Towards the end of a long season of tarmac, sometimes people start to behave oddly. Some maniacs try to carry it on and exercise their VO2 max on hill climbs. Others suddenly develop a love of a new sport. Scuba diving. Fell running. TiddlyWinks.
I decided to keep it in the sport: Cyclocross. Or more “off-road riding” – since the entire concept of cycling on anything other than road is new to me.
When I say I’ve never ridden off-road before, it’s not totally true. My first bike as an adult was a mountain bike. I used it primarily for commuting, but I did take it around StanmerPark in Brighton a little. I didn’t know you were meant to have the tyres at a lower psi to ride off-road. The maximum for the tyre, was 60 or 80 psi – and I always kept my tyres at the max (‘maintaining my bike’). Anyone who knows off- road riding will understand this results in a pretty sketchy ride.
I did try mountain biking properly once in Scotland, too. At a trail centre. I went with my boyfriend at the time and I distinctly remember being petrified as I watched his shirt disappear somewhere down a trail (I don’t think he realised I wasn’t right behind him) and spent most of the time trying to work out how to let all the fast guys on bikes past without getting in the way.
So in my head, riding off-road involved smashing into rocks on a bike with solid tyres, and being caught like a lemming in a very narrow hole trying to work out how to go left or right.
I loaded the Pinnacle Arkose Two into my car with great excitement- a glossy black bike in a unisex size small:
It’s a bike designed with commuting in mind, as well as off-roading, so it’s not a million miles away from the roadie style I know and love. Disc brakes are a luxury I’m not used to – they’re cable discs and didn’t bring the bike to an immediate jolting stop like my old mountain bike – but they were effective and dealt with the mud I encountered on my rides. I also noted pannier rack mounts, which was nice to see since if this were to become a replacement for my winter/touring bike I could see it would manage the job just fine. The size felt about right for me – but the handlebars were huge compared to my normal compact road bike. Strangely, once I got off-road I quite enjoyed the bulkiness.
I took the bike out as soon as I got home. I knew Earlswood Lakes presented plenty of undulating grass sections I could test the bike on, and that seemed both non-scary, and I know lots of CX races include grassy sections that descend into muddy crit races (yes – I’m thinking of racing a wee bit – buy only thinking).
I also discovered some tiny little trials. I felt a bit like a child learning to walk, but I amused myself for about half an hour riding in little circles, aiming the bike at every tree root, muddy puddle, and otherwise alien terrain I could:
The bike coped remarkably well, and I rode back along the road to home (carefully using this section to try to rid the tyres of mud) with a huge smile on my face.
Next up: Saturday. The bike’s first real adventure with me. I was racing on Sunday (see TT Target) and my training plan had ‘1 hour easy, check bike all working’. Well – I struggled with just one hour – and I did check A bike was ‘all working’ – just not the one I was racing.
I followed Maurice this time, since I don’t know my way around the local trails. I spent the first twenty minutes trying to adjust to the way the bike approached the rough terrain. In my opinion – very well. Admittedly I’ve yet to discover how a properly prepared MTB would deal with it, but the CX bike gave me drop handlebars and a position I was used to.
I did, after about half an hour, drop the saddle dramatically. I was using flat pedals, and I became aware that my feet were almost tip-toeing on the metal, which didn’t feel good when we went over hard packed ridges.
I followed for a bit, and led for a bit – and after a little while Maurice pointed out I went faster when on the front. This was because when behind him I wasn’t sure what sort of distance I should be leaving in case he needed to stop suddenly. I was pretty convinced I’d be falling off at some point and I didn’t fancy a wheel-touch with it. So I spent some more time on the front.
The challenge of finding a suitable line through the mud made the time fly by. Road riding is mainly concerned with fitness, but here I could switch off my brain from thinking about whatever it is I would usually use to occupy my mind, and concentrate on picking a path that made the ride easiest.
I adapted to the rocks and roots quite easily, but I struggled with the mud – I wasn’t sure how to approach it. My guide told me to just shove the bike in a low gear and ride through it. So I stopped teetering around the edge, and had a go at that. To my surprise – the bike really could combat the terrain better than I expected. I didn’t actually become wedged, or start sinking.
The tyres are Kenda Small Block 8 – well suited for a variety of conditions, and bearable on the road – but if I were to buy the bike myself for off-roading I’d be changing the tyres to something made to manage mud a little better – I picked up a lot of crud along the way which turned the tyre into a bit of a slick, whilst my riding partner’s Michelin CX Mud 2 just dealt with it.
Maurice made a short video, here:
The soundtrack is perfect in its adolescent carefree hedonism. Riding this bike through mud and whooshing down grass felt a bit like discovering a whole new childish part of my brain. The first 90 seconds – 2minutes includes very little whooshing and lots of ‘how do I do this’ pedalling – but I felt like I gathered confidence along the way and I was progressively happier on the bike and terrain as the ride went on. (Back to the music – the boy knows I’ve got a soft spot for Riot Girl sounds – and though Icona Pop is never going rival Brody Dalle and the Distillers they do a good job of making my favourite genre mainstream.)
There were quite a few fairly steep hills along the way, and I enjoyed the burning sensation as I neared the top of each one. I’ve always said off-road riders have a different type of fitness roadies lack – and I started to think maybe I could conquer the ability to approach a sudden hill with a bit more gusto. I felt confident on the CX bike – I understand how to climb on a bike with drops – and I imagine the bike is lighter than an entry level MTB.
I discovered the value in sticking in a lower gear in parts, and spinning my legs quickly – too. In same sections, there were descents followed immediately by climbs – something that doesn’t happen at the same sort of gradient on the road. If it does happen, you usually see it coming – off-road there are plenty of trees and twists which make ‘what’s round the corner’ a guessing game. I certainly didn’t want to hit those ascents in a high gear.
In the end, we were out for about two hours and we rode 18 miles.
We washed the bikes with Maurice’s clever car plug-in washer (it will be returned cleaner than I borrowed it, that’s for sure!). I wanted to ride the bike again Sunday – but I genuinely could not. The TT absolutely wrecked me for the rest of the day.
On Monday – I was back out. I don’t know the trails so well, so I just went to a small section of land around Reigate hill and found a short lap to repeat until it got dark. At this time of day (just after work) – dog walkers presented new challenges and the need to track stand or swerve suddenly was my skill of the day.
The light was starting to fade – I took a little break and some time to look across Reigate. It occurred to me that not often do you enjoy a ride on a road bike totally unaffected by the petrol-headed modern day world.
Then I turned around, returned from whence I came – all the while wondering if I would ever find a use for those funny brake levers on the top: