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.

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.

 

Leffe brained

Sunday Service - Penyard MTB

Remember your mum telling you that you were special? Well she’s right in at least one way. We all are – no two people have quite the same left brain / right brain bias. Those of us on the right tend to the creative, those to the left on the analytical. That’s testing the limit of my neuroscience knowledge, so I have an inkling it might be a bit more complicated that that.*

What I do know for sure is that a few of us temporarily become ‘Leffe Brained‘ which is basically just a few hours separated from being happily drunk. A night on Belguims’ finest export** tends to be viewed as a poor meal choice through the prism of the following morning.

Other than the standard hangover tropes of a throbbing head, an inability to locate everyday objects including kettle, car keys and underpants and a medicinal need for a greasy bacon sandwich, the mountain biker suffers a further unwanted consequence.

Strong ale still swishing in the bloodstream appears to intoxicate the nervous system. Electrical pulses from reddened eyeballs fail to trigger desperately required muscle movement from shaking limbs. I can only assume they’re sideswiped by a fellow neuron in the need of a quick pint, slouch off to the liver for a bit of a session only returning to their primary duty some time later -excusing themselves with the traditional ‘badger ate signal box at New Malden‘. Again I’m not a recognised academic in this area, but by god I’ve put in years of unfunded research.

And what I’ve found is either extremely amusing or bloody dangerous depending if your observing or experiencing.  The former for me today as Haydn navigated a trail we’ve ridden a hundred times with the skill and grace of a three legged stoat recuperating from a serious head wound.

First up, I’m leading so his distress is exposed through the medium of modern whimpering. Noises percolated through the forest canopy of a man recently introduced to a difficult stallion. Not exactly crashing but an unhappy passenger on a steed barely under his control. He looked a little troubled on arrival at the fire road and declared himself ‘dangerous at any speed‘.

This was clearly going to be a lot more fun – for me at least – if the experience was upgraded from sound to vision. Sure enough, the next trail H nailed a couple of early jumps before the 9:45 Retina to Right arm was cancelled without any warning leaving him to choose which tree he’d like to hug.

Dodged them somehow but pulled aside with a shake of the head. Obviously I was very sympathetic. Laughing is sympathetic. If it’s done right. I did feel for him tho as only the day before I’d risked it all on the ‘Grimbergen Gambit’*** before a fast dash around Cwmcarn.

Ridden just about every bike I’ve owned here. Know it well and it’s a bunch of fun when dry.  It’s that and a little bit dusty mirroring my tired eyes. An attempt to beat the hangover into submission on the 30 minute climb failed unless wanting to throw up and having to lie down in any way counts.

First descent is properly bar twitchy tight at the top before opening out into fast straights accelerating the unready into sharp corners and stumped apexes. I was ready from the eyeballs out. Not much happening downstream of that. The only way I could have damaged any more woodwork was to have ridden the trail with a chainsaw strapped to the bars.

That almost imperceptible delay is the difference between a perfect line and a desperate sawing to get the bugger back into line; the gap between a good braking point and a pointless one, the length of the bikes getting ahead in front of you, the nagging doubt that this one day will be permanent.

Not yesterday tho. Bike, ego, competitive gland, occasional dose of mild lunacy got me through and it was a more sober companion who rode off the trail. Not that I’d had a trouble free ride with my life passing in front of my eyes so often, I started fast forwarding the boring bits.

Strava said this bike is faster than all of those long lost in my riding pantheon. Even with Mr still-a-bit-pissed-will-there-be-bacon-soon allegedly in command. Which tells you everything you need to know about how bloody amazing the Mojo3 is.

Fast forward a day and Haydn kickstarted his synapses by bolting down an energy bar and adopting a determined expression. This was less fun for me, but on balance that’s fine as my good mate didn’t end up in A&E asking for a tree to be removed from his forehead.

Summer has been beer, laughing and mountain bikes for as long as I can remember. If the occasional hangover is the price of entry, it’s one well worth paying.

