Lights out

Mince Pie and Sloe Gin Xmas Ride

I always loved Anne Widdicome* for describing then Tory leadership hopeful Michael Howard as ‘having something of the night about him’.  That’s us – right now – facing down the sliding sun benighting our Wednesday night rides for the next six months.

For those of us into double digit four season campaigns, the search for motivation to shift sofa-based arse to the trails, the need for a substantial trust funds to procure multiple drivetrains and the skills to be relearned when everything is going sideways become ever harder as the trails soften.

Lights though, they are bloody brilliant. I’ve invested sufficient funds to shoe the kids for about a hundred years to procure a UK made CNC bean canister projecting light into the next county, and possibly bringing down aircraft  heading for Birmingham International. Instructions showcase twelve modes, trumpet gyroscopic circuitry and acceleration based beam patterns.

Being a mechanical savage I stabbed buttons until ‘Bark-Fire’ was initiated. Mostly accompanied by a Picard-like ‘Make It So’. Lights set to stunning, daylight up front and not much dimmed in the periphery, with an equally awesome helmet light filling the gaps.  Basically, what we’re talking here is a night-sun. Nothing other than your daylight saving meme stops you from ripping the trails at full speed. Well until the water table becomes a physical obstacle.

It was not always like this. Back in the 90s, a burgeoning sport brought forth many men labouring long and hard in sheds up and down the land. Begetting a cut down car battery powering two bar mounted candles giving off a waxy glow for between 90 minutes and about 12. The excitement was never knowing quite which duration would be your companion in the darkness this evening. Lights essentially moulded from discarded fairy liquid bottles were inadequately affixed to narrow bars with ubiquitous zip ties.

Not the greatest solution. On any kind of non-tarmac’d terrain, the lights would slowly – but terrifyingly – rotate 180 degrees to silhouette your frozen features as you smashed into a handy tree. At least you were travelling slowly,  but a couple of hours of this had us shaking our pints onto copper-burnished pub tables narrating to any who would listen ‘you don’t know man, you weren’t there’. Technology marches on and soon we were affixing an approximation of a 1950s Cadillac fin to our bars where HID technology would light the trail in a rather lovely blue, assuming the massive voltage required to start it hadn’t set fire to the local forest.

And now? Now we have a plethora, a smorgasbord, a thousand options from very low cost Chinese imports to upscaled UK sheds from my youth. And while I’m all for the lowering of the barrier of entry for night riding, some of these eBay bargains lack any kind of safety features whatsoever. Which, when you’re stuffing volts and amps into a live medium is something more than a cursory oversight. I may not be your first point of call for fiscal responsibility, but even I can see that if you’re standing in the charred ruins of your house, while being doused by the fire brigade, the £100 saving on a set of cheap lights may be a decision on which you reflect long and hard upon.

Anyway we strap bright lights to bars and fading motivation to bodies and head out into the dark. One of the reasons to do so is the Wednesday night ride is essentially the gap between being clean and being drunk. It’s made all the better by the relentless piss-taking and giggling which accompanies every single one, even when we’re him deep in icy puddles or slashed by hard rain.

Any conversations bypass the hi-brow directly to reboot  ‘Beavis and Butthead go Mountain Biking’.  It can be a little cutting and it is always rude – I tend to abuse my riding pals on everything from ridiculous lighting solutions to stretched riding shirts apparently ‘smuggling a badger’. They respond appropriately asking if maybe I could go a little faster as brake pads are quite expensive.

