Raising the bar

Nordest Bardino II

Probably worth clarifying a couple things right off the bat here.  There’s a post barely socially distanced from this one declaiming that writing about bikes was so over. Behind that are few more throwing shade on the need or indeed want for any new bikes.

And yet here we are. Well I am for sure, can’t speak for the rest of you.  If you’re still here then I can offer both excuses and lies.* Let’s do neither and pretend we’ve been overtaken by events. Yet I see that raised eyebrow and accusing finger pointing at the ‘best hardtail I’ve ever owned‘.

Hmm okay but let’s not dwell on the past. The future is right here. I accept it’s hinterland evo. Another steel frame, a similar niche manufacturer, a confusion of wheel sizes,  a slackness of angles, a lowering of stance. The future appears to be nothing more than new colours and pointless tweaking.

Well there’s that. But we can also celebrate the differences. It’s heavier for a start so we’re already winning. Slacker at the front, steeper at the back. All of which demands a longer fork, sadly missing a similar upgrade to the organic suspension out back.

Summary is if the old bike didn’t hold me back, this one won’t either. And it’s marketed as enduro. So again, winning. Not different enough to prevent a components heist on the Cotic** to harvest almost every component- so turning a frame into something rideable.

Second hand 29er wheels and a raid of Matt’s parts bin finished the build. And regardless of the stupidity, let’s all enjoy the end result. That’s one pretty bike.

Best go ride it then. This side of the hill has me reaching for my full suss. It’s steeper, rockier and a whole lot nastier to the west side. Still new bike and all that so best just get on with it. An hour in from Ross and we’ve established it’s a better road bike than one of those FS’s, and whatever hardtail skills I honed over last winter are long gone.

Riding the first proper trail has me running out of excuses. If not blood, which is surprising considering the volume being pumped out of my calf. Flat pedals and shit technique inevitably ends with hard pins lacerating soft flesh. On the upside it’ll match the other side similarly tattooed in Finale last year.

Bardino first ride

Other than the bleeding, it’s all going surprisingly badly. A long forked, slack-angled hardtail only works if you ride it over the front. Which suits my 90s technique of hanging off the back when the going gets steep not at all. A tentative prod of the bars, while hanging out behind the saddle, emits no directional change at all. Hello Tree, can we be friends?

Time to get a grip. Winch myself over the stem, throw some body English at the next corner and remember how bikes pivot from the back wheel. I’ve always rated myself as an average rider, but I’ll fight refuseniks spreading false gospel decrying quick turning bikes and 64 degree head angles.

This thing rails. I’m embarrassed to write that but it really does. In a way the Solaris didn’t. Not with me on it anyway. It has a calmness more suited to a short travel full suss. It drags grip from the perfect dirt, rotating the world around a sticky 2.6 front tyre.

Three minutes into my first proper trail and we’re faced with the somewhat over-marketed ‘double drop‘. It’s not that big and it certainly isn’t very clever, but fucking it up has all sorts of splattery consequences on the fireroad 20 feet below you.

I’ve ridden it on a HT once. It didn’t go well. But the Bardino is so stupidly good, I passenger’d my way down there with barely a kick in the arse. New school geometry works brilliantly if you commit to the front half of the bike. Right now I’m getting it, come mud and slop, maybe things will be different.

Bardino first ride

Today tho this thing is so fast. I loved the Solaris on 27.5 chubbies but they would just hold this bike back. I spend the rest of the ride failing to fall off all sorts of lairy ledges. Close calls for sure but too much fun to stop. Or even slow down. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s something different from every hardtail I’ve ridden before. And there’s been a few.

Ah another raised eyebrow. New bike thing you mutter. Maybe there’s something in that, but a second ride in the dark did nothing to dispel the feeling of over-confidence. It looks like a hardtail but it rides like something else. Except when you back off at which point the whole pointlessness of 160mm travel difference between front and back smacks you up the arse.

Still not lacking that commitment we finished our ride on the notorious ‘Bunker‘ trail. Steep, rocky, relentless. In the dark with full leaf cover, it’s riding in nature’s cathedral. There’s a beauty to that displaced by the rather less spiritual act of staying upright.

While I’ve ridden it many times I’ve never ridden it in the dark. Or on a hardtail. And of all those times, I’ve never felt quite like I did riding it last night. It should have been scary, but instead it was joyful. It made my realise there is stuff still to be ticked off, things to be done, reasons to keep pushing.

Raising the bar? Maybe not. But I can pretend. For a little while longer.

* John Mason is your touchstone here ‘When you’re good at making excuses, it’s hard to excel at anything else‘. Sure, but let’s all acknowledge it’s a skill of sorts.

** it isn’t being sold. Rebuilding a lighter version for Jess has already started. I could never sell that bike.

What do pictures paint?

Words allegedly. Many of them. Yeah about that.  Let’s kick off with some honesty. Appreciate this challenges the norms of this blog, but just trying to keep things fresh.  When film was king, the shutter release demanded some respect. 36 images represented a couple of pints and a week of waiting for the postie*.

Now it’s spray and pray. Well just spray and post really. The photographers art has been mostly lost to a signal to noise ratio long on notoriary and short on quality.  Honest admission number one: I’ve been the noise to that professionals signal. Too many taken not enough deleted. Relied too much of photoshop. Seb’s – www.cranked.cc – words ring loud in my head. Composition not compensation.

Here’s number two. I’m mostly done with writing about riding bikes. Fuck me I’ve mined that seam well beyond exhaustion. There is so much more riding behind me that before me. That’s just bloody depressing. So as a muse it’s suffused with melancholy and pity. No one wants to read that flowery-wank. Not even me.

