A Winters Fail

FoD - a big, muddy day out!

We’ve all met the insufficiently medicated nut-job who allegedly pines for winter.* ‘Oh it’s not proper mountain biking until partially frozen mud has forced itself up your arse crack and the bike requires a special harvesting machine to release it from its claggy mold

Without washing to be pejorative, such swamp-monsters tend to be over endowed with vigorous beards and intransigent opinions while lacking in perspective, friends, personal hygiene and gears.  We can therefore discount them as unhinged singlespeeders and move on to a rationale discussion.

Winter is a placeholder for spring. That’s all it is good for. The season used to roar in with freezing winds and precipitation settling as a sledging carpet. Nowadays it’s rebranded itself to ‘Autumn Plus’ – dark, endlessly wet, windy, grey and entirely lacking in joy.  Cold, Frozen trails or FatBike approved snow dumps are merely fading memories as was the last time I returned home without having to pass through the entry portal housing ‘the bucket of doom’**

So this happy place seemed an ideal point to undertake the first death march of 2106. It started early under cold grey drizzle and ended with lights blazing the puddle strewn road home. The entire day was spent searching for new trails – or at least drier ones – under Stygian skies.

Trails that will be awesome when they are dry and I’m fit and injury free. Zero out of three scored there dulling even the brightness of new bike love. The chubby trek slid about with as much panache as anything under my dubious control, but my breath seemed to be coming mainly from my arse and my knee was all a-twinge. Bah, two or three months more of this before the mythical dry line? I shall be found inside making serial deposits in the grumpy jar.

Or maybe not. No point wishing your life away. Not when you’re as old as I  am anyway. Actually this is pretty bloody good fun right now. Sure my knee is a – mental and physical – pain but it won’t stop me riding nor shut me inside cursing at the rain. You cannot control the seasons but you can confront them with a ready grin and the undeniable knowledge that normal people consider your actions borderline certifiable.

Every ride has certain moments. The longer the ride, the more of them you get to experience. Matt fell into a stream. That was bloody funny. Then we found a mile long new trail which we knew had only been ridden once before because it was revealed to us by the man who’d finished building it the day before. Arcing through the trees while pine needles sprayed hedgehog shapes was a wonderful release from the trudgery of the mud-suck.

Even my ‘spirit of California’ rear tyre couldn’t stop the fun. Sure I walked a couple of climbs others rode, and enjoyed – or sometimes not so much-  second long tail-slides through sloppy corners but remained mostly upright and un-barked by tree.

That one trail was worth an all day slog al by itself, but luckily we found another one as we headed down to the river. Not very well defined, but well enough – which was encouraging as part of this valley terminates on or over a a cliff edge. We knew it would steepen, and when it did a tunnel of slick rock corkscrewed around stout trees and stepped over tractionless roots.

I could barely walk down it. So slick was it with with mud, the gradient made standing up merely a prelude to falling over. I twisted my knee on doing so and used up my quota of swearwords for the week. Then hopped back over to a handy rock to record Cez’s attempt to ride it. As ever, 100% commitment, no self doubt, straight in at a speed that means you cannot stop and carve, slip drop, dip shoulder, sway *just* past the last tree and away.

In the summer I thought. On the Aeris. Having scouted a line. Maybe, maybe not. Whatever – it’ll still be there and so will I remembering the day we found it. Down at the river now and onto a well ridden path ending at our favourite pub. We scooted straight past heading to a second establishment which welcomes muddy cyclists to its heated environs. Even drinking lime juice with a coffee chaser didn’t really dampen the warm glow of a wet day spent on mountain bikes.

Darkening skies and rain pecking at the window got us moving. Our lights danced over dormant vegetation and hibernating humans as we climbed the last hill home. I felt that woozy head/hollow leg feeling of too many calories expended and not enough consumed. The marks of a proper winters ride – muddy, cold, hungry and the owner of a bike hardly identifiable as such.

I dumped that new bike in the shed. It’s still there probably identifiable under thick layers of mud until a hosepipe is deployed. It’ll need a clean before our next outing. I don’t want to wait until Spring anymore- I just want next weekend to come round a whole lot faster.

Snow would be great. Frozen trails even better. But if I can’t have those,  riding mucky circles with my friends will do me just fine. Until March anyway.

*Surely this is a lie. If not then such an individual holds an extremely strange interpretation of enjoyment. Probably watches those TV programmes where kindred mentalists staple cats to their ears for some purpose no one within grappling distance of sanity can divine.

**A mandatory receptacle for all mountain biking outerwear. Because we can’t afford to buy a new washing machine every year.

