The first two night rides of the season were warm, dry, fast and enjoyable. Autumn is definitely lurking on the edge of vision, there’s a bite in the air at the end of the ride, and the trees are starting to turn. But for now it’s all still quite summery: the ground is dry and smooth, I’m still kicking up more dust than mud, and the fast tyres are still on the bike. Better make the most of it whilst I can.
Last week I went to Val D’Isere with my son and parents to see my brother and sister-in-law. They live out there now, but it’s ok, I’m not jealous at all, oh no. Ostensibly I was taking the boy out to see his uncle and aunt, but when visiting the Alps in summer it would be terribly rude not to bring a bike along too, especially given that Val D’Isere and neighbouring Tignes are so desperate to attract VTTers like me that the lifts and bike trails are completely free (you have to get a wrist band thing from the tourist information people to use the lifts, but it costs nothing).
We left Manchester and its drizzly, horrible weather to be greeted in Geneva by exactly the same stuff. All Western Europe was apparently blanketed in damp cloud. The three hour drive was sountracked by windscreen wipers and the incessant yammering of a six year-old. It did not bode well. But the weather picked up the next day, and my brother and I headed straight out to make the most of it while it lasted (the six year-old was being entertained by the rest of the family).It’s a great luxury to have your bike (and yourself) hauled up several hundred metres of mountain, and it only took me a few seconds to stifle the guilty sense that I was somehow cheating, and not earning the upcoming descent. And as soon as I started riding I decided that any guilt was totally misplaced; even riding downhill at over 2,500m leaves you out of breath at first, you have to work noticeably more at this altitude just to hang on to the bike. If I had had to ride to the top of these trails I would have been too knackered to ride back down again.
Tignes and Val D’Isere’s bike park has attracted some opprobrium online, being viewed as inferior to places like Alpe D’Huez or the Portes De Soleil resorts. I’ve not ridden anywhere else in the Alps, so I can’t compare, but I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed myself here. Yes, some of the trails are a bit worn now, and a few sections lack variety and imagination, but there’s a lot to be said for just rolling downhill for a full half-hour, on deserted tracks built specifically for bikes, surrounded by spectacular scenery and views of Mont Blanc. When you’re used to plodding through drizzle along the margins of unfriendly British tarmac for miles, just to get to a stretch of muddy footpath that may well now have vanished under mud, water or council tax-funded road-planings, the idea of being given an entire mountain of dedicated bike tracks to play on, and with free lifts, is rather appealing. On the first day we stuck to greens and blues, trails that my brother knew reasonably well, and we spent a good four or five hours riding all over the resort area, finishing off with the run down to Val D’Isere which goes on almost for ever and includes some lovely bits through the forest at the end. There was nothing seriously challenging anywhere, and I felt more confident as the day went on, although I did skirt round a pair of ropey old gap jumps in the name of discretion. The landings were very washed out, not safe at all, no.
After a day out walking with the rest of the family we fitted in a second outing, and I determined to explore the Wonderboisses trail from Tignes Le Lac down to Boisses, about which I had heard good things. Little more than a walkers’ path, this was very different to the groomed bike park stuff we’d been playing on, and was much more reminiscent of the riding I’m used to back home. Only it was much, much better. It’s about five miles of winding, pure singletrack, narrow and sinuous all the way down, with hairpins, rock gardens, modest drops, neat little bridges, a bit of exposure, a splendid ridge-line section, and spectacular views throughout. Some of it even went uphill for a bit, so you felt like you’d worked for your fun. I had a bit of a moment rattling over a load of loose rubble where I barely held it together, and I had to dab and scoot a bit on a couple of the tighter hairpins, but I rode all of it with a massive grin on my face. It was the best bit of mountain biking I’ve done all year.I was surprised to discover that I was the only one enjoying myself at this point. My brother is only used to the purpose-built bike-park stuff, and has never really ridden anything else, so he was rather unimpressed at the necessity to pedal and push upwards, and also at the distinct lack of margin for error presented by the ribbon of path, and the frequent big drops off to one side. He is a fearless snowboarder, and I’m used to being left behind by him on the mountains, so I have to confess to being ever so slightly pleased to discover that I was completely happy on something that took him a little way out of his comfort zone – it’s normally the other way round.After a bit of an enforced rest waiting for the uplift bus at the bottom of the hill (French lunch-breaks are quite long) we headed back up to meet the family and make our way home. That was the end of my Alpine riding for the year, our flight home was booked and school started on Monday. But I had had a splendid couple of days’ riding in a quiet, well-run resort, and I’d happily go back again for more. Perhaps there are more trails like Wonderboisses hiding out there?
