Or: "Mud, Sweat and Vomit in the Welsh Marches"
It has been a source of some niggling annoyance to me that, having bought a 'proper' mountain bike (a Specialized Rockhopper Pro) from my brother-in-law two or three years ago, I have, as far as I remember, only ridden it once. The reasons are fairly straightforward, and similar to the reasons I no longer have an enduro bike - in order to actually ride it on terrain which justifies its abilities, you need to put it in a car and drive somewhere, something for which I tend to lack the time, and often, the patience.
So when the opportunity to go out riding with some work colleagues cropped up, I jumped right in. Not without some justifiable concern - they are all far more serious cyclists than me, at least a couple I know to be insanely fit, and one who lives in Boulder, Colorado, where they have Actual Real Mountains.
The trepidation increased when a route profile was posted showing a potential 5,500ft of climbing and descending over about 33 miles of riding. The horizontal distance, no problem, but I had no real idea of what that much climbing would mean, and it sounded like a lot.
Still, I don't think you ever gain anything by turning down opportunities in order to sit at home on the sofa, so early on Saturday morning I stuck the bike on top of the car and drove over to Nottingham, where the bike was transferred to the back of the boss' T5 Transporter for the run across to Church Stretton - four of us in the van, and the fifth travelling up from Bristol to meet us there.
We parked up in the National Trust car park at Cardingmill Valley and took to two wheels, gently rolling back down towards the car park entrance before hitting the first climb.
Probably only about half a mile (horizontally) into the ride, and already a hell of a long way above where the climb started.
By about a mile in I was already struggling, my legs not responding well to having to spin away in bottom gear to crawl forward at a snail's pace, lungs bursting and head spinning.
It just keeps on going up.
Around 2.5 miles in and 900ft up, I finally rolled up to the waiting group at the top of the climb, got off the bike, sat down for a minute... and then threw up on the grass. Strangely, this improved matters somewhat.
Top of the hill, second time around. Stomach contents from the first attempt not pictured.
After another mile or so at a much more civilised gradient, we turned off onto an assortment of byways and bridleways across the top of the plateau, which made me considerably happier, and allowed me to keep on the back of the group. We dropped down over a very fast grassy descent which tightened into steep and muddy singletrack. A couple more short climbs at least had the decency to be steep and muddy enough that they were virtually unrideable, slowing everyone down, but I was still falling off the back of the group in between, taking what felt like an age to remount and get going at the top.
About 9.5 miles in, the route looped back to the car park and off up the first climb again. I decided this was the time to stop spoiling everyone else's ride and do my own thing, so I waved them off up the road and went for a pot of tea in the café. It didn't really warm me up, but I felt a bit better, so saddled up and hit the climb again, this time alone.
Travelling at my own pace was still painful, and painfully slow - although I had quite a pleasant conversation-by-installments with a walker who was managing to sustain about the same average speed, catching me up whenever I stopped 'to take photos' (read: 'until my legs started working again') - but it did at least mean I reached the top without the urge to empty my stomach across the landscape.
Onto the dirt again I rode across to the head of the trail I knew lead down to the car park. Feeling pretty good by this point I went for another loop around on the plateau before tipping into the top of the descent. The trail got steeper and steeper, clattering over rock steps and splashing through a few fords before bursting out into the car park.
There was no-one back at the van, and an hour or so until the car park closed, so after a brief snack break I decided to have another go at the last trail - I would ride, walk, or stagger uphill for half an hour then turn around wherever I got to, leaving plenty of time for a quick descent and (assuming the others were back) to load up the van, change, and leave.
It turned out half an hour was enough to get almost to the top, and the second run down was just as exhilarating - but not entirely without event. Having done the hard part, and onto the smooth section within sight of the car park, I managed to somehow not only crash, but full-on throw myself over the bars. I think it was down to tired arms, tired head, and extremely effective disc brakes. I had just enough time to disentangle myself from the bike, conclude I was essentially unhurt and set off again before the others appeared behind me, having finished with the same trail. They had covered about 26 miles, I had a little over 17 miles showing on the trip meter. Not too bad given the way the day started.
Although I suspect I'll be reminded of my bout of 'altitude-sickness' for as long as I stay with the company, I'm glad I went along. Might try and get a bit of hill-training in before next time though.
This morning, one of the guys sent round the actual profile of their route from his GPS. I've annotated it below with the sections I actually did.