A Big Day Out

IMG_20150618_104601I’d been eyeing this one up for a while. Since I was about thirteen, in fact, and let’s not consider how many years that is precisely. When I was a teenager I spent many happy summer days exploring the local hills on my beloved Breezer Storm (until it was stolen from my garage , without brake blocks, I sincerely hope the theiving scrote broke something). My mate Ben and I used to head out into the Peak District and put in forty, fifty mile days with one bottle each, some sandwiches and a battered copy of OS Landranger 110, jumpers for goalposts, etcetera. I first planned this route back then, the aim being to ride from home to take in as many highlights of the Dark Peak as I could string together off-road in one big loop and then head back, but I never got chance to ride it all in a single day. It was always that bit too intimidating to take on, covering a number of hefty climbs over its theoretical sixty-to-seventy mile length, and featuring many descents that can leave you nearly as tired as the uphills do.

We did do most of the ride once, but we decided to make it more manageable by breaking it up into two days with a stop at Edale Youth Hostel, my first encounter with multi-day bike touring. On the first day we learned the importance of packing a chain tool when I twisted a link coming down Jacob’s Ladder, forcing me to ratchet my way to the YHA, and then on to the bike hire place at Fairholmes the next morning to borrow the necessary kit for a repair to get me home. In spite of this minor mishap we had a brilliant time that weekend and I have revisited these trails countless times over the years, watching them change, always feeling at home on them. But I never actually got round to riding that big old loop I planned out all those years ago, until yesterday.

Up and out of the door by just after six AM, I made good time to the Pennine Bridleway, something that didn’t even exist back when I first contemplated this idea. My original intention would probably have involved something stupid like riding over Holme Moss, but I took advantage of fuzziness of memory and a changed start point to follow a route down the Tame valley and over to Tintwistle instead. I had set myself a target of getting to Glossop within two hours without killing myself to determine whether to undertake the full loop or bail out. I managed this easily enough even with a minor wrong turn due to a path closure, and then slogged through the most unpleasant half hour of the route all day, surrounded by idiot rush-hour drivers on a long, tedious tarmac section. I was very happy to reach the bottom of the Middle Moor bridleway above Hayfield, signifying the start of the real riding. I pushed up what is normally an entertaining, loose descent, climbing around the edge of Kinder Scout, then dropping down and climbing back up to reach the high-point of the day at Edale Cross (541m). The next descent, Jacob’s Ladder, remains one of my favourites, although I’d not ridden it for a long time. The last couple of years have been pleasingly hard to it, and much of the debatable repair work on the upper section, presumably undertaken by the National Trust, has been loosened by winter frosts and then smashed out of the ground by storms. It’s brilliant to ride right now, if you stay on the track and keep off the chicken lines round the side, rocky as hell and full of interesting little drops and loose rubble. My recent trip to Torridon stood me in good stead and I had a blast all the way down, although I stopped to catch my breath and take a photo at the half-way gate.IMG_20150618_094343I shot down Edale at a remarkable pace, carried along on a glorious tailwind, and all the way up Jagger’s Clough I tried to make the most of the assistance and block out the knowledge that I’d have to ride back into this westerly blast for most of the last quarter of the ride. From Hope Cross I weighed up the options of a longer, simpler drop along ‘Potato Alley’ followed by a steadier climb through Rowlee Farm, or a short sharp shot down ‘The Beast’ and a similarly spiky hike back up past Hagg Farm. I opted for the quicker but tougher route, clattering down greasy rocks under the trees and back up the other side of the valley to the top of Lockerbrook, then down more greasy rocks into the Derwent Valley. I encountered a number of other cyclists on the quiet lane alongside the reservoirs, practising my most determined, weathered look as I spun along. Nobody asked me where I was riding to so I was denied the opportunity to pretend to be some sort of fearless marathon athlete. Still, I got to visit one of my favourite unnecessary cycle-infrastructure safety signs, warning unsuspecting riders of a treacherous 1-in-70 slope followed by a lethal off-camber (just) 10 degree right-hander. I reckon my son could have ridden this one out successfully on his brakeless balance bike, aged two. Still, you can’t be too careful.IMG_20150618_111444Next on the menu was Cut Gate. I stopped at the foot of the climb for a snack before shouldering the bike for the steep slog up the switchbacks. Somewhere up here I began to develop a headache that persisted for the next couple of hours.  At the summit the wind had dropped totally, it was almost dead calm in spite of my being at the second highest point of the day, and totally exposed to the elements. I hoped, futilely as it turned out, that some freak weather anomaly  had killed off the prevailing wind, and set off on the longest descent of the day. Cut Gate itself, the peculiar trench through the peat hags, was muddy and puddly on top, but wherever there was a noticeable gradient the path was dry and the descent down Mickleden Edge was as enjoyable as ever, with rubble all over. Presumably this was a further sign of the storms that broke up the surface of Jacob’s Ladder, which must have been relatively recent, as I rode here a less than two months ago and it was much less loose then.

