Centred

Coed y Brenin

In a time best thought of the distant past I wrote an article on the practice of Yoga and why it’s not entirely relevant for the approximate half of the population whose idea of self-reflection is scratching their bollocks in a post modernist fashion.

The past is a different country; they speak differently there which somewhat explains my current mild obsession with stretching muscles without lifting weights in a long term goal of flexibility and a rather shorter one of standing up in the morning without clicking, creaking and exposing the kind of noises provoking the neighbours to call the RSPCA*

Not Yoga tho. I’m just too much bloke and not enough lentil. Pilates is  a bit different with Carol and my youngest who cheats with longer arms and a body not ravaged by age, injury and abuse. She’s not idea how lucky she is right now. And obviously there’s no point in explaining such a thing to those having never known any different.

Which bring me nicely to trail centres. It pains me to realise than my extreme antiquity shields the truth of the young and innocent failing to understand that winter is actually a quest of the worthy snorting mud and mainlining an arse of liquid crack while pretending they might be enjoying themselves.

Which is absolutely fine for the hair-shitred amongst us. There’s a certain purity in endless death marches under slashing rain skies on trails once fast and hard but now basically under the water table. You feel fantastic. Afterwards. During the ride? Not so much. Bit this is proper four season mountain biking. There is no wimping out or whimpering. Others may be weak but you are strong in the face of drudgery, broken transmission and inevitably broken spirit.

Two weeks ago we broke ranks and headed for Wales to ride nothing but trail centres. The  distant wild hills called and we gave them a nostalgic wave before forgoing navigation for stump based arrow and armoured trails. 3 Days, 3 trails and if I’m admitting a guilty secret it was nothing short of magnificent.

We were lucky with the weather which when you’re deep into North Wales in late October suggests you’ve not been hailed on. The rain came but by the time it was pissing down we were ensconced in a Halloween theme pub entertained by a band mostly differentiated by one man playing every instrument from guitar to accordion and the other wearing a pumpkin on his head**

Returning to the kind of climatic conditions November brings spiked my motivation to ride in such a way, I entirely failed to fetch the bike from the barn for the first time in a planetary rotation. The thought of slogging through muddy natural trails had the appeal of crushing one love spuds in  a sharply contoured drawer.

Night rides came as did the rain and my non attendance passed but the shitty weather turned up in my stead. Eventually tho the need to ride trumps the inertia of wondering if it’s worth it. Circumstances predicated a two hour window at Swinley Forest where i’d cut my singletrack teeth many years ago and has recently been upgraded to a proper trail centre.

Hmm. Based on traffic and politics, all the heritage trails have closed notices stapled to trees whereas the new  blue and red runs are vigorously signposted and marketed. And they are absolutely fine displacing the lack of elevation with seemingly endless switchbacks though pine forests and the occasional 30 second non pedally descent.

Something is missing tho. I slipped out of the matrix and headed out on vaguely remembered trails now marked illicit They were full of puddles, slick roots and unsustainable cambers.  And I loved them more for that. I’d rather splash through something like that than dissolve brake pads on a cipher for a much loved trail.

This isn’t me having a pop at trail centres. Nor that the demands on somewhere like Swinley drove a hard decision between something official and nothing at all. Nor am I am denigrating the joy of 4 season trails perfectly designed for mass traffic and shit weather. Not at all, come Sunday I’ll be back at another one.

I guess it’s something a little more nuanced. My plan to ride Swinley was simply the displacement of a head full of much stuff to be done. Perspective guaranteed, to do lists axed, real-lifte(tm) reasserting  itself. Everything I get riding a mountain bike. And I got none of it switching back on scalexric tracks and wondering if this is how the end starts.

Sure the blood was arterially pumping. The trails snaked out in all sorts of interesting directions. The bike was willing and ready. But the rider had a head full of angst entirely failing to me wound out by the cycle of pedalling. It was okay, fine, sort of good but it wasn’t quite enough.

I love trail centres. If they are in Wales. Or Scotland. I get that but the idea of building a centre in a place where 25km delivers 200m of elevation you’ve got to think what the hell is the point. The point is of course political – too many riders chasing illegal trails on someone elses land. Armoured trails are the answer.

I feel we’re probably asking the wrong question.

* because no sound like that which resonates through a wall can be in any way human and must suggest bad things are being inflicted on innocent pets.

** this is North Wales and such things pass as entertainment.

Biscuits of Arse

Customed Yeti Tow Ball

Which I think we can all agree is an opportunity missed by the gel-setted 80s bands correlated by their terrible electric drum kits and rubbish names*

However today, we’re referencing a rather more contempory issue, although the photo above speaks rather prosaically to a thrusting medieval sex toy. Although such a toy could only be hoisted by two strong men going equipped with a block and tackle**

It’s a pretty meaty stressed member, even in a state clearly requiring alchemic viagra to return it to an original metallurgic state. For the towbar illiterate, these amusingly shaped rear end edifices are properly engineered to drag pointless lumpy caravans from a standing start to a speed perfectly designed to piss off 90% of the motoring population. They imbue the principals of robustness, strength and longevity.

Unless, and I accept this is a scenario far beyond the edge cases dreamed up by the original designers, you repurpose the entire mechanism as a battering ram. Those long suffering readers of the hedgehog may recall an incident early this year when I tested the efficacy of a subframe attached towbar by launching it into Carol’s car.

It survived. Carol’s car? Not so much. This time, no other vehicles were involved although this was more luck than judgement. Having parked up in a local car park for a swift post work pint, nothing could have been further from my mind than returning to the very same spot an hour later to find my car apparently stolen.

Firstly I assumed foul play from my friends Matt and Haydn. This is not some kind of latent paranoia, it’s EXACTLY the kind of thing that passes for japery for those seriously starved or entertainment. They strenuously denied any misdemeanour mainly on the grounds the car was five minutes from the pub, and none of us had ventured furthered than the loo.

