So wrong, it’s wrong.

Malverns MTB - July 2011
Is that a happy face?

I have never understood why one week you’re an athletic titan bending the landscape to your will,  the next you’re a fat, old knacker wondering if this is how the end starts.

There is some logic to this I suppose; plausible deniability of the previous evenings’ alcohol content withers in the hard face of the first climb. A frenzied one man attack on anything bottling a fermented grape is merely an aperitif for hindsight.

Malverns MTB - July 2011Malverns MTB - July 2011
A poor nights’ sleep – being only one more in a week of staying awake in the dark – isn’t helpful either. Industrial gardening* wearies muscles, and a wave of unspecified tiredness makes 7am feel like a stupid time to abandon the comfort of your bed.
Malverns MTB - July 2011Malverns MTB - July 2011

The signs were all around me; lethargy when faced with the “stick game” which makes a mad Labrador even happier.  One day I hope he’ll somehow communicate that stereotyping his long “Retriever” bloodline is unfair, and repeated fetching that bit of gnawed wood is so yesterday, Darling. Today was not that day.

Then I put my shorts on the wrong way round. Twice. Picked up the wrong gloves, lost the trailer key, faffed about looking for related stuff and found only excuses. Jezz seemed in similar mood hence a pre-ride cuppa and a chat before riding bicycles became a necessity.

Sometimes it’s just the first climb that hurts. Someday’s you’re a corpse uphill but demonic coming down. Mostly experience suggests you’ll work you way into a ride, and the finish will be far stronger that the start. Today wasn’t one of those days either.

The sun was out warming our clumsy limbs, the trails were grippy after another night of summer rain, we were still early enough to avoid most of the rambling hoards and the bikes were working well. Only thing missing was any semblance of technique, any sign of motivation, any power in the legs and any breath in the lungs.

Malverns MTB - July 2011Malverns MTB - July 2011

All stolen away by the God of Superficial Fitness clearly having fallen out with Bacchus. “Make them suffer, make them suffer some more, do they look like they are enjoying it yet? Yes? Fire up the gradient machine and ratchet up that next climb”.

Malverns MTB - July 2011Malverns MTB - July 2011

It was still good of course. Not as good as the last few rides, but better than many grim death-marches undertaken in the winter. Vegetation has exploded past head height throwing out obstacles that scratch, ping and bite. But the views are fantastic, the being out there so much preferred to being inside, the 650+ metres of climbing triggers a guilt free dead animal breakfast and rests a troubled mind that would otherwise be tortured by missing a ride.

Even when you’re not that keen to go. Said it before – riding is always better than not riding. Next week will be splendid I’m sure. In the meantime, I’ll wield my mighty paintbrush while musing on exactly who nicked my fitness and motivation this morning. Yes, I’m looking at you Mr Merlot.

* Happy gardeners appear to cherish the careful placement and nurture of pretty flowers. The rest of us are left with digging large holes and creosoting anything that doesn’t move. Or move that fast. I’m of the firm opinion that our now wood-stained chicken is not only happy at being fully waterproof,  but also “dark oak” is this years’ Hen colour.

Beacon Run

There is significant pointy geography jutting ever upwards in my riding life. Look over there to Wales with seemingly endless ranges  of sharp peaks – proper mountains – looming over deep valleys.  Closer to home are the muscular Malvern Hills, reaching not so high but still at a straining gradient.

Largely free of mud regardless of season, packed full of rocky, open descents and cheeky hidden singletrack this compact range of lumpy loveliness has much to offer the keen mountain biker.

But it hides a dirty secret.  While the South and North ends are stuffed with trail nuggets, the middle is – let’s be honest here – a bit dull. Hilly, Yes; Interesting, Not really.  Which explains why it’s a bit of a mission to summit the Beacon on the North when starting from the other end.

That and it’s a bloody long way. Not in miles, not even in my newly chosen ego stroking kilometres. Horizontally it’s nothing, vertically however it’s a bit of a monster.   The hills are canted to the North so four grunty climbs are not rewarded with a similar amount of descending. But those four are the quickest way across.*

Quick being a relative term. Quick for me with a level of riding fitness someway below my Winter peak. As I wondered if my lungs were blowing out of my arse, or had already been abandoned on a previous climb I couldn’t help also wondering if a bit less biscuit tin/cheese board/wine bottle action might aid my ascending prowess.**

The descending on offer did more than take a little edge off the gurning glumness even after sufficient rain to make Mayhem more of a nightmare this weekend*** The elbow of increasing articulation may be finally healing but still ignites the mental bushfire on the scary bits. Comes and goes, better bloody go soon tho otherwise I’ll be chopping out the “cowardly gland” with a blunt spoon.

