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!

San Sebastián

Jen and I visited San Sebastián on our first holiday together, way back in 2010, when we’d only known each other a few months. It was only a brief stop en route from Biarritz to Bilbao, but we absolutely loved the town and vowed to return. So when our Australian friends, Nicki and Mat, told us they were going to be in Europe for the summer a plan was formed to meet up for a week in San Sebastián.

The run up to our trip was more relaxed than Owen’s first foreign holiday – for a start our airline didn’t go bust a few weeks before we were due to fly! We must have been excited about the trip as we all woke up naturally before the alarm and were even early setting off for the short drive to Birmingham airport! Owen was on his best behaviour, and without any stress or rushing we were on the plane bound for Biarritz. Or at least we thought we were… About half an hour into the flight the captain announced that there was a problem with the plane and that we were on our way back to Birmingham! Fortunately Flybe were pretty good about things and we were back on a spare plane and on our way less than two hours after the announcement. By this time Owen was due for a nap, and managed to fall asleep as soon as the engines had started and slept through the take off and a good chunk of the flight. This second flight was uneventful, Owen was well behaved, as were the large group of school kids we’d spotted at check-in that I’d been dreading having on our flight.

The delay wasn’t really a problem, as Nicki and Mat weren’t due to land until the early evening, so we had less time to hang around in Biarritz. Just enough time to pick up our hire car and pop to the supermarket for some essentials (and a photo with the tank of crabs). I’d never realised that French supermarkets all shared the same smell, but as soon as we walked in, I was taken back to family trips to visit relatives in France as a child.

We returned to the airport to pick up Nicki and Mat, loaded up our Peugeot 5008 hire car and headed for the Spanish border. We took the slightly longer route, avoiding the motorway tolls, but got caught in the rush hour. The Airbnb was easy to find, and our host Laida was waiting outside to guide us into the very tight underground car park. At this point I was slightly regretting not opting for the excess waiver on the hire car…

The flat itself was really nice and was even equipped with some toys for Owen to play with. After unloading the car, we headed out for pintxos (Basque tapas) near the Airbnb. The bar was next to a playground, and all the local kids seemed to be out playing, so it was ideal for Owen to stretch his legs after a whole day of travelling. We all spent a lovely evening catching up.

Nicki and Mat started our first full day in San Sebastian with a run to explore town, whilst Jen and I got Owen ready for the day. After breakfast we went out to explore the city centre, a 15 minute walk down the river from our Airbnb in the Amara area of town. Rather than head into the old town we crossed the last bridge and visited Playa Zurriola Hondartza – the surfing beach. We had planned to just have a look, but Owen really wanted to have a play in the sand and a paddle in the sea! The sea was colder than I was expecting, considering how warm it was on the beach, but it still made me want to go for a surf! After washing the sand off our feet we crossed back over the river and walked round the headland to the aquarium. All the running around on the beach must have tired Owen out, as he fell asleep in the pushchair, only waking up when we stopped outside an ice cream shop. We escaped the midday heat by wandering round the narrow streets of the old town, stopping for a pintxos lunch in a cafe. As we were eating our lunch the ice cream shop next to the cafe opened – so of course we had to get an ice cream for dessert!

From the old town, we walked past the harbour to Playa de la Concha, the main town beach. We hadn’t planned on stopping at that beach either, but Owen really wanted to try out his new bucket and spade, so we had an hour on the beach, digging holes and building sandcastles. The sea was still cold at Playa de La Concha, but unlike the Playa Zurriola Hondartza, it is in a sheltered bay, so the sea was much calmer for swimming. Once again all the excitement of the beach tired Owen out and he was asleep by the time we got back to the Airbnb. We had only popped out for the morning to explore the town, but ended up spending the whole day out! Mat and Jen made a great tapas dinner and we just spent the evening chilling out.

The next morning dawned overcast, however the surf forecast for Zurriola beach was looking good – the best conditions it would be during our stay. So when Nicki and Mat got back from their run, we had breakfast, then went down to the beach. I hired a board and wetsuit from Bluemotion surf shop – they had changing rooms and showers downstairs, which was very useful. The surf conditions were a lot like Croyde at low tide – best described as punchy. I got pummelled a few times, but eventually found a slightly mellower part of the beach and managed to catch a few decent waves. Owen was mostly digging holes on the beach, but did come down to where I was surfing to watch for a little bit.

After surfing, we picked up some supplies for a picnic and took a boat trip around the bay and over to Santa Clara island, which is in the middle of the bay over from Playa De La Concha. We climbed up the hill and had our picnic before exploring the island. It was pretty quiet – I think there were more little seagulls, butterflies and little lizards than people there. We got back to the dock just as the boat was pulling away, so we retired to the cafe, then the beach to wait for the next boat back to San Sebastian. It was late afternoon by the time we got back to the Airbnb, time for a quick shower and nap before heading out for pintxos.