Maybe just not quite so often.

*Or in non fake news terms: a bit of a  myth. But it was a good hook and since telling great big whoppers is the new truth, I’m just practising for the upcoming apocalypse 😉

** I’ve done the research. It really is. And that includes due consideration of mythical detectives.

*** 2nd best export. After that it’s postcards of boys having a wee and some rubbish cheese.

 

Parenting – the MTB edition.

Jessie's new bike day

It was exactly two years ago when I last rode MTB with Jess. There are good reasons for this; firstly her rapid limb lengthening rendered her lovely XS Turner redundant. Unless she was considering a career riding BMX.

Not that such an option remained viable once I’d sold it. Needed the space in the shed. You snooze you lose.  Besides that between the ages of 14 and 16, there’s lots going on in the life of your average mid-teen. In Jess’s case there was an entirely un-fatherly work ethic, a burgeoning love of dance, a cabal of smart friends and binge watching of whatever was trending on Netflix that week.

I missed riding with her, but being a selfish bugger riding was still happening a few times a week. Even when it’s not about me, it’s about recognising living vicariously through your kids is not close to proper parenting.  Instead I was playing the long game waiting for a righteous Venn intersect of summer, a proper sized bicycle and an inventory of spares.

The latter came first. Due to the satisfying – if pointless – upgrading of the Mojo and a quick switcheroo of the Stache back to the configuration it first arrived in, a bench full of parts was missing only a frame and a set of bars* to ignite a Mary Shelley Dr Frankenstein moment.

Sorted via a 2nd hand frame originally sourced from the good guys at Cotic, a night at Matt’s where he created the mini monster truck while I fetched tools and handed him the occasional beer. The highlight of the build is, of course, that mudguard which I believe we can all agree is a triumph. Modesty forbids identifying the creative engineer honing his zip tie skills.

Tested on the Wednesday night ride. Quite the whippy go-kart even if a little small for me. That’s fine, it’s really not for me. However many times my riding buddies insisted it was. This,  after I’d coached them extensively on the exact language to use if Carol frowned her way through a body count in the shedofdreams(tm).

Jess was understandably nervous at re-engaging with all things mountain biking. Even with truth shaded by parental pride, she was bloody brilliant. Sure the hills tested her limited stamina triggering those lying over the bars ‘pass the water if pure oxygen isn’t available‘ desperate hand movements.

She’s never been the best climber. Never really ridden enough. Bloody minded though especially after her only push was rapidly upgraded to energetic spinning when some lads appeared from a side trail. Girl-power right there.

We’ve ridden the Verderers trail in the FoD many times and while the end of it is fab, the rest of it can be a bit meh especially if you’re no fan of gravel. So we headed out into the forest proper, swooping through the valleys below the bigger hills, making good progress over steppy roots and encroaching vegetation.

Jessie on her new Cotic Solaris Max
That’s a real video if you click on it. Jessie dealing with some rooty madness

Obviously while this is all about Jess, it’s still a little bit about me. Hence messing about in a bombhole which has been a constant trail companion for the last 10 years. Jess switched into the editor role to capture my enthusiastic if a bit rubbish attempts to get some air under the wheels of the Flare Max. Cotic and Chubby lock out today.

Flare Max in the Forest
More video if you’re a bit bored

Nifty navigation bypassed some unloved climbs and presented us at the top of the final two descents. Gloves back on, seat post dropped, appropriate advice offered and ignored and we’re away. A berm marking the site of a previous crash ridden nicely without incident, and we’re into the final kilometre unlocking ice cream rewards.

Jess looks tense and stiff. She’s a bit scared. I know that feeling well but can only encourage from behind. It’s a rough trail tho and she gets thrown off line and off the trail. A desperate leg out connects with nothing but air which means gravity gets involved. No damage done other than an elevated heart rate for both of us.