Diverting down past the ruined farmstead at North America to Langsett Barn for a refill of water, I grabbed a bite from my pack, and pressed on toward the Trans-Pennine Trail, attempting to ignore the persistent throbbing ache at the top of my skull, and the noticeably rising breeze. The usual bridleway link to the TPT was shut for some reason, so I enjoyed another brief spike of unwanted adrenalin courtesy of the Great British motorist and his astonishing faith in his own driving abilities. I then escaped up the quiet old railway line on the nice new surface installed by Sustrans, straight into the teeth of what was fast becoming a brutal headwind. A cheeky detour up and across the dam of Winscar Reservoir provided brief respite before turning back into the full force of the gale. It was chilly enough on the tops to merit putting on my waterproof, and I ground my way to the top of the hills above Holme feeling distinctly cold. Dropping down Ramsden Road to Yateholm was actively painful. At the bottom of the rocky descent I dug out my emergency paracetamol to deal with the now un-ignorable headache, and gritted my teeth for the final grind home.

More tarmac carried me to the start of Springs Lane, by which time the painkillers had taken effect, and I climbed steadily up over familiar ground to the Isle of Skye road, where the wind bullies you nearly as much as the motorists. A white van man drove me clean off the road, but I barely had the energy to show my appreciation. I turned gratefully off the blacktop after a grim fifteen minutes where I must have averaged barely seven miles-per-hour. As a final kick in the teeth the headwind required me to pedal most of the way down the last descent just to keep moving, but I was running on autopilot by this point, smiling at myself just for finishing the ride, and (just) inside the nine hours I had down as a vague target to aim for when I set out.

In total my Garmin tells me I covered 107.66km (66.9 miles) with 2,866m of ascent over some fairly tough terrain, without dying horrifically or having to phone someone up to bail me out. Here is the Strava trace, with slightly different numbers for some reason. I ate 1.5 bags of Jelly Babies, two houmous sandwiches and one cereal bar on the road, and then half my bodyweight in chilli when I got home. Then I slept for about twelve hours. A good day, well spent. Damn, I love mountain biking.IMG_20150618_104603

Scotland 2015

Well, I’m back.

Me and Rik went to Scotland to ride bikes and watch the Fort William Downhill World Cup. It rained, lots, but we had an ace time anyway.

We drove up on Thursday, originally intending to ride up and back down Ben Lomond, but rain and low cloud led us to divert to Laggan Wolftrax instead. This turned out to be an excellent idea. Laggan is reputedly quite technical (for a trail centre), and a couple of features on the black certainly merit stopping and considering rather than blindly riding in.  It is all technically rollable, though. We did the three main loops in more-or-less sensible order, bar a few diversions due to dodgy signage. The two red loops are good fun and the black is entertaining, with scary looking features that turn out to be quite flattering to ride, provided you don’t choose a stupid line (obviously I chose a couple of stupid lines, but still lived to tell the tale). Also kicking around the track were a few staff members of the Canyon Enduro team, who took a sideways look at my knackered old Nerve AM before blasting down the huge qualifier rocks like they were insignificant pebbles. Must have been down to the fancy new bikes.

