Usual?

(c) vinepair

Twice this week, I’ve made a beeline for a bar. Nothing unusual in that other than the fella behind the jump acknowledging my familiar presence with a knowing smile, and a significant glance toward my self-medication of choice.

Chaucer coined a phrase now found in the common lexicon; ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ although I’m more taken by Mark Twain noting that ‘Familiarity breeds contempt. How accurate that is. The reason we hold truth in such respect is because we have so little opportunity to get familiar with it’.

Fair point fella. If we did politics on the hedgehog, I’d be all over that referencing  current events. But we don’t, and as this blog is all about me let’s instead pick a couple of examples which brought me up a little short this week.

Monday finds me bored in the same hotel I’ve already wasted fifty nights this year staring at walls. Those walls are not something I can stomach when autumn light pins you to a room with not much of a view. Instead I’m up and out, walking the streets, shunning the bright lights, looking for a place to eat alone. I’ve been doing this for twenty plus years and it’s never glamorous. Especially in Coventry 😉

So after much perambulation I’m back in the hotel. I trade a high five with Petoir – he’s the lovely fella behind a shiny bar and a similar suit and tie provided by the hotel, but inside that he’s far more interesting.  We talk family, football teams and fantasies – him: bringing his wife and child over, me: retiring and giving this shit the middle finger.

In between he pours me the beer that has been our calling card over all these months. I give my thanks, while nodding to the other poor bastards I see weekly living in a world exchanging home for money. We never really talk because their iPhones virtually project a physical distance I nowadays think of as ‘London’.

Some are pissed already. Many are desperately heading that way. A few amusingly believe they are the main event. Others exit stage left. All the world’s a stage and we’re merely players apparently. Could be that – whatever  it just feels desperately sad. I’ve been here in over a hundred bars in more than forty cities and it’s all horribly familiar. And that does breed a bit of contempt for your life choices.

Bar closes, now it’s just me and Petoir sat on the other side. He’s knocking back decent brandy while explaining that everyone treats him like shit. This is not the way it works back in Poland. Apparently they stab you in the front rather than slice you with impatience and passive-aggressiveness.  Or,  worse still, just an ignorance which considers you a proxy between their entitlement and a drink.

This really pisses me off. Some of that is because I’m also half cut drinking brandy, a little because I’ve been guilty of similar behaviour in the past. But mostly because of what belonging should feel like. It feels like this:

Four days later, I’m making determined tracks to the bar of our local in Ross. I name-check Jamie behind the bar, check out how his world is before making a three fingered gesture triggering a phalanx of favourite beers leaving the taps.

While I worry that maybe this is a cipher for alcohol dependancy, I love this pub for its old-worldly charm, it’s comfortable chairs, it’s lack of electronic coin magnets, it’s choice of conversation over music – but even so, this feels a bit too familiar, a bit to close to the knuckle, a point between giving up and selling out.

So I chuck it out there; is this as good as it gets, is this a rut we’ve dug for ourselves, am I just being a pretentious twat? The view from those who I’ve come to rely on to calibrate my moral compass tell me it probably is, we probably have and you definitely are. They also explained something far more interesting.

‘This is community Al. You’ve never lived in the same place as long as this. You’re always searching for something better. But this is what real life is like, flawed individuals and messy lives. Stop worrying if this is what you should be doing and get amongst it’

I’m paraphrasing here; it was more ‘stop being a dick and get the next round in’, yet the totality of that narrative wasn’t lost on me.  My best friends are anchored in a time and place with an iron certainty it is will endure. Familiarity isn’t contemptuous –  it’s binds you to some important certainties. It’s not perfect but you’re a local, a person who gets it, an advocate of what is right,  who can – and should – make a difference.

I never wanted to settle down. That felt like getting old. The idea you weren’t windswept and interesting was a little demeaning.  Not being tied to a place because no place was quite good enough for you.  The grass was always greener. Even when it wasn’t.

The difference between a generic hotel bar not even close to living the dream, and having a beer with my best friends has made me reevaluate that long held maxim.

Usual? Right now that sounds pretty good.

Clubby

Clubman

John Betjeman* understood clubs. Regardless of his lament for the shrinking of red on the map, he was a man of his time when charting societal change. He mourned the passing of the clubman, but he wasn’t in total denial.

