Full Circle

Bird Aeris one20-the budget build

Back in the midsts of time* I bought a Bird Aeris. 4,500 kilometres and some two years later I sold the remains to a young grom whose world – according to the the instagram lie filter – was mostly up in the air whilst tilted sideways.

And that was some of the problem. The Aeris was a bike which came alive about the time I began to worry I wouldn’t be for much longer. It didn’t reward the tentative rider, the man on the brakes, the poorly body positioned. That’s not the reason I sold it though – although ‘reason’ is as ever conflated with the ‘call of the shiny

Oh the shiny. It’s a constant companion. Both a source of joy and a financial handicap. Mojo3, FlareMax, Fat Bike, Chubby Bike, another chubby bike, settling the wheel size debate with a firm punt at 27.5. And then 29. Somehow I ended up with three full suspension bikes none of which were quite right. We’ve been there, let’s not go there again.

Somewhere in the madness there was method.  I wanted a full suspension bike that’d survive the brutal slop and grit of a long Forest winter. The Smuggler failed to fulfil that role mostly due to a design predicated on mud never being more than an occasional annoyance. The clearance in the rear was parlous at best. When it got worse I’d be carrying the bloody thing due to the rear tyre wedged firm in the seat stays.

That’s exactly what happened to the Mojo3.  With about 50% of the mud. So now I had two bikes that were perfect for a) California or b) 8 months of a UK year.  Roll on twelve months and post a ruthless review of what I actually needed left me with the brilliant RipMo and laughing-in-the-face-of-a-UK-winter SolarisMax. The latter being two bikes via a simple swap of death-by-tyre chubbies to some proper 29er rubber.

Still with me? Good effort as I’m just making this shit up. After my personal dissolution of the monasteries, the ShedOfDreams(tm) had the look of a space recently burgled by an extremely discerning bike thief. Scattered amongst the remains were a set of previously enjoyed spares missing merely a frame to make them whole.

We’ve been here before. And whilst that is not surprising, it does at least provide me with the slenderest thread of logic to explain my latest purchase. The original Stache was nothing more than a parts mule configured for winter. The fact it didn’t last that long before the glare of the shiny burned it out is hardly worth mentioning.

So here we find ourselves with a box full of parts desperately needing a home, a hotel internet connection and a month long moratorium on weekday alcohol.  This  kind of abstinence is exactly why I drink in the first place to avoid the clarity of thought to buy yet more bikes. It may be detrimental to the liver but it has a positive effect on my bank account

Much browsing ends with a certain inevitability of choosing a frame matching a set of simple criteria – do the parts fit, does it have some proper tyre clearance, is it cheaper than the last bike I sold, is the bloke selling it not a total fucking psychopath?**

Four greens. And it’s a UK brand run by three blokes I’ve a lot of time for. Just the right amount of travel and only a few miles from box fresh.  It even had some frame protection tape applied – possibly while drunk – so saving me the potential marriage ending argument with Carol on exactly the best way to apply it.

I considered building it myself what with a shed full of spares, a wall full of tools and a fridge full of beer. But with great age comes great wisdom so I handed it over to Matt who twirled spanners in about four dimensions muttering darkly while rebuilding wheel bearings and engineering his way round lost parts.

As ever I was lost in awe and impatience. I’m really not good with the gap between ideas and completion. Finally the bike was handed over to check if anything was going to fall off before a proper ride tomorrow. And as usual, nothing did even with me dicking about riding down a few steps and attempting to tear fat tyres off wide rims.

Matt asked me over a beer if I thought I’d be a better rider if I didn’t buy so many different bikes. That brought me up short. Having considered it though, he might be right but it’s not really much of a concern. I’m comfortable being average when the fun of chasing silly dreams is more than a compensation.

So tomorrow we’ll ride still dry trails. There’s something comforting about doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. And the nice thing about circles is you can keep going round.

*2015 which when considering the barely-sub-lightspeed reconfiguration of my bike collection essentially frames 2015 as ‘pre-cambrian’

**That was strike 1. Even a man as ancient as I was still moved to wonder ‘what the fuck was he on?’ at the end of a non transaction.

Don’t get me started..

First ride of the SolarisMax V2

There’s a fine line between an carefully considered hypothesis, underpinned by empirical data, and an entirely implausible excuse for a new toy. Let’s be charitable here and assume this latest purchase can be counted in the first category.

Or for the cohort of the world easily defined as ‘everyone but me‘, let’s not.  There are reasons of course, because there are always reasons. It hardly matters that this latest addition to the ShedOfDreams(tm) has triggered a schism in my bike collection. A splinter movement if you will. I certainly have, breaking down the much loved Mojo3 and the slightly less loved but still guiltily stripped Smuggler.

What’s left is a litany of spare parts, a newly built frame, a re-engagement with the nonsense of eBay, and a whole lot of soul searching wondering if this represents logical decision making or headless chicken randomness.

It it’s logic, it works like this; the RipMo is so studidly good, I’ll probably not pick to ride the Mojo when choices must be made. No abstraction here – last Sunday I prepped the Mojo for a long ride, pushed it out of the shed, breathed deeply and put it right back in there. Exchanging it for the RipMo pretty much sealed its fate.

That bike was amazing; no hyperbole here, it really brought my riding on – from a low base for sure – and gave me confidence to go a little harder and a little deeper into the adrenal zone.  For a man of my limited skill and advancing age, amazing feels like a mean description. It was better than that, way better than me, and undeserving to be sidelined for the false promises of new shiny things.

