Riding the reality gap

Man with half a head clears small gap on bike designed to do so much more

I don’t know whose bike they serviced Al, but it certainly wasn’t yours‘  grunted a multi-tooled Matt as he attempted to wrest his brand of mechanical perfection on a bike leaking vital bodily fluids onto his dining room floor.

Things had not been going well.  Even before the front brake vomited the compulsory hydraulic medium linking lever to rotor, doubts had serviced over the efficacy of the bike shop from which it had arrived. Two days late scooted on a cloud of – if we’re being charitable – implausible excuses ranging from the aforementioned ‘full service’ to the APC courier being the victim of an alien abduction.

The mech hanger was cantered at an angle best likened to a drunk hanging onto a lamppost for support. Many of the bolts appeared to have been tightened with a straw, including those connecting the front and back of the frame together.  They hadn’t even bothered to throw a bucket of water over it.

No matter after harvesting the Bird for a basketful of parts I’d not unrealistically expected to be operational on a bike ‘having had only 5 test rides‘, we had liftoff.  Into the back of the van at least, and it was barely 8 hours later that I was in there with it as we headed off into the wilds of South Wales; destination Brechfa Forest.

Good trail centre this. Black and Red aggregate to 38kms of tough climbs, natural descents, then lots of berms, few rock steps, fast singletrack and – being Wales – endless wet from above and below. That’s about the soggiest ride I’ve done this year but the sun was shining behind my new bike glasses.

The Mojo is proper carbon light, it has a spectacularly clever suspension linkage which propels it uphill even with Mr Potato head here mashing the pedals, but point it downhill and it’s strangely neutral. This is not a bad thing but it’s different. It’s very flattering if you’re a little tentative and bonkers rip-your-face off if you’re not. Reminds me more of the Stache than the FlareMax.

Bikes have a personality. No they do. This in no ways mandates even the thinnest sliver of an excuse to name them.*  There’s a whole other post there you’ll be glad I’ve yet to write. Suffice it to say by the end of the a five hour river ride I’d concluded I needed to up my game a bit, and those 2.8 thinly treaded tyres were going to give me some trouble.

Trouble I chose to ignore after shuttling to the Wednesday night ride start where powerful lights reflected brightly from water cascading of the local fields. It can’t be that bad I thought. No, it was quite a bit worse. First climb, tyres filled with Ross-Clagg, jammed that toxic mix of clay and grit into the chainstays and rocked momentum to a hard stop. Yep all the clearance back there to work superbly in a US State where it hasn’t rained for 4 years. Herefordshire in winter is not twinned with California.

First descent was like the first climb. Only with more crashing. Had a bit of a sulk then and thought about going home but decided I couldn’t get any muddier and I wanted a beer with my mates. Slogged round. Fell off some more. Drank beer. Made plans.

New tyres, still pretty fat but this time slotting into their apertures with finger-wiggle room to spare. Okay I’ve done nothing but add cost and weight since I bought the bloody thing, but now all shall be well. Off to the Malverns to try it out there.

It was at this point where the pre-ownership rigorous maintenance schedule really began to shine. The non drive side crank was barely prevented from exiting the axle entirely by a plastic sacrificial component which, while cheap, could only be sourced by sending smoke signals to the moon.

I only found this out after spending two rides in the village of ‘Much Creaking’ – a place where my fellow villagers were calling smiting and bloody murder upon my innocent person, due to the endless cracking and grinding emanating from the transmission. Thankfully Matt fixed it with a big hammer, some lock-tight and stern words in the shadow of his angle grinder.

Since then it’s been bloody great. Bike Park Wales was a revelation trying to keep my younger and much more skilled riding buddies in sight. Had lots of those little PR things light up in the Devil that is Strava. Okay only about about 2 seconds a run, but I’m shallow enough to take that.

A mucky forest ride followed by two gloriously dry ones has done nothing to convince me this is nothing short of a super-bike even if I am a long way from a super-rider. And that’s before putting some proper chubbies back on. Which will make it even better. Because that’s what the marketing men say and they’re at least as truthful as the orange nut job running the free world right now.

The crappy bike shop behaviour still pisses me off. But in three months it won’t because the only memory will be that I paid half the sticker price. Which was still quite a lot. But hey, at least one person thinks I’m worth it.

*nominative determinism might come into play here. Although I’d probably steer clear of the Cove G-Spot if such things were taken seriously.

24 Hour Racing? Again? Hang on, I’m retired…

CLIC24 - 2009 (25 of 26)

There is little more wretched than a famous sportsperson reversing their retirement. Except maybe their rationale for doing so: ‘I miss the arena’ / ‘It feels like unfinished business’ / ‘I’ve kept myself in great shape’ all of which are likely proxies for ‘Bored’ / ‘Unfulfilled’ / ‘Really need the cash

The results are rarely pretty. Age is not a metaphor. You can fight almost anything but entropy.  And if advancing years bring any wisdom at all, surely all can see that selling a grill with your name on it beats being smashed in the face by a younger man with no respect for your former glories.

Assuming you had any former glories. What even a charitable individual, with only the loosest sense of semantic rigour, may call my ‘bike racing career‘ would be quick to point out there was neither much ‘racing‘ or ‘career‘ involved. Or sometimes even a bike that might be present but pointlessly static whilst the pilot downed another beer.

And yet here we find ourselves in a year where I shall make an unremarkable 50-not-out triggering a return the the scenes of previous undistinguished performances. Not Mountain Mayhem though where no amount of expensive therapy could overcome the screaming nightmare of spending 24 hours mostly face down in a muddy swamp.

Nor some short course nonsense where serious lycra clad individuals showcase their ‘ribcage by toast rack’ under tight fitting sponsors jerseys.  No it’s taken the emotional heartstrings of the previously termed CLIC-24 to drag me from my uncompetitive torpor.

We’ve had four goes at this. None which passed without incident. I’ve written extensively on exactly how packed with blood, tears, misery, snow, rain and hypothermia than only a 24 hour race in May can bring. Browsing these narratives from a period between 2009-2012 reminded me of exactly why the cessation of the event brought more joy than sorrow.

I crashed on my first ever lap. That was the sunny year where stiffening muscles were refreshed by endless sunshine. The following three flip-flopped between gales, storms, hail, rain and frozen tractor tracks. My favourite quote from the ‘bastard of 2011‘ was Nige’s ‘I rode so slowly through that icy water splash, I wasn’t sure if I was going to drown or freeze

I’d almost forgotten about that. Which considering 2012 was the last year I participated in anything vaguely organised is hardly surprising. Nowadays I can barely remember what I had for breakfast.  But dusty brain cells were sparked by a random face-cloth feed announcing with great fanfare the new and improved https://mendip24.wordpress.com was back for 2017.

Different organiser.  Same great charity: https://www.teenagecancertrust.org – having two kids in that age group and reading the inspirational / heartbreaking stories on the website, it didn’t take more than a minute to fire up an email to my previous team mates in an effort to get the band back together.

Surprisingly their responses were unrelentingly positive. I say surprisingly as while my selfish riding creed has spanned the intervening years, theirs have diverged somewhat. Nig rode with me the other day for a couple of hours and admitted this was the longest ride he’d managed in about 24 months. Small children will do that to a man. Jason would consider that a proper training schedule as he hasn’t ridden AT ALL for at least three years. I know this to be true as his bike is sat in the ShedOfDreams having being deposited there after an Alps trip where Jas broke both a toe and a rib.

Dave’s been riding his road bike a bit. But in a different country. I assumed he was still there but was disabused by a reply explaining he’d snook back into ol’ blighty under the cover of darkness. They checked their diaries and found no excuses so we dusted off the ‘Hardcore Loafing‘ moniker and pledged to meet in a muddy field in a few months time.

This does not guarantee anything. One year Dave broke his bike spectacularly on the way to the start line in a transparent ruse not to ride the first lap. Jason failed to turn up at all at the following event. Nig has been a mainstay of the team although has been prone to brain-farts including riding three consecutive night laps, the last of which pretty much ended up in a ditch.

And me? Well I’ve been consistently and universally rubbish.  It’s not a lack of fitness, it’s more a lack of moral fibre. When the going get tough, the tough go and hide in the beer tent. Regardless of the aforementioned wisdom of age absolutely nothing has changed.

So May 13, 2017. Looking forward it it. Sat here with a glass at my right hand. Actual proximity of hard work, shit weather and potential tentage may colour that view somewhat. Still at least I have at least two bikes that will be absolutely ideal for the event. No need to spend any money there.

Which is good. As I’m seriously considering hiring a motorhome 😉

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.

It’s that time of year again….

FOD MTB - December 2016

I’m not referring to the exploitive pagan festival first repackaged for Christianity and latterly for mass consumerism and financial misery*. No this this is something far more important:  The Grim Has Returned both outside and in. The trails have gone from unseasonably dry passing through amusingly damp before arriving at their current status of tractionless filth.  My own gritty trek through this pantheon of grisly misery has led me to question if I’ve ever ridden in proper mud before. A brief but depressing journey from – in my mind anyway – a fast’n’loose hip-sliding champion to a stiff’n’rigid tyre-slding loser wondering who drowned all the fun.

This happens every year. And there are always excuses. 2016 has both a short and long version; short: I’ve not been very well. long: I’ve succumbed to the worst kind of modern plague- visiting upon me many and varied symptoms, the worst being a digestive system suffering a 4 day colonic irrigation through the extensive use of a porcupine.  A diet of dry toast and misery has done nothing to stop the bastard virus in my guts recycle any food whatsoever into foul liquid. With spikes. Too much information? Ha. I’ve spared you the gory details. But before I draw a veil over any further revelations, let me be absolutely clear it’ll  be a while before I can cough with any kind of confidence.

