It’s a dogs life

The 'Amber Bath'

There is no easy way to write this.  We chose to put Amber to sleep. That’s a sentence loaded with emotion and fired at proxies for hope, despair and death. Humans are generally pretty rubbish at understanding there is nothing penultimate about this life. We avert our eyes and grasp sentimental metaphors.

Passed on’, ‘Gone to a better place’, ‘Found peace at last’.  That whole afterlife construct might work for some*,  but behind the veil is a somewhat more brutal truth.  It’s not where something has gone, it’s the huge fucking hole it leaves behind.

So let’s deal with the something shall we? Those charmless fucks who label animal lovers as confused supplicants with anthropomorphic tendencies. It’s not like a elderly relation has died? Or a child? Or someone close to you? Close as in bipedal, self aware and mostly bloody terrified of death.

No it isn’t. It’s something a little different, but no less heartbreaking. I’m a dog person. Always have been. Always will be regardless of the shitty cards fate plays. Dogs weave themselves into your life. They offer unconditional love. They show that love in their joy of you walking through the door. They do not judge. They bind together a family and have no bloody idea how they do that.

And then they get sick and old. Rule one of being a parent; never outlive your kids. Fuck me I can’t even imagine how that would feel. But I’m far too clear what an Amber sized wound in my heart does to an allegedly stoic Yorkshireman. I know what walking downstairs and missing a waggy tails feels like. I know what walking past a box of half chewed toys feels like. I know what a house normally full of joy and noise feels like when silence is the last product of tears.

Sentimental horse-shit? Maybe. Let me tell you how that feels. Watching a dog not yet three years old struggle to breathe because anaemia has robbed her of red blood cells. Watching that same dog try and be the dog it used to be. Watching those sad eyes. Listening to the local vets, then listening to the specialist animal hospital we sent her too. And trying to find a good outcome.

Because money doesn’t buy you love. It buys you hope. And that’s what fucking kills you. A rollercoaster of ‘she’s going to die/she might make it’. One kid a week from her first A level, one apparent adult wondering if the bike trip to Italy is somehow relevant. Another proper adult missing her best mate and not dealing with it at all. And another offspring trying to work out how an outwardly healthy hound can barely get off the floor.

That sucks. Don’t for a second confuse that  unconditional love to surrogate parenting. We had a last weekend with her at home – still with an outside chance she might get better – but watching her get weaker pretty much broke my heart. I have that bloke ‘got to be the strong one’ thing going on, but I was totally fucked, wide awake and weeping at 2am.

She’d had three blood transfusions and two sets of drugs. Complications were legion. Everything pointed to blood cancer but they couldn’t find it. So we went for more and more invasive tests desperate for a diagnosis. Because a diagnosis might mean a cure.

Then there is the moment. When you accept you’re keeping her alive for you, not because you think she might get better. She’s not really suffering but she’s dying by degrees. Unless you heart is forged from stone, you cannot do that to anything or anybody. Especially something that is an integral part of your family unit.

So you do the right thing. The hardest thing. The call you never want to make. Sign the forms, authorise the injection. Let them sleep for ever. I’ve led a pretty easy life because that’s absolutely the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. It was a family decision. Not an easy one. I’m very proud of how that quorum coalesced around a decision made for Amber. Not because of her.

Even so. It was shit.

Grief apparently has five stages, I’m going with fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck and fuck. Sure I’m angry but this isn’t a linear transition between denial and acceptance. This is a hurt which mugs you with happy memories, before creeping up on a pre-dawn raid.

You wonder if you could do more. Maybe spotted it earlier. Given her another transfusion. Tried some experimental drugs.  I don’t know. I never will. But my friend Nicky mailed me with this ‘There were only two choices left – leave nature to take its course however long and painful that may have been or let her go peacefully and gently. That’s not failing, that’s putting her first, that’s love.  My Dad always said we’re kinder to our animals than we are out humans

Wise words. I’m really glad she sent them to me. Because I have no more.  Other than to say Amber was taken way too early, but in the time she had, she pretty much defined why we cherish animals we know will never outlive us.

Even knowing how much that will hurt. And fuck it does.

*but not animals apparently.  No such thing as doggie heaven. So goes the dogma of the new testament. Faith must be a wonderful thing. Plausible deniability for every wretched act we perform on each other.

This is going to be a tough sell.

Gravel bikes. Let us take a moment to reflect. A pause to understand others who are not like us. A gap between riding proper bikes and being a genre-chasing dick. But it’s all bikes, right? That’s a good thing.  It’s not like it’s electric.

Yeah but really what the fuck? Is that a cross bike cross dressed by some self absorbed hipster chasing razor thin niches and suffering cognitive dissonance?  Get a grip- if you want to race in the depths of the grim buy a cross bike, if you want to go full-MAMIL on summer days, go full roadie on a bike designed for pain and suffering.

Otherwise we’re back to the ‘third space’. A  blank vision of utopia conceived by  a marketer, then coloured in by people who should know better. Dig a little deeper and what we have here is a 90s mountain bike butchered by a drop bar. Rigid double triangle silhouette, bollock troubling top tubes and twitchy eyebrow steering.

Really, you’d need to be absolutely fucking tapped to consider this as something different to what you already have,  or – worse still – a thing of desire for reasons yet to be articulated. What kind of idiot would fall for that?