But we’re not dead yet and I’m giving Dylan a beery hug when he tells me we must fight the dying of the light. Fight yes, write no.  Back to those flickering images. A moment catching something special; golden hour light, snatched facial expressions, sustained bravery, momentary pratfalls, ride-end tiredness, glorious companionship. All this and so much more.

Casting aside planetary orbits charting 53 years of my wizened fizage, let’s move right to the the good stuff. It’s been a strange year. Dreadful in so many ways but life affirming in others. Dragging the focus back to my tribe and the stuff adjustable in my purview, there have been many fantastic moments.

Time to stop talking.

Heading out after a day of Zoom calls.

Solo riding in the bluebells.

Crappy Selfies during lockdown

Riding past our favourite pub. Closed for four months.

From driving every day to working at home with help from pets.

Back to riding with mates. A video still of my good mate Martin.

Riding with the offspring

Back in the room! H enjoys Wales being opened.

Wales doing its big sky things. What a day that was.

The pubs open. Dave and I make haste.

The Saracens head reopens – rejoice!

Riding with Seb in the mendips. Good times.

12 years old. Big dog bossing the lawn.

Riding with Jess. The best of times.

Walking the Pembrokeshire coastal path with Carol.

Travelling with the family, not for work.

Riding my favourite trails with my favourite bunch of idiots.

Adequately distanced, relatively relaxed 😉

So what does this tell us? That I missed my friends but remembered my family. That Inbox Zero ended up as Inbox Zero Interest.  That however down you may feel, you must always look up. That loving what you can do is a fuck load more productive than lamenting what you cannot**

What else? I dunno. There’s likely some crappy metaphor peripherally linking riding bikes with more important things.  That doesn’t feel right. It’s not one or the other. Multifaceted problems are not solved through the power of a pedal revolution. You may feel better, but the real world is oblivious to that. It’ll drag you right back in.

All is not lost. Bikes have a superpower. They are binary. There is no nuance. No degrees. No strategy. They drop you in the moment and you can grab that by the balls or walk the excuses line. Either is a simplification, a choice, a moment in time. One of those 36 exposures.

I’ll never stop loving it for that.  The world feels a pretty scary place right now. But in two pedal strokes that’s someone elses problem. Let’s go ride into those pictures. The words can wait. But I won’t be.

* followed by disappointment. Flicking through – shit, rubbish, crap, over-exposed, under-exposed, oh and a random picture of a strangers arse.

**my mum is 88 and not having a great time. This is her advice. It’s definitely something to live by.

What Car? Wrong question.

None more black

Buying bikes is fun. This is not idle conjecture. I can back it up with real-world experience.  Buying cars is shit. Another position I’ll die on a hill for even when my vociferous defense is based on 40 less examples.  I’ve written extensively on my hatred of the whole shebang.  Research, dithering, salespeople, more dithering, multi-paged spreadsheets, test drives, boredom, frustration all ending in buyers remorse.

All which represents a highlight reel of the best bits. The rest is time-lapse misery. As I approach my 53rd birthday surely the flip side of increasing physical decrepitude is tolerance, patience and the ability to take the long view? Nope. With great age comes great rage. Not so much raging at the dying of the light, more wishing that light was a full showroom fire shadowing an angry form mutering ‘I’m trapped in the movie ‘total fuckwits’, everywhere I look another fucking spunk trumpet’

Let’s break this down. I’m actually okay with bike marketing. They are pitching a lifestyle that – while obviously unobtainable – is appealing. Cars tho, no fucks given for what’s being pitched. I’m at that difficult age – our own kids can drive* so the ‘active family’ schtick is lost on me, as is the ludicrous assertion that ‘something sporty’ will somehow roll back the years.

I make this position extremely clear when entering the den of the slimey. This is no way nudges them an iota off script.  “Look‘ I plead “I get you’re excited by sports suspension because you are 12 years old, but did you notice how long it took me to get out of that chair?” and “any car with a sill lower than my knee is going to need to come with a hoist and a burly attendant“.

I’ll give them something tho, they are bloody accomplished liars. I’d love to chart my journey through a couple of “prestige marques”** but honestly it’s just profanity with occasional punctuation. I didn’t know what I wanted, but it wasn’t what they had to sell.

Okay let’s get into that. I don’t need another massive car. The Bavarian Hearse has offered an interesting ownership experience. Brilliant engine, amazing brakes, shit stereo, average air con and apparently a state of the art electronic brain. Yeah right, I’ve never trusted that smug bastard after, on our FIRST JOURNEY together, the SatNav directed me down a steep, narrow icy track. 10 minutes of slithery death that’ll live me way longer.  And I’ll never get those brown stains out of the faux leather.

The next three years were significantly less exciting, Summary of which is one average sized bloke driving 20,000 miles a year in a vehicle designed for at least three more is a pretty stupid enterprise. And that’s before we get into the realm of parking anxiety***

So if not that, then what? Brand loyalty is obviously over-rated yet I’ve always identified as ‘Skoda Man‘. Some of which is because I am so clearly not ‘BMW Man‘ even after attempting to improve the image of the marque one indication at a time. This earned me suspicion from most drivers and pity from the rest.

Now we have a manufacturer, let’s set a budget. Post COVID-19 that 20,000 annual mileage is going to be halved. Maybe more than halved. Whatever happens next there’s no way I’m going back to 4:30am starts and 10pm finishes. That’s not a trajectory which sits well with a slide into semi-retirement.

Rather than actually speak to anyone – based on how well that’d gone so far – I fired up a browser, tapped in some details and sat back with a well earned beer. The whole reverse-auction/blood in the water dealer bitch-fight is my new favourite thing.

