Mountain Bike - Swinley Forest

Posted: Sunday, 28 July 2013 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: ,

Sir Thomas Beecham is often cited as the originator of the quote, "Try everything once except incest and folk dancing." So with this in mind, I made my first ever visit to a proper mountain bike trail centre today. I was following an invitation to do a tour around Swinley Forest.
Should you have never heard of it, Ride Swinley have the following to say about the area:
Situated to the South-West of Windsor Great Park, Swinley Forest stretches from Bracknell in the north to Bagshot in the south.  It is owned and managed by the Crown Estate and comprises over 2600 acres of woodland and gently undulating hills.
The woods provide some of the best mountain biking in south-east England, with many off-road single track as well as extensive fire road.

The trails through Swinley Forest were originally created and maintained by a group of local enthusiasts known as the Swinley Action Group. In September 2012, the Crown Estates began to close the trails and implement their own designs, this has caused a lot of sour grapes, especially as the new trails were designed without any input from Swinley Action Group. This type of heavy handed behaviour goes against my libertarian outlook and smacked of overly sanitising a natural resource too. However, as some fellow RetroBikers wanted to give the new layout a go, I decided to join them and decide for myself.

Swinley Forest is in easy reach of London, probably little more than an hour by car from my home. But I really wanted a break from being in a car and decided to take the train. It's not an especially long distance to cover, but the branch line service from Clapham Junction to Martins Heron stops at every station which gets a bit tedious. From Martins Heron station it is just 5 or so minutes ride to The Lookout Discovery Centre where all the trails begin and end. 

It was a joy of being able to ride with experienced locals and just play "follow the leader", without any consideration of the route or need to refer to maps.
We started on the intermediate "blue" section, which seemed quite tricky at first, until you got into the flow of all those berms (another first for me). After an hour or so we had covered everything and it was mooted to move on to the expert level "red" sections. I was the only rider on a totally rigid bike, but not wanting to be a party pooper, immediately elected to give it a try. Some of these red sections were quite a technical challenge, narrow, steep, bumpy and twisty too. I took it all at a snail's pace and imagine I must have looked somewhat geriatric, but made it through without any involuntary dismounts.

RetroBikers at Swinley Forest

When we progressed back onto blue graded sections to return to the start it seemed so much easier than just an hour earlier and started to become fun rather than challenging. I can see how with practice and familiarity, the speed of both riding and crashing would begin to climb.

In conclusion, I was pleased to find that there are an excellent mix of trails at Swinley Forest, perfectly maintained and very professionally organised.  It is also unusual, in this day and age, to find a leisure venue that is effectively free too. Or perhaps the Crown Estates have already put up "Wanted" posters for the geriatric RetroBiker who failed to buy a ticket.

Mountain Bike - The Thames Path

Posted: Monday, 8 July 2013 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: ,


So the recent spell of swelteringly hot weather continues and today I had scheduled to do a rather long and exhausting ride, my plan was to investigate a new route for one of my "Urban RetroBike" rides following the River Thames.

I had an idea that it would be possible to find a suitable route from Greenwich, crossing to the North side of the River Thames, then heading East and following the river bank all the way out to Thurrock in Essex. I would then cross the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, using the free "bike taxi" service and returning to Greenwich along the Thames Path.

Phew what a scorcher

Due to the hot and sunny weather, I chose to leave after lunch, with the anticipation of riding long int the cool of evening. It was certainly a hot day, no doubt The Sun newspaper would choose the headline "Phew what a scorcher!" but a light breeze stopped me from feeling the force of the heat.

The route from my home in Purley to Greenwich is by now a familiar one and follows parts of the National Cycle Network Route 21 also marked up as "The WaterLink Way" at various points. This gets me from Croydon to Greenwich in just over an hour, following a variety of quiet roads suburban and gravel paths as they wend their way through the parks and recreation grounds of South London.

Here come the Germans
From the Cutty Sark at Greenwich, I followed the foot tunnel to get to Island Gardens on the North bank, annoyingly one of the lifts was out of order, so I had to descend the 100 or so steps with my bike on my shoulder, taking great care not to wipe out any of the multitudinous German tourists coming the other way, "alles sehr gut mein lieblings?"

Island Gardens, ExCel and the Emirates Air Line

Island Gardens is a lovely spot to pass an idle moment, but today there was no time to admire the view, from here you can follow the Northern section of the Thames Path towards Leamouth, it yields a few good vistas of Greenwich and the 02 Dome, but it is quite dismembered as it passes through various housing developments.

The O2 Dome - funky design

A quick 5 minute burst alongside the A1020 gets you to the ExCel Exhibition Centre. It is noteworthy as one terminus of the Emirates Air Line, London's only cable car system. Oh how I love cable cars, that hyperspace shortcut from the bottom to the top of the mountains, but sadly there are no mountains here, it simply crosses the River Thames to North Greenwich. It is worth noting that bikes are permitted to travel on a regular ticket, costing £4.30 for an adult.

