It was like the scene from The Matrix when Morpheus presents Neo with that plot changing line:
'This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more.'
Well, we were also presented with a choice in our first ever solo MTB ride when the blue trail had ended and the red trail was tempting us up further into the forest, did we stay in the real world or did we choose to explore Wonderland and realise we were all controlled by artificial intelligence being harnessed as an energy source to continue their survival?! Unlikely but you never know...
So let's the scene. I've been spending some time in Norn Iron staying at my lovely in laws with Mrs NITP and lil NITP. I was given permission to spend a day out on the bike, I honestly don't like being away from the family at the moment as our priority is looking after our new addition and the woman who went through a lot to bring him into this world. We won't lie, it has been hard adapting to the lifestyle change, you only realise the impact of a newborn once it's here. So I do appreciate the opportunity to get out cycling what ever the form! My father in law had a hybrid made up for me to scoot around the lanes. What he didn't inform me was the feral dogs in the area as the first ride out involved being chased by one of these nutters after it gave up eating a poor woman's rear bumper!
The in laws live in a beautiful area of Norn Iron (it's just the way they say Northern Ireland - don't get me started on how they say film!) right at the foothills of the Mournes, an area of outstanding beauty full of Slieves (that's mountains by the way!). Not far from where we are staying in Rathfriland, you'll find the small town of Castlewellan. Nestled in here, you'll find the forest park with a maze which if completed, rewards you with a stunning view of the Mountain range. Also there you'll find the guys and girls of Life Adventures offering a range of outdoor activities to suit many needs and abilities. The plan was to hire one of their bikes and explore the forest of Castlewellan. We were slightly aware of what we were letting ourselves in for. Our MTB experiences have been limited but mixed. A stag do in North Wales where I nearly hit a tree stump and my brother and Dad became lost in the middle of nowhere, very close in sending out a search party for them! A tour of the Surrey Hills with the legendary Mr B resulted in us falling off multiple of times. A ride through the New Forest with Dave and Tom was a pleasant one but was more gravel then hard trails. A couple of years ago too Ali and myself took part in the now defunct Gran Fondo NI which climbed Slieve Croob which sits behind Castlewellan Forest so we know the area is prone to a lump or two.
Once we booked ourselves in, we set the GoPro Hero7 Silver up on the chest mount (thanks to AO.com, review coming soon!) and headed off to the beginning of the trails. We were warned off the black trail and we wouldn't of attempted it anyway! So if you don't know what the colour trails mean in MTB, we will try our best to teach you. Green is your easier trail, suitable for all really, blue is your moderate trail, there's gonna be rougher terrain and your odd obstacle or hill to contend with. Red is where it starts to get technical and challenging. Black is what you do if you want to feel right on the edge, it's not for the ambitious, it's for those who know exactly what they're getting themselves in for and how to handle it. We had roughly 3 hours to play with and we did want to challenge ourselves but at the same time not put ourselves in a situation where we would have to be airlifted from the middle of nowhere because we pretended to be some MTB downhill champion and slam in to the side of a tree, we would like to avoid this option.
The green trail just followed the lake around so that wasn't even a thought. The blue and red trails followed each other for some time before splitting off on the other side of the lake, we thought we would aim for the split and decide then what we would feel comfortable with. We were riding a Cube Acid, a hard tail which means it only had suspension at the front and we didn't do the mistake most roadies do when they transfer over to a bit of off-roading is by putting the seat up to a road position. Big no no. Just picture the rear constantly hitting your under carriage when you're riding over bumps and rocks, you won't have a coccyx by the end of the ride! It dawned upon us quite quickly how isolated we felt carefully rolling through the West side of the forest. We had on us a backpack with a few essentials - snacks, extra bottle, phone etc. But this was it, if we came off or needed help, it would be a trudge back or a scream! The main difference you find when riding a MTB is the constant adjustment you're making to the steering. When you're on the road, apart from the odd pothole, you're quite stationary and it's all about putting the down the power and getting aero. Not with MTBing, it's all about handling, getting the right gearing, riding position, braking at the right moments, it really does throw you out of your comfort zone if you're a roadie.
