I spoke too soon

Sunny but Muddy FoD

About three weeks ago if precision is on the agenda. Riding through a dead winter landscape long shadowed in unseasonal winter sunshine. I called it. Stupidly as it turned out. “Spring is here” summarised my happy mantra to Haydn riding next to me. That thing you see in front of you is the dry line. We’re done with the grim. Oh contraire.

The scientific method is something of a touchstone for me. So I’m not confusing the current climatic conditions with a butterfly flapping causal link to a man being optimistically stupid. Even so, I kind of wish I’d thought before speaking*, kept my powder dry, ridden the long game, and just accepted weather and seasons are really quite different things.

Ah but what a day. Warm sunshine blocking out the vista of nothing growing, dry trails lending grip to tyres not filled with February mud, bacon sandwiches enjoyed outside soaking up Vitamin D. Sure we needed an extra layer in the pub, but it still felt like early spring not late winter.

Then I got sick. Properly ‘don’t start any long books’ sick. It took over two weeks to de-escalate the certainly of ‘certain death’ to ‘possible death’**. I morphed into a grumpy snot monster with a cough clearly vectored for Tuberculosis . Stoic as I was***, the grimness encompassed Jessie’s 18th birthday and the last of the dry trails. I managed most of events associated with the former, while lamenting the latter through industrial quantities of Sloe Gin. No point risking malaria as well.

So yesterday we were back out once the rain turned up like an unwanted relative at Christmas, and showing no sign of sodding off until lent. While this was moderately annoying, I couldn’t help thinking it was fairly consistent with March. Comes in like a lion and leaves like a lamb apparently. Or – as I like to think of it – rainy bastard with the chance of snow.

Riding out we couldn’t help but notice some puddles. Nothing was underwater, but a few of the trails had that look about them. Roots were slick, dirt was moist, skills were lacking. Had to lean on the front a bit to reacquaint myself with the whole ‘back there for partying, up here for thinking’ mullet technique.

Sideways rain wasn’t exactly a proxy for Spring either. We hid in PedalaBikeAway where pig sandwiches and hot coffee fortified us for the long ride to the pub. We ignored the ridden out rutty trails taped off for the Forest enduro, and headed west into the cheeky side of our riding realm.

Careful selection of trails avoided the horror of twenty minute plasticine climbs in what I’ve come to think of as ‘quick-mud’. Step off here and they’ll need to drag you out with a tractor. The similar sized tyres on my SolarisMax were working surprisingly well in the gloop. The front aiming me in the right direction, while the rear shimmied about in an amusing fashion.

Last three descents are all belters. The first an off camber loam-fest dropping into ever steepening turns. My plan to ride it feet up failed to survive first contact with the dirt. Tripod’d a few corners but not with my head so considered that a win.

Up a fireroad climb before dropping into a two pitch delight that’s fast and open until it isn’t. Rooty and nadgery between unforgiving trees makes keeping your head up and trusting your tyres the only way to stay in touch with the riders ahead. It’s all getting a bit lairy out back, but I’m staying off the brakes and riding the slide. Stuff of life right there.

We roll out though a muddy ditch and there’s lots of banter. ‘That bloody stump, nearly had me, reckon I tapped it with the rear, so much fun’. That’s pub talk, and we’re one descent from the river where our favourite hostelry awaits.

It’s an ever changing rock filled ditch. Relentless rain has opened up crevices and chutes hidden under last years leaves. It’s fun on the hardtail, but you need your wits about you as 3-D problems plant themselves in your optic nerve.

We ride the first section well and then accelerate onto a narrow ridge which disappears near the trail end. Option a) is to brake hard and drop gently into the mess of rocky chop. Option b) is more of a ‘ah fuck it, it’ll be fine’ brakeless plunge into the chute while hoping for the best.

The best was very good indeed. We giggled our way back on the old train track and got the beers in. Sure my bike is a muddy cipher of something I barely recognise, and my ride kit lies festering in a bucket, but we know it’s just going to get better from here.

I called it too early. But Spring is coming. I can’t wait.

*to be honest, this isn’t the first time such a thing may have happened.

**no medical professionals were consulted to confirm this diagnosis.

***In the Leigh household, there was a vigorous debate over the exact definition of stoic.

Crossing the streams

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018
Matt riding a dry trail. There weren’t many of those. In fact, this was the only one!

There is some stuff you shouldn’t mix. Explosive chemicals being self-evident*. Three generations of the same family a somewhat more learned life skill. And big days in the hills when Winter still firmly controls the calendar.

Matt – in the image above – clearly disputes this. His view is if you’re not bloodily injured with a mostly broken bike while struggling through waist high snow as night falls, then basically you need to get out less. Death-Marches are a real thing, and Matt’s keen to up the game with DM Evo where at least one person might not make it.

Honestly it’s like being the red jumper bloke in Star Trek. Join that party and it essentially peril, pain and a probable fatal interaction. Knowing all that, it as something of a surprise to find myself dodging fat raindrops at 6am this morning as the van pulled into the drive.

Clearing up shower then’ I greeted Matt. He just looked disappointed it wasn’t sleeting, or dinosaur killing meteors weren’t bouncing off the roof. We collected the rest of the red-jumper tribe and headed into mid Wales bombarded by zero temps and hard rain.

