Plane stupid

Plane Stupid
I might if that’s okay

The Captain has abandoned his approached to Birmingham airport…. there is no need to be alarmed“.  Academic debate might usefully plot that sentence on a line between ‘not terribly congruent‘ and ‘Non Sequitor‘.  Time was pressing though so I went with ‘I’ll be the judge of that and my ‘x’ intersects somewhere close to hysterical panic

Travelling to Scotland always presents a dilemma. Slow and easy on the train or fast and irritated on the plane. Virgin do a half decent service up the west coast but it’s not unusual to arrive home with appreciable stubble*, so I switch depending on mood, travelling companions and the vagaries of someone elses booking system.

Flying generally though has become a problem. Being a data-geeky kind of guy, professionally I understand the odds on falling out of the sky to a fiery death are both extremely low, and reset on each flight boarded. Personally I’ve been handed control of real aeroplanes and chucked numerous model ones from windy cliffs. Subconsciously though, I can’t quite understand how the buggers stay in the air**

It never used to be this way. Aeroplanes shuttled me to all sorts of interesting places with a glass of fine Gin in one hand and a throwaway novel in the other. Sunrises and sunsets from 30,000 feet can be rather splendid especially if the viewer is a little pissed. Landing 5000 miles from where you started with only a mild hangover and a vague sense that breakfast is now dinner felt like a fine tradeoff.

Not now. The tipping point can be isolated to a single flight during the first Gulf War where, the US company paying my wages, laid down a travel decree insisting only neutral carriers could be booked. Reasoning was the worry of missile strike on belligerent flag carriers, regardless of the military advice that the ‘enemy‘ couldn’t hit the country next door without fifteen attempts while defining sand as a ‘hard target’.

Which is how I found myself flying over the French Alps, in a prop-equipped puddle jumper, through an electrical storm with the soothing tones of the Captain explaining the explosive noises we could hear was merely ice cracking off the wings.  We rough and tumbled over those forbodding jagged peaks for far too long before eventually landing heavily at Lugano – in a direct homage to the strafing runs dominating the 24 hour news.

My colleague refused to get back on the plane the following day. He took a train back to the UK and form then on could be found taking a keen interest in international railway timetables. I just hit the bar and shoved destiny into the driving seat. Didn’t bother me much then, bothers me much more now.

There was a minute between the wheels slamming back into their housings, a full power climb to a safe altitude, an entirely British response to the crisis – grip book a little harder, press candy crush keys a little harder, strive for the wikipedia citation of stoic*** – and the pilot explaining in calm terms what had happened.

Time is strange. The way we divide it cannot be simply be categorised by a fixed notation of hours, minutes and seconds.  60 of those should not be enough for me to record every noise our little twin prop was making, the flashing of a red light in the ceiling and a brief but thorough review of what the hell was going on.

Three possible options; Birmingham had been abandoned due to terror threat, the plane ahead of us suffering catastrophic failure so splattering itself and its passengers on the runway, or something equally broken on ours.

That minute spanned a duration in no way sliced by normal time. Finally the throttles eased off with a laconic telling of a bird strike triggering some emergency protocol for the poor buggers a minute ahead of us. All of which made be feel both mighty relieved and a bit of a coward.

My emerging view of terra firma is the more firma, the less terror. Which had me wondering why, as I hurtled down the motorway, this felt so much safer than being 300 feet above. The statistics suggest I’m kidding myself. There’s something about being in control, which when strapped into a thin seat sticking the ‘V’s to gravity isn’t something I feel for a single second.

Whatever. Next time, I’m taking the train. And packing a razor.

*or – after being abandoned to stare in awe at the majesty of Sandwell and Dudley – a full on bushy beard. That was a long day.

**amusingly or not, there doesn’t appear to be a weight of scientific opinion backing a peer reviewed option either. Something to do with pressure, the Venturi effect, lift profiles, witchcraft and sorcery.

*** although when catching the eye of the bloke opposite, he raised a single laconic eyebrow. Clearly he’s lost it I thought.

Chasing Cars

Chasing cars

An activity far removed from those halcyon days of London commuting, where one re-enacted medieval gladiatorial combat in that time honoured battle of over medicated motorists and under armoured cyclists. It reminds me tho of one puce faced, slabby stomach’d, inappropriately entitled fuckwit attempting to rub me from existence by simple application of his shiny porsche to my grimy mountain bike.

I never took time to understand if he’d been denied the dead cyclist he’d asked for Christmas and taken matters into his own hands, or was merely distracted by the reflection of his own ego. Far too busy ripping the keys from the ignition before a one way deposit into the sewers of the Bayswater road*

Back in the room and in that middle aged acceleration of the planet where three years appear to be directly correlated to a single heartbeat, desperate marketing emails insist the blameless car ‘proactively sustaining a customised transport solution” ‘** is coming to the end of its useful life.

