Friends like these

Getting the band back together

No plan survives first contact with the enemy” – so goes the military protocol often re-imagined for the corporate world. It’s common sense but as Voltaire was keen to point out common sense is rarely common and often diffused by  bullshit*

Today a plan DID survive first contact with the weather. But only though peer pressure and the promise of beer and pizza. That hides a deeper truth best summarised as ‘there is nothing better than getting the band back together’

Post lockdown we’ve upped the numbers game. Two, three then four guilt-free riders seeking the touchstones of the ‘old normal’. We remain socially distanced but socially comfortable. The banter splits the two metre divide, the climbs tell stories of the solo training, the descents remind us why that doesn’t matter. Nothing has changed, but everything has changed.

Roll forward to today. No one really knows what day it is anymore but we’ve plotted a straight line between a skive ride and beers in Matt’s ‘SpeakEasy’ built during the endless blue sky days when lockdown angst morphed into activity.  Six are due but few are counted an hour after 36 rain filled hours suggested winter had mostly returned.

Full disclosure I must take some of the blame for this precipitation event. After two crashes on sand where dirt used to be, I out-louded the heretic notion that a bit of rain might be welcome. I probably should have been a little more precise with my definition of ‘a bit’

It’s not quite the ark-building 40 days and 40 nights but we’ve had deluge and drizzle in equal amounts. Hence me wintering up in waterproofs from head to toe. 11km of road separates me from the trails and every metre is pot-holed miserable damp.  The quiet roads are gone and I’m being moisted from top, bottom and side as cars slide past with that minimum of caution I’d almost had time to forget.

The rain stops as the dirt starts so I pack most of the rain kit and join the fellas. Surprisingly the other five are waiting for me. Maybe not such a surprise as this is what we do. Even when that common sense suggests we should be doing something else.

It’s all a bit slithery and I’m back on the hardtail after three months of faking it with multiple double sprung trail dampeners. A double espresso wake up call ends with the first two corners avoided via a fern-slapped straight on option.

Get a bloody grip, The damp trail is surprisingly giving it plenty. Lean over the front end, punt the eyeballs away from the glassy roots and revel in a 2.8 tyre that laughs in the face of mud and slop. I’m not laughing because there is bog all cerebral capacity left over from concentrating hard and revelling in the visceral joy of riding a proper sorted hardtail.

I’ve missed that. But not as much as I’ve missed my mates. There is much piss taking. Fingers are as pointed as the barbs. Everyone laughs because this is what we do when pedalling stops. Some like to ride alone but for me that’s a denuded experience. I’m fine being isolated in my own head, but once we head outside then the Brownian motion of like minded souls is the very thing which fills that soul.

No one crashes. Close calls and cat calls. Taking risks and sharing how that feels.  Bottling it and making excuses. Bottle this, it is the stuff of life. It’s what we do that others do not. Fuck me I’ve really missed it.

We retire to the ‘Speakeasy’ where beers are opened and tales are told.  Matt has built a Pizza oven which requires all sorts of activities long distanced from any kind of health and safety to fire it up. More beers soften the hard fact we should be in the pub.

The location is irrelevant. We’re getting a bit pissed while attempting to send pizzas into Hell’s kitchen firing out smoke and flames in a happy version of Hades. Now I remember what I’ve forgotten, the easy company of those who’ve you shared so many experiences.

You remember that time in that hovel a hundred miles than civilisation?‘ and ‘that snow-bound winter ride when we had to dig ourselves out of a four foot snowdrift?’. Of course we do, some of it might even be true. Or at least true to the power of beer exaggeration.

None of that matters. What matters is this: days like this do something to still the madness. They distill the uncertainty into nothing more than having great mates who share a common cause. Who are probably full of the same insecurities eating away at me, but not today. Not in this moment. Not when you realise you have taken friendship for granted.

Let’s not do that. I pulled a final beer, grabbed my phone and captured a 2-d image of a 3-d event. That one up there. These are my favourite bunch of idiots and I’m very grateful to have them.

That’s the clan riding on Sunday.  If we had a club this would be it. But we don’t. Which is kind of the point. People transcend constructs.

*not quite a verbatim citation but if François-Marie Arouet was still with us, I believe he’d nod that through.

We need to talk about Corona.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choose wisely

CwmCarn with Seb

This is Seb. Seb is both my good friend and the editor of the fantastic Cranked publication. Full disclosure here, Seb pays me to write for that magazine. This, however, is not the basis of our friendship.

We share many things. The love of hardtails, the hatred of modern politics. The understanding the eBike genie can’t be re-bottled.  The analogue worry that the digital world is debasing our hinterland. The acceptance we’re not the people whose opinion matters.

