We need to talk about Corona.

Welcome to the zombie apocalypse. Dystopian fiction made real. Hunger Games re-imagined for toilet roll battles in Morrisons. The very end of days indeed. Grab a bottle of your favourite medicine, a copy of The Road and consider which household items might be reclassified as food.

Or not. Let’s not trivialise the facts here.* People are dying. Many more will follow. As ever the poor, the marginalised, the desperate will suffer more.  History teaches us disease has no class vector, reality suggests otherwise. The virus has snared royalty and heads of government but let’s not confuse their treatment with some poor bastard on a sink estate struggling for breath.

But we have new heroes. No that’s not right, we have old heroes properly dragged into the light. Sure there’s a government, whose welfare policy can be neatly summarised as fucking the NHS up the arse for ten years, is now apparently in awe of what’s left.

Forget them and their frankly embarrassing attempts at empathy.  The irony that the saviours of our world are not running banks or financial scams, rather those on the front line of what is essentially a war without ordinance. Doctors and nurses, thousands of committed researchers, decent souls stacking shelves, school ‘failures‘ driving trucks, ranks of forgotten minimum wage slaves stepping up in a way their more privileged contemporaries entirely fucking avoided.

And they are dying as well. Because ‘getting Brexit done’ is a ‘look at me’ slogan while basic PPE is a bore. Still got to give the ruling class some credit for a bail out that’s basically nationalisation and socialism hidden under the banner of an emergency measure. A tory government massively expanding the welfare state? Fuck me it’d be funny if it wasn’t for the whole people dying thing.

At some point in the distant future, there needs to be a reckoning. Not just finger pointing of who didn’t do what,  but also if we learned anything. This is what I’ve learned so far.

Most humans are decent individuals. Those who don’t monopolise the news media. Stuffing blogrolls into trolleys, picnicking on the beach and essentially mainlining the selfish gene. Through stupidity or hubris, who the fuck knows. But these people are not important.

Who are important is everyone else.  Mostly everyone else is synonymous with not being a dick. Quietly doing the right thing and not wanting some kind of social media medal for it. Of course I counted myself amongst their number until around 3pm today.

After 10 days inside** most of which has been lost in virtual conferencing*** or finding new friends on on-line platforms, I cracked. So all my virtue signalling up there isn’t worth shit when, after FIVE MONTHS of riding in the grim, the trails dried up.

Oh irony again. It’s been literally seconds since we last met.  Our freedom gave us Carte Blanche to slog about in a festival of slurry. And when that freedom is rightfully restricted it’s all bloody lovely weather, t-shirts and dust, dry lines and new flowers. You know the gig. Spring spinning the season ratchet. But like most things it’s less fun watching than doing.

I’m no rebel nowadays. I get the social distancing thing. Both because it’s absolutely the right thing to do and – as an asthmatic – I’m keen to swerve a dose thank you very much. So riding now isn’t like riding used to be before all this started. Was it only a month ago? Already feels like a lifetime.

I’m opening any gates with a jauntily angled elbow. I’m making judicious use of a small bottle**** of hand sanitiser. I’m acknowledging my fellow trail users with six feet of good natured hellos.  I’m two hundred miles and a million light years from my brother living in a small flat in Ealing.

I’m also not a total bloody idiot. The NHS is kind of busy right now. It doesn’t need entitled mountain bikers to rock into A&E with wonky body parts.  So riding downhill is more about precision than speed. Crank not, brake not, find some flow. Pump the trail, don’t bend it to your will.

Then stop. Sit on a stump. Pig out on a bag of sweets. Listen to the birds. Remember all this will pass. We may lose a summer but most people are losing a shit load more. Maybe the world turns so we can learn those lessons about what’s important. And who. And why.

Maybe we don’t. Maybe it snaps back to survival of the assholes. I just don’t know and there’s nothing I can do to influence that. But we are not powerless. There are things we should do.

Spend time with your own family. Catch up with everyone elses. Help out those who may not even ask for help.  There’s something about the stripping back of our vocational and social veneer which feels important. I’m not sure there’s any such thing as over-sharing right now.

Above all observe rule#1 ‘don’t be a dick’. Closely followed by rule#2 ‘be kind’. We’ll get through this. Even though the other side looks pretty scary.  Still anyone making predictions is merely selling snake oil.

So let’s stick together. These last three years the politics of division have set the agenda. All of us should feel pretty bloody motivated to do something about that.

*a Venn diagram not including experts on Facebook, conspiracy theorists and shouty nutters. The media is doing a decent enough job aiming at the heart of the periphery.

**and we’re very lucky. Healthy family, large if unruly garden, walkable paths into open fields, customers who still want to buy things, significant stocks of alcohol etc.

***We’ll so be back to this. Many years ago I wrote a very cutting article on the desperation of ‘second life’ and now I’m living it. Karma is indeed a bitch.

****Like bitcoin it’s worth about a million pounds today. And peanuts in two months.

Winter is a state of mind

Yat - The mud and sun edition

It’s hardly California is it? That’s a climb, come Spring, we yomp up with nary a care. And then freewheel down the other side.  None of that is happening this winter. Or any winter really, but endless wet has replaced proper cold and the Forest is dead and sodden.

Which doesn’t mean it still isn’t some kind of type 2 fun. It must be because that climb is part of a 55km route I’ve already ridden 4 times in 2020. It started off a bit wet and has seamless transitioned to what you see there. Climbing is a proper physical challenge, descending more of a mental one.

As my mate Steve summed it up rather neatly ‘the mud adds mass to your bike while simultaneously reducing grip’. There’s been much sideways action, and not a little crashing. After some initial grumpiness at the endless clag, I’ve found myself almost enjoying it. Especially when someone else is crashing. Or we’re in the pub.

The bike/kit/human cleaning process is getting pretty old though. The floor of the ShedofDreams resembles a very large planter with soil from all corners of Herefordshire covering every surface. The greasy conditions have weaponised the Solaris’s drivetrain as its segued from worn to knackered. Sharp edges shot blasted with grit still somehow rotate under power. I’m hoping it’ll last a bit longer as replacing it now is about as fiscally prudent as setting fire to tenners.

Yat - The mud and sun edition

Yesterday was another tough ride. Because I’m an idiot with delusional meteorological aspirations, I re-introduced the new Ripley to the Yat. Four rides that bike has had and never has it been clean for more than 30 seconds. Not helped by my refusal to furnish it with anything other than token mudguards.

Yat - The mud and sun edition

Not a problem I thought. It’ll be a drier than last week. Which by a narrow definition it was. The mud had dried to that most horrible of slop which fills tyres and clings to the bike.  Motion under pedal power was primarily in any direction other than the intended one. Motion under gravity was more of the same except with significantly more terror and crashing.

Yat - The mud and sun edition

We’d barely ridden a downhill trail before man and bicycle parted company in the most comedic of circumstances. The grip was variable. By which I mean between ‘not much’ and ‘absolutely fuck all’. You had to commit to get the tyres to bite, but if they didn’t you’re eating that same dirt.

Yat - The mud and sun edition

Having already thrown himself rather ostentatiously to the ground, Deano couldn’t wait to re-interpret mountain biking through the art of creative crashing. I had just navigated a tricky steep and greasy chute when behind me there was the sound of accelerating rider interfacing with local shrubbery.

I then had to dab as I find riding and laughing hard to do at the same time.  Deano emerged blaming a lack of rear brake. Usefully a tree had provided a second front one. Learning from his mistake, he then abandoned any form or retardation firing courageously into a small rock garden. I was right behind him and, while keen to have a go myself, couldn’t see an option that didn’t involve riding over a now prostrate Dean!

Haydn being the caring sort of chap he is, decided that Deano really needed the kind of company that only misery can supply.  So he collected most of a tree in his front wheel before physics did her thing and pitched him over the bars and into the soft earth. He was unhurt having luckily missed the rocks either side of his landing spot.

Yat - The mud and sun edition

This sort of set the tone for the rest of the ride. Struggle uphill on trails deep-rutted in viscous nastiness before descending with all the grace of a fridge on a roller skate. This was fine because the sun was shining and everyone seemed to be having a good time.

Yat - The mud and sun edition

Even me. I’ve still no idea what the Ripley is like to ride ‘properly’ but it held it’s own – and more importantly it’s rider upright – over four hours of slop-induced silliness. This silliness peaked after Cez performed a ‘bicycle tango’ on a steep loamy corner.  While not hitting the ground, we couldn’t help but notice he appeared to be pirouetting around his bike with no obvious end in sight.

Eventually he wrestled the recalcitrant steed back into some form of known dimensional space. The dab committee did not need to sit. He had not so much dabbed as danced down the trail inconvenienced by bicycle.

Which seemed an apposite time to head to the pub. First tho the last two descents including a perilous stream crossing and a rocky gulley filled with damp limestone. I followed Steve down the latter asking him if it was a bit bumpy on his hardtail. It was lovely riding a full-suss again even if every bearing was crying out for mercy.

Yat - The mud and sun edition

Seven riders were muddied by unbloodied as the pub hoved into view. Two were celebrating the end of dry January*. All of us were toasting the start of Web February.

It was a good day. We’ve had many good days already this year. Riding in winter is mostly a state of mind.  Set the bar low and you’re almost guaranteed to have a great time. And every week we do it brings Spring seven days closer.

Until then, bring on the slop.

*not me obviously. I thought about it. Over a pint.

End of season clearout.

CwmCarn with Seb

Not a sly reference to some kind of fire-sale in the ShedofDreams. I mean like that’s going to happen. It’s more like a black hole. Stuff goes in, nothing comes out.

No this is more end of year admin. With predictable hilarity, I’ve attempted to justify the many and varied examples of the modern bicycle residing in the shed. This time livened up with a spreadsheet (calm yourselves down there!) summarising my bike rental scheme going back 20 years.

The Bike Page

It makes sobering reading. Even to me. And I’m sober already. Thanks for that January.

I’ve also updated the choice, or at least less grizzly, cuts from last years stream of consciousness.  Some even acknowledge a world outside of Mountain Bikes. I’ll try and nip that kind of seditious postings in 2020.

The best bits page.

First ride of the year tomorrow. Proper ride anyway. I don’t count going nowhere in the shed. It’s like cabbage, I know it’s good for me but it doesn’t mean I have to pretend it’s real food.

On that happy note, time for a non alcoholic beverage and some YouTube escapism where the sun is always shining and the dirt is always dusty.

That’s as close to a resolution as I’m getting to this year.

Testing 1,2,3.

Ibis Ripley first ride

There are some things I’m quite good at. Yes that’s a short list rarely intersecting with activities associated with being a functioning adult, but this doesn’t stop me getting excited when I’m ready to unleash my superpower*

Today it wasn’t wowing a quiz night with my narrow but mostly encyclopedic knowledge of the Battle of Britain,  or exactly how stupid it is correlating poorly thought out hypothesis from low quality datasets**

No today I’m bike testing. Not to be confused with published reviewers and their proper riding skills, critical faculties and ability to torture the English language when synonym chasing ‘laterally stiff and vertically compliant’

My attributes tend more to the experience of a shitload of new bikes. Many of which recorded their inaugural rides at Cwmcarn.  Now there’s a correlation I’m entirely comfortable with.

This Ripley should feel like a denuded RipMo. It really doesn’t. It’s closer to my brilliantly flawed Orange ST4. The suspension travel is similar, everything else is different. The Ripley is way stiffer, had many less gears, a steeper seat angle, a shallower head angle, wider bars, shorter stems,  longer dropper post and that’s before we get into the details.

But we don’t have too. Because while I cannot with an ounce of credibility describe how a bike rides, I can make a decent stab at how it feels.  It feels like this;  instinctive, telepathic, mated –  I accept this may be nothing more than wooly arsed new bike justification . But there is something here. The endpoints of what a class leading MTB can do are gapped by your average Joe failing to execute a thousand YouTube videos.

