Turn it up to 11

MTB - Black Mountains April 2015

How do you catalogue a ride? Is it simply plotting an intersect of time and distance on an XY scale? That feels like a flat representation* –  because then how should climbing be represented? Weather conditions? Trail state? What’s going on under your wheels and inside your head? Maybe it’s all about Strava and beating all those people who don’t know you, and care less how fast you are?

Maybe it isn’t. We need to add some richness to the canon of riding experience. And I’m here to help introducing a new metric covering all those things and more**. it’s  a simple base ten scale bounded by a further ten integers encompassing many characteristics which can be rated, and a few more that are somewhat more qualitative. Ladies and Gentlemen I proudly introduce ‘The Doran Scale’

Named after my riding mate Matt whose surname is often suffixed with ‘Death March’ as pleasant enough rides descend into benightment, brokenness and a belief you may not see tomorrow.   That might be a local ride which starts at 9am with the innocent question if one is packing lights, or some ridiculously optimistic plan to summit half of South Wales in Midwinter having started late because someone fancied a coffee.

There are many, many examples where a little part of me cravenly promises to stop being quite so stupid if you’ll get me off this mountain, uninjured, just one more time.  At least one more where, after a day of slithering darkly though midwinter sludge, we found ourselves at twilight some 10 kilometres from home with a single light between us. On the downside that was a rear light, on the upside there was a lot more light in the nearby pub so we went there instead and kind of winged it from there.

All of these rate about an 8 on the Doran scale. I’ve yet to encounter a 10 because a) ambulances would be called and b) the collateral damage would be in the vein of ‘No sorry Dave didn’t make it‘.  If we’re not completely lost under sideways hail on a big hill somewhere far from home with a major mechanical and the closing in of the night, it’s barely more than a 5. Special consideration can be given for a new fusion sport of via ferreta and mountain biking as difficult to carry wheeled objects are passed hand to hand across treacherous slopes.

Which reminds me of the Black Mountains quest we attempted last year in early Feb after it’d rained for the previous month. It didn’t rain on the day we rode it because, somewhat predictably, it was already snowing. Poor old Steve hadn’t yet been inducted into the Doran scale and only once we’d bog snorkelled for 30 kilometres did he get the chance to hurt himself properly while falling off the side of Y Das.  Slippery? Put it in a suit you could call it David Cameron. Yes, it really was that slimy.

I rescued him through the simple process of repurposing my bike as a rope and throwing it downhill while firmly grasping the other end. Winching him back took a while but eventually we reacquainted ourself with solid if soggy ground. ‘Welcome‘ I said, ‘this is about an 7.

This time round the ground was quite a lot drier. The temperatures though had dropped from early Spring highs to an alarm-bonging 3 degrees, the sky and ground met in grey clamping cloud, unshifted by a bitter wind.  A solid 5 with potential for a 6 or even a 7 as two new navigational gambits were in play***.

The first saw us rather boringly climbing a long fire road with absolutely no bike carrying, chopping down of fallen trees or multiple U-Turns. At the top, the sun shone briefly on a dusty landscape full of possibilities but not puddles. Very odd indeed. It was like a rubbish b-movie when the hero exclaims ‘it’s too quiet’ seconds before the thing eats him.

My box-fresh bike was lovely though the medium of ‘new purchase glasses’ but still didn’t feel quite right – easily diagnosed by those who ignored my fantasy that I was about 10 stone fully kitted up. A bit more air lead to a bit more air and quite a bit less clattering of pedals, as we dropped through a descent that, last year, had seen me picking an increasingly desperate line ending somewhere miles from the actual trail.  Slick Mud will do that.

The rest of the ride was a combination of marvelling at real dust in Wales in April and shivering whenever we turned into wind. The fast bits were really very, very fast indeed while the long, slow climbs took about the same time as ever. Except without having to float your bike between the boggy sections.

I was concerned that with all that available light and superb conditions under tyre, we’d barely register on the Doran scale. I mean no one required medical treatment for hypothermia, nor suffering some ride ending mechanical to zip tie our way around. Luckily we were saved from an easy ride by a second navigational triumph dragging tired bodies up a peat ridge infested with wheel eating divots.

Even dry as it was, this route sucked the joy out of pretty much everything and after twenty minutes of it, I was found sheltering from the wind muttering ‘5, it’s a bloody 5 and I bet they’re suggesting we ride to that stupid summit miles up there. Gonna be a 6, maybe a 7. Best check my affairs are in order‘.

The needle fell back into the amber though after a group decision to drop off the ridge onto grassy singletrack thankfully heading away from what I now thought of as Mordor, and into a friendly looking little wood a few hundred feet above the car park.

A few hundred feet with a few thousand wet rocks strewn threateningly in a moist riverbed. Water being what it is, followed the fall line as did we with varying levels of success. I dabbed with both feet and nearly my head, all the time upgrading the ride to a solid 6 as bodies were pinged from side to side bouncing off the steep ravine edge.

