You might want to stand by that bin..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Not completely terrible.

Hitting the organic ejection seat at 05:40am on a sleepy Sunday is never go to put you in the best of moods. Especially if a good part of the rest of that day shall be spent riding past fantastic looking dirt trails – partially hidden by humourless men squeezed into inappropriate lycra.

Not all of them, of course. There were some women as well. Not many sadly with the stereotyped demographic of expensive bikes piloted by sort-of mobile sponsor billboards representing far too much of an otherwise rather fab event.

Ian and I were keen to seek out unlikely looking physical specimens scheduled to ride a 100 kilometres in the lumpy environs of the English/Welsh border. Mainly to make us feel a little better about ourselves and, specifically, our woeful lack of preparation. And team harmony was already being tested after the rushed admission that one member had indeed been secretly training. Sure it was one ride, and quite a short one at that but I still felt this wasn’t in the spirit of our cook-snookery worldview of riding around in circles.

Hot on his training admission, Ian also felt the urge to share his ratio faux-par of a triple front ring*, swiftly followed up by making a sexually ambivalent fashion statement though the medium of white shoes. Right then I’ll be spending the next four or five hours with a one man Liberace tribute act would I? Splendid.

After some customary faffing which somehow left us with multiple tubes but only a one-shot inflation solution, we gunshot-clipped into roadie-pedals and made rather rapid headway onto the course. Ian was looking a bit racey having arrived at this event without being clinically half-dead, although he was keen to point out that very small children gain-stayed any periods of useful sleep in the last few weeks. I rebuffed this with the fact he was still a young man full of vitality whereas I was an decrepit old fucker. In that happy vein, we made steady progress to the site of the first accident.

Not ours thankfully, but some poor sod had clearly been introduced to unseen traffic and was lying in a bloodied face-up position looking quite bashed around. Nothing we could do other than curse Sunday drivers and hope we weren’t next. Mass cycling events on public roads are going to create some kind of friction and conflict however well organised. And this one was extremely well organised, but there’s always some arsehole behaviour on the part of the motorist and/or cyclist ending in gunning engines, dangerous manoeuvres and the waving of a couple of fingers.

Generally tho, a lovely day out. Lots less banter than a mountain biking event but moving speeds and restrictive roads explain some of that away. Ian and I were having a good time especially at my expense once I’d proudly explained part of my ‘fuelling solution‘ were energy bars endorsed by no other than ‘Sir Bradley Wiggins‘ himself. Inevitably this led to much innocent questioning ‘what’s it like having Brad in your mouth?‘ and ‘Brad seems to have gone a bit soft and squishy since the last time’.

I responded by lampooning his choice of ridiculous gear ratios likening them to a BBC3 denier. Dirty secret that sometimes will be used but never, ever admitted to. We even had a go at some proper road riding, drafting a few riders who began to look a bit angry when their significant looks suggesting we should take the wind were met with a facial expression somehow suggesting that ‘we’re mountain bikers mate, absolutely no idea what you’re talking about’.

I don’t suppose it helped much when – at the foot of the first proper climb – Lance Beddis stomped on the pedals and attacked the group. I watched in middle aged detached amusement in my happy spinning place catching Ian sometime later, where he admitted to a possible tactical mistake. We traded strategies where my plan to ‘unleash the power of my mighty thighs at 80k‘ was met by some bemusement and surreptitious pointing at the tiny ring on his chainset. “You’re not thinking of using that are you? You’re dead to me now

Warming temperatures, blue skies, light winds and a few more hills landed us in the first feed stop at 45k. Both felt in decent shape although the extra 10 minutes rest on deploying our one and only puncture solution might have helped. Me jumping off curbs a few minutes before probably didn’t. You can take the boy out of baggies and all that…

Refuelled and relieving ourselves of expensive energy drinks, we crossed the border with half the distance gone but still with a couple of monster climbs to come. Which I was a little quicker up, but Ian caught me easily on the descents. Every time I tip the road bike into a corner, the almost imperceptible tyre width gives me the bloody jitters.  With some strong MTFU mental flogging, I improved immeasurably from crap to ‘quite crap‘ while Ian cheerfully railed corners and cut through slower rides.

One more big climb at 75k was met with an impromptu halt while I sorted a bit of cramp amusingly brought on by reaching for the hard to grab water bottle. The one being drunk to ward off any signs of cramp. Popping ‘my last Brad‘, legs and lungs felt good enough for a bit of an attack on the strung out pelaton ahead. Although it wasn’t an attack rampant in savagery or shown by awesome speed. No it was more passing tired riders – with that head down/raspy breathing of the properly knackered – with a cheery ‘hello‘ and polite enquiry if all was well. A patronis-attack if you will.

We even saw a few walking which was sad and painful for those clearly who didn’t ride that much but were giving it a great shot, and shallowly amusing when it was the fat blokes tramping leaden footed with a carbon trinket for company. I know this is a crap attitude, and I know that more people cycling is all good and – yes – I also know that it’s lazy analysis at best. But I can’t help myself. I guess if a decent MTB’er sees me having a mince somewhere on my over-biked much upgraded steed,  he or she is welcome to feel the same way.

Last 10k was a fun tussle with a couple of young fellas who had all of the fitness, but lacked my guile and engorged competitive gland.  With the GPS running out of pointy bits, the hammer went down until my arrival back at the start stopped the clock in just over 4 hours. Ian was a couple of minutes behind having rightly refused to get involved with such silliness.