What we share most is the joy of riding bikes. We’ve both be at it rather longer than we can mostly remember. But we are not the same. Seb is a rapier – he’s old school quick in un-bermed turns, and gigglingly expressive when the trail rewards handling skills over grapefruit confused for bollocks.

I’m more of a thug. That tight and twisty stuff is all fine and everything but my rocks are getting off on, er, rocks. Wider trails, stupid lines, hang on and hope, take a bead on the far horizon and trust in the awesomeness of modern bikes.

Some of this is where we grew up. Seb cut his teeth* on bar wide singletrack navigated by eyebrow twitching bikes short on fork travel and long on terrifying angles. Me, I was more stemming arterial bleeding when a short terms skills crisis overlapped with some rocky madness in the Peak District.

We’ve both moved on. To be fair I’ve moved on a bit more with my bike rental scheme. Seb’s old job involved testing hundreds of bikes which stayed the collection of his own fleet. My pursuit of stupidity spun the revolving door of the ShedofDreams at such ludicrous speed, I can barely remember what I own anymore.

It’s no surprise tho that we meet at Cwmcarn on a cold November’s day unpacking modern hardtails from warm vehicles. Seb’s missed out on a whole load of riding this year, so the plan is for an easy circuit of whatever is currently open. Larch disease has decimated the UK and this valley hasn’t escaped.

CwmCarn with Seb

So we’re climbing within the trees but it’s not long before the bleakness of clear-felling** makes that climbing just a bit more miserable. Trees hide the gradient, while a barren hillside mocks your puny efforts with a summit appearing impervious to the physics of mechanical advantage.

Sadistic minds graded this climb. Constant gradient happens at other trail centres. This is all maximum effort, false summits, pointless freewheels and haven’t-we-been-here-before ascents.

One such concession to the properly knackered is a 5-metre rocky descent we ride a few times for the camera. It’s fun to be on my side of the lens with Seb throwing appropriate shapes while I fail to remember all that stuff he taught me ten years ago. I probably need to go and climb a tree***

CwmCarn with Seb

CwmCarn with Seb

The descents are fun. Missing the BMX vibe latterly infecting the trail building community.  I’m six weeks out from riding my Solaris, so re-calibrating for hadtails makes me clumsy. I get back to it soon enough tho.

Even with a long fork, this is a switch-y bike. Push it into a corner and lean into the carve. Spot a mess of rock and rock back a tad so the fork can do most of its stuff while your legs do the rest.  Crest a rise with extended limbs and feel the front go airborne.

Yeah we agree hardtails rock.  We talk freelance life, the guilt of not working, the futility of anxiety, the anger of politics, the pointlessness of giving a shit and the importance of doing so. We’re at an age when we wonder if this is as good as it gets. We worry we’ve maybe missed the point.

And then we sit on a hill looking across the devastation of a forested hillside and we fade to silence. There are many things which are important, but right now all that is important is being collected in our optical nerves. If we missed the point then that’s okay because in this moment that is more than enough.

CwmCarn with Seb

Soon we’re pointing the bikes downhill and thoughts pretty much stop. Hello again moment, okay if we live here for just a few more seconds? Those few seconds are epic. I’m a million miles from perfect but fuck this feel good. Feels real. Feels right.

CwmCarn with Seb

Seb’s got the same vibe. We hit the last decent a little weary and maybe just a little more cautious than we might have been a few years ago. Like that matters. It’s a combination of high lines, bracing for braking bumps, flat out corners and something close to the abandonment of risk management.

The car park is a happy place. We retire for tea and medals. Soon we’ll do this again. Not because we are lucky enough to fit riding between working hours but because we should.

Both of us chose a path of self-employment. It’s becoming clear what we failed to do was to choose a path of self enlightenment. If that sounds like bullshit it comes down to this; ride my bike or make some money.

Really. Like you have to ask.

*possible literal reference here.

**and a fire three years ago which even now blights the landscape with charred stumps.

***No photoshoot with Seb even ends without someone hanging precariously out of a groaning branch.

It’s all in the data…. until it isn’t

There are many things I can be legitimately be accused of. However overreaching in terms of anything even tangentially linked to exercise is not one of them.

Not unless it’s reaching over a honed athletes Broccoli-with-added-misery special lunch to get elbows deep in a massive portion of chips.

A consistent arc of my athletic ability is not the only issue with the digital narrative being pedalled here. I’m as skeptical of the hooky algorithms as I am of the source data. It’s kind of my job to be professionally cynical when some chancer thrusts ‘their latest visualisation’ into my scowling visage.

