Going through the change

Slippy FoD Fun

Seasons, weather, trails, me. Not that actual change you understand, because that’s in the same bucket of bad science which advocates blokes sharing the birth experience.*

If that hippy shit was underpinned by a shred of empirical evidence, I’d be menopausal on an annual cycle. Nights draw in, rain is meteorologically normalised, rock hard trails lets themselves go, and I’m caught between listless melancholy and a strong desire to migrate a thousand miles south.

We’ve established – in much retelling and tedious detail – that I’m no fan of the fourth season. It’d be no surprise if a gift subscription of an ancestry website would confirm me Californian by Christmas** None of which challenges the basic premise that if enjoyment was to be found in slogging through mud I’d have discovered it long ago.

Still as some pompous twat once felt the urge to share ‘be the change you want to see’***. What I saw was a week of Atlantic lows pushing unbroken cloud across our part of the UK in an apparent attempt to drown it.  Arrangements had been made however, and after a week of wondering why everyone else had knocked off for Xmas early except me, it was time to go find myself.

I found myself peering out of Matt’s garage into the pissing rain, while two of my bikes were being readied to battle those elements. And probably returning  requiring some form of trust fund to deal with the consequences of dragging expensive components through two hours of organic sandpaper.

No matter. I was riding my fab SolarisMax with a 2.8 front tyre clearly designed to find grip most chubby offerings never got close to. I know this to be true because my (well Jess’s really) old SolarisMax was being ridden by my old mate Ian. I wondered aloud to Matt if we should share the terrifying characteristics of the summer tyres with which it was shod.

We both felt this wouldn’t be helpful. After Ian fetched himself out of the shrubbery on about the fourth occasion, I felt the moment has probably passed. We were having fun tho – not only as his expense – because the sun had broken out to shine weak winter sunlight on trails not yet totally destroyed by that season.

It’s still early. While any attempt to steer may not be met with the expected Newtonian change of direction, we’re not yet death-marching through joyless rim deep mud. Oh I know it’s coming, but denial is a wonderful thing when you’re reacquainting  yourself with fusty bike handling skills. You know the ones – let the tyres move around without instantly triggering a panicked brake event.

We know how that ends. Don’t we Ian? Still since he was riding tyres I’d darkly labelled Schwable Suicides, any corner he found himself heading in the same direction at the exit he’d hoped for at the apex was something of a triumph. Watching him hold a mega slide on a steep chute was quite the thing to behold. Especially as I’d had a double dab and a involuntary swear word a few seconds earlier.

Still having already put myself in the frame for an accomplice to manslaughter, when sending him out on those tyres, I felt it only fair to warn him of the final gap jump separating us from beer and medals. I was having such a good time not actually hating it, I may have passed it off with a level of insouciance not entirely appropriate to the conditions.

Things going well in my little world don’t always translate to others. I’d been leaning on my front tyre, and giggling as the subsequent slides punted me gloriously into the next corner. I’d been improbably lucky sliding between the trees without actually hitting one. So now I wondered if a seasonal Strava name change to ‘HipSlider Moto’ could be considered as a non ironic mnemonic.****

Having left vague instructions on where the chicken run might be, I did my best to keep Matt in sight as we headed into the valley. The grip is awesome I almost shouted before it wasn’t, and I found myself blazing an entirely new trail some two metres from where I’d much rather be.

Drag it back into line. Two hard pedal strokes. Don’t look at that root stack on the corner. Look instead at the sloppy mess of the take off and hope the landing isn’t quite so perilous. It isn’t and we’re heading home with big smiles and a bottomless love for riding bikes.

Even Ian. Who decided to have a crack at the gap. His entry we liked, although a harsh critic would suggest exit velocity was a little lacking. Which may explain how he landed mostly with the front wheel on the dirt and the rear scrabbling to fetch itself out of a big hole. Inevitably this ended in man and rider parting company, with the former ploughing a full body furrow into the moist dirt.

No harm done and fair play for Ian having a go. We had another go today in the Forest and enjoyed it just as much. I’ve not idea why this is, because traditionally I loathe this time of year.

Going through some kind of change. Might be wondering how many winters I have left to ride. Might be a great front tyre. Might be something else entirely.  Not going to over-analyse that.

Riding bikes makes me happy. Shit conditions can do one.

*I vaguely remember a prenatal class where prospective fathers were asked to perform a simple task while holding a baby-doll. In terms of making coffee we did a great job, in terms of babies being left in sinks, upside down in the coffee grinder and repurposed as footballs, not so stellar. Exactly no lessons were learned.

**Or directly related to Henry VIII. Like every other poor sop who throws money down that particular rabbit hole.

*** Which made me wish very hard for them to change into a person significantly less annoying.

**** Obviously not. Delusion can only take you so far.

The definition of insanity..

Solaris Max
Before it got dark. Still muddy

.. as attributed to a stellar mind none less than Einstein goes like this ‘ Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’* That’s me and night riding in winter. Or close to winter. Dark, cold, muddy, fucking miserable. You can keep your meteorological boundaries, I’m living this right now.

Let’s break this down. Dark from mid afternoon. even earlier when a storm front parks clouds on the roof, then drives rain through the front door. A door I must breach to fetch a bike from the ShedofDreams(tm) festooned with a festive cocktail of desperate tyre choices and full length mudguards challenging even the most charitable aesthetic.

