When it comes to cycling I’m a confirmed roadie. I like the metronomic effort on a smooth surface, the mid-ride espresso, the mileage, the height gain and the pristine kit. I like to climb the big name cols and follow (somewhat ponderously) in the tyre tracks of Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and Fignon. I like to hear the whoosh of tarmac beneath the wheels and feel the aerodynamic effects of going to the drops and tucking in. I like to cycle on the roads with friends…and talk about cycling on roads while I do it.
But come the winter months a lot of my mates become mountain bikers and hit the muddy tracks and forest trails on dark winter evenings, head to toe in full winter wrap, with lamps like car headlights. And so, being a sociable type, I join in too.
I first got involved in this last winter. For what seemed like months the air was cold and the ground frozen, and I was learning how to ride this thing in the dark after work. An early trip to Gisburn Forest in Lancashire proved ill-fated as solid muddy ridges and ice capped crests flung me from the bike half a dozen times in an hour and a half. I can’t say I was happy, exactly, but I did enjoy myself – I could see this mountain biking lark had potential. And so this winter I’m back for more, but still a novice reliant on lungs and leg strength in lieu of any recognisable technique. Not knowing the hidden tracks and maze of routes I follow blindly – I go where I’m told to go and just keep pedalling.
The pace and rhythm of a road ride is second nature and I find the sweet spot and tune in, but thus far mountain biking remains elusive. Every now and again we reach a clearing and the group splits and splinters. Circling deliberately, my fellow riders crest ridges and bunny-hop logs, lean back to negotiate drops and bob and weave to duck branches. This change of pace always catches me out…I never quite know when it’s coming. One minute we’re headlong through the forest, attacking loose rocky climbs and holding our nerve, the next we’re…well…messing about – free form, random, back to the BMX bikes of my boyhood.
And so, in a couple of weeks time I’ll be in the deep end and holed up in a cabin in a Welsh forest, still learning the ropes. I’ll be staying in touch on the flat bits, left behind on the down-hills and flailing and floundering on anything technical. There’ll be good fun, laughs, and jokes at each other expense, and when we get to a clearing and the mysterious rituals begin…
…there’ll be me, bemused; a roadie on a mountain bike.