Buckets of sunshine

Riding with Jess

It’s been eight months since I rode with Jess. She’s likely missed it less than I have.  Whatever, these rides have the thinnest intersection against what I do week in week out. Bikes yes, everything else no.

That’s definitely a good thing. Riding with your friends – especially after the clusterfuck of previous twelve months – is a festival of chaos. Fast, slow, serious, stupid. Shallow as a tea spoon or as deep as blokes ever get. Genuine kinship and relentless banter. Extensive use of the word ‘fuck‘ as both an adjective and a a verb*

Love that. Tomorrow a legal six will forge British Summer Time, early spring sunshine and dry trails into something special. Outdoor pizza and beer will follow. We’ll probably label it epic, whether it is or not.

But today was different for all the right reasons. Firstly a diversion to sell a frame to a lovely chap who opened negotiations with ‘Hi Alex, I bought a frame off you 11 years ago, would you consider selling me another one?“**

He had and I was. So with that done, Jess and I unloaded bikes under sunny skies at Pedalabikeaway. She was worried about her fitness, I was more concerned with potential mud slides after a weekend of rain. Three days previously we’d dropped into PAB from the west side of the Forest, and it was way wetter than expected. On the upside first proper cup of mid ride coffee since Autumn last year.

Setting off with more hope than expectation, Jess’s lack of riding fitness soon became apparent. There were many stops for a breather and, occasionally, a walk. As a man with approximately zero patience this could have been a problem, But it wasn’t because the sun was shining, deadlines were happening to other people and one of my offspring was still happy to ride with her old man.

I say happy.  More suffering with fortitude and a long list of ailments, Wait till you get to my age I failed to say out loud, as we struggled upwards under blue carpeted skies. Jess could be a decent MTBer if she rode a bit more and trusted her skills. After half a year off she’s still pretty competent and it’s impossible not to be proud of that.

Sure it doesn’t define her like it does for me. But seeing her revel in being properly outside after three months of lockdown made my brittle old heart sing a bit. We took a break where Jess longitudinally measured herself on a fallen tree. After a rest, she women’d the camera while I sweatily gimped in and out of a handy bombhole.

Riding with Jess

She’s ace at this. We had lots of fun me staring long-sightedly into the screen while she enthusiastically pointed out my many flaws. But in a lovely positive way which had me go at it 20+ times***. I retrieved the phone so she could describe a joyful parabolic on a handily placed rope swing

Riding with Jess

We sat on that log munching snacks and pontificating on little lives. Jess is a proper Psych undergrad while I’m a half-arsed read amateur, but blimey we share a proper despair at late stage capitalism. I never got the whole hand ringing thing that your kids become independent of you. That’s not the point, they are always bloody interesting and I’ll take that over changing a nappy.

Soon those hard earned banked gravity credits were joyfully spent on the final two descents. The last one having been recently de-brake-bumped. Jess was a little apprehensive but once she got going I knew how much she was enjoying it. Because I was having just as much fun at 50% of the speed I’d normally ride it.

In the same way there are no fast bikes, fast is absolutely in the eye of the rider eyeing up the next obstacle. Adrenaline isn’t triggered by a speed trap. This is still my world of going as fast as you dare, and then maybe just a little bit faster. I could see Jess re-introducing herself to that so no words are needed to codify why it’s were of the best feelings in the world.

She had many words tho, because – well – chip off the old block and all that. Steam of consciousness. Trying to capture the moment. Feeling the urge to share how that feels. Being a bit scared and doing it anyway. This really is why.

Back at PAB we secured cold snacks, cake and ice cream. There is no indoor service, outside tables or familiar normality. But there’s a chink of light these things are coming back. So we propped ourselves up against the bikes and toasted our success. Then went home to lie in the sun and ignore the pile of work stuff that seemed very important a few hours before.

Jess goes back to her Uni accommodation next week. We’ll miss her of course but she’ll be back for the summer. I hope then she wants to ride with me some more. Because much as riding with my mates is what I love to do, I love this just a little bit more.

Even better is if it’s under buckets of sunshine****

*Anyone who loftily declares swearing as a cipher for a limited vocabulary needs to spend more time with percussive poets firing semantic filth into innocent sentences.

**We will so be back to this. A strange 24 hours indeed.

***there’s a big gap jump I’m training muscles with memory for. We’ll be back to that as well.

****I wondered why I remembered this phrase. So I googled it. It’s the RAF slang for nuclear bombs hung in the bomb bays of the Buccaneers during the Cold War.

There are no fast bikes

IMG_5432

There are, of course, fast riders who will be rapid on anything sporting a wheel at either end. There are, also, frame designs likely to be quicker on specific terrain be that up or down.  Especially with our faster rider on board.

Further, expensive components may harvest marginal gains just not within the metrics defined by marketing departments.  The issue with modern bikes isn’t that they aren’t fast, it is that your average Joe is not. On race courses, winning is time sliced by tenths of seconds, outside of the tapes we could probably make do with a sundial.

Which is pretty much how we find ourselves today and looking back maybe ten years. But cast your gaze a little further and you may remember the noodle-tech 90s where mountain bike frames were barely mutated road bikes. Purple anodising and bar ends hardly masked a hundred years of thin tyred DNA.

