You come across those scenarios in life where one thing and another don't mix. For instance, socks and flips flops (that's a fashion no no!), porridge and water (it's literally like eating paper mache!), a roadie riding a mountain bike (or according to this blog post, could just be me?!).
For my stag do, the boys took me up to North Wales to try out some mountain biking on the trails of Llandelga Forest (you can read that little adventure here). Apart from coming off trying to avoid a car sized tree stump and my Dad and bro nearly needing search and rescue, it was simply wicked. The trails were fun, had some great uphill and downhill sections to play with. We had all come back to London with the taste of mud whetting our biking appetite. One of the group even went out and purchased himself a little MTB run around which he now uses to hunt down military vehicles in the army grounds of Deepcut (he secretly just wants to be a British version of G.I. Joe!). So when I stumbled across Bikes Direct UK and their very enthusiastic and helpful owner Max, an opportunity presented itself to explore the Surrey Hills the muddy way!
Max had kindly hooked us up with a couple of ex-demo bikes for the day. I was expecting maybe a stock brand (probably called Super Mudder or Forest Lover or something!). But whilst being greeted by the very friendly Graham who like my companion for the day, the G.I. Joe's father Mr B, loved the old school way of doing things and ending up giving us a tour of the old classic bikes waiting for a service upstairs above the store, I noticed our bikes were in fact a pair of Meridas. I've seen the commercials between the cycling races on Eurosport and know they have a good rep. Max had definitely sorted us out which just enhanced my enthusiasm for the day even more. Mr B had brought his off road pedals (they had a flat pedal attachment so you could only clip in one side *hint!) and I thankfully had kept my SPD pedals I had kept when I upgraded to the full road version which I can now safely say I have no problem clipping in to them now. There was a very short phase where the pedal would spin back onto my shin and a tear would roll down the side of my face like a young child who has been told he has to go to bed instead of watching Match of the Day where he might see himself on TV celebrating a Fulham goal as he was ballboy for the day (sorry childhood flashback...just give me a mo....).
Back to the biking! So I had researched around and asked some of the Twitter crowd for trails thinking it would be like Wales and it would all be signposted. It would be but all via the posting of 'Public Bridleway'. I was new to this countryside trekking malarky so Mr B had explained to me we were only banned from footpaths so everything else was fair game. Ben in the Twix stores of Moores Cycles gave me a route of his to follow but he's somewhat of a 'pro' compared to muggins here. I had uploaded it to the Garmin but an early confession is that I found it basically useless off road. The amount of time spent stopping and checking the route was fruitless. Early tip if you want to try out MTBing, obviously have a rough route and guidance equipment at hand but just go get lost (I mean on your bike, not clicking off here, read on, it does get better!). So Mr B had his ordnance survey map and I had my 21st Century guidance system. Like a challenge off Top Gear, we set off from the store with G.I. Joe's GoPro on the helmet to capture any unfortunate events (no spoilers here!).
The store itself is set right next to the West Dorking station and Graham gave us a little tip off of a subway we could use to go under to join the trails. So within 20m, we had to clip out already to trudge through the apocalyptic bare station to start our adventure. We were at the bottom of Ranmore Common and my Garmin had bleeped at us that we were already off route. Rolling along the bottom of this valley and past a secret jump park which I had a mini attempt at and realised it didn't join the trails we wanted, we hit our first snag. Mr B's dedication to the countryside which I respected restricted us from crossing a field. So a u-turn was made which meant we had to climb the tarmac section of Ranmore Rd. Halfway up though just before crossing a little underpass, the trail turned into the sort of surface I had been hoping for.
