Singletrack Magazine Issue 124 : Filth Camp 2019

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Chipps tries to teach Californians about winter riding and ends up learning as much about himself.

Words & Photography chipps

“Come to the UK in February! The trails will be wet and muddy. It might snow. Our goal is to get you miserably cold and soaked! It’ll be fun!” So read the invitation that I’d sent out to a dozen American (and Spanish) brand managers and product designers. All part of my ongoing campaign to teach desert dwellers a lesson when it comes to making products that those in the colder, wetter bits of the world can use. 

Not surprisingly, there were few replies. Perhaps my illustrating photos of ‘This is what you can expect…’ weren’t inspiring enough to tempt someone for whom long sleeves are the sole preserve of December, away from a sunlit office in the desert. 

Luckily, Simon Fisher, a long-time bike industry veteran who worked for many years at Giro and now heads up marketing for much of the non-bike stuff at Specialized, took up the challenge. Simon lives in Santa Cruz, California, and he and I have had a long-running to and fro conversation about the different challenges of our respective environments: I will send Simon a video of sideways hail in June and he will reply with complaints about how the trails are a bit too dry and dusty where he is. This was going to be fun…

How often have you ridden in conditions that were ‘too dusty’? How about ‘too dry’? Too hot? Unless you regularly travel to Spain or Morocco, Nevada or Cyprus to ride mid-summer, it’s unlikely you’ve ever had cause for complaint. Now and again, though, you’ll ride in the UK on a scorching day, and boil, but it’s such a novelty that you revel in it. 

Equally, though, when it comes to designing products and clothing for those conditions, it’s unlikely that any of us would have had enough long-term experience in those arid temperatures to know what to suggest to someone designing clothing, or helmets, or tyres to use in them. While we all enjoy a nice hot day, or a dry summer, it’s rare that we live it, day in and day out to have that depth of experience. And that has always been my point to the Californians and the Spanish product designers I meet. While they all endure rainy rides and cold days, theirs is not the world of fourth-day-in-a-row wet shoes, or the manky bucket of damp kit queuing up for the washing machine. In order to design for those conditions, you need to live them. 

And, although Simon was only passing through for five days, I was determined to show him no mercy. And even if it didn’t rain every day, I’d improvise.

Apples with oranges.

On our way back from the 7am Manchester Airport run, Simon and I compared the differences between the weather of the West Coast and of West Yorkshire.

My theory is that the US has, overall, a better climate than the UK, but it has greater extremes. The UK, after all, is a lot further north than many people think. London is further north than anywhere in America* and even Vancouver in Canada. San Francisco, meanwhile is level with Alicante in Spain. We’re only spared the extremes of Canadian winters by the Gulf Stream that gives us our warmer, wetter weather in the winter and, usually, cooler, wetter summers. We also don’t have that big landmass to give us nice stable weather and we’re surrounded on all sides by wet water. No wonder we like to complain about the damp.

The US, meanwhile, tends to get more dramatic weather – rainstorms, firestorms, blistering cold and baking heat. We have a more gentle sine wave of temperatures and dampness. The cold freeze of winter slowly gives way to the foggy dank of January and the rains of February and the false hope of March. Eventually by May or so, the dry days are starting to outnumber the wet and we can look forward to summer – although we’re nudged by the weather often enough that we never take it for granted. 

And, while the US gets rain, it tends to be big and stormy, in an oversized American way, and then gone again. What the UK seems to specialise in is that steady, grey mizzle that seeps into clothing and psyche alike, robbing traction from trails and enthusiasm from riders. It’s common that you’ll get even wetter from below as more spray and filth from the trail is thrown up at you than what falls down on you from the skies. 

That was all theory though. It was time to put it to the test. Simon had brought a selection of riding clothes to wear and borrowed a shiny new Stumpjumper, to which we fitted some of Specialized’s aggressively treaded Hillbilly tyres. Our early evenings (another difference from the nearer-the-equator States) meant that we’d be setting off in twilight and definitely finishing in the dark. 

