Not Again.

Enjoying one road ride is probably acceptable, enjoying two is tantamount to MTB treason.  Before my skinny tired bike is behead-tubed*, let me at least present a case for the defence.

Firstly it wasn’t a long ride. The plan for a metric century was curtailed by a lack of time. Further scaling back became necessary once a small mechanical oversight popped up in the first 200 metres.

Not so much popped up, more popped out, with a cranked chain spinning uselessly over  un-indexable cogs. Look with that many little sprockets and associated spacers, anyone could have inadvertently misaligned the two.

It was me of course. And as such, I was deemed unfit to effect a repair which saw Jezz seemingly chase the wheel around the workshop using his biggest hammer. An opportune time perhaps for a quick spanner twirl elsewhere on the innocent frame.

First time out on Mr. Plastic Fantastic in 2011, all a-bling with new wheels (cassette not fitted properly, tyres under-inflated), new saddle (testicle splitting angle due to poor fitment) and new carbon post (unfitted due to it being entirely the wrong size).

Eventually, after some embarrassment and more excuses, the good ship Malvern-Route set sail under fair conditions with little wind and temperatures close to double digits.

Riding the Boardman after Woger Wibble was something of a revelation.  Best described as being gifted a proper cyclist’s set of legs, and an extra lung. Crikey it’s light – at least six pounds under the honest toiler of my winter bike – and *ahem* stiff. Having campaigned the thick end of 600k this winter on Wog sets a telling precedent on what a proper race bike feels like.

Feels fast for a start. Emboldened by climatic conditions, super light bike, dry road and an inability to clip out (new road shoes, new road pedals, stopping and starting involved lampposts and increasingly agitated foot waggling) my pace was both brisk and entirely inappropriate.

The latter I would only discover some two hours later when that “little wind” could be more accurately described as “a bastard headwind seeking to reduce me to a little cry”. Still having a trick bike is a great leveller.

Jezz was riding a oversized Wibble that puts one in mind of a farm gate cleverly accessorised with a wheel at either end. Not only tall, it has sufficient length to factory-fit a claxon and speaking tube for turns: “All Ahead Flank Engine Room” can often be heard bouncing off random Malvern hills.

So my bike is light and fast which is an almost perfect juxtaposition to the rider. Whereas Jezz – an Etape veteran and unapologetic semi-roadie –  can normally rip my little stumps off at will.  At this point, I can share with you that it is entirely about the bike.

For two hours, we jested and jousted up and over hilly terrain. I still lost more than I won but derived some pleasure from the look on Jezz’s fizog a couple of times. One I recognised as “Just give me a minute, once the black spots have faded, we’ll be on our way”.

Somewhere in between such hyper-competitivety, I realised with horror this was really quite enjoyable. Even a jaunt through Malvern traffic didn’t disappoint as my “London Commuter Elbows” have lost nothing in their vigorousness over the last few years.

And then the headwind. With all the climbing done, I was ready for an easy 25k spin home along the valley bottom.  The only match to that idyllic description was the distance. Not flat, slight climb all the way home, arrow straight roads horizon long, and into the teeth of a headwind that sought out my tiring limbs and made them tireder still.

I swallowed a little water, slightly more pride and hid behind Jezz for a while until we mercifully turned the relentless blast into a crosswind.  That couldn’t hide the fact I’d shot my bolt though and – light bike or not – the last few climbs were properly hurty.

Lesson learned? Probably not, ego not generally gapped my ambition. 70k, 890m of climbing, similar average speed to last time out but on a route made far tougher by elevation.  Riding in this morning was a fairly sedate affair, but not for a minute did I consider driving.

Actually I was looking forward to getting back on the (heavy) bike. That’s a worrying development.

* Been reading lots of Tudor history. After considering disease, poverty, hangman’s noose and executioner’s blade, hard to believe the population of England during that time could be more than about 7.

That’s really annoying.

Cotswold Road Ride

Many – and most would say far too many – times have I banged on about how rubbish road riding is. The key thrust of what passed as my argument was blacktop wheeling was dull, painful and entirely missing the joy, risk and skill of Mountain Biking. It appears I may have been more than a little wrong.

Before lambasting me for a U-Turn not seen since, er let me think – oh yes, last week by the not-Forest selling lunatics as Westminster, let me first explain that the change of heart is based entirely on context. I’ve always maintained that half the fun of riding MTBs is who you are with, with the other half being where you are riding. What I failed to understand is this has a 100% crossover with road bikes.

