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London Calling

01 December 2008

by Laurence Mote

The London Cycle Show had taunted Ground Effect for a few years. Flippant remarks about mountain biking Wales or even making a break for the French Alps added recreational weight to the promotional argument for exhibiting at the show. Post 9/11 complications with slow delivery and a clumsy VAT collection process left us soft pedalling in the United Kingdom market - until about a year ago when we uncovered a freight solution that let us prepay the taxes. Delivery times quickly returned to less than a week and customers could be assured that there was no additional VAT or duty to pay. Our level of service once again matched the quality of the gear.

The Cycle Show was calling and the time was right to give Ground Effect a nudge in the UK. Cam, Ground Effect's erstwhile production boss, had embarked on the obligatory work-in-London gig last year. We cajoled him into helping out at the show in return for a whistlestop mountain bike tour of Bristol, South Wales and Yorkshire. His mountain bike had previously morphed into an airline ticket so after six months cold turkey in London he was primed to discover the local trails. Guy and I reserved a comfy section of floor in his Clapham flat and duly arrived in London early October - sample stock, helmet, pedals and toothbrush in hand.

After enduring the 24 hour non-stop flight we detoured to Ikea to purchase a few props for our display. Cruising the aisles, backtracking and hamming it up like a pocket of mincers in the Amazing Race we found ourselves at the cafeteria imbibing plates of Swedish meatballs - clearly the airline food habit is hard to kick. Our circadian endurance was further stretched that night with an ear bashing and several warm beers in the company of kiwi diva Ladyhawke.

London delighted us on many fronts. The colour, energy and abundance of fabulous food took us off guard. And the humble bicycle is everywhere. Extreme traffic congestion and ballooning fuel prices have made cycle commuting very popular with ten or more bikes often collecting at each set of traffic lights. This is all the more impressive given the generally unfavourable infrastructure. With rider numbers at 'Critical Mass' every day, it will be intriguing to see how cycle facilities and cycle culture evolve.

The Cycle Show was a blast. Chewing the fat with existing and new customers, plus talking shop with others in the trade. Despite - or perhaps because of - the recent implosion of global finance markets the industry was in a bullish mood. We were flat out for all four days and finished up with Louis Armstrong croaky voices and apent up need to spin our pedals.

Our first stop was Bath to visit friends at What Mountain Bike magazine who had generously offered us a trio of high-spec bikes requiring a few more miles to be clocked up. Then to Bristol to crash on yet another floor - this one belonging to Cass Gilbert, a hardened long distance cycle tourer who runs trips through northern India. Bristol is a cyclists' town. Home to Sustrans and the once anarchic stencil artist Banksy (his work now sells for serious money). 

Its hinterland is brimming with country lanes and the hillsides jammed with singletrack. Our local 'guides' Steve and Jez whipped us through the woods and back to the docks for bacon butties, tea and scones.

When quizzing Brits about mountain biking, all arrows pointed to South Wales and specifically Afan Forest Park. The riding there is very, very good. Only a couple of hours over the Severn suspension bridge, tucked up the end of a Welsh Valley is Glyncorrwg - a mining town until 1970 and now host to many a delighted mountain biker and puzzled local. The trails are only three years old but feel much more established and are of a decent length- no getting dizzy with confusing loops in a confined area. 

We blasted a couple of hours in the rain on Whites Level, beached at the Mountain Bike Centre café, then earned lunch after another couple of hours riding The Wall. The food was honest - in fact the helpings of lasagne were so oversize that we had to sleep them off before tackling the pub that night. The locals were hugely friendly, especially once our nationality was established and the conversation naturally turned to rugby.

We were keen to explore more of Wales but had a date in Yorkshire for a night ride and to return our bikes to their rightful tester. It took us most of the day to drive north to Harrogate and the welcome floor of Guy Kesteven. We arrived just in time to be issued with countless watts of LED lighting, a bag of haddock, vinegar 'n' chips and then be rushed off to rendezvous with the regular Thursday night riding crowd. There was a Brontë type feel as we climbed the Yorkshire Dales with a full moon and near frozen turf under our treads. I was willing neither Heathcliff nor Kate Bush to track us down. In typical British fashion, after a couple of hours we stopped for a pint in a quaint country pub before winding our way up hill and down dale with a final rocky descent to the car on the stroke of midnight. An honest night's toil capped off with more beer and cold pork pies in the carpark. Brilliant.

We sneaked a final ride the next morning with Guy. In daylight we were able to appreciate how beautiful thearea really is. Sensing our appreciation of Yorkshire pies, and they really are very good, we stopped at one of his favoured butchers for mid-ride refuelling. And all too quickly our meter had expired. Cam returned to his new profession as a landscape gardener to London's gentry. We were trussed up and sent hurtling back to New Zealand.

Mountain biking in Britain is much better than we had imagined. We met lots of great people and ate extremely well. True to reputation, it rains a lot. While in New Zealand we abstain from riding in the wet. In Britain that would somewhat restrict your riding opportunities. We got used to that and rediscovered the boyish pleasure of duelling in the mud. Next year we reckon on riding more of Wales and perhaps darting across the ditch to circumnavigate Mt Blanc - and of course show our wares at the Cycle Show once more.

Nitty Gritty