I know what I said…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risk based judgements.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe out there.

*inappropriate. But made me laugh

Orange is the new black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need to talk about Corona.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter is a state of mind

Yat - The mud and sun edition

It’s hardly California is it? That’s a climb, come Spring, we yomp up with nary a care. And then freewheel down the other side.  None of that is happening this winter. Or any winter really, but endless wet has replaced proper cold and the Forest is dead and sodden.

Which doesn’t mean it still isn’t some kind of type 2 fun. It must be because that climb is part of a 55km route I’ve already ridden 4 times in 2020. It started off a bit wet and has seamless transitioned to what you see there. Climbing is a proper physical challenge, descending more of a mental one.

As my mate Steve summed it up rather neatly ‘the mud adds mass to your bike while simultaneously reducing grip’. There’s been much sideways action, and not a little crashing. After some initial grumpiness at the endless clag, I’ve found myself almost enjoying it. Especially when someone else is crashing. Or we’re in the pub.

The bike/kit/human cleaning process is getting pretty old though. The floor of the ShedofDreams resembles a very large planter with soil from all corners of Herefordshire covering every surface. The greasy conditions have weaponised the Solaris’s drivetrain as its segued from worn to knackered. Sharp edges shot blasted with grit still somehow rotate under power. I’m hoping it’ll last a bit longer as replacing it now is about as fiscally prudent as setting fire to tenners.

Yat - The mud and sun edition

Yesterday was another tough ride. Because I’m an idiot with delusional meteorological aspirations, I re-introduced the new Ripley to the Yat. Four rides that bike has had and never has it been clean for more than 30 seconds. Not helped by my refusal to furnish it with anything other than token mudguards.

Yat - The mud and sun edition

Not a problem I thought. It’ll be a drier than last week. Which by a narrow definition it was. The mud had dried to that most horrible of slop which fills tyres and clings to the bike.  Motion under pedal power was primarily in any direction other than the intended one. Motion under gravity was more of the same except with significantly more terror and crashing.

Yat - The mud and sun edition

We’d barely ridden a downhill trail before man and bicycle parted company in the most comedic of circumstances. The grip was variable. By which I mean between ‘not much’ and ‘absolutely fuck all’. You had to commit to get the tyres to bite, but if they didn’t you’re eating that same dirt.

Yat - The mud and sun edition

Having already thrown himself rather ostentatiously to the ground, Deano couldn’t wait to re-interpret mountain biking through the art of creative crashing. I had just navigated a tricky steep and greasy chute when behind me there was the sound of accelerating rider interfacing with local shrubbery.

I then had to dab as I find riding and laughing hard to do at the same time.  Deano emerged blaming a lack of rear brake. Usefully a tree had provided a second front one. Learning from his mistake, he then abandoned any form or retardation firing courageously into a small rock garden. I was right behind him and, while keen to have a go myself, couldn’t see an option that didn’t involve riding over a now prostrate Dean!

Haydn being the caring sort of chap he is, decided that Deano really needed the kind of company that only misery can supply.  So he collected most of a tree in his front wheel before physics did her thing and pitched him over the bars and into the soft earth. He was unhurt having luckily missed the rocks either side of his landing spot.

Yat - The mud and sun edition

This sort of set the tone for the rest of the ride. Struggle uphill on trails deep-rutted in viscous nastiness before descending with all the grace of a fridge on a roller skate. This was fine because the sun was shining and everyone seemed to be having a good time.

Yat - The mud and sun edition

Even me. I’ve still no idea what the Ripley is like to ride ‘properly’ but it held it’s own – and more importantly it’s rider upright – over four hours of slop-induced silliness. This silliness peaked after Cez performed a ‘bicycle tango’ on a steep loamy corner.  While not hitting the ground, we couldn’t help but notice he appeared to be pirouetting around his bike with no obvious end in sight.

Eventually he wrestled the recalcitrant steed back into some form of known dimensional space. The dab committee did not need to sit. He had not so much dabbed as danced down the trail inconvenienced by bicycle.

