Need a lift?

Bike Park Wales with Cez

It wasn’t that dry the second time round!

A simple question eliciting visceral responses, when the virtual thumb is thrown out into the big tent of the mountain biking community. For those who still despise trail centres, the promise of pedal free riding represents the absolute nadir of missing the point, plots long lost, shortcuts easily found and an evolutionary branch clearly mutated from the authentic origins of riding over the rough stuff.

That’s the joy of democracy right there. The rest of us exhibit Pavlovian responses on the arrival of the uplift truck. There’s something important about the ghettoisation of mountain biking –  herding previous free spirits into fenced off enclosures, driven by sheepdog arrows and exchanging natural wonders for sculpted safety.

But its’ not as important as accepting the landscape of mountain biking is changing. And changing for the better.

Bike parks aren’t trail centres. They make no excuses for a pay-to-play business model. Whereas trail centres hide maintenance* behind car parking fees, organisations like Bike Park Wales charge a price per entry and one for each uplift. They also understand this brings a responsibility to build ever more interesting trails while limiting numbers trashing what they have right now. Having met a couple of the people who run it, they absolutely get this doctrine.

Which doesn’t defuse the ticking time bomb of those who assert we’re giving away the crown jewels of land access, and entirely failing to stick it to the man. What – for me – they miss are two things; firstly bike parks are an outlier of mountain biking – fun for eight hours but you wouldn’t want to do it every day, and secondly they are corralling a whole generation of new mountain bikers who couldn’t give a rats arse for a nice XC loop.

We’re losing to the roadies. Olympic and tour success have transformed our local bike shops to selling the alleged joy of the tarmac.  Market economics play to a model which sells at least 10 skinny tyred bike to every knobbly one. Bike Parks don’t fix that, but bloody hell they make you feel sorry for the poor buggers playing with the traffic.

Twice in the last month I’ve motored the sub hour drive to Bike Park Wales – once in fantastic late summer sunshine and the other time in the pissing rain. And both times it was nothing short of adrenaline pumped giggling, interspersed with viewing 400 metre climbs from the misted windows of the uplift van.

The trails are brilliant because they are so diverse. It’s not all meat-headed downhill runs requiring large bikes and rather larger testicles. The runs are graded perfectly for progression and the hill is big enough to guarantee 7-10 minutes of fun on trails absolutely designed for modern mountain bikes.

And that terrain drops you into natural feeling wooded sections and over natural rock gardens. It’s all superbly armoured against the weather, but not styled as a homage to a BMX track. It’s full of technical challenges you can safely hit fast or slow, there’s progression everywhere from the carving blues through the steeper reds and some frankly terrifying blacks.

At the end of which you roll out onto a jump line which gets bigger with your confidence and finishes where the uplift starts. Where you will see a few individuals who believe £5 represents a poor return compared to climbing 45 minutes up a fire-road. That’s missing the point so hard, they need counselling.

I quite like riding uphill. I get earning your turns. I stay fit and work hard at it because getting to high places generally requires a bit of effort and bloody mindedness. But in an artificial environment where pedalling is negated by a superbly efficient motorised service, I’ve not the slightest interest in doing something that’s pretty much part of my mountain biking world for 50 weeks a year.

Railing the top blue section before dropping in to the notorious ‘rim dinger’ on my quite brilliant Nukeproof Mega, and rattling through two minutes of big rocks and endless berms, then being deposited back at a towed trailer taking me back to do it all again is simply a fantastic way to spend a day.

I understand it’s not for everybody. I get that, but what I fail to understand is the disdain in which such places are held by those who’ve self-labelled themselves as ‘proper mountain bikers’. Sorry, that’s bollocks – I’ve been lucky enough to ride in many countries in all kinds of conditions and occasionally in states of mild peril. And I still love bike parks like this.

We have to progress somewhere at the same speed as the bikes get ever more capable. We cannot ignore the ageing demographic of the mountain biking community. If the future of this are people that aren’t like us, then we probably need to let that slide. Watching the indestructible kids throwing massive shapes on the jump lines just made me smile.

Because that’s one less roadie. One less footballer. One less sat in front of a computer like this one. One more of us, one less of them. Bike Parks do not represent the ghettoisation of mountain biking, they point at a part of its future. But not all of it.

Let’s not confuse progress with the disruption of the current state. This is not the time for luddites smashing the Spinning Jennys. If you fear for authenticy, remember this: riding mountain bikes is always bloody fantastic. it’s an attitude not a location. It’s neither defined about how you get up or get down. It’s mostly about the many points in between.

We should cherish that. Go get a lift, I promise it will rock your mountain biking world.

* and sometimes not too well. Grants make trails but they don’t fund maintenance. Nothing sadder than a trail centre abandoned because of neglect and erosion.

