Lon Las Cymru – Day 2

Before diving into day 2, permit me a sidebar to discuss mechanicals. Specifically Adams’ as I didn’t have any. Other than a strap on my ancient MTB shoes making a break for freedom before we’d officially started. Which doesn’t count. Ads had stuck rigidly to a servicing regime that could charitably termed ‘looks good from a distance, pass me a beer’. While his cassette didn’t actually quite fall apart or his rear brake completely fail, they were definitely both in the red zone.

His tyres however were something else. Barely vulcanised for a start. Do people really race these things? There’s more tread on my ancient Five-Ten’s which were mostly slick to start with. Even with about a pound of sealant slopping at each end, any air at the start of the day was long departed by the rides end. After three days of desperate pumping, they finally gave in and mostly sealed. Unless you touched them. Adam blamed my rubbish pump for his woes. I was keen to point out that I wouldn’t know not having had to use it.

Anyway as you were, Day 2.

Pre-trip this was the day worried me most. A bucket load of climbing spread unevenly over a bit north of 100km. The guidebook suggested this would take eleven hours. No way was my arse co-exisitng in the same space as a saddle for that length of time. Our plan – a somewhat ambitious term for gin based hand waving the night before – was to get it done in 6. Including a stop for lunch. Which on reflection was another planning oversight. We’ll be back to that.

First though we had to get to lunch. Climbing out of Brecon was all the fun a steep pitch the far side of a big breakfast can be. It’s odd as my bike only really felt heavy when I had to fetch it over a gate or suchlike. So riding it uphill wasn’t that much of a trial once accompanied by a smidgen of mental fortitude. Ads bike was lighter and, he had less kit which should have made it easier. However, in a moment of team spirit he’d handed over his spare 11-46 cassette to the old man whose need was clearly greater*.

Half way up that first hill I could feel the want.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

After getting that done, we switched back to grass-middled roads distanced from morning traffic. The NCN8 is an amazing route. Sure it meanders up and down valleys flatly breached by the main roads. This is the price of riding through stunning scenery with almost zero risk. Short of being mowed down by a tractor or terrorised by a bike hating dog, it’s a million miles from my normal horror of road riding.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Sometime though there is no option but the main drag. After testing all my gears again on a couple of nasty pulls, we turned onto the main road heading to Builth Wells. A slight tailwind, a freshness in the legs and the aforementioned ‘destination anxiety‘ (heightened as the second half of the ride with the bulk of climbing), there was what passed as a 2 man chain-gang for men that cherish their ignorance of all things road riding

Well this one does, but I also love the speed even of these loaded bikes compared to the glacial thrumming of a 2.6 MTB tyre. We hit some short hills and they hit us right back, but we still made good time to Bulith.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Bit early for lunch. Stop for a coffee? Not this pair, we were on a mission. Not sure where to due to continued navigational uncertainty, but the sun was out and the internal GPS was hard coded for an ‘early finish and cold beer‘. Switching direction to due north as we crossed the bridge, there was a lovely river ride out of the town.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

So much of this route is on old railway tracks (which is pretty sad when you think what they used to be here for) and river paths. We crossed the Wye and numerous other rivers so many times I eventually stopped taking pictures.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

I’d also stopped eating. Not sure why, but it was timely when our vaguely planned stop at Newbridge-on-Wye hove into view as the munchies had taken hold.

You kind of expect any town ‘on-Wye’ to be a picturesque place full of tourist cafes, fresh coffee and a excellent selection of cakes. It’s not like that at all. It was more disappointment made real by brick. Three pubs, two closed, one mostly falling down but being painfully slowly restored by tired looking owners and surly teenagers.

Still the kitchen was open and after all the time it takes to hunt down a difficult to find tub of chicken, we were mostly sated, and keen to be on our way again.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

50km in which was good but still with 840m of climbing to do. Which wasn’t. Having all of the stats projected onto phones and GPS’s is great. Until it isn’t. Sometimes I’d rather not know, but we’d looked at the profile often enough to accept the next few hours were going to be a bit chewy.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

The road climbed steadily on much patched tarmac before merging into a gravel trail that – again – wouldn’t be much fun on a racer road bike. It was ace on ours including a short rocky downhill section I’d fancy a crack at with a MTB.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

This is the old coach road and it wouldn’t be something I’d want to tackle in a coach. Or after rain. But today it was a welcome distraction to the almost endless climbing. It was certainly better than what followed – the might-be-a-road which skirted the slopes of Carn Gafallt. 20km of sheep shit basically. Not much of a view either. Unless your idea of a great vista is sheep shit and endless conifers.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