Jim** tho is a special case. He expresses his true feelings through the interpretive medium of modern crashing. He’s fast and fearless. Even after finding himself dangling from a tree some distance from where his bike is crashing through the undergrowth.  A contributory factor is his lighting solution clearly acquired from a garage promotion where 20 quid of petrol unlocked the possibility of a light-set best thought of as toaster with a bar mount. They have – in no particular order – failed to light at all, fallen off the bars, rotated round to blind Jim – a blessing really as he was about to insert an 100 year oak into his personal geography – and randomly flipped through a Fibonacci set of modes none of which appear to light the ground in front of him

Being a good sport, Jim – a chef by day – explained this illuminating phenomenon was not a toaster at all. We’d entirely misinterpreted his wise and carefully researched purchase. ‘This’ – he proudly intoned indicating the plastic-by-the-lowest-cost-bidder on his bars – ‘is a superb, value engineered off road lighting system. With a crumpet setting’.  Before we went full dark, rides have been light-amibivalent starting in the day, fading into dusk before disappearing into full black. Riding in the twilight is horrible, hard to know if to trust your lights or your aged eyeballs. Riders pirouetting into the local shrubbery – I’m looking at you Ian B – suggests decisions were not always well made.

Jim tho, he’s not a man to waste electrons. Turns his lights on only when hands and faces cannot be visibly confirmed. The last descent on an early autumn ride finds us high above the vans with a brilliant kilometre of buff singletrack to carve through. It’s proper dark tho, and we’re all attaching cables and tweaking the angle of dangle. Cutting through this faff came the buzz of over-driven LEDs arcing into the forest canopy.  Jim has lined up various batteries in series and brazenly selected a Spinal Tap-11 setting.

A voice broke the respectful and awed silence. And this is what we heard ‘He’s only gone FULL CRUMPET’. Cue riders falling off bikes in paralysed amusement. You probably had to be there. And you should because this is the essence of the Wednesday night ride. I aways come back with a massive grin and still find myself chortling the following day when others demand a thin veneer of professionalism. The is somewhat beyond me because while my body is synchronised to a boring day, my mind is still lost in the night.

And however shit it gets – and it will get shit – we’ll just keep doing it because it’s stupid, it’s silly and it’s not sitting on the sofa getting fat.

As a reward there is always beer to toast the ride. Or possibly a crumpet.

*in purely a literal sense.

**this is a man who turned up for the night ride one day TWENTY FOUR HOURS after his wife had given birth to their second child. Respect is due.

What’s your best day on a bike ?

San Francisco - Day 2

(wrote this while we were in San Francisco. Seems a long time ago now!)

There are so many.  Epic days lost in the mist shrouding high places, dust blind  on summer alpine singletrack,  numb fingered on frosty night rides with owls silhouetted under a harvest moon, or summer days heart bursting between the trees and always a beer to finish.

These are good of course, great even. Retrieved from deep storage when spiteful rain smashes office window panes. Shared experiences with those who are a bit like you, who ‘get it’, who know the rolled eyes of partners who don’t. There’s much to celebrate here- like minded friends and awesome trails. It should be enough but strangely it isn’t.

The skeleton in the closet is made flesh each time you leave the house and abandon those in your care. They say it’s fine and mostly it is, but this doesn’t absolve you of the guilt that you could have done more. It fails to assuage the regret of being a bit of a rubbish Dad. It exposes the vicarious failing of making those in your image.

I taught my wife to ride. It went well right up to the point where she ended up in hospital. Undaunted my kids received similar training progressing from stabilisers to full on bling mountain bikes in all the time you could ask ‘are you enjoying this?‘, One of them did before encountering teenage-ism, the other less so trying hard but mostly spending his time lying in bushes wondering if we could go home now.

So I gave up. Three bikes gathered dust on the wall whilst mine were campaigned through many seasons, ever changing but anchored by the constant that it was all about me. Today we changed that a little bit and now I finally get it’s not about the bike.

San Francisco is a very bike-y city. Can’t move for the bloody things weaving between the ear-phoned runners and deluded segway riders.  Many of the 17 million visitors a year wobble dangerously on brilliant shared cycle paths heading mostly to the iconic bridge and occasionally into the local scrub.

Two of my family don’t ride at all. A problem solved finding one of the bike-hiring multitude offered tandems of dubious provenance.  We hired a pair, one with rusted forks offering around two kilos of weight in exchange for an inch of travel, the other shod with tyres exactly one generation downstream from the discovery of vulcanisation.

