Oh balls... As my bike and body slam to the ground, I realise I've been lulled into a false sense of security by the fast-flowing surfaced trails of Bristol's Ashton Court Estate. Fifty Acre Wood, just over the road, is a very different beast, packed with awkwardly angled roots and churned up sections of trail that, in its current damp state, provide a real challenge. We've got plenty more miles to go today though, so I'm quickly back up on my feet and back in the saddle, slipping and sliding my way onwards and upwards through the mud.
Since MBUK's move to Bristol back in the autumn we've ventured out into the local woods for the odd photoshoot or lunchtime ride but never made a proper day of it. So today art ed Jimmer, his deputy Matt and I (the mag's sub-editor) are celebrating sending issue 313 to press with a post-deadline ride linking together some of the city's best manmade and natural trails.
We're planning to combine some of the Big Ride from issue 309 (which you can view/download here) with a bit of local knowledge to create the ultimate Bristol loop. The weather's conspiring against us though, with a brutal headwind delaying our arrival at today's meeting point, Mud Dock bike shop, and a chill to the air that persuades us against stopping for a coffee at the upstairs cafe in favour of a quick warm-up spin over to Ashton Court.
We head up the switchbacked fireroad around the deer park and join the out-and-back section of singletrack next to the quarry that forms part of the Nova trail. On the downhill stretch you really need to find your flow – brake in the wrong place and you'll lose momentum and stuff up the next turn – but that makes it all the more fun. Then it's up the rocky track and back into the woods alongside the wall, before heading across Beggar Bush Lane and down to 50 Acre.
Much slithering and dabbing later, we're spat out at the bottom of the hill and make an ill-fated decision to try to find an off-road route to Ashton Hill Plantation. With no map or GPS device and hazy memories of having come this way a decade or so ago, it turns into a proper 1990s style 'no idea where we're going so let's just wing it' ride, complete with singletrack climbs that peter out with no warning and even a couple of barbed wire fences to scale.
When we do make it to the plantation, we're blown away by what the Belmont Riders Association have achieved since we were last there. Where once a solitary downhill line meandered its way down the hill there are now multiple runs filled with some pretty sizable jumps and gaps, which the picture above really doesn't do justice. Matt and I are on 29er hardtails so we take things easy, but Jimmer throws himself into it, landing a decent sized stepdown with millimetre perfect precision. We've got an appointment to make in town though, so after checking out all the different lines we figure it's time to head back along the road to Ashton Court.
We rejoin the singletrack beside the wall and as I'm chasing Jimmer's back tyre I glance up and spot a big bird of prey flying directly above him. Taking it for a good omen, we head through another hole in the wall and cross the road to Leigh Woods, where we join the Yer Tiz trail, and notice a familiar looking raptor watching us intently from a nearby tree. Slightly worried that he might be waiting to pick off any stragglers, we decide it's time to up the pace. After the natural treats of the past couple of hours this surfaced route feels a bit tame, but we know a surefire way to up the adrenaline levels.
Exiting the trail at the main car park, we make our way to a precipitous corner of woodland that's well known among local riders. A 29er isn't the ideal machine to be tackling these off-camber trails littered with super-steep switchbacks on but it certainly makes for a test of nerve and balance. One which I ultimately fail... Jimmer's having an absolute blast on his full-sus Marin though.
With legs starting to tire – and Matt facing a 14-mile ride home – we decide it's time to spin back along the river, under the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and sink a couple of well-earned pints to celebrate a great day in the saddle. "Come on in, lads," says Will from Mud Dock. "We're in the presence of mountain bike royalty..." More on that next week.