We got that done where the route sadly bypassed Rhayader. I have many happy memories of that town. Some of them rather drunken. Today tho we needed to crack on via the Aberystwyth mountain road. Well named and annoying in that down a bit, up a bit,  down a bit more, up IS THAT A CLIFF? Sort of way.  Cresting that pass at 350m, it was mostly downhill to Llanidloes.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Mostly not being entirely. Ads was asking for the ascent numbers. 150m, 100m, 75m, 60m, nasty little climb, legs tired, little tweaks of hamstrings, 30m, 15m, 12m.  I went ‘metre by metre’12, 12, 12, 11, no sorry 12‘. If nothing else it made us laugh.

We finally rolled into Llanidloes at 1530. By 1531 we were in the nearest pub chatting to two old fellas heavily laden with sufficient camping kit to suggest they were on a ‘Shackleton Tribute Tour’.  They’d come the other way and spoke wearily of the climbs we’d be descending tomorrow. Again I was smug in our choice of route direction. It didn’t last.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Carol (my long suffering wife) and daughter turned up from a day walking the Elan Valley dams. They brought with them a resupply bag into which Adam cheerfully abandoned about half his kit. For reasons still somewhat opaque, I added a few bulky items to mine.

Very happy to have smashed the ‘big day’,  we intended to celebrate with a slap up feed and possible an assault on a Welsh cheese board. Less happy to find the only food being served were pub crisps and not very good fish and chips. Still on the upside, tomorrow was an easier day.

Except, of course, it wasn’t.

*I loved that 11-46. The 46 especially. And as the week went on, I loved it even more. The fact it was Adam’s and he could have fitted to his bike made it just that little bit sweeter 🙂

Lon Las Cymru – Day 1

This series of six entries was originally posted in a single thread on STW

The problem with that web site is its’ lack of editing functionality. And a MaryWhitehousen tolerance for profanity. The former showcases my lazy proofreading and questionable grammar, the latter cramps a writing style essentially scaled out from the word ‘Fuck’.

So here we are. At sea level with 425km to go. Before embarking on our epic-lite journey, let’s take a moment to remember how we got here. Read that? Right, we’re almost ready.

From the header image, the navigationally proficient will have correctly identified our direction of travel as South to North. This is unquestionably the right way, even though it is uphill*.

As neither Adam or I have those navigational skills, we made extensive use of GPX files and an old school guidebook. Adam further invested in one of the Sustrans maps which provided valuable only in lining his seat pack for five days.

Bikes:

Alex – PlanetX Tempest, 700cc wheels, Schwalbe tubeless G1 tyres. 40/46 gears.  Weight: 18.5 kilos or about double the weight of the unloaded bike.

Adam – Ibis Hakka with 650B wheels, Schwalbe Thunderburt tyres allegedly running tubeless. 42/40 gears. Weight significantly less. He had added lightness, I had added gears.

Gear:

Adam – a mahoosive Lomo 13L waterproof seat pack and a small bag hanging off the bars. Alex: Alpkit seat pack with Exo-Rail, Alpkit frame bag, Alpkit top tube bag. No camping gear as we’re not mental.

Here we go, some actual travelogue content…

The day finally dawned. After much worrying over a deteriorating forecast and my lack of any useful preparation, the waiting was over. Dropped off by the Wales Millennium Centre, we dodged the University graduation ceremonies to snap the obligatory ‘start here‘ photo.

First objective achieved and by pure luck we stumbled onto the route after excitedly pointing out the NCN8 sign. All went well for about 3 minutes until predictably we got completely  lost. This despite a verified GPS route loaded into Ad’s Garmin 800 and the sam present on my phone via the ‘BikeGPX’ app.

Over the week we became pretty skilled at hunting out blue and white signs or interpreting what the map was trying to tell us. Today however was a voyage of discovery. Sometimes discovering the same bit of car park from a number of different directions.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Having run out of alternatives, we transited under the A4232 to enter Hamadyad Park. Well this was unexpectedly lovely. Away from the traffic, we relaxed a bit enjoying the sunshine reflecting off the river. With no idea how fast we had to ride, there was limited time for hamming it up over the first bridge before passing behind the stadium and Cardiff Castle.

