Love them, limit them, leave them.

Jess moving into Uni day

Advice from my mum a few weeks after our first child was born*. A combination of sleep deprivation and the lack of any manual to operate a crying baby put proper critical examination of this aphorism on hold.

Since then I’d like to think we pretty much lived it right up until the point when they leave you. Strip the emotion out, and the endpoint for parenting is punting your offspring into the wider world. Be that nursery, school, sixth form and then higher education.

This gives you ample time to embed the skills and values they need to thrive in an environment lacking a family safety net. Let that emotion back in and you’ll never feel they can be ready. Which is clearly so much more about you than it is for them.

So, there’s a final dance before you go home alone. A rushing chronology bounded between results morning and moving in afternoon. On the surface nothing changes but bubbling underneath everything feels broken. Even displacement activity, mostly focussed around toaster selection, fails to stop the clock.

It’s a hoary old chestnut to hark back to your own educational experience. This is in no way is going to stop me doing so. Mostly to measure how much better it is now. Except for the crippling debt and uncertain economy. But regardless of your views on the marketisation of university education, it has fundamentally moved the dial on student experience.

I see this most days what with it being my job and everything. But you don’t really see it until one of your own engages with it.  Back in 1985, I moved myself into a condemned block of flats with absolutely no idea what happened next. What happened next were four amazing years where I fell in with a good crowd and harvested enough self-esteem to find I was pretty damn good at the whole learning thing.

Jess moving into Uni day

Oh but to be an undergrad now. Technology makes a difference; architecture makes a whole lot more. Jess is on the 17th floor of a building not yet three years old. Rooted in beautiful parkland and cupped by overlapping student services we used to call pastoral care.

Jess moving into Uni day

So we had a moving in slot, a daughter flicking between anxiety and excitement, a car full of possessions old and new, an acceptance the world had moved on and, for the least self-aware member of the family, an understanding this wasn’t about him.

Moving in was cheerfully managed chaos. The Vale is a fantastic venue for new students. 3000 or so of them distributed across a green space centred by a lake and criss-crossed with pathways leading to a social hub including three restaurants, two bars and a shit-load of confused looking parents and their soon to be separated sons and daughters.

Jess moving into Uni day

Everyone trying to play it cool. Almost no one is pulling it off. For one reason, it’s bloody hot even in late September** which sort of explains the sweaty vein busting exertions of the high viz crew trying to find us a place to park.  We were soon swept into the arms of the pink shirted helpers proffering trolleys and calming smiles.

Jess moving into Uni day

17 floors up the lift pinged and we rolled into Jess’s flat. Blimey. I’ll leave the hoary chestnut at the door, and instead provide a quick virtual tour of her new home. Room, not huge but amazing view over the always-surprisingly green city, big bathroom, Wi-Fi speeds unlikely ever to be seen in rural Herefordshire, massive picture windows in the shared kitchen/living space, shy flatmates, sense of discombobulation.

Jess moving into Uni day

Jess moving into Uni day

Jess moving into Uni day

Hasty unpacking followed by a walk into Edgbaston for food now and supplies to make simple meals in the first week. A bit more mooching about and then it’s time to say goodbye. No one is ready to say goodbye. This is the bit they don’t tell you about. When you know what the right thing is, but you’re kicking over touchstones of what right used to feel like.

What we’re talking about here is abandonment. 18 years of nurture. Keeping your kids safe. Watching them grow. Wondering how they’ll turn out. Being proud, surprised, astounded, annoyed, occasionally angry but always through a lens of love and caring.

A timeline punctuated by regular events; school terms, skinned knees, birthdays, sad times, holidays, great times, exam results, memories. And some firsts; watching them walk, dress themselves, take themselves to school, drive on their own, first night away, doing loads of stuff without you. Making choices, striking out, finding their way, leaving you behind.

My standing joke is – from a parenting perspective – I’m been mostly irrelevant for the last five years unless someone needs a lift, or the Internet is broken***. Hence, I fully expected Jess starting her next great adventure would be way harder for Carol than I. For all sorts of reasons. Me being a bloke covering most of them.

Jess moving into Uni day

But sat on that park bench running out of things to say, I felt as lost as I ever have. Had we done enough? Was she going to be okay? Would she get homesick. And if she did, what should we do?  And more practically, could she even find her way back to the flat? Not a given with Jess’s navigational anxiety.

Jess moving into Uni day

That leaving them thing. Now I get it. I wish I’d got it just a bit earlier. We had a hug. Tears were shed. Then she had to go. A wave over her shoulder and she was gone. Sure, she’ll be back but that’s not the same thing. Not the same thing at all.

90% of me is so proud of Jess. Worked bloody hard to get where she wanted to be. University will be a brilliant experience. I expect she’ll come out the other side a fully rounded individual ready to mark her place in the world.

