Wet socks, conquering black runs and getting lost: the joys of mountain biking in the Alps.
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:
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.
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:
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.
Rising to the challenges thrown down by mountain bike coaching when you’re already an experienced rider.
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.
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’.
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.
The response to my post on mountain biking and fear has been awesome. I loved reading your comments which are full of honesty, courage and wisdom. Here are some of the absolute gems – I hope they will inspire you to face your mtb fears.
I thought long and hard before I wrote my post about Fear and Mountain Biking – firstly because mtb is full of posts where people are getting air and having the time of their lives and I didn’t want to put a downer on that, and secondly because I’m wary of admitting stuff like this on SM, where we’re all supposed to be sorted and ‘feeling blessed’.
But I did it – and whatdoyaknow – it’s been one of the most popular posts I’ve ever written. At the end of the post I asked how you deal with fear, and your responses have been so brilliant I thought it might be a good idea to share some of them here. There is so much that is useful – thanks to everyone for taking the time to share your experiences (and sorry I can’t share them all but we’d be here all night!).
But before I begin, this weekend I came across this Instagram post by none other than Rachel Atherton – looks like its okay to admit you get scared sometimes after all 🙂
“First time on the DH bike today in the fresh & cleansing rain after crashing at Fort William World Cup. I know social media is for making life look epic…but I’m not gunna lie, I am nervous as hell on a bike right now!! After so many injuries, surgeries and rehabs over the years to my shoulders the memories of the past are always strong and almost as hard to get over as the injury itself…as I’m sure many of you know! For now I’m taking baby steps and seeing where that takes me…thanks for the support!”
And now over to you guys….
This is from Jennifer @pinkmtbr on Instagram (I ADORE everything about this post btw!)
“As I sat in the van having a fear cry after practice, I started to fret about what people would think when I pulled out of the race. I was worried my friends wouldn’t think I was as badass as I pretend to be. That @kev_purcell would point out I’d missed a day’s training for @bcbikerace. That I’d have wasted the entry fee. Blah. Then @adelemtb‘s recent post on Fear and Mountain Biking conveniently popped up on my timeline talking about the right frame of mind, and a friend reiterated that I had to turn the fear in to excitement. I could give that a go. As I rode up the transition after the final stage I pondered back to practice the day before. Why was I worried about what everybody else would think? If I had pulled out I’d have been so disappointed with myself for me. I race for the fun, for the community, for the challenge for ‘me time’. So actually, it didn’t matter at all that I was ‘least quick female’. What mattered was I was faster than if I’d stayed in the van and that made it flipping awesome.”
While this comment from Jo Simcock made me feel pretty sad:
“Part of the reason I stopped riding was fear and feelings of inadequacy. My last ride was marred with someone tutting so much and then nearly took me off because I was riding so slowly then hit my rear wheel which says more about them than about me. I’ve always been cautious…but the attitude of speed or you’re crap really spoiled it”.
These comments are from Facebook group MTBChix&Trails
“Honestly… the fear of the technical difficulty I probably deal with better than I deal with the fear of letting myself down. If the trail gets difficult I am perfectly happy (most of the time… possibly too much) to get off my bike. Fear of letting myself down though… finding it hard going on something I know I can do or ought to be able to do… that’s the toughie for me. Takes massive strength of mind to stave off the panic and tears. Not sure if others fight this too?”
“I think fear for me essentially comes down to getting hurt. I’ve had a couple of nasty injuries and am laid up with a ruptured Achilles right now (not cycling related). I don’t do group rides, especially with the blokes, because I am worried about getting hurt, but I think that is pretty reasonable. I have found I’m much happier biking either solo or I have a couple of good chicks who I ride with regularly. All those head miles aren’t for me in MTB, it’s the thing I do to escape the mental wear and tear of life, not add to it.”
“Riding with other women helps me to overcome my fears. Being encouraged by others and seeing them do it and following them has helped me to tackle stuff I was scared of. In turn it feels good to also help other women to overcome their fears.”
