ride

Why quality is more important than quantity when it comes to riding

Why quality is more important than quantity when it comes to riding

I spend a lot (my friends might say too much) time thinking about, plotting and planning routes for rides. I want maximum killer, minimum filler from my riding. I want the highest density of quality riding because enjoyment is really important to me.

Not everyone thinks that way

Recently, I went out for a ride with a new group. I do this from time to time. It’s nice to meet new people, to experience different ways of riding and different dynamics. Cynically, it reduces the chances of work stymying my social riding if I have more options to choose from. The real reason, is that I’m on the lookout for quality new trails. I’ve lived here for well over a decade now, but there must be trails I don’t know about, bridleways I’d dismissed that are amazing and ways of linking up the good bits that I hadn’t thought of.

Riding quality trails is what gets me out of the door.

It didn’t quite turn out like that.

We rode for just over 40km. About 20 of that was entirely new to me. I encountered not one yard of new singletrack. That’s right: zero. Three hours’ riding and did not ride a single bit of new trail that I have a burning desire to ride again. There were a lot of what I’d call “transition trails” that is bits of riding you do in order to get to the good bits.

I found that odd. I found it downright baffling, I wondered what they were getting out of their three hours’ riding.

Quality does not equal suffering

Mountain biking at any serious level requires a certain amount of physical fitness. Fitness comes from time in the saddle and miles under the wheels. The more of it you do, the fitter you get and the easier it all gets. This is sometimes called “training”.

There is a ride logging app called Strava. Strava was designed with our road cousins in mind, therefore you can find out your “suffer score” for any given ride. This suggests that suffering is a good thing. I know people who go out for training rides where they get their heads down and grind out the miles on farm tracks and roads in the name of training.

Maybe that’s what was happening?

I’ve never understood that. Since my last race in 2012, I haven’t been on a single “training ride”. Not once have I gone for a ride where the point was to exercise in order to get fitter. I’ve never felt the need.

I’m a firm believer that riding should be enjoyed rather than endured. With limited time on the bike, my focus is on having fun and riding trails I enjoy.

Yes, I’ve done long rides. I’ve come home from rides absolutely toasted, with nothing in the tank. But the point was that I’d enjoyed the riding (even if, in some cases it was firmly type 2 fun). I was knackered because we’d done a bunch of quality trails, or because we’d been pushing ourselves on those trails.

I’m not sold on the need to ride dull trails in order to get fit. Why not ride fun ones?

The importance of quality riding

Even as a professional mountain bike leader, my time in the saddle is limited. Therefore, I want the maximum bang for my buck when I go out. I want to pack as much enjoyment into that 2-3 hours I’ve got before I need to be home.

What do I mean by quality riding? Well, it basically boils down to two things:

Is it kinaesthetically engaging?

Is it aesthetically engaging?

Mountain biking differs from road cycling in that it’s not…ummm… on tarmac. This opens up the opportunity for a kinaesthetic experience, one where you are moving around on the bike, reacting to the terrain under your wheels. I want to be riding bends and corners, I want to be riding over humps and hollows, I want to be encountering roots, I want opportunities for my wheels to get of the ground, I want to be able to do this at speed.

That’s what I mean by kinaesthetic: riding that engages my body.

Mountain biking also offers the chance to go places with jaw-dropping scenery. Whether it’s high mountains, or bluebell woods. Whether it’s clear chalk streams or circling birds of prey. Even if it’s seeing deer and hares in the fields, I want a feast for the eyes.

In an ideal world, I want both at the same time.

All the time. I want to come home with the burning desire to tell someone all about the amazing time I’ve had on my bike. With a desire to do it again. Right now.

If I spend a few hours doing that, I can guarantee I’ll come home having had a proper workout for the whole body. If I keep doing it, I’ll get fit. But I’ll want to keep doing it.

Investing in finding quality trails: the real hard work

In that ideal world I’ll be riding quality trails right from my door. Even more ideally, it’ll be engaging singletrack (paths about a bike’s width across).

But that’s not realistic.

So, I want to plan a route that has the highest density of the fun stuff. That’s where the hard work begins. I’ve talked in the past about my trailfinding adventures. I’ve talked at length about the time spent with maps on the floor, or in front of a screen sniffing out quality riding. I’ve also talked at length about the rides where I went for miles in order to see whether one bit of trail was worth riding. I might also have mentioned the emotional rollercoaster of that bit of trail being brilliant or un-rideable and of having to go back to the drawing board as a vital link in the chain is broken.

Secretly, I love it. But it is hard work, and it doesn’t always pay off in the short term. It’s very much a case of delayed gratification. The results are worth it in the long term as I’ve built up a mental and physical map of all the great trails and paths and how to stitch them together into good rides.

Maybe this is too much work for people who just want to get out and ride? Maybe they just don’t think to look in the trees over there, or down that bridleway? Maybe they don’t know that, just around the corner there is quality riding. Maybe that’s what’s happening here?

Why is this quality important?

Life is too short for boring riding.

That’s why. I ride to enjoy myself and I’m not enjoying myself if I’m bored. Simple really. I put the time and effort into finding quality riding today, so that I can enjoy my riding in perpetuity (or something like it).

That’s why I put so much time and effort into the details of route planning for BackPedalling: because I want everyone to get a taste of great riding. For the Explore rides, it’s about sniffing out top-class singletrack in the South Downs. It’s about finding those snippets of great trails hidden away in the woods and lanes.

I’m a firm believer that there is no excuse for a boring ride: so, I put as much thought into the Discover rides as the explore ones. After all, if you don’t enjoy your first experience, why would you ever do it again? Just because they are technical doesn’t mean they have to be dull, so I seek out tracks and trails that roll well, flatter the rider and provide brilliant views.

So, go out there an find some quality trails. I promise it’s worth it.

If you want to know where to start looking join us on a Discovery ride.

If you’re more interested in finding new trails then join us for an Explore ride.

Maybe you would prefer something designed especially for your needs instead?

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Thoughts, 0 comments
Cycle to Work Day 2018: what I did

Cycle to Work Day 2018: what I did

August 15th was national Cycle to Work Day in the UK. It seemed only sensible for BackPedalling to play a part. So, here’s the story of how I rode to work yesterday…

Cycle to Work

Not as easy as it sounds.

You’d think that, as a mountain bike guide, I cycle to work all the time. You’d be wrong. For a start, I spend more days in the office doing admin and planning than actually riding. On top of that, even if I am riding, the chances are that the ride I’m delivering is far more than riding distance from home.

In fact, thinking about it, I would cycle to work far more often when I worked in an office every day.

When the stars align

Yesterday was different. On Wednesday morning I deliver my Wellbeing Rides on the other side of Winchester. Wellbeing rides are relaxed paced rides on benign paths, trails and back roads. They’re ideal for people who want to inject a little light exercise into their week in a laid-back environment. They also start about 15 minutes ride from the door.

