The journey I took today marks the farthest north I have penetrated into England, as we loaded up the mountain bikes for a day out in Hamsterley Forest. I actually had no idea where it was until I got back today and looked it up on the map. A day out like this does wonders for biking confidence, though, so I'm glad I took this trip, in the name of preparation for future Adventure Races...
Hamsterley Forest, sitting on the east side of the Pennines, immediately reminded me of the deep, dark forests that I loved so much in Germany. England tends more toward open moors, so it was fun to be pedaling under the tall pine trees. On the other hand, once the fog cleared, the sun actually came out, but we didn't see to much of it in the shadows.
Hamsterley Forest contains many miles of purpose-built mountain biking trails, including beginner up to expert singletrack, plus a down-hill only trail where the big boys get some serious air-time. We started out with a short skills loop, where the brave can navigate obstacles like bridges, rocky descents and sharp turns, and the not-so-brave can ride next to the obstacles and swear to never go over them. Then we headed out on the red trail, which is a medium-hard course, about 12 miles long. It consists of hill-climbing, forest trails, and single-track, with a newly added swooping downhill adventure loop.
It has rained a lot recently, so we were splattered with mud right from the start. After getting warm on the climb up the first hill and through some muddy singletrack, I attempted to cross a swollen stream. The high water concealed the fact that there was a deep crevasse in the rocks, and as my front tire settled into it, I found myself cavorting over the front wheel and onto the rocks. In slow motion, I then realized that I had landed on the other side of the creek, but that my feet were still in it, and now soaking wet. The bike was fine and so was I, and since I was wet already, I also attempted to cross the next ford, a bigger stream, instead of taking the bridge. Unfortuately I forgot to pedal when I hit the deeper water and cobblestones in the middle of the rushing water, and walked out instead, wet up to my knees. I took a little ribbing from the group at my mis-adventures, as least until another member got stuck in a bog and took a header into the muck, eating a faceful of black mud. He looked like a member of the black lagoon until we got back to running water in the bathrooms by the car park!
The rest of the day was an attempt to keep my body warm, but I faced a losing battle with my feet. Our group of six had a varying ability set, so we stopped often to allow everyone to catch up, and I could never seem to warm up. Even the thrills of the newly created singletrack and the banked corners weren't enough to warm me up. We liked it so much that we climbed the hill to do it again, and I tried running (and pushing my bike) up the hill to get my feet to feel anything but numb.
It was a relief to return to the final two-way section of the red course and get back to the parking lot. We hosed off our muddy bicycles and changed into dry clothes for the ride home. As I've determined to now buy a mountain bike, as part of my dream to complete an adventure race this summer, I hope I can come back and ride this trail again to improve my biking skills. I will however, try to find a day when it isn't 40 degrees and very muddy. Oh, and I'll try to keep my feet dry!