Riding the reality gap

Man with half a head clears small gap on bike designed to do so much more

I don’t know whose bike they serviced Al, but it certainly wasn’t yours‘  grunted a multi-tooled Matt as he attempted to wrest his brand of mechanical perfection on a bike leaking vital bodily fluids onto his dining room floor.

Things had not been going well.  Even before the front brake vomited the compulsory hydraulic medium linking lever to rotor, doubts had serviced over the efficacy of the bike shop from which it had arrived. Two days late scooted on a cloud of – if we’re being charitable – implausible excuses ranging from the aforementioned ‘full service’ to the APC courier being the victim of an alien abduction.

The mech hanger was cantered at an angle best likened to a drunk hanging onto a lamppost for support. Many of the bolts appeared to have been tightened with a straw, including those connecting the front and back of the frame together.  They hadn’t even bothered to throw a bucket of water over it.

No matter after harvesting the Bird for a basketful of parts I’d not unrealistically expected to be operational on a bike ‘having had only 5 test rides‘, we had liftoff.  Into the back of the van at least, and it was barely 8 hours later that I was in there with it as we headed off into the wilds of South Wales; destination Brechfa Forest.

Good trail centre this. Black and Red aggregate to 38kms of tough climbs, natural descents, then lots of berms, few rock steps, fast singletrack and – being Wales – endless wet from above and below. That’s about the soggiest ride I’ve done this year but the sun was shining behind my new bike glasses.

The Mojo is proper carbon light, it has a spectacularly clever suspension linkage which propels it uphill even with Mr Potato head here mashing the pedals, but point it downhill and it’s strangely neutral. This is not a bad thing but it’s different. It’s very flattering if you’re a little tentative and bonkers rip-your-face off if you’re not. Reminds me more of the Stache than the FlareMax.

Bikes have a personality. No they do. This in no ways mandates even the thinnest sliver of an excuse to name them.*  There’s a whole other post there you’ll be glad I’ve yet to write. Suffice it to say by the end of the a five hour river ride I’d concluded I needed to up my game a bit, and those 2.8 thinly treaded tyres were going to give me some trouble.

Trouble I chose to ignore after shuttling to the Wednesday night ride start where powerful lights reflected brightly from water cascading of the local fields. It can’t be that bad I thought. No, it was quite a bit worse. First climb, tyres filled with Ross-Clagg, jammed that toxic mix of clay and grit into the chainstays and rocked momentum to a hard stop. Yep all the clearance back there to work superbly in a US State where it hasn’t rained for 4 years. Herefordshire in winter is not twinned with California.

First descent was like the first climb. Only with more crashing. Had a bit of a sulk then and thought about going home but decided I couldn’t get any muddier and I wanted a beer with my mates. Slogged round. Fell off some more. Drank beer. Made plans.

New tyres, still pretty fat but this time slotting into their apertures with finger-wiggle room to spare. Okay I’ve done nothing but add cost and weight since I bought the bloody thing, but now all shall be well. Off to the Malverns to try it out there.

It was at this point where the pre-ownership rigorous maintenance schedule really began to shine. The non drive side crank was barely prevented from exiting the axle entirely by a plastic sacrificial component which, while cheap, could only be sourced by sending smoke signals to the moon.

I only found this out after spending two rides in the village of ‘Much Creaking’ – a place where my fellow villagers were calling smiting and bloody murder upon my innocent person, due to the endless cracking and grinding emanating from the transmission. Thankfully Matt fixed it with a big hammer, some lock-tight and stern words in the shadow of his angle grinder.

Since then it’s been bloody great. Bike Park Wales was a revelation trying to keep my younger and much more skilled riding buddies in sight. Had lots of those little PR things light up in the Devil that is Strava. Okay only about about 2 seconds a run, but I’m shallow enough to take that.

A mucky forest ride followed by two gloriously dry ones has done nothing to convince me this is nothing short of a super-bike even if I am a long way from a super-rider. And that’s before putting some proper chubbies back on. Which will make it even better. Because that’s what the marketing men say and they’re at least as truthful as the orange nut job running the free world right now.

The crappy bike shop behaviour still pisses me off. But in three months it won’t because the only memory will be that I paid half the sticker price. Which was still quite a lot. But hey, at least one person thinks I’m worth it.

*nominative determinism might come into play here. Although I’d probably steer clear of the Cove G-Spot if such things were taken seriously.

You can’t get there from here

Ibis MoJo 3

Gather round, gather round, there’s a story to tell here. I say story, others may label it a web of deceit spun around some hooky rationale on exactly why yet another bike is soon to enter the ShedOfDreams. A rationale lampooned by Carol – my long suffering wife and the brains of the outfit – who entirely accurately decomposed it to the simple fact it’s been six months since I last had one.

Let’s move on. Instead consider this as the poster boy for intellectual rigour and logical exactitude. Please stop laughing at the back. Firstly we must consider the on-boarding protocol simply expressed as ‘one in, one out‘. An early win with Jessie’s  undersized Turner leaving the shed earlier this week. What’s that? Not one of my bikes? Detention for you; no one – and certainly not me – ever specified which bike was to be ejected to make space on the wall. It’s not like I’ll buy Jess another one, as she’s only a couple of inches shorter than me* so can ride one of the carefully selected wheeled artefacts which make up what even I laughingly refer to as my bike purchasing strategy.

