Final Exams

Finale MTB - May 2019

I started writing this over a month ago. It was never finished because of the last thing I posted. Started as a riff on Jess taking her ‘A’ levels and me off riding to Finale. Both final exams if you consider you’ve spent a whole lot of time working up to that.  There’s a bit more in the last issue of www.cranked.cc on why Finale is considered a destination at the end of a journey,  which hopefully is worth a read.

So how did it go? Well Jess’s finished her exams without quite exploding through stress and worry. She’s mighty relieved in a way that might be shading the indubitable fact that at least three more years of similar await at University. As experienced parents, we’ve decided that’s a trifle best left unmentioned until we get past the next worry-stone that is results day.

Finale was – in no particular order – fun, scary, really scary, balls out terrifying, wet, very wet, a bit less wet, drunken, more fun right up until the point someone broke a leg. We’ll be back to that. Although I don’t think it in any way ratchets down the tension if I reveal right now it wasn’t me who ended their holiday in ankle to thigh cast.

Finale Ligure sits close the Mediterranean sea. It’s a two hour drive from Nice – a city renowned for almost endless sunshine. Bit hot for your average ‘pale to angry lobster in sixty minutes of direct sunlight’ Brit in the summer months. May though, perfect. Dry and warm. Trails not blown out, town not too busy, guides happy to see paying customers and cheaper everything.

Yeah right. Rhetoric versus reality. It was never – aside from a couple of epic downpours – really wet, but it categorically wasn’t close to dry.  Driving through the alps we pointed at cloud formations dumping increasing wetness on where we thought Mount Blanc might be. Finale wasn’t much better so – honed athletes as we are – we hid in a bar until it became clear that at least one of us wanted to go riding. Again I don’t feel I’m giving too much away to say that rider wasn’t me.

Writing about riding in a way that doesn’t follow the ‘we did that and then we did that’ homage to yawning boredom isn’t easy. Let me say instead it’s an amazing place to ride a mountain bike. Somewhere near the best. Different to eveywhere else Ive been. In so may good ways. Some of those it not being France 😉 The people and culture are just wonderful. The old town a delight. The uplifts superbly organised. The guides really engaged and passionate. The beer not too expensive. So yeah not like France at all!

It’s not a trail centre. it’s a linked set of riding locations each with their own character. They race EWS here so some of it, well most of it really is challenging. And not without consequence. It’s not a place to be tentative. I’m sure it’d be easier in the dry. That’s my excuse for being tentative anyway.

The riding then. Let me go with vignettes.  Trail: Toboggan. After a first day of ever increasing rain. Now it’s lashing it down and we’re on sight dealing with slickness of rock and root. Matt is loving it, he’s a sick individual who gets off on these kind of conditions. I’m more shitting it, mostly in limp home mode. More so after nearly going out the front before arresting my forward motion by dragging pedal pins up my left calf*

I couldn’t help thinking what a brilliant trail it would be if there wasn’t a river running through it. Two days later it dried out a bit and was even worse! Then there was the iconic Rollercoaster. Top section is mentally fast popping off rocks and ploughing through chop. Some of the later guide-stopped features tho has me wondering if him explaining ‘Attentione, wet roots, 15 metres, do not brake’ was helping much.

Bottom sections. Steep and rocky. Those terms do not do it justice. Let’s go with FUCKING HELL WHERE DOES THE TRAIL GO? and REALLY, DOWN THERE, RIGHT NOW? OH FUCK. I watched Matt literally disappear down a feature. I assumed he’d been teleported to another dimension until I rolled over what felt like a vertical face before accelerating into a river exchanging water for fat, loose rock.

Rode so much of it. Walked a few bits. Just commit and believe. Especially if you’re dropping into a loose, steep steppy entry with about thirty Germans pretending not to watch. The fact that day we were in open face helmets made it just a little bit sweeter.

The bikes though are brilliant. This is what they are built for. If you let them go, they will save your arse and pump endorphins at dangerously high pressure. Tim and I loved one section on my favourite trail (Engineer) where you exited a rocky corner and – if you were brave – basically doubled the stump and a vaguely perceived rock. I may have whooped. There was also some panicked calls of ‘CODE BROWN’ which had nothing to do with the mud.

A 1000 words can’t do justice to an amazing week. And it certainly can’t document Tim’s journey from ‘can I borrow the spare bike to six pins in his Tib’. Like I say we’ll get back to that.

Was it as good as everyone who has been there endlessly bangs on about? Maybe. It was close. Exiting a damp minibus onto the freezing concrete of a cloud fogged NATO base wasn’t really selling it. Riding with my best friends in a brilliant location did so more successfully. Tim monging himself put a bit of a downer on the whole thing.

