Is this a marathon or a sprint?

That's me. Except with snow on

An oft asked question which, in the netherworld of work, is generally met with groans, passive-aggressive tuts and a weary request from the allegedly knowledgeable old bloke to declare the meeting over as we’re merely bayonetting the dead.

Back in the real world, I’ve mostly been about the marathon. Many reasons – a lack of athleticism being the root of most of them.  But as a weedy asthmatic at school, cross country running was happening to the similarly untalented leaving me to play football* with the gifted kids.

So running – other than chasing down pub closing hours – has been a fairly desultory activity subsumed to the proper sport of Mountain Biking. While arguments may rage over whether riding round in muddy circles is a sport, it bloody well qualifies when compared to my middle aged jogging.

And it is in this middle age that running has been downgraded from ‘utterly hateful‘ to merely ‘bloody hard work’. Into this window of apathetic acceptance, I have chucked an entry to the Gloucester half marathon (not a proper marathon, sure I’m an idiot but not completely bloody nuts) a mere terrifying two months away.

Other events are available. Ones not likely to be materially affected by snow, ice, freezing winds, hypothermia or possible be-nightment. However, none of these would in any appreciable way mitigate my bacchanalian approach to the lauding of the sky fairy. 4 additional kilograms of anything marked high cholesterol or fortified wine is about standard for that two week period, where I only leave the house if we’re running dangerously low on Stilton.

Never run 13 miles**. Never run more than about 8 if I’m absolutely honest. After which various members of my family were wondering if to call an ambulance or a mortician, as I lay face down and unmoving in a flowerbed. No point worrying about that now, so reverting to type I’ve ignored any kind of actual training and have instead gone shopping.

First order of business – running slippers.   Who knew there are at least four shoe types in a million variations accessorised by miracle material promising to shave literally microseconds off your piss poor performance? For which deranged individuals are prepared to be fleeced well over a hundred quid for.

Clearly that’s ridiculous. When did running get this complicated? Back in the day a pair of plimsolls*** and a flappy t-shirt passed muster as race kit. All of which led me going on a bit about how gullible those runners must be to get caught up in such shallow marketing nonsense. At which point I was quietly reminded a similar MTB related search returns around 500 different mountain bike tyres.

Yes but that’s different. Look it just is. Anyway I too have become a believer-  almost booking into something called a ‘gait analysis‘, before imaging the horror and sympathy of staff and customers alike as a man apparently only recently introduced to a pair of legs falls off the treadmill.

It’s hardly going to be a dignified spectacle is it?

Instead I’ve downloaded a training plan. It appears to require bending of space-time in at least two directions, one to halve my age and the other to add six months to the training duration. So I’ve deleted it and instead installed blind optimism supported by my almost sentient Garmin which tells me my mean SPM is 173, my vertical oscillation a majestic 8.3cm and my ground contact time averaging out at a spectacular 256ms. On those stats alone, I think we’re good to go.

Except one thing, apparently it’s almost a religious observance to have some kind of target. Hard metrics seem to be very important, finish under two hours,  maintain a consistent pace, achieve perfect form and some kind of bloody karmic balance all while not sacrificing an efficient stride length****.

I’m not interested in any of that shit – instead I’ve set myself just two targets. 1) finish on my feet not in an ambulance and  2) never attempt anything so stupid again. Obviously with it being Gloucester, an implicit goal based on location is ‘don’t be mugged or eaten‘ by the locals for only having five digits on a single hand.

On reflection, a further target should be actually turning up at all. I don’t have an unblemished history of appearing on the start line of races when faced with the potential of cold/damp/occasionally difficult. I expect the prospect of eternal self loathing shall probably get me out of bed, plus the companionship of other hardy individuals. Who I am desperately hoping suffer a similar temporary bout of insanity to sign up, so keeping me company/being available to administer the last rites.

Currently I’m torn between ‘how hard can it be?’ and ‘hold my beer and watch this’. Mostly tho I’m working out how best to go long on cheating and short on training.

Best go out for a jog, I do my best thinking there.

*only not really. The only coaching advice I ever received was basically ‘tackle anyone heading towards our goal and then pass it to someone wearing our strip who is a proper footballer‘.

**well I have. But it was so long ago I’m fairly sure I was racing against real dinosaurs not ‘characters‘ in suits 😉

***or if you were a proper Yorkshire, bare feet. While chewing on a coal nugget.

**** I wish I were kidding. A single browse of ‘Runners World’ has made it absolutely clear it isn’t mine.

Are we there yet?

I can see you all nodding

Conversations. Marvellous things. A triumph of sentient behaviour. Except not really –  as the recipient has no truck for considering the loquaciousness of the speaker, because they’re far too busy spooling up far more important stuff waiting for clear air to broadcast*

Car salespeople are like this. They’ve ignored the two hour ‘listening to customers’ seminar on induction to whatever shiny brand they are  pedalling. Instead they embark on the questionable strategy of ignoring everything the pointless old bloke offering real cash may consider important.

Even if this irritating individual refuses to be swayed by prepared speeches on brand values and unique selling features, instead opening a small notebook and stabbing repeatedly at stuff that has the power to keep him right here.  As opposed to option b) which involves beating that salesperson to death with the glossy brochure before flouncing off with a ‘I’ve done the gene pool a favour‘ thrown over an insouciant shoulder.

Fuck me I’m bored of this. As are the salespeople, but that’s their job. Rather than adopting a confrontational strategy of striding into the showroom demanding an interaction with ‘someone old enough to shave as long as no obvious beard grooming is evidenced, and absolutely no waistcoats, I want to buy a car not a fucking country house‘, I’m all about guerrilla tactics.

