And there let us wallow

by John Ewing [1]

The joy of mountain biking.  A stock picture . . . the cyclist is not John Ewing.

One recent Sunday I went mountain biking for the first time in four or five years.  I originally gave it up because mountain bikes aren't as fast as road bikes (unless you are travelling vertically) and because I got fed up cleaning off the mud.  However, Sunday was the last outing of the season, the club was paying the entry fee and the meal afterwards, and I needed five points to earn a tin bottle-top in this year's Credit Mutuel Challenge; so I dusted off my old MTB and went.  

It was interesting (the word being pronounced in the tone of a radiologist looking at a lung X-ray).  Firstly, of the four of us who went, only one is anything like a mountain biker, and it wasn't me.  Secondly . . . well, secondly is the rest of this screed.

With much self-deprecation, we signed on for the shortest circuit, a "mere" 18km.  This, for Kings of the Road who were doing toddles of 160 km in August, seemed laughable, but our index of trepidation was nonetheless fairly high, and our chit-chat over the free coffee & cake beforehand rang very much like what you might hear around any respectable gallows.  We hung about drinking coffee for as long as we possibly could without looking as if we were screwed to the floor (Daniel later needed three hydraulic realignment pauses), then grimaced at each other and took off.

The first few km were up the main road, which gave me the chance to get the feel of the bike again (weird).  I pushed a bit harder than the others in doing this, which meant that I was in front when we forked off onto (joy!) more tarmac - a gentle rise, followed by 1.5 km of decent downgrade. I can't resist a good downhill: the old bike got up to about 40 kph on this, the knobbly tyres sounding like an infinite zip being undone at high speed.  This was fun - until we reached the crossroads at the bottom and looked around for routing marks (yellow arrows) only to find, funnily enough, that they were all pointing at a very muddy-looking upslope that went more or less back the way we had come.

After a suitable pause for cogitation (and Daniel's first sally into the undergrowth) we decided that we were looking at the final portion of the circuit, and that we had missed something earlier on.  After a few choice remarks about bearded clots who couldn't resist a good downhill, we started back the way we had come, 1.5 km of indecent upgrade.  The old bike got up to about 10 kph on this, the knobbly tyres making the noise of a zip staying firmly shut, and yours truly... well, that's one heavy mother of a bike: yours truly gave voice according to the traditional score, puff puff pant pant (crescendo).

In less time that it might take to engrave all this in granite with a toffee hammer and a safety pin we were up top again, where someone had tied a yellow arrow round an old oak tree in such fashion as to be invisible to antique tyros unzipping past at 40 klicks and opining "wheeee". This we followed, and left the orderly world of Mr. T. MacAdam far behind us.

It was OK at first, but "first" didn't last long.  About 50 metres along the track we came to a sign saying, quite simply, "Mud for next 100 metres", and do you know, it was telling the truth.  (Those of you who wish to intone Flanders & Swann's "Hippopotamus Song" may do so now.)  It wasn't just mud, though, it was deep mud, ruts and water, with a few untravelled crests offering to trip up the unwary (us) and the unskilled (us).  We made it about 10 metres into this quagmire before the front man put a foot down, and heigh-ho we all squidged to a halt behind and sagged over sideways.  No-one actually fell down, but we had a good try.

Then the Retreat From Moscow began (except that we were still advancing, and not yet marching on our bellies).  Over the next five or ten minutes I watched my front tyre grow to about twice its original width as the mud built up, while my shoes did much the same thing: ignominious as it was, we were reduced to getting off and pushing, something that the sternest slope had been incapable of forcing on us all year.  Honour was somewhat Elastoplastered by the fact that everyone else was doing the same thing, but all the same . . .  The trenches came to an end with a pleasant 200 metres of grassy trail, then a discrete red sign informed us that we had reached a "Déscente".

In the MTB world it would appear that the miserable one-in-ten and one-in-seven slopes of we pavement artists are not worthy of comment.   Conversely, when, in the MTB world, they actually warn you of a downslope, it means that you are about to ride over the edge of a young cliff.

Fortunately, I was still second man in the column.  Bernard, ahead of me, was the semi-experienced MTB man, and he simply rode over the edge and let gravity do its work.  In about ten seconds he was at the bottom of a ferocious downgrade, and zipping into a long green curve leading to . . .  but it was my turn, and I looked down to see what my front tyre was doing.

