Secret sauce mountain biking
It’s too easy to get stuck in a rut and ride the same trails, so in an effort to shake things up we discard our smartphones and put our faith in local knowledge.
Words: Barney Marsh
Photos: James Vincent
I am guilty of a great many things for which I feel a slight sense of shame. An overwhelming fondness for bed in the mornings — when my children are at their most hyperactive, and my wife is an early riser. Drinking too much coffee when I know I’ll not be near a loo for the next hour. Conveniently using ‘in a minute’ to mean ‘at some point in the next three weeks’. I know I’m not alone.
Unfortunately, among these vague embarrassments is laziness. Not necessarily from a ‘physical activity’ point of view (OK, OK, that too) — but laziness of thought. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and to not even realise it. It’s easy to always eat the same thing for breakfast, go the same way to work every day, to ride the same trails over and over again. The ones from my doorstep, or the ones a 20-minute drive away. They’re ‘easy’ because I know where I’m going, I don’t have to look too hard, and even the technical stuff I know well enough that I can pucker and squeeze down most of it, and it’s easy to congratulate myself that I’ve ridden it — when I couldn’t ride it 10 years ago. I should bloody hope so too, after 10 years of practice at the same bloody feature, when all that time and riding has probably eroded it a bit more anyway, and made it that much easier to ride.
And even when I do venture further afield to ride, it’ll either be to trails I know, or places that I know contain awesome trails. And from there, it’s a simple click and tap of my phone to find trails that other people I’ve never met have labelled ‘awesome’, or ‘nadgery’, or whatever. There may well be photos of the salient features. There might even be video. It’s all very safe; it’s all very easy.
And to an extent, it’s even a bit isolating. Sure, there’s always the shared camaraderie of riding trails with friends, and the euphoria that brings, but of actually ‘discovering’ them? Of not quite knowing what you’re getting into? That secret thrill of finding something that’s not on Strava, that no one knows about? The joy that your mate feels when they turn to you at the end of the run with the connection of something shared? That little (allowably selfish) delight of knowing something that your peers don’t? Sure, I suppose there’s an element of that to ‘discovering’ trails on the internet, but it’s the ones that you stumble upon by accident, or that a mate shows you, that are the most rewarding. And the more time goes by, the more I’m stuck in the same invisible ruts, and those joys become more infrequent. This isn’t something it’s easy to make a concerted effort to change, except to say that when the opportunity presents itself to experience new stuff with old mates, it should be grabbed with both hands.
And so, when James Vincent (a.k.a the Fresh Prince of Carlisle, photographer and occasional wearer of Extremely Short Shorts) called and exhorted me to ride a far-flung trail in the Lake District, I didn’t really feel as if I could say no — not least because turning James down feels a bit like kicking a puppy. The precise location was something of a mystery, however. James had been waxing lyrical for ages about some new trail that he’d been shown, and he’d decided to share it at long last — but the precise location and topology was to be kept a closely guarded secret until we got there. All we knew was that it was in the Lakes somewhere, and that it would be fab. Well, OK then. So, armed with this exhaustive intel, James and I, along with our mates Tom and Rik, hastily convened on what we hoped would be a dry-ish day.
Dry-ish. Well, during the long trip up from Yorkshire to the Lakes, sitting in the passenger seat of an ancient Nissan van, listening to Tom regale me with stories and facts about pylons (not nearly as boring as it sounds), the rain on the windscreen was rather foreboding. At first, it sprinkled. Then it beat, then blatted, and then deluged almost to the point of the wipers not working. I took out my phone and looked at it; the MET office forecast was all “cloudy with some sunshine”. Hmm. This was going to be interesting.
Wetter than an otter’s pocket
Upon arrival, then, vans were parked, bikes were assembled — including some spectacular last-minute fettling involving a missing shock bolt, a Coke can, three pipe cleaners and a wad of used chewing gum, and… it wasn’t raining! This fact, however, offered scant comfort, as the previous deluge — and apparently plenty more in the days prior — had served to cover the road in a glistening sheen of water that was only too keen to transfer itself to our arses with gleeful abandon, via our back tyre. The (five minute prior) decision to not bother with waterproof shorts was proving a little, um, premature. And this was just the bloody road to the trail.
The first bit of trail proper — or, at least, the first off-road — was a stiff climb. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that long, open climbs aren’t the most fun bits, but there are plenty of good reasons why a climb is best done at the beginning; hopefully you’ll wind up with an excellent descent at the end of the day, it’s a good way to warm up and get the worst stuff out of the way first, all that jazz. However, this one in particular was lent an extra special aura by the chafing of now-dripping shorts against thigh, and a somewhat uncomfortable feeling from a now thoroughly moistened chamois. As we swung towards a slightly less than exceptionally pretty phone mast, there was a break in the clouds, and the sun came out. This was just the excuse James needed to perch himself somewhere discreet in order that the rest of us could ride backwards and forwards through a wide selection of ever- deepening puddles. I didn’t realise that Trench Arse could be a thing, but I was beginning to suspect it might be before the day was out.
