Running out of time

There are many things I dislike. Most of them involve activities steeped in principle and hard work. Stuff from which there is no place to hide, no sniping from the sidelines, no swerving through clever words.

Occasionally this intersects with two wheels leaving me wrestling a difficult juxtaposition between good fun and proper effort.  Not running tho – that’s a hateful activity carried out by those missing a bicycle in their life. Any personal dabbling with the Devil’s Treadmill generally leaves me bored, injured and entirely bereft of this mythical ‘Runners High‘ pitched by those with product to sell.

I only have two issues with running; 1- it’s impossible to buy your way into any level of adequacy and 2-it’s entirely unsuited for a man of my physical decrepitude. Mountain bikers crash and hurt themselves, occasionally they crock a knee or strain a muscle in pursuit of laudable goals. Runners are basically injuries waiting for somewhere to happen. Having read a few forums, I’m staggered we don’t pass hundreds of weekend joggers lying supine on the roadside raising a last working limb in a vain attempt to attract attention.

No point in responding. Just encourages them. On revival there’ll be some loquacious diatribe on how a lack of mid-sole support stuttered a stride pattern previously perfected by video analysis. Sure I said you can’t buy yourself into faking joggery, but this in no ways stops those bankrupting themselves trying.

In my day – and I accept this was quite a long time ago – you’d add a pair of trainers to your football kit before vaguely accelerating round the playing field under the hateful whistle of the PE teacher.  Up front would be three blokes in vests clearly channeling Chariots Of Fire, while the mid pack churned mud in grumpy apathy leaving those ‘challenged’ pupils out back acting as lap markers.

Guess which group had a gasping Al in? I’m uniquely misconfigured for running. Short legs – once memorably described as ‘He’s a six foot man from the waist up and a dwarf from the hips down‘ – shorter hamstrings and a respiratory system permanently restricted by chronic Asthma.

And that’s before we switch mental gears to my aforementioned inability to get with the worthy programme. Sure hard graft pays off the long term, but cheating works right now. With any payoff buttressed by a month of abject misery slogging through the horror of a Northern winter, my excuses book bulged with many reasons why this wasn’t for me.

It hasn’t changed much since. A few desultory jogs when there was nothing on the TV. Occasional terrifying flashbacks when latter day football coaches insisted on laps of another muddy field, and a few 100 yard sprints to out-run some angry stove-faced individual keen to smash my face in.*

Until this morning.  Nursing my first proper hangover of 2016 while focussing almost 100% of my bodily functions to digesting a massive bacon sandwich, some random brain fart gave wind to the idea that a quick jog might be a good idea. On reflection it was a terribly bad idea, hard to know how I could have chosen less wisely? Maybe spent that 30 minutes nail gunning my thighs**

Being an equipment faddy, you may be surprised that I kitted myself out in an outfit starkly reminiscent of those hated Wednesday afternoons some thirty years past – T-Shirt, pair of ragged shorts, pristine Gym Trainers (bought on a whim during a delusional period where I considered going to one) and my trusty BitFat.

A little subsequent research suggests things have moved on a bit. I was consumed by a fit of giggles on scanning a running forum where two fat people argued endlessly over which £200 shoes were the ultimate running accessories. Then considered the bicycling equivalent of the same in the ShedOfDreams(tm) before nodding to my virtual kindred spirits.

So I stared slowly and worked down from there. My plan was to run for thirty minutes in an effort to cover five kilometres. On the plus side, this doesn’t even really qualify as running, it’s more of a brisk jog to fetch the papers. On the negative plane, the roads were under water and my running gait closely matches that of a hungry chicken in sight of a tasty leftover.

I tried extending my stride beyond a desperate hobble once it became apparent I’d barely reach the end of the drive at the current rate of progress. This resulted in my legs hurting a lot without noticeably increasing velocity. So I switched to shifting those feet a little faster which just left me very knackered, very quickly.

It quickly became apparent that my ‘limp home mode’ pace was as good as it was going to get. For the first twenty minutes, the scenery passed by extremely slowly while I managed boredom and soaking feet. The last ten minutes had all of that pushed somewhat into the background by stiffening muscles and twinging knees.

On seeing the house, rather than go with my first thought which was to lie in the road and genuflect my thanks for survival agains the odds, I sprinted to get the bloody thing over with. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, in my entire skeletal setup liked that very much at all.

So much so I slumped in the shed, while Strava mocked my 10 minute mile pace, perspiring greatly and wondering if this harsh clicking of bones could ever be a good thing. Took me a while to get in the shower on the not unreasonable grounds the bathroom is located above a difficult set of stairs.

I’m running out of time. This is a young mans activity. Any marginal gains to my fitness will be negated by important body parts seizing up or breaking down.  I’ve given it a go and shall now consider it closure against some troubling childhood memories.

Except I sort of enjoyed it. For a while anyway. There’s a simplicity to merely strapping on a pair of shoes and going outside that’s mildly appealing. And now I’ve immersed myself in the world of the modern runner, there is clearly much in the shiny / nebulous realm to be acquired.

First things first tho, before I consider running again, I’d best make sure I can walk in the morning. 50/50 chance at best.

*you may be surprised to hear it really is only a few. Most of the time I could talk myself out of trouble. The rest of the time I sort of talked myself into it 😉

**similar result. Saved myself some nails.

Who are you calling chubby?

It’s not fat, it’s chubby.

Well my new bike actually. And before unleashing the inevitable litany of abuse,  there are two things you need to know. Firstly this is not a slavish homage to the latest new and improved dreamt up by men who feel no shame at using the term ‘colourway’*.

