What, Caravan?

Yeah that’s selling it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything is broken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hold Music, silence and then:

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

Me: Honestly, not really

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…. Silence…

BT: Are you still there

Me: Yes, yes just penning my suicide note

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You might want to stand by that bin..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Units of measurement

It’s worth prefixing what follows with some context. That being the night after an extremely boozy birthday dinner leaving me with wobbly typing fingers, a head full of faux angst and an entirely superfluous glass of wine. Frankly it was days before I even remembered any events between staggering home and passing out. A edit in total sobriety saw the removal of many ‘fucks’ and words I didn’t even know I knew. Still the dictionary didn’t either. Even after that, it’s still marks me as a pretentious, self-absorbed twat of course. But I don’t feel I’m revealing anything new ;)

There’s an eyebrow raising irony observing Internet forums where some hapless poster receives advice in the vein of  ‘this is probably a good time to have a sit down and consider where your life went wrong’*.  Which – if you think about it for a minute – sounds like code for being judged by other peoples values. And value is a good word because of its close association with worth which tends to be counted in desperate steps towards an unreachable destination.

I have reached an age where life has imparted two immutable truths; firstly everyone – absolutely everybody – is winging it on a daily basis, and your value to the planet is unlikely to be summed by all the stuff you own. Any further understanding of ‘how life works‘ is merely a continuum of ‘buggered if I know‘, but at least there is an emerging clarity about what’s important and how it might be measured. If you care about such stuff, which in my experience almost everybody does when it’s all about them. Outside of our personal orbit, not so much.

So here’s how it goes: I hit another birthday ritually suggesting celebration but physically marking further mental decline. 47 is close to the life expectancy a mere 100 years ago, so an audit of what’s still working is more of a damage report: I’m not quite fifty yet and that’s not a number even seen – because I’m missing my reading glasses and half-century baggage whiffs of welcoming beige, dinner parties, responsibility and all that shit into your world. Still they said that about hitting forty, and I’ve smashed that with aching limbs, slow repairing muscles, and fascial lines to the power of crevice.

At no point has gravitas entered my life. I don’t feel wise, but blimey I’ve failed to learn from a litany of mistakes.  I’m far less certain than thirty years ago because what happens next stops being exciting and starts being scary.  I’ve learned much about decay and how things end. I’ve been to funerals and pattered earth on hardwood where much loved soft bodies were encased. I’ve watched the tiny bodies of our DNA steeple beyond at least one of their parents and become something rather more than children. I’ve seen shit that’s not quite Tannhauser Gate, but nevertheless on the wrong side of mildly perturbing.

Right enough of this pretension, let’s do the audit thing by considering how one values worth: is it the things you’ve done, the stuff you’ve made or the toys you own? Is the life equation a sum of what you’ve acquired divided that by the years you’ve graced the planet? I really hope it isn’t because while my ratio may look mildly impressive, that’s a nonsense so far up its own arse I really want absolutely nothing to do with it.

So how else might one measure worth and value against a planet screwed up by greed and the short-termism?**. What I see is middle class angst against hacked out forests thousands of miles away missing a rather more pressing local prerogative of feeding a family. Protesting against wars that cannot hurt us salves a moral conscience that maybe we should be doing something more. Not throwing a 50 pence piece into the hat of a homeless person on waterloo bridge because ‘it’ll just encourage laziness’ . We are way WAY better than that, and yet still feel the urge to measure ourselves against our peers, those whom we’re silently racing and whose artefacts loom large as we park our so-called executive car in our block paved drives perfectly sealed against rainwater collection.

Worth is a nebulous quantity. It’s used by the chattering classes to keep score. If I have learned anything in forty seven years, it’s something like this; how you are perceived is nothing close to who you really are. What scares you is at worse pointless and at best transitory. Keeping score only matters if you have interest in playing the game. The people who you care about, you care about because you’ve shared stuff that has a cumulative value not an asset value.

