Mountain Biking

Bobby climbing Longsledale Pass

January’s off to an exceptionally mild start in England’s north-west. Riding conditions have been ideal for this time of year, so I’m getting some decent miles in. I’m a road cyclist at heart; I advocate for more quality, dedicated space for cycling in cities but out in the countryside I love riding on roads – the quieter the better. But yesterday the winter road bike took a rest and Bobby and I went mountain biking in the Lake District.

Until now I’ve only dabbled in mountain biking. It’s never held much appeal, but I’m hoping that’s about to change. I’ve an eleven year old son. For him the idea of hurtling fast downhill over rocky ground is much more exciting than pedalling fluidly across smooth tarmac. Last year we experimented with mountain biking as a family, hiring bikes at both Grizedale in the Lakes and Mabie in southern Scotland. At Mabie we also got some coaching in the basics from Ruth Asbery of Bottle Green Biking. Sue and Flo tolerated these experiences, but they’re in no hurry to repeat them. I quite enjoyed them, though I remain much happier on the road. But Bobby simply shone. He shows little fear, rising to and relishing the challenge of traversing difficult ground.

This is a lad who’s growing up fast and like most kids can easily spend whole weekends glued to screens. So we bought two mountain bikes for Christmas. My hope is we’ll make mountain biking a shared activity and maintain a bond between us. If there’s a chance it’ll prevent – or at least defer – our drifting apart, I’m up for it.

Bikes out of boxes and ready to ride, yesterday was the start. And an experiment … We’re surrounded by fantastic mountain biking country, but how to get there without a car? We took the train to Staveley. Fingers’ crossed it always goes as smoothly. £11.05 return for both us and our bikes to get to a great departure point, complete with super café, fantastic pub/brewery, and excellent bike shop. This could be the beginning of a great adventure.

We rode north on tarmac to begin with, up Kentmere valley. It was so mild we rode without gloves. The River Kent flowed fast; it’s been a wet Christmas. I’d never travelled this road before – on a road bike, it doesn’t go anywhere. As the valley widens at Kentmere Tarn a splendid view unfurls of high fells to the north. I was seeing the Lakes in a new way, and beginning to see the magic in mountain biking. Riding alongside Bobby felt great. I think like me he was excited and apprehensive at a ride started but still unknown. My (irrational) irritation with his holiday slovenliness, which I’d felt building over Christmas and New Year, dissolved under the pleasure of riding together through the weak winter light.

Concentrating hard!

Just short of the road head at Hallow Bank we turned east to start the steep stony climb up Longsleddale Pass. Across uneven ground Bobby rides with a grace I can scarcely believe. Meanwhile I’m almost spectacularly inept, struggling to hold my nerve and line through slippery mud and stone. Technically he’s way better than me, though rides such as this should force me to improve. I’m surprised how much concentration it takes to stay upright and move forward. When I lose focus my foot goes almost immediately to ground. Sue and I sometimes worry Bobby struggles to focus on school work; but such anxieties evaporate out here, seeing him flow, in his element.

Difficult descent

Mountain biking seduces me. The relationship to your immediate environment, especially the ground just ahead, is intense; the effort required hard, yet over so quickly. The experience creates deep moments different from those produced through road rides (the closest equivalent is a really demanding climb). It’s intoxicating.

The descent off the Pass is incredibly steep and technical, full of jagged, unforgiving rock. I’m relieved Bobby is happy to dismount for the most difficult section. It’s a challenge just to steady our bikes, made frisky without our weights on them. We turn south onto a bridleway across open fell. Mist descends, drizzle sets in, and the going gets tough – neither the ease of tarmac nor the exhilaration of technical track, this is simply bog. It feels exposed and hostile. It’s time to dig in. I worry Bobby will falter, but he doesn’t.

Muddy bridletrack

We spend long sections pushing through mud. I have the same ambivalent feeling I get when fell walking in harsh weather; part of me wanting to be down in the valley, cosy and safe, but part of me happy to stay up high, because it’s the continuing experience which produces the yearning for comfort and which enables its eventual indulgence to be truly savoured.

We plough south round Cocklaw, Green Quarter and Staveley Head Fells and finally the ground begins to fall away. With gravity in our favour we’re able now able to ride over the kind of terrain which on the upward side had stopped us in our tracks. We hit a long section of single track which snakes down off the moorland. Something switches in my head and I’m suddenly able to go for it in a way which a couple of hours earlier I couldn’t have. Bobby keeps with me easily as we fly down the fell. The last miles are a delicious clattering blur of rock, stone, mud and moss. Contrary to my expectations this is a superb way to be experiencing my favourite corner of the world. We rocket onto Hall Lane and down over Barley Bridge into Staveley. The descent ensures we finish with an adrenaline rush which will I hope make us impatient to return.

Mud spattered, we eat a late lunch and hang out in Wilf’s Café. And I think how happy I’d be to have five more years of this mountain biking.

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16 Responses to “Mountain Biking”

  1. under the skies of arkansas Says:

    looks like a good fun machine out there

  2. kevinmayne Says:

    My son and I always mix road with MTB, for years it was his first love. Some great moments for us both which we really treasure still.