Mostly this involves turning up in the cheapest clothes I can find**, poke about in expensive cars with a tape measure, wonder out loud if a mountain bike wheel would fit in there, prod, poke and scratch expensive fabrics until an individual from the candy crush generation wanders over and asks what I’m interested in.

At which point I gleefully awaken the kraken of requirements carefully recorded  in a notebook until boredom overwhelms them and they offer me a test drive. This activates phase two where I insist on pairing my phone with the i-think-you’ll-find-sir-this-infotamenet-system-is-class-leading before unleashing my dreadfully uncool play-list.

Not because I’m even peripherally interested in the quality of the audio system. No, I just want to see them squirm as a track 1 of ‘a 100 hits of the 80s‘ blasts out of 10 speakers. God I cherish that moment, but they soon get their revenge explaining virtual cockpit this and four wheels steering that which are essentially narrowing pathways to me signing my life away for Coke can with an ego problem.

Once the test drive is done, we move onto numbers. An area I’ve had about 30 years experience which is 29 more than the beard oil postulating bollocks opposite.  He offers averages, I counter with standard deviation and regression to the mean. Not for any other reason than I’ve lost control of any possible transaction on walking into a 26 million ‘brand facility‘ which clearly this conversation may end up paying for.

I’ve also become increasingly suspicious of my motives. For all my ‘oh fuck off, really it’s just  a car‘, I could easily buy something for half the price that’d be better than functional and nowhere near as financially destructive.  Driving breaks down like this; 15% running the kids around on a daily basis, about the same transporting me and mucky bikes to places Matt’s van isn’t going with the remaining 70% navigating to end points of our wonderfully diverse higher education sector.

For that you need a car that’ll reliably get you there, not make you look like a dick if you’re offering a lift, not mirror my fiscal insanity when considering mountain bikes, take one of those inside in an emergency and act as a family transport when I remember that’s my tribe.

Rationally I’m all in with that argument. The problem – possibly unsurprisingly to regular readers – is indeed mountain bikes. I have so many of those whose form trumps their function, and even that’s not something I’m pushing at the edge of.  So much as my amusement when confronted with  ‘advanced ride dynamics‘ has led to many awkward moments when one person looks shocked and the other is doubled over pissing themselves laughing, the guilty truth is I’m almost as much a tart for cars as I am for bikes.

If the car after this will be electric, I might as well have one last fling raging against the light. Due diligence sprouts many spreadsheets with pivot tables. Graphs are prominent. Statistical hypothesis inerpret the raw data. Which tells me everything and pretty much nothing.

But I need to do something. The Yeti is accelerating towards the contract hire event horizon. They really want it back. I really not want to give it back. Only one person is gong to win that argument, so Ive decided to avoid having to step into another of those matrix-style showrooms instead putting all our money in a bucket and inviting those wearing the suits of shiny to bring their trinkets for review.

It’s not going to work of course. But it’ll work better than hiding under the duvet thinking dark thoughts about one sales-dick who was keen to explain that ‘buying one of our cars sir will certainly make you look quite a lot more important’.

I don’t feel important. Manipulated possibly. Confused definitely. Enthused not at all. I am genuinely concerned if and when we need to move house I may have to renew my shotgun license.

*for those at least tangentially aware of social norms. Those lacking an iota of self awareness are pretty much in permanent transmit mode.

**Or as I like to think of it my ‘everyday wardrobe’

Daylight Craving Hours

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017
Oh smashing. Five months of perpetual darkness. Dark driving to work, dark driving home, with slashing rain carving up the few grey hours when the sun is allegedly above the horizon. Hidden by dirty clouds keen to pile on the misery.

Two options; hide under duvet with a hip flask or do that stiff upper lip British thing and live the lie there is no bad weather merely inappropriate amounts of alcohol*. Not today tho, the light may be short but we’re going long on a classic Wales loop.

Normally ridden the late December. For the last ten years or so it’s been fantastic/stunning/perilous/hypothermic in various combinations from a brilliant day out to an urgent booking with an expert treating advanced frostbite. Last year I tilted the odds towards probable death with a hangover sharp enough to shave with and a helmet value engineered by the lowest cost bidder.

Matt tells me his first proper mountain bike ride was on this very route many years ago when sleet, snow and possible benightment were served up on an epic day. This may explain his mild obsession with pushing any ride towards a death march.

No chance of that with double digit temps, clouds without rain and trails benefitting from a two weeks of conditions entirely un-TransCambrian. Riding with most of my favourite bunch of idiots means while we have faff, it’s familiar faff and we’re appropriately breakfasted, unloaded and ready to go by 10:30am.

First up a lazy 6km climb only notching 400m of ascent. My kind of thing – especially without even the smidge of a hangover and back on the 29er wheels of the Smuggler. It’s not a light bike but nevertheless a good climber, especially on the dry hardpack winching us past increasingly distant views to the reservoir.

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

Still muddy on top. Before we got there, most of the crew cracked the code of a steep climb on slippy rock. My failure was entirely due to a poor choice of rear tyre, terrible line choice and questionable technique. Luckily there was a chance a little later with a second tough pitch to redeem myself. Cocked that one up as well.

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

Mud navigated, we’re accelerating on that kind of trail where the rocks chase you down the hill. Or are fired on a personal trajectory by the bloke in front having far too much fun. 115mm of travel doesn’t sound like much for a modern mountain bike, but this wasn’t the thing holding me back. I don’t think we need to delve much deeper into the mystery of why ‘Al isn’t as fast as he’d like to me’.

