Cotic Flare: my year of mountain bike adventures

Looking back on a fantastic year of mountain biking as a Cotic ambassador! Here are my highlights…

 

This time last year I was invited to Cotic HQ in the Peak District to discuss becoming a brand ambassador and having my own Cotic Flare – a 650b trail bike with 130mm travel –  to ride for a year.

It was an easy sell, tbh. Cotic are a small, British mountain bike brand who specialise in steel frames. They fight their corner in the world of big mtb brands with a range of bikes that could sit at the top end of any line up, and describe the Flare as  ‘a brilliant all round trail bike, with a fleet footed feel, synapse quick handling, crisp climbing, fun descending.’ What’s more, I grew up near The Peaks, I love mtb – and they gave me a very fine lunch that included deep fried onion rings. Not that I was a complete walk over, though. After all, I already owned a not- too-shabby trail bike and I wasn’t going to give it up for a year if what was on offer wasn’t going to be a) as good if not better and b)add a new dimension to my riding. Happily the Flare has risen to the challenge with ease.

My Cotic Flare on New Bike Day! 🙂 

The Flare arrived at Adele Towers, Surrey, in early February, neatly squeezed into the back of Cotic’s new van for is journey down the M1. The steel frame is crafted in Reynolds 853, which is exceptionally stiff, robust and durable and can thus be used in thinner dimensions for lightness (hence the bike’s ‘skinny’ appearance). Steel is also used for the seatstays, allowing generous ankle, heel and calf clearance. The droplink suspension layout has titanium pivot fittings, while the swingarm is aluminium to allow the machined parts to fit while enabling stiffness at the back of the bike. And finally, my bike is customised with Joystick carbon bars, WTB 27.5″ carbon wheels and tubeless tyres, a 130mm X-Fusion fork, some gorgeous Hopetech bling and Burgtec pedals that have kept my feet firmly in place whatever the terrain. For the record (and those who think steel bikes are always going to be heavy) I can pick the Flare up with one hand. Also, on hills, I can overtake my friends who ride carbon 29ers (#smug).

Unfortunately and despite being New Bike Day, the trails of The Surrey Hills had never looked more dismal and uninspiring: a fest of sucky mud, wet roots, low cloud and non-existent views. We rode to take a few photos, snacked on sandwiches and coffee, and talked of better weather and future ride plans before waving the team off back up to The Peaks where, if my childhood memories serve me right, the sun never stops shining.

First ride on my Cotic Flare!

Thankfully on the day of my first event with the Flare – Battle on the Beach in Pembrey, South Wales – the sun was out in full force. BotB is a unique three-lap, 45km race that includes a 15km beach sprint, 15km singletrack through the dunes and 15km of fire road slog into a headwind. It’s a wonderful ride in a beautiful setting, and a great way to test the Flare – and my fitness out. Thankfully we both passed the test!

Our annual girls’ trip to Afan rolled around next: this year four of us rocked up at the Afan Lodge where we enjoyed hearty breakfasts, long rides and big dinners, and inadvertently intimidated the groups of male riders who weren’t expecting to be sharing the bar with a bunch of #radmums on a weekend away. We had a long day in the saddle after Afan Lodge’s local trail legend sent us up the mountain on the ‘scenic route’ – which I interpreted to mean ‘easier’ than the normal slog up hill, but which turned out to be just as steep but twice as long. Nice views though, he wasn’t wrong there.

‘the scenic route’ up the mountain

On the way down The Flare galloped around the trails like a nippy Jack Russell – kept in check by super grippy WTB tyres which resolutely held on while everyone else was commenting on how sketchy the trails were feeling.

Back home in Surrey and Fox held a launch event for its Proframe helmet at the Swinley Forest trail centre. It’s a great piece of kit and testing it out proved to be a brilliant opportunity to ride flat out on familiar trails.

My favourite Swinley trail

It also turned out to be an opportunity to meet Fox ambassador and Redbull Rampage rider Pierre Edouard Ferry. He was intrigued to hear all about the Cotic, and was more than happy to chat. Also, he is very handsome. So all in all, a great day out!

Actual Redbull Rampage rider, admiring my bike and dispensing excellent advice.

