One of the hardest decisions in guiding is knowing when to cancel a ride. Learning when riding won’t be fun for anyone involved is difficult. Knowing when it just won’t be safe for the group is a key skill for a guide.
But the fact remains: I love riding my bike. I take the slightest of opportunities to go for a ride. I even ride my bike to the hairdresser. Seriously. I love being out. Missing an opportunity to ride bugs me and gets under my skin.
I have been known to go out in miserable conditions because I can.
As I’ve got older, I have begun to realise and to understand that there might just be times when it’s better not to ride. I might just have more fun if I don’t ride. Right now, the rain is battering at the windows as it has all day and all yesterday. So, I’ve been in touch with my social ride to tell them I’m not coming out. It’ll be soggy, cold, dark and slow, hard work. In short it will be no fun. With age comes an increasing ability to judge which rides not to go on. Knowing from the conditions which rides won’t be fun, which rides will be downright dangerous. It’s important.
Side by side with this understanding is my professional duty of care. If you go on a ride with BackPedalling, I try to ensure that you will have a safe, fun experience. Risk assessments lay the foundations for that, coupled with questions about the group so I know that the ride planned is one that is appropriate for the conditions and the group. I have a lot of tools I can call upon, altering the route to include or leave out particular trails, altering the length to suit the group, planning for a date when the weather and undergrowth are likely to be on our side are just part of it. A lot of thought and planning goes into this.
On the day I am due to take any group out, I’m pretty excited. I get to show people cool riding and give them a great day out, and I get to ride my bike while I’m doing it. What’s not to love. With any luck, my clients are also excited about the prospect of the ride.
Cancelling a ride will please nobody. The clients are unhappy that they aren’t getting their amazing ride, I’m not happy because I wanted to give them that experience and I’m doubly unhappy because there’s a significant amount of admin and infrastructure that needs to be moved or disposed of. Nobody wins. At least nobody wins yet.
However, and it’s a big however. Sometimes, it’s the right decision.
I’m a pretty optimistic person. In a previous job, I ran outdoor events for families and would hold out hope until the very last minute that the weather would come good. I really want to be able to do the brilliant thing I’ve scheduled. However, there are important caveats.
At the extreme end, it’s my responsibility to make sure that my rides never star in the news as “mountain bikers airlifted from mountains in atrocious conditions”. It’s my call if the conditions are just asking for an accident or being unable to get home safely. Actually, these calls are pretty easy. It’s usually blindingly obvious when it’s just too extreme.
Much more difficult are the borderline cases. These are the ones where it won’t actually be dangerous just to be out, but the conditions mean that it won’t be safe either.
What on earth do I mean by that?
If you’re cold and wet you won’t be having fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re not concentrating, your reactions will be slower. In addition, cold fingers can’t feel brakes or shifters properly. All of this, combined with slippery trails are just asking for an accident. And that’s before someone hasn’t got the right gear on and, in spite of all the warm stuff I have in the bag for them, catches hypothermia.
Even more borderline is when I have a group who are relatively inexperienced. The conditions may not be that bad for experienced riders, but for these people, it’s a different story. Slippery trails can be terrifying, boggy trails can sap energy and rain can get to everywhere you’d like to keep dry. It all adds up to a memorable experience for all the wrong reasons. I would be failing in my duty of care to make sure they enjoy themselves and there’s a good chance they’d never want to ride a bike again.
It is always with a heavy heart that I pick up the phone to tell a client that the ride is off. There is always one person who is still enthusiastic about going out “regardless of the conditions”. Informing them that the ride is not happening today, regardless of what they think, is never fun.
I have developed a strong sense of when it is the right thing to do and am fairly resolute in sticking to that decision. I am sticking with it because it’s my responsibility as a leader to make these decisions and my responsibility to riders to ensure that they are as safe as possible. Sometimes this means that the bike stays in the shed.
The more attentive of you will have noticed that a couple of scheduled rides this spring have fallen foul of the weather. I wanted to give you a little peak into the thinking that goes into making that decision.