Data Lineage?’ I bark. They look confused. ‘Algorithmic veracity?’ I enquire with a look of utmost weariness. ‘Derivation rigour?’ I shout at their retreating form.  Standard data management lore holds ‘Crap in, Crap out’. That there shiny thing you’re showing me is mostly a pig wearing lipstick.

Honestly it’s all gone tragically downhill since the abandonment of the trusty slide rule for those new fangled pocket calculators.  This is of course not true. Well mostly not true anyway. You can show almost anything with data. Torture it long enough and it’ll tell you anything*

Combine this explosion of data with the Internet of Things (or Internet of Shit as it’s been memorably described) and you can’t move for data points sticking up grubby electronic digits for analysis. In Garmin’s case they’ve made the classic mistake of starting without the end in sight.

Garmin devices started with a tiny data set logging speed, distance and time. The development of GPS chips flipped that into basic navigation. But it was still a narrow set of attributes focussed on one individual.

Then Strava brought its segments, Zwift its gaming and suddenly we’re cheerfully sacrificing our privacy to lob random data into questionable public facing data stores. Tin hats not required, but the product of those services is our data being sold to third parties. We need to keep that in mind.

You may not care. You probably should. Google buying FitBit fills me with horror. They’ve already been caught red handed surreptitiously shipping individual medical data to health care companies. We all know FaceBook is basically an evil business model, but the likes of Google and the other massive content aggregators/search engines aren’t far behind.

Years ago the UK government attempted to quietly create a ‘UK patient database’ with those records being available to all sorts of nefarious third parties. It was called CARE.ID, and the reason you’ve probably never heard of it was due to it being stillborn after significant lobbying from anyone sensible who criticised it for the privacy/ethical shitshow it was clearly going to be.

We’ve pretty much arrived there by stealth. And while it’s hard to argue that AI/Machine learning unleashed on massive data sets could/might/hmm schmaybe create stunning new insights and breakthroughs for all sorts of conditions, it’s equally stupid to hand our data over to organisations whose entire value proposition is monetising that data.

Right sorry about that. Got a bit distracted. So this data arriving from cadence and power sensors is tossed together with heart rates, Vo2 guesstimates** and all that malarky to make an unwelcome metric salad.

Which is then liberally garnished in digital snake oil.  Ooh the shiny. To be fair, these kind of algorithms are predicated on some kind of structured training. It’s looking for a variance off a baseline.

My baseline was two weeks of not riding because I was too busy waffling myself stupid in Brussels, followed by all the self medication required to survive a wet week in Preston.

So no exercise to a fantastic three days riding in Hebden Bridge. Trouser tightness suggested this hadn’t assuaged the gluttony of the previous weeks. A glance at the scales nudging towards 13 stone confirmed that waistband metric. Right then things must be done.

Those things didn’t include riding outside. As outside appeared to be a crap CGI version of Waterworld. I’m okay with wet trails, less keen on riding through rivers. We’d done enough of the the previous week.

Turbo it is then.  Passed the 1000km of going nowhere slowly last Thursday. Not something I’m that proud of.  Most of those came from a mammoth 830k in a single month at the start of the year. No way I could face that regime again. So I’m mixing it up with a bit of virtual riding with my Bro, a few bastard hard interval sessions, a few group rides and no racing***

After dismounting earlier through the simple Newtonian principle of falling gently to the floor, that image was my reward. Unproductive. I know it’s bloody unproductive. It’s getting sweaty in a cold shed going absolutely nowhere. That’s pretty much the sodding definition of unproductive.

Well fuck it. I’m going to ride a proper bike tomorrow. Maybe I’ll ditch the trackers and just stop when I’m knackered. It’s not training is it? It’s dicking about in the woods with your mates. Good luck finding a metric for that.

Anyway I won’t be getting any more data devices for Christmas. I’ll be having that tin hat instead.

*I’m re-using that line from my latest Cranked article. What do you mean you’ve not got a copy? There’s loads of good stuff in it. And one of my articles.

**Calculating Vo2 Max from Heart Rate data is like me extrapolating the Severn tidal bore from standing outside and counting raindrops for a few minutes.

*** As a seamless transference of my real world racing prowess is going to beat the crap out of any remaining self-esteem.

 

This is going to be a tough sell.

Gravel bikes. Let us take a moment to reflect. A pause to understand others who are not like us. A gap between riding proper bikes and being a genre-chasing dick. But it’s all bikes, right? That’s a good thing.  It’s not like it’s electric.

