Wet through before it’s begun. Gore-Tex, Gabba, grimace wet. A wall of grey turning black above and black below. Three or four white lines to the false horizon.
Back in England. 23mm tyres and carbon clinchers left 1200km away in a bag disassembled in a spare room for another time. Last ride’s leisurely #BAAWs of skinny tyres and shiny tubes against sunlight Pyrenean doors replaced with muted colours grabbed under shelter in brief interludes of respite.
Stabby cadence out to the country lanes. Not talking, not hanging around, not really into this. Under the trees. Gone now the rides where sun made fleeting appearances leaving brief photocopies under tyre of the canopy above.
Turn left and drop into the woods. Voices fade, replaced by crackling under tyre and the brushing of lush wet ferns. The damp has brought out aromas of earthy roots and sweet pine. Nature’s air freshener overwhelms our mechanical intrusion putting us into context. Cross bike flexibility fast remembered fondly over the reminiscence of a slick climbing machine in another country. Not that quick spins through short sections of singletrack seem fast. To the edge of these machine’s ability feels satisfying none the less. Not about fast, or faster or fastest, this is for balance and poise and skills honed years ago before the comfort years. Just being able is hero enough on slippy roots. Pressures and compounds irrelevant over this tree’s anchors, nerve and luck are your only friends here.
Tree cover thins to reveal a thicker grey. Chalk climbs are getting closer. Brutal when dry, but more slippy than challenging today. Head up. Singlespeed versus road block. He’s all torque and I’m no traction. A balancing act of arcing around pedal strokes, keeping the weight and the power in check to progress inches at a time. It’s 12% for as far as the eye can see upwards. Hard frustrating rewarding work. Not the essence of cross, but Belgium sparked a chain reaction that led here to my hills at their most inhospitable when only the most stubborn will attend on an inappropriate bike.
So relentless the water attack now that protection is based on progression rather than prevention. Don’t stop. Just don’t stop. Speed up. Block wind, create heat, pray for no punctures. No mentioning the ‘P’ word. Hands down on drops try and control any front wheel slip. Advance becomes an slowly animated track stand at hard gradients. Rear wheels slide into ruts without warning, a reminder of the thin line between grip and letting go. Hold nerve to stay upright. False senses of security are constant like dashboard warning lights.
Look back to see mountain bikes gaining ground. New school. Suppose the old school was new school once. No stalling now, not now. Egos tell themselves they look cool on what amount to 1970s racing bikes in the wrong place at the wrong time. Remain upright but barely move up this climb. To the people in the pub below at river level we must look like brightly coloured cardboard cut outs stuck on the side of a hill. Damp soggy paper faces with gritted teeth heading into the wind and sharp rain with clay splattered expressions still – moving – forward. Slowly.
Climb out to the plateau split in two by tarmac. Familiar, smooth, civilised black top. A troupe of Italian style worth tens of thousands spins passed effortlessly – 53-25, silent, stealthy, gone leaving envious thoughts of easier pacing and greater distances. Think, wait, cross, more loose wet chalk, more climbing, more slipping, more adversity, more rain. More than rain now, it washes down the inner rut passed and away from us as we head upstream. A small flood washing clean and smooth these rocks, a chalk water feature up here on top of a county. Closed in acoustics by a wall of damp air and a ceiling of dark grey makes the wide open feel claustrophobic.
Rain lightens as we head indoors again. Tree canopy closing overhead and just the drip, drip, drip aftermath of a week’s rain in an hour. Nature resumes play. Still. Quiet. Humid. Fogging up. Stop. Breathe. Be. Pee. Really listening reveals far from silence. Nature talks on a different frequency all too often missed. Crashing of fallen branches five metres to the right. Suddenly a deer stands side on in our path, just metres away. Watching us watching it. A fragment of life shared. A ‘Stand by Me‘ moment. This is her home, my escape. I feel grateful for the allowance, guilty for the inconvenience to her. Reflect as pedals turn again, no talking, the natural silence far from awkward.
Descend through this overgrown wilderness. Trail edges ingress like Triffids. Weeks of rain has given them license to get out and explore. Machines work flawlessly to bring us out here and out of here. It’s not about the bike. But it is about this bike. Other steeds would have made light work of today, coming prepared with backpacks and huge tyres that eat up everything and taste nothing, it could all have been so much easier. But that would be point lost somehow. To slow down and sample everything makes seems a cleaner translation. One bottle and summer socks were a knife to a gun fight, but that was the point. This journey is the destination, however it plays out.
That sweet spot of time recognised, after the low point of soaked gritty ride morale and before the words are over, energy almost spent. Hard nailing it home to hot tea and imagined delicacies, there is still time and good will for getting a good enough picture for Instagram.
The long flat road home sheds mud fast flinging memories of what hardship went half an hour before up in the air and down onto someone else’s territory. Before long they’re the only reminder to a better world just over the hill, one without sodium lighting and the aural violence of free revving internal combustion engines on wet tarmac spinning past. Our escort is the nauseating sound of what we have brought away from the hills with us eating the top layer of expensive brake track just before every corner home.
No talk now, just speed. Faster than imagined on these tyres. Taking it in turns to take on the wind. Pouring everything left onto these streets. Splattered, bloodied, spent. Not coming quietly, we are a sight. Over all too quickly and yet not soon enough, the paradox of a ride like this sits comfortably once again after all these years,
Numb hands wring out wet gloves, peel off Gabbas, force quit frozen expressions. Fresh brake pads almost gone. Expensive wheels now concave under silty black stripes. Garmin tells half the story. Friends shake and separate. Knowing looks, fulfilled smiles, thousand yard stares. Nods to next weekend. To quote a dear friend and his sheep, ‘This is why‘.