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Never Mind the Quantocks

by shandypockets 

Posted: 10 April 2005
Word Count: 2019
Summary: Going downhill fast
Related Works: Lap(p) of the God(forbid)s • 

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Mountain. Bike.

I’d made it to my thirties without the two terms even having been on even a casual acquaintance footing in my vocabulary. I was slightly disheartened one fateful afternoon, then, to discover that it looked as though they were suddenly going to be all over each other like a pair of frisky teenagers given the use of an empty house for the evening. I’d foolishly let it slip to an editor that I was free for anything that was coming up, and he asked me to take on an assignment engaging in an activity that I had no previous experience in. Though I’d suggested wine tasting, gourmet cooking and performing quality control checks at a modelling agency, he seemed keen to get me out in the open air. The immediate possibility of physical injury was also preferable.

The potential for pain and suffering are often laughed off, but little did I know that I would sustain nothing less than a chipped tooth just two hours into my initiation. Given it was from eating a crusty bread roll as I gorged myself at the welcome dinner, though, there seemed little chance I’d be able to claim thwarted bravery.

And so it was that ‘bike’ met ‘mountain’.

The coupling, like all the best dirty weekends, was to take place in a Somerset Youth Hostel. It was playing host to a weekend's course for mountain biking novices and Dave, who owned the Rough Tracks mountain biking tour company, had told me that it would be “easy going” and “fun”. Something in the tone of his voice made me suspect that he meant fun in much the same way that being imaginatively tortured with a rusty bicycle pump must be fun.

I hadn't even been on two wheels for the best part of a decade, except for the time I’d accidentally mounted the kerb in a small hire car at high speed, but I presumed it would be just like riding a bike. The brochure's promise of "relaxed riding and plenty of socialising" was persuasive enough for me to commandeer the company of a fellow beginner, and Annabelle and I rolled up to the secluded Crowcombe Heathfield youth hostel in our taxi with equal parts optimism, curiosity and inappropriate clothing.
The dorm style accommodation promoted an immediately friendly atmosphere, and we soon got to know our fellow riders and course guides, who drank reassuring amounts of continental lager as they told us what to expect. They diplomatically stifled their utter shock at neither of us having ridden a mountain bike before, and smiled supportively as we told them it had been a while since we’d even operated pedals. They laughed nervously, possibly thinking that I was joking.

Forewarned would be forearmed, I told myself, and I started to make some casual enquiries as to how far we’d be expected to cycle. Looking to protect me, most of the guides evaded the question by saying that it was “hard to say, really” or suddenly trying to locate a lost corkscrew. After a few beers, though, various unrealistic-sounding mile distances were bandied about in a carefree manner. Thirty-five. Twenty-eight. Four.

After breakfast the next morning, we were given our hire bikes. The other riders all had their own of course, and though they were a friendly mix of abilities, they were worryingly united in their appearance as well-practised enthusiasts. Annabelle and I were the only ones needing to have the gears explained to us, for instance. However, after an incident-free practice around the grounds, we were ready to join the group. Admittedly, not much could really go wrong circling an enclosed courtyard of flat gravel, but it gave us some confidence.

Unfortunately, our brimming enthusiasm was to be brutally pummelled out of us by the prospect of the initial ascent, which took place up Quarry Hill, a vertiginous slog that even the guides regarded with thinly-veiled contempt. We were told that we "shouldn't be ashamed to walk it", to us as unnecessary an instruction as you'd give to someone at the bottom of twenty five flights of stairs on a unicycle.

The group eventually - some more eventually than others - assembled at the top. One of our instructors, Henry, who we had seen disappear into the distance, becoming no more than a speck after about ten minutes of climbing the hill, was looking a bit worse for wear and had decided to head back to the hostel. He had been sick, and was blaming it on “a ropey egg at breakfast”, though the seven or eight cans of lager strong enough to strip creosote he’d necked the night before probably weren’t helping too much either. The course was already claiming high-profile victims. What chance did we have?

As Henry made his retreat, the guides took us through some basic riding techniques. We practised weight transference over a couple of benign woodland bumps and were lulled back into a sense of security as we meandered through some lush greenery to our first descent.