Hmm. A good argument but not compelling on the not unreasonable grounds of ‘where the fuck is my car then?‘. We found it seconds later having cast our eyes down the slope to a useful wall, recently brought into action preventing a ton and a half of ice cream van parking itself into a innocent partys Friday evening.

Handbrakes are over-rated. For thirty years I’ve been pulling the bloody things before going for a belt-n-braces engage first gear – then existing the vehicle. That night, I failed to do either and certainly not both with the resulting farce of the car accelerating driverless into the aforementioned wall and not someones living room.

My relief at finding the car and finding it apparently undamaged was mitigated somewhat on discovering the brick-dust and strangely angled tow-ball the following morning. Since we found it six inches from the saviour wall, it probably smacked t it quite hard before rebounding to a shuddering standstill.

Could have been worse. A lot worse. Firstly there was a car parked behind me which my Yeti would have collected had he not had the presence of mind to move it, and without the tow bar I cannot imagine the physical and fiscal damage that’d have been inflicted on the non shatter proof bodywork.

I did consider getting a proper adult to check for further damage but decided against for three good reasons: a) I already felt stupid enough b) a quick poke about with a torch suggested most things were pointing in the same direction and c) I’m trading it next year and don’t want to look guilty to any perspective buyer.

The good news is the tow-bar is firmly bolted to the subframe so transferring the impact to a whole lot of chunky metal. The less good news is my ongoing stupidity in charge of dangerous wheeled goods shows no sign of diminishing. Maybe I should design a full car airbag.

* and I love 80s groups. But I’m not blind to their many failings. Rolled up suit sleeve jackets? Really? Spandau Ballet I’m looking at you.

** not that kind of tackle. And stop sniggering at the back.

Friends in high places

IMG_4353

Not the kind of high places populated by the supposedly elite and inappropriately privileged. My proximity with those social groups could only take one of two possible forms; either serving the drinks, or laying about myself with the rough end of a Chesterfield*

The kind of rarified atmosphere I have shared with my proper friends are to be found in riding above the tree lines, desperately seeking shelter on bleak summits or carrying bikes towards distant peaks. Companionship forged under endless skies surveying people-less vistas. No fair weather friends here – these individuals take one look at sub-zero snow being flung at the window before grinning. The unspoken ‘are we riding?’ question never needs to be asked.

Nige is one of those people. We’ve been often wet, mostly lost and endlessly cold in all sorts of situations containing mild peril. So I could not pass up the opportunity to bypass social convention regarding family gatherings, instead rocking up in a muddy Surrey Hills car park to ride with my old pal.

To find Nige, I first had to navigate through the thicket of ‘#soenduro’ bikes and pilots mostly strapped to the back of new-plate Audi’s. If there’s ever any doubt where all the worlds suppliers of carbon weave and orange paint has disappeared to, I can divulge the exact epicentre of the prime suspects.

Me and the Nigester were rocking heritage wheels (him 26, me 29), well campaigned gear and – in his case – straight steerer tubes and non bolt through rear ends. Amazing the whole thing didn’t explode on exit from his car as would be the expectation set by keyboard-warrior MTB Forums.

We headed up hill unscathed other than Nige blowing a bit on the not unreasonable grounds his riding has been curtailed by a proper job and family commitments – a set of circumstances entirely missing from my previous three months. The ‘All-Mountain-Rigs’ were nowhere in sight as we crested the summit of the Peaslake Alps revealing a rather pretty panorama marred only by its lack of altitude and evidence of mass population. It’s nice and everything but it’s not a proper hill.

It is however absolutely stuffed with brilliant trails criss-crossing the limited vertical in all manner of interesting and thrilling ways. Firstly Yoghurt Pots poked my singletrack synapsus with nicely crafted berms and dips. The expected mud remained mostly missing for all the time it took to drop into the next rather more natural trail.

A plethora of off camber roots – polished from much use and slick from recent rain – awaited our giggling and tripod efforts to ride them with any aplomb. Nig did rather better than me which entirely failed to prevent a big grin as we dropped onto a fireroad climb hauling us back to Telegraph Road.

I’ve never ridden this trail in the dry. And today was no different. What changed was my ability to dispatch the corners with the kind of middle-aged wildish abandon I’d long forgotten, for which my day with Tony is a gift that keeps on giving.

We hitched ourselves onto a ten minute pleasant climb back to where we started. Opening up the iconic Barry Knows Best trail much revered in these parts. And with good reason, being fast, flowy, bone dry and perfectly sculptured.

Which fails to explain why we both stacked on it. There’s a bond with your proper MTB mates which is broken when you can’t hear their front tyre nudging your rear mech. Having had a shit load of fun chucking myself into perfect berms and over entirely non terrifying jumps, I encountered a well upholstered man straining in the vanguard of an activity best thought of as ‘Rocking Green and Orange while perambulating extremely slowly’. Backing off, I mentally backed up and checked my six for an expected Nige.

He wasn’t there and I wasn’t either having given away concentration, peripheral vision and the middle of the trail. Result being my 1 ride old Magnesium pedal ** stabbing an innocent stump with the predictable result of a previously well balanced rider leaving the office through the front door. Luckily a tree was right there to prevent any gentle deceleration. I greeted my arboreal friend by simply punching it with a soon to be swollen hand.

Moments later, and bleeding profusely, I wiggled most things and found them working if a little sore. Damage Control reported a sternum suffering a Mr Scaramanga Third Nipple due to dragging a bar from my belly button to where shaving stops, but such minor injuries didn’t stop me from staggering upright and checking the bike.

Which was fine other than a couple of rotated components quickly fixed but still in a timescale that should have seen a fast Nige flashing past. No flashing. No Nige. Just as my next action was a determined limp up the trail to check for body parts, he rolled slowly into view.

Proper crash on the only vaguely technical section. Whereas I’d merely hugged a tree, he’d failed to commit and suffered the inevitable consequence of riding a steep drop on his head. Brain undamaged, ribs bruised, wrist sore, we leisure cycled to the tea stop*** for sugar based recuperation.

