Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the evening rain.

Depth Gauge Labrador

There’s a certain cadence spinning the truth at this time of year. The pretence that being outside is something to be cherished. The belief that schlepping through endless mud shall somehow defibrillate the flatline of Spring.  The conceit that riding through the endless shit of winter somehow elevates you over those stuck to the sofa through apathy to the power of Pringles.

That’s my world from 2002 through 2017. Every year upped the bar of commitment as proper cold winters gave way to an indeterminable period of grey dankness shrouded in rain.  Avoiding the damp squelch of soft limb on rain battered tree was nothing more than a happy non-accident.

Then after a couple of hours of something that feels like therapy shared with like minded souls, tedium demands another thirty minutes of harvesting the bike from its mud mould. And that’s before being washing machine denied prior to an apparently infinite manual rinse cycle of clothes made three times heavier by their carriage of forestry operations.

Well I’m missing it. It’s been a month since I last rode* a mountain bike and it’s at least another of the same before mental requirement meets physical reality.  There’s a certain irony that this excuse to wimp out is the best I’ve ever had,  when all I want to do is go out and get properly filthy.

I’m not eulogising  it; clearly it’s going to be bloody horrible out there, with a negligible amount of fun wrapped around a few hours of misery. After which there will be the pub. Before which there will be a shared experience, a recognition of group stupidity, a laugh at what other people might be doing with their Sunday.

This is what I’m doing. I’m sat in front of this screen facing off to my other life. The one which pays the bills but isn’t exactly inspiring. Don’t get me wrong, having absorbed an internet thread on the horrors of shift working when you’re middle aged, it’s clear I’m still living it easy here. So there’s stuff to do and I will do it while rain batters the window, knowing the only outlet is an hour on a static bike in the shed-of-misery.

That and giving my ankle the Paddington stare while wondering at high volume ‘when are you going to get better you bastard, it’s not like you’ve suffered any abuse. Well not until I ruined you, but it’s time to move on‘. It’s not moved on much still requiring Nurafen balms and the ministrations of my long suffering physio who tells me a) it’ll get better in a few more weeks and b) you’re not 18 and in Kansas anymore.

So this is what I’m left with. Sweating in a cold shed and walking the dogs. The stupid young one** acting as a depth indicator in a lake that was once fields. That time being yesterday before the rain decided 24 hours was an entirely appropriate duration to flood the local geography.

At some point I’ll be able to ride a mountain bike again. Whatever the prevailing weather and trail conditions, at least one of my extensive shed based collection shall intersect with the grim outside my door. Until then I’m left with the buggeration of the observer, the chagrin of the not included, the desperation of the hanger on.

Here’s the thing-  when you wonder if it’s worth going out in the grim. If you’ll get anything other than a winters crack, back and rucksack of moist mud, if the ball-ache of dealing with the aftermath of winter is worth it, remember this:

You have a choice, Trust me, that’s a good thing. I’m beyond envious.

*more carried across the Brecon Beacons. I’d pay lots of cash right now to do that again.

**the old one is just as stupid. He just doesn’t like getting his feet wet.

 

 

Things you might have missed..

Trans-Cambrian MTB Sept 2017

And an excuse to post one of my favourite pictures. Trans Cambrian – Sept 2017. As wet as a man can get without drowning.

Without further ado, these are the most read posts in 2017.  Who knows why. Probably spambots.

2017- Curated

And this is the updated bike page which receives far more edits than any individual post 😉

Emperor. Missing clothes.

Tradition

Edd's Birthday ride - Gap in the snow

Tradition is an odd concept when you think about it. It decomposes into repeating the same things yet somehow expecting a different outcome. Which is a rather better definition for insanity.

Examples abound; this is the year we pack unstable family relationships into a tight box,  ignite the blue touch paper with alcohol and by some miracle nothing shall explode*. Further there is no possibility I shall emerge from these ten days more than 1 kg heavier despite eating my own body weight in cheese washed down with tasty toxins. Finally the fragile purity of my resolutions shall not shatter under the weight of dark, frozen January misery.

That’s pretty much covered off the joy of Christmas so let’s move onto some real food for the soul** The therapy/drinking group cleverly disguised as a loose association of mountain bike riders mark the holidays with a ride up and over a Welsh mountain.  While the route and the date never change, who actually turns up is a little more random based on availability, prevailing weather conditions, level of apathy and – in the case of one particular chap – the ability to function whilst under the spell of a crippling hangover.

We’ve been here before. Tradition dictates we shall go there again. It’s like bloody groundhog day with less amusing marsupial and more stumbling idiot.  Learning at least a little from last years debacle, my bag was fully packed and triple checked a whole day before. Ensuring my performance – while still wholly pitiful – would not be degraded due to a lack of the proper equipment.

