Leffe brained

Sunday Service - Penyard MTB

Remember your mum telling you that you were special? Well she’s right in at least one way. We all are – no two people have quite the same left brain / right brain bias. Those of us on the right tend to the creative, those to the left on the analytical. That’s testing the limit of my neuroscience knowledge, so I have an inkling it might be a bit more complicated that that.*

What I do know for sure is that a few of us temporarily become ‘Leffe Brained‘ which is basically just a few hours separated from being happily drunk. A night on Belguims’ finest export** tends to be viewed as a poor meal choice through the prism of the following morning.

Other than the standard hangover tropes of a throbbing head, an inability to locate everyday objects including kettle, car keys and underpants and a medicinal need for a greasy bacon sandwich, the mountain biker suffers a further unwanted consequence.

Strong ale still swishing in the bloodstream appears to intoxicate the nervous system. Electrical pulses from reddened eyeballs fail to trigger desperately required muscle movement from shaking limbs. I can only assume they’re sideswiped by a fellow neuron in the need of a quick pint, slouch off to the liver for a bit of a session only returning to their primary duty some time later -excusing themselves with the traditional ‘badger ate signal box at New Malden‘. Again I’m not a recognised academic in this area, but by god I’ve put in years of unfunded research.

And what I’ve found is either extremely amusing or bloody dangerous depending if your observing or experiencing.  The former for me today as Haydn navigated a trail we’ve ridden a hundred times with the skill and grace of a three legged stoat recuperating from a serious head wound.

First up, I’m leading so his distress is exposed through the medium of modern whimpering. Noises percolated through the forest canopy of a man recently introduced to a difficult stallion. Not exactly crashing but an unhappy passenger on a steed barely under his control. He looked a little troubled on arrival at the fire road and declared himself ‘dangerous at any speed‘.

This was clearly going to be a lot more fun – for me at least – if the experience was upgraded from sound to vision. Sure enough, the next trail H nailed a couple of early jumps before the 9:45 Retina to Right arm was cancelled without any warning leaving him to choose which tree he’d like to hug.

Dodged them somehow but pulled aside with a shake of the head. Obviously I was very sympathetic. Laughing is sympathetic. If it’s done right. I did feel for him tho as only the day before I’d risked it all on the ‘Grimbergen Gambit’*** before a fast dash around Cwmcarn.

Ridden just about every bike I’ve owned here. Know it well and it’s a bunch of fun when dry.  It’s that and a little bit dusty mirroring my tired eyes. An attempt to beat the hangover into submission on the 30 minute climb failed unless wanting to throw up and having to lie down in any way counts.

First descent is properly bar twitchy tight at the top before opening out into fast straights accelerating the unready into sharp corners and stumped apexes. I was ready from the eyeballs out. Not much happening downstream of that. The only way I could have damaged any more woodwork was to have ridden the trail with a chainsaw strapped to the bars.

That almost imperceptible delay is the difference between a perfect line and a desperate sawing to get the bugger back into line; the gap between a good braking point and a pointless one, the length of the bikes getting ahead in front of you, the nagging doubt that this one day will be permanent.

Not yesterday tho. Bike, ego, competitive gland, occasional dose of mild lunacy got me through and it was a more sober companion who rode off the trail. Not that I’d had a trouble free ride with my life passing in front of my eyes so often, I started fast forwarding the boring bits.

Strava said this bike is faster than all of those long lost in my riding pantheon. Even with Mr still-a-bit-pissed-will-there-be-bacon-soon allegedly in command. Which tells you everything you need to know about how bloody amazing the Mojo3 is.

Fast forward a day and Haydn kickstarted his synapses by bolting down an energy bar and adopting a determined expression. This was less fun for me, but on balance that’s fine as my good mate didn’t end up in A&E asking for a tree to be removed from his forehead.

Summer has been beer, laughing and mountain bikes for as long as I can remember. If the occasional hangover is the price of entry, it’s one well worth paying.

Maybe just not quite so often.

*Or in non fake news terms: a bit of a  myth. But it was a good hook and since telling great big whoppers is the new truth, I’m just practising for the upcoming apocalypse 😉

** I’ve done the research. It really is. And that includes due consideration of mythical detectives.

*** 2nd best export. After that it’s postcards of boys having a wee and some rubbish cheese.

 

Parenting – the MTB edition.

Jessie's new bike day

It was exactly two years ago when I last rode MTB with Jess. There are good reasons for this; firstly her rapid limb lengthening rendered her lovely XS Turner redundant. Unless she was considering a career riding BMX.

Not that such an option remained viable once I’d sold it. Needed the space in the shed. You snooze you lose.  Besides that between the ages of 14 and 16, there’s lots going on in the life of your average mid-teen. In Jess’s case there was an entirely un-fatherly work ethic, a burgeoning love of dance, a cabal of smart friends and binge watching of whatever was trending on Netflix that week.

I missed riding with her, but being a selfish bugger riding was still happening a few times a week. Even when it’s not about me, it’s about recognising living vicariously through your kids is not close to proper parenting.  Instead I was playing the long game waiting for a righteous Venn intersect of summer, a proper sized bicycle and an inventory of spares.

The latter came first. Due to the satisfying – if pointless – upgrading of the Mojo and a quick switcheroo of the Stache back to the configuration it first arrived in, a bench full of parts was missing only a frame and a set of bars* to ignite a Mary Shelley Dr Frankenstein moment.