Dark is boring. But cold is debilitating. We’re not even into our ‘personal Nordic’ of January and February,  when the sun rarely appears and warms almost nothing. Metal is cold, trailers catch chapped hands, bikes poke you with chilly appendages and starting off chilly feels like pulling on a frozen hair shirt.

Still we’re out there, we’re doing our thing and nothing shall stand in our way. So why does riding through mud feel like such a bloody chore? Come on are you a proper mountain biker or just a summer dust diva? I’ve just checked out the wikipedia definition of diva and, frankly, it’s worrying close to how I feel when seriously knobbed tyres bite into the viscous liquid where the trails used to be.

This is worthy of further study.  To my left the re-incarnated Californians some of who grudgingly place damp arse on gritty saddle to unlock the ‘midweek beer’ achievement. To my right, the heavily medicated, fully signed up members of delusionalists anonymous who embrace the season of bike-rider-hits-tree with cheers and wild abandon.

There is no middle ground. Those to the right preach the gospel of a weekly congregation for the true believers, while those to the left talk darkly of heresy in shadowy places***

I flip between the two depending on the angle of the sun. Darkness is a synonym for misery- the mega-faff of preparing for trail armageddon, the experience of bar-sawing climbs and arse-twitching descents, the post ride triage of wondering if anything on the bike may ever work again.

Misery is probably a little strong. Especially if one is reliving the experience in a favourite hostelry nursing something served at room temperature for the purpose of post traumatic medication. At the time though, the prospect of lights – so far removed from the mobile candles we started with fifteen years ago they might as well be magic – casting immovable trees first out of dark shadow, and then into peripheral vision triggers a whole set of problems.

Most of them being when those arboreal innocents are mutilated by a man desperately flailing with what – until 2 seconds ago – was an enduro capable mountain bike. Now it’s basically kinetic ordnance looking for somewhere painful to explode.

All this while riders, I consider my almost peers in dusty summer months, ignore brakes as things not to be considered when traction is at a premium. I am death gripping both of mine. The ensuing slide gives me plenty of time to consider if the sturdy beech or springy pine would be a more deserved recipient of my many squashy parts.

For many years I was firmly of the unshakable opinion this was my problem. With age comes wisdom, which is now why it’s become clear I am a singular human amongst aliens. No one should be able to ride that fast in the mud if they had just a barely detectable quantum of imagination.

What I’m trying to explain here is I am the baseline, while those other fast fuckers are just outliers cocking a snook at a normal distribution curve. Not happy with just riding away from me, those buggers are flicking a finger at universally codified rules. That’s just rude.

So the only conclusion we can draw from this is a pantheon of greats from Pythagorus to Einstein, passing through Pascal, Babbage and Venn have been duped by those who walk amongst us as humans.

I mean this isn’t good. But looking to the upside, it does prove I’m not quite as rubbish riding in the fourth season as my physical performance suggests. Because if I was I’d need to respond to the dusty turbo trainer giving me the side-eye.

We’re not there yet.  And since most of this post is filler quoting the famous, let’s finish with the seminal work on motivational psychology.  Tom Skerrit in Top Gun: ‘Keep sending them up’.

Copy that.

*he never said this. He did however have some distinctly dodgy theories about eugenics not often publicised. We’re back to never meeting your heroes – even after they are dead**

**Marianne Antoinette, Voltaire, Issac Newton, Nelson Mandela – they’ve all been latched onto quotes never spoken. Still we’re living in a world which has dispensed with experts, so I expect that’s absolutely fine.

*** Let’s be honest here. That’s the pub.

Usual?

(c) vinepair

Twice this week, I’ve made a beeline for a bar. Nothing unusual in that other than the fella behind the jump acknowledging my familiar presence with a knowing smile, and a significant glance toward my self-medication of choice.

Chaucer coined a phrase now found in the common lexicon; ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ although I’m more taken by Mark Twain noting that ‘Familiarity breeds contempt. How accurate that is. The reason we hold truth in such respect is because we have so little opportunity to get familiar with it’.

Fair point fella. If we did politics on the hedgehog, I’d be all over that referencing  current events. But we don’t, and as this blog is all about me let’s instead pick a couple of examples which brought me up a little short this week.

Monday finds me bored in the same hotel I’ve already wasted fifty nights this year staring at walls. Those walls are not something I can stomach when autumn light pins you to a room with not much of a view. Instead I’m up and out, walking the streets, shunning the bright lights, looking for a place to eat alone. I’ve been doing this for twenty plus years and it’s never glamorous. Especially in Coventry 😉

So after much perambulation I’m back in the hotel. I trade a high five with Petoir – he’s the lovely fella behind a shiny bar and a similar suit and tie provided by the hotel, but inside that he’s far more interesting.  We talk family, football teams and fantasies – him: bringing his wife and child over, me: retiring and giving this shit the middle finger.

In between he pours me the beer that has been our calling card over all these months. I give my thanks, while nodding to the other poor bastards I see weekly living in a world exchanging home for money. We never really talk because their iPhones virtually project a physical distance I nowadays think of as ‘London’.

Some are pissed already. Many are desperately heading that way. A few amusingly believe they are the main event. Others exit stage left. All the world’s a stage and we’re merely players apparently. Could be that – whatever  it just feels desperately sad. I’ve been here in over a hundred bars in more than forty cities and it’s all horribly familiar. And that does breed a bit of contempt for your life choices.

