Pre-breakfast Ride in Croyde

I’m currently on holiday in Croyde, North Devon, with my family, but I also brought my hardtail along, hoping to fit in a ride or two. On Friday I rode to Braunton for fish and chips, but that was just a road ride, and I really wanted to hit the trails! On my trip last year I bought a cycle map from Croyde Cycle, and had identified a suitable loop.

When I got onto the first bridleway out of Croyde, I had underestimated just how rocky it would be. It was also steep. Steep enough that I had to push my bike up it, which gave me plenty of time to worry about riding back down it at the end of the ride. The trail was similar to what I was riding around Ladybower – but I was on my Four there, with a dropper post, grippier tyres and much better brakes. Eventually I got to the top of the ridge that separates Croyde and Saunton Sands – time for the climb to pay off! The trail down the Saunton Sands side wasn’t as steep or rocky, but it was a lot narrower, a really good piece of single track. There were a few rock slabs at the bottom, which I got to inspect closely after choosing the wrong line. Fortunately it was at low speed. I then followed the bridleway/coast path behind Braunton Burrows. The first section had a “Beware of the bulls sign”, fortunately without any bulls. The next section was through the golf course, with signs warning about golfers – there were none. Then the final section was behind the Royal Marines training area. You guessed it, there were warning signs, but no Marines. It felt a bit like all of the “Bear” warning signs when Jen and I went to Yosemite on our honeymoon road trip!

Where the trail joined the “American Road”, I turned back towards Braunton, taking the byway across the “Great field”. The byway was only just about wide enough for a cauliflower picking tractor, so when two of them were approaching me I had to stop and wait for them to pass. From Braunton I followed the cycle route out of town, which eventually turned into a steep, rutted, muddy climb. I could probably have coped with any of those separately, but the combination meant that I felt safer pushing up. The climb did yield another rocky technical descent though, which gave me confidence for the return down the first bridleway I’d ridden out of Croyde. From the bottom of the descent it was a climb back up to the top of the ridge between Croyde and Saunton Sands, fortunately this was a gentle incline on the road, so I was able to maintain a decent speed. The narrow road, with grass growing in the middle reminded me of the roads in Normandy, where my Mum grew up.

The ride along the ridge had great views out to both sides, although the light was better on the Saunton Sands side. This is where the panorama at the top of this post is from. For the ride back down the steep, rocky trail to Croyde I dropped my seat as much as I could – only about an inch (no dropper post on the hardtail), hoping it would help with the descent. The trail wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I had feared – yes it was steep and technical, and I was slow, but I stayed on the bike and was pleased with how I tackled it. Hopefully all the practice I have been doing is paying off!

At the end of the ride I met Jen for breakfast at Blue Groove, our favourite place to eat in Croyde. I had one of their “Hogfather” breakfasts, which went down very well after an unexpectedly challenging ride!

Ladybower Loop

For some time now I have been wanting to ride the trails around Ladybower Reservoir in the Peak District, so as one of my goals for 2018 was to ride more natural terrain I decided to make it happen! Two weeks previously I had been planning to head to either the Peak District or the Elan Valley, but the weather was rubbish. I ended up riding at home, smashing the derailleur on a trail I’ve ridden hundreds of times. With a fixed bike and slightly better weather, I was finally able to head up the M1 to Ladybower.

My plan had been to follow the “Ladybower Best Bits” ride on Trailforks. However, a last minute check in my “Good Mountain Biking Guide” threw up a slightly shorter option, with only two major climbs, rather than four. As seems to be usual, I was running late, so opted for the shorter loop. Not really knowing the area, I started from Fairholmes Visitor Centre, as per the book, it was £5 to park and added an extra ten minutes to the drive – next time I’ll park by the Ladybower Inn.

After riding along the shoreline, with a stop to adjust my newly fitted derailleur, the climbing started. At first on a steep stone slab path, to the barn in the photo above, that had me off the bike pushing, then on some equally steep rocky paths. I pushed the bike for over half of the climb. The next section of trail, to Whinstone Lee Tor, was flatter, but really rocky, it was a fun challenge picking a line through the rocks without losing too much momentum.

At Whinstone Lee Tor I chatted with a group of local riders, who explained the different routes down to Ladybower Inn. Declining their offer to lead me down the most technical trail, I stuck to my original plan and took the easier route, via Cutthroat Bridge. It was a wide, rocky trail with just enough gradient to carry speed, but not so much that I was going super fast. Perfect for practicing picking lines through rock gardens. Towards the bottom of the trail there were some large drainage ditches which were fun to ride over.

