Spring Wakeup – Blackhill + Oxford
We were out of town bright and early on a lovely spring morning heading for Oxford. Anticipation of fantastic beech forest singletrack was at the front of my mind along with a little trepidation at going out for a long mission after 4 months of almost no riding!
The snow on the top of Mt Oxford had reduced to a few patches, which was good as a couple of weeks ago there would have been snow on our planned route. Parking at View Hill carpark, we were soon on our way along the Wharfedale track. This track used to be a favourite of mine, as it had technical challenges and some fast flowing bits of trail, but that was back before I had discovered the ridgeline tracks that are above it. Now days the Wharfedale seems like a mucky plod (it is always muddy, no matter what the weather) that is only a bit of track to get me to the good riding. DOC had been through a couple of weeks back to clear the fallen trees , but there were still a number of trees down on the Wharfedale.
I got my first crash of the season out of the way by having an over the bars moment which ended in me rolling around on the ground laughing about 10 meters from the car park. Who would have thought crossing an old grassy rut was so difficult?? A number of other people managed to have some pretty funny crashes throughout with no harm. I think it must have been all part of the first decent mountain bike mission for the season!
I must have bashed my rear shifter with my knee when I crashed and bent the bottom lever, so that it would stick on the top lever when shifting. About 40 minutes up the trail I was trying to bend this back so it would work properly and of course snapped the Sram X9 shifter off the mount (Doh!). After a bit of sitting around scratching my head I zip tied the shifter onto the handlebar, left the chain in the middle of the cassette and did the rest of the ride on a dual speed bike (who needs the new 10 speed shifting!!). It turned out to be ok, and I was quite glad of the large gap of 22:36 I had on my chainrings. Having a bigger gear on the hills was at least good training for the SSWC’s later this month!
After a quick regroup at the saddle we were quickly at the Black Hill junction. The Wharfedale was quite wet, with the usual mud holes being rather deep and mucky. I was looking forward to heading up the ridge to Black Hill, as I knew it would be a lot drier up the ridge. I had previously ridden a lot of the route we were doing today in the other direction, and todays route (View Hill car park, along Wharfedale, up Black Hill, down to Wharfedale Shelter, Up Oxford, down to View Hill car park) was a much better option in terms of good track to ride for altitude gained. The climb from the Wharfedale up to the Black Hill junction took about an hour and a half. Much of this was bike carrying, and a little was groveling in small gears.
From the Black Hill junction there is a descent of over 500m to get down to the Wharfedale Hut. Food was scofffed, leg armour donned and we were soon off down the track. Right from the start there were fantastic steep rooty trails diving down between the beech trees. It was sooo good being back on the sort of trails where you are only just able to control your speed, and are just hanging onto the trail before bouncing over the next set of roots and rocks, or you are pumping your bike into a corner to extract enough traction out of your tyres to make it around the corner, preloading to jump a rock or log, or braking hard to make a tight corner. The conditions were pretty variable, going from lovely dry trail with positive grip, to loamy predictable drift to slippery 2 wheel drifting wet patches without warning! It all added to the fun! There were a number of enforced stops to get around fallen trees, or to use the folding saw to clear the trees from the trail, and grins on faces told the story of how much everyone was enjoying the trails.
As always the downhill was over too soon. We took a break beside the river at the bottom to eat and refill the camelbaks. This was about half the way around todays journey. The spring sunshine was gorgeous, and it was fantastic to be out and enjoying the lovely weather!
The slightly damp trail reminded me that the Continental Rubber Queens are not a great soft conditions tyre. The knobs are not very tall, and so in soft conditions they do not have enough bite, especially if the tyres are already a season old. I often run 2.5 super tacky Maxxis Minion tyres for these trails, and I was really quite missing the extra traction these tyres give. I will be putting a set of 2.4 Schwalbe Big Betty tyres on as I picked up a pair of these in the Gooey Gluey (super tacky) compound for cheap and so will try them out. With them just being the normal sidewall I will not be able to run them at the low pressure of the 2 ply Maxxis DH tyres, and so they wont have the uber traction, but the soft compound tyres should at least give some grip for the rooty beech forest trails that I love.
The next trek up hill started from almost beside the Wharfedale Hut with a climb of over 600m vertical to get up to the Mt Oxford junction. It is a steep climb, with loose scrabbly rock or mud and it has a lot of regrowth crowding the track. Lets just say the bottom half of the climb is definitely not the most fun you will have with a bike!! Trying to balance as you make your way up the sketchy footing while the undergrowth grabs your bike and does its best to mess you up makes for hard going. Just as well the tracks from the top make the carry worth it!! From about half way up the hill the forest becomes older and more mature, which means the track becomes a lot clearer of growth and a lot easier going. As you get near the top the trees get more stunted and have more and more fantastic moss hanging off them. After about 2 hours we were at the top again and really looking forward to heading down more fun trails.
The next 600 vertical meters down the hill is a track I know well from previous rides. The first section has a bunch of ducking and weaving between trees and roots, and a couple of short uphills just when you thought the rest of the day was downhill! From there the track gets steeper and steeper down the hill with one section that is a great test of whether your brakes are going to fade under heavy braking (my new Shimano Saint dual diameter, quad piston M810 brakes came through with shining colours!). The steep section ends with a very challenging rock drop that looks like it might have a rideable line somewhere, but none of us have yet made it down. Well to be honest, after Charlie took a flyer off the corner we have not been game to try it again!! From this section on down is my favourite piece of track!! It has a lot of flow, fun corners to pump in and out of, and roots and humps to pop over. The gradient is such you only need to brake a little and you end up flying down through the tunnel of trees until you suddenly pop out onto the Whafedale track again.
A quick trundle back to View Hill car park, and I was very happy to grab the big chunk of chocolate brownie that I had bought that morning from Seagars cafe and stuff it into my face, along with an apple and a bunch of potato chips! Seven and a half hours was almost a bit far for the first mission of the season, but all the fantastic downhill singletrack was definitely worth it. Tired but with big grins on our faces we all headed off home.