“Sometimes it depends what zone I’m in that day. But I take myself off to one side and I say to myself this: ”Sometimes, you just have to stop being scared. Either it will work out, or it won’t. That’s life” then I just do it. And then some days I don’t even do that I’ll just say ‘fuck it I’m gonna try that’ and just do it . I feel like I almost physically push the fear and doubt in a nanosecond out and force myself into something. That moment of release is incredible.”
From the Cotic Bikes Facebook page, who kindly shared the post.
“I think fear is important to keep you from doing stupid things beyond your ability but it’s also important to fight back some territory from the fear once in a while. Skill training is a good and save way to do it. As Cy says in his newsletter: it’s one of the great things of biking that you can always improve no matter what age you are or how long you have been into the sport.”
” The fear of humiliation is an interesting one. I’ve been learning to wheelie recently and I was told ( quite rightly) that all I needed to do was go out and practice in the street outside my house, or in the nearest empty carpark. For a woman in her 40’s, that’s actually quite daunting! Firstly…people my age…just going ‘out to play’ like kids do. It’s pretty odd behaviour. Secondly, a lot of people who live here know I ride mountainbikes, and have done for years…so I’m going to go out in public and show them I actually can’t do wheelies….yet! What I found though…surprisingly…is that if you just DO IT, nobody actually takes much notice. For the past month or so I’ve been riding regularly, like a 10 year old would, taking my bike out for 30 mins or so and doing wheelies, hopping off kerbs, wheelying off kerbs…and it’s been REALLY REALLY good fun. And I’m better at riding a bike because of it.”
And from this site…
Emily, a potential World Cup rider says:
“I really welcomed this post, as I think fear is something we don’t talk about much in relation to every day riding, but it’s something I have to work really hard at to control.
I regularly feel a slight catch of fear of simple trail features, such as a muddy puddle or off camber root, as I don’t like the bike moving unpredicatably.
I’m aiming to race a World Cup next year so I need to push myself on features that quite frankly, I’d rather not do at all! I’ll talk to my man about my worries, such as not having control, or not making the corner. I’ll also critically look at the feature, and if it’s far beyond my skills or limit, I’ll walk away but will write it on my ‘to conquer’ list. It’s a nice reminder to keep pushing the limit and to go back in a few months. I’ll also seek out similar but smaller features to train on first and practise my body movement.
Ultimately I don’t feel any shame at not doing a feature – just motivation to improve until I can.”
“There’s a technique known as ‘graduated exposure’ which works brilliantly; it’s about gradually acclimatising yourself to a particular situation (slippery descents for example) but the really awesome thing about it is that you also have to reward yourself each time you tackle something that you’re afraid of. I’ve had the excuse to buy myself some great bike kit as a result!
Weirdly, what’s happening in my life can often impact on my MTB bravery level, but there’s no better feeling than facing those fears.”
How to cope with fear when mountain biking (because we don’t talk about this enough).
Recently I read Meg Hine’s excellent new book Mind of a Survivor, which explains how the instinct and skills needed for survival can be applied to ordinary lives. Hine is an expedition leader and bushcraft expert who works with Bear Grylls. She is also a keen mountain biker whose earliest adventures were often on a bike.
The book is broken down into chapters which explore issues such as intuition, acceptance, curiosity and creativity, empathy, preparation and resilience, along with Hine’s own often hair-raising adventures involving predators, rapids, bad weather, and lack of food in far flung corners of the planet. It’s a great read.
It was the chapter on fear that really got me thinking about what scares us when we ride. As well as my own fears – hurting myself again, messing up a technical section and beating myself with the misery stick for not being as good a rider as I think I should be, a fear of contempt from those who ride with me – I’ve also read, over and over again, comments from other women who regularly bring up the fear of being the one at the back, or holding people up, or looking silly. We even apologise for ourselves by saying ‘I’m really slow’ before we know how fast every one else rides.
