Originally trained as a cabinet maker, Charlie, now 57, has definitely turned his passion for riding trails at the weekend into a cycle tour business. But that means he’s also a qualified British Cycling Coach for cyclo-cross, mountain bikes (MTB), road and time trial and has years of experience coaching kids, teenagers and his Dulwich Paragon team mates at the Herne Hill Velodrome.
Most bike commuters have basic road safety skills and that’s it, but Charlie’s finding that when people swap their road bikes for a gravel bike they are very interested in how to ride with more speed and style. “I Iike seeing people improve, gain confidence and enjoy themselves and enjoy what I love doing,” he says. “I’ve just taken out four keen women (all in their 30s) whose summer holiday will be a Rapha endurance bike ride from Edinburgh to Manchester which crosses the Pennines, mostly off-road. They were strong women road cyclists, faster than me probably, and they thought it would be easy-peasy to ride a gravel bike. Anyone can ride a bike off road, provided the route is fairly straightforward. But as soon as you start putting in slightly bigger lumps and obstacles, it’s hard work - you get nervous, and wheels keep slipping away. If you belt it then you get punctures. It’s a different technique to riding on road – you need to get off the saddle, float and ride lightly. You need to move your body around the bike and use the gears in a different way. You can spot a good off-roader – it’s just technique. Lots of people discover their technique is lacking when they’ve bought a gravel bike and just get mullered before they realise they need some coaching. When you are shown how to ride properly people love it.”
Charlie is a sociable sort – he may love to win cyclo-cross races, but he also loves to chat and show off London and the countryside - so his favourite Hidden Tracks outings are when he lead groups of friends on a cycle adventure. That way they choose the theme and difficulty of the ride, and he does the rest including booking lunch at a pub or diverting to a sandwich shop. This makes a Hidden Tracks bike ride perfect for families with teenagers; birthday celebrations with friends, work colleagues, or just a microadventure with the hassle of finding a decent route removed.
“Cycling with a group is camaraderie – if you come across something difficult you tackle it together and are encouraging each other. That builds friendship,” he says deep in the bluebell woods at the top of an extremely steep hill. Normally I’d dismount at the tricky bits but with a bit of coaching and coaxing Charlie explains how to do it, and soon I’m navigating down with a big smile rather than gritted teeth!
Joining these trips means you need to have some basic fitness and your own bike, which has recently been serviced. At the moment Charlie doesn’t have the space to keep a fleet although he admits to keeping eight in the front room of his Victorian terrace house. However a couple of his favourite central London rides, the City Church Crawl and the Tidal Time Traveller, which includes a cable car and then hugs the River Thames with a sight-a-second, can be happily done on a Boris bike.
But most of his rides – whether rated easy, moderate or difficult – make full use of off-road routes from canal towpaths to forest tracks. It’s hard not to be amazed at just how quickly you can be on an off-road route in London, but that’s Charlie’s special skill honed during lockdown and the times he took his bike team mates on glorious long training rides.
With Hidden Tracks there’s no need to worry about a mini-bike breakdown as Charlie carries a bike repair kit and of course does all his own cycle maintenance. “It’s very rare that I’d buy a complete bike in a shop. But as bits wear out, I keep replacing them and eventually replace the frame,” he explains.
“Before we set off, I do a bike check to ensure my client’s bike is safe. So, if you’ve got something on your bike that I know is going to fall apart at the first rock then it’s best to not head off. I can generally fix something if it’s a relatively well-maintained bike. But if on the ride something happens that is unfixable, then all routes are in the south east of England so we’re never more thana couple of miles from a station, or we might reroute and go to a bike shop that might be able to help you. Or you can go back in an uber…”
Luckily this seems to be a very rare possibility.
“In all the years I’ve been guiding I’ve only had to abandon one rider and their bike,” says Charlie. “Usually, I just divert the ride to the nearest railway station. When you’ve got youths then parents need to know what’s happened and be confident their teenager can get back on their own. With an adult rider they are normally so embarrassed they’ll sort themselves out. It happens very infrequently, and I can normally bodge something to get people going again. I carry a first aid kit and a little tool kit with spanner, multi-tool, inner tube, gas pump and hand pump and patching worms.”
As an added bonus Charlie brings along homemade flapjacks and fudge to provide that little burst of energy everyone needs near the halfway point. With legendary routes, treats and chat you are sure to enjoy a day on your bike with Charlie from Hidden Tracks.
Written by Nicola Baird from an interview with Charlie