Sorted via a 2nd hand frame originally sourced from the good guys at Cotic, a night at Matt’s where he created the mini monster truck while I fetched tools and handed him the occasional beer. The highlight of the build is, of course, that mudguard which I believe we can all agree is a triumph. Modesty forbids identifying the creative engineer honing his zip tie skills.

Tested on the Wednesday night ride. Quite the whippy go-kart even if a little small for me. That’s fine, it’s really not for me. However many times my riding buddies insisted it was. This,  after I’d coached them extensively on the exact language to use if Carol frowned her way through a body count in the shedofdreams(tm).

Jess was understandably nervous at re-engaging with all things mountain biking. Even with truth shaded by parental pride, she was bloody brilliant. Sure the hills tested her limited stamina triggering those lying over the bars ‘pass the water if pure oxygen isn’t available‘ desperate hand movements.

She’s never been the best climber. Never really ridden enough. Bloody minded though especially after her only push was rapidly upgraded to energetic spinning when some lads appeared from a side trail. Girl-power right there.

We’ve ridden the Verderers trail in the FoD many times and while the end of it is fab, the rest of it can be a bit meh especially if you’re no fan of gravel. So we headed out into the forest proper, swooping through the valleys below the bigger hills, making good progress over steppy roots and encroaching vegetation.

Jessie on her new Cotic Solaris Max
That’s a real video if you click on it. Jessie dealing with some rooty madness

Obviously while this is all about Jess, it’s still a little bit about me. Hence messing about in a bombhole which has been a constant trail companion for the last 10 years. Jess switched into the editor role to capture my enthusiastic if a bit rubbish attempts to get some air under the wheels of the Flare Max. Cotic and Chubby lock out today.

Flare Max in the Forest
More video if you’re a bit bored

Nifty navigation bypassed some unloved climbs and presented us at the top of the final two descents. Gloves back on, seat post dropped, appropriate advice offered and ignored and we’re away. A berm marking the site of a previous crash ridden nicely without incident, and we’re into the final kilometre unlocking ice cream rewards.

Jess looks tense and stiff. She’s a bit scared. I know that feeling well but can only encourage from behind. It’s a rough trail tho and she gets thrown off line and off the trail. A desperate leg out connects with nothing but air which means gravity gets involved. No damage done other than an elevated heart rate for both of us.

Strangely this loosens Jess up. She’s riding really well now, pedals level, looking through the corners, tenseness exchanged for smoothness and a bit of speed. Enough speed for me to sit on a splintered mental fence between pride and concern.

I go with pride and shout the next two berms are no problem, even knowing both have caused the kind of fall pride is known to precede. She’s all good though if a little innovative with line choice and we’re home and hosed. Ice cream isn’t a fish finger sandwich, so we trade lunch choices and high fives.

Jess asks me if I like riding with her. Surely it’s a bit boring going so slowly? For such an intelligent young woman**, this is a pretty stupid question. I explain I can go chase endorphins behind fast friends 50 weeks a year. Riding with your offspring is something far more special. I loved every minute of it, more so because Jess seemed too as well***

She wants to go again once the soreness fades. That’d be marvellous. Maybe I need to work on her brother and mum as well.

I’ve lost so many family days to riding, and it’s always felt the right – if inexcusably selfish –  call.  Today reminded me there’s not so many summers left to ride with those in my genetic tribe. Not because it’s some kind of tick-box parenting, but because it’s absolutely bloody fantastic.

Jess’s new bike’s is pretty cool too 🙂

*Swerved the enduro wide bar zeitgeist for something a little more suitable. I was only off by about 100mm. Young women do not have 760mm shoulders 😉

**She gets it from her mother. Obviously.

***Except for some of the climbing. She gets that from me.

Sunday Service – go ride a mountain

Black Mountains MTB - June 2017

These bikes Matt, they’re bloody amazing aren’t they?” represented my opening gambit on finishing a classic rocky Black Mountains descent. First ridden with almost no composure and much trepidation during a Dorothy-esque ‘We’re not in the Chilterns anymore‘ moment some ten years earlier.

Moving here rapidly widened my riding horizons and provided motivation for a lazy person to manage physical decline a little more aggressively. At 40, this stuff scared the crap out of me; steepish, loose, committing, switching between deep ruts barely clinging to a wind swept hillside, and stabby rocks buried deep into the water tables fall line.

At nearly 50, they’re nothing more than interesting technical exercises to be ticked off by thousands of practice hours, brilliant bikes and fast friends. Even after climbing through a rainstorm borne on a bastard headwind ramming droplets into every un-waterproofed* crevice.

Summer in the mountains then. Backside of a 30 minute climb drops you into a steep traverse cut deeply by eons of proper weather. Swirling wind attempts to throw you off the hill in the manner of an irritated horse. Whatever – ridden this kind of shit for a decade, been beaten senseless on multiple winter death marches, found  courage in the strangest places.  Roll the planet forward six months though and my insouciance would be replaced by tripod-ing uselessness and an all mountain dunking- but close to the longest day, just my laughter is carried away by that summer wind.

So when Haydn arrived sans a good part of his transmission, I was reminded of a couple of things; one don’t be a cleverdick – this isn’t a big mountain but it’ll still bite you in the arse if you install ego in the driving seat, and two just don’t be a dick period – you’re an insignificant pixel on a massive geological canvas. You’ve brought nothing and you’ll leave nothing. Get over yourself.

