How was that for you?

FoD / Slurry Pit - the not quite spring ride

Well I didn’t die. In other news my ankle failed to explode nor swell to the size of the ‘Tomato most likely to win an award for the most amusingly shaped vegetable‘.  Bikes were ridden, beer was drunk, lies were told. The latter specifically when being quizzed on my homage to a man recently introduced to a second leg.

Happily telling fibs to my family is ideal preparation for fabricating huge whoppers to the physio, who understandably takes a dim view to a refusal to subordinate my need to ride against 200 years of medical precedence. Which explains why my opening gambit of  ‘that’s why it called practising medicine eh?‘ is met with stony silence and a weary shake of the head.

I don’t know better of course. What I do know is how much riding defines me, and how looking into the abyss of ever stopping makes me more than scared. I’m also well attuned to what a healing body feels like – having smashed it up so many times. Good enough is good enough and slinging Camelbaks over shoulders, while we’re loading the van, is nothing more than normalised behaviour.

Riding though is something different. Lock four mountain bikers in a pub and refuse to release them until they’ve created a single definition of mud and you’ll be waiting a while*. What we do agree on tho is the epitome of mud bastardness is ‘soft over hard‘. A slurry of matt black sliding viscously over firmer sub soil in some kind of Fibonacci sequence.

Throw a tyre at that and you’re spinning the wheel of possible outcomes. Might got left, could go right, definitely won’t be going forward, fair to even chance of having a lie down to consider your options.

Generally these conditions do not suit my riding style. Who am I kidding? These conditions leave me way adrift of the pack wondering when Spring might turn up. Not last week and not yesterday either. It’s the hope that kills you. Not much rain this week, there are buds in the trees and dry patches on the ground.  Today should be so much better.

It was quite a lot worse. I’m still okay with that against a baseline of not riding at all but after 36km I was mostly ruined. My ankle was what I’m thinking now as standard. It hurts a bit but not much more than normal. The rest of me was properly broken; lower back, neck, arms and legs too long distanced from hours of hard physical exercise.

We’d run out of food but being stubborn to the power of stupid carried on regardless, climbing on slick paths then attempting to navigate leafless trees where amazing tyres met their seasonal match. Second time out though my worry about smashing my ankle up faded a little into the background meaning progress was upgraded from glacial to stately.

The singletrack was mostly shit but the experience was fantastic. The sun shone, the bullshit flowed, the temperature kept the shivers away. There were no crashes but there was beer to toast our uninjuredness. And at the end of it all, I chucked a dirty bike in the shed and risked ruining the washing machine with muddy kit.

That’s a ritual that gets boring in winter but yesterday it just made me smile. A detoxification process if you like; an anti-arsehole activity, a mud flung sense of perspective that there was this,  and there was all the other stuff I needed to show I cared about. Rather than assuming just being there was quite the same thing.

Knowing you’re going to miss riding is less introspection and more basic self-awareness. Working out how it’s the metronome of a larger life is probably more important. Without one, I’m not very good at the other. It’s at least half the reason I’m sat in yet another hotel room drinking water not beer.

Spring is coming. My favourite season. One of rebirth. Never gets old however many times I marvel at nature regenerating in all sorts of amazing ways. Since I’m hardly a spring perennial, it’s time to prepare myself for another season of riding mountain bikes.

There’s stuff I can do nothing about. Entropy is a relentless bastard. What’s in my control right now is making sure I’m as ready as I can be. For eight weeks that choice was taken away from me.

It’s done me some good. Forced me to stop and heal. Given me time to think. To work out if this is still my thing. To decide how much I’m prepared to suffer to be as good as I can be. Thinking time is over though.

It’s time to ride. Three sweet words.

*two reasons. 1-they’ll never agree and the best you can hope for is about eight separate versions of the same thing and 2-it’s a pub. That’s pretty much our spiritual home.

Too much of a bad thing

Back in the game..

Searching for inspiration in yet another hotel bar,  I started counting. Not the days I’d been away from home. Or the might-as-well-be-infinity items unticked from my to-do list. Or even how many beers had brought on this latest muse.

No in an attempt to cheer myself up, electronic calendars were brought into sharp relief to calculate how long it had been since I’d ridden a bike. That’s a definition which is inclusive of ‘outside‘ and ‘dirt‘ and dismissive of sweating out a winters coat of misery on the virtual road of nowhere*

37 days. Fuck me that’s a lifetime. Especially for a man accelerating over the horizon of more than half of his.  No time to waste then unless one considered the wider nuances of not rushing the ‘frankenankle‘ back into the fray when it’d barely quietened from ‘bloody painful’ to ‘mostly annoying

I’ve already had a proper telling off from a medical professional who felt her diagnosis of eight weeks was probably a little better informed than my ‘yeah it’s been a week, I’ve done loads and it bloody hurts now‘. She has a valid point. I have a less quantifiable one. If I don’t ride soon, there may be wider consequences. Elastic waistbands, hair-trigger irritation and a level of grumpiness entirely unfair for those unfortunates in my immediate orbit.

Fast forward to tonight and we’re at 43 days and I’ve self diagnosed myself as ‘not entirely broken‘. My last ride was a muddy horror on the 2nd of Jan which gets better the further away from it I get. Three days after that I subjected my ankle to the kind of trauma that’d have the less lucky encased in plaster. Tomorrow tho I’ll ride my mountain bike

More than ten years ago I shredded my knee in a non amusing fashion and it was  five long weeks before risking it on the dirt. After which the fear of a repeat nearly put an end to the whole endeavour. A couple of years after that, I kind of lost the plot and took a whole month off.

