You can’t handle the excuse.

Not quite Autumn Yat Ride

I’m hanging onto Matt’s back wheel and making excuses. Not my normal excuses which someday I shall categorise, cross reference and publish in a book entitled ‘Bravery Denied’. If you think you’ve heard then all before, spare a thought for me fast forwarding through the index to find something within bullshit distance of compelling.

Not today. Today I’m in that nebulous zone of competence. Nebulous and fleeting. Wednesday night was lit up by the first artificial lumens of the season.  I was all over the place. Rarely intersecting with the trail but ready with a pithy quip ‘you know when you ride and it feels slow but looks fast? Yeah that trail was just like that only the other way round’.

I searched the faces of my long known riding pals for an alternate view. There were none. ‘Yeah well lights you know, takes a while to get used to them’. Classic excuse. No one else seemed to have a problem.

Shutter through a few days and we’re back in the light on a beautiful autumnal day. Only not quite – while the calendar has flipped to September, the woods have yet to ratchet the season.  It’s not quite the deep green of high summer, but aside from a chilly start we’re riding hard on a composite of dust and endorphins.

My bubble of confidence risks deflation from external pricks* For a start I’m riding ‘Christine the leg snapper’. The persistent death rattle from the pivots has been traced to a very loose axle bolt**, but I’m astride yesterday’s geometry barely supported on non enduro width rims shod with questionable tyres. How the whole thing didn’t explode in an inferno of Internet bollocks is something of a mystery.

What I’m – in reality – riding is a brilliantly sorted trail bike on hero dirt, and I’m absolutely loving it. Punting standard crashing worries out of the bubble while making sufficient progress ensures overthinking fails to hit the priority queue. Now the trail is just my personal ribbon of everything that’s good on a perfect day to chase fast mates on technical trails.

And I’m doing just that. Visual cues suggest the scenery is flashing by at a rate of knots. Internal accelerometers are still in the green tho, this doesn’t feel fast, it feels like a whole lot of fucking fun, but it’s not scary. I’m confidently switching between short tight corners and long sweepers. This bike feels amazing which, if not part of me, is at least not disconnected by higher order prevarication.

So obviously I’m worried. Matt is a better rider than me. He’ll gap me on any trail. The harder the trail, the bigger the gap. Yet I’m comfortably sat two feet behind, hands off the brakes and eyes on the next apex. I’ve even time to wonder when the right time would be to inform him of the rather parlous state of his rear tyre.

Yeah that’s why I can do this. His tyre is fucked. Oh and he’s been away for a month and even good riders need time to dial themselves back in. Maybe everyone is taking it easy today and I missed the memo. Or maybe I’m actually riding pretty well.  I don’t think it’s that, so I’d better find some better excuses.

You know how this goes. When your average joe is convinced they are riding like shit, well they probably are. But it’s 10% off what ‘good riding’ feels like. 10% feels like a shed load as your mates ride away from you, but it’s really not. You can get that back. Maybe not today, but someday and soon.

Compare that to when you’re riding outside of your self enforced parameters. You know it’s transitory.  This is not a ‘new normal’, rather a glimpse of a land with visitation rights. Resident status is repeatedly denied. You’ve no idea how you got here but you know how it ends. Back to being happily or unhappily average. Back to wondering if you could be more skilled, a little braver, a little less analytical.

My arse has been handed to me so many times on these trails, I’ve considered carrying a plate in my backpack for just that purpose. Today tho – and I know it will just be for today – I’m doing more than hanging on. Even when there’s scary shit happening outside of the bubble – dodgy lines, missed apexes, narrowly missed trees.

At one point I’ve managed to hand the whole front end off to barely understood physics with it sliding terrifyingly towards a stump named doom. Even in perfect conditions, on a great bike shod with good tyres, my average ability inevitably punts me towards disaster.

Never got there though. Called a ‘code brown’, laughed it off and got back to being a bit better than average before the pixie dust wears off. We toast a day of brilliant trails with a cold beer and I’m wondering when it gets that good again. Maybe on the next ride, yeah like that shit is going to happen.

Excuses are easy. They give you faux rationale for what. They make a reasoned argument for how. They totally fail to answer the most important question of ‘why’.

Days like this are why.

*not my riding buddies. I prefer ‘Twats’ as a more accurate descriptor 🙂

**’Did you not notice the 3 degrees of lateral flex Al?’ / ‘No. I was distracted by the prospect of death by evil bicycle’,

Point and woot

Penyard MTB - May 2019

Welcome to the Western chapter of ‘Angles Anonymous’. My name is Alex and it’s been 15 years since I properly railed a corner.  Chronology matters here. I wasn’t the best descender in 2004 back when I had two fully functional  knees. Then I nearly didn’t after an accident which left me a hairs breath from leaving hospital in a wheelchair.