Buying bikes is an investment in time and people. Buying cars is strictly transactional. There’s no value in loyalty when operates in a single direction. There’s pretty much no differentiation between identikit showrooms. I’d argue not that much between different manufacturers either.

So it came down to simple maths and a dither over full electric (next time for sure), a bit electric (transitional technology at a hell of a price uplift) and planet killing IC (petrol at least this time, I shall salve my environmental angst by driving a whole lot less).

With that done, I ignored all the ‘we want a relationship‘ bullshit and stabbed a ready credit card at the lowest cost bidder. They were surprisingly lovely but I’m still fucking suspicious this is merely a front to rip me off sometime in the near future.

I also signed up for a longer lease. Because making cars is environmentally destructive. Because driving isn’t going to bookend my working days. But honestly because I cannot be doing with this fucking shitshow in the next four years.

What car? Who cares. It’s done and I can go back to looking at bikes.

*well someone somewhat incautiously presented them with a certificate saying they could. Since which we’ve named their car the hedge magnet.

**their framing not mine. I’d lump ’em all in with ‘bunch of larcenous rapscallions‘. Where do they get these people from?

***It fitted nowhere without at least one end sticking out. I suppose that explains why I came back to one night to find it a couple inches shorter on the back quarter.

This is what fast doesn’t look like.

High outside elbow. Hips canted to the inside. Outside foot hard down.  Eyes scanning the exit. Shoulders forward, hands relaxed.  This is not – as it might appear – a late appendix to the Karma Sutra nor some kind of personal Feng Shui. No this is what passes as ‘best practice’ for navigating a bicycle round a corner.

Oh really, fuck off” I hear you sigh. I’m mostly with you because that very best practice is somewhat subsumed by the axiom that any task is ‘as easy as riding a bike‘.  That’s problematic though because ‘riding a bike’ launches itself across a physical spectrum in the same way that tentatively strumming an ‘E‘ chord celebrates you as a great guitarist*

Riding a bike is easy. Riding a bike quickly is hard. Riding a bike off-road quickly is really hard. There are so many things to go wrong. And most of those are hard as well. Except for the squashy breakable bits attempting to ride round that corner.

It gets worse before it gets better. Similar headology suggests brain surgeon hand eye co-ordination is required if you’re keen to jump or drop off things. At least if you want to complete them without needing the skills of that head doctor. Having hoovered up every YouTube channel we’re still found lacking with serious talk of ‘pumping for speed’ and ‘pushing for grip’.

I feel we may have jumped the shark here. Mountain Biking must be the most over-coached sport on the Internet. Whatever happened to learning by crashing? It’s served most of us well while providing excellent vocational experience for trauma specialists across the country.

Easy for me to take the piss. But I’ve watched all those videos and attempted to place myself in the frame. With – let’s be charitable here – mixed results. Mostly because I’m a bear of little brain and there is far too fucking much going on to remember which limb is which never mind how it should be articulated.

Instead I fall back to bad habits.  Mostly falling off because I’m too far off the back and I won’t lean the bike far enough over. I take refuse in micro braking and then desperate pedalling to cover for my inadequacies. It’d be over-deprecating to say I’m really rubbish and slow but that’s not the point.

I know I can be better. Even a month short of my 53rd birthday.  And just occasionally I am. It’s mostly a one ride epiphany snatched away when it all goes to shit the next time around. But if I’ve learned anything it’s to live in the moment you have rather than worry about those you missed.

Wednesday night we’re riding local trails. Summer rain has raised hero dirt from the sand. My bike is working perfectly and I’ve got my ‘get it done‘ head on. This time last year I tucked my terror of crashing into a quiet place and launched myself over the biggest gap jump on our local hill.

Confidence since then has been mixed. I pretend to laugh at the priority of progression. That I cannot do the things I used to do. That getting out is as good as getting better. That decline is fine and I can look back on past achievements over a beer and a fat belly. Fuck that. The fire still burns a little.  We’re all going to die of something. Might as well enjoy the experience.

So I’m chasing an aged-matched Matt and a far younger Adam on a favourite trail. The whole best practice thing passes me by as the speed increases. Because now I’m in essentially survival mode. I’ve handed the whole thing off to muscle memory and instinct. Which to be honest hasn’t ended well in the past.

Here’s why.  Anyone who rides mountain bikes at any pace has a safe speed. A velocity well in their comfort zone. Margins for error and coping strategies. It moves a bit depending on your confidence level but it’s a window through which you rarely crash. Rarely take real risks. Rarely feel properly scared.

This makes sense. All of us have to go to work in the morning. However fast we are, there will always be those who are faster. However many metres per second we push it, we’re a million miles from our limits. This is a hobby not a race. The older you get the less you can afford to lose a summer. Or maybe every summer from now on.

And yet. And fucking yet. Mountain biking is a pretty stupid way to spend your time so you might as well embrace the madness. Both wheels sliding, eyes squeezed almost closed as you rush through narrowing trees. Suspension hammering as you leave the brakes alone. Pushing past that safe zone, heart racing and arse twitching.

I’m still in touch which is great for my ego. I’m still on the bike which is an even bigger surprise. I’ve already ridden the two big gaps so it’s no surprise when I finally clear a big table that’s mocked me the previous 100 times. But I am absolutely not living in the moment. Everything is happening at great speed, and I’m mostly a passenger because after 30 years of riding my body knows what this gig is.

Brain tho, it’s basically shitting itself. End of the trail it reasserts control, I try and play it cool with a breathy ‘Brisk that run fellas‘ . But they can see me for the charlatan I am.

That’s fair. I’ll probably be rubbish again tomorrow.  Right now I just need a beer and some life affirmation.  And maybe to trust myself a little more than those offering snake oil on this tube 😉

*which if you were a member of Status Quo wasn’t far from the truth.