 

 

Boys of Summer*

Les Gets MTB holiday - June 2014

Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick, Tat, Tat, Tat, Woooarrrwwwn. I give you one of the greatest riffs ever to come from an electric guitar.** I’ve loved that track for more years than I care to remember, and listening back to it today, it rather splendidly summed up my the now fading summer.

It’s easy to lament the onset of Autumn. I should know because I do so every year slouching ever more depressed as dead leaves carpet the trails, hardpack turns to mush, temperatures plummet and the mud comes up.

October marks five months of drudgery. From now until somewhere near eternity, every ride will notch another dirty protest, something expensive will fail or break with  eyewateringly expensive frequency, but still most of what falls off will be you.

Your quest to the warm indoors will be stayed by a toll-gate bucket demanding payment of your moat like riding gear. Everything vaguely bike related will be brown except your toes and fingers which shall be bloodless and blue.

Marvellous. That’ll wile away those long winter nights. But there’s something else to think about instead; an endless loop of a brilliant summer. With most of Spring to be considered as well. After rain which started in December and stopped only after most of the country was to be found underwater, the trails amazingly dried under weak April sunshine.

And we rode and rode, revelling on dry lines raising themselves above the zombie mud.*** finding grip where forever there had been none, being able to recognise the colour of our bikes from sight rather than memory. But Christ it had been a long time coming – I remember one March Sunday ride hiding under the car tailgate as another freezing hailstorm lashed the Forest and thinking ‘You know what, I need an inside hobby‘.

May was a disappointment. Let’s not spare the lash here. I spent much of that month on it, waiting for Winter’s rain rebranded as Spring to receive a shove from the stuttering Jet Stream and get with the sunshine programme. But when the season ratchet finally turned. we were fit and ready to make the most of it.

There’s so much to treasure. That first short sleeved ride lasting  for ever before terminating in the pub with us drinking well earned cold ones – sunnies on – under cloudless skies. Sun burned all over the place and running out of excuses to try new and scary stuff because the trails were endlessly perfect. Even when it rained, we didn’t care because soon the sun rebooted the weather firmly back to summer.

We probably should have travelled more. Aside from a couple of trail centre raids. we lapped up favourite dusty singletrack and explored the new stuff popping up all over the Forest. Rode all over the Malvern Hills at times when walkers were asleep or post-lunch comatose. Played a bit of rambler slalom which is a guilty pleasure. Sometimes it’s hard to leave when it’s so damned good where you are.

Then the French Alps for a week of the most simply outstanding riding with all the people who I’d most want to share it with. Ticked off the Passport De Soleil this time in the dry, and threw big bikes at bigger mountains without any long term injuries other than the long suffering liver.

Even sneaked a ride in Whister on the almost mythical trails there in almost unbearable heat. Came back to rain but so desperate to ride I didn’t care. Then perfect symmetry between failing to look for another job and rain failing to fall from the sky. 500+ of mountain biking kilometres in September on empty trails still configured for summer.

Could it get better? It could indeed. A trip to see Tony reminded me of what fast felt like, and I’ve loved every ride since even as the hardpack begins to melt under Autumn rains.

I’ve loved riding mountain bikes in 2014 so far. If anything more than ever. Sure, I’ve had a bunch of stupid crashes but ended up fitter and maybe a little bit faster than this time last year. We’ve got plans, so many plans on what happens next – and if that’s a Thomas-like railing against the dying of the light, I’m entirely comfortable with that.

So bring it on. Your rain. Your cold. Your shitty trails. Your broken washing machines. Your motivation killers. Your “Who’d ride in this crap” challenges. I’ve a bank full of summer memories and a plan for when the solstice tips back in our favour. Until then I’ll take every ride as it comes.

And there will be spikes of enjoyment. Frozen rides perfectly lit under a big moon. Smoke pouring from those safely cosseted in front of snug fires, mistakenly under the impression they’re on the right side of the walls. Massive mud slides held with a deft hip flick or panicked wrench, dark beer on dark night and the almost inestimable feeling of not being quite like everyone else.

The time mountain biking becomes a three season sport, I officially lose.  It’s not going to be this year. The boys of summer may have gone, but the grizzled old veterans of Autumn and Winter are layering up ready to go.

* Yes, fully appreciate this is at best stretching a metaphor and at worst a lie, but if Don Henley can sing it when he’s the wrong side of 50, I feel we’re in good company.

** You may disagree. I suggest you spend some time on the Internet. They’ll be some nutters with whom you can find common ground.

*** Sucks the life out of you. Potentially bloody and dangerous.

 

Bad habits die hard

UK Bike Skills session with Rob and Haydn

As a blokey bloke – unreconstructed or not – there’s a certain amount of sacramental reverence around skills and abilities way beyond castigation. Lines over which even banter ‘shall not pass’. Clickbait lists are generally required at times like this, so let’s start with: driving, sexual performance, quaffage coefficient and being able to ride a bicycle.