The Flare is fleet footed, fast and fun and it has given me a lot of confidence on technical terrain – but there is always room for improvement, and with a trip to the Alps on the horizon I headed off for some mountain biking tuition. It’s actually really tricky to over-ride the deep-seated procedural memory that comes from years of riding experience – and so I struggled at first to adapt new technique. However I’m a determined sort so I retired to the woods for many solo rides, sessioning my back-to-basics new skills: looking ahead, using my heel position effectively and sticking my elbows and knees out more (not a technical term). Small things, big difference on the trails though.

Anyway, how about throwing yourself in at the deep end with a bit of Alpine mountain biking fun? A mix of family holiday with flooded valley rides, accidentally riding black runs (punched the air at the end of that one!) and delicious – and very strong – beer at the end of a stunning cross-country ride: we had an amazing week in and around Les Gets.

The Flare feeling very much at home in The Alps!

We visit Dartmoor to ride each year. We have friends who live in the heart of the National Park and we can ride from their door, and return later in the day to eat unfeasibly large amounts of local cheese. Not surprisingly, it’s one of the highlights of the year. The Dartmoor National Park is beyond beautiful and appears untouched and wild – in fact, and in order to keep it unspoilt, it is tightly managed. That means trails are limited but well maintained, and a lot of fun if you like riding over rock-strewn moorlands and hopping over aristan-crafted stone drainage ditches. Its old-school cross-country riding with big hills so leave your long travel bike at home and be prepared to get a little bit lost.

 

Another favourite day out is the circular ride from Poole via Corfe Castle. It’s true Famous Five adventure stuff (though there were sixteen of us in total), with a trip on a ferry, cream teas, huge climbs and legs-out descents along the cliff tops and down to the sea. In a slight detour from the normal route, some mentioned that the swanky hotel The Pig On The Beach was en-route and so we popped in to ‘just to have a look’: several rounds of drinks and outdoor-cooked, flatbread pizzas later, we made our way back to the ferry, (over) tired and happy.

As you will have realised by now, I’m happiest on long rides with big hills and fun descents, so when I decided to enter Swinley Enduro – the first one I’ve ridden – I did so for the fun and the experience, rather than to get placed. It was one of the friendliest events I’ve ever ridden: the 30 women taking part agreed we’d prefer to start together rather than in age categories, and we moved round the route laughing, chatting, sharing tips and supporting each other. It was a really special atmosphere and (almost!) helped settle my nerves! I also spotted a couple of Cotic riders in the mix too – always good to say hello.

Chatting to other Cotic riders in one of the queues.

Mostly though, I am enjoying the Flare on the local hills and in the woods. Apologies for the lack of images of me riding there: often there is simply no one on hand to take a picture – perhaps Cotic could add a selfie-button to the 2018 model?

 

 

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FINDRA & 5 things I learnt about mountain biking in Glentress…without riding a bike

My trip to FINDRA Outdoor Apparel HQ and flagship store in Innerleithen to meet the team behind the brand and local riders left no time to ride, but here’s why I will be returning with my bike!

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Lee Craigie from The Adventure Syndicate flying up a hill in full FINDRA!

FINDRA Outdoor Apparel is one of my favourite cycling garment brands. I’ve reviewed the kit before, but this was the first time I had gone ‘behind the scenes’ at brand HQ, where I had been invited to speak about how to deal with fear when mountain biking.

FINDRA was founded by Scottish fashion designer and keen mountain biker Alexandra Feechan because she was aware that there was little available for women who ride to wear. Her subsequent – and award winning – range of top quality tops, beanies, neck and arm warmers stands out for its use of colour and cut. The garments are crafted in merino wool, renown for its warmth, breathability, durability and comfort.

 

FINDRA also have awesome mtb shorts – not only do they look great, but they’re really durable. I’ve ridden miles in mine (they’re the same as the ones Lee Craigie is wearing in the image above) and they’re still going strong. Findra bobble hats are not only super cute, but also knitted by a real Scottish nana. You don’t get much more authentic than that!

Following on from the brand’s success with mountain bikers, Alex is widening the reach to appeal to adventure loving hikers, horse riders, skiers and boarders. She has enlisted an awe inspiring bunch of brand ambassadors to help spread the word including Emily Chappell and Lee Craigie from The Adventure Syndicate and survival expert Meg Hine, whose book inspired my original post on mountain biking and fear (and which was the reason I was invited up to Scotland to speak).

