Phoenix from the blame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 3 bears, 4 bears…. many bears

Screenshot 2019-12-14 at 15.39.13

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

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

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

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

ST4 Build - a difficult birth.

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

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

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

Pyga OneTen 29

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

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

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

Cotic Flare Max. First ride 😄

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

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

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

Smuggler - 1

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

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

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

Bird in the wild!

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

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

Occam in the wild!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It really never was.

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

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

We’re not done yet.

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

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

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

Until then, this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Choose wisely

CwmCarn with Seb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CwmCarn with Seb

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

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

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

CwmCarn with Seb

CwmCarn with Seb

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

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

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

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

CwmCarn with Seb

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

CwmCarn with Seb

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

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

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

Really. Like you have to ask.

*possible literal reference here.

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

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

It’s all in the data…. until it isn’t

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Time is of the essence

Muddy FoD Ride - Oct 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muddy FoD Ride - Oct 2019

Muddy FoD Ride - Oct 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muddy FoD Ride - Oct 2019

Muddy FoD Ride - Oct 2019

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

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

Let’s keep it that way.

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

Love them, limit them, leave them.

Jess moving into Uni day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jess moving into Uni day

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

Jess moving into Uni day

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

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

Jess moving into Uni day

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

Jess moving into Uni day

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

Jess moving into Uni day

Jess moving into Uni day

Jess moving into Uni day

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

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

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

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

Jess moving into Uni day

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

Jess moving into Uni day

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

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

Jess moving into Uni day

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

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

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

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

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

You can’t handle the excuse.

Not quite Autumn Yat Ride

I’m hanging onto Matt’s back wheel and making excuses. Not my normal excuses which someday I shall categorise, cross reference and publish in a book entitled ‘Bravery Denied’. If you think you’ve heard then all before, spare a thought for me fast forwarding through the index to find something within bullshit distance of compelling.

Not today. Today I’m in that nebulous zone of competence. Nebulous and fleeting. Wednesday night was lit up by the first artificial lumens of the season.  I was all over the place. Rarely intersecting with the trail but ready with a pithy quip ‘you know when you ride and it feels slow but looks fast? Yeah that trail was just like that only the other way round’.

I searched the faces of my long known riding pals for an alternate view. There were none. ‘Yeah well lights you know, takes a while to get used to them’. Classic excuse. No one else seemed to have a problem.

Shutter through a few days and we’re back in the light on a beautiful autumnal day. Only not quite – while the calendar has flipped to September, the woods have yet to ratchet the season.  It’s not quite the deep green of high summer, but aside from a chilly start we’re riding hard on a composite of dust and endorphins.

My bubble of confidence risks deflation from external pricks* For a start I’m riding ‘Christine the leg snapper’. The persistent death rattle from the pivots has been traced to a very loose axle bolt**, but I’m astride yesterday’s geometry barely supported on non enduro width rims shod with questionable tyres. How the whole thing didn’t explode in an inferno of Internet bollocks is something of a mystery.

What I’m – in reality – riding is a brilliantly sorted trail bike on hero dirt, and I’m absolutely loving it. Punting standard crashing worries out of the bubble while making sufficient progress ensures overthinking fails to hit the priority queue. Now the trail is just my personal ribbon of everything that’s good on a perfect day to chase fast mates on technical trails.

And I’m doing just that. Visual cues suggest the scenery is flashing by at a rate of knots. Internal accelerometers are still in the green tho, this doesn’t feel fast, it feels like a whole lot of fucking fun, but it’s not scary. I’m confidently switching between short tight corners and long sweepers. This bike feels amazing which, if not part of me, is at least not disconnected by higher order prevarication.

So obviously I’m worried. Matt is a better rider than me. He’ll gap me on any trail. The harder the trail, the bigger the gap. Yet I’m comfortably sat two feet behind, hands off the brakes and eyes on the next apex. I’ve even time to wonder when the right time would be to inform him of the rather parlous state of his rear tyre.

Yeah that’s why I can do this. His tyre is fucked. Oh and he’s been away for a month and even good riders need time to dial themselves back in. Maybe everyone is taking it easy today and I missed the memo. Or maybe I’m actually riding pretty well.  I don’t think it’s that, so I’d better find some better excuses.

You know how this goes. When your average joe is convinced they are riding like shit, well they probably are. But it’s 10% off what ‘good riding’ feels like. 10% feels like a shed load as your mates ride away from you, but it’s really not. You can get that back. Maybe not today, but someday and soon.

Compare that to when you’re riding outside of your self enforced parameters. You know it’s transitory.  This is not a ‘new normal’, rather a glimpse of a land with visitation rights. Resident status is repeatedly denied. You’ve no idea how you got here but you know how it ends. Back to being happily or unhappily average. Back to wondering if you could be more skilled, a little braver, a little less analytical.