Or its useful life with me. Being constrained by a financial instrument insisting I punt it back to Skoda early next February. With the advances in manufacturing, the just in time supply chain, the computer controlled assembly lines and the global stock control systems, the salient point appears to be I’d best order something in the next few weeks unless being a poster boy for The Proclaimers approach to sustainable transport forms a major part of my 2018 goals.

Been there. Hated that. Buying bikes is fun. Buying cars is not. My requirements – while simple – are not well aligned to the narrow scripts pedalled by sales people who conflate cost and value. Actually that’s nonsense, they confuse what someone wants with unit targets desperately signed up to at their interview.

Which makes my insistence on inserting a muddy mountain bike into their showroom polished demonstrators a little awkward. Not helped by my dismissive attitude to ‘advanced ride dynamics‘ and ‘performance analytics’ refusing to accept these are nothing more than A to B tools. If I wanted a lifestyle statement, I’ll buy another mountain bike.

I care not for performance or handling. Couldn’t give a flying fuck for marginal gains wrapped up in this years’ colourways. Disinterest overstates my apathy for design intent.  All these thing matter for two wheels. Four? Stop talking, hand over the keys.

My purchasing strategy has only two tenets. 1: simple requirements: how do I fit a 180cm mountain bike into that riot of plastics without wearing the front tyre as a novelty hat in the drivers seat. 2: Can it be bought without a clutch pedal and does the brains of our family operation calculate it’s not going to bankrupt us.

Yeah. But. I really wanted a Jaguar F-Pace. Just because I’ve always wanted a Jag. Fails 2: by about a million miles and frankly there’s a question of dignity hovering in the background. So attempted to bypass the social difficulties of interaction with idiots by test driving the bigger version of what I have now.

Expected just to order one of those. Arrived back at the dealer struck somewhere between bored and catatonic. Three years of that particular experience would result in a fair parody of Jack Nicholson in One flew over the cuckoos nest. Social awkwardness it is then. The spreadsheet at the top of this post represents an intersection of a best guess of stuff that might work, and a synthesis of many dull people who apparently enjoy testing cars for paid employment.

We live in a world where our choices tend to the infinite. No one has much truck with regression to the mean. Major purchases are our time to be special. For bikes yep, for cars oh please just fuck off.  Still I’m not quite so secure on this moral high ground once I found you there’s a big estate with a zero snob badge hiding what appears to be a nuclear bomb under the bonnet.

That may be the smart buy. I’ve no idea at all. I pretend not to care a jot for the thing I spend far too much time sat inside. Then I look at what that simple functionality costs and wobble a little. But I’m already all-in on the mountain bike equivalent of a red Ferrari. Best to step back from that kind of dangerous nonsense.

So I shall be stoic. And sensible. And given the right environmental conditions measured and calculating. Still a good chance of going postal though if the clip-on tie brigade feel the urge to tout their goods as something other than ‘ a bit better than trains’

If they do, a chubby bicycle tyre may be used to move the discussion on.

Wish me luck, I’m going in.

*explaining this to my colleagues at our rather straight laced London consultancy provoked two distinct responses; one group backed gently away making soothing noises while the other called security.

**these are not my words. But someone at Skoda wrote them, nodded sagely and declared ‘these are good’.  The Scorpion Pit cannot come too soon.

Sunday Service – go ride a mountain

Black Mountains MTB - June 2017

These bikes Matt, they’re bloody amazing aren’t they?” represented my opening gambit on finishing a classic rocky Black Mountains descent. First ridden with almost no composure and much trepidation during a Dorothy-esque ‘We’re not in the Chilterns anymore‘ moment some ten years earlier.

Moving here rapidly widened my riding horizons and provided motivation for a lazy person to manage physical decline a little more aggressively. At 40, this stuff scared the crap out of me; steepish, loose, committing, switching between deep ruts barely clinging to a wind swept hillside, and stabby rocks buried deep into the water tables fall line.

At nearly 50, they’re nothing more than interesting technical exercises to be ticked off by thousands of practice hours, brilliant bikes and fast friends. Even after climbing through a rainstorm borne on a bastard headwind ramming droplets into every un-waterproofed* crevice.

Summer in the mountains then. Backside of a 30 minute climb drops you into a steep traverse cut deeply by eons of proper weather. Swirling wind attempts to throw you off the hill in the manner of an irritated horse. Whatever – ridden this kind of shit for a decade, been beaten senseless on multiple winter death marches, found  courage in the strangest places.  Roll the planet forward six months though and my insouciance would be replaced by tripod-ing uselessness and an all mountain dunking- but close to the longest day, just my laughter is carried away by that summer wind.

So when Haydn arrived sans a good part of his transmission, I was reminded of a couple of things; one don’t be a cleverdick – this isn’t a big mountain but it’ll still bite you in the arse if you install ego in the driving seat, and two just don’t be a dick period – you’re an insignificant pixel on a massive geological canvas. You’ve brought nothing and you’ll leave nothing. Get over yourself.