So, here’s the first instalment of Cycle to Work Day BackPedalling style:

But wait, there’s more Cycle to Work

As luck would have it, Wednesday is a double-barrelled day (assuming I have no one:one clients in between), because the evening is when I deliver my Back to Biking rides. Back to Biking is what it says on the tin: rides that help people get back on their bikes and overcome all the obstacles that might stop them doing so. I find the good paths, I make sure the pace and length are right, I look after you if something goes wrong with your bike. Better yet, they start at the bottom of the hill by my house: about 4 minutes ride from the door.

Rather laughably, here’s what the second cycle to work of the day looked like:

Please do cycle to work

Cycle to Work is a brilliant thing, because it encourages people to get out and ride. I used to do it every day, rain or shine, winter and summer, taking my bike on the train and, sometimes, it was the highlight of the day. Many people worry that they aren’t fit enough, or that they lack the skills, or that the roads are too dangerous. Whilst these fears are entirely reasonable, trying it might show you that it’s a lot more pleasurable than you think.

There’s a lot to be said for the way that riding releases endorphins which help you feel better and set you up for the day. Try it, you might like it.

Acknowledgement

I’d like to say a big thank you to Al Boothroyd for the loan of his helmet camera. Cheers buddy.

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Rides, 0 comments
Head in the clouds, Feet of Clay

Head in the clouds, Feet of Clay

Sometimes you ride under a cloud less sky, sometimes under a blanket of white. Sometimes a ride takes place inside a cloud. This was to be one of those rides

Head up

One of the fundamental tenets of good trail riding is to keep your head up. It’s also a tenet of good navigation. The more you keep your head up, the further ahead you can see, the better you can prepare for what’s coming, the more in control you are when it arrives. The further along the trail you look for that difficult-to-spot right turn, the greater your chances of seeing it before you go past. The only problem with this approach is when you’re riding through low cloud and can only see a few yards in any direction. That is the situation we found ourselves in on this ride for a considerable time.

It’s made worse by the navigational black hole that plantation woodland offers. Even the beechwoods mean that, just because something is marked on the map as a significant track, doesn’t mean that is exists on the ground. More confusing is that the broad track in front of you may not appear at all. That’s why we took the scenic route off the ridge line. It definitely wasn’t that we missed the right turn. That’s not what happened at all. Having said that, the route we did take was lovely as was the scenery that we could see.

Clouded judgement

Clark and I found ourselves out in the South Downs near Cocking (no laughing at the back) on a Tuesday morning in April in the name of a ride recce. There was a window in our diaries, and we went for it regardless of whether there was a window in the weather. The forecast was for intermittent drizzle all day, so we prepared to get damp. Better yet, it had rained persistently for days before the ride, which can play havoc with trails in this part of the world. So, we were prepared to come back to the car filthy as well as wet.

What I hadn’t expected in the South Downs was for a goodly chunk of the day to be above the cloud base. However, it wasn’t actually raining so we decided to get on with the lesser of two evils.

The first track was a pretty unremarkable track, except the farmhouse with the canary yellow UPVC windows. It’s a relatively easy way to gain a fair bit of height and the price you pay for a downhill finish. As it levelled off we found ourselves surrounded by some brilliant archaeology in a landscape littered with cross dykes and round barrows reminding us that people have been living and working in this landscape for a very long time. The views out across the scarp face towards the Weald. Or, at least we should have.

Cocking: there's a view out there somewhere

Cocking: there’s a view out there somewhere

Instead of the archaeology and the vista we were treated to the atmospheric tendrils of cloud wrapping themselves around us, obscuring anything more than a few metres away. Instead, Clark had to content himself with my colourful descriptions of what he should be able to see. I can spin a pretty good yarn, but there are only so many synonyms for “massive” that I could think of whilst avoiding the potholes and quagmires that presented themselves. Oh, and keeping an eye out for that elusive right turn.

The lively discussion of the Bronze Age landscape might explain why it took longer than expected to arrive at that right turn.

Head down, eyes up

Gently downhill duplex in the summer can be a ticket to light-speed on a bike. In early April after the wettest winter in recent memory it was a little different. We still whipped along at a fair lick but found ourselves having to time manuals well so as not to lose front wheels in opaque puddles or piles of sodden leaves. Closing my eyes occasionally helped keep the grit out of them.

I had a clear memory that there were a couple of slightly tricky junctions from a navigation point of view, you know the ones where two trails run off almost parallel where the map says there should only be one. So, I was keeping my wits about me for these choices approaching at speed, through the cloud and the spray of my front wheel.

Which is why I was more than a little surprised when the trail ended abruptly at a gate into a field. This was not right. This was definitely not where I had anticipated ending up. I thought we had gone a long the ridge for longer than anticipated. This gate confirmed that we were not where we were meant to be. The problem with missing your turning is that it can be hard to work out at what point you have deviated from the plan. A perusal of the map revealed that we had simply missed the turn and taken a path that ran parallel to our original plan. After a quick recalibration, a new route down was hatched that went through the gate ahead and joined up with the route as planned at the bottom.

Initially, I was disappointed. The descent to the combe floor was a grassy field. No fun in that. Still, make what you can of it. I kicked off and set off down the hill, very quickly picking up enough speed that washing out on the sopping grass became a realistic hazard. Stay loose, stay relaxed, trust your grip on the off-camber hillside. The problem with descents like this is that there’s very little calibrate your speed against. Ahead of me was a lynchet, it was approaching at warp speed, and the sharp break in slope meant that the crest was entirely blind. I had no idea what was on the downslope. Attack position. Commit.

It was relatively steep but nothing terrifying, granting plenty more speed. The bottom was a sharp enough trough that it needed a manual to get through smoothly. The horrible buzzing sound of rear wheel on mudguard confirmed that the rear suspension had absorbed considerable compression. Head up, look for the next one. Approaching even faster, this was much more fun than I was expecting. A few more lynchets between me and the bottom were despatched with increasing velocity before the reality of the rapidly approaching fence at the bottom of the hill made braking a priority. Clark appeared, grinning like a loon. For an accidental descent, this one was a keeper.

The archaeology is exciting, but can we do some riding now?

The archaeology is exciting, but can we do some riding now?

“So, are they barrows?” he asked

“No, these are lynchets” and proceeded to explain what lynchets are. To save you having to listen to me explain it as well: here’s a link.

The particular lynchets we were looking at turned out to be relics of a Bronze Age field system that, until recently was thought to be lost. This relic is a scheduled monument that, until recently, was thought to be the only remnant in the area. A LiDAR (follow the link) survey showed that the whole ridge here is covered in Bronze Age fields. We archaeologist are still very excited about it.

Clark was less impressed, so we rode on.

