They say that the best money you can spend on your mountain biking hobby is on a skills course, so when Beachy said he was planning to book a session with Ed Oxley in Hebden Bridge, the alps of West Yorkshire, I immediately said “I’m in”. Ed calls the course we took an Alpine Prep course, a name that suggests if you’re heading for some proper big hills on the continent you can pick up some tips on riding some steep gnarly stuff in Blighty and get the most out of your trip.
We were up early on Saturday as we had a bit of a pre ride bike maintenance issue to attend to. I realised on Thursday that my seatpost was stuck in the frame and all my efforts to shift it had failed so we scheduled a last ditch attempt at trying to make it budge on Saturday morning before the ride. We had the post in the vice using the bike for leverage and turned the bike upside down and tried knocking the post in by hitting the bottom bracket with a lump hammer, nothing worked. Resigned to the prospect of riding with the post jammed up my arse all day we left for Calderdale.
We found the Stubbing Wharf Inn without any bother and made a start on getting the bikes ready to roll for the 9:30 start. Ed sidled over and we introduced ourselves and talked about stuck seatposts and the apocalyptic weather forecast. We had a late arrival which held up our departure a littler but Ed assured us we’d end the day a little later to make up for this.
The ride started with a little over a mile of road climbing that took us to the top of a trail called the Blue Pig, this would be our home for the morning. We started with a brief talk from Ed about the what to expect from the day and a rough idea of the layout of the trail ahead of us in broad strokes; it’s rocky, steep in places, drop your seat post if you can (hardy ha ha).
The Blue Pig
This is a wooded trail described by Ed as the remains of a 17th century motorway. It’s a mixture of dirt track, rocks and cobbles with a range of gradients. split into three equal section by tarmac roads. Our first downhill started from the top of the second section which goes from dirt, to large bars of rock, to steep cobbles then gnarly chopped up rock with a step down to the tarmac lane. This proved a good point for catch up and a chat about how we’d felt that section had gone, I never grow tired of that warm “glad to be alive” feeling I get at the bottom of a technical section.
Onwards and downwards through the next section which starts with a step off the tarmac into more rocks, then roots and back to steep cobbles followed by more technical rocky gnarl to the end. Variation in terrain on this trail makes it perfect to run this type of course. It’s steep but not so steep and intimidating that you can’t manage your speed, it’s got drops, babies heads, roots, rock gardens, natural places to pull over and regroup, I can see why Ed would choose it.
I never session the trails I ride, I’m always trying to set a decent time through the whole section and I can never be bothered to hike back up to try and ride it better. The Alpine Prep course is all about analysing the trail, studying it in detail on the push back up in order to pick the best line on the way back down. What’s at first surprising with Ed’s approach is that the best line is nearly always straight down the middle. While the rest of us are congratulating ourselves on avoiding that nasty rock garden, Ed has bowled straight through the middle of it, “the bike can handle more than you think it can.” he says sagely.
With this in mind we take it in turns to ride the last 100 metres of the trail using Ed’s “no compromise” line. We talk about pumping the bike on the smoother sections to make the bike light over the jagged stuff, a useful technique but one that requires a real sense of planted confidence to pull off. We also talk about speed management, scrubbing it off in the easier straighter section so that the bike can pick up speed through the rough stuff, none of this works without speed and commitment. After three or four attempts we all felt that we were more in control down this section rather than merely hanging on.
We pushed the bikes up to the tarmac lane that marks the start of the final 1/3 of the trail. As we pushed we talked about the line through the cobbles, over the roots and down the rooty step, it will be no surprise to you that Ed’s line was… straight down the middle. Once we reached the lane we practiced manuals, rear wheel lifts and putting both these techniques together to form a bunny hop. Then we marched back to where our morning had begun to do the whole trail again.
So much of mountain biking, like many adrenaline sports, is psychological. If the mind says “you can’t” the body doesn’t stand a chance, fear makes you do all the wrong things. As we waited at the top for our turn, a morning of tips, practice and a sense of familiarity with the terrain filled everyone confidence and we were all eager to nail the trail.
It’s testament to Ed’s coaching that we all rode it hard and made it to the bottom without anyone having an off and I felt that I may have even ridden a couple of sections, that I’d gingerly picked my way down the first time, with a bit of style. I found myself visualising the features of the trail before they appeared allowing me to mentally prepare for them and pick my line. There were still plenty of bits that I would want to improve but overall I’d say that it went rather well.
