Lon Las Cymru – Day 1

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

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

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

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

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

Bikes:

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

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

Gear:

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

Here we go, some actual travelogue content…

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

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

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

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

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

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

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

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

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

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

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

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

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

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

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

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

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

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

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

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

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

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

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

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

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

Have bike, might as well travel

Welsh C2C - Test pack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready? Laughably no. Excited? Oh fuck yes.

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

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

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

Final Exams

Finale MTB - May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best do a re-sit then.

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

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

Gap Analysis..

FoD - Mud, Sun and Smiles ride

… is traditionally defined as the process of identifying the breadth, scope and reach of activities to transition effectively from the current state to a desired future state. Sounds dull? It is, and I should know with it representing about 25% of my work right now.

It serves us here on the Hedgehog rather niftily as both a synonym and a metaphor.  The current state has been fixed for at least five years, the future state sees me the far side of something scary and the activities to get there can be summarised as ‘jump over that bloody gap you spawny git’

If only it were so simple. Or more pertinently so much shorter than the physical reality in front of me. It’s a whopper. Already over 3m if you’re measuring the great big bloody hole ready to swallow up ‘Alex the Timid’ and nearer 5m when including entry and exit ramps.

Speed is definitely your friend. Unless you come up short in which case it really isn’t.  Next stop massive cartwheeling crash, with potential non-optional visit to hospital.

All of this has been a bit moot until recently. I’ve never imagined myself clearing it, while images depicting splattering myself all over the forest fill my hindbrain whenever the gap hoves into view.  So I’ve taken the sensible option of giving it the chicken-swerve.

The problem is bloody progression. I seem to be riding quite well lately – other than crashing myself silly which shall form the cornerstone of the next www.cranked.cc article – so what was really never more than pub bullshit ‘yeah I’ll get that nailed one day’ has now become ‘sober-doable

I’m a coward tho, so just because I can absolutely does not mean I will. Then all my riding buddies crossed the bloody Rubicon – firstly Cez but that’s okay as he’s a way better rider than me and, helpfully for this situation, fairly bonkers. Next up is Matt – again a far more skilled rider but a little more considered in terms of risk/reward. He was followed over by Alex W, another who is definitely handier on a bike….. hang on let’s just save time and assume EVERYONE is a bit better than me.

Right, we can move on. Only I couldn’t. Perfect conditions in late Autumn meant this was going to be ‘the day’. Just Matt and I so no friendly haranguers pointing phones at my imminent demise. The key to the gap is actually the jump before. Clear that by landing fully on the transition, and you’re at the perfect speed to hit the ramp of the MONSTER ABYSS ATTEMPTING TO DRAG ME INTO OBLIVION.

I really need to work on my positive thinking.  Any road, we hauling a fair lick on grippy dirt and I’m right behind Matt as he sails over the qualifier. Somehow tho –  because I’m a Doofus – I manage to fuck that up and drop my rear wheel short of the transition. I lose speed, and Matt’s rear wheel as he comfortably flies over 10 feet of fresh air to kiss the down ramp.

I come to a shuddering halt and swear.  Bollocks, we’ll go again. This time I hit it a little sweeter and I’m in a great position to conquer my personal nemesis. Only somehow I’ve grabbed a shitload of Shimano and scooted into the chicken run. Matt looks round ‘Did you….’ but he can see I did not. And he can hear it as well. I’m grumpy for the rest of the ride. And the rest of the day because now it’s November, meaning it’ll be Spring before I get another chance.

Except this exceptionally dry spell has left the trails mint-y mint. We’re on a long ride and the gap is close to the last descent. I’ve been going well and Matt asks if I fancy a crack at it. I mull the idea up a 10 minute climb, before deciding I’m basically out of excuses and it’s either Shit or Get Off The Pot. Hopefully not thinking too literally here.

