Age is just a number

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

** Carol. And an occasionally helpful idiot.

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

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.

We’re going to need a bigger tyre

Cwmcarn MTB

This time next week, six friends and I will relocate to the stunning beauty of the Ardeche in southern France. I fully expect there to be epic riding and even more epic hangovers if last year is to provide any kind of baseline.

Then I took the perfect bike even if the rider was at no times perfect. In reality my capability swung randomly from borderline competent to broken man with much mincing, excuses and lying down in massive rock gardens running a full diagnostic check in between.

The bike tho – long, low, slack, superb long travel fork, clever shock, stiff wheels, sticky tyres and dropper post. It’s a full house at the Enduro Bingo. With 4000 km under wheel, we should share the empathy of the Lone Ranger and Silver,  Bernie Winters and Schnorbitz or possibly Sonny and Skippy* – except Skippy tended to bring Sonny problems, while the Aeris is really good at solving them.

Well it would be were it not be for my inability to let it strut its stuff. It’s reasonable to expect after all this time together, we’ll laughably dispatch any obstacle demanding full commitment, a modicum of skill and a bloody good bike. One out of three isn’t bad. Don’t get me wrong I’m not disappointed with the bike, it’s more the other way round.

I’m sure those extruded alumnium tubes resonate with a ‘for fucks sake, just get it done’ as I sit brakes clenched hard at the top of whatever everyone else is riding. Or the forks whispering ‘six inches of well damped travel here,  any time you feel you might want to get involved, we’re ready to go‘.

There’s some comfort in that I’m not entirely alone, after an unguarded comment from a major bike company explained that at least half the buyers of their most capable bikes really should be buying something a little closer to their ability. As opposed to their aspiration.

Still I’m dithering. Which bike for the Ardeche? The shining example of a modern trail bike or the double chubby missing all sorts of important stuff too long to list; let’s start with tyres not vulcanised with a nanometre of sidewall, a set of forks clearly too short for anyone with a gnarly vibe, angles that don’t punch the front wheel out some way to the horizon, and many other components shoulder-shruggingly unavailable in that rural distract of southern France.

Let’s test that. The trail-centre at Cwmcarn is hardly a cipher for the unrelenting geology we’re riding a mere seven days hence. Better than the Forest tho which is pretty much loam. First descent burst the bubble these tyres have any mountain credentials. Small rock strike, instant deflation. No problem, fire up the tubeless repair kit. Ah, bugger left that at home – never mind a 27.5+ tube will get us going.

That’s at home too. Eventually we fashioned a repair using a stretched standard tube which eventually inflated the chubby tyre to something usable. And use it we did – riding both trails before climbing to the top of the uplifted downhill tracks. Before that, this.

There’s a logical fallacy which predicts ‘new bikes will make me faster’. Like that’s a valid metric to measure yourself by. If it’s a road bike, fine if that’s your sort of thing. Mountain biking is so much more nuanced. Quantitive measurement from Strava and the like is a pale copy of the richer qualitative emotions from joy to terror passing through calm, fulfilled, awe and joy. We’re basically an organic experience of the movie Inside Out.

Trail centres transfer most of the risk from rider to designer. Leaving us riders to abandon caution at the car park and throw ourselves enthusiastically at the epicentre of GPS surveying, complex funding, heavy machinery and blokes with spades. We should thank them all because when they get it right, they so do get it right.

Chasing Dean on a smooth but fast section reminded me of what I love about knobbly tyres of any width. That whole mythical flow thing. Being braver than you remembered last time. Marvelling at what bike designers might have been thinking, wondering if you can go maybe a little bit harder and giggling in relief when you survive answering that question.

The double chubby is beautifully balanced. It does require a willing audience though to get the most from it. Push it a bit and it pushes back with all sorts of haptic feedback. Let it run and it will run like Forrest Gump on amphetamines. Trees thrown at your optic nerves like sideways scrolling platform games**. Drops dropped, jumps jumped, corners apex’d with twisted necks and deep breaths. Stuff of life. Right here.

So yeah let’s ride the DH course. Been nearly 10 years since i last did that fully armoured up and mostly intimidated. This time not so much although with next week in mind, I started off small and worked down.  Then we switched the final XC descent. Smooth I thought, not fast. Like the latter was ever going to happen.

