Fifty Shades of Brown: The MTB Virgin
I thought I would never cheat on the missus. She lets me ride her anytime I want, sometimes in different positions and in all weather conditions, she enjoys a well lubed chain and she likes to be treated to new attire from time to time. But when temptation presents itself in a different light, like Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction, you might not be able to help yourself to see if the ride is dirtier on the other side?!
A weekend away up in North Wales was organised for my stag do via my brother the best man and the supporting party of my closest friends (Brother Joe- @JoeReeceDrums, Dave- @test_richie, Tom- @brooksy_onit, Panda- @vanilla_bear84, Ali- @RouteSurreyUK and Jamie- @Rpnclothing). Even my Dad came along for the adventure although he was the only one (apart from myself) who was legally qualified to drive the minivan to this amazing region of Britain. Hand on heart, I did not have a clue where we were going and what we were gonna be doing so dressed in a 'cheeky' leprechaun outfit, we set from West London to test out the brown side of cycling although with the hints from the boys about jumping off a big height, spinning in the air, I was creating my own shade of the colour! The journey up consisted of your usual car based games; who am i? go fish, bulls**t and a bit of poker all accompanied by huge cans of Carling, Guinness and Fosters. Now if you are planning a long car journey, take note of where and when the service stations are because as we experienced, getting caught out can be a small disaster. One of the minivan party (names won't be mentioned as you will probably work out later from his lack of preparation mountain biking who this is!) was literally dying for a pee. At this point, I needed a trip the loo as well and have been in situations in the past where it has caused great pain in the nether regions holding it in for a long period of time. This stag member was close to being sick from the pain of holding it in. It didn't help that we were 2 miles from the service station but stuck in very slow moving traffic. Like a scene out of Inbetweeners, this wannabe Neil had to go and the only thing he could pee in was in an empty can of Fosters. But as he was relieving himself, a roundabout had to be tackled which meant the minvan leant to one side as we Formula 1 style sped round to reach the holy grail of the service toilet! This caused him to spray up the side of the door and all over his jeans which made the front of the van smell like a bad night at a student union!
After we all calmed down after the event of pee-gate and roughly 7 hours later, we had arrived in a small Welsh town called Beaumaris on the island of Anglesey. I should of clicked from the drive through the mountains that an adventure based weekend was on the cards but I was still oblivious as to what was happening. The Bulkeley Hotel and its staff were brilliant. Situated across the bay from Snowdonia, it was a great find from the boys and was our base for the weekend. Fast forward to the next morning after a night of KFC and more Guinness, it was time for someone to pop their MTB virginity. After being navigated through some very narrow lanes and being told by the satnav to get out and walk 2 miles (I wouldn't recommend a TomTom for solely this reason, just stick to Google Maps) we turned into Llandelga Forest. My first thought was this doesn't look like skydiving which was in my head thanks to the never ending prods from the lads. Rocking up in our trusted minivan, it then dawned on me what we were about to do (maybe seeing the locals setting up their MTBs and looking the part might of helped!). At one point, I questioned if my brother had entered me in a local competition as there was loads of bikes rolling around the car park but was assured I wasn't. But another thing dawned on me when we stepped out the van and the lads started to put on their lycra and rain gear that I had none of this. I had safely packed a basic rain jacket, tracksuit bottoms and only at last minute opted to wear a base layer which I am now thankful for as it was continuously raining and a little chilly in this Welsh forest.
Dave and Tom brought along their GoPros which they mounted differently (one on the bars and one on the helmet). I suspected they had the plan to sell the footage rights to Hollywood (Ok maybe Pinewood Studios!) so they wanted the best angles for any captured action. You could tell the One Planet Adventure MTB trails was a popular place for those who are into the dirtier side of cycling. Confession, I have never had the urge to go off road, possibly due to not owning a mountain bike but also I enjoy the road too much and the never ending routes you can create (sounds ignorant but I now know MTBs can get you anywhere!). But I was very up for this especially when the guys at One Adventure showed us to our rides for the day. Straight away he pointed out it had electronic shifters. My eyes lit up, I had this caveman notion that MTBs were machines with heavy chainsets and just bulked out for the terrain. Pressing down on the front forks, the suspension sunk like a water bed. For a split moment, I was thinking what it would be like to put this heavy duty suspension on the road bike! Orange bikes I was told after were a respected brand in the all terrain world and suppose if they were being thrown around the forest trails, they had to be durable enough for the adventure company to invest in a fleet in them otherwise their time and money would be spent on mechanical issues all the time.
Now, if you watch survival programmes like Bear Grylls and Ed Stafford, you will have some sort of common sense as to what have on you when you're going on a group adventure like this;
A phone? Hell Yeah.
Fluids? Yeah defo in all weather.
Adequate clothing? Of course, don't want to get hypothermia!
A map or some sort of navigation system? Do you even need to answer this?!
