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.

The fog is lifting. Maybe.

The fog is lifting

Blimey,  a post.

It’s been a while. Most of which has been filled with cold, wet and a semi-busted shoulder. Current events were depressing enough without piling on the misery pre-winter inevitably stomps it’s depressing size 10s all over.

Taking the last first, that’s a frustrating injury taking far too long to heal. Some of that is age related decrepitude, a bit more smashing it down and then onto bumpy trails. That was such a stupid crash right at the end of a fantastic autumn skive ride.

I watched Adam make a proper hash of a steep rooty corner. Him being a far better rider than me in no way highlighted the possibility that personal calamity was in the offing. I confidently struck out on a higher line festooned with slick-blacked tree nurturers.

Grip deferred to gravity as was obvious to anyone not called Alex, and that person suffered a precision strike where four weeks of physio had been painfully enacted. Did it hurt? Shit, yes. Did I whine? Of course, what did you expect? Did Adam laugh? Yes*, but that’s how schadenfreude works.

Said physio gave me a bit of a telling off when I returned to the clinic a few days later. To whit you’re playing a young man’s sport and, well how can I put this, you’re not rocking that particular demographic. Stop riding or stop crashing for a bit. There’s only so much medical science can mitigate serial stupidity.

Appropriate chastised, I retired to the shed. There is no place to hide with a turbo trainer. No really, it is <–> far from the desk I spend my virtual days. Mocking the corner of my eye with its it’s been a day, get your spawny arse back on here, or are you too weak?

Back in the shed!

15 sessions later, it would appear I am. Worse than that – much worse – is I’ve started to almost enjoy it. Careful use of the word ‘almost‘ there but even so it’s not so much the thin end of the wedge, more the end of the beginning. Let’s go back and review the wet and cold outside this cozy world of cartoon graphics and weird internet-spliced friendships.

Even a cursory reader of this blog is cognisant of my pointless hatred of winter. Specifically slogging through the four month festival of slurry while failing to measurably improve my low-baselined mud riding skills. Every year I promise myself will be the year endless commitment and careful tyre choice shall  bring forth a seasonal epiphany.

Nope. Watch some youtube vids. Nope. Fit some expensive tyres. Nope. Give myself a serious talking too. Nope. Nope. Nope. Plan B then – if you are struggling to succeed, redefine exactly what you mean by success. By lowering the bar under which even a professional limbo dancer would consider unplayable.

No longer shall I pretend I might be confident in the slop. At no point will fast enter my vocabulary unless speaking of others. The whiff of disappointment shall be met by the stench of tiny expectations. Just getting out and staying upright will be considered more than enough.

And it really is. This mad world we find ourselves in is brought into focus by back to back Zoom calls, but graduated by a fuzzy boundary between work and home. What with both being co-existent, and the former stealing hours from the latter.

When the screen feels like most of your life, I find a hearty ‘fuck this, I’m outta here‘ works well to nudge the dial of wellbeing. I abandoned a Friday in the virtual world for a skive ride in the real one. The kind of decision we all need to be making more often.

2 degrees. Cloudbase zero. Even the birds were walking. Dank, damp and desolate. Late autumn colours lost to the iron grey sky.  Trails lost to mulch and mud. Fitness gained going nowhere fast lost to brutal plasticine climbs.

It matters not. I was rubbish. That doesn’t matter either. I got lost. That mattered a little as we dropped into stupidly steep trails best thought of as a mud slidey accident ready environment. I could hear the physio cursing. Although she’d have had to go somewhat to drown out my own ‘fuuuuuucccck, shiiiiiiit, boooollllllooooox‘ as I fell down the hill occasionally accompanied by bicycle.

Adam – yes him again – was loving it. ‘Hey Al, thanks for showing me these trails, they are brilliant‘. And they are, or they will be under April loam or July hardpack. I was annoyed at how well Ads rode those trails, fully committed and troubled not at all by self-doubt. I was angry with myself for not getting within 50% of that.

Then after besting the greasy horror of the 15 minute climb to the top, the fog briefly cleared, the low sun burst through illuminating the dank. Shards of late autumn light pierced the leafless trees. The gloom lifted as did my spirits.

This is what being outside is all about. Those moments when the natural world plasters a smile on your face. When the unexpected makes you pause. Think a bit. Maybe all this will pass. Maybe it won’t.

But you’re unlikely to be watching from the right place if you’re staring at the wall of your shed. Riding bikes when conditions are shit isn’t really about riding bikes. Not for me anyway. It’s about sharing those little wins with those who know how special they are. It’s about giving the finger to the idea we are largely powerless.

