South Downs

Archaeo-Safari: Stane Street

Archaeo-Safari: Stane Street

Stane Street was the Roman Road that connected Chichester to London nearly two thousand years ago. How many rides use an actual Roman Road as the core of their route?

As ever, we’ll combine this with fine riding through the beechwoods and Houghton Forest where singletrack is waiting to be ridden.

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
Up and Ovington: trail of the unexpected

Up and Ovington: trail of the unexpected

Red and Gold

60’s English folk revival band Fairport Convention play a song called Red and Gold all about the Civil War battle of Cropredy Bridge, Oxfordshire, in 1644. For the last two hours of riding I’d had it rattling around my head.

I wasn’t even in Oxfordshire. I was in deepest Hampshire, somewhere just to the north of the South Downs Way near the village of Cheriton. And yet, there it was, tumbling over and over in my head. Aside from anything else, I was stunned I could remember the words: I hadn’t heard it for about twenty years.

So why was it in my head? Actually, there are a few things that need to be cleared up first.

Ovington and out

That’s right: I’ve got a whole blog post of rotten Ovington puns, so stay with me.

This ride was a recce for a ride I’m planning to lead later in the summer. The plan for the rides is simple: good rides that start and finish at good local pubs. The Bush in Ovington is a perfect candidate. It’s got loads of parking, it’s right by the Itchen, it’s got a fantastic garden, good food and, importantly, serves food. All it needed was a good ride to go with it.

A little while ago I spotted a bridleway that, on paper, had the potential to be a top-notch descent. It started off in a wood and then ran down a track almost to the back door of the pub. It looked as though it had a nice gradient and the makings of a good’un but, until ridden, it would remain Schrodinger’s descent. It could be either excellent or awful and, until the probabilities collapsed it would be both.

Linking it up into a ride from home had proven frustrating, until I realised that it would work much better as the final descent of a ride that finished at the pub. Thus, the plan was hatched. A loop that started and finished at the pub and finished with this Schrodinger’s descent.

There’s something very odd about arriving at a pub long before it opens. There I was, in the car park unpacking the car while the Wadworth’s delivery man looked on, perplexed. I was on my own. I find it’s best on a recce: that way, if it’s awful no-one else has to endure it.

So, at about half nine I rolled off along the road towards Alresford. Some rides bode well from the off, and this was one of those. It was gloriously sunny and the “quiet back road” seemed to be exactly that. I was smiling as I rode along, remembering that this was “the office” for the morning. It really doesn’t get much better.

The road to Ovington

The road to Ovington

Expect the unexpected

Sometimes, the most innocuous-looking bits of bridleway turn out to be brilliant. The bar for this was set high very early when a piece of linking path between two roads turned out to be a steep, wooded tunnel of a trail. It was maybe 200 metres but it was enough to get the “singletrack grin” out. This was looking up already.

Trails of the unexpected

Trails of the unexpected

Then there was a ford. Not a little, dribble of water across the road, bit of a splash, ford. No, this was a full on, the river crosses the road, you’re going to get wet feet if you pedal, and you’ll have pedal to get across, ford. Fortunately, I spotted a wee footbridge just before I took the plunge. And then I turned around and rode back through it, just to see if I got wet feet. Thirty seconds later, with sopping feet, I decided to use the footbridge to get back. Having said that, the temperature was already in the high 20s so there are worse things than wet feet.

The next bit of the ride pootled alongside watercress beds and couldn’t have been more idyllic. Then there was a golf course to cross. Paths that cross golf courses are always something of an enigma. They might be lovely, the might be awful, they might be fenced off and surfaced to death. Following the theme of things coming up roses, this one was lovely, a little path that snaked round the back of a couple of tees before disappearing into the woods. I did get a couple of odd looks as well as cheerful waves from the ladies on the course. I suspect there were equal levels of bafflement on both parts.

The Battle of Cheriton

One of the difficulties about route planning is choosing between a plethora of options with no obvious “right answer”. Does this bit of path justify the road detour? Is this track just a farm track or something more interesting? Is that track going to be an impassable wall of vegetation? Sometimes, the only way to find out is by trial and, often, error.