So here’s my audit; my body is mostly intact – shorn of some mobility by injuries and a little bit more by age. I’m stiff in the morning and that’s not mainlining morning glory. Quite a few bits down’t work properly and some other bits not at all. 20% of my right shoulder doesn’t articulate fronting up with an arthritic union with a left ankle and right elbow. I can’t read anything upstream of three feet without reading glasses, and despite my best efforts an increasing tyre of gluttony adorns my midriff. Risk evaluation is no longer a ‘fuck it it’ll be fine‘ and instead transcends shades of grey. The edge moves ever closer which is slightly less irritating than my inability to accept my ever increasing cautiousness. And I find myself standing in front of the dishwasher or the fridge in a bit of a fug muttering ‘No, don’t tell me, there’s definitely something I came to do here, just don’t rush me

Well that all sounds pretty fucking compelling eh? And yet I’ve somehow managed to morph from shit-kicking northern nobody to a bloke who has somehow raised two great kids mostly because of a fantastic partner who deals effortlessly with my inability to get interested in grown up life. I’ve a shed full of fantastic mountain bikes which raise me to atheist gods on a weekly basis. Somehow I’ve conquered a chronic lung illness through a tough regime of stopping smoking Marlboro Lights and refusing the odd cheese plate.

So today I’m 47 years old. I don’t feel anywhere near that until that grizzled bastard, looking back at me from the shaving mirror, points out the almost lack of hair and infinite  cast of lines .  I don’t recognise that person. I certainly don’t know him. That’s a face of giving in and getting old and frankly fuck that. For a while at least.

Growing old is inevitable. Getting old less so. I’m done with excuses about exactly what stops me acting my age. I know these suited people with serious faces – almost debilitated by anxiety and terrified of stepping beyond rigid lines drawn by accepted societal norms – are winging it just like me. Time to walk across the line and see what’s on the other side.

* Generally when someone who has swapped dignity for attention-seeking blurts out a middle class indiscretion around caravan ownership or stone cladding. To a crowd-sourced hive-mind fully invested with keyboard warriors, logic-free utopianism and a stratospheric moral high ground. Good luck with that.

** And I’m very much aware that much of the reason I’m sat behind a very nice Mac keyboard in our own house and not experiencing any type of poverty are gains from that system.

Rain does not stop play

It's not even as big as a wheel!
Mountain Biking is just not cricket. Although some trappings and traditions do cross over such as stopping for a nice lunch, and being inconvenienced by the occasional stump impact. Anyway, before the somewhat deceitful portrayal of my latest riding heroism, it’s worth a brief synopsis of what I’m calling ‘The Silence Of The Hedgehog’

Holidays, apathy, inability to sort through 2000 digital images, another birthday*, blank screen staring with cursor blinking on ‘Chapter 1‘ – that kind of thing. surprisingly it wasn’t just me that noticed although comments such as ‘Oh God don’t encourage him to write anything else‘ have hardly helped jump-start my muse.  So here we are six weeks on, a bit rusty and creaky but winding out that same old stream of consciousness.  Except for the terribly pretentious drivel composed on the day – or more accurately night – of my birthday, having staggered back into the house on a float of Merlot.

I’ve saved you from that. I’m hope you’re grateful.  Carol had to read it and is still pointing and laughing now.

So returning from holiday and currently retired** after unsurprisingly stinting on absolutely nothing with particular gluttony reserved for (many) local beers, BBQ’d ribs and ice cream. This lamentable lack of self control has left me re-tyred with a midriff storing a couple of the additional kilos and the rest rounding off a pair of man boobs. No problem thought I, being essentially unemployed, every day is a riding day. Within weeks I’ll be a tanned and toned whippet beasting my youngers and betters whilst living healthily on berries and leaves and other things that don’t taste like Stilton.

Well my friends it’s not quite worked out that way. Two main reasons; firstly after returning from a land with only cloudless blue skies, the UK is clearly harbouring every other countries wet making equipment and chucking out 17 degree horizontal rain on a daily basis. This is not motivating. Not motivating at all. Secondly I’m so bloody busy doing nothing. Well not nothing but not anything that pays any real hard cash.  Instead I’ve thrown myself into an orgy of manual labour where a smarter cookie would have replaced 19th century agricultural engineering with something sporting a scoop, hydraulic rams and a big bloody engine. Instead it’s been me, a fork and a losing battle against a million bastard plants hell-bent on causing death by stinging.***

Bored of that and in somewhat physical distress, I hobbled to the shed of dreams to deploy some bicycling therapy. First off was a trip to the woods on the trusty hardtail. A woods normally ridden rather lumpily on my cross bike which I’ve had to conclude isn’t a lot of fun. The Solaris was better, but still some way off the dopamine hit of my normal riding. Some of this is because the trails are overgrown/a bit wet/not very interesting but more of it is my riding pals. Or lack of them. As the bastards have apparently better things to do than ride with their mate.

