I know what I said…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risk based judgements.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe out there.

*inappropriate. But made me laugh

Orange is the new black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Testing 1,2,3.

Ibis Ripley first ride

There are some things I’m quite good at. Yes that’s a short list rarely intersecting with activities associated with being a functioning adult, but this doesn’t stop me getting excited when I’m ready to unleash my superpower*

Today it wasn’t wowing a quiz night with my narrow but mostly encyclopedic knowledge of the Battle of Britain,  or exactly how stupid it is correlating poorly thought out hypothesis from low quality datasets**

No today I’m bike testing. Not to be confused with published reviewers and their proper riding skills, critical faculties and ability to torture the English language when synonym chasing ‘laterally stiff and vertically compliant’

My attributes tend more to the experience of a shitload of new bikes. Many of which recorded their inaugural rides at Cwmcarn.  Now there’s a correlation I’m entirely comfortable with.

This Ripley should feel like a denuded RipMo. It really doesn’t. It’s closer to my brilliantly flawed Orange ST4. The suspension travel is similar, everything else is different. The Ripley is way stiffer, had many less gears, a steeper seat angle, a shallower head angle, wider bars, shorter stems,  longer dropper post and that’s before we get into the details.

But we don’t have too. Because while I cannot with an ounce of credibility describe how a bike rides, I can make a decent stab at how it feels.  It feels like this;  instinctive, telepathic, mated –  I accept this may be nothing more than wooly arsed new bike justification . But there is something here. The endpoints of what a class leading MTB can do are gapped by your average Joe failing to execute a thousand YouTube videos.

Aiming at those targets the heart of the periphery. It’s about feel. Some bikes are amazing and aloof. You do your best, yet they mock you with coldness and disdain. They wait impatiently for the better rider.  Your best is never close to being good enough. These are not the bikes you are looking for.

The Ripley is. It shapes the riding experience in all sorts of interesting ways. Most of which have nothing to do with traditional metrics.

I wasn’t any quicker climbing but I was a bit less worried about a heart attack. Some of that is the bike sitting high in its travel, some of it was the 50T cassette I’d gone from hate to love in about 10 pedal strokes. A bit more was a build prioritising trail over Enduro.

Meh, climbing is climbing. It goes on for 45 minutes and then there’s nothing above us other than a winter sky. I usher the fast boys through and hang on to their rooster tails. Somehow this isn’t the same problem as the one I fail to solve on pretty much every ride we do.

New bike thing. Not hungover thing. Others being hungover. Blind luck. Occasional ability. Ego bravery. Easy trails. Later in the day I was properly gapped when others co-located themselves with their shit. This hardy mattered because what I cared about was differentiating this new bike from my RipMo.

It’s not huge but it is significant.  Turns faster, gets you into trouble quicker, assumes you have the chops to get out of it. Pumps and pops on anything micro-rooty and above, makes you feel like a proper rider. I didn’t feel very fast but fuck me I was having a whole lot of fun.

Our two younger companions refused to accept there was another trail to be ridden. Old sweats Matt and Al cracked on in a manner rarely associated with men on the wrong side of 50. As an aside, I never get the trail centre snobbery.  It’s just a brilliant way to spend your time when your local trails are underwater.

And spend we did. Giving up gravity credits on first a rocky ledge and then a flat out berm-y blast to the carpark. Familiarity nearly let to contempt after a bold apex choice catapulted me centimetres from leaving the trail entirely. Where stumps and rocks waited to impale an important internal organ.

Backed off a bit after that so never came close to catching Matt but every second separated me from adulthood.  There’s no space to worry how old you are because you’re wondering how fast you dare go.

Strava told me I was a little faster than previously. It shouldn’t matter but it does. More important tho I felt comfortable at a pace best thought of adequately brisk. Which is already a win as wet and wild are not my favourite conditions. But the bike just wanted to go and I wanted to go with it.

