You can’t get there from here

Ibis MoJo 3

Gather round, gather round, there’s a story to tell here. I say story, others may label it a web of deceit spun around some hooky rationale on exactly why yet another bike is soon to enter the ShedOfDreams. A rationale lampooned by Carol – my long suffering wife and the brains of the outfit – who entirely accurately decomposed it to the simple fact it’s been six months since I last had one.

Let’s move on. Instead consider this as the poster boy for intellectual rigour and logical exactitude. Please stop laughing at the back. Firstly we must consider the on-boarding protocol simply expressed as ‘one in, one out‘. An early win with Jessie’s  undersized Turner leaving the shed earlier this week. What’s that? Not one of my bikes? Detention for you; no one – and certainly not me – ever specified which bike was to be ejected to make space on the wall. It’s not like I’ll buy Jess another one, as she’s only a couple of inches shorter than me* so can ride one of the carefully selected wheeled artefacts which make up what even I laughingly refer to as my bike purchasing strategy.

Intellectual Rigour remember? When options are varied and the outcome is unclear, the wise cover all bases. That’s me then with aluminium, steel and now carbon fully represented. Not satisfied with such a shallow reconciliation of the many standards, I now have full access to wheel sizes starting at 27.5 finishing at 29+ passing through 27.5+ and 29 on the way. On just the three bikes. That’s beyond intellectual rigour, it’s edging into borderline genius.

So we’ve established logical and rigour, let’s get down to specifics.  That ^^ is an Ibis Mojo 3 created from the fusion of string and glue. I’ve never had a carbon bike mostly because they cost shit loads, and I’m a klutz who can break almost anything mostly by just looking at it.

What’s changed? Not much other than an ill conceived idea that my 50th birthday should somehow bring forth the perfect bike. Nonsense of course as no such thing exists and even if it did, the chances of my random purchasing strategy intersecting with it are as close to zero as to make no difference. This didn’t stop me compiling a spreadsheet with twenty or so vanity trinkets represented all at eye watering prices.

Last night I had an entirely sober ‘Fuck this‘ moment. There’s no amount of enjoyment that is going to make something that expensive anything other than a disappointment. So much of the joy of riding has nothing to do with riding and even less to do with the bike you happen to be astride at the time. Spending that much money in search of a tepid marketeteers dream is beyond dumb and accelerating towards insanity. And that’s me saying that.

What do I know? Not much other than I love having different bikes to ride. It’s not going to make me a better rider but the bag is empty and the cat has long gone for that aspiration.  What else? However much I pretend to eek out the zeitgeist of  a 160mm Enduro special, really I’m not kidding anyone. I’m as fast – and let’s be clear that’s not fast at all – on the 120mm Cotic and I’m having a shit load more fun. Where those bikes become brilliant, I’m far too bloody terrified to be even peripherally involved.

So the Ibis then. Amusingly niche even for me. 27.5 and 27.5+ but no 29. That’s fine I bought a bike not long ago which is entirely bi-curious with those wheel sizes. Carbon as we’ve established, proper light, a bit more travel than the Cotic but not Enduro slack or amped out on a super long fork. By all accounts it’s an amazing bike but that’s not why I bought it.

I’ve owned many amazing bikes. I’ve watched them being amazing when ridden by others. There is no perfect bike for me because every ride I wake up with a different idea of what perfection might look like. I’ll never get there- but may edge a little closer if I am honest about the parameters.

That’s an ex-demo. It’s last years model. It’s half the price of a new one. If I don’t like it, I’ll move it on with little financial loss nor emotional trauma that it wasn’t the one.

This was never about the perfect bike. I get that now. It’s about the fun finding out all the ones that aren’t.

*with about the same inside leg. This speaks more of my dwarf like stature south of the hips than Jessie’s anatomically correct bearing 😉

 

24 Hour Racing? Again? Hang on, I’m retired…

CLIC24 - 2009 (25 of 26)

There is little more wretched than a famous sportsperson reversing their retirement. Except maybe their rationale for doing so: ‘I miss the arena’ / ‘It feels like unfinished business’ / ‘I’ve kept myself in great shape’ all of which are likely proxies for ‘Bored’ / ‘Unfulfilled’ / ‘Really need the cash

The results are rarely pretty. Age is not a metaphor. You can fight almost anything but entropy.  And if advancing years bring any wisdom at all, surely all can see that selling a grill with your name on it beats being smashed in the face by a younger man with no respect for your former glories.

Assuming you had any former glories. What even a charitable individual, with only the loosest sense of semantic rigour, may call my ‘bike racing career‘ would be quick to point out there was neither much ‘racing‘ or ‘career‘ involved. Or sometimes even a bike that might be present but pointlessly static whilst the pilot downed another beer.

And yet here we find ourselves in a year where I shall make an unremarkable 50-not-out triggering a return the the scenes of previous undistinguished performances. Not Mountain Mayhem though where no amount of expensive therapy could overcome the screaming nightmare of spending 24 hours mostly face down in a muddy swamp.

Nor some short course nonsense where serious lycra clad individuals showcase their ‘ribcage by toast rack’ under tight fitting sponsors jerseys.  No it’s taken the emotional heartstrings of the previously termed CLIC-24 to drag me from my uncompetitive torpor.

We’ve had four goes at this. None which passed without incident. I’ve written extensively on exactly how packed with blood, tears, misery, snow, rain and hypothermia than only a 24 hour race in May can bring. Browsing these narratives from a period between 2009-2012 reminded me of exactly why the cessation of the event brought more joy than sorrow.

I crashed on my first ever lap. That was the sunny year where stiffening muscles were refreshed by endless sunshine. The following three flip-flopped between gales, storms, hail, rain and frozen tractor tracks. My favourite quote from the ‘bastard of 2011‘ was Nige’s ‘I rode so slowly through that icy water splash, I wasn’t sure if I was going to drown or freeze

I’d almost forgotten about that. Which considering 2012 was the last year I participated in anything vaguely organised is hardly surprising. Nowadays I can barely remember what I had for breakfast.  But dusty brain cells were sparked by a random face-cloth feed announcing with great fanfare the new and improved https://mendip24.wordpress.com was back for 2017.

Different organiser.  Same great charity: https://www.teenagecancertrust.org – having two kids in that age group and reading the inspirational / heartbreaking stories on the website, it didn’t take more than a minute to fire up an email to my previous team mates in an effort to get the band back together.

Surprisingly their responses were unrelentingly positive. I say surprisingly as while my selfish riding creed has spanned the intervening years, theirs have diverged somewhat. Nig rode with me the other day for a couple of hours and admitted this was the longest ride he’d managed in about 24 months. Small children will do that to a man. Jason would consider that a proper training schedule as he hasn’t ridden AT ALL for at least three years. I know this to be true as his bike is sat in the ShedOfDreams having being deposited there after an Alps trip where Jas broke both a toe and a rib.

Dave’s been riding his road bike a bit. But in a different country. I assumed he was still there but was disabused by a reply explaining he’d snook back into ol’ blighty under the cover of darkness. They checked their diaries and found no excuses so we dusted off the ‘Hardcore Loafing‘ moniker and pledged to meet in a muddy field in a few months time.

This does not guarantee anything. One year Dave broke his bike spectacularly on the way to the start line in a transparent ruse not to ride the first lap. Jason failed to turn up at all at the following event. Nig has been a mainstay of the team although has been prone to brain-farts including riding three consecutive night laps, the last of which pretty much ended up in a ditch.

And me? Well I’ve been consistently and universally rubbish.  It’s not a lack of fitness, it’s more a lack of moral fibre. When the going get tough, the tough go and hide in the beer tent. Regardless of the aforementioned wisdom of age absolutely nothing has changed.

So May 13, 2017. Looking forward it it. Sat here with a glass at my right hand. Actual proximity of hard work, shit weather and potential tentage may colour that view somewhat. Still at least I have at least two bikes that will be absolutely ideal for the event. No need to spend any money there.

Which is good. As I’m seriously considering hiring a motorhome 😉

Headcase

The Gap/Talybont classic MTB loop

That’s what a helmet is. An independently tested bucket for the brain. The hegemony in the Holy Trinity liturgy of the experienced mountain biker; Helmet, Camelbak and Gloves. Anything else is essentially ballast- so can be borrowed, bought or ignored.

Which is why those of us with fading faculties have a system. Riding readiness is assured by a full equipment audit the evening before. Water and food are calibrated to projected ride length, clothes are selected based on an evaluation of a minimum of three weather forecasts, and key items of personal protection are placed in prominent view.