No because that’s the zeitgeist often chased, yet my arrival is characterised by  the whiff of an evolutionary dead end. 26 inch long, low and slack? I was right there at exactly the same time 29 inch wheels were the next big thing. Followed that only to find, in fact, that 27.5 was the absolute sweet spot. Mined that motherlode deeply thereby missing the bonfire of the standards where some wag added a few inches to everything and declared 29+ as our mountain biking diety. Dragged myself to that altar in a final act of loyal worship, bringing forth the bike above as a token of belief.

Apparently that’s so yesterday. 27.5+ is where the cool cats are hanging out. Really? Do you think I’m some sort of idiot? Don’t answer that. Consider instead the second thing; this is all part of a masterly plan. A bike reduction strategy honing the inhabitants of the shedofdreams(tm) with definite degrees of separation resulting in the perfect quiver**

Admittedly the plan has been reversed with one bike in before two bikes out. Still a fine plan though, I just did things the wrong way round. This happens to most men of a certain age – we just don’t discuss it in polite company.

Enough of this justification; you don’t believe it and neither do I so let’s pretend – for the sake of my sanity – the Stache-9 represents a superb purchasing decision that will be, at worst, cost neutral.

How does it ride then? In a few words like a rear wheel steer monster truck. In a few more not quite as I expected. This is not a Slimmers-World fatbike, more an amped up evolution of the Moustache. It bulges in all sorts of strange places as if spending every day pumping iron in the gym and each night wolfing down protein shakes. The fat bike might be a clown, but the chubby is a bully.

Not a very threatening one if you can even walk briskly uphill. Making progress skywards is limited by three inch tyres slurping at the trail with a 10 PSI wallowing tyre-print. Not sure it’s heavier than the non-chubby version, but it’s certainly not going to win any sprint competitions.

Once centrifugal force finally overcomes gravity, it is hardly surprising there’s not much it won’t roll over-  what is is how nimble it is. Some of this is a non chopper-ed out head angle, but so much more are the ridiculously short chain stays. It turns, pop and jumps like a much smaller bike even under my hands of ham. If you do feel the urge to pick a line – as opposed to just heading for the most obstacle strewn nastiness with a Clarkson-esque ‘poooooowwwwwweeeeerrrr’ – it’ll carve one with amazing precision.

Chubby is also comfortable. None of that wrist shattering harshness which lives at the end of a rigid fatbikes’ rubber/air type damping system. Nor the arse kick of a stiff hardtail attempting to jam the seat tube up its organic cousin. Not to be confused with the plush and mush of full suspension, it’s somewhere between thin and fat. With much more grip than the former and a little less ridiculousness of the latter.

Heading downhill is instructive. In a kind of ‘aaarrrrggghhhh, make it stop‘ kind of way. I’ll contest that fatbikes don’t really need good brakes, stop pedalling and the rotation slows like a flywheel spin bike. The 29+ doesn’t do that, once it passes a certain speed it maintains that velocity for a second or two before accelerating like a mad bastard.*** It’s as close to a perpetual motion machine available on two wheels and it’s quite the rush. I dunno who is on physics patrol when this thing is in flight, but they’re clearly slacking off.

The chubster does have very good brakes for which I was immensely and vocally grateful for on a number of occasions, mostly after closing my eyes in terror. God this thing is fast downhill without the excuses normally available to the hardtail rider. Quicker you go, the better it works somehow smoothing out the bumps. Sure it’s got a great – if short 110mm – fork and the aforementioned fat tyres, but there’s something more than that.

Where the fatbike is a faithful labrador the chubby is more of a Jekyll and Hyde character. It’s all lovely to see you, isn’t this pleasant, oh what fun we’re having together until flipping gravity the finger and trying to rip your face off.

I like that. Whereas the Aeris will get me into trouble but be so damn capable we’ll come out the far side as an unscathed pair, the chubby will happily drag you into the red zone before buggering off with a cackle and abandoning you to face-surf some geology. The fatbike of course wouldn’t actually get there in the first place because you’re still patiently waiting for people to stop laughing at it.

So there we have it. So far, so face rippingly good. Big ride on Sunday, by the end of which I’ll be a) dead b) mostly dead c) wondering why I’m not dead.

Something to look forward too.

*sometimes aping the American spelling. When I’m world dictator, they’ll be strung up by the unmentionables hanging from a sign emblazoned with ‘remember the bloody U next time

**Don’t fret, I’ll be off to shoot myself once this is finished. Maybe I’ll slip in ‘rig‘ and ‘gnarpoon‘ before I go.

*** the first time this happens, it’s probably worth checking both your understanding of kinetic energy and your shorts for unwanted deposits.

First day back

First ride of 2016 - Muddy Malverns

You know how it goes. Crippling hangovers segue into vocational conformity: ‘Good Christmas?’/ ‘Not bad, quiet, you?’ / ‘About the same‘. So ends the conversational frippery leaving you with little option to take a deep breath before opening email.

This dance of desperate politeness is one of many reasons working from a single office isn’t really my thing*.  Still personally kickstarting the 2016 economy through putting in a one day shift, I felt such an effort should be rewarded by a skive-ride.

Not ridden in the Malverns for bloody ages. They’ve changed. Got steeper for a start. Either that or my excuses multiplier of Christmas lethargy, undiagnosable fiery knee and squatting cold have struck the porky jackpot. Certainly a few wobbly bits were flinging themselves in a parody of Brownian Motion as unridden legs were reminded of their climbing responsibilities.

The hills have many fine qualities. Geological antiquity is amongst them – the pre-Cambrian rocks have been crumbling for 600 million years so funnelling water deep in the valley below. Where right now torrents of collected rainfall are gushing from every orifice.

I didn’t need to check, the evidence is all around us. More specifically under the tyres where the trails use to be. In eight years, it has never been this muddy. And tractionless – when my good friend and long time local Martin turned up equipped with full mud spikes, I silently congratulated myself on the decision not to bring the fat bike. That’d have got old fast.

