Friends like these

Bank Holiday Weekend riding

[ I wrote this a while ago and never published it. Here we are 18 months later and nothing has changed. I am blessed to spend my time with people who I count as something more than brothers.  That means sometimes you have to be something other being a bloke, a self sufficient adult entirely distanced from baring your soul. That’s horseshit. Here’s why]

Those of us lucky enough to have a roof over our heads, a few quid in the bank and no prospect of any debilitating hardship still obsess over ‘whether this is enough?‘, so conveniently forgetting there is a far larger cohort with a much more basic concern around ‘is this enough to buy food for the week?’

There’s something here about how we make judgement calls; maybe these are merely the points of difference between cost and value.  Even so when difficulty strikes, there’s always the instinctive response that somehow this shouldn’t be happening to you. Which is nonsense if you’ve any sense of a non deterministic world. There’s no statute of limitations on stuff outside of your control.  Roll your sleeves up and get on with it. Many people aren’t fortunate enough to have that choice.

When the going gets tough, the conflicted go riding. Two days, eighty kilometres, two thousand metres of climbing, one crash, many beers. That’s the simple beauty to riding mountain bikes. It’s nuance free and transparent of purpose; you’re not setting out a position to carry disparate agendas through a heavily moderated conclusion. You’re not telling lies to assuage the doubts of the timid. You’re not making promises to garner support from the vain and deluded*

Our digital world often interfaces poorly with analogue individuals wondering where the hell the genial shopkeeper went. The binary nature of our everyday transactions is strangely more at home to those of us who cherish dirt over digitisation. Left or right, brake or roll, push or pull, sprint or chill, race or quit. We lose ourselves in a realm where such decisions have real consequences – solving three dimensional problems in real time which has no truck with what Bob from Marketing might be interested in.

This is a righteous thing. For all sorts of reasons. But many of our tribe get it badly wrong. They confuse spending Sundays checking out of reality with making difficult choices, believing selfishness is quite the same thing as finding space to locate the stuff of life.

They are mistaken. Bikes were flat and immobile when I sat in a field  surrounded by friends with whom I’ve shared many adventures. And unburdening myself wasn’t even peripherally related to gaining perspective through big skies, or epiphanies triggered by surviving scary jumps or shuttling round perfect apexes.

That’s all good of course. But I could ride a thousand kilometres and still be a million miles away from what’s important. Which is nothing more than dropping your guard and talking to your mates. Getting stuff out there. Answering questions. Waiting for judgement or taking the piss and, of course, receiving neither.**

Then your ride some more. In my case with a rare level of recklessness which saw me tackling all sorts of scary stuff, before falling close to the last hurdle.  When that’s done, there’s the pub. And the next pub. And the one after that burnished under a summer sky. Wobbling home via a set of steps firing up the adrenalin compressors.

Here’s the thing. I am lucky enough to have many friends; those I work with, those I’ve met through a life spent often in drinking establishments, a few more from those fading days of school and uni. But the people that get me through a tough week are those I ride with every Sunday.

We shall crack on. Maybe knowing a bit more about what friendship means. It’s not quantifiable, but this doesn’t devalue it in the slightest way.  Sharing stuff – good and bad – with friends is what life must really be about. Poverty of friendship must be a terrible thing.

* I’m good at this by the way. Not through any natural talent. I’ve just been doing it for a long time. It does make you despair at the base state of human nature.

** Well not for a bit anyway. About 10 minutes if memory serves 😉

What we have here is a failure to communicate

If you Google 'failing to deliver' this is the first image which appears!
If you Google ‘failing to deliver’ this is the first image which appears!

Nobody does anything, anymore. Instead we’re all about vision statements, milestones, team dynamics, prioritisation and, of course, delivery. Ironic when you consider Yodel* – you only had one fucking job –  trumpets all of these things on its website without actually delivering anything.

Except excuses, disappointment and despair. It’s an enduring mystery to whether this is a sophisticated prank concocted to enrage normally sane and balanced human beings beyond the point of setting fire to the local sorting office**. Set up a website, buy a few sheds, a single knackered transit van and perform evil marketing incantations before sitting back and enjoying the show.

Or, and I’m not sold on this at all, they really are just fucking incompetent. A maxim I’ve lived by is ‘When it all goes to rat-shit, don’t confuse polymaths tweaking the controls of the universe with the basic incompetence of individuals‘ And yet, even this sound principle cannot fully explain the cluster-fuck that is Yodel’s inability to deliver anything at all. Even a passive-aggressive note explaining how it’s all your fault. But more of that later.

Mixing red wine with internet browsing is always dangerous. However ordering fifty quids worth of bike parts hardly feels like a major transgression. Especially as that total breached the threshold for free delivery. One of which has actually happened. I’ve not been charged for a service I haven’t received. I think we can all take a moment to reflect the real value of that transaction.

Done? Back with me? More than the package is after failing to be delivered last Saturday despite the digital lies stalking the tracking system. Some time post non arrival a cryptic message appended the previously jaunty life-is-good tone of the narrative. ‘Short Delay, check back for details‘.

I checked back. The next day and the one after that. The website appeared to be frozen in perpetuity offering nothing other than the package was last seen some three days ago. Right then let’s engage with the much vaunted customer services. Two problems here; one engagement appears to be tiered on three levels; a) being ignored on twitter, b) being ignored on chat and c); being ignored by the entirely unstaffed automated phone system advising you’ll get more joy on tiers one and two.

Secondly, I am not alone. The Yodel Twitter stream is a relentless car crash – a wonderful fusion of Tourettes and Anger Management. Occasionally what’s laughably labelled as the customer experience team sticks their head above the parapet, only to be set upon by packs of rabid customers long divorced from any social niceties not including the words ‘WHERE THE FUCK IS MY PACKAGE YOU FUCKING THIEVES?’

Didn’t seem a lot of point piling in with the slathering masses, so instead I attempted a little humour ‘Hi, have you kidnapped my package and, if so, did I miss the ransom note?’. Ah the naivety – this was back in the days when I believed Yodel could deliver anything at all.

