Mountain biking instruction: is it worth it?

Although I enjoy mountain biking, I’m pretty rubbish at it. I don’t have much experience, and I’m a bit of a wuss generally, especially on any technical ground. So having persuaded Exodus – after much arguing – that despite being registered blind I’d be perfectly capable of participating in their 2 week mountain biking trip to Namibia over Christmas, and wouldn’t be a liability to them, I started getting a little nervous about my capabilities. I spotted a weekend mountain biking course with Peak Mountaineering on a rare weekend I was actually free, and tried to sign up, but was told it was fully booked. After some discussion with Paul Lewis (not the financial expert, but the guy who runs Peak Mountaineering) we decided that a day of 1:1 instruction might be the best idea, and if I could do it on a weekday, I’d not only have more availability of instructors but also get a discount. Having a flexible job which meant a weekday wouldn’t be a problem, I was sold.

However, the summer soon slipped away, as I was so busy with softball and work, and I suddenly realised that I really should book that day before the weather turned cold and wet. One of the reasons I don’t go out on my bike much is because I’m not a fan of being cold and wet generally, and even less so when on a bike, especially when you throw strong wind into the mix, so that doesn’t leave many opportunities, as I’m busy almost every weekend in summer. Luckily, September this year in the UK was the driest September since records began in 1910, and in the top 5 warmest, according to the Met Office, so I was in luck.

The night before my course (in early October) I checked the weather forecast and the bombshell hit me. The temperature was not only set to plummet from the balmy 18 degrees we’d been used to down to a more bone-chilling 8 degrees, and there were huge dark blue swathes of rain  all over the country on the weather map, not to mention the threat of some torrential showers. Oh dear! This was set to be my worst nightmare!

Getting up at the ungodly hour of 6.30am I glanced out of the window hoping for a miracle, but alas, the world was covered in thick fog and you could almost see the rain droplets in the clouds. I have never not wanted to go mountain biking so much in my entire life. However, there was no backing out now, so I tried not to think about it, mustered every ounce of courage along with my coffee, and packed everything in my rucksack in double plastic bags, throwing in an extra layer just in case. It was raining steadily by the time I left the house, but I had to concentrate every ounce of brain power on my other worst nightmare, cycling through the city centre, and doubly worst since it was also rush hour! Combined with fog and rain, you really couldn’t have a worse scenario for someone who can’t see very well. If only I had a car (or someone to give me a lift!).

I survived the ride to the train station unscathed, marvelling at the sheer amount of time and energy all the red traffic lights wasted – something I’m not used to on my usual commute to work on foot. By the time I arrived, I was freezing and had some time to spare before my train, so I took the opportunity to warm up with a hot chocolate, and exchanged disparaging remarks about the miserable weather with a fellow cyclist. Once on the train, the nerves really set in and I was literally shaking during the 20 minute journey to Hope. What if I was really rubbish at mountain biking? What if I had problems with my blood sugar levels and had to stop? What if it rained all day and I just hated every minute of it? What if the instructor didn’t really understand my issues? What if I fell off and injured myself right before a week of important meetings – or worse, prevented me from going on holiday? At least the only thing I didn’t have to worry about was getting lost. Of course, these were all ridiculous worries really, but I could get a PhD in ridiculous worrying.

As soon as I stepped off the train, I saw the grinning face of a young lad in a helmet and clutching his mountain bike. I must have looked terrified, but he shook my hand, gave me a beaming smile and started telling me about my day. I thought I’d better mention again all my various issues, just in case for some reason he hadn’t been told, but to my relief he was fully prepared and put me totally at ease. We set off on the road up to Ladybower Reservoir and I was soon at ease, although the hills pushed my lungs to capacity after only a few minutes. Jake, my instructor, was very laid back and said he was happy to go at whatever pace I wanted, and gave me the get-out clause of it being hard to start straight away up hill!

Once we reached the first offroad section, which thankfully was flat, he started with the technical skills and got me doing all sorts of little manoeuvres to warm up, test my balance and get me playing around with the bike. As much as anything, I imagine he wanted to see what kind of numpty he was going to have to spend the day with! Amazingly, I appeared to pass the first test with flying colours as I breezed through standing with both feet on one pedal and leaning the bike as far away from me as possible without falling off., sitting on my own foot on the saddle (why anyone would want to do this, I have no idea, but it required nerves of steel on my part!) and trying out various extreme riding positions. He seemed to be quite impressed with my balance and bike control at least, which made me feel a lot happier. Of course, he might have just been being polite, but he did seem quite surprised. Maybe he just expects the worst (or maybe I’d been a bit self-deprecating in my booking form and initial discussion!).

