridable in the conditions. I was starting to doubt whether this had been a sensible choice, but pressed on to find a broadly dried-out, flowing and fun loop that took me through woods enjoying the hint of spring as much as I was, through villages and past incredible houses. The ride even threw in some technical parts that had me wishing I’d brought the bigger bike along, rather than the hardtail I elected to ride. The downhills were stepped in many cases and a great opportunity to remember how to ride them without the benefit of 140mm of air suspension to help.

Broadly the mud was not too sticky to get through or over and in between the worst patches it was a ride skipping and rolling through the Kent countryside. I mean I could have done without the badger strung up by the neck overhanging the path, but otherwise it was excellent.


Thursday, 2 March 2017

Deeply back into the Winter

You might remember (and if not you can scroll down and read) that I hoped spring was on its way a week ago.

Off the back off this I made an optimistic plan to have a few days riding around Bristol. However, I was very wrong about the end of winter and my dreams of slightly damp trails ridden in the sunshine were not to come true. Perhaps I should have remembered that it was the end of February, and actually still likely to be wet and cold.

In true style the moment I got through the toll gates on the Severn Bridge it started to rain but I pressed on to Cwm Carn, got ready and pushed out onto the damp Cafall trail. It was a damp but warm climb, and I was in the mood to hurt myself up the hill, so it flew by in a blur of big-ring cranking. It started to hurt more towards the final sections but I was soon onto the pay-off in the shape of Pedalhounds.

On this occasion it was wetter than I’ve ridden it before and the roots covered with leaf litter were a real slippery challenge. The first drop-off had me slipping out just after the landing, and put my elbow in the dirt leaving the tell-tale marks of a failed downhill run on my arm for any imaginary commentators to mention as a reason for my slow time.

From then on it was a solid run, over the wet roots, hitting the drop offs and getting back to the carpark liberally sprayed with mud and ready to drive to a friends’ to abuse their shower before lunch.

Overall this wasn’t wet enough to put me off and a couple of days later I was all up for another winter ride.

This experience reminded me of some really important life lessons. Firstly, however quick you want to make your pre-ride wee due to the cold you should be careful of pushing everything too hard as you may get more than you bargained for, but that’s another story. More importantly, even if you leave home on a crisp, bright, frozen morning that does not mean the hills will be frozen and fast to ride. In fact there’s a chance that there will be snow on the ground and freezing water and mud to spray everywhere.

The Quantocks were white over and liberally soaked, making navigation and enthusiasm for riding both pretty tricky. The Triscombe DH tracks were all closed for logging work and so I bypassed that area and rode on to get up to a highpoint and enjoy the stunning views.

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After a clattering downhill I took some wrong turns in the untouched snow, cast around and finally tracked down the start of a coombe descent. This dropped me out of the snow but was still a soggy experience, dampening the excitement but still making it a fun swoopy flowing downhill to the stream. I climbed back up and cast out on some tracks that kept me below the snow, contouring around the hill and looking for some options to drop down the coombes and climb back up. This had mixed success but I found the occasional fun then pushed back up to the road. This was broken up with a pause for some definitely sketchy moments as a pack of fox hounds swarmed across the hill. It makes for a moment of question as the quiet is broken by dogs barking and a stream of them flow around the steep valley sides. The dogs had no interest in me and flowed past leaving me to climb back to the road and start turning the pedals up the tarmac.

At this point it started to rain. I climbed on into the wind and the rain turned to sleet. At around this point I decided I was over the ride with wet, cold feet and no hope of drying out. On the positive side I was wearing my new howies waterproof which was doing a stellar job at keeping out the weather as the rain and sleep pooled on the surface and kept my baselayers dry and warm, so I was getting the chance to do some sort of extreme product testing. Dry from the waist up at least I headed back to the car, feeling like I’d let myself down a little with the ride and with bailing out. At the car I attempted to keep clean bits that way as I got back into the warm. This was work that would be almost entirely undone as I met a tractor on a narrow lane and had to back the car into a muddy gateway.

Overall this was not the most successful riding trip ever, with bad riding on my part and bad behaviour from the weather. It has set me up for wanting badly to plan more trips as the weather gets better.


Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Making it out of Winter?

After experimenting with several options to the North of Hertfordshire I finally pulled together a winterproof route that felt like it had the right balance between distance, a bit of fun and, most importantly, didn’t drop me into the depths of a field full of clay.

This feels like the culmination of several weeks’ work and it’s always good to get to the end of a project and have another good loop to ride in the future.

Having done all of this I realised I’d already got a pretty good winter ride in the books already, and so I went and rode that one as well. This one is the classic loop with a couple of bits that could get muddy but somehow never get too bad. Having abandoned it for a while with my Northern exploration I hadn’t experienced the work that’s going on here. First-up the overgrown riverside run has been cleared and opened up, which changes the feel of the track, but offers some less muddy options.