My flying visit didn’t allow time to ride, but by taking the trip and talking to local riders I met at the talk,  I gleaned quite a lot about riding at Glentress and Innerleithen. I look forward to returning, this time with my bike!!

This is what I discovered:

  1. It’s closer than you think – even when you live in Surrey!
    From the Surrey Hills trails where I live and ride, you can fly from Gatwick (half an hour drive) to Edinburgh (an hour and a half flight) and then transfer in an hour to the world famous Glentress Forest trail centre. If all goes to plan, you could have (early) breakfast in Surrey and be on the trails in Scotland by lunchtime!
  2. Glentress Forest has 60km of trails from green to black level, and you can hire a bike there too – but book ahead, and be warned that smaller sized bikes appear to be quite scarce!!! Innerleithen – six miles down the road – is renown for its downhill riding so you can easily make a weekend of riding in the area.
  3. There is also lots of reasonably priced local accommodation – I stayed here and it was great, a spa hotel, and something called a ‘Scottish Breakfast’ – no need to ask if that is sufficiently calorific to fuel a morning on the trails.
  4. No mountain bike ride is complete without a trip to a great café, and there is an awesome one in Innerleithen – No. 1 Peebles Road (almost opposite the FINDRA store!). I will be making their field mushroom and grilled haloumi on toast for the rest of my life. Possibly every day.
  5. There is a great community of riders here. Those who came out to hear my talk were particularly amazing a) because they sat and listened to me and b) because the discussion that followed was so interesting and in-depth. It was really moving to hear others’ stories of what caused their fear, and how they dealt with it, as well as to hear from confident, competent riders who wanted to encourage others to feel the same.

Finally this from audience member Ruby made the whole trip extra special. She posted it two days after the talk (note: kudos to Ruby for riding some rather damp looking North Shore on her very first ride!!)

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Btw, I will be discussing mental health and cycling on a panel at Look Mum No Hands in London on November 7th. If you’re in or near London, do come along! Details here.

Findra Outdoor Apparel is available online and at 83 High Street, Innerleithen, EH44 6HD.

THE VELOVIXEN WOMEN’S CYCLING HUB 2017

The Velovixen Women’s Cycling hub at the 2017 NEC Cycle Show hosted a line up of speakers (including me!) who got together to discuss what it means to be a woman who rides a bike. This is the second time I’ve spoken at the event and my talk was called ‘Get Over It’ and dealt with cycling and fear (I seem to be have become something of an expert on this!!). Here it is!

The VeloVixen Cycling Hub at the NEC Cycling Show 2016

Being fully aware of the quality of the speakers on board, I made sure I arrived in good time on Saturday to catch some of the other women at the event. I’m really glad I arrived in time for the Q&A with Corrine Hall MBE, not only because I got to hold her Paralympic gold medal but also because she told us all about winning at Rio 2016 with tandem partner Lora Turnham, who is blind.  Corinne explained that they weren’t expected to win their event and so she was thrilled when they crossed the line first but, due to the nature of her disability, Lora is not aware of how they have done until Corrine tells her – so her delight was doubled when she got to tell her team mate that they had won.

Corinne Hall’s paralympic gold medal from Rio 2016

The gold medal chimes when you shake it, with different sounds for the silver and bronze medals to differentiate between the three.

At the end of the day I caught up with the talk by Emily Chappell and Lee Craigie from The Adventure Syndicate. They are great speakers as well as experts on adventure and distance cycling, and I loved their honesty when it came to discussing how demanding such riding can be. Emily described how she draws upon her ‘invisible peloton’ for strength when the going gets tough. This imaginary group of her friends and role models enables her to think about what these people would say to support her on the road, and draw strength from them. I love this idea and will definitely be calling upon my own invisible peloton next time I’m starting to flag.

The Adventure Syndicate

Now here’s a quick round up of the talks from the rest of the weekend.

Friday –the first day – and the hub got off to a great start with a Q&A session with legendary mtb champion Tracey Moseley , a talk on the media coverage of women’s cycling by Laura Winter from VoxWomen and cycling presenter Rebecca Charlton, as well as a discussion between Julie Rand from Cycling UK, Diane Jeggo (who also compared throughout the event!) from Breeze and Liz Colebrook of Beaumont Cycles on ways in which women’s cycling is blooming. Finally Fran Whyte urged everyone to try CycloCross in her talk.

