Seven women, eleven men and three days of group mudbaths.
Mountain biking alone is nice. Mountain biking with a friend is brilliant. Hitting the Brecon Beacons with 17 mates for three days of mud is pretty close to nirvana. But riding with a big group poses very different challenges; like how to climb in slippery muck, surrounded by other riders.
To date, my tactic for group riding has been to hang at the back. Go at my own pace. Don’t eat the mud. But something interesting is happening. I’m not at the back anymore. Not just among the women, but at least on some of the steadier climbs I can pretty much hang with the men. This throws my whole MO into crisis. I usually write about failure. Or at least about not being very good. I know I haven’t trained enough, but the great thing about mountain biking is I’ve experienced a pretty awesome technical learning curve.
Descents I couldn’t managed just two months ago are now do-able. I can actually turn on a hairpin single track. I can accelerate through a berm. The occasional root will still floor me and I still struggle to pick my lines, but unlike road cycling where the learning curve is basically dependent on fitness and race experience, mountain biking is flooded with self-improvement.
So on Friday I headed out for a first day of riding in the Forest of Dean with Will, Matt and Rob. Not Wales, but a brilliant stop on the way. Well-managed trails at Pedalabikeaway meant I had a first chance to practice. Four 7 mile loops meant I could really start to find a rhythm. Until now, most of my riding has been defined by getting pushed to the limit. This has meant little time to think about form, body or bike handling… and least of all, speed. But doing laps on a pretty mellow single track meant I could improve a little bit with each go.
On lap two, I focused on turning on a climb. Stay on the bike. Don’t put a foot down. Look where you want to go and just go there. Heel down. Roll through it. Lap 3: Berms. Steady even legs, off the seat, push my upper body through the turn, don’t brake. Lap 4: Speed. I finally got out of my easy gears, learning to cruise through the trees and over the bumps with ease. I didn’t crash. I didn’t get frustrated. Sometimes it’s important just to build your confidence on easier trails without the pressure of cliffs, jagged rocks or slippery roots. You stop thinking about everything and start feeling the bike.
Friday night brought with it a flood of rain and subsequent soupy trails on Saturday morning. 18 of us took off from Pontfaen, a little village 5 miles north of Brecon, to do The Gap Ride. Soaked with puddle mud and temperatures flirting with zero even before we hit the trails meant it was going to be a cold one. Several pairs of merino socks and a change of gloves later, we managed the ascent up the old Tram route out of Talybont on Usk. About 3 inches of mud lay atop large slippery stones, and surrounded by other riders it was a challenge just to stay upright.
Sometimes you go straight through the brambles, sometimes you go straight through the puddles. It seems like with a group, if you can’t pick the best line (‘cause the guy next you got it), the key is to have confidence and a bike that will just go over anything. Full-sus engaged, I just kept spinning and grinding through the muck. By the time we reached the ridge over Brecon following the Taff Trail, our group was tired and frozen, but the best was yet to come.
The long rocky descent followed by gnarly, bouldery single track to the bottom of the valley resulted in shattered arms and burning quads. The key for this kind of group riding is to communicate. As we bombed past each other, there’s no chance of looking over your shoulder to see what’s going on. Eyes on the trail ahead you just shout at each other to stay safe.
Tired limbs and a few injuries meant our motley crew broke up a bit for Sunday’s ride. While the boys went off to smash themselves, Kate, Naomi, Sam and I decided we’d find an ‘easier’ route from the house following local bridleways. It’s no wonder British kids are forced to do orienteering courses in school… no sooner had we left the house and I managed to get us lost and riding in circles. Route corrected and headed to the top of the ridge we found ourselves hiking with bikes to push through 6 inches of mud on 18%.
Spitting icy rain in the naught degree winds, we decided after an hour of climbing we’d make the turn back… but with every turn of the cranks, our bikes went slower and slower into deeper mud. I slid about 30 feet down a muddy embankment to the riverbank, ankle-deep in boggy muck, body covered in it… it was an awesome day to try out my new Rapha softshell.
Perhaps the mixed blessing of the Absa Cape Epic is it’s not really known for it’s mud. Riding surrounded by hundreds of other riders in a burning fog of sand and dusk, the pain and frustration will definitely be there so the confidence has to be there, too.