Every Rut And Rock And Root

“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.”John F. Kennedy

I have done very little leisure cycling for several years. I ride upwards of forty miles a week for work and shopping, and the habit of fitting a few hours’ riding into the week simply for the pleasure of the exercise has got lost somewhere.

A part of the problem is that I haven’t had a mountain bike I liked for some time. My last good one, a 2015 Voodoo Bizango,1 pictured left, was stolen in 2019. I replaced it with the newer model during lockdown in 2020, but it was a dog of a bike: badly specced, twitchy, overspecialised and yet ponderous. It was richly praised2 on various websites, which is a testament to the power of a large corporation’s P.R., I suppose: it was a Halford’s brand. However, the previous bike – the one I lost to a bike thief – had been the same brand, and it had been a beauty, both robust and nimble, as well as versatile.

I am a sucker for a bargain, though, and the new Bizango was even more widely promoted3 and not, this time, just by dodgy, fly-by-night bloggers.4 I looked at the details a little more closely this time. The previous one had an internal bottom bracket and clunky Sram gearing, and the saddle and grips were unusable, so that I had to spend about a hundred more pounds just to make the bike rideable. The 2022 model has Shimano Deore gearing, the updated, single chainring version of the gearing on the late lamented first of my Bizangos. It also has a Deore bottom bracket and the saddle is pretty decent.

Interestingly, my search for Voodoo Bizango reviews5threw up an illuminating situation: the 2015 Bizango – the one I loved and lost – appears most frequently on the stolen-bikes.co.uk site, while there are dozens of the ropey orange-coloured later one for sale on Gumtree, Pinkbike and Shpock.com, whatever that may be. Coincidence? I thinks not, indeedy.

A couple of weeks ago, Halfords advertised a trade-in offer on their own brand bikes. I could have got more for it by selling privately, but I am not confident with ebay and all that stuff, so I took the unloved bike in, received a gift card and ordered the new model. I also ordered a dropper seat post – I’ve been meaning to try one for ages, and the prices have been coming down, so this seemed the time.

Originally, I was to have picked it up this Saturday, but I got a phone call on Thursday telling me they were understaffed, and asking for my forbearance and I got my new bike on Sunday. I rode it home and was a little uncertain, noticing a couple of snags. The cable for the dropper post was far too long, creating a potential noose to catch on branches. Worse, the rear brakes were out of line. When I got home, I tried reseating the rear wheel and centering the brakes, and I fiddled with the handlebar alignment: I don’t blame Halfords for that, as it’s one of those things you just have to fiddle with until you get it right. All the same, as I put the bike in the shed for the night, I had the uneasy feeling I might have, once again, bought a dud.

So, today, I rushed through my various household duties to make time to take the bike out and get a proper feel for it. I left the house at two and was still feeling quite uneasy as I got towards town. The seat post cable, in particular, bothered me, but the rear brakes were still rubbing.

In increasing irritation, I cut short my ride and headed into Halfords to have a whinge. In contrast with the chaos of Sunday, when a small gang of staff were struggling to cope with a horde of customers, it was quiet and peaceful, the cave-like building glowing with the light of a sunny day. I found Sean, who I think is the bikes manager, although they seem to keep their roles obscure, at the bike mechanics’ station and bent his ear for a minute. Sean is a calm character, and effective. By the time I’d run out of steam, he’d sorted out the brakes and was ready to discuss when he could refit the dropper post. As a temporary measure, he folded the loose cable back on itself and tied it with a cable tie. I felt stupid for not having thought of that. He also helped me to get my handlebars sorted out and revived my enthusiasm for going for a ride. By the time I left, I was full of a renewed sense of well-being.

The weather was hot and bright, fairly windy with scattered cloud. I hauled through the Carisbrooke housing estate and turned up the Carisbrooke Road. I had thought to go left at the Castle turning, up over the Castle hill and out to the bridle paths that climb around the hills towards Brightstone Forest. The bike was feeling better though, as if I’d found my fit, and I wanted to get off-road quicker, so I climbed the hill through Carisbrooke, over the horrible Forest Road roundabout, to Nodgham Lane. It’s a hard climb, but the bike is so light and easy that I was quite fresh as I turned off the paved road on to the Tennyson Trail.

The path up to the down is a beautiful, rough, technical climb. Over the years, I’ve done it on full suspension bikes, hard tails, cheap bikes and high-end bikes, but I don’t remember enjoying it more than I did today. I was using my SPD trail pedals and had the mechanism set tighter than I like for off-road riding, so I was a little worried that if I needed to put my foot down fast I would just topple over, my feet still locked into my pedals. It’s a long time since I’ve done that.