Back then Joe or Jo Average could easily overwhelm frame stiffness, brakes, tyres, elastomers and a whole bunch of components barely fit for purpose. Yet our magazine heroes wrestled those steep angled bridleway bashers through downhill courses in ways that still amaze today.

I miss those days even if I don’t miss the bikes. And if I did I could buy something labelled gravel and replay the whole experience*.  But jump onto a contemporary trail or enduro bike and while you may be going faster, that velocity is hard limited by the six inches above your shoulders, not the six inches below**

So far, so old news. Sure, but I’m just riffing on the periphery of an important point coming soon. We’re travelling in that direction, and shall arrive shortly***. Before we do let me share a vignette of todays’ ride. March likes to remind you we’ve barely closed the door on winter with hail, hard rain and bitter winds. All of which soaked the trails under my tyres.

The last of which is steep, committing and unforgiving. There’s lots of places to crash and none of them are good. My standard earworm is Pinball Wizard as I attempt to present a thin veneer of competence in the face of sustained terror. Ridden this on many bikes including this new one last week. Never ridden it in these conditions. My brain is distracted by rocky wet limestone promising geological trauma keen to collect another victim.

But I’m okay. Not because of an unlikely skills upgrade. Or a sudden lack of imagination. No, I’m managing the whole thing in my sphere of ability because I trust the bike. But it’s more than that. The last few hours we’ve been hooning down mellower trails where all my usual hang ups have been knocked down.

Not being worried about grip in corners. Especially off camber corners. Not being scared by the speed through trails narrowed by trees. Not dithering on drops or braking for jumps. Not over-thinking what’s coming. Not thinking anything at all, so getting as close to living in the moment as I ever am.

All of which means I’m riding more quickly on these familiar trails. Don’t confuse this as fast. And certainly don’t confuse it with the limits of the bike. But there is something important here; there is something unquantifiable about bikes – any bike – that gives you the confidence to push a bit harder. Towards your limits, maybe beyond them. But not within screaming distance of what’s underneath you.

It has nothing at all to do with the material the frame is made of. It’s definitely not related to wheel size, head angle, chainstay length, reach or stack, suspension travel, bar width, tyre compound, yada yada yada. All of these thing play a part. But not to set a limit, more to encourage you to push yours.

Great bikes do this. They are not fast bikes. They may not be expensive bikes****. They will probably not be race bikes. They are the bikes you grab every time the trails waits, the bikes you mutter a silent prayer to when it’s all getting a bit serious, the bikes you sit and stare at in your shed. The bikes that make you fast.

Back to today and I’m on one of those bikes. There’s some shit coming up that’s has two outcomes. Well maybe three if getting off and walking counts. Deep breath, muscle memory, bit of a death grip, hand the thing over to your trusted sidekick and let that breath go when you sail out the far side. Total non event.

For the bike. Up here in those six inches a light blinks on. This is what happens when you stop trying to fix bikes because they can fix you better. I’ll never tire of the simplicity of feeling like that. Because it’s takes the limit out of limitless. So I tap the bars, whisper thanks, pretend my organic mate can hear me.  Breathe again and up the pace.

No bikes are fast. Some bikes make you faster. Go find that one.

*Only every single thing is quite a lot better. Because long term evolution beats revolution.

**Just so we’re clear, I’m talking about suspension travel here. You filthy animals 😉

***You may ask why does it take you so long to get to the point, to which I’ll reply ‘You’re new here, right?’

****Okay yes for this sample size, I accept they are.

Wait, what now?

Ibis Mojo4 build

You may be disappointed. Possibly even appalled. But likely not surprised.  A new bike portal’d into the ShedofDreams(tm) is hardly news at all. Even so I expect you have questions. Starting with what, moving onto how and finishing with why. Or simply a shaken headed ‘what the actual fuck?

I have no answers. Nothing within sectioning distance of rational anyway. This time there will be no talk of an end game choreographed by 4-D chess moves. Or reasons pertaining to opportunity or guile. Nope none of that. It’s something of a relief not torturing logic to slight the insisting hand that the emperor may indeed be fully clothed.

There was no need. There was only want. There are many excuses. But when the result is three carbon full suspension bikes from the SAME brand, you don’t need excuses, you need a therapist. Please take that role, while I recline on the chaise longe and explain how we got here.

It started on a cold winters night when I harvested the Ripley from hibernation. First time riding anything other than the hardtail for five wet and grim months. Dirt was frozen solid, basically summer from the axles down. It should have been amazing. It wasn’t.

I’ve never quite gelled with that bike. Which is pretty fucking annoying considering it’s wanted for nothing other than a decent pilot. Entire suitcases of cash failed to secure that bond.  I told myself it was the dark or the cold, and my inability to deal with either.

So a week later the RipMo* sallied forth on muddy-again trails, and we just had a brilliant time. Until the following day revealed exactly how much damage one muddy ride inflicts on Californians’ finest**.  The RipMo and I have shared three amazing years, so it’s as close to a permanent fixture in the shed as anything I’ve owned***

Those last three paragraphs are mostly displacement tactics. They offer nothing to explain the escalation of financial destitution on the following Sunday. It started with me musing how the Mojo3 was my favourite ever bike and how – flawed as it was – I really should have kept it, and ended with the latest of its genus being added to basket some four hours later.