Jess moving into Uni day

The other 10% of me worries. About everything a parent worries about. And that other thing about being irrelevant. About what happens next.

I guess we’ve three years to find out. It’s going to be an awesome ride.

*she also reminded me that while you always love your kids, you will not always like them. She is a wise woman 😉

**one of Jess’ flatmates hails from Dubai. She was wearing a thick jumper on a day recording 24 degrees outside. I have a feeling she may not enjoy winter in the West Midlands.

***my NEW standing joke is telling Jess if she wants to come home, she’d best check AirBnB to make sure her room hasn’t been rented out.

It’s a dogs life

The 'Amber Bath'

There is no easy way to write this.  We chose to put Amber to sleep. That’s a sentence loaded with emotion and fired at proxies for hope, despair and death. Humans are generally pretty rubbish at understanding there is nothing penultimate about this life. We avert our eyes and grasp sentimental metaphors.

Passed on’, ‘Gone to a better place’, ‘Found peace at last’.  That whole afterlife construct might work for some*,  but behind the veil is a somewhat more brutal truth.  It’s not where something has gone, it’s the huge fucking hole it leaves behind.

So let’s deal with the something shall we? Those charmless fucks who label animal lovers as confused supplicants with anthropomorphic tendencies. It’s not like a elderly relation has died? Or a child? Or someone close to you? Close as in bipedal, self aware and mostly bloody terrified of death.

No it isn’t. It’s something a little different, but no less heartbreaking. I’m a dog person. Always have been. Always will be regardless of the shitty cards fate plays. Dogs weave themselves into your life. They offer unconditional love. They show that love in their joy of you walking through the door. They do not judge. They bind together a family and have no bloody idea how they do that.

And then they get sick and old. Rule one of being a parent; never outlive your kids. Fuck me I can’t even imagine how that would feel. But I’m far too clear what an Amber sized wound in my heart does to an allegedly stoic Yorkshireman. I know what walking downstairs and missing a waggy tails feels like. I know what walking past a box of half chewed toys feels like. I know what a house normally full of joy and noise feels like when silence is the last product of tears.

Sentimental horse-shit? Maybe. Let me tell you how that feels. Watching a dog not yet three years old struggle to breathe because anaemia has robbed her of red blood cells. Watching that same dog try and be the dog it used to be. Watching those sad eyes. Listening to the local vets, then listening to the specialist animal hospital we sent her too. And trying to find a good outcome.

Because money doesn’t buy you love. It buys you hope. And that’s what fucking kills you. A rollercoaster of ‘she’s going to die/she might make it’. One kid a week from her first A level, one apparent adult wondering if the bike trip to Italy is somehow relevant. Another proper adult missing her best mate and not dealing with it at all. And another offspring trying to work out how an outwardly healthy hound can barely get off the floor.

That sucks. Don’t for a second confuse that  unconditional love to surrogate parenting. We had a last weekend with her at home – still with an outside chance she might get better – but watching her get weaker pretty much broke my heart. I have that bloke ‘got to be the strong one’ thing going on, but I was totally fucked, wide awake and weeping at 2am.

She’d had three blood transfusions and two sets of drugs. Complications were legion. Everything pointed to blood cancer but they couldn’t find it. So we went for more and more invasive tests desperate for a diagnosis. Because a diagnosis might mean a cure.

Then there is the moment. When you accept you’re keeping her alive for you, not because you think she might get better. She’s not really suffering but she’s dying by degrees. Unless you heart is forged from stone, you cannot do that to anything or anybody. Especially something that is an integral part of your family unit.

So you do the right thing. The hardest thing. The call you never want to make. Sign the forms, authorise the injection. Let them sleep for ever. I’ve led a pretty easy life because that’s absolutely the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. It was a family decision. Not an easy one. I’m very proud of how that quorum coalesced around a decision made for Amber. Not because of her.

Even so. It was shit.

Grief apparently has five stages, I’m going with fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck and fuck. Sure I’m angry but this isn’t a linear transition between denial and acceptance. This is a hurt which mugs you with happy memories, before creeping up on a pre-dawn raid.

You wonder if you could do more. Maybe spotted it earlier. Given her another transfusion. Tried some experimental drugs.  I don’t know. I never will. But my friend Nicky mailed me with this ‘There were only two choices left – leave nature to take its course however long and painful that may have been or let her go peacefully and gently. That’s not failing, that’s putting her first, that’s love.  My Dad always said we’re kinder to our animals than we are out humans

Wise words. I’m really glad she sent them to me. Because I have no more.  Other than to say Amber was taken way too early, but in the time she had, she pretty much defined why we cherish animals we know will never outlive us.

Even knowing how much that will hurt. And fuck it does.

*but not animals apparently.  No such thing as doggie heaven. So goes the dogma of the new testament. Faith must be a wonderful thing. Plausible deniability for every wretched act we perform on each other.