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

Fun, fun, fun – more so as I’ve ridden this route in shitty conditions. Which is a fine adjective for my co-riders attempting some kind of middle-aged TeleTubby parody during a brief stop for sandwiches.

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

A stop which provided sufficient time to see angry clouds rolling over the saddle some 250m above us. Best get on with it then. And while we’re riding in t-shirts, Wales still has rules – one of which is this climb is 20 minutes directly into a headwind. That wind pushed the clouds into the valley leaving broken blue skies over the summit. Can’t remember the last time I saw that.

We lingered. Warmed by Autumn sun and filing that view in optic nerves which never get tired of big mountain days. Until ‘Right then, shall we?‘ broke the spell and it’s all suspension jiggery-pokery and battening down of body protection hatches.

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

As H was taking photos, I hung onto Matt’s back wheel following him off a frankly ridiculous line, before just hanging on as loose rock battered the bike from all directions. Speed really is your friend here even if feels like a fickle one. Suspension – both the bike and you – is optimally configured for free movement which grabbing a shitload of Shimano upsets in a way marked ‘over the bars/nil by mouth’.

We regrouped – waiting for Haydn – some of us more shaken than stirred but still with some fantastic descending to come. Firstly off the spine and into the fall line – done this 20+ times but it still is invigorating to the power of mild terror. I made mistakes, took crap lines, wasn’t as brave as I’d want to be, but memories of my mate Russ breaking his back here nearly 15 years ago still passes as an excuse.

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

Then it’s giggling and pointing and fish-y hand movements, and we’re off again into a narrow gulley with diverting spine shaped rocks trapped between claustrophobic edges. This used to be properly hard but the bikes are so good now and my head is in that place where you can ride anything. Until you can’t. Stayed on the right side of that today.

Done. Finally a fast sunken singletrack ridden with all of the joy that swinging a sorted bike between bends as fast as you dare brings.  Hitting the road, the van is still 5km distant from a canal towpath that’s muddy purgatory in December but today it’s firm, fast and bathed in sunshine.

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

It could have only been better had Cez fallen into the water which was a distinct possibility when he misjudged the height of a bridge. Sadly he stayed dry on the outside giving us plenty of time to get wet on the inside.

This is a perfect day. Rationally I know it’s all going to shit on this side of the planet for the next few months. I don’t need many rides like this though to get through it.

Dark at 5? Is that the best you can do? We’ll be riding mountain bikes in proper mountains. There is pretty much nothing better than that.

*or trousers. But being a mountain bikers we’re rocking the four season shorts culture embedded in the sadistic schools of your youth.

Crash. Don’t learn.

Phone case v Tree
£2 case saved £500 phone

So crashing then: Part of the sport. Side effect of accelerating out of your comfort zone. Price of entry worth the risk of injury. Reactions slowed by age. Outcomes predefined by cognitive dissonance. Bad luck. Bad day. Bad injury.

It doesn’t matter how you got here. But now you’re in the hall of the injured – then welcome. Valhalla for the not yet dead but impressively bruised. Walk away from most with the greatest injury to your pride, your thin skin pricked by the laughter of your mates. Those are the good ones.

The bad ones are bad. We don’t talk about those much. Occasionally though some empathy-free-zone will wait until you’re facing down some tech-death rock horror before announcing ‘Yeah my mate bob fucked himself up here bigtime.’ Pause while he receives multiple death stares. No matter he continues: ‘We call him Wheelchair Bob now‘.

Thanks for breaking the unwritten rule that major injuries are only discussed once everyone is safely ensconced in the pub with exactly the same number of unbloodied limbs they started the day with.  And afterwords ‘Right, who invited dickhead? Never again. Clear?

We’re a superstitious bunch considering our only gods are forest nymphs and the ones inside our heads.  I’m a left sock on first guy, tap all the bikes hanging on the walls of shedofdreams(tm) before lights out, select my ‘lucky gloves‘ to mitigate falling on difficult trails and toast every injury-free ride with a beer or two*

With such an pretorian guard of mental and physical amulets, it seems rather unfair to find myself flying through the air – long separated from my trusty steed – and accelerating towards a stout looking tree at about escape velocity.

One of the many joys of sliding into semi-retirement is my world is not fixed around some outdated concept of turning up to an office every day. As a consequence I get to ride with Adam who is younger, much faster and considerably more bouncy than me.

Especially on his local trails where he transits through some kind of worm hole in the second corner, only re-appearing at trails end looking entirely un-exercised while I arrive blowing it out of my arse some thirty seconds later.

We’d ridden these woods two weeks before when my Captain Slow excuses were forged deep in the mud and slop where traction may once have lived. Seasonal strangeness saw it actually dry up to close to dust this day and I was riding my favourite chubby bike.

So in my defence, perfect conditions. Except Autumn preserves sufficient vegetation to hide a stump perfectly configured to avoid your peripheral vision, while attracting my lower limb in some kind of organic tractor beam. I was already distracted having crashed a little further down the trail on my previous visit. Going to nail that this time I thought confidently as I nailed my foot to the aforementioned stump.

I bloody hate physics. It never gives you a day off. It’s like one of those stupid tests we had at school. If a mountain bike is travelling at 15 miles per hour and it’s motion is arrested by a solid object, what forces are in effect and what are the possible outcomes?

Out is where we came in. I exited out the front but not before the pedal raked my calf with rock sharpened pins. My still pretty-shagged hand, from binning it in Spain, insisted on protection in my organic body armour leaving my back to present a foetal like proposition to a blameless tree.