Over 1200 kilometres have passed under skinny wheel in the last twelve months, and – until today – only 40 of them had been shared with others. The majority of the remainder are tagged onto work days, chasing trains weighed down with commuting collateral – while a very few fired the guilt trigger and had me yomping around local lanes feeling more miserable that worthy.

Today failed to deliver any promising portents. Cold, grey and wet. Chance of dampness in the air, lots of it already on the ground. 8am start, 80k plugged into Jezz’s GPS and an Al mentally porpoising between fear and boredom. The really bloody annoying thing was not just that I enjoyed it, but rather I enjoyed it quite a lot.

Cotswold Road Ride Cotswold Road Ride

Some reasons; Jezz – who is properly fit and fast – generously refused to roast me over the tarmac spit with a maximum attack from the first minute. The lack of rucksack, darkness, desperation to make a train/get home removed any real reason to whinge. A route winding pleasantly thought the Cotswolds, without climbing over any monstrous hills, made for looking around rather than looking for a spare lung.

But mainly it was not being solo. If I’d ridden this on my own a finish would be doubtful, excuses and early baleouts almost guaranteed. Which is pretty much how Billy-no-mates MTB rides end as well. Arguably You could even argue that road riding is more social on traffic free roads and without the standard straining Malvern Gurn in place.

For balance, important to state quite clearly it’s not as good as Mountain Biking. But it was today when off road trails would have been a muddy horror show. I learned some things as well: “How to trim my big ring” which I’d always assumed was some lycra-creepy initiation ceremony. And – even being a roadie novice – the art of drafting came easily to a man for whom cheating is a life skill.

First 20k were fine, second not so bad. Break for coffee and food was welcome, certainly more welcome than next 20k which dragged a little on less fun roads marked by traffic and gradients. Last 20k was surprisingly painless even with tiring legs and ice cold feet. Descending on twisty roads was friskier than I expected, and even some of the climbing felt kind of nice.

Don’t worry tho; the dark side shall not claim me. Chunky winter boots, flappy clothing and an absolute refusal to stay-press my willy in an orgy of lycra categorised me perfectly. I’m a Mountain Biker who will ride anything rather than not ride at all.  Having said all that, a nice 100k out to Broadway is planned for next month, and I find myself looking forward to it.

Best hide the razor.

Look at me!

Apparently I haven’t updated the “hedgehog hunting” and “what bikes do you own today Al?” pages for bloody ages. Well I have now and that’s an hour of my life no-one is giving me back. Selected entirely on “most read” stats because otherwise I’d have to read them all again.

If you want to read a proper magazine, check out Singletrackworld which was so desperately short of content this month, they published an article I wrote for them late last year 😉

I feel the urge to mess with the site theme as displacement activity for a painting experience so vast we are praying for a re-incarnation of Michaelangelo. If you want to make a man happy for a day phone a painter and decorator, if you want to make him miserable for life, give him a paintbrush 🙁

It is about the bike.

Upping the ante is where it is at for 2010. My heroic couplets from last weekend are now cast into shadow, when compared to my attempted-death-by-commute this morning. If you were hunting for a set of circumstances to ensure a proper accident, it’s hard to think of anything more causal than these sick puppies.

Ice and Snow. 23c slick tyres and 100psi. New road bike and dubious battery lights. Zero visibility fog and, oh I don’t know let’s just go with bowel clenching terror should we? An hour earlier than Sunday, a further degree colder and a rider injured from a tripping incident involving a dark room and a black, slumbering mutt.

And in the same way we’ve had proper pre global-warming snow this last two weeks, the fog of this morn was of a type last seen when nefarious Jack was ripping through London. So thick you could chew on it, while waving a hopeful hand in front of a face merely panicked one into believing you’d been struck blind.

I risked catastrophic voltage collapse, with a clumsy grope to high beam, only to see it reflect back at 90% brightness and 0% improved visibility. And what I couldn’t see, I could hear with that horrible crunching sound of slush under tyre. The new mudguards were almost too efficient, with their low tyre rubbing profile delivering forty minutes of finger-on-blackboard aural stabbing.

The bike is fantastic though. Oh it properly is, light, stiff and flighty. Where the Kona would accelerate under spongy protest, the Boardman springs forward rewarding each pedal stroke with a surge onwards. When you hit any incline on the Jake, your options were a right hand ratchet and a long spin or a black-spotted, rivet-ridden, busted-lung sprint praying the gradient gave out before you legs did.

The Boardman isn’t like that. Because it weighs 8ks plus some commuting collateral, and has a BB junction forged from a pineapple hunk of carbon. I found myself shifting down the block and accelerating up hills. This is unheard of, and made me very proud I’d bested something similar last year.