We hit a fire-road and immediately selected a trail home which lacked the water but doubled up the rocks and gradient. The great thing about six inch travel bikes is they still work when you’re a) tired b) scared and c) riding them with your eyes shut tight.

I arrived at the cars shaken and quite a bit stirred, but still limbed with a full set of trembling appendages. The talk turned to our next epic which is a five man ascent on the summit of Cadair Idris this weekend.  Checking the rocky terrain, weather forecast, potential for navigational confusion and a level of exposure suggesting blinkers might be required, I think we can safely say the Doran Scale might need to go all the way to 11.

I might be back next week. If not, you’ve made a happy man very old.

* clearly a concept stolen from the quite brilliant Dead Poets Society. This bit specifically https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjHORRHXtyI

** except for the Strava thing. Really? Get over yourself.

*** Thankfully none of them had anything to do with me. I brought a map and instantly handed it over to a responsible adult.

A critic is just a man in the crowd

It probably does.

Vanity publishing has much to recommend it. Not if you’re looking to eat regularly, or maintain the pretence that your output has any actual value other than virtual cat litter. But because it’s self centred and self censored, you can live off the occasional crumb of positivity, while entirely ignoring the somewhat larger biscuit of disinterest.

In a 1000 posts and 2000 comments, exactly nine people have had a whinge. Three of those were religious nut jobs who called down localised server smiting after a single article poked fun at an outmoded belief system. Four – and I kid you not because that count made me go back to check – took side splitting umbrage after I accidentally strayed into the fundermentalist universe where the plots of Star Trek apparently represent some people’s reality.

The final two were employees of Chiltern Railways who felt my lampooning of a service failing to meet the twin objectives of ‘timetables ‘ and ‘value‘ should – in the Starzi state their uniforms suggests utopia might be – result in being tied to the line and eviscerated by a passing train. My response, suggesting they’d probably want to pick a competitors track to make sure a train actually turned up, failed to defuse their angst.

I let those comment run because a) I’m waving my hands in the vanguard of free speech wherever it takes us and b) well it’s another hit isn’t it? And us self publishers are whores for that. It’s not like anyone is going to notice*

Hit whorage can be the only explanation – other than a bit of walking about cash** – to why the armies of bloggers crave recognition by a proper publication. Of those 1000 articles, 20 or so have tested the grammatical integrity of the hair pulling sub editors before passing into print where us literary wanabees are desperate to see our words.

Somehow your crap on a page is not the pidgen deposit others may see – it feels special and important. Back in the day when commuting to London appeared to be a great way to waste my life, I dodgem’d back from the loo only to find the man seated next to me reading an actual article I’d written. As he wasn’t tutting, ripping the page out or self flagellating with the entire magazine, I was close to venturing a semi apologetic waft that I was in fact the very man who’d penned the piece.

But I bottled it. In case he didn’t like it. A bloke I’d never met, whose values I didn’t know and whose prejudices might disgust me. Which didn’t stop me fearing his criticism of something that’d clearly exercised me and – false modesty aside – had been deemed good enough to fill pages of something others paid money for.

Years ago I wrote an article about the joy of the evening ride unwinding the angst and conflict of a difficult day. Buried in too many words was a throwaway comment on driving home in bare feet and a beer to the good. So it was surprising to receive a message, via the editor, from a very angry father castigating me because his mountain biking son had died in a drink driving accident. I wasn’t condoning it, I wasn’t even making a point either way, but that’s the thing when you throw stuff out there, you lose control of a narrative woven tight through pencil sucking blocks and much rewriting.

I had no idea how to respond so finally I just didn’t. Which makes the fact I can’t leave this alone pretty fucking amusing. The standard response from the wronged author is ‘show me what you’ve written, so I can come back and tell you how shit your work is. Especially your spelling. And lack of verb conjugation. Hah that’s showed you

Which is stupid because the critic doesn’t provide an alternative. It’d be nice if they offered something other than ‘well that’s a load of shit, what were you thinking?” but you don’t get to control the crowd. You stick it out there and for everyone who silently has a little nod and a chortle, they’re are 10 guys*** who hate it. Even those whose didn’t actually read it.

I try to be ambivalent to criticism, and that’s fine until some smug arsewipe  reads one sentence before informing the world there’s no point reading any more. Do me a fucking favour and plough through the rest of it. I know there’s a lot of stuff out there making me cringe, but there’s also quite a bit less representing the best words coming from this side of this keyboard.  I appreciate it’s  not E.M. Forster but it’s the best I can do. At least read the bloody thing before telling the world it’s killing innocent electrons.

In the stuff I do to pay the mortgage, no one behaves like this. We’ll have disagreements, conflicts and discussions on what good looks like. But in 30 years of actual paid work, no one has ever said ‘read the first line, shit, so that’s what you must be

I shouldn’t be so sensitive. Because I’m really not. People I’ve never met complaining my metaphorical constructs are too difficult to understand should make me feel quite a bit superior. But it doesn’t, I still feel the urge to explain why and – this is the heart of it – they are just wrong.