Before the trail dropped to the road, I hooked a right, riding along another flat, but bumpy, trail parallel to the road. The trail then dropped through a fairly technical rock garden, finishing at a gate. To give an indication of how big the rocks were; they were the perfect size to sit on an eat my “PBJ” sandwich. After the gate it was a fast rocky decent to the Ladybower Inn – it actually felt a lot like the terrain I had been riding with BasqueMTB earlier in the year, minus the van to drive me back up to the top. This descent is the only time I’ve been able to smell my brakes at the bottom of a trail!

This would have been the decision point between the longer route with an extra climb/descent, or the shorter route, skirting around the reservoir. However, as I’d already chosen the shorter route, I pushed my bike across the dam and followed the shoreline. I was expecting this section to be easy, however there were more gradients than I expected. It felt a lot longer too, so I was relieved to finally pop out into the A57, aka the Snake Pass, for a short road section.

Ladybower is “Y” shaped, I’d ridden down one side, round the bottom and up the other side, now I had to cross the ridge between the two top bits! The climb was mostly paved, so terrain-wise it was easier than the first climb, but still bloody steep! I eventually got to the top, with a bit of pushing and a few stops to munch on an energy bar. From the top I had the option to turn south, back towards the Snake Pass. The trail looked fun, but I couldn’t face the climb back up again. Instead, I turned north, back towards the car along a double track section which turned into a descent known as “the screaming mile“. This trail was just at the right level for me, just a little bit more technical than I am comfortable with, but not so much so that I couldn’t ride it safely. The trail was a bit damp, with wet rocks and even a bit of mud, but there was just enough grip to still feel like I was in control. I was buzzing when I got to the bottom of the trail, with a mud splattered smile for the gentle ride along the reservoir back to the car.

Riding in the Peak District is different to riding at a trail centre – a lot harder, but ultimately more rewarding. The rocky trails add an extra dimension to the riding, needing to pick a line well in advance, going both up and down. I would really love to do the longer route, but I think I will need to work on both my fitness and bike skills first to get the most out of it.

Hardtail v1.2

After clocking over 5,000km on my Vitus Nucleus hardtail, I decided it was time to treat it to some upgrades. The original Suntour fork was a weak point in the spec, and was past its best. So when I spotted a great deal on the same Fox 34 fork as I have fitted to my Orange Four I had to buy them. They weren’t a straight swap onto the bike, meaning I had to replace the front wheel. I had planned to upgrade the wheels on my Four, then fit the old front wheel onto the hardtail. However, I spotted a stupidly cheap front wheel online, so ordered that. Although it meant I didn’t get the nice new wheels on my main bike, the total cost was a fraction of what I would have spent. I already knew the new forks would be good, due to my experience with them on the Four, but what I hadn’t expected was how much lighter they are than my old forks. I tried to pop a manual (rolling along on the back wheel only) and the front end came up so easily that I almost went over the back of the bike.

You may be wondering why a new fork and front wheel are v1.2 and what happened to v1.1… Shortly after getting back from honeymoon, and three quarters of the way through my 2,015km in 2015, the original low end 3×9 drivetrain was pretty worn out. As it was clear that mountain biking wasn’t just a passing phase I decided to upgrade to an XT 1×10 set up – not quite top of the range, but still high end. At the same time, fed up with repeated punctures, I fitted the “Protection” version of the Continental X King tyres and set them up tubeless. These upgrades cost roughly the same amount as the whole bike had the previous year, however they totally transformed it. The drivetrain was significantly smoother, the bike lighter and crucially, more reliable. I had three years with the bike in this v1.1 configuration. Riding it on local trails, at trail centres, pumptracks, training rides and the odd commute, the bike felt much better that the sum of its parts.

Since fitting the new fork I had done a few local shakedown rides, but with my Four out of action, after I smashed the rear mech on a log last week, I used the hardtail for my big Sunday ride. I decided to do my Kenilworth loop, a mixture of single track and bike paths, to Kenilworth and back. Before I stopped working on Fridays, this was my regular extended commute. I hadn’t ridden it for a while, so thought it would be a good test of the new fork. Even just rolling down the lane behind the garage the bike felt amazing, it seemed to carry speed better than the full suspension bike. I expect this is down to the faster rolling tyres, but the lack of suspension won’t have hurt. Normally on this route I ride straight through the middle of Park Wood, but this time I decided to add in a full loop, to test the bike on the downhill sections. It felt good, really good. Checking Strava when I got home, I’d got my second best time ever! When I got to Kenilworth I did a lap of my old Friday interval session – up Coventry Road, down the Common bridleway and back up the Greenway, taking it easy on the flat bits in between. I shocked myself by how easily I got up the hill on Coventry Road. I still remember struggling up it a few years ago, but now I was even able to climb it fairly quickly and I don’t think that was to do with the bike!