Go on then, tell me why.

September the 8th. September the fucking 8th. We could all save ourselves some time by just re-posting this, so not re-inventing the wheel. Or at least not buying it again.

Summary of that post back in Autumn of last year; spares needing a home, full suspension bike required for winter, fool and his money soon parted, dreams to be chased. TLDR; The idiots’ idiot makes things up and buys another bike.

Which I didn’t ride. Not much anyway. And not with the joy associated with dicking about in the woods. Obviously I spent money to improve that experience. Equally obviously, it made no fucking difference whatsoever.

This swearing is really proxy for faux anger. I’m not angry at all, I’m just disappointed. That bike ticked all the boxes in the virtual world but not enough in the real one. Despite the available evidence, I rationalised the problem wasn’t the logic that three bikes were somehow better than the two I loved riding, but merely I had chosen poorly.

Right then. Let’s check out the latest arrival. 150mm of travel which is more than the RipMo out back. Tyre clearance that’s somewhere between Dry Spain and Bloody Ridiculous. A 2.35 in there and we’re in wafer thin mint territory*. And a frame made entirely from Carbon – a material that’s not exactly matching the remit for a hard wearing winter hack.

Less travel than the RipMo then? No. Can be ridden in winter when the RipMo needs is hibernating in a warm shed? No. Perfect for being abused in shit conditions and ignored between wet and muddy rides. That’s a no as well. So in terms of meeting the niche requirements set out for its predecessor, it’s a bloody triumph.

It was cheap tho. That’s a £2800 frame I paid buttons for. It’s a lovely colour. It’s very light. Reviews suggest it accelerates like a stabbed rat. All the bits I stripped off the Aeris fitted perfectly. Except for all the new parts which somehow slipped into this low cost build.

Building it wasn’t the usual stress free exercise of handing it over to Matt and waiting for a bike better than new to spawn out of the garage. Between Matt and I we have most of a single healthy adult. I’ve augmented extensive soreness from last weeks crashes with a ton of snot punctuated by a hacking cough. Matt’s had proper flu and remains standing only by holding onto usefully located furniture.

Which explains how it took most of the day to turn the frame into the lovely looking bike in the image above. At least a third of that was re-doing tasks we’d failed to fully think through. Many of which involved internal cable routing. I wasn’t a fan before today, and right now I’d file that design decision on the far side of ‘fucking hateful’.

Whatever it is though, it isn’t a straight replacement for the Aeris. Just riding it up and down the lane and popping it off a curb put that idea to bed. In spades. It’s way more poppy, super involving and – despite a slack head angle – really agile in the turns.

Or that could just be new bike placebo. We’ll find out tomorrow when I’m taking it for a hack(ing cough) in the local woods. Two objectives; don’t cough up a lung and don’t crash. The latter is going to slow me down a lot as I keep replaying last weeks stack in my minds eye. And each time the bit where my face smashes into the ground hits, I want to go and hide under a table. While rocking gently and sobbing.

I’m sure it’ll be fine. Anyway, anyone new here might be wondering what the hell I’m doing buying a bike which is very similar to one I’ve already got. Stick around, you have much to learn 😉

*which if I don’t get out and ride some more soon, I shall be requesting as part of my homage to Pythons’ Mr Creosote.

 

Work stops play

      

In the last issue of www.cranked.cc, I ran a snake-oil eye over the crashing protocol. Espousing a hooky theory that crashing isn’t entirely random. It can, at least, be categorised between ‘good ones’ and ‘bad ones’.

I’m still pedalling that line although – after today – I feel I didn’t give quite enough weight to how they both hurt equally. This is the fault of dry trails and brilliant bikes. Last week we were travelling mostly sideways in post winter slop offering the grippy assistance of shaved sea cucumber. Which was fine- slide about, stay happy side up, pine for Spring.

Spring turned up right on schedule and those same trails are now perfectly tacky. Sunshine burst out the hardy perennial of my favourite bike which I’d totally failed to crash at Bike Park Wales last Friday. I still somehow broke myself tho – seven runs in – retiring grumpy, wrist sore and hurt as my mates rode a few more.

Bit worrying. Taken most of my box fresh purchases on the uplift truck to test their metal* and not once has a combination of arm pump and cramp sent me home early. Tired I thought, long days, lots of travel, brakes a bit soft, probably holding on too tight, one of those things.

So it was the RipMo again today on a mission to rid myself of that memory, and reassert its place in the hegemony of the ShedofDreams(tm). 10 minutes it and the bike of doom – as I’m starting to think of it – took umbrage at some cack handed riding. Wheel goes one way, rider the other, bish-bash-bosh, over in a flash.

