Sunday, 21 July 2013

On Yer Bike - Off Yer Bike!

A couple of weeks before my planned South Downs Way cycle trip, I decided to go on a short course to boost my (very basic – and very rusty!) mountain biking skills.

Plas y Brenin in Snowdonia, North Wales, was running their Big Ride Weekend. Food and accommodation was included in the price, along with a goody bag, and over the course of the weekend you could choose from various morning skills workshops and afternoon guided trail rides. Sounded perfect for me!

I had been to PYB once before for a whitewater kayaking weekend, and I found the standard of food and accommodation to be excellent, the staff and instructors and general atmosphere to be great, and also it was a great way to meet really nice people. This second trip there did not disappoint, and from my room mate, to workshop mates, to trail riding mates, to people I met in the bar afterwards – everyone was lovely: really friendly, really interesting, and all keen to mix with everyone else and make new friends.

The biking was excellent and really boosted my confidence. The first morning I did ‘Technical Ups’, learning the little tweeks to technique that really help you to get up the steep and technical bits of a trail without falling off (although I did manage quite a bit of that on the steep corners!) and without losing momentum or control. Lots of tips about shifting your body weight to keep traction, where to change gears so that you keep the pedals going smoothly, and when to give yourself an extra blast of power to shoot up over obstacles and short ups without losing speed. 

Technical Ups

While all this uphill practice did wonders for my faded confidence, it also did wonders for my appetite! After an excellent and hearty lunch, the next part of the day was trail riding.

I joined a group riding the Marin trail, described as “a proper mountain bike trail in every sense of the term. Big climbs, big descents, brilliant singletrack and truly awesome scenery make this a trail to remember”. The trail was hard work after the uphill work in the morning, plus it was a really hot day! Having only gotten back into biking a few weeks before I was relatively unfit, and at the top of each climb there was me and another lad constantly lagging behind! Embarrassing, but I could still see that I was tackling the singletrack in a much more confident manner than I would have managed without the morning’s workshop.

A brief breather on the Marin Trail

When we got back to the PYB centre I was exhausted, and just so so hot! PYB has a lake right by it, so I met up with another guy who been riding a different trail, and we headed down to the lake for some wild swimming to cool off. The water was really quite warm so we were able to stay in for quite a while, until the time came to get out and go for food. SAFETY NOTE – you should always take care when wild swimming as it can be very dangerous. We had prior knowledge that the lake was safe with no hidden currents, and we were both strong swimmers (I have done a lot of swimming in the sea, and the other guy had done a huge amount of lake swimming and wild swimming as a triathlete). Plus we had told people where we were going and there were two of us together to reduce any risk.

Beautiful spot for a wild swim

Dinner was once again a fantastic meal, and afterwards I signed up for the following day’s jumps and drops workshop. I picked this one as I have a problem with downhill sections of relying too much on my brakes, which not only slows you down but also breaks up the flow of the ride, and can actually increase your chances of falling by causing you be off balance or coming to sudden stops as the gradients change or the ground is uneven.

This workshop was especially enjoyable as unlike the ups from the previous day, this one had a fairly large element of adrenaline included!! We began with flat wooden ramps, first practising rollovers – where you simply roll over or down the bumps – then onto drop offs, where you keep the front wheel up a bit as you go over and have a nice flat landing. We finished off the ramps with a larger one for jumping. We had several goes each of jumping, and this was great for confidence as you knew what to expect and could put more and more oomph in with each try you had! 

The small wooden ramp

Once we had finished with the ramp we moved onto the track. This felt very different as the ground could be different shapes and different textures, the take off or landing could be uneven, there might be obstacles to avoid or bends to negotiate. But each time you handle something well, or it doesn’t quite go so well but you can learn from it, then you feel your confidence and determination growing – a very pleasant feeling!

We progressed through steep slopes, small drop offs, larger drop offs, small jumps, and then finished up with some playing on the jump track. We had a few roll throughs (going through the track rolling over the jumps without jumping) as a group to get used to the track, then the instructor stood by to shout out tips and give feedback to improve performance on individual runs. I did several roll throughs as I worked on the line I took for bends, getting my posture right, feeling more comfortable with the idea of jumping… Eventually I felt I had taken on all of the tips and was ready to try a jump. 

Rolling over a tabletop jump - shame it's not a longer shot to get the height in!

I rolled down the entry with good speed, went up the table top and then jumped at the right moment getting into the air well. Unfortunately, that’s where the good bit ended and what happened next happened so quickly! I saw how far down the ground was, and the scared part of brain took over and froze up my body, bracing me for impact. Instead of staying nice and relaxed to land well and absorb the landing properly, my hands squeezed the brakes and I went pretty rigid. The landing was hard, and the suspension of my forks fought back after I went over the handlebars on impact, popping my bike back into the air and landing back down on my ribs. My bike is old, and not that light!! Winded and very bruised, my riding was over for the day. But I knew what I had done wrong, and I was still able to recognise the improvements I had made over the weekend. Plus, I got lots of cool points for the way I dealt with the accident – no tears, no whining, just a lot of deep breaths (once I could breath again!) followed by some self-deprecating humour once I was on my feet again – although I was still shaking very badly from the adrenaline surge!

The bruise starting to develop the next day - along with so much swelling that I had to wear stretchy trousers!!

Still: it's not about how you fall, it's about how you pick yourself back up again - and I can't wait to get back out there and make even more improvements!

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