This personal Krakatoa coincided with the delayed seasonal rains and the Forest Christmas ride. It was pretty much touch and go if I was going to make it. Having been ‘going’ quite extensively in the few hours before the night-time rendezvous.  Still stiff upper lit and all that even if things were a bit loose elsewhere. Fastened my shorts for the last time, gave the gurgling small intestine a good talking too and plunged into the darkness. Where I met my riding pals, all of whom showed great concern and sympathy for my evidently serious medical condition. Yeah, like fuck.  Essentially accused of extreme malingering and being a social media special snowflake-  their cackles accompanied us up through the gun range as my legs came to terms with being fuelled by a couple of biscuits and flickery motivation.

Irrespective of being within sight of the morticians slab, these are not my favourite conditions. Dark, Wet and Muddy. Hey let me throw in a cultural reference – this is the Holy Trinity of the unmotivated. We disciples of the grim differ in our steadfastness of faith in these trying times. Only one has Judas-like tendencies hiding dark thoughts  of naffing off before the Last Descent. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t want my riding pals crucified, I just wish the buggers would consider a little charity for the faltering one needing to feel the warm embrace of the pub.

In lighter times, these trails offer me the chance to hang on to the wheels of my betters. Not now tho, three corners and it’s all of them gone and one of me hanging off the back, harvesting limited traction through extensive use of the brakes, and idly wondering whether I’ll end up in a heap under the bike or more excitingly bonded to a tree like a flailing low level branch. The conditions actually aren’t that bad except in the most important place which isn’t the ground out in front of you, it’s more the squishy thing inside your head.  Yep we’re back to thinking not doing, worrying not pushing, braking not flowing.  Still even in limp-home mode, it’s  good to be out even if my pace uphill and downhill is pretty much the Wikipedia citation for ‘Entropy

Eventually under my sustained pleading, we head to the pub via a final slimy trail I descend in the manner of an oversize fridge glued to a roller skate. Nobody really notices other than me, and I don’t care much either as my mind has moved on to the main event. Where we offer cash for beer and throw in a dirty protest  for free. Pints are assembled, bollocks is talked, an entire new measurement of time – The Yodel – is created. There is much pointing and laughing. Tales are told, plans are made, friendship is assured for another year. Handshakes are offered – we don’t hug, we’re not American – before we slip away to our other families, our non riding commitments, what other people consider real life.

A couple of weeks ago, I did something similar with the guys I ride with in the Malverns. No pub but we stopped for Sloe Gin and Mince pies half way round. And parted in the same way. We’ll ride together soon, cursing the long shadow of winter, working hard on sloppy climbs and holding it together on sketchy descents. Getting the shitty season done and counting the days until Spring.

This is my tribe. And this is our church. You can make a dumb comparison to religion, extend it through contrasting iconography and forge spurious links between the two. Many clever people have, but for me that’s missing the point. Humanity basically operates on our subscription to a shared myth. You can choose a belief system which tells stories of omnipresent beings, or consider instead something a little more physical, a whole lot more fun and with many more pub-based interactions.

Choose either. Or both. It doesn’t matter. There’s too much horrible stuff going on right now over which we have scarily little control.  It’s hard to know what’s coming for us first; global financial meltdown, environmental catastrophe or some kind of ‘war to end them all‘ started on Twitter by a man-boy who is neither presidential nor can even spell it. On that happy note, I wish all my readers a Happy Christmas and a prosperous new year 😉

I’ll be riding my bike with my friends. When you consider the option is not to do that, getting a bit muddy and being a bit rubbish doesn’t really seem to matter at all.

*I’ve consistently held this position.  And now being nearly 50, it’s unlikely the joys of Christmas shall ever be visited on me. But hey if you need an excuse to photocopy** your arse whilst wearing a stupid jumper, fill your boots as it were.

**Told you I was old. All you youngsters are surely 3-D printing your unmentionables nowadays.

What’s your best day on a bike ?

San Francisco - Day 2

(wrote this while we were in San Francisco. Seems a long time ago now!)

There are so many.  Epic days lost in the mist shrouding high places, dust blind  on summer alpine singletrack,  numb fingered on frosty night rides with owls silhouetted under a harvest moon, or summer days heart bursting between the trees and always a beer to finish.

These are good of course, great even. Retrieved from deep storage when spiteful rain smashes office window panes. Shared experiences with those who are a bit like you, who ‘get it’, who know the rolled eyes of partners who don’t. There’s much to celebrate here- like minded friends and awesome trails. It should be enough but strangely it isn’t.