We’d had to settle for a 2 o’clock table at the pub so after a quick snack we headed back towards Hebden Bridge to do some cornering on a nameless wooded trail. We rode the first 1/3 and then pushed back up to look at two of the corners. The first was a sweeping right hand followed by a chicane, with an immediate sharp left into the fall line.
Here are the bullets from Ed’s corner pep talk.
- Slow down before the turn.
- Let go of the brakes into turn.
- Elbows out.
- Chin up.
- Look at your exit.
- Point your belly button where you want to go.
but there’s more…
- Compress down onto the bike coming into the turn, pushing the tyres into the dirt for more grip.
- Move your body towards the outside of the turn, allowing you to bank the bike into the turn but remain balanced.
- Release the compression allowing you to spring out of the turn.
That’s quite a lot to think about and I felt a little overloaded by all this information. I would have found it helpful to session this section, focusing on body position and then introduce, what felt like the more advanced technique of loading the bike into the turn, once everyone hand the fundamentals coming to them naturally. That said everyone got the hang of it eventually.
We pushed back up to the top the trail and did the whole thing. The section beyond what we’d been working on had some interesting features that interrupted my flow; the first was a fork that I hadn’t expected and the next was a very steep slab of granite that gave me pause for thought and I had to let the guy behind me know that it had got a little fruity. He was quite grateful that I’d let him know about this feature as he had no intention of riding it. I get pretty disappointed in myself if I don’t have a go at the scary stuff so I took a run up, pumped my balls up and gave it a shot. I got a little out of shape at the bottom but not too shabby, I did lose the trail and end up scratching my swede, trying to see where the others had gone. As it happens the end of the trail was close by and we reconvened at the road.
Pecket Well Descent
Another road climb took us to the top of what Strava tells me is called Pecket Well Descent, another steepish, rocky bridle way with a pretty gnarly rock garden at the bottom. Taking the “speed is your friend” cliche as my mantra for this section I did a pretty good job of keeping up with the full sus boys and staying in front of the Orange Five breathing down my neck. The down side was that the hammering left my wheels weaving in a disconcerting and hypnotic fashion.
By the time we reached the pub my rear wheel was rubbing on the chainstay, I got lunch ordered and left instructions with the guys to come and get me when the food arrived, I had an appointment with a spoke key. I had to fall back on the key on my multi tool for this job, it would have been easier with my M:part Spokey but needs must. By the time the food arrived I had the back wheel approaching true. I chucked down my battered haddock bap and hurried back to my wheels to finish the job. I don’t think I kept people waiting too long.
We retraced our tracks of the morning session with a steep road climb that took us past the Blue Pig and up towards another trail. Using our manual and rear wheel lift to conquer the step up off the road, we found ourselves at the top of a very steep woodland trail. This is where being able to drop ones saddles helps and not being able to really restricts movement and positioning on the bike.
I got into trouble on the third corner. Paul went over causing Beachy to slam on the brakes and caught between the trying to stop and find a way around this jam I pitched over the bars and landed on my face. After a helmet had been thrown and a tree kicked I felt a bit better about the whole thing. Ed wandered back up and said “your nose is bleeding.”
“is it broken?” I asked.
“I don’t know, has it always looked like that?” Ed replied chirpily and then took a photo so I could take a look. No it wasn’t broken and yes, it has always looked like that.
No real harm done, just a dent in my pride and my confidence that saw me bale out of the rest of this trail in favour of the Blue Pig. Our last run of the day saw us hike back to the top of the steep trail we’d just descened and take the alternative route that forked to the left, another wooded rocky, rooty trail. We paused for a moment on our way up to study a steep tricky feature with awkwardly placed roots that looked rideably but sadly my nerve failed me and I opted to take the less dangerous route on my way down.
We reconvened at the Blue Pig for a final summary before heading down this trail for the last time and back to the Stubbing Wharf Inn for a pint of Copper Dragon.
I’m not a very good pupil and I don’t like being taught but I found Ed’s laid back and knowledgeable delivery very engaging. The terrain he selected for the sessions was perfect for the techniques we were working on and the whole day was very well thought out. Ed comes across as someone who loves what he does and his genuine enthusiasm for riding is infectious. I’ll be putting the stuff I learnt on the day into practice as soon I can get this bloody saddle shifted.
You can book a session with Ed by heading over to www.great-rock.co.uk