Dry January

FoDing Muddy

Oh the irony.  Guild driven abstinence crashes against the waves of our wettest month. Add in the darkness, debt, doubt and the enduring bloody misery of January and the exponential fallout rate doesn’t take much explaining. Not so much falling off the wagon as gleefully setting it aflame before exchanging the horses for hooch.

Last week I was whinging at length on the rubbish conditions in the Malverns. I unreservedly apologise to those loaf shaped hills having recalibrated my  worldview of shit conditions. Three hours in the Forest of Dean will do that.

The day started well. Because it was in the van where the rain wasn’t. We’d chosen to explore a trail network much talked up by rumour but unridden by us. Bikes built under threatening skies taking somewhat longer than ‘fetching them out of the van‘ really should. Only when multiplying the differential faffing coefficient do such extended timeframes make any sort of sense.

A sense of what was coming drove us into the cafe where we pontificated mightily over bacon and coffee. Eying my fellow riders from the lip of a massive cup, I tentatively suggested we might want to get out there. Just for the look of the the thing.

The thing being a bloody big road climb not entirely suited to the flatulent rubber of the stupid bike*. Still it wasn’t raining and eventually the ridge poked out of a steel grey sky. We headed into the dirt only to find it replaced by a muddy river with sufficient depth to be considered tidal.

Heading downstream, we reacquainted ourselves with mountain biking in our own little ways. Cez seeking out  stuff to launch himself off, Haydn sniffing out endless traction from his chubby tyres, Matt sashaying sideways on over-inflated tyres and me crashing into trees.

Having concluded that this sliding about is still bloody fun, we headed off on now unridden trails ‘somewhere over in that valley‘. Via a few silly steep roll-ins and a  river crossing as it turned out.  Eventually we found ourselves exactly where we needed to be. Just 100 metres too low. Pushed the bikes up something close to vertical which in the mud proved to be unrelentingly comedic.

I knew we’d made it because the rain started in earnest. We rode a couple of fab trails on this steep sided valley without any major off piste excursions. Where there were clearly many more tracks waiting for better conditions – and in my case – some talent compensating suspension.

Non mechanically assisted shuttle back to the top where – as it was apparent the rain had settled in for lunch, dinner and possibly a light supper – we donned rain jackets and picked a steeper trail. When I say ‘we‘, of course I don’t mean me who just followed the brown spray in the hope there was nothing too scary coming.

Couple of bits seemed to suggest braking might be the last thing you remember before waking up with medical professional removing trees from your forehead. Steep tho. Not sure speed was going to be your friend here. Fat tyres are of course allowing the nesh to control their descents at speeds unlikely to introduce blunt force trauma into your afternoon schedule.

The rain first diluted our enthusiasm for an extension into the next valley and then washed away our commitment to staying in this one for much longer. Just once more to the top this time selecting a depressingly wide track composed of mud, despair and possibly my will to carry on.

Fat tyres are rubbish in deep mud. You basically turn into a paddle steamer spraying suspicious brown liquid all around while not troubling the five yards in front of you. It wasn’t just a bike issue – we were all off pushing through the churned filth sucking at our shoes.

Final descent was good tho. We all had the measure of the conditions now and sliding two wheels at low speeds can never be anything but brilliant. Even the tarmac home didn’t dull the grins much. Which considering it was undertaken into wind and driving rain must say something about how much fun we’d had.

18km. Not a big day. Bikes back in the van. Riders in the pub. Three of us requesting hateful cold cordials and hot coffees.  January is supposed to be cold and frosty. And I don’t just mean those denied a proper drink. What we have is endless moist fronts adding water to already saturated ground.

If this carries on, I’m going to need that drink come the start of February. In fact, it might turn into a month long bender 😉

*although that holds true for about 95% of any trail conditions.

Numbers don’t tell the story.

Yat - April 2015 MTB

SitRep:  3,600 kilometres. 167 rides.  350 hours on a mountain bike. Zero hours on a road bike. Just shy of a 100,000 metres climbed. Three trips out of the UK to ride, total of five countries where I’ve turned a pedal.

Bikes in: 3, bikes out: 2. Injuries: a few taking ever longer to heal – currently painful knee failing to respond to physio of alcohol self medication, mild mouselung and random twinges. 2.5kg heavier than 30th Dec 2014. Ridden about the same so either I’m taking it easy on the climbs or going hard in the bar afterwards. Probably both.

Statistics are like a bikini: what they reveal is interesting but what they hide is vital, therefore I use them like a drunk uses a lampost – for support, not  illumination. And that’s why the app generating these numbers just had the ‘X’ treatment on my phone.

