A birthday is always a celebration of another year of survival and that celebration should involved something memorable; that’s my take on things anyway. This year, the options were:
Boris-bike from Kew to the Globe to Tate Britain to Hyde Park to Belgo in Chiswick and back to Kew.
Complete the last ten miles of the Cotswold Way, have a sunset soak in the rooftop pool of Bath Spa followed by a good dinner.
Cycle a section of the Celtic Trail – the bit conveniently situated not far from no1 son in Swansea and hook up later for drinks and dinner overlooking the sea.
Well, Thursday turned out to be the one day with heavy rain forecast everywhere except Penzance and Swansea so we headed west to the Land of My Fathers, dropped a change of clothes at son no 1’s house in Swansea and set off cycling on the Celtic trail, or Route 4 as it was initially known. I didn’t expect it to be beautiful immediately, which was just as well – Gorseinon and Gowerton were a tangle of pesky little stop-start sections of bike trail, junctions, traffic lights and barely adequate signage. Then, after cresting the Millennium Bridge, built specially for bikes and pedestrians over a busy road, the trail stuck close to the edge of the saltmarshes of the river estuary looking towards north Gower.
The scenery looked muddy, as though someone had washed over a nice pastoral watercolour with the water from the brush pot plus we were cycling into the teeth of a brisk onshore wind which made dead-flat trail seem frankly tedious. I’d hoped for interesting bird life, this bit being adjacent to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and we did encounter a pair of mute swans with nine cygnets plus some tufted duck, but apart from that there were just seagulls.
I’m sure a bit of sunshine would have elicted a “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadder” moment but the cloud just kept coming and the tide was as low as it would go. I’d optimistically packed a cozzie and towel but it was evident that I’d have to walk about two miles through mud before encountering anything but cockle beds. I was pretending it was summer in shorts and a sleeveless top but what I secretly wanted was a nice thick fleece.
The Ordnance Survey map reference to “The Beach” referred to a dismal, abandoned strip of sand which thankfully had a shop, bike hire place and cafe behind it. A cuppa was very welcome and forced me to take stock and regretfully admit that we’d run out of time to press on to the much more beautiful landscape of Pembrey where the beach is so clean that it’s covered with sea potatoes and razor shells.
Sitting there, nursing our cuppas, we also had the chance to observe two couples cycling with small children. The dads were proper fun outdoors types. They threw the babies up in the air and caught them and demonstrated to the kids how to roll down grass banks by doing it while holding and squishing the child sufficiently to elicit helpless giggles. That kind of behaviour can end in tears or projectile vomiting but by some good fortune, those unfortunate consequences were avoided. The women only seemed to have a passing interest in caring for the kids that day. I got the impression it was a cycling outing organsed by the chaps. Certainly one of them was slightly built with extremely good calf muscles.
When it was time to get going, the women just got on their bikes and pedalled off, chatting, leaving the dads to fix helmets on unruly toddlers, fix unruly toddlers safely into bike seats and a bike trailer, and, thus loaded, pedal away.
The Beach, Llanelli
With the wind on our backs, the return journey was a lot faster, although with speed comes lack of attention to detail and we were chatting and missed a vital turnoff, resulting in us pedalled around a housing estate for five minutes.
A man in his garden called out “You’ll be wanting the cycling trail will you?” He pointed to the back of his garden. “It’s up there. You go down by yer and up by there.” No he didn’t say that but he nearly did and I just like the language. He reminded me of my dad.
We re-discovered Route 4 and the sun made a brief appearance before it started to rain.
Over dinner later at the Langland Bay Brasserie later with son and his girlfriend, I described the ride as pretty unrewarding. You win some, you lose some but I don’t know whether this kind of trail is my thing. Cycling on shared footpaths, stopping at lights, taking the long way on some llittle-used path around the back of an industrial estate just to avoid a stretch of main road isn’t my bag. I’d actually rather be on the main road. So it was my fault for not choosing a more rewarding route. I could, after all, have picked something that was a bit more of a challenge but hey ho, the opportunity had been and gone.
On Saturday some friends – both fellow Leos celebrating birthdays this month – invited us to join them to try out a new trail in the Forest of Dean. We are very familiar with most of the main trails linking places in the Forest and I imagined this was yet another new off-shoot route from Coleford down to the river at Lydbrook maybe; an easy spin on firm-packed paths suitable for family riding, as so many of them are, and a curry at the Forge Hammer Inn.
