Gravel? Want a ditch with that?

From Ads phone. Me riding into some proper skies.

I don’t think I’m injured” I groaned while extracting myself slowly from an upside down bicycle and a wet ditch, “but thanks for asking” I added. Adam was far too busy pissing himself laughing to show any sympathy for my predicament.

Welcome to the strange world of ‘Gravel Riding’. A further pointless niche in the ever splintering discipline we used to call ‘riding a bike’. And as with any new thing, it’s mostly an old thing repurposed for late stage capitalism. Actually, it’s not even a thing at all, more a spectrum bookended by the Rough Stuff Fellowship* at one end and re-imagined 90s MTBs at the other.

If it’s not a thing, then maybe it’s a lifestyle. A familiar double triangle silhouette repurposed for bike packing epics, social spins on quiet roads, criss-crossing a network of forest roads or simply doing the same thing on a different bike. All things to all riders- the ‘throw shit at the wall and see what sticks‘ marketing approach.

Fairly sure a middle aged bloke lying supine in a brackish ditch wasn’t on anyone’s mood wall, but here is where we find ourselves. Dressed in unflattering lycra while riding past great singletrack. We’re deep in what should a very familiar Forest of Dean, but my mental map is misaligned with what’s happening on the ground.**

Discombobulation stared early. I’ve not packed the Mighty Wind in a vehicle since Ads and I set out on the Lon Las Cymru back in 2019. Since then it’s been mostly titanium wall art interspersed with desultory exploring from home***. That had been fine, which should not be confused with good.

Exploring alone doesn’t feel adventurous, but I guess if we’re going to grudgingly confer some benefits on nichedom, bikes likes these encourage that adrenal trigger of ‘I wonder what’s down there’. See also eBikes. Except.. no don’t get me started. It’ll be ‘old man shouts at clouds‘ before I can stop.

Adam has brought his new-to-him steel Fairlight bouncing on a set of 650B tyres rocking that 90s MTB vibe. Including the tan-walls but only one of us is pulling that off. I’m keeping it closer to what we used to call Cross Bikes with 700cc wheels running pressures best thought of as ‘desperately seeking tubeless‘.

In the spirit of our last great adventure, we are immediately lost. Ads is reacquainting himself with Garmin’s finest software, while I’m confidently fixing our location by randomly pointing at trees. MTB DNA takes over and we abandon the electronic line, instead climbing up a wooded singletrack trail mostly in the right direction. If you’re lost, up is always that direction.

We quickly rendezvous with the route and settle into that third place between the road and the proper trails. White roads, fire roads, logging tracks, sunken doubletrack – tedious links between the good stuff on a MTB. On these bikes tho, they offer a fast path under a colour changing autumnal canopy.

The FoD has become a Mecca for mountain biking. What we forget is how it was before. Timber and mining have a strong heritage here. The legacy of which are countless tracks criss-crossing over a hundred kilometres of mixed woodland. We’re following a few meandering towards the centre where a late breakfast awaits.

It feels like we’ve circumnavigated the cafe and bike shop in some kind of pincer movement. Trails I’ve ridden hundreds of times appear from unexpected directions. Fall line descents are enclosed by fireroad loops. However these are not without a certain excitement and occasional feelings of peril.

Gravel is mostly marbles loosely connected to hardback. Slides are a real thing. Speeds can get pretty high and while I’ve dumped the SPDs, there’s no safety valve dropping the seat post. I don’t really get riding these bikes on anything technical, but on easy trails and fast white roads they are bloody good fun.

We’ve covered the miles at a good rate so ride straight past Pedalabikeaway. I’ve not given up on bacon and coffee tho so some ten minutes later we’re sitting outside in October sunshine toasting our Wednesday skive. A quick map check shows 30km to go which on these bikes doesn’t feel like a chore.

Bacon and Coffee out of shot.
See what I mean about those tan walls? #lush 🙂

There’s a few steep pulls tho. Most of them staying away from the road. Only once are we spat out onto the Gloucester Road where a considerate multi-access user gains 10 feet by doing something stupid, while another swears at us from the safety of his 2 ton cage.

Fuck ’em basically. This is why I hate road riding. Soon enough we’re back to where this started. A poorly defined path with a well defined rut. Adam clears it with that annoying bike handling ease of his, whereas I drop the front wheel perfectly into the groove. The rest is basically physics and a further loss of dignity.

Dusting myself down, we gurn up some tough tracks to crest the summit of last valley. End of the ride was a bit anticlimactic with the route pointing us through unpassable felling. So we abandoned the GPX and engaged PubNav(tm) for a downhill road blast and a well earned pint.

Next time we said, we’ll find a better way down. And maybe see what’s up that other bit, could add that bit on, link to that other bit. That felt like proper adventuring. If these bikes are anything, they are brilliant companions for that.

However, I’ve still not forgiven Ads for buying a ‘Gravel Helmet‘.

*Buy the book off that website. It’s fantastic.

**This is not new. I’m 80% lost, 10% “oh we’re there are we? I wasn’t expecting that” and 10% “I recognise this bit, we’re near the pub

***Getting lost in local woods, on local roads and occasionally in a random field

Purple Rain

Revel Rascal

You: “what the hell is that?” / Me: “Look at the colour, it’s a magnificent purple isn’t it?” / You: “That’s somewhat beside the point. It appears you have bought ANOTHER new bike” / Me: “What do you think about the orange highlights, I’m not so sure“. You: “These are just pathetic distraction tactics, admit it you’re just embarrassed by whatever the fuck you’ve bought

Me: “Squirrel

Squirrel indeed. It’s not subtle is it? Kind of hard to hide. Which wasn’t on the top of my agenda when introducing it to my riding pals. “Prince would ride that” one quipped. “Not now, he’s dead, Al’s just really really old” another responded. Supportive as ever then; I waved my hands while loftily explaining this was more than just ‘a not quite dead yet’ purchase.

