Saved by the gel

One dirty and ridden, one clean and ready to go

Today we talked about training. It’s important to provide some context here; we were sat outside the pub wolfing down crisps and re-hydrating with Wye Valley’s finest liquid products.

We’re vaguely familiar with the concept of junk miles. We’ve heard about rest days. We’re aware other dabble in the mystical world of Vo2 thresholds. There was however a universal ‘what-the-fuck-really’? when the alien concept of weighing ones food was introduced.

It’s fair to say training programmes are generally happening to someone else. Not that we sneer at such efforts from a position of medical certainty. The last time Matt wondered aloud what the bump on his head might be, the Saracens Head Oncology Unit instantly diagnosed him with a life threatening tumour. Or Cat Aids. Possibly both.

We just ride loads. And, in my case, drink too much, attack cheese in the kind of frenzy last campaigned by the Mongol Hoards and rarely pass the biscuit barrel without making a significant withdrawal. Which may explain why some days you  sit astride your bicycle bending mountains to your will, and others when the entire ride is spent wondering who signed the holiday chit for both your lungs and legs.

Today was more of a ‘I can see my legs but they’re not taking much input from the skull hosted root vegetable’. Always ready to blame something else, my first excuse was the prevailing ground conditions tending to the wearisome plasticine.  Didn’t seem to be slowing the others down much. Switching channels, the issue was obviously a bike unridden for three months.

That’ll be the Pyga then. Now sporting a longer fork and a fat rear tyre. It felt a little dead after the Aeris, but hard to target it as the problem since it’s carried me over 4000 kilometres in these last two years. Short of a hovercraft, there’s nothing stopping me being at least average other than just being me.

In despair, I rooted deep into the pack harvesting a sickly energy gel of doubtful provenance. Two hours in and three more to go – because that’s the minimum  period to qualify for a Doran Death March –  any kind of supplement was beyond welcome and deep into necessary.

I’ve always had a deep-seated, if entirely illogical, mistrust of this kind of thing. My experience of gels is not what’s in the inside. During my long yet undistinguished racing career, sticky wrappers clung to innocent foliage inside the tapes. Lots of middle placed pilots struggling with a humour bypass felt the best thing about being outside was to litter it with non biodegradable packaging.

Not me. Mid pack at best but right on. Bananas, malt loaf, any wrappers stuffed into shorts not stay pressing my crotch. Tutting as those whippets wrestled their way past – fast you may be, but a planet loving human you are not. It was practically Yoda.

Trail food nowadays tends to come in packets marked ‘Caution – extremely sugary product within‘. Wine gums, jelly beans, chewy snakes and Haribo. Many times on wintry hillsides bereft of motivation, a hit on the glucose gland has returned us to good cheer.

So mid ride stops tend to coalesce around establishments selling outsized bacon sandwiches. Washed down with sugar suspended in strong black coffee.  None of those things were immediately available, leaving me no option other than to chug down a gelatinous creation promising instant pep through the flavour of summer fruits.

Ugh. Gag Reflex. No instant Popeye muscle popping. Ten minutes later though my legs came back on-line giving at least a passing resemblance to limbs which may yet power me up a few more hills. What kind of Elven magic is this? I’m well practiced in mainlining the 6:30am double coffee shot with added caffeine but this was something entirely different.

It didn’t stop me riding like a total spanner of course. See previous excuses re: conditions and bike. But it did get me as far as the pub where any post-gel crashes were cushioned by a pint. Then – just to be sure – another one. 60km of slop and slide left me pretty much empty, but I filled right back up avidly discussing plans for the winter and stupid challenges when the sun finally returns to the Northern Hemisphere.

I broadcasted a text to the riding crew in the vein of what a bloody good laugh it was*. Summarising the replies is illustrative to why we get up at 7am to throw ourselves at the scenery: ‘gets rid of the crap of the previous and prepares you for the shit of the upcoming week. It’s what makes us, us’

That +lots. The gel saved my ride. The ride saves all sorts of other things.  I don’t want to train. I’m not interested in diets and supplements. Being fit is the symptom not the cause. Riding bikes is what makes us, us.

Worth repeating that.

*specifically for the other three find ever more amusing** ways to lambast my purchase of a Fat Bike

**for a given value of amusing.

Who ate all the lies?

New project 😄

Even inside the world-of-endless-niche which hosts mountain biking, fat bikes are still bloody stupid. Not so much a problem looking for a solution, more a victim looking for a corner to hide in. Fat bikes unite our barrack-room lawyer community in universal mirth.

We point and giggle because of their innate pointlessness. Designed – although that’s a charitable use of the word – for sand and snow, they are defined by comedy outsize tyres clearly harvested from a tractor, rarely suspended by anything other than belief and ridden by men – always men – proudly bristling in the vanguard of ‘peak beard

They cost too much. You could buy a proper mountain bike for that*.  Heavy, cumbersome, slow to climb and even slower going down, a fat bike slumps into a niche no-one cares about labelled ‘rubbish at everything’. Except Snow and Sand. I’ll grant you that. But living in a landlocked county with bugger all winter precipitation , this doesn’t represent a killer sales pitch.

Why then Al did you buy one? That’s what they’ll be asking. All my friends with whom I share the dirty Sunday service. They won’t pose that actual question  because that’s not the way frenzied piss taking actually works. I expect at least one member of the under-niche’d will need oxygen or the Heimlich manoeuvre to arrest their mirth.

There can be no argument – however well formed – to defend the indefensible. I’m not even going to try. My strategy is far more nuanced: I shall merely pretend to have gone stark, raving mad leaving me with no memory of wandering into a vast outdoors warehouse and returning with this bastard love child of a MoonLander and a marketing professional owning just the one yellow crayon.