We toasted ourselves with yet more energy drink and concluded these road bikes are actually quite good fun. What we needed was another challenge. Something ambitious we could be rubbish at. Both of us arrived at the same idea – a proper imperial century.  We even talked about doing it this year. I wonder if I can move to somewhere flat first.

Whatever, it won’t be 18 months before the road bike and me go tarmc’ing again. It won’t be next week though because that’s mountain bike time. Today was a lovely day to ride my road bike with my good mate Ian. Still not a patch on hitting the dirt tho.

* 3 rings? THREE. Honestly just post a video of you and a goat deeply in love on YouTube. It’d be far less humiliating.

Tapering

The Clothes Horse

A verb I happily placed in the sad world of those who include bevelling and routing*in their chosen vocabulary. I’ve always found little room for such nonsense when ‘drinking‘ and ‘slacking‘ offer far more pleasurable displacement.

Apparently though this isn’t some kind of organic whittling of material – rather it is more a structured approach to training for maximum performance. No surprise it’s never caused me a moment’s bother until today where my mild concern at not riding a road bike for eighteen months was laconically described as ‘that’s a proper bit of tapering‘ by a proper roadie.

Proper in that arse-headed, chisel jawed, thin-lipped and tyred view of the world. Announcing that come Sunday, yours grumpily shall set embark on a hilly 100 kilometre voyage of the many peaks and troughs of the wye valley, he felt the urge to question my training, preparation and technique.

Mountain bikes, decent claret, keep-buggering-on disposition‘ framed my jaunty reply. Not good enough apparently. Tapering was just the bloody end of it, there was nutrition, heart rate, tactics and mental alignment to consider before even turning a pedal.  Apparently getting round without calling for medical assistance not only lacked ambition, it was disrespectful of the entire endeavour.

My reply is not recorded by history**, but a jaunty disposition hid a worried frown. I’d had every intention of unearthing the much neglected road bike, blowing off the dust and re-acquainting myself with the whole oddness of a tarmac world. Sadly work, weather, apathy and a mental weathervane that rotates past ‘right then 50k on the road starting right now mister‘ before slamming to a stop at ‘See you on the dirt at midday, bring money for beer‘ with barely a guilty pause.

That guilt did at least trigger some desultory activity involving inflating flat tyres, poking unfamiliar components with a small hammer and harvesting hated lycra from the darker recesses of the kit drawer. A shakedown ride aimed high at 3000 metres, but ended low with only about 200. Half of these were desperately spent failing to clip into weird road pedals, and the rest wondering where the rest of the bars had gone. My working assumption was the same bloody thief had nicked about 2 inches off the tyres.

And the brakes? I’d have liked some. A quick jaunt off road confirmed it was no cross bike aswhat we have here is pain wrapped up in carbon and trinkets. There’s clearly no hiding place in lycra which is a bit of a problem as my superbly focussed weight loss initiative hit the buffers of I-Can’t-Be-Arsed-Anymore, and there’s a bit more Al and a bit less fitness.

Still I did manage 100k when I was nearly 10k heavier. This is a good statistic although somewhat mitigated by the non refutable fact it was two years ago when I was road riding to avoid trains. Since then I’ve ridden 100k exactly no times at all unless you’re allowed to include car journeys which apparently don’t count. Even if you have a mountain bike in the back.

Come Sunday then, me and my ever present insanity-wingman shall be awkwardly hanging about in a muddy field at stupid’o’clock, jostled by testosterone cockage and spring rain. There’s a part of me – that’s the part that’s about 9 years old – thinking ‘bollox, I’ll take the mountain bike, the camelbak and the peaked helmet.. that’ll show ’em what a proper rebel I am‘. There’s another part some 35 years older that knows nobody’ll give a shit. Not even me.

Anyway at least it won’t be snowing. I’ll be campaigning the slow down to go fast approach with a clear rider than at least half of that is negotiable. Apparently there’s medals and stuff for arriving at some arbitratory hour. I think we can give that the fuck off it deserves.  Arriving back alive after 5,500 feet of climbing and much mincing on the descents will be enough for me. More than enough.

For about eighteen months if history is any judge.

* but not rooting. I once loudly admonished an office-full of shocked Australians that every proper Englishman always rooted for his country. A well tanned local slapped me on the shoulder and declared ‘fair dinkum mate, that’s a proper job‘. About five years later realisation dawned on why sniggering and pointing announced my presence on that particular floor.

** Oh okay it did. “Fuck Off

Woger And Out

Cotswold Road Ride

This isn’t the first time I’ve have waved goodbye to bike called Wog. The not very amusingly named Roger The Pink Hedgehog went rental-expired a few years back- having fallen out of favour for reasons long forgotten and predictably nebulous.

Christening bikes is a pastime for those of us emotionally stunted enough to transfer human emotions onto tubes of welded alloy. Of the many and varied wheeled hardware to pass through my brief ownership, only two have received a name – that name being Rog. Or in the case of the Ribble, Wog because Woger Wibble is amusing alliteration for those mentally struggling to reach double figures.

There’s something more tho. Both Wog and the previous MTB incarnation has a certain personality missing from other bikes. The Pink Voodoo* was too short, too steep and too pretty for abuse metered out from a savage like me. Yet it was such a great bike to ride imbuing the characteristics of a special-needs spaniel.

Wog lacked that playfulness but in the 1000k of road riding we shared, I couldn’t help feeling it was curiously honest and steadfast.  Heavy metal that rocked through wind and rolled through rain and snow without ever missing a beat. In terms of pointless value per mile calculations, it stands podium tall compared to the Mountain Bikes. Still so does a Chieftain tank.

