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.

Llandegla on the First Day of Spring

After what felt like weeks of snow and horrible weather, spring finally decided to show its face, as the UK changed our clocks to British Summer Time. Fortunately this coincided with a day I’d set aside for mountain biking. Llandegla was a last minute decision, mainly based on having a good weather forecast and the cafe posting some tasty looking burgers on their social media. With the clocks changing, and my usual faffing at home it was 10:00 before I set off (I really need to get better at getting out the house!), meaning I didn’t arrive in North Wales until lunchtime.

I didn’t hang around getting onto the trails, as I wanted to get a lap of the red trail done before lunch, although I did find time to buy some new gloves from the shop. Without even realising it, I made it most of the way up the 5km long first climb that I’d struggled with last summer, and my legs still felt fine! I continued to the top of the trail, barely believing how much my fitness had improved since last summer!

The first section of the trail was pretty muddy – when I stopped at the end to tweak my suspension, I was covered head to toe in mud including my 30 minute old gloves. Whilst I was stopped I had a chat with a couple of other riders, it turned out one of them lives less than a mile from me in Coventry.

Happier with my suspension settings, I carried on down the trail to the Snowdon viewpoint. I remember having to stop for a breather a couple of times on this section on my last visit, as even though it was down hill, it was still tough going. However this time, I was able to keep going and faster than before too. As it was a clear day I had a good view of Snowdon, which had a dusting of snow on the top. It was at this point I went to get some jelly babies from my bag, annoyingly they had vanished – possibly a sign that I need to buy a new bag, rather than taping up the holes with gaffer tape…

There was a diversion on the next section, I was hoping that it would miss out the Double Steep Climb section, unfortunately it didn’t. After feeling good about my fitness, the short but steep climb put me back in my place – I had to get off and push. The next section was fast and downhill up to the decision point to B Line, there were only a few other riders on the trail, and I was seriously enjoying myself. There had been a lot of forestry work since my last visit, so even though I’d ridden the trail before it all felt new.

I decided against riding B Line, as I’d ridden it on my previous visit, it was at the top of my abilities and I wanted to ride the full red trail. This section of trail had a few line choices, with various jumps and drop offs, I wasn’t expecting to have to choose obstacles, but made my way through without any mishaps. I like the idea of different lines that don’t necessarily increase in difficulty. Back on the main trail I joined a group of ten or so riders and felt like both myself and my bike were coping well with the steep, rough downhill sections, but in the back of my mind was the brutal climb back up to the reservoir. The whole group seemed to be riding at roughly the same pace, and struggling on the same climbs, so I didn’t feel so bad on the few occasions where I had to get off and push – as I wasn’t on my own.

For some reason I had forgotten about the climb after the reservoir on Julia’s Trail, I was expecting it to be all downhill from there – it probably didn’t help that I was getting hungry by this point! I also managed to get caught behind an e-biker, she was able to pull away from me on the climbs, but held me up on the downhills, until she eventually let me past. It reminded me a bit of the “fast car” on a trackday scenario – my little MR2 is slow on the straights, but can carry a lot of speed through the corners, so I am sometimes held up in corners, but not fast enough to pass on the straights. Without anyone in front of me, the ride back to the trailhead – and my lunch – was fast and fun!

The special burger that had been shared on social media wasn’t on the menu, but after a tough ride the standard burger went down well, washed down with a can of Irn Bru. As the sun was out, it was nice to be able to sit outside to eat my lunch.

With a full belly, I set off back up the hill to ride the blue trail, once again making it up to the top of the hill in in one hit. The blue trail is much flowier, with smoother trails and fewer climbs it is so much fun to ride! The blue trail starts after the muddy section of the red trail, with a bermed hairpin sending you back through a cleared part of the forest, which is quite an eerie landscape. The only problem is that this part of the trail is too fun for photo stops! I finally pulled up at the end of the section for the photo at the top of this post.

I followed the blue trail back down the hill, mostly on my own, other than passing a few dads out with their boys, which made me miss Owen, and look forward to being able to ride with him one day. Close to the bottom of the hill I took a diversion off the trail to visit the pump track. I did a few laps, alternating with a little boy, probably only a few months older than Owen, on his balance bike and his Dad. They were having so much fun, going round the trail together – that should be me and Owen by the end of the summer and I can’t wait!

I hadn’t ridden the last section of the blue trail from the pump track to the car park previously and it has so much fun, a perfect end to the ride!


