As our sunrise and sunset times become more and more civilised, as daylight is increasingly visible in the sky at both ends of a working day and as the prospect of rapid change grows with our march toward March, paradoxically the weather is at its coldest, with frigid air and freezing conditions.
Last week was a case in point. Riding was a mixed bag, first a cheeky Tuesday night ride with Jem in dry, firm conditions over the Mickleham Gallops. Taking advantage of the sub-zero temperatures and frozen trails, we put in a few laps up and down the Downs and had a lot of fun.
Later in the week it was an off-road commute, on a bitterly cold morning with Mark, frost and brilliant sunshine, giving way to rising temperatures on the way home.
This is where my planning went a little awry.
You have to remember that one of the benefits of an MTB is the ability to ride anywhere, and that commuting gets repetitive unless you mix things up a little. Not only that but the morning ride to work was like the Tuesday night, all firm trails, frozen mud and sparkly ground. On that basis, I was thinking it would be fun to try some trails I haven’t tackled for a while.
My plan was to ride home off-road to Brockham, a nice little trail-and-tarmac mix ‘n’ match, and then head up toward the A25 and over the railway bridge to climb up past the Lime Kilns and Bat Out of Hell. Well, there were no bats but it was certainly hell…
The problem was that over the course of the day the temperature had risen high enough to melt the mud and since there had been no rain, it was the worst kind of mud you can get.
The mud was almost unrideable, classic BGM – B@%tard Glue Mud.
Riding to Brockham was easy – the trails were softening, but fun in the way a little bike squirm can be. But as Mark and I crossed the A25 and climbed to the railway bridge we were brought to a halt for the first time by a patch of thick, greasy mud, clay and chalk. We should have abandoned the idea right then but instead persisted up the climb to where the trail forks right for the Lime Kilns.
This climb stopped us twice more as the mud coated our tyres. It never flicked off to make us muddy, but the bike was gaining weight and losing traction rapidly. Even on the flat it was slippery in places but as we passed the Lime Kilns things got worse. Not only did the gradient increase, but the seldom-ridden trail looked quite different going up to going down, enough to make us lose our way.
We ended up hike-a-biking up through the woods towards the quarry, with next to zero traction for our feet. Eventually we came out back on the right path, only to find it remained unrideable due to the narrow gulleys and extensive slimey chalk surface. Take it from me, there is no satisfaction to be had from climbing up Bat Out Of Hell, even if conditions are Vermouth dry.
By the time Mark and I were back on the Box Hill road, our tyres were well-covered with clay, but it soon came off as we headed toward the Best Western restaurent. We were just relieved to have summitted to be honest, and I was hoping our reward would be pig shaped. As in, China Pig.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, what was I thinking? Well, I was thinking a run down China Pig, in the dark, in mid-February would be laugh. Which it was, sort of.
It was possible to make progress, at least initially, if you didn’t really attack and were happy to noodle a line down. Clay made the trail a bit slippery but a low saddle and some careful braking made it OK. Then the Tribble Moss set in and that was OK for a while too, as clouds of moss went under the wheels.
The trouble was, gradually my wheels started to hang on to more and more of that damn mud.
It was so sticky that rather than flick off, it stuck, wedging itself between frame and fork and wheels. Pedalling got harder as the bike seemed to double in weight until it was hardly moving. On more than one occasion I had to get off and rock the wheels to get the mud out of the fork brace where it had stuck the front wheel fast.
On reaching the stile at the end of China Pig I could barely lift the bike over and the tyres were now sporting a sculpted rime of mud that the fork brace and mudguard had squared off. Memories of Mountain Mayhem 2012 loomed before me.
Eventually making it out onto the road, I thought the mud would clear. It wasn’t until we’d reached over 15mph about half a mile down the road that the tyres started to spew the mud off, reminiscent of the vomiting lady from Little Britain! It was copious and hilarious and miraculously, none of the mud ended up on me.
The ordeal wasn’t over though. I parted from Mark at Thorncroft to make my way over toward Bockett’s Farm and the sticky trails struck again. The tyres re-acquired their previous dimensions and even my roll down Crabtree Lane to home didn’t shift it. I had to spend twenty minutes hosing off the bike on my front lawn, by which time it looked like a herd of elephants had shat all over the garden!
So the moral of the story is frozen mud, good. Anything else at this time of year, forget it! And don’t listen to my bright ideas!