Well this kind of idiot. Obviously. I’ m not blind to the latest content of this blog appearing to be ‘random Bikes AL is buying for increasingly obscure reasons’. Reason feels a bit strong, but for this latest purchase at least there is a goal, an end game, a possible viking burial when that is done.

Come July my long suffering friend Adam and I shall be riding the classic Lon Las Cymru. The Welsh Coast to Coast starting in Chepstow and ending in Holyhead. Taking in all sorts of lumpy geography including a chunk we suffered during the Trans Cambrian a couple of years ago. Hoping this time there will be significantly less hails of trout.

I could have ridden my eight year old cross bike. But of course I’m not going to and – in recognition of the intelligence of my readers – there’s no good reason than an email flyer offering a Titanium lovely for really not much money  – at least compared to the insane nonsense of the niche providers*

Let’s move on from the transactional tedium of going from idea to Yodel delivery.  Except I mean Yodel actually delivered a thing. On time and in the same post code. I was so stunned, it took me a while to assemble it and consider its lightness against its alloy double bolted to the turbo.

Yeah but not that much lighter. Quick spin up the lane made me feel a little better, and 40km the next day confirmed it was quick, direct, stiff but somehow compliant. A second ride in the dirt had me giggling in singletrack and dusting myself off when it all went a bit wrong.

So what do we have here? A Ti frame draped with pretty nice kit but most importantly hydro brakes which do the stopping thing my old CX bike cable versions promised. This is a massive difference. Good brakes make you ride faster.  And then crash a bit when you fail to reconcile ‘small obstacle’ with ‘SPDs after 7 years flats, how do they work?

I wanted to feel the same antipathy to this bike as I did against the CX bike and the even older road bike. Tool for the job.  Get this challenge done and then swap it out for something more nobbly.

Sadly I really like it. Even on the road. I wish I didn’t but it’s so comfortable, so effortless under power, so precise in the turns, so analogue in how it rides, so Labrador like to go do the next thing. And the thing after that. What’s over that hill? Let’s go find out.

It’s a very clever bike. But that’s not the point. What it really is is an instantiation of the first bike you ever rode. The one that split you from your local geography. The excuse for not coming home. The seeker of adventures. The pal your tired parents never could be.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve just gone out for a ride with no fixed destination. 40mm tyres are a passport for choosing any path merely in the spirit of enquiry. Finding new things and old forgotten things. Keeping going until the legs or the light give out.

Riding bikes – any bikes – is a righteous thing. I’d rather be doing that over anything else. But for a whole bunch of years riding I’d categorised anything not satisfyingly my definition of singletrack as  ‘Roadies missing the point’. Now I’m not so sure.

It’s not proper mountain biking of course.  I’m don’t really know what it is. What it isn’t is the purgatory I expected. I think I need to understand  a little more.

Best get back out there.

*my brother has one of those. It’s really nice. It’s not 3k nice. You could buy a decent mountain bike for that.

Go on then, tell me why.

September the 8th. September the fucking 8th. We could all save ourselves some time by just re-posting this, so not re-inventing the wheel. Or at least not buying it again.

Summary of that post back in Autumn of last year; spares needing a home, full suspension bike required for winter, fool and his money soon parted, dreams to be chased. TLDR; The idiots’ idiot makes things up and buys another bike.

Which I didn’t ride. Not much anyway. And not with the joy associated with dicking about in the woods. Obviously I spent money to improve that experience. Equally obviously, it made no fucking difference whatsoever.

This swearing is really proxy for faux anger. I’m not angry at all, I’m just disappointed. That bike ticked all the boxes in the virtual world but not enough in the real one. Despite the available evidence, I rationalised the problem wasn’t the logic that three bikes were somehow better than the two I loved riding, but merely I had chosen poorly.

Right then. Let’s check out the latest arrival. 150mm of travel which is more than the RipMo out back. Tyre clearance that’s somewhere between Dry Spain and Bloody Ridiculous. A 2.35 in there and we’re in wafer thin mint territory*. And a frame made entirely from Carbon – a material that’s not exactly matching the remit for a hard wearing winter hack.

Less travel than the RipMo then? No. Can be ridden in winter when the RipMo needs is hibernating in a warm shed? No. Perfect for being abused in shit conditions and ignored between wet and muddy rides. That’s a no as well. So in terms of meeting the niche requirements set out for its predecessor, it’s a bloody triumph.

It was cheap tho. That’s a £2800 frame I paid buttons for. It’s a lovely colour. It’s very light. Reviews suggest it accelerates like a stabbed rat. All the bits I stripped off the Aeris fitted perfectly. Except for all the new parts which somehow slipped into this low cost build.

Building it wasn’t the usual stress free exercise of handing it over to Matt and waiting for a bike better than new to spawn out of the garage. Between Matt and I we have most of a single healthy adult. I’ve augmented extensive soreness from last weeks crashes with a ton of snot punctuated by a hacking cough. Matt’s had proper flu and remains standing only by holding onto usefully located furniture.

Which explains how it took most of the day to turn the frame into the lovely looking bike in the image above. At least a third of that was re-doing tasks we’d failed to fully think through. Many of which involved internal cable routing. I wasn’t a fan before today, and right now I’d file that design decision on the far side of ‘fucking hateful’.

Whatever it is though, it isn’t a straight replacement for the Aeris. Just riding it up and down the lane and popping it off a curb put that idea to bed. In spades. It’s way more poppy, super involving and – despite a slack head angle – really agile in the turns.

Or that could just be new bike placebo. We’ll find out tomorrow when I’m taking it for a hack(ing cough) in the local woods. Two objectives; don’t cough up a lung and don’t crash. The latter is going to slow me down a lot as I keep replaying last weeks stack in my minds eye. And each time the bit where my face smashes into the ground hits, I want to go and hide under a table. While rocking gently and sobbing.

I’m sure it’ll be fine. Anyway, anyone new here might be wondering what the hell I’m doing buying a bike which is very similar to one I’ve already got. Stick around, you have much to learn 😉

*which if I don’t get out and ride some more soon, I shall be requesting as part of my homage to Pythons’ Mr Creosote.

 

Work stops play

      

In the last issue of www.cranked.cc, I ran a snake-oil eye over the crashing protocol. Espousing a hooky theory that crashing isn’t entirely random. It can, at least, be categorised between ‘good ones’ and ‘bad ones’.

I’m still pedalling that line although – after today – I feel I didn’t give quite enough weight to how they both hurt equally. This is the fault of dry trails and brilliant bikes. Last week we were travelling mostly sideways in post winter slop offering the grippy assistance of shaved sea cucumber. Which was fine- slide about, stay happy side up, pine for Spring.

Spring turned up right on schedule and those same trails are now perfectly tacky. Sunshine burst out the hardy perennial of my favourite bike which I’d totally failed to crash at Bike Park Wales last Friday. I still somehow broke myself tho – seven runs in – retiring grumpy, wrist sore and hurt as my mates rode a few more.

Bit worrying. Taken most of my box fresh purchases on the uplift truck to test their metal* and not once has a combination of arm pump and cramp sent me home early. Tired I thought, long days, lots of travel, brakes a bit soft, probably holding on too tight, one of those things.

So it was the RipMo again today on a mission to rid myself of that memory, and reassert its place in the hegemony of the ShedofDreams(tm). 10 minutes it and the bike of doom – as I’m starting to think of it – took umbrage at some cack handed riding. Wheel goes one way, rider the other, bish-bash-bosh, over in a flash.

Dusting myself down with a fervent ‘what the fuck just happened there?’ it became clear a minor misjudgement pinged the front wheel off the loamy loveliness onto a patch of angled moist dirt barely clinging to the side of the trail. Yeah okay could happen to anyone, another one of those things.

Knee pads saved precious articulating joints. Elbow pads would have done similar had I been wearing any. Mildly abraded from shoulder to wrist and a sore calf sporting infectious looking dirt rash completed the injuries. Nothing to stop me riding on what felt like the first day of Spring.

Dry lines everywhere. Terrible lines from me. I’m riding okay while not being entirely present. The speed isn’t a problem, it’s not that buffer overload you get when too much stuff is fired at too little brain. It was more being so distracted by other stuff, I wasn’t even vaguely attracted to the trail in front of me.

There are benefits to this approach – mostly as a mitigation to my endless overthinking of what might happen next. However giving serious consideration on how to deal with overlapping customers without letting anyone down had me checking out of the MTB world completely.

And nearly checking into A&E. After a trail I’ve ridden at least 50 times tripped me up as I drifted off line again. It’s not even a narrow bloody trail, I just wasn’t really looking where I was going. Left pedal struck a low tree and that whole potential to kinetic transition slammed me face first into the dirt.

We weren’t hanging about meaning a frontal assault on a local tree was a possible near future experience. Luckily I trail braked with my face while improvising other body parts to aid the deceleration. Finally coming to a stop, I decided I didn’t want to go again so lay there having a little moan until help arrived.

It arrived in the form of Cez and Haydn who reassured me that ‘Yes, I did still have all my teeth’**, my nose was pointing mostly straight and my legendary good looks had not been ruined‘. Ah humour, always kick starts the healing process.

Aside from a split lip and blood running down my face, damage report was checking in with lot of hurt-y bits clambering for attention. Definite reds for a(nother) forearm skinned – and painful to move – plus stabby pains in my ribs which instantly had me worried I’d cracked a couple.

Can still laugh about it tho, so looks like I’ve dodged that bullet. Rode the 30 mins back in some discomfort wondering what the hell was going on. Tried to look over my right shoulder backing the car out. Won’t be doing that in a hurry. Or shaving. Or being polite when someone says ‘Aren’t you getting a bit old for this kind of thing?’’***

I want to blame the bike. Two crashes in one ride. Not doing silly stuff. On the best trails we’ve had for months. Can’t be me, I’m not brilliant at this mountain biking thing, but over the years I’ve developed an adequate range of skills.

Except that’s not quite true. Switching from the ridden for months chubby hardtail to the RipMo which is just so fast everywhere. Swapping slow, wet trails for rapid dry ones. All with one eye on next weeks work and the other on the one after that.

That’s not a bike problem, or a trail problem, that’s an Al problem. This is what happens when you cross those streams. Two many variables, not enough bandwidth. Mistook familiarity for competence. Had an easy lesson, didn’t learn it so a hard one inevitably follows.