Faced with arms folded cynicism, I retreated into the numbers. Not those associated with geometry, more the total bike integers plotted against a timebound X-axis. 53 bikes, 54 years old. That’s not a level of imbalance I can handle, and with little chance to physically regress*, a new bike re-established much needed equilibrium.

Only not really. A happy coincidence at best. If ‘Fuck me, I’m sure I was 37 last week, how has this happened and who can I blame?” can be semantically twisted to mild joy. Serendipity was merely a by-product of a new product. The problem was the Mojo4. Well okay, the problem was me, but let’s pretend it’s a bike issue and move on.

Moving on is what we’re all about on the Hedgehog. Via jagging sideways, flashbacks, fast forwards, and all sorts of hooky rationale powering the revolving door in the ShedOfDreams(tm). More like a turbine recently. It was all going so averagely before one thing led to another and that led to what you see above.

Okay, let’s get this over with. Brief history to set context. My first Ibis was the Mojo3. Proper game-changer even for my middling skills. Logically buying another one from the same brand was a fine idea, and so it proved with the Mighty RipMo. A triggers broom of awesomeness you’ll be wrenching from my cold, dead hands.

Repeating this theme would surely continue the trend of right bike, right time. Which is where things kind of fall down. The Ripley wasn’t the right bike at all, and the right time was definitely when I sold it. Which led us full circle to the all-fresh next-gen Mojo. The 4, I mean it’s a number higher, it has to be better.

Spoiler alert. The adverts on various bike forums would suggest otherwise. If you need 950 words of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’, please check out the next issue of www.cranked.cc. Honestly, you should just buy the mag anyway because it’s full of brilliant content.**

So we’re not going to talk about that either. Instead, let us feast our eyes on the opulence of Deep Purple- a bike worryingly close in numbers too many of those languishing forgotten on the spreadsheet of regret. 140mm at the front, 10mm less out the back. Longish, definitely low, moderately slack. Multi linkage suspension design incompatible with 8 months of UK trail conditions***

Rides the same as those tossed in the virtual skip then? No, not at all. Well not entirely. There’s some voodoo hidden in all those pivots. It’s a bonkers good climber- maybe a little better than the DW link bikes I love so much. That’s a hell of a compliment.

It’s pretty light which helps. Another Araldite and string combo artifaced to within an inch of a topknot. Niche or not, downhill it’s a properly sorted trail bike. Everytime I rode the Mojo, it felt like the first time, on the Rascal (yes I know, with that colour I’m only grateful they didn’t call it the ‘throbber’) within 2 trails it kind of disappeared.

That’s a good thing. It also feels like a mini RipMo which is a good thing squared or possibly cubed. Just get on it, show a modicum of bike handling ability, point it at a favourite trail and wait for those endorphins to break down the door. Sure some of this is new bike glasses, a little more is displaced guilt from throwing good money after bad.

But, as has been pointed out on far too many occasions, father time is increasingly feeling like grandfather time. For some reason my birthday last week felt like a bit of an event. It was definitely an alcoholic event but that’s nothing new. No, it was the post hangover sobriety, and a snatched look in the mirror that triggered the ‘life is now really too short to ride bikes I don’t like‘.

I’m lucky enough to finance such selfish nonsense. But tracking Matt and Steve on a favourite Yat trail, all I could think was… well not much really… just that in the remaining days left to ride mountain bikes, I need every one to feel like this.

That’s a piss poor excuse to discard a bike less than six months after proclaiming it the new, best thing. Or replacing it during a two hour ‘what’s next’ buying frenzy.

Sure I get that, but ‘SQUIRREL

*mental regression continues unabated.

**present company accepted.

***this thing has so many mud shelves, it comes with its own stacker!

 

That ended well…

I can ride that out. Maybe.

Hello and welcome to a special edition of ‘oh fuck, really, again?’. What’s going on up there has a couple of triggers. One half a second before best thought of as ‘what kind of sick bastard left that tree there?’ and another a day prior where I was going large on small achievements.

Let’s start there. Keen to extend our skills day into actual riding, we ignored the mercury rising and headed out to our favourite trails. Perfect summer conditions primed for my best friends and a possibly inappropriate hardtail. Not everyone had got the memo, so just Matt, Rex and I sallied forth on a single sprung end.

These are not XC race bikes tho. They are long forked, fat tyred, slack angled bruisers. Lean into the front end and there’s pretty much no reason to ride a full suss on these trails. As ever, the bike was not the issue.

I kind of was. Leading the first couple of trails I was struggling to put theory into practice. Too much external stimulus,  some of it from behind wondering if I had a major stake in brake pad commodities. Obviously a breezy ‘fuck off’ deals with that but even so, limbs and brain were wondering if they’d ever met.

I hid mid pack until things improved. Which, considering conditions were perfect, is hardly a critique on my riding skills. Even so, flow was occasionally sighted if not consistently maintained. There was a lot of shit being talked, dust was harvested from every turn and laughter echoed through the summer leaves.

Life stuff right there. A small part of me was hanging back, going steady because in four days our postponed King Alfreds Way was fixed with non movable deadlines.  But on trails I know, and in conditions I ride pretty well this was not going to be a problem. Do the right thing, back off 10% and revel in some serious adulting.

About that.  We switched sides of the valley after a fantastic few hours tearing up the Doward. The symbioses of hardtail and rider under sunny skies had me over-rating my ability. You know the old saying “coaching can only take you far, but talent is limitless‘.

