Olly Townsend recounts how his earliest experience of mountain biking could quite easily have been his last…
Even though this photo was taken nearly 30 years ago, the emotion conveyed in my facial expression seems to have burned its way indelibly into my soul. That heady mix of excitement, adrenaline and full-on fear is one that most mountain bikers get to experience on a pretty regular basis – it’s part of what makes mountain biking so addictive after all.
Just out of shot to the right is quite a steep descent. I suspect now in the era of decent suspension, dropper posts, disc brakes, low-pressure tubeless tyres (and sensible handlebars), no one would bat an eyelid at the severity of the gradient. But as I approached the drop for the first time, midway around lap one of my first exposure to cross-country racing, the drop looked like I was about to ride off the end of the world.
With hindsight, I suspect that trying to emulate my hero John Tomac circa 1988, by fitting dropped handlebars to my beloved Ridgeback 603GS, probably hampered my progression into the higher echelons of our sport. I’m not sure that the dark ski goggles, grey woollen gardening gloves that I’d borrowed from my mum’s potting shed or the poorly fitted polystyrene helmet (complete with stretchy pink cover), did me many favours either.
My introduction to mountain biking, not long before this photo was taken, had been somewhat brutal.
I can vividly remember the first time I experienced the slow motion ‘Ooh that’s odd, I seem to be going over the handlebars’ feeling. As my back wheel left the floor and swung through 90 degrees, before smashing into a pine tree, I did momentarily wonder whether Death Hill might live up to its name. Luckily the feeling of imminent demise was shortly followed by a sense of relief as I picked myself up, dusted off the pine needles and did a mental all-over body check to find nothing worse than a bruised ego. Sadly, the same couldn’t be said for my bike. The bike, which had still been in the shop window a matter of hours before, now had a rear wheel so comprehensively buckled that it rubbed on both chainstays in one revolution. Mountain biking was proving to have a very steep learning curve indeed.
At the tender age of sixteen, with previous experience of off-road riding limited to two hour-long blasts around the local woods on a decidedly odd German BMX, perhaps choosing Death Hill as the trail on which to lose my mountain bike cherry was a bit rash.
At this point I should probably introduce Mark.
My best friend (and owner of a huge, steel rod construction Raleigh Mustang) had already proved to be a confident BMXer and preacher of the off-road path to enlightenment. It was poorly concealed lust for his 35lb All Terrain BikeTM, that paved the way to purchasing one of my own. It was his idea to do Death Hill on my first ride. He guided me, puffing and sweating, to the fire tower at the top. It was his fault that my taste for adventure and lust for adrenaline far outweighed my skill level. Luckily it was also his badgering that saw me decked out in the particularly tasteful polystyrene helmet that I was wearing in the photograph of my first race.
And, it should be pointed out, it was Mark who helped me concoct the ‘I was just riding along’ story that I fed to my parents and the poor, much maligned bike shop owner to whom I complained the next day.
I wish I could blame him for later making me think that a neon yellow Halfords ‘roadie’ top was suitable attire for riding a mountain bike, or for the numerous scabs and bruises collected while trying, and failing, to outride him years later when I had an ‘exotic’ Orange Clockwork, and he was still on his Raleigh shed.
When I look back, having cleaned some trail debris off my ever-stronger prescription rose-tinted glasses, I realise what a seminal moment ‘tacoing’ my virginal bike wheel on a large pine tree really was. I could have simply given up – deciding that sweaty pseudo-cycling kit and ridiculously steep trails just weren’t for me. Realising now though how much of my work, social circle, and life in general revolve around riding a bike, it’s a pretty good job I stuck at it.
I never did manage to get down Death Hill without stacking though. Perhaps it’s time for a revisit.