The rock strike cannoning through H’s rear wheel had blown away most of the mech and a couple of cassette cogs. Matt unleashed her mobile workshop on the problem while I lay in the first sunlight of the day and wondered why nothing makes me happier than being in the mountains. I failed to come to any useful conclusions other than high places were first claimed for the spiritual not the religious, the knowing that it’s a privilege to see the forests and the fields lying on top of nature’s wrinkly tablecloth, and that little bit of not being quite like everyone else my age.

My reverie was broken by the sounds of tools being re-holstered and we’re back to skating over loose rock, gliding under trees and – basically – finding fun bits go geography to punt the bikes off.  It’s already been a hell of a day; going trail feral from the start so climbing for an hour with bikes on backs to crest a 450m ridge promising much fun back on the pedals. It didn’t disappoint.

Then laughing at Matt as he missed a steep exit only for him to repass me when I missed the next one. Eating jelly babies to the sound of pinging disc rotors. Arming the tyres with sheep shit ammunition ready to fire at the innocent bloke line astern come the next downhill.

There’s another 300m of almost vertical between us and home. Another push and carry which merely opened up the prospect of a further twenty minutes peering through the cloud base on mostly remembered tracks. My GPS read 35km and 1400m of climbing. Bit only 1050m of descending. Time to get home and hosed.

First ruts, then loose rocks, then a stream bed so everything south of the rear tyre is now pissing wet. But a little less covered in sheep shit.  Dropping past the reservoir under stubborn slate grey skies, dampening our shadows all day, in no way diminished it’s ability to drag your eyes from the trail.

We’re nearly done but tired limbs must be ready for a single minute of action before resting in the van. Close the sheep gate, quick pedal ratchet, pick a line under an encroaching tree canvas and trust these awesome bikes to surf plate sized rocks long since wrenched from the bedrock.

Pick the bones out of that. It’s not scary nor technically that challenging. What is is is bloody fast, nearly 50kph of trail, forest and sky being hurled at the grinning idiot being the bars. Reminds me a little of reading the memoirs of the last ‘stick and rudder’ aviators flying by the seat of their pants.

It must feel something like this, not fighting the trail nor bending it your will, more modulating it through the pedals and the grips, micro drifting the bike into line, building a personal runway from random rocks and playing at being good enough to avoid a prang.

Roll up to the van with the conceit you’ve finally got this mountain biking thing pretty much sorted. At which point, a million midges feasted upon our moist persons. That’s nature having the last laugh, right there

*too warm to ride in a jacket so that’s everywhere then. At least it was warm rain.

It’s all downhill from here

The hardtail is back!

Facebook has many flaws; those keenly sticking it to the man point to its voracious appetite for personal data, harvested entirely with a shareholder’s view of maximising value. They rightly lament the depth of our digital footprint auctioned to the highest bidder.

Yep get that. Absolutely ready to go full digital hermit with tin foil hat once I’ve weaned myself off likes and vicarious living in a world separated from the tedious analogue. However, going cold turkey on social media means standing firm against the siren call of the carefully managed history presented on your timeline.

Exhibit A: images of a solstice ride some three years past shared with slightly less craggy versions of those now assembled on the hottest night of the year. But hey thanks heartless mining engine reminding me of the planetary rotations that have aged me since.

Shift into the real world and there’s just the two of us divining oxygen from superheated air whilst reacquainting ourselves with hardtails last ridden in the stygian twilight of endless winter days. Now the trails are baked rock hard from a week of 30 degree temperatures evaporating a month of low pressure rubbish.

After 1200kms’ on the Mojo3, a kilometre on the Stache feels strange and not in a good way. It’s like swapping a grand tourer for a hill racer. An Aston Martin for a Healy Sprite. Immediately visceral and not short of physical cues diagnosing me with an affliction best described of ‘laziness by super bike’

No matter, trails to be ridden before beer can be drunk. 30 degrees of rising mercury* stays any ambitions of rushing up hill, but soon we’re heading onto crushed sandstone burned red by a blazing sun and the direct drive of the a single sprung end makes chasing the summit a little more enjoyable.

But nowhere near as enjoyable as a rush through the first descent. Chubby tyres stick to summer hardened dirt like shit to a blanket, but hip swinging hooliganism will kick the back end out while the front tracks on unperturbed. Up front for thinking, out back for dancing.

First couple of jumps tho I’d renamed as ‘Get me to the Chiropractor’ as atrophied muscle memory fails to prioritise the knees as something involved in organic damping. Moving on, the gradient of our local hills tends to the flat closer to the river giving ample opportunity to test those chubby plus tyres with the full body English pushing beyond where any branch of peer assessed physics would suggest grip could possibly be found.

Bonkers. An inch of rain and any such shenanigans would drift the rider out to places where arboreal trauma and sub-soil analysis best describe the experience recently defined as ‘watch this, I’m riding it out‘. No chance of that tho with Mediterranean temperatures merely releasing dust clouds whenever any kind of braking disturbed the dirt.

I’d ridden a couple of the smaller gap jumps with the commitment of a man mostly invested in the ridiculous enterprise of an aged twat pitting himself against the the local geography. Nothing further of note is worth recording here other than a well sorted hardtail with 3.0 inch tyres and a 140mm fork is hardly pushing any kind of envelope. Barely licking it in fact.

Scarier tho were the speeds generated by gyroscopic effects which felt potentially tidal. I emerged at the end of one trail carrying sufficient potential energy to brand myself with a blameless tree. Front and rear tyres are shimmying in opposite directions. It’s a right-here-right-now equation to be solved.