Or possibly limiting. We dragged ourselves up a white road climb where melting was a definite possibility.  As ever Matt has an itinerary that suggests we might finish before nightfall if all goes well. It went well early doors with an adequately brisk descent of a trail we’d loop back to access a well loved option.

I have ridden this trail *checks strava* at least 50 times. In the pissing rain, sideways sleet and endless dampness transforming every root into a mortality vector. And while I’ve had moments of ‘woooah woooah WOOOAH‘ I’ve never properly stacked it.

Until today.  Matt sends me out first so – because my ego is still anchored to being about 15 years old – I go full GoPro gimp*.  There is nothing to scare me on this trail. Fast and smooth, leave the brakes alone, lean into that front end, remember what you’ve been taught.

What I hadn’t been taught is ‘don’t crash your bike into a tree‘. Which is no fault of coaching as it’s pretty bloody obvious. We must ride past a thousand on every ride and we’ve all experienced what happens if you clip one. Earlier that day I’d castigated Matt for his 800mm bars explaining he was sure to be splattered by a handy trunk.

What’s that they say about Karma?  It points you at four sinewy interlinked corners where everything has to be perfect to nail fast shifting apexes. I was thinking about exactly how I’d be nailing those with my new technique and confidence. This was going to be GoPro gold.

Never got there. Mistimed a simple turn and smashed the bar into a sturdy sapling. The bike went sideways, I went horizontal. Physics, being a bit of twat, double teamed with gravity to punt me into geology defined by organ splattery bedrock.

Had an extended lie down. “Are you okay” / “Fucked if I know“. Gingerly got back up. Took a while. Tangentially aware left hand had taken a beating. Ignored that and rode the double drop a few minutes later one handed on my hardtail. Felt good about that. Didn’t feel good about much else that evening.

Two days later I tried riding the gravel bike. Two seconds of off-road confirmed four days of riding was a fantasy. I felt shit about it and letting Adam down but there’s being brave and being stupid. So we postponed again. Come September I’m bloody determined to get it done.

Roll forward five days. It’s still not great. I swerved A&E by asking my long suffering physio to have a look ‘Scaphiod probably okay, don’t ride on it, it’s properly swollen’.  Obviously, I rode on it, just tried the HulkHand(tm) in the field to see how it felt… not too bad. Maybe I could ride tomorrow?

No, I really can’t as my wrist and thumb are screaming for attention. I can’t quite hear what they’re shouting, but the gist seems to be ‘don’t be a fucking idiot’.

Well, that’s fair I suppose.  Could have been a collarbone. Really, lots of outcomes way worse than this. But shit I’m grumpy. Missed a four day bike tour because – and let’s just be honest here – I really am an idiot.

Will I ever learn? Probably not. Am I okay with that? Absolutely.

*If you want to see this post in real time, then this YT clip starts about 2 seconds before the crash

Been there, cased that

Me at The Golfie. Happy to be alive. And feeling very alive.

This post should start with an excuse. Or a more arresting image displacing a desperate attempt to manoeuvre the elephant quietly out of the room. Or a pithy missive on this format being a bit grandad. Sure not written much in a couple of months but check out my ‘shredits

Yeah, about that. Bought a GoPro. Spliced together clips of average riding and Olympic class swearing into content for an audience of exactly one. My ‘moob tube’* channel has slightly less engagement than underwater knitting or speed tiling. So anyway lots happened most of it roadkill on what we used to call the Information Superhighway.

I might be back to some of the highlights. Of which there have been many. A week in Scotland when it didn’t rain. Let me confirm, other than a 2 minute shower, we spent 6 day with sunny skies up top and dusty trails below. Sure we got midged and fly’d to death but what a trip.

In between there’s been all sorts of shenanigans involving bicycles and beer.  Scan forward and we’re back to the last post on jibbing the King Alfreds Way. Come this Thursday we’re back set fair by forecasts not projecting sideways hail onto my unmotivated person.

Words shall follow. Unless that forecast deteriorates. In which case both Adam and I are firm in our pact of ‘well fuck that for a game of soldiers‘. Tomorrow we’ve duped a few Wednesday night stragglers into a big full day out. On the hottest day of the year. On our favourite full on trails. On hardtails. Nothing to go wrong there**

Right done the whole ‘squirrel‘ thing. Displacement and distraction cannot suppress my ego much longer. An ego which had me explaining to Matt that I felt I might be a ‘little bit stoked‘. His expression pretty much validated that even if I was, this is not something a post-50 rider should ever express.***

I was still expressing it. Having cleared a pair of 10-12 foot tabletops. No one was more surprised than me. Be clear tho, this was not some light bulb moment upgrading me into a riding colossus, as I’d properly crashed a few minutes earlier. No one was surprised about that at all. Except me who assumed it was a fractious dirt bunny grabbing my front wheel. Until I saw the video.

Offered up by our coach Katy (www.katycurd.com) attempting to get two old white guys to jump. She’s not working with top quality talent here, and yet I found myself relatively relaxed as a huge slab of dirt passed serenely under my wheels.

Back in May I booked a session with Katy which mostly fixed my ‘arse going like a rabbits nose‘ approach to downhill drops. I wrote something far better than this for the last Cranked mag so nothing to add here other than, yes, I did crash that time as well.

Matt and I are half way through a second coaching session. Katy has been improving our corner techniques. Making me look mostly competent and Matt look even faster than usual. We’ve moved onto jumps and I’ve moved on to reasons why the simple exercises are beyond my cerebral buffer.