Flapjack imbibed, we avoided the soft option of giving up and headed up Winterfold Hill for more frolics on brilliant trails clearly beefed up since my last visit some four years ago. We even got lost for a while which was nostalgia brought right up to date.

A final drop to the car park on ‘SuperNova’ had me reconsidering the lazy categorization of these trails. Sure there’s more money than riding ability but that’s the same anywhere. And we watched some proper fast riders who bucked the stereotype. There’s some brilliant trails here, and some brilliant riders. I’m not sure it’s a standard deviation, but as a guest on someone else’s patch it was bloody fantastic.

And then I had a beer with an old friend. Said it before, say it again: riding is half of where you are and half of who you are with.

Good day. Won’t leave it so long next time.

* Sofa or Lord. Either would suit my faux-socialist credentials.

** The industrial casting process for magnesium is essentially waiting for something to catch fire. I expect my examples were thrown from a burning building.

*** achieving 4102 from 4309 of Strava times. I’m strangely proud of that.

Need a lift?

Bike Park Wales with Cez

It wasn’t that dry the second time round!

A simple question eliciting visceral responses, when the virtual thumb is thrown out into the big tent of the mountain biking community. For those who still despise trail centres, the promise of pedal free riding represents the absolute nadir of missing the point, plots long lost, shortcuts easily found and an evolutionary branch clearly mutated from the authentic origins of riding over the rough stuff.

That’s the joy of democracy right there. The rest of us exhibit Pavlovian responses on the arrival of the uplift truck. There’s something important about the ghettoisation of mountain biking –  herding previous free spirits into fenced off enclosures, driven by sheepdog arrows and exchanging natural wonders for sculpted safety.

But its’ not as important as accepting the landscape of mountain biking is changing. And changing for the better.

Bike parks aren’t trail centres. They make no excuses for a pay-to-play business model. Whereas trail centres hide maintenance* behind car parking fees, organisations like Bike Park Wales charge a price per entry and one for each uplift. They also understand this brings a responsibility to build ever more interesting trails while limiting numbers trashing what they have right now. Having met a couple of the people who run it, they absolutely get this doctrine.

Which doesn’t defuse the ticking time bomb of those who assert we’re giving away the crown jewels of land access, and entirely failing to stick it to the man. What – for me – they miss are two things; firstly bike parks are an outlier of mountain biking – fun for eight hours but you wouldn’t want to do it every day, and secondly they are corralling a whole generation of new mountain bikers who couldn’t give a rats arse for a nice XC loop.

We’re losing to the roadies. Olympic and tour success have transformed our local bike shops to selling the alleged joy of the tarmac.  Market economics play to a model which sells at least 10 skinny tyred bike to every knobbly one. Bike Parks don’t fix that, but bloody hell they make you feel sorry for the poor buggers playing with the traffic.

Twice in the last month I’ve motored the sub hour drive to Bike Park Wales – once in fantastic late summer sunshine and the other time in the pissing rain. And both times it was nothing short of adrenaline pumped giggling, interspersed with viewing 400 metre climbs from the misted windows of the uplift van.

The trails are brilliant because they are so diverse. It’s not all meat-headed downhill runs requiring large bikes and rather larger testicles. The runs are graded perfectly for progression and the hill is big enough to guarantee 7-10 minutes of fun on trails absolutely designed for modern mountain bikes.

And that terrain drops you into natural feeling wooded sections and over natural rock gardens. It’s all superbly armoured against the weather, but not styled as a homage to a BMX track. It’s full of technical challenges you can safely hit fast or slow, there’s progression everywhere from the carving blues through the steeper reds and some frankly terrifying blacks.

At the end of which you roll out onto a jump line which gets bigger with your confidence and finishes where the uplift starts. Where you will see a few individuals who believe £5 represents a poor return compared to climbing 45 minutes up a fire-road. That’s missing the point so hard, they need counselling.

I quite like riding uphill. I get earning your turns. I stay fit and work hard at it because getting to high places generally requires a bit of effort and bloody mindedness. But in an artificial environment where pedalling is negated by a superbly efficient motorised service, I’ve not the slightest interest in doing something that’s pretty much part of my mountain biking world for 50 weeks a year.

Railing the top blue section before dropping in to the notorious ‘rim dinger’ on my quite brilliant Nukeproof Mega, and rattling through two minutes of big rocks and endless berms, then being deposited back at a towed trailer taking me back to do it all again is simply a fantastic way to spend a day.

I understand it’s not for everybody. I get that, but what I fail to understand is the disdain in which such places are held by those who’ve self-labelled themselves as ‘proper mountain bikers’. Sorry, that’s bollocks – I’ve been lucky enough to ride in many countries in all kinds of conditions and occasionally in states of mild peril. And I still love bike parks like this.

We have to progress somewhere at the same speed as the bikes get ever more capable. We cannot ignore the ageing demographic of the mountain biking community. If the future of this are people that aren’t like us, then we probably need to let that slide. Watching the indestructible kids throwing massive shapes on the jump lines just made me smile.

Because that’s one less roadie. One less footballer. One less sat in front of a computer like this one. One more of us, one less of them. Bike Parks do not represent the ghettoisation of mountain biking, they point at a part of its future. But not all of it.

Let’s not confuse progress with the disruption of the current state. This is not the time for luddites smashing the Spinning Jennys. If you fear for authenticy, remember this: riding mountain bikes is always bloody fantastic. it’s an attitude not a location. It’s neither defined about how you get up or get down. It’s mostly about the many points in between.

We should cherish that. Go get a lift, I promise it will rock your mountain biking world.

* and sometimes not too well. Grants make trails but they don’t fund maintenance. Nothing sadder than a trail centre abandoned because of neglect and erosion.

 

 

Boys of Summer*

Les Gets MTB holiday - June 2014

Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick, Tat, Tat, Tat, Woooarrrwwwn. I give you one of the greatest riffs ever to come from an electric guitar.** I’ve loved that track for more years than I care to remember, and listening back to it today, it rather splendidly summed up my the now fading summer.

