Outdoors: Mud in the blood

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The Independent Online
Nostalgie de la boue? Then look no further. Quad biking is the sport for glorying in mud. And minimal driving experience is required - you just roll up and roar off. Eric Kendall sits tight, revs up, and takes the fat-wheeled route to the open fields

A mud-plugging, high-speed contradiction in terms, the quad bike isn't a bike at all, but a four-wheeled, go-anywhere machine. With the seat and handlebars of a small motorbike, and four very fat little wheels shod with knobbly tyres, its practical purpose is for crossing farmland quickly and with minimal impact. But who cares; its impractical purpose - for driving madly round muddy circuits - is much more fun.

Speeding over rough ground is what it's all about. There's lots of feedback through the handlebars, but not much control when the going gets slippery. When you know it's going wrong, all you can do is back off the power and sit tight. On firmer ground, it's just a great chance to drive the way you would like to on a road but can't because of other traffic, or daren't because you value your car too highly.

The great advantage of a quad biking circuit is that, as on the M25, everything goes round the track in the same direction. Unlike the situation on the M25, you can reasonably come within a mudsplat of other riders, though touching the rear wheels of the bike ahead is a bad idea that sends you rearing skywards, and earns an official warning for dangerous play. Even without such antics, the bouncy nature of the ride can be hilarious for both rider and spectator, to whom larger quaddies look like jump jockeys hunched over the wrong kind of steed.

Though quad bikes have more wheels than a motorbike - to aid balance under trying conditions - the simplest ones have less in the way of complicated controls such as clutch and gears, so that anyone can just roll up and roar off. The throttle tends to be a simple matter of all or nothing, and sometimes you can even forget the brakes, which only make you slide when it's muddy. In the dry, it's a much faster game, and the cornering adhesion of four wide tyres makes rolling it as easy as falling off a quad bike.

You can do only so much whizzing around in circles without an objective, and quad bikes come into their own in competition - the kind of "to the death" duel that develops between firm friends as soon as they see a chequered flag or hear buzzing engines and a phantom Murray Walker screaming hyperbole into their helmeted ears.

After a few warm-up laps, the start is a nervy, high-revving affair with no quarter given. The bikes squirt off the line sluggishly (no one could accuse them of being quick off the mark) in a wheel-spinning fight for the best path. Hogging the only navigable pair of ruts into the first hill is likely to establish an unassailable position, and will certainly shower the pursuing pack with wheel-spun mud - which is at least half the point of the exercise for rugby players who are missing their weekend game.

Only skulduggery from behind or an error under pressure by the front rider is likely to change the outcome. Overcooking a fast bend is a sure way to blow it: drifting inexorably out of the optimum curve and away from the area of maximum grip, you can suddenly find yourself going nowhere fast, wheels spinning, back end snaking and a stream of riders hurtling by. Too much power into a tight bend is even worse, taking you right off the track, with the bike ploughing onwards regardless of where you steer. At this point, neither braking nor praying will help.

The finer points of the game come quickly to most people. Within a couple of laps you'll be bouncing on your seat for extra traction, sitting right back to get the weight over the driving wheels, and leaning out round corners to improve contact with the ground. You may only be in some forest in Wales, but in your mind's eye you're ascending the podium, being garlanded and sprayed with champagne, having gloriously taken the World Quad Biking Championships, putting Britain right back where it belongs in motorsport - exactly the kind of lapse in concentration that can lead to the wrong line through a boggy dip, a squelchy grind to a halt, and the humiliation of "the man" coming to tow you out, long after the race has been won.

Quadding essentials

Most quad biking outfits use simple machines: there's a throttle lever on the handlebars to make them go, brakes like those on a mountain bike, automatic transmission and a lever beside your right leg with which to select reverse if it all becomes too dull simply going around forwards. There are also more powerful, four-wheel-drive versions, which few members of the public have the self-control to handle safely round a track.

Quad bikes are the machines whose distant drone could ruin somebody's weekend, so circuits tend to be miles from the nearest habitation. Acorn Activities (01432 830083) runs a new, purpose-built course at a woodland site in Herefordshire and also has locations in Shropshire and Wales; they can provide a complete package, including quality accommodation near each of their sites. Rob Island Country Crafts & Leisure (01608 650413) operates in the Cotswolds, and KCS Sport (01832 273134) can organise quad biking countrywide.

Helmets should always be provided; check that overalls are also available, or wear very old clothes, particularly in muddy conditions. Boots (or old trainers) are essential.