As part of my friend's Travel Man style weekend in Norn Iron, I sorted us out a couple of bikes to take on Rostrevor's Red Trail. Now, I'm a roadie at heart as most of you who have following notinthepeloton will know but have dabbled in the gravel scene over the past couple of years. But when it comes to MTB, best way to put it would be for us, it's like being 3yrs old again and having a go on our first balance bike! So mishaps are usually a safe bet to make and knowing that Tom would be on a fully kitted e-bike, it was going to be a ride which would make me or break me!
We're privileged to be in the middle of some great MTB trails and locations. Castlewellan was an option but I have done the red trail on my own (well half of it as I took a wrong turning - told you, mishaps are guaranteed with me!). There's a few unmarked trail locations such as Donard and Narrow Water but I've seen what the trails are like in Donard Forest and it would be a death sentence for me. Rostrevor it was then and as I don't own a MTB (yet!), I hired a couple of machines from Life Adventures. I could of gone for an E-MTB myself but Tom jokingly requested one and I really thought a fully human powered bike would be suffice...
I did do a little bit of research about the trail before we rode it. I did ask this on Twitter if this is something MTBers do and got a mixed response, I got the impression most just ride it and find out but I preferred to know what I was in for. The red trail is 27km long and does include a couple of climbs which for this I am thankful for finding out! Picking up the bikes, we were run through the set up of the e-bike, I never knew there were so many settings and the 'turbo' setting really gave Tom a shock but as you will read, it was well used!
Once we're were kitted up, we rolled to the start and and we were on our way. I knew to get to the proper start of the red trail, there was a nasty climb to conquer but it turned out for Tom, this was no bother. He stuck it in turbo, cadence never changed and he was off. Me on the other hand, grinding away in the lowest gear sweat already dripping down through my glasses. I was passing school kids out on an expedition but literally wasn't going any faster than they were walking! This climb was just under a mile long but the gradient was always 15% or more. It was ridiculous. I saw Tom again at the top and he was as fresh as how he woke up that morning. I looked like I sat in a sauna in a bin bag for an hour!
Finally after that struggle, we got going. Tom has more off road experience than I do or he is definitely more natural at it than I am. The e-bike obviously helped on any ascents but he was much confident than me early on and I kept on hitting my pedal on any slabs which was knocking my enjoyment already. I know about the ready position in mountain biking and was trying to use these early segments to settle myself into the bike but it was hard going. This part of the trail would snake upwards towards Slieve Martin. The switchbacks were tricky I felt, I was impressed with Tom as I didn't realise until after how heavy that E-MB was - 25kg! Knowing that, I was quietly happy with the choice I made but that came into question every time I saw Tom disappear into the distance!
The trail took us around to the Cloughmore Stone which we had to leave the trail to actually get to it. This was after we encountered a couple walking back on the trail. I kindly explained to them that this was a mountain bike trail but I kinda sympathised after as this section of the trail does merge with a walking one without much signage. The stone itself is a random landmark here. Leftover from glaciers or thrown by a mythical giant across Carlingford Lough, it looks over the divide from the North and the Republic but this was just a teaser view compared to Kodak Korner. We carried on upwards and found this very popular spot for anyone wanting a photo which captures the beauty of this area of the Mournes. I will just let the photo do it's thing here...
Caressing the summit of Slieve Martin, the views down into the valley was spectacular. Every time I am presented with a view that looks out onto the Mournes and it's surrounding areas, I feel really privileged to call this now home. A few narrow bridges to navigate brought me back down to reality and we entered some dense forest. It did not feel we were in Northern Ireland. The moss laden trees were sunk into bogs as we slalomed through the trails and a few boardwalks which raised you off the floor and away from potentially tricky situations. We stopped at one point just to take in the forest which gave me an opportunity to look at Tom's Cube a little closer. The downtube obviously sticks out like a sore thumb thanks to electric motor but the feedback from Tom was that he wanted one. This model though was somewhere in the region of £5k I believe. We both saw though that E-MTBs definitely had their place. If the recreational off roader is spending most of their time climbing to get to the trails (yes, there's uplift services in some places), having an assistance to allow you to save the energy for the flowing stuff or if you have a mobility issue, e-bikes is an investment which mostly likely will pay you in positive returns.