Never 43 days though. I’ve grown fat on nebulous willpower and unfit despite regular visits to the realm of the statically deluded. Sit ups in hotel rooms followed by chips and beer at the bar are not the recommended preparation for getting back out there.

So I’ve some idea where my MTB fitness and legs have gone. I have surmised they may be hiding in my stomach. I expect tomorrow will be physically demanding and mentally challenging. Being slow up hill is a given and hanging out the back on the descents is more than likely. What’s less likely is whether anyone will notice the difference.

Other than me. And I’m unlikely to care much because I’ll be riding a bike with my mates with dirt under my wheels. Okay it’ll be dirt mostly disguised by moisture, and any skills to deal with such things will be mostly forgotten.

That’s okay. Just re-aquainting myself with the bikes was a cause for joy. A bit of pointless fettling, a refitting of winter mudguards, a tightening of bolts and the pressurisation of tyres felt very much like coming home. Returning to the tribe, reframing what a weekend should feel like, remembering why this hobby / borderline insanity has pretty much consumed me for nearly twenty years.

Chronologically that’s less troubling that 43 days. I don’t know how may I have left, but I’ll be buggered if I’m going to waste even one more wondering what a healed ankle feels like. Might pass with flying colours, might knock it back a few weeks.

That’s mountain biking tho. Risk versus reward every second you’re living in that world. No point dying wondering.

Wish me luck, I’m going back in.

*a quest described in the rather fine Cranked magazine. The latest edition is available at www.cranked.cc 

Two’s a crowd

Like a bike. Only not really.

I’m living in a world of nots. Not being able to ride a bike outside. Not spending enough nights at home. Not matching a lack of exercise with a lack of beer. Not living outside the bubble of normality.

There are consequences. Some physical – even after swerving hotel fried everything, sugary snacks to extend working days, and meals for one where food and alcohol are mostly interchangeable – depositing me in an unhappy place some 2kg north of a first 2018 weigh in.

Mentally tho, that’s even a bit tougher. For many years hotel rooms represented what I did in the week, zeroed in on where the work was, a proxy for a home life barely missed. Now while the stuff people pay for is far more interesting, the logistics kind of piss me off.

Which made breaching this county boundary at 4 o’clock a righteous thing. After some desultory attempts to suppress a burgeoning inbox, the pub black-holed me into Ross where the blokes I used to ride with were assembled at a bar over which I was keen to transact significant business.

We talked bikes of course. In the cannon of the agrarian year, February exploits the mantra that it is ‘the hope that kills you‘ when longer days are drowned in rain leaving mountain biking to sink into the mud where the kindred spirits lie. Normally this is good cause for a proper whinge, but right now I’d bolt the FrankenAnkle to a pedal and make like a dirty paddle steamer.

But that’s not the point here. While we made plans for monster road trips targeting far flung destinations, one of the crew spoke of his – well there’s no other way to codify this – fetish for bicycles made for two. An inclusive engineering solution to share his love of cycling with his spouse. That’s a someone for whom her shiny mountain bike in the shed was more about him than her.

Steady on. Wooah, back off a second here. This is a dangerous idea espousing sharing might be a good thing. Swapping the disinterest of partners subjected to an unstructured ramble of ‘you should have seen that, you should have been there‘ with actually seeing that and being there. That’s the language of treachery.

Riding is our time. It’s the glue which holds us together. Sure we’d be friends I’m sure still talking shit but feeding beer bellies not dreams. We’re so un-clubby it’s painful-  at best maybe a loose association of intersecting ideals. A meritocracy of those fighting the good fight against the dying of the light. A coven of not giving up.  But we’ll be there on any Sunday.  In every season. Against every excuse not to be.

I’m not sure there’s room for compromise. To dilute the solution of the selfish. To exchange a walk on part in a war for a bit part in a cage*. To actively choose road over dirt, to trade miles for mates, to slide into something that might be more of our age.

There’s a irony that in a world of winter monochrome, this is far less black and white than a cursory analysis would suggest. Our world is not a simple choice between blokes doing the mountain bike thing, and those who’d like to bring the not chronically obsessed into the fold.

There’s room for both of course. Before I mangled my ankle, we passed what I’d always labelled the tandem of misery on our way home,  from a ride mostly remembered for shaking off a ton of mud before being allowed back into the car.

It’d been shitting it down. The land around was clamped in grey and dead in every direction. The whole world felt like it was going onto suicide watch because winter was going to last for ever. Yet these two  – apparently sane – individuals were grinning and loving it in a way we really hadn’t been.

Pub they said. Sure we replied. In which stories were told to the power of two.  Riding squared if you will. Good times for sure but not for me. A week later I’m riding a static bike in a sweaty shed to displace the anxiety that this might be the fun stopping injury. Suddenly I wasn’t quite so sure if something different wasn’t still something.

It’s all riding bikes. It’s physicalising a belief than outside is better than inside. It’s extending the community of those who feel the same way. It’s finding a way to square circles by turning them with those who otherwise would be left wondering what they might be missing.

So tonight, it was great to see my mates. It threw dirt into the hole of not riding. It made me remember why bikes and trails are not the full story. Also gave me pause wondering if I’d done enough to share the things which I assumed no one else in the family understood.

We did it once and it was fantastic. I’m just too damn selfish to go there again. For a while anyway.

*Pink Floyd of course.

 

 

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the evening rain.

Depth Gauge Labrador

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.