So what did we have?:
A phone? We put ALL our phones into Panda's bag (his name is actually Mark but even my Mum knows him as Panda thanks to his deep dark eyes and his ability to wolf down bamboo!)
Fluids? Er nope.
Adequate clothing? Depends who you talked to! I got away with what I was wearing but my brother (who knew all along what we were doing, he could of researched the appropriate clothing needed for this sort of thing!) was wearing an outfit that resembled more a of a gig outing. A parker jacket, thin tracksuit bottoms and plimsoles are not the most ideal thing to wear when ploughing through muddy trails is it?!
A map or navigation system? One of us had a map with the trails but it got very wet and fell apart.
Can you see where this story is going?! There were numerous trails you could pick from, one end of the scale was the green trail which was short and recommended for beginners, the other end the black trail which included complex jumps and fast downhills. We opted for the blue trail, a 12km trek all over the place which included a long drag up and some very windy downhill sections. Before we set off, I decided to invest in a pair of gloves from the shop. There was no way I wanted to bomb round with slippery handlebars and get frostbite and it turned out in the end to be a very wise purchase. My brother and Dad however decided against this even though I said I would buy them a pair each. Setting off, the winding start was straight uphill. Even I was caught out in the wrong gears, getting used to electronic shifting and finding the gears with the easiest cadence took me a few minutes. The GoPro brothers spread themselves out amongst the group to get the best shots and I made my mission to overtake a few times just to look like I was an MTB version of Chris Froome! Probably only a mile into the journey and something similar you would find on 'The Koppenberg' (for you non-roadies, look up Tour of Flanders, you'll see!), our little peloton split and riders were dropping all over the place! I dropped back as it was the indie groupie and my Dad who needed a stop. I didn't want to leave them as I kinda knew what was ahead of us in terms of terrain but my Dad insisted I went up the road to catch the others and they would go at their own pace. I hesitantly agreed and expected them to turn off the blue trail at some point once they realised they were not natural MTBers.
I pushed on and the GoPro crew should have footage of me flying past up this long drag of a climb which caught most of us out. Luckily, I had a ride a few days before which took in Staple Lane, Whitedown and Box Hill so my legs had some hill acclimatisation and spun a good gear which got me up this beast of a climb. I almost caught up with Ali but he must of smelt the threat and somehow found energy somewhere and kept ahead. At the crest of the climb, the Christmas trees disappeared and a barron landscape opened up. In the middle of this valley with the forest one side, this scene would not be out of place in some Welsh valley murder mystery movie. We grouped together, shared the food and drink that we had which was none and grabbed an opportunity for a photo. I threw my bike in the air for a glory pose but somehow nearly managed to knock out a few front teeth from the handlebars! The road continued to rise but not as steep as before and we were looking forward to when the trail started to descend back down into the forest. A few neat switchbacks threw us into the proper world of mountain biking and then the trail started to drop in elevation. We cut through a chopped down part of the forest which was completely caked in mud which set the heart rate racing. I was struggling to find a comfy grip on the bars, every time i went to hook my fingers on the brakes, I didn't feel in total control so I eased back on the speed when descending. The others though were loving it especially the GoPro entourage! When the trail leveled out, Ali, Panda and myself had realised Tom and Dave had dropped back. First thought was they've come off but they had some technical difficulties in the form of a battery change. Bet Christopher Nolan didn't have this problem with The Dark Knight?! We started to get the hang of this off road malarky but the trail had to end at some point and we found ourselves back at HQ drowned in mud and soaked through. It was definitely an exhilarating experience and the boys had told me we had the bikes for the whole day so I was keen to get back out as soon as possible.
But my worries about my Dad and bro' came back to haunt me. They were not in the cafe (which was excellent by the way, their hot chocolate was sublime but it could of been we were freezing that it tasted so good, you could of given us hot water with essence of pedigree chum and we would still 5 star Trip Advisor it!) and they were not in the minivan. My mind started to go into dark thoughts because no disrespect to my family but they are no natural pedal pushers (plug for a certain blogger if he's reading!) and I thought that logic would of taken over and they would of diverted back to HQ. I couldn't imagine them both finishing the blue trail just because of the struggle they had at the start and we found it in places quite tough going. The boys were quite calm but when we realised ringing Joe's phone was pointless as it was in Panda's bag, I was imagining my stag becoming one of those horror 999 stories about a mountain rescue team searching for two Londoners with one in particular dressed in Artic Monkeys gear and looking for Wembley Arena! I spoke to the guys in the bike shop and sheepishly told them how many safety guidelines we didn't adhere to and what their procedure was for search and rescue! They assured me this happens all the time with people getting split up on the trails and they close the trails at 6.30pm and if there are cars left in the car park, they drive along the back roads to pick up the stragglers. This put my mind at rest a little but feeling like Iron Man, I wanted to get out there and bring them in. Just then, my Dad walked into the cafe with the most calm 'Alright lads' you'll hear. My heart reduced back to its normal size but there was no Joe. What did my Dad do? Throw him down a hill? Did Joe stumble across a festival in the middle of the woods and felt at home?! No, my Dad got annoyed that Joe was slowing him up so he left him! 10 minutes later, the self-taught drummer himself trundled in looking like a badly used mop! He told us he had come off a few times, nothing bad just a slip here and there but confessed he didn't know what to expect. I'll take my helmet off to them both though because the blue trail wasn't easy and they had conquered it. It was at this point I also noticed a chalkboard in the cafe advising all riders to take caution on all trails because of the weather. In hindsight, how we all made it back in one piece is questionable!
