Kia Ora!

Lake Pukaki, originally uploaded by Alex Leigh.

As the famous beverage advert almost goes. A week has already passed in a blur of stunning scenery, epic mountain passes and a thousand comedy moments in the big sleeping truck. Somewhere between high speed jetboating, more relaxed boat trips through fiords, glow worm caves and innumerable photo stops we’ve covered a thousand kilometres on the South Island.

Now we’re going to kick back a bit as it has become obvious that three weeks doesn’t even scratch the surface of this fantastic country. We’d like to spend less time on the tourist trail and a little more time exploring. Our biggest regret so far is not pushing on one night to stay at the side of Lake Gunn on the road to Milford Sound.

The whole camper van experience has been great fun. It works fantastically well with kids and while the big camp sites are cheap, clean and convenient, being totally self sufficient provides the perfect opportunity to just park up in a DoC rural site and enjoy the solitude. Except for the kids of course who seem to have embraced the whole experience with the kind of cheery noncholance that we could all do with a bit more of.

We’ve less than a week left on the South Island and have started to cull our list of things to do. And that leaves plenty of time to head out to the Franz Josef Glacier, dive into the hot springs at Hamner and wallow around with dolphins in the sea at Kaikora.

Heading over to the North Island, I’m really looking forward to the Te Papa Mauri museam in Wellington. The kids are looking forward to it as well, as I’ve promised them they can return to splashing and giggling in return for looking intelligent and interested in some history for an hour or so.

There are so many things we’re not going to have time to do, it seems I’ll need to find a grandmother to sell or rent out hides for “cabbage watching” so we can come back. Right now, with the warmth of the summer and the New Zealand people, this seems like the best place in the world to be 🙂


Hummer, originally uploaded by Alex Leigh.

On the nicest day of the year, I decided to abandon the family’s plea for some outdoor action, instead closeting myself in the barn to build this Titanium lovely. Ti is a frame material which has received much mullage from the experts-in-their-own head found on Internet forums. Apparently it is the silver bullet, the cookie-cutter, the pinnacle of the periodic table. That’s bollox obviously but didn’t stop me lusting after one for many years.

And years ago, I did have one but discarded it as a smelly kipper once it became apparent that exotic frame materials do not beget awesome trail skills. I know better of course now because this one was far more expensive – even second hand – so must be pretty damn begetting in dishing out those elusive inflamed wedding veg.

My friend Mike – who understands such things – tells me frame materials are largely irrelevant to how a bike rides. There is no inherent springiness of steel, stiffness of Alu or mythic ride quality associated with Titanium. And, of course he’s right but the PA and Wanga have gone, while this has taken their place. It’s already way better than the Voodoo because it has lots of gears. Which after some angst and shouting, I was able to wrest from their recalcitrant starting positions.

Mike also tells me this bike will last me for ever. Which – based on my bike rental approach – is interesting, if not entirely relevant. But tomorrow, on the anniversary of shoulder-gate, it’ll get clothed in the Emperor ‘s new mud. Of more interest to Carol is my direct return to the house without a diversion to Accident and Emergency.

Worshiping at the altar of Mong would have Consequences what with two weeks of camper van driving a mere week away. But I’m not sure I can ride any more slowly. Anyway a quick cheeky footpath test showed the bike to be both stiff and frisky.

So I’m thinking of calling it the “Penis“. Like rider, like bike eh?

Want rocks?

Quantocks Jan 08 (25 of 45), originally uploaded by Alex Leigh.

That’ll be the Quantocks then. From a purely geological standpoint, it’s arguable the Peak District or North Wales may better qualify. But walk for a minute in my shoes* and try rhyming anything with district. Lift Fits? Whit Gifts? Wrist Pick? Lacking both rhythmic cadence and rhyming couplets.

So, as usual, form triumphs over function on the hedgehog. But it’s not a total fib as these were rocks garnished by marketing. One minute you’d be pinballing off square edged geography idly disputing the brochure’s claim of “dry, sun dappled singletrack nestled in the beautiful hills of Somerset“, and – just before you called a lawyer or the A&E department – suddenly it would appear right in front of you**

Quantocks Jan 08 (1 of 45)Quantocks Jan 08 (2 of 45)

Legend has it that proper mountain bikers would never spend less time out in the hills than it took to travel there.. I’ve always assumed such heroes had very fast cars. But when fantastic weather and great trails intersect, even the slack can manage to ride through five snatched hours of winter daylight.

