One of the more interesting quirks of taking on a personalised training plan from The Endurance Coach to target the 1200km Paris-Brest-Paris road ride in August has been the introduction of mountain biking to my life.
As a road rider of some 25 years standing I have consistently turned my back on the pleasures of the trail. It’s not that I ever had anything against the MTB crowd, indeed I have often looked on in awe at their downhill antics, but I never thought it was for me. After all, it’s enough of an effort just to keep my road bikes and kit clean without making things worse by deliberately seeking out filth.
That all changed when my coach Nick Thomas advised me that he would be scheduling weekly MTB rides into my winter training plan to add variety, keep me warm and help me work on my technical skills. With some trepidation I approached our friends on What Mountain Bike for a loan, borrowed a lovely Canyon Lux CF and, after a couple of brief forays into the hills around Bath, set off for the Brecon Beacons and a weekend of wide wheels, wild countryside and February snow.
Just to cut to the chase, anyone looking for tales of ‘sick drops’ and awesome handling skills should look away now, what you’re going to get here is the story of a rider tentatively picking their way around some relatively straightforward trails but, in doing so, beginning to learn that there is a whole other cycling world out there: one that’s great fun.
My MTB education actually began a couple of weeks prior to this trip, falling off within a minute of turning my bike away from the road and onto a steep, muddy downhill track to the south of Bath. Fortunately I was travelling at approximately 1mph, aware that I was completely out of my depth, when the tumble took place, so it was definitely more of a topple than a stack.
If I had an ambition for my trip to the Beacons, then, it was to remain upright while getting in the six hours of riding required by the training plan. Hardly reaching for the stars, but it would prove enough of a challenge for me as we rode up and down some pretty steep tracks, through the odd river and even up above the snow line.
The strangest thing for this lifelong roadie about mountain biking was accepting that the bike will find its own way to where you want it to go. Particularly riding downhill, there is something initially unnerving about having a bike moving and wriggling beneath you, sliding in the mud and picking its own way through obstacles. It was this sensation that caused my aforementioned topple, and I was determined to embrace this aspect rather than fight it in Wales.
Our Saturday ride took us along forest roads that provided familiarly reassuring surfaces but, even though it was only on an easy yellow run, also threw us around a 120-degree corner into a steep, unsurfaced climb that required a level of commitment I wasn’t prepared to make at first time of asking. This is another aspect of mountain biking I am learning to deal with: there is no cop out option. Sure, you can take a tricky descent more cautiously, but make it you must if you wish to get where you need to go. Likewise this climb: a second effort (having approached from the opposite direction to allow us to maintain momentum) proved successful and opened up spectacular views over the Talybont reservoir and the snow-capped mountains beyond. Going where the roads can’t take you definitely brings its rewards.
A loosely stoned and deeply grooved track back down provided an opportunity to test out my courage when it came to allowing the bike to slide around and find its own way: my levels of trust were found wanting, with my foot (but not me!) going down more than once. We would return to ride up the same track tomorrow with more success.
Sunday’s ride took us further afield and was to be the major effort of the weekend. An up and down affair that took us across to the other side of the reservoir, sent us down and up steep, slippery embankments to ford a river strewn with rocks (made it down and through, but not all the way up) and then up into the snow among the high forest trees. Riding through the crunchy white stuff was fun but hard, and the long climb had been a real workout too. Previously I had often wondered whether mountain bikes really needed such tiny gears? As I pedalled mine up a 2.5km climb I discovered that they very much did. The descent from the snow line saw small progress as I even let go of the brake levers for some of it!
Back in the excellent Star Inn in Talybont-on-Usk village we had time to reflect upon the weekend over Welsh rarebit and an excellent choice of beers. Had I left my comfort zone behind in the West Country? Yes. Had I been scared this weekend? Frequently. Had I learned anything by facing those fears and trusting my bike to take care of me? Hopefully. Slowly. Had it been fun? Hell yes.
The roads of Paris-Brest-Paris may be paved with tarmac, but I’m pleased my road there has included stints on the bridleways and forest trails of Britain. As a result, I like to think my first mountain-biking weekend will not be my last. After all, I’m a cyclist, and that is a much broader and more inclusive description than many people (me included) sometimes acknowledge.