We’d dragged the Beacon closer through application of pedal on gradient, the peak showing itself from various angles. First we’re left of it, then right but always below. Highest point in Worcestershire, made higher by my riding bud’s choice to first descend rather than take the easy way up.

Which provided an opportunity to heckle two slower riders who didn’t seem to find our tailgating inspirational. The Irony card was played once a freak mechanical sidelined me to the side of the trail leaving them to huff past. At which point, Jezz – who is consumed by a Labrador fetch mentality – hunted them down on the next climb.

By the time I finally made it up there, the same two riders were looking seriously pissed off. Which – in my experience – is generally triggered by a large man on an even larger bicycle racing by. A hypothesis confirmed by said rider, sat a little further up the trail, with the subtle manifestations of a man seeing only black spots in front of his eyes.

We scooted off ever upwards in the fading daylight for the traditional “lean the bike against the trig point” which is really bikey sign language for “Thank Christ that’s over, I’m having a proper rest now”.

Even close to the Solstice, our light abandoning decision was beginning to look somewhere between ambitious and foolhardy. Time to go. The Beacon Run is a proper man’s descent. Fast, rocky, occasionally rutted, enlivened by big holes torn out of the track and a level of exposure that would still induce vertigo in blinkers.

Good, fast run down, too late for random walkers diving for cover under the barrage of chain slap ordinance.  Hero line over the big drop, sketchy on the marbles, hold it together and chase that setting sun. All that climbing? Worth every pedal revolution.

Quick conference, time for the long way home we think.  Drop back into the valley before climbing back onto the ridge, but missing a couple of pointless hills. Flat out down the next one, where a quick glance at the GPS shows nearly 60k, and a look out front shows we’re going to beat the fast incoming dark.

Until Jez cases a drop and sacrifices a tube.  Still nice place for a sit while he fixes it. Had it been Winter, I’d have left the bugger 😉 Tired legs propel us gently up the last proper climb opening up my favourite jump followed by my least favourite steps. Survived those, railed the following berm with reactions now perfectly tuned to trail pitch.

Into “Narnia” and into the dark.  Proper dark with the sun setting, we make adequate progress only though trail memory and a sudden desperate belief in ESP.  We hit the only really mud on the final trail link home which is fine because now we really can’t see anything at all, and it’s some manifestation we’re not riding in a cave.

It’s way past 11pm as I wearily roll the bike back into the workshop. I’m a shower and some faffing behind a much needed bed. And in just over five hours the alarm is going to be all loud and spiteful.

Who Cares?

* Unless you choose to ride along the ridge. Which would mark you out as some kind of lithuanism lesbian.

** Probably. But what’s the option? Lettuce? If the day has come that dinner is essentially crinkly water, I’ll need to up my alcohol content somewhat mitigating a salad day.

*** For those racing. Not for those turning up in wellies, grabbing a beer while pointing and laughing.

Pack it in.

Waterproof Jacket. Waterproof Socks. Waterproof Shorts*. Waterproof Socks.  Winter Boots.  Vast Tent (waterproof). Flippers. Goggles. Canoe.  Beer. More Beer. Will To Live.

Maybe a bike.

Maybe not.

Fairly standard packing list for any event caught in the crossfire of English weather, riding bicycles for indeterminable hours and me.  Plan for snow and hope for the best is a tactic that served me well especially during the biblical horror of 2009.  If evolution could be morphed with always-on modernity, a new homo-wetian cluster would have emerged from the flooded bog of the West Mendips. Equipped with gills.

Raining outside now. Sky as black as a man with his head in a mucky bucket. Something I’d normally be considering channelling my Ostrich coping strategies.  And yet a peek of the  fickle forecasting interweb returns only patchy rain, a brisk wind and a little chill.  Receiving extreme sunburn is unlikely, but then again so is drowning. I’ve chosen not to believe a bloody word of it. Considering a wetsuit.

