Cycling Without Roads

One of the guys I work with, Richard, is one of those people who like to ride their bike in places where there is no road. I know – crazy, but there you go. Apparently it’s even quite popular these days.

I’m firmly of the belief that one should try every new experience in life (with the accepted exceptions of incest and folk dancing of course). So when Richard offered to take me out last Friday to show me what this this “mountain biking” (as they call it) is all about, I had to accept.

But I was quite nervous about this for three reasons:

  1. Richard is quite fit. Put it this way – I can keep up with most people I meet on the road, but on the two occasions when I’ve met Richard when I’m on a bike, my attempts at keeping up have lasted less than half a mile, and ended with tunnel vision and a taste of blood in my mouth. He came 14th in this year’s Fred Whitton (and was disappointed with this result). Gulp.
  2. Richard is a somewhat experienced “mountain biker”. If you follow that link you’ll see he gets podium finishes in international races. He does things like 24-hour endurance races. Gulp.
  3. I’ve basically never ridden off-road. OK – that’s not entirely true. When I was a kid we used to take our bikes to the woods, and the last time I did this I was eleven. It ended with me falling off the back of my Raleigh Commando, and the Sturmey Archer toggle chain taking a chunk out of my right shin as the bike fell on top of me. Lesson learned, I have avoided such situations for the last 32 years.

The route we took was from Blyth to Morpeth, having met first at Furnace Bank. I’d taken the road from the South, which is steep and has a nasty, rough & gravelly hairpin bend about halfway down it, and was waiting on the North side of the bridge. I heard a commotion on the other side, and saw Richard emerge from the trees with some foliage wedged in his brake levers. He’d decided to take the shortcut down the side of the hill instead of bothering with the road. We went and had a look back up it… it looked pretty much vertical to me, with tree root steps at the top. What was I getting myself into…?

It actually turned out to be quite good fun. The route we took followed the course of the River Blyth to Bedlington, then did a short on-road section before again going through the woods to Bothal, and along the River Wansbeck to Morpeth. I even managed to pick up some of the language of this subculture:

  • The route was mainly “singletrack”. This means it follows a narrow path.
  • Sections of it were “gnarly”. So there were tree-roots and rocks sticking up.
  • There were some “sketchy” patches. I’ve still no idea what that means, but I’ve been dropping it into conversation, and it seems to go down well.
  • The route got gradually more “technical”. This means that it got less like a road, and more like an obstacle course. So the “singletrack” route was sometimes steep with sharp turns, or right next to a river with overhanging trees to dodge.
  • Sometimes we were “exploring”. This means the same as “lost” does to non-mountain bikers. I know the roads around the route we cycled pretty well, but I spent most of the ride having absolutely no idea where we were.
  • I was definitely “late” home. Again, this is like the kind of “late” you can get by visiting the pub on the way home, but without the beer. Or the pub.

Yep. I can definitely see me fitting right in with this.

By the time I got home, I was a bit of a mess. I’d started the ride a little dehydrated, hadn’t had anything to drink, and done a lot of physical stuff that you don’t have to do on the road. Wife was full of sympathy, laughing at me and saying that now I know how people feel when I take them out for a ride…


Seriously – big “thank you” to Richard for taking it fast enough that it was fun, but not so quick as to kill me!

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Posted in Bike Culture
2 comments on “Cycling Without Roads
  1. Paul M says:

    So, now you will have learnt of the one place where wearing a cycle helmet actually makes sense. All the “technical” and “gnarly” singletrack with “sketchy” patches is enough to get even quite accomplished bikers going arse over tip from time to time. And most of the objects which might hit you on the head will be stationary, not moving at 40mph and weighing several tonnes

  2. KarlOnSea says:

    Yes. This is why I intend to avoid such routes for trips to the shops.

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