Five days in and we’re still packageless, suspicious of the promise that a delivery type transaction might be happening any day now. To be fair, from the depot to our house is a challenging geographic environment spanning nearly twelve miles. There are rivers and hills between us, so my hope is the delivery driver/mule owner – if such a being actually exists – has packed sandwiches and a sleeping bag for the journey.

Twelve miles tho. In six days. That’s the speed of a flaming stoat. In fact to free my mind from this circular Matrix conundrum – I’m considering setting up a rival organisation to fire said marsupials from cannons pointed vaguely at a compass bearing where a recipient might be. StoatDrone(tm) cannot fail to succeed in a marketplace where Yodel are still in business.

Today tho – after much pleading for Yodel to just do the one fucking thing they are paid for – the website stuttered back into life and showcased a delivery slot ‘sometime before you’re dead but probably today’. I couldn’t have been more excited having chosen this very morn to work at home. Soon, the sound of knackered truck tyre on gravel shall signal the receipt of this mythical package. I’d requested the Mayor of Hereford to attend accompanied by a bard to record  the event in song for future generations.

You may be surprised – I certainly wasn’t – that the event was something of a damp squib. Except for my inflammatory language when informed that ‘no one answered the door you numpty, so we left a card‘. Some issues with actual reality here; we were in all day and no card was left. I wouldn’t have minded if any fucking thing at all had been delivered. Even a card. I’m not precious. A card would have lampooned my theory that Yodel are just a bunch of stoners laughing themselves fucking stupid when anyone attempts to use their service.

A card. Just a card.  It’s not much to ask. Regardless of the fact I was watching the drive eagle eyed – all buoyed up with false hope. But no, what we actually received were lies bouncing about in the echo chamber of Yodel’s unmanned customer service channels.

Still they’re going to deliver it tomorrow. Whatever ‘it is’. It’s been so sodding long now, the contents of the package-that-may-be-delivered-to-my-grandchildren are a mystery to me. It’d be a nice surprise if it ever did turn up. But we all know it isn’t. Maybe I’ll get a card. I’d be pathetically grateful for that.

So Yodel – who I may have mentioned once or twice because even in this remote backwater of the Internet Google Spiders roam – are to courier companies what our current government is to democracy. That’s a whole lot of spin and fuck all delivery.

Thank you for listening.

*a portmanteau of ‘Your‘ and ‘Delivery‘ apparently. Although I prefer to think of it as a desperate vocal intonation to attract the ear of what’s charitably called ‘Customer Services

** sorry distribution centre. A place one imagines where dusty parcels rot in forgotten vast warehouses, while zombie employees cackle at customers who still believe even one of them might ever be delivered.

Lights out

Mince Pie and Sloe Gin Xmas Ride

I always loved Anne Widdicome* for describing then Tory leadership hopeful Michael Howard as ‘having something of the night about him’.  That’s us – right now – facing down the sliding sun benighting our Wednesday night rides for the next six months.

For those of us into double digit four season campaigns, the search for motivation to shift sofa-based arse to the trails, the need for a substantial trust funds to procure multiple drivetrains and the skills to be relearned when everything is going sideways become ever harder as the trails soften.

Lights though, they are bloody brilliant. I’ve invested sufficient funds to shoe the kids for about a hundred years to procure a UK made CNC bean canister projecting light into the next county, and possibly bringing down aircraft  heading for Birmingham International. Instructions showcase twelve modes, trumpet gyroscopic circuitry and acceleration based beam patterns.

Being a mechanical savage I stabbed buttons until ‘Bark-Fire’ was initiated. Mostly accompanied by a Picard-like ‘Make It So’. Lights set to stunning, daylight up front and not much dimmed in the periphery, with an equally awesome helmet light filling the gaps.  Basically, what we’re talking here is a night-sun. Nothing other than your daylight saving meme stops you from ripping the trails at full speed. Well until the water table becomes a physical obstacle.

It was not always like this. Back in the 90s, a burgeoning sport brought forth many men labouring long and hard in sheds up and down the land. Begetting a cut down car battery powering two bar mounted candles giving off a waxy glow for between 90 minutes and about 12. The excitement was never knowing quite which duration would be your companion in the darkness this evening. Lights essentially moulded from discarded fairy liquid bottles were inadequately affixed to narrow bars with ubiquitous zip ties.

Not the greatest solution. On any kind of non-tarmac’d terrain, the lights would slowly – but terrifyingly – rotate 180 degrees to silhouette your frozen features as you smashed into a handy tree. At least you were travelling slowly,  but a couple of hours of this had us shaking our pints onto copper-burnished pub tables narrating to any who would listen ‘you don’t know man, you weren’t there’. Technology marches on and soon we were affixing an approximation of a 1950s Cadillac fin to our bars where HID technology would light the trail in a rather lovely blue, assuming the massive voltage required to start it hadn’t set fire to the local forest.

And now? Now we have a plethora, a smorgasbord, a thousand options from very low cost Chinese imports to upscaled UK sheds from my youth. And while I’m all for the lowering of the barrier of entry for night riding, some of these eBay bargains lack any kind of safety features whatsoever. Which, when you’re stuffing volts and amps into a live medium is something more than a cursory oversight. I may not be your first point of call for fiscal responsibility, but even I can see that if you’re standing in the charred ruins of your house, while being doused by the fire brigade, the £100 saving on a set of cheap lights may be a decision on which you reflect long and hard upon.

Anyway we strap bright lights to bars and fading motivation to bodies and head out into the dark. One of the reasons to do so is the Wednesday night ride is essentially the gap between being clean and being drunk. It’s made all the better by the relentless piss-taking and giggling which accompanies every single one, even when we’re him deep in icy puddles or slashed by hard rain.

Any conversations bypass the hi-brow directly to reboot  ‘Beavis and Butthead go Mountain Biking’.  It can be a little cutting and it is always rude – I tend to abuse my riding pals on everything from ridiculous lighting solutions to stretched riding shirts apparently ‘smuggling a badger’. They respond appropriately asking if maybe I could go a little faster as brake pads are quite expensive.

