To insanity and beyond

Enlongened Chubby!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C’mon Buzz we’ve infinity to discover.

*either semantic definition works here.

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

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

Go Long

Biggest MTB ride for a while

Ride day – standing in the shedofdreams(tm) staring disconsolately at the rain. Bike ready, rider ready, door open to a world of opportunity, sky full of wet. Storm trooper clouds ranked in darkening shades of grey. Wind bending summer vegetation horizontal and accelerating spiteful precipitation.

It’s not climate change, it’s weather. Can’t help feeling it might be both with the Jet Stream lying heavy at a blocking latitude so separating our little storm tossed island from a baking continent. Meteorological BREXIT right there.

I believe a heartfelt ‘fuck it’ might be in order here. Get on the bike and pedal into the warm rain. It’s more tropical rainforest than temperate atlantic. Sweat is  everywhere except up top where it takes a further two miles to reconcile cool head with lack of helmet. Sign, switch direction, grab hat, turn about, check watch, second fuck it of the day, crank like a man being chased by a bear to hit the start deadline.

This, I reflect, breathlessly is exactly the reason riding starts with driving – solving difficult pre-coffee problems of spikey bikes and knackered trailers equating to a 10 minute journey into Ross. Ignoring internal combustion it’s only 5 minutes longer to get there under my ever increasing steam. Rarely do so tho due to the prevailing geography of a sodding massive hill inconveniently positioned between pub and gasping collapse in the shed come 6pm. Not today. I refer you to previous fuck it comments.

Arrive at rendezvous. Nonchalantly mention I’ve heroically ridden 10km to get here. Receive little vainglorious feedback. Make the point it a bit more strongly. Still not getting much back. Sulk as we head out on relentless damp trails that were last dry in April. As a dirty protest I’ve refused to clothe myself in sufficient winter gear to waterproof a small elephant, but ground conditions suggest I may have chosen poorly.  Never mind on we go.

Two hours to Bacon. There’s not too much excitement in between. A steep up’n’down in the local woods, then broken roads and steep tarmac ascents with flat puddles reflecting riders silhouetted by steepled cloud. It’s good to be back out on the bike tho after a week of travelling, London, meetings, early mornings and late finishes. All that falls away as we climb two valleys before finally dropping into some singletrack wet after rain but joyous nevertheless. I bottle a jump, fall into a hole hidden by Dr Livingstone vegetation but nevertheless arrive at Burnt-Pig-Central only mildly bruised and muddied.

We pick up Tim – a new member of the cohort yet to be inducted to the order of the Claret.  Only a matter of time as we head off into the Forest which last week was pretty much winter except with warmer water. It’s a little better this time around but still hard-pack is a distant memory. As is my fitness which appears to have already left for its summer holidays leaving me to gasp uphills with legs only interested in a mutinous walking of the plank.

Finally some downhill. Pretty good as well, breathed on by the trail pixies, it’s flowy, bermed and occasionally enlivened by scary gap jumps. We all make our way down except for Tim whose brave effort at a slippy roll in ends in multiple  bleedings from three different extremities. Welcome to the club fella – you might want to think about some knee pads.

We ride on – Tim’s far tougher than me and doesn’t complain about his various leakages – first re-learning winter skills on an exposed trail and then pine needle harvesting on a long singletrack best remembered for wild hip movements and shape throwing threading wide bars through narrow trees.  I bang my shoulder twice and flip a bar plug out, after confusing cockiness with precision, but we’re through and relaxing with an ice cream in the rain.

Inevitably talk turns to what’s next and my entreaties for a quick route home are countered by the DDM (see here: http://pickled-hedgehog.com/?p=3361) fundamentalism which suggests no one is close to death yet. So it’s another big climb followed by perfect dirt seemingly unmarked by the rain. So much fun, it was almost like summer out there.

Not for long. Road grind took us to the other side of the forest mired deep in slop and energy sucking terrain. Get that done, head to the pub on thankfully drier trails. Quick check of the watch shows the little hand on 4 and I’m still 25km from home. Doesn’t stop the clamour for a beer, but stays the next one as we train it back to Ross with the first tailwind of our day on our backs.

Another pub. Another pint but then I’m up and gone leaving the fellas to the late afternoon sunshine and their G&Ts. Passed what is normally the last climb at a far reduced pace knowing the next big hill wasn’t being conquered in the car.

That last 10km was a bit of an effort. Desperate to freewheel to ease cramping limbs and – frankly – an arse which really didn’t want to spend another second on the saddle. Finally home hoved into view.  There were no banners or finishing lines, merely a shed to dump the bike and a long suffering partner offering me food, then more food and when that was done, whatever was left in the fridge.