That robust personality wasn’t enough to save it of course. Once commuting duties were over, a plan was hatched to snatch cheeky rides in the middle of home based days – so to extend my knowledge of local geography by exploring all those many-times-passed interesting looking lanes. Heavens Above, there was even some consideration of proper long loops to measure improvements in fitness and speed.

In four and a half months, I have managed exactly three road rides. One with Jez-the-Labrador which was a proper Himalayan epic when compared to the not-very-many hateful hours spent wondering why solo road riding wasn’t my thing.

Some of that is not having anyone to talk to other than myself – frankly I prefer to inflict that on others, and the rest is banging along on tarmac for no reason other than “it’s better than the gym and I’m not buying a turbo trainer” has a similar motivational quotient as throwing myself into a vat of boiling monkey puke or a day in London**

I appreciate that other, apparently sane, individuals love the solitude of the open road, hurting themselves in order to beat themselves, pouring over statistics and then sharing those results with others recent released back into the community. I understand this happens, but I don’t understand why – although it may explain exactly how come morris dancing isn’t a capital offence. We’re a tolerant society without a doubt.

A bike hook with no bike however is something worthy of further consideration. Questioning others sanity while quivering at the prospect of owning less than five bikes might seem a little hypocritical, but that empty space is merely a metaphor for a new niche to be filled.

Rationale and logic are strangers to my bike owning obsession, generally replaced by much hand waving and inability to resist shiny marketing. But the slowdown in Al’s revolving door acquisition strategy suggests that at least a cursory review before Mr Magpie throws money at a solution. That solution generally looking for a problem. So here it is.

Bookended by fantastic trail riding to all sides, our little bit of Herefordshire is still always a drive away from the good stuff. That’s 30 minutes of faffing, trailers, kit assemblenge and motoring to a distant start point. There is some riding closer but it’s too far a road-trudge on the MTB to sample its limited delights.

According to my OS browsing, there are 10 promising small woods within a seven mile radius of home, but having explored them all, none provide enough fun to schlep out there especially as another ten car minutes takes me to the Malverns or the FoD. But link them together with a bit of road and suddenly a hybrid loop takes the kind of shape which needs filling by a new bike.

But not an entirely new niche. I’ve had a cross bike before, took it off-road once before shackling it into the commute. That one ride was both eye opening and terrifying in equal amounts. Cross bikes are fast – not as fast as road bikes on road and not as fast as MTBs off it – but bloody quick nevertheless.

What they don’t do well is stop. I believe the designers believe you should use your initiative and a handy local obstacle to arrest progress. So my desire for another cross bike was mitigated by not wishing to trouble Hereford A&E again this year. Then those clever marketeers squeezed a set of disc brakes to entire the unreconstructed mountain biker.

As a plan it has much going for it. Ride from home, explore all those interesting tracks in the wood perimeter, bash out a few road mies if nothing else is on and join Jess in rigid trail riding. Will such a plan survive first contact with reality? History suggests probably not, but no point dying wondering eh?

Whatever I do, I need to go riding again. Managed exactly one ride this month mainly due to still-hurty rib but also ice, snow, mud and apathy. But It’s only when you stop doing something that you realise how much you miss it. I might try that in other areas of my life where excess feels like normal; things that immediately come to mind are alcohol and work.

Boardman bikes of course come from Halfords. So if I order one from there, what’s the worse thing that can happen?

* which somehow excuses naming the poor bloody thing.

** of the two, hard to say which is less appealing. I might have to google monkey puke because it’d have to be VERY BAD to be worse than a day in our fine capital

The walls have fears

Sunday Ouch

That’s a route profile to strike terror into the heart of an excuse-driven cyclist.  Riding on the dirt gives an experienced excuser multiple grubby places to hide; physical – wrong tyres, busted suspension or mental – “not feeling it”, don’t like that wet rock.

Road bikes don’t. Get up or get off.  Get over that gear or get spinning. Get off the brakes or get left behind. Get busy riding or get busy lying*.  Take a look at those walls of climbing and feel the fear.

Riding bikes is silly. We’ve established this on the Hedgehog drawing a long line from racing around muddy fields to hurting yourself for no discernible reason through broken bones, empty bank accounts, swamp monsterism, self doubt and occasional epiphany. Added to this body of evidence was arriving in Ross-on-Wye an hour after sunrise having ridden over 25k to get there.

The centre of this county town is 5k from my front door and – before dawn – would normally be accessed by motorised halogen lights. This morning I was all eyes streaming peering through the endless gloom, cresting 45kph and heading into a tight corner having yet to ascertain the efficacy of new brake blocks.

A swift twinge from the rear area was mirrored by a harder than advised pull on both levers instantly proving that a) these new brakes are fantastic and b) I may soon be viewing them from a position of some verticality what with the power of potential energy.

Crisis averted, I met my fellow lunatic some 10k distant. We have similar winter bikes** festooned with gadgetary measuring speed, heart rate, cadence and all sorts of other useful statistics assuming you don’t get out much. There the similarity ends with 100k rides being something Jez accumulates monthly,  supported by a training regime that tires me out just by looking at it.

Good to have a pal to ride with tho. Not only because he knows the way (whereas I only know the way to get lost), provides motivation by dint of disappearing up steep climbs apparently unfettered by burning legs, and can explain to the shocked family why his mate has broken into their house and is now feasting on their breakfast bacon butties.