It was on one of these speculative detours to see if a trail was worth it that I happened upon a war memorial. It didn’t look anything special but, as I rode past, it turned out to be a memorial for a Civil War battle fought here in 1644. In fact, it was part of a trail of interpretation panels that told the story of the Battle of Cheriton. Serendipitously, my ride would take me past virtually all of those trail panels.

Cheriton war memorial

Cheriton war memorial

Which takes me back to Red and Gold a song about another battle in 1644.

The view wasn’t bad either, especially from the bench with a musket carved into the seat.

Historical curiosity sated, it was time to ride again.

Civil war memorials aside, this detour seemed to be coming up roses. I was riding along a field edge path, congratulating myself on having found a “really good” field edge path when the nettles suddenly got a lot bigger. I was concentrating so much on not getting stung or having the bars ripped out of my hand by the cow parsley that I completely failed to notice the bloody-great hole in the ground.

Fortunately for me it turned out to be a heavily vegetated bomb-hole but I was forced to just suck up the nettle stings to ride it out. It was better than the alternative. You know what they say about pride…The actual field edge seemed greatly preferable after all.

Lost and found

I spotted a trio of walkers coming towards me and braved myself for the usual “checks” that I was where I should be. Instead, they really wanted to have a go on the bike. “Is that some kind of suspension on the back then?” “How heavy is it?” “Is it made of carbon?” “Can I have a go?” “Those tyres are quite chunky, aren’t they?” we then swapped advice on the trail ahead before heading on our way.

Later, I met another pair of ramblers who, armed with a bad printout of the 1:50k map, had set out to walk the wayfarer’s way and, consequently, weren’t really sure where they were. So, out came the map and some hasty retooling of their route commenced. “Are you watching the tour?” asked one of them. “I’ve only started recently, but it’s fascinating, isn’t it?” It seemed that I was destined to meet only people who were cycling enthusiasts.

Still, good Samaritan work done, I had a ride to get on with it.

Green for go

Hampshire is famous for its green lanes, a series of tracks that criss-cross certain parts of the county. They are now variously BOATs, restricted byways, bridleways and footpaths but what they all have in common is that you can discern virtually nothing of them from a map. You might get more of a clue from an aerial photo but you really never know what you might find (remind me at some point to tell you about the night ride where we discovered that some gypsies had decided to use one as a corral for their horses!) on the ground. This ride was taking in a fair number of them, so it was time to press the button on the trail lottery machine. I plummeted down one that was pleasant enough without being enough to write home about (umm, what are you doing now?) and turned into another at the end.

Green lane goodness

Green lane goodness

This one turned out to be quite overgrown and a little stingy. I was having concerns about it when suddenly it opened up. For reasons unknown, persons unknown had decided to mow this bit of lane to a width of about 2 metres. It was like a lawn, and down the middle snaked a sinew of singletrack. That never happens. Never. And yet, there I was cruising along without a care in the world. It really doesn’t get much better than this.

At this point the folly of riding through the ford made itself clear. As well as getting my feet wet, I seemed to have washed every drop of lube off my chain, so very pedal stroke was accompanied by a slightly agonised graunch noise from the chain. It wasn’t awful but it was loud enough to come as a surprise after any period of freewheeling.

Probably the oddest sight of the day was when I surprised a teenager who had clearly thought he was well hidden, lying down on his garden wall, having a fly smoke! “Morning!” He nearly fell off the wall. Maybe he shouldn’t have had his headphones in: he’d definitely have heard my chain coming.

A detour through a wood brought another glorious surprise, this time one to save for later. Whilst swinging in and out of the beech trees (definitely not imagining that scene from Return of the Jedi) I realised that the ground was entirely covered with the remains of bluebells. It’s a completely anonymous bit of woodland on the edge of a field but, in April it will be a wall-to-wall carpet of blue. That’s going down in the “bluebell rides” calendar for next year.

Original Source

Before I got all distracted by the Civil War, the “object” of coming down here was to ride past the source of the Itchen. The same river as runs through the pub garden and the ford in Alresford as well as through the middle of Winchester. It seemed like a nice theme to tie through the ride. I thought it would be a nice place to have a sit down too.