For those seriously starved of entertainment, there’s a virtual library of criticism mocking Betjeman by those ready to be clever after the event. For me, he fixed a time when the world made sense, and everyone knew their place within it. I’m a million miles from matching this utopia with my values, but he captured the sorrow of a changing world beautifully**

The clubman – and I’m emphasising that noun in the second syllable – was quite the thing back in the time of our fathers. You worked hard, you paid your dues, you had your part in creating offspring and maybe a little post physicalisation, you went to the pub with your friends and you joined a club.

The metier of that club was mostly irrelevant, The thing which mattered was you were a member. Putting on a different tie to cleave the time between work and family. Small gestures and quiet despair. Is this as good as it gets? My dad was fighting the Battle of the Bulge and I’m soldering valves, kicking balls or maybe living that freedom riding bicycles with like-minded others looking for individuality within a clan.

Fair play to them all. Stories of riders in heavy suits summiting snow bound hills and carrying cast-iron bikes over broken ground always raises an appreciative eyebrow. Not the roadies – hard men as they clearly were – rather those heading off road with a self conscious smile and a desperate need to be different.

For me that’s the free spirit breaking out. The antipathy of the clubman. Sure the need to belong pervades, but it’s not bound in rules, it’s forged in that spirit. Heading off into the unknown with nothing more than a dubious map last used to pinpoint ordinance, a bike doubling as a factory commuting vehicle, and a well-there’s-no-point-dying-wondering attitude to wondering what might come next.

That’s what Betjeman missed. The subversive culture of those who swapped hierarchy for high places, social conventions for the hegemony of a tribe, the need to conform juxtaposed by the need to be not quite like you.  It’s not Rosa Parks on a bus in 1955,  but I can’t help wondering if this represents a British well if you don’t mind then fuck you.

Whatever, the legacy is interesting. I’m with Groucho Marx in that I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member. I work too damn hard and I’m too bloody old to spend time with people I’ve no time for. Clubs identifying themselves with jerseys, arbitrary delineations of what fast might be, tedious rules bounding acceptability and an aristocracy of those who are, and those who are not.

I think I’m probably not. And I’m sure those clubs would explain in some detail why I am wrong. How inclusive they might be. How they retain the fading ethos of the the clubman I read about 20 years ago. And I would argue right back that spare time should not be regimented, should not conform to what some kind of committee codifies as acceptable, should not need to tell you what, should not tell you how, and refuse to tell you why.

Still what do I know? Road clubs aren’t lacking in numbers. MTB clubs a little behind but there is still a tribal need. Maybe there’s a thing for belonging, a group of your own, even just a reason to venture out in the shit weather.

Maybe, maybe not. There’s something of the clubman in all of us. Wanting to belong. The power of many.  Sacrificing individualism to the safety of the crowd. Bystander syndrome spinning a sense of those like us. In a world increasing fractured by a daily ‘what the fuck just happened here?’, it’s a perfectly understandable refuge.

But I still don’t get clubs. I get riding with my mates. There’s a huge difference and it’s not about rules or jerseys. John B hated that the world wouldn’t stop turning and clubs, to me, feel they are an transient anchor to that ideal.

If there is going to be any kind of progress in a world which appears to be run by those keen to be the architects of the destruction of it, then meritocracy has to be the thing which stills the madness. That’s not something which sits well with knowing your place.

The age of the clubman has had endured a little too long. It’s probably time to think for ourselves.

*a man who loved bicycles in a way which endures, and a word-view which does not.

** Really I find serious literature mostly pretentious and unfathomable. But this is good stuff. And I’m speaking as a man who’s tried James Joyce a few times and ended with ‘Ulysses- no fucking idea at all’ 

 

Too much of a bad thing

Back in the game..

Searching for inspiration in yet another hotel bar,  I started counting. Not the days I’d been away from home. Or the might-as-well-be-infinity items unticked from my to-do list. Or even how many beers had brought on this latest muse.

No in an attempt to cheer myself up, electronic calendars were brought into sharp relief to calculate how long it had been since I’d ridden a bike. That’s a definition which is inclusive of ‘outside‘ and ‘dirt‘ and dismissive of sweating out a winters coat of misery on the virtual road of nowhere*

37 days. Fuck me that’s a lifetime. Especially for a man accelerating over the horizon of more than half of his.  No time to waste then unless one considered the wider nuances of not rushing the ‘frankenankle‘ back into the fray when it’d barely quietened from ‘bloody painful’to ‘mostly annoying

I’ve already had a proper telling off from a medical professional who felt her diagnosis of eight weeks was probably a little better informed than my ‘yeah it’s been a week, I’ve done loads and it bloody hurts now‘. She has a valid point. I have a less quantifiable one. If I don’t ride soon, there may be wider consequences. Elastic waistbands, hair-trigger irritation and a level of grumpiness entirely unfair for those unfortunates in my immediate orbit.

