The single best aspect of being national mountain bike champion is passing on my experiences via my visits to schools and clubs for the Sporting Champions scheme. While many of these activities utilise my British crown in a generically sporting sense, I do sometimes attend cycle specific events. These are always a pleasure and never more so than this past weekend when I attended the Hillingdon Slipstreamers' monthly mountain bike ride at The Lookout in Berkshire.
With a dire weather forecast predicting a cold and wet day, I questioned how many of the little Slipstreamers would brave the elements. The answer was an unprecedented 30 youngsters, oblivious to the likely conditions and keen to show me their skills. These guys are tough, used to the wet and have parents keen enough to join the ride and clean up the mess later. Thankfully for the softies among us (just me!) the weather held off until we were back at the café.
This group was big, meaning a long train of Slipstreamers threading through the forest. At each regrouping there were Slipstreamers swarming around the immediate woods, using the waiting time to perfect their drop offs and bunny hops. With an age range of 6-16 you would imagine these guys and girls would struggle to work together. But I was soon to learn that this is just one of the unique aspects of this fabulous club. With most members having joined the club at 5 or 6, they all respect one another's age and experience and are incredibly supportive, looking out for and encouraging all, regardless of age. The flip side of this is seeing Thomas, aged 6, decide that if his 16 year old club mate can clear the drop off he can do the same! The friendly peer pressure is the perfect blend of support, encouragement and competitiveness.
As we rode onwards I began to meet some of the characters. Jacob and Cameron defied their 7 or 8 years by continually taking on the big boys. Flagging mid way through, Jacob refuelled with an energy gel and took off like a man possessed. Meanwhile I had been warned to stay away from the back wheel of Charles since he is always the muddiest by the end. Approaching the biggest puddle of the day I realised too late whose wheel I was on!
As the ride progressed the efficiency of the girls began to show. Those early displays of energy were taking their toll on the lads while Rebecca, Abbie and Amy quietly continued to power up the climb to the top of Surrey Hill. Here we regrouped at the top of the big gnarly descent. Listening to Keith I began to wonder whether this section was his way of thinning the burgeoning club numbers. One by one he sent his Slipstreamers off the edge of the summit. This was a great descent and pretty technical, ending with a root drop onto the fire road. Here I witnessed a group of guys' reaction to seeing first me then 13 year-old Abbie clean the roots, "it must be easier than we thought, we'll do it next time", followed by gasps of disbelief as along came Jacob, Cameron and, you guessed it, Thomas, all releasing their front brake at just the right moment to sail over the roots. What a great leveller mountain biking can be!
Before I knew it we were hurtling back towards the café. There looked to be plenty of tired but happy faces. Everyone had ridden well and together we had tamed this trail. Club president Keith looked satisfied that his merry band had earned their bottle of pop, and I got busy with the permanent marker.
The club shortly has its 10th anniversary and they certainly have plenty to celebrate. With a primary emphasis on fun these kids learn in the best possible environment, passing on experience from generation to generation. Cycling will undoubtedly be a source of enjoyment and health into adulthood and I congratulate Keith and the club's supporters for achieving this. Because of this I was hugely honoured to accept the offer of becoming the club's female Vice President, alongside Bradley Wiggins who is the existing male counterpart. I cannot think of a better way of representing what cycling means to me.
I am looking forward to my next outing with the Slipstreamers!