Jim** tho is a special case. He expresses his true feelings through the interpretive medium of modern crashing. He’s fast and fearless. Even after finding himself dangling from a tree some distance from where his bike is crashing through the undergrowth.  A contributory factor is his lighting solution clearly acquired from a garage promotion where 20 quid of petrol unlocked the possibility of a light-set best thought of as toaster with a bar mount. They have – in no particular order – failed to light at all, fallen off the bars, rotated round to blind Jim – a blessing really as he was about to insert an 100 year oak into his personal geography – and randomly flipped through a Fibonacci set of modes none of which appear to light the ground in front of him

Being a good sport, Jim – a chef by day – explained this illuminating phenomenon was not a toaster at all. We’d entirely misinterpreted his wise and carefully researched purchase. ‘This’ – he proudly intoned indicating the plastic-by-the-lowest-cost-bidder on his bars – ‘is a superb, value engineered off road lighting system. With a crumpet setting’.  Before we went full dark, rides have been light-amibivalent starting in the day, fading into dusk before disappearing into full black. Riding in the twilight is horrible, hard to know if to trust your lights or your aged eyeballs. Riders pirouetting into the local shrubbery – I’m looking at you Ian B – suggests decisions were not always well made.

Jim tho, he’s not a man to waste electrons. Turns his lights on only when hands and faces cannot be visibly confirmed. The last descent on an early autumn ride finds us high above the vans with a brilliant kilometre of buff singletrack to carve through. It’s proper dark tho, and we’re all attaching cables and tweaking the angle of dangle. Cutting through this faff came the buzz of over-driven LEDs arcing into the forest canopy.  Jim has lined up various batteries in series and brazenly selected a Spinal Tap-11 setting.

A voice broke the respectful and awed silence. And this is what we heard ‘He’s only gone FULL CRUMPET’. Cue riders falling off bikes in paralysed amusement. You probably had to be there. And you should because this is the essence of the Wednesday night ride. I aways come back with a massive grin and still find myself chortling the following day when others demand a thin veneer of professionalism. The is somewhat beyond me because while my body is synchronised to a boring day, my mind is still lost in the night.

And however shit it gets – and it will get shit – we’ll just keep doing it because it’s stupid, it’s silly and it’s not sitting on the sofa getting fat.

As a reward there is always beer to toast the ride. Or possibly a crumpet.

*in purely a literal sense.

**this is a man who turned up for the night ride one day TWENTY FOUR HOURS after his wife had given birth to their second child. Respect is due.

What’s your best day on a bike ?

San Francisco - Day 2

(wrote this while we were in San Francisco. Seems a long time ago now!)

There are so many.  Epic days lost in the mist shrouding high places, dust blind  on summer alpine singletrack,  numb fingered on frosty night rides with owls silhouetted under a harvest moon, or summer days heart bursting between the trees and always a beer to finish.

These are good of course, great even. Retrieved from deep storage when spiteful rain smashes office window panes. Shared experiences with those who are a bit like you, who ‘get it’, who know the rolled eyes of partners who don’t. There’s much to celebrate here- like minded friends and awesome trails. It should be enough but strangely it isn’t.

The skeleton in the closet is made flesh each time you leave the house and abandon those in your care. They say it’s fine and mostly it is, but this doesn’t absolve you of the guilt that you could have done more. It fails to assuage the regret of being a bit of a rubbish Dad. It exposes the vicarious failing of making those in your image.

I taught my wife to ride. It went well right up to the point where she ended up in hospital. Undaunted my kids received similar training progressing from stabilisers to full on bling mountain bikes in all the time you could ask ‘are you enjoying this?‘, One of them did before encountering teenage-ism, the other less so trying hard but mostly spending his time lying in bushes wondering if we could go home now.

So I gave up. Three bikes gathered dust on the wall whilst mine were campaigned through many seasons, ever changing but anchored by the constant that it was all about me. Today we changed that a little bit and now I finally get it’s not about the bike.

San Francisco is a very bike-y city. Can’t move for the bloody things weaving between the ear-phoned runners and deluded segway riders.  Many of the 17 million visitors a year wobble dangerously on brilliant shared cycle paths heading mostly to the iconic bridge and occasionally into the local scrub.

Two of my family don’t ride at all. A problem solved finding one of the bike-hiring multitude offered tandems of dubious provenance.  We hired a pair, one with rusted forks offering around two kilos of weight in exchange for an inch of travel, the other shod with tyres exactly one generation downstream from the discovery of vulcanisation.

Initial Leigh to Bicycle interfaces didn’t go so well. Brakes the wrong way round would have been a problem had they offered anything but bar mounted accessorisaion. About the front brake? Yes? I would have liked one. Those bars spanned a width last seen on 1980s race bikes from which the vertical head angle had been stolen.  It should not be possible that any bike with a length occupying two States simultaneously to be eyebrow-steeringly twitchy. And yet through the magic of geometry I found myself wobbling in the direction of the Pacific while sawing desperately at the hip width bars.

And I ride bikes a lot, My youngest daughter has barely swung a leg over a top tube for a year and while game, was in danger of chucking herself and her brother into a passing taxi.

Family meeting. Kids split between bikes. I get the nervous eldest as my stoker and Carol’s bravely assumed the rear position on the drunken perambulator piloted by Jess. It’s hard to think of what possibly could go wrong.

Nothing did. We rode brilliant bike paths, were overtaken by keen joggers, stopped a hundred times to capture jaw dropping vistas, pushed a bit, pedalled a bit more all the time making inexorable progress towards the bridge. Progress briefly halted when the family idiot abandoned his helmet at the bottom of one of the few chewy climbs on the route.

Dispatch the stoker and head back down. I’ve ridden many rubbish mountain bikes on sketchy descents and been properly scared. Yet nothing prepared me for the terror of 45lbs of acute-angled pig iron barely adhered to the tarmac on perished tyres. I cannot believe you’d ride one of these off road. And survive anyway.