Aside from my body. Which has the misfortune to host my brain. An organ that cannot look at a six bottle wine rack without considering it some kind of personal challenge. Although first it needs to warm up with a couple of beers, and some kind of donkey stunning cocktail, before a one man bacchanalian assault on all things liquid grape.

Not quite one man. Matt and Lauren kept me company,  but only I was able to entertain everyone in the room with a repeated stumble over an obviously placed obstacle when making room for more poison became a biological necessity.

As the world swam out of focus, some malicious bastard added gin to it. In quantities that would have transitioned that donkey from stunned to dead. Through years of rigorous practical study, I avoided any such fate instead retiring to bed at around 7pm, once I’d established which flight of stairs might be the real one.

The next morning we went riding. It was epic. A proper death march. Which considering I couldn’t operate a tooth brush at 7am is something I’m somewhat surprised I physically survived. Mentally though I’m a little tougher than I pretend so neshing out was never a remote possibility, although being violently ill in the van was my constant companion as we ascended into increasingly snowy landscapes.

Days like these aren’t about the riding. They are about the memories. The healing process kick-started by my three compatriots incessantly ripping the piss.  Then staring at the glass-still reservoir under white-dusted hills on the first climb. Noting the increasing snow depth as we climbed higher. Playing the game of riding on partially solid ice without crashing through.

And then onward through metre high snow drifts where bikes were going to be nothing more than an annoying accessory. Until they weren’t which is pretty much when the crashing started.  A 15 minute moorland yomp was transformed into a nearly an hour and a half of pathfinding, falling over in the snow, permanent laughing and wondering when it might be going dark.

The conditions didn’t improve much. They changed from deep snow to sloppy chop to hard ice. Our response was the same- ride what you can, walk the rest. Concluding in arse-sliding down the descent from the gap desperately hanging onto difficultly shaped bicycles. Even when remounting became an option, it was still mildly hairy. Especially if you were still mostly drunk.

By the time we hit the road – still with nearly 10km to go – the frozen four were suffering from ice-block feet and finger numbness. Which made the last 30 minutes chain ganging the canal path fairly unpleasant. Mainly as the path was more water than anything else so firing barely liquid moisture at sodden shoes.

What else do I remember? The aforementioned slide down a steep trail being made just a little more exciting when Haydn and – more worryingly – Hadyn’s spiky bike just failing to remove one of my vital organs. I called an impromptu meeting of the death march committee to declare it a solid 8, with a consideration for a further half point if anyone actually contacted frostbite.

No one did. I know this for sure as the four of us joined another twenty for food later. An event where drink was also served –  even to a man who had made the rash statement. some twelve hours earlier,  that he had given it up for life.

Anyway that’ll do.  Until next year, happy arbitrarily-selected temporal recalibration point***

*arguably that’s a safer bet than the whole virgin birth/sky fairy thing but we’ve been there before and I’ve nothing else to say on the matter. Other than REALLY?

**did I eat that? Probably. I ate almost everything else.

***stolen off facecloth. It’s got to be good for something.

Done and clustered*

Does it come with a matching suit and optional coffin?

It’s close to that time of year when we reflect on the past twelve months, critically examine the decisions we’ve made and paths we’ve chosen. We may wearily raise our heads from whatever desk currently represents our vocational speciality, and wonder aloud if ‘ I want to be doing this same shit next year?

Well opportunity may indeed be knocking. If you’ve considered a sideways move into the amusingly unregulated sector of double glazing, but feel their salespeople are just a little too constrained by ethical concerns, you may be ready for a shot at the big time.

Get yourself a branded suit, an edgy haircut, a book full of ‘oh fuck me are we still in the 70s’ sales techniques, and start lying so hard you’ll forget the discombobulated individual melting under the furnace like glow of your self belief is something other than a scratch on the commission bedpost.

It may be clear from my opening remarks that I’ve not much enjoyed the car buying experience. That’s not entirely accurate – I’ve really fucking hated it, from start to bloody finish with only a couple of mild highlights preventing me going full-arson on every twat populated glass shrine to shafting the customer in all of Herefordshire.

Let’s consider that for a minute. In at attempt to wrest some kind of control back from a small child charmingly suit-clad in some kind of bring your precocious cock-infant to work day, I developed a half decent statistical model to unpick a number of manufacturers discount structures. Regardless of the name emblazoned above the door, they correlate around floor price and entropy.

Essentially this is a direct sales model with limited latitude for each franchised dealer to shift volume. And that is all they care about. Oh sure you’ll get the full tedium of something termed long term relationship neither of you believe, and some additional bollocks trumpeting the qualitative cosiness of a local buyer, but it’s all just shit added to the heap marked ‘there’s one born every minute’

This one was born some 50 years ago. And in a perfect storm of year end targets, a plunge in diesel values and a stroppy, stubborn northerner my customer classification was apparently ‘price sensitive and rational’. Clearly they were referring to Carol , who I dragged into every showroom and, unleashed once Mr Special Relationship started talking real cash.

I don’t blame the dealer. I really don’t. In a world of sharks, there’s no room for a nice friendly seal. Lawyers pretty much are the wikipedia citation for that. I blame myself for feeling guilty when saying ‘no I’m sorry but paying list price for something of which there are many and yours is no different makes me a little uncomfortable. Could you reduce it by a whole pound?

Light dawned deep in the night when my wide awake mind stopped circling around the problem and started devising a better strategy.  Morning saw me furiously tapping this keyboard demanding best and final offers from anyone with an internet presence. Such was the level of horse trading, I sort of lost track of it and at one point the informational tornado overloading my inbox suggested I had indeed bought a horse.

The result of which was being one minute from buying a car from a man I’ve never met 200 miles away at a discount which negated these things being an issue. In between ending that call and checking figures, the local dealer lit up my phone with some kind of phony butt-hurt that I’d somehow let him down.

Oh-fucking-contraire. I don’t bloody thing so. You’ve attempted to sell me everything in your showroom up to and including the coffee machine through manipulation, blatant lies and – it has to be said – breathtaking chutzpah. I even began to admire his tenacity in the face of Carol’s stonewalling and my pained expression.

He offered me a final car – from the rambling pantheon of when the fuck did this one just turn up then? – with options I didn’t want and wheels that were clearly stupid. At least it wasn’t white. I’d already rejected about 900 of those.  It was however cheap, for a given value of cheap, having been pre-registered to hit some spurious target a couple of months previously.

I cracked and schlepped over the Hereford one more time. Drove it. Sat down exhausted opposite the grand inquisitor as he talked numbers. Brilliantly he and the sales manager then had a pretty much stand up argument on what those numbers might be. I exchanged a non-plussed glance with Carol before sitting back to enjoy the show.

Result of which we ended up in a place where they continued to lie about how much money they were losing, and we screwed them into the ground over every detail. I’m not entirely lacking lucidity tho – at no point in the transaction did I think we’re coming out anywhere close to on top.

Still 25% off a new car isn’t a bad place to end up. Even when knowing waiting a little longer would have increased the discount. That however would have brought my continuing sanity into play. So when, on collecting the car, his parting shot was ‘well at least we had fun’ I couldn’t agree.

Maybe you fella. Not me. Not a bit of it. The car tho? It’s really very nice. In all sorts of ways. I might be back to that. Right now tho, I’m just bloody delighted not to voluntarily enter another car showroom for three years.

And I’m still not sure about those wheels.

*fucked. Obviously. Might as well warm you up to this post being quite sweary.

 

Crash. Don’t learn.

Phone case v Tree
£2 case saved £500 phone

So crashing then: Part of the sport. Side effect of accelerating out of your comfort zone. Price of entry worth the risk of injury. Reactions slowed by age. Outcomes predefined by cognitive dissonance. Bad luck. Bad day. Bad injury.

It doesn’t matter how you got here. But now you’re in the hall of the injured – then welcome. Valhalla for the not yet dead but impressively bruised. Walk away from most with the greatest injury to your pride, your thin skin pricked by the laughter of your mates. Those are the good ones.

The bad ones are bad. We don’t talk about those much. Occasionally though some empathy-free-zone will wait until you’re facing down some tech-death rock horror before announcing ‘Yeah my mate bob fucked himself up here bigtime.’ Pause while he receives multiple death stares. No matter he continues: ‘We call him Wheelchair Bob now‘.

Thanks for breaking the unwritten rule that major injuries are only discussed once everyone is safely ensconced in the pub with exactly the same number of unbloodied limbs they started the day with.  And afterwords ‘Right, who invited dickhead? Never again. Clear?

We’re a superstitious bunch considering our only gods are forest nymphs and the ones inside our heads.  I’m a left sock on first guy, tap all the bikes hanging on the walls of shedofdreams(tm) before lights out, select my ‘lucky gloves‘ to mitigate falling on difficult trails and toast every injury-free ride with a beer or two*

With such an pretorian guard of mental and physical amulets, it seems rather unfair to find myself flying through the air – long separated from my trusty steed – and accelerating towards a stout looking tree at about escape velocity.

One of the many joys of sliding into semi-retirement is my world is not fixed around some outdated concept of turning up to an office every day. As a consequence I get to ride with Adam who is younger, much faster and considerably more bouncy than me.

Especially on his local trails where he transits through some kind of worm hole in the second corner, only re-appearing at trails end looking entirely un-exercised while I arrive blowing it out of my arse some thirty seconds later.

We’d ridden these woods two weeks before when my Captain Slow excuses were forged deep in the mud and slop where traction may once have lived. Seasonal strangeness saw it actually dry up to close to dust this day and I was riding my favourite chubby bike.