At this point, I couldn't believe how much I have missed out on all these years sticking to road. Seeing the whole of Ranmore Common spread out across the leafy horizon was a sight to behold. The utter silence is ironically deafening. This being a week day, there wasn't a sight of another human being so we had all the trails to ourselves until that is we reached a gate guarded by a small army of cows. It's General scouted us out and whilst Mr B made haste, I attempted to make truce with the enemy. They must of been some sort of woodland militia as it didn't go down well. I cautiously made my way around the regiment's leader and made a quick get away before the boys got involved! Mr B was a natural, he's always been into anything two-wheeled, mechanical or pedal powered so he was floating across any type of terrain. Me, however, started to show the novice side and evidently the road side to my cycling attributes. The gritty gravel made way for the stickiest clay type of mud I have ever come across. The wheel straight away clogged up which made the easy spinning rhythm I had found disappear entirely. I was trying to find a grassy more grippy line when the wheels just clogged up and down I went! I had a premonition that this would happen and after landing on a nice verge of soft grass, I also realised that this was on camera now and with a credible witness! Fall #1
As we rolled under Ranmore, the bridleways had directed us round a few fields and farms which were in the middle of nowhere. We wasn't far from the a246 which runs through this section of the hills and you would not have a clue that people lived here, if you have ever seen the film 'The Village'..... We had passed a memorial for William Wilberforce. Before you berate me, I did study slavery and apartheid but never came across this name so Mr B gave me a stern look and a lecture and told me all about him. The thing you have to prepare yourself when riding with Mr B is that he is a walking encyclopedia of local historical knowledge. You see an abandoned church? He probably knows who laid the first brick! You see a brook running through some woods? He probably know who caught the first fish in there! If you know something he don't, you better know your source! I was getting into the swing of things, the paths were wider and the terrain consistently muddy but with no boulders or tree roots to slalom round. No one's fault but somehow we had managed to go full circle back round to the memorial stone. Just shows how easily you can become disorientated with criss-crossing paths even though you are in possession of a Garmin, a very detailed map and your own human version of Google Maps riding with you!
After finally taking the right path spitting us out by the a25, we should of dropped down into Abinger but we saw the bridleway continue over so feeling adventurous, we decided to see where this would take us. The road (if you can call it that!) turned into what can only be described as a tractor's playground and I found myself weaving again to find a better climbing line. I felt fit enough to get up anything that this ride would throw at me and Mr B won't mind me saying but I was spinning a higher gear so was leading on the ascents. But where I struggled with the bumps and knocks on the wheels from any stone poking its head out at me, well Mr B might as well got himself a hovercraft for the day! Up over this hill, those dreaded words which was caught on camera ended up literally being my downfall. Just as I was about to say 'It's easy this....' a thick stick had jumped up and jammed itself in my rear wheel and the whole bike skidded to a halt! I had no time to react or clip out so like a jenga tower, I went over again and luckily landed in just plain grass because lurking another 10 feet up the path was the start of some thick stinging nettles! Fall #2
This one was just bad luck! Could of been worse. There is that clip of the roadie who gets a very large piece of wood jammed in his front wheel and flips straight over, all this at a decent speed. I thankfully fell at 0mph and had 0 injuries. We found ourselves just outside Abinger and after a short deliberation, made our way towards Peaslake via Hurt Wood forest. A MTB van was parked up so it was safe to say we found ourselves in a more 'pro MTB' area. I still had the vision of these trails being similar to the ones in Wales but that vision was wiped out with tipex then shredded just to make sure when the terrain changed from a classic MTB mud trail to a Roman road leftover. What made it worse was these sections of pave' (can't find that hython thingy!) were extremely steep. Can you guess what happens next?! Yes numnutt here falls off again and it was this point, I was starting to grow a frustration baby inside of me. Fall #3
Don't get me wrong, for a seasoned MTB expert, these trails were like what a jump park would be to a kangaroo but my confidence had been knocked and I didn't fancy coming off again. The last section before we reached the village of Peaslake and without exaggerating, was a mud path with quicksand features. Mr B I think had enough of waiting around for me and slimed his way through this slushy thick trail. I gave it a good go but soon as the back wheel started slipping, I thought sod that, so I clipped out and basically one foot pushed myself through. This was now tough going but we arrived at our mid way point in the nicely nestled village of Peaslake. For a roadie or MTBer, it really is a quaint little spot to rest up. It now has its own bike store catering more for the off roaders but the village store itself is pleasant. Sitting on the side of the green with my hot chocolate and probably the most mayonnaise filled roll I have ever experienced (they must of had an offer at Costco or something!), I had time to reflect back on whats happened so far. Surely I can stay on the bike for the remainder of this ride? (no spoilers here!).
