Riding a bike for a living sounds like living the dream, but taking people out for a ride is the final tip of the, often no fun, preparation iceberg. This weekend was a classic example.
When riding plus weather equals zero
“This is approximately zero fun,” says Mel, picking herself out of the undergrowth “And I’m really cold.”
She’s right: it’s cold and we’re not having any fun. There’s a bitter northeasterly blowing across the downs and we’re in its way. It’s far colder than it looks, I can barely feel my fingers or toes. And that’s the least of our issues.
The track we’re riding at right now is churned to a depth of the best part of a foot. It’s not the usual chewed up leaf-litter-and-loam churn that leaves you sliding around desperate for traction. No, this is an entirely different beast. It used to be grass on clay soil, then it was rained on, then it was ridden on by a bunch of horses. The end result is something that has a consistency of the cob they use to daub the timber-framed houses round here.
This stuff is sticky and stops you in your tracks. Attempting to power through results in wheel spinning on the spot. It’s horrible. I dismounted and the bike stayed up on its own. Worse than that, it’s clogging everything. It looks like I’m riding a fatbike. All that mud is being trimmed by the mudguards, the excess is being deposited on various bits of the frame (or me) which is then being peeled off by my legs as they go past. Making forward progress is tortuous and hard work. Getting off is even more fun because the mud goes up to my ankles and tries to suck my boots off.
Which is why Mel has just fallen off into the undergrowth attempting to dismount. She is now covered in bramble thorns and, understandably, not very happy.
Have I mentioned the cold? Because of the mud we’re not going fast enough to generate the heat that’s needed to thaw fingers and toes.
It’s pretty miserable.
Riding at the wrong time
We’re here to pre-ride a route for an event at the end of April. The event is a bluebell ride for families. A short ride of fast-rolling trails with some nice scenery.
I rode most of it last summer as part of another ride and thought it would make a nice little loop. Seeing something once does not constitute good reconnaissance, I need to get an understanding of how the trails fare when conditions are less than ideal. So, we set out at the start of February to stress test the route.
It was a lovely, clear day. The first thing that we noticed as we got out of the car was the wind. The bikes were hastily assembled, but we were both reluctant to take off our down jackets and set off. When Mel asked if she could ride in hers, she was only half joking.
We were off soon enough, only to discover that Mel’s new mudguard kept catching on the back wheel as her suspension compressed. Two stops later, we’d gone all of about 800 yards and stood in the cold for about ten minutes.
Time to get some riding in and generate some heat. Thankfully, the first climb provided a little shelter and some exercise. In order to make the most of the heat generated by climbing, I decided to take the higher of two traversing byways. I turned the corner at the top and came face-to-face with the wind with the sun hiding behind the hedge. Not a place to have a mechanical…
Just keep riding
“Oh, you can just do one!” (or possibly something much less family-friendly) came a cry from behind me. I looked round to see Mel climbing off to investigate the large stick tangled in her rear mech.
Definitely not the place to have a mechanical. Oh well. Tools out and get cracked on.
I took the stick out to discover that the stick had forced the derailleur to swing round and dig a significant hole in the hanger. This was not good. I unscrewed it and put it back in the right position, hoping that the hanger wasn’t too bent. I carry a spare hanger for such eventualities, but taking the back end of the bike apart here would take long enough for us to both get dangerously cold. It seemed straight enough to get riding and get out of the wind. So, we got on and rode off, trying to generate some warmth.
A quick drop led to a short road climb that, sadly, wasn’t enough to really get the blood going. There was a longish grassy traverse ahead that I recalled being easy rolling enough to get some rhythm going.
How wrong could I be?
This is where we came in, fighting our way through a quagmire that threatened to induce a simultaneous bike, and sense of humour, failure. I’ve ridden trails I haven’t enjoyed before, but this one, in these conditions is right up there with the best of them.
It, too, was on the crest of the ridge and wide open to the wind. The sun had gone in by this point making it even more miserable. I remember stopping just here in the summer for a drink and a bite to eat, while watching the view. There was no question of stopping now. Head down, get this over with.
Does a falling tree make noise?
It was only 500 yards long, but it took 11 minutes to get there (that’s less than 2 mph). It felt like an eternity. Still, there was a lovely bit of woodland trail to ride to take our minds off it.
Except that the winter had wreaked havoc on the woods. What had been a bit of flowing dirt trail in the summer was now festooned with fallen trees. I spent more time carrying the bike than riding it. It may have been all of 200 yards but there must have been eight or ten full sized trees across the path. This was almost as much as I could bear. This was going to be the highlight of the ride and it was utterly unrideable. This loop was going to need some serious thought. Eventually, we came out of fallen tree alley and the trail rolled downhill for a bit. It was nice but over almost before it began.
The rest of the ride was nowhere near as bad. There were a couple of boggy bits, but nothing as bad as that quagmire. The views were nice but we were so chilled that we didn’t linger at any of them. Another spot where I had stopped to admire the woods offered cold comfort, compared to the temptation of the café at the end of the ride. It was all pleasant, but not enough to dispel the cold or disgruntlement of bikes filled with clay.
Before the ride, there had been debate about whether to finish at the pub or the café. There was none now. Café. Bikes were stashed with a minimum of faff and barely any talking. Warm coats on and straight to the café.
But wait, there’s more
They didn’t look like this earlier…
I’ve talked in the past about how much I enjoy cleaning bikes. Normally, the mulch-mud rinses off after being agitated by the brush. This stuff was something else entirely: I found myself racing darkness as I scrubbed thick clay off every surface of both bikes. In this case, I actually did spend more time cleaning than riding.
Closer inspection once the bikes were clean revealed the mech hanger on Mel’s bike was, indeed, a write-off. So, I’ve just ordered a replacement for it.
This afternoon I will spend some time learning the lessons from the ride and making the necessary alterations to the route to ensure it’s as brilliant as possible in April.
At this point I’m pretty confident I will need to ride it again before the day.
All this for a ride that will last about an hour and a half.
When people ask “what do I get for my money?” when coming on a guided ride. The answer is this: assurance that we’ve done all the necessary suffering to ensure that you have fun and that, should the worst happen, I can get you safely home so you can concentrate on having fun.