Which seemed an apposite time to head to the pub. First tho the last two descents including a perilous stream crossing and a rocky gulley filled with damp limestone. I followed Steve down the latter asking him if it was a bit bumpy on his hardtail. It was lovely riding a full-suss again even if every bearing was crying out for mercy.

Yat - The mud and sun edition

Seven riders were muddied by unbloodied as the pub hoved into view. Two were celebrating the end of dry January*. All of us were toasting the start of Web February.

It was a good day. We’ve had many good days already this year. Riding in winter is mostly a state of mind.  Set the bar low and you’re almost guaranteed to have a great time. And every week we do it brings Spring seven days closer.

Until then, bring on the slop.

*not me obviously. I thought about it. Over a pint.

End of season clearout.

CwmCarn with Seb

Not a sly reference to some kind of fire-sale in the ShedofDreams. I mean like that’s going to happen. It’s more like a black hole. Stuff goes in, nothing comes out.

No this is more end of year admin. With predictable hilarity, I’ve attempted to justify the many and varied examples of the modern bicycle residing in the shed. This time livened up with a spreadsheet (calm yourselves down there!) summarising my bike rental scheme going back 20 years.

The Bike Page

It makes sobering reading. Even to me. And I’m sober already. Thanks for that January.

I’ve also updated the choice, or at least less grizzly, cuts from last years stream of consciousness.  Some even acknowledge a world outside of Mountain Bikes. I’ll try and nip that kind of seditious postings in 2020.

The best bits page.

First ride of the year tomorrow. Proper ride anyway. I don’t count going nowhere in the shed. It’s like cabbage, I know it’s good for me but it doesn’t mean I have to pretend it’s real food.

On that happy note, time for a non alcoholic beverage and some YouTube escapism where the sun is always shining and the dirt is always dusty.

That’s as close to a resolution as I’m getting to this year.

Testing 1,2,3.

Ibis Ripley first ride

There are some things I’m quite good at. Yes that’s a short list rarely intersecting with activities associated with being a functioning adult, but this doesn’t stop me getting excited when I’m ready to unleash my superpower*

Today it wasn’t wowing a quiz night with my narrow but mostly encyclopedic knowledge of the Battle of Britain,  or exactly how stupid it is correlating poorly thought out hypothesis from low quality datasets**

No today I’m bike testing. Not to be confused with published reviewers and their proper riding skills, critical faculties and ability to torture the English language when synonym chasing ‘laterally stiff and vertically compliant’

My attributes tend more to the experience of a shitload of new bikes. Many of which recorded their inaugural rides at Cwmcarn.  Now there’s a correlation I’m entirely comfortable with.

This Ripley should feel like a denuded RipMo. It really doesn’t. It’s closer to my brilliantly flawed Orange ST4. The suspension travel is similar, everything else is different. The Ripley is way stiffer, had many less gears, a steeper seat angle, a shallower head angle, wider bars, shorter stems,  longer dropper post and that’s before we get into the details.

But we don’t have too. Because while I cannot with an ounce of credibility describe how a bike rides, I can make a decent stab at how it feels.  It feels like this;  instinctive, telepathic, mated –  I accept this may be nothing more than wooly arsed new bike justification . But there is something here. The endpoints of what a class leading MTB can do are gapped by your average Joe failing to execute a thousand YouTube videos.

Aiming at those targets the heart of the periphery. It’s about feel. Some bikes are amazing and aloof. You do your best, yet they mock you with coldness and disdain. They wait impatiently for the better rider.  Your best is never close to being good enough. These are not the bikes you are looking for.

The Ripley is. It shapes the riding experience in all sorts of interesting ways. Most of which have nothing to do with traditional metrics.

I wasn’t any quicker climbing but I was a bit less worried about a heart attack. Some of that is the bike sitting high in its travel, some of it was the 50T cassette I’d gone from hate to love in about 10 pedal strokes. A bit more was a build prioritising trail over Enduro.

Meh, climbing is climbing. It goes on for 45 minutes and then there’s nothing above us other than a winter sky. I usher the fast boys through and hang on to their rooster tails. Somehow this isn’t the same problem as the one I fail to solve on pretty much every ride we do.

