My heart sank this morning as I woke to the sound, by now quite familiar to us all, of steady rain outside. After a ride to work on Friday where I got wetter than if I’d just gone and sat in a bath—wetter than Bordon even—I just felt I’d had enough of wet riding.
Things weren’t helped by a feeling of complete exhaustion. Perhaps the number of miles I’ve been cranking out recently is taking it’s toll; perhaps the extra work from muddy riding has contributed too. Whatever, I felt tired.
But I’d already arranged with Dave to meet at his place to borrow his Intense Spider 29er since my singlespeed is having it’s chain tensioner repaired and my Orange is without any rear brake pads at the moment. The chance to try the Intense was too good to miss. And, amazingly as I left the house the sky started to clear.
By the time Dave and I had made it to Bocketts Farm it was apparant the weather was both warm and likely to remain dry. Arriving on time we were thinking it would just be the two of us when James, Barrie, Paul, Joe, Erick and at the last minute Jez all turned up to make an 8-strong riding group. Deciding that Leith Hill had the best chance of dry-ish riding, that’s where we headed.
Heading along the Admirals Track soon settled any notions that we might remain dry also, even if the skies remained clear. There were huuuge puddles that completely blocked our way, forcing us to splash through for an early soaking. My tired legs were soon protesting at the thought of all the grinding they’d be doing later but despite running a Kenda Nevegal/Klaw combination on the Intense I felt it wasn’t too draggy.
Mind you, the first climb soon had me wondering where my recent zip had gone. Hopping the drainage dip (wheels off the ground on a 29er? Whatever next?), the Yew Trees ascent was a real sod although it was novel to find a full range of gears available for me to choose from. It’s quite a strange feeling riding the snick-snick smooth Shimano set up after so long with the more direct feel of SRAM’s X-0 groupset.
Once up on Ranmore we ran along Badger Run, struggling for traction and speed on the chalk/clay/leafy surface with the aim of taking the Landrover descent down to Westcott. This proved to be quite a technical challenge today with so much flotsam from the floods of recent days. It was also a bit of an unknown for me with taking the Intense down such a rooty and techy descent.
Despite quite steep angles on the bike though it coped rather well. I could feel it was more reluctant than the Orange to change direction quickly but the flipside was a great deal of stability at lower speeds which meant I could place the bike just where I wanted it. This was probably the thing I noticed most all day from the 29 inch wheels. I made it down with barely a slip at all, but then everyone else on their 26 inch machines got down too! But I felt well in control anyway.
After a short spin round the back of Westcott the next challenge was the Rookery climb which is heavily eroded at the moment as you’d expect. I was expecting the Intense to do well up here but my legs let me down as I slightly unweighted the backend going over a step two thirds of the way up. I later found the ProPedal on the shock had been switched on for the whole ride whereas I prefer an active back end, which might have helped on a couple of occasions, this being one of them.
A short pause at the top gave Barrie his third opportunity to put air in his tyre after puncturing near Yew Trees earlier, before we hauled up Wolvens Lane. It’s a good little workout as you dodge between the trees (the holly seems to have been cut back) and the Intense felt like a nice tool for this kind of riding although I was working reasonably hard to stay with Jez on his Ti 456. But that low speed stability really came into its’ own on the twisty, rooty steps and tight corners of the high banks as you work your way along.
We regrouped and then carried on past the open space near the end of Summer Lightning, discovering the start of attempts to fence off parts of the area with a wire fence. This also included (we found later) the end part of Summer Lightning. Past here, Joe suggested a cheeky dodge through the trees which took us down a tight series of turns through the laurel and rhododendrons, past a house and through a stream (I minced it) before we picked up the long drag to the Tower.
This is a hard climb, not technical but never ending with few features to entertain along the way. Soon Barrie and I were leading (somehow my legs woke up half way round today) and we were the first to make it to the start of the Tower climb proper. At this point I was ready to keel over but Barrie put me in my place by spinning on uninterupted up to the Tower. I waited for the others!
My attempt on the climb was hampered by a saddle which was about an inch too low and by that ProPedal setting as well as my legs but even so I made it with just one stop. I think I could have managed it quite easily in one go, the Intense is not one to wag it’s front wheel and I could pick the line I wanted. It’s just the back end once again span away my momentum on a step whereas I’m quite confident without the ProPedal I’ve had found some traction.
An extended break at the Tower for coffee and some of their excellent fruit cake ensued while we chatted to Charles from LOCT, as he and his family demonstrated the benefits of his clever child seat off-road. Dave also had a chat with LordOnOne senior (I think there’s a senior and a junior!) before we finally headed away on the return leg.
Jez parted from us as he needed to get back but the rest headed off down Personal Hygiene. The steep roll in and sharp upward rise, followed by a sharp left turn and another steep drop soon had me testing the Intense’s Reba 29er fork, with maximum (almost to the mm!) travel used up. I didn’t feel any concern but was conscious I was leaning heavily on the front end with the steep frame angles being felt through the flat Salsa bar.
I haven’t mentioned the flat bar yet but it is actually quite a defining characteristic of Dave’s Intense. It’s not in the Mary league of weird and actually makes a lot of sense in keeping the front end low-ish as well as being ideal for the nimble bits thanks to a relatively narrow width, but Dave runs it angled down slightly too far for my tastes. Having said that, it’s an easy adjustment to make and the flat bar felt good overall.
Incidentally, anyone who rides singletrack in the woods can really benefit from narrower bars to let you dodge between the trees. I’ve been wondering for some time if this fashion for super-wide handlebars in Singletrack and other magazines is just a joke on their part to see who falls for it. I’m sure on open trails it has advantages but across Leith Hill and the Surrey Woods? Not for me thanks.
Back to the ride. We passed the cricket pitch, noodled our way through various bits of singletrack and crossed the bombholes to pass Deliverance before picking up Waggledance. It was a day for lots of low speed line picking on the slippery surfaces and the Intense felt great. Half way along Waggledance though disaster struck as Barrie (it wasn’t his day) bent his derailleur.
A bit of trailside bodgery got him underway again and we zipped down Summer Lightning before finding the final section on the open hillside closed. No matter, we took an alternative path which Joe showed us, parallel but some distance from Wolvens before we started on the final run to Wescott.
Immediately though, Barrie’s derailleur rolled the dice one more time and cashed in its chips big style, in terminal fashion. Barrie ended up removing the derailleur and singlespeeding his Trek after it turned out Dave didn’t have a replacement deraileur in his back pack (although he has practically everything else!). Dave’s ability to hide untold treasures in his back pack is legendary though, which meant him and Barrie soon effected a pretty decent repair that worked fine – if rather delicately – as a repair to get Barrie home.
The final downhill sections took in Rubble Gulley and Brick Gulch and soon we were riding the illicit footpaths round the back of Westcott. By now, time was slipping by so we took a quick detour round the back of the village and the UNUM headquarters before popping out on the road near Milton Court in Dorking.
A blast through Dorking and back along the road saw us finally in Leatherhead and Bookham around 1:15 after dropping various people off here and there. A great ride, tricky, hard work and a lot of fun which amounted to 26 miles of Surrey Hills mountain biking.
My final thoughts on the 29er are that the Intense Spider is a cracking cross country machine with the usual pros and cons of 29er riding. It grips well, is very confidence inspiring in the slow speed stuff, needs a bit of a shove on the faster singletrack to get the wheels round and once I’d turned off the ProPedal I could even bunnyhop it! With a bit of familiarity I reckon I could go very fast on it indeed.