Going the wrong way

The difficulty in planning rides in this area (and to be fair most areas) is which way round to do it. If you’re riding a loop then, for every cracking descent, there’s going to be a climb. For every climb someone will tell you that you should be riding down it. The next climb was very much one of those. Maybe on a drier day it would have been rideable, but not today. I know why the ride is planned this way around, and this was something of an experiment. That didn’t change the fact that we were off and pushing up the kind of steep, sinuous woodland singletrack that people would bite your arm off to ride. We were definitely doing it the wrong way, and we seemed to be doing it the wrong way for quite some time. There has got to be a way of doing it the other way. This is one for the OS map, later.

On the up side, we seemed to have dropped out of the clouds. But it was still sweaty work, gaining considerable height ready for another descent. At the top there was a longish, straight tarmac transfer to our next point of interest, so time to get our heads down and make up for some lost time. It wasn’t quite a team time trial, but we weren’t hanging about. Straight past Goodwood racecourse and on to something that, for me at least, was far more impressive.

Trundling along

The Trundle, and Chalkpits Lane, in particular, holds a certain significance in the history of mountain biking in this area. Many of the bridleways that drop off this hill were within the reach of early mountain bikes and were something of a Mecca in the 90s. But that’s only the most recent episode in a long history of significance to this hilltop. As far back as the Neolithic, people were building things here. Many of them can still be seen. I get very excited about these things. I explained what a causewayed enclosure is, stating that the banks probably looked more impressive but they’re quite old.

I can see the sea from here. Normally

I can see the sea from here. Normally

Clark was impressed too: “are they old then?”

“About 5,000 years old.”

“Wow.”

This Neolithic site sits squarely in the middle of an Iron Age hillfort with an impressive bank round the outside. What makes for a strong defensive feature also makes for an excellent spot to have lunch. The view from here is spectacular. Given that it was all ensconced in cloud, Clark had to make do with my description. Again. It was a little bit “here’s what you could have won” I’m convinced I could just about pick out the spire of Chichester Cathedral, but there was no way I could see the sea. Shame really. And, it turns out, kind of chilly. Time to get on.

The drop from the Trundle is one of those old-school South Downs descents. It’s a wide-open field with a notional path down the middle. It’s steep enough that you can play the “how long do I stay off the brakes without riding into the fence at the bottom” game. It is, as always, over too soon. It took us back below cloud base though, so we began to warm through a little.

I found the black and white filter settings

I found the black and white filter settings

The South Downs is well catered for in pretty streams and rivers from the Itchen to the Adur, but this section of the Lavant is up there with the best of them. The draw to get moving and generate some heat was strong, but not as strong as the need to get some snaps of this pretty valley. Clark seemed happy to do the obligatory ride back the we he’d come for “one last shot”. I suspect he was being put off by my description of the “big climb of the day.”

The language of guides

I often joke that part of my leader’s training is how to lie about what lies ahead. “It’s contouring from here.” Means that there are several big climbs between us and the café. “It’s mostly downhill” neglects to mention the one really big climb. It is a joke really, I think it’s important to be honest with people.

The climb up the side of Kingley Vale is one to tell people about. It’s mostly not desperately steep. Nor is it particularly technical. It’s mostly not too boggy. Mostly is the important word, because it’s all of those things at one point or another. And it keeps going. And going. It gains over a hundred metres in little more than a kilometre. There’s a false flat at the summit too. It’s no horror show and a reasonably fit rider will have no problem getting up, but you’ll be glad to get to the top. Partly because the climb is over.

The top is just around the corner...

The top is just around the corner…

Partly because of the view: you can see miles to the east and west from the top. But you won’t take that in straight away, because your eye is drawn to the four massive burial mounds lined up along the ridge. When I say massive, I really mean it. Leaving the bikes behind, we climbed the nearest one and sat down for another bite to eat. While sitting there, Clark spotted something remarkable above us. A small patch of blue sky. The cloud was lifting! From being too cold on the Trundle we were now too warm and shedding layers.

Clark endured (or possibly enjoyed) discovering the difference between a bowl barrow and a bell barrow (the clue is very much in the name) whilst looking for buzzards.

It’s all downhill from here

Duly educated on prehistoric monuments, we remembered we were here for a bike ride. The traverse along the top of Bow Hill is normally not much to write home about. Normally. Today it was a touch slippery, a touch slidey and occasionally that kind of muddy where you have to put the power down to keep moving forward. I looked round to see Clark covered in mud from shoulder to knee. “I fell off.” Was all he would say.

The thing about a vaguely rubbish traverse to the top of a descent is the knowledge that, as a guide, your clients are all thinking “this had better be worth it.” I remember the descent past Goosehill Camp being a good-un on previous visits, but the dampness in the ground today had already taught me that all bets were off. Even I was thinking it had better be worth it.

It started innocuously enough, for long enough that I was concerned I had misremembered it. Not to fear though, it casually tips more and more downhill, introducing a tangle of small roots into the mix as it goes. In the summer it has those leaf-dappled shadows that make picking out roots impossible. The flat light of late winter was better for seeing them. Or, at least, seeing how slick they looked. It’s fun to see how much speed you can rack and whether there’s a good line through the roots.

The trail is a diagonal drop from the shoulder of the hill until, out of nowhere, there’s a right-left dogleg accompanied by a sudden narrowing of the trail. It’s quite easy to go straight on into the undergrowth here. In the damp, I was taking no chances. I’m not sure Clark agreed with me. Which is probably why he came around the left-hander trying desperately to clip back in.

Doing the left-right shoogle

Doing the left-right shoogle

Wandering lonely as a cloud

Now we were pointing for home, with only one big climb between us and the car. Thoughts naturally turned to food and the viability of vegan chilli (we both thought it would definitely work). On the map, it was a gentle fire road grind back up to the South Downs ridgeway. In reality, it was a lovely hollow way with old trees flanking both sides and obscuring the pine plantation beyond. Then…

“Clark. Get off your bike.”

“Why?”

Because that,” pointing, “is a field of wild daffodils.”

“That’s amazing.”

Wild Daffodils

Wild Daffodils

He was right too. From a pleasant but unremarkable coppice, there emerged a carpet of yellow flowers. Impressing a South Downs rider with a carpet of woodland flowers is a challenge: April & May are usually wall-to-wall bluebells. This was a real treat, it was like bluebells, but yellow. It was probably going to be the best nature moment of the day, made better for being completely unexpected. So, we stopped and took a lot of photos that would probably fail to do the scene justice.

It was one of those sights that’s hard to tear yourself from and remember you’re here for a bike ride. So, with heavy hearts (and legs) we got on with the job of reaching the top of the hill.

On the ridgeline again for the first time since this morning, we found ourselves back in the cloud. Brilliant.

I’d planned a small detour on the final leg. I wanted to check out another trail: an extra descent in case clients are still wanting more. Clark was up for it so we peeled off the ridge ready to drop off the scarp face.

Then we stopped.

“Is that enough buzzards for you, Clark?”

