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.

Raising the bar

Nordest Bardino II

Probably worth clarifying a couple things right off the bat here.  There’s a post barely socially distanced from this one declaiming that writing about bikes was so over. Behind that are few more throwing shade on the need or indeed want for any new bikes.

And yet here we are. Well I am for sure, can’t speak for the rest of you.  If you’re still here then I can offer both excuses and lies.* Let’s do neither and pretend we’ve been overtaken by events. Yet I see that raised eyebrow and accusing finger pointing at the ‘best hardtail I’ve ever owned‘.

Hmm okay but let’s not dwell on the past. The future is right here. I accept it’s hinterland evo. Another steel frame, a similar niche manufacturer, a confusion of wheel sizes,  a slackness of angles, a lowering of stance. The future appears to be nothing more than new colours and pointless tweaking.

Well there’s that. But we can also celebrate the differences. It’s heavier for a start so we’re already winning. Slacker at the front, steeper at the back. All of which demands a longer fork, sadly missing a similar upgrade to the organic suspension out back.

Summary is if the old bike didn’t hold me back, this one won’t either. And it’s marketed as enduro. So again, winning. Not different enough to prevent a components heist on the Cotic** to harvest almost every component- so turning a frame into something rideable.

Second hand 29er wheels and a raid of Matt’s parts bin finished the build. And regardless of the stupidity, let’s all enjoy the end result. That’s one pretty bike.

Best go ride it then. This side of the hill has me reaching for my full suss. It’s steeper, rockier and a whole lot nastier to the west side. Still new bike and all that so best just get on with it. An hour in from Ross and we’ve established it’s a better road bike than one of those FS’s, and whatever hardtail skills I honed over last winter are long gone.

Riding the first proper trail has me running out of excuses. If not blood, which is surprising considering the volume being pumped out of my calf. Flat pedals and shit technique inevitably ends with hard pins lacerating soft flesh. On the upside it’ll match the other side similarly tattooed in Finale last year.

Bardino first ride

Other than the bleeding, it’s all going surprisingly badly. A long forked, slack-angled hardtail only works if you ride it over the front. Which suits my 90s technique of hanging off the back when the going gets steep not at all. A tentative prod of the bars, while hanging out behind the saddle, emits no directional change at all. Hello Tree, can we be friends?

Time to get a grip. Winch myself over the stem, throw some body English at the next corner and remember how bikes pivot from the back wheel. I’ve always rated myself as an average rider, but I’ll fight refuseniks spreading false gospel decrying quick turning bikes and 64 degree head angles.

This thing rails. I’m embarrassed to write that but it really does. In a way the Solaris didn’t. Not with me on it anyway. It has a calmness more suited to a short travel full suss. It drags grip from the perfect dirt, rotating the world around a sticky 2.6 front tyre.

Three minutes into my first proper trail and we’re faced with the somewhat over-marketed ‘double drop‘. It’s not that big and it certainly isn’t very clever, but fucking it up has all sorts of splattery consequences on the fireroad 20 feet below you.

I’ve ridden it on a HT once. It didn’t go well. But the Bardino is so stupidly good, I passenger’d my way down there with barely a kick in the arse. New school geometry works brilliantly if you commit to the front half of the bike. Right now I’m getting it, come mud and slop, maybe things will be different.

Bardino first ride

Today tho this thing is so fast. I loved the Solaris on 27.5 chubbies but they would just hold this bike back. I spend the rest of the ride failing to fall off all sorts of lairy ledges. Close calls for sure but too much fun to stop. Or even slow down. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s something different from every hardtail I’ve ridden before. And there’s been a few.

Ah another raised eyebrow. New bike thing you mutter. Maybe there’s something in that, but a second ride in the dark did nothing to dispel the feeling of over-confidence. It looks like a hardtail but it rides like something else. Except when you back off at which point the whole pointlessness of 160mm travel difference between front and back smacks you up the arse.

Still not lacking that commitment we finished our ride on the notorious ‘Bunker‘ trail. Steep, rocky, relentless. In the dark with full leaf cover, it’s riding in nature’s cathedral. There’s a beauty to that displaced by the rather less spiritual act of staying upright.

While I’ve ridden it many times I’ve never ridden it in the dark. Or on a hardtail. And of all those times, I’ve never felt quite like I did riding it last night. It should have been scary, but instead it was joyful. It made my realise there is stuff still to be ticked off, things to be done, reasons to keep pushing.

Raising the bar? Maybe not. But I can pretend. For a little while longer.

* John Mason is your touchstone here ‘When you’re good at making excuses, it’s hard to excel at anything else‘. Sure, but let’s all acknowledge it’s a skill of sorts.