Shocked by the truth..

Ripley shock upgrade

.. a clickbait title mirroring recycled ad-laden content desperately seeking bored eyeballs. This is something else. A weary pun nodding towards broken suspension and false hope.

Sure I’ve told fibs. Some mighty whoppers. But that’s hardly shocking for any reader who has stuck with me for even a few posts. This was also something else. Somewhere between self deprecation and lying to myself.  Hard to believe I’d get fooled that easily.

I was blinded by pretending the problem was me. Although that’s a hypothesis with an almost 100% success rate.  Failing that it wasn’t clear to me if the issues were front or rear related. On reflection I should have started with ‘both‘ and worked back from there.

Handing the whole thing off to the professionals I dropped the unresponsive fork off to the fab Sprung Suspension. in the hope they could somehow revive it.

Two days later, I took a call from the head honcho Jake  who – knowing me well – broke down complex suspension issues into good news and bad news. Bad first, ‘Al that fork is totally fucked‘ followed by ‘Surprisingly this time it isn’t your fault and we can send the remains off for warranty‘.

Or replacement as I discovered a couple of days later at the workshop. As it was explained to me the bushings (the static tubes the stanchions slide up and down) were oversize meaning the whole sliding thing was more of a grinding thing. To the point where a designed oil lubricated interference fit was more of a milling process.

Six months of that and the forks are scrap. Some of you keener types may feel the need to ask why I didn’t notice. Let’s say I misdiagnosed the issue as a setup problem, and swiftly move on to more interesting things. To whit the other end and that ^^ brand new rear shock replacing the lump of unyielding wood disguised as the factory fitted ‘custom tuned‘ option.

I really do like Ibis bikes. For all sorts of reasons. But even the most rabid fan could not countenance fitting a clearly rubbish shock on a three grand frame. And yet here we are. The custom tuning of said shock appears to render it harsh on small bumps and useless at damping bigger ones.

I’m so very aware my riding ability is rarely held back by mildly sub-optimal components.  To be sure I wasn’t coming over all Pea/Mattress/Princess I asked Adam, who has a similar bike collection vibe as me while being far more skilled, for a second opinion.

He concluded – after less than a minute of riding – that the shock had all the compliance of an iron railing. We’ve both ridden lots of Ibis bikes and this didn’t feel like any of them. Somewhat ironic then that I’d passed off my piss-poor performance on the squidgy object suspended on top, rather than the springs below.

Leaving aside my diagnostic ability, or more the lack of it, let’s instead consider the same bike only this time riding on shiny new components. This new shock has all manner of widgets and knobs* for the knowledgable rider to tweak. Jake dialled some baseline stuff in leaving me to consider the best tuning option would be not to touch anything at all.

Up front Jake generously lent me one of his very expensive forks. Equally festooned with options for me to fuck it right up, I chose to leave that one alone as well.**

Shocking Ripley

So what’s it like now? Good news and bad news again. It feels like the bike that’s been struggling to get out since I bought it. It’s given me way more confidence in the front,  while the back end has curbed its rodeo enthusiasm seemingly bent to launch me into a handy tree.

Bad news, it hasn’t stopped me crashing. I stumped myself between low lying arbetirum and a stabby pedal. The squashy foot and ankle came out worst, one bleeding, the other aching. I wish I could blame that on the new suspension but we all know that’s not the case here.

Still now excited by riding a bike I now quite liked, I invested yet more time trying to set it up properly. This time tho by attaching Matt’s ShockWiz electo-trickery to the shock. It’s a slew of accelerometers and gyroscopes secured in a hard case amped up by all sorts of algorithmic cleverness.

It told me many things*** some of which I understood. But after riding five consecutive days in the land of diminishing returns, I was keen to return to a fully analogue world. Especially if there was a beer in it.

There was, over which I attempted to convinced my riding buddies that this apparently chaotic quest for the truth was nothing more than the kind of noble quest I am well known for.  Shockingly they didn’t see it that way. It’s almost as if past experiences were held against me.

Back to the present. What have we learned? Oh I don’t know, probably nothing of importance. Let’s ask a better question. Is it a keeper? Now I’ve spent proper money on it, it’d bloody well better be.

*not counting the one riding on top of it.

**considering I’d invested never-to-be-regained time fettling both ends in pursuit of some kind of suspension harmony and achieved bugger all, this seemed the logical approach.

***most of which I couldn’t read with these old eyes. I had to ask the help of a younger rider. It was that or just guess. And that hadn’t gone well in the past.

 

Friends like these

Getting the band back together

No plan survives first contact with the enemy” – so goes the military protocol often re-imagined for the corporate world. It’s common sense but as Voltaire was keen to point out common sense is rarely common and often diffused by  bullshit*

Today a plan DID survive first contact with the weather. But only though peer pressure and the promise of beer and pizza. That hides a deeper truth best summarised as ‘there is nothing better than getting the band back together’

Post lockdown we’ve upped the numbers game. Two, three then four guilt-free riders seeking the touchstones of the ‘old normal’. We remain socially distanced but socially comfortable. The banter splits the two metre divide, the climbs tell stories of the solo training, the descents remind us why that doesn’t matter. Nothing has changed, but everything has changed.

Roll forward to today. No one really knows what day it is anymore but we’ve plotted a straight line between a skive ride and beers in Matt’s ‘SpeakEasy’ built during the endless blue sky days when lockdown angst morphed into activity.  Six are due but few are counted an hour after 36 rain filled hours suggested winter had mostly returned.

