Three wise men

Classic Gap Ride

This post could have worked a whole lot better had it been published during the season of the Sky Fairy. Especially as any lies – sorry mis-statements as we now seem to be calling them – would barely register against the nonsense of the  plastic believers making one-off pilgrimages to their local churches.

That’s quite enough of that. Let’s talk bikes.  Three men – let’s lose the wise tag based on what’s coming – appeared through the miracle of internal combustion at a mythical location we’ll call faff-central.

One brought sandwiches, another a massive hangover, the third a bunch of excuses and a non functioning rear brake. As gifts, these scored barely one out of three. The one barely scraping in due to two kinds of pickle and home made bread*

Classic Gap Ride

Van packed, driver navigationally confused, not very wise man one making unhelpful suggestions, definitely unwise man two still looking drunk. An inouspicus start. No stars, just winter solstice gloom and the desperate need to do things outside to avoid further incidents with cheese and brandy.

Ninety minutes later, we’re checking packs and worrying about the weather. In a ‘B’ movie kind of ‘it’s too quiet, something must be about to happen’ kind of way. Last year we slogged through snow, other years offered up rain, hail, gale force winds and assorted meteorological misery.

Best crack on then before Fate notices. First climb is fine. Easy even with no hangover and an absence of frost and ice. Easy for me, Cez however was rocking a skin colour I associated with either a) dead already or b) dead soon.  He man’d up and we got it done in a little under the baseline. I’ve ridden this route so many times, there’s a rhythm and a cadence to it, so you know if you’re ahead.

Classic Gap Ride

Or in Alex’s case, underneath it. On cresting the tricky last climb to the ridge, he’s chosen poorly with a route best marked summer, and essentially bog snorkelled his way out the far side. As close to wise as any of us get, I’ve skirted that obstacle and barely dipped a toe in the clay, while Cez has gone full ‘chubby tyre paddle steamer’ through the middle.

Classic Gap Ride

The ridge top is still a hundred metres of climbing away. Last year we were woefully under-provisioned in the area of ice climbing equipment. Today it was a breeze because neither snow, nor the bastard head wind, long associated with this climb, was attempting to throw you back into the valley.

Classic Gap Ride

It almost felt too easy. Which made me a bit suspicious. Rightly so, as the first descent upgraded my understanding of a rear brake from ‘that’ll pump up nicely’ to ‘no it’s totally fucked’. For the look of the thing we threw in a new set of pads which achieved nothing other than wasting a new set of pads.

The next descent was interesting. Exciting even. Momentarily terrifying. Once or twice eyes were closed. Wet Welsh rock asks a lot of tyres. The front one especially doing all the steering and – in my case – braking. Not much traction-pie left for actually ‘gripping’, so reducing my choices to rolling the dice to score breakneck speed into what’s essentially an abandoned quarry, or the strong potential of sanding myself down with some razor sharp slate.

I picked a middle way. Wasn’t pretty but got it done. Was quite happy to be heading back up hill. Before which Cez somehow managed to fall into a heap while not actually moving. The fact he’d been taking the piss about my inability to open a gate a moment earlier made this just a whole lot sweeter.

Climb then. Up the Roman Road. Sandwiches at the top. The Bird doesn’t climb as well as my Ibis but it’s nowhere near rubbish, and I was feeling pretty good so made a decent stab at hurting myself for the seventeen minutes your heart rate is bouncing agains the rev limiter. Was ready for a sit down and the burgeoning worry that I was essentially uni-braked heading into a shit-load of rock-chop and steepness.

Excusing myself, I headed out first and minced my way down the steepest pitches, especially those with loose rocks all seemingly labelled with my own personalised grim reaper motif.

Thew the bike down in relief and fired up the camera. To see Alex riding the stuff I’d found somewhat challenging in the manner of a semi-pro. Fair play I thought, that’s going somewhat and not lacking commitment. As he passed the lens, I heard the hiss of a tyre pushed far beyond it’s performance boundaries.

Classic Gap Ride

Classic Gap Ride

We heard this twice more on the same descent. Alex used the exact number of spare tubes we had. I’ll be honest one more puncture and we’d have stolen his van keys and left him there. It wasn’t just the repeated faff of dragging the tyre from the rim, it was the painful re-inflatement process with a wheezy pump he’d clearly inherited from his grandfather.

Classic Gap Ride

We eventually got it done and descended to the canal which lacked the ice cold puddles of previous years, then latterly the car park where the van was parked. In some ways I was relieved at not crashing myself stupid riding a single brake**. In others this felt too easy, not the hard bastard ride we’d talk about for months afterwards.