The Smuggler a little less so. I liked that bike a lot but I never really loved it. There’s a different- trust me on this. It’s really important, you’ll need to take that under advisement as well. Okay so if the RipMo negates the need for three full suspension mountain bikes*, where the hell does a hardtail come in?

Well it came in last year. But that one is Jessie’s** and while I ensured it was fit for purpose, it was always a bit small for me.  The new one is not. Bending to the marketing winds of ‘longer is better’, this medium sized frame pokes out an inch and a half beyond Jessie’s Mark 1.

Other things have changed as well. I barely considered them having seen the images of  the only colour worth having. It was only a short jump from there to poorly wielded spanners and better excuses.

This frame didn’t have an easy birth mostly as I’ve been bastard busy trying to wrangle an metaphorical octopus into a string bag without losing a tentacle. So I’m blaming work for getting in the way of remembering to order vital components not available from asset stripping two perfectly good frames

No problem we just butchered another one to bring this one to life. We even had lightening to electrify the process. I’m more your Dr Frankenstein to Matt’s monster on the grounds I really don’t have the hair for it. Still it was me sent out into the pissing rain to determine if pointy things were pointing in the right direction and stoppy things were sufficiently arresting.

It seems not in the case of the latter mostly as Klutz-Boy here had deposited a bath of dirty paraffin onto the front disc.  Still what’s the worse that can happen?

Does riding into the shrubbery whilst making keening sounds count as ‘the worst’? Probably not. Still it was an interesting start to the ride although not quite as exciting as a two ton car shaped ram attempting to punt me into the next county some time later***

In between I had a fab time. This is my seventh Cotic and much of that purchasing logic is based on Cy knowing how to design a fun bike. This one is definitely fun, possibly a bit more than Jessie’s as it’s a better fit, has a longer fork and is entirely new. Let’s not debase ourself searching for quantifiable evidence here.

Better still was getting out with an old mate. Riding trails returned to hero dirt by a weekends’ rain. Hint of loam, flick of the hips easily brakes the grip of a rear tyre not encumbered by suspension, slide it round, get it pointed mostly the right way, giggle, repeat.

I love the RipMo for what it can do. How perfectly the suspension design works everywhere. When things get a bit scary, it’ll save you all sorts of pain. It’s somewhere close to the perfect trail bike in a way the Solaris really isn’t.

Most of the evening was spent trying to get the bloody thing stopped, dodging trees, catching slides, releasing the brakes more in hope than any kind of learned technique, and careering through the forest like a one man morris dance troop.

Or to put it somewhat better; to feel eleven years old while being allowed to drink beer celebrating the success of another fantastic new bike. And to toast those whose time has passed.

So don’t get me started. Because I don’t want to stop.

*It’s hard to correlate a ‘well formed and fully funded roadmap for the perfect bike collection‘ with ‘why do you have three bikes that look very, very similar?’

**She’s ridden it once. That pretty much codifies possession.

***My righteous anger was somewhat mollified when it was pointed out that it was in fact now proper dark and we were essentially riding in stealth mode with no lights.

Are you going to ride that or what?

Sospel - Maratime Alps

I can see Haydn and, more specifically, Haydn’s camera pointing meaningfully at yet another steep, tight rocky switchback offering an average rider* the now standard three options.

Option 1 is to examine the 3-D puzzle in front of you, considering radius, incline, camber, rock formation and exit points before deciding that as someone else has already ridden it,  you really don’t have too. Engage the 31inch gear to pivot a now stationary bike 90 degrees and die just a little bit inside. I say option 1 but after riding about a thousand of these tricky bastards over the last week, it would be considerably more accurate to label this my ‘Default’.

I did get better. Just not much. Not for me the technical skill of nose wheeling or terrifying prospect of sliding in – both wheels long gone from grip – and snapping the front end round using some form of secret hip dislocation.

Sorry for the digression there. Much as I treasure my riding friends, watching most of them perform these acts of insouciance does occasionally trigger a teeth clenching grunt wondering if it is okay to hope it may sometimes end in just a bit of a disaster.

Not full disaster tho. Which is the unique selling point of option 2.  Essentially a two second plunge to splatter oneself in the gorge below after the rider has failed to solve the equation ‘amount of skill required > amount of skill available‘. I’m not a big fan of exposure and even less keen on certain death, but a week riding these kind of trails did provide a mid holiday upgrade from ‘very slow and frightened‘ to ‘well I’m pretty fucking old, so best not die wondering’.

Leaving only option 3 as framed by that image. And the obvious tension in my riding. ‘He’s got the bloody camera out, I’m going to have to have a crack‘ summarises most of what was going on in my brain about four seconds previously. Yes I am as shallow as a tea spoon when it comes to this kind of thing.  So stop snivelling and remember what Chris – our proper ex DH pro showed you – edge of the trail and then a bit more, there’s grip in that vegetation, don’t look at the gorge far below, don’t bleed all the speed off, squeeze the back brake, flick the hips, feel the slide and get off both brakes the second you can see the exit. See easy?

Sospel - Maritime Alps
Chris doing it properly

I’d distilled that script from following Chris earlier in the day. Like many great riders, he’s annoying hard to dislike. Give me arrogance and gracelessness any day – at least that way you’ve got an excuse to file people better at stuff than you in a bucket marked ‘Decent rider sure, but what a colossal shit gibbon‘.