There are still loads of rides to join in with and, assuming the weather doesn’t get the better of them too, they will be brilliant fun.
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.
We’re here to pre-ride a route for an event at the end of April. The event is a bluebell ride for families. A short ride of fast-rolling trails with some nice scenery.
I rode most of it last summer as part of another ride and thought it would make a nice little loop. Seeing something once does not constitute good reconnaissance, I need to get an understanding of how the trails fare when conditions are less than ideal. So, we set out at the start of February to stress test the route.
It was a lovely, clear day. The first thing that we noticed as we got out of the car was the wind. The bikes were hastily assembled, but we were both reluctant to take off our down jackets and set off. When Mel asked if she could ride in hers, she was only half joking.
We were off soon enough, only to discover that Mel’s new mudguard kept catching on the back wheel as her suspension compressed. Two stops later, we’d gone all of about 800 yards and stood in the cold for about ten minutes.
Time to get some riding in and generate some heat. Thankfully, the first climb provided a little shelter and some exercise. In order to make the most of the heat generated by climbing, I decided to take the higher of two traversing byways. I turned the corner at the top and came face-to-face with the wind with the sun hiding behind the hedge. Not a place to have a mechanical…
Just keep riding
“Oh, you can just do one!” (or possibly something much less family-friendly) came a cry from behind me. I looked round to see Mel climbing off to investigate the large stick tangled in her rear mech.
Definitely not the place to have a mechanical. Oh well. Tools out and get cracked on.
I took the stick out to discover that the stick had forced the derailleur to swing round and dig a significant hole in the hanger. This was not good. I unscrewed it and put it back in the right position, hoping that the hanger wasn’t too bent. I carry a spare hanger for such eventualities, but taking the back end of the bike apart here would take long enough for us to both get dangerously cold. It seemed straight enough to get riding and get out of the wind. So, we got on and rode off, trying to generate some warmth.
A quick drop led to a short road climb that, sadly, wasn’t enough to really get the blood going. There was a longish grassy traverse ahead that I recalled being easy rolling enough to get some rhythm going.
How wrong could I be?
This is where we came in, fighting our way through a quagmire that threatened to induce a simultaneous bike, and sense of humour, failure. I’ve ridden trails I haven’t enjoyed before, but this one, in these conditions is right up there with the best of them.
It, too, was on the crest of the ridge and wide open to the wind. The sun had gone in by this point making it even more miserable. I remember stopping just here in the summer for a drink and a bite to eat, while watching the view. There was no question of stopping now. Head down, get this over with.
Does a falling tree make noise?
It was only 500 yards long, but it took 11 minutes to get there (that’s less than 2 mph). It felt like an eternity. Still, there was a lovely bit of woodland trail to ride to take our minds off it.
Except that the winter had wreaked havoc on the woods. What had been a bit of flowing dirt trail in the summer was now festooned with fallen trees. I spent more time carrying the bike than riding it. It may have been all of 200 yards but there must have been eight or ten full sized trees across the path. This was almost as much as I could bear. This was going to be the highlight of the ride and it was utterly unrideable. This loop was going to need some serious thought. Eventually, we came out of fallen tree alley and the trail rolled downhill for a bit. It was nice but over almost before it began.
The rest of the ride was nowhere near as bad. There were a couple of boggy bits, but nothing as bad as that quagmire. The views were nice but we were so chilled that we didn’t linger at any of them. Another spot where I had stopped to admire the woods offered cold comfort, compared to the temptation of the café at the end of the ride. It was all pleasant, but not enough to dispel the cold or disgruntlement of bikes filled with clay.
Before the ride, there had been debate about whether to finish at the pub or the café. There was none now. Café. Bikes were stashed with a minimum of faff and barely any talking. Warm coats on and straight to the café.
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.
Winter can be a difficult season for the mountain biker: it seems like the climate and the earth itself are conspiring against you. And yet, there is much fun to be had.