The skeleton in the closet is made flesh each time you leave the house and abandon those in your care. They say it’s fine and mostly it is, but this doesn’t absolve you of the guilt that you could have done more. It fails to assuage the regret of being a bit of a rubbish Dad. It exposes the vicarious failing of making those in your image.

I taught my wife to ride. It went well right up to the point where she ended up in hospital. Undaunted my kids received similar training progressing from stabilisers to full on bling mountain bikes in all the time you could ask ‘are you enjoying this?‘, One of them did before encountering teenage-ism, the other less so trying hard but mostly spending his time lying in bushes wondering if we could go home now.

So I gave up. Three bikes gathered dust on the wall whilst mine were campaigned through many seasons, ever changing but anchored by the constant that it was all about me. Today we changed that a little bit and now I finally get it’s not about the bike.

San Francisco is a very bike-y city. Can’t move for the bloody things weaving between the ear-phoned runners and deluded segway riders.  Many of the 17 million visitors a year wobble dangerously on brilliant shared cycle paths heading mostly to the iconic bridge and occasionally into the local scrub.

Two of my family don’t ride at all. A problem solved finding one of the bike-hiring multitude offered tandems of dubious provenance.  We hired a pair, one with rusted forks offering around two kilos of weight in exchange for an inch of travel, the other shod with tyres exactly one generation downstream from the discovery of vulcanisation.

Initial Leigh to Bicycle interfaces didn’t go so well. Brakes the wrong way round would have been a problem had they offered anything but bar mounted accessorisaion. About the front brake? Yes? I would have liked one. Those bars spanned a width last seen on 1980s race bikes from which the vertical head angle had been stolen.  It should not be possible that any bike with a length occupying two States simultaneously to be eyebrow-steeringly twitchy. And yet through the magic of geometry I found myself wobbling in the direction of the Pacific while sawing desperately at the hip width bars.

And I ride bikes a lot, My youngest daughter has barely swung a leg over a top tube for a year and while game, was in danger of chucking herself and her brother into a passing taxi.

Family meeting. Kids split between bikes. I get the nervous eldest as my stoker and Carol’s bravely assumed the rear position on the drunken perambulator piloted by Jess. It’s hard to think of what possibly could go wrong.

Nothing did. We rode brilliant bike paths, were overtaken by keen joggers, stopped a hundred times to capture jaw dropping vistas, pushed a bit, pedalled a bit more all the time making inexorable progress towards the bridge. Progress briefly halted when the family idiot abandoned his helmet at the bottom of one of the few chewy climbs on the route.

Dispatch the stoker and head back down. I’ve ridden many rubbish mountain bikes on sketchy descents and been properly scared. Yet nothing prepared me for the terror of 45lbs of acute-angled pig iron barely adhered to the tarmac on perished tyres. I cannot believe you’d ride one of these off road. And survive anyway.

The bridge was amazing – windy, crowded and noisy but amazing nevertheless. I was heart-burstingly proud of our little family getting it done, ignoring the carbon transported, Rapha clothed, shaven legged weekend heroes passing with an inch to spare*, instead being open mouthed at the view and the very fact we were riding this iconic infrastructure mostly only seen being destroyed in movies.

The descent under the bridge wasn’t without incident. I’ve got the boy leaning in and we’re topping 40kph on tyres held together by a few threads and habit while, not far behind us, Jess and Carol are close to bouncing off walls due to what I’ll charitably call Jess’s lack of spacial awareness.

We survive and it’s 3km up one big hill and then cruising down the far side to the ferry. Time for an ice cream and some high fives. There’s talk of tender arses and weary legs but that’s the first sniff of complaint I’ve heard all day.

This ride had no technical difficulty. We averaged a speed that wouldn’t trouble a weekend jogger. The bikes were terrible. But they were also awesome being the medium in which we all had a bloody lovely time, Last time I crossed the Golden Gate bridge was on a Harley some 15 years ago with a bunch of like-minded mates.

That was great. This was better. It’s really not about the bike.

*on my way back up the hill after forgetting my helmet, I overtook two roadies and kept them behind all the way, Awarding me a strava position of 7,205 of 22,000 on that climb. Says way more about them that me 🙂

A man walks into a shop..

Amber - 8 weeks

.. sounds like a setup for a joke. Very much like the one we’ve all heard before. First time was eight years ago ending in this punchline where the search for furniture finished in finding a dog we weren’t looking for. What are the chances of that ever happening again?

Based on the available evidence in the photograph, pretty damn high. However on diving deeper into the available data, of which the headline is Carol’s firmly held maxim of ‘one dog, one wife’, ‘two dogs, no wife‘, the result was uncertain at best. This iron principle resisted the slightest bending even when tested in the white heat of numerous friends offering puppies with a cute score of 100. On a scale of 1-10.