It’s been another brilliant year for riding. But every one while you still can will be. Tempered quite rightly by the loss of Jenn Hill who crammed more into her 38 years that most of us will in a full lifespan.

For me, it’s been about limits and limitations. I got a kick out of riding gap jumps at 48 and a real terror of falling under Mount Ventoux. Probably not any faster, might even be slowing down. That’s another reason to dump Strava before the numbers on the screen challenge cognitive dissidence.

It’s hard to know why in 2015 riding with my friends was as much fun as the actual riding. That’s three of the buggers up there. Always there with a ready quip as you’re fetching yourself from the undergrowth, or insisting a yomp over that next snow filled valley under a setting sun represents a better option than quitting on the grounds of frostbite.

I rode on my own about ten times. Better than not riding but not by much. Spent the other 150 rides laughing, crashing, sweating up the hills and hanging on the other way. Always followed by beer and more laughter. Not sure you’d get that from golf.

It wasn’t until the last weeks of December I took a whole week off from riding. It did nothing or my knee nor stayed encroaching grumpiness. Two days at Afan sorted the latter our whilst I ignored the former. Didn’t feel particularly fit, nor terribly fast. But when sitting outside drinking tea in the sunshine with a couple of mates and the bikes in view, those real or imaginary statistics hardly mattered.

Perspective is the thing. We’re half way out of the dark. A month more and the bluebells will be pushing through the forest floor. Two weeks after that and we’re night riding without lights. Then it’s endless riding on hard packed trails somewhere fantastic.

I don’t do new years resolutions. It’s just stupid. If you want to make a change, you’re hardly going to wait for something external to trigger it. There’s something about choices tho – for me it’s about dealing with stuff you want to change and pretty much ignoring everything you can’t.

That’s more about people than things. I’m coming round to that view of the world.  Come on then 2016, let’s be having you. Not sure I’m ready but that definitely falls into the second category.

Christmas Presents..

Awesome Christmas Present±

.. a problem mostly. Rampant consumerism chasing a 24 hour lifestyle long divorced from a pagan ceremony celebrating the next 364 days being lighter than this one. Which itself was stolen for a faith pretty much predicated on no one finding the bodies.

I’m rubbish at both giving and receiving*. Magpie eye fills the shed with poorly-justified stuff, while anything more busts societal norms on what passes for gifts for the festive season. Working out the desires of even those closest to me is something between a challenge and a conundrum. Heavy hints help not at all, what I need is a detailed list with shop postcodes.

Playing to my strengths, I engaged my youngest daughter in Faustian pact where she played the part of ‘personal shopper‘ and I threw cash in whatever random direction she pointed. Until she kindly explained my physical  part in this transaction was largely pointless. So I just handed over crisp notes and sent her on her way.

I’m not terribly proud of that. Nor, on declaring when she returned,  ‘Wow I’ve done really well this year. What a a fine selection of presents‘.  Having already pretty much scraped rock bottom, I mined the seam a little deeper by sending said child in the direction of the wrapping paper.

I’ve already had my present. Fuck, let’s get it out here. I’ve had presents every time the postman struggles under the weight of bike related internet shopping. And when I’m not here to fetch those in, I’m away riding my bike a 1000 miles from home.

Still we pretended the traditional – if somewhat contrived – gift was the fat bike, which I feel is in keeping with the stupidity of buying stuff for which you’ve neither a need or an excuse. I assuaged any purchasing guilt with an all-family assault on the Nurf Gun aisle of the local ToysRus. Toys R ours more like with an arsenal acquired equipping the four of us with sufficient weaponry to declare war on Worcestershire.

Arriving home, a strict edict was laid down that no-one was to ‘Nurf the Murf‘, That lasted about two minutes as an enthusiasm for battle was joined with accuracy best thought of as pellets occasionally heading in a similar direction to which the barrel was pointed.

Amusing carnage ensued. And continued this morning as the apparent birth of our saviour was marked by a pre-breakfast enfilading attack where one brave but outnumbered soldier took a round to the tesiclappers. Let me tell you, those foam cartridges carry a punch from close range. Even the dog – now officially categorised as a non combatant – winced.

Weapons of mass distraction holstered, teenage children were dragged away from the lure of brightly wrapped presents as that dog needed walking. Because, as a parent of kids of a certain age, it’s important to ruthlessly exert what little authority you have left.

Present opening resembled a significant explosion at a paper wrapping factory. Ground Zero revealed happy family members with little of the bemusement that comes when well meaning relatives attempt to regress 60 years to consider what a 14 year old might really want.