Aiming at those targets the heart of the periphery. It’s about feel. Some bikes are amazing and aloof. You do your best, yet they mock you with coldness and disdain. They wait impatiently for the better rider.  Your best is never close to being good enough. These are not the bikes you are looking for.

The Ripley is. It shapes the riding experience in all sorts of interesting ways. Most of which have nothing to do with traditional metrics.

I wasn’t any quicker climbing but I was a bit less worried about a heart attack. Some of that is the bike sitting high in its travel, some of it was the 50T cassette I’d gone from hate to love in about 10 pedal strokes. A bit more was a build prioritising trail over Enduro.

Meh, climbing is climbing. It goes on for 45 minutes and then there’s nothing above us other than a winter sky. I usher the fast boys through and hang on to their rooster tails. Somehow this isn’t the same problem as the one I fail to solve on pretty much every ride we do.

New bike thing. Not hungover thing. Others being hungover. Blind luck. Occasional ability. Ego bravery. Easy trails. Later in the day I was properly gapped when others co-located themselves with their shit. This hardy mattered because what I cared about was differentiating this new bike from my RipMo.

It’s not huge but it is significant.  Turns faster, gets you into trouble quicker, assumes you have the chops to get out of it. Pumps and pops on anything micro-rooty and above, makes you feel like a proper rider. I didn’t feel very fast but fuck me I was having a whole lot of fun.

Our two younger companions refused to accept there was another trail to be ridden. Old sweats Matt and Al cracked on in a manner rarely associated with men on the wrong side of 50. As an aside, I never get the trail centre snobbery.  It’s just a brilliant way to spend your time when your local trails are underwater.

And spend we did. Giving up gravity credits on first a rocky ledge and then a flat out berm-y blast to the carpark. Familiarity nearly let to contempt after a bold apex choice catapulted me centimetres from leaving the trail entirely. Where stumps and rocks waited to impale an important internal organ.

Backed off a bit after that so never came close to catching Matt but every second separated me from adulthood.  There’s no space to worry how old you are because you’re wondering how fast you dare go.

Strava told me I was a little faster than previously. It shouldn’t matter but it does. More important tho I felt comfortable at a pace best thought of adequately brisk. Which is already a win as wet and wild are not my favourite conditions. But the bike just wanted to go and I wanted to go with it.

That’s the crux, some bikes feel connected, others feel distant. Some bikes encourage you, others treat your efforts with studied aloofness. Anyone who doesn’t feel this needs to buy a metric shit-load of new bikes. At which point feel free to get back to me.

Yet there is nothing definitative about a single experience like this. It’s new bike glasses, not ridden for a week glasses, riding with your mates glasses, glass being half full basically. But even so I’ll take it.

In summary I’m very happy with my Christmas present. I hope you’re as happy with yours.

*I might be overstating how super that is.

**that’s really a thing. It’s not a big thing, but a thing it is nevertheless.

Phoenix from the blame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 3 bears, 4 bears…. many bears

Screenshot 2019-12-14 at 15.39.13

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

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

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

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

ST4 Build - a difficult birth.

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

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

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

Pyga OneTen 29

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

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

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

Cotic Flare Max. First ride 😄

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

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

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

Smuggler - 1

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

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

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

Bird in the wild!

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

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

Occam in the wild!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It really never was.

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

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

We’re not done yet.

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

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

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

Until then, this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Choose wisely

CwmCarn with Seb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CwmCarn with Seb

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

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

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

CwmCarn with Seb

CwmCarn with Seb

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

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

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

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

CwmCarn with Seb

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

CwmCarn with Seb

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

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

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

Really. Like you have to ask.

*possible literal reference here.

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

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

It’s all in the data…. until it isn’t

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Time is of the essence

Muddy FoD Ride - Oct 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muddy FoD Ride - Oct 2019

Muddy FoD Ride - Oct 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muddy FoD Ride - Oct 2019

Muddy FoD Ride - Oct 2019

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

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

Let’s keep it that way.

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