Full disclosure I must take some of the blame for this precipitation event. After two crashes on sand where dirt used to be, I out-louded the heretic notion that a bit of rain might be welcome. I probably should have been a little more precise with my definition of ‘a bit’

It’s not quite the ark-building 40 days and 40 nights but we’ve had deluge and drizzle in equal amounts. Hence me wintering up in waterproofs from head to toe. 11km of road separates me from the trails and every metre is pot-holed miserable damp.  The quiet roads are gone and I’m being moisted from top, bottom and side as cars slide past with that minimum of caution I’d almost had time to forget.

The rain stops as the dirt starts so I pack most of the rain kit and join the fellas. Surprisingly the other five are waiting for me. Maybe not such a surprise as this is what we do. Even when that common sense suggests we should be doing something else.

It’s all a bit slithery and I’m back on the hardtail after three months of faking it with multiple double sprung trail dampeners. A double espresso wake up call ends with the first two corners avoided via a fern-slapped straight on option.

Get a bloody grip, The damp trail is surprisingly giving it plenty. Lean over the front end, punt the eyeballs away from the glassy roots and revel in a 2.8 tyre that laughs in the face of mud and slop. I’m not laughing because there is bog all cerebral capacity left over from concentrating hard and revelling in the visceral joy of riding a proper sorted hardtail.

I’ve missed that. But not as much as I’ve missed my mates. There is much piss taking. Fingers are as pointed as the barbs. Everyone laughs because this is what we do when pedalling stops. Some like to ride alone but for me that’s a denuded experience. I’m fine being isolated in my own head, but once we head outside then the Brownian motion of like minded souls is the very thing which fills that soul.

No one crashes. Close calls and cat calls. Taking risks and sharing how that feels.  Bottling it and making excuses. Bottle this, it is the stuff of life. It’s what we do that others do not. Fuck me I’ve really missed it.

We retire to the ‘Speakeasy’ where beers are opened and tales are told.  Matt has built a Pizza oven which requires all sorts of activities long distanced from any kind of health and safety to fire it up. More beers soften the hard fact we should be in the pub.

The location is irrelevant. We’re getting a bit pissed while attempting to send pizzas into Hell’s kitchen firing out smoke and flames in a happy version of Hades. Now I remember what I’ve forgotten, the easy company of those who’ve you shared so many experiences.

You remember that time in that hovel a hundred miles than civilisation?‘ and ‘that snow-bound winter ride when we had to dig ourselves out of a four foot snowdrift?’. Of course we do, some of it might even be true. Or at least true to the power of beer exaggeration.

None of that matters. What matters is this: days like this do something to still the madness. They distill the uncertainty into nothing more than having great mates who share a common cause. Who are probably full of the same insecurities eating away at me, but not today. Not in this moment. Not when you realise you have taken friendship for granted.

Let’s not do that. I pulled a final beer, grabbed my phone and captured a 2-d image of a 3-d event. That one up there. These are my favourite bunch of idiots and I’m very grateful to have them.

That’s the clan riding on Sunday.  If we had a club this would be it. But we don’t. Which is kind of the point. People transcend constructs.

*not quite a verbatim citation but if François-Marie Arouet was still with us, I believe he’d nod that through.

I know what I said…

That last post? Garbage. An excuse paints a thousand words. A flawed concept visualised by graphing enjoyment on the X axis and risk on the Y. As if there is something formulaic about riding mountain bikes. Conflating safe language from grey organisations to barely moderated lunacy under blue skies.

No do not adjust your reality, I am indeed arguing with myself*. And yes that particular feature remains unridden. I went back for another look. Unsurprisingly its ‘do you value your spleen?’ vibe remained undiminished on a second viewing.

The only way I can see myself riding that is by closing my eyes whilst simultaneously executing the advanced MTB move known as the ‘precision clench’. Maybe blind and drunk could work. Sober and eyes open it’s not going. Not yet anyway.

Let’s not dwell on my failures. Except the small matter of fitting a third tyre to the Ripley. I wasn’t keen on the first two which is odd since I’d paid good money for both of them. This didn’t stop a somewhat tread-worn replacement being dug from the spares pile in an attempt to improve front end grip.

50% chance of fitting it the right way.  Born on the wrong side of the law of averages, I made a poor choice. Not sure it makes much difference but let’s not understate the power of placebo. Flipped it round, poked various components, prodded others. Accepted the problem was the organic side of the partnership.

Let’s test that out on the Wednesday ‘Night Ride’. It’s neither night nor the dark and grim of winter. We assemble some two hours before the pre-lockdown roll call. This time last year a plethora of bikes would rest line astern waiting for the perennial latecomer**

Not now, it’s all socially distanced and following those government guidelines the government fails to follow***. I miss riding with the boys, the banter and – oh god please let it be open soon – the pub. But we can still have fun especially if Matt is having an off day, and I’m as close to the zone as an average Joe can get.

That’s not actually in the zone. Oh no, we’re escorted back to the ‘friend zone’. That other zone – sure you can see it, you might have an idea what it might feel like based on what others tell you, but you’ve never been in it. That’s fine. No, really it is. Because getting close feels like this.

Off the top, all over the place. The front tyre swap has not done the trick. I wave at apexes as they perambulate in an arc entirely distanced from my front wheel. I throw some shapes under the tree shadow. It might be the wind but those trees appear to find that amusing. Snickering in the leaves.

Come on Al, you’re not great but you’re better than this. For fucks sake just stop overthinking for a second and find a moment to live in. That’s tough because the trails have come full circle. Between deep mud and marbly dust is loam; hero dirt, grip nirvana with heavy particles thrown sideways by a sliding tyre.

It’s not like that out here. It’s as loose as a mid-winters today only with higher speeds and more leaf cover. Two options on the steeps; accelerate to a velocity that’ll brand a tree with a random limb, or grab the brakes and slide into the same destination at a similar speed only with less steering.