It won’t work of course. I expect the joshing to go on for, oh I don’t know let’s say, ever. Quite right too because this bike has many, many problems – the least of which is the reaction it inevitably draws. Those child-drawn tyres are inflated with single digit PSI. Translate that to the road, and it’d be easier to pick the bloody thing up and trudge to your muddy destination.

When you arrive things are unlikely to improve much. Massive tyres do offer a form of suspension. Technically we call this massively-undamped wrist splitting chaos with more than occasional squirm.  You will absolutely be heading in one direction, but equally unequivocally this is not a direction in which you are even consulted. You may attempt to stay this wild craft using skills long learned but they will serve you not at all.  Eventually there will be a form of arrest as fat tyre consiteners against unforgiving tree.

You shalll return home battered, likely bloodied and burning with a hatred of men – shed based in remote winter regions and boasting the facial growth of a rhododendron – who felt sure this was a valid evolutionary branch of bikus suspensionus.

All this is true. Probably. But when you’re slaloming through the surprised shoppers of Go Outdoors, Gloucester while shimmying between tented fabric in the camping aisle, there is a massive grin splitting your face which not even the fiercest beard could contain.

Yes Fat Bikes are stupid. Of course they are. But this one is something else as well; cheap for a start, less than the cost of a decent set of forks**, £493 to be exact. The rolling chassis of frame and wheels are pretty good while the rest of the kit is pretty typical of a budget constricted product managers spreadsheet.

He or she doesn’t have my shed load of spares though. Even after building the moustache, there’s sufficient pre-loved collateral to fit proper brakes, wider bars and decent transmission.  At which point there will be no excuse but to go and ride it.

I don’t expect it’ll be faster uphill or down than any of my current bikes. I don’t  care. Nor will it be clattering through serial obstacles by sheer dint of brilliant suspension and modern angles. I’m not much bothered by that either. Because I have a good feeling it’s going to make me giggle at any speed.  You cannot look down at that front tyre and not crack a smile.

Those marketing types have missed a trick here. If they’d named this niche ‘silly bikes for big kids‘ they’d have sold a shit-load more. Jess jumped on this one in the shop and came back with exactly the grin that’d crept up on me in the tent section.

So will the maiden voyage but tomorrow on one of Matt’s Muddy Death Marches starting at 08:30 and finishing somewhere close to darkness? Of course not, I have many other bikes far better suited. Instead, I’ll wait for a couple of spare hours, a stretch of loamy singletrack, a mind that isn’t fixed on fast forward,  and a place where I can feel 10 years old again.

Fat is stupid. Stupid can be very good indeed.

* or for those living in the real world, a tidy 2nd hand small car.

** Not that I’m putting that out there as a rational purchasing decision.

Dark, isn’t it?

Blimey it's dark

My phone chirped. I ignored it. It chirped again in that irritating positivity of the modern smart device. I continued to snub its implied cheerfulness already being tossed about in the informational tornado of what passes for normal. Essentially my attempt to reconcile a multi-threaded life with a single-threaded brain was already too overloaded to deal with additional input.

Chirp. Chirp. CHIRP. Oh for fucks sake. Who wants what now? It’s Rex – a man who has never to my knowledge dipped below the level of everything is awesome – talking up the joys of a night ride on trails often ridden and recently sodden.

I looked out of the window. I do that a lot. It’s part of a job where thinking trumps doing. Fading light silhouetted fresh rain slashing against stout double glazing. Looks good to me. Fuck it. Fuck this report. Fuck stuff that matters only tomorrow. Scuttle into the shedofdreams and impatiently prod at stuff that needs replacing on the selected bike. Phone chips again: 6:30 start. Oh bollocks to this – I’m fixing brakes and that’s not a task for the time poor.

Pull the hardtail off the wall. Give it a hard stare. Explain if it fails to light up my darkened world this time out, it may soon represent the epicentre of my welding skills project. Find lights, pump them full of electricity and clothe myself with sufficient technical apparel to waterproof a moderately sized elephant.

Night riding is not my favourite thing. It’s dark for a start. And generally it finishes with a wet arse, tired legs and a large bill*. I appreciate in London, certain gentlemen’s clubs demand limitless credit cards for such an experience, but here in autumnal Herefordshire, such things are free. Largely – in my view – because they have no value.

Oh cheer up. Blinking into a phalanx of breams, clearly scavenged from a world war II searchlight, I summarised my feelings: ‘alright fellas, I assume it’s going to be endlessly shit then. I’m just here for the beer‘. ‘Blimey it’s the Olympic Flame’ they responded* (he never goes out), ‘that big hill over there? That’s us’.

It was indeed and climbing it was nothing new. Except on a lightweight hardtail, the air-scraping of lungs passed a little easier. Arriving at the ridge of our little, local sugarloaf we flicked lights to max, to drop through a leafy carpet shrouding an old trail somehow morphed into something new under the cover of darkness.

Good that. Took me a while to remember five inches of rear suspension travel cannot be simply mimicked by middle aged ankles. Need to move about more. That was good too. My expectations were so low that even a groundswell of mud felt more like dry trails. Grip was variable through, so both breaking traction and carving turns outed the inner giggler.

No one was more surprised than I that this was actually properly fun. Autumn and winter for me are about staying vaguely fit and impatiently waiting for Spring. Still. compact as these woods are – being bounded by a town and an escarpment – two hours of climbing their steep sides and plunging back into the deep valleys was something close to joy,

It’s fun – and there’s no other word that works here – to watch lights switch-back below you while the remaining stubborn leaves deaden every sound. Even when I over-estimated both the grip and my ability, a sojourn into a thorny bush still made me laugh – especially when the rider behind turned up: ‘As you were Jim, I’ll just be having a minute here, away you go‘. We chuckled. As you do. When you’re doing stupid things.