It’s an interesting list because we are taught to drive, sex is something we learn through experimentation or repetition, alcohol poisoning about the same but remaining upright whilst mostly in charge of a bicycle draws a straight line between skinned knees and useful  manifestations of centrifugal physics.

Which, when you consider the importance of grasping the basics, and a bit more when accelerating through hard edged geography, feels like an educational oversight. But being chromosomically doubled*, we’re not interested in making the best use of our tiny talent when going harder, going faster**, going to be braver, going to end up hospital is somehow more highly rated on the achievement scale.

Over four years ago, I had a riding reboot which rocked my little mountain biking world, right up until the point I forgot almost everything. Since then I’ve mostly survived, dodged the occasional bullet while more frequently adding to my extensive legions of scar tissue. I’ve ridden too many crap lines, watched too many expert videos and read too much nonsense on the web.

So now my approach to any kind of riding difficulty is a multi-tasking mashup of many techniques, none of which I can reasonably execute. There’s so much going on in my head, the obstacle has long passed before any mitigation plan has been enacted. Result of which is mostly me viewing that trail difficultly upside down and long separated from my blameless bicycle.

Twice in the week before a return to the skills shrine of Tony, I’d crashed hard and painfully on dry trails with limitless grip. Bring on the winter and my riding gear would probably be a body-bag unless something changes quickly. An adverb that’s pretty much exited stage left from my riding world, with people I used to easily chase only becoming visible waiting at the end of the trail.

Time to man down and accept scratching my riding itch isn’t going to make it any better.

Tony’s upgraded his training facilities quite a bit since my last time in his care. Now he’s snaked trails between the frankly terrifying North Shore planks elevated halfway to the moon, with lines of jumps angled to propel you there. He’s paired back his coaching as well to about three physical moves and four mental ones. The coffee remains both strong and most welcome after more than a three hour drive.

I like Tony. He’s got a interesting view on life , and lives it like an amped Hippie with no off switch. I may not always agree with him, but any conversations are anything but dull whether it be bikes or absolutely anything else. And from a coaching perspective, he is a bloody genius.

Two minutes in, he’s nailed my inability to commit to left hand turns (large scar on knee to be taken into consideration), Hadyn’s slightly odd body positioning and Rob’s rearward stance. And that’s just riding round a couple of logs. Soon we’re lobbing ourselves off little drops, and giggling through elbow low carved turns. After that it’s berms, singletrack, drops, tabletops and gaps jumps.

All of which we dispatched. Six foot gap jumps with hardly any effort. Corners railed like you’ve failed to match on a million MTB videos. Berms accelerated out of and drops nailed without the excessive body movement and bar wrenching that passes as a big part of my MTB repertoire.

I even re-learned how to bunny-hop. Hadyn launched a 12 foot gap jump, and Tony turned Rob from an XC scardycat into a gap jumping monster.  And that’s all you’re getting in terms of the process because unless you go through it, describing words are merely going to confuse.

What’s more important is can you translate a single days epiphany into a trail vocabulary writing extra speed, more smoothness, some safety into your every day riding?. That’s a firm yes and a more than occasional no, Once cut free from the cord of what feels right, you can practice, embed muscle memory and even switch back to flats but when things get scary, the inevitable happens.

You regress. You seek solace in the habits that somehow kept you safe when the going got tough. And these are bad habits, dangerous ones, dropping a shoulder to the inside, moving your head back from the scary, forgetting your feet have a part to play riding downhill. The difference is you know it’s wrong, it feels horrible and forced, slow and difficult, desperate and daunting. So you back off a little to try and fix it.  With some but not unlimited success.

So is a day’s course going to turn you into some kind of riding deity?  Well, no clearly because there’s only so much skill than can be squeezed from very little talent. A better question is does it provide a simple set of physical and mental techniques that – when combined – have you riding old trails in an entirely new way. Yeah, pretty much.

There’s a tiny five foot gap on a trail we ride almost every week. And I avoided it for two years on the reasonable grounds of it having not much ground between entry and exit. Three days after spending one with Tony, Rob and I sailed over it without a care. We avoided the ten and fifteen foot gaps further up the trail but you have to start somewhere.  And – in my case – work down.

It was a fantastic day with Tony. Rebooted my Mojo, Gave me a go-to place for doing to the right thing. Reinforced the delusion that I can keep getting better. Provided the confidence to ditch my SPD’s and let the flat-earthed fella out. Made me smile, grin, giggle and laugh remembering how bloody lucky we are to ride mountain bikes.

For that alone, it was more than worth the money. And I’ll be back because backsliding is pretty much my modus operandi.  I won’t be leaving it as long this time.

* this is typical man. We have more than women. And more is better, yes? Well not really as it clearly blocks any ability to multitask, or garner sufficient empathy to understand not everyone  thinks breasts are the most important aspect of those with just an ‘X’.

** Except you’re not. You’re more frightened. That’s something entirely different.

What, Caravan?

Yeah that’s selling it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Bear!

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.