Intellectual Rigour remember? When options are varied and the outcome is unclear, the wise cover all bases. That’s me then with aluminium, steel and now carbon fully represented. Not satisfied with such a shallow reconciliation of the many standards, I now have full access to wheel sizes starting at 27.5 finishing at 29+ passing through 27.5+ and 29 on the way. On just the three bikes. That’s beyond intellectual rigour, it’s edging into borderline genius.

So we’ve established logical and rigour, let’s get down to specifics.  That ^^ is an Ibis Mojo 3 created from the fusion of string and glue. I’ve never had a carbon bike mostly because they cost shit loads, and I’m a klutz who can break almost anything mostly by just looking at it.

What’s changed? Not much other than an ill conceived idea that my 50th birthday should somehow bring forth the perfect bike. Nonsense of course as no such thing exists and even if it did, the chances of my random purchasing strategy intersecting with it are as close to zero as to make no difference. This didn’t stop me compiling a spreadsheet with twenty or so vanity trinkets represented all at eye watering prices.

Last night I had an entirely sober ‘Fuck this‘ moment. There’s no amount of enjoyment that is going to make something that expensive anything other than a disappointment. So much of the joy of riding has nothing to do with riding and even less to do with the bike you happen to be astride at the time. Spending that much money in search of a tepid marketeteers dream is beyond dumb and accelerating towards insanity. And that’s me saying that.

What do I know? Not much other than I love having different bikes to ride. It’s not going to make me a better rider but the bag is empty and the cat has long gone for that aspiration.  What else? However much I pretend to eek out the zeitgeist of  a 160mm Enduro special, really I’m not kidding anyone. I’m as fast – and let’s be clear that’s not fast at all – on the 120mm Cotic and I’m having a shit load more fun. Where those bikes become brilliant, I’m far too bloody terrified to be even peripherally involved.

So the Ibis then. Amusingly niche even for me. 27.5 and 27.5+ but no 29. That’s fine I bought a bike not long ago which is entirely bi-curious with those wheel sizes. Carbon as we’ve established, proper light, a bit more travel than the Cotic but not Enduro slack or amped out on a super long fork. By all accounts it’s an amazing bike but that’s not why I bought it.

I’ve owned many amazing bikes. I’ve watched them being amazing when ridden by others. There is no perfect bike for me because every ride I wake up with a different idea of what perfection might look like. I’ll never get there- but may edge a little closer if I am honest about the parameters.

That’s an ex-demo. It’s last years model. It’s half the price of a new one. If I don’t like it, I’ll move it on with little financial loss nor emotional trauma that it wasn’t the one.

This was never about the perfect bike. I get that now. It’s about the fun finding out all the ones that aren’t.

*with about the same inside leg. This speaks more of my dwarf like stature south of the hips than Jessie’s anatomically correct bearing 😉

 

24 Hour Racing? Again? Hang on, I’m retired…

CLIC24 - 2009 (25 of 26)

There is little more wretched than a famous sportsperson reversing their retirement. Except maybe their rationale for doing so: ‘I miss the arena’ / ‘It feels like unfinished business’ / ‘I’ve kept myself in great shape’ all of which are likely proxies for ‘Bored’ / ‘Unfulfilled’ / ‘Really need the cash

The results are rarely pretty. Age is not a metaphor. You can fight almost anything but entropy.  And if advancing years bring any wisdom at all, surely all can see that selling a grill with your name on it beats being smashed in the face by a younger man with no respect for your former glories.

Assuming you had any former glories. What even a charitable individual, with only the loosest sense of semantic rigour, may call my ‘bike racing career‘ would be quick to point out there was neither much ‘racing‘ or ‘career‘ involved. Or sometimes even a bike that might be present but pointlessly static whilst the pilot downed another beer.

And yet here we find ourselves in a year where I shall make an unremarkable 50-not-out triggering a return the the scenes of previous undistinguished performances. Not Mountain Mayhem though where no amount of expensive therapy could overcome the screaming nightmare of spending 24 hours mostly face down in a muddy swamp.

Nor some short course nonsense where serious lycra clad individuals showcase their ‘ribcage by toast rack’ under tight fitting sponsors jerseys.  No it’s taken the emotional heartstrings of the previously termed CLIC-24 to drag me from my uncompetitive torpor.

We’ve had four goes at this. None which passed without incident. I’ve written extensively on exactly how packed with blood, tears, misery, snow, rain and hypothermia than only a 24 hour race in May can bring. Browsing these narratives from a period between 2009-2012 reminded me of exactly why the cessation of the event brought more joy than sorrow.

I crashed on my first ever lap. That was the sunny year where stiffening muscles were refreshed by endless sunshine. The following three flip-flopped between gales, storms, hail, rain and frozen tractor tracks. My favourite quote from the ‘bastard of 2011‘ was Nige’s ‘I rode so slowly through that icy water splash, I wasn’t sure if I was going to drown or freeze

I’d almost forgotten about that. Which considering 2012 was the last year I participated in anything vaguely organised is hardly surprising. Nowadays I can barely remember what I had for breakfast.  But dusty brain cells were sparked by a random face-cloth feed announcing with great fanfare the new and improved https://mendip24.wordpress.com was back for 2017.