Murf’s not getting any younger. Like his best mate, he’s going grey around the edges, a little wider in the middle and a fair bit slower in the twisties* Other than the prospect of any type of food, he only becomes noticeably animated when another dog turns up to play.

So my angle was to position him as an ageing playboy who yearns for a younger partner to spice up his life. The other – unspoken – reason is in a few years there will be a dog shaped hole in our lives that I’m absolutely unwilling to fall into.

For all of this, Carol has been understandably steadfast as it is she who holds responsibility for adult behaviour in this family. Which includes considering how  to fit a second dog into a busy schedule of school, clubs, trips and holidays. And a husband who will regularly waves an airy goodbye before buggering off to ride bikes in foreign climbs for weeks on end.

The odds, then, not entirely in my favour. Serendipity is quite the wonderful thing tho, fate rolls a dice and sometimes – just at the edge of probability – you’re looking at a double six. Or the lovely person who sells me life-giving java beans innocently offering a phone full of images cataloguing the early lives of her labrador pups.

Accidents abound. Her two dogs were separated by a stair gate but the primeval urge to couple proved this was no barrier, leaving the bitch to deliver three healthy puppies a couple of months later. All were spoken for, but we pleaded if any became available then a perfect family would be on the point of ecstatic explosion if one could come home.

Possibly overdid a bit there. Next day tho, Carol returns with no.1 child to show this absolutely is a family affair, but with holidays looming we’re second in the queue.  I’m in full expectation setting mode, but secretly hoping for fate to roll me a second double.

Dropping aerial anchor in San Francisco**, my phone beeped with a hazy picture and a clear message the pup was going to be ours. Much rejoicing in the little family unit until jet lag kicked in, but regular PUPdates(c) tied the thread across two continents. The pup was both lovely and clearly and a bit of a hooligan. Many pictures of her eating things, anything really, attacking her sisters, her owners and – for reasons not entirely clear – the dishwasher.

It’ll be fine I thought. She’s a lab. Placid. Check out Murf. Exhibit A over there, couldn’t be any more laid back even if we spiked his food with skunk-weed. Arriving home, the kids and Carol had their first experience of Amber – both her innate cuteness and needle sharp teeth. I was out riding of course. I mean pups are important but I hadn’t been on a proper bike for three weeks!

Thursday last we fetched her from the vets. And the owners who were a little teary to let her go. Got me as well. Lumpy throats and promises to bring her back soon eventually separated her from the mother ship. Back home to our pup proofed house and – basically – BEDLAM.

Murf went predictably mental when a self-throwing stick cowered under the chair. Since then he’s had an expression of extreme tolerance that pretty much translates to ‘she’s not going home is she?‘ The pup steals everything. Shoes, food, paper, boxes, wellington boots, electrical leads and, in an audacious heist, nearly a full bottle from the wine Dalek.

And all of Murf’s toys. Or her toys as they have been re-appropraited. It’s funny watching the short legged pup playing wall of death as Murf attempts to swing her off the end of his favourite stick. She’s fearless tho, and he’s so bloody good natured that there’s only ever one winner. Twice he’s swatted her with a big paw but even when she’s chewing his tail or sitting on his head***, he just turns those big brown eyes to me that say ‘Senior Man here. Bit of respect wouldn’t go amiss‘.

Probably not going to happen. At nearly 10 weeks she’s growing fast enough to notice it on a daily basis. She’s peeing on the floor a little less and starting to understand total anarchy isn’t the prevailing world view. Still a pup tho and a very different personality to Murf.

I hope she makes him happy. I think she will. She’ll certainly make us happy. It’s like having two kids, you never halve the love for one of them, merely double it. I know not everyone gets pets, but I wouldn’t be without them. Even when the latest addition just chewed my iPhone 😉

*to be fair neither Murf or I were very fast in the first place, so any decline is barely noticeable.

** at the end of which the co-pilot was going to have to do some fast talking to explain that landing. Both of them.

*** these are her two favourite activities.

To insanity and beyond

Enlongened Chubby!

That’s paraphrasing Buzz Lightyear;  now that was a toy who constantly over-stated his own importance. So deluded believing he could fly. Yeah, we’ve all been there Buzz. There’s an ironic tautology in his original mission statement with infinity being unreachable so making beyond achievable. This is how I think of my quest to divine the perfect bicycle.

In a world of chaos, standards should bring order. Which would be fine were there not so many competing ones to choose from. Not satisfied with creating three wheel sizes all within a finger length of each other, those cheeky innovators – who cunningly fuse product and marketing in onomatopoeic triumph – make serious claims that the one true way lies* in increasing both length and girth**

Enter boost, the proto-standard for wider hubs, stiffer wheels and fatter tyres. Not fat bike width because that’s both silly and already selling to a willing audience. Mostly vigorously bearded within an ever decreasing circle of like-minded fundamentalists . So ‘Plus’ are differently great squashing into a niche between too fat and not quite fat enough. I should know I bought one but really wanted two. For even within this brave new world, no one is quite sure yet who might be king – is it 29+ built into special frames with bold new graphics?  Or it’s littler brother, 27.5+ surfing on the zeitgeist of last years brand new thing which is cram-able into existing frames with just a fork upgrade.