Strangely this loosens Jess up. She’s riding really well now, pedals level, looking through the corners, tenseness exchanged for smoothness and a bit of speed. Enough speed for me to sit on a splintered mental fence between pride and concern.

I go with pride and shout the next two berms are no problem, even knowing both have caused the kind of fall pride is known to precede. She’s all good though if a little innovative with line choice and we’re home and hosed. Ice cream isn’t a fish finger sandwich, so we trade lunch choices and high fives.

Jess asks me if I like riding with her. Surely it’s a bit boring going so slowly? For such an intelligent young woman**, this is a pretty stupid question. I explain I can go chase endorphins behind fast friends 50 weeks a year. Riding with your offspring is something far more special. I loved every minute of it, more so because Jess seemed too as well***

She wants to go again once the soreness fades. That’d be marvellous. Maybe I need to work on her brother and mum as well.

I’ve lost so many family days to riding, and it’s always felt the right – if inexcusably selfish –  call.  Today reminded me there’s not so many summers left to ride with those in my genetic tribe. Not because it’s some kind of tick-box parenting, but because it’s absolutely bloody fantastic.

Jess’s new bike’s is pretty cool too 🙂

*Swerved the enduro wide bar zeitgeist for something a little more suitable. I was only off by about 100mm. Young women do not have 760mm shoulders 😉

**She gets it from her mother. Obviously.

***Except for some of the climbing. She gets that from me.

Commitment

P6162968

A noun short on consensual definition but long on consequence. Theres a axiom hiding in idioms tired from old campaigns: ‘Just go for it’, ‘Speed is your friend’, ‘it’s way easier than it looks‘ and, of course, the desperate standby ‘hold my beer and watch this‘.

It rarely ends well. Not because these phrases lack a shining nugget or truth, more the lack of actual commitment demonstrated by those being egged on, by those true friends who will ferry them to a local hospital, when fine words crash into reality. And the ground. Or a tree. Or a tree and then the ground.

Other individuals – and not for a second would I group myself in their canon –   consider any challenge as merely requiring an excess of commitment to conquer. Not tending to introspection, these naysayers of self doubt will redouble whatever qualities might be required while wondering what all the fuss is about.

Well how long have you got? Shall we start with some examples? Last weekend my good mate and occasional mountain biker mate Jason was warily examining a wet chute of dirt barely clinging to some local lumpy geology. ‘Just Commit to it Jas , it’ll be fine‘ I shouted from below. Seconds later the crashing of man, recently astride a bicycle, flattening the local shrubbery suggested this sage advice had gone unheeded.

Apparently not. The issue was in fact my lack of narrative clarity. He’d fully committed to the steep drop, but in his deep focus of all things slimy had then been unpleasantly surprised by a ninety degree corner. Hence ripping up the vegetation in the manner of a one man wide rotavator and blaming me for failing to mention the scope of commitment required.

We’ve all been there. Rode that drop, smacked into a stump we weren’t expecting. Caught a fishtailing rear tyre on a winters corner only to have the front hoist the ‘no grip here mister‘ white flag half a second later.  Let the brakes off in a silent homage to all those magazine skills guides only to find that speed is not your friend when its arbitrating between bravery and skill.

Of course you go out with all the best intentions. Today I shall remain zen-like, living very much in the moment and choosing smoothness over speed, technique over terror, commitment over vacillation. I’ll be looking so far through that corner, aliens from another dimension may well be looking back. I shall pay them no heed because nothing shall alter this perfect state of man and machine strumming a rhythmic baseline of trail perfection.

Works quite well in the car that I’ve found. Almost faultlessly in a bar. Sage nods at YouTube mastery of the art of commitment. Much postulation amongst friends who see it for what it really is. Merely displacement tactics when facing something that even after fifteen years of riding is still giving you the willies.