On the way into town we came across a big protest, I assume about the “wolf pack” being released. After some wandering, we found a pintxos restaurant that looked suitably child friendly. It turned out to be a bit strange, but the food was lovely, albeit not as substantial as we were expecting, Owen started to get fed up in the restaurant, so I took him for a walk and checked out the pintxos at nearby bars. I spied some interesting bacon/egg pintxos, so had to take a couple of them for the walk home. These were probably my favourite pintxos of the week. Looking at my iPhone later that evening, I had managed to set an all time steps record of 23,363, beating my previous record which had been set in Las Vegas!

Friday I had a days mountain biking booked with BasqueMTB, which is a whole other blog post!

On Saturday we went to Bilbao, which is just over an hour’s drive from San Sebastian. We started off with a walk along the river, on the opposite bank to the famous Guggenheim museum. We found a playground for Owen, and made our plans. We didn’t think Owen would appreciate the art in the museum, and Jen and I had visited on our previous trip, so Mat and Nicki went off to the museum on their own. We stayed at the playground for a while, then went for a walk around town to try and find somewhere for lunch. Once again lunch seemed a bit confusing, but was very nice. Jen and I ended up with a whole grilled turbot to share, which the waiter filleted for us at the table. It was a bit posher than we were aiming for, but the food was lovely. After lunch, we met Mat and Nicki at the “Puppy” sculpture outside the Guggenheim. We all went for an ice cream, before checking out the sculptures on the outside of the museum, including the new Joana Vasconcelos “Solitaire”, which is a giant engagement ring made from gold alloy wheels and whisky tumblers. Of course the whole building itself is also a work of art!

From Bilbao, we followed the coast road to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, an island hermitage accessed by 241 steps. I’d originally seen it on BasqueMTB’s bike hire page and thought it looked like an interesting place to visit, and it didn’t take much to convince Nicki and Mat either! We were prepared for the 241 steps to climb to the hermitage, but hadn’t been expecting the two kilometre walk down a steep hill to the bottom of the steps. The walk down was hard work, especially in the heat and with Owen in his pushchair. For the climb up to the hermitage and small church, we took Owen out of the pushchair and started off with him on my shoulders. I must have looked like I was struggling a bit, as Mat offered to take him the rest of the way to the top. The church at the top is dedicated to John the Baptist, who allegedly visited back in the day. Our visit was the day before Saint John’s day, when a big pilgrimage had been planned. It is said that ringing the church bell three times will cure you of your ills and ward off evil spirits, so of course, we each had to ring the bell three times! What ringing the bell didn’t do, was make the walk back to the car any easier! Going back down the steps with Owen on my shoulders wasn’t too bad, but the climb back up to the car park was brutal and we were all ready for dinner by the time we got back to the car.

The plan had been to call in at Mundaka, a famous surfing town just down the coast, for some food. However, when we got there the whole town seemed to be out celebrating in the street, so we figured that we would carry on as the restaurants would either be closed, or about to be very busy! We stopped in Guernica instead, a town that Jen had wanted to visit anyway. We walked into town and found somewhere to sit outside for dinner, I went for the speciality, which was a bun-less burger, with peppers. While we were waiting for our food, another protest march came past. I’m not sure if it is just a coincidence, of if they just have a lot of protests in Spain! The food was good, although I spent most of the meal wrangling a wriggly Owen. On the drive back to San Sebastian, we noticed a lot of bonfires burning, which we later learned were related to the festival of San Juan. It was quite a sight seeing the smoke rising from bonfires along the coast.

After spending most of Saturday in the car, we thought we should do something Owen wanted to do on Sunday – so we went down to Playa de La Concha to build sandcastles and play in the sea. It was a lovely warm day, and the beach was already busy by mid-morning, but we managed to find a space to lay our towels. On our previous visit, I’d looked at the pontoons floating in the bay and thought it would have been cool to swim to one of them, so this was my chance! The water was cold at first, but lovely once I was in. I was surprised to see fish swimming close to the bathers, including some fairly big fish. The pontoons were only a few hundred metres from the beach, it was an easy swim. I climbed onto the pontoon, bomb dived in, then swam back to the shore. By the time I got there, the beach looked busier, probably a combination of more people arriving at the beach and the tide coming in. I dug holes and made sandcastles with Owen, then took him down to the sea for a paddle and to look at the fish. Owen didn’t seem too convinced by paddling in the sea, possibly as it was colder than in Cyprus last year. We came back from the beach, with the idea of Owen having a nap, but he was too excited, so it was much later in the afternoon before Owen fell asleep. Jen took the opportunity to head out and explore on her own, whilst I caught up on blogging and had a nap myself. We went out for dinner by the cathedral, calling in at the park on our way home.