That’s the crux, some bikes feel connected, others feel distant. Some bikes encourage you, others treat your efforts with studied aloofness. Anyone who doesn’t feel this needs to buy a metric shit-load of new bikes. At which point feel free to get back to me.

Yet there is nothing definitative about a single experience like this. It’s new bike glasses, not ridden for a week glasses, riding with your mates glasses, glass being half full basically. But even so I’ll take it.

In summary I’m very happy with my Christmas present. I hope you’re as happy with yours.

*I might be overstating how super that is.

**that’s really a thing. It’s not a big thing, but a thing it is nevertheless.

Phoenix from the blame

There’s an entire YouTube channel devoted to ‘dream builds‘* where artisan craftsmanship and stroking of beards summarises the content. At no point does the protagonist throw a tool at a loved one while screaming ‘there is a special place in hell for the UTTER BASTARD who spec’d this 2.5mm allen cheese-bolt

Of the 49 bikes I’ve owned**, I’ve built about half of them. If a film were to be made of such heroism it’d start with a wide shot framing a thoughtful man considering one of many well catalogued tools.  His demeanor would be the metier for mechanical competency.  As the camera moved closer, the focus would be pulled to a naked bike frame awaiting the touch of a master.

That film would end with in a melee of hammers. Viewers would be put in mind of 70s rock gigs where the band would smash their instruments over the stage, the crowd and each other. The camera would pull away to reveal shattered carbon shards splattered across the once pristine workshop.  The movie would fade to a static image of one man wildly swinging an angle grinder while shouting ‘2.5 mm cheese bolt? That fucking showed you you Spunk-Trumpet‘.

I think we can all agree that’s at least a three season Netflix series in the bag. Working title ‘To a man who owns only a hammer, every problem just needs smashing to make it a bit smaller‘.

Since moving here, my good friend Matt has taken the hammer from my hands and replaced it with a beer. He has all the mechanical skills I lack, and an approach to problem solving a little more nuanced that my ‘Oh for fucks sake, I am vexed, pass me something which needs a good twatting’.

Some builds have gone better than others. The ones without hangovers generally. None of those nearly ended with me coming close to losing an eye after a sticky piston rocketed out of the caliper I was leaning into. That’s the venn intersection of compressed air, a stupid idea and about three sober brain cells.

Today though we were both sober but Matt was a bit sick. I helped out by explaining I’d checked his symptoms out on reputable Internet sites and the conclusive diagnosis was Cat Aids. And not the good type. At least I think that helped.

What didn’t help were a whole load of problems separating a frame from a bike. Some of these we knew about including the parlous state of a set of wheels long campaigned with no servicing respite. Since they weren’t totally broken, we decided the best approach would be continue to ignore them and move onto something easier.

Which wasn’t the ‘simple task’ of reducing fork travel on a chassis beautifully engineered but heavy on the loctite. We didn’t have the right tools but we did have a Matt and he dreamed up a solution way better than the hammer twitch I was going with.

We then embarked on a long and tedious examination of the ‘World’s ugliest cassette‘ which appeared to be modelled on a dinner plate. If dinner plates were made of heavy metals. When I got into this whole mountain biking gig it was a max of 32 teeth out back and 44 up front. Now we’re in this ludicrous situation where 32 represents your only chain ring option, while some mechanical savage has decided 50 teeth on a cassette is officially a good thing.

It bloody isn’t. Indexing was happening to other people. Until we gave up being blokes and read the instructions. This calmed down things a bit with us ending up with most of the gears almost all of the time. This is a temporary aberration while I think of a good excuse to buy some new wheels. Right now tho I have a transmission that is both embarrassingly huge and useful for eating my lunch off.

We skipped lunch and powered sustained by nuclear coffee and seasonal mince pies.  Having ignored the multitude of wheel issues, we extended our strong displacement game to too short brake cables, missing brake shims and a variety of other annoyances that’d defeat lesser men than us.

Well lesser men that Matt. I spent most of the time desperately looking for the bench. A bench which was now strewn chaotically with every tool I own and a few of whose provenance I have no idea. Most of which were floating in an expanding film of suspension fluids.