So Ross then. Or “Valley Floor” as I don’t like to think of it. From there it’s merely displacement activity, reeling in the first  of those big hills at a steady winter pace. “It’s not that bad” so says Lance the Labrador “except for the last 25% gradient bit” and “You ride up Cleeve Hill? It’s no worse than that” “Yeah” I breathlessly respond “but that was a right fucking bastard if I remember rightly”

Doubly unpleasant was my unwatered-fish expression being caught on camera at the summit and the disappointing announcement that the cafe was closed. A cafe where I had been promised tea, cake and emergency medical facilities. Instead we had limitless joy of further climbing until finally running out of pointy geography.

Road descending has passed me by. None of the fun and skill of Mountain Biking and yet twice the terror. But now equipped with “Eyeball-on-Stalk” brake upgrade, these allowed a couple of 60kph plummets through twisty bends thankfully free of moisture if not of mud. Road bikes aren’t boat-floating for me in so many ways, but God-Alive they are fast downhill.

Uphill? Not so much. A second big climb lacking the gradient of the first but making it up in distance.  My little internal proud-fire at a decent spin up was doused when Jez explained that the local road club used it for hill reps. Yes, that’s right ride 5k up a 250m climb, and then ride straight back down JUST TO HAVE ANOTHER GO.

What is wrong with these people? Christ, why not just ram ones testiclappers into a running chainsaw? Similar amount of pain and suffering without having to leave home. I was suffering a bit now but out of excuses with the “got a puncture, need to stop for a bit” played far too early in the view of some confused looking golfists. They didn’t understand us and by buggery, we certainly don’t even want to understand them.

My descending pace was reciprocally matched by ever-slowing climbing, but now the hills were ouch-y without being endless. Familiar landscape swam into focus recognisable from my rather more limited attempts at road-riding, hinting that home and medals may be close. A final yomp on a fast – and for about the first time – flat section had us intersecting our course from some three hours earlier.

We parted way with Jez heading off to break the 100k, whereas I turned turtle on my old commute route with just a final 100m climb to conquer in the lowest possible gear and the minimum amount of remaining effort. Finished at 90k climbing 1355m and leaving a very tired Al to be helped off the bike and into a round of much needed egg-based product.

On reflection, it was a ride of many firsts; furthest ever travelled on Wog, most climbing since the Dartmoor-100, a mostly working back testament to the skills of Andy@Bike Science. And sufficient energy to demand further tea and cake from the children. It wasn’t until an attempt to wrest myself from the sofa ended in an internal discussion that such stretch targets were many hours away, did I realise how knackered I was.

Should be able to walk in the morning. Might be a bit wonky. Unlikely it’ll be noticed.

* I stole/paraphrased that line from the Shawshank redemption. It sounds better if you play it in a Morgan Freeman accent.

** Except his is in a size missing only hinges for its’ obvious purpose.

Gearing Up

Cwmcarn New Year's Day ride

January. The best thing that can be said about it is that it is not February. Or December which tops my personal hate list due almost entirely to the incessant Noddy Holder experience, and an unwanted immersion to a frenzied hybrid of greed and stupidity.

January isn’t without comedic merit however. And salad. And forced abstinence. And hand wringing over another year gone. The best way to view such nonsense is from a patronising stance of Schadenfreude. Positioned on the margins, laughing at others primed to fail may at least raise a smile while it’s grumpy and horrible outside.

Inside tho, goals must be secretly set. Not for public hubris tapped out by Internet keyboard warriors, or some proud boast that’s easy to say but impossible to do. Start small and work down has served me well so far with 2011 seeing 10% more riding than the previous year. More climbing, longer distances albeit with counter-intuitive less time and frequency.

Much is down to the call of the tar-side and losing almost a month of mountain biking to a busted elbow and vocational angst. So for 2012, a further 10% would crack the 4,000 kilometre threshold and near 100,000 metres of climbing. The targets themselves are unimportant, merely motivational sticks to beat myself when it’s dark, wet and cold outside. Like right now.

Because when it’s light, dusty and warm come Spring, then that hard won fitness in the winter is a pretty big component of what makes chasing the sun home on rock hard trails the joy it always is.  Something to keep in mind when heading out into the grim accompanied by two other mud maniacs whose will to ride is stronger than the gravitational pull of the sofa.

I think of us as the Flipperarti* slopping out every Wednesday come rain, rain or fluffy rain. While others self medicate, the hills are both ours to ride and also to wear. Kit stays clean for the 12 hours between washing machine cycles, bikes suffer weekly cold washes from a high pressure hose, bearings squeak, brake pads dissolve and components expire. Speeds are down but crashes are up, great trails hide under dirty water and every climb is pushed into a bastard headwind.

Sounds rubbish? Feels rubbish sometimes as well which had led to a) the twenty minute rule and b) the emergency tenner. a) ensures we get out however biblical conditions are and only if all three moist-a-teers call it can the ride be terminated once the timer has expired. So far never happened** b) ensures that the 20 minute threshold is buttressed with funds for a pub stop if things haven’t noticeably improved.

We’ve checked off the pre-ride and in-ride plan. All that’s missing is a minimalistic approach to post-ride filth. Heated workshop equipped like a triage station – tarp on the floor, workstand ready for the patient, fluids all to hand and throwaway towels by the roll – dry clothes, warm showers finished by choccy and beer.

So far, so moderately adequate when I’m in the county. Harder with work looming far from home. Then it’ll be the road bike hidden in the car and some random perambulation of industrial estates and dual carriageways if history teaches us anything. So I’ve invested in a Garmin Edge 800 with a navigational capability cunning  enough to mitigate my inability to remember which door I just came in. Or so the Salesman told me. And they never lie either. He told me that as well.