After the excitement of the previous evening, Owen had a lie in, so it was already past 11:00, when we set off towards the aquarium. We had been saving the aquarium as a rainy day activity, but we were lucky with the weather all week, so we saved it for the last day, despite the glorious sunshine. It was only a small aquarium, but Owen enjoyed looking at the fish, especially the octopus. From the aquarium we walked into town to hunt down some pintxos for lunch. We were successful – I think we found the best pintxos of the trip in the old town. We followed that up with the best ice cream of the trip at Gelateria Boulevard. I also treated myself to a pair of Havianas flip flops, as with all the walking on this trip my feet had been cut to shreds by my old pair.

Once again we went back to the Airbnb for a siesta. The plan had been to visit the Iguelda theme park, overlooking the town, but Owen was fast asleep and we ran out of time. Instead, we walked along the promenade to the Miramare Palace gardens. The beach was so busy, my theory was that the locals were calling in after work, as the weather was so good. We had a lovely time chilling out in the gardens, watching the world go by. Not getting covered in sand was a result too. We walked back along the beach to town, then to a bar near the Airbnb for drinks and pintxos (and a run around on the playground for Owen).

I am always a bit sad waking up on the last day of a holiday, but also looking forward to getting back to Coventry and all the comforts of home. The trip wasn’t ending for everyone though – Nicki and Mat were moving onto the next stage of their trip! They are running across the Pyrenees, on the GR10 trail. You can follow their blog and be sure to check out Nicki’s San Sebastian post. On our way back to the airport we dropped them off at the start point – in Hendaye, just over the border in France. As we had a bit of time before needing to be at the airport we parked up on the promenade and found a cafe/boulangerie for second breakfast.

The flight back to Birmingham was uneventful, Owen was well behaved and slept for the last hour, including the landing! It was strange getting home and the weather being as nice as it was on holiday. It made me want to go to the beach, then call in at a bar for pintxos, but unfortunately you can’t do that in Coventry – it was only the weather we had brought back from San Sebastián.

Owen’s Second Birthday

Yesterday was Owen’s second birthday! Time flies – his first birthday, and four-toothed smile, don’t feel like they were that long ago! It also means that Owen has been going to nursery for a whole year, albeit only one day a week and I am half way through my reduced hours at work, although I may ask to extend them over next summer.

The last few days have been really busy, with birthday celebrations and other excitement! On Saturday we had family round for a BBQ. Owen loved being the centre of attention – especially when everyone sang him happy birthday and he got to blow out the candles on the “pigs in mud cake” Jen had made him!

On Sunday Jen went to London for the day, so in the morning Owen and I went to Coventry Motofest to look at all the cars. Then in the afternoon we went for a bike ride to the War Memorial Park (Owen on the back of my bike, rather than on his balance bike), for an ice cream. Owen showed me his new technique for eating ice cream – he starts at the bottom of the cone, then tries to eat the ice cream before it melts into a puddle at his feet. I was surprised how much he was able to eat before it fell to the floor. However his hands and face were covered! I hadn’t really planned for this, it would have been difficult to bring his changing bag on the bike anyway, so he had to make do with a hose down from my water bottle! We rode back home along Hearsall Common and through the woods and I had a very proud dad moment when we got home and Owen exclaimed “Good bike ride Daddy!”.

Owen spent Monday and Tuesday in the Cotswolds with Grandma and Grandpa, visiting Cotswold Farm Park, which he really enjoyed. Especially feeding the animals and seeing tractors, as he is currently obsessed with tractors and diggers. While Owen was away, Jen and I took the train into Birmingham to go to the Supper and Beer Club at Pure Bar, for what was billed as a five course tasting menu, but with pre dinner snacks was more like ten courses! I don’t think any of the food on the menu were things that I would usually order, but it was all really good – especially the smoked eel and turbot courses. Which was surprising as despite my old Saturday job working on the fish counter at Waitrose, I don’t really like eating fish.

We started Owen’s actual birthday by opening presents – the yellow digger and dumper trucks being instantly promoted to new favourite toys! He then had to go to nursery, where he had more birthday cake and candles to blow out. We collected him at lunchtime and spent the afternoon at Twycross Zoo, before heading back to Owen’s granddad’s house for dinner and more presents!

