Saturday, 20 July 2013

Where Red Kites Fly

This is 'the' classic XC ride, 32 miles in length, a good few 1000' climbs and all off road, and today's bonus - near thirty degree dry dusty trails. And joining me for the ride were an eclectic mix of friends on an equally eclectic mix of bikes. Sixty six year old Phil on a stunning and totally original Ridgeback fully rigid hardtail dating back to the early nineties. Phil is a tester and aficionado of dual carriageways, today would be a very different test for him!. Then we have Nick, purveyor of fine bicycles and the baby of the group. Nick was on the 'bike de jour' an early top spec Giant Trance, with it's maestro system the terrain would be smoothed into submission. And myself on a new fangled 29'er hardtail.
The route today started at Cowlease sculpture park which sits at about 1000' and the first part of the ride or job of the day is to immediately plummet off the top, down what seems like never ending double track and into the the Getty mansion grounds. When you get to the bottom you find yourself in XC heaven, blue skies full of Red Kites, swooping dusty trails, hills all about and the dust hasn't even settled from your high speed descent.
You just have time to catch your breath before the second hill or job of the day, that is to climb the near 1000' all over again. First though is a short sweet single/double track flat trail past 'Vicar of Dibly puddle' yes the actual hole.
Move it French...rider coming through
The climb is a peach with a deep V cut into it's centre, I've never failed on this one before, but today I was drawn into the gully and couldn't get out without dabbing. trying to fight my way out had me gasping at the top. We pass through Northend and follow a few miles of fast sweeping naturally bermed trail to Pishill and climb again to Russell's Water. From here the trail undulates wildly on top of dry chalk, flint hardpack and sapping loam all the way to Nettlebed. Here we cross the A4130 and have to hold Phil back from darting off for a quick PB. The next bit of trail is my favourite, I can't put my finger on the reason why, it's just so sweet, sadly the Rhododendrons aren't in flower, when they are the place is doubly stunning.
Rhododendron forest
We are spat out at Satwell and follow a very complicated trail through Kingwood Common. Next stop is Stoke Row. Actually this is going to be a proper stop. We've been riding this route for years now, and not once have we ever stopped at Stoke Rows famous store with it's bakery selling the legendary sausage rolls. This time though we're not serious 24 hour solo mountain bike athletes so a long overdue stop is on the cards. We get to the store, I see the bakery counter and almost demand my sausage roll.....tragedy, they've sold out, so the legendary sausage roll remains just that - a legend. We make do with sausage baguettes and sit on the village green soaking up the sun and scoffing our make do sausage rolls. After replenishing our drinks bottle we set off. The Baguettes are sitting like concrete on our stomachs when we set off, so we're fortunate that the next section is downhill. Not nice downhill, but a tyre ripping (a previous ride stopping tyre ripping sort of downhill) There is a 'chicken run' but we don't take it, we throw caution to the wind and take the direct route down. We survive. The next few miles to Nuffield are over  gently rising trails. We settle the pace to work of the food and enjoy some banter. I have time to reminisce about the days when these trails have been axle deep in mud, forcing you up into the trees alongside or had you grappling for the fence posts just to stay upright. My food has settled. We grab Phil as we once again cross the A4130 and set off towards the long descent near Park Corner. I signal a left turn that takes us to the top of what on the map looks like a four mile descent. I give Nick a moment so there's clear space between us as we drop, and then I go for it. This descent is just great, there aren't any definitive lines down this trail you just pick and choose. If you pick right you are rewarded with a moment of pure cycling pleasure, get it wrong it's still bloody great. My big wheels are closing in on Nick, he hears me and ups the anté. I close in again, but the trail starts to twist and turn and the clouds of dust that Nick kicks up are lit by the suns rays rendering me blind as to the way down, but I risk my bones and don't grab the levers. We spill out onto Ewelme Downs in tandem, Phil amazingly on his ancient fully rigid is just seconds behind.
Swans Way
We're now out on the downs and the sun is beating down on us, the trail is as open as it gets here, and the sun cream I put on at the start has long been supplemented with a thick layer of dust. Not sure if this has a SPF of any kind? We wave to the Alpacas and head onto the Swans Way part of the Ridgeway long distance path. The path has been forcibly closed to 4X4's now. In the past the way had been destroyed by 4X4's unable to police themselves and wrecking the way for every other user by using it when at it's wettest. It took mechanical intervention to rebuild this ancient way, and now for us it was a pleasure to use again. We're on the home straight now. As we ride in and out of woodland I catch glimpses of our final climb to the finish. The Ridgeway is in great condition, which is good because the finish is a another 1000' climb and no one want's tired legs leading up to that. In the past the trail in the picture above has been axle deep in mud, and on one occasion I've seen Nick disappear through ice! but today its all good.
We arrive at the base of the climb and set off to the top one by one. It's hot and it's going to be slow going and with the rides finish at the top I decide to ride helmetless, something I've not done in several decades, but I consider it safe. The only danger I could for see would be another mountain biker hooning down towards me. I twiddle the hill, which seems to have been a little sanitized the going is easier than I remembered. I recall when it was once full of gullies and you had to bunny hop from side to side to reach the top, we also used to climb it singlespeed.
I remember this when it was r'eet ard
The climb is done and we're back, that went quick and was one of the best days riding I've had in a long time. On the way back home I wonder if I have my priorities right, in a few days I'll be back training, then I'll be racing. Arghh this is hard, a proper 'Catch 22' without the training and racing would rides like these be so pleasurable? Part of me wants to race and part of me want's to sell up, buy a Mercian and just ride. I decide not to make any rash decisions. We get back to Nicks place and lounge in the garden with the Tour on the mac. Somehow I think a Lottery win is in order.
I'd just like to say that I've shamelessly pinched the title of this post from Russ Pinder who posted this great little route on Singletrackworld many years ago. Tragically Russ was paralysed in a mountain biking accident shortly afterwards. Thank you Russ for this classic.

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