In a moment of inappropriate confidence, I lobbed the hardtail down a greasy rock face oft ignored on the grounds of extreme dentistry if it goes wrong. it went mostly wrong and the minds-eye of an Al spatchcocked on the rock below was narrowly mitigated by said rider basically closing his eyes and renouncing his atheism for about 3 seconds.

Heart rate about 180. Grin nearly as wide. Headed for home with the people who make this thing seem closer to real life that the stuff I do in the daylight. Most of whom forsake dirt for tarmac when the pub was in sight. Got to fill that calorie gap somehow.

I still don’t enjoy night riding much. I probably need to MTFU. But rather than succumb to the positivity of my fruit based device, I’m going the other way. Assume it’s going to be endlessly shit and revel in the times when it isn’t.

And when it is, well, that’s what the post ride beer is for. Ignore the dogma that mistakes are merely experience. Wrong emotion. Regret is for the things you do not do. Mistakes follow.

So when the rain is trying to get through the window, I suggest you surprise it by turning up on the other side. Together you are likely to have a great time. Especially if your friends have done the same.

* We’re not talking ducks or the like here. It’s not like we’re harvesting the beaks of innocent animals. Really, what stories you’ve heard about living in the country? Anyway that’d leave no time for cow-tipping.

Above the clouds

View from the top of Y-DAS

There are those days – many more than before – where you just can’t ride for shit. Well not you, me but in a misery loves company sort of way I fervently hope you’re suffering just the same. Because you must know what I’m talking about; leaden legs demanding at least two easier gears, brain entirely disconnected from reality so ignoring confused limbs failing to clear the simplest of obstacles.

It should get better, but of course it doesn’t. Point the bike downhill and the evolutionary miracle of a modern mountain bike founders on the rocks of the DNA pinging about in a rather more ancient evolutionary conduit currently mainlining a three legged stoat with a serious head wound.

There was a time when the most appropriate response to being dangerously rubbish was to flip it the bird and attempt to ride faster. Faster is always better we’re told. Right up to the point when it isn’t. That generally being the confluence of too much testosterone, too few bike handling skills and a tree.

Nowadays I just sigh a bit, shout at my legs while consulting the ‘book of many and varied excuses’. Today’s ride had all of that with a frankly obscene side order of sticky mud so consigning the day to the file marked ‘why the fuck did we bother?

Except of course it didn’t.  Because we spent most of it above the clouds. You don’t generally get such a view without owning your own charter airline. Not at 8am tho. Heading over the border to Wales in 10/10 clag, the day started with the level of ambivalence traditionally associated with riding big mountains during November. No matter, we were up and at ’em shedding layers on a 30 minute grind up a usefully placed fire road.

Top of which, I headed off with my normal navigational uncertainty to capture the rarely seen ‘clouds in the valley’. Squatting between distant peaks, a heavy fog obscured civilisation below leaving us to feel pretty much on top of the world. That’s a special feeling. Last time we were here – back in April – the trails were dusty dry, but a cruel wind blew away the warmth and cloud clamped hard on the tops.

Not today. The trails were somewhere below a water table topped up from a weeks worth of rain but we cared not a jot. The sky was a deep and unending azure blue, the temperature was rapidly climbing and far horizons beckoned us through the splashy tracks.  We broke the protocol of following previous routes to head onto a first summit positioned to look down to those poor fog-bound bastards in the valley. On days like this you really get why high places were so important to our forbearers; you cannot help but feel like gods.

We camera-mugged for a while before gravity dragged us mostly downwards and amusingly sideways right into the valley bottom to where the fog was waiting. Pah, we have no time for that – climbing past the hermitage to gain the river crossing opening up the epic 4km climb to the saddle of Rhim Tramau. That looked hard so we stopped for lunch accompanied by a sound system of the gurgling river and a few jokes not entirely appropriate for men of our age. All while chewing sandwiches in shirt sleeves. A win all round.

Did the climb. Didn’t really enjoy it. Didn’t really care once I’d sweated myself to the top and checked out the view. Always good but today really very special indeed. The fog was a sea – swamping entire settlements with meteorological candy floss. We stood above it and wondered what time it might get dark. Had it not been for urgings from the rest of the crew, I might still be there.

And based on my descending performance in the blue-cast daylight that’d been a disaster. All over the place and nowhere near where I needed to be. Gave up, outed camera, took a few shots of those doing it right. Found previously scary rocky descent pretty much mitigated by ace bicycle mostly left alone by rider staring slack-jawed at the CGI landscape.

Arrived alive at the bottom which is an excellent adjective describing exactly what it’s like to be a thousand feet under the summit you need to crest. The start of which was predictably muddy – but not even registering on the horror of 2014 – which somehow synapse’d Cez into forging upward on the first ascent of ‘Y Das Direct’ which involved a 30 minute push up a grassy path before a bike-on-the-back yomp to the ridge. Blimey that was hard. The view though needs bottling tightly in a vessel labelled ‘when it’s REALLY REALLY SHIT, uncork this’.

The photos are great. They are not even ciphers for being there. We sat and we stared and we didn’t want to move. High places are always like this but when you’re an island in the clouds, nothing can- and really there is nothing –  get close. John Donne – you were wrong. Every man is an island when the world looks like this.

And that was pretty much that. We had a difficult trog to summit over Grwyne Fawr reservoir. Then the ground conditions suggested webbed feet in our immediate evolutionary future.

Still time for me to perfect the ‘gentleman’s dismount’ during a race to the bottom involving many ruts and much giggling. I was laughing at Alex getting it amusingly wrong at the exact point my front wheel fell into a deep V-shaped rut with a diameter of something a bit less than my fat, flat pedals. The bike stopped, I didn’t but – after a day of being entirely useless on a bicycle – I somehow stepped off the bike and over the bars  leaving me with the small problem of decelerating from 15kph with a 10kph gait.