How selfish is that? ‘Sorry Al can’t come riding at 1pm. I’m at work‘. That’s not an excuse, that’s an insult. Total lack of ambition if you ask me. Which I did since there was nobody else to talk to. Oh we’ve been out weekends but that’s just normal stuff you fit round work. For them it’s a paycheck, for me it’s the prospect of two more hours with my new four pronged friend while dreaming of Napalm.

Twice I’ve ridden on the traditional Sunday. Twice it’s pissed down. The second time I was managing that disappointment with many additional issues to deal with – specifically a hangover sharp enough to shave with, a stomach keen to rid itself of last nights alcoholic poisoning, a brain that was a second slower than it needed to be and limbs another second behind that. I spent most of the morning alternatively trying not to crash or throw up.

Today I picked a perfect weather window – in that it was open to let the rain in – and motored off to another wood to try my luck at solo riding. It’s nearly as far as the Forest or the Malverns so been pretty well ignored for a few years. But taught my kids to ride off-road here so it has good memories. Sadly those fading memories fail to cartograph the trail network leading to much cursing and now familiar evisceration from moist waist high brambles.

Then I found an oft-ridden trail. From there a spiders-web of damp tracks came flooding back.  And new trails built by others for whom this is clearly their local patch. Including that jump on a revived trail recently destroyed by logging.  By this time it really was pissing it down and the ‘trousers of excuses‘ was fully upholstered with ‘no knee pads/slippy wood/damp landing patch/recently healed ribs‘ etc. And, of course, no mates to spur me on or capture my heroism/demise.

Ummed for a bit. Stood on the end. Convinced myself it was bloody tiny – which of course it was – gave it the ‘getting it done‘ nod to let the obstacle know a veteran of the mountain bike scene was about to grace it with his presence. Clipped in, pedaled – not hard enough – felt the tyres squirm a bit but carried on regardless if a little slowly. Sort of fell off the end in a manner most likely to break a collar bone. Somehow managed to convert not enough speed into just enough flight to land safely if rather heavily.

Bah. Rubbish. Go back and do it again I said out loud to no-one. The whisper of the wind and the rain through the trees sounded like hissing. No, it really did. Riding on your own messes with your mind. I love trees and woods and forests. I’m a big old tree hugger. But today it was all bloody Heart of Darkness and brooding stumps. No matter, stop pissing about and get your aged carcass off that tiny jump with a bit of bloody committment.

So I did and it was fine. More than fine in fact. Bloody lovely. Until I landed onto a recently dampened earth-patch which had the frictional quality of glass. The next couple of seconds were far more exciting that I’d been hoping for. I wonder if a middle aged man makes a fool of himself in a Forest and there is no one there to see it, does he still feel like an idiot? I don’t wonder actually because the answer is absolutely he does.

I didn’t fancy a third attempt so drove home just as the sun came out. Sulked a bit until I found cake. Still beats working even if I’ve started talking to my front mech. That’s normal right?

* 47. Forty-Bloody-Seven. And what did I do? I went out and drank like a 19 year old only with a better wine selection. On being asked the following morning how I felt, the answer was either ‘every year of my age and then some‘ or ‘Chunderful‘. With great age comes great wisdom? Someone else has got mine.

** At some point I’ll find another contract. Probably at the point when we’ve started stealing and boiling the neighbours shoes for food.

*** I’ve started talking to plants as well. But not in the traditional encouraging manner. No it’s more of a John-Cleese inspired rant while stabbing them with sharpened garden tools  ‘Right you bastard, I warned you, I bloody warned you, come back out of that freshly turned soil and you’ll be getting the rough end of my pitch fork’.

I’d laugh about this if it didn’t hurt quite so much

Today brings a real and definite need to recalibrate the irony meter. After a week of that ^^ sort of nonsense, I arrived back from the alps with a cemented and enduring love of the mountains, a noticeably 2nd hand mountain bike and – somewhat surprisingly – an entire body full of working limbs not disfigured with scar tissue. Riding the entire gamut of bike parks, walkers paths and unsighted trails on the cliff-edge of oblivion with nary a scratch.

