At what point do we stop going home? This isn’t some kind of existential probe of a mental navel encrusted with half-baked, self important cheesy life metaphors. There will be plenty of time for that sort of thing later. No, the idea of home shifts on foundations that prove remarkably yielding when exposed to distance and age.
No longer is the Peak District home in terms of houses, streets, people or parents. And yet, there is a certain straightening of the shoulders, a thickening of the accent and a hiding of the wallet that’s triggered by entering the mortal Pearly Gates of “Welcome to Derbyshire“. But that has almost nothing to do with being here as a kid or a yearning for halcyon days; it is a contemporary recognition that the adrenal gland is about to get a good shooing.
Heretics may offer false Gods while talking up their own riding spots, but this rocky parcel of middle England represents the epicenter of mountain biking in the UK. And to quiet the wailing of those damned to ride elsewhere, let me explain why. You could persuasively argue that nowhere in the peaks lays out endless woody singletrack, or that it lacks trail variety or the sheer popularity of the national parks dulls the pleasure of riding.
And you know what? You’re absolutely right. But this place is like a traction beam to me – every time I hit the trails, I’m blown away by the elevation, the challenge, the bravery needed to conquer the rocky tracks and the rugged beauty of a three hundred and sixty degree panorama. You are not the king of the dirt here because every descent is an act of survival, every climb has the potential to break you, and the weather changes fast enough to render you cold, wet and frightened.
It’s just about perfect and while riding bikes is great, writing about them can be repetitive. Or dull. Or if you have a certain talent, both. So, on a gray day, clamped in rain cloud and promising nothing but cold, flat light and windy bleakness, let me just tell you about the last descent of our ride.
This is standard Peak District fare – rocky avenues policed by slabby sleepers and rewarding pilot error with hard times on sharp edged gritstone. Even in the softer, southern Derbyshire Dales, you must relax your limbs but not your mind. Complacency or contempt will deliver the kind of pain which familiarity breeds.
And yet We were tweaking the nose of terror by testing our steely metal in hardtail form. Yet failing to match my friend Nigel, I cast around for advice on what I was doing wrong. “You’re just not riding fast enough” was a response that caused me to nod in a “good point, well made” manner.
My badly written lines through sunken, rocky motorways – broken by glacial action – resembled a child following a particularly tricky dot to dot pattern. This awesome display of spacial awareness combines a fixed stare just beyond the front wheel, and a refusal to believe that the bike may be about a million times more capable than the pilot.
Flipping the mental mirror, I ignored the lesser lights of past performance and searched for some inspiration from a million airline movies. “We’re a mile from the car park, it’s raining, we’ve got five inches of suspension travel and we’re wearing sunglasses” seemed close enough as my friend Andy “John Belushi” Hooper sent three hard pedal strokes and a committed expression downhill at the speed of scary.
I dropped in behind and spent the next three minutes plagurising his lines in between remembering to breathe. The trail reeled out a rock strewn ribbon on a perfect elevation; steep enough to encourage floating over braking, but shallow enough to give up the height in lung busting longevity. There is an fat tyred myth that faster is better; lighten the bike through perfectly timed weight shifts, think nothing of boosting over a jagged drop into a cluster of loose rocks and brake only when every other option has gone.
It’s a high risk strategy on a single sprung end but it’s a good one. With speed comes gyroscopic effect and with that comes stability. Then you focus completely on momentum and lines; ignore what’s three metres away – you have a big fork and suspension limbs to deal with that – look up and out at the blur of never ending trail. Feel the bike spring and squirm in the great game of rock, bravery and wizards. Right now, that wizard is Andy and he’s picking insanely good lines at high speed whilst I’m doing nothing more than desperately hanging on to his splattered coat tails.
Internal commentary records the unfolding action: “fuck that’s loose, shift weight NOW, drop coming, shiiiiiiit, bang, foot back on the pedal, fade to the outside, pump that, lift over this, push hard on the bar and feel the carve, get back now, shit that’s the fork bottoming out, look up, look up, walkers on the trail, push left, push right, they’re gone, set up for that lip, bollocks it’s big, too late now, silence, silence, Jesus I’m a passenger here, hold on tight, gate coming up, brake, brake, brake HARDER, clip gate post and it’s done”
And laugh. And thank God you’re alive and unbroken. And bask in serial hits on the adrenal gland. And try to distill why a cold day, a muddy facepack, a wet arse and a three hour drive home make this worthwhile. The sum is so much more than the parts, even when another friend tells me this descent broke the arm of one rider and sent another into the river on the same ride.
But so what? If I can’t do this then what is the point of staying fit, breaking bones, being an absent parent and treating too much stuff as Any Other Business? Answer, none.
Riding in the peaks is like coming home. There’s a part of me which never left.
A few more photos here.