Bar closes, now it’s just me and Petoir sat on the other side. He’s knocking back decent brandy while explaining that everyone treats him like shit. This is not the way it works back in Poland. Apparently they stab you in the front rather than slice you with impatience and passive-aggressiveness.  Or,  worse still, just an ignorance which considers you a proxy between their entitlement and a drink.

This really pisses me off. Some of that is because I’m also half cut drinking brandy, a little because I’ve been guilty of similar behaviour in the past. But mostly because of what belonging should feel like. It feels like this:

Four days later, I’m making determined tracks to the bar of our local in Ross. I name-check Jamie behind the bar, check out how his world is before making a three fingered gesture triggering a phalanx of favourite beers leaving the taps.

While I worry that maybe this is a cipher for alcohol dependancy, I love this pub for its old-worldly charm, it’s comfortable chairs, it’s lack of electronic coin magnets, it’s choice of conversation over music – but even so, this feels a bit too familiar, a bit to close to the knuckle, a point between giving up and selling out.

So I chuck it out there; is this as good as it gets, is this a rut we’ve dug for ourselves, am I just being a pretentious twat? The view from those who I’ve come to rely on to calibrate my moral compass tell me it probably is, we probably have and you definitely are. They also explained something far more interesting.

‘This is community Al. You’ve never lived in the same place as long as this. You’re always searching for something better. But this is what real life is like, flawed individuals and messy lives. Stop worrying if this is what you should be doing and get amongst it’

I’m paraphrasing here; it was more ‘stop being a dick and get the next round in’, yet the totality of that narrative wasn’t lost on me.  My best friends are anchored in a time and place with an iron certainty it is will endure. Familiarity isn’t contemptuous –  it’s binds you to some important certainties. It’s not perfect but you’re a local, a person who gets it, an advocate of what is right,  who can – and should – make a difference.

I never wanted to settle down. That felt like getting old. The idea you weren’t windswept and interesting was a little demeaning.  Not being tied to a place because no place was quite good enough for you.  The grass was always greener. Even when it wasn’t.

The difference between a generic hotel bar not even close to living the dream, and having a beer with my best friends has made me reevaluate that long held maxim.

Usual? Right now that sounds pretty good.

Clubby

Clubman

John Betjeman* understood clubs. Regardless of his lament for the shrinking of red on the map, he was a man of his time when charting societal change. He mourned the passing of the clubman, but he wasn’t in total denial.

For those seriously starved of entertainment, there’s a virtual library of criticism mocking Betjeman by those ready to be clever after the event. For me, he fixed a time when the world made sense, and everyone knew their place within it. I’m a million miles from matching this utopia with my values, but he captured the sorrow of a changing world beautifully**

The clubman – and I’m emphasising that noun in the second syllable – was quite the thing back in the time of our fathers. You worked hard, you paid your dues, you had your part in creating offspring and maybe a little post physicalisation, you went to the pub with your friends and you joined a club.

The metier of that club was mostly irrelevant, The thing which mattered was you were a member. Putting on a different tie to cleave the time between work and family. Small gestures and quiet despair. Is this as good as it gets? My dad was fighting the Battle of the Bulge and I’m soldering valves, kicking balls or maybe living that freedom riding bicycles with like-minded others looking for individuality within a clan.

Fair play to them all. Stories of riders in heavy suits summiting snow bound hills and carrying cast-iron bikes over broken ground always raises an appreciative eyebrow. Not the roadies – hard men as they clearly were – rather those heading off road with a self conscious smile and a desperate need to be different.

For me that’s the free spirit breaking out. The antipathy of the clubman. Sure the need to belong pervades, but it’s not bound in rules, it’s forged in that spirit. Heading off into the unknown with nothing more than a dubious map last used to pinpoint ordinance, a bike doubling as a factory commuting vehicle, and a well-there’s-no-point-dying-wondering attitude to wondering what might come next.

That’s what Betjeman missed. The subversive culture of those who swapped hierarchy for high places, social conventions for the hegemony of a tribe, the need to conform juxtaposed by the need to be not quite like you.  It’s not Rosa Parks on a bus in 1955,  but I can’t help wondering if this represents a British well if you don’t mind then fuck you.

Whatever, the legacy is interesting. I’m with Groucho Marx in that I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member. I work too damn hard and I’m too bloody old to spend time with people I’ve no time for. Clubs identifying themselves with jerseys, arbitrary delineations of what fast might be, tedious rules bounding acceptability and an aristocracy of those who are, and those who are not.

I think I’m probably not. And I’m sure those clubs would explain in some detail why I am wrong. How inclusive they might be. How they retain the fading ethos of the the clubman I read about 20 years ago. And I would argue right back that spare time should not be regimented, should not conform to what some kind of committee codifies as acceptable, should not need to tell you what, should not tell you how, and refuse to tell you why.

Still what do I know? Road clubs aren’t lacking in numbers. MTB clubs a little behind but there is still a tribal need. Maybe there’s a thing for belonging, a group of your own, even just a reason to venture out in the shit weather.

Maybe, maybe not. There’s something of the clubman in all of us. Wanting to belong. The power of many.  Sacrificing individualism to the safety of the crowd. Bystander syndrome spinning a sense of those like us. In a world increasing fractured by a daily ‘what the fuck just happened here?’, it’s a perfectly understandable refuge.

