They were waiting at the gate for me, visibly shivering. With tyres on the edge of traction and an ice sheet to negotiate, my progress was nervous and slow. I stole a look at the frozen mountains, perfectly backlit from an azure sky, and my reward was to be unceremoniously dumped on my arse. I grinned the grin of the mildly embarrassed, chased down the still-sliding bike and slithered up to join my pals.
The setting sun was bathing the snow-capped peaks in hues of fiery red as we unsuccessfully tried to crack ice off the mechs. We had a mile of technical, treacherous, rocky descending chasing the fading light home to warm beery survival some 750 feet below.
Welcome to the Lake District in November.
The iceman cometh
This hastily arranged trip to escape the Flanders-twinned Chilterns coincided with freezing conditions and a dump of snow. We’d hurriedly assembled assorted hardtails on arrival at 1pm before heading up the Garburn Pass. Never having ridden these parts, my initial impression was that some mad scientist had hijacked the Peak District, stuck it on a high fat diet laced with steroids, and arranged for an ice age to give it the once over as he felt it wasn’t quite rocky enough. The climb began as a ride, gave way to the occasional push and, once we’d crested the snow line, became a comedy wobble as ice streams littered the trail and rocks sprouted verglas stubble.
Tap, tap, tap, CRACK was the desperate prelude to clipping in for the descent. It was pretty clear that clipping back out wasn’t a bale option, but with the day fading at the speed of light, we were out of excuses and rolling. The last ice age retreated from this valley some 10,000 years ago leaving a modern legacy of steep moraines, rock belts and shattered stone. Two pedal revolutions and we’re away, stiff with cold and a little fear as the first ice sheet passes under the wheels. It’s over in two uncontrollable seconds so I can breathe again and start to focus on what happens next.
This feels like proper mountain biking. The trail is steep and unforgiving but it’s wide. I can choose the line and it’s not about the chasing of perfect apexes and striving for 2% improvements of my riding at home. Here the style is called survival, picking the safest route through rock gardens and staying loose whilst avoiding any sudden braking. Which is a bit of a problem – while I’m a big advocate of long-forked hardtails, the rear brake is generally nothing more than a shiny bar accessory. Grab a handful on that on a steep, slippy slope and watch the rear end whip round to overtake the front. That leaves the front, which considering the bijou contact patch and almost relentless ice isn’t really a feasible option either. Large rocks provide a crude form of arrest although the head-sized ones look ready to insert the significant cardiac.
There’s too much stimulus now – it’s queuing in the neural net as hands and feet pass trail information, optic nerves offer split-second line choices and lungs demand oxygenation of blood for screaming muscles. I’ve never worked so hard on a bike and amazingly in the sub-zero conditions I’m sweating. Suddenly a steeper section looms into view. There’s an easy line down the right but it’s solid ice for 30 yards. Or there’s four steps each getting a little bigger but mercifully unmolested by anything more malignant than moss. I lean left, shunt my twitching arse backwards and force myself to look up, look ahead. Bang, bang, bang, bang, it’s over with no style, no attempted huck, just letting five inch forks do their stuff. We cross the snow line boundary and I’m a little looser, a little more confident, fixing a point on the horizon and trusting the bike to find a line. The two guys already down zoom rapidly in from distant specks to full life size as I wrestle over the last boulder field and brake unsteadily to a stop. I’ve arrived in the middle of the all-Cumbria shit-eating-grin convention and we’re gabbling at each other, barely listening, just wanting to explode with the sheer bloody enjoyment of being a little bit stupid and quite a lot alive.
It’s not over though. Two more sections have to be tackled before day turns to night. The first is benign and fast allowing me to chase the fast guys until we hit a rocky section where, to my chagrin, panic braking kills momentum and the flow that lives with it. These are good riders and they’re gone so I concentrate on picking better lines and remembering to breathe. It feels good to beat the mountain but it beats me right back with an unseen final patch of ice according me passenger status on the bike, and delivering an unwanted close up view of valley far below. “That looked pretty big” the guy behind me remarked as we regrouped on the road. Being concerned that my only verbal response would be a frightened whimper, I nodded sagely and silently prayed for beer soon.
This initial flirtation with the mountains had put us in the mood for a full-on embrace come a full day’s riding tomorrow. Beer and maps are rarely comfortable bedfellows so it was of little surprise that we’d planned a peak bagging, high altitude epic by closing time. Our arrival back at the Youth Hostel in high spirits followed by a four-room truffle for more beer hardly endeared us to our fellow guests or the staff. Still, they more than repaid us with the laughably sized breakfast the following morning. And what a morning it was, almost zero visibility as fog clamped the mountains and the rain swept in from the north. Undeterred, we suited up in all things Gore-Tex and headed out to Jenkins Crag.