It’s easy to lament the onset of Autumn. I should know because I do so every year slouching ever more depressed as dead leaves carpet the trails, hardpack turns to mush, temperatures plummet and the mud comes up.

October marks five months of drudgery. From now until somewhere near eternity, every ride will notch another dirty protest, something expensive will fail or break with  eyewateringly expensive frequency, but still most of what falls off will be you.

Your quest to the warm indoors will be stayed by a toll-gate bucket demanding payment of your moat like riding gear. Everything vaguely bike related will be brown except your toes and fingers which shall be bloodless and blue.

Marvellous. That’ll wile away those long winter nights. But there’s something else to think about instead; an endless loop of a brilliant summer. With most of Spring to be considered as well. After rain which started in December and stopped only after most of the country was to be found underwater, the trails amazingly dried under weak April sunshine.

And we rode and rode, revelling on dry lines raising themselves above the zombie mud.*** finding grip where forever there had been none, being able to recognise the colour of our bikes from sight rather than memory. But Christ it had been a long time coming – I remember one March Sunday ride hiding under the car tailgate as another freezing hailstorm lashed the Forest and thinking ‘You know what, I need an inside hobby‘.

May was a disappointment. Let’s not spare the lash here. I spent much of that month on it, waiting for Winter’s rain rebranded as Spring to receive a shove from the stuttering Jet Stream and get with the sunshine programme. But when the season ratchet finally turned. we were fit and ready to make the most of it.

There’s so much to treasure. That first short sleeved ride lasting  for ever before terminating in the pub with us drinking well earned cold ones – sunnies on – under cloudless skies. Sun burned all over the place and running out of excuses to try new and scary stuff because the trails were endlessly perfect. Even when it rained, we didn’t care because soon the sun rebooted the weather firmly back to summer.

We probably should have travelled more. Aside from a couple of trail centre raids. we lapped up favourite dusty singletrack and explored the new stuff popping up all over the Forest. Rode all over the Malvern Hills at times when walkers were asleep or post-lunch comatose. Played a bit of rambler slalom which is a guilty pleasure. Sometimes it’s hard to leave when it’s so damned good where you are.

Then the French Alps for a week of the most simply outstanding riding with all the people who I’d most want to share it with. Ticked off the Passport De Soleil this time in the dry, and threw big bikes at bigger mountains without any long term injuries other than the long suffering liver.

Even sneaked a ride in Whister on the almost mythical trails there in almost unbearable heat. Came back to rain but so desperate to ride I didn’t care. Then perfect symmetry between failing to look for another job and rain failing to fall from the sky. 500+ of mountain biking kilometres in September on empty trails still configured for summer.

Could it get better? It could indeed. A trip to see Tony reminded me of what fast felt like, and I’ve loved every ride since even as the hardpack begins to melt under Autumn rains.

I’ve loved riding mountain bikes in 2014 so far. If anything more than ever. Sure, I’ve had a bunch of stupid crashes but ended up fitter and maybe a little bit faster than this time last year. We’ve got plans, so many plans on what happens next – and if that’s a Thomas-like railing against the dying of the light, I’m entirely comfortable with that.

So bring it on. Your rain. Your cold. Your shitty trails. Your broken washing machines. Your motivation killers. Your “Who’d ride in this crap” challenges. I’ve a bank full of summer memories and a plan for when the solstice tips back in our favour. Until then I’ll take every ride as it comes.

And there will be spikes of enjoyment. Frozen rides perfectly lit under a big moon. Smoke pouring from those safely cosseted in front of snug fires, mistakenly under the impression they’re on the right side of the walls. Massive mud slides held with a deft hip flick or panicked wrench, dark beer on dark night and the almost inestimable feeling of not being quite like everyone else.

The time mountain biking becomes a three season sport, I officially lose.  It’s not going to be this year. The boys of summer may have gone, but the grizzled old veterans of Autumn and Winter are layering up ready to go.

* Yes, fully appreciate this is at best stretching a metaphor and at worst a lie, but if Don Henley can sing it when he’s the wrong side of 50, I feel we’re in good company.

** You may disagree. I suggest you spend some time on the Internet. They’ll be some nutters with whom you can find common ground.

*** Sucks the life out of you. Potentially bloody and dangerous.

 

Bad habits die hard

UK Bike Skills session with Rob and Haydn

As a blokey bloke – unreconstructed or not – there’s a certain amount of sacramental reverence around skills and abilities way beyond castigation. Lines over which even banter ‘shall not pass’. Clickbait lists are generally required at times like this, so let’s start with: driving, sexual performance, quaffage coefficient and being able to ride a bicycle.

It’s an interesting list because we are taught to drive, sex is something we learn through experimentation or repetition, alcohol poisoning about the same but remaining upright whilst mostly in charge of a bicycle draws a straight line between skinned knees and useful  manifestations of centrifugal physics.

Which, when you consider the importance of grasping the basics, and a bit more when accelerating through hard edged geography, feels like an educational oversight. But being chromosomically doubled*, we’re not interested in making the best use of our tiny talent when going harder, going faster**, going to be braver, going to end up hospital is somehow more highly rated on the achievement scale.

Over four years ago, I had a riding reboot which rocked my little mountain biking world, right up until the point I forgot almost everything. Since then I’ve mostly survived, dodged the occasional bullet while more frequently adding to my extensive legions of scar tissue. I’ve ridden too many crap lines, watched too many expert videos and read too much nonsense on the web.

So now my approach to any kind of riding difficulty is a multi-tasking mashup of many techniques, none of which I can reasonably execute. There’s so much going on in my head, the obstacle has long passed before any mitigation plan has been enacted. Result of which is mostly me viewing that trail difficultly upside down and long separated from my blameless bicycle.