Repetition and gentle encouragement nudges the dial. I’m not good but there’s a noticeable uptick from enduringly shit. That mark is being hit by almost everyone else on the skills loop. Lots of grunting, no technique, repeat until ego masks failure.

We moved on. To two tabletops where my standard approach would see me brake mightily before compressing at least three vertebra many feet from the downslope. Katy believed in us in a way I cannot, and sent us back up the hill to commit to what we practised.

Well fuck me. I flew over the first one and massively cased the second. I’m taking that I said. She pointed me back upwards with a few tweaks and, a few runs later, I’ve cleared both of the monsters.  I was, er, a little bit stoked. Matt asked if I’d mirror that commitment if they were gaps. I was suddenly quite a lot less stoked.

Katy then offered Plan B. Sometimes you just have to hit the buggers as fast as you can. I’ll admit here to being a bit nervous as this approach has never served me terribly well. Unless your goals were extensive bleeding and the possible unplanned removal of a vital organ.

Still we’re here. And no one is going home dying wondering. Big old crank, lean into the berm, time that compression and the lip is coming up terrifyingly fast. Breathe. Push into the lip, keep pushing, wait, wait… wait just a little longer, now let it come back as the bike goes super light.

Suspension unloads, manage that, try and remember all the stuff that is probably important, None of it is important. You are flying. Really, no longer an earth bound misfit. Point stiff hips downward and the landing feels like nothing. Don’t blow it now, death grip the bars, slingshot the berm and go again.

This time it feels both familiar and unreal. Time slows but the scary doesn’t fill the gap. I go again and it’s just as good. Then I watch someone less than half my age throw all sorts of shapes with nary a care. I’m fine with that. Because this morning I was casing this every single time.

I cannot wait to ride tomorrow. I’m sure most of the controlled environment won’t happen on the trail. Going to be fun finding out. Especially on the hardtail.

It’s less old dog and new tricks, more you can just keep on learning. That’s a pretty cool thing.

*combination of loose camera harness and some middle aged wobbly bits.

**next post might refute that last statement. Possibly from a hospital bed.

***Should have gone with ‘well that was jolly nice. Tea anyone?’

Jibbed

A bit like of gravel!

Excuses first. When it comes to misery and riding bikes, I’m gold-stamped and time served. While I’m rubbish at suffering, I’ve still suffered mightily over the last thirty years. Rain, hail, snow, gales, endarkenment, blood, sweat and many, many tears. Really I’m done with it. Type 2 fun can go fuck itself while I hide inside.

Which is why as of 8am this morning three of us were not riding the King Alfreds Way (KAW). As of 8am a week ago we called it. Six weeks of rain and the prospect of hard precipitation for another seven days was enough for at least two of us to play the ‘sod that‘ card.

Almost four years ago Adam and I spent three days being blown off* a smorgasbord of Welsh mountains.  At the end of which I made it absolutely clear that was the last bloody time we let man-logic rule proper meteorology. Sure I look back at the Trans Cambrian with some affection. Back being the key word here.

Looking forward to the KAW was quite a thing, After the brilliant experience of riding the Lon Los Cymru, 2020 was slated for a crack at the west coast of Ireland. The guidebook for the Wild Atlantic Way looked epic and we got close to booking flights before, you know, that whole global pandemic thing.

So when the KAW was trumpeted as a whole new semi-off-road experience, we were all over like a cheap suit. Ads is more your ‘Yep that sounds good‘ type of planner, where I’m deep into the the details with multiple spreadsheets. We took a punt on post lockdown opening times and booked three pubs on the route. A route that’s pushing 350km and a whole lot of elevation.

Instead of training for riding proper trails over four days, I invested in new kit. Heavier wheels and fatter tubeless tyres. A new bar mounted nose bag. A smaller chain ring panically purchased after a proper review of the route profile.  All of this was tested during the cold but dry April when my main worry was how unyielding the tracks might be.

Hah. Careful what you wish for. Rain arrived Easter Monday and shows no sign of leaving. Came for the downpour, stayed for the hail. Social media hash-tagged the route with broken mechs, fourteen hour days, misery compounded by desperate entreaties the weather might be better tomorrow. Of course it wasn’t.

Of course we vacillated. This was not our first rodeo. Even so, riding fully laden gravel bikes on the wet chalk of the Hampshire downs was not filling me with joy. The stories afterwards would be reassuringly epic. The actual daily experience reliably shit. We could get it done, but I’ve enough of those memories and not enough time in front of me to collect many more.

So we jibbed. Additional context was Ads hadn’t recovered from crashing his MTB a few weeks earlier, and I was shuttling up and down the motorway worrying about an ageing parent. But honestly if the sun had been shining these last few weeks we’d be sat in a pub right now, some 80km into the route, congratulating ourselves on a day well done.

Instead I’m sat at home with a glass at my left hand wondering about what might have been, Sure we’re talking about postponement not cancellation. We’re not giving up, merely picking a better time because this is meant to be fun not some homage to purgatory.

Even so, it feels like failure. Is this how the end starts? Faking adulthood to avoid tackling what might be defining? Too old to learn those new tricks? A bit nesh in the face of difficulty? Or wise enough to wax the board and wait a few weeks?

Whatever we’re not doing the thing I was really looking forward to doing. Regardless of the crap Spring, I’m pretty fit and ready to go. But not ready to go and endure four days of misery. Yet I need to be sure there will be more adventures coming soon. So I’m not filling the next four days wondering about what they might be,

Instead I’m going to ride that bike as a proxy to what we didn’t do.  Or at least what we didn’t do, yet.