Did I want another look at it? No I fucking did not. I’ve looked at it a 100 times. Mainly from a ground based position riding around the blighter. Right then,  we’re straight into the trail and it’s feeling good until Matt slows down. What the hell is he doing? Before the relief we’re not doing it washes through me, he’s off again heading for the qualifier.  Oh we are doing it then. Super.

I have never hit that jump so well, hardly felt the landing, and we’re accelerating hard down the slope past the point of no return. Not for one microsecond was I going to bottle it. My mind – as it does at such times of stress and worry – shut completely down and I handed the whole thing off to muscle memory and Newtonian physics.

You do hit it fast and there’s a real feeling of being in the air for a while. Then you’re not, and I’m a little nose heavy on landing but nothing that’s going to throw me out the front door. I totally fail to make the corner as I’ve chucked the bike away and am running around gesticulating wildly and making senseless noises*

Cez asked if I wanted another go for the camera. I decided probably not. I’m so wobbly from all the adrenalin and relief, I can barely stand up never mind poking the monster again. But next time will be a whole lot easier.

So the picture up there isn’t me. It’s Pete from a few years back**. It doesn’t really show the full horror of what’s going on. Obviously I’m making it sound WAY harder than it is, but when I moved here at 40, I couldn’t jump over a log and at 51 I’m still riding harder and scarier stuff.

This makes me feel like a five year old. And that’s risk/reward right there 🙂

*apparently no one noticed anything different to normal.

**and it’s longer than that now. Honestly, ask anyone!

Three wise men

Classic Gap Ride

This post could have worked a whole lot better had it been published during the season of the Sky Fairy. Especially as any lies – sorry mis-statements as we now seem to be calling them – would barely register against the nonsense of the  plastic believers making one-off pilgrimages to their local churches.

That’s quite enough of that. Let’s talk bikes.  Three men – let’s lose the wise tag based on what’s coming – appeared through the miracle of internal combustion at a mythical location we’ll call faff-central.

One brought sandwiches, another a massive hangover, the third a bunch of excuses and a non functioning rear brake. As gifts, these scored barely one out of three. The one barely scraping in due to two kinds of pickle and home made bread*

Classic Gap Ride

Van packed, driver navigationally confused, not very wise man one making unhelpful suggestions, definitely unwise man two still looking drunk. An inouspicus start. No stars, just winter solstice gloom and the desperate need to do things outside to avoid further incidents with cheese and brandy.

Ninety minutes later, we’re checking packs and worrying about the weather. In a ‘B’ movie kind of ‘it’s too quiet, something must be about to happen’ kind of way. Last year we slogged through snow, other years offered up rain, hail, gale force winds and assorted meteorological misery.

Best crack on then before Fate notices. First climb is fine. Easy even with no hangover and an absence of frost and ice. Easy for me, Cez however was rocking a skin colour I associated with either a) dead already or b) dead soon.  He man’d up and we got it done in a little under the baseline. I’ve ridden this route so many times, there’s a rhythm and a cadence to it, so you know if you’re ahead.

Classic Gap Ride

Or in Alex’s case, underneath it. On cresting the tricky last climb to the ridge, he’s chosen poorly with a route best marked summer, and essentially bog snorkelled his way out the far side. As close to wise as any of us get, I’ve skirted that obstacle and barely dipped a toe in the clay, while Cez has gone full ‘chubby tyre paddle steamer’ through the middle.

Classic Gap Ride

The ridge top is still a hundred metres of climbing away. Last year we were woefully under-provisioned in the area of ice climbing equipment. Today it was a breeze because neither snow, nor the bastard head wind, long associated with this climb, was attempting to throw you back into the valley.

Classic Gap Ride

It almost felt too easy. Which made me a bit suspicious. Rightly so, as the first descent upgraded my understanding of a rear brake from ‘that’ll pump up nicely’ to ‘no it’s totally fucked’. For the look of the thing we threw in a new set of pads which achieved nothing other than wasting a new set of pads.

