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

Under Ventoux - scary traverse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you feeling lucky?

You bloody well should be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laziness is hard work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Antur Stiniog - Birthday Ride
Birthday Snake – thanks to Ian Beddis for the photo

Blaenau Ffestiniog has a challenging aesthetic. Dwarfed by scarred mountains, cut deeply by a hundred years of slate mining, and diminished by the slow decline and eventual cessation of all such activities.

Many times we’ve skirted its grim and grimey centre on our way to softer landscapes unscathed by such obvious commercial activity. Most of those days the buildings appear huddled together against the incessant rain and wind. There’s little to stay the traveller looking for the wide open spaces in these wild, Welsh mountains.

Rather than give up like so many tragic mining towns, the community had a good look round a the slate heaps and vertical geography before deciding ‘you know what, we should have a crack at that tourism thing‘. With some success.

Hidden between the monster zip lines and underground experiences lies Antur Stiniog – five trails cut sensitively into an already battered landscape and served by a super-efficient uplift service. This is not Bike Park Wales snaking between unharvested forestry and gentler landscape – no here we find no nonsense ribbons of rock the making best use of the local geology  augmented with all sorts of extra stuff to test the stoutest of defences.

Another birthday that most men of my age would spend stiff in unwelcome new jumpers stuck between unwanted extended family instead packed Matt’s van with what – on first sight – appeared to be an explosion in a plastics factory. Full face helmets of dubious vintage rolled over body armour apparently last deployed during a vigorous struggle with a tiger.

Three hours later we met up with an old mate of mine who being a bit more organised has already managed a couple of runs: ‘Blue? Fine, good fun. Red? Shit myself‘. Right then, we’ll start on the blue, then but first a comedy assemblage of riders and clothing putting me in mind of Cluedo: ‘Ah Yes, Mr James Upside Down in the Van being strangled with a Helmet Strap‘. Nick looked on mildly bemused but because he’s known me a long time not entirely surprised.

Eventually we rocked up to the windy summit before arsing about a while longer to ensure the proper riders wouldn’t be held up by #ukminceontour* First run is always much compromised by stiff muscles, unfamiliar trails, a touch or more of fear and mostly not wanting to mong oneself on the first run of at least ten. The picture up there is about one minute in. I’m the one in the middle looking as if he’s decided to have a poo. Taken me years to perfect that stance.

With only five trails and great signage it’s impossible to get lost. We got lost. Diverting accidentally to a red trail that ensured proper technique and commitment was pretty much hard wired into our minds as gradients steepened and rocks embigened**

Arriving shaken and a bit stirred back at the uplift truck, we were immediately whisked back to the top in less than five minutes. More runs increased confidence that a) there was nothing here that was trying to kill us and b) these bikes really are quite amazing aren’t they? How can a chassis that’ll happily flatter you on some all day yomp across local trails be quite so bloody awesome on stuff that is mostly occupied by downhill bikes, mirrored visors and riders who can apparently reach low earth orbit off every lip?

Elven magic clearly. Even so by lunchtime we’d progressed to the reds and loved the technical difficulty split between some reasonably committing drops and fast open sections where the bike would just float above the rock crust. Assuming you could stay off the brakes. I had a brilliant run chasing Rex for the best part of three minutes – letting the bike run, trusting my technique when the going got steep and the bike when attempting to land on downslopes out of your eyeline. Then I got cocky and crashed. Wasn’t a big one but bruised the only part of me not fully armoured up.

BPW you can ride on a hardtail with minimum protection if that’s your thing. Not here, I was happy with the heavy breathing full face and neck to toe plastic reinforcement. The consequences of getting it wrong had smashed limbs writ large. As we found out after a quick lunch of carbs and liquid. This not riding uphill is tiring stuff.

Black then. Shall We?‘ Three of us in the affirmative with the group  splintered by punctures, tiredness and an understandable reticence to risk trails we barely dared even look down a few hours earlier.  Cez and Rex set off with the kind of confidence I dream of leaving me properly positioned as tail gunner. I saw Cez disappear down the first insanely steep step down with barely a pause. One second he was there, the next gone, disappeared some 30 feet below. Oh fuck. Like that is it?