Twice in the week before a return to the skills shrine of Tony, I’d crashed hard and painfully on dry trails with limitless grip. Bring on the winter and my riding gear would probably be a body-bag unless something changes quickly. An adverb that’s pretty much exited stage left from my riding world, with people I used to easily chase only becoming visible waiting at the end of the trail.

Time to man down and accept scratching my riding itch isn’t going to make it any better.

Tony’s upgraded his training facilities quite a bit since my last time in his care. Now he’s snaked trails between the frankly terrifying North Shore planks elevated halfway to the moon, with lines of jumps angled to propel you there. He’s paired back his coaching as well to about three physical moves and four mental ones. The coffee remains both strong and most welcome after more than a three hour drive.

I like Tony. He’s got a interesting view on life , and lives it like an amped Hippie with no off switch. I may not always agree with him, but any conversations are anything but dull whether it be bikes or absolutely anything else. And from a coaching perspective, he is a bloody genius.

Two minutes in, he’s nailed my inability to commit to left hand turns (large scar on knee to be taken into consideration), Hadyn’s slightly odd body positioning and Rob’s rearward stance. And that’s just riding round a couple of logs. Soon we’re lobbing ourselves off little drops, and giggling through elbow low carved turns. After that it’s berms, singletrack, drops, tabletops and gaps jumps.

All of which we dispatched. Six foot gap jumps with hardly any effort. Corners railed like you’ve failed to match on a million MTB videos. Berms accelerated out of and drops nailed without the excessive body movement and bar wrenching that passes as a big part of my MTB repertoire.

I even re-learned how to bunny-hop. Hadyn launched a 12 foot gap jump, and Tony turned Rob from an XC scardycat into a gap jumping monster.  And that’s all you’re getting in terms of the process because unless you go through it, describing words are merely going to confuse.

What’s more important is can you translate a single days epiphany into a trail vocabulary writing extra speed, more smoothness, some safety into your every day riding?. That’s a firm yes and a more than occasional no, Once cut free from the cord of what feels right, you can practice, embed muscle memory and even switch back to flats but when things get scary, the inevitable happens.

You regress. You seek solace in the habits that somehow kept you safe when the going got tough. And these are bad habits, dangerous ones, dropping a shoulder to the inside, moving your head back from the scary, forgetting your feet have a part to play riding downhill. The difference is you know it’s wrong, it feels horrible and forced, slow and difficult, desperate and daunting. So you back off a little to try and fix it.  With some but not unlimited success.

So is a day’s course going to turn you into some kind of riding deity?  Well, no clearly because there’s only so much skill than can be squeezed from very little talent. A better question is does it provide a simple set of physical and mental techniques that – when combined – have you riding old trails in an entirely new way. Yeah, pretty much.

There’s a tiny five foot gap on a trail we ride almost every week. And I avoided it for two years on the reasonable grounds of it having not much ground between entry and exit. Three days after spending one with Tony, Rob and I sailed over it without a care. We avoided the ten and fifteen foot gaps further up the trail but you have to start somewhere.  And – in my case – work down.

It was a fantastic day with Tony. Rebooted my Mojo, Gave me a go-to place for doing to the right thing. Reinforced the delusion that I can keep getting better. Provided the confidence to ditch my SPD’s and let the flat-earthed fella out. Made me smile, grin, giggle and laugh remembering how bloody lucky we are to ride mountain bikes.

For that alone, it was more than worth the money. And I’ll be back because backsliding is pretty much my modus operandi.  I won’t be leaving it as long this time.

* this is typical man. We have more than women. And more is better, yes? Well not really as it clearly blocks any ability to multitask, or garner sufficient empathy to understand not everyone  thinks breasts are the most important aspect of those with just an ‘X’.

** Except you’re not. You’re more frightened. That’s something entirely different.

What, Caravan?

Yeah that’s selling it

Caravans and their strange owners are a rather well stooged stereotype for taking the piss. Still that’s not going to stop me, because an entirely new offshoot of dull to the power of pointless has come to my attention.

You see there was this bloke – let’s call him my boss – who held two simultaneous world titles; one for being the most boring man in the world, and a second for the greatest use of adenoids in a single tedious monologue.

He was properly wobbly trailerist hard-core. Answering my entirely reasonable request to why he couldn’t be placed on the weekend working rota, he responded with a magnificent statistic that the following 51 Saturdays were firmly booked onto non refundable caravan sites, leaving him the Christmas weekend to stay at home and go crazy.

This was sufficiently long ago for the Internet to be a bit of a geeky novelty allowing Mr Tediously Methodical an entire room lined with maps, drawing pins, string, road atlases and one of those complex colour-coordinated calendars. And probably an indexed drawer of graduated graph paper. People like that always do. He was keen to explain his next far flung destination – with occasional asides on the importance of special wing mirrors – to anyone who would listen/was not faking their own death/poking their eyes out with a spoon.

So far, so please fuck off and bore someone else. But what I didn’t realise is many, many of these weekends away from home appear to take place in sight of your actual house. Incredulous I’ve quizzed a number of sane and rational people*in an attempt to verify the efficacy of such a claim. And they all say the same thing ‘Yeah, sure, absolutely, my dad was a right one for it, drive 20 miles, park up in a field and crack open a Watney’s Party 7. Oh they were the days’. Worse than even this, they don’t seem to find it odd at all.

What? How the hell did I miss this? It’s lunacy of the first order. Rush home, shove crappy plastic stuff into your car, hook up the wheeled aberration and gently motor for half an hour before declaring yourself ‘arrived’. Watch fuzzy TV on a rubbish portable, sit on a rubbish sofa, eat rubbish food cooked on rubbish gas hobs, try and sleep on rubbish beds, all the time interspersed with taking ablutions amongst others screwballs who think they’re having a good time.

Someone still within sight of their sanity must shout ‘PLEASE CAN WE JUST GO HOME WHERE THE GOOD STUFF IS’. But apparently no one does. If we really are a human race, there’s some sections of our society clearly losing.