Daybreak didn’t bring much joy to a sodden landscape, with much hiding under the tailgate finding s dither of mountain bikers wondering how much waterproofing kit to wear. I went with ‘all of it’ as we took account of our surroundings – to whit being on the valley floor flanked by muscular hills at every compass point.

Best get up one of them. By the end of the day I’m pretty sure we’d been up most of them. Maybe twice. It’s proper ‘winch’n’plummet’ geography with little truck for anything tending to the horizontal. The first climb was a muddy horror, elivened only when an elbows-out MXer passed us in a spray of slurry only to bin it 30 yards on.

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018

Made me laugh. Into the sleet now acting as organic acupuncture. Fuck me that’s a bit miserable I thought dragging another waterproof from the pack. I didn’t need to look at Matt to see he was smiling. And hoping for snow.

First descent was a 2m wide mud rut enriched with a jumble of loose rock and wet roots. I was back on the Bird having repaired** all the broken stuff not really enjoyed on the Gap Ride. We are still having bonding issues – especially once my tentativeness ended with a partial ejection into a mud bank.

No one else seemed to be struggling tho. Nor at the first actual stream crossing where I took pictures before failing to fall into the river. This is something of a first.

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018
Sam not falling into the river.

Climbing wise, all was good even with frozen appendages stomping pedals and gripping bars. Six weeks in the shed going nowhere slowly may actually be making a difference. Or it could have been two cups of turbo-coffee and a dirty egg bap. Time may tell.

Descent 2. Went okay. Nobody died. Not even those wearing red. Bike still felt odd. Well I felt odd, unconnected, a bit nervous, missing my hardtail. At times likes this, a moment of introspection while chowing down on sarnies can help.

It didn’t really. I was a bit miserable from the chain gang up the valley into a bastard head wind. It was a pretty valley but it was also pretty brutal. Rather than deal with any actual problems, I changed my gloves. Displacement activity right there.

Descent three. Top of which is that first image. Stunning to be in the big hills, breathing clean air and on-sight-riding fairly technical stuff. Even when I’m riding like a twat, I cherish days like this. Any big hill, any season.

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018

Sam was holding the gate as I came close to cartwheeling into it. Proper rocky but actually mostly dry. This lasted another two seconds before my wheels were submerged by a raging torrent pretending to be a trail.

Three minutes later not much has changed other than a few heartfelt ‘fuck me, that was close’ , and sufficient sliding off wet slate into water deep enough for me to consider whether a life raft might be something to add to my personal inventory.

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018

Arriving in a rather flustered state at the road, Haydn wondered if my forks might need a tweak. I asked him why. His reply suggested my current setup would be brilliant if I was method-acting Zebedee from Magic Roundabout, but not quite so appropriate for pounding rocks at regular intervals.

Since I was faffing, it seemed apposite to remove about 25% of the air from a rear shock last inflated when I was quite a bit fatter***. Placebo or not, from therein, the bike received a studied Nod and a bit of a Yorkshire ‘That’ll do’ as we finally made some decent progress when the world tips to our happy place.

Last climb then. Feeling good. Except my feet. Can’t feel those at all. Swing into the road climb to be met by a sign informing any who may pass that 25% is the gradient. It wasn’t as easy as that, with a upward trajectory suggesting a moon-shot.

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018

Orbital mechanics aside, I made a decent punt at it. 16 minutes of ‘oh sodding nora when is this going to end?’ delivering 250m of vertical waiting to be cashed in on a descent boosted as the best of the day. That’s a hell of an ask based on what had come before.

We rode into some stunning scenery filled with glacial moraines and the promise of cold rain. Dropping into a mad rock gulley I substituted any proper technique with the ‘hang on and hope’ approach that’s served me so well all these years. I even kept my eyes open.

Which was helpful as a tiring Sam became a further trail obstacle. Stupidly I followed Cez on a line best though of as ‘danger of death or at least the loss of a spleen’ accelerating to speeds I’m not entirely comfortable with.

Not as uncomfortable as what came next. A concrete slab drop-shipped by a lowest cost bidder to slow subsidence. It didn’t slow me as I was properly shitting the big drop on the far side of it. No way to roll that. Instinct is one thing, experience another. So for the frightened, closing my eyes and hoping for the best was as ever my go-to strategy.

Bit clattery, moments of uncertainty, bike going one way, upper body the other. Gritted teeth, rode it out eyeballs on stalks then cracked on registering every moment as the difference between merely existing and being alive.

Trail finally finished and we were cold, wet and bloody loving it. Rolled back into town to scare the good citizens of Llangollen with half naked bodies and much giggling.

What a day. Crossed many streams. Dodged some bullets. Found a way to enjoy the wet and the Winter. We’ll be back. Maybe next time tho hold the sleet….

*other than to those hardcore practical experimenters with no eyebrows. Tend to leave buildings vertically.

**as in ‘drop it off at Matt’s and get it back working through some kind of magic

***Don’t confuse this with me being whip-thin now. I’ve merely backed away from corpulent.

Back in the game

ShedOfMisery(tm) Upgrade
That’s almost as much fun as it looks.

About this time last year I was reflecting bitterly on my inability to maintain forward motion without some kind of prat-fall. This prat fell over a log on a night run, failed to right himself so savagely rotating an innocent ankle clearly not designed to articulate in such a manner.