The bridge was amazing – windy, crowded and noisy but amazing nevertheless. I was heart-burstingly proud of our little family getting it done, ignoring the carbon transported, Rapha clothed, shaven legged weekend heroes passing with an inch to spare*, instead being open mouthed at the view and the very fact we were riding this iconic infrastructure mostly only seen being destroyed in movies.

The descent under the bridge wasn’t without incident. I’ve got the boy leaning in and we’re topping 40kph on tyres held together by a few threads and habit while, not far behind us, Jess and Carol are close to bouncing off walls due to what I’ll charitably call Jess’s lack of spacial awareness.

We survive and it’s 3km up one big hill and then cruising down the far side to the ferry. Time for an ice cream and some high fives. There’s talk of tender arses and weary legs but that’s the first sniff of complaint I’ve heard all day.

This ride had no technical difficulty. We averaged a speed that wouldn’t trouble a weekend jogger. The bikes were terrible. But they were also awesome being the medium in which we all had a bloody lovely time, Last time I crossed the Golden Gate bridge was on a Harley some 15 years ago with a bunch of like-minded mates.

That was great. This was better. It’s really not about the bike.

*on my way back up the hill after forgetting my helmet, I overtook two roadies and kept them behind all the way, Awarding me a strava position of 7,205 of 22,000 on that climb. Says way more about them that me 🙂

Done and flustered

Nearly there

A few weeks ago, a very nice man made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Come and work with us on this insanely complex project, defined with aspirational deadlines set by a community of the unwilling who move at all the speed of turtles wading through a sea of treacle.

Just my kind of thing. Before I sign up tho, let me raise the little matter of buggering off for 6 working days after putting in a massive shift of a full two weeks. Fine he said. I am so damn lucky to work for these kind of people. Still after a decade and a bit in financial services, I think I’m probably owed 😉

These two weeks tho. Blimey. Reintroducing myself to the wobbly spectrum of higher education after two months of sloth kick started my delivery gene. Give me a deadline and you’ll create a monster. We have many deadlines, all of them requiring much in the production of fully fledged plans and artefacts that’ll survive the harsh light of academic peer review.

Best get busy then. Not easy when being pinged from one end of the country to another on 7am flights and late finishes. All the time wondering if we are the last generation to embrace the devil that is email, how come we got the rough end of that particular deal? You have 93 new messages and most of them appear to be at least mildly vexed.

All this against a backdrop of podium form dithering of which bike to take. First world problems right there. It’s bad enough waking up at 3am in the morning having a OMFG vocational moment, without it being followed by ‘well the chubby has rubbish tyres, but I think it’s more fun. Maybe if I packed Matt’s van floor to ceiling with spare tubes and fashioned some kind of bike trailer, it could be a goer‘.

It probably couldn’t. And the prospect of pissing off my best friends for days on end as I’m stuck if a viscous cycle of shredded rubber* finally convinced me to take the Aeris. Especially after Matt had used all sorts of percussion to remove 10 recalcitrant bearings all of which were on the wrong side of a bit tired.

I felt terrible adding that the seatpost has a bad case of droop seemingly brought on by introducing the FlareMax into the ShedofDreams. Before that tho, fitting box fresh bearings into the frame was a team effort where I was allowed to wield the hammer. I’ve never really doubted Matt’s bravery on a bike, but frankly this was almost like a suicide wish.

Amazingly un-clubbed, he used those digits to strip layers of the Reverb in the manner of a man dismantling a priceless Russian Doll** before declaring it was broken beyond even the rambling pantheon of his spare parts bin.

It’s fixed now of course. Took no time at all once I wasn’t involved, having been trapped in the Great Western Railway vortex of exploding signals***.  An experience I’ll be repeating over the next two days while spares are accumulated, tools are selected and vans are packed.

My only job is to get my personal gear together. A job made harder by the vastness of my clothing collection far outstripping anything that’d pass as normal wear. And my inability to create order from chaos when considering a massive pile of stuff and a small bag.

The resolution of which I have Carol to thank who through some kind of innate ability to dry-stone-wall filed much stuff into not much space. I decided my best contribution would be to perform a fire sale on my inbox using cold beer as an accelerant.

Ready then? Not really. Excited tho. Road-trips still do this and it’ll be a sad day when they don’t. Two days of standing up in front of many people exuding a thin veneer of professionalism. before running away for a week of liver damage interspersed with amazing riding.

I wonder if I packed any pants? Only eight days, it’ll be fine.

*I’ll probably piss them off with all sorts of other stuff. No point getting ahead of myself here.

** I know what some of you are thinking. Really,  I blame the internet.

*** wrong type of sun

We’re going to need a bigger tyre

Cwmcarn MTB

This time next week, six friends and I will relocate to the stunning beauty of the Ardeche in southern France. I fully expect there to be epic riding and even more epic hangovers if last year is to provide any kind of baseline.

Then I took the perfect bike even if the rider was at no times perfect. In reality my capability swung randomly from borderline competent to broken man with much mincing, excuses and lying down in massive rock gardens running a full diagnostic check in between.

The bike tho – long, low, slack, superb long travel fork, clever shock, stiff wheels, sticky tyres and dropper post. It’s a full house at the Enduro Bingo. With 4000 km under wheel, we should share the empathy of the Lone Ranger and Silver,  Bernie Winters and Schnorbitz or possibly Sonny and Skippy* – except Skippy tended to bring Sonny problems, while the Aeris is really good at solving them.

Well it would be were it not be for my inability to let it strut its stuff. It’s reasonable to expect after all this time together, we’ll laughably dispatch any obstacle demanding full commitment, a modicum of skill and a bloody good bike. One out of three isn’t bad. Don’t get me wrong I’m not disappointed with the bike, it’s more the other way round.

I’m sure those extruded alumnium tubes resonate with a ‘for fucks sake, just get it done’ as I sit brakes clenched hard at the top of whatever everyone else is riding. Or the forks whispering ‘six inches of well damped travel here,  any time you feel you might want to get involved, we’re ready to go‘.

