Gnar Gnot Gnecessary: Great rides don’t need bluebird skies

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Produced in association with Canyon UK

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Barney rediscovers the fact that riding bikes is totally ace, regardless of how techy the trails are. And how bad the weather is.

The North Downs are long, long way from Yorkshire. It’s long way down an ever-darkening motorway, with headlights on and rain blasting onto the windscreen, the wiper blades flick flacking a beat to the music on the stereo. In time, drifting out of time, in time, out of time. Eventually, the music ends, and I’m listening to the water on the road blasting up inside the wheel arches; trying desperately to find any inlet into the dry and the warm of the cabin. Motorway gives way to A-road gives way to B-road gives way to winding lane which snakes through infinite trees, and which seems impossibly remote, considering I must be something like half an hour’s (traffic-free) drive from London. And then, I turn a corner, down a long drive to an enormous old hotel. This, it seems, is home for the night. Crikey.

Photo by Rafal Skiendzielewski

The Downs are essentially hewn from a large lump of limestone which stretches from Surrey to Kent, south of London. The stretch west of Dorking, where I’m busy parking the car and trying to find the least puddled bit of gravel to do so, is comprised of a startlingly profuse pile of woodland (I understand the technical term is forest but that’s much too dull) which is, in turn, rammed to the gunwhales with trails. It’s a little slice of heaven that people from the Big Smoke retreat to in times of stress (that’s all the time then) to relax, recuperate, and – naturally – ride mountain bikes.

The trails here are quite different to where I usually ride, though. Leafy, wooded undulating chalk land is pretty scarce in the corner of the Pennines I call home. I’m more used to wide open moorland, liberally strewn with rocks. Calderdale in Yorkshire has woods, sure, but mostly precipitously steep ones, with weirdly grippy Millstone Grit under tyre and sardonic Yorkshiremen in flat caps eating chips cooked in dripping commenting impenetrably as I inevitably hurtle over something foolish. There are steps. There is weather. All of the weather. Frequently, all of the weather at once. My local riding has incrementally become something of a gnar-fest. Granted, my enthusiasm usually outweighs my competence, but riding for any length of time in Calderdale gently massages you down a greasy chute of tech. Of course, there’s plenty of non-technical riding too, but a ride’s not a *proper* ride unless there are liberal helpings of thrutch, a couple of ‘oof’s and (usually) more than one whimper.

Now that’s a rambling hotel. Photo by Rafal Skiendzielewski.

Right now, as I ponder the chalk and steeze aspects of both Oop North and the North Downs, it’s increasingly obvious that what the South lacks in Yorkshire Grit, it’s trying gamely to make up in terms of moisture. The following day’s ride may well prove to be interesting – and I for one am very glad I’ve brought my waterproof socks.

Neuron’s on my mind

I’ve been asked here, by Canyon, to take a look at their new Neuron CF. It’s a trail bike, designed to fit in between the 150mm Spectral and the 100mm Lux in Canyon’s range, and it’s their ‘everything for everyone’ bike. It’s not designed for maximum radness, or for posturing, gnar-filled energy drink commericals. It’s not a nose down, arse-in-the-air lycra-clad speed monster. It’s supposed to be a bike for, well, riding stuff, and for having a hoot while doing so. It’s neither overly long nor short, neither steep nor slack; Canyon is aiming for a real Goldilocks machine. And during the presentation it seems like it’s almost tailor made for the terrain around here: weather notwithstanding, it strikes me that riding tomorrow will be something of a blast.

Canyon, Neuron, North Downs
Everyone else acts polite as Barney opines. At length. Photo by Rafal Skiendzielewski

We are a bedraggled and somewhat grumpy lot, we who line up the following morning to take advantage of a lull in the weather to actually head out. Old friends and new spend perhaps longer than strictly necessary tweaking and fiddling with pedals, saddles, bar height and brakes. One of our number, Ben, has been lamenting his lack of skill on a mountain bike, hailing as he does from a running and road-riding background. So naturally, once he’s set his Neuron up to his liking, he proceeds to demonstrate a facility with wheelies that belies his alleged noob status. And yes, further questioning yields the fact that he did, in fact, ride mountain bikes years ago. Wheelieing is clearly something that, like bike riding itself, never leaves you. His ease upon the bike is somewhat at odds with mine, as I attach pedals and attempt to assert my authority on my own machine through a fug of last night’s brandy (it’s that sort of hotel).

Up on the Downs

And so we set off. It’s very, very (very) moist, but thankfully not actually raining. Breath condenses in curlicues of cloud as we head up the drive that I sloshed my way down in the rain last night; we cross the main road, and then head over a field. It’s at this point, as the terrain dips downwards and speed picks up, that I realise two things – one, that it’s really rather bloody cold, and two, wet chalk is famously less grippy than Yorkshire grit. It’s actually rather greasier than an oiled ferret selling used cars. I make it down to the gate with my front wheel ahead of my back one more by luck than judgement, and giving silent thanks that I removed a couple of psi from the Maxxis Forekaster tyres.

Actually, I needn’t have worried. The trails soon venture into the woods proper, and traction issues largely disappear. All that chalk is hidden under layer upon layer of leaf mulch, and as lacking in traction as it is, it’s much more of a known quantity for my delicate Northern sensibilities – and it’s no match for the tyres. It’s gratifying to be able to lean the bike over into corners and accelerate out the other side without worrying (too much). The trails are everything I’d imagined them to be – a happy flowing middle ground where there’s fun to be had riding them gently, and fun to be had riding them hard. Short, flattering climbs lead onto flowy, bermy descents. A short, steep chute gives a few of us pause, before we decide that our collective confidence is up to the task, and we ride it anyway. And, once again, grip was there in unexpected but welcome profusion.