“I think so.”

We counted twenty of them, emerging one after the other from the trees the cover the slope, silhouetted against the cloud. Planted to the spot, we watched them soar and climb before sliding off the thermal to wherever buzzards go. The daffodils had been good, but this was gobsmacking.

However, time was passing. Wake up: time to ride. The trail became a wide chalk track that pointed down. It was smooth enough to pick up significant speed. It felt slick enough that your wheels might disappear at any moment, and that you would slide a long way before stopping. Relax and everything will be fine. It was. We reached the junction, only about halfway down, grinning from a descent that had been adrenalin filled far beyond its technicality. What might the second half bring?

Luke, you’ve turned off your targeting computer

Turning the corner onto the second half of the drop, quick reactions stopped me from disappearing into the muddy ruts that suddenly bracketed the trail. Just. Something big had driven this way and carved two trenches that could grace the Death Star (if the Death Star was made of mud), and definitely swallow a bike. In between was a narrow ridge, with an even narrower groove down the middle. Coming off was not an option. The track was still pointing downwards, adding momentum to the equation. It was also meandering adding steering to the mix. Speaking of steering, the groove was the kind of slick mud where the bike goes exactly where it feels like, you just relax and accept it. On several occasions my front wheel was at forty-five degrees and the bike ploughed straight on regardless. Relax, it’ll be fine, a nudge of the hips now and then to keep the bike upright. Remember those mud-riding skills you’ve spent the winter honing. And don’t try dabbing, as the ground is about three feet lower where you want to put your foot.

It was a giggle. For a bit. It seemed to go on a very long time, and I was getting mentally tired from concentrating too hard. Then the track fired us out into a steeply-sloping field at warp speed. Here the wheel-ruts went in all directions and just pointing at the bottom was an option. We both breathed a sigh of relief at the bottom. We also saw the cause of the ruts. Four massive Scottish and Southern Electric off-road flat-bed trucks, there to replace electricity poles. That would explain it.

Not enough to want to do that descent again though.

All that was left was the short climb back to the car. What it lacked in length, it more than made up for in steepness. The chalk track was flat enough, but every pedal stroke was a battle to keep the front wheel down, turn the pedals over and stop the back wheel from spinning out too much. Push hard enough to turn the pedals and the back would spin and stall. There was a delicate balance to be struck in applying just enough power to get the wheels to turn without breaking traction. It’s a while since I’ve felt so pleased for cleaning a climb. That was the glow that took us to the car.

A very short conference resulted in us agreeing that this diversion wasn’t really worth it. That’s what a recce is for: to see if the trails are fun to ride. This one wasn’t, really.

The rest of the ride had been great though, in spite of the unseasonal mulch that had coated everything, including our bikes. Clark pronounced himself a happy man, though a tired one. It’s easy to take a ride for granted once you’ve done it a few times, but this one is a classic for a reason.

This might take a while to clean off

This might take a while to clean off

Now to plot doing it the other way round so we can descend that steep climb…

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Rides, 0 comments
Hike a bike, South Downs Style: Classic Type 2 fun on Butser Hill

Hike a bike, South Downs Style: Classic Type 2 fun on Butser Hill

There is a theory that there are two types of fun. The first is something that is fun when you do it. Type 2 is something that is fun in hindsight, when you look back on it. Type 2 fun is almost never an enjoyable experience at the time. This is ride around Butser Hill had a lot of the latter.

Not fun now.

I am shouldering my bike for the third time today, trudging slowly up a climb, eyes fixed on the floor in front of me: classic hike a bike. The ground is steep and treacherous, it would be difficult enough to keep my footing if I didn’t have a bike on my shoulder. Where, I hear you ask, is this steep and demanding terrain? The Lakes? No. The Peak? No, Butser Hill in Hampshire. Yes, you read that right: Hampshire.

A quick Ride

One of the odd truths about this profession is that the pre-riding of routes is often dictated, not by my desire to ride, but by factors unrelated to riding, fitted in around my need to be places for other bits of work. This ride was on because I was due to have a meeting at Queen Elizabeth Country Park in the afternoon, so there was time to squeeze in a quick 27km riding beforehand. Perfect, for a ride that was scheduled to start for the Park.

It was a nice, bright, early March morning. The kind of morning where you start off in a jacket and then stop on the first climb of the day to take it off because you’re overheating. The kind where you reach the top of the first climb and hastily put it back on again to keep the wind out.

I can see the sea!

I can see the sea!

Actually, this morning I topped out the first climb and was treated to spectacular views out to sea and across the Downs towards the Hangers. On a warmer day I would have stopped to watch the buzzards soaring on the thermals. It was not a warmer day, so discretion kept stops to a minimum.

Snow fun when you have to hike

When I ride alone, I usually have waypoints, where I check in to make sure that, should anything go wrong, then people know where to find me. It’s all part of the safety protocols. It also means I have a pretty good idea of where I am compared to the schedule most of the time.

The first stop was due at the top of the first of three big descents for the day. On the traverse through the woods to get there, I encountered banks of snow left over from the Beast of the East that had dumped snow all over the south the week before. It was fun to plunge through the, slightly decayed, drifts.

The approach to the antennae at the top of the first drop was a different story. This had a large stream running down it that I hoped was meltwater from drifts on the summit, rather than the sheep pens up ahead. Cresting the top, I dropped the saddle and got ready to roll.

A little snow never bothered anyone...

A little snow never bothered anyone...

I know this descent relatively well, it’s a steep-ish sunken lane, loose flints and chalk all the way down. In the dry it’s a rocky rocket from top to bottom. In the wet, it’s frictionless. Today, I didn’t know what to expect. What I wasn’t expecting was a few hundred yards of deep snow piled up between the hedges on the roll in to the drop. I genuinely tried to ride it but gave up after twenty yards or so as the wheels just stuck in the snow. Pushing was even less effective. So, somewhat unexpectedly I shouldered the bike and began the first hike a bike of the day. I’ve never had to hike a bike on the flat. Every step plunged me up to my shin in snow. Suddenly the ¾ length tights seemed like a poor call as snow piled up behind the tongue of my boots. Even better was when the snow hid deep puddles of meltwater, only revealed as I plunged my foot in. Definitely Type 2 fun.

...that was no fun

Eventually, I got through and readied myself for the plunge off the scarp edge. A plunge of uncertain grip. With friends, I might have been tempted to stay off the brakes. On my own, speed was an unreliable friend, the kind that’s fun to be around but can get you into trouble quickly. Brakes are a more sensible friend in this circumstance. My approach turned out to be prudent when I encountered a stretch of gully that was filled with an off-camber snow bank. Foot out, yes. Flat out? Not so much. It was fun, in a slightly unsettling kind of way and nothing that couldn’t be cured by a lack of snow.

Ecclesiasticy

That’s not even a real word is it?