I am pretty sure that Owen had a good few days and he certainly likes his new digger and dumper truck! The excitement is going to continue over the next few weeks, with a bike race, Father’s Day breakfast pizzas and a holiday all to look forward to!

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!

Exploring the Long Mynd

One of my goals for 2018 was to ride some natural trails on my bike, rather than just local woods/bridleways and trail centres. The Long Mynd, near Church Stretton in Shropshire, was high up my list of places to explore. I have visited the Long Mynd a few times over the years, usually on walking trips with my Dad, and always enjoyed it. So when Shropshire local Andrew offered to show me around on bank holiday Monday I didn’t need to be asked twice – especially as it was forecast to be warm and sunny!

We met in Church Stretton, which is a 90 minute mostly motorway blast from Coventry, and has free parking on Sundays and bank holidays! Andrew’s local knowledge paid off, as rather than riding straight up the valley, we rode along the road past Little Stretton and Minton, before starting the climb up through the Forestry Commission area at the south of the Long Mynd. This route is also the least exposed route, with plenty of shaded sections to give us respite from the sun, which seemed to have missed the memo about it being a bank holiday. The climb didn’t look too bad, but for some reason I really struggled. This happened when I rode with Andrew at Llandegla last year, riding with better riders is meant to push you, but I think I end up pushing myself a bit too much and struggling on the climbs. It did make a nice change having someone to chat to on the climbs though!

After a fast fireroad descent to the first viewpoint and a grassy climb back up we emerged from the Forestry Commission area into the National Trust area that I recognised as the Long Mynd. We rode along the plateaux, past the gliding club, up to Pole Bank and past the head of Carding Mill Valley. Being a sunny bank holiday Monday it was busy with walkers, but not busy enough to be an issue for us. The views along the top, over to Wales in the west, were amazing, it was also good to have someone to point out the various landmarks – and their potential for mountain biking. It was also the first time that I’d seen the Welsh Mountain Ponies on the Long Mynd, but they seemed to be everywhere, and not at all frightened of humans.

At the north edge of the plateaux we turned right, towards All Stretton, then followed a grassy ridge down towards the valley floor. This section was awesome, with no trail to follow, and Andrew way faster than me, it was a case of picking my line between rocks sticking out from the grass and avoiding the sheep, whilst hurtling downhill at a rapid pace! This section came to an abrupt end at a cliff, the trail narrowing and taking a sharp left turn, following the cliff edge down to the valley floor. I was a bit nervous at this point, with my tumble over the edge of a similar bit of trail at Cannock last year (and the resulting injury) fresh in my mind. I made it to the bottom in one piece, and was rewarded with a couple of water splashes through streams – very welcome given the warm weather!

My legs were feeling tired by this point, but it didn’t take Andrew long to convince me to climb up Jinlye to get another fun, technical descent in the bag before returning to Church Stretton. Given my tired legs and the sheer drop to my right, I decided to push up the first section of Jinlye, but seriously enjoyed the ride down, on what is probably some of the most technical trails I have ridden – natural singletrack is noticeably narrower than trail centre singletrack and with either steep drops or fences to the side the consequences of a mistake are higher too. This would have been a good little section to improve skills/confidence if my legs hadn’t been so tired.

Instead, we rolled down Batch Valley to All Stretton, splashing through the stream as it criss-crossed with the road, then back down the road to Church Stretton and my car. Tired, but happy in my case and ready for another lap in Andrew’s case! It was great to have a guide, and someone to ride with – so thanks to Andrew for showing me around, and for taking the photo at the top of this post – a rare shot of me riding!

The journey back to Coventry went smoothly, complete with some good car spots on the A5 – a Dodge Challenger being my favourite and not just because it reminded me of cruising round California! Jen and Owen were spending the afternoon with Jen’s parents, so as I was back early I took the opportunity to get the MR2 out for a blat to meet them – possibly the first time I’ve been able to play with both my Four and my MR2 on the same day! After spending the rest of the afternoon playing with Owen I went to bed a very tired, but very happy Lewis!

In the GMBN Bike Vault Again!

After getting my old bike (and Owen) into the GMBN Bike Vault last year, one of my goals for 2018 was to get my Orange Four into the Bike Vault – and I’ve finally managed to do it!

Each week the presenters ask for people to send in their bikes, and they have hundreds of entries, I try each week, hoping that my bike will be featured. I wasn’t holding out hope this week, as it wasn’t one of the better pictures I had submitted – but I woke up to a message from a friend saying that they’d seen my bike. So when I sat down with Owen, to watch the Dirt Shed Show, which is our usual Saturday morning ritual, the question on my mind was “Nice” or “Super Nice”? The entry prior to mine were genuinely “Super Nice” both in terms of bike and photograph, so I wasn’t too disappointed with just a “Nice”.