Along with a plethora of parts best categorised as “heritage wheel size”. Not satisfied with buying a bike that has around 100% overlap with the Ripley, I also felt it was exactly the right time to significantly invest in 27.5 inch wheels. They were the future once. Just not recently.

So after all these shenanigans, what have we ended up with? A trail bike balanced between 140mm and 130mm air springs. Short chainstays, long front centre, slack angles and Ibis’s ludicrous design approach to mud clearance****. So it’s compromised, but pretty. Like my Mojo3.

That bike – built exactly four years ago – brought my riding on when I believed my limit had long peaked at bang-average. That same year, a week in Spain remains my riding high water mark where fast and confident displaced over-thinking and hesitant.  Did I buy this bike to recapture those glory days? Maybe. Don’t judge. It’s as good a reason as any.

The silhouette is similar, the numbers aren’t. 2 degrees slacker, 2 inches longer, back end fettled with updated kinematics, front end bouncing on better damping. Stuff in between more expensive if not actually better.  Rider pretty much the same confused graft of enthusiastic and stupid. And bloody impatient when four weeks of stuff got between delivery and a proper ride.

First ride of the "Prince of Grayness"

A ride on trails not ridden for six months. In the dark. Initial impressions were confused. Turns really fast, feels a bit flighty.  Agile and lithe or nervous and needy? Lots of time to pontificate on the climb back up. Climbs well, maybe not quite Ripley efficient, but held back by nothing but noodle-legs here.

Next trail is fast and twisty. Bike feels good in the corners but I can’t trust it yet. It’s egging me on but I’m not feeling very eggy.  Steep and chute-y very nearly ended in lying down and bleeding. Luckily Rex took one for the team showcasing his full-body-slam signature move on some unexpected mud.

Mmm so like it but not sure, Skived off today to try again. First trail totally fucking useless with a head full of work stuff. Deep breath required to deliver inner monologue to whit “past is back there, future out in front, get on with it”

Which kind of worked. Cleared the two big gap jumps that require suspending the belief that crashing is going to be really sodding consequential. Kept Matt in sight which is a good measure things are going okay. Massive grin plastered on my fizog which may be a new bike thing, or a dry trails thing, or a Friday skive thing. Whatever, it’s a thing. I’ll take that.

All that means I can give you some answers. Was it worth the money? Fuck knows, go find me a measure of value. Will it replace the Ripley? Fuck knows, find me a metric to choose. Does it actually make any sense at all? Fucked if I know. Makes me happy so you know, there’s that.

Are you done? Surely there are no other niches to chase? Wait, what now?

*Yes I know it’s hard keeping track. Think of it as a Christopher Nolan Movie without the special effects. But with more swearing.

**I asked for three particularly muddy trails to be renamed ‘Collapsed Bearing‘, ‘Ruined Pivot’ and ‘Warranty Claim‘.

***Except the beer fridge. You’ll be prising that out of my cold dead hands.

****That being the Californian assumption that such a soil compound is a European myth.

 

Project 76

It’s tragic really. You can eat and drink what you like well into your late 20s. Then you hit 30 and wake up as a fat bastard“. Thirty was so long ago for me,  it’s probably classified in the Jurassic period. However the axiom holds; that is youth being wasted on the young and fat bastardness is pretty much your future once its gone.

I’ve flirted with the porky*. Having the physique of a wonky pipe cleaner, weight doesn’t so much hang off me as throw shapes in the manner of Kane having a bad day on the Nostromo.  Although increasingly this manifests itself as a gut like trouser roll, and a pair of moobs wobbling in their own gravitational fields.

Before life got in the way I’d struggle to nudge past 11 stone in old money. Chest like a toast rack. To get close to that today I’d have to chop at least one leg off, or maybe remove the hard working liver with a spoon. That’s probably the firmest muscle in the entire withered frame.

2018 was particularly bad. Too many hotels, far too many hotel bars, not enough exercise and menu choices starting with ‘burgers‘ and ending with ‘extra chips‘. Returning from a family holiday in an all-you-can-eat-resort where I-ate-almost-everything, a behind the hands eyeballing of the scales showed them starting firmly with 13. Nothing else was firm. Like My Blobby but without the happy countenance.

I was determined to do something about it. I remember chugging down a beer while considering it. And a biscuit. Maybe two biscuits. Possibly the whole packet. My ruminations didn’t come to much other than ‘Al, this is mostly vanity, you’re not obese you’re just in denial. Exactly one person cares you’re a bit tubby and unpleasant to look at’“**

Another tired maxim is you can’t out-run or out-ride a bad diet. That was fine because I was working such stupid hours I wasn’t troubling the bike much- other than an odd weekend effort finishing with an avalanche of beer and crisps. And running was definitely out after an incident best remembered as an attempt to remove one of two feet the previous winter.