New bike thing. Not hungover thing. Others being hungover. Blind luck. Occasional ability. Ego bravery. Easy trails. Later in the day I was properly gapped when others co-located themselves with their shit. This hardy mattered because what I cared about was differentiating this new bike from my RipMo.

It’s not huge but it is significant.  Turns faster, gets you into trouble quicker, assumes you have the chops to get out of it. Pumps and pops on anything micro-rooty and above, makes you feel like a proper rider. I didn’t feel very fast but fuck me I was having a whole lot of fun.

Our two younger companions refused to accept there was another trail to be ridden. Old sweats Matt and Al cracked on in a manner rarely associated with men on the wrong side of 50. As an aside, I never get the trail centre snobbery.  It’s just a brilliant way to spend your time when your local trails are underwater.

And spend we did. Giving up gravity credits on first a rocky ledge and then a flat out berm-y blast to the carpark. Familiarity nearly let to contempt after a bold apex choice catapulted me centimetres from leaving the trail entirely. Where stumps and rocks waited to impale an important internal organ.

Backed off a bit after that so never came close to catching Matt but every second separated me from adulthood.  There’s no space to worry how old you are because you’re wondering how fast you dare go.

Strava told me I was a little faster than previously. It shouldn’t matter but it does. More important tho I felt comfortable at a pace best thought of adequately brisk. Which is already a win as wet and wild are not my favourite conditions. But the bike just wanted to go and I wanted to go with it.

That’s the crux, some bikes feel connected, others feel distant. Some bikes encourage you, others treat your efforts with studied aloofness. Anyone who doesn’t feel this needs to buy a metric shit-load of new bikes. At which point feel free to get back to me.

Yet there is nothing definitative about a single experience like this. It’s new bike glasses, not ridden for a week glasses, riding with your mates glasses, glass being half full basically. But even so I’ll take it.

In summary I’m very happy with my Christmas present. I hope you’re as happy with yours.

*I might be overstating how super that is.

**that’s really a thing. It’s not a big thing, but a thing it is nevertheless.

Phoenix from the blame

There’s an entire YouTube channel devoted to ‘dream builds‘* where artisan craftsmanship and stroking of beards summarises the content. At no point does the protagonist throw a tool at a loved one while screaming ‘there is a special place in hell for the UTTER BASTARD who spec’d this 2.5mm allen cheese-bolt

Of the 49 bikes I’ve owned**, I’ve built about half of them. If a film were to be made of such heroism it’d start with a wide shot framing a thoughtful man considering one of many well catalogued tools.  His demeanor would be the metier for mechanical competency.  As the camera moved closer, the focus would be pulled to a naked bike frame awaiting the touch of a master.

That film would end with in a melee of hammers. Viewers would be put in mind of 70s rock gigs where the band would smash their instruments over the stage, the crowd and each other. The camera would pull away to reveal shattered carbon shards splattered across the once pristine workshop.  The movie would fade to a static image of one man wildly swinging an angle grinder while shouting ‘2.5 mm cheese bolt? That fucking showed you you Spunk-Trumpet‘.

I think we can all agree that’s at least a three season Netflix series in the bag. Working title ‘To a man who owns only a hammer, every problem just needs smashing to make it a bit smaller‘.

Since moving here, my good friend Matt has taken the hammer from my hands and replaced it with a beer. He has all the mechanical skills I lack, and an approach to problem solving a little more nuanced that my ‘Oh for fucks sake, I am vexed, pass me something which needs a good twatting’.

Some builds have gone better than others. The ones without hangovers generally. None of those nearly ended with me coming close to losing an eye after a sticky piston rocketed out of the caliper I was leaning into. That’s the venn intersection of compressed air, a stupid idea and about three sober brain cells.

Today though we were both sober but Matt was a bit sick. I helped out by explaining I’d checked his symptoms out on reputable Internet sites and the conclusive diagnosis was Cat Aids. And not the good type. At least I think that helped.

What didn’t help were a whole load of problems separating a frame from a bike. Some of these we knew about including the parlous state of a set of wheels long campaigned with no servicing respite. Since they weren’t totally broken, we decided the best approach would be continue to ignore them and move onto something easier.

