Alcohol dreams

Hello old friend, I've missed you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Winters Fail

FoD - a big, muddy day out!

We’ve all met the insufficiently medicated nut-job who allegedly pines for winter.* ‘Oh it’s not proper mountain biking until partially frozen mud has forced itself up your arse crack and the bike requires a special harvesting machine to release it from its claggy mold

Without washing to be pejorative, such swamp-monsters tend to be over endowed with vigorous beards and intransigent opinions while lacking in perspective, friends, personal hygiene and gears.  We can therefore discount them as unhinged singlespeeders and move on to a rationale discussion.

Winter is a placeholder for spring. That’s all it is good for. The season used to roar in with freezing winds and precipitation settling as a sledging carpet. Nowadays it’s rebranded itself to ‘Autumn Plus’ – dark, endlessly wet, windy, grey and entirely lacking in joy.  Cold, Frozen trails or FatBike approved snow dumps are merely fading memories as was the last time I returned home without having to pass through the entry portal housing ‘the bucket of doom’**

So this happy place seemed an ideal point to undertake the first death march of 2106. It started early under cold grey drizzle and ended with lights blazing the puddle strewn road home. The entire day was spent searching for new trails – or at least drier ones – under Stygian skies.

Trails that will be awesome when they are dry and I’m fit and injury free. Zero out of three scored there dulling even the brightness of new bike love. The chubby trek slid about with as much panache as anything under my dubious control, but my breath seemed to be coming mainly from my arse and my knee was all a-twinge. Bah, two or three months more of this before the mythical dry line? I shall be found inside making serial deposits in the grumpy jar.

Or maybe not. No point wishing your life away. Not when you’re as old as I  am anyway. Actually this is pretty bloody good fun right now. Sure my knee is a – mental and physical – pain but it won’t stop me riding nor shut me inside cursing at the rain. You cannot control the seasons but you can confront them with a ready grin and the undeniable knowledge that normal people consider your actions borderline certifiable.

Every ride has certain moments. The longer the ride, the more of them you get to experience. Matt fell into a stream. That was bloody funny. Then we found a mile long new trail which we knew had only been ridden once before because it was revealed to us by the man who’d finished building it the day before. Arcing through the trees while pine needles sprayed hedgehog shapes was a wonderful release from the trudgery of the mud-suck.

Even my ‘spirit of California’ rear tyre couldn’t stop the fun. Sure I walked a couple of climbs others rode, and enjoyed – or sometimes not so much-  second long tail-slides through sloppy corners but remained mostly upright and un-barked by tree.

That one trail was worth an all day slog al by itself, but luckily we found another one as we headed down to the river. Not very well defined, but well enough – which was encouraging as part of this valley terminates on or over a a cliff edge. We knew it would steepen, and when it did a tunnel of slick rock corkscrewed around stout trees and stepped over tractionless roots.

I could barely walk down it. So slick was it with with mud, the gradient made standing up merely a prelude to falling over. I twisted my knee on doing so and used up my quota of swearwords for the week. Then hopped back over to a handy rock to record Cez’s attempt to ride it. As ever, 100% commitment, no self doubt, straight in at a speed that means you cannot stop and carve, slip drop, dip shoulder, sway *just* past the last tree and away.

In the summer I thought. On the Aeris. Having scouted a line. Maybe, maybe not. Whatever – it’ll still be there and so will I remembering the day we found it. Down at the river now and onto a well ridden path ending at our favourite pub. We scooted straight past heading to a second establishment which welcomes muddy cyclists to its heated environs. Even drinking lime juice with a coffee chaser didn’t really dampen the warm glow of a wet day spent on mountain bikes.

Darkening skies and rain pecking at the window got us moving. Our lights danced over dormant vegetation and hibernating humans as we climbed the last hill home. I felt that woozy head/hollow leg feeling of too many calories expended and not enough consumed. The marks of a proper winters ride – muddy, cold, hungry and the owner of a bike hardly identifiable as such.

I dumped that new bike in the shed. It’s still there probably identifiable under thick layers of mud until a hosepipe is deployed. It’ll need a clean before our next outing. I don’t want to wait until Spring anymore- I just want next weekend to come round a whole lot faster.