It was. Rex was next and his heroic commitment wasn’t matched by similar success. His bike kicked out on the rock step half way down propelling him upwards and backwards in the kind of rotational parabola normally suffixed with ‘and Pike to finish’.

No water just rock. Rex hit it hard and tumbled down the slope in a confusion of arms and legs. ShitShitShitShit that doesn’t look good ‘Rex, you okay mate?‘ I shouted hard braked from the top. A second passed. Then ‘Yeah all good, landed on my backpack, not sure about my spleen tho

This was an ongoing joke from my Slovenia bike park experience. So thankfully he was both alive and lucid. I picked an easier line down to find Rex back on his bike, grin firmly back in place. Legend. I’d have been calling for the helicopter. He then sent me out first – being understandably a bit reticent to hit obstacles blind – but the rest of the trail harvested fewer demons.

We found Matt and Mike fixing punctures and the not very famous five made it to the bottom without further incident. I rode a couple more times and few tougher lines including the ‘chicken line‘ avoiding the terrifying double black crux move. Even that  line had me mainlining my inner chicken. Happy to get down that unscathed. Style? Speed? Technique? Er, no. More an internal telling off for following Cez off anything blind.***

I quit about then.  Physically all was good, but mentally totally frazzled. Ian and I shared a coffee while the rest of the boys hit the uplift truck for a couple more runs.  Fast ones as well by all accounts. Fine by me, I was happy to mirror the same physical approximation as earlier in the day, and happier still Rex hadn’t done himself some serious injury.

We said our goodbyes to Nick, got back in the van, got back to Ross a few hours later and got pissed because a birthday is as good excuse as any. Forty Eight years old and riding black graded downhill trails with my friends .

That’s not a birthday, that’s a blessing.

* I speak for myself here. And maybe one or two others. As ever I positioned myself as ‘rear gunner’ but had to fight for that station!

** what do you mean that’s not a word?

*** Appropriate noun. Had my eyes closed.


This is me in so many ways

That’s what I’ve named my ‘FitBit activity tracker‘ – a device for which you pay actual money combining the hatefullness of MyFitnessPal  with a Heart Rate Monitor in some kind of unholy union. My fluctuating interest in both is less focussed on engaging in some virtual training programme, more on a physical roundness and sticking out wobbly bits.

I used to tell myself any weight gain was merely soft fat transforming to hard muscle. But muscle doesn’t wobble certainly not in manner of visible external peristalsis. Ensuing further medical certainties, I’ve decided my perfect weight is 12 stone dead. Even if it kills me. 6 pounds below that and friends start to whisper rumours suggesting a terminal disease while half a stone more results in an every decreasing circle of riding kit which doesn’t pop studs or strain lycra while fatboy here is levering himself into it.

Not having sufficient motivation to do much about it – other than reach around a half drunk wine bottle for a chocolate biscuit – it’s down to gamification, targets and occasional guilt to get the job done. Six weeks since strapping the FitBit to my wrist, I’ve learned a couple of things.

Gamification works. Like marketing we all dismiss it for the feeble minded. Pah a virtual badge for walking up a few flights of stairs isn’t getting me off this sofa. But it does; the dog’ll find himself yanked outside for an unscheduled walk as I march off in search of a few thousand steps. Or running up and downstairs in search of some object for which I have no immediate need*

Steps, stairs and distance aren’t too much of a stretch most days especially since my current vocation has me planted to a mobile phone for most of them. So I stride from workshop to garden at high speed desperately multi-tasking between actually making some sense and checking for an elevated heart rate. In many ways it’s so easy, the more ambitious would raise their aspirations beyond the recommendation and set higher targets. That’s not me though obviously.

What’s a bit more me is a relationship with alcohol that’s pretty aligned with Winston Churchill’s ‘I have taken more out of whisky than it’s ever taken out of me‘. The problem with such as approach is each and every bottle is uncorked by twin devils. One has many calories hidden in this filtration of grape or hop while the other flicks my default state back to ‘gluttony‘ where chocolate and crisps suddenly become incredibly important. And frequent.