Dusting myself down with a fervent ‘what the fuck just happened there?’ it became clear a minor misjudgement pinged the front wheel off the loamy loveliness onto a patch of angled moist dirt barely clinging to the side of the trail. Yeah okay could happen to anyone, another one of those things.

Knee pads saved precious articulating joints. Elbow pads would have done similar had I been wearing any. Mildly abraded from shoulder to wrist and a sore calf sporting infectious looking dirt rash completed the injuries. Nothing to stop me riding on what felt like the first day of Spring.

Dry lines everywhere. Terrible lines from me. I’m riding okay while not being entirely present. The speed isn’t a problem, it’s not that buffer overload you get when too much stuff is fired at too little brain. It was more being so distracted by other stuff, I wasn’t even vaguely attracted to the trail in front of me.

There are benefits to this approach – mostly as a mitigation to my endless overthinking of what might happen next. However giving serious consideration on how to deal with overlapping customers without letting anyone down had me checking out of the MTB world completely.

And nearly checking into A&E. After a trail I’ve ridden at least 50 times tripped me up as I drifted off line again. It’s not even a narrow bloody trail, I just wasn’t really looking where I was going. Left pedal struck a low tree and that whole potential to kinetic transition slammed me face first into the dirt.

We weren’t hanging about meaning a frontal assault on a local tree was a possible near future experience. Luckily I trail braked with my face while improvising other body parts to aid the deceleration. Finally coming to a stop, I decided I didn’t want to go again so lay there having a little moan until help arrived.

It arrived in the form of Cez and Haydn who reassured me that ‘Yes, I did still have all my teeth’**, my nose was pointing mostly straight and my legendary good looks had not been ruined‘. Ah humour, always kick starts the healing process.

Aside from a split lip and blood running down my face, damage report was checking in with lot of hurt-y bits clambering for attention. Definite reds for a(nother) forearm skinned – and painful to move – plus stabby pains in my ribs which instantly had me worried I’d cracked a couple.

Can still laugh about it tho, so looks like I’ve dodged that bullet. Rode the 30 mins back in some discomfort wondering what the hell was going on. Tried to look over my right shoulder backing the car out. Won’t be doing that in a hurry. Or shaving. Or being polite when someone says ‘Aren’t you getting a bit old for this kind of thing?’’***

I want to blame the bike. Two crashes in one ride. Not doing silly stuff. On the best trails we’ve had for months. Can’t be me, I’m not brilliant at this mountain biking thing, but over the years I’ve developed an adequate range of skills.

Except that’s not quite true. Switching from the ridden for months chubby hardtail to the RipMo which is just so fast everywhere. Swapping slow, wet trails for rapid dry ones. All with one eye on next weeks work and the other on the one after that.

That’s not a bike problem, or a trail problem, that’s an Al problem. This is what happens when you cross those streams. Two many variables, not enough bandwidth. Mistook familiarity for competence. Had an easy lesson, didn’t learn it so a hard one inevitably follows.

Two things then; 1) I need to sort my bloody work-life balance out. It’s absolutely within my gift to do so. Got to stop saying No to the wrong people. 2) Need to get back on the horse as soon as possible. It’s somewhat ironic my riding has been the best I can remember all through the winter, and on one sunny day it’s Mr Crashtastic.

First tho, I need to find some way to lie down without it hurting 😉

*or increasingly expensive plastic.

**first thing I did was check for toothy shards. It was that kind of proper face plant. Genuinely expected to be rooting about in the undergrowth for my incisors.

***No. Thanks for asking. Now fuck off.

I spoke too soon

Sunny but Muddy FoD

About three weeks ago if precision is on the agenda. Riding through a dead winter landscape long shadowed in unseasonal winter sunshine. I called it. Stupidly as it turned out. “Spring is here” summarised my happy mantra to Haydn riding next to me. That thing you see in front of you is the dry line. We’re done with the grim. Oh contraire.

The scientific method is something of a touchstone for me. So I’m not confusing the current climatic conditions with a butterfly flapping causal link to a man being optimistically stupid. Even so, I kind of wish I’d thought before speaking*, kept my powder dry, ridden the long game, and just accepted weather and seasons are really quite different things.

Ah but what a day. Warm sunshine blocking out the vista of nothing growing, dry trails lending grip to tyres not filled with February mud, bacon sandwiches enjoyed outside soaking up Vitamin D. Sure we needed an extra layer in the pub, but it still felt like early spring not late winter.

Then I got sick. Properly ‘don’t start any long books’ sick. It took over two weeks to de-escalate the certainly of ‘certain death’ to ‘possible death’**. I morphed into a grumpy snot monster with a cough clearly vectored for Tuberculosis . Stoic as I was***, the grimness encompassed Jessie’s 18th birthday and the last of the dry trails. I managed most of events associated with the former, while lamenting the latter through industrial quantities of Sloe Gin. No point risking malaria as well.

