Monday, 29 August 2016

Heat in the East

What do you do when the hottest day of the year looms midweek and the idea of being in an office looking at Excel doesn’t seem to quite the way to make the most of it?

Well I don’t know about you, but I book the day off and sneak off for some riding in the sunshine.

It seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore a new area I’ve been looking at. The North Downs had offered a good ride when I’d hit the Surrey hills and I was eyeing up the Eastern end of the ridge, which looked near enough for an escape without spending more time in the car than on the bike. I bought a route guide, as a shortcut for finding the best stuff, paid the Dartford Crossing charges and made the drive to Kent early on a Wednesday morning.

Just under an hour later I was in Meopham (mɛpəm, because I was confused too), I parked by the delightful village green, got ready, checked the early directions and swung onto the bike and up the first lane.

With a new guide book, and one from a publisher I’ve not used before it takes a ride or two to work out how the feel of the book fits with your view of a good ride. Sometimes the level of technicality is way out from what you want, sometimes the writer enjoys a brutal climb, or shies away from them. In this case I rapidly went from “this is a little tame” to “*%$£ me this guy is a sadist” as the ride went instantly from a cruisy sunken lane to a massively steep chalk climb. The book claimed it was slippery in the wet which I imagine is a massive understatement having ridden on ice-like wet chalk before.

This climb was followed all too soon by another brutal ascent as the ride jumped off and on the escarpment. As if I needed warming up in the high twenties heat this was doing the trick and I had sweat pouring off me. Everything calmed down for a bit as some time on the ridge then a road descent put me on some super singletrack for a few kilometres. There would be more steep climbs to tackle before the end, some time lost in the woods above a motorway and then some lanes and tracks back to the car. Much of the ride was in sunken lanes within a tunnel of trees, which wasno bad thing as the day heated up considerably

Overall there were perhaps one or two super fun descents, and for most of the ride I felt over-biked on a 140mm full susser. I have an inclination that the ride in reverse might be more fun, so that’s something to try in the near future. There is no doubt that the area looks like it has plenty of potential to justify the drive and expect more from here in the future.

With a full day off work it seemed a shame to waste the rest of it so, after lunch on the green, I braved the lorry-jammed Dartford Crossing and turned right to make up for any lacking technical riding on the 2012 Olympic track at Hadleigh Castle. There’s also no doubt that I had been inspired by watching the Rio Mountain Bike races.

It was hot on the estuary. With 37 km in my legs and temperatures reaching up towards 35degrees I was physically shaking after one brisk lap, although pleased to have gone back to riding all of the black lines on the first time of asking. I had to take a break in the shade before tackling another slower lap and the technical lines all over again. After satisfying myself that I could still do it I cut my hot losses and headed to the carpark to inhale all the drinks I could find.


Thursday, 25 August 2016

Going Further into the Hert-zone

It’s hard (and tiring with driving) to make every summer weekend a trip away, so it’s not all been big adventures. However a season of feeling fitter and wanting more and more riding meant some tweaks to my favourite local rides.

The fields and tracks of Hertfordshire offer great summer riding as they dry out and stop being solid mud-plugging affairs, so I’ve been extending existing rides all over the place to sail through seas of golden corn and through dappled woodland, as well as past the kind of homes I can only dream of owning.

I’ve been adding an extra loop to existing rides, blasting onwards to try and ride through the pain of stinging-nettle and bramble-raked arms and legs:

I’ve adventured further afield up the A10, for a ride that started in high humidity and sunshine and ended racing across wide open fields with lightening flashing around to every side as thunder rumbled away with constant menace and torrential rain pounded down on me. Perfectly safe as far as the end of rides go… Still, it had the advantage of a windmill, long section of roman road and going through a place called “Nasty”.

Finally, I’ve tried two different methods of a highly satisfying ride entirely round Hertford and Ware. Both take in the full range of what Hertfordshire offers, from open fields that reflect the seasons to sunken woodland tracks and urban sections. This one took in the open land to the North East and then finished along the canal between Hertford and Ware.

While another version skirted closer to the town to start but then took in more to the South West and more of a complete off-road experience, with less dodging shoppers and strollers on the canal.

With the frame of mind I have now there is clearly an even bigger and brilliant ride in there, taking in both extremes and maybe a full day of riding. It remains to be seen if there is time and weather left in the summer to get that in, and how I’d cope with a ride that took me over any distance I’ve done before. Now seems to be the time to do it with the weather and the accumulated fitness from the summer (not to say the faster-rolling ground conditions), but will there be time to do it when I’m not tempted away to a bigger ride and before the autumn catches up on us all?


Monday, 22 August 2016

Welsh Weather

With an optimism born out of desperation to get on the trails and my brother’s birthday, one of my first trips to ride this summer was to the Welsh Valleys.