With working-away riding being a solo affair, further motivational prodding was clearly required. Some kind of stupid event that I’d hate every minute of. Paying good money to hurt myself and be humiliated by others. But – thank-you-God – the HONC was sold out as was the Dartmoor Classic which sadly merely opened up the weekend to ride the Peak100.

I suppose it does support a great charity and I get to wave two fingers at bits of Lancashire. At least it’ll be proper Northern with lard sandwiches at the feed station. And I’ll be proper rubbish, but if it makes me go outside in that –> then it serves a higher purpose. That being me not transformed into a blobby horror, and the award of a small mid-week beer as a reward.

Yes it’s still stupid. But I quite like stupid. It feels like home 😉

* like the Twitterarti only damper. Less concerned with current events than the current weather forecast. And swearier.

** Looking outside, could well be tonight.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Bike Science

Then we shall begin. The working title for this post was “Weird Science” which created a rampant Kelly LeBrock fantasy putting me back a good half hour, and generating outpourings of 1980s teenage angst not suitable for the Public Internet. So sitting then, that’s far more respectable and middle aged.

Which is exactly how I was depicted during my fitting at Bike-Science so I’m not sharing those photos. Instead here’s Jez -half man, half Sasquatch- attempting to wrest his huge frame around that all Carbon Time Trial bike. I couldn’t decide if it was flexing or quaking.

Me? I was quaking at the prospect of being wired up to the mains, rendered in 3-D then gently let down that no amount of precision bike fitting could compensate for my injury and age ravaged collection of stringy bones. First tho, Jez was fitted up on his new TT and older Road bike. This took a while which played to my secret hope we’d run out of hours before I could be humiliated. Sadly unfulfilled, my time would come.

Andy – the man behind the camera and concepts of BikeScience – takes you from your existing riding position to something more precisely engineered through a combination of tests, fitting and adjustments. Some of it is about angles of knee, hip, back and wrist. Some more looks at tweaking out wobbly pedalling actions all in the pursuit of efficiency and comfort. The changes don’t feel that great, but the results are really quite outstanding.

For me, the experience started on the bike pedalling away but going nowhere. Turbo Trainers are for proper roadies so I didn’t put much effort in. Andy kitted me head to toe with electrodes and motion captured my hunched back turtle posture. I assumed his frown was for my frankly pathetic effort at pedalling,  but no it was more about how I’d shoehorned my organic gibbon frame into the carbon road bike one.

He then dispatched me from bike to bench to test my flexibility and core strength.  Unsurprisingly none of those three things were easy to find. And between my grunted exertions on being asked to wrap a foot around a ceiling light, I could feel the smug grin from Jez whose been secretly manning up with daily core exercises for a month.

So the synopsis after ten minutes of failing to do anything other than excuse my piss poor performance through a rambling history of my broken bones, Andy determined I lacked hamstring flexibility, hip rotation, any obvious core strength plus one leg was shorter than the other, both of which were pointed inwards at funny angles. Yes I was paying good money to be told this. It’s like a dentist visit being castigated for a rubbish cleaning routine.**

I lifted my now trembling body back onto the bike – in a manner best thought of as an aged seal making landfall on a slippy rock – while Andy worked his magic with the numbers. Firstly he threw my seat post away lacking as it was sufficient layback, moved the huds and saddle up,  had me pedal a bit,  moved a few more bits, checked his stats, pondered a bit more, turned me around and stared on the other side.

At the end of this witchcraft, I was actually enjoying the turbo because the new position transmitted what little power I can generate to the rear wheel without me rocking about or gnashing in pain. Simple stuff maybe, but clever. It’s the difference between owning a hammer and knowing what to hit with it**

A quick 90 minutes on the road bike the next day was significantly more pleasant than I remember with none of the shoulder and back aches normally associated with the black stuff. The proof will be on longer rides and only if I keep up the seemingly easy but actually bloody difficult exercises Andy set me.  And modify Wog the Wibbler to the same dimensions, currently it’s a million miles away which may explain why riding that one wasn’t always that comfortable either.

It’s a great setup Andy has and well worth the money if you want to ride longer and harder. Put me in mind of the session I did with Tony last year; for the price of a wheel, you get something that makes a real and long lasting difference for your riding. It doesn’t translate so well to MTBs, which doesn’t in any way explain why I still had a hankering for this hanging on Andy’s wall!

* not that I’ve been to the dentist for three years. Teeth haven’t fallen out yet. Are dentures expensive tho?

** In my case of course, that’s “everything”

Return of the chicken suit.

I don’t often write about work. Because a) it’s wouldn’t make very interesting reading*, b) it has the potential to get me into trouble, and c) it would leave me little rant-room during the obligatory “putting the world to rights” post work beer sessions. I savour those rants, so wouldn’t want to waste them here.

Aside from asides on toilet humour and Recycling, there’s been little office gossip for the five long years I’ve been shouting, and you’ve occasionally been listening. And that’s not going to change now, other than to reaffirm my strong belief that any meeting with your betters can only be enhanced if one dons the chicken suit. It’s not failed me yet through many appraisal, all considerably less confrontational that this one

So I shall lightly talc myself up and go forth with a spring in my step, a smile on my face and my cap at a jaunty angle. I know not where things shall end, but it would be a huge surprise were it not in a place serving happy juice to desperate men – one of whom is sporting a latex rooster costume.

A question however that would benefit from “crowd sourcing”** is simply this; “chicken suit on the train, or wait till I get to the office?” My own view is that journey is three hours of tedium many of us must suffer at least once a week. It’d almost be a public service to cheer my fellow passengers up.

