Cheap Bike Xmas Challenge – Muddy Fun!

When my front brakes stopped working, I did start to wonder whether this was such a great idea. But I’m getting ahead of myself – let’s go back to the beginning …

Mark Garner came up with genius plan of buying cheap bikes (maximum price of £30) and then riding a route with a set of mystery “Top Gear”-style challenges along the way, and finally donating our machines to a bike-reuse charity at the end. Four of us assembled for the challenge at the Bridge on a wet Saturday morning just before Xmas – Mark Garner, Duncan Coombes, Luke Stratford and your author, Steve Hammatt. Tom Garner also came along to help out with the event.

I’d managed to pick up a very decent Scott mountain bike for just £20 (amazing what you can find on Facebook Marketplace amongst the tat). So I was well under the target price and should be picking up some bonus points for that. Suitably decorated with tinsel and lots of fairy lights, I drove down to the bridge with my steed (not fancying the extra work of pedalling a heavy bike to the Bridge and back when I didn’t know what horrors challenges lay ahead). However, I found myself out-Xmas’ed by Duncan, who had gone full Elf!

Can you tell that it’s Xmas?

Duncan had previously pulled out of the challenge because he had been needed for work, only to then find at the last minute that he wasn’t needed after all. So although he hadn’t picked up a cheap bike, he came down on one of his own bikes with the promise to donate some money to the charity (details of the charity at the end of this article).

You’ll also see above Mark’s very impressive (and very heavy) old-school fixie, complete with handy basket. This was apparently his back-up bike, having failed to dislodge a stuck seat post on his original cheap bike and destroyed the frame in the process – oops! Luke brought an old mountain bike of his own that he had previously used for cycling to the station (for challenge purposes assumed to have cost £30).

The weather was initially unkind to us and we started off with heavy rain. We waited a while for it to abate, but we had no luck with that so set off for our adventure anyway. Through the airfield we went, and I started to try and get used to my unfamiliar mount (just one brief trip round the block before this). It felt heavy, and the position was a lot more upright compared to my usual road bike, but it seemed pretty good for the price and the gears were working well (my triple front chainring would come in useful later!).

Mark’s chain came off on the way over – minus points for a mechanical! My front brake started to lose effectiveness too, and I started to be concerned that I’d have to pull out. Luckily, it turned out to be simply that one of the brake block holders had slipped down the caliper, which was easily fixed with an allen key.

We headed onto the Army ranges at Ash Vale, which was a new experience for me. I knew they were there and available to cycle on, but hadn’t actually visited before. The rain stopped when we arrived, so that let us begin to dry out. On to the first challenge!

Time trial!

Mark announced we’d be riding a mini time trial on some tarmac’d paths. We went together for a sighting lap, so that we knew where we were going on the short loop. There were some dog walkers about, so Tom went down the path a bit so that he could warn any walkers (and we took care around them too, of course anyway) and take photos.

Not much danger of me breaking the speed limit

Unsurprisingly, our road racer Luke won the TT. Duncan put up a good fight too, so it was down to myself and Mark to avoid last place. I ended up slowest – not a great start but I was having fun.

On to some off-road riding now, across the ranges. With all the rain recently it was very muddy, and my lack of off-road riding experience didn’t help, but I took it steadily. We followed a decent track for a while, seeing a few other riders and walkers, and then took the track directly across the ranges in the direction of Tunnel Hill. Others will know that it’s basically moorland over there, and quite rough. While this was its own (non-points-scoring) challenge for me, especially with the mud, gravel and large puddles, I also did love the scenery and exploring a new area.

Mark told us that there would be a hill climb next. Gulp. He seemed to take pleasure in telling us that the hill was known locally as “Death Star Climb”. Double gulp. Just as we pulled up to the top of the climb, with the start point down the hill and along the path, there were lots of minus points for Luke – he lost his chain and he punctured as well! He was going to head home, but Mark pulled out a suitable tube from his handy basket and Luke was back in action again after a short delay.

I knew I shouldn’t have said this bike never gets a puncture

It wasn’t a good start for me. I couldn’t even ride down the climb and had to resort to walking! My lack of off-road skills were no doubt to blame. It was very steep and gravelly. I was probably going too slowly and felt that I couldn’t keep proper control of the bike and was going to fall off through sliding. I felt pretty dumb, but it helped somewhat to hear that Duncan (who does go off-roading) also found it very hard to descend.

Not the hill, just the flat bit at the top

We all got down to the bottom in one piece and decided who would go first. Me? Ok, well, better get it over with. We had a bit of a run-up to get some sort of speed up before hitting the hill. I of course use the word “speed” in the loosest possible sense, when applied to my own effort. I got part-way up (thanks to my granny ring), but then ended up losing so much speed that standing on the pedals I was spinning my rear wheel in the gravel and going nowhere, so I got off before I fell off. Wow, even pushing my bike off was very hard and I was overtaken on the way up.

Luke was a superstar and rode the whole way up the climb, finishing with the quickest time. Mark came second with the “slightly unconventional” technique of walking/running/pushing his bike up the entire climb!

After catching our break (where’s the oxygen?!), we rode over to the Tunnel Hill road and went down and left to the canal. The next challenge beckoned – a braking distance test.

We found ourselves a straight bit of reasonable track, starting from a bridge over the railway. Initially we thought of riding four abreast and then braking at a specific point, but it was clear that the track wasn’t wide enough for that. Two abreast it was then, with winners facing other winners and similarly with losers.

First off was me vs Duncan. He had disc brakes vs my V-brakes, so unsurprisingly he won. Next Luke (again, discs) vs Mark (ancient fixie with rim brakes) – a predictable result. For the 3rd/4th place playoff, I lined up vs Mark and won – wow, I actually won something on a bike (sort of). The final was going to be interesting – discs vs discs, Duncan vs Luke. It was a close one, but Luke was victorious thanks to a side-skidding stop.

We headed in the direction of home, riding along the canal tow path. Part of the canal had been drained down for lock gate inspection work. Luke, in his wisdom, decided that this would be a good opportunity to try riding across the canal, something that you can’t do very often.

Umm … help?

Big mistake. He didn’t realise that there was a thick layer of silt at the bottom of the canal, his bike stopped as if he’d hit a brick wall and he somersaulted over the handlebars landing in the silt! He did land feet-first but they ended up stuck deep in the silt (as was his bike), and he needed a nearby walker (interestingly, looking for freshwater mussels) to help him get out. Oh how we laughed! He managed to get himself back onto the tow path, with very muddy tyres.

After the comic interlude, we carried on back through Frimley Green, The Hatches and back to the Bridge, then just down the road to the pub to tot up the scores, work out the placings and have some well-needed refreshments.

Anyone got a calculator?

Mark awarded some more points depending on how much people had paid for their bikes, and we voted on who had the most festive bike/costume – first place to Duncan on that one, with me as runner-up. Mark also went through any mechanicals and deducted points for those.

The final scores saw Duncan take the win, with (to my amazement) me in second, Luke third and Mark bringing up the rear.

Big thanks to Mark Garner for coming up with the idea for the event, and thanks to Tom for helping run it – it was a lot of fun. We’ll definitely run this again, though next time we’ll avoid making it quite so close to Xmas when it’s difficult for a lot of people to get the spare time.

The charity that our bikes are being donated to is called Re-Cycle. They take second-hand bikes and send them to rural communities in Africa who need them for getting to school, collecting water and other essential activities. Halfords at Farnborough Gate is a collection point.

Re-Cycle has sent over 112,000 bikes to Africa

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