And then came the first descent. Although it had stopped raining, there was absolutely no chance of us remaining dry; the trail was a beautiful ribbon of gleaming silver, as the light reflected off the water that covered it. It was difficult to admire the view, glorious as it was, as we tussled with bikes, water, wildly variable grip and the fickle vicissitudes of James’ lens on the way down. Once we’d managed to persuade James that we might actually need to get going before we came down with something fatal, the descent was a (very gloopy) delight. Aquaplaning, we were totally unaware of which bits of trail actually had traction and which bits didn’t until we’d ridden over them and found out the hard way. By the time we reached the bottom, my spirits had begun to rise substantially. That. Was. Fun. And — er — wet. But mostly fun. And wet.
Curiously, after a short spin up the valley on mercifully well-drained double track, the trail split into two. On one side, it continued up the side of the valley, and headed over to the trail we needed; on the other, it crossed a bridge over the river before winding up the opposite side of the valley. James was adamant we should go this way. The reason soon became apparent — crossing the river again was a ford, with some pretty stepping stones which enabled moisture-averse riders to skip daintily across the river while ensuring that their tootsies remained dry. Or, at least that’s what I imagine may have happened if weather hadn’t happened with a capital “W”. As it was, water cascaded over the stones with vim and gusto; it soaked our whimpering, pathetic feet with brio and pep.
We tried to ride it, we really did. First of all, James waded through and got his camera out with a gleeful cackle to record our misadventures. One by one, we set out to ride through, only to find out that two to three feet of very fast sideways-moving water presents something of a challenge. And frankly, not one that can easily be defeated when there’s a highly amused man with a camera trying to capture you looking ridiculous. On the plus side, it was weirdly warm, and hence not completely unpleasant, until we’d struggled and spluttered to the other side, that is, and the chills set in. I made a mental note that, next time I was faced with a ride as moist as this, I was going to bring a small portable stove and some sausages. Either to eat, or to stuff in my socks to warm my feet up.
The long and grinding road
After the ford, we’d seen a few 4x4s labouring up the other side of the hill. Slower than walking pace; frequent stopping; lots of yelling and gesticulation. As it happens, that sentence described us as well as it did them, as the slipperiness, or the gradient, or the terrain, or pure unadulterated laziness meant that pushing was by far the most civilised option after a short while. Especially if we wanted to look our best for James’s camera. And I needed all the help I could get.
I don’t know what it is about bikers that we are capable of so many different shades of delayed gratification. For every sweet thread of glorious nadgery singletrack, there’s another horrendous climb that has to be ground, gurned, or — more likely with my increasing years and waistline — pushed up. But that weary trudge keeps us coming back and back again, for a brief taste of the sweetest gossamer trail on the other side. Or, in this case, the huge, wide doubletrack of maximum steppyness. Oh, this promised to be fun.
By now, the weather had well and truly cleared up, and we were treated to a truly glorious descent — wide, for sure, but massively slate-y with plenty of slithery line choice options (and mistakes) for the unwary. It was usually best to let the bike go where it wanted, to try and keep the front wheel in front of the back one, and to issue direction changes by nothing so much as some sort of puckered-arse telepathy. Eventually, we finally caught up with the 4x4ers, who’d all regrouped at the bottom of the descent for a fag and a dog-walking break. Offers of beer and smokes politely declined, all that remained was a brief waterlogged climb, followed by another waterlogged descent back to the waiting car.
It seems that, even in the throes of either a New Technological Dawn, or the End Times, whichever this turns out to be (my money’s on the latter), and even with new trails at our fingertips, the collective cultural mindset still seems to gravitate towards places it *knows*, even if there are options of trails elsewhere that might be far, far less trodden. It makes sense — after all, if you’ve never ridden the Lakes before, the first place you’ll head to will be one of the honeypots. Keswick, say. It’s all to the good, then, that there’s still a place for friends, and their magical powers of persuasion. Computers or phones can’t cajole. They can’t convince, or wheedle. They can’t promise anything beyond what you allow yourself to be open to; people have access to much more mysterious ways of getting you to do what they want, and can convince you that they know better trails. Ones that aren’t nearly as well ridden, but which can offer the same thrill of technical challenge, as well as a sense that you’re riding something not often ridden. People, in short, are much better than computers at convincing you that they know best.
And sometimes, they’re right.