Ride report

The following is Jez Turner’s view after we went for a ride with an earlier Cleland prototype – the AventuraTT.

No photos, unfortunately…

I’m trying hard not to come across like the world-weary Blackadder as I roll my eyes heavenward and ask, “Why?” Geoff Apps never lets me down. In the best tradition of the eccentric inventor, his workshop has the feel of constant work in progress. There’s always something new to see, something to stimulate the imagination, something demanding the ultimate question.

On this occasion it’s the monster wheel hanging in the middle of the workshop that’s impossible to ignore. Geoff seems pleased I’ve asked about it, in an understated kind of way. He explains that this wheel, which would look more at home on a horse-drawn ceremonial gun carriage than fitted to a bicycle, is a 31er. He’s picked up the slender rim and ludicrously chunky tyre from some typically unlikely corner of the world, and I sense that ‘bigger wheels’ is Geoff’s new baby.

He’s asked me to spend a couple of days riding two very different types of terrain, with our two very different bikes; the rolling hills and woodland of Berwickshire and the trail centre at Innerleithen, one of the famous ‘7 Stanes’. We’ll observe the different characteristics of the machines, and I’ll write-up my evaluation of the AventuraTT prototype, telling it like it is, good, bad or indifferent.

Or just different.

A quick word about me; biking off-road since the early 1980’s, riding a 50-mile epic on a Grifter, before my mum bought me a Dawes Ranger in 1984 which, after a lot of modification, saw six years of serious action, including the now legendary Garburn pass in the Lake District and over High Street. I’ve since owned a couple of generations of Marin and I’m now on a Specialized Stumpjumper with heavy-duty rims; my attempts at riding the un-rideable have put paid to a few ‘trail’ wheels. I’ve ridden every inch of the 7 Stanes; Geoff thinks that riding the AventuraTT over a well-known route will set a benchmark for testing its relative performance that many mountain bikers would recognise.

We catch up over a few cups of tea and load the bikes onto the back of my car. Either I need to do some muscle-building, or the Aventura is sort-of ‘on the heavy side’. Let’s face facts ~ it’s both. That’s not meant as any disrespect to the bike – it is simply the truth; Geoff likes to get at the truth, and then we’re off to ride his local playground.

As usual; anything to do with Geoff and riding, there’s mud.

That’s an understatement.

And so is that.

Am I meant to be riding a couple of grand’s worth of shiny technology through all this? Geoff pootles off through the mire, I mutter a couple obscenities and set off after him. Can I hack through without putting a foot down? Here’s the first point of note: Geoff is making my least favourite terrain look a doddle. In fact, it’s quite infuriating to watch him sail through the gloop while I struggle to keep moving. This is Aventura country.

Years of off-road cycling has convinced me that there are essentially two types of mud: sticky and splatty. Either way, I consider mudguards essential, so does Geoff. His AventuraTT has no derailleur system to clog; Chainchoobz and front mudguard extension ensure the transmission stays clean. Those 29″ wheels, shod with sturdy downhill tyres and motorcycle inner tubes, run at unusually low pressure, are providing faultless traction. Geoff mentions at this point that we’ve taken the less-muddy route.

We leave the quagmire and shoot off into the trees. Climbing gradually on a trail that’s only just discernible, I get more into the swing of it. This is beautiful country; undulating woodland of deciduous and evergreen, orange and yellow leaves fluttering down through the damp autumn air are building up a carpet, concealing the mud, and other stuff. We’re on a trail that has gradually evolved, largely the fruits of Geoff’s imagination and hard work.

I’m enjoying the ride on my Stumpy but it’s time to put the Aventura through its paces.

Now this is slightly embarrassing. Owing mainly to the high bottom bracket and handlebars, mounting the Aventura is not what I’m used to and I make a couple of false starts. Geoff advises me to step through the frame with brakes on, and launch off from a standing position. Making this look easy takes a bit of practice – you could say it’s not like riding a bike. I get going, and straightaway I’m smiling to myself. Beaming probably.