Many years ago the lesson of ‘every crowd is full of critics and there’s nothing you can do about that‘ was hard learned long before it was well understood. The stuff you write is part of you, so strangers poking it with a stick does hurt a bit. It shouldn’t but it does and this is why – even if I had more than a modicum of talent – I could never try and make real money out of it.

I appreciate this is a self referential polemic on why life isn’t fair, and how the big boys keep picking on me. That’s the joy of self publishing. And if you don’t agree, I’ll just delete your comment. Self esteem doesn’t have much truck with democracy.

* except my mum. Who worries about my mental state, while at the same time expressing her disappointment that her 47 year old son still feels the urge to use the word ‘fuck‘ quite so often.

** and this wasn’t the case ‘back in the day‘. Getting your name in print and the odd random tyre turning up for review was more than enough for the crud, sweat and fears of lobbing semi literate stuff into the 4th estate.

*** It’s always blokes. Right and Wrong. Black and White. Shades of grey are for those who don’t understand the world. Pub Bores on the internet.

Is it? Yes? It really might be!

Yat - April 2015 MTB

Oooh Spring. About blooming time. Evidence was all around as we passed plants bursting into flower, trees risking a little leaf and stretchy t-shirted fat people wearing sports sunglasses while contesting narrow byways*

It’s been a week of glorious sunshine since our last slippy ride out here. The four hardy perennials gathered early – except in my case late, frustrated**,  post too many beers, and a bit chilly riding into a season switched back from a phony summer.

Progress was therefore understandably sluggish with the moaning one lugging a crippling heavy hangover in his backpack, and demanding relief for two spin classes and three rides in the previous four days.  Sympathy was not forthcoming.

This self inflected load crushed my spirit as we ambled up the bitch*** blissfully out of the chilling wind, but deep into ‘I may soon be messily sick‘ territory.  Sometime much later a confused looking man rocking some 90s rigid bike action wondered if a responsible adult might point him in a direction of home.

I wandered off in case my involvement would direct the blameless individual to Reykjavik or the moon, and instead practically experimented the theory that ‘Sweat is just Butty Bach leaving the body‘, which trumps Lance who intimated Fear but really meant EPO.

Eventually the up stopped triggering a game of ‘A tree? there? I wasn’t expecting that’ as the drunken delay between my optic nerve and steering muscles extended beyond a second. I slavishly followed Haydn’s rear wheel in the hope a) he knew where he was going and b) if he did crash I’d have something a bit more squashy than bark to crash into.

Even in a state of physical and mental brokeness, the perfect trail conditions couldn’t pass me by. No, it’s was more about getting right in there, feeling at least one half of the bike/rider combo come alive, and hanging on to those faster people who’d decided internal poisoning wasn’t on their Friday night agenda.

There is very little in life which can mirror the joy of letting the bike run. What in winter are stiff, steppy individual impacts on a phalanx of steep roots become a glorious unbroken dart between apexes, with the bike matching the terrain and arms and legs beating to a similar rhythm.

This is the physical representation of that mythical quest for flow.  It’s committing to everything learned riding around in circles for twenty years, whilst at the same time dumping the doubt, fear and anxiety cataloguing your many failures.

It’s a belief system of sorts. The tyres will grip, the suspension will control, the brakes will stop, the big lump of vegetable on top can be brave. Believe and all shall be well.

It kind of works but nothing is infinite, especially grip as my rear tyre spat traction on a fast turn. For a second I thought I’d caught it, but this thrill was short lived as a stout tree hove into view. Making the split second decision to abandon the bike saved me from a crunching arboreal halt. The bike caught it with a tyre as I tumbled past giving a relieved wave.

No damage done and the quiet gratification I’d pushed the rear tyre so hard, it actually broke traction. Could have been rubbish technique, could have been proper commitment. Probably somewhere between the two, but it matters not as it is a story to tell without an injury to show.

The great thing about having average ability but unlimited ambition is it always feels that you can improve. So when occasionally flying perfectly over a jump – fully committed but still in control, or properly driving your hips into a turn and flinging the bike through an accelerating apex, this feels like real progression. Then you case a smaller jump, drop into a rut and almost stall into the next corner – so dropping  you back to the baseline of about average.

No problem with that at all. I’m probably way past whatever represented the high water mark of my mediocre ability. But I am nowhere near close to finding the edge where the simple fun of riding mountain bikes with like-minded people feels like something I no longer want to do.

And on that note, it’s worth asking myself why I’ve bothered to buy a new bike. The Pyga is more than enough for my ability and ambition. It’s also a whole lot better than that. For a few brief seconds yesterday I sensed how brilliant it really is, and how much more it could give under the hands and feet of a proper rider.

I’ll never be that rider. But for the next few months, I’m going to have a lot of fun pretending I might be.

* route between the pub door and the bar. These vital commercial arteries must be kept clear!

** lost my wallet. Spent 20 minutes looking for it. The first 10 carefully retracing my steps, the second angrily throwing random stuff in the air and glaring at the non-walletless hole below. Arriving home, I found it in about 30 seconds. Alcohol is bad for you kids.