After a previous incident of inappropriate headwear, I now carefully place my helmet and gloves above the coffee machine. There are no realistic scenarios where I shall not pass the morning jump-starter at least twice before stumbling out of the door. Systems you see, riding out or jumping in the car first, have been honed to the point that my increasing forgetfulness is mitigated by un-breachable pre-ride protocols.

Until yesterday. Which was merely symptomatic of the true cause some 12 hours previously. ‘Big ride tomorrow, not going to drink much‘ I postulated to Carol on our way to good friends for a quick lunch stop.  A fine and worthy concept which – like many of my plans – failed to survive first contact with the enemy. Beer led to wine, wine morphed into gin and some seven hours later, I was dribbling on the sofa wondering how the fuck I’d lost control of most of my limbs.

The morning was difficult. One of those where everything is a mystery. Shaving with a toothbrush, taking a while to understand why your head is warm but your testicles lack coverage, struggling to understand which of the one button on the shower might release the torrent much required to cleanse the alcohol wash.

Attempting to shortcut the process of getting my shit together, I rifled through the clean laundry basket winning sufficient garments to clothe a man heading over the frozen border to Wales. Time saved was then lost as I couldn’t find my shoes. Twice. Having forgotten where I’d moved them too some 20 seconds previously. Then stuff fell off chairs, other stuff refused to fit in the bag, water leaked and Jelly Babies exploded from an unexpectedly open packet.

It was just 20 minutes of serial ‘Fuck it‘ finishing in stuffing everything that looked relevant in the big bag and chucking it in the car. Wandered once more into the Shed to scratch the nagging itch something was missing. My bike. Where the fuck is that? Oh yeah, left it at Matt’s last night.

All good then. Only five miles to drive before slumping into Adams’ van wondering if there was an option of curling up in the back and waiting for it all to be over. But no, the 27th of December IS the Gap ride. Classic Welsh riding, two big climbs, two great descents, lots of big views in between.

Weather is always a factor. I’ve been drilled with sleet, near-drowned in trail rivers, blinded by fog, endangered by thick ice and reduced to almost tears by relentless headwinds. Today tho the calmness of the weather was a perfect juxtaposition to my rising panic that something wasn’t quite right.

Other than me obviously. We were an hour out of Ross when the problem was finally retrieved from deep mental storage. Helmet exactly sixty minutes from my bag in the van.  Bugger. No bike shops between us and starting the ride. Too far out to turn back. And the idea of riding rocky stuff for four hours without any kind of head protection wasn’t appealing. Maybe I could just lie in the back of the van after all.

My revelation coincided with the last decent sized town on the drive out. A solitary outdoor shop appeared to be open. In which there was a single helmet which the proprietor thought was too small. She was right, but in terms of placebo it was a perfect fit. The best £16 helmet in all of South Wales. To be fair, it was the only helmet available in all of South Wales, which had the dual benefit of providing minimal head protection and ensuring all my friends had a bloody good laugh at my expense.

It meant I could ride tho. And it was a stunning day to be in the mountains. Even with a helmet whose efficacy I really didn’t want to test, and a hangover which had mostly faded after the first three hours. At the start I worried a little about testing £16 quids of lowest cost bidder against big pointy rocks, but by the time we descended from the top of the gap, I barely even remembered its inappropriateness.

The Gap/Talybont classic MTB loop

The Gap/Talybont classic MTB loop

I won’t be wearing it again tho. The charity shop shall benefit instead. I might well be an idiot, but I’m not a total head-case. And next year sobriety shall be my companion on this classic ride. Along with a helmet carefully accounted for.

It’s that time of year again….

FOD MTB - December 2016

I’m not referring to the exploitive pagan festival first repackaged for Christianity and latterly for mass consumerism and financial misery*. No this this is something far more important:  The Grim Has Returned both outside and in. The trails have gone from unseasonably dry passing through amusingly damp before arriving at their current status of tractionless filth.  My own gritty trek through this pantheon of grisly misery has led me to question if I’ve ever ridden in proper mud before. A brief but depressing journey from – in my mind anyway – a fast’n’loose hip-sliding champion to a stiff’n’rigid tyre-slding loser wondering who drowned all the fun.

