The ABC of Mountain Biking

“Commit to the mountain!” Lucy commanded up to me from 20m down the off-piste ledge. I’m peering down from the edge, paralysed with fear as adrenaline pumps through my body. It’s so steep, the powder is so deep and rocks are scattered everywhere.

That was three years ago on a ski trip in the Austrian Alps. Yet somehow in this thirty degree, desert-like land I’m back on that ledge asking myself again ‘Am I up to this?’. Up to this particular descent is one question, but to the whole trip becomes the second.

This is the question I have asked myself a few too many times in the last couple of days. In the run up to going away, I spent weeks rushing around trying to put ‘normal’ life on pause and tick off the endless to-do list, so I hadn’t spent too much time thinking about – if I was up to it. Instead, I was just going to go and do it.

Friends and family so kindly waved us off with encouraging, excited and sometimes anxious faces. ‘You must be so excited!’, some would say. ‘Have a great six month holiday then’, from others. I was excited about some headspace from London life, going back to basics, travelling on two wheels and sharing all this with Campbell. Other than that, I hadn’t thought too much more about how it would make me feel.

It’s hot. I knew it would be hot. I’ve cycled in 30-40 degree heat before, so I can cope with this. And, if we stop, a cool breeze seems to keep moving; momentary relief.

The Mexicans, on the whole, seem kind and smiley. The small towns and villages we pass have gentle street life with taco stands beckoning in passers by, mums driving their rusty and squeaky four-wheel drives, elderly men taking a coke break from work in the shade outside the local shop, children pedalling to school and dogs keeping guard of their ground.

I have never wild camped before but it feels liberating and the silence and peace as the sun gradually sets and rises is truly awesome. Our first night camping was somewhere in the Sierra Juarez mountain range. We hadn’t seen a car for a few hours and came across a great little spot 30m off the track, nicely out of sight. With a couple of hours of light left there was plenty of time to sort out the tent, cook up a pasta feast and climb up the enormous neighbouring rock to watch the sun sink away. With such a clear evening we kept the fly sheet off to drift off under a sky full of stars. Perfect. And my best night’s sleep for weeks. Apart from the relatively large snake that Campbell cycled over on day two, the insects and reptiles are keeping their distance and so the night time rustling we hear from the tent doesn’t feel too intimidating.

So, ‘what’s the problem?’, you ask.

I love cycling, a pace to notice the details but have enough momentum to keep the journey changing. When fit, I am strong enough on the bike, on a road bike that is, and I’m usually up for a race up the next hill in an attempt to beat the boys.

Mountain biking, though, is a whole new sport. It’s like learning something new all over again. I’ve been a handful of times on holidays in Chamonix and New Zealand and it was great fun, on those beginner routes.

My plan had always been to pick it up along the way and as luck would have it, the British Airways route from London to San Diego are currently including on their in-flight TV entertainment a programme called the ‘ABC of Mountain Biking’. Bingo. So while Campbell lined up his top 5 films to blast through on the eleven hour flight, I got straight down to a couple of repeats of the mountain biking alphabet and learned all about manoeuvres called soil sampling, rock gardens, natural lines, twisters and tsunami flips. Oh, and a ‘superman’. Sorted, I thought.

While the film made them appear somehow effortless, I can tell you that my rock garden experiences have not been so smooth. Campbell darts down these rock gardens, severely eroded steep descents and deep sand pits like he was born on a mountain bike and Christmas has finally arrived. I, on the other hand, would say I’m holding out my MTB world championship entry for another lifetime. There isn’t a moment to take your eyes off the path ahead; it’s intense.

There have been quite a few paralysed-on-the-ledge moments, a few more walking down and up the super steep bits with loose rock moments, several ‘am I up to it?’ moments and even a couple of four-tear moments.

However, as I sit here, facing the Pacific Ocean in Erendira on our first rest day, the sun gradually setting and a cold beer in hand, I recap over the past 5 days.

We’ve cycled 325km and gained over 5000m of elevation, all on bikes between 35-40kg and nearly all off-road. There aren’t too many places to top up on food or water, so we have to carry all that, but so far we’ve found enough. Washing (our clothes and ourselves) has to be minimised but when it happens it feels incredible. We’ve camped next to enormous smooth boulders and tucked behind the ridge of foothills. My Spanish vocabulary remains minimal, but I’m broadening out each day to important words like queso (cheese; essential although disappointingly tasteless out here) and now and again we find ourselves a hot shower and a cold cerveza.

So, for now I will commit to the mountain. I will keep going and I’ll keep you posted on whether I am up to it. That is, if I can extract myself from this Pacific view, comfy seat and endless supply of cold beers…

11 Comments

  1. I’ve always been bewildered at how on earth anyone can ride over such “technical” terrain – and achieving it with a fully-laden bike is a total mystery to me. So I’m in awe of anyone who even attempts it. Just don’t let Campbell push you any faster than you want to go while your strength builds up – which it will. We’re really looking forward to hearing your side of the story! Fxx

  2. Great new literary addition to the team Campbell (thanks Sarah!). You’re so lucky to love the challenge, risk, fear, reward thing. If you don’t have it you miss so much. Can’t write bon voyage in Spanish – enjoy every minute and I look forward to the jealous moments when I sit here in suburbia reading your posts.
    (how long did it take you to eat that loaf of bread?!)
    Chris W

    1. Ha, thanks Chris! Sadly, half the loaf was left at a hostel for others – we just needed a bit of variation from tortillas but it’s far too bulky to transport!

  3. Such beautiful honesty Sarah. I cried reading this! Awesome writing. I’m with you all the way! Im sure you will find a pace that works for both of you, especially in the early days of getting used to it all, meeting new fears and regaining your fitness. And although you’ve got a whole series of places ‘to get to’, remember in reality there’s no where to get to, just this moment to arrive in and to feel it all. Muchos amor to you both ❤️

    1. Thanks Janna, oh no, I didn’t mean to cause tears! Most of the trip has been great, just some adjusting and fitness building to do. The next post will come very soon with lots of positive developments! Hope you are well, S x

  4. Wow what a great start. I , like Fiona, am truly bewildered at how you even attempt to cycle that sort of terrain. I do remember from your American trip how your strength improved with every ride so keep positive. How wonderful to really appreciate the simplest of comforts like showering!
    We look forward to your next blog

  5. Wow, wow and an even bigger WOW…. what an experience and challenge. I am overwhelmed ( and almost in tears, as a previous comment mentioned) this is such a challenge, and even better is- that you sound to be enjoying it. Wishing you lots of luck, energy and very special times doing this journey. And great to know you have good company to help with repairs!
    Stay safe and enjoy. Sarah xx

    1. Thanks Sarah! Great to hear from you. This is a challenge indeed but I think I’m getting there. I hope! Would love to hear about your Nepal adventure too! X

  6. Painting a picture that contrasts to Campbell’s obligatory enviable posts, I am positively loving the counterbalance.

    Echo earlier sentiment of taking these physical and mental leaps at your place. You are a gifted rider, having a dream trip. Challenges, learning and reflections ahead.

    X

    1. Thanks Tim, I’m getting there. Slowly does it. Lot’s of growing and learning happening every day. Good to hear from you, hope you had a great trip to Denmark!

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