I have a pack with a back protector. Today it was protecting a hook in my shed, so the following couple of seconds were spent wondering exactly how many of my limbs responded to frantic neural commands. All of them. Thank Christ for that. Right I’ll have a proper sit down down now.

Fuck that hurt. The phone case in the picture saved my phone but tattooed my back. My slammed toe was screaming, but I couldn’t shout back as I’d lost the power of speech. Smacking a tree will do that to a man. I kind of hissed at Adam somewhere down the trail but he was already on his way back having reconciled the sounds of human tree felling with his mate possibly in some duress.

Humour they say kick-starts the healing process. I’m going to make the charitable assumption that was the trigger for Adam pissing himself as I lay supine on the ground performing my best ‘fish out of water’ impression.

Quitting absolutely was an option. But this late in the year, how many more warm, dry almost dusty days are we going to get? So I rode some more, whinged a bit, took a wide line around sniper stumps and still had a far better time than if I’d stayed inside and uninjured.

Still hurts tho. I’ve worn my back protector since. Took my a couple of descents to work myself back up to standard ‘mediocre speed’ but all good since then. Didn’t crash due to lack of commitment, didn’t over analyse the results, did pretend to be stoic but blew that after about 30 seconds. This convinced my mates I wasn’t concussed.

I seem to be writing more about crashing than riding. One is more interesting than the other. I’ll take boredom for a while tho if that’s okay.

*although rigorous analysis would suggest that’s more about my love of beer than any love of symbolism.

Yeah I’ll ride that out…

Yeah I'll ride that out!

that‘ being the classic front wheel burying itself in loam while the rear rockets skywards – its acceleration checked only by my arse, which was heading rapidly out of the danger zone leaving my face to take the impact.

It’d been coming to be honest. After the previous days drenching* in the Quantocks, making it this far without any major precipitation or trails mud carpeted from start to end was both a result and a relief.

This far being about 30 seconds from the end of a fantastic ride that’d started some five hours before.  Our guides – Martin and Debs – arrived at the Ship Hotel in Porlock to find five hungry mountain bikers chowing down on a full English followed by yes-a-refill-would-be-lovely vat of fresh coffee.

They declined joining us for food which based on the first climb out of the town made a whole lot of sense. That breakfast represented merely a short term food rental as we inched upwards on a steep road gradient. Starting at sea level in a place surrounded mostly by cliffs tends to make the local geography painfully lumpy.

It continued that way. We quit the road but not the climbing before that first trail of the day does what it always does- especially when it’s fresh from rain and you’re trying not the be the crasher-in-chief in front of new friends. So kind of minced down hunting for grip and refusing to accept there was loads to be found.

Thankfully no more of that descending nonsense was on the the trail menu for the next 45 minutes. Up into a clearing and then up some more, then lots more and then a bit more to the track leading to Dunkery Beacon. The highest point on Exmoor, and frankly a bit of a bastard road climb that mocked your bacon and caffeine habit.

Lovely views off top. Fab descent to the bottom. Would have been more fab were it not quite so muddy. Still fun but my mind is still in summer so my hands grip the bars and brakes too tightly to properly enjoy it like the fast boys. Alex crashed but I was too far behind to see it. I blamed the new bike. It blamed me right back.

Clearly an Alex crash day as the faster one handed over the baton for the next descent which started well, dropping into a wooded chute boarded by high banks themselves ringed with tree roots. An ambitious line offered itself as a mud free alternative, and my smugness of taking it lasted exactly long enough for the front wheel to tap a damp root and viciously spin me sideways to point backwards  up the trail. Still attached to the bike. There’s no branch of theoretical physics to explain exactly how that happened.

What happened next was a little more predictable what with the cultural icon of this lovely part of the country pretty much being the Scone**. Being a rebel I instead wolfed down a slice of carrot cake that was essentially the whole cake, before being stunned by the terrible news we were again at sea level.

Back up then. Took a while. There was a pleasant ride up the river bank followed by an slightly less pleasant push up a set of switchbacks acting as a calf burning gateway to something a little more in league with the freewheel. Granny’s trail apparently. No idea whose granny it was, but she must have been a heck of a mountain biker.

Fast, flowy, occasionally blind. The third facet not an ideal complement to the first two. Proper hip swinging fun tho with trees passing inches from the bars at 35kmh. It’d have looked superb from my new action cam has not Mr Stupid here accidentally switched it to time lapse. A feature clearly developed by someone who has never been outside.

Decision time. One more big climb for an awesome descent and the possibly of an end-of-summer ice cream, or a cheeky traverse of the moorland above Porlock before dropping into some sublime singletrack. Both sounded good, the second sounded easier and promised beer earlier so we went with that.  Fantastic 360 degree views, tricky navigation of a 10 inch wide trail hedged in by robust heather, a fire-road crossing and then the good stuff to end.

Which is where we came in.  And I came in to that bomb hole jump way too cautiously, far too slowly and under the idiotic notion it looked rollable. It was if the object rolling was the rider rather than the bike.  For a horrible second it had that exit-via-the-front, hands-out, broken-collarbone vibe about it. In that second I shifted my arse so far back – good job it’s quite a big unit – the blameless bike stopped rotating to instead smash down onto the steep slope, at which point I decided the best course of action was to abandon ship.

Amusingly the camera caught the moment in the absurdity of the time lapse.

Not riding it out

It didn’t really hurt. Well not as much as the piss taking which followed, and the repeated humiliation of watching it on slow-mo from Haydn’s GoPro.

I picked myself up, dusted myself down, got back on the bike and headed for the pub in order to consume vast quantities of local medication for both mental and physical anaesthetic.