Instead, I seemed to be able to find the perfect peddle turn with every stroke, judging the pressure I needed to use for each rut and rock and root. I realised, after having read a hundred bike ‘reviews’ over the last month or so, what a well-balanced bike feels like: I felt the ground through the bike, and found my way forward as an instinctive action. Cycling journalism might seem as though it’s splitting hairs for the sake of finding something to say, but it’s rooted in some real experience.

The path, for its first half-mile, steep climb, is thickly hedged on both sides, often with high banks enclosing it. It is one of the deeply channelled paths that are common on the Island. Eventually, the left hand side clears and the path emerges into the edge of a bank of meadow flower, overlooking the valley across to Carisbrooke Castle. The path levels out here, and I was able to catch my breath and snap up a couple of gears, gaining speed. The gearing is not as smooth as my old 3 x 9 Deore setup, and that may be because it has a clutch on it, to stop chain slap, or it may be because the single chain-ring, with such a wide gear ratio on the rear cassette, forces the chain to make much higher jumps across a much tighter space. However, the range of gears was definitely much, much more comfortable than the orange Bizango.

I was beginning to really push the bike. The path runs through more hedged banks, but is wider here, and undulates between gentle descents and moderate climbs. We’ve had a quite dry summer and the ground was hard and the suspension fork, being new, was transmitting a fair bit of judder into my arms. It’s not the cheapest of forks, but it’s only air sprung in one leg, so there’s a coil that will take a few hundred miles to bed in and become properly supple. However, I didn’t feel that the wheel was bouncing unduly. Suntour fork though it is, it was doing a decent job of keeping the front wheel in contact with the track. I would like to buy a better fork, but I’m not sure it’s a financial priority, and the fork on my much missed first Bizango was also a Suntour Raidon which, in time, became softer and more biddable.

I came to a gate at a crossroads of two bridle paths: the one I was riding – Down Lane – crosses the one that goes to the South, down towards Gatcombe and to the North drops down to the Calbourne Road. I have never turned off here, as I usually continue on to Brightstone, at least, but the path to the right, towards Calbourne, was looking beautiful. I turned right, nearly tipping over as I hit the steep slope up onto the other path, then climbed the steep path to the highpoint shown on the map here: 134m elevation.

Here, I stopped. I’m going to embed the video I took, crap audio and all, because it captures the sense of excitement I was feeling, as evidenced by my incoherent jabbering.

What I’m babbling about is the sight of a bird of prey, plausibly either a buzzard or a red kite, having just floated over me, circling around, checking me out, before it disappeared over the edge of the down. The sun was hot on my skin, the dust blowing in the stiff wind, and I felt as I haven’t felt for many, many years. It’s the feeling that cycling first gave me when I got back into it as an adult, about fifteen years ago, and which I had allowed myself to forget, in all the struggle to keep life going, to do my best at it, to be a grown up. It’s the feeling of what it felt like to be a child: happy, excited, engaged with the moment, in love with life.

It felt like being ten again.

The hill down to the Calbourne Road was insanely steep, and I rode my rear brake for most of it. Nevertheless, I felt in control. It was brilliant to discover that what poor mountain biking skills I had ever had weren’t entirely lost. At the road, I had the choice of heading back towards Carisbrooke on tarmac or hauling myself up that steep hill to head home via the off road route.

No contest. It was a hell of a climb, but I made it, without running out of gears, and reached the peak with some strength still in my legs. When I got back to the gate, I stopped for a drink – I don’t have a camelback at the moment nor does the new bike have a bottle cage fitted, so I had to take off my backpack to get one of my water bottles out, but the rest was welcome. Then, it was back along the Down Lane, heading downhill this time, for a long, bouncing, mile-long descent. The dropper post did its job perfectly: it’s easy to push the seat down with your weight and then stand up on the peddles, and with the saddle out of the way, peddling while standing is much easier. Where the way ahead was clear, I hammered it, but I had to slow where the path wound out of sight, in case of walkers coming the other way. I met no one, though, and made it back to Carisbrooke Road feeling like one of the Athertons.

It was a day of days. A fine way to spend a couple of hours. I will DEFINITELY be doing that again, very soon.

  1. https://danceswithcats.net/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/2015-Voodoo-Bizango.jpg []
  2. https://www.bikeradar.com/reviews/bikes/mountain-bikes/voodoo-bizango-29er-2018-review []
  3. https://www.mbr.co.uk/reviews/hardtail/voodoo-bizango []
  4. https://montainbikesinfo.blogspot.com/2020/02/voodoo-bizango-29er-mountain-bike.html []
  5. https://duckduckgo.com/?q=voodoo+bizango+2019&t=newext&atb=v326-1&iax=images&ia=images []

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