Memories of a MTB Road Trip - Part One - Pedal Progression
 

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6 February 2021

Memories of a MTB Road Trip – Part One

Winter can be a dreary time of year, even without a lockdown to seal the deal. Keep faith, the days are brightening, the year is long and life is OK when you can still ride your bike.

Blue Monday is perhaps most commonly known as the synth rock club banger by New Order from 1986. Unfortunately the name has gained less euphoric connotations in recent years, coined by a certain travel firm to highlight ‘the most depressing day of the year’, supposedly the third Monday of January. Thankfully this humdrum theory was branded as ‘nonsensical pseudoscience’ by the wider scientific community yet it was still a successful marketing ploy that boosted holiday sales.

Sky Travel (oops! I said it) were clearly unbeknown to the simple fact that the UK has many wild and alluring mountain bike destinations, providing a cheap and easy escape without hopping on a plane to Magaluf. 

Expectations and morale may have plummeted during 2020 at the mercy of the pesky pandemic, but many succeeded in finding different ways to thrive in this strange new World. The demand on the outdoors and bike industry was a strong indication of that. As the masses flocked to Ashton Court in greater numbers than ever before, Pedal Progression’s bike hire surged and new bikes became about as uncommon as the Penny Farthing.

It was on that recent ‘Blue Monday’ that got me thinking: Rather than dwelling on our Winter Blues, why not fantasise over what could be this year? I’m getting excited about the year ahead by reminiscing over my highlight from the last…

On 4th July, Boris announced relaxed restrictions that provided a sense of relief and release to the Nation. On a frantic Whatsapp chat with mates, we hurried to form a plan for an impromptu trip to the Peak District (via the Forest of Dean and the Black Mountains): A week full of riding and roughing it, with lots of laughs, pastries and packet noodles, warm beers and wild swimming. Nothing evokes a true sense of freedom like a spontaneous no frills ‘vancation’.

Day 1

The week kicked off with a chilled day riding in the Forest of Dean (FOD) with my mate Ben who was joining me on the trip, plus a few others who were just there for the day. FOD is a favourite local spot and a fitting place to warm up for the week ahead, boasting boundless miles of single track, steep off-piste and technical downhill runs. After a fun day sessioning our favourite trails we drove to a camp spot just a mile up the road. Settling in to a chilled evening, we cheersed our first cans of the trip and sat beside our vans in a secluded part of the woods. It was a peaceful and warm evening, we had the whole forest to ourselves.

I always sleep well in the back of my little Peugeot van. It’s so small you wouldn’t think anyone is actually living inside, making it stealthy for wild camping. You can squeeze a double mattress in the back, cosy, but definitely not designed for living in. Nevertheless, it works as a camper just fine for my needs and it’s served me well throughout its 7 year life with me. I’m always happy and satisfied living out of this tiny space, often feeling a little smug due to the the simple freedom and pleasure it gives me. It’s amusing to see my cramped and cluttered living space dwarfed by large and luxurious motor homes, often laden with expensive kit and gadgetry. Rough and ready, super basic, that’s all I need to get away.

On this trip, I swapped out the double mattress for a single air bed, and replaced Abi (my girlfriend) with my bike (from one lover to another). It was home for the next 6 nights and I had everything I needed.

Day 2

It was a hot and sunny morning the next day, the forecast predicted a bluebird day and temperatures in the late twenties. I put on my ‘Americana’ playlist and sang ‘Going Up The Country’ with a grin, as we convoyed over to Black Mountains Cycle Centre to meet some good riding pals, Fin, Jamie, Joe and Ifan.

Due to Covid, the uplift wasn’t running so pushing up was our only option, having guzzled all our water by the time we made it to the top. We cruised as a train down ‘Rabbit Run’ to warm up (we were already pretty warm), the dirt was hard and dusty, the trail was fast and wide like a bobsleigh run. It featured enormous twisting berms all the way to the bottom, with sculpted tabletops and multiple line choices. For a blue run it was fairly wild, mainly due to the speed you carried and the sheer amount of kickers that sent you airborne. Having never been before, I was stoked at how awesome this bike park was.

We summited the hill for the second time and decided to mess about on a short jump line rather than going straight into a full run. The initial feature was a wide, right-handed berm followed by a shark fin jump with about a 7 or 8 foot gap, followed by a series of large tabletops. Gaps take a different mentality. I had hit tabletops three times the size so I was confident in my ability to do it, but as always, I still felt nervous.