Enter the turbo.  A device designed to repeatedly demonstrate not only how unfit you are, but configured to broadcast that rubbishness to thousands of people on-line***. It’s hard to believe you actually have to pay for the humiliation of the whole experience. But under the cartoon graphics and in-your-face gamification lies a dirty secret. It’s way easier to lose weight going nowhere slowly in the shed than outside. Mostly because you don’t finish in the pub.

Even so, I still suffered weight fluctuations that cannot be explained by slow metabolism****, glands or big bones. They can be explained by zero will power, a love of beer and significant denial. This last year tho I’ve travelled exactly nowhere. Both inside the shed and outside in the real world. I rode 5500km of which a third were turning circles in the virtual world.

This made a difference. But not enough. So at the ripe old age of 53, I redefined my relationship with alcohol. That’s a pretty way to say I was drinking too much, too often and it needed to stop. Well honestly that wasn’t going to happen, but knocking it on the head Mon-Fri has become pretty much learned behaviour. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss a beer in the week, but not enough to sneak a visit to the fridge of plenty.

Piling on the misery, I’ve mostly given up crisps, biscuits and all sorts of other shit that makes life worthwhile. I’ve probably substituted cheese but come on throw me a bone here. It’s not like I’m accessorising that with a bottle of Merlot. Except on Fridays.

So what’s the result? I aimed to hit 12 stone/76kg by March 31. That was going to be a bit of an effort but it’s not a just 2021 thing. I’ve been smashing myself on the turbo since October and riding lots once the uber-grim dropped back to just mostly-grim.

My jeans now sag a bit. But the beer storage area – while reduced – has not completely disappeared. I can see some of my ribs but I’m fairly sure I have more than three. On the bike I definitely feel a bit lighter, and that’s backed up by the scales confirming my target weight last Friday.

Obviously I celebrated with an orgy or chips, crisps and booze. I feel bad, but – you know – not THAT bad 😉 More importantly, is this now a stable state? I’m confident it might be, because we’ve postponed too many places to ride. There are two years of brilliant trips coming up, and I am determined to be in good shape.

So yeah I need to give myself every chance to do those justice. Being as light and fit as I can be arsed should be a given.  And it’ll save me buying any new trousers which appeals to my inner Yorkshireman.

So yeah Project 76 is done. What’s next? Tune in next week 🙂

*that didn’t scan quite as well as expected.

**Carol is far too polite to mention it. Although I think ‘Oi Fatty the bed is in danger of capsizing‘ would have been useful motivation.

***Zwift avatars are funny, No way I’d recognise anyone from the virtual world in the real one. Me included, I pretend to have a full head of hair.

****or as my friend Ian Says ‘Slow Metabolism, fast pie hand’

Time isn’t money

Back on the big dog!

It certainly used to be.

For as long as I can remember* time was indeed money. In the shark infested world of those big consulting firms, billing hours were both an evaluation of your job performance, and the metric by which you got to keep it.

Sacking that shit off over ten years ago, at least some of everything I do doesn’t represent a zero-sum-game financial transaction. There’s doing the right thing and doing the thing that pays the bills. Mostly they intersect, sometimes they don’t, but I’m financially fortunate enough to care more about relationships that money.

What has this to do with riding bikes? Too often I missed rides for what felt like good reasons – stuck in a hotel 200 miles away, and bad ones watching shadows of sunshine tumble down my computer screen.  I should be outside chasing dust motes, but I’m in here chasing money. Or more likely racing against stupid deadlines I’ve breezily set a few days earlier.

Someone once said hope for the best but plan for the worst – I’ve no idea who as I stopped listening after the first four words. I’ve put work in front of riding, but way worse I’ve put it in front of family and friends. And fuck me did I feel righteous about doing so.

Notice the past tense? What’s changed? Oh so many things. Clock of time ticking feels quite important.  Financial security being its’ vulgar twin. That’s a double edged sword tho, one forged for Damocles if you will. I am well paid for what I do, but an employee count of one means zero scale. So new piece of work or an epic ride? There are no easy choices.

It’s easy to declare you’re done with exchanging money for time. It’s harder to instantiate that declaration in the physical world. It’s also a crushingly first world problem lacking any wider perspective. But hey this is me we’re talking about. It’s going to take a while to get better at more than one thing.

Today I got better at one thing. A glorious Sunday blue sky morning felt like Spring may be coming. By 8am I’d written an epically ambitious to-do list for next week. By 9am, I decided that if someone was going to be disappointed in the next seven days, it may as well not be me.

Matt and I rode a well grooved path to the Yat, only this time without the shivery embrace of a long winter. The trails weren’t dry, but they ticked all the boxes the two month festival of slurry failed so hard to do so.  My excitement got the better of me with the first trail nearly being my last. A damp root punted me tree-ward and only an instinctive ‘enduro tripod‘ saved me from shunting into an arboreal halt.

The sun climbed higher and so did we. Accessing trails winter shuts down. Faster, steeper, more committing. You know that whole stuff of life thing. Back on the RipMo, I felt fit and confident. Maybe five months of Hardtails and four months of Zwift has slowed the inevitable decline of that soon-to-be mid-50s demographic.