Different organiser.  Same great charity: https://www.teenagecancertrust.org – having two kids in that age group and reading the inspirational / heartbreaking stories on the website, it didn’t take more than a minute to fire up an email to my previous team mates in an effort to get the band back together.

Surprisingly their responses were unrelentingly positive. I say surprisingly as while my selfish riding creed has spanned the intervening years, theirs have diverged somewhat. Nig rode with me the other day for a couple of hours and admitted this was the longest ride he’d managed in about 24 months. Small children will do that to a man. Jason would consider that a proper training schedule as he hasn’t ridden AT ALL for at least three years. I know this to be true as his bike is sat in the ShedOfDreams having being deposited there after an Alps trip where Jas broke both a toe and a rib.

Dave’s been riding his road bike a bit. But in a different country. I assumed he was still there but was disabused by a reply explaining he’d snook back into ol’ blighty under the cover of darkness. They checked their diaries and found no excuses so we dusted off the ‘Hardcore Loafing‘ moniker and pledged to meet in a muddy field in a few months time.

This does not guarantee anything. One year Dave broke his bike spectacularly on the way to the start line in a transparent ruse not to ride the first lap. Jason failed to turn up at all at the following event. Nig has been a mainstay of the team although has been prone to brain-farts including riding three consecutive night laps, the last of which pretty much ended up in a ditch.

And me? Well I’ve been consistently and universally rubbish.  It’s not a lack of fitness, it’s more a lack of moral fibre. When the going get tough, the tough go and hide in the beer tent. Regardless of the aforementioned wisdom of age absolutely nothing has changed.

So May 13, 2017. Looking forward it it. Sat here with a glass at my right hand. Actual proximity of hard work, shit weather and potential tentage may colour that view somewhat. Still at least I have at least two bikes that will be absolutely ideal for the event. No need to spend any money there.

Which is good. As I’m seriously considering hiring a motorhome 😉

Another one gone

Not a celebrity or person of questionable merit. No another orbit of the sun arbitrarily ends today. Just in time for social media to explode with ‘New Year, New You‘ memes, inevitably followed by crushing disappointments and unchangeable reality.

Worse that all of that, I’ll be 50 in 2017. FIFTY. Blimey back in my thirties when I led as close to a hedonistic lifestyle as a salaried man working for a consultancy firm could, I’d sit in a bar surrounded by empty glasses and overflowing ashtrays declaring to all who’d listen/not passed out drunk that ‘better to have a good time now and die early than just end up dribbling, lonely in some death-smelling care home‘.

I need to go back in time and give myself a good talking too. And a slap. Dribbling and decline is where’s it’s at once you’ve reached half a century. I don’t so much feel my age*, but I fear it and the associated loss of muscle and cognitive abilities.

Still I did ride quite a lot this year. About the same as 2015. Feels like I had more fun, but that’s probably nothing more than making things up in the hope the real stuff might stay away a bit longer.

Riding / Running stats from 2016

These are my nine most ‘liked‘ posts on Instagram. All bike related of course, building, static and other people riding. That feels a better summary of the year than the cold statistics above.

alexleigh67

On that note, probably time to draw the veil over Strava. All it’s going to tell me is that I’m slowing down. What kind of idiot would pay £3.99 a month to repeatedly be beaten with an electronic stick? I have mates that do that for free.

2017 tho is already shaping up well. I’m mostly healthy, not particularly chubby (other than in the tyre department), a week long trip to Spain already booked for late April and back to the Rhone Alps in September. Between those two dates, I’ll be having my special birthday.

No idea what I’ll be getting. History suggests it might be something bike related. Talking of which, updated the ‘most read articles‘ and ‘current bike rental‘ pages.

That’ll do for 2016s rambling. Better to spend the rest of the holiday engaging with the family, especially as the kids are now at an age where my relevance is directly tied to them needing to be driven somewhere or if the Internet is broken.

So Happy New Year and all that. It’s a day early but I fully expect to be hungover and full of good, if very short-term, intentions tomorrow.

*other than making a noise every time I get up or down.

Headcase

The Gap/Talybont classic MTB loop

That’s what a helmet is. An independently tested bucket for the brain. The hegemony in the Holy Trinity liturgy of the experienced mountain biker; Helmet, Camelbak and Gloves. Anything else is essentially ballast- so can be borrowed, bought or ignored.

Which is why those of us with fading faculties have a system. Riding readiness is assured by a full equipment audit the evening before. Water and food are calibrated to projected ride length, clothes are selected based on an evaluation of a minimum of three weather forecasts, and key items of personal protection are placed in prominent view.

After a previous incident of inappropriate headwear, I now carefully place my helmet and gloves above the coffee machine. There are no realistic scenarios where I shall not pass the morning jump-starter at least twice before stumbling out of the door. Systems you see, riding out or jumping in the car first, have been honed to the point that my increasing forgetfulness is mitigated by un-breachable pre-ride protocols.

