Off the Pace

Pace 405 XCAM (1 of 7)

A very nice man from Chepstow left happy-faced with most of the Pace yesterday. He has many adventures planned so, even if this enthusiasm wanes,  is sure to ride it more than I ever did. That would be a total of four times in 2010,  none of which gave me much pleasure.

Which explains why I am spared the standard remorse and hand wringing when selling anything two wheeled. Because I certainly didn’t do it for the money. As the old joke goes how do you make £2,000 buying and selling 2nd hand mountain bikes? Start with £5,000.

Scotland 2008 MTB (74 of 99) Scotland 2008 MTB (48 of 99)

The Pace was a damn fine bike. This excellent suspension platform, allied to a frame long on stiffness and short on pointless faffery, was the product of extensive rider-led development. The problem is that while it will be a great bike for someone else, it just wasn’t for me. Too tall, too short, too much travel, a little too heavy, a lot too much bike for 95% of my riding.

I persevered because, on trips to the districts of Peak and Lake, it proved its’ metal on rocky terrain. Mostly unperturbed by chaotic gardens of granite, it would carry a committed pilot downhill at silly speeds while still being engaging enough through sinewy singletrack.  Further it was almost entirely unfazed when being thrown down the Cwmcarn DH course by a man whose riding style could best be described as “hanging on gamely“.

Cwmcarn Uplift Day Pace 405 DH

So largely viceless,  heavily competent, nicely built, and sufficiently dynamic to span most genres from messing about in the woods to day long epics in the hills. And without wishing to head up my own arse in pointless analysis, maybe that strikes at the heart of the issue. The Ti Cove hardtail is more fun in woody singletrack, the ST4 is as brilliantly flexible and yet somehow more focussed, and – if the urge to be silly overcomes me once again – I’d have no qualms trailering the little DMR on an uplift day.

Scotland 2008 MTB (64 of 99) Scotland 2008 MTB (66 of 99)

So with these three frisky concubines in the sheddy harem – each alloyed with unique gifts – the Pace has become something of a dusty embarrassment.  It was a bike I wanted very much from the first release pictures, so it’s more than a little disappointing that style, terrain and greener biking grass had left it being nothing more than an expensive wall ornament.

Scotland 2008 MTB (23 of 99) Scotland 2008 MTB (48 of 99)

I am sure that my next trip to rocky places will have me cursing the decision to turn a quick buck. But that will to be mitigated by the genuine pleasure of someone else having a weekly blast. Something I will follow up on first hand having vaguely arranged a meet sometime in the Spring.

It’ll be strange to see someone else riding what still feels like my bike. But – at least this time – I don’t think I’ll be asking for it back.

Danger of Death

H'mm shiny

As a man who has been categorised as “unsafe at any speed“, I’ve always viewed wheels as an accessory to murder. If one irresponsibly rotates them to terminal velocity, then their part in the ensuing accident can be robustly defended by the claim that no other choice was available.

But it seems I was wrong. In a three card trick where parts are shuffled between my extensive bicycle collection, woger has lost a bit of rotating mass and gained a set of gear ratios chosen specifically to prolong my knee joints. This has been facilitated by Mr Plastic-Fantastic – the hibernated horizon foreshortening road bike – receiving a late Christmas pimping of some Italian loveliness.

Although having read the instructions* I was more than a little geographically confused. Because not only had Health and Safety gone mad, it had taken over the asylum. And yet rather than the product origin being some European Nanny State or our litigious colonial cousins, these revolutionary lovelies have apparently been hand crafted on the thighs of an Italian virgin**

Let me summarise the multi-lingual sheet accompanying what – after we’ve waded through the marketing nonsense trumpeting innovative spoke design and juxtaposed nipple alignment – are nothing more dangerous that something first installed on an ox-cart.  If you fit a tyre that is too big, YOU WILL DIE, if you fit a tyre that is too small YOU WILL DIE, if the cassette is not precision installed by a 3rd generation mechanic steeped in bicycle law THERE IS NO DOUBT THAT YOU SHALL DIE.

Incorrectly inflated inner tubes? CERTAIN DEATH. Rider over 82kgs (I’m not too many pies short) LUCKY TO MAKE IT ONTO THE ROAD. Under 82s? Might survive until the END OF THE DAY. Riding at Night? Put your affairs in order, YOU ARE TOAST. I could go on as the instructions did, but instead let me share with you the comedy catch all which suffixed the death threats “And if you die – as you inevitably will – don’t try blaming us for any manufacturing fault known, unknown or hushed up to get the product out, as we’ve got  lawyers crossed with Rotweillers'”

Nice. So it seems that I have not in fact purchased some fast riding wheels for summer jaunts to far off places, nope what we have here are weapons of mass rotation. Best thing would be to hide  the box underground and hope they don’t blow up the neighbourhood because “you looked at them in a funny way. Don’t call us, see note re: Lawyers

Light tho. Didn’t think there was anything in the box. In fact the weightiest item by far were the YOU WILL DIE instructions in nine different languages and signed for the blind. Somewhere hidden was the procedure for correct fitment but frankly I was so terrified by this time, I just went with my standard tongue out, hammer handed approach to percussion engineering.

And before unfair and hurtful accusations of wanton spending to no good effect, let me explain this is all part of my wider strategy. That’s what I am calling it anyway as “Internet Magpie Geekery” sounds a bit lame. Sure I’ve spent about £5*** on essential components absolutely necessary for me to commute by bike/possibly die by my own wheel, while slimming down the bike fleet by a significant one.