Great place to ride tho. The next day was a different kind of fun. Especially as the crashing baton had again been handed on. Our next visit will likely coincide with the Porlock Weir-Fest beer festival. Three days of beer, bands and possibly some riding in the high summer of 2018.

Almost nothing could go wrong, Even so I’m packing an airbag.

*I am beginning to suspect that ‘Weather Event James‘ might have infected me with his where-I-ride-it-shall-piss-down curse.

**to rhyme with bone. Not gone. It’s not difficult and I do not understand how anyone can have a problem with it.

Trans-Cambrian. No getting away from it. Fucking wet.

Trans-Cambrian MTB Sept 2017

See that picture up there? There’s a duplicate pinned permanently to my phone lock screen.  To remind me of the correct response should any repeat invitation to navigate the inland seas of mid Wales flash over that image.

A picture paints a thousand words they say. Only two would be required to convey the strength of my feelings in the fewest number of syllables. Three syllables, two words, the last one being off. The first one had already been heavily campaigned before, during and after this picture was taken.

That word was of course ‘Fuck‘. Used extensively adjectivally prefixing ‘weather‘, ‘wind‘, ‘stream‘, ‘ford‘ and – mostly ‘Adam’s idea‘. While I was complicit in accepting Ad’s invitation to join him of this three day supported jolly jaunt on an iconic route, it remained his bloody stupid idea in the first place. I threw it into a few adverbs for semantic amusement, but mostly could be heard darkly muttering that brilliantly adaptive vulgar slang in a metronomic monotone.

Except you couldn’t hear it. On account of the 40 mph wind driving fat rain into your face.  Still if you warmed me in front of a roaring fire and charged my large glass with a strong spirit, I may begrudgingly admit it wasn’t completely awful. But only on the firm understanding I’d never have to do it again.

I might do though. Although I’d choose both the timing and my companions with more care. Not Adam – who kept me mostly sane and dragged me through a particularly difficult hour on the final day with cheery talk of beer soon and chocolate right now. But it might be a bloody good laugh adding the guys we ride with every week- on dry ground baked under blue skies.

Because they are mountain bikers. Where as the crew we rode with were owners of mountain bikes rather than actual mountain bikers. This is a crucial difference and something I’ll be exploring in the next edition of the excellent Cranked magazine.

Let me instead explain the silliness of the whole endeavour. Start in Knighton not far over the border from where we live, ride 170km over the next three days. Except for the parts where you’re carrying, fording and – in my case – swimming with your bike. It can be competed in a single day if you’re a proper nutter. Jason Miles is one such nutter and his story is here. .

Regardless of your level of nuttiness, you’ll experience stunning vistas of the Cambrian mountain range, every type of track from tiny farm to tourist double mostly submerged under exciting variants of mud*,   endless shit infested wet climbs clearly designed to suck the life from your soul, fast rutted doubletrack, occasional cheeky singletrack and either end of the Welsh B&B experience.

I may – for therapeutic reasons – document each day in more detail. For brevity tho it goes something like this; bleary eyed stumble into breakfast, drink all the coffee, try and find some dry kit, struggle into riding clothes, unearth bike from mud encrusted cipher, lube the chain for the look of the thing,  get a little impatient at the critical faff of 11 riders, jump on your bike to ride for most of the daylight hours, arrive at next destination, ignore bike wash for shower and beer before falling into dinner and ordering everything. Twice.

First night B&B was in a fantastic old stone building annexed by a Deli, fab restaurant,  lovely rooms, comfy bar and single rooms. The second night was somewhat more traditional.  I’ve stopped here a couple of times for a beer heading back from day rides and always though it was a bit of a locals pub.

A night there was all the proof needed that had been an entirely accurate interpretation but the food was hearty and plentiful, the owners happy to ruin their washing machine for total strangers and the bar, er, friendly 😉

And the riding? Well it’s not technical except for a couple of sections especially on the last day.  A day I shall remember mainly for wind so strong at times it felt you weren’t moving however hard you pedalled, and being sleeted on atop a bleak ridge whilst that wind attempts to toss you off the mountain**

It’s tough tho. Especially with it being so soggy. Day 1: 54km, 1200m of climbing. Day 2: 73km, 1600m of climbing. Day 3: 48km, 1250m of climbing. I was bloody pleased to ride every single metre of it, except one grass wall on day one that even the guides ascended by foot.

It’s not so much a mountain bike ride, it’s more of an adventure by bicycle. Every trail is new, every view is something you’ve probably never seen before, every climb is a challenge, every descent a bit of a laugh splashing through massive puddles or proper rivers.

Obviously someone had to fall into one of those. And as obviously that was me, but at least I made at attempt to ford the raging torrent under one of the Elan dams.  As I fished myself out of the Claerwen river, I wondered aloud how there could be any water left since we’d ridden through wheel deep puddles for the last hour. I think we can all guess what one of those words might have been.

I used it again whilst draining a gallon of brackish water from the Mojo3 frame. The bike has hung shivering in the shed ever since, refusing to be coaxed out in case it’s once more repurposed as a life raft.

For all that tho, it was brilliant. We laughed a lot, manned up, got it done, saw amazing stuff, had many memorable experiences which will make great stories, rode in places we’d never go on our own and – for me at least – found some of that bloody mindedness I thought was long gone.

The route is brilliant, the logistics outstandingly well thought out, the guiding great and the guides – Phill and Polly full of that enthusiastic grit and endless humour that somehow makes shitty weather and bog snorkelling great fun.

