Impending middle age brings with it an eternal truth. Summers rush by, kids get taller, houses bigger and time is first squeezed then wasted. That truth is this: you cannot save time, you can only spend it.
I’ve been playing catch up with mountain bikes since a chance rediscovery in my early thirties. Horizons widened as peaks of fitness and then skills were summitted by dint of application and hard cash. My address book is full of B&Bs, bike shops and riding buddies. Cramming twenty years into five has been at once fantastic, expensive, vocationally difficult and domestically tricky but totally without regret. But I was getting bored. Bored of slogging the same trails in different mud, bored of 5am starts to somewhere better and then 5pm traffic jams coming home. The buzz was fading fast and with it the realisation that maybe, just maybe, it was time to chill out, ride less, sell some bikes, be a normal father, that kind of thing. Thankfully a moment of intense clarity blew away this self pity – clearly what was needed were more bikes not less.
With this epiphany came the 16in frame which could charitably pass as industrial chic. After the beautifully crafted detailing and thin steel tubes of other members of the Leigh fleet, the squat frame looked roughly fashioned and crude, yet strangely purposeful. And small – how was I going to ride XC on this? Oh that’s right – I wasn’t.
I’ve spent most of this winter heading north to Bedfordshire and Chicksands, the home of planks, drops and dual courses. It’s not just the trails that are unfamiliar, it’s all the gear. Body armour isn’t a sign of weakness here, it’s almost mandatory as are baggy tops, hoodies and full face helmets. I felt like the bloke in Faking It. Until the first stack, after which I stopped worrying about it.
It’s a totally different experience to riding XC trails. There, the pain, pleasure and competition are shared across many miles with everyone doing almost the same thing. Some are faster downhill, some wait for the hills to demonstrate their prowess. But at Chicksands, pushing to the top seems to be only climbing skill required, perhaps accompanied by a quick fag or adjustment to unruly clothing and armour. After some extreme chatting and sharp intakes of breath when a ten-year-old disappears over the far horizon in a flat trajectory, you take a deep breath and plunge downhill to whatever obstacle offers the next challenge. Let me put it into context – XC rides in the summer last four hours, the dual course takes less than 30 seconds. It feels different too – finishing a long XC ride, there is a slow spread of satisfaction best enjoyed with a cold beer. Here, it’s all bang-bang adrenaline spikes interspersed with terror and possibly pain. Not pain from climbing – pain from hitting things, hard. But what a rush! It’s no surprise that much of the freeride scene mirrors that of surfing. with short periods of intense concentration and exuberance followed by a metaphorical waxing of the board.
Freeriding isn’t just riding off stuff. That morphs quickly to falling off stuff and the falls are bigger here. My first visit was a lesson in fear and humiliation in equal amounts. Everyone – and I mean everyone, kids on BMXs, fat blokes on cheap department store specials – could ride better than me. My particular area of underachievement was the dual course. Here, accidental nose wheelies were a speciality, a riding style closely resembling an aging mustang trying to unseat a plump mannequin. Thankfully any gaps in age and skill are lost in what’s essentially a biking hippie commune, and with coaching and encouragement came repeatable technique and a little self-esteem.
The big hurdle was ladder drops. For several visits they stayed firmly on the to-do list. No reasons, just excuses. Again, it’s not like XC trails. Muscles are easy to understand but mental frailty will literally do your head in. So you develop a protocol, a way of getting your head straight.
Here’s how it worked for me. Dump the bike near the obstacle, Camelbak off, helmet off, stroll down to the ladder. Walk to the end and stare – not straight down, because there waits The Fear – but out towards the transition. Nod. That’s important. I’m a big nodder, it’s a mental rabbit’s foot when it comes to riding new stuff – no nod, no way. Back on the bike, helmet on, chin strap tight, check gears and pads, two deep breaths – Darth Vader loud in the full face – and pedal hard. Peripheral vision adds nothing – mark the end of the ladder with a thousand-yard stare and never ever consider abandoning at the point of no return. It’s gone with the first pedal stroke so relax if you can as the front wheel hits your mark. Now make a smooth but fast backwards move, flex the knees for a little compression and tug the bars but gently, you don’t want this getting big on you. Okay now we’re off, there’s a beautiful second with only tinkling hubs to break the silence. Back on it, spot the landing and match the angle with a gentle push on the bars. The groundrush is epic and your lungs empty of breath held before the drop but it’s a good one. Bike thrown in the bushes and you’re high-fiving people you’ve never met before you remember to be embarrassed. You can’t hide your emotions here, it’s riding from the heart.
And then repeat, repeat, repeat until your nerves are frazzled with adrenaline and your limbs aching from the cumulative pounding. Four hours gone in a flash. But it’s only time and you’re spending it well.
Afterwards, staring glassy-eyed out of the van window, my head is in video playback. I’m watching jumps, drops and stacks on a loop acutely aware of body position, speed, commitment – there just isn’t the same intensity when riding XC trails. Every move stamps itself onto my retinas and I’m living it, dreaming it, loving it for days afterwards. I never use to dream about riding, now I dream of nothing else.
The level of progression is frightening. In six weeks so much has been conquered and yet there is so much left to do. There is no obvious plateau, as with better skill everything is smoother, faster and bigger. Bravery is a part of it too but however much you push it, you’ll never intentionally ride something that is going to hurt you. Oh, you may stack but that’s just crappy execution. Brush yourself down, nod, fetch the bike and get back on it.
I expected middle age to bring a yearning for red sports cars and fading memories of halcyon days. Instead it’s brought small frames, big forks and serious mental regression. Which makes me bloody annoyed that middle age didn’t start ten years ago. But with aging bones and increasing responsibilities, there really is only one thing to do – start making up for lost time.Pics by James Dymond