We met up at the cycling centre. It was teeming with cyclists and parked cars. I always find the success of the place astounding as I remember it from about 20 years ago when we used to see four or five muddy cars, some trails leading off up the hills and a council gritting depot.
This was called “The Verderer’s Trail” and it went up and around Sallowvallets. I was game. I liked that area. It was where son no 2 did his first mountainbike race and in the years that followed, we explored it pretty thoroughly, finding the winding, hairy-steep tracks that linked the fire-roads and at the top, a view right across the Cannop Valley with a meadow of purple foxgloves behind us.
It was the first time I’d been back on the Orange since I got the Trek road bike, and it was like being reunited with an old friend. My Orange felt incredibly sweet, small and responsive. It made me happy all over again.
So we started off on the single track, which I was surprised to see had been specially built. I was expecting a normal dirt trail. It wound and twisted uphill, not particularly steeply so that was fine, then it got a bit steeper and then it all got a bit dodgy. There were berms where the trail went steep-sided and smooth, deliberately-constructed humpy bits and sudden short unexpected descents twisting in between the trees. It was definitely not for any Verderers I’d ever met – who were all over sixty and the kind of slow-moving, thoughtful gentlemen who know an awful lot about trees.
On this trail there was no time to consider anything about trees except sticking to the trail and avoiding hitting them. It’s been cleverly built, no doubt about it. The only problem was it just got more and more demanding. Verdering on the ridiculous. I found myself thinking “Blimey, this must be what they call ‘technical.'”
I’m a big fan of technical in the sense that I like watching other people do it on You Tube videos. But I’ve never really yearned to ride horizontally, wall-of-death stylee, or get air or drop into a bomb hole and shoot up into the air like a cork on the other side. It always seems so far to fall. My idea of mountainbiking is riding over any surface that isn’t actually a road; simple as that. It can be track, path, grass, mud, shallow bog, rock. But this man-made trail was turning into an Alton Towers experience – without the benefit of a safety harness. There were swooping bermy twists and turns throwing you one way and then the other: repeated hairpin bends – honestly I’d just rather climb straight up – and there were sections of ultra-tricky thin trail where there was a steep drop on the one side (I tried not to panic by not looking at it). It all demanded considerable concentration.
Then I found that the “up” and the zooming about in pine forest at the top were big cream and jam-filled slices of Victoria spongecake in comparison to the down. The “down” started deceptively simply and then wound itself into a diabolical tangle of hairpins, berms and drop-offs. One humpty section – think riding over a roof with giantic corrugations – left me feeling totally nauseous. I could probably have been getting air. Instead I just got sick. It was followed by a straightish run before a massive craterous drop-off with a berm at the bottom. Followed by another berm. I stopped dead. Mildly terrified.
“Go on. You can do it, “said a voice and I turned to find a grinning guy with a camera perched in a bush on the hill behind me.
“No way!” I laughed. I prefer to keep two wheels on the ground at all times and I’d rather not turn up for work on Monday with a one side of my face liberally decorated with gravel rash. I took a detour and grumbled to myself about this section spoiling what could have been such a pleasant ride. It helps to talk to yourself on these occasions. Gets things in perspective, I find.
I rode out of the trees about to rejoin the trail when I saw the last leg of the descent: a crazy, mixed up dragon’s tail of berms, jumps and general stupidity all artfully carved out of the hillside. I heard whooping noises behind me and pulled in to let three young guns go swooping past. I felt like their mum. It was not a good feeling. And thus it came to pass that like the complete wuss that I usually pretend not to be, I bottled out and picked an alternative, easier route down.
Much, much, later, we discovered that the end section of the trail is classified as a Red route for experienced, full-on mountainbikers who hammer trails and spend quite a lot of their rides getting air.
The Red Route boys no doubt have matching bottle. Theirs is definitely of the Red variety while my bottle, at best, is Faint-hearted Pink. It’s the colour of my self-preservation instinct.
Mind you, that’s not to say I won’t go back and have another go. It might, after all, be just a question of practice.
Here’s the view of the final bit of descent from a headcam attached to someone who knows what they are doing… http://video.mpora.com/watch/6TUqdyvYU/