I wasn’t expecting anything. Surprisingly then my presents were bloody brilliant. Dave The Minion has now been installed above this very screen in a parody of a novelty web cam. A new dog-shaped toy named ‘Hope’ is the facsimile of the puppy only one family member really, REALLY wants.

But best of all is in that picture.  Green bike. Purple Shorts. Orange Top. Mountains. Hair. Four out of five isn’t bad.  While I was dispatching Jess to find presents for her mum, so I could sit in front of this screen striving to hit other peoples deadlines,  Carol spent bloody ages getting a very clever man to custom build me my happy place in a medium that I love.

It’s sat above and too the right of this Mac. To the left is the Singletrack 100 poster bought to support Jenn’s chosen charities. Closing all these applications reveals a picture of me riding exposed singletrack under cloudless Spanish skies. That’s not a bad place to spend your time.

I’m pretty ambivalent about Christmas. Always think it’d be fab to live in the Southern Hemisphere where an enforced holiday just means dusty trails waiting for the cycling obsessed. Not this endless wet greyness which is nothing more than a meteorologically triggered suicide watch.

And yet today I’m not so sure. I’m still shit at it, but those around me are not. They probably deserve better. Certainly they understand me far better than I get what makes them tick. Which probably doesn’t excuse my desperation for Monday to come around so I can go ride in South Wales for two days with not often seen friends.

Yeah they get me alright. For which I am entirely – if not always vocally – immensely grateful. Christmas is stupid, families on the other hand are really quite fantastic.

*there’s a joke in there. Not entirely appropriate for the festive season

Where’s the F in snow?

It'll only be like this for another three months ;)

There’s no FinSnow. This was recounted to me by a pal who is flying to the Italian Alps at Christmas for a weeks skiing*.  I’m sharing some of her pain, with my inner eleven year old pining for a dump of the white stuff somewhere more local.

Two reasons; firstly the stupidbike(tm) is clearly going to be an impossible to calculate brilliant once frozen rain covers the ground, and secondly as another month of slogging through Gloucestershire’s finest Flanders Experience is likely to leave me seriously considering indoor hobbies.

Snow isn’t the seasonal norm it was in my youth. Sure that was back in the Cambrian age, but Boxing Day walks often morphed into desperate shovelling rescues of smaller children lost in four foot snowdrifts.

Back in the here and now I saw a man – not obviously searching for all his marbles – cheerfully shopping for seasonal gifts in an ensemble of shorts and a t-shirt. It was time to push these childish memories aside and instead spend the kids Christmas money on pointless bike stuff.

Firstly a tyre not stamped with summer.  The Dune turned up with rotating rubber perfectly configured for hardback and dust. Show them some mud and they responded magnificently by storing this frictionless material between sparsely hosted knobs** before sending you on your way into something both stoutly vertical and bone crushing.

I bought a fat rear*** which improved things down the back no end. Traction amusement as my thin tyred riding friends slithered about with absolutely no chance of success, while those of us engaging ‘Fat Drive‘ just made it so. Mostly with a fist pump nobody noticed and occasionally a failure we’re not going to talk about here.

An additional purchase was justified on the grounds that one trail much returned too was marked by a facsimile of my forehead. Three times we’d ridden it, three times I’d crashed on the steeper section- shoulder charging an apex with more crossed up action than a weekend transvestite.

Not today. My additional purchase begat significantly additional purchase on the slimey dirt. Much of which was pebble dashing me as the paddle steamer rotation of four inch tyres mined deep into the Forest mud.

Again I’d responded to the prevailing ground conditions with Internet snake oil.  A front mudguard offering borderline efficacy but with a rather more irritating stand out characteristic. Being lowest-cost-bidder flexy plastic, it genuflected to the front tyre on encountering the smallest bump. I was basically ‘travelling with woodpecker‘ as the bloody thing beat itself to death at irregular intervals.

The rear was stolen from a time long past and best resembled a too small toupee for a too bald head. It added a bit of weight, significant comedic merit but little in the way of mitigating the dirty protest splattered from shorts to helmet.

Riding when conditions are quite this shitty can be summed up by ‘a bit more grip than expected, quite a lot less than required‘. Even with barely inflated trail crushing tyres, much of the steering was more hydrophobic than biomechanical. Grip’d turn up for about as much time to begin to trust it, before whipping away the tablecloth of traction leaving us feasting on moist earth.

Fun of course especially with unseasonal temperatures. The forecast promised much but delivered only wind blown showers. The trails – of which I’d been bitching about three weeks ago – were epically muddy. I’d like to give my three week younger self a damn good slap on the grounds of not appreciating how good it actually was.