There’s some comfort in that I’m not entirely alone, after an unguarded comment from a major bike company explained that at least half the buyers of their most capable bikes really should be buying something a little closer to their ability. As opposed to their aspiration.

Still I’m dithering. Which bike for the Ardeche? The shining example of a modern trail bike or the double chubby missing all sorts of important stuff too long to list; let’s start with tyres not vulcanised with a nanometre of sidewall, a set of forks clearly too short for anyone with a gnarly vibe, angles that don’t punch the front wheel out some way to the horizon, and many other components shoulder-shruggingly unavailable in that rural distract of southern France.

Let’s test that. The trail-centre at Cwmcarn is hardly a cipher for the unrelenting geology we’re riding a mere seven days hence. Better than the Forest tho which is pretty much loam. First descent burst the bubble these tyres have any mountain credentials. Small rock strike, instant deflation. No problem, fire up the tubeless repair kit. Ah, bugger left that at home – never mind a 27.5+ tube will get us going.

That’s at home too. Eventually we fashioned a repair using a stretched standard tube which eventually inflated the chubby tyre to something usable. And use it we did – riding both trails before climbing to the top of the uplifted downhill tracks. Before that, this.

There’s a logical fallacy which predicts ‘new bikes will make me faster’. Like that’s a valid metric to measure yourself by. If it’s a road bike, fine if that’s your sort of thing. Mountain biking is so much more nuanced. Quantitive measurement from Strava and the like is a pale copy of the richer qualitative emotions from joy to terror passing through calm, fulfilled, awe and joy. We’re basically an organic experience of the movie Inside Out.

Trail centres transfer most of the risk from rider to designer. Leaving us riders to abandon caution at the car park and throw ourselves enthusiastically at the epicentre of GPS surveying, complex funding, heavy machinery and blokes with spades. We should thank them all because when they get it right, they so do get it right.

Chasing Dean on a smooth but fast section reminded me of what I love about knobbly tyres of any width. That whole mythical flow thing. Being braver than you remembered last time. Marvelling at what bike designers might have been thinking, wondering if you can go maybe a little bit harder and giggling in relief when you survive answering that question.

The double chubby is beautifully balanced. It does require a willing audience though to get the most from it. Push it a bit and it pushes back with all sorts of haptic feedback. Let it run and it will run like Forrest Gump on amphetamines. Trees thrown at your optic nerves like sideways scrolling platform games**. Drops dropped, jumps jumped, corners apex’d with twisted necks and deep breaths. Stuff of life. Right here.

So yeah let’s ride the DH course. Been nearly 10 years since i last did that fully armoured up and mostly intimidated. This time not so much although with next week in mind, I started off small and worked down.  Then we switched the final XC descent. Smooth I thought, not fast. Like the latter was ever going to happen.

Dropped in with my good mate David drafting the rear wheel. Remembered enough to leave the brakes alone. Trusted enough not to grab them inappropriately. Looking far enough ahead to swing the bike between perfect apexes. Popping over jumps and having a proper go at the only drop. It’s over in less than a minute, but that’s 59 seconds of undiluted joy.

After which my haste to say goodbye was triggered by the need to swap tyres to something at least one evolutionary branch displaced from paper. Done that, had a beer, not made a decision. Not riding now until we fall out of the van some 14 hours from here.

Still dithering. Might be over-thinking it 😉

*I might be showing my age a here.

** and again.

My big fat geek shedding

Cotic Flare Max. First ride 😄

We established early on that fat bikes are silly. Ridiculous even. Especially when campaigned in their endless look-at-me-glory in a landlocked county miles from any sand. Short of riding through the detritus of a builders van, they have all the efficacy of a chocolate fireguard.

Fun tho. Most would agree, if only briefly.  In the same vein as one should try everything once other than buggery and bankruptcy* – having invested none too wisely in Fat Futures, I’ve flirted dangerously with at least one of those**

So silly and fun, for a given value of fun. Oh no dear reader we’re missing the point here. Fat Bikes are nothing less than a gateway drug into the sordid world of the chubby. First we get fat, then we get chubby. Some may be dragged in only to publicly shun the dragon chasing rush of the semi-fat by pretending they didn’t inhale, while many others are lost in a maelstrom of standards, sizes and a fetishness for rubber which suggests other specialist publications.

My name is Alex and it’s been 4 hours since my last chubby. And 4 months since the fat bike saw light outside the shedofdreams. Not quite true, I lent it to the local bike shop whose mechanic was extremely keen to give it a try. Two months later it was EXACTLY where I left it attracting much interest but no actual riding.

Not wishing to consign it to the endless experience of a bike shaped elephant man,  I threw it back in the rather crowded shed between many other bikes all of which were being ridden. And a parts bin that had ‘new bike’ written all over it. Which is probably the same phrase that’ll pointedly anoint my gravestone. Fat though is still good. I’ve been to the USA recently. Trust me, fat can be very good indeed if you’re elbows deep into a burger the size of a small island and cheerful staff are reaching over to pass you a cold beer. 4 Kilo’s of overweight baggage returning in Seat 43c cannot be wrong.

Chubby tho is just a little bit better. In that if everyone is fat you don’t feel left out. We can all be big boned with an overactive thyroid. Slow metabolism, fast pie hand and all that.  But when you’re pin balling between trees while your thinner tyre-d friends pop over the horizon, it feels as if you’ve been matriculated into a club of exactly one. And the piss taking. That can get a bit old as well.

Switch to chubby, and I’m still not going to be out front – unless everyone else wants a rest – but at least I’m in the same post code as those with whom I just climbed the last hill with.  All the fat bike traits – other than the reflected glory of being visibly different – bonkers grip, monster truck roll-ability, nutty cornering velocity and cartoon looks are pretty much there. And you can suspend normal looking frames between them without breaking many of the rules that make mountain bikes endlessly practical. Suspension for a start.