Ear snow.

For that first ride and, as it happens, for every ride that week, Simon appeared from his room, dressed to ride and I immediately thought ‘You’re going to boil’. While a padded gilet and a sturdy softshell jacket seems like what you’d want for a February night ride on the hills, every ride we did would start going up a 25% climb and unless you started cold, you’d be melting before we even got to the fun bits. 

As it was, Simon was already boiling on the first climb, but as a special British weather treat, when we topped out onto the moors we were engulfed in a wintry squall. Fifty pence-sized flakes of snow stung our faces and filled our right ears. We sped on in our own little pools of light, the packed snow squeaking in our ears.

The packhorse trail we followed came with its own American Werewolf in London levels of warnings to ‘Keep off the moors, stick to the path’ as a wrong move off the solid flagstones would see a wheel swallowed up to the hub. What is it about British hillsides where the higher up you go, the wetter it gets? 

The descent that followed, though, kept our attention focused. A slick, grassy singletrack followed a hollow down the hillside, inverting itself into a spine, halfway down. Keeping the bikes on target on this teetering, shifting line in the dark took all our effort and both of us wandered off course a couple of times with comedic, but not serious, effect. 

With the continual splashing of the lower trails keeping us damp and cold, we started heading back down the hill, skipping the optional ‘one more climb’ in favour of hot, toasted things over the Aga and a whisky nightcap. It had been a long day for both of us. 

Get down the pub. 

Our second day’s riding date wasn’t until the evening, so in between catching up on emails and dull stuff like that, Simon quizzed the Singletrack staff about their favourite shoes, and pedals, and jackets and winter tyres and summer tyres. 

Monday night usually means one thing – the famous Singletrack Monday Night Pub Ride, that usually takes place within an hour of the office every Monday night (and which we have no more to do with than the haphazardly chosen evening ride the leaders do).

This time, Simon was treated to something that’s pretty rare in his world: a ride on which nobody else works for a bike company, or even in the wider industry. This is not often the case in Simon’s home town of Santa Cruz, where everyone you meet on the trails either works for Specialized, or Santa Cruz Bikes, or Ibis, Fox, Easton, Bell, Giro or one of myriad other companies that make their homes over the hill from Silicon Valley. Or they have a friend who works there. And, as such, that can really affect the bikes and gear that riders use. It’s rare to see old bikes on the trails there as the market in year-old last year’s models is strong. And, as such, bikes, clothes and components don’t get ridden into the ground as much. They get replaced and renewed long before the seams start popping and the tyres wear bald.

The MNPR ride proved to be a good antidote to that scene – and a chance for both of us to pay closer attention to the bikes and gear that riders were wearing. A world where everyone pays retail price from an actual shop is a very different world to one where you just get a new tyre out of the discounted staff store or a helmet from your pal at that helmet company. 

We agreed that this kind of research, and this kind of riding, is what more US companies needed to be doing. It’s all very well designing your new suspension bike on a CAD machine and testing it on dry local trails, but you really need to experience that painful moment when the grit starts getting into the bearings, or the mud-choked tyre starts wearing the paint off the chainstays, all while your shoes fill up with gritty brown water. This kind of stuff you can’t simulate, eh?

As is normal on an MNPR winter ride our route took us up to the windswept moors in the dark, on trails that never seem to get more familiar with repetition. In the distance, we could see Bolton, or Blackburn, or Bury, or any of the many identical orange glows that dot the valleys around here. And, as is traditional, the moors eventually gave way to built tracks and walls and woodland as we neared the valley floor again. Some of the promised awesome woodland tracks proved elusive and the almost equally traditional bushwhack to find the path through the woods ensued. 

There was one final tradition to finish with, and that was the ‘bemused look of the Monday night pub regulars’ as a half dozen muddy riders in various states of Lycra and casual clothes descended on their quiet boozer at 10pm, demanding pints of beer and random packets of ‘I don’t mind what, but give me three. No, four!’ flavour crisps.

