Shortly after getting off the train in Hebden Bridge, I pass through landscapes that mean “mountain biking” to me as much as any bike. These are the bridleways that I did my first rides on, aged 13 with my Dad as company at first, then by myself during long summer holidays. They are etched into my memory, to the extent that it feels like the ridges and furrows of my brain map the contours of the landscape.
The distances have becomes shorter now. As a reasonably fit 34 year old, I am quicker and more experienced than the not particularly sporty teenager. Horizons feel shorter, less daunting. Of course, it helps that my significantly stronger legs and lungs now only have to propel a sub-20lb aluminium and carbon 29er, rather than the hi-tensile steel 33lb Giant (both branded and in terms of size – I think it was a 22in frame!) that was my first mountain bike. The FF29 is beyond comparison to that Giant, in every conceivable way. But, the real, truly important things haven’t changed at all. I still get that same sense of freedom when I’m out riding. I still smile as much. I still reach the top of a hill breathless. I still play with the limits of my skill and the bike’s capability. I still become utterly absorbed in the act of riding.
Sunday was the first sunny day that I can remember. The ground still bore the reminders of the soaking wet winter that we’ve had so far, but blue skies stretched out above me. They widened as I swung the FF29 from side-to-side, turning its single gear with all my body, lolloping up the steep sided valley walls. Hup-hup. Onwards. Headwind. Hup-hup.
Stopping on the dam of Widdop Reservoir, I stare up at the rock climbing routes that inspired me for a while, before I returned to the biking fold. A group of other riders joined me, each on lovely multi-thousand pound machines, each curious to see the scalpel-like Kinesis, bereft of suspension or gears. We share route plans and bike appreciation, but before long I am by myself once more. I love riding with other people: friends, family, strangers; today, though I want to be by myself. I want no distractions, no external influences on my relationship with the land.
I drop into Lancashire, but only briefly. Tarmac swiftly transports me back to Calderdale. Traversing the valley, I slot between dry-stone walls. Tight confines despite being out in the open. Despite being mid-February, the sun brings with it real warmth. I shed layers when I am in its direct glare, only to have to readjust as drop down into the winter shadows. More climbing, this time on tarmac, staying on top of the 34-18 gear, ignoring rasping breaths and accelerating, knowing that the pain is short lived.
I turn east, maintaining my height for a while, before I eventually, lazily slice contours until I’m in the valley bottom, swapping between canal towpath and groomed Sustrans tracks. I’m in no hurry to finish riding, but I’ve got a late lunch date back at the home which was the base for so many of my early rides. A cup of tea in the family kitchen is a fitting end to the ride, my bike propped up in the flag-stoned yard that I first circled on two wheels.