The trip to Winlatter got under my skin. The long adventures we had taken in the past were great, but there had been something about the defined route, prepared surfaces and interspersed technical features that really appealed to me. Maybe it was also the quick access to cake and coffee as well… regardless of the cause, I found myself almost instantly looking at mountain bikes once I got home. By the end of September 2011 I was in Halfords spending £850 on a hard tail Boardman MTB Team and shaking at the prospect.
You have to consider that the last bike I purchased was for £99 and this seemed to be a large sum of money to let go on something without an engine. My first little run around 125cc scooter only set me back £650, but the obsession with Winlatter and the memories of the Black Hawk galvanized my resolve to put my money where my mouth was and the Boardman was reportedly the best kit I could get for under a grand.
I was not aware of the brand snobbery at the point of purchase and even now, when I do, I do not let it bother me. The welding on the triple butted frame was exquisite compared to the rough handed job done on the Trek and Specialized bikes priced at 30-50% more than I was paying and yet the components were either the same as these pricier rides, if not slightly upgraded.
I collected the Boardman on a Thursday evening and on the Friday drove up to see Mark who now lived in Stevington rather than Olney, with my new and as yet to be ridden and unnamed steed on the roof. On the Saturday I transferred my bike into Mark’s “Skoda Van” and off we set for Woburn to meet up with Paul.
Woburn was not a trail centre, but did have designated and easily followed trails. It was on my first descent, following Paul, that I learned how sharp my breaks were. Paul had stopped and in response I had hauled on the anchors, only for the wheels to lock and for me to complete a full, slow motion, overhead rotation, landing on the top of my head and sinking up to my ears in the mud. The rest of the day was full of moments like this as I tried to get accustomed to the new bike, but I never once disliked the experience. If anything, it fuelled the already growing love of the trail and set a fire beneath my need to improve.
The internet is a wonderful place. I found technical articles on handling a berm, body position, drops, manuals (when did it change from being called a wheelie?) and drops. I also unlocked the best playground ever, hidden away behind my house. “The Heath” as we all now know it is MOD training ground spreading for mile upon mile. Some sections are deeply wooded, littered with trails left by deer and other mammals. Other sections are vast sand boxes, rutted and pitted by tank training and then there are long stretches of bracken, gravel and thick mud. Every surface you could imagine can be found here as well as naturally formed drops, rock gardens, root sections and big jumps.
I was up there at every opportunity, setting the gears too high so as to force the need to drive down the power and literally manhandling the bike so that I was the pilot rather than the passenger. I was so rough on the poor thing that when the six week tune-up came about the poor guy in Halfords stood looking at it with real shock. He was too accustomed to rich Surrey people buying expensive bikes and keeping them in the shed as a trophy. He was not expecting a six week old bike to be so thoroughly ridden.
Thinking holistically and knowing many of the things I couldn’t do on the bike were likely caused by lack of fitness, I joined the local gym. I was on a real devotion to improve and more so since Baz declared his Stag-do was going to happen in the April of the following year and would be “The Seven Stanes” which consisted of seven red runs in Scottish trail centres to be conquered over a period of just 3.5 days.
My gym workout every morning started as long efforts on the exercise bike and I felt I was getting nothing from it. Searching the net again I stumbled across “Bike James” and read with interest as he explained functional movement, functional strength and functional skill forming a pyramid that we should fit our efforts into. In effect he was telling me to look beyond the “bike” and get stronger in all aspects to be better on the real bike.
My gym didn’t have kettle bells so I used barbells and dumbbells for the various lifts and squats. I then got creative and added dips, pull ups, inverted rows and all manner of exercises based on movement and then movement with weight. The result was dramatic as my body fat percentage plummeted to just 11-12% while my weight, although falling off at the start, began to lift until my BMI put me as obese.
The translation of improved functional movement and strength when applied to the bike was incredible. If the Boardman thought it had a hard life before, it was now in hell. I rode it harder and faster and more aggressively until one day it earned the name. I was tearing down a twisting piece of single track between the tight packed trees, slamming down the power even though it was downhill. A click, click, click started plaguing me but I ignored it, but then on a sharp turn I buried the right hand pedal for speed out of the bend and the crank came clean off. I was clipped in so did not lose it as it hung to the sole of my shoe, but I was now hurtling down the trail with barely any control until I finally managed to balance enough to sit back using the one leg and brake.
“So that is the point of a Bulgarian Split Squat” I thought as I giggled and there was the name “Crank” created. Once again the boy at Halfords was also in for a shock. He was also shocked later on when I separated the cassette from the rear wheel (earning me a brand new Mavic on warranty) and they also had to replace the entire unit of my front Avid Elixr 7 brake.
The next time we were at Woburn I was a new animal and had transitioned from the poorest rider in the group to the most technically able (excluding Baz who could not travel from Cumbria to the South for a day trip to Woburn). We then hit a new place close to Woburn, named Chicksands, which again was not a trail centre but more a Haven for downhillers who like to push their ride back to the top after each run. Mark and me did no such thing and earned our descent by pedalling to the top and on a few sharp transitions, where I stood up and put down the heat, I even left the master of climbing behind.
It was early 2012 before I knew it. I knew I had the movement and strength and the heath sessions had bagged me plenty of functional skill, so I suggested to Dan, Paul and Mark a visit to a place known as Aston Hill. There was no green option here. There was no blue option either and the red runs were accessed only by surviving a portion of the black run. The hill is steep and earns the name Aston because it was the testing place of the Aston Martin for hill climb racing. Now it is “Plastic People Mecca” where people arrive on full mountain bikes with more suspension that my Honda had, wearing more body armour than a Storm Trooper.
We rocked up on hardtails in bagged shorts and with no pads. Of course we wore helmets and gloves, but it was not long before I wished I too was clad like one of the “Plastics”.
The early part of 2012 was wet and Aston hill is formed of chalk. The two together explained why it was relatively quiet when we arrived, but this revelation only came after the first section of black trail that claimed a lump of flesh from my shin as I took the lead at full pelt and crashed out of a drop from roots into a wet, chalky berm. I actually lost count how many times I hit the ground that day, but every time I ignored the blood pouring from my legs and carried on, sometime crashing just metres from where I had last landed. The others crashed far less than me, but mainly because they had sense to judge Aston as out of our league and sensibly chose to walk many of the sections that had claimed my flesh. I guess in many ways, my lack of self-preservation (I see it as an unending desire to be good at something awesome via a baptism of fire) served as a trigger for them to either continue or get off. My scars therefore saved them from harm, justifying my idiocy completely.
I do remember one particular section well as it was almost a disaster for Paul. I had taken the lead down the run and managed to remain on the bike all the way down to the bottom, but had put enough pace between me and the others to have to wait. When Paul finally came into sight he looked down at me and smiled as he rolled onto the last section of North Shore, considering himself home and dry. Watching that smile alter into horror as the North Shore ended in mid-air and dropped him down onto the trail beneath will remain with me for a long time.
Despite being completely battered by Aston Hill we all came away from it feeling we had achieved something great. There was a little fear that the seven trail centres would in fact be seven Aston Hills, but I found it better not to dwell and to instead maintain the training. After all, it was too late now; I had mud in my blood and it was never getting back out.