The Emirates Air Line - London's only cable car

City Airport and the Thames Barrier

The ExCel Exhibition Centre is next door to the tiny London City Airport, a single strip of runway set between the Royal Albert and King George V docks. It even has a bike rack outside the main entrance, yes I have used it for a flight and yes my bike was even still there (and complete) upon my return 2 days later.
Next on my agenda was Thames Barrier Park in Silvertown, it is a pretty piece of landscaping in what is otherwise an utterly derelict area. There is a great view of the Thames Path itself, a flood defense system used in extreme surge tide conditions to save the low lying areas of London from inundation.

Thames Barrier Park - Silvertown

Beckton and the Dagenham Dustbins

From this point on the next section became a tale of unrelenting bleakness. I had to skirt around the Docklands Light Railway Depot, Beckton Gas and Sewerage Works following a dismal route alongside busy roads. I was hoping to see some interesting industrial archeology at the Ford Factory in Dagenham, now standing as a silent monument to a bygone age of British industry. But there is not much to see, just endless empty factory units and the odd scrap yard. Dagenham Dock must now rank as the UK's recycling centre, with giant facilities in all directions.

Sadly there is no respite from the monotony in the adjacent residential areas, only street after street of identikit social housing, originally built to serve the domestic needs of Henry Ford's serfs.

The Worst Pub in the World

I know how fellow RetroBikers like a rest stop or three, so I was keeping an eagle eye out for a suitable venue, but the venue I spotted would have rank as the worst pub in the World. Let me paint you a picture, imagine this... a 1970's concrete block house with a flat roof, a beer garden comprised of nothing more than tarmac with 2 tressel picnic tables and a pair of derelict caravans to the side. The clientele, sat soaking up the sun, comprised 3 middle aged obese skinheads, resplendent in "wife beater" string vests and baggy shorts. I am not making this up!
I was so very parched and a lovely cool beer would have been a welcome respite, but somehow I found the strength to keep going. I really wanted to take a picture, but I sincerely thought that the inmates, sorry, customers of the establishment might have "shooters" on them.

Rainham and Wenington

And then suddenly the urban sprawl ended and you find yourself in the charming village of Rainham, which would be quite a nice place to stop and have a beer. According to the maps, National Cycle Route 13 heads out onto Rainham Marshes Nature Reserve, but after checking the time I was shocked to find that it was nearly 6pm. I needed to keep rolling, I didn't want to be out in the wilds of Kent after sun down. So I made for the Wennington Road and followed the signs to the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge.

Queen Elizabeth II Bridge

Queen Elizabeth II Bridge Southbound

Before setting off, I had phoned the bridge operations room to confirm arrangements for crossing the bridge by bike. Their instructions were simple and proved to be correct. You follow London Road underneath the bridge and by the Ibis Hotel, you see Gates blocking an access road up to the bridge, there is a gap for cycles and you ride up the incline to the blue control room. Once there a phone is provided to contact bridge control, you explain the direction you're heading in and they send a van to pick you up. I hardly had time to snap a picture before the van turned up and we were off. It made a pleasant change to be making the journey in the passenger seat and be able to enjoy the views for once. 

Bike Taxi Service - completely free

Trapped in "The Village" and Dartford Salt Marshes

Back on the South side of the river I had the chance to consult the maps and take some more snaps, but with the sun ever heading lower towards the horizon it was soon time to get a move on once more. I wanted to find the path that runs alongside the river by Littlebrook Power Station, but after 10 minutes of futile effort I gave up and found myself in a new development called "The Bridge". Annoyingly it is planned with no through roads and once inside it is actually quite difficult to get out again. I began to feel more than a little like Paddy McGoohan in "The Prisoner", if a giant white inflatable ball had started to chase me I wouldn't have been at all surprised.
Eventually I found the way out and was able to pick up the Thames Path onto Dartford Salt Marshes, finally this was the sort of hard pack off road cycling I had been waiting for all day. The area is a delight and is worthy of further exploration.

Dartford Salt Marshes - the riding I had been waiting for all day

First pint of the day

The riverside Running Horses pub in Erith High Street provided me with the hard earned pint that I had been denied on the Essex side, it hardly touched the sides on the way down. I would have liked to lingered longer, but the sun was low on the horizon and to my surprise the Thames Path marker showed I had another 12 miles to go before Greenwich.

Erith Yatch Club - the sun was low on the horizon

Beer Skates

Thanks to my isotonic energy drink aka Fosters lager I had quite a boost and decided to make the most of it before my reserves were depleted. The Thames Path is a refined pavement surface running through Belvedere, Thamesmead and onto Woolwich. Around the Thames Barrier and Woolwich Ferry the route becomes broken up by a number of recent infrastructure improvements, so I cheated a little and skipped the section around the Greenwich peninsular, following the main road back to Greenwich. After this I just had the "easy" 12 mile run back to Purley to contend with.

