28 days later

Nant-Y-Arian

Good film. Cut the title in half, and and the production values by about a million and that pretty much summarises our approach to winter. Religiously every two weeks, we’ve made a pilgrimage to shrines of mountain biking sacrosanct in the holy book of saintly images.

I’ll leave the God metaphors right there other than to venerate the living relics still layering up in the dark, shivering out of the van, riding though frozen tundras, laughing at the stupidity of it and replacing a sip of holy communion with a lengthier quaff of which ever pub bar is nearest.

This post was heading in a questionable direction once I felt transubstantiation was somehow a useful metaphor for being sleeted on, but thankfully the pretension filter kicked in hard.  Instead let’s talk about boredom, disillusion and  a crisis of faith – all of which are perfectly understandable responses to four months of trail nastiness and potential trench-willy*

Take me to church. Or something else to ignore on a Sunday.  Early 2014 was a proper bastard with endless rain transforming every ride into a death march basically separating a shitty and desperate experience from beer. A separation of many hours, much angst and endless existential monologues on the theme of ‘tell me again why am I here?’

Not this year. Plans hatched in late autumn saw the chosen few breaking the shackles of local mud every 14 days. Load the van with bikes, cash,  sugary supplies and hope before navigating to much loved, barely remembered and entirely new locations to place knobbly tyre on frozen trail.

If one were to examine in intricacies of the plan, it’d not stand up to close scrutiny. Being nothing more than starting in the dark, ending in the pub and finding fun places to ride in between. But like many simple ideas, it’s genius is that singularity of purpose, a laser eyed view of what a Sunday should look like, and a delusional  refusal to be swayed by dire forecasts or crippling hangovers.

Hello Mid Wales, just us then? Rolling into a car park under skies alarming at DEFCON 2**, a critical faff of five riders and a similar number of bikes failed to clothe one and pedal another, as gloves were misplaced, excuses were made and many false starts suggested the 35km route would involve tents and nights out on the mountain.
Nant-Y-Arian

Finally, it begins. Nant-Y-Arian holds it’s riders close in trail centre loops, only expelling the foolhardy onto the wilder slopes and exposed ridges. That’s us of course, abandoning the confines of manufactured singletrack for the chance to be submerged in waist high bogs cunningly disguised as actual tracks you may want to traverse. Assuming your bike floats.

Nant-Y-Arian

So 30 minutes in, we’re cold, wet and increasingly snowed on. Still the light was fab for taking pictures even if the temperature wasn’t. An environmental statistic brought home when the mildly irritating clicking noise from my transmission manifested itself as a chain link badly infected with metallurgic link-rot. Changed that, lost feeling in my fingers, sadly retained full nasal capacity tested to potential collapse as we navigated the path of a thousand sheep-plops.

Nant-Y-Arian

Nant-Y-Arian

To get there we’d had much fun picking increasingly stupid lines on rocky promontories with fantastic views of distant snowy mountains, and somewhat closer challenges of moist rock and icy plumes shot from the back tyres of those in front. Not terribly technical, but fast and of high consequence if you abused the capabilities of full suspension mountain bikes just a little too much.

Now we’re clear of the slurry and climbing a steep fire-track bathed in brief blue sky bouncing off heather coloured by fire and the chilled by ice. Then it started snowing again, my toes were gone and even my heels felt numb, we had many miles to go and the summit seemed accessible only by helicopter.

Nant-Y-Arian

Nant-Y-Arian

Nant-Y-Arian

And at no time did this seem anything other than a privilege. Sometimes it really isn’t, when you  wonder if it’s just you dreaming of short cuts and long socks. Not today though, it was grins all round as we passed the invisible line marking wild from made.

Nant-Y-Arian

Nant-Y-Arian

Big old descent down one valley. Having failed to crash under the big skies, I binned it under heavy tree cover having asked way too much of a tyre pushed too fast into a corner, and then expecting it to offer some kind of grip during panic braking. It didn’t of course and as the narrative generally goes, I flung myself into some handy local shrubbery.

No damage done and impossible even for me to get lost as red arrows pulsed by in a rather compelling sequence of fast and slow corners, the occasional drop or jump and fireroads flashing past in peripheral vision. By the time I arrived – somewhat more dishevelled than my riding pals – they were all doing the fishy ‘did you see that line’ thing which signifies five minutes well spent.

Nant-Y-Arian

Of which the next twenty saw all of us fairly well spent climbing the other side of the valley in an amusing fugue of rain, sleet and snow.

Nant-Y-Arian

The final descent has lost it’s tree lined singletrack to larch disease, but rendered it no less fun for now having the patina of an open cast mine. I was pretty much in ‘show me a heater and I’ll be your best friend‘ mode by this time, so the warmth of the visitor centre didn’t come a moment too soon.

Nant-Y-Arian

Nor did the fug of the first pub we visited. Or the second. And then – because of some anniversary event of at least one rider – a couple more in Hereford when things became a whole lot warmer and quite a lot fuzzier. I forgot about my toes, but remembered this was another fantastic day out in a season that actually feels like winter this year.

Quite looking forward to the next one. Not as much as I’m craving Spring. But we’re more than half way out of the dark and accelerating fast.  The entirely inappropriately titled British Summer Time is still six weeks away though, which means three more trips in the van.

I wonder if anyone else has a birthday. Here’s hoping.

* a medical condition first discovered during winter commutes in London where I’d stagger into the works shower declaring ‘where’s my knob? No honestly it’s disappeared‘ to a whole bunch of co-workers who really couldn’t be less interested.

** Not snowing yet. But it’s coming. Fat, pregnant clouds flopping exhausted over hills and ready to give birth to all sorts of water based offspring.  Yeah, those.