Unfortunately, in the height of summer, the source of the Itchen is basically a patch of mud in wood. It’s a very pleasant wee bit of trail that rolls by it through.

It was time for a banana: all that exploring the byways of Cheriton and stopping to chat to ramblers had put me about forty minutes behind schedule and I was beginning to feel hungry. I was also uncomfortably aware that one of the highest points of the ride now lay between me and the pub.

SDW

Time to roll on. I could feel a pint and lunch calling me. Cheriton is chocolate-box in a way that only the chalk valleys of the South Downs can manage. Right down to the crystal-clear Itchen, now an actual stream, babbling through the middle of the village green. It was definitely making a babbling noise: I could even hear it above the sound of my chain rattling. I ignored the looks of the roadies at said rattling chain as they passed me.

I suppose that the name “Hill Houses” should have been a clue, still the 35 metres of climbing in half a kilometre was a rude treat. This was the first time I could feel the miles in the legs.

The lack of shade meant that I was beginning to feel the burn on the back of my neck as much as in my legs. I knew that there would be precious little shade between here and the finish. My target was the South Downs Way, the elephant in the room of Hampshire trails. Whenever you mention you ride mountain bikes the first question you get asked is “have you ridden the South Downs Way?” Telling them it’s not actually that interesting for significant chunks and that you’d rather be riding singletrack in the woods is a recipe for confusion.

South Downs Way from the woods

South Downs Way as seen from the woods

Either way, it’s a good way of covering ground and was the best way to get to that descent I was looking forward to. So, head down and get on with it. There was the brief distraction of passing the crews building the course for an international motocross event, but I was now focussed on getting to that descent and, thence, to the pub. And ignoring the increasingly oppressive heat.

It was all going so well

I should have known it couldn’t all go well.

There are some farms that just exude the feeling that they would rather people didn’t use this particular right of way. The gate into the farm at the beginning of the bridleway had two separate latches. And, in spite of being quite clean, it smelled atrocious. Still, the lane away was easy to find and not too overgrown. The gate at the end was falling apart and barely peered out from the nettles. In fact, I had to stand in the nettles to close it again. They really didn’t want people going down here.

Rolling through the woods wasn’t too bad. The path wasn’t particularly lovely and the frequent “private wood: keep out” signs didn’t add to the sense of welcome. A left turn took me off the traverse and into the descent.

Or, at least, it should have. That turn brought me face to face with a wall of nettles and cow parsley. There might have been a small cleft to indicate where the path went but I was going to get stung. A lot. Sure enough, the next kilometre was an exercise in forbearance. The highlight being the bramble that wrapped itself around my chest and brought me to a halt. At least I didn’t fall off into the nettles and brambles.

Eventually, the gradient began to dip down and I began to pick up some speed. The wood was dark enough to keep the nettles down as the sides of the path closed in to form a hollow way. Suddenly the wood was left behind and I was plummeting down the bottom of a dark cleft in the hillside. This was more like it.

Maybe I should have smelled trouble when I saw that the Strava segment was called “Temple of Doom”. Hampshire doesn’t really do committing, technical descents. Sinuous, yes. Twisty, yes. Even steep. But not really committing.

That’s what I thought anyway. The bottom of the path became increasingly rooty. With no lateral options, the only choice was what speed to hit them at. Then the hollow narrowed to a cleft and was clogged with leaves so those roots became invisible. I was taking a battering. That cleft suddenly became a washed-out ravine, a couple of feet deep and only just wider than my feet. I felt, rather than saw, the lattice of roots passing at warp speed. A part of my brain not concentrating on staying on the bike was glad I wasn’t on the hardtail.

Ovington you

Clearly, this path becomes a torrent when it rains, the power of the water turning roots into square-edged hits that neither rider nor suspension could react to quickly enough. It was a case of plough on and tough it out over and over again. A deepening of the ravine meant that I had to bail up the sides of the path onto a narrow terrace, hoping that I wouldn’t lose traction. The gradient shallowed and eventually the battering came to the end as I popped out onto the quiet back road relieved that it was all over. That meant that everything calmed down enough to notice the glow of multiple nettle stings up my arms and legs.