It seems that while one half of the internet is leaping over jumps and getting air like a badass, many riders are really struggling with fear.
Although it is ultimately healthy and natural to feel afraid, it can also be debilitating if it gets out of hand. In other words, a companion we’d prefer not to have to ride with all the time.
I, for instance, hate this root. Its on a short, steep climb with no run up and I can’t get enough speed up in order to weight the bike properly and get over it. But that isn’t why I hate it. The reason it makes my stomach turn is because a more experienced rider tried to help me and another rider to tackle it, and I gave up (my friend managed to do it, of course). And now whenever I ride past it (or walk up it – I’m still nowhere near seeing how I will ever get over it while actually on a bike) I just remember feeling ashamed of myself. I’m also convinced everyone on that ride remembers me as the one who gave up (though in reality they’ve probably forgotten all about it).
‘No amount of top of the range kit will save you if you don t have the right frame of mind’ says Hine.
So while its fairly unlikely that any of us are going to be faced with hungry lions whilst nipping around the local trail centre, we do have to call upon our inner resilience – and a positive, informed mental attitude – if we are going to get round in one piece and with a big smile on our face.
Ultimately when we ride we are all chasing ‘the flow’ fix – those moments when your mind and body connect and riding becomes instinctive and effortless “it’s the most beautiful, almost spiritual feeling: a kind of physical enlightenment’ says Hine. But this means pushing ourselves to our limit, and when fear takes over (which it does for me fairly often!), we freeze, don’t think clearly, and are then in more danger. Reassuringly Hine explains that fear is an evolutionary response to a perceived danger and there is nothing impressive about not being scared because that means you don’t know you may be in trouble. Fear is your body’s way of saying something is wrong. To move forward, its important to control your fear – perhaps using visualisation (I have found this very effective, though it takes practice!), or by pinpointing the cause, accepting it and putting it ‘into a box’.
Obviously if you’re faced with a visible danger – an off-camber, wet, rooty drop for instance, where you can stop and look for the line or follow someone more experienced, then it is easier to apply these skills. But no one is going to pretend this is quite so straightforward when its a fear of being excluded or feeling humiliated that you are dealing with. However that doesn’t mean these skills aren’t transferrable, so long as you identify what it is that you are actually frightened of. But ultimately, and with practice, learning to manage your fears could become your most important tools in your mountain biking skills set.
How do you control your fear when mountain biking? Please share below – I’m really interested to hear how others deal with this issue.
You can find Mind of A Survivor by Meg Hine here.
“You must be the best dressed mountain biker in Britain,” joked my ride buddy as I got on my bike at Afan, wearing my third mountain bike outfit of the weekend. While she may not be entirely accurate, as someone who gets to review a lot of kit here’s a round up of the stuff I really love at the moment.
First, a very brief history of women’s mtb gear….when I first started writing about women’s cycling there wasn’t much women’s mountain bike gear to mention, never mind co-ordinate into a matching outfit. There was plenty of road gear though, which was what I originally wore when I started riding fourteen years ago, but women specific mountain bike gear was mostly conspicuous in its absence. Mind you, there weren’t that many women riding then: perhaps it was because there was nothing to wear.*
Thankfully the 650b plus wheels of progress have rolled on and we now have some great gear to choose from, both from established brands and start-ups such as Flare and Findra (both started as women’s specific brands, incidentally).
I’m lucky to have had first hand experience of a lot of this kit because I have been asked to review it for various cycling sites, and inevitably that means keeping it (the time a journalist colleague was asked to return a pair of zip-crotch bib shorts – despite the fact she had worn them – has gone down in ‘review horror stories’ history).
So, here’s the disclaimer: almost all of this gear was sent to me for review, or as part of my Cotic brand ambassador project. I like to think, therefore, that it’s kind of a level playing field to choose a few highlights from. 🙂
UK based, fledgling brand with a great range of slim fit technical (short sleeve), Enduro (mid sleeve) and downhill (long sleeve) jerseys to choose from as well as super endurable Downhill shorts and lighter weight (but still very endurable) Enduro shorts. No prizes for guessing that this is a range made for and by mountain bikers: they’ve thought of every detail (4-way stretch, reinforced seat, water repellent, adjustable closure). There is a really great range of colourful designs, and sizes up to XL.