Another good mate has just returned from a skills course* and his first mash up of old trails and new skills was similar to mine. Except he was properly quick to start with. You try – really try – to take well drilled practised skills from a safe environment and overlay them on a 3-D puzzle shot through with all sorts of variables; grip, elevation, obstacles and the Pavlovian need to chase your mates.

He was still fast of course. And crashed looking extremely skilled. Lacked no commitment whatsoever. Having seen an image of him clearing a seven foot gap jump the week before, this stuff clearly works. If the mind is uncluttered and the body is prepared to fire synapses on command- all the time hoping those variables line up in favourable fashion.

So commitment only takes you so far. This far in fact. Today Martin celebrating a birthday which makes him even older than me** was a great excuse to ride in the Malverns, where the pixies of trail go hard with their maxim of ‘steeper and deeper‘ on sharp sided hills.

We’d ridden some pretty fun stuff; scary but dry. Yet all this was merely marking time before dropping into a steep trail full of almost endless joy except for a new four foot (that’s about 1.2m for our younger readers but 4 foot sounds a whole  load better) jump placed close to the end.

Well I was shitting it to be absolutely frank. By failing to unlock my suspension, a crack in the excuse book opened but wise to my ways Cez and Martin were waiting for me at what I’d started to think of as ‘Death’s Door‘.  I felt this was exactly the right time to point out I’d never jumped off anything so high. Martin kindly explained he hadn’t either until earlier in the week and here he was still alive.

Not happy with that sample size, but before I could pull the emergency hamstring, we’re away on a trail of organic marbles, straightening up over the little qualifier, gradient increasing, trying to stay with Cez but desperate to hit the brakes.

Suddenly the trail was blocked by an angry wood giant seemingly configured for moon orbit. Cez disappeared skyward, Martin’s already gone and I’m pretty committed in speed if not in mind.

Hit the lip with some semblance of technique, then a long silence punctuated only by spinning hubs, then a thumping landing mostly on both wheels, and finally a proper fly off the following smaller sky-ramp. Oh that one felt good.

Stopped. Sowing machine leg. Flappy handed babbling. Senses overloaded, body flushed with adrenaline. Trying to make sense but brain is just backed up with ‘fuck fuck fuck did we just do that fuck fuck fuck’

I don’t think that’s commitment. I think it’s peer pressure. And denying the prospect of self loathing. And raging against the dying of the light. And just a smidge of an attitude to life long lost to age and conformity.

Same again next week then?

*With Tony Doyle who is universally known as ‘Jedi‘ for his teaching skills. Which means now of course Rex – based on his occupation – is now known as ‘Darth Welder‘ to whom we greet with ‘May the gas be with you‘.

**which cheered me up no end until I remembered how much quicker he still is. And apparently getting quicker. There’s hope for me yet!

 

Sometimes you have to leave..

Bluebell Day - Matt's camera

.. to understand exactly what it is you’ve left.* Riding in Spain was close to the perfect mountain biking holiday. Amazing location, brilliant trails, superb logistics, lovely hosts and great mates. All experienced through a prism of sunshine and dust. Except for the last day when it absolutely trouted it down, but hey that reminded me of home.

There is some resetting of norms out there. Back home we don’t average a daily 2,5000 metres of descending, nor suffer fatigued quads and pumped arms on trails bashing down rock conveyers for double digit minutes. Nor extended exposure with consequences from ‘that’d smart a tad’ to ‘we’re going to need an ambulance. And possibly a spatula

Wouldn’t it be brilliant to ride like that every day we asked and answered as a falling sun backlit the mountains, and we toasted the coming of the night with many glasses. 300 days of sunshine, a pace of life that has daily siestas baked in,  and a startling lack of the avarice and bullshit which pile up on our personal highways on this tiny, deluded Island.

Yes, and indeed no. Because even counting all its crap bits – and fuck me that’s a graph that’s gone exponential this last few years – there’s something secret, comforting and life affirming waiting for those of us attuned to the changing of the seasons. We almost missed this awesome show with our heads turned by muscular geography and bursting nature. Almost but not quite.

