Consulting the inner cat

Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride.

There are times when riding – as with life generally – that make you think ‘woooah that was a close one‘.  Events that invoke the thought  that one just dodged a bullet, sailed a little close to the wind, felt the icy shiver of impending dread, that kind of thing.  Generally followed up by a commitment not to do it again, or at least not for a while until the balance of karma is restored.

To paraphrase: “got lucky once, probably won’t next time” deep breath, nod to deity/pagan god of choice, move on. Today I had a ride just like that except for the moving on bit. If I were a cat, I’d be desperately scanning the small print for options to buy extra lives.

Riding with Martin always goes like this. Afternoons out are short on miles, long on smiles and celebrated for going heavy on  “shiiiiiit, eek, arrrghh, phew, never-in-doubt” moments.  And because of riding lots, I’ve lately been overcome with a high dose of smug.

Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride. Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride.

Enough in the legs to climb anything – albeit still quite slowly – and enough pedalled in muscle memory to let the bike go fast and be fantastic while I hang on up top. Not asleep at the bars tho, because this kind of riding guarantees serial hits on the adrenal gland.

First a top to bottom trail starting wide and windy, dropping into narrowing singletrack that throws out wheel stopping rocks and increased gradients before you can say “I wonder if I should have braked back there?”. A cheeky left throws up more steepness, a set of “qualifying” steps punching you straight into a second set easily identified by being sodding narrow, buttressed by shoulder high rock and long enough for major internal organs to switch locations.

Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride. Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride.

Wet as well today as were all the trails. Best to look vaguely in the direction of proposed travel, loosen your muscles and your mind and go with the flow. I did, Martin didn’t leading to a bit of light ribbing especially as he’d brought his big bike to the rock party.

Multiple goes on a lovely steppy drop proved insufficient for Martin to understand how my camera worked.   Never mind, big climb to height, fall off the side of another hill where I arrested a monster back-brake slide with a flick of the hips before my smugness was replaced by confusion as Martin snaked down the trail at a speed and smoothness entirely missing from the bloke behind.

No matter, one big climb to gurn, one favourite descent to dispatch. Lately I’ve been having a splendid time down here thinking that maybe – of all the riding crew – now I am the quickest. Chagrin served up with a double can of whupass for me then, as Martin careered off at a truly remarkable speed.  Somewhere on the way down – between remembering to breathe and trying so hard not to crash – it became apparent that the only way of catching him would be to fly past at head height having been spat off at high speed.

Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride. Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride.

Consulting my inner cat, I found a large flashing zero in the “remaining lives” column, and a terrified kitten hiding behind it. Did my best tho, still got whupped. But it’s not just bravado, or the not unreasonable joy of arriving alive at the bottom that makes us do this.

I cannot tell you how much fun riding fast, jumping off steps, bouncing off rocks or holding a two wheeled slide can be. I just know I want to go back and do it all again.

Strangers

Post FoD Night Ride

My previous FoD night ride started in daylight and ended in darkness. This time around pitch black was wrapped round my shivering preparations, before even a wheel was turned. It may still be a month until the Winter solstice, yet it feels as if we’re there already.

Other differences presented themselves out of the darkness. Firstly, a nearly double digit turnout of riders I’d not seen for two months. The lumens’ arms race showed no site of abating, although it has branched off in interesting technological directions. Of all those branches, I am hopeful that the “Mickey and Minnie Ears” evolution is subject to brutal natural selection.

Following that helmet light setup put me in mind of a Disney rave with the mice off their faces on acid. This was an unwelcome distraction to a man already much distracted by a trail surface offering the traction properties of polished glass.

Post FoD Night Ride Post FoD Night Ride

In one of those ‘it’ll be funny afterwards’ ironies, my toes were frozen as were my fingers and probably my ears. Although that was nothing more than a guess since feeling had left the helmet some time ago. The trails however were not frozen. They offered a number of alternatives; 1) deep mud but rideable 2) slidey mud sort of rideable 3) large puddles hiding patching of mud rideable if you were lucky and 4) Chiltern-esque stretches of absolutely no point in even trying to ride.

We did of course. And much falling off and general finger pointing followed.  Even the Singlespeeder was cut a bit of slack until the full moon rose hauntingly above the treetops, and it became clear that Adam’s Facebook profile reads “Likes: Singlespeeds, exploding knees, beards and werewolves“. Can’t turn you back on ’em for one second – it’ll be off with your derailers or something even more ghastly.

Post FoD Night Ride Post FoD Night Ride

There was plenty of time for piss taking, excuses and the new sport of precision mincing because this ride group isn’t exactly motivated by speed. Oh sure, it rambles along at a decent pace but stops are not mere halts for breath catching, more an opportunity to select the next victim. Compare this to Malvern rides which are all a bit “wham bam thank you mam” and non the worse for it, but there’s fun to be had with nine people and no mercy.

