Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Leaving the tarmac behind - what to expect off road.

I often cycle with a friend of mine, both of us on touring bikes, but recently his is showing signs of becoming an off-road cyclist.

The first occasion was last spring, on a cycle tour through Wales. There was a particular section of the Lon Las Cymru that was most definitely off road - so much so it broke a spoke. It was hard but he came out smiling.

Second, he bought a GPS, so I showed him how to put OpenStreetMap on his Garmin and how to find and record new routes, and also told him about the odd but fun activity known as Geocaching. The next thing I know, he and his daughter have been conquering the local fields to pillage the treasure, and of course, putting something else back instead.

The week after, we went for a ride, on our touring bikes from Cottenham towards Ely, and somewhere in the middle of nowhere we are picking up speed down a hill when the brakes are heavily applied.

Me: What's up ? Is something broken ?
D: We missed a turn.
Me: Err, what turn ? I didn't see one. <scratches head>
D: The one back there marked on my GPS.

We doubled back and what was the turn was someone's driveway with a finger post pointing down it.

Me: Ah, that's a footpath.
D: Brilliant, lets take it.

D sensed my lack of enthusiasm, but I could see his and reluctantly followed.

This, was a short cut to a road on the other side of the field (apparently). In typical Fenland style, this was actually a footpath down the side of an arable field with no obvious sign of recent use. D was enjoying his new found sense of adventure even though it was bumpy and we were cycling at walking pace. I have a full suspension mountain bike at home, and for good reason. I nearly whooped for joy when he gave up after 400 metres.

It was at this point that I realised that there are a lot of people who have never ventured off road on a bicycle. So, lets cut to the chase.

What is offroad cycling like around Cambridge ?

It's a great way to see more countryside.

This isn't Wainwright country so get over the lack of hills. After a while the landscape does become interesting for different reasons. The furrows, the crops, the farm buildings and machinery, the skies and the bird song.

Away from the cars.

I don't like riding with cars buzzing past all the time. The National Cycle Network and back roads help, but a bridleway can't be beat for lack of cars. You only have to share with horses, walkers and the odd tractor.

I have a route home from Cambridge, 37km and about 50% off road. I hardly see a car for one and a half hours.

Getting away from the crowds.

People keep telling me that the East and South East of England is crowded. On a bicycle, you really can get to places where you cannot see anyone else for miles. They probably are there but you cannot see them. These uncrowded places are away from villages and beyond the distances that dog walkers get to.

Off-roading is hard work.

There's a good reason we have roads - that smooth surface makes for easy fast journeys. Once offroad, the surfaces you come across can be so variable. They will often change through out the year depending on the weather. All non tarmac surfaces add resistance and that is going to slow you down.

The Fenland soil has some extremely sticky mud and it can be every bit as punishing as a mountain incline. I sometimes use a heart rate monitor, and can remember a day in the mud, on the flat feeling truly exhausted. I was doing 6km/h with a heart rate of 160bpm. That's running pace effort to go walking pace.

Its Bumpy

There's nothing like a smooth hard packed mud route, but often bridleways are full of lumpy mud. Each bump deflects your bike upwards, causing you discomfort and saps your speed. Big fat tyres can really help you to go faster. I typically run 2.1 tyres at 30 psi as they roll over bumps easier and provide more comfort. Suspension helps too but it's not always necessary.

Best case, I can average 24km/h on a 50% offroad route. It is extremely hard work however. 10-15km/h average is more typical and more fun.

Where can you go ?

You can go most places on a bicycle. Bridleways and Byways are what you should be searching for. Footpaths cannot be legally used whilst riding, but can be useful links to other routes. Often they will have styles which even if pushing, it can be a pain to keep lifting your bike.

Quite often in the Fens you see a footpath that is wide and obviously used by tractors. There doesn't seem to be a logical reason to not allow cycles. Personally, I cycle these so long as it is safe, and not busy.

Expect punctures.

Make sure you can fix a puncture before getting too remote. I have watched someone get four punctures on one ride. I have also snapped a valve core whilst pumping up so a spare tube is also advisable.

Its always takes longer than you think.

You never quite know how long an offroad route is going to take but it will always take longer than you think. It could be puncture, blocked route, mud, or getting lost.

If you need to get somewhere in a hurry, it is always quicker by road.

It's rewarding

The hardship and ups and downs of cycling offroad can really make for a great adventure that feels so rewarding. Its great fun - get yourself a map and go exploring. Most of this green and pleasant land has not been covered in tarmac.


  1. Good advice, I always carry two spare inner tubes, tyre patches, tyre levers, a pump, multi-tool, zip ties, money and a phone (and lights 'cos it is easy to get delayed). It is also worth checking the pump every now and then as they can rattle apart. You should also check bolts for tightness otherwise bits can fall off en-route. As happened to me over the weekend - er twice.

    I also plan a mix of off-road and on-road the first time I try out a new route - just in case it is really hard work on the off-road.

  2. Ah yes, all those vibrations are a bit testing on equipment. Last time I heard a rattle and ignored it my rear rack top bolts came off and all my worldly possessions (we were on a cycle camping tour) were being dragged along the floor. I thanked my lucky stars that this had not happened 30 minutes earlier whilst descending at 70km/h (40mph) !

    The time when I snapped a valve core, I called for rescue to avoid a 5 mile walk home. For some reason I decided that it would be fine to walk my bike one three quarter mile junction of the A14. Aaaaarg, all those HGV's thundering past, never again. And what a lot of plastic bottles with yellow liquid in them.