Once we reached Ladybower, we took a route I’ve done once before with a friend, and which I remembered as being quite tough (both because of some technical sections but also because there was a lot of uphill). Did I mention I hate uphills? This was where he started with the technical instruction. After letting me ride ahead to see what I did, he then took me through various skills involving riding position over different kinds of terrain, how to set off when going up a steep rocky hill, how to ride through bumpy puddles, how to go down and up dips most productively, and so on. We spent a lot of time on this section, at several points repeatedly going over the same small stretch in order to get a particular technique right. Having fallen off sideways once by now, I was a bit more relaxed about trying things out and stopped worrying too much about falling off (it was only later I realised how bruised my leg was from the first fall, not to mention the subsequent ones, but at the time I was concentrating so hard I didn’t really notice, or at least I tried not to think about it!).

Unfortunately, all this practice (and the uphills) soon took its toll, and my lungs and legs started to burn equally. Combined with my current shoulder problems (now re-diagnosed from two frozen shoulders to two rotator cuff impingements, which basically means I struggle to move my arms above shoulder height or backwards at all without severe pain), I started to feel desperately sick and dizzy, and had to keep stopping every few minutes. Jake was very patient, but I’m not sure he believed that my dizziness and stopping were caused by the trapped nerve in my neck and not just lack of fitness! At this point there was nothing for it but to keep going, so I gritted my teeth and tried to ignore the imminent feeling of nausea and dizziness, along with the severe headache and pain in my shoulders. At this point I really wanted to be lying flat on my back in a warm bed (mine, that is, before you get any other ideas). Luckily the downhill section took a lot of concentraing, especially as the first part involved a sheer drop straight down to the reservoir many feet below. I did veer a little close to the edge a couple of times, and on jokingly reprimanding Jake for not warning me, he admitted he had been a little scared for my safety at one point!

One thing I really liked about Jake was that he was a brilliant silent observer, never getting too close but always watching, whether in front of me or behind, and mostly saying very little. When I was faltering, he’d give some words of encouragement to keep going, however, and when I did something well, you could hear the pride in his voice as he congratulated me. When I did something wrong, we’d then stop and analyse it together (I usually knew exactly what I’d done wrong) and he’d offer me another go at it if it was feasible. He always made me feel as if I was the one in control, and rather than telling me what to do, he’d simply make suggestions about things I could try to see if I found them easier. He was also always happy to offer a full explanation of why, which for me is crucial, as I don’t like doing things a certain way unless I know why they’re a good idea.

A quick break for lunch (perfectly timed for when we reached the car park at Derwent Fairholmes and could sit down in comfort and also use a proper loo), and for the second time we bumped into Will, who runs the “rival” company Will4Adventure and with whom I’ve done several weekends of walking and scrambling. Even worse, I’d been booked onto a walking weekend with Will just 2 days before and had to cancel at the last minute due to illness. I actually wasn’t fully recovered at the time, but didn’t feel I could cancel a second course! Will was with a client doing a Navigation course, so we chatted away for a bit while they had lunch too (oddly, I didn’t discover until afterwards that I have a mutual friend in common with the client he was with, and that she had been telling him about me only the day before). I felt slightly bad as I know Will’s company also offer mountain bike instruction. It wasn’t a deliberate avoidance of Will4Advcnture, it had simply come about in a roundabout way that I’d gone with Peak Mountaineering. Plus although I’ve very loyal to companies I like, I also find it quite interesting to try out other  companies and see how they differ. Anyway, in case Will’s reading this, I apologise for being a traitor 🙂

Even having put on another layer, I was shivering with cold, so we got going pretty quickly. Jake even offered me an additional layer from his Tardis rucksack, but I knew we were heading uphill so I’d soon be warm. Both of us had numb feet and hands by this point (really must get some waterproof socks!) so we set off gingerly up the very steep and rough track. He had offered me a choice of routes back, including just heading straight back if I’d had enough, but despite being tired, there was no way I was wimping out. If I’d been on my own, I might well have done! I felt a total wuss as I really struggled with energy levels, and we both ended up walking up most of the hill. Just in time to reach the top for the heavens to open again, and a strong side wind to appear out of nowhere. We pelted through the rain across a combined flat/downhill section through the trees and then the open fields, which would have been utterly fabulous had we both not been freezing cold and whipped by the wind. Nothing too technical here, and at least I was able to keep up with no difficulty. Uphills really do just destroy me, but I can cycle on the level all day quite happily, no matter if still technical underfoot. By now there wasn’t really much instruction, just the desire from both of us to get back into the warm and dry, and before long we were back at the station with 2 minutes to spare before my train, so not much chance for a de-brief, sadly.

