To insanity and beyond

Enlongened Chubby!

That’s paraphrasing Buzz Lightyear;  now that was a toy who constantly over-stated his own importance. So deluded believing he could fly. Yeah, we’ve all been there Buzz. There’s an ironic tautology in his original mission statement with infinity being unreachable so making beyond achievable. This is how I think of my quest to divine the perfect bicycle.

In a world of chaos, standards should bring order. Which would be fine were there not so many competing ones to choose from. Not satisfied with creating three wheel sizes all within a finger length of each other, those cheeky innovators – who cunningly fuse product and marketing in onomatopoeic triumph – make serious claims that the one true way lies* in increasing both length and girth**

Enter boost, the proto-standard for wider hubs, stiffer wheels and fatter tyres. Not fat bike width because that’s both silly and already selling to a willing audience. Mostly vigorously bearded within an ever decreasing circle of like-minded fundamentalists . So ‘Plus’ are differently great squashing into a niche between too fat and not quite fat enough. I should know I bought one but really wanted two. For even within this brave new world, no one is quite sure yet who might be king – is it 29+ built into special frames with bold new graphics?  Or it’s littler brother, 27.5+ surfing on the zeitgeist of last years brand new thing which is cram-able into existing frames with just a fork upgrade.

I ignored such obvious increments feeling because my big Chubby was already so good. The only thing I didn’t  much like  was the fork, festooned with more knobs than a BMW event and equally slippery in the corners. So in a budget conscious upgrade I researched and purchased a replacement with a little more travel ignoring my peers who live by the rule that moooarr is always better.  An extra inch would be fine*, perfect in fact. Except the product researched was not the same as the one purchased – a technical oversight only appreciated once we’d cut the steerer and attempted to refit the 29+ wheel. In that order. Fork would only fit 27.5+. Bugger.

The sensible option – having drowned the mirth of my mates in beer – would have been to sell at a small loss and start again, or stick ‘em on the shelf as realistically they’d be handily located close to the conveyer belt of my bike ownership.  What I did instead tells you a lot about my insanity trajectory.  Fuelled initially by a slightly less piss-taking pal who offered me his 650b+ wheels to try in the frame. Great I said, except the front one won’t fit as it’s last weeks standard. No problem I’ll just build a new one as – again – proximity to the shed suggests it’d end up being useful for something. In this case as the front half of my shortened dandy-horse with bits flipped and wheelbase shortened. Most bike makers have no idea which standard might finally stick so are designing frames to take basically anything in a throwing shit at a wall kind of way.

Even this simple change wasn’t simple at all with 10-to-11 speed conversions being wrangled around SRAM and Shimano refusing to accept the existence of each other. Eventually we hit the trails at which point my first thought was ‘I wish I’d bought the longer fork now the wheels are smaller’. Said nothing tho as not wishing to be an accessory to manslaughter when anyone within hearing distance died from laughter. A few more rides convinced me this could very much be the boost I was looking for. Upsides included far snappier turn in – tales of ringing bells and shouting full right rudder from riders on 29+ are over-stated – but there’s a difference in the tight stuff where this felt closer to an extremely well damped hardtail and less like a full on fat bike.

Acceleration was a little quicker, tyre choice is better especially if you have access to Haydn’s rubber emporium where he seems to have bought every plus tyre known to man and possibly a few illegal remoulds. Downsides were there’s a bit of cush – especially on the rear – you lose and a little of the monster truck roll over is compromised, but mainly that my tyre-hoarding friend not unreasonably wanted his wheel back.

Again if Mr Sensible were in the driving seat, we’d be back on the road to financial probity and refitting the parts owned and paid for. Never going to happen because Impetuous the drunk took the wheel, crashed into the bike shop and pointed at shiny new round things demanding the owner ‘take my money’, Which he did delivering back a perfect wheel naked as the day it was made. A second trip to Haydn’s warehouse of all things rubbery and we were ready to go, travel great distances and conquer huge obstacles powered by rightness and the satisfaction of having followed our dreams – a place where logic, rationale and imminent bankruptcy rarely get a look in.

Except we weren’t. Because the disks from the old wheels were one standard and the new ones something else entirely, And the chain too worn to run on a new cassette which also necessitated further transmission purchases to guarantee smooth running. Smooth that is, if a little harsh – you see I couldn’t shake the feeling that a 140mm fork would be so much better than the clearly inferior 120mm admirably holding up the front end.

Parts were ordered, parts failed to turn up, suppliers were shouted at, parts still failed to turn up, the world turned and I kept riding the chubby in drying conditions. And it was close to brilliant on the local trails, bang it into a corner, MBR high elbow optional – but you know for the look of the thing –  eyes on the apex, fingers off the brakes and experience the magic of 3 inch tyres biting into tortured dirt. If you push just a little bit harder, it’ll fling you out the other side with little pilot input other than a big grin. Sure all bikes do this, but chubby’s do it a bit better if – like me – you’re not really very good at the whole entry-apex-exit thing.  So yeah, fab but that fork….

