It’s my first-ever mountain bike ride in The Lakes and I’m about to creep down a precipitous switchbacked scree slope of unimaginable technicalities.
Just seconds ago I watched, with building fear, the first of our party of five conquistadors begin the drop from the 725 metre summit of the Nan Bield Pass.
I’m in childhood again; like the time you shuffled around as your mates decided who would be first to take on a dare.
The view from the top of Nan Bield presents a somewhat deceptive outlook. So steep is the plummet that the immensity of the first section of hairpin turns is largely hidden from view.
Instead, what commands and draws the eye in the composition of this intimidating vista is the twisting, glistening, singletrack, which snakes away into the distance.
From a distance it looks so inviting: “If I can just get down this section I’ll be pining that trail.”
Those who’ve tamed this beast know better; things are just as tough when you’ve conquered what seems to be the hardest part of the descent and finally reach the end of the first steep section.
Dave, alias The Shaman, is first to attack the drop even though he’s running the least amount of travel on his Marin.
He’s followed by Simon, alias Nopies, on a new Trek Remedy while Martin, alias Routemartin, bundles out onto the trail on his Orange 5.
It was Routemartin, one of the founding members of the Industrial Fell Biking crew, who’d conceived this ride in the first place. A traverse of the two passes of Gatesgarth and Nan Bield with an optional extension to take on the Garburn.
He told me on the phone that the ride would entail ‘a bit of everything’. But I already knew that it would be a little more than that having read about the ride on the net.
But I didn’t have any reservations; the Routeman is someone that you trust implicitly to get his excursions to dance along like a symphony.
Before we set of for The Lakes he’d laid out the OS map on a car bonnet and sketched out the route with a highlighter, doing it completely from memory: “Who needs a GPS when it’s all in your head.”
Minutes pass as the first members of our bouncing caravan disappear from sight but fail, as yet, to reappear at the singletrack section.
We’re starting just ahead of a stone shelter where we’d met two startled hikers munching on their lunch.
Now they’re watching us take on the descent with the amused air of those who know better.
Walkers never seem openly impressed by such displays of bravado, as if their commitment to standing on terra firma is born of a higher understanding of the perils of the hills.
These two are no different and they point and titter while climbing to a higher knoll to gain a view from the gallery.
I try to concentrate and look around. The air sparkles in a slight haze against the green mountain skies. The sound of clanking chains fades and the wind begins to whisper in my ears.
The vastness of the world turns and spins around me in the way it only can when in truly high ground.
I can’t see anyone at the bottom yet.
Blimey, this is a big one.
Pulsating hands fidgeting both brakes, I begin my attempt.
Straight away I’m jostled along by a moving bed of very loose, large pebbles, and broken rock. Two slow and the surface saps your momentum, too quick and you’re sliding uncontrollably into the switchbacks.
New problems appear alarmingly as larger rocks emerge to present a bewildering variety of optional line choices.
The conveyor belt of rubble gives way to thick slices of rock laid together like bashed-up pieces of chocolate brownie. This is serious stuff and I’m only through three or four of what looks to be about 11 turns.
Within minutes I’m off and walking parts of the descent. I’ve forgotten I’m actually second -last to go and now, nudging past, is Warren, who despite a long lay off over recent weeks is determined to make the descent without suffering any indignities. Warren wears a full facer on all his rides; a decision deriving from the time he used his chin to break some rocks in a spill (dont remember that bit – Prd). Still, I’m in awe of his commitment to get down aided only by the odd dab here and there.
Apart from being in danger of short-circuiting my brain, I’m now beginning to wish that I too was wearing a full facer, full body armour and riding with double the travel I have at my disposal on my Intense.
Problem is, even if I owned such a bike, the climb to the Nan Bield pre-empts the use of a truly big rig because of the ascent needed to reach it. After reaching the still calm of Smallwater, following the traverse of the Gatesgarth pass, the rider begins a long, brutal ascent of a further 250 or so metres to the pass head. Hardly any of it supports the use of a bike, let alone a downhill machine.
The biggest lesson I learned from climbing Nan Bield was that a good grasp of bike carrying technique is essential – a fact that only dawned on me after the ride.
Pushing and pulling seems easier to begin with but it soon gives way to the desire to throw your bike off the rocks and continue alone.
Nopies had demonstrated the correct method for hoisting the bike high above the head and lowering it onto the shoulders.