Winter blues

Rhayader snowy MTB

See that, right there? It’s a flat 2-D depiction of something rather more awesome. And that’s the word used in its correct context before the whatsapp generation graduated in semantic mutilation, and recast many of my favourite nouns as shadow players on the vocabulary stage. Tots Amaz for Evs, apparently.*

My eldest offspring regularly responds to parental extortions that outside has many fantastic opportunities, with ‘tried that – the graphics are crap and there’s no Internet connection‘. Apparently there are important cats on the web that don’t get tumbler’d all on their own.

So both living in a world largely uninhabited by those who are about to inherit it**, and a a relic from a generation where playing outside was actually some kind of privilege, a cross section of the ‘getting old and a bit wrinkly’ loaded vans in darkness, and crunched ice under dashboard lit traction control panic before heading tentatively to ride in a mid Wales landscape largely sculpted by our forefathers.

Birmingham has a lot to answer for. Really, quite a lot, but on the upside it kept me employed for many months, and – close to a hundred years earlier – was the thirsty symptom causing an epic dam building programme in the Elan valley. 6 were commissioned, 4 completed, one submerged with the final one never completed. All constructed in the dying arc of a philanthropist Victorian era taking great pride in public works.

Water was a constant companion on a day of much frozen, some trapped in snow and a brooding sky-full precipitously close to dumping more of the wet stuff on our tiring bodies. Not at first tho, as we crunched out of the car park wondering if at any point fingers, toes and noses might find a way back to other fully-blooded and properly insulated body parts.

A long – and long remembered – climb fixed that problem while throwing up another one, mainly that everything under tyre appeared to be formed from organic glass. No matter, when the going gets tough, the tough get pushing – once appropriately heroic photographs captured much gurning up a first off-road climb.

Good practice for a track, which having disappeared into a tussocky mess, reemerged as an ice-cold stream bed. Bikes on shoulders, far peak selected, we grunted our way through a pristine white-on-blue landscape filled with many amazing things and no people. Just the way we like it.

Unsurprisingly this ended with a trudge to the highest point followed by a navigation conference best summarised as ‘you can’t get from here‘. No matter, snow under tyre is always funny as all sorts of lines and techniques dropped us into one valley, before pushing us out of the next one.

First proper descent. Steep and deep ice filled ruts, mildly amusing drop to one side, somewhat more terrifying hidden rocks under a snow carpet. Nuance everything – brakes, weight shift, lean and steer. More grip than you think,  a bit less than you need. Arrive at the summer crux which is a committed wall ride through a steep gully. A gully today full of ice and potential damage.

We’ll walk it, most of us thought. Except for Cez who opted for a line best thought of as ‘would you like grapes with that?’. We grabbed cameras so the local hospital had some kind of baseline to reassemble traumatically misplaced body parts. ‘He’s only fucking ridden it’ was the cry as Cez dropped onto the steepest pitch, while I mostly fell down it.

Rode the next bit tho. Not quite sure how. Was ready to abandon bike where Haydn breezily suggested trying something quite so craven was likely to end in a rock facial. Fairly sure I closed my eyes at that point.

Which Ian must have been doing as he ‘rear ended’ an innocent rider on the next road section. Poor bugger never even had time to brace. Still the views were fab, and continued to be so as we got entangled with some kind of organised ride with all sorts of map boards and abilities. Some pushing was involved. Then some more through soft snow stealing effort.

Descending through snow is always fantastic fun until someone catches an edge and pings off to silhouete an impromptu snow angel. To be fair, it’s still bloody good fun especially when that’s happening to someone else. We all had a go over the next couple of hours, between carrying, pushing and cursing at bikes somewhat ruining a fantastic walk.

Ah but what a day to be outside. It’s not epic really but it feels that way. Even with the weather closing in and another massive valley to push out of. The first section was eminently ridable and unrelentingly stunning. The second – which we’d breezed up in early Autumn the year before – was a calf-burning slog which went on for really quite a long time.

Not that I cared. Being out even in mini-mountains when snow transforms the landscape, and just riding within it feels like an adventure ticking all the boxes for a proper day out. Other than beer, and that was one more road climb and a fun descent away.

Fun near the bottom. A bit more challenging further up where this 4×4 track was hub deep in 10 metre, ice-filled puddles. Although puddle really doesn’t do the frequent plunge into foot-freezing water justice. Some of them were tidal.

Gradient finally replaced ice smashing by wheel and pedal seeing us sweep past a Landrover party,  to feel real bedrock rather than something proxied by hard-set ice.  Recalibration is what Winter is about; forget hard packed trails and embrace the mud, assume zero grip rather than tyre shredding adhesion, look at a wet off-camber root and think ‘you know what, that’s WAY better than the ice I just turned on’.

Big grins at the van. A winterscape of white wonderlands viewed from steamed up windows. Internal playback of that first descent, trying to wrench your eyes from the big skies back to the ten metres of trail in front of you, laughing at shit jokes, stealing sugary sweets from your mates and standing – just standing – in the best IMAX cinema in the whole damn world.

Wide eyed with amazement at the panorama. Cynical about everything except this. Desperate to find the next place which makes you feel something  even close. And yet so many people don’t venture outside in Winter because it’s cold and wet.

Have you any idea at all what you might be missing?

* I’m not quite that much of a lexical curmudgeon,  because I know language must evolve or die, and every generation adds a richness entirely missing from their tutting parents. I do get that. But Tots Amazballs? Really? I’m off to buy something beige.

** Younger offspring, on being collected from school the other day, was most put out that one of her teachers had essentially summed up the problems of our plant-raping and fuck ups with this simple message: ‘Yep that was us, but we’ll not be around to sort it out. That’s your job‘.  Teaching has come on a long way since my day.

Flashback

Graeme high above the Utah canyons. What a ride that was.

There’s much to be said for order in a world of chaos, even if your efforts are limited to ‘one photo archive to rule them all‘. Technologically fairly straightforward, logistically rather more challenging with source material flung far and wide across hard drives, USB sticks, whining NAS’s and some proper old school CDs.