So yesterday we were back out once the rain turned up like an unwanted relative at Christmas, and showing no sign of sodding off until lent. While this was moderately annoying, I couldn’t help thinking it was fairly consistent with March. Comes in like a lion and leaves like a lamb apparently. Or – as I like to think of it – rainy bastard with the chance of snow.

Riding out we couldn’t help but notice some puddles. Nothing was underwater, but a few of the trails had that look about them. Roots were slick, dirt was moist, skills were lacking. Had to lean on the front a bit to reacquaint myself with the whole ‘back there for partying, up here for thinking’ mullet technique.

Sideways rain wasn’t exactly a proxy for Spring either. We hid in PedalaBikeAway where pig sandwiches and hot coffee fortified us for the long ride to the pub. We ignored the ridden out rutty trails taped off for the Forest enduro, and headed west into the cheeky side of our riding realm.

Careful selection of trails avoided the horror of twenty minute plasticine climbs in what I’ve come to think of as ‘quick-mud’. Step off here and they’ll need to drag you out with a tractor. The similar sized tyres on my SolarisMax were working surprisingly well in the gloop. The front aiming me in the right direction, while the rear shimmied about in an amusing fashion.

Last three descents are all belters. The first an off camber loam-fest dropping into ever steepening turns. My plan to ride it feet up failed to survive first contact with the dirt. Tripod’d a few corners but not with my head so considered that a win.

Up a fireroad climb before dropping into a two pitch delight that’s fast and open until it isn’t. Rooty and nadgery between unforgiving trees makes keeping your head up and trusting your tyres the only way to stay in touch with the riders ahead. It’s all getting a bit lairy out back, but I’m staying off the brakes and riding the slide. Stuff of life right there.

We roll out though a muddy ditch and there’s lots of banter. ‘That bloody stump, nearly had me, reckon I tapped it with the rear, so much fun’. That’s pub talk, and we’re one descent from the river where our favourite hostelry awaits.

It’s an ever changing rock filled ditch. Relentless rain has opened up crevices and chutes hidden under last years leaves. It’s fun on the hardtail, but you need your wits about you as 3-D problems plant themselves in your optic nerve.

We ride the first section well and then accelerate onto a narrow ridge which disappears near the trail end. Option a) is to brake hard and drop gently into the mess of rocky chop. Option b) is more of a ‘ah fuck it, it’ll be fine’ brakeless plunge into the chute while hoping for the best.

The best was very good indeed. We giggled our way back on the old train track and got the beers in. Sure my bike is a muddy cipher of something I barely recognise, and my ride kit lies festering in a bucket, but we know it’s just going to get better from here.

I called it too early. But Spring is coming. I can’t wait.

*to be honest, this isn’t the first time such a thing may have happened.

**no medical professionals were consulted to confirm this diagnosis.

***In the Leigh household, there was a vigorous debate over the exact definition of stoic.

Crossing the streams

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018
Matt riding a dry trail. There weren’t many of those. In fact, this was the only one!

There is some stuff you shouldn’t mix. Explosive chemicals being self-evident*. Three generations of the same family a somewhat more learned life skill. And big days in the hills when Winter still firmly controls the calendar.

Matt – in the image above – clearly disputes this. His view is if you’re not bloodily injured with a mostly broken bike while struggling through waist high snow as night falls, then basically you need to get out less. Death-Marches are a real thing, and Matt’s keen to up the game with DM Evo where at least one person might not make it.

Honestly it’s like being the red jumper bloke in Star Trek. Join that party and it essentially peril, pain and a probable fatal interaction. Knowing all that, it as something of a surprise to find myself dodging fat raindrops at 6am this morning as the van pulled into the drive.

Clearing up shower then’ I greeted Matt. He just looked disappointed it wasn’t sleeting, or dinosaur killing meteors weren’t bouncing off the roof. We collected the rest of the red-jumper tribe and headed into mid Wales bombarded by zero temps and hard rain.

Daybreak didn’t bring much joy to a sodden landscape, with much hiding under the tailgate finding s dither of mountain bikers wondering how much waterproofing kit to wear. I went with ‘all of it’ as we took account of our surroundings – to whit being on the valley floor flanked by muscular hills at every compass point.

Best get up one of them. By the end of the day I’m pretty sure we’d been up most of them. Maybe twice. It’s proper ‘winch’n’plummet’ geography with little truck for anything tending to the horizontal. The first climb was a muddy horror, elivened only when an elbows-out MXer passed us in a spray of slurry only to bin it 30 yards on.

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018

Made me laugh. Into the sleet now acting as organic acupuncture. Fuck me that’s a bit miserable I thought dragging another waterproof from the pack. I didn’t need to look at Matt to see he was smiling. And hoping for snow.