Which is a bit of a bugger when you consider the curse of being even slightly fit. A consequence of which is burning many calories becomes increasingly problematical. 45 minutes giving it ‘the full hamster’ on a spin bike is a mere 300, riding mountain bikes maybe a 100 more in a whole hour. Slobbing around with a resting heart rate in the low fifties- less than a calorie a minute. Sleeping, I actually put on weight.

Of course you could buy into all this training nonsense, so setting intervals and zones and misery and pointlessness. I know myself well enough to realise trying such a thing’d last about 10 minutes before I ate the heart rate monitor. Instead I believed just riding lots and moving about a bit more would bring forth** the Adonis like figure currently hidden under this middle aged spread.

A word to the wise here; it doesn’t. Some of this is probably anatomy, more might be the extended sessions in the pub after any such ride. A little might be the realisation that what worked when you were forty has nowhere near the efficacy when you’re closer to the next decade. And the fact that ONE chocolate represents a 1/3rd of a dog walk and as for a bag of crisps, well you might as well climb stairs to the moon.

I appreciate this isn’t very scientific. Our bodies – even ancient models such as mine – are far more complex than calories in and exercise out. You’re far better having a proper diet rather than actually dieting.  There’s a reason cake comes pre-sliced and biscuits individually split. Which if you take to the logical conclusion, wine boxes must be a product designed by Beelzebub himself.

Right now, It’s 6PM and I’m 700 calories short of where I need to be. The pretty dashboard smugly informs me our lunch out has tipped the scales the wrong way.  It’s going to take a bit of bloody effort and no bread for tea to get things back into balance.

Right then, where’s that bloody dog?

* although this is really just middle age – arrive in a room and wonder what the bloody hell brought you here. Wander out again before slapping your forehead and rotating back through 180 degrees. Repeat for a while.

** notice I don’t use the word ‘back’. It’s like playing on the wing for England. Definitely going to happen. This is how delusion works.

Today is a good day to fly*

Solvenia Bike Park
Bike? Check. Armour? Check. Ability? Bugger.

We’d recommend you take the body armour, it’s included” worried the bike shop man as I pretended to test suspension settings on a downhill monster so far removed from my riding world it may as well have been delivered by aliens.

Trail lid, t-shirt, wimpy knee pads, delusional view of competence, second language: ‘I’ll be fine with these I think“. Some fevered Slovene muttering suggested otherwise so I took the hint and armoured up with body suit, elbow pads and a stinky full face. I refused hard-shell knee pads though on the grounds I’d transported these ones 1500 miles and they only reeked of me.

Proper DH bikes pedal badly especially configured with a short rear cassette. So I pushed to the lift and hefted it onto a hook clearly welded by the lowest cost bidder. Watching it swing behind me displaced dark thoughts of imminently being shit and poo-ing the bed on steep trails cut through the forest passing under my feet.

Slow chairlifts are not happy bedfellows for the imaginative ensuring fifteen minutes later had me wrestling the beomoth from the hook like a man only recently acquainted with any kind of motor control. The lift fella looked a bit contemptuous as the next car smacked me up the arse. A fine start to what could be a long day.

A day really that should be spent with my lovely family who I dragged to Slovenia promising mountain views, no hiking, no boring museums and no mountain biking. Two out of three ain’t bad, but when you’re an ancient fucker like me and the balcony view showcases trails baked into a mountain side simply accessed by a summer chairlift, selfishness will out.

I rather wish it hadn’t as I careered down a scree slope entirely bereft of anything back in the UK we call ‘grip‘.  Or indeed ‘ability‘.  Strange bike, bit worried, encased in unfamiliar plastic – as a start it was inauspicious. Being stupid I felt things would improve if I ignored the easy trail and plunged instead into a rooty horror soaked from the previous weeks endless downpours.