Saturday kicked off with a discussion ‘Beyond Selling Stuff’ with Lynne Bye, founder of Fat Lad/Lass at the Back, Judith Smith, MD of Primal Europe and Rhian Ravencroft, the founder of Theo. The Corinne Hall Q&A followed, and then Emily Chappell, Sarah Perry and Julia Tilley spoke about the ‘Le Loop’ TDF ride. After my talk Emily returned to the stage with her Adventure Syndicate partner Lee Craigie, to discuss cycling adventures.

Sunday included a talk on how cycling clubs can get it right for women, hosted by Kate Horsfall, Fran Whyte, Kay Young and Eleanor Pye. Also on stage that day were Anna Glowinski  and Transcontinental riders Grace Lambert-Smith and Eleanor Ceindeg.  There was a Q&A session with Jo Rowsell Shand, a talk on lower body power from Simone Dalley (Triathlon Age Group World Champion and Personal Trainer) and, last but not least, VeloVixen co-founder Liz Bingham spoke about the ‘10,000km date’ that led to the creation of VeloVixen!

I suggest you free up an evening, open a bottle of wine, and watch them all here 

I know it wasn’t just me who felt that, compared to last year, there were more women at the Cycle Show (previously it has been a complete MAMIL fest!) and it was fantastic to see so many women (and men!) at the hub, listening to us and asking some great questions.  Can’t wait for next year!

P.S. I’m on a public-speaking roll now…I’ll be giving a more in depth talk on Fear and MTB at Findra HQ in Innerleithen on October 12th, at 7.30 pm

10 things I learnt at my first Enduro

“Why the hell are we doing this?”

‘Ugly Betty in a crash hat’ – and what’s going on with my knees ffs? Photo: Owain Zerilli

There was only one topic of conversation in the Ladies’ toilets half an hour ahead of the Swinley Forest Enduro (aka Swinduro) – and that was why any of us had thought it was a good idea to sign up. We could have been at home, feet up, reading the Sunday papers and eating a bacon sandwich. Instead, we were gathered around a slightly feeble hand dryer in a toilet just north of the M3, with anxiety turned up to 11, because we were about to throw ourselves down muddy, rooty trails on mountain bikes – against the clock.

Enduro mountain bike racing, according to the British Enduro Mountain Bike Association ‘allows riders to compete against each other, starting individually, on multiple special stages which are designed to challenge the rider’s technical ability and physical capacity.’  The Swinlely Forest course was a 25km loop with eight timed ‘gravity focussed’ stages within it, each lasting for barely a few minutes.

Most of the climbing (which, thanks to a happy arrangement of slow twitch muscle fibres, is where I do well in XC riding!) was in the untimed transition sections and I’m not particularly quick downhill so I knew I was never going to podium (like ever, in a million years!). But that was fine because it meant I could just ride and have fun without any pressure. It took around three hours to complete the loop. Here’s what I learnt about Enduro on the way round.

  1. Everyone I spoke to was nervous – though as experienced Enduro rider (and subsequent category winner!) Marcia Ellis pointed out as we waited to start, nerves and excitement are caused by the same chemical reaction – they are in fact, the same thing. So rather than trying to suppress our nervousness, we can harness it simply by renaming it.

Nervous – I mean excited – faces, pre-race…

  1. This was undoubtedly the friendliest race I have ever ridden. 35 women took part and we were divided into age catergories and scheduled to set off at different times. But, on the start line, all the women agreed they’d rather set off together. And because the transition sections are not timed, the general vibe was to ride along chatting rather than race from stage to stage.

 

  1. Random things we talked about while riding: how big the drops are in the upcoming section, how big the drops were in the last section, where we nearly fell off, where we did fall off, how lovely the flowy trails were, how none of the trails were as bad as we had feared, customised frame paint jobs in duck egg blue, ‘do I follow you on Instagram?’, ‘Isn’t this fun?’ and S Club 7 ( low blood sugar at this point).

 

  1. How can it take three hours to ride 25km? Queues. While some stages were empty when we arrived, others had a line of riders waiting to start. We were set off at thirty second intervals, so with up to twenty riders ahead, sometimes we had to wait. It’s a good opportunity to fuel up with an energy bar, and chat (see number 4) but also, take a jacket.