The rock strike cannoning through H’s rear wheel had blown away most of the mech and a couple of cassette cogs. Matt unleashed her mobile workshop on the problem while I lay in the first sunlight of the day and wondered why nothing makes me happier than being in the mountains. I failed to come to any useful conclusions other than high places were first claimed for the spiritual not the religious, the knowing that it’s a privilege to see the forests and the fields lying on top of nature’s wrinkly tablecloth, and that little bit of not being quite like everyone else my age.

My reverie was broken by the sounds of tools being re-holstered and we’re back to skating over loose rock, gliding under trees and – basically – finding fun bits go geography to punt the bikes off.  It’s already been a hell of a day; going trail feral from the start so climbing for an hour with bikes on backs to crest a 450m ridge promising much fun back on the pedals. It didn’t disappoint.

Then laughing at Matt as he missed a steep exit only for him to repass me when I missed the next one. Eating jelly babies to the sound of pinging disc rotors. Arming the tyres with sheep shit ammunition ready to fire at the innocent bloke line astern come the next downhill.

There’s another 300m of almost vertical between us and home. Another push and carry which merely opened up the prospect of a further twenty minutes peering through the cloud base on mostly remembered tracks. My GPS read 35km and 1400m of climbing. Bit only 1050m of descending. Time to get home and hosed.

First ruts, then loose rocks, then a stream bed so everything south of the rear tyre is now pissing wet. But a little less covered in sheep shit.  Dropping past the reservoir under stubborn slate grey skies, dampening our shadows all day, in no way diminished it’s ability to drag your eyes from the trail.

We’re nearly done but tired limbs must be ready for a single minute of action before resting in the van. Close the sheep gate, quick pedal ratchet, pick a line under an encroaching tree canvas and trust these awesome bikes to surf plate sized rocks long since wrenched from the bedrock.

Pick the bones out of that. It’s not scary nor technically that challenging. What is is is bloody fast, nearly 50kph of trail, forest and sky being hurled at the grinning idiot being the bars. Reminds me a little of reading the memoirs of the last ‘stick and rudder’ aviators flying by the seat of their pants.

It must feel something like this, not fighting the trail nor bending it your will, more modulating it through the pedals and the grips, micro drifting the bike into line, building a personal runway from random rocks and playing at being good enough to avoid a prang.

Roll up to the van with the conceit you’ve finally got this mountain biking thing pretty much sorted. At which point, a million midges feasted upon our moist persons. That’s nature having the last laugh, right there

*too warm to ride in a jacket so that’s everywhere then. At least it was warm rain.

It’s all downhill from here

The hardtail is back!

Facebook has many flaws; those keenly sticking it to the man point to its voracious appetite for personal data, harvested entirely with a shareholder’s view of maximising value. They rightly lament the depth of our digital footprint auctioned to the highest bidder.

Yep get that. Absolutely ready to go full digital hermit with tin foil hat once I’ve weaned myself off likes and vicarious living in a world separated from the tedious analogue. However, going cold turkey on social media means standing firm against the siren call of the carefully managed history presented on your timeline.

Exhibit A: images of a solstice ride some three years past shared with slightly less craggy versions of those now assembled on the hottest night of the year. But hey thanks heartless mining engine reminding me of the planetary rotations that have aged me since.

Shift into the real world and there’s just the two of us divining oxygen from superheated air whilst reacquainting ourselves with hardtails last ridden in the stygian twilight of endless winter days. Now the trails are baked rock hard from a week of 30 degree temperatures evaporating a month of low pressure rubbish.

After 1200kms’ on the Mojo3, a kilometre on the Stache feels strange and not in a good way. It’s like swapping a grand tourer for a hill racer. An Aston Martin for a Healy Sprite. Immediately visceral and not short of physical cues diagnosing me with an affliction best described of ‘laziness by super bike’

No matter, trails to be ridden before beer can be drunk. 30 degrees of rising mercury* stays any ambitions of rushing up hill, but soon we’re heading onto crushed sandstone burned red by a blazing sun and the direct drive of the a single sprung end makes chasing the summit a little more enjoyable.

But nowhere near as enjoyable as a rush through the first descent. Chubby tyres stick to summer hardened dirt like shit to a blanket, but hip swinging hooliganism will kick the back end out while the front tracks on unperturbed. Up front for thinking, out back for dancing.

First couple of jumps tho I’d renamed as ‘Get me to the Chiropractor’ as atrophied muscle memory fails to prioritise the knees as something involved in organic damping. Moving on, the gradient of our local hills tends to the flat closer to the river giving ample opportunity to test those chubby plus tyres with the full body English pushing beyond where any branch of peer assessed physics would suggest grip could possibly be found.

Bonkers. An inch of rain and any such shenanigans would drift the rider out to places where arboreal trauma and sub-soil analysis best describe the experience recently defined as ‘watch this, I’m riding it out‘. No chance of that tho with Mediterranean temperatures merely releasing dust clouds whenever any kind of braking disturbed the dirt.

I’d ridden a couple of the smaller gap jumps with the commitment of a man mostly invested in the ridiculous enterprise of an aged twat pitting himself against the the local geography. Nothing further of note is worth recording here other than a well sorted hardtail with 3.0 inch tyres and a 140mm fork is hardly pushing any kind of envelope. Barely licking it in fact.

