From Issue 79: Several stories of riding on the shortest day.
If you can make it out on your bike on the shortest day, in the dark and the dank, then everything you do for the next 12 months has to be better and therefore, something to look forward to with excitement. We asked a baker’s half dozen writers to get out and brave the short days for your entertainment.
Photos by the authors. Cat juggling by Steve Makin.
Best Laid Plans.
Dreich. That’s the problem with December, you’re never quite sure what version you’re going to get. When I was asked to provide a contribution for Singletrack I fairly quickly worked out what my ride would be about. I’d take my bike to the top of Allermiur Hill in the Pentlands and get some lovely sunset shots with the lights of Edinburgh close below. I’d write about how easy it is to access these hills, to escape from the pre-Christmas build-up and thus retain some sanity. I’d almost written the whole thing in my head as the month went on. And then today happened. Cold, windy and very wet. Coming on top of three previous days of rain the ground was sure to be sodden. More to the point, the low cloud was completely obscuring the top of Allermuir and any dreams of a sunset photo – perhaps with snow-glistening hills in the background – were thoroughly dashed. Frankly, I was depressed.
Still, I’d promised something and mid-afternoon eventually saw me drag the bike out and get the wet-weather gear on. As I headed off from home through the back-streets I soon warmed up. By the time I’d hit the hills I was feeling toasty and beginning to enjoy the sheer madness of it. Flooded lanes, muddy tracks, greasy off-camber slopes and all, I was actually having fun. And that’s what this ride is really about. I’ve been far too choosy this year thinking that unless the weather is perfect I’ll postpone a ride and go ‘tomorrow’. Now, with the commitment made and having no choice I realised I’d been putting so much off for no reason at all. What’s that saying – “there’s no such thing as bad weather – only the wrong clothing”?
As the year winds down into longer nights and colder, damper weather, it’s difficult not to get a little dispirited, so what better day to make a new year’s resolution to turn this around than on the day the sun also decides to start putting in more of an appearance?
As I turned around to head home in the dark I was already mulling over some ideas in my head; another islands trip, the forgotten nooks and crannies of Galloway and all those fiddly in-and-out bits in Argyll. Time to get the maps out with a glass of whisky and start dreaming of longer days…
Fighting for grip.
Dawn, winter solstice, AD 874. The decimated remnants of the Viking war band grimly got to their feet and formed a defensive shield wall. They were making their stand on the summit of Kingley Vale, an isolated Sussex hilltop plateau which has served as a natural fortification for thousands of years. The gnarled and ancient yew trees hung cold and dense and silent, and though the swirling snow they could see hundreds of flaming torches moving up the hill towards them. It was the army of Osric, Earl of Hampshire, who had finally caught up with them following the Viking raid on Winchester. “Die hard lads!” roared the Viking chieftain “I’ll see you in Valhalla”. The warriors obeyed their chief and they died fighting. The Saxons admired their bravery and buried them where they fell, with the chieftain still at the head of his men. They are still there and the earth mounds have become known locally as The Devil’s Humps.
Dawn, winter solstice, 2012. Two mountain bikers stood astride their bikes at the site of the Viking massacre. We had been hoping for a camera-friendly clear sky to see the solstice sunrise, instead we shivered under a steady drizzle. But on the bright side we had a flask of hot chocolate and there was a happy lack of axe-wielding berserkers.
Local legend says that the ghostly sound of the 9th century battle can still be heard raging amongst the trees, but all we could hear was the rain on the yew branches and an outbound flight from Gatwick heading for winter sun. It’s true that you can feel the weight of history here. This is where Britons fought Romans. Who in turn fought Saxons. Who, when they weren’t fighting each other fought Vikings and Normans.
Onwards and downwards then. Rather than a brutal fight to the death, our adrenaline rush was the Kingley Vale downhill track. Built over several years by local enthusiasts, the downhill starts with sinuous singletrack and ends with massive air if you’re up for it and rollable, achievable-rad if you’re not. Side trails offer a series of smaller jumps and doubles so that you can work on technique before hitting the big stuff. In fact, local riders have been busy across the area and there are now a good number of officially sanctioned downhill sites and cross country loops across the county. And all nestled up against the South Downs national park where you can ride further. A lot further.
Finding myself alone at the end of the downhill before we regrouped, I turned to look behind me and convinced myself that the sounds I could hear were just the noises of the wind in the trees…
Near-stacks and Scooby snacks.