Which wasn’t the ‘simple task’ of reducing fork travel on a chassis beautifully engineered but heavy on the loctite. We didn’t have the right tools but we did have a Matt and he dreamed up a solution way better than the hammer twitch I was going with.

We then embarked on a long and tedious examination of the ‘World’s ugliest cassette‘ which appeared to be modelled on a dinner plate. If dinner plates were made of heavy metals. When I got into this whole mountain biking gig it was a max of 32 teeth out back and 44 up front. Now we’re in this ludicrous situation where 32 represents your only chain ring option, while some mechanical savage has decided 50 teeth on a cassette is officially a good thing.

It bloody isn’t. Indexing was happening to other people. Until we gave up being blokes and read the instructions. This calmed down things a bit with us ending up with most of the gears almost all of the time. This is a temporary aberration while I think of a good excuse to buy some new wheels. Right now tho I have a transmission that is both embarrassingly huge and useful for eating my lunch off.

We skipped lunch and powered sustained by nuclear coffee and seasonal mince pies.  Having ignored the multitude of wheel issues, we extended our strong displacement game to too short brake cables, missing brake shims and a variety of other annoyances that’d defeat lesser men than us.

Well lesser men that Matt. I spent most of the time desperately looking for the bench. A bench which was now strewn chaotically with every tool I own and a few of whose provenance I have no idea. Most of which were floating in an expanding film of suspension fluids.

I wasn’t sure if to clean the bench or just torch the bloody thing. While considering my options, Matt told me we were done. Really? How the hell did that happen? Nothing to do with me. All I could offer was was to stick a helmet light on and strike out into the rain, which started in October and has yet to stop.

What did I learn? Riding without a rain jacket even for a few minutes is stupid.  What else? Not much other than this is not a mini RipMo. I’m not sure what it is, but it isn’t that which is a bit of a relief.

Tomorrow we’ll be back at Cwmcarn. My stealthy black bike will fade to brown. That much is known. Not much else is.

But I expect I’ll enjoy the experience. I have the previous 48 times.

*no really there is. It has inspirational music and everything. Almost no one uses a hammer.  I can’t believe anyone thinks it real.

**Okay rented. Still getting to that post. The analysis is epic. Trust me on this.

The 3 bears, 4 bears…. many bears

Screenshot 2019-12-14 at 15.39.13

Too big, too small, just right. Right? We’re all on the same page of this fairy tale. As allegories go, it’s not exactly subtle. To whit, don’t snaffle stuff that’s not yours and differences should be celebrated.

Like bloody everything else, it’d offer a thought stroking metaphor for the British public overwhelmingly voting for a man who has slept in all those beds. With soon-to-be single mothers, foreign donors and Dominic Cummins*

Moving on.  Let’s keep calm and look at some lovely bike images. These represent my best efforts to identify, build, ride and keep a bike which perfectly intersects the space between where hardtails and enduro bikes are brilliant.

I’ve spent ten years working on this project. It’s not been entirely successful.

ST4 Build - a difficult birth.

My first proper attempt to buy  a mid travel bike.  Last of the 26 inch wheels,  steep angles, my first dropper. 120mm up and down travel with another 10mm of sideways movement available on demand. Laterally stiff it wasn’t, but proper fun it was.

Until it ate itself in the Pyrenees. Took the cranks off and the bottom bracket fell out with them. But before then it’d proved that all these 150mm rigs, back in 2010, being touted as ‘quiver killers were just shit climbers with stupid geometry.

Orange were so impressed with my destruction of their latest product they sent me another one. It was far stiffer. And much less fun.

Pyga OneTen 29

Little did I know this next bike was the baseline for the ‘third way’. A bike with ‘just enough travel’. 120 up front, 10mm less out the back. The Pyga holds many other accolades;  a proper trail 29er, most kilometres ridden, most countries ridden in, first bolt through fork, last front mech.

It wasn’t my middle bike. It was pretty much my only bike. I rode it everywhere before the siren call of long travel and new fangled wheel sizes dispatched it to the classified ads.