Will we be back? I think so. I’m not sure I did the bike justice. A bit too scared sometimes. Never felt totally dialled in.  Maybe I’m just not a good enough rider and too damn old to get any better.

Best do a re-sit then.

*this was quite nasty. We didn’t fancy the hospital** so the boys sherri-stripped it and handed me a cold beer. It looks okay now a month later. For a given value of ‘okay’

**there was time for this later in the week.

Gap Analysis..

FoD - Mud, Sun and Smiles ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*apparently no one noticed anything different to normal.

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

Three wise men

Classic Gap Ride

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

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

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

Classic Gap Ride

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

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

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

Classic Gap Ride

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

Classic Gap Ride

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

Classic Gap Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classic Gap Ride

Classic Gap Ride

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

Classic Gap Ride

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

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

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

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

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

Turning a corner

Slippy FoD Fun

Much of this blog is dedicated to cataloguing my pervasive rubbishness of all things bike related, with much general life stuff also taken into consideration. Some would hypothesise this is simply the self-depreciation of a man uncomfortable with his entirely un-English aura of awesomeness. Others – who have actually met him – would consider it purely as a restatement of fact.

Riding in mud is an excellent retelling of the oft misunderstood maxim that ‘it is the exception which proves the rule’.*  When the days are short and the mud is long distanced from the hardback of summer, I find all sorts of interesting ways to fall over, fall off and generally fail to make any kind of discernible progress.

There are reasons for this, but we’re not going there. I’ve been there so often to review that pantheon of uselessness, the boring bits get fast forwarded in my head.  This year though something has happened. An old dog may have learned some new tricks or at least not relearned the annual ‘how to be crap’ lesson once the trails aggressively posture their ‘moisture first’ strategy.

I’d love to say this epiphany is somehow skills based. Conquering mental weakness, performing flashy brave stuff, playing what’s in front of you, that kind of thing. Any such proclamation would be a big fat lie though because we all know old dogs really don’t learn new tricks at all. No instead they go tyre shopping**

A mountain biker without a rubber fetish is merely an amateur astride a dandy steed. The professionals amongst us are fully paid up members of the Durometer club. We are at home with threads per inch, we carefully study tread patterns, and the complex language of compounds being nothing more than an open book.

The outcome of which was a tractor derived monster tread fetching up on my front rim. A slightly less aggressive companion migrated to the back. The Internet smugly dismisses plus tyres as pointless for mud. Now my SolarisMax was shod with chunky 2.8 inch tyres at 12PSI, it was time to go rule proving and myth busting.

Onto trails which had had some rain. And then some more rain. And then downpours sweeping spitefully over leafless terrain. Not quite enough though to saturate the hardpack baked solid over that endless summer. So wet over hard then. My absolute favourite.

To ride in the winter, you must create an entire belief system around your front tyre. Regardless of the mud splattering your eyeballs, the uncertain balance from going sideways, and the unceasing wetness spiking your peripheral vision. These are for nothing if you keep the faith.

A decent bike handler knows what grip feels like. A really decent one knows how hard they can push beyond that. An average Joe like me can get all Newtonian with opposing forces and trust in R&D over marketing.  These tyres will hold a line if you weight them properly while showing a bit of commitment.

And when they do its glorious. A whole world opens up in the damp and dead forest. Narnia is out of the closet. You can push, push, slide, push a little more and then back off before disaster strikes. Even when it does, speeds are low and a full body mud immersion is the only real collateral damage.

Do this a few times and now there’s a bloke wondering if we should have a crack at another trail. Even when the pub is open. This hardtail is the perfect winter tool – it’s direct, consistent, not wallowing in pointless suspension and – afterwards – bloody easy to clean. It’s the tyres which make it tho, tempting grip from slick surfaces so egging the bloke on top to make a proper dirty protest.

There are limits of course. Steep and muddy. That’s Mr. Crashtastic gunning for me on every corner. Freshly cut trails offer nothing but wheel swapping and significant opportunity for a little lie down. Polished roots are winter snipers patiently waiting to take you down.

The last of which had me throwing shapes after taking line liberties no tyre could save me from. I threw the bike away, as it wasn’t offering much help, to slide into a bombhole on my arse. After checking myself out and foraging the now camouflaged bike from the surrounding shrubbery, I found I couldn’t actually get out. That’s how good the tyres are- you can ride even when you can’t walk.

Crashing is fine. Punctured hubris is not a new sensation. For a few corners before though, I felt I’d finally got this mountain biking thing dialled. The bike was turning and drifting at the same time which felt absolutely fine. I’d exchanged my normal tentative wafts at the bar for confident full limb prods to ride the slide. That’s the dirt talking to you right there however pretentious it sounds.

In the pub all I wanted to do was get back out there. For the past ten years all I’ve wanted is it to be April.  Sure it’ll get old before it gets better, but right now our half of the planet just spun its face to the sunny side. We’re on the long road to Spring.