And then today on local trails, I threw myself face first into the dirt off a rock step which conveniently bounced the bike into my shoulder and rib cage from a height best thought of as low earth orbit. An impact that has me taking shallow breaths, avoiding amusing joke punchlines and stabbing the speed-dial for my long suffering physio.

Funny eh? Possibly but I’m not laughing although that’s mostly bruised rib related. Fairly sure I haven’t cracked any as after a single sneeze earlier, I wasn’t immediately whisked into casualty screaming ‘the pain, make the pain go away‘*. But yeah ride for seven days clocking up 220km and descending 20,000 metres of mind blowing trails with a side order of manslaughter, before monging oneself on a bit of singletrack dug out of a familiar forest does feel pretty stupid.

However on a slighter deeper analysis, it’s not quite so simple.  Start with this; the alps are big, steep and scary – from where you can draw a straight line to crashing which is equally big, probably for keeps and definitely scary. So the imaginative, fragile and often broken ring fence a safety zone around difficult obstacles by riding at 80% of what passes for flat out.  This may feel like cowardice or excuses and it could well be either or both. But I’ll take a little angst and a larger gap to the fast riders if it means riding the next day.

Whereas my local trails are slightly less scary, significantly more familiar and ridden sufficiently often to forgo that safety net. Except when it’s a brand new sculpted earth snaking through a dank forest environment. Caused by some rain while I’ve been away which partially excuses my inability to ride the first rocky obstacle on sight. A second successful attempt reminded me that commitment matters as much here as it does in the big mountains, and much as I like my 29er it’s nowhere near as focussed as the Mega on the scary stuff. Which means I needed to be.

I wasn’t. A rock step which can either be launched or rolled slid into my narrowing vision at about the same time as the previous rider let out a slightly startled ‘wahhhhaaaah‘ as he successfully dropped off the other side. Well it’s ridable then. It might well be launch-able. But even with a week of alpine silliness, there’s a big difference between blind optimism and blind takeoffs. Roll it then. Roll it I did. Land it I didn’t.

The line is to the left” was the helpful comment delivered some five seconds after it would potentially made a difference. The line to the right finished in a deep hole – partially filled with stagnant mud and apparently infinite depth.  I finished in the same place having collected the spiky bits of the bike in the left hand side of my ribcage while a handy rock dealty my shoulder a bloody parcel of impact trauma.

Sat there for a while wondering when breathing might become a little less painful. Cursed myself for both a) a lack of commitment and b) a lack of sanity for attempting it in the first place which is essentially debating both ends of an argument with yourself. Possibly fell on my head ;)

Rest of the ride was fine. The previous couple of hours were great as well. Transformed my riding world from being a bit grumpy on account of a serious lack of proper mountains and chairlifts to just being content rolling on mostly dry trails with the  prospect of beer in the sunshine.  Nurafen for the soul.

I expect tomorrow there will be some wincing, definitely some whinging, a whole load of ‘no honestly it was <——————–> big‘ hand gestures and perhaps a quiet moment wondering if it’s time to find out if DIY hammering your thumb is less painful than throwing oneself repeatedly to the ground. That’ll be a pretty short internal discussion and come Wednesday my focus will be on a mountain bike trail somewhere close.

My day job is all terribly rationale and logical. Evidential based decisions, carefully nuanced and packaged for the widest audience. That I can do with bruised ribs and a hurty shoulder. But it’s not real life is it?

* If you’ve ever cracked or broken one or more ribs, that’s pretty much your life for eight weeks.

Endings and Beginnings.

There’s more. So ,much more

Before we get to the riveting topic of holiday packing, I first need to share how our Cappuccino ownership ended.  If you imagine a deleted scene from a budget parody of ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels‘ you’d have about 90% of the content right there. In no particular order, the frame would be filled with a horse box, a woman touting a shotgun, a confused looking foreign gentleman, an envelope full of used notes, a man slumped – apparently dead – in his car and the comedic unroofing of the Suzuki by two people who showed no sign or aptitude of ever doing it before.

