It’s that time of year again….

FOD MTB - December 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shh.. don’t tell anyone….

Mince Pie and Sloe Gin Xmas Ride

… it’s meteorologically winter. Or pre-spring as I’ve long christened it. Our battered planet might still be spinning towards the shortest day but back here in the cheap seats, it’s cold, dark and irrepressibly grim. Wake up: Dark. Venture outside: Bloody Freezing. Go home: Dark again.

All we’re missing is the spiteful rain machine gunned at windows through which you’re glumly considering your riding future. Shall I go out there for a three hour mud enema, or should I put the funds required to replace bearings, washing machines and the will to live towards a winter sun holiday?

That rain has mostly stayed away and the entropy of softening trails has been stayed by wintry winds and frozen temperatures. Wednesday was that classic bluebird day with a low sun backlighting Jack Frost cavorting through an azure horizon,  Come ride time, that sun is long gone and we’re left with the audible warnings of bike carrying cars, signposting temperatures some six degrees below the freezing point.

Hardest thing is getting out of that warm car. Second hardest thing are the mandelbrot trails increasingly iced by still falling temperatures. The Wednesday night cohort is reduced to only three with a shared mission to get this thing done before the warm pub closes its doors.

Frozen trails reduce friction so transferring pedal input to maximum velocity. Hmm, not tonight everything feels sticky and difficult.  The ground might not be sucking your energy but something is and breathy exhales are caught in the light beams. There’s a fantastic natural planetarium above us but we’re focussed on condensing moisture a metre from the bars.

Fingers not yet warm even encased in winter gloves, and the folically challenged amongst us are rocking the ice-cream headache without the pleasure of anything tastier than a tooth-cracking energy bar long divorced from its chewy origins.

We abandon cruel fireroads for the sanctuary of the forest. Even with the leaves mostly gone there’s a organic hug from the trees with temperatures a few degrees closer to manageable. Dry too, not frozen and the leaf carpet hiding root-y landmines and hidden traps where the trails fall away.  The mercury might be falling but the grip is summer high, so we’re pushing the bikes from entry to apex without the heart-spike of a wheel taking a trip not authorised by the man behind the bars.

We’re warming up but the freezing conditions affect the whole package of bike and rider. One of whom has a failing seatpost, my posh lights have amps making a break for warmer climbs, and there’s a chunk of viscosity wherever oil and suspension parts meet.

No matter, we’re into the good stuff now and it’s giggly to the power of bonkers. Forget the cold and remember that December rarely feels like this. A brief review of previous years suggests we’re deep into the first of four grim months where the going is sideways and the best you can do is survive long enough to wonder when the hell this used to be fun.

Descents in the Forest aren’t very long. The hills lack the elevation your tired legs insist otherwise. Yet they offer ninety seconds of adrenaline hard pumped through previously pinched arteries. Almost better at night with eyes wide open shutting down peripheral vision however good the LEDs strobing on the bars. Hard to get distracted when a searchlight cone shows you only what’s here right now and what’s next.

Rustling leaves, irritated owls, heavy breathing and far off cars are the soundtrack of our night. We climb one more time ensuing the easy option home because that’s for shitty days in January.  Still the leaves fall casting shadows in multiple light beams. You’re a mile from any kind of civilisation but it feels special to be out as the forest shuts down for winter. You always feel the seasons when you ride through every one of them.

We prime the darkness displacers one more time. Match the cadence to the gradient of the hill. Let night envelope your senses as your vision narrows to the point of light that triggers muscle movement. Feel the earth under those fast rotating wheels. Hit the last drop at the bravest point and make shapes with your hands when describing how great that felt.

Pub. Again. Always. Bikes not really muddy and neither are you. The former sits in a cold shed until its called upon again, you lie wide eyed in bed wondering when you can go again.

Just let it last a little longer. I’ll not tell anyone if you don’t.


Flick the switch


Yat - MTB Nov 2016
Two weeks ago. I miss those conditions already

Light/Dark. Hot/Cold. Dust/Mud. Chubby/Low-Fat. That last couplet is an outlier we’ll be back to, but first to misquote the Wizard of Oz, we’re not in summer anymore. Or even Autumn.

Two weeks ago our riding life looked like that photo. We were revelling in leaf-fall over dust. Summer from the axles down. Sure the season ratchet had cranked- turning trees amber and dropping temperatures*, but the weather never got the memo, so a month of minimal rain led to maximum grinnage.