I’ve ridden miles in this kit since I received it in February and it has been supremely comfortable, hard wearing and easy to care for. The only downside for me is the velcro fasten on the shorts – because other garments stick to it in the washing machine (velcro- fasten gloves are also guilty of this).
Anyway, Flare have a sale on right now. A good time to pay a visit, then.
A Scottish mountain bike and outdoor brand for women that specialises in merino knitwear. Superb quality, surprisingly hard wearing and very comfortable (merino’s ability to regulate body temperature is legendary) – but so good that I almost feel its wasted on mountain biking. I’ve had a couple of Findra merino tops and worn both off the bike, and been complimented on them. I should also mention the merino accessories – neck warmers and arm warmers – which I wear A LOT for winter rides and which are so comfortable you don’t want to take them off afterwards.
My Findra mtb shorts https://findra.co.uk/shop/shorts/relaxed-bike-short-french-navy/are a thing of beauty – tailored fit (with a button fasten!), contrast zip, and two-way stretch for comfort. I wore them a lot for riding last year, and they are still looking good despite some long, hard rides and frequent washing.
Visit Findra here.
ION started life making watersports gear (and still does), which would explain the surf influence to the designs (lots of bold, bright options although they have more muted colour combos too). There are three women specific lines to choose from – trail, all mountain and free ride (there is also a limited unisex downhill line). It is all made from highly efficient technical fabric and is therefore remarkably comfortable to ride in, even in hot conditions (which is why I wore it a lot while riding in Spain last year). It’s very lightweight and quick drying, but surprisingly robust and has a sanitised finish to help keep you fresh. They do great gloves too. I hadn’t really known about this brand until I was asked to review it, but I was blown away by how fantastic it is to ride in. Find out more here.
FOX RACING ENDURO PADS
I paid for these. The knee pads were purchased after I fell bare knee-first onto a pointy rock in Coed-y-Brenin, the elbow pads came a little later on. I doubt they would save me from breaking a limb (particularly as I’d decided it was too hot to wear them on the day I did actually fall off and break my elbow), but they certainly protect me from scrapes and scratches if I do come off the bike. Anyway, I always ride in them now. In winter they act a little like a knee/arm warmers, and despite what have said above, they are light enough to wear on all but the hottest summer days even when climbing. They are pliable, and never rub, so that you barely notice you are wearing them. A neoprene comfort blanket, if nothing else. Find them here
I find Urbanist Bettie Cycling Pants super comfortable on all but the longest rides. However I know they are not for everyone – personal physiology as well as a well fitting saddle dictates that – all I can say is that they work for me. I love the lack of bulk: just a normal pair of pants with a little extra padding.Find them here.
Bike Nicks http://www.bikenicks.com do a very similar style, and I also have a pair of those that I wear a lot.
I also love Vulpine’s merino padded boy shorts – super soft and comfortable, and a little more padding than the pairs above.
In which I head to Swinley Forest to ride in the new Fox Racing Proframe Helmet, and meet a friendly Redbull Rampage rider.
Yesterday Fox Racing held a Proframe test event at the Swinley Forest trails, and I went along to try one out. The event was open to the public and wasn’t just for press or bloggers – so you can rest assured that no bribery or corruption has taken place in an attempt to get a good review from me (I didn’t even get a cup of tea – what is the world coming to?!!).
The Proframe has launched to a bit of a fanfare earlier this year as it is the lightest (750gm) and most breathable full face mtb helmet that Fox has ever created. It’s got downhill levels of safety with comfort and ‘open-face’ ventilation levels that will appeal to Enduro/trail riders for whom the ‘full face or normal helmet’ dilemma often arises.