Friday saw us emerge from a rain-sodden tent and make our rain-sodden way to rain-sodden Glencoe to ride the Devil’s Staircase and Ciaran Path (both rain-sodden). The push up the staircase was amusing, if you find the sight of very miserable, very wet ramblers amusing (I do). The ride down the other side was brilliant and I didn’t puncture, unlike the last time I was here. We turned right at the penstock and rode up to the scary-looking Blackwater dam, which felt like approaching the gates of Mordor, only soggier. You’re not supposed to use the dam to get across the valley, there are big signs warning you about deep water and whatnot (which is daft, there’s a four foot concrete wall in the way of the water, you’re more likely to fall off the front of the dam). Duly noting the warnings, we somehow magically found ourselves on the north side of the valley, no, I have no recollection of how we got there yer honour. We then promptly rode off in the wrong direction through a massive bog and had to climb back up before setting off down the real route. People rave about the Ciaran Path, apparently. Presumably they rode it during one of the Highlands’ bi-centennial dry periods. I can only say that I’m sure it’s fun when you can differentiate it from the thousands of burns that cross it. I don’t mean to imply that the riding was bad, it wasn’t, it was excellent in parts, but all the excellent bits were punctuated by swamps and rivers and mostly submerged under half a foot of water. When we finally made it down to Kinlochleven we were very wet and very cold and sorely in need of refuelling. The Ice Factory café sorted us out and we began to climb back up, slowly and painfully, towards the top of the Devil’s Staircase again. And then the rain stopped. The wind dropped. The clouds reluctantly loosed their grip on the summits and the whole world altered its aspect completely in a matter of minutes. We forgave Scotland for the previous four hours and had a cracking final half hour riding down an amazing trail in glorious sunshine.

The brief break in the weather turned out to be a minor blip and proceedings reverted to type for Saturday. In fact the weather was so bad that practice and qualification for the Fort William round of the UCI Downhill World Cup was called off completely. We squelched around the event village ogling fancy bikes and spotting mountain-bike celebrities (Manon Carpenter! Loic Bruni! Nigel Page! Danny MacAskill! Danny MacAskill’s mum!). We took the gondola up  and walked down the course, which was muddy and terrifying and cold and wet. We retreated to a pub, then retreated to our tent to hide from the weather, worrying vaguely about the trees overhead dropping limbs on us in the night. Sunday dawned much better – the sun even came out later on, and the racing was excellent to watch.  We set off for Torridon almost immediately after Greg Minnaar clinched the win, and three hours later set up our tent in the free camp site below the imposing mass of Liathach.

The next morning we set out on our Big Mountain Day. The weather was pretty good but everything was still soaking wet from the previous week’s downpours, so we ended up soaking wet in pretty short order. It barely mattered, the scenery was superlative, and the trails astonishing. A wrong turn led us to complete a different route to that originally intended but we didn’t feel that we’d missed out as the riding was pretty much perfect. The hills were almost deserted, we saw one other group of riders and a total of four walkers in almost seven hours of riding. The paths we rode were incredible, rocky and challenging but immensely rewarding. The only midgie in the ointment was the obligatory stupid square-edged water-culverts, one of which booted me over the bars on the last descent – but these were happily fairly rare and didn’t detract from an excellent day’s riding. We finished off with a fancy meal at the incongruous Torridon Hotel, a swish establishment in the middle of nowhere, proper posh like.

On Tuesday morning, after a night disturbed by the loudest cuckoos I’ve ever heard, we set out on the Ben Damph loop. “Damph” is a typically Scottish understatement: the entire hill was utterly sodden. Three hours, mostly of slog over boggy, wet paths led us to the top of an excellent rocky descent. It wasn’t a bad ride at all, but I feel that it’s probably one best reserved for a dry day, one preceded by at least a week of no rain.

And that was it. We arrived at the tent utterly knackered, and abandoned vague plans of riding somewhere else on the way home in favour of a nine-hour drive straight back. A week of Scottish water erosion had taken it’s toll: all our kit was soaked, our bikes were making some very alarming noises, and we were twitching involuntarily at every drip or splashing sound. We broke camp, chucked everything in the back of the car and set off for home. It was a brilliant holiday, we had a great time, shame about the weather. I will definitely head back to the Highlands and to Torridon in particular one day, there’s riding to be had there like nowhere else I’ve ever been. I might factor in alternative activities in case of rain, though.

Thawing

IMG_20150124_160327It snowed heavily midweek, and the hills were buried under nearly a foot of it until yesterday. It was falling fast enough to justify working from home on Wednesday. Then it warmed and the rain started, and the moors are mostly back to their customary winter colour, with only a starling spatter of white where the snow hides in pockets between higher ground.

