Lockdown learning: Becoming a mountain biker
I haven’t cycled off road since I was in primary school. Growing up near the Peak District meant two weeks of every summer holiday were spent caravanning and camping with my beloved grandparents in exotic locations like Tissington, Cromford and Ashbourne.
I learned to ride a bike on grass and spent summers on my bike at ‘Mrs Elliot’s farm’ or cycling along the Erewash canal and the gravel bridleway of the Tissington trail.
All I had ever known cycling to be when I was growing up was off road. To me, cycling was something you did off road, as a standard part of growing up and you didn’t have to deal with cars.
But, once I left primary school I didn’t get back on a bike for about 15 years.
That was until I met my bike-mad partner, Peter.
As I’d grown up, all thoughts of cycling for pleasure had been over-ridden by practicality – a way to get from A to B (more commonly known as the commute) – especially as I spent the next six years following university living and working in Central London, so it came as a surprise to me when I had the urge to try off-road riding again.
Becoming an off-road convert
Peter grew up in Surrey, and knows the Surrey Hills like the back of his hand. He often returns home after a day on the bike, dusty or muddy (depending on the time of year) without an ounce of sweat on him – having had a thoroughly good time with his friends.
To me, though, mountain biking just did not appeal: “It’s manly, it’s dirty, it’s dangerous, and it’s not for me”…or so I thought.
“It’s so dangerous!” I would say to him, having been presented with a bruise or two on his hips or thighs where he’d had a fight with a tree on a downhill stretch. The thought of having an accident (I’ve only ever broken a toe and it was painful enough spending a whole Glastonbury Festival with it shoved in a welly boot) and ending up in A&E was something I feared, particularly when the coronavirus crisis began. I didn’t want to be another burden on the NHS.
Living a stone’s throw away from the Basingstoke Canal, during the early period of lockdown, the towpath became a source of our hour of allotted exercise. We started running, but when I was stricken by crippling shin splints, I knew I needed to try something low impact, so we went cycling instead.
The only trouble was, I knew from personal experience that my road bike didn’t handle canal towpaths well at all. I once fell into a hedge of stinging nettles on the way to Birmingham along the Grand Union and didn’t fancy that happening again – how I managed to fall into the hedge and not the canal still amazes me.
“Mum’s got a mountain bike, I’m sure she’d let you borrow it,” Peter suggested one afternoon. I groaned in reply, the image of a heavy old bike in my mind. I was, however, pleasantly surprised when presented with her women’s specific Giant mountain bike – a model from 2006 (and not a spot of rust or a single scratch on it), complete with front suspension which felt like a dream after the steel frames I’d ridden as a child.
After that first ride along the towpath I was hooked, but I wanted more adventure. “When can we do some downhill bits like you do?” I asked Peter. “Why not this weekend? It’s not like we can do anything else!” After considering all the routes he knows so well, he suggested we try a local trail just off the canal.
At first, the tree roots terrified me. Who am I kidding – everything terrified me! The steep hills that made me feel so slow and heavy and useless: the steeper descents, the loose soil, the nettles, the gravel, the brambles, the fear of coming off, the fear of looking stupid – just the fear.
One thing I discovered quickly is that I am a loud off roader. I make a lot of ‘Argh!’ ‘Woah!’ And ‘Wheeeee!’ sounds on our outings. At first this was embarrassing – I think us gals are used to making ourselves quiet – but now I’ve embraced it.
If I’m feeling frustrated because I didn’t make it all the way up a hill, happy I’m rocketing downhill, or scared I’m going to hit a tree root at the wrong angle and come off - why not express it? Only Peter and the trees (and confused distant passers-by) can hear me.
At first, we would do the same route over a few outings before moving onto a new one. I found this was a good way to build up my confidence – the more I knew a route, the more I could relax. The hills became easier to climb as my fitness improved, and the downhill stretches became less intimidating.
I still freak out when my back wheel ‘goes’, but I know it’s only momentary. Where tree roots used to terrify me, I now view them as a challenge – ‘how should I tackle it this time?’ – and downhill stretches fill me with excitement now that I don't cling onto the brakes for dear life.