Until yesterday. Which was merely symptomatic of the true cause some 12 hours previously. ‘Big ride tomorrow, not going to drink much‘ I postulated to Carol on our way to good friends for a quick lunch stop.  A fine and worthy concept which – like many of my plans – failed to survive first contact with the enemy. Beer led to wine, wine morphed into gin and some seven hours later, I was dribbling on the sofa wondering how the fuck I’d lost control of most of my limbs.

The morning was difficult. One of those where everything is a mystery. Shaving with a toothbrush, taking a while to understand why your head is warm but your testicles lack coverage, struggling to understand which of the one button on the shower might release the torrent much required to cleanse the alcohol wash.

Attempting to shortcut the process of getting my shit together, I rifled through the clean laundry basket winning sufficient garments to clothe a man heading over the frozen border to Wales. Time saved was then lost as I couldn’t find my shoes. Twice. Having forgotten where I’d moved them too some 20 seconds previously. Then stuff fell off chairs, other stuff refused to fit in the bag, water leaked and Jelly Babies exploded from an unexpectedly open packet.

It was just 20 minutes of serial ‘Fuck it‘ finishing in stuffing everything that looked relevant in the big bag and chucking it in the car. Wandered once more into the Shed to scratch the nagging itch something was missing. My bike. Where the fuck is that? Oh yeah, left it at Matt’s last night.

All good then. Only five miles to drive before slumping into Adams’ van wondering if there was an option of curling up in the back and waiting for it all to be over. But no, the 27th of December IS the Gap ride. Classic Welsh riding, two big climbs, two great descents, lots of big views in between.

Weather is always a factor. I’ve been drilled with sleet, near-drowned in trail rivers, blinded by fog, endangered by thick ice and reduced to almost tears by relentless headwinds. Today tho the calmness of the weather was a perfect juxtaposition to my rising panic that something wasn’t quite right.

Other than me obviously. We were an hour out of Ross when the problem was finally retrieved from deep mental storage. Helmet exactly sixty minutes from my bag in the van.  Bugger. No bike shops between us and starting the ride. Too far out to turn back. And the idea of riding rocky stuff for four hours without any kind of head protection wasn’t appealing. Maybe I could just lie in the back of the van after all.

My revelation coincided with the last decent sized town on the drive out. A solitary outdoor shop appeared to be open. In which there was a single helmet which the proprietor thought was too small. She was right, but in terms of placebo it was a perfect fit. The best £16 helmet in all of South Wales. To be fair, it was the only helmet available in all of South Wales, which had the dual benefit of providing minimal head protection and ensuring all my friends had a bloody good laugh at my expense.

It meant I could ride tho. And it was a stunning day to be in the mountains. Even with a helmet whose efficacy I really didn’t want to test, and a hangover which had mostly faded after the first three hours. At the start I worried a little about testing £16 quids of lowest cost bidder against big pointy rocks, but by the time we descended from the top of the gap, I barely even remembered its inappropriateness.

The Gap/Talybont classic MTB loop

The Gap/Talybont classic MTB loop

I won’t be wearing it again tho. The charity shop shall benefit instead. I might well be an idiot, but I’m not a total head-case. And next year sobriety shall be my companion on this classic ride. Along with a helmet carefully accounted for.

It’s that time of year again….

FOD MTB - December 2016

I’m not referring to the exploitive pagan festival first repackaged for Christianity and latterly for mass consumerism and financial misery*. No this this is something far more important:  The Grim Has Returned both outside and in. The trails have gone from unseasonably dry passing through amusingly damp before arriving at their current status of tractionless filth.  My own gritty trek through this pantheon of grisly misery has led me to question if I’ve ever ridden in proper mud before. A brief but depressing journey from – in my mind anyway – a fast’n’loose hip-sliding champion to a stiff’n’rigid tyre-slding loser wondering who drowned all the fun.

This happens every year. And there are always excuses. 2016 has both a short and long version; short: I’ve not been very well. long: I’ve succumbed to the worst kind of modern plague- visiting upon me many and varied symptoms, the worst being a digestive system suffering a 4 day colonic irrigation through the extensive use of a porcupine.  A diet of dry toast and misery has done nothing to stop the bastard virus in my guts recycle any food whatsoever into foul liquid. With spikes. Too much information? Ha. I’ve spared you the gory details. But before I draw a veil over any further revelations, let me be absolutely clear it’ll  be a while before I can cough with any kind of confidence.

This personal Krakatoa coincided with the delayed seasonal rains and the Forest Christmas ride. It was pretty much touch and go if I was going to make it. Having been ‘going’ quite extensively in the few hours before the night-time rendezvous.  Still stiff upper lit and all that even if things were a bit loose elsewhere. Fastened my shorts for the last time, gave the gurgling small intestine a good talking too and plunged into the darkness. Where I met my riding pals, all of whom showed great concern and sympathy for my evidently serious medical condition. Yeah, like fuck.  Essentially accused of extreme malingering and being a social media special snowflake-  their cackles accompanied us up through the gun range as my legs came to terms with being fuelled by a couple of biscuits and flickery motivation.