I’m old but I’m not fast. Uphill it was mostly soggy enlivened by proper sloppy sections that rewarded a tentative prodded foot with a frictionless slide down the hillside. First descent I sent Martin out as ‘grip-sniffer‘ where he seemed to be going absolutely fine with his cheating tyres.

Back in the cheap seats, things were not going so well. Lost the front end three times, the last time I genuinely believed it had gone for good, and I was heading for an unscheduled seasonal head plant into the moist earth. Or a tree.

Saved by either a) cat-like bike handling skills or b) a whimpering withdrawal of the breaking fingers**, we carried on in much the same vein. Martin suggesting all manner of trails most likely to cause injury and me making excuses not to ride them.

A good lawyer – if such a thing exists – could sue the entire hills for attempted manslaughter. Still at least it wasn’t raining and the sun came out. At which point it started raining really hard. Not that this made any difference at all to the trails which couldn’t have been wetter had they been submerged in the Mariana Trench.

Brilliant to be out though. It’s been a week since the last time. My knee is no better, but I’m a sight less grumpy. That’s still quite grumpy tho as the bike is now entirely brown, my kit is being held hostage in the ‘bucket of doom‘ and denied access to the washing machine, I swapped a beer for a ‘recovery drink’ with twice the calories and it’s bloody raining again.

Even with the encroaching night clawing away at the remaining daylight, I insisted we attempted a rain swelled summit of the beacon.  We arrived there in increasing murk, but my haste to leave was stayed by having lost the front end so many times in the previous two hours, I was considering fitting a GPS to the tyre. Or a ski.

This sort of explains why Martin disappeared with his usual fearless alacrity while I tip-toed down in the shadow of the setting sun. Grins at the bottom, diaries ticked to do it all again next week, muddy bikes making dirty protests inside once clean cars.

First ride in 2016 done. And it was a good one. Crap trails and shit weather? You’ll have to try harder than that. Meeting Room Outside booked for the same time next week.

I really REALLY hope there never comes a time when a 9-5 job is something happening to me.

*There are many others; chief of which is I am basically unemployable for any length of time.

** It’s b) then. Obviously.

Well that went well.

Indeed I was.

Birmingham International was the happy exit point from which we jumped off, via the medium of cheap airlines, to sunnier climes a thousand miles south.  We’ll be back to that, but first we were back there last night wondering why it was so bloody cold.

Early this morning I found myself negotiating familiar motorways to park up barely half a mile from where a dustier, more cheerful version of myself had stood just twelve hours earlier.

In that preceding half day, I’d returned to a loving family, stupid dog, a fifty quid parking fine and a medium sized hole where I expected 40 days of work to be. This wasn’t mere situational context, it was a bloody warning of what was to come.

Travelling to London isn’t much fun. It’s better than being there of course, but options from this far West are divided between start close, go slow and finish late or drive 70 miles DUE NORTH to catch a train built after the last war. This  deposits you somewhere near the middle of our great capital, rather than First Great Westerns’ attempt pretending East Reading is actually a) named after a bear and b) in London.

Nowadays Virgin is my preferred carrier. Sure their trains hurtle around corners in an amusingly terrifying manner and the carriages smell mostly of wee, but it’s barely an hour* and booking ahead cuts the price to a still ‘how much of the train do I now own?‘ seventy quid which includes a seat reservation providing the guilty joy of throwing some chancer out into the aisle.

So at 6:30am. a pre-caffeinated me was prodding the non touch sensitive touch screens which promise ticket-spitting once you’ve provided sufficient information to trace your ancestors back to Roman times. Each time this transaction teeters between data entry and receipt exit, I always expect something to go terribly wrong.

It never does. Or never had. Today despite typing the same number in three times with increasingly glass shattering force, a nasty message suggested my reference was somehow invalid. Giving up with electronic pointlessness, I went searching for a human armed with a laptop presented email and a disgruntled expression.

Already collected’ she declared having typed in my train lottery numbers. Oh bollocks. Of course they had. Now sat at home safe from loss but not entirely geographically useful. Okay no worries, can you reprint them for me now?Apparently not. Something about fraud despite my obviously honest countenance.

Wearily then ‘how much for a return to London then?’. Barely pausing she pretended this one hour trip could be purchased for the princely sum of £168. A brief exchange failed to resolve the obvious issue that such licensed robbery vastly outstripped flying to Belfast or spending 4 days eating myself stupid in Spain.

£168. Take it or leave it. I had to take it which made me the grumpiest man in London some 90 minutes later. And that was before I was forced to descend into the seventh level of hell neatly represented by the Tube system.

It may be a grotesque stereotype to categorise all Londoners as empathy voids afflicted with the spacial awareness and grace of a mole caught in the sunlight, but based in a sample size of ‘everyone who trod on or shoved me today’, I’m happy matching correlation with causation.

Three hours later I had a ‘sod this‘ epiphany and sacked off the remainder of the day to get the hell out before something else went wrong. Arriving back at Euston, clutching the most expensive ticket in the world**, a train was vibrating impatiently on the platform ready to blast us back into the real world.

Striving purposely up the platform, it became clear dignity must be sacrificed for a safe position on the inside of the carriage. Falling into the nearest seat after swerving past a man apparently uniformed in a discarded Butlins redcoat, it took me a second to notice my fellow traveler slumped in the seat opposite.

My olfactory system had already stepped up to DEFCON 2 before any visual cues suggested the gentleman might be slightly worse for drink. He smelt of many things of which Special Brew rated strongly and recent bathing less so.  Not a concern, if a man wants to get shitfaced having looked around himself in our great capital and thought ‘fuck this, I need a drink’, he certainly has my sympathy.