Chatting to other Cotic riders in one of the queues.

  1. There were so many whistles. The marashalls used them to signal to each other when the trails were clear – frankly it felt like being on One Man and His Dog, but on mountain bikes.

 

  1. Some very jolly and particularly vocal spectators gathered at the most technical sections to shout words of encouragement as we rode past. I have to say that, for me, this was somewhat embarrassing when things went wrong as I like to mess things up in private. However when I got it right it was rather marvellous to have them there, cheering.

 

  1. Photographers were lurking on almost every corner of the trails. There were so many that my face hurt from smiling so often. Also, I was wearing my glasses so I look like Ugly Betty in a crash hat in every single image. Next time I’m going to have a hair and make up team on hand at the start of each section, and get a spray tan like they do on Strictly.

 

  1. We drank all our water. Even though it was only 25km, we had drained our Camelbaks by the start of section eight. Physically, enduro is much harder than I had anticipated!

 

  1. By the time we’d finished we had ridden some brilliant trails, chatted a lot, sprinted up the hills when it wasn’t necessary* ( *that was just me, tbh), chatted a lot, pushed ourselves out of our comfort zones, chatted a lot and got home in one piece – and everyone I spoke to said they felt amazing.

And happy faces at the finish

  1. I might have inspired someone else to have a go… as I was leaving Swinley I passed three female riders who were sitting outside the café. They weren’t part of the event, but had seen women riding it and had so many questions – ‘how hard is it?’ ‘How big are the drops?” “How good at riding do you need to be?’ – everything I would have asked three hours before!

To cut a long conversation short, they’re going to sign up for next year.

 

 

DOES IT MATTER WHAT YOU WEAR ON YOUR BIKE?

From Sir Chris Hoy’s comments on Lycra, to Tahnee Seagrave’s crystal downhill helmet: why it doesn’t matter what your kit looks like, so long as you feel good in it.

Me wearing lycra and a flipping’ big mtb leg bruise.

There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle this week about Sir Chris Hoy’s comments regarding the wearing of lycra :

“Lycra isn’t the most elegant material you can wear”, he says “and professional cycling gear generally looks awful on pretty much anyone heavier than eight stone and with more than five per cent body aerodynamic fat.”

Ouch.

He has since apologised  (what’s more, I am reliably informed that Sir Chris is a really lovely bloke) but his comments have prompted a great big debate about what to wear on a bike, especially if you are not particularly svelte, and I was reminded of a cyclist I met when I was training for Ride London a few years ago.

He was ahead of me on the road, wearing the lycra kit of a local cycling club. As I rode up to him he said hello and we got into a chat, as often happens when you meet another road cyclist and you’re both having a bit of a breather.

Turns out he was also training for Ride London – but while I was doing it as a journalist, he was doing it because he’d had a cancer scare the year before that had prompted him to quit smoking, lose five stone, and get fit. He was brimming with pride when he told me “My son has told me its great to not have a fat dad anymore”. He wasn’t exactly at Chris Froome levels of body fat – far from it, in fact –  but if wearing lycra was helping him to achieve his major lifestyle change, then he could go ahead and wear it 24/7 as far as I was concerned.

At the other end of the scale, downhill mega star Tahnee Seagreave recently unveiled her new and decidedly bling Red Bull sponsored helmet on Facebook. It literally has a princess crown made of crystals on it. To be honest I wouldn’t wear it if you paid me – but Tahnee loves it:

“OH MY GOD! Received this in the post today before flying out to World champs tomorrow. I am SPEECHLESS. The time and effort put in to this is overwhelming, it’s so personal and means so much to me.”

And you know what? If crystals float Tahnee’s boat then frankly she can go forth and spray paint the whole bike with them if she wants to, and then roll in them why she’s at it.

As I’ve said before, just because we ride bikes doesn’t mean we all want to wear the same thing – but let’s hear it for diversity, inclusivity – and wearing what you want*

(*except white, see-through shorts. Sir Chris was right about them).

 

Mountain Biking in the Alps

Wet socks, conquering black runs and getting lost: the joys of mountain biking in the Alps.