Five of us out, a total of eight working knees – one of which was mine while the other has succumbed to ‘patella tendonitis . The Physio suggests I leave it at least a week before riding – good advice I cheerfully ignored because – hey – when it’s this damn good why wouldn’t you ride every day?****

I’ve no idea if the StupidBike is any good really. I don’t know how it goes round corners but I fully understand how it slides sideways. It’s a bit of a drag uphill, but amusingly competent the other way once your belief of tyre grip has been recalibrated.

It’s getting me out. It’s a stalwart to the grumpy individual who makes excuses not to ride. It’s making my riding pals laugh a lot. It has me giggling.

But we’re just fighting the phony war right now. Bring me that bloody snow.

*more accurately drinking ruinously expensive coffee while watching artificial snow melt as quickly as it can be made.

**Oh God where to start. Okay, I was in London last week and it was like that. Except for the sparse bit.

***Insert your own joke here. But be kind. I’m been really busy. Not had time to ride much. Anyway it’s not fat, it’s just big boned.  I think of it as my personal eclipse.

****Because you can’t. As you’ve been sectioned under the mental health act.

What do you see?

Spain MTB 2015 - Sierra Nevada

I look at this picture and what I see if far less important than what I remember. Sure the backlit horizon is coloured a blue missing from our northern latitudes. The trail has rocks, dust and not insubstantial exposure. The rider is rocking some mismatched colour scheme most notable for shirt sleeves in December.

You cannot see the big grin. You cannot go back and live in that moment. So let’s see some more.

Spain MTB 2015 - Sierra Nevada

To your left a 3 foot fall into a culvert. To your right a drop of about 300 feet into a valley where they’d collect your remains with a spatula. Want to know the difference between living and being alive? It’s on this 2 foot ribbon of trail which narrowed to less than half that without reducing the exposure. You heart may beat 3500 times in an hour, but you notice it only for the 5 seconds it’s banging against your ribs.

Spain MTB 2015 - Sierra Nevada

Elevation is everything. We shuttled 1000 metes from the valley floor before climbing another few hundred metres on dirt tracks to access the one of the best half kilometres of trail I’ve ever ridden, Took me a couple of attempts to ride that line. I’ll not bore you with the details but its pretty much encapsulated in ‘don’t fall right’. Stuff of life right there.

Spain MTB 2015 - Sierra Nevada

Sometimes it’s hard to take your eyes off the 3-D problems demanding instant solutions, but really you must. Because even in the lower reaches of Sierra Nevada, this is what lies beyond your trail focal point.

Spain MTB 2015 - Sierra Nevada

Even I can accept the view from this bar is even better than a view from a Bar. I loved this trail, steep and nasty at the top bisected with deep washed out gulleys. Be brave here and the bottom section rewards you with a relaxed flow of perfect curves. Drag you eyes from the dust kicked up by your tyres and burn that image into your retinas. Because a 100 days of grey awaits on the other side of a 3 hour plane ride.

Spain MTB 2015 - Sierra Nevada

Riding on brilliant trails under shadow parabolas cast by endless sun isn’t enough of course. Half the joy of riding mountain bikes is where you are. The other half is who you are with. My good mate David rode lots more than his head told him he could. This is my favourite photo of the whole trip.

Spain MTB 2015 - Sierra Nevada

Obviously being a tedious narcissist, it’s back to being all about me. Although a proper rider would have taken far more wall than that. Quite enough for me though thank you very much.

Spain MTB 2015 - Sierra Nevada

As with all good things, every day ended with beer. And more beer. And occasionally brandy. To be honest not that occasionally.

I felt terribly guilty abandoning my loved ones for the third time in a single year to selfishly ride my mountain bike. But by God I came back a better person. And after 2000 kilometres and 7 months, finally worked how to ride the big bike properly. Also learned some important stuff about friendship, while being reminded of the endless joy of being in high places.

You can see more pictures of dust and general tomfoolery here and if that’s motivated you to try something similar, David and I would recommend getting in touch with (another) Dave at http://bikingandalucia.com.

Orgiva is a fantastic place to stay, it’s essentially the administrative centre for this side of the mountain. This makes it a non-tourist bustling town full of great bars and restaurants chock-full of lovely people. The riding is immense and endless. The trails are lumpy and bedrock hard at higher altitudes changing to fast and loose lower down.

Spain MTB 2015 - Sierra Nevada

This is the route back to Orgiva. We are 10 minutes from a cold beer!

Much of it is pretty steep, quite a lot has a degree or more of exposure. Everything is covered in dust. It’s very much a mountain biking paradise.

