It is amazing what an adventurous young woman can get up to on a dirty weekend in the country. In Helen Mortimer's case it usually ends up with her getting spattered in mud, and going downhill, fast. Nothing to do with skiing, though there's plenty of slipping and sliding, with a decent chance of breaking a limb. Ask her whatshe does for a living and the answer is certain to bring a jaw-dropping halt to any party chat-up line: "I'm a professional mountain biker."
A pretty good one, too. The women's national champion and the first British female to win a medal at world level. "To put it bluntly, she's shit hot," says Tym Manley, editor of Mountain Biking UK, the sport's best-selling glossy mag for whose team Mortimer rides in the summer-long Rav4 series of races throughout the UK, which attract the nation's top riders and crowds running into thousands.
It all began last week at Pately Bridge, near Peebles in Scotland, a typically mudlarking affair in which Mortimer won one event and took a tumble in another, clipping a tree with her shoulder at 30mph. It is all par for the treacherous courses, some of which are specially designed while others offer natural hazards on Forestry Commission land. A lot of rock, and plenty of roll.
Manley jokingly describes mountain biking as an activity for "middle-class bovver boys", but ladette Mortimer is not. She is serious enough to have been riding professionally since she was a teenager - she's now 23 - and devotes her weekends to racing and her weekdays to training, workouts ("I'm a gym monster") and walking the courses which demand all the skills and strength she can muster.
At school in Shropshire they called her the Big Bird. Now she's known on the circuits simply as H, for H bomb, because of her aggressive, explosive style of riding. She's a tad short of six feet, loose- limbed and big-boned - and she's broken several, several times. One crash, four years ago, left her in intensive care in a Kent hospital, her spine out of synch and her whole body so badly shaken up that she was out for most of the season.
Broken wrists and collarbones are the most frequent injuries incurred by mountain bikers. "When you fall off at 30mph the most natural thing to do is stick your arms out," she says. There's protective clothing, of course, helmets and padding around the vital areas. "It doesn't stop you breaking bones but it does help you keep the abrasions to a minimum."
Some consolation. Mortimer admits that when she took up mountain biking as a 15-year-old around the hills of her then home near Shrewsbury - she now flat-shares in Worcester - her mother was mightily apprehensive, especially when she started getting hurt. Her brother Chris was a biker and the young Helen soon had a fascination for the sport and all its inherent dangers. "When you're young you don't have that much fear. Yes, it is dangerous, but that's the thrill of it. It's the buzz that attracts me more than anything. Plus the fact that it's a bit different."
You can say that again. Every weekend from April through to September, around 600 mountain bikers gather to hurl themselves down, up and across the countryside courses, zigzagging and bronco-bucking over holes, rocks, bumps, berms (banked corners), the occasional ravine and, inevitably, mud, mud, inglorious mud. The wetter the better for some, though Mortimer prefers dry going, especially in the duel, which is exactly that. Two riders racing each other hell for leather, speedway fashion.
It is the survival of the fittest and the fastest. Spills are almost guaranteed in a half-minute of frenetic action. The downhill takes a little longer. Four to five minutes tocomplete the one-and-a-half-mile courses. "In the downhill there's a fine line between making it and crashing. It took me a long time to find out where that line was."
Unlike cross-country mountain biking, the downhill and duel are not Olympic events, though they're on the waiting list. Mortimer may return to the cross-country, where she won a bronze medal in the world junior championships as a 17-year-old, but for now she is preoccupied with the thrill of the descent in the downhill and the prospect of improving on her best-ever fourth place in a World Cup event.
She has raced all over Europe, and in Japan, Canada, the US and even Cuba. Her winters are spent in Australia. Overseas, mountain biking is regarded as something rather more substantial than theEurosport oddity it is here. Some 75,000 watched the last World Cup in France.
Abroad, Mortimer and the other three top British girls can pick up "a few thousand pounds" in prize money. Here it is a few hundred, but in total it is enough to provide adecent living, while not being in the same bracket as Britain's top male rider, Steve Peat, who is sponsored by a US bike company and earns around £100,000 a year.
Mortimer's own bike, with its nine gears and reinforced shafts, was custom-built for between £4,000 and £5,000. She bought her first bike as a kid for £500, "which meant doing a few extra paper rounds". Her long legs are made for pedal pumping in a sport that's like moto-cross without the engine. Indeed, in the league of cool sports, mountain biking must rank high in the table.
It takes nerve and verve. Mortimer says she gets really uptight before a big race. "I actually puked at the top of the national champ-ionship course. I managed to get my three Weetabix and a banana down and then felt sick. I had to dash behind a van. Fortunately, I haven't thrown up for a while."
She hopes her mountain-biking exploits may lead to a career as a stunt girl. "I'm a bit of a daredevil at heart." A bit of a wag, too. "When I won the national championships last year I told my closest rival, Tracy Moseley, that the real reason I wanted the title was because I fancied wearing the winner's jersey with its horizontal stripes. They're supposed to make your boobs look bigger, and I reckon I've got the smallest on the circuit."Reuse content