Quantocks Jan 08 (15 of 45)Quantocks Jan 08 (28 of 45)

Although we did spend approximately a third of that time in the pub. And because they serve beer, it seemed rude not to embark on some light quaffing. And because the Quantocks are a sugar loaf of steep sided valleys, the subsequent climb very nearly resulted in some projectile de-quaffing.

During the occasional brief riding hiatus’s between drinking, talking and eating, the singletrack sparkled cheekily and sparked all sorts of post descent nonsense around riding proficiency rarely seen outside professional competition. For myself, I’d like to think that “I flowed through those corners like I was on snails” treads a line somewhere between natural modesty and harsh reality.

Quantocks Jan 08 (10 of 45)Quantocks Jan 08 (21 of 45)

There was much talk of floating serenely over bumps and braking only when certain death was the alternative. Better still sometimes deeds even followed words with a death-grippy “ohshitgoingtofasttobrakebuggeryarrrggh” approach to the Weacoombe descent brought with it a weeks worth of adrenalin. Had it gone wrong though, the next ten seconds would have been packed full of hurty incident.

Quantocks Jan 08 (20 of 45)Quantocks Jan 08 (34 of 45)

Still out of the aggressively nibbling*** wind, the weak winter sun warmed our backs, and the happy noises of right side up mountain bikers could be heard all around. Riding in winter is so often wet, cold and butt shotblastingly muddy but – on days like this – you remember just how great the next three seasons are going to be.

Back at home some time later I did the numbers. Traveling hours: 5. Traveling miles: 276. Riding miles: Not many. Riding smiles: think of a big number and multiply it by close to infinity.

Forget the rigidity of seasonal accuracy. The daffodils are out, the birds are singing in the dawn, the hedgerows are sleepily awake with new buds. Spring is coming. And so is late summer for those of us heading off to the other side of the word next month.

I may have mentioned that already.

* Probably should have warned you about the smell. They are a funky set of kipper slippers.

** Insert preferred ending
– like Hally Berry wiggling provocatively out of the sea
– like a handsome man with a beguiling – yet playful – smile
– like the Shopkeeper in Mr. Ben
– all of the above.

*** somewhere between flat calm and biting

I was just riding along…

Afan Dec 2007 (1 of 7), originally uploaded by Alex Leigh.

..considerably slower than Andy. By the time I had arrived at the scene, the narrative of the crash had already moved on from slip-oh shit-wheel-rock-abandon ship-roll-check body parts-examine bike-buggeration. Having groaned up the Whytes Level climb on a mission for a long winters ride, Andy whooped off into the twisties, found the exact lack of traction provided by forest mud and rammed his front wheel sideways into a pointy rock. And himself down the trail, his sky-ground-sky journey punctuated by stumps and groans.

It seems impossible that we could beat our awesome effort of last year. And yet, here we were a nats nadger from 2008 – having driven 170 dark and windy miles – and five minutes into the first descent, we’re a man down. And down he went as well, carrying what I came to quickly think of as “the remains” thousands of vertical feet that deliver significantly more fun by wheel. Obviously given the choice between supporting our slightly battered friend in a band of brothers we’re all in this together style, or dismissing him with a sketchy wave and a “see ya later“, we gave him all the rush that a bum would offer an annoying, overstaying in-law.

And, of course – aside from the muddy misery of a new section which appears to have been designed specifically to suck the enjoyment from riding – we had a rather wonderful time as Andy trudged back downhill muttering choice curses to the bitch Godess of Mountain Biking. My fellow splitter – Nigel – was riding like the wind, flowing with irritating ease through bends and over jumps. I was more riding with the kind of wind that only a dietary switch to bran products could ease. This – annexed to a lame excuse of flat pedals only occasionally troubled by cold feet – was the only reason I was languishing some days behind after each section.

But while Nig was admiring the scenery and possibly engaging in a spot of sheep worrying, I was having enormous fun being bullied by a long travel hardtail that eats this sort of terrain for breakfast, and then demands seconds and thirds way after your body is crying out for a post lunch power nap. After a day of this, my shoulders ached, my wrists exhibited a weakness possibly occasioned by a 24 hour wanking competition, my thighs burned, I had a bad case of hardtail arse and my neck couldn’t even manage a truncated nod to articulation.

