Coed-y-Brenin and the group set my mind whirling on the importance of kit. The speed at which Jim and Milo moved could not be matched on poor Crank and I put this down to suspension (rather than the more likely reason that the two guys were in fact more skilled than me). Therefore I turned to ebay.
A beautiful metallic brown 2007 Enduro was listed for £600 as collection only and was located in Penrith. I was happy to pay £600, but not much more, knowing that too much spent would cause me to worry about how I rode the thing. I needed something with durability and with the E150 forks the Enduro ticked all boxes. My bid went in last minute. The bike was mine.
This happened in November and I asked Baz if he could collect it for me. His buddy Stan that had joined us on the Seven Stanes made the collection from Penrith and delivered it to Cockermouth. At Christmas time Baz transferred it to Mark in Bedfordshire and in January, on a bitterly cold day, I drove to Woburn to collect it from Mark.
There was something very fitting about the bike coming off Mark’s car and touching down on Woburn’s dark peaty earth because it was also the first place I had ever ridden Crank. On that occasion I had crashed plenty, with the infamous over the handlebar head slam into dirt when learning the power of hydraulic disc brakes. This time I was not wet (or muddy) behind the ears and looked forward to a fine ride.
The geometry was crazy. When on the saddle and holding the grips it felt a little like I used to on the Honda Shadow which was part cruiser and part street fighter. Then I set off behind Mark down our first trail and realised the claim that this was “the only downhill bike that can be ridden uphill” failed to mention that you needed to bust a gut to make this happen. Man, it was tough going and for a moment I regretted my decision.
That was until I turned it to face downhill and experienced something altogether new. It was like floating on a cloud, only this cloud was being thrown along by a Hurricane and just wanted to get faster and faster.
It was a good day, with awfully tough climbing, a few wobbles as I tried to adjust to the new geometry and a couple of crashes as a result of almost bald tyres. Then later the front break failed after having unscrewed itself from the frame and later still the chain developed a need to jump from the front cog. We called it quits at this point, partly because the Enduro seemed to be coming undone, but also because the snow had started to fall.
Back home I inspected the bike properly. It needed a lot of help to get back to good health so I replaced the battered triple with Blackspire, replaced the XO cassette like for like, put on Nukeproof flats, Jagwire cables, Lizzard Skin grips, Continental 2.3 vertical Protection tyres, replaced the disc brake pads and bled the system. I also spoiled it with a gold chain which then coined the name “Maggot”.
I still loved Crank and knew the bike was sound, hence why I chose to attack the South Down’s Way on him rather than on Maggot. I still believe the entry for South Down’s Way would have ended very differently had I not decided this, but Maggot was slowly earning a place in my heart with a few trips up onto the heath where I had honed my skills on Crank. Sometimes my son would ride on the crossbar and on others it would be just me and the dog, but nothing too strenuous. A trip later in the year to Swinley forest to sample the new designated trails that had been put together showed that Maggot really was a capable trail bike and a trip to Chicksands really let it shine, but I knew it needed a real test.
When winter set in I sent out the email inviting the guys to join me in Wales. The wolf pack were in as soon as it was offered and I also invited along an old pal from my days of living in Manchester. Matthew was a hard core mountain biker and had recently completed the Great Divide trail so I knew there wouldn’t be anything that could phase him where I had planned for us to go; Afan Forest and Bike Park Wales.
Friday 15th November
This trip was another of my planned babies and so detailed for the group down to the finest detail. I had booked us into The Farmhouse which is as it sounds and placed on the edge of a Golf course and a 15 minute drive from Bike Park Wales. Afan forest was almost an hour away, but with Bike Park Wales being scheduled for the final day of the weekend when we would have limited time it seemed to make sense to put lodgings in that neck of the woods.
My plan started out flawlessly:
· Up at 6:00 am.
· Dropped Henry off at nursery at 7:30 am
· Had an eggnog latte from Starbucks by 8:00 am
· Car valeted by the local Polish by 8:40 am
· In Costco to buy consumables by 9:00 am
· Back home with a car packed and dog walked by 11:30 am
From here it involved me meeting Matthew at the Farmhouse by 2:00pm so we could get our kit over to Bike Park Wales for some sneaky runs, but as I came to the M4 at Reading and saw cars reversing back up the slip road I knew plans were about to fall apart.
Unfortunately I had no alternative route to take and had to crawl down the slip road onto my route. It was painfully slow and 2:00pm came and went. I pulled over at a service station to let Matthew know and as ever he was totally chilled. I didn’t reach the Farmhouse until almost 4:00pm, but there was no way we could let the day be a complete waste. A quick unloading of the car, transfer of Maggot onto Matthew’s car, change of clothes and we were away.