I caught the rest of the fellas up eventually. Only to lose them again when my ‘light snob’ eye took a single blink at the still waters of the reservoir and insisted digital imaging must get involved.

We dropped back to the van on a final rocky chute – in my case ridden entirely with brake pads mud-filed to nothingness – with happy 100% mud splattered  faces. Not because the trails were fantastic. Not because we’d completed something attempted many times before. Not even for the simple joy of riding bikes with our friends.

No, because we spent a day above the clouds. And that makes it a very special day. But also a bittersweet one, because our lives are full of work, of meetings, of rooms with windows to the clouds, of reasons to embrace adulthood. We know these days are fleeting, no more than a last gasp of seasons long gone, yet for all that rationality a single golden thread draws us together. Maybe it will be like that tomorrow.

It really might be.

No one should live their life on someone else’s agenda. Those rooms have no view. The ones outside really do. Don’t die wondering.

Ride a bicycle? Sounds like a bloody stupid idea.

Well that’s something to look forward to.

There are always reasons not to ride Falling neatly into three categories -vocational, environmental and personal – so confirming easy excuses to avoid harder choices.

“I‘ve got too much work on” is a solid banker. No matter you’ve pissed away most of the daylight staring out of a window by which your fattening arse is sat on the wrong side.  Blaming those mythical higher-ups, who’ve visited immovable deadlines on your innocent person, at least partially mitigates the group-think outing you as nesh and fragile.

Slackers like me require other avenues of deceit. Checking out the rain slashed panes harbouring you from skies full of portent should be enough to sack it off with a ‘rain check’. Doesn’t pass the peer pressure test though so instead it’s all displacement tactics pointing to broken components, unsuitable bikes and – if desperation strikes – exploding tyres.

Again not something on which I can reliably rely having a shed-full of suitable bikes and many friends in non mutant size with spares. Better instead to pretend some important bodily part has succumbed to increasing antiquity. When the rain falls, the wind blows, the world goes dark like space and the trails slip into shitty winter there is always  ‘pulling the emergency hamstring’ to save the day.

You’re still not done. There’s a whole mind to be mined chasing the lode of ‘not really feeling it‘. This isn’t the simple can’t be arsed of the SADly effected. It is genuinely not wanting to ride your bike. This is easy to explain to those not suffering an addiction which demands a couple of weekly hits, but a little harder to those attending the same meetings: ‘it’s been two weeks since I last rode my bike, and that feels properly shit…

Flailing about over rain smashed geography while being simultaneously battered by icy crosswinds can be far more fun that it sounds. But only when your head is in the right place. Not just above the bike and issuing stern instructions to mud speckled legs, but happy to be outside doing stupid stuff at an age when your contemporaries are contemplating exactly the right time to out the Xmas jumper.

Because, we all know don’t we that, 99 times out of 100 riding is better than not riding. Days like today ask the question ‘maybe this is the one when it isn’t‘. Weeks like this to be honest – three times opportunities presented themselves to go ride either for a quick solo blast or a longer time with my friends. And three times I found excuses from every category preventing me from breaching the can’t be arsed stage.

It’s not the weather. I’ve said before this isn’t a three season sport. In fact motivation is stronger in February than it is in November. For now there is still a lingering memory of summer warmth and dry, hard trails. In February,  it’s been four months of paddle steaming through the middle of the water table, so you’ve become impervious to conditions which have your returning to your loved ones as an apparent extra in a low budget swamp monster movie.

Stupid as it sounds, not riding makes me feel guilty. Always has. More so now I think because of my oft repeated assertion to grab every chance to do what I love because who knows when it might stop. That assertion strengthened by the loss of Jenn who got that in spades before and after she was diagnosed.

Instead this apparently unbreakable principle has been diluted by sitting in front of this screen writing apparently very important emails. Or rushing off to see people who may wish to pay me for whatever it is they think I do. Or staring out of that window watching the garden die while wondering if that’s some kind of metaphor.

Feeling a bit rubbish hasn’t been helped by a localised outbreak of stomach bloat brought on by a peristalsis halting combination of crisps and chocolate. When the darkness descents, the pull of the sofa is strong.

At this point, there would normally be an uplifting paragraph or two on how going out for a ride cracked the mould of this mild self pity. How the question I’d set myself to answer on a long ride became increasingly irrelevant the longer those pedals were turned. Didn’t happen.

Last weekend we had one of those. Shit weather forecast, set off in the rain, rode in the rain, went exploring, got lost, rain stopped for a bit, kept going on until it returned with a vengeance whereupon the hardy four headed to the local pub to talk shit and drink beer. It was a good morning, extending to the afternoon.

I need another one. This isn’t new of course. Seven years ago, I was having a slightly more serious crisis of faith. Amusingly back then I set myself a deadline of another five years or so before trying something else; adulthood for instance. From this lofty, mature position let me just clarify that with a ‘fuck that‘. If I do ever stop mountain biking, I’ll need to find another hobby. We could never afford the repairs if I decided that should be DIY.

Adventures. They’re the thing. Got us through last winter and I’ve high hopes similar japes will carry us through the next two seasons. Sunday we load up the van and return to a much loved epic in Wales. It’s likely to be wet, slippy, sloppy, windy and with more than an even chance of benightment.

Sounds good to me. If nothing else those big hills always give you a sense of perspective. Odd isn’t it, we are always told – because it’s a universal truth – how lucky we are, but only when the insignificance of our existence is exposed by proper mountains do we actually feel it.

