Almost without noticing, the summer of 2011 has become the official ‘summer of learning’. Earlier this year, I took the decision to learn how to lead climb; the worst summer weather since 1993 has conspired against me, so that practice hasn’t been as frequent as I might like, but then again I’ve also realised that learning to lead climb is going to be a lifelong process. As I tried to step up my fitness, I found myself signing up for a ‘crash course’ in swimming, and within a few days I was able to swim a length of the pool with front crawl. It was like getting the keys to a new kingdom, and although I’m still practising the swimming, I really enjoy the feeling of improvement.
So, to top it all off, I decided to learn to ride a bike. Now, I know what you’re thinking. I’ve had microadventures on my bike; I’ve followed national cycle routes. I can definitely ride a bike. But put me on a bike with fat tyres and wide handlebars, when the trail gets bumpy or steep, then I’m not really a happy bunny. Perhaps seeing the bike I’ve been ‘borrowing’ for the past few months will demonstrate why:
Makro’s finest mountain bike, of about 10 years ago. Loving those colours, too.
But we’re heading back to the continent of North America, which includes a stop in Whistler for Dave to try and injure himself in an entertaining and non-permanent way. Would I hike? Sip caramel cappachillo all day? Or would I try and ride down a mountain (on the easy trails)? To decide, and to help me prepare, I headed to mid-Wales for a course with Forest Freeride.
Day one started with me getting fitted with a borrowed bike. Ooh, proper front suspension! Disc brakes! And it’s purple! (Sadly by midway through day two, the bike had succumbed to my uncanny ability to fly headfirst over the handlebars, and it was replaced by an altogether less sparkly grey number).
Before I had chance to demur, we biked up into the forest which clads the hills around. Body position was discussed, and I finally learnt why Dave kept suggesting that I stand up while I ride. Then it was on to the brakes, climbing a short way up a track before pelting down again, learning to trust that the brakes would stop me swiftly and safely (and probably more quickly than the brakes on my car, these days).
That day, and the next, passed quickly in a flurry of principles of movement, basic physics, and battling my subconscious desire to jam the brakes on at all times. I learnt to look ahead, rather than directly down at whatever obstacle – tree root, rock or log staircase – I was actually travelling over. I learnt to adjust my feet and lean when going around banked, sweeping corners, whilst keeping speed low and turning my shoulders when encountering a slower corner. I can now lift the front of a bike with a pedal stroke (though I haven’t mastered the famed ‘shopping trolley’ manoeuvre yet, which would allow me to land with both wheels at the same time.) I’ve also learnt that I’ll have a go at something scary, even when my initial instinct – and that of my companions – is to feel the fear and refuse. And I’ve learnt that falling off hurts a little bit, shakes you up for a while, but that it isn’t the end of the world.
At the end of the weekend, as I started back towards phone reception, traffic congestion and the flatlands of the Midlands, I was exhausted (mentally, more than physically) and exhilarated. I felt much as I do when I’m on the ski slope; I might not be going quickly, and I might not be stylish, but I feel like I could, at the very least, have a go at getting down a lot of the routes I might encounter. So I'd be having a go on the trails of Whistler. The question would still be, would the course be enough to prepare me for life on a bike in British Columbia?