I expect it’ll be the standard life affirming riding bike thing. Tinged with a little bit of guilt and regret. Whatever, It’ll all be clearer when the rain finally stops and the riding starts.

*this is not any kind of metaphor. It was way less fun than that.

Never gets old.

The last of the bluebells..

Power of 3. Murf was 13 last week, I turned 53 a few months ago and the mighty RipMo clocked its’ third year in the ShedofDreams(tm) today. It’s fair to say both the Lab and the bike are wearing that age rather better than their owner. The senior dog spends most his time asleep with vigorous activity being reserved for anything food related. At times like this I’d like to reverse the axiom that pets resemble their owners.

The bike retains the boundless enthusiasm which sealed the deal back in 2018 and cemented it’s place in the top three MTBs I’ve ever owned*. While its inherent qualities remain intact, the components transforming that frame from a shiny bit of garage art to a full functioning bicycle are somewhat more mutable.

While that picture and this one look similar they really are not the same.

Ibis RipMo. About to get very dirty on its first ride !

Let’s start at the rear; three wheels, four cassettes, three rear mechs and a similar number chainrings, two cranksets, four sets of pedals, a replacement seat post, a warranty stem**,  new posh forks and a front wheel. We’re not done yet, annual fork and shock services, new shock inners after the originals shat themselves in Malaga, and a final addition of ‘Strict Helga the German Saddle‘. And tyres? Well I dunno, let’s go with ‘a lot‘.

That whole paragraph could be summarised as ‘only the bar and brake rotors are original‘. What’s still missing though is the majority of these changes are wear and tear related. In three years the RipMo has clocked nearly 4000 kilometres across four countries. It’s been smashed down endless switchbacks in Sospel, brutalised by a sodden week in Finale, bashed nearly to death in Malaga and abused on a mostly weekly basis all over the UK.

And still on the original set of bearings and bushings. Which considering it’s designed in Drought County, California is something of a testament to the build quality***. Regardless of the Triggers Broom component stack, the heart of the bike is as it was when I fetched it from a battered box in May, 2018.

If it were a three ringed tree, it’d have notched the passing of time as new and shiny bikes orbited its wall bound status. I never really got bored of riding it, but there was always something new to try instead. Ironic really as in the first six months of RipMo ownership I sold every full suss I owned, including the Ibis gateway drug that was the Mojo3.

Me being predictably me reverted to type and bought stuff that seemed – oh I don’t know what the word is, let’s go with – appropriate. The last of which was the Ripley and we all know how that worked out. Well I say last, obviously that doesn’t include the Mojo4. Because why would it, as that’s an entirely different proposition. Or so I tell myself.

Although not so much this last two weeks. The RipMo has missed the last couple of upgrade cycles what with the new and shiny taking preference. After some post-Ripley bike Cluedo ‘the bike buying idiot in the shed with an XT crank‘, a whole new 12 speed wheel and transmission were slated to freshen up the old girl.

Obviously my skills lie elsewhere so I slotted it into the trailer on the way to a big Saturday ride. Arriving at Matt’s, I decided a second RipMo ride in six months might be quite the thing. Even with it’s mostly knackered gears creaky rear wheel. This entirely failed to stop it being entirely marvellous to the point where I wondered out loud ‘do I really need more than one full suspension bike?‘.

The case for the defence is it’s built heavy with parlance mud clearance. It’s really too much bike most of the time so making trails a bit too easy. What this misses is how much I’ve missed this bike. It’s saved my arse and many other useful limbs countless times. It’s brilliant because it disappears. It elevates me beyond average because it’s just so bloody competent. As a package it’s pretty much perfect in terms of geometry, kinematics and build.

There’s a new version I really don’t care about. What I cared about was buying new bikes that might be better than this old one. Honestly I never found one. Last night there was much briskness and bravery on the Wednesday night ride. Stuff that gives me pause doesn’t stop the Ripmo for a microsecond. Just point it, show a little faith and get off the brakes.

It’s pretty much the perfect trail bike. The median of the three bears. The average of XC and Enduro without ever feeling even slightly average. The only bike I feel fast on even when my head is hard stopped on slow. Honestly it’s so good I’d even let the beer fridge go before I sold it.

So if this feels like a love letter to nothing more than araldite and string, then so be it.  It doesn’t stop me tapping the bars after a great ride and whispering a ‘that’ll do pig’ when no one is listening.

And I get to ride it again tomorrow. Never gets old.

*which is a hell of an achievement when you consider the extensive and bewildering pantheon of bike shaped composites that’ve passed through the shed door.

**Original cracked. Which I discovered the night before an uplift day to a bike park. That check is the reason I still have all my teeth.

***to be fair, Matt’s saved them with an annual service. Even so, that’s way better than a few ‘UK designed’ bikes I’ve had.

 

The numbers do lie

Ibis Ripley v4 at 1000km

Respectful silence please. A bicycle has passed on. On a journey through this vale of tears* over the River Styx** and into a final resting place. Well if not final at least with a decent chance of seeing a few seasons, instead of the revolving door policy of the ShedofDream(tm) punting it into the sellasphere.

Anyway it’s not really dead, just resting. With Nick who opened negotiations with “Hi Alex, you probably don’t remember me, I bought a bike from you 10 years ago. Do you want to sell me your Ripley?”. I didn’t, he did and I might. Vague memories of my old Pace 405 being shipped onto a affable fella possibly located in the Chepstow region.  There’s been a whole lot of life and a shit load of bikes since then, so I sent a request down to the deep archive*** and struck up a careful dialogue.

The backstory of the talented Mr Ripley can be found here and here. The TLDR version is we’ve never really got on. There have been a few great moments but not enough fantastic days.  I fixed the front end, the back end, the wheels, the tyres, even the bloody seatpost but I never fixed me. I was about the only reviewer that couldn’t correlate the experience with brilliance.