Come Tuesday, the Pace goes. To a man who really wants it and shall probably ride it more than the three times I managed last year. Of course the second it’s gone, every other bike will  fail in some spectacular way, and I’ll be left wondering if strategy is clever anagram of stupidity. Already there is talk of a DH day at Cwmcarn which I’ll probably undertake/die on my faithful old hardtail, and – even more worryingly – of the tiny fleet of five bikes remaining, two of them are entirely configured for the road.

That’s not a strategy, that’s heading off towards lunacy and accelerating. I think we all know what might happen next 🙂

* There’s always a first time. It won’t happen again. No highlighting of most expensive parts to adjust with a hammer. Useless.

** Assuming they could find one.

*** Hi Carol 🙂

It was one of those nights…

… when you turn out the lights at which point song lyrics and riding reality diverge. While AC/DC rock on with “while everything comes into view”, my personal world was essentially pitch black and silent. Except for the horrible sound of tyres sliding on wet roots and some associated whimpering.

This was a day which had started badly, then spiralled ever downwards leaving me desperate to crush the unenlightened in a pedal revolution.  But it is hard to unwind your mind and plot vindictive revenge when the first obstacle acts as an organic off switch.

The trails were in that transitional state between grippy and slippy, while the trees were still resolutely bone breaking hard. I caressed the first with a shoulder before juddering to a desperate stop. Some cable fiddling later convinced me my darkened days were behind me – which as a belief system lasted about as long as a wine gum.

When the lights died again, so nearly did I – this time bouncing off a tree which at least had the beneficial effect of slowing my progress to a somewhat larger drop to my left.  When the going gets tough, the terminally cheesed off go home and that was my strategy, until Martin generously halved his own lumen count by insisting I took temporary ownership of his  helmet light.

Funky little Exposure Joystick thing with a buddy attached. The dead weight on the bars was at least twice as bright but since it wasn’t working, I wasn’t complaining. Well not more than usual anyway. Martin’s reward for his selfless sacrifice was a flat tyre which split the pack, and led to some comedy communication failures due entirely to only one person actually having a phone about their person.*

My enlightened status was dependant on a tiny battery Martin admitted he’d never tested to destruction. So most of my riding was spent with a well focussed torch on my head and absolutely no idea what was going on left or right of that. Or whether it was about to get permanently dark again.

Which puts the whole Lumen Arms Race into perspective. Most of us started riding with 2/3rds of bugger all fading to yellow after less than an hour, after which we navigated by memory and bruising. So while Tail End Charlie was the only option, if I didn’t want to be thrown into a megawatt shadow, there was a certain nostalgic rush riding at the limit of an ickle light. Slower it may have been, but less fun?

I’m not sure that’s right because one much loved section of singletrack felt so different with sufficient illumination to enjoy it, but not enough to turn it into daylight.  And taking it easy was absolutely the right approach since my entire evening seemed to suggest a better way to spend my time would be programming A&E on speed-dial.

Really it was if I couldn’t quite decide where to crash; “ooooh nearly, no let’s go a bit further,  no that doesn’t count you’re still on the bike, hang on slamming testicles is merely a coping technique, sorry you’ll need to try harder“.  I was trying pretty hard discovering helmet lights are ace for showing you where you’re pointing, but not entirely stable on a head wobbling about on wibbly trails.

The final descent probably had my name on it, so – if proof were needed that God Loves me sometimes – when my chain snapped in a way suggesting it only had a future for harvesting powerlinks, I gave up and dug out my pumping skills** to roadie it home.  Martin punctured again, which if karma means anything would suggest I’d have been medi-vac’d off that hill with a spatula had my mechanical not saved me.

I’ve bought one of those Exposure jobbies mostly for being able to find my way round the Forest in darkness, but also because some old school/anti nightsun riding may call. Look at it this way; shitty, cold winter night, force yourself out, might as well throw in some naked terror because misery works better in threes.

Ask me how I know.

* That’d be the one doing the texting. I’m sure Alexander Graham Bell felt the same way before he’d shed’d the second unit.

** The bike ones I learned from Tony Doyle, the dogging area is on the other side of the Malverns. So I’ve been told.

EX “Can I have Some” Moor please?

With my repetitions thudding tediously into your mind, I accept that surprise would not be your first response when I extol the fantastic riding we have right here on our doorstep. Which is as good a reason as any to why our winter planning for far away trips failed to survive the first contact with the enemy.

But that enemy is not just the good stuff on our doorstep, it’s also the brokenness, busyness, parent-ness and apathy of the long forged riding flange. There is a sad – but inevitable – fading away of the camaraderie when separated by many miles, and a slide into treating riding as optional and other life stuff as mandatory.

Not me of course, and desperate to tick off another location perfectly coincided with an e-mail wondering if I would rather be riding in Exmoor during the day and drinking beer later on. As opposed to what? Working? Tough choice, but I think I might be in.

Arriving far along the craggy south west coastline, Mike (freelance Journo) and Russ (same but with Snapper skills) immediately demonstrated their professionalism by matching clothes and bikes in line with ambient lighting conditions.

Now many times I’ve been accused of being over-biked, but rarely under-dressed*, yet my slimming wardrobe of stealthy black was soon accessorised with a bright orange top Russell’d up from his capacious product testing bucket.

I learned some interesting things on this shoot. Firstly 3 is not a crowd for photo shoots. One photographer hefting mountains of kit someone ruining his riding experience, one proper journo and on hanger-on desperate for an Andy Warhol moment. I’m sure you can establish which role I took.