More dramatically a bridleway, and indeed a whole road, was closed by bridge repair. Large work equipment including huge cranes very effectively shut off the way through. I diverted along a footpath I’d discovered in the past. Carefully walking it to stay on the moral high ground (and manhandling the bike over the gates) I made it to the road and then down a track decorated by a Ford Fiesta lying in a ditch to join up with the usual trails.

So, having just found two solid winter options the weather decided I had achieved enough for that season and threw in a day off work that was definitely, suddenly Spring. The temperature on the dashboard was pushing over 16 degrees and the sun was streaming when I turned into the carpark at Swinley. Rolling out on a decidedly soft rear shock (I’d left the shock pump at home) I was in short sleeves again and excited to be carving into damp, grippy berms with tyres buzzing on the hard-packed surface. It could have almost been summer as I hit the tank trap section and then carried on round the 20 km of trails. Here, as well, there had been work, a couple of new drop-offs and berms had quietly arrived, perhaps to keep the red-graded trail status in place.

The soft shock meant grippy downhill runs but a slightly worrying thump as I dropped off the biggest features, but there’s a point where you just ride what you have and that’s the important bit of being out on the bike, not that everything runs right all the time.

Just maybe Spring is here to stay and the riding will only get dustier and better from here on out, but perhaps there’s a last sting in the Winter and it’s not the end of the cold and mud.


Wednesday, 8 February 2017


Over the years I’ve searched for the ideal local winterproof ride. I’ve spent months mentally marking the map with all the sections where the clay gets so thick it turns the bike into a heavy immovable lump that I could barely drag across the fields. The result of getting this wrong has left me with a bike that I got home with an entire waste basket full of clay attached to it on more than one occasion. I’ve gambled on firmer lines on certain fields that turned out to have been given a going over by horses, and just meant another section to consign to summer riding.

This loop was one of those. I thought I had it nailed, but the risk I took did not pay off and I had to stop and even remove the chain device in order to get the bike running again. However, it did teach me another point to avoid and encouraged me to explore further find a way around. Not satisfied with just one new section I decided to approach this by riding a different combination of tracks. I couldn’t get away from my obsession with riding clockwise, and in order to try out some new sections I had to factor in a lot of road time, but I added new options to consider and made a step closer to that perfect winterproof ride. Admittedly one new section got dangerously close to being a clayfest, but my curiosity about it was satisfied. The real key was the diversion to the West that was a triumph of solid-based tracks that ran fast and firm, while staying happily muddy and hilly.

With some thought to minimise the boredom of the road sections and make the most of these firm tracks I’m looking forward to piecing together that ideal winter ride, probably just in time for the winter to end.


Monday, 23 January 2017

Mud and Ice (mostly Mud)

After a flurry of activity to get me to 2017KM in 2016 I have been off the mountain bike for a few weeks. This has been down to a never-ending cold, but mostly to the weather. When it’s cold and raining it is hard to gather the enthusiasm to get back out into the mud.

This week I kicked off what some might call my 2017 campaign. With a heavy frost and bright sunshine it seemed like a good day to get wrapped up and go riding. I even banked on the thick clay on some of the fields on the ride to the East of Hertfordshire being frozen solid and ridable.

This was a major mistake.

The first few sections were beautifully frozen. Iced-over puddles thrillingly held my weight and creaked under the wheels. Mud was formed into hard-edged grippy ridges, like riding rocks in the middle of summer. I was smiling and cruising along battered by the ruts but skipping over the land.

This continued for a while and I elected to risk a section that should really only be reserved for the dry of the summer or a hard frost. There are a number of field crossings, skirting along the edge of ploughed up earth, sometimes cut up by horses and always based on clay. It started well and shady patches were frozen hard but more and more out in the winter sun the ground was thawing. All too soon the bike was clogging up. Huge lumps of clay jammed themselves into the crown of the fork and in between the seat- and chain-stays until the wheels stopped going round at all.

Climbing off and scooping huge handfuls of mud off the bike allowed maybe a half wheel turn before it all jammed up again and in the end I was reduced to pushing and dragging the bike along, now both about three times its usual weight and with tyres dragging through the mud rather than rolling over it. I was trying to find the small patches on the shady side of small ruts that stayed frozen and seeking out the icy puddles that either helped me drag the bike forward or broke through and added some water to release the clogging. This was not in the plan of a light skipping, sparkling ride.

There are two or three sections like this and they seemed to go on for ever before I found firmer land and was able to free the bike up and ride on, with my shoes widened by the clay and rubbing on the cranks. Sapped of energy through these sections I hung on to make it back, muddy and tired, to the car.

There are lessons to learn and they are either to go very early before the ground thaws at all, or to keep those paths for the summer and focus my winter riding on the firmer-based tracks all over the county. However, let’s not forget the fun of those moments riding through a sparkling frozen wonderland of the countryside with the low hazy winter sun meaning I could go back to sunglasses for a brief memory of the summer.