Home turf

15 08 2014

After racking up a few “desert” miles on the Blue Pig, I was itching to get back on my Canyon Spectral and ride through trees on mud and over roots.  Despite the fact that I’ve done about 1,700 miles on the Ragley and less than 400 on the Spectral, the Canyon is the bike that feels like “home” now.  It feels as though it fits me like a glove and I love it.

Logging in Kent

Logging in Kent

So where better to take the Canyon for a spin than at Bedgebury on trails I know like the back of my hand ?  August is a busy month for me, a lot of work to do, and the kids off school and needing attention.  This puts a bit of a constraint on the amount of riding time I get, so quick nips out to Bedgebury and along the seafront are about as much as I can manage for the next week or two.

My first ride saw the trails a bit dusty and me a bit rusty.  I definitely felt a bit slower and fatter post-holiday, that will have to be sorted gradually.  My second visit to Bedgebury was with a friend who is a fair bit faster than me, which gave me that little bit of extra incentive to keep up with him.  You’ll see him gradually disappearing in the video footage below.

I got to ride the newly revamped “Sweetness” trail at Bedgebury for the first time this month, it’s always been one of the best trails there, but did suffer from some very boggy patches that would become absolutely wrecked in wet weather.  The trailbuilders have had to balance keeping a natural feel to the trail with solving the drainage.  They’ve done this with some short sections of hard pack featuring a few switchback berms.  Sweetness has always been a trail that featured very tight corners, but a couple of the new berms are ridiculously tight.  They feel like they’ve been built for BMX’s rather than XL framed 29er  mountain bikes…

Any crisicisms are a bit nit-picky though, it’s a lot of fun and it’ll be easier to ride through the winter than the old trail would have been.  Bedgebury is in very good shape these days, here’s a short video of a few selected trail sections there.

I did also take the bike out along the seafront for a bit of an early morning blast along the sea front today.  First time I’ve had a nose round my home town for a while, holiday and work have kept me away.  It felt nice to smell that salty tang and to hear the gulls screeching.  I’m a big fan of the little seaside town where I live.  We’ve got the biggest winkle on the south coast…

Where's your winkle ?

Where’s your winkle ?





Just deserts

5 08 2014

Regular readers of this blog (if there are any) may remember me mentioning back in May when I bought my Canyon Spectral, that my Ragley Blue Pig had emigrated to somewhere a bit drier than East Sussex. We recently bought a small holiday home on the island of Fuerteventura and the Blue Pig now lives out there. During the latter part of July I was back riding on the Ragley exploring the north part of Fuerteventura around the town of Corralejo.

Ragley Blue Pig

Wearing it’s mid-ride dust with pride

One of the first things I noticed when I arrived on Fuerteventura for the first time that there were cycle lanes everywhere.  Generally these are well surfaced, wide, and sit a good distance away from the traffic. Obviously what I was most keen to find on the island was off-road riding, but the cycle lanes looked to be a good bet for getting from one town to another.  There are a few official cycle routes on the island (details here) but I only rode one of these.  Mostly I was wandering about, making it up as I went along. I managed 8 rides during my holiday, mostly around 10 or 11 miles, but one ride covered 20 miles. As well as the roads and cycle lanes, there are also a lot of dirt tracks on the island and most of my riding was on these.

This bit of cycle path eventually turned into some sandy, twisty singletrack

This bit of cycle path eventually turned into some sandy, twisty singletrack

The terrain is dry, dusty with a lot of loose volcanic rock.  A lot of loose volcanic rock.  Here and there I found a few short sections of what could be described as “singletrack” but not the sort of trails that have you grinning from ear to ear as you swoop along them.  The rides I did would come more under the Cross Country, getting lost, taking in the scenery, style of mountain biking rather than anything adrenaline fuelled.  Probably the scariest aspect of my rides was the fact that I had no spare inner tube with me and I was one unfriendly rock away from a very long, hot walk home…

Rock garden anyone ?

Rock garden anyone ?

