The numbers do lie

Ibis Ripley v4 at 1000km

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do or do not. There is not try.

Penyard April '21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**** Stop it. It’s beneath you.

Buckets of sunshine

Riding with Jess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riding with Jess

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

Riding with Jess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, what now?

Ibis Mojo4 build

You may be disappointed. Possibly even appalled. But likely not surprised.  A new bike portal’d into the ShedofDreams(tm) is hardly news at all. Even so I expect you have questions. Starting with what, moving onto how and finishing with why. Or simply a shaken headed ‘what the actual fuck?

I have no answers. Nothing within sectioning distance of rational anyway. This time there will be no talk of an end game choreographed by 4-D chess moves. Or reasons pertaining to opportunity or guile. Nope none of that. It’s something of a relief not torturing logic to slight the insisting hand that the emperor may indeed be fully clothed.

There was no need. There was only want. There are many excuses. But when the result is three carbon full suspension bikes from the SAME brand, you don’t need excuses, you need a therapist. Please take that role, while I recline on the chaise longe and explain how we got here.

It started on a cold winters night when I harvested the Ripley from hibernation. First time riding anything other than the hardtail for five wet and grim months. Dirt was frozen solid, basically summer from the axles down. It should have been amazing. It wasn’t.

I’ve never quite gelled with that bike. Which is pretty fucking annoying considering it’s wanted for nothing other than a decent pilot. Entire suitcases of cash failed to secure that bond.  I told myself it was the dark or the cold, and my inability to deal with either.

So a week later the RipMo* sallied forth on muddy-again trails, and we just had a brilliant time. Until the following day revealed exactly how much damage one muddy ride inflicts on Californians’ finest**.  The RipMo and I have shared three amazing years, so it’s as close to a permanent fixture in the shed as anything I’ve owned***

Those last three paragraphs are mostly displacement tactics. They offer nothing to explain the escalation of financial destitution on the following Sunday. It started with me musing how the Mojo3 was my favourite ever bike and how – flawed as it was – I really should have kept it, and ended with the latest of its genus being added to basket some four hours later.

Along with a plethora of parts best categorised as “heritage wheel size”. Not satisfied with buying a bike that has around 100% overlap with the Ripley, I also felt it was exactly the right time to significantly invest in 27.5 inch wheels. They were the future once. Just not recently.

So after all these shenanigans, what have we ended up with? A trail bike balanced between 140mm and 130mm air springs. Short chainstays, long front centre, slack angles and Ibis’s ludicrous design approach to mud clearance****. So it’s compromised, but pretty. Like my Mojo3.

That bike – built exactly four years ago – brought my riding on when I believed my limit had long peaked at bang-average. That same year, a week in Spain remains my riding high water mark where fast and confident displaced over-thinking and hesitant.  Did I buy this bike to recapture those glory days? Maybe. Don’t judge. It’s as good a reason as any.

The silhouette is similar, the numbers aren’t. 2 degrees slacker, 2 inches longer, back end fettled with updated kinematics, front end bouncing on better damping. Stuff in between more expensive if not actually better.  Rider pretty much the same confused graft of enthusiastic and stupid. And bloody impatient when four weeks of stuff got between delivery and a proper ride.

First ride of the "Prince of Grayness"

A ride on trails not ridden for six months. In the dark. Initial impressions were confused. Turns really fast, feels a bit flighty.  Agile and lithe or nervous and needy? Lots of time to pontificate on the climb back up. Climbs well, maybe not quite Ripley efficient, but held back by nothing but noodle-legs here.

Next trail is fast and twisty. Bike feels good in the corners but I can’t trust it yet. It’s egging me on but I’m not feeling very eggy.  Steep and chute-y very nearly ended in lying down and bleeding. Luckily Rex took one for the team showcasing his full-body-slam signature move on some unexpected mud.

Mmm so like it but not sure, Skived off today to try again. First trail totally fucking useless with a head full of work stuff. Deep breath required to deliver inner monologue to whit “past is back there, future out in front, get on with it”

Which kind of worked. Cleared the two big gap jumps that require suspending the belief that crashing is going to be really sodding consequential. Kept Matt in sight which is a good measure things are going okay. Massive grin plastered on my fizog which may be a new bike thing, or a dry trails thing, or a Friday skive thing. Whatever, it’s a thing. I’ll take that.