Dropped in with my good mate David drafting the rear wheel. Remembered enough to leave the brakes alone. Trusted enough not to grab them inappropriately. Looking far enough ahead to swing the bike between perfect apexes. Popping over jumps and having a proper go at the only drop. It’s over in less than a minute, but that’s 59 seconds of undiluted joy.

After which my haste to say goodbye was triggered by the need to swap tyres to something at least one evolutionary branch displaced from paper. Done that, had a beer, not made a decision. Not riding now until we fall out of the van some 14 hours from here.

Still dithering. Might be over-thinking it 😉

*I might be showing my age a here.

** and again.

Sensible is for other people

Antur Stiniog MTB

“I’m only going to take photographs. Three runs max. I won’t be doing the black’. Weasily words framing a picture full of three dimensional possibilities, outlier’d by a difficult visit to a Welsh hospital.

I love Antur.  Love is not a verb often thrown around by a professional Yorkshireman. Especially considering the opposite is hate, and that’s an emotion cast large by the fan-like vista opening as you climb into the industrialised slate valley home to tracks inspiring those poignant extremes of non sequential thoughts a million miles away from ambivalence.

I love this place/I hate this place. I want to ride/I want to hide. It’ll be fantastic/I’ll be useless.  People I know well, who’ve shared their insecurities with me, appear entirely unconcerned while they encase themselves in body armour and full face helmets. I’m clumsy with taped fingers and adrenaline spiked muscle palsy. Is it me? Probably.

Normally I’m quick to fabricate an excuse for my piss poor performance. Today tho I’m ahead of that game with a broken finger encased in a fat splint. A visual metaphor for rocking the MinceCore vibe, a reason to be last, a chance to stop after barely getting started. And the first run almost triggers that release clause,

Two fingers to grip the bar- one of which is pumping the brake lever. Everything feels forced, nothing feels natural. Views of riders I can normally hang onto breach the horizon wide angle, the bike feels shit and I feel about the same. Taped fingers hang useless under the bar, and even tho it’s barely midday I’m keen to join them there.

Three runs. Not getting any better. Stop for lunch and have a whinge. Matt wonders if removing my head from my arse and just be grateful for riding at any pace might not be a bad idea. He’s got a point but I’m not keen to accept it. Instead I angrily hack away first at my gloves then my taped fingers to release the working one from the broken digit.

Things are immediately better. So much so after a few runs we head for the Black which nearly did for my mate Rex last year.  I didn’t ride that section which in no way stifled the joy of the next kilometre blasting over rock gardens and having it small to medium over the jumps and drops. Oh God, this is why we do this, this is the love of the mountain, this is the antidote to the tired existentialism of living on the margins.

Three times my mate Ian and I did that trail. We left the others to do their own thing. Faster I’m sure, having more fun? I not sure about that at all. The uplift bus heaved us up for one last time once we’d greedily shoved dusty bikes onto the trailer.

A single nod triggered the three pedal rotations to breach the entry. Then it’s freewheel, look, really LOOK, unweight, weight, brake to avoid smashing the double with a front wheel, deep breath loud in the full face as you drop into a rocky horror. The bike is way too good and you’re out and accelerating.

Sure you’re not clearing the massive tabletops or taking on the biggest drops but your beating heart is smashing the message against your chest that you are really alive. We weren’t fast but we were smooth and sliding into the car park we shared a self-conscious fist pump* and a massive grin. That stayed with us all the way home.

Here’s the thing. Mountain Biking is living in the moment. There is no time for nuance or procrastination. There is no middle ground. Selfishness is a winning attribute. All you can think about is you, the bike and the trail. That’s it. Life isn’t like that. Well there rest of it anyway. This is the balance, the counterweight, the release of a shitty day, the reason to conform.

If you don’t have this, how the hell do you carry on? Seriously, without adrenaline spiked muscles gently rocking the bike, without the dry mouth, without the minds-eye projection of a splattered you, without the visceral joy of getting it right, without the entirely non english giggling with your fiends, without being not quite like you, how the fuck do you put a suit on to chow down some corporate shit?