It took me three ‘goes’ of each route we took to feel comfortable and confident, I was impressed by how quickly I became accustomed to life off the tarmac. Each time, Peter would ask if I wanted to try this path or that, extending the ride a bit more once he saw I was feeling brave and enjoying it more and more. The miles soon clocked up, but it never feels like exercise, unlike being on my road bike.
Each new track brought a new challenge – mountain biking is a mental workout as well as a physical one. I find myself planning moves in my head on the fly as I cruise downhill, like a rally co-driver calling out from their pacenotes – it’s a constant test of your reactions.
Embracing my inner child
Off-road riding can offer you so much freedom. I used to think that road biking opened up a whole new avenue of exploration – you see things you wouldn’t notice in a car. But off-roading means you can suddenly change your mind and take that path, or this turn – knowing that the knobbly tyres beneath you can handle the terrain. The added bonus being you don’t have to be clad head to toe in Lycra.
Mountain biking for me harks back to the fun of being a child. As you get older it’s harder to take risks because you have more inhibitions, but trust me, the downhills are worth it.
When you're off-road, you don’t have the fear of being knocked off your bike, you’re in the fresh air, if you fall you’re more likely to land on a soft surface or have your fall broken by bracken. It no longer concerns me whether it’s ‘manly’ – it’s just good fun.
Techniques to remember
- When going downhill: Stay in the ready/attack position – look up and ahead of the trail (not at your front wheel), bend your elbows and knees slightly when out of the saddle, keep your pedals (cranks) level and flat, bum out of the saddle with your weight back a little. Your feet should face forwards, rather than be pigeon toed or Charlie-Chaplin style. If the rear wheel starts to skid, release the brake and gently squeeze it on again
- When braking: ‘Feather’ your brakes (using both brake levers simultaneously, gently squeezing lightly and rapidly, alternating the pressure and release of the brakes); this prevents your wheels from locking, while controlling your speed
- When changing gear: If you’re a beginner, leave the front shifting out and just use the right hand. Change gear early, especially on uphills. Try to reduce the pedalling pressure as you change gear. This may mean a two-pedal burst beforehand to carry your speed through the shift. Avoid ‘crossing the chain’, that is, using big chainring and big sprocket or little chainring and little sprocket. Remember to stop in a gear you can set off with
- When taking a corner: Slow down or brake before the corner, taking a smooth, clean line, and looking ahead, around the corner and to the exit. Try to place the outside pedal down
- When climbing: move your bodyweight forwards a little
- When you’re in a group/on a busy trail: Move out of the way of others when stopped. Use your peripheral vision to be aware of others to your side. Think there is someone right behind you all the time. Avoid sudden changes to your line or speed. Use communication when overtaking, stopping and so on. Leave plenty of space around others
When I’m out on the MTB, I go for kit that is practical, comfortable and appropriate. This includes:
- Padded bib shorts so that I’m not fidgeting all the time
- Ankle socks with high-top Vans (with the laces done all the way up to the top so as not to get caught in the chainring) to protect my ankles and give me grip on the pedals
- A helmet
- A good sports bra – although your boobs get knocked about less on a bike, they still benefit from good support! I wear one by Bravissimo, the G-Shock
- A cotton or linen T-shirt/tunic (this will change once the winter months roll in)
- Sunscreen (sweat-resistant is ideal)
- Gloves with good padding as I sometimes suffer from cyclist’s palsy
In addition to this, I carry a bottle of water always (two if I know I’ll be out for more than two hours), my phone to capture photographs and my ride on Strava, my GoPro, and (at the moment) my mask for that well-deserved pub stop on the way home.
Top tips for beginners
- Borrow a mountain bike to see if it’s really for you before investing in a new bike
- Find your tribe – go with someone who has some experience who can give you encouragement when starting out
- Wear what feels comfortable
- If you suffer from a sore bum, look at swapping your saddle, but make sure you measure your sit bones beforehand to get the right fit. If in doubt, double up (wear padded underwear, too)
- Don’t be afraid to look silly – no one really cares
- Be nice, say hi! You will meet a lot of walkers and their dogs, horse riders, and other bikers on your route – say hello! It makes for a more enjoyable ride knowing you’re enjoying free outdoor space in harmony
- Just get out there and try it!