Irrespective of being within sight of the morticians slab, these are not my favourite conditions. Dark, Wet and Muddy. Hey let me throw in a cultural reference – this is the Holy Trinity of the unmotivated. We disciples of the grim differ in our steadfastness of faith in these trying times. Only one has Judas-like tendencies hiding dark thoughts  of naffing off before the Last Descent. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t want my riding pals crucified, I just wish the buggers would consider a little charity for the faltering one needing to feel the warm embrace of the pub.

In lighter times, these trails offer me the chance to hang on to the wheels of my betters. Not now tho, three corners and it’s all of them gone and one of me hanging off the back, harvesting limited traction through extensive use of the brakes, and idly wondering whether I’ll end up in a heap under the bike or more excitingly bonded to a tree like a flailing low level branch. The conditions actually aren’t that bad except in the most important place which isn’t the ground out in front of you, it’s more the squishy thing inside your head.  Yep we’re back to thinking not doing, worrying not pushing, braking not flowing.  Still even in limp-home mode, it’s  good to be out even if my pace uphill and downhill is pretty much the Wikipedia citation for ‘Entropy

Eventually under my sustained pleading, we head to the pub via a final slimy trail I descend in the manner of an oversize fridge glued to a roller skate. Nobody really notices other than me, and I don’t care much either as my mind has moved on to the main event. Where we offer cash for beer and throw in a dirty protest  for free. Pints are assembled, bollocks is talked, an entire new measurement of time – The Yodel – is created. There is much pointing and laughing. Tales are told, plans are made, friendship is assured for another year. Handshakes are offered – we don’t hug, we’re not American – before we slip away to our other families, our non riding commitments, what other people consider real life.

A couple of weeks ago, I did something similar with the guys I ride with in the Malverns. No pub but we stopped for Sloe Gin and Mince pies half way round. And parted in the same way. We’ll ride together soon, cursing the long shadow of winter, working hard on sloppy climbs and holding it together on sketchy descents. Getting the shitty season done and counting the days until Spring.

This is my tribe. And this is our church. You can make a dumb comparison to religion, extend it through contrasting iconography and forge spurious links between the two. Many clever people have, but for me that’s missing the point. Humanity basically operates on our subscription to a shared myth. You can choose a belief system which tells stories of omnipresent beings, or consider instead something a little more physical, a whole lot more fun and with many more pub-based interactions.

Choose either. Or both. It doesn’t matter. There’s too much horrible stuff going on right now over which we have scarily little control.  It’s hard to know what’s coming for us first; global financial meltdown, environmental catastrophe or some kind of ‘war to end them all‘ started on Twitter by a man-boy who is neither presidential nor can even spell it. On that happy note, I wish all my readers a Happy Christmas and a prosperous new year 😉

I’ll be riding my bike with my friends. When you consider the option is not to do that, getting a bit muddy and being a bit rubbish doesn’t really seem to matter at all.

*I’ve consistently held this position.  And now being nearly 50, it’s unlikely the joys of Christmas shall ever be visited on me. But hey if you need an excuse to photocopy** your arse whilst wearing a stupid jumper, fill your boots as it were.

**Told you I was old. All you youngsters are surely 3-D printing your unmentionables nowadays.

Shh.. don’t tell anyone….

Mince Pie and Sloe Gin Xmas Ride

… it’s meteorologically winter. Or pre-spring as I’ve long christened it. Our battered planet might still be spinning towards the shortest day but back here in the cheap seats, it’s cold, dark and irrepressibly grim. Wake up: Dark. Venture outside: Bloody Freezing. Go home: Dark again.

All we’re missing is the spiteful rain machine gunned at windows through which you’re glumly considering your riding future. Shall I go out there for a three hour mud enema, or should I put the funds required to replace bearings, washing machines and the will to live towards a winter sun holiday?

That rain has mostly stayed away and the entropy of softening trails has been stayed by wintry winds and frozen temperatures. Wednesday was that classic bluebird day with a low sun backlighting Jack Frost cavorting through an azure horizon,  Come ride time, that sun is long gone and we’re left with the audible warnings of bike carrying cars, signposting temperatures some six degrees below the freezing point.

Hardest thing is getting out of that warm car. Second hardest thing are the mandelbrot trails increasingly iced by still falling temperatures. The Wednesday night cohort is reduced to only three with a shared mission to get this thing done before the warm pub closes its doors.

Frozen trails reduce friction so transferring pedal input to maximum velocity. Hmm, not tonight everything feels sticky and difficult.  The ground might not be sucking your energy but something is and breathy exhales are caught in the light beams. There’s a fantastic natural planetarium above us but we’re focussed on condensing moisture a metre from the bars.

Fingers not yet warm even encased in winter gloves, and the folically challenged amongst us are rocking the ice-cream headache without the pleasure of anything tastier than a tooth-cracking energy bar long divorced from its chewy origins.

We abandon cruel fireroads for the sanctuary of the forest. Even with the leaves mostly gone there’s a organic hug from the trees with temperatures a few degrees closer to manageable. Dry too, not frozen and the leaf carpet hiding root-y landmines and hidden traps where the trails fall away.  The mercury might be falling but the grip is summer high, so we’re pushing the bikes from entry to apex without the heart-spike of a wheel taking a trip not authorised by the man behind the bars.