Physically that was a fairly intense time. But you heal. Externally for sure but mental scar tissue goes all 5th columnist on your muscles. That’s ignored when you’re finally back on the bike decoding a ribbon of singletrack firing synoptics at high speed. Dendrites flood your neural cortex. Tendons tense. Visual cues switch chaos for muscle memory.

You know how this goes. A hundred thousand corners groove the process deep into your conscious. There’s a rapid assessment of trail conditions, of grip, of camber, of terrain balanced with a quick check of your bravery coefficient. Divide X by Y, line up appropriate biometrics and push hard on the inside bar.

That’s a push into the fourth dimension where the confidence pixies fire up the adrenaline compressors. Where physics meets geography. Where that edge threatens to throw you off, but you laugh it off and risk the abyss. Oh hello righteousness I’ve missed you from that hospital bed.

It didn’t go like that. It went like this. See the entry, remind yourself what happened last time, worry a bit, grab the brakes a bit more, bottle the apex, blow the exit. Watch your mates ride away. Spend some time in the land of self loathing.

Being an analytical sort of bloke the answer was clearly crossroaded at a happy place between quantitive and qualitative thinking. A hundred YouTube videos and a couple of skills courses left me instead somewhere between annoyed and deeply fucked off. It wasn’t happening. I couldn’t trust the tyres, the forks, the geometry enough to even slightly push it.

That’s bullshit of course. What I couldn’t  trust was myself. That mental  scar tissue was binding my ability. Not helped by the getting older and not bouncing quite so well. Entropy is a total bastard what with it travelling in the wrong direction. I was running out of time while riding like a man who was so concerned with crashing he’d forgotten why he’s got on the bike in the first place.

Relearning is pretty much new dog old tricks. Motorbikes taught me go hard on the inside hand.  Skills courses insisted outside pedal down. Everyone quick says look where you want to go. It kind of worked until it didn’t. I rode sketchy stuff hanging on to better riders and then lost them on the next turn.

15 years should transition you from anger to acceptance. For me tho it’s just continued to piss me off. I’m doing the hard stuff, but I can’t ride those corners in the  Venn of fast, risky and amazing. And maybe I never could again. We’ve done denial, let’s move straight to grief.

And then a forum thread full of fuckwits awash with advice best thought of as clinically insane furballed out a video recorded back in 2012. Straight headtubes, Non bolt though axles, no dropper posts. Based on current marketing convention they were lucky to survive the 2 minutes 54 of hamming it up.

The ham was strong. Talk of ‘laser peckers’ and ‘pointing the penis’* nearly had me hitting the X,  but lost in the misogyny was the concept that hips were a key player in cornering. Was this the missing link?

No. And Yes. And no again. We all point things at things** when riding bikes. Some of us do it naturally. Others overthink it. I’m in the second camp attempting to sequence non linear actions into some form of success strategy. It’s always felt – post smashing myself up – contrived and ineffective.

Hips tho. Even old non articulating hips.  Point them in the desired direction of travel and feel the whole biomechanical structure creak into place. I kind of knew this but what I’d missed was leading with the hips stacks everything in a direction mostly likely to punt you out of a corner a) quite quickly and b) not straight into a tree.

With nothing to lose other than a innocent spleen, I decided to give it a proper go. Not a slight shift of the hips, more a full on point and – if things went well – a ‘woot’ to confirm success. First corner, commitment a bit questionable and I grazed summer shrubbery far removed from the dusty trail.

For fucks sake,  had a word with myself.

Next corner went ‘full pointy’*** which has some consequences. One was facing in an entirely different direction without quite understanding how that might have happened.  Bloody hell that’s a thing. How long have I  been riding bikes? Surely someone should have told me.

They would have told me this. It’s not a panacea. It does not swap technique for bravery. It doesn’t work everywhere. It needs to be learned. But when you do, the whole ‘am I doing the right thing ‘ is replaced by ‘swivel those hips and all while be well’

Let’s  not get ahead of ourselves. It’s an evolution not a revolution. It’s codifying stuff I already know. It may not survive the soggy season. It doesn’t override my fear of spending days back at that hospital.

What it is tho is a reminder of why I do this. Of waving the big fuck off to being 52 years old and still riding at a reasonably brisk pace. Of not confusing those years on the planet with a loss of ability. Of never stopping learning nor thinking there is something important about acting my age.

Hi my name is Alex and it’s been three days since I railed a corner. I’m done with this group. I won’t be back.