All that means I can give you some answers. Was it worth the money? Fuck knows, go find me a measure of value. Will it replace the Ripley? Fuck knows, find me a metric to choose. Does it actually make any sense at all? Fucked if I know. Makes me happy so you know, there’s that.

Are you done? Surely there are no other niches to chase? Wait, what now?

*Yes I know it’s hard keeping track. Think of it as a Christopher Nolan Movie without the special effects. But with more swearing.

**I asked for three particularly muddy trails to be renamed ‘Collapsed Bearing‘, ‘Ruined Pivot’ and ‘Warranty Claim‘.

***Except the beer fridge. You’ll be prising that out of my cold dead hands.

****That being the Californian assumption that such a soil compound is a European myth.

 

Time isn’t money

Back on the big dog!

It certainly used to be.

For as long as I can remember* time was indeed money. In the shark infested world of those big consulting firms, billing hours were both an evaluation of your job performance, and the metric by which you got to keep it.

Sacking that shit off over ten years ago, at least some of everything I do doesn’t represent a zero-sum-game financial transaction. There’s doing the right thing and doing the thing that pays the bills. Mostly they intersect, sometimes they don’t, but I’m financially fortunate enough to care more about relationships that money.

What has this to do with riding bikes? Too often I missed rides for what felt like good reasons – stuck in a hotel 200 miles away, and bad ones watching shadows of sunshine tumble down my computer screen.  I should be outside chasing dust motes, but I’m in here chasing money. Or more likely racing against stupid deadlines I’ve breezily set a few days earlier.

Someone once said hope for the best but plan for the worst – I’ve no idea who as I stopped listening after the first four words. I’ve put work in front of riding, but way worse I’ve put it in front of family and friends. And fuck me did I feel righteous about doing so.

Notice the past tense? What’s changed? Oh so many things. Clock of time ticking feels quite important.  Financial security being its’ vulgar twin. That’s a double edged sword tho, one forged for Damocles if you will. I am well paid for what I do, but an employee count of one means zero scale. So new piece of work or an epic ride? There are no easy choices.

It’s easy to declare you’re done with exchanging money for time. It’s harder to instantiate that declaration in the physical world. It’s also a crushingly first world problem lacking any wider perspective. But hey this is me we’re talking about. It’s going to take a while to get better at more than one thing.

Today I got better at one thing. A glorious Sunday blue sky morning felt like Spring may be coming. By 8am I’d written an epically ambitious to-do list for next week. By 9am, I decided that if someone was going to be disappointed in the next seven days, it may as well not be me.

Matt and I rode a well grooved path to the Yat, only this time without the shivery embrace of a long winter. The trails weren’t dry, but they ticked all the boxes the two month festival of slurry failed so hard to do so.  My excitement got the better of me with the first trail nearly being my last. A damp root punted me tree-ward and only an instinctive ‘enduro tripod‘ saved me from shunting into an arboreal halt.

The sun climbed higher and so did we. Accessing trails winter shuts down. Faster, steeper, more committing. You know that whole stuff of life thing. Back on the RipMo, I felt fit and confident. Maybe five months of Hardtails and four months of Zwift has slowed the inevitable decline of that soon-to-be mid-50s demographic.

Or maybe it’s in my head. Doesn’t matter, the bike feels amazing, the trails are giving up a little of their spring bounty, and I’m keeping Matt in sight if not entirely honest. For glorious minutes I completely forgot the choice I’d made. It didn’t feel like a choice at all, it just felt like the sodding obvious thing I should be doing. In other news, this is why riding bikes are the antidote to procrastination.

We made grand plans to ride all the fresh-dug trails visible from every fireroad. A year of lockdowns has been a boon to the trail-pixes. We finish though on an old favourite. Steep enough to be fun, off camber enough for its’ obvious non-dryness to punt it just on the right side of exciting, long enough to reboot muscle memory.