Yet when centred in this informational media tornado, a chronological romp of the past fifteen years is perfectly sequenced across a flickering screen. It was both uplifting and depressing. Images of a previously unknown member of the Leigh tribe flashed by – a younger, fitter and significantly less lined version of myself hamming it it up in all sorts of exotic locations. Always accompanied with bikes, it should be recorded.

On rediscovering Mountain Bikes at about 32,  there was a slightly tragi-certainty that my best years were already behind me. What the fuck was I thinking? Jeez, there’s almost nothing I wouldn’t trade for a waybackmachine(tm),  transporting me back to those innocent images where every location was jaw dropping, each trail was more perfect than the last, and any self-doubt mixed with pointless introspection was buried under a thousand giggles.

Morzine 2003. First proper trip to the mountains recalibrating your view of – well – pretty much your entire mountain biking world. Because absolutely everything is amped to the mighty –  the climbs, the descents, the fear, the crashes and the beer. Oh. So. Much. Beer. Most of my body is a bit ruined, but my liver must be something really special to have survived such persistent abuse.

Spain twice – once with a guide/arsehole who nearly ruined it with his needy urge to drag us above the snow line, and once with a far nicer fellow showing us what endlessly dusty feels like. Africa with a mostly broken shoulder, but fondly remembered for getting shitfaced/stoned with the Berbers in the High Atlas, and weaving bikes through the Souks in Marrakech.

A visit to the Mecca of Utah back in 2005. The rite of passage for anyone wishing to label themselves a mountain biker. Riding the insanity of Slickrock with limitless traction and endless skies, swishing through perfect Fruitia singetrack and bricking it on Jack’s ridge. Shuttling to nearly 10,000 feet, before dropping most of that on a trail exactly 12 inches from a fatal drop to the canyon floor.*

Scotland, Wales, the Lakes, back to the French Alps like moths to a flame. Or maybe a flash. Flash, flash, flash, the images keep coming – the bikes change, the riders a little more careworn, but the composition holds. Bloke holding a bike a bit self consciously, backdropped by the mountains of differing hues. Some snow capped, some tree-lined, some blasted to baserock by unimaginable winds, but always mountains, always smiling.

Digital photography has much to answer for. The selfie for a start. And pictures of some uninteresting foods you’re about to eat. And twerking. Whatever that is. Being of medium antiquity, this sort of new media fad passes me by. The day I feel the urge to ‘snapchat‘ will cross the event horizon where dignity once represented reality.

But for all of that, it’s a bloody brilliant way to reboot yourself. No casting about in a spider-webbed loft, searching out fading photo albums. No, these images bobbing around in an endless digital sea will invoke – in at least equal amounts -strong feelings of lament and loss, but also desperate urges to fly again.

I watched my youthful face flash by backlit with physcially imposing geography , pushed into the background by a focussed epicentre of great friends absolutely living in the moment. On studying those faces, there’s not a single one who would rather be anywhere else. Almost every image was watermarked with  ‘we are the luckiest people in the world‘.

In 68 days, another road trip is kicked off with nearly a thousand mile pilgrimage to warmer climbs much further south. And the excitement is just the same as it was all those years ago. I worry about the same stuff; will I be fit enough/brave enough/skilled enough to be anything other than the much-waited-for back marker, and I anticipate the same things as well; being in high places with my best friends, pushing the bike faster than I dare and getting away with it, arcing through dusty singletrack with the trail-pixies firing up the adrenaline compressors, then watching the sun cast long shadows on brutal mountains with a cold beer in my hand.

One day this will stop. One day it will be too hard, or I’ll be too broken or too frightened or to busy with something else. It won’t be one single day, more death by a thousand cuts. At which point those flashes of a previous life will feel as if they’ve happened to something else. It will no longer be my world.

I cannot imagine that. Try very hard not too. Right now all I’m thinking about is a monster ride tomorrow in a snowy mid-Wales, and 68 more days to endure before my best friends – slightly older, a bit more rugged, maybe a bit more introspective and pretending this isn’t the start of the end – and I load fantastic bikes into the van to go and be something that you are not.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, which can beat that. I’ll look at the images of what’s been for no other reason than there is more of the same to come. And grin because I have been so bloody lucky to be part of them.

We’re not done yet. The archive remains open.

* known – according to our guides – as the ‘3 second tour‘. That’s the length of your scream before splatting into the desert.

Just get on with it man.

New Years Day Malverns Ride

Or, as the Internet generation insists on calling it, MTFU. That’s a good start to end the nonsense of a New Year, with the geo-virtual warriors stuck fat behind keyboards pedalling their forum-based snake-oil distilled from pseudo-science and delusional self belief.

Move about more, eat a bit less has always worked for me. Even when I’m elbows deep in a Stilton Massacre and reaching for the port. Because tomorrow I shall sally forth from my feckless munificence to point a muddy foot at the querulously crapulent*

So tomorrow comes and I go into the default mode of not really wanting to back  hubristic boasts with any physical effort. No matter, my friend Matt – the master of the winter death march – suggests an early start and a late finish interspersed with a few surprisingly dry trails and whole lot more trudgery of the first, second and third degrees.

Degrees of both latitude and longitude. First up, then down, mostly sideways and occasionally in a state of peril. A 9:30 meet assembles only two riders, but four sets of lights, three pairs of spare gloves, multiple additional layers and – because this is a training ride – money for beer.

The composition of a riding group potentially makes perfect trail music or discordant harmonies when a single member fails to ride to the beat.  With just the two, there’s a lamentable absence of faffing and few hiding places. Other than those off-the-trail ‘resting areas‘ best found after desperately ejecting from a bucking bicycle.

Heading out on local trails and then abandoning the same some 45 minutes later, we stiffened suspension** and upper lips, before bending tarmac to our weak-winter will in a quest to find a favourite downhill some two valleys distant. This is not trail-centre riding, the good stuff must be earned through raspy-breath climbs, tremendously muddy cut throughs and head-windy yomps across seasonally bleak landscape.