Lifting a grubby cap, he engaged me in a conversation which needs transcribing verbatim:

Him: ‘Hey Mate, does this train stop at Coventry?’

Me: ‘Er, Yeah, Yeah it does

At which point, the cap was pulled firmly over bloodshot eyes and picoseconds later, a light snore harmonised with the majority of my fellow passengers who suffer the twin problems of low boredom thresholds and access to a mobile phone.

Two minutes later, there was a mega-snore, a fully body shake followed by shuffle upright and a vertical realignment of the cap. At which point he asked me EXACTLY the same question again. This happened twice more before I cracked and attempted to break free from this conversational centrifugal force.

Me: ‘I tell you what, shall I wake you at Coventry?

Him: ‘Huh? Why would you do that? I’m going to Glasgow

He silenced any further conversations with a look of disdain marking me out as the idiot in this discourse.

Based on the day I’ve had, he may very well be right.

*HS2 – cut it down to 45 minutes. I’d rather than spent something on the Cotswolds line so the early morning train actually arrives on the same day.

** I worked out you based on the cost/mile, you could comfortably run a Chieftain tank on that. Next time I might try it. You could park that anywhere.

Not Safe For Work.

That needs to be in the bag!

I swear too much. Of this I am reminded quite often. Mostly by my youngest daughter who – despite being extremely articulate and well schooled – refuses to accept that ‘fuck‘ adds much richness as both an adjective and a verb.

Needs must though. Only Kipling assigns equivalence to triumph and disaster. The rest of us take one look at the cowpats strewn by the devils’ own satanic herd* and reflect soberly ‘OH FOR FUCKS SAKE’.

Exhibit ‘A’ is my newish but extensively campaigned full suspension bike. It really needs to be in that bag because Monarch Airlines are unlikely to accept it as hold baggage in its current state.

Yet it remains unbagged due to potential brokenness. Some of which Matt has fixed, and some of which I have fixed. I think you can probably work out where my concerns are.

We had a fantastic plan. Two splitters were upping sticks and decamping to Spain for a few days riding where skies are not the colour of gruel, and trails dance dustily above the water table.  For which a working bike is mandatory. A state Matt can bestow on even the most mistreated given enough time.

Of which we had loads. A week in fact. Sadly – like most great ideas – our plan did not survive first contact with the enemy. Or, to be a little more specific, a night testing ourselves against the strong ales of the Wye Valley Brewery.

Matt and I** had two simple tasks. True a wheel, bleed some brakes. An hour for the honed skills of my mechanical mate. When sober anyway. But even a full half day later stumbling drunkeness prevailed. Three hours later we’d conceded the wheel might last a few more days, and I’d narrowly escaped being decapitated by a brake piston exiting the caliper at high speed.

There’s a lesson here kids. Don’t fuck about with compressed air when you’re still pissed. Underwear can be replaced, eyeballs less so.

Relieved I dragged the alloy carcuss home to strip it back revealing the basic DNA required to stuff it into the bag-too-small. 20 minutes in and its apparent the expensive component on which the cranks spin were clearly somewhere beyond operating tolerances.

Checking the website, the marketing lies tell me ‘Our bottom brackets are born on the Vancouver North Shore. Built for endurance under the harshest conditions, professional riders rely on the performance of these class leading products‘. Only, I assume, because they get a box fresh one for free ever week.

Six months of a British Summer may not represent Sahara type conditions but it should not turn bearings square. The problem is standards. The joy of mountain biking is there are so many different ones to choose from. RaceFace decided to solve a problem no one had by oversizing their crank axles with the consequence of reducing the size of the bearings they spin on.

Not only that, all this requires new tooling to remove and refit what I’d call disposable components were it not for their ‘you could buy a car for that’ pricing. This whole ruin-ess enterprise is not helped by the fact that no OEM manufacturers have bought into the design fallacy, so you’re forced to hand over wads more cash to the very same people who dumped the problem on you in the first place.

As a professional Yorkshireman this rankles somewhat. But short of taking the fat bike, I was left with no option but to splurge cash at replacement parts. Which arrived with dire warnings re: incorrect installations. Ignored that and leant on spanners for a while until establishing a state of partial equilibrium.

Except the cranks didn’t really spin freely on the those brand new bearings. I considered taking it apart, but considering the effort and luck getting to this point, that scenario had frame breaking catastrophe written all over it.

Carol reckons I’m overthinking it. She’s keen to reclaim the floor of our sitting room. I’m a bit more ambivalent. Matt – knowing me well – feels it might be worth him having a look tomorrow night, some 12 hours before we’re flying.

Leaving stuff to the last minute has pretty much defined my career. The only proper deadline is the one a single sunrise away.  But when it comes to wrangling a bike into a bag and forgetting about it until it’s thrown carelessly onto the oversize baggage carousel, I’d be absolutely fine with a bit more latitude.

Fuck. I’ll sleep on it. The problem, not the bike. It’s not Smaug and the Hobbit. Although I feel the former may offer something if welding is required.

*thank you Richard Curtis and Blackadder. I have no idea what kind of mind comes up with such genius.

**Matt really. I just stand around trying to find tools strewn randomly on the floor of his garage.

Are you feeling lucky?

You bloody well should be.

I was ready to write about the total bloody awesomeness of a weeks’ sustained technical riding in the sunny Rhone-Alps. Then – as John Lennon so presciently wrote ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans’ – I arrived home to the dreadful news that a friend of mine is dying.

My friend was diagnosed over 12 months ago with stage IV lung cancer. Don’t Google it, it’s not a diagnosis, it’s a death sentence. Life expectancy is dependent on fortitude, drug reaction and bloody mindedness – while you cannot be sure exactly where the end of the line is, it’s no coincidence the disease is called terminal.