And there is nothing to do. Other than look at other caravans. I mean why, just why? Was it the need to belong to others of your kind? Some kind of pre-internet tribal gathering crammed into a damp ‘Challenger’ interacting with other proud cardigan owners? It’d be a like a worldwide meeting of the autistic society.

And what did they talk about? Is it like Petrol-Heads showing off their latest chrome bling and fancy paintwork? Do the caravan core excitedly share ideas on how they’re going to ‘Beige up the Swift?’. ‘Oh yes, we’re having the cushions reupholstered to match the curtains, carpet and dog/the colour?/Oh we’re being a bit racey and going with the beige’

So once you’ve risked Legionnaires disease in the breezy breeze block shared showers and watched your awning blown over the A49, then what? My working assumption is these are the very same people who buy those ridiculous magazines promising an simple to assemble model submarine in 104 easy stages. You know the ones – a quid for the first week then a tenner for the following two years. A business model based on an expectation you’ll run out of either money**, enthusiasm or life before the damn thing is due to complete.***

I can easily imagine Beige Bob carefully opening this weeks treasured mag on a horrible Formica table, removing and fitting – say – the periscope before having a sit down and a cup of tea to calm down after all that excitement.

The legislature in this country is targeting the wrong people. We need strong and enforceable laws to ensure anyone who parks their caravan less than 20 miles from their home AND has subscribed to the model Ponzi scheme, must be taken into protective custody for their own good.

And as for the people who maroon their caravan on some windswept headland in order to visit it once a month like some kind of unloved great uncle – well just deport them. Really, it’s a kindness because we live in a crowded country that doesn’t need individuals who drive a few hundred miles to sit shivering inside a mouldering fibreglass shell, while there are B&Bs going out of business. It’s just not setting any kind of good example.

I am never going to own a caravan. Unless I need something big to start a fire in.

* First test ‘Do you own a Caravan?’ ‘No?’ Right you’re in.

** And you could quite easily fund a full size one before you’re half way through building that model.

** Let’s face it, this is not a bad thing. Because after two years, the tiny plastic facsimile of something vaguely submarine shaped is going to be a bit of a disappointment.

Everything is broken

Not working is fab. I’m deep into a detailed study of pottering and associated day filling without vocation. I could honestly continue such important work until I retire, but have yet to find a way to fund that lifestyle.

But it’s not all beer, skittles and binging on ‘orange is the new black’ boxsets. Oh no, I am now the man about the house dealing with things. Important things. Since my last proper day in an office. most of the utilities under this roof appear to have stopped working. For some reason, I feel responsible although my contribution appears only to pay experts to explain that they don’t know why it isn’t working either.

Firstly the ground-source heating system ground to a halt. It’s all very complicated. And expensive. So far one man came out and charged me a whole load of money to tell me he didn’t know what was wrong with it. Thankfully a more local and rationale fella has it in hand and shall hopefully bring it back to life through plumbing skills/sacrificing a chicken this Friday. Until then we’ll all smell a bit. Or in my case a bit more.

Still we’ve got the Internet so all is not lost. Except it is. The Internet that is. I spent nearly twenty years immersed in the world of digital communications, successfully hooking up far flung outposts of the world with fibre, copper and satellites. I tell you this only to demonstrate some competence at diagnosing this sort of problem.

Showcasing that knowledge to BT did however in no way short cut the hour long monologue, switched between three departments who’d obviously never spoken to each other before. And that doesn’t include the 15 minutes being harangued by the automated system which finally diagnosed the problem as me, and terminated the call.*

After another indeterminable number stabbing extravaganza, I was surprised to be connected to a real, cheery human. This is the short edit of a very long and painful conversation which followed.

Me: The problem is at the exchange. Let’s save us both some time by failing to find any issues whatsoever in my house.

BT: Yes Sir, can we just check the 937 settings on your router first. And then turn it off and on again. That’s what it says on this sheet.

Me: They are digging up the bloody road, there are men in trenches wielding large plier like tools. The are cables being chucked onto our road with apparently wild abandon. They must be fighting a tiger in there such is the violence of destructive activity.

BT: Really sir, do you have a spare DSL filter?

Me: I appreciate you have to go through this script, but statistically five blokes standing by a trench looking concerned is more likely to be the root of the problem wouldn’t you say?

BT: Thank you sir, there’s a fault on your line, you’re being transferred to the correct department.

Me: What to the department that told me an hour ago, there was no line fault and I had to call you? That department? Right. Good.

Hold Music, silence and then:

BT: Hello Sir, are you having a good day?

Me: Honestly, not really

BT: Very good sir, glad to hear it, now can you explain the problem to us FROM THE BEGINNING

Me: It’s anger issues, I’m going to set fire to the exchange if I have to go through it all again. Don’t make me do it

BT: Excellent Sir, the line isn’t very good. Can I call you back on your mobile?

Me: This is my mobile. The landline is kaput, that’s why you’re speaking to me on the mobile

BT: Very good sir, good point, we can tell you there is a fault on your line

Me: Really, wow, what awesome diagnostics you have there

BT: Yes Sir, we do, now we can send an engineer to look at the cabling in the house

Me: No please don’t do that, go and send someone with an nail-y stick to beat the crap out of trenchman™ and his amazingly lackadaisical cable splicing regime.

BT: Ah humour sir, very good. In fact we don’t need to send anyone to your house as the fault is between you and the exchange

…. Silence…

BT: Are you still there

Me: Yes, yes just penning my suicide note

BT: Very good sir, well our SLA is 3 days so we’ll have you back up and running by Thursday evening

Me: <Horrified> I have teenage children they will report me to Childline or demand we move to a hotel if I plunge them into media povety.

BT: Ah hah sir, very good but don’t worry we’ll have it all fixed up for you by Thursday

AL: Well that absolutely marvelous. Stunning service. Just the 65 minutes on the phone to be told something I already knew, after performing a list of pointless tasks worthy of some kind of reality jungle TV crap and now you’re telling me it’s going to take your three days to de-trench the cretin at the exchange and get someone in with half a brain and a crimping tool <and breathe>

BT: Thank you sir, we appreciate your call today, would you like to complete a short survey?