I ignored such obvious increments feeling because my big Chubby was already so good. The only thing I didn’t  much like  was the fork, festooned with more knobs than a BMW event and equally slippery in the corners. So in a budget conscious upgrade I researched and purchased a replacement with a little more travel ignoring my peers who live by the rule that moooarr is always better.  An extra inch would be fine*, perfect in fact. Except the product researched was not the same as the one purchased – a technical oversight only appreciated once we’d cut the steerer and attempted to refit the 29+ wheel. In that order. Fork would only fit 27.5+. Bugger.

The sensible option – having drowned the mirth of my mates in beer – would have been to sell at a small loss and start again, or stick ‘em on the shelf as realistically they’d be handily located close to the conveyer belt of my bike ownership.  What I did instead tells you a lot about my insanity trajectory.  Fuelled initially by a slightly less piss-taking pal who offered me his 650b+ wheels to try in the frame. Great I said, except the front one won’t fit as it’s last weeks standard. No problem I’ll just build a new one as – again – proximity to the shed suggests it’d end up being useful for something. In this case as the front half of my shortened dandy-horse with bits flipped and wheelbase shortened. Most bike makers have no idea which standard might finally stick so are designing frames to take basically anything in a throwing shit at a wall kind of way.

Even this simple change wasn’t simple at all with 10-to-11 speed conversions being wrangled around SRAM and Shimano refusing to accept the existence of each other. Eventually we hit the trails at which point my first thought was ‘I wish I’d bought the longer fork now the wheels are smaller’. Said nothing tho as not wishing to be an accessory to manslaughter when anyone within hearing distance died from laughter. A few more rides convinced me this could very much be the boost I was looking for. Upsides included far snappier turn in – tales of ringing bells and shouting full right rudder from riders on 29+ are over-stated – but there’s a difference in the tight stuff where this felt closer to an extremely well damped hardtail and less like a full on fat bike.

Acceleration was a little quicker, tyre choice is better especially if you have access to Haydn’s rubber emporium where he seems to have bought every plus tyre known to man and possibly a few illegal remoulds. Downsides were there’s a bit of cush – especially on the rear – you lose and a little of the monster truck roll over is compromised, but mainly that my tyre-hoarding friend not unreasonably wanted his wheel back.

Again if Mr Sensible were in the driving seat, we’d be back on the road to financial probity and refitting the parts owned and paid for. Never going to happen because Impetuous the drunk took the wheel, crashed into the bike shop and pointed at shiny new round things demanding the owner ‘take my money’, Which he did delivering back a perfect wheel naked as the day it was made. A second trip to Haydn’s warehouse of all things rubbery and we were ready to go, travel great distances and conquer huge obstacles powered by rightness and the satisfaction of having followed our dreams – a place where logic, rationale and imminent bankruptcy rarely get a look in.

Except we weren’t. Because the disks from the old wheels were one standard and the new ones something else entirely, And the chain too worn to run on a new cassette which also necessitated further transmission purchases to guarantee smooth running. Smooth that is, if a little harsh – you see I couldn’t shake the feeling that a 140mm fork would be so much better than the clearly inferior 120mm admirably holding up the front end.

Parts were ordered, parts failed to turn up, suppliers were shouted at, parts still failed to turn up, the world turned and I kept riding the chubby in drying conditions. And it was close to brilliant on the local trails, bang it into a corner, MBR high elbow optional – but you know for the look of the thing –  eyes on the apex, fingers off the brakes and experience the magic of 3 inch tyres biting into tortured dirt. If you push just a little bit harder, it’ll fling you out the other side with little pilot input other than a big grin. Sure all bikes do this, but chubby’s do it a bit better if – like me – you’re not really very good at the whole entry-apex-exit thing.  So yeah, fab but that fork….

Finally the part, which I’d now recategorised as a mythical beast that was much heard about but never seen, arrived and a single day later we were riding atop a longer fork and IT WAS FINISHED. Irritatingly finished 24 hours before a family holiday entirely incompatible with tree splattering injuries. Best take it easy then especially as the suspension-man gave me strict instruction to run the fork a little harder than my normal ‘yeah that’s abut right’ level of sag.  Mincing about it still seemed to be going quite fast, with the now perfect fork using nowhere near full travel even when challenged with some of my rubbish landings.

