Madrid, one of Europe’s grand old cities, and what better place to spend a few days exploring and feeling the first real bit of warmth of the year. Like many Spanish cities I found Madrid great for walking and exploring, there was no grand plan just some vague ideas and this approach works for me as you tend to come across things as you mooch, you have the time to take the temperature of the city and get a feel for it with the hassle of thinking I need to get someone by a certain time or to see a particular thing. Much as great cities have fantastic places to see, it’s people that make places so getting a feel for them and the beat of the city is equally important as far as I am concerned.
Also, like when I was in Barcelona last year, it seems to be very easy to get away from the cram of tourists who follow a very predictable trail. Walk a couple of streets away in any direction and you are in a different Madrid, one that’s much more to my liking. I stayed right bang in the centre, in a great little flat that was my first experience of using air B & B and I couldn’t have wished for better. If meant that I could step out of the door and be right in the heart of things but could stroll half an hour in any direction to explore some of the different areas.
I’d been to Madrid before a few years ago and I wondered how it would feel in light of the serious impact that the recession has had on Spain. For me the city remains as warm and welcoming and as clean and safe as you could possibly hope for. This time in the city I seemed to spend a lot of time in the markets, each area that I visited had one and they really were astonishing places and could really teach my home city a thing or two as it ponders how to ‘regenerate’ the city market. For me the most astonishing was Sunday afternoon in San Fernando market in the Lavapies area. I stumbled across this by poking my head through an entrance and the first signs were not promising, stalls with the shutters down, the odd one or two with a couple of people sat at. However music could be heard so we ventured in and lo and behold the world changed. In the middle of this covered market a hundred or so people were in full swing dancing away to latin music pumping out as DJ’s played the tunes, surround the central area, a labyrinth of packed stalls selling tapas, beer and wine kept the crowd fed and watered. It was mesmerising and the atmosphere was so good it just made you feel alive. We found a fantastic little wine place, drank what was recommended and just soaked it up. I want to spend every Sunday doing that, it was perfect.
I was chatting to someone from Lavapies about the market and he said that a few years ago it was dying, just a couple of stalls remained but slowly the community has brought it back to life with events and activities and placing it back into the heart of the community which has brought new stall holders and businesses in. A fantastic success story. Round the corner I also stumbled across a great little bike shop and bought the local cap, I found out that they have only made 100 and the money is going to help run the community cycling club. They seemed amazed that some guy from Leeds wanted to buy one of their caps.
Little adventures and experiences like this happened across the few days we were there as we wandered about. Yes we saw the main squares, Guernica, the parks, Churches, Palaces etc but it was the neighbourhood bars, markets and vibe of the city that I enjoyed the most. Can’t wait to go back.
Social media, a bit like the news or politicians gets a bad press – usually I think because we seem for some strange reason to be drawn to the negative in many things. So social media when it hits the headlines is usually because of people using it to do bad things, rarely do you hear it as a force for good but that in my experience is very much what it is. It enables you to spread ideas, entertain, inform, bring people together and coalesce them around an interest or idea. That bringing together can be done virtually but it can also be a physical thing. On the weekend Si Bradley (@_Si-Bradley) used that very concept and a simple hashtag to bring mountain bikers from around the country together, not to race or be competitive but to share, to meet, to socialise, to eat, to drink and to enjoy the simple pleasure that riding a bike off road can bring, irrespective of your skill or experience.
Myself, Rob (@chasinsheepMTB) and Brian (@oldstuntmonkey) left Leeds very early and got down to Llandegla for 9am to find scores of mountain bikers of every hue milling about and chatting doing that awkward thing of trying to introduce yourself to someone who may only know you via a twitter name …. i.e. hello I’m yetiridingdragon or whatever. Amazingly the sun was out (I know it’s always sunny in Wales isn’t it) and with charity raffle tickets bought and a brew drunk with the mornings riding began.