I had just returned from a ride when the news broke. It was a bit meh. One of those when I wondered if it was worth the effort. Trails were fine, bit muddy but still hanging onto a hint of summer. Weather was fair and I was mooching along with an old mate who I hadn’t seen for months. It was pleasant, enjoyable but no more than that. We talked about the oncoming winter and how our motivation would be tested once more and maybe how, this time, we couldn’t be arsed with it.

That attitude feels pretty bloody stupid now.  Even understanding we aren’t the best of friends – meeting more in the virtual world than the real one. She’s been very kind about my words and I’ve been repeatedly inspired by hers. When she told me of the cancer, it was with her usual brutal pragmatism and a declaration of war on the ‘fucking thing’.

She’s carried on a life of adventuring be that in riding, running or writing refusing to let the cancer or the treatment slow her down much. She didn’t really talk about it – not because it upset her – but because she refused to let it be the thing which defined her.

I knew some drugs had made a hugely positive impact, but also aware of many recent setbacks. I’d seen a picture on a social media site where – for the first time – the look in her eyes suggested the lights might be dimming. But even so have it so starkly laid out in public on her host website was still a shock. A wrench of reality.

We’re all dying. One day at a time. But most of us are delusional about it. My friend has dealt with the grim reaper clearly signaling with a level of fortitude and humour I cannot begin to comprehend. The bloody injustice of it has left me feeling angry, sad and – because I’m so bloody self absorbed – scared. I don’t feel my age but I fear it.

I know there is a time coming when some white coated professional calmly explains there is nothing else to be done. The clock that is always there just started ticking more loudly. I might be eighty years old when the creeping hand of time beckons me, but there is nothing in my life so far to suggest I’ll deal with it with the dignity and ‘oh-just-fuck-off-ness’ of my friend.

She’s faced it down with the same honesty, practicality and simplicity found in her writing. There is no space in her world for self pity, denial or false hope. I’ve always envied her single mindedness and sense of purpose – all of which are so apparent in her response to the darkness of endless treatment lightened by being finally back at home or trips away under big skies with her loved ones.

I sit staring at this flickering screen wanting so hard for the world to be different. But these words mean nothing so actions must speak for them. I will go for a ride and consider fate, frustration, injustice and bravery and return more balanced to a world tilted by brutal circumstance.

You cannot read the stories or see the pictures splashed across every channel without understanding how privileged we are. And yet we’ve become desensitised to human suffering somehow absolving ourselves from compassion and action. It takes something closer to home to kick you up the arse and make you realise every day must be a day to be embraced not endured. That you can determine what is important and what is not. That you have the opportunity to love your family and friends. That you get to choose how you live and what you do.

We’re are so damn lucky in all those ways and one more. For the cycling tribe, bikes are not just self propelled transport. They are an extension and expression of our values, desires and fears. My friend gets that completely. She’s embraced it and treasured it and not for a singe day taken it for granted. She’s packed more into her cruelly truncated span than many of us will in our lifetimes. There is a little comfort in that.

And if I’ve learned anything it is that you cannot still the passing of time but you can make the most of every day, hour and minute. When I’m shivering cold on a wet, muddy night-ride miles from home, I’ll think fondly of my friend and how she’d be grinning at the delicious stupidity of the whole enterprise. And any tears following that will be because of that biting wind.

In the end though, there’s a friend of many and a wife of one we’re losing to a horrible disease, callously inflicted. Sometimes life is just a total bastard.


This is me in so many ways

That’s what I’ve named my ‘FitBit activity tracker‘ – a device for which you pay actual money combining the hatefullness of MyFitnessPal  with a Heart Rate Monitor in some kind of unholy union. My fluctuating interest in both is less focussed on engaging in some virtual training programme, more on a physical roundness and sticking out wobbly bits.

I used to tell myself any weight gain was merely soft fat transforming to hard muscle. But muscle doesn’t wobble certainly not in manner of visible external peristalsis. Ensuing further medical certainties, I’ve decided my perfect weight is 12 stone dead. Even if it kills me. 6 pounds below that and friends start to whisper rumours suggesting a terminal disease while half a stone more results in an every decreasing circle of riding kit which doesn’t pop studs or strain lycra while fatboy here is levering himself into it.

Not having sufficient motivation to do much about it – other than reach around a half drunk wine bottle for a chocolate biscuit – it’s down to gamification, targets and occasional guilt to get the job done. Six weeks since strapping the FitBit to my wrist, I’ve learned a couple of things.

Gamification works. Like marketing we all dismiss it for the feeble minded. Pah a virtual badge for walking up a few flights of stairs isn’t getting me off this sofa. But it does; the dog’ll find himself yanked outside for an unscheduled walk as I march off in search of a few thousand steps. Or running up and downstairs in search of some object for which I have no immediate need*

Steps, stairs and distance aren’t too much of a stretch most days especially since my current vocation has me planted to a mobile phone for most of them. So I stride from workshop to garden at high speed desperately multi-tasking between actually making some sense and checking for an elevated heart rate. In many ways it’s so easy, the more ambitious would raise their aspirations beyond the recommendation and set higher targets. That’s not me though obviously.

What’s a bit more me is a relationship with alcohol that’s pretty aligned with Winston Churchill’s ‘I have taken more out of whisky than it’s ever taken out of me‘. The problem with such as approach is each and every bottle is uncorked by twin devils. One has many calories hidden in this filtration of grape or hop while the other flicks my default state back to ‘gluttony‘ where chocolate and crisps suddenly become incredibly important. And frequent.