Or maybe it’s in my head. Doesn’t matter, the bike feels amazing, the trails are giving up a little of their spring bounty, and I’m keeping Matt in sight if not entirely honest. For glorious minutes I completely forgot the choice I’d made. It didn’t feel like a choice at all, it just felt like the sodding obvious thing I should be doing. In other news, this is why riding bikes are the antidote to procrastination.

We made grand plans to ride all the fresh-dug trails visible from every fireroad. A year of lockdowns has been a boon to the trail-pixes. We finish though on an old favourite. Steep enough to be fun, off camber enough for its’ obvious non-dryness to punt it just on the right side of exciting, long enough to reboot muscle memory.

Matt led the first half, I nipped in front to gimp for his GoPro. It’ll probably look flat and slow, but if you think that matters, you’re drinking the wrong Kool-Aid. I was mainlining 150 beats and words per minute as we skidded onto the fireroad. Even passing our favourite closed-up-tight pub failed to dent my happy countenance.

It’s coming back and it’s coming soon. And I’ll be ready. I’m done with making excuses, choosing the wrong option, saying no to the wrong people. I’ve even bored myself with ‘I don’t know how much time I have left to properly ride mountain bikes‘. But that is so obviously the wrong question.

The right question is what am I going to do with that time?  Make excuses? Take the easy can’t be arsed option? Exchange it for money? Absolutely not. The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.

Chocks away then 🙂

*which nowadays may extend to what I had to breakfast but not far beyond. After which it’s a request sent down to deep storage which may elicit an answer many hours later**

**Normally around 2am sitting me bolt upright in bed exclaiming ‘That’s right A Flock of Seagulls 2nd single was Telecommunication. Excellent. Remind me why that was important”

Simpler times

2004. That’s me and a bike. So far, so standard. Mostly everything on that bike has changed though. Frame design, suspension sophistication, tyre compounds, lengths lost from stems found on bars, dropper posts, fatter rims and proper brakes.

Less obvious is any rider metamorphosis. Seventeen years on and that awkward stance memorably described as ‘crouching badger, hidden terror’ remains very much in evidence today. Nowadays I’m sporting significantly more joint protection and a niggling pantheon of injuries*

Still have those shorts somewhere if not the calf muscles. The bike is, somewhat predictably, long gone. In my defence the ‘hinge‘, as it was known, was not one of my finest  purchasing decisions.  Alcohol was involved.

It was a study in unbalanced design; the front compressing and the rear extending at the perfect amplitude to eject crouching badger into now very visible terror. Often a concussed and bleeding badger if memory serves.

In my mid 30s tho, those scars were a badge of honour. Returning bleeding to a young family, I’d make up stories focussing on extreme bravery and stoicism in the face of blunt force trauma. Because back in those days capturing that truth was an experience closely allied to a massive ball ache.

Phones and cameras were still separated by technology. Even digital soul stealers had shutter speeds best recorded by a sundial.  My old friend Julian has done well here with long forgotten skills to capture movement without blur. To be fair we weren’t moving very quickly.

We were having fun tho.  I poured over those photos of riding buddies mostly missing from todays social circle. Some moved thousands of miles away**, a couple more are shockingly no longer with us, a few more have given up cycling or replaced dirt with tarmac.

The rest of us old bastards soldier on. Heavy on memories and light on what’s left to rage against. I wish that ride still resonated somewhere, but after thirty years in the dirt it’s lost amongst three thousand others.  I expect it’d follow the grooved pattern of every organised group ride. It goes like this:

Early start. Someone has forgotten something. Or we’ve forgotten someone. In days before vans, there’s a complex Fibonacci sequence of bikes, riders, trailers and cars. Eventually we crack the sequence and we’re on the road. Nervous talk of what is to come, bravado and arse-wind compete for mockery.  Pre Sat-Nav Man-Nav makes us later still.

Arrive eventually. Some people we instantly recognise, others only from their early internet personas. “Hi, I’m John” from a normal looking if slightly embarrassed fella. Pause. “You probably know me as ‘Rubber-Jonny‘”***. We pretend we don’t.

Check out bikes and riders. The Mid-2000s wasn’t a stand-out period for frame design. Natural selection has yet to take its course. I offer up the ‘hinge‘ as an example but it isn’t the only one. Over there is a tiny hardtail with a massive fork. In its shadow is a race bike with 600mm bars and cow horns. Rubber-J is astride a weird looking V-shaped frame vibrating around a protruding undamped coil shock.  Entirely appropriate username then.

Eventually we ride. These are the days of 20+ riders of – let’s be charitable here – differing skills. I am one of those riders. Although skills is probably being a little too charitable. Looking at the photos, it’s not conceit to know my riding is way more proficient today, regardless of those extra 17 years on the clock. Much of that is the bikes I ride, at least a little is how much I’ve ridden them.

Photo stops are just that. The ride stenographer dumps his sack****, fiddles with tiny dials and low res screens, declares himself ready, choreographs the now tetchy riders into ham and fail, before declaring he’s captured something. Until he gets home and makes various electronic offerings to a PC, no one quite knows what that might be.

This stop-start-to-you-to-me goes on for a while. Friendships are forged on the trail and cemented in the pub. Talking bollocks bridges the two. More drinking evokes more piss taking and before long we’re everyone’s best mate, this is the best thing ever, and you need to come and ride with us.  Even Rubber-J is invited.