Damaged ligaments mutated that limb into a monster parody of a something mostly known for usefully attaching a foot too. Walking was painful, riding mountain bikes was strictly forbidden. My response was to buy a turbo trainer and Zwift subscription to stave off both boredom, and the inevitable loss of fitness doing nothing grumpily tends to engender.

It achieved neither. To be fair it was sailing into challenging headwinds comprised by an apathy and ‘fuck it, let’s have a beer instead’ approach to rehabilitation. Come March I could ride again – albeit 7 pounds heavier and with the aerobic fitness of a freshly minted corpse – meaning the turbo was first joyfully ignored, then repurposed as dusty clothes horse.

Until Christmas 2018. Even prior to the annual assault on all things cheese and port, the scales displayed the kind of quantitative evidence my clothes were already telling me. Basically I’d got fat. 13 stone 2 pounds fat. That’s me in another life where Mountain Bikes don’t exist, where hitting fifty merely unlocks the elastic waistband achievement.

Not having that, things must be done. Drag the unused cross bike onto the turbo, repurpose random shed items to host a ten year old monitor and a portable speaker. Fire up Zwift and some inspirational tunes and get right back at it. Went well for ten minutes until a few exciting seconds ending abruptly with the rear tyre exploding.

I tried to spin this as my awesome power fuelling a friction based combustion of some unworthy rubber, whereas an actual analysis of the remains demonstrated it had more perished than failed. Logic dictated a replacement was a simple ten minute drive/twenty quid transaction.

Pah logic? Over-rated. Some of us like to think more laterally. In this case around 30 miles east to a purveyor of all things shiny. Yes, if I couldn’t upgrade myself, I could upgrade the turbo into something marketing itself as ‘direct drive’ to ‘create a real road riding experience.’

Two small points worth mentioning here; firstly my limited familiarity with tarmac and bikes suggests the real experience would involve dodging wheel swallowing potholes, firing mud, dog-shit and God knows what else into your open mouth, all while being almost murdered by random strangers hurling two ton metal death bringers at you.

I didn’t want to lose weight that badly. I’m sure somewhere there’s a book heartily recommending shitting yourself on a regular basis to work off the pounds, but it’s not for me. Road riding is scary. Point 2 is there is nothing real about steaming up the windows of your shed, pedalling furiously while going nowhere and confusing flickering images for what’s going on outside.

No it’s more ‘FatMan – to the ShedMobile’. 13 days out of 14 was my record. Where the fuck I found the mental fortitude for that streak is something of a mystery to me. The problem with the bastard game* is it – well – games you. I somewhat incautiously signed up for a twelve week ‘training’ programme without understanding what the hell that might mean.

What it means is four or five hours every week, in what I now think of as the ShedOfMisery, wanting to electrocute the virtual coach who dispenses patronising inspiration through the medium of electronic smugness. But I keep coming back because if you miss a session, it’s gone. For good. No getting it back.

There’s 52 sessions in total. I’ve missed two. One was in the first week. It still burns. It’s like bloody Pokemon Go only for old people. Also this new trainer has some kind of witchcraft mode which basically makes cheating impossible. That I find extremely annoying as cheating is pretty much my first up response to stuff when it gets hard.

And it is getting hard. Every week just has a bit more bastard in it. Accompanied by the creepingly smug text scrolling across the screen. I have many issues; one is mountain bikers don’t spin a fast cadence. Anything over a 90 and I’m a mashing hamster. I’ve become increasingly convinced that the game knows this, thereby mocking my tawdry efforts with demands that wouldn’t be out of place on a washing machine spin cycle.

When I can’t face smugtwat(tm), I switch to a ‘group ride’. I so want to be sniffy about the friendship of virtual strangers. I mean VirtualShedWorld isn’t much of an upgrade to SecondLife or whatever came after. None of the avatars are fat for a start. And they all must know the cheat codes, because I’m blowing it out of my arse while every other fucker is happily communicating over group chat.

I have only responded once. With ’Nnnnnnggggghhhh’ after collapsing – aerobically spent – over the keyboard. But I keep coming back. And when one of those ‘Ride On’ drops into my virtual jersey I feel a little bit happy. And a little more dead inside.

5 weeks in. 7 to go. 12st7 at the last count. Most of that is giving up booze some of the time. Do I feel any fitter? Not sure, I certainly feel knackered. Someone suggested this might be overtraining, but I was able to counter that with I’m playing shit games in my shed, and this isn’t training. That’s basically an affront to the whole ethos of mountain biking.

7 more weeks. Fuck me, it’s worse than being forced to endure Strictly. At least I could do that with a beer. Come March tho, I’m not sure merely sidelining the turbo is going to be enough.

There might be a shed fire.

*and it is a game. Some people take it VERY seriously. I find this deeply amusing as I attempt to shave 2 seconds off a particularly annoying segment. I’m comfortable with simultaneously claiming the moral high ground and adopting the role of towering hypocrite 🙂

Gap Analysis..

FoD - Mud, Sun and Smiles ride

… is traditionally defined as the process of identifying the breadth, scope and reach of activities to transition effectively from the current state to a desired future state. Sounds dull? It is, and I should know with it representing about 25% of my work right now.

It serves us here on the Hedgehog rather niftily as both a synonym and a metaphor.  The current state has been fixed for at least five years, the future state sees me the far side of something scary and the activities to get there can be summarised as ‘jump over that bloody gap you spawny git’

If only it were so simple. Or more pertinently so much shorter than the physical reality in front of me. It’s a whopper. Already over 3m if you’re measuring the great big bloody hole ready to swallow up ‘Alex the Timid’ and nearer 5m when including entry and exit ramps.

