Sanny dusts down his old ’90s race bike and takes on the quintessential Peaks route. Was the bike as good as he remembers, or is it a case of distance lending enchantment?
Words Sanny Photography Mark
Cast your mind back. What was your first mountain bike? Mine was a Raleigh Maverick in a deep burgundy colour. With fifteen of Sach’s finest Rival gears, Weinmann alloy rims, riser bars and a stubby BMX stem, I thought it was the absolute business… right until I broke it after many happy rides. By the time I came to replace it with quite possibly the best twenty-first birthday pressie ever, an Orange Prestige with full Suntour XC Comp groupset, the mountain biking landscape had changed dramatically. Developments and innovation were firmly aligned with the burgeoning race scene. Stems got longer, frames and equipment got lighter almost to the point of fragility (hard to imagine that the idea of drilling out cranks to save weight seemed like a good idea), while a whole raft of small companies got in on the act with ever more blingy and, of course, expensive parts. Looking back on that era from the comfort of my modern IKEA sofa, a thought occurred. With a burgeoning retro bike scene where the truly dedicated (or slightly deranged?) slavishly recreate classic bikes of the era, were the bikes actually any good? Given how much technology and design has advanced, can one of the blingiest bikes of the ’90s hold a candle to today’s machines? Or are we merely looking back with misty-eyed fondness to an era when we were making memories despite the bikes we were riding? Only one way to find out.
Thanks for subscribing. Only subscribers can read the full feature from this point
A classic bike demands a classic route.
But where to go and who to ride with? In order to do justice to my idea, I called upon the writings of one of the mountain bike guidebook writers of the era, Tim Woodcock. Chances are, if you read MBUK or MTB Pro back then, you would be familiar with his work. To say he was prolific would be an understatement. Through a series of books published by Wheelwright, Tim had you covered from the deep south of Dartmoor all the way up to the far reaches of Scotland. Perusing through my collection, I hit upon the perfect route: Ladybower. Eighteen miles long with three big climbs, classic Peak District descents and big sky views, it jumped out from the page.
Images of riders enjoying themselves in early evening sunshine on dry and dusty trails proved irresistible. As for the who, that was easy. Ask pretty much anyone of a certain vintage who the big name riders of the time were and you will almost certainly hear the name Nick Craig repeated over and over. When it comes to mountain biking, Nick could write the book. An Olympian, World Cup racer and multiple Three Peaks winner, Nick lived and raced through what many consider to be the golden era of our sport. Now working and riding for Scott (and still one of the fastest people on two wheels), his easy-going charm and good humour make for an excellent riding partner. A ride with Nick is always guaranteed to leave you with a big grin on your face.
“You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought!”
A classic ride demands a classic bike. As luck would have it, I had just the ticket. Having been on display in Biketreks in Ambleside for several years, my old S-Works Carbon Epic circa 1992 was pressed into service. Unboxing it at Singletrack Towers, a note dropped to the floor from Matt at Biketreks. Clearly a man of taste, Matt recognised the nostalgic beauty of the old grease and the bang on trend purple detailing. I like the cut of his jib! Advising me of the buggered QR spindle and the tyres and tubes being in dire need of replacement, I chose to sort the former (rather liking my teeth to still be in my head at the end of a ride), but threw caution to the wind with the tyres. After all, this was to be a retro ride. No modern rubber for me!
Quickly rebuilt, to my genuine astonishment and that of James in the office who bravely disregarded his own personal safety and swung a leg over it, the damn thing actually worked. You could practically taste the nostalgia as I waxed lyrical/bored the shit out of James taking him through a who’s who of retro-tastic parts. “See those brakes? Graftons. Oh yeah! And those cranks? Cook Brothers finest. Bet you’ve never seen a pair of forks like those straight blade Syncros beauties? Oh and look at the brake levers. Suntour XC Pro… mmm!” Throw in a bonded carbon frame with pearlescent purple fade, a 150mm (yes, you read that right, 150mm) stem that looks more like a tiller, purple screw-on-block Ringlé hubs and Panaracer’s mould-breaking Smoke tyres, and you have what even today is a beautiful looking bike. It is so wrong, which just makes it so right. The fire was lit. We were ready to rock.
Sexond breakfast? Hmmm, think I’ll pass.
Arriving at Nick’s, I was relieved that the text from him which promised “sexond breakfast” proved instead to be ‘second’ breakfast. He may have to explain to his good lady, Sarah, why his predictive text is selecting that though. As befits a retro ride, we did our best to faff and delay the inevitable but my date with destiny was set in stone. There was no going back. Unloading my bike from the van, I think Nick was caught between nostalgic admiration and sincere concern that this was destined to be the shortest ride in history. “Is this going to be like our Three Peaks Lakeland adventure where you only managed two and a half peaks?” he asked, cheekily ripping the piss while Mark, who would be capturing the ride on digital film for posterity, nodded in agreement.