Scarier tho were the speeds generated by gyroscopic effects which felt potentially tidal. I emerged at the end of one trail carrying sufficient potential energy to brand myself with a blameless tree. Front and rear tyres are shimmying in opposite directions. It’s a right-here-right-now equation to be solved.

Wait a single second to bleed off a little more speed accepting the consequence of a far tighter turn to avoid concussion by tree. Or let it all hang out and trust the grip of those big tyres to carve you out of trouble. Synapses and Dendrites react way faster than an overloaded optical cortex, and you’re through and clear without any understanding of quite how.

Stuff of life right there.

We make the most of the dust, the heat, the elongated day of the solstice. We think nothing of what is to come; the dark, the wet, the grim. Even elder statesman such as David and I can still live a little in the moment. Others may dance naked in response to the planets’ axial tilt; we’re more of the pragmatic ride the shit out of the trails before hitting the bar.

One thing between us and that. The biggest gap jump on our local trails. It’s not that big but it’s quite clever, perfectly sculptured for a landing aligned to the trajectory of a recently jumped mountain bike. Never done it on the hardtail before but if not now then when? Mild death grip on the bars, boost the bike off the lip, dip the flight for landing and relax as we hit it perfectly.

Then deal with the workload of getting it stopped before the next jump last seen when Cez bust his shoulder after inappropriate exuberance. I’m nowhere near that fast so swapped medical difficulties for shit-eating grin.

In the pub a little later, David and I agreed these are fun bikes to ride. And pretty bloody stupid. Fun and stupid then.

I can relate to that.

*in the UK. I know. It’s like we’ve been twinned with all of Australia.

Blame Rex, He’s basically a weather event..

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

.. Butterflies flap their pretty wings in Guatemala triggering typhoons sweeping inland destroying great tracts of South East Asia. That’s the executive summary for chaos theory. And while the worthy focus on the headlines, those of us sharing our riding tribe with Rex ‘The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah‘*’ James are far more interested in the local derivative.

Less fire and brimstone and – if one is still stretching for biblical allegory – more paired animals, arks and Russel Crowe in an unconvincing beard. What we’re talking about here is Rex picking a weekend to go riding anywhere, and regardless of the prevailing weather conditions a small but angry weather system attempts to drown whatever vehicle he is travelling in or on.

Spring felt pretty entrenched until the 5:45am call of my alarm fought for audible hegemony against the water cannon smashing against the darkened windows. 30 minutes later, the van headlights cut through slashing rain with the four of us sheltered inside wondering at what height water turns to snow.

Snowdonia you see. A land not so much shaped by the people as a people shaped by a land proudly wearing its geology on the outside. Inland seas of the Jurassic age now rising a thousand metres above sea level, their craggy faces carved by the ice and the wind. And the rain. Which sprinted down the flanks of ever steepening hillsides as we pushed through endless low pressure fronts.

Thanks Rex. MWIS forecast called for 8/8ths cloud cover and a degree above freezing on the summit of Snowdon which explained the bulging bags of waterproof kit in the back. What I really wanted was a dingy or maybe a Navy frigate, but had to be satisfied with rainproof everything and a bike shod with those chubby tyres the Internet proclaims would explode** with first contact of a spiky rock.

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

Car park was wet from below but dry above. Even a spot of blue we assumed was  Fates’ satnav desperate to locate Rex and recreate that inland sea about his person. We scooted off before it noticed on a road climb that just had bastard written all over it. 150m of ascent in about 150m of tarmac. It should come with it’s own funicular.

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

That’s the railway we followed on the walkers path out of Llanberis. Push and carry at the bottom, then ride a bit overtaking almost everyone mostly dressed for a day at the beach/a night out in Newcastle. Halfway up in 45 minutes and the rain hadn’t found us yet, but the cloud clamped the summit lost another half a kilometre into the sky. Best get on with it then.

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

North Wales MTB wekend

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

Ride some more. Be polite. Be polite but a bit more noisily. Then we’re off and it’s a tough push/carry through the cloud base which blissfully hid the gradient of the last big pitch. That was a calf stretcher but at least it kept us warm. Stepping up to the freezing summit has us mingling with a mass of random perambulation. The view was all the way to the end of your arm, so I cannot imagine what’d it be like on a sunny day. More people? Ugh.

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

We didn’t tarry. Carried back down the steps so not to trigger an international diplomatic incident with the hoards trudging upwards. Got a bit lost, got very cold, got the phone out, located the ranger path and for the first time in two hours revelled to the sound of the freewheel.

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

Climbing 900 metres without a break has its rewards. Mostly losing three quarters of that snaking down the other side of the mountain. What a descent this is, wide open and fast on the ridge but with enough technicality to demand all of your attention. Which doesn’t leave much spare when it plunges towards the lake on a broken stream-bed tossing up massive rocks at all sorts of exciting angles.

