Mapping the trail ahead …

I’m a bit of map geek.  It fits in with my general ‘control freakiness, need to know where I’m going in life’ kinda tendencies.  As a mountain biker this turns out to be a useful thing cause it means that you can pretty much rely on me to know the lay of the land.  A few rides round a new area or loop are typically enough to imprint the experience sufficiently for me to be able to ride them again the next time with limited map consultations.  For areas that I know well there’s nothing better than leading a merry dance down sneaky side shoots, or nipping into singletrack where the opening is hidden by heather, but from which the trail opens out into loamy woodland, banking through off camber turns before popping back out onto the fireroad at the base of the forest.

All this ‘directioneering’ doesn’t exempt me from getting lost, cause trust me when I say that I’ve done plenty of that in my time; but consulting and reading maps has always been an integral part of the mountain biking experience for me and I can’t imagine it any other way.  Going somewhere new?  Get a map.  Planning a variation on an old favourite? Pull out the ‘ruffled round the edges’ OS and get plotting.

There’s been a lot of talk in the mags lately about the changing face of mountain biking driven to a larger or lesser extent – depending on your view – by the seemingly exponential growth of the trail centre.  With their post mounted direction arrows, trail centres offer a navigation free riding experience. Rewards are gleaned from skill, speed, stamina and the occasional forest break viewpoint, without the worry of needing to know how to find your way home.

For what it’s worth, I like trail centres, but I guess I also harbour a ‘traditionalist’ view that says as a mountain biker you should appreciate what exploration can offer you (how else are you gonna find those sneaky singletrack shortcuts?) and to do that, you really do need to consult a map.

For some time I had imagined that my ‘be prepared’ take to travelling off road was, for the most part, a shared thing.  You know, the kind of tacit knowledge that is largely unspoken among people who share a common interest.  I say, ‘for the most part’ because over the last few years I’ve started to harbour a niggling doubt, that the connection between trails and maps is not what it once was.  This was brought home on a recent ride round a favourite cluster of hills, where the number of ‘incidents’ coalesced in such a way that they went from ‘anomaly’ to ‘worrying pattern’ in the space of a short few climbs and descents.

The first couple of groups we met needing help were at least brandishing something resembling a map (I’ve always wondered why those ‘pull out’ versions from the mags don’t come accompanied with a health warning) and they were happy enough to admit that a real map may have served them better.  But their approach to route finding seemed positively organised when we were confronted with two lost guys proffering a blank featureless ‘printed off the internet’ page with the sole distinguishing ‘navigational feature’ being an orange squiggle marking the way they wanted to go. Needless to say they weren’t where they thought they were, and appreciated having the route back to their cabin explained in terms of real ‘on the ground’ features as opposed to the randomly generated place names on their printout that didn’t actually exist in the real world.

The best by far though, was the large group of blokes who had stopped ahead of us in the combe clearing and were looking for directions.  Where were they going?  They didn’t know.  Were they following a route? Er, no.  Did they have a map? No.  Not a single map between them? Er, no. So essentially they were riding around the hills in a random way relying on the kindness of strangers then? Erm, yes, and could they follow us please.  They were used to following the arrows back home but there didn’t seem to be any here …

Ok I jest, as they were too, but actually their unpreparedness was genuine and after the laughter had subsided and we had sent them kindly on their way, I got to thinking about what these incidents say about the direction of travel [literally] for some mountain bikers, and perhaps for mountain biking more broadly. Are we nurturing a new set of navigationally illiterate mountain bikers, or will the ‘spill out’ from the man made thrill parks inspire the kind of excitement for adventure that accompanied our first forays over rock and dirt?

To be honest I’m not sure which way it’s gonna go, but what I do know is that my love affair with maps is a lifelong thing – so if even a small bit of my enthusiasm for ‘knowing the way’ rubs off; then I can travel on happy.


A moment of perspective …

It’s easy when you’ve been riding a long time to fall into a routine where the activity itself has become accompanied by a set of accoutrements and a series of rituals that belie the actual challenge ahead. Camelbak stuffed with shock pump, mini tool, snack bar, phone, spare top, buff, first aid kit, jelly beans, banana – anyone? Fettle with forks, fiddle with bolt-thru, tyre pressures, OK – check!

Sometimes you just need a little reminder, a moment where the essence of ‘why’ smacks you squarely in the face.  Yesterday was one of those days.  As we wound up the gentle forest incline a cursory glance confirmed my sense of an approaching rider and we spun wide to let him past.  And there he was, pounding along on his old, rigid touring bike, wind in his hair, tracky bottoms and T-shirt flapping, gloveless, grinning.  He whistled on by, effortlessly; his arms and legs providing suspension, with trainers doubling up as emergency brakes. We saw him twice more as we meandered through the forest – the descending had a tendency to rattle those pannier straps loose, forcing him to stop momentarily for a quick fix.   Then off he went again, unencumbered, happy and free, it really was all about the ride.