*** There is a similarly horrible climb on the other side of the valley which is – somewhat predictably – named ‘the bastard’

Do you want skies with that?

Pyrenees MTB - March 2015

Most of us live little lives. This is not a bad thing, especially when buttressed with the ongoing delusion we’re far more important than the person stood next to us. We’re convinced the world revolves around me, which makes absolute sense until the realisation dawns that there’s only one of those and six billion of us.*

The point of differentiation is amplitude. Flatlining days of endless drudgery are spiked by the crash-trolley of defibrillating otherness. Only outside the standard deviation of dull can you discover the fantastic outliers of possibilities and dreams. A landscape found though pointless Monday morning meetings, stupid people confusing volume with importance, in trays full of tedium and days long on repetition, but short on anything within drinking distance of joy.

Hang on you say; surely the solution is a Steve Jobs-esque vocational transformation triggered by the fleetingly logical ‘if you hate your job two days in a row, go do something else’. Really? Or to be rather less fence-sitting; fuck that. Love my job so much that Mountain Biking somehow becomes Any Other Business? Stare out into a window full of big skies and wonder how I could make more money? Not willing the clock to tick faster so I can be done, outside and the person I believe myself to be? I say again, fuck that.

The clocked ticked and we’re sat in a van packed full of awesome mountain bikes, testosterone and a level of anticipation last found on a pubescent boy venturing out on his first date.  Months of slogging through the mud and sweating on a spin bike brought us here – impatiently waiting for this day, THIS DAY, pretending to be adults, but our inner children are stuffing gobs full of crisps and turning up the stereo**.

It’s an 80 MPH sleepover heading 900 miles due south to a place where the earth is bleached in sunshine, the trails are mostly rocks sprinkled with a little dust, the beer is cold and the decision tree is forked between ‘ride‘ and ‘drink‘. There is no nuance, no compromises, no weighing up the options, no looking for angles – this is life on uppers, amped to the max, full of opportunity and newness. Wake me up in heaven.

After 2/3rds of a journey spanning fifteen hours, I shaded bleary eyes against an encroaching dawn expecting skies the size of Kansas burning under equatorial temperatures. The optic nerve doesn’t have much truck with metaphor and offered me instead snow and -2.  First thought; Cez has white line fever and – as most people faced with four hours driving at 2AM – gone with ‘Fuck it. Change of plan, we’re going to Austria’. But no, this was the last high plateau separating the flatulent four from sea level.

Took a while tho.  And our arrival failed to coincide with the early summer we’d been promising ourselves. Still huge relief to unfold ourselves from stiffened sitting positions and allowing fresh air into the recesses of a van recently populated by four men engorged on crisps and energy bars***

French Coffee. God I’m alive, for a minute there it wasn’t entirely clear if I’d passed into a better place. Big ask that with blue skies silhouetting snow capped mountains refracted through medieval walls and sunglasses dusted off from last summer.  This is the stuff of life, right here. Let’s get amongst it.

Bikes out, critical faff, clothing located with ‘hands like waterwheels‘ travelling through carefully packed bags. Chains lubed, tyres pumped, sinews stiffened, muscles stretched. Time to ride. Not – and I think it’s important to make this point – time to ride well.

Fifteen hours in the van. Sleep best categorised as fuck-all. Desperate not to ride like a twat. Equally desperate not to mong oneself on the first descent. Trying to play it cool, but basically mainlining the friendless kid shouting ‘pick me, pick me‘ with team games configured for social angst.

It’s all good tho. We’re out of the town and climbing on an ancient firetrack opening out views to a lot of France and a bit of Spain. Not pushing it like the uber-competitve two hour Wednesday night ride. Not checking watches for the Sunday ride finish. Not thinking about the bastard climbs coming up, nor the tricky obstacles you need an excuse to avoid.

No just ride, up a big hill, stop for a sandwich and a laugh. Take the piss before someone gets to you first, then drop into box-fresh trails without any idea of what happens next.  Shall I tell you what happens next? Three turns in, you regress to being eleven years old and the first time you ever scared yourself in the woods. Your head is full of nothing and everything; solving difficult three dimensional problems in real time, searching for grip on unfamiliar dirt, heart pumping adrenaline laced blood, eyes wide scanning for the next line, wondering if’ll end in a second and praying it’ll go on for ever.

Shuddering to a stop, giggling and pointing and wondering if you could ever feel this alive all the time. And of course you can’t, because while the minutes and hours of a little life may drag, it’s the seconds which elevate it beyond the angst of ‘is this as good as it gets?

Days later Matt and I shared a thought that while we felt smooth and safe, we didn’t feel fast. One trail later all that changed in a maelstrom of rocks, risk and reward. But we were asking entirely the wrong question. And it is this, where do I genuinely feel at peace with myself?

Out there somewhere on that trail we found it.

* incidentally this is why you should never worry if you’ve offended someone with a crass remark. They haven’t noticed because their entire cerebral processing is focused on what they’re going to say next.

