“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.
I love the snow – and I love mountain biking in it too.
So when I woke up to a winter wonderland in the Surrey Hills this morning I didn’t waste any time (because let’s face it, British snow can’t wait to melt).
Not that I got out of the door first thing as getting dressed for a snow-venture takes so long. Two pair of socks. Leggings. Shorts. Four layers on the top (three merino, one fleece lined jacket). Merino neck warmer. Superwarm gloves. Helmet. Fivetens. And the bike – it would be foolish to forget that.
Then I rode/walked down the road (v.v. icy) shivering and wondering if I should have worn another jacket, before mounting and starting the first climb…and immediately over heating, of course.
Wardrobe issues aside, the creaking of the fresh snow as the wheels break through it is quite wonderful to witness, and its surprising how much grip you have too (“You’re brave to be out on a bike!” commented a passing walker, clearly no expert on the properties of mountain bike tyres).
There wasn’t enough snow today to get the true “I’m skiing…on a bike!” sensation going down hill, but it was still a lot of fun that was not to be missed.
So if anyone wants to fly me out to Finland with a fat bike, just get in touch. 🙂
Photos: Paul Mitchell