I’ll always be a mountain biker at heart. Not the modern type, but the old fashioned, first generation rider who didn’t know the limits of their machines or themselves but embraced a new idea with a keenness to explore and unbridled passion. People had long been travelling in mountainous regions with their touring bikes. It was known as riding the rough stuff. It involved frequent walking and some carrying to be able to get into truly wild places, but it was the privilege and preserve of a few die-hard riders who wanted more than to follow the ribbons of tarmac their bikes were designed for.
When mountain bikes arrived this all changed. Suddenly, those of us who loved the hills had a new way of exploring them. Originally built like tanks, these new-fangled bikes looked as though they could be taken anywhere you desired, and a few of us did just that. We knew where we were allowed to ride, but we pushed the boundaries of that, much to the annoyance of hill walkers. This was understandable, walking and riding don’t mix well, but we found allies in the horse riding community of North Wales. We gave weight to their campaign to keep gates open on bridleways, allowing them access to places previously inaccessible to them, and they upheld our legitimacy.
We used to have frame and bar bags and suchlike and would often ride off for an evening with just a bivouac bag, sleeping mat, sleeping bag and some food. Bike-packing, as it’s now called, is at least as old as I am in that sense. Nobody wanted to lug huge amounts of weight around, but lighter equipment was only just coming into being in those days. The memories that I have from times when we could more or less ride where we liked with a little discretion, are precious. Mountain biking moved away from those freedoms to some degree with the advent of specific mountain bike trails and parks.
The essence of those heady days lives on in the guise of bike-packing. For me personally, mountain bikes gave me a reason to carry on exploring the mountains. It was completely different from the climbing I had done up until then, but equally as demanding physically and rewarding. It bore no relation to road biking, something I could personally never relate to. That was too shiny, with people obsessed by the bike, components and clothing. I had great respect for their athletic prowess, but no desire to join the club. I belonged in the rough, not on the fairway.
Back then, there was nothing I liked better than to load up my bike and head off into the wilds. I was always sympathetic about what I was asking my bike to do, but I didn’t worry overtly about whether the bike would cope or not. First generation mountain bikes, and those that followed, were more oxen than race-horse. That all came later with the inevitable development and partition into the many specific types of bike now available. Back then, if you wanted a faster bike you changed the tyres for something thinner and lighter and if you expected rocks and rough ground you changed tyres again, this time reaching for the Specialized Hardpack, the 2.5” versions.
Perhaps the biggest difference that mountain bikes brought to the party was that most of the riders I knew hadn’t previously been cyclists at all, me included. It had an appeal to mountain goers of a different ilk and that was its secret. Comfortable and plush, with flat bars and wide tyres, mountain bikes appealed to those who didn’t want to be perched on a razor blade as well as those with a more laid-back attitude. It came as no surprise to me when, after a few years, it seemed as though everybody rode a mountain bike.
Back then mountain bikers weren’t seen as cyclists by the road going elite. They were seen more as a more a pain in the collective backside and one that was getting cycling a bad name with some riders showing little regard for boundaries to their enjoyment. For some time after that it was a battle to maintain access to amazing places, like the routes in Snowdonia and The Lake District that are now taken for granted. A great deal of work went into keeping our right to roam where bikes were concerned. A great deal of research, that many hoped would stop mountain bikers using open trails, proved only that they do far less damage than many other modes of travel on soft ground when ridden responsibly. Eventually the dust settled, sensitive areas were avoided or given boundaries like those placed on riding Snowdon’s bridleways. In addition to this, riders and walkers learned to share and mountain biking exploded into a major new sport.
That was all nearly thirty years ago now and the dust has well and truly settled. Bike-packing is harking back to simpler times and long may it continue to do so. Fat tyre bikes are a step further from our 2.5” Hardpack tyres, but not so far away that they feel alien. People will always reinvent thing we know in an attempt to freshen them up, it’s human nature. There is nothing quite the same as doing something new for the first time. It’s the stuff that fond and long-standing memories are made of.
Driving all this fun was the knowledge that our newly designed and designated mountain bikes were far more capable away from tarmac than anything that preceded them. I’m sure people had been hacking bikes in something similar for years in the privacy of their sheds, and flying under the radar, but these mass produced vehicles had better frames, wheels, geometry, gearing, strength, comfort and brakes than anything I had seen at that time. On top of that they looked so cool, something you would find hard to believe nowadays.
Like so many other people, I found escape, peace and solace in riding my mountain bike away from road going traffic that too often saw us as a nuisance rather than another road user. Along with other like-minded folk, we explored every inch of Snowdonia using tracks and trails that few knew existed. Out in the wilds you could let go and be yourself. You could access places that would take all day to walk into in just a few hours by mountain bike. And in doing so we seemed to have more fun than I have had doing anything since.
From those naïve beginnings a huge industry has burgeoned. I’ve met people on my travels who design and build mountain bike trails for a living. Who would have thought that as we attempted to ride over boulders and logs, laughing at one another’s crashes, back in the late nineteen eighties? The various threads of the sport burgeoned into something huge, well beyond the comprehension of my mind, and in doing so something of the freedom was lost. Where it used to be enough to be a mountain biker you now had to have a label saying what sort you were: cross-country, downhill, trials and own different machines for each one of them. Bikes got lighter weaker and much more complex as people demanded more and more.
But it wasn’t this that stopped me riding. A small bundle called Lydia arrived in our lives after we moved back to Hampshire. That, the aggressive nature and volume of traffic, and the fact I had seen somebody flying a paraglider, all played their part. Seeing people flying had the same effect that witnessing the birth of mountain biking had on me. My heart pumped madly and my imagination soared like the gliders I had seen floating like flotsam on the breeze. It was inevitable that I would take up this new sport.
Cycling would have to wait another eighteen years for me to return. Another, different bank of memories, collected from high above the world, a crash, and a collapsed spinal vertebrae kept me away. My break down in 2006 and a story you all now all know led me back to something that I always felt comfortable doing. A gentler return without boulders, mud, rocks and ruts saw me pedalling the roads, Sustrans trails, and touring gently, at peace with who I am.
I often find myself recalling those heady days, touring away from the roads, exploring much more intimately than tarmac allows you to do. I remember them through tinted lenses, the effort, filth and grind of it all but forgotten in the mists of time. And this is the greatest joy of memory. We remember things not as they were, but at their best, or how it left us feeling, and it’s this that draws us and our bikes back time and time again in search for new horizons.
Until next time…………………….