January’s off to an exceptionally mild start in England’s north-west. Riding conditions have been ideal for this time of year, so I’m getting some decent miles in. I’m a road cyclist at heart; I advocate for more quality, dedicated space for cycling in cities but out in the countryside I love riding on roads – the quieter the better. But yesterday the winter road bike took a rest and Bobby and I went mountain biking in the Lake District.
Until now I’ve only dabbled in mountain biking. It’s never held much appeal, but I’m hoping that’s about to change. I’ve an eleven year old son. For him the idea of hurtling fast downhill over rocky ground is much more exciting than pedalling fluidly across smooth tarmac. Last year we experimented with mountain biking as a family, hiring bikes at both Grizedale in the Lakes and Mabie in southern Scotland. At Mabie we also got some coaching in the basics from Ruth Asbery of Bottle Green Biking. Sue and Flo tolerated these experiences, but they’re in no hurry to repeat them. I quite enjoyed them, though I remain much happier on the road. But Bobby simply shone. He shows little fear, rising to and relishing the challenge of traversing difficult ground.
This is a lad who’s growing up fast and like most kids can easily spend whole weekends glued to screens. So we bought two mountain bikes for Christmas. My hope is we’ll make mountain biking a shared activity and maintain a bond between us. If there’s a chance it’ll prevent – or at least defer – our drifting apart, I’m up for it.
Bikes out of boxes and ready to ride, yesterday was the start. And an experiment … We’re surrounded by fantastic mountain biking country, but how to get there without a car? We took the train to Staveley. Fingers’ crossed it always goes as smoothly. £11.05 return for both us and our bikes to get to a great departure point, complete with super café, fantastic pub/brewery, and excellent bike shop. This could be the beginning of a great adventure.
We rode north on tarmac to begin with, up Kentmere valley. It was so mild we rode without gloves. The River Kent flowed fast; it’s been a wet Christmas. I’d never travelled this road before – on a road bike, it doesn’t go anywhere. As the valley widens at Kentmere Tarn a splendid view unfurls of high fells to the north. I was seeing the Lakes in a new way, and beginning to see the magic in mountain biking. Riding alongside Bobby felt great. I think like me he was excited and apprehensive at a ride started but still unknown. My (irrational) irritation with his holiday slovenliness, which I’d felt building over Christmas and New Year, dissolved under the pleasure of riding together through the weak winter light.
Just short of the road head at Hallow Bank we turned east to start the steep stony climb up Longsleddale Pass. Across uneven ground Bobby rides with a grace I can scarcely believe. Meanwhile I’m almost spectacularly inept, struggling to hold my nerve and line through slippery mud and stone. Technically he’s way better than me, though rides such as this should force me to improve. I’m surprised how much concentration it takes to stay upright and move forward. When I lose focus my foot goes almost immediately to ground. Sue and I sometimes worry Bobby struggles to focus on school work; but such anxieties evaporate out here, seeing him flow, in his element.
Mountain biking seduces me. The relationship to your immediate environment, especially the ground just ahead, is intense; the effort required hard, yet over so quickly. The experience creates deep moments different from those produced through road rides (the closest equivalent is a really demanding climb). It’s intoxicating.
The descent off the Pass is incredibly steep and technical, full of jagged, unforgiving rock. I’m relieved Bobby is happy to dismount for the most difficult section. It’s a challenge just to steady our bikes, made frisky without our weights on them. We turn south onto a bridleway across open fell. Mist descends, drizzle sets in, and the going gets tough – neither the ease of tarmac nor the exhilaration of technical track, this is simply bog. It feels exposed and hostile. It’s time to dig in. I worry Bobby will falter, but he doesn’t.
We spend long sections pushing through mud. I have the same ambivalent feeling I get when fell walking in harsh weather; part of me wanting to be down in the valley, cosy and safe, but part of me happy to stay up high, because it’s the continuing experience which produces the yearning for comfort and which enables its eventual indulgence to be truly savoured.
We plough south round Cocklaw, Green Quarter and Staveley Head Fells and finally the ground begins to fall away. With gravity in our favour we’re able now able to ride over the kind of terrain which on the upward side had stopped us in our tracks. We hit a long section of single track which snakes down off the moorland. Something switches in my head and I’m suddenly able to go for it in a way which a couple of hours earlier I couldn’t have. Bobby keeps with me easily as we fly down the fell. The last miles are a delicious clattering blur of rock, stone, mud and moss. Contrary to my expectations this is a superb way to be experiencing my favourite corner of the world. We rocket onto Hall Lane and down over Barley Bridge into Staveley. The descent ensures we finish with an adrenaline rush which will I hope make us impatient to return.
Mud spattered, we eat a late lunch and hang out in Wilf’s Café. And I think how happy I’d be to have five more years of this mountain biking.