Two things then; 1) I need to sort my bloody work-life balance out. It’s absolutely within my gift to do so. Got to stop saying No to the wrong people. 2) Need to get back on the horse as soon as possible. It’s somewhat ironic my riding has been the best I can remember all through the winter, and on one sunny day it’s Mr Crashtastic.

First tho, I need to find some way to lie down without it hurting 😉

*or increasingly expensive plastic.

**first thing I did was check for toothy shards. It was that kind of proper face plant. Genuinely expected to be rooting about in the undergrowth for my incisors.

***No. Thanks for asking. Now fuck off.

I spoke too soon

Sunny but Muddy FoD

About three weeks ago if precision is on the agenda. Riding through a dead winter landscape long shadowed in unseasonal winter sunshine. I called it. Stupidly as it turned out. “Spring is here” summarised my happy mantra to Haydn riding next to me. That thing you see in front of you is the dry line. We’re done with the grim. Oh contraire.

The scientific method is something of a touchstone for me. So I’m not confusing the current climatic conditions with a butterfly flapping causal link to a man being optimistically stupid. Even so, I kind of wish I’d thought before speaking*, kept my powder dry, ridden the long game, and just accepted weather and seasons are really quite different things.

Ah but what a day. Warm sunshine blocking out the vista of nothing growing, dry trails lending grip to tyres not filled with February mud, bacon sandwiches enjoyed outside soaking up Vitamin D. Sure we needed an extra layer in the pub, but it still felt like early spring not late winter.

Then I got sick. Properly ‘don’t start any long books’ sick. It took over two weeks to de-escalate the certainly of ‘certain death’ to ‘possible death’**. I morphed into a grumpy snot monster with a cough clearly vectored for Tuberculosis . Stoic as I was***, the grimness encompassed Jessie’s 18th birthday and the last of the dry trails. I managed most of events associated with the former, while lamenting the latter through industrial quantities of Sloe Gin. No point risking malaria as well.

So yesterday we were back out once the rain turned up like an unwanted relative at Christmas, and showing no sign of sodding off until lent. While this was moderately annoying, I couldn’t help thinking it was fairly consistent with March. Comes in like a lion and leaves like a lamb apparently. Or – as I like to think of it – rainy bastard with the chance of snow.

Riding out we couldn’t help but notice some puddles. Nothing was underwater, but a few of the trails had that look about them. Roots were slick, dirt was moist, skills were lacking. Had to lean on the front a bit to reacquaint myself with the whole ‘back there for partying, up here for thinking’ mullet technique.

Sideways rain wasn’t exactly a proxy for Spring either. We hid in PedalaBikeAway where pig sandwiches and hot coffee fortified us for the long ride to the pub. We ignored the ridden out rutty trails taped off for the Forest enduro, and headed west into the cheeky side of our riding realm.

Careful selection of trails avoided the horror of twenty minute plasticine climbs in what I’ve come to think of as ‘quick-mud’. Step off here and they’ll need to drag you out with a tractor. The similar sized tyres on my SolarisMax were working surprisingly well in the gloop. The front aiming me in the right direction, while the rear shimmied about in an amusing fashion.

Last three descents are all belters. The first an off camber loam-fest dropping into ever steepening turns. My plan to ride it feet up failed to survive first contact with the dirt. Tripod’d a few corners but not with my head so considered that a win.

Up a fireroad climb before dropping into a two pitch delight that’s fast and open until it isn’t. Rooty and nadgery between unforgiving trees makes keeping your head up and trusting your tyres the only way to stay in touch with the riders ahead. It’s all getting a bit lairy out back, but I’m staying off the brakes and riding the slide. Stuff of life right there.

We roll out though a muddy ditch and there’s lots of banter. ‘That bloody stump, nearly had me, reckon I tapped it with the rear, so much fun’. That’s pub talk, and we’re one descent from the river where our favourite hostelry awaits.

It’s an ever changing rock filled ditch. Relentless rain has opened up crevices and chutes hidden under last years leaves. It’s fun on the hardtail, but you need your wits about you as 3-D problems plant themselves in your optic nerve.

We ride the first section well and then accelerate onto a narrow ridge which disappears near the trail end. Option a) is to brake hard and drop gently into the mess of rocky chop. Option b) is more of a ‘ah fuck it, it’ll be fine’ brakeless plunge into the chute while hoping for the best.

The best was very good indeed. We giggled our way back on the old train track and got the beers in. Sure my bike is a muddy cipher of something I barely recognise, and my ride kit lies festering in a bucket, but we know it’s just going to get better from here.

I called it too early. But Spring is coming. I can’t wait.

*to be honest, this isn’t the first time such a thing may have happened.

**no medical professionals were consulted to confirm this diagnosis.

***In the Leigh household, there was a vigorous debate over the exact definition of stoic.

Crossing the streams

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018
Matt riding a dry trail. There weren’t many of those. In fact, this was the only one!

There is some stuff you shouldn’t mix. Explosive chemicals being self-evident*. Three generations of the same family a somewhat more learned life skill. And big days in the hills when Winter still firmly controls the calendar.