Wait a single second to bleed off a little more speed accepting the consequence of a far tighter turn to avoid concussion by tree. Or let it all hang out and trust the grip of those big tyres to carve you out of trouble. Synapses and Dendrites react way faster than an overloaded optical cortex, and you’re through and clear without any understanding of quite how.

Stuff of life right there.

We make the most of the dust, the heat, the elongated day of the solstice. We think nothing of what is to come; the dark, the wet, the grim. Even elder statesman such as David and I can still live a little in the moment. Others may dance naked in response to the planets’ axial tilt; we’re more of the pragmatic ride the shit out of the trails before hitting the bar.

One thing between us and that. The biggest gap jump on our local trails. It’s not that big but it’s quite clever, perfectly sculptured for a landing aligned to the trajectory of a recently jumped mountain bike. Never done it on the hardtail before but if not now then when? Mild death grip on the bars, boost the bike off the lip, dip the flight for landing and relax as we hit it perfectly.

Then deal with the workload of getting it stopped before the next jump last seen when Cez bust his shoulder after inappropriate exuberance. I’m nowhere near that fast so swapped medical difficulties for shit-eating grin.

In the pub a little later, David and I agreed these are fun bikes to ride. And pretty bloody stupid. Fun and stupid then.

I can relate to that.

*in the UK. I know. It’s like we’ve been twinned with all of Australia.

Commitment

P6162968

A noun short on consensual definition but long on consequence. Theres a axiom hiding in idioms tired from old campaigns: ‘Just go for it’, ‘Speed is your friend’, ‘it’s way easier than it looks‘ and, of course, the desperate standby ‘hold my beer and watch this‘.

It rarely ends well. Not because these phrases lack a shining nugget or truth, more the lack of actual commitment demonstrated by those being egged on, by those true friends who will ferry them to a local hospital, when fine words crash into reality. And the ground. Or a tree. Or a tree and then the ground.

Other individuals – and not for a second would I group myself in their canon –   consider any challenge as merely requiring an excess of commitment to conquer. Not tending to introspection, these naysayers of self doubt will redouble whatever qualities might be required while wondering what all the fuss is about.

Well how long have you got? Shall we start with some examples? Last weekend my good mate and occasional mountain biker mate Jason was warily examining a wet chute of dirt barely clinging to some local lumpy geology. ‘Just Commit to it Jas , it’ll be fine‘ I shouted from below. Seconds later the crashing of man, recently astride a bicycle, flattening the local shrubbery suggested this sage advice had gone unheeded.

Apparently not. The issue was in fact my lack of narrative clarity. He’d fully committed to the steep drop, but in his deep focus of all things slimy had then been unpleasantly surprised by a ninety degree corner. Hence ripping up the vegetation in the manner of a one man wide rotavator and blaming me for failing to mention the scope of commitment required.

We’ve all been there. Rode that drop, smacked into a stump we weren’t expecting. Caught a fishtailing rear tyre on a winters corner only to have the front hoist the ‘no grip here mister‘ white flag half a second later.  Let the brakes off in a silent homage to all those magazine skills guides only to find that speed is not your friend when its arbitrating between bravery and skill.

Of course you go out with all the best intentions. Today I shall remain zen-like, living very much in the moment and choosing smoothness over speed, technique over terror, commitment over vacillation. I’ll be looking so far through that corner, aliens from another dimension may well be looking back. I shall pay them no heed because nothing shall alter this perfect state of man and machine strumming a rhythmic baseline of trail perfection.

Works quite well in the car that I’ve found. Almost faultlessly in a bar. Sage nods at YouTube mastery of the art of commitment. Much postulation amongst friends who see it for what it really is. Merely displacement tactics when facing something that even after fifteen years of riding is still giving you the willies.

Another good mate has just returned from a skills course* and his first mash up of old trails and new skills was similar to mine. Except he was properly quick to start with. You try – really try – to take well drilled practised skills from a safe environment and overlay them on a 3-D puzzle shot through with all sorts of variables; grip, elevation, obstacles and the Pavlovian need to chase your mates.

He was still fast of course. And crashed looking extremely skilled. Lacked no commitment whatsoever. Having seen an image of him clearing a seven foot gap jump the week before, this stuff clearly works. If the mind is uncluttered and the body is prepared to fire synapses on command- all the time hoping those variables line up in favourable fashion.

So commitment only takes you so far. This far in fact. Today Martin celebrating a birthday which makes him even older than me** was a great excuse to ride in the Malverns, where the pixies of trail go hard with their maxim of ‘steeper and deeper‘ on sharp sided hills.

We’d ridden some pretty fun stuff; scary but dry. Yet all this was merely marking time before dropping into a steep trail full of almost endless joy except for a new four foot (that’s about 1.2m for our younger readers but 4 foot sounds a whole  load better) jump placed close to the end.

Well I was shitting it to be absolutely frank. By failing to unlock my suspension, a crack in the excuse book opened but wise to my ways Cez and Martin were waiting for me at what I’d started to think of as ‘Death’s Door‘.  I felt this was exactly the right time to point out I’d never jumped off anything so high. Martin kindly explained he hadn’t either until earlier in the week and here he was still alive.

Not happy with that sample size, but before I could pull the emergency hamstring, we’re away on a trail of organic marbles, straightening up over the little qualifier, gradient increasing, trying to stay with Cez but desperate to hit the brakes.

Suddenly the trail was blocked by an angry wood giant seemingly configured for moon orbit. Cez disappeared skyward, Martin’s already gone and I’m pretty committed in speed if not in mind.