So in my defence, perfect conditions. Except Autumn preserves sufficient vegetation to hide a stump perfectly configured to avoid your peripheral vision, while attracting my lower limb in some kind of organic tractor beam. I was already distracted having crashed a little further down the trail on my previous visit. Going to nail that this time I thought confidently as I nailed my foot to the aforementioned stump.

I bloody hate physics. It never gives you a day off. It’s like one of those stupid tests we had at school. If a mountain bike is travelling at 15 miles per hour and it’s motion is arrested by a solid object, what forces are in effect and what are the possible outcomes?

Out is where we came in. I exited out the front but not before the pedal raked my calf with rock sharpened pins. My still pretty-shagged hand, from binning it in Spain, insisted on protection in my organic body armour leaving my back to present a foetal like proposition to a blameless tree.

I have a pack with a back protector. Today it was protecting a hook in my shed, so the following couple of seconds were spent wondering exactly how many of my limbs responded to frantic neural commands. All of them. Thank Christ for that. Right I’ll have a proper sit down down now.

Fuck that hurt. The phone case in the picture saved my phone but tattooed my back. My slammed toe was screaming, but I couldn’t shout back as I’d lost the power of speech. Smacking a tree will do that to a man. I kind of hissed at Adam somewhere down the trail but he was already on his way back having reconciled the sounds of human tree felling with his mate possibly in some duress.

Humour they say kick-starts the healing process. I’m going to make the charitable assumption that was the trigger for Adam pissing himself as I lay supine on the ground performing my best ‘fish out of water’ impression.

Quitting absolutely was an option. But this late in the year, how many more warm, dry almost dusty days are we going to get? So I rode some more, whinged a bit, took a wide line around sniper stumps and still had a far better time than if I’d stayed inside and uninjured.

Still hurts tho. I’ve worn my back protector since. Took my a couple of descents to work myself back up to standard ‘mediocre speed’ but all good since then. Didn’t crash due to lack of commitment, didn’t over analyse the results, did pretend to be stoic but blew that after about 30 seconds. This convinced my mates I wasn’t concussed.

I seem to be writing more about crashing than riding. One is more interesting than the other. I’ll take boredom for a while tho if that’s okay.

*although rigorous analysis would suggest that’s more about my love of beer than any love of symbolism.

Yeah I’ll ride that out…

Yeah I'll ride that out!

that‘ being the classic front wheel burying itself in loam while the rear rockets skywards – its acceleration checked only by my arse, which was heading rapidly out of the danger zone leaving my face to take the impact.

It’d been coming to be honest. After the previous days drenching* in the Quantocks, making it this far without any major precipitation or trails mud carpeted from start to end was both a result and a relief.

This far being about 30 seconds from the end of a fantastic ride that’d started some five hours before.  Our guides – Martin and Debs – arrived at the Ship Hotel in Porlock to find five hungry mountain bikers chowing down on a full English followed by yes-a-refill-would-be-lovely vat of fresh coffee.

They declined joining us for food which based on the first climb out of the town made a whole lot of sense. That breakfast represented merely a short term food rental as we inched upwards on a steep road gradient. Starting at sea level in a place surrounded mostly by cliffs tends to make the local geography painfully lumpy.

It continued that way. We quit the road but not the climbing before that first trail of the day does what it always does- especially when it’s fresh from rain and you’re trying not the be the crasher-in-chief in front of new friends. So kind of minced down hunting for grip and refusing to accept there was loads to be found.

Thankfully no more of that descending nonsense was on the the trail menu for the next 45 minutes. Up into a clearing and then up some more, then lots more and then a bit more to the track leading to Dunkery Beacon. The highest point on Exmoor, and frankly a bit of a bastard road climb that mocked your bacon and caffeine habit.

Lovely views off top. Fab descent to the bottom. Would have been more fab were it not quite so muddy. Still fun but my mind is still in summer so my hands grip the bars and brakes too tightly to properly enjoy it like the fast boys. Alex crashed but I was too far behind to see it. I blamed the new bike. It blamed me right back.

Clearly an Alex crash day as the faster one handed over the baton for the next descent which started well, dropping into a wooded chute boarded by high banks themselves ringed with tree roots. An ambitious line offered itself as a mud free alternative, and my smugness of taking it lasted exactly long enough for the front wheel to tap a damp root and viciously spin me sideways to point backwards  up the trail. Still attached to the bike. There’s no branch of theoretical physics to explain exactly how that happened.

What happened next was a little more predictable what with the cultural icon of this lovely part of the country pretty much being the Scone**. Being a rebel I instead wolfed down a slice of carrot cake that was essentially the whole cake, before being stunned by the terrible news we were again at sea level.

Back up then. Took a while. There was a pleasant ride up the river bank followed by an slightly less pleasant push up a set of switchbacks acting as a calf burning gateway to something a little more in league with the freewheel. Granny’s trail apparently. No idea whose granny it was, but she must have been a heck of a mountain biker.