The Taff trail is fantastic way to exit the city. We shared it with (mostly) cyclists beyond pensionable age enjoying the sunshine and avoiding cars, other than a few well signed road crossings. Passing under the M4,  we joined the old railway track and had our first experience of ‘how fast dare I ride through these shoulder high barriers‘. Not as fast as I thought apparently as I bounced off the second one.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Time for a break then after riding for about 2 hours. Forecast suggests today is to be the sunniest of the week, so we’re determined to enjoy it. While still having a bit of ‘destination’ anxiety’ meaning stops soon become starts.

Now though we had a different problem – where to find a much needed coffee hit. Pontyprid was not that place. Blimey it’s a bit depressing especially when you consider its hayday in the age of coal. We quickly scooted back onto the disused railway line until the equally dispiriting Merthyr Tydfil appeared on our right flank.

Rather than descend into that madness, we popped out onto a minor road looking for a local café. Found one only opened six weeks previously, which might explain why the till was something of a mystery to the proprietor.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Sustained through the magic of a chicken baguette and impressed by the 80+ year old fella we met who was still cyclng every day, we started the first proper climb near the Cyfarthfa ironworks. Another relic of a different age where heavy industry dominated these valleys.

The scale of it was such it proved almost impossible to get your head around how vast the site must have been. Although that distraction didn’t last long as we headed into the Brecon Beacons – a landscape I know reasonably well from many years campaigning  mountain bikes up and down these hills.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

We came at it a different way but the two reservoirs (Pentwyn and Talybont) were familiar. The riding wasn’t familiar at all –  being  a combination of long gravel tracks and shorter punchy road climbs. Here I suffered the first loss of the trip – the light off the pack on the 5 mile shallow descent (on the old Brecon Railway) line past Talybont dam.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

The bikes for this kind of terrain are  brilliant, really glad I wasn’t on super narrow road tyres pumped up to 100PSI. We were comfortable descending at reasonable speeds with marble-y gravel pinging off the frames.  Looking across the dam, I  recognised the trail we climb on the classic gap loop over the other side of the valley. Strangely I wasn’t that bothered to be missing out on a mountain bike ride.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

After those amazing views, it was a bit of easy road work to reach our first nights stop via the Brecon to Monmouth canal.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

At the end of which my thoughts could be summarised as ‘bloody good fun, glad first day is over and I’m still able to pedal, but my arse hurts tho and I really need a beer’.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

We sorted the beer at least, toasting our first destination under a still hot sun. This was just the warm up though. Tomorrow was going to be far tougher. So let’s not go mad on the beer.

We didn’t. Because we were staying in a hotel knocking out double gin and tonics for not much cash. So we drank quite a few of those instead.

*I was asked which way climbed more. Even after gently explaining the start and end points were both at sea level, my questioner still refused to accept I’d provided sufficient detail in my answer 😉

Have bike, might as well travel

Welsh C2C - Test pack

I consider myself moderately numerate. Much of my day is surfing the line between causation and correlation. I kind of know how numbers work – although someone will be quick to point out this mathematical rigour applies not at all to my notorious bike buying policy.  True enough, that’s why the maxim ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’ is rooted in truth.

Next week the numbers ride off the page and onto the tarmac. 237 miles, somewhere north of 20,000 feet of ascent, two mountain ranges, climbs too numerous to count but a single 8 mile instance is sticking in my mind. 35 pounds of loaded bike, 11 gears*, 5 days, 2 wheels, 1 mate and no bloody idea at all how it’s going to go.

How’s what going to go? Ah that’s where the numbers don’t tell the story, they merely act as chapter headings. The Lon Las Cymru is the ‘official’ route for those wishing to transit the country of Wales from coast to coast. Start in Cardiff, finish in Holyhead taking in the Brecon Beacons and the national park of Snowdonia.

This idea was dreamed up by my mate Adam with whom I suffered partial drowning back in 2017 on the Trans-Cambrian adventure.  Deciding it couldn’t possibly be any harder – or wetter – than that mental and physical challenge, he then essentially handed the whole thing off to me to organise.

Logistics planning has gone well. Instantly sacking off any idea of tentage, my  accommodation criteria was a Google-Venn of twin rooms, large breakfasts and a pub no further than a drunken stagger away.  If possible located within the same building.

I have prepared myself equally well. Adding a bike to the ShedOfDreams(tm) and half a stone to my age-ravaged body. The first was merely the intersection of a shiny new thing on sale and a credit card, the second a combination of hotels, boredom and a wearingly consistent lack of willpower.