Packing has not gone well so far if I’m honest. Last night? Ideal,  write a list, locate items, wonder if “amusing elephant” has been added to list by not so amusing child. Fail to locate key items that have clearly been hidden. Will To Live on top of that particular list. Open tailgate, and – with a berserker cry  – launch multiple wheelbarrows of useless stuff into the back.  Adjust fit with handy sledgehammer, job done.

Went riding instead. Dusted off the Cove with crazy notion of deploying it as a spare bike at the CLiC-24. A second rider would be better. And a third come to that. It repaid my negligence and abandonment with a reminder that disc brakes only work when BOTH pads and disks are available to the caliper. Rear ones on the backing, front ones in there somewhere but insufficiently motivated to prevent lever banging against the bar, while arresting no motion of the front wheel.

Good brakes make you go faster apparently. I sort of get that. But let me expand the theory – no brakes AT ALL make you go very fast indeed. The last descent from the Worcester Beacon shall live long between me and my therapist.  I’m sure it’s all fixable although chucking the thing on the trailer and assuming it’ll somehow self heal is unlikely to be a successful approach.

Right,  it seems I’m nearly out of time and all out of excuses. I’ll take a camera to record the misery which – obviously – I’ll share with you sometime next week. I wonder if it’s too late to book a B&B 😉

* Kinky. I’m not sure an explanation of “yes they may be plastic but who wants a heavy gritting up the arsecrack?” helps much.

I am an idiot

No, really I am. Stop your protestations right now. Ah, I see by my waving the electronic ear trumpet in the general direction of the Internet, all I’m hearing are a few bored people muttering strong affirmations.

Idiocy is really nothing more than short cuts crashing into brick walls. I’ve always maintained life is fairly agreeable if you are lazy or stupid, with only simultaneous behaviours becoming problematic.  Getting stuff done is actually quite easy for the lazy person; the trick is to sequence start to end whole ignoring those boring and time consuming interim steps.

Such a strategy marks you out as an efficient and busy person who couldn’t possibly be asked to do anything else. Especially if you’ve booked the afternoon for some blue sky thinking*. Only very occasionally does the edifice crumble generally with someone noticing the emperor is playing naked. And at that very point what looked like frenzied competency is laid bare as unstructured idiocy.

Happens to me occasionally. Few examples come immediately to mind; booking a campsite and time off work at the same time but not for the same dates. Commissioning a 4m satellite dish without troubling a structural engineer, and being mildly disturbed when it ripped the top of the building off** Launching blindly into obstacles on fat tyres and receiving fat lips and hospital appointments. That sort of stuff.

After the latest rock-Al interface, a week was barely enough for the elbow to start healing. But experience tells that the mind needs to get back on that horse right now. Otherwise displacement activity fills the riding void; nasty thoughts about how much it would hurt to fall again on that body part, maybe wait another week before getting back out there, stick to the road, trails’ll still be there, etc, et-bloody-c.

So with some trepidation and not a lot of my normal pre-ride enthusiasm, stuff was sorted, bike was given a cursory examination***, – short cuts remember – excuses shelved and clothing donned. Additions were a set of lender elbow pads that made me feel silly and secure in equal amounts. Deletions were anything I’d been wearing the previous week because clearly it was my riding environment rather than my riding ability which had triggered the crash.

In the zone of stupidity now, I took different paths on every level; first a slightly different route choice then stretches in reverse order, bike on trailer not in the truck, light on first then battery, rear shock checked first not forks. I grudgingly accepted the ritual pre-ride cuppa but considered following Jezz’s jokey advice I should run around the car three times to break the hoodoo. Definitely considered it. Idiot I thought. You’d probably think so too.

And it’s nothing to do with being stuck in some groundhog night, stuffed down the same trouser leg of time that ended so badly last time. It is – however – everything to do with finding something else to worry about other than the ‘it shall not be named horror‘ of being too damn scared to ride quickly. Fast is a filter graduated by ability, experience, age and your mates. It means different things to us all, but being less fast and less brave than you were…. now that’s a problem which speaks of slow decay and the end of things.

These are not happy thoughts and they followed me up the first climb. Which I generally put up with as it has a fantastic woody descent that is both fast and furious. It was neither of those things this time around, because Jezz was reigning it in an effort to build my confidence. Damn fine gesture but it didn’t feel good, it just felt slow.