The next descent was interesting. Exciting even. Momentarily terrifying. Once or twice eyes were closed. Wet Welsh rock asks a lot of tyres. The front one especially doing all the steering and – in my case – braking. Not much traction-pie left for actually ‘gripping’, so reducing my choices to rolling the dice to score breakneck speed into what’s essentially an abandoned quarry, or the strong potential of sanding myself down with some razor sharp slate.

I picked a middle way. Wasn’t pretty but got it done. Was quite happy to be heading back up hill. Before which Cez somehow managed to fall into a heap while not actually moving. The fact he’d been taking the piss about my inability to open a gate a moment earlier made this just a whole lot sweeter.

Climb then. Up the Roman Road. Sandwiches at the top. The Bird doesn’t climb as well as my Ibis but it’s nowhere near rubbish, and I was feeling pretty good so made a decent stab at hurting myself for the seventeen minutes your heart rate is bouncing agains the rev limiter. Was ready for a sit down and the burgeoning worry that I was essentially uni-braked heading into a shit-load of rock-chop and steepness.

Excusing myself, I headed out first and minced my way down the steepest pitches, especially those with loose rocks all seemingly labelled with my own personalised grim reaper motif.

Thew the bike down in relief and fired up the camera. To see Alex riding the stuff I’d found somewhat challenging in the manner of a semi-pro. Fair play I thought, that’s going somewhat and not lacking commitment. As he passed the lens, I heard the hiss of a tyre pushed far beyond it’s performance boundaries.

Classic Gap Ride

Classic Gap Ride

We heard this twice more on the same descent. Alex used the exact number of spare tubes we had. I’ll be honest one more puncture and we’d have stolen his van keys and left him there. It wasn’t just the repeated faff of dragging the tyre from the rim, it was the painful re-inflatement process with a wheezy pump he’d clearly inherited from his grandfather.

Classic Gap Ride

We eventually got it done and descended to the canal which lacked the ice cold puddles of previous years, then latterly the car park where the van was parked. In some ways I was relieved at not crashing myself stupid riding a single brake**. In others this felt too easy, not the hard bastard ride we’d talk about for months afterwards.

On reflection though, it was a brilliant day out and I’d successfully dodged a magazine of bullets. Sometimes you just have to accept that you’re not in control of a whole load of variables and that’s okay.

As a wise man once set. Not me, obviously.

*we’re not savages. A man has to eat. Artisan-ally in this case.

** every time I ride this route, I remember my mate Russ breaking his back on the final descent back in 2003.

Turning a corner

Slippy FoD Fun

Much of this blog is dedicated to cataloguing my pervasive rubbishness of all things bike related, with much general life stuff also taken into consideration. Some would hypothesise this is simply the self-depreciation of a man uncomfortable with his entirely un-English aura of awesomeness. Others – who have actually met him – would consider it purely as a restatement of fact.

Riding in mud is an excellent retelling of the oft misunderstood maxim that ‘it is the exception which proves the rule’.*  When the days are short and the mud is long distanced from the hardback of summer, I find all sorts of interesting ways to fall over, fall off and generally fail to make any kind of discernible progress.

There are reasons for this, but we’re not going there. I’ve been there so often to review that pantheon of uselessness, the boring bits get fast forwarded in my head.  This year though something has happened. An old dog may have learned some new tricks or at least not relearned the annual ‘how to be crap’ lesson once the trails aggressively posture their ‘moisture first’ strategy.

I’d love to say this epiphany is somehow skills based. Conquering mental weakness, performing flashy brave stuff, playing what’s in front of you, that kind of thing. Any such proclamation would be a big fat lie though because we all know old dogs really don’t learn new tricks at all. No instead they go tyre shopping**

A mountain biker without a rubber fetish is merely an amateur astride a dandy steed. The professionals amongst us are fully paid up members of the Durometer club. We are at home with threads per inch, we carefully study tread patterns, and the complex language of compounds being nothing more than an open book.

The outcome of which was a tractor derived monster tread fetching up on my front rim. A slightly less aggressive companion migrated to the back. The Internet smugly dismisses plus tyres as pointless for mud. Now my SolarisMax was shod with chunky 2.8 inch tyres at 12PSI, it was time to go rule proving and myth busting.