In entirely unrelated news, my slide over to the dark, tarmac-y side of cycling continues to accelerate. A bit like us really with a healthy 29ish kph average over 90 kilometres lumpily arranged over 880 metres of Cotswold hills. This included refusing to play off the ladies tee at Bishop’s Cleeve*** so straightlining the ascent up an ever steepening 25% gradient.  Arriving breathless and broken at the top, I was fairly sure – when I finally had the strength to look down – that my legs would be nothing more than bloodied stumps.

Happily not the case but they certainly felt that way for the next few kilometres. Which is excuse enough for my slackness of attention allowing a clubbed up roadie to sweep by on the descent. But I’d learned enough from Dartmoor to tuck in, drag myself into his slipstream before ripping past once the gradient backed off enough for gears to come back into play.

He wasn’t happy. Nor was the next bloke who we overtook twice. The first time we received an aggrieved grunt, the second – after a quick navigational conference saw him sweep past, a sad little smile on his lips – facial blankness on a stiff necked head. We responded with a determined speedy ascent of the next hill which left him miles behind, and me in an oxygen debt that’d have Slime-ball Osborne cutting my limbs off to balance.

I blame my Labrador mate who cannot look at a passing object – be it rider, car, next county – without feeling the urge to retrieve it. Good fun though and although it’s not Mountain Biking, it was a fine way to spend three hours under sunny skies and mostly headwind free. When another sportive option crept embarrassed into my inbox earlier, I found myself worryingly keen to enter.

Some of this is probably due to my flattery-operated psyche.  Over @ Samuri, Jon is riding millions of miles and filling in the tiny gaps with sets of 300 crunches. I’m more your “Never finish a meal without three types of cheese and some port while sucking it in” kind of fella, but even so road riding doesn’t half shift the poundage.

Sure I still have the appearance of lumpy custard poured into a bin bag when encased in figure/blubber hugging lycra, but our next door neighbour responded to my un t-shirted torso yesterday with a wolf whistle and some complimentary remarks on well padded muscle poking out from behind layers of beer. She is a senior citizen and a tad short sighted, but I’ll take that thanks.

Wait till she sees me in the chicken suit eh?

* I appreciate this such a admirable tenet has rarely prevented “not very interesting things about bikes” being spawned all over the Internet. But you have to set the bar somewhere. Even if a supple cockroach would struggle to limbo under it.

** Assuming three people including my Mum constitutes a crowd.

*** That has to be rude surely. Or medical.

Finally worked it out.

Dartmoor Classic 2011

For over a decade, my obsession with cycling has known few- if any – financial, geographical or verbal boundaries. I’ve spent a whole lot of time and money buying, riding, writing and talking about bikes. It has been solely responsible for a circle of fantastic friends, deep holes where cash was buried, broken bones and frequent abandonment of work and family. I owe that obsession all of that, and it owes me nothing in return.

But I’ve never really worked out why. That’s because fast talking belies slow thinking. Sure there’s been navel gazing extremism, pretentious nonsense, occasional bouts of self-doubt, and boring repeats of wondering what comes next. Yet, rather than a laser focus on what’s important, it was more about a lighthouse illuminating new areas of interest – then chasing them down with very little method and much madness.

Take road bikes. They had no place in “Al’s Cycling World” – a place where every road was a singletrack, every climb opened up a perfect descent, a landscape chopped by distant peaks and filled with sun kissed valleys. Trails would end in cool bars filled with good friends and colder beer. Road bikes would be an irrelevance; at best a sporting challenge designed to break them in the most amusing manner.

But taking a fixed position on shifting sands is a silly game only zealots play. So you slide into thin tyres via most mountain bikes, then hybrids, then cheap commuters and onwards to the inevitable U-Turn. Last week saw me come full circle at the Dartmoor Classic. But only because of fitness ground out over multiple winters on mountain bikes. And that allows single minded and nasty competitiveness to turn you proud. And there is some visceral joy of bending the tarmac to your will.

Lightbulb moment. Loathing endurance events circling endless laps is as much about boredom as it is about not being good enough.  It isn’t about the pain and suffering, it’s about the pain and suffering AND still losing. Losing places and hope and the will to live. No laps in my cycling world, we’ll be on the shoulder of a jagged peak spying miles of sinuous singletrack just over the summit.

Logic dictates then that riding a many lapped loop last night should bring on the same weary tedium. It’s unrelenting – hard and steep and shared with fit riders who make it harder still. Flick the bulb again; because now I’ve riding with my friends, having the craic between hastily drawn breaths and the competitiveness may be dulled by companionship, but it is absolutely still there.

That’s the root of it; trying to beat someone, even if it’s only yourself. I can’t get excited about 223rd place against 224th, but if it’s you and you’re half wheeling me and I can see the top then we’re racing. If I know you’re quicker on the next descent, I’m flicking shocks and snicking gears while you’re distracted. Just me and the risk of the going faster is balanced against the danger of consequences, against you there is no balance, no arguments, only getting there first.

Losing is fine too. Because next time / next week / next year I’ll get you back.  And while that is the root, it’s not the whole damn cause. I never could understand gym-rats who admire their glistening form because it pleases them.  Getting fit is a painful journey, my intent to stay there is entirely predicated on a) winning a bit more often and b) not having the mental strength to undertake that journey again. It’s a symptom of riding not the reason for doing it.

Last night was a perfect ride; it was full of happy stuff – gripolicious dry trails, good friends riding at the top of their game, nobody else on our hills, t-shirts, shorts, a setting sun and the confidence that everything under dusty tyres can be ridden just a little bit faster.