I have to be back by five so I head up to the conduit, with a brief pause where the Local Shop was to inspect the vicious waterbars and scout out alternative lines that will avoid slashing holes in my tyres next time I come down this way. I make a quick stop at the top to admire the sunset, then carefully pick my way down the reservoir track, switching over the lethal frozen tramlines of compacted snow left on the hardpack and tarmac by farmers’ 4x4s. Across the river, across the stream, these new waterproof socks work better than the old ones. Grind up Wessenden Head into the teeth of a hearty headwind, all the cars are giving me lots of room today for some reason, and a white-van-man even holds back uncharacteristically to wait for space to pass.

At the very top of the hill I discover a rolled car, ten-fifteen feet off the road on its roof, assorted motoring detritus all over the ceiling, a child seat in the back, but no sign of any driver or passengers. The exhaust is cold, it looks like it’s been here for some hours at least, but there’s no sign that anyone else has been along to do anything about it. There is ice and snow all over the road, it is not hard to reconstruct what probably happened. This isn’t the first time I’ve found a crashed vehicle up on the tops, they seem to crop up every couple of years, a few yards off the road, upside down or on their sides, sometimes obviously stolen and deliberately trashed or burnt out, other times like this, oddly abandoned chunks of somebody else’s very bad day.

Satisfied that no-one’s life needs saving I ride on, pedalling round the curves as fast as I can, between banks of snow encroaching onto the road. It’s getting dark, I want to get off the tarmac, away from the cars and their drivers. Swinging right and down onto the path home, I feel safer. The snow is melting fast even up here but deep patches of slush still grab at the front wheel, throwing the bike against the side of ruts, fishtailing me down the hill. Halfway down the sound of metal on metal tells me that my rear brake pads have worn through completely. My front brake is screeching, probably headed toward the same failure mode as the rear shortly. The headwind is strong enough that this hardly matters, I have to pedal to keep up any real momentum anyway. I meet one other rider about halfway down, we exchange appreciative comments regarding the conditions. The steeper, rockier sections are free of snow or ice, so there’s no real risk of serious incident. It’s ten past five but I think I’ll probably still get away with it and I roll back to the village happy to have got out for a bit.

Back home inside an hour and a half, and I call 101 to let the police know about the rolled car, just in case. The police call-centre chap has no idea where I’m talking about, poor sod.IMG_20150124_164138

A Ride In The Snow

IMG_20150118_114041-2As a rule I don’t normally ride much when there’s snow on the ground. The pitiful quantities that we usually get during the course of a typical West Yorkshire winter mean that our hills rapidly degrade into a freeze-thawed quagmire of slushy mud, interspersed with patches of lethal black ice lurking in the shadows: not really my idea of fun. This gives rise to that very rare circumstance in which I express a positive desire for rain, in this case purely for its marvellous ability to wash away the frozen horrors of the trails (not to mention the deadly drifts of slushy road-scrapings and ice left along the edges of the tarmac by the council gritters). This morning I made an exception to my rule, however; a fresh fall yesterday onto ice-free ground meant that a trip out towards the tops on the bike would most likely be a worthwhile novelty, without too much lethally slippery stuff.

Current thinking would dictate that for this sort of endeavour one requires, at a minimum, a proper fat bike with tyres of at least four inches width, some of those crazy-looking bike-pogies to fend off frostbite, and a big bushy beard. Having only the last of these items myself, but fancying a bit of a ride nonetheless, I decided to risk it. This is not to say that I think there’s anything wrong with a fat bike, nor that I’m opposed to adding this cycling equivalent of a monster-truck to my collection, not at all. They look like splendid fun and I’m sure that one day I’ll acquire one, and that it’ll be brilliant for excursions like today’s – but I simply haven’t got round to it, yet.  With just a normally-shod 26″ bike at my disposal, therefore, I had no alternative but to make peace with my almost-certain death due to inadequate equipment, and set out towards the moors.