To keep things simple it would be a trail centre- focussed weekend with Afan and Glywncorrwg making the bread of a sandwich with a bit of natural riding in the ham position. Saturday started, as these adventures often do, on the M4, with a plan to meet a friend on the motorway. This is significantly harder than you might imagine, and it takes a lot of slow driving to link up with someone chasing you down the road at the speed limit, even as you try to coordinate the link by phone. Not far short of the Port Talbot turn-off that we needed I finally saw the welcome sight of the silver car with a bike on the roof in my rear view mirror and I led up to the higher valley centre to introduce a new-comer to Whites Level.

It’s always fun showing someone a ride you love and this was no exception as I pulled him up the climb and then warned him about the downhills. At one point he fell off dramatically and I failed to even notice, which might not have been ideal, but overall I think the ride was a success. It certainly was compared with the second trip out after lunch.

Refuelled with baked potato and lots of cake we cruised down the valley to Afan to have a go at The Wall. Settling into the climb seemed to be going well until I was stopped by a shout from behind. I stopped expecting a puncture, or just tiredness, and eventually rolled back down to see what was up. It turned out the gear hanger had been torn off the bike and there’s little you can really do to fix that out on the trail without a spare hanger and so we agreed to part ways and hopefully meet in the carpark again later. I turned my attention back to climbing as my riding partner scooted off to find his way down the fireroads to the cars.

The ride was fun as expected from a real classic banker of a trail and I got back to the carpark after a small navigation error to find that my car was left alone. This would have been fine apart from my next move. I opened the boot, dumped stuff into it, then closed the boot to get the bike on the roof. At this point I realised my keys were in the boot. And the boot was locked. Cursing the weird combination of actions I’d managed to achieve this and massively grateful that I had my phone in my pocket still, I rang the Audi Assist people, and shivered in the late April afternoon as I waited for them to turn up.

Finally, with my car broken into and me back in warmer and less sweaty clothes I was able to head off and get ready for the next day’s ride. These two had been dry and gave a hint of summer.

The next day was less summery and smashed any idea I might have been holding of a dry weekend in Wales and an early summer. With my brother in tow this time I headed to a loop of Llangorse Reservoir on the Brecons to get a bit of a natural riding fix.

A photo posted by @andy_c_11 on

Through the drizzle and kitted up for winter this was a fun, muddy, big-feeling ride. It included rolling singletrack, big climbs, great moorland descents and vide open views. We managed to avoid the worst of the weather and rolled round a fantastic low-level Brecons ride, probably the best choice given the threatening weather on the higher land. It felt like proper riding and a great ride to do with someone else.

The theme of the weekend was definitely deteriorating weather and Monday morning was no disappointment on that front. Which is to say the weather was a huge disappointment. We went back to Afan to give the new version of the oldest trail a go. Penhydd was one of the first trails at the centre and has recently been given a makeover to appeal more to modern tastes. The new version is is easy to love with a rolling start and solid fireroad climb, before serving up fun sections of berms, jumps and rolling fast trails down the hill, interspersed with more fireroad climbing. All brilliant apart from the weather. It went from light bearable drizzle in the valley to a peak of being battered by horizontal rain with visibility down to maybe 50 metres. It was so bad it required a large amount of stopping to check we were still even on the same trail.

We battered down the hill with only the excellent trail keeping any sense of humour around it, getting wetter and wetter and struggling more and more to ride well. Finally back at the carpark I managed not to lock myself out of the car and also managed to get entirely changed in the back of my brother’s van, before pooling our limited cash and swallowing down pasties and cake before the long drive back to London.

The standard was set for the riding this summer, and the weather could only get better.


Thursday, 18 August 2016

Ticket to Ryde and Dorking Discovery

In an effort to make up for last summer I’ve been taking every opportunity to ride. My friends and family already know I’ll turn up to see them with a bike in tow to take advantage of any riding near where they live and so don’t even raise eyebrows as I sneak off for mornings and go straight for their garages. I’m going to cover some of the best of the summer so far in a thematic way (which really only means you don’t have to read about the same ride twice!)

To start with I had a reason recently to be in the very mid South of Britain, around Southampton. This poses a challenge for the opportunist mountain biker as there is surprisingly little riding in the immediate area. You might think that the coastal location and the nearby downs might offer something but the choices are limited. The New Forest is famously dull and by-law heavy for cycling, and Queen Elizabeth Country park isn’t inspiring enough to feel worth the drive.

The saving grace of this area is a little bit of a surprise, or rather it was for me. The best riding in the area seems to be on the Isle of Wight. This means the excitement of a ferry ride to get there and a route guide from Singletrack promised empty bridleways, excellent signposting and some challenging riding.

With this decided a few days in advance I poured over the route guide and a map to plot out a likely route. Somehow with it being on an island it seemed like I could and should go further, but that it wouldn’t be hard. I mean how hard can it be when you can only go so far before hitting the sea? My route would climb out of Ryde (as I could get the ferry in there) and head towards the more interesting looking southern end of the island and back.