Yeah but really what the fuck? Is that a cross bike cross dressed by some self absorbed hipster chasing razor thin niches and suffering cognitive dissonance?  Get a grip- if you want to race in the depths of the grim buy a cross bike, if you want to go full-MAMIL on summer days, go full roadie on a bike designed for pain and suffering.

Otherwise we’re back to the ‘third space’. A  blank vision of utopia conceived by  a marketer, then coloured in by people who should know better. Dig a little deeper and what we have here is a 90s mountain bike butchered by a drop bar. Rigid double triangle silhouette, bollock troubling top tubes and twitchy eyebrow steering.

Really, you’d need to be absolutely fucking tapped to consider this as something different to what you already have,  or – worse still – a thing of desire for reasons yet to be articulated. What kind of idiot would fall for that?

Well this kind of idiot. Obviously. I’ m not blind to the latest content of this blog appearing to be ‘random Bikes AL is buying for increasingly obscure reasons’. Reason feels a bit strong, but for this latest purchase at least there is a goal, an end game, a possible viking burial when that is done.

Come July my long suffering friend Adam and I shall be riding the classic Lon Las Cymru. The Welsh Coast to Coast starting in Chepstow and ending in Holyhead. Taking in all sorts of lumpy geography including a chunk we suffered during the Trans Cambrian a couple of years ago. Hoping this time there will be significantly less hails of trout.

I could have ridden my eight year old cross bike. But of course I’m not going to and – in recognition of the intelligence of my readers – there’s no good reason than an email flyer offering a Titanium lovely for really not much money  – at least compared to the insane nonsense of the niche providers*

Let’s move on from the transactional tedium of going from idea to Yodel delivery.  Except I mean Yodel actually delivered a thing. On time and in the same post code. I was so stunned, it took me a while to assemble it and consider its lightness against its alloy double bolted to the turbo.

Yeah but not that much lighter. Quick spin up the lane made me feel a little better, and 40km the next day confirmed it was quick, direct, stiff but somehow compliant. A second ride in the dirt had me giggling in singletrack and dusting myself off when it all went a bit wrong.

So what do we have here? A Ti frame draped with pretty nice kit but most importantly hydro brakes which do the stopping thing my old CX bike cable versions promised. This is a massive difference. Good brakes make you ride faster.  And then crash a bit when you fail to reconcile ‘small obstacle’ with ‘SPDs after 7 years flats, how do they work?

I wanted to feel the same antipathy to this bike as I did against the CX bike and the even older road bike. Tool for the job.  Get this challenge done and then swap it out for something more nobbly.

Sadly I really like it. Even on the road. I wish I didn’t but it’s so comfortable, so effortless under power, so precise in the turns, so analogue in how it rides, so Labrador like to go do the next thing. And the thing after that. What’s over that hill? Let’s go find out.

It’s a very clever bike. But that’s not the point. What it really is is an instantiation of the first bike you ever rode. The one that split you from your local geography. The excuse for not coming home. The seeker of adventures. The pal your tired parents never could be.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve just gone out for a ride with no fixed destination. 40mm tyres are a passport for choosing any path merely in the spirit of enquiry. Finding new things and old forgotten things. Keeping going until the legs or the light give out.

Riding bikes – any bikes – is a righteous thing. I’d rather be doing that over anything else. But for a whole bunch of years riding I’d categorised anything not satisfyingly my definition of singletrack as  ‘Roadies missing the point’. Now I’m not so sure.

It’s not proper mountain biking of course.  I’m don’t really know what it is. What it isn’t is the purgatory I expected. I think I need to understand  a little more.

Best get back out there.

*my brother has one of those. It’s really nice. It’s not 3k nice. You could buy a decent mountain bike for that.

Usual?

(c) vinepair

Twice this week, I’ve made a beeline for a bar. Nothing unusual in that other than the fella behind the jump acknowledging my familiar presence with a knowing smile, and a significant glance toward my self-medication of choice.

Chaucer coined a phrase now found in the common lexicon; ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ although I’m more taken by Mark Twain noting that ‘Familiarity breeds contempt. How accurate that is. The reason we hold truth in such respect is because we have so little opportunity to get familiar with it’.

Fair point fella. If we did politics on the hedgehog, I’d be all over that referencing  current events. But we don’t, and as this blog is all about me let’s instead pick a couple of examples which brought me up a little short this week.

Monday finds me bored in the same hotel I’ve already wasted fifty nights this year staring at walls. Those walls are not something I can stomach when autumn light pins you to a room with not much of a view. Instead I’m up and out, walking the streets, shunning the bright lights, looking for a place to eat alone. I’ve been doing this for twenty plus years and it’s never glamorous. Especially in Coventry 😉

So after much perambulation I’m back in the hotel. I trade a high five with Petoir – he’s the lovely fella behind a shiny bar and a similar suit and tie provided by the hotel, but inside that he’s far more interesting.  We talk family, football teams and fantasies – him: bringing his wife and child over, me: retiring and giving this shit the middle finger.