It's not proper exercise unless you're covered in mud afterwards

It’s not proper exercise unless you’re covered in mud afterwards

I’d love to say I had a fabulous day, but it would be a lie, because I hated about half of the day. Not because of Jake’s instruction, but because I felt like death! His summary of the day was basically that I had no real problems with technique. He didn’t add (but I did) that my biggest problem holding me back was simply fitness. He didn’t disagree. Would I do it again?  Yes, definitely (because pain is temporary and you forget how horrible it was). Seriously though, I learnt a lot from the day and I did have some great moments. We also did have some fun in between the pain and the serious stuff, and I found Jake very easy to get on with. I absolutely cannot fault him as an instructor: he was polite, friendly, fun, full of advice, and would never push me beyond what I felt happy with. Out of my comfort zone, yes, but I always had the option to do something or not, and I generally took the option. He never once criticised, and was constantly full of encouragement, not to mention tremendous patience. I have no idea if all Peak Mountaineering instructors are like Jake, but if they are, then Paul Lewis runs an amazing company. And what of me? I’m definitely much more confident about my skills and about trying things out. I deeply regret not asking Jake more questions, but of course I only thought of lots of them later. If we’d had better weather, and I hadn’t been recovering from flu, I think I’d have got even more out of the day, but it was certainly worthwhile, and I’m happy about my upcoming trip to Namibia. Having just checked the trip notes, I see that the Namibia trip is classified as Moderate with “some gentle hills but nothing technical”. However, seeing the accompanying picture of “gentle hills” (below) I’m not so convinced it’ll be an easy ride!

a gentle hill in Namibia

a gentle hill in Namibia

 So to answer the question in the title of this post, based on Tuesday’s experience, it’s a resounding “Hell yeah!” No matter how many swear words I used and how many times I thought longingly of warm cups of tea and hot baths.

And to sum up my day, a few statistics:

  • time: 6 hours (plus another 40 mins cycling to the station and back)
  • percentage of time it rained: 20%
  • number of seconds the sun shone: 3
  • number of friends I randomly encountered:1 (twice)
  •  number of times I fell off: 4
  •  highest number of attempts at a tricky rocky technical section: 5 (wasn’t continuing until I had nailed it)
  • percentage of body/clothing covered in mud: 99.98%
  • percentage of body drenched: 100%
  • pints of sweat lost: 23
  • number of actual injuries acquired: 1 (bruised leg)
  • number of times I collided with a barbed wire fence: 1
  • number of times I nearly went over the edge of a steep dropoff into the reservoir: 2
  • number of swear words I used: 73
  • number of times I felt sick: 34
  • number of times I cursed not being fitter: 87
  • number of blisters acquired: 1
  •  number of times I went through a puddle deeper than expected and regretted it after getting a soaked foot: 49
  • number of times I thought my brakes were going to fail on a downhill and I would die horribly: 11
  • number of hills ascended: 167
  • percentage of the route that was uphill: 85
  • number of times I had to stop partway up a hill to get my breath back: 796
  • number of gates opened for me by Jake:167
  • number of gates opened by me: 4
  • Award for the most patient and cheerful instructor in the world despite being freezing cold, soaking wet and having to sit around waiting for me to recover numerous times: Jake Philip
  • number of chocolate bars eaten by Jake: 2
  • number of chocolate bars eaten by me: 0
  • amount of cake eaten by either of us: 0
  • number of times I longingly thought of cups of tea and hot baths: 81
  • percentage of time my blood sugar levels were in range: 100% (goodness knows how, that must be a first, not to mention a miracle)
  • body parts that hurt: shoulders, neck, head, legs and pretty much every muscle I have
  • umber of new bruises I found in the following 3 days: 5

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One Response to Mountain biking instruction: is it worth it?

  1. Pingback: Mountain biking for the blind | Expand Your Limits Just A Little Bit More

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