Feeling the effects of Gravity
I've always had difficulty with the expression it's just like riding a bike.
What people are really saying is that riding a bike is easy and once you learn it you'll never forget.
What's missing is that once you have the basics down there's still plenty of room to keep learning. Nowhere is this more true than mountain biking.
Alistair Matthew spent 18 years helping people safely negotiate the "World's Most Dangerous Road" in Bolivia so he's well placed to offer something similar here albeit on much less perilous tracks.
Through his bike business, Gravity Nelson, Matthew is offering beginner and intermediate level orientation rides on some of Nelson's huge network of tracks.
Matthew says the aim of Gravity Nelson's rides is two-fold. For riders visiting Nelson the orientation ride helps put the trails in an area in "context", both in terms of where they are located and how they link together, but also finding the rides suited to their ability and the time that they've got.
For locals its an opportunity to break out of a riding rut - as in mental not deep grooves in the track - and learn a bit more about the trails are the logical progression of their current level, where they are, and a bit about the key challenges or cruxes on them, and how to overcome them.
The other side of it is confidence.
Matthew says all too often riders who stray on to a track that's too advanced and get their confidence rocked, then retreat to familiar trails and don't dare stray or explore again.
However, much of the thrill in mountain biking is conquering challenges and progressing, riding the same trails again and again severely limits that thrill. As Matthew puts it, a lot of mountain bikers are prepared to invest heavily in their bikes, but overlook investing anything in themselves, the development of their own mental and physical capabilities as a rider.
When I learnt to ride I didn't find it easy. I didn't have training wheels though and maybe that's why the process cost me a bit of skin.
Now in mountain biking terms I'm firmly in the weekend hack category with survival the priority and not a lot of skill on display. So as most of my school reports said – room for improvement and no room for complacency.
So one sunny Thursday afternoon I hooked up with Matthew and his crew from Gravity.
Matthew runs a fleet of high-end Santa Cruz rental bikes. Compared to my own bike, riding one of these is like swapping my modest four-door Japanese sedan for a race tuned performance four-wheel-drive.
Maybe that's exaggerating a little but these bikes do fill you with a fair bit of confidence. Before you set out Gravity's bike mechanic Ben sets up the bike to suit your height and weight.
From Gravity's base in the centre of Nelson to the start of Codgers mountain bike park is a gentle flat 4 kilometre spin, which is a useful way to warm up your legs.
The Codgers park starts with a moderate climb that splits into two options - a steep grunt up a tight set of switchbacks or a slightly easier option of taking Pipeline to Jacks Track which oscillates gently up to a four-wheel-drive track called Middle Road which then rises to a skid site. No real challenges there. However it was helpful to get some body position and gearing advice about how to take some of the sting out of the steeper bits.
The skid site is a hub of sorts which splits off into four trails and two dirt roads. Only three of the trail heads are marked, and Matthew points out how confusing it could be for a first timer to the area to figure out which of the trails is best for them. IV line, Firball, Hulk'n Hogan or Turners which are all blue or intermediate trails, actually have quite different "temperaments"
We opt for Turners, a trail I have tried a long time ago but needed to walk some parts. Matthew talked us through the track so there was no surprises. Importantly he stressed the need to take it slow and not to be too psyched out by the need to stop and check something out, or even walk a section.
One of Matthew's key philosophies is that there's no rush, the first time down a trail is almost always challenging, it takes three or four rides to get familiar enough with it to be comfortable. In fact if the first time down a trail is not challenging, then it probably isn't the right one to do to progress your skills.
He leads by example from the front stopping before the worst obstacles to break them down and de-mystify them. By stopping and taking the time to look at the trail, you learn how to pick the best line down, and even if it takes two or three cracks thats usually enough to conquer that the one feature that otherwise could derail the ride, or knock your confidence.
At the bottom of Turners is another hub of sorts and a short, brutish grind up Take Me to Your Leader's tight series of switchbacks to another skid site and a short gentle gravel road climb back to the start of Turners. Matthew talked us through how to link from these skid sites to other trails as again, the existing signage was cryptic for the uninitiated.
From there we take Hulk'n Hogan (which is unsignposted) on to Lower Firball and back to the start.
These tracks are a blast. A fine mix of swoop and fast turns and enough expertly built small knuckle jumps that reward the bold but don't punish misplaced confidence. The combination of some new found confidence from conquering Turners, some of Matthew's hints and tips, and getting to know my rental bike saw me thoroughly enjoy the playful nature of this trail.
I liken it to the first coffee of the day. You wouldn't call it a rush but it gives me the feeling that life is full of possibility, and that nothing is out of reach.
I'd say that just about sums up how a couple of hours with Gravity Nelson left me feeling about my mountain biking.