Finally the part, which I’d now recategorised as a mythical beast that was much heard about but never seen, arrived and a single day later we were riding atop a longer fork and IT WAS FINISHED. Irritatingly finished 24 hours before a family holiday entirely incompatible with tree splattering injuries. Best take it easy then especially as the suspension-man gave me strict instruction to run the fork a little harder than my normal ‘yeah that’s abut right’ level of sag.  Mincing about it still seemed to be going quite fast, with the now perfect fork using nowhere near full travel even when challenged with some of my rubbish landings.

If anything tho, it whipped round the corners with even more precision. Not a word to be used lightly when I’m behind the bars. It gave me a bit more confidence which was rewarded with a bit more speed which then led to less braking and even more speed. Speed being a relative term but the devil that is Strava said nice things once we’d dusted ourselves off in the pub.

So have the four figure upgrades delivered value then? I guess that depends on your definition of value. Qualitatively, absolutely not – the cost of the minor increase in performance cannot be justified even within the skewed universe I inhabit. Qualitatively tho – that’s harder, it’s been a fun experience and I absolutely love the chubby. The Aeris is a better all round bike of course, but I think the plus bike is just a bit more fun. As if it makes cornering – which makes up a fairly substantial part of of the riding metier – a little closer to perfection,  you cannot put a price on that.

Two things to finish on – firstly after that first ride a good 20mm of suspension travel remained unused. Yep exactly the place I came in thinking that was all the bike lacked. Secondly my favourite bike manufacturer has unveiled some thigh-rubbing chubby full suss bikes two of which I’ll be demo-ing next month. I can’t see that ending well.

C’mon Buzz we’ve infinity to discover.

*either semantic definition works here.

**and there’s not many who would argue with that. Not those with x and y chromosomes anyway.

*** I’m not doing this on purpose. I’ve already taken out two references to ‘flange’

Sensible is for other people

Antur Stiniog MTB

“I’m only going to take photographs. Three runs max. I won’t be doing the black’. Weasily words framing a picture full of three dimensional possibilities, outlier’d by a difficult visit to a Welsh hospital.

I love Antur.  Love is not a verb often thrown around by a professional Yorkshireman. Especially considering the opposite is hate, and that’s an emotion cast large by the fan-like vista opening as you climb into the industrialised slate valley home to tracks inspiring those poignant extremes of non sequential thoughts a million miles away from ambivalence.

I love this place/I hate this place. I want to ride/I want to hide. It’ll be fantastic/I’ll be useless.  People I know well, who’ve shared their insecurities with me, appear entirely unconcerned while they encase themselves in body armour and full face helmets. I’m clumsy with taped fingers and adrenaline spiked muscle palsy. Is it me? Probably.

Normally I’m quick to fabricate an excuse for my piss poor performance. Today tho I’m ahead of that game with a broken finger encased in a fat splint. A visual metaphor for rocking the MinceCore vibe, a reason to be last, a chance to stop after barely getting started. And the first run almost triggers that release clause,

Two fingers to grip the bar- one of which is pumping the brake lever. Everything feels forced, nothing feels natural. Views of riders I can normally hang onto breach the horizon wide angle, the bike feels shit and I feel about the same. Taped fingers hang useless under the bar, and even tho it’s barely midday I’m keen to join them there.

Three runs. Not getting any better. Stop for lunch and have a whinge. Matt wonders if removing my head from my arse and just be grateful for riding at any pace might not be a bad idea. He’s got a point but I’m not keen to accept it. Instead I angrily hack away first at my gloves then my taped fingers to release the working one from the broken digit.

Things are immediately better. So much so after a few runs we head for the Black which nearly did for my mate Rex last year.  I didn’t ride that section which in no way stifled the joy of the next kilometre blasting over rock gardens and having it small to medium over the jumps and drops. Oh God, this is why we do this, this is the love of the mountain, this is the antidote to the tired existentialism of living on the margins.

Three times my mate Ian and I did that trail. We left the others to do their own thing. Faster I’m sure, having more fun? I not sure about that at all. The uplift bus heaved us up for one last time once we’d greedily shoved dusty bikes onto the trailer.

A single nod triggered the three pedal rotations to breach the entry. Then it’s freewheel, look, really LOOK, unweight, weight, brake to avoid smashing the double with a front wheel, deep breath loud in the full face as you drop into a rocky horror. The bike is way too good and you’re out and accelerating.

Sure you’re not clearing the massive tabletops or taking on the biggest drops but your beating heart is smashing the message against your chest that you are really alive. We weren’t fast but we were smooth and sliding into the car park we shared a self-conscious fist pump* and a massive grin. That stayed with us all the way home.