It was then that I realised two things: firstly, that my front tyre was in fact almost directly under my centre of gravity - in other words, I was on the point of doing an endo (that's MTBspeak for end-over-end); secondly, that the trail Bernard had so happily ridden down was between one and two feet wide, with a perilous sandwich of ruts and ridges either side.  The first point I dealt with by slipping backwards off the saddle; the second . . . Well, there were two ways of dealing with it: (1) by braking constantly and feeling my way gingerly down the slope, hoping that I would be able to avoid the over-corrections that are inevitable in such circumstances and so keep out of the ruts; and (2) by boldly going where Bernard had gone before.  I opted for #2, and released the brakes completely.

It was grrrreeeaaaatttt!!!!!  The ground went whipping past, the bike was easy to keep on the curved-and-narrow, and the bumping stayed within manageable limits - nothing much worse than you'd see at the average rodeo.  Just as well, really, because the vibration was jiggling my glasses about so much that I couldn't really see the ground clearly.  Any untoward obstacles and I'd have been doing the Flying Wallendas without a net.

Anyway, so far that's 12 paragraphs and we haven't done five km.  Despair not, here comes the bridge that gets us over the middle bit: nothing unlike the above happened for the next ten klicks.  Unless of course you count getting into the mud again and not managing to get a foot down before doing a perfect pratfall-and-roll in it.  Or being overtaken by a mother riding with her bambino in tow.  Or tearing down a long hill at speed and realising halfway that the surface had suddenly developed a generous layer of hazelnut-sized gravel and the back end was shimmying merrily from side to side every time I tried to hit the brakes.  Over all these, and other things, I will gloss.  Hey, I'm still here.

Eventually we crossed another of Mr. MacAdam's wonderful roads, sticking dexterously in the sump on the far side, and when we lurched out of that we found that through the trees there loomed a tent, beneath whose spreading wings a minor feast awaited -  chocolate cake, coconut brownies, chocolate, lemon cake, fruitcake, gingerbread, salami, cheese, Kügelhopf, coffee, two kinds of juice, lemon tea... and lots more I can't remember.  This, you see, was the one and only checkpoint for all three circuits on the outing, and the non-cycling wives of the organizing club had done us proud.  Where miserable competitive types make do with a nosebag of pre-packaged lumps grabbed from a waving support guy, we cyclotourists dismount and hold Kaffeeklatsch, observing all the proprieties: greeting everyone we know, making new friends, inspecting each other's gear and generally making pigs of ourselves.  Wunnerful.

Of course, there were still a good few km to go...  After 20 minutes or so we tore ourselves away, and rode off up the trail.  Mercifully, our hosts had allowed a generous flat stretch after the checkpoint, but all too soon we arrived at a familiar crossroads, whereat a certain muddy upslope took its origin.  Yup, it was the place I had misled our bunch to an hour and a half ago.  We looked longingly at the solid tarmac road we had reclimbed before, but there were others present and anyway, honour forbade we take it.  Honour is a bitch.

And so once more we addressed the mud (cue Hippo song).  This time, miracle of miracles, I remained upright, and the bike was through it in thirty seconds with me still on board.  Beyond, the slope was better drained, although still as steep as a mild staircase.  But grinding up dry slopes is something we roadies are not too bad at... we even overtook a few folk and, best of all, Mummy and kiddo.

We reached the top, and there but remained a swoop down a metalled road into town, and we were done.  Of course, in zipping down this road, all the mud clotted around the tyres was thrown off by centrifugal force, much of it straight up.  It's amazing how many nostril-sized lumps of mud can adhere to a tyre . . .

Change of clothes, lunch, coffee, and home, where I soaked myself while hosing down the bike.  And then, the repose of the warrior - I had, after all, done a whole 20 kilometres in those two and a half wet and painful hours.

Yesterday I took the road bike out and did 120 km in five.

And last night I sent an email to our son, Rupert. He's happy as Larry now, because when he comes here at the weekend he will leave with my mountain bike.  I'm done with it.

I'm done with it, because I'm buying a better one this evening.  That was FUN!!!!!


horizontal rule

[1] Biodata

John Ewing is a software engineer in his mid-fifties.  Diagnosed with diabetes in the early 1990s, he took up road cycling in 1997 as a means of keeping fit.  He lives in Alsace, France.

John's previous articles on the joys of cycling will be found in Issues 7 and 13.  We would remind readers also of John's poem about cycling published last year and viewable at