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.

It’s about time..

Malvern Night Ride

… I started night riding again. But much of my non participation is easily parcelled into the excuse that ‘it’s about time‘ just as well. My feasting of late summer turned into a rain-swelled riding famine come a dark, wet but mostly working autumn. Stupidly early starts, endless late finishes and far too much of our fine capital* in between.

Two weeks ago we floundered about in the fog looking for familiar trails and – for me – my lost fitness and motivation both sucked dry by too many liquid evenings staring out into dark, rainy skies. A work/life balance pivoted by other peoples deadlines and trying to be the perfect new boy.

It was fine and everything, but the listlessness of that evening foreshadowed an overburdened immune system gradually succumbing to a new medical condition best thought of as ‘flanmoo‘** rendering me pretty much incapable of any physical activity over and above having a little moan. It passed eventually so time to get back out there.

It’d been dark quite a while when the car beeped an ice warning on my way into the hills. Some effort of will required to remove oneself from the warm embrace of a heated cage to go play in the real world. Very much worth it tho, as within five minutes astounding technical modern fabrics and a rather more ancient vascular system upped the internal temperature gauge to ‘moderately toasty

Until I needed a tree stop or – as I like to think of it – ‘wee is just warmth leaving the body‘  about five minutes in. No matter much more climbing to turn up the heat before a couple of sketchy descents where the gloriously dry trails were occasionally hidden under 20 yards of mud. Experience has taught me that the best approach to such conditions is to relax, point the bike in the general direction of safety and stick Newton in the driving seat.

Dry trails are the result of Nature’s hairdryer which was blowing at 30 knots plus on the tops, as we pedalled downhill into the wind and sailed splendidly on the ups. But it tool me the best part of an hour to remember exactly night riding works. Before that everything felt awkward and closed in even with amazing optics blazing 1000s of lumens for miles up front.  Really you need to disengage most of you peripheral vision and make bloody sure you look where you want to go, because if you start focussing your brain on a ‘show me that rock‘ game, there’s only going to be one outcome.

That said, it’s brilliant fun knowing there’s no walker ambling round the next corner or a awkwardly placed conservator marking time at the start of your favourite cheeky trail. And on a clear night like this,  there are views all the way to Birmingham and amusingly bugger all lit up the other way towards Wales. The valley is full of smoking chimneys drafting the expired breath of the time-expired humans who believe they’re on the right side of their insulated walls.

We had a minute where that ^^ image was captured and for about the millionth time I found myself entirely at peace with the world when riding bikes with my friends. Life feels really very complex sometimes until you suddenly get hit with a ‘this is why‘ moment. Christ why can’t we bottle that, and take a sip every time the real world intrudes into what should be a pretty simple operating condition?

Pretention over and shivering a bit, we headed up one more time – straining into a headwind – to ritually tap the trig point before turning round and blasting downhill pushed along by wind and laughter. Loose rocks, steep pitches, decent sized drops moon backlit in silhouette all flowing under fast rotating wheels. Stuff of life this.

Just once more into the fray, we cried slurry rather than Harry as the dry conditions deteriorated into sticky, tyre filling mud rendering them entirely useless for anything other than sliding about in a mildly comedic fashion. It’s a night for flat pedals with much tripod-ing of corners and last minute saves. And it’s a night for giggling like a ten year old, messing about outside under this natural planetarium and wondering why the hell this ever seemed difficult.

Motivation is a strange thing. I rode tonight because it really was about time and choosing how to fill it. But it was still a stretch to remove insufficiently motivated arse from warm sofa. And yet 30 minutes later, it’s basically undistllled joy and adrenaline spikes.

There’ll be some shit rides this winter. At night and in the semi-perpetual darkness which passes as daylight during December, January and February. But for every one of those there will be many, many more of these.

For six weeks I have made decisions about what’s important, and I have chosen poorly. Tonight reminds me why I need to make bloody sure this doesn’t become a bad habit I can’t break. Roll on next Tuesday.

* to clarify – if the irony doesn’t leap off the page – how the fuck does that place even work? It’s like the matrix without the red pill.

** A spoonerism of ‘manflu‘ with exactly the same symptoms except no one else notices or shows any sympathy. Even when the snotty patient is flopped on the sofa idly wondering if ‘he should go towards the light

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.