Wet and Cold in Cambridgeshire

I finally decided that I was going to put a suspension fork put on my MTB. I did quite a bit of research to find a good fork, listening to the fork chatter on the MTB mailing list, reading reviews, noting what the local MTBers had on their bikes. Finally I chose a Pace fork, and on Wednesday I got it installed. And so I was very eager for yesterday (Thursday) evening's MTB ride.

It rained all day yesterday, a moderately cold rain. It was still raining and about 7C (45F) as I headed out to the meeting place for the ride. I waited. No one showed, and I thought, it it weren't for wanting to try out this new fork, I'd just go home. Finally, just before 7:30 Peter showed up. Peter's a quiet modest man, and with his rigid Rockhopper and toe clips, he is one of the best riders in the group. He's one of the few people on the ride that I cannot keep up with when he's going at his own pace.

We waited a bit to see if anyone else would show. Soon Jacob rolled up, on his touring bike with full mudguards. He said "I'm wimping out and staying on the roads, see you at the pub in Babraham". And so we set off.

This was the first time I'd done one of these evening rides since daylight savings time began. When we started out it was dusk, and it was very strange going on these tracks actually being able to see beyond the pool of my lights. It was a little disconcerting, since there wasn't enough light to see clearly, but my lights didn't help. Then it got dark and my eyes adjusted to it, and my lights were plenty enough to show the way.

At first I was feeling really good. My Gore-Tex socks were keeping my feet dry, and I was enjoying the much smoother ride offered by my suspension fork. At first I kept right up with Peter, but later, as we got into some little hills, he would pull away from me a bit as we went along and would wait for me at all intersections. Happily, he didn't have to wait very long, as I'm not that much slower than he is. I soon found that with the constant splashing, my feet were getting wet. The rest of me was too, but I managed to stay more or less warm.

When we went down the traditional path along the Roman Road we took the little side track that twists its way thru' the woods. The fork handled the tree roots really well. I did hit one at an angle and as it was slippery, instead of going over it, it shoved my wheel left. I leaned left and got control of the bike just before it grazed a treetrunk. A little bit of adventure never hurt anyone...

After maybe 12 miles of riding, we went on a section I'd never been on before. It's called Rivey Hill, and at 112 meters, it is very high for Cambridgeshire (OK so it's flat in these parts). There's a bridleway that goes down the side of it, dropping down to about 50 meters over the course of about 1 kilometer. I could see the lights of the village below, and as I went down it was exciting to note that I'd already descended a fair ways, and was still quite a bit above them! (Do you sense some hill deprivation here?)

I went really slowly down this hill. I had taken off the clear glasses I use for night riding since I really couldn't see anything with them being all wet and fogged. As I looked down the hill to come I thought I'd better put them on to avoid muddy water splattering in my eyes. Instead of doing something sensible like stopping to put them on I tried to get them on while still moving. When I had finally acheived that, I struggled to find a way that they could protect my eyes and yet still allow me to see. I tried putting them on the end of my nose, granny style. The idea was that water would come from the wheel and splat on the glasses, and I'd look out over them. But they were too tall, I couldn't see over them. So I put them back into my pocket. Drat. I went slower than I would usually, partly because it was wet and squishy, partly because I was uncertain about how the shock would work, partly because I wanted to avoid throwing too much water at my eyes, partly because this was my first time down this hill and I didn't know what to expect. Or maybe these were all just excuses and I was just being a wuss.

There were several tracks heading down. Peter had chosen the middle one. I followed that for a bit. Then I thought I'd try the grassy area to the left of all the tracks. I braked almost to a stop, not wanting to cross the ruts at speed. The grassy area worked fine. Until the field full of tall plants crept closer and closer, finally coming right up to the edge of the leftmost rut. Darn. I braked almost to a stop and got back onto Peter's track and made my way the rest of the way down.

During all this Peter had kept on going at his own good pace, the gap between us steadily widening, so by the time I finally got to the bottom he'd been there a while. Oh, well.

I realized that I was really cold once we got moving. I'd cooled off coming down the hill. My hands were really bad. They were so soaked that if I made a fist the water streamed off... Eventually I realized that this was probably a bad idea: the water in my gloves had gotten warmed up, and if I squeezed them out it was replaced by cold water.