East Meon is a pretty village. Many of the villages in the Meon Valley are, so I was expecting the chocolate box houses and clear chalk stream down the high street. What I was not expecting was the Romanesque tower underneath the spire. I really like Romanesque architecture in churches, there’s something about the simplicity and robustness of the style that speaks to me, so this was a real treat. Enough of a treat to stop for a quick snack.

Time to check in again: still ahead of schedule. Good, because the steepest climb of the ride was next on the agenda.

All Saints Church East Meon

All Saints Church East Meon

It’s a real sucker-punch of a climb this. It saves all the steepness for the end. It’s a climb to keep your powder dry for as long as you can. On a good day, it’s eminently cleanable. It didn’t take long to work out that this was not that day.

There’s a dog-leg in the path that approaches it, from there the gradient begins to deceptively ramp up before you hit the climb proper. Turning the second corner I was greeted by the sight of the sunken lane filled with snow. Completely filled to the top. I reckoned it was a good four to five feet deep in places. Not something that could be described as rideable, ever.

Fortunately, evasive action was easily sorted as lots of people appeared to have used the adjacent field as an escape route. So, I rolled along above the snow chute up the edge of the field. It was bumpy and a bit unfriendly but nowhere near as bad as attempting to wade through the snow. When it abated, I was able to get back through the hedge and attempt to remount.

Sadly, I was faced with the path ahead suddenly becoming a wall. I got on, and then got off again. Then remounted and made some progress before the front wheel lifted off the ground. Careful now, until the back spun out. It was a fairly small rock step that signalled it was time to accept that there would be some pushing involved. When the gradient slackened slightly I tried again, cursing the lack of gearing that my 1x10 set up allowed me. Specifically, the lack of low gears. It just about went. An odd technique of standing up in the pedals whilst trying to keep the front wheel down and meter the power to stop the back spinning out.

Doesn't look to bad from the top, does it?

On a good day, it’s a fun challenge. Today, I was glad to see the farm at the top, knowing that a level and partly tarmacked stretch lay ahead. I was genuinely pleased by how much I’d managed to ride. I was also more than a little concerned about how tired my legs felt, given that there was still another big climb ahead.

This is supposed to be the good bit!

The next descent was not one I’m particularly familiar, that’s the point of the ride after all. One reviewer described it as “fabulous in the dry but treacherous in the wet” so I was keen to see how it had held up to the wet winter and the recent snows.

It started with a gentle descent along the shoulder of Butser Hill. It was clarty, and a bit skitey, but the amount of wheel squirm was under control. I slithered down to the fork where my trail should bear right and drop into the combe. I was ready for some slippery helter-skelter action.

Rutted Horror Show

Rutted Horror Show

What I got was a horror show. The point where the trail peeled right and dropped over the edge bore a trio of large, deep, meandering, mucky ruts that dropped into a sea of exposed roots. Given the row of barbed wire either side of the trail, there was no margin for error and no runout. It was an accident waiting to happen, and I had no idea what was beyond the blind corner. Carrying speed through the section was not a sensible course of action.

I got off and pushed down it. It was like wading through cement. My boots turned into platforms. But I got down in one piece.

It calmed down after about twenty yards so I got back on. Got off again, cleaned my boots and tried again. I rolled on down and the trail straightened up so I could see where I was going. The three ruts became one gulley, about three feet deep with an eight-inch tyre width rut at the bottom. Everything bar the rut at the bottom was covered in a skein of sticky, slippery cement-like chalk clay mud. The saving grace was a thin shelf on the right-hand shoulder which looked rideable. Just. I rolled down cautiously. As I approached the next bend the shelf disappeared into the gulley. The bike and myself went in with it and stopped, dead as the bike wedged in the hole.

A while ago I wrote about a horror-show of a local descent. This knocked it out of the park. It’s steeper, the rut is deeper and everything was covered in that horrible chunder. Unrideable doesn’t get close. The gulley was deep enough that, on the bike in the bottom of it, the edge was about level with my waist. Which made climbing out a challenge. Some grunting and swearing saw me perched on one shoulder of the gulley, with the bike on the other.

This is the rideable bit!

This is the rideable bit!

That worked until the frame accumulated so much muck that the back wheel stopped turning and slid into the hole again. There was nothing for it but to perch on the edge with the bike over my shoulder, expecting at any moment to slide into the gulley in a painful heap. It was not the most impressive moment of my biking career.

This trail is a BOAT. I’d love to see someone get a horse and carriage down it.

It did finish though.

At the bottom of the hill. That’s right, the fun descend bit was one long push/carry. The riding began when the trail flattened out. Such as it was. The trail was still marginally downhill. Actually, it was downhill enough that, occasionally, I didn’t have to pedal. Then I came round a corner to be faced with another steep quagmire. This time it was wide and deep so I just ploughed through. I went a goodly distance with my front wheel at forty-five degrees and the bike careering straight on regardless. I was quite relieved to get to the bottom of that and on a surfaced track.

Things, can only get, better

All that was left was to climb back up to where I started this descent into folly. Nae bother.

It started steep.

And then there was a tree across the path.

I moved the tree and remounted the bike after another exercise in boot cleaning to make the cleats engage.

I cursed my lack of gears, dumped the mech into its lowest setting and got on with the job of crawling my way back out of the combe.

It worked for a while.

Then another gulley opened up. I managed to stay out of it for long enough that I thought I might get away with it. When I attempted to go around a bramble bush the back wheel broke traction and slid sideways from under me.

One graceful dismount later, I was pushing again. Then I stopped and cleared the mud out of the rear triangle so the wheel would go around.

When the gradient receded, I took the opportunity to ride the bike again. And set, stoically, about winching my way to the summit. The only problem was that mud, reattaching itself to the bike, like an anchor. I got off and cleaned it and got back on again. And then got back on again. Something had to give. It turned out to be my legs. It’s not that the gradient was too steep, it was that I didn’t have the power in them to overcome the friction of the mud stuck in the frame.

There was nothing for it but to pick the bike up and…Oh my god! How much does this mud weigh? You can just do one! Seriously, this has stopped being funny. A sense of humour failure was very much on the cards.

I took a deep breath, muttered some words of encouragement and got on with the task of carrying the bike as far as it took to get to ground that was rideable. That turned out to be quite a long way. In fact, almost to the point where the treacherous descent of death from earlier had split from this trail.

Almost there. Almost there. Almost there.

The gradient eased slowly but surely. Brambles and hawthorns that could be rolled through on the way down were an irritation on the way back up. But I got there and emerged into the sunlight at the top of Butser hill. That had been horrible. But, and this is a big but, it would be cracking going down that ascent. It would be whooping good fun all the way down. In the dry.

Some lovely Downs

Last but by no means least

All that was between me and a hot brew was the descent of Butser Hill.

Some descents are sinuous, sweeping back and forth. Some descents are steep, requiring you to hang on. Some descents are rocky requiring skill and commitment.