It remains the best do-it-all bike I’ve ever had. And while it’s not perfect, neither am I. Occasionally I still miss that granny ring 😉

Cotic Flare Max. First ride 😄

Ah the Cotic Flare Max. Another 120mm of travel, another 29er (occasionally swapped out for the emperors’ new chubbies), another great bike which never really displaced hardtails for razzing around the woods, or something a bit more substantial for those bigger days out.

I had a lot of great rides on the FlareMax but the elephant in the room was in fact the bike. It was heavier than my 150mm carbon full suss. It was more fun when confidence was high, but still felt like a solution looking for a problem.

Or maybe I was. These were not duds. Everyone was properly involving. Looking for the funnest not the fastest line. Rewarding bike handling over bollock virtue signalling.  Reminding me the landscape was analogue, and efficiency is not the same as excitement.

Smuggler - 1

The Smuggler lived that analogue life in spades. 115mm at the business end, 140mm for partying up front. Ridiculously capable even when it shouldn’t have been. Once at Bike Park Wales, I cleaned up my PRs against bikes with proper enduro credentials.

It wasn’t light tho. Oh no. Made the FlareMax look like an XC whippet. It left me nearly walking the last climb on the beast at CyB after I’d fitted a coil shock to further increase its heft. Wasn’t designed for UK mud either. Reasonable tyre in the back stopped winter play.

Great fun but maybe the first ever short travel bike that should come with an uplift pass.

Bird in the wild!

Whats that thing about insanity? Try the same thing and expect a different result. Finding a bike between my super capable chubby hardtail and the RipMo was a tough ask. This Bird Aeris 120 didn’t answer it. Never had the poppy analogue vibe of its predecessors. They were all good at something. This just left me cold.

At which point I decided there was no third way. The RipMo is sub 30lbs and it climbs brilliantly. It’s fun when you’re not fast and super confidence inspiring when you are. There’s no gap to bridge, no other way to find. I nodded my way into a two bikes being perfect vibe and closed the project.

Occam in the wild!

Hah not so fast,  because I bought the Occam. Of course I did. It was silly light, snappy fast, bonkers agile and properly cheap for a lot of frame. It was maybe a little long travel for the third way,  but at that weight it had to be the one.

Of course it did. Of course it wasn’t.

I’d already sort of given up on it before it brutally attacked Tim and attempted to wrench his leg off. Sure it was light, but it was almost too efficient. I couldn’t shake the feeling I was letting it down. I’m sure in the hands of a properly fast rider, it’d make a lot of sense.

For me tho, it was just a lot of head scratching. I took it to a trail centre where I assumed it would be silly fast. And it was if you’re measuring marginal gains**. Even that didn’t matter as I’m mostly past riding against the clock. I’m more riding against the decline, so I may as well be having fun doing it.

The question we’re left with then is:  will the Ripley finally nail this third way thing? What kind of bear is it? Will it be shit in the woods? What will make me choose it over my other fantastic bikes? And I suppose why do I think this might be the one, and how the hell will I know?

Let’s assume worse case I’ll have some fun finding out. I don’t regret those other bikes. Sure they represent an expensive approach to dream fulfilment. But the whole research/buy/build/ride/sell cycle always trips the scale between interesting and exciting.

I’m not sure any of them have transported me into the land of the contented. But that’s not about the bikes.

It really never was.

*After the exit poll, I was overcome with a ‘for fucks sake’ hour in which I stamped out a sweary polemic on exactly what is wrong with this country.  Reviewing with a hangover reminds me why we don’t do politics on the hedgehog.

**Cwmcarn. Three visits, three different bikes.  Similar times, not much in it up or down. I’m not sure the bike is the high water mark here.

We’re not done yet.

So many things to write. Oh you’re in for such a treat. A heartfelt treatise on the wonders of modern telecommunications, a head banging rant on the inadequacies of train companies before a return to rehashing old campaigns – to whit riding in the filth.

I bet you can hardly wait. Worry not because come the intersection of the Christmas break, guilt free hedonistic wine abuse and boredom, that whole stream of consciousness shall pore forth onto this electronic page.  Regular readers translate that as ‘grammar tortured through the lens of a delusional  Tourettes suffer marinated in a decent red.

I’ll do my best to meet those lofty expectations.

Until then, this.