** it isn’t being sold. Rebuilding a lighter version for Jess has already started. I could never sell that bike.

This is what fast doesn’t look like.

High outside elbow. Hips canted to the inside. Outside foot hard down.  Eyes scanning the exit. Shoulders forward, hands relaxed.  This is not – as it might appear – a late appendix to the Karma Sutra nor some kind of personal Feng Shui. No this is what passes as ‘best practice’ for navigating a bicycle round a corner.

Oh really, fuck off” I hear you sigh. I’m mostly with you because that very best practice is somewhat subsumed by the axiom that any task is ‘as easy as riding a bike‘.  That’s problematic though because ‘riding a bike’ launches itself across a physical spectrum in the same way that tentatively strumming an ‘E‘ chord celebrates you as a great guitarist*

Riding a bike is easy. Riding a bike quickly is hard. Riding a bike off-road quickly is really hard. There are so many things to go wrong. And most of those are hard as well. Except for the squashy breakable bits attempting to ride round that corner.

It gets worse before it gets better. Similar headology suggests brain surgeon hand eye co-ordination is required if you’re keen to jump or drop off things. At least if you want to complete them without needing the skills of that head doctor. Having hoovered up every YouTube channel we’re still found lacking with serious talk of ‘pumping for speed’ and ‘pushing for grip’.

I feel we may have jumped the shark here. Mountain Biking must be the most over-coached sport on the Internet. Whatever happened to learning by crashing? It’s served most of us well while providing excellent vocational experience for trauma specialists across the country.

Easy for me to take the piss. But I’ve watched all those videos and attempted to place myself in the frame. With – let’s be charitable here – mixed results. Mostly because I’m a bear of little brain and there is far too fucking much going on to remember which limb is which never mind how it should be articulated.

Instead I fall back to bad habits.  Mostly falling off because I’m too far off the back and I won’t lean the bike far enough over. I take refuse in micro braking and then desperate pedalling to cover for my inadequacies. It’d be over-deprecating to say I’m really rubbish and slow but that’s not the point.

I know I can be better. Even a month short of my 53rd birthday.  And just occasionally I am. It’s mostly a one ride epiphany snatched away when it all goes to shit the next time around. But if I’ve learned anything it’s to live in the moment you have rather than worry about those you missed.

Wednesday night we’re riding local trails. Summer rain has raised hero dirt from the sand. My bike is working perfectly and I’ve got my ‘get it done‘ head on. This time last year I tucked my terror of crashing into a quiet place and launched myself over the biggest gap jump on our local hill.

Confidence since then has been mixed. I pretend to laugh at the priority of progression. That I cannot do the things I used to do. That getting out is as good as getting better. That decline is fine and I can look back on past achievements over a beer and a fat belly. Fuck that. The fire still burns a little.  We’re all going to die of something. Might as well enjoy the experience.

So I’m chasing an aged-matched Matt and a far younger Adam on a favourite trail. The whole best practice thing passes me by as the speed increases. Because now I’m in essentially survival mode. I’ve handed the whole thing off to muscle memory and instinct. Which to be honest hasn’t ended well in the past.

Here’s why.  Anyone who rides mountain bikes at any pace has a safe speed. A velocity well in their comfort zone. Margins for error and coping strategies. It moves a bit depending on your confidence level but it’s a window through which you rarely crash. Rarely take real risks. Rarely feel properly scared.

This makes sense. All of us have to go to work in the morning. However fast we are, there will always be those who are faster. However many metres per second we push it, we’re a million miles from our limits. This is a hobby not a race. The older you get the less you can afford to lose a summer. Or maybe every summer from now on.

And yet. And fucking yet. Mountain biking is a pretty stupid way to spend your time so you might as well embrace the madness. Both wheels sliding, eyes squeezed almost closed as you rush through narrowing trees. Suspension hammering as you leave the brakes alone. Pushing past that safe zone, heart racing and arse twitching.

I’m still in touch which is great for my ego. I’m still on the bike which is an even bigger surprise. I’ve already ridden the two big gaps so it’s no surprise when I finally clear a big table that’s mocked me the previous 100 times. But I am absolutely not living in the moment. Everything is happening at great speed, and I’m mostly a passenger because after 30 years of riding my body knows what this gig is.

Brain tho, it’s basically shitting itself. End of the trail it reasserts control, I try and play it cool with a breathy ‘Brisk that run fellas‘ . But they can see me for the charlatan I am.

That’s fair. I’ll probably be rubbish again tomorrow.  Right now I just need a beer and some life affirmation.  And maybe to trust myself a little more than those offering snake oil on this tube 😉

*which if you were a member of Status Quo wasn’t far from the truth.