Was it really that bad? It was certainly a rutted, rooty horror show and the woods at the top need someone to go in with a strimmer. Maybe it was just the contrast with how amazing the rest of the ride had been.

And so, to the pub

The good news was that I was now a matter of a few hundred yards from the pub.

The pub, which had been deserted when I left, was now rammed. Virtually every table was busy as I sloped in, dirty, sweaty and tired but I managed to get a table in the shade and also managed to procure beer.

Post ride refuel: chips on their way

Post ride refuel: chips on their way

All is right with the world again.

The moral of the tale?

Expect the unexpected. Hope for good trails where there don’t appear to be any, and don’t pin all your hopes for a ride on a single bit of trail about which you don’t really know anything.

Since getting back, I have, unsurprisingly, been on Strava again. It seems all the good times on “Temple of Doom” were set before 2016. I wonder if the condition of the trail has changed.

However, the real moral of the story is that there are some fabulous trails out there in the most unassuming of places.

Ovington you: A call to action

It’s lovely that I get to sneak out on a week day and go for a ride like this, but that’s not the real reason.

The real reason is that I want to show you this ride for yourselves. So keep an eye on the calendar and you can have your very own taste of Ovington.

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Rides, 0 comments
In the Dark: mountain biking at night

In the Dark: mountain biking at night

I love riding in the dark. It’s born of necessity but I still get a kick out of it whenever I strap lights on and go riding at night.

Why born of necessity?

Well. If you want to ride your bike between, say, September and March then you have to accept that the days are shorter. If you can’t get out at the weekends then, realistically, that means riding in the evening.

The combination of riding in the evening and shorter days means one thing: you end up riding in the dark. Thus, being prepared to go out at night is a necessity if you want your midweek ride to survive the winter.

Do you remember the first time?

I remember the first time I rode in the dark. I was living in Glasgow and had gone through a summer of evening rides before I realised that September might be a little different.

Back then, lights were 13amp halogen bulbs that turned everything a kind of mucky yellow, like sodium street lights. I was terrified. I was hooked. Trails I’d ridden all summer suddenly became completely different. Everything came on me more quickly and peripheral vision was long gone. It brought the trails back to life. It was like riding them for the first time all over again. It was brilliant.

In all honesty, those lights were rubbish. As were set I bought to replace them. The light that replaced those were a different beast altogether.

The dark place

One of the things I love about night riding is that feeling that the trails are different. I have to learn them again. I don’t remember this bend being as tight in the daylight. I certainly don’t remember that branch being as low. The reality is that, when you can’t see as far or as wide, that you see things later, prepare later and react later. So everything feels much more immediate. That feeling of speed, even knowing that it’s an illusion, is intoxicating. That cone of light is the only thing that exists. Everything else is inky blackness. It forces me to focus on what’s in front of me rather than the scenery and to concentrate on where I’m going.

There is a truth to the saying that you only know a trail properly when you’ve ridden it at night.

It’s a more visceral experience. There’s one trail I ride with a bomb-hole on it and a slightly tricky entry. We all know it’s there (except when we forget) and set up for it. In the dark, you can’t see it coming until very late so the lip seems to appear out of nowhere. And everything beyond that lip is an abyss of blackness. The thing about the light coming from your helmet or your handlebars is that shadows are razor sharp and pitch black. If your light cannot get to it, then you cannot see it. So any kind of lip, kicker or even root is suddenly highlighted against a black screen and grows to titanic proportions. I know it’s fine, I know I’ve ridden it and know exactly what’s in that shadow. It’s just that I have to believe and take it on trust right now.

Do you think we’re alone now?

Another of the joys of riding at night is that no one else is out. Except for that time when we met people husky sledging in the woods at night, but that’s another story. Everyone else thinks that you have to be unhinged to be out. Either that or they’re tucked up in front of the telly. It feels rebellious and subversive just being out. Especially when you add extra environmental hurdles like cold, wet or mud. It feels almost naughty, even though it’s not. It means this is our private adventure, grabbed while other people are indoors doing normal things.

It also means there’s a good chance you’ve got the trails to yourself, which is much less likely during the day.

Don’t look now but I think we’re being followed

Actually, I know what the best thing about being out is.