Ben dropped in first, exclaiming his readiness. I noticed his line through the berm was a little off and he didn’t look as committed as he claimed to be at the top. Ben cased the  transition hard, flinging him forwards and over the bars. He sailed through the air like a flailing Superman, arms first, taking all the impact through his wrist as he landed. This really wasn’t how we imagined our road trip would go down, at least not on the second day! After a few minutes helping him up and checking him over, we all knew his wrist was broken. Ben hobbled off down the hill clutching his arm and I followed lugging both his bike and mine, all the way to the vans.

I spent the remainder of the day snoozing and listening to music in the sunny carpark at Abergavenny hospital. Thinking it may be a quick appointment, I waited for Ben while the other boys carried on at the bike park. 6 hours later he emerged with his arm in a sling. It was sadly the end of the trip for him, his wrist was shattered in several places and needed surgery. He was more gutted that his holiday was over than his injury, but I knew it would be a long road to recovery and regaining his confidence on the bike. I felt his frustration and disappointment. Injury sucks! Even though we know it’s part of the game we play, nothing prepares us for it. I counted my blessings and continued on to the Peak District the next day, undeterred.

Day 3

On the drive up I listened to a playlist that featured my favourite Northern bands including that classic tune, Blue Monday. I was in the mood but felt an odd uncertainty with the trip being a man down. I suppose it’s the unpredictability of a road trip that makes the adventure; spontaneous and precarious at the same time. I wondered what the rest of the week had in store, what I was going to ride that day or even where i’d sleep that night.

Jamie and Joe weren’t due to arrive til’ the next day due to work commitments, but I fortunately had arranged to meet some other guys from the Bristol MTB Riders Facebook group. I didn’t know Mark and Adam well but they were there for a few days too so we decided to meet. Mark knew plenty of routes in the area and was a fountain of knowledge when it came to finding secret trails and the ‘lesser known loam’, as he liked to call it. Typically, it began to chuck it down as soon as I arrived at our rendez-vous point next to Ladybower Reservoir. Mark had an agenda and knew what he was here for, casually highlighting the name of one elusive trail as we set off from the vans: ‘50 to 01 Chance of Death’! It’s name would be no understatement, considering it was likely masterminded by the ‘Ratboy’ and his band of merry men at 50to01… We were on a quest to find said trail and more of the area’s off-piste, taking in some more typical Peak terrain as well.

After an hour or so of gradual climbing, Mark soon picked up a scent of the loam he was looking for. Scoping tyre tracks into the woods, he cross-referenced Trailforks and led us to where he believed the trail was hiding. I gasped in awe when we found it. Gnarly in all dimensions. My eye followed the trail down, assessing the off camber roots and gut wrenching gaps that threaded between trees and lead into and out of a series of sharp switchbacks, before it dropped out of sight. This one trail alone was worthy of a full afternoon’s riding. Dropping in on the first section I soon realised why it was given such a sensational name. We rode the top section a few times but soon decided to press on due to the route ahead, it left me stoked and hungry for more. Luckily there was plenty more where that came from, we found and rode numerous trails that zigzagged and criss-crossed the hillside. On some of the more technical trails we stopped at points to analyse and discuss line and technique, others we let rip all the way to the bottom. 

Just like the freedom of a road trip, it’s riding the unknown that makes an adventure; Riding new trails, unsure what’s around the next corner but always getting to the bottom. Then cranking back up another hill or mountain and doing it all over again. This is my favourite kind of mountain biking, natural and untamed terrain, wild scenery, big views, with a sense of exploration and isolation. On this ride we barely saw another soul, the perfect release from city life and the trappings of lockdown.  

The rest of the route took us 18miles traversing the hills and forests that surrounded Ladybower and Derwent reservoirs, sticking mostly to bridleways. From here on, the descents were rough, rocky and jarring. ‘The Beast’ was exactly that, another menacing but suitable name for a descent, that existed as one enormous rock garden from top to bottom. I was grateful for the full 170mm of suspension at this point. Speed was your friend but there was nowhere soft to land if you made any misjudgements. Distinguished by thousands of angular boulders and loose stones; it wasn’t easy to find the ‘good line’ if there was one. This was classic Dark Peak terrain and was a good taste of what was to come.