** including such classics as Highway to Smell and No Sleep Till Paris (especially if you’re driving)

*** Air has no self determination, right? That’s what I thought until the mild zephyr we opened the door on escalated to a major hurricane as the air desperately evacuated the van. I think my ears popped.

The five W’s

Cez - Wyche

Why, What, Who, When and (w)How.  Those radiating grammatical keenness, edging worryingly close to the border of insanity, shall be raising grubby digits and demanding satisfaction on exactly how many wublewus there are in ‘How‘. As ever, my response is loquacious, obscure and essentially blaming someone else*

Let’s move the discussion on under the auspices of misdirection, and apply this questioning method to riding mountain bikes in the winter.  The mentally deluded, southern geographied or aggressively medicated will make much of false idols preaching the canon of the unridden. That fat demons await those afflicted with sofa-suck, unable to shift ever lardening arse from beguiling images shifting fast on 50 inch screens. Those righteous worship at the shrine of ‘any ride is better than no ride at all‘.

Well yes up to a point. That point being the first W – Why? Why am I out here in the pissing rain? Why is everyone else apparently enjoying themselves? Why are they better liars than me? Why am I ruining expensive components to slither darkly in gloom of night and endless slop? Why did I use to find this fun?

Good questions but the wrong ones; lacking existentialism, for which you need a what. What is the bloody point of doing the same thing week after week and expecting a different result? What happens if I don’t do this? What does riding through the winter actually prove? What happened to the fun?

Ah the final question is a good one and it has much to do with the third W. Who are the silly fuckers slogging through this 90 day quest? Who cares enough to face the mirror in the clothes we were born in and exclaim ‘this shall not be’? Who will fetch me out of a snowdrift and provide cheery commentary on a day shivering in the windchill? Who’ll share a beer, a grin and a memory once we’re all bled and done?

For all of that support group, there is a point when enough really is enough. A place in time when you’ve been sleeted on just one too many times. A period when shrugging into four layers of winter gear feels too damn hard. A vignette of misery as almost frozen mud pebble dashes an already bone-chilled individual from earlobe to toe.

When will it get better? When will this stop? When does this bastard chill wind warm me? When do the trails force themselves above the water table? When will there be something to look at other than the endless bleakness of leafless branches reaching into a storm filled sky?

Which brings us rather nicely to How.  Technically it’s a mostly circular planet hurtling across space and time with a spin of 70,000 MPH, all the time balancing gravity and momentum to circle rather than plunge into a gas giant usefully exploding at regular intervals.**

How do things get better? How is it that imperceptibly longer daylight hours and a barely noticeable increase in ambient temperatures move the cycle on? How is it that tiny plants sucking moisture from long forgotten fun trails divine a dry line where for months it’s been a messy watercolour?

Five questions. No real answers. Every year it gets a little more difficult to find a reason to bother asking. Coping strategies and indoor cycling bulwark fading motivation and a fat slice of can’t be arsed. Until today, until opening a car door isn’t instantly followed by a retreat to add many more clothes. Until the trail gives only a little under traction and a little less under cautiously placed angled tyres.

Until the wind is welcome and warming. Until you stop and stare at the curvature of the earth without a shiver trigger to move on. Until every run in and run out from tricky obstacles are firm and sure. Until the fitness you’ve selfishly hoarded all winter makes climbing mostly a joy, traverses fast but not loose and descents so simple without combating the slimey.

We ask the wrong questions. Sometimes the why, what, who, when and how seem as insoluble as the trails which are exactly that. It’s caterpillars and butterflies. You’ve got to ignore the misery of the winter to fly in the joy of Spring.

Today made that real. We didn’t ride that far. We stopped for tea in the sunshine. We stared long at muscular hills backlit by graduated azure skies. We pushed it a little bit, but laughed a whole lot more. And all around us were the buds of Spring ready to explode in the sunlight.

In six days, we’ll be riding bikes some 900 miles south of here, ripping up arid trails under a mediterranean sun, bookended by drinking beer under clear skies, and wondering what all that winter fuss was about.

If it’s even close to the fun we had today, I can hardly bloody wait. Someone finally cranked the season-ratchet.  I’m out of metaphors so let’s go with ‘thank fuck for that’.

* This is how Business Analysis is taught under the auspices of an apparently rigorous and matriculated curriculum. You are encouraged to always be asking questions. Apart from this one.

** I’ll concede better explanations are available for those with more than a passing understanding of astrophysics. As are worse ones, generally from the God Botherers, flat earthers and almost any group with a terrifyingly narrow focus on how the world works. Think UKIP if you’re struggling for a representative example.

Lost for Nerds

The New Eric

There was, it has to be said, a disappointing lack of fanfare and spectacle on receipt of my latest middle class, planet raping alternative to public transport*. I suppose the fact it’d transcended the metaphysical state of ‘it could be here, it could be there, it could be lost at sea‘** was enough of a triumph to trigger parting with huge wads of the company’s cash.