If the cumulative effects of routine and habit are weighing you down [literally] and you feel like life, with it tendrils of responsibility and expectation is depleting your energy, then maybe, just maybe it’s time to simplify.

Let me know how you go.

Gravity my friend …

And then I looked up at the sun and I could see

Oh the way that gravity turns for you and me

And then I looked up at the sky and saw the sun

And the way that gravity pulls on everyone

On everyone…*

The other day I found myself lying in a meadow. All around me the new growth was creating a species rich carpet, fuelled by the combination of wetness and warmth that marks the transition from spring to summer.  Insects and butterflies were beginning to explore the emergent summer flowers, and high in the sky above, a buzzard rested with an air of nonchalance on the warm currents rising from the earth below.  In my position, gazing up at the sky, I felt comfortable, supported and grounded.  The earth was holding my weight. In this restful, calm, moment – gravity was my friend.

And yet, it has often seemed that when I’m on my bike, my relationship with gravity is more diffident.  There is no small irony in the observation that I have found my issues with gravity, hard to ‘pin down’.

There was a particular sunny afternoon, riding a perfect ribbon of singletrack down a familiar combe, flanked by bracken and gorse. I was enjoying the effortlessness of the downward trajectory – no pedal strokes necessary – just my weight and the rotation of the wheels delivering me to the base of the valley through the stream rivulets as they casually meandered back and forth across the trail.  The bank edges provided just enough depth to slingshot the corners, and the loose sections shed temporary dust clouds, kicked up by the rolling treads ahead of me.  If I could have bottled the essence of ‘perfect summer singletrack riding’, it was then and there.

In a split second I had become weightless, but not in that magical way you get when pumping a lip or a perfectly situated trailside stump for air.  No, this was one of those ‘I’m not sure what just happened, but I know with absolute certainty that it isn’t going end well’ moments of weightlessness that can only mean one thing.  I was now disconnected from my bike and gravity was going to return me to the earth unceremoniously and without grace – pain was a distinct possibility.

It’s fascinating how quickly your brain can process the unexpected. I remember clearly somersaulting through the spiky undergrowth as it ripped at my skin, the bizarre, extended freefall, and then the sudden thud as I landed flat on my back at the base of the gully, staring up at the sky.  From my prone, streambed position I had a picture postcard view of the weather at work, as wispy, high altitude clouds scudded across the watercolour blue backdrop. Above me, all was calm and serene.

But, this was not a moment to be cosseted by, or to commune with, nature. Gravity had dealt me a harsh blow, and as if in defiance I jumped straight to my feet in a [admittedly feeble] bid to exert my authority and control over the situation. This probably wasn’t the best thing to do given the distance of the fall – I had to walk down the stream to scramble back out, as the bank was too steep and high at the point where I had landed to extract myself – but the propulsion to rise up immediately was instinctive and strong.

I don’t think you need to go all ‘sciency’ to appreciate that gravity is a tricky thing to understand. But, this particular episode did make me think more about how as a rider you really can help yourself by being more mindful of how your choices along the trail will work best with the forces of nature.  Because as much as you or I might wish for it – it’s never going to be about exerting control over gravity.  In reality it’s more of a dance, where you have to learn to work with and respect its part in your enjoyment of the moment.   Learn to dance well, and it’s less likely to hurt you too.

*Lyrics from ‘Gravity’ by Embrace (2002/2004) … written by Chris Martin.

Panic braking? Time to face ‘the flinch’…

It’s a sensation familiar to most mountain bikers, that moment when the trail takes you to the cusp of your skills quotient and there’s a split second decision to make.  Attempt to stop, or ride it out.  I’ve written before about the role the sub-conscious mind plays in making your decisions for you.  Sometimes, when the learning and the practice comes together there can be a synchronicity of action on your part, that somehow transcends all the individual elements of the trail’s complexity ensuring the success of your manoeuver.

But, unfortunately it seems that quite often in mountain biking that reflexive action, the flinch; well it does you no favours at all.  Panic braking; you know it’s not going to help, but almost everyone, at some point, will have instinctively hauled on the anchors in a bid for self-preservation and the avoidance of impending damage and disaster.  I remember talking to Chris Ball about this phenomenon in relation to the different disciplines of the sport.  His observation was that gravity inspired riders generally have a better capacity to override the inherent, fear-based instinct, and allow momentum to exert a more positive influence on the chances of staying upright and intact.

I’ve thought a lot about this since, and I think it’s fair to say that you have to be incredibly mindful in your riding to reprogramme a thought process that rests on evolutionary foundations of a geological scale.  Deliberately fisting the grips and leaving the brakes uncovered in less challenging scenarios, goes some way to creating a conscious denial process that can, over time, be translated more effectively in those split seconds when the going gets squirrely.