I wasn’t sure if to clean the bench or just torch the bloody thing. While considering my options, Matt told me we were done. Really? How the hell did that happen? Nothing to do with me. All I could offer was was to stick a helmet light on and strike out into the rain, which started in October and has yet to stop.

What did I learn? Riding without a rain jacket even for a few minutes is stupid.  What else? Not much other than this is not a mini RipMo. I’m not sure what it is, but it isn’t that which is a bit of a relief.

Tomorrow we’ll be back at Cwmcarn. My stealthy black bike will fade to brown. That much is known. Not much else is.

But I expect I’ll enjoy the experience. I have the previous 48 times.

*no really there is. It has inspirational music and everything. Almost no one uses a hammer.  I can’t believe anyone thinks it real.

**Okay rented. Still getting to that post. The analysis is epic. Trust me on this.

The 3 bears, 4 bears…. many bears

Screenshot 2019-12-14 at 15.39.13

Too big, too small, just right. Right? We’re all on the same page of this fairy tale. As allegories go, it’s not exactly subtle. To whit, don’t snaffle stuff that’s not yours and differences should be celebrated.

Like bloody everything else, it’d offer a thought stroking metaphor for the British public overwhelmingly voting for a man who has slept in all those beds. With soon-to-be single mothers, foreign donors and Dominic Cummins*

Moving on.  Let’s keep calm and look at some lovely bike images. These represent my best efforts to identify, build, ride and keep a bike which perfectly intersects the space between where hardtails and enduro bikes are brilliant.

I’ve spent ten years working on this project. It’s not been entirely successful.

ST4 Build - a difficult birth.

My first proper attempt to buy  a mid travel bike.  Last of the 26 inch wheels,  steep angles, my first dropper. 120mm up and down travel with another 10mm of sideways movement available on demand. Laterally stiff it wasn’t, but proper fun it was.

Until it ate itself in the Pyrenees. Took the cranks off and the bottom bracket fell out with them. But before then it’d proved that all these 150mm rigs, back in 2010, being touted as ‘quiver killers were just shit climbers with stupid geometry.

Orange were so impressed with my destruction of their latest product they sent me another one. It was far stiffer. And much less fun.

Pyga OneTen 29

Little did I know this next bike was the baseline for the ‘third way’. A bike with ‘just enough travel’. 120 up front, 10mm less out the back. The Pyga holds many other accolades;  a proper trail 29er, most kilometres ridden, most countries ridden in, first bolt through fork, last front mech.

It wasn’t my middle bike. It was pretty much my only bike. I rode it everywhere before the siren call of long travel and new fangled wheel sizes dispatched it to the classified ads.

It remains the best do-it-all bike I’ve ever had. And while it’s not perfect, neither am I. Occasionally I still miss that granny ring 😉

Cotic Flare Max. First ride 😄

Ah the Cotic Flare Max. Another 120mm of travel, another 29er (occasionally swapped out for the emperors’ new chubbies), another great bike which never really displaced hardtails for razzing around the woods, or something a bit more substantial for those bigger days out.

I had a lot of great rides on the FlareMax but the elephant in the room was in fact the bike. It was heavier than my 150mm carbon full suss. It was more fun when confidence was high, but still felt like a solution looking for a problem.

Or maybe I was. These were not duds. Everyone was properly involving. Looking for the funnest not the fastest line. Rewarding bike handling over bollock virtue signalling.  Reminding me the landscape was analogue, and efficiency is not the same as excitement.

Smuggler - 1

The Smuggler lived that analogue life in spades. 115mm at the business end, 140mm for partying up front. Ridiculously capable even when it shouldn’t have been. Once at Bike Park Wales, I cleaned up my PRs against bikes with proper enduro credentials.

It wasn’t light tho. Oh no. Made the FlareMax look like an XC whippet. It left me nearly walking the last climb on the beast at CyB after I’d fitted a coil shock to further increase its heft. Wasn’t designed for UK mud either. Reasonable tyre in the back stopped winter play.