Conditions then entirely suiting my legendary handling skills. Sent Matt out first and to my great delight he blows the first corner. ‘Apex 6 feet to your right’ I shout helpfully as he crashes through the undergrowth. He’s back on it tho and I’m chasing hard.

Our mate Sean built this trail. Originally as a climb. So it’s mellow at the top. And that’s good because of the five tightening corners which draw you in so they can spit you out. You can’t bully your way through, stumps, branches and the odd rock make this a precision attack.

Crystal Maze made real. Make a mistake and it’s going to hurt. But building gyroscopic forces make that risk unreal. Because any kind of risk appetite wouldn’t have me flipping the bike hard edge to edge. Forget grip, go with feel, fully commit to the turn and sense that elusive zone. I’m still not living in the moment but I’m thinking if I can ride this well today, why can’t I do it everyday?  Well, reasons, so let’s move on.

There’s loads more to enjoy, open then closed turns slicing through the forest, bench cut singletrack hanging to an edge, ballsy moves through tree stacks lacking the requisite 780mm clearance, steep roll ins with dirt replaced by sand, off camber madness offering you a punt into the valley if you don’t keep your shit together.

And when you do, you arrive a bit knee trembly at the bottom of the valley. Behind me dust motes are backlit by a late afternoon sun. Ahead of me is a twenty minute climb so we can start anew on a different trail.

I’m like that five year old kid happily spinning round while shouting ‘again, again’.  That’s what mountain biking does for you. To you. Keeps you young. Makes you an idiot. Forges some kind of legacy.

But not yet. This feels like an endless summer. And for all the shit that is both going on and coming, that is something worth celebrating. As my good mate Si says ‘Ride fast, take risks’

I’m good with that because there are limited summers left to make that call.

*the older I get, the more this happens. My plan is to contain it in public places. As it’s not much of a step from there to necking cheap cider and shouting at buses.

** Jim. Turned up early once in an open act of trolling. Never happened since. Works off an entirely different calendar.

*** I am so monumentally pissed off about this, I nearly turned the blog over to political discourse. Then I remembered it’d make fuck-all difference, so I stuck to bikes.

Risk based judgements.

The Coronavirus has much to answer for; More than 30,000 deaths being – rightly – the headline statistic. Combine that with a small minority of the country being pricks, and a larger minority appointing themselves judge and jury on who exactly is a prick and we’re neatly created an even more partisan state.

Not forgetting these are symptoms. The cause laughably labelled as our elected leaders. In  England at least. Not a shining beacon of executive competence at the best of times. Which we’ve established these very certainly are not. It’s hard to know where the lack of fitness to govern stops and the visceral self interest starts.

I mean I didn’t even know who the first minister of Wales was until a month ago. And now I’m meticulously examining the constitution to see if we can slip him in as our new premier under the cover of darkness. He appears keen not to sacrifice great swathes of the lower paid to enrich Tory shareholders, nor game the entire population like it’s some kind of massive train set. So clearly a far superior option. He’s probably got a lovely singing voice as well.

Right, rant over. Thank you for listening. It takes the pressure of Carol who has to endure my ‘what the fuck has he said now?’ missives on an almost daily basis. On the upside, I’ve driven 70 miles and ridden 500 or so in the last eight weeks. Most on those dusty trails only chronologically differentiated by the height of the stinging vegetation.

The bluebells have been and gone. The wild garlic is in the ascendancy and the forest smells fantastic. Tree cover dapples those sunny trails while their boughs nod to head height under the weight of leaf and sap. It’s a pretty magical time to ride a mountain bike. But not on your own.

Two reasons; firstly my much-trotted-out made up statistic that ’50% of a great ride is who you ride with, 50% are the trails you ride’. There are many who enjoy the solitude of a solo ride.  And then the rest of us social if socially distanced riders much preferring the company of a mate or three.

One being the current maximum so let’s go with that. Yesterday I had a ‘Tour of the Yat’ with Matt. We rode some trails I won’t ride alone. Not because they are particularly high consequence, but mostly as they are in a part of the Forest that would more likely see you eaten than discovered.

Today my old mate David and I met up for a few laps of our local trails. Always keen to explore, we went looking for a new trail just opened. As I’ve said before the legality of the trail building activities are – at best – questionable. That’s a whole debate I’m not hosting,  but in terms of the quality there’s not much better in a pretty large radius.

During what passes as the UK lockdown, these have been ridden more than frequently. There’s enough variety not to get bored, but when a new trail opens up you really have to go check it out. Even when the builder explains ‘to be clear, you’re riding this at your own risk’.

Risk is an interesting concept. Extremely difficult to quantify especially if based on evaluating your own capability. And appetite.  Trail wise most fit neatly into ‘ridden loads like that, it’ll go’ and ‘you are having a fucking scooby, wouldn’t try it even if recently diagnosed with a terminal illness’*

The stuff in between is where it all gets a little more tricky. Take exhibit A ^^^ up there. In fact don’t because we need a little backstory first. Yesterday we rode a couple of trails that were way beyond my perceived ability back when I was a lot less breakable.  On first moving here, it was as if I’d been magically relocated to the village of ‘Much Walking

Now they just disappear under very, very good bikes rolling on chunky tyres and suspended by expensive shock trickery. It’s still a bit pre-trail-anxiety on-trail-commitment and post-trail-relief, but getting your rocks off on big rocks feels pretty normal nowadays.

That takes time. Follow the proper riders and learn some lines. Commit/Clench (delete as appropriate) so letting the bike do most of the riding. They always ride better with less Al input. I’m just there for the pedalling really. Familiarity though is not contemptuous . But riding hard trails you know is like looking forward to a well earned pint. Scary becomes fun. Until someone loses bits of a leg. Let’s not go back there.