You know it cannot last so every dry singletrack climb, every firm berm, every perfect take off, every non sketchy landing, every rock-hard apex, every calculated risk, every clean bike is cherished for the unexpected gift it absolutely is.

So we go long. Bitch reversed, G2-into-G, Bridget’s, The Legend of Jones,  Threes-up finishing on the feared/revered Bunker. Which in the wet is essentially assisted suicide, but that day was conquered at good speed, without the standard terror associated with barrelling into damp rock gardens at inappropriate velocity generated by the steepness of the hill.

The names mean nothing outside of the group of four selecting them of course, but the memories mean everything. It’s a 65km day and we’re heading home in the twilight feeling sated and smug, but there’s something of a flat track bully here. Brilliant yes, one 30 second period joyful pulling and pushing the bike between wheel eating stumps kicking up leaves barely settled from the previous rider will lie long in that memory.

But you know what’s coming. And now it has arrived. The local Wednesday night ride is pretty much ‘three gap Wednesday’. These trail features hide something a little less physical- the bridge between a shit week and the weekend. While my riding pals are all lovely and everything, without the ego-less piss taking of our midweek right, I’d be in the jury box providing good character references mitigating ‘falling down‘ incidents wth difficult work colleagues.

Sunday last a trail we’d battered some two weeks before it succumbed to rain storms driven on westerly winds. Mostly sideways and fun in a way it really won’t be come February. Right now tho, there’s the flip between being just brave and being a reasonable bike handler. When it all goes tractionless, the tractionless get hippy. Flick the bugger back into line, get the front pointing in the right direction, death-grip the bars and ride the slide.

FoD MTB - Nov 2016
I might have to clean that

So we knew what was coming. More rain suggested this would be the first night ride where the pub handed out seat-saving newspapers for muddy arses. I was still keen tho mainly as my approach to the changing of the seasons is to throw money at the problem. Not in a ‘Hey let’s all move to Spain until Spring‘**  kind of way, more taking advantage of the Cotic’s chameleon like ability to run both chubby and 29er wheels depending on prevailing conditions.

Looking out of the window, those prevailing conditions were ‘a bit shit’ so I procured a set of big, skinny rims for almost no money at all. A transaction which lost its fiscal allure once I’d splashed significant cash on brand new rubber to dress them.

Flare Max with 29er tyres for the winter
Big wheels fitted

First impressions weren’t fantastic. Climbing somehow felt more difficult – an issue instantly backgrounded once this new rubber exhibited it’s bark magnetic properties on the first descent. Not so much a passenger as man playing human pinball with almost every tree in the forest.

Arrived shaken and stirred at the fireroad. Let some air out for the look of the thing. Things improved a bit mostly because I’d lifted my head from a narrative stuck in a loop of ‘where’s the rest of the tyre, it’s like being a bloody roadie out here’.

Climb back up. Grit teeth. Clear first gap jump and am so relieved almost run over fallen rider in front of me. Retrieve Alex from his supine position and head down the trail only to find Adam lying upside down in the shrubbery. Feel mildly guilty that maybe my wheel changing has butterfly-fluttered the trail gods.

10 minutes later, I’m over it as Alex again throws his bike roughly to the ground narrowly avoiding a ‘saddle-erectomy‘ in the ensuing sky-ground-sky consequence of a head-first attack on an innocent tree.

Blimey, what next? Another man down with a back injury and the black-hole effect of the pub almost pulls us in, but with resolute upper lips we head on to a couple more descents, the last of which has the third gap jump on a barely consolidated new trail.

Not done it before. It’s only going to get more greasy tho. Do I want to wait until March? Tempting. But followed Rex, stuck a couple of pedal strokes in, saw his light describing a perfect parabola just before I closed my eyes. Missed the downslope but saved by great forks, and the darkness shrouding the fear of cocking it up.

Right then, Pub. World put to rights. Forecasts checked for weekend.  Wind, rain cold which translates to slop, effort and new washing machines. It’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better, but we’ve got mudguards, waterproof shorts and an insatiable need to ride bicycles. Best get on with it.

Switch, flicked.

*so triggering the re-emergene of the drinking hat which provides the folically challenged respite when drinking outside a favourite pub under chilly skies. Pretty much the first thing packed in the bag between November and March.

** tempting as it is, apparently the kids have some quite important exams coming up and it’d be a bit of a bugger of commute to Cheltenham.  I’m not yet totally swayed by these arguments.