Si had organised a great range of options for people to do if they wanted to or they could just do their own thing and people had kindly given up their time to pass on skills or lead rides. Groups of riders headed out to ride the Blue, Red or Black runs, Craig (@P9ADV) ran a kids ride, Trail Takeover led a women’s ride, Chris (@CMJDavies) led an adventure photography workshop and I went on a skills session delivered by Steve from (@chasingtrails). All of these people kindly gave up their time and skills for free. Talking of free after the morning session the fab guys from Kirby Lonsdale brewery were handing out their specially produced Berm Basher beer. Happy days indeed.
In the afternoon I headed out with Rob and Bri to have a crack at the red run and see if I could put my new found skills into action. I was a tad nervous as I always am but I got round in a reasonably ok fashion I think. Slowly my projectsnail confidence and skills are improving. The beautiful day was finished with tea and cake provided by (@puremountains) and of course a bit more beer.
Could a day get any better ? What I really liked about it was that there was none of the macho radness that can sometimes infect the MTB world, an attitude I detest. The atmosphere was really chilled people rode, passed on skills, shared the trails and the tales and a good time was had by all. Huge thanks must go to Si and all the helpers and sponsors for making it such a great day. Si had even organised us a great campsite (Llyn Rhys Campsite) so we stayed over and rode the trails again on the Sunday before heading wearily and happily home.
So anyone who knocks twitter again – ignore the naysayers there are good people out there using social media to bring people together to share good times.
Plenty of people manage to pack in a bit of exercise during their lunchtime, fitness classes, gym session, run, swim or just get out and have a stroll about but it’s tricky to fit in a bit of mountain biking. My working environment has changed to one of hot desking and home working at times and the other day I’d been out at meetings in the morning and found myself back home at lunchtime, so I grabbed the bike and headed to the woods for a blast about and a bit of practice.
I feel my riding is a bit weirdy inbetweeny at the moment, I know that I have improved and am not completely useless but at the same time my mind is full of demons, no confidence and still got a lot to work on skills wise. Still that’s all part of the fun and I thoroughly enjoy the challenge of testing myself in my own small way and the search for my own personal flowy holy grail.
Recently out riding with Rob he said that I was unrecognisable from where I was a year ago (I hope he meant my riding :-)) but having the good fortune to ride with him and others it gives me lots of things to watch and think about working on. One of the biggest I’ve been thinking about recently is that I’m a scaredy cat unconfident rider which translates to stiffness on the bike, knowing that you are stiff on the bike though and trying to get yourself to relax are two very different things but I’ve been thinking about hips recently. I’m more robot than Elvis so I’ve been riding with Jack Black from school of rock in my head – “Loosey Goosey Baby, Loosey Goosey” and to try and point my belly button where I want to go as when relaxed my hips will turn. There is a danger that I’m overthinking this of course but it was useful to spend an hour really trying to think and practice this approach. A couple of times I definitely got it right and then of course as things got a bit quicker I saw the tree I was heading towards, stiffened up and grabbed the brakes.
Still it was a highly pleasurable way to spend an hours lunchtime and a great way to practice and enjoy my local woods (see photo at top) which are now starting to dry out so it means working from home will get a lot more fun over the summer. Of course I don’t then have to think about changing when I get back to the house, just prop the bike up grab a brew and log back in, refreshed in mind and body.
Photo Credit: Amy (@akersh91 on Instagram)
As I talked about in this post one of the great things about mountain biking is that it is fairly unique I think in enabling people of different abilities to ride together and for everyone to get a lot of enjoyment out of it. Nothing perhaps epitomises this spirit more than The Shop Ride. Garage Bikes, my local bike shop is particularly brilliant at organising regular shop rides and huge thanks must go to Al and Sarah for doing this. Once a month a motley crew begins to gather on a Sunday morning, I was one of the first at the shop yesterday and it was ace to watch the riders arrive in ones, twos and small groups until a pretty impressive collection of bikes and riders of all hues was arrayed outside the shop gathering bemused looks for the passing traffic and pedestrians. As is always the way some riders I knew, others I’d seen but didn’t know and for some it was their first ride with the Garage Bikes crew. The brilliant thing is though all are welcome, it’s a very social ride supported brilliantly by the shop, the staff ride (unless they are racing) and guide and support all comers around our local trails.