Great fun but maybe the first ever short travel bike that should come with an uplift pass.

Bird in the wild!

Whats that thing about insanity? Try the same thing and expect a different result. Finding a bike between my super capable chubby hardtail and the RipMo was a tough ask. This Bird Aeris 120 didn’t answer it. Never had the poppy analogue vibe of its predecessors. They were all good at something. This just left me cold.

At which point I decided there was no third way. The RipMo is sub 30lbs and it climbs brilliantly. It’s fun when you’re not fast and super confidence inspiring when you are. There’s no gap to bridge, no other way to find. I nodded my way into a two bikes being perfect vibe and closed the project.

Occam in the wild!

Hah not so fast,  because I bought the Occam. Of course I did. It was silly light, snappy fast, bonkers agile and properly cheap for a lot of frame. It was maybe a little long travel for the third way,  but at that weight it had to be the one.

Of course it did. Of course it wasn’t.

I’d already sort of given up on it before it brutally attacked Tim and attempted to wrench his leg off. Sure it was light, but it was almost too efficient. I couldn’t shake the feeling I was letting it down. I’m sure in the hands of a properly fast rider, it’d make a lot of sense.

For me tho, it was just a lot of head scratching. I took it to a trail centre where I assumed it would be silly fast. And it was if you’re measuring marginal gains**. Even that didn’t matter as I’m mostly past riding against the clock. I’m more riding against the decline, so I may as well be having fun doing it.

The question we’re left with then is:  will the Ripley finally nail this third way thing? What kind of bear is it? Will it be shit in the woods? What will make me choose it over my other fantastic bikes? And I suppose why do I think this might be the one, and how the hell will I know?

Let’s assume worse case I’ll have some fun finding out. I don’t regret those other bikes. Sure they represent an expensive approach to dream fulfilment. But the whole research/buy/build/ride/sell cycle always trips the scale between interesting and exciting.

I’m not sure any of them have transported me into the land of the contented. But that’s not about the bikes.

It really never was.

*After the exit poll, I was overcome with a ‘for fucks sake’ hour in which I stamped out a sweary polemic on exactly what is wrong with this country.  Reviewing with a hangover reminds me why we don’t do politics on the hedgehog.

**Cwmcarn. Three visits, three different bikes.  Similar times, not much in it up or down. I’m not sure the bike is the high water mark here.

We’re not done yet.

So many things to write. Oh you’re in for such a treat. A heartfelt treatise on the wonders of modern telecommunications, a head banging rant on the inadequacies of train companies before a return to rehashing old campaigns – to whit riding in the filth.

I bet you can hardly wait. Worry not because come the intersection of the Christmas break, guilt free hedonistic wine abuse and boredom, that whole stream of consciousness shall pore forth onto this electronic page.  Regular readers translate that as ‘grammar tortured through the lens of a delusional  Tourettes suffer marinated in a decent red.

I’ll do my best to meet those lofty expectations.

Until then, this.

Back in the midst of time I exchanged a bike I didn’t really like for one I wasn’t quite sure about. This has gone as brilliantly as any human within flailing distance of sanity could expect. It’s been built, admired, occasionally ridden, borrowed and outed as bit of a violent bastard.

This is not why I’m moving on. Oh I wish it were. But rationale has no place here. Or before here come to that. Hiding in plain sight on my desktop is a pantheon of discarded bikes spanning twenty years. All 49 of them.  There’s some proper analysis to come*, but the headline numbers are trending towards the Enron scale of false accounting.

Some of me believes this is exactly the form of catharcism required to trigger a change in behaviour. The rather larger part is thinking ‘Fuck me, what a ride, you think that was stupid? Well HOLD MY BEER and watch this!’

Watch what? My desultory efforts to triage a to-do list entering the fourth dimension were interrupted by a desktop ping timed at 0916. Some eight hours later I was the happy if somewhat confused owner of another Ibis frame. These chronological events bookmarked a text transcript best thought of as extended therapy.