But I still don’t get clubs. I get riding with my mates. There’s a huge difference and it’s not about rules or jerseys. John B hated that the world wouldn’t stop turning and clubs, to me, feel they are an transient anchor to that ideal.

If there is going to be any kind of progress in a world which appears to be run by those keen to be the architects of the destruction of it, then meritocracy has to be the thing which stills the madness. That’s not something which sits well with knowing your place.

The age of the clubman has had endured a little too long. It’s probably time to think for ourselves.

*a man who loved bicycles in a way which endures, and a word-view which does not.

** Really I find serious literature mostly pretentious and unfathomable. But this is good stuff. And I’m speaking as a man who’s tried James Joyce a few times and ended with ‘Ulysses- no fucking idea at all’ 

 

Full Circle

Bird Aeris one20-the budget build

Back in the midsts of time* I bought a Bird Aeris. 4,500 kilometres and some two years later I sold the remains to a young grom whose world – according to the the instagram lie filter – was mostly up in the air whilst tilted sideways.

And that was some of the problem. The Aeris was a bike which came alive about the time I began to worry I wouldn’t be around for much longer. It didn’t reward the tentative rider, the man on the brakes, the poorly body positioned. That’s not the reason I sold it though – although ‘reason’ is as ever conflated with the ‘call of the shiny

Oh the shiny. It’s a constant companion. Both a source of joy and a financial handicap. Mojo3, FlareMax, Fat Bike, Chubby Bike, another chubby bike, settling the wheel size debate with a firm punt at 27.5. And then 29. Somehow I ended up with three full suspension bikes none of which were quite right. We’ve been there, let’s not go there again.

Somewhere in the madness there was method.  I wanted a full suspension bike that’d survive the brutal slop and grit of a long Forest winter. The Smuggler failed to fulfil that role mostly due to a design predicated on mud never being more than an occasional annoyance. The clearance in the rear was parlous at best. When it got worse I’d be carrying the bloody thing due to the rear tyre wedged firm in the seat stays.

That’s exactly what happened to the Mojo3.  With about 50% of the mud. So now I had two bikes that were perfect for a) California or b) 8 months of a UK year.  Roll on twelve months and post a ruthless review of what I actually needed left me with the brilliant RipMo and laughing-in-the-face-of-a-UK-winter SolarisMax. The latter being two bikes via a simple swap of death-by-tyre chubbies to some proper 29er rubber.

Still with me? Good effort as I’m just making this shit up. After my personal dissolution of the monasteries, the ShedOfDreams(tm) had the look of a space recently burgled by an extremely discerning bike thief. Scattered amongst the remains were a set of previously enjoyed spares missing merely a frame to make them whole.

We’ve been here before. And whilst that is not surprising, it does at least provide me with the slenderest thread of logic to explain my latest purchase. The original Stache was nothing more than a parts mule configured for winter. The fact it didn’t last that long before the glare of the shiny burned it out is hardly worth mentioning.

So here we find ourselves with a box full of parts desperately needing a home, a hotel internet connection and a month long moratorium on weekday alcohol.  This  kind of abstinence is exactly why I drink in the first place to avoid the clarity of thought to buy yet more bikes. It may be detrimental to the liver but it has a positive effect on my bank account

Much browsing ends with a certain inevitability of choosing a frame matching a set of simple criteria – do the parts fit, does it have some proper tyre clearance, is it cheaper than the last bike I sold, is the bloke selling it not a total fucking psychopath?**

Four greens. And it’s a UK brand run by three blokes I’ve a lot of time for. Just the right amount of travel and only a few miles from box fresh.  It even had some frame protection tape applied – possibly while drunk – so saving me the potential marriage ending argument with Carol on exactly the best way to apply it.

I considered building it myself what with a shed full of spares, a wall full of tools and a fridge full of beer. But with great age comes great wisdom so I handed it over to Matt who twirled spanners in about four dimensions muttering darkly while rebuilding wheel bearings and engineering his way round lost parts.

As ever I was lost in awe and impatience. I’m really not good with the gap between ideas and completion. Finally the bike was handed over to check if anything was going to fall off before a proper ride tomorrow. And as usual, nothing did even with me dicking about riding down a few steps and attempting to tear fat tyres off wide rims.

Matt asked me over a beer if I thought I’d be a better rider if I didn’t buy so many different bikes. That brought me up short. Having considered it though, he might be right but it’s not really much of a concern. I’m comfortable being average when the fun of chasing silly dreams is more than a compensation.

So tomorrow we’ll ride still dry trails. There’s something comforting about doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. And the nice thing about circles is you can keep going round.

*2015 which when considering the barely-sub-lightspeed reconfiguration of my bike collection essentially frames 2015 as ‘pre-cambrian’

**That was strike 1. Even a man as ancient as I was still moved to wonder ‘what the fuck was he on?’ at the end of a non transaction.

You could buy a bike for that….

Jessie's new car

Cars represent freedom. Your first one so much more so. Sure they also represent an unsustainable rampage of the planet. They drive the individuals behind the wheel to status anxiety.  They reinforce the broken axiom that we must arrive in the same place at the same time. They channel the passive aggressive or – more often – the XY chromosome vein-pulsing aggressive.

Upside is there is a golden thread between bikes and cars. A reimagining of a future not constrained by walking distances or tired parents. Heading out with nowhere to go. Illicit meetings expanding little worlds. Occupying the space between innocent childhood and the rules of being an adult. Limitless and faithless. Fuck me writing that reminds me how youth is wasted on the young.

