A Week of Bikes

I had booked last week off work to coincide with the second week of Owen’s school Easter holidays. The idea had been to decorate the boys’ bedroom, but Jen and I got that finished by Monday afternoon, which left the rest of the week for bike adventures.

British Cycling Skills Training

I had seen on Twitter that British Cycling were running bike skills courses in Coventry for children aged four and over who are already confident on pedal bikes. This sounded ideal for Owen – especially as he has not had any coaching since he tried cycle speedway last year. I also let Owen’s friend’s parents know so that Owen would have a friend there – as the only thing better than riding bikes is riding bikes with your friends!

The skills training was very basic – riding around a basketball court – but it was good for Owen to have reminders about things like checking the bike over before a ride and starting to pedal with your strongest foot, rather than scooting. He did really well at taking his hands off the handlebars (one at a time) – something which we had been practising unsuccessfully previously. Owen was already good at picking lines – you have to be when you ride off-road on a rigid bike with small wheels, so he did well on the line choice drills, which were avoiding an increasing number of “hedgehogs” (cones) on the track. The final activity was “bike limbo”, which Owen had another advantage for, being the smallest rider there.

After the training, Owen and his friend were able to have a ride around the park together – first stopping at the skate park, where Owen did not hesitate to get stuck in with the teenagers on skateboards. At one point he rode over a ramp and shouted out “that was sick!”. Owen’s friend was a bit nervous about going onto the skatepark, but seeing Owen encouraged him and he managed to conquer the ramp too. After the skate park, the boys went to the playground, where it was Owen’s turn to be encouraged to climb things that he would usually be nervous to go up – it was great seeing the boys playing together, as that is something that has been missed with all of the lockdowns, and we do not really know what Owen gets up to at school. We finished the trip off with a stop at the ice cream van. It was mad to think that the previous day Owen had woken up to snow at my parents’ house and there we were in the park, wearing T-shirts and eating ice cream! As I was not riding I was able to take my camera – which really has not had enough use in 2021.

Snibston Colliery Country Park

With Henry at nursery all day, Wednesday had been planned as the big day out on the bikes. I had heard about a new blue graded mountain bike trail at Snibston Colliery Country Park in North Leicestershire, so we decided to try it out. A bonus of travelling across the border to Leicestershire was that their school holidays had already finished, so it was quiet and we were able to park the van right next to the pumptrack.

After a few laps of the pump track we decided to explore the trail. It has quite a clever layout with two short loops that can be ridden near to the car park, or a much longer loop incorporating the shorter ones at the beginning and end. At the split between the two shorter loops, there is also a skills training area, which was our first stop.

The skills area was split into three graded sections, the easiest section was very basic, with two berms and a roller – it was even more basic than the pump track. We rode this for completeness before moving on to the middle graded section – which was perfect for Owen, with a few small drops followed by either a skinny or a small rock garden. We did quite a few laps of this before I heard the unmistakable sound of parts falling off my bike as I landed one of the drops. The right brake lever squeezing straight to the bar was a good indicator that I had a problem with my front brake, which was confirmed when I looked back up the trail and spotted my brake pads. However, I could not find the split pin which was meant to keep the pads in the brake. I have always hated the split pin design that Shimano use on their cheaper brakes and my fears were realised, I had not bent the pin sufficiently when working on my brakes the previous evening – I will be replacing the brakes on my hardtail with higher-end parts, once the current bike parts shortage is over. With no pin, I was able to bodge a repair with a small twig, but I was not confident that the fix would last, nor was I confident that I should be using my front brake. Owen carried on sessioning the skills area, including the hard graded section, which had some big jumps.

With the full loop out of the question, I asked Owen which of the shorter loops he wanted to ride back to the van – he chose based on which one had the most “skull and crossbones on the map” – i.e. technical trail features. This chosen section of trail was also the finisher for the full loop, so I was expecting good things. We were not disappointed! The trail made the most of the limited elevation, twisting left and right, swooping up and down. Possibly right at the top of the blue grading scale. Owen coped well, only needing to push up a few of the steeper uphill sections, where he had failed to carry enough speed into them because he had stopped to check bits out before rolling into them. On a trail with so many elevation changes, it was hard to see what was coming next when you are so low to the ground. It was good to see that the mental side of Owen’s mountain biking skills is matching up to his physical bike skills.

My brake bodge had held up, so we went round to complete the easier of the two short loops back to the van. Then Owen did a few more laps of the pump track and had a good play on the playground. On a related note – it was good to see that in the “digging area” they had decided to use pea gravel, rather than sand, it seemed just as fun to dig with, but did not get everywhere in Owen’s clothes and the van. On the way home I treated us to a McDinner – Owen must have worked up a hunger, because he finished his burger before me, which never happens!

We will definitely have to go back to Snibston Colliery Country Park to finish off the full loop of the blue trail. Possibly with Jen and Henry too, as it seems like a great place to visit with kids of all ages.