So – being a data guy – correlation is kind of my thing. If things don’t make sense look at the numbers. The Ripley and the Mojo4 share many of those. One has a bit more reach, the other a bit less head angle. Different wheel sizes but clamped in the same model of posh fork.

There aren’t enough points of difference to make the point they feel very different. I’ve ridden lots of DW Link bikes and they share similar characteristics.  They don’t squat much under power, they’re pretty plush on small bumps. They have a bottomless feel, even on shorter travel versions,  without losing that never-defined-but-quite-important ‘poppiness‘ of a well sorted trail bike.

Even so quantification works better in a lab. It loses much of its efficacy outside. For example, one of my many skills deficits is committing front end weight on corners. The Ripley fed the fear that the next second might end painfully in hedge or tree. Well until I handed it over to my mate Steve at Afan, then he handed me my arse right back a few trails later.

It’s not about the bike then. Even so I was keen to understand why. A hatched plan saw me riding the bikes back to back on the same trails. Even if the numbers matched, my experience would trigger the Nero thumb. I’d explained this in tedious detail to Carol who wearily acknowledged this was a good idea and could I please shut up now?

That plan didn’t survive first contact with an email. I dithered for a bit, called a few friends for advice, one of which asked “When would you ride the Ripley over the Mojo?“.  A good question for which I had no answer. I’ve already thrown the Mojo into all sorts of situations way beyond my bravery. It’s saved me so far.

That’s not to say the Ripley wouldn’t have but it didn’t give me the confidence to even try. Which again is odd as it has the same or more travel. More? Yes because of the industry maxim****  that a 29 inch wheeled bike adds 10mm or 20mm ‘real‘ travel compared to a 27.5 inch. That might be true at the extreme of the riding envelope. Maybe, but I’m not riding close to that envelope.

I am however getting a whole lot more confident riding the Mojo. I’ve chucked it over the big gap jump on two consecutive weeks. Which has happened  – hmm let me check – exactly zero times in the last two years. I’ve kept the fast fellas in sight and, because none of those metrics really matter a single fuck, finished every ride with a bloody big grin on my wizened fizog.

So it wasn’t too hard to transact a one-price deal with Nick. He’s a good egg and we had a no bullshit convo ending in a physical switcharoo only 24 hours of comms being established. I’m very happy to report he’s loving the Ripley and it’s ripping his legs off on big days out. This is 100% better than it hanging unridden on my shed wall.

Better still he’s keen to show me round his local trails. I’ve not so much lost a bike as gained a new riding buddy. Those numbers though – better to treat them as advisory.  Sometimes you have to go with what feels right. And right now I’m pretty happy with how things worked out.

N-1 tho. Blimey. Let’s not make a habit of that.

*not veil. Vale as in Valley. Honestly I’m a practising agnostic and even I know this. I’ll happily co-opt some Christian liturgy tho when it scans better than ‘shed

**Okay Severn. Jeez when did fact checking on the Hedgehog become a thing? And no, I didn’t pay the bloody ferryman. Because the bridge is now free.

***Got nothing. Until the physical instantiation of Nick at which point all I could think of was he’d aged quite a lot better than me 😉

****Made up. I’m assuming to sell more 29ers.

Do or do not. There is not try.

Penyard April '21

(this gap is fine. It’s tiny. The one in the text below? Absolute bloody monster)

Me to Matt: “I know I’ve ridden them before. But that bloody chute and big sodding gap are living rent free in my head. However good the ride is, it’s pretty much ruined by anxiety and indecision. I know I can ride them, but I don’t know if I want to. But if I don’t I’ll be filled with self loathing. It’s bloody annoying

Matt to me: ‘Just ride them or don’t ride them. It doesn’t matter, nobody cares‘.

Matt’s a very good friend and mostly good council. But today he’s straight up wrong. It does matter and I bloody care.  Let’s break this down. YouTube has replaced self-help books. It’s awash with content on how to manage this kind of stuff. If you can’t be arsed to read the Chimp Paradox*, there are bite sized fifteen minute videos of talking heads kind of taking sense.

Derivative reduction leaves you with the mental (“I want to do it“), the physical (“I have the skills to do it“) and the doing (“I will fully commit to it“). Nestling in the centre of that Venn is a happy place. Outside of it is a whole load of conflicting advice and new age bullshit. My least favourite is visualisation “imagine clearing that jump and banish negative thoughts

Fuck? Really? Ask me to imagine the second after takeoff and all I’m getting are R-rated rushes of parabolic blood spurts, severed limbs and ground-sky-ground rolls ending in life changing injuries**. Rationally I know this is a statistically remote possibility, but it’s the only possibility I see whenever someone suggests mental exercises are the key to progression.

Okay, moving on. I know I can do this stuff. Assuming my subconscious has bullied its way into the driving seat and tossed all that mental angst out of the passenger window. I came late to steeps and jumping and I’m not great at either. Nor am I totally useless, except when it comes to proper steep and proper gaps. Then I just kind of freeze up and forget the very skills I need to deploy right now.

At which point we’ve been somewhat overtaken by events. The chute is right there, the lip of the jump is filling my vision. I wonder idly if I can grade all my riding pals on a curve. Back here we’re banging the needle on coward, a few yards up may register mildly anxious. Up front the perpetually unworried are on the stops marked bravery or lack of imagination.

Honestly there’s a time and a place for this kind of thing, but let me tell you this it is NOT when you’re about to dive into the void of the unknown. Really, this is not a great point to replace your agency with passenger. Get this wrong and you’ll have no one to blame. Except maybe those YouTube idiots.