Even my teeth hurt. And I was walking like an old man having recently been surprised by a very large horse. Still after salving my wounds with beer and my ego with thoughts of being a bit less rubbish, a rush round Cwmcarn broke our long journey home. As Andy sat forlornly in the car, Nig ripped up the climb while I merely tore a strip off my legs for hawking their energy. Downhill they clung on like the rest of me as eyeballs, roughed up by fast, rocky trails, were added to the list of hurty bits.

Between many incidents of just about failing to crash, there was much imagined railing of singletrack and more real world death-gripping of bars. Occasionally I’d see Nigel sweeping imperiously down the trail, but each time I’d convinced myself I may be reeling him in, he’d dance on the pedals and his lighter-than-air Titanium steed would bunch and then accelerate at a speed barely under escape velocity.

And then a tiredness that can only be partially explained by physical exertion rolls over you, and left me lolling in a chair when I should have been making up for abandoning the family. There is a hollowness that aches to be back out there on the trails, punching the bike into a turn and feeling the tyres bite as centripetal force flings you out the other side. You have to come back, to adjust to the mundane world of not riding, to banish the selfishness of being an obsessive cyclist. And that’s hard.

That said, you can reflect on some wonderful views when you’re not absolutely sure what’s coming next. Sadly most of them are inside your head – a collage of possible futures each of them spiked with that heady concoction of fear and joy.

Perspective is the thing I guess, so on that note I’ll wish all the readers of this continuing nonsense a Happy New Year.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

RC Super Cub first flight, originally uploaded by Alex Leigh.

No it’s a flying drill. After the first flight ended shortly after take off – and some twenty feet up a tree – Carol felt that maybe, until a proper adult was present, I should curb my enthusiasm to smash it up again.

But always ready with excuses for why things cannot be my fault, I pointed out that the tail-plane exhibited fifteen degrees of lateral movement, which was in no way controlled by the electronic servos. Although the reason for this sorry state of affairs was a multi-bottled Cava assault on the build from the man with legendary MTB mechanical skills.

Ahem. Er. Moving swiftly on…

After restoring flying status, by exhausting the spares box and bandaging the accident damage with duct tape, we walked over to a field with significantly less in the way of spikey trees. I couldn’t help but be faintly embarrassed that I’d broken the plane, after a fifteen second inaugural flight, not by stuffing it into a tree but by wrestling it out from twenty feet up. Woody bruises and a broken propeller narrated our failure to catch it as it fell.

An yet, the plane is festooned with anti-crash technology. Which is good because – assuming the MTB crossover persists – I have crash technology essentially burned in from birth. However the super clever, sensor driven anti dive algorithm doesn’t actually operate below about a hundred feet.

Now I’ve not flown planes much, but most crashing I’ve ever been involved with tends to happen closer to ground level. And while the manual does trumpet the plane’s forgiving characteristics and apparent effortless flying capabilities, it does go on to strongly recommend your first flight is taken under the wing of someone with an unhealthy obsession of all things miniature fly-ee.

A quick probe into the forums suggest these people are slightly more geeky and even more self obsessed than Mountain Bikers. I honestly thought such a thing was not possible on a planet colonised by humans. Maybe – I’ve occasionally pondered – there is some alien race who are as single minded as a needle and twice as obsessive.

But no, these people are all around you. And they have committees and rules and Gala days. And beards. Lots and lots of beards.

The second flight was great and it went on for ages. The plane was either disappearing over a far horizon or pinging back like a boomerang with a vendetta. Much comedy over-controlling pitched and yawed us back over the field and a landing – that actually made use of the wheels – was affected. Affected by tufty grass and poor skills so the plane had an arse up repose, but amazingly nothing was broken. Except, maybe, my nerve

Flushed with success, of we went again and things went bad almost from the start. As the wind strengthened, my tenuous control weakened and an inevitable nose down furrowing crash followed shortly after. Second prop broke, game over.

But because the company that makes the plane secretly admits that all the anti crash stuff is nothing more than marketing guff, consumerable spares are cheap and readily available. A bit like ISIS bottom brackets except for the cheap part.

Still, this plane is currently costing me about 2 quid a minute to run. Which happily upgrades my Mountain Bikes to a status of “outstanding value per mile

Build. Try. Crash. Grin. Flash cash to repair. Repeat until broke. Great hobby, sound familiar at all? 🙂

Compensator of all the talents

Chicksands December 07 (3), originally uploaded by Alex Leigh.