Snow would be great. Frozen trails even better. But if I can’t have those,  riding mucky circles with my friends will do me just fine. Until March anyway.

*Surely this is a lie. If not then such an individual holds an extremely strange interpretation of enjoyment. Probably watches those TV programmes where kindred mentalists staple cats to their ears for some purpose no one within grappling distance of sanity can divine.

**A mandatory receptacle for all mountain biking outerwear. Because we can’t afford to buy a new washing machine every year.

Who are you calling chubby?

It’s not fat, it’s chubby.

Well my new bike actually. And before unleashing the inevitable litany of abuse,  there are two things you need to know. Firstly this is not a slavish homage to the latest new and improved dreamt up by men who feel no shame at using the term ‘colourway’*.

No because that’s the zeitgeist often chased, yet my arrival is characterised by  the whiff of an evolutionary dead end. 26 inch long, low and slack? I was right there at exactly the same time 29 inch wheels were the next big thing. Followed that only to find, in fact, that 27.5 was the absolute sweet spot. Mined that motherlode deeply thereby missing the bonfire of the standards where some wag added a few inches to everything and declared 29+ as our mountain biking diety. Dragged myself to that altar in a final act of loyal worship, bringing forth the bike above as a token of belief.

Apparently that’s so yesterday. 27.5+ is where the cool cats are hanging out. Really? Do you think I’m some sort of idiot? Don’t answer that. Consider instead the second thing; this is all part of a masterly plan. A bike reduction strategy honing the inhabitants of the shedofdreams(tm) with definite degrees of separation resulting in the perfect quiver**

Admittedly the plan has been reversed with one bike in before two bikes out. Still a fine plan though, I just did things the wrong way round. This happens to most men of a certain age – we just don’t discuss it in polite company.

Enough of this justification; you don’t believe it and neither do I so let’s pretend – for the sake of my sanity – the Stache-9 represents a superb purchasing decision that will be, at worst, cost neutral.

How does it ride then? In a few words like a rear wheel steer monster truck. In a few more not quite as I expected. This is not a Slimmers-World fatbike, more an amped up evolution of the Moustache. It bulges in all sorts of strange places as if spending every day pumping iron in the gym and each night wolfing down protein shakes. The fat bike might be a clown, but the chubby is a bully.

Not a very threatening one if you can even walk briskly uphill. Making progress skywards is limited by three inch tyres slurping at the trail with a 10 PSI wallowing tyre-print. Not sure it’s heavier than the non-chubby version, but it’s certainly not going to win any sprint competitions.

Once centrifugal force finally overcomes gravity, it is hardly surprising there’s not much it won’t roll over-  what is is how nimble it is. Some of this is a non chopper-ed out head angle, but so much more are the ridiculously short chain stays. It turns, pop and jumps like a much smaller bike even under my hands of ham. If you do feel the urge to pick a line – as opposed to just heading for the most obstacle strewn nastiness with a Clarkson-esque ‘poooooowwwwwweeeeerrrr’ – it’ll carve one with amazing precision.

Chubby is also comfortable. None of that wrist shattering harshness which lives at the end of a rigid fatbikes’ rubber/air type damping system. Nor the arse kick of a stiff hardtail attempting to jam the seat tube up its organic cousin. Not to be confused with the plush and mush of full suspension, it’s somewhere between thin and fat. With much more grip than the former and a little less ridiculousness of the latter.

Heading downhill is instructive. In a kind of ‘aaarrrrggghhhh, make it stop‘ kind of way. I’ll contest that fatbikes don’t really need good brakes, stop pedalling and the rotation slows like a flywheel spin bike. The 29+ doesn’t do that, once it passes a certain speed it maintains that velocity for a second or two before accelerating like a mad bastard.*** It’s as close to a perpetual motion machine available on two wheels and it’s quite the rush. I dunno who is on physics patrol when this thing is in flight, but they’re clearly slacking off.

The chubster does have very good brakes for which I was immensely and vocally grateful for on a number of occasions, mostly after closing my eyes in terror. God this thing is fast downhill without the excuses normally available to the hardtail rider. Quicker you go, the better it works somehow smoothing out the bumps. Sure it’s got a great – if short 110mm – fork and the aforementioned fat tyres, but there’s something more than that.