Here’s the thing. Mountain Biking is living in the moment. There is no time for nuance or procrastination. There is no middle ground. Selfishness is a winning attribute. All you can think about is you, the bike and the trail. That’s it. Life isn’t like that. Well there rest of it anyway. This is the balance, the counterweight, the release of a shitty day, the reason to conform.

If you don’t have this, how the hell do you carry on? Seriously, without adrenaline spiked muscles gently rocking the bike, without the dry mouth, without the minds-eye projection of a splattered you, without the visceral joy of getting it right, without the entirely non english giggling with your fiends, without being not quite like you, how the fuck do you put a suit on to chow down some corporate shit?

This is not a zero-sum-game. There are consequences of treating being average as someone else’s problem. Injury, elitism, financial disaster, selfishness…. the list goes on but so do we. Because five seconds of dropping into something scary with  an awesome bike underneath you and your greatest friends beside you is worth all of this.

I’m writing this with an aching finger that clearly would heal better were it not being subjected to serial battering by glacial history. A sensible person would do nothing, play the long game, refuse to regress to childish instant rewards – essentially be an adult.

I’m 48 and quite a lot. But I’m not ready for that

*to be fair I can’t shake hands right now so cut me some slack.

Stupid, Inappropriate and Fat.

Malverns Skive Ride :)

Mythology is a school of pseudo-science rarely attended by the Hedgehog. For good reason; most of it is the laughable premise of astrology mashed up with conspiracy theorists last seen flatulently dancing naked in crop circles.

Occasionally though there’s a nugget resonating far below the astral plane populated by those not convinced alien abduction features large in their life plans*. Here’s one ‘People begin to resemble their pets

Or bikes possibly. Although in my case this suggests a schizophrenia diagnosis where four rides pushed open the door of the ShedOfDreams(tm)to bring forth many different bicycles.

Sunday was a classic winter slog. I dragged the Aeris from the shed on the grounds it was already dirty. It’s a broken seat post and wandering gears from a working bicycle, but blindsided entropy for long enough to slither about in conditions requiring core strength, bike handling skills and bravery furnace-forged in front tyre fundamentalism with traction hiding under sideways motion.

None out of three isn’t bad***

Fun tho. Not enough effort go spend the rest of the day in the pub. So facing a dark week of no booze, my response was to chuck the FatBike and deluded rider at the Malverns to see what might happen. What happened was much steep’n’deep freshly cut loam grabbing those four inch tyres right up to the point where Mr. Stupid on top undercooked a steep corner, caressed a tree and had a bit of a wild eyed moment while gravity took over.

I grabbed that tree while the bike flipped end over end in an ever accelerating arc. Was mildly worried about the damage, was extremely happy I was no longer attached. Missing crampons, it took a while to retrieve the remains but happily the damage was limited to a kinked reverb cable and doubled over mudguard. Smacking both with a handy rock got us going again.

An hour later though my experimentation of essentially rigid bikes in a geological mess of step-y bedrock suggested there might be better tools for the job. That’s of course ignoring the argument the real problem sits atop the very thing we’re blaming for being a bit inappropriate.

Best thing here is to ignore that difficult supposition and instead switch bikes. Having so many, it took me a second or so to drag the ‘Chubby‘ from the rack for a night ride in the hills above Ross. As a man publicly declared that night riding is a chore foisted on me by a tilting planet, slogging darkly through conditions one mud-micron removed from the trenches of Flanders requires quite an effort of will.

Two weeks ago it was shit. Everyone else seem to be enjoying it. I was miles behind hating being useless and hating smashing against trees. Now tho it’s mostly dried out so it’s fast and fun. Sure another week of dry weather will surface perfect early season loam, but late Feb this is bloody brilliant. Climb on fire roads missing puddles, descend on trails sucking tyres into drying dirt, believe in the speed that’ll send hardtails over gap jumps and then relive it all drinking beer on pub chairs not ruined by gritty shorts. Don’t be shy Spring, I think I can see you.

Once more into the fray demanded the brain. Legs rebelled ‘really, REALLY, three rides and one bastard spin session, we were there you know’. Brain offered ‘How about a run instead’ Legs: “Oh do bugger off, no really we’re done with this week

Ignoring the NCO limbs, I trailer-strapped the chubster and headed out to a Flipperati reunion. Five years ago we rode every Thursday regardless of the weather, but shifting priorities saw this last occur 18 months ago.

It was fab. Not entirely dry. Not entirely comfortable. Two of us were rocking dropper posts, 1×10, slack geo’s, short stems and knee pads. The third of the flipperati dug out his ten year old Santa Cruz Heckler sporting 3×9, steep head angles and roadie tights.