All good. Or at least better than being inside. Soon we’re splatigating*** to a much loved trail, autumn leaves hiding winter mud and suggesting discretion trumps valour in terms of speed and bravery. Still fab tho in the kind of sideways type riding that always feel like fun at the time. Until someone nuts a tree.

Soon we found solace at the FoD Cafe and all things central for those who can’t be arsed to pedal. The gravitational pull of the uplift truck and the pies can clearly be seen as the extremely-upholstered slide off lovely bikes and stretch lycra with not-very-earned cake.

Not us of course. Honed athletes and all that. 20km in and we’re destroying bacon and egg sandwiches with the zeal of men last fed some days ago. But not for us a lap of easy, no we went hard on soft trails oft ridden to point muddy bikes at the Yat where every trail had a Coroner Verdict of ‘assisted suicide’ written all over it.

Except Matt felt this lacked ambition. Instead we added another 90 minutes pushing increasingly confident lines into surprisingly grippy corners. Which in no way stopped me casing a couple of jumps fully justifying expensive forks and their  inherent ‘don’t throw the idiot over bars‘ functionality.

Finally we began to head home – still some 25km from roofs and warmth – as the early sun disappeared behind dirty clouds, and legs began to make the kind of excuses suggesting this could be a bit of an epic journey.

It was and it wasn’t. Matt and I have been friends enough to know our strengths (mainly his) and weaknesses (mostly mine), ensuring we make the best use of drafting, encouragement, piss taking, and shared-pain as the kilometres oh-so-slowly pass by.

When your mental cartography spikes every known climb and the long road home, it’s time to stuff that into a box marked ‘stop whining‘ and just get on with it. Because getting on with it encompasses two wheel drifts, desperate saves and the occasional unscheduled punt into the shrubbery. On stopping for a rare breather under grey-clamped skies and fading light with much still to do, Matt declared ‘I fucking love mountain bikes‘ and I couldn’t do anything but agree.

And lie down for a bit of a rest. After riding like a twat for about three weeks, I finally got my shit together and made endorphic things happen leaving the brakes alone, disconnecting my hind brain and sashaying from entry to apex. It felt terribly real and important, so entirely missing from the whole Strava-Esque ‘am I going faster than someone I’ve never met?

Then the rain came. Then the last off road climb was done. Then the last descent was as well-  without the injuries it promised. We rode past two favourite pubs as the weather closed in with legs pretty much in limp home mode. It’s been far too many weeks since I’ve pushed my body this hard for so long.

Needed to be done. Felt worthy. And shaky on the final little road climb to a pub some 1km from home. Beer tasted great but not as good as a chair for some much needed sitting down. We left in the pissing rain and howling wind, but that’s fine because we’re a month into winter, and a single big ride prepping for Spring.

Sometimes you really just need to ride, ride and ride. For six hours and sixty five kilometres with over a thousand metres of climbing.  Because what else are you going to be doing?

Inside is overrated.

* this is a real adjective. Vaguely remembered from a long abandoned dusty classroom and confirmed by the power or Wikipedia. Really I couldn’t be happier

** No idea when I do this. Because it’s only as we roll into the pub some five hours later do I twig it never got switched back. Not that I noticed much.

** like navigating. Only mostly sideways.

Windy City..

Marrakech holiday

.. not Chicago which traditionally holds this accolade – although in my experience it’s far too busy snowing and being generally unpleasant for anyone to remark ‘tad breezy out here tonight‘, or even our own town of Ross-On-Wye which is treating post-xmas weather depressions with the whirlygig dance of the wheelie bin.

No, rather closer to home is my mostly pressurised small intestine which was exactly one stomach cramp from being disembowelled with a blunt spoon. This, predictably, is all my own fault, but someone less intuitively vectored by an entirely inappropriate salad fetish.

Back before the world turned the right way, the tribe for which I’m at least partially responsible took a long, hard look at a British Christmas and instead jumped on a plane heading 2000 miles due south to a place where the sun was shining, the beer was free, the people were lovely and the kitchen hygiene was pretty much ‘fetch it off the floor and throw it on the plate‘.

I’ve always loved Africa. Ridden in the awesome mountains, buggered about in the endless deserts, dodged car-jacking in the big cities and survived the scariest game of poker I’ve ever been desperate to lose. And if there is one thing I have learned, it is ‘don’t eat anything that’s ever been underwater‘*. Except, being old and stupid, I’d forgotten this important survival principle, instead mixing beer and photosynthesis with the kind of wild abandon that is ‘make sure you have a good book or, better still, access to an extensive library because your world is basically bogs and books‘ your life for a couple of very long days.

So Marrakesh was fab. I’d even slipped in a day’s mountain biking before some form of plague slipped into my gut, and pretty much refused to leave even when diluted with the vast quantities of alcohol an all-inclusive holiday could offer.

Returning home to snow and sleet, my intestinal tract crossed continents and time zones without ever giving up the kind of pressure that could have triggered the oxygen masks on the plane home, were it not for my involuntary pelvic floor exercises.

Really that four hour flight gave me more than a sufficient window to enact an uninterrupted performance of ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ arranged for small intestinal trumpet and rectal oboe’ Looking back, I feel this was a once-in-a-lfetime opportunity badly missed.

It didn’t get much better regardless of my best efforts to ignore it, or to beat it to death with Stilton and Port. Eventually – having self diagnosed myself with terminal stomach cancer – the obvious next step** was to invoke the ‘free at the point of service‘ medical care we’re so lucky to receive in this country,

‘Press 1 if you’ve got better, or press 2 if you’re moving towards the light‘ represents my first interaction with the NHS who have clearly been overrun with malingerers, so much so that when a real human answers the phone, they do not offer you an actual appointment. No, instead you’re palmed off with the potential remote diagnosis offered by a Doctor who’ll call you back at some point in the next few days.  Gee, thanks.

