..it's time to go off-road!
Some time ago I agreed to do an MTB ride with my partner’s nephew called Joe. It was Summer-time, December seemed like a long way away and an MTB ride sounded like fun or at least something different to do. Ok, I'm in!
There's a couple of things I should add. One, he's 16 and doesn't really drink and has the energy of a fit young man. Two, I haven't been mountain biking for weeks. Make that months. Make that nearly a year. Three, I still have not got completely to grips with the handling of the 29er. Four, I've been to a birthday party the night before (where I was drinking). And finally, five, it's also been raining and the ground looks pretty heavy. Given all of the above, it wasn’t shaping up in my favour.
The ride had its start/finish at Fontwell racecourse. It felt strange putting on my MTB jersey, something I had not done for a while. We all met up beforehand and Joe looked much more the part, underlined by the fact that he was wearing shorts. Clearly, he was the real man! After some last minute tinkering about, we joined the rest of the intrepid MTB-ers for the very familiar wiggle safety briefing. A few moment later we were off. Not quite as quickly as usual on account of the bikes, but off, nevertheless. I saw a chap with tyres that literally made mine look like they had the profile of GP4000S's. They were really fat. I think they were designed for riding over sand dunes. I wondered if that was an indication of the ground we would face later on.
After a couple of warm up miles we went 'off road' and began climbing. Joe warned me this was a drawn out hill. It was pretty muddy. The track was well chewed up and I was already sweating buckets. Joe seemed fine. Usually, I would not think much of riding 30 odd miles on the road bike, but this route was already teaching me a lesson. We were travelling at half of my usual average speed and that was only because of the odd road section thrown in, linking one off road route with another. We were on the Epic ride which took us over the South Downs, north-east of Chichester. I quickly realised even riding on the 'trails' was hard work because of the mud. I tried cycling in the tracks of previous riders, but the benefit was marginal. However, I was enjoying being amongst the countryside. It was hard to cycle together because of the where we were but it turned out that Joe and I were well matched.
As you will know by now, I don't like stopping on hills, regardless of the surface. I wasn't sure of the etiquette required when passing people 'off road', insofar as everyone appeared to be all over the place due to an overall lack of grip. You could overtake any way you wanted. Since maintaining traction was by far the most important thing to do so I worried less about where I actually ended up. Often it was in the foliage. I weaved in between slowing riders, stopped riders and haphazard riders. However, once I had the top of the hill in my sights I was not going to stop for much. What a workout! Breathing hard, legs pumping I gritted my teeth. I sat as far back as I could over the rear wheel to improve grip whilst trying to select what looked like the most tactile surface. Despite having what I regarded as a crazy amount of grip, I was wheel-spinning on most revolutions. Catching the pedals and maintaining cadence became an art form. It was cycling, but not as I knew it. As with every hill, eventually it levelled out and I eased off. I had earned a breather.
Joe was riding strongly, attacking each hill and divot with great gusto. He was more proficient downhill than me, a function of youth I wondered? I found myself hesitant, unable to relax for fear of coming off. Joe on the other hand was more relaxed and on a couple of occasions sped off, literally taking the rough with the smooth. There were other riders that hacked down the hills as fast as I would on a road bike! Their sense of balance was fantastic. My Charge Cooker was fitted with wide handlebars that were meant to help me control the bike. That's all very well but my hands were positioned beyond the width of my shoulders which felt odd, bordering on uncomfortable. All in all, this was simply a reflection of not setting the bike up correctly and not having ridden it very often......
Back on the ride, I spotted a photographer at the bottom of the hill. It was a good job we were going down-hill because the ground was so boggy I'm not sure I'd have made it otherwise. Putting some grunt into the descent I wanted to (a) stay upright as I passed the photographer and (b) carry some momentum up the other side. I could already see most people were walking. I didn't want to walk.
Seriously, I could have gotten to the top, had it not been for spurious 'automatic' gear changes the bike made for me. A combination of clunking and swearing greeted those within earshot as I ground to an almost immediate halt. (Not for the first time in 2014), I was now a walker. I glanced behind; so was Joe. In fact, it was hard to make his bike out at all. It was more like mud on wheels. Could a MTB ride be too muddy? 'Mud Hill' levelled out and I tried to start again. Same story. Just as I got going, the chain, now completely clogged with mud got caught up on the front changer, making a very ill sound. There was nothing for it, I had to walk up this one. Still, the end was now in sight.
I was bound to fall off at some point. It was inevitable. If only I could claim it occurred during some dare-devil downhill hack. No. Instead it was along the level at a speed that would have given a snail a run for its money. Even less fortunately, Joe was behind me, GoPro-ing my progress to the floor. We were riding along a narrow rutted path with two furrows carved out of the mud. We were plodding along when I lost concentration and rose up the side of one of the furrows. Over correcting, I steered back into the furrow, predictably hitting the other side. I wobbled. Overcorrecting once more, I effectively turned into the hedgerow, simultaneously catching my pedals and losing balance. The result? I fell off, slow motion style, into the mud. Nice touch. Next trick?
Notably, I also crossed the finish line on foot. This was on account of my chain snapping about 2 miles from the finish. As mentioned, the gears had been making some pretty bad noises for a while and I could feel that there was definitely something not right with the bike. After 'Mud Hill' I had been deliberately taking it easy on anything slightly inclined, but all of a sudden the tension on the pedals disappeared and with it one half of my chain fell to the ground. I have to say this made me a bit grumpy. Having your chain snap is one thing, but having it snap twice when the bike has done less than 200 miles is another. Anyway, regardless, I picked it up and started back......
I really enjoyed cycling in an organised event that was not a Sportive. I liked riding over rough country and I think both Joe and I benefitted from cycling the route together and sharing the mud! I would definitely ride another wiggle MTB event again; hopefully Joe feels the same way!
Words, Thumbnail and Slider Image - bikebritain Ltd
Don't be tempted to use a jet wash to clean your bike! Although it seemed a good idea at the time, the power of the spray is too strong and I think I've taken the paint off the frame in places, much to my annoyance.
Also, if you do buy a bike off the internet it would be money well spent getting it set up professionally as I discovered when I took mine to be serviced.
Finally, it becomes quickly obvious why Mountain Bikers wear Camelbacs. I got quite a few mouthfuls of mud taking fluid on board due to the traditional location of my water bottles!