A 6am start saw me sneaking out of the house as quietly as possible to avoid disturbing anyone. It can be tough to get started but I do love early morning rides; once I’ve prised myself painfully out of bed, then the kitchen, and finally the house, that run down the deserted street and out into the world is always cheering. I headed off to meet my friend and tried to ignore the weather.
After leaving the village we didn’t see a living soul for nearly three hours (the occupants of cars and such, visible in their insulated boxes on motorways and trunk roads, don’t count). Grey, damp clouds loitered above the valley, scudding off the ridges and summits, and we rode up into them. The wind had an edge to it, so we kept moving to stay warm. Paths and tracks had been washed clear of footprints and tyre marks by the rains of yesterdays storms. Whilst the forecast had lied, and where we were promised three hours of clear skies instead we had to make do with brief glimpses of the sun through cloud, the rain did hold off for most of the morning. Big drops started to fall at the top of the last descent. We dropped as fast as we could back into the valley, where it was sheltered, warm, and then headed for home.
I got back before the family were out of their pyjamas.
I spent last weekend with my mate Rick and a load of other lunatics dodging rainclouds and chucking bikes down hills along the length of Swaledale as part of the ‘Ard Rock Enduro weekend. Based out of the Dales Bike Centre near Reeth, the ‘Ard Rock course runs up and down (and up and down and up and down and up and up a bit more and then down and down again) along the edge of a spectacularly bleak part of the Yorkshire Dales. I intend that to be a compliment, I’m a fan of bleak, and moreover the scars of the areas previous mining history make for some excellent and novel riding, loose and swoopy and fun.
The main event at the ‘Ard Rock is an enduro race, which is a bit like a mini-rally on bikes, with short, technical timed stages joined up by nice long link sections where you don’t need to be pedalling so hard that you throw your lungs up. This year there was a less race-oriented, more normal just-ride-round-the-course event on the Saturday. There was also a load of demo bikes and whatnot to look at, a beer tent, a barbecue, a band, some toilets, fields to camp in, it was almost a sort of mini-festival.I didn’t ride the enduro proper, partly because I didn’t get my entry in soon enough, but also because I wasn’t sure that I’d be up to it. Instead I entered the ‘All-Mountain Challenge’ which covered the whole course on the Saturday before the main event without any timing on the tricky bits. I was pleased to easily clear everything on the timed stages, even spending a fair amount of time holding back behind other people, and thoroughly enjoying myself. I certainly could have gone faster. Watching the riders go round on the Sunday it was pretty clear that barring disasters I’d have had a fighting chance to place somewhere other than last. Assuming it runs again next year I think I shall enter the real thing and see how I do.In other news, it looks like summer is done. The weather was entertaining for the whole weekend, with showers giving us a soaking at the end of the challenge ride, a spectacular thunder storm on the Saturday evening, and blustery, rainy unpleasantness for the next day’s official race. The lower section of the first stage, unremarkable when I rode it, turned into a traction-free mud-slide on the Sunday and claimed several casualties, including my umbrella, which was horribly disfigured when an errant rider landed on it at speed after cartwheeling through the bracken. When we arrived at the bottom of this section we were slightly alarmed to see a rider huffing merrily on Entonox to dull the pain of a broken collarbone or separated shoulder, but as far as I’m aware there were no more serious injuries. By contrast, the fifth and final stage was much less slippy than when I rode it and people were throwing themselves down at dramatic speeds, a fact borne out by the two riders I saw riding the stage out on flat back tyres.
Overall the ‘Ard Rock Enduro weekend was excellent. The course was very good, the organisation seemed up to the task, the venue was fine, and I had a smashing weekend in spite of all the rain. Given the chance I’ll definitely be looking forward to doing it again, properly, next summer.
I’ve been too busy to post anything this month, due to work and whatnot, but things haven’t been all bad. First of all, the Tour De France came to my town! As you can see this is part of the caravan. I didn’t take any snaps of the riders because I was too busy going “OMG PROS!” and pointing out Andre Greipel (I think all the other recognisable riders were on the other side of the road or going too fast). We decided to watch the race go past on the hilariously-named “Cote De Greetland” which was busy but not insanely packed like Holme Moss. It was an amazing experience, not least because we got to ride our bikes on closed roads over what is normally a three-lane deathtrap of a roundabout. There were massive crowds, many of whom loudly cheered on our slightly surprised six-year old boy, who just happened to be riding his bike along the stage two route of Le Tour in a yellow t-shirt. Pleasing.I have also been riding bikes on my own account, rather less excitingly. It would be rude not to, frankly, as the weather has been insanely beautiful most of the month, and the local trails are dusty and fast (if a little overgrown in places, but then you can’t have everything your own way). My Canyon now seems to be running smoothly, which is good because I’m supposed to be riding the thing in a sort of Enduro-Sportive event next weekend. Here is is reclining alongside a good, no-nonsense, spade-is-a-spade Yorkshire street name sign, midway round what was a rather splendid ride.