Fast, flowy, occasionally blind. The third facet not an ideal complement to the first two. Proper hip swinging fun tho with trees passing inches from the bars at 35kmh. It’d have looked superb from my new action cam has not Mr Stupid here accidentally switched it to time lapse. A feature clearly developed by someone who has never been outside.

Decision time. One more big climb for an awesome descent and the possibly of an end-of-summer ice cream, or a cheeky traverse of the moorland above Porlock before dropping into some sublime singletrack. Both sounded good, the second sounded easier and promised beer earlier so we went with that.  Fantastic 360 degree views, tricky navigation of a 10 inch wide trail hedged in by robust heather, a fire-road crossing and then the good stuff to end.

Which is where we came in.  And I came in to that bomb hole jump way too cautiously, far too slowly and under the idiotic notion it looked rollable. It was if the object rolling was the rider rather than the bike.  For a horrible second it had that exit-via-the-front, hands-out, broken-collarbone vibe about it. In that second I shifted my arse so far back – good job it’s quite a big unit – the blameless bike stopped rotating to instead smash down onto the steep slope, at which point I decided the best course of action was to abandon ship.

Amusingly the camera caught the moment in the absurdity of the time lapse.

Not riding it out

It didn’t really hurt. Well not as much as the piss taking which followed, and the repeated humiliation of watching it on slow-mo from Haydn’s GoPro.

I picked myself up, dusted myself down, got back on the bike and headed for the pub in order to consume vast quantities of local medication for both mental and physical anaesthetic.

Great place to ride tho. The next day was a different kind of fun. Especially as the crashing baton had again been handed on. Our next visit will likely coincide with the Porlock Weir-Fest beer festival. Three days of beer, bands and possibly some riding in the high summer of 2018.

Almost nothing could go wrong, Even so I’m packing an airbag.

*I am beginning to suspect that ‘Weather Event James‘ might have infected me with his where-I-ride-it-shall-piss-down curse.

**to rhyme with bone. Not gone. It’s not difficult and I do not understand how anyone can have a problem with it.

Trans-Cambrian. No getting away from it. Fucking wet.

Trans-Cambrian MTB Sept 2017

See that picture up there? There’s a duplicate pinned permanently to my phone lock screen.  To remind me of the correct response should any repeat invitation to navigate the inland seas of mid Wales flash over that image.

A picture paints a thousand words they say. Only two would be required to convey the strength of my feelings in the fewest number of syllables. Three syllables, two words, the last one being off. The first one had already been heavily campaigned before, during and after this picture was taken.

That word was of course ‘Fuck‘. Used extensively adjectivally prefixing ‘weather‘, ‘wind‘, ‘stream‘, ‘ford‘ and – mostly ‘Adam’s idea‘. While I was complicit in accepting Ad’s invitation to join him of this three day supported jolly jaunt on an iconic route, it remained his bloody stupid idea in the first place. I threw it into a few adverbs for semantic amusement, but mostly could be heard darkly muttering that brilliantly adaptive vulgar slang in a metronomic monotone.

Except you couldn’t hear it. On account of the 40 mph wind driving fat rain into your face.  Still if you warmed me in front of a roaring fire and charged my large glass with a strong spirit, I may begrudgingly admit it wasn’t completely awful. But only on the firm understanding I’d never have to do it again.

I might do though. Although I’d choose both the timing and my companions with more care. Not Adam – who kept me mostly sane and dragged me through a particularly difficult hour on the final day with cheery talk of beer soon and chocolate right now. But it might be a bloody good laugh adding the guys we ride with every week- on dry ground baked under blue skies.

Because they are mountain bikers. Where as the crew we rode with were owners of mountain bikes rather than actual mountain bikers. This is a crucial difference and something I’ll be exploring in the next edition of the excellent Cranked magazine.

Let me instead explain the silliness of the whole endeavour. Start in Knighton not far over the border from where we live, ride 170km over the next three days. Except for the parts where you’re carrying, fording and – in my case – swimming with your bike. It can be competed in a single day if you’re a proper nutter. Jason Miles is one such nutter and his story is here. .

Regardless of your level of nuttiness, you’ll experience stunning vistas of the Cambrian mountain range, every type of track from tiny farm to tourist double mostly submerged under exciting variants of mud*,   endless shit infested wet climbs clearly designed to suck the life from your soul, fast rutted doubletrack, occasional cheeky singletrack and either end of the Welsh B&B experience.

I may – for therapeutic reasons – document each day in more detail. For brevity tho it goes something like this; bleary eyed stumble into breakfast, drink all the coffee, try and find some dry kit, struggle into riding clothes, unearth bike from mud encrusted cipher, lube the chain for the look of the thing,  get a little impatient at the critical faff of 11 riders, jump on your bike to ride for most of the daylight hours, arrive at next destination, ignore bike wash for shower and beer before falling into dinner and ordering everything. Twice.

