22 February 2007

Off-Road Utopia


Last weekend was one of our several-times-a-year mountain biking trips. The first significant trip of 2007.

The destination for this springtime adventure? South Wales. The purpose-built, manufactured trails of Brechfa and Glyncorrwg, near Port Talbot.

A superb weekend. Largely thanks to the chance to spend time playing with good friends. But a significant part of last weekend's smiles were due to the frankly wonderful trails we rode. Superb. Distracting, winding climbs followed by flattering playful singletrack. Si and Sam roar on ahead while I endeavour to keep up with Sally as we follow at our own pace. But everyone reaches the bottom with a smile on their face. A huge smile.

Wales and Scotland are now rich with these 'trail centres' - off-road networks in rural forests where mountain bikers have right of way and every curve, berm and obstacle has been developed with the goal of pleasing the British mountain biker. A well-stocked bike shop and better-stocked cafe are strategically positioned at each trailhead to capitalise on two of the key spending tendencies of the species Mountanica Bicyclus Britannicus.

It's a kind of off-road Utopia. But is everything as perfect as it seems?
  • We drove for several hours to reach our destination for the weekend. We could have ridden locally on the South Downs. We tell our friends smugly how we do our bit for the environment by taking to two wheels, then whenever we get the chance we drive (or fly) hundreds (or thousands) of miles to endulge our hobby.

  • These artificial trails may offer superb riding, but sometimes one wonders if they are perhaps a little too perfect. As every corner leads to another stretch of lovely singletrack, gone is the hit-and miss trial-and-error approach of 'natural' mountain biking in Britain's rural areas. Gone are the playful squabbles and guesswork involved in plotting an entertaining route along traditional bridleways and 'cheeky' singletrack. Jo Burt has written more about this in Singletrack magazine (I'll add a link to the exact article if I can find it).

  • When you separate mountain bikers from the rest of the outdoor enthusiasts of the British Isles by giving them their own playgrounds, you wonder if we're forgetting how to share the open spaces we love. It's great being able to hare around each corner with no concern for the possibility of the absent-minded dog-walker or red-socked rambler, but in the long term, are we doing ourselves any favours by ghettoising ourselves into designated ear-marked mountain biking zones? If the idea gathers momentum that mountain bikers belong primarily in these trail centres, do we start to forego our acceptance on the regular byways and bridleways of the land?
Don't misunderstand me; I had a brilliant weekend. But it does make me wonder about the future of British mountain biking if we focus all our passion of these centres.

But they are so much fun! And that is what it's all about.

Roll on Canada...

Meanwhile, here are my photos from the weekend.

05 February 2007

Better Than Any Screensaver

Every night as the sun goes down, the starlings of Brighton's West Pier do their amazing evening dance around the hulk of the burnt-out structure. They've been there for as long as anyone can remember. After the fire in 2003 they took a while to come back, but return they did. And now they guard the ruins of this once beautiful building.

They fly in tight formation every night, swooping and diving in their hundreds, possibly thousands. Their fluid mass bends and distorts seemingly at random, but with an amazing unity and power. Occasionally the flock gets separated, as the split second synchronisation breaks down for a few moments. Before long, the two clusters re-join and the temporary rebellion is absorbed back into the flock.

Each bird is an individual creature which controls its own flight. Yet the instinct to fly as a flock is overwhelming and this nightly spectacle is the captivating result. It's always different, yet always the same. you can watch it for ages. Better than any screensaver.

After watching the birds for what seemed like an eternity on Sunday evening, I turned around to see dozens of my own kind all standing in unison on Brighton beach, all gazing out to sea as one.

Then I climbed back on my bike and weaved my way home through the hundreds of cars queueing to get out of Brighton for their migration back to London after the sunny weekend.

Flying Away


8.22am on a Sunday morning. Each one of these vapour trails is a plane. And each plane holds a few hundred people leaving Gatwick and heading south-east for mainland Europe or beyond.

Thousands of people. Thousands of far-away adventures beginning in the sky above Brighton on a chilly February morning.

We know that we need to reduce air travel, for the sake of our planet. But is the answer really to tax the poor out of being able to travel, so foreign experiences become the preserve of the wealthy once again?

Let's get more into travelling by other means, so we can all keep having adventures.