I spend a lot (my friends might say too much) time thinking about, plotting and planning routes for rides. I want maximum killer, minimum filler from my riding. I want the highest density of quality riding because enjoyment is really important to me.
Not everyone thinks that way
Recently, I went out for a ride with a new group. I do this from time to time. It’s nice to meet new people, to experience different ways of riding and different dynamics. Cynically, it reduces the chances of work stymying my social riding if I have more options to choose from. The real reason, is that I’m on the lookout for quality new trails. I’ve lived here for well over a decade now, but there must be trails I don’t know about, bridleways I’d dismissed that are amazing and ways of linking up the good bits that I hadn’t thought of.
Riding quality trails is what gets me out of the door.
It didn’t quite turn out like that.
We rode for just over 40km. About 20 of that was entirely new to me. I encountered not one yard of new singletrack. That’s right: zero. Three hours’ riding and did not ride a single bit of new trail that I have a burning desire to ride again. There were a lot of what I’d call “transition trails” that is bits of riding you do in order to get to the good bits.
Mountain biking at any serious level requires a certain amount of physical fitness. Fitness comes from time in the saddle and miles under the wheels. The more of it you do, the fitter you get and the easier it all gets. This is sometimes called “training”.
There is a ride logging app called Strava. Strava was designed with our road cousins in mind, therefore you can find out your “suffer score” for any given ride. This suggests that suffering is a good thing. I know people who go out for training rides where they get their heads down and grind out the miles on farm tracks and roads in the name of training.
Maybe that’s what was happening?
I’ve never understood that. Since my last race in 2012, I haven’t been on a single “training ride”. Not once have I gone for a ride where the point was to exercise in order to get fitter. I’ve never felt the need.
I’m a firm believer that riding should be enjoyed rather than endured. With limited time on the bike, my focus is on having fun and riding trails I enjoy.
Yes, I’ve done long rides. I’ve come home from rides absolutely toasted, with nothing in the tank. But the point was that I’d enjoyed the riding (even if, in some cases it was firmly type 2 fun). I was knackered because we’d done a bunch of quality trails, or because we’d been pushing ourselves on those trails.
I’m not sold on the need to ride dull trails in order to get fit. Why not ride fun ones?
The importance of quality riding
Even as a professional mountain bike leader, my time in the saddle is limited. Therefore, I want the maximum bang for my buck when I go out. I want to pack as much enjoyment into that 2-3 hours I’ve got before I need to be home.
What do I mean by quality riding? Well, it basically boils down to two things:
Is it kinaesthetically engaging?
Is it aesthetically engaging?
Mountain biking differs from road cycling in that it’s not…ummm… on tarmac. This opens up the opportunity for a kinaesthetic experience, one where you are moving around on the bike, reacting to the terrain under your wheels. I want to be riding bends and corners, I want to be riding over humps and hollows, I want to be encountering roots, I want opportunities for my wheels to get of the ground, I want to be able to do this at speed.
That’s what I mean by kinaesthetic: riding that engages my body.
Mountain biking also offers the chance to go places with jaw-dropping scenery. Whether it’s high mountains, or bluebell woods. Whether it’s clear chalk streams or circling birds of prey. Even if it’s seeing deer and hares in the fields, I want a feast for the eyes.
In an ideal world, I want both at the same time.
All the time. I want to come home with the burning desire to tell someone all about the amazing time I’ve had on my bike. With a desire to do it again. Right now.
If I spend a few hours doing that, I can guarantee I’ll come home having had a proper workout for the whole body. If I keep doing it, I’ll get fit. But I’ll want to keep doing it.
Investing in finding quality trails: the real hard work
In that ideal world I’ll be riding quality trails right from my door. Even more ideally, it’ll be engaging singletrack (paths about a bike’s width across).
But that’s not realistic.
So, I want to plan a route that has the highest density of the fun stuff. That’s where the hard work begins. I’ve talked in the past about my trailfinding adventures. I’ve talked at length about the time spent with maps on the floor, or in front of a screen sniffing out quality riding. I’ve also talked at length about the rides where I went for miles in order to see whether one bit of trail was worth riding. I might also have mentioned the emotional rollercoaster of that bit of trail being brilliant or un-rideable and of having to go back to the drawing board as a vital link in the chain is broken.
Secretly, I love it. But it is hard work, and it doesn’t always pay off in the short term. It’s very much a case of delayed gratification. The results are worth it in the long term as I’ve built up a mental and physical map of all the great trails and paths and how to stitch them together into good rides.
Maybe this is too much work for people who just want to get out and ride? Maybe they just don’t think to look in the trees over there, or down that bridleway? Maybe they don’t know that, just around the corner there is quality riding. Maybe that’s what’s happening here?
That’s why. I ride to enjoy myself and I’m not enjoying myself if I’m bored. Simple really. I put the time and effort into finding quality riding today, so that I can enjoy my riding in perpetuity (or something like it).
That’s why I put so much time and effort into the details of route planning for BackPedalling: because I want everyone to get a taste of great riding. For the Explore rides, it’s about sniffing out top-class singletrack in the South Downs. It’s about finding those snippets of great trails hidden away in the woods and lanes.