Butser Hill is none of those things.

What Buster is, is a wide swathe of grass tilted to about forty-five degrees. It’s a wide-open plummet to the bottom. You can see everything that’s coming so it’s not stressful. And it’s fast. I was looking forward to it.

Being downland, the point at which ascent becomes descent isn’t necessarily clear. It ramps up (or should that be down) gradually, allowing you to pick up speed almost without noticing.

All of a sudden you realise you’re down about mach 3 and have just remembered the gate halfway down. With a little planning, and a friend willing to sacrifice their descent, you can send someone on ahead to open the gate and give everyone else a clean run at it. Even so, it’s not a wide gate and I’ve never had the nerve to stay off the brakes through the gap.

I was on my own and didn’t expect this. I arrived shortly after a runner who, very kindly, held the gate open for me allowing me to only slow down.

Then open the taps. The only obstacles are the rabbit holes. Stay off the brakes, keep the weight in the right place and make the jump to light speed.

By modern enduro standards, Buster is nothing special. Given that, it’s important to say I’ve never failed to enjoy the sheer, unbridled speed and calmness of that drop. Big grin every time.

And this time was no different. All that awfulness was left on the other side of the hill and replaced with the glow of a great ride. I rolled into the car park buzzing and just in time for a quick wash before my meeting.

Homework

That awful descent on the other side of Butser is clearly not a seasonal issue. It definitely wasn’t like that last time I rode it. Some sunshine is not going to cure the damage to that trail. So, I returned home and pondered the map.

There is a solution. There’s an answer. The clue is in this article.

If you want to see this ride when it’s in season with all the bad bits taken out, then why not join us in May as the Secret South Downs series heads to Butser Hill.

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Rides, 0 comments
This isn’t fun any more: lifting the bonnet preparing rides

This isn’t fun any more: lifting the bonnet preparing rides

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.

As Hampshire as it gets

It looked like this in summer!

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.

Do I have go riding?

Do I have go riding?

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 fine place to break down. In summer

A fine place to break down. In summer

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.

Look at the lovely scenery

Look at the lovely scenery

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

Dirty bike 1
Dirty bike 2

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.

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Rides, Thoughts, 0 comments
I hate exercise, I really do

I hate exercise, I really do

I\'m going to let you into a secret: I don’t actually enjoy exercise. It bores me and I find it really difficult to motivate myself.

I know that swimming will help loosen up my shoulders, I know that it will mobilise my back, and yet I find it really easy to find reasons not to go. I never have enough time, or there are more important things I could be doing. The honest answer at the root of this reluctance is that I don’t want to go, I get bored of going back and forth very quickly.

I\'m the same with running: I did the Great South Run in 2008 with a colleague. He\'s taken up running and does marathons. I put my running shoes away in the cupboard, never to be seen again. I was persuaded to do a 10K run in the autumn, my preparation consisted entirely of finding those shoes again and nothing else. I enjoyed it because of the people I was running with and the reason I did it. At the end Mel asked me: “so, will you take up running?” I said “no” and took the shoes off again.

Pay no attention to the man in the shorts

I\'ve just run to catch the train, that was plenty for me. I don’t like running.

“but Andy,” I hear you ask “how can you not like exercise and yet ride a bike for a living? I mean, look at you in the main image of this post: you’re having fun doing exercise.”

Good question.

Enjoying it

Look: having fun

The answer is simple really: I ride my bike because I enjoy it. I am fit enough that I can enjoy the rides I want to do, I put in miles so I can enjoy myself when I ride. The motivation has nothing to do with exercise or fitness, it\'s about enjoyment. It’s the same reason I haven’t been a member of a gym for over a decade. It has no appeal.

I have no idea what my VO2 max or lactate threshold are. I have very little interest in knowing my training zones are. I\'m baffled when I see people out on their bikes suffering their way around a ride. Where\'s the fun in that?

I’ll admit that I enjoy being physically active. I\'m very much a kinaesthetic learner. I enjoy the physical sensation of the movement on the bike. I love the feeling of motion I get when I ride fast downhill. I thrill at the feeling of the wind on my face (except, possibly, in the depths of winter when I\'m less enamoured of it). I\'ll admit I even enjoy the challenge of a steep climb and feeling out of breath at the top. It\'s all fun.

Tongue-out flat-out

Weee!

The sights and sounds of the countryside are a pretty special reward for getting out too. The scenery, the fauna and flora are all worth the effort.

That’s what gets me out to the shed to grab the bike in the morning.

So, when I say I understand your reticence to start exercise, it\'s the truth. When you say you find it difficult to convince yourself to get out and do some exercise, I get it, I really do.

I’ve been told that people are very bad at doing things that are good for us. We are much better at doing things we enjoy. Which is why backpedalling isn\'t about getting fit. It\'s about getting outside and enjoying yourself. It\'s about seeing some special things and going some special places.

That’s why I run the Rusty Rides (warning: last year\'s link at the moment) in January and February: because they are fun. So Why not join us next week and see how being active can be enjoyed rather than endured?

The fitness will take care of itself.

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Uncategorised, 0 comments
Off the beaten track: the hidden archaeology of Avebury

Off the beaten track: the hidden archaeology of Avebury

Where is the best place in the world to find both quality riding and stunning archaeology? I may just have the answer to that.

I am sitting on the massive embankments of Oldbury Castle in Wiltshire, gazing out at the landscape laid out before me to the south west.

Two things are apparent. The first is that this landscape is full to bursting point with archaeology and the relics of thousands of years of human occupation. The second thing is that the landscape is rapidly disappearing under the curtain of an advancing, and heavy looking downpour.

What makes this moment ironic is that part of this route was inspired by the work of Tom Hutton, famous mountain bike routes expert. In his article about the route, he describes sitting in almost precisely the same spot, watching the rain come in and experiencing that complete lack of friction that wet chalk brings to a ride.

I thought briefly about describing this irony to Mel, but erred in favour of diving into my bag to fetch out my waterproof and suggesting we get on before everything became too slippery to ride.

Cider: the ideal preparation for archaeology

I’ve been itching to do some rides that focus on the incredible archaeology of the Avebury World Heritage Site for some time. There is some cracking riding to be had and there is a lot more to the area than the honeypots (incredible though they are). All I needed was a route and an excuse to get out.

The route has been percolating in my head for a while, but Avebury is just far enough from home that I had to really want to go there. The excuse presented itself in a friend’s birthday party in deepest Herefordshire from which Avebury was only a very short diversion on the way home.

unloading

Certainly not what most people were unloading

The plan was laid, the bikes were loaded and we headed off to celebrate.

In hindsight, staying up until four in the morning drinking rhubarb cider and gin (not in the same glass) might not have been the most sensible preparation. Fortunately, I was not due to drive so we were safe.