This is not a zero-sum-game. There are consequences of treating being average as someone else’s problem. Injury, elitism, financial disaster, selfishness…. the list goes on but so do we. Because five seconds of dropping into something scary with  an awesome bike underneath you and your greatest friends beside you is worth all of this.

I’m writing this with an aching finger that clearly would heal better were it not being subjected to serial battering by glacial history. A sensible person would do nothing, play the long game, refuse to regress to childish instant rewards – essentially be an adult.

I’m 48 and quite a lot. But I’m not ready for that

*to be fair I can’t shake hands right now so cut me some slack.

Alcohol dreams

Hello old friend, I've missed you

You know the ones. Like funnelling Stilton into your face at 11pm but amped to the max, and augmented by navigational discombobulation. Wake up in  a ‘What the FUCK just happened?’ sweat and swerve a series of non obstacles before resting your confused little head against the cool tiles of the beer recycler*. I’ve not missed that at all.

30 days off the beer has turned me into that evangelical ex-imbiber dispensing half-baked opinions on how that next pint will surely kill you. In a month which stretched the Julian calendar to around 500 days for just one of twelve, many insights have fired through the conduit of serial sobriety. A state of being missing from this individual for about as long as exchanging cash for alcohol was barely legal.

There’s non more boring that those making judgement calls on their own life choices before confusing that experience as something which might be of interest to others. I promise not to be one of those with a couple of beers inside me and another one to my right hand.  Instead I’ll chart how an abstinence prism sheds light on a learned habit and something a little darker.

Here’s a bunch of things where alcohol was either a crutch or a trigger; writing things, dealing with things, riding things, Friday night things. All of those felt mostly impossible without the crack of a beer-top or a cork. And that’s a crock of shit frankly – it’s nothing more than self medication for the feeble minded.

There are some – let’s take Hunter S. Thomson as an example – whose output was explicitly matched to his input. Coke, Cigs and Courvoisier mostly. The rest of us pretend our muse comes easily to hand in a glass, while in reality that’s just an excuse for another drink. The best stuff I’ve written is conceived in the visceral dusk of a brightly lit event. Beer can fuel those words but like all accelerants it should be treated with some care. Pretentiousness can explode and sentence construction implode.

Difficult stuff shouts loud every day so sometimes muting it feels like a bloody good idea. Which is something entirely different to dealing with it. Or dealing with it rationally anyway. Rarely have I woken up after a skin-full thinking ‘wow I’m really proud of the way I behaved last night’.

Post ride beer tho. That’s a thing alright. Slogging all day through the damp needs a spark to light the way to better times. Try that with lime and soda and it’s all looking at watches and making excuses to go home. Worthy that might be, but the experience of riding bikes has a strong link to stuff at the heart of the periphery, and a ‘planning pint’ is a big part of that.

Friday nights tho are just an excuse to crack open the medication. While the long winter nights have hardly flown by, Friday is just another day. Habit suggests you’ve somehow earned a session nose down in the beer trough regardless of what’s come before. That’s unlikely to pass any kind of cursory re-examination.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating abstinence. Oh God no. The first sip of a beer after 30 days of exactly that was a bit disappointing. The next half pint and the refill reacquainted me with an old friend who I’d really missed. So good was the feeling, it seemed entirely apposite to make good use of the rack of beers that’d been mocking me for the last month.

And yet. In that month I’ve lost my winter fat – 6lbs of it – on a diet of cordial, cheese and a chunk of misery. My belt goes one notch tighter and there are visible ribs which on a man of my antiquity would normally only be seen during an autopsy.

Better than than, riding bikes is a bit easier. There’s much I lack when attempting to pilot a mountain bike, but riding with a hangover is a skill hard learned. I’m pretty damn good at it and never considered that it might be impeding my useless performance. It does, massively.  The bad days put down to middle age and niggling injuries pretty much disappear on waking clear headed and ready to ride.

Jeez that sounds so fucking worthy. Let’s put this thing to bed before I pretend I’ve made some real lifestyle changes. That’s a future disappointment I just don’t need.  What I’ve learned is alcohol is a wonderful drug – let’s hope they never ban it. But like chocolates, crisps and chippy dinners, it’s a treat, not the first thing you head for after a shitty day.