I’m a firm believer that there is no excuse for a boring ride: so, I put as much thought into the Discover rides as the explore ones. After all, if you don’t enjoy your first experience, why would you ever do it again? Just because they are technical doesn’t mean they have to be dull, so I seek out tracks and trails that roll well, flatter the rider and provide brilliant views.
So, go out there an find some quality trails. I promise it’s worth it.
If you want to know where to start looking join us on a Discovery ride.
If you’re more interested in finding new trails then join us for an Explore ride.
Maybe you would prefer something designed especially for your needs instead?
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
After my tour of the singletrack highlights of the city of Edinburgh on Saturday I was in Glasgow on Monday. This time I was hooking up with an old colleague, Andy (just to be confusing), for a trip to Glentress. This, most iconic of trail centres, would be a very different experience. Where Saturday was about finding things that were unexpected, this was all about having a blast on purpose-built mountain bike trails. I was really looking forward to it.
Last time I was at the Peebles trail centre, was maybe six or seven years ago on a 100mm travel hardtail with 1.8” tyres. I recall the red route being a little hairy in places, mostly due to our introduction to braking holes in the trail, but otherwise a lot of fun. On an earlier visit I’d underestimated a tabletop on the Spooky Wood descent and ended up with my scaphoid in plaster.
I was curious what the trails would feel like all these years later with more bike and more experience under me. I was keen not to have a repeat of the Spooky Wood incident.
Time for some CPD
Andy is very much a product of the Seven Stanes. Very happy with rocky, technical trails and comfortable with the bike in the air. This was very much his home turf and he was keen to show off the best bits.
I am a fully qualified mountain bike leader. I am a pretty competent mountain biker in a variety of terrain. That does not mean there are no areas where I feel my skills might benefit from “development”. It boils down to being in the air and steep rocks, neither of which are easy to get in Hampshire. So part of the point was to get plenty of that in over the course of the afternoon to refresh and hone my skills.
Glentress has been, and may still be, one of the most visited mountain bike venues in the world. One of the joys of visiting on a Monday in the middle of November is that the place was really, really quiet (apart from the lads changing, wrapped in leopard print towels, in the car park).
We headed for the skills area for a bit of a play to get our eye in. We checked out some rock rolls and drops. All of which are bigger than anything I’ve encountered in Hampshire. It’s hard to find features where air time is compulsory. Drop in we did. First time: wayward, second time: better, third time: nailed and confident. I was getting my eye in and believing in my skills.
Bigging it up
Which is when Andy suggested we move on the freeride area. Some tabletops, about 3-4 feet across the top, a few berms and a step-up. All bigger than anything at my local trail centre. First time: intimidating but largely managed, second time: better and quicker, third time: confident and at pace. I was getting there. These were skills I have but don’t get much chance to work on at home.
So Andy suggested we move on to the bigger jumps. Hell, why not. These are probably 4-5 feet across at the start and bigger at the bottom. So we dropped in. Hit the first one, whoop. Hit the second, whoop. Hit the third, oh god, it’s a hip jump and the landing’s at an angle to the take off. Land it and slide the back wheel round to set up for the next one. Launch that and hope the landing’s in the right place. Catch berm and two more tables to finish. On the final one it seemed to take an eternity for the bike to come down, even then it was only the front wheel. Don’t panic, weight back and wait for the back wheel to land. Which it did, eventually. And done.
I’d got away with it. Just. But definitely outside of my comfort zone.
Let’s do that again.
Push back up and drop in again. This time the lines were better, the speed was better and I spent less time riding along on my front wheel.
Again. Better again. And crucially, more confident. Again, this time with the confidence to attack it.
It’s amazing how much succeeding at something at something can boost your confidence.
Anyway. Why were we here?
Soon enough we needed to get on our way: there was only so much daylight to play with.
And we had an appointment with Spooky Wood and the drop to the valley floor. All that stood between us and that was a big climb. Oh well, best get on with it.
“…make a little birdhouse in your soul”
After a considerable amount of twiddling, gurning, grinding and a brief pause for a sandwich while a robin landed on our bikes we arrived at the top of the hill. I had brief flashbacks to the last time I’d stood here with a hire bike, before coming to grief.
Concentrate, trust your skills and believe that your bike will do the job.
Dropping in at Spooky Wood
It was brilliant. A helter-skelter all the way to the bottom. Tabletops were despatched, compressions were pumped through, puddles were manualled past and even the surprise rock drop was launched. It was great. I was looking ahead, seeing what was coming and picking my line. I was loving it, and catching Andy in places. Next section: more of the same, compressions, berms, small tables and the occasional steep bit. All the application of skills in an unfamiliar setting. I may not have been familiar with the trail but I was more than equal to the challenge. The tight section through the trees was much more like home with its slippery roots and leaf mulch. The bottom was just laugh out loud.
I grinned the whole way down. Even the bits where the tree cover meant it was almost dark.
In short I had a great day out. The free coffee at the end was a real bonus.
I can’t recommend Glentress highly enough. Thank you to all the trail builders there. I can see how much of a pasting the trails get and how much hard work goes into keeping them riding sweetly.