In between he pours me the beer that has been our calling card over all these months. I give my thanks, while nodding to the other poor bastards I see weekly living in a world exchanging home for money. We never really talk because their iPhones virtually project a physical distance I nowadays think of as ‘London’.

Some are pissed already. Many are desperately heading that way. A few amusingly believe they are the main event. Others exit stage left. All the world’s a stage and we’re merely players apparently. Could be that – whatever  it just feels desperately sad. I’ve been here in over a hundred bars in more than forty cities and it’s all horribly familiar. And that does breed a bit of contempt for your life choices.

Bar closes, now it’s just me and Petoir sat on the other side. He’s knocking back decent brandy while explaining that everyone treats him like shit. This is not the way it works back in Poland. Apparently they stab you in the front rather than slice you with impatience and passive-aggressiveness.  Or,  worse still, just an ignorance which considers you a proxy between their entitlement and a drink.

This really pisses me off. Some of that is because I’m also half cut drinking brandy, a little because I’ve been guilty of similar behaviour in the past. But mostly because of what belonging should feel like. It feels like this:

Four days later, I’m making determined tracks to the bar of our local in Ross. I name-check Jamie behind the bar, check out how his world is before making a three fingered gesture triggering a phalanx of favourite beers leaving the taps.

While I worry that maybe this is a cipher for alcohol dependancy, I love this pub for its old-worldly charm, it’s comfortable chairs, it’s lack of electronic coin magnets, it’s choice of conversation over music – but even so, this feels a bit too familiar, a bit to close to the knuckle, a point between giving up and selling out.

So I chuck it out there; is this as good as it gets, is this a rut we’ve dug for ourselves, am I just being a pretentious twat? The view from those who I’ve come to rely on to calibrate my moral compass tell me it probably is, we probably have and you definitely are. They also explained something far more interesting.

‘This is community Al. You’ve never lived in the same place as long as this. You’re always searching for something better. But this is what real life is like, flawed individuals and messy lives. Stop worrying if this is what you should be doing and get amongst it’

I’m paraphrasing here; it was more ‘stop being a dick and get the next round in’, yet the totality of that narrative wasn’t lost on me.  My best friends are anchored in a time and place with an iron certainty it is will endure. Familiarity isn’t contemptuous –  it’s binds you to some important certainties. It’s not perfect but you’re a local, a person who gets it, an advocate of what is right,  who can – and should – make a difference.

I never wanted to settle down. That felt like getting old. The idea you weren’t windswept and interesting was a little demeaning.  Not being tied to a place because no place was quite good enough for you.  The grass was always greener. Even when it wasn’t.

The difference between a generic hotel bar not even close to living the dream, and having a beer with my best friends has made me reevaluate that long held maxim.

Usual? Right now that sounds pretty good.

Clubby

Clubman

John Betjeman* understood clubs. Regardless of his lament for the shrinking of red on the map, he was a man of his time when charting societal change. He mourned the passing of the clubman, but he wasn’t in total denial.

For those seriously starved of entertainment, there’s a virtual library of criticism mocking Betjeman by those ready to be clever after the event. For me, he fixed a time when the world made sense, and everyone knew their place within it. I’m a million miles from matching this utopia with my values, but he captured the sorrow of a changing world beautifully**

The clubman – and I’m emphasising that noun in the second syllable – was quite the thing back in the time of our fathers. You worked hard, you paid your dues, you had your part in creating offspring and maybe a little post physicalisation, you went to the pub with your friends and you joined a club.

The metier of that club was mostly irrelevant, The thing which mattered was you were a member. Putting on a different tie to cleave the time between work and family. Small gestures and quiet despair. Is this as good as it gets? My dad was fighting the Battle of the Bulge and I’m soldering valves, kicking balls or maybe living that freedom riding bicycles with like-minded others looking for individuality within a clan.

Fair play to them all. Stories of riders in heavy suits summiting snow bound hills and carrying cast-iron bikes over broken ground always raises an appreciative eyebrow. Not the roadies – hard men as they clearly were – rather those heading off road with a self conscious smile and a desperate need to be different.

For me that’s the free spirit breaking out. The antipathy of the clubman. Sure the need to belong pervades, but it’s not bound in rules, it’s forged in that spirit. Heading off into the unknown with nothing more than a dubious map last used to pinpoint ordinance, a bike doubling as a factory commuting vehicle, and a well-there’s-no-point-dying-wondering attitude to wondering what might come next.