I missed it way less than I thought I would. But somehow meeting that old friend again has reminded me why it’ll always be a thing; for excuses, for reasons, and on crazy days for no reason at all. Absence makes the heart grow fonder perhaps.

Dunno. Need to think about that. Probably be easier with another beer.

*one of my favourite Terry Pratchett lines was ‘In Ankh Morpork you can buy anything, except for beer and women which are merely rented‘.

Numbers don’t tell the story.

Yat - April 2015 MTB

SitRep:  3,600 kilometres. 167 rides.  350 hours on a mountain bike. Zero hours on a road bike. Just shy of a 100,000 metres climbed. Three trips out of the UK to ride, total of five countries where I’ve turned a pedal.

Bikes in: 3, bikes out: 2. Injuries: a few taking ever longer to heal – currently painful knee failing to respond to physio of alcohol self medication, mild mouselung and random twinges. 2.5kg heavier than 30th Dec 2014. Ridden about the same so either I’m taking it easy on the climbs or going hard in the bar afterwards. Probably both.

Statistics are like a bikini: what they reveal is interesting but what they hide is vital, therefore I use them like a drunk uses a lampost – for support, not  illumination. And that’s why the app generating these numbers just had the ‘X’ treatment on my phone.

It’s been another brilliant year for riding. But every one while you still can will be. Tempered quite rightly by the loss of Jenn Hill who crammed more into her 38 years that most of us will in a full lifespan.

For me, it’s been about limits and limitations. I got a kick out of riding gap jumps at 48 and a real terror of falling under Mount Ventoux. Probably not any faster, might even be slowing down. That’s another reason to dump Strava before the numbers on the screen challenge cognitive dissidence.

It’s hard to know why in 2015 riding with my friends was as much fun as the actual riding. That’s three of the buggers up there. Always there with a ready quip as you’re fetching yourself from the undergrowth, or insisting a yomp over that next snow filled valley under a setting sun represents a better option than quitting on the grounds of frostbite.

I rode on my own about ten times. Better than not riding but not by much. Spent the other 150 rides laughing, crashing, sweating up the hills and hanging on the other way. Always followed by beer and more laughter. Not sure you’d get that from golf.

It wasn’t until the last weeks of December I took a whole week off from riding. It did nothing or my knee nor stayed encroaching grumpiness. Two days at Afan sorted the latter our whilst I ignored the former. Didn’t feel particularly fit, nor terribly fast. But when sitting outside drinking tea in the sunshine with a couple of mates and the bikes in view, those real or imaginary statistics hardly mattered.

Perspective is the thing. We’re half way out of the dark. A month more and the bluebells will be pushing through the forest floor. Two weeks after that and we’re night riding without lights. Then it’s endless riding on hard packed trails somewhere fantastic.

I don’t do new years resolutions. It’s just stupid. If you want to make a change, you’re hardly going to wait for something external to trigger it. There’s something about choices tho – for me it’s about dealing with stuff you want to change and pretty much ignoring everything you can’t.

That’s more about people than things. I’m coming round to that view of the world.  Come on then 2016, let’s be having you. Not sure I’m ready but that definitely falls into the second category.

Christmas Presents..

Awesome Christmas Present±

.. a problem mostly. Rampant consumerism chasing a 24 hour lifestyle long divorced from a pagan ceremony celebrating the next 364 days being lighter than this one. Which itself was stolen for a faith pretty much predicated on no one finding the bodies.

I’m rubbish at both giving and receiving*. Magpie eye fills the shed with poorly-justified stuff, while anything more busts societal norms on what passes for gifts for the festive season. Working out the desires of even those closest to me is something between a challenge and a conundrum. Heavy hints help not at all, what I need is a detailed list with shop postcodes.

Playing to my strengths, I engaged my youngest daughter in Faustian pact where she played the part of ‘personal shopper‘ and I threw cash in whatever random direction she pointed. Until she kindly explained my physical  part in this transaction was largely pointless. So I just handed over crisp notes and sent her on her way.

I’m not terribly proud of that. Nor, on declaring when she returned,  ‘Wow I’ve done really well this year. What a a fine selection of presents‘.  Having already pretty much scraped rock bottom, I mined the seam a little deeper by sending said child in the direction of the wrapping paper.