Moving on, as I must, we still have some kind of responsibility for offspring of an age where sixth form blocks are stuffed with badly parked L plates. Before going any further, let me share with you a universal truth. I’ve never thought of myself as brave or courageous, merely an average joe with the occasional ability to feel properly scared while tweaking the nose of terror.

I was kidding myself. No one has known real terror until they’ve ridden shotgun to their seventeen year old progeny who – on setting a collision course with a articulated truck at a closing speed of more than fifty MPH – has looked desperately to you for advice on which one the brake pedal might be.

Independence is a bit of a double edged sword*.  Wanting your kids to find their way in the world is tempered by the realisation that you’re no longer the centre of it. Still if I’ve learned anything it is that you can only use time, not buy it.  I used mine to research ‘cars least likely to explode in the hands of seventeen year olds’ with  a second filter to ignore anything more expensive than ‘the lovely MX5 I’ve just sold to fund it’

Diving into a pool somewhat larger than expected, had me scrolling an endless list of manufactures pretending their preposterously named model was somehow differentiated from an almost identical version rolled off the same production line.

Moving from the virtual to physical delivered interesting if bewildering insights into the psyche of your not-so-average teenager. An individual who cares nothing for quantitative data scoring vehicles on performance, reliability or safety. Such things pale into insignificance once one has considered the material items such as external body colour and the horror of a lowest-cost-bidder interior.

At the end of that day I’d mostly lost the will to live, but at least narrowed down any potential purchase to a couple of marques. I found one in a lock up in one of the many less salubrious suburbs of south Birmingham where a man, who somewhat distractedly doubled an an Asian George Clooney, gave me so many reasons to hand him over a wad of cash.

Being entirely useless at this kind of thing, instead I bored him with my memories of my first car. The one you approached more in hope than expectation. Doubly so if rain was in the air – a liquid fighting for hedgemony as you bathed the engine bay in WD40.

It might start. It might not. And if it did the myriad of catastrophic problems would present themselves to the driver. No insulation of worrying engine noises, square bearings or combustable electrics were spared to the man joggling the choke. A man who was also wrestling with unpowered everything, and mechanical disappointment requiring first gear should the gradient ever point upwards.

Mine was a real beauty. Externally it’d been repainted by a stoner armed only with a balding paintbrush and a tin of Hammerite. This hid the horrors inside  including an engine that wouldn’t, an heater which didn’t and steering that might occasionally do. All which ignores the windows with two settings – up and fallen into the door.

I could go on. And I probably did. George nodded sagely in the salesman’y manner of a man pretending to give a shit, but soon we were back in the lockup – test drive over – and he reverted to a bloke who expected to be transacting a purchase with a proper adult. At this point I handed him the phone at the end of which Carol fulfilled that role in a way I never can.

We bought the car. Two days later I arrived to collect it. At which point I noticed loads of cosmetic issues somehow hidden during the initial negotiation. No matter, if Jess or Aid have any of my skills, the poor buggers are going to spend a significant amount of their time fetching vehicles out of hedges.

It was great to drive home with Jessie in a car she’d soon be driving and – oh yes please let it be so – legally fetching her old man from the pub when he calls in the the PRV*. So enthused with our purchase were we that it wasn’t until I noticed Preston as a possible destination did I realise how much I’d come to rely on the SatNav in my own car.

Other than that, it’s pretty good fun. Even I can park it. It’s less than half the length of mine and missing all the toys. Which I don’t miss at all when I’m driving it. This brings us full circle back to the pointlessness of cars and why bikes are better.

Until we’re living in that utopia, I’ll be the bloke rigid in the passenger seat re-evaluating how brave driving instructors must be.

*or – as per the previous example – more a Sword of Damocles. At least I could cherish the thought that I’d be dying with at least one member of my family by my side.

*PRV=Pub Retrieval Vehicle. There’s no point going to all this trouble if there’s nothing in it for me.

Not dead yet

First night ride of the summer

A mere twelve months ago I was celebrating not being quite dead yet. Roll round to right now and another year has been happily scratched in the side of the virtual casket.

Physically things aren’t quite so good. Ankle is mostly recovered from stupid running accident, but the left knee isn’t quite so clever. The right one has recently shoved into my litany of injuries with a worrying creak. It might be suffering the extra half stone I’ve failed to shift since my ‘lifestyle change’ of drinking beer in hotel bars and eating chips failed to bring forth any weight loss at all*

Still alive tho, and the ride before the actual birthday found us racing the night on loamy trails marked ‘best present ever’. First we had to climb to the start of them simply, if painfully, delivered via a fifteen minute yomp up a handy fire-road.

I made a bit of an effort what with being in decline denial and riding the hardtail.  Arrived behind a couple but in front of a few more. One of my best times ever apparently- an achievement somewhat offset by the parlous state of my legs and lungs as I collapsed weakly over the bars.

No matter, the effort unlocked a first trail snaking between and over four fire-roads. Tonight we rode it as one section on pretty much perfect dirt. More than enough grip to push the tyres hard into turns, but not so much to prevent flicking the rear out with judicious use of hips or – if you’re lazy like me – a gob of brake.

Injuries and girth not withstanding, I don’t appear to be getting any worse at riding a bike. Tonight I felt good, confident, reasonably strong and happy to be out with my mates. Which was good as the next trail is a proper step up.