Would I do it again? Really? I think the final word should be where we came in. Fuck, yes.

*by the end of the ride, I had identified at least fifteen different types of Welsh dust. Most of them prefixed with the word fucking.

**this is not a euphemism.  For a start we were wearing about 9 layers of clothing at this point.

You can’t handle the forecast

Elan Valley Epic - April 2010

This photo brings back so many memories. Most of them accompanied by an involuntary shiver and a quick count of frost-nipped toes. An early spring day starting full of sunshine and enthusiasm but ending with grim relief and barely dodged hypothermia.

Seven years ago. Enough time passed for me to sign up to something both similar and a little more ambitious. This time tho I’ve handed over the guiding to a professional outfit promising all-weather routes, flawless logistics and fantastic riding finishing each day with hot and cold running beer.

It was a dark day in winter when my mate Adam pinged over the details of the Trans-Cambrian 3 day yomp starting in mid Wales and pretty much heading due north.  Brilliant I thought; dog end of summer, a bit of autumn crisp under Indian-summer skies. I’ll be fit and raring to go for a mini epic before the tilting planet darkens our days and drowns our trails.

Reality is a bugger. I’m as uninjured as a 50 year old man with a dubious diet, significant beer habit and an old fashioned approach to any kind of preventative body maintenance can be. The itinerary speaks of three hard days with the middle one standing out in terms of distance and climbing.  No issue with that; done a few of those, and my pre-ride preparation of two weeks of 12 hour days, the occasional libation and the remains of a Toblerone bar on my keyboard suggest I’m peaking at exactly the right time.

The weather tho. Looking for a positive, its not quite as unremittingly shit as previously forecasted- so bad the organiser was compelled to email out a stark warning that stout waterproofs, a stiff upper lip and at least county class breast stroke would likely be required on at least one day. And probably the next one assuming you hadn’t drowned/lost the will to live/called in the spousal support vehicle while publicly rubbing a ‘difficult‘ hamstring.

Now we’re just going to get wet. Leaving me a dilemma of bike choices; the new one shod with proper tyres hung between tubes which could hold a soupçon of mud without shutting down forward movement. Or the ‘old’* one with none of those things but sporting a rather natty new XTR mech.

The right choice would have been the SolarisMax of course, tried and tested on 29er running gear and designed for Peak District conditions that have much in common with what we’re about to ride into**

Sadly I’d robbed that for parts so after some olympic class ditheration, I finally threw the Mojo3 in the car on the grounds the bearings could do with a change so I might as well destroy them completely. Also Adam thought it was a good idea, so already I have someone to blame.

And I might need too. As this is an organised trip, we’re joined with seven other riders. Never met the one of them My bingo card reads: nerds, straverists, friendless nut jobs with questionable personal hygiene, a man who has never fixed a puncture, someone who’s demanding if we’re there, yet and a bloke with a map board.

That’s something to look forward too. It might take my mind off the weather assuming the possible lightening strikes stay away. Maybe that’s the subliminal reason I went with the 2.8 wide tyres.

Anything is going to be a relief tho after these last three weeks of work attempting to shove 40 days effort into 15 elapsed, writing neatly 20,000 words, proof reading about double that all the time attempting – metaphorically speaking – to wrestle an octopus into a string bag.

Bikes, big landscapes, nothing to do but ride, no email, no meetings, no more FUCKING PROOF READING, everything organised- sounds bloody brilliant. The last time that happened we were in Spain choking down dust on some of the best trails I’ve ever ridden.

Adam did crack a couple of ribs and I broke my hand, but otherwise it was fantastic. And mostly dry. Whatever, beats the hell out of sitting in front of this time stealer for one more second. And on that note, beer and packing. Probably in that order.

*six months old. In the shedofdreams(tm) that’s pretty much a cultural relic.

**Rain, Grit, Mud, Sheep, Strange beer.

Testing times

Smuggler first ride

In the last seventeen years plausible deniability cannot shield the uncomfortable truth that at least 30 bikes have been, briefly stayed and are now long gone.  Once within a single day*

Sheds full of bikes distinguishable only by colour – during a strange period of acquiring 80mm travel hardtails – suggested collection rather than utility.  Supplanted by a rambling pantheon from fully rigid to full on freeride interspersed with bikes of transient notoriety. Resembled more a bike commune than the preserve of one slightly batty owner.

However, regardless of type, size and measured level of stupidity, all fresh bikes must follow the new bike protocol. A rite of passage punting the new and shiny into the realm of codified and accepted.  It has three distinct phases; faff, purchase anxiety and inconclusive conclusions.

Let’s take each of those in turn; firstly there’s a persistent legend postulating I once built my own bikes. It’s lampooned at regular intervals by those witnessing my mechanical savagery when facing down difficult mechanical problems**. Before drawing a discreet veil over the period before Matt took pity on me, I will acknowledge the many first rides where long delays to rebuild headsets or insert disc pads were not an uncommon occurrence.

Not now. The Smuggler has been built from the ground up. Friday morning we had nothing but a frame and a pair of box fresh rims. In the following 36 hours, Matt methodologically worked his way through chapters of serial problems with the air of a man to whom mechanical perfection is an open book. Fair to say even if I ever located such a book, I’d probably accidentally set fire to it before putting it out with a fire axe.