A single rider fails to prod the “I want to ride here NOW gene” that is encapsulated by a pair riding close and grinning inanely. It backed my hypothesis that the joy of the sport is equally divided by where you are riding, and who you are riding with.

So now we have the tools to sell the area, all we need is a route. Or a number of routes confined by some nonsense around OS squares. Mike had worked hard to create easy, medium and hard variations and all we need to do now is ride them.

Er, no.  Because proper photography takes a shit load of time. And then a bit more. Poor old Russ carried up tripods, slave flashes, multiple lenses and a couple of very expensive digital bodies. And he was determined to use them all. Because if he doesn’t get the shots to fill the brief, he doesn’t get paid.

First tho we had to remove ourselves from sea level after a couple of establishing shots where Mike instructed me in the art of the pointy elbow and inane grin whenever facing lens-wards. This also gave us ample opportunity to send up the local architecture which clearly was under the strict control of the twee inspectorate.

“Hello Madam, I am duty bound to inform you that insufficient agricultural brass work is visible for a property of this size. And I will further be carrying out a full investigation of your Wisteria which fails to fulfil the stipulated volume.”

Amused by this, the climb from the sea front soon wiped that smirk from my face especially after Russ had us climb a nasty little rutted trail a couple of times while he lined up his angles. This wasn’t the last time seditious thoughts entered my head around why uphill grinds involved twice as many takes, when compared to flashing past the other way.

Awesome woody trail though. Not what I expected at all with Exmoor being well know for miles or moorland bugger all and stony tracks. Like the Quantocks only ten times bigger with half the number of people. We rode one section many times with Russ directing traffic “Come on this is the best ride you’ve ever had, small you miserable buggers”.

Mike smiled and stuck his pro elbows out while I floundered behind. It really isn’t as easy as it doesn’t look. Trying to maintain a certain gap, mugging a bit when bike enters frame, throwing all sorts of silly shapes all while not crashing through the bushes and into expensive camera kit.

But it’s fun, 90% of which is entirely attributable to riding mountain bikes on new trails, and 10% because you’re an attention whore – so  having a pro photographer snapping away makes you feel a whole lot better than you actually are.

And Russ is very, very good. Different to Seb who did his best to teach me the how of MTB photography, what you miss is how much of the job is picking a brilliant location, waiting for right light, positioning the riders, trying different stuff and then just doing it again and again.

Easy eh? It’s not, we shot at one location where a trail bisected a couple of small streams and dived into a few trees throwing roots out into our path. If it were me, I’d have hid behind one of those trees and shot riders passing through. Russ got up high and asked us to ride close with the final shot depicting made up speeds of two riders fighting their way off a treacherous island.

Clever that. Which was more than my forks were making the kind of noises not associated with long life or short on cash. I ignored them as we sallied forth back to our start point for a lunchtime rendezvous with anything majorly calorific.  We hadn’t ridden that far, but I was still blowing a bit with the multiple re-runs and trying not to look like a total cock.

Back out again, this time heading up and over the wider moor looking for killer shots with bits of Wales in the background. I surprised everyone with a climbing performance that propelled me so far upwards, I totally failed to stop where Russ wanted the obligatory hill-climbing gurning pose.

Although by this time, I realised that any publication – even if it ran to 13 pages – was likely to feature the professionals rather heavily. I had no problem with that because the riding was fantastic, and we were only hours from some well earned dead pig and a few beers.

What I did have a problem with was the now obviously broken forks.  These Rockshox Pikes are known for being indestructible. Apparently the earth will crack before these bastions of the lazy rider can ever break.

I failed to see any obvious shift of the tectonic plates, but my myth busting forks were properly busted.  First 30mm of travel absolutely fine, 31mm not fine, not fine at all. Rather than an additional 110mm of coil sprung plushness kicking in, instead sounds I can only describe as “expensive” were getting it on in both stantions.

I explained this predicament to Mike and Russ who showed much needed sympathy quickly followed by a rather less sympathetic the show must go on missive. And so it did to the sounds of crashing components, battered wrists and the background whinge of a pissed off Yorkshireman.

Russ declared the light “gopping” as some kind of spring inversion bathed everything in flat white so we sort of gave up with photography and instead headed off on a track that was not something easily included in a route guide.

I’m not telling you where, but I will tell you that I’ll be back with a working bike and a determined expression. Brilliant and bonkers trail, hugging the cliff edge and rewarding skills failure with a two second tour of interesting geology followed by certain death. Compelling, difficult, seemingly never ending and accompanied by the cacophony of forks somehow becoming even more broken.

The last descent broke me as well. With a working bike it would have been bloody fantastic, steep, rocky, lumpy and silly fast. The back of the bike was working fine and I did consider tackling it in reverse, but settled for a wrist bashing slow navigation accessorised by much grumpiness.

Chilly now, we made our way back up and over to the cars, quickly lobbed stuff inside and headed off to a fantastic B&B that greeted us with much grandeur and stateliness, but was run by a cyclist and man who was happy to share his front room and biscuits with three grimy mountain bikers.

The pub dinner was surprisingly ace based on the general air of flightiness of the place, and the beer was more than good. Drinking a few of those gave us ample time to disgrace ourselves with the pub quiz.  Ace trails, much fun, learned some things, broke my bike, drank some beer with old friends. That’s a good day whichever way you look at it.

And if you want to look at it, check out What Mountain Bike this month. As I suspected, my grizzly fizog is generally a blur behind the proper riders but it still was an experience I’m keen to have another crack at.