Suspension on a fat bike has a few advocates. Most of whom waffle and displace in the manner of any modern politician. 4 inches of damped vertical movement fighting about half of that undamped by a massive tyre is hardly a byword for effective vibration quelling. And there’s the whole Fat culture which states one must be fully rigid to pass into the Masonic Groupthink.. All the time being vigorously bearded.  Terrible generalisations I know but as I’ve just sold my fatbike I’m free of ridicule by association. Although not ridicule because of what happened next.

I have a chubby bike. It’s my Trek Stache. I bought it very cheaply in order to upgrade it very expensively. At which point it was perfect. Then I demo’d a full suss chubby in the pissing rain a few weeks ago. Wet roots, muddy trails – dampness abounded, it was an inauspicious day to pretend the emperor may indeed be wearing some new clothes. I loved it tho, not the one recommended but the nimble version a size below. As nimble as a pair of tyres summing to nearly six inches can be. Rode the bigger one, didn’t like it. Rode the one with normal tyres, didn’t like that either. Only had eyes for the Stubby Chubby. Which is pretty much the bike resembling the potential owner.

So I bought one. Built it  last night- well not me but Matt which proved apposite since it involved innovative engineering way beyond ‘do you think this might invalidate the warranty?’ when it came to certain components – rode it today. Box fresh bikes always ride the best, that’s the lore. New bike goggles rarely suggest anything else.

Will it make me faster? Of course it fucking won’t. No bike, however fantastic, can do that. If it has brakes anyway. Does it replace anything? No again I’m afraid. Although I sold the fat bike to a mate as he wanted one, whilst I’m currently in a mental cycle which thinks I don’t.  Will I have more fun? Dunno, I’ll probably tell myself I am.

Do new bikes make me happy? Oh Yeah. Isn’t that really shallow? Indeed it is. Do I care? Not massively 🙂

*Apparently Thomas Beecham considered incest and morris dancing the baseline a few years back. But Oscar Wilde got there first so we’re going with the senior man here.

** Bankruptcy just so we’re absolutely clear.

A man walks into a shop..

Amber - 8 weeks

.. sounds like a setup for a joke. Very much like the one we’ve all heard before. First time was eight years ago ending in this punchline where the search for furniture finished in finding a dog we weren’t looking for. What are the chances of that ever happening again?

Based on the available evidence in the photograph, pretty damn high. However on diving deeper into the available data, of which the headline is Carol’s firmly held maxim of ‘one dog, one wife’, ‘two dogs, no wife‘, the result was uncertain at best. This iron principle resisted the slightest bending even when tested in the white heat of numerous friends offering puppies with a cute score of 100. On a scale of 1-10.

Murf’s not getting any younger. Like his best mate, he’s going grey around the edges, a little wider in the middle and a fair bit slower in the twisties* Other than the prospect of any type of food, he only becomes noticeably animated when another dog turns up to play.

So my angle was to position him as an ageing playboy who yearns for a younger partner to spice up his life. The other – unspoken – reason is in a few years there will be a dog shaped hole in our lives that I’m absolutely unwilling to fall into.

For all of this, Carol has been understandably steadfast as it is she who holds responsibility for adult behaviour in this family. Which includes considering how  to fit a second dog into a busy schedule of school, clubs, trips and holidays. And a husband who will regularly waves an airy goodbye before buggering off to ride bikes in foreign climbs for weeks on end.

The odds, then, not entirely in my favour. Serendipity is quite the wonderful thing tho, fate rolls a dice and sometimes – just at the edge of probability – you’re looking at a double six. Or the lovely person who sells me life-giving java beans innocently offering a phone full of images cataloguing the early lives of her labrador pups.

Accidents abound. Her two dogs were separated by a stair gate but the primeval urge to couple proved this was no barrier, leaving the bitch to deliver three healthy puppies a couple of months later. All were spoken for, but we pleaded if any became available then a perfect family would be on the point of ecstatic explosion if one could come home.

Possibly overdid a bit there. Next day tho, Carol returns with no.1 child to show this absolutely is a family affair, but with holidays looming we’re second in the queue.  I’m in full expectation setting mode, but secretly hoping for fate to roll me a second double.

Dropping aerial anchor in San Francisco**, my phone beeped with a hazy picture and a clear message the pup was going to be ours. Much rejoicing in the little family unit until jet lag kicked in, but regular PUPdates(c) tied the thread across two continents. The pup was both lovely and clearly and a bit of a hooligan. Many pictures of her eating things, anything really, attacking her sisters, her owners and – for reasons not entirely clear – the dishwasher.

It’ll be fine I thought. She’s a lab. Placid. Check out Murf. Exhibit A over there, couldn’t be any more laid back even if we spiked his food with skunk-weed. Arriving home, the kids and Carol had their first experience of Amber – both her innate cuteness and needle sharp teeth. I was out riding of course. I mean pups are important but I hadn’t been on a proper bike for three weeks!

Thursday last we fetched her from the vets. And the owners who were a little teary to let her go. Got me as well. Lumpy throats and promises to bring her back soon eventually separated her from the mother ship. Back home to our pup proofed house and – basically – BEDLAM.

Murf went predictably mental when a self-throwing stick cowered under the chair. Since then he’s had an expression of extreme tolerance that pretty much translates to ‘she’s not going home is she?‘ The pup steals everything. Shoes, food, paper, boxes, wellington boots, electrical leads and, in an audacious heist, nearly a full bottle from the wine Dalek.

And all of Murf’s toys. Or her toys as they have been re-appropraited. It’s funny watching the short legged pup playing wall of death as Murf attempts to swing her off the end of his favourite stick. She’s fearless tho, and he’s so bloody good natured that there’s only ever one winner. Twice he’s swatted her with a big paw but even when she’s chewing his tail or sitting on his head***, he just turns those big brown eyes to me that say ‘Senior Man here. Bit of respect wouldn’t go amiss‘.

Probably not going to happen. At nearly 10 weeks she’s growing fast enough to notice it on a daily basis. She’s peeing on the floor a little less and starting to understand total anarchy isn’t the prevailing world view. Still a pup tho and a very different personality to Murf.