But I’d watched this exercise as if it was an in-flight safety demonstration. It was all very well but I couldn’t see what use I’d have for it.
Martin told us later he’d rather enjoyed the climb, a guilty masochistic pleasure it seemed.
For me it was a slow torture that grew worse by the second. Next time… and there will be a next time…I’ll be carrying that bike and also ‘enjoying’ it.
Now the descent has transformed from a high Alpine plunge into the most technical piece of singletrack I’ve ever seen.
A collection of rock obstacles litter the path, intruding into vision so quickly it’s impossible to calculate a clean line.
It goes on, and on; three miles in all. It’s so long Warren and I are off the bikes halfway to clamber onto enormous boulders to cherish the experience and the surroundings.
Finally the path rolls into faster terrain as the village of Kentmere pops into view. Discs smoking, we reach this outpost of the society that over the last hours I’d almost forgotten existed.
I’ve gone up and over Nan Bield on a bike and it feels as if it can’t have been any easier for those native South American Indians who pushed a river steamer over a hill in Werner Herzog’s classic film Fitzcaraldo.
At cafe, over tea and cakes, we assess the situation.
Over the repast I’m gently ribbed for the umpteenth time about the moment, when descending earlier from the Gatesgarth pass I’d encountered two girl hikers at the bottom of the gnarly path.
Sensing this captive audience obviously entralled by my burgeoning downhill skills I looked away from the trail to watch them watching me.
It was an unfortunate, if not fatal mistake and as I hurtled toward them at high speed I attempted to extend a leg to the ground to arrest my journey without making the required breaking.
I jolted forward and almost jammed my crotch onto the top tube.
“That could’ve been embarrassing.,” said the girl with the dark hair.
“Yes it could,” I said.
Routemartin said: “We call him the downhill dominator,” – to a rather disproportionate round of laughter.
It was a desperately ignominious way to end a descent of the Gatesgarth pass and I felt like pointing out to these two young ‘ladies’ that I hadn’t dabbed down during the entire thing until they showed their faces.
The Shaman’s heart rate monitor has calculated that we’ve each burnt 4,000 calories – the equivalent of two day’s requirements.
I feel weary and am beginning to feel apprehensive about the prospect of yet another pass.
Undaunted Nopies and the Shaman continue their quest for the ultimate epic and continue to Garburn.
But the rest of us have had enough and we opt to ride back over Cocklaw Fell to Sadgill. Earlier in the ride a mechanical meant that Warren and Martin had to drive to Sadgill and miss the first section of the ride over Staveley Head fell.
We’re getting into our sixth hour in the saddle and, as we make the final descent, I can’t respond to the bike anymore. I’ve had my fill and just want to get to the end.
Back at the car and I begin to reflect on what I’ve just been through
Despite its horrors it’s easy to see why Nan Bield rates as one of the finest mountain bike experiences in the UK.
The most memorable mountain bike rides are those imbued with a sense of real adventure.
But it’s remarkable how quickly the trails which seemed so intimidating to the novice quickly become tamed by the accumulation of experience and technique.
When I first bought a mountain bike it was with the thought of scaling the Lake District’s highest ground on two wheels that made me part with what I considered to be a ridiculous sum of money.
A few forays to the Peaks from my home in Stockport made me realise that the Lakes wouldn’t be as easy to conquer as I initially thought.
Nine months later, the paths that once struck fear into my heart seemed to present less of a challenge.
I stopped boring my family and friends with endless tails of ‘rocky downhills’ and ‘technical climbs’.
Thing is, completing Nan Bield hasn’t encouraged much story telling either. Because the truth is, I don’t remember much about it. Large sections, such as the climb to and descent from the Gatesgarth pass didn’t leave an impression. It was as if each piece of the ride erased the memory of the last.
It’s a contradiction in terms but perhaps the most memorable rides are those you don’t remember.
To me mountain biking represents a yearning as much as an activity. And it’s a yearning to gain access to a state of mind in which self-consciousness is lost in the unmediated thrill of riding.
It’s that zen-like trance of seeing the mountains, riding your bike and rolling around in the vastness of mountain space.
It’s the trip into the unknown so compelling that the brain is unable to press the record button because it’s continually hammering the one marked ‘survival’.
The times I’ve got nearest to achieving this are the ones I’m least likely to remember.
In a paraphrase of the great Italian football manager, Manlio Scopigno, “Happiness is not riding, happiness is hoping to ride.”