It’s about making a choice. Is the fog really lifting? Maybe. Maybe not. But you’ll find me outside wondering if any of that really matters.

*in his place, I’d have asked him to do it again for the camera. It was that lame.

Back in the room

Back in the shed!

Back in 2008 we had a new house, lots of ideas but not much money. Therefore the priority was some form of heating to combat the inrushing winter. That form ended up hoovering up all our funds, and lots more beside as, in the process, we created an authentic WW1 trench experience*

Having swerved difficult conversations with social services**, thoughts moved to freeing the house of bikes, bike stuff and the primary bike rider. My thoughts anyway which envisaged a cycling cathedral soaring high into the Herefordshire skyline.

After all we already had a 50×25 foot slab laid for an unbuilt stable. We didn’t however have the budget to fill it, so instead commissioned a modest*** structure satisfying both ‘bike storage‘ and ‘home office‘ requirements. Some dithering, a stud wall and a purchasing strategy best summarised as ‘lowest cost bidder‘ brought forth the ShedofDreams(tm).

Considering it’s not build of the highest quality materials, it’s survived remarkably well. Apart from the roof taking flight last winter and the fascia boards demanding a monthly paint refresh.

Emergency roof repairs

The bike side has seen extensive use. It’s looking a little tired but is still home to many of my favourite tools, all correctly labelled and mostly unused.  Actual bikes tho they’ve all been campaigned extensively. If – in most cases – somewhat briefly.

Annual ShedofDreams deep clean

Annual ShedofDreams deep clean

The office side has seen rather more sporadic occupancy.  When the kids were young, my attempts to project a thin veneer of professionalism were often punctured by noisy sibling rivalry and occasional violence. So a ‘safe space‘ had many things going for it- a good part of that was its lack of said rumbustious offspring – but a decent internet connection wasn’t one of them.

Back in the day not a massive issue. We weren’t 100% dependant on the Internet and even if we were, our broadband bandwidth was somewhere between dial up and despair.  The phone worked tho, and occasionally I’d be delighted to find an email dated within the last month pop into my inbox.

Other issues need to be surfaced though. We’d gone a bit insulation mad when building the shed. This kept it lovely and warm in winter – even with the wind whistling between most joints, I refer you back to lowest cost bidder – but come summer it was an unpleasant fusion of a grotty Sauna and the Hot Boxes best known from the ‘Bridge of the River Kwai’.

I gradually migrated back into the house. The office became mainly an auxiliary dumping ground for shit we’d never need but you know just in case. It also became home to a rodent population gorging themselves on said crap. Not an attractive proposition in terms of moving back in.

Then COVID. Before which I was on the road so much of the time, my ‘home‘ office was generally a hotel or a train. Now 6 months after snaffling Carol’s craft room, my marching orders were received, notarised and absolutely not to be considered a request. Which is entirely fair since I’d annexed a decent chunk of the house.

We cleaned out the mouse-poo, had the painting finished we’d abandoned some ten years before, assembled a ‘zoom wall‘ of cheap Ikea bookcases and attempted to fit everything around the turbo by accidently burning it. Sadly it appears both bloody annoying and inflammable.

Testing the new WFH second monitor :)

Internet tho. My weeks now are filled with a minimum of 50% ‘you’re on mute, I can’t see your video, can you see what I’m sharing?’ While the cosmetic upgrade was impressive, the digital footprint was still mired in the sand. Turtles racing through treacle best describes the pedestrian opening of a web page.

Not to worry, we’d foreseen this problem during the excavation phase, so burying a hosepipe route between shed and house. Sadly no-one could quite remember where it might be located. As ever my friends rallied round my incompetence with practical solutions; a box of externally rated Ethernet cable from Matt, A crimp tool and a bloody big drill from Rex*** and some strong managerial support from yours truly.

In my defence I designed the not-very-complex non physical network stuff. On the grounds I’ve built some proper fuck-off massive global networks in a previous career, so I’ve got this. Nobody cared. Quite right too.

Back in the shed!

All a bit anti-climatic really. Cable laid (insert your own joke here), outside wall drilled with a bit barely fitting in a LWB transit, cables crimped, slight fuck-ups corrected, connections snapped in and we had all the good lights. ‘Communications have been established from the MotherLode‘ I bellowed triumphantly from the shed. Again, nobody cared.