You will be unsurpassed to hear it’s one of my favourite places to ride. The other is the southern Pyrenees. We all be back there In 131 days. Until then these digital memories will salve me against the grittiness of winter.

Inappropriate

Enlightened. Still stupid

Riding in the endlessly splendid Andalucian region of southern Spain, my life was full of appropriateness. Firstly the fully suspended, modern angled and expensively adorned 160mm travel mountain bike fitted perfectly into the folds of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Secondly dusty riding segued seamlessly into hot tapas and cold beer. Thirdly every photo contained the holy trinity of blue sky, dry rock and stunning views.

God I loved it. Came back last Thursday and not seen the sun since. Hidden by horizon clamping cloud and sideways rain. Half of the North is underwater while the rest of us are grudgingly grateful to be merely sliding about in tyre deep mud.

So when the going gets tough, the not very tough get silly. My good friend Matt is not what corporate bullshitters would call a ‘completer-finisher‘. So it was no surprise to see the stupidbike(tm) proxying the same version I’d abandoned  in his garage, before buggering off to sunnier climbs.

This is no problem at all though. I have many other bikes to ride most of which Matt fixes with no complaints and technical explanations I pretend to understand.

However, with everyone needing a laugh,  a frenzy of activity saw  many cheap and heavy components replaced by nearly new items from my bottomless spares drawer* Don't need these bits anymore

Off went the brakes that didn’t work, the transmission that did but at a cost to weight ratio not really captured in my Venn diagram of light/blingy/arguably pointless. Having no suspension other than the undamped rebound offered by a brace of tractor tyres, I felt a dropper seatpost represented nothing less than a safety accessory.

Talking of tyres, the supplied ones really aren’t bad. In the dry. In any other conditions their chief attribute appears to be some kind of alchemic reaction transforming mud into a frictionless surface offering all sorts of exciting diversions. Steering not being one of them.

After some dithering, I ‘stuck the knobbly one in the back’. Writing that down has made me both laugh and wonder whether ‘I’ve gone at this from the wrong end‘. At  best I’ve created a paddle steamer shifting huge volumes of mud to arse crack. At worse I’ve prioritised traction over steering.

Assuming the lashed together bastard love child of John-Deere and a rubber fetisher makes it to the first downhill. I have only one spare tube apparently fashioned from an elephants condom. If the weather turns for the worse, it offers sufficient flotation properties to rescue me and quite a few friends.  When it finally snows, I’m fucking this bike thing off and just taking the tube sledging.

The new tyre  really didn’t embrace the tubeless experience at all. Even with Matt’s compressor bullying air into the vast orifice at a 100PSI. It was flappier than – no really not even I can go there** – er a very flappy thing.  I had a quick delve into the bearded world of the Fat Tyre Forums and apparently there’s much to prepare involving badgers, illegal substances and a level of stickiness which suggests any such activity should be carried out in a darkened shed well away from the children.

So tomorrow night I intend to be entirely inappropriate. The stupidbike is prepared for its first night mission. In conditions best thought of as ‘Herefordshire’s Famous Flanders Flashback’, I fully expect it to be rubbish everywhere. There’s that and the joy of being abandoned far behind the back of the group.  I shall navigate by their belly laughs and amusing retorts on the pointlessness of one mans endeavour to test the maximum amount of foolishness a stupid bicycle can offer.

At least it will now stop. And go without the sound of chainrings being tortured by shifters assembled by the lowest cost bidder. I expect the traction to be outstanding, front end grip less so, but trees are always just that bit softer in winter.

Assuming some kind of survival/not checking in at a mental trauma clinic, the following night whatever remains of me and the stupidbike shall attempt to summit the mighty peaks of the Malvern hills.

At the end of which, this experiment shall be declared a wonderful success and it’s just the other 99.9% of the population who don’t get it. Or there will be a suspicious fire in the shedofdreams.

No point dying wondering eh?

*mostly. Some additional expenditure may have been required. I like to think of this an investment is ‘future and most necessary spares currently stored on another bicycle

**some metaphors are best left unwritten. But for full transparency, I’m smirking like a teenager on his first encounter with hedge grumble here.

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.

A bike called labrador

Who are you calling fat?

Nearly eight years ago we found ourselves on the threshold of a chaotic slew of barns – stuffed with furniture we couldn’t afford because most of it had been chiselled out during the reign of Queen Anne.

We were in the wrong place at the right time so naturally we became heroes* Displacement came in the form of a 12 week old labrador innocently chewing a table leg worth substantially more than even the eye watering sum we handed over for the proto-Murf.