Let’s go here instead. That line ^^. Ooh it’s nasty. Out of shot is a twitchy-arse steep entry on a flat left hander. Then it’s a combination of precision and one hundred percent commitment to control your speed onto that rock. At which point you need to abandon any thoughts of mechanical retardation and put Newton in the driving seat. Leaving a sketchy catch berm some twenty feet below to deal with that.

Might catch you.  Decent possibility. 50% if it wasn’t soft and unconsolidated. Which of course it is.

I applied my own risk appetite and made my excuses. Many of them. Starting with a somewhat predictable ‘I really don’t want to be putting our fantastic NHS under strain’ followed by ‘I need to follow someone off that’ before a more honest ‘Scares the shit out of me, no, no and thrice no’.

We walked back down congratulating ourselves on some proper adulting. A little bit of me tho knows I’ll be back there soon. Standing at the top and plotting lines. I’ll watch someone else ride it and then we’ll know where it lands on the risk/reward line. I really want to ride it. But I really don’t want to get hurt.

Mulling this some ten minutes later, we encountered a pair of riders stationary on the trail. One had his broken arm held awkwardly in a fashioned sling. Badly broken apparently so waiting for an ambulance. Stupid accident but they all are. Local farmer fetched him out and I expect there will be some blow back.

Most days people talk to me about ‘risk based judgements’. Based on what? We often ignore the numbers and trust our gut. Microbiology? Good luck with that. Riding bikes is always at the confluence of confidence, conditions, capability and common sense.

It’s not an equal split though is it? I’ve been pushing it a bit more every week. Going long on harder trails. That lad in obvious pain brought me up short.

Stay safe out there.

*inappropriate. But made me laugh

Orange is the new black

You know that new bike thing? It’s not really a thing. It’s a line. On one end everything is measurably better*. On the other cognitive dissidence distances perception from reality. Different for sure. But worryingly not better.

It bloody well should be. You’ve read reviews, watched good riders on amazing trails heavy on the buy it now vibe. You’ve compared geometry, considered angles and selected components. And that’s all before the elephant lit the room up with many zeros representing a previous version of your bank balance.

I have significant history here. Thirty years, fifty bikes**. So uniquely qualified to talk you through this.  Or maybe not. On closer examination one might question the judgement of a man breaking through a half century of bicycles. It looks less of a strategy and more like a drunken cavort through the internet of shiny things.

Whatever. Let’s go with expert. Here’s some things I know; bikes are more than angles and measurements. Frame material is largely irrelevant. Components matter but not as much as you might think. Bikes have soul, oh yes they really do. You’ll know within five minutes when they don’t.

So a laser focus is unhelpful. Instead consider parameters to coral suitable candidates. Be realistic about where you are riding. And of your own abilities. Progression ambition is to be welcomed. Delusion less so. Taking my own advice I was painfully aware the RipMo is mostly too much bike for round here, and I’m too little rider for when we’re deep in the mountains.

That hasn’t stopped it being bloody brilliant for two years. It’s a Labrador of a bike. Get on the thing, do you best and it’s got your back. None of that Full Gaz or Fuck Off you get from the enduro bike scene. The RipMo works everywhere even when I’m hanging off the back in the hope of being upgraded to the status of ‘passenger’.

I made a half arsed case for the Ripley last year. Having re-read it, the emperor appears to be baring that arse in public. Worse we weren’t getting on. I put it down to the conditions where five months of rain will dent even the motivation of the keenest winter mountain biker.

I’m not that rider. So I swapped it for the pivot-less SolarisMax and miserably trudged through peak-slurry. Waiting for the climbing sun and warmer temperatures to bring me trails which might change my mind. Because after 5 rides I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d bought. Whatever it was, it wasn’t what I expected.

The rain stopped and so did we. There’s many more important things than riding a bike. Everyone has a part to play in not taking the piss. I dug the Ripley out from under its winter coat of shed-dust and tried to work out what the hell was wrong with it. Or me.

As it turned out, it was mainly me. Or my mechanical incompetence. My wheel swap to a pair mirroring the RipMo didn’t change much. It still felt harsh on the front end even with a 2.6 tyre. The grip should have been endless but it was skittish and more than a bit scary.

Must be the fork then. I’d set it up as per the man at the DVO factory had patiently explained. It felt horrible. Yeah there’s a reason for that. Let’s just say there’s more than one way to read and email and promise never to speak of it again.

Desperate to prove the Ripley was the bike I needed it to be, I did the tarmac thing before heading into the woods. It was a perfect evening. Dappled light split by early leaf prisms. Dusty trails at last. Both familiar and forgotten. Sweat on my back and a grin on my face.

Climbing felt so easy. Not sawing through the mud. Maybe all that time on the turbo in the shed makes a difference. That’s not why we’re here tho.  Dropping into the first trail, now the front end feels planted and grippy. The fork isn’t spiking but my confidence is. Jeez, this things proper rails.

A fireroad check of suspension travel is simply checking out the dust line. Then we’re off again riding everything at 80% commitment and 100% joy. God this thing is good. It’s not a mini RipMo except for pushing you on. It might be a ‘short travel’ trail bike, but you’re running out of skill way before the bike is running out of suspension.

It’s still not quite right tho. The rear shock still feels over-damped. I have a solution for that. It involves ‘supporting a local business’ with an exchange of cash for something that better matches the front end.

Rides end though I’m convinced I’ve moved the dial. Nudged the needle. Shifted along that line. So it’s a keeper triggering a few pointless upgrades. I started with a ‘Hotblack Desiato’** build but now that doesn’t feel quite right. So I’ve added grips and pedals that almost match the orange of the top tube decal.