It’s not the extra adrenaline of sensory deprivation.

Nor is it my inner rebel rejoicing in being non-conformist.

It’s the wildlife.

Whenever I go out, there’s a good chance of seeing deer, rooks, buzzards and an array of diurnal wildlife. It’s a joy of passing (relatively) quietly through the landscape.

Imagine that at night. Riding through the woods listening to the tawny owls hooting away. Barn owls screeching above the fields. Seeing the eyes of deer deep in the trees reflecting in the lights. I have even seen a stoat or two on occasion. Mice running across the trail in front of me.

One of the real treats of winter is when a tawny appears from the trees to fly along beside the bike. It’s happened a few times and every single one is a treasure. They emerged from the trees by the path, banked sharply in the light and before gliding along by my shoulder or my front wheel. Each time was maybe twenty yards or so but a fabulous experience.

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco)

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco)

In fact that was what I was doing when I had the best wildlife encounter of my life. An owl had appeared as I was out on my own. It was gliding down the path a few feet in front of my face. I was rejoicing in the moment of synchronicity when I heard a grunt in front of me, looked up and whammed the anchors on. There, sat in the middle of the path was a big badger. It was sitting down with a look that said “are you going to get out of my way? I’m going up there.” We hung there, transfixed for what seemed like ages before I stepped aside to allow it to waddle past. A begrudging grunt of thanks was all I got as it disappeared into the blackness.

badger

badger

A step in the dark

Why am I telling you this now?

Last week I got to try something new. Hargroves Cycles and Exposure Lights put on an event to showcase their wares. The event was simple: come and ride round the trails at the local trail centre with the builders (the QECP trail collective) in the dark and stop for a beer and a burger before going home.

So, a chance to ride red graded trails by torchlight. I’ve been meaning to get out there and do that for a while. Now was the opportunity. I know the trails pretty well by daylight. I also know there’s a reasonable amount of air time, which is always intimidating in the dark. Still, nothing ventured…

…It was cracking. The trails are every bit as good in the dark. The twists and turns through the beech trees seemed to come thick and fast, every take off was like launching into a black hole. It felt like I was doing about mach 10. Added to that it was a clear, cold January night, dropping to about -2 before we finished. The trails were frozen solid with grip to die for.

The trail building people need a massive vote of thanks for taking the rolling downs and weaving something special through the trees. It is every bit as good when you can’t see the scenery as it is in the height of summer.

I will definitely be back. I will definitely be persuading my riding buddies that it’s worth the hour and a half round trip.

The bad news

The bad news is very simple: you cannot (at the moment) get qualified to lead groups of riders at night. The good news is that myself and my riding chums do it every week and are happy to welcome newcomers to the group.

The other good news is that, when I say I know the local trails intimately, I don’t just mean in summer and in winter. I mean day and night, they really are like the back of my hand.

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Events, Rides, 0 comments
Rusty Rides

Rusty Rides

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.

Ride leader

Your leader for the rides is Andy, a British Cycling level 2 qualified mountain bike leader with years of riding experience. He will look after you the whole way offering helpful tips on how to get more from your riding as well as making sure that the ride is exactly right for you.

All you need is a working mountain bike and a desire to ride.

Location

We’ll start and finish outside Costa Coffee on Stoney Lane. There is plenty of parking nearby.

Times

The rides are on Saturday mornings in January at 9am and 11am.

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HELPFUL INFORMATION 

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Events, Rides, 0 comments
Hunting the Trail Snark part 2

Hunting the Trail Snark part 2

This is part two. Here is part one

And then the wheels come off…

So, I’ve spent hours poring over the maps and the internet for promising looking bits of trail. I’ve managed to stitch them together into something that looks like an actual ride. That means it’s time to test it.

What does a reconnaissance ride look like?

Well, it usually comprises these elements.

A total waste of time

You wouldn’t believe how long it actually takes just to get there. The ride never starts from near home: I’ve ridden virtually everything worth riding near the house.

No, it starts from somewhere much further away.

I can ride there, but that takes time and energy. Even if it only starts 10km away, it turns a 2 hour ride into a four hour one.