The session was a great idea: leave some ID at the hub. Head out with a Proframe helmet for a full speed sprint around Swinley Forest’s finest, flowiest trails. Return with a big smile on your face, not sweaty.
Anyway here, according to the Fox website is what makes it so special:
- 24 big bore vents for lightness and breathability.
- A secure visor positioned ‘to ram maximum airflow into the big bore vents’.
- A helmet buckle that is a thing of beauty when it comes to practicality, being fashioned with a magnet so you can use it while wearing gloves.
- A chin bar that is highly vented (its basically an open frame) yet meets ASTM Downhill standards for safety.
- A dual density liner to spread forces of impact across a wider area as well as MIPS (Multidirectional Impact Protection System) to reduce rotation forces in the event of a crash.
So what’s is the Proframe like to wear?
There is no women specific fit, but the sizing ranges from S to XL and my very average sized female head fitted into a medium helmet.
Once in place, your cheeks are cushioned by two foam pads – these are interchangeable so you can achieve a really snug but comfortable fit. It occurred to me that you could apply blusher to each pad and finish the ride with perfectly applied make up. I don’t think this is likely to be a selling point for most riders though.
The visibility is amazing, with no interruption to your side view at all. If you wear goggles then the vents are designed to minimise fogging.
Both my OH and I have come into trail riding via x-country riding and so we’re used to kit that is very light and breathable. However with two trip to the Alps ahead this summer we’re mindful that it may be time to invest in a little more head protection. So we rode hard over the climbs and drops of Swinley a) because we always do and b) we wanted to find out how a Proframe compares to a normal helmet when you get a sweat on. We were both really surprised how cool and comfortable we felt, even on short, sharp climbs where your heart rate and body temperature soars. You do get warm cheeks (those blusher pads again) but otherwise it was thumbs up from us.
A good way to judge comfort levels is how quickly you remove a piece of kit once you have finished using it. I have, for instance, seen riders coming off the trails with their full face helmet hanging off their bars. I can happily report that I could have worn the Proframe all day if it wasn’t for the somewhat inconvenient fact that it wasn’t mine and I had to give it back.
It’s a great looking piece of kit, styled to make you look as if you are a far more hardcore rider than you probably are (certainly in my case). It is available in seven colours, most of which are pretty full on colour-ways with the exception of the black one (for the rider who wants to go a bit stealth and doesn’t want to be a walking advert for Fox, presumably). At £215 each, you’ll want to make sure you choose a colour you like.
I had a lovely morning, and back at the Fox Proframe hub I was awash with post-ride feel good hormones although slightly in need of a cup of tea (a blatant excuse for what I did next, btw). At this point I was approached by a French gentlemen in a Fox t-shirt. He was admiring my trail bike and asked a few questions about it. Soon, and as a direct result of being someone who regularly Talks Too Much and needed a cup of tea, I was chatting away about steel bikes, how Cotic had loaned it to me for the year, what fun it was to ride, Sheffield, The North, writing for Singletrack, TWC, blogging and a lot of other stuff including, at one point, informing him that I believed ‘we all come from the forest’ (oh how I needed that cup of tea). He listened very patiently and didn’t try to run off until eventually – like someone at a drinks party – I enquired what he did?
“Redbull Rampage’, he replied.
So, I had the pleasure of meeting Pierre-Edouard Ferry*, who was working with Fox and who clearly has such high standards of professionalism that he is prepared to endure the ramblings of a woman who is in dire need of a sit down and a hot beverage.
(*Of course I didn’t recognise him: I have to watch Rampage through my fingers. Pierre, meanwhile, told me he doesn’t find jumping off mahoosive rock faces scary. We’re made of different stuff).
Anyway, we talked about him from then on: frankly, he was way more interesting.
The Proframe is great, btw.