The immediate impression is one of height. I’m sitting almost upright and there is hardly any weight on my wrists, poised comfortably in front of me. The transmission feels different to any other bike I’ve ridden, incredibly smooth, everything feels tight, nothing rattles or flaps. There is no ‘click-click-click’ when freewheeling. The closest thing I can liken it to is turning one of those handles that open or close high-quality sky-lights. I like my gears low (I run a 22 to 34 bottom gear) but 1st on the AventuraTT gives it a new meaning. Geoff recommends using 2nd or 3rd, I ignore him for a bit before discovering he’s got a point.

I’m not just riding comfortably, I’m riding sedately. The more upright I sit, the more right it feels. I’m reminded of Victorian drawings of gentlemen riding various pedalled contraptions, frequently sporting a monocle and impressive moustache. We ride over brush wood, I clear small fallen trees with ease, skim over wet tree roots (the enemy of the mountain biker) and it’s almost relaxing. I find that when the turns in the trail are particularly tight, I need to develop a technique to prevent my knees touching the bars.

A seriously tricky section of our trail is real test. A couple of humps with a deep trough between them throw me off-balance as I struggle to lift the front end through the obstacle. I attempt to ride back up the steep section of trail and the traction and low gearing of the AventuraTT comes into its own. A couple more attempts and I’ve mastered the humps and a very tight, muddy turn on a steep adverse camber that I was finding it hard not to slip on. I decide to solve the same trail problem on my Stumpy. I get a bit of a run up and climb the bank. Using an on/off braking technique and taking the trail slowly and carefully I clear the section without a hitch. I’ve used a different technique on each bike. I feel that the Stumpjumper is easier to handle than the Aventura in certain tight situations. The light weight of the mountain bike is unquestionably a factor, but probably more important is my familiarity with the bike. Heavy is NOT an integral part of the Cleland philosophy, (although the momentum produced can work in the rider’s favour in some situations) it is just that this prototype utilises many stock parts (free-ride frame, commuter gears, roller brakes etc) never designed with low weight in mind.

We arrive at a steep, short uphill, but the run-up is oblique with a wet rock blocking the start. On the Cleland I lose control and crash in a controlled manner. This isn’t going to beat me; I try again. Still can’t get over the rock and start the climb in one fluid move. Now, try this on my familiar steed. Second gear engaged; I get what run up I can, pull the front wheel up over the rock and keep pedalling, it wasn’t even difficult. Geoff gives it a go, but he can’t clear the blinkin’ thing either. Observing from the side, I wonder if the Aventura’s high bars are a disadvantage here. It’s so steep that there doesn’t seem to be anywhere for the rider to position himself. This is a shame, despite the Aventura’s extra weight; it has been outperforming my mountain bike on steep climbs. My Stumpy’s suspension is probably a factor but the exact reason is, of course, difficult to ascertain.

The trail becomes increasingly interesting. Geoff observes that I’m barely leaving the saddle, tackling virtually everything seated, which feels just right. However, I take Geoff’s advice and shift my weight more. I try to assess how much of the smooth feel of the bike might be down to the EggRings and Haworth Swing Pedals; returning to my own bike, I realize there is certainly a difference and I’m inclined to accept that they make a superior design.

Back on the AventuraTT again, Geoff seems to glide up the steep sections and I’ve got twenty years on him. Eventually we descend the crest of a small ridge before a sudden steep and technical mini-slalom through the trees brings us to the end of the ride. Geoff’s takes a dab on the last bit, involving a muddy adverse turn on a very steep bank; I’ve cleared it first time on my Stumpy, I want to see if I can do it on the Aventura. Again, it’s riding back up by another route that is a joy. The descent is awesome, until that bank again and I can’t seem to take it slowly and stop the rear wheel from sliding away. In the end it was more the fading light than the bank that beat us.

End of a great day.

I’ll state the obvious: mountain bike design has come a long way in the last twenty-five years. Despite many still swearing by hard-tails and recent fads for fully rigid and single-speed bikes, I think it would be generally agreed that the most significant change in design has been suspension. Even in my days of riding in the south-east, I felt that suspension, on the front at least, was the way forward. Clelands have always used tyres with particularly thick sidewalls that don’t collapse using very low pressure; they are a feature of the design. Not only is the traction great, they also provide a degree of suspension.