The dreaded winter Venn diagram
There is a legendary Venn diagram which shows the amount of time spent thinking about riding vs the amount of time spent actually riding (the point being that most bikers, of all stripes, spend far more time thinking about riding than actually riding). There is another, less well known, diagram for winter mountain biking. It shows time spent doing “bike stuff” and how little of that time is spent actually riding. There is a feeling, at this time of year, that I spend far more time cleaning my bike after a ride than I actually do riding. I spend almost as long oiling, freeing and generally fettling the bike to keep it in working order as I do with my feet on the pedals.
When I do get out and ride, trails that I love in summer verge on un-rideable. There is a particular kind of mud that inhabits the chalkland of Hampshire and Sussex. Friends from “up north” always laugh at our poor excuse for winter (of which more in a moment) and our insistence on winter tyres. At least one of them has come thoroughly unstuck, literally, when they’ve experienced it first-hand. It is a strange thing that has the ability to hold a wheel fast that is trying to move forward, and yet provide less sideways grip than a soapy eel. Thus, you spend a huge amount of effort trying to move forward and an equal amount trying not to move sideways.
It can be a dispiriting experience. It can make one question why it is that you do this stupid thing. Every week. Throughout winter.
And then you get to the actual weather. That poor excuse for a winter.
Here’s your choice: you can wrap up warm to stop your hands and feet getting cold, ensuring that you boil in the bag as you exercise. Alternatively, you can account for the warming up and put up with the fact you cannot feel your breaks for the first hour of the ride.
See, it’s cold enough that you need to account for it but not so cold that going out like the Michelin man is viable. The last few minutes before leaving the house are an existential crisis of wardrobe decisions. There’s a reason I own an array of gloves; shoes; different thickness shorts and tights; base layers and jerseys.
And then you need to remember to make sure that your lights are charged because, the chances are, you’re going to be riding in the dark.
So why do I bother in winter?
I’ve spoken before about the wonders of riding in the dark. I love that it changes how things look, how fast I think I’m going and what things I might encounter along the way. Only last week we met a badger on our normal evening ride on a trail we ride most weeks. That just doesn’t happen during the daytime. And as for the magic of rising along to the sound of owls hooting, it doesn’t get much better than that. I could wax lyrical but I already have.
I also have a confession: I actually enjoy all the sliding about of winter riding. It feels silly, a bit slapstick, a little “It’s a Knockout”. I know I’m not going to be challenging for personal bests on any part of the ride so I enjoy the journey. How fast can I take the corner without sliding out? Let’s find out. There are fewer more rawly kinaesthetic joys than the feeling of tyres sliding in the mud and then finding something to grip on just before you lose them. This is enhanced by the fact that, should the worst happen, you’re going slowly and the ground is soft. I have been known to lie on the floor in fits of hysterics after sliding out. Try it, it’s fun.
It’s certainly a lot more fun that being out on wet tarmac. That’s commuting, not enjoyment.
There’s also a perverse and contrary streak in me that takes people’s opinion that it’s too awful to ride as a challenge.
So, I make sure I get out in the winter which means I’m fit enough when the sun comes out. No one admits to winter training, but we all do it. I’m not going to be left behind.
And then there’s the secret winter weapon
I do have a secret weapon that I use to make winter riding better. A decade or more of riding locally has given me an encyclopaedic knowledge of the trails. It has also given me a good nose for the ones that fare better in the winter. I know which ones are like riding through a mangrove swamp, which ones are like riding across an ice rink, which ones are likely to have fallen trees on them and which are exposed to winter winds. Crucially, also know which ones are oddly dry and grippy, which ones seem not to get churned up and which ones are hard-packed enough to shrug off the worst of the weather.
While no ride can be completely mud-free, I can stitch together routes that have the minimum of unpleasantness. That’s a challenge in itself, and one I enjoy.
Those are the trails I piece together for the earlier rides of the year, for riders discovering off-road riding because they are the most enjoyable (without needing my contrary streak).