That’s not to say that there’s no fun to be had, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s on offer and I don’t doubt that I will uncover more and more when I return to the island over the next few years.  There’s certainly no lack of elevation, Fuerteventura is a volcanic island and it’s littered with steep-sided calderas. I’m sure there are some twisty descents tucked away right under my nose, just a matter of digging them out.

This road snakes through the calderas about 600ft above sea-level

This road snakes around the calderas about 600ft above sea-level

One of the things I noticed while riding out there was the drivers have a hell of a lot more respect for cyclists than those in England.  This might have just been a bit of good fortune, I did get cut up by one motorist, but he also cut up another car and there was a strong whiff of marijuana trailing out of his window.  Overall, I found my “local” area, Corralejo, Lajares, Cotillo, to be very bike-friendly, a good portion of the road network has accompanying cycling paths and when they run out there’s often a dirt track running parallel to the road.

This cycle route leads you out to a tiny fishing village in the middle of nowhere.

This cycle route leads you out to a tiny fishing village in the middle of nowhere.

Getting back on the Pig felt very weird.  The bars felt about half the width of those on the Canyon, the pedals felt like they were in the wrong place, it just felt tiny compared to my 29er. I felt like a gorilla riding a monkey’s bike. I gradually got used to it again but I really wouldn’t fancy going back to it full time.  I still think it looks good though.

Kept looking over my shoulder in case of attack by Sand People while taking this pic...

Kept looking over my shoulder in case of attack by Sand People while taking this pic…





Fun in the sun

14 07 2014

Headed to Surrey today for one of the hardest rides I’ve done in a while.  From Holmbury Youth Hostel, over Holmbury hill, down into Peaslake, up Pitch hill, back down Pitch hill, through Peaslake, back up Holmbury hill and back to the car.  On the way I took in some superb trails, covered 15 miles, climbed 1,700ft and set 16 personal best times on various bits of single track.  I also managed to climb “Drill Hill” for the first time without getting off and pushing the bike up it.

Hurtwood trails

Putting the “hurt” into Hurtwood.

Drill Hill is a nasty fire road with a 15% gradient that takes you up Pitch hill to where the single track cris-crosses the pine trees.  I was eager to get the Canyon on the trails at Surrey to see what it could do, the riding here is a bit of a step up from your average trail centre red standard trails.  When you’re riding at Bedgebury you know you’re riding trails that have been designed with the Forestry Commission’s insurance policy in mind, that’s not the case here.  It only takes a couple of sections of single track for those of us used to groomed trail centres to realise that you’re not in Kansas anymore… The ground here is almost 100% rock-free and very sandy, but don’t expect a soft landing should you vacate your saddle unexpectedly.  The trails here are very, very rooty with lots of small steps, off camber drops and it gets very steep and loose in places.

There’s a lot more sand on Pitch Hill than there is on Brighton beach, it all dries very well, so even though we’ve had a fair bit of rain in the past 5 or 6 days, all of the trails were rolling very fast.  There really are some superb bits of trail on Pitch & Holmbury hills.  I’m well aware that I only really “know” about 40% of what’s available here, but there’s enough to keep you happy.  It’s definitely the equal of a Welsh trail centre, but you have to work a bit harder at planning a route.  Several short, hard climbs rather than one big up and one big down is what you’re looking at here.

It was too hot today, about 22 degrees, for conditions to be considered “perfect” but it was dry, the trails were virtually empty (I saw two other mountain bikers, quite a few roadies, but they don’t count) and the sun was shining, to moan about it being too hot would be churlish.  Think I’ll come back early September when it’s a bit cooler…

Here’s a quick video of me lumbering around Surrey.