Hit the lip with some semblance of technique, then a long silence punctuated only by spinning hubs, then a thumping landing mostly on both wheels, and finally a proper fly off the following smaller sky-ramp. Oh that one felt good.

Stopped. Sowing machine leg. Flappy handed babbling. Senses overloaded, body flushed with adrenaline. Trying to make sense but brain is just backed up with ‘fuck fuck fuck did we just do that fuck fuck fuck’

I don’t think that’s commitment. I think it’s peer pressure. And denying the prospect of self loathing. And raging against the dying of the light. And just a smidge of an attitude to life long lost to age and conformity.

Same again next week then?

*With Tony Doyle who is universally known as ‘Jedi‘ for his teaching skills. Which means now of course Rex – based on his occupation – is now known as ‘Darth Welder‘ to whom we greet with ‘May the gas be with you‘.

**which cheered me up no end until I remembered how much quicker he still is. And apparently getting quicker. There’s hope for me yet!

 

Sometimes you have to leave..

Bluebell Day - Matt's camera

.. to understand exactly what it is you’ve left.* Riding in Spain was close to the perfect mountain biking holiday. Amazing location, brilliant trails, superb logistics, lovely hosts and great mates. All experienced through a prism of sunshine and dust. Except for the last day when it absolutely trouted it down, but hey that reminded me of home.

There is some resetting of norms out there. Back home we don’t average a daily 2,5000 metres of descending, nor suffer fatigued quads and pumped arms on trails bashing down rock conveyers for double digit minutes. Nor extended exposure with consequences from ‘that’d smart a tad’ to ‘we’re going to need an ambulance. And possibly a spatula

Wouldn’t it be brilliant to ride like that every day we asked and answered as a falling sun backlit the mountains, and we toasted the coming of the night with many glasses. 300 days of sunshine, a pace of life that has daily siestas baked in,  and a startling lack of the avarice and bullshit which pile up on our personal highways on this tiny, deluded Island.

Yes, and indeed no. Because even counting all its crap bits – and fuck me that’s a graph that’s gone exponential this last few years – there’s something secret, comforting and life affirming waiting for those of us attuned to the changing of the seasons. We almost missed this awesome show with our heads turned by muscular geography and bursting nature. Almost but not quite.

Dry and warm weather flowered bag-hibernated bikes into fully fledged trail-ready perennials. Short sleeves and shades were harvested from dusty luggage, and less than a week from the big mountains we were saddled and ready for one of my favourite events of the whole year: Bluebell day.

Sure the bluebells are not transitory in a single rotation of the planet but only a couple of weeks bookend first flush to sad wilt. We’d missed the first one but knew exactly where to get our fix of the forest at her most beautiful. First tho 10km of road, 9 of which had me obsessing over my manky hand.

Soon forgot about that as forgetting about the need to earn your turns proved to be ideal displacement activity. No uplift to haul us from the river to the not-very-high summit, but our destination was pulling at us like a benevolent black hole. First tho, a tramp down a favourite trail that was basically dust lightly attached to a concrete surface that may once have been dirt.

Not the rocks so closely associated with the Sierra Nevada national park but still lumpy enough for my silent bike to be accompanied by ‘ow’ ‘OW’ ‘OW FUCK’ from the rider positioned at the back wishing he’d taken Matt’s offer of hacking the offending limb off and grafting some kind of SPD attachment to the bar.**

More displacement required. That’ll be the Buckstone then. A great trail in any month but come Bluebell day, the most spectacular spread of colours bisected by a snake of hero dirt. Riding it shouldn’t be this hard except the optics in your peripheral vision drag eyeballs away from fairly important stuff involving where the trail is and the trees aren’t.

Bluebell Day- MTB FoD

So you stop. Take pictures. Take some more. Digital memories never trump analogue ones. It’s a million times better being amongst it rather than watching it through a viewfinder. Still that kind of pretentious nonsense lasts exactly as long as one of the crew gleefully finding something to chuck themselves off.

Bluebell Day- MTB FoD

That went on for a while. Until the axiom of ‘let Al choose the trails, he’s injured‘ died in the fire of my previously supportive colleagues chanting ‘bunker, bunker, BUNKER‘. That’s democracy for you so bunker it was. Steep, rocky, occasionally terrifying. After a week in Spain and being tinder dry, it wasn’t anything but a top to bottom bloody good laugh. With just the odd sob from the man wondering if the physio might be on to something***

Bluebell Day- MTB FoD

Then the pub. Sitting outside in the sunshine reflecting this is exactly what keeps us going in the seasons of grim. That and knowing bluebell day is coming. It never disappoints. And neither does coming home.

Adventures in other countries are never anything other than amazing. What’s rather special is finding the riding on your doorstep is pretty damn fantastic too. Maybe we’ll get another bluebell day tomorrow.

*I bastardised that quote from the novel Night Train to Lisbon. ‘We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there‘ – Pascal Mercier. If you’ve time to read this, you should read that. Or at least watch the film 😉

** that’s what passes as sympathy in our little riding group.

*** don’t ride for a month she said. Okay I said. I managed three days.

Talk to the hand

That's what my hand looked like after I crashed
Go on holiday they said. You’ll get some colour they said.

