Emmet McElhatton experiences the euphoric buzz of mountain biking in the Sperrins
I can’t quite put my finger on the forces which brought me to this point in my life, a point where buying a mountain bike (MTB) and catapulting myself down the twisting trails of Davagh Forest seems like the only answer to some elusive question… but here I am.
About a month ago – in what I’m attributing to some kind of quarter-life crisis – I took a notion that I should give downhill mountain biking a go.
I was sitting in the house, comfortable but bored, when I was overcome by a not entirely-unfamiliar feeling of restlessness. A kind of mild melancholy born of the niggling thought that, here I am, with a single life to live and I am failing to suck the marrow out of it.
Perturbed by the idea that I was only living a half life, but unsure what to do about it, I mindlessly stumbled upon a video of some lunatic mountain biker hurtling down an alpine trail, cutting between trees and rocks, only balance and instinct preventing him from meeting a skull-opening end.
“I bet he hasn’t time to worry about whether he’s living life to the max,” I thought to myself. “No time for existential angst when you’re flying face-first down the side of a mountain.”
This thought took hold.
“Have I stumbled upon the remedy to my woes?” I mused…
A few days later, I consulted a friend who has been recreationally dicing with death for a few years, and calmly informed him that I had discovered a void within myself,one which I thought could only be filled with a mix of muck and adrenaline.
He looked at me, his initial expression of understanding degenerating into an inscrutable grin.
Tentatively, I agreed to go with him to the local bike shop.
Now, I know nothing aboutbikes, bar that some come fitted with seats so uncompromisingly streamlined that it’s hard to tell whether they should be sat on or used to extract information from terrorists.
However, my friend is a bike geek. I felt confident that his nerdy expertise would more than compensate for my cluelessness, and ensure that I wasn’t to be ripped off by some oily bike salesman.
But it turns out – rather counter-intuitively – that the worst person to go bike shopping with is a bike geek. We weren’t in the shop five minutes before I was wishing I’d left him at home.
As soon as we entered, my associate began conversing in some mutant biker-language with a young, spotty-faced assistant. Then, before I had time to object, the two of them made it their mission that I would sit on every single bike before I left the shop.
Like a child in the changing rooms, I stood feeling like an object as their voices overlapped in perfectly condescending parental harmony.
“Try this one.” “Oh, that one would suit him.” “No, that’s far too big for him!”
Flustered by the sheer number of bikes I was being made mount, and embarrassed by the repetitiveness of my analysis of ‘how it felt’ sitting on said bikes, I cracked.
“This is the one!” I barked, with frayed finality. The bike I had ‘chosen’ (submitted to) was an electric blue Trek.
We left the shop, my friend with the big stupid ‘well-that-went-well’ smile on his face, me sporting a stony ‘that’ll-never-happen-again’ frown.
“Fancy heading up to Davagh then?” he said, oblivious to the danger he was still in.
Davagh is a forest park that sits roughly between Greencastle, Cookstown and Draperstown.
It is a leisurely 40-minute drive from Omagh; the spin served as the perfect coolant for my mercurial mood.
The further outside Omagh we got, the more the land – and I – began to breathe, as main roads gave way to back roads, like thick veins branching into narrow capillaries. Soon we were in the heart of the Sperrins, rolling smoothly over Greencastle’s hills, just me, my friend, and the only tune the lack of signal would afford us; Bob Dylan’s ‘Jokerman’.
We arrived in Davagh and started changing; my friend laboriously wrestled his way into his head-to-toe MTB costume. Meanwhile, I put on my helmet.
“On your bike then,” came what I would wager is the MTB community’s darling pun, and away we went.
Davagh has 7km of green trails, 3.5km of blue trails and 16km of red trails.
These colours represent different difficulties. The gradation goes from beginner (green) to not-wise (orange).
Red is described as suitable for ‘proficient mountain bikers with good off-road riding skills. Suitable for better quality off-road mountain bikes’.
At first I campaigned for the greens, but after having the whole expedition reframed as a test of one’s courage and mental fortitude, I – somewhat ironically – acquiesced to my friend’s wish to ‘ride the reds’.
We cruised along the smooth tarmac road for half-a-mile before reaching the foot of the trail. We began our ascent.
At first, the gradient is forgiving, then the mountain begins to hint at what is to come. Jutting rocks start to intrude upon your path.
Then, all of a sudden, the mountain gets fed up playing coy, and your front tyre begins losing touch with increasing frequency as the incline gets steeper and steeper.
If you aren’t particularly fit, you’ll struggle to get to the summit of the trail without dismounting.
You don’t have to be an iron man, but you’ll want a decent fitnessbase.
Without it, you’ll do a fair bit of pushing.
But whether you get to the top in one quad-burning, lung-busting sitting, or have to get on and off a thousand times, is immaterial once you reach the zenith.
At that stage, you’ve got what you came for… and, boy, is it worth it!
As soon as you take off, you realise a successful, cope-free rideis going to require total concentration.
The trail is narrow; loose stones cause the tyres to slip and primordial rocks give you reason to swerve. At one point I had to slam the brakes as I noticed – just in the nick of time – that the track gave way to a four-foot drop! Quite quickly, it gets quite hairy, but in an exhilarating, self-losing way.
For most of the trail, you can’t really tell where in the mountains you are.
Cloistered within the dense thickets which line the corridor of dirt and rock, there is no visual reference for where you sit within the sprawling Sperrins.
Then, all of a sudden, as you breathlessly beat down the track, the tunnel opens up and you become part of the great expanse, abounding in all its majesty (pictured). At this point, choosing not to blaspheme is simply not an option.
Exercise’s endorphins mix with jeopardy’s adrenaline to form some spectacular chemical cocktail that opens you up to the awe and peace of your ancient surroundings. You’re alive!
Barriers break down and boundaries blur, as the film that separates self and world fades into a warm, familiar fuzz.
I’ve never felt so porous. It was magic!
We stood for ten minutes soaking up this narcotic sensation before slaloming down the rest of the trail, narrowly avoiding a few trees, cautiously declining a couple of jumps and, fortunately,reaching base unscathed and euphoric.
I’m not saying mountain biking is the medicine to cure all life’s ills, but I’ll tell you this much; all thoughts unwelcome evaporated for the time I was on the mountain.
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