I’ll be riding. Not worrying. Not overthinking. Maybe not railing a corner but giving it a damn good go.

Is that enough? You betcha.

*amazing really with content such as this that women are not overly represented in Mountain Biking.

**I don’t want to lose my audience here by getting too technical.

***As much as a middle aged man can. Fully articulated hips happen to the next generation.

Best of days

The end of summer?

The end of summer?

The end of summer?

The day didn’t start well. The planned skive ride stopped before it started. The potential back up afternoon ride was similarly sacked off. Work stopped play, and that’s not a call a man with limited years left to ride and total control of his own diary should ever have to make.

The Wednesday night ride stepped up to take in the slack and was nothing short of awesome. The Wye Valley is so preposterously stunning in summer there is no place I’d rather be. You point and click in any direction and end up with a banger. That’s the picturesque landscape doing all the heavy lifting.

A landscape you get to ride in until you run out of light. Then there’s the pub you get to drink in. Until you run out of money.  We’re on the cusp of artificial light buttressing the sinking sun, but we’re not quite there yet.  That’s a reality tinged with sadness as our little part of the planet turns its face from the sun.

But we’re hanging on. To dusty motes hanging in sun baked stillness. To bikes air brushed with dust. To summer lines and endless grip. To T-shirts and sweat. To knowing it’ll be many months before it’s this good again.

So let’s get amongst it. The local trails above Ross are of questionable legality. And that’s stretching the most charitable definition. The shovel pixies are both skilled builders and passive advocates of Marx’s firmly held view that all property is theft. I have concerns from both sides, but bloody hell they’ve created a mini bike park which repeatedly pokes the fun gland.

It’s a small hill. One ten minute climb to the top and maybe two minutes down. Rinse and repeat. Trails snake left and right with clear progression from the flowy and fast to the frankly ridiculous. There’s one steep rock drop matched to a roll out you might as well name ‘busted collarbone’.  I’m not riding that.

I am riding everything else though including a big gap jump I’d been studiously ignoring for a year or so. I’m a man who works best with a margin of error. Preferably half way across the page. So why I attempted this on my hardtail is beyond me. Caught in the moment I guess. Oh and that bike is beyond awesome. It looks like a normal bike but rides like a champion.

There’s some steely magic crafted into Cotic Bikes. Tonight I’m all cantered hips and dragged rear brakes. It’s point and shoot silliness that never gets old even as I approach my 52nd birthday. There are moments which transcend the whole age thing. Just you, a brilliant bike, a bit of confidence, a mate to chase and dust particles to excite.

In the words of Jo Burt, this is why. It’s easy to stuff your head with lyrical earwax when you’ve had a great ride, but there is something to this. And it’s something like this. It’s Riding Evo. It’s a slightly braver version of who you are. It’s pushing a bit harder and not being scared. It’s feeling the tyres giving up but cracking on anyway. It’s taking the accident out of emergency. It’s as close to living in the moment as any of us get.

I just wanted to keep riding with my mates. I love the bullshit and the banter. I love the fact we’re all very different and yet somehow all the same when we ride bikes.  I love – because I’m as shallow as a tea spoon – better riders than me saying ‘Shit Al, what are you on tonight, that’s proper quick’.

I know what I’m on. Adrenaline chased with a dopamine hit. This is what I love about being an average rider. Because when you get it right, when confidence seeps in and anxiety exits stage left it feels amazing. You stop feeling like a fraud, a credit card rider, all that gear and still no fucking idea. You get a glimpse that this is how great riders feel all the time.

And I don’t want to be one of those. Really. It’d just have me chasing the next level thrill. The more stupid. The desperately difficult. I don’t need that in my life. What I need instead are nights like this when good enough is so much more than good enough. When I’m nailing every apex, feeling – really feeling – what the bike is telling me, pushing just a little bit harder and laughing out loud as the bike rails a corner or nails a jump.

Yeah like the landscape, the bike is doing the heavy lifting here. But I’m close enough to steal some of the glory. And what a thing that is.

We’re drinking cold beer watching the sun set. It’s not even 9pm. Summer is rushing into Autumn. The cold season awaits. But just for today, just for a moment, it’s perfect.

The best of days.

Jekyll and Hyde

Orbea Occam 27.5 AM
Blood Red Saddle. Appropriate.

Robert Stevenson’s novella has infected one of my mountain bikes. It’s all ‘oh what a lovely well sorted trail bike’ until someone has a nasty accident. That someone being my mate Tim who took ‘the snapper’ out in Finale apparently to test the breaking strain of his tibia.