Keeping it clean
I still detest cleaning my bike. And my shoes. And my bag. And all the other bits of tedium that accompany coming home from a muddy ride.
Which is why I try to run rides that keep the unpleasantness to a minimum.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
One of the things I love about mountain biking is that it puts me in touch with the passing seasons.
The thing about riding outside through the year is that there’s no way of avoiding noticing the conditions, the weather, the climate, the nature of the ground beneath your wheels (or feet if it’s really bad).
I may bemoan it when I come home cold & wet (or refuse to go out at all) but I love the feeling of connection it gives me.
The rolling of the seasons
The weather in Britain is nothing if not unpredictable. There’s a reason why I take a waterproof out on all rides of any length. But the seasons? There’s a genuine pattern to them. The winter is colder and wetter than the summer. Autumn has the air of the winter with the ground of summer and spring is boggy under the wheels but warm on the arms. These changes serve to mark the passing of time.
Those changes are mirrored by the riding. Summer is all about dry, fast trails in sunlight. Autumn has that dryness in the ground but the wind is colder and there’s a better chance of being rained on. Those dry, dusty trails of summer can turn into deeply mudded horror-shows with notional traction ridden in the dark. In spring, there’s the promise of warmth and greenery sprouting up everywhere, but there’s also a good chance of coming home spattered in mud.
You. Hosepipe. Now
These changes in turn are mirrored by changes to how I ride and what I ride. There’s that moment in spring when my arms come out for the first time in months, the moment when the mudguards come off, the first evening ride without lights. In summer there’s the first evening ride in dark glasses, the urge to ditch the backpack to let heat out, suncream! In the autumn I have that moment when I try to remember where I put my lights for the summer, pulling out the windproof gloves for the first time, waterproof shorts and boots. In the depths of winter I’m tempted by the ease of cleaning that comes with the hard tail, I remember where my thick gloves and skullcap are, remember why I own thermal jerseys.
The spice of life
Why do I love it?
A road is a road is a road. Sometimes it’s damp, icy or even underwater. But mostly it’s the same.
Trails evolve and change through the seasons. It’s a cliché that you never ride the same trail twice, but there’s some truth in it. In summer a trail might be dry and dusty, ripe for ripping along at speed. In winter that same trail is as slippery as a speedway track ripe for sliding along sideways. Conversely a trail that’s an overgrown exercise in verdant spelunking in the summer is wide open when the vegetation dies back.
QE Park mud covered
Years of experience has told me what to expect from my regular trails at any given time of year. Some trails are deeply seasonal: too overgrown in the summer or too slippery in the winter. Some are very resilient, holding onto grip when everything else is slippery. My inner trail map is four-dimensional: time is crucial.
That’s not to say that the unexpected never happens. I remember riding during the floods a couple of years ago. It’s a sunken lane I’ve ridden hundreds of times and never really thought about too much. On this occasion, it was two feet deep in water for an unavoidable few hundred yards. Every pedal stroke dipping my feet in the water. Then I got a puncture.
Suffice it to say that I didn’t go back until spring!
This change in the conditions, the riding style required and the experience of riding is what keeps the local trails fresh and exciting for me.
It also keeps me connected to the world around me. It keeps me connected to the slow cycle of the changing seasons. It keeps me reminded of my place in the scheme of things.
So why not come out and join me as we experience what the world is like this week? It’ll be different next week. And the week after too.
This is a saying that’s been doing the rounds for a few years. In mountain biking circles it’s used in a semi tongue-in-cheek way, much like “dropping in!”.
I am here today to attest to the fact that rides not on Strava can, and in fact do, happen.
Why on earth am I doing this?
I didn’t get out for a ride at the weekend. My ankle’s been playing up and I didn’t want to risk aggravating it.
I didn’t ride during the week either. Work has got in the way of getting out in the evening.
I didn’t ride the week before. See above.
Or the week before that. See a pattern emerging?
So, I cleared the diary for this morning. I was damn-well going to get out.