Friends like these

Bank Holiday Weekend riding

[ I wrote this a while ago and never published it. Here we are 18 months later and nothing has changed. I am blessed to spend my time with people who I count as something more than brothers.  That means sometimes you have to be something other being a bloke, a self sufficient adult entirely distanced from baring your soul. That’s horseshit. Here’s why]

Those of us lucky enough to have a roof over our heads, a few quid in the bank and no prospect of any debilitating hardship still obsess over ‘whether this is enough?‘, so conveniently forgetting there is a far larger cohort with a much more basic concern around ‘is this enough to buy food for the week?’

There’s something here about how we make judgement calls; maybe these are merely the points of difference between cost and value.  Even so when difficulty strikes, there’s always the instinctive response that somehow this shouldn’t be happening to you. Which is nonsense if you’ve any sense of a non deterministic world. There’s no statute of limitations on stuff outside of your control.  Roll your sleeves up and get on with it. Many people aren’t fortunate enough to have that choice.

When the going gets tough, the conflicted go riding. Two days, eighty kilometres, two thousand metres of climbing, one crash, many beers. That’s the simple beauty to riding mountain bikes. It’s nuance free and transparent of purpose; you’re not setting out a position to carry disparate agendas through a heavily moderated conclusion. You’re not telling lies to assuage the doubts of the timid. You’re not making promises to garner support from the vain and deluded*

Our digital world often interfaces poorly with analogue individuals wondering where the hell the genial shopkeeper went. The binary nature of our everyday transactions is strangely more at home to those of us who cherish dirt over digitisation. Left or right, brake or roll, push or pull, sprint or chill, race or quit. We lose ourselves in a realm where such decisions have real consequences – solving three dimensional problems in real time which has no truck with what Bob from Marketing might be interested in.

This is a righteous thing. For all sorts of reasons. But many of our tribe get it badly wrong. They confuse spending Sundays checking out of reality with making difficult choices, believing selfishness is quite the same thing as finding space to locate the stuff of life.

They are mistaken. Bikes were flat and immobile when I sat in a field  surrounded by friends with whom I’ve shared many adventures. And unburdening myself wasn’t even peripherally related to gaining perspective through big skies, or epiphanies triggered by surviving scary jumps or shuttling round perfect apexes.

That’s all good of course. But I could ride a thousand kilometres and still be a million miles away from what’s important. Which is nothing more than dropping your guard and talking to your mates. Getting stuff out there. Answering questions. Waiting for judgement or taking the piss and, of course, receiving neither.**

Then your ride some more. In my case with a rare level of recklessness which saw me tackling all sorts of scary stuff, before falling close to the last hurdle.  When that’s done, there’s the pub. And the next pub. And the one after that burnished under a summer sky. Wobbling home via a set of steps firing up the adrenalin compressors.

Here’s the thing. I am lucky enough to have many friends; those I work with, those I’ve met through a life spent often in drinking establishments, a few more from those fading days of school and uni. But the people that get me through a tough week are those I ride with every Sunday.

We shall crack on. Maybe knowing a bit more about what friendship means. It’s not quantifiable, but this doesn’t devalue it in the slightest way.  Sharing stuff – good and bad – with friends is what life must really be about. Poverty of friendship must be a terrible thing.

* I’m good at this by the way. Not through any natural talent. I’ve just been doing it for a long time. It does make you despair at the base state of human nature.

** Well not for a bit anyway. About 10 minutes if memory serves 😉

What we have here is a failure to communicate

If you Google 'failing to deliver' this is the first image which appears!
If you Google ‘failing to deliver’ this is the first image which appears!

Nobody does anything, anymore. Instead we’re all about vision statements, milestones, team dynamics, prioritisation and, of course, delivery. Ironic when you consider Yodel* – you only had one fucking job –  trumpets all of these things on its website without actually delivering anything.

Except excuses, disappointment and despair. It’s an enduring mystery to whether this is a sophisticated prank concocted to enrage normally sane and balanced human beings beyond the point of setting fire to the local sorting office**. Set up a website, buy a few sheds, a single knackered transit van and perform evil marketing incantations before sitting back and enjoying the show.

Or, and I’m not sold on this at all, they really are just fucking incompetent. A maxim I’ve lived by is ‘When it all goes to rat-shit, don’t confuse polymaths tweaking the controls of the universe with the basic incompetence of individuals‘ And yet, even this sound principle cannot fully explain the cluster-fuck that is Yodel’s inability to deliver anything at all. Even a passive-aggressive note explaining how it’s all your fault. But more of that later.

Mixing red wine with internet browsing is always dangerous. However ordering fifty quids worth of bike parts hardly feels like a major transgression. Especially as that total breached the threshold for free delivery. One of which has actually happened. I’ve not been charged for a service I haven’t received. I think we can all take a moment to reflect the real value of that transaction.

