The coolest thing on two wheels

Mike Rowbottom on the mountain biking team sporting outfits designed by Paul Smith
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Lansdown, near Bath, scene of a notable Civil War victory for the Cavaliers in 1643, yesterday hosted a conflict of an altogether friendlier nature, although the element of danger was not entirely absent.

Steep rock-gully descents and winding woodland trails provided a hazardous environment for 180 or so competitors engaged in the inaugural British Mountain Bike Tour, which is due to end in Ilkeston tomorrow.

Two of the elite field have already dropped out after falls left one with fractured wrists and the other with a broken arm.

The tour, which will feature in a Channel 4 series next month, is a consciousness- raising exercise put together by Sport for Television designed to capitalise on mountain biking's rapidly expanding popularity in this country. What gives the enterprise a new focus is the sport's inclusion as a full, medal- winning, event in this summer's Atlanta Olympics.

With that in mind, several of the world's leading mountain bikers are riding this tour as a part of their preparations, including Britain's two male Atlanta selections, David Baker and Gary Foord, and their female counterparts, Caroline Alexander and Deb Murrel.

At a time when road racing has lost its sponsor for a national series, mountain biking is proving an increasing draw for international cyclists, who can combine it with the similar cyclo-cross events which take place in the winter.

One of the sport's most promising competitors, 22-year-old Jamie Norfolk, experiences the shift in interest on a regular basis when he works part- time in a cycle shop at Tadley, near Reading. "It used to be that people would want racing bikes, but now everyone wants mountain bikes," he said.

Norfolk, a former senior amateur champion in cyclo-cross, aspires to a position as one of the top four or five British riders who can earn enough money to go full-time.

Caroline Alexander, a 27-year-old from Barrow-in-Furness, is already there, and making a serious effort to become the world's best. Alexander, a former electrical draughtsman at the Vickers shipyard near her home, took up cycling six years ago while working on a kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee.

She has become European champion and is currently ranked third in the World Cup standings. Renowned for her punishing training routines, she is using this tour to compete against male riders of similar ability as she prepares for the Olympic challenge.

Alexander, who has a matter-of-fact manner, is a clear leader in the women's event. Gathering together her racing gear in a hectic team van, she said: "I have not even asked about the prize money. Whatever it is, it will be shared among the whole team."

Not every competitor could afford Alexander's insouciance over financial arrangements. The tour standings do not include a category for coolness but, if they had one, then the Mud Dock team, operating out of a spectacularly tatty white van, would be at the head of it.

Their home base is a converted warehouse in Bristol which comprises a specialist bike centre (downstairs) and cafe bar (upstairs.) And yes, they are going on-line very soon.

Among the establishment's regular clients is the clothes designer, Paul Smith, who has bought himself a mountain bike and supplied the team with tops and tee-shirts. These are a model of restraint in comparison to their racing outfits, which are of army camouflage pattern.

An unimpeachable sponsorship package is filled out with a beer manufacturer and a designer of sunglasses. To complete the theme, the team support vehicle is a former American Army pick-up truck.

Mud Dock are well placed to finish as the leading amateur team from the 30 taking part, but picking winners was not the prime consideration of the team manager, John Capelin, when he selected his riders for the season.

"It's about image as well," he said. "We were looking for attitude. We wanted people who were the right mountain-biking sort of characters. We compete hard, but we are a happy-go-lucky bunch and we like to have fun when the races are over. There are a lot of people involved at the top level who are so single-minded that they have forgotten about bringing other people into the sport."

All four main riders are 21. One of them, Dave Madden - long of hair and wearing a ring in his nose - explained that mountain biking was akin to other sports such as snowboarding and surfing, all of which he had sampled. "They are the cool sports of the moment," he said."The adrenalin sports."

As far as this tour is concerned, the rush will not be a brief one. The main sponsors are committed to giving it at least a three-year run.