And step down, some stepping sideways as well. The formidably named ‘Rockadillo’ dispenses with the standard forest trope of hard dirt and soft borders. Instead it’s rocks for breakfast, lunch, tea, supper and possibly hospital. They might as well name it ‘punctured spleen’ and be done with it. Absolutely nowhere to fall that isn’t going to hurt lots or impale a vital body part on spiky granite.

I’ve never ridden it clean. I’ve walked bits of it. On the RipMo. Shouldn’t be a problem then in the twilight as night dragged away the day and we dived under the trees. Still what you can’t see can’t hurt you. Until it can. Not on my pre-birthday ride tho, I remembered just enough to death-grip the front brake while picking lines where there were no discernible lines.

Deep breaths and trust get you through. Still didn’t clean it tho after clattering on a rock before the last obstacle. A fallen tree happily placed above a pool or rocks shining dully in the dipping sun. Ah fuck it, not carrying over it, push back up, get settled, pick a spot away from the scary bits and plop the hardtail over with absolutely no attempt to jump those rocks.

Big chubby wheels help here. It’s not a fast rock-smash, more a pick-and-mix line choice. Precision is good, recklessness is not.  Wise words from an old man- surprised it was me really. Whatever, we’re through and it’s a hoon to the valley floor back on hero dirt. And a climb where one particular hero was regretting his earlier epic saga on that first hill.

It’s getting proper dark now but we’re not ready to fire up dusty lights just yet. So there is no time to hang around as we drop into our final trail. Starts with a fast chute with nothing other than trees guarding the ribbon of singletrack. Cresting a rise changing everything; now it’s stumpy rocks hanging off steep hairpins.

Peering through the gloom, I make a decent stab at it maintaining enough speed to float and not enough to pitch into something sharp and unforgiving. Having solved the rock maze, all that’s left is a nasty three foot drop off a rock which merely requires a rolling manual to dispatch.

Only one issue. I can’t do rolling manuals. Fuck I’ve tried. Practised for ages. Earth bound misfit is how it always ends. Swerved this obstacle too many times. Bollocks to it,  these are the moments which separate being 51 and 11. Roll in, make a half hearted attempt to pedal kick, panic as – predictably – nothing happens, so wrench the bars upwards, brace for impact and we’re down and mostly safe. If a little creaky in the knee department.

Rolling to the pub, Jim somehow managers to ram a blameless rock on the family trail and do himself some damage. He refuses to ‘Stella-rise’ the wound with an appropriate lager, so we have one for him. And one for my birthday. And maybe one more.

Feels good. More than just still alive. Feeling properly alive. Struggled to sleep that night not because of my standard mortality fear, more reliving that ride and wondering if the next might be nearly as good.

I’ll take that. Roll on 52!

*I know. It’s bonkers. Everyone I see in that bar most weeks are also pretty fat. I think we’ve been mis-sold 😉

Seller’s remorse

Things I have sold this week!

Now buyer’s remorse I’m mostly fine with. Familiar with certainty, as it demotes the full stop to a few days punctuated by shoddy rationale, desperate excuses, unquantifiable promises and the receipt of a shiny new thing.  That thing generally being whipped off the delivery lorry and secreted in the ShedofDreams.

Four years ago though we broke with the tedium of the ‘Alex new bike protocol’ to trade cash with a bonkers fella  keen to sell his wife’s car. To this day I’ve absolutely no idea if she was even peripherally involved with this transaction. No matter we left with an MX5 that’s given us no trouble, and not a little joy with every summer since.

The same could certainly be said for my Mojo3 and the Smuggler – the latter in a more muted manner. I’m aware that my constant tedious banging on that experiences beat things is not a lesson long lived in any purchasing history, but these particular things are at least a catalyst for fun times and happy memories.

Our little roadster didn’t do many miles but it certainly delivered many smiles. Entirely viceless and as eager to please as a Labrador. It played its role as commuter, pub bringer and occasional shopping cart horse without missing a beat. Sometimes I just found an excuse to go nowhere reasonably briskly, and thats not something the 20+ other cars I’ve owed ever had me do.

It’s been lent out to good mates, sat under inches of snow, ignored through months of rain, but still kept coming back to put a huge grin on my face. Like I say, it’s a motoring Labrador. The Mojo3 was a lot like that. To be fair it was a bit more of a problem child especially when conditions turned un-Californian.  But it was just so much damn fun, I could forgive it anything.

In my happy place, I remember an amazing trail in Spain last year. A ribbon or bedrock snaking around a handy mountain. Seven minutes of mountain biking perfection riding a bike apparently designed for just this trail and just this rider. Yeah it was shit load of cash but that run, that memory, that untempered joy of being alive may have a cost but it does not have a price.

I’ve left the smuggler to last, because – well – it was. It was a frame always on my short list, so it was a small step to actually owning it once a newer model came out. The discounted price was still in the ‘really? is that all you get? Surely it should come with a car as well’ bracket, but perception is never a precise science.

It didn’t disappoint dragging me through a grim winter after extensive dicking about on an autumn long on dry trails and short on mud and clag. Last winter tho – even after my eight week mandatory riding cessation – reminded me that US designed bikes tend not to acknowledge that at least an extra inch of room is required out back to propel bikes through soggy dirty long distanced from firm.