Back in the Chilterns, we host a ‘weekender‘. It was a qualified success. The trails were dry, the pubs were welcoming, no one suffered a major injury. We also lost three riders within 5 minutes and never saw them again.  They may still be out there.

Seventeen years is long time. They ride different trails there. Simpler times for sure. No existential dread of age ending all this soon. No riding the same trails for a year because of a pandemic. No wondering over wheel sizes, pointless niches and technology confused as progress.

Better? I don’t know. Part of a glorious seventeen years of riding bikes in amazing places with brilliant people many of whom I’m glad to call my friends? Oh yeah, in bloody spades.

We’re not done yet. But I’d love to do that 2004 thing again.

*these two things are very much related. Sadly not in the right order. The stable door is open, and the horse is nowhere to be seen.

**I don’t think this a direct consequence of riding with me. But I never had the courage to actually ask.

***This kind of situation is made even worse when it goes like this: “Crikey I never expected ‘Devil-Balls’ to be a women

****”Hey are you Sack-Dumper off the Forum?” / Frosty Silence / “Oh sorry, honest mistake”

Explorador

Ice, Ice baby

The world is going sideways.

This is not a meta-analysis of the existential world spamming our virtual news feeds, because right now the physical is in the ascendant.  I’m barely managing a rear tyre keen to switch the gravitational axis and dump me on my fundament. It’d help if much needed mental capacity wasn’t being drained by wondering if riding clipped in may be correlated with an unscheduled hospital visit.

Really it’s not going well. Ice is tarmac hegemony. First amongst accidents. Drop bars offer precisely fuck all control of things going sideways. Disc brakes are no less than wonderful but tyres marketed for gravel are way out of their depth. As am I desperately handing the whole thing off to physics, hoping geography will give me a pass.

And right then, right now that feeling is fabulous.  I finally have some risk in my life.  How it ends barely matters, how it feels is everything. I’ve set out with no aspirations other than a view distanced from my house and shed. There is no route planned, no time boundaries other than the coming of a winter night, no excuses to quit other than this is beyond stupid. Rarely stopped me before.

Ice, Ice baby

This being life on repeat. Working like a dog. Shed-life and home-life being separated by twelve hour days. Weekends being nothing more than the beer fridge promising numbness.  All of us are defined by our interactions, but right those are restricted to my immediate family. And my pets. So it’s unsurprising I’m fully troped-up resembling the labs.

I’m a dog person. Always have been. Probably always will be, Even internalising the pain of losing them far too often. Labradors specifically: loyal, food-cunning, ready to explore and always happy to come home. So I’ve packed a bag full of bars, a vague plan to cover much ground, a time to complete the loop and an entirely uncynical view of how things might go.

There are points of difference. I’m not keen to harvest a kilo of sheep shit nor be distracted by a rabbit caught in the open. Otherwise I’m full Lab heading out with a level of optimism entirely divorced from the ground conditions. I’ve no idea where I’m going, but I’m going somewhere. And that is more than good enough given the current restrictions.

I barely managed the hill from the house. Sub zero temps dumped a mini ice age cascading down the road. Uphill was a desperate balance between power and traction. Flip the gradient and that’s where we came in.  Locking the rear, staying off the front and hanging in there for a flat section.

Where you can brake. This is my mountain biking world. You pick ‘traction spots’ to bleed velocity, It’s pretty much implicit when you’ve ridden for many years, but it’s explicit there. Pick a line, vector for dark tarmac, grab half a second of brakes, let it all hang out until you can do it again.

Stupid, dangerous, glorious.

Ice, Ice baby

No real plan other than to stay off main roads. This routed me onto all sorts of broken tracks supposedly fit for vehicular traffic. Lined with storm washed aggregate and festooned with icy potholes, my inner Labrador was wishing for 4 paw drive.

Still in line with my spirit animal, I just took any turn that looked interesting and headed vaguely north to a singletrack filled wood to test my new might-work-off-road tyres. They weren’t working so well on road, but then nothing short of spikes would

Getting high the views were awesome. Cherished vistas experienced from different angles. Reminded me of why we moved here.  Losing my focus left me properly lost. Which was fine because it led to annoying a posh farmer while riding down a footpath. An  unexpected bonus in the spirit of the Kinder Trespass.

Ice, Ice baby

After a couple of hours, one extremely dicey descent on a darkly shadowed road had me turning for home. The weak winter sunlight had the ice  slowly reverting back to its liquid state. I had fun riding through 30 foot puddles with my feet flying free. Never gets old even as I am.

Ice, Ice baby

Knowing the perils of going ‘full Labrador’, I switched the phone from camera to maps and read off thirty minutes of back lanes. Having handed navigation off to a digital app, I was reminded of the analogue bike sharing this adventure. It’s no race machine nor overbuilt tourer. Rather just brilliant at getting on with it without making a fuss.

Ice, Ice baby

That doesn’t make it boring or lifeless. No, it’s an eager companion ready to transport the keen and curious over gradients, under tree lined paths and beyond county and country lines. It’s damps the bumps, sprints happily under power and carves fun shapes on dirt and tarmac. I’ve always hated road bikes but I love the Tempest. It’s mostly a Labrador too.