I hope she makes him happy. I think she will. She’ll certainly make us happy. It’s like having two kids, you never halve the love for one of them, merely double it. I know not everyone gets pets, but I wouldn’t be without them. Even when the latest addition just chewed my iPhone 😉

*to be fair neither Murf or I were very fast in the first place, so any decline is barely noticeable.

** at the end of which the co-pilot was going to have to do some fast talking to explain that landing. Both of them.

*** these are her two favourite activities.

To insanity and beyond

Enlongened Chubby!

That’s paraphrasing Buzz Lightyear;  now that was a toy who constantly over-stated his own importance. So deluded believing he could fly. Yeah, we’ve all been there Buzz. There’s an ironic tautology in his original mission statement with infinity being unreachable so making beyond achievable. This is how I think of my quest to divine the perfect bicycle.

In a world of chaos, standards should bring order. Which would be fine were there not so many competing ones to choose from. Not satisfied with creating three wheel sizes all within a finger length of each other, those cheeky innovators – who cunningly fuse product and marketing in onomatopoeic triumph – make serious claims that the one true way lies* in increasing both length and girth**

Enter boost, the proto-standard for wider hubs, stiffer wheels and fatter tyres. Not fat bike width because that’s both silly and already selling to a willing audience. Mostly vigorously bearded within an ever decreasing circle of like-minded fundamentalists . So ‘Plus’ are differently great squashing into a niche between too fat and not quite fat enough. I should know I bought one but really wanted two. For even within this brave new world, no one is quite sure yet who might be king – is it 29+ built into special frames with bold new graphics?  Or it’s littler brother, 27.5+ surfing on the zeitgeist of last years brand new thing which is cram-able into existing frames with just a fork upgrade.

I ignored such obvious increments feeling because my big Chubby was already so good. The only thing I didn’t  much like  was the fork, festooned with more knobs than a BMW event and equally slippery in the corners. So in a budget conscious upgrade I researched and purchased a replacement with a little more travel ignoring my peers who live by the rule that moooarr is always better.  An extra inch would be fine*, perfect in fact. Except the product researched was not the same as the one purchased – a technical oversight only appreciated once we’d cut the steerer and attempted to refit the 29+ wheel. In that order. Fork would only fit 27.5+. Bugger.

The sensible option – having drowned the mirth of my mates in beer – would have been to sell at a small loss and start again, or stick ‘em on the shelf as realistically they’d be handily located close to the conveyer belt of my bike ownership.  What I did instead tells you a lot about my insanity trajectory.  Fuelled initially by a slightly less piss-taking pal who offered me his 650b+ wheels to try in the frame. Great I said, except the front one won’t fit as it’s last weeks standard. No problem I’ll just build a new one as – again – proximity to the shed suggests it’d end up being useful for something. In this case as the front half of my shortened dandy-horse with bits flipped and wheelbase shortened. Most bike makers have no idea which standard might finally stick so are designing frames to take basically anything in a throwing shit at a wall kind of way.

Even this simple change wasn’t simple at all with 10-to-11 speed conversions being wrangled around SRAM and Shimano refusing to accept the existence of each other. Eventually we hit the trails at which point my first thought was ‘I wish I’d bought the longer fork now the wheels are smaller’. Said nothing tho as not wishing to be an accessory to manslaughter when anyone within hearing distance died from laughter. A few more rides convinced me this could very much be the boost I was looking for. Upsides included far snappier turn in – tales of ringing bells and shouting full right rudder from riders on 29+ are over-stated – but there’s a difference in the tight stuff where this felt closer to an extremely well damped hardtail and less like a full on fat bike.

Acceleration was a little quicker, tyre choice is better especially if you have access to Haydn’s rubber emporium where he seems to have bought every plus tyre known to man and possibly a few illegal remoulds. Downsides were there’s a bit of cush – especially on the rear – you lose and a little of the monster truck roll over is compromised, but mainly that my tyre-hoarding friend not unreasonably wanted his wheel back.

Again if Mr Sensible were in the driving seat, we’d be back on the road to financial probity and refitting the parts owned and paid for. Never going to happen because Impetuous the drunk took the wheel, crashed into the bike shop and pointed at shiny new round things demanding the owner ‘take my money’, Which he did delivering back a perfect wheel naked as the day it was made. A second trip to Haydn’s warehouse of all things rubbery and we were ready to go, travel great distances and conquer huge obstacles powered by rightness and the satisfaction of having followed our dreams – a place where logic, rationale and imminent bankruptcy rarely get a look in.

Except we weren’t. Because the disks from the old wheels were one standard and the new ones something else entirely, And the chain too worn to run on a new cassette which also necessitated further transmission purchases to guarantee smooth running. Smooth that is, if a little harsh – you see I couldn’t shake the feeling that a 140mm fork would be so much better than the clearly inferior 120mm admirably holding up the front end.

Parts were ordered, parts failed to turn up, suppliers were shouted at, parts still failed to turn up, the world turned and I kept riding the chubby in drying conditions. And it was close to brilliant on the local trails, bang it into a corner, MBR high elbow optional – but you know for the look of the thing –  eyes on the apex, fingers off the brakes and experience the magic of 3 inch tyres biting into tortured dirt. If you push just a little bit harder, it’ll fling you out the other side with little pilot input other than a big grin. Sure all bikes do this, but chubby’s do it a bit better if – like me – you’re not really very good at the whole entry-apex-exit thing.  So yeah, fab but that fork….

Finally the part, which I’d now recategorised as a mythical beast that was much heard about but never seen, arrived and a single day later we were riding atop a longer fork and IT WAS FINISHED. Irritatingly finished 24 hours before a family holiday entirely incompatible with tree splattering injuries. Best take it easy then especially as the suspension-man gave me strict instruction to run the fork a little harder than my normal ‘yeah that’s abut right’ level of sag.  Mincing about it still seemed to be going quite fast, with the now perfect fork using nowhere near full travel even when challenged with some of my rubbish landings.

