There’s much to be said for order in a world of chaos, even if your efforts are limited to ‘one photo archive to rule them all‘. Technologically fairly straightforward, logistically rather more challenging with source material flung far and wide across hard drives, USB sticks, whining NAS’s and some proper old school CDs.
Yet when centred in this informational media tornado, a chronological romp of the past fifteen years is perfectly sequenced across a flickering screen. It was both uplifting and depressing. Images of a previously unknown member of the Leigh tribe flashed by – a younger, fitter and significantly less lined version of myself hamming it it up in all sorts of exotic locations. Always accompanied with bikes, it should be recorded.
On rediscovering Mountain Bikes at about 32, there was a slightly tragi-certainty that my best years were already behind me. What the fuck was I thinking? Jeez, there’s almost nothing I wouldn’t trade for a waybackmachine(tm), transporting me back to those innocent images where every location was jaw dropping, each trail was more perfect than the last, and any self-doubt mixed with pointless introspection was buried under a thousand giggles.
Morzine 2003. First proper trip to the mountains recalibrating your view of – well – pretty much your entire mountain biking world. Because absolutely everything is amped to the mighty – the climbs, the descents, the fear, the crashes and the beer. Oh. So. Much. Beer. Most of my body is a bit ruined, but my liver must be something really special to have survived such persistent abuse.
Spain twice – once with a guide/arsehole who nearly ruined it with his needy urge to drag us above the snow line, and once with a far nicer fellow showing us what endlessly dusty feels like. Africa with a mostly broken shoulder, but fondly remembered for getting shitfaced/stoned with the Berbers in the High Atlas, and weaving bikes through the Souks in Marrakech.
A visit to the Mecca of Utah back in 2005. The rite of passage for anyone wishing to label themselves a mountain biker. Riding the insanity of Slickrock with limitless traction and endless skies, swishing through perfect Fruitia singetrack and bricking it on Jack’s ridge. Shuttling to nearly 10,000 feet, before dropping most of that on a trail exactly 12 inches from a fatal drop to the canyon floor.*
Scotland, Wales, the Lakes, back to the French Alps like moths to a flame. Or maybe a flash. Flash, flash, flash, the images keep coming – the bikes change, the riders a little more careworn, but the composition holds. Bloke holding a bike a bit self consciously, backdropped by the mountains of differing hues. Some snow capped, some tree-lined, some blasted to baserock by unimaginable winds, but always mountains, always smiling.
Digital photography has much to answer for. The selfie for a start. And pictures of some uninteresting foods you’re about to eat. And twerking. Whatever that is. Being of medium antiquity, this sort of new media fad passes me by. The day I feel the urge to ‘snapchat‘ will cross the event horizon where dignity once represented reality.
But for all of that, it’s a bloody brilliant way to reboot yourself. No casting about in a spider-webbed loft, searching out fading photo albums. No, these images bobbing around in an endless digital sea will invoke – in at least equal amounts -strong feelings of lament and loss, but also desperate urges to fly again.
I watched my youthful face flash by backlit with physcially imposing geography , pushed into the background by a focussed epicentre of great friends absolutely living in the moment. On studying those faces, there’s not a single one who would rather be anywhere else. Almost every image was watermarked with ‘we are the luckiest people in the world‘.
In 68 days, another road trip is kicked off with nearly a thousand mile pilgrimage to warmer climbs much further south. And the excitement is just the same as it was all those years ago. I worry about the same stuff; will I be fit enough/brave enough/skilled enough to be anything other than the much-waited-for back marker, and I anticipate the same things as well; being in high places with my best friends, pushing the bike faster than I dare and getting away with it, arcing through dusty singletrack with the trail-pixies firing up the adrenaline compressors, then watching the sun cast long shadows on brutal mountains with a cold beer in my hand.
One day this will stop. One day it will be too hard, or I’ll be too broken or too frightened or to busy with something else. It won’t be one single day, more death by a thousand cuts. At which point those flashes of a previous life will feel as if they’ve happened to something else. It will no longer be my world.
I cannot imagine that. Try very hard not too. Right now all I’m thinking about is a monster ride tomorrow in a snowy mid-Wales, and 68 more days to endure before my best friends – slightly older, a bit more rugged, maybe a bit more introspective and pretending this isn’t the start of the end – and I load fantastic bikes into the van to go and be something that you are not.
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, which can beat that. I’ll look at the images of what’s been for no other reason than there is more of the same to come. And grin because I have been so bloody lucky to be part of them.
We’re not done yet. The archive remains open.
* known – according to our guides – as the ‘3 second tour‘. That’s the length of your scream before splatting into the desert.