45km of beach, single track and forest road racing on mountain bikes – and all in brilliant sunshine on the Welsh coast. How could I say no? 🙂
Battle on the Beach at Pembrey Country Park in Wales is mountain bike race like no other I have ridden before. For a start its a relatively flat course, peppered with some seriously steep, short, sharp climbs to clamber up. And while I’m used to mud and roots beneath the tyres, it is a novelty to ride through deep sand. Into a headwind. Let’s just say, when the 45 km is up, you know you’ve been for a ride – albeit one that was fantastic fun.
There is a mass start and three laps – each lap consists of 5km beach, 5km forest road and 5km single track. After the initial sprint down the beach (wind behind us) we then turned into the dunes and rode the tracks and trails back to the start – straight into the headwind. The single track isn’t the most technically demanding but was fast and flowing, and it was made all the more ‘exciting’ by the leading riders who lapped many of us before we’d done our first circuit. There wasn’t a lot of room to squeeze past – not that any of them were deterred from trying.
Although it was a race, there was a fantastic, friendly atmosphere particularly amongst us ‘also-rans’ who made up most of the 800 riders in the event. It was also the most beautiful day – full sunshine from start to finish.
What to ride?
When it comes to bike choice, Battle on the Beach kind of resembles a village dog show, but with mountain bikes: riders turn up with everything from super light gravel bikes to fat bikes and tandem mountain bikes, and ride side by side. I rode my Cotic Flare 650b trail bike and was really glad of its grip, full suspension and relatively slack geometry particularly while negotiating descents through deep sand, or on the bumpier sections of forest track where there were riders to overtake or coming up from behind. If you were riding for the win, then a hard tail 29er was the order of the day – along with Olympic levels of fitness: 45km is a long way to ride on full power.
Here’s a film to show you more of this amazing event. Be sure to register for 2018!
Getting to grips with the Cotic Escapade and the WTB Road Plus concept (because everyone asks about these wheels)!
There have been so many rides on my road bike where I’ve fancied turning on to a favourite off-road trail but knew I’d be shaken to pieces and effectively brake-less, and mountain bike rides that took in a road or gravel track where I’ve almost spun my legs off trying to pick up some speed. So when Cotic loaned me this Escapade with WTB Road Plus tyres and hydraulic disk brakes – a ‘road bike without limitations’ – I was intrigued to find out if it could be that elusive happy medium.
The Cotic Escapade uses the WTB Road Plus concept: and everyone who sees the bike immediately asks about it. Road Plus uses 650b rims, paired with big volume, 650 x 47 tubeless tyres (smaller rims and bigger tyres thus giving a similar diameter to a more usual 700c road wheel), which you run at 35 psi. The combination delivers a cushioned, smooth ride and grip on rough surfaces and mud due to the wider contact patch, yet features a tread pattern that rolls fast on smooth roads. It isn’t a new system (I believe it was popular with French roadies in the ’60s!) – but it is quite niche, and enjoying something of a revival.
So is a combination of ‘mtb style’ 650b wheels, tubeless Road Plus tyres and hydraulic disk brakes with ‘road’ drop bars and compact chainset really a dream scenario of #dirtydropbargoodness?
My first rides were spent trying different conditions off-road: mud, stony tracks, roots, climbs, descents. While the Escapade may not have the ‘armchair’ comfort of a full suspension mtb, the Road Plus wheels deliver a smooth, sure footed and fast ride on forest tracks, mud, and and over roots. It can handle singletrack too, making light work of berms and roll-down drops. My only ‘I’m slightly out of control here’ moments were while descending over some very loose stones (thank goodness for those disk brakes as we reached the bottom!!).
Soon I was taking full advantage of the Escapade’s nimbleness and willingness to accelerate up the fire roads and, thanks to its compact chainset, powering past mountain bikers who did a double take as I sped by (needless to say this is a lot of fun, in a slightly smug sort of way).
On the road it offered a smooth, quick ride, and round the back streets of my local town it was decidedly nippy and quick to pick up speed. It may be slower than my road bike, but it’s pretty hard to tell without resorting to Strava (this is me road testing Vulpine’s new fitness range btw, which I blogged about here).