I’ve already had my present. Fuck, let’s get it out here. I’ve had presents every time the postman struggles under the weight of bike related internet shopping. And when I’m not here to fetch those in, I’m away riding my bike a 1000 miles from home.

Still we pretended the traditional – if somewhat contrived – gift was the fat bike, which I feel is in keeping with the stupidity of buying stuff for which you’ve neither a need or an excuse. I assuaged any purchasing guilt with an all-family assault on the Nurf Gun aisle of the local ToysRus. Toys R ours more like with an arsenal acquired equipping the four of us with sufficient weaponry to declare war on Worcestershire.

Arriving home, a strict edict was laid down that no-one was to ‘Nurf the Murf‘, That lasted about two minutes as an enthusiasm for battle was joined with accuracy best thought of as pellets occasionally heading in a similar direction to which the barrel was pointed.

Amusing carnage ensued. And continued this morning as the apparent birth of our saviour was marked by a pre-breakfast enfilading attack where one brave but outnumbered soldier took a round to the tesiclappers. Let me tell you, those foam cartridges carry a punch from close range. Even the dog – now officially categorised as a non combatant – winced.

Weapons of mass distraction holstered, teenage children were dragged away from the lure of brightly wrapped presents as that dog needed walking. Because, as a parent of kids of a certain age, it’s important to ruthlessly exert what little authority you have left.

Present opening resembled a significant explosion at a paper wrapping factory. Ground Zero revealed happy family members with little of the bemusement that comes when well meaning relatives attempt to regress 60 years to consider what a 14 year old might really want.

I wasn’t expecting anything. Surprisingly then my presents were bloody brilliant. Dave The Minion has now been installed above this very screen in a parody of a novelty web cam. A new dog-shaped toy named ‘Hope’ is the facsimile of the puppy only one family member really, REALLY wants.

But best of all is in that picture.  Green bike. Purple Shorts. Orange Top. Mountains. Hair. Four out of five isn’t bad.  While I was dispatching Jess to find presents for her mum, so I could sit in front of this screen striving to hit other peoples deadlines,  Carol spent bloody ages getting a very clever man to custom build me my happy place in a medium that I love.

It’s sat above and too the right of this Mac. To the left is the Singletrack 100 poster bought to support Jenn’s chosen charities. Closing all these applications reveals a picture of me riding exposed singletrack under cloudless Spanish skies. That’s not a bad place to spend your time.

I’m pretty ambivalent about Christmas. Always think it’d be fab to live in the Southern Hemisphere where an enforced holiday just means dusty trails waiting for the cycling obsessed. Not this endless wet greyness which is nothing more than a meteorologically triggered suicide watch.

And yet today I’m not so sure. I’m still shit at it, but those around me are not. They probably deserve better. Certainly they understand me far better than I get what makes them tick. Which probably doesn’t excuse my desperation for Monday to come around so I can go ride in South Wales for two days with not often seen friends.

Yeah they get me alright. For which I am entirely – if not always vocally – immensely grateful. Christmas is stupid, families on the other hand are really quite fantastic.

*there’s a joke in there. Not entirely appropriate for the festive season

Some stuff is important. It’s not what you think

FoD - Autumn MTB ride #forjenn

So my friend Jenn succumbed to the total bastard that is cancer last Friday night. She was 38 years old. At times like this, luadable homilies are deployed to assuage the pain: ‘there is now no more suffering‘ and ‘the worth in a life can be defined by the gap that it leaves’

Which I suppose is lovely and fine. Not entirely helpful though for those closest to Jenn now staring into that gap. I don’t include myself in that circle – as I said before we were friends, good friends I hope but not more than that. What I remember most about Jenn is her open heartedness, her instinct to help others and her unwavering joy at being alive.

On a cold and wet northern ride nearly ten years ago, I asked Jenn what she thought of a test bike she was riding and a minute later I was riding it myself. An hour after that – through my awesome powers of mechanical savagery having jammed my chain around the bottom bracket – Jenn rocked up, had a giggle, whipped out her chain tool and fixed it about the time it’d taken me to look at it, wrench it, swear at it and give it a well deserved kicking.

