My twelve-year-old son Bob wants cycling to be fun. He’d love life to be one long, uninterrupted stunt show. He craves the adrenaline rush. He’s fearless, constantly searching for, then rising to the next physical challenge, driven to test his limits. Watching him play sometimes scares me so much that – not wanting to stop his boyhood thriving – I look the other way. If his body senses a barrier, it seems compelled to surmount it. Pleasure is for him bodily, not cognitive. He loves fun fairs, laughs out loud at slapstick, and takes wicked delight in playing tricks on sister Flo.
The more fun cycling is, the more he wants to do it. But much of his cycling isn’t much fun, like we’ve taken the fun out of cycling. He rides because he must, as part of a carless family. With enough persuasion he’ll join a family leisure ride. But the riding he wants to do is riding he finds fun: he finds time trialling slightly fun, bunch racing more fun, track racing still more fun, and BMX and mountain biking greatest fun of all.
But there are different kinds of mountain biking, and my idea of mountain biking isn’t fun: I want mountain biking to contain those things I find enjoyable about road riding – lack of impediment, smoothness, duration, flow; Bob wants the opposite – obstacles, friction, interruption, difficulty. The rides we’ve done since getting mountain bikes for Christmas have usefully built our off-road skills and confidence, but they’ve been so far away from what makes Bob thrive I almost wince. Slowly trudging over barren, windswept moor does not for him constitute fun, even if the descents are exhilarating.
So giving Bob the MTB fun he craves felt overdue. This means trail centre riding, the more challenging the better. Last year we hired bikes at first Mabie and then Grizedale Forests to get a taste of this style of riding, but we stuck to easy green and blue routes which left Bob unfulfilled, frustrated. Clearly it was time to move up a level, to try a red route. This is Grizedale’s Red Route description:
This trail will take you through the forest by way of sinuous singletrack, offering adrenalising sections of singletrack descent and leg burning climbs. Be warned, there are plenty of challenging boardwalks in case you needed more to be scared of! This trail is suitable for mountain bikers only and requires a high level of skill and fitness.
It doesn’t mention fun, but Bob’s eyes shone as I read it out loud; this is just the kind of language which speaks to him. This sounds like cycling fun!
Bam! Bam! Bam! Riding singletrack is like being in a video game where things keep coming at you – rocks, roots, branches, trees – and you must decide whether to dodge or tackle them (my instinct is to dodge; Bob’s – because it’s more fun – to tackle). One thing is quickly eclipsed by the next; there’s no time to dwell, let alone reflect. On the toughest stretches you can’t take your eye off the trail for a second.
Our riding speed is somewhere between the two speeds we regularly move through the countryside – more slowly when hill-walking, faster when road cycling – but the sensation is quite different from either. Riding these narrow, rocky trails requires more intense concentration and quicker reaction than hill-walking ever does, and a much more intimate, nuanced and responsive relationship between terrain, body and bike than road cycling. Because I’m timid I stay mainly upright, but Bob falls often – he shrugs off his tumbles and fears falling so little that he takes risks and learns fast, racing from feature to feature as I follow clumsily behind. I feel my comfort zone intensely, but it’s a concept he seems not to know.
Features are most fun, especially the sections of raised boardwalks and rock paths. These represent specific challenges, test your skill and nerve, and make crystal clear whether you succeed or fail. If Bob fails he tries again. Although I have a go these things feel to me like obstacles placed awkwardly in our path, blocking our ride; which is of course exactly what they are, but Bob interprets them ‘properly’ – to him they’re the whole point we’re here, and form the heart of our ride.
Road riding gives me enormous pleasure but I’d be hard pressed to call it fun. Riding Grizedale’s Red Route helps me see my normal cycling in fresh light – as slightly detached and ponderous. Compared to mountain biking in Bob’s exuberant company, my road riding seems a bit serious; it makes me wonder whether I’m a grumpy old roadie who’s got no sense of cycling fun.
Is cycling fun? Is cycle commuting fun? Could it be? Should it be? Youthful sub-cultures of cycling seem a lot of fun – looking cool on a bike, bicycle polo, alleycats, generally larking around and having fun on bikes. Can we learn something from cycling that’s fun – from mountain biking, from these youthful sub-cultures, from the fun that people – perhaps especially kids – get from cycling?
Is it time to inject more fun into cycling?