Heading north

Mr Fisher wanted an excuse to visit Scotland on his trip (and I needed little persuasion), so we booked a room at the Tontine Hotel in Peebles and headed north the following morning. Into the car went Simon’s bag, starting to fill with that not-quite-dried-yet pile of clothes, and a pair of bikes that bore the caked-on mud of a couple of evenings of ‘I’m not going to start cleaning a bike at midnight!’. 

After a brief coffee stop at Biketreks’ new shop in Ings, we left the spitting rain of the Lakes and headed toward drier, bluer skies of southern Scotland. On arriving in Peebles we still had enough time left to get a ride in before dinner and a dram so we set off for some of the lesser-known trails of Glentress, relying on my shaky memories of races there and a few backstage tours of the forest with the locals. It’s a good job I had some idea of where we were headed as the (sun)lights went out as we reached the highest point of the forest. And, on cue, a cloud rolled in, enveloping us in a spooky mist. Time to head back down, the fun way. Lights on then, and don’t follow my line. 

Moments earlier it had been clear… The UK seems to have particularly localised weather. It can be sunny on one side of a hill, but snowing on the other. Our geology (and our accents) can also be pretty localised too: travel 30 miles from my house and you can go from gritstone to limestone, or from Yorks to Lancs to Scouse. Changes in the US happen over greater distances. You might have to drive up to six hours to find a different climate, or geology, or accent. We just have to cross the road. 

We set off in the pitch black, with lights, to make our way to the bottom. Simon on my tail all the way. On the way, we got some classic Glentress off-trail centre stuff with flat-out stutter bumps, berms and off-camber roots, mercifully dry at the time, before eventually screaming down into the now-closed trail centre and our long ride back to the Tontine. 

We got our dinner in the pub where we were joined by Jamie Birks and Neil Dalgleish, respectively the MC and the mastermind behind TweedLove, and a font of much Tweed Valley knowledge. We discussed everything from bikes to tyres to beers to Scottishness, and all while having to pay in cash as the pub didn’t take cards. Now that’s tradition!

A round of Golfie 

After a hearty breakfast that obviously included haggis, we met Neil and drove down to the famous Golfie to get a taste of this more natural feeling, side to the Tweed Valley. As we took in the long spin to the top (a climb we’d revisit several times that day), talk turned to riding, who was riding where, and for whom in 2019, how to keep secrets in a world without any and, obviously, the ‘c’ word. Which around here inevitably means ‘community’. Simon and I were both struck by how much is put in (and taken out) by the local riding scene here. From trail repairs, to volunteering for events, teaching the kids to be even more awesome, it’s all seen as just part of living here. You ride the trails, therefore you help out – even if it’s occasionally kicking out a puddle or moving deadfall. 

Simon noticed that whenever Jamie and Neil stopped, whether to chat or to point out some ex-EWS death-plummet, they would always reach into a bumbag for a lightweight jacket and put it on to keep off the chill. Once the chat was done, or the snack was eaten, it would go away again in a second, ready to ride again in just a long-sleeved jersey, despite it being winter. I, meanwhile, was encumbered by a rucksack and camera gear, so I stayed long-sleeved and a bit chilly. Simon, meanwhile? Well, he was roasting as usual in too many layers without anywhere to put them. Another lesson – and not really something I’d noticed before. 

On cue, a couple of the local trail fairies caught up with us, out for a ride – and to the Californian’s shock – in just light tops and gloveless. As they dropped down a trail they knew intimately, I couldn’t help but marvel at their ease of movement as they slammed into the steep berms. As relaxed and comfortable as riding in the park. 

Over several laps of the Golfie trails; ripping down and spinning back up, we were treated to a full spread of trail surfaces – from bog to slab, roots to rock and smooth to chundery. And a full spread of weather too – from spitting with rain to ‘Ooh, sun! No it’s gone again’. It pressed home that any garment, or tyre or component we use for riding in the UK is only ever going to be a best-bet compromise. What matters more is the adaptability of the gear and of the rider to just make it work. 