If there’s anything that conveys a sense of notoriety in an otherwise anonymous piece of landscape, it’s the fact that it has a name. Our first descent had a name - The Chimney. "This descent is a bit technical," the guide announced, obviously assuming that I was ready for the downhill section of my learning curve. Granted, my learning curve in anything almost always takes a downhill parabola, but I didn’t like the look of this. For "a bit technical", read "a boulder-fettered death gully that you'll hurtle down with all the grace and control of a psychotically disturbed Slinky, gripping on for sweet, sweet life as your saddle gets violently hammered into your lower abdomen". That was my interpretation, anyway.

We'd been told to gently "feather" our breaks to temper our speed, an instinctive operation that minimised the risk of going, as the guide had it “arse over tit.” My feathering instincts were predictably not too well honed, though, and I was employing more of a fifteen-tog duvet to mine in a desperate attempt not to spill over the handlebars. Somehow I made it down unscathed, though a chimney hasn't been descended that ungracefully since Santa drank too much sherry and lost his footing on some loose roof tiles. Happily, though, it seemed that even in the hands of the profoundly unskilled, mountain bikes could bound over almost anything that you could throw at them - rocks, tree roots, small Labradors, etc.

At the bottom, the pack broke out their high-protein energy bars and traded biking banter. Annabelle and I shakily opened our Homer Simpson chocolate biscuits and acclimatised to our newly-heightened adrenaline levels.

The lesson that you quickly learn about mountain biking is that descents cost, and hills are where you start paying. In sweat. There's no luxury of any kind of ski-lift arrangement to get to 900 feet up, and it's on these climbs that every excuse you've ever made not to go running or to the gym comes back to poke you in the ribs. The guides were skilled in euphemistic descriptions, and "a quick tootle up along the ridge" always meant another mile or two of thigh-punishing incline, though luckily the group was a model of patience and encouragement, I suspect as we were at least a handy excuse for them to stop and get their breath back.

The problem about being at the back, though, is that no sooner have you caught up with the rest of the party, who have been lolling around catching the sun for a good ten minutes by the time you get there, than some smart Alec is saying “Right! Shall we get going?” whilst you’re still trying to coax your lungs back into your ribcage.

The rest of the first day alternated between tortuous and torturous inclines followed by the odd sheep-frightening downhill as you hooned down yet another chunk of steep terrain unsuitable for any other kind of human activity. Towards the end of the first day, the course began to feel like a cruel rural version of an Escher painting, with even the descents feeling like uphills. OK, it was a fifteen mile long picture postcard, but over scenery and a painless existence, I'll take being able to feel my hands, and my nethers not having an unnecessarily intimate knowledge of a crossbar any day.

The day finally came to a close, and as the advanced group headed off to take on another couple of hills, those of us blessed with the gist of sanity thankfully freewheeled down to the local scone emporium for cake and a pot of tea. Back at the hostel, Dave and his staff whipped up a hearty meal, thankfully without too much in the way of crusty rolls. Annabelle and I lumbered into the dining room, and having done over 20 miles that day, were almost too tired to stay up late into the night drinking strong continental lager. Live and don’t learn, that’s my motto.

If day one was difficult, day two was an even more dispiriting proposition. For starters, you've got all the aches and pains pre-installed, including in my own case the twin beacons of searing agony where I was sure my buttocks used to be. Quarry Hill wasn't going to climb itself, though, and I had a mind to hit The Chimney like Fred Dibnah with a personal vendetta. Things couldn’t really get any worse, after all, and as the session was half as long, I could probably avoid the need to ceremonially garrotte myself with a brake cable. Annabelle said that she felt that she’d “got enough of a feel for it” and in a show of astute self-preservation, decided to reflect on the biking lifestyle over the Sunday papers.

Even after a day, I found I had increased levels of resilience, and the bikes seemed to respond a bit more forgivingly. This time as I hit the rocky downhill gully, I tried another piece of advice. I'd been told not to look directly at any obstacles as you then have a tendency to ride into them - a surprisingly easy feat with your eyes shut, though predictably I found myself halfway down the Chimney without much in the way of bicycle beneath me. Now my bruises had bruises.