Initial Leigh to Bicycle interfaces didn’t go so well. Brakes the wrong way round would have been a problem had they offered anything but bar mounted accessorisaion. About the front brake? Yes? I would have liked one. Those bars spanned a width last seen on 1980s race bikes from which the vertical head angle had been stolen.  It should not be possible that any bike with a length occupying two States simultaneously to be eyebrow-steeringly twitchy. And yet through the magic of geometry I found myself wobbling in the direction of the Pacific while sawing desperately at the hip width bars.

And I ride bikes a lot, My youngest daughter has barely swung a leg over a top tube for a year and while game, was in danger of chucking herself and her brother into a passing taxi.

Family meeting. Kids split between bikes. I get the nervous eldest as my stoker and Carol’s bravely assumed the rear position on the drunken perambulator piloted by Jess. It’s hard to think of what possibly could go wrong.

Nothing did. We rode brilliant bike paths, were overtaken by keen joggers, stopped a hundred times to capture jaw dropping vistas, pushed a bit, pedalled a bit more all the time making inexorable progress towards the bridge. Progress briefly halted when the family idiot abandoned his helmet at the bottom of one of the few chewy climbs on the route.

Dispatch the stoker and head back down. I’ve ridden many rubbish mountain bikes on sketchy descents and been properly scared. Yet nothing prepared me for the terror of 45lbs of acute-angled pig iron barely adhered to the tarmac on perished tyres. I cannot believe you’d ride one of these off road. And survive anyway.

The bridge was amazing – windy, crowded and noisy but amazing nevertheless. I was heart-burstingly proud of our little family getting it done, ignoring the carbon transported, Rapha clothed, shaven legged weekend heroes passing with an inch to spare*, instead being open mouthed at the view and the very fact we were riding this iconic infrastructure mostly only seen being destroyed in movies.

The descent under the bridge wasn’t without incident. I’ve got the boy leaning in and we’re topping 40kph on tyres held together by a few threads and habit while, not far behind us, Jess and Carol are close to bouncing off walls due to what I’ll charitably call Jess’s lack of spacial awareness.

We survive and it’s 3km up one big hill and then cruising down the far side to the ferry. Time for an ice cream and some high fives. There’s talk of tender arses and weary legs but that’s the first sniff of complaint I’ve heard all day.

This ride had no technical difficulty. We averaged a speed that wouldn’t trouble a weekend jogger. The bikes were terrible. But they were also awesome being the medium in which we all had a bloody lovely time, Last time I crossed the Golden Gate bridge was on a Harley some 15 years ago with a bunch of like-minded mates.

That was great. This was better. It’s really not about the bike.

*on my way back up the hill after forgetting my helmet, I overtook two roadies and kept them behind all the way, Awarding me a strava position of 7,205 of 22,000 on that climb. Says way more about them that me 🙂

Done and flustered

Nearly there

A few weeks ago, a very nice man made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Come and work with us on this insanely complex project, defined with aspirational deadlines set by a community of the unwilling who move at all the speed of turtles wading through a sea of treacle.

Just my kind of thing. Before I sign up tho, let me raise the little matter of buggering off for 6 working days after putting in a massive shift of a full two weeks. Fine he said. I am so damn lucky to work for these kind of people. Still after a decade and a bit in financial services, I think I’m probably owed 😉

These two weeks tho. Blimey. Reintroducing myself to the wobbly spectrum of higher education after two months of sloth kick started my delivery gene. Give me a deadline and you’ll create a monster. We have many deadlines, all of them requiring much in the production of fully fledged plans and artefacts that’ll survive the harsh light of academic peer review.

Best get busy then. Not easy when being pinged from one end of the country to another on 7am flights and late finishes. All the time wondering if we are the last generation to embrace the devil that is email, how come we got the rough end of that particular deal? You have 93 new messages and most of them appear to be at least mildly vexed.