If anything tho, it whipped round the corners with even more precision. Not a word to be used lightly when I’m behind the bars. It gave me a bit more confidence which was rewarded with a bit more speed which then led to less braking and even more speed. Speed being a relative term but the devil that is Strava said nice things once we’d dusted ourselves off in the pub.

So have the four figure upgrades delivered value then? I guess that depends on your definition of value. Qualitatively, absolutely not – the cost of the minor increase in performance cannot be justified even within the skewed universe I inhabit. Qualitatively tho – that’s harder, it’s been a fun experience and I absolutely love the chubby. The Aeris is a better all round bike of course, but I think the plus bike is just a bit more fun. As if it makes cornering – which makes up a fairly substantial part of of the riding metier – a little closer to perfection,  you cannot put a price on that.

Two things to finish on – firstly after that first ride a good 20mm of suspension travel remained unused. Yep exactly the place I came in thinking that was all the bike lacked. Secondly my favourite bike manufacturer has unveiled some thigh-rubbing chubby full suss bikes two of which I’ll be demo-ing next month. I can’t see that ending well.

C’mon Buzz we’ve infinity to discover.

*either semantic definition works here.

**and there’s not many who would argue with that. Not those with x and y chromosomes anyway.

*** I’m not doing this on purpose. I’ve already taken out two references to ‘flange’

Sensible is for other people

Antur Stiniog MTB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stupid, Inappropriate and Fat.

Malverns Skive Ride :)

Mythology is a school of pseudo-science rarely attended by the Hedgehog. For good reason; most of it is the laughable premise of astrology mashed up with conspiracy theorists last seen flatulently dancing naked in crop circles.

Occasionally though there’s a nugget resonating far below the astral plane populated by those not convinced alien abduction features large in their life plans*. Here’s one ‘People begin to resemble their pets

Or bikes possibly. Although in my case this suggests a schizophrenia diagnosis where four rides pushed open the door of the ShedOfDreams(tm)to bring forth many different bicycles.

Sunday was a classic winter slog. I dragged the Aeris from the shed on the grounds it was already dirty. It’s a broken seat post and wandering gears from a working bicycle, but blindsided entropy for long enough to slither about in conditions requiring core strength, bike handling skills and bravery furnace-forged in front tyre fundamentalism with traction hiding under sideways motion.

None out of three isn’t bad***

Fun tho. Not enough effort go spend the rest of the day in the pub. So facing a dark week of no booze, my response was to chuck the FatBike and deluded rider at the Malverns to see what might happen. What happened was much steep’n’deep freshly cut loam grabbing those four inch tyres right up to the point where Mr. Stupid on top undercooked a steep corner, caressed a tree and had a bit of a wild eyed moment while gravity took over.

I grabbed that tree while the bike flipped end over end in an ever accelerating arc. Was mildly worried about the damage, was extremely happy I was no longer attached. Missing crampons, it took a while to retrieve the remains but happily the damage was limited to a kinked reverb cable and doubled over mudguard. Smacking both with a handy rock got us going again.

An hour later though my experimentation of essentially rigid bikes in a geological mess of step-y bedrock suggested there might be better tools for the job. That’s of course ignoring the argument the real problem sits atop the very thing we’re blaming for being a bit inappropriate.

Best thing here is to ignore that difficult supposition and instead switch bikes. Having so many, it took me a second or so to drag the ‘Chubby‘ from the rack for a night ride in the hills above Ross. As a man publicly declared that night riding is a chore foisted on me by a tilting planet, slogging darkly through conditions one mud-micron removed from the trenches of Flanders requires quite an effort of will.

Two weeks ago it was shit. Everyone else seem to be enjoying it. I was miles behind hating being useless and hating smashing against trees. Now tho it’s mostly dried out so it’s fast and fun. Sure another week of dry weather will surface perfect early season loam, but late Feb this is bloody brilliant. Climb on fire roads missing puddles, descend on trails sucking tyres into drying dirt, believe in the speed that’ll send hardtails over gap jumps and then relive it all drinking beer on pub chairs not ruined by gritty shorts. Don’t be shy Spring, I think I can see you.

Once more into the fray demanded the brain. Legs rebelled ‘really, REALLY, three rides and one bastard spin session, we were there you know’. Brain offered ‘How about a run instead’ Legs: “Oh do bugger off, no really we’re done with this week

Ignoring the NCO limbs, I trailer-strapped the chubster and headed out to a Flipperati reunion. Five years ago we rode every Thursday regardless of the weather, but shifting priorities saw this last occur 18 months ago.

It was fab. Not entirely dry. Not entirely comfortable. Two of us were rocking dropper posts, 1×10, slack geo’s, short stems and knee pads. The third of the flipperati dug out his ten year old Santa Cruz Heckler sporting 3×9, steep head angles and roadie tights.