I’ve been lucky enough to be comfortably in double digits to trips to far off places. Mostly with the same gang, but this time we had extra riders – different dynamic, same maxim holds ‘location is an important thing, but people are the important thing’.

Sospel - Maritime Alps

The bus was pretty splendid as well. Cool as the name suggests. And much required not just because we’re feeling lazy. Sospel is a proper medieval French town split by the river, which brought it into existence hundreds of years ago, and comfortably nestled under muscular hills reaching up to around 1800 metres.

The trails are spread across the 360 degree panorama we took in every morning from the balcony of our fantastic villa. Without the bus,  there would be a whole lot of unpleasant climbing on roads clinging to the valley sides, then white fire tracks baking in the forge of thirty degree heat and high humidity.

Sod that. While I like a climb as much as the next rider, it’s obvious you’d be lucky to get two descents a day without the uplift taking the 1000 metre strain. And while the mountains further north may superciliously look down from their more vertiginous peaks, they would be conflating height for quality.

The trails here are stunning.  Dropping onto natural paths mostly made a thousand years before the advent of a Mountain Bike.  Surfaced by interchangeable bedrock and loose rock, before diving under a forest canopy where the chatter of pinging stones is replaced by the silence of springy loam.

There is little respite from technicality. No easy trails. Anyone who tells you riding downhill for a week is easy has clearly never tried it. I am more battered and bruised than any other riding holiday. More time to crash basically. And crash you will or ride you won’t. So much stuff at the edge of my comfort zone and then some way out of it.

Of course I didn’t ride it all. But by the end of the week I was riding a whole lot more including that switchback up there which had my arse twitching like a rabbit’s nose.  Only on the last day, when mental and physical fatigue rendered me tentative, did I realise how unrelenting riding on the edge is, and how much damage you can do when you fall off it.

Don’t for a second mistake that for any kind of negativity. It was an amazing week riding a brilliant bike** with a bunch of idiots sharing a passion for mountains, riding, bullshit and a general joy for living which – unsurprisingly – makes your realise how bloody good it is to be alive.

Still enough of that. One day at home and then back on the road again. To hotels with Internet connections.  Plans need to be made for where we’re going next. Frankly I don’t care as long as it’s somewhere. Maybe with just a tiny bit less death by switchback tho 🙂

*that’s me of course. Others treated these obstacles with a combination of skill and disdain I can only dream of.

**oh and that bike is brilliant. There were moments when I was laughing out loud how good it was. Mostly though that was also the time I had my eyes closed.

Ready?

The Road Trip is coming

It’s been nearly a whole year since I crested that societal summit suggesting life is basically over. Fifty they say, fuck me, you’re lucky still to be alive. Looking back less than a hundred years, it’s hard to argue. If your appointment as cannon fodder didn’t get you, the Spanish Flu was ready to take up the slack.

Based on that I’ve done rather well. Especially considering a life lived on the margins of dietary respectability. I’ve exchanged a blasé approach to eating anything within elbows-orbit with a strict approach to greens and fibre which only a decent glass of red can make palatable.

While fairly comfortable that I’m not dead yet, signs of ageing are hard to ignore. I’m ignoring them through the vigorous riding of bicycles, larger trousers and the aforementioned balanced approach to medicinal alcohol.

But, well, fuck all that. A road trip awaits. This time for Matt to stamp his pass to middle age. He’s not so much in denial as entirely unconcerned. That’s something to admire as is his somewhat lackasaidal approach to any kind of plan. Plans being my thing, I’ve stepped in and organised eight riders to converge on a little known town in the Maritime Alps.

I know it having ridden there a few years ago on the ‘Remains of the Dave‘ Tour. Another birthday if a little less consequential. Looking back at the photos, I was as close to whip thin as I’ve been for a while, having sloughed 10kg post a shitty project and pre turning up looking keen.

Rode like shit tho. Many reasons. I blame the bike. Others would have more informed views. Uphill I was a machine, downhill I was a man recently introduced to the sport of off-road cycling. Whatever, that was then and this is now. Let’s look at what’s good on the spacecraft*

Long term injuries. Left Shoulder, Left Knee, Right Ankle. I can ride but shaving sometimes requires an extra mirror. Nothing new there. All manageable. New Injuries: left ankle, ruined during a badly judged attempt at a half marathon, mostly okay, can stand on a pedal, best not to look at it.

Mental health: Work has been, not to spare the horses, a total bastard for the last few months. Again my fault for not saying no, the consequences of which have been many late nights, too many of those stuck in a hotel, and a general bemusement on how this was the year I firmly planned to slide into semi-retirement,

No matter. We’re close to a road trip and there’s part of me which suggests half a century should replace youthful vigour with wisdom. Therefore, it is probably not appropriate to be as excited as a five year old facing down a vat of free ice cream.

Well, fuck that as well. We have little enough chance to live in the moment and I’ve been around long enough to ignore what other people feel is important. I’m not bothered about being somehow better or more skilled or cleverer than my peers, I just want to be different. A little bit closer to the edge.

The edge pulls back every year of course, but it’s still an edge and it’s still a decision to wonder if you can fly. That’s cheap talk – the proof is in the doing. Much of that is the derived from the context of when risk meets reward.