Next climb my phone is ringing and I’m ignoring it. We’re climbing again into the twilight and the horse is waiting for me, steaming and rearing in the middle of the next descent. I’m stupidly nervous, stomach churning and talking myself out of it. Because it’ll still be there next week, I’ll do it then, it’s not a big thing, I’m not going to be somehow diminished by taking a safe course to the side.

Yeah. Right. Lights on, hard to know if to trust night vision or bar mounted lumens. Drop in at 80% of last weeks speed, Christ it’s loose, was it this loose before? Have I got a flat? Oh for fucks sakes just get on with it. Miss an apex and slide close to the trail edge, too slow to ride on instinct, too fast to really be in full control, see rock, give it a pre-huck nod to show I mean business, look away down the trail, anywhere but right in front, relax stiffened muscles and flop over in the manner of wounded seal attempting to make landfall.

Relief floods through muscles – my favourite natural drug second only to adrenaline – and that demon is pretty well exorcised. The rest of the ride was 70% fab and 30% worry about a total lack of flow and smoothness. Last night was about 90/10,  and I never got anywhere near the rock. Been there, done that, got the scar.

I’m an idiot though. From almost the second I hit the ground, insidious worry sat front and centre blocking out what is probably more important stuff. And it was a non event, a million times less dramatic than what’d be playing in my minds’ eye. So stupid, pointless and – if I’d followed those logical steps I’m so keen to launch over – I’d have realised that the fear isn’t the rock, it’s being too broken to do what I love doing at a pace and danger that absolutely defines the difference between being alive and merely living.

Riding last night is EXACTLY why slogging through the Winter makes some kind of idiotic sense. Rock hard trails, dust, cheeky routes, nearly crashing, holding it together, maybe not so fast but a little bit smooth, good friends, happy times. The elbow is still sore, but it’ll heal before my head’s entirely unfettered by thoughts of crashing again.

But consider the alternative. If we’re looking for hoary homilies, you really don’t know what you’ve got until it’s taken away. So when the very next person adds their weight to an argument that riding bikes with the definite possibility of hurting yourself is idiotic, I shall offer them some useful advice in return.

Try being an idiot for a while. It rocks.

* which – as slackers everywhere know – means looking out of the window at blue sky and thinking “I wish I was out there

** It wasn’t my building. It wasn’t even in this country. A fair part of the top floor did end up in a Moscow street tho. It wasn’t entirely my fault. I made sure everyone was more than aware of that.

*** So no surprise that the cleaved gear cable and bent mech weren’t noticed until catastrophic gear selection failure half way up the first hill. At times like this, it’s important to appear humble while others with good skills fix your bike.

Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Rock: Mid-Trail, nasty misshapen lump, anchored grimly to a steep and loose descent. Requires avoidance or commitment.

Paper: “Fell off Bike“. Scrawled about four times across two hospitals. Appended with “significant abrasions to right side” and “elbow cut, bone in view

Scissors: “This might sting a bit” says the child-Doctor in her bedside pre-laceration chat.

Post lurgey comes a desperate need to ride. After a week off, the trails are running super fast, so we’re on a speed mission. First descent dispatched in a blur of hip-jumps and mini doubles. Wheels off the ground, bike whooshing through spring-leaved trees, brain some distance behind.

Big grins, bullets dodged. Climb and climb but going well, eight days of not riding fails to spike the fitness balloon of three months solid effort. Feels good to be back in the hills, day fading, bike lights dancing in the twilight, so dry and so fast, going to be an epic.

You go first“. Ego stroked, I go as hard as I dare, sketchy, it’s loose and my brain is still not calibrated for the speed, think about rock step, dither, engage fuck it gland, fail to get a line or a decent pop.

Bad stuff happens. Tankslapper briefly caught, thoughts of redemption founder on second rock, abandon bike calling “turtle” as over bar exit has me wrapping limbs to the inside. Cacophony of bike and rider smashing down the trail. Goes on far too long, roll, roll, roll, miss tree, momentum done, pain starts.

Big one that, you okay” / “Grrr…yes…no..fuck dunno fuckfuckfuck that hurts“. Important stuff works, nothing broken, much scarred. Abrasions run to half a side and most of an elbow. An elbow that has the bone poking out. End of ride then, get up, sit down quickly, feel a bit odd. Babble a bit. Hurt a lot.

Push down steep section then back on bike. So slow, where did the confidence go? Back there in the dirt with some of my skin probably. Road home, can’t quite remember which shifter does what. Did I fall on my head? Might have asked the question more than once.