Some stuff is important. It’s not what you think

FoD - Autumn MTB ride #forjenn

So my friend Jenn succumbed to the total bastard that is cancer last Friday night. She was 38 years old. At times like this, luadable homilies are deployed to assuage the pain: ‘there is now no more suffering‘ and ‘the worth in a life can be defined by the gap that it leaves’

Which I suppose is lovely and fine. Not entirely helpful though for those closest to Jenn now staring into that gap. I don’t include myself in that circle – as I said before we were friends, good friends I hope but not more than that. What I remember most about Jenn is her open heartedness, her instinct to help others and her unwavering joy at being alive.

On a cold and wet northern ride nearly ten years ago, I asked Jenn what she thought of a test bike she was riding and a minute later I was riding it myself. An hour after that – through my awesome powers of mechanical savagery having jammed my chain around the bottom bracket – Jenn rocked up, had a giggle, whipped out her chain tool and fixed it about the time it’d taken me to look at it, wrench it, swear at it and give it a well deserved kicking.

Small things, happy memories. Many who knew her better have many more. The outpouring of understandable grief would bring tears to the hardest hearted. I’m not one of those so it’s without a hint of embarrassment I’ll admit to having more than the occasional blub.

So we rode. Of course we did. That’s what we do. This is our Church. Turning circles unwinds our angst; makes sense of the world; stops the introspection; starts finding important things. Maybe if conditions were shit under stair-rods of rain depression might have set in, but we had none of that.

I believe in pretty much nothing tainted by religion, yet riding 60km of dry singletrack under benign skies with friends I love as brothers had me giving a brief nod to those who confuse belief with faith. Determined to make the ride matter somehow, I gave myself a stern 8am talking too re: not riding like a twat, not taking this stuff for granted, not being some kind of emotional cripple. Went well, even the dog looked impressed.

Go ride. First up a gap I’ve never done or even seen. Straight over without even checking it out. Worked our way back up the valley to descend a serpent shaped trail finishing with a deep-breath committed vertical roll in with consequences for imprecise lines. Never even stopped to have a look.

Gravel fireroad, pushing into a loose corner, front went and a second later so did a stomping foot bashing the bike back onto line. I can’t ride like this. Not for long anyway but right now I’m the lucky bastard with the choice to do so. So get on with it.

On and on. I bottled one thing that’s been giving me the eye for a year or so and watched Cez launch long and stupid over something much removed from stuff I consider in my sphere of sanity. But that’s okay, still pushing it a bit, still having a laugh, still taking the piss, still doing the thing which defines us and – as importantly – our community.

I’ve seen many posts ‘I don’t know Jenn but thoughts to her family and friends‘. It’s easy to be cynical about this – say the right thing for group approval but I’m confident this is our tribe closing ranks and lamenting the loss of a good one. Social media is a bastard tho, Tom (Jenn’s husband) posted a pic of Jenns’ favourite bike with a ‘fuck cancer’ sticker on the seat-tube and no rider. Pass me those tissues.

And that got me thinking on what was brilliant about today’s ride. It wasn’t the loamy trails holding your tyres before throwing them off in an entirely predictable direction. It wasn’t risking a little to find a lot of stuff that’d been hidden in the oft visited drawer of ‘I’ll do that next time’. It wasn’t even encouraging others in their endeavours while being genuinely delighted they rode stuff you did not.

No. It was something quite different. 11km of tarmac separates us from our post ride pub finish and home. It’s mostly uphill and not a whole load of fun especially with the cold descending from grey clamped skies and every pedal stroke battling a rising headwind.

We’re not roadies. So we never leave a mate. No one gets shot out of the back. We trained our way back with a tag-team of wind takers without a word being said. Every 10 pedal strokes had us swivelling eyeballs over shoulders. Knackered riders took their turn even when it was clearly hurting.

Close to the end we slowed to a pace entirely appropriate for those blowing it someway out of their arse. Your individual speed matters not a jot. That has no place here, you are a member of a team, a community if you will of riders who look out for their own. The needs of the many is far more important that the prowess of the one.

We talk often about not taking riding mountain bikes in amazing places for granted. And we’re missing the point by a million miles. What matters is being there for each other, being part of a close knit group of the like-minded, being included and being part of something rather nebulous, slightly cliquey and endlessly fantastic.

We’ve lost a great one one in Jenn. Let’s not fuck about and pretend anything different. But what a privilege it is to have been part of her world and our wider bike riding community.

It’s not the gap that people leave. It’s how they make you feel when they’re gone.  Go hug someone you love. And raise a glass for those so cruelly taken you cannot.

Ride In Peace Jenn.

Dark, cold, wet. Pick none.

Worcester Beacon

Last week was rubbish. Vocationally such things are common when the best laid plans meet that stimulating and challenging group of randoms otherwise known as customers*

Not this time. I was riding my bike. Although not really. More slithering darkly between – and tediously often into – trees attempting to reconcile mountain biking with my friends and the extreme grumpiness of not being in the pub yet.

Excuses were legion. I traded them in the car park explaining to anyone who even pretended to listen that night-riding was for those with proper 9 to 5 jobs, my lights were at best ciphers for 13th century monastery candles, this bike – this one right here – had questionable suspension at the front, none at the back and about an undamped inch derived from the broken dropper post.

No one cared. Quite rightly. They just fucked off at light speed engaging the Chinese lumen photon drive with nary a care for ground conditions best described as boundlessly shit. Two days torrential rain had turned rock hard trails into gripless wonders pretty much signposting wheeled idiots into the trunks of waiting forestry.

I didn’t hate it. That’s too strong an emotion, but I wasn’t enjoying it much. Neither was the hardtail I’d selected as the indubitably perfect companion to three hours of mud wrestling. It responded by silently shedding vital transmission components far and wide into the deepest reaches of this dark forest.