I can ride wet roots. I live in a place where it pisses down almost endlessly. I have transferable skills here. Oh. Fuck. No. I. Don’t. Tree anchors the size of my arms pitched on a slope best thought of mostly vertical. I tripod’d down bouncing off arboreal trail markers and travelling sideways any time I felt touching the brakes might be a fine idea*

Couple of minor offs. A bit of walking. Surfing the last chute on my arse while vaguely connected to a mountain bike. Checked the trail markers. That’s a red. Blimey. I diverted to the blue which pitched me into 20 linked berms superbly built but barely maintained. Stray off the line and it was all cracked earth filled with marbles and upside down mountain bikers.

Finally a set of well constructed table tops over which I was universally shit.  A little bit of this was the unfamiliar bike and the effort/speed needed to make it work but most of it was me – despite the armour – tensing up and slowing down.

Groundhog day. Top of the lift but this time go left to a barely distinguishable trail marker promising another ‘hard‘ trail through the woods. What was I thinking? It was essentially a walkers path with all the easy bits circumvented by desperate plunges into the valley.  Steep enough to suggest walking it would result in a broken ankle with a side order of no phone signal. No one else riding it – surprisingly – so I minced down often using the bike as a fence. Near the bottom an lengthy off camber root section looked too hard for feet so I just closed my eyes and went for it. Went well until I crashed.

Right give myself a talking too. Three more uplifts things improving, drops being dropped, jumps being jumped, big stuff being ignored. Making use of the insane grip of a DH bike.  Picking some harder lines off the brakes. Popped back into the shop to reduce fork preload clearly set for a man who had eaten only pies and pasties for the last ten years ‘if you’re struggling with the roots, you must go faster‘ said the clearly skilled mechanic. Sounded counter intuitive. Went for lunch with the family instead.

Five more runs. Mostly together with occasional terror as learned lines were nothing of the sort. Rode a few more scary things but waiting above the final tabletops was a ladder drop higher than my shoulder. Rolled into a few times. Rolled back everytime. Knew I could ride it, really didn’t want to. Looked for excuses, found none.

Last run. Mind frazzled, arms floppy, calves aching. Chatting with a lovely Slovene on the chairlift. Explained my angst. Easy he said, follow me. I tried but he was gone in 10 seconds leaving me with the hope he’d have forgotten who the hell I was on finally turning up. No such luck.

He’s a coach. Cool. Of the Slovenian DH team. Not so cool. Conversation went ‘you have the bike‘ POINT AT DH RIG ‘you have the protection‘ POINT AT HEAD TO TOE BODY ARMOUR ‘what is your problem?‘ me: POINT TO ME ‘this?‘. He laughed and dragged my elderly arse through a section that’d had me off earlier. Somehow I stuck with him with any brain activity entirely focussed on the biggest drop I’d ever attempted. One that’d recently skewered the spleen of a MTB journo.

We flew over the ‘qualifier‘ and fuck me it was brilliant. ‘See he said, even old guys like you can ride this stuff’. Thanks. ‘Come on, follow, follow‘ came next with a big arm movement and a velocity suggesting rocket propulsion. Arriving sweaty and scared before the drop I was ready with my excuses, but he** was having no truck with that.

Follow, Follow’ beckoning me on at a speed entirely inappropriate for a man a week short of his 48th birthday. Hitting the ramp all I could think of was ‘How important is a spleen? Will I miss it?’ Then a moment of gorgeous silence punctuated by a spinning freehub, then some ground rush, then 8 inches of suspension compensating for my shit technique, then endorphin rush and high fives.

Follow Follow, let’s do it again‘ my mentor grinned at me. But I declined. He looked disappointed and in retrospect so am I. But nothing could better how I felt right then, plus the fact I was fucked physically and mentally. Pushing back up for photos required determination for which I had no courage left. Every last drop had been eeked out on that drop. I was spent.

I’m not a great mountain biker. Especially when faced with bike park obstacles. But it is in the mountains is where I feel most at home. And at peace. I felt the fear and did it anyway. Then sat watching proper riders boost off those tabletops while I drank beer in the sunshine.

Is that enough? Oh fuck yes. More than enough. Nothing else feels like this. When I’m properly old and broken I’ll remember days like this. But right now I feel like I’m the luckiest bloke on the planet.