Matt – in the image above – clearly disputes this. His view is if you’re not bloodily injured with a mostly broken bike while struggling through waist high snow as night falls, then basically you need to get out less. Death-Marches are a real thing, and Matt’s keen to up the game with DM Evo where at least one person might not make it.

Honestly it’s like being the red jumper bloke in Star Trek. Join that party and it essentially peril, pain and a probable fatal interaction. Knowing all that, it as something of a surprise to find myself dodging fat raindrops at 6am this morning as the van pulled into the drive.

Clearing up shower then’ I greeted Matt. He just looked disappointed it wasn’t sleeting, or dinosaur killing meteors weren’t bouncing off the roof. We collected the rest of the red-jumper tribe and headed into mid Wales bombarded by zero temps and hard rain.

Daybreak didn’t bring much joy to a sodden landscape, with much hiding under the tailgate finding s dither of mountain bikers wondering how much waterproofing kit to wear. I went with ‘all of it’ as we took account of our surroundings – to whit being on the valley floor flanked by muscular hills at every compass point.

Best get up one of them. By the end of the day I’m pretty sure we’d been up most of them. Maybe twice. It’s proper ‘winch’n’plummet’ geography with little truck for anything tending to the horizontal. The first climb was a muddy horror, elivened only when an elbows-out MXer passed us in a spray of slurry only to bin it 30 yards on.

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018

Made me laugh. Into the sleet now acting as organic acupuncture. Fuck me that’s a bit miserable I thought dragging another waterproof from the pack. I didn’t need to look at Matt to see he was smiling. And hoping for snow.

First descent was a 2m wide mud rut enriched with a jumble of loose rock and wet roots. I was back on the Bird having repaired** all the broken stuff not really enjoyed on the Gap Ride. We are still having bonding issues – especially once my tentativeness ended with a partial ejection into a mud bank.

No one else seemed to be struggling tho. Nor at the first actual stream crossing where I took pictures before failing to fall into the river. This is something of a first.

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018
Sam not falling into the river.

Climbing wise, all was good even with frozen appendages stomping pedals and gripping bars. Six weeks in the shed going nowhere slowly may actually be making a difference. Or it could have been two cups of turbo-coffee and a dirty egg bap. Time may tell.

Descent 2. Went okay. Nobody died. Not even those wearing red. Bike still felt odd. Well I felt odd, unconnected, a bit nervous, missing my hardtail. At times likes this, a moment of introspection while chowing down on sarnies can help.

It didn’t really. I was a bit miserable from the chain gang up the valley into a bastard head wind. It was a pretty valley but it was also pretty brutal. Rather than deal with any actual problems, I changed my gloves. Displacement activity right there.

Descent three. Top of which is that first image. Stunning to be in the big hills, breathing clean air and on-sight-riding fairly technical stuff. Even when I’m riding like a twat, I cherish days like this. Any big hill, any season.

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018

Sam was holding the gate as I came close to cartwheeling into it. Proper rocky but actually mostly dry. This lasted another two seconds before my wheels were submerged by a raging torrent pretending to be a trail.

Three minutes later not much has changed other than a few heartfelt ‘fuck me, that was close’ , and sufficient sliding off wet slate into water deep enough for me to consider whether a life raft might be something to add to my personal inventory.

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018

Arriving in a rather flustered state at the road, Haydn wondered if my forks might need a tweak. I asked him why. His reply suggested my current setup would be brilliant if I was method-acting Zebedee from Magic Roundabout, but not quite so appropriate for pounding rocks at regular intervals.

Since I was faffing, it seemed apposite to remove about 25% of the air from a rear shock last inflated when I was quite a bit fatter***. Placebo or not, from therein, the bike received a studied Nod and a bit of a Yorkshire ‘That’ll do’ as we finally made some decent progress when the world tips to our happy place.

Last climb then. Feeling good. Except my feet. Can’t feel those at all. Swing into the road climb to be met by a sign informing any who may pass that 25% is the gradient. It wasn’t as easy as that, with a upward trajectory suggesting a moon-shot.

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018

Orbital mechanics aside, I made a decent punt at it. 16 minutes of ‘oh sodding nora when is this going to end?’ delivering 250m of vertical waiting to be cashed in on a descent boosted as the best of the day. That’s a hell of an ask based on what had come before.

We rode into some stunning scenery filled with glacial moraines and the promise of cold rain. Dropping into a mad rock gulley I substituted any proper technique with the ‘hang on and hope’ approach that’s served me so well all these years. I even kept my eyes open.

Which was helpful as a tiring Sam became a further trail obstacle. Stupidly I followed Cez on a line best though of as ‘danger of death or at least the loss of a spleen’ accelerating to speeds I’m not entirely comfortable with.

Not as uncomfortable as what came next. A concrete slab drop-shipped by a lowest cost bidder to slow subsidence. It didn’t slow me as I was properly shitting the big drop on the far side of it. No way to roll that. Instinct is one thing, experience another. So for the frightened, closing my eyes and hoping for the best was as ever my go-to strategy.

Bit clattery, moments of uncertainty, bike going one way, upper body the other. Gritted teeth, rode it out eyeballs on stalks then cracked on registering every moment as the difference between merely existing and being alive.

Trail finally finished and we were cold, wet and bloody loving it. Rolled back into town to scare the good citizens of Llangollen with half naked bodies and much giggling.