And it was. One of those rides where flow, speed and luck are joined at the point of lucky rider. You live for days like these. 20 desperate winter slogs are nothing when compared to one night of perfection. Aches, pains, broken bones, haemorrhaged bank accounts,  guilt and selfishness are not even a price. Because if they were, you might stop for one second to consider if it was worth paying.

And I’ll never, ever get that from a road bike. That’s what I worked out. It’s taken me a while but I think I’ve got it now.

Cycling is in my blood. Mountain Biking is in my soul.

I’ve changed my mind.

Had you asked me six months ago what it was I enjoyed about road riding, I’d have replied with the full Kelvin, followed by a swift slap to the chops for your impertinence. And assuming I hadn’t flounced off in disgust or a proper fight had ensued,  my response would have far outstripped your interest.

Still since you didn’t ask, it goes something like this; it’s is MTB’s boring brother, it has no vibe, no life, no thrill. The only activity that is actually considered less cool than Mountain Biking.  An evil of necessity. A pale shadow of proper riding; just about good enough to be better than driving to work.  A tedious alternative to being fat and grumpy, only slightly less horrid than a Gym.

I felt pretty strongly about that. Fat men smuggling their love spuds into tight lycra or food-weighing twiglets obsessed by power output and peak performance. Heart rates without any heart. Fat lads without any fun. Wheeled sheep line astern, grim faced and suffering. Two words. No Thanks. Two more. Fuck That.

Something has changed.  More than one thing. First there was Wog. Cheap, stout and, well, honest. Equipped with mudguards and treaded tyres, we struck forth into winter with a frozen grin and a never-say-drive attitude. Then riding without a reason to go. Long loops out through the Cotswolds,  striking out still deep in the chilly season.  A different types of fitness, looser trousers* and riding on days when the chunky tyred ones would be grim.

And my Brother, surprisingly.  Ever since he insisted on entering a proper road event,  I felt some sibling obligation to join him. Especially once the forms were completed with my witticism bringing the organisers attention to his medical condition – namely “noticeably porky“. To be fair he was. To be fairer, it was a cheap shot.

Doubt began to creep in a couple of months ago. After never-seen-before early season fitness, one accident put me on my arse and apathy kept me there. However much I told myself otherwise, you cannot taper from eight weeks before an event. Especially if tapering is nothing more than lying on the sofa sprinkled in crisp remains.

Those doubts became proper worries on receiving ever more positive texts from evidently shrinking brother talking of 20, 30 then 40 mile rides. Six of those in one week. I was genuinely shocked on actually seeing the fella (in the pub tho, he’s not gone entirely mental) missing half of his gut, and all of his extra chins. He’s also invested in a bike weighing the same as two slices of tissue paper providing motivation enough to keep him training.

Not me tho. One 100k+ ride in May, bugger all since. A few desultory long commutes, one quick hilly pre-breakfast 50k that nearly put me in hospital, and mountain bikes of course. But my “A” game was merely displacing the “I” in fit.  Inevitably the day dawned and we turned up to everything I hate about cycling – all enclosed in the standard god-forsaken field with the standard air of worry, testosterone and ego.

Let’s count the bad things out shall we; Road Riding. Middle Aged White Men*. Timings. Competitiveness. Pain, deferred but coming. Boredom, Same. Too much lycra, no baggies, no knobbly tyres, no mud. Christ it was Mountain Mayhem without any of the hard to find good bits. And I properly loathe Mayhem.

Good things. Easier to enumerate.  Not hungover. Unheralded restraint made me amusingly proud. Bike is light and lovely. After hauling Wog over hill and more hill, the Boardman is a thing of race honed beauty. Bro, going to be slow even with his outstanding efforts this year. Slower than me anyway. So however rubbish my performance, I can hide behind worthiness and brotherly love. “Well I could have gone mad, but it’s not really on is it?“. 100 kilometres not 100 miles.

Get it done. Get a beer. Get over it. Don’t volunteer again. Having spent too much of my spare time being pointlessly herded by officiousness, the organisation here is superb. From the staggered start through the cheery marshals and fantastic food, it feels quite special. And that’s before random spectators clap you on. Could get used to that.

We start slowly climbing into grey, drizzly cloud that looks nothing like the forecasted horizon splitting sunshine.  The pace winds up as I grab a random wheel to suck, risking disaster with quick over-the-shoulder glances to check on the state of my bro. He’s going well but it’s too fast too soon, so we back off a little more and enjoy a non speedy spin. Riders are passing left and right and my competitive twitch is suffering delusional suppression.

I’m not bothered” says me to the bro. He grins back knowingly. We hit the first proper climb and suddenly my narrowly spaced rear sprocket is a problem. Not for me right now, but I cannot ride at the pace of the monster 12-29 spinning on bro’s wheel. Crikey I’ve run less on an MTB! We agree to meet at the summit so I stretch my anxious legs passing loads and internally ticking my roadie-pals assertion that “most guys here can’t climb, you’ll beast the lot of them“. I know I’m as shallow as a tea spoon and I don’t care.

I care a little more as those bested stream past my freewheeling wait.  Soon enough Bro arrives and we crack on up and, occasionally, down merely killing time before the first of two proper climbs. This rises from the River Dart stretching 2500 riders up a thousand feet on gradients up past 1 in 4. 12-23 Al? Fine plan.

So it goes. Up, mainly. I leave the bro again and “go for the gurn”. I’m passing people everywhere, some walking, some looking deeply unimpressed, one on a carbon fibre monster decked out like a sponsors billboard. He’s really not happy. Especially since I’ve enough reserve breath for a quick needle, and he’s basically 30 seconds from an oxygen tent. I stick by his side until it’s clearly he’s gone, then give it a bit.