Driven to Ledbury hospital which is big, clean and open but entirely unpopulated by anyone qualified to stitch me up. No amount of pleading saves me from the ball-ache of Hereford A&E. Refuse further chauffeuring and head homewards with a woozy head full of irritation and angst.

I know the drill. Shower now saves pain later. Sticky Grit has adhesive properties of superglue. Some swearing but it gets done. Double Vodka with a Nurofen chaser. Carol – entirely unflappable as ever – takes over the driving. A&E full of drunks, police and heavily pregnant teenagers smoking endless tabs.

Wait, wait, wait. Bored, bored, bored. Sore as well. Relieved to have swapped bloody and sweaty attire for something cleaner and less gritty. Still small on pleasures, long on fuck all happening when phone alarms me that in five hours I need to leave for London.

Midnight comes, nobody else does for some time. Then it’s us, ten minutes of not much drama, no antibiotics, some brave little soldier action while staring anywhere where the needle isn’t.

Home, wine transfusion, three hours sleep, bastard alarm call, get up very slowly. Driving isn’t any fun. Neither is sitting on a train for three hours typing one handed.

Both infinitely preferable to tube buffeting and eight hours of gentle ridicule and more pain that I’m ever going to show. Someone carelessly knocks my elbow and the world goes fuzzy and soft for a few seconds.

More tube, hide in the corner hoping it’ll be over soon. Fall onto train and fall into bar. Grab a beer and a brace of painkillers.  Worst is over. Bored of “aren’t you too old to be falling off bikes?” no point crafting a reply because they won’t understand, and I don’t care. But I’ll take occasional A&E thanks for asking.

Summary? Riding ragged and fast. It’s going to happen. Could’ve been a whole lot worse – arm, rib or collarbone. I’ll back off not because I want to, but because survival instinct will cut the speed. For a while. Let’s not hope too long. Going to be another week before I find out when the stitches come out.

But roadbikes are going to be fine. Ride to work Friday? I should bloody well think so, if I can attire myself in cycling clothing without excessive chaffing. Bikes you see, like the Hotel California – you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave.

Lights out

There is a time for quiet contemplation, trading  sanguinary* for calm reflection and playing the long game. Apparently. So I’ve been told. Comes with age and wisdom allegedly. Still time then even for humans of such antiquity as me. But not today. Let me take a deep virtual breath and scream:

I AM BORED OF WINTER NOW. SICK OF MUD, DARK AND COLD. I WANT DUST AND SUNSHINE. I’VE BLOODY WELL EARNED IT

Last night I’d have happily settled for just a bit of light. My recent expensive purchase delivered fantastic illumination for ten road pounding minutes, before switching off, shutting down and engaging in a permanent state of electronic sulk. This happens to me far too often during working hours, so my initial diagnosis was the now cooling appliance could only be running a form of Windows software.

Sustained hopeful prodding and poking about** for five more minutes achieved only frustration amidst continued benightment.  As is the way of such disasters, my helmet light was uncharged and the repaired Hope Vision was resting some fifteen miles away.  Luckily a spare was harvested from Jezz’s toolbox, leaving us with the repeat joy of a soggy road climb we’d only recently dispatched.

Good thing about the road tho was its’ wetness merely irritated rather than injured – a flipped condition come a switch to dirt. Tyres properly aslither, bloke on top wobbling about and bracing for bark impact, and any braking was just crashing by another name.

So we were late, partially lighted, muddy and – in the case of my riding buddy – extremely knackered from the bastard work week from hell. Obviously being a good mate, I took full advantage by suggesting ridiculous epics deep into the hills none of which I had any intention of actually riding.  This is entirely opposite to what normally happens, except we end up actually doing them.

My Yang to his Ying was feeling pretty damn good probably as  we weren’t going far nor ‘lung-out-of-the-arse‘ fast. This was an entirely unexpected state of affairs as, less than two days before, I’d not so much fallen off the alcohol-free week wagon as set fire to it – before toasting it with multiple double brandies,.

And it was still a proper laugh fighting tank slappers, transferring mud from trail to face via sliding tyre, then sloshing about in dank puddles. But really, we’ve suffered enough and it is starting to take a toll.

My ST4 has a set of rumbly hub bearings that’ll not survive another month. Already the winter has eaten through a shock bushing, broken that shock, destroyed four pairs of brake pads and turned my not-long-since shiny bike into something rather less showroom.