On reflection though, it was a brilliant day out and I’d successfully dodged a magazine of bullets. Sometimes you just have to accept that you’re not in control of a whole load of variables and that’s okay.

As a wise man once set. Not me, obviously.

*we’re not savages. A man has to eat. Artisan-ally in this case.

** every time I ride this route, I remember my mate Russ breaking his back on the final descent back in 2003.

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

Turning a corner

Slippy FoD Fun

Much of this blog is dedicated to cataloguing my pervasive rubbishness of all things bike related, with much general life stuff also taken into consideration. Some would hypothesise this is simply the self-depreciation of a man uncomfortable with his entirely un-English aura of awesomeness. Others – who have actually met him – would consider it purely as a restatement of fact.

Riding in mud is an excellent retelling of the oft misunderstood maxim that ‘it is the exception which proves the rule’.*  When the days are short and the mud is long distanced from the hardback of summer, I find all sorts of interesting ways to fall over, fall off and generally fail to make any kind of discernible progress.

There are reasons for this, but we’re not going there. I’ve been there so often to review that pantheon of uselessness, the boring bits get fast forwarded in my head.  This year though something has happened. An old dog may have learned some new tricks or at least not relearned the annual ‘how to be crap’ lesson once the trails aggressively posture their ‘moisture first’ strategy.

I’d love to say this epiphany is somehow skills based. Conquering mental weakness, performing flashy brave stuff, playing what’s in front of you, that kind of thing. Any such proclamation would be a big fat lie though because we all know old dogs really don’t learn new tricks at all. No instead they go tyre shopping**

A mountain biker without a rubber fetish is merely an amateur astride a dandy steed. The professionals amongst us are fully paid up members of the Durometer club. We are at home with threads per inch, we carefully study tread patterns, and the complex language of compounds being nothing more than an open book.

The outcome of which was a tractor derived monster tread fetching up on my front rim. A slightly less aggressive companion migrated to the back. The Internet smugly dismisses plus tyres as pointless for mud. Now my SolarisMax was shod with chunky 2.8 inch tyres at 12PSI, it was time to go rule proving and myth busting.

Onto trails which had had some rain. And then some more rain. And then downpours sweeping spitefully over leafless terrain. Not quite enough though to saturate the hardpack baked solid over that endless summer. So wet over hard then. My absolute favourite.

To ride in the winter, you must create an entire belief system around your front tyre. Regardless of the mud splattering your eyeballs, the uncertain balance from going sideways, and the unceasing wetness spiking your peripheral vision. These are for nothing if you keep the faith.

A decent bike handler knows what grip feels like. A really decent one knows how hard they can push beyond that. An average Joe like me can get all Newtonian with opposing forces and trust in R&D over marketing.  These tyres will hold a line if you weight them properly while showing a bit of commitment.

And when they do its glorious. A whole world opens up in the damp and dead forest. Narnia is out of the closet. You can push, push, slide, push a little more and then back off before disaster strikes. Even when it does, speeds are low and a full body mud immersion is the only real collateral damage.

Do this a few times and now there’s a bloke wondering if we should have a crack at another trail. Even when the pub is open. This hardtail is the perfect winter tool – it’s direct, consistent, not wallowing in pointless suspension and – afterwards – bloody easy to clean. It’s the tyres which make it tho, tempting grip from slick surfaces so egging the bloke on top to make a proper dirty protest.

There are limits of course. Steep and muddy. That’s Mr. Crashtastic gunning for me on every corner. Freshly cut trails offer nothing but wheel swapping and significant opportunity for a little lie down. Polished roots are winter snipers patiently waiting to take you down.

The last of which had me throwing shapes after taking line liberties no tyre could save me from. I threw the bike away, as it wasn’t offering much help, to slide into a bombhole on my arse. After checking myself out and foraging the now camouflaged bike from the surrounding shrubbery, I found I couldn’t actually get out. That’s how good the tyres are- you can ride even when you can’t walk.

Crashing is fine. Punctured hubris is not a new sensation. For a few corners before though, I felt I’d finally got this mountain biking thing dialled. The bike was turning and drifting at the same time which felt absolutely fine. I’d exchanged my normal tentative wafts at the bar for confident full limb prods to ride the slide. That’s the dirt talking to you right there however pretentious it sounds.

In the pub all I wanted to do was get back out there. For the past ten years all I’ve wanted is it to be April.  Sure it’ll get old before it gets better, but right now our half of the planet just spun its face to the sunny side. We’re on the long road to Spring.