I didn’t. In case the receiving software exploded. So now we have no hot water and no phone and no broadband. I expect the electricity to be downgraded to all the equipment you need to stand under a lightening storm*, the postman to be eviscerated under some fast moving farm equipment, and the remainder of the house undergo some kind of ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’ transformation.

At least the fridge is currently still working. And in there is a bottle marked therapy. I’m starting to think this is God’s way of making me get another job.

* The ramifications of selecting the ‘lowest cost bidder’ are here for all to see. It may be all technology driven digital services but firms like BT seem to forget the customer is still entirely analogue.

** bucket of water, old television aerial, last Will and Testament, identifiable shoes

You might want to stand by that bin..

Leading 'em out.. so said my medal winning mate Jez,, as I hung desperately onto the barrier waiting for my lungs to serve up a little air. I’d raced* 500 metres flat out thereby rendering myself pretty much flat out and needing someone to help me off the bike. So I could be sick in said bin.

Wasting words explaining that Mountain biking isn’t like track racing would suggest you’ve never ridden a bike. But it’s absolutely spectrum-opposed to the sophisticated suspension platforms dripping with stunning technology that I ride most days. It’s a stripped down aesthetic where it really isn’t about the bike at all.

There’s absolutely nowhere to hide on the track. It’s you, a simple bike with a single gear and exactly one less brake barrelling round a wooden edifice clearly designed by an individual who enjoys watching others suffer.

Two straights and two hills’ was how the coach described it to me, whilst the previously-velodrome’d whizzed round above my head. As the only beginner I was an earth bound misfit pedalling gently on the flat concrete but still being bucked by the the fixed gear. Unlearning freewheels is pretty much a lost art for a man slacking off the pedals for approximately ever.

‘Relax‘ – was his further advice as wobbling and grunting wasn’t getting me round very fast – ‘and loosen your grip on the bars‘ . Are you mad, there’s barely any bar to hang onto in the first place, so I’ll not be giving it the slightest opportunity to be wrested from my death grip.

Instead shining a mountain biking light on the prism of the unfamiliar revealed it was in fact two massive berms linked by some line painted singletrack. Now I get it – take a longer view, let the bike rail into the berms and push for speed on the straights, forget the freewheel and focus on being inch perfect on the black line.

Sufficient competence demonstrated, the coach sent me above the blue line and high onto the banking with a warning that speed was not so much your friends as the very thing that prevented gravity pitching you head first onto that concrete some twenty feet below.

Quite a rush. Quite hard. Mildly scary.  20 laps of this and I was bolloxed although my preparation of getting properly trolleyed the night before and following that up with a breakfast showcasing most parts of a pig, deeply fried, may have mildly affected my performance.

Not entirely dangerous‘ was the ringing endorsement by Steve the coach when I trembled to a stop. As I panted desperately on the rail, Jez was catapulted on a 10 lap time trial. Even in my oxygen starved state it was clear that men and boys were sharing this track as the human missile whistled past at speeds upwards of 50km/hr.

So the nervous looking group now had a tail-end charlie giving them a friendly wave under a worried expression. Planting myself at the back was seeded by an evaluation of possible collateral damage. Worse case I’m taking a single rider out rather than busting the collarbones of the entire group after some inappropriate manoeuvre**

Great plan. Went badly wrong almost immediately as the next exercise was for the last rider to weave through the group, passing inside and outside of speeding riders. Honestly what could possibly go wrong for a man who has exactly 9 minutes of track experience?

Will carved through like an Orca about to take a Humpback calf while I hung onto the back of the group wondering if everyone had sufficient medical insurance. An internal dialogue cut short as Steve whistled me through and i stomped hard on unyielding pedals breathlessly shouting ‘inside, outside, am I clear’ whipping through the group on my heart rate limit and then some.

Riding high on the banking is so much harder and I was mostly a broken man with the final ‘outside‘ pass. Still no one t-boned which is the sort of challenge to my mate Martin loves who – over the last six years – has picked the most inappropriate places to overtake on trails which suggest that someone’s going to end up in the shrubbery. Or the hospital.

Normally I’m happy to fend him off with a 780mm mountain bike bar but today he dropped in unannounced from five feet above and nearly collected my front wheel. ‘You have to communicate‘ shouted the coach to which I responded ‘Arrrgggghhhh he’s trying to kill me‘ which I trust made the point with appropriate clarity.

But God I was loving it. You turn up all aloof and pretending that competitiveness happens to other people, but five minutes in the testosterone seam could be mined with a spoon. It’s so visceral, there’s a lot of skill riding two inches from the next wheel but most of this is how much pain you’re happy to deal with our deal out.

As we found after my bin proximity experience, where my barely sub 40s 500m time had me in the ‘B’ race final chasing four others at a starting distance of 50 metres. I caught three but the last man was being reeled in at a rate suggesting we’d be finished by about next Wednesday.

Steve called us in to save the embarrassment of two middle aged men being rubbish and started the ‘A’ final. Which – to my great amusement – saw Martin being caught on the first lap. ‘I’d rather be joint first in the losers race than last place in yours’ said this very non competitive person.

There was more which came as a difficult announcement for my now wobbly legs. A five minute free for all in what I can only describe as a cross between school Murderball and DeathRace 2000. Obviously I chased Martin down, overtook him with a number of choice swear words before getting the hammer down. At which point the slipstreaming bastard sailed past.

Oh fuck. Really. I should just let him go. That’s what my legs wanted. My lungs were keen to add their support but Mr. Brain wasn’t having any of that so we winched our way back before striking on the high banking and burying myself in a dark place for 40 seconds. Steve felt that was about enough. Which was good as by this time I was pretty much incapable of independent movement.