If asked, this time I’ll prepare with some intense gurning practice in front of the mirror. It’s the one skill I feel I can bring to such an event.

* Except for one impulsive post ride moon to the shocked and staid residents of Chalfont St. Giles. Well with a name like that, well you would have to really.

That can’t be right.

That post title could cover so many different wrongs; one of those would be refusing to vote in what is probably the most important election since I first proudly presented my voting card back in Yorkshire. Largely pointless really as the Conservative candidate was hunted down and eaten – a just reward for the temerity of  attempting to explain ‘rich people stuff’ to a bunch of flat caps, who considered ownership of a whippet and an outside toilet a rather vulgar show of wealth.

Alison Yoghurt – Liberal – survived because “well she’s just a daft lass in a hand knitted cardigan with a wide ranging policy portfolio essentially honed down to being nice to kittens“, the emerging greens had no chance in a town where coal was forever king, so basically you voted for the dribbling nutter with the novelty hat or the Labour candidate. Often this was the same person.

Amusingly, while South Herefordshire constituency is a tight two way fight between Blue and Yellow, up here in the rarefied air of Ledbury (4 Deli shops in a town of about 19 people), the Conservative candidate (and probably land owner of every single voter) has been returned UNINTERRUPTED  SINCE 1926. The majority seems to actually outstrip the registered electorate of the ward and, so confident is the fella in blue, we’ve not received even a token leaflet.  Carol has collected – and pointedly – placed campaign literature from the, frankly, desperate other political options in easy reach of my desultory browsing.

I’ve had a look from the rational perspective of a cyclist and beerist, and find none of them fire any enthusiasm for much other than cracking open a bottle. But vote I must, if only to silence the tedious “No Vote, No Voice” refrain from bloody worthies and Guardian readers. I’d rather point them to www.voterpower.org.uk while shouting “1926, 22,00 Majority, tell me again that big idea about democracy“. Churchill had it right, and I’m sure he’d have given proportional representation the kind of short shrift that anyone who wants to be in charge traditionally has.

And he may have been right again, because I can give you only one example in the whole of history where the output of a committee has been genuinely brilliant. Yep aside from the American Declaration of Independence*, it’s all been politicised fudgery, spin and lost opportunities.   I’m still of the opinion that the country would benefit from locking all the party leaders in a room, equipping each with a sharp sword and the last man standing gets to run the country.

Either than or install me as a benevolent dictator – let’s face it, at least I’d sort out those with pointless dogs and  caravans. Plus anyone with marketing in their title would be either leaving the country or enjoying the company of a thousand scorpions. See, I’m not even single issue.

So I think a spoiled ballet shall register my disgust and weariness at a political class with noses in the trough and heads up their arse. It’s still a private booth isn’t it? That’ll do just fine.

Hmm, that was meant to be a single pithy paragraph. It appears I was slightly more irritated than I first thought. Anyway invoking a bit more Churchill and continuing the theme of extreme irritation, I have made a proper effort to Keep Buggering On regardless of the fact that the mechanical fairies stalk me still.  Yesterday I broke something else – Rockshox make a fork that is the suspension equivalent of a Toyota HiLux. Not terribly sophisticated, bit weighty, aesthetically stunted, but with unchallenged reliability in the harshest of conditions.

I was making this very point to my friend Mike, extolling the robustness and performance of a component which I’d never even considered servicing** and yet was still providing unflinching service. When will I ever learn? Twenty seconds later 140mm of plush travel became 30mm of undamped bonginess followed by a hard wrist-jarring stop. The noise of various parts crashing into each other in an increasing cacophony of brokenness can be simply described as “expensive“.

My attempts to fix it by beating it to death with mile after mile of rocky descent proved unsuccessful. So as part of the revolving door policy I now have with my local bike shop, I offered up the offending items to Nick the mechanic while enquiring if he’d fixed my ST4 yet. He had not but only because I’d failed to furnish him with all the parts needed to do so. So I have a bike and a half being repaired, a bill that will probably have some negative effect on the country’s structural deficit, and no space left to write about what a great Exmoor ride we had.

More of that soon. Until then I’ll be desperately searching the pamphlets for some nugget regarding a grant for Cyclists recently inheriting a Jonah complex.

* and even this was more about taxes and whinging about perceived wrongs, the bit about freedom and the rights of the individual was a bit of an afterthought.

** as it was working. And if I’d serviced it, it wouldn’t be working at all. In fact, I would have probably thrown a blanket over the remains in honour of the tdead.

A new riding genre.

Forget your power-XC, aggressive All-Mountain or Riding-round-in-circles-while-dressed-in-silly-clothes, these last ten days have opened my eyes to a style of riding that is entirely attrition based. That sad collection of broken parts represents a litany of trail-based disasters which has stripped me of a whole load of cash, and rendered the barn mostly devoid of spare bikes.

The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice the high co-efficient of Mech based products to general MTB detritus, but these are symptomatic of a far more serious cause. Before I explain what, let me explain how. First take the ST4 and add a spiteful branch to a fast spinning wheel. Stick hits mech, arrests wheel, rotational energy transferred to drilling the stick  into a catastrophe of sheered brakeaway bolts, bent mechs and sacrificial hangers taking one for the frame.

I wasn’t unduly concerned with a flurry of Internet activity procuring fast delivered spares, so ensuring my participation on a ride three days later.  This sanguine approach to the rough and tumble of bike ownership soured a little as the clever and expensive air can became a very stupid pogo stick. Without the sophisticated platform damping, a single pivot suspension system returns to the bongy age of early double springers. And that gets old very quickly – it’s only when something breaks, you realise how damn good it was.