Undaunted, I encouraged them to get a wiggle on as I jauntily hopped on my bike and immediately wished that I had taken those yoga classes I had promised myself. Long and low are fine but being stretched out like you are on some medieval torturer’s rack, not so much. “Did I really ride like this?” I thought to myself while Nick and Mark were taking bets as to how far into the ride I would get. Spinning along the singletrack road in dappled sunshine, I was feeling good. Stretched but good. It took all of 50 metres for my front tyre to make a telltale ‘pfft pfft pfft’ sound. A bloody puncture! Perhaps I should have heeded Matt’s advice after all? Throwing me his pump, Nick kindly offered to help me fix my next puncture. Could it be that he expected more? Oh he of little faith.
Are you ready? Shall we begin (again)?
Wheel back on, the ride resumed. We were headed up the old Roman Road that would take us to Hope Cross. Dropping it into my not so low gear of 24:26, I did my best to spin up the loose and dusty climb. Nick on his fancy plus size 29er and Mark on his pun-tastic, app-controllable (yes, you read that right, a bike that you can control using your phone – my teenage brain would have been fried at the very thought!) Specialized Evo Kenevo e-MTB, unquestionably the antithesis of my machine, practically wafted up the trail while every pedal stroke for me became a battle of traction and control.
One thing the catalogues and magazines of old never told you was just how bloody unwieldy long top tubes and stems are when used in combination. Instead of looking up the trail, my head kept dropping and focusing on the ground six inches in front of my front wheel. It felt as if someone had taken all of my climbing skills and thrown them in the bin. Step-ups and loose rocks that I would normally attack with relish became a major technical challenge. The stiff, race-tuned frame did its best to pummel me as I felt every lump and bump through my buhoochie. The only saving grace was that the old WTB-designed saddle was as comfortable as I remembered. Just as well, as something like a Flite of that period would have ripped my bum to shreds!
Now at this point I would usually wax lyrical about the majesty of the unfolding vista or some flowery wank about the melding of old and new capturing the surrealism of the underlying metaphor. However, when all you can do is look six inches down the trail, such prose becomes superfluous. This was going to be no easy ride. As if to underline the point, a couple of fellow riders came storming down the trail towards us. I couldn’t help but admire the purple Specialized full suspension bike one of them was riding. Side by side, it didn’t look like we were even part of the same sport. Secretly, I would have happily swapped my bike for his there and then, but this being a retro ride, I was determined to see it through.
Cresting the summit plateau, I found somewhere the bike actually worked quite well – sand. As Mark discovered that e-bikes on turbo mode and sand can be a recipe for doom, my unconventional bike and riding position made for surprisingly easy progress. Who knew that a Graeme Obree-esque Superman style could work so effectively? Moreover, who knew that the eternal slop of Peak District mud was actually sand when the trails dried out? That will be what the driest spring on record teaches us. Stopping to consult the guidebook, the descent of Blackley Clough beckoned us ever on. “Sanny, you go first,” Mark called as I engaged my period dropper post device (a quick release lever) and rode what must look on camera like the world’s crappest stream crossing. Tim Woodcock describes the ensuing descent as “steep and rutted!”. His use of the exclamation mark filled me with a little apprehension. Just how tough could it be? As Nick and Mark joined me, I felt like a gladiator at the Colosseum. Except I wasn’t Spartacus. I was the guy who was destined to be lion food.
“Once more into the breach!” I shouted as I engaged hyperdrive. Within seconds, I was regretting my initial burst of speed. My pace slowed dramatically as I pinged from rock to rock, each loose babyhead being a wheel-trapper hiding in plain sight, ready to send me into oblivion. I was out of control and I swore for Scotland. “F##k!Sh#t!Ar#e!” Looking up was challenging to say the least as the much lauded at the time “direct steering to keep you feeling connected to the trail” made for a bit of a horror show. My tyres seemed to positively shrink in front of me. It was, to be frank, brutal. However, the further I got without impaling myself on the unforgiving gritstone, the more my confidence grew. I may have looked like a giraffe on roller skates, but I was still riding and still smiling. Finally reaching the safety of the tarmac road far below, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had made it! Turning around, my new-found hero status was tarnished somewhat as Nick and Mark practically floated down the trail far faster than I had managed. The bastards!
Summer time and the living is easy.