Dry and warm weather flowered bag-hibernated bikes into fully fledged trail-ready perennials. Short sleeves and shades were harvested from dusty luggage, and less than a week from the big mountains we were saddled and ready for one of my favourite events of the whole year: Bluebell day.

Sure the bluebells are not transitory in a single rotation of the planet but only a couple of weeks bookend first flush to sad wilt. We’d missed the first one but knew exactly where to get our fix of the forest at her most beautiful. First tho 10km of road, 9 of which had me obsessing over my manky hand.

Soon forgot about that as forgetting about the need to earn your turns proved to be ideal displacement activity. No uplift to haul us from the river to the not-very-high summit, but our destination was pulling at us like a benevolent black hole. First tho, a tramp down a favourite trail that was basically dust lightly attached to a concrete surface that may once have been dirt.

Not the rocks so closely associated with the Sierra Nevada national park but still lumpy enough for my silent bike to be accompanied by ‘ow’ ‘OW’ ‘OW FUCK’ from the rider positioned at the back wishing he’d taken Matt’s offer of hacking the offending limb off and grafting some kind of SPD attachment to the bar.**

More displacement required. That’ll be the Buckstone then. A great trail in any month but come Bluebell day, the most spectacular spread of colours bisected by a snake of hero dirt. Riding it shouldn’t be this hard except the optics in your peripheral vision drag eyeballs away from fairly important stuff involving where the trail is and the trees aren’t.

Bluebell Day- MTB FoD

So you stop. Take pictures. Take some more. Digital memories never trump analogue ones. It’s a million times better being amongst it rather than watching it through a viewfinder. Still that kind of pretentious nonsense lasts exactly as long as one of the crew gleefully finding something to chuck themselves off.

Bluebell Day- MTB FoD

That went on for a while. Until the axiom of ‘let Al choose the trails, he’s injured‘ died in the fire of my previously supportive colleagues chanting ‘bunker, bunker, BUNKER‘. That’s democracy for you so bunker it was. Steep, rocky, occasionally terrifying. After a week in Spain and being tinder dry, it wasn’t anything but a top to bottom bloody good laugh. With just the odd sob from the man wondering if the physio might be on to something***

Bluebell Day- MTB FoD

Then the pub. Sitting outside in the sunshine reflecting this is exactly what keeps us going in the seasons of grim. That and knowing bluebell day is coming. It never disappoints. And neither does coming home.

Adventures in other countries are never anything other than amazing. What’s rather special is finding the riding on your doorstep is pretty damn fantastic too. Maybe we’ll get another bluebell day tomorrow.

*I bastardised that quote from the novel Night Train to Lisbon. ‘We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there‘ – Pascal Mercier. If you’ve time to read this, you should read that. Or at least watch the film 😉

** that’s what passes as sympathy in our little riding group.

*** don’t ride for a month she said. Okay I said. I managed three days.

Talk to the hand

That's what my hand looked like after I crashed
Go on holiday they said. You’ll get some colour they said.

The people I ride with fit most of the standard archetypes; the mechanically inclined one, the quiet introspective one, the over-thinker, the young pretender, the party animal and, of course, the team idiot*

Fab friends to a man, but lacking in just a couple of areas. One being medical diagnosis of damaged organs** especially if the patient has a history of whinging, a low pain threshold and hypochondria.  Last year a finger bone snapped by the slamming van door was dismissed as a bit of swelling, and this time round the same limb going all sorts of funny colours matched a confident identification of ‘mildly bruised palm

To be fair,  one member of the medical committee was already dealing with a separated AC should joint with far less histrionics than yours truly visually explaining the pain through the accepted medium of the chicken dance*** Another member was absent due to cracking a couple of ribs half an hour earlier, so mitigating circumstances abounded.