Even with such an auspicious birth, faffing was still the order of a day as we sheltered under the van’s tailgate from the persistent rain. Suspension to be tweaked, tyres to be squished, inflated, deflated and then left pretty much as they were. Once on the trails, the potential for drowning and the tight build had us stopping only a couple of times, once to stuff a bit more air in the shock*** followed by a pointless placebo bar shift which didn’t stop me declaring it as ‘way better

Purchase Anxiety is something else entirely. The thought that maybe all that cash has done nothing but prop up some marketeers sales targets.  Especially if there are other bikes in the shed which are at best similar and at worst duplicates. Not the case here, the Smuggler is at least six degrees and a widening arc different to the FlareMax.

I’m not a good enough rider to explain why. New bike glasses magnify a plusher and grippier rear end, a slightly tauter overall ride, a noticeably quicker turn in, a need to push a little harder for the bike to work properly –  but it’s all subjective nonsense. Maybe nothing more than the slick shifting and irritant free riding any new bike will deliver.

For the first 2/3rds of the ride I could have been on a Halfords special such was my inability to deal with the changed conditions. Yesterday was hard, fast and dusty – lingering motes in the sunshine, limitless traction and wide smiles. Today was polished roots, shivering and that horrible slip/grip arse twitchery associated with hard rain on soft trails.

Matt dealt with it far better than me. I consoled myself that this wasn’t a bike thing, more – as usual – an Al thing. Couldn’t commit to the corners, couldn’t pull my focus from the glistening roots barely ahead of the front wheel, couldn’t find any flow at all.

Running out of time, I gave myself a strict talking too above the last descent. Gritted mud in my teeth, took a bead on Matt’s back wheel and put Newton in the driving seat.  There’s grip to be found here if you’re not pissing it away micro-braking. Roots rapidly disappear under fast rolling big wheels, raise that chin, bend those elbows, find the balance – its further forward than your hindbrain thinks. So put that head in the danger area and feel the bike carve, grip and accelerate.

It’s still bloody greasy tho- so it’s with some relief I pop off the final drop and explain to a patient Matt what a bloody brilliant bike this is. Took two seconds off my PB which considering it’s a trail ridden nearly a 100 times and conditions were hardly perfect is at least quantifiable.  But not enough to know if it’s the bike or me.

Inconclusive conclusions. Enough meat on the bone to confidently declare the bike is a keeper. And different enough from the others to raise the hope I can justify them all. After that? I’ve had too many bikes to postulate anything other than I had a bloody great time when most of my friends called it a duvet day.

Oh and I want to ride it loads more. Maybe tomorrow, definitely Tuesday and probably for three days yomping over mountains on the Trans-Cambrian next weekend.

At the end of all this the TL;DR summary is bikes are good, new bikes are very good and this one is very good indeed.

*it was a singlespeed tho, so mitigating circumstances prevailed.

**Standard approach is to eye the offending part balefully, before much percussion from a range of ever larger hammers then declaring the managed component as suffering from ‘an electrical problem‘.

***your weight minus 15 psi the manual said. I probably need to accept I’m not 11 stone anymore.

Normal service has been resumed…

Transition Smuggler - built not ridden

.. so there is no need to adjust your preconceptions.  Soon to follow will be the tired lament of why new is better and how this latest wheeled trinket slots into a carefully curated fleet of what appears – to the less discerning observer  – a quiver of very similar bicycles. We’ve been here before.

But first that garage. It’s not mine obviously. Far too much actual engineering going on when compared to the vanity project physicalising as the ShedOfDreams*. Matt’s rationale for the stacked detritus toppling dangerously on any flat service tells of a carefully indexed system where every tool is perfectly positioned for easy access. Based on how long we both spent hunting for the 3/8ths gripley and time-bending-quantum-laster tonight, I’m starting to suspect he might be fibbing.

Whatever, time to focus. I’ve been living that noun for a few months now. Discarding once cherished bikes,  now distanced from daily driver to wall ornament by all the new and shiny passing through the revolving door of my rental fleet.  Over 4000km on the Aeris didn’t save it from being not as good to ride as the Mojo3.

Then admitting Jessie’s new bike was at best something to be shared between us saw off the Stache, And the unpleasant return of the road bike left me in such an aesthetic funk, I couldn’t wait to move it on.

Three bikes sold. Beyond focus and into fiscal probity. At this rate the Mojo3 would almost be paid for. Clearly the wisdom and gravitas of entering my sixth decade** was ushering in an epoch of financial responsibility and bicycle austerity. I was down to my last four for Christ’s sake.

Logic suggested this was more than enough for a man with only two legs.  Even when considered against a four-season strategy of riding bikes with proper tyres and sealed pivots come the return of the grim. Let the Mojo3 be brilliant in its operating envelope of Californian conditions, substituting Yorkshire grit when you personal autobiography reads ‘my life in the slop’

Ibis, Cotic Full Suss, Cotic Hardtail. Sorted. Pick a standard from the plethora of the latest offering so wheels – and more importantly tyres – can be switched between the three and settle in for a shit but smug winter. To that end I reinvested some of that sale cash in posh wheels and matching forks in the certain belief that – finally – what I held was what I wanted.

Logic will only take you so far. Longing takes you a little further. I’ve REALLY wanted a Smuggler – that’s what ^^ that is – since the launch back in 2015. For no other reason than they look a bloody good laugh. But so close to the FlareMax in travel and angles, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to sneak it into the shed under cover of darkness.

Let’s address that first. I did discuss it with Carol who took the news with a look of resigned resignation I’ve learned to recognise as tacit approval. My wanton slash and burn of the current fleet probably knocked her a bit off balance, and I half expected to receive a therapy voucher for my birthday.

Justification though still bites hard. On the credit side, it was cheap in the way high end mountain bike frames are only cheap to those who consider anything less than four figures being pretty much not worthy of interest. That’s just the frame of course but a slight lowering of standards snagged gears, brakes and ancillaries for something less than absolutely eye watering.