It’s not done that much for me either. Sure I’ve managed to get/stay reasonably fit. I’ve maintained motivation through the hardest month, and plans are afoot to cash in on the coming Spring. But it doesn’t feel we’re there yet.

Dark commutes stretch out a further six weeks, gawd only knows where I’ll dare venture back into the Forest, even the road bike almost seems like a good idea. I’m not sure I can hang on for much longer!

One thing I do know tho, is if we’d turned back, given up, called it a day as sense/tiredness/mechanical catastrophe strongly suggested we should,  it’d have been a quick win but a long disappointment. Riding is always better than not riding. It’s also a shit load better when the outside environment plays nice.

Got to Keep The Faith for a few more weeks.

* My “word of the week“. Beats f*ck I suppose.

** Pretty much describes most boys sexual awakening.

Consulting the inner cat

Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride.

There are times when riding – as with life generally – that make you think ‘woooah that was a close one‘.  Events that invoke the thought  that one just dodged a bullet, sailed a little close to the wind, felt the icy shiver of impending dread, that kind of thing.  Generally followed up by a commitment not to do it again, or at least not for a while until the balance of karma is restored.

To paraphrase: “got lucky once, probably won’t next time” deep breath, nod to deity/pagan god of choice, move on. Today I had a ride just like that except for the moving on bit. If I were a cat, I’d be desperately scanning the small print for options to buy extra lives.

Riding with Martin always goes like this. Afternoons out are short on miles, long on smiles and celebrated for going heavy on  “shiiiiiit, eek, arrrghh, phew, never-in-doubt” moments.  And because of riding lots, I’ve lately been overcome with a high dose of smug.

Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride. Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride.

Enough in the legs to climb anything – albeit still quite slowly – and enough pedalled in muscle memory to let the bike go fast and be fantastic while I hang on up top. Not asleep at the bars tho, because this kind of riding guarantees serial hits on the adrenal gland.

First a top to bottom trail starting wide and windy, dropping into narrowing singletrack that throws out wheel stopping rocks and increased gradients before you can say “I wonder if I should have braked back there?”. A cheeky left throws up more steepness, a set of “qualifying” steps punching you straight into a second set easily identified by being sodding narrow, buttressed by shoulder high rock and long enough for major internal organs to switch locations.

Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride. Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride.

Wet as well today as were all the trails. Best to look vaguely in the direction of proposed travel, loosen your muscles and your mind and go with the flow. I did, Martin didn’t leading to a bit of light ribbing especially as he’d brought his big bike to the rock party.

Multiple goes on a lovely steppy drop proved insufficient for Martin to understand how my camera worked.   Never mind, big climb to height, fall off the side of another hill where I arrested a monster back-brake slide with a flick of the hips before my smugness was replaced by confusion as Martin snaked down the trail at a speed and smoothness entirely missing from the bloke behind.

No matter, one big climb to gurn, one favourite descent to dispatch. Lately I’ve been having a splendid time down here thinking that maybe – of all the riding crew – now I am the quickest. Chagrin served up with a double can of whupass for me then, as Martin careered off at a truly remarkable speed.  Somewhere on the way down – between remembering to breathe and trying so hard not to crash – it became apparent that the only way of catching him would be to fly past at head height having been spat off at high speed.

Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride. Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride.

Consulting my inner cat, I found a large flashing zero in the “remaining lives” column, and a terrified kitten hiding behind it. Did my best tho, still got whupped. But it’s not just bravado, or the not unreasonable joy of arriving alive at the bottom that makes us do this.

I cannot tell you how much fun riding fast, jumping off steps, bouncing off rocks or holding a two wheeled slide can be. I just know I want to go back and do it all again.

You have to laugh….

Malverns @ -7
That's me. Looks cold eh? There's a reason for that.

… mostly at yourself. Often at your friends. And increasingly at the Met Office PR team who appear to have their credence radar permanently set to “pratfall“.

First we had the BBQ summer which triggered floods not seen since Noah was a lad. Then we had the promise of a mild winter at which point the entire country was transformed into a set for Narnia.  And now this- “2010 is the warmest year since either a) records began or b) 1997 depending on how hard we’ve hit the cosmic fail button

A logical counterpoint would suggest the poor old tea leave diviners have been chronically misrepresented. Firstly the sizzling summer was a 60% probability which is about as statistically significant as a shampoo poll. Then the Arctic conditions of this year were the result of a freakish crashing of hitherto unseen variables, camping out well past any computer model could predict.