Safely back at the base and warming up with a tea, my Dad and Joe wisely opted out of a second ride. Ali and myself were quite keen to go for another long trail whilst the GoPro crew along with Panda just wanted a chilled trail to play on. As they went on and found the green trail, Ali laid down a marker that we could do the blue trail in 50 minutes. It had taken us roughly 1hr 40mins with stops the first time round so it was doable. I had reservations about the long climb in the middle but Ali was quite confident. Luckily he had his Garmin watch which would be our guide for the time restraints we had set. We settled into a very comfortable pace even casually chatting as we were enjoying changing through the electronic shifters (Chrismtas list!), we knew the real challenge would be the long drag we had to haul ourselves over. Now Ali won't like to admit this but he either fell behind on the climb or I had bombed on, either way, it was nice to get one over him on a climb for once! We had regrouped together on the crest and pushed on. This whole day had been relatively incident free in terms of crashes or injuries. This was about to change. This is where I did produce fifty shades of brown! Just before the main descent into the open woodland, we had passed a Mother and her son who had kindly pulled over to let us by. I gave a thanks and flew past. It could of been over-confidence or just my lack of MTB skills but I carried too much speed into the next corner and started to drift wide. This whole section was surrounded by huge tree stumps and I was aiming for a beast of one. Before any crash and you can't explain it but there is a moment which feels like an hour which you can debate with yourself all available options and which one to pick. I had two. One was to hit the stump head on which would of resulted in me catapulting over the bike and probably if not kill myself, do some serious body damage and probably have a great story to tell the nurses at the hospital responsible for my rehab. Or and the one I ended up choosing, throw myself off the bike and slide to a halt. This resulted in a ripped trouser with a pedal sized graze on my left leg. I had also gave myself a pat on the back for buying the gloves because there wasn't a mark on either hand. Ali had witnessed this all behind me and was probably in shock as he kept on asking me if I was OK. At least he asked me of my well being because the Mum and son we had earlier passed just breezed through like we were a pair of garden gnomes!
Pride bruised but not battered, we mounted our now indestructible bikes and pursued our goal of finishing this trail in our time limit. Passing the unsympathetic pair again, we made a mockery of the last sections as our confidence grew again and we were changing down gears in perfect symmetry maintaining a cadence which made any lump in the trail a breeze to get over. This was where I could see the pull of MTB. You are constantly focusing on your surroundings and your machine, there was always a challenge ahead whether it be a tree stump the size of a hatchback or a combination of jumps to get over. Obviously, all terrain bikes are designed to get you anywhere but they take you to view points and nature spots a road bike wouldn't dare to get to. And then there's the downhill sections. Obviously, being in control is the key as I found out, it's easy to lose focus on not read the trail properly resulting in sometimes life changing injuries which I am thankful of not receiving. Ali and I had powered the last section and skidding to a halt at HQ, beep went the Garmin with a time of 52 minutes. You can blame my little mishap for the extra 2 minutes but we were quite stoked to burst round the trail in half the time compared to our first attempt. It was only when we asked the guys in the shop what a good time was that our bubble well and truly burst. They claim that some riders complete the blue trail in under 30 minutes!
Once the bikes were checked back in, we all got back in the minivan. Once again, those who were well prepared for this day showed this by changing into dry clothes. I was obviously not told this so I had to shiver in my boxers and baselayer back to the hotel! Silver lining was I wasn't the only one as the designated driver (my Dad) had to drive back in his underwear too. If we were to be pulled over by the police at any point, I'm not sure what story we could of told them! The height mocking from the group turned out to be ziplining which we did the next day. I have done ziplining before in a mountain rainforest in Costa Rica but even I was not prepared for the sheer drop from the quarry they push you off. I think I covered every shade of brown that day and was very close to bottling out but glad I didn't as it was 1.5km 80mph+ of 50 second hair-raising thrill ride!
You will now be asking have I been converted? No I haven't purely because I do not have a MTB bike. I'll confess I have been keeping my eye out for mountain bike photos via your usual social media outlets. The world of off road biking is definitely one that needs to be explored and I thank all the boys for giving me this opportunity. The ripped trousers though with the fifty shades of brown cemented in them doesn't thank you as they are now currently in the bin along with the boxers from the ride which I am not sure is fully caked in mud or something else...
'The best rides are the ones where you bite off much more than you can chew, and live through it'.