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.

Age is just a number

Last ride of my 40s. And I did in on the Hardtail. Obviously.

That’s fine. Except 50 is quite a big number when plotting it on a scale of born to dead. My half century suggests half way was some time ago leading to the inevitable conclusion I am accelerating towards the mortal end game.  I hardly need a single birthday present with such good news already bagged.

It’s not old age that scares me. Especially as it comes with a firm mandate for increased grumpiness and reduced tolerance. I’ve mostly reconciled my mortality fear now by simply displacing it with something between a minor anxiety and a crushing panic* that sometime, maybe soon I won’t be able to ride my mountain bike.

That’s quite neat because it covers age, fear, risk aversion, injury and debilitating illness. A negative bucket list if you will. On the upside our little family isn’t so little anymore, and between Carol and I** we appear to have imbued them with sufficient common sense to ensure the house doesn’t burn down as we increasingly abandon them within it.

There’s a couple of other useful things that come with age. You really stop giving a shit about the small stuff.  You find yourself entirely uninterested in vocational progression of any sort. The much vaunted wisdom may not have come your way but at least you are secure in the knowledge that absolutely everyone is winging it, not just you. And now the kids have mostly grown up so you’re free to have that second childhood you promised yourself***

50 is the new 40 apparently. Sounds like marketing bullshit. I expect my next two bits of post will be for ‘an old bloke cough and drop checkup’ and a copy of the SAGA magazine. I received my first Happy 50th Birthday from the lovely people I work with today. Only on carefully opening it did I finally admit it hadn’t been left on the wrong desk.

That was cognitive dissidence going nova. I really could not get my head round the fact that day had arrived. A snatched flashback transported me back to my 10 year old self marvelling that when the century turned over I’d be 33 years old. I’ve clearly been worrying about this for quite some time so – in keeping with my normal approach to difficult – I headed for the door exchanging street clothes for bike gear and hit the trails.

So – inevitably – we’re back to bikes. About a hundred years ago, a bike mag published an article where I rambled on about age, entropy and wondering where the end starts. It doesn’t start here. It probably started long before I wrote it. It doesn’t matter either, while there are mountain bikes, fantastic trails, loyal mates and the promise of beer later, it’ll be just like it always was.

Only not quite. Death by a thousand cuts. At some point there will be an e-bike. It won’t be the next bike I buy, but it may be the last one.  But riding tonight, hanging onto the tailcoat of summer, nothing feels different. It’s like slipping on a favourite coat – faff, climb, worry a bit, hand the driving seat over to muscle memory, make the same old mistakes, cope with well worn strategies, balance the bike, feel the trail, carve the corners, pump the jumps, love the rush, wonder what happens when this isn’t what happens on a Tuesday night.

if I have learned anything it’s about a span of control. Which is both narrower than you think and more important than you understand. Gather your tribe around you, don’t be a dick, try to live in the moment and every day, every minute, every second strive extremely hard not to give a fuck about transactional detritus.

Tomorrow I will be 50. There’s not a great deal I can do about that. Age is a number for sure. But that’s all it is – it’s not a definition, a boundary or an excuse. Unless that excuse is a slide into semi retirement to do more of what makes me happy.

That’ll do. Enough of this pretentious bollocks. Bring me some cake.

*depending on many things. The latter tends to be at night when sleep won’t come and thoughts won’t stop

** Carol. And an occasionally helpful idiot.

*** assuming you’d grown out of your first

I can take a joke, but…

Summer riding
For anyone living in a country with defined seasons, this picture defines ‘summer’ in the UK. I narrowly avoided frostbite

Maybe it’s an age thing, but I have begun treating previously inviolate norms with deep suspicion. Summer being one, my rain radar application another.

While non-brexited Europe enjoys broiling temperatures under blue saturated sunny skies, the remainers are left with grey clag, rumbling thunder, westerly storms, October temperatures, rain swept landscapes and a plunging exchange rate*

The meteorological is split between the Jet Stream dragging cold air and moisture from Britain’s future trading zones**,  while those happily located east and south lament the lack of moisture in their current environs.

Pop over here, we’ve loads to spare. Most of it lying above a saturated water table giving us an early glimpse of winter. I’m really not mentally ready for that -especially after a relentlessly brilliant Spring and early Summer. We had a wobble in June but this only reminded us how fantastic the trails were both before and after.

July tho. Have a word with yourself. Drenching us in thirty degree temperatures under cloudless skies for exactly a week before deciding we’d had far too much of a good thing and fast forwarding a conveyer of low pressure systems delivering four seasons in a single day. Or a single hour.

Stoics that’s us. Not the classical definition*** but accepting warm rain and only a 50/50 chance of benightment are things worth stepping outside for.  Thankfully a needy app was stealing phone real estate to desperately inform me the sun was merely having a little rest before bathing the worthy in late-day golden rays from 8PM.

Which made the rain steepling off metal roofs a tad less irritating, as I wrestled my Californian super-bike off the trailer. Invalidated the warranty right there. A little later, the Ross chapter of the too-stupid-to-stay-inside riding community huddled under Matt’s T5 tailgate debating options. Straight to the pub someone who looked a bit like me said, but no we dragged waterproofs from winter storage and headed out. Stoical indeed.

It’s probably best to draw a veil over the next two hours. Already I see my old friends and barely a word is said before a solemn agreement that ‘we shall never speak of these things again’ slams the discussion shut, and we part to call our individual therapists.

Obviously I was suffering the most having ventured out on the chubby tyres of assisted suicide. 14 PSI and a barely discernible tread pattern do not span the seasons with any kind of efficacy. Superb in the dry, lethal in the wet. Not in the ‘oh that’s a bit lively, best back off a tad‘ you get with proper tyres when faced with a trail of slick mud.

No, what we’re talking – possibly screaming – about here is a vague feeling the bars may be connected to a pair of somethings occasionally in contact with the terrain, before a total communications shutdown leaving the pilot to marvel at the quantum mechanics of travelling sideways and forward at exactly the same same time.

That doesn’t last long. Tyres snap sideways with barely a nod to previous traction and there is pretty much nothing you can do other than hope the tree you’re about to headbutt has rain softened bark. If by some miraculous event you’re still upright and not wearing a branch as a hat, the grip returns for a time period perfectly measured to convince that you’ve got it back. Before it breaks away again.

This is quite tiring after a while. Say 5 minutes. Still the sun’s coming out in no time at all according to the app that knows. What it doesn’t know is that we’re travelling damply with ‘weather event‘ James who transcends any kind of trusted forecasting, instead dragging the biggest clouds in his wake.

We never saw the sun. We did glimpse our future come about October. And I’m trying to blot out the difficult images of my riding companions attempting to locate sufficient dry kit to cross the pub boundary. I’ll save you from how well that went other than to say we’ll probably never be allowed in that particular establishment again.

Unless they need some really shit strippers.

Went out today. Was a bit better but still a million rain storms from dry, fast and dusty. Looked at forecast.  I think stoicism might be over-rated.

*we don’t do politics on the hedgehog. It becomes indistinguishable from a Tourettes therapy session. However may I just be allowed a brief ‘You’ve really not fucking through this through have you?  Thank you.

**fish and Carlsberg. Hard to see how this could go wrong. Okay I’m definitely stopping now.

***”the endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint” – for me none out of three isn’t a terrible score.