Hicks Lodge

© Sean Flood

On Thursday Owen and I had arranged to ride with a small group of friends at Hicks Lodge – our favourite place to ride together. Owen rode so well – I had taken the TowWhee, but it was not needed, Owen pedalled around the blue graded trail himself. At a good speed too. It was only after our ride that it clicked due to the lockdown and poor winter weather, we had not ridden there for six months – but even so, it was great to see Owen’s progression.

© Sean Flood

It was especially good to meet up with some friends and ride together, I am sure that this spurred Owen on to ride so well. We cannot wait until restrictions are lifted and we can ride with bigger groups again.

Coombe Abbey

Since discovering that the hole in the wall kiosk at Coombe Abbey Country Park sells doughnuts, I had planned a ride with Jen and the boys from Brandon, through the woods and across the fields to Coombe Abbey, for some doughnuts and a play on the playground for the boys. With Jen and I off work, Owen on school holidays and Friday not being a nursery day for Henry it seemed like a good time to go.

It was an easy ride from Brandon, especially for Henry who was on the Mac Ride. It probably took us longer to drive to Brandon from home. Seeing the full car park at Coombe Abbey made me think we had made the correct decision to ride in. The boys were happy to get onto the playground and Jen and I could have some coffee and doughnuts. I had been a bit nervous about the ride back to the van, as it was all slightly uphill, but Owen took it in his stride.

Ready Steady Riders with Henry

On Saturday, it was Henry’s turn to ride – on his second trip to Ready Steady Riders. He obviously remembered it from his first trip because he started to get excited as soon as we pulled into the car park! He only needed a few laps with my support before he was off doing laps on his own. Towards the end of the session, the riders were taken over to ride on the “big track” – the championship spec BMX track that will host the Commonwealth Games BMX race. However, knowing that Henry was not yet up to it I let him stay on the smaller Strider track for some solo laps, which he seemed to enjoy.

Solo Ride

After five days of riding with the boys, I managed to get out for a solo ride – a blast around my favourite local loop. The best trail on this is a bridleway which you have to hit at the correct time of year, usually April, as in winter it is too muddy and by the summer it is too overgrown. Unfortunately I seemed to be a couple of weeks too early for the bluebells in the woods. Nevertheless, it was great to get out and enjoy the countryside on my Orange Four or a lovely spring morning!

Sherwood Pines

This is “bonus content”, as it actually happened the following weekend, but as it was such a good trip out I decided to include it anyway.

A few months ago I had agreed to buy Owen’s next bike second hand, from another member of the Little Rippers MTB Facebook group. The plan was that we would meet at a trail centre at a mutually convenient time, this was the reason for our trip to Sherwood Pines. The plan had been for Owen and I to ride the blue graded trail before the meeting the seller to collect the bike, but by the time we got to Sherwood Pines we only had an hour – I figured that we would just about have enough time to ride the ten kilometre route.

On the first singletrack section Owen caught up with the family in front of us, managing to sneak past them before the second section – a newly built flow trail. Owen rode this bit so well, keeping his speed and picking good lines. I would have loved to have stopped for some photos, but was conscious of the time. After this there were a few climbs, which Owen was always going to struggle with on his sixteen inch wheeled, singlespeed bike. And some idiot had forgotten to bring the tow rope. We ended up needing to push a few sections, but there was no moaning (from either of us!) and Owen was often straight back on his bike as soon as the gradient leveled off. The ride. continued in this vein, with Owen riding confidently on a trail which is rougher than he is used to. It was only in the final kilometre that I could tell he was starting to flag a bit. We were only a fraction over the hour completing the loop, which I was pleased with.

After collecting Owen’s new (to him) bike, which I am sure will be appearing in a blog post soon (after a service and some small changes to personalise the bike for Owen), we went to the skills loop, which Owen enjoys riding. It is less than 100 metres long, so I can leave Owen to ride laps on his own, which I know he enjoys. I was following him, on probably his twentieth lap, when all of a sudden he hit a jump at a funny angle and flew over his handlebars. Fortuantely, unlike at 417 Bike Park last year, he was unscathed, but it was a good point for us to end our ride and head to Ikea to pick up the last few bits needed for Henry’s new bed.

Riding with Owen so much over the last few weeks, I have really noticed a progression in his riding – he is more than ready to make the next step up in bikes. Having gears, better brakes and bigger wheels will open up more trails for him and allow his riding to progress to the next level. And as for Henry, his riding is also progressing rapidly – he has only really been riding his balance bike since his second birthday, less than two months ago, and he is already super confident – I fear that he may be riding a pedal bike before the year is out!

Social Distancing in the Woods

Today was our first proper family adventure in the new van, and it was very much needed! When I bought the van it was mainly to increase space for bigger trips, but what also got us (particularly Jen) excited was the possibilities that it would open up for mini adventures – local-ish day trips where we could ride bikes, have picnics and generally explore woods and parks etc.