And yes this is the warmest year on record. If you look at medians and not specific events. Right now though, I seem to be riding into , through and shiveringly out of such events which is rather fab during, but motivationally crippling before and toe poppingly painful afterward.

Sunday, 7am. -7.4. Five minutes loading the bike and I’m already late. This is mainly due to an unscheduled pet activity; namely defrosting the dog. 7:30 warmed by coffee and central heating, I struck out onto icy roads with the temperature gauge beeping -8 and suggesting the Siberian engine setting.*

No matter. At least the mud shall be temporarily banished under an ice crust. and no other silly bugger is going to be icy toe side of a warm duvet. More right than wrong, but the hills were alive with the sound of nutters’ knee knocking by the time we’d been over half way out and back.

Every trail was rock hard and tho – where foot traffic was negligible – pretty damn grippy. All the time being crunchy under wheel and framed by a child-painted blue horizon. Wales was full of snow and foreboding, but due east was just lightly dusted and crackling. In the middle, we rode on ridge and woody singletrack that felt like summer from the axles down. Above that both Jezz and I were swathed in layers of expensive fabrics and heroic grins.

And rather than our normal “got to get back, got to get back, got promises to keep” approach to Sunday morning rides, we took it easy, took some pictures, stood astride fantastic bicycles feeling pretty damn good to be taking in some altogether more fantastic views.  Lots of climbing, quite a few kilometres, all felt pretty fast which bodes well for when cold and dark becomes difficult and boring.

Normally late January when motivation is in thrall to sofa suck. Which makes the daft nonces who wait until the new year to start winter riding all the more unfathomable.  The Malverns are a tough gig at the best of times, which January absolutely isn’t. Early this year the hills were full of huff and puff, until New Years’ resolutions wilted in the face of not being arsed.

Not us. We’ll be getting up at stupid o’ clock. Stumbling about in the dark cursing at the stupidity of it all. Getting wet, cold and unpleasantly windswept. Chipping off frozen mud because the hosepipe’s been frozen for six weeks. Looking at the confused faces of our dear ones who have all sorts of good reasons why we shouldn’t, and then doing it anyway. And it’ll be good – sometimes great, sometimes averagely ok but always epic – once tyres hit the dirt.

I’ve said it before, but it needs repeating- Mountain biking is like the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

* I have a photo of that in case you think fibbing for the sake of strutting a heroic stance may be at play here. I can’t show it to you though right now for which explanations may follow. It really depends on whether the embarrassment falls below a level acceptable for public ridicule.

Muddy Musings.

Fat Tyred Cove

Yeah, it’s another pic of a static bike – nothing more than a visual prod to de-randomise some recent thinking.

1) Mud Tyres are for those who lack ambition. Really, thin sludge-cutting rubber may provide the illusion of grip and traction, but where’s the fun in that? The Cove is booted up with 2.35in wide tyres,  the front being basically a downhill tread and compound, while the rear is barely less of a monster. No point in having wide bars/short stem/ace fork/brill frame emasculated by condition specific tyres. Get out there and slide about, the ground’s pretty soft when it goes wrong.

2) That bike is a lot cleaner than it was at 10am last night. Two hours riding* in the grottiest Malvern conditions I’ve ridden for a while turned the word brown under the black of night. When we weren’t sliding around in a vaguely comedic fashion, we were groping about in hill clamped top fog. Jez is either better at remembering where the trail may be than I, or he’s upgraded his night vision to HD/X-Ray.  I stumbled about, blinded by reflected light, occasionally intersecting with remembered obstacles, before falling off over them.

3) It was still, surprisingly, fun. I know this is somewhat expected behaviour to appear stunned that travelling at 10km/h, mostly sideways and grinding over endless peaks can deliver so much pleasure. Especially with a knee that appears to be going backwards. Certainly painful in the opposite direction. And back in the Chilterns, the winter mud was an endless horror story – a place where even singlespeeds made sense. But here, there’s still enough yang offsetting grimbly yang to bring a smile to your face. A face chowing down on gritty granite and half covered by suspicious smelling mud, but a smile nevertheless.