Early on he was fast uphill but rubbish the other way. That’s track cycling for you. But as the night marched on, the distance between us foreshortened and it was mostly like the old days. Not quite but close enough, but after the last descent there wasn’t time for a breath to gap the joy of close quarter racing on trails we used to take for granted.

At the end of the week, all that riding unlocked the ‘beer and pizza‘ achievement. I sat in the pub cradling a pint in the good company of a whole bunch of friends missed through the thimble of a Dry January. We talked about how the trails were pretty damn good right now, but God how bloody great is it going to be come British Summer Time.

Most of the way out of the dark now. Let’s hope someone nudged Spring to let it know it’s time to light up the trails.

*these aren’t all nutjobs. Phillip K Dick – the man who wrote the classic Blade Runner** – spent most of his waking life convinced he was being targeted by alien races.

** Do androids dream of electronic sheep was the book which inspired the iconic movie.   I reckon Phil had a bit of Yorkshireman in him.

*** As Meatloaf would have sung has Jim Steinman retained a single iota of honesty.

Goodbye dry January, hello wet February

More mud, more climbing, still no beer

Said it before. February is the hardest month. Even after unlocking the self-medication cabinet to numb frequent and cruel rain lashings, it’s still normal behaviour – in these parts at least – to stride angrily into vertical rain pea-shot from dirty clouds, shaking your fist and demanding ‘Haven’t we suffered enough you utter, utter bastard?

Apparently not.  Not if that ride was representative.  It was the kind of slog leading you to wonder if it might it be both simpler and cheaper to run around the forest setting fire to ten pound notes. Consecutive Sunday death marches in such conditions ensured we didn’t fancy another one, heading instead to our favourite South Wales trails centre.

Afan always delivers when it’s grim elsewhere. Not that is was dry. This is a land full of rivers- many of them gurgling happily in the bottom of valleys, and a few more running down the trail. But a lack of horrible wheel sucking mud served up a 40km placard marked ‘the return of grip and joy

The sun even came out, and — when protected from the wind – we felt for the first time this year warmth from the fleeting orb. Warmth which was blasted aside once that incessantly probing arctic vector made a mockery of expensive technical garments.

That wind is a double edged sword. It’ll cut you deep on long traverses and drain the blood from your extremities. Flip it over though and watch the zephyr slice the top inch of mud from the trails revealing something wonderful and loamy underneath. In the case of the Malverns that’s basically bedrock on the exposed bits and black, peat-y goodness in the trees.

Get amongst that and ride fall lines which in the wet are exactly that. Aquaplaning fun says Martin, assisted suicide I counter. But it’s a welcome return to pointing in the same direction as your desperate bar wrenching was aiming. And feeling good on the climbs; dry trails are worth a couple gears at least so it’s worth putting a chunk more effort in. February also brings a a little more light and we used every minute of it, finishing dry and laughing in the twilight. ‘look at my bike, it’s clean / no look at mine it’s even cleaner’

Back home, my route inside bypassed the bucket of doom and headed straight into the chilled trophy cabinet. Wondering if it might be so good again, we ventured out the next night into the woods about Ross which traditionally dry out sometime in June. For a week or so before returning to their default state of fungally damp.

Not dry but not wet either. Firm loam which are happy words for a winter mountain biker. Although still spiced up with an occasional lack of grip leaving all that new speed to go somewhere. Thankfully through the tight lines between the trees and not into them. Two hours of that and while the bikes were splattered we remained un-battered. Far from it, the temporary return of a dry line raised our spirits to the point we didn’t need endorphins topped up in the pub.

It won’t last of course. It can’t. It’s February. As I write a big storm is dragging a couple more Atlantic lows in its wake. Three days of rain will bring localised flooding and a mess were that dry line so recently was. The line is like groundhog day – we saw it, rode it, cherished it and shall now lament its loss for a few more weeks.

It’s addictive though. I slipped out once more before that storm broke. Steeper and deeper than before. Apparently quite slippery* when wet and still pretty bloody tricky right now. Winch and plummet for most of an afternoon with impressive vertical distance but bugger all horizontal.  Finding perfect dirt that cannot be bettered. A prize worth hunting for under those threatening skies.

Sunday is our real riding day. I used to pretend it was a battle and not riding was a sign of weakness. If we didn’t keep battering the storms they’d batter us for ever and summer will never come. I know better now, the weather doesn’t care and neither do I. The sun will be back out soon. I can wait.

February will be wet. Of course it will. But this is not a test. If you can cheat it a little with three days of dry riding under a gently warming orb, you’re doing it right. As my much-missed friend Jenn Hill once said ‘Here you are with your arms and legs and walking around in the good sunlight. That’s winning. You’ve won, see. The rest is just gravy

Wise words. When worrying how our lives may stack up against others, we’d do well to remember them.

*I think ‘certain death‘ would be more descriptive.But you can’t beat a Bon Jovi reference.

 

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.