Speed is definitely your friend. Unless you come up short in which case it really isn’t.  Next stop massive cartwheeling crash, with potential non-optional visit to hospital.

All of this has been a bit moot until recently. I’ve never imagined myself clearing it, while images depicting splattering myself all over the forest fill my hindbrain whenever the gap hoves into view.  So I’ve taken the sensible option of giving it the chicken-swerve.

The problem is bloody progression. I seem to be riding quite well lately – other than crashing myself silly which shall form the cornerstone of the next www.cranked.cc article – so what was really never more than pub bullshit ‘yeah I’ll get that nailed one day’ has now become ‘sober-doable

I’m a coward tho, so just because I can absolutely does not mean I will. Then all my riding buddies crossed the bloody Rubicon – firstly Cez but that’s okay as he’s a way better rider than me and, helpfully for this situation, fairly bonkers. Next up is Matt – again a far more skilled rider but a little more considered in terms of risk/reward. He was followed over by Alex W, another who is definitely handier on a bike….. hang on let’s just save time and assume EVERYONE is a bit better than me.

Right, we can move on. Only I couldn’t. Perfect conditions in late Autumn meant this was going to be ‘the day’. Just Matt and I so no friendly haranguers pointing phones at my imminent demise. The key to the gap is actually the jump before. Clear that by landing fully on the transition, and you’re at the perfect speed to hit the ramp of the MONSTER ABYSS ATTEMPTING TO DRAG ME INTO OBLIVION.

I really need to work on my positive thinking.  Any road, we hauling a fair lick on grippy dirt and I’m right behind Matt as he sails over the qualifier. Somehow tho –  because I’m a Doofus – I manage to fuck that up and drop my rear wheel short of the transition. I lose speed, and Matt’s rear wheel as he comfortably flies over 10 feet of fresh air to kiss the down ramp.

I come to a shuddering halt and swear.  Bollocks, we’ll go again. This time I hit it a little sweeter and I’m in a great position to conquer my personal nemesis. Only somehow I’ve grabbed a shitload of Shimano and scooted into the chicken run. Matt looks round ‘Did you….’ but he can see I did not. And he can hear it as well. I’m grumpy for the rest of the ride. And the rest of the day because now it’s November, meaning it’ll be Spring before I get another chance.

Except this exceptionally dry spell has left the trails mint-y mint. We’re on a long ride and the gap is close to the last descent. I’ve been going well and Matt asks if I fancy a crack at it. I mull the idea up a 10 minute climb, before deciding I’m basically out of excuses and it’s either Shit or Get Off The Pot. Hopefully not thinking too literally here.

Did I want another look at it? No I fucking did not. I’ve looked at it a 100 times. Mainly from a ground based position riding around the blighter. Right then,  we’re straight into the trail and it’s feeling good until Matt slows down. What the hell is he doing? Before the relief we’re not doing it washes through me, he’s off again heading for the qualifier.  Oh we are doing it then. Super.

I have never hit that jump so well, hardly felt the landing, and we’re accelerating hard down the slope past the point of no return. Not for one microsecond was I going to bottle it. My mind – as it does at such times of stress and worry – shut completely down and I handed the whole thing off to muscle memory and Newtonian physics.

You do hit it fast and there’s a real feeling of being in the air for a while. Then you’re not, and I’m a little nose heavy on landing but nothing that’s going to throw me out the front door. I totally fail to make the corner as I’ve chucked the bike away and am running around gesticulating wildly and making senseless noises*

Cez asked if I wanted another go for the camera. I decided probably not. I’m so wobbly from all the adrenalin and relief, I can barely stand up never mind poking the monster again. But next time will be a whole lot easier.

So the picture up there isn’t me. It’s Pete from a few years back**. It doesn’t really show the full horror of what’s going on. Obviously I’m making it sound WAY harder than it is, but when I moved here at 40, I couldn’t jump over a log and at 51 I’m still riding harder and scarier stuff.

This makes me feel like a five year old. And that’s risk/reward right there 🙂

*apparently no one noticed anything different to normal.

**and it’s longer than that now. Honestly, ask anyone!

Three wise men

Classic Gap Ride

This post could have worked a whole lot better had it been published during the season of the Sky Fairy. Especially as any lies – sorry mis-statements as we now seem to be calling them – would barely register against the nonsense of the  plastic believers making one-off pilgrimages to their local churches.

That’s quite enough of that. Let’s talk bikes.  Three men – let’s lose the wise tag based on what’s coming – appeared through the miracle of internal combustion at a mythical location we’ll call faff-central.

One brought sandwiches, another a massive hangover, the third a bunch of excuses and a non functioning rear brake. As gifts, these scored barely one out of three. The one barely scraping in due to two kinds of pickle and home made bread*

Classic Gap Ride

Van packed, driver navigationally confused, not very wise man one making unhelpful suggestions, definitely unwise man two still looking drunk. An inouspicus start. No stars, just winter solstice gloom and the desperate need to do things outside to avoid further incidents with cheese and brandy.

Ninety minutes later, we’re checking packs and worrying about the weather. In a ‘B’ movie kind of ‘it’s too quiet, something must be about to happen’ kind of way. Last year we slogged through snow, other years offered up rain, hail, gale force winds and assorted meteorological misery.