Back on the Bike

I came off my bike at Cannock Chase last month, aggravating an old knee injury (ruptured ACL), which has kept me off the bike for six weeks. I kept myself busy with some geeky projects, exercises from the physio and servicing my old hardtail, but what I really wanted to be doing was blasting down some single track on my bike. I had decided that I would wait for the OK from the medical professionals before restarting any exercise, unless it dragged on past Christmas…

With the festivities out of the way, and no update on even when I’d get the results from my MRI, I decided to head out for a gentle local ride. The only slight problem was that snow from the day before was still on the ground and there had been a hard frost. However, it was a lovely sunny winter day and it would have been a shame to waste it by staying inside. Usually I would have taken my old hardtail for this sort of local ride, but despite having had six weeks to work on it, it was still in bits in the garage, awaiting some spares – but that is a whole other story. In any case my Orange Four was probably more suitable for this particular ride, with suspension to reduce the stress on my knee and knobblier tyres for the muddy trails. Who cares if I was totally over-biked for a gentle ride around the city!

It felt good to be back in the saddle, even just riding along the lane behind my house, crunching through frozen puddles. However, I knew the first real test would be the climb up the bridleway next to the Co-op, known as “Dog Poo Alley”. As I got into the climb I could feel a slight reminder from my knee that it wasn’t right, but I wouldn’t describe it as pain. I was more concerned by my legs and lungs! A combination of six weeks off the bike, freezing temperatures and lack of warm up before a climb meant that both my legs and lungs were burning – on a climb I usually breeze up! The low winter light coming through the trees in Hearsall Woods necessitated a stop for photos – I still need to get my Four into the GMBN Bike Vault with my Vitus hardtail. I then had the brilliant idea to check out a clearing in the woods, which I hoped would still be covered in snow – as you can see from the photo at the top of this post, I was in luck! Riding away from the clearing I found a fun bit of trail with roots and berms – I couldn’t believe that I’d been missing out this section for years.

The next section of my ride was uneventful. At Canley Ford I opted to miss out the “Milkbar trail”, as it is quite rooty and twisty, so I stuck to the tarmac lane. My plan had been to ride round the Memorial Park, as an easy way to add some distance to the ride. When I got there the perimeter path looked like an ice rink, so I decided that the muddy trail through the woods would be safer. I haven’t had much luck with this section of woods this year – a tree fell onto the main trail in the spring and thus far I haven’t found a way through without having to get off the bike and climb over fallen branches – this ride was no different.

After crossing the Kenilworth Road, I resisted the temptation of the dirt jumps and followed the trail to Earlsdon Avenue South, where I had to stop for a breather. I was really feeling the six weeks I’d had off the bike. From there it was road to Hearsall Common, where I had fun breaking through the ice on some frozen puddles – something that never gets old. Then back through Hearsall Woods and down Dog Poo Alley. As I was near the end of my ride, I decided to drop my seat and really push on the pedals to see how my knee would react. It coped, but it wasn’t happy about it, most of the ride my knee felt fine, but when I was standing on the pedals it didn’t feel right. It didn’t hurt, but it was more a reminder to not push things too quickly.

I rolled back home, covered in mud, but happy that my knee had held up and that I’d survived the icy conditions. It is also good to know that my knee is recovering, I won’t be heading back to Cannock Chase to conquer the rock garden that caused the injury for a little while, but hopefully I should be able to get out and rack up some base miles to get my fitness back to where it was at the start of November.

Monsal Trail Time Lapse

On Sunday Jen, Owen and I travelled up to the Peak District to cycle the Monsal Trail with our friends Ali and Jaymi. It was meant to be a bigger crew, but some people dropped out with flimsy excuses. They really missed out though, it was a fun afternoon. The cycling was a polar opposite to Llandegla last weekend, even riding at my slowest (with Owen on the back of my bike) I was the one stopping and waiting for the others to catch up. There was plenty of time to chat whilst riding along and Owen seemed to like having people to interact with. He also enjoyed the tunnels, he was clapping as we cycled through them. The time lapse doesn’t do the views justice, the scenery on both sides of the trail was stunning – with cliffs, rivers, hills and old buildings to pull your eyes away from the trail. Naturally, the ride ended with a cafe stop at Hassop Station, for burgers and bakewell pudding.

Llandegla

Last weekend I took a trip up to Llandegla, for what was probably my toughest day on a mountain bike. Llandegla is the nearest Welsh trail centre to Coventry, and had been top of my list of places to ride for a while. It also meant I could tick off one of my 2017 goals.