Small things, happy memories. Many who knew her better have many more. The outpouring of understandable grief would bring tears to the hardest hearted. I’m not one of those so it’s without a hint of embarrassment I’ll admit to having more than the occasional blub.

So we rode. Of course we did. That’s what we do. This is our Church. Turning circles unwinds our angst; makes sense of the world; stops the introspection; starts finding important things. Maybe if conditions were shit under stair-rods of rain depression might have set in, but we had none of that.

I believe in pretty much nothing tainted by religion, yet riding 60km of dry singletrack under benign skies with friends I love as brothers had me giving a brief nod to those who confuse belief with faith. Determined to make the ride matter somehow, I gave myself a stern 8am talking too re: not riding like a twat, not taking this stuff for granted, not being some kind of emotional cripple. Went well, even the dog looked impressed.

Go ride. First up a gap I’ve never done or even seen. Straight over without even checking it out. Worked our way back up the valley to descend a serpent shaped trail finishing with a deep-breath committed vertical roll in with consequences for imprecise lines. Never even stopped to have a look.

Gravel fireroad, pushing into a loose corner, front went and a second later so did a stomping foot bashing the bike back onto line. I can’t ride like this. Not for long anyway but right now I’m the lucky bastard with the choice to do so. So get on with it.

On and on. I bottled one thing that’s been giving me the eye for a year or so and watched Cez launch long and stupid over something much removed from stuff I consider in my sphere of sanity. But that’s okay, still pushing it a bit, still having a laugh, still taking the piss, still doing the thing which defines us and – as importantly – our community.

I’ve seen many posts ‘I don’t know Jenn but thoughts to her family and friends‘. It’s easy to be cynical about this – say the right thing for group approval but I’m confident this is our tribe closing ranks and lamenting the loss of a good one. Social media is a bastard tho, Tom (Jenn’s husband) posted a pic of Jenns’ favourite bike with a ‘fuck cancer’ sticker on the seat-tube and no rider. Pass me those tissues.

And that got me thinking on what was brilliant about today’s ride. It wasn’t the loamy trails holding your tyres before throwing them off in an entirely predictable direction. It wasn’t risking a little to find a lot of stuff that’d been hidden in the oft visited drawer of ‘I’ll do that next time’. It wasn’t even encouraging others in their endeavours while being genuinely delighted they rode stuff you did not.

No. It was something quite different. 11km of tarmac separates us from our post ride pub finish and home. It’s mostly uphill and not a whole load of fun especially with the cold descending from grey clamped skies and every pedal stroke battling a rising headwind.

We’re not roadies. So we never leave a mate. No one gets shot out of the back. We trained our way back with a tag-team of wind takers without a word being said. Every 10 pedal strokes had us swivelling eyeballs over shoulders. Knackered riders took their turn even when it was clearly hurting.

Close to the end we slowed to a pace entirely appropriate for those blowing it someway out of their arse. Your individual speed matters not a jot. That has no place here, you are a member of a team, a community if you will of riders who look out for their own. The needs of the many is far more important that the prowess of the one.

We talk often about not taking riding mountain bikes in amazing places for granted. And we’re missing the point by a million miles. What matters is being there for each other, being part of a close knit group of the like-minded, being included and being part of something rather nebulous, slightly cliquey and endlessly fantastic.

We’ve lost a great one one in Jenn. Let’s not fuck about and pretend anything different. But what a privilege it is to have been part of her world and our wider bike riding community.

It’s not the gap that people leave. It’s how they make you feel when they’re gone.  Go hug someone you love. And raise a glass for those so cruelly taken you cannot.

Ride In Peace Jenn.

Dark, cold, wet. Pick none.

Worcester Beacon

Last week was rubbish. Vocationally such things are common when the best laid plans meet that stimulating and challenging group of randoms otherwise known as customers*

Not this time. I was riding my bike. Although not really. More slithering darkly between – and tediously often into – trees attempting to reconcile mountain biking with my friends and the extreme grumpiness of not being in the pub yet.

Excuses were legion. I traded them in the car park explaining to anyone who even pretended to listen that night-riding was for those with proper 9 to 5 jobs, my lights were at best ciphers for 13th century monastery candles, this bike – this one right here – had questionable suspension at the front, none at the back and about an undamped inch derived from the broken dropper post.