Cresting the last climb, I’m one freewheel from home. I see the road that used to be my 6:30am alarm and it makes me smile. I look across into the next valley wondering how much there is to explore. None of this is more than 10km from our house, but it’s all new and exciting.

Lemons and lemonade. We are where we are. Maybe for a bit longer. And until that changes I’m going to be an Explorador. Preferably with just a little less winter.

* two counties away from home having chased an interesting scent/person/tractor

Solaris UnMaxed

Solaris Max

I’m so down with the kids. I’ve seen lots of this sort of thing on Twinstagram and FaceTok.  So obviously now I’ve ‘done‘ one, it’s so crushingly uncool, you’ll only ever see it again on FriendsUnited or archly hashtagged ‘Yeah I think you’ll find that’s irony Grandad

Anyway for all that, this is not some ludicrous attempt to remain relevant* to those under the age of ‘Can we interest you in a Cruise and a complimentary dose of COVID-19?’. No, for all of those undergoing a ‘journey’ from one state to another**, here’s an analogue only with bike parts.

Parts being the key difference. Frame, fork and wheels were all that remained from the component heist pulled to build the Bardino. Sourcing the remainder would normally be nothing more than a rummage in the box of cast offs, abandoned projects, impulse purchases and a tiny percentage of my grip collection***

Not this time. The bike industry’s maxim to ‘never create a standard that will last longer than a wine gum‘ has obsolesced swathes of previously enjoyed parts which otherwise satisfied ever requirement other than being shiny and a bit old.  An excellent metaphor for my own journey through hair loss and accelerating ancientness.

There’s been talk of an economy drive in the ShedofDreams(tm) before. Not by me obviously, but emptying the virtual wallet on brand new parts doesn’t make much sense. Assuming you can get them. Which of course, currently you can’t and that’s okay as the ride to cost ratio remains low with Jess.

For it is she for whom the bike is built. Regular readers may remember the MK1 Solaris Max was pretty much perfect for her. However it was sold while she wasn’t looking and she never fully got on with its replacement. Let me take you through the teenage angst accompanying those rides.

Too long, bars too wide, too heavy, doesn’t go round corners, too hard to pedal up hill. The obvious solution would be an e-bike but we’re absolutely not going there. I never claimed to be the best parent, but really short of harvesting them for their own organs, I cannot think of anything worse to inflict on an offspring.

Having exhausted my own spares kit, I skip-ratted most of my friends.  Lovely old but pretty XTR cranks from Cez, a narrow bar and some leaky brakes from Ads and a dropper from Matt’s ‘shelf of abandoned seatposts’ left me needing to pay actual money for a stem and a non pissing caliper.

It took Matt a couple of sessions to build it up. Firstly because I’d failed to deliver all the actual parts to his garage, and secondly as Herefordshire had a brief tier-1 window into which we jumped. And rolled out of some time later. For the sake of mitigating the possibility of Jess’s patent Paddington Hard Stare, I threw on a half worn front tyre, a 46 tooth cassette and comfier saddle.

Solaris re-build

Solaris re-build

Matt dealt with keeping the brake fluid on the inside of the hoses, unslackening the fork**** to bring the front wheel back from ‘it’s out there somewhere, just not quite sure where‘, rejuvenating a very bent mech with a very big hammer, and general fettling well beyond my ken.

SolarisMax rebuilt for Jess

And there she is. Not Jess, the bike. Total spent £40. So about 1% of what I normally spend on a new bike. Which includes the Stem-of-all-the-colours she picked from a selection of £13 ones off eBay.

So how does it ride? Well a quick blast down the road in the snow was interesting. Mainly because the bar width screams ‘zip tie on a race plate‘. Other than that it’s definitely lighter, more spritely and well you know bike like. It was a great frame to start with so hard to screw it up really.

The more pertinent question is “Does Jess like it?“. She likes the look of it. Ride impressions will have to wait until the mercury rises above zero and / or we’re actually allowed anywhere fun to test it.

The important thing is it’s not longer languishing in the rafters and – due to the generosity of my friends – is ready to go for when Jess is. Obviously when she’s back at Uni, I might have to test it myself.

Not before fitting a 780mm bar tho 🙂

*which suggests I ever was.

**New Years Resolutions:  What I think of as the ‘Pasty to Salad back to Pasty‘ journey. Completed in around 10 days.

***I have around 40 grips. Some even in matching pairs. I cannot reconcile how this has happened. I can only assume they breed by eating individual socks. There has to be a correlation.

****Keen readers may note it looks very short. Spotters badge. It should be 120mm, it’s currently 100mm. I refer readers to the previous paragraph re: pub.

It’s that time of year again..

Worse boy band reunion ever :)

.. or just past it. 2020 went <— thataway and I’m sure I’m not alone in giving it both the finger and a boot up the arse. We do not wish to see it’s like again.

Still some traditions endure. The fad diets, the frozen morning runs, the frankly insane abandonment of alcohol. And of course the internationally recognised* Hedgehog of the year awards.