Onto trails which had had some rain. And then some more rain. And then downpours sweeping spitefully over leafless terrain. Not quite enough though to saturate the hardpack baked solid over that endless summer. So wet over hard then. My absolute favourite.

To ride in the winter, you must create an entire belief system around your front tyre. Regardless of the mud splattering your eyeballs, the uncertain balance from going sideways, and the unceasing wetness spiking your peripheral vision. These are for nothing if you keep the faith.

A decent bike handler knows what grip feels like. A really decent one knows how hard they can push beyond that. An average Joe like me can get all Newtonian with opposing forces and trust in R&D over marketing.  These tyres will hold a line if you weight them properly while showing a bit of commitment.

And when they do its glorious. A whole world opens up in the damp and dead forest. Narnia is out of the closet. You can push, push, slide, push a little more and then back off before disaster strikes. Even when it does, speeds are low and a full body mud immersion is the only real collateral damage.

Do this a few times and now there’s a bloke wondering if we should have a crack at another trail. Even when the pub is open. This hardtail is the perfect winter tool – it’s direct, consistent, not wallowing in pointless suspension and – afterwards – bloody easy to clean. It’s the tyres which make it tho, tempting grip from slick surfaces so egging the bloke on top to make a proper dirty protest.

There are limits of course. Steep and muddy. That’s Mr. Crashtastic gunning for me on every corner. Freshly cut trails offer nothing but wheel swapping and significant opportunity for a little lie down. Polished roots are winter snipers patiently waiting to take you down.

The last of which had me throwing shapes after taking line liberties no tyre could save me from. I threw the bike away, as it wasn’t offering much help, to slide into a bombhole on my arse. After checking myself out and foraging the now camouflaged bike from the surrounding shrubbery, I found I couldn’t actually get out. That’s how good the tyres are- you can ride even when you can’t walk.

Crashing is fine. Punctured hubris is not a new sensation. For a few corners before though, I felt I’d finally got this mountain biking thing dialled. The bike was turning and drifting at the same time which felt absolutely fine. I’d exchanged my normal tentative wafts at the bar for confident full limb prods to ride the slide. That’s the dirt talking to you right there however pretentious it sounds.

In the pub all I wanted to do was get back out there. For the past ten years all I’ve wanted is it to be April.  Sure it’ll get old before it gets better, but right now our half of the planet just spun its face to the sunny side. We’re on the long road to Spring.

Before that though I’m going to have some fun playing in the mud.

*’Proves’ as in tests like in baking, not as in law. Otherwise it’d just be statistical nonsense overplaying the importance of outliers.

**I appreciate this is stretching the metaphor a bit. But hey throw me a bone here 😉

 

Going through the change

Slippy FoD Fun

Seasons, weather, trails, me. Not that actual change you understand, because that’s in the same bucket of bad science which advocates blokes sharing the birth experience.*

If that hippy shit was underpinned by a shred of empirical evidence, I’d be menopausal on an annual cycle. Nights draw in, rain is meteorologically normalised, rock hard trails lets themselves go, and I’m caught between listless melancholy and a strong desire to migrate a thousand miles south.

We’ve established – in much retelling and tedious detail – that I’m no fan of the fourth season. It’d be no surprise if a gift subscription of an ancestry website would confirm me Californian by Christmas** None of which challenges the basic premise that if enjoyment was to be found in slogging through mud I’d have discovered it long ago.

Still as some pompous twat once felt the urge to share ‘be the change you want to see’***. What I saw was a week of Atlantic lows pushing unbroken cloud across our part of the UK in an apparent attempt to drown it.  Arrangements had been made however, and after a week of wondering why everyone else had knocked off for Xmas early except me, it was time to go find myself.

I found myself peering out of Matt’s garage into the pissing rain, while two of my bikes were being readied to battle those elements. And probably returning  requiring some form of trust fund to deal with the consequences of dragging expensive components through two hours of organic sandpaper.