Even so, it bloody hurt. One crash all week. Third day, but more irritatingly with three days to go. Ironically – and to show that fate has no truck with braggadocio and bombast – only 24 hours before I’d had my best day on the bike for a very long time. Even my friends noticed ennobling a singularity of thought that maybe I could ride a bike after all. I blame the altitude. And the wine.

Fast forward to 11am. First of six trails all uplift accessed. Couldn’t have been more excited. Couldn’t haven’t ridden any worse. Some bastard skill stealer had crept into the room the previous eve and nicked my hard won capability from a drunken mind. I mean it’s not much capability, but I’ve worked hard for that so to have it snatched away so cruelly seems more than a little unfair.

Second uplift. A little better, a wide ribbon of rock refreshingly attached to immovable geology. Not too many corners. Pretty much point awesome bike somewhere near the fast fellas and enjoy the view. Third trail, back to being shit. Had a look for somewhere to have a big crash, but survived due to insane amounts of grip and very good brakes.

Then Adam flung himself heroically, if somewhat hastily, at a plethora of rocks which broke both his fall and a couple of ribs. Fair to say his stoicism was entirely at odds to my post crash trauma, but hey he’s a young man with some organic body armour.

Next up was ‘Janet Street Porter‘ – nominatively deterministic for a rocks raised at right angles in the manner of gravestones. Every one of which had my name on it. I would say vertical but that’d ignore the canting of the horizon as is normal with any trail hanging onto a steep gradient.

Arrived at the first hairpin barely in control and in not state to roll the modulate/grab dice needed to maintain any kind of progress. Foot down, some swearing and then away on a fading incline loosening death grips and reducing the background load of managing fear.

We’ll be back up there on the next run‘ Matt the guide declared. Four looked happy, one looked broken, one was just looking at the ground. Still easier when you know what’s coming eh?

Not the hardest trail we rode by a distance. No exposure. Steep but nowhere near peak ‘fuck me, ride down that?‘ territory. Rocky sure, but we’ve been at that for three days. Switchbacks, yeah but by the end of the week we’ll have ridden hundreds of those. Sometimes on a single trail.

Still nervous tho. Best to follow someone who knows what they’re doing. In a little faster from the village above and it’s gets noisy fast with rock abrasions to expensive components, clattering suspension, tyres fighting for traction and the occasional whimper.

A little more in control this time tho. Slightly less flustered as the crux move came into view. Arse so far off the back it’s almost in another country. Squeezing those four pots like a man testing a dodgy tomato, big head turn, bike articulated between a hard turned front and a straight rear. One gap between the rock teeth, got to loose the brakes now, got to go for it.

Ciclo Montana MTB - April 2017

10 seconds before crashing

Oh that feels good. Even better there’s a lensman above doing his stuff. This is going to look epic. Next switchback is so much easier and I’m chasing a line nicked from Haydn’s way better effort last time round. Mind is clear, bike feels great, I feel good, hit the exit and let it all hang out.

Except I never got to the exit. Not sure I even made the entry.  No idea what happened really other than an unscheduled appointment with some unforgiving terrain. Lay there for a bit wondering which bit hurt most. Quite a few limbs demanding priority.

After hauling myself back to my feet, I decided it was my hand that might have suffered rather more heavily. Even a 600mg ‘Donkey Stunner’ Ibuprofen generic only took the edge off it. As did more of the same, wrist supports and a medically inadvisable alcohol bombardment over the next three days.

I expected it’d be fine when I stop riding. It wasn’t tho and a trip to Ross A&E – where the radiographer remembered me from last time – showed a hairline crack in the metacarpal. It didn’t show the soft tissue damage which, over two weeks later, is still bloody painful. I’m not making a big thing of it tho.

Didn’t stop me riding. Probably should have. But it’s bluebell time. I’d have to be in traction to stop me going out right now. I mean that’d just be stupid.

 

*I feel regular readers will be in no doubt of the identity of the latter.

**except the liver. And to be fair, we’ve all put the hours of research into that one.

***don’t make me explain this. Just don’t.