Which is a bit of a bugger when you consider the curse of being even slightly fit. A consequence of which is burning many calories becomes increasingly problematical. 45 minutes giving it ‘the full hamster’ on a spin bike is a mere 300, riding mountain bikes maybe a 100 more in a whole hour. Slobbing around with a resting heart rate in the low fifties- less than a calorie a minute. Sleeping, I actually put on weight.

Of course you could buy into all this training nonsense, so setting intervals and zones and misery and pointlessness. I know myself well enough to realise trying such a thing’d last about 10 minutes before I ate the heart rate monitor. Instead I believed just riding lots and moving about a bit more would bring forth** the Adonis like figure currently hidden under this middle aged spread.

A word to the wise here; it doesn’t. Some of this is probably anatomy, more might be the extended sessions in the pub after any such ride. A little might be the realisation that what worked when you were forty has nowhere near the efficacy when you’re closer to the next decade. And the fact that ONE chocolate represents a 1/3rd of a dog walk and as for a bag of crisps, well you might as well climb stairs to the moon.

I appreciate this isn’t very scientific. Our bodies – even ancient models such as mine – are far more complex than calories in and exercise out. You’re far better having a proper diet rather than actually dieting.  There’s a reason cake comes pre-sliced and biscuits individually split. Which if you take to the logical conclusion, wine boxes must be a product designed by Beelzebub himself.

Right now, It’s 6PM and I’m 700 calories short of where I need to be. The pretty dashboard smugly informs me our lunch out has tipped the scales the wrong way.  It’s going to take a bit of bloody effort and no bread for tea to get things back into balance.

Right then, where’s that bloody dog?

* although this is really just middle age – arrive in a room and wonder what the bloody hell brought you here. Wander out again before slapping your forehead and rotating back through 180 degrees. Repeat for a while.

** notice I don’t use the word ‘back’. It’s like playing on the wing for England. Definitely going to happen. This is how delusion works.

Today is a good day to fly*

Solvenia Bike Park
Bike? Check. Armour? Check. Ability? Bugger.

We’d recommend you take the body armour, it’s included” worried the bike shop man as I pretended to test suspension settings on a downhill monster so far removed from my riding world it may as well have been delivered by aliens.

Trail lid, t-shirt, wimpy knee pads, delusional view of competence, second language: ‘I’ll be fine with these I think“. Some fevered Slovene muttering suggested otherwise so I took the hint and armoured up with body suit, elbow pads and a stinky full face. I refused hard-shell knee pads though on the grounds I’d transported these ones 1500 miles and they only reeked of me.

Proper DH bikes pedal badly especially configured with a short rear cassette. So I pushed to the lift and hefted it onto a hook clearly welded by the lowest cost bidder. Watching it swing behind me displaced dark thoughts of imminently being shit and poo-ing the bed on steep trails cut through the forest passing under my feet.

Slow chairlifts are not happy bedfellows for the imaginative ensuring fifteen minutes later had me wrestling the beomoth from the hook like a man only recently acquainted with any kind of motor control. The lift fella looked a bit contemptuous as the next car smacked me up the arse. A fine start to what could be a long day.

A day really that should be spent with my lovely family who I dragged to Slovenia promising mountain views, no hiking, no boring museums and no mountain biking. Two out of three ain’t bad, but when you’re an ancient fucker like me and the balcony view showcases trails baked into a mountain side simply accessed by a summer chairlift, selfishness will out.

I rather wish it hadn’t as I careered down a scree slope entirely bereft of anything back in the UK we call ‘grip‘.  Or indeed ‘ability‘.  Strange bike, bit worried, encased in unfamiliar plastic – as a start it was inauspicious. Being stupid I felt things would improve if I ignored the easy trail and plunged instead into a rooty horror soaked from the previous weeks endless downpours.

I can ride wet roots. I live in a place where it pisses down almost endlessly. I have transferable skills here. Oh. Fuck. No. I. Don’t. Tree anchors the size of my arms pitched on a slope best thought of mostly vertical. I tripod’d down bouncing off arboreal trail markers and travelling sideways any time I felt touching the brakes might be a fine idea*

Couple of minor offs. A bit of walking. Surfing the last chute on my arse while vaguely connected to a mountain bike. Checked the trail markers. That’s a red. Blimey. I diverted to the blue which pitched me into 20 linked berms superbly built but barely maintained. Stray off the line and it was all cracked earth filled with marbles and upside down mountain bikers.

Finally a set of well constructed table tops over which I was universally shit.  A little bit of this was the unfamiliar bike and the effort/speed needed to make it work but most of it was me – despite the armour – tensing up and slowing down.

Groundhog day. Top of the lift but this time go left to a barely distinguishable trail marker promising another ‘hard‘ trail through the woods. What was I thinking? It was essentially a walkers path with all the easy bits circumvented by desperate plunges into the valley.  Steep enough to suggest walking it would result in a broken ankle with a side order of no phone signal. No one else riding it – surprisingly – so I minced down often using the bike as a fence. Near the bottom an lengthy off camber root section looked too hard for feet so I just closed my eyes and went for it. Went well until I crashed.

Right give myself a talking too. Three more uplifts things improving, drops being dropped, jumps being jumped, big stuff being ignored. Making use of the insane grip of a DH bike.  Picking some harder lines off the brakes. Popped back into the shop to reduce fork preload clearly set for a man who had eaten only pies and pasties for the last ten years ‘if you’re struggling with the roots, you must go faster‘ said the clearly skilled mechanic. Sounded counter intuitive. Went for lunch with the family instead.

Five more runs. Mostly together with occasional terror as learned lines were nothing of the sort. Rode a few more scary things but waiting above the final tabletops was a ladder drop higher than my shoulder. Rolled into a few times. Rolled back everytime. Knew I could ride it, really didn’t want to. Looked for excuses, found none.

