Pickled Hedgehog: “Did you hear something?”

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Spring’s here at last, and Alex Leigh is waxing lyrical about the joy of dust…

It’s not songbirds at dawn. Nor busy tractors in the fields. Or the ubiquitous wheeze of asthmatic lawnmowers, No, this is something rather more important ­– it is nothing less than the whisper of the Bringer of the Dry Line.

He’s a capricious beast. Turns up briefly in winter before being driven away by icy rain. Pops back in early March to tease us, but we know he’s feckless and his work is transient at best. He’s a thin cipher of the real thing ‘til the word turns a little more.

The Bringer of the Dry Line cannot cook up perfect trails without assistance. First he must stir surface water with drying soil to create mud, then bring the trails up to temperature by mixing with longer days and shaping with drying winds. Before cooking the dirt under a strengthening sun, and sprinkling with a coating of fine dust. The recipe passes to us, instructing repeated pummeling under mountain bike tyres.

The joy on finding the first dry line of spring is a seminal mountain bike vignette

Not everywhere though. There are places where the Dry Line dares not to tread. Deep wooded valleys seldom warmed by the sun or rocky water courses drying up only once a decade. And where many people gather to yomp splashily on paths heavy with footfall, the myth of firmness shies away – frightened by the crowds.

But his work is so good we can forgive him patchy coverage. The joy on finding the first dry line of spring is a seminal mountain bike vignette – because you’re carrying the mental baggage filled with the mud, grit and misery of a grim season. Even if you’ve been avoiding favourite tracks in the cause of trail salvation, imagination renders a 3D image of the horror. Sucked down into hellish depths, swallowing the rim and still sinking, traction is tenuous, frustration is legion. Mountain biking isn’t a three-season sport, but you can see why some people treat it that way.

What the dry line brings isn’t just speed, grip and motivation to push pedals harder – it’s somewhat more subtle than that. What it brings is hope. Hope that the worst is behind you; hope you have packed the winter gear away for two seasons at least; hope you’re going to be riding hero dirt between now and September.

Desire line.
Desire line.

You should know though that the Bringer of the Dry Line isn’t some kind of pagan deity. Do not delude yourself that making a muddy ‘crack, back and rucksack’ offering twenty times a winter somehow brings forth the righteous path. That’s just hope imbued with logic and the kind of meteorological angst living on a small storm-tossed island in the Atlantic brings. Religion is hope with a musical beat. The dry line is hope with a seasonal heartbeat.

This is an easy sport if you’ve spent a winter waiting for summer to arrive.

It’s not just the riding – it’s toasting the dry line with a cold beer warming under a sky full of blue and gold. All the riches under the sun beating down, hardening dirt and softening features. It’s leaving the pub in the same layers of clothing you arrived in. It’s throwing the bike into the shed and firing up the BBQ. It’s a simple pre-ride protocol of wiping off the dust and slapping on chain-lube and suntan cream. It’s the knowledge that every trail you face will be the tired part-time bowler, not the hoof-stamping paceman firing cannonballs at your throat. Knock it out of the park, bully the trail, and laugh at its pathetic off-camber obstacles and steep chutes. Rocks are clean of mud and jumps firm of landing. This is an easy sport if you’ve spent a winter waiting for summer to arrive.

And that’s pretty much the point. There is no warmth of a winning feeling if you’ve lost the chilly qualifier of slogging through winter. There is no sensation of the season’s ratchet being cranked, if you’ve spent the previous one on the sofa. Much as you want the Bringer of the Dry Line to sidle in, do his stuff and then keep it that way, it’d be meaningless if you’ve not been treading water for the preceding three months. There are days when hate feels like the right emotion on facing another death march on atrocious trails. But this is not hair shirt subjugation – you’re out riding because when the dry line comes you need to be ready. Fast and ready.

The dry line rolls out like a red carpet to entertain our super-bikes and our somewhat less superb selves.

Riding dry trails after honing reflexes perambulating sideways on repeat, is nothing more than an approach best thought of as ‘you can run, but you can’t slide’. Mountain bikes work the way they are sold to you when the pilot is relaxed but focused, fast not twitchy, committed not deluded and – most importantly – letting the whole shebang hang out off those super-efficient brakes which steepen head angles, stiffen suspension, rob tyres of grip and wheels of momentum. Let the bugger run – if it ends here, it ends because that’s the way everyone should go. Surfing the risk/reward wave – hugely anticipating riding the big one, but equally aware you could be dumped broken on the beach.

Cannonising the Bringer of the Dry Line would bring forth a merciless saint. Raising pagan myths to religious fervor would soon have a sizable percentage of the congregation drinking their lunch through a straw. In winter, we might splat a tree at 10mph or launch ourselves unexpectedly into muddy shrubbery, but it’s still funny because no one loses an eye. Add the dry line though and a hundred days of shitty trails puts ego in the driving seat – reliably passengered by schadenfreude. Fast and hard into geography filled with arboreal stops and bone-crunching kinetic ends.

We’ll throw our lot in with risk anyway. The dry line rolls out like a red carpet to entertain our super-bikes and our somewhat less superb selves. We’ll welcome a proper mountain bike spring with bullet-dodging moves, glorious carving lines and multiple beer celebrations. We’ll shout about how good it is and pray silently it stays this way. We’ll nod quietly to the Bringer of the Dry Line, and hope he sticks around for a few months longer.

And we’ll ride, ride and ride because we know his vengeful brother chafes impatiently in the wings, waiting to take flight with more than a season’s cold, wind and rain. This is exactly why mountain bikers look confused and bemused when questioned on why they love the spring. Look where we’ve been, look where we are, love what’s coming.

Hear that noise? It’s time to ride.

Comments (5)

    Excellent arrangement of words, sums up mountain biking entirely in my world.

    Good job your new bike’s arrived then Al

    Well it might give me something else to write about Steve. But I’ve had so many new bikes, not sure there are any articles left…..

    GPs also find that their services are not as in demand, with the incidence of Strava-depression abating as it has become possible for patients to re-challenge their KOM times due to the Bringer of the Dry Line.

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