We got to the intersection of a main road. Peter couldn't remember which way to go. I wasn't quite sure where we were, so I couldn't help. There was a petrol station nearby, so we went there and Peter asked. So we headed in that direction and soon turned onto a road signposted "Hildersham". Hildersham? I thought we were supposed to be going to Babraham... Peter thought about it. Yep, we were supposed to be going to Babraham. By that time both of us had more or less figured out where we were, and we headed back the way we'd come, passed the petrol station, and soon found the sign to Babraham, and then the pub itself.

Jacob was wondering what had happened to us. We all commiserated about the weather. We were completely drenched. We'd taken various precautions for our feet, and had all been defeated. Jacob had Gore-Tex boots, I had Gore-Tex socks, and Peter had gaiters and Porelle Drys socks. I guess nothing would have worked in those circumstances. As Jacob pointed out, they have the glaring drawback of having a big hole at the top...

I figured I'd try to squeeze some of the water out of my gloves and socks. There were some plants on the windowsill where we were sitting, so I watered the plants. When I took off my Gore-Tex socks and turned them upside down over the flowerpot, a little stream came out. Blah... Around 10pm we put on all our cold wet gear for the trip back. It was about 10 miles back to Cambridge. Soon after starting out my fingers got cold. The worst came when we went down a little hill and the wind speed combined with the wet hands to make them so painfully cold that all I could think of was how much I hurt. But then as we travelled on, me feeling miserable and sorry for myself, suddenly I realized that my hands didn't hurt anymore. My blood was flowing again and I had warmed them up. In fact probably the worst pain happened as they were coming back to life... However, my feet continued their steady cooling off.

We pedalled on. Jacob peeled off as we headed into town, and Peter and I carried on together for a bit longer, then he headed home. So I was on my own for the last couple of miles. But home was near, and I wasn't feeling so miserable. Finally I pulled up and Simon greeted me at the door, saying he was worried about me, since it was getting on towards 11pm. Usually when I'm on these night rides I leave the pub at 10, but they are generally not so far away so I'm back by 10:30. He put my bike in the garage for me, and I started peeling off my wet muddy clothes. I tried to get my feet warm, drying them off, rubbing them, wiggling the toes. Finally they came back to life (ever so painfully) in the shower and were feeling pretty normal by the time I went to sleep.

Today the news was full of floods, and everyone thought I was nuts for going out and mountain biking in that mess. Maybe, but looking back on it, it was... well, not exactly fun, but it makes me feel good to face a little adversity and to come out of it just fine.


Last night I was riding for something like 2 3/4 hours, with at least one of my headlights burning all the time. I was glad that I have a big, high-capacity battery (5 amp-hours) and that my low beam light is only 6 Watts. This should theoretically give me 5 hours of run time on the low beam, but with practice never meeting theory, and the fact that I was using my high beam (10 W) along with the low beam when we were off road, I was probably coming close to the capacity of the battery. I believe stongly in having lots more battery capacity than you think you'll need so if you end up being out longer than you expect, you'll still make it home safely. My battery (Hawker Cyclon lead-acid) weighs a kilogram, but it's worth it for the peace of mind.

Why I ride in the rain

Upon reading the story above, a friend of mine mentioned that he didn't like to ride in the rain because the forest rangers frown on it. So I think I should add an explanation of why I do ride in the rain.

This is an agricultural region. Trees are the exception ("That little patch of trees we went through was nice!") rather than the rule. We ride on private land, on tracks between fields. This is completely legal. They are "rights of way", marked on the maps by red dotted lines. They are the result of hundreds of years of tradition (people walking and riding horses between fields to get from one village to another).

The paths around here are for the most part very unexciting. The only people that ride on them are (a) families or young couples on cheap bikes on sunny warm weekend days, or (b) dirt junkies like myself and my fellow night-riders.

Tractors do much much much more damage to the tracks than we do. Horses come in second.

Thus we do little to no damage to the environment, especially in comparison to other users, and no one minds us riding around, even in the middle of a downpour. Seriously.

In more scenic areas of Britain (the Lake District, for example) there are plenty of problems with erosion, overuse, macho bikers going too fast and annoying walkers, etc, but there is none of that where I live.

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