This happens every year. And there are always excuses. 2016 has both a short and long version; short: I’ve not been very well. long: I’ve succumbed to the worst kind of modern plague- visiting upon me many and varied symptoms, the worst being a digestive system suffering a 4 day colonic irrigation through the extensive use of a porcupine.  A diet of dry toast and misery has done nothing to stop the bastard virus in my guts recycle any food whatsoever into foul liquid. With spikes. Too much information? Ha. I’ve spared you the gory details. But before I draw a veil over any further revelations, let me be absolutely clear it’ll  be a while before I can cough with any kind of confidence.

This personal Krakatoa coincided with the delayed seasonal rains and the Forest Christmas ride. It was pretty much touch and go if I was going to make it. Having been ‘going’ quite extensively in the few hours before the night-time rendezvous.  Still stiff upper lit and all that even if things were a bit loose elsewhere. Fastened my shorts for the last time, gave the gurgling small intestine a good talking too and plunged into the darkness. Where I met my riding pals, all of whom showed great concern and sympathy for my evidently serious medical condition. Yeah, like fuck.  Essentially accused of extreme malingering and being a social media special snowflake-  their cackles accompanied us up through the gun range as my legs came to terms with being fuelled by a couple of biscuits and flickery motivation.

Irrespective of being within sight of the morticians slab, these are not my favourite conditions. Dark, Wet and Muddy. Hey let me throw in a cultural reference – this is the Holy Trinity of the unmotivated. We disciples of the grim differ in our steadfastness of faith in these trying times. Only one has Judas-like tendencies hiding dark thoughts  of naffing off before the Last Descent. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t want my riding pals crucified, I just wish the buggers would consider a little charity for the faltering one needing to feel the warm embrace of the pub.

In lighter times, these trails offer me the chance to hang on to the wheels of my betters. Not now tho, three corners and it’s all of them gone and one of me hanging off the back, harvesting limited traction through extensive use of the brakes, and idly wondering whether I’ll end up in a heap under the bike or more excitingly bonded to a tree like a flailing low level branch. The conditions actually aren’t that bad except in the most important place which isn’t the ground out in front of you, it’s more the squishy thing inside your head.  Yep we’re back to thinking not doing, worrying not pushing, braking not flowing.  Still even in limp-home mode, it’s  good to be out even if my pace uphill and downhill is pretty much the Wikipedia citation for ‘Entropy

Eventually under my sustained pleading, we head to the pub via a final slimy trail I descend in the manner of an oversize fridge glued to a roller skate. Nobody really notices other than me, and I don’t care much either as my mind has moved on to the main event. Where we offer cash for beer and throw in a dirty protest  for free. Pints are assembled, bollocks is talked, an entire new measurement of time – The Yodel – is created. There is much pointing and laughing. Tales are told, plans are made, friendship is assured for another year. Handshakes are offered – we don’t hug, we’re not American – before we slip away to our other families, our non riding commitments, what other people consider real life.

A couple of weeks ago, I did something similar with the guys I ride with in the Malverns. No pub but we stopped for Sloe Gin and Mince pies half way round. And parted in the same way. We’ll ride together soon, cursing the long shadow of winter, working hard on sloppy climbs and holding it together on sketchy descents. Getting the shitty season done and counting the days until Spring.

This is my tribe. And this is our church. You can make a dumb comparison to religion, extend it through contrasting iconography and forge spurious links between the two. Many clever people have, but for me that’s missing the point. Humanity basically operates on our subscription to a shared myth. You can choose a belief system which tells stories of omnipresent beings, or consider instead something a little more physical, a whole lot more fun and with many more pub-based interactions.

Choose either. Or both. It doesn’t matter. There’s too much horrible stuff going on right now over which we have scarily little control.  It’s hard to know what’s coming for us first; global financial meltdown, environmental catastrophe or some kind of ‘war to end them all‘ started on Twitter by a man-boy who is neither presidential nor can even spell it. On that happy note, I wish all my readers a Happy Christmas and a prosperous new year 😉

I’ll be riding my bike with my friends. When you consider the option is not to do that, getting a bit muddy and being a bit rubbish doesn’t really seem to matter at all.

*I’ve consistently held this position.  And now being nearly 50, it’s unlikely the joys of Christmas shall ever be visited on me. But hey if you need an excuse to photocopy** your arse whilst wearing a stupid jumper, fill your boots as it were.

**Told you I was old. All you youngsters are surely 3-D printing your unmentionables nowadays.

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’