That’s what Betjeman missed. The subversive culture of those who swapped hierarchy for high places, social conventions for the hegemony of a tribe, the need to conform juxtaposed by the need to be not quite like you.  It’s not Rosa Parks on a bus in 1955,  but I can’t help wondering if this represents a British well if you don’t mind then fuck you.

Whatever, the legacy is interesting. I’m with Groucho Marx in that I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member. I work too damn hard and I’m too bloody old to spend time with people I’ve no time for. Clubs identifying themselves with jerseys, arbitrary delineations of what fast might be, tedious rules bounding acceptability and an aristocracy of those who are, and those who are not.

I think I’m probably not. And I’m sure those clubs would explain in some detail why I am wrong. How inclusive they might be. How they retain the fading ethos of the the clubman I read about 20 years ago. And I would argue right back that spare time should not be regimented, should not conform to what some kind of committee codifies as acceptable, should not need to tell you what, should not tell you how, and refuse to tell you why.

Still what do I know? Road clubs aren’t lacking in numbers. MTB clubs a little behind but there is still a tribal need. Maybe there’s a thing for belonging, a group of your own, even just a reason to venture out in the shit weather.

Maybe, maybe not. There’s something of the clubman in all of us. Wanting to belong. The power of many.  Sacrificing individualism to the safety of the crowd. Bystander syndrome spinning a sense of those like us. In a world increasing fractured by a daily ‘what the fuck just happened here?’, it’s a perfectly understandable refuge.

But I still don’t get clubs. I get riding with my mates. There’s a huge difference and it’s not about rules or jerseys. John B hated that the world wouldn’t stop turning and clubs, to me, feel they are an transient anchor to that ideal.

If there is going to be any kind of progress in a world which appears to be run by those keen to be the architects of the destruction of it, then meritocracy has to be the thing which stills the madness. That’s not something which sits well with knowing your place.

The age of the clubman has had endured a little too long. It’s probably time to think for ourselves.

*a man who loved bicycles in a way which endures, and a word-view which does not.

** Really I find serious literature mostly pretentious and unfathomable. But this is good stuff. And I’m speaking as a man who’s tried James Joyce a few times and ended with ‘Ulysses- no fucking idea at all’ 

 

Too much of a bad thing

Back in the game..

Searching for inspiration in yet another hotel bar,  I started counting. Not the days I’d been away from home. Or the might-as-well-be-infinity items unticked from my to-do list. Or even how many beers had brought on this latest muse.

No in an attempt to cheer myself up, electronic calendars were brought into sharp relief to calculate how long it had been since I’d ridden a bike. That’s a definition which is inclusive of ‘outside‘ and ‘dirt‘ and dismissive of sweating out a winters coat of misery on the virtual road of nowhere*

37 days. Fuck me that’s a lifetime. Especially for a man accelerating over the horizon of more than half of his.  No time to waste then unless one considered the wider nuances of not rushing the ‘frankenankle‘ back into the fray when it’d barely quietened from ‘bloody painful’to ‘mostly annoying

I’ve already had a proper telling off from a medical professional who felt her diagnosis of eight weeks was probably a little better informed than my ‘yeah it’s been a week, I’ve done loads and it bloody hurts now‘. She has a valid point. I have a less quantifiable one. If I don’t ride soon, there may be wider consequences. Elastic waistbands, hair-trigger irritation and a level of grumpiness entirely unfair for those unfortunates in my immediate orbit.

Fast forward to tonight and we’re at 43 days and I’ve self diagnosed myself as ‘not entirely broken‘. My last ride was a muddy horror on the 2nd of Jan which gets better the further away from it I get. Three days after that I subjected my ankle to the kind of trauma that’d have the less lucky encased in plaster. Tomorrow tho I’ll ride my mountain bike

More than ten years ago I shredded my knee in a non amusing fashion and it was  five long weeks before risking it on the dirt. After which the fear of a repeat nearly put an end to the whole endeavour. A couple of years after that, I kind of lost the plot and took a whole month off.

Never 43 days though. I’ve grown fat on nebulous willpower and unfit despite regular visits to the realm of the statically deluded. Sit ups in hotel rooms followed by chips and beer at the bar are not the recommended preparation for getting back out there.

So I’ve some idea where my MTB fitness and legs have gone. I have surmised they may be hiding in my stomach. I expect tomorrow will be physically demanding and mentally challenging. Being slow up hill is a given and hanging out the back on the descents is more than likely. What’s less likely is whether anyone will notice the difference.