On my fourth ride I entered the Surrey Hills Gravelcross CX sportive – it was chucking it down with rain (and I was driving up North in the afternoon) so I limited myself to the 30km category and was very happy (amazed, in fact) to come home as the fastest female in the category. Even in slippery, deep mud the wheels worked really well – although there was one mud-chute descent that we slid down instead of rolling, but I hung off the back and we stayed upright. The tubeless tyres came into their own – as you can see from this post-ride picture. As a mountain biker I know all about the joy of a tubeless set up, but back at the event HQ it was a source of endless fascination to some of the roadies – especially the ones who had punctured a couple of times during the event and had to swap inner tubes in the pouring rain.
What are the limits? There are definitely some mtb trails which I will detour around, largely due to lack of skill and a sense of self preservation – though I’m sure there is someone out there who rides their Escapade round Bike Park Wales in a blindfold. But for a quick blast round the lanes, bridleways and fire roads, a trip to town, a long ride down to the coast on a mix of terrains, or for just turning right on a road ride and having a lot of off-road fun … then yes – it ticks all the boxes.
See more on the Cotic Escapade here.
How ‘ordinary’ riders like me can fly the flag for mountain bike brands – and why I’m going to be an ambassador for Cotic bikes in 2017.
I’ll admit that I’m not the typical choice for a mountain bike ambassador. Unlike most ambassadors that are specific to mountain bike brands, I’m not a man. I’ve only ever won one mountain bike race (and that was distinctly local!). I’m not particularly brave nor exceptionally skilled at riding. I’ve never ridden across America, or Siberia, or even Surrey (which is where I live) for that matter. In fact the closest I have ever got to being an ambassador for anything before was handing round Ferro Rocher chocolates at an office party. Ha, ha.
Instead I am a journalist and a middle aged mum who happens to love riding my mountain bike. I also love talking about it – as well as issues that surround women’s cycling – on Twitter, Instagram and in the cycling press (and on this blog, of course). I’ve spoken about women’s cycling at the Cycle Show and Look Mum No Hands. I’ve been interviewed about women’s cycling by the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times. Happily, other riders seem to want to share in my experiences. Someone who knows about such things told me that I have become an ‘influencer’.
I’ve kind of made my own mtb trail of life, if you like, and its fantastic that Cotic want to come along for the ride.
It’s really exciting that Cotic are prepared to step off the very well worn path of conventional mtb marketing and have me on board (alongside an ambassador team of far more able riders, I hasten to add!). And I hope that what I lack in spectacular photos of me ‘getting air’ off the top of a kicker will be made up for with lots of relatable, inspiring, and entertaining insights into my ‘ordinary rider’ life. You juggle your rides in-between school runs, work deadlines and emptying the dishwasher ? I’m your girl.
A DAY OUT IN THE PEAK DISTRICT
At the end of 2016 I was invited to meet Cy Turner and his team at Cotic HQ in the Peak District. Coincidentally this area already has special memories for me: I was born in Stoke on Trent and the Peak District was where my family would go on a Sunday to get out into the great outdoors, as well as into the tea rooms at Eyam (which is the village where the plague started, though that was way before our daytrips and the tea room, obv.). So, it was good to return and note that it really hadn’t changed that much.
I met with the guys from Cotic and over some very nice chips and a sandwich I discussed ‘the state of cycling’ until my food started to go cold, at which point I let Cy and Richard get a word in edgeways. I also got to look round the factory (being a small British company, this doesn’t take too long) where the bikes are designed and built. And then, over a mug of Yorkshire Tea, we discussed a plan for 2017 – which is to just ride bikes and talk about it, basically.
I also got to try the Cotic bikes that I would be riding in 2017 – the new Cotic Flare is a 650b steel trail bike with droplink suspension and 130mm travel, and the drop bar Cotic Escapade is a steel ‘life bike’ (more on that at a later date though).
NEW BIKE DAY!
