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.

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