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

North Wales MTB wekend

I didn’t ride it all. Some sections piled up behind my eyeballs suggesting any attempt to use a bike to clear them would inevitably end with a vital internal organ pierced by a murderous rock spike. I glanced at Rex and we exchanged a look suggesting both of us didn’t really know what the spleen was for, but it was probably something any right thinking person would want to keep on the inside.

No matter, it was descending 650m of glorious madness. I’ve spent ten years writing about riding and I still cannot explain what that feels like. But for self conscious repressed Englishman to risk a fist pump, it must be something quite extraordinary.

With it being North Wales, what followed was a soggy slog up a vertical grassy slop over a saddle to access Telegraph Valley. ‘Bit Rubbish this‘ says Matt who’d last been here many years ago. Fair to say it’s eroded a bit and was now bloody marvellous – a ribbon of singletrack clinging to the hillside throwing up massive water-bars every few hundred metres.

North Wales MTB weekend

Or tabletops as they became. Chucking oneself into a breathtaking beautiful rugged landscape while training endless compress-fly-land-accelerate with your mates is there or thereabouts the most fun you can have while standing up with your clothes on.

Mountain biking. The clue is in the name. No sane person should deny themselves mountains and bikes and best friends.

It didn’t even rain. Not that we would have cared.

*I’m fairly firm in my opinion that religious texts are basically someone writing down the best story of the day. But this is in the old testament, Genesis, Quran, Hebrew bible, Hadith and the deuterocanonical books which makes me think it must have been a  bloody good story.

** as a group we had many punctures that weekend? Me, not one. I was impossibly smug.

Another one gone

Not a celebrity or person of questionable merit. No another orbit of the sun arbitrarily ends today. Just in time for social media to explode with ‘New Year, New You‘ memes, inevitably followed by crushing disappointments and unchangeable reality.

Worse that all of that, I’ll be 50 in 2017. FIFTY. Blimey back in my thirties when I led as close to a hedonistic lifestyle as a salaried man working for a consultancy firm could, I’d sit in a bar surrounded by empty glasses and overflowing ashtrays declaring to all who’d listen/not passed out drunk that ‘better to have a good time now and die early than just end up dribbling, lonely in some death-smelling care home‘.

I need to go back in time and give myself a good talking too. And a slap. Dribbling and decline is where’s it’s at once you’ve reached half a century. I don’t so much feel my age*, but I fear it and the associated loss of muscle and cognitive abilities.

Still I did ride quite a lot this year. About the same as 2015. Feels like I had more fun, but that’s probably nothing more than making things up in the hope the real stuff might stay away a bit longer.

Riding / Running stats from 2016

These are my nine most ‘liked‘ posts on Instagram. All bike related of course, building, static and other people riding. That feels a better summary of the year than the cold statistics above.

alexleigh67

On that note, probably time to draw the veil over Strava. All it’s going to tell me is that I’m slowing down. What kind of idiot would pay £3.99 a month to repeatedly be beaten with an electronic stick? I have mates that do that for free.

2017 tho is already shaping up well. I’m mostly healthy, not particularly chubby (other than in the tyre department), a week long trip to Spain already booked for late April and back to the Rhone Alps in September. Between those two dates, I’ll be having my special birthday.

No idea what I’ll be getting. History suggests it might be something bike related. Talking of which, updated the ‘most read articles‘ and ‘current bike rental‘ pages.

That’ll do for 2016s rambling. Better to spend the rest of the holiday engaging with the family, especially as the kids are now at an age where my relevance is directly tied to them needing to be driven somewhere or if the Internet is broken.

So Happy New Year and all that. It’s a day early but I fully expect to be hungover and full of good, if very short-term, intentions tomorrow.

*other than making a noise every time I get up or down.

Headcase

The Gap/Talybont classic MTB loop

That’s what a helmet is. An independently tested bucket for the brain. The hegemony in the Holy Trinity liturgy of the experienced mountain biker; Helmet, Camelbak and Gloves. Anything else is essentially ballast- so can be borrowed, bought or ignored.

Which is why those of us with fading faculties have a system. Riding readiness is assured by a full equipment audit the evening before. Water and food are calibrated to projected ride length, clothes are selected based on an evaluation of a minimum of three weather forecasts, and key items of personal protection are placed in prominent view.

After a previous incident of inappropriate headwear, I now carefully place my helmet and gloves above the coffee machine. There are no realistic scenarios where I shall not pass the morning jump-starter at least twice before stumbling out of the door. Systems you see, riding out or jumping in the car first, have been honed to the point that my increasing forgetfulness is mitigated by un-breachable pre-ride protocols.

Until yesterday. Which was merely symptomatic of the true cause some 12 hours previously. ‘Big ride tomorrow, not going to drink much‘ I postulated to Carol on our way to good friends for a quick lunch stop.  A fine and worthy concept which – like many of my plans – failed to survive first contact with the enemy. Beer led to wine, wine morphed into gin and some seven hours later, I was dribbling on the sofa wondering how the fuck I’d lost control of most of my limbs.

