It was obvious I was catching John. Straining against the clawing headwind, I tried a bit harder and gained ground with each burning rotation of the pedals. At the turn I was on John’s wheel, as we looped around to head back down the dual carriageway, the wind came aft and we fought neck and neck for
Then, on a climb, I was on my own as John was left behind. The finish was visible a long way off, 400 yards, 200 yards, my wheels seemed to skim across the wet tarmac I was going so fast, 100 yards, out of the saddle to sprint just like Greg Lemond, 50 yards and the time keepers were a blur to my left. I had finished my first ever 25 mile time trial. I recorded a time of 1hr, 5 mins and 30 or so seconds. I fine result, I felt.
But that was 22 years ago. I stopped cycling a few years later. A combination of reasons: a new career as a computer engineer had me travelling all over the country so I couldn’t get the miles in, but also a sense of tiredness, boredom even. Having worked in a bike shop I could talk endlessly about chains and sprockets and frame angles, but it wasn’t enough. So I bid the cycling world a fond farewell thinking that maybe one day I’d return.
I dallied with the Adirondack Bicycle Club of Rhode Island. The ride around Ocean Drive is just stunning. The vast Atlantic, a few yards away, sometimes spitting spray contemptuously in my face, sometimes benign and relaxed, always beautiful. Past those huge mansions of the 1920’s and 30’s, euphemistically known as summer cottages, like gigantic fossils from a different age.
Life is full of twists and turns, one of these had me back in Blair’s oh so cool Britannia. An exciting new opportunity to take the service provider market by storm with Neos’ radical optical Ethernet services, which I branded Liquid Bandwidth(tm). Back to Maidenhead, Thames Valley, South East England, a rock climbers’ desert and so far from the sea, it’s not where a sailor would choose to live. So what to do?
I did a few reliability rides with the High Wycombe Cycling Club and was very satisfied with being able to hang on, just, to the back wheels of these super-fit folk. But it didn’t excite, there was no adrenalin rush. So back to the drawing board. The answer, when it came, was blindingly obvious – mountain biking!
It’s true that there aren’t any mountains in the Thames Valley. But there are dozens and dozens of offroad tracks going all over the Chilterns, and they represent an absolute paradise for MTBrs, as we call ourselves. Having borrowed a top spec Marin, full susser, disc brakes, from Simon at the fabulous Cycle Care and (almost) completing a route – I was hooked! What a hoot!
Oh dear, said Climbing Mark, you’re going to do it aren’t you? Yup – I shelled out, well, quite a bit last weekend on an almost top spec Marin, full susser, disc brakes, from Simon at the fabulous Cycle Care. And this weekend, this weekend, we had our honeymoon. I joined the boys at 9:30 in High Wycombe and within minutes we were blatting down bridal paths, creating a tidal wave through a ford (well Greame did, anyway), and generally having a blast.
The first fall was embarrassing. Not serious in any way, just silly. Through a narrow entrance marked by a couple of sticks, a mountain bike handlebar’s width apart, snick down a gear to negotiate a gnarly old root, and I was totally caught out with the torque generated by the super-low gears. As I levered the bars up to get the front wheel over the root, they just kept on coming. By the time I had them back under some sort of control I was off the track, ploughing a wobbly furrow at about half a mile an hour into the vegetation and down I went, bizarrely bum first, but fortunately onto a soft pile of moss and leaves. A quick remount, catch the boys, and we’re away again.
The first major descent was epic – at least for me, an MTB neophyte. Lots of loose flint pinging away under the fat knobbly tyres, the suspension working overtime to keep maximum grip as we plummeted down the track. The astonishing power of the hydraulic disk brakes eased the speed, giving at least the illusion that the mad rushing world was somewhat within my comfort zone. I feel invulnerable on my motorbike, but there were no reassuring leathers with body armour protection today. Just microscopically thin lyrca. The concentration to find the best route was intense, threading through big stones that could have you off in a hearbeat. The consequences of a spill here were horrendous.
The adrenalin rush was back. Breaking out of the trees, the surface changed to chalk – dry chalk thankfully as wet chalk is as slippery as ice. The gradient eased and we regrouped for a climb up to Stockenchurch. Even in the deepest depth of the countryside, the radio tower there stands as a beacon to guide the roaming herds of MTBrs, rather like Fawley power station acts as a great landmark for so many sailors miles away from the Solent.
The second fall was on this climb. The Landrover-width gravel track narrowed to a mud single track, brambles and stingers whipping arms and legs as we passed by. A sudden stop, a traffic jam, as we filter right past a quagmire. A few yards of roller coaster riding, sudden dips, another pesky root, a too sharp turn of the bars and over them I go, a right pearler. I land with a thud and a crash and an image of Roger Melly the Man on Telly flashes into my head as he says “Bollocks”. Concern from the other riders, but I’m sure they must have been thinking what a jerk. Up I get, straighten the bars, reassure everyone that I’m fine, and we crack on.
And don’t we just! My legs were hurting! On the road it’s easy to get into a rhythm, focus on maintaining that, and just keep going. However off road, the constantly undulating gradient, the constantly changing surface – sometimes gravel, sometimes grass, sometimes mud, sometimes hard, sometimes smooth,
makes it impossible to get into a groove. Up and down the gears I went as I try to keep up with the others, but the gap widens.
The second major descent of the day was epic squared. No – make that cubed. Down the steep face of the escarpment, a wide heavily rutted, chalky, flinty, confused, bridlepath took us. Swerving from one side to the other to avoid the most serious looking crevasses, again those incredible disk brakes do their job, never fading. And suddenly we’re stopping. One or two of the group have overshot the right turn we need, up over a lip and down, so steeply I think I’m going to bottle out.
Over the lip I go and crap, crap, crap I haven’t been able to get my left foot cleat into the binder on the pedal. But no time to sort it, just hope for the best. Sit right back, way back, almost on the back wheel, trying to maximise traction between rubber and the crazily random surface. There isn’t really time to plan, just point the bike and hope to stay upright. Crashing over roots, the path becomes a trench, up the walls we go, back down we come, flying over some odd shaped steps made by Mother nature, a pretty good landing on both wheels, the suspension soaking up the crunch. I haven’t done anything this daft since my mate and I raced through Sanderstead woods on our “buggy bikes” and the world seemed unimaginably massive.
Wow! What a buzz! We all made it safely down and headed for the Chiltern Way. I was struggling, now. I felt empty, light, with no energy, the sensation that cyclists dread called “the Bonk” was upon me. Each turn of the pedals seemed to take an age and I knew I had to bail out, to submit to 20 years of not getting the miles in.
The ride back to High Wycombe on my own was dreadful. Half way up the A40 climb to Stockenchurch, the front tyre went flat. My spare inner tube had the wrong valve for my pump. This kind of thing saps the will to live. It was a slow puncture, so I resigned myself to having to stop every so often and pump the damn thing up. I guess I got about 2 miles between pumps, but at last I got back to the car.
The off road experience more than compensated for the aggravation of the final few miles, the puncture, being totally knackered, and running out of drink. As I sit here, surveying my tame garden, listening to Van the Man Morisson, I feel virtuously tired and I’m looking forward to the next epic adventure in the Chilterns. Perhaps I’ve returned.