We pulled into the car park to find it almost empty and no-one on the road to take payment from us so it was a free ride. We took the road route rather than the “Beast of Burden” to the top and Matthew kindly curbed his pace on his brand new Whyte t1-29 Works which was a true beauty to look at. My climbing pace was determined by the giant Maggot beneath me, but I assured Matthew that the return to the bottom would be a completely different story in terms of pace.
At the top we surveyed our options and rolled out onto the start of Sixtapod. This started out in the open on beautiful packed trail and then swooped off into the woods where a series of jumps, rollers and berms caught us by surprise, mainly because it was pitch black beneath the trees. However, regardless of the danger we let our machines fly and did not pause as we popped out at the end and charged straight into Willy Waver.
Willy Waver was yet another blue run, but the amount of flow it offered enabled our speed to increase so much that it almost upgraded to a red. Jumps and berms, with corners that could be tail whipped and jumps that encouraged more and more height.
This popped us out on a sort of road where the uplift station stood empty. From here we took Norkle which was by far the fastest so far and concluded with a huge berm that spat us out near the car, but also at the mouth of yet another run. It seemed rude to end it there, so we took what was offered and hurtled down through the series of berms and compressions until we reached the lowest point of the centre and started the short, but steep climb back to the car.
It was getting seriously close to dark now so we headed back to the Farmhouse. We both cleaned up – the shower room on the ground floor seeming like it belonged in a sports centre due to the size of it – and started drinking. Not long after the rest arrived, popped their bikes in the garage and started tucking into the pizza and beer I had sourced. Introductions were smooth, as I knew they would be and so had begun the final adventure of 2013.
Saturday 16th November
We woke up full of beans and Baz got the Costco sausages going in the pan while we dressed for the day ahead. Fed and full of coffee, we set off on the long drive to Afan with me riding shotgun with Matthew and Paul bringing the rest in his new Q7. What struck me was the difference between the north and south of Wales. Our trip to Coed-y-Brenin had been on long winding roads through the national park, but here in the south the roads dropped deep into the earth and then climbed up and up to run along rugged mountainous peaks before falling again to hell. It was almost as if the south had tried to fit as much land in as the north had, but was given less room in which to place it, creating these enormous folds that gave a little, if not a lot, of warning as to how the day would be at Afan.
The carpark at the trail centre wasn’t entirely deserted, but it certainly wasn’t humming like Coed-y-Brenin had been. After lifting bikes down from cars and slipping on shoes (I had reverted back to clipless pedals after a few scary moments on the heath riding Maggot too fast and too hard), looking at the sky and adding a layer or too to our bodies, we pedalled up to the bike shop and café to get some advice.
“Riding all day?” The question from the guy standing there was simple.
“Yes”, we replied.
“W2", he advised with a nod. “It’s epic.”
Distance: 30 miles - 3,199 feet of climbing (and descending!)
30 miles doesn’t sound much, but off-road and gradient certainly make it feel a lot. Afan’s W2 trail was structured perfectly as a game of two halves. For two hours we climbed and climbed and climbed, working our way on a mix of technical forest single track with switchbacks, root and rock as well as blessed sections of wide fire road. Now and then a short descent linked parts of the trail, but the sense of climbing was always there.
This split the group of course. Maggot had not made it any secret that he refused to climb at speed and to make matters even worse he now decided to refuse me the use of any except the middle ring. Any attempt to change down to use the Granny Ring proper was greeted with a grinding and then a clunk as the chain spat off onto the bottom bracket. I was overjoyed, of course, but thankfully not climbing alone like I might have been in the past. Matthew and I had not seen each other for a long time and he thankfully matched me on those slow climbs so that we could natter like old ladies.
Finally reaching the top of the climb we could see that the centre was structured around a valley. We were now on the ridge and managed to regroup, following an open trail around the valley below, soaking in the breath-taking views. We passed a wind farm on our left and climbed a little more on rocky, technical tracks past relics of old stone buildings, now abandoned. Then there was nowhere up left to go…
Descending at Afan on Maggot was like catching the wind beneath wings and soaring towards the sun. Despite the order of climbing involving me being at the back, when it came to descending I was allowed to push through to near the front. Baz took the lead and Matthew followed. I came after on their tail, snapping at Matthew’s back wheel, while Mark, Paul and Dan came behind at a far more sensible speed.