All this against a backdrop of podium form dithering of which bike to take. First world problems right there. It’s bad enough waking up at 3am in the morning having a OMFG vocational moment, without it being followed by ‘well the chubby has rubbish tyres, but I think it’s more fun. Maybe if I packed Matt’s van floor to ceiling with spare tubes and fashioned some kind of bike trailer, it could be a goer‘.

It probably couldn’t. And the prospect of pissing off my best friends for days on end as I’m stuck if a viscous cycle of shredded rubber* finally convinced me to take the Aeris. Especially after Matt had used all sorts of percussion to remove 10 recalcitrant bearings all of which were on the wrong side of a bit tired.

I felt terrible adding that the seatpost has a bad case of droop seemingly brought on by introducing the FlareMax into the ShedofDreams. Before that tho, fitting box fresh bearings into the frame was a team effort where I was allowed to wield the hammer. I’ve never really doubted Matt’s bravery on a bike, but frankly this was almost like a suicide wish.

Amazingly un-clubbed, he used those digits to strip layers of the Reverb in the manner of a man dismantling a priceless Russian Doll** before declaring it was broken beyond even the rambling pantheon of his spare parts bin.

It’s fixed now of course. Took no time at all once I wasn’t involved, having been trapped in the Great Western Railway vortex of exploding signals***.  An experience I’ll be repeating over the next two days while spares are accumulated, tools are selected and vans are packed.

My only job is to get my personal gear together. A job made harder by the vastness of my clothing collection far outstripping anything that’d pass as normal wear. And my inability to create order from chaos when considering a massive pile of stuff and a small bag.

The resolution of which I have Carol to thank who through some kind of innate ability to dry-stone-wall filed much stuff into not much space. I decided my best contribution would be to perform a fire sale on my inbox using cold beer as an accelerant.

Ready then? Not really. Excited tho. Road-trips still do this and it’ll be a sad day when they don’t. Two days of standing up in front of many people exuding a thin veneer of professionalism. before running away for a week of liver damage interspersed with amazing riding.

I wonder if I packed any pants? Only eight days, it’ll be fine.

*I’ll probably piss them off with all sorts of other stuff. No point getting ahead of myself here.

** I know what some of you are thinking. Really,  I blame the internet.

*** wrong type of sun

We’re going to need a bigger tyre

Cwmcarn MTB

This time next week, six friends and I will relocate to the stunning beauty of the Ardeche in southern France. I fully expect there to be epic riding and even more epic hangovers if last year is to provide any kind of baseline.

Then I took the perfect bike even if the rider was at no times perfect. In reality my capability swung randomly from borderline competent to broken man with much mincing, excuses and lying down in massive rock gardens running a full diagnostic check in between.

The bike tho – long, low, slack, superb long travel fork, clever shock, stiff wheels, sticky tyres and dropper post. It’s a full house at the Enduro Bingo. With 4000 km under wheel, we should share the empathy of the Lone Ranger and Silver,  Bernie Winters and Schnorbitz or possibly Sonny and Skippy* – except Skippy tended to bring Sonny problems, while the Aeris is really good at solving them.

Well it would be were it not be for my inability to let it strut its stuff. It’s reasonable to expect after all this time together, we’ll laughably dispatch any obstacle demanding full commitment, a modicum of skill and a bloody good bike. One out of three isn’t bad. Don’t get me wrong I’m not disappointed with the bike, it’s more the other way round.

I’m sure those extruded alumnium tubes resonate with a ‘for fucks sake, just get it done’ as I sit brakes clenched hard at the top of whatever everyone else is riding. Or the forks whispering ‘six inches of well damped travel here,  any time you feel you might want to get involved, we’re ready to go‘.

There’s some comfort in that I’m not entirely alone, after an unguarded comment from a major bike company explained that at least half the buyers of their most capable bikes really should be buying something a little closer to their ability. As opposed to their aspiration.