The morning was difficult. One of those where everything is a mystery. Shaving with a toothbrush, taking a while to understand why your head is warm but your testicles lack coverage, struggling to understand which of the one button on the shower might release the torrent much required to cleanse the alcohol wash.

Attempting to shortcut the process of getting my shit together, I rifled through the clean laundry basket winning sufficient garments to clothe a man heading over the frozen border to Wales. Time saved was then lost as I couldn’t find my shoes. Twice. Having forgotten where I’d moved them too some 20 seconds previously. Then stuff fell off chairs, other stuff refused to fit in the bag, water leaked and Jelly Babies exploded from an unexpectedly open packet.

It was just 20 minutes of serial ‘Fuck it‘ finishing in stuffing everything that looked relevant in the big bag and chucking it in the car. Wandered once more into the Shed to scratch the nagging itch something was missing. My bike. Where the fuck is that? Oh yeah, left it at Matt’s last night.

All good then. Only five miles to drive before slumping into Adams’ van wondering if there was an option of curling up in the back and waiting for it all to be over. But no, the 27th of December IS the Gap ride. Classic Welsh riding, two big climbs, two great descents, lots of big views in between.

Weather is always a factor. I’ve been drilled with sleet, near-drowned in trail rivers, blinded by fog, endangered by thick ice and reduced to almost tears by relentless headwinds. Today tho the calmness of the weather was a perfect juxtaposition to my rising panic that something wasn’t quite right.

Other than me obviously. We were an hour out of Ross when the problem was finally retrieved from deep mental storage. Helmet exactly sixty minutes from my bag in the van.  Bugger. No bike shops between us and starting the ride. Too far out to turn back. And the idea of riding rocky stuff for four hours without any kind of head protection wasn’t appealing. Maybe I could just lie in the back of the van after all.

My revelation coincided with the last decent sized town on the drive out. A solitary outdoor shop appeared to be open. In which there was a single helmet which the proprietor thought was too small. She was right, but in terms of placebo it was a perfect fit. The best £16 helmet in all of South Wales. To be fair, it was the only helmet available in all of South Wales, which had the dual benefit of providing minimal head protection and ensuring all my friends had a bloody good laugh at my expense.

It meant I could ride tho. And it was a stunning day to be in the mountains. Even with a helmet whose efficacy I really didn’t want to test, and a hangover which had mostly faded after the first three hours. At the start I worried a little about testing £16 quids of lowest cost bidder against big pointy rocks, but by the time we descended from the top of the gap, I barely even remembered its inappropriateness.

The Gap/Talybont classic MTB loop

The Gap/Talybont classic MTB loop

I won’t be wearing it again tho. The charity shop shall benefit instead. I might well be an idiot, but I’m not a total head-case. And next year sobriety shall be my companion on this classic ride. Along with a helmet carefully accounted for.

Shh.. don’t tell anyone….

Mince Pie and Sloe Gin Xmas Ride

… it’s meteorologically winter. Or pre-spring as I’ve long christened it. Our battered planet might still be spinning towards the shortest day but back here in the cheap seats, it’s cold, dark and irrepressibly grim. Wake up: Dark. Venture outside: Bloody Freezing. Go home: Dark again.

All we’re missing is the spiteful rain machine gunned at windows through which you’re glumly considering your riding future. Shall I go out there for a three hour mud enema, or should I put the funds required to replace bearings, washing machines and the will to live towards a winter sun holiday?

That rain has mostly stayed away and the entropy of softening trails has been stayed by wintry winds and frozen temperatures. Wednesday was that classic bluebird day with a low sun backlighting Jack Frost cavorting through an azure horizon,  Come ride time, that sun is long gone and we’re left with the audible warnings of bike carrying cars, signposting temperatures some six degrees below the freezing point.

Hardest thing is getting out of that warm car. Second hardest thing are the mandelbrot trails increasingly iced by still falling temperatures. The Wednesday night cohort is reduced to only three with a shared mission to get this thing done before the warm pub closes its doors.

Frozen trails reduce friction so transferring pedal input to maximum velocity. Hmm, not tonight everything feels sticky and difficult.  The ground might not be sucking your energy but something is and breathy exhales are caught in the light beams. There’s a fantastic natural planetarium above us but we’re focussed on condensing moisture a metre from the bars.

Fingers not yet warm even encased in winter gloves, and the folically challenged amongst us are rocking the ice-cream headache without the pleasure of anything tastier than a tooth-cracking energy bar long divorced from its chewy origins.

We abandon cruel fireroads for the sanctuary of the forest. Even with the leaves mostly gone there’s a organic hug from the trees with temperatures a few degrees closer to manageable. Dry too, not frozen and the leaf carpet hiding root-y landmines and hidden traps where the trails fall away.  The mercury might be falling but the grip is summer high, so we’re pushing the bikes from entry to apex without the heart-spike of a wheel taking a trip not authorised by the man behind the bars.

We’re warming up but the freezing conditions affect the whole package of bike and rider. One of whom has a failing seatpost, my posh lights have amps making a break for warmer climbs, and there’s a chunk of viscosity wherever oil and suspension parts meet.