We’re warming up but the freezing conditions affect the whole package of bike and rider. One of whom has a failing seatpost, my posh lights have amps making a break for warmer climbs, and there’s a chunk of viscosity wherever oil and suspension parts meet.

No matter, we’re into the good stuff now and it’s giggly to the power of bonkers. Forget the cold and remember that December rarely feels like this. A brief review of previous years suggests we’re deep into the first of four grim months where the going is sideways and the best you can do is survive long enough to wonder when the hell this used to be fun.

Descents in the Forest aren’t very long. The hills lack the elevation your tired legs insist otherwise. Yet they offer ninety seconds of adrenaline hard pumped through previously pinched arteries. Almost better at night with eyes wide open shutting down peripheral vision however good the LEDs strobing on the bars. Hard to get distracted when a searchlight cone shows you only what’s here right now and what’s next.

Rustling leaves, irritated owls, heavy breathing and far off cars are the soundtrack of our night. We climb one more time ensuing the easy option home because that’s for shitty days in January.  Still the leaves fall casting shadows in multiple light beams. You’re a mile from any kind of civilisation but it feels special to be out as the forest shuts down for winter. You always feel the seasons when you ride through every one of them.

We prime the darkness displacers one more time. Match the cadence to the gradient of the hill. Let night envelope your senses as your vision narrows to the point of light that triggers muscle movement. Feel the earth under those fast rotating wheels. Hit the last drop at the bravest point and make shapes with your hands when describing how great that felt.

Pub. Again. Always. Bikes not really muddy and neither are you. The former sits in a cold shed until its called upon again, you lie wide eyed in bed wondering when you can go again.

Just let it last a little longer. I’ll not tell anyone if you don’t.

 

Flick the switch

 

Yat - MTB Nov 2016
Two weeks ago. I miss those conditions already

Light/Dark. Hot/Cold. Dust/Mud. Chubby/Low-Fat. That last couplet is an outlier we’ll be back to, but first to misquote the Wizard of Oz, we’re not in summer anymore. Or even Autumn.

Two weeks ago our riding life looked like that photo. We were revelling in leaf-fall over dust. Summer from the axles down. Sure the season ratchet had cranked- turning trees amber and dropping temperatures*, but the weather never got the memo, so a month of minimal rain led to maximum grinnage.

You know it cannot last so every dry singletrack climb, every firm berm, every perfect take off, every non sketchy landing, every rock-hard apex, every calculated risk, every clean bike is cherished for the unexpected gift it absolutely is.

So we go long. Bitch reversed, G2-into-G, Bridget’s, The Legend of Jones,  Threes-up finishing on the feared/revered Bunker. Which in the wet is essentially assisted suicide, but that day was conquered at good speed, without the standard terror associated with barrelling into damp rock gardens at inappropriate velocity generated by the steepness of the hill.

The names mean nothing outside of the group of four selecting them of course, but the memories mean everything. It’s a 65km day and we’re heading home in the twilight feeling sated and smug, but there’s something of a flat track bully here. Brilliant yes, one 30 second period joyful pulling and pushing the bike between wheel eating stumps kicking up leaves barely settled from the previous rider will lie long in that memory.

But you know what’s coming. And now it has arrived. The local Wednesday night ride is pretty much ‘three gap Wednesday’. These trail features hide something a little less physical- the bridge between a shit week and the weekend. While my riding pals are all lovely and everything, without the ego-less piss taking of our midweek right, I’d be in the jury box providing good character references mitigating ‘falling down‘ incidents wth difficult work colleagues.

Sunday last a trail we’d battered some two weeks before it succumbed to rain storms driven on westerly winds. Mostly sideways and fun in a way it really won’t be come February. Right now tho, there’s the flip between being just brave and being a reasonable bike handler. When it all goes tractionless, the tractionless get hippy. Flick the bugger back into line, get the front pointing in the right direction, death-grip the bars and ride the slide.

FoD MTB - Nov 2016
I might have to clean that

So we knew what was coming. More rain suggested this would be the first night ride where the pub handed out seat-saving newspapers for muddy arses. I was still keen tho mainly as my approach to the changing of the seasons is to throw money at the problem. Not in a ‘Hey let’s all move to Spain until Spring‘**  kind of way, more taking advantage of the Cotic’s chameleon like ability to run both chubby and 29er wheels depending on prevailing conditions.

Looking out of the window, those prevailing conditions were ‘a bit shit’ so I procured a set of big, skinny rims for almost no money at all. A transaction which lost its fiscal allure once I’d splashed significant cash on brand new rubber to dress them.

Flare Max with 29er tyres for the winter
Big wheels fitted

First impressions weren’t fantastic. Climbing somehow felt more difficult – an issue instantly backgrounded once this new rubber exhibited it’s bark magnetic properties on the first descent. Not so much a passenger as man playing human pinball with almost every tree in the forest.

Arrived shaken and stirred at the fireroad. Let some air out for the look of the thing. Things improved a bit mostly because I’d lifted my head from a narrative stuck in a loop of ‘where’s the rest of the tyre, it’s like being a bloody roadie out here’.

