Saturday, September 10, 2011

I'm still alive.....

If I knew then what I know now.....
A bit like childbirth, you never quite know what you're in for, despite what people say, until it happens. Think Gary and Mr T thought the same - not the childbirth bit.....obviously!
Nothing could have prepared me for the scale of the challenge to ride off-road in the Pyrenees. Hindsight is of course always 20/20!
Fourteen fabulous guys in the group, each of whom had variously ridden; enduro, trials, motocross, road-bikes for decades and had many, many hours in the saddle. Some had raced, some had championship points or champion status and continue to do so.
To add a little extra excitement Si Melber, James Barnicoat (Barni) & Justin King (JK) of TBM, "THE" Dirt Bike magazine were also on the trip testing out enduro bikes. I felt very honoured. They also kept me sane and laughing on many an occasion with tales of badgers, going the wrong way round tests, bikes going over the finish line without riders! Teehee....fabulous!
So, for some-one with such little experience, to say I was a little daunted or perhaps concerned would be an understatement of the highest degree.
We stayed in a hotel at St. Palais in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques region of France, the forthcoming days were to be across almost 500km. The courtyard of the hotel was a veritable delight for the dirtbike enthusiast. The favoured machine, by far, was the 300, 2 stroke and KTM, the preferred manufacturer. There was also a Husaberg, Husky, TM and a couple of Hondas, including that of yours truly.
First activity (after breakfast) on day one, was a briefing, signing of various disclaimers and familiarization with a road-book. The road-book is basically a long list of very specific navigation instructions, which means that small groups of two or three can go off together with-out a guide. One of the unique characteristics of Chris' trips is the road-book, otherwise the group would only ever be as fast as the slowest rider and with me amongst the troupe that wouldn't be a good thing!!!. Day one was to take us over c 120km of varied terrain.
Before the off, an 'opener' goes out ahead of the first riders to ensure that no new hazards have appeared and that the route is passable. He also puts out tape for some of the tracks, so that they are visible.
There was an amazing amount of 'stuff' going on in the parc ferme prior to the off. Don't get me wrong, there are several important things to check, replace and maintain on one's bike, however observing the general goings on, one appeared to be having a re-build, minutes before the off!
Everyone then got armoured up and we were ready. First stop fuel and away we went.
The first track was just that, with a few loose stones, so far, so good. Some time later followed a gravelly ascent, quite steep. That was my first spill, a slow one, they generally are! Picked the bike up, it's lighter than the GasGas - not to mention the adrenalin that was flying around.
Then a few rocky ascents, one was very rocky, very steep and wet. Cripes!
Dropped the bike, well, fell off- can't remember how but I do recall possibly grabbing an unnecessary handful of throttle. Picked it up, not properly as I'd managed to wedge it on a rock. I did it though and all was well.
On I went and it was just getting tougher and tougher and tougher.........through a small wood, very pretty, logs, slippery......

Some time later:-

We approached a steep descent through some brambles and ferns which I remembered from the briefing. Sounds harmless enough! There were also sizeable tree roots, big rocks and a very steep descent next to the very narrow path. Albeit camouflaged by brambles. It crossed my mind that the chalk pit that I had 'mastered' near where we live was a mere hole in the grass by comparison!
Deep breath, focus, I can do this and gentle controlling of the bike.
All good until I hit a rock (looked at it - oop) and then got the bike firmly wedged in the brambles and ferns and also got my foot caught.
It was all at slow speed and made me giggle rather at quite how stuck I was. Giggling over, I freed my boot and then contemplated how on earth I was going to get back on the narrow track. At is happens, Mr T was just ahead and he came to the rescue and we manhandled the bike up and out.
The terrain then got muddier, rockier and more slippery. "If I can survive this, I can survive anything" I was thinking. I had Gloria Gaynor's 'I will survive' going through my mind at this point!
Further down the track I spotted a definite bike and rider sized indent in the undergrowth which later that evening I discovered had been Gary.

On day one the weather was a warm 28degrees, a lovely pleasant temperature however in full off-road regalia, one gets very hot indeed not to mention the glowing (actually full on sweating !!). Thank goodness for the camel backs and isotonics! Ruts, rocks, nice grassy tracks, breath back - pheww! Mr T commented later in the day that they were rather more boulders than rocks. Some were firm, some were of the unsteady moveable variety. One thing I knew for sure, if I hadn't spent time with Tamsin Jones at Black Desert Racing, I wouldn't have got even nearly as far as I did. I was powering over the rocks, specially on the ascents, just as she'd taught me. Thanks Tamsin!

This is by far one of the most extraordinarily challenging things that I have ever done.

What was incredibly inspiring and helpful was the phenomenal support and encouragement that I received from this amazing group of guys (lovely people and awesome, awesome riders). And of course Gary and Mr T without whom none of this would have happened (I may not even have left my room!). Thanks so much to each and everyone of you; Ian, John, Pat, Peter, Barry, Andy, Tim, Alex, Si, JK, Barni, John and Frederique & Seb (rather lovely looking, couldn't help noticing, local policeman in the drug squad).

The new bike, the Honda CRF250X, prepped by Martin Wittering of TorqueRacing was utterly superb, I trusted it completely and it did a brilliant job. Thanks Martin! Despite the rider error spills, I was secretly quite pleased that the bike now looked truly like a dirt bike that had seen some real action. The Pyrenees-Atlantiques is absolutely stunning and very hard; physically, mentally and geophysically!

It was unquestionably a baptism of fire, as JK commented, later that day. One particularly tricky descent, with boulders, shale and a large flat rock at the top, I approached too fast round a bend and had a massive wipe-out. The bruises will tell the tale for some time yet, on one knee the bruises appeared under the armour. Must have gone down with such a wallop that the knee armour did the bruising I suspect!

It was a long, long descent; rocky (okay boulders) and deeply rutted. Get it together girl! I went down at my own pace, walked the bike a bit and coasted other bits. The relief when I finally got to the bottom was something else.

I've always had the greatest respect and admiration for off-road riders, this has gone up exponentially! The terrain is harsh, dangerous and taken at speed. The combination of expertise, confidence and technical skill and a certain je ne sais quoi is awe-inspiring and utterly compelling.

To have achieved with-out serious injury some of the most difficult terrain I have ever encountered on a bike, I'm still surprising myself that I actually achieved what I did. As some-one said one evening 'it's a bit like one of us taking a few horse-riding lessons and going to Burghley'!

'Discretion is the better part of valour' and at the end of day one, I retired (many emotions ensued but that's another post). The terrain was getting harsher, steeper, wetter, faster, more dangerous and some of my awesome companions were finding it a tad challenging which spoke volumes.

I have gone way, way out of my comfort zone, faced the fear (there was quite a lot of that) and come out the other side. To date we have raised just shy of £7000 for GOSH and KidsCo and frankly what some of those kids go through on a daily basis and what I did just don't compare. Donations are still coming in (THANK YOU!), cheques had arrived in the post on getting home. An incredibly humbling experience.

Will I get on a bike again, do girls like shoes? Absolutely, I will.....however next time some-one says 'you're ready', I might just do a little further research.....

Over- exaggerating with the title "I'm still alive..."? This Pyrenees trip has been running for years and this is the first one not to have had a hospitalization. So, no broken ribs and a punctured lung, no leg broken in three places and the list goes on..... if full limb count is a definition of success, I'm doing okay!

Next time:-

Guest blogs from Gary and Mr T, more from Barry of Symprove (hugely exciting product) - sponsoring Johnnie Walker - watch this space - very, very exciting.

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