I’ve been out on my mountain bike recently.
To those of you who know me well, that may come as a bit of a surprise. I have strong views about mountain biking and they largely involve not getting my mountain bike muddy. Dusty, yes, but muddy? Uh-uh.
My MTB is a 1998-model Specialized Rockhopper, to which I’m very attached. I still think of it as the “New” mountain bike, although when I ordered replacement parts for the suspension fork they arrived with a note from the seller congratulating me on keeping my “vintage machine” on the road.
The “old” MTB was a pale yellow Saracen Tufftrax dating from 1986, which in mountain-biking terms is almost The Dawn Of Recorded History. It finally had to leave home a few years ago when I ran out of space in the bike store. The man who bought it on eBay paid twice what I was hoping to get, then made a 150-mile round trip from Aylesbury to collect it. It turned out he’d owned the exact same model as a teenager, bought with every penny he’d saved from his Saturday job. He’d loved that bike and had ridden it daily for two years… until the day it got stolen. He’d never seen it again.
At this point there was an awkward pause in our conversation, while he stared misty-eyed into his lost youth and I resisted the urge to shout, “I was never in Aylesbury in 1988! You can’t prove nuffink!”
Anyway, central Southern England is a great place for riding offroad… in the spring and early summer. Starting from Beano HQ, 15 minutes’ cycling in almost any direction will get me onto bridleways and old drove roads criss-crossing the chalk downs, traversing meadows or dipping into ancient woodland. I don’t usually go very far, but there’s little to match a spin out onto the Downs on a sunlit summer evening – just me and the birds and the occasional rampaging herd of roe deer.
Come August and the nettles and the brambles move in, cutting the route options considerably. By October the paths are damp and mucky, and the New/Vintage MTB goes into its winter hibernation. It doesn’t like thick, gloopy mud – those “classic” V-brakes tend to clog up so badly the wheels stop turning, the “retro” front derailleur jams with twigs and leaves, and the “antique” knobbly tyres slide all over the place on the wet exposed chalk of the downs.
I am aware that many folk go offroad in the winter. One local group gets together to do it every Thursday night, in the dark, in the woods. (Yes, I’m still talking about mountain biking, quiet at the back there.) I just don’t understand why. It always surprises me when other cyclists say to me, “Oh, I don’t go out on the roads in the winter – I just stick to mountain biking.” This seems like madness to me. Seriously, if [insert deity of your choice] had meant us to wallow around in the mud, he/she/it would never have given us tarmacadam. Give me a nice clean road any time.
Well, almost any time. Even round these parts, there are weeks when the temperature drops to freezing and the threat of black ice on the road looms. (The first sign of black ice is usually that you find yourself lying in the road with your bike on top of you.) Suddenly the idea of an offroad trail or two seems more appealing – especially if all those muddy puddles are frozen over.
And so it was that on one icy day last week, my friend Rupert and I blew the cobwebs off our MTBs. Generally speaking Rupert is a road cyclist, but he does have a Specialized mountain bike that’s a relatively youthful 13 years old. We put on our oldest and least soft-roadie-looking cycling clothes and set off up the abandoned railway line, left along the old drovers’ track, and up on a loop through the woods of Crawley Down.
Unfortunately the ground wasn’t as frozen as we’d thought. By the halfway mark we were liberally coated with mud from head to foot. One farm track in particular seemed to have been the scene of a recent encounter between a leaking slurry tank and several herds of cattle with serious diarrhoea. We slipped, we slid, we pedalled forward while drifting backward. By some miracle neither of us actually fell off. The ride was punctuated by stops to poke at the gears and brakes with a sharp stick until we’d cleared enough mud to make them (almost) work.
At one point we almost collided in the fog with a couple of teenage mountain bikers. They hurriedly moved aside, giving us nervous looks. From our clothes and our bikes, they must have thought we were the ghosts of lost cyclists from the 1990s, doomed to wander forever, mud spattered, in the mists of the Hampshire countryside.
On the way back we briefly considered stopping at the farm shop for coffee, but decided that we would be as welcome as a paintball fight in a china shop. We plodded home along the road, exhausted, clods of earth occasionally breaking loose from our tyres and hitting us in the face.
At home I stripped off all my outer layers of clothing and left them in a festering heap, unsure whether to wash them or just plant flower bulbs in them. Next task: clean the bike. Two hours of cycling followed by one hour of hosing-down and scrubbing – this is not, to my mind, a good ratio of time. The way I see it, to like winter mountain biking you’ve got to really love cleaning bicycles – perhaps even more than you like riding them.
But to be fair, we did enjoy it. It was challenging and exhilarating, it would have had great scenery if it wasn’t for the dense fog, and we felt better for having done it. As we agreed at the end:
“That wasn’t bad. We should do it again soon.”
“Yes, absolutely. Call me in July.”