Best crack on then before Fate notices. First climb is fine. Easy even with no hangover and an absence of frost and ice. Easy for me, Cez however was rocking a skin colour I associated with either a) dead already or b) dead soon.  He man’d up and we got it done in a little under the baseline. I’ve ridden this route so many times, there’s a rhythm and a cadence to it, so you know if you’re ahead.

Classic Gap Ride

Or in Alex’s case, underneath it. On cresting the tricky last climb to the ridge, he’s chosen poorly with a route best marked summer, and essentially bog snorkelled his way out the far side. As close to wise as any of us get, I’ve skirted that obstacle and barely dipped a toe in the clay, while Cez has gone full ‘chubby tyre paddle steamer’ through the middle.

Classic Gap Ride

The ridge top is still a hundred metres of climbing away. Last year we were woefully under-provisioned in the area of ice climbing equipment. Today it was a breeze because neither snow, nor the bastard head wind, long associated with this climb, was attempting to throw you back into the valley.

Classic Gap Ride

It almost felt too easy. Which made me a bit suspicious. Rightly so, as the first descent upgraded my understanding of a rear brake from ‘that’ll pump up nicely’ to ‘no it’s totally fucked’. For the look of the thing we threw in a new set of pads which achieved nothing other than wasting a new set of pads.

The next descent was interesting. Exciting even. Momentarily terrifying. Once or twice eyes were closed. Wet Welsh rock asks a lot of tyres. The front one especially doing all the steering and – in my case – braking. Not much traction-pie left for actually ‘gripping’, so reducing my choices to rolling the dice to score breakneck speed into what’s essentially an abandoned quarry, or the strong potential of sanding myself down with some razor sharp slate.

I picked a middle way. Wasn’t pretty but got it done. Was quite happy to be heading back up hill. Before which Cez somehow managed to fall into a heap while not actually moving. The fact he’d been taking the piss about my inability to open a gate a moment earlier made this just a whole lot sweeter.

Climb then. Up the Roman Road. Sandwiches at the top. The Bird doesn’t climb as well as my Ibis but it’s nowhere near rubbish, and I was feeling pretty good so made a decent stab at hurting myself for the seventeen minutes your heart rate is bouncing agains the rev limiter. Was ready for a sit down and the burgeoning worry that I was essentially uni-braked heading into a shit-load of rock-chop and steepness.

Excusing myself, I headed out first and minced my way down the steepest pitches, especially those with loose rocks all seemingly labelled with my own personalised grim reaper motif.

Thew the bike down in relief and fired up the camera. To see Alex riding the stuff I’d found somewhat challenging in the manner of a semi-pro. Fair play I thought, that’s going somewhat and not lacking commitment. As he passed the lens, I heard the hiss of a tyre pushed far beyond it’s performance boundaries.

Classic Gap Ride

Classic Gap Ride

We heard this twice more on the same descent. Alex used the exact number of spare tubes we had. I’ll be honest one more puncture and we’d have stolen his van keys and left him there. It wasn’t just the repeated faff of dragging the tyre from the rim, it was the painful re-inflatement process with a wheezy pump he’d clearly inherited from his grandfather.

Classic Gap Ride

We eventually got it done and descended to the canal which lacked the ice cold puddles of previous years, then latterly the car park where the van was parked. In some ways I was relieved at not crashing myself stupid riding a single brake**. In others this felt too easy, not the hard bastard ride we’d talk about for months afterwards.

On reflection though, it was a brilliant day out and I’d successfully dodged a magazine of bullets. Sometimes you just have to accept that you’re not in control of a whole load of variables and that’s okay.

As a wise man once set. Not me, obviously.

*we’re not savages. A man has to eat. Artisan-ally in this case.

** every time I ride this route, I remember my mate Russ breaking his back on the final descent back in 2003.

Updated the bike page and…

.. the most read articles. Not that you had a lot of choice last year as I couldn’t be arsed to write much. Except for the never-less-than-oustanding Cranked magazine. A subscription to that august publication shall absolutely enrich your life. Especially if you read everyone else’s articles first 🙂

Bike Page (hint: it’s been a busy one): here
Most read articles (probably bots): here

Turning a corner

Slippy FoD Fun

Much of this blog is dedicated to cataloguing my pervasive rubbishness of all things bike related, with much general life stuff also taken into consideration. Some would hypothesise this is simply the self-depreciation of a man uncomfortable with his entirely un-English aura of awesomeness. Others – who have actually met him – would consider it purely as a restatement of fact.

Riding in mud is an excellent retelling of the oft misunderstood maxim that ‘it is the exception which proves the rule’.*  When the days are short and the mud is long distanced from the hardback of summer, I find all sorts of interesting ways to fall over, fall off and generally fail to make any kind of discernible progress.

There are reasons for this, but we’re not going there. I’ve been there so often to review that pantheon of uselessness, the boring bits get fast forwarded in my head.  This year though something has happened. An old dog may have learned some new tricks or at least not relearned the annual ‘how to be crap’ lesson once the trails aggressively posture their ‘moisture first’ strategy.

I’d love to say this epiphany is somehow skills based. Conquering mental weakness, performing flashy brave stuff, playing what’s in front of you, that kind of thing. Any such proclamation would be a big fat lie though because we all know old dogs really don’t learn new tricks at all. No instead they go tyre shopping**

A mountain biker without a rubber fetish is merely an amateur astride a dandy steed. The professionals amongst us are fully paid up members of the Durometer club. We are at home with threads per inch, we carefully study tread patterns, and the complex language of compounds being nothing more than an open book.

