Sunday, December 23, 2007

How I got into mountain biking

Me and Jude in Glencoe, 2004

I took up climbing whilst I was still at school, introduced to it by teachers and school trips. I'd always been crap at school sports and took every opportunity to skive out of them. maybe as a result of that I always tended towards being a bit of a chubber. Not fat, per se, but a bit padded.

With the discovery that I liked climbing, the first physical activity, apart from masturbation, which I had any real enthusiasm for, I began to change my physical shape, simply by getting out there and climbing. I became lean and fit, enhanced by my taking up running and yoga whilst at University.

I climbed throughout the 80s, but when I got married in 1988, my climbing gradually tailed off, and I saw less and less of my climbing friends. I kidded myself at the time that it was just a result of us drifting apart as we forged the courses of our own lives, but in reality, my (now ex-) wife didn't care for my climbing mates, or perhaps, for the amount of my time and affection which I devoted to them, and which she felt should be all devoted to her.

Whatever the reason, by the start of the 1990s, I was no longer climbing. Not only that, but my running also gradually tailed off, as I failed to set aside time for it amidst my household chores and sundry pieces of life. One day, around 1994, I was suddenly no longer a runner.

The result of the incremental decline in physical activity was that I began to put on weight and to get unfit. By 1998, I weighed 16 stones, compared to the 12 I'd been in 1990.

OK, we all put on a little weight as we age, but I was up to a 36" waist and found it hard to climb a flight of stairs without getting out of breath. I had to do something, so in desperation, I took up running again. I managed several runs of around 5 miles, and began to feel fitter again, though I was still overweight. I split up with my wife that summer, and even got a new, much younger girlfriend, like the classic mid-life crisis man.

The stress of that split caused me to lose my appetite, and weight fell off me (mostly muscle loss I suspect), until I was down to 12st 6lb by August 1998. That month, I spent a week camping in Dufton, in the Vale of Eden, and did some fell-walking and even a fell-run on one day. I was feeling spiritually low, but physically better than I'd been for years, due to the weight loss.

My dalliance with the younger woman fizzled out. There was no heart in it, and I decided to give it a go with my ex-wife again. After a long period of joint counselling from Relate, we got back together. My diet returned to normality and immediately, my weight began to climb again. I reached 14 stones before deciding I had to do something.

I'd tried to pick up running again, but was having problems - persistent shin splints. My GP suggested I was too heavy for running and should try swimming or cycling.

I'd swum in the mid-80s, when I suffered from knee trouble, but found it boring as hell, just plodding back and forth in the pool, even though it got me fitter than I'd ever been before. So I decided to buy a bike. I fancied a bike which I could use out on rough trails in the countryside; a mountain bike.

I'd not had a bike since I was at school, and knew little about them, so I began to pore over mountain bike mags, gleaning advice and information. I set a budget of £300, but ended up spending £500, in July 1999, on a shiny red Specialized Rockhopper, from Ellis Briggs in Shipley. I rode it home to Pudsey, and though it was hard work, I realised this was what I needed. It replaced both running and walking, getting me out into the countryside without damaging my already damaged legs even further, and without taking up an entire day, thus making it easier to fit into my life.

Unlike running or walking, there was an extra dimension, the dimension of speed. A fast downhill brought adrenaline pumping through my brain, and provided the link to my other long-abandoned outdoor love, climbing. It was perfect.

Below: The 1999 Specialized Rockhopper FS

More importantly than the thrills perhaps, it began to get me fit. I started to commute to work in Leeds, detouring along the way to reach the Leeds-Liverpool canal, whose towpath took me into the heart of Leeds. This sinuous route took almost 9 miles, compared to 7 at most on the most direct roads. But it was worth it, and I began to enjoy it more and more, the fitter I got.

Below: me and Horse in Glencoe, 2004

That was 8 years ago. I've since moved to Sheffield, but still commute every day on that same bike, though my commute is only about 3 miles each way now: less distance, but more hills (for those who know Sheffield).

The commuting got me somewhere resembling fit again, but the real joy came when I began to venture out onto the moors and do some 'proper' mountain biking. My skills developed, and although I still can not do a bunny-hop or pull a wheelie, I can ride most of what I come across, wherever I may be.