Matt led the first half, I nipped in front to gimp for his GoPro. It’ll probably look flat and slow, but if you think that matters, you’re drinking the wrong Kool-Aid. I was mainlining 150 beats and words per minute as we skidded onto the fireroad. Even passing our favourite closed-up-tight pub failed to dent my happy countenance.

It’s coming back and it’s coming soon. And I’ll be ready. I’m done with making excuses, choosing the wrong option, saying no to the wrong people. I’ve even bored myself with ‘I don’t know how much time I have left to properly ride mountain bikes‘. But that is so obviously the wrong question.

The right question is what am I going to do with that time?  Make excuses? Take the easy can’t be arsed option? Exchange it for money? Absolutely not. The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.

Chocks away then 🙂

*which nowadays may extend to what I had to breakfast but not far beyond. After which it’s a request sent down to deep storage which may elicit an answer many hours later**

**Normally around 2am sitting me bolt upright in bed exclaiming ‘That’s right A Flock of Seagulls 2nd single was Telecommunication. Excellent. Remind me why that was important”

Simpler times

2004. That’s me and a bike. So far, so standard. Mostly everything on that bike has changed though. Frame design, suspension sophistication, tyre compounds, lengths lost from stems found on bars, dropper posts, fatter rims and proper brakes.

Less obvious is any rider metamorphosis. Seventeen years on and that awkward stance memorably described as ‘crouching badger, hidden terror’ remains very much in evidence today. Nowadays I’m sporting significantly more joint protection and a niggling pantheon of injuries*

Still have those shorts somewhere if not the calf muscles. The bike is, somewhat predictably, long gone. In my defence the ‘hinge‘, as it was known, was not one of my finest  purchasing decisions.  Alcohol was involved.

It was a study in unbalanced design; the front compressing and the rear extending at the perfect amplitude to eject crouching badger into now very visible terror. Often a concussed and bleeding badger if memory serves.

In my mid 30s tho, those scars were a badge of honour. Returning bleeding to a young family, I’d make up stories focussing on extreme bravery and stoicism in the face of blunt force trauma. Because back in those days capturing that truth was an experience closely allied to a massive ball ache.

Phones and cameras were still separated by technology. Even digital soul stealers had shutter speeds best recorded by a sundial.  My old friend Julian has done well here with long forgotten skills to capture movement without blur. To be fair we weren’t moving very quickly.

We were having fun tho.  I poured over those photos of riding buddies mostly missing from todays social circle. Some moved thousands of miles away**, a couple more are shockingly no longer with us, a few more have given up cycling or replaced dirt with tarmac.

The rest of us old bastards soldier on. Heavy on memories and light on what’s left to rage against. I wish that ride still resonated somewhere, but after thirty years in the dirt it’s lost amongst three thousand others.  I expect it’d follow the grooved pattern of every organised group ride. It goes like this:

Early start. Someone has forgotten something. Or we’ve forgotten someone. In days before vans, there’s a complex Fibonacci sequence of bikes, riders, trailers and cars. Eventually we crack the sequence and we’re on the road. Nervous talk of what is to come, bravado and arse-wind compete for mockery.  Pre Sat-Nav Man-Nav makes us later still.

Arrive eventually. Some people we instantly recognise, others only from their early internet personas. “Hi, I’m John” from a normal looking if slightly embarrassed fella. Pause. “You probably know me as ‘Rubber-Jonny‘”***. We pretend we don’t.

Check out bikes and riders. The Mid-2000s wasn’t a stand-out period for frame design. Natural selection has yet to take its course. I offer up the ‘hinge‘ as an example but it isn’t the only one. Over there is a tiny hardtail with a massive fork. In its shadow is a race bike with 600mm bars and cow horns. Rubber-J is astride a weird looking V-shaped frame vibrating around a protruding undamped coil shock.  Entirely appropriate username then.

Eventually we ride. These are the days of 20+ riders of – let’s be charitable here – differing skills. I am one of those riders. Although skills is probably being a little too charitable. Looking at the photos, it’s not conceit to know my riding is way more proficient today, regardless of those extra 17 years on the clock. Much of that is the bikes I ride, at least a little is how much I’ve ridden them.