Who are smugly clever after the event.  I’ve certainly failed to be clever beforehand.  The chute I fully commit to but blimey I’m scared. Which is entirely reasonable but also consequential. I’m so stiff I might as well be dead already. The line*** is so close to a muscular convex rock and then over a spur that just looks stupid until you consider the alternative.

One foot bounces off the pedals and I exit wide eyed and somewhat stirred. A couple or riding buddies thank me for showing them it’s not quite as easy as the previous two riders made it look. I garble something in reply waiting for my heart rate to drop below that of a amped up hummingbird.

Twenty minutes later, we’re backed up behind the big gap. Rex and I have made a pact to get it done tonight. We’ve both done it before but it would be a hell of a stretch to call it a regular occurrence. I crank hard behind Matt but it still feels too slow, so I’m still pedalling as we hit the lip.

Brilliant. All that practice the day before was for nothing. I’m so far over the front of the bike, physics punts the front tyre on a direct trajectory just below the exit ramp. Body parts inventory coming right up I muse. I’m surprisingly calm because the screaming part of my brain is off line. It’s basically gone stack overflow and taken an early reboot bath.

I feel two bumps. One from the front and one from the back. I then feel the bike is still under me which may have elicited a bit of a relieved noise. I wouldn’t call it a laugh exactly, more the return of respiration and a mighty sob. Six more inches and there would have been all sorts of trouble****.  Matched with equal quantities of trauma.

The rest of the ride was great. Feeling super confident and making decent progress. Still fucking up on a regular basis but that’s just Al standard operating procedure. But loving riding the new bike with a legal band of six.

Even so my thoughts turn back to the chute and the gap. The positive vibe is that if I can fuck them up so badly and not actually crash, the next time will be way easier. A few more after that and they will be normalised. Until the next thing.

The negative black dog is telling me I just got lucky, and that’s not going to happen again. Quit while I’m ahead. Or still got a head. You’re too bloody old and breakable to be taking these risks. Just enjoy what you can rather than lamenting what you’ve lost.

I’m not sure this is an easy resolution. All I know is I’m doomed to spend a lot more time thinking about it. It’ll probably go easier with a beer.

*I’ve read this a couple of times. I think it’s a good book but there’s a bit of me – maybe the chimp – wondering if it’s snake-oil.

**It’s a pretty vivid depiction. Think Hieronymus Bosch only with a little more focus on Hell.

***Line my arse. Path of potential survival is more how I see it.

**** Stop it. It’s beneath you.

Buckets of sunshine

Riding with Jess

It’s been eight months since I rode with Jess. She’s likely missed it less than I have.  Whatever, these rides have the thinnest intersection against what I do week in week out. Bikes yes, everything else no.

That’s definitely a good thing. Riding with your friends – especially after the clusterfuck of previous twelve months – is a festival of chaos. Fast, slow, serious, stupid. Shallow as a tea spoon or as deep as blokes ever get. Genuine kinship and relentless banter. Extensive use of the word ‘fuck‘ as both an adjective and a a verb*

Love that. Tomorrow a legal six will forge British Summer Time, early spring sunshine and dry trails into something special. Outdoor pizza and beer will follow. We’ll probably label it epic, whether it is or not.

But today was different for all the right reasons. Firstly a diversion to sell a frame to a lovely chap who opened negotiations with ‘Hi Alex, I bought a frame off you 11 years ago, would you consider selling me another one?“**

He had and I was. So with that done, Jess and I unloaded bikes under sunny skies at Pedalabikeaway. She was worried about her fitness, I was more concerned with potential mud slides after a weekend of rain. Three days previously we’d dropped into PAB from the west side of the Forest, and it was way wetter than expected. On the upside first proper cup of mid ride coffee since Autumn last year.

Setting off with more hope than expectation, Jess’s lack of riding fitness soon became apparent. There were many stops for a breather and, occasionally, a walk. As a man with approximately zero patience this could have been a problem, But it wasn’t because the sun was shining, deadlines were happening to other people and one of my offspring was still happy to ride with her old man.

I say happy.  More suffering with fortitude and a long list of ailments, Wait till you get to my age I failed to say out loud, as we struggled upwards under blue carpeted skies. Jess could be a decent MTBer if she rode a bit more and trusted her skills. After half a year off she’s still pretty competent and it’s impossible not to be proud of that.

Sure it doesn’t define her like it does for me. But seeing her revel in being properly outside after three months of lockdown made my brittle old heart sing a bit. We took a break where Jess longitudinally measured herself on a fallen tree. After a rest, she women’d the camera while I sweatily gimped in and out of a handy bombhole.

Riding with Jess

She’s ace at this. We had lots of fun me staring long-sightedly into the screen while she enthusiastically pointed out my many flaws. But in a lovely positive way which had me go at it 20+ times***. I retrieved the phone so she could describe a joyful parabolic on a handily placed rope swing

Riding with Jess

We sat on that log munching snacks and pontificating on little lives. Jess is a proper Psych undergrad while I’m a half-arsed read amateur, but blimey we share a proper despair at late stage capitalism. I never got the whole hand ringing thing that your kids become independent of you. That’s not the point, they are always bloody interesting and I’ll take that over changing a nappy.

Soon those hard earned banked gravity credits were joyfully spent on the final two descents. The last one having been recently de-brake-bumped. Jess was a little apprehensive but once she got going I knew how much she was enjoying it. Because I was having just as much fun at 50% of the speed I’d normally ride it.