The people I ride with fit most of the standard archetypes; the mechanically inclined one, the quiet introspective one, the over-thinker, the young pretender, the party animal and, of course, the team idiot*

Fab friends to a man, but lacking in just a couple of areas. One being medical diagnosis of damaged organs** especially if the patient has a history of whinging, a low pain threshold and hypochondria.  Last year a finger bone snapped by the slamming van door was dismissed as a bit of swelling, and this time round the same limb going all sorts of funny colours matched a confident identification of ‘mildly bruised palm

To be fair,  one member of the medical committee was already dealing with a separated AC should joint with far less histrionics than yours truly visually explaining the pain through the accepted medium of the chicken dance*** Another member was absent due to cracking a couple of ribs half an hour earlier, so mitigating circumstances abounded.

Even so, it bloody hurt. One crash all week. Third day, but more irritatingly with three days to go. Ironically – and to show that fate has no truck with braggadocio and bombast – only 24 hours before I’d had my best day on the bike for a very long time. Even my friends noticed ennobling a singularity of thought that maybe I could ride a bike after all. I blame the altitude. And the wine.

Fast forward to 11am. First of six trails all uplift accessed. Couldn’t have been more excited. Couldn’t haven’t ridden any worse. Some bastard skill stealer had crept into the room the previous eve and nicked my hard won capability from a drunken mind. I mean it’s not much capability, but I’ve worked hard for that so to have it snatched away so cruelly seems more than a little unfair.

Second uplift. A little better, a wide ribbon of rock refreshingly attached to immovable geology. Not too many corners. Pretty much point awesome bike somewhere near the fast fellas and enjoy the view. Third trail, back to being shit. Had a look for somewhere to have a big crash, but survived due to insane amounts of grip and very good brakes.

Then Adam flung himself heroically, if somewhat hastily, at a plethora of rocks which broke both his fall and a couple of ribs. Fair to say his stoicism was entirely at odds to my post crash trauma, but hey he’s a young man with some organic body armour.

Next up was ‘Janet Street Porter‘ – nominatively deterministic for a rocks raised at right angles in the manner of gravestones. Every one of which had my name on it. I would say vertical but that’d ignore the canting of the horizon as is normal with any trail hanging onto a steep gradient.

Arrived at the first hairpin barely in control and in not state to roll the modulate/grab dice needed to maintain any kind of progress. Foot down, some swearing and then away on a fading incline loosening death grips and reducing the background load of managing fear.

We’ll be back up there on the next run‘ Matt the guide declared. Four looked happy, one looked broken, one was just looking at the ground. Still easier when you know what’s coming eh?

Not the hardest trail we rode by a distance. No exposure. Steep but nowhere near peak ‘fuck me, ride down that?‘ territory. Rocky sure, but we’ve been at that for three days. Switchbacks, yeah but by the end of the week we’ll have ridden hundreds of those. Sometimes on a single trail.

Still nervous tho. Best to follow someone who knows what they’re doing. In a little faster from the village above and it’s gets noisy fast with rock abrasions to expensive components, clattering suspension, tyres fighting for traction and the occasional whimper.

A little more in control this time tho. Slightly less flustered as the crux move came into view. Arse so far off the back it’s almost in another country. Squeezing those four pots like a man testing a dodgy tomato, big head turn, bike articulated between a hard turned front and a straight rear. One gap between the rock teeth, got to loose the brakes now, got to go for it.

Ciclo Montana MTB - April 2017

10 seconds before crashing

Oh that feels good. Even better there’s a lensman above doing his stuff. This is going to look epic. Next switchback is so much easier and I’m chasing a line nicked from Haydn’s way better effort last time round. Mind is clear, bike feels great, I feel good, hit the exit and let it all hang out.

Except I never got to the exit. Not sure I even made the entry.  No idea what happened really other than an unscheduled appointment with some unforgiving terrain. Lay there for a bit wondering which bit hurt most. Quite a few limbs demanding priority.

After hauling myself back to my feet, I decided it was my hand that might have suffered rather more heavily. Even a 600mg ‘Donkey Stunner’ Ibuprofen generic only took the edge off it. As did more of the same, wrist supports and a medically inadvisable alcohol bombardment over the next three days.

I expected it’d be fine when I stop riding. It wasn’t tho and a trip to Ross A&E – where the radiographer remembered me from last time – showed a hairline crack in the metacarpal. It didn’t show the soft tissue damage which, over two weeks later, is still bloody painful. I’m not making a big thing of it tho.

Didn’t stop me riding. Probably should have. But it’s bluebell time. I’d have to be in traction to stop me going out right now. I mean that’d just be stupid.

 

*I feel regular readers will be in no doubt of the identity of the latter.

**except the liver. And to be fair, we’ve all put the hours of research into that one.

***don’t make me explain this. Just don’t.

It’s a kind of magic

Oh this. Again

Bit of 80s Queen there. Not a surprising choice from a man whose musical choice is pretty much bookended by a dusty collection of CDs purchased back when they were something other than obsolete media and the safe side of the Radio 2 playlist.

I did consider the lesser known ‘let me Entertain you‘ from the much maligned Jazz album but felt that might be setting the bar a bit high or the 1983 hit ‘It’s a hard life‘ but again descriptively that’s a tough sell.

The kind of magic we’re talking about here is the transmogrification of a weeks riding kit into that small black bag without extensive use of explosives or experimental physics. Magic potion requested – just add a Carol who will perform  some arcane acts of prestidigitation to fashion a small black hole sucking in what I’m thinking of as ‘a worry of bike clothing

Expect I’ll be leaving most of it in Spain tho when it’s just me, all that stuff, the patience of a special needs nat, and a bag significantly more undersized than the boat Police Chief Martin Brody wondered might be a little on the small size for hunting that particular shark.

