By Alex Leigh
With comic timing, my ropey music collection threw up this track from legendary aged rockers AC/DC* just as ferocious storms were thrown down from under brutal skies. The car rocked to the beat of a stubborn jet stream as endless rain cascaded down, seeking out something dry to wet. It was about a week too late – everything horizontal was either saturated or already under water.
My resolve to ride wasn’t tested though. After trudging through a season that had been short of real winter, but far too long on rain, a crank of the planetary ratchet had us tearing up singletrack recently sprung from below the water table by warm, dry and perfectly sunny days.
And then just as the long, hot summer was in danger of being perfectly prefixed by April, we slipped, slid and were mostly soaked as May stormed endless Atlantic lows. Even so, I’d deduced that waiting for the rain to stop might mean my next ride could be in October. Or in Spain. Assuming I’d emigrated out of sheer frustration.
So it was with low expectations I headed out, fully grim-equipped with winter boots, waterproof socks and shorts, stout rain jacket and full-on mud tyres. These expectations were more than met with the full shitty experience: from trench foot, through gritty arse-crack, boil-in-the-bag sweating and ending in occasional sideways progress on slop where dust should be. This was setting up to be one of those death marches which fully tests the rule that riding is always better than not riding.
It wasn’t, though. And not for the reasons you might think. After an hour of sliding around in obvious distress, we found a track deep in mud and possibility. Tracing it back through face-high stingers, we were rewarded with a line of jumps and drops that – with a little light shovel work – had the potential to be full-on shits and giggles. But that’s not the real reason either.
Ask any rider what they love about mountain biking and themes will coalesce around rock-hard trails, dust, drifting tyres, jumps and drops, perfect sunsets, summer breezes, a thin ribbon of dirt snaking through the bluebells, the bullshit of your friends, the not-quite-crash moments, the glove tan, the oh-so-earned post ride cold ones, the craic, the new bikes, the old bikes, the places you’ve been and those you will one day go.
If alcohol is involved, a whiff of pretension shall waft eulogies on being ‘out there’, being something others are not, surfing on the wave of differentiation, the impossible-to-explain joy of riding bikes. I get all that, of course I do, and if you’ve ever ridden a bike for fun not transport you’ll get it, too. And we’ll talk of mountain biking and an antithesis of our stressful lives, of every pedal revolution unwinding the ball of weekday angst.
And we’d be wrong. Absolutely and utterly. Missed the point by about 30 years. If you distil riding bikes into its purest form, you won’t find any of those things. It is nothing more than playing outside with a bit of the possibility of adventure thrown in. This base element is packaged for children and that’s why we love it. Well, it’s why I love it anyway.
It’s about feeling 11 years old. It’s about playing outside when you should be doing something adult and responsible. It’s about exploring and making fishy ‘new line’ gestures, giggling and pointing. I’m lucky enough to be a parent of a child about that age and I envy her view on the world; it’s exciting, it’s ever different, it’s relentlessly positive, it’s ‘something’s going to change and I’m ready to change with it’, it’s simple and ‘I know what I like, but I might like something else tomorrow’. Bring it on.
Not much later this year, I’ll be 47 years old. I don’t care about that while I can still ride my mountain bike. Because that connects me to the 11-year-old who laughs when he falls off, tramps off up unlikely-looking paths with a spring in his step, rides back down them foot out and grinning. I’ll even go and build a den if I like. It’s not a middle-age crisis or a second childhood – it’s making bloody sure you don’t lose sight of the first one. It’s not serious and it’s not competitive, and it’s not a salve for a distressed moral conscience.
It’s playing outside with your friends. And a bicycle. There is no mud, rain or cold that can touch that.
Thunderstruck? You bet.
* A bit like myself. Old, passed their best, living on past glories, quite loud. The difference being the ‘legendary’ bit.