Now that's a proper internet connection :)

Makes me happy tho. 50 meg from the shed. 50 bloody meg. On the downside Zwift will now never drop out so that’s that excuse gone for good. Upsides tho? Many, out of Carol’s hair for a start. A door to close so I know when to stop working, a chance to flex my Sonos speaker without upsetting – well – everyone really.

https://flic.kr/p/2jLKU5w

There’s more. I have a double zoom wall, one containing the BEST PICTURE EVER commissioned for my 50th, the other stuffed with my favourite books and a few lego offcuts. I might have cracked that professionalism thing, Until I start talking obviously.

And I haven’t even got to the best part. Smart-Plugs. Why was I not told about these digital sorcerers? We’ve run out of space this time, but a thrilling post is in the works. I know, I know you can hardly wait.

Until then, I’m back in the room. For a laugh I might move the laptop to next door so the customers can see what their custom mostly pays for 🙂

*300m of ground source pipes dug to a depth of 1.5m. I’m sure we had more pets before we started.

**both of your young children have called us asking for heaters, blankets and some proper parents.

***it’s still bloody enormous compared to normalised shed dimensions. Yet I look out on 8 feet of slab and feel a bit sad 😉

****who last year risked life and least one limb wrestling the 4G antenna on our chimney. Goodbye shit ADSL, hello 50meg off the the local transmitter.

Raising the bar

Nordest Bardino II

Probably worth clarifying a couple things right off the bat here.  There’s a post barely socially distanced from this one declaiming that writing about bikes was so over. Behind that are few more throwing shade on the need or indeed want for any new bikes.

And yet here we are. Well I am for sure, can’t speak for the rest of you.  If you’re still here then I can offer both excuses and lies.* Let’s do neither and pretend we’ve been overtaken by events. Yet I see that raised eyebrow and accusing finger pointing at the ‘best hardtail I’ve ever owned‘.

Hmm okay but let’s not dwell on the past. The future is right here. I accept it’s hinterland evo. Another steel frame, a similar niche manufacturer, a confusion of wheel sizes,  a slackness of angles, a lowering of stance. The future appears to be nothing more than new colours and pointless tweaking.

Well there’s that. But we can also celebrate the differences. It’s heavier for a start so we’re already winning. Slacker at the front, steeper at the back. All of which demands a longer fork, sadly missing a similar upgrade to the organic suspension out back.

Summary is if the old bike didn’t hold me back, this one won’t either. And it’s marketed as enduro. So again, winning. Not different enough to prevent a components heist on the Cotic** to harvest almost every component- so turning a frame into something rideable.

Second hand 29er wheels and a raid of Matt’s parts bin finished the build. And regardless of the stupidity, let’s all enjoy the end result. That’s one pretty bike.

Best go ride it then. This side of the hill has me reaching for my full suss. It’s steeper, rockier and a whole lot nastier to the west side. Still new bike and all that so best just get on with it. An hour in from Ross and we’ve established it’s a better road bike than one of those FS’s, and whatever hardtail skills I honed over last winter are long gone.

Riding the first proper trail has me running out of excuses. If not blood, which is surprising considering the volume being pumped out of my calf. Flat pedals and shit technique inevitably ends with hard pins lacerating soft flesh. On the upside it’ll match the other side similarly tattooed in Finale last year.

Bardino first ride

Other than the bleeding, it’s all going surprisingly badly. A long forked, slack-angled hardtail only works if you ride it over the front. Which suits my 90s technique of hanging off the back when the going gets steep not at all. A tentative prod of the bars, while hanging out behind the saddle, emits no directional change at all. Hello Tree, can we be friends?

Time to get a grip. Winch myself over the stem, throw some body English at the next corner and remember how bikes pivot from the back wheel. I’ve always rated myself as an average rider, but I’ll fight refuseniks spreading false gospel decrying quick turning bikes and 64 degree head angles.

This thing rails. I’m embarrassed to write that but it really does. In a way the Solaris didn’t. Not with me on it anyway. It has a calmness more suited to a short travel full suss. It drags grip from the perfect dirt, rotating the world around a sticky 2.6 front tyre.

Three minutes into my first proper trail and we’re faced with the somewhat over-marketed ‘double drop‘. It’s not that big and it certainly isn’t very clever, but fucking it up has all sorts of splattery consequences on the fireroad 20 feet below you.

I’ve ridden it on a HT once. It didn’t go well. But the Bardino is so stupidly good, I passenger’d my way down there with barely a kick in the arse. New school geometry works brilliantly if you commit to the front half of the bike. Right now I’m getting it, come mud and slop, maybe things will be different.

Bardino first ride

Today tho this thing is so fast. I loved the Solaris on 27.5 chubbies but they would just hold this bike back. I spend the rest of the ride failing to fall off all sorts of lairy ledges. Close calls for sure but too much fun to stop. Or even slow down. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s something different from every hardtail I’ve ridden before. And there’s been a few.