Before that though I’m going to have some fun playing in the mud.

*’Proves’ as in tests like in baking, not as in law. Otherwise it’d just be statistical nonsense overplaying the importance of outliers.

**I appreciate this is stretching the metaphor a bit. But hey throw me a bone here 😉

 

Going through the change

Slippy FoD Fun

Seasons, weather, trails, me. Not that actual change you understand, because that’s in the same bucket of bad science which advocates blokes sharing the birth experience.*

If that hippy shit was underpinned by a shred of empirical evidence, I’d be menopausal on an annual cycle. Nights draw in, rain is meteorologically normalised, rock hard trails lets themselves go, and I’m caught between listless melancholy and a strong desire to migrate a thousand miles south.

We’ve established – in much retelling and tedious detail – that I’m no fan of the fourth season. It’d be no surprise if a gift subscription of an ancestry website would confirm me Californian by Christmas** None of which challenges the basic premise that if enjoyment was to be found in slogging through mud I’d have discovered it long ago.

Still as some pompous twat once felt the urge to share ‘be the change you want to see’***. What I saw was a week of Atlantic lows pushing unbroken cloud across our part of the UK in an apparent attempt to drown it.  Arrangements had been made however, and after a week of wondering why everyone else had knocked off for Xmas early except me, it was time to go find myself.

I found myself peering out of Matt’s garage into the pissing rain, while two of my bikes were being readied to battle those elements. And probably returning  requiring some form of trust fund to deal with the consequences of dragging expensive components through two hours of organic sandpaper.

No matter. I was riding my fab SolarisMax with a 2.8 front tyre clearly designed to find grip most chubby offerings never got close to. I know this to be true because my (well Jess’s really) old SolarisMax was being ridden by my old mate Ian. I wondered aloud to Matt if we should share the terrifying characteristics of the summer tyres with which it was shod.

We both felt this wouldn’t be helpful. After Ian fetched himself out of the shrubbery on about the fourth occasion, I felt the moment has probably passed. We were having fun tho – not only as his expense – because the sun had broken out to shine weak winter sunlight on trails not yet totally destroyed by that season.

It’s still early. While any attempt to steer may not be met with the expected Newtonian change of direction, we’re not yet death-marching through joyless rim deep mud. Oh I know it’s coming, but denial is a wonderful thing when you’re reacquainting  yourself with fusty bike handling skills. You know the ones – let the tyres move around without instantly triggering a panicked brake event.

We know how that ends. Don’t we Ian? Still since he was riding tyres I’d darkly labelled Schwable Suicides, any corner he found himself heading in the same direction at the exit he’d hoped for at the apex was something of a triumph. Watching him hold a mega slide on a steep chute was quite the thing to behold. Especially as I’d had a double dab and a involuntary swear word a few seconds earlier.

Still having already put myself in the frame for an accomplice to manslaughter, when sending him out on those tyres, I felt it only fair to warn him of the final gap jump separating us from beer and medals. I was having such a good time not actually hating it, I may have passed it off with a level of insouciance not entirely appropriate to the conditions.

Things going well in my little world don’t always translate to others. I’d been leaning on my front tyre, and giggling as the subsequent slides punted me gloriously into the next corner. I’d been improbably lucky sliding between the trees without actually hitting one. So now I wondered if a seasonal Strava name change to ‘HipSlider Moto’ could be considered as a non ironic mnemonic.****

Having left vague instructions on where the chicken run might be, I did my best to keep Matt in sight as we headed into the valley. The grip is awesome I almost shouted before it wasn’t, and I found myself blazing an entirely new trail some two metres from where I’d much rather be.

Drag it back into line. Two hard pedal strokes. Don’t look at that root stack on the corner. Look instead at the sloppy mess of the take off and hope the landing isn’t quite so perilous. It isn’t and we’re heading home with big smiles and a bottomless love for riding bikes.

Even Ian. Who decided to have a crack at the gap. His entry we liked, although a harsh critic would suggest exit velocity was a little lacking. Which may explain how he landed mostly with the front wheel on the dirt and the rear scrabbling to fetch itself out of a big hole. Inevitably this ended in man and rider parting company, with the former ploughing a full body furrow into the moist dirt.

No harm done and fair play for Ian having a go. We had another go today in the Forest and enjoyed it just as much. I’ve not idea why this is, because traditionally I loathe this time of year.

Going through some kind of change. Might be wondering how many winters I have left to ride. Might be a great front tyre. Might be something else entirely.  Not going to over-analyse that.