The trails were thin and twisted, rocky, rooty and undulating with peril perched in every inch of it. On one side if one dared look it was down into the belly of the forest while the other side reared up with biting rocks waiting for you to make the slightest error so it might taste the flesh of your arms and face before spitting you out down the opposing drop. But there was no error as we flew over boulders, kicking up spray of stones and mud on natural berms and putting way too much trust in our wheels as we passed over rock bridges on ill cambered corners crossing deep drops into ruinous rivers.
My face hurt from smiling. My eyes watered from the cold air rushing over them while I dared not even blink, but what I remember most of all is the ultimate control and grace that seemed to be gifted to me through this battered old machine beneath me. Maggot was a coin, with one side as heads on descending, filling me with electric fiz and infectious insanity. The other side was a dirty, fat arse that represented the climbs. Despite this, the sides were by no means equal and Afan ensured this with how it was put together.
On the final run of the first half the group split. We had reached a point where works were just completed on a new descent and the options were to take the old route named “The Darkside” which once served as a climb or to travel up a little further to take on a route full of berms and jumps. An elderly chap arriving at the same time recommended the Dark Side “if you don’t mind hanging on for dear life” and me and Matthew followed his advice. Tempted by jumps and brand new berms, the rest of the group moved up a little to the alternative.
The Darkside is unequivocally the most challenging and exciting descent I am yet to experience. From the moment maggot tasted the slop he accelerated and kept on doing so. I was leading the way and didn’t want to be holding Matthew up as there would be no chance of passing with the steep drop less than half a foot from the trail so I pushed past what I believed my limit and discovered my limit was still somewhere further out of reach. Rock and stone littered track bucked the bike as it skipped on the brink of disaster and then one jagged rock reared out at my pedal throwing me off. How I managed to launch my weight to counter it, to twist the bars back onto my line and lose no speed is still beyond me. It had all been instinctual and one of those moments that slowed down in the minds’ eye, saturated with colour and emotion to brand a lasting memory into my genetics.
We were down quicker than the rest of the group and I was still chuckling when they arrived. The old man who had followed us hung around for a chat while we regaled the others of the experience and they confessed that the new route was a touch tame.
From here we rolled to the café that marked the halfway mark, ate a slightly heavy meal washed down with a bottle of stout and came back to the trail to start a brutal climb. Maggot was indeed back on the side of tails, limping up the highly technical ascent like a wounded bear, pushing through rim deep slop and skittering over large wet slabs that rocked as you passed the middle. The group waited for me at the top and were waiting a while, but a short ride back around the ridge, past the wind farm again, led us to the final descent of the day.
Tight packed forest again thrilled us and gaps opened between the group as much for safety as it was a symptom of descending prowess. Then with clear space between me and Matthew and bravery creeping too high I thought to take a natural jump off a slab of rock to add spice to a trail that really had enough flavour already. I flew from the ridge, releasing the compression perfectly but only realising whilst in flight that the path turned a corner. Extending my legs and arms I tried to ground Maggot in time to take the turn, but gave it too much beef. The front fork, all 160mm of it, bottomed out and Maggot went down beneath me, slamming me into the curve between trail and drop. My knee opened up on the stones and Maggot, still attached to my foot, travelled down the slope taking me with it.
I was lucky to get my claws into a tangle of roots to stop the drop, but I was winded and could feel the heat of my open knee as the blood began to flow beneath my clothing. I hauled myself up, dragging Maggot on my foot, back to the trail. Once it was safe I twisted my ankle to snap my foot free of the pedal and dared look at the knee. It was a proper hole and Mark arrived as I took to my feet. He asked if I was okay, having heard my cry as I slammed into the ground and with true Elliott bravado I confirmed I was fine and remounted. Despite knowing I was being untruthful, he allowed me to take the lead and I let Maggot gather speed like before, but confess I was now avoiding jumps instead of seeking them out.
Back at the trail centre we had a quick lunch and then returned to the cars to kit the bikes out with lights. The plan had always been to ride a trail at night, but the mood for this was low after the exertion of W2. Regardless, I pushed them into following the plan and we set out on the small blue, fooling around for a while in the pitch black on a mini skills area and then called it a day.
There was talk of finding a pub on the way back, but the one place that seemed like a civilised stop seemed less so once we stepped out of the cars. Our bikes were all too much of a temptation for idle hands and we could not find a pub that allowed us to keep them in sight. We therefore ditched the plan and returned to the Farmhouse where we cleaned up and Barry cooked us a splendid Carbonara before we started laying into the beers.
People drifted off to bed at various times and I continued drinking. After a while I was alone downstairs and started cleaning up the devastation from a Baz Chef session in the kitchen. Beers slipped down easily and the kitchen again started to shine like new. By the time I walked up stairs in was 5:00am. For some strange reason I patted Matthew on the head as I passed him as if he was a pet dog and then climbed into my bed already knowing it was nearly time to get back up again.