Photo stops are just that. The ride stenographer dumps his sack****, fiddles with tiny dials and low res screens, declares himself ready, choreographs the now tetchy riders into ham and fail, before declaring he’s captured something. Until he gets home and makes various electronic offerings to a PC, no one quite knows what that might be.

This stop-start-to-you-to-me goes on for a while. Friendships are forged on the trail and cemented in the pub. Talking bollocks bridges the two. More drinking evokes more piss taking and before long we’re everyone’s best mate, this is the best thing ever, and you need to come and ride with us.  Even Rubber-J is invited.

Back in the Chilterns, we host a ‘weekender‘. It was a qualified success. The trails were dry, the pubs were welcoming, no one suffered a major injury. We also lost three riders within 5 minutes and never saw them again.  They may still be out there.

Seventeen years is long time. They ride different trails there. Simpler times for sure. No existential dread of age ending all this soon. No riding the same trails for a year because of a pandemic. No wondering over wheel sizes, pointless niches and technology confused as progress.

Better? I don’t know. Part of a glorious seventeen years of riding bikes in amazing places with brilliant people many of whom I’m glad to call my friends? Oh yeah, in bloody spades.

We’re not done yet. But I’d love to do that 2004 thing again.

*these two things are very much related. Sadly not in the right order. The stable door is open, and the horse is nowhere to be seen.

**I don’t think this a direct consequence of riding with me. But I never had the courage to actually ask.

***This kind of situation is made even worse when it goes like this: “Crikey I never expected ‘Devil-Balls’ to be a women

****”Hey are you Sack-Dumper off the Forum?” / Frosty Silence / “Oh sorry, honest mistake”

Solaris UnMaxed

Solaris Max

I’m so down with the kids. I’ve seen lots of this sort of thing on Twinstagram and FaceTok.  So obviously now I’ve ‘done‘ one, it’s so crushingly uncool, you’ll only ever see it again on FriendsUnited or archly hashtagged ‘Yeah I think you’ll find that’s irony Grandad

Anyway for all that, this is not some ludicrous attempt to remain relevant* to those under the age of ‘Can we interest you in a Cruise and a complimentary dose of COVID-19?’. No, for all of those undergoing a ‘journey’ from one state to another**, here’s an analogue only with bike parts.

Parts being the key difference. Frame, fork and wheels were all that remained from the component heist pulled to build the Bardino. Sourcing the remainder would normally be nothing more than a rummage in the box of cast offs, abandoned projects, impulse purchases and a tiny percentage of my grip collection***

Not this time. The bike industry’s maxim to ‘never create a standard that will last longer than a wine gum‘ has obsolesced swathes of previously enjoyed parts which otherwise satisfied ever requirement other than being shiny and a bit old.  An excellent metaphor for my own journey through hair loss and accelerating ancientness.

There’s been talk of an economy drive in the ShedofDreams(tm) before. Not by me obviously, but emptying the virtual wallet on brand new parts doesn’t make much sense. Assuming you can get them. Which of course, currently you can’t and that’s okay as the ride to cost ratio remains low with Jess.

For it is she for whom the bike is built. Regular readers may remember the MK1 Solaris Max was pretty much perfect for her. However it was sold while she wasn’t looking and she never fully got on with its replacement. Let me take you through the teenage angst accompanying those rides.

Too long, bars too wide, too heavy, doesn’t go round corners, too hard to pedal up hill. The obvious solution would be an e-bike but we’re absolutely not going there. I never claimed to be the best parent, but really short of harvesting them for their own organs, I cannot think of anything worse to inflict on an offspring.

Having exhausted my own spares kit, I skip-ratted most of my friends.  Lovely old but pretty XTR cranks from Cez, a narrow bar and some leaky brakes from Ads and a dropper from Matt’s ‘shelf of abandoned seatposts’ left me needing to pay actual money for a stem and a non pissing caliper.