The following morning I was walking like a cowboy recently introduced to a difficult horse. Sometimes though you have to test yourself a little bit. Extend the horizon, don’t take the easy option, see how far you can push your ageing body.

Go long or go home. Or in my case, both.

Sensible is for other people

Antur Stiniog MTB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHUBFINGER

Wonky finger

Since being born again into the church of mountain biking some fifteen years ago, hospitalisation has only been required on three occasions. Two broken ribs, one floating piece of shoulder bone and a should-there-be-a-bone-poking-out-here? knee. Not a bad return at all when considered against non biking trips to A&E including being run over twice – first time shattering my pelvis, second bruising me all over and breaking my nose. Which I then broke again two years later attempting to ram raid a supermarket. With my face*

50,000 or more kilometres and only three major accidents. That’s because I’m not very brave. For the others, well clumsiness is an appropriate catch-all for my endless pratfalls.  Which makes sitting here nursing a broken finger so bloody annoying. I crossed the streams of mountain biking and denuded spacial awareness with the inevitable result. Even so at least a hundred times I’ve swung into the back of Matt’s van using the usefully supplied handle that is both inside and safe. Neither of which can be attributed to the ‘A’ pillar, over which my fingers were inappropriately clamped, as Matt hard-slammed the substantial drivers door.

Not his fault, I put those fingers in harms way. Third one on the right hand was now stamped in a perfect facsimile of a T5 chassis. That smarted a bit but an impromptu sitting of the MTFU fracture clinic assured me it was merely bruised. A while later at the hotel, they demurred a bit and suggested any finger that shape would be well served in Kendal A&E. But here’s the problem; we were one day into a long Lake District weekend and any hospital intervention was likely to curtail the next two days riding. And anyway the bar was open.

Even with the healing power of beer**, the next morning brought no improvement unless ‘being a bit more black’ counts. For a second I considered not riding with it. Lakes, mountains, epic views, carries and climbs, massive rocks and scary steeps. All of these were waiting, as was a day looking out of the window wondering what I was missing. I decided not to miss it and anyway the third finger is kind of optional. Index for braking, digit two for grip, little finger for balance, third finger like bloke#3 in the bobsleigh. Basically ballast.

That’s what I told myself anyway and even tho it was pointing in an entirely different direction to it’s perpendicular brethren, the might of modern disc brakes and six inches of suspension made it nothing more than uncomfortable. That particular bike looks its cue from the rider and broke something rather important in one of those dampers. So the next day it was more of the same only this time on a rigid fat bike. Still all good, except the finger colour was now all a bit Hotblack Desiato. ***

Arrived home and was rightly sent to A&E which quickly showed a clean break at the top knuckle, with the bonus of a slice of bone sticking out. Local medical professionals took one look at that before rapidly dispatching me and the finger-bobs homage to Hereford Fracture clinic. Where I was breezily examined, x-rayed, splinted, briefly pontificated and then sent me home in a very non NHS 90 mins start to finish. The finger quack did want to operate originally which involved 3 wires, a general anaesthetic and 12 weeks of no useful finger mobility. Which included a ban on riding bikes and driving. So we had a worried-man to distracted-man discussion until I talked him out of it, although his main priority was  to remove me from his consulting room. To be fair, it was lunchtime and he looked a hungry sort.

Upshot is finger will always be wonky, should get the grip strength back, physio will be painful but in the interim CAN RIDE MY BIKE. The prospect of 12 MTB free weeks as summer wafts over the seasonal horizon left me desperately unhappy. Had it come to pass Carol would have been forced to call in the bomb squad to effect a controlled explosion of the Grumpy. In 4 weeks – the advice says 6 but I’ll beat that – I’m back to see Mr ‘are you still here, I thought we were done’ for another x-ray hopefully showing just the one bone in that finger, knitted if knobbly. And that finger all pointing in mostly the same direction without a comedy droop.

CHUBFINGER

Until then I am CHUBFINGER. The splint is massive, doubling the size of the digit and encasing it in a rigid plastic prison. Consequences include activating random car instrumentation with chubfinger toggling any switchgear radiused within a foot of the steering wheel. Typing is a pain in the arse finger even with my two digit hunt and peck style. Basically I’ll need a keyboard with a metre square return key if I’m not to delete every second word. Riding has yet to be attempted, but I’m in the process of creating a franken-glove and a route for an easy ride to test it out.

While I gained permission to get back on the bike, the rider was swiftly added not to fall off it. I’ve modified that to don’t fall off right. Since my serious injuries were left knee, left shoulder and left side of the rib cage, I think I’m in good shape. Although from a finger perspective, that’ll be a slightly wonky shape.

Im 10% into the 30 splint wearing days before the next examination. And already it’s pissing me off massively. The option though was three months of staring out of the window  getting fat and angry which may or may not have resulted in a slightly less wonky finger at the end of it. Or infection, or nerve damage. But to be honest it was ‘ride now or ride in 12 weeks’ that made the decision for me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 48 years it’s that instant gratification represents pretty much my default state.