Day 4

I parted ways with Mark and Adam as they were happy at their campsite. Jamie and Joe arrived early and were keen for the wilder side of camping. I was happy to see them. Their setup; Jamie’s Transit that he uses for his landscaping job, with 2 dusty roll mats and sleeping bags thrown down. Classy. They hadn’t brought any food supplies or much else for that matter and were predictably disorganised. They’re chilled guys and were just happy to be there, keen to get out on the bikes ASAP. We met at a small carpark near Blacka Moor, to ride the famous Devil’s Elbow descent. This was another gritstone stricken, natural downhill with varying lines, roots, drops and technical sections. It was a bone-shaker but after a few runs, we loosened up and attacked with speed, cheering our way to the bottom.

Driving a few miles from there we checked out Lady Cannings plantation, a riding spot with trails built and maintained by Ride Sheffield, a local collective of riders who have sought to build, sanction and maintain trails in the area. The trails reminded me of what we have at Ashton Court, with several miles of flowing blue and red graded runs that weave through green woodland. It was a brief but welcomed rest to ride something not littered with boulders.

After a few runs there, we cycled a on up to Stanage Edge where we reconvened with Mark and Adam. Stanage Edge is a unique and popular climbing spot, comprised of a 20-30 metre high gritstone escarpment that forms the boarder between Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. It’s quite a sight, a cliff formed of round featureless boulders and sheer rock faces, stacked up like an enormous and crumbling dry stone wall. 

We cycled along the road towards it and the veered off on a bridleway that took us literally, to the edge. Standing high at 1,550ft over a wide valley, it stretched along the ridge for as far as we could see. The sun burst brightly through the clouds, the views from the top were magnificent. Scrambling onto some prominent rocks and looking down over the valley, I breathed it in with the cool, fresh air. I felt lucky to be there considering the year thus far, relishing a gratifying hit of dopamine as I soaked up the scene. It was truly epic. As was the ride down…

I’d never ridden a trail made entirely from rock. We pedalled along until we found what looked to be a path down, we could clearly see there were no walkers coming up the other way so we lined up and rolled in. Some parts of the trail were built by an arrangement of  boulders to create a path and steps. In other parts a path was indistinguishable, finding our way over huge slabs and drops every few metres. We passed a group of climbers who were climbing the cliff overhead and I manage to yelp a ‘hello’ as I rattled past the belayers, trying not to lose focus. The trail traversed down and across the Edge, occasionally exposing a sketchy sheer drop to the right, where I tried not to look. Everyone was laughing at the bottom, high on life, sharing funny anecdotes of our various hairy moments on the descent.

In the end it was a big day’s riding at three varied and unique locations. Jamie, Joe and myself ended the day with a few miles of road climbing back up to the vans, while Mark and Adam went the opposite direction back to their base.  

That evening…

I scoured the map on my phone for a suitable camp spot, dropping the pin on Redmires Reservoirs. I always seek bodies of water for wild camping as they are tranquil, picturesque and sheltered. Upon arrival this place looked to be exactly that, what we didn’t see were the ungodly clouds of midges that were hellbent on killing the serenity. Having settled down to cook and eat in several different locations around the reservoir, we accepted defeat and retreated on our bikes up the hill, laden with stove, food and beers, in an attempt to evade the swarms.

We convinced ourselves we’d beaten the bugs, momentarily relaxing into the postcard sunset scene before us. Within minutes the midges were hot on our scent and swarmed us once again. Swatting, slapping and scratching ourselves, we found ourselves leaping in different directions for moments of calm before they smothered us again. At one moment we all stood far apart in silence, cowering inside our hoodies while trying to seal the air holes. We were getting totally destroyed and there was nowhere else to run! It was an absurd situation but we were able to see the funny side and tried to convince ourselves it was all part of the fun. We scoffed the pesto pasta, downed our beers and snapped a few  photos of our ‘idyllic dinner’ before fleeing back down the hill on our bikes.

Had we not been mauled by the midges all evening, we may not have had the inspiration we needed to go for an evening swim. Instigated by Jamie who made no hesitation in stripping off and diving in. The ice cold water offered our only relief from the bites as we bathed for as long as we could bare the cold. For the rest of the evening we hid in Jamie’s van and played cards under torchlight. As I fiddled with a lighter I devised a new game where we took it in turns to spark any defiant midges that managed to get in. Claiming vengeance, we cackled evilly as we watched them combust into tiny plumes of smoke. It was a cowardly attempt at retribution, but it provided the laughter and light entertainment…

To be continued…

Phil Simpson

Written by:

Phil Simpson