“Time for some real mountain biking,” says Geoff – tongue firmly in cheek – as a couple of ‘real’ mountain bikers shoot into the Innerleithen Trailhead car park and skid impressively to a stop. They are plastered from head to toe in mud. Doesn’t all that mud get in your eyes, over your clothes, into bushes and bearings? Very inconvenient, and probably dangerous in wet cold weather. Off-the-peg mudguards are a permanent fixture on my bike. I seldom if ever see anybody else using them on the trails; they seem to be permanently out of fashion. In the back of my mind the reason was once explained to me.

As we prepare to tackle the Inners Red Route, I’m slightly concerned that Geoff isn’t wearing a helmet, but he says he doesn’t intend falling off. He hasn’t ridden a trail centre Red and Black route before; I suspect he’s underestimating these trails – in particular the amount of rock. And if he hits his big bloody head on one of those it’s gonna hurt.

“I’m not aiming to ride fast,” explains Geoff, “I’ll just pick my way over the rocks in my own time. If it’s too difficult, I can always walk”. That pretty much sums up the Cleland philosophy. It’s not a race; we’re primarily here to experience nature on two wheels with one aim to ride the whole distance and go fast from time to time, but if that’s not possible – no worries.

I admit to Geoff that I have my doubts about how the AventuraTT will perform on this type of trail, so different to its spiritual home. He seems quietly confident. Conversation with Geoff tends to encourage independent and lateral thinking. He never follows bike fashion or accepted wisdom without good cause, and he’s equally keen to stress that off-road cycling doesn’t have a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ way to do things. I think if the Stumpjumper out-performed the Aventura, he’d accept that; perhaps enjoy working out the science behind it.

We start twiddling up the forest on the blissfully dry (compared to yesterday) trail. It’s not too steep now and there’s about 1300′ of ascending to go. Geoff’s no longer in the first flush of youth and that bike really ain’t light. I’ve stuck 60psi in my tyres; trading-in a bit of grip for lower rolling resistance (yes I know that’s not a straightforward science either). Geoff rolls over the first rocks; I spin out and stop to release some air. Eventually the trail levels, taking us down a snaky bit of descent. I hit it as fast as I can and wait for Geoff at the bottom. He’s not far behind and he’s beaming. “I feel as if I’ve just died and gone to heaven,” he enthuses.

The cloud’s lift like jungle mist from the trees, the hill scenery is opening up through the branches. We come to a long, steep climb. It’s not technical, just needs a good level of fitness. I take over the Aventura.

I’ll say this one more time – in spite of the weight it seems as if I’m floating up the hill. Geoff plods up the hill, pushing my Stumpy and we pause for thought. “Imagine you were designing a piece of gym equipment to exercise the legs,” says Geoff, “Where are you going to put the hand grips?” The answer seems blindingly obvious. They’d be down by your sides. The upright riding position gets as close to that set-up as possible and means you really are delivering more power. It’s simply more efficient. Geoff explains that the American mountain bike pioneers, Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly, et al, came from a road-racing background. The stretched, aerodynamic position was what they knew and what they liked, it looks cool. And that was probably OK for storming Californian forest fire-roads. Nobody (except Geoff) sat down to think about which posture may be ideal for the variability of true cross-country riding. Interestingly, there has been a gradual move towards a more upright posture on trail bikes over recent years, but there’s a long way to go to get the Cleland ‘poise’.

Eventually we are out of the trees and wending our way up through heather. Now I’m enthusing. The panorama of forest and mountain conjures images of Arizona and California. “This is mountain biking! These are the kind of trails I used to dream of – you have to hand it to them, the trail centres have opened up rideable trails that are a joy to ride and in superb surroundings”. Geoff agrees. He’s clearly impressed. “…and it feels so much better when you’ve just ridden up”, he adds. “I mean, if you’re just dropped off at the top of a hill, you haven’t got the adrenaline flowing. But after that effort, it’s like being high on drugs”. This, from a man once dubbed ‘Der Wendover Führer’. Cool!