As in a break from tradition and in celebration of Haydn’s rather momentous birthday*, we’ve abandoned our normal transport strategy – based on a big van, loads of room, no weight limits, a ton of junk food and 14 hours to stare out of the window as a good part of France slides by – for an oversized Coke can with an ego problem.

Flying brings its own challenges. Firstly most airlines baggage policies are thinly veiled threats for passengers carrying much more than a thimble of shower gel and half a mars bar. Bicycles are about as welcome as an uncaged angry lion or a wobble of already-shit faced dickheads on a stag weekend**

No matter a bit of keyboard based persistence landed us six tickets to Malaga with a vague promise of the bikes arriving both in the same country and reasonably intact. From there two more hours will deposit us at our destination in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. For me, it’s my fifth trip to the Andalusia region, and the other four have all been fantastic in rather different ways.

Firstly back in about 2004, a gaggle of us left a miserable UK February under skies full of sleet and roads entombed in ice. To arrive 450 miles due south to conditions just a bit worse. It was still a marvellous – if somewhat damp – experience with Marco from Ciclo Montana finding us places to ride when the weather suggested ‘bar, bar and more bar

So I was delighted to find Marco still running something similar all these years later. My riding buddies were laughing when I told them that story of snow in sunny Spain until reviewing the forecast for next week. Thankfully it’s improved from ‘robustly challenging’ to ‘pretty damn good except for the end of the week and we’ll ignore that for now’

Anyway committed now so whatever the ground conditions, I’ll be in the mountains riding bikes on new trails with old friends. Careful use of the word old there, but everyone seems to be fit and riding surprisingly well.  We’ve even included a couple of blokes under 40 to prove while the younger generation might be a bit faster on a bike, they lack the wisdom and experience of the career drinker.

Except Cez. He monged himself about a month back attempting escape velocity over a jump which led to an incident with a tree, a separated shoulder and a trip to A&E. He’s been for one ride since and has declared himself ‘All Good‘, I have no such excuses having ridden bloody loads already this year – mostly on the plastic chubby – without properly falling off or injuring myself in some other ‘nearly a half century, can put my back out emptying the dishwasher‘ kind of way.

So 4:30am on Saturday we’ll load the van for the short trip to the Airport. From there it’ll be a different experience to our standard riding trips. I expect the bullshit, talking bollocks, inappropriate drunkenness, dawn to dusk piss taking and a whole lot of awesome riding shall remain a constant tho. And if not, just the drunkenness.

I guess when I stop getting excited by this stuff, I’ll be pretty much dead but still moving about 😉

*I shall reach a similar number – all things being equal – in August this year. I’m so far in the closet about it, Narnia couldn’t find me.

** easy to spot in the airport. One will be wearing a dress, a few will be throwing up in Weatherspoons, while the rest will be fighting each other/random innocents. It puts me in mind of most Friday nights in Ross.

 

 

A tale of two years – only not really.

A tale of two chubbies! Penyard MTB

First the similarities; both me obviously, both taken within about 20 yards of each other in Penyard woods. Both on the same day if not date in April. Both taken with my Olympus camera by David my riding buddy.  I even appear to be wearing the same shorts.  Which at least suggests I haven’t got noticeably chubbier.

Not true in the bike department obviously.

Penyard MTB - First proper Bird Aeris rid

It was only when a Social-Media look-at-me photo inserted itself into my timeline did I understand the serendipity of the two images. Delving a little deeper into those 728 days would suggest quite a lot has passed under my wheels between back then and right now.

Just short of 8000km for a start. Getting on for 200,000 metres of climbing. Five trips to foreign climes. And a discombobulating number of bikes rotating through the revolving door in the shedofdreams(tm).

I’ve aged a bit sadly. Maybe a bit faster in some places, definitely slower in others. More crashes, more injuries, less years to go, still fighting decline with effort and product displacement. Older certainly but no more grown up. Nice to see the ‘crouching badger, hidden terror’ riding stance remains a comforting constant in any imagery capturing a man somewhat happier behind the lens.

I think from those photos we can all understand why. None of this is relevant tho, because this picture from todays’ ride is far more important.

A tale of two chubbies! Penyard MTB

This is my good mate Dave chasing his lad Will over a gap jump. The keen eyed amongst you will notice he’s on my Cotic, which I was very happy to lend out. He loved it and gave it quite the ragging – not sure it would be used to that having been ineptly piloted by just me these last few months.

But it’s not about the bike. I really isn’t. Even longer ago, I wrote this when Dave had been involved in a life changing road accident.  It wasn’t about the bike then and it certainly isn’t about it now.

It’s about this; dicking about in the woods with your mates. Chasing your two mountain bike riding sons on perfect trails and caring not a jot they’re riding away from you. Pushing back up and doing it again. Cajoling that younger generation that uphill is fine without turning into your own dad.

I love that. My own kids aren’t really interested in riding bikes now and that’s fine too, but I couldn’t dampen a pang of jealousy when Dave was hanging out in a family train of dust and joy. Nor – because I’m intensely shallow – could I hide a little grin as I still had their measure on the ups. Problem is they’re going to get fitter and I’m certainly not going to get faster.

I’ll take that. I’ll take the bike flowing through the trees in the manor of a Jedi-Speeder trope. I’ll take Dave and I (combined age over a 100) pushing it a little bit on a buff trail hanging on to the grip of the chubbies, and giggling like the kids we are inside when we hit the fireroad. I’ll take the abandonment of a firm directive not to ride like an idiot, when this idiot needs to be intact and in Spain in seven days.