Before that though I’m going to have some fun playing in the mud.

*’Proves’ as in tests like in baking, not as in law. Otherwise it’d just be statistical nonsense overplaying the importance of outliers.

**I appreciate this is stretching the metaphor a bit. But hey throw me a bone here 😉

 

Going through the change

Slippy FoD Fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The definition of insanity..

Solaris Max
Before it got dark. Still muddy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most of them being when those arboreal innocents are mutilated by a man desperately flailing with what – until 2 seconds ago – was an enduro capable mountain bike. Now it’s basically a semi guided missile looking for a target.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copy that.

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

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

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

Full Circle

Bird Aeris one20-the budget build

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t get me started..

First ride of the SolarisMax V2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you going to ride that or what?

Sospel - Maratime Alps

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sospel - Maritime Alps
Chris doing it properly

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

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

Sospel - Maritime Alps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready?

The Road Trip is coming

It’s been nearly a whole year since I crested that societal summit suggesting life is basically over. Fifty they say, fuck me, you’re lucky still to be alive. Looking back less than a hundred years, it’s hard to argue. If your appointment as cannon fodder didn’t get you, the Spanish Flu was ready to take up the slack.

Based on that I’ve done rather well. Especially considering a life lived on the margins of dietary respectability. I’ve exchanged a blasé approach to eating anything within elbows-orbit with a strict approach to greens and fibre which only a decent glass of red can make palatable.

While fairly comfortable that I’m not dead yet, signs of ageing are hard to ignore. I’m ignoring them through the vigorous riding of bicycles, larger trousers and the aforementioned balanced approach to medicinal alcohol.

But, well, fuck all that. A road trip awaits. This time for Matt to stamp his pass to middle age. He’s not so much in denial as entirely unconcerned. That’s something to admire as is his somewhat lackasaidal approach to any kind of plan. Plans being my thing, I’ve stepped in and organised eight riders to converge on a little known town in the Maritime Alps.

I know it having ridden there a few years ago on the ‘Remains of the Dave‘ Tour. Another birthday if a little less consequential. Looking back at the photos, I was as close to whip thin as I’ve been for a while, having sloughed 10kg post a shitty project and pre turning up looking keen.

Rode like shit tho. Many reasons. I blame the bike. Others would have more informed views. Uphill I was a machine, downhill I was a man recently introduced to the sport of off-road cycling. Whatever, that was then and this is now. Let’s look at what’s good on the spacecraft*

Long term injuries. Left Shoulder, Left Knee, Right Ankle. I can ride but shaving sometimes requires an extra mirror. Nothing new there. All manageable. New Injuries: left ankle, ruined during a badly judged attempt at a half marathon, mostly okay, can stand on a pedal, best not to look at it.

Mental health: Work has been, not to spare the horses, a total bastard for the last few months. Again my fault for not saying no, the consequences of which have been many late nights, too many of those stuck in a hotel, and a general bemusement on how this was the year I firmly planned to slide into semi-retirement,

No matter. We’re close to a road trip and there’s part of me which suggests half a century should replace youthful vigour with wisdom. Therefore, it is probably not appropriate to be as excited as a five year old facing down a vat of free ice cream.

Well, fuck that as well. We have little enough chance to live in the moment and I’ve been around long enough to ignore what other people feel is important. I’m not bothered about being somehow better or more skilled or cleverer than my peers, I just want to be different. A little bit closer to the edge.

The edge pulls back every year of course, but it’s still an edge and it’s still a decision to wonder if you can fly. That’s cheap talk – the proof is in the doing. Much of that is the derived from the context of when risk meets reward.

There are a thousand things I’ve ignored or made excuses for when riding on my own. The same obstacles baked dry by summer sun, easily ridden by my best friends, and at the end of week bookmarked by peering over that edge, are nothing more than trusting the bike and harvesting the endorphins.

Stephen Fry wrote a fantastic letter to himself some 35 years on passing on what he knew now. It’s far more heartfelt and important than the one I’d write myself which would go something like ‘put that joint down and take some bloody chances while you can‘. Not that I’d have listened. I was even more stupid back then.

This trip is different. We’re booked everyday on the uplift truck . Fitness isn’t a differentiator other than the fatigue that an hour long descent will put into you. It’s all about the sharp end. Bravery, technique and the ability to adapt to what’s in front of you. Checking my internal CV it appears I’ve scored a disappointing 0 out of 3.

Ready? Not materially injured. Riding an amazing bike. On trails I’ve ridden before. Close enough. Although based on the cohort travelling down in two vans next weekend, I’d best pack the spare liver.

One day I’ll get bored of feeling excited like this. It’s not today. Not even close.

*Apollo 13. Positive thinking to the max.