The atmosphere is always good and outside newcomers were made to feel welcome and all were chatting away and engaging in the MTB ritual otherwise known as the pre-ride faff ! and with so many riders there was some serious faffing to be done. 29 riders pitched up yesterday in the drizzle, which was on top of the ladies ride on the Saturday which also gets a good turnout and as we set off we looked like some ragged bright baggy peloton. As we ride along I like how you can chat, get to know new people move up and down the group or just peddle along in your own thoughts but surrounded by like minded people. We ride at an easy pace and someone rides sweeper to ensure that we all meet up at various points. Back at the shop we all pack in for steaming mugs of coffee, tea, biscuits, rum and banter.
The shop ride is a magical thing for me, the very essence of community and what is great about MTBing and MTB riders, friendships are made and groups spin off from the ride to organise other get-togethers and adventures. The people I’ve met through the shop rides and the riding that has resulted has hugely improved me as a rider and really enhanced my whole riding experience so I’d like to say a big thanks to the good ship Garage Bikes and all who sail in her.
I’m now two years into my Project Snail idea, which in a nutshell, was to have more fun on my bikes and to do this by trying to improve my fitness, skill and confidence – all of which when I looked at myself I realised were areas where I was lacking quite a bit. At this point last year I looked back over my first year and realised I had moved on quite a bit through a combination of riding more, riding with different people in different places and having some coaching from the marvellous Ed Oxley.
This year has very much carried on in the same vein and whilst I still have pretty major confidence issues I do feel like I’m improving slowly and I have definitely had a huge amount of fun over the year which is the whole point for me of riding my bikes. As well as simply trying to ride as many days as I can, which hugely helps on the fitness front – little and often, I actually bought myself a proper full suspension bike which has brought me endless smiles, I simply love it. It was great to have another session with Ed shortly after I bought it when the picture at the top was taken. That section was a classic for me, I looked at it and bottled it numerous times but with Ed’s gentle encouragement I finally made it and I actually look like a proper rider I think on that photo. Later on in the day we rode the section at the end of a run with Ed following me down, as we approached he veered off on another route whooping through the woods and when we got to the bottom he just said I knew you were going to be fine and would ride it so left you to it. It was one of many small steps I took during the year each one of which, while nothing for many people, filled me with a huge sense of achievement.
I also rode in a couple of events, the Morvelo City Cross in Leeds which was huge fun and attempted to ride up a steep hill which was quite frankly silly and fun at the same time. Although it did not involve riding I did put on an event which combined books and cycling with a couple of authors coming to talk about their adventures. Having never done anything like this before I was worried it would be a shambles but it actually turned out to be a cracking night in front of a packed house. I’ve got some ideas for some similar events this year as well. Talking of events I guess the main one was witnessing the Tour de France take place in Yorkshire a weekend that will live long in the memory. Seeing all the events that took place around the tour as part of the Yorkshire Festival and seeing different people on bikes in and around Leeds on a daily basis I’ve set up Leeds Rides which aims to show the human side of cycling in the city. I’m hoping to try and get a thousand people on it in 2015 and then have a bit of an exhibition and a party.
Perhaps the most exhilarating step I took this year was to venture into night riding, something that genuinely terrified me but which is something that I have hugely enjoyed doing and which created some amazing memories and pictures. It also enabled me to ride much more over the winter which I’m hoping will pay dividends as the weather and the light improves and will have helped me considerably on the Project Snail plan.
Without doubt though the most important thing for me in my riding has been the people who I’ve ridden with who have helped, coached and cajoled me along. Thanks to all of you it’s been genuinely humbling and loads of fun. There are too many to mention in person but the Garage Bikes community in particular are a special group of people and riders who are great to be around and who make my world a better place. I’m not a competitive person on a bike, for me it’s all about the social side of things, riding, having a chat and finishing with a beer (or occasionally having a cheeky swig from a hip flask on the ride) and this side of things has been the real highlight of the year for me. The day before yesterday was a classic case in point, 3 of us on an amazing ride around Hebden Bridge, me out of my comfort zone but being encouraged by better riders, all of us enjoying one of the best rides of the year chewing the fat as we rode and finishing with a cracking pint. If I have more rides like that in 2015 I’ll be very happy indeed.