Despite many layers of expensive clothing, the stinging rain wormed insidiously through with a mission to reduce core temperature. We climbed into the fog as the rain lashed down but we reconciled the rain with an absence of the icy conditions of yesterday. Except that the rain was freezing as it hit the trail, leaving a chameleon-like slick, unseen and barely less than lethal. The first downhill was negotiated out of the pedals, shoes acting as outriggers and steering being in the hands of the ice gods. I abandoned the bike in a bush chosen for its braking potential and positioned myself with the camera. Sadly, my panicked cries had warned of the hazard and they slid past like the dancing ice queens I’d always had them down for. Two minutes later, there was a quality wheels gone, pilot over the bars, 15ft break dance fakie to shrubbery finish but sadly I’d put the camera away by then. Things didn’t improve other than our humour as we regressed to five year olds trying to remember how to ride a bike. Pedal, slip, grip, turn, slip, slide, clip out, fall about laughing sums up the next couple of miles.
Heroically we decided on a cafe stop to plan our next move. This involved transiting a saddle down a rocky horror show enlivened by black ice. I rode the first two sections but on seeing others abandon bike, was relieved of any peer pressure and in a parody of MBR “got off and minced”. Steaming hot chocolate and steaming riders perfectly juxtaposed the horizontal rain rattling the café windows. Determined not to be beaten by a little bit of weather, we reluctantly saddled back up – albeit with a reduced group of five – and headed up to Grizedale Forest. Five became four as a mechanical problem which only he could hear dispatched the esteemed editor of Outdoorsmagic back to somewhere warm and dry. The map – by now a thing of much mirth – was being consulted on an almost five minute basis as “riding in the forest” morphed to “going to the pub”.
We headed for the Windermere ferry via a ride round the fog-bound lake. This trail shielded us from the worst of the weather and our spirits were still high as we waited for the incoming ferry. These spirits nosedived during the twenty minute wait in the now freezing rain and my hands, already cold from gloveless photography, started to twitch in an alarming manner. Things improved not at all on the road ride back as mild hypothermia confused attempted map reading. I stripped off in the drying room, bit my elbow as chilblains hit me hard in the shower and grabbed a couple of beers to dull the pain.
It was 2pm. On an out of Season Sunday in a Youth Hostel. We couldn’t ride as the weather had worsened even further. So we did what mature adults in their fourth and fifth decades would consider appropriate behaviour. Pissed again many hours later, we rolled back into the hostel and through skills honed by late night, er, private browsing, accessed the ‘net eager for a final weather forecast. “It’ll be better than today” was enough incentive to me to stagger bedwards with the promise of a final cracking ride before heading for home.
Bloody hell. Groundhog day. Crap breakfast, fog, rain. But we all had work the next day and we headed out early in the hope the forecast would tell the rain to bugger off. Today was a little different – we headed up over boggy moors and hub deep puddles. It may sound awful but it wasn’t – warm and snug in fantastic wet weather gear, riding in fantastic scenery with people who have become my greatest friends. The sweet irony is that in 24 hours, I’d be just another poor bastard trudging up Fleet Street in a suit pretending it actually matters. My grin widened further as we descended down a double track at speeds that made mud splattered Oakleys peril-sensitive. Can’t see it? Probably won’t hurt me then, was the prevalent attitude. For me, we could have gone home then sated and satisfied on these fantastic trails. Maybe we should have.
The final climb back to the top of Garburn Pass was a horror. Especially after something pinged in my hamstring and for a while it was just me, the mountains, the rain and an uncooperative right leg. Once I’d established that the others weren’t coming back, shouldering the bike and trudging on was the only option. Slipping over slick rocks and mud, pushing and carrying the bike, head down to catch as little rain howling down the hill, several years passed before we reconvened close to the top of the pass. Communication was impossible as the elements conspired to deliver a virtuoso command performance. It was awesome to be battered by all this weather but we didn’t tarry as a mile of smiles awaited over the next ridge.
We were back to where we started. Inexplicably in less than 48 hours, the snow capped vista had been reduced to an autumnal scene dominated by reds and browns. Pictures bagged, I headed down far more confident than our first descent and making ground on the rider in front. He was smooth and fast until the big rocky sections where I was making up 50 yards through bigger forks and unconstrained ego. I was a crash waiting to happen and happen I did, attempting a suicidal overtaking manoeuvre on the rockiest section of the trail. Not only did I fail to give the guy a shout, I picked a line packed with the biggest rocks as I half wheeled him. Two seconds later, all thoughts of overtaking were gone as I fought the bucking bike – slowed by the boulders – and tried to plot a route back to the main trail. It didn’t happen and a final brake induced stall saw me abandon the bike for a bed of pointy grim reapers each with my name on them. Thankfully, relatively low speeds, body armour and a fair bit of luck limited the damage to a few bruises and chastised ego.
Confidence and body dented, the remainder of the descent passed in more of a regal wave than a frenzied blur. No matter. Packing the bikes for our trip home, it was apparent that big hills and mountains offer challenges and rewards that mere glacial humps and forestry sponsored tracks cannot. All weekend I’d had some crappy song in my head – “live every day like you’re dying”. Well frankly, that’s too much of a commitment. But after devoting every spare moment and every spare quid in the last five years to riding bikes, I think I’ll settle for this instead: “Live every day like you’re riding”.