Riding bikes makes me happy. Shit conditions can do one.

*I vaguely remember a prenatal class where prospective fathers were asked to perform a simple task while holding a baby-doll. In terms of making coffee we did a great job, in terms of babies being left in sinks, upside down in the coffee grinder and repurposed as footballs, not so stellar. Exactly no lessons were learned.

**Or directly related to Henry VIII. Like every other poor sop who throws money down that particular rabbit hole.

*** Which made me wish very hard for them to change into a person significantly less annoying.

**** Obviously not. Delusion can only take you so far.

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.

Usual?

(c) vinepair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Usual? Right now that sounds pretty good.

Clubby

Clubman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Full Circle

Bird Aeris one20-the budget build

Back in the midsts of time* I bought a Bird Aeris. 4,500 kilometres and some two years later I sold the remains to a young grom whose world – according to the the instagram lie filter – was mostly up in the air whilst tilted sideways.

And that was some of the problem. The Aeris was a bike which came alive about the time I began to worry I wouldn’t be around for much longer. It didn’t reward the tentative rider, the man on the brakes, the poorly body positioned. That’s not the reason I sold it though – although ‘reason’ is as ever conflated with the ‘call of the shiny

Oh the shiny. It’s a constant companion. Both a source of joy and a financial handicap. Mojo3, FlareMax, Fat Bike, Chubby Bike, another chubby bike, settling the wheel size debate with a firm punt at 27.5. And then 29. Somehow I ended up with three full suspension bikes none of which were quite right. We’ve been there, let’s not go there again.

Somewhere in the madness there was method.  I wanted a full suspension bike that’d survive the brutal slop and grit of a long Forest winter. The Smuggler failed to fulfil that role mostly due to a design predicated on mud never being more than an occasional annoyance. The clearance in the rear was parlous at best. When it got worse I’d be carrying the bloody thing due to the rear tyre wedged firm in the seat stays.

That’s exactly what happened to the Mojo3.  With about 50% of the mud. So now I had two bikes that were perfect for a) California or b) 8 months of a UK year.  Roll on twelve months and post a ruthless review of what I actually needed left me with the brilliant RipMo and laughing-in-the-face-of-a-UK-winter SolarisMax. The latter being two bikes via a simple swap of death-by-tyre chubbies to some proper 29er rubber.

Still with me? Good effort as I’m just making this shit up. After my personal dissolution of the monasteries, the ShedOfDreams(tm) had the look of a space recently burgled by an extremely discerning bike thief. Scattered amongst the remains were a set of previously enjoyed spares missing merely a frame to make them whole.

We’ve been here before. And whilst that is not surprising, it does at least provide me with the slenderest thread of logic to explain my latest purchase. The original Stache was nothing more than a parts mule configured for winter. The fact it didn’t last that long before the glare of the shiny burned it out is hardly worth mentioning.

So here we find ourselves with a box full of parts desperately needing a home, a hotel internet connection and a month long moratorium on weekday alcohol.  This  kind of abstinence is exactly why I drink in the first place to avoid the clarity of thought to buy yet more bikes. It may be detrimental to the liver but it has a positive effect on my bank account

Much browsing ends with a certain inevitability of choosing a frame matching a set of simple criteria – do the parts fit, does it have some proper tyre clearance, is it cheaper than the last bike I sold, is the bloke selling it not a total fucking psychopath?**

Four greens. And it’s a UK brand run by three blokes I’ve a lot of time for. Just the right amount of travel and only a few miles from box fresh.  It even had some frame protection tape applied – possibly while drunk – so saving me the potential marriage ending argument with Carol on exactly the best way to apply it.

I considered building it myself what with a shed full of spares, a wall full of tools and a fridge full of beer. But with great age comes great wisdom so I handed it over to Matt who twirled spanners in about four dimensions muttering darkly while rebuilding wheel bearings and engineering his way round lost parts.

As ever I was lost in awe and impatience. I’m really not good with the gap between ideas and completion. Finally the bike was handed over to check if anything was going to fall off before a proper ride tomorrow. And as usual, nothing did even with me dicking about riding down a few steps and attempting to tear fat tyres off wide rims.

Matt asked me over a beer if I thought I’d be a better rider if I didn’t buy so many different bikes. That brought me up short. Having considered it though, he might be right but it’s not really much of a concern. I’m comfortable being average when the fun of chasing silly dreams is more than a compensation.

So tomorrow we’ll ride still dry trails. There’s something comforting about doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. And the nice thing about circles is you can keep going round.

