Wednesday, 26 November 2014
Thursday night is fatbike night. My night out on my own. The Scottish summer's late evening sunlit riding opportunities have passed for another year. To ride on a November evening is to gird yourself with onion layers of merino, lycra, Goretex. A headtorch precariously wrapped around the helmet. Mighty bright double beam lights on the handlebars, a veritable pair of arclights to cut the night ahead, and a flashing red bobtail behind. One minute to nine, daughter a-bed, dinner digested, dishes done, I roll down the gravel drive, fat tyres kicking out the stones that the neighbours and I so recently barrowed in and raked out. Pulling out onto the road and thankfully it's quiet at this hour, the tarmac ride a necessary evil to take me to the woods and trails. Four inch wide tyres thrum on the blacktop, fish out of water, not really meant for this environment, impatient for the soft, the wet, the yielding of the off-road world.
Crossing over the motorway bridge, I soar above lorries, vans, cars and even motorbikes (with smaller wheels than mine), then it's down the dip, across the first watercourse of the trip, and up the hill to Cambusbarron church. I look left at the junction, see the house where John Grierson, the father of the documentary, spent his childhood. The man who first turned real stories into reel stories, real to reel. Then it's past the pub (and incredulous voices from the smokers outside the door as they spot the size of my wheels and tyres) and then the primary school as I climb gradually towards the quarry gate, rolling by quiet cul-de-sacs, their houses with softly golden glowing windows. No one is out here except me, this winter evening world a largely indoor one.
As I approach the quarry gate, my lights pick out a constellation of reflections from stacks of stockpiled traffic cones, a shoal of silver flashes that slide left and right as my lights swing back and forth, and then past me in my journey's flow. No one's parked here. It looks like I have the place to myself. As I cross the threshold at the quarry gate, it feels like I'm escaping. But I am surrounded by aliens. Non-native, invasive Japanese knotweed dying back for winter on my right and snowberry to the left, it's crop of gleaming white berries like oyster pearls in the light cast sideways from my bike. And I know the small quarry just up on the left is infested with pernicious alien peri-peri burr, out of my sight for now.
I'm struck by how absolutely still it is tonight. Not a breath of a breeze, nor twitch of a leaf. Only the sound of my tyres on the small gravel of the path and the quiet roll of chain on gears and jockey wheels. And, behind me now, less than a mile back, the noise of many other tyres, the sound of the motorway like an constant low exhaling.
It isn't cold, not even cool but, with conditions this still, it must the light cloud cover that's preventing the temperature from plunging like an inappropriate neckline at a wake. I do see a few stars but even these slip from view for now as I enter the tunnel of trees. My headlights arc back and forth with my increased effort as the path's slope steepens, a little at first, then dramatically. I am forced down the gears, already on the small chain ring at the front but, pleasingly after months of riding nearly every day, still having a couple in reserve on the rear sprocket. This is the only serious climb of the night and I begin to leak a little sweat. I am overdressed for a steep climb but, soon enough, I reach the boulders blocking what was once a road for engined vehicles and, jinking past those obstacles, I reach the flat plateau of gravel into which the hanging valley of the upper quarry opens From here, it will be a pretty steady run down to the quarry plant and access road. As I pedal and freewheel across this dark plain, a moving cone of brightness, gravels crunching underwheel, I see the soft houselights of the hill farms gleaming off to my right, and flashes from headlights on cars negotiating the North Third road's bends, undulations and slopes.
Then... looking around with my headtorch, I see a different light, not illumination but two glowing points of my reflected torch, the eyes of something, I know not what at first but which resolves itself into a roe deer ahead of me, and which slips quickly and silently off to the scrub on the right. It's the first deer I have seen tonight but won't be the last.
The downhill run is pleasant recovery after the climb and, all too soon, after a little weaving to find the path and negotiate more bouldery roadblocks, I pass the tall and currently silent white tower of the batching plant and my wheels glide in relative smoothness onto the access road. During the day, huge trucks may trundle up and down here with dusty plumes and roaring diesel engines but, tonight, there's just me and my bike, its whirring freewheel and the road buzz from my fat tyres. Slipping past the old limekilns on the left now, steep enough downhill for me to need to brake, conscious of the large metal gate ahead, which I need to come down off the saddle to walk the bike past.