For more on that, you’ll need to arm yourself with a copy of this quarters www.cranked.cc and a strong libation to numb the gory bits.

Coincidence I hear you mutter. Oh I think not after the sadistic bastard had a stab at separating my arm and shoulder last weekend. Ah you mutter on, but you’re always crashing you useless twat. Yes well there’s something in that, but work with me here. At least let’s agree that all bikes have personalities.

What? You’re not even throwing me that bone? Tough crowd. Look they do, my Solaris Max is basically a puppy amped up on a sugar rush, the RipMo is a calm explorer fearing nothing of scary landscape and the Orbea is just, well, mentally unstable. And like the worse kind of nutter, it lulls you into that false sense of security before making strenuous attempt to bite off your nose.

I’d not ridden it much before Tim lunched himself into a innocent tree. Strangely it’s not been granted day release from the ShedofDreams since. It’s just hung on the wall bullying the other bikes. Sufficient time has now passed however for firm knowledge to soften into conspiracy theory.  Last week I extended a tentative hand of friendship with a ride on our local trails. All alone in case it felt the urge to murder someone else.

Of course it was fine. Dr Jekyll in control. I still wasn’t sure I liked it much, but that was less about it’s dubious character and more that it’s very different to both my other mountain bikes. It climbs like an absolute mad bastard for a start.

Efficient, I thought, gets you to the top of the hill so it can kill you quicker. Down tho it’s only not brilliant because I am not brilliant. 150mm of travel both ends, decent angles, somehow both taut and plush. Not massively engaging. Not sure why.

I rode for two hours and wasn’t obviously dead. In fact it’d been a bit of an anti-climax. Like all the other times I’d ridden it. All 7 of them. Maybe  Tim’s accident and my whole ‘Holy Shit here comes Edward Hyde’ was nothing more than displacement activity.  Best find out.

I should have known. The day before Tim had an extended session genuflecting to the Shrine of Mong, he was riding like an absolute demon. I’ll be honest, I’d never ridden the bike that fast, but once switched from his 29er Ripley and within a few trails he was having it fairly large. A bit annoying really as we’re normally closely matched but I was – and there’s no kind way of saying this – getting my arse handed to me on a plate.

It is a fast bike without doubt. 2 hours into our long weekend ride, I started to finally gel with it. Rewards a bit of commitment for sure, but otherwise it’s pretty much vice-less. Until it wasn’t. Heading onto a trail we rarely ride, Matt and I had on of those exchanges.

Him ‘Do you want to do that shit jump?  I’m on holiday next week and really don’t want to crash’ Someone else ‘Ah come on we’re here now, it’ll be fine’. That someone was me. Mr Hyde was clearly in the driving seat. My cautious self still retained a modicum of risk assessment tho, so ‘But only if you go first’

Normally this stops me hitting jumps too slowly. Today however Matt decided to adopt a bit of an Al-Approach. There are good reasons for this. The run in is okay but that’s as good as it gets. The take off exits two wobbly logs bouncing on a decaying tree, while the run out narrows alarmingly with trees left and right ready to stop you – if not dead at least mildly concussed.

A normal me would have abandoned after watching Matt extract maximum value for his 180mm forks on landing. He wasn’t troubling the 180mm on the back much. I didn’t trouble mine at all having rolled off the 3 foot plank with only sufficient velocity to outrun growing vegetation.

I landed in some a second or so later. Having realised this was a classic over the bars arms out/collarbone at risk crash, I snapped into ‘full tortoise’, hit the ground with my head and shoulder before rolling painfully into the bushes. The bike lay beside me looking pleased. Yeah Ed, you total bastard you got me that time.

Well that hurt

Haydn persuaded me not to have another go. The bike looked disappointed. It was sure it could deal out more than soreness and scars given another chance. I gingerly rotated crunching bones and decided this was the correct course of action. As was not blaming the bike.

No bike would have saved me. Rider error 100%. The rest of the day went absolutely swimmingly. Literally when I found a ridable line through a pit of mud Matt and H had failed it clear. It was a pyrrhic victory though with my reward being head to toe fetid moistness.

The bike however was great. The more I rode it, the better it was. So sure now that its split personality was nothing more than an excuse, I punted it round the always-brisk Wednesday night ride. And you know what? It was bloody fantastic. Grip, poise, agility. Three out of three. Loss of limb. Zero out of one.

Watching the sun set blood red on the dusty frame, I couldn’t help but conclude that lunacy was definitely involved. But the one barking* at the moon wasn’t the bike. It was me.

So Dr J is a keeper. Mr H can fuck off tho. That crash bloody hurt.

*more giggling to be fair. It just doesn’t scan as well.

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.