A tipping point was reached where mechanical suicide of a chainring gave me the perfect excuse to leave the field of battle citing a verified medical injury to my worthy steed. Which would have been fine. Lovely. Perfect. See you in the pub  – not for me the infamy of a dishonourable discharge, I could instead sympathise with those having slogged a further 15km. While feigning disappointment at the cruel mechanical maladies preventing my participation.

I wish. Toolkits rolled out littered with spares of every description. A few of which could be best summarised as ‘oh fuck, chainring bolts’.  The mechanicaly minded fixed my bike for which I thanked them through clenched teeth. Back in the saddle, things improved a bit but only because we’d breached the FPFP** and any riding I managed had to be better than the shitty-scared stuff exhibited so far.

Some way behind the rest of the crew I couldn’t help noticing. I rode this very bike on these trails a few months ago with the sun in the sky and loved every minute of it. Not tonight tho, stiff, blind and confused – I’m just not well configured for winter.

Except it’s not winter. Since that night when even the pub failed to add much cheer, the rain has stayed away and the trails have responded with a last echo of summer hardness. I’ve been doing this long enough to fully understand that no deadline or parental obligations are anywhere near as important as heading back into the hills for one more perfect fix.

Not perfect. Pretty close tho. Malvern Hills looking mighty fine. Chilly but not cold, moistness in the trails manifested as grip not mud, feeling fit regardless of a hotel diet of bacon, eggs and beer.  We stuck a couple of digits up at the fast coming night by starting two hours before sunset – a rather lovely phenomenon we chased home on the last descent.

Between the two, hills were climbed, loam was middle aged roosted (I don’t really know what that means but jamming on the rear brake and sliding the bike into line for the next bend has to be called something), route options were considered, new trails were revealed. And all the time watching the darkening horizon.

No lights. Not interested in having something of the night about us. Winch and plummet for a happy two hours riding with someone with whom I have long had a friendship, a hint of competitiveness, an understanding he’s mostly faster than me and a vague level of maturity that I no longer care.

We parked bikes on a well photographed bench at the highest point of the hills and 1.5km from the cars. All downhill. Admired the sunset, congratulated ourselves on living in a pretty damn fine place before fixing our sights due west onto that orb currently setting fire to the clouds.

I’ve ridden this descent a hundred times. And every time I pick a terrible line, give myself a scare, brake when I mustn’t and attempt to wing it when I really shouldn’t. This time I lost Martin 30 seconds in and my doomed attempt to make up lost ground had me hitting the ‘moon rock’ a little faster than intended.

A moment of silence. Just enough time for a full on retina download of silhouetted peaks cast with a reddening glow. Then the crunch of 150mm travel forks damping the danger of loose gravel. Fast, so damn fast – never wanting this to stop, but hoping the end comes one second before my ego out-rides my competence.

Done. Grin. Point at things. Make plans for next week while prevailing weather conditions stay fair. Wonder about last week. Work out that without the bloody awful, you’ll never appreciate the almost perfect.

Apparently there’s something important on the television. I’m watching the video behind my eyeballs. Nothing beats that.

*plans never survive contact with the enemy as the old military diktat states. Lesser known is the concept of ‘first intent’ where whatever happens you try and do just one simple thing. For the NHS it is ‘do no harm’. For me it’s ‘do no harm that might end with a jail sentence’.

**FPFP – Furthest Point From Pub.  From here it’s just a matter of staying upright until the lights of the post ride medication centre hove into view.

We’re riding down there? F*ck me with a pineapple*

Under Ventoux - scary traverse

Mount Ventoux is a mutant. A geological freak dwarfing every other peak even in this land of rocky giants. Cricking your neck at the base tricks the brain into the false assumption that the tree level is almost perpendicular to the valley floor. It isn’t of course, this is just a bloody big mountain.

Verified and validated by the 21 kilometre climb to the summit. Passing miles of lycra in various states of distress; from the whippet thin climbers etched with lactic pain to the weekend warriors slumped over the bars barely making any progress at all.

This was not our world as the van made swift progress with sturdy bikes in the back and fragile riders in the front. Well not all of them; it’s times like this when I’m reminded of someone cleverer than me who intoned ‘Some people are more certain of everything than I am of anything‘. Most of the vans occupants looked relaxed, expectant or enthusiastic. Me? I was shitting myself.

Ventoux is not a pretty mountain. It’s shot blasted from glacial activity and there’s nothing to detain you at the top. Other than faffing, sandwich making and, in my case, a desperation to get started. Or closer to finishing. It’s a zoo up there with bikes, motorbikes, camper vans and what I can only term ‘general vagrancy‘ as random individuals mill about in the heavy traffic.

Trying to be less random, we descended a couple of hundred meeting – nobbly tyres whumming in stark contrast to the stealth of our roadie brethren. Finally abandoning them – amusingly – at a no cycling sign accessing a track made up entirely of shale and fear.  First tho, we had to do photographs. Oh do fuck off, really? Yes really, social media is a voracious beasts and demands content even if at least one participant is clearly forging a note from his mum.

Finally we rode. To the first hairpin anyway where Mike picked a line I’d already nominated as ‘assisted suicide‘ and somehow flipped direction heading back the way he came with barely a change in velocity. I consulted the risk/reward matrix and tripod’d round on two wheels and a shaky leg.

It’s not just the exposure. Which is pretty much constant. Or the danger of death if you fall. Which is sustained, evident and – unless one lacks an iota of imaginative thought – served up in a manner specifically designed to scare you shitless. It’s the endless technical challenges mocking your hard learned skills and veneer thin bravery. Mountains are relentless.

Having survived a few hairpins with a few hundred feet of ‘all body scrub‘ waiting for a single mistake, we dropped into a stumpy tree line which at least partially hid the horrors of a path hanging precipitously to the mountains flank.  Riding a little more of this convinced me the worse might be over and with it my lemming like obsession with the edge. Go me.