What I hadn’t realised was how damn bad it would be getting the bugger out from various close fitting linkages. Weary puzzlement soon gave may to the kind of annoyed grunting and twitching for the big hammer normally associated with an embarrassed trip to the bike shop.  But the shock came out undamaged as did a swathe of small and unexpected parts. My life was suddenly full of ball bearings, mashed cases and unidentified broken bitswhere sealed bearing once were. Orange agreed that their promise of “guaranteed for life” probably covered me for Warranty with only 400 miles and 4 months under-wheel.*

Both the repaired shock and a bag full of bearings arrived free of charge over the next few days, but still the bike is nothing more than a pile of bits.  Because I own neither a bearing press, nor the skill/bravery to proxy something using a vice and a socket set. “Interference” fit is something my close friends tell me isn’t a long word meaning “smash them out with a hammer and while it’s in your hand, you may as well use that tool to fit the new ones”.

So it’s down to the bike shop, and I’ve asked Nick to take a few other minor indiscretions into mechanical consideration. For a start the brakes don’t stop. Well they do for about ten minutes so lulling one into a false sense of security, before the levers bang the bars and your options are limited to nutting a tree or abandoning ship. The front mech has taken the destruction of its’ mechanical brother rather badly and now has an action so stiff it speaks of Shimano Viagra. It’d be easier to list what is still working…er let me see…. er, no that’s broken…. hmm that’s pretty shagged…right…not much then.

But even after all this angst, I was able to unleash the power of my bike acquisition strategy by dusting down the not-ridden-very-often Pace which proved good to go. Well good-ish, I spent about an hour chasing a knocking noise around the rear triangle only to finally realise the headset was loose. The bike lasted exactly two and a bit rides unbroken, being much fun to ride downhill and only a bit too humpy on the ups. It survived 45ks in the Forest, a good pummelling on some Malvern super-dry trails, and then nearly an hour back in the FoD.

Before an unholy trinity of bad gear choice, a slightly bent chain and a huge sodding – if unseen – root, left with my that familiar lack of drive. And then I realised that Fate has taken against me, although enquiring of a Singlespeeding mate with squeeky breaks why he didn’t just get a proper bike may have poked that particular vengeful God in the goolies. The Butterfly Effect applies here – “Take the piss out of someone elses bike and ruination of your own will be visited within the hour“.

My fiscal misery continued when a close examination of the once expensive parts showed the cheese-dropout ™ hadn’t failed quite quick enough to save ANOTHER new mech. Amazingly this bit of metallic Gorgonzola somehow is worth* twice the £15 forked out for a bit of pressed steel to fix the ST4.

I am left with the roadbike and my Trailstar. I dare not ride either of them because bad things come in threes and if they don’t break I undoubtedly will. Many years ago a friend of mine reckoned “You could get a similar experience to MTBing by running around a forest setting fire to ten pound notes“. A wise man that fella, and he’s a Fulham supporter – two things you don’t normally find in the same sentence.

So there we have it; God hates me, I have found solace in the philosophy of a Fulham supporter, and have spent an average of twenty quid a day to push broken bikes along some lovely dusty trails.  I’m off to burn a bunch of cash as a sorrowful sacrifice while taking my therapy from a bottle. I may be some time.

* They also admitted in passing that the cause might be a bent swingarm. “If it happens again send the whole thing back and we’ll sort it out” / “Is it okay if I set fire to it first?

** Depending on your value of worth. As the buyer, I was struggling.

Pass me those legs..

… no not those, they’re entirely useless for anything other than modelling socks. Assuming I am sitting down. Slightly tired right now.

Bit special this weather isn’t it? Trails so dry that a couple of brief downpours were almost dust-dampeningly welcome. Not quite as moistly appreciated as a couple of mid ride pints ,in a rather fine pub on the banks of the Wye.  I rarely risk beer when the off road isn’t done, as the increased alcohol induced silliness in no way makes headbutting trees any less painful.

Today’s justification came after a section of trails that invited  you in, shook you up,  blended pure adrenalin with healthy dose of fear before spitting you out gabbling, giggling and desperate for a pint. A pint that was preceded by some urban amusement in the form of many, many steps which rewarded a bit of pace and rhythm. I certainly achieved both in the pub afterwards.

It is a bit odd riding with people you barely know as one of two things generally happens a) they try and rip you legs off or b) are the kind of riders whose view on life is diametrically opposite to yours.  In the Forest, you must also be ready for the sounds of Duelling Banjo’s, when someone stuffs a pair of boar tusks in their helmet* and darkly proclaims “It’s time to initiate the new boy, fetch the chicken”.

Multiple Daves, a Nick and A Gary did none of those things – although I feel an initiation ceremony may only be waiting for the hours of darkness – and proved just damn nice people who were happy to show a gobby northerner their favourite trails. And what trails they are. After Wednesday, I fully expected to be a bit disappointed because it was hard to see how the basic awesomeness of that singletrack could be matched, never mind bettered.

And, cutting to the point here, the first hour pretty much backed that up as rendezvous plans fell to confusion, a dearth of mobile phone coverage and some roadie criss-crossing. Eventually – after nearly being taken out by a twatty eye-test needing Volvo owner – we found an approximation of a riding flange and went searching for some dirt under tyre.