No one cared. Quite rightly. They just fucked off at light speed engaging the Chinese lumen photon drive with nary a care for ground conditions best described as boundlessly shit. Two days torrential rain had turned rock hard trails into gripless wonders pretty much signposting wheeled idiots into the trunks of waiting forestry.

I didn’t hate it. That’s too strong an emotion, but I wasn’t enjoying it much. Neither was the hardtail I’d selected as the indubitably perfect companion to three hours of mud wrestling. It responded by silently shedding vital transmission components far and wide into the deepest reaches of this dark forest.

A tipping point was reached where mechanical suicide of a chainring gave me the perfect excuse to leave the field of battle citing a verified medical injury to my worthy steed. Which would have been fine. Lovely. Perfect. See you in the pub  – not for me the infamy of a dishonourable discharge, I could instead sympathise with those having slogged a further 15km. While feigning disappointment at the cruel mechanical maladies preventing my participation.

I wish. Toolkits rolled out littered with spares of every description. A few of which could be best summarised as ‘oh fuck, chainring bolts’.  The mechanicaly minded fixed my bike for which I thanked them through clenched teeth. Back in the saddle, things improved a bit but only because we’d breached the FPFP** and any riding I managed had to be better than the shitty-scared stuff exhibited so far.

Some way behind the rest of the crew I couldn’t help noticing. I rode this very bike on these trails a few months ago with the sun in the sky and loved every minute of it. Not tonight tho, stiff, blind and confused – I’m just not well configured for winter.

Except it’s not winter. Since that night when even the pub failed to add much cheer, the rain has stayed away and the trails have responded with a last echo of summer hardness. I’ve been doing this long enough to fully understand that no deadline or parental obligations are anywhere near as important as heading back into the hills for one more perfect fix.

Not perfect. Pretty close tho. Malvern Hills looking mighty fine. Chilly but not cold, moistness in the trails manifested as grip not mud, feeling fit regardless of a hotel diet of bacon, eggs and beer.  We stuck a couple of digits up at the fast coming night by starting two hours before sunset – a rather lovely phenomenon we chased home on the last descent.

Between the two, hills were climbed, loam was middle aged roosted (I don’t really know what that means but jamming on the rear brake and sliding the bike into line for the next bend has to be called something), route options were considered, new trails were revealed. And all the time watching the darkening horizon.

No lights. Not interested in having something of the night about us. Winch and plummet for a happy two hours riding with someone with whom I have long had a friendship, a hint of competitiveness, an understanding he’s mostly faster than me and a vague level of maturity that I no longer care.

We parked bikes on a well photographed bench at the highest point of the hills and 1.5km from the cars. All downhill. Admired the sunset, congratulated ourselves on living in a pretty damn fine place before fixing our sights due west onto that orb currently setting fire to the clouds.

I’ve ridden this descent a hundred times. And every time I pick a terrible line, give myself a scare, brake when I mustn’t and attempt to wing it when I really shouldn’t. This time I lost Martin 30 seconds in and my doomed attempt to make up lost ground had me hitting the ‘moon rock’ a little faster than intended.

A moment of silence. Just enough time for a full on retina download of silhouetted peaks cast with a reddening glow. Then the crunch of 150mm travel forks damping the danger of loose gravel. Fast, so damn fast – never wanting this to stop, but hoping the end comes one second before my ego out-rides my competence.

Done. Grin. Point at things. Make plans for next week while prevailing weather conditions stay fair. Wonder about last week. Work out that without the bloody awful, you’ll never appreciate the almost perfect.

Apparently there’s something important on the television. I’m watching the video behind my eyeballs. Nothing beats that.

*plans never survive contact with the enemy as the old military diktat states. Lesser known is the concept of ‘first intent’ where whatever happens you try and do just one simple thing. For the NHS it is ‘do no harm’. For me it’s ‘do no harm that might end with a jail sentence’.

**FPFP – Furthest Point From Pub.  From here it’s just a matter of staying upright until the lights of the post ride medication centre hove into view.

Laziness is hard work

When you start texting family members demanding a cup of tea, you can officially declare yourself a lazy bugger.