Sunset over Essex

In Conclusion

I don't think that I would follow this route again, especially in the company of other bikers. Trying to follow the river Thames along the northern side is pretty much an impossible task.

Firstly, there are a number of minor tributaries that you have to cross, each one involves an energy sapping deviation to find a crossing point further "inland".
Secondly, there are too many industrial areas closed off behind giant fences dogs and angry guards.
And lastly, a new cross rail route is under construction, which, in addition to the current railway lines,  high speed rail links and trunk roads all serve to carve the area up into one giant soulless transport corridor.
As a result of the above factors you are forced to ride alongside busy roads for the best part of the route, with no respite till Rainham.

I had a few stops along the way, but the loop starting from Greenwich took the best part of 7 hours.

But, I will definitely run an Urban Retro Bike ride along the Thames Path from Greenwich to Dartford and back in the near future. Perhaps with a trip over/under the river to the North side for a quick excursion into Rainham Marshes Nature Reserve.

Telford Ski Centre - SkiBikes On Test

Posted: Saturday, 6 July 2013 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

Having spent the night at The Shakespeare Inn, Coalport, I arrived at Telford Ski Centre just after opening and set up my skibikes. Both resident instructors Richard and Duncan were quite excited and keen to have a go on them as soon as possible. After a single test run on the nursery slope, they both headed up the main slope to give the bike a go.

Telford Ski Centre

For Richard this was his first experience and bravely made a number of runs in a pair of shorts, you don't want to fall on Dendix at speed as you can get quite a bit of a rash, as I was to find out later.
Duncan had used a SnowScoot previously and took to the skibike like a duck to water, immediately preferring to ride standing on the pegs, Enduro style. Duncan commented that the balance skills needed reminded him of his instructor training where he had to ski on just one ski.

Image of an instructor freestyle skibiking at Telford Ski Centre
Richard skibiking in shorts - risky

Before long the first customers of the day arrived for an over 50s group session and the boys had to get back to work. Whilst this was taking place I was able to put in a few runs and get used to the feel of riding a skibike on Dendix. The system at Telford Ski Centre has water misting to keep the slope running smoothly and not melt the bases of skis. It is not as slippery as real snow, but the tipping point between grip and slip is progressive and in my humble opinion a whole league above the "modern" carpet systems being installed elsewhere. I even managed to get a few runs in on a pair of SnowBlades and soon began to "dial in" to the new medium.

Image of an instructor freestyle skibiking at Telford Ski Centre
Duncan - Enduro style

The over 50s group were due a coffee break, but one of the group wanted to have a go. With minimal instruction he made 3 runs from halfway down the slope to get used to controlling the skibike and then made an excellent run from the top.

Picture of the dry slope at Telford Ski Centre
A completely empty slope

There was somewhat of a lull afterwards which gave me the chance to put in a few runs on a completely empty slope. I put myself in the position of a complete numpty and went for a run from the top of the extension slope above the top of the drag, straight down the fall line, I picked up a lot more speed than I was expecting and almost ran off the end of the slope into the underbrush, but crashed as a result. Due to the heat, I was wearing a short sleeved top, the result, one bloodied forearm, ouch.
Still you have to find the limits.

Picture of a grazed forearm after crashing on Dendix matting
Numpty skibiker - finding the limits

Well overdue to return to London, I bade farewell to Telford and made the return home. But I will be back to Telford Ski Centre, mainly because they now have my 2 skibikes on evaluation for the next month.

Road Trip - IronBridge

Posted: Thursday, 4 July 2013 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

It has been hotter than a Jalapeno pepper for the last week and whilst sane folk head for the beach to cool off with a refreshing dip in the English Channel I am heading due North towards the historic town of IronBridge.
It is often quoted as the "Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution" mainly based on the idea that Abraham Darby perfected the technique of smelting iron with coke, in nearby Coalbrookdale, was the first place in the UK smelting cast iron.
The area became quite an industrial hotspot and nearby Madeley Wood (also know as Bedlam) rang to the sound of heavy engineering and the night sky was lit by the forges. It must have been a terrifying sight in 1801 when Philip James de Loutherbourg, painted Coalbrookdale by Night.

Image of the painting Coalbrookdale by Night, showing a blast furnace at night time.
Coalbrookdale by Night - a terrifying sight in 1801

I wonder what those engineers would have made of the skibikes sitting in the boot of the car? With their TIG welded aluminium frames from Taiwan, ski mounts from the USA and skis from Canada and the USA. Perhaps they might scoff that so much technological endeavor has gone into creating such toys.

Tomorrow, my playthings are getting an outing at Telford Ski Centre, one of the many dry ski slopes that are dotted about England, Wales and Scotland.
But the Telford Ski Centre is unusual for two reasons; firstly it is still using Dendix matting, one of the original dry slope surfaces, but most importantly it is the first ski centre in recent years that has been asking to try out skibikes and see how they fit in to the mix of sliding activities.