First descent was a 2m wide mud rut enriched with a jumble of loose rock and wet roots. I was back on the Bird having repaired** all the broken stuff not really enjoyed on the Gap Ride. We are still having bonding issues – especially once my tentativeness ended with a partial ejection into a mud bank.

No one else seemed to be struggling tho. Nor at the first actual stream crossing where I took pictures before failing to fall into the river. This is something of a first.

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018
Sam not falling into the river.

Climbing wise, all was good even with frozen appendages stomping pedals and gripping bars. Six weeks in the shed going nowhere slowly may actually be making a difference. Or it could have been two cups of turbo-coffee and a dirty egg bap. Time may tell.

Descent 2. Went okay. Nobody died. Not even those wearing red. Bike still felt odd. Well I felt odd, unconnected, a bit nervous, missing my hardtail. At times likes this, a moment of introspection while chowing down on sarnies can help.

It didn’t really. I was a bit miserable from the chain gang up the valley into a bastard head wind. It was a pretty valley but it was also pretty brutal. Rather than deal with any actual problems, I changed my gloves. Displacement activity right there.

Descent three. Top of which is that first image. Stunning to be in the big hills, breathing clean air and on-sight-riding fairly technical stuff. Even when I’m riding like a twat, I cherish days like this. Any big hill, any season.

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018

Sam was holding the gate as I came close to cartwheeling into it. Proper rocky but actually mostly dry. This lasted another two seconds before my wheels were submerged by a raging torrent pretending to be a trail.

Three minutes later not much has changed other than a few heartfelt ‘fuck me, that was close’ , and sufficient sliding off wet slate into water deep enough for me to consider whether a life raft might be something to add to my personal inventory.

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018

Arriving in a rather flustered state at the road, Haydn wondered if my forks might need a tweak. I asked him why. His reply suggested my current setup would be brilliant if I was method-acting Zebedee from Magic Roundabout, but not quite so appropriate for pounding rocks at regular intervals.

Since I was faffing, it seemed apposite to remove about 25% of the air from a rear shock last inflated when I was quite a bit fatter***. Placebo or not, from therein, the bike received a studied Nod and a bit of a Yorkshire ‘That’ll do’ as we finally made some decent progress when the world tips to our happy place.

Last climb then. Feeling good. Except my feet. Can’t feel those at all. Swing into the road climb to be met by a sign informing any who may pass that 25% is the gradient. It wasn’t as easy as that, with a upward trajectory suggesting a moon-shot.

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018

Orbital mechanics aside, I made a decent punt at it. 16 minutes of ‘oh sodding nora when is this going to end?’ delivering 250m of vertical waiting to be cashed in on a descent boosted as the best of the day. That’s a hell of an ask based on what had come before.

We rode into some stunning scenery filled with glacial moraines and the promise of cold rain. Dropping into a mad rock gulley I substituted any proper technique with the ‘hang on and hope’ approach that’s served me so well all these years. I even kept my eyes open.

Which was helpful as a tiring Sam became a further trail obstacle. Stupidly I followed Cez on a line best though of as ‘danger of death or at least the loss of a spleen’ accelerating to speeds I’m not entirely comfortable with.

Not as uncomfortable as what came next. A concrete slab drop-shipped by a lowest cost bidder to slow subsidence. It didn’t slow me as I was properly shitting the big drop on the far side of it. No way to roll that. Instinct is one thing, experience another. So for the frightened, closing my eyes and hoping for the best was as ever my go-to strategy.

Bit clattery, moments of uncertainty, bike going one way, upper body the other. Gritted teeth, rode it out eyeballs on stalks then cracked on registering every moment as the difference between merely existing and being alive.

Trail finally finished and we were cold, wet and bloody loving it. Rolled back into town to scare the good citizens of Llangollen with half naked bodies and much giggling.

What a day. Crossed many streams. Dodged some bullets. Found a way to enjoy the wet and the Winter. We’ll be back. Maybe next time tho hold the sleet….

*other than to those hardcore practical experimenters with no eyebrows. Tend to leave buildings vertically.

**as in ‘drop it off at Matt’s and get it back working through some kind of magic

***Don’t confuse this with me being whip-thin now. I’ve merely backed away from corpulent.

Back in the game

ShedOfMisery(tm) Upgrade
That’s almost as much fun as it looks.

About this time last year I was reflecting bitterly on my inability to maintain forward motion without some kind of prat-fall. This prat fell over a log on a night run, failed to right himself so savagely rotating an innocent ankle clearly not designed to articulate in such a manner.

Damaged ligaments mutated that limb into a monster parody of a something mostly known for usefully attaching a foot too. Walking was painful, riding mountain bikes was strictly forbidden. My response was to buy a turbo trainer and Zwift subscription to stave off both boredom, and the inevitable loss of fitness doing nothing grumpily tends to engender.