Drenched

11 07 2014

Had a quick ride out at Bedgebury last night, set out in near perfect conditions. Overcast, about 17 degrees, windy, but that’s not really something you notice when you’re deep in tree cover.
Everything was rolling really nicely, there had been heavy rain over the past couple of days, but prior to that the weather had been dry for so long the bone dry soil was able to suck it all up. The trails were even grippier than during the really dry spell.
Bedgebury’s local bike club held a trail build day on the first weekend in July so I was keeping an eye out for changes and improvements. They have apparently laid 185 meters of new trails and repaired a fair few potholes. Most of the newly laid stuff was still closed for bedding in, but it all looks as though it will tip the balance of the trail make up slightly further towards singletrack rather than fire road.
About 7 miles into my ride the heavens opened and a pleasant, cool summers evening ride turned into a full on autumn-style soaking wet ride. Didn’t see anyone else in the forest, I’m sure the rain would have put a lot of people off, it really did tip down.
In my last two rides at Bedgebury, I’ve recorded my two fastest average speeds. This is further proof that I am getting a bit fitter and stronger on the bike.
It’s always satisfying to sprint up a small climb and find my legs aren’t killing me and I don’t need to stop for a rest, but the biggest revellation to me has been how much better flat trails flow when you can ride them quicker…
Back in the days when I had to really struggle and plod along flat trails, I would look down on them with contempt. Get a bit fitter, ride a bit harder and what do you know, flat trails start being fun. Obvious really.
Hoping to squeeze in a return to Surrey soon, really itching to take the new bike over Holmbury and Pitch hills to see how much quicker it is, hopefully the next post here will have details of that very thing…





In dust we trust

2 07 2014

I love not having to clean my bike.  It’s currently wearing a very thin film of dust from various trails, and I can’t remember the last time I had to get  a bucket and some muc off and wash the thing.

Over 250 miles on the Spectral now and I’m still loving it, though finding the bars scarily wide through trees at time (though I’m reluctant to reduce the width as the feel when steering is too good) the grips are still irritating me, will get round to swapping them for Superstar XLs at some point soon.  The bike has developed it’s first niggle though.

The right crank started creaking on a ride recently, after the ride I determined this was down to the bolt holding the crank onto the frame had worked a tiny bit loose.  Located a huge allen key and tightened it up.  10 miles into the next ride, it’s creaking again.  Process repeated, creak keeps returning no matter how hard I tighten the bolt.  Going to try some Loctite threadblocker to see if this will alleviate a very irritating noise.

Other than that the bike is riding a treat and I am feeling very fit and strong.  As ever I will caveat that by saying it’s all relative, blah blah blah, but the joy of having enough oomph in my legs to get up short, sharp climbs or stick in a quick burst of accelleration whenever I need it never gets old.  I’m sure I’m fitter and stronger now than I was 10 years ago.

Anyway, here’s some video footage of me riding the Canyon on some very dry trails at Bedgebury last night.  It’s dry to the point where it could do with a bit of rain to make it a bit more grippy.  Rolling very fast…





Happy Valleys

10 06 2014

Well the new bike has covered over 160 miles now and the last 30-ish of those were at Afan this weekend.  Prior to this weekends trip to Wales, I had been trying the Spectral out on the tarmac where I had expected it to be dreadful.  Oddly enough, I found myself taking massive chunks off my personal best times on fairly long and/or steep tarmac climbs riding the new bike.  Partly because the rear shock has a “climb” setting which seems to work, partly because I’m getting a bit stronger, partly because the bike is lighter than the Ragley.

Bike resting at the start of Penhydd

Bike resting at the start of Penhydd

As satisfying as it is to ride quickly up a road, that’s really not what I bought a full-sus bike for, so let’s focus on my return to Afan for the first time since 2009…

Since I was last at Afan, a lot has happened there.  About 1,000,000 trees (I didn’t count the stumps, it just feels like huge swathes of woodland have been removed) have been cut down, one of the trails has been closed down, upgraded and reopened (Penhydd) one has been tweaked a bit (Whites Level) and they’ve added in a Blue route, a bike park and an extra red trail.  The character of Whites Level and Penhydd has been changed hugely by the logging, they feel totally different as trails cutting through the side of exposed hills rather than weaving through trees deep in shade.  True you get more far ranging views down the valleys, but who looks at the view when they’re caning it down rocky singletrack ?  Personally I couldn’t see anything while I was riding downhill other than the 10ft of trail in front of me.  If you’re riding it quickly, whatever that means for your skill level, you need to be totally focused or you’ll be off, and when riding large portions of these trails, you’ve got a pretty steep drop off on one side of the trail or other.  Tumbling down a hill till I hit a tree stump aint my idea of fun.