Oh. That traverse then. On a trail – although that somewhat overstates the 18 inch wide path barely cut into a 50 degree score slope starting at the top of the mountain and finishing in the valley many hundreds of feet below – narrow enough that the only progress option was shouldering the bike and pretending nothing to the left was really very scary.

Then a climb to the lunch stop where a single slip would have been ‘Al’s gone, fetch the spatula‘ territory.  While others hung their legs causally over the abyss, I pushed mine into the narrow dirt and my back into the ground behind. Funnily enough I wasn’t very hungry.

Should have eaten tho as the next two hours were a ride-push-ride-push on the endless traverse. Those in front were loving it- on their bikes, meeting the technical challenges with commitment and skills. Back in the cheap seats, I was barely managing 50% before hopping off an using my extremely competent bike as a crutch.

Had a word with myself. A few actually. Most of them were simply ‘fuck‘. Fuck the mountain. Fuck the exposure. Fuck my cowardice. Fuck Fuck Fuck, I’m am 48 fucking years old and I can’t fucking do this. That went on for a while before even I became bored of my own whinging by which time I’d fallen a long way behind.

Then I fell. In a supreme act of irony I’d refused to walk an exposed section, caught a pedal on the inside due to my clinging to the transient safety of the rock and flipped myself end over end down the scree slope. Four times I rolled; this is an accurate assessment because four times I counted the sky rolling past my saucer wide eyeballs.

Then it stopped. As did I. Surprised not to be accelerating towards the valley floor shedding vital body parts. Lay on my back waiting for the bike to hurtle past at terminal velocity. When that didn’t happen, decided to hang about for a bit longer while damage control checked in.

Not too bad. Shoulder sore but back protector and helmet had apparently saved important squishy organs. Climbing back to the track took a while giving me a first person view of exactly how steep the gradient of the mountain was. Could have done without that to be honest.

Dusted myself down. Got back on. Got straight back off and pushed for quite a long time until reunited with the my riding pals who clearly couldn’t see what the problem was. Remained very quiet because didn’t trust myself not to have a major hissy fit.

The rest of the ride was okay. I was pretty shit tho. Physically spent and mentally frazzled, I made excuses for my inability to ride stuff that’s well within even my limited remit. Wondered if this was a high water mark. Maybe I’m too damn old, too bloody scared, lacking the skills to ride this stuff.

Thought about that a lot since. Then saw the pictures and wondered how I’d have felt neshing out at the start. Realised there is still life in the old dog yet. Not sure he can be taught any new tricks tho.

Mountains are a brutal environment. Uncaring, wonderful, terrifying and beautiful. They strip you bare and fill you up. Emotions fluctuate from joy to terror. Only high places make you feel like this. You have a choice. Don’t take the easy one. You may never get the chance again.

*this was my response to the trail pointed out very early on. It was a phrase I revised many times during the rest of the day. I could be heard muttering ‘pineapple, pineapple fucking pineapple’ whenever the exposure was cranked to extreme. Which was pretty much all the time.

Are you feeling lucky?

You bloody well should be.

I was ready to write about the total bloody awesomeness of a weeks’ sustained technical riding in the sunny Rhone-Alps. Then – as John Lennon so presciently wrote ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans’ – I arrived home to the dreadful news that a friend of mine is dying.

My friend was diagnosed over 12 months ago with stage IV lung cancer. Don’t Google it, it’s not a diagnosis, it’s a death sentence. Life expectancy is dependent on fortitude, drug reaction and bloody mindedness – while you cannot be sure exactly where the end of the line is, it’s no coincidence the disease is called terminal.

I had just returned from a ride when the news broke. It was a bit meh. One of those when I wondered if it was worth the effort. Trails were fine, bit muddy but still hanging onto a hint of summer. Weather was fair and I was mooching along with an old mate who I hadn’t seen for months. It was pleasant, enjoyable but no more than that. We talked about the oncoming winter and how our motivation would be tested once more and maybe how, this time, we couldn’t be arsed with it.

That attitude feels pretty bloody stupid now.  Even understanding we aren’t the best of friends – meeting more in the virtual world than the real one. She’s been very kind about my words and I’ve been repeatedly inspired by hers. When she told me of the cancer, it was with her usual brutal pragmatism and a declaration of war on the ‘fucking thing’.

She’s carried on a life of adventuring be that in riding, running or writing refusing to let the cancer or the treatment slow her down much. She didn’t really talk about it – not because it upset her – but because she refused to let it be the thing which defined her.

I knew some drugs had made a hugely positive impact, but also aware of many recent setbacks. I’d seen a picture on a social media site where – for the first time – the look in her eyes suggested the lights might be dimming. But even so have it so starkly laid out in public on her host website was still a shock. A wrench of reality.

We’re all dying. One day at a time. But most of us are delusional about it. My friend has dealt with the grim reaper clearly signaling with a level of fortitude and humour I cannot begin to comprehend. The bloody injustice of it has left me feeling angry, sad and – because I’m so bloody self absorbed – scared. I don’t feel my age but I fear it.

I know there is a time coming when some white coated professional calmly explains there is nothing else to be done. The clock that is always there just started ticking more loudly. I might be eighty years old when the creeping hand of time beckons me, but there is nothing in my life so far to suggest I’ll deal with it with the dignity and ‘oh-just-fuck-off-ness’ of my friend.

She’s faced it down with the same honesty, practicality and simplicity found in her writing. There is no space in her world for self pity, denial or false hope. I’ve always envied her single mindedness and sense of purpose – all of which are so apparent in her response to the darkness of endless treatment lightened by being finally back at home or trips away under big skies with her loved ones.

