Going nowhere slowly

Going nowhere slowly

Way back in 2004 I contracted a fatal lung disease*. Other than some rather scary chest x-rays and a valiant attempt to break the world record for phlegm output, the major side effect was six weeks of shed based misery.

Outside messed up my insides. The intersection of cold air and asthma scarred lungs triggered chest heaving coughs, chronic shortness of breath and the aforementioned phlegm deposits. I retired hurt to the garden where my unused cross bike** was shackled to the modern day torture marketed as a mechanical turbo trainer.

Which swapped noise for forward motion while you sweated the majority of your body weight attempting to match the efforts of a grainy ‘sufferfest‘ video. Not some kind of porn movie, except unless your tastes tended to specialist publications offering lycra, pain and men trying very hard not to be messily sick.

Those videos – and yes they were bought for real money on those new fangled compact discs – had production values slightly below the shittiest ever aerobics video. After a month you knew every exercise so, if breath allowed, responding   to the trainer enquiring if you were feeling the burn with a cheery ‘go fuck yourself‘.

I felt the burn alright. Felt the urge to set the whole bloody shed on fire. At least it’d all be over without the impossibly enthusiastic host patronising me one last time with ‘step it up, remember no pain means no gain’.

Roll forward nearly fifteen years and here we are again. The FrankenAnkle is at least six weeks away from interacting with a proper bicycle.  With my lackadaisical attitude to healthy eating, the emergency services will be winching my 300lb corpulent carcass out of the house, unless some form of exercise can be crowbarred into a 45 day cheese’n’port marathon.

The world has moved on. Virtual cycling worlds are peopled by second-life dropouts sporting the latest in smart trainers.  Bluetooth, wireless and – I’m guessing – dark sorcery connect the three together through the simple expedient of splashing cash on self assembly*** plastics containing electro magnets and a subscription to what I’ve come to think of as ‘Ego by Roadie’

After an initial – and frankly confusing – toe dip into the world of watts, cadence and  internet testosterone, I joined a group ride through the medium of social media and abandonment of common dignity. The start line was awash with pixelated road riders differentiated by frames, wheels, haircuts, socks and glasses. It was a bit creepy to be honest especially once the  1984-esque instructions were splashed across my screen.

None of which I understood mainly because they talked about pace, beacons, packs and drafting – all concepts in which I cherish my ignorance. And a little bit due to the distraction of coercing the varied communication signals into a tiny receiver. So the start caught me by surprise, as two hundred electronic souls barged me from the rear responding to the bark of ‘2.4 W/KG for the warm up

Right whatever. Sounds painful. It was as well attempting to breach that gap to the back of the pack. My pleasure at not being quite last was cut short by a total confusion of what to do next. My drafting skills were precisely zero. Since that day I’ve upgraded them to bloody useless.

Key issue is the communication lag between what you see on the screen and what’s happening in the real world. The feedback is clever; hills make you work harder, drafting easier, pedal harder to move through the pack, coast and go backwards. Works brilliantly if you can synchronise the five second gap between the two.

Took me a while – oh let’s be generous and call it an hour – to fully comprehend that. In those sixty minutes, my desperation not to be dropped would see me burst out in front of the group,  only to be spat right out the back as I panicked and forgot to pedal. Once when I saw the road ahead populated by only a single rider, my attempts to chase him down were dashed.

The harder I tried, the faster he went. Eventually it dawned on me that some desperate prodding of the keyboard had changed the camera angle and I was, in fact, chasing myself.  Things didn’t really improve from there.

I really, REALLY, want to be properly snooty about those who take actual pleasure from this shed based purgatory. It’s mental – attempting to beat people you’ve never met. Like Strava with moving pictures. It’s a long run from fun and a decent bike ride from compelling.

Except in the five days since cautiously poking my nose into this virtual world, I’ve ‘ridden‘ 125km, gone stats-geek native and -it pains me greatly to say this-actually passed an hour in a group ride without feeling the urge to smash the whole thing up with a hammer.

Once the ankle is cleared for proper riding though, the setup will atrophy as befits a pale imitation of the real thing. In the meantime tho, come tomorrow, Bob5499 is toast.

If you’ve go this far, you might enjoy a more coherent article on injury, indoor trainers and the injustices of both in the next Cranked Magazine due out early Feb.