About halfway up the climb out of Glyncorrwg looking towards Cymmer.

About halfway up the climb out of Glyncorrwg looking towards Cymmer.

For those of you who’ve never been, what’s generally known as “Afan” is two trail centres about 3-4 miles apart with a cycle path linking the two along the route of a disused railway line.  The Afan centre has a small, quiet cafe, a visitor centre and a few other “non cyclist” attractions like walks and museums and things.  Penhydd, The Wall and the Blue trail “Blue Scar” start from here, as well as a couple of “family” cycle trails.  Up the valley is Glyncorrwg which has a campsite and a cafe that is a lot more lively, stays open till 11pm and serves beer.  The Glyncorrwg cafe is now called “Skyline”, last time I was here it was called “The Drop Off”.  The Drop Off had the reputation of being one of the best trail centre cafes in the UK, the food and the vibe don’t seem to have deteriorated since it’s changed ownership and name.  Both centres have bike shop/hire facilities unsurprisingly.  Whites Level, The Blade and Skyline start from Glyncorrwg and all begin with the same, long, hard, technical climb up the hillside.  Now the place has been deforested, you can sit in the cafe with a beer and watch everyone else slog up, perhaps taking bets as to how far a certain rider will get before stopping for a breather…

We stayed at the Bryn Teg House B&B, exactly the same place we stayed last time we came.  What you get here is a warm welcome, excellent cooked breakfast, comfortable and very clean rooms, in a great location inbetween the two centres and just five minutes walk from the pub.  You can hear the sound of the river as you lie in bed at night, it’s a lovely place to stay.

Afan

Taking a break near the start of Penhydd

On Friday we started off with The Wall which I think is the oldest trail here.  Both times I’ve ridden The Wall I’ve found the climb seemed really easy for some reason.  A mix of singletrack and fire road climb that never seems to be too steep or too technical.  Then you hit a trail called “Piccadilly” you start going down hill and before you know it you’re back down at the bottom of the valley again.  The reason time flies on the descent is that it’s just so bloody good.  The Wall hasn’t been logged to within an inch of its life either so it’s still quite picturesque.  At the end of the 2nd to last downhill section on the wall is a little bike park with tabletops and berms and drops and things.  About 5 or 6 lines, all fairly short and sweet.  Well worth a play.  We spoke to some locals who said they headed there when it was raining as the trails there are under a thick canopy of trees that offer a lot of shelter.

The Wall descent was the first time I’ve ridden the Spectral on a “big boys” trail, I was staggered at how much better it felt than anything else I’d ridden in the past.  There’s a lot of talk about 29ers having more “momentum” than 26in wheeled bikes which I thought might be relevant to people who test bikes for a living, but not to mere mortals like me.  Not a bit of it though, I found the bike flowed up and down and through and round the trail  like it was alive.  If it was alive I’m sure it would have given me a “Why not just leave the bloody brakes and let me get on with it?” look.  Made me feel like a better rider, what more can you ask from a bike ?  It was a joy to batter it through the rocks where last year, on the Ragley hard tail at Coed Y Brenin, I’d been grimacing and wondering if I really wanted to ride mountain bikes after all.  I love this bike.