Ah another raised eyebrow. New bike thing you mutter. Maybe there’s something in that, but a second ride in the dark did nothing to dispel the feeling of over-confidence. It looks like a hardtail but it rides like something else. Except when you back off at which point the whole pointlessness of 160mm travel difference between front and back smacks you up the arse.

Still not lacking that commitment we finished our ride on the notorious ‘Bunker‘ trail. Steep, rocky, relentless. In the dark with full leaf cover, it’s riding in nature’s cathedral. There’s a beauty to that displaced by the rather less spiritual act of staying upright.

While I’ve ridden it many times I’ve never ridden it in the dark. Or on a hardtail. And of all those times, I’ve never felt quite like I did riding it last night. It should have been scary, but instead it was joyful. It made my realise there is stuff still to be ticked off, things to be done, reasons to keep pushing.

Raising the bar? Maybe not. But I can pretend. For a little while longer.

* John Mason is your touchstone here ‘When you’re good at making excuses, it’s hard to excel at anything else‘. Sure, but let’s all acknowledge it’s a skill of sorts.

** it isn’t being sold. Rebuilding a lighter version for Jess has already started. I could never sell that bike.

What do pictures paint?

Words allegedly. Many of them. Yeah about that.  Let’s kick off with some honesty. Appreciate this challenges the norms of this blog, but just trying to keep things fresh.  When film was king, the shutter release demanded some respect. 36 images represented a couple of pints and a week of waiting for the postie*.

Now it’s spray and pray. Well just spray and post really. The photographers art has been mostly lost to a signal to noise ratio long on notoriary and short on quality.  Honest admission number one: I’ve been the noise to that professionals signal. Too many taken not enough deleted. Relied too much of photoshop. Seb’s – www.cranked.cc – words ring loud in my head. Composition not compensation.

Here’s number two. I’m mostly done with writing about riding bikes. Fuck me I’ve mined that seam well beyond exhaustion. There is so much more riding behind me that before me. That’s just bloody depressing. So as a muse it’s suffused with melancholy and pity. No one wants to read that flowery-wank. Not even me.

But we’re not dead yet and I’m giving Dylan a beery hug when he tells me we must fight the dying of the light. Fight yes, write no.  Back to those flickering images. A moment catching something special; golden hour light, snatched facial expressions, sustained bravery, momentary pratfalls, ride-end tiredness, glorious companionship. All this and so much more.

Casting aside planetary orbits charting 53 years of my wizened fizage, let’s move right to the the good stuff. It’s been a strange year. Dreadful in so many ways but life affirming in others. Dragging the focus back to my tribe and the stuff adjustable in my purview, there have been many fantastic moments.

Time to stop talking.

Heading out after a day of Zoom calls.

Solo riding in the bluebells.

Crappy Selfies during lockdown

Riding past our favourite pub. Closed for four months.

From driving every day to working at home with help from pets.

Back to riding with mates. A video still of my good mate Martin.

Riding with the offspring

Back in the room! H enjoys Wales being opened.

Wales doing its big sky things. What a day that was.

The pubs open. Dave and I make haste.

The Saracens head reopens – rejoice!

Riding with Seb in the mendips. Good times.

12 years old. Big dog bossing the lawn.

Riding with Jess. The best of times.

Walking the Pembrokeshire coastal path with Carol.

Travelling with the family, not for work.

Riding my favourite trails with my favourite bunch of idiots.

Adequately distanced, relatively relaxed 😉

So what does this tell us? That I missed my friends but remembered my family. That Inbox Zero ended up as Inbox Zero Interest.  That however down you may feel, you must always look up. That loving what you can do is a fuck load more productive than lamenting what you cannot**

What else? I dunno. There’s likely some crappy metaphor peripherally linking riding bikes with more important things.  That doesn’t feel right. It’s not one or the other. Multifaceted problems are not solved through the power of a pedal revolution. You may feel better, but the real world is oblivious to that. It’ll drag you right back in.

All is not lost. Bikes have a superpower. They are binary. There is no nuance. No degrees. No strategy. They drop you in the moment and you can grab that by the balls or walk the excuses line. Either is a simplification, a choice, a moment in time. One of those 36 exposures.

I’ll never stop loving it for that.  The world feels a pretty scary place right now. But in two pedal strokes that’s someone elses problem. Let’s go ride into those pictures. The words can wait. But I won’t be.

* followed by disappointment. Flicking through – shit, rubbish, crap, over-exposed, under-exposed, oh and a random picture of a strangers arse.