There are a thousand things I’ve ignored or made excuses for when riding on my own. The same obstacles baked dry by summer sun, easily ridden by my best friends, and at the end of week bookmarked by peering over that edge, are nothing more than trusting the bike and harvesting the endorphins.

Stephen Fry wrote a fantastic letter to himself some 35 years on passing on what he knew now. It’s far more heartfelt and important than the one I’d write myself which would go something like ‘put that joint down and take some bloody chances while you can‘. Not that I’d have listened. I was even more stupid back then.

This trip is different. We’re booked everyday on the uplift truck . Fitness isn’t a differentiator other than the fatigue that an hour long descent will put into you. It’s all about the sharp end. Bravery, technique and the ability to adapt to what’s in front of you. Checking my internal CV it appears I’ve scored a disappointing 0 out of 3.

Ready? Not materially injured. Riding an amazing bike. On trails I’ve ridden before. Close enough. Although based on the cohort travelling down in two vans next weekend, I’d best pack the spare liver.

One day I’ll get bored of feeling excited like this. It’s not today. Not even close.

*Apollo 13. Positive thinking to the max.

Not all those who wander are lost…

Solo Exploring

.. except for me of course. I’m always lost – geographically or conceptually. This is not an affection – if ever I offer a navigational soundbite at a trail decision, the group dynamic always chooses the polar opposite.

For good reason, I spend so much time lost in my own thoughts, once outside it’s pretty much a slam dunk I’ll end up some place interesting if not exactly planned. Yogi Berra* holds the received wisdom here: ‘if you don’t know where you going, you’ll end up somewhere else

Would you like an example? By Tuesday night I’d already spent two days in windowless meeting rooms or stationary on melting tarmac motorways. The next 48 hours promised more of the same, so I did what any sane individual would do; checked out of the hotel, motored home, figitedly requainted myself with the family, while casting a guilty eye at the ShedOfDreams.

The car lacked only a trailer to transport me to great trails. But I’d be buggered if I was getting back into that. I swerved into the barn, grabbed my latest off road toy and pedalled it furiously up the tarmac. Not too far; it’s only 20 minutes to a local wood that is both huge and lacking in decent trails. I should know, for ten years I’ve been trying to find them.

Tonight was different. Too hot for knee pads and a helmet. Dirty old painting shorts and a t-shirt on the cusp of being repurposed as a bike rag. Knackered old vans and no plan whatsoever. Just not being in a room full of people or a road full of cars.

Ten minutes in and already the world is a better place, In it is a footpath sign I’ve ignored fifty or more times heading to the woods.  To hell with it, with not destination in mind, exploring is a good reason to get lost. No Strava, no maps, no idea which way west might be.

Five minutes in and I’ve fighting my way through waist high brambles. Progress slowed marks me out as an insect buffet, and the little bastards are in full gorge mode. I break free into a field full of thirsty corn stretching wide right and left. I put the bike down, take a deep breath and and give the winged bastards a second course.

Solo Exploring

So I’m up and riding over rock hard ground riven by tractor tyre. Back to the road gives me a choice of left or right. I choose left. Then, a minute later, right when it becomes obvious I have not chosen wisely.

The woods offer a few singletracks. I ignore what I know heading off instead onto a trail once walked with a young Lab maybe eight years ago. It was wet and not much short of miserable. Today it’s bloody amazing, not technical, no gradient to speak of and in places barely discernible.

None of these things matter. I am riding new trails. I am exploring like the 40 year younger version of myself on his first proper bicycle. What’s over those next hills, what’s round that corner? Every few minutes, a sun dappled track offered itself, snaking deeper into the woods leading to who knows where.

I was torn; stick with this or twist on the road to anywhere. Soon I cracked and lost myself completely on trails which bounced between fun and gone. Human or animal must have built these and at least half are abandoned, overgrown, impassible.

There’s some real history here. I found shrunken dirt jumps softened by time and sinuous paths weaving encouragingly between trees before ending abruptly. I found more than that, a reason to never stop exploring, to fight the inertia of riding what you know, to play the long game even if it means for every decent find, you’ll be arse deep in stingy vegetation the other nine.

The one I did find was so good I rode it twice. Flicking between trees, lipping off root stacks and punching the bike out of natural bombholes. Without a GPS I doubt I’ll ever find it again. But that’s fine, because it’s the trigger for branching out, for getting lost with no regrets, for reminding myself that turning pedals is what I do, not chasing targets or digging grooves in oft ridden trails.

I rode for bloody ages. Even at the height of summer, benightment became a distinct possibility. Returning home stung, bitten and more than a little sunburned, I declared all was right with the world.

And it was. It got just that little bit better toasting the sunset with a cold one.  In a week we head off to the Maritime Alps for a week of riding amazing trails. And maybe some less amazing ones. As long as we get lost at least once a day, we’ll be on the right track.

*the baseball player. Not the bear.

That’s a funny looking savings account

Ibis RipMo. About to get very dirty on its first ride !

I’m forever advocating a long campaigned truth, to the mostly disinterested offspring*, that experiences trump things.  Materialism I grandly declare is nothing more than status anxiety drowning in marketing poison. They point mutely to the ShedOfDreams(tm), and the contents within, as a take-it-to-the-bank example of saying one thing and doing something else entirely.