Through mountain biking, I renewed friendships with people I'd not spoken to in years, and visited parts of the country I'd not seen in over a decade. Most importantly, I found a new facet to a life that had grown stale, and that facet continues to lead me into new territory.

I've never had much money, and lately, things have been extremely tight, financially, due to heavy debts left over both from my and Jude's divorces. As a result, I've kept the same old Rockhopper, replacing parts as they wore out until only the springy steel frame is original, and even that's been bent by occasional crashes. This year, therefore, I determined to buy a new bike, one which would better suit the rocky downhills of the Peak District. One, in other words, with full suspension! I was getting fed up of teeth-jarring, arse-kicking bouncing down steep rocks, and felt the need for more control and more comfort.

There were so many to choose from, I had to do a world of research on each and every one I came across that seemed to fit the bill. I looked at new ones, second hand ones and ex-demo ones, until my head ached. Until, that day... I looked on ebay and there was this bike, made by Canadian bike giants Norco. Only 3 months old, not ridden much, top spec parts throughout, and on offer at almost half what it was costing in the shops!

Catch? There was none. The seller was a reputable guy, good ebay ratings and feedback, a Cytech bike mechanic. I placed my bid and got the bike, all £3,000 worth (if you were to buy it in a shop, that is!). No-one else bid on it. For some reason, the Norco brand hasn't really caught on here, despite good reviews in the press for all their bikes.

It cost a lot of money (for me) but it was worth every penny I'd saved up for it.

This is it. It's a Norco Six SE (the SE stands for Special Edition)...

For the bike-minded amongst you, this is its specification:
Frame: Hydroformed Aluminium
Swingarm: Hydroformed Aluminium
Fork: Fox 36 Talas RC2, 20mm, 100-160mm
Rear Shock: Fox DHX Air 5.0, 7.875 x 2.25" 145 or 165mm
Headset: Chris King
Rear Hub: Mavic Crossmax SX 135mm
Front Hub: Mavic Crossmax SX 20mm
Spokes: Mavic
Rims: Mavic Crossmax SX
Tyres: Bontrager Big Earl Tubeless
Shift Levers: SRAM X-0
Front Derailleur: E-13 DRS, Shimano XTR
Rear Derailleur: SRAM X-0
Cassette: SRAM PG-990, 11-34, 9 speed
Chain: SRAM PC-970
Crankset: TruVativ Stylo OCT, GXP 24/36
Bottom bracket: TruVativ GXP
Seatpost: Titec Scoper telescopic 30.0
Seat: WTB SLT Rocket V, with Titanium Rails
Bar: Synchros Race Gain 35mm Rise
Stem: Synchros Race
Grips: ODI Lock-On's
Brakes: Avid Juicy 7 with 150mm Rotors
Brake Levers: Avid Juicy 7
Pedals: Time ZZ freeride
Colour: Anodised Gold

Yes. GOLD! I am indeed a pimp on wheels. Or would be if a combinatiuon of illnesses, DIY demands, social events and shite weather hadn't kept me off the trails between August and now. In four months I've onlt ridden it in anger ONCE! That's not really on, and is an insult to a great machine. Well, I have 10 days off now, and I'm just about over my cold, so I will get out on it soon. There's a christmas to do, but then....vroom!

Mountain biking doesn't have the spiritual dimension that walking or mountaineering has: you're concentrating too hard on what you're doing, much of the time, to fully commune in any reflective way with your environment. To get that diimension, you need to stop and sit down and watch the sky and let it flood your soul. Then you can capture that same communion. Not all mtbers (as mountain bikers dub themselves) seek a spiritual element, but I do. It's part of why I'm out there.

Check out these images of riders in the Peak District. This is what I'm talking about...


  1. Well, this has inspired me. Despite owning many mountain bikes over the years (Specialized, Trek, Ridgeback), I've NEVER actually taken one on minor hill, let alone a mountain. For shame! I even got as far as buying a rack for the car a few years ago, but it remains unused. The nearest I got to the sort of adrenaline rush you describe, BT, was dodging the dog dirt on the mean streets of Hackney. So, I need to rectify that, pronto.

  2. Hey Irk! If you ever fancy a ride in the Peak District get in touch. I'm always up for it (not straight away though as I broke my bike, but I'll have it fixed soon).


Sorry about the verification bollocks but I was getting so much spam!