* Feel free to translate to Klingon if that’s your thing.

** thankfully I was running UK brakes after refusing a bike configured the other way round. Glad I stuck out for that one otherwise I’d be writing this from hospital while drinking through a straw.

*** told me his name. Forgot it instantly. I do owe him a beer or two tho.

Baldylocks and the three bears

Bikes are like this. Honestly, they are. Read on.

You know the story. Father bear’s bed was too hard, mother bear too soft and baby bear just right.  It’s a bloody terrible fable for two reasons; 1- there’s no qualitative metrics for exactly what you mean by ‘soft‘* and 2-at some point in your near future some smartarse will rally this in their non sequitur rebuttal of your N+1 position.

Second one first ever heard this ‘why do you need so many bikes,  that’s like saying you need five different cars?‘**. Because dick-spot, for us flirting with the line between a hobby and a mental illness, these are not simple transport, they are gateway drugs to a utopian portal your dusty, rusty Halfords special cannot access.

Sounds snobby? Rather a reversal of the societal norm where only impoverished individuals transport themselves by bicycle because car ownership is beyond their means. Cycling is losing, piloting two tons of marketing’s pinnacle is more than just a win. You even get to squash the losers.

Until about 1980 anyway. Then bikes became cool again. And profitable. And worth evolving. Into lots of different niches for which a different tool was very much required. Even if that tool was the man getting his wallet out. The crushing irony was twenty years later, the very same people performed a ‘did that just really fucking happen?‘ U-Turn spawning the ‘quiver killer‘***

You have to admire the chutzpah and while you’re at it marvel at the built in obsolescence demanding the ‘QK‘ must be changed every year. Hey it might look exactly the same, but now it’s a BETTER colour.

What the hell has this got to do with bears I hear you ask. Glad you did, it’s pretty simple really. Since April this year, I’ve been  almost exclusively riding my on-trend, appropriately slack and low ‘gnarpoon‘**** and it’s been as fantastic as one would expect, after chucking a shit-load of cash at something hoping it’d make up for your many inadequacies.

Then, in what can only be described as a moment of temporary insanity, I invested in the world’s most expensive cardboard box cunningly disguised as a poo coloured hardtail.  Rode that a couple of times and that was brilliant as well. So – to test all bears – earlier this week, the previous object of my metallic affection – the eager Pyga – was hauled off the wall and thrown at the trails.

You may be unsurprised to hear that was bloody great as well. Harvesting the raw data from my digital ego repository, it would seem the difference between these very different approaches to two wheels hung from a few tubes wasn’t quite as much as I expected.  One trail, three times: 1:28, 1:31, 1:32.

I think we can probably identify the common denominator here. Sure the Aeris was brilliant in the Peaks last weekend in a way the Trek hardtail wouldn’t have been. And the Pyga yomped through the forest dispatching big distances under bigger wheels. Yet shifting turns in fast singletrack demonstrates how the simple kinematics of a sorted hardtail easily makes it the quickest.

The numbers tell you everything and nothing at all. Creeping into the shedofdreams, I’m nowhere near as confident as the golden one to pick the right bear. 90% of the time the differences are perceptible to me but imperceptible in terms of making progress.

I’d almost convinced myself the super slack Aeris wasn’t much good in the super-tight and switchback-y local woods above Ross. Until we skived off today and – at my request – massively backed off the pace so I could remember what entering a corner not hard on the brakes might feel like.

Then the bike felt fantastic. The big bear was doing just fine thanks very much. The little bear might have been faster, the middle bear generally has been but you cannot correlate speed with fun. I rode a gap jump much avoided because it wasn’t approached mostly out of control, cleared a table top with technique not desperate pedalling, dropped slowly into two steep gulleys safely because chasing those faster people wasn’t top of my agenda.

When you ride as much as I do, boredom is always a shadow threat. Even when the trails are dry, the sun is warm and you’re riding with your friends. Just this justifies having a shed-full of different bikes. They’re all brilliant. Riding mountain bikes is always brilliant. Having mates to share it with is – of course – endlessly brilliant.