Hitting the next climb, I was relieved to find that it was a non-technical affair. It gave us time to chat about old technology and how when coming from cyclocross, mountain bikes of the time seemed like a leap forward. Blasts from the past such as Tim Gould and David Baker peppered the conversation – there was a lot of ‘do you remember?’ going on. With Nick going to the Malverns Classic that very weekend, we laughed at the thought of these self-same conversations being repeated ad nauseam by middle-aged men who the older they get, the better they were.
Heading across open moorland, the long grass swayed gently in the breeze. It was a fine place to be. However, our calm was interrupted by an angry farmer in a Mercedes ML tearing up the trail, shouting and swearing in a manner that would make a sailor blush. As it transpired, we were on the wrong side of the wall which prompted him to be incandescent with rage. When they go low, you go high is my approach to such encounters. When we explained that we had gotten our bearings slightly wrong, he calmed down to the point of no longer being puce. Truth be told, I felt sorry for him that he has that much anger and rage inside him caused, as he explained, by people leaving gates open. It is a curious feature of land ownership here in the UK that to be 20 yards from a bridleway can cause such a reaction. Heck, it took me back to the bad old early days of mountain biking when such encounters were more common. The irony wasn’t lost on me.
Leaving him far behind, a long road section beckoned. On modern bikes, it is easy to become bored with such interludes. All they do is help join the dots, but for me, my back and neck now less than happy, the gentle spin came as a blessed relief. I could finally enjoy the feeling of the warm sun on my face and take in the classic view of where the Dambusters prepared for their attack on the Ruhr Dam. Reaching the northerly tip of our ride, Tim’s literary voice directed us up the tree-canopied climb to Lockerbrook Farm. Looking at the trail rear up in front of me, I didn’t fancy my chances of a clean ascent, but through a bit of man grunting and extended use of my bar ends, I was determined not be beaten. With Nick shouting encouragement, clean it I did. Take that, e-bikes and 160mm 29ers! I won’t say it wasn’t a struggle but damn, it felt good when I reached the top.
“Hagg Farm descent – it packs in some tricky dips… with a dash of rubble to boost the adrenalin buzz,” wrote Tim. “Oh goody!” I said somewhat dryly. “I can hardly wait.” Watching Nick positively rail the steep banked corners, I looked and felt utterly rigid. I had all the fluidity of an ice cube. Stiff and tense, by the time I eventually reached the bottom, my hands were experiencing brake pump. Oh how I had forgotten thee! I’m not sure what colour adrenalin is but I suspect that it may be brown.
The Remains of the Day.
All that remained between me and glory was the final ascent up to Hope Cross. “A rocky push up through the forest,” according to Tim and had it not been for the smoother walkers’ trail to the side, he would have been on the money. The zigzagging trail up is my idea of technical climbing heaven. On my fat bike I would be positively relishing the challenge, but on today’s bike it would prove to be an exercise in frustration. That said, I was still mostly riding and my bike hadn’t fallen apart, despite what Nick and Mark may have thought. I was feeling rather pleased with myself right up to the point I punctured. Who knew that 26-year-old inner tubes would tear at the valve, eh? Set upon by midges for that added dose of authenticity, I spent what felt like an age fiddling with glue, patches and Gorilla Tape before finally hitting upon a working solution that would get me back to base. It wasn’t pretty but it was effective and as we passed hour six of a three-hour ride, I was glad to be able to ride out the final climb and descent back to the van in Hope. We had made it. Retro ride conquered with both bike and rider mostly in one piece.
So what lessons were learned?
I’d like to say how rides are all about the company and the scenery, that the bike is largely irrelevant. But that wouldn’t strictly be true. Riding the old machine, I have gained a new-found respect for every rider who persevered to ride on such wholly inappropriate bikes. Rides that we now regard as easy were definitely harder back in the day. My S-Works is very much of that time.
If we were still riding bikes of that vintage, I suspect that mountain biking would be a lot less popular. At no time was I able to truly relax and properly appreciate the trails and surroundings. The bike was more of a hindrance than a help and I could have walked the route faster. For those riders who are living out their retro fantasies, I salute you. Older definitely isn’t better.
That being said, it says a lot for the technology that I was able to do the ride and came back relatively unscathed, physically if not necessarily mentally. The brakes and gears worked flawlessly, the rims stayed true; nothing broke. I don’t believe that any of us expected that. Relaxing with a gin and tonic post-ride, unusual for me as I tend not to drink, I resolved to be in no rush to repeat the experience. But looking at those elegant lines and purple parts, it’s hard not to be seduced once more. Maybe just one more spin for old times’ sake eh? Er, no, new bikes rule. “Just because a bike is retro doesn’t mean it’s not shit!” as Mark pointed out rather pithily. You know, I think he may be onto something there.
The unsused gallery
With more images than we could ever run in print this is where we get to show you some of the other shots from this feature.
Click any image to start the slide show