I was really enjoying riding the hardtail, until I got to a bit of trail, that I’ve only ever ridden on my Orange. It isn’t a frequently used section of trail, and was quite bumpy – not something I’d ever noticed on my full suspension bike. I don’t know if I was tired, after pushing on earlier in the ride, or if it was the bumpy trail, but I just couldn’t get any flow. In contrast to the rest of the ride I felt so slow. I see this as a challenge for next time I ride that trail on the hardtail. Later in the ride, I managed to equal my personal record on the “Milk Bar Trail”, a fun little trail in Earlsdon that I’ve ridden almost 100 times according to Strava. I wasn’t sure if I should be pleased with my time, especially as the trail has got harder since setting my best time, or if I should be annoyed that I set the time on my old hardtail, rather than my “good bike”.

Whilst I really enjoyed my ride on the hardtail, there are still a few bits that I need to sort out:

  1. Brakes – The original Tektro brakes aren’t great. It could be that they need a good service, but they are much harder to work on than the Shimano brakes on my Four. I expect that when I see a good deal on some Shimano brakes I’ll upgrade.
  2. Lack of dropper post – Going from the Four to the hardtail I don’t miss the rear suspension, but I do really miss the dropper post! Being able to get the seat out of the way makes it easier to move your weight around the bike for better control over technical terrain. It also makes it easier to get on and off the bike. On the Four I just press a button on the handlebar to change the seat height, or the hardtail I have to physically swap seats/seat posts depending on the sort of riding I’ll be doing. Unfortunately this isn’t something I can upgrade easily.
  3. Fit – The biggest problem with the hardtail is that the frame isn’t quite long enough. Even with a layback seat post (which is one of the reasons I can’t fit a dropper post), I feel like I’m sitting over the back of the saddle. This won’t be an easy fix, fortunately most of the parts on the bike will transfer over to a new frame.

Realistically I’ll have at least this winter to ride v1.2 of my hardtail, before building v2.0. I will be making sure I take it out on the trails, rather than just using it for more mundane rides, because with the new forks it is such a fun ride!

Let’s Ride Coventry

Today was the annual British Cycling Let’s Ride event in Coventry, and it couldn’t have been any more different to my ride with the Orange Riders last week! It is a family ride around the Coventry ring road, which a festival atmosphere in the city centre. Most importantly, it wasn’t raining! It was a warm sunny day, I was dripping with sweat after returning from a short warm up ride, on my Orange Four, to clear my head after a stag do the previous evening.

Both Jen and Owen joined me for the Let’s Ride event, although Owen was on the back of my bike, rather than on his Strider. We rode to town via the woods on Hearsall Common, Owen was disappointed not to see any dogs, after seeing loads up there a few days ago. We joined the event outside the Transport Museum, where they had a fun looking track for kids to ride round and a more technical track for a mountain bike trials demonstration. We watched the trials riders for a bit, they were impressive and made me want to work on my basic bike handling skills. They were balancing their bike stationary on a thin rail, I can’t even stop at the traffic lights without having to put my foot down!

We set off round the event route on the ring road, and it was good being able to see all the places we usually whizz past in the car. Owen was particularly excited to see all the construction equipment on the building sites. After half a lap of the ring road, the route took us back into the city centre, to the festival zone on Broadgate. We picked up our event vests, but didn’t hang around as it was pretty busy and we were getting hungry! In a change to the route from last year, we actually rode through the ruins of the old cathedral, before dropping on to University Square, which was the street food area.

I was initially disappointed to only see three vendors, until I noticed that one of them was The Flying Cows. These guys make the best burgers I’ve ever tasted, and I have tasted a lot of burgers! Their “Flyer” burger has also been crowned best street food burger in the UK. Jen and I both had burgers, which were utter perfection. Owen even had a few bites, and he’s never shown interest in burgers before. He also had a massive hotdog from the stand next door, and did really well eating it. I had a bite or two and it had a strong smoky taste, almost like a peated whisky, I was surprised that Owen ate it, as he can sometimes be fussy. There was also a churros stand, so we had to share a bag of those too, even if it wasn’t really churros weather. We’d found a shaded spot to sit to eat our lunch, and it was good to just hang out watching everyone riding past. Owen enjoyed climbing the steps and watching the skateboarders too.

With full bellies, we got back on the bikes and rode through the university and back onto the ring road. Owen and I took part in the “Sir Chris Hoy Speed Challenge”, we must have gone pretty fast, as Jen didn’t see us and we had a long wait for her to catch up. Our speed was 19mph, which I was pleased with, bearing in mind it was on the flat, from a standing start with Owen on the back of my bike. Before returning home, we did another half lap of the ring road, back to Broadgate. Riding round I was impressed at how many people were out enjoying bikes, but especially some of the kids who were probably only a year or so older than Owen and riding really well. Hopefully Owen will be up to riding it himself if they have one next year!