Where the fatbike is a faithful labrador the chubby is more of a Jekyll and Hyde character. It’s all lovely to see you, isn’t this pleasant, oh what fun we’re having together until flipping gravity the finger and trying to rip your face off.

I like that. Whereas the Aeris will get me into trouble but be so damn capable we’ll come out the far side as an unscathed pair, the chubby will happily drag you into the red zone before buggering off with a cackle and abandoning you to face-surf some geology. The fatbike of course wouldn’t actually get there in the first place because you’re still patiently waiting for people to stop laughing at it.

So there we have it. So far, so face rippingly good. Big ride on Sunday, by the end of which I’ll be a) dead b) mostly dead c) wondering why I’m not dead.

Something to look forward too.

*sometimes aping the American spelling. When I’m world dictator, they’ll be strung up by the unmentionables hanging from a sign emblazoned with ‘remember the bloody U next time

**Don’t fret, I’ll be off to shoot myself once this is finished. Maybe I’ll slip in ‘rig‘ and ‘gnarpoon‘ before I go.

*** the first time this happens, it’s probably worth checking both your understanding of kinetic energy and your shorts for unwanted deposits.

Dry January

FoDing Muddy

Oh the irony.  Guild driven abstinence crashes against the waves of our wettest month. Add in the darkness, debt, doubt and the enduring bloody misery of January and the exponential fallout rate doesn’t take much explaining. Not so much falling off the wagon as gleefully setting it aflame before exchanging the horses for hooch.

Last week I was whinging at length on the rubbish conditions in the Malverns. I unreservedly apologise to those loaf shaped hills having recalibrated my  worldview of shit conditions. Three hours in the Forest of Dean will do that.

The day started well. Because it was in the van where the rain wasn’t. We’d chosen to explore a trail network much talked up by rumour but unridden by us. Bikes built under threatening skies taking somewhat longer than ‘fetching them out of the van‘ really should. Only when multiplying the differential faffing coefficient do such extended timeframes make any sort of sense.

A sense of what was coming drove us into the cafe where we pontificated mightily over bacon and coffee. Eying my fellow riders from the lip of a massive cup, I tentatively suggested we might want to get out there. Just for the look of the the thing.

The thing being a bloody big road climb not entirely suited to the flatulent rubber of the stupid bike*. Still it wasn’t raining and eventually the ridge poked out of a steel grey sky. We headed into the dirt only to find it replaced by a muddy river with sufficient depth to be considered tidal.

Heading downstream, we reacquainted ourselves with mountain biking in our own little ways. Cez seeking out  stuff to launch himself off, Haydn sniffing out endless traction from his chubby tyres, Matt sashaying sideways on over-inflated tyres and me crashing into trees.

Having concluded that this sliding about is still bloody fun, we headed off on now unridden trails ‘somewhere over in that valley‘. Via a few silly steep roll-ins and a  river crossing as it turned out.  Eventually we found ourselves exactly where we needed to be. Just 100 metres too low. Pushed the bikes up something close to vertical which in the mud proved to be unrelentingly comedic.

I knew we’d made it because the rain started in earnest. We rode a couple of fab trails on this steep sided valley without any major off piste excursions. Where there were clearly many more tracks waiting for better conditions – and in my case – some talent compensating suspension.

Non mechanically assisted shuttle back to the top where – as it was apparent the rain had settled in for lunch, dinner and possibly a light supper – we donned rain jackets and picked a steeper trail. When I say ‘we‘, of course I don’t mean me who just followed the brown spray in the hope there was nothing too scary coming.

Couple of bits seemed to suggest braking might be the last thing you remember before waking up with medical professional removing trees from your forehead. Steep tho. Not sure speed was going to be your friend here. Fat tyres are of course allowing the nesh to control their descents at speeds unlikely to introduce blunt force trauma into your afternoon schedule.

The rain first diluted our enthusiasm for an extension into the next valley and then washed away our commitment to staying in this one for much longer. Just once more to the top this time selecting a depressingly wide track composed of mud, despair and possibly my will to carry on.

Fat tyres are rubbish in deep mud. You basically turn into a paddle steamer spraying suspicious brown liquid all around while not troubling the five yards in front of you. It wasn’t just a bike issue – we were all off pushing through the churned filth sucking at our shoes.