Until the next corner. Where I back off otherwise it’s a tent for two. Bro makes it without getting off which is a bloody fine effort and we fall off the summit into dark, dank and wet woods. Twice I’ve considered a sneaky overtake on some mincers in front, both times I’ve reigned it back.  Half way down it’s a decision vindicated by flashing blue lights, concerned expressions and the brief view of a bloodied rider strapped into a spinal board.

We’re chastised but glad it’s not us. Back onto the moor lit by patches of blue puncturing the gloom. It’s a hell of a view and a hell of a ride. Slightly uphill, significant tailwind, I wind it up, direct bro right onto my back wheel and slide past a few suffering already. This is always my favourite bit in any event, when I feel better than most of the others in our class. It doesn’t last long generally but it makes most of the future pain worthwhile. Almost.

We’ve settled into a group now. I pass most of them on the climbs, they come steaming past as I wait for my bro. A few proper riders blast through at a pace that looks illegal. Or drug assisted. I ignore those and concentrate on taking the wind***. Eventually he’s bored of my pace – so sends me on my way to the food stop. Released, I go a bit mental knowing it’s less than ten miles and I’m barely sweating.

Good job it’s not eleven miles. I arrive with a sore knee, an absence of spare breadth and a stiffening hamstring. Hot now, sun fully out, lots of racing snakes downing energy drinks. Lots of people like me pigging out on the cake stall. We set sail for the safe harbour of race end only once our faces are stuffed and bottles refilled. I’m on a heady cocktail of energy drink and anti-cramp potion. It tastes horrid but appears to be working so far.

A couple of nasty, sharp and un-shaded pulls us out of Princetown. My bro is now in uncharted territory having passed his furthest distance. We’re still 40ks from home and his pace has gone from steady to slow. I’m chaffing but trying not to show it. My elder Bro has always been the sensible one, made the right decisions, weighed up the options. I owe him unconditional help without being patronising. We started this together, that’s how we’ll finish.

But he is sensible and measured and understands the difference between personal and important. So he insists I fuck off and leave him to suffer alone. I protest a bit. He then really tells me to fuck off and – because I’m not any of those things – I do with a couple of guilty backward glances. One more big hill but it’s all into a head wind, and I’ve abandoned the bloke I promised to pull round.

Still no point worrying about that now, I’ve people to catch and scores to settle. A couple of times already I’ve been passed downhill. That’s going to stop right now. Quick yomp up the latest climb with slightly creaking knees and I’m on the wheel of a clubman decked out in socks to helmet livery. We swoop down some epic steep hairpins before blasting through the trees at speeds rarely attained on mountain bikes.

A right hander looms and I’m so deep into fuck-it mode, ego has displaced me in the pilot’s seat.  He hits the brakes, I fly by on the outside – giggling insanely – grab the brakes myself, feel the oh-so-thin tyres squirm, wait, wait, wait, got to pitch it in, look up Landrover approaching tight to the white line. Hmmm this could be lively, push hard on the left hand side of the bar, and pray everything I’ve heard about slick tyres and tarmac is true.

It is. Fly out of the corner like berms for road bikes and never see the fella behind again.  Spurred on, I push on up the final climb not so fast now but ensuring I’m presenting a heroic bent to the many photographers camped out on the steep bits. Still very few go past with my Malvern-Legs driving me on. Irritatingly while all is well in lungs and legs, my back and neck are now demanding some recompense for constant battering. I can offer nothing more than 20ks left to go, but first a final descent through dappled woods occasionally sprinkled with damp leaves.

It’s a lesson in road riding I get taught by a few whooshing past. I hang in there but it feels like I’ve pushed it a bit too far already.  Finally we’re spat out into the valley and closer to home than I date think. Forgot my GPS so I’m asking riders how far we’ve got to go. Please don’t tell me it’s that far, because I’m suffering now.

12k a lovely man says. Then he sprints off. I sit on his wheel for a bit before being overcome by strange feelings of guilt. I take a turn, then a well honed lady with a toned arse does the same. We watch her for a bit before guilt trips back in. Three of us are now pushing bloody hard and it’s fantastic. Behind seven or eight show no interest in taking a turn. I’m blowing it out of my arse here and you’re basically freewheeling in the gas. That’ll not do  at all.

Whispered conference up the front. Agreement in tight smiles. There’s one proper hill left and we sprint up it, calves screaming, respiratory system fully anaerobic, muscles demanding instant respite but still we steam on, hit the summit, glance back to see nothing but empty tarmac and broken men.

The last few k’s continue to hurt. I’m getting a count now, 4ks, 3ks, little hill..ow…ow..ow don’t back off, 2k, we’ve got to be there, round the next corner and we are. Slide to a stop, grin, shake hands, fall off bike.  Even the freebies are great with a little bit of Dartmoor rock and a medal to add to the standard t-shirt.

My time isn’t brilliant, but it’s not too shabby. Bro comes in 30 minutes later which is fantastic and he’s properly – and rightly – impressed with his effort. We decamp to his house to drink beer gloating about those still out in the broiling heat. Half way though our second beer, we’re singing up for the “135k circuit of Kent” in September.

Road bikes you see. Rubbish. Really, terrible things. Entirely pointless. Can’t recommend them enough 😉

* Although this may have been my two month weekday prohibition of all things hop and grape. I’m back to normal now. And the trousers know it.

** I appreciate the hypocrisy. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.

*** So much of road cycling is about getting out of the wind. It kills speeds and urks the soul.