Climb back up. Grit teeth. Clear first gap jump and am so relieved almost run over fallen rider in front of me. Retrieve Alex from his supine position and head down the trail only to find Adam lying upside down in the shrubbery. Feel mildly guilty that maybe my wheel changing has butterfly-fluttered the trail gods.

10 minutes later, I’m over it as Alex again throws his bike roughly to the ground narrowly avoiding a ‘saddle-erectomy‘ in the ensuing sky-ground-sky consequence of a head-first attack on an innocent tree.

Blimey, what next? Another man down with a back injury and the black-hole effect of the pub almost pulls us in, but with resolute upper lips we head on to a couple more descents, the last of which has the third gap jump on a barely consolidated new trail.

Not done it before. It’s only going to get more greasy tho. Do I want to wait until March? Tempting. But followed Rex, stuck a couple of pedal strokes in, saw his light describing a perfect parabola just before I closed my eyes. Missed the downslope but saved by great forks, and the darkness shrouding the fear of cocking it up.

Right then, Pub. World put to rights. Forecasts checked for weekend.  Wind, rain cold which translates to slop, effort and new washing machines. It’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better, but we’ve got mudguards, waterproof shorts and an insatiable need to ride bicycles. Best get on with it.

Switch, flicked.

*so triggering the re-emergene of the drinking hat which provides the folically challenged respite when drinking outside a favourite pub under chilly skies. Pretty much the first thing packed in the bag between November and March.

** tempting as it is, apparently the kids have some quite important exams coming up and it’d be a bit of a bugger of commute to Cheltenham.  I’m not yet totally swayed by these arguments.

Friends like these

Bank Holiday Weekend riding

[ I wrote this a while ago and never published it. Here we are 18 months later and nothing has changed. I am blessed to spend my time with people who I count as something more than brothers.  That means sometimes you have to be something other being a bloke, a self sufficient adult entirely distanced from baring your soul. That’s horseshit. Here’s why]

Those of us lucky enough to have a roof over our heads, a few quid in the bank and no prospect of any debilitating hardship still obsess over ‘whether this is enough?‘, so conveniently forgetting there is a far larger cohort with a much more basic concern around ‘is this enough to buy food for the week?’

There’s something here about how we make judgement calls; maybe these are merely the points of difference between cost and value.  Even so when difficulty strikes, there’s always the instinctive response that somehow this shouldn’t be happening to you. Which is nonsense if you’ve any sense of a non deterministic world. There’s no statute of limitations on stuff outside of your control.  Roll your sleeves up and get on with it. Many people aren’t fortunate enough to have that choice.

When the going gets tough, the conflicted go riding. Two days, eighty kilometres, two thousand metres of climbing, one crash, many beers. That’s the simple beauty to riding mountain bikes. It’s nuance free and transparent of purpose; you’re not setting out a position to carry disparate agendas through a heavily moderated conclusion. You’re not telling lies to assuage the doubts of the timid. You’re not making promises to garner support from the vain and deluded*

Our digital world often interfaces poorly with analogue individuals wondering where the hell the genial shopkeeper went. The binary nature of our everyday transactions is strangely more at home to those of us who cherish dirt over digitisation. Left or right, brake or roll, push or pull, sprint or chill, race or quit. We lose ourselves in a realm where such decisions have real consequences – solving three dimensional problems in real time which has no truck with what Bob from Marketing might be interested in.

This is a righteous thing. For all sorts of reasons. But many of our tribe get it badly wrong. They confuse spending Sundays checking out of reality with making difficult choices, believing selfishness is quite the same thing as finding space to locate the stuff of life.

They are mistaken. Bikes were flat and immobile when I sat in a field  surrounded by friends with whom I’ve shared many adventures. And unburdening myself wasn’t even peripherally related to gaining perspective through big skies, or epiphanies triggered by surviving scary jumps or shuttling round perfect apexes.

That’s all good of course. But I could ride a thousand kilometres and still be a million miles away from what’s important. Which is nothing more than dropping your guard and talking to your mates. Getting stuff out there. Answering questions. Waiting for judgement or taking the piss and, of course, receiving neither.**

Then your ride some more. In my case with a rare level of recklessness which saw me tackling all sorts of scary stuff, before falling close to the last hurdle.  When that’s done, there’s the pub. And the next pub. And the one after that burnished under a summer sky. Wobbling home via a set of steps firing up the adrenalin compressors.

Here’s the thing. I am lucky enough to have many friends; those I work with, those I’ve met through a life spent often in drinking establishments, a few more from those fading days of school and uni. But the people that get me through a tough week are those I ride with every Sunday.

We shall crack on. Maybe knowing a bit more about what friendship means. It’s not quantifiable, but this doesn’t devalue it in the slightest way.  Sharing stuff – good and bad – with friends is what life must really be about. Poverty of friendship must be a terrible thing.

* I’m good at this by the way. Not through any natural talent. I’ve just been doing it for a long time. It does make you despair at the base state of human nature.

** Well not for a bit anyway. About 10 minutes if memory serves 😉

What we have here is a failure to communicate

If you Google 'failing to deliver' this is the first image which appears!
If you Google ‘failing to deliver’ this is the first image which appears!