Early on he was fast uphill but rubbish the other way. That’s track cycling for you. But as the night marched on, the distance between us foreshortened and it was mostly like the old days. Not quite but close enough, but after the last descent there wasn’t time for a breath to gap the joy of close quarter racing on trails we used to take for granted.

At the end of the week, all that riding unlocked the ‘beer and pizza‘ achievement. I sat in the pub cradling a pint in the good company of a whole bunch of friends missed through the thimble of a Dry January. We talked about how the trails were pretty damn good right now, but God how bloody great is it going to be come British Summer Time.

Most of the way out of the dark now. Let’s hope someone nudged Spring to let it know it’s time to light up the trails.

*these aren’t all nutjobs. Phillip K Dick – the man who wrote the classic Blade Runner** – spent most of his waking life convinced he was being targeted by alien races.

** Do androids dream of electronic sheep was the book which inspired the iconic movie.   I reckon Phil had a bit of Yorkshireman in him.

*** As Meatloaf would have sung has Jim Steinman retained a single iota of honesty.

Goodbye dry January, hello wet February

More mud, more climbing, still no beer

Said it before. February is the hardest month. Even after unlocking the self-medication cabinet to numb frequent and cruel rain lashings, it’s still normal behaviour – in these parts at least – to stride angrily into vertical rain pea-shot from dirty clouds, shaking your fist and demanding ‘Haven’t we suffered enough you utter, utter bastard?

Apparently not.  Not if that ride was representative.  It was the kind of slog leading you to wonder if it might it be both simpler and cheaper to run around the forest setting fire to ten pound notes. Consecutive Sunday death marches in such conditions ensured we didn’t fancy another one, heading instead to our favourite South Wales trails centre.

Afan always delivers when it’s grim elsewhere. Not that is was dry. This is a land full of rivers- many of them gurgling happily in the bottom of valleys, and a few more running down the trail. But a lack of horrible wheel sucking mud served up a 40km placard marked ‘the return of grip and joy

The sun even came out, and — when protected from the wind – we felt for the first time this year warmth from the fleeting orb. Warmth which was blasted aside once that incessantly probing arctic vector made a mockery of expensive technical garments.

That wind is a double edged sword. It’ll cut you deep on long traverses and drain the blood from your extremities. Flip it over though and watch the zephyr slice the top inch of mud from the trails revealing something wonderful and loamy underneath. In the case of the Malverns that’s basically bedrock on the exposed bits and black, peat-y goodness in the trees.

Get amongst that and ride fall lines which in the wet are exactly that. Aquaplaning fun says Martin, assisted suicide I counter. But it’s a welcome return to pointing in the same direction as your desperate bar wrenching was aiming. And feeling good on the climbs; dry trails are worth a couple gears at least so it’s worth putting a chunk more effort in. February also brings a a little more light and we used every minute of it, finishing dry and laughing in the twilight. ‘look at my bike, it’s clean / no look at mine it’s even cleaner’

Back home, my route inside bypassed the bucket of doom and headed straight into the chilled trophy cabinet. Wondering if it might be so good again, we ventured out the next night into the woods about Ross which traditionally dry out sometime in June. For a week or so before returning to their default state of fungally damp.

Not dry but not wet either. Firm loam which are happy words for a winter mountain biker. Although still spiced up with an occasional lack of grip leaving all that new speed to go somewhere. Thankfully through the tight lines between the trees and not into them. Two hours of that and while the bikes were splattered we remained un-battered. Far from it, the temporary return of a dry line raised our spirits to the point we didn’t need endorphins topped up in the pub.

It won’t last of course. It can’t. It’s February. As I write a big storm is dragging a couple more Atlantic lows in its wake. Three days of rain will bring localised flooding and a mess were that dry line so recently was. The line is like groundhog day – we saw it, rode it, cherished it and shall now lament its loss for a few more weeks.

It’s addictive though. I slipped out once more before that storm broke. Steeper and deeper than before. Apparently quite slippery* when wet and still pretty bloody tricky right now. Winch and plummet for most of an afternoon with impressive vertical distance but bugger all horizontal.  Finding perfect dirt that cannot be bettered. A prize worth hunting for under those threatening skies.

Sunday is our real riding day. I used to pretend it was a battle and not riding was a sign of weakness. If we didn’t keep battering the storms they’d batter us for ever and summer will never come. I know better now, the weather doesn’t care and neither do I. The sun will be back out soon. I can wait.

February will be wet. Of course it will. But this is not a test. If you can cheat it a little with three days of dry riding under a gently warming orb, you’re doing it right. As my much-missed friend Jenn Hill once said ‘Here you are with your arms and legs and walking around in the good sunlight. That’s winning. You’ve won, see. The rest is just gravy

Wise words. When worrying how our lives may stack up against others, we’d do well to remember them.

*I think ‘certain death‘ would be more descriptive.But you can’t beat a Bon Jovi reference.