The shotgun was carried by the lovely Annabel who is from Liverpool. My brief yet traumatic experience of that city left me in no doubt that running round fully armed – potentially with some kind of Chuck Norris Backup – would be the only way to survive a day.  However at 4pm in a windswept lay-by at the arse end of Herefordshire, my working assumption is Carol and I were soon to be bloodied bodies hidden in the horse box before being dumped into the uncaring Atlantic later that evening.

Explanations abounded for these strange circumstances, none of which made much sense to me but soon the the envelope we’d marked ‘Canada Holiday Cash’ was handed over in return for keys, logbooks and a long explanation of the three card trick required to disarm the immobiliser. We left them attempting some kind of tiny-car feng shui – arranging shotguns, handbags and the confused looking fella into a space about the size of a well appointed bathroom cabinet. Not heard from them since – so either all is well or they’ve robbed the takings from Keele Services and are now on the run in a Thelma and Louise style.

The unmoving fella in the car? Never got to the bottom of that.  Annabel promised me she hadn’t shot him and since she was pretty well tooled up, I didn’t feel it was the right time to question her honesty ;)

Moving on and soon to be moving out. The random collection of detritus that’s fallen out of my bike gear store is definitely sending mixed messages. There’s lightweight summer tops buried under a collection of waterproof gear which speaks of a man unreconciled with alpine summers after last year. The glove collection is particularly telling – three meshed pairs designed for maximum ventilation rubbing fingers against full on winter gloves, coated with water repelling substances and designed specifically to retain all that lovely user created heat.

I’ve packed winter base layers, waterproof socks, three – THREE – waterproof jackets one of which can easily repel rain, snow and probably borders. I may be over-reacting to nearly freezing to death last year but would rather just put it down to experience.  There’s a theme emerging as we segue into the extensive spares collection piling up in the back of Matt’s van. A van which is taking on more of an ‘A-Team’ motif every day with forks, brakes, wheels – so many wheels – tyres, chainsets, shifters and saddles, augmented by every tool known to man and some clearly stolen from aliens, more fluids than an A&E ward and strangely shaped objects the purpose of which entirely baffle me. Maybe it’s another shotgun.

It’ll probably all go in a bag. And maybe then fit into the back of the van. If not Matt’s got a tow bar and I’ve got a trailer.  As for the pilot, well he’s reasonably fit for a specimen of such antiquity, and mostly uninjured. That was pretty much my plan on riding out the first day of 2014 and I’ve made good on promises to slog through many, many miles of shit and drudgery to get my withered body into the kind of state that might survive a week throwing it at mountains.

Preferably on the bike. If not, hidden in that clothing bundle, are knee pads, elbow pads and an armoured shirt best thought of as resembling a geeky man attending a TRON revival convention. All this pre-alps non-crash rhetoric failed to stop me wheeling the bike out for one more ride before our Tuesday departure. Longest day and all that* with the kind of perfect conditions entirley missing for the last six weeks.

See that? It’s dust.

60% commitment on velcro-grippy trails passed a pleasant couple of hours and the Alps bike is running beautifully. I rode all the jumps and drops because it’s so damn good rocking off stumps and landing with barely a trail caress. And this is with me riding it. The man whose jumping technique was once memorably described as ‘drops like a feather…. attached to a rhino

Today I remembered my family might miss me a bit so we did lots of all that kind of stuff which probably fills the diary of those fathers not quite so obsessed, nowhere near as selfish and not desperately clinging onto something that’s probably long gone. Still as we’ve said many times before, no point dying wondering.

I am going out. I may be some Alp.

* That’s all I’m saying. If I even mention in our house ‘bah, the nights are drawing in already‘, my future existence hinges entirely on an ability to dodge an angrily flailed rolling pin.

Speed Awareness Curse

So” – enthused the Hi-Di-Hi homage to Ruth Madoc somewhere close to purgatory’s end – ‘can we all remember what C.O.A.S.T. stands for and why it’s important’ /deathly silence/Hint of desperation/’Anybody’/continued tumbleweeds/’oh come on, ALEX you’ve had a lot to say for yourself, help the group out here’.

Oh Hello. To your left a barrel overflowing with fish. To your right a rifle. ‘Yes indeed Lynne, I can do exactly that, C.O.A.S.T. you say? Yes, Yes, it’s coming to me, hang on, ah right I remember now ‘Completely Obvious and  Stupendously Trivial’ is that it?’