Rob finished the the ride and tweeted the following. I still think Project Snail is ongoing but who knows maybe I need a new nickname. Any ideas ?
I wrote recently of my new found exploration into night time MTB riding and I was not expecting to write something else on it so soon but last night I was out again and this photo of me and my experience encapsulated in many ways what is so magical about it. A short time before this photo was taken we’d careered / slithered down a muddy field and I was trying to learn fast how to control a bike that was quite frankly moving around all over the place as my wheels skidded and skipped in the mud. I tried very hard to relax, stay off the brakes and feel the movement, letting the front wheel go where it wants and slowly correcting. Trying to do this intuitively and by feel was tricky but I did reasonably well I thought. Plenty to build on and a very interesting experience.
Then after much mirth and a short pedal I looked up and wow, this incredible structure loomed up in front of us. Being pitch black you couldn’t see it until you were almost underneath it. It was a jaw dropping moment. The others who ride the area regularly take it for granted but I thought it was mesmerising. It reminded me of some old mid west American coal or gold mining track and it was really eerie and atmospheric. Apparently we’d ridden over it an hour or so previously on our way out on the ride and it’s pretty cool on the top but approaching it from below in pitch black was just ace.
I must admit that I love bridges, there is something about the concept of reaching out to cross a divide that appeals to me, perhaps because it goes to the heart of human desire for exploration as in “I wonder what’s over there?” but also because bridges link places and help people to connect with one another which I think is a fundamentally good thing. Although perhaps they just remind me of my own mortality, no matter how many bridges I cross, I can’t escape the ultimate crossing from life to death.
All these thoughts and heightened images were whirling around in my head as I pedalled off under the bridge and Rob @chasingsheepMTB took the amazing atmospheric photo above. As I rode under it there was one song that was playing in my head, the brilliant Red Right Hand by Nick Cave, the lyrics to which I’ve used for the title to this post as it was so apt. The track is below if you don’t know it.
I’d heard that people went off road riding in the dark and while the idea intrigued me I was also bewildered by it. How did they do that, after all I can barely work out what I’m doing in the daytime when I’m aware of my surroundings and can see stuff. However as we slid into autumn I began to think whether I could do it, as if I could, it would add a lot to my riding and enable me to keep riding through the winter in the evenings and ideally most importantly having fun.
Over the last few weeks I have taken the plunge and it has in many ways changed how I think about riding while at the same time it’s been some of the most enjoyable riding I’ve done. I still feel nervous when we are getting ready in a car park or lay-by surrounding by the all enveloping blackness as I still suffer from a lack of confidence in many respects, however night riding is perhaps perversely doing more for my confidence than anything else. Lighting is obviously key enabling you to confidently strike out into the dark and once you get them set up right you create your own personal projected halo of light into which you ride.
The first thing I noticed as I tentatively pedalled into the abyss was that yes it is possible, the lights designed for MTB night riding really do their job, and you soon start to get used to the change in your visual panorama and I think it’s a change that has the potential to improve me as a rider. In the sessions I’ve done with Ed one of the real things that Ed works on is Chin Up – i.e. you need to be looking where you wish to go not at the ground under your wheel. You are completely forced to look up at where you want to go, to shine the light on your helmet in that direction and then let the bike flow into the pool of light. As I’ve got used to it and adjusted I have found it a hugely liberating experience.
One of the best things about mountain biking for me is the immersion into the landscape and how you experience it throughout the changing seasons, the smells, colours and textures providing an ever shifting backdrop to your movement. Night riding takes this to another level again. On the one hand you are surrounded by utter inky blackness but this darkness magnifies your senses and your movement through the trees in a small tunnel of light takes on a magical quality, leaves crunch, breath clouds out around you, chilled facial skin breaks through dewy cobwebs, free wheels clacking and echoing around the still woods like a pack of new animals moving in. It’s utterly exhilarating and intoxicating. Riding along the flat stretches between runs finds me totally unwinding from whatever I’ve gone through during the day and there is a feeling that you and your mates are the last people left on earth even though you are only a couple of miles from the pub. If you’re lucky one of those mates will have packed a hip flask to warm the belly before the last run back down to civilisation.