*on reflection, it wasn’t quite as serious as my initial diagnosis. Goes to prove the medical professionals, friends and family were rather more accurate with their identification of ‘hypochondria

**Bought two more since. Same result. Which makes me either stubborn or stupid. It’s stupid isn’t it?

***self assembly yes. Intuitive no. Without Carol I’m pretty sure the only exercise I’d have managed would have been gleefully taking a fire axe to the thing.

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.

Beat Yesterday

Done not dusted

That’s Garmin’s slogan extorting you to being a better person. Backsliding is not acceptable. Each day is an opportunity to best yourself against a virtual you who failed to meet the standard yesterday.

This it not unusual when considering how global brands are desperate to to sell you stuff. Nike could not be clearer in their messaging ; you can ‘just do it’. Adidas advance ‘impossible is nothing’ which suggests their marketing department have abandoned semantic norms and are instead merely splicing post it notes in their mood room.

Here’s the problem.  Those of us managing decline are not in a position to beat yesterday. I can’t even remember what happened yesterday.  Sure I’ve not entirely given up, abandoned trousers without elastication nor embraced that middle aged trope of patting a sloping stomach before declaring it ‘all paid for’

Even so, being faster than a younger version of myself is a bit of an ask. The research is equally narratively compelling and pretty bloody depressing.  From 50 you’re adding three kilo’s of flab per annum unless you’re rocking the spinach diet. Injuries take so much longer to heal, and based on a statistical sample of one I’m inclined to agree.

Let the minds eye rove over this broken frame. Barely articulating right ankle busted on some European Alp. Feet sporting badly healed broken big toes crushed by hidden stumps,  right shoulder crunched by a poor decision followed by  a big impact, right hand ring finger articulating half the born movement after smashing it into a rock, left wrist permanently sore from missing an apex and finding a rock gully in Spain.

Thats the highlights reel. It glosses over what’s going in my head.  In 15 years I’ve often trembled at the top of scary shit and ignored the terror for the dopamine hit. Sometimes that worked out, other times not so much.   But being there is amazing, being someone you are not,  riding the trail rhythm and wondering if this is enough.

It really is. This is not about beating yesterday. This is about fusing friends, fitness, trail and outcomes ignoring the metrics of what success might feel like. I’ve been writing this shit for 15 years but  I still cannot find the words to articulate how riding bikes takes you out of wondering if you are doing the right things. If you are good enough. If you’ve made the right choices. If your little life on the planet means something.

It means something. It means this. It’s the friends with whom I’ve shared many experiences of winging it, who I’ve shivered with under darkening skies in navigational confusion, who I’ve toasted with beer on the summer solstice and who I’ve trusted to deliver me safely from a winters day silhouetted on difficult geography.

This is not about being better today. It had nothing to do with Strava segments. It doesn’t give a flying fuck about progression. It is nothing more than sliding about in winter mud while attempting to remain upright, to send the best rider out first, to laugh when that rider falls into the shrubbery, to hang onto a fish-tailing rear and wonder again if this might be enough.

It really is. We sat in the pub getting shitfaced and the conversation was mostly what we do next. My craggy faced friends and I are not about how to beat yesterday, we’re more wondering what happens next. And when you’re as old as we are that’s a petty amazing thing. How fucking terrifying might that be when it stops?

So I’m not going to compare 2016 to the dying arc of 2017. I’m not buying into metrics which may suggest one is somehow better than the other.  I’m so far done with that. My life is complicated enough without worrying if how I piss away my spare hours makes any kind of sense.

I’ve no interest in beating yesterday. I just want the opportunity to have a crack at tomorrow.

On that note Merry Xmas if the whole sky fairy thing is working for you 🙂

Nobody’s perfect

Penyard MTB - December

Perfection is a problem. Digital content assaults us from all sides. It flicks every channel to remind us how rubbish we ordinary people are. And yet we cannot escape the images propagated by our minds eye suggesting that, while we might not be perfect, awesome is respectable second place.

Reality blunts that vision. It’s the main reason I hide behind the camera to make by betters appear, well, better. Location, angles and composition intersect to enhance that flawed reality into something superior. Whenever I find myself on the wrong side of the lens, the gap between perception and electronic imprint is somewhere between a bit disappointing and deeply embarrassing.