No matter. I was riding my fab SolarisMax with a 2.8 front tyre clearly designed to find grip most chubby offerings never got close to. I know this to be true because my (well Jess’s really) old SolarisMax was being ridden by my old mate Ian. I wondered aloud to Matt if we should share the terrifying characteristics of the summer tyres with which it was shod.

We both felt this wouldn’t be helpful. After Ian fetched himself out of the shrubbery on about the fourth occasion, I felt the moment has probably passed. We were having fun tho – not only as his expense – because the sun had broken out to shine weak winter sunlight on trails not yet totally destroyed by that season.

It’s still early. While any attempt to steer may not be met with the expected Newtonian change of direction, we’re not yet death-marching through joyless rim deep mud. Oh I know it’s coming, but denial is a wonderful thing when you’re reacquainting  yourself with fusty bike handling skills. You know the ones – let the tyres move around without instantly triggering a panicked brake event.

We know how that ends. Don’t we Ian? Still since he was riding tyres I’d darkly labelled Schwable Suicides, any corner he found himself heading in the same direction at the exit he’d hoped for at the apex was something of a triumph. Watching him hold a mega slide on a steep chute was quite the thing to behold. Especially as I’d had a double dab and a involuntary swear word a few seconds earlier.

Still having already put myself in the frame for an accomplice to manslaughter, when sending him out on those tyres, I felt it only fair to warn him of the final gap jump separating us from beer and medals. I was having such a good time not actually hating it, I may have passed it off with a level of insouciance not entirely appropriate to the conditions.

Things going well in my little world don’t always translate to others. I’d been leaning on my front tyre, and giggling as the subsequent slides punted me gloriously into the next corner. I’d been improbably lucky sliding between the trees without actually hitting one. So now I wondered if a seasonal Strava name change to ‘HipSlider Moto’ could be considered as a non ironic mnemonic.****

Having left vague instructions on where the chicken run might be, I did my best to keep Matt in sight as we headed into the valley. The grip is awesome I almost shouted before it wasn’t, and I found myself blazing an entirely new trail some two metres from where I’d much rather be.

Drag it back into line. Two hard pedal strokes. Don’t look at that root stack on the corner. Look instead at the sloppy mess of the take off and hope the landing isn’t quite so perilous. It isn’t and we’re heading home with big smiles and a bottomless love for riding bikes.

Even Ian. Who decided to have a crack at the gap. His entry we liked, although a harsh critic would suggest exit velocity was a little lacking. Which may explain how he landed mostly with the front wheel on the dirt and the rear scrabbling to fetch itself out of a big hole. Inevitably this ended in man and rider parting company, with the former ploughing a full body furrow into the moist dirt.

No harm done and fair play for Ian having a go. We had another go today in the Forest and enjoyed it just as much. I’ve not idea why this is, because traditionally I loathe this time of year.

Going through some kind of change. Might be wondering how many winters I have left to ride. Might be a great front tyre. Might be something else entirely.  Not going to over-analyse that.

Riding bikes makes me happy. Shit conditions can do one.

*I vaguely remember a prenatal class where prospective fathers were asked to perform a simple task while holding a baby-doll. In terms of making coffee we did a great job, in terms of babies being left in sinks, upside down in the coffee grinder and repurposed as footballs, not so stellar. Exactly no lessons were learned.

**Or directly related to Henry VIII. Like every other poor sop who throws money down that particular rabbit hole.

*** Which made me wish very hard for them to change into a person significantly less annoying.

**** Obviously not. Delusion can only take you so far.

Full Circle

Bird Aeris one20-the budget build

Back in the midsts of time* I bought a Bird Aeris. 4,500 kilometres and some two years later I sold the remains to a young grom whose world – according to the the instagram lie filter – was mostly up in the air whilst tilted sideways.