The outcome of which was a tractor derived monster tread fetching up on my front rim. A slightly less aggressive companion migrated to the back. The Internet smugly dismisses plus tyres as pointless for mud. Now my SolarisMax was shod with chunky 2.8 inch tyres at 12PSI, it was time to go rule proving and myth busting.

Onto trails which had had some rain. And then some more rain. And then downpours sweeping spitefully over leafless terrain. Not quite enough though to saturate the hardpack baked solid over that endless summer. So wet over hard then. My absolute favourite.

To ride in the winter, you must create an entire belief system around your front tyre. Regardless of the mud splattering your eyeballs, the uncertain balance from going sideways, and the unceasing wetness spiking your peripheral vision. These are for nothing if you keep the faith.

A decent bike handler knows what grip feels like. A really decent one knows how hard they can push beyond that. An average Joe like me can get all Newtonian with opposing forces and trust in R&D over marketing.  These tyres will hold a line if you weight them properly while showing a bit of commitment.

And when they do its glorious. A whole world opens up in the damp and dead forest. Narnia is out of the closet. You can push, push, slide, push a little more and then back off before disaster strikes. Even when it does, speeds are low and a full body mud immersion is the only real collateral damage.

Do this a few times and now there’s a bloke wondering if we should have a crack at another trail. Even when the pub is open. This hardtail is the perfect winter tool – it’s direct, consistent, not wallowing in pointless suspension and – afterwards – bloody easy to clean. It’s the tyres which make it tho, tempting grip from slick surfaces so egging the bloke on top to make a proper dirty protest.

There are limits of course. Steep and muddy. That’s Mr. Crashtastic gunning for me on every corner. Freshly cut trails offer nothing but wheel swapping and significant opportunity for a little lie down. Polished roots are winter snipers patiently waiting to take you down.

The last of which had me throwing shapes after taking line liberties no tyre could save me from. I threw the bike away, as it wasn’t offering much help, to slide into a bombhole on my arse. After checking myself out and foraging the now camouflaged bike from the surrounding shrubbery, I found I couldn’t actually get out. That’s how good the tyres are- you can ride even when you can’t walk.

Crashing is fine. Punctured hubris is not a new sensation. For a few corners before though, I felt I’d finally got this mountain biking thing dialled. The bike was turning and drifting at the same time which felt absolutely fine. I’d exchanged my normal tentative wafts at the bar for confident full limb prods to ride the slide. That’s the dirt talking to you right there however pretentious it sounds.

In the pub all I wanted to do was get back out there. For the past ten years all I’ve wanted is it to be April.  Sure it’ll get old before it gets better, but right now our half of the planet just spun its face to the sunny side. We’re on the long road to Spring.

Before that though I’m going to have some fun playing in the mud.

*’Proves’ as in tests like in baking, not as in law. Otherwise it’d just be statistical nonsense overplaying the importance of outliers.

**I appreciate this is stretching the metaphor a bit. But hey throw me a bone here 😉

 

Going through the change

Slippy FoD Fun

Seasons, weather, trails, me. Not that actual change you understand, because that’s in the same bucket of bad science which advocates blokes sharing the birth experience.*

If that hippy shit was underpinned by a shred of empirical evidence, I’d be menopausal on an annual cycle. Nights draw in, rain is meteorologically normalised, rock hard trails lets themselves go, and I’m caught between listless melancholy and a strong desire to migrate a thousand miles south.

We’ve established – in much retelling and tedious detail – that I’m no fan of the fourth season. It’d be no surprise if a gift subscription of an ancestry website would confirm me Californian by Christmas** None of which challenges the basic premise that if enjoyment was to be found in slogging through mud I’d have discovered it long ago.

Still as some pompous twat once felt the urge to share ‘be the change you want to see’***. What I saw was a week of Atlantic lows pushing unbroken cloud across our part of the UK in an apparent attempt to drown it.  Arrangements had been made however, and after a week of wondering why everyone else had knocked off for Xmas early except me, it was time to go find myself.

I found myself peering out of Matt’s garage into the pissing rain, while two of my bikes were being readied to battle those elements. And probably returning  requiring some form of trust fund to deal with the consequences of dragging expensive components through two hours of organic sandpaper.

No matter. I was riding my fab SolarisMax with a 2.8 front tyre clearly designed to find grip most chubby offerings never got close to. I know this to be true because my (well Jess’s really) old SolarisMax was being ridden by my old mate Ian. I wondered aloud to Matt if we should share the terrifying characteristics of the summer tyres with which it was shod.

We both felt this wouldn’t be helpful. After Ian fetched himself out of the shrubbery on about the fourth occasion, I felt the moment has probably passed. We were having fun tho – not only as his expense – because the sun had broken out to shine weak winter sunlight on trails not yet totally destroyed by that season.

It’s still early. While any attempt to steer may not be met with the expected Newtonian change of direction, we’re not yet death-marching through joyless rim deep mud. Oh I know it’s coming, but denial is a wonderful thing when you’re reacquainting  yourself with fusty bike handling skills. You know the ones – let the tyres move around without instantly triggering a panicked brake event.

