Mud, sweat and gears. Joining the dots in the Surrey Hills.

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Sunday was, as anyone in the UK will know, a beautiful day of chilly temperatures, low winter sun and bright blue skies. In short, a perfect day to turn the legs over on the North Downs with the mountain bike. And so it was that the MTB section of the SWR found themselves gathering near Brockets Farm at half past 7 in the morning on Sunday. I’m feeling ‘glass half full’ as I write this so I’ll just say that there was an excellent turn out of two-thirds of the MTB section rider base in attendance. A cynic might point out that means we numbered just 2 but it’s quality rather than quantity that counts on these sort of occasions. And make no mistake, there was a bit of an agenda to the day quite beyond the usual MAMIL agenda of getting back home before you’ve laid waste to the few brownie points you’d managed to accumulate with your spouse during the week. That sort of thing is taken as read! No, today was the day that we’d decided would be a good opportunity to try and join up various trails that we’d stumbled across over the winter into one long ride. Something that took in Polesden Lacey, Ranmore, Leith Hill, and then over to Peaslake before getting back over the spine of the North Downs at Ranmore and home again. Quite literally a marathon ride at a smidge over 42km.

So it was a hard core of just Will Greig and myself that set off as the darkness slowly lifted to reveal a stunning morning with temperatures in the low singles. I should have realised that Will was taking this seriously when I noticed he was a) still refusing to cover up his legs and b) wearing SWR bib shorts underneath a poor imitation of baggy Sk8erboi shorts. Sartorial note at this point … if you can see bib shorts underneath your baggies … then you baggies really need to be longer! Just ask your children if you’re still confused.

The first thing that came to our attention was that whilst it was indeed a lovely day, it was probably the first lovely day since October 2013 and it was going to take more than 5 minutes of winter sunshine to dry out the previous three months of accumulated rainfall. It was wet. It was slippery, it was boggy. In the first half a mile we’d already encountered mud so thick you couldn’t ride through it, mud so slippery you couldn’t point in the right direction and puddles so deep that they submerged your feet. Yep, soaking, freezing feet before you could even say ‘warm up’.

But no matter, on we went and it was a cracking ride that even turned up a few new trails including a descent off the back of Ranmore down the face of the North Downs which, at an incline of -24%, is properly steep. Doing it when it’s wet … down a chalk face …. over tree roots … was a proper test of nerve, descending technique, brakes and blind luck. Fortunately all 4 held firm long enough to make it which is more than can be said of the sorry looking Land Rover chassis rotting away at the bottom. The ride to Leith Hill took in Summer Lightning before the long climb back up and around this point I was starting to question my choice of riding companion. Will is disturbingly fit and, rather frustratingly, his off-road riding technique is improving to the point that it’s not so easy to catch him as soon as the ground gets a little uneven. He does still fall off quite a lot though and this means that a smile was never far from my lips despite my aching legs and rasping lungs. The falling is made all the more amusing because for reasons unknown, Will has his clip-on pedals turned up to 11 so that when he does realise that gravity is taking over, he can’t do much about it. Sometimes he’s riding ahead of you and you can take in the whole balletic affair virtually in slow motion – like Bambi on ice as he wobbles, swerves and topples with feet still attached. Other times it happens behind you and you just hear the gnashing of gears and the ‘thud’ as body meets turf. I’d feel sorry for him (and nearly did when I saw the state of his shins at the end…see below) if he wasn’t so much fitter than me … but instead I just let the mirth warm me from the inside – although it wasn’t funny enough to reach my feet which were, by now, unfeeling lumps of ice.

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On the descents I could make back some of the ground and this was partly on account of riding an All Mountain tank that is at its happiest descending quickly with suspension soaking up the hits. It’s less happy when pointing up hill and being asked to climb – or perhaps it’s just me that’s less happy  – but it’s no carbon fibre whippet in the weight department which makes itself felt when you’ve got a few inches of mud stuck to your frame and wheels already. Between Holmbury and the A25 there is a long descent down towards a farm and Will had wisely suggested a degree of caution because of the risk of getting railroaded in some tracks and not being able to turn out of them. As we set off and gathered pace I realised that these were the timid words of a roadie and should obviously be ignored because I, on my All-Mountain tank was more than a match for these particular conditions. What’s the saying? Pride comes before ….

Sure enough all was going well and I was gliding down the hill soaking up the odd bump and generally thinking that Will was a bit of a pussy for being so nervous of this considering what we’d already tackled that day when I saw another rider coming up the hill. There were about 4 different ‘tracks’ running along this particular bridleway and whilst I was pretty sure that we were on different ones, it was probably best to move over a bit to avoid passing too close considering the speed that I’d by now accumulated. Sure enough, trying to extract myself from the shallow path I’d found myself in ended in disaster and I went down rather hard right in front of the poor guy riding up the hill. Fortunately, despite a reminder of the importance of a helmet as my melon met the ground, no harm was done and we all carried on our way none the worse for wear. Will was gracious enough not to say “I told you so” but he had every right to feel just a little bit righteous!

By now, and in spite of leaving out a run through the Yoghurt Pots and Barry Knows Best, we were in danger of breaking rule #1 (Don’t be late home) … which to be fair I break quite often. Will was making short work of the climb to Ranmore (after finally negotiating 100m of 1% incline at the base coated in a slick clay/chalk mire that made riding across it impossible. I walked – Will refused to be beaten) but by now I was fading and my legs were cooked. Will powered on while I remembered I should take a few pictures of the view from half way up the climb for the blog!

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Finally, about 4 and quarter hours after we set off, we arrived back at the cars tired (exhausted in my case), muddy and happy. Ride stats and map are all here but it took in such highlights as Summer Lightning, Leith Hill Tower, Telegraph Row and others. You could definitely extend this ride to take in Yoghurt Pots and Barry Knows Best and we agreed it’s one to come back and do in the summer when it’s lighter earlier (don’t forget Rule #1) and also drier under the wheel. This time around even the downhill bits were hard work in places and firm ground would speed this ride up significantly. I can report though that the bit of neoprene I fixed to the front of my bike works very well indeed. Anyone used to a face full of ‘splatter’ every time they ride should definitely consider one. Google “neoprene mudguard” and you’ll find plenty to choose from. Expect to pay about £15. I’ll spare you the “with/without” mug shots but suffice to say I wouldn’t ride in the wet without one now. Sadly it doesn’t keep the mud off anything else!

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