That part of Herefordshire, near Ross on Wye, has a landscape that just screams to the mountain biker that there is some seriously good singletrack to be had in the woods and on the scarps. On any other day, we might have allowed ourselves to be swayed from our path and gone exploring red sandstone paths instead of chalk tracks. But not today.

A date with history

Apparently, we weren’t the only ones. One day, I shall go to Avebury and the car park will not be rammed. This was not that day. We arrived twenty minutes before the campers were due to vacate the overflow car park, so it was bedlam. Somehow, we managed to grab a space that had somewhere to unload the bikes. We received some properly peculiar looks from the people there to see the stones as we unpacked and saddled up. It seems that many people regarded the couple of hundred yards to the henge as exercise enough and only the half-crazed would do any more.

 

Crossing the people line

There is a line, at most attractions, beyond which most people do not go. One moment you are tripping over the world and his dog, the next you are in blissful solitude. We found the people line by pushing our bikes through the other gate out of the village church yard. From bank holiday Sunday to midweek morning in about two yards.

Silbury Hill: always impressive

Mel was really impressed

Now it was safe to do so, we saddled up and went for a ride. First up, a gentle roll round the back of people’s gardens on a National Cycle Route that seemed to have less traffic than our cul-de-sac at home.

Crossing a small bridge over a dry river bed, I looked left and was greeted by the best view of Silbury Hill I’ve seen in a very long time. One of the hardest questions to answer in archaeology is “why?” Why did people in the past build the incredible things they did? Sometimes they leave helpful evidence, sometimes we can make an educated guess, but sometimes, we have to admit that we really don’t have a clue.

Silbury falls, squarely, into this latter group. It’s a honking great artificial hill that served, as far as we can tell, no actual purpose. Archaeologists have been prodding it for hundreds of years trying to get it to give up its secrets. The hill stays resolutely taciturn. I love the sheer bizarreness of it. So we stopped and stared again, hoping for inspiration.

However, it was not the only archaeology of the day, so our bemusement gave way to pedalling.

Messing about in BOATs

Speaking of enigmas, BOATs (Byways Open to All Traffic) are tricky from a route planning perspective. Those fat green crosses on a 1:25k map can hide a multitude of evils on the ground. Some of them are completely overgrown jungle clearance exercises. Others are 4x4 chewed swampy morasses that can eat bike and rider without pause for thought. Other still, are wide gravel tracks. There is simply no way of knowing until you get there.

Our first piece of off-roading for the day was along one such path. Admittedly, I could have paid more attention to the “Voluntary closure” sign. Instead, I ploughed on to see what there was. What there was, was a pair of tractor swallowing ruts, with a narrow ridge in between. This narrow ridge had an even narrower rut running down the middle. This path was overgrown by tall grass, which hid the bombhole-like depressions every few yards or so. It managed to combine a feeling of claustrophobia with one of exposure. Later in the day, with our eyes in, it would probably have been a lot of fun to pump through these hollows. Fifteen minutes into the ride, it conspired to throw us off our game and require total concentration. It was only a few hundred yards long, but we both breathed a sigh of relief when we got to the end of it. It was, fortunately, not a sign of things to come.

The long and the short of it

The climb to Oldbury Castle is a long, drawn out affair. It’s not particularly steep to begin with. Much of the first leg is along the Old Bath Road, looking down on the “new” A4. Contrary to the popular image of Downland riding, there was plenty to engage. An unexpected beechwood section had roots galore and a few features that, had we been going the other way, might have served as quite good jumps. Sadly, we weren’t coming back this way. So, Onwards and upwards. There was a fun little bit that was as close to a pump track as I’ve seen in the wild. There may have been whooping. Actually, there was a lot of Mel shouting “hole!” each time the trail pointed down.

The long road to Oldbury

The long road to Oldbury

However, this fun had to come to an end. The trail turned left and stopped skirting the issue to point straight at the Iron Age ramparts on the hilltop. Conversation stopped and we dug in to getting to the top. The only pause was where one of us was surprised by a cow. Don’t ask. I cursed my non-wide-range 1x10 setup when I ran out of gears early on, forced to stand up and pound the pedals to get to the top. Mel, meanwhile, spun away on her “old school” 3x9 drivetrain. I needed more gears, bigger lungs or better legs rather than relying on belligerence where finesse was the required approach.

My Eyes! My Eyes!

It was worth it though. On arrival at the summit we slumped on the ground and gorged on eccles cakes, while we took in the view.

It's full of old stuff

It went on for miles. Everywhere we looked there was more and more archaeology. Yes, Avebury is jaw-droppingly impressive. But there is a lot more to this landscape, and this view nailed that home. We could see for miles. Listing them doesn’t do it justice, but any one of the many monuments we could see would have been remarkable anywhere else. Here there was just layer upon layer of occupation from the Neolithic to the Second World War. There were lines of Bronze Age Barrows, next to Saxon ramparts. There were medieval lynchets next to a wartime radar station.

There was also a ribbon of white running down from our feet to the plateau below. It swept down the hill between two banks in a particularly inviting way. It would have been rude not to. So down we plunged, sweeping back and forth as the track swung left and right. I rounded one corner fast enough that stopping for the gate was not entirely under control, but got it open in time to let Mel plough through at full tilt.

When we regrouped at the bottom, I asked how it was. All I got in response was a grin. I’m guessing that was a vote of approval. I know I was grinning. I’m very much looking forward to showing off that particular gem.

The Orange wash of deception

Some climbs, you see from a long way away, getting closer, and closer until you have to just get on with it. This one appeared, almost literally, out of the blue. It’s almost impossible to see contour lines under the orange border wash of access land. The Bridleway I had identified as our route south was nowhere to be seen as we rolled along. There was only a vertiginous scarp edge and an ephemeral path through a gate heading straight up. Oh. We stopped to check the map while a group of urchins swung on the gate and asked us about our bikes. I looked at the map, looked at the near vertical impression of a path and back at the map again. Bugger.

“Do you think you can ride up that?” asked one of the gate-swinging comedians.

“I bet he can’t” was the reply from his little sister.

“I’ll hold the gate open for you mister.” Said the smallest.

“Let’s see, shall we?” I said, clipping in and heading off towards certain embarrassment.

Straight away, I was uncomfortably aware of the puny size of my 36 tooth cassette. Uncomfortably aware, and resolutely using it, occasionally vainly trying to downshift. Within fifty yards I was out of the saddle, desperately trying to balance the opposing needs to keep the front wheel on the ground, the back wheel gripping and the pedals turning. There as grunting. There was probably swearing (albeit quietly so the children didn’t hear). My vision narrowed to a tunnel, focussed on the gate at the top of the hill.

That's definitely singletrack

That's definitely singletrack

A scant handful of yards from the top, crossing a small track, my back wheel began to give up its grip. “You can properly do one!” (Or possibly something much less polite) I shouted at it, willing the knobs to find something to grip. Amazingly, they did and I powered my way to the gate, sufficiently pleased with myself that I thought about hoisting the bike above my head á la sand people on Tatooine.