I feel some context may help here. A week ago I’d postulated** that pointless bicycle acquisition was now happening to other people. Those marketing types were dead to me. The shedofdreams(tm) could now be considered a museum such was the lack of purchasing activity.

Smug-mode on basically.  Until that 0916 ping. My good mate and proper accountant Adam sent me a link to a new version of something I already owned. 20% off the latest model. 29inch wheels. Carbon. Lovely looking thing. You should buy that. I should probably explain at this point that Adam is our company accountant.

Let’s assume then this wasn’t professional advice. I wasted fuck knows how long watching videos and tying mental knots. Did I need a ‘third way’? Something between the playfulness of the SolarisMax and the scenery stomping prowess of the imperious RipMo? Into a gap the keenly priced Orbea fell, but was rarely first or even second pick.

Trying this adult thing, I concluded a bike with almost as much travel as one I already had was hardly the ‘void filler’  I might be looking for. And what is that? Ah glad you asked, and you’re still with me here. Sometimes I think no one gets how important this is.

90% of what we ride is hardtail friendly. A bit more if you’re a bit good. A bit less if you’re like me. Big bikes can work but they lack the immediacy, the agility, the poise of something with a bit less travel and quite a lot less weight.

I accept this is prising open a niche which may only exist in my head. Still once that idea takes flight there’s actually not that many bikes which fulfil the brief.  There is one tho and it’s from the same stable as the RipMo. It shares the etymology, and a little more of the history.

From XC bike to trail bike in four evolutions. At least one of which Adam has broken. He’s still keen for me to buy one. After further investigation elbowed aside other peoples deadlines, I was inclined to agree.

It’s not however a premise which stands up to any kind of logical probing. The kind that Carol is very good at. She was admiringly stoical as I attempted to make the case. Although ‘case‘ might be stretching it a bit. It was more ‘see that, lovely isn’t it, 20% off today, it’d make me very happy‘.

We consulted various spreadsheets of doom representing wide ranging commitments to important stuff, and concluded a Ripley could be squeezed in. Assuming I didn’t go ‘full supermarket sweep‘ with a virtual ram-raid of a well known on-line bike store.

No danger of that. I shall asset strip the Occam in exactly the same manner as the donor bike before that. It’s not like this is new to me.  Shiny parts look good for exactly one ride. We’re not making art here, but we might be making something rather more important.

Whatever it is, let’s be clear this is extravagance barely tempered by common sense. There’s no quantitative metric to ascribe buying an expensive frame as offering any kind of return on investment.

Sure no metric, but this is to confuse cost and value. Being lucky enough to invest in possible futures is a whole shit load better than wondering what might have been.

I know it’s stupid. Carol knows it’s stupid. I am troubled by feelings of guilt. But fuck me riding new bikes on sinewy singletrack with your mates is never going to get old. Until I get too old.

I’ve said it before but it absolutely bares repeating.  There really is no point dying wondering.

*Yes it’ll be showcased on the hedgehog. Again I apologise for excitement deferred while I get my regression analysis shit together.

** to the normal riding crew who responded with a combination of heroic stoicism and mild hysteria.

 

Time is of the essence

Muddy FoD Ride - Oct 2019

The nights are getting longer. The temperatures are heading lower. The leaves are on the ground, and  the trees are buttoning up for hibernation. Rain is less of an annoyance and more of a constant. The northern hemisphere is preparing for its annual shutdown, and that’s shit and bringing me down.

Especially as Autumn last year was a riot of fall colours, still dusty trails and the feeling that this was just summer madly denuded. Not 2019 – we moved Jess into university halls at the end of September in t-shirts and shorts. No clouds split the perfect azure blue from bustling vegetation to long distanced horizon.

The calender spoke of a changing season but we weren’t listening.  Then we were listening to hard drain bouncing off the landscape we live in, the houses we take shelter in and drenching us when we ventured outside.