Another short steep downhill, now on the North Third road but only until I reach the bend by the river, where our ways will diverge. On the way down, I see a searchbeam of torchlight, obviously handheld from its movements, as someone from one of the farms up the hill goes about their business. Then, I reach the river and peel off left on the bend, across the wee bridge. I look down into the fast-flowing current as I cross, my headtorch a poor illuminator as the water seems to suck in the lightbeam, giving nothing back, an aquatic event horizon.
Off the bridge, I wheel into a huge black cavern of tall trees, and the only real muddy patch of the ride, then out into the open air. The farm track, one of my favourite sections of this ride, offers many possibilities. But not for tonight, the enticing delights of the North Third cliff and wood paths. Rather, my ride takes me straight on down towards the Swanswater Fishery. Before I reach the junction offering such choices, a gleam of eyes picked out ahead by my headtorch presages the passage across my path of two more roe deer, their crossing rather panicked by my rattling, whirring cone of light. The farm track is dry tonight and the usual mix of hard-packed earth, cobbly stones and hollows, not puddle-filled tonight. It makes for a slightly weaving, slightly downhill run as I try to find the smoothest line in the view allowed by my lights. And it is a pretty smooth ride, the four inch deep tyres playing give and take with holes, rocks, bumps and buffeting from the track. As I reach the first ponds of the fishery, the sound of rushing, gurgling water reaches me with an odd doppler effect as I pass over small streams draining through the site. On summer rides through here, the pond banks are dotted with silent sentinel anglers, in their own bubbles of focus and concentration. Not tonight. The lights in the windows of the scattered houses by the fishery provide the only other signs of human life.
All too quickly, I reach another tarmac road and the occasional four wheel drive flicks by, headlamps blazing and windows dark, heading home into the hills. Again, my time on the road is brief, although here, the closeness of the motorway, less than a couple of hundred metres away provides the dominant soundtrack as I sneak along to connect to the next section of path.
Through a farmyard and past the 'big hoose', the path bends down to the Bannockburn, its presence heard and felt in the dark, rather than seen. As I descend the narrow path, the temperature falls some degrees, into a nearly frosty pocket along the burn side. Glistening dew is not far from freezing, if that sky clears a little more. I need to cross the Bannockburn to reach the next stage of the ride, Tinker's Loan, and roll cautiously across the old, narrow and frankly crumbling stone bridge, not the greatest fun in the dark. Another tunnel of trees and a steady climb up Tinker's Loan, my lights filling the narrow space of the path, hedges and tree'd ceiling. A pair of wood pigeons explode from a tree above me, battering out through the branches, their staccato machine gun wing flaps, the percussion instruments of fear.
Winding steadily up, I cross the road that runs down to Gateside and catch an eyeful of the night-time Forth Valley laid out before me. Streetlights, house lights, floodlights, car headlights, beacons flash on pylons pinprick on the retinas before I dip into the Loan again, downhill now and then a final short climb up to the other end of this narrow and surely ancient way. I can smell cows and see on the right, at path's end, solid darker blocks in the darkness, betrayed by odour. Now it really is all downhill from here as I whizz, woohooing, down the Polmaise Road towards home. My tyres fling off the detritus of the offroad world, a shower of flashes flaring in front of my lights. I reach the motorway again and streetlights and the ride feels like it is already over, so I extend the magic a little longer by cutting through the community wood, scattering rabbits from the pathside verges and rousing a late night dog walker from his quiet thoughts. As we exchange hellos, I realise he's the first person I've seen since I passed the pub and that's the first word I've spoken since leaving the house... And then, I'm home.
What's so special about riding alone and off-road at night? Maybe it wouldn't be your thing but, in reflecting a little on my solo bike trip in the dark last Thursday night, I realised that it put my state of mind in a special place. The description that sprang to mind was... Mindfulness. According to Wikipedia, "Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment" It's all about being in the moment, observing, focussing on the now. And although it was a ride of only 50 minutes or so, not long by typical training ride standards, it felt longer in a good way, a flood of simple observations, awareness of my bike, my body, the environment I was passing through, and no conversation (until I was two minutes from home), leaving me feeling refreshed and relaxed. And all that on top of the physical exercise that was my original motivation.
P.S. What's a fatbike? This is mine!