**my mum is 88 and not having a great time. This is her advice. It’s definitely something to live by.

What Car? Wrong question.

None more black

Buying bikes is fun. This is not idle conjecture. I can back it up with real-world experience.  Buying cars is shit. Another position I’ll die on a hill for even when my vociferous defense is based on 40 less examples.  I’ve written extensively on my hatred of the whole shebang.  Research, dithering, salespeople, more dithering, multi-paged spreadsheets, test drives, boredom, frustration all ending in buyers remorse.

All which represents a highlight reel of the best bits. The rest is time-lapse misery. As I approach my 53rd birthday surely the flip side of increasing physical decrepitude is tolerance, patience and the ability to take the long view? Nope. With great age comes great rage. Not so much raging at the dying of the light, more wishing that light was a full showroom fire shadowing an angry form mutering ‘I’m trapped in the movie ‘total fuckwits’, everywhere I look another fucking spunk trumpet’

Let’s break this down. I’m actually okay with bike marketing. They are pitching a lifestyle that – while obviously unobtainable – is appealing. Cars tho, no fucks given for what’s being pitched. I’m at that difficult age – our own kids can drive* so the ‘active family’ schtick is lost on me, as is the ludicrous assertion that ‘something sporty’ will somehow roll back the years.

I make this position extremely clear when entering the den of the slimey. This is no way nudges them an iota off script.  “Look‘ I plead “I get you’re excited by sports suspension because you are 12 years old, but did you notice how long it took me to get out of that chair?” and “any car with a sill lower than my knee is going to need to come with a hoist and a burly attendant“.

I’ll give them something tho, they are bloody accomplished liars. I’d love to chart my journey through a couple of “prestige marques”** but honestly it’s just profanity with occasional punctuation. I didn’t know what I wanted, but it wasn’t what they had to sell.

Okay let’s get into that. I don’t need another massive car. The Bavarian Hearse has offered an interesting ownership experience. Brilliant engine, amazing brakes, shit stereo, average air con and apparently a state of the art electronic brain. Yeah right, I’ve never trusted that smug bastard after, on our FIRST JOURNEY together, the SatNav directed me down a steep, narrow icy track. 10 minutes of slithery death that’ll live me way longer.  And I’ll never get those brown stains out of the faux leather.

The next three years were significantly less exciting, Summary of which is one average sized bloke driving 20,000 miles a year in a vehicle designed for at least three more is a pretty stupid enterprise. And that’s before we get into the realm of parking anxiety***

So if not that, then what? Brand loyalty is obviously over-rated yet I’ve always identified as ‘Skoda Man‘. Some of which is because I am so clearly not ‘BMW Man‘ even after attempting to improve the image of the marque one indication at a time. This earned me suspicion from most drivers and pity from the rest.

Now we have a manufacturer, let’s set a budget. Post COVID-19 that 20,000 annual mileage is going to be halved. Maybe more than halved. Whatever happens next there’s no way I’m going back to 4:30am starts and 10pm finishes. That’s not a trajectory which sits well with a slide into semi-retirement.

Rather than actually speak to anyone – based on how well that’d gone so far – I fired up a browser, tapped in some details and sat back with a well earned beer. The whole reverse-auction/blood in the water dealer bitch-fight is my new favourite thing.

Buying bikes is an investment in time and people. Buying cars is strictly transactional. There’s no value in loyalty when operates in a single direction. There’s pretty much no differentiation between identikit showrooms. I’d argue not that much between different manufacturers either.

So it came down to simple maths and a dither over full electric (next time for sure), a bit electric (transitional technology at a hell of a price uplift) and planet killing IC (petrol at least this time, I shall salve my environmental angst by driving a whole lot less).

With that done, I ignored all the ‘we want a relationship‘ bullshit and stabbed a ready credit card at the lowest cost bidder. They were surprisingly lovely but I’m still fucking suspicious this is merely a front to rip me off sometime in the near future.

I also signed up for a longer lease. Because making cars is environmentally destructive. Because driving isn’t going to bookend my working days. But honestly because I cannot be doing with this fucking shitshow in the next four years.

What car? Who cares. It’s done and I can go back to looking at bikes.

*well someone somewhat incautiously presented them with a certificate saying they could. Since which we’ve named their car the hedge magnet.

**their framing not mine. I’d lump ’em all in with ‘bunch of larcenous rapscallions‘. Where do they get these people from?

***It fitted nowhere without at least one end sticking out. I suppose that explains why I came back to one night to find it a couple inches shorter on the back quarter.