As getting outside in the fresh air was still being encouraged (as long as you keep away from people and do not touch anything), we loaded up the van with bikes, buggy and picnic and set off for Hicks Lodge – a beginner mountain bike centre near Ashby-de-la-Zouch, that Owen and I visited a few weeks back. We did not know if it would be empty or absolutely rammed, but pulling into the car park it seemed to be the same as normal, despite parking being free (I was planning to pay for parking online to avoid touching the machine). After getting changed we rode/walked/rolled up to the picnic spot together. Even on the gravel road climb Owen was riding noticeably better than our previous visit and got some positive comments – he does look the part when he has his kit on! Lunch was a chilly affair, as it was quite windy and the air temperature had not quite matched the sunshine!

After our rushed picnic, Owen and I rode to the last few sections of the blue graded mountain bike trail, whilst Jen and Henry carried on round the walking trail. Owen struggled on the first part of the blue trail we rode, as it was uphill, just that little bit too steep for him. But once we had pushed up the worst bit he was away – the rollers and berms on this section are bigger than Owen has ridden before, but he took it in his stride! When we got to the gravel road he asked if we could ride back up again, but instead we carried on down the blue trail, on the section Owen rode (twice) on our previous visit. His confidence and bike control seem to have stepped up a notch as he was flying down the trail, instinctively catching a few wobbles when he had them and breezing over the largest roller that had stopped him previously. Watching his little legs spinning furiously on the pedals on the run in to it was so cute! Once again, when we got to the bottom of the trail, he asked if we could ride back up and do it again! What sort of mean Dad would I have been to deny him – so we rode back up the hill (non-stop) and back down the trail for more of the same!

We got back to the van just as Jen and Henry were finishing their lap of the lake trail. As I was loading the bikes up, the family parked next to us started chatting to me about the van – something that seems to happen way more often than anything I have ever driven. As we were only a few miles from where I grew up, after Henry’s first nappy change in the back of the van, we took a detour to show Owen where I lived when I was his age. We inadvertently drove through the town centre, which I did not recognise, but the house was as I remembered it, albeit with a remodelled front garden. It did not take much longer for Owen to fall asleep in his car seat, only waking up to Henry’s crying as we waited for Jen to drop off some Mother’s Day gifts at her Mum’s house. One final stop on the way home was the garden centre – to pick up some topsoil and compost, as our outdoor activities tomorrow are going to be much closer to home – in the garden!

Both Jen and I have said how good the trip out was! Even without social distancing, it would have been a great day out, but with everything that is going on, getting out of the house for some fresh air and exercise was even more important! Fingers crossed that we can have more days like this in the coming weeks and months.

My New Car is a Van!

The BMW has gone, and my replacement daily driver is a van – a 2014 Volkswagen Transporter Kombi! Kombi meaning it has windows and a row of three seats behind the driver, then a load area at the back. The BMW was too small for us, especially when we needed to go away with bikes, so a bigger car was definitely needed. I looked at loads of different options during my research, but kept coming back to vans, as a small increase in exterior size from a large car gave a huge jump in practicality. Being able to hide (and lock) the bikes away in the back offers way more options for stopping off on journeys and really sealed the deal for me.

When I had settled on van, a VW Transporter was the only option. They are the most car like to drive and they are by far the most common “lifestyle vans”, with plenty of specialist garages and online resources available. I was not looking to buy a van quite this soon, but had been casually browsing, when this van popped up. It had the perfect spec, was fairly local, in budget and by far the best colour – so I bought it!

I have no plans to convert it into a camper van, which is common with these, but there may be a few changes to the interior to make it more comfortable/practical. However the plan for now is just to use it like a big estate car – it is going to come in really handy for the trips we already have planned in 2020 and will hopefully facilitate some more spontaneous adventures.

So far I have only driven it a few hundred miles, including a few trips to Hicks Lodge (first to check it out, then to ride with Owen). It drives better than I expected, the six speed gearbox has one of the best shift actions I have experienced. The two front seats are comfy and the boys love being sat high up in the back – especially Owen, who has commandeered the middle seat, for the best view out of the vast windscreen (ideal for spotting diggers etc). Being ten years newer than I am used to, I appreciate modern features such as parking sensors (that works, the BMW had them, but they were broken) and factory fitted Bluetooth. I do need to investigate the Bluetooth media player, as it does not always work as expected – I literally test these systems for a living and have not been able to tame it. After the BMW I also appreciate the simplicity of variable intermittent windscreen wipers, rather than the rubbish automatic wipers that never waited until you could not see anything to wipe the screen. I have noticed a few downsides: it does not fit on the drive with the tailgate open, although it is actually shorter than most of the estate cars I was looking at. A full tank of diesel is over £100, but should last 6-700 miles. The thing that takes the most adjustment for me is that it is a big departure from the compact rear wheel drive cars I have been used to for years. A more relaxed approach is needed, there’s little point seeking out the fun cross country route, unless there’s a view worth taking in – because you will get to see it much better than in a sports car. Hopefully a side effect of this is that I will make more effort to drive the MR2 when I am not transporting bikes or boys…