What a day. Crossed many streams. Dodged some bullets. Found a way to enjoy the wet and the Winter. We’ll be back. Maybe next time tho hold the sleet….

*other than to those hardcore practical experimenters with no eyebrows. Tend to leave buildings vertically.

**as in ‘drop it off at Matt’s and get it back working through some kind of magic

***Don’t confuse this with me being whip-thin now. I’ve merely backed away from corpulent.

Back in the game

ShedOfMisery(tm) Upgrade
That’s almost as much fun as it looks.

About this time last year I was reflecting bitterly on my inability to maintain forward motion without some kind of prat-fall. This prat fell over a log on a night run, failed to right himself so savagely rotating an innocent ankle clearly not designed to articulate in such a manner.

Damaged ligaments mutated that limb into a monster parody of a something mostly known for usefully attaching a foot too. Walking was painful, riding mountain bikes was strictly forbidden. My response was to buy a turbo trainer and Zwift subscription to stave off both boredom, and the inevitable loss of fitness doing nothing grumpily tends to engender.

It achieved neither. To be fair it was sailing into challenging headwinds comprised by an apathy and ‘fuck it, let’s have a beer instead’ approach to rehabilitation. Come March I could ride again – albeit 7 pounds heavier and with the aerobic fitness of a freshly minted corpse – meaning the turbo was first joyfully ignored, then repurposed as dusty clothes horse.

Until Christmas 2018. Even prior to the annual assault on all things cheese and port, the scales displayed the kind of quantitative evidence my clothes were already telling me. Basically I’d got fat. 13 stone 2 pounds fat. That’s me in another life where Mountain Bikes don’t exist, where hitting fifty merely unlocks the elastic waistband achievement.

Not having that, things must be done. Drag the unused cross bike onto the turbo, repurpose random shed items to host a ten year old monitor and a portable speaker. Fire up Zwift and some inspirational tunes and get right back at it. Went well for ten minutes until a few exciting seconds ending abruptly with the rear tyre exploding.

I tried to spin this as my awesome power fuelling a friction based combustion of some unworthy rubber, whereas an actual analysis of the remains demonstrated it had more perished than failed. Logic dictated a replacement was a simple ten minute drive/twenty quid transaction.

Pah logic? Over-rated. Some of us like to think more laterally. In this case around 30 miles east to a purveyor of all things shiny. Yes, if I couldn’t upgrade myself, I could upgrade the turbo into something marketing itself as ‘direct drive’ to ‘create a real road riding experience.’

Two small points worth mentioning here; firstly my limited familiarity with tarmac and bikes suggests the real experience would involve dodging wheel swallowing potholes, firing mud, dog-shit and God knows what else into your open mouth, all while being almost murdered by random strangers hurling two ton metal death bringers at you.

I didn’t want to lose weight that badly. I’m sure somewhere there’s a book heartily recommending shitting yourself on a regular basis to work off the pounds, but it’s not for me. Road riding is scary. Point 2 is there is nothing real about steaming up the windows of your shed, pedalling furiously while going nowhere and confusing flickering images for what’s going on outside.

No it’s more ‘FatMan – to the ShedMobile’. 13 days out of 14 was my record. Where the fuck I found the mental fortitude for that streak is something of a mystery to me. The problem with the bastard game* is it – well – games you. I somewhat incautiously signed up for a twelve week ‘training’ programme without understanding what the hell that might mean.

What it means is four or five hours every week, in what I now think of as the ShedOfMisery, wanting to electrocute the virtual coach who dispenses patronising inspiration through the medium of electronic smugness. But I keep coming back because if you miss a session, it’s gone. For good. No getting it back.

There’s 52 sessions in total. I’ve missed two. One was in the first week. It still burns. It’s like bloody Pokemon Go only for old people. Also this new trainer has some kind of witchcraft mode which basically makes cheating impossible. That I find extremely annoying as cheating is pretty much my first up response to stuff when it gets hard.

And it is getting hard. Every week just has a bit more bastard in it. Accompanied by the creepingly smug text scrolling across the screen. I have many issues; one is mountain bikers don’t spin a fast cadence. Anything over a 90 and I’m a mashing hamster. I’ve become increasingly convinced that the game knows this, thereby mocking my tawdry efforts with demands that wouldn’t be out of place on a washing machine spin cycle.

When I can’t face smugtwat(tm), I switch to a ‘group ride’. I so want to be sniffy about the friendship of virtual strangers. I mean VirtualShedWorld isn’t much of an upgrade to SecondLife or whatever came after. None of the avatars are fat for a start. And they all must know the cheat codes, because I’m blowing it out of my arse while every other fucker is happily communicating over group chat.

I have only responded once. With ’Nnnnnnggggghhhh’ after collapsing – aerobically spent – over the keyboard. But I keep coming back. And when one of those ‘Ride On’ drops into my virtual jersey I feel a little bit happy. And a little more dead inside.

5 weeks in. 7 to go. 12st7 at the last count. Most of that is giving up booze some of the time. Do I feel any fitter? Not sure, I certainly feel knackered. Someone suggested this might be overtraining, but I was able to counter that with I’m playing shit games in my shed, and this isn’t training. That’s basically an affront to the whole ethos of mountain biking.