No matter, we’re into the good stuff now and it’s giggly to the power of bonkers. Forget the cold and remember that December rarely feels like this. A brief review of previous years suggests we’re deep into the first of four grim months where the going is sideways and the best you can do is survive long enough to wonder when the hell this used to be fun.

Descents in the Forest aren’t very long. The hills lack the elevation your tired legs insist otherwise. Yet they offer ninety seconds of adrenaline hard pumped through previously pinched arteries. Almost better at night with eyes wide open shutting down peripheral vision however good the LEDs strobing on the bars. Hard to get distracted when a searchlight cone shows you only what’s here right now and what’s next.

Rustling leaves, irritated owls, heavy breathing and far off cars are the soundtrack of our night. We climb one more time ensuing the easy option home because that’s for shitty days in January.  Still the leaves fall casting shadows in multiple light beams. You’re a mile from any kind of civilisation but it feels special to be out as the forest shuts down for winter. You always feel the seasons when you ride through every one of them.

We prime the darkness displacers one more time. Match the cadence to the gradient of the hill. Let night envelope your senses as your vision narrows to the point of light that triggers muscle movement. Feel the earth under those fast rotating wheels. Hit the last drop at the bravest point and make shapes with your hands when describing how great that felt.

Pub. Again. Always. Bikes not really muddy and neither are you. The former sits in a cold shed until its called upon again, you lie wide eyed in bed wondering when you can go again.

Just let it last a little longer. I’ll not tell anyone if you don’t.

 

Flick the switch

 

Yat - MTB Nov 2016
Two weeks ago. I miss those conditions already

Light/Dark. Hot/Cold. Dust/Mud. Chubby/Low-Fat. That last couplet is an outlier we’ll be back to, but first to misquote the Wizard of Oz, we’re not in summer anymore. Or even Autumn.

Two weeks ago our riding life looked like that photo. We were revelling in leaf-fall over dust. Summer from the axles down. Sure the season ratchet had cranked- turning trees amber and dropping temperatures*, but the weather never got the memo, so a month of minimal rain led to maximum grinnage.

You know it cannot last so every dry singletrack climb, every firm berm, every perfect take off, every non sketchy landing, every rock-hard apex, every calculated risk, every clean bike is cherished for the unexpected gift it absolutely is.

So we go long. Bitch reversed, G2-into-G, Bridget’s, The Legend of Jones,  Threes-up finishing on the feared/revered Bunker. Which in the wet is essentially assisted suicide, but that day was conquered at good speed, without the standard terror associated with barrelling into damp rock gardens at inappropriate velocity generated by the steepness of the hill.

The names mean nothing outside of the group of four selecting them of course, but the memories mean everything. It’s a 65km day and we’re heading home in the twilight feeling sated and smug, but there’s something of a flat track bully here. Brilliant yes, one 30 second period joyful pulling and pushing the bike between wheel eating stumps kicking up leaves barely settled from the previous rider will lie long in that memory.

But you know what’s coming. And now it has arrived. The local Wednesday night ride is pretty much ‘three gap Wednesday’. These trail features hide something a little less physical- the bridge between a shit week and the weekend. While my riding pals are all lovely and everything, without the ego-less piss taking of our midweek right, I’d be in the jury box providing good character references mitigating ‘falling down‘ incidents wth difficult work colleagues.

Sunday last a trail we’d battered some two weeks before it succumbed to rain storms driven on westerly winds. Mostly sideways and fun in a way it really won’t be come February. Right now tho, there’s the flip between being just brave and being a reasonable bike handler. When it all goes tractionless, the tractionless get hippy. Flick the bugger back into line, get the front pointing in the right direction, death-grip the bars and ride the slide.

FoD MTB - Nov 2016
I might have to clean that

So we knew what was coming. More rain suggested this would be the first night ride where the pub handed out seat-saving newspapers for muddy arses. I was still keen tho mainly as my approach to the changing of the seasons is to throw money at the problem. Not in a ‘Hey let’s all move to Spain until Spring‘**  kind of way, more taking advantage of the Cotic’s chameleon like ability to run both chubby and 29er wheels depending on prevailing conditions.

Looking out of the window, those prevailing conditions were ‘a bit shit’ so I procured a set of big, skinny rims for almost no money at all. A transaction which lost its fiscal allure once I’d splashed significant cash on brand new rubber to dress them.

Flare Max with 29er tyres for the winter
Big wheels fitted

First impressions weren’t fantastic. Climbing somehow felt more difficult – an issue instantly backgrounded once this new rubber exhibited it’s bark magnetic properties on the first descent. Not so much a passenger as man playing human pinball with almost every tree in the forest.

Arrived shaken and stirred at the fireroad. Let some air out for the look of the thing. Things improved a bit mostly because I’d lifted my head from a narrative stuck in a loop of ‘where’s the rest of the tyre, it’s like being a bloody roadie out here’.