Some frustration followed including carrying a heavy bike like a tired child across shitty trails because the rear tyre was jammed in the chainstays.  This macro problem was not really the issue at hand tho. A wider view would reveal three full suspension bikes, two of which looked very similar once you squinted past the graphics.

Desperate times ladies and gentlemen.  Through the medium of various internet channels, the whole shebang was cleaned, photographed, described – mostly with a semblance of honesty – and then thrown to the masses. Most of whom confused market price with the barter system. No, right now I’m good for a MOT failed rust-heap, 200 partially burned pallets and a ton of hooky aggregate.

Still from this sow’s ear of a global marketplace, a silk purse of three individuals – at least partially steeped in adulthood – came close enough to the asking price for me to grudgingly hand over the items in the hope they’ll enjoy them as much as I did.

In the case of the MX5, that’s pretty much a given based on her smile as she gunned it out of our drive. Strangely that’s the one I’m struggling the most with. Bikes come and go with revolving door frequency, but moving the Mazda on was a wrench. A last drive reminded me how much I have loved to keep it.

It’s not getting driven tho. I’m away far too much, and selling it now releases a wad of cash to buy Jess and Aid a car. That in itself brings a whole new set of problems, many of which will involve me going postal at some fuckwit salesperson who has dangerously attributed me with a iota of patience for their fist-twitchy spiel.

It might be best if I let Carol take the lead on any negotiations. Until then I look outside at the drive and inside at the ShedofDreams, and cannot feel anything but we’ve been burgled by a thief who really knows his stuff.

Seller’s remorse. I don’t know if that’s even a thing. It is now.

Don’t get me started..

First ride of the SolarisMax V2

There’s a fine line between an carefully considered hypothesis, underpinned by empirical data, and an entirely implausible excuse for a new toy. Let’s be charitable here and assume this latest purchase can be counted in the first category.

Or for the cohort of the world easily defined as ‘everyone but me‘, let’s not.  There are reasons of course, because there are always reasons. It hardly matters that this latest addition to the ShedOfDreams(tm) has triggered a schism in my bike collection. A splinter movement if you will. I certainly have, breaking down the much loved Mojo3 and the slightly less loved but still guiltily stripped Smuggler.

What’s left is a litany of spare parts, a newly built frame, a re-engagement with the nonsense of eBay, and a whole lot of soul searching wondering if this represents logical decision making or headless chicken randomness.

It it’s logic, it works like this; the RipMo is so studidly good, I’ll probably not pick to ride the Mojo when choices must be made. No abstraction here – last Sunday I prepped the Mojo for a long ride, pushed it out of the shed, breathed deeply and put it right back in there. Exchanging it for the RipMo pretty much sealed its fate.

That bike was amazing; no hyperbole here, it really brought my riding on – from a low base for sure – and gave me confidence to go a little harder and a little deeper into the adrenal zone.  For a man of my limited skill and advancing age, amazing feels like a mean description. It was better than that, way better than me, and undeserving to be sidelined for the false promises of new shiny things.

The Smuggler a little less so. I liked that bike a lot but I never really loved it. There’s a different- trust me on this. It’s really important, you’ll need to take that under advisement as well. Okay so if the RipMo negates the need for three full suspension mountain bikes*, where the hell does a hardtail come in?

Well it came in last year. But that one is Jessie’s** and while I ensured it was fit for purpose, it was always a bit small for me.  The new one is not. Bending to the marketing winds of ‘longer is better’, this medium sized frame pokes out an inch and a half beyond Jessie’s Mark 1.

Other things have changed as well. I barely considered them having seen the images of  the only colour worth having. It was only a short jump from there to poorly wielded spanners and better excuses.

This frame didn’t have an easy birth mostly as I’ve been bastard busy trying to wrangle an metaphorical octopus into a string bag without losing a tentacle. So I’m blaming work for getting in the way of remembering to order vital components not available from asset stripping two perfectly good frames

No problem we just butchered another one to bring this one to life. We even had lightening to electrify the process. I’m more your Dr Frankenstein to Matt’s monster on the grounds I really don’t have the hair for it. Still it was me sent out into the pissing rain to determine if pointy things were pointing in the right direction and stoppy things were sufficiently arresting.

It seems not in the case of the latter mostly as Klutz-Boy here had deposited a bath of dirty paraffin onto the front disc.  Still what’s the worse that can happen?

Does riding into the shrubbery whilst making keening sounds count as ‘the worst’? Probably not. Still it was an interesting start to the ride although not quite as exciting as a two ton car shaped ram attempting to punt me into the next county some time later***

In between I had a fab time. This is my seventh Cotic and much of that purchasing logic is based on Cy knowing how to design a fun bike. This one is definitely fun, possibly a bit more than Jessie’s as it’s a better fit, has a longer fork and is entirely new. Let’s not debase ourself searching for quantifiable evidence here.

Better still was getting out with an old mate. Riding trails returned to hero dirt by a weekends’ rain. Hint of loam, flick of the hips easily brakes the grip of a rear tyre not encumbered by suspension, slide it round, get it pointed mostly the right way, giggle, repeat.

I love the RipMo for what it can do. How perfectly the suspension design works everywhere. When things get a bit scary, it’ll save you all sorts of pain. It’s somewhere close to the perfect trail bike in a way the Solaris really isn’t.

Most of the evening was spent trying to get the bloody thing stopped, dodging trees, catching slides, releasing the brakes more in hope than any kind of learned technique, and careering through the forest like a one man morris dance troop.