Still I’m dithering. Which bike for the Ardeche? The shining example of a modern trail bike or the double chubby missing all sorts of important stuff too long to list; let’s start with tyres not vulcanised with a nanometre of sidewall, a set of forks clearly too short for anyone with a gnarly vibe, angles that don’t punch the front wheel out some way to the horizon, and many other components shoulder-shruggingly unavailable in that rural distract of southern France.

Let’s test that. The trail-centre at Cwmcarn is hardly a cipher for the unrelenting geology we’re riding a mere seven days hence. Better than the Forest tho which is pretty much loam. First descent burst the bubble these tyres have any mountain credentials. Small rock strike, instant deflation. No problem, fire up the tubeless repair kit. Ah, bugger left that at home – never mind a 27.5+ tube will get us going.

That’s at home too. Eventually we fashioned a repair using a stretched standard tube which eventually inflated the chubby tyre to something usable. And use it we did – riding both trails before climbing to the top of the uplifted downhill tracks. Before that, this.

There’s a logical fallacy which predicts ‘new bikes will make me faster’. Like that’s a valid metric to measure yourself by. If it’s a road bike, fine if that’s your sort of thing. Mountain biking is so much more nuanced. Quantitive measurement from Strava and the like is a pale copy of the richer qualitative emotions from joy to terror passing through calm, fulfilled, awe and joy. We’re basically an organic experience of the movie Inside Out.

Trail centres transfer most of the risk from rider to designer. Leaving us riders to abandon caution at the car park and throw ourselves enthusiastically at the epicentre of GPS surveying, complex funding, heavy machinery and blokes with spades. We should thank them all because when they get it right, they so do get it right.

Chasing Dean on a smooth but fast section reminded me of what I love about knobbly tyres of any width. That whole mythical flow thing. Being braver than you remembered last time. Marvelling at what bike designers might have been thinking, wondering if you can go maybe a little bit harder and giggling in relief when you survive answering that question.

The double chubby is beautifully balanced. It does require a willing audience though to get the most from it. Push it a bit and it pushes back with all sorts of haptic feedback. Let it run and it will run like Forrest Gump on amphetamines. Trees thrown at your optic nerves like sideways scrolling platform games**. Drops dropped, jumps jumped, corners apex’d with twisted necks and deep breaths. Stuff of life. Right here.

So yeah let’s ride the DH course. Been nearly 10 years since i last did that fully armoured up and mostly intimidated. This time not so much although with next week in mind, I started off small and worked down.  Then we switched the final XC descent. Smooth I thought, not fast. Like the latter was ever going to happen.

Dropped in with my good mate David drafting the rear wheel. Remembered enough to leave the brakes alone. Trusted enough not to grab them inappropriately. Looking far enough ahead to swing the bike between perfect apexes. Popping over jumps and having a proper go at the only drop. It’s over in less than a minute, but that’s 59 seconds of undiluted joy.

After which my haste to say goodbye was triggered by the need to swap tyres to something at least one evolutionary branch displaced from paper. Done that, had a beer, not made a decision. Not riding now until we fall out of the van some 14 hours from here.

Still dithering. Might be over-thinking it 😉

*I might be showing my age a here.

** and again.

My big fat geek shedding

Cotic Flare Max. First ride 😄

We established early on that fat bikes are silly. Ridiculous even. Especially when campaigned in their endless look-at-me-glory in a landlocked county miles from any sand. Short of riding through the detritus of a builders van, they have all the efficacy of a chocolate fireguard.

Fun tho. Most would agree, if only briefly.  In the same vein as one should try everything once other than buggery and bankruptcy* – having invested none too wisely in Fat Futures, I’ve flirted dangerously with at least one of those**

So silly and fun, for a given value of fun. Oh no dear reader we’re missing the point here. Fat Bikes are nothing less than a gateway drug into the sordid world of the chubby. First we get fat, then we get chubby. Some may be dragged in only to publicly shun the dragon chasing rush of the semi-fat by pretending they didn’t inhale, while many others are lost in a maelstrom of standards, sizes and a fetishness for rubber which suggests other specialist publications.