Cannock Chase With Orange Riders

Or at least the plan was to meet with the Orange Riders… I ended up having a lie in, and took ages getting ready to go, neither helped by the heavy rain falling outside. Unsurprisingly, I was late getting to Cannock Chase – as usual, missing the meeting time with the crew from the Orange Riders Facebook group.

As I was pulling on my waterproofs in the car park, I thought about the ridiculousness of not riding at a trail centre for weeks when we had glorious sunshine because I had this ride in the calendar, only for the weather to be dire, then not even join the group. I also noticed how empty the car park was – I mustn’t have been the only one put off by the weather!

My plan was to try and catch the group up, on the basis that big groups mean lots of faffing. However, even on the first section, “Twist and Shout”, I was struggling for grip and therefore confidence. Did I mention it was raining? I am well out of practice riding in the rain and the trail felt extra slippery. As I’m getting my excuses in early, I should also mention that I’m still don’t fully trust the Maxxis tyres that came on the Four. I have fitted Continental tyres to my Vitus hardtail and I feel like I can trust the grip levels of their Black Chilli compound. However I am loathed to spend over £100 to replace tyres that have got plenty of life left in them.

Due to the grip issues, and nothing at all to do with not liking it, I skipped the new “Stegosaurs” rock garden. I also skirted around the “Watch Out! Trolls” boardwalk, because I didn’t fancy my chances riding over a bog on a narrow, wet wooden bridge. I breezed up “Cardiac Hill”, noting that what was once my nemesis isn’t really all that bad any more. All those Wednesday evening hill repeat sessions must be paying off! I started to find my flow more down “High Voltage”. At the decision point I dropped some air out of the tyres, hoping to improve grip, but also trying to put off the decision – take the easy way back round “‘the dog”, or push on and try to catch up with the rest of the group.

I decided to push on, the bike felt a bit better with lower tyre pressures, but I wasn’t looking forward to the tight hairpins on “Devil’s Staircase”, one in particular I have never fathomed out how to ride, as there is a drop off immediately before the corner and another drop off mid corner. Or at least there was – the second drop off had been smoothed. I probably could have ridden it, if I hadn’t wussed out early and decided to walk that section.

By this point I decided that I was riding so slowly that didn’t stand a chance of catching up the rest of the group, so chose to cheat and head straight up the fire road to the top of “Upper Cliff”. The also had the advantage of skipping the “Tom, Dick and Harry” rock gardens, where I had a big fall last year. Conquering them is one of my goals for 2018, but I’ll leave that for a drier day! I had to push up the last bit of the fire road and when I got to the top the weather was probably at its worst, the rain was really lashing down and visibility had reduced. By the time I’d slogged up the “What goes up…” section the rain had stopped. I also bumped into a couple of guys on Orange bikes, they weren’t part of the group ride, but told me that they were only a few sections behind me.

Rather than waiting for them, I decided to ride down at my own pace, expecting to be caught up. I didn’t feel too happy on the “Snap It” section, but as soon as the trail pointed downhill at “Upper Cliff” my confidence came back. I was able to pick up speed, railing berms, pumping the rollers and splashing through the puddles. There were a lot of puddles. My new Syncros Trail Fender, did a good job of keeping water out of my face, but my feet were soaking – despite wearing waterproof socks. When I got to the bottom my feet were sloshing around in water. I wasn’t sure if it was my shoes or socks that were waterlogged – it turned out it was both! The water must have got into my socks by running down my leg. The problem with waterproof socks is that they keep water in, as well as out. I had to take my shoes off and wring out my socks before climbing up to ride “Lower Cliff”.

“Lower Cliff” is a long flowy downhill section of trail, widely regarded to be the highlight of the Monkey Trail. For various reasons over the years I have missed out riding it. Before dropping in I took the mandatory photo of the bike propped up against the sign, which is at the top of this post. Once again the gradient of the trail meant that it wasn’t too slippery and I had the confidence to pick up speed. I also had the trail to myself, so was able to go at my own pace. My socks filled up with water again, but I didn’t care, I was enjoying myself so much! My legs were burning when I got to the bottom, but I rode straight back up the fire road for another go!

I had also hoped that looping back would mean I bumped into the Orange Riders guys, and my hunch paid off! We arrived at the bottom of “Insidious Incline” at the same time. After quick introductions we tackled the single track climb to the start of “Lower Cliff”. I was surprised not to be the slowest on the climb, although admittedly the guys had ridden further than me. Resting at the top of the climb was a good opportunity to check out the other bikes. I like how bikes of the same basic design can be built up and/or customised to be so different. Mine was the stealthiest, there were others in neon yellow or bright fuchsia, will all sorts of brightly coloured components. I particularly liked the only other Four there, it was grey with blue decals and some blue components.