7 more weeks. Fuck me, it’s worse than being forced to endure Strictly. At least I could do that with a beer. Come March tho, I’m not sure merely sidelining the turbo is going to be enough.

There might be a shed fire.

*and it is a game. Some people take it VERY seriously. I find this deeply amusing as I attempt to shave 2 seconds off a particularly annoying segment. I’m comfortable with simultaneously claiming the moral high ground and adopting the role of towering hypocrite 🙂

Gap Analysis..

FoD - Mud, Sun and Smiles ride

… is traditionally defined as the process of identifying the breadth, scope and reach of activities to transition effectively from the current state to a desired future state. Sounds dull? It is, and I should know with it representing about 25% of my work right now.

It serves us here on the Hedgehog rather niftily as both a synonym and a metaphor.  The current state has been fixed for at least five years, the future state sees me the far side of something scary and the activities to get there can be summarised as ‘jump over that bloody gap you spawny git’

If only it were so simple. Or more pertinently so much shorter than the physical reality in front of me. It’s a whopper. Already over 3m if you’re measuring the great big bloody hole ready to swallow up ‘Alex the Timid’ and nearer 5m when including entry and exit ramps.

Speed is definitely your friend. Unless you come up short in which case it really isn’t.  Next stop massive cartwheeling crash, with potential non-optional visit to hospital.

All of this has been a bit moot until recently. I’ve never imagined myself clearing it, while images depicting splattering myself all over the forest fill my hindbrain whenever the gap hoves into view.  So I’ve taken the sensible option of giving it the chicken-swerve.

The problem is bloody progression. I seem to be riding quite well lately – other than crashing myself silly which shall form the cornerstone of the next www.cranked.cc article – so what was really never more than pub bullshit ‘yeah I’ll get that nailed one day’ has now become ‘sober-doable

I’m a coward tho, so just because I can absolutely does not mean I will. Then all my riding buddies crossed the bloody Rubicon – firstly Cez but that’s okay as he’s a way better rider than me and, helpfully for this situation, fairly bonkers. Next up is Matt – again a far more skilled rider but a little more considered in terms of risk/reward. He was followed over by Alex W, another who is definitely handier on a bike….. hang on let’s just save time and assume EVERYONE is a bit better than me.

Right, we can move on. Only I couldn’t. Perfect conditions in late Autumn meant this was going to be ‘the day’. Just Matt and I so no friendly haranguers pointing phones at my imminent demise. The key to the gap is actually the jump before. Clear that by landing fully on the transition, and you’re at the perfect speed to hit the ramp of the MONSTER ABYSS ATTEMPTING TO DRAG ME INTO OBLIVION.

I really need to work on my positive thinking.  Any road, we hauling a fair lick on grippy dirt and I’m right behind Matt as he sails over the qualifier. Somehow tho –  because I’m a Doofus – I manage to fuck that up and drop my rear wheel short of the transition. I lose speed, and Matt’s rear wheel as he comfortably flies over 10 feet of fresh air to kiss the down ramp.

I come to a shuddering halt and swear.  Bollocks, we’ll go again. This time I hit it a little sweeter and I’m in a great position to conquer my personal nemesis. Only somehow I’ve grabbed a shitload of Shimano and scooted into the chicken run. Matt looks round ‘Did you….’ but he can see I did not. And he can hear it as well. I’m grumpy for the rest of the ride. And the rest of the day because now it’s November, meaning it’ll be Spring before I get another chance.

Except this exceptionally dry spell has left the trails mint-y mint. We’re on a long ride and the gap is close to the last descent. I’ve been going well and Matt asks if I fancy a crack at it. I mull the idea up a 10 minute climb, before deciding I’m basically out of excuses and it’s either Shit or Get Off The Pot. Hopefully not thinking too literally here.

Did I want another look at it? No I fucking did not. I’ve looked at it a 100 times. Mainly from a ground based position riding around the blighter. Right then,  we’re straight into the trail and it’s feeling good until Matt slows down. What the hell is he doing? Before the relief we’re not doing it washes through me, he’s off again heading for the qualifier.  Oh we are doing it then. Super.

I have never hit that jump so well, hardly felt the landing, and we’re accelerating hard down the slope past the point of no return. Not for one microsecond was I going to bottle it. My mind – as it does at such times of stress and worry – shut completely down and I handed the whole thing off to muscle memory and Newtonian physics.

You do hit it fast and there’s a real feeling of being in the air for a while. Then you’re not, and I’m a little nose heavy on landing but nothing that’s going to throw me out the front door. I totally fail to make the corner as I’ve chucked the bike away and am running around gesticulating wildly and making senseless noises*

Cez asked if I wanted another go for the camera. I decided probably not. I’m so wobbly from all the adrenalin and relief, I can barely stand up never mind poking the monster again. But next time will be a whole lot easier.

So the picture up there isn’t me. It’s Pete from a few years back**. It doesn’t really show the full horror of what’s going on. Obviously I’m making it sound WAY harder than it is, but when I moved here at 40, I couldn’t jump over a log and at 51 I’m still riding harder and scarier stuff.

This makes me feel like a five year old. And that’s risk/reward right there 🙂

*apparently no one noticed anything different to normal.

