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Friday, 18 April 2014

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Barrow AFC get on their bikes and they love it

“I’VE not rode a bike in years, and never off road!” chirps Barrow AFC winger Paul Rutherford, his legs going ten to the dozen as he struggles to change gear, writes LEE PROCTER.

Undeterred, he throws his ride into another sweeping corner and onto the treacherous wooden boards ahead... then we hear a high-pitched noise echo through the trees... “Aaaaaaaaargh!”

Dismounting our mountain bikes, both of which are caked in mud, we tip-toe carefully over what feels like ice beneath our feet, and on negotiating the next bend, find Shaun Pearson writhing in agony on the ground.

My initial sick-to-the-stomach fears that the Bluebirds’ number-two goalkeeper might be seriously injured are instantly eased when we spot his brother Mike and team-mate Danny Hurst in fits of laughter.

Gasping for air and with his hands cradling the affected area, the 21-year-old Welshman then proceeds to tell us how, on reaching the end of the elevated wooden boards, he attempted an overzealous two-wheeled jump back onto the main trail.

His wheels and the slippery boards beneath them, however, had other ideas and, before eating a face full of gravel, the goalkeeper fell forward onto the frame of his bike, with his nether regions baring the brunt!

Five minutes of expletives and self-assessment later, Shaun tentatively returned to the saddle and the five of us set about completing Grizedale Forest’s toughest mountain bike challenge – The North Face Trail.

Earlier that morning I’d met the squad at the forest’s visitor centre. Having travelled the short distance from their pre-season training camp in Coniston, the majority of the players looked apprehensive as the mist closed in and yet another summer downpour threatened.

Then they got their hire bikes and suddenly it was like 14 kids on Christmas Day. Back-wheel skids, wheelies, bunny-hops... you name it, they tried it!

Nearby – and with Bluebirds manager Dave Bayliss elsewhere, no doubt wheeling and dealing in the summer player recruitment market – coach Ashley Hoskin and new centre-half Sean Hessey were scrutinising a map, deciding which trail to tackle.

In truth there was only ever going to be one route, if Hessey had anything to do with it anyway!

A keen rider, and having also brought his own bike along, the 33-year-old defender was eager to test himself to the full.

And so, at around 10am we pedaled out into the forest wilderness. Ahead of us lay nine miles of rough, tough terrain, including plenty of leg-burning climbs and adrenaline-pumping downhill sections.

Right from the off the peloton fragmented.

Having stopped to help new striker and back-marker Obi Anoruo with the gears on his bike, I led him up to the group ahead.

Joining skipper Gavin Skelton, James Owen and Garry Hunter, it’s fair to say – and I’m sure the lads wouldn’t try and bluff otherwise – that the pace was cautious!

For a minute I thought about winding Skelts up. His younger sister, Helen, has, after all, kayaked 2,000 miles down the Amazon and trekked 500 miles to the South Pole.

I took another look at his face and thought otherwise!

Instead I pushed on and set my stall out to catch whoever was ahead. Eventually, midfielder Alex-Ray Harvey came into view, manoeuvring his way through a particularly rocky section.

Having, by all accounts, smashed the karaoke back in Coniston two nights previously with a rendition of Bryan Adams’ Summer of ‘69, the quietly-spoken 22-year-old was proving on-song on the bike too.

Ahead of him, however, were my next targets – the group of Rutherford, Hurst and the Pearson brothers.

And having once bridged the gap, the five of us then pushed each other on over the remaining six miles, taking it in turns at the front.

There was thrills and – for Shaun – spills, complaints of saddle-sore and painful palms but, on arriving back at the visitor centre, less than two hours after setting off and surprisingly in last place, there was a real sense of achievement.

The guys at the sharp end – Hessey, Ashley Hoskin, Richie Baker, Adam Boyes, Matt Flynn and Ben Hoskin – greeted our return with warm applause.

Keeping quiet, however, were all those who had been behind us. Word has it they had made a rather swift return via the main road!

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