Down in the village there was no more than a centimetre or two of slush on the ground, but climbing up the valley the depth and quality of snow increased, turning into a good six inches of nice, squeaky powder after a couple of miles. The sun was out and I soon warmed up. Ice is always a worry on winter rides, but the cover was new enough that no slippery boilerplate had formed anywhere, and last night had not been quite cold enough to freeze the puddles properly. The skinny mud tyres on my bike hooked up surprisingly well and it was possible to ride steadily up much of the trail, albeit in the lowest gear available. The footprints of runners and walkers thinned out as I moved further from the village, and the solitary tyre tracks of a rider who had shot past me in the opposite direction at the bottom became easier to follow. My progress grew slower the higher I got, and I had to push the last section, the combination of deeper snow and a steeper gradient making it impossible to even get moving, let alone keep up enough speed to maintain traction. I was glad I’d come out in grippy trainers rather than my minimally-treaded bike shoes.

At the top of the hill the trail reaches one of the roads over the tops, and the final drag was completed with a small audience, a family out for a spot of sledging. The kids didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves much, most likely due to the biting wind. Getting to the summit had taken me more than twice as long as my previous best attempt, and I abandoned any idea of further exploration due to time limitations.  I snapped a few photos and set off back, pedalling to keep up momentum through the deeper stuff on the edge of the track, and avoiding the uneven surface left by runners and walkers. Maintaining a sensible speed without the need to brake was possible in the deep snow on the wider sections of the path, but further down the narrower line meant I had to pull on the anchors, which I was pleased to discover actually worked, quite astonishing considering the fact that both callipers and rotors were hidden in a sort of huge, white, frozen cylinder. Whilst heading back down I encountered several more mountain bikers hauling themselves towards the top, leaving a more even line of packed snow to ride down than what I’d ridden through on the way up. Flakes of white were starting to fall from the clouds again, the sun had disappeared. I took things steadily, dodging increasing numbers of ramblers and dog-walkers, and managed to stay upright all the way back to the village for a welcome coffee and bacon sandwich. The bike was carrying a good couple of kilograms of extra weight in the form of ice and snow, but everything still worked perfectly underneath, and it had acquitted itself admirably through frankly daft conditions, well outside the traditional remit of a mountain bike, unfashionable skinny tyres and all. Fun though they undoubtedly are, I’m not going to be rushing out to buy that fat bike just yet.IMG_20150118_121231-2

Winter Miles

IMG_20141220_110551It is the first day of the Christmas holidays and my son has a stinking cold which he has no doubt already passed on to me, so before the symptoms took hold I decided to head out into the gloriously horizontal weather to get a few miles in. The wind carried me effortlessly down the valley before dumping me at the foot of a selection of hills blocking the route home, from which I chose a meandering back-road and byway climb towards food and warmth. The back-roads and byways were chosen largely for their capacity to hide me from the blustering headwind, but once I’d gained some height there was little chance of shelter anywhere and it was a case of gritting teeth and grinding away to make any progress. Head down and hiding a grin I made my way through the wind and rain; I like riding in lousy weather really, provided I have the right kit and the energy required. There’s a great sense of satisfaction knowing you are out fighting the elements when most would stay at home, and it’s always good to feel that you’ve achieved something on a day when it would have been very easy to justify sitting by the fire instead.

November Wheels

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I hate November, so I built some novelty wheels to cheer myself up. They’re not going to get ridden, I was just experimenting with different spoke lacings (3-leading 3-trailing above, snowflake below), using up some odd-length spokes I ended up with and messing with stuff I found in the spares box.

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I do enjoy wheelbuilding, it’s very satisfying. I have been riding too, but it’s been so muddy and dark and grim that I’ve blocked out all recollection of it. Let’s just pretend that November has been about wheelbuilding instead.

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Rushup Edge

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Trashed, at a cost of £70,000.

Derbyshire County Council have started to destroy the sunken road on Rushup Edge. This is a real shame, for reasons that will be blindingly obvious to anyone who is familiar with the path in question and who isn’t a complete, gibbering imbecile. This is only the latest in a whole programme of systematic vandalism in the Peak District by DCC, but it appears to have been something of a final straw for the mountain bike community in the area, as we are now seeing a concerted fightback on this issue. Peak District MTB organised a protest on Monday this week, and I popped along to add my voice to the general chorus of disapproval (along with sending out numerous irate emails to various council drones, naturally). There is coverage in the MTB press and also encouraging noises being made outside the two-wheeled community; apparently horse riders and walkers are not entirely convinced that dumping tonnes of imported rubble on an ancient track is the best use of public resources. It remains to be seen whether anything positive will come of all this, but you have to try…

Grumpy mountain bikers.
Angry mountain bikers. Grr.