After fattening up the local wildlife with a calorie laden roll (a few birds wouldn't leave us alone, the wing type that is, feeding a group of women scraps of bread would just be weird and something I'd rather not share!), Mr B and I swapped bikes. Now remember when I hinted about the clip in pedals? Straight away, it took me longer to clip in fully, it took a few minutes to get the hang of spinning the pedal round the left toes. This Merida setup straight away had a different feel. The suspension was stiffer (yes I could of adjusted it but I don't touch parts I don't know...flashback to my teenage years!) but this model had one chain ring so only one gear shifter to focus on, should make it easier yeah?! We climbed up Radnor Rd and took a detour into the woodland of Holmbury Hill itself. This really reminded me of Wales, wide open paths and thick forest. But what did we encounter again? A rocky uphill trail where once again and it's probably starting to get a bit boring now but I had another meeting with the forest floor. This is the moment where the title of this blog was born! Fall #4
After giving up trying to clip in, I ran all the way up to the crest of this hill to find Mr B smirking. He's probably wondering at this point if he could drop me at some point so he can do some proper off-roading! This vision did cross my mind as another muddy trench presented itself. My confidence at this point was weakening, I just found it so difficult to enjoy this part. I couldn't see Mr B anymore, he had pushed on further up the trail so it was me and the stinky World War II style trench as companions. It was safe to say that the gentle gravel trails from Ranmore were long gone, this was turning out to be a challenge just to stay upright. The trail started to become very undulating with some very tricky sections. One section was another Roman style broken road with house bricks sticking up every angle. I opted not to risk it with the relationship between myself and the bike starting to become a little icey. We were now on the slopes (sounds very Alpine, far from it!) of Leith and what looked like a trail which would not stop climbing. I had finally got to grips with the clipping into the flat SPD pedals and was not letting the rocky knocks on the wheels disrupt my rhythm. Fitness wise, I am climbing well generally so I was focusing on smashing this climb. It had other things in mind like smashing me! We must of been about 200m from the crest which was Leith Hill Road itself when I must of crossed over an odd shaped rock and thump, down I went again. The handlebars actually went into my collarbone which pushed me over the edge! I gave birth to a nasty toddler of frustration and let out a roar the MGM Lion would of been proud of! Fall #5
Mr B sailed by. It was like watching a real life version of the Tortoise and the Hare. I pushed my bike to the top where Mr B was tapping his foot or was it his shell?! I needed my road, my place of zen. The constant changing of terrain and coming off was making this journey more difficult than I had expected. We had a little stop at the Windy Gap and damn it was windy! Katrina still passing through? Never seen Leith Hill Tower in the flesh and although the building itself wasn't awe inspiring, the view was. If the view out of Box or Newlands is your favourite, get yourself up to the tower, its quite something. Mr B kindly agreed that we would follow the tarmac back to the store but not after we encountered huge tree roots and complex sections just to get back to the road. Think you know by now what I decided to do but once that chunky tyre touched that smooth tarmac, it was like when you ate your first Rolo, that soft caramel whirling around your mouth, that's how I felt. No bumps, no rocks, no house bricks to battle against. Just the asphalt and its rolling roads. The thought had crossed my mind that if it was this smooth, why not commute with a MTB but as soon as I got out of the saddle to push on, it was clear to see why that would not ideal. The bike was rocking too much and with the suspension making the bike bounce, it was difficult to find a climbing rhythm whilst keeping pace.
4 hours later and with only 2 hours riding calculated, I looked down to find we had only covered 21 miles. It felt we had covered the whole of the Downs, not Peaslake and back! I think I was foolish to expect a similar experience as to what we had in Llandelga Forest. Its called off road for a reason, I now understand and respect that reason. Let's take away the mishaps for a moment. Seeing the world off road was such an eye opener. The peacefulness, the tranquility, the whole notion that its just you and nature, you don't get that on the road. Reintroduce the tin of mishaps. MTBing is a whole different biking world. The handling requirements and knowing what the bike can do can only come with experience and confidence, something I was not going to get in one day. I have recently watched Rachel Atherton's downhill footage of her recent World Cup MTB win and it was breathtaking. Makes me look like a toddler on a balance bike! So for those reasons and for the time being, I'm going to stick to what I am good at and that's chasing after TT guys who overtake me on my rides (hunted down 2 recently and made a gap!). Now if someone can tell me how I can fit big fat chunky tyres on the Tarmac so potholes are a thing of a past, it would be very much appreciated!
“Crashing is part of cycling as crying is part of love."