I did get the call. From a lovely female doctor who first checked my date of birth, and then spent the rest of the conversation in a somewhat bemused state surprised I was even still alive, and therefore any actual ailment was pretty much just the Grim Reaper sharpening his Scythe.

It went something like this:

Her: ‘Can you describe you stools’

Me “Sure, two in the shedofdreams(tm), a couple in the kitchen… oh I see, right, well you know they’re kind of normal but a bit orange’

Her ‘How Orange?’

Me ‘To be fair, I’ve not fished them out to check their pantone, or chucked an orange in there to give me some kind of graduation/. Can we just go with Orange?’

Her ‘Any Knobbles’

Me ‘Not really, more your Maxxis Icon than a DHF’

Her ‘ Sorry?’

Me ‘7 years of training and not a single day comparing poo’s to mountain bike tyres? The world is going to shit’

Her ‘Right well you’re clearly not dying, so we can’t give you any antibiotics as per the memo I received this morning from the busybodies in the Department of Health’

Me ‘Yeah but I took some when I was in Africa. I checked them out and – quoting directly – ‘these are used on animals except in poor countries’

Her ‘ that’s doesn’t sound too good’

Me ‘ No way, Cows have got four stomachs. They’re pretty fucked up all the time. Amazing they don’t explode. Good for a cow, good for me, can I have some more please?’

Her ‘No. I’d suggest you eat vegetables for two weeks, stay off the alcohol and any dairy products’

Me ‘Fuck. Really? What’s the plan here? Are we trying to bore the sodding infection to death? Those long winter nights are hardly going to fly by. Can we have the antibiotics conversation again? Because while I respect your medical credeentuals you are clearly 12 years old’

Her ‘I’d suggest vegetables and yoghurt’

Me ‘ You weren’t even alive when this was considered hip and cool by the veggie generation’

There’s a line crossed when you’re discussing the shape and size of your major output with a person – some twenty years your junior – you have never met.  Thankfully the damage to any remaining dignity has long since passed.

Anyway, having having visited a few of my old haunts, many friends suggested I was looking both sprightly and tanned. That’s not a tan, it’s the terrible side effect of pushing Stilton aside to grab a carrot. Much more of this and I’ll be making a living as a David Dickenson look-a-like.

So, I’ve cracked and had a beer, Or 4. And on that basis, I feel further self medication is the way forward. Pass me that spoon.

* My eldest child who had a diet of Pizza and Chips with the occasional parent-insisted vegetable was absolutely fine. A point made with the kind of irritating repetition which suggested late-teen adoption was a long considered option.

** From Carol. Who I think was pretty much ready with the spoon if I didn’t man up and call the quacks.

Happy New… on second thoughts to hell with that..

New Years Day Malverns Ride

The passing of another year is beset with many problems. Let’s ignore pointless resolutions, mortality fears, unrealisable ambitions and full blown depression to instead pursue a denouement on the somewhat ludicrous rationale on why we adopted the Gregorian calendar in the first place.

Now Caesar was quite a forward thinking chap. About 900 years if his astrologers are to be believed. Sure it’s a bit narcissistic to present the world with a global calendar in your own name, yet at least he’d thought through the whole leap year thing* so ensuring tax collection fell on the same day across the whole empire, but of course the bloody religious nutters wouldn’t let it lie.

The Gregorian calendar, introduced some 1500 years later by another bloke who was keen to have his name on the thing, fixed the cataclysmic issue of a 0.002% drift for significant dates. That date being Easter** which the original JC didn’t care much about, but for Pope Gregory’s JC was kind of a big deal. Although I still enjoy the old joke ‘Easter’s cancelled this year, they found the body‘.

Less funny was the actual violence metered out in Lindesfarne (Bede is your man here if you want to know more. All I shall say here is attempting to fix a date first by committee and then by arms was never going to end well) when a spirited debate broke out on exactly on what days Easter should actually land.

Still since it’s *another* Pagan festival (easter bunnies? Hot cross Buns? Eggs? Go find those in the Bible. It’s basically ‘bite the head off the bunny and say hello to spring‘), it’s hard from the perspective of another 1000 years to see why anyone really gave a shit in the first place.

And that’s my problem with New Year. Someone made it up like everything else when we get a day off work, and we’re all bloody slaves to it.

See? Problems all over the place, and that’s even before someone declares on face-cloth they are going dry for a month, When it’s dark all the time. And everyone is skint. Good luck with that. Have you considered the cost of therapy?

We went for a ride. The zephyr like conditions of a few days back were replaced by +10 degree temperature hikes and a blustery south westerly pregnant with rain. The world disappeared under cloud, and we tugged at its edges slithering about, and slapping New Year wishes on the occasional tree.

All good. I failed to add to the five crashes sustained already this week. There was laughter, tea and cake which feels a far better way to meet an uncaring rotation of the planet than angst, delusion and virtual hair-shirts.

In vaguely related New Year/Old news, I’ve had a poke about in the archives to update both the ‘best of’ pages and the rotating door ‘bike page’. I didn’t put much effort into the latter to be frank. It’s about to get a pretty major up/down/side grade.

But that’s another story. And I think we’ve had enough of those already.

* as opposed to Indiana at the turn of the 20th Century who attempted to set PII at 3.2. Really they did. I accept it’s a bit neater than an infinitely repeating number, but try squaring that circle.

** Because of course Christmas is a Pagan festival usurped by Christianity to weave in some dodgy narrative involving a whole load of imbricated stories, recorded some three hundred years after the actual event. Although event might be overstating it.

 

Done, not dusty.

Penyard MTB - NYE 2014
That’s a big gap. Dean looking surprisingly relaxed!

Done – the last ride of 2014. And in the spirit of all these indeterminable auto-generated face-cloth and Strava summaries, the two hour muddy endeavour perfectly encapsulated a year of many adventures, more than occasional timidity and a whole load of clean and dirty fun in between.