In the same way there are no fast bikes, fast is absolutely in the eye of the rider eyeing up the next obstacle. Adrenaline isn’t triggered by a speed trap. This is still my world of going as fast as you dare, and then maybe just a little bit faster. I could see Jess re-introducing herself to that so no words are needed to codify why it’s were of the best feelings in the world.

She had many words tho, because – well – chip off the old block and all that. Steam of consciousness. Trying to capture the moment. Feeling the urge to share how that feels. Being a bit scared and doing it anyway. This really is why.

Back at PAB we secured cold snacks, cake and ice cream. There is no indoor service, outside tables or familiar normality. But there’s a chink of light these things are coming back. So we propped ourselves up against the bikes and toasted our success. Then went home to lie in the sun and ignore the pile of work stuff that seemed very important a few hours before.

Jess goes back to her Uni accommodation next week. We’ll miss her of course but she’ll be back for the summer. I hope then she wants to ride with me some more. Because much as riding with my mates is what I love to do, I love this just a little bit more.

Even better is if it’s under buckets of sunshine****

*Anyone who loftily declares swearing as a cipher for a limited vocabulary needs to spend more time with percussive poets firing semantic filth into innocent sentences.

**We will so be back to this. A strange 24 hours indeed.

***there’s a big gap jump I’m training muscles with memory for. We’ll be back to that as well.

****I wondered why I remembered this phrase. So I googled it. It’s the RAF slang for nuclear bombs hung in the bomb bays of the Buccaneers during the Cold War.

There are no fast bikes

IMG_5432

There are, of course, fast riders who will be rapid on anything sporting a wheel at either end. There are, also, frame designs likely to be quicker on specific terrain be that up or down.  Especially with our faster rider on board.

Further, expensive components may harvest marginal gains just not within the metrics defined by marketing departments.  The issue with modern bikes isn’t that they aren’t fast, it is that your average Joe is not. On race courses, winning is time sliced by tenths of seconds, outside of the tapes we could probably make do with a sundial.

Which is pretty much how we find ourselves today and looking back maybe ten years. But cast your gaze a little further and you may remember the noodle-tech 90s where mountain bike frames were barely mutated road bikes. Purple anodising and bar ends hardly masked a hundred years of thin tyred DNA.

Back then Joe or Jo Average could easily overwhelm frame stiffness, brakes, tyres, elastomers and a whole bunch of components barely fit for purpose. Yet our magazine heroes wrestled those steep angled bridleway bashers through downhill courses in ways that still amaze today.

I miss those days even if I don’t miss the bikes. And if I did I could buy something labelled gravel and replay the whole experience*.  But jump onto a contemporary trail or enduro bike and while you may be going faster, that velocity is hard limited by the six inches above your shoulders, not the six inches below**

So far, so old news. Sure, but I’m just riffing on the periphery of an important point coming soon. We’re travelling in that direction, and shall arrive shortly***. Before we do let me share a vignette of todays’ ride. March likes to remind you we’ve barely closed the door on winter with hail, hard rain and bitter winds. All of which soaked the trails under my tyres.

The last of which is steep, committing and unforgiving. There’s lots of places to crash and none of them are good. My standard earworm is Pinball Wizard as I attempt to present a thin veneer of competence in the face of sustained terror. Ridden this on many bikes including this new one last week. Never ridden it in these conditions. My brain is distracted by rocky wet limestone promising geological trauma keen to collect another victim.

But I’m okay. Not because of an unlikely skills upgrade. Or a sudden lack of imagination. No, I’m managing the whole thing in my sphere of ability because I trust the bike. But it’s more than that. The last few hours we’ve been hooning down mellower trails where all my usual hang ups have been knocked down.

Not being worried about grip in corners. Especially off camber corners. Not being scared by the speed through trails narrowed by trees. Not dithering on drops or braking for jumps. Not over-thinking what’s coming. Not thinking anything at all, so getting as close to living in the moment as I ever am.

All of which means I’m riding more quickly on these familiar trails. Don’t confuse this as fast. And certainly don’t confuse it with the limits of the bike. But there is something important here; there is something unquantifiable about bikes – any bike – that gives you the confidence to push a bit harder. Towards your limits, maybe beyond them. But not within screaming distance of what’s underneath you.

It has nothing at all to do with the material the frame is made of. It’s definitely not related to wheel size, head angle, chainstay length, reach or stack, suspension travel, bar width, tyre compound, yada yada yada. All of these thing play a part. But not to set a limit, more to encourage you to push yours.

Great bikes do this. They are not fast bikes. They may not be expensive bikes****. They will probably not be race bikes. They are the bikes you grab every time the trails waits, the bikes you mutter a silent prayer to when it’s all getting a bit serious, the bikes you sit and stare at in your shed. The bikes that make you fast.

Back to today and I’m on one of those bikes. There’s some shit coming up that’s has two outcomes. Well maybe three if getting off and walking counts. Deep breath, muscle memory, bit of a death grip, hand the thing over to your trusted sidekick and let that breath go when you sail out the far side. Total non event.

For the bike. Up here in those six inches a light blinks on. This is what happens when you stop trying to fix bikes because they can fix you better. I’ll never tire of the simplicity of feeling like that. Because it’s takes the limit out of limitless. So I tap the bars, whisper thanks, pretend my organic mate can hear me.  Breathe again and up the pace.

No bikes are fast. Some bikes make you faster. Go find that one.

*Only every single thing is quite a lot better. Because long term evolution beats revolution.

**Just so we’re clear, I’m talking about suspension travel here. You filthy animals 😉

***You may ask why does it take you so long to get to the point, to which I’ll reply ‘You’re new here, right?’

****Okay yes for this sample size, I accept they are.