First night B&B was in a fantastic old stone building annexed by a Deli, fab restaurant,  lovely rooms, comfy bar and single rooms. The second night was somewhat more traditional.  I’ve stopped here a couple of times for a beer heading back from day rides and always though it was a bit of a locals pub.

A night there was all the proof needed that had been an entirely accurate interpretation but the food was hearty and plentiful, the owners happy to ruin their washing machine for total strangers and the bar, er, friendly 😉

And the riding? Well it’s not technical except for a couple of sections especially on the last day.  A day I shall remember mainly for wind so strong at times it felt you weren’t moving however hard you pedalled, and being sleeted on atop a bleak ridge whilst that wind attempts to toss you off the mountain**

It’s tough tho. Especially with it being so soggy. Day 1: 54km, 1200m of climbing. Day 2: 73km, 1600m of climbing. Day 3: 48km, 1250m of climbing. I was bloody pleased to ride every single metre of it, except one grass wall on day one that even the guides ascended by foot.

It’s not so much a mountain bike ride, it’s more of an adventure by bicycle. Every trail is new, every view is something you’ve probably never seen before, every climb is a challenge, every descent a bit of a laugh splashing through massive puddles or proper rivers.

Obviously someone had to fall into one of those. And as obviously that was me, but at least I made at attempt to ford the raging torrent under one of the Elan dams.  As I fished myself out of the Claerwen river, I wondered aloud how there could be any water left since we’d ridden through wheel deep puddles for the last hour. I think we can all guess what one of those words might have been.

I used it again whilst draining a gallon of brackish water from the Mojo3 frame. The bike has hung shivering in the shed ever since, refusing to be coaxed out in case it’s once more repurposed as a life raft.

For all that tho, it was brilliant. We laughed a lot, manned up, got it done, saw amazing stuff, had many memorable experiences which will make great stories, rode in places we’d never go on our own and – for me at least – found some of that bloody mindedness I thought was long gone.

The route is brilliant, the logistics outstandingly well thought out, the guiding great and the guides – Phill and Polly full of that enthusiastic grit and endless humour that somehow makes shitty weather and bog snorkelling great fun.

Would I do it again? Really? I think the final word should be where we came in. Fuck, yes.

*by the end of the ride, I had identified at least fifteen different types of Welsh dust. Most of them prefixed with the word fucking.

**this is not a euphemism.  For a start we were wearing about 9 layers of clothing at this point.

You can’t handle the forecast

Elan Valley Epic - April 2010

This photo brings back so many memories. Most of them accompanied by an involuntary shiver and a quick count of frost-nipped toes. An early spring day starting full of sunshine and enthusiasm but ending with grim relief and barely dodged hypothermia.

Seven years ago. Enough time passed for me to sign up to something both similar and a little more ambitious. This time tho I’ve handed over the guiding to a professional outfit promising all-weather routes, flawless logistics and fantastic riding finishing each day with hot and cold running beer.

It was a dark day in winter when my mate Adam pinged over the details of the Trans-Cambrian 3 day yomp starting in mid Wales and pretty much heading due north.  Brilliant I thought; dog end of summer, a bit of autumn crisp under Indian-summer skies. I’ll be fit and raring to go for a mini epic before the tilting planet darkens our days and drowns our trails.

Reality is a bugger. I’m as uninjured as a 50 year old man with a dubious diet, significant beer habit and an old fashioned approach to any kind of preventative body maintenance can be. The itinerary speaks of three hard days with the middle one standing out in terms of distance and climbing.  No issue with that; done a few of those, and my pre-ride preparation of two weeks of 12 hour days, the occasional libation and the remains of a Toblerone bar on my keyboard suggest I’m peaking at exactly the right time.

The weather tho. Looking for a positive, its not quite as unremittingly shit as previously forecasted- so bad the organiser was compelled to email out a stark warning that stout waterproofs, a stiff upper lip and at least county class breast stroke would likely be required on at least one day. And probably the next one assuming you hadn’t drowned/lost the will to live/called in the spousal support vehicle while publicly rubbing a ‘difficult‘ hamstring.

Now we’re just going to get wet. Leaving me a dilemma of bike choices; the new one shod with proper tyres hung between tubes which could hold a soupçon of mud without shutting down forward movement. Or the ‘old’* one with none of those things but sporting a rather natty new XTR mech.

The right choice would have been the SolarisMax of course, tried and tested on 29er running gear and designed for Peak District conditions that have much in common with what we’re about to ride into**

Sadly I’d robbed that for parts so after some olympic class ditheration, I finally threw the Mojo3 in the car on the grounds the bearings could do with a change so I might as well destroy them completely. Also Adam thought it was a good idea, so already I have someone to blame.