Yes, but that’s different. Of course it is. Bikes are not things. They are so much more than that**. Things are merely noun placeholders for stuff not important enough to have a proper name, whereas MTBs ride over that semantic boundary into something far more mystical

Yeah, whatever Al, Same shit different day. Heard it all before. Excuses repurposed as rationale. Deflection tactics loftily abstracted from the rather more dirty reality that shiny things bite hard. The money invested*** in that bike should be sat in our savings account. For things both known and unknown. Because that’s what sensible people do – and that person in our family is Carol.

She’s suffered my twisted logic for more than twenty years. She’ll listen politely when I talk of bank accounts offering more than fiscal security. Memories and adventures I flappy-hand in a parody of a real justification. My supposition that I’m saving those instead is met with an expression I’ve come to associate with “Whatever. We can pay the bills, no one is going to have to eat the wrapping of your latest nonsense. Get on with it”

I got on with it. In a roundabout way mostly not going through corners with any kind of velocity on a bike I was pre-disposed to love. Didn’t happen. Instead, in what can only be considered a last-hurrah to any kind of fading talent, I bought a bike proudly associated with the Enduro zeitgeist. 160mm forks matched with 145mm out the back, the combination of which was mostly Internet captured by blokes lobbing it off stuff that make me go a bit squishy inside.

Still it has a sibling in the ShedOfDreams(tm) which is officially ‘the best bike I’ve ever owned’ which considering my extensive pantheon of the next big thing is quite an accolade. It’s so achingly on trend I may need to order some beard oil and a wood-burning stove. Still all the standards and all the latest angles have created something that – let’s be honest here – isn’t much of a looker. Like the worlds most expensive carbon gatepost.

Matt built it of course. I turned up with a box full of parts, a crate of beer and a curated collection of mildly amusing asides. Before it was properly finished I ragged it round the local car park giggling in a way that’s a venn intersection of hope and desire, before handing it over to Matt. Who turned up 10 minutes later extolling its virtues at handling multiple step sets. I’m never lending him anything again!

I rode the same steps this morning. In the rain. But rain doesn’t adequately describe the apocalyptic thunder and lightening rolling through the county. At times it was merely extremely moist, the rest of the time I wondered idly if anyone had ever drowned on a bicycle.

No matter, the trails held up pretty well other than the sniper roots – polished, slick and waiting. I’m not a fan of conditions like this. It feeds my inner screamer. ‘Arrrrghhhh going to slide, Eeeeeeek going to crash going to hit that tree’. but today I was located in Nirvana, Newbikesville and all was good.

More than good. First descent after a climb, under stair-rods of warm rain, I exited a jump with unusual calm and pushed my apparently perfect new bike into the first corner. Where it slid sideways on raked out roots aiming off to a trunk in a ‘do not collect £200, go straight to A&E’ kind of way.

Here’s what normally happens next. I grab a shitload of front brake, stand the bike up, plough into said trunk or its leafy environs and exit out the front or back with all the grace of a Wild West extra shot from his horse. Today tho I distinctly remember thinking ‘that slide’s absolutely fine, we’ll go with that’.

I never say that. It was as if I’d been adopted by a better rider. Who – while I was still agog with not actually crashing – flicked the bike back into line and suggested a little more velocity might be quite entertaining. Whoever he is, he’s onto something as we mined the adrenaline twinned motherlode of ‘amazing grip’ and ‘no grip whatsoever’.

My new mate riding shotgun made himself comfortable for the long haul as we laughed in the face of off-camber roots, waved V signs at flat corners holding a scum of muddy water, and barely recognised the potential full sub-soil body implant of a notorious gap jump.

This is not me. I am not at home to Mr Insouciant. I do not do under-thinking. Post injury, it’s been harder to ignore the whispering that I’m just getting too damn old and risk averse to honour my mountain bike credentials.

Not today. Not even close. We toasted our escape from the ‘River Rapids of Ross’ with a beer and some post-storm steaming of discarded waterproofs.  I’ve been buzzing ever since. It might be new-bike-thing, it might be that this one is going to take me closer to the edge. A place I thought largely abandoned to my younger self. It’s going to be epic finding out which.

It might rain again tomorrow. I give not one shit. I’m riding my bike.

*they are now at an age too old to be thought of as ‘children‘, but too young to be considered ‘carers’ 🙂

**a topic already under development in a semi-lucid state for the next issue of the never less than brilliant www.cranked.cc

*** It has payback. I can’t measure it. But it’s there. If it isn’t you’re doing it wrong.

David Blunket’s Labrador

Amber - 8 weeks
Here’s a picture of a Labrador for context. This is of course Amber before she grew into ‘The Dog Most Likely to be chosen by Beelzebub’ 🙂

For the 40th night this year, I’ve literally been sent to Coventry.  Sat collecting Premier Inn reward points while my friends toast hot dusty trails with lashings of cold beer. That’s fine* of course. It’s not their fault there’s a black hole of things to do and I’m todays chosen singularity.

The long suffering readers of this nonsense are already contemptuous – born of familiarity – of the excuse litany which holds me fast and fat to the sofa come night rides in the winter. Right now tho, with less than a month before the seasonally unadjusted of us give homage to the high apex of the sun**,  I’m missing, to the point of whine, racing clean bikes on hard baked trail puffing dust at every corner.

And not just that. There’s something about the Wednesday night ride which releases the work-weary into a world where being entirely inappropriate is entirely appropriate*** Swearing is a good example. It’s not so much acting to enrich a adjective, more shotgunned in as punctuation.

