Birds of a feather go mountain biking together

Haring down a mountainside in the dark on two wheels may not sound like everyone's idea of fun. But for one group of women it is a fix of adrenalin. Sue Taylor met the Birds on Bikes.

They refer to themselves jokingly as Birds on Bikes.

Barristers on Bikes or Psychologists on Cycles would be more apt for this group of feisty women, who each Monday night risk life and limb for their weekly fix of mountain bike madness.

And this group of friends from Hebden Bridge are old enough and respectable enough to know better. A group of successful, professional women, average age of 42, who come rain or shine, pound the rugged terrain of the Yorkshire moors on their mountain bikes – at night with only a headlamp to guide them on their way.

Night riding, or the "new black" as it's become known in mountain biking circles, isn't for the faint-hearted. When you ride at night, even familiar descents become more treacherous, whilst unfamiliar climbs seem to go on forever.

But whilst most of us are scurrying indoors once night falls, these women are gearing up to play out.

"It's exhilarating to ride at night. And it makes going up hill that much easier – you can't see how steep it is," says Heidi Fletcher, 42, a law reporter.

Initially she agreed to join Birds on Bikes founder members Kirsty Law and Penny Sheard for a one-off ride. Her partner is a keen biker, so she borrowed his lights and the rest is history.

"There's nothing to beat the thrill of flying down a hill in the pitch black with the wind on your face," says Helen Sunderland, a 45-year-old PA who has sported a black eye at work as proof before now.

And besides, the fear of falling off is often greater than the fall itself, the women all agree.

Mandy Halstead, 42, a catering instructor in a male prison, was left in agony with severe bruising to her thighs after a particularly painful fall but it wasn't long before she was back in the saddle.

And Penny claims the only time she ever completed a perfect cartwheel was when she went over the handlebars straight onto her feet.

It started as a one-off bike ride and slowly but surely, one by one, the women were hooked.

Helen sums it up: "It's my night off, my night to play out. It's like playing out when you were a little girl."

And this is no group of teenage daredevils but a group of professional women – amongst them a barrister, solicitor, a company director and an educational pyschologist – who live for the thrill of Monday nights to help them cope with their busy and often stressful lives. Between them they have a dozen or so children ranging in age from one to 18.

They range in age from 37 to 48.

Tonight it's a particularly cold, wet, windy Monday night but that makes no difference to Birds on Bikes.

They arrive back at base shrieking with laughter and covered in mud (after a mud fight on the moors because they thought they looked too clean for the photoshoot). There's no hint of embarrassment as they pile into the pub, windswept, wet and dirty.

And with their bikes costing between 500 and 2,000 each there's an estimated 8,000 of equipment tied up in a series of complicated bike locks around the back of the pub.

For these women, the mountain bike bug has bit deep. Janine Oldfield, a 38-year-old school bursar has possibly outcycled the others. She recently came second in the women's section of the gruelling Mary Townley Challenge – a 47 mile route starting in neighbouring Lancashire which attracts competitors from all over the country – with a time of six hours and 50 minutes.

And Kirsty, the founder of Birds on Bikes, who is still considered their mentor, competes in the Polaris mountain bike orienteering challenge, along with Penny, an educational psychologist and mother-of-three.

The two day event combines mountain biking with navigation and touring.

Kirsty and Penny go way back. But Kirsty says the only time she's ever seen her friend cry was when a group of officials informed the pair they were about half way round the circuit.

"We thought we'd almost finished. Penny just wailed ... but she kept on pedalling," said Kirsty, a personal trainer with a one-year-old son.

The women have gained great local knowledge through their Monday

night rides.

They take it in turns to suggest routes but agree that Kirsty seems to know the most – and sets the pace. It's a spectacular part of the world and their rides take in such quaintly named places as Nab End, Johnny Gap, Jerusalem Far, Goose Green and the Blue Pig.

"It's a fantastic way to really get to know the area," says Gill.

A marketing director, she is the only one who doesn't live locally, although she used to do. She makes a 100 mile round trip each Monday to join the Birds on Bikes.

The rugged terrain, she says, is such a stark contrast to the flatness of her home town near York, that it's well worth the effort.

But then for all these busy women, its a scramble to get home from work in time. Mandy confesses to nipping into the local Tesco to change into her cycling gear. While Helen gets off the train often with just five minutes to spare.

"It takes a lot to keep us away on a Monday night – for me just about the only time I don't show is when I'm in London for work and I really do resent it," says Heidi.

"We don't see ourselves as doing anything radical, although we do get comments from workmates and other friends who really can't understand why we want to push ourselves so hard and get so dirty all the time," says Jane Hodgson, a barrister.

"And the odd black eye and badly bruised limbs are sometimes embarrassing to explain away!"

But it's a small price to pay for something they love – and the Birds on Bikes wouldn't have it any other way.