Canyon, Neuron, North Downs, Barney
Barney demonstrates his celebrated ‘legs akimbo’ cornering technique. Photo by Rafal Skiendzielewski

And so it continues. Some of our younger contingent espy a minor double, which wouldn’t be a problem but for the sharp corner leading into it; a startling display of high-speed direction changing and jump-smashing then ensues, as do a couple of more wince-inducing displays of full-scale jump-casing. I decide to take a lead out of Douglas Adam’s book – if discretion is the better part of valour, and cowardice is the better part of discretion, then I valiantly decline to embarrass myself with a display of my abilities. It simply wouldn’t be sporting.

Canyon, Neuron, North Downs
Some of us have it; some of us don’t. Photo by Rafal Skiendzielewski

But even now, after a good couple of hours, we’re not done. Trails through regions with names like ‘Old Simm’s Copse” and “Colekitchen Hole” have us whooping with delight; the nearby Effingham Forest’s “Dick Focks Common” leaves the less mature of us chortling for other reasons.

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The Lake… of Peas

Eventually, tired, muddy and happy, we roll down to Peaslake Stores – a place famed hereabouts by the  welcome extended to the *ahem* less than spotlessly attired as much for excellent coffee, cake and sausage rolls. The shopkeeper even lets me use the loo. You don’t get that sort of service in Gregg’s. 

The North Downs is loads of fun… especially when ridden with a little pep

Throughout the ride, one thing has become clear. We are all of us riders of different inclinations, different enthusiasms and experiences – but we’re all riders nevertheless, and we’re all having a total blast. Not all of us knew the others before we set out, but all of us are now friends, joined by a common bond of experience – not of the radical, or of the extreme – but of the exceptional. There aren’t many folk out on this moist, foggy Tuesday. Not nearly enough people are astride bikes, variously manualling or tripodding gingerly down mud descents, all giggling with delight, and with shared jokes. All of us jawing good-naturedly over hot coffee and cake outside a shop in what feels like the middle of nowhere. This is a lot of fun.

Canyon, Neuron. North Downs, Peaslake
Peaslake stores – revered for many reasons, the main one being cake. Photo by Rafal Skiendzielewski

And then, predictably, the rain starts back up. But even that can’t slake the enthusiasm. We’re all pretty much soaking wet from the water on the ground anyway – let’s be honest, water from the sky isn’t going to make much of a dent in our mud-encrusted carapaces. More climbs, a few more photo stops (which are normally incredibly dull, but serve to increase the camaraderie as we all egg each other on and take the mickey out of each others’ gnar-faces) and a couple of excellent descents lead us back to a pub, where we look with delight at the food we’re about to smush into our mouths, and with mounting horror out of the window at the deluge.

Canyon, Neuron, Wotton, North Downs
Post ride refuelling. Photo by Rafal Skiendzielewski

Today has been a salutary lesson in a variety of things – but key among them is that mountain bikes are brilliant, ace trails are ace even if they’re not massively technical, and friends, new and old, are even acer – even if occasionally the weather isn’t.

Barney was riding the…

2019 Canyon Neuron CF 9.0 SL

Canyon, Neuron. Peaslake
Pic by Rafal Skiendzielewski

Spec List

  • Frame // Carbon Fibre, 130mm Travel
  • Fork // Fox 34 Float, Performance Elite, 51mm Offset, 130mm Travel
  • Shock // Fox Float DPS, Performance Elite, EVOL Air Can, 210x50mm (195x45mm on XS, S sizes)
  • Hubs // Reynolds TR3 Mountain Hub, 110x15mm Front & 148x12mm Rear
  • Rims // Reynolds TR309 Carbon, 28h Front & Rear, 30mm Internal Rim Width
  • Tyres // Maxxis Forekaster EXO 2.35in Front & Rear
  • Chainset // SRAM Stylo 7K DUB, 30t Chainring
  • Rear Mech // SRAM X01 Eagle, 12-Speed
  • Shifter // SRAM X01 Eagle, 12-Speed
  • Cassette // SRAM GX Eagle, 10-50t, 12-Speed
  • Brakes // SRAM Guide R, 180mm Front & 160m Rear Rotors
  • Bar // Canyon H15 Alloy , 15mm Rise 760mm Wide
  • Stem // Canyon V12 Alloy, 60mm Long
  • Grips // Ergon GA2, Lock-On
  • Seatpost // Fox Transfer, Performance Elite, 150mm Travel
  • Saddle // Iridium Trail
  • Size Tested // Medium
  • Sizes available // X-Small, Small, Medium, Large & Extra Large
  • Claimed Weight // 12.56 kg (27.63 lbs)
  • RRP //  £3,349

This feature was produced in association with Canyon UK

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Barney Marsh takes the word ‘career’ literally, veering wildly across the road of his life, as thoroughly in control as a goldfish on the dashboard of a motorhome. He’s been, with varying degrees of success, a scientist, teacher, shop assistant, binman and, for one memorable day, a hospital laundry worker. These days, he’s a dad, husband, guitarist, and writer, also with varying degrees of success. He sometimes takes photographs. Some of them are acceptable. Occasionally he rides bikes to cast the rest of his life into sharp relief. Or just to ride through puddles. Sometimes he writes about them. Bikes, not puddles. He is a writer of rongs, a stealer of souls and a polisher of turds. He isn’t nearly as clever or as funny as he thinks he is.

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