Last run. Mind frazzled, arms floppy, calves aching. Chatting with a lovely Slovene on the chairlift. Explained my angst. Easy he said, follow me. I tried but he was gone in 10 seconds leaving me with the hope he’d have forgotten who the hell I was on finally turning up. No such luck.

He’s a coach. Cool. Of the Slovenian DH team. Not so cool. Conversation went ‘you have the bike‘ POINT AT DH RIG ‘you have the protection‘ POINT AT HEAD TO TOE BODY ARMOUR ‘what is your problem?‘ me: POINT TO ME ‘this?‘. He laughed and dragged my elderly arse through a section that’d had me off earlier. Somehow I stuck with him with any brain activity entirely focussed on the biggest drop I’d ever attempted. One that’d recently skewered the spleen of a MTB journo.

We flew over the ‘qualifier‘ and fuck me it was brilliant. ‘See he said, even old guys like you can ride this stuff’. Thanks. ‘Come on, follow, follow‘ came next with a big arm movement and a velocity suggesting rocket propulsion. Arriving sweaty and scared before the drop I was ready with my excuses, but he** was having no truck with that.

Follow, Follow’ beckoning me on at a speed entirely inappropriate for a man a week short of his 48th birthday. Hitting the ramp all I could think of was ‘How important is a spleen? Will I miss it?’ Then a moment of gorgeous silence punctuated by a spinning freehub, then some ground rush, then 8 inches of suspension compensating for my shit technique, then endorphin rush and high fives.

Follow Follow, let’s do it again‘ my mentor grinned at me. But I declined. He looked disappointed and in retrospect so am I. But nothing could better how I felt right then, plus the fact I was fucked physically and mentally. Pushing back up for photos required determination for which I had no courage left. Every last drop had been eeked out on that drop. I was spent.

I’m not a great mountain biker. Especially when faced with bike park obstacles. But it is in the mountains is where I feel most at home. And at peace. I felt the fear and did it anyway. Then sat watching proper riders boost off those tabletops while I drank beer in the sunshine.

Is that enough? Oh fuck yes. More than enough. Nothing else feels like this. When I’m properly old and broken I’ll remember days like this. But right now I feel like I’m the luckiest bloke on the planet.

* Feel free to translate to Klingon if that’s your thing.

** thankfully I was running UK brakes after refusing a bike configured the other way round. Glad I stuck out for that one otherwise I’d be writing this from hospital while drinking through a straw.

*** told me his name. Forgot it instantly. I do owe him a beer or two tho.

Baldylocks and the three bears

Bikes are like this. Honestly, they are. Read on.

You know the story. Father bear’s bed was too hard, mother bear too soft and baby bear just right.  It’s a bloody terrible fable for two reasons; 1- there’s no qualitative metrics for exactly what you mean by ‘soft‘* and 2-at some point in your near future some smartarse will rally this in their non sequitur rebuttal of your N+1 position.

Second one first ever heard this ‘why do you need so many bikes,  that’s like saying you need five different cars?‘**. Because dick-spot, for us flirting with the line between a hobby and a mental illness, these are not simple transport, they are gateway drugs to a utopian portal your dusty, rusty Halfords special cannot access.

Sounds snobby? Rather a reversal of the societal norm where only impoverished individuals transport themselves by bicycle because car ownership is beyond their means. Cycling is losing, piloting two tons of marketing’s pinnacle is more than just a win. You even get to squash the losers.

Until about 1980 anyway. Then bikes became cool again. And profitable. And worth evolving. Into lots of different niches for which a different tool was very much required. Even if that tool was the man getting his wallet out. The crushing irony was twenty years later, the very same people performed a ‘did that just really fucking happen?‘ U-Turn spawning the ‘quiver killer‘***

You have to admire the chutzpah and while you’re at it marvel at the built in obsolescence demanding the ‘QK‘ must be changed every year. Hey it might look exactly the same, but now it’s a BETTER colour.

What the hell has this got to do with bears I hear you ask. Glad you did, it’s pretty simple really. Since April this year, I’ve been  almost exclusively riding my on-trend, appropriately slack and low ‘gnarpoon‘**** and it’s been as fantastic as one would expect, after chucking a shit-load of cash at something hoping it’d make up for your many inadequacies.

Then, in what can only be described as a moment of temporary insanity, I invested in the world’s most expensive cardboard box cunningly disguised as a poo coloured hardtail.  Rode that a couple of times and that was brilliant as well. So – to test all bears – earlier this week, the previous object of my metallic affection – the eager Pyga – was hauled off the wall and thrown at the trails.

You may be unsurprised to hear that was bloody great as well. Harvesting the raw data from my digital ego repository, it would seem the difference between these very different approaches to two wheels hung from a few tubes wasn’t quite as much as I expected.  One trail, three times: 1:28, 1:31, 1:32.

I think we can probably identify the common denominator here. Sure the Aeris was brilliant in the Peaks last weekend in a way the Trek hardtail wouldn’t have been. And the Pyga yomped through the forest dispatching big distances under bigger wheels. Yet shifting turns in fast singletrack demonstrates how the simple kinematics of a sorted hardtail easily makes it the quickest.

The numbers tell you everything and nothing at all. Creeping into the shedofdreams, I’m nowhere near as confident as the golden one to pick the right bear. 90% of the time the differences are perceptible to me but imperceptible in terms of making progress.

I’d almost convinced myself the super slack Aeris wasn’t much good in the super-tight and switchback-y local woods above Ross. Until we skived off today and – at my request – massively backed off the pace so I could remember what entering a corner not hard on the brakes might feel like.