FoD Monster Ride - April 2010 FoD Monster Ride - April 2010

And what we found had a bit of everything, fast turns, tight turns, open sections, rock drops, jumps, gulley’s and occasionally terror all bounded by the bountiful forest. I was happy to bottle a big roll down that required precision and bollocks, neither of which I’d remembered to pack in my Camelbak, but did my best to make up for such wanton neshness everywhere else.  I think the school report would read something like “doesn’t have much aptitude fo the subject, but tries hard. Rather noisy in class“.

And far from being embarrassingly overbiked – with the ST4 shock being properly broken, and a bunch of bearings having gone the same way – the Pace was a perfect accompaniment to some steep’n’deep trails which went from the barely defined to the obviously crafted. At no point did I think “you know what, I really should have brought the rigid Kona, that’d be ideal for that steep, rootfest, death line over there”

Proper ride that. 45ks, 1100m of climbing (I’ve gone metric, it’s all that road riding), out for five hours, one of those spent happily in the pub.  And the second I’d made my goodbyes, while trailering the dusty bike, the heavens opened and the righteous gone rained on. Which was fine as I was inside the truck at that point.

I nearly didn’t ride today due to a combination of terrifyingly complex family logistics, and the option of throwing expensive gliders off windy slopes. But I can do that when I’m old and broken – until then more of this please.

* the one on their head. It’s not quite as bad as you may have heard.

Up and Down

Not so much a comment on my mental state, more a crisp summary of a fantastic ride under blue skies in a county that was once my home, and is now a playground to throw mountain bikes at.  I could leave it at that, but that’s not the way of the hedgehog, so strap on your virtual ears while I tell you – yet again – why riding bikes is just so bloody brilliant.

The Peak District doesn’t have any mountains, and with eighteen months of summiting the upper slopes of the Malvern Alps under my belt, hoisting myself and the Pace up a few hundred feet of loose, rocky escarpment wasn’t quite the shock it once was when transitioning from the flat Chilterns.  But it still felt bloody hard, body not yet warm enough to generate efficient pedalling power, muscles criminally unstretched due to selecting the “extra tea ration”, and a pace set by our guide who is acclimatised to the brutal gradients thrown up by any climb from the valley floor.

Peak District Ride - November 2009 Peak District Ride - November 2009

And like all great rides, we set the “push precedent” early on as Dirtlow Rake became steeper, rockier and full of boulder spitting motorcross bikes.  A breather at the top reminded us that blue skies in winter bring with it chilly days and icy winds so we pushed on, up to the rocky horror show that is the Cavedale descent. I absolutely love the start and end of this trail, but the middle (hard) bit always vexes me to the point of cursing.  The month of rain had deepend the ruts, turned the grass frictionless and brought speeds down giving me ample time to have a good look at the steep lineless section.

Peak District Ride - November 2009 Peak District Ride - November 2009

Apparently there are two approaches to a dab-less clearing of the section; either attack it at full speed trusting your bike to smooth out the jagged lumps and boulders that block your path, or to go slow in a trials style, hopping, track standing and lunging over obstacles. I have not the bravery for the first, or the skill for the second, so inevitably my first stall some hundred yards in was where the riding stopped and the walking started. But nowadays, I’m comfortable with my limitations, and still rode more of it – in a reasonably brisk manner – than normal, and, come the bottom,  felt about twice as alive as I had some five minutes earlier.

The payback for that joy is of course another toiling climb, this time up the broken road to Mam Tor.  Nige was struggling a bit with not enough sleep and a dodgy tummy, while I could use neither of those excuses for my increasingly one paced, granny ring* slog past the site of my famous “teeth saving drop of doom” – where years ago I’d somehow kept my meat chewers on the inside after a one mph plunge off about four foot of un-noticed drop – and up to Mam Tor through some amusingly viscous mud and the odd bemused walker.

Peak District Ride - November 2009 Peak District Ride - November 2009

Cashing in those hard earned gravity credits saw us drop off the side of the hill where I spent many happy minutes going as much sideways as forwards, concentrating on not much else than stopping the bike swapping ends. A riding condition I now think of as “slideways” and it was good to see my buddies suffering in the same comedic manner. Dave abandoned ship at one point into a puddle that appeared to draught about five fathoms. So impressed with his technique, 20 seconds later he did exactly the same thing again, which drew rapturous applause and much mirth from all watching.

Peak District Ride - November 2009 Peak District Ride - November 2009

The Cafe called and we answered with a swift chain gang for soup and sustenance. Dave complained of cold feet which allowed me to trump his previous mockery of my “clown shoes clearly designed by a special needs nutter” with a long, descriptive verbal passage of exactly how toasty I was from the ankles down. I’ve always said half the fun of riding is where you are, and the other half is who you’re with. And long-known friends all understand the value of the Mock and the Counter-Mock,  the latter always best served once the original Mocker is showing the first signs of annoying smugness.

Smug we weren’t heading back up to Hope Cross. Snug in awesome winter gear but body warmth taking a while to provide the personal central heating demanded by days like this. Nige was really struggling now, although he perked up a little after a long climb was rewarded with a short, steep water bar jumping descent into the river where James refused to fall into even tho I had the camera out. More climbing took us to the top of “The Beast“. An almost mythical trail fully of rocky goodness, shouldered by hidden woody singletrack. Having the big bike and big ego, I set off first to again be truly astonished by how good full suspension bikes are.

Peak District Ride - November 2009 Peak District Ride - November 2009

As a rider, my job was to look up at the tastiest lines, shift a bit of body mass as obstacles passed fast under wheel and giggle a lot. The bike was rather more engaged, putting all those hours of suspension design to a proper test and flying its’ colours with top marks and not too much drama. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t boring or undemanding because there was still much going on, but the bike gives you confidence to try and find a flowing line over the rock avalanche while being supremely unconcerned that your bravado will ever outstrip the technical brilliance of the frame.