Not knowing how fast everyone was, I dropped in to “Lower Cliff” last, as I am usually the slowest rider in these situations. I just about managed to keep in touch with the group, but was glad not to have any faster riders behind me. I probably could have ridden faster, but I prefer to be a bit slower and make it down in one piece! “Lower Cliff” really is a fun bit of trail though, so I was happy I got to ride it twice. Especially after missing out so many times before.

The ride back to rejoin the “Follow the dog” trail was a more social affair, as we went up the fire road, rather than “Kitbag Hill”. I actually think the fire road is a harder climb, but with people to chat to all the way up it didn’t feel so bad. The group split up at the top of the climb, some to go home and others who wanted to ride faster. I carried on round the trail with the slower guys, feeling a lot more confident after my runs down “Lower Cliff” and with the rain letting off. It had actually stopped raining by the time I got back to the car, yet the car park seemed empty. It probably would have been a good afternoon to hit the trails. I did consider going out for another loop, but my legs were tired and my bike was making horrible crunching noises, so I took the sensible option and headed home to clean my bike.

Exploring the Basque Country with Basque MTB

If you’ve seen my Instagram stories over the last few days, you’ve probably noticed that I am in Spain. I’m on holiday in San Sebastian for a few days (full blog post to follow), but managed to sneak in a day riding with Basque MTB. For the avoidance of doubt, the holiday was organised before I heard about Basque MTB and that they offer some of the best trail riding in the world. However, when I did hear, I had to work out how to ride it!

Doug from BasqueMTB managed to squeeze me in for a day with a group booking. It turned out that the group was a Dubai based mountain bike club, who were on their annual European mountain bike holiday. There was also another chap on holiday with his family, sneaking in an day riding. There were eight riders, two guides and two drivers for the uplift vans, so a decent crew!

Before we set off we were given the option of a coastal ride, which would have been repeating trails for the main group, or spending an hour in the van driving out towards Pamplona for some longer trails. I wasn’t fussed either way, but the guys didn’t want to repeat trails, so off we went in the van.

The skies had looked overcast all morning, as the road climbed I was expecting the van to break through the clouds, but just as we pulled into the car park to the south west of Baraibar the clouds parted and we got our first glimpse of blue sky! My steed for the day was an Orbea Occam, which is the next level of bike up from my Orange Four. With Fox suspension and Shimano XT groupset it did feel pretty familiar, despite the extra suspension travel.

The first trail started with a slight climb along a fireroad, before heading into the woods. Unfortunately there had been a bit of forestry work, so the trail was quite cut up, but before long we were onto some rocky walking trails. This first part of the trail continued for five kilometres, with five hundred metres vertical descent, mostly on walking trails, although we only saw a couple of other people. The trail was steeper, rockier and longer than anything else I’d ever ridden, but still wide enough that there were a couple of line choices. Carlos, the guide, waited until we were buzzing from the descent to tell us about the climb, of about a hundred metres up to the next section of trail, which would be a flowier bike park style trail. I wasn’t quite the slowest climber in the group, which makes a nice change. Other than one particularly steep section, which I had to push, I was able to ride it all at my own pace and still have time to get my breath back at the top! The bike park section was fun, with lots of fast berms and a few drops, although we had to follow the guides closely, as there were some forks in the trail leading to big jumps! We all stopped by one of the bigger road gaps to watch Igor, the other guide and ex world cup downhiller, hit the jump, which he easily cleared, even with his heavy guides rucksack on! The bike park trail was just over one kilometre, with two hundred metres vertical descent, which left us about another kilometre to ride along the valley floor to our lunch stop in Arbizu.

There was hardly anyone about as we rode through the village, and the brightly coloured bikes looked a bit incongruous as we piled them up outside the traditional restaurant. Ordering food from the “menu del dia” was a bit haphazard, but I managed to get a steak. I wasn’t that fussed that I missed out on a starter, as they looked huge – I struggle to stay awake after a three course lunch, far less ride my bike on technical trails! I’d seen some tasty looking desserts going out to another table, and managed to order one for myself. It turned out to be a Basque take on summer fruits cheese cake and tasted as good as it looked! The staff at the restaurant seemed fairly relaxed and lunch ended up taking a few hours, plenty of time for me to recover for the afternoon’s trails.

After lunch, we got back in the van and drove up a narrow road to Santuario de San Miguel, a hilltop church, at twelve hundred metres. The trail down roughly followed the road we’d come up, but was seriously steep and rocky. it was significantly harder than anything I’ve ever ridden. Even the guides had to walk down some parts of it and a few of the guys crashed, resulting in broken bikes and bruised bodies. There was no let up in the rocks, so I ended up walking quite a bit of the trail, but in these situations I’d rather get to the bottom of the trail uninjured! At the time I didn’t particularly enjoy this trail, but I’m glad I rode it, the short rock gardens at Cannock Chase are going to seem easy after three kilometres of rocks, over eight hundred metres of descent! With all of the issues on the ride down (it always seems like the more people in the group the more faffing there is), I wasn’t sure if there was going to be time for another trail, especially as we had an hours drive back to base, but we got back in the van for another ride.