4) Hardtails are hard work. A few times my ankles took the brunt of trail debris normally softened by rear squish. The Cove feels really properly odd after two solid months on the ST4. Possible MTFU required.

5) Exactly how dependant on the re-hydrating power of beer are you,  that you will insert a soggy foot into the door of a trying-to-close-shop and demand alcohol satisfaction? I wasn’t sure if they served me out of fear that the swampmonster cometh, or just plain pity.

* and about 10 minutes lying on the ground awash in a sea of sludge.

Time please Gentlemen.

Glancing at my watch was a grim reminder that,  only seven hours later, the alarm’s strident call would trigger the much-hated 5am start for London.

Faced with such an early morning horror, standard practice is early to bed in the hope of a reasonably satisfying – if curtailed – sleep.  Or you can take the approach that what happens tomorrow is far less important than what’s happening now.

Which sort of explains why, at 10pm,  I’m watching my breath curl into a frozen night sky and failing to hide a big grin as we grind up the last climb of another epic ride.

Conditions were “slippy-grippy” which I love.  Anyone can be fast in the summer assuming a slavish following of bravery to the power of stupid.  But now the trails are caught between seasons; dry and wet, muddy and firm, traction and slides.

It was the kind of night where both my riding pals mistook slip for grip and were well rewarded with an out-of-bike experience.  I didn’t crash this time, but it is unclear how this could be a reality where at least three times my on-bike experience was essentially as a crash-test-dummy.

After climbing for thirty minutes, the first descent claimed the first victim. Wet grass has all the adhesive properties of glass, and down he went in a cascading slide. No real damage done,  no real sympathy from us either.

We traversed further into the hills, sheltering under the muscular shoulders of the peaks. Properly freezing up top with tussocks frosting up ,and a biting wind testing the first season’s outings of winter boots and jackets.

A short, brutish switchbacked climb opened up the rocky descent to the Wyche. One of my favourites and, heading out first, I made a reasonable stab of briskness including nailing the rock step that requires either a careful roll or a committed jump. Anything in between and you’ll be welcomed with a granite facial.

Keeping low on mellow tracks occasionally enlivened by foliage covered mud, we headed back with lights picking out the leafless trees made stark by November’s howling gales.  Two climbs to home, the first is on a boring firetrack as we decide to press onwards rather than bag another ridge.

A decision that brings us quickly to a lovely wooded singletrack which claims the second victim on a treacherous bend. Then off the side and onto the fall line, couple of epic drifts on a leaf carpet under which the trail switches grip and no grip in second long bursts.

Proper mountain biking this, picking a line, reacting, riding it out, trusting your instincts, letting it roll and feeling your way through experience, bravado, luck, bloody great forks that kind of thing.

So now we’re back where we started. Four minutes to then, four hundred ish feet to climb and my bed feels a long way away.  So does the summit as tired legs demand lower gears, but we’re already out of easy ratios.

The warmth from the climb is stripped away by increasingly frigid winds as we bugger about on the summit, lowering saddles and flicking suspension damping to “fun”.

I’ve fallen thirty yards behind after overambitious corner entry speed delivered some face-time with innocent shrubbery. In chase mode, I’m still ragged hitting a drop too fast, but rather than slow then carrying the speed into a perfect kicker which sets up the next corner entry.

Well it would if you don’t fly off it and almost miss the corner entirely. Off the trail again – that’s twice in thirty seconds – and all sorts of scary things are happening. Front wheel scrabbling for any grip, me half pitched over the bars,  rear wheel in the air, hard to see how it can end well.

But it does, somehow rider stays tyre side up and I’ve made a few yards. Result. Make the rest up thinking the bike in front is gliding over the trail, whereas I am mashing it up in a hang-on-and-hope style.

Nose to tail we drop into the woods, feeling for grip on off camber roots and putting velocity and momentum in the driving seat. This serves us well, with the trail end coming far too quickly punctuated by big smiles and the pinging of cooling brakes under a cold night sky.

It takes me 45 minutes to drive home,  sort the bike and kit, de-trailer the car, deal with Murf’s perception of dog abandonment,  quick shower and late supper of toast and a small beer. It takes the same again and a bit more for the adrenalin to be flushed from higher level functions demanding sleep.

This morning I was standing on a rain soaked platform waiting for a late train, barely able to keep my eyes open.  It could be much worse though, just think how shit that would feel if I hadn’t been riding.