Final descent was good tho. We all had the measure of the conditions now and sliding two wheels at low speeds can never be anything but brilliant. Even the tarmac home didn’t dull the grins much. Which considering it was undertaken into wind and driving rain must say something about how much fun we’d had.

18km. Not a big day. Bikes back in the van. Riders in the pub. Three of us requesting hateful cold cordials and hot coffees.  January is supposed to be cold and frosty. And I don’t just mean those denied a proper drink. What we have is endless moist fronts adding water to already saturated ground.

If this carries on, I’m going to need that drink come the start of February. In fact, it might turn into a month long bender 😉

*although that holds true for about 95% of any trail conditions.

First day back

First ride of 2016 - Muddy Malverns

You know how it goes. Crippling hangovers segue into vocational conformity: ‘Good Christmas?’/ ‘Not bad, quiet, you?’ / ‘About the same‘. So ends the conversational frippery leaving you with little option to take a deep breath before opening email.

This dance of desperate politeness is one of many reasons working from a single office isn’t really my thing*.  Still personally kickstarting the 2016 economy through putting in a one day shift, I felt such an effort should be rewarded by a skive-ride.

Not ridden in the Malverns for bloody ages. They’ve changed. Got steeper for a start. Either that or my excuses multiplier of Christmas lethargy, undiagnosable fiery knee and squatting cold have struck the porky jackpot. Certainly a few wobbly bits were flinging themselves in a parody of Brownian Motion as unridden legs were reminded of their climbing responsibilities.

The hills have many fine qualities. Geological antiquity is amongst them – the pre-Cambrian rocks have been crumbling for 600 million years so funnelling water deep in the valley below. Where right now torrents of collected rainfall are gushing from every orifice.

I didn’t need to check, the evidence is all around us. More specifically under the tyres where the trails use to be. In eight years, it has never been this muddy. And tractionless – when my good friend and long time local Martin turned up equipped with full mud spikes, I silently congratulated myself on the decision not to bring the fat bike. That’d have got old fast.

I’m old but I’m not fast. Uphill it was mostly soggy enlivened by proper sloppy sections that rewarded a tentative prodded foot with a frictionless slide down the hillside. First descent I sent Martin out as ‘grip-sniffer‘ where he seemed to be going absolutely fine with his cheating tyres.

Back in the cheap seats, things were not going so well. Lost the front end three times, the last time I genuinely believed it had gone for good, and I was heading for an unscheduled seasonal head plant into the moist earth. Or a tree.

Saved by either a) cat-like bike handling skills or b) a whimpering withdrawal of the breaking fingers**, we carried on in much the same vein. Martin suggesting all manner of trails most likely to cause injury and me making excuses not to ride them.

A good lawyer – if such a thing exists – could sue the entire hills for attempted manslaughter. Still at least it wasn’t raining and the sun came out. At which point it started raining really hard. Not that this made any difference at all to the trails which couldn’t have been wetter had they been submerged in the Mariana Trench.

Brilliant to be out though. It’s been a week since the last time. My knee is no better, but I’m a sight less grumpy. That’s still quite grumpy tho as the bike is now entirely brown, my kit is being held hostage in the ‘bucket of doom‘ and denied access to the washing machine, I swapped a beer for a ‘recovery drink’ with twice the calories and it’s bloody raining again.

Even with the encroaching night clawing away at the remaining daylight, I insisted we attempted a rain swelled summit of the beacon.  We arrived there in increasing murk, but my haste to leave was stayed by having lost the front end so many times in the previous two hours, I was considering fitting a GPS to the tyre. Or a ski.

This sort of explains why Martin disappeared with his usual fearless alacrity while I tip-toed down in the shadow of the setting sun. Grins at the bottom, diaries ticked to do it all again next week, muddy bikes making dirty protests inside once clean cars.

First ride in 2016 done. And it was a good one. Crap trails and shit weather? You’ll have to try harder than that. Meeting Room Outside booked for the same time next week.

I really REALLY hope there never comes a time when a 9-5 job is something happening to me.

*There are many others; chief of which is I am basically unemployable for any length of time.

** It’s b) then. Obviously.