At first glance you may struggle to see the similarities between the Brown government and, the man with an unhealthy interest in stuffing the hedgehog with all the trimmings. But if you retune your mental radar to abstract and your belief systems to suspended then – just there – crackling under a random synapse is the faintest of links.

While ol’ grumpy has under his command a widdle of power-crazy, greedy incompetents with a similar intellectual depth as a tea spoon*, I have one of these. So while Gordo may believe he is – borg like – creating the perfect political hive, I am striving to be an average rider supported by the gussets of a fantastic bike.

And while the Government flounces around looking for someone to blame, the SX gets me out of trouble time and again. The plate size rotors are so good at resisting arrest, it would take the entire Metropolitan Police Service to stop them. Probably by emptying the contents of a assault rife into their metallurgy innocent DNA.

And while the bike cannot spin – well not with me on it – it can carve turns at angles of lean way beyond my gyroscopic boundaries. In terms of policy initiatives it proposes a transport plan of hooning off in a downhill direction, while encouraging the voters to hang on for grim death. Niche admittedly, but not without merit.

I can’t remember which sanctimonious wanker sound bited “We are at our best when we are at our boldest” but I have sneaking feeling there may be something in that. Standing astride a stationary bike on the run in to the drop that properly broke me earlier this year, I had the fear. I needed to break the voodoo, I had to get over the irrational terror of crashing again. I wanted to get it done and move on.

But still I stood waiting for the kind of support that doesn’t smile in your face and stab you in the back. And the bike whispered “You may not be much good but I’m pretty bloody fantastic. Just limpit the pedals, death grip the bars, look anywhere but down and hang on. You deal with the edge in your mind, and I’ll deal with the one down there. Come on, let’s roll

So we rolled and it was all good. And the inter-galactic glow from being bloody terrified but doing it anywhere propelled us to the 4X course. Now I don’t think the stuffed shirts of No.10 have ever ridden a 4X track – I’m sure they tucked into a few 4 course meals – but really, they should. Obviously it’s configured for grommety DNA with Jeans, Hoodies and outrageous skils. But even they grudgingly admire us earth bound misfits – clumsy where they are smooth and scared where they are fearless – because “hey most people I know that are as old as you are already dead

Driving home, with rock music cranked up to warranty invalidating volume, I couldn’t help pontificating on the not very abstract that riding bikes is fucking ace. Maybe Brown should have take the cabinet on a Chicksands team building exercise. Let’s face it, they couldn’t do much worse, and it’d give the rest of us a well earned laugh.

* This is known as “a Government of all the talents” with no implied irony.

Finger licking cold..

See that picture? I took this – and the fact that my face had frozen – to mean that a night ride in the Chilterns would be cold, dry, fast and fun.

One out of four isn’t bad. A full report to follow but if the local ranger is poking his nose into what happened to a thousand tons of Chiltern topsoil, you ain’t seen me, right?

God, I’m going to need therapy.

Guest Poster – Queen Charlotte Ride

Queen Charlotte Ride (NZ), originally uploaded by Alex Leigh.

Last month my Inbox was full of blue sky and fantastic riding from the other side of the world. The photos were from my friend Doug Todd, and this is his report of the 100k event associated with those images.

I warn you now, there is much descriptive prose of glorious singletrack, super hot weather and miles of dust. If you don’t want to be reminded about exactly what summer is like, look away now. Otherwise over to Doug:

While many club members were enjoying a day out around Taupo, Mark Clansey, myself and 46 buddies from Vorb spent 2 days on fat tyres and plush suspension traversing the Queen Charlotte Walkway in the Marlborough Sounds. Vorb is NZ’s largest on-line cycling community (worth checking out at and this ride is an annual event. The QCW is a shared access, mostly single-track trail across DOC and private land, one of the very precious few open to both walkers and Mountain Bikers. By foot it’s a 5-day trek, by bike it’s a tough but highly enjoyable 2-day ride.

