Cycling is a long-term relationship. It needs work; it has ups and downs, whole periods where you and your other half wont speak, be a bit off with each other. It needs attention, shiny new stuff occasionally, go out together, commitment and she can you know how sweet the rewards are. Commitment…

So then why do we find ourselves looking at glossy magazines, poring over new younger more beautiful models?

Maybe it’s a feeling of being tied down. The halcyon days of youth, freedom and movement behind us all. This summer it seems that every time I get on the bike, the same old routine and roads gnaw at me, the painful intensity of hard riding and my aching left knee nag away, familiarity breeds contempt as her comfortable saddle and smooth curves start to gather dust in the garage, its just easier to stay in bed that little bit longer on a Sunday morning..

I have even found myself looking at cross bikes on ebay, that one day could dovetail onto my ongoing obsession with the Eroica

Is this window shopping cheating on her? , Surely just looking shouldn’t constitute as guilt or even intent?

It is the height of summer, I should be out there kicking arse, piling miles in, is this the writing on the wall?

Maybe a dabble in something new… not sneaking around, a wholesale full-blown love affair , maybe a quickie, a dirty little secret that I can maybe eventually come to terms with, convince myself that it meant nothing….

My friend Andy offers me an evening ride on his spare mountain bike.

Is this like walking into a back street, red lit, massage parlour. Its just a massage.. Nothing else… I can ignore the ‘extras’, it doesn’t have to have a ‘happy ending’ just to help remind myself how the freedom feels. Like a drunken fling, well away from home where I cant be recognised.

Despite the gloomy weather I decide to take him up on the offer, knowing full well that despite it is August on the calendar the weather outside is more October.

The bike feels unfamiliar and heavy as I circle the car park waiting for the others to arrive. They duly trickle into the car park and start extracting and preparing bikes. I look on, quiet, as this is the first time since May 2005 that I have ridden a mountain bike and indeed the first time ever riding with those new fangled disk brakes, I am not sure what to expect. Arm warmers, no arm warmers, what jacket, the drizzle is indecisive, one rider (Will) would have opted for Winter boots had he not fitted the wrong pedals.

Eventually we roll of westbound. The tarmac, noisy under leaden tyres. Will promptly turns back to retrieve his helmet as a group of four of us saunter on ahead.

A gentle climb greets us, broken tarmac, interspersed with gravel, so far nothing that I wouldn’t take my road bike up ( in fact an improvement on some of it)

The hill opens out and the tarmac gives way to a gravel path, an evening walker pauses as his indecisive Labrador chooses to stop bolt still in front of me forcing a frenzied dab to prevent a ‘Zabel’*

. . The drizzle closes in as gravel turns back to tarmac, and Andys worn out front tyre gives us the first pause for a breather.

The rest of the group gently rib him as he vows to change his tyres for the next ride.

Pair of horses with their riders pass us, as does confused Labrador.

Dan flips his bike over after noticing his rear tyre ready to blow off the rim as the others stand around discussing the relative merits of a gas piston saddle post.( which I still cant see any merit at all, though this does come from a guy who once paid £150 for a Ti seatpost)

Off rolling again, the drizzle easing slightly, as we swing right through a gate and onto the first off-road section.

A tree lined path punctuated by section of thin treacherous roots and shallow puddles. The mud splashes my calves as I struggle to maintain my line..

The trees give way on one side as we skirt along the field edge, only to dart back in , my feet are quite wet and my lower legs coated by a brown film of bog juice. The feeling of being bogged down, every meter of forward progress is pushed; there is no feeling of smoothness, the brown glue snatches and pulls at the bike.

Soon the group is spat out into wide agoraphobic field, a ruler like track forges ahead as Kate and Graham ease through and scoot off ahead.

Am I enjoying this? The battle to keep moving and lack of any fluidity grinds away, I miss the purity that my dusty 58 offers.

We pop out onto a road that I know well, ( a good climb actually ) and skirt along it for a few hundred meters. The whole ride is punctuated by crossings of quiet back roads that I recognise, like flicking through a book and recognising old familiar faces.

A short section of this blacktop and a left turn takes us off down hidden hedged lane. This leads to a sharp down hill, interrupted by a series of switchbacks, nothing too hard for everyone else, but I take it easy , a loose moraine of gravel hiding any berm and ensuring that my anxiety more than balances any speed.

I mentally compare notes again, despite the tiny contact patch with my skinny tyres, I usually feel much more in control, the loose debris, hidden roots the slimey film of greasy mud, seem to want to take the bike in the opposite direction to where I intend it to. This naughty little fling is starting to be a flung, the technical aspects of handling a mountain bike well behind me, as the bike jars and zig zags across the smooth faster line taken by everyone else.

The drop spits us out in West Marden and a gentle trickle to the bottom junction lets us regroup.( maybe I was holding every one up) I reminisce about nearly coming a cropper when a fully grown peacock flew out at me as I passed through last week at speed.

A green lane opens up, I can stretch my legs and gather a rhythm as we ascend, Dave and myself find ourselves off the front, neither pushing the pace, but each comfortable to press on a bit, a left turn, and then a short section, diagonal roots, shining white ready to wrench your wheel sideways as you try and apply power.. Again the needling reminder that off road there is a technical component of forward motion. I lose the line as my front wheel takes its own route through and I take a mini detour through some undergrowth..