This laser focus on athletic perfection has led me to believe that I must – contrary to the screams of the aesthetically demure – go full MAMIL, so exchanging my grungy MTB wardrobe of baggy shorts and shapeless tops for figure hugging lycra. I demonstrated my commitment to ‘pudgy aero’ to Adam a couple of weeks ago. It’s fair to say his reaction was not quite what I was hoping for.

This after I’d bought two new pairs of shorts in a ambitious medium size. I intend to grow into them. Or stitch them together to make one al-sized pair. Anyhow that’s as far down that particular rabbit hole I think we need to go, so let’s talk bikes instead.

When I bought the Tempest, I disparagingly compared it to a crap 90s mountain bike. Having now ridden it properly off road, I’ve half changed my mind. It’s actually a bloody brilliant 90s mountain bike. It’s not some hard-charging six inch slack full suspension monster swapping out technique for bravery.  No you actually have to ride the sodding thing properly.

The 2in tyres have hilariously little grip, descending on dropped bars narrows your view to a fuzzy middle and flashing periphery. The brakes are fantastic but the tyres are not, so unexpected sideways movements get normalised pretty quickly. You can have as much fun at 10mph on some non technical singletrack, as you would on a death-tech rocky steep on my other bikes.

I like that. And I like the bike. I’ve enjoyed riding it these last few weeks. Returning home from a holiday in a hot country serving much cold beer, I really had to get some miles in. Every one of them have been fun, either exploring interesting looking trails, slithering on off road tracks or testing out the luggage pretending I’ve ridden 200 miles not 20.

Whether I’ll like it a week Friday is another matter entirely. Each day ups the climbing until the crux of that bastard climb above Machynlleth**. At that point I expect my forensically packed kit to be strewn carelessly behind me in a fit of rage at finding the shifter has no more clicks.

Packing has been an amusing confluence of want and need. Ads and I have traded shared items. His latest ‘first aid kit done, one plaster, one small bandage so don’t fall off second’ was possibly a response to my suggestion that a single tub of chamois cream between us would be absolutely fine. Frankly I think he’s still holding the lycra incident against me.

An experienced bike-packer*** may frown over my selection of random items. Picking through mandatory foodstuffs – such as a full cheeseboard and a choice of desert wines – they will wonder aloud if the concept of ‘you can stop packing before the bag is full’ has passed me by.

It has. I have tools for removing stones from horses hooves. Other essential items include fresh shorts for every day because washing sweaty ones cramps my beer drinking riff. I have also packed sufficient outer clothing to ensure my lycra clad torso doesn’t trigger riots in some of the smaller Welsh towns.

So not very fit. Bit fat. Too much kit. Not enough gears. Navigationally useless. Never ridden a road bike for that long on one day, never mind five. Yeah but weather looks pretty good – sure we’ll get wet it’s Wales after all, but flooding is now only a remote possibility – great accommodation booked, a mate who didn’t try and kill me last time things got difficult, and a whole load of stunning countryside to ride through.

Oh and a re-supply mission from Carol half way through. Come on that’s reasonable. No way that cheese is going to last five days.

Ready? Laughably no. Excited? Oh fuck yes.

* I’d like a few more. Specifically extra big ones at the back and a smaller one at the front. There may be some engagement of the pushing gear.

**I have my own versions of the ‘Hors Cat’ categorisation. ‘Shit, Bollocks, Bastard, Total Bastard and Fuck me,  you have to be joking

***Apparently according to the experts, we’re not bike-packers. Bike-packers are not credit card lazy arses staying in comfortable B&Bs. Being a serious student of taxonomy and the importance of categorisation, I’ve given this some thought. That thought being ‘Go fuck yourself cockwombles’.

Final Exams

Finale MTB - May 2019

I started writing this over a month ago. It was never finished because of the last thing I posted. Started as a riff on Jess taking her ‘A’ levels and me off riding to Finale. Both final exams if you consider you’ve spent a whole lot of time working up to that.  There’s a bit more in the last issue of www.cranked.cc on why Finale is considered a destination at the end of a journey,  which hopefully is worth a read.

So how did it go? Well Jess’s finished her exams without quite exploding through stress and worry. She’s mighty relieved in a way that might be shading the indubitable fact that at least three more years of similar await at University. As experienced parents, we’ve decided that’s a trifle best left unmentioned until we get past the next worry-stone that is results day.

Finale was – in no particular order – fun, scary, really scary, balls out terrifying, wet, very wet, a bit less wet, drunken, more fun right up until the point someone broke a leg. We’ll be back to that. Although I don’t think it in any way ratchets down the tension if I reveal right now it wasn’t me who ended their holiday in ankle to thigh cast.