Almost 😉 The execution of that plan is not the thing here. What’s important is the reason. Since that ride, my other bikes remain untouched in the shed. Sure I’m following the lockdown guidelines and once we’re allowed back to the lumpy stuff, that’ll probably change.

Until then. Orange is the new black. The Ripley isn’t perfect yet. But I’m pretty sure we’ll get there. Only one way to find out.

*This is nothing as cold as counting seconds. It’s that blurring of bike and rider. When you don’t want to stop and aren’t entirely what you started. Where you sit in your shed and stare at your bike for a while. Yeah, that.

**that post is on hold because we’re going to do something awesome for the 21st edition of Cranked.

***https://hitchhikers.fandom.com/wiki/Hotblack_Desiato 

We need to talk about Corona.

Welcome to the zombie apocalypse. Dystopian fiction made real. Hunger Games re-imagined for toilet roll battles in Morrisons. The very end of days indeed. Grab a bottle of your favourite medicine, a copy of The Road and consider which household items might be reclassified as food.

Or not. Let’s not trivialise the facts here.* People are dying. Many more will follow. As ever the poor, the marginalised, the desperate will suffer more.  History teaches us disease has no class vector, reality suggests otherwise. The virus has snared royalty and heads of government but let’s not confuse their treatment with some poor bastard on a sink estate struggling for breath.

But we have new heroes. No that’s not right, we have old heroes properly dragged into the light. Sure there’s a government, whose welfare policy can be neatly summarised as fucking the NHS up the arse for ten years, is now apparently in awe of what’s left.

Forget them and their frankly embarrassing attempts at empathy.  The irony that the saviours of our world are not running banks or financial scams, rather those on the front line of what is essentially a war without ordinance. Doctors and nurses, thousands of committed researchers, decent souls stacking shelves, school ‘failures‘ driving trucks, ranks of forgotten minimum wage slaves stepping up in a way their more privileged contemporaries entirely fucking avoided.

And they are dying as well. Because ‘getting Brexit done’ is a ‘look at me’ slogan while basic PPE is a bore. Still got to give the ruling class some credit for a bail out that’s basically nationalisation and socialism hidden under the banner of an emergency measure. A tory government massively expanding the welfare state? Fuck me it’d be funny if it wasn’t for the whole people dying thing.

At some point in the distant future, there needs to be a reckoning. Not just finger pointing of who didn’t do what,  but also if we learned anything. This is what I’ve learned so far.

Most humans are decent individuals. Those who don’t monopolise the news media. Stuffing blogrolls into trolleys, picnicking on the beach and essentially mainlining the selfish gene. Through stupidity or hubris, who the fuck knows. But these people are not important.

Who are important is everyone else.  Mostly everyone else is synonymous with not being a dick. Quietly doing the right thing and not wanting some kind of social media medal for it. Of course I counted myself amongst their number until around 3pm today.

After 10 days inside** most of which has been lost in virtual conferencing*** or finding new friends on on-line platforms, I cracked. So all my virtue signalling up there isn’t worth shit when, after FIVE MONTHS of riding in the grim, the trails dried up.

Oh irony again. It’s been literally seconds since we last met.  Our freedom gave us Carte Blanche to slog about in a festival of slurry. And when that freedom is rightfully restricted it’s all bloody lovely weather, t-shirts and dust, dry lines and new flowers. You know the gig. Spring spinning the season ratchet. But like most things it’s less fun watching than doing.

I’m no rebel nowadays. I get the social distancing thing. Both because it’s absolutely the right thing to do and – as an asthmatic – I’m keen to swerve a dose thank you very much. So riding now isn’t like riding used to be before all this started. Was it only a month ago? Already feels like a lifetime.

I’m opening any gates with a jauntily angled elbow. I’m making judicious use of a small bottle**** of hand sanitiser. I’m acknowledging my fellow trail users with six feet of good natured hellos.  I’m two hundred miles and a million light years from my brother living in a small flat in Ealing.

I’m also not a total bloody idiot. The NHS is kind of busy right now. It doesn’t need entitled mountain bikers to rock into A&E with wonky body parts.  So riding downhill is more about precision than speed. Crank not, brake not, find some flow. Pump the trail, don’t bend it to your will.

Then stop. Sit on a stump. Pig out on a bag of sweets. Listen to the birds. Remember all this will pass. We may lose a summer but most people are losing a shit load more. Maybe the world turns so we can learn those lessons about what’s important. And who. And why.

Maybe we don’t. Maybe it snaps back to survival of the assholes. I just don’t know and there’s nothing I can do to influence that. But we are not powerless. There are things we should do.

Spend time with your own family. Catch up with everyone elses. Help out those who may not even ask for help.  There’s something about the stripping back of our vocational and social veneer which feels important. I’m not sure there’s any such thing as over-sharing right now.

Above all observe rule#1 ‘don’t be a dick’. Closely followed by rule#2 ‘be kind’. We’ll get through this. Even though the other side looks pretty scary.  Still anyone making predictions is merely selling snake oil.

So let’s stick together. These last three years the politics of division have set the agenda. All of us should feel pretty bloody motivated to do something about that.

*a Venn diagram not including experts on Facebook, conspiracy theorists and shouty nutters. The media is doing a decent enough job aiming at the heart of the periphery.

**and we’re very lucky. Healthy family, large if unruly garden, walkable paths into open fields, customers who still want to buy things, significant stocks of alcohol etc.

***We’ll so be back to this. Many years ago I wrote a very cutting article on the desperation of ‘second life’ and now I’m living it. Karma is indeed a bitch.

****Like bitcoin it’s worth about a million pounds today. And peanuts in two months.