Money well spent for a pup who has rewarded us with his basic labradorness over most of the last decade, and for whom I will morn deeply when he is no longer with us.

History suggests a less painful parting from my latest purchase. Nor do I expect bemused mutterings of ‘eight years since we brought that home? really?‘  to accredit longevity of ownership.  My good and true riding friends are already taking bets the stupidbike(tm) won’t make it much beyond Christmas.**

There are however strong parallels tho between dog and bike. Firstly they cost about the same, and secondly their attachment to the pack came as as much a surprise to them as it was to us. To whit: I followed most of the family into a soulless warehouse hawking cheap outdoor gear wth the sullen dragging tread of a bored teenager.

Shoes were required. For reasons entirely unfathomable this always takes fucking ages. Genuine confusion squats on confused countenances when being interrogated over personal shoe size. How can you not know? It’s not like it changes much over the age of about 12. Basically one step above ‘my name? yes, I know that one, just give me a minute…’

Carol strode off confidently in the direction of  the ‘wall of shoe’, while Jess veered off randomly as if swept up in some unseen gale. This is not unusual behaviour for a teenager who oft reminds me of the hound in the film ‘Up’. You know the one: ‘Squirrel!’. But this time there was some method to her randomness.

Dad, Dad, look at that!’. Look indeed. The first thing that hits you is the ridiculously fat tyres closely followed by the eye popping colour somewhere between green, yellow and optical pain. Instantly I was back to those rambling rooms chasing a wayward pup between priceless antiquities.

That’s a bloody labrador I thought with some glee. Quickly I door-stepped an assistant who wanted to tell me all about how the bike had been developed by their own internal team. Couldn’t be less interested- he’s lucky not to lose his fingers with such slow pedal spannering so desperate am I to have a go.

Just get on with it man I muttered. Probably under my breath. Finally the seat post was extended and crappy pedals mostly attached to dubious looking cranks. I cared not- two pedal strokes in and obviously it’s coming home with us. Eager to please, a bit stupid, probably a tad overweight and mostly useless in every possible scenario except being at rest.

Yep that’s a labrador. It was the same riding it for the first time. Although my eagerness to find out exactly how silly it may be was stayed by car park conversations into which every other rider cast an opinion. Mostly mining the endless seam of ‘not much snow for that today mate

Oh my sides. Put up with for a few minutes in the spirt of fraternity before wishing them all well with a pleasant ‘fuck off out of the way or I’m running you down‘. And then we’re off. Three seconds later I’m cackling like the bloke firing up Frankenstein’s monster.

There is absolutely not point in providing some kind of serious ride report. I’ve ridden loads of bikes – mostly with at best a thin veneer of competence – but nothing compares to rolling about on 4inch tyres inflated to 9PSI.  It’s like a bike but only in the same way that parachuting is similar to being shot out of a cannon.

The sensations are similar but delivered in an entirely different way. And to a different soundtrack. Whump, Whump, WHUMP, Giggle. Uphill it’s fine, not racy but not as pedestrian as expected. Grip is phenomenal. You could climb up the side of a house if you had the legs for it.

Nimble as well. Fully expected to be travelling in whatever direction the lab/bike hybrid decided might be most interesting. Not like that at all. Easier to hustle round hairpins than my 29ers, and holds a line like a snorting Shoreditch hipster with a rolled up tenner.

Downhill it’s just funny. There is no other word for it. On dryish trails you cannot be braver that the tyres. Lean, lean, lean a bit more and feel the tyres knuckle down over loose ground. For balance, there isn’t much with these tyres on fresh mud. Aquaplaning is pretty much the only way to travel. That’s fixable by throwing cash at entire rubber plantations of knobblier compounds.

Not today tho, I stuck to the groomed trails of the Forest wondering how something so ridiculous could be so involving. Then I remembered similar feelings playing stupid games with the kids when they were young. You think maybe embarrassment is appropriate, but small humans give you excuses not to act your age. Fat bikes are just the same.

They are not however without issues. You can roll over anything but not for very long. They drag off those tyres – strangely more obvious downhill – is epic. Braking is largely optional and that’s fine as the stock brakes are terrifying. And while the suspension characteristics of an undamped fat tyre are noticeable, there is no magic there. Hit something square edged and the force is transferred pretty much untamed to wrists and ankles.

I found some little drops off and marvelled as time stands still when the tyres return to the earths’ surface. The rebound is so very slloooooowwwww. It doesn’t feel entirely safe but guess what? It’s as funny as hell.

15 kilometres I suppose. No idea of time. Strava segments superfluous. Metres climbed, some. Metres descended at two giggles per second. It will not replace the brilliant bikes already in the shed, but any time big smiles are required I’m dragging it out.