It’s not all about the bike though. A rejuvenated Nige steamed past a stranded rider who was loudly complaining that this trail was not ridable on a hardtail. That’s Nige, right there on his, er, hardtail and maintaining an velocity of more than adequate briskness.

Peak District Ride - November 2009 Peak District Ride - November 2009

Not much briskness going on heading up to Lockerbrook, as we engaged the pushing gear early on and pretty much left it there for the next ten minutes as a much loved descent from Hagg Farm became a calf straining walk with the bike, but still no chore swapping bullshit and tall tales happy under wintry blue skies.

The start of probably my favourite descent in the entire Peak District was inauspiciously derailed by a few hundred yards of trail wide mud that had the signature of recent heavy logging activity. But by now our slideways radar was perfectly aligned and once dablessly cleared, the track opened up and dropped down. First an almost trail centre smoothness under heavy pine trees speeds the bike and sets it up for a natural berm marking the transition from easy and fast to committed and hard. From there two lines present; the right offers a jumble of smaller – but still potentially lethal – rocks arranged in mini-mountain range formation that favours hardtails and smoothness.

The alternative is basically the fall line throwing up all sorts of challenges set in stone – ohfuckme drops, fat, smooth boulders hiding sharp and jagged gritstone, sudden changes in gradient and traction all washed up in a stream of icy hill water run off. That’s my kind of line and one I chucked the SX trail at a couple of years ago resulting in a shit eating grin I couldn’t shift for days. I’m happy to report the Pace offered exactly the same level of lunacy to the power of bonkers when pointed straight down, brakes off and brain out. I like to think I’m normally a courteous trail rider, but I must publicly apologise to the blameless innocents pushing up in the crosshairs of a steaming composite juggernaut of awesome bicycle and middle aged fool.

No idea at all what I shouted, seemed to do trick tho as the path cleared and the speed increased to the point where everything seems to slow down. It’s an odd sensation and not one often visited upon my no-better-than-average riding psyche.  But when it does, you get the briefest glimpse of how fucking ace it must be to ride like that ALL THE BLOODY TIME.  I’ll climb endless hills, freeze on bleak ridges, suffer trenchfoot, moist-arse, stinging rain eye and chapped fingers for ten seconds of that adrenaline hit thank you very much. For that’s about all it was before the gate stopped me dead and real time rushed back in.

Peak District Ride - November 2009

Peak District Ride - November 2009

Much enjoyment was shared as we spun along the road past the dam where 617 squadron practised for the Mohne raid and some of that was based on the realisation that we risked serious chance of benighment if an attempt on a cheeky extension to Whinston Lee Tor was attempted.  And based on the parlous state of my knees on the ride back to Hope, it became absolutely clear that this was the right decision not to attempt it. Cars were packed in fast fading light, goodbyes made to James who’d provided the links between the bits I can remember and some amusement with his challenges at riding them on a 100mm FS race bike with Californian tyres, before  we decamped to the pub.

Where – in an absolute mirror image of every other time we’ve ridden together – Dave and I talked a load of bollocks for a few hours, while Nige fell into one of his self induced comas. Happy days indeed.

I realised this ride was pretty much the same as this one here. The hope is I’ll still be having this much fun for many more years yet.

* Dave and I think that in a lost dimension somewhere a “Super Granny Ring” exists, and finding it feels like it may become my life’s work.

Margins

Of all the senses, smell short circuits synapses with such breathtaking speed it sometimes does just that – rewinding the minds eye to a vision of something so joltingly real it pushes the physical world away. For some fresh cut grass triggers a memory of long – and long ago – carefree summers, others will walk into their kids’ classroom, and be instantly transported back thirty years into a world of short trousers and tall teachers.

For me it’s the smell of warm gravel. Rubbish you say, gravel doesn’t have a smell – ah but it does if you’ve ever given it a proper nasal examination from close quarters. My approach was a high velocity, low level pass-  ramming gravel up a nostril until it was piled sufficiently high to create a never-to-be-forgotten mental bookmark.

It didn’t really register at the time, because all my organic processing was being diverted to having a large accident.  And while the memory of flint slicing my knee directed my riding bravery for far too long, that was much more about a sense of fear rather than the smell of it.

Until now. The weekly night ride split my brain neatly between then and now with a sensory throwback of scrabbling tyres hunting for grip on smooth granite marbles. The malevolent sound these mini Grim Reapers hissed sat somewhere between an analytical explanation of fat tyres on loose rock, and an imagined  disaster movie with me being nothing more than a painful passenger.

You see the thing that pissed me off more than anything back in 2006 was my stupidity in ignoring a stand-out warning of what was to come. I’d had some proper wiggly feedback through the bars on the corner before, but I pushed it just as hard anyway into the subsequent gravelly arc.

And paid for such bravery with first a month off the bike, and then two years when riding became so much of a chore I so nearly packed it up for good. So last night put the Vu back in Deja after I’d spent most of the ride letting air of the tyres so carefully inflated some time earlier hunting for some grip. I was riding the big bike for a change, and that change made for so much silly fun, so much more downhill speed, and so little purchase on big fat 2.5inch tyres better suited for proper sized rocks in the Peak District.

The start of an accident inevitably comes near the end of the ride when reflexes are not quite as sharp as confidence is high. We ride a fantastic ridge which funnels into a steep, loose gulley, guarded by a natural berm that shoots you wide of the tyre sucking danger of the eroded centre. Instead you stay high, stay off the brakes, push out over a tree root before committing to a properly shaley left hander.