You, however, will be resolutely average. It’s not about the bike and it’s absolutely about the bike. It certainly isn’t about the numbers. But if it was somehow my slow-is-the-new-slow was somehow two seconds quicker than every previous effort.

I didn’t care. Goldilocks had it wrong. Nothing is ever perfect. But – if you stop obsessing about what perfect might be – it can be very, very good indeed.

* I appreciate this may be a specific position, but when you’ve attempted to mediate between learned academics – on the point of punching each other –  debating the precise semantic definition of ‘course‘, this stuff feels quite important.

** This is the straw man argument. I don’t have the space to explain my hatred of it here but once you recognise it, the ONLY proportional response is – for the sake of all those around you – to instantly kill the perpetrator with fire.

*** I assume a significant quantity of coke and hookers were involved: ‘hear me out Jeremy, we’ll tell ’em and sell ’em the idea that all their bikes are shit now and they can have this new one shiny thing. Make it red. They’ll go for it. They’re idiots’ Snort……

**** Once this post is complete. I’ll take myself outside to be shot for the use of that word. It’d be a kindness.


Moustache is the new beard

The Mou-Stache

Years ago when I had a proper job, a very earnest young engineer rushed into my office to explain how light – the very light coming through my window – could be multiplexed, sliced, diced and repurposed for transporting ones and zeros at unfathomable speeds. Speed of light – obvious to him maybe, I was pretty much winging it from ‘hellomynameiskeithandhthisisveryimportant‘.

Mountain biking appears to be going to same way. We’re splitting niches at an atomic level, so no sooner have my most recent two purchases been deemed heritage then even the marketingly trumpeted perfect wheel size is denuded by something even more magnificent apparently. Suddenly Wave Division Multiplexing doesn’t seem quite so insane*

I’m thinking of this endless carving of phantom niches as the physical manifestation of ‘Peak Beard‘. I appreciate people have things to sell but you’re really starting to piss the rest of us off. Oh the new standard means a new frame does it? And new forks to go with it? Will my 2 week old wheels fit? No, thought not.

I grumbled my way into the shedofdreams the other day looking for reassurance that my pantheon of mountain bikes still represented something worthwhile. And in the manner of any man who has a sock drawer, I took to harvesting the oily contents of my extensive spares holding to create space for the detritus washed up in various short term receptacles.

Failing to solve the equation of loads-of-crap – available space > 0,  instead I was struck by the righteous vision that rather than toss decent parts into a dark corner, I could instead hang them off something a little more aesthetically pleasing. A quick inventory ratified my thinking; transmission, wheels, bars, stems and brakes framed a single missing component.

That’s what the Internet is for. The first thing distracting me was the colour. RootBeer Trek call it, but for a child of the seventies, it’s clearly a homage to the motoring icon that was the Vauxhall Chevette. The second thing was the price which – while being more than a small multiplier of a cardboard box – was intriguingly cheap.

Emails ricoshayed this way covering condition, use, issues and inside leg measurement of the current rider. While slightly odd to request personal dimensions from someone you’ve never met, this – for a man whose leg growth was first lost and then found in his arms – is vital. Large frames invite an interference fit between soft love spuds and hard aluminium. It’s a mistake you make only once.

A brief meeting at a windswept motorway services saw yet another bike anointed in the shedofdreams. Bit of spit and polish and the turd brown sparkled just a little. No getting away from the lack of rear suspension tho. My hard stance on no more hardtails has been triggered by an increasingly soft back.

Riding is still pretty much okay. The next morning however is not. Standing up, my lower back gets up about half a second later and my knees sometime in the afternoon.  There are volumes of TLDR shit written about how riding hardtails makes you a better rider; connects you to the trail; keeps it real, etc, etc.

Yeah whatever, get a shave beardie. Still before I could ride and hate it, first it had to be built. All the easy stuff I hammered together before handing it over to Matt breezily explaining the cranks didn’t really fit and there were big holes in the frames where I assumed some cables may need to be inserted.

I provided beer and an extra pair of eyes as stuff pinged to the four corners of Matt’s amusingly chaotic garage. Soon we had a bike that mostly worked and a rider who still wasn’t quite sure why he’d bought it.