Finale Ligure sits close the Mediterranean sea. It’s a two hour drive from Nice – a city renowned for almost endless sunshine. Bit hot for your average ‘pale to angry lobster in sixty minutes of direct sunlight’ Brit in the summer months. May though, perfect. Dry and warm. Trails not blown out, town not too busy, guides happy to see paying customers and cheaper everything.

Yeah right. Rhetoric versus reality. It was never – aside from a couple of epic downpours – really wet, but it categorically wasn’t close to dry.  Driving through the alps we pointed at cloud formations dumping increasing wetness on where we thought Mount Blanc might be. Finale wasn’t much better so – honed athletes as we are – we hid in a bar until it became clear that at least one of us wanted to go riding. Again I don’t feel I’m giving too much away to say that rider wasn’t me.

Writing about riding in a way that doesn’t follow the ‘we did that and then we did that’ homage to yawning boredom isn’t easy. Let me say instead it’s an amazing place to ride a mountain bike. Somewhere near the best. Different to eveywhere else Ive been. In so may good ways. Some of those it not being France 😉 The people and culture are just wonderful. The old town a delight. The uplifts superbly organised. The guides really engaged and passionate. The beer not too expensive. So yeah not like France at all!

It’s not a trail centre. it’s a linked set of riding locations each with their own character. They race EWS here so some of it, well most of it really is challenging. And not without consequence. It’s not a place to be tentative. I’m sure it’d be easier in the dry. That’s my excuse for being tentative anyway.

The riding then. Let me go with vignettes.  Trail: Toboggan. After a first day of ever increasing rain. Now it’s lashing it down and we’re on sight dealing with slickness of rock and root. Matt is loving it, he’s a sick individual who gets off on these kind of conditions. I’m more shitting it, mostly in limp home mode. More so after nearly going out the front before arresting my forward motion by dragging pedal pins up my left calf*

I couldn’t help thinking what a brilliant trail it would be if there wasn’t a river running through it. Two days later it dried out a bit and was even worse! Then there was the iconic Rollercoaster. Top section is mentally fast popping off rocks and ploughing through chop. Some of the later guide-stopped features tho has me wondering if him explaining ‘Attentione, wet roots, 15 metres, do not brake’ was helping much.

Bottom sections. Steep and rocky. Those terms do not do it justice. Let’s go with FUCKING HELL WHERE DOES THE TRAIL GO? and REALLY, DOWN THERE, RIGHT NOW? OH FUCK. I watched Matt literally disappear down a feature. I assumed he’d been teleported to another dimension until I rolled over what felt like a vertical face before accelerating into a river exchanging water for fat, loose rock.

Rode so much of it. Walked a few bits. Just commit and believe. Especially if you’re dropping into a loose, steep steppy entry with about thirty Germans pretending not to watch. The fact that day we were in open face helmets made it just a little bit sweeter.

The bikes though are brilliant. This is what they are built for. If you let them go, they will save your arse and pump endorphins at dangerously high pressure. Tim and I loved one section on my favourite trail (Engineer) where you exited a rocky corner and – if you were brave – basically doubled the stump and a vaguely perceived rock. I may have whooped. There was also some panicked calls of ‘CODE BROWN’ which had nothing to do with the mud.

A 1000 words can’t do justice to an amazing week. And it certainly can’t document Tim’s journey from ‘can I borrow the spare bike to six pins in his Tib’. Like I say we’ll get back to that.

Was it as good as everyone who has been there endlessly bangs on about? Maybe. It was close. Exiting a damp minibus onto the freezing concrete of a cloud fogged NATO base wasn’t really selling it. Riding with my best friends in a brilliant location did so more successfully. Tim monging himself put a bit of a downer on the whole thing.

Will we be back? I think so. I’m not sure I did the bike justice. A bit too scared sometimes. Never felt totally dialled in.  Maybe I’m just not a good enough rider and too damn old to get any better.

Best do a re-sit then.

*this was quite nasty. We didn’t fancy the hospital** so the boys sherri-stripped it and handed me a cold beer. It looks okay now a month later. For a given value of ‘okay’

**there was time for this later in the week.

It’s a dogs life

The 'Amber Bath'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even so. It was shit.

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

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

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

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

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

This is going to be a tough sell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best get back out there.

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

Go on then, tell me why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Work stops play

      

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*or increasingly expensive plastic.

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

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

I spoke too soon

Sunny but Muddy FoD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossing the streams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018

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

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

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018

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

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

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

Llangollen MTB - Feb 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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