We ride across the summit and take a break over the crest, out of the breeze. Sitting and looking across the tree-filled chasm in front of us, we discuss the pros and cons of wind farms; consider whether the present economic crisis is a Thatcherite legacy. Geoff points to the steep, tussocky, stony bridleway that crosses the Red Route at this point, reminding me that once upon a time all bikes were rigid and this the standard terrain. Ramblers give us the time of day, but Geoff is disappointed that a ‘real’ mountain biker, riding hell-for-leather down the trail, doesn’t. Geoff might need some time to adjust to the etiquette of the trail centre. I too fondly remember those simpler days, before Lycra was mandatory; meeting a fellow cross-country cyclist was like meeting a long-lost relative.

I also remember the reasoning behind not using mud-guards: they look gay.

The descent from Minch Moor at Innerleithen trail centre is one of the best. It’s what’s known as fast and flowing but has rocky sections and some optional jumps graded black. This was where I had reservations about the AventuraTT. On my Stumpy, I hit the trail at speed and flew down several sections of rock. After a more difficult rocky section, I stopped to see how Geoff was doing; still alive? If you watch videos or photos of Cleland bikes in action, you will become familiar with the distinctive outline of rider and machine; at ease, as if riding on tarmac. Up here in the mountains, Geoff rolls up to the rocks and drops off the back of his saddle; much easier on an Aventura than on a conventional mountain bike. He looks composed. He rides neither fast nor slow, picking a line down the rock with the kind of genuine expertise that comes from years of practice. It’s pure Cleland and I feel this is the defining moment. The tyres have done their job. The theory works – even on rock. Geoff says he intends to try the jumps next time. Why not? After all, jump bikes have been rigid for long enough. Will I get him to follow the fashion for helmets though?

Further down and a diversion leads us along a longish section of fire road. I relax. “Oh, that looks fantastic,” says Geoff behind me. I wonder what the hell he’s doing; he’s become bored and dropped into a five foot deep drainage gully alongside the fire road, pedalling excitedly. “Unusual use of the word ‘fantastic’,” I reply. What he’s riding through is what at least 99% of cyclists would do anything to avoid; sucking mud, deep thistles, shifting rocks, running water. Surely, it’s NOT having to ride through this crap that is the wonder of trail centres. “Rocks that move!” shouts Geoff. That sounds unappealing to me; nevertheless, I drop into the ditch and try to follow. It’s every bit as horrible and as pointless as I thought, I get back on the road. However, perhaps this is the point. It’s Geoff’s attention to detail, to the micro-landscape, and his desire to pedal across any terrain he may come across, that lead to his extraordinary Cleland designs.

Daylight is fading and a short-cut is called for; we select one of the fearsome-looking orange-graded downhill competition courses. I’m not sure if trees with pads round them are giving me more confidence, or less, but I lower my saddle, extend my front forks and go for it. It’s a roller-coaster ride through dense forest, not much rock but some awesome berms, waves, jumps and table tops. In downhill circles we’d probably have been laughed out-of-town, but we had enough fun, shooting reasonably quickly out of the forest and back to the car park.

I love the way the trail centres give you those thrilling finishes, leaving you elated. Geoff’s certainly enjoyed himself.

His only reservation? “You’re not really riding your own adventure.” He also observes that the rocks on the trail didn’t move, as they do in reality, something I hadn’t considered. We agree that the trail centres have their merits, but cannot replace getting out your maps and plotting a diverse route over hill and dale, through farm-yard, along ancient trackways…

The AventuraTT has proved itself, unfashionable mud-guards and all. I’d be interested to take a Cleland for a really long ride where the relaxed riding position would come into its own. On the more tricky sections in the woods I felt the Stumpjumper’s lower weight was a clear advantage; a light-weight Cleland would be a revelation, a genuine alternative to current trail bikes.

The Cleland Landseer will be just that, and more…