Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Making Weekend Plans

What do you do when you get to a weekend and realise you have no plans. Well the best plan in my opinion is to go riding a lot.

I was at Heathrow early on Saturday morning, so the obvious first step was to head to Bracknell, which is surprisingly close to the airport. Based on this if you are planning a trip to the UK for some riding you could do a lot worse than rebuilding the bike when your flight lands and getting a first opportunity to ride it within a few miles of the runway. I arrived at Swinley not long after the gates opened and rolled out into the misty woods as the sun slanted and spattered through the trees.

There’s not much to say about Swinley that I’ve not written before, but the ride was a nice early morning loop before it got busy, the ground well drained but damp enough to be grippy, and the morning sun lighting up the fog was beautiful. As autumn settles in the section closed all summer for nesting birds was reopened as is the old first section of the red trail, now re-signposted as the end. This is a nice swoopy scar-ride that still probably works better as the start of the trail, not an afterthought.

After the ride around Swinley it was still early, and it seemed a shame to waste the day so after setting up beers and a bed for the evening, I jumped on the M4 with an excellent podcast for company and was soon changing tops and shoes in another carpark before attacking the rocky lift up onto the edge of Blackdown. The Mendips are getting muddy and are just on the edge of being ridable before the winter makes it worth switching to the road diversion. This time I went over the top, and ploughed through the deepening peat. On top of the hill I lined up for the flowing, rolling descent that always sits somewhere in the back of my head as a benchmark for fun.

Back at the car some gingernuts made an early lunch and I settled into being a non-cyclist for the rest of the day. As ever that’s not something that lasts long and on Sunday morning I woke up in a 6-year-old’s bed (the usual occupant was camping out on his brother’s floor) next to a cuddly stegosaurus with the need to go riding back in my legs. I got up, folded back the vehicle-themed duvet and got ready to get back on the bike.

Breakfast and an hour or so later I was changing again in the third carpark of the weekend, then kicked out onto the Cwmcarn Cafall trail. Tech issues and huge groups of slow riders blighted my early climb, but both were left behind for a bit on the switchbacks. I climbed clumsily through the remains of my beer and curry hangover and got caught behind another slow group who seemed oblivious to my stalling out behind them as the inched along the trail. A muttered passive aggressive comment was all I could manage as they eventually stopped in the middle of the track with their friends and I was free for a bit of riding at my own pace, luckily dropping one rooty section next to yet another guy pushing his expensive bike down.

After this frustration I decided to take a friend’s advice and head down the hill on the Pedalhounds DH track. I have to confess to having been intimidated by the DH rating in the past due to an underestimation of my ability or an over-exaggeration of the technical level that it represented, but this DH run was well within my capabilities and was a whole load of fun. Winding between trees, dropping steep chutes, rocks, berms and a series of fast drop-offs, the track drops fast and engagingly down the valley. It’s a shorter, faster way down than the rest of the Cafall trail but it’ll be hard in future to avoid taking that option again.

Oh and for the record I beat my friend’s time down the track.


Monday, 17 October 2016

Opening Your Options

It’s all too easy to get in a bit of a rut with any route you ride regularly. Once you’ve gone to the effort of pouring over the map to plan it out and then riding it to find out that it works it’s tempting to keep repeating the same ride over and over again. This has advantages as you’ll navigate effortlessly round it and know what to expect, but it does mean you might have missed something great. Perhaps on rides further from home this is why it might make sense to look at what other people have done, or recommend, but on your local trails you have the opportunity to keep exploring.

Look at the map again. There are probably a few other options to take to link things together at some points. It’s worth trying them and you’ll end up with a stronger knowledge of all the ridable paths in the area and you’ll open up more variation.

I’m very guilty of this and since mapping out the ride from Watton-at-Stone I had only varied it once. Basically the ride looks like this:

It’s really not a bad ride and has a lot of good fast (albeit pretty flat) riding along the way. It shouldn’t take an irritation to change it, but there was one bit I hadn’t quite been happy with. A double-back up a field which is now ploughed over followed by lines across the middle of other fields, all with a tendency to get clogged with mud as things get damper, had the potential to ruin the ride. There was an obvious detour that could cut out that section and I decided to try it out before the conditions deteriorated too much into winter. For good measure there was an alternative end to the ride that I thought I might as well try.

The verdict? The first alternative route is much better and I think will stand up to winter a little better. To be honest it is generally better, adding in a rooty section, open field ridge, and a fast stony track to replace the slight slog before. We’ll call it now option A for the ride and retire the other version for use if I get bored or in the blazing middle of summer where carving through leg-whipping crops seems fun. The alternative ending has nothing much to recommend it over the existing option. It includes more tarmac and replaces field crossings with a stony track. In my head this is now classified as the wet-weather option and good to have in the back pocket for when the ideal option seems too clogged with mud.