Somehow the image in my head transposes to a bloke recently introduced to the sport of mountain biking and – further – he appears to be method acting a homage to ‘crouching badger, hidden terror‘. Over the years, I’ve reconciled myself to being the bridesmaid rather than the bride. Or – to stray into rarely considered accuracy – the drunk lying amongst the gravestones desperate for someone to notice him.

I do get noticed. For all the wrong reasons. December has been a total bastard in terms of other peoples deadlines. Normally I’m with the late, great Douglas Adams who enjoyed the sound of such things whizzing past his head as he takes cover under a desk. Not so this time around with a fading 2017 colliding with stuff that really must be done.

So I did it. Long days. Much grumpiness. Finally freed from wresting 5000 words into some kind of coherent whole, I hit send, the bottle and trails of slick mud I’d last ridden under dry November skies. I was so desperate to ride the incessant rain keeping me awake last night in no way stayed my enthusiasm.

Early signs weren’t great. Soil long distanced from dry. Forestry works scything across favourite trails. Legs reconfigured for running finding pedalling hard effort. Clouds clamped hard onto a damp landscape promising more moisture later. Still if you don’t go you don’t know.

Here’s what I didn’t know. Trails on the glass side of slippy are proper tests of the four season mountain biker. Committing a great tyre to the turn is a perfect metaphor for ‘up front for dancing, back there for partying’. Drifting on slick leaves doesn’t feel much less fun than railing hard summer dirt.

Glad to be out basically. Missed riding my bike. I wasn’t alone as four riders – line astern – giggled their way through the last few turns of a trail we’d just excited. I didn’t recognise them but that’s fine as they identified me through a DNA back-scatter of pattern recognition.

Hey Al‘ they called. ‘I’d recognise that pedalling style anywhere‘. Polite enough not to add further description but in my head I’m hearing ‘Shaved pedal mashing gibbon barely able to maintain forward momentum‘. And let’s remember these are my friends. Slings and arrow of outrageous fortune and all that.

We bantered. I accused then of abandoning their glacial sponge of the Malvern hills to ruin our mud, and they countered with a view that those hills were full of trails straight cut to A&E, and further infested with the rambling class who are oh-so-supportive of mountain bikers.

Whatever. I’d pay good money to be tagged by my riding peers for superb downhill posture, a cornering masterclass or a jumping guru. Unlikely since every time a picture paints a thousand words, those words would suggest a man who is somewhat beyond mildly perturbed, possibly due to the distraction of interacting with a bicycle in what appears to be a first time meeting or a fight.

I blame my gibbon like proportions. Others less kind would suggest a demonstrable lack of technique, a stance favouring the back wheel or an expression suggesting one may have just followed through. I’ve seen the photos and it’s hard to argue with almost any of that.

Even so. Being identified by your wonky pedalling style feels akin to placing third in a knobbly knees contest, or winning the right to be considered the best thing to come out of Lancashire. Faint praise to be damned with.

With dignity being a thing that happens to other people,  I was able to internalise the ignominy and crack on building a belief system around the awesomeness of my front tyre. Which worked brilliantly right up to the point of dropping into a mud gully, making aspirational assumptions around the grip of polished roots and ending up lying upside down under my bike.

That is what I consider my ‘best side’.  I’m easily identifiable when lying supine wondering aloud if some kind of mud-bunny has wrested traction from my front wheel. It’s not a new experience, so I was happy to milk it before slithering darkly down the remainder of the trail.

Which was nothing less than fabulous. It’s a whole lot slower than summer but no less engaging. Sure I’ll be sick of it come March, but right now having not ridden much in the last month reminds me why I need to ride a whole lot more in the next two.

You’ll find me pedalling wonkily with a big grin on my face.

Daylight Craving Hours

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017
Oh smashing. Five months of perpetual darkness. Dark driving to work, dark driving home, with slashing rain carving up the few grey hours when the sun is allegedly above the horizon. Hidden by dirty clouds keen to pile on the misery.

Two options; hide under duvet with a hip flask or do that stiff upper lip British thing and live the lie there is no bad weather merely inappropriate amounts of alcohol*. Not today tho, the light may be short but we’re going long on a classic Wales loop.