Maybe I’m sticking it to the marketing man. The latest version of the Stache (that’s what it’s called. No I’ve no idea either) is dripping with new standards and irrelevance. Mine from all the way back to 2011 is none of those things. It’s two triangles, some funky hydroforming and a load of second hand parts.

It’s far better to look at than a box of spares. It’s conveniently the colour of winter. It may get ridden more than the other 29er hung on the wall, and ignored since the Aeris turned up. If not it’ll bolster my real mountain bike credentials. It’s like Alfa’s for petrolheads, every proper rider must own a hardtail.

Even if he or she doesn’t ride it. Looks better than a battered box though doesn’t it?

* it is a real thing. Incredibly important in our digital world. Cornerstone of an exploding digital age. It also allows those on the near end of the autistic spectrum to play with lasers. I’ll leave you to decide if this is a good trade-off.

There’s something in the Aeris

Bird in the air!

In this case it’s my friend Cez whose picture up there writes the thousand words best summarised by ‘it’s not about the bike‘. I promise you fewer to frame six weeks of new bike ownership riding over six hundred kilometres with a vertical profile of fifteen thousand metres.

The latin root of Aeris is simply ‘Air‘ – a place this bike is significantly more comfortable than the old fella riding it. Not in Cez’s case obviously where he’s thrown it over that gap jump with the kind of wild abandon 100% missing from my bravery repertoire.

However even working within this more limited riding envelope, ever wider apertures have opened up of what a great bike/average rider hybrid can achieve. The Aeris isn’t one of those Rottweiler bikes giving it the ‘grrr, go on bite it, grrr, faster, chase it, eat it’  which insist on 100% commitment 100% of the time. You know the sort, it’s all absolutely new and splendidly brilliant right up to the point when it isn’t leaving the trail splattered with previously usable body parts.

It’s more like the quiet member of the band – say the rhythm guitarist – largely ignore-able but oozing competence and ensuring the player looks pretty damn awesome. Until you start to push it a little bit when it gets a bit hairy’n’lairy, stomping on the fuzz pedal and bashing out some Hendrix riffs.

No devil on your shoulder this, more a good mate gently suggesting ‘you’re fine with that, c’mon we’ll do it together, trust me, it’ll be great. And it has been, clearing my biggest and scariest ever gap jump (but not that one above), punched out quite a few Strava PBs on trails I’ve ridden 100s of times and conquered a couple of obstacles made impossible by previous excuses.

It’s not a game changer tho. The PBs are seconds at best, the scary stuff is still bloody terrifying, the gap jump had me all wobbly legged before and after. But this is quite a bike Ben and the boys at Bird have built; long front centre, slack head angle, low bottom bracket, aggressive stance. Stable and composed at speed, lithe and carve-y in the tight stuff.  Climbs well, descends better. Small margins maybe, but margins all the same.

As a trail bike, it’s hard to find fault. The rear shock is a thing of magic delivering climbing grip and descending confidence. The forks aren’t far behind masking my ham fisted-ness and inappropriate braking. Rims forged from carbon are ridiculously wide and stiff bulging out tyres at 20 PSI. Brakes are personal wall and everything else just works brilliantly.

In those six weeks, I’ve dragged it up the Malvern hills, pushed it round a thousand corners in the Forest, chucked it down Cadair Idris, barrelled it through the Quantock hills and giggled my way around four trail centres. And for most of those rides, I’ve pretty much forgotten about it while enjoying the scenery flash by a little quicker than previously.

For balance it’s not perfect. The slingshot cornering is delivered in part by a very low bottom bracket cranking pedal strikes on anything vaguely lumpy. The finish on those carbon rims is pretty ropey. And, er, that’s it. Any other problems just call up Ben or Dave for a quick chat and find yourselves 30 minutes later sort of understanding how suspension works.

North Wales MTB - April 2015 {HPR}

Half way down these steps on Cadair Idris, it became apparent I’d bought a bike that both suited and encouraged me. I’m still stuck with those mental hangups and physical frailties which ensure this bikes’ capabilities are a million miles from my own limits.