The Alps – A River Runs Through It

The irony that a mountain bike riding holiday usually starts by putting your bike into a car isn’t lost on me, but with more and more far flung destinations offering tantalising riding, sometimes these things just have to be done. And so it was – several times this summer – that we shoehorned the family, our luggage, followed by even more mtb luggage, into our ‘its too small, isn’t it?’ car, strapped the bikes onto the roof and set off on holiday.

First off, we managed to convince our teenage family that a holiday in The Alps was just what they needed despite the fact there isn’t a beach. And it might rain. And they don’t like mountain biking. And they’d need to travel for ten hours with a couple of bike wheels nudging the back of their heads. As not everyone wanted to ride, we divided our time between walking in the mountains, eating, swimming in the local lake, eating, shopping at the market, eating, sneaking out for an occasional mountain bike ride while they were otherwise occupied, and then more eating. Turns out The Alps can tick almost every single holiday box with aplomb (and no one mentioned the lack of beach, so we’ll let that one go). Everyone wants to go back next year.

Here’s a brief need-to-know summary of our riding adventures there:

The weather:

The Wet Sock ride

It’s a mountain area so the weather is changeable. If it rains a lot – as it did on the first day we were there – the lifts are closed. Even in July. We rode the valley instead, which turned out to be slightly more challenging than we anticipated as the river was bursting its banks. At a couple of points the water was so fast moving and deep that we had to remove our shoes, throw them to the other side, then pass the bikes over one by one. So, take spare socks.

The lifts:

When the lifts are open (which they were for the rest of the week), you may find yourself using one that requires hanging your bike on the outside via the front wheel. If you value your bike, this is possibly the most stressful part of the whole holiday.

The trail maps:

Some of the trail maps are a bit hit and miss…Here’s what happened when we chose to an ride classed as XC (and which looked long and flowy on the map.) We took the lift to the top of the mountain and followed the XC trail from there. Although it was pretty straight forward to ride(we saw just the one rider dripping with blood after a fall) it certainly wasn’t suitable for the unfit (luckily not a problem for us).

When we came to a café on the mountain side we decided to stop for a coffee before descending. “I wonder how they get the food up here?” I pondered. We soon found out – the xc descent marked on the map turned out to be a road. A third of the way down it, we agreed that we hadn’t come all this way with mountain bikes to do a road ride, so we rode back up again (mid travel trail bikes – they are a wonderful, versatile thing), and followed the trail back to the lift. Now we were faced with two options – the lift, or a black run. The black run won.

The black run:

Basically its a vertical drop to the village from here

Everyone who knew me and who had ridden here before said I’d be fine so long as I stuck to the red trails. Had I known I was going to ride a black run, I would have perhaps have skipped on the nice relaxing coffee at the top and practisced deep breathing instead. But thet trail turned out to be a beautifully built berm fest, much like the trails I’d ridden in Wales or even at Swinley had the earth tipped on its axis to make them eye wateringly steep. There were jumps too, of course, though each one was easy to spot and had a rollable option next to it.

Having faith in the trail builder is always good for confidence and I was soon swooping and whooping my way down. I punched the air when I reached the bottom. It was the highlight of the week – and, like I said, further proof that a mid travel trail bike is a wonderful, versatile thing.

 …And being a bit nosey:

On the last day I followed a zig zag road up from the village, just to see where it went. I’d said I would be about 20 minutes and didn’t take any water. An hour later I was still doing the ‘I’ll just see what’s round the next corner’ climb. Just as I was going to turn back, the road turned into a trail, and curiosity really got the better of me – I was on a mtb after all. So I kept going until I got to a natural spring – now in the middle of nowhere. A sign indicated that the trail went to the next peak, probably a 45 minute ride but good sense prevailed as another rider appeared, coming back down the trail, and I decided to follow him back down the valley (safety in numbers, even though we never actually spoke to each other). I’m not one for turning back though – so I’ve earmarked that little ride for next year’s trip.

 

What mountain bike coaching really taught me

Rising to the challenges thrown down by mountain bike coaching when you’re already an experienced rider.

This is Sam from Cotic, btw, and not me.

I’ve been a regular mountain biker for 12 years, ever since I entered the London Triathlon, borrowed a bike that turned out to be of the mountain and not road type, and got hooked on riding trails.