Normally ridden the late December. For the last ten years or so it’s been fantastic/stunning/perilous/hypothermic in various combinations from a brilliant day out to an urgent booking with an expert treating advanced frostbite. Last year I tilted the odds towards probable death with a hangover sharp enough to shave with and a helmet value engineered by the lowest cost bidder.

Matt tells me his first proper mountain bike ride was on this very route many years ago when sleet, snow and possible benightment were served up on an epic day. This may explain his mild obsession with pushing any ride towards a death march.

No chance of that with double digit temps, clouds without rain and trails benefitting from a two weeks of conditions entirely un-TransCambrian. Riding with most of my favourite bunch of idiots means while we have faff, it’s familiar faff and we’re appropriately breakfasted, unloaded and ready to go by 10:30am.

First up a lazy 6km climb only notching 400m of ascent. My kind of thing – especially without even the smidge of a hangover and back on the 29er wheels of the Smuggler. It’s not a light bike but nevertheless a good climber, especially on the dry hardpack winching us past increasingly distant views to the reservoir.

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

Still muddy on top. Before we got there, most of the crew cracked the code of a steep climb on slippy rock. My failure was entirely due to a poor choice of rear tyre, terrible line choice and questionable technique. Luckily there was a chance a little later with a second tough pitch to redeem myself. Cocked that one up as well.

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

Mud navigated, we’re accelerating on that kind of trail where the rocks chase you down the hill. Or are fired on a personal trajectory by the bloke in front having far too much fun. 115mm of travel doesn’t sound like much for a modern mountain bike, but this wasn’t the thing holding me back. I don’t think we need to delve much deeper into the mystery of why ‘Al isn’t as fast as he’d like to me’.

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

Fun, fun, fun – more so as I’ve ridden this route in shitty conditions. Which is a fine adjective for my co-riders attempting some kind of middle-aged TeleTubby parody during a brief stop for sandwiches.

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

A stop which provided sufficient time to see angry clouds rolling over the saddle some 250m above us. Best get on with it then. And while we’re riding in t-shirts, Wales still has rules – one of which is this climb is 20 minutes directly into a headwind. That wind pushed the clouds into the valley leaving broken blue skies over the summit. Can’t remember the last time I saw that.

We lingered. Warmed by Autumn sun and filing that view in optic nerves which never get tired of big mountain days. Until ‘Right then, shall we?‘ broke the spell and it’s all suspension jiggery-pokery and battening down of body protection hatches.

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

As H was taking photos, I hung onto Matt’s back wheel following him off a frankly ridiculous line, before just hanging on as loose rock battered the bike from all directions. Speed really is your friend here even if feels like a fickle one. Suspension – both the bike and you – is optimally configured for free movement which grabbing a shitload of Shimano upsets in a way marked ‘over the bars/nil by mouth’.

We regrouped – waiting for Haydn – some of us more shaken than stirred but still with some fantastic descending to come. Firstly off the spine and into the fall line – done this 20+ times but it still is invigorating to the power of mild terror. I made mistakes, took crap lines, wasn’t as brave as I’d want to be, but memories of my mate Russ breaking his back here nearly 15 years ago still passes as an excuse.

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

Then it’s giggling and pointing and fish-y hand movements, and we’re off again into a narrow gulley with diverting spine shaped rocks trapped between claustrophobic edges. This used to be properly hard but the bikes are so good now and my head is in that place where you can ride anything. Until you can’t. Stayed on the right side of that today.

Done. Finally a fast sunken singletrack ridden with all of the joy that swinging a sorted bike between bends as fast as you dare brings.  Hitting the road, the van is still 5km distant from a canal towpath that’s muddy purgatory in December but today it’s firm, fast and bathed in sunshine.

Classic Gap - MTB Oct 2017

It could have only been better had Cez fallen into the water which was a distinct possibility when he misjudged the height of a bridge. Sadly he stayed dry on the outside giving us plenty of time to get wet on the inside.

This is a perfect day. Rationally I know it’s all going to shit on this side of the planet for the next few months. I don’t need many rides like this though to get through it.

Dark at 5? Is that the best you can do? We’ll be riding mountain bikes in proper mountains. There is pretty much nothing better than that.

*or trousers. But being a mountain bikers we’re rocking the four season shorts culture embedded in the sadistic schools of your youth.

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.