Owen enjoys the Bike Vault, shouting “Nice” as each bike comes onto the screen – he is a harsh critic! He seemed to like seeing my bike on the TV screen, giving it a “Nice, Daddy bike!”

I’ve embedded the full episode at the bottom of this post, or click here to go straight to my bike at 23m24s.

Mountain Bike Skills Course

One of my goals for 2018 was to improve my bike handling skills, and today I took a big step in the right direction by going on the Chase Skills “Skills ‘n’ Thrills” course at Cannock Chase. It has been over three years since I started riding and other than a few bits of advice from friends and GMBN videos on YouTube, I haven’t had any coaching. I know I’m not the best rider out there, but really wanted to make sure I hadn’t picked up any bad habits and hoped I could pick up some new skills too!

After a short ride to warm up, we dropped down “High Voltage” so that Alex, the coach, could get an idea of our riding styles. His (very fair) assessment was that I seem to either be pedalling, or in the attack pose and that I seem still on the bike. After climbing back up “Zig Zag” we did some drills on a fire road, finessing our attack position by rolling over logs. I found it difficult to focus on individual skills at this point, as I had to fight years of muscle memory. The next skill we worked on was manuals (lifting up the front wheel), something I have been trying to do unsuccessfully for a few years. However after Alex explained the technique I shocked myself by doing a good manual first time! After a few more manuals we moved on to rear wheel lifts, not something I had ever tried before, but seemed to get the hang of fairly quickly – I particularly liked the challenge to ride along next to a puddle, then hop the rear wheel into it. The next step is to link these together into a bunny hop, I didn’t get onto this, but am considering it as homework. I actually enjoyed doing the skills drill on the fire road, and was already thinking how I could set up something similar on the track behind my garage.

After the drills we took a combination of the Follow The Dog trail and some off piste sections to the cafe at the main car park for some lunch. One of the off piste sections was the second part of the Leisure Lakes demo loop, which I have blogged about previously, but in reverse. Even going downhill it was still hard work with the mud and roots. The final blast down down the steep hill was fun and I could already feel the drills from the morning helping.

After a well deserved lunch, we set off back on the main trail to work on cornering technique. We stopped at the first main berm on Follow The Dog and sessioned that for a while, working on leaning the bike over. I distinctly remember using this technique on some fast berms at Llandegla the other week, but struggled to break it down, especially at walking pace. On my last go through the corner I really felt like I got it on the second half of the corner when I really pushed the bike over. Certainly something that I need to practice more! As we were on the main trail it was interesting seeing everyone coming past and how they were riding the corner, everyone was braking in the corner then pedalling out – it looked like they were exiting the corner slower than we were after entering the corner at walking pace! We then rode to the end of the Twist And Shout section to practice our new-found skills, which is easier said than done when the corners come so fast after each other.

Back on the fire road we rode to a section next to the the blue trail where we could practice going up and down some short and sharp technical slopes. Some of the ones we were shown looked impossible to walk up, let alone ride up. Fortunately we didn’t have to ride those, we went to a mellower section nearby. I was quite pleased to be the only one to ride the up-down-up challenge that we’d been set, but didn’t like the look of the drop off into a steep rooty chute. The drop off was probably only about a foot high, with a further ten feet down the chute, but my brain just said no! I would have been fine riding either the drop of the chute in isolation, but really felt like I needed to work up to it. Fortunately the rest of the group felt the same, so we moved on to another drop with a smaller and smoother run out. I rode this one fine, although I did bottle it when it came to pulling a manual off it – I think I’ll start with much smaller drops, such as kerbs, first.

At this point I realised we were at the bottom of Cardiac Hill, my former nemesis. Usually this is attacked towards the start of a ride and here we were after a full day in the saddle. I surprised myself by riding up it, I felt like I was going really slowly, but Strava gave me a Personal Record for it, so I’ll take that. I also didn’t feel as tired as usual at the top, I don’t know if it was down to being at the end of the day, or that I was riding with a group. I’ll have to see how I fare next time! We took a gentle ride back to the cars, practicing our new found skills.

After the ride I was talking cars in the car park with Alex, more specifically my MR2 and relating some of the points from the course to how I drive it. On the way home I realised that without knowing how I drive my MR2 Alex had hit the nail on the head for me – the MR2 isn’t a powerful car, but I can drive it fast because I have the confidence in the tyres and handling to carry speed through corners, often surprising drivers of supposedly faster cars. When I’m driving the MR2 I feel at one with it – I need to get to that point on my bike, and after the coaching I feel like I have a lot of the tools I need to get there.