With my repetitions thudding tediously into your mind, I accept that surprise would not be your first response when I extol the fantastic riding we have right here on our doorstep. Which is as good a reason as any to why our winter planning for far away trips failed to survive the first contact with the enemy.
But that enemy is not just the good stuff on our doorstep, it’s also the brokenness, busyness, parent-ness and apathy of the long forged riding flange. There is a sad – but inevitable – fading away of the camaraderie when separated by many miles, and a slide into treating riding as optional and other life stuff as mandatory.
Not me of course, and desperate to tick off another location perfectly coincided with an e-mail wondering if I would rather be riding in Exmoor during the day and drinking beer later on. As opposed to what? Working? Tough choice, but I think I might be in.
Arriving far along the craggy south west coastline, Mike (freelance Journo) and Russ (same but with Snapper skills) immediately demonstrated their professionalism by matching clothes and bikes in line with ambient lighting conditions.
Now many times I’ve been accused of being over-biked, but rarely under-dressed*, yet my slimming wardrobe of stealthy black was soon accessorised with a bright orange top Russell’d up from his capacious product testing bucket.
I learned some interesting things on this shoot. Firstly 3 is not a crowd for photo shoots. One photographer hefting mountains of kit someone ruining his riding experience, one proper journo and on hanger-on desperate for an Andy Warhol moment. I’m sure you can establish which role I took.
A single rider fails to prod the “I want to ride here NOW gene” that is encapsulated by a pair riding close and grinning inanely. It backed my hypothesis that the joy of the sport is equally divided by where you are riding, and who you are riding with.
So now we have the tools to sell the area, all we need is a route. Or a number of routes confined by some nonsense around OS squares. Mike had worked hard to create easy, medium and hard variations and all we need to do now is ride them.
Er, no. Because proper photography takes a shit load of time. And then a bit more. Poor old Russ carried up tripods, slave flashes, multiple lenses and a couple of very expensive digital bodies. And he was determined to use them all. Because if he doesn’t get the shots to fill the brief, he doesn’t get paid.
First tho we had to remove ourselves from sea level after a couple of establishing shots where Mike instructed me in the art of the pointy elbow and inane grin whenever facing lens-wards. This also gave us ample opportunity to send up the local architecture which clearly was under the strict control of the twee inspectorate.
“Hello Madam, I am duty bound to inform you that insufficient agricultural brass work is visible for a property of this size. And I will further be carrying out a full investigation of your Wisteria which fails to fulfil the stipulated volume.”
Amused by this, the climb from the sea front soon wiped that smirk from my face especially after Russ had us climb a nasty little rutted trail a couple of times while he lined up his angles. This wasn’t the last time seditious thoughts entered my head around why uphill grinds involved twice as many takes, when compared to flashing past the other way.
Awesome woody trail though. Not what I expected at all with Exmoor being well know for miles or moorland bugger all and stony tracks. Like the Quantocks only ten times bigger with half the number of people. We rode one section many times with Russ directing traffic “Come on this is the best ride you’ve ever had, small you miserable buggers”.
Mike smiled and stuck his pro elbows out while I floundered behind. It really isn’t as easy as it doesn’t look. Trying to maintain a certain gap, mugging a bit when bike enters frame, throwing all sorts of silly shapes all while not crashing through the bushes and into expensive camera kit.
But it’s fun, 90% of which is entirely attributable to riding mountain bikes on new trails, and 10% because you’re an attention whore – so having a pro photographer snapping away makes you feel a whole lot better than you actually are.
And Russ is very, very good. Different to Seb who did his best to teach me the how of MTB photography, what you miss is how much of the job is picking a brilliant location, waiting for right light, positioning the riders, trying different stuff and then just doing it again and again.
Easy eh? It’s not, we shot at one location where a trail bisected a couple of small streams and dived into a few trees throwing roots out into our path. If it were me, I’d have hid behind one of those trees and shot riders passing through. Russ got up high and asked us to ride close with the final shot depicting made up speeds of two riders fighting their way off a treacherous island.
Clever that. Which was more than my forks were making the kind of noises not associated with long life or short on cash. I ignored them as we sallied forth back to our start point for a lunchtime rendezvous with anything majorly calorific. We hadn’t ridden that far, but I was still blowing a bit with the multiple re-runs and trying not to look like a total cock.
Back out again, this time heading up and over the wider moor looking for killer shots with bits of Wales in the background. I surprised everyone with a climbing performance that propelled me so far upwards, I totally failed to stop where Russ wanted the obligatory hill-climbing gurning pose.
Although by this time, I realised that any publication – even if it ran to 13 pages – was likely to feature the professionals rather heavily. I had no problem with that because the riding was fantastic, and we were only hours from some well earned dead pig and a few beers.
What I did have a problem with was the now obviously broken forks. These Rockshox Pikes are known for being indestructible. Apparently the earth will crack before these bastions of the lazy rider can ever break.
I failed to see any obvious shift of the tectonic plates, but my myth busting forks were properly busted. First 30mm of travel absolutely fine, 31mm not fine, not fine at all. Rather than an additional 110mm of coil sprung plushness kicking in, instead sounds I can only describe as “expensive” were getting it on in both stantions.
I explained this predicament to Mike and Russ who showed much needed sympathy quickly followed by a rather less sympathetic the show must go on missive. And so it did to the sounds of crashing components, battered wrists and the background whinge of a pissed off Yorkshireman.
Russ declared the light “gopping” as some kind of spring inversion bathed everything in flat white so we sort of gave up with photography and instead headed off on a track that was not something easily included in a route guide.
I’m not telling you where, but I will tell you that I’ll be back with a working bike and a determined expression. Brilliant and bonkers trail, hugging the cliff edge and rewarding skills failure with a two second tour of interesting geology followed by certain death. Compelling, difficult, seemingly never ending and accompanied by the cacophony of forks somehow becoming even more broken.
The last descent broke me as well. With a working bike it would have been bloody fantastic, steep, rocky, lumpy and silly fast. The back of the bike was working fine and I did consider tackling it in reverse, but settled for a wrist bashing slow navigation accessorised by much grumpiness.
Chilly now, we made our way back up and over to the cars, quickly lobbed stuff inside and headed off to a fantastic B&B that greeted us with much grandeur and stateliness, but was run by a cyclist and man who was happy to share his front room and biscuits with three grimy mountain bikers.
The pub dinner was surprisingly ace based on the general air of flightiness of the place, and the beer was more than good. Drinking a few of those gave us ample time to disgrace ourselves with the pub quiz. Ace trails, much fun, learned some things, broke my bike, drank some beer with old friends. That’s a good day whichever way you look at it.
And if you want to look at it, check out What Mountain Bike this month. As I suspected, my grizzly fizog is generally a blur behind the proper riders but it still was an experience I’m keen to have another crack at.
If asked, this time I’ll prepare with some intense gurning practice in front of the mirror. It’s the one skill I feel I can bring to such an event.
* Except for one impulsive post ride moon to the shocked and staid residents of Chalfont St. Giles. Well with a name like that, well you would have to really.