But most of all, I’ll file this ride in a back catalogue labelled ‘this is why‘, This is why we ride through the winter. This is why we beast ourselves on spin bikes in the gym. This is why I’ll haul my weary arse to circuit training knowing I’ll hate every minute of  it. This is why I’ll look at a dead landscape drenched in rain and think ‘Spring is coming, is that the best you’ve got? Fuck it, still riding‘.

Came home. Big grin on my face. Then helped Carol move the fridge/freezer. You cannot hide from your real life for that long, but if that’s your thing I’d suggest mountain biking is a bloody good place to do so.

Blame Rex, He’s basically a weather event..

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

.. Butterflies flap their pretty wings in Guatemala triggering typhoons sweeping inland destroying great tracts of South East Asia. That’s the executive summary for chaos theory. And while the worthy focus on the headlines, those of us sharing our riding tribe with Rex ‘The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah‘*’ James are far more interested in the local derivative.

Less fire and brimstone and – if one is still stretching for biblical allegory – more paired animals, arks and Russel Crowe in an unconvincing beard. What we’re talking about here is Rex picking a weekend to go riding anywhere, and regardless of the prevailing weather conditions a small but angry weather system attempts to drown whatever vehicle he is travelling in or on.

Spring felt pretty entrenched until the 5:45am call of my alarm fought for audible hegemony against the water cannon smashing against the darkened windows. 30 minutes later, the van headlights cut through slashing rain with the four of us sheltered inside wondering at what height water turns to snow.

Snowdonia you see. A land not so much shaped by the people as a people shaped by a land proudly wearing its geology on the outside. Inland seas of the Jurassic age now rising a thousand metres above sea level, their craggy faces carved by the ice and the wind. And the rain. Which sprinted down the flanks of ever steepening hillsides as we pushed through endless low pressure fronts.

Thanks Rex. MWIS forecast called for 8/8ths cloud cover and a degree above freezing on the summit of Snowdon which explained the bulging bags of waterproof kit in the back. What I really wanted was a dingy or maybe a Navy frigate, but had to be satisfied with rainproof everything and a bike shod with those chubby tyres the Internet proclaims would explode** with first contact of a spiky rock.

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

Car park was wet from below but dry above. Even a spot of blue we assumed was  Fates’ satnav desperate to locate Rex and recreate that inland sea about his person. We scooted off before it noticed on a road climb that just had bastard written all over it. 150m of ascent in about 150m of tarmac. It should come with it’s own funicular.

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

That’s the railway we followed on the walkers path out of Llanberis. Push and carry at the bottom, then ride a bit overtaking almost everyone mostly dressed for a day at the beach/a night out in Newcastle. Halfway up in 45 minutes and the rain hadn’t found us yet, but the cloud clamped the summit lost another half a kilometre into the sky. Best get on with it then.

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

North Wales MTB wekend

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

Ride some more. Be polite. Be polite but a bit more noisily. Then we’re off and it’s a tough push/carry through the cloud base which blissfully hid the gradient of the last big pitch. That was a calf stretcher but at least it kept us warm. Stepping up to the freezing summit has us mingling with a mass of random perambulation. The view was all the way to the end of your arm, so I cannot imagine what’d it be like on a sunny day. More people? Ugh.

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

We didn’t tarry. Carried back down the steps so not to trigger an international diplomatic incident with the hoards trudging upwards. Got a bit lost, got very cold, got the phone out, located the ranger path and for the first time in two hours revelled to the sound of the freewheel.

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

Climbing 900 metres without a break has its rewards. Mostly losing three quarters of that snaking down the other side of the mountain. What a descent this is, wide open and fast on the ridge but with enough technicality to demand all of your attention. Which doesn’t leave much spare when it plunges towards the lake on a broken stream-bed tossing up massive rocks at all sorts of exciting angles.

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

North Wales MTB Weekend - Snowdon and CYB

North Wales MTB wekend

I didn’t ride it all. Some sections piled up behind my eyeballs suggesting any attempt to use a bike to clear them would inevitably end with a vital internal organ pierced by a murderous rock spike. I glanced at Rex and we exchanged a look suggesting both of us didn’t really know what the spleen was for, but it was probably something any right thinking person would want to keep on the inside.

No matter, it was descending 650m of glorious madness. I’ve spent ten years writing about riding and I still cannot explain what that feels like. But for self conscious repressed Englishman to risk a fist pump, it must be something quite extraordinary.

With it being North Wales, what followed was a soggy slog up a vertical grassy slop over a saddle to access Telegraph Valley. ‘Bit Rubbish this‘ says Matt who’d last been here many years ago. Fair to say it’s eroded a bit and was now bloody marvellous – a ribbon of singletrack clinging to the hillside throwing up massive water-bars every few hundred metres.

North Wales MTB weekend

Or tabletops as they became. Chucking oneself into a breathtaking beautiful rugged landscape while training endless compress-fly-land-accelerate with your mates is there or thereabouts the most fun you can have while standing up with your clothes on.

Mountain biking. The clue is in the name. No sane person should deny themselves mountains and bikes and best friends.

It didn’t even rain. Not that we would have cared.

*I’m fairly firm in my opinion that religious texts are basically someone writing down the best story of the day. But this is in the old testament, Genesis, Quran, Hebrew bible, Hadith and the deuterocanonical books which makes me think it must have been a  bloody good story.

** as a group we had many punctures that weekend? Me, not one. I was impossibly smug.