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Sanny is in a contemplative mood as he reflects on some of his favourite big mountain rides through the seasons and reckons that no matter the time of year, there is riding treasure everywhere.
Words and pics by Sanny
Spring – A blooming great time to ride.
“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.” Pablo Neruda
It’s hard not to become excited as the first shoots of spring claw their way out from under the sodden earth and bring some much needed colour back to the landscape. The dull monotone and unrelenting gloom of winter slowly fades into the rear-view mirror, albeit usually making a concerted effort to overtake you and envelop you in its icy clutches at least one more time before finally relenting. Sometimes it is the little things. Birdsong unheard for what feels like an age; coming out of work to see dark blue in the sky as opposed to inky blackness – a sure sign that spring is coming.
With both a literal and metaphorical spring in your step, spring rides are hard to beat. After a long winter of night rides, mud, snow, incessant rain and gales (unless you live in California in which case none of this will apply – bastards!), snotty colds, grinding drivetrains, constant trudges to the washing machine with riding kit that is not so much wearing in as wearing out, it’s time to cash in the chips from all those character-building rides. Maps have been pored over in front of the fire, new ride kit purchased, plans hatched – now is the time for them to come together.
Early season trips into the mountains carry a unique set of challenges. The snow may have receded, but in northern facing and more sheltered corries you are sure to find banks of corniced snow clinging on for dear life while it only takes a hard frost to turn a damp trail into verglas. You’ll notice it at the exact moment that your front wheel touches it and you find yourself in free fall headed directly for the sharp rocks below.
The Ben Lawers range has genuine presence and dominates its surroundings. It is not to be taken lightly, but with the right attitude, skillset and high pressure front, it makes for a very memorable day out. Carrying and riding bikes up, over and down seven peaks over 3,000 feet isn’t necessarily everyone’s idea of fun but without the ying, there is no yang.
Lung-rasping, calf-burning climbs are rewarded with views that have a 70mm Panavision widescreen quality to them. Broken rear mechs are par for the course.
Part way through on the flanks of An Stuc, a Grade 1 scramble looms large. With a bypass path infilled with heavily corniced snow, creative route-finding solutions are called for. The wind-lipped snow could crumble at any time and take us with it. Discretion is called for. Even some of the downslopes are too steep and rocky to ride.
And yet, for all of the challenges put in our way, there is nowhere that I would rather be. When the technical descents come, they offer a veritable cornucopia of all that is good with big mountain riding. The pain and suffering are quickly forgotten as I savour the moment… and a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer! Hours later, back in civilisation and practically inhaling dinner at the Killin Hotel, I knew that spring had well and truly sprung!
Summer – Yes, the UK has one of those too.
“Summer afternoon – summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” Henry James
With summer comes fun. The brilliant colours of spring blossom may have faded but in their place are verdant greens, dusty trails, the sound of the skylark and cotton flax blowing gently in the breeze. The first harvests come and go while the days are just packed with endless possibility. Now is the time to make the most of the beckoning daylight hours and to pack in the big adventures. An overnight bivvy, a ride longer than any other you have ever even contemplated, summer night rides with mates – the challenge isn’t which to do but trying to cram them all in.
Bill Waterson, he of Calvin and Hobbes fame, once said “It’s a cruel season that makes you get ready for bed while it’s light out!”, but I disagree. If you are eight years old then yes, it probably feels a bit that way, but for the rest of us, it’s time to make hay while the sun shines. But where to ride? With the prospect of a long drive back in the dark lifted, your sights can be set further afield. Remote mountain biking playgrounds such as Torridon, Skye and Glencoe come onto the radar of even the most southern of riders. These are the locations of epic exploratory rides where if the riding isn’t up to scratch, the majesty of the surroundings and the mindfulness that comes with simply being in the mountains more than make up.
In summer, epic and adventure are writ large. If spring is the entrée, summer is the main course. Three-hour drives for a day ride become viable. Nervousness and excited anticipation come to the fore. Now is the time to explore those lines you saw coming off mountains and traced out with your finger on well-thumbed maps. You’ve pondered the possibilities for months, years even but with weather and time on your side, it is time to finally realise your ambitions. On the trail you find it hard to keep a lid on your excitement. You’re finally doing it! But what if it fails to live up to expectation? Cast doubt aside and savour the moment.
Winching your way up a test piece climb, those rides through the winter and spring are paying off. Impossible lines are cleaned. The sun is beating down on your skin and you are feeling good. Dreams are being realised with each pedal stroke. Riding turns to hike a bike as you move upward, ever upward. Every step up with bike on back is a hard one; every line scoped and assessed as you silently work out the optimum line down. Peaks beckon, perhaps sitting majestically at the head of a massive corrie that plummets to the waters of a high mountain lochan far below.