**and it’s longer than that now. Honestly, ask anyone!

Three wise men

Classic Gap Ride

This post could have worked a whole lot better had it been published during the season of the Sky Fairy. Especially as any lies – sorry mis-statements as we now seem to be calling them – would barely register against the nonsense of the  plastic believers making one-off pilgrimages to their local churches.

That’s quite enough of that. Let’s talk bikes.  Three men – let’s lose the wise tag based on what’s coming – appeared through the miracle of internal combustion at a mythical location we’ll call faff-central.

One brought sandwiches, another a massive hangover, the third a bunch of excuses and a non functioning rear brake. As gifts, these scored barely one out of three. The one barely scraping in due to two kinds of pickle and home made bread*

Classic Gap Ride

Van packed, driver navigationally confused, not very wise man one making unhelpful suggestions, definitely unwise man two still looking drunk. An inouspicus start. No stars, just winter solstice gloom and the desperate need to do things outside to avoid further incidents with cheese and brandy.

Ninety minutes later, we’re checking packs and worrying about the weather. In a ‘B’ movie kind of ‘it’s too quiet, something must be about to happen’ kind of way. Last year we slogged through snow, other years offered up rain, hail, gale force winds and assorted meteorological misery.

Best crack on then before Fate notices. First climb is fine. Easy even with no hangover and an absence of frost and ice. Easy for me, Cez however was rocking a skin colour I associated with either a) dead already or b) dead soon.  He man’d up and we got it done in a little under the baseline. I’ve ridden this route so many times, there’s a rhythm and a cadence to it, so you know if you’re ahead.

Classic Gap Ride

Or in Alex’s case, underneath it. On cresting the tricky last climb to the ridge, he’s chosen poorly with a route best marked summer, and essentially bog snorkelled his way out the far side. As close to wise as any of us get, I’ve skirted that obstacle and barely dipped a toe in the clay, while Cez has gone full ‘chubby tyre paddle steamer’ through the middle.

Classic Gap Ride

The ridge top is still a hundred metres of climbing away. Last year we were woefully under-provisioned in the area of ice climbing equipment. Today it was a breeze because neither snow, nor the bastard head wind, long associated with this climb, was attempting to throw you back into the valley.

Classic Gap Ride

It almost felt too easy. Which made me a bit suspicious. Rightly so, as the first descent upgraded my understanding of a rear brake from ‘that’ll pump up nicely’ to ‘no it’s totally fucked’. For the look of the thing we threw in a new set of pads which achieved nothing other than wasting a new set of pads.

The next descent was interesting. Exciting even. Momentarily terrifying. Once or twice eyes were closed. Wet Welsh rock asks a lot of tyres. The front one especially doing all the steering and – in my case – braking. Not much traction-pie left for actually ‘gripping’, so reducing my choices to rolling the dice to score breakneck speed into what’s essentially an abandoned quarry, or the strong potential of sanding myself down with some razor sharp slate.

I picked a middle way. Wasn’t pretty but got it done. Was quite happy to be heading back up hill. Before which Cez somehow managed to fall into a heap while not actually moving. The fact he’d been taking the piss about my inability to open a gate a moment earlier made this just a whole lot sweeter.

Climb then. Up the Roman Road. Sandwiches at the top. The Bird doesn’t climb as well as my Ibis but it’s nowhere near rubbish, and I was feeling pretty good so made a decent stab at hurting myself for the seventeen minutes your heart rate is bouncing agains the rev limiter. Was ready for a sit down and the burgeoning worry that I was essentially uni-braked heading into a shit-load of rock-chop and steepness.

Excusing myself, I headed out first and minced my way down the steepest pitches, especially those with loose rocks all seemingly labelled with my own personalised grim reaper motif.

Thew the bike down in relief and fired up the camera. To see Alex riding the stuff I’d found somewhat challenging in the manner of a semi-pro. Fair play I thought, that’s going somewhat and not lacking commitment. As he passed the lens, I heard the hiss of a tyre pushed far beyond it’s performance boundaries.

Classic Gap Ride

Classic Gap Ride

We heard this twice more on the same descent. Alex used the exact number of spare tubes we had. I’ll be honest one more puncture and we’d have stolen his van keys and left him there. It wasn’t just the repeated faff of dragging the tyre from the rim, it was the painful re-inflatement process with a wheezy pump he’d clearly inherited from his grandfather.

Classic Gap Ride

We eventually got it done and descended to the canal which lacked the ice cold puddles of previous years, then latterly the car park where the van was parked. In some ways I was relieved at not crashing myself stupid riding a single brake**. In others this felt too easy, not the hard bastard ride we’d talk about for months afterwards.

On reflection though, it was a brilliant day out and I’d successfully dodged a magazine of bullets. Sometimes you just have to accept that you’re not in control of a whole load of variables and that’s okay.

As a wise man once set. Not me, obviously.

*we’re not savages. A man has to eat. Artisan-ally in this case.

** every time I ride this route, I remember my mate Russ breaking his back on the final descent back in 2003.

Updated the bike page and…

.. the most read articles. Not that you had a lot of choice last year as I couldn’t be arsed to write much. Except for the never-less-than-oustanding Cranked magazine. A subscription to that august publication shall absolutely enrich your life. Especially if you read everyone else’s articles first 🙂

Bike Page (hint: it’s been a busy one): here
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