Saturday Nov 24th dawned clear and calm and we were soon heading out by water taxi across the glassy waters of the Queen Charlotte Sound, bound for Ship’s Cove. Once off the boat, Ship’s Cove has one exit – a 240 metre ascent, which is rarely ever ridden successfully as the average gradient is 1:3. Most of us walked the tough bits, and so 20 minutes later we summitted to spectacular views over the Queen Charlotte Sound. After a brief stop we tackled a pretty hairy descent back to sea-level, made more treacherous by DOC’s decision to “improve” the trail by loading it with gravel…. Much mayhem ensued with tails of people sliding into the banks or off the edge into the bush. I’d fitted new carbon-ceramic brake pads the day before and they were literally smoking half-way down…..

After a gentle climb back to 200-odd metres we then had another screaming descent into Furneaux Lodge. Quick recovery stop and then a 90-minute trek along the coastline with fabulous, technical singletrack to contend with. The water taxi collected us from Punga Lodge and we transferred back across Endeavour Bay for a night of tall tales and carousing at Furneaux.

Continue reading Guest Poster – Queen Charlotte Ride

And as if by magic…

Voodoo Wanga, originally uploaded by Alex Leigh.

… the bike frame appeared. Well not actually appeared as Teleporting is still a young science. But an almost unheralded advantage of silly one geared bikes is how quick they are to build. I accept this doesn’t make up for their many disadvantages, but work with me here.

90 minutes from bare metal to beer medal. This included Helicopter tape that didn’t stick and a three bike brake bodge after some otherwise lovely 2nd hand stoppers were missing in action. Or possibly Acton from where they were sent.

Even a brief ride – in the pitch black that is wintry mid afternoon – revealed a frisky persona mated to a Tigger like springiness. Whereas the Love/Hate felt solid and all a bit GRRRRR, the Voodoo is all skippy and fleet of wheel. It’s light too 🙂 Still after the love/hate, fitting casters to the barn and pushing that would probably qualify for such a description.

Obviously, my level of riding skill transcends geometry, frame material and component choice. But now I can be rubbish in a fetching shade of red.

Downsides? Apart from missing 26 gears? The disc hose flays around the top tube as an angry python, for which a superglue solution awaits. And worryingly, the full complement of brackets, flanges and associated paraphernalia for full gear transformation are all present.

Which means conversion to a proper bicycle is possible come trails above the water table. Let’s not go there eh? Not while I’m still clinging onto this sacrificial testicle.

Wang! A…

Wang! A, originally uploaded by Alex Leigh.

.. noise heard as the slapping of the prudence ruler connects with the face of the monetary blind. The complexity of a chain of correlated transactions involving frames owned but not bought, a road train of wheels and sufficient brakes to stop the world, cannot be easily explained.

All I am prepared to say – until the lawyer from the Enron trial comes on shift – is that this financially neutral covenant dovetails perfectly with a bicycle purchasing policy that is far too clever for mere mortals to understand.

Including me. Although my head is still spinning from removing the three ride new* singlespeed freewheel from its threaded prison. Great design in that it affixes itself ever more firmly to the wheel every time your turn the pedal. Making it an absolutely bugger to remove – honestly it’d be quicker to wait the few millennia for the surrounding components to rust away.

I’ve never seen the vice flex before, as I hauled on the wheel in the manner of a hairpin facing bus driver before the advent of power steering. And when the workbench began to twitch, so did I with the world rapidly slipping from focus.

First rule of committed physical tasks – remember to breathe. Second rule, consider the effect of potential energy as – with a satisfying ‘paaatang‘ – the sprocket is freed with a final violent wrench. I found myself turning perfect circles in an increasing ripple of perambulation.

My ‘Dancing with the Wheels’ foxtrot came to a painful end as the radius of my spin intersected with a spikey workstand. Didn’t stop me performing a little encore running around the barn – freewheel held aloft – chanting “got you, you little bastard, who’s the daddy now?

I am now faced with a choice. Stalk Ernie the Postie on Friday and rush the build knowing I’ll probably need to remove/sell/rehome about half the components or wait and do the job properly. Oh yeah, fridge some beers and set the grinder to stun, we’re going in.

In almost related news, we’re having a frank and open discussion around sizes of things. Carol wants me to have a smaller one that’s easier for her to manoeuvre, while I’m keen on something both longer, wider and with a bit more grunt.

Once I accept that Camper Vans for driving around New Zealand are not scaled up mountain bikes, I’m sure we’ll come round to her way of thinking.

* It’s important to distinguish between “old and worn out” and “new and knackered” because the former adheres to some quality standards whereas the latter satisfies the modern law of cheap, shit, useless; pick 3.