Spares and careful husbandry of existing parts supplied the rest and we’re away to Matt’s garage where many new bikes are forged. This after Carol and I had a marital disagreement over the best way to apply the hateful frame protection the night before. An argument that ended – somewhat predictably – in doing it her way because it didn’t involve smacking that pristine frame with a big hammer.

It wasn’t a difficult birth. Matt passed me a beer and asked me to stand well back from where the responsible adults were working. Stuff around internal cable routing, tricky chain lines and the potential for a major hydraulic explosion passed me by as I wondered why the hell I’d bought another bike.

No useful conclusions were reached. Instead I wrangled another beer before a dusky test ride suggested the Smuggler may be virtually only a few inches different to the FlareMax, but in the real world it’s bloody miles away.

Tomorrow will probably tell me quite how far. It may not be much and all of that might be in my head. It never stops being fun finding out tho.

*it’s basically a bar with a bunch of interesting stuff on the wall to talk about while quaffing a beer or five.

**however many times I write this, it still feels like a mealy mouthed metaphor for ‘HOW FUCKING OLD?”

Old dog, new tricks

Let me share with you a brief list of highlights which have marked the transition from fairly old to mostly irrelevant:

1) 50th Birthday. 8am. Significant hangover
2) A days down-hilling with ten of my riding buddies at Bike Park Wales
3) Most of them and a few more standing the whole family dinner on Friday night
4) A fab present from those above venn-ing my love of photography, nurd-tech and data
5) Cocktails the size of small buildings and G&Ts apparently configured to stun a medium size donkey
6) See 1)

Not learned much then.  Other than action cameras have broken free from their traditional grainy footage directed by an epileptic under a strobe light. Now the lenses are pin sharp, the stabilisation electronics somewhere between unfathomable and witchcraft, the form factor a triumph of miniaturisation and the software breathtaking in its scope.

Even the bloody user interface isn’t beyond a man whose ‘stab and swear‘ technique tends to devalue expensive electronic items through acts of repeated blunt force trauma.

So with the celebrations and after effects of those celebrations most confined to that ever increasing library of stuff I’m just calling ‘the past‘, the time had come to embrace the future.  And here it was in a box marked ‘Garmin Virb Ultra 30 4K 30FPS‘. Even as a man always ready to embrace a punchy acronym, this does feel as if someone is trying a little too hard.

Never mind that, let’s get amongst it with random cables, pointless mounts and minimal instructions hitting the recycling bin at terminal velocity, before the tiny object of my latest affection presented a single toggle switch, a button to switch it on and another one to fire up the comms array.

Apparently there are videos one is recommended to watch so as to better understand the marvel in your palm*, forums full of amateur enthusiasts** and reams of indexed electronic paper desperate to explain that 4K 30PS is not compatible with light-boost or image stabilisation.

Ignored all those. Obviously. I’m older yeah but not yet totally fucking incapable. In all the time taken for a medicinal bacon sandwich to kick in, I was already chasing Amber round the lawn shouting ‘bark you bugger, you’re on dog-cam‘. The results looks great in the tiny viewfinder and that’s before we explored what Garmin grandly terms the ‘application ecosystem‘.

What we’re talking here is the phone app which streams both a live and a saved feed from the camera, a chunk of editing software for the Mac and electronic tentacles stretching out to other Garmin products of which I appear to have many. Within seconds, my watch has established control of the start/stop recording functions, my heart rate monitor was stuffing data into something called the G-Martix and my entirely prissy iPhone was viewing footage of a wet nose attempting to eat my birthday present.

Marvellous. What a time to be alive. Seconds to find stuff, minutes to drain the battery pretty much flat. All those sensors suck power from a tiny cell already straining to support an on-board GPS and all sorts of photography sorcery.

That’s the USP tho. Not only to do you get to record for all time your mates riding away from you, there’s the added benefit of tracking just how slowly you were travelling. And it doesn’t stop there, oh no. You can also laugh at how few G you are pulling in the corners, how little height you’re boosting over jumps and investigating something called ‘hang time’ which for me appears to be measured through an entirely new field of quantum mechanics.

So much fun tho. Mounted on the bars it captures a wide field of view at ridiculous frames per second, all while managing the dappled light of a late summers morning. The GPS isn’t quite so good, lagging a bit or just giving up entirely, but blimey it looks bloody fantastic on final edit.

An edit I’ve slash/cut in a homage to Michael Bay as not everyone wants to watch what appears to be the same trails being ridden by the same blokes for 10 minutes, especially accompanied by a sound track from ‘Dodgy Northerner‘ playing ‘Howling rotors‘ on repeat.

Media Poverty dictates the awesome clarity of the raw footage is unlikely to survive upload to social media. Nor my predictable choices of music so at least you’ll be spared some 80’s dad-rock while wondering if the blur presented as a mountain biking video is a rider, a tree or a finger over the lens.

If you can endure that, you might see the bone dry trails, the dust kicking off Alex’s wheel, the grip enjoyed by cambered riders, the banter of good mates skiving off on a Sunday morning and – as previously mentioned – the sound of a man comfort braking most of the time.

No hang time tho. I’ve saved you from that.

Had a brilliant extended birthday weekend. Perfectly spent with my family and my friends and – now – my latest adventure recording device. Best make sure I get a few more of those in then.

*we’re still talking action cameras. In case you were suffering even a slither of doubt.

** I’ve been here with model aircraft. And backed away quietly while I hoped no one was watching. There are some very odd people on there. I won’t be venturing back.