My name is Alex and it’s been 4 hours since my last chubby. And 4 months since the fat bike saw light outside the shedofdreams. Not quite true, I lent it to the local bike shop whose mechanic was extremely keen to give it a try. Two months later it was EXACTLY where I left it attracting much interest but no actual riding.

Not wishing to consign it to the endless experience of a bike shaped elephant man,  I threw it back in the rather crowded shed between many other bikes all of which were being ridden. And a parts bin that had ‘new bike’ written all over it. Which is probably the same phrase that’ll pointedly anoint my gravestone. Fat though is still good. I’ve been to the USA recently. Trust me, fat can be very good indeed if you’re elbows deep into a burger the size of a small island and cheerful staff are reaching over to pass you a cold beer. 4 Kilo’s of overweight baggage returning in Seat 43c cannot be wrong.

Chubby tho is just a little bit better. In that if everyone is fat you don’t feel left out. We can all be big boned with an overactive thyroid. Slow metabolism, fast pie hand and all that.  But when you’re pin balling between trees while your thinner tyre-d friends pop over the horizon, it feels as if you’ve been matriculated into a club of exactly one. And the piss taking. That can get a bit old as well.

Switch to chubby, and I’m still not going to be out front – unless everyone else wants a rest – but at least I’m in the same post code as those with whom I just climbed the last hill with.  All the fat bike traits – other than the reflected glory of being visibly different – bonkers grip, monster truck roll-ability, nutty cornering velocity and cartoon looks are pretty much there. And you can suspend normal looking frames between them without breaking many of the rules that make mountain bikes endlessly practical. Suspension for a start.

Suspension on a fat bike has a few advocates. Most of whom waffle and displace in the manner of any modern politician. 4 inches of damped vertical movement fighting about half of that undamped by a massive tyre is hardly a byword for effective vibration quelling. And there’s the whole Fat culture which states one must be fully rigid to pass into the Masonic Groupthink.. All the time being vigorously bearded.  Terrible generalisations I know but as I’ve just sold my fatbike I’m free of ridicule by association. Although not ridicule because of what happened next.

I have a chubby bike. It’s my Trek Stache. I bought it very cheaply in order to upgrade it very expensively. At which point it was perfect. Then I demo’d a full suss chubby in the pissing rain a few weeks ago. Wet roots, muddy trails – dampness abounded, it was an inauspicious day to pretend the emperor may indeed be wearing some new clothes. I loved it tho, not the one recommended but the nimble version a size below. As nimble as a pair of tyres summing to nearly six inches can be. Rode the bigger one, didn’t like it. Rode the one with normal tyres, didn’t like that either. Only had eyes for the Stubby Chubby. Which is pretty much the bike resembling the potential owner.

So I bought one. Built it  last night- well not me but Matt which proved apposite since it involved innovative engineering way beyond ‘do you think this might invalidate the warranty?’ when it came to certain components – rode it today. Box fresh bikes always ride the best, that’s the lore. New bike goggles rarely suggest anything else.

Will it make me faster? Of course it fucking won’t. No bike, however fantastic, can do that. If it has brakes anyway. Does it replace anything? No again I’m afraid. Although I sold the fat bike to a mate as he wanted one, whilst I’m currently in a mental cycle which thinks I don’t.  Will I have more fun? Dunno, I’ll probably tell myself I am.

Do new bikes make me happy? Oh Yeah. Isn’t that really shallow? Indeed it is. Do I care? Not massively 🙂

*Apparently Thomas Beecham considered incest and morris dancing the baseline a few years back. But Oscar Wilde got there first so we’re going with the senior man here.

** Bankruptcy just so we’re absolutely clear.

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.