One other thing I’ve learned in the last week is do not place fragile body parts in areas of potential percussion. Rather wish I’d learned it maybe 1 day before.

*don’t ask. Please don’t ask. Alcohol was predictably involved.

** and port. And whisky. Cut me some slack here, I nearly lost the arm 😉

*** HHGTTG. The books. Not the crap film. If you haven’t read them and you’re reading this, you need to have a SERIOUS look at your priorities

 

Pyga in the middle

FoD AL - April 2015

First an apology. Or at least half of one. My promise to exit hedgehog stage left, so relocating the production of peak loquaciousness to Cranked comes with a rider. That’s a proper publication and this post is – at best – a random stream of consciousness. Seb deserves better – and for that the next missive is already chambered in the breech of recent Pyrenean experiences.

Until that, this. The Pyga has gone as part of a coping strategy bound up in two fatish bikes replacing two thinner ones. The Moustache exited the ShedOfDreams deep in midwinter and is delivering sterling service to a good mate. The Pyga had a rather more difficult parting, mostly because I didn’t really want to sell and it wasn’t quite the right bike for the bloke who insisted it was.

31 months I’ve had that bike. For me that’s basically an eternity. 4520 kilometres we’ve been together although tellingly only 45 of those have passed under wheel since the Bird flew into the shed last April.  And that’s the problem, when I wanted a full-suss the Aeris was just better everywhere except maybe climbing and I’m way past caring about that. For thrashing about the Chubby is just a bit more fun, while for full on winter stupidity we have the cycling equivalent of the village idiot ready to go. Fat and Dumb.

Logically then no point keeping it. Hate having bikes hanging off the wall never  ridden. And when I did all the old magic had gone. Which is odd considering all those local death marches, the weekends away, the foreign trips all the time honing the parts into a final configuration of light, strong and eye waveringly expensive.

Never really felt under-biked even with an entirely un-enduro 110mm of rear travel, and only an inch more up front. An observer from the flouro community would judge it a smidge big, way too steep and a little bit high. Which entirely fails to factor in the limiting variable hanging on too hard to the contact points.

Even so, when a mate of a mate wanted to try a new bike – the story behind that is in the next Cranked Mag – I offered him mine on the understanding it was to prove a 29er suited the taller gentleman, not for sale. He’s one of those at 6ft3 most of it leg whereas I’m on the line at 5ft11 with legs of stump.

He rode it and declared a passion for ownership but I wasn’t so sure. The seatpost teetered close to the minimum insertion mark, the reach looked cramped and even with a sellers squint it had the look of a bike one size too small. Being a honest sort of bloke I told him this, made him try H’s mutant sized Niner and offered multiple get out clauses if he changed his mind.

He didn’t. I still worried so threw in a longer stem and performed an act of oily alchemy* to add 2 inches to a dropper post. I still wasn’t sure and neither was the Pyga which clearly didn’t want to go.

Surprising really after I’d serviced it the night before alternating spanners and beers. The cool light of a spring day illuminated a non working front mech and a rear shock burgled of most of its air during the night. A tad embarrassing but nothing that some well placed blows wouldn’t put right for the duration of our ride together.

You see I wanted him to give it another go. Still time to walk away from the ride. No chance of that with conditions improving from ‘bloody horrible‘ to ‘mildly tacky‘ so everything seemed easier, more stuff was ridden, whoops were whooped, giggles were giggled.

Who am I – I thought – to deny a man whoops and giggles? He’s getting the bike at mates rates which translates to the frame essentially being thrown in for free. A frame which less than three years ago set me back £1,700. But now it owes me nothing at all. That’s a tenner per week for good times and great times. Cost and value right there.

Ride ended and the bike’s in his car. And in that perfect circle of endless revolutions, the man now owning the Pyga offered his previous steed to another mate who was about half his size. An offer which was gratefully accepted. That’s surely not going to end well.

Maybe I’m over-thinking this. Too late,  there’s a gap on the wall and a bit of sadness in my soul.  The Pyga was more than just a bike, it was permeable alloy saturated with a visual bank of brilliant memories. And while the Aeris is better,  it’s marginal gains at best. So I’ll console myself with the clear fact it’s being enjoyed by someone else rather than languishing unloved in the shed.

Not sure I want to see it again tho. A bit like your ex turning up at your wedding.

*well Matt did. I stood in his garage wondering if anything needed hitting with a hammer.

Stupid, Inappropriate and Fat.

Malverns Skive Ride :)

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

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

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

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

None out of three isn’t bad***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye dry January, hello wet February

More mud, more climbing, still no beer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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.