My arse has been handed to me so many times on these trails, I’ve considered carrying a plate in my backpack for just that purpose. Today tho – and I know it will just be for today – I’m doing more than hanging on. Even when there’s scary shit happening outside of the bubble – dodgy lines, missed apexes, narrowly missed trees.

At one point I’ve managed to hand the whole front end off to barely understood physics with it sliding terrifyingly towards a stump named doom. Even in perfect conditions, on a great bike shod with good tyres, my average ability inevitably punts me towards disaster.

Never got there though. Called a ‘code brown’, laughed it off and got back to being a bit better than average before the pixie dust wears off. We toast a day of brilliant trails with a cold beer and I’m wondering when it gets that good again. Maybe on the next ride, yeah like that shit is going to happen.

Excuses are easy. They give you faux rationale for what. They make a reasoned argument for how. They totally fail to answer the most important question of ‘why’.

Days like this are why.

*not my riding buddies. I prefer ‘Twats’ as a more accurate descriptor 🙂

**’Did you not notice the 3 degrees of lateral flex Al?’ / ‘No. I was distracted by the prospect of death by evil bicycle’,

Point and woot

Penyard MTB - May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For fucks sake,  had a word with myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that enough? You betcha.

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

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

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

Best of days

The end of summer?

The end of summer?

The end of summer?

The day didn’t start well. The planned skive ride stopped before it started. The potential back up afternoon ride was similarly sacked off. Work stopped play, and that’s not a call a man with limited years left to ride and total control of his own diary should ever have to make.

The Wednesday night ride stepped up to take in the slack and was nothing short of awesome. The Wye Valley is so preposterously stunning in summer there is no place I’d rather be. You point and click in any direction and end up with a banger. That’s the picturesque landscape doing all the heavy lifting.

A landscape you get to ride in until you run out of light. Then there’s the pub you get to drink in. Until you run out of money.  We’re on the cusp of artificial light buttressing the sinking sun, but we’re not quite there yet.  That’s a reality tinged with sadness as our little part of the planet turns its face from the sun.

But we’re hanging on. To dusty motes hanging in sun baked stillness. To bikes air brushed with dust. To summer lines and endless grip. To T-shirts and sweat. To knowing it’ll be many months before it’s this good again.

So let’s get amongst it. The local trails above Ross are of questionable legality. And that’s stretching the most charitable definition. The shovel pixies are both skilled builders and passive advocates of Marx’s firmly held view that all property is theft. I have concerns from both sides, but bloody hell they’ve created a mini bike park which repeatedly pokes the fun gland.

It’s a small hill. One ten minute climb to the top and maybe two minutes down. Rinse and repeat. Trails snake left and right with clear progression from the flowy and fast to the frankly ridiculous. There’s one steep rock drop matched to a roll out you might as well name ‘busted collarbone’.  I’m not riding that.

I am riding everything else though including a big gap jump I’d been studiously ignoring for a year or so. I’m a man who works best with a margin of error. Preferably half way across the page. So why I attempted this on my hardtail is beyond me. Caught in the moment I guess. Oh and that bike is beyond awesome. It looks like a normal bike but rides like a champion.

There’s some steely magic crafted into Cotic Bikes. Tonight I’m all cantered hips and dragged rear brakes. It’s point and shoot silliness that never gets old even as I approach my 52nd birthday. There are moments which transcend the whole age thing. Just you, a brilliant bike, a bit of confidence, a mate to chase and dust particles to excite.

In the words of Jo Burt, this is why. It’s easy to stuff your head with lyrical earwax when you’ve had a great ride, but there is something to this. And it’s something like this. It’s Riding Evo. It’s a slightly braver version of who you are. It’s pushing a bit harder and not being scared. It’s feeling the tyres giving up but cracking on anyway. It’s taking the accident out of emergency. It’s as close to living in the moment as any of us get.

I just wanted to keep riding with my mates. I love the bullshit and the banter. I love the fact we’re all very different and yet somehow all the same when we ride bikes.  I love – because I’m as shallow as a tea spoon – better riders than me saying ‘Shit Al, what are you on tonight, that’s proper quick’.

I know what I’m on. Adrenaline chased with a dopamine hit. This is what I love about being an average rider. Because when you get it right, when confidence seeps in and anxiety exits stage left it feels amazing. You stop feeling like a fraud, a credit card rider, all that gear and still no fucking idea. You get a glimpse that this is how great riders feel all the time.

And I don’t want to be one of those. Really. It’d just have me chasing the next level thrill. The more stupid. The desperately difficult. I don’t need that in my life. What I need instead are nights like this when good enough is so much more than good enough. When I’m nailing every apex, feeling – really feeling – what the bike is telling me, pushing just a little bit harder and laughing out loud as the bike rails a corner or nails a jump.

Yeah like the landscape, the bike is doing the heavy lifting here. But I’m close enough to steal some of the glory. And what a thing that is.

We’re drinking cold beer watching the sun set. It’s not even 9pm. Summer is rushing into Autumn. The cold season awaits. But just for today, just for a moment, it’s perfect.

The best of days.