I left a grey and rainy Coventry, hoping that the forecast for sun in North Wales would be correct. Fortunately it was, with the rain clearing before I got to the end of the M54. I met my friend Andrew and his friend James at the visitor centre. We set off up the five kilometre climb, which is the start to all the trails at Llandegla. It is a fairly gentle climb, but felt relentless. My legs, and lungs, are used to much shorter climbs, so I struggled, eventually catching up with the guys at the top.

The ride down the hill was almost as punishing, mountain bike trails are graded like ski pistes: green, blue, red and black, increasing in difficulty. We took the red trail, but included one of the black loops off the main trail – my first time riding a black trail. After the long climb I was expecting it to be downhill all the way back to the trailhead, but the trail was peppered with steep climbs. The downhill sections didn’t offer much chance to recover, they were rough and bumpy, with raised wooden sections and plenty of jumps. I was struggling due to being at my limits of fitness and bike handling skills. The guys had to wait for me to catch up quite a few times, but I eventually made it to the end in one piece, still buzzing from the ride down. As it was such a lovely afternoon we chilled out on the terrace outside the amazing cafe and I really felt like I’d earned my bacon sandwich and slice of cake.

Suitably refuelled and aware that I needed to work on my fitness, I decided to do a solo loop of the blue trail. I took my time on the climb, with a few stops to catch my breath and take photos. I made it to the top without having to push the bike, despite it actually taking longer than the same climb in the morning. Dropping in to the blue trail I was back in my comfort zone, the trail was much smoother and only had a few gentle climbs as it twisted back down the hill. It was also much quieter, I only saw a handful of other riders. After struggling on the red/black loop in the morning, the blue felt like the perfect place to concentrate on my technique and have some fun.

Both loops were enjoyable in their own ways. The red/black trails challenged both my skill and fitness, but the whole point of a sport like mountain biking is to push yourself. The blue trail was easier and flattered my riding. I was glad I went back to the top again. At two hours door to door, Llandegla won’t be replacing Cannock Chase as my usual trail centre – it is a full day out, rather than just a morning. However, I am looking forward to a return visit, hopefully my fitness will have improved by then too!

Cycling Around Draycote Water With Owen

We had a fun family trip to Draycote Water at the weekend. Jen is training for a 10km running race, so we thought that the 5 mile tarmac path would be ideal for her to run round whilst Owen and I rode round on my bike. I figured that Owen and I would be able to do two laps in the same time as Jen could run one – so we had a bit of a race!

Team Bike were caught napping, literally – Owen had fallen asleep in the car on the drive over. Jen was able to get a good head start, whilst I got the bike and child seat ready and waited for Owen to wake up. When we got going I wasn’t sure how long it would take us to catch up with Jen, but we made good progress along the first dam thanks to a decent tail wind. However, when we hit the north shore the pace dropped, I’d forgotten how hilly the route was, the fact that I’d done a hilly 35km ride the previous day and was carrying an extra 15kg made the hills feel harder. I was still expecting to see Jen around each corner, but we eventually caught her up around the halfway point, and had a quick stop to have a drink and fuss over Owen.

Leaving Jen, we continued our lap now into a headwind on the west dam I pointed out the wildlife to Owen, we saw geese, swans, rabbits and even a heron! On completing the first lap, we stopped for some photos, and to look at a swan and her cygnets by the dam. The second lap felt quicker, but taking a break had been a mistake, Jen was waiting for us at the end. As Owen had been such a good boy sat on the back of my bike, we took him to the playground, where he particularly enjoyed “driving” the jeep on springs.

Mountain Biking

It was muddier in the woods than I expected today!

In my last garage blog post I hinted about a new toy that would live in the garage – here it is! I’ve finally bought a mountain bike after wanting one for years, but not having anywhere to keep it.

So far I’ve only ridden from home, exploring the woods and paths to the south and west of Coventry, but I have already covered almost 150km on it. I have been surprised at just how much off road riding I can do from the middle of Coventry. At the moment the woods are quite muddy, but exploring them gives me the same buzz as exploring a mountain did on my snowboard – which is great as I can get out on my bike all year and I don’t even need to leave Coventry!

Once the weather and my fitness have improved I’ll venture further afield, with my camera too, so there should be some more mountain biking posts on the blog at some point.

I have been using the Strava app to track my rides and also discover new routes, this has added an extra geeky element to cycling, which is perfect of me! You may have seen all the Strava posts on my Twitter, if not you can also see where I’ve been on their website or follow me if you also use Strava.