Proper, real, honest-to-goodness summer with dusty trails, deep grass, bright sunshine and long, warm evenings. I only had time for just over an hour of riding so I hauled myself up the steepest back-lane out of the village, up to the catchwater, round above Meltham, and down Wessenden as fast as possible, holding my teeth closed in a fixed grin to avoid inhaling mayflies. Hardly anyone else was out, just the odd dog-walker. Lots of birds, though, catching all the insects; I saw a couple of curlews and a pheasant.
I rode down the steps on the west side of Butterley dam for a change, they’re a bit less brutal than the set on the east and don’t have a steep flight at the bottom. The trick is relaxing into a rhythm, keeping your weight back, and not grabbing so much brake that your wheels start to slip or your forks dive.
More paving on the packhorse road, the National Trust have now completely trashed one of the best bits of this trail, filling in what was an entertaining winding groove with rubble, and laying massive stone flags over the top. The section of path in the foreground here was a bit rough and rutted and was in need of a bit of work, but the stretch in the distance, where you can see all the stone bags, was to my mind a lovely bit of stable singletrack, and it is now gone forever.
This isn’t my biggest gripe with what they’ve done, though. By paving over the preferred line for mountain bikers instead of putting the flags off to one side, they have missed a massive opportunity to reduce conflict between users; indeed, they’ve actually increased the chance of conflict arising. To ride over these flags comfortably and avoid the sensation of having your fillings rattled loose you need to maintain a higher speed than was necessary or desirable before they were laid. Riders are now going to be covering these sections much faster, and the flags demarcate the path as a very definite single-file strip, so they’re going to be flying down the hill straight towards anyone coming up it. Walkers are going to freak out about “out of control” cyclists on these paths, and I can almost see the foam-flecked letters to the local rag already.
Wilf and I went to play on the indoor BMX track at the National Cycling Centre yesterday. It was brilliant fun! That there is Wilf riding the rhythm section, which he pretty much had down by the end, even on a bike that was a bit on the big side for him. We’re going back again next week, I can’t wait.
An unexpected beautiful day coincided with an unexpected morning off family duties yesterday, and it wasn’t difficult to decide what to do. It was quiet for a sunny bank holiday weekend, and the few walkers I did encounter were mostly in a summery mood, happy to let me past and haul their dogs out of the way. After a familiar start I headed into a small wood which, I had heard, was the site of some digging activity. Sure enough, in between the bluebells I found gap jumps, hips and drops, clearly well used and well cared for. The features were a bit big for me to be confident trying them on my own, so I rode past, but I’ll be dragging some mates out here for a play as soon as possible.On the other side of the wood I emerged onto a long, quiet track which will serve nicely to link up a few sections that otherwise require long, boring tarmac drags; the morning’s explorations had been very successful. I moved back to familiar trails with the drop down Back Lane into the Holme valley, a good kilometre of entertaining, rocky singletrack without another soul in sight. I picked my way through the busy traffic in the middle of Holmfirth, and then hauled myself up the sharp kick of Rotcher onto Cartworth Moor. Next came the fast, rocky fun of flying down Ramsden Road, only slowing once for a family making their way up. Ramsden Road often has a convoy of 4x4s climbing up it, tearing the track apart, but it was quiet this morning with just three or four other cyclists and the aforementioned walkers, so I got to let go of the brakes and see how fast I could make myself go.
Making my way across from Yateholm to Digley the roads started to get busy, with trains of motorcyclists and the odd roadie coughing in their wake. The climb up the other side of the valley, Springs Road, had a smattering grumpier walkers, proper red-socks intent on messing with their map cases and walking poles, and I had to turn the politeness up considerably to get a couple of them to acknowledge my presence and allow me to pass. Or perhaps it was because the morning was turning into midday, and the early morning good humour had evaporated in the glare of the sun and pre-lunchtime hunger. Whatever the reason, I was wavering in my intentions for the next section of ride, a cheeky stretch of footpath, usually quiet but likely to be busy on a sunny bank-holiday weekend. My indecision led to disaster. I changed my mind repeatedly on the way down Wessenden, finally deciding to go for it at the last possible moment. Unfortunately, my choice to turn left coincided with my front wheel being in a gravely, off-camber rain gully, the tyre lost traction and I crashed to the ground. A nearby dog-walker completely ignored me. I got up, dusted myself off, noted that the blood coming from my knee wasn’t flowing too copiously, and decided, on reflection, that I should probably call it a day. Insult to injury as I rolled back into the village: a strange grinding noise that had grown worse as the ride progressed turned out to be a collapsed pedal bearing. In spite of a frustrating ending, though, it was a brilliant ride overall, and I hope summer this year throws a few more days like this our way.