Fast forward to tonight and we’re at 43 days and I’ve self diagnosed myself as ‘not entirely broken‘. My last ride was a muddy horror on the 2nd of Jan which gets better the further away from it I get. Three days after that I subjected my ankle to the kind of trauma that’d have the less lucky encased in plaster. Tomorrow tho I’ll ride my mountain bike

More than ten years ago I shredded my knee in a non amusing fashion and it was  five long weeks before risking it on the dirt. After which the fear of a repeat nearly put an end to the whole endeavour. A couple of years after that, I kind of lost the plot and took a whole month off.

Never 43 days though. I’ve grown fat on nebulous willpower and unfit despite regular visits to the realm of the statically deluded. Sit ups in hotel rooms followed by chips and beer at the bar are not the recommended preparation for getting back out there.

So I’ve some idea where my MTB fitness and legs have gone. I have surmised they may be hiding in my stomach. I expect tomorrow will be physically demanding and mentally challenging. Being slow up hill is a given and hanging out the back on the descents is more than likely. What’s less likely is whether anyone will notice the difference.

Other than me. And I’m unlikely to care much because I’ll be riding a bike with my mates with dirt under my wheels. Okay it’ll be dirt mostly disguised by moisture, and any skills to deal with such things will be mostly forgotten.

That’s okay. Just re-aquainting myself with the bikes was a cause for joy. A bit of pointless fettling, a refitting of winter mudguards, a tightening of bolts and the pressurisation of tyres felt very much like coming home. Returning to the tribe, reframing what a weekend should feel like, remembering why this hobby / borderline insanity has pretty much consumed me for nearly twenty years.

Chronologically that’s less troubling that 43 days. I don’t know how may I have left, but I’ll be buggered if I’m going to waste even one more wondering what a healed ankle feels like. Might pass with flying colours, might knock it back a few weeks.

That’s mountain biking tho. Risk versus reward every second you’re living in that world. No point dying wondering.

Wish me luck, I’m going back in.

*a quest described in the rather fine Cranked magazine. The latest edition is available at www.cranked.cc 

 

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 thatday 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.

ThenI took the perfect bike even if the rider was at no times perfect. In realitymy capability swung randomly fromborderline 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 ofthe 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 expectafter all this time together, we’ll laughably dispatchany 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 getit 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 becausewhen 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 atyour 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 therear 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 bya difficult visit to a Welshhospital.

I love Antur. Love is not a verb often thrown around by a professional Yorkshireman. Especially consideringthe opposite is hate, and that’s an emotion cast large by the fan-like vista opening as youclimb 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 insecuritieswith me, appear entirely unconcerned whilethey 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 fabricatean excuse for my piss poor performance. Today tho I’m ahead of that gamewith a broken finger encased in a fatsplint. 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 whichis pumping the brake lever. Everything feels forced, nothing feels natural. Views of riders I can normally hang onto breachthehorizon 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 existentialismof 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 onelast time oncewe’d greedily shoved dusty bikes onto thetrailer.

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 shareda 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 beingaverage 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 besideyou 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 daysoff the beer has turned me into that evangelical ex-imbiberdispensing 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 learnedhabit 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 explicitlymatched to his input. Coke, Cigs and Courvoisier mostly. The rest of us pretend our muse comes easily to hand in a glass, while in realitythat’s just an excuse for another drink. The best stuff I’ve written is conceivedin the visceral dusk of a brightly lit event. Beer canfuel those words but like all accelerants it should be treated with some care. Pretentiousness can explode and sentence construction implode.

Difficult stuff shouts loudevery day sosometimes 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 throughthe damp needs a sparkto 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 thatmight be, but the experience of riding bikes has a strong link to stuff atthe 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 chunkof 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 themlike a drunk uses a lampost – for support, not illumination. And that’swhy 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 representsa 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 apagan 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, whileanything more busts societal norms on what passes for gifts forthe festive season. Working out the desires of even those closest to me is something between a challenge and a conundrum. Heavy hints helpnot 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 inwhatever random direction she pointed. Until she kindlyexplainedmy 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 sendingsaid 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 weaponryto 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 similardirectiontowhichthe 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 asthat 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 toconsider 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 leftis 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 meansdusty trails waiting for the cycling obsessed. Not this endless wet greyness which is nothing more than a meteorologically triggered suicidewatch.

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