We went back up the same road, this time stopping just shy of the top, at eleven hundred metres. This is where the photo at the top of this post was taken. There was more faffing with bikes, and a few of the guys decided not to ride. I had considered skipping it, but was glad I didn’t. The trail wasn’t as rocky as the previous descent, and there was more vegetation, it actually felt like riding at home, albeit much steeper, with a 550 metre drop over three kilometres! I was able to get into a good flow, railing round the hairpins, and only had to walk down a few sections. I even managed to stop for a photo of an impressive wedge shaped rock sticking out of the valley floor, which I had been admiring from the uplift. I could tell fatigue was setting in, as I had a few minor falls, but nothing serious. One where Carlos had warned me about hidden “sniper rocks”, which got me, and another silly crash on a bit of rutted fire road, after surviving a particularly technical section of trail. I think this was probably my favourite trail of the day, I was still shaking from the adrenaline when I pulled up at the van.

One of my goals for 2018 was to ride more natural terrain, and it doesn’t get more natural or technical than these trails. I felt like my skills improved over the course of the day – if we had dropped into the last trail in the morning, I would have struggled, but by the afternoon I was enjoying it. Hopefully I will be able to ride some similar terrain back in the UK too! My eyes have also been opened to uplift days, something I thought was more aimed at people on downhill bikes, but I may try to get on an uplift day at home. I would have struggled to ride down even one of these trails, if I had to ride up first! Jen has also hinted about coming back to San Sebastian, so hopefully I will be able to do some more riding with BasqueMTB, as they certainly lived up to the hype and I’d thoroughly recommend any mountain biker looking for a holiday to check them out!

Blogged: Riding with BasqueMTB

Owen’s First Bike Race

Just nine days after his second birthday Owen took part in his first bike race! Strider UK had set up a balance bike race as part of the warm up for the third stage of the Women’s Tour arriving in Leamington Spa. A short oval track was marked out with cones in the finish area and the competitors were given numbers for the front of their bikes – Owen was #21!

First up was a mass start practice, to let the racers learn the track, and to size up the competition. It was pretty clear that Owen was the smallest competitor. He was also the slowest, thanks to his “interesting” line choice. Being a little mountain biker means that Owen isn’t interested in riding on flat tarmac, it is much more fun riding over lumps and bumps – in this case the cones marking out the track! He rode over every single one, until he got to the end of the track, then wanted to carry on going, rather than turning back towards the start. Fortunately I’d followed him round and was able to wrangle him round the corner.

The kids were split up into ages groups for the first race, with Owen up first in the two year old category. He was quick off the line, but quickly overtaken by the other riders, most of whom were almost a year older, which makes a big difference when you’re only two. Once again Owen rode over all of the cones, and by the time he was negotiating the turn the winner was crossing the line. All of the other racers had finished by the time Owen was on the back straight, but the crowd really got behind him, banging on the barriers and cheering him on – Owen loved it! He finished last, well down on the rest, but with a huge smile! That is what matters most.

After the age group races it was time for individual time trials. I decided to go round with Owen, to make sure he made the turn. The commentator said he could tell Owen was a mountain biker – “the next Danny Hart”, as he was hitting all the cones, despite a ten second penalty being applied for each cone hit. The times weren’t published, but I think it is safe to say that Owen would have been in last place.

Luckily all the racers got to go on the podium for a medal – especially exciting as they were using the Women’s Tour podium, which was on the back of a lorry. Owen was pleased with his medal, but even more pleased with the toy Strider bike he was given too.

Owen really enjoyed himself, which is a good job as he’s been entered in another race later in the year, at the Birmingham Strider track, which should hopefully play to his strengths more as the lumps and bumps are mandatory!

Trail Building with Chase Trails

Last weekend I managed to tick off another of my goals for 2018 – by volunteering to do some trail building at Cannock Chase with Chase Trails. Cannock Chase is my nearest trail centre, and the one I ride the most, so I had been feeling like I should put something back.

Trail building session run every Sunday – meeting at 10:00 at the Cannock Chase Cycle Centre, and volunteers are encouraged to join in. I was surprised to find that I was the only new volunteer, joining the small team of regulars – given how many people ride the trails I expected there to be a bigger team maintaining the trails. Having said that, Alex, who ran the skills course I did last month also joined for a few hours.