And I might need too. As this is an organised trip, we’re joined with seven other riders. Never met the one of them My bingo card reads: nerds, straverists, friendless nut jobs with questionable personal hygiene, a man who has never fixed a puncture, someone who’s demanding if we’re there, yet and a bloke with a map board.

That’s something to look forward too. It might take my mind off the weather assuming the possible lightening strikes stay away. Maybe that’s the subliminal reason I went with the 2.8 wide tyres.

Anything is going to be a relief tho after these last three weeks of work attempting to shove 40 days effort into 15 elapsed, writing neatly 20,000 words, proof reading about double that all the time attempting – metaphorically speaking – to wrestle an octopus into a string bag.

Bikes, big landscapes, nothing to do but ride, no email, no meetings, no more FUCKING PROOF READING, everything organised- sounds bloody brilliant. The last time that happened we were in Spain choking down dust on some of the best trails I’ve ever ridden.

Adam did crack a couple of ribs and I broke my hand, but otherwise it was fantastic. And mostly dry. Whatever, beats the hell out of sitting in front of this time stealer for one more second. And on that note, beer and packing. Probably in that order.

*six months old. In the shedofdreams(tm) that’s pretty much a cultural relic.

**Rain, Grit, Mud, Sheep, Strange beer.

Testing times

Smuggler first ride

In the last seventeen years plausible deniability cannot shield the uncomfortable truth that at least 30 bikes have been, briefly stayed and are now long gone.  Once within a single day*

Sheds full of bikes distinguishable only by colour – during a strange period of acquiring 80mm travel hardtails – suggested collection rather than utility.  Supplanted by a rambling pantheon from fully rigid to full on freeride interspersed with bikes of transient notoriety. Resembled more a bike commune than the preserve of one slightly batty owner.

However, regardless of type, size and measured level of stupidity, all fresh bikes must follow the new bike protocol. A rite of passage punting the new and shiny into the realm of codified and accepted.  It has three distinct phases; faff, purchase anxiety and inconclusive conclusions.

Let’s take each of those in turn; firstly there’s a persistent legend postulating I once built my own bikes. It’s lampooned at regular intervals by those witnessing my mechanical savagery when facing down difficult mechanical problems**. Before drawing a discreet veil over the period before Matt took pity on me, I will acknowledge the many first rides where long delays to rebuild headsets or insert disc pads were not an uncommon occurrence.

Not now. The Smuggler has been built from the ground up. Friday morning we had nothing but a frame and a pair of box fresh rims. In the following 36 hours, Matt methodologically worked his way through chapters of serial problems with the air of a man to whom mechanical perfection is an open book. Fair to say even if I ever located such a book, I’d probably accidentally set fire to it before putting it out with a fire axe.

Even with such an auspicious birth, faffing was still the order of a day as we sheltered under the van’s tailgate from the persistent rain. Suspension to be tweaked, tyres to be squished, inflated, deflated and then left pretty much as they were. Once on the trails, the potential for drowning and the tight build had us stopping only a couple of times, once to stuff a bit more air in the shock*** followed by a pointless placebo bar shift which didn’t stop me declaring it as ‘way better

Purchase Anxiety is something else entirely. The thought that maybe all that cash has done nothing but prop up some marketeers sales targets.  Especially if there are other bikes in the shed which are at best similar and at worst duplicates. Not the case here, the Smuggler is at least six degrees and a widening arc different to the FlareMax.

I’m not a good enough rider to explain why. New bike glasses magnify a plusher and grippier rear end, a slightly tauter overall ride, a noticeably quicker turn in, a need to push a little harder for the bike to work properly –  but it’s all subjective nonsense. Maybe nothing more than the slick shifting and irritant free riding any new bike will deliver.

For the first 2/3rds of the ride I could have been on a Halfords special such was my inability to deal with the changed conditions. Yesterday was hard, fast and dusty – lingering motes in the sunshine, limitless traction and wide smiles. Today was polished roots, shivering and that horrible slip/grip arse twitchery associated with hard rain on soft trails.

Matt dealt with it far better than me. I consoled myself that this wasn’t a bike thing, more – as usual – an Al thing. Couldn’t commit to the corners, couldn’t pull my focus from the glistening roots barely ahead of the front wheel, couldn’t find any flow at all.

Running out of time, I gave myself a strict talking too above the last descent. Gritted mud in my teeth, took a bead on Matt’s back wheel and put Newton in the driving seat.  There’s grip to be found here if you’re not pissing it away micro-braking. Roots rapidly disappear under fast rolling big wheels, raise that chin, bend those elbows, find the balance – its further forward than your hindbrain thinks. So put that head in the danger area and feel the bike carve, grip and accelerate.

It’s still bloody greasy tho- so it’s with some relief I pop off the final drop and explain to a patient Matt what a bloody brilliant bike this is. Took two seconds off my PB which considering it’s a trail ridden nearly a 100 times and conditions were hardly perfect is at least quantifiable.  But not enough to know if it’s the bike or me.