Firstly I crashed. Three times. Once adding a tree to the whole ‘it’s all gone wrong‘ experience. Secondly I avoided a difficult obstacle a couple of my riding mates sailed over. That’s Dean ^^ up there who gave it a damn good look on multiple run-ins before committing. Another pal, Cez, mistrusting that approach, instead launched himself at the gap jump with so much speed, he was still seen pedalling while both wheels were in the air.

I took some pictures. Then just before Beer o’ clock, we arrived at a freshly dug trail barely clinging to a slithery hillside. Apparently this ‘new way down‘ started with six vertical switchbacks, immediately followed by a couple of nasty drops and finishing in a run out to the fire-road where you could collect all your teeth if it went wrong.

I asked Sean – who built it – if I’d die riding it, even utilising the full range of my legendary skills and bravery. The look with which he responded had me scurrying away to an easier trail less marked for someone who’d plumped for ‘involuntary suicide‘ as their New Years resolution.

So crash, nary and avoid. There’s been a bit of that this year. What do I mean this year, every bloody year really.  Hard to know if I’m getting any less brave, or – as I suspect – because I’m starting from such a low base , it’s pretty damn hard to tell the difference.

Determining fun through progression is a slippery slope. I should know having fallen off many times attempting to navigate it. This year – when compared to 2013 – I’ve ridden about the same number of miles, climbed a bit more, visited a few less places, and had a similar shit load of simple joy.

I weigh about the same, pedal about the same, maybe arc through the odd corner a little sweeter after being up-skilled, brake when I shouldn’t,  hesitate when I should just go for it, find excuses to quit and get lost in tangled mental thickets of over-thinking.

And for all of that, I love riding mountain bikes more than I ever did. I’m stupidly excited about new bikes, great adventures and unknown trails in 2015. I have the best friends to ride with, and – right here on our doorstep – many amazing places to explore.

There’s a shitty season to ride through first, but ‘pre-spring‘ is just a couple of months to stay fit and healthy before it’s all drying trails, carving bluebell singletrack, kicking up dust and having a ball.  Sliding about in January and February isn’t entirely without comedic merit either – especially if it’s someone else nutting trees.

Being such an antiquated sort of bloke, there’s something reassuring in understanding that all these good things are coming, while retaining a childlike enthusiasm for spontaneous stuff that’ll make me point, babble and giggle.

Age is a number tho, not a barrier. Today after riding, a pub full of similarly chiselled* mountain bikers decided our mental age is about 27. Frankly I think we were overstating our maturity by at least 10 years. I looked around and saw old people with their tired eyes and well upholstered bodies. Their chronological clock may tick the same as ours, but we chime to a different beat.

As an adult with a loving family and paying work you really must pay some attention to, there’s all sorts of commitments and deadlines outside of any control. The antithesis of that is being able to play outside on off road bicycles.

It’s all about balance. Until you hit a tree. Come on then 2015, let’s see what you’ve got. I’m ready.

* it’s a good word. Wrinkled might be a little more accurate.

That’ll go.

Dec 2014 - Classic Gap MTB with Matt, Ceri and Haydn
Cez on a surprisingly un-icy bit!

Go badly that is. My last Gap year project was back at the end of 2012, after which I wrote a predictably pretentious load of old cobblers on exactly why I’d been avoiding it for ten years, and basically why it wasn’t anywhere near as terrifying as internally marketed.

Today was different. For a start the sun was providing the kind of light we photo-snobs dream about. Although so pre-occupied was it with projecting perfect mountain reflections in glass-still lakes,  it entirely failed to provide any kind of warmth whatsoever.

Shivery start then. When faced with a big sodding mountain at which your current location is a million miles from the summit, go as cold as your dare.

That’s pretty cold so almost 2 kilometres passed before fingers inside thick winter gloves thawed out, and toes signalled they were in fact still attached. But God it was so worth it – a two week period in which I’ve eaten loads, drunk far too much, wasted too many hours and ridden not at all. More than just being back on the bike tho, much more as limitless panoramic views bounced around my optical nerves.

If I may just be allowed a further moment of pretension; riding up frozen mountains with your friends, all the time being assailed with infinitely beautiful glacial landscapes pretty much encapsulates all of ‘this is why‘  Thank you- from hereon in, I shall attempt to stick within the confines of a more descriptive narrative.

Illustrative couplets include ‘frozen-icy’ ‘slippy-frictionless‘ and ‘scary-terrifying’. As we climbed higher, hard ice replaced the trail – peppered only occasionally by soft dirt. A couple of short, steep technical ascents were summited through a combination of extreme effort and grip-less tiptoeing.

Enough of this brought us to the first proper descent which was clearly going to be bowel clenchingly sketchy. It started well enough with baby headed rocks – free of ice – passing swiftly under superbly suspended wheels, before dropping into the type of frozen tundra that can only be properly ridden rocking the rictus gurn.

That Gurn is a facial summary of many things clenched from toes upwards. I wasn’t sure if the rear wheel was sliding, or my arse was merely twitching in the manner of a rabbit’s nose. Left, right, straight on – all choices entirely arbitrary and barely affected by wrenching the big steering handle things. You could try braking of course. If smashing face first into gritty ice is your kind of thing. Eventually the trail finally ended in a mess of Forestry brutality, and soon we were climbing again heading for the Gap from which the ride takes its name.

First tho, a nasty little rock strewn climb immediately followed by a short – but fun – plunge down a rocky escarpment. Not today though as it was filled with ice and even walking down, portaging the bikes, didn’t feel even close to safe.  It was all a bit Blakes-7 ‘Down and Safe‘* vindicating my continued dalliance with flat pedals, and more importantly grippy shoes. Not that these saved me later on.

First tho, big climb up to the saddle. One of those ‘pick a gear and a point on the horizon‘, start pedalling, take in the view and think happy thoughts. Twenty minutes later these thoughts did not include navigating a precipitous ice fall where the trail used to be. We recce’d it from all angles before agreeing the best approach would be two legs and two wheels, entirely separated.