It took Matt a couple of sessions to build it up. Firstly because I’d failed to deliver all the actual parts to his garage, and secondly as Herefordshire had a brief tier-1 window into which we jumped. And rolled out of some time later. For the sake of mitigating the possibility of Jess’s patent Paddington Hard Stare, I threw on a half worn front tyre, a 46 tooth cassette and comfier saddle.

Solaris re-build

Solaris re-build

Matt dealt with keeping the brake fluid on the inside of the hoses, unslackening the fork**** to bring the front wheel back from ‘it’s out there somewhere, just not quite sure where‘, rejuvenating a very bent mech with a very big hammer, and general fettling well beyond my ken.

SolarisMax rebuilt for Jess

And there she is. Not Jess, the bike. Total spent £40. So about 1% of what I normally spend on a new bike. Which includes the Stem-of-all-the-colours she picked from a selection of £13 ones off eBay.

So how does it ride? Well a quick blast down the road in the snow was interesting. Mainly because the bar width screams ‘zip tie on a race plate‘. Other than that it’s definitely lighter, more spritely and well you know bike like. It was a great frame to start with so hard to screw it up really.

The more pertinent question is “Does Jess like it?“. She likes the look of it. Ride impressions will have to wait until the mercury rises above zero and / or we’re actually allowed anywhere fun to test it.

The important thing is it’s not longer languishing in the rafters and – due to the generosity of my friends – is ready to go for when Jess is. Obviously when she’s back at Uni, I might have to test it myself.

Not before fitting a 780mm bar tho 🙂

*which suggests I ever was.

**New Years Resolutions:  What I think of as the ‘Pasty to Salad back to Pasty‘ journey. Completed in around 10 days.

***I have around 40 grips. Some even in matching pairs. I cannot reconcile how this has happened. I can only assume they breed by eating individual socks. There has to be a correlation.

****Keen readers may note it looks very short. Spotters badge. It should be 120mm, it’s currently 100mm. I refer readers to the previous paragraph re: pub.

It’s that time of year again..

Worse boy band reunion ever :)

.. or just past it. 2020 went <— thataway and I’m sure I’m not alone in giving it both the finger and a boot up the arse. We do not wish to see it’s like again.

Still some traditions endure. The fad diets, the frozen morning runs, the frankly insane abandonment of alcohol. And of course the internationally recognised* Hedgehog of the year awards.

We were socially distancing before it became a thing.  Which considering all they are are a re-hash of last years content and some impossible logical gymnastics spinning the need for new bicycles, it’s was never going to be a sold out event.

I turned up, poured myself a beer, reviewed the meagre 2020 content,  mentally lasso’d the shedofdeams(tm) switcharoo and created some links. As I say not the most prestigious event, but I’m glad I turned up. As all the beer was for me.

Without further ado:

2020 articles that make some sort of sense on a second reading

The bike page. As with many things 2020, great plans but not much happening.

Oh and the picture ^^ up there. Titled: Worst boy band reunion ever. No reason to post it other than every time I look at, it makes me laugh. And by Christ we could all do with a bit more of that in 2021.

*we do have many readers from far flung parts. I cannot imagine trying to parse my nonsense as a second language. It’s hardly English to start with.

Zoom in.

2020 then. Hard to know where to start. The year may be coming to an end, but we’ll be reaping its’ shit-storm a little while longer yet. A global pandemic brought local by incompetence, ideology and insanity repackaged as winning. Brexit Britain ruling all those statistical waves, where deaths per million stamp exits on the petty nationalism passport.

Still on the upside, I rode quite a lot. That image is my ‘Covid-Box’. More a 5x10km rectangle fencing 98% of every time I tried to leave the madness behind. Early on alone and introspective, later on with friends I’d desperately missed, occasionally normalised in the pub and latterly under darkening skies.

Zooming out fills in the 2%. Three trips to Wales, all the more unusual for blue skies and sun baked trails. The last of which – late September – felt like the start of something normal. Eight of us descended on Coed-Y-Brenin to climb the steep sides of those North Welsh hills.

To then plummet down the other side, reacquainting ourselves with what we latterly took for granted. Post ride sitting in a pub garden toasting the end of the beginning. Yeah, that’s aged well. Still a great memory and there’s been a few more of those.