Back in the midst of time I exchanged a bike I didn’t really like for one I wasn’t quite sure about. This has gone as brilliantly as any human within flailing distance of sanity could expect. It’s been built, admired, occasionally ridden, borrowed and outed as bit of a violent bastard.

This is not why I’m moving on. Oh I wish it were. But rationale has no place here. Or before here come to that. Hiding in plain sight on my desktop is a pantheon of discarded bikes spanning twenty years. All 49 of them.  There’s some proper analysis to come*, but the headline numbers are trending towards the Enron scale of false accounting.

Some of me believes this is exactly the form of catharcism required to trigger a change in behaviour. The rather larger part is thinking ‘Fuck me, what a ride, you think that was stupid? Well HOLD MY BEER and watch this!’

Watch what? My desultory efforts to triage a to-do list entering the fourth dimension were interrupted by a desktop ping timed at 0916. Some eight hours later I was the happy if somewhat confused owner of another Ibis frame. These chronological events bookmarked a text transcript best thought of as extended therapy.

I feel some context may help here. A week ago I’d postulated** that pointless bicycle acquisition was now happening to other people. Those marketing types were dead to me. The shedofdreams(tm) could now be considered a museum such was the lack of purchasing activity.

Smug-mode on basically.  Until that 0916 ping. My good mate and proper accountant Adam sent me a link to a new version of something I already owned. 20% off the latest model. 29inch wheels. Carbon. Lovely looking thing. You should buy that. I should probably explain at this point that Adam is our company accountant.

Let’s assume then this wasn’t professional advice. I wasted fuck knows how long watching videos and tying mental knots. Did I need a ‘third way’? Something between the playfulness of the SolarisMax and the scenery stomping prowess of the imperious RipMo? Into a gap the keenly priced Orbea fell, but was rarely first or even second pick.

Trying this adult thing, I concluded a bike with almost as much travel as one I already had was hardly the ‘void filler’  I might be looking for. And what is that? Ah glad you asked, and you’re still with me here. Sometimes I think no one gets how important this is.

90% of what we ride is hardtail friendly. A bit more if you’re a bit good. A bit less if you’re like me. Big bikes can work but they lack the immediacy, the agility, the poise of something with a bit less travel and quite a lot less weight.

I accept this is prising open a niche which may only exist in my head. Still once that idea takes flight there’s actually not that many bikes which fulfil the brief.  There is one tho and it’s from the same stable as the RipMo. It shares the etymology, and a little more of the history.

From XC bike to trail bike in four evolutions. At least one of which Adam has broken. He’s still keen for me to buy one. After further investigation elbowed aside other peoples deadlines, I was inclined to agree.

It’s not however a premise which stands up to any kind of logical probing. The kind that Carol is very good at. She was admiringly stoical as I attempted to make the case. Although ‘case‘ might be stretching it a bit. It was more ‘see that, lovely isn’t it, 20% off today, it’d make me very happy‘.

We consulted various spreadsheets of doom representing wide ranging commitments to important stuff, and concluded a Ripley could be squeezed in. Assuming I didn’t go ‘full supermarket sweep‘ with a virtual ram-raid of a well known on-line bike store.

No danger of that. I shall asset strip the Occam in exactly the same manner as the donor bike before that. It’s not like this is new to me.  Shiny parts look good for exactly one ride. We’re not making art here, but we might be making something rather more important.

Whatever it is, let’s be clear this is extravagance barely tempered by common sense. There’s no quantitative metric to ascribe buying an expensive frame as offering any kind of return on investment.

Sure no metric, but this is to confuse cost and value. Being lucky enough to invest in possible futures is a whole shit load better than wondering what might have been.

I know it’s stupid. Carol knows it’s stupid. I am troubled by feelings of guilt. But fuck me riding new bikes on sinewy singletrack with your mates is never going to get old. Until I get too old.

I’ve said it before but it absolutely bares repeating.  There really is no point dying wondering.

*Yes it’ll be showcased on the hedgehog. Again I apologise for excitement deferred while I get my regression analysis shit together.

** to the normal riding crew who responded with a combination of heroic stoicism and mild hysteria.