They may lack helpers, but the trail builders were well equipped – the first job (after the health and safety briefing) was loading tools into their awesome remote control mini dumper – much easier than carrying them up the hill! The dumper was also great for collecting the materials to surface the trail and for digging.

We were working on the first part of the “Rock N Rollers” section, which will be renamed “Snakes and Adders”. The first part will stay much the same, but the second part will be totally different when it opens.

At the worksite the first task was to finish digging a trench for a drainage pipe – I was impressed at how much effort goes into making sure water does not run down/pool on the trail. It is definitely appreciated, especially as I mainly ride at Cannock in the winter. With the pipe fitted and covered up, the trail surface could be laid. It was quite a slick operation, with one person using the mini dumper to bring the material, two to spread and shape it and another using the whacker to compact it. We made swift progress until reaching the next section requiring drainage work, and the cycle repeated. Before long it was time to pack up the tools and have some cake, having resurfaced about 25 metres of trail and dug three drainage channels.

You may be thinking that 25m isn’t a lot of trail to have been resurfaced in a day, or week, as these build sessions happen weekly. However, to work quicker they need more volunteers – so if you are a regular up at Cannock Chase, please consider joining the trail builders for a day, or even for an hour as you are riding past! I found it to be a fun and rewarding day and I am extra keen to ride the “Snakes and Ladders section, knowing that I helped build it. I will be joining Chase Trails again in the future for more trail building – hopefully I’ll see you there too!

Owen’s Progress on the Balance Bike

Following on from Owen’s bike check post, and wanting to build his confidence on the bike, I put his bike in the boot of the car when we went for our usual Friday afternoon trip to the park. When we got to the park he was excited to put his helmet on and got on his bike, excited for the 100m ride from the car park to the playground. However we didn’t get out of the car park, before Owen gave up. He then seemed annoyed at me having to carry the bike all the way to the playground. After a fun session on the swings, slide and roundabout, Owen was again keen to get back on his bike – but this time rode it all the way back to the car park! I was so proud of him, as this was much further than he’d been on his bike before. Owen seemed pleased with himself too, as when he got home he got straight back on his bike to show off to Jen!

The next morning, Jen had a Eurovision party to prepare for, so based on the previous afternoons’ success I decided to take Owen to Ready Steady Riders, which is a Strider balance bike coaching session, on a special mini BMX track, next to the Perry Barr BMX track in Birmingham. Owen had a bit of a tantrum when we got there, as I wouldn’t let him ride his bike in the busy car park, but he really didn’t want to walk! After carrying both Owen and his bike to the safety of the park, I let him set off again on his bike. It was about 200m to the gate for the BMX and Owen made it most of the way, only needing to be carried for the last section. However, when he saw that there were other little boys there on their bikes, he was straight back on his!

The Strider track was awesome, a starting gate, four straights with bumps and jumps, connected with three big berms finishing off with a little banked chicane. Owen was so excited when he saw it, joining the track at the nearest place! Owen’s legs weren’t quite strong enough to get him up the bumps on the straights, so I needed to give him a helping hand, and also occasionally catch him on the down slopes, but even on this first lap his riding improved from beginning to end, he was getting more confident and obviously enjoying himself. At the end of the lap he was keen to get back for another one, this time tackling the berms on his own and using his feet to brake. We did a few more laps like this, Owen was the slowest rider there, but then 24 hours previously he’d only ever ridden the length of our garden! Kazzi, the coach, took over helping Owen round for a lap, which he seemed to respond well to. By this point he was really enjoying himself, making “wheeee!” sounds down all the slopes and carrying a bit more speed.

I could tell that all the excitement was starting to tire Owen out, he gets very stubborn when he is tired, and it was about his usual nap time, however we still had more of the session to run. About this time Owen started to take an interest in the start gate, the faster kids were using this for the start of their runs and Owen thought it looked fun. So we climbed up the hill and Owen took his place, for the start. 3, 2, 1, go! The riders surged forward towards the first hump on the track. Owen didn’t want to go over the hump to start the lap, he wanted to go back to the gate to do more starts. After a few of these, he decided that the bike was an inconvenience. Kazzi knew straight away how to sort this, asking Owen if he wanted to try her daughter’s bike – which worked for half a lap!

After a few more starts, and falls on his own bike, Owen decided that he was going to have a go at climbing the first hump on his own, getting upset at my offers of assistance, but even more upset that he couldn’t do it. After screaming at the hump, and at me, he decided to ask for his cot! Easier said than done when you are in the middle of a park! Getting a tired and grumpy Owen back to the car, along with his bike and safety gear wasn’t an easy task. Every few metres he wanted to be carried/to walk/to go on his bike or to have his helmet or kneepads taken off or put back on – all classic signs of a tired Owen. When we eventually got back to the car, Owen did his usual trick of demanding to “drive” (to sit in the drivers seat), which was handy for keeping him occupied whilst I loaded the car. When I got him into his seat in the back he was asleep within minutes, barely waking up when we got home and Jen transferred him into his cot. I’ll definitely be taking him to Ready Steady Riders again, hopefully before the race he’s been entered in next month.