I’m an enthusiastic rider, rather than a great one but like to think I have managed to build some skills in that time (I’m still in one piece, for a start). Of course I also know that, like most of us, I have gaping holes in my skills set. I’ve written about some of them here – and as a result Si from Pedal & Spoke MTB Coaching – a man who has the patience of a saint, btw – kindly offered me a skills session to help iron out a few of my habitual creases. My last skills session was over three years ago so it was long overdue: its good to keep learning and also bad habits take hold easily and can be hard to shake off (as I was about to find out!).

So, back to mtb school I went, and to cut a long story short I wasn’t exactly top of the class – even though I  was the only one in it. I won’t bore you with the inadequacy of my skills nor my embarrassing inability to adapt, but even the negotiation of a small log in the recommended fashion was beyond me – no matter how many times I tried.

The problem? My ears heard the instructions, but the part of my brain that does the unconscious, proprioception stuff (like riding a bike, for instance) – saw no need to take any notice. As far as it was concerned, I’d been clearing logs (incorrectly, but whatever) for over a decade – and Practice makes Permanent: I’m living proof of that. Of course, log hopping wasn’t the sole purpose of the exercise: really it was about progressing so that I am able to clear drops and jumps more safely. But unlearning old habits proved to be a massive hurdle – for instance, I never realised how much time I spend looking at the ground, which apart from making it impossible to pick a line or even steer properly, also LOOKS REALLY BAD. Forcing myself to look further down the trail though just felt really, really weird.

The other thing I need to unlearn – or at least forget – is the series of near misses and tumbles my enthusiasm for mountain biking has caused me in the last decade. I know riders who have only been riding for a year and can nip into the woods, see a jump and clear it without a second thought. Meanwhile, I’m searching for the best line, checking the camber, scouting for evil roots and trying to put the ‘Dreadful Tumble of 2009’, or the ‘OTB Incident of 2013’, or the ‘Tree Induced Surgery of 2015’ to the back of my mind.

To help me focus, Si suggests I write down the key points that I need to remember on my top tube. I can’t help thinking it would need to be the length of a broom handle to fit it all in but don’t say anything. Also, the first instruction is ‘Look Up’ so I’d never get to read the rest anyway.

“Should I just get another hobby?” I asked,  quietly seeking an easy way out.

15. swinley2crop

Happy, happy times

Should I forget my QOMs? Screaming with joy round the trails of Coed y Brenin? Flying down the red trails at Afan in awe of the athleticism of my bike? That cold glass of beer at the end of the day, to celebrate five fabulous hours in the saddle? Slogging my way around Battle on the Beach and loving every minute? Breezing up the biggest climb on Menorca having been warned by the guide that it was ‘really tricky’? The bottle of champagne we drank after four days of circumnavigating the island? Skimming along trails by myself, with friends, with strangers (the time I mistakenly followed a group down a trail, thinking they were my buddies only to be told, with an embarrassed mumble, ‘you do know you’re not with us? But you’re more than welcome to stay’)? Feeling like I was going to ride into the sea on the cliff top trail in Dorset? Hop, skipping and jumping my way down the rocky routes on Dartmoor? The Surrey Hills sunsets, the snow rides, the beach ride in Northern Spain? The riders who have thanked me for inspiring them to ride either by following me down trails or because of this blog? Should I pack away those memories and my lovely bikes, and give up just because I can’t manual (yet)?

Si tells me I am too hard on myself. He’s not the only one who has hinted at this. A few months ago I met Redbull Rampage rider Pierre Edouard Ferry and as we chatted he told me “unless you’re being paid to win, don’t focus on being the first rider down the trail – instead focus on being the one who finishes with the biggest smile on their face’.

Actual Redbull Rampage rider, admiring my bike and dispensing excellent advice.

Still, I ride home feeling like I have been a mtb imposter for the last decade, and that the only thing I have any talent for is feeling sorry for myself (looking on the brightside, I’m so talented at this that I could probably represent GB at the Olympics and win Gold).

As it happens, my route takes me up and over a hilly field, and there is an energetic but elderly walker at the peak, ahead of me. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to nip up the climb and catch him up, and he holds the gate open for me as I pass. I thank him and, apparently brimming with admiration, he says “You have a better heart than me!”.

That comment. He doesn’t know I’m crying with gratitude as I ride off.

Because it’s all relative, isn’t it?

So my fabulous heart and I will keep practicing those elusive new skills – and I’ll do it with a huge smile on my face.