This didn’t prevent me from an unscheduled arse-ice incident leaving a proper bruise and apparently amusing photographs. By the time I’d regained biped status and the remains of my dignity, the rest of the crew were long gone. They waited in the perfect spot to be enduringly polite at my attempts to actually ride some of this ice/rock/ice/ice horror.

I didn’t ride much of it, but I managed to throw myself roughly to the ground one more time. In the spirit of absolute fairness, this time a single pointy rock savaged the other arse cheek. I shall spend the remainder of this week walking like an aged cowboy.

No matter, reunited with my ‘rode most of that‘ pals, we set off for the classic descent on this loop. Firstly, a little up and down, launching over water bars and keeping a wary eye out for more ice, even tho we’d broken back into the sunshine. Never have I been so happy to see water streaming down the trail.

And then the increasing gradient and narrowing track tumbles you down into the valley at somewhat more sedate speeds than in less treacherous conditions. Still fast enough tho for Cez’s attempt to lob himself over a dry stone wall. Reasons mostly unknown.

That’s enough for a winter’s day, especially considering all limbs reporting in as still mostly operational. But there’s a little more, two tough sections demanding a decent pace as narrow paths throw up endless tyre stopping rocks. Physical, committing and on the ticked list to clear today. Proper, hard mountain biking.

All that was left were a couple of cowshit strewn roads, hidden from the sun under high leafless hedges and glistening with fresh ice. Safely navigated, we turned onto the frozen canal path and made haste for the pub, where beer was of course for winners/survivors.

There’s many other things I could have been doing today. Working for a living being one of them. Or lying on the sofa complaining of continuing plague which appears to have pressurised my small intestine. Or finding a thousand other reasons not to go and play outside where it’s cold and icy.

I’m so bloody glad I chose wisely ;)

* for readers under the age of being allowed to wear long trousers outside, this is a reference to the superb 1970s BBC Sci-Fi series somehow being both mostly realistic** and produced on a budget of about 10 bob.

** if you were very young. It probably hasn’t dated well.

A bird in the hand..

In the vanguard of the shiny

… is worth two in the shed. As observed by that rather hackyned old proverb, now cheekily repurposed for what passes as rationale from this side of the keyboard. From here I can imagine the gasps of amazement and expressions of disbelief from those hearing of this unforeseen event.

Yeah okay that’s not imagination, it’s deluded fantasy. I expect exactly no one to be even mildly astonished on the big reveal merely shuffling innocent trinkets in the shedofdreams(tm). A bedrock of my relationship with the good lady, her indoors is that I pretend to have a brilliantly nuanced trail-map from today to a fixed point in time*, where fiscal probity and asset sanity finally replaces the revolving door of bike replacement. And she pretends to believe me.

It goes something like this; there’s some traditional dogma surrounding multiple bike ownership – plant the shed with the latest crop of shiny new things as defined by Mr. Marketing, and harvest the one most appropriate for the prevailing ground conditions. Crappy old winters day or quick woody hack, take the hardtaill. Uplift truck or big rocky day out, drag the big bike from the shadows. Anything in between, grab the one that’s pretty damn good at everything else.

There’s the thread of a compelling narrative there. Save the good bikes for best- every ‘proper‘ rider must tell a petrolhead-Alfa hardtail story, the full face needs a worthy companion so there’s no situation for which I’m under-equipped or poorly matched. Dig a little deeper tho and a couple of rather important points are uncovered; firstly cumulative isn’t the same as appropriate, and two thirds of your bikes hardly get ridden.

Examples abound; my hardtail is a lovely incarnation of the breed - big wheels, a steel heart and corner-chasing handling. The pseudo big bike has an effortless brilliance accompanying it’s less accomplished rider from the back of an uplift trailer or swinging on a chairlift. Both are fantastic, but neither has even 10% of the miles clocked on the middle of the road unsung hero.

The Pyga is a great bike. I’ve actually worn stuff out before upgrading it. 3200 kilometres, two drivetrains, one full set of bearings, two suspension services, one brake bleed, endless pads, multiple tyres and scratches from rim to rim document 18 months of multiple weekly interactions leaving me with a big grin and a nagging worrry over all the unridden bikes with their drying seals, deflating tyres and dusty countenances.

Bikes at the heart of the periphery are outliers. They are essentially wall art, occasionally wheeled out to justify their existence. What they do better than your ‘daily driver’ feels strange and alien. Behind their bars is not a familiar place, so half the ride is relearning their foibles. It doesn’t make them bad bikes, but it does make the bike per genre thinking somewhat flawed.

The solution seems obvious. Just keep that one and use technique, bravery and bloody-mindedness to ride around perceived shortcomings on the margins of trail riding. It’s an interesting idea, but garners no traction for a man who genuinely believes he is one bike from unleashing some hidden potential –  regardless of owning similar brilliant examples.

And yes there’s the shiny new bike thing. I’d be fibbing off the scale if that wasn’t factored into solving the complex equation of N+1-2. It’s another manufacturer almost no one has heard of, paid for way before it arrives and purchased entirely on the basis that ‘it looks about right’ plus a nod to the designers who seem like decent blokes.

So my plan** is two bikes almost the same. Small Hammer and Big Hammer if you will. For a man who sees the world pretty much as a nail, every bike is merely graduated percussion. You can keep your finesse, lightweight components, extreme compromises and ridiculous reinventing of what a bike should look like. I don’t want fat, thin, exotic or niche. Rather give me two bikes someway beyond my capability to test them, and I’m pretty much done and dusty.

Riding the Mega always made me feel a little bit special and quite a lot rubbish.  Slinging a leg over the Solaris for the first time in six months gave me little joy and an unshakeable feeling of being old and lumbered by a degrading spine. Both can go to people and places where they will be the bike of choice, primarily selected whatever the trail, dragged out in all conditions and slung back ready for another adventure just around the corner.