A transaction quickly completed once Steve The Salesman briefly apologised for multiple fuck ups best summarised by ‘well I suppose I could have looked out of the window, but that wasn’t making me any money‘. I ran around the car looking for the point of difference representing thousands of pounds when baselined against the very similar car that’d transported us here in the first place.

Well it was a different colour. A few bits had more edges. One or two showed pointless curvature clearly wrought by a man with a carefully trimmed beard, the gear stick was missing as were a few horses under the bonnet. They could have been well hiding in the vast empty space where a proper engine would be normally affixed.

Having spanked the credit card to within an inch of its elasticity, our two Yeti convoy headed homewards with 50% stomping the phantom clutch pedal at every junction. Still things were going well until the phone rang – causing all sorts of ‘media events‘ in various displays suggesting God might be on the line. It was in fact Carol’s concern proxied by my mum enquiring exactly where the stupidly expensive tow bar might be.

Not sticking out of the car, that’s for sure. My first thought was to consign it  to collateral damage endured during the confusing period of ‘where the fuck is my car?’, before rationality took the driving seat, and suggested something a little more instruction based.

We read the manual, it didn’t tell us much other than suggesting that ‘inappropriate deployment of the tow-bar would result in injury and possibly death‘. Which assumes a caravan may be attached and mobs would attack with flaming torches. I approve.

We parked up and called the garage. Which was a difficult conversation mainly because the phone was mired in a love triangle between two bluetooth receivers and an irate middle aged man. I’d be shouting at a sales person only to find he was responding to my blameless mum in a car some 30 feet away.  It’s fair to say this led to some awkward exchanges.

We split our resources, sending the sane and logical half home while my ire was irked even more when the new funky SatNav said a big no, demanding maps and reference data somewhat unhelpfully located in the salesman’s drawer.

Turned round, went back, got the navigation fixed to the point where it worked although clearly designed by a man in his underpants who’d never left his parents spare bedroom. We found the tow-bar buried in the depth of the chassis down a set of rickety stairs, hidden behind a door enpostered by ‘beware of the tiger‘***

To accèss the mounting point – oh really, is that what it’s called? It is? Just give me a minute here – a hidden panel must first be removed through the kind of manipulation and brutality suggesting something of extreme importance lay behind this shattered exterior trim.

Maybe a microfiche with the ‘destroy the world machine’ perfectly etched? A hard drive of MI6s ‘pictures of important people sleeping with goats’ perhaps? Failing that some digitised hedgerow grumble buried with sticky fingers? No, no and thrice no – out excavations revealed nothing other than a big hole apparently configured for the hermaphrodite phallus lump weighing down my right arm.

We, *ahem*, stuck it in, so locating it with a mighty click ensuring the bike trailer would likely remain mostly attached even under the burden of spirited driving.

No idea what to do with the acres of trim now lying in the drive. Or the complex electronics self-marketed as the cars ‘informational interface’. I’ve ignored almost everything other than locating Test Match Special on the DAB radio and favouriting a station promising ‘80s rock classics’. Really, I couldn’t be happier.

The gearbox is clearly a work of elven magic. As is the engine which punches somewhat beyond it’s tiny weight. Everything is just a bit nicer, but really this sits somewhere between financial propriety and shiny vanity. We have four cars on the drive and that’s bloody stupid. I don’t even like cars.

Still I love bikes and I have seven of those. Maybe this is less about selling cars (which I really have to do) and more about buying bikes (which I really shouldn’t be doing). I spend far more time in my car on my way to stuff that pays the bills, stuck in jams where thousands of others are doing the same, than I do on my bike in places where people are not.

Only one of those has any kind of quantifiable value. And I know which one it is. Which may explain why a lack of excitement about a ton of expensive metal doesn’t feel as if I’m missing the point at all.

* Having spent both £50 and 65 minutes jammed and slammed into a First Great Western Sandwich yesterday, I’m kind of okay with my decision making criteria. At least in the car I can sit down.

** Schrodingers supply chain. It could be alive, dead, or more likely SAP. If you don’t get this joke, think yourself lucky.

*** Stolen from Hitch Hikers guide to the galaxy. If you’ve never read that, stop wasting your time with this shit and get on it immediately.

Goodbye Eric..

Yeti

.. and Hello, er something that, other than sporting a colour change, appears to be exactly the same.  Which isn’t entirely surprising when you consider the trauma my previous car buying experiences invoked.

Whereas with mountain bikes, the whole new ‘buying a frame‘ experience is extremely exciting, rigorously researched and pointlessly publicised*, cars leave me bored, uninterested and confused.

The ice cream van, we’ve owned for the last three years, has been quietly brilliant.  Starts, stops, goes without any drama, fits us all in, keeps us warm and safe, and has a loud enough stereo to annoy the youngest two occupants.

So you can see my car purchasing criteria reads like a buyers guide from SAGA magazine. They do a Yeti in some kind of horrible beige with matching interior, but not even my middle aged predilections pushed me quite that far.