Then the bike felt fantastic. The big bear was doing just fine thanks very much. The little bear might have been faster, the middle bear generally has been but you cannot correlate speed with fun. I rode a gap jump much avoided because it wasn’t approached mostly out of control, cleared a table top with technique not desperate pedalling, dropped slowly into two steep gulleys safely because chasing those faster people wasn’t top of my agenda.

When you ride as much as I do, boredom is always a shadow threat. Even when the trails are dry, the sun is warm and you’re riding with your friends. Just this justifies having a shed-full of different bikes. They’re all brilliant. Riding mountain bikes is always brilliant. Having mates to share it with is – of course – endlessly brilliant.

You, however, will be resolutely average. It’s not about the bike and it’s absolutely about the bike. It certainly isn’t about the numbers. But if it was somehow my slow-is-the-new-slow was somehow two seconds quicker than every previous effort.

I didn’t care. Goldilocks had it wrong. Nothing is ever perfect. But – if you stop obsessing about what perfect might be – it can be very, very good indeed.

* I appreciate this may be a specific position, but when you’ve attempted to mediate between learned academics – on the point of punching each other –  debating the precise semantic definition of ‘course‘, this stuff feels quite important.

** This is the straw man argument. I don’t have the space to explain my hatred of it here but once you recognise it, the ONLY proportional response is – for the sake of all those around you – to instantly kill the perpetrator with fire.

*** I assume a significant quantity of coke and hookers were involved: ‘hear me out Jeremy, we’ll tell ’em and sell ’em the idea that all their bikes are shit now and they can have this new one shiny thing. Make it red. They’ll go for it. They’re idiots’ Snort……

**** Once this post is complete. I’ll take myself outside to be shot for the use of that word. It’d be a kindness.


Right On Commander!

RIght On Commander!

That phrase and this picture are only going to appeal to readers of a certain age. That age is mostly forgotten – sandwiched between basement sized, punched card munching transactional monoliths, and the birth of the Internet which swept in a digital generation to whom an App is a nicely rendered icon of usefulness accessed with a cursory swipe.

Kids today eh? Back in what was laughingly referred to as the ‘information age‘, the pioneers of micro-computing had broken out of crusty data processing rooms – largely filled with massive multi-million pound suites of humming electronics knocking out the power of todays $200 smartphone. We’d swapped lab coats for mullets, terrible jumpers and trainee moustaches. Nothing worked. Everything was custom built. Soldering irons were mandatory. The vanguard of personal computing in the late ’70s and early ’80s was not a place for the faint hearted.

Or the fashionable. Or the slick and smooth. Or anyone who might at some point consider members of the opposite sex more interesting than motherboards*. No staying abreast of emerging technology was of course more important that, well, breasts. There’s a whole other post on ‘what pubescent boys did for porn before the Internet‘, but for another day I think.

Ah we may have missed many things, but what a time to be a geek. Nose pressed to Tandy’s windows** excitingly pointing out the cutting edge of mobile computing. In a historic marketing event, Osborne honestly described their suitcase sized solution to small data a luggable rather than a portable.  And every month a new funny shaped keyboard appeared, running some operating system knocked up in a bedroom just like ours.

No big vendor owned the market. There wasn’t really a market to own. All sorts of weird stuff made it into production, and of course none of them would talk to each other. Turf wars were rife, were you a ‘BBC Man‘ or one of those ‘Plastic Spectrum kids’? Which led to some of the most pathetic fights ever ‘Ooooh that ruler REALLY HURT‘.

Anyway I digress. Up there in that tiny little screen, almost hidden behind a massive keyboard, was the seminal micro computing game. It represents many things; an amazing technical breakthrough creating endless worlds in bugger all memory; real graphics of the vector variety drawing you into that tiny VDU,  and about a year of my life.

Elite was a truly amazing bit of software. Not that we called it that back in the day. It was a game you spent about 20 minutes loading off a disc drive with as much storage as a single contemporary message thread,  and in no time at all you were deeply immersed in deep space trading your way across an infinite galaxy.

None of this linear gameplay which pretty much defined 99% of what passed as passing time with rubbish computers. Smuggling, bounty hunting, smart trading – all of these roles were yours to choose. And with it being an entirely internet free decade, the concept of on-line gaming was more having a few mates round  taking turns on the keyboard.

It looks rubbish tho doesn’t it? Well it is 30 years old, and we should all reflect how much better we presented ourselves back then. Having encountered this National Computer Museum working exhibit at a dull trade show, I was desperately keen to reacquaint myself with my lost youth.

I didn’t tho. We all know what happens when you meet your heroes. After a year of frustration attempting to earn my ‘elite‘ rating, the early thrills of mere survival were long behind me, and my ship had more upgrades than the bikes now hanging in the shedofdreams. Eventually I drifted off to other pleasures which has never really included playing games of any vintage.

Apparently gaming now is an older persons pastime. Mid 30s is the sweet spot, or – as I think of it – still pretty much in short trousers. And while I’m happy to piss countless hours away on Internet forums. the prospect of a virtual shoot ’em up doesn’t hold much interest. Even the brand new – and apparently epic – version of Elite isn’t something I want to be involved in.

Heady days my early teenage years. Messing about with acoustic couplers and teletype terminals.  Put me on a path I’ve never managed quite to fall off. It’s all a bit easy and yet somehow hellishly complicated now – ensuring my approach of treating all technology as essentially elven magic serving me well.

Still wish I’d had a go tho. I’d have happily spent a few desperate hours to earn that low resolution message flashing on a rubbish screen praising my piracy prowess. “Right on Commander” indeed.

It was no Angry Birds. For which I’m rather sentimentally grateful 😉

* and it was all men. Well boys really. But no woman. Strange really considering that cohort of young gentlemen fiddling with their ram packs.

** not a euphemism. More an electronics emporium,