I mean if you can’t call your mate a total fucktard, that’s hardly the basis for a stable relationship is it? There’s more- between the air matching the sky’s blue, tall stories fall from higher states. Those states where even repressed middle aged Englishmen might risk the tiniest fist-bump to suggest, in a non homo-erotic way, that the last trail was more than a little pleasing.

Confused? I certainly was when another Alex regaled our troupe of sweaty monkeys on a story he’d heard from a mate who reckoned he knew someone famous.  The story went that this person of supposed note had invited Mr Blunket – who was Home Secretary at the time – back to her home for reasons of entirely reasonable platonic discussions.

Arriving at said palatial mansion, she was someone shocked to find her husband –  how can we put this – in a impossible to ignore sexual tryst with another man who had become equally famous by shouting at people in kitchens. That’s not the funny bit – it was the fact that the Home.Sec, on account of not being able to see, was asking all sorts of question regarding who was there, what were they doing and what the hell was that noise they were making.

Apparently the Labrador could never again be enticed over any bedroom threshold. Even with a biscuit. And that’s a Labrador we’re talking about. History is somewhat less specific on exactly what happened next. It hardly matters as it’s clearly bullshit, so not worthy of even a cursory analysis for a nugget of truth.

And yet, it’s a shining example of why I love Wednesday night rides.  Sure when it’s dry, warm and light – three variables so sadly missing for at least six months of the year – casting aside the drudgery of a long day with a single heartfelt ‘fuck‘ should be enough.

It isn’t tho. I rode alone a fantastic bike the other day on perfect trails with no deadlines to bring me home. And it was fine. But no more than that.  My maxim that riding bikes if ‘50% of where you are riding and 50% of who you are riding with‘ has mostly been confirmed as an axiom.

I’ve no idea if Mr Blunket’s dog is still receiving weekly canine therapy.  Nor can I wordsmith the tale in a way that makes it as rib crunchingly funny, as when told to a bunch of endorphin’d up trail addicts by a man who finds humour in the strangest places.

I do miss it though. Yeah I can go for a run, or apathetically sweat inside a hotel gym or take long walks to relieve the boredom, or – as generally happens – sit in front of this laptop attempting to slash and burn the epic tome representing my to-do list. It’s not even close to the same.

Being at home is fab. Much of which is just that; being at home with your family in a happy place where everything mostly makes sense. And you get to slack off to ride bikes on evenings so close to summer, let’s call it that.

Next week maybe, I’ll be released from what I believe has been nominated as ‘the most pointless ring road in the history of town planning’. Until then I’ll cheer myself up by buying another bike. An internet connection and a bored mountain biker generally does not end well.

That poor Labrador tho 🙂

 

*It’s really not. The selfish bastards 🙂

**Assuming it’s not raining. Which it generally is.

***To be completely honest, for a few of my riding pals, this distinction is not that obvious.

The past is a foreign country. They speak differently there…

Mid-Wales MTB - 127

They certainly do*.  Remember last year when Adam and I spent three days narrowly avoiding drowning ? I do despite the best efforts of an expensive therapist. Ads and I postulated how amazing this route might be were it not under the cudgel of a bastard storm. We’d be back we said.

And so we were. I’ve always protested my best side is behind the lens, but I’m vain enough to post that first shot through the reduced letterbox of my readership. Game face on, someone actually behind me, not looking like a total gimp and hands off the brakes.

Vanity is one thing. Reality something a little different. These next two images ably demonstrate why anyone who hobbies in the outdoors remains obsessed by forecasts of bright sunshine or biblical rain. Kipling may have treated triumph and disaster with parity, but I’m not that stoic.

So while I’m smiling under warn blue skies here, the one following is pretty much x-rated. Fuck was as polite as it got.

Mid-Wales MTB - 100

Trans-Cambrian MTB Sept 2017

Same bike. Same trail. Close to the same composition banged out by the lovely Phill from www.mbwales.com but with differentiation spilling into every other aspect of the weekend.

Blinking into the sunlight we’d looped around a dry Nant-Y-Arian the day before which didn’t suck at all. A day of firsts; first time blue skies lit short spring shadows, first time in single layers, first time wondering if we’d packed enough water, first time finishing with bikes the same colour they’d started.

Mid-Wales MTB - 41

We could get used to this. Of course we couldn’t because once the weekend was done, Spring fucked off back to winter and drenched an already wetted-out landscape with 100% more rain than the year before. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

For these three days tho,  living in the moment was rewarded by another stunning day in an amazing location. The Elan Valley may not count proper mountains amongst its summits, but it’s still a tough day out winching for a hour before a switch to plummeting for less than two hundred seconds. Mostly  on gradients suggesting 50kph was an appropriate velocity to test the grip of damp grass or moist rock.

We rode quite a few bits of the second Trans-Cambrian day. I hardly mentioned how much drier/warmer/less desperate conditions were-  to the point where I feel I may have lost my audience. No matter, this was the ride I was expecting last year even with its sapping grassy climbs and occasional boggy interludes.

Mid-Wales MTB - 77

It’s a land of big skies. What it lacks in woody singletrack, it more than makes up with butt-clenching speeds and ancient bedrock somehow perfectly shaped for modern mountain bikes. It was the kind of day you slog through winter for, painfully rehabilitate your ankle for, desperately regain your fitness for and toast with a beer or several for.