Apparently not. Still it engaged the room in a way she’d entirely fail to do once they realised laughing at inappropriate comments wouldn’t constitute a fail*.  As a group we’d been letting ourselves down from the first minute. That was the point at which we were asked to share with our speeding colleagues a character slice illuminating vehicle of choice/License held/  annual mileage.

The response was telling. It went something like this: ‘tractor/65 years/100‘ except for a couple of sales-y types who’d been caught overtaking cows at inappropriate speeds.  The question could have been more easily answered before the course started as hemp-dressed gentlemen of increasingly antiquity fell out of agricultural vehicles, puffing on desperate dog ends, and engaging in preventative tractor maintenance utilising the cab based hammer easily reached for the job.

My initial attempt at studied indifference quickly breached the boredom threshold leading to a terribly pretentious diatribe on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to  answer the question of ‘What makes us speed?‘. I was pretty much a marked man by then, even before a further black mark was inked in during the oh-so-collaborative session on what the group wanted to get out of the course.

23 out of 24 participants answered with the kind of refreshing honesty missing from sociality baselined norms. ‘I don’t want to come here again/I have fields to plow/cows to overtake/innocent animals to molester‘. The wanker previously identified as pretentious proffered a left field ‘well all motorists are tossers, so I’d like to talk about how they try and kill road cyclists‘ which endeared me to the room in a way that – say – baring my arse and wiggling it suggestively  may have failed to do.

Such an action became an option tho when two hours in we’d been hit with multiple guilt trips under the auspices of re-education. The sad thing is this stuff kind of makes sense. Don’t create resentment, instead foster understanding. Charge the same but replace points on your license with techniques for safety.  Delve into the shadowy world of unintended consequences. Put the worse case out there and pull back on how action – rather than reaction – can save a life. It’s pretty compelling stuff, even delivered in a paint-by-numbers intellectually-diminishing signposted kind of way.

There’s even some physics. Put Einstein in the drivers seat and we have a set of motion forces which brook no argument. Braking hard at 20MPH gives you time not to kill someone.  Ten miles an hour more and you’re on the potential morgue edge of the bell curve. This is good stuff, well explained and backed up by mostly entirely compelling statistics. Except for the ones around ‘80% of accidents are caused by speed’ which trigger my bloody-mindedness gland and before anyone can say ‘will you shut the fuck up?‘ we’re 10 minutes into a discussion on 80% more than what? A sausage?

So many black marks, the second presenter – a lovely round man intoning sound advice through a thick black country accident – also singled me out for some lightweight peer humiliation. And because I am an arse, my response to the love of speed went something like this ‘Ray – it’s like religion. No really it is. On being almost married three non negotiable church services suggested one should behave in a St Peter gates-of-heaven kind of way to ensure heavenly continuation. Honestly, what happens if they’re just making it up? How pissed off would you be if it’s rats all the way down?** Speeding is like that, the consequences are bloody terrible but what are the chances eh?

This isn’t really my world view. Well it is on religion – less so on speeding but i’ll be fucked if some government approved script delivered 250 times a year by bored trainers who make the right noises but cannot passionately believe what they are forced to pedal can be genuinely habit changing. 23 people said it was, and for all of them it was for about the 100 yards from the correction centre before encountering the kind of frustration that too many cars on too few roads generates every minute.

We all left without any points and a failsafe approach to understanding road signs but not too much else. The right noises were made but my guess is actions failed to follow. It is a curse tho because now I cannot stop at any junction without hearing the Ruth-Clone intoning ‘tarmac and tyres‘ gapping the car in front. Third gear in thirty zones and a silent fuck you to the tailgaters revving behind. Real care when the 3-d venn diagram of urban, schools and kicking out time intersect.  An appreciation of what passive-agressiveness feels like if some asshole sits two feet behind your bumper.

It’s a similar refusal to believe marketing works. What do beans mean again? Still in a mighty explosion of the irony meter, I ragged our little sports car like a total bastard when the course ended. So broke every rule and speed limit to ensure my participation in a static cycling class some fifteen miles distant.

Still four hours of my life I’ll never get back. One second of extra thought means a ball-chasing child might get about seventy years.

Probably worth it then.

* Failing in this context is hard. Really hard. The guy next to me was a) deaf and b) asleep the entire session and he passed out with flying colours.