Nobody does anything, anymore. Instead we’re all about vision statements, milestones, team dynamics, prioritisation and, of course, delivery. Ironic when you consider Yodel* – you only had one fucking job –  trumpets all of these things on its website without actually delivering anything.

Except excuses, disappointment and despair. It’s an enduring mystery to whether this is a sophisticated prank concocted to enrage normally sane and balanced human beings beyond the point of setting fire to the local sorting office**. Set up a website, buy a few sheds, a single knackered transit van and perform evil marketing incantations before sitting back and enjoying the show.

Or, and I’m not sold on this at all, they really are just fucking incompetent. A maxim I’ve lived by is ‘When it all goes to rat-shit, don’t confuse polymaths tweaking the controls of the universe with the basic incompetence of individuals‘ And yet, even this sound principle cannot fully explain the cluster-fuck that is Yodel’s inability to deliver anything at all. Even a passive-aggressive note explaining how it’s all your fault. But more of that later.

Mixing red wine with internet browsing is always dangerous. However ordering fifty quids worth of bike parts hardly feels like a major transgression. Especially as that total breached the threshold for free delivery. One of which has actually happened. I’ve not been charged for a service I haven’t received. I think we can all take a moment to reflect the real value of that transaction.

Done? Back with me? More than the package is after failing to be delivered last Saturday despite the digital lies stalking the tracking system. Some time post non arrival a cryptic message appended the previously jaunty life-is-good tone of the narrative. ‘Short Delay, check back for details‘.

I checked back. The next day and the one after that. The website appeared to be frozen in perpetuity offering nothing other than the package was last seen some three days ago. Right then let’s engage with the much vaunted customer services. Two problems here; one engagement appears to be tiered on three levels; a) being ignored on twitter, b) being ignored on chat and c); being ignored by the entirely unstaffed automated phone system advising you’ll get more joy on tiers one and two.

Secondly, I am not alone. The Yodel Twitter stream is a relentless car crash – a wonderful fusion of Tourettes and Anger Management. Occasionally what’s laughably labelled as the customer experience team sticks their head above the parapet, only to be set upon by packs of rabid customers long divorced from any social niceties not including the words ‘WHERE THE FUCK IS MY PACKAGE YOU FUCKING THIEVES?’

Didn’t seem a lot of point piling in with the slathering masses, so instead I attempted a little humour ‘Hi, have you kidnapped my package and, if so, did I miss the ransom note?’. Ah the naivety – this was back in the days when I believed Yodel could deliver anything at all.

Five days in and we’re still packageless, suspicious of the promise that a delivery type transaction might be happening any day now. To be fair, from the depot to our house is a challenging geographic environment spanning nearly twelve miles. There are rivers and hills between us, so my hope is the delivery driver/mule owner – if such a being actually exists – has packed sandwiches and a sleeping bag for the journey.

Twelve miles tho. In six days. That’s the speed of a flaming stoat. In fact to free my mind from this circular Matrix conundrum – I’m considering setting up a rival organisation to fire said marsupials from cannons pointed vaguely at a compass bearing where a recipient might be. StoatDrone(tm) cannot fail to succeed in a marketplace where Yodel are still in business.

Today tho – after much pleading for Yodel to just do the one fucking thing they are paid for – the website stuttered back into life and showcased a delivery slot ‘sometime before you’re dead but probably today’. I couldn’t have been more excited having chosen this very morn to work at home. Soon, the sound of knackered truck tyre on gravel shall signal the receipt of this mythical package. I’d requested the Mayor of Hereford to attend accompanied by a bard to record  the event in song for future generations.

You may be surprised – I certainly wasn’t – that the event was something of a damp squib. Except for my inflammatory language when informed that ‘no one answered the door you numpty, so we left a card‘. Some issues with actual reality here; we were in all day and no card was left. I wouldn’t have minded if any fucking thing at all had been delivered. Even a card. I’m not precious. A card would have lampooned my theory that Yodel are just a bunch of stoners laughing themselves fucking stupid when anyone attempts to use their service.

A card. Just a card.  It’s not much to ask. Regardless of the fact I was watching the drive eagle eyed – all buoyed up with false hope. But no, what we actually received were lies bouncing about in the echo chamber of Yodel’s unmanned customer service channels.

Still they’re going to deliver it tomorrow. Whatever ‘it is’. It’s been so sodding long now, the contents of the package-that-may-be-delivered-to-my-grandchildren are a mystery to me. It’d be a nice surprise if it ever did turn up. But we all know it isn’t. Maybe I’ll get a card. I’d be pathetically grateful for that.

So Yodel – who I may have mentioned once or twice because even in this remote backwater of the Internet Google Spiders roam – are to courier companies what our current government is to democracy. That’s a whole lot of spin and fuck all delivery.

Thank you for listening.

*a portmanteau of ‘Your‘ and ‘Delivery‘ apparently. Although I prefer to think of it as a desperate vocal intonation to attract the ear of what’s charitably called ‘Customer Services

** sorry distribution centre. A place one imagines where dusty parcels rot in forgotten vast warehouses, while zombie employees cackle at customers who still believe even one of them might ever be delivered.