Weekend adventures: cross, crashes, and curses

What a weekend.

It promised so much, and delivered plenty, just not exactly what I had been anticipating. The first half was a ride with a good buddy out on ‘cross bikes. The Specialized Crux Elite Disc, built up in the week, had been  hanging around in the corner of the back room, looking like it wanted to go out.

Sunshine, dry weather and the first really crisp autumn weather was all it needed to hanker at the front door, eager to get out! On the roads leading to the trails, the DT wheels rolled well, and the small shallow knobbles of the Specialized tyres hummed on tarmac. A short blast down to the trailhead in the big ring before flicking down through the block gave me an indication of just how competent the SRAM Apex groupset has become. It really is a good set of gears for riders on a budget.

As these first thoughts are mentally noted, the wide gravel doubletrack begins. The speed stays the same as the road, and my heart-rate begins to flicker up into higher zones. My brain does the same, as the skinny tyres and quick handling bike begin to bounce around. Breathe, concentrate, look for the smooth line. The edges of the track are safe: smaller gravel and grass skim under the wheels. We roll swiftly onwards. This is not a route for road bikes, and ‘cross bikes do not have the same safety margins available to a mountain bike. My senses are sharpening, my eyes are keenly looking for hazards, picking out the prime line.

We are quickly through the first off-road sections: fast fire-road, and descending through some sandy sections get us through to the next small town and back on to tarmac. Again, I go down through the block, speed increasing, eager to find the next section of off road action. It is not long coming. A local forest holds a myriad of tightly woven trails: gorse, sand, roots and pine trees ready to catch the unwary rider. My partner in this christening ride is an experienced road and mountain biker, he speeds into the first proper single-track section, hands now in the drops. It is a tight and twisty trail, fortunately smooth as I am not yet sure of the CruX; it is as yet unfamiliar, and these trails need a careful, confident hand at the bar. The rigid carbon fork and aluminum frame are pinging off the edges of the trail. It is not the bike, it is me. Not yet in tune with the speed, handling and brain not yet making the right line choice. Abruptly the trail ends in a drop off and then it back on to fire-road. The safety of the wide track allows me the chance to look at my heart rate; high but recovering, not so much the effort, but more the excitement raising the level.

And so it goes on, more single-track, steep pine needle strewn climbs, rooty sections, even a few jumps. My instincts are on high alert, the visceral thrill of the ride takes me back to the days of my youth when I first ventured off road. The workout has been intense and 32 miles completed in just under an hour and half; not fast for a road trip, but one heck of a ride on trails that were familiar on a mountain bike, but a new experience on a ‘cross machine.

The second half begins with the classic grey skies of the British Isles making another appearance. Tentatively opening the back door and feeling the air tells me to wrap up warm. Some steady winter miles beckon. The Test Rig is ensconced in the loft surround by a multitude of trainers (more of this later in the week). Bracing myself for the wrath of the group if rain appears, I take out a sportier steed, sans mudguards. It needs a ride, and who knows what the weather will bring?

The bike spins up to speed swiftly, as any 7.2kg race bike will tend to do. The meeting point is a 15-minute ride away and gives me a little time to settle into the new machine. I’m not the only one committing the same race bike/winter ride crime, but we are certainly the minority. I promise it will not be the same next week; the Test Rig loves the winter.

We are off, moving as a unit, paired up, and out into the countryside. Drizzle begins to fall, an I am conscious of my conspicuous lack of guards. Ah well, the banter and barracking is the least I deserve.

Then it happens, the rider in front goes down into a left hand turn, my front wheel slides out from under me in a flash. As hip and elbow hit the deck I hear the rider behind do the same. Diesel, and plenty of it on the road. The group comes to a halt. Bikes are checked, and mine has fared okay; a scuffed rear quick release and graze on the tip of the handlebar are the only damage. Clothing on the other hand has not done well. A prized and early Rapha softshell is torn, and my full-length leggings need repair. Flesh is visible through the damaged fabric. Ah well, it could have been worse.

We continue on with the ride, the gentle spin and easy tempo easing the banged bodies. A short while later, I begin to feel the road surface too clearly through the back wheel. As the group moves over a junction I hang back, hop off and check the rear. Slow air creeps out and bubbles on the muddy surface of the tyre. I inspect the outer surface and easily find the sharp tiny blade of flint that must have slid in as the bike skidded across the surface of the tarmac. Whisking out my levers and spare tube I prepare for a swift change. The levers slide round the rim, grey brake muck covers the tips of the gloves, and then as I pull a recalcitrant tube from underneath the tyre it dawns on me that I have committed an almighty faux-pas. Deep section rims and my spare inner tube will not go. I try anyway, just in case, and the small captive nut of the presta valve pokes its head out from the hole in the rim. Could it? Will it? Fingers are mentally crossed, but to no avail, the SKS pump cannot quite grip the valve and air hisses around my fingers, and there we should leave me, cursing, by the side of the road, wind whistling and the cold permeating my inner core.

Always check your tubes, always look out for diesel, and go careful out there.

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