On the Sunday, Owen wanted to play in the lane behind our house, jumping in puddles – that bloody Peppa Pig has a lot to answer for… Unlike Daddy Pig, I’m not a fan of puddles, especially in my new Danny Macaskill Five Ten shoes, so I decided to get my bike out and practice some skills whilst Owen splashed around. Seeing my bike made Owen want his bike, so I got it out, got his helmet on and we went on our first bike ride together! It was only up the lane behind our house, but it was a good little adventure, we met some friendly dogs and explored the top section of the lane which is a dead end. Owen fell off his bike whilst turning round at the top, and couldn’t be persuaded back onto the bike, so I ended up carrying/pushing the bikes back to the house – I’m sure Owen will learn soon enough that the downhill bits are the fun bits and I’ll be pushing/carrying the bikes up the climbs!

I’m so proud of the progress that Owen has made on his bike this weekend and the fact that he now seems to be enjoying his balance bike, rather than being scared of it. The photo at the top of this post has even made it onto the lock screen on my iPhone, as seeing Owen enjoying his bike is one of the best feelings!

New Bike Day for Owen – Strider 12 Sport 2018

As both my Vitus hardtail and Orange Four got “new ride” posts on the blog, I thought Owen’s new Strider should too! I’ve actually created a new section on my blog for kids MTB posts, hopefully there will be a lot more of them in future, as Owen gets through new bikes as he grows in size and becomes a better rider!

I probably spent as much time researching Owen’s first bike, as I did my Four. Buying a balance bike is a bit of a minefield, there are loads of different options, made from wood, plastic, steel and aluminium ranging from £20 to £200! Fairly early on in the search I decided that I was going to resist the expensive, but clearly better aluminium balance bikes, my logic being that if I’m going to splash out on a bike for Owen, I should wait for his first pedal bike. I also didn’t want to go for a cheap rubbish one, Owen probably wouldn’t know any different, but I want to nurture his love of bikes, not kill it with a crap, heavy first bike! There were a few options in the middle ground, the Vitus Nippy was an early favourite as it had an aluminium frame, and the bonus of being the same brand as Daddy’s bike. However, the more I looked into the Striders the more I liked them and especially the community around them – something which has made my Orange ownership experience even better.

The plan had been to buy it for Owen’s second birthday, but Owen seemed ready for it, and I was impatient, so ended up ordering it early. Inadvertently ordering it on the first day the new 2018 models were available. I went for the middle of the range “Sport” model, as it was cheaper than buying the base model, then the upgrades, I had been expecting free entry to a Strider Cup race, but annoyingly that had been discontinued for 2018 (in lieu of a price rise, so I can’t complain). The aluminium “Pro” version was just a bit too much of a price jump for me.

I had the bike delivered to work, and managed to sneak it into the garage to build it, which was just a case of fitting the front wheel/fork assembly, fitting the handle bars and tightening up the clamps. I then leant the bike up next to my Orange and went into the house to see Owen, like any other day. Then, just like any other day, Owen asked to go into the garage to look at bikes and “Daddy sportscar” (my MR2) – his little face was a picture when the door was opened to reveal a small bright blue balance bike propped up next to my bike. He knew exactly who it was for!

We got Owen to sit on the bike, he looked very pleased with himself, but he wasn’t keen to ride it. For the next few days he was happy enough just spinning the wheels, or asking to borrow my Allen keys, so he could “fix” it. I guess that is what comes from him seeing me fettling my bike more that riding it, as that happens when he is asleep! I was slightly disappointed and concerned that maybe he was too young for the balance bike. To remedy this I thought I’d go through how to pick up the bike and walk along with it, using my bike and getting him to copy – it didn’t take long until we were racing each other up and down the garden! After I’d put my bike away, Owen was riding down the path to the house and cracked a massive smile when he realised that he could go so much faster on the path than on the lawn.

Since then he has been getting more confident, but still calling the balance bike “big” or “wobbly”, so I have a bit more work to do – especially as I have entered him into a race on the 15th June! Hopefully more garden races and maybe a few sessions on the Strider track at Birmingham BMX track with Ready Steady Riders will prepare him for the race. In any case, I’m sure he will be spurred on by seeing other children on bikes!

As a note, we bought Owen a Scuttlebug trike late last year, after seeing how happy he was sat on our friend’s trike when we were in York last summer. Owen called it his “bike”, and loved sitting on it, but it is very much a plastic toy, rather than a proper bike, unlike like his Strider – which I am classing as his first bike!