We pushed on for the rest of the morning, and I almost felt like one of the mountain biking gang by the time we dismounted for a welcome pub lunch, no longer defensive about my lack of stamina or ill-advised choice of energy snacks. Some of the group headed out for a last chance to defeat some stubborn undulations, but by then I'd got wise to what that meant in reality and I enjoyed a very literal tootle back to the hostel along the gorgeously flat country lanes, with their seductive tarmac. I felt like I’d been mugged by a passing group of competitors from the Tour de France, but it was good to come out the other side having been thrown in at the steep end.

"So, do you think you'll be coming back on one of our weekends?" one of my guides asked good naturedly as I started to pack my bags and enjoy the returning sense that I did in fact physically own a rectum. "Oh sure," I replied. "When a hostile alien race invades the country and forces everyone to participate in ridiculously masochistic sports for their own deranged enjoyment." Actually, I just thought that last bit, but I think my near-hysterics conveyed the general sentiment well enough.

Aching like a stubborn victim of the Spanish inquisition, I collected Annabelle and we cadged a lift back to Taunton train station. I was looking forward to getting back to a place where descents are only made via the medium of electronically-propelled escalators. No matter how much I was focussing on the unconfined joy of never having to climb Quarry Hill again, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that there were definitely certain tender parts of me that were extremely thankful that cars don't have saddles.

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Comments by other Members

scoops at 08:15 on 11 April 2005  Report this post
Shandy: I think the frisky lovers metaphor is overworked at the beginning and I initially found the piece hard going because there was a lot of filling. It read like a humorous monologue leading to a punchline that kept moving. But then, about half way through, when you were actually getting into biking, the piece took off and became a serious read without compromising the humour. It was at that point that the feature found form and it worked very well. I hope you're now fully recovered:-o Shyama

sue n at 22:45 on 14 April 2005  Report this post
I enjoyed the piece, but would agree with Shyma as I didn't feel the first 2 paragraphs were necessary and would start at the third.
Though I like your wit, I do find it a little relentless and was quite tired at the end of the piece - (but I am a lazy reader anyway)

Some lovely descriptive bits
"every excuse you've ever made not to go running or to the gym comes back to poke you in the ribs"
"coax your lungs back into your ribcage"

but occasionally I feel you overdo it

"The rest of the first day alternated between tortuous and torturous inclines followed by the odd sheep-frightening downhill as you hooned down yet another chunk of steep terrain unsuitable for any other kind of human activity."

So much of style is a matter of personal taste, and I'm sure that many wouldn't agree with me!
Sue n

shandypockets at 15:14 on 20 April 2005  Report this post
Thank you for your kind comments, Shyama and Sue. I obviously need to look at my self-editing skills a bit, there...I'm aware that a lot of the sentences are far too dense, and a bit of pruning is very much in order. Thanks again for your thoughts. Paul

Richard Brown at 18:54 on 20 April 2005  Report this post
Yes, maybe a touch over-elaborate but very enjoyable. I'd love to see the 'pruned' version. I've never tried montain-biking but your descriptions reminded me so much of the early skiing trips. So-called easy runs which kinlde the fires of fear and the wretched business of the group, thoroughly rested, setting off at high speed just as the desperate slow ones reach it, out of breath and longing for a rest

There are a few cycling mags listed in the Directory. I don't know if they take such light-hearted articles but they should! Maybe worth a try.


shandypockets at 16:14 on 21 April 2005  Report this post
Yes, it was a frustrating two days in some ways, but exhilirating in others. Thanks for the tip, Richard, I hadn't thought about specialist biking mags, but maybe I'll pitch it. Thanks for the comments.


smudger at 14:22 on 25 August 2005  Report this post
Hi Paul,

I liked the jaunty feel of the this piece. There are lots of gags and nice throwaway lines, but it does read as if you're trying awfully hard. I think if you pruned it back and especially shortened some of the sentences, it would be an easier read. If you're trying to place it in mags etc, it needs to be fairly approachable, otherwise people will flick past to something less demanding of the reader.

There was one thing that I tripped over: 'a vertiginous slog that even the guides regarded with thinly-veiled contempt'. If they were gnarly bikers they would view it with respect if it was really tough and reserve their contempt for the easy slopes, wouldn't they? How about 'thinly-veiled awe' or similar.

Not meaning to sound negative, because overall I was very entertained.


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