Sunday 17th November
We were up at 8:00am and finished off the Costco supplies. I had packed my car the night before… or was it morning… so very little required other than getting dressed. My efforts in the kitchen were gratefully received, but then Mark clocked the depletion of real ale. Talk began of me potentially being over the limit still and plans were being made for me to leave the car behind, but I remembered that I had a breathalyser in the door from a previous trip to France. Cracking open the kit, I took the test and passed – ending any more nonsense talk (although it was touch and go if I would pass and I did so by a very small margin).
Issue put to bed, I handed back the keys and we took the short drive to Bike Park Wales. This time someone was waiting for our money on entry and already the place was buzzing. Vans littered the car park, emblazoned with MTB brand names and team logos.
We congregated at the cafe and I said I wanted a cup of coffee before we began, but Mark, Barry, Paul and Dan were concerned about how much time they had and wanted to push on. This seemed okay as they wanted to climb on the Beast of Burden and because me and Matthew would take the road climb again we were likely to meet and regroup at the bottom of the first run.
The reality is that we didn’t get to ride together. Me and Matthew got to the top and followed the route down we had enjoyed so much on the Friday when we had first arrived and this took us deep below the car park. The rest of the group on the other hand had taken two runs down and then returned to the top, putting the two factions at opposite poles from that point onwards.
Me and Matthew took another long ride up and came back down to the very bottom a second time, this time on different blue runs than before - Melted Welly, Blue Belle and Bush Wacker - and received a call from the others telling us to meet them at the café.
We watched Baz on the sections closer to the café as he nailed a section of berms and rolled over to us with a big smile. Mark and Dan came a little while after at a more sedate pace and joined us, but Paul was nowhere to be seen. At last, when we did spot him, he was trickling along a trail and finally joined us, but without a smile. He was in fact shaking his head, looking down at his bike and claiming it didn’t feel right. A little inspection revealed that the wheel was not actually attached to the frame and it was a wonder he had made it down at all.
We had lunch together and shared our stories of the trails we had taken down, but my suggestion of us riding together after lunch was quickly shot down. People needed to get on the road to home and they felt that after lunched seemed a logical time to disband. I was disappointed, having missed the chance to follow Baz down a run to witness how close a person can push his luck without dying, but knew distances were great and families demanding.
So it was the first two that arrived on that Friday who would be closing the weekend with a final run and the last climb to the top told my body that this really was the last run down. We set off down melted Welly but switched from the blue to the red once in the woods. This red was called Vicious Valley and the transformation from well packed and wide trail to tight, twisting and fast natural track took me a little by surprise. Add to that the unexpected presence of rock step ups and root sprawls and the easy going speed fest of earlier became a game of rapid thought and technical mastery.
Just before entering another red Matthew finally remembered that he had his Go Pro with him! After all the riding we had done, he remembers now on the last run, so we paused to let him set up and then continued on. Bonneyville had a very natural feel to it, with loose dirt bomb hole-esque switch backs and long paths littered with humps that became jumps as our speed increased. Bush Wacker took us back to the cars and we packed them away before having a final coffee and cake to close the day – chuckling at the very short piece of footage captured because the memory card was utterly choked full.
Maggot had truly proved his worth, but as I drove home I began to think of Crank and whether or not the experience would have been any less joyful had I ridden him instead. This thought continued in my head for some time and after a couple of runs out with Maggot on the heath, a cracking all day visit to Swinley with Matthew when he was down south on meetings with work (a ride hindered a little by me losing my wallet and it then magically appearing in the pocket of my camel pack) and a crash as I attempted to descend a long woodland stairway… my mind settled on an answer.
I loved Maggot for descending, but the type of riding we did was more than that. I also remembered harrowing Baz’s wheel on the Seven Stanes, particularly on the Spooky Wood section of Glentress so Crank wasn’t unable to descend at speed. The difference was in the comfort offered by full suspension. It was an element of the bike that actually took away the need to be agile and responsive on the pedals because it offered greater forgiveness whereas a wrong move on Crank offered none. The truth was clear; I wanted to ride a hardtail.
Maggot therefore received a cheap makeover to improve his battered image when posted on Ebay and he sold for £180 more than I had paid for him. I also sold Crank (which broke my heart) to a young lad just starting out and pooled the money together to buy the new 650 MTB Team hardtail Boardman. A couple of rides out have given a glimmer of hope for future events, but a real test is yet to be had.
Whether it was the right move or the wrong move really doesn’t matter, as long as we continue to ride.