Rough Riderz founder member and Club Secretary, Phil Hall, talks about some of his experience in riding gravity bikes and what he hopes for the future of the club. He started downhill mountain biking regularly whilst living in Tenerife, until a spinal cord injury left him paralysed after a motorcycle accident back in 2003.
This self confessed adrenaline junkie then went on to form the first gravity biking club in the UK, in an effort to establish this new and ‘inclusive’ extreme sport on home soil. Our exclusive interview with the man himself hopes to shed more light on his motivation for gravity biking and upcoming ambitions for the club and the sport…
■ What prompted you to get involved in the gravity biking scene?
“I have always had an unhealthy interest in anything fast and extreme, so after rehabilitating from my accident I was desperate to find something exciting to try again! This led me to sample a lot of different sports and activities, such as basketball, hand cycling, canoeing, water skiing, land yachting abseiling and even skydiving. Although all of these activities offered me varying degrees of adrenaline, I still felt I hadn’t found ‘the one’ for me.”
“I then found out about some four wheeled, downhill mountain bikes over in America, so I instantly booked myself a week’s holiday in Colorado to try it. After the first couple of days of riding I was completely sold on the feeling of freedom and independence this sport provided, along with the crazy speeds, the challenging terrain and plenty of adrenaline! Now I simply eat, sleep, live and breathe gravity biking… it is my passion and feeds my desire to push the limits.”
■ When and why did you decide to launch the Rough Riderz club?
“After my experience of riding in the States I couldn’t wait to buy a bike, so I ordered one from Canada as soon as I returned home. However, I had plenty of time during the three flights back to think about how much I’d enjoyed myself, and I was amazed that the same sort of thing wasn’t already happening in the UK. This gave me the idea to bring this experience to our shores, to educate, inform and encourage more people to get involved too. This was the birth of the idea and I quickly got to work gathering as much information as possible about gravity biking, launching a website and starting up the club in the autumn of 2006.”
“I used the time I had whilst waiting for my bike to be built and delivered to research all the possible trails to ride, and to promote the sport through a network of friends and other contacts. This resulted in making the website a hub of information for potential riders around the world and, through my contacts at R-One I discovered that another person (Dave Bower) was already gravity biking in Cumbria. So I made contact with him, outlined my idea and my vision for Rough Riderz and he joined me in helping to make the whole thing a reality. The rest, as they say, is history!”
■ What do you like most about riding gravity bikes?
“I love the sport because it means I get to see, experience and ride in some amazing places. It means I can still enjoy the scenery, locations and terrain that appealed to me about mountain biking prior to my accident. It also quenches my thirst for excitement and adrenaline, keeps me fit and active, and offers the mental and physical challenge that I couldn’t find in any other sports.”
“The freedom and independence I have when riding my bike gives me a huge feeling of satisfaction too, with the speed, the trail features and the challenging environment providing a real buzz of accomplishment that is hard to find anywhere else. I enjoy nothing more than throwing myself down a steep trail, dodging trees and roots, straddling big ruts and holes, negotiating rock gardens, sliding round berms and getting air time over the big jumps. Words can’t really do it justice… you have to try it for yourself to fully understand how pumped you feel at the end of a good run!”
■ How difficult are these bikes to control and what particular skills are essential?
“Gravity bikes are relatively easy to ride, with very responsive steering, four tyres offering good grip and a bucket seat (and seat straps) making it a comfortable and secure position for the rider. The main misconception is that having four wheels means you cannot fall over… but you have to use your upper body weight and position in a similar fashion to riding on two wheels to ensure you don’t flip the bike at speed and/or crash when tackling the jumps.”
“The main traits a rider needs to handle these bikes on the rough ground of a DH trail is good upper body strength and control. You also need good arm/grip strength and proper hand/eye co-ordination, with the ability to read the terrain and gauge your speed. Once you understand how the bike reacts to different situations then you can concentrate on developing your riding style, to improve your skills and ability. All of this requires a high level of concentration and good reaction times, to enable you to ride fast whilst tackling the various hazards and obstacles associated with the sport.”
■ What and where is your favourite DH trail(s)?
“I love all of the trails I ride as they all seem to offer a different riding experience. Probably the most challenging trail I have ridden is the World Cup track, at Fort William, which is just brutal! I love the extreme challenge of riding this trail, which is probably at the very limits of what our bikes can handle, but I also love the fast, flowing style of trails like The Shredder and Ae Line at Ae Forest in Dumfries.”
“Some of the natural trails in the mountains of Tenerife are awesome too. They are rough and rocky, dry and dusty runs that demand you stay focussed, and can last for over an hour from top to bottom. The long, wide, fast trails around Morzine and Les Gets in France all have their own particular appeal too, with twisty chicanes, plenty of jumps and massive berms, encouraging riders to get fast and loose. Its too hard to pick out one or two favourites, I love all of them, for lots of different reasons!”
■ What is your most memorable riding moment(s)?
“Probably my favourite moment was when I returned to Tenerife with my new bike for the first time. I got to meet up and ride with ‘mis amigos’ again, on some of the trails we had ridden when I first started MTBing. It was an indescribable feeling to be back with the old gang, all together, ripping down the mountains and having a wild time.”
“I guess the other milestone for me was the first time I rode at Fort William. I was nervous as hell going up in the gondola, looking down at the crazy track that I was about to attempt on four wheels. After a few sketchy moments, and what felt like a lifetime, I finally reached the bottom of the trail. I was totally pumped to have completed such a demanding course, and I couldn’t believe that me and my bike had survived to tell the tale!”
■ How and where do you spend your time training for this sport?
“I train for gravity biking in various different ways, to ensure I keep myself fit and strong to enough to handle the bikes. The main activity I use is hand cycling, as I find this helps me maintain strength and stamina, and is also a great cardio workout. I ride on average about 25 miles, and get out at least twice a week, usually around the network of cycle paths and tracks in my hometown of Preston.”
“In addition to this I train and play for the Lancashire Bombers wheelchair basketball team every Monday. Obviously, I try to get as much actual riding time in the bike on DH trails too, which averages about one full day (8-10 hours) a week, with longer sessions through the summer. I find sit skiing is also a good way to practise your balance, co-ordination and upper body control, and I try to have at least one week on the slopes every winter as well.”
■ What hints and tips would you give to other people that are potentially interested in getting involved in the sport?
“I think the main tip I would give to anyone wanting to have a go at gravity biking is to make sure they are fully fit. It takes a lot of strength and energy to control these bikes, so the fitter you get, the more you will enjoy the experience. It is also important for beginners to book a proper training session, to get essential advice and information to stay safe on the bikes. If someone thinks that this is a sport they would like to pursue after their training, then I would say just go for it… you won’t regret it!”
■ How would you like to see the future of gravity biking develop around the world?
“My main goals for the sport here in the UK is to develop a new, better version of the bikes we currently ride. I want an expansion of the number of clubs that are operating, to get more people involved, get more riders wanting to race and start a competition calendar like the British Downhill Series. This is also my hope for the future of gravity biking in other countries too, so that more places create their own riding and racing scene. As more places start to get established and represented, we can then start to take these competitions to an international level.”
“I was not searching for ‘fame and fortune’ by starting the Rough Riderz club. I simply want the sport of gravity biking to be as accessible to as many people as possible, both disabled and able-bodied riders alike. I also want the sport to become an integrated part of the existing downhill MTBing scene, both here in the UK and abroad. Put simply, I just want more bikes, more riders, more clubs, more trails, more awareness and more opportunities for anyone to enjoy this wonderful world of dirt!”
“So, thanks for this interview, and see you on the trails…”