Y Wal

“Keep going”

After the Wall, we paused for some food, then set out on Penhydd.  Penhydd has a hideous climb.  It’s just horrible.  You start off on a little switchback trail shared with the “Blue Scar” blue route.  Fairly tame, just plodding back and forth up a hill on some hardpack.  Then there’s a short, sweet, swoopy descent that robs you of about 30m height gained and you’re on a fire road.  This fire road goes on and on and on and on and on.  It’s deathly dull, even more so now the hillside has been logged and the scenery is a bit of a moonscape.  However, despite this climb, Penhydd is still probably my favourite trail out of any I’ve ridden in England and Wales.  The best bits of the “old” Penhydd “Sidewinder” and “Dead Sheep Gulley” are still there but new bits have been added in.  It flows and flows and flows till you find yourself back at the trail centre with a big smile on your face.  If there had been an uplift I would have gone straight back to the top and come down again.

On the way up Penhydd you can see the Blue trail descent.  It looks bloody good.  We didn’t ride it in the end, but it did look like a fast, swoopy, bermy run down the hillside. A few less big rocks and drops than the red descent but this is no boring family trail.  Looks similar to the better stuff at Swinley but much longer.

So, once Penhydd had been tackled, we rolled back along the “low level Cycleway” to the B&B for pre-pub showers, looking forward to getting stuck into more of the same the following day.

Saturday didn’t start well, woken up at 5am by a thunderstorm, feeling a bit like I’m coming down with a cold.  The rain hammered down all through breakfast though fortunately the lightning moved off eastwards.  We had planned to tackle the new Blade trail on Saturday but locals we’d met had said if it was wet, Blade would get very boggy and might be slow riding and not so much fun.  As it rained fairly torrentially on and off between 5am and 10am we decided to go for Whites Level instead.

Penhydd

Lovely, isn’t it ?

The rain cleared as we set off and we were lucky enough to have a dry day the whole time we were riding.  Well, I say dry, but of course, the ground was saturated.  In places, there were streams of rainwater running down the singletrack.  All routes out of Glyncorrwg start with the same climb, it’s tough, but unlike the Penhydd climb, it’s not boring.  It’s rocky, rooty, technical and very long, a good 4 miles.  Last time I was here, I pushed the bike up most of it, this time I was determined not to.  I rode solidly for an hour uphill, which got me about 3 miles along and roughly 1,300 feet up, by that point, I needed to stop for a drink.  I drained a bottle of lucozade and had a 5 minute rest, then set about forcing myself up the remaining mile of the climb.

Once Whites Level starts going downhill, it’s much like all the trails here, rocky, twisty, flowing, snakes of singletrack slithering along the side of the hills.  If there were trails like this within 20 minutes drive of my house I wonder if I’d ever see my family.  When we got to the final descent we were presented with a sign telling us there were two options, the original Whites Level Descent “Darkside” (Tho this would no longer be all that dark since there would be no trees) or a new downhill option which claimed to be 1,700m in length.  We had a crack at the new option.  After a little bit of fairly flat trail and a little bit more slightly uphill trail, it started to go down with a vengeance.  Long, steep, loose, undulating trails with switchback turns.  A couple of the steep bits were hairy, one nearly did me a mischief when I neglected to drop the saddle and the front wheel went a bit awry on a rock with my weight a bit too far forward.  Fortunately I managed to regain some composure and rode it out, but there was a split second where I thought I was going over the bars and I could almost taste the hospital food.

Afan Singletrack

How can you not love this ?

Before you could say “Blimey that was good” we were back down at the bottom of the Valley and headed to the Cafe for some food.  As I said, Saturday saw me wake feeling a bit under the weather and by the time I’d ridden Whites Level, I was feeling pretty rough, sore throat, starting to lose my voice, headache, etc etc etc.  Due to this we gave up on the idea of riding the Blue Route in the afternoon and hung out in the cafe watching other riders struggle up the hill.

33 odd miles covered and about 4,000ft climbed. Afan was great, can’t wait to go back.

 





It’s here…

20 05 2014

After several weeks waiting for UPS to knock on my door, I am now the proud owner of an XL size Canyon Spectral AL 6.9. The Ragley has emigrated to the Canary Islands (More on that in July) and it’s place in the shed has been taken by this beast.