If anything tho, it whipped round the corners with even more precision. Not a word to be used lightly when I’m behind the bars. It gave me a bit more confidence which was rewarded with a bit more speed which then led to less braking and even more speed. Speed being a relative term but the devil that is Strava said nice things once we’d dusted ourselves off in the pub.

So have the four figure upgrades delivered value then? I guess that depends on your definition of value. Qualitatively, absolutely not – the cost of the minor increase in performance cannot be justified even within the skewed universe I inhabit. Qualitatively tho – that’s harder, it’s been a fun experience and I absolutely love the chubby. The Aeris is a better all round bike of course, but I think the plus bike is just a bit more fun. As if it makes cornering – which makes up a fairly substantial part of of the riding metier – a little closer to perfection,  you cannot put a price on that.

Two things to finish on – firstly after that first ride a good 20mm of suspension travel remained unused. Yep exactly the place I came in thinking that was all the bike lacked. Secondly my favourite bike manufacturer has unveiled some thigh-rubbing chubby full suss bikes two of which I’ll be demo-ing next month. I can’t see that ending well.

C’mon Buzz we’ve infinity to discover.

*either semantic definition works here.

**and there’s not many who would argue with that. Not those with x and y chromosomes anyway.

*** I’m not doing this on purpose. I’ve already taken out two references to ‘flange’

Go Long

Biggest MTB ride for a while

Ride day – standing in the shedofdreams(tm) staring disconsolately at the rain. Bike ready, rider ready, door open to a world of opportunity, sky full of wet. Storm trooper clouds ranked in darkening shades of grey. Wind bending summer vegetation horizontal and accelerating spiteful precipitation.

It’s not climate change, it’s weather. Can’t help feeling it might be both with the Jet Stream lying heavy at a blocking latitude so separating our little storm tossed island from a baking continent. Meteorological BREXIT right there.

I believe a heartfelt ‘fuck it’ might be in order here. Get on the bike and pedal into the warm rain. It’s more tropical rainforest than temperate atlantic. Sweat is  everywhere except up top where it takes a further two miles to reconcile cool head with lack of helmet. Sign, switch direction, grab hat, turn about, check watch, second fuck it of the day, crank like a man being chased by a bear to hit the start deadline.

This, I reflect, breathlessly is exactly the reason riding starts with driving – solving difficult pre-coffee problems of spikey bikes and knackered trailers equating to a 10 minute journey into Ross. Ignoring internal combustion it’s only 5 minutes longer to get there under my ever increasing steam. Rarely do so tho due to the prevailing geography of a sodding massive hill inconveniently positioned between pub and gasping collapse in the shed come 6pm. Not today. I refer you to previous fuck it comments.

Arrive at rendezvous. Nonchalantly mention I’ve heroically ridden 10km to get here. Receive little vainglorious feedback. Make the point it a bit more strongly. Still not getting much back. Sulk as we head out on relentless damp trails that were last dry in April. As a dirty protest I’ve refused to clothe myself in sufficient winter gear to waterproof a small elephant, but ground conditions suggest I may have chosen poorly.  Never mind on we go.

Two hours to Bacon. There’s not too much excitement in between. A steep up’n’down in the local woods, then broken roads and steep tarmac ascents with flat puddles reflecting riders silhouetted by steepled cloud. It’s good to be back out on the bike tho after a week of travelling, London, meetings, early mornings and late finishes. All that falls away as we climb two valleys before finally dropping into some singletrack wet after rain but joyous nevertheless. I bottle a jump, fall into a hole hidden by Dr Livingstone vegetation but nevertheless arrive at Burnt-Pig-Central only mildly bruised and muddied.

We pick up Tim – a new member of the cohort yet to be inducted to the order of the Claret.  Only a matter of time as we head off into the Forest which last week was pretty much winter except with warmer water. It’s a little better this time around but still hard-pack is a distant memory. As is my fitness which appears to have already left for its summer holidays leaving me to gasp uphills with legs only interested in a mutinous walking of the plank.

Finally some downhill. Pretty good as well, breathed on by the trail pixies, it’s flowy, bermed and occasionally enlivened by scary gap jumps. We all make our way down except for Tim whose brave effort at a slippy roll in ends in multiple  bleedings from three different extremities. Welcome to the club fella – you might want to think about some knee pads.

We ride on – Tim’s far tougher than me and doesn’t complain about his various leakages – first re-learning winter skills on an exposed trail and then pine needle harvesting on a long singletrack best remembered for wild hip movements and shape throwing threading wide bars through narrow trees.  I bang my shoulder twice and flip a bar plug out, after confusing cockiness with precision, but we’re through and relaxing with an ice cream in the rain.

Inevitably talk turns to what’s next and my entreaties for a quick route home are countered by the DDM (see here: fundamentalism which suggests no one is close to death yet. So it’s another big climb followed by perfect dirt seemingly unmarked by the rain. So much fun, it was almost like summer out there.

Not for long. Road grind took us to the other side of the forest mired deep in slop and energy sucking terrain. Get that done, head to the pub on thankfully drier trails. Quick check of the watch shows the little hand on 4 and I’m still 25km from home. Doesn’t stop the clamour for a beer, but stays the next one as we train it back to Ross with the first tailwind of our day on our backs.

Another pub. Another pint but then I’m up and gone leaving the fellas to the late afternoon sunshine and their G&Ts. Passed what is normally the last climb at a far reduced pace knowing the next big hill wasn’t being conquered in the car.

That last 10km was a bit of an effort. Desperate to freewheel to ease cramping limbs and – frankly – an arse which really didn’t want to spend another second on the saddle. Finally home hoved into view.  There were no banners or finishing lines, merely a shed to dump the bike and a long suffering partner offering me food, then more food and when that was done, whatever was left in the fridge.

The following morning I was walking like a cowboy recently introduced to a difficult horse. Sometimes though you have to test yourself a little bit. Extend the horizon, don’t take the easy option, see how far you can push your ageing body.

Go long or go home. Or in my case, both.