Track racing is an outlier of proper cycling. You will be found out in 30 seconds. The clock doesn’t lie but you will want to lie down after every hard lap. My advice would be to give  it a try – preferably without a hangover sharp enough to shave with – and don’t even pretend you’re not going to be arse-hanging-out competitive.

Will I be going again?  Absol-bloody-lutely. Martin was a whole second quicker than me on the 500m sprint. That cannot stand ;)

* as much as I race anything. Competitive in mind only. Still bloody hurt tho.

** the one man behind me was Will who somewhat tactlessly reminded me of an incident a couple of years ago when my lack of road riding etiquette nearly killed all four of us on the A40. I could have done without that to be frank.

 

Bear!

Canada Holiday 2014 - Vancouver IslandCanada is full of amazing things. Of which 140,000 of them roam pretty much free range in the vast expanses of forest, coastline and the occasional town. We saw exactly four bears, which as a percentage lacks statistical significance, but from a first person perspective was more than enough. With the semantic emphasis firmly on more.

Not this fella. He’s chowing down on a tidal buffet of crab, fresh water fish and anything else washed up under those rocks. We’re separated by 30 meters of open water, and further buttressed from any potential maul-age by the shotgun toting boat skipper.

And the bear isn’t even mildly interested in us. He’s more ‘Two Crabs please, shell on, hold the salad‘ which dovetails nicely with written advice thrust upon any and every visitor to the national park. Dog eared laminated sheets reassure and frighten in around equal amounts.  One of my favourites, handed out by a bored looking receptionist, explained ‘if you spot a bear or a fire, there’s a number you can call’ .

What‘  I enquired in the spirit of pedantry ‘if there’s is a BEAR and it’s ON FIRE?‘. She laughed briefly before assuring us that hardly anyone had been mauled, disfigured, eviscerated or eaten since she’d started her shift some 3 hours before.

Appropriately reassured we headed out to a stunning sand fronted lake framing a perfect view of the Rockies, and sparsely populated by those irritatingly outdoor types javelin launching kayaks and nonchalantly swallow diving into the paddling seat*

Carol and I sat contentedly on the beach ignoring the kids strident pleadings for us to join them in the chilly water. Instead I struck out for a mooch around the local environs – checking out this one-track town, born and abandoned by the railway. A  peramble behind the changing rooms put me in sight of the tree line, into which I peered for items of further interest.

And a bear peered right back. Emerging from the undergrowth with an elegance entirely unbefitting to a 300lb quadruped, he paused briefly to check out my threat status. Clearly unintimidated he padded ever closer while my I remained frozen to the spot wondering what was between me and me being eaten.**

Ohshit ohshit oshit it’s time to remember all that laminated advice… what was the first point.. hang on.. yes that’s it ‘The bear is far more scared of you than you are of it‘. Really? Fucking Really? That bear could audition for the part of the Fonz in Happy Days such is his nonchalance, while I’m clearly shitting myself. That’s not helping at all, what’s next?

It’s important to identify the type of bear, black bears can climb trees but brown bears do not. However they are better swimmers. It may be helpful to note that some brown bears look black in sunlight‘. No that’s not bloody helpful either. I’m torn between climbing a tree or throwing myself into the lake. Either of which may well be closely followed by a pawful of sharp claws and a snoutful of hungry teeth. Firstly tho I must squint hard at the oncoming bear to ascertain his exact shade. Looks black to me – possible hint of brown, or is that just what’s in my shorts?

Okay, okay don’t panic what’s next? ‘if the bear continues to approach, DO NOT TURN YOUR BACK ON HIM. Wave your arms and make ‘shooing’ sounds‘ Oh PERLEASE.. Hang on there’s more ‘unless it’s a black bear, then don’t make any sounds as he’s likely to take it as an aggressive response and may attack

It’s fair to say at this point I was both terrified and confused. Should I sprint for the nearest tree, or dive headlong into a body of water?  Would backing away making coo-ing noises be the best cause of action, or maybe a violent waving of every limb in the manner of a man recently electrocuted? Or possibly hedge my bets and distract him with a one man performance of YMCA?

Ignoring advice has served me well in forty seven years so I reverted to type, gave the big fella a stern ‘don’t fuck with me look‘ before turning my back and covering the two hundred metres back to the beach in a time somewhere just under Lightspeed.

I passed Carol – still accelerating – and launched myself into the cold water like a human jet-ski cutting up recreational swimmers in a frenzy of waterborne terror. All while shouting over my shoulder ‘BEAR, BEAR, FUCKING BEAR’. My anti-being-savaged tactics had nothing to do whatsoever with correct identification of the Genus Ursus, but absolutely everything to a brief audit of the many chubby people who were clearly going to be slower swimmers than me.

Eventually I calmed down sufficiently to scuttle back on dry land where our youngest quizzed me on my useless grasp of bear anatomy. ‘Did it have a hump behind it’s neck? If so it’s a black bear‘ / ‘Is it? I didn’t really get much past it’s MASSIVE JAWS AND TEETH to be frank‘ and ‘Was it standing on it’s back legs‘ / ‘Possibly but by that time I was burning up the sand at 900 miles an hour’

The locals on the beach responded to my somewhat high-pitched warning with a rather insouciant shrug and a quietly muttered  ‘bloody tourists‘. We never saw that bear again expect in my dreams where I’d sit bolt upright sweating while screaming ‘BEAR, BEAR, BEAR‘. I expect the memory will fade in a few years.

We loved Canada. It’s a brilliant place to visit. And I could ride Mountain Bikes there every day until I die. It’s huge and mostly unspoilt and full of lovely people. But it’s also full of bears. I’m not sure they mention that on the immigration forms.

* there’s a lot of this in Canada. But also a significant ratio of fat blubbers. This surprised me right up to the point when I ordered a rack of ribs. I believe my plate was a concatenation of around four healthy animals.

** a railway line. I remember thinking ‘maybe it’s like vampires not crossing water and those two half metre bits of metal will save me’. At this point I was already reasonably delusional.