Don’t get me wrong tho – this bike has the potential to hurt you. Because it is so rewarding to crank out maximum power to bring forth the horizon, then soon your aspirations are ruthlessly gaped by your fitness and ability. But even in sub zero temperatures, blinded by the fog and scared of the ice, I glimpsed that road riding might actually offer something other than non motorised commuting.

Lance was wrong. It’s all about the bike.

“There’s a problem with your bike”

So said the standard issue multi pierced, alternatively hairstyled young punk behind the Bikehut desk. I was only able to extract this admission once he’d had a good scratch of his crotch, and spent some time examining the floor in the obvious hope this would spare him from dealing with boring old blokes. To be fair to the lad, it cannot be easy even moving about when your jeans have a crotch that doubles as a marsupial pouch, and even just bending down risks several potentially lethal stabs from a much-gelled serrated fringe.

It’ll take a while for you to scroll down when I’ll get this down, but stick with me on this, it’s a cracker.

AL: “Right then, tell me more what’s the problem

GR: “Gears won’t index, need a spacer, don’t have the tool, can’t let you have it without PDI’ing it fully otherwise they’ll make me wear proper clothes“*

AL: “Well you could have called me” GR: “We lost your number” AL Slapping Every Increasing Forehead “When will it be ready then?”

GR: “Tomorrow, maybe Friday, no later than when you’re dead

AL: “I know this isn’t your fault, and you’ve been left to roll out the bad news by your boss who sounds the part but clearly has a fine career waiting only in Sales and Marketing, but I’m here now, I’m a bit irritated, I have no intention of coming back tomorrow, so what do you suggest we do next?”

GR clearly considering which bike tool he’s going to insert up his boss’s back passage come first light tomorrow “Er, Er, I dunno, do you want a black one?“**

AL: “No I bloody don’t. I’m in touch with my inner Essex, what’s Plan C?

Plan C appears to be the supervisor who is – oh – months older than the Grom, who smartly steps in and asks “Large is it?” “Yep” ” Special Edition” “Yep”, “How about that one over there?” She points to a bike carelessly laid on the clothing rack showing at least the odd sign of being built.

GR: “Er, Er, that’s for a bloke whose coming in tonight. From Swindon”

SU: “Ring him up, tell him not to bother

GR: “Don’t have his number either”

SU: “He’d have come by now, let this gentleman have it

GR and I exchange a glance. I know he’s in a world of shit if this bloke turns up demanding his bike tonight even though it’s only 20 minutes to closing, and he knows I’m clearly the type of selfish arse that is leaving with either the bike of his choice, or a choice of body part from the cannon fodder behind the desk.

GR: “I’ll just sort the brake cables” and off he wanders hunting for some tool that is clearly going to be sharper than his own intellect.

For a second, I’m conflicted with a fairly unusual feeling of guilt that not only does some poor bastard have to live in Swindon, he’s made a special trip all the way to Hereford where his reward will be a grunty grommit and a bag full of excuses. Two seconds later, I’m over it and flashing virtual cash while trying to speed up the lad whose turning cable cutting into a three week job.

Eventually – just before I rip the tool from his hand and do it myself because I know something bad is bound to happen if this goes on much longer – the bike is handed over, I take a deep breath and admonish myself not to ruin everything by hastily falling down the stairs. I navigate those successfully only to be confronted by a fit looking chap of about my height sharing a cheeky hello and a “Snap I’ve come to pick one of those up”.

Well what would you do? Honestly, you’d be out that shop and gunning the engine in an escape driver styleee rather than have to try and negotiate between three people you’ll never see again, or be forced to wrestle for ownership of the one working bicycle. Look I’m not proud of my behaviour, but at least I’m being honest here. And he was from Swindon, so really deserves almost everything he can get. Or is this case, didn’t.

Bike loaded, engine running, I sneaked a last look up the stairs when there seemed to be some kind of argument going on. I’m surprised they didn’t call me up to ask if I could come back in – ah no they’d lost my phone number of course.  I’ll ring up tomorrow to make sure no-one was injured on my behalf, but right now I’ve a lovely 8 kilogram  Carbon road bike sat behind me ready to float onto the ceiling and that’s makes me happy.

And a bit of a bastard, yes I’ll admit to that.

* I have applied the Babel-Hog to save you having to navigate grunts, oddly placed glottal stops and vigorous crouch rubbing.

** Again, I’d like our London readers to take a deep breath and try not to make 2+2 add up to about 69.