    Special times.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks very much for reading and taking the time to comment Kevin, much appreciated. And great to know we’re entering a firm ‘father and son’ tradition here (it’d be good to hear your memories and reflections sometime …

      I’m particularly interested, I guess (mainly as a father, but partly as a sociologist) on the kinds of ‘glue’ which nowadays can be effective between parents and their children, as – in environments absolutely saturated with media, communication and information technologies, children start to make their bids for independence, whilst parents try their best to ‘stay with’ and equip them for that transition)).

      All the best, Dave

      • kevinmayne Says:

        As well as the social glue I think the values rub off too.

        Perhaps one of my proudest moments from all this was as my son approached his 17th birthday he expressed his complete antipathy to his dumb mates who were wasting their money trying to pass the driving test or run a car.

        It worked on his Dad because the MTB he got for that 17th birthday is still the most expensive bike in our house!

        Maybe we’ll catch up at Velo-city this year Dave?

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Brilliant! I hope the same is true for us.

        And hey, even the most expensive bike has got to be cheaper than the costs of learning to drive, and then affording a car (especially at that age – annual insurance alone could probably keep you up-to-date with cutting edge cycling kit!).

        Yep, I’ll be at Velo-city, so see you there! (Look forward to it 😉

  3. Tom Cahill Says:

    Do it now before you get older and start to worry about falls and old bodies, which are inevitable with mountain biking. both the age and the falls. Usually not a problem of course.

    A wonderful story. Just that tiny bit of reflection which makes a very detailed and personal story all that much better. Nice one.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Tom. I forgot to mention I crashed! Front wheel got stuck in mud, and over the top I went. Bobby came off too, but he doesn’t seem to care.

      • Tom Cahill Says:

        I mentioned that because I tried the VTT, as we say here, for the first time in my life, about three or four years ago. It was great. An entire new map of the countryside unfolded. the pace of rides with other guys was superb, lots of stopping and chatting, waiting for a slow person. Lots of support and tips for going down “technical” bits. But I did fall a lot. Not enough to ruin the feelings, but enough to notice. I still feel like I will do it again. I stopped becasue I bought the wrong VTT and never got around to exchanging it. I bought it WITH good advice, by internet, big mistake, but my fault. My expert advisor asked me what I was going to do with it, and I guessed wrong. Good question, bad answer. Great activity though.

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Still, nothing beats the road, eh? I’m all for broadening my repertoire, but my first love remains intact. (I’ve just gone and got myself a race licence for this year, yikes! Which means the most obvious reason not to do some crits down at Salt Ayre has been removed; watch this space for news of how it goes ..)

        For the first time ever, I also bought our bikes over the internet, and was (obviously) worried about whether I’d made the right choice. I opted to go lightweight hard-tails, because weight is particularly I think an issue for Bobby (especially when having to push uphill), and because the lass who trained us at Mabie Forest thought having a hard-tail rather than full-suspension would tend to make him (and me?!) a more skilled rider. I *think* I made good choices, but only time will tell (I figured these are the bikes we’ll use least often (maybe once/month, on average), but they need to last us a good ten years – the bike we got for Bobby will do for Flo, and also Sue, when he outgrows it).

  4. Derek Buckley Says:

    Good effort mate

    Love to the gang x x


    • Dave Horton Says:

      Cheers Derek, hope the light is still working well. Catch up soon (though we’re off to Coniston for the night on Saturday – lots of snow up there!). Dave

  5. dexey Says:

    I had a couple of days basic mountain bike skills training just after my 64th birthday last year. It has resulted in an off road tourer and a bridle and tow path bike. They join the road tourer, the ‘bent, the town bike and the folders.
    So many ways to cycle. Isn’t it wonderful? :0)

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Dexey. Yes, it is wonderful (we just need to spread the wonder to more people!). I aspire to still be trying new ways of cycling when I’m 64 (I think we could re-write that song (The Beatles, if anyone’s wondering), eh, in ways specific to cycling? ‘-)) Great to hear that you’re still experimenting and having fun, and thanks for making time to comment. Please, keep reading! All the best, Dave

  6. mikeinwestcork Says:

    That’s a brilliant excuse/ reason for Dad to get new bike! “I need it to get my son off the computer”…. Looks like the first of many great days. It seems like you have it firmly in your mind that his bones are greener and more bendy than yours but do try to keep up.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Ha! I guess my ideal would be for Bobby to keep cycling, and actually to take to it to the extent that it happens (at least sometimes) at his instigation rather than mine. But if that ideal comes about, the inevitable outcome is he’ll get stronger and faster, as I (most likely) get weaker and slower! To that extent, it’s slightly worrying that he already out-paces me over the most tricky terrain. By 14 he’ll be in the cafe and on his second hot chocolate by the time I arrive!

      • Tom Cahill Says:

        Well, while the eternal problem of what to do when (always) there are riders of different abilities and fitness has no solution that is permanent and viable for all situations, I guess you have to teach him some manners. The stronger can always go slower, the weaker cannot go faster. When you go out with a person that is slower than you are, this creates an ethical and sportive dilemma. I have noticed that VTT practitioners tend to stay together more than road riders. Although that varies too. I guess you might have to talk about it.

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