Along this blue/red section, you were only really presented with puddles to flow through but we were still cautious, obviously we didn't know the trail and there were a few drop offs down to the adjacent green trail which was following the lake side. But it was the moment of the split. We read the lowdown of the red trail and it said it contained possible steps and logs to ride over and only recommended for those with advanced MTB skills. This did throw a doubt in our mind but we thought if we got to a section we didn't feel comfortable with, we would stop and just walk over it, worse comes to worse, we could find the forest road and head back to the lake. In true Matrix style, we took the red pill...
Now, we made a major error within the first 5 minutes of the red trail because we took a wrong turning (we didn't realise this until Vicky? in the centre explained to us afterwards!) and we joined the red trail further on up which meant we would unintentionally miss half the red trail and apparently, a fun fast downhill section with views to match! We should of clocked on because it was recommended for riders to plan for 2-3 hours on the red trail, we completed (remember half of it!) in about an hour!
Still, the change in terrain and obstacles was a major step up. Constant steps which would be jumps for the 'pros' were always preventing our progress. Some of them were huge for us and we bailed so many times. We just didn't have the confidence or riding ability to tackle these head on, there was no one else around and the elevation started to become a lot higher too. This was an exploration not how close can you become to death! It was slow going but I still enjoyed it. Don't think my GoPro did though as it kept on picking up some foul language every time I decided to bail. We did wonder where the downhill sections were because all we were doing was rolling up and down but mostly climbing. We were in fact on the side of a Slieve (although it was of similar height of Box Hill) but as it was clouded in mist, seeing the top was nigh impossible. The rain had came and gone that morning but it as muggy, the combination of sweat and mud dripping down my face was uncomfortable at times, I soon realised wiping away the specks of mud from your lips was a risk you were willing to take as it leaves you riding one handed on uneven ground!
In total, we must of bailed out 20-30 times, we found a new level of respect for the MTB community but you must be a bit loco to throw yourself down some of these trails. We did come to a clearing where we found a cracking view of the Mournes, the misty clouds rolling through them, an ideal place for a pit stop. We remembered to put our litter into our bag unlike the person who decided to throw a can of coke in the middle of the woods. Like why?! It's pure laziness and being inconsiderate to where you are, after a little rant to the GoPro, we did our bit and picked it up but shame on you if you were the litterbug!
We started to hear the sound of the summer groups of teenagers setting up their kayaks for the lakes, the red pill was wearing off. We hadn't fallen off at this point but that was coming! The exit of the red trail back out into the main car park was sandwiched with big bolders, I misjudged slaloming through and half fell off onto one of them! Was this in front of other people? Course!
At this point I thought I had completed the red trail and I was put off by the constant bailing to attempt again (if I had, I might of realised there was more to it!) and with 2 hours still to spare, I set upon improving my MTB skills on the blue trail. People in the park probably thought I had some sort of OCD constantly looping the blue trail but with each circuit, I was throwing the bike a lot more, getting the gear changes better, riding the bumps more smoothly, I felt quicker. It got to the point though where I was starting to feel niggles in my lower quads probably due to the riding position and the different demands I was placing on them so I decided to call it a day.
After the putting the bike in and wiping the mud cake of my shins, I was then made aware of the error I had made on the red trail. But being out there on your own although vulnerable, it felt free. Being on the road, you can cruise around at the change of a pedal stroke but in the woods, you are constantly thinking ahead and most of the time on the edge, trying to find the best line, making sure your pedal doesn't hit any tree stumps. Just like the world of the Matrix, MTB is a whole different dimension of cycling, one where practice is the key to a better ride. If you do ever find yourself over this way, Castlewellan is definitely a place to challenge yourself and become lost for a while. If you're looking for a further challenge, I hear the trails around Rostrevor is even more of a challenge, Red Bull held an event over there a few years ago. Well, we've come to the conclusion that we're more terri-bull than Red Bull at mountain biking...cue the tumbleweed!