I’ve come off the ride with a better understanding of the possible routes out there and that’s a good thing. The links I’ve ridden now also pull in ideas for shorter rides if they’re needed, escape routes, and other things to think about.


Monday, 3 October 2016

Going to the Limit

Some days it’s worth finding an adventure in the relatively mundane. Regular readers will know that I’ve been riding a lot in Hertfordshire on the occasions I can’t get away further for more exciting riding. I’m in the process of turning some of that riding into route guides, available through this site, for people who have the same challenge to grab mountain biking close to North London. If you’re paying attention you may have noticed these appearing on the nav bar over to the right here. Look forward to more.

The more I rode these routes the more I wonder how far I can take them. This nagging idea has been kicking around in the back of my mind all summer. As I became aware of the impending end of the good weather I had been thinking more and more about the opportunity for adventure in the woods and fields of the county. In the end, almost on a whim, I set out on Sunday morning to ride the outer limits of the rides I’ve come to know well.

As a responsible mountain biker I would not exactly recommend my approach. Yes I was dressed appropriately and had a good bike for the ride but I’d been short of food to take along, so only had a couple of cereal bars in my bag. It also turns out I had neglected to pick up a multi-tool and may have also forgotten tyre levers or a chain tool so was woefully underprepared for any mechanical emergency. On the plus side again I had plenty to drink with me and I was riding well known tracks. I also had, for once, remembered my wallet so could potentially spend my way out of trouble if it came to that.

I had a vague idea of the distance – I’d done a couple of extended rides that pushed towards 60km out here and I had a blurry feeling that the total would add maybe 10km to this. This was a bit of an underestimate, as I started to realise as I reached the end of the first section. In my mental map of the area I had split out the ride into sections that related to individual rides I’d been doing, this segmentation would become more and more important as I went on, in order to keep myself going and not lose heart. At the junction to link the first ride to the second I checked my GPS watch. I had racked up a fast 20Km already, even as I tried to coach myself to slow down to save energy it was hard to resist the lure of known tracks in the dusty sunshine, and I was blasting along at a decent rate. I was still very much heading away from the car and so quick calculations started to make me realise I was in for a bigger ride than I expected. I resolved to not look at the watch again as I felt like knowing how far I’d gone with the knowledge of how far I had to go would be a tough psychological barrier to overcome.

I began to force myself to think no further than the next section of the ride, only looking to the next village at most, while setting some bigger landmarks to tick off. Much Hadham would be a first target but until there I would think no further than the next junction. I let each turn fall into my mind with the directions from there as they arrived and just settled to enjoy riding and to ride what was in front of me. This strategy worked well to keep me going and I rolled on through the changing landscape of Hertfordshire, pushing on as it tried unsuccessfully to rain. The variety of what I was riding struck me as I moved from the wooded south west to the open fields of the north and east. Some sections surprised me as they had slipped from my forward planning, but there’s a strange peace to be found in being committed to just riding.

With the long open top section ridden with a very helpful tailwind in place I crossed the major roads that head north from here and eventually dropped into Much Hadham. This represented another opportunity to cut the ride short, but whether through stubbornness or something else I found the bike always turning to keep going on the longer option. Climbing back out of the village I stopped to refuel as best I could with my limited provisions. My hydration pack was empty and I switched to a bottle along with the cereal bars, them remounted and rolled further out along field edges.

The next sunken lane gave me reason to think about the distance again as this was where I had dramatically punctured a few weeks before. I knew that this meant I was 20km out from Stansted Margarets. Starting to feel the miles in my legs and reminding myself that the car wasn’t parked there, but further on at Goffs Oak, this was where it started to get harder. From here there are also a succession of fields that are dried to ridged and rutted struggles. In addition I’d swung round into the wind that had been so helpful earlier.

A section of headwind put the first doubts into my head that I would make, but it also made me more determined that this ride wouldn’t beat me. I dropped into St Margarets and mentally double checked that the car wasn’t there. I also remembered the jelly babies in the glove box at this point, which made it harder to accept that the car was further on. After a brief break for a level crossing I kicked out of town and back onto scrappy bridleways to link up with a moment in the grounds of Haileybury College and then onto the dead-straight Ermine Street track which felt like starting to get back to the start. Each rise on the Roman road was starting to be an effort and I had the final climb in my head, knowing that I’d have to climb up through Wormley Wood to get back to the car.

That climb came all too soon on legs not fully recovered even on the previous descent. I dragged myself up it the slowest than I’ve ever climbed the path and emerged onto the road. Finally I looked down at my watch to see what the damage was. Just short of the car I was already clocking over 92km and I felt my tiredness was justified. I rolled back to the car. Sat on the floor and ate all of the jelly babies straight out of the glovebox to get the energy to drive home.

Just a bit gutted that I was 7.5km short of the 100…