Lunch stop was at the top of Yellow River and we were quite lucky with the weather. Blue skies and a warm sun when not in the shade. The ride also gave me a chance to visualise this part of the Mournes. I have walked up Yellow River - a deep valley with a cascading rover flowing through. The path forks at the top and you can eventually find yourself at Pierces Castle or at the base of Eagle Mountain but I am aware that there is a bog (nicely named Castle Bog) you have to navigate to get across. It was also a chance to catch up with Tom who is/has been made a father for the 3rd time (same woman!). I think he appreciated the opportunity to get out on the bike and climb Donard the following day before his life changes once again. Children are an amazing part of adult life but you do have to keep yourself sane with some quality time for yourself and for that, we will be forever grateful to his wife who was probably eyeing up a bottle of wine back home as we continued on our adventure!
The main downhill section towards the back end of this trail was nicely titled 'Bat Out Of Hell'. Not sure if the late Meat Loaf had rode this trail once or it really just gave you a sense things were about to get gnarly! There were a few rock gardens which disrupted the flow but I was becoming more confidence in myself and was looking forward to letting the bike go a bit more. But as I mentioned earlier on in the blog, mishaps follow me like flies to...! I was getting used to dropping the bike off big slabs but for some reason and maybe the bike jolted a little, I pulled the rear brake which locked up the wheel and the bike came to a halt suddenly as I was coming off a drop (when I say drop, I mean like a step off the stairs!). Down I go into a bush and the bike becomes tangled in my legs. Tom is off somewhere else probably having the time of his life whereas I've just developed a temporary episode of the swearing version of Tourettes! I picked myself up and carried on knowing it's all part of the MTB initiation.
It wasn't long though before I was on the deck again and this was just down to lack of confidence and speed. Coming up to a banked switchback, I should of hit it with a bit of pace or at least skidded the rear around but I just trotted around it slowly and the wheels just tilted over. If anyone had seen this live, they would be shaking their head and telling me never to set foot on a mountain bike ever again! Once I finally caught up with Tom who was patiently waiting on the bridge at the bottom of Yellow River, I don't think he was impressed with my misfortunes!
We were now at the bottom of the ridge so no more climbing but a flowing track back towards base was quite fun. Lots of slaloming which I appreciated as it gave me something else to focus on rather than my very numb bum! If it was one thing I would criticise about my rented bike was that saddle was rough going. It could be that my bum is used to the feel of a road bike saddle but my rear was hurting! Rolling into the finish, well it wasn't much of a finish. I was expecting an end gate similar to the one we started under but the trail kinda just went cold. I took Tom on a little detour down to the Fairy Glen (much recommended if you're in Rostrevor) before we headed back to Life Adventures. Oh, I forgot to also another mishap. I left my Hammerhead on pause for the first massive climb so I couldn't tell you if I claimed the KOM or not!
When it comes to distances off road, it's very easy to look at it and think it's very achievable. 27km is not even 20miles but apply that to constant undulating and rough terrain where sometimes walking would be faster, it's a full work out and Tom and I had a feast that night to recuperate especially as we had to climb Donard the next day. The whole ride left Tom aching for an e-bike, he was actually over for a birthday weekend and I bet he was hoping his family was pooling together money and selling organs to fund one for him. I on the other hand felt I had unfinished business with this trail. It knocked me off twice and you only get better at mountain biking by doing it. Road riding is an easier discipline to slip into. I'd argue that mountain biking is more technical and I would assume many would agree. Both types of riding require different aspects of fitness and I'd say you can transition a lot more of mountain biking skills into road than you would from road to trails. Road riding did give me a good base fitness (even though I am so far from any sort of peak), I did manage to get around the red trail with just human power but for me to get better, I need to invest in a mountain bike and get out there...
Ben aka notinthepeloton