Posts Tagged ‘mountain biking’

Fun Cycling

July 3, 2013

Riding Grizedale's Red Route

My twelve-year-old son Bob wants cycling to be fun. He’d love life to be one long, uninterrupted stunt show. He craves the adrenaline rush. He’s fearless, constantly searching for, then rising to the next physical challenge, driven to test his limits. Watching him play sometimes scares me so much that – not wanting to stop his boyhood thriving – I look the other way. If his body senses a barrier, it seems compelled to surmount it. Pleasure is for him bodily, not cognitive. He loves fun fairs, laughs out loud at slapstick, and takes wicked delight in playing tricks on sister Flo.

The more fun cycling is, the more he wants to do it. But much of his cycling isn’t much fun, like we’ve taken the fun out of cycling. He rides because he must, as part of a carless family. With enough persuasion he’ll join a family leisure ride. But the riding he wants to do is riding he finds fun: he finds time trialling slightly fun, bunch racing more fun, track racing still more fun, and BMX and mountain biking greatest fun of all.

On the boardwalk

But there are different kinds of mountain biking, and my idea of mountain biking isn’t fun: I want mountain biking to contain those things I find enjoyable about road riding – lack of impediment, smoothness, duration, flow; Bob wants the opposite – obstacles, friction, interruption, difficulty. The rides we’ve done since getting mountain bikes for Christmas have usefully built our off-road skills and confidence, but they’ve been so far away from what makes Bob thrive I almost wince. Slowly trudging over barren, windswept moor does not for him constitute fun, even if the descents are exhilarating.

So giving Bob the MTB fun he craves felt overdue. This means trail centre riding, the more challenging the better. Last year we hired bikes at first Mabie and then Grizedale Forests to get a taste of this style of riding, but we stuck to easy green and blue routes which left Bob unfulfilled, frustrated. Clearly it was time to move up a level, to try a red route. This is Grizedale’s Red Route description:

This trail will take you through the forest by way of sinuous singletrack, offering adrenalising sections of singletrack descent and leg burning climbs. Be warned, there are plenty of challenging boardwalks in case you needed more to be scared of! This trail is suitable for mountain bikers only and requires a high level of skill and fitness.

It doesn’t mention fun, but Bob’s eyes shone as I read it out loud; this is just the kind of language which speaks to him. This sounds like cycling fun!

Falling off

Bam! Bam! Bam! Riding singletrack is like being in a video game where things keep coming at you – rocks, roots, branches, trees – and you must decide whether to dodge or tackle them (my instinct is to dodge; Bob’s – because it’s more fun – to tackle). One thing is quickly eclipsed by the next; there’s no time to dwell, let alone reflect. On the toughest stretches you can’t take your eye off the trail for a second.

Our riding speed is somewhere between the two speeds we regularly move through the countryside – more slowly when hill-walking, faster when road cycling – but the sensation is quite different from either. Riding these narrow, rocky trails requires more intense concentration and quicker reaction than hill-walking ever does, and a much more intimate, nuanced and responsive relationship between terrain, body and bike than road cycling. Because I’m timid I stay mainly upright, but Bob falls often – he shrugs off his tumbles and fears falling so little that he takes risks and learns fast, racing from feature to feature as I follow clumsily behind. I feel my comfort zone intensely, but it’s a concept he seems not to know.

Features are most fun, especially the sections of raised boardwalks and rock paths. These represent specific challenges, test your skill and nerve, and make crystal clear whether you succeed or fail. If Bob fails he tries again. Although I have a go these things feel to me like obstacles placed awkwardly in our path, blocking our ride; which is of course exactly what they are, but Bob interprets them ‘properly’ – to him they’re the whole point we’re here, and form the heart of our ride.

Smooth singletrack

Road riding gives me enormous pleasure but I’d be hard pressed to call it fun. Riding Grizedale’s Red Route helps me see my normal cycling in fresh light – as slightly detached and ponderous. Compared to mountain biking in Bob’s exuberant company, my road riding seems a bit serious; it makes me wonder whether I’m a grumpy old roadie who’s got no sense of cycling fun.

Is cycling fun? Is cycle commuting fun? Could it be? Should it be? Youthful sub-cultures of cycling seem a lot of fun – looking cool on a bike, bicycle polo, alleycats, generally larking around and having fun on bikes. Can we learn something from cycling that’s fun – from mountain biking, from these youthful sub-cultures, from the fun that people – perhaps especially kids – get from cycling?

Is it time to inject more fun into cycling?

Mountain Biking

January 5, 2013

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.