That’s not really the point tho. Do I take a moment before every ride to savour how bloody good the next few hours are going to be? Do I stay the worry over certain obstacles which normally have me reaching deep into the excuses bag? Do I just want to ride, ride and ride just a bit more? Damn right I do and that’s not the result of a quantitative evaluation of angles and other supposedly important metrics. It’s riding as fast as you dare while passing silent thanks to those who understand better than you what constitutes an amazing mountain bike.

In these six weeks since the two big bird boxes arrived on the doorstep, the Pyga has languished dustily in the shedofdreams. My plan was to compare it to the new incumbent a month after tarnishing the new bike glasses. It hasn’t happened and I cannot see when it will. That doesn’t make the Pyga a bad bike at all, it just makes the Aeris a really bloody good one.

Roll on Sunday.

Turning a corner

Most of Cwmcarn.. the bits they weren't logging

Have you ever had the the feeling you’re a minnow pretending to be a shark? No? Really? I get it all the time, sometimes professionally which is easily mitigated by a strategy of winging it- an approach serving me well during the last twenty years. And as often riding mountain bikes, where that doesn’t work at all.

There’s a strange juxtaposition of a digital record proving you are faster than 75% of people you’ve never met, while being 10% slower than those who you know. Placing yourself as tail-end charlie does get a little wearing as those with more skills and less imagination flick perfect turns, while you fall ever further behind attempting to reenact apparently simple techniques to forestall a squishy tree hybrid.

Sometimes I wonder if I think too much. Heading into an apex – and every apex feels like the one which ripped my knee open triggering an extensive hospital stay – mentally there is all sorts going on, setting an edge, point hips at the exit, pushing the bars, leaning the bike not me and all that skills-course mental memory.

The physical manifestation is somewhat different. It’s not representative of whats going on in my head, leaving me sufficient time to disconnect the frontal lobe and go with the screaming hind brain to ‘slow the fuck down’. Which I do. And blow the corner. That’s quite annoying. Possibly tending to the understatement here as it’ll keep me awake beyond the midnight hour, because mental castigation fails to trigger the appropriate physical moves.

Big rocky stuff with pain etched on every pointy granite formation? Fine, let me at it. Reasonable sized jumps with no obvious landing other than ‘something over there’? Okay with that thanks very much. Flat corner of 30 degrees or more with an apex perpendicular to a tree? Pass me some logs and I’ll portage my way round. It’ll be quicker.

It doesn’t stop me loving riding mountain bikes, but it is a bit bloody irritating. Watching other riders, apparently unconcerned by the prospect of a tyre offering slightly less grip than they expected, or the trail failing to deliver an apex where they were expecting it makes me wonder if I’m just a bit nesh.

Well I am. But I know what bravery feels like. It’s being shit scared and doing it anyway. Done loads of that and surfed long on the dopamine rewards. There’s just something about long corners that messes with my head and no amount of skills courses, giving myself a good talking too or following those lacking the fear can really fix.

I shall go and practice. And that’ll be fine. On my own with no peer pressure there will be a complicit pretence I’ve cracked it, only for muscle memory and latent fear to rear their ugly heads in a parody of Medusa. Snakes on the trail and all that.

This isn’t about being as quick as someone else. I’ve lost that urge at the same time as most of my body fat. I can beat more than a few uphill but that’s not a metric  I’m measuring myself against. I can get fitter still, but can I get braver? Not sure.

Cwmcarn a fwq weekends ago was great. Except for the bits when I watched Matt and Cez dive through the bends in a way I cannot. That bothers me far more than it should. I’ve ridden a million corners and crashed on only a few. Unfortunately those incidents have left me physically and mentally scared.

Only one of those has healed. I’m stupidly lucky to be able to ride Mountain Bikes whenever I want on fantastic trails with people who are my greatest friends. And yet, there’s something missing. Something not quite right. Two choices; go ride with those for whom getting down uninjured is as good as it gets, or stop obsessing about something that broke me over seven years ago.

Looking through the corner is one thing. Chasing the crash images out of my mind is something else entirely.