Fail to make it and you’re in the quarry, get it wrong and rapid, full body exfoliation awaits. Get it right though and you’re pumped out at high speed, grab a chunk of usefully located bank and ping off into something a little flatter and safer. It’s ace, but loose and looser than ever with weeks of nothing falling in there other than the occasional mountain biker.

I entered that berm at a speed entirely inappropriate for a man of my limited skill, which unsurprisingly compressed the next few seconds into a mental riot of terror, acceptance, amazement and relief. I avoided the root by simple dint of ploughing into the gulley. My tyres felt it was important to bring the absolute abscence of any grip whatsoever to my attention by starting to slide in a manner worrying reminisant of a long stay in hospital.

I caught the first slide with stiffly frightened muscle memory, but by now the only manner by which I could be classed as “in control” was still being on the bike. While this was going on,  that left hander loomed tight and fast and my options narrowed to nothing. Had to stuff it in, had to push the bar, had to find time to pray it wasn’t going down.

The slide was properly mental. In so many ways of that word, as I could hear the echo of a bike crashing groundwards, the shhhhhsssshing noise of fast gravel at ear level and the sound of body bounce. Yet it didn’t happen, and I still don’t know why. In the same way I still cannot understand how I lost a different bike in a similar corner, but with a younger God of Fate looking on.

Margins. That’s what this is about. Two situations, starting the same, finishing entirely differently. It’s made me think about the accident again but in a good way. Because for every crash that smashes you up and leaves you wondering if it’s bloody well worth it, there are a hundred mirrors that you don’t hold up for proper examination.

So I know this time I got lucky. But what I’ve worked out is that I’ve been sodding lucky so many times before. Only when you understand the margins do you finally comprehend the massive deficit of risk to reward than mountain biking serves up every time you go out and ride.

I’m feeling pretty damn good about that.

The Wrong Stuff

It would not be unreasonable to suggest that a man with such an extensive collection as I, could ever be embarrassed by riding an inappropriate bicycle for the prevailing conditions. A pre-ride enquiry may be met with “Mild rock, light shale, short, sharp hills, soupçon of mud, occasional wet grass.Trees? Mainly Beech“.

These important variables could be simply plugged into a spreadsheet*, the mighty pivot table unleashed and correctbike(tm) shall be brought forth. Unfortunately such simple equations cannot factor in a mechanical ineptness co-efficient which renders bikes inoperable with just  a few spanner twirls.

The Cove is perfectly suited to the Malvern Hills. It was also broken and the urgency of my need to repair it was not matched by any haste from the Post Office. My remaining choices were between the CX bike (Off Road insanity wrapped in thin rubber tyres), the DMR (gathering dust, goes uphill best on chairlifts), the full suspension Pace and the no suspension Kona.

The Kona has never been ridden properly off road, which – added to the nagging concern that I’d built it – made my wasting ten minutes trying to fit the light battery feel even more stupid. A desperate bodge brought forward the next issue where the light bracket was configured for the wrong bars and the missing widgets were hidden in a place known only as “fuck that, I don’t have time to look for them

Pace it was then. I surveyed its’ appropriateness and marked it with a 2. Out of a 100. Five and half inches of travel both ends, short stubby stem, huge brakes and 2.5 inch balloon tryes stuffed with downhill tubes. Still the light bracket fitted and only when I attempted to heft it into the car did I think I’d been a little generous in the marking stakes.

Once I’d had someone help me upload it, the first 600 feet of climbing reminded me to get my imagination gland checked. Because it clearly needs recalibrating, as my fantasy of a relatively painless experience refracted through the reality prism and left me breathless and cursing.  It wasn’t much better downhill either with too much squish and not enough feel.

I felt it alright for a while after, every time someone popped a big sodding hill into my personal geography. I felt as old as the Granny ring, and even though the Malverns don’t really get that muddy**, the sinking feeling was well and truly received as we plodded ever upwards at the speed of stupid.

Some days later, my riding buddy decided we had not suffered enough*** and enthusiastically set course for a second ascent of a hill locally known as “oh shit, not that bastard again“. The top of that was a long time coming, but from there it’s 500 vertical feet of giggly dirt starting fast and open, snaking through some woody singeltrack before the crux being a steep cross rooted plunge best tackled on one of two dry lines.

But only one wet one really, the “sissy” line along the top misses out the off camber routes and steepest pitch. When those roots are damp, you may as well throw yourself off at the top and save the embaressment of giving it a try. Unless you have hauled too much bike for too long on easier terrain. Because then for twenty seconds, you can mainline payback and plunge brakeless down the fall line.

It is only then when you realise how astonishingly good modern full suspension bikes are. So much so that all manufacturers should be forced to name every model “Talent Compensator”.  You don’t need the brakes, all you need are a couple of beers, a blindfold and a parachute.  Every time I ride the Pace, the true extent of the performance envelope becomes clear. You will never, ever be as good as these bikes.

So shall I be selecting the big fella again this weekend, pushing it a bit harder, trying to find my limits, all that kind of macho nonsense? Of course not. the spreadsheet says “No” 🙂

* I haven’t done this. Yet.

** I am comparing them to the Chilters  – twinned with Flanders – Hills where 20 seconds into any winter ride turns your comapanions into whinging swamp monsters, and your bike into 45 pounds of gloopy non rotation. Oh the horror !

*** I don’t feel he was speaking for both of us.