I could have chosen to ride all day. For the sense of satisfaction, earn the ‘karma bank’ credits, to be EPIC in a sepia-toned Rapha manner. Frankly, I’ve done hardship for this year, thank you very much. I had no yearning for suffering in the name of retrospective fun. I wanted to score an instant high. Fun. The kind of fun that has you smiling while you ride, not after you’ve warmed up four hours later.
A group of mates, a leisurely start time, a blast north to Glentress, via Tebay for a compulsory pie stop. The car park was virtually empty when we arrived. The low light, mist and deadly quiet lent an eerie atmosphere to a place I usually associate with noise, people and activity. Like an episode of ‘Scooby Doo goes Mountain Biking’, it had the feel of an abandoned funfair, and we had free rein on all the rides.
Spooky Woods was a fitting moniker. White mist clung to the ground, and there was absolute silence. No wind, no distant whoops, nor clicks of freewheels. It is probably at this stage that Scooby’s knees start knocking and the fairground owner appears wearing a sheet. No such traumas for us, although snacks of a non-Scooby nature were consumed, while lights were fitted.
Night riding for me is largely conducted on either local loops in time grabbed before or after work, or the middle bit of a 24 hour race. I have never travelled somewhere just to ride my bike at night (or around 4pm, as it was in this case). Wow. Swoop, berm, jump, “ZOOOOIKSS, where’s the landing?”, land, swoop. My brain was working overtime to process the sketchy visual stimuli before me and send the correct signals to my body. More than once, I shaped up for what looked like a left hand turn in the shadows and reflected mist, only to be faced with a roller, and a right. Quick changes in weighting, a lock up of the rear brake, and sneak round. Pedal hard, back up to speed. Adrenaline spikes. Fun.
And then, all too quickly, it was over. Yes, we had the energy to go back out again, and do it all over again. Yes, we had spent twice as long in the car as we had on the trails. No, it didn’t matter, in the slightest. It was a simple plan, and we pesky kids got away with it.
Like most rides, this started off with a simple plan, but this time also an important one. The solstice ride: start before dawn, finish after dusk and in between, fit in some excellent riding; cap off the riding year with something special on the shortest day and the first day of the Christmas holidays.
That was my plan, but the weather gods, cruel as they are, had something different in mind. Their plan appeared to consist of one final kick in the teeth after a shabby year for riding; a year punctuated with storms, flooding and barely a dry spell, providing me with a pick ’n’ mix selection of the worst that 2012 had to offer in one tidy package of wind, rain, mud and suffering. Straddling that line that divides misery and character-building and doing its best to pull me over to the wrong side.
It was not supposed to be like this, it was supposed to be special. However, I persevered, driven in part by the ridiculousness of the situation; this was the winter solstice and there was a point to be made. So, I toiled through underwater trails, slid around as if riding on ice, fought against sideways rain, propelled by a frankly ridiculous wind, lashing my face to the point of pain, but the absurdity of being out in this cheered me up and kept me going.
There were brief lulls, so the jacket came off, to briefly breathe before the wind and rain returned and I hurriedly pulled my jacket back on for another push against nature. This jousting with the weather continued for hours but I continued on, laughing at the idiocy of it all.
In the end though, I reached the bottom of a descent and decided that this war of attrition had came to a natural conclusion. I had had my fun and it was time to head home. Not defeated though. I was cold, wet and tired, but victorious… and wondering what the solstice has in mind for me next year.
The off-road to good intentions.
When SteveM popped up seeking copy for a magazine article based on the shortest day, I naturally responded saying ‘yes’. When I looked at the calendar I immediately spotted two issues – one, it was the Friday before Christmas; that meant only one thing: SWMBO (She Who Must Be Obeyed) would be expecting support at the Sainsbury shop. Secondly I had a 10.00am hair appointment.
I’d made a promise to Steve, so a workaround would be needed.
Up as usual at 0550 (I’ve been retired seven years now, but old habits die hard) and ready to face the crowds before 0700.
Off to the local Sainsbury’s; car park all but deserted. Cue curt exchange with SWMBO! So, shopping sorted, haircut and safely home by 1030.
Time to ride!
I bought a 2012 Genesis Vapour CX in September and it’s become my bike of choice this wet winter. Local it needed to be, so off via the Gracedieu Trail, under the Charnwood Forest Railway Viaduct (lots of climbing pegs still in place).