Zoom out a little more and a few tracks fan out from Malaga where we had the most amazing time way back in Feb. Feels like a different time.  A different life where social distancing was swaying away from an unwashed pal, or masking your drunkenness by hanging on to a handy lampost.

That’s it tho. Andorra for Alex’s 40th went early, whereas a second trip to Spain suffered a realism deficit right up to the point when common sense overcame desperation to ride dusty trails we knew so well. I totally accept this is a first world problem, but it’s still my first world problem and while everything else can be postponed getting older cannot.

I’ve no idea how many of these trips are left.  Again let’s focus on the good stuff; I’m mostly uninjured, 1/2 a stone, in old money, lighter than the last time we passed round the sun, feeling good on and off the bike, and not yet bored of slithering around the local trails in a percussive manner.

That summary hides a dirty secret. Of the rather impressive 6,000km I’ve ridden this year, 30% were racked up going nowhere slowly in the shed.  First time I’ve cracked 100,000 metres of climbing but again 25% of that elevation was nothing more than a flywheel and a desperate urge to chase people I’ve never met.

The other 70% is encapsulated by the Covid-Box. Living smack bang between two areas of Areas of Outstanding National Beauty does have its advantages. Forests and views being a couple of them.  Bike forums are awash with those having neither. Apparently getting bored of your local trails is a thing.

Not for us. The trail network is criss crossed with classics, old favourites and new digs carved out by furloughed trail pixies. Digging into my ride data unearthed a couple of nuggets; firstly I’d climbed the bastard-oh-god-are-we-there yet track into the local woods a one less than make-your-own-joke here 68 times.

Over half of those were to access the two forks of our trails; Penyard being more trail dense, shorter and a bit less technical. Chase benefiting from a little more elevation, lumpier geography and longer runs. On long summer days we’d fork both left and right, before forking off to Matt’s Speakeasy to neck cold drinks toasting perfect sunsets.

The rest of the time we’d go long. Penyard being a gateway to the Yat where trails sprout from every forest road. Climb enough to be rewarded by views across about five counties and one other country.  Descend on perfectly sculptured tracks until arms pointed to the pub when the legs were done. This was pandemic-lite – we knew what was happening but it was mostly happening to someone else*

Sometimes that was people we knew. Seb (editor of www.cranked.cc) and I swapped rides. After a fantastic Mendip loop, I hosted him on our local trails in perfect conditions. We had such a blast finishing in the pub, accessed via the local Church steps, arrowing you into the welcoming garden of the Kings Head.

These – and so many more – are the memories I’m taking from this shitty year. Because I can’t control any of the scary externalities. I honestly don’t know what normal is going to feel like, nor when we might celebrate that moment.

I know this tho. 2021 just has to be a better year. And we all have a part to play in that. We’ve learned to endure so many things, but it is the random acts of kindness which stand out. Almost like spies behind enemy lines. There’s more to bring us together than to divide us.

None of us can fix the clusterfuck that is 2020. But all of us have shown we don’t need to. We can be there for each other. Nothing is more important than that. Even riding bikes.  Although, let’s be clear, that is still extremely important

Happy new year all. Fingers crossed it’s going to be at least okay.

*Herefordshire having the lowest rates of the virus right up until we went into Tier-1 the week before Xmas. At which point those five counties and one country pretty much fucked it for everyone.

The fog is lifting. Maybe.

The fog is lifting

Blimey,  a post.

It’s been a while. Most of which has been filled with cold, wet and a semi-busted shoulder. Current events were depressing enough without piling on the misery pre-winter inevitably stomps it’s depressing size 10s all over.

Taking the last first, that’s a frustrating injury taking far too long to heal. Some of that is age related decrepitude, a bit more smashing it down and then onto bumpy trails. That was such a stupid crash right at the end of a fantastic autumn skive ride.

I watched Adam make a proper hash of a steep rooty corner. Him being a far better rider than me in no way highlighted the possibility that personal calamity was in the offing. I confidently struck out on a higher line festooned with slick-blacked tree nurturers.