Or to put it somewhat better; to feel eleven years old while being allowed to drink beer celebrating the success of another fantastic new bike. And to toast those whose time has passed.

So don’t get me started. Because I don’t want to stop.

*It’s hard to correlate a ‘well formed and fully funded roadmap for the perfect bike collection‘ with ‘why do you have three bikes that look very, very similar?’

**She’s ridden it once. That pretty much codifies possession.

***My righteous anger was somewhat mollified when it was pointed out that it was in fact now proper dark and we were essentially riding in stealth mode with no lights.

Are you going to ride that or what?

Sospel - Maratime Alps

I can see Haydn and, more specifically, Haydn’s camera pointing meaningfully at yet another steep, tight rocky switchback offering an average rider* the now standard three options.

Option 1 is to examine the 3-D puzzle in front of you, considering radius, incline, camber, rock formation and exit points before deciding that as someone else has already ridden it,  you really don’t have too. Engage the 31inch gear to pivot a now stationary bike 90 degrees and die just a little bit inside. I say option 1 but after riding about a thousand of these tricky bastards over the last week, it would be considerably more accurate to label this my ‘Default’.

I did get better. Just not much. Not for me the technical skill of nose wheeling or terrifying prospect of sliding in – both wheels long gone from grip – and snapping the front end round using some form of secret hip dislocation.

Sorry for the digression there. Much as I treasure my riding friends, watching most of them perform these acts of insouciance does occasionally trigger a teeth clenching grunt wondering if it is okay to hope it may sometimes end in just a bit of a disaster.

Not full disaster tho. Which is the unique selling point of option 2.  Essentially a two second plunge to splatter oneself in the gorge below after the rider has failed to solve the equation ‘amount of skill required > amount of skill available‘. I’m not a big fan of exposure and even less keen on certain death, but a week riding these kind of trails did provide a mid holiday upgrade from ‘very slow and frightened‘ to ‘well I’m pretty fucking old, so best not die wondering’.

Leaving only option 3 as framed by that image. And the obvious tension in my riding. ‘He’s got the bloody camera out, I’m going to have to have a crack‘ summarises most of what was going on in my brain about four seconds previously. Yes I am as shallow as a tea spoon when it comes to this kind of thing.  So stop snivelling and remember what Chris – our proper ex DH pro showed you – edge of the trail and then a bit more, there’s grip in that vegetation, don’t look at the gorge far below, don’t bleed all the speed off, squeeze the back brake, flick the hips, feel the slide and get off both brakes the second you can see the exit. See easy?

Sospel - Maritime Alps
Chris doing it properly

I’d distilled that script from following Chris earlier in the day. Like many great riders, he’s annoying hard to dislike. Give me arrogance and gracelessness any day – at least that way you’ve got an excuse to file people better at stuff than you in a bucket marked ‘Decent rider sure, but what a colossal shit gibbon‘.

I’ve been lucky enough to be comfortably in double digits to trips to far off places. Mostly with the same gang, but this time we had extra riders – different dynamic, same maxim holds ‘location is an important thing, but people are the important thing’.

Sospel - Maritime Alps

The bus was pretty splendid as well. Cool as the name suggests. And much required not just because we’re feeling lazy. Sospel is a proper medieval French town split by the river, which brought it into existence hundreds of years ago, and comfortably nestled under muscular hills reaching up to around 1800 metres.

The trails are spread across the 360 degree panorama we took in every morning from the balcony of our fantastic villa. Without the bus,  there would be a whole lot of unpleasant climbing on roads clinging to the valley sides, then white fire tracks baking in the forge of thirty degree heat and high humidity.

Sod that. While I like a climb as much as the next rider, it’s obvious you’d be lucky to get two descents a day without the uplift taking the 1000 metre strain. And while the mountains further north may superciliously look down from their more vertiginous peaks, they would be conflating height for quality.

The trails here are stunning.  Dropping onto natural paths mostly made a thousand years before the advent of a Mountain Bike.  Surfaced by interchangeable bedrock and loose rock, before diving under a forest canopy where the chatter of pinging stones is replaced by the silence of springy loam.

There is little respite from technicality. No easy trails. Anyone who tells you riding downhill for a week is easy has clearly never tried it. I am more battered and bruised than any other riding holiday. More time to crash basically. And crash you will or ride you won’t. So much stuff at the edge of my comfort zone and then some way out of it.

Of course I didn’t ride it all. But by the end of the week I was riding a whole lot more including that switchback up there which had my arse twitching like a rabbit’s nose.  Only on the last day, when mental and physical fatigue rendered me tentative, did I realise how unrelenting riding on the edge is, and how much damage you can do when you fall off it.

Don’t for a second mistake that for any kind of negativity. It was an amazing week riding a brilliant bike** with a bunch of idiots sharing a passion for mountains, riding, bullshit and a general joy for living which – unsurprisingly – makes your realise how bloody good it is to be alive.

Still enough of that. One day at home and then back on the road again. To hotels with Internet connections.  Plans need to be made for where we’re going next. Frankly I don’t care as long as it’s somewhere. Maybe with just a tiny bit less death by switchback tho 🙂

*that’s me of course. Others treated these obstacles with a combination of skill and disdain I can only dream of.

**oh and that bike is brilliant. There were moments when I was laughing out loud how good it was. Mostly though that was also the time I had my eyes closed.