The alarm on my phone trills insistently. Normally this is a daily event, triggering the weary unbundling of my ageing carcass from the enchanting environs of the bed. Right now, though, it’s flashing up a cheerful if inappropriate ‘time to go riding’ message.
Outside has that grey cast only a mid-winter’s day really gets right. Nothing stirs in a windless vista of dead things. Trees, plants and flowers shut down for the season, leaving only withered stalks to hold the memory of passing storms and incessant rain.
It doesn’t look very inviting, to be honest. Our two dogs are shedding their brown coats thickly applied from this morning’s walk in the woods, while in the shed every bike shows off a gritty patina rubbed deep into bearings, brake pads and transmissions.
Another rain storm flashes across the sodden garden and still I haven’t moved. I’ve worked two long days and one early morning to insert a daylight ride into my working week. The option is postponement for the few hours until darkness arrives and rendezvous with the Wednesday night mud club. Following which would be two hours of my least favourite things: winter night riding, mud and cold.
Two out of three isn’t bad. Time to get moving – riding is always better than not riding. Chunter that repeatedly under my breath while performing winter pre-ride checks. Fetch bike with least number of perishable parts from the rack, strip the top of the washing basket where my wet weather riding kit lives during the campaigns of slog, locate least scratched set of clear glasses, bang shoes and beat camelbak to shake a little of the ingrained dirt from their outers. And go.
I meet my three hardy perennials and, despite the lack of available daylight, we waste far too much of it faffing. There’s a majority motion carried by the navigation committee that ‘we’re not riding that fucking stupid steep stuff today’. I’m only a tiny bit disappointed as, last time out, I managed a whole corner before crashing into the undergrowth. And that was on a bike with proper tyres, not this chubby thing essentially designed to aquaplane in these conditions.
The next two hours leave me wondering why I ever doubted this might be a good idea. Sure, it’s muddy with traction switching between just enough and riding-on-glass. Every corner is a study of micro muscle movement, pushing the front tyre close to but not into the no-grip zone. Except nothing is that nuanced and slides are legion. Rear, front, both at the same time. Desperate weight shifts to arrest the back to front movement, treating the brakes as hand grenades triggered by a careless forefinger tapping the lever.
There’s something about the fourth season though. Bike handling comes to the fore. It’s not about how brave you are, which is pretty much how summer pans out when grip isn’t limited but your ability to go ever faster is. Right now it’s about keeping it right side up and rubber side down. The landscape passes more slowly, but with no less excitement. Catching a slide and flicking it into a two wheel drift – even for a second – is as good as ‘days of thunder’ moments riding through summer dust.
Better, maybe. Not for ever, because riding now is just banking fitness for when our hemisphere gets the right side of the axial tilt. Some days it feels like that – an outdoor slog just a little less grim than giving up and buying a turbo trainer. Other days it feels like this.
Difficult, dangerous and damp. There’s no dry March in my world; I’m a mountain biker.