Grip deferred to gravity as was obvious to anyone not called Alex, and that person suffered a precision strike where four weeks of physio had been painfully enacted. Did it hurt? Shit, yes. Did I whine? Of course, what did you expect? Did Adam laugh? Yes*, but that’s how schadenfreude works.

Said physio gave me a bit of a telling off when I returned to the clinic a few days later. To whit you’re playing a young man’s sport and, well how can I put this, you’re not rocking that particular demographic. Stop riding or stop crashing for a bit. There’s only so much medical science can mitigate serial stupidity.

Appropriate chastised, I retired to the shed. There is no place to hide with a turbo trainer. No really, it is <–> far from the desk I spend my virtual days. Mocking the corner of my eye with its it’s been a day, get your spawny arse back on here, or are you too weak?

Back in the shed!

15 sessions later, it would appear I am. Worse than that – much worse – is I’ve started to almost enjoy it. Careful use of the word ‘almost‘ there but even so it’s not so much the thin end of the wedge, more the end of the beginning. Let’s go back and review the wet and cold outside this cozy world of cartoon graphics and weird internet-spliced friendships.

Even a cursory reader of this blog is cognisant of my pointless hatred of winter. Specifically slogging through the four month festival of slurry while failing to measurably improve my low-baselined mud riding skills. Every year I promise myself will be the year endless commitment and careful tyre choice shall  bring forth a seasonal epiphany.

Nope. Watch some youtube vids. Nope. Fit some expensive tyres. Nope. Give myself a serious talking too. Nope. Nope. Nope. Plan B then – if you are struggling to succeed, redefine exactly what you mean by success. By lowering the bar under which even a professional limbo dancer would consider unplayable.

No longer shall I pretend I might be confident in the slop. At no point will fast enter my vocabulary unless speaking of others. The whiff of disappointment shall be met by the stench of tiny expectations. Just getting out and staying upright will be considered more than enough.

And it really is. This mad world we find ourselves in is brought into focus by back to back Zoom calls, but graduated by a fuzzy boundary between work and home. What with both being co-existent, and the former stealing hours from the latter.

When the screen feels like most of your life, I find a hearty ‘fuck this, I’m outta here‘ works well to nudge the dial of wellbeing. I abandoned a Friday in the virtual world for a skive ride in the real one. The kind of decision we all need to be making more often.

2 degrees. Cloudbase zero. Even the birds were walking. Dank, damp and desolate. Late autumn colours lost to the iron grey sky.  Trails lost to mulch and mud. Fitness gained going nowhere fast lost to brutal plasticine climbs.

It matters not. I was rubbish. That doesn’t matter either. I got lost. That mattered a little as we dropped into stupidly steep trails best thought of as a mud slidey accident ready environment. I could hear the physio cursing. Although she’d have had to go somewhat to drown out my own ‘fuuuuuucccck, shiiiiiiit, boooollllllooooox‘ as I fell down the hill occasionally accompanied by bicycle.

Adam – yes him again – was loving it. ‘Hey Al, thanks for showing me these trails, they are brilliant‘. And they are, or they will be under April loam or July hardpack. I was annoyed at how well Ads rode those trails, fully committed and troubled not at all by self-doubt. I was angry with myself for not getting within 50% of that.

Then after besting the greasy horror of the 15 minute climb to the top, the fog briefly cleared, the low sun burst through illuminating the dank. Shards of late autumn light pierced the leafless trees. The gloom lifted as did my spirits.

This is what being outside is all about. Those moments when the natural world plasters a smile on your face. When the unexpected makes you pause. Think a bit. Maybe all this will pass. Maybe it won’t.

But you’re unlikely to be watching from the right place if you’re staring at the wall of your shed. Riding bikes when conditions are shit isn’t really about riding bikes. Not for me anyway. It’s about sharing those little wins with those who know how special they are. It’s about giving the finger to the idea we are largely powerless.

It’s about making a choice. Is the fog really lifting? Maybe. Maybe not. But you’ll find me outside wondering if any of that really matters.

*in his place, I’d have asked him to do it again for the camera. It was that lame.