We know how that ends. Don’t we Ian? Still since he was riding tyres I’d darkly labelled Schwable Suicides, any corner he found himself heading in the same direction at the exit he’d hoped for at the apex was something of a triumph. Watching him hold a mega slide on a steep chute was quite the thing to behold. Especially as I’d had a double dab and a involuntary swear word a few seconds earlier.

Still having already put myself in the frame for an accomplice to manslaughter, when sending him out on those tyres, I felt it only fair to warn him of the final gap jump separating us from beer and medals. I was having such a good time not actually hating it, I may have passed it off with a level of insouciance not entirely appropriate to the conditions.

Things going well in my little world don’t always translate to others. I’d been leaning on my front tyre, and giggling as the subsequent slides punted me gloriously into the next corner. I’d been improbably lucky sliding between the trees without actually hitting one. So now I wondered if a seasonal Strava name change to ‘HipSlider Moto’ could be considered as a non ironic mnemonic.****

Having left vague instructions on where the chicken run might be, I did my best to keep Matt in sight as we headed into the valley. The grip is awesome I almost shouted before it wasn’t, and I found myself blazing an entirely new trail some two metres from where I’d much rather be.

Drag it back into line. Two hard pedal strokes. Don’t look at that root stack on the corner. Look instead at the sloppy mess of the take off and hope the landing isn’t quite so perilous. It isn’t and we’re heading home with big smiles and a bottomless love for riding bikes.

Even Ian. Who decided to have a crack at the gap. His entry we liked, although a harsh critic would suggest exit velocity was a little lacking. Which may explain how he landed mostly with the front wheel on the dirt and the rear scrabbling to fetch itself out of a big hole. Inevitably this ended in man and rider parting company, with the former ploughing a full body furrow into the moist dirt.

No harm done and fair play for Ian having a go. We had another go today in the Forest and enjoyed it just as much. I’ve not idea why this is, because traditionally I loathe this time of year.

Going through some kind of change. Might be wondering how many winters I have left to ride. Might be a great front tyre. Might be something else entirely.  Not going to over-analyse that.

Riding bikes makes me happy. Shit conditions can do one.

*I vaguely remember a prenatal class where prospective fathers were asked to perform a simple task while holding a baby-doll. In terms of making coffee we did a great job, in terms of babies being left in sinks, upside down in the coffee grinder and repurposed as footballs, not so stellar. Exactly no lessons were learned.

**Or directly related to Henry VIII. Like every other poor sop who throws money down that particular rabbit hole.

*** Which made me wish very hard for them to change into a person significantly less annoying.

**** Obviously not. Delusion can only take you so far.

The definition of insanity..

Solaris Max
Before it got dark. Still muddy

.. as attributed to a stellar mind none less than Einstein goes like this ‘ Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’* That’s me and night riding in winter. Or close to winter. Dark, cold, muddy, fucking miserable. You can keep your meteorological boundaries, I’m living this right now.

Let’s break this down. Dark from mid afternoon. even earlier when a storm front parks clouds on the roof, then drives rain through the front door. A door I must breach to fetch a bike from the ShedofDreams(tm) festooned with a festive cocktail of desperate tyre choices and full length mudguards challenging even the most charitable aesthetic.

Dark is boring. But cold is debilitating. We’re not even into our ‘personal Nordic’ of January and February,  when the sun rarely appears and warms almost nothing. Metal is cold, trailers catch chapped hands, bikes poke you with chilly appendages and starting off chilly feels like pulling on a frozen hair shirt.

Still we’re out there, we’re doing our thing and nothing shall stand in our way. So why does riding through mud feel like such a bloody chore? Come on are you a proper mountain biker or just a summer dust diva? I’ve just checked out the wikipedia definition of diva and, frankly, it’s worrying close to how I feel when seriously knobbed tyres bite into the viscous liquid where the trails used to be.

This is worthy of further study.  To my left the re-incarnated Californians some of who grudgingly place damp arse on gritty saddle to unlock the ‘midweek beer’ achievement. To my right, the heavily medicated, fully signed up members of delusionalists anonymous who embrace the season of bike-rider-hits-tree with cheers and wild abandon.

There is no middle ground. Those to the right preach the gospel of a weekly congregation for the true believers, while those to the left talk darkly of heresy in shadowy places***

I flip between the two depending on the angle of the sun. Darkness is a synonym for misery- the mega-faff of preparing for trail armageddon, the experience of bar-sawing climbs and arse-twitching descents, the post ride triage of wondering if anything on the bike may ever work again.

Misery is probably a little strong. Especially if one is reliving the experience in a favourite hostelry nursing something served at room temperature for the purpose of post traumatic medication. At the time though, the prospect of lights – so far removed from the mobile candles we started with fifteen years ago they might as well be magic – casting immovable trees first out of dark shadow, and then into peripheral vision triggers a whole set of problems.

Most of them being when those arboreal innocents are mutilated by a man desperately flailing with what – until 2 seconds ago – was an enduro capable mountain bike. Now it’s basically a semi guided missile looking for a target.

All this while riders, I consider my almost peers in dusty summer months, ignore brakes as things not to be considered when traction is at a premium. I am death gripping both of mine. The ensuing slide gives me plenty of time to consider if the sturdy beech or springy pine would be a more deserved recipient of my many squashy parts.

