My love affair with mountain biking
It started in New Zealand. I had been saving up since I left university to go to Tibet. Then Tiananmen Square happened, and visiting China didn't seem such a good idea. Back in the early 90s my passion was skiing. So I plumped instead for travel in Asia sandwiched with work as a ski leader in Europe and I snuck in a ski season in New Zealand in the middle.
In New Zealand I sat on a mountain bike for the first time . The snow had melted and we rented bikes and rode down the river path near Wanaka. It was lovely, rooty singletrack - although back then I didn't know that singletrack was a thing - and I loved it.
Back in London, friends and I rented mountain bikes a couple of times on weekends away, and then in 1995 I took the plunge and bought my first bike. It was Marin Muirwoods with a rigid frame and purple forks (this was before suspension was a thing) and booked myself onto a group mountain bike holiday to Morocco. I know it sounds a bit dramatic, but it changed my life!
The holiday was a proper adventure. It was the first time this holiday had run. We were expected to sleep in 5-person tents which were just a bit too cosy, so some of us slept outside on a ground sheet, waking up to spectacular views (and ice some mornings). We finished some days as dusk was falling. But whatever we lacked in comfort was compensated for by the fantastic bunch of people I met, and the magnificent scenery of the Atlas mountains. Thus began the transfer of my affection from skiing to mountain biking, and the beginnings of a regular tribe for MTB weekends.
The great thing about mountain biking is that you can do it in evenings and weekends and you don't have to fork out large sums for a lift pass (although you can these days in the Alps). It's also much more forgiving for people like me who have dodgy knees as a result of skiing injuries!
The benefits are the same. The camaraderie. The exhilaration. The being in beautiful places. The ability to get away from the crowd. The thrill of challenging yourself. The satisfaction of getting to the top of a climb. The reward of coming down again.
Back in the day, there were no trail centres. We bought an OS map for an area and linked up the bridleways. You couldn't always tell from the map whether a bridlepath was rideable. I remember vividly carrying my bike up a mountain in the lake district, only to find that the descent on the other side wasn't rideable either.
After the Morocco holiday, an ever growing group of us booked a bunk house most months, and started to discover all the great places there are to ride in England and Wales. Dartmoor, Exmoor, the Yorkshire Dales and Moors, the Black Mountains, the Peaks, the Lakes... I discovered what a beautiful country I am lucky enough to live in.
Mountain biking was also a great way to discover other countries too. My holidays were (and still are predominantly) mountain biking. I joined group holidays in the Alps, the Pyrenees, Portugal, Malawi and saw in the millennium in Bhutan!
Having never been much of a one for competitive sport, I surprised myself by starting to compete. Thanks to a friend for suggesting we entered our first event. My first attempt at racing at Malvern was scotched when my car broke down half way there. After a night in a Premier Inn, we got rescued by the AA back to London. Then I discovered the Fat Tyre Challenge: three and a half hour races done in pairs which combined orienteering, speed, and route setting. You collected points on the way round, and lost them for every minute you were late back. I discovered that I was quite competitive!
The Fat Tyre Challenges were once a month, at venues around London. And they led on to Polaris, a super-endurance version held three times a year in places like the Lake District, North York Moors, Black Mountains etc. These were similar, but much harder, and involved riding for seven hours on Saturday and five hours on Sunday, carrying food and camping kit.
Were they fun? Yes ... but possibly more so in retrospect. Riding with a partner made it more enjoyable. As two, we were less likely to make stupid navigation errors, and encouraged each other to keep going when one of us hit the wall. Grinding up the next hill when your legs feel like jelly, and all you want to do is curl up and go to sleep, isn't much fun at the time! But it's surprisingly satisfying when you're back at base, chewing over the experience.
In 2000 I left London for a new life in Devon. My bike was a great help in making new friends in a new place. I went on rides with the local bike shop, and joined a couple of mountain bike clubs and met my husband to be!
With both of us self-employed, and the internet making remote working more possible, he and I explored further afield, doing house swaps to the USA and New Zealand and discovering all the amazing riding to be found there. In Nelson, NZ our next door neighbour was both a stay at home dad and a keen mountain biker. He showed us the best local riding, and was a great source of info as to where else in NZ we should go. America was amazing. I'd never been particularly keen to go, but the scenery is breathtaking, the people so friendly and welcoming and the mountain biking constantly challenging and fun.
Over time mountain biking has changed immensely. From a rigid frame, I now ride an all mountain bike with plenty of travel front and rear. These days, for many, cross-country riding with a map and compass seems to play second fiddle to trail centres and bike parks, where you're in a controlled environment, and know what level of difficulty you'll find (although personally, I still favour a lot of exploring). There's loads more kit, some of it supposedly specific to a particular sector of mountain biking, whereas when I started most of us wore fairly generic outdoor kit, with only the helmet and padded shorts bike-specific. Yes, we wore lycra, without baggies over the top and cotton t-shirts!
While the trappings have changed, the basics are still the same. There is wonderful friendship and support. Mountain biking is still a great way to discover new places, both at home in the UK and abroad. It can still offer a thrilling rush of adrenaline, if that's what you want. And if you prefer it sedate and gentle it can be that too.
And yes, nearly 30 years after I first sat on a mountain bike, I still love it. In fact, I enjoy it so much I've set up a small business as a mountain bike leader. My aim is to encourage more women to discover the joy of mountain biking - at whatever level suits them - and to help them build their confidence and skills. Mountain biking is still too male-dominated. It can be intimidating being the only woman on a club ride, and that puts some women off riding. Also, the images associated with mountain biking tend to be of young men, doing daring - and dangerous-looking - tricks. They are great to see, but also thoroughly off-putting for the people who might give it a try if they saw images of people like them on bikes.
My aim is to counter this in a very small way. I want to share my love of our sport, and encourage people to give it a go, whatever their aims. I offer group guided rides for beginners through to intermediates, and also women's weekends, all in East Devon, an area of outstanding natural beauty. It certainly beats sitting in front of a computer all day!