** Or turtles if you like your philosophy. Although they rarely eat their way into coffins. So I went with rats.


Still a monster

Well the bike is. Due almost entirely through avoiding any kind of preventative maintenance. This may run counter intuitively to a previous entry where the PYGA refused to self-heal even when I threatened it with my biggest persuader. But the Mega hasn’t been through a horrible winter, it’s registered barely a quarter of the miles of my other bikes* and is essentially fabricated from previously unknown heavy metals. Forged from rugged alloys –  mostly found supporting high-rise buildings and heralded as a new chemical element I’ve come to think of as ‘chunk‘.

Briefly, after a stack of spare pivots, axles and bearing arrived in the shed of dreams, I considered pulling the monster apart in the spirit of enquiry. However, since this was likely to introduce many issues not currently found on the bike, and massively increase my beer debt to Matt when he had to fix it, instead I’ve opted to change one gear cable. A cable that through some proprietory, non standard routing gouged a furrow where metal used to be:


In my defence the cable routing on the Mega is bloody stupid. Clearly exactly one hour before production started, realisation dawned that the entire bike only had about two cable guides. The solution – although bodge feels a better word – was to drill a few threaded holes randomly in the frame and ask the buyer to bolt the cables in any way they saw fit. I nearly had a fit on realising I had indeed sawed an open cast wound on the swingarm. Matt thinks it’s fine, the importer thinks it’s fine, I probably think it’s fine after being forced to admit that ‘No, I wasn’t intending to land any 20 foot drops to flat‘.

If it does fail, all I can hope is that my remaining body parts shall be easily transported to a mountain top bar. There’s a certain irony that the gear cable is only lightly roughed up whereas the frame has shown all the abrasion resistance of a moist cheese. So servicing – no. Riding – not much of that either. We’re deep into ‘thou shalt not mong’ territory which perfectly coincides with a major improvement in the weather, and a massive reduction in the mud we’ve been slogging through for the last six weeks. I’m not prepared to take this as a sign that God hates me unless he unleashes a similar weather pattern to last year when we do arrive in France.

Sleet in June? Two years in a row? That’s not a butterfly’s wing flapping in the Amazon. That’s targeted deity smiting that is. When I first checked the long term tea leaf reading for Les Gets, wall to wall sunshine was mooted. The closer we get, the more cloud and rain symbols appear to be elbowing out the shiny yellow ones. I’ve responded magnificently by deleting all those sites from my browser and thinking happy thoughts instead. And slightly more pragmatically, began my packing regime by throwing in a waterproof. And then two more.

So the bike really is ready.  A swift Father’s day jaunt on Sunday proved just this, and cemented the fact it’s really rather brilliant even with less than half a decent rider on board.

I always look best on my blurred side

The first 10 minutes after switching from the 29er feel very strange indeed. After which the whole ‘sorted-ness’ of ‘Heritage Wheels’  start to make perfect sense. The Pyga would have been fine in the Alps, and in no way any kind of high water mark for what was ridable. But in the 10% of cases where the Mega is better – steep, super rocky, tight and nadgery – it really is significantly better. It’s bloody useless at yomping great distances, or being any kind of fun unless it’s cranked to the max but, where it works it works brilliantly.

The rider transcends fantastic bicycles and dilutes their brilliance with brakes and bollox bravado. All of which doesn’t stop me being quite excited and only mildly injured. The stupid crash of three weeks ago has left me with a hurty shoulder than is hurty to the power of ow after riding for a few hours. So my long suffering physio gets to work some more on her long term project hopefully eeking out enough movement to allow the poorly limb to fully participate in seven days thrashing down mountains.

At least it’s not my drinking arm. Otherwise my packing list would have started with ‘one thousand straws’.  Anyhow, exactly a week from today I’ll be combating Matt’s massively upgraded stereo housed in his new van with a selection of rock classics and some noise cancelling earphones. Fifteen or so hours after that, we’ll be immersed deep into my favourite geography in the entire world – high up in massive, snow capped mountains. After which, anything is a bonus.

And this year, we are finishing the Passport Du Soleil. Even if it means hiring a Jet Ski ;)

* not the road bike of course. That’s registered exactly zero miles in the last 12 months. And even with the bar set so low, it’s hard to see how that will be improved upon this year.