Or I can drive there which means loading the bike into the car and unloading it again at the other end. More wasted time. Which has to be repeated for the journey home.

And I haven’t even begun “the ride” yet.

What do you mean, closed?

You shall not pass

You shall not pass

Apparently you can close rights of way. I recently went for an explore near Selborne to discover that a crucial bit of trail was shut and barred off. It doomed the ride I had planned before I’d got hallway round. I just stood there for a moment in stunned disbelief. Then I got the map out and redrew the route.

Bovine belligerence

Bovine beligerence

Bovine belligerence

So, you’ve found a trail through some woods, it’s rich in contour lines, it looks good on paper and you’re salivating with the prospect.

Then you see this sign: “beware: grazing cattle in this wood.” Which translates to: “beware: the ground will be churned to a depth of approximately two feet and soaking wet.” So get ready to get off and push/carry your bike through the quagmire.

And that’s if you don’t actually meet any of the cows.

Equine escapades

churned bridleway

churned bridleway

Bridleways are so called because they were originally access for horses. Which means you can often find them on bridleways now. Horses and their riders have every right to be on the trails and they are usually very friendly and tolerant.

However, they can leave problems for mountain bikes in their wake. By which I don’t mean droppings, I mean hoofprints. Hooves often cause a lot of churning, churning makes trails incredibly rough. A group of horses can turn a rip-roaring descent into something that will rattle your eyeballs out. They can turn a tough climb into a carry.

It’s not deliberate but trails that are popular with equestrians are often not great for riding. You only discover that when you get there.

Full-contact botany

Crab Wood Rainforest

Crab Wood Rainforest

One of the true joys of Britain is that it is a green and pleasant land.

That greenness is a double edged sword, especially in the height of summer. Trails everywhere are a location of lush verdant growth. I know the ecological reasons for it, but it seems perverse that the two plants that make the most of this are brambles and nettles. It is into this heady cocktail of pain that the mountain biker inevitably plunges in full flight.

And it really, really, hurts. Especially when this verdance reduces the trail to utter unrideability, and you turn around in ignominious defeat to find another way home. It’s even better when roses are added to the mix.

There’s a reason I keep a bottle of surgical spirit at home.

What’s the grid reference for the Flying Dutchman?

No, I don’t know either but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve stood at the precise location where a trail is supposed to be and found myself scratching my head, wondering where on earth the trail is.

It’s rubbish.

It looked great on paper

Sometimes the trail is where it’s supposed to be, it’s not churned up or overgrown. Yet somehow it’s just not very good. It’s not as steep as I thought, the surface is just draggy enough to make it hard work or it’s just too straight to be engaging.

It just leaves you a bit deflated.

Back to the drawing board

Whatever the cause these promising looking trails are all for the bin and it’s back to the map.

I have one ride on paper that’s still not ready after two recce rides.

Why am I telling you this?

I love my job. I really do. I actually enjoy this because, like a prospector, sooner or later you turn up trail gold.

I’m telling you all of this because I’m giving you the opportunity to let me do this so you don’t have to. Allow me to get lost, get covered in nettle stings and bramble scars, dismiss the lovely looking trail as dull and unengaging on your behalf.

Let me do all this stuff I love so you can just ride the best bits once they’re ready. When you look at the rides I offer, remember that I’ve done all this research and exploration to make sure you get to ride the good bits.

Want to know what’s on offer? Check out the calendar

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Rides, 0 comments
Ancient Britain: Devil’s Humps and Jumps

Ancient Britain: Devil’s Humps and Jumps

From hillforts to Bronze Age cemeteries, this ride takes in some of West Sussex’s most impressive ancient monuments. If that weren’t enough there are massive views and cracking riding too.

This ride really is a grand day out. Riding under big skies for most of the day, you’ll get views over Chichester, the Isle of White and out to sea. You couldn’t ask for a more scenic ride.

Along the way we’ll stop off at The Trundle; the Devil’s Humps and the Devil’s Jumps. It’s as spectacular a selection of monuments as you could get on a single ride.

You’ll get broad tracks under open skies, you’ll get winding woodland trails and helter-skelter down-scarp plummets. It’s got everything you could want in a ride.

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