Other than me. And I’m unlikely to care much because I’ll be riding a bike with my mates with dirt under my wheels. Okay it’ll be dirt mostly disguised by moisture, and any skills to deal with such things will be mostly forgotten.

That’s okay. Just re-aquainting myself with the bikes was a cause for joy. A bit of pointless fettling, a refitting of winter mudguards, a tightening of bolts and the pressurisation of tyres felt very much like coming home. Returning to the tribe, reframing what a weekend should feel like, remembering why this hobby / borderline insanity has pretty much consumed me for nearly twenty years.

Chronologically that’s less troubling that 43 days. I don’t know how may I have left, but I’ll be buggered if I’m going to waste even one more wondering what a healed ankle feels like. Might pass with flying colours, might knock it back a few weeks.

That’s mountain biking tho. Risk versus reward every second you’re living in that world. No point dying wondering.

Wish me luck, I’m going back in.

*a quest described in the rather fine Cranked magazine. The latest edition is available at www.cranked.cc 

 

Age is just a number

Last ride of my 40s. And I did in on the Hardtail. Obviously.

That’s fine. Except 50 is quite a big number when plotting it on a scale of born to dead. My half century suggests half way was some time ago leading to the inevitable conclusion I am accelerating towards the mortal end game. I hardly need a single birthday present with such good news already bagged.

It’s not old age that scares me. Especially as it comes with a firm mandate for increased grumpiness and reduced tolerance. I’ve mostly reconciled my mortality fear now by simply displacing it with something between a minor anxiety and a crushing panic* that sometime, maybe soon I won’t be able to ride my mountain bike.

That’s quite neat because it covers age, fear, risk aversion, injury and debilitating illness. A negative bucket list if you will. On the upside our little family isn’t so little anymore, and between Carol and I** we appear to have imbued them with sufficient common sense to ensure the house doesn’t burn down as we increasingly abandon them within it.

There’s a couple of other useful things that come with age. You really stop giving a shit about the small stuff. You find yourself entirely uninterested in vocational progression of any sort. The much vaunted wisdom may not have come your way but at least you are secure in the knowledge that absolutely everyone is winging it, not just you. And now the kids have mostly grown up so you’re free to have that second childhood you promised yourself***

50 is the new 40 apparently. Sounds like marketing bullshit. I expect my next two bits of post will be for ‘an old bloke cough and drop checkup’ and a copy of the SAGA magazine. I received my first Happy 50th Birthday from the lovely people I work with today. Only on carefully opening it did I finally admit it hadn’t been left on the wrong desk.

That was cognitive dissidence going nova. I really could not get my head round the fact thatday had arrived. A snatched flashback transported me back to my 10 year old self marvelling that when the century turned over I’d be 33 years old. I’ve clearly been worrying about this for quite some time so – in keeping with my normal approach to difficult -I headed for the door exchanging street clothes for bike gear and hit the trails.

So – inevitably – we’re back to bikes. About a hundred years ago, a bike mag published an article where I rambled on about age, entropy and wondering where the end starts. It doesn’t start here. It probably started long before I wrote it. It doesn’t matter either, while there are mountain bikes, fantastic trails, loyal mates and the promise of beer later, it’ll be just like it always was.

Only not quite. Death by a thousand cuts. At some point there will be an e-bike. It won’t be the next bike I buy, but it may be the last one. But riding tonight, hanging onto the tailcoat of summer, nothing feels different. It’s like slipping on a favourite coat – faff, climb, worry a bit, hand the driving seat over to muscle memory, make the same old mistakes, cope with well worn strategies, balance the bike, feel the trail, carve the corners, pump the jumps, love the rush, wonder what happens when this isn’t what happens on a Tuesday night.

if I have learned anything it’s about a span of control. Which is both narrower than you think and more important than you understand. Gather your tribe around you, don’t be a dick, try to live in the moment and every day, every minute, every second strive extremely hard not to give a fuck about transactional detritus.

Tomorrow I will be 50. There’s not a great deal I can do about that. Age is a number for sure. But that’s all it is – it’s not a definition, a boundary or an excuse. Unless that excuse is a slide into semi retirement to do more of what makes me happy.

That’ll do. Enough of this pretentious bollocks. Bring me some cake.

*depending on many things. The latter tends to be at night when sleep won’t come and thoughts won’t stop

** Carol. And an occasionally helpful idiot.

*** assuming you’d grown out of your first

Parenting – the MTB edition.

Jessie's new bike day

It was exactly two years ago when I last rode MTB with Jess. There are good reasons for this; firstly her rapid limb lengthening rendered her lovely XS Turner redundant. Unless she was considering a career riding BMX.