*2015 which when considering the barely-sub-lightspeed reconfiguration of my bike collection essentially frames 2015 as ‘pre-cambrian’

**That was strike 1. Even a man as ancient as I was still moved to wonder ‘what the fuck was he on?’ at the end of a non transaction.

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.

Not dead yet

First night ride of the summer

A mere twelve months ago I was celebrating not being quite dead yet. Roll round to right now and another year has been happily scratched in the side of the virtual casket.

Physically things aren’t quite so good. Ankle is mostly recovered from stupid running accident, but the left knee isn’t quite so clever. The right one has recently shoved into my litany of injuries with a worrying creak. It might be suffering the extra half stone I’ve failed to shift since my ‘lifestyle change’ of drinking beer in hotel bars and eating chips failed to bring forth any weight loss at all*

Still alive tho, and the ride before the actual birthday found us racing the night on loamy trails marked ‘best present ever’. First we had to climb to the start of them simply, if painfully, delivered via a fifteen minute yomp up a handy fire-road.

I made a bit of an effort what with being in decline denial and riding the hardtail.  Arrived behind a couple but in front of a few more. One of my best times ever apparently- an achievement somewhat offset by the parlous state of my legs and lungs as I collapsed weakly over the bars.

No matter, the effort unlocked a first trail snaking between and over four fire-roads. Tonight we rode it as one section on pretty much perfect dirt. More than enough grip to push the tyres hard into turns, but not so much to prevent flicking the rear out with judicious use of hips or – if you’re lazy like me – a gob of brake.

Injuries and girth not withstanding, I don’t appear to be getting any worse at riding a bike. Tonight I felt good, confident, reasonably strong and happy to be out with my mates. Which was good as the next trail is a proper step up.

And step down, some stepping sideways as well. The formidably named ‘Rockadillo’ dispenses with the standard forest trope of hard dirt and soft borders. Instead it’s rocks for breakfast, lunch, tea, supper and possibly hospital. They might as well name it ‘punctured spleen’ and be done with it. Absolutely nowhere to fall that isn’t going to hurt lots or impale a vital body part on spiky granite.

I’ve never ridden it clean. I’ve walked bits of it. On the RipMo. Shouldn’t be a problem then in the twilight as night dragged away the day and we dived under the trees. Still what you can’t see can’t hurt you. Until it can. Not on my pre-birthday ride tho, I remembered just enough to death-grip the front brake while picking lines where there were no discernible lines.

Deep breaths and trust get you through. Still didn’t clean it tho after clattering on a rock before the last obstacle. A fallen tree happily placed above a pool or rocks shining dully in the dipping sun. Ah fuck it, not carrying over it, push back up, get settled, pick a spot away from the scary bits and plop the hardtail over with absolutely no attempt to jump those rocks.

Big chubby wheels help here. It’s not a fast rock-smash, more a pick-and-mix line choice. Precision is good, recklessness is not.  Wise words from an old man- surprised it was me really. Whatever, we’re through and it’s a hoon to the valley floor back on hero dirt. And a climb where one particular hero was regretting his earlier epic saga on that first hill.

It’s getting proper dark now but we’re not ready to fire up dusty lights just yet. So there is no time to hang around as we drop into our final trail. Starts with a fast chute with nothing other than trees guarding the ribbon of singletrack. Cresting a rise changing everything; now it’s stumpy rocks hanging off steep hairpins.

Peering through the gloom, I make a decent stab at it maintaining enough speed to float and not enough to pitch into something sharp and unforgiving. Having solved the rock maze, all that’s left is a nasty three foot drop off a rock which merely requires a rolling manual to dispatch.

Only one issue. I can’t do rolling manuals. Fuck I’ve tried. Practised for ages. Earth bound misfit is how it always ends. Swerved this obstacle too many times. Bollocks to it,  these are the moments which separate being 51 and 11. Roll in, make a half hearted attempt to pedal kick, panic as – predictably – nothing happens, so wrench the bars upwards, brace for impact and we’re down and mostly safe. If a little creaky in the knee department.

Rolling to the pub, Jim somehow managers to ram a blameless rock on the family trail and do himself some damage. He refuses to ‘Stella-rise’ the wound with an appropriate lager, so we have one for him. And one for my birthday. And maybe one more.

Feels good. More than just still alive. Feeling properly alive. Struggled to sleep that night not because of my standard mortality fear, more reliving that ride and wondering if the next might be nearly as good.

I’ll take that. Roll on 52!

*I know. It’s bonkers. Everyone I see in that bar most weeks are also pretty fat. I think we’ve been mis-sold 😉