I didn’t even need a new car, but the company did. Based on the amount of business miles driven (lots) as compared to personal running about (not many), hiring a car through the medium of hire purchase became a fairly compelling financial choice.

So any car within some kind of sane fiscal constraints then. After about an hours desultory browsing, I found  myself with no ideas other than to just buy another Yeti. A new one comes out next year, new engines are mooted for later this year. and there are loads more similar types of cars sold now. But  I have enough trouble keeping up with the mountain bike gravy train, so I just stuck my order in and forgot about it for four months.

During which time, I’d also failed to remember why I’d chosen the tiny petrol engine over the mighty diesel, a complicated gearbox that removes the need to press anything to change gear, a whole set of expensive options, and even what colour it was.

The garage did better tho, they forgot where it was. Or to be more precise lost it completely. We had an email exchange that went something like:

Me: ‘So for the last month we’ve agreed I’m picking it up next week. Can you chuck a set of mats in please?’
Garage ‘Sure, your car’s here. We’ll get that sorted today’
Garage (one hour later). ‘Er, sorry your cars not here. We had a look for it. And it’s definitely not here’
Me ‘Where is it then?’
Garage ‘We don’t know’
Me ‘At least tell me which country it’s in then?’
Garage ‘We don’t know that either’

A few more electronic interactions whizzed past before a burst of short but  unsustained joy when the car was discovered dock-side in Grimsby, or some such godforsaken northern port. However, while it’d had fallen off the ship, it hadn’t yet been collected, or even acknowledged by the transport company.

This went on for a while.

Finally this, morning through the blurry medium of smudged faxes (I didn’t even know there were two working fax machines left in the UK!), the garage received confirmation it might be turning up later this week. Assuming they don’t lose it again. And while I think I should be excited about receiving a brand new car that’s going to be living with us for three years**, I don’t really care.

I care that the previously enjoyed old one will be part of the painful and drawn-out process of dispatching it to a new owner. I care that my new bike isn’t going to get here before our early Spring France trip. I sort of care – in a ‘did I really just do that kind of way‘ – that I went for the little engine and no 4×4 and I’m stuck with it. But not really.

Anyway it’s goodbye to Eric and Hello to VX15 LEF which – based on the purchasing experience so far – must stand for Logical Existential Fallacy.

* even after buying more than 30. Still get a buzz out of it. I much prefer the smell of ‘fresh cardboard box’ than ‘fresh car smell’

** so like a bike. Only for 2 and 1/2 years longer. And obviously it’ll work out cheaper to run as well.

Enter the Dragrim

MTB Long Mynd - Feb 2015

Moments make a ride. The drudgery of winter riding is elevated by stuff you’ve slogged for ever to experience, and experiences which are much shorter lived but splendidly fulfilling.

Language generally provides context. Examples abound; peering into the 8/8ths clag hiding fantastic views and delivering instead only freezing conditions, Rex rolled out of the mist to declare ‘this would be a properly shit day if you didn’t have the right attitude‘. We had that alright, and cake. Lots of cake.

And then many tired revolutions later, when a thrown out warning intoned ‘Cez has engaged downhill mode on his Orange Five*, stand well back‘ , drawing the rejoinder – quick as a flash – ‘What? has he removed the bottom two drawers?’ leaving our little, shivering group incapacitated with mirth.

MTB Long Mynd - Feb 2015
(the filing cabinet at rest)

Some of that tiredness was nothing more than repeatedly attacking the loaf like geography of the Long Mynd in some kind of eight man pincer movement,  it’s a Malvern-esque lump with steep ups, fast downs and bugger all flats.  Not made any easier by the endless mud composted by farm vehicles and incontinent sheep.

Quite a lot more was entirely attributable to our inability to convert fuzzy digital pictures to the tracks on the ground. To be fair, we were actually lost some 100 yards from my house when I directed Matt on a short cut to Hereford as requested, but missing the wider point that Hereford was in entirely the wrong direction.

Predictably our lack of navigational triumphs continued with an aborted breakfast stop peering through the closed, darkened windows of a much loved cafe, and a confident vector inscribed by muddy middle digit which dropped us beneath a hill we were due to climb. Strangely from this point on, my route finding based on a hypothesis of ‘it all looks the same in the fog’ were largely ignored. Probably for the best.

Best to get the push out of the way early on eh? I rode a bit of it through the medium of geographical embarrassment, before joining the earth bound misfits slipping and sliding up a wet, grassy steep encumbered by bicycle. They said it was fine, but I could feel the hate.

MTB Long Mynd - Feb 2015MTB Long Mynd - Feb 2015

Things improved as the easy track, missed early on floated out of the murk, while suggestions of ‘there’s a lovely view all the way to the sea there‘ were largely ignored as the enigmatic eight peered into freezing fog, and hunted for these mythical descents hidden from us all.

Took us a while to find it, but it was entirely worth it. A blast down increasingly steep switchbacks allowing all sorts of things to hang out, especially for those of us rocking the elixir of endless grip that is 20psi tyres inflated on fat tubeless rims.