A regroup and another direction from Andy and we start a long rolling descent. Andys homesick demon school/breeze block school of descending means he quickly passes and along with Graham and Kate are soon distancing me as I gently pick my way down the steepening and rocky descent. I am uncomfortable, I don’t have the confidence to let the bike go, and the rain etched rock strewn gully batters at my fore arms as again I weave , exerting what little control I have in avoiding the best line, these disk brakes are damn good though.

Another familiar road, regrouping and an off colour Will heads for an early bath.

Steve starts on the next climb, closely followed by Graham. The drizzle has finally given up as we hug the edge of the field gaining height until a hidden left hander takes us into Inholm Wood. The sparse trees make it feel open and easily navigable, though punctuated by more roots and thin tyre tracks full of water trace the line. This quickly follows another wide open gravel track descent, I can relax on this and almost stay with the others,. Although the metal gate spanning the track at the bottom comes as a bit of a surprise.

Another familiar road, from my own wanderings, I know that just opposite deep in the undergrowth, a strange bright green caravan lies hidden until the winter reveals it again. Another parallel between the two disciplines occurs to me, the furtive skirting across major ‘A ‘roads like squirrels darting across on a road bike, seems to be the same of Mountain bikers as they dart across any tarmac disappearing into the undergrowth in search of the next stretch of bridleway.

The buzz of the heavy tread on tarmac brings my mind back as we pass through . Stoughton car park.

“Concentrate!”……., this close to a car park means that rolling through a turd is a much higher possibility. ( have I ever worried about riding through a turd on my road bike? With that unmistakable smell rising to ones nostrils, before a frantic check of the pebbledash mottling up your front. Definitely not the time to wipe your face, or take a drink until you are sure that it is one of your team mates, and you are free to laugh again…)

A long boggy firebreak keeps the group close together, the land rover tracks full of water, but with firmer grass either side make riding easier. I feel slightly guilty ploughing my own new line, adding to the carefully managed erosion programme.

A path swings up to the right and we start the final ascent to Kingly Vale.

Grahame leads, the start is a trench with slippery chalk for sides. I stay as high as I can, though as I turn the pedal I can feel the rear tyre biting sideways. A hundred meters or so through a band of trees, then it opens up. I pass gently, determined to find my own pace. A stick jams in my rear wheel, plinking loudly, skuppering progress, but I nonchalantly reach round and pull hard, to gasps of wonder of my handling skills from behind.

I open a gap, just me and this hill, not a hard pace, but enough to hear my own breathing all under control as no need to call upon my poor technical skills. Looking ahead for the obvious place to ease up and let the group catch up.

I let every one through and conversation ebbs as the path narrows, I have to concentrate as I am slightly off line and the shallow ruts keep nudging me awkwardly. Again progress feels heavy and sluggish.

Soon the path opens up at the barrows with stunning views of Chichester and the wield to the north. Remarkable given the cantankerous weather.

All that is left is long descent back to Stoughton and the pub, an enclosed avenue of trees marks the way as my autogiro of anxiety reminds me not to go too fast. Even after an hours riding, I am still not entirely happy on the thin layer of slime squishing from under the chunky tyres.

I query why this way is called the Alamo, only to be answered as it comes into view.

Riders line out on the thin path through a stunning cornfield. The sun just pushing through a grey milky cloud lending to the atmosphere.

Ahh now I can see, straight from the set of a Spaghetti western, a ruined farmhouse, in the centre of a golden landscape, all that appears to be missing are a coral and circling Indians.

” Shitttt….” I nearly run into the back of Steve as he brakes for the corner by the ruins…..Dan has a slight issue with his bike and needs to stop, while Steve eases back to make sure that we both negotiate a dogleg corner hidden from view. The others are long gone.

This last part of the descent builds my confidence, I ease off the brakes, rise from the saddle and start to feel more comfortable. My speed builds, the bike choosing its own line, with me as its fraudulent passenger.

I try changing direction and the back wheel decides to twitch, a gentle dab on the rear brake brings it back under me,

I am on the edge of control, in fact I think that line is about ten feet behind me as the front slides to the right, I try steering, and in slow motion I lose the front end and the last semblance of control, I wrench the bars towards the brambles and nettles to my left and prepare myself for the familiar feeling of air followed by the violence of stopping.

Nettles rush up at me as I land, no damage, I think I was even laughing, only to fall over again on the slick chalk.

I have a moment gathering myself quite disorientated as I desperately try finding my spectacles that were sent flying in the crash..

Steve recovers them from a bush and soon we are on our way again,

I laugh it off, but nearly come a cropper again a few meters on, just as I was building speed up,

The chalk gives way to a more palatable stony track, soon changing to fine gravel and the silence of tarmac. My left side has a few scratches and the electric tingle of nettle stings as we roll into the car park grinning like a wanking japs.

My brief affair over, the dirty done, so what about it?

I certainly enjoyed the route, riding with new people and am very grateful to Andy and his team mates,

But it has left me thinking,

The mountain bike may be slower, comfortable, maybe like a rudy complexioned country girl, bouncing warm and laughing,

The road bike is my mistress, like a slim dominatrix, beautiful, sleek, I find myself desperate to please, to pay homage to the cycling greats, enslaved to the self inflicted pain in the saddle and through racing.

But my real long term relationship is with cycling herself, not one kind or the other, because no matter what kind of riding you are into; any riding is riding and that’s what matters.

Many thanks to Andy

Graham, Steve, Dave, Dan and Kate. ( and later Barry in the pub)

* doing a Zabel…an eye watering re-enactment of Eric Zabels accidental unclipping in the 1999 Tour. See also cleat surfing


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