The next day it rained of course. But not for long and it barely took the edge off another fantastic day crawling up steep hillsides and racing down the other side. And this time I’m riding these trails with my friends, not strangers who were owners of a mountain bike without really being mountain bikers.

That doesn’t for a second make them bad people. They just aren’t my people.  But right now I needed to be with my long suffering mates. I’d surfed into this weekend on a wave of angst. Work mainly but not exclusively, I was having one of those tedious middle aged crisis.  Couldn’t shift the weight I’d added when injured, started to see real signs of ageing, spent too many introspective nights in hotel bars with no good company.

It’s all horseshit of course. It didn’t take me long under burning skies to remember why. Because for every shit day, every difficult decision, every inconsequential worry, there are mountain bikes, big hills, good friends and the joy of choosing black or wide over fading to grey..

Mid-Wales MTB - 189

So pretty much that. Captured on a long lens from Tim’s camera. Adequately distanced and relatively relaxed, Cez and I are looking outwards not inwards. Being outside does that. I cannot recommend it enough.

It comes down to something like this. Adventures are not pre-determined. The variables are legion and the biggest of those is you. Outcomes cannot be plotted nor results predicted. Instead you take in an attitude, an optimism and bit of bloody-mindedness to come out the far side a better person.

It might feel hard at the time and while you may get close to hating individual moments, you’ll never regret choosing to do over deciding to do not. Last September had many highs and a hell of a lot of lows, but fuck not for a second would I wind back time and sack it off.

Last weekend I rode my bike enclosed by perfect valleys, accompanied by my best friends, under sunny skies on amazing trails. Splashing through steams like this made me feel about 11 years old.  You cannot buy that feeling.

Mid-Wales MTB - 131

The past is a different place for sure. It makes too many people scared of what might come next. Not us though, because soon there will be another day like this. Bring it on.

*For the purposes of narrative cohesion I’ve butchered that famous L.P Hartley quote. I read his ‘Go-Between’ during a terribly pretentious phase of my life. I came to the conclusion even then that that quote was the best thing in it.

Go for a ride they said. You’ll feel better they said.

Spring trails

There is much in this world to be irritated about. Especially if one is keen to establish a firm position on how you are right and why everyone else is wrong.  The revisionist wisdom of age would suggest it’s more about finding an interesting place to stand. In this case at the foot of a dubiously vertical roll in ending in that picture of Spring goodness.

The lore of trail building states that he or she who builds it gets to immortalise it with some kind of naming ceremony. Which rarely survives narrative causality hence this homage to muddy injury being labelled with the self-explanatory moniker of ‘Head Dab’.

A name which popped into my mildly concussed skull after I’d crashed five times within the first 300 yards. Twice on the same corner. So as I lay upside-down in the slime, inconvenienced by bicycle, my thoughts turned to the rather more pertinent question ‘why the fuck haven’t I moved to Spain?

There are reasons. As there must be for why six weeks into meterological spring, we’re still in the bastard embrace of the Disney classic ‘Frozen’, only with less singing and more swearing.  I can only surmise my penance for swerving eight weeks riding with a manky ankle is to re-live January and February in March and April.

Except it’s somehow bloody worse. After making plausible excuses for missing the weekly night ride*, guilt had me spinning furious circles the following day. Mostly in an attempt to ignite some kind of warmth under more layers normally required when the suns power mirrors that of late August.

Sun? Clouds’ thief has stolen that for the last few weeks. Warmth has been replaced with single digit temperatures, trails with a filthy mess of tidal slop and motivation with the grim realisation that 2kg of winter sloth isn’t being shifted by  beer and biscuits.

I’ve no one to share my misery with. Not that conversation was much an option- with ragged breaths oxygenating moist air in a futile attempt to counter the organic plastercine between the wheels. Occasionally I gasped quiet entreaties to fate idly questioning if this may be some kind of test and, further, when the fuck might it be ending?

No time soon based on the first fireroad climb slick with the detritus of recent forestry. I missed that fireroad though as the first proper off road climb spontaneously struck up an ensemble performance of slick roots and deep mud with scenery provided by a landscape mostly dead or stutteringly dormant.

Finally After 30 minutes of pointless chuntering** a descent happened. Quite slowly to be honest. First time on the hardtail for three months and not wishing to be found half eaten by walkers some days hence, my progress was somewhere between stately and worried.

In between those states, grip wasn’t entirely absent. I was too busy whinging to make any real attempt to find it. That whinge flipped between internal and external after sawing my way desperately up the next climb to find my reward somewhat not as advertised.

A year ago it looked like this.

A tale of two chubbies! Penyard MTB

Yesterday, this was the rather more disappointing vista.

Spring trails

This kind of thing went on for a while. Let me spare you that and move straight to the highlights. Oh sorry there weren’t any. Here’s an example of a non-highlight – the three and a half minute climb to access a few of the best trails took over twice that. Because that’s how long walking though churned up mud with the frictional properties of soapy glass will take.

It wasn’t all bad. Say when considered to the shed-bike of perpetual misery -which mocks my trifling efforts whenever I decide outside is just a bit too bloody depressing. Plus the bike was way easier to clean than my full suss.