Shocked by the truth..

Ripley shock upgrade

.. a clickbait title mirroring recycled ad-laden content desperately seeking bored eyeballs. This is something else. A weary pun nodding towards broken suspension and false hope.

Sure I’ve told fibs. Some mighty whoppers. But that’s hardly shocking for any reader who has stuck with me for even a few posts. This was also something else. Somewhere between self deprecation and lying to myself.  Hard to believe I’d get fooled that easily.

I was blinded by pretending the problem was me. Although that’s a hypothesis with an almost 100% success rate.  Failing that it wasn’t clear to me if the issues were front or rear related. On reflection I should have started with ‘both‘ and worked back from there.

Handing the whole thing off to the professionals I dropped the unresponsive fork off to the fab Sprung Suspension. in the hope they could somehow revive it.

Two days later, I took a call from the head honcho Jake  who – knowing me well – broke down complex suspension issues into good news and bad news. Bad first, ‘Al that fork is totally fucked‘ followed by ‘Surprisingly this time it isn’t your fault and we can send the remains off for warranty‘.

Or replacement as I discovered a couple of days later at the workshop. As it was explained to me the bushings (the static tubes the stanchions slide up and down) were oversize meaning the whole sliding thing was more of a grinding thing. To the point where a designed oil lubricated interference fit was more of a milling process.

Six months of that and the forks are scrap. Some of you keener types may feel the need to ask why I didn’t notice. Let’s say I misdiagnosed the issue as a setup problem, and swiftly move on to more interesting things. To whit the other end and that ^^ brand new rear shock replacing the lump of unyielding wood disguised as the factory fitted ‘custom tuned‘ option.

I really do like Ibis bikes. For all sorts of reasons. But even the most rabid fan could not countenance fitting a clearly rubbish shock on a three grand frame. And yet here we are. The custom tuning of said shock appears to render it harsh on small bumps and useless at damping bigger ones.

I’m so very aware my riding ability is rarely held back by mildly sub-optimal components.  To be sure I wasn’t coming over all Pea/Mattress/Princess I asked Adam, who has a similar bike collection vibe as me while being far more skilled, for a second opinion.

He concluded – after less than a minute of riding – that the shock had all the compliance of an iron railing. We’ve both ridden lots of Ibis bikes and this didn’t feel like any of them. Somewhat ironic then that I’d passed off my piss-poor performance on the squidgy object suspended on top, rather than the springs below.

Leaving aside my diagnostic ability, or more the lack of it, let’s instead consider the same bike only this time riding on shiny new components. This new shock has all manner of widgets and knobs* for the knowledgable rider to tweak. Jake dialled some baseline stuff in leaving me to consider the best tuning option would be not to touch anything at all.

Up front Jake generously lent me one of his very expensive forks. Equally festooned with options for me to fuck it right up, I chose to leave that one alone as well.**

Shocking Ripley

So what’s it like now? Good news and bad news again. It feels like the bike that’s been struggling to get out since I bought it. It’s given me way more confidence in the front,  while the back end has curbed its rodeo enthusiasm seemingly bent to launch me into a handy tree.

Bad news, it hasn’t stopped me crashing. I stumped myself between low lying arbetirum and a stabby pedal. The squashy foot and ankle came out worst, one bleeding, the other aching. I wish I could blame that on the new suspension but we all know that’s not the case here.

Still now excited by riding a bike I now quite liked, I invested yet more time trying to set it up properly. This time tho by attaching Matt’s ShockWiz electo-trickery to the shock. It’s a slew of accelerometers and gyroscopes secured in a hard case amped up by all sorts of algorithmic cleverness.

It told me many things*** some of which I understood. But after riding five consecutive days in the land of diminishing returns, I was keen to return to a fully analogue world. Especially if there was a beer in it.

There was, over which I attempted to convinced my riding buddies that this apparently chaotic quest for the truth was nothing more than the kind of noble quest I am well known for.  Shockingly they didn’t see it that way. It’s almost as if past experiences were held against me.

Back to the present. What have we learned? Oh I don’t know, probably nothing of importance. Let’s ask a better question. Is it a keeper? Now I’ve spent proper money on it, it’d bloody well better be.

*not counting the one riding on top of it.

**considering I’d invested never-to-be-regained time fettling both ends in pursuit of some kind of suspension harmony and achieved bugger all, this seemed the logical approach.

***most of which I couldn’t read with these old eyes. I had to ask the help of a younger rider. It was that or just guess. And that hadn’t gone well in the past.

 

I know what I said…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risk based judgements.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe out there.

*inappropriate. But made me laugh

Orange is the new black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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