MTB Long Mynd - Feb 2015 - 24MTB Long Mynd - Feb 2015

There’s something sort of important here; not about tyre profiles or pressure or stickiness, but the stickiness of those who’ll slog up a horrid climb for 30 minutes or more to access 120 seconds of potential injury. It’s fucking stupid and that’s why I love it.

I didn’t love the next climb quite so much as it meandered under the muscular shadow of the Mynd, traversing this way and that before pitching upwards on a double track full of sheep shit- apparently designed to suck the joy out of everything.

We got it done eventually via a shivering snack stop taking in a view of cumulus clouds at zero feet above sea level. Finally topping out, I felt a joyous statement was entirely called for. My plan was to arrive at great speed hanging off the rear brake in a skid parody remembered from my 9 year old self, before spinning about 180 degrees so scattering my now panicked friends.

Plans eh? Never survive the first contact with the enemy. Started well, the swingarm flicked out and began to slide in a rather pleasurable way right up to the point to where that fat, grippy tyre found something in the wet grass to adhere to. Suddenly we’d gone from amusing skid to terrifying tank slapper and my immediate future had a face plant written all over it.

Somehow – and I feel confident in declaring that we shall never know quite how – my un-athletic frame took fright at the imminent ground-nose** interface and hurdled the bucking top tube with some alacrity leaving me just to deal with 20KPH kinetic energy being unwound by 10KPH legs.

I went with insouciance. Desperately running like a man wearing seven league boots while still finding the time to punch the air in the manner of an individual who has completely thought this manoeuvre through. ‘Do it again for the camera‘ they said as the bike was flung over my head and into fogbound damp heather. I declined on the grounds of no one could ever get that lucky again.

Instead we discovered a little more peril on the descent – eventually because again we were lost – leading back into the valley. Interlocking, glacial spurs abound here and the simplest method to follow the ancient route of icy glaciers is a tight, steep singletrack hanging off the side of a virtigous valleys.  Committing,  technical, slippy but basically fun if you avoid an arse-over-tit plunge onto the flat ground many metres  below.

MTB Long Mynd - Feb 2015

MTB Long Mynd - Feb 2015MTB Long Mynd - Feb 2015

No fun on the next bit as we climbed back up to civilisation in the form of the National Trust Cafe at Carding Mill. Where I ate my own bodyweight in cake, added an extra layer and pretended I didn’t know what was coming next.

MTB Long Mynd - Feb 2015

It still came tho, a 300m climb out of the valley on a track somewhere between ‘quite pleasant‘ and ‘absolute bastard‘. I rode most of it which mostly did for me, although Mike rode even more rendering him supine and breathing like a man only recently introduced to oxygen at the crest.

MTB Long Mynd - Feb 2015

MTB Long Mynd - Feb 2015

Another 5km of what could charitably be called undulations, but I’m calling out as endless climbing, delivered us to a still snow bound road solving a simple navigational challenge to the last descent. So obviously we got lost. Twice. Once because the rather cynical cycling group refused to follow my directions, and once more when they did.

MTB Long Mynd - Feb 2015

Somehow we fell into Minton Bach which is a lovely way to go home. It hangs precipitously off the side of a sodding big hill, weaving in and out of  exactly the kind of natural geography which makes you think ‘Trail Centres, Why the fuck would you ride there instead?’

And because it’s not bench cut, or drained or armoured with stones,  this time of the year it’s slippy, difficult, committing. Not technical really, but big consequences if you stray off line. Three minutes of nuance to the square root of fuck all – be good or back off, be brave or make excuses, be scared but do it anyway.  The thing that separates me from you is pretty much this.

Not that I was fast, oh no the quick boys disappeared with what I can only think of as a lack of imagination, but on reconvening in farm yard encrusted in the liquid poo of  a thousand large animals, there was shared understanding of why entering the grim is almost always worth the effort.

Hungry work this winter riding – arriving home I ate everything in the fridge until there was virtually nothing left. Only Carol’s intervention stopped me devouring the light at the back. Then I sat down with a beer and processed fifty photographs of cold looking people peering into a fallen down sky.

And at no point did I think ‘well that’s a waste of a day’. Looking forward to Spring, looking back at winter with a grin and a giggle.

* Nice bikes, unapologetically industrial. Quite noisy when descending. Oft likened to the cacophony unleashed when a filing cabinet is hurled at a metal fire escape propelled by a Saturn V booster.

** A nose like mine appears to have a Darwinism lineage to the first plough. I’m considering hiring myself out come planting time.

28 days later

Nant-Y-Arian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nant-Y-Arian

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

Nant-Y-Arian

Nant-Y-Arian

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

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

Nant-Y-Arian

Nant-Y-Arian

Nant-Y-Arian

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

Nant-Y-Arian

Nant-Y-Arian

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

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

Nant-Y-Arian

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

Nant-Y-Arian

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

Nant-Y-Arian

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

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

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

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

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

Winter blues

Rhayader snowy MTB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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