Trails tinder dry from a long summer held out way beyond our expectations. But like a middle aged man fighting the flab of ageing, inevitably they succumbed, drooped, raised a weary hand of surrender* and switched from hard-pack to something both new but with a horrible familiarity for our riding life until March next year.

So now it’s wet, it’s muddy but – crucially – it’s not cold. I’ll take two out of three because I know what’s coming. And my whining over geographical inevitably is muted by riding with my good mate David who has a six in front of his age. Yet he has no truck with an e-bike or excuses. Strictly analogue.

I’ve been riding with Dave for over a decade. He’ll be the first to accept he’s not as fast as he once was. Like that matters, He retains a passion for riding bikes even when we’re facing a full on mud enema. Even when having not ridden much this year, he’s still keen for a big day out

I blame Matt for my late developed stubborn streak to go long. We start short heading out to the Forest on puddle infested fire road slaloms. A cheeky descent on a track best thought of as ‘possibly illegal’ gaps my skills between rain washed roots and the assumption of summer grip.

No matter we’re giggling in the manner of those entirely invested in the ridiculousness of the whole endeavour. We don’t ride because we have mad skills, or because we’re the fastest or we have a point to prove. We ride because this is what we do. Until we cannot. And a bit of mud absolutely is not that thing.

Muddy FoD Ride - Oct 2019

Muddy FoD Ride - Oct 2019

A bit of road, a bit of  traditional old XC if you will, poking in and out of the woods, 90 seconds of sideways action on a trail where I sacrificed a brake lever and a shoulder a couple of years back. Made the turn as did David,  still giggling. Combined age of 112. Beats mowing the lawn.

We fetch Steve from Bacon-Sandwich Central. At the tender age of 47, we wonder aloud on the veracity of his long MTB trousers. Kids today eh?  We plan a big loop, Dave looks a tad worried, I tell him it’ll be fine. I’m a bit worried too but keep this to myself.

We head out in the classic approach of ‘dicking about and getting lost’. We ride trails first cut twenty years ago and long abandoned as new stuff gets built. We ride the ‘pit of despair’ and somehow find thigh high mud mildly amusing. We get serious riding some proper slippy singletrack, only to fall over handlebars laughing so much as Dave arrives from a direction entirely distanced from any recognisable trail.

We talk shit and ride some more. I can feel the front wheel travel perpendicular to the trail when an off camber root hits. The rear follows suit and because I’ve yet to remember how to ride loose this cannons me off in a direction best thought of as ‘woooah that’s a big tree’

I find myself and Steve in a dialogue stealing essential cerebral capacity on a steep and rooty trail. Steve goes ‘Hey there’s loads more grip here than I was expecting’ / Me; “Really? Because there’s fuck all on this corner you’ve just ridden you lying bastard

No one crashes. No one knows quite how. Dave takes a detour as Steve and I add an extra trail. I chase a man who I know is quicker than me using an ill thought out strategy of braking later. Two seconds later, I’ve blown the corner and am instead sliding over a bank. Can barely ride for laughing.

Eight hours of riding finally deposits us at the pub. We have earned that beer. David especially. He’s knackered but buzzing. He’s nearly ten years older than me which gives me hope I can still be doing this in that timescale.

Muddy FoD Ride - Oct 2019

Muddy FoD Ride - Oct 2019

We ride home. It’s 11km and I’ve done it maybe a hundred times. But every time I get to wonder how brilliant it is to be riding bikes at an age when that age codifies leisure time spent on sedentary activities. A bit of me loves not being quite like those peers of my age. I’m not judging. Ok yeah I am and this makes me better somehow.

More of me thinks about when it stops. But seeing David still having a bloody good time even tho he is totally bolloxed when we finally get home is a whole lot more. We’re might be getting old, but none all of us are growing up.

Let’s keep it that way.

*that’s a metaphor rather close to home. Other than it improving much in 2020.

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.

Point and woot

Penyard MTB - May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For fucks sake,  had a word with myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that enough? You betcha.

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

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

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