Inconclusive conclusions. Enough meat on the bone to confidently declare the bike is a keeper. And different enough from the others to raise the hope I can justify them all. After that? I’ve had too many bikes to postulate anything other than I had a bloody great time when most of my friends called it a duvet day.

Oh and I want to ride it loads more. Maybe tomorrow, definitely Tuesday and probably for three days yomping over mountains on the Trans-Cambrian next weekend.

At the end of all this the TL;DR summary is bikes are good, new bikes are very good and this one is very good indeed.

*it was a singlespeed tho, so mitigating circumstances prevailed.

**Standard approach is to eye the offending part balefully, before much percussion from a range of ever larger hammers then declaring the managed component as suffering from ‘an electrical problem‘.

***your weight minus 15 psi the manual said. I probably need to accept I’m not 11 stone anymore.

Normal service has been resumed…

Transition Smuggler - built not ridden

.. so there is no need to adjust your preconceptions.  Soon to follow will be the tired lament of why new is better and how this latest wheeled trinket slots into a carefully curated fleet of what appears – to the less discerning observer  – a quiver of very similar bicycles. We’ve been here before.

But first that garage. It’s not mine obviously. Far too much actual engineering going on when compared to the vanity project physicalising as the ShedOfDreams*. Matt’s rationale for the stacked detritus toppling dangerously on any flat service tells of a carefully indexed system where every tool is perfectly positioned for easy access. Based on how long we both spent hunting for the 3/8ths gripley and time-bending-quantum-laster tonight, I’m starting to suspect he might be fibbing.

Whatever, time to focus. I’ve been living that noun for a few months now. Discarding once cherished bikes,  now distanced from daily driver to wall ornament by all the new and shiny passing through the revolving door of my rental fleet.  Over 4000km on the Aeris didn’t save it from being not as good to ride as the Mojo3.

Then admitting Jessie’s new bike was at best something to be shared between us saw off the Stache, And the unpleasant return of the road bike left me in such an aesthetic funk, I couldn’t wait to move it on.

Three bikes sold. Beyond focus and into fiscal probity. At this rate the Mojo3 would almost be paid for. Clearly the wisdom and gravitas of entering my sixth decade** was ushering in an epoch of financial responsibility and bicycle austerity. I was down to my last four for Christ’s sake.

Logic suggested this was more than enough for a man with only two legs.  Even when considered against a four-season strategy of riding bikes with proper tyres and sealed pivots come the return of the grim. Let the Mojo3 be brilliant in its operating envelope of Californian conditions, substituting Yorkshire grit when you personal autobiography reads ‘my life in the slop’

Ibis, Cotic Full Suss, Cotic Hardtail. Sorted. Pick a standard from the plethora of the latest offering so wheels – and more importantly tyres – can be switched between the three and settle in for a shit but smug winter. To that end I reinvested some of that sale cash in posh wheels and matching forks in the certain belief that – finally – what I held was what I wanted.

Logic will only take you so far. Longing takes you a little further. I’ve REALLY wanted a Smuggler – that’s what ^^ that is – since the launch back in 2015. For no other reason than they look a bloody good laugh. But so close to the FlareMax in travel and angles, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to sneak it into the shed under cover of darkness.

Let’s address that first. I did discuss it with Carol who took the news with a look of resigned resignation I’ve learned to recognise as tacit approval. My wanton slash and burn of the current fleet probably knocked her a bit off balance, and I half expected to receive a therapy voucher for my birthday.

Justification though still bites hard. On the credit side, it was cheap in the way high end mountain bike frames are only cheap to those who consider anything less than four figures being pretty much not worthy of interest. That’s just the frame of course but a slight lowering of standards snagged gears, brakes and ancillaries for something less than absolutely eye watering.

Spares and careful husbandry of existing parts supplied the rest and we’re away to Matt’s garage where many new bikes are forged. This after Carol and I had a marital disagreement over the best way to apply the hateful frame protection the night before. An argument that ended – somewhat predictably – in doing it her way because it didn’t involve smacking that pristine frame with a big hammer.

It wasn’t a difficult birth. Matt passed me a beer and asked me to stand well back from where the responsible adults were working. Stuff around internal cable routing, tricky chain lines and the potential for a major hydraulic explosion passed me by as I wondered why the hell I’d bought another bike.

No useful conclusions were reached. Instead I wrangled another beer before a dusky test ride suggested the Smuggler may be virtually only a few inches different to the FlareMax, but in the real world it’s bloody miles away.

Tomorrow will probably tell me quite how far. It may not be much and all of that might be in my head. It never stops being fun finding out tho.

*it’s basically a bar with a bunch of interesting stuff on the wall to talk about while quaffing a beer or five.

**however many times I write this, it still feels like a mealy mouthed metaphor for ‘HOW FUCKING OLD?”