Everyone fell off. Some more than others. Some – smug mode – not at all until the penultimate descent on a fast, flowy trail barely hovering above the water table: “oooh nice drift, I’ve got it, I’ve got it, I’ve….. not got it”. It was almost peaceful as I slid down the trail on my arse, the bike long gone behind a distant tree.

A new ending started tonight. Final grind up a fireroad to access a cracking bombhole hidden deep in the woods. Again many of the group were in the vanguard of “All Mountain Free-Mincing” while a few of us just rode down the bloody thing. From below, the circling lights of the lesbian horde put me in mind of a very camp UFO experience “ooohhh I’m not sure about that, noo you go first

Honestly, just get on with it man. They did. Eventually. Proper cold at rides’ end. Six desperately defrosted cars and hurriedly packed their gear. Three had a more leisurely experience via the pub.

Post FoD Night Ride

I love the FoD in the dry when it’s fast and whippy and you can rocket through the trees for ever without riding the same trail. I’m quite surprised to find much of that love extends to the muddy season as well. C’mon winter, I’m ready for you.

FoD

The Forest Of Dean is often abbreviated to FoD. After Wednesday’s night ride, I shall be writing to the appropriate naming body proposing a change:

Forest of Dark
Filthy ‘orrible (&) Dirty
Festival of Drudge
Failure of Drivetrain
Full of (potential) Death

Lately the grumpy hedgehog has been whining that the Malverns are a bit boring, although really that’s nothing more than a failure to MTFU when faced with their challenges: to whit unrelenting steepness and an amazing ability to store snow.  The FoD offers different sorts of problems but vertical climbing isn’t one of them, with a sixteen mile ride raising a barely humpish 1400 feet of climbing.

This doesn’t however include the four miles travelling entirely sideways and a the few – yet unremittingly terrifyingly – hundred metres bug eyed and entirely out of control. It’s been a while since night rides started SW of home to a meeting point full of strange men apparently attending a “Bike Light Arms Convention“. Two other things were apparent in the drizzly gloom, one was a splattering of muddy body armour and the second an almost 100% coverage of double mudguards.

We don’t do mud in the Malverns. There’s an occasional sticky few hundred yards of heavily travelled slop, or a few woody sections that can get a bit “Chiltern-Y” , but up top the worst we can expect is a bit of moist grass. Our route in the FoD was an educational journey into a thousand different types of mud, all of them offering us mudguardless fools a gritty enema, and extending their no traction guarantee to every rider.

It was fun in an old school sort of way. Sliding about in a parody of control idly wondering if the next crash would end in soft mud or a hard tree. And while we’re on a renaming track, I’m sure Schwalbe, being a proper German firm, will have some kind of formal procedure to approve the “Nobbly Nic” becoming known as the “Suicide Sam” in conditions so slippy you could dress them in a suit and call them Peter Mandleson.

My newly learned trail skills had already been hosted in another forest the day before where, after much intense muttering and mentally beating myself up, I managed to look a long way around a bermed corner and tear a swathe of dirt from it with my back tyre. Question for you: “If you pull of that kind of stunt in a forest where there is no one to see it, did it really happen?”

Anyway emboldened by this trail magic, I found it almost entirely irrelevant when blinded by flying mud and with tyres never gripping  sufficient dirt to make cornering much of an option.  I think it may have saved me on a few slick off-camber root sections, and a bit of vaguely remembered trail seemed to flow a little better than before. But with a light pointing one way and me squinting unknowingly in the other, finishing the ride alive felt like progress.

You wouldn’t want to ride in that every week, if only because no man without a large trust fund could afford the wear and general destruction of parts. Two sets of cheap brake pads are now entirely worthless unless there is a second hand market in backing plates. My new drivetrain is looking quite old and run in, whereas most other bits just look a bit run down. My rain jacket did a superb job at keeping the incessant showers away from my snug torso though, all the more impressive since it is entirely transformed to this season’s new colour*

Lovely bunch of lads though, who made me feel most welcome and made me laugh with their incessant piss taking of everyone for anything. And it’s a brilliant place to ride in the dark even when you’re wondering at what point mud becomes quicksand. I can see an bi-monthly split between this and the Malverns – although such is my love of riding in the dark nowadays, maybe I’ll manage both on lovely summer evenings swooping down dusty trails and beer to follow.

This feels like it may be some way away. On arriving home, I spent a happy 10 minutes hosing first the ST4 and then myself before being allowed over the threshold. I still fear for the washing machine even after my best efforts.  But what the hell, if nothing else that two and half hours further nailed the truth that riding a bike is nearly always better than not riding a bike. And sure, the trails have suffered with all this rain, but if you can’t deal with the mud you can’t really call yourself a mountain biker.

* Brown in case you were in any doubt.