Passing ‘Rusty Mary’ (before you ask – I don’t know). And on via Osgathorpe to The Cloud Trail, pausing to check on progress at the quarry (many happy illicit summer evenings on the limestone slabs here.)
Continuing next to Staunton Harold and the edge of the new National Forest.
Lots of future trail potential here and a landowner well disposed towards access for cyclists. There are already a number of new tracks and bridleways. The climb here is deceptive, but steady effort brings you up to the existing public bridleway. You need to keep a wary eye on the Stalag Staunton watchtowers though and avoid errant arrows from the archery range on the left. Then there was the grassy, muddy and rutted track, under the main road and into the outskirts of Ashby–de-la-Zouch, down Beaumont Way, under the A512 via a slippery ford to join the road near Newbold Coleorton. Back on the road it’s a pleasant cruise to the welcoming New Inn, Peggs Green – where, as it’s a Friday, there’s hot home cooked lunchtime food, a friendly welcome to muddy cyclists and the best kept Guinness this side of the Irish Sea.
In the gathering gloom it’s an easy cruise home. By no means an epic ride, but 20 muddy fun miles on the shortest day of the year and home in time for hot glühwein and toasted teacakes. And it even turned out nice again.
I sat in a strange bed gripping a coffee, wishing I could be born again – pure and free from the toxins coursing through my body. Isn’t the winter solstice all about rebirth? The work Christmas curry had put me in this state. Now my host and I fumbled our way towards the commute to the office. Red-blinking our way through traffic, numb heads making us extra-cautious. We didn’t want it to be our shortest ever day. Just enough riding for the fog to ebb. Early stages perhaps, but a rebirth of sorts looked on the cards.
Work was a last-day swirl of mince pies and mulled wine; perfect medicine. By the early clock-off I was more than ready for the evening splatter and slither. My riding partners were less enthusiastic, but I was fairly sure they’d keep their word. Once home, kit and more kit was piled into the car. It was wet, but not raining; cool, but not freezing. It’s usually different up the hill, so I covered all the bases with gloves, socks, jackets and sundry layers – never knowingly under-equipped.
Driving to ride provides a quiet gestation period. Tonight it culminated in dark meditative stillness. Ready to ride, nowhere to go, nothing to do but sit, look into the blackness, and listen to the forest. Finally some lights hoved into view and the van delivered riders and bikes onto a wet car park. We compared excuses and after a flurry of clicking and zipping we rolled out and up the usual Tarmac hill. Quick height for cheap thrills.
We regrouped and examined our enthusiasm, it wasn’t over-flowing. Then the route bickering began. Three locals in a forest packed with trails means endless permutations; add in the gravitational force of the pub and you’re left with lots of chatting and not a lot of riding.
We set off on an intricate remix of trails, passing the ride-leading buck between us. Grooves were found, mojos rediscovered, leading us to the final barely-there thread through the steep pines to the final drop, ejecting us onto a fire road and the fast return to the cars. Some car-park nakedness and a short drive later, we had beer, salty snacks and an hour of gossip in front of us. I was rejuvenated, which is as close to reborn as I’ll ever get.
Standing with stones, watching with druids.
Apparently starting the year by knackering your cruciate and cartilage helps lever you out of bed and onto your bike in the middle of the longest night.
Despite spending a lot of the year riding perma-puddles, the joy of riding at all still fuels the fire. Its a steady waking up into an unusually clear, still, black ride up to the top of the hill, where the plan was to watch the sun rise over the stone circle above where the bluestones of Stonehenge were hewn out. The local pagans who had the same idea and I regarded each other with a mix of mild incredulity and respect as the sun crept over the horizon.
Following the sun west, along neolithic paths, by standing stones and burial chambers, was harder on the ground than it was on paper, but allowed plenty of time to sink into the rhythms of the landscape. On this storm-carved western fringe, the lines between geography and history blur and it’s hard not to get lost thinking about the births, deaths and lives which are marked by lichen-covered stone indistinguishable from the endless procession of rocky outcrops I’m rolling over. (What tyres for existential pondering?).
The trail bears witness to the continuity and brevity of our lives. This is the time we have, even if it’s wet and muddy, again. Being right here, right now, watching the grey sun sink into the cloud over the Atlantic feels good. Hurting a bit means you’re alive, right? A quick nod to those that have gone before and the turning of the universe, some flapjack crumbs left out for the choughs and it’s time to pedal home. Tick follows tock…
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