Fast forward to the first week of February and Cy and Richard drove down to the Surrey Hills to drop off the bikes. My new Flare is indeed a thing of beauty, having been custom built with some very ‘bling’ Hope components, X-Fusion forks, rear shock and dropper post, Burgtec pedals , Joystick handlebars and stem, and WTB carbon wheels, tyres, Deva women-specific saddle and grips. The lovely Hannah at Flare Clothing has also sent me a range of fantastic mtb gear to wear too (always super happy to get to try new women’s mtb clothes!).
The new This Girl Can campaign from Sport England is finally empowering women who are over 40. Here’s why it’s so important.
This Girl Can is an advertising campaign by Sport England to encourage women to participate in sport and fitness. The original campaign won more than 50 international media awards – however, for me, there was a fundamental flaw: it targeted women aged 19 -40 only. At the time of the launch I was very vocal on social media about the exclusion of older women. I felt it was wrong to leave us out: it made the campaign feel mean and had missed a great opportunity to empower all women, and not just some of us. Had Sport England given up on us because of our age? Did we not exist? It certainly looked that way to me. I made my point repeatedly and I suspect, therefore, that I wasn’t very popular in the This Girl Can social media department.
So I’m glad they have finally invited older women to the party by widening the target age group to include those in their 50s and 60s. Here’s why:
Because it acknowledges a truly invisible (in the media) but very active group of women – those of us who are over 40 and who take part in sport or work out. There are so many of us – in my experience alone I can think of the group of women I have ridden mountain bikes with for the last 12 years (average age 50), the women in my yoga group who are grandmothers that Down Dog, the mtb and road cycling age group champion I know who will always be quicker than me – and most of the men she rides with, the local e-bike women’s group (my jury is out on what age is the right age for an e-bike btw – but they’re riding bicycles and having fun so that’s the main thing), the horse riders I know with weather-beaten cheeks and hay-bale lugging strength, the spin class regulars who know all the words to the Bowie songs, the lone runner (and I mean running, and not just shuffling along arthritically) we pass in the woods each week who must be 70 if she is a day.
Do you know how strong you need to be to go against the tide of expectation?
The ‘isn’t mountain biking a bit risky at your age?’ comments, shopping for kit that is only advertised on 20 year olds, having a male rider on the trails stop and say ‘how come you’ve got a bike like that?’ about my carbon fibre 50th birthday present. But we are a tight group. We support each other. And we know the benefits – the fitness, the friendships, the sense of achievement, the joy of defying others’ expectations based on our age.
Last year I had a minor operation. As I lay in pre-op area, chatting to the theatre nurse as she did her stuff, I noticed her eyes flick to the monitor and a slight pause in her conversation. Then she asked “Do you do a lot of exercise?” “Yes…” “Oh that’s fine then. You have a very low heart rate – but that explains it”. That.
And, of course, the campaign now reaches out to the women of my age, and older, who really need to know that it’s not too late to start getting fit or take up a new sport. I have friends who are younger than me who already have health issues linked to obesity and inactivity. I know some who are locked in that ‘I’m too fat and embarrassed about the way I look’ to show up to any exercise class or just to ride a bike, or run round the park. They think they have missed the fitness boat, or at least they won’t get on board until they’ve lost that stone in weight that constantly eludes them, or had the painful knee fixed or just woken up to the fact that, despite what the media consistently tells us, there is no age barrier for fitness and the life-enhancing benefits that it delivers.
But this isn’t just a message to those who have hit middle age and beyond. Making active older women more visible encourages younger women to think of sport and fitness as a life long activity. Find a sport or a workout you love and it will pay you back for years to come, not just the six weeks it takes you to drop a dress size, get fit enough to run 5k or squeeze into last year’s bikini. Because its not about what you look like, its about how you feel. And it feels good. And that feeling never diminishes, no matter how old you are.
So a wrong has been put right. Hurrah! Although does anyone else feel a little uneasy about being called a girl? #thiswomancan 🙂
You can see more from This Girl Can here.