Lessons learned

On our drive back south, via Tebay Services for Scotch eggs and assorted pies, we had plenty of time to go over the different scenes we’d seen, the gear that works and that doesn’t and see if a giant company like Specialized could learn from our combined, trans-Atlantic observations.

It was obvious to us that you can never pretend to know what it’s like to ride with people from an area, unless you actually do. Every riding scene is as different as fingerprints. Only by immersing yourself in each important market can you learn what they need. It’s no good saying that you have a German office in the Black Forest, so that means you’ve covered Europe. Or that you have a test rider in Arizona, so you know all about Vancouver. 

Even simple things like how people get to rides can vary. Many riders in the UK are lucky enough to be able to ride from home, whereas nearly all US riders will arrive at the trailhead by car. Private-vehicle shuttling is common in the US, whereas it’s a rarity here. UK riders are more likely to end up, mid-ride or end of ride in a pub or café, still dressed in their gear, whereas Americans are likely to be all changed and smart. This can affect the clothes we wear to ride as we know we’ll be mixing with the public afterwards – which can limit the usefulness of that Lycra skinsuit. The bar culture in the US doesn’t parallel our own pubs. Bars are smarter and muddy (or even dusty) cyclists are less tolerated. There’s actually less night riding in the US because many parks close at sunset and you can be fined for riding after dark, so there’s a bigger culture of lunch rides there. Our countryside stays open all night, so you’re more likely to go directly from trail to pub. 

Weather in the UK can (and does) change minute to minute, needing a pretty flexible riding wardrobe, whereas a US rider can leave the house in clothing that’ll suit them for the day. But even here, if you keep things moving on the trail, riding a well-maintained bike and don’t have any mishaps that involve major mechanicals or injuries, you can get by with very little gear. If you’re slower, stop more often and are prone to chatting, or mechanicals, or mishaps, you’re going to have to pack more gear (and maybe a first aid kit…). 

Simon says:

Ironically, it rained more in Santa Cruz than it did while I was in the UK. That said, I did get to ride in sideways snow, swampy bogs and frigid conditions. I traveled 5000 miles to experience the dark, wet and amazing riding in the UK and came away with a deep feeling that the mountain biking community is closer together than ever. I was welcomed by every rider I met and was shown some of the finest trails I have had the pleasure of riding.

The purpose of this trip was to pick up a Bike industry Californian and drop them into the gnar of Northern UK and Scottish riding to gain a deeper appreciation of what it is like to ride in the dark, deep throes of winter day after day. In California we do get rain, but rain equals ‘wait it out for the sun to come back’. We also have soil here that can get completely wrecked from heavy rain and riding, so when it dumps, we just chill (or ride another bike). 

So, what did I learn from Filth Camp?  

• It is very easy to overdress and completely overheat. 

• Rain, snow, mud, darkness, ‘I just ate dinner’ and ‘my bike is filthy’ are not excuses to skip riding.

• Stuff doesn’t dry out when everything (including the air) is wet.  

• The mountain bike community and trail builders are world class in the UK and especially in Scotland! I want to vacation in the Tweed Valley.

Takeaway filth.

To be honest, we didn’t find that much filth. We got squeaky-eared by snow, and slipped and slid a little, but there wasn’t the ceaseless sideways rain of a Mint Sauce cartoon. However, there was enough weather and enough riding that, when looked at under our combined microscopes, taught us both many obvious lessons that perhaps had never been learned. I certainly will be rethinking what I wear, what I carry and how I carry it. 

And Simon Fisher? He’d already written eight pages of notes by the second night. I think we’ll see a greater understanding percolating through the products he comes into contact with at his company. And I suspect we’ll be seeing him over here again for more of this ‘research’ that involves riding, chatting, eating and drinking.