Done? Back with me? More than the package is after failing to be delivered last Saturday despite the digital lies stalking the tracking system. Some time post non arrival a cryptic message appended the previously jaunty life-is-good tone of the narrative. ‘Short Delay, check back for details‘.

I checked back. The next day and the one after that. The website appeared to be frozen in perpetuity offering nothing other than the package was last seen some three days ago. Right then let’s engage with the much vaunted customer services. Two problems here; one engagement appears to be tiered on three levels; a) being ignored on twitter, b) being ignored on chat and c); being ignored by the entirely unstaffed automated phone system advising you’ll get more joy on tiers one and two.

Secondly, I am not alone. The Yodel Twitter stream is a relentless car crash – a wonderful fusion of Tourettes and Anger Management. Occasionally what’s laughably labelled as the customer experience team sticks their head above the parapet, only to be set upon by packs of rabid customers long divorced from any social niceties not including the words ‘WHERE THE FUCK IS MY PACKAGE YOU FUCKING THIEVES?’

Didn’t seem a lot of point piling in with the slathering masses, so instead I attempted a little humour ‘Hi, have you kidnapped my package and, if so, did I miss the ransom note?’. Ah the naivety – this was back in the days when I believed Yodel could deliver anything at all.

Five days in and we’re still packageless, suspicious of the promise that a delivery type transaction might be happening any day now. To be fair, from the depot to our house is a challenging geographic environment spanning nearly twelve miles. There are rivers and hills between us, so my hope is the delivery driver/mule owner – if such a being actually exists – has packed sandwiches and a sleeping bag for the journey.

Twelve miles tho. In six days. That’s the speed of a flaming stoat. In fact to free my mind from this circular Matrix conundrum – I’m considering setting up a rival organisation to fire said marsupials from cannons pointed vaguely at a compass bearing where a recipient might be. StoatDrone(tm) cannot fail to succeed in a marketplace where Yodel are still in business.

Today tho – after much pleading for Yodel to just do the one fucking thing they are paid for – the website stuttered back into life and showcased a delivery slot ‘sometime before you’re dead but probably today’. I couldn’t have been more excited having chosen this very morn to work at home. Soon, the sound of knackered truck tyre on gravel shall signal the receipt of this mythical package. I’d requested the Mayor of Hereford to attend accompanied by a bard to record  the event in song for future generations.

You may be surprised – I certainly wasn’t – that the event was something of a damp squib. Except for my inflammatory language when informed that ‘no one answered the door you numpty, so we left a card‘. Some issues with actual reality here; we were in all day and no card was left. I wouldn’t have minded if any fucking thing at all had been delivered. Even a card. I’m not precious. A card would have lampooned my theory that Yodel are just a bunch of stoners laughing themselves fucking stupid when anyone attempts to use their service.

A card. Just a card.  It’s not much to ask. Regardless of the fact I was watching the drive eagle eyed – all buoyed up with false hope. But no, what we actually received were lies bouncing about in the echo chamber of Yodel’s unmanned customer service channels.

Still they’re going to deliver it tomorrow. Whatever ‘it is’. It’s been so sodding long now, the contents of the package-that-may-be-delivered-to-my-grandchildren are a mystery to me. It’d be a nice surprise if it ever did turn up. But we all know it isn’t. Maybe I’ll get a card. I’d be pathetically grateful for that.

So Yodel – who I may have mentioned once or twice because even in this remote backwater of the Internet Google Spiders roam – are to courier companies what our current government is to democracy. That’s a whole lot of spin and fuck all delivery.

Thank you for listening.

*a portmanteau of ‘Your‘ and ‘Delivery‘ apparently. Although I prefer to think of it as a desperate vocal intonation to attract the ear of what’s charitably called ‘Customer Services

** sorry distribution centre. A place one imagines where dusty parcels rot in forgotten vast warehouses, while zombie employees cackle at customers who still believe even one of them might ever be delivered.

Lights out

Mince Pie and Sloe Gin Xmas Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*in purely a literal sense.

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

What’s your best day on a bike ?

San Francisco - Day 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Done and flustered

Nearly there

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*** wrong type of sun

We’re going to need a bigger tyre

Cwmcarn MTB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still dithering. Might be over-thinking it 😉

*I might be showing my age a here.

** and again.

My big fat geek shedding

Cotic Flare Max. First ride 😄

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

** Bankruptcy just so we’re absolutely clear.