This is Luke McMullan riding the Spooky Wood Descent
Moral of the story pt.1
On Monday I went out to ride and have fun. I also chose to deliberately put myself in a situation where I was outside my comfort zone to begin with. I chose to use the opportunity to refresh and practice my skillset. By doing so, in a managed and progressive way, I had a great ride and was able to boost my confidence on terrain that’s hard to find down here.
The use of the first person pronoun is really important. I chose to put myself there. There was no pressure on me, no-one was egging me on, if I decided I really didn’t fancy something I could walk it.
When it comes to progressing and improving skills, peer pressure can be a terrible thing causing you to feel compelled to try things you are not ready for. It makes you more likely to make a mistake because you’re tense so it’s not a part of the way I ride, or the way I lead.
Placing yourself in a space where you feel confident pushing your boundaries and putting your skills into use is a good thing, coming from within and a desire to improve. I will support you in this whenever I can.
Moral of the story pt.2
When you say “I’m not feeling confident about this” I really do understand how you feel.
My desire to get better at riding my bike means I have to step outside my comfort zone in the belief that I have the skills to ride it. I know that feeling of having to attempt something based on belief rather than memory. I know that feeling of taking a deep breath and committing.
The setting for this feeling is different for everyone, the obstacle that causes you to pause is different for everyone. When I say that I understand, it’s not glib encouragement, I really do empathise with facing down uncertainty.
Cracking singletrack, stunning views and two of the area’s best loved pubs. What more could you ask for on a ride?
What is it like?
This is a tour of some of the lovely trails, villages and pubs like the Hampshire Bowman in this part of the world. What’s not to like?
This ride shows off some of the quiet green lanes and forgotten paths through Hampshire that are ideal for relaxed riding. The mix is spiced up with some lovely woodland singletrack which is lovely at this time of the year.
To keep the adrenaline going there are a few great descents that will keep you on your toes but are a hoot whatever speed you ride them at.
You want views across the downs too? We’ve got them in spades at various points along the way.
How can you say no?
Where is it?
We’ll be setting off from the Hampshire Bowman pub in Dundridge, heading in the direction of Owslebury before swinging through Upham on the way back.
Stops in villages will depend on how the group is feeling when we get there. There will definitely be the opportunity for a pub stop at the Bowman on our return.
[Google_Maps_WD id=4 map=4]
Who is it for?
There’s a fair amount of up and down in this ride, some of it is quite steep but all of it is perfectly rideable if you take your time. So you will need to be able to ride for a few hours.
There is nothing too technical so most people with a reasonable level of fitness will be fine.
Important information about the ride
How far are we going?
Expect to be riding for 2-3 hours plus a few stops.
Whilst the pubs we stop at serve food, it’s a really good idea to bring some sustenance for the ride.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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
I’ve been doing a lot of exploring lately. I’ve been out searching for new trails and putting together new rides. Exploration rides are not normal riding: you wilfully eschew known quality trails in favour of a wilful trip into the unknown.
There are two ways this can go:
Sometimes it looks like this
Happy trail finding
It’s a sunny day. In front of you there’s a beautiful ribbon of singletrack in front of me snaking away down a valley. The scenery is amazing. No one else I know has ridden this and I looks amazing.
This is the fourth time today I’ve seen something like this.
I’m basking in the glow of success, fabulous riding and the joy of a ride well spent.
If there were anyone else here, I’d high-five them.
More often it looks like this
Dave gets angry
I’ve decided not to go out on his usual ride but instead to go out looking for new places to ride.
I’ve spent the last hour riding through brambles on rubbish paths that don’t really exist on the ground.
I’m now late home and haven’t ridden anything that’s any fun at all.
And now I have a puncture.
I could have been having fun.
Don’t be like me…
…unless that is your idea of fun.
I’m being unfair
I thoroughly enjoy the process of putting a new ride together, of looking for new places to ride, of sniffing out new trails. It’s an exploration, it’s unknown and it’s an adventure. When it comes off it’s one of the best feelings in the world.
But it’s not without its perils. That uncertainty means there’s a good chance that some, or all, of what you go out to ride will be rubbish. Some of it will be unrideable. Some of it will be miserable. Some of it won’t even exist on the ground.
Sometimes, you turn up an absolute gem. That lottery is why I do it.
Poring over maps
It all starts in the living room with a cup of tea/beer, usually with an Ordnance Survey map laid out on the floor, following those green dashed lines of bridleways (as well as restricted byways and byways open to all traffic) across the map, cross referencing them with the orange contour lines and patches of wood. Looking for the combination that might indicate a good trail.
To me, this is like poring over a catalogue wondering about Christmas presents. I love it. I can (and do) spent whole evenings doing this.
Then it’s out with the laptop to check google earth for the aerial photos to see what it actually looks like on the ground (streetview can be really helpful too) which could spell success. Then check Strava because there’s a good chance someone has ridden these trails before and recorded if they’re any good.
After all that, I’ve got the outline of a route.
There is, however, only one way to find out if the trails are actually any good and the ride works: to get out there and ride it.