We were socially distancing before it became a thing.  Which considering all they are are a re-hash of last years content and some impossible logical gymnastics spinning the need for new bicycles, it’s was never going to be a sold out event.

I turned up, poured myself a beer, reviewed the meagre 2020 content,  mentally lasso’d the shedofdeams(tm) switcharoo and created some links. As I say not the most prestigious event, but I’m glad I turned up. As all the beer was for me.

Without further ado:

2020 articles that make some sort of sense on a second reading

The bike page. As with many things 2020, great plans but not much happening.

Oh and the picture ^^ up there. Titled: Worst boy band reunion ever. No reason to post it other than every time I look at, it makes me laugh. And by Christ we could all do with a bit more of that in 2021.

*we do have many readers from far flung parts. I cannot imagine trying to parse my nonsense as a second language. It’s hardly English to start with.

Zoom in.

2020 then. Hard to know where to start. The year may be coming to an end, but we’ll be reaping its’ shit-storm a little while longer yet. A global pandemic brought local by incompetence, ideology and insanity repackaged as winning. Brexit Britain ruling all those statistical waves, where deaths per million stamp exits on the petty nationalism passport.

Still on the upside, I rode quite a lot. That image is my ‘Covid-Box’. More a 5x10km rectangle fencing 98% of every time I tried to leave the madness behind. Early on alone and introspective, later on with friends I’d desperately missed, occasionally normalised in the pub and latterly under darkening skies.

Zooming out fills in the 2%. Three trips to Wales, all the more unusual for blue skies and sun baked trails. The last of which – late September – felt like the start of something normal. Eight of us descended on Coed-Y-Brenin to climb the steep sides of those North Welsh hills.

To then plummet down the other side, reacquainting ourselves with what we latterly took for granted. Post ride sitting in a pub garden toasting the end of the beginning. Yeah, that’s aged well. Still a great memory and there’s been a few more of those.

Zoom out a little more and a few tracks fan out from Malaga where we had the most amazing time way back in Feb. Feels like a different time.  A different life where social distancing was swaying away from an unwashed pal, or masking your drunkenness by hanging on to a handy lampost.

That’s it tho. Andorra for Alex’s 40th went early, whereas a second trip to Spain suffered a realism deficit right up to the point when common sense overcame desperation to ride dusty trails we knew so well. I totally accept this is a first world problem, but it’s still my first world problem and while everything else can be postponed getting older cannot.

I’ve no idea how many of these trips are left.  Again let’s focus on the good stuff; I’m mostly uninjured, 1/2 a stone, in old money, lighter than the last time we passed round the sun, feeling good on and off the bike, and not yet bored of slithering around the local trails in a percussive manner.

That summary hides a dirty secret. Of the rather impressive 6,000km I’ve ridden this year, 30% were racked up going nowhere slowly in the shed.  First time I’ve cracked 100,000 metres of climbing but again 25% of that elevation was nothing more than a flywheel and a desperate urge to chase people I’ve never met.

The other 70% is encapsulated by the Covid-Box. Living smack bang between two areas of Areas of Outstanding National Beauty does have its advantages. Forests and views being a couple of them.  Bike forums are awash with those having neither. Apparently getting bored of your local trails is a thing.

Not for us. The trail network is criss crossed with classics, old favourites and new digs carved out by furloughed trail pixies. Digging into my ride data unearthed a couple of nuggets; firstly I’d climbed the bastard-oh-god-are-we-there yet track into the local woods a one less than make-your-own-joke here 68 times.

Over half of those were to access the two forks of our trails; Penyard being more trail dense, shorter and a bit less technical. Chase benefiting from a little more elevation, lumpier geography and longer runs. On long summer days we’d fork both left and right, before forking off to Matt’s Speakeasy to neck cold drinks toasting perfect sunsets.

The rest of the time we’d go long. Penyard being a gateway to the Yat where trails sprout from every forest road. Climb enough to be rewarded by views across about five counties and one other country.  Descend on perfectly sculptured tracks until arms pointed to the pub when the legs were done. This was pandemic-lite – we knew what was happening but it was mostly happening to someone else*

Sometimes that was people we knew. Seb (editor of www.cranked.cc) and I swapped rides. After a fantastic Mendip loop, I hosted him on our local trails in perfect conditions. We had such a blast finishing in the pub, accessed via the local Church steps, arrowing you into the welcoming garden of the Kings Head.

These – and so many more – are the memories I’m taking from this shitty year. Because I can’t control any of the scary externalities. I honestly don’t know what normal is going to feel like, nor when we might celebrate that moment.

I know this tho. 2021 just has to be a better year. And we all have a part to play in that. We’ve learned to endure so many things, but it is the random acts of kindness which stand out. Almost like spies behind enemy lines. There’s more to bring us together than to divide us.

None of us can fix the clusterfuck that is 2020. But all of us have shown we don’t need to. We can be there for each other. Nothing is more important than that. Even riding bikes.  Although, let’s be clear, that is still extremely important

Happy new year all. Fingers crossed it’s going to be at least okay.

*Herefordshire having the lowest rates of the virus right up until we went into Tier-1 the week before Xmas. At which point those five counties and one country pretty much fucked it for everyone.