The only conclusion that can drawn from my advancing years and hardening opinions is I am increasingly an unreconstructed Mountain Biker. This despite a magpie penchant for anything marked “new and improved” and a constant low level whinge when faced with distance or difficult. Especially if it’s muddy. Or cold. Or wet. Or – as is generally the meteorological joy handed out by our storm battered island – all three at the same time.
Early in 2010 a calling to convince trail-centre conditioned mates of an awesome mountain experience nearly put one of them in hospital. I’ve dragged dubious friends over very large hills generally immersed in clag and rain only to disappoint them with “on a clear day, you can see for absolutely miles” and “Today? Not so much”. I’ve poured over maps*, planned multi day epics, carried my bike in all sorts of interesting spots and generally loved arriving in high places to worried smiles wondering “how the hell did you get here on a bike?”
So when a break for the mountains offered respite from the traditional Xmas <-> New Year lassitude, it took exactly no time at all to grab the opportunity with both hands and a happy smile. The break was actually the GAP – a route through the Black Mountains where my friend Russ broke his back nearly ten years ago, and I’d been making excuses not to return every since.
Without the emotional baggage, it’s an absolutely classic ride; the nearest to thing to singletrack is a canal path on the way home. There is a chunk of pushing, the chance of a carry, hours of exposed bleak glacial valleys howling with wind and a epic quantity of mud. No mid ride cafe or groomed trails await. Climbs that’ll run close to an hour, descents that must be tackled with bravery and commitment and the very real prospect of a proper beating – or worse – if you get cocky of frightened.
The joy of riding is split evenly between the place you go and and the people you are with. The seven experienced campaigners on our midweek mission packed two spare layers, a second set of gloves, endless tubes and tools, many rounds of sandwiches, a stout rain jacket and a big mountain attitude in their packs. Back in the cars were a change of clothes, a bin bag for their riding gear and money for beer. Exactly the type of riders to share a proper day out.
Which starts with big up. Six kilometres of increasingly technical climbing gaining you a 300 metre view of the valley floor. If you could see it through the low hanging cloud, which brought with it the prospect of rain but also silly spring like temperatures. We’ve all been exposed on this route in proper Welsh Wintry conditions, unprotected skin subject to icing, frozen gears and the not that outside possibility of hypothermia. Today was almost disappointingly easy.
Notice the careful use of the word almost. Early season snow buttressed by days of rain left the ground swollen, slick and mostly below the water table. Winter skills of balancing the power of the cranks against the traction of the rear tyre made those six k’s fun but tiring. Near the summit, a couple of climbing crux’s left most of us floundering and pushing onto the bleakness of the first ridge. Here it’s all about line choice – a choice that is either hub deep dank puddles or a desperate thrutch through clay/peat bog offering either something vaguely solid or a bike swallowing crevasse.
Been there, done that, got the trench-foot. First descent opened up over a million rocks peeping out of a stream, none of them attached to the bedrock and shaped somewhere between personal Grim Reapers and Mini-Headstones. I’m not a fan of trails that follow you down the hill, but killing velocity and hunting for lines is not a good option for the preferably unbloodied.
No, speed if not your friend is at least a shoulder-based devil that will see the bike hydro-plane over wheel chewing rocks. Five inches of travel on the fork beats six inch rocks every time even as they hiss and cackle when they chase you down the trail. Arriving alive and breathless, a quick limb count suggests no proper accidents although everyone has the look of being pebble dashed with a mud and shit mixture. Trail Food for the soul.
Now we can see where we want to go, and it’s up for miles. First on an old railway hewn out of the landscape to carry coal from the mountains. It’s a nice gradient to spin and chat before we hit the Roman Road snaking up the valley into the gap for which this ride is named. Before that tho, a sandwich stop – mouths full of Xmas leftovers and piss takes pointing out various bits of useless kit**
Colder now, wind whipping down the valley but for once mostly pushing rather than punishing, we head up for another thirty minutes of pitting your puny efforts against the majesty of glacial erosion to the power of a million years. I absolutely love this, a speck under darkening skies seemingly immobile against a backdrop of brutal peaks. Anyone with an ounce of self importance should be forced to stand here and work out their place in the world.
We tarried only briefly at the top with that chill wind whistling through. Just enough time to prod tyres, set shocks to fun and tell Nic again that no it wasn’t going to be rocky***. The top of the descent from the Gap used to be a steppy challenge over eroded rocks left from the last ice age. Now it’s a ruin of trail sanitisation, washed away aggregates and loose rock in wheel grabbing sizes.
I was rubbish. Not because of the worry I’d carried with me about how the descent that left my mate in a wheelchair was going to mess with my head, but just because I’m bloody useless at that kind of obstacle. After a while I man’d up, shoved the fear in the mind-box most of us use as a coping strategy, picked a spot on the far horizon and allowed the bike to be very, very good.
It’s out here that you realise how astonishingly accomplished a modern mountain bike is. If you’ve got the balls, it’s got your back. Make a pact that’ll see the brakes being bypassed by a death grip on the bars, and twenty years of development will carry you into a place perfectly balanced between terror and exhilaration. If that place had graffiti it would read like this; Without risk, there is no life. Without the possibility of failure, there is no joy of conquest. Without the ability to replace logic with fuck-it-it’ll-be-fine, there is no reason to place yourself in danger.
This is what the mountains do. Most of us had donned a bit of body armour but it’s nothing more than plastic placebo. At 45kph careering over wet rock sandwiched between dry stone walls, a mistake here and the accident is going to rate somewhere between extremely painful and horrific. As my mate Russ found out all those years ago.
But you’re not a passenger here. It’s not hold on and hope you don’t crash. It’s one of the few times that all that suspension travel, all that engineering, all that riding in your past, all those times you’ve pushed it a little bit make absolutely perfect sense. 100% commitment, 100% faith in your tyres, 100% trust in your own ability to nudge and commit, to know when to push into the rock and when to launch off it.
3 minutes of nirvana. 300 metres where there is only black and white. A final kilometre that defines the simple difference between living and being alive. You’re not beating the mountain, it’s merely nodding you through to come back another day. There isn’t a lot of point in trying to explain this to your riding mates because it’s written all over their faces. On two wheels, this is about as good as it gets.
Show me that on a pay-to-play trail centre and I’ll sign up. Until then, I will be happy with my mountains.
* Wine generally. Said it before, maps are like a copy of Hustler to me – love the pictures, no real idea of what’s going on.
** The pinnacle being Gary’s ridiculous Commuter mudguard on his Spesh Full-Suss. It provided no protection but much mirth being favourably compared with “Donald Duck with Epilepsy”
*** A joke that never stopped giving. Nic was commendably quick on his hardtail, but I don’t think he’ll ever believe anything any of us ever tell him again