Achieving the summit, time seems to just slow down. With no clock to watch, you just sit and soak up the surroundings. Bustle and hurry are for others to do. Pieces [sandwiches for our non-Scottish readers – Ed] are scoffed, drinks are quaffed and Jelly Babies devoured as you let the world just pass you by. Seconds turn to minutes turn to hours as you find yourself working hard at doing nothing. This is how summer rides should be. You could have gone further and ridden another couple of the surrounding peaks, but there is no need. Perfection is what you have, not what you want. You are in the right place at the right time as the summer sun smiles gently upon you.
Suffice to say the descent that followed was an absolute belter. Even if it hadn’t been, it wouldn’t have really mattered. It was the icing on the cake that even Mary Berry would have been lost for words to compliment. I won’t tell you where it is as I don’t want to deprive you of experiencing it yourself.
Autumn – AKA Fall (something we try to avoid).
“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run…” John Keats
I’ve always liked that poem. It’s one oft quoted to me by my Dad and it has always struck a chord, even as a wee boy. For me, autumn is the last shake of summer’s tail before the long, dark nights of winter set in. It is a time to reap the last vestiges of the year before horizons are narrowed and ambitions, if not stifled, then reigned in, in recognition that winter can be a cruel and unyielding mistress. Autumn is when every good day feels like a bonus and one which should not be squandered – “like a second spring where every leaf is a flower” – Albert Camus
The woodland canopy takes on hues of gold and russet – redwood and cypress filling the scene with shades of red, ochre, russet and copper, larch turning a deep golden colour. The days may be drawing in but there are adventures still to be had.Mature woodland is a must. To embrace autumn in all of its golden glory, you’re going to need a ride where dappled sun toys with you as you wend your way through the fading woodland canopy. You don’t need to go far from your door to experience it.
However, pin me down and I’m a sucker for Borrowdale. The Western Fells may lack the sheer jaw-dropping scale of their Highland and Alpine cousins but if you were given a blank sheet of paper to design the perfect autumn ride, the Lakes would surely rate highly.
Well-defined trails that offer a challenge for riders of all capabilities, an ever-changing landscape that will see you riding along a picture postcard beck one minute then being faced with a canvas writ large of vertiginous cliffs and deep, dark woods beckoning you in to explore and sample their hidden delights.
Rocky trails assume a level of unfamiliar greasiness, something absent over the last few months; once dusty trails start to revert to mud and grinding paste while the low autumnal sun casts long shadows over the trail bringing the myriad autumnal colours into sharp relief. Brown has never looked so good. Bringing a camera for memory can only do so much to capture the moment.
Whether it is the shortening of the days or the inevitable transition from verdant green to barren monochrome, autumn rides have a real sense of living in the moment and getting one over Mother Nature. Every ride in short sleeves where there is still sun on your skin is one to treasure and savour. Winter is coming.
Just remember to keep your eyes on the trail while you steal those fleeting moments of golden perfection.
Winter – When biking can turn to sliding
“People don’t notice whether it is winter or summer when they’re happy.” Anton Chekhov
It’s easy to get into a funk about winter. Dusty trails are now a long forgotten memory while spring seems an awfully long time away. The third Monday in January is oft referred to as Blue Monday. To be blunt, that’s bollocks, he said with an air of pithy disdain. Be accepting of the fact that the nights are long, the trails damp and the opportunity for big days out is constrained and you will be happier in yourself. Winter is not a time for putting the bike away until the snowdrops appear, but should be embraced with zeal.
Adventures aren’t measured in units of time, but in levels of enjoyment. For those sopping wet rides where you feel you simply cannot get any wetter, there are those bluebird days when the snow comes and where simply being on your bike in the mountains feels like a bonus.
For me, winter is all about riding in the Lake District. Small enough that you are never too far from a welcome hostelry with warming fire and a cheering hot chocolate on tap, but large enough to feel that you are in the mountains proper, riding on hard packed snow on the fells is an experience that is hard to beat. While you may not travel far, the intense feeling of satisfaction can be almost overpowering. While you are riding, others will be listlessly driving their desks, face in front of a computer screen, wishing for something more.
Familiar trails take on a new persona. Narrow singletrack and technical lines disappear under a blank canvas of white. You make your own lines as you whoop, holler and giggle your way down the mountain. Traction varies between Velcro-like and sphincter tightening slidey-ness. Is the steep bank of snow you are about to ride down hard packed or will you take a tumble and land in a flurry of white powder? You know what – you won’t even care as you will be having childlike fun, pure and simple.
Add to this the opportunity to refine your ride and ride wear with the likes of ice or fat tyres, flexible crampons, mini boot gaiters etc., and you have a whole new world of possibilities and opportunities to explore. Fancy an overnight micro-adventure camping out in the snow? Want to ride and get great pictures at dawn and dusk? All that is stopping you is your mindset. Embrace and enjoy.
So there you have it. Riding in the mountains through the seasons. Do I have a favourite? Truth be told, no. They’re all good if you are willing to explore and try something new. I’ll sign off this piece with a couple of quotes for you to ponder.