It achieved neither. To be fair it was sailing into challenging headwinds comprised by an apathy and ‘fuck it, let’s have a beer instead’ approach to rehabilitation. Come March I could ride again – albeit 7 pounds heavier and with the aerobic fitness of a freshly minted corpse – meaning the turbo was first joyfully ignored, then repurposed as dusty clothes horse.

Until Christmas 2018. Even prior to the annual assault on all things cheese and port, the scales displayed the kind of quantitative evidence my clothes were already telling me. Basically I’d got fat. 13 stone 2 pounds fat. That’s me in another life where Mountain Bikes don’t exist, where hitting fifty merely unlocks the elastic waistband achievement.

Not having that, things must be done. Drag the unused cross bike onto the turbo, repurpose random shed items to host a ten year old monitor and a portable speaker. Fire up Zwift and some inspirational tunes and get right back at it. Went well for ten minutes until a few exciting seconds ending abruptly with the rear tyre exploding.

I tried to spin this as my awesome power fuelling a friction based combustion of some unworthy rubber, whereas an actual analysis of the remains demonstrated it had more perished than failed. Logic dictated a replacement was a simple ten minute drive/twenty quid transaction.

Pah logic? Over-rated. Some of us like to think more laterally. In this case around 30 miles east to a purveyor of all things shiny. Yes, if I couldn’t upgrade myself, I could upgrade the turbo into something marketing itself as ‘direct drive’ to ‘create a real road riding experience.’

Two small points worth mentioning here; firstly my limited familiarity with tarmac and bikes suggests the real experience would involve dodging wheel swallowing potholes, firing mud, dog-shit and God knows what else into your open mouth, all while being almost murdered by random strangers hurling two ton metal death bringers at you.

I didn’t want to lose weight that badly. I’m sure somewhere there’s a book heartily recommending shitting yourself on a regular basis to work off the pounds, but it’s not for me. Road riding is scary. Point 2 is there is nothing real about steaming up the windows of your shed, pedalling furiously while going nowhere and confusing flickering images for what’s going on outside.

No it’s more ‘FatMan – to the ShedMobile’. 13 days out of 14 was my record. Where the fuck I found the mental fortitude for that streak is something of a mystery to me. The problem with the bastard game* is it – well – games you. I somewhat incautiously signed up for a twelve week ‘training’ programme without understanding what the hell that might mean.

What it means is four or five hours every week, in what I now think of as the ShedOfMisery, wanting to electrocute the virtual coach who dispenses patronising inspiration through the medium of electronic smugness. But I keep coming back because if you miss a session, it’s gone. For good. No getting it back.

There’s 52 sessions in total. I’ve missed two. One was in the first week. It still burns. It’s like bloody Pokemon Go only for old people. Also this new trainer has some kind of witchcraft mode which basically makes cheating impossible. That I find extremely annoying as cheating is pretty much my first up response to stuff when it gets hard.

And it is getting hard. Every week just has a bit more bastard in it. Accompanied by the creepingly smug text scrolling across the screen. I have many issues; one is mountain bikers don’t spin a fast cadence. Anything over a 90 and I’m a mashing hamster. I’ve become increasingly convinced that the game knows this, thereby mocking my tawdry efforts with demands that wouldn’t be out of place on a washing machine spin cycle.

When I can’t face smugtwat(tm), I switch to a ‘group ride’. I so want to be sniffy about the friendship of virtual strangers. I mean VirtualShedWorld isn’t much of an upgrade to SecondLife or whatever came after. None of the avatars are fat for a start. And they all must know the cheat codes, because I’m blowing it out of my arse while every other fucker is happily communicating over group chat.

I have only responded once. With ’Nnnnnnggggghhhh’ after collapsing – aerobically spent – over the keyboard. But I keep coming back. And when one of those ‘Ride On’ drops into my virtual jersey I feel a little bit happy. And a little more dead inside.

5 weeks in. 7 to go. 12st7 at the last count. Most of that is giving up booze some of the time. Do I feel any fitter? Not sure, I certainly feel knackered. Someone suggested this might be overtraining, but I was able to counter that with I’m playing shit games in my shed, and this isn’t training. That’s basically an affront to the whole ethos of mountain biking.

7 more weeks. Fuck me, it’s worse than being forced to endure Strictly. At least I could do that with a beer. Come March tho, I’m not sure merely sidelining the turbo is going to be enough.

There might be a shed fire.

*and it is a game. Some people take it VERY seriously. I find this deeply amusing as I attempt to shave 2 seconds off a particularly annoying segment. I’m comfortable with simultaneously claiming the moral high ground and adopting the role of towering hypocrite 🙂

Updated the bike page and…

.. the most read articles. Not that you had a lot of choice last year as I couldn’t be arsed to write much. Except for the never-less-than-oustanding Cranked magazine. A subscription to that august publication shall absolutely enrich your life. Especially if you read everyone else’s articles first 🙂

Bike Page (hint: it’s been a busy one): here
Most read articles (probably bots): here

The definition of insanity..