For many years I was firmly of the unshakable opinion this was my problem. With age comes wisdom, which is now why it’s become clear I am a singular human amongst aliens. No one should be able to ride that fast in the mud if they had just a barely detectable quantum of imagination.

What I’m trying to explain here is I am the baseline, while those other fast fuckers are just outliers cocking a snook at a normal distribution curve. Not happy with just riding away from me, those buggers are flicking a finger at universally codified rules. That’s just rude.

So the only conclusion we can draw from this is a pantheon of greats from Pythagorus to Einstein, passing through Pascal, Babbage and Venn have been duped by those who walk amongst us as humans.

I mean this isn’t good. But looking to the upside, it does prove I’m not quite as rubbish riding in the fourth season as my physical performance suggests. Because if I was I’d need to respond to the dusty turbo trainer giving me the side-eye.

We’re not there yet.  And since most of this post is filler quoting the famous, let’s finish with the seminal work on motivational psychology.  Tom Skerrit in Top Gun: ‘Keep sending them up’.

Copy that.

*he never said this. He did however have some distinctly dodgy theories about eugenics not often publicised. We’re back to never meeting your heroes – even after they are dead**

**Marianne Antoinette, Voltaire, Issac Newton, Nelson Mandela – they’ve all been latched onto quotes never spoken. Still we’re living in a world which has dispensed with experts, so I expect that’s absolutely fine.

*** Let’s be honest here. That’s the pub.

Usual?

(c) vinepair

Twice this week, I’ve made a beeline for a bar. Nothing unusual in that other than the fella behind the jump acknowledging my familiar presence with a knowing smile, and a significant glance toward my self-medication of choice.

Chaucer coined a phrase now found in the common lexicon; ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ although I’m more taken by Mark Twain noting that ‘Familiarity breeds contempt. How accurate that is. The reason we hold truth in such respect is because we have so little opportunity to get familiar with it’.

Fair point fella. If we did politics on the hedgehog, I’d be all over that referencing  current events. But we don’t, and as this blog is all about me let’s instead pick a couple of examples which brought me up a little short this week.

Monday finds me bored in the same hotel I’ve already wasted fifty nights this year staring at walls. Those walls are not something I can stomach when autumn light pins you to a room with not much of a view. Instead I’m up and out, walking the streets, shunning the bright lights, looking for a place to eat alone. I’ve been doing this for twenty plus years and it’s never glamorous. Especially in Coventry 😉

So after much perambulation I’m back in the hotel. I trade a high five with Petoir – he’s the lovely fella behind a shiny bar and a similar suit and tie provided by the hotel, but inside that he’s far more interesting.  We talk family, football teams and fantasies – him: bringing his wife and child over, me: retiring and giving this shit the middle finger.

In between he pours me the beer that has been our calling card over all these months. I give my thanks, while nodding to the other poor bastards I see weekly living in a world exchanging home for money. We never really talk because their iPhones virtually project a physical distance I nowadays think of as ‘London’.

Some are pissed already. Many are desperately heading that way. A few amusingly believe they are the main event. Others exit stage left. All the world’s a stage and we’re merely players apparently. Could be that – whatever  it just feels desperately sad. I’ve been here in over a hundred bars in more than forty cities and it’s all horribly familiar. And that does breed a bit of contempt for your life choices.

Bar closes, now it’s just me and Petoir sat on the other side. He’s knocking back decent brandy while explaining that everyone treats him like shit. This is not the way it works back in Poland. Apparently they stab you in the front rather than slice you with impatience and passive-aggressiveness.  Or,  worse still, just an ignorance which considers you a proxy between their entitlement and a drink.

This really pisses me off. Some of that is because I’m also half cut drinking brandy, a little because I’ve been guilty of similar behaviour in the past. But mostly because of what belonging should feel like. It feels like this:

Four days later, I’m making determined tracks to the bar of our local in Ross. I name-check Jamie behind the bar, check out how his world is before making a three fingered gesture triggering a phalanx of favourite beers leaving the taps.

While I worry that maybe this is a cipher for alcohol dependancy, I love this pub for its old-worldly charm, it’s comfortable chairs, it’s lack of electronic coin magnets, it’s choice of conversation over music – but even so, this feels a bit too familiar, a bit to close to the knuckle, a point between giving up and selling out.

So I chuck it out there; is this as good as it gets, is this a rut we’ve dug for ourselves, am I just being a pretentious twat? The view from those who I’ve come to rely on to calibrate my moral compass tell me it probably is, we probably have and you definitely are. They also explained something far more interesting.

‘This is community Al. You’ve never lived in the same place as long as this. You’re always searching for something better. But this is what real life is like, flawed individuals and messy lives. Stop worrying if this is what you should be doing and get amongst it’

I’m paraphrasing here; it was more ‘stop being a dick and get the next round in’, yet the totality of that narrative wasn’t lost on me.  My best friends are anchored in a time and place with an iron certainty it is will endure. Familiarity isn’t contemptuous –  it’s binds you to some important certainties. It’s not perfect but you’re a local, a person who gets it, an advocate of what is right,  who can – and should – make a difference.

I never wanted to settle down. That felt like getting old. The idea you weren’t windswept and interesting was a little demeaning.  Not being tied to a place because no place was quite good enough for you.  The grass was always greener. Even when it wasn’t.

The difference between a generic hotel bar not even close to living the dream, and having a beer with my best friends has made me reevaluate that long held maxim.

Usual? Right now that sounds pretty good.