I’ll be sorry to see them go, but not as sorry as seeing them hanging purposelessly in a heated shed with so much to give and nowhere to go. This might – and probaly is – pretentious wankerage merely displacing guilt for buying into the latest wheel size and geometry, all of which is entirely irrelavent to having fun riding bikes.

There’s a reason bikes are called cycles, because the curators of a shed-full will spin up the sign wave between ‘one of each‘ and ‘more of the same‘.  It’ll go around and come around always with some veneer thin rationale to why, this time, the deckchairs on this Titanic have finally assumed their final positions.

Until then, I get to ride new bikes that’ll blow me away in new places, make old places somehow even better and never hang unwanted in something that started as a bike store but ended up looking like a shrine.

A sane person looking into my word may question why anyone could possibly need so many bikes. And they’d be missing the point. It’s not the quantity, it’s the mix. If I ride the Pyga and the Bird equally over the next year, I’ll be proved absolutely right. And if not, guess what happens next? :)

* at no time would I put a date on that. There’s no point in both of us being disappointed.

** I’ve just reacquainted myself with the OED definition of ‘Plan‘ so feel substituting that for the phrase ‘random stream of unconnected activities’ would be more appropriate.

Brittle Bones – on the edge of traction

Don't go towards the light!

I’m not overly familiar with the canon of Ms Zellweger’s work, nor the Bridget Jones extended  franchise, but neither of these potential cultural oversights stayed the ‘Edge Of Reason‘ flash-sideways sliding into my frontal lobe during a mildly trying period best thought of as ‘man versus tree’.

Sideways and Sliding are a rare adjectival/verb crossover combination perfectly describing a descent into wooded singletrack and mild terror. One minute I’m drinking in the earths’ curvature from high places painted deep in winters azure clarity, and the next it’s all gone dusky dark, slithering mud and arboreal aggressiveness.

My passion for forests is only topped by their taller mountain brethren,  except when individual trees are throwing themselves at my increasingly brittle frame. Switching from the rather trite ‘lungs of the planet‘ to ‘bone crushing monoliths’ in all the time it takes to wonder where all the traction went.

More grip that you think, just a bit less than you need‘ is the watch-phrase here. It was preceded by a need to ride under perfect blue skies, with a less than perfect right knee and  sodden geography recovering slowly from the first winter storms. Late year sunlight brings even the troglodytes from their crypts, so the hills were alive with the sound of walking sticks, bored families and the occasional joy sponge composing their next militant missive to the Malvern Gazette*

We dropped out of sight onto trails so cheeky they should have their bottom smacked, immediately encountering the kind of tyre filling mud leaving anyone perched atop with the option of risking a dab of brake or a hint or steering. Certainly not both. That way lies an individual consultation with the stump of your choice.

God it’s fun tho. There’s something about this time of year where the trails have basically turned to shit, but there’s still enjoyment to be found at half the traction, three quarters of the speed and twice the commitment. Two wheel drifts are amusing at 10mph, less so at twice that, and solving the weight-placement, braking, cornering angles on a per-second basis is physically and mentally satisfying.

Mountain biking in the real world if you like. Nothing is buffed other than your head with that particular brand insulating a deficient thatch. There’s no hero dirt here, no sun-sparkled dust long-framed in lens flare,  no guns out in the sun, no easy options, no limitless traction, no endless light filled days.

Proper four season sport. Layer up, get out there and appreciate the vignettes of saving a desperate slide, warming extremities by vigorous stamping, conquering a greasy climb through torque and technique, hitting jumps already sideways, and always riding, riding, riding through a landscape devoid of life and often clamped in grey.

We hardly had a run at any descent because the hills were peopled with those as desperate to walk shadow tall under cloudless skies.  And that’s absolutely fine because just reeling in the horizon at any speed at times like this is enough. Not quite enough though, because today we sallied forth again under those much hated grey skies to slither about in the woods above Ross.

Bits were great. Fast, grippy, devoid of mud. Other bits were slick, difficult and often full of unwanted trunk**. Which brings me back full circle to the brittle bones bit;  riding at this time of year requires more skill – and probably less bravery – than an amalgam of spring, summer and autumn. Which is fine and everything until someone loses a line, the plot, and possibly an eye.

Post ride, beers were pulled as those self-classified as the worthy sat in the warmth and talked of deeds to be done and more to be catalogued.  I have some of the greatest friends who, regardless of their circumstances, prioritise riding mountain bikes in all seasons and weathers.

We talk like children, excited by the possibilities of the new but we’re not young. The first flush of youth has long gone. We’ve got scars, broken bits, sore limbs and a clock counting the minutes until all this stops. And it’s the thought of those missing months you can never get back which deprecates your bravery.  Hurting myself isn’t the issue, being off the bike absolutely is. Riding tomorrow is far more important than riding the thing in front of you.

Mountain Biking is so much a part of what I am, and yet it’s also a perfect juxtaposition between craving the adrenaline hit and not hitting something that’ll put you off the bike for a while. Possibly for ever. Now there’s a dark place too scary to visit. Until there are no other choices.

My dad is getting on a bit. He’s flown gliders and light aircraft almost every weekend for nearly sixty years. Soon – so very soon – age and certification become incompatible. He is understandably worried about what to fill that hole with, and while it’s impossible not to sympathise with position, I’m beyond bloody glad it’s not me facing that decision.

Ride bikes for fun. Don’t crash hard. Ride bikes again. That’s as close to a Christmas message as I’m going to get.

* ‘Dear Sir, I suggest in the strongest possible terms Mountain Bikers are reclassified as game birds so open season can be declared on August 12th. Yours, an old bloke pining for days that never were

** Trees not elephants. There’s a lot of weird stuff that goes on in Herefordshire, but herds of massive mammals*** striding across the Wye valley isn’t one of them

*** Except for MAMILs. We get loads of those. Fat mountain bikers I get. We drink loads of beer. Fat Roadies? Help me out here.