Solaris Max
Before it got dark. Still muddy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copy that.

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

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

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

You could buy a bike for that….

Jessie's new car

Cars represent freedom. Your first one so much more so. Sure they also represent an unsustainable rampage of the planet. They drive the individuals behind the wheel to status anxiety.  They reinforce the broken axiom that we must arrive in the same place at the same time. They channel the passive aggressive or – more often – the XY chromosome vein-pulsing aggressive.

Upside is there is a golden thread between bikes and cars. A reimagining of a future not constrained by walking distances or tired parents. Heading out with nowhere to go. Illicit meetings expanding little worlds. Occupying the space between innocent childhood and the rules of being an adult. Limitless and faithless. Fuck me writing that reminds me how youth is wasted on the young.

Moving on, as I must, we still have some kind of responsibility for offspring of an age where sixth form blocks are stuffed with badly parked L plates. Before going any further, let me share with you a universal truth. I’ve never thought of myself as brave or courageous, merely an average joe with the occasional ability to feel properly scared while tweaking the nose of terror.

I was kidding myself. No one has known real terror until they’ve ridden shotgun to their seventeen year old progeny who – on setting a collision course with a articulated truck at a closing speed of more than fifty MPH – has looked desperately to you for advice on which one the brake pedal might be.

Independence is a bit of a double edged sword*.  Wanting your kids to find their way in the world is tempered by the realisation that you’re no longer the centre of it. Still if I’ve learned anything it is that you can only use time, not buy it.  I used mine to research ‘cars least likely to explode in the hands of seventeen year olds’ with  a second filter to ignore anything more expensive than ‘the lovely MX5 I’ve just sold to fund it’

Diving into a pool somewhat larger than expected, had me scrolling an endless list of manufactures pretending their preposterously named model was somehow differentiated from an almost identical version rolled off the same production line.

Moving from the virtual to physical delivered interesting if bewildering insights into the psyche of your not-so-average teenager. An individual who cares nothing for quantitative data scoring vehicles on performance, reliability or safety. Such things pale into insignificance once one has considered the material items such as external body colour and the horror of a lowest-cost-bidder interior.

At the end of that day I’d mostly lost the will to live, but at least narrowed down any potential purchase to a couple of marques. I found one in a lock up in one of the many less salubrious suburbs of south Birmingham where a man, who somewhat distractedly doubled an an Asian George Clooney, gave me so many reasons to hand him over a wad of cash.

Being entirely useless at this kind of thing, instead I bored him with my memories of my first car. The one you approached more in hope than expectation. Doubly so if rain was in the air – a liquid fighting for hedgemony as you bathed the engine bay in WD40.

It might start. It might not. And if it did the myriad of catastrophic problems would present themselves to the driver. No insulation of worrying engine noises, square bearings or combustable electrics were spared to the man joggling the choke. A man who was also wrestling with unpowered everything, and mechanical disappointment requiring first gear should the gradient ever point upwards.

Mine was a real beauty. Externally it’d been repainted by a stoner armed only with a balding paintbrush and a tin of Hammerite. This hid the horrors inside  including an engine that wouldn’t, an heater which didn’t and steering that might occasionally do. All which ignores the windows with two settings – up and fallen into the door.

I could go on. And I probably did. George nodded sagely in the salesman’y manner of a man pretending to give a shit, but soon we were back in the lockup – test drive over – and he reverted to a bloke who expected to be transacting a purchase with a proper adult. At this point I handed him the phone at the end of which Carol fulfilled that role in a way I never can.

We bought the car. Two days later I arrived to collect it. At which point I noticed loads of cosmetic issues somehow hidden during the initial negotiation. No matter, if Jess or Aid have any of my skills, the poor buggers are going to spend a significant amount of their time fetching vehicles out of hedges.

It was great to drive home with Jessie in a car she’d soon be driving and – oh yes please let it be so – legally fetching her old man from the pub when he calls in the the PRV*. So enthused with our purchase were we that it wasn’t until I noticed Preston as a possible destination did I realise how much I’d come to rely on the SatNav in my own car.

Other than that, it’s pretty good fun. Even I can park it. It’s less than half the length of mine and missing all the toys. Which I don’t miss at all when I’m driving it. This brings us full circle back to the pointlessness of cars and why bikes are better.

Until we’re living in that utopia, I’ll be the bloke rigid in the passenger seat re-evaluating how brave driving instructors must be.

*or – as per the previous example – more a Sword of Damocles. At least I could cherish the thought that I’d be dying with at least one member of my family by my side.

*PRV=Pub Retrieval Vehicle. There’s no point going to all this trouble if there’s nothing in it for me.