And at one point when sliding properly sideways, I was silently proud of taking charge, shoving it back into line and only kissing a tree which had previously been nominated as ‘bark most likely to have an Alex Tattoo coming soon

What pissed me off most tho wasn’t the earth-clamping cold or the leaden skies long distanced the promised sun, nor the deep puddles freezing my feet. It was the hidden underbrush which savaged my ankle. Yeah somewhere in this apparently dead foliage was a bastard bramble pretending spring had in fact arrived.

That was a tough cut to take. As I grumpily shoved the now brown bike into the car, it started to rain a little harder. So what I thought, it’s not like anything can get any wetter. Including me.

I love riding in Spring; hero-dirt, burgeoning vegetation, myriad colours, lusty smells and fast trails. Right now in mid April that’s a verified score of zero from five.

What can you do? You can go and ride that’s what. Last week we slogged 60km through this cipher of spring. Sunday next we’ll be doing the same. A month ago I couldn’t ride at all. This is way better. Just got to keep telling myself that.

*Mud I can do. Rain I can do. Cold I can do. Night I can do. Just not all at the same time.

**if I every form a band, we’re going with that name,

The long ride back

CyB - The Beast - March 2018 MTB
Bike is ready. Not sure I am

In the last issue of www.cranked.cc I lamented the temporary loss of cycling to injury. The displacement of a weekly ritual with nothing to fill the gap. Conflating that with a world where riding mountain bikes is a thing you talk about not the thing you do. Missed the fucking point as usual.

The point being it’s not the virtual road to nowhere that’s the issue here. The gap isn’t between self-pity and an uncertain future. It’s how far you’ve slid down the mountain from the summit of reasonable fitness.

No amount of time on a turbo trainer is going to mitigate that. Well it might for someone without a diary launching that individual to all four corners of the UK- elbows deep in whatever they’re serving with beer in another anonymous hotel.

So that’s me then,  but the first ride back was gloriously muddy and endlessly fantastic. Tiring but life affirming. The second went a little further in conditions somehow even worse leaving me struggling on the last couple of climbs. A week later we rode out and that 60km broke me in ways I don’t remember.

Then came the snow and other excuses to put the fitness recovery on hold until a trip last weekend to Coed-Y-Brenin. The first – and I’m putting it out there – the best of the UK trail centres. We left behind the slop and misery of the forest to ride grippy trails at silly speeds.

Up to around two thirds of the way round anyway. When even the drug of rocky singletrack triggering the release of endorphins couldn’t hide tired muscles and gasping lungs trying to keep up.

Up being most of the problem. Sure many other body parts had the complaints line on speed-dial, but the legs and lungs which normally hoist me up any grade at a respectably brisk pace flipped into a state of extreme sulkiness, leaving me with nothing other than a ‘limp home’ mode.

Most of my riding mates reckon I’m reasonably fit. I’m a bit humble bragging about it, but secretly it’s a matter of some pride. Sure others may be faster when the gradient turns negative, but give me this climb at least. I never really considered it any kind of skill until I lost it.

Desperate times dear reader. Clearly I’m not going to get any faster downhill,  but  riding uphill isn’t really that hard. Hard-earned maybe but nothing that a serial hit on the lumpy geography of home trails won’t provide. Trails which will soon deliver on Springs’ bounty – loamy, fast and occasionally dusty.

Trails which trace perfect turns through a field of bluebells. Beckoning you on for one more climb to lay down another layer of singletrack memory. Digital happy place for the taking. Not a place for the infirm or unfit. Right here and now tho, they’re shit. Tractionless tyre-filling monsters ready to violently transport the uncommitted from a stable position atop the bike to a somewhat less comfortable countenance slammed into the ground. Or a tree.

Which is where I found myself twenty minutes into my first night ride for five months. Shunned the wheeled dark back in October for solid excuses based around training for a half marathon. That silliness is how we ended up here in a mildly ironic circular route.

Conditions – in my view – were horrible. Not properly muddy where a good tyre might bite, but nowhere near dry. The median between those two states is ‘slick’. This first trail had been built during my enforced absence and it was a mystery of  tight steep switchbacks bisecting the fall line.

Made the first two, crashed on the next three. Walked for a bit having trapped my still poorly ankle between pedal and stump.  Well limped really. Found everyone else mostly dab free and remarking on how well the trails were holding up after all this rain.  I hope the dark hid my disappointment on why I was the only one not finding it easy.

And aside from one climb when gritted teeth and bloody-mindedness put me close to the front, most were viewed from the opposite end of the group.  Some of my best friends had clearly received both fitness cheats and bike handling skills for Christmas. The bastards.

It got better. It had too really. Long learned skills gently edged out full braked terror. It wasn’t fast but it stopped being quite so crash-y. I was counting the climbs in a way I never used to, until we crested the final lump leaving us high above Ross and a couple of trails from beer.

One of which has a decent sized gap jump on it. Ridden it many times. Didn’t ride it last time out, before I monged myself, when it was slick like tonight. Not making that a habit. My plan to follow everyone off it didn’t survive first impact with reality as they rode away from me as had been the form the entire evening.

Right then. Stop. Have a little word with yourself. Internal debate on not being bloody lame. External validation with a single ‘fuck it’. Three seconds later it’s over and it was the anti-climax I’d promised myself it would be. Still felt bloody good to get it done tho.

The pub, the craic, the being something others my age are not – that all stands and I’ve missed it. Being crap in the dark and the mud I’ve pretty much accepted. Being shit uphill I will not. I need to be as good or better than I was before.

The ride back to that is going to be long, and occasionally painful. So same time next week then?