Climb back up. Grit teeth. Clear first gap jump and am so relieved almost run over fallen rider in front of me. Retrieve Alex from his supine position and head down the trail only to find Adam lying upside down in the shrubbery. Feel mildly guilty that maybe my wheel changing has butterfly-fluttered the trail gods.

10 minutes later, I’m over it as Alex again throws his bike roughly to the ground narrowly avoiding a ‘saddle-erectomy‘ in the ensuing sky-ground-sky consequence of a head-first attack on an innocent tree.

Blimey, what next? Another man down with a back injury and the black-hole effect of the pub almost pulls us in, but with resolute upper lips we head on to a couple more descents, the last of which has the third gap jump on a barely consolidated new trail.

Not done it before. It’s only going to get more greasy tho. Do I want to wait until March? Tempting. But followed Rex, stuck a couple of pedal strokes in, saw his light describing a perfect parabola just before I closed my eyes. Missed the downslope but saved by great forks, and the darkness shrouding the fear of cocking it up.

Right then, Pub. World put to rights. Forecasts checked for weekend.  Wind, rain cold which translates to slop, effort and new washing machines. It’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better, but we’ve got mudguards, waterproof shorts and an insatiable need to ride bicycles. Best get on with it.

Switch, flicked.

*so triggering the re-emergene of the drinking hat which provides the folically challenged respite when drinking outside a favourite pub under chilly skies. Pretty much the first thing packed in the bag between November and March.

** tempting as it is, apparently the kids have some quite important exams coming up and it’d be a bit of a bugger of commute to Cheltenham.  I’m not yet totally swayed by these arguments.

Friends like these

Bank Holiday Weekend riding

[ I wrote this a while ago and never published it. Here we are 18 months later and nothing has changed. I am blessed to spend my time with people who I count as something more than brothers.  That means sometimes you have to be something other being a bloke, a self sufficient adult entirely distanced from baring your soul. That’s horseshit. Here’s why]

Those of us lucky enough to have a roof over our heads, a few quid in the bank and no prospect of any debilitating hardship still obsess over ‘whether this is enough?‘, so conveniently forgetting there is a far larger cohort with a much more basic concern around ‘is this enough to buy food for the week?’

There’s something here about how we make judgement calls; maybe these are merely the points of difference between cost and value.  Even so when difficulty strikes, there’s always the instinctive response that somehow this shouldn’t be happening to you. Which is nonsense if you’ve any sense of a non deterministic world. There’s no statute of limitations on stuff outside of your control.  Roll your sleeves up and get on with it. Many people aren’t fortunate enough to have that choice.

When the going gets tough, the conflicted go riding. Two days, eighty kilometres, two thousand metres of climbing, one crash, many beers. That’s the simple beauty to riding mountain bikes. It’s nuance free and transparent of purpose; you’re not setting out a position to carry disparate agendas through a heavily moderated conclusion. You’re not telling lies to assuage the doubts of the timid. You’re not making promises to garner support from the vain and deluded*

Our digital world often interfaces poorly with analogue individuals wondering where the hell the genial shopkeeper went. The binary nature of our everyday transactions is strangely more at home to those of us who cherish dirt over digitisation. Left or right, brake or roll, push or pull, sprint or chill, race or quit. We lose ourselves in a realm where such decisions have real consequences – solving three dimensional problems in real time which has no truck with what Bob from Marketing might be interested in.

This is a righteous thing. For all sorts of reasons. But many of our tribe get it badly wrong. They confuse spending Sundays checking out of reality with making difficult choices, believing selfishness is quite the same thing as finding space to locate the stuff of life.

They are mistaken. Bikes were flat and immobile when I sat in a field  surrounded by friends with whom I’ve shared many adventures. And unburdening myself wasn’t even peripherally related to gaining perspective through big skies, or epiphanies triggered by surviving scary jumps or shuttling round perfect apexes.

That’s all good of course. But I could ride a thousand kilometres and still be a million miles away from what’s important. Which is nothing more than dropping your guard and talking to your mates. Getting stuff out there. Answering questions. Waiting for judgement or taking the piss and, of course, receiving neither.**

Then your ride some more. In my case with a rare level of recklessness which saw me tackling all sorts of scary stuff, before falling close to the last hurdle.  When that’s done, there’s the pub. And the next pub. And the one after that burnished under a summer sky. Wobbling home via a set of steps firing up the adrenalin compressors.

Here’s the thing. I am lucky enough to have many friends; those I work with, those I’ve met through a life spent often in drinking establishments, a few more from those fading days of school and uni. But the people that get me through a tough week are those I ride with every Sunday.

We shall crack on. Maybe knowing a bit more about what friendship means. It’s not quantifiable, but this doesn’t devalue it in the slightest way.  Sharing stuff – good and bad – with friends is what life must really be about. Poverty of friendship must be a terrible thing.

* I’m good at this by the way. Not through any natural talent. I’ve just been doing it for a long time. It does make you despair at the base state of human nature.

** Well not for a bit anyway. About 10 minutes if memory serves 😉