Nervous and excited I drove to Portsmouth, got kitted up, and caught the ferry. This was an exciting start to a ride as getting a boat anywhere is fun to start a day out, but weirdly unsettling. It felt dangerous being so detached from the car to ride, with that psychological safety net removed, I would have to catch the ferry back to return to real life at the end.

The crossing was sunny and as I gave into the entirely male need to look like I knew exactly what I was doing at all times I carelessly abandoned the bike in the racks and headed to the sundeck to watch the progress across the Solent. I like to think that on the outside I oozed confident detachment while eating my pasty. Inside I worried about my bike and the ride to come, but we soon docked at Ryde, and I rolled off the boat, up the pier, checked the map and then climbed out of the town.

Soon I was of the road and onto a ride that lived up to the billing. Heading out to towards the middle of the island on empty bridleways with perfect signposting and already starting to climb hard as I aimed towards the higher ground to the south. The theme would include some tough rises and I was forced to reassess the route I’d planned, having not taken into account the brutal elevation changes on such a small island. I worked my way in the beautiful sunshine, and wonderfully alone to a high point short of the southern coast, where I cut back and began to head towards the start again. I regret not making it to the sea but it is a tough challenge that would have taken the whole ride well over 50KM and added to the nearly 1,000m of climbing. Heading back offered up some steep and fun descents a section of paved cycle track and eventually the satisfaction of dropping into the town of Ryde, and seeing the seaside open up in front of me. There’s something special in a ride that ends at the sea having been in the hills. Rolling back along the pier and onto the ferry I was dusty and sweaty and standing out from the day trippers in a way it’s hard not to like. While families took selfies on the sundeck I tucked into sweets and Lucozade and felt the tiredness in my body that meant a ride done well.

It was a bridleway ride to challenge any I’d done and I’m sure there is much more to explore over on the island. Finding the way to the far side of the island might be the key, and maybe it deserves a day out there to take full advantage. There’s even a bike park somewhere in the middle so I think I will definitely go back.

The thing with being away from home is that there can always be additional adventures to explore on the way back. On this trip the return journey looked near enough to another area I’d wanted to try out, as it could easily be stretched to go past the Surrey Hills.

This range of hills is famous for being the nearest mountain biking to south London and therefore very popular with riders across the city. It’s accessible by commuter train and attracts a huge volume of riders to sandy trails that seem more rural than their place just outside the M25. I have ridden there once in the past but remember nothing of it and wanted to try it for myself. Some map work again suggested some bridleways running out of Dorking and I plotted out a route that took in the hills I’d heard about in various internet searches. Having dumped the car in the Surrey town I rolled out on some easy fields and towards the hills. Before long I was climbing and considering the entirely satisfactory nature of the ride so far.

I knew rumours of built trails on these hills and soon came across some evidence of built features. A bit of casting around threw up a bit of a rolling singletrack line but it was hard to work out where it started and ran to. After a few aborted runs on small sections I picked up a track to the top of Leith Hill and climbed hard to the tower marking the highest point. Here I found the trail head and mentally marked it for later before rolling off down the hill towards the next on the ridge.

The transition between the hills was a delightful long, fast and dusty track that took me gradually down then into Holmbury St Mary before climbing fireroads to the top of the next hill. I was getting the idea of how these hills worked and headed towards the highest point with an eye on the track edge for the start of any built routes. Sure enough, just shy of the top there was an entrance, so after an obligatory trip to look at the view, I dived off the fireroad and into a beautiful swooping bermed and jumpy trail taking me back down the hill.

Fully fired up for the tracks built in these hills I retraced my treadmarks back to Leith hill, climbing solidly and then swooping straight into the Summer Lightening trail there, marked by National Trust signs and proving to be a lovely long section of flowing singletrack, snaking through the woods and pointing me back to the first place I’d seen evidence of the work here.

Smiling I cranked the gears up and cruised out on more wide tracks which developed into a more narrow and technical descent and eventually dropped me onto a road where I could pick up the route back to the car. I rolled back satisfied with my exploring and likely to come back at some point.


Monday, 15 August 2016

Mountain Biking:The untold British story

One of the brilliant things about this blog is being able to recommend excellent videos to you. I’ve done this over the years and see no reason to stop now. I’m a bit behind the times but you should definitely check out Mountain Biking:The untold British story. Telling the story of the history of mountain biking from the point of view of scene in the UK it also features everyone you would expect and is available to rent from Vimeo for less than four quid:

Mountain Biking:The untold British story from Blue Hippo Media on Vimeo.

Definitely a good way to spend an evening and it’ll get you wanting to get out on the bike as soon as it ends.

I'm going to avoid covering too much competative cycling here as there are other places that do it better and more thoroughly, but I was excited to also watch Cav finally take an Olympic medal last night.