Riding for fun on the North Downs. Warning: Happy mountain biker content.

Our UK summer seems to have returned.

At one point this week we actually considered putting the fire on. It wasn't actually cold, but these things are relative. Our neighbour had lit theirs, the street had that wonderful burning wood smell, and we were feeling coldish is all. We didn't of course - we're still in shorts and t-shirts, so it seemed pointless.

What it was, and what couldn't be avoided, was wet. Monday was the wettest Monday here in the UK for five million years. Allegedly. The Met Office issued a flood warning for our local river. I expected, naturally, wet trails...

Actually I didn't expect such. I've been riding all week you see. The trails, even with the rain, have been holding up remarkably well. Not dry exactly, and you can't take your eyes off them as there are sketchy patches here and there, yet after three longish rides this week my bike didn't really need cleaning. I did because I'm a bit like that.

Corn fields near Mogodor.

I've decided I like mountain biking.

I've not been down-in-the-dumps about my chosen hobby you understand. Still enjoy it, yet after coming back from Llandegla I was a little confused as to where things were in life. It seemed to me that I should be slightly larger than I am in terms of upper muscle mass, have a 160mm Enduro bike and enjoy jumps and drops above and beyond everything else. 75% of my bikes are relatively short travel hardtails. Should I change them out for coil sprung monsters?

You see most of the magazines, forums and people at trail centres seem to conform to the rule that mountain biking now is focused on getting downhill in the fastest time possible, and getting air in the process. That rides are around 2 hours in duration, and terminate in a café or car park for the long drive home. Again there is nothing fundamentally wrong with this - I did it for a week quite happily, and was surrounded by people having huge fun. There's a lot going for that style of riding, and that lifestyle. It has an appeal.



The hills like you to earn their respect.

For me mountain biking involves a lot more than a fire road climb, followed by a blast down a hill. I'm quite sad in that for me if a ride doesn't involve a lot of climbing I feel short changed. I need to have invested time and effort into a ride. Here I'm not saying that climbs are fun, and that I enjoy the pain and suffering they bring. I hate a climb as much as the next man. But there is something right about earning a reward. Crest that tough, fifteen minute slog and look back happily knowing you've earnt hill respect; the trail thinks you're a man, and will no doubt reward you with some sweet singletrack.

There's also the nagging feeling that trail centres are now dumbing down mountain biking, pandering to short attention spans. Follow the little arrows, know that the trail can be ridden, feel comfort knowing that the café is open, or that should you fall off and hurt yourself, then help is at hand.

I spoke to a guy recently who felt that outside of the boundaries of a trail centre, the worst thing that could happen to him, even worse than breaking bones, would be to have gotten lost on a hill. He was genuinely frightened of being lost in the wilds. I didn't want to point out that we've all got "Get out of jail free cards" right underneath us; that should things go very badly navigation wise, we could always - read this quietly - ride our mountain bikes on a road for a bit. He'd only ridden trail centres and seemed unaware that his bike would work on a road as well.

And really, are there that many places in the UK where you could get that badly lost on a mountain bike, that there's not a handy road to safety nearby? Sure you can easily get caught out by the weather and failing light, but here I'm talking about getting lost on a moor somewhere and having to add five or so miles to your ride home. It may be a bit painful at the time, but it's no reason to avoid going outside of a trail centre now and then is it?

How does Surrey compare to Llandegla then?

Spent two week's in Llangollen recently, hence Coed Llandegla for a spell. Really enjoyed it, and rode every trail. Few comments were passed suggesting that I'd be bored at home in Surrey.

Why so?

Surrey is a great place to ride. Sure you don't get mountain vistas, and the trails can be short, yet the upside is world class singletrack. We're often in the top 20 places to ride within the UK. Go to Wales, Kent, Cornwall, Norfolk etc. and you simply do not get bridleways. Kent is remarkably free of bridleway access. I'd not be a mountain biker there. Here in Surrey we must have hundreds of miles of track with free, open access.