Then I put everything down and turned around to see Mel pushing up the hill. It was only fair to go back and offer to help. And to help the lost parents of the gate-dwelling urchins find their way back to the car.

Why is this dyke cross?

I’d spotted the Wansdyke on the map. More as an interesting-looking section of trail than as a feature of archaeological interest. Approaching it now, all thoughts of the trail were forgotten. It is a massive bank and ditch cutting across the landscape for mile after mile. When I say massive it is, even now, big enough that I can’t see out of the ditch. We traced it over a series of ridges to the southeast, like a giant millipede that had fallen asleep. It seems to be a Saxon boundary marker, though no one is quite sure what boundary it marks as it runs squarely through the middle of Wessex from Berkshire, through Wiltshire and to points west. It’s such colossal thing that, once you’ve spotted it, it’s impossible not to see both on the ground and on the map.

There is, though, only so long you can spend standing, stupefied by the works of your forebears. Especially when there are bikes to be ridden. In this case, the bridleway runs along the bottom of the ditch for a while, like a grassy Death Star trench with echoes of the old Jump Gully at Swinley Forest. We whooped our way down the ditch, boosting off lips and pumping through depressions until, all of a sudden, the path popped out onto the lip and the outside world was restored.

Weeee!

Weeee!

The trail was transformed from enclosed to airy as it clung to the edge of the ditch and snaked its way down from the hilltop. If anyone says there is no singletrack in the Downs, this mile or so of trail will blow that perception out of the water. Grins all round were short lived as we flowed straight into a rather rude section of climbing and trials obstacles through a shelter belt to get onto the track that would start us on our journey home.

What goes down

Remember that descent from Oldbury Castle? The one that was steep and swoopy?

Well, that lay between us and home. I can assure you that it is just as steep going up as it is going down. We hunkered down and got on with it Mel spinning with finesse while I vowed to buy a wide-range cassette the moment I got home. Some climbs are harder than expected, others are much easier. This one was precisely as horrible as I was expecting. It went on for almost exactly as long as I thought it would and I felt just as battered as I feared when I reached the top.

Which leads us to sitting on the ramparts, inhaling another Eccles cake, watching the rain come in.

The first big dods of rain smacked into our bags and we looked at each other. One the one hand, there was a chunk of the ride still to do, which may contain brilliant riding like we had experienced already. On the other hand it was about to be a slippery as a bar of soap in the bath. Oh, and it may well turn into that special type of clay mud that is the reason Downs riders use mud tyres all winter.

I don’t recall much discussion before we set off directly for home, down the path we climbed up from Avebury. There was a certain hint of time trial about the return leg, going as quickly as felt safe to reach the fun bits before they became like a greased ice rink.

The drop from the fort may well be a cart track but, send it at speed and it’s a hoot. Mind out for the gate though, especially if grip is at a premium. I managed to use the gate to stop rather than as a launch pad for a re-creation of Danny Mac’s front flip. Just.

 

Right turn around yet another Bronze Age barrow and pile into that pump track section. By now the rain had settled in for the afternoon and the prevailing wind was blowing the rain directly into my ear hole! It was deeply distracting from the matter at hand.

The we dropped into that shelter belt of trees we had lamented not riding down earlier. It turned out to be just as much of a giggle as it had looked. A roller coaster of roots rollers and kickers was taken in at breakneck speed. It was over too soon and we both popped out into the wind and the rain.

 

Heads down for the short section along the A4, we had the scent of the car, the pub and dry clothes in our nostrils now. That’s not to say that we didn’t stop on the Kennet bridge to take in the view of Silbury one last time.

The car park was much less busy when we got back and dumped wet gear on the grass behind the car. For all the helter-skelter nature of the run home, it had been a cracking afternoon’s riding. Never too hard, never too steep but always engaging. When the trail did not require full attention, the scenery did. There are few places you can ride anywhere in the world where the sheer depth of human habitation in the landscape is so obvious, where the marks of generations and generations are so many.

Either alone would have made it a top day out. Both together? Now that’s a little bit of magic.

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Rides, 0 comments
Rusty Ride

Rusty Ride

So, the New year has arrived and you’ve decided it’s time for a new you. There is an alternative to the gym that gets you outside and having fun.

Maybe you got a new mountain bike for Christmas, you fancy riding it somewhere nice but have no idea where to start.

Now is the season of resolutions. Whether you want to raise your pulse or a smile, we’ve got you covered.

Whatever your reason for deciding to get on a bike in January, Backpedalling’s rusty rides are for you. It’s all about having fun riding your bike so that you want to do it again.

We’ll be out for an hour or so at a relaxed pace, taking in a mixture of trails and quiet roads. The ups are fairly gentle but will get your pulse going. The downs will have you freewheeling and grinning.

Not only that but we’ll finish at a café so you can sit down, chat and refuel if you fancy. If there’s a more enjoyable way of getting a little exercise, I haven’t found it yet.

FIND OUT MORE

Join the ride

Rusty Ride

Rusty Ride

So, the New year has arrived and you’ve decided it’s time for a new you. There is an alternative to the gym that gets you outside and having fun.

Maybe you got a new mountain bike for Christmas, you fancy riding it somewhere nice but have no idea where to start.

Now is the season of resolutions. Whether you want to raise your pulse or a smile, we’ve got you covered.

Whatever your reason for deciding to get on a bike in January, Backpedalling’s rusty rides are for you. It’s all about having fun riding your bike so that you want to do it again.

We’ll be out for an hour or so at a relaxed pace, taking in a mixture of trails and quiet roads. The ups are fairly gentle but will get your pulse going. The downs will have you freewheeling and grinning.

Not only that but we’ll finish at a café so you can sit down, chat and refuel if you fancy. If there’s a more enjoyable way of getting a little exercise, I haven’t found it yet.

FIND OUT MORE

Join the ride

Rusty Ride

Rusty Ride

So, the New year has arrived and you’ve decided it’s time for a new you. There is an alternative to the gym that gets you outside and having fun.

Maybe you got a new mountain bike for Christmas, you fancy riding it somewhere nice but have no idea where to start.

Now is the season of resolutions. Whether you want to raise your pulse or a smile, we’ve got you covered.

Whatever your reason for deciding to get on a bike in January, Backpedalling’s rusty rides are for you. It’s all about having fun riding your bike so that you want to do it again.

We’ll be out for an hour or so at a relaxed pace, taking in a mixture of trails and quiet roads. The ups are fairly gentle but will get your pulse going. The downs will have you freewheeling and grinning.

Not only that but we’ll finish at a café so you can sit down, chat and refuel if you fancy. If there’s a more enjoyable way of getting a little exercise, I haven’t found it yet.

FIND OUT MORE

Join the ride