 

Chris Turner

1072383_782024208505691_7986555033131955987_oLast Saturday I led a bunch of mountain bikers around twenty-odd miles of our local trails, which is something I’ve done plenty of times before. But this time was rather different; we all had one thing in common besides our bikes: we were riding to say a goodbye. At the top of the last descent we stopped not just to admire the view, but to scatter some of the ashes of our good friend Chris Turner.

Chris died on 29th June 2014. He was 45. He died of lung cancer less than a year after diagnosis, despite being fit and healthy and a life-long non-smoker. His funeral earlier this summer was attended by hundreds, an indication of how well loved he was. Chris’s mountain-biking friends felt that a ride in his memory would be a fitting additional tribute, so once the summer holidays were over fifteen or so of us met up in Marsden and set off to retrace some of his tyre tracks for a few hours as a way of marking his passing and celebrating his life.

I met Chris several years ago through mutual friends in our village, but we only really got to know each other when when one of us gave the other a lift to a group ride organised via the internet (Chris was better known to some as marsdenman on the singletrackworld.com forums). We shared quite a few bike-filled cars after that, and enjoyed a stack of rides together with jaunts up to the Lakes or down to the Peaks, and out to races at Lee Quarry where he helped out with marshalling whilst cheering me on my way to mediocre mid-table finishes.  Here’s a shot of the Marsden MTB lads shivering on top of Skiddaw a couple of years back (Chris is front-centre next to some gormless-looking bloke in red).412867_391663474212867_1144462056_oChris was a talented photographer and his business had been gathering steam nicely until the inevitable change of priorities towards the end of last year; quite a few of the shots of me that are scattered about this site were taken by him. I don’t have many photos of him because if we had a camera on a ride he was usually behind the lens. I do have a couple of videos with him in them. Here’s a helmet-cam edit from a couple of years ago of a ride we did out towards Saddleworth. It was an enjoyable afternoon. The video isn’t in the least bit exciting or remarkable in riding terms, but I’m very glad I kept it now.

Saturday’s ride was arranged in the same format as the group rides Chris himself organised previously: a three or four hour social ride around the Marsden hills followed by soup courtesy of his wife Sharon, and then a pint or two in the village. Things went off largely without mishap, apart from one early abandon (who later turned out to have a chest infection),  and one pretty spectacular crash (seven stitches needed, but he still finished the ride!).  The weather was good, apart from a brief spell of drizzle. Sharon and my family met us a few miles from home, and after making our way to the top of the last hill I pulled out the container of Chris’s ashes that I’d carried around the route with me. We scattered them at the top of the Packhorse trail, a spot where we often stop to enjoy the view and catch our breath before dropping back down to the village. There were a lot of tired legs at the end, and I fear my route may have overdone the mileage and climbing for some of the party, but I think everyone was proud to have taken part and all were smiling at the finish. The soup disappeared very rapidly, washed down by some excellent fizz, with which we toasted Chris’s memory.IMG_20140927_155641The ride was a lovely way to remember a smashing bloke. Chris was a friendly, open and kind person, always worth spending time with, whether out on the hills or just down the pub. Everyone I spoke to about him on the ride echoed similar memories.  Over the last few months of his life he wasn’t able to do much physically, but we tried to keep him amused and included with bike related activities that were compatible with staying sat down. We took him to see the UCI BMX Supercross at Manchester, watched various mountain bike DVDs with friends, and set up our own little Fort William World Cup cinema afternoon just a few weeks before he died. FWWCChris seemed to enjoy chatting about bikes and watching cycling events with his mates throughout his illness, even when he knew that riding again was out of the question. I think he would have approved of our little jaunt around the hills in his honour.

It is unspeakably sad that this lovely man died at such a young age and has been taken from those who love him.  I am grateful for the privilege of having been able to call him my friend, and for the rides I was able to share with him, even this very last one.CT

Night Riding

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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.
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Val D’Isere

IMG_20140829_171839Last 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).IMG_20140827_150355It’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. IMG_20140827_161611On 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.IMG_20140829_123240I 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.IMG_20140829_124549After 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?