I spoke to quite a few bikers recently, from all around the country. Many happily drove for two hours to find some trails to ride. Living here I can't imagine doing that - here I ride from my door and can be on a bridleway within five minutes, on a hill within fifteen. There's simply no need to drive. We may well be spoilt.

Actually I lived in North Wales for a spell; five years in total. Right in Snowdonia, you'd think mountain biking would have been great where I was. It wasn't, not near the coast. Even there one had to drive several miles to Betwys-y-coed. Llandegla could be an hour away.

I guess that if your hobby, mountain biking, has always from Day 1 involved a ride to a trail head, then a few hours on the road in your car is no hassle. For me I've always been lucky enough to live at the trail head. Putting my bike on the car to go for a ride just seems so odd.

Ordnance Survey maps.

My rides always involve a trusty Ordnance Survey map. Go somewhere new, buy an OS map, find some trails, go ride them.

Except now they are not so trusty. In North Wales, bridleways and footpaths went nowhere. Many a time I planned a route only to find no evidence of a trail on the ground. Sometimes the local council had closed them, or they had just gone. Chatting to one farmer as to where a path was, he told me it disappeared following some rain in the year 2000. Hmm, that's code for he grubbed it up decades ago and nobody has bothered since. In Kent, at Bedgebury, bridleways simply didn't exist. One footpath was shown on the map as meandering through some fields, yet in reality turned out to be a little housing estate. The houses new? Nope; some were 60 years old, well established. The map gave no mention of either them or their little road network. There was no sign of the path.

Perhaps our trail center friend who fears getting lost may know more than he's telling. OS maps certainly aren't that accurate any more. Perhaps they never have been?

I'm waffling.

You see I enjoy mountain biking perhaps the same way that Heston enjoys his food. That just sometimes a bit of trail reminds you of a happy time, or that the simple art of riding a bike brings out good feelings.

Today for instance. Why? Lots of reasons. I've lots of happy, countryside memories having lived for parts of my life in rural areas. Riding my bike through the Surrey countryside sometimes brings such memories back, but more than that, it adds. Today's little snippets:
  • Riding past smelly cows;
  • Watching a farmer crop spray;
  • Some free blackberries;
  • Mud;
  • Sun warming some sweet corn;
  • Horses running around;
  • Nettles dying back;
  • Tall ferns fighting progress;
  • Little jumps over roots;
  • Tyres slipping on lose rock;
  • The puffy, huffy climbs into the sun;
  • Slightly out of control runs down hills;
  • That rat that cheekily ran over the trail.

These were all things that evoked happy memories of time spent living in Ludlow, or Dorset, or Wales. More than that, the very act of just cycling for the pleasure of doing so. The notion of just stopping at a random café for no reason other than I could. Cycling up to a point where my breathing started to become heavy and maintaining that pace for hours. Following trails because they looked fun, not because they went anywhere. Riding a short travel cross-country bike because I liked it and not because it conformed to what I should be riding.

Parallel track to the A217 near Mogodor.

I quite like pointless cross country.

My ride was gnar lite. I took the Tassajara, now fitted with 2.0" semi-slick tyres. It's a hard ride, what with those tyres, yet at the same time the low bike mass means it accelerates well enough. As mentioned there was little mud around, which was lucky - again semi-slick tyres. I'm with KD on this one though; a bit of slippage now and then is fun.

Specialized Fast track 2.0" - Muddy's new winter tyre!

In essence though my ride was a pointless amble. Had no plan, no agenda. Going up Reigate Hill for the fifth time this week, a guy popped out from the M25 underpass - I'll go that way then. Over past the pig traps, duck pond, past the Grey Dove with it's expensive cakes; not stopping there!

But I did. People sitting outside eating what looked like a fantastic fried breakfast. Stopped for a coffee. Turns out to be the best coffee in the area. Way better than the crap served over on Headley. £2 well spent and I enjoyed watching the world go by.

Did a bit of a looping circuit over Headley; followed some North Downs trails; stopped on Colley Hill to watch the children play in the bowl. Enjoyed the sun.

It was a grand day to be a cyclist.