I sit staring at this flickering screen wanting so hard for the world to be different. But these words mean nothing so actions must speak for them. I will go for a ride and consider fate, frustration, injustice and bravery and return more balanced to a world tilted by brutal circumstance.

You cannot read the stories or see the pictures splashed across every channel without understanding how privileged we are. And yet we’ve become desensitised to human suffering somehow absolving ourselves from compassion and action. It takes something closer to home to kick you up the arse and make you realise every day must be a day to be embraced not endured. That you can determine what is important and what is not. That you have the opportunity to love your family and friends. That you get to choose how you live and what you do.

We’re are so damn lucky in all those ways and one more. For the cycling tribe, bikes are not just self propelled transport. They are an extension and expression of our values, desires and fears. My friend gets that completely. She’s embraced it and treasured it and not for a singe day taken it for granted. She’s packed more into her cruelly truncated span than many of us will in our lifetimes. There is a little comfort in that.

And if I’ve learned anything it is that you cannot still the passing of time but you can make the most of every day, hour and minute. When I’m shivering cold on a wet, muddy night-ride miles from home, I’ll think fondly of my friend and how she’d be grinning at the delicious stupidity of the whole enterprise. And any tears following that will be because of that biting wind.

In the end though, there’s a friend of many and a wife of one we’re losing to a horrible disease, callously inflicted. Sometimes life is just a total bastard.

Laziness is hard work

When you start texting family members demanding a cup of tea, you can officially declare yourself a lazy bugger.

Laziness is a curse. Or a blessing. Or somewhere in between, but for those of us born / afflicted with the lazy gene it is all we know. Which makes understanding that jolly demographic whose days are filled with activity and never seen without some kind of creative tool in their hands all the more difficult.

You know the trope – never at rest because there’s always so much stuff to improve their environment or themselves and their families. Half way up mountains accompanied by equally active tiny children, or copying the Sistine Chapel roof while redecorating their toilet walls. it’s tiring just thinking about achieving so much stuff, and what little energy I can exert is directed at hating them. Just a little bit.

While they are drinking from the font of endless endeavour, we are slumped over the lesser relics of procrastination, apathy and displacement. I could explain this to you,  but it’s far too much bloody effort. Instead let me give you some examples from a mundane interlude in my life.

This incident of the incurious Al in the daytime took place on a balmy late summer afternoon at Morrisons. This meteorological context is provided only to fail to explain the behaviour of the pathologically lazy.  The supermarket has two car parks, one a two minute walk away from the front door, the other about half that. At no point was any shopper risking anything other than squinting on their epic march to the entrance.

Yet denizens of the indolent tribe were impatiently queuing for the latter which appears unhealthily focussed even to a lazy bugger like me.  Parking in the tarmac emptiness of the able limbed, I still had time to lock the car, unlock it on returning for my wallet* and pass those who’d been in front of me. Revving engines and vigorous hand signals suggested lazy should not always be considered synonymous with an easy going nature.

Upping the ante somewhat, a man emerged from a car abandoned in a disabled space. He looked perfectly abled to me, not – for example-  obviously missing a leg. In a moment of perfect irony he was very nearly mowed down by those who were too lazy to park at all, instead circumnavigating the car park waiting for their shopping kin to trudge out of the exit. Now that’s properly slack.

Inside it’s somehow worse, all glassy eyed sweeping of random items by tired arms. And yet within this state of apathy are occasional outbreaks of verbal violence.  This is because supermarkets have a secondary function as anger factories equipped with temper amplifiers hidden in the cheese aisle.

Flashpoints over such red-line issues as the choice of breakfast cereal ‘Not that one John it gives you terrible wind’ escalating to couples nearly coming to blows at the deli counter. The bemused employee behind is half cheesemonger, half councillor. It’s a good job the sharp tools are held safe on his side of the counter. The dull ones are very much on the other side.

I digress, laziness permeates even the checkout. Bags carelessly loaded with no method other than that of the slovenly path of least effort. Soft stuff thrown into empty bags while heavy, edgy stuff is shovelled on top. Only my inane Englishness prevents an embarrassing barging in and loading the produce with some kind of system ‘the square things all fit together and – for future reference – what you believed was the large lettuce at the bottom of that bag is in fact your baby’.

And then payment. Or not as it it oft the case. Women – and I blame their voluminous purses for this – delve deeply into their handbags thereby triggering the opening of a portal to another dimension where infinite compartments may OR MAY NOT contain a credit card. I’m always surprised at their surprise of being complicit in some kind of financial transaction to free their overloaded trolley.

Oh hang on, I just need to find my Morrisons card’ they’ll trill blind to the seething eyes of passive aggression queuing behind them. ‘Is it worth dying for?’ I nearly shout as my hand grips a wine bottle and my mind dreams of committing blunt force trauma for the benefit of the gene pool.

This is the hard edge to being lazy. It’s brilliant if that is all you are. Sail through life achieving fuck all and not giving a shit. I hate you almost as much as Mr. 24 hour party person up there. Sadly most of us are trapped in a venn diagram of laziness, guilt and impatience. The intersection of which is angst.

It’s that thing of being genetically lazy but feeling endlessly bad about it. Which inevitably descends into an ever deepening spiral of guilt. And further apathy. I find the best way to tamp down those imposters, and revel in the guilt-free life of the singularily lazy, is to douse their fire with alcohol.

It’s like Frank Turner sings ‘I dream of all the things I need to do, but wake up and never follow through’. He could have been talking about taking a dump of course. I’m far too lazy to work it out one way or the other.

Right now the lawn needs mowing. If I procrastinate for long enough, it’ll probably start raining.

* this is happening increasingly often. The forgetfulness trajectory suggest not many more days pass before I turn up to something important in just my underpants.