Big, burly and german

Big, burly and german

Before buying this bike, I’d read endless pages in MTB mags about 29ers and their pros and cons compared to 26 in wheel bikes, but there are a couple of things I’ve found the magazines don’t tell you about 29ers.  1 – They’re a lot harder to get into your shed. 2 – They are deceptively fast.  If you think you’re doing 10mph, you’re probably doing 15mph.

When I unpacked the bike I was pleasantly surprised to find it came with a shock pump, full bleed kit and a torque wrench! I’ve never bought a bike in the past which shipped with tools.  The joy soon turned to frustration as I struggled to put the thing together, but this was 80% down to me not reading the instructions properly and being a twat.  The documentation isn’t great, but if you’re sensible and methodical (I’m neither) you wont have a problem at all.  The thing that threw me the most was the release button for the dropper seatpost being integral to the brake lever bracket.  I assumed that the brake had part of it’s bracket missing and it took me hours to figure out where I was going wrong.

Lots of goodies in the box

Lots of goodies in the box

So a slightly mixed bag unpacking the thing, but what about riding it ?  I had always planned on giving the Canyon its first ride at Friston Forest, but when it arrived the weather had been wet for a few days and I am not a fan of Friston in the rain.  Bedgebury was my next choice, because I know the trails there so well I could more accurately compare the Spectral to my Ragley there.  The new bike couldn’t be much more different to the old one, full sus, bigger wheels, not quite polar opposites, not as if I’m comparing a downhill full susser with an XC hard tail, but they are two very different approaches aimed at tackling aggressive trail riding.

On my first ride the rear shock was running a little bit soft so initially I really felt the bob and sag as I pedalled.  The Canyon has Fox suspension front and rear with “CTD” settings, climb, trail and descend, offering you three different options for the suspension.  Even in “climb” its very easy to notice the bike squirming a little as you pedal which feels very unusual having ridden pretty much exclusively on hard tails for 3 years.  I was immediately aware that the bike was longer and wider and I felt much more like I was sitting “in” the bike rather than perched on top of it as I’ve felt with the Ragley.  It feels a lot more stable, but I was fully expecting it to be a bit of a handful through tight and twisty trails where the Ragley always felt great.  I thought I was really going to miss being able to chuck the bike into corners, I thought this right up until I got the Spectral moving and swung it round a few tight, fast bermed corners.  I almost gasped and very quickly there was a great big grin on my face.

This bike corners incredibly well, it just feels so planted, and the great big 2.4in Mountain King Tyres seem to offer a ridiculous amount of grip.  I found quickly that I was able to lean the bike much lower into corners than I’d ever dared with the Ragley.  The big wheels make rutted, bumpy terrain feel smoother, as does having rear-sus, but I didn’t notice as big a difference as I was expecting.  That said, I found it possible to keep pedalling over rooty or rutted sections where I just had to roll the Ragley and wait till the back end stopped bucking about.  The bike felt great overall, but I didn’t think I was going that quickly. Obviously I was still getting used to the bike so didn’t feel as though I was pushing it as hard as possible. It wasn’t until I checked my Strava times after the ride that I saw how much faster the bike was.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been trying to ride the Cake Run section at Bedgebury faster and faster.  It’s one of my favourite trails and I’ve gradually reduced my time from 2:40 to 2:31 on the Ragley.  First run down it on the Spectral produced a new fastest time of 2:21.  Only an increase in average speed of 1mph from 13.7 to 14.7, but that makes a big difference.  There’s a lot of talk in the magazines about how 29ers have better momentum and maintain speed better once you’ve got them rolling.  I can certainly vouch for that, I seemed to be using a lot less energy to keep the bike at 14-15mph through the twists and turns and it’s way easier to roll quickly over rock gardens.

As well as the slight speed boost, it also feels a lot more stable when you jump.  Now, when I say “jump” I mean “get the bike 2 or 3 inches off the ground after riding over a small hump in the trail” I’m not about to start getting 2ft in the air and throwing whips.

So overall I came back from my ride very impressed with the new bike.  Doubtless I will be writing more about it as more riding happens…

 








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