When we woke up this morning we found two things:
It was chucking it down outside
There was no electricity
Morning brew, power cut style
On the one hand, a ride that’s up to my ankles in mud has limited appeal. On the other, we had no power or heating (I even made the morning cup of tea outside with the storm kettle) so I wasn’t going to get much work done.
Thus I may as well get out and ride.
Except my phone is on its last legs and seems unable to pick up GPS, thus no Strava. Somehow, not Strava-ing a ride feels like cheating. It’s like forgetting to lock the door on the way out. It’s plain wrong.
Unfortunately, if I was going to ride, then there was to be no Strava.
“What if I go really fast and don’t get a time?” said part of me.
“Shut up and enjoy riding the bike.” Said another. I listened to that part.
Oh my, that’s muddy
I was expecting the trails to be filthy. Turns out I was completely wrong. They were beyond filthy and into minging. There was one point where I stopped every few hundred yards to wipe my glasses because I couldn’t see enough through the spray to reliably avoid obstacles like trees. It was foul.
I was sliding around all over the show, and so covered in filth that I began to slide off my saddle. It was an absolute hoot.
I also discovered that someone had been out and chainsawed through a few fallen trees along the way that had been irksome to get off and climb over. Thanks big fella!
Clearly the riding gods were on my side this morning. The rain was teeming down, the trails were sodden and there was spray everywhere (particularly on me). It was great.
It was also time to turn home. The clock was ticking and I was getting tired.
You’re not coming in dressed like that
On my return I was asked if I would like a cup of tea and whether I would like to get undressed outside, after hosing myself down. This is what happens when one’s wife also rides.
You. Hosepipe. Now
I duly hosed down the bike, my kit and myself (in that order) before being allowed in through the back door.
The downside of riding in conditions like this, fun as they are, is that clearing up afterward takes an eternity.
Currently there is washing on, a waterproof hanging up in the shower, shoes full of newspaper (from where I hosed my legs down) and mud in odd corners of the kitchen. I don’t even want to touch my bag until it dries off a little.
Was it worth it? Oh god, yes. I feel much better now.
It is also definitely time to winterise my bike too.
Time to fit mudguards
If it ain’t on Strava
I can tell you this morning’s ride may not be shared all over social media but
The photos say it happened
The coat hanging in the shower says it happened
The soggy shoes say it happened
The newspaper on the kitchen floor says it happened
The washing machine struggling under the load of mulch that went in with my clothes says it happened
I nipped out for a quick ride this morning and was faced with some of the oddest conditions I’ve ever experienced.
I’ve been riding in this area for a decade. I know what to expect in any given month. I know which trails to avoid in winter because they’re too muddy and which to avoid in summer because they’re overgrown. I know which ones have a sweet spot in spring and autumn when they achieve “goldilocks” conditions. I know these trails like the back of my gloves.
It’s almost July. July means, dry trails, dust motes in the air and lots of free speed. It also usually means lots of vegetation and a sea of green every time I go into the woods.
That’s what I was expecting
Yes, there is a lot of greenery out there. An awful lot. The amateur botanist in me suggests that the warm winter, the bright spring and the incredibly wet conditions over the last few weeks have given everything a massive growth spurt. So there really is green absolutely everywhere, some trails are narrower than usual but some are utterly impassable because of the vegetation. It gets even more exciting when the weight of the water is causing things to lean over more and I’ve seen several trees come down in the last couple of weeks. It’s also REALLY humid out there. It’s overcast, sweaty and close.
What really caught me unawares, though, was the sheer amount of mud out there. I’ve not seen that level of mud since April. Some places are clarty as anything and others are really quite skitey at the moment.
Crab Wood Rainforest: local trails this morning
It’s weird. It’s as though I’m riding through all the fun of summer and all the fun of winter at the same time. I’ve got shortened the sight-lines and nettle-dodging of summer combined with the mud spray and sideways riding of winter. All whilst boiling in the bag.
It’s like riding through a rainforest. I came home soaked and caked in mud.
I also came home grinning like a loon. It was great fun.