Not that such an option remained viable once I’d sold it. Needed the space in the shed. You snooze you lose. Besides that between the ages of 14 and 16, there’s lots going on in the life of your average mid-teen. In Jess’s case there was an entirely un-fatherly work ethic, a burgeoning love of dance, a cabal of smart friends and binge watching of whatever was trending on Netflix that week.

I missed riding with her, but being a selfish bugger riding was still happening a few times a week. Even when it’s not about me, it’s about recognising living vicariously through your kids is not close to proper parenting. Instead I was playing the long game waiting for a righteous Venn intersect of summer, a proper sized bicycle and an inventory of spares.

The latter came first. Due to the satisfying – if pointless – upgrading of the Mojo and a quick switcheroo of the Stache back to the configuration it first arrived in, a bench full of parts was missing only a frame and a set of bars* to ignite a Mary Shelley Dr Frankenstein moment.

Sorted via a 2nd hand frame originally sourced from the good guys at Cotic, a night at Matt’s where he created the mini monster truck while I fetched tools and handed him the occasional beer. The highlight of the build is, of course, that mudguard which I believe we can all agree is a triumph. Modesty forbids identifying the creative engineer honing his zip tie skills.

Tested on the Wednesday night ride. Quite the whippy go-kart even if a little small for me. That’s fine, it’s really not for me. However many times my riding buddies insisted it was. This, after I’d coached them extensively on the exact language to use if Carol frowned her way through a body count in the shedofdreams(tm).

Jess was understandably nervous at re-engaging with all things mountain biking. Even with truth shaded by parental pride, she was bloody brilliant. Sure the hills tested her limited stamina triggering those lying over the bars ‘pass the water if pure oxygen isn’t available‘ desperate hand movements.

She’s never been the best climber. Never really ridden enough. Bloody minded though especially after her only push was rapidly upgraded to energetic spinning when some lads appeared from a side trail. Girl-power right there.

We’ve ridden the Verderers trail in the FoD many times and while the end of it is fab, the rest of it can be a bit meh especially if you’re no fan of gravel. So we headed out into the forest proper, swooping through the valleys below the bigger hills, making good progress over steppy roots and encroaching vegetation.

Jessie on her new Cotic Solaris Max
That’s a real video if you click on it. Jessie dealing with some rooty madness

Obviously while this is all about Jess, it’s still a little bit about me. Hence messing about in a bombhole which has been a constant trail companion for the last 10 years. Jess switched into the editor role to capture my enthusiastic if a bit rubbish attempts to get some air under the wheels of the Flare Max. Cotic and Chubby lock out today.

Flare Max in the Forest
More video if you’re a bit bored

Nifty navigation bypassed some unloved climbs and presented us at the top of the final two descents. Gloves back on, seat post dropped, appropriate advice offered and ignored and we’re away. A berm marking the site of a previous crash ridden nicely without incident, and we’re into the final kilometre unlocking ice cream rewards.

Jess looks tense and stiff. She’s a bit scared. I know that feeling well but can only encourage from behind. It’s a rough trail tho and she gets thrown off line and off the trail. A desperate leg out connects with nothing but air which means gravity gets involved. No damage done other than an elevated heart rate for both of us.

Strangely this loosens Jess up. She’s riding really well now, pedals level, looking through the corners, tenseness exchanged for smoothness and a bit of speed. Enough speed for me to sit on a splintered mental fence between pride and concern.

I go with pride and shout the next two berms are no problem, even knowing both have caused the kind of fall pride is known to precede. She’s all good though if a little innovative with line choice and we’re home and hosed. Ice cream isn’t a fish finger sandwich, so we trade lunch choices and high fives.

Jess asks me if I like riding with her. Surely it’s a bit boring going so slowly? For such an intelligent young woman**, this is a pretty stupid question. I explain I can go chase endorphins behind fast friends 50 weeks a year. Riding with your offspring is something far more special. I loved every minute of it, more so because Jess seemed too as well***

She wants to go again once the soreness fades. That’d be marvellous. Maybe I need to work on her brother and mum as well.

I’ve lost so many family days to riding, and it’s always felt the right – if inexcusably selfish – call. Today reminded me there’s not so many summers left to ride with those in my genetic tribe. Not because it’s some kind of tick-box parenting, but because it’s absolutely bloody fantastic.

Jess’s new bike’s is pretty cool too 🙂

*Swerved the enduro wide bar zeitgeist for something a little more suitable. I was only off by about 100mm. Young women do not have 760mm shoulders 😉

**She gets it from her mother. Obviously.

***Except for some of the climbing. She gets that from me.