As part of my journey to actively retrain my instincts I’ve recently discovered and been inspired by the writing of Julien Smith, in particular the messages articulated in his ebook ‘The Flinch’*.  In it he talks about how a combination of nature and nurture hardwiring, guides us to avoid the unknown, the potentially painful, the difficult, the uncertain, and to follow the safe path of least resistance and change.  He observes that we habitually avoid what we see as dangerous, even when there is no real evidence to support the perception we unconsciously carry with us, that our wellbeing and safety is threatened.  His key message: see the flinch for what it is, a fear without foundation.  Flinch forward, deal with the consequences, as it is only by constantly challenging the flinch that you start to really recognise it for what it is and become aware of the obstacles it creates for you, whether on the trail or in life.

Now, I’m not advocating that you go out and launch yourself down the scariest downhill trail section you can find, so that you can learn life lessons in casualty.  But if you want to improve your riding experience, then maybe, just maybe it’s time to take some active steps to face the flinch. The life benefits, well hey, they are there for the taking.

Julien’s quote of Ralph Waldo Emerson is apt:

‘Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail’.

*Julien uses a mountain biking analogy in his writing and therefore scores extra brownie points from me.

Life mechanics, it’s the sum of its parts

“It’s no good, something’s not right, I‘m gonna have to stop for a minute”.  Sound familiar?  With the exception of the exclusively solo rider, pretty much everyone at some point in their riding history will experience that moment when the pair or group grinds to a halt as the annoyance of the offending ‘thing’ overwhelms the instinct to keep turning the pedals no matter what.

Sometimes it’s just a little hiccup – a squirt of oil on the chain guide roller, was all that was needed to keep my spinning karma firmly intact on this weekend’s ride.  But at other times, it seems that your theoretically simple bicycle takes on a unique complexity of its own, and no amount of trailside tweaking can solve the niggle.  So you rattle on round the rest of your loop, muttering about ‘suspension settings, bearing wear, tyre pressures, worn out running gear’… while mentally scrolling through the possible factors that could explain why your once perfectly tuned and fettled machine, is no longer behaving how you expect it to.

Head down and distracted, you don’t notice the first hint of bluebells grabbing the light before the woodland canopy bursts into life, you miss the fleeting glimpse of a young deer startled by your passage, and you barely register the growing richness of the pastures as the passage of the seasons gathers pace.

Back in the workshop, it takes a systematic and patient hand to trace the problem, and to diagnose and fix the source of your discontent.  As often as not, this involves a dismantling and rebuilding process, with washers and bolts ‘pinging’ off metalwork in a bid to escape.  To understand what’s going on – or going wrong – you have to be prepared to look at the bike’s parts and the connections; but the effort is worth it for the smooth shifting and quiet rotations that mark its return to a functioning whole.  With this time invested, its role as your transporter and vehicle to a world of sensation and experience is restored.

Bike mechanics providing life lessons?

Sometimes, you just have to be prepared to step back a bit and look again at the constituent parts.  It’s how you choose to put them together that makes all the difference.

Pump, pedal, pump, pedal … repeat

A few weeks ago we woke up to one of those crystal, clear, crispy mornings that we’ve been waiting for all winter.  The ‘work’ or ‘bike’ decision didn’t require much debate and pretty soon we were packed up and good to go.  We’ve been meaning to head across to the new trails at Ashton Court/ Leigh Woods, in Bristol for some time now – it’s funny isn’t it, how sometimes you end up driving right on past some of the riding that’s closest to you.  Today was the day we veered off the M5 and stopped for a change.

Designed and sculpted by Phil Saxena and his Architrail crew, these new trails have been developed under the auspices of the 1SW project, which you’ve probably heard of if you live in the South West.  If you haven’t, head over to for all the info.

To be honest I didn’t have great expectations of these trails.  I’m generally a head for the hills kind of a girl, and my rides need at least one aspect – preferably more – from an ingredients list that includes: ‘big hills; great views; rocky downs; rocky ups; tree roots; and cake stops in remote places’ for it to have felt like riding for me. I’d read up on, and absorbed the various comments on these new trails, so I also had random bits of ‘locals angst’ and ‘media praise’ rattling around in my head before we’d even committed rubber to dirt. With the gift of pure blue skies I expected to see more people on the trails, but wasn’t complaining that it was only the odd solitary rider, and the obligatory ‘What MTB’ photoshoot that we encountered on our laps.

And it is with some surprise that I can report that these trails are actually quite a good crack!  Think speedy, fast rolling scalextric track, which sounds horrid but actually is properly fun once you get up to speed.  There are some ‘red/ technical’ offshoots in places but actually these are more like ‘flow breakers’ and you are better off sticking to the main trail and keeping the momentum going.

My suggestion, pack a light weight hardtail, a friend – maybe two – wind down the forks and spend a happy hour or so chasing each other as fast as you can round laps of pedal, pump, manual, pump, pedal.  It’ll make for a good workout and your flat corners, berm riding and pumping skills will be pretty sorted by the time you’ve finished.  No doubt this trail will rough up over time, so if you want to experience the smoothness, go now while it’s still young.