It’s a labrador. It just can’t help itself. And neither can I.

*(c) Princess Leia. A New Hope. Important to chuck in a cultural reference here.

** I’ve countered with the line ‘a fat bike is for life, not just for Christmas’. Going out on a bit of a limb frankly based on my revolving door bike purchasing policy.

 

Saved by the gel

One dirty and ridden, one clean and ready to go

Today we talked about training. It’s important to provide some context here; we were sat outside the pub wolfing down crisps and re-hydrating with Wye Valley’s finest liquid products.

We’re vaguely familiar with the concept of junk miles. We’ve heard about rest days. We’re aware other dabble in the mystical world of Vo2 thresholds. There was however a universal ‘what-the-fuck-really’? when the alien concept of weighing ones food was introduced.

It’s fair to say training programmes are generally happening to someone else. Not that we sneer at such efforts from a position of medical certainty. The last time Matt wondered aloud what the bump on his head might be, the Saracens Head Oncology Unit instantly diagnosed him with a life threatening tumour. Or Cat Aids. Possibly both.

We just ride loads. And, in my case, drink too much, attack cheese in the kind of frenzy last campaigned by the Mongol Hoards and rarely pass the biscuit barrel without making a significant withdrawal. Which may explain why some days you  sit astride your bicycle bending mountains to your will, and others when the entire ride is spent wondering who signed the holiday chit for both your lungs and legs.

Today was more of a ‘I can see my legs but they’re not taking much input from the skull hosted root vegetable’. Always ready to blame something else, my first excuse was the prevailing ground conditions tending to the wearisome plasticine.  Didn’t seem to be slowing the others down much. Switching channels, the issue was obviously a bike unridden for three months.

That’ll be the Pyga then. Now sporting a longer fork and a fat rear tyre. It felt a little dead after the Aeris, but hard to target it as the problem since it’s carried me over 4000 kilometres in these last two years. Short of a hovercraft, there’s nothing stopping me being at least average other than just being me.

In despair, I rooted deep into the pack harvesting a sickly energy gel of doubtful provenance. Two hours in and three more to go – because that’s the minimum  period to qualify for a Doran Death March –  any kind of supplement was beyond welcome and deep into necessary.

I’ve always had a deep-seated, if entirely illogical, mistrust of this kind of thing. My experience of gels is not what’s in the inside. During my long yet undistinguished racing career, sticky wrappers clung to innocent foliage inside the tapes. Lots of middle placed pilots struggling with a humour bypass felt the best thing about being outside was to litter it with non biodegradable packaging.

Not me. Mid pack at best but right on. Bananas, malt loaf, any wrappers stuffed into shorts not stay pressing my crotch. Tutting as those whippets wrestled their way past – fast you may be, but a planet loving human you are not. It was practically Yoda.

Trail food nowadays tends to come in packets marked ‘Caution – extremely sugary product within‘. Wine gums, jelly beans, chewy snakes and Haribo. Many times on wintry hillsides bereft of motivation, a hit on the glucose gland has returned us to good cheer.

So mid ride stops tend to coalesce around establishments selling outsized bacon sandwiches. Washed down with sugar suspended in strong black coffee.  None of those things were immediately available, leaving me no option other than to chug down a gelatinous creation promising instant pep through the flavour of summer fruits.

Ugh. Gag Reflex. No instant Popeye muscle popping. Ten minutes later though my legs came back on-line giving at least a passing resemblance to limbs which may yet power me up a few more hills. What kind of Elven magic is this? I’m well practiced in mainlining the 6:30am double coffee shot with added caffeine but this was something entirely different.

It didn’t stop me riding like a total spanner of course. See previous excuses re: conditions and bike. But it did get me as far as the pub where any post-gel crashes were cushioned by a pint. Then – just to be sure – another one. 60km of slop and slide left me pretty much empty, but I filled right back up avidly discussing plans for the winter and stupid challenges when the sun finally returns to the Northern Hemisphere.

I broadcasted a text to the riding crew in the vein of what a bloody good laugh it was*. Summarising the replies is illustrative to why we get up at 7am to throw ourselves at the scenery: ‘gets rid of the crap of the previous and prepares you for the shit of the upcoming week. It’s what makes us, us’

That +lots. The gel saved my ride. The ride saves all sorts of other things.  I don’t want to train. I’m not interested in diets and supplements. Being fit is the symptom not the cause. Riding bikes is what makes us, us.

Worth repeating that.

*specifically for the other three find ever more amusing** ways to lambast my purchase of a Fat Bike

**for a given value of amusing.