Laziness is a curse. Or a blessing. Or somewhere in between, but for those of us born / afflicted with the lazy gene it is all we know. Which makes understanding that jolly demographic whose days are filled with activity and never seen without some kind of creative tool in their hands all the more difficult.

You know the trope – never at rest because there’s always so much stuff to improve their environment or themselves and their families. Half way up mountains accompanied by equally active tiny children, or copying the Sistine Chapel roof while redecorating their toilet walls. it’s tiring just thinking about achieving so much stuff, and what little energy I can exert is directed at hating them. Just a little bit.

While they are drinking from the font of endless endeavour, we are slumped over the lesser relics of procrastination, apathy and displacement. I could explain this to you,  but it’s far too much bloody effort. Instead let me give you some examples from a mundane interlude in my life.

This incident of the incurious Al in the daytime took place on a balmy late summer afternoon at Morrisons. This meteorological context is provided only to fail to explain the behaviour of the pathologically lazy.  The supermarket has two car parks, one a two minute walk away from the front door, the other about half that. At no point was any shopper risking anything other than squinting on their epic march to the entrance.

Yet denizens of the indolent tribe were impatiently queuing for the latter which appears unhealthily focussed even to a lazy bugger like me.  Parking in the tarmac emptiness of the able limbed, I still had time to lock the car, unlock it on returning for my wallet* and pass those who’d been in front of me. Revving engines and vigorous hand signals suggested lazy should not always be considered synonymous with an easy going nature.

Upping the ante somewhat, a man emerged from a car abandoned in a disabled space. He looked perfectly abled to me, not – for example-  obviously missing a leg. In a moment of perfect irony he was very nearly mowed down by those who were too lazy to park at all, instead circumnavigating the car park waiting for their shopping kin to trudge out of the exit. Now that’s properly slack.

Inside it’s somehow worse, all glassy eyed sweeping of random items by tired arms. And yet within this state of apathy are occasional outbreaks of verbal violence.  This is because supermarkets have a secondary function as anger factories equipped with temper amplifiers hidden in the cheese aisle.

Flashpoints over such red-line issues as the choice of breakfast cereal ‘Not that one John it gives you terrible wind’ escalating to couples nearly coming to blows at the deli counter. The bemused employee behind is half cheesemonger, half councillor. It’s a good job the sharp tools are held safe on his side of the counter. The dull ones are very much on the other side.

I digress, laziness permeates even the checkout. Bags carelessly loaded with no method other than that of the slovenly path of least effort. Soft stuff thrown into empty bags while heavy, edgy stuff is shovelled on top. Only my inane Englishness prevents an embarrassing barging in and loading the produce with some kind of system ‘the square things all fit together and – for future reference – what you believed was the large lettuce at the bottom of that bag is in fact your baby’.

And then payment. Or not as it it oft the case. Women – and I blame their voluminous purses for this – delve deeply into their handbags thereby triggering the opening of a portal to another dimension where infinite compartments may OR MAY NOT contain a credit card. I’m always surprised at their surprise of being complicit in some kind of financial transaction to free their overloaded trolley.

Oh hang on, I just need to find my Morrisons card’ they’ll trill blind to the seething eyes of passive aggression queuing behind them. ‘Is it worth dying for?’ I nearly shout as my hand grips a wine bottle and my mind dreams of committing blunt force trauma for the benefit of the gene pool.

This is the hard edge to being lazy. It’s brilliant if that is all you are. Sail through life achieving fuck all and not giving a shit. I hate you almost as much as Mr. 24 hour party person up there. Sadly most of us are trapped in a venn diagram of laziness, guilt and impatience. The intersection of which is angst.

It’s that thing of being genetically lazy but feeling endlessly bad about it. Which inevitably descends into an ever deepening spiral of guilt. And further apathy. I find the best way to tamp down those imposters, and revel in the guilt-free life of the singularily lazy, is to douse their fire with alcohol.

It’s like Frank Turner sings ‘I dream of all the things I need to do, but wake up and never follow through’. He could have been talking about taking a dump of course. I’m far too lazy to work it out one way or the other.

Right now the lawn needs mowing. If I procrastinate for long enough, it’ll probably start raining.

* this is happening increasingly often. The forgetfulness trajectory suggest not many more days pass before I turn up to something important in just my underpants.