And that was some of the problem. The Aeris was a bike which came alive about the time I began to worry I wouldn’t be around for much longer. It didn’t reward the tentative rider, the man on the brakes, the poorly body positioned. That’s not the reason I sold it though – although ‘reason’ is as ever conflated with the ‘call of the shiny

Oh the shiny. It’s a constant companion. Both a source of joy and a financial handicap. Mojo3, FlareMax, Fat Bike, Chubby Bike, another chubby bike, settling the wheel size debate with a firm punt at 27.5. And then 29. Somehow I ended up with three full suspension bikes none of which were quite right. We’ve been there, let’s not go there again.

Somewhere in the madness there was method.  I wanted a full suspension bike that’d survive the brutal slop and grit of a long Forest winter. The Smuggler failed to fulfil that role mostly due to a design predicated on mud never being more than an occasional annoyance. The clearance in the rear was parlous at best. When it got worse I’d be carrying the bloody thing due to the rear tyre wedged firm in the seat stays.

That’s exactly what happened to the Mojo3.  With about 50% of the mud. So now I had two bikes that were perfect for a) California or b) 8 months of a UK year.  Roll on twelve months and post a ruthless review of what I actually needed left me with the brilliant RipMo and laughing-in-the-face-of-a-UK-winter SolarisMax. The latter being two bikes via a simple swap of death-by-tyre chubbies to some proper 29er rubber.

Still with me? Good effort as I’m just making this shit up. After my personal dissolution of the monasteries, the ShedOfDreams(tm) had the look of a space recently burgled by an extremely discerning bike thief. Scattered amongst the remains were a set of previously enjoyed spares missing merely a frame to make them whole.

We’ve been here before. And whilst that is not surprising, it does at least provide me with the slenderest thread of logic to explain my latest purchase. The original Stache was nothing more than a parts mule configured for winter. The fact it didn’t last that long before the glare of the shiny burned it out is hardly worth mentioning.

So here we find ourselves with a box full of parts desperately needing a home, a hotel internet connection and a month long moratorium on weekday alcohol.  This  kind of abstinence is exactly why I drink in the first place to avoid the clarity of thought to buy yet more bikes. It may be detrimental to the liver but it has a positive effect on my bank account

Much browsing ends with a certain inevitability of choosing a frame matching a set of simple criteria – do the parts fit, does it have some proper tyre clearance, is it cheaper than the last bike I sold, is the bloke selling it not a total fucking psychopath?**

Four greens. And it’s a UK brand run by three blokes I’ve a lot of time for. Just the right amount of travel and only a few miles from box fresh.  It even had some frame protection tape applied – possibly while drunk – so saving me the potential marriage ending argument with Carol on exactly the best way to apply it.

I considered building it myself what with a shed full of spares, a wall full of tools and a fridge full of beer. But with great age comes great wisdom so I handed it over to Matt who twirled spanners in about four dimensions muttering darkly while rebuilding wheel bearings and engineering his way round lost parts.

As ever I was lost in awe and impatience. I’m really not good with the gap between ideas and completion. Finally the bike was handed over to check if anything was going to fall off before a proper ride tomorrow. And as usual, nothing did even with me dicking about riding down a few steps and attempting to tear fat tyres off wide rims.

Matt asked me over a beer if I thought I’d be a better rider if I didn’t buy so many different bikes. That brought me up short. Having considered it though, he might be right but it’s not really much of a concern. I’m comfortable being average when the fun of chasing silly dreams is more than a compensation.

So tomorrow we’ll ride still dry trails. There’s something comforting about doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. And the nice thing about circles is you can keep going round.

*2015 which when considering the barely-sub-lightspeed reconfiguration of my bike collection essentially frames 2015 as ‘pre-cambrian’

**That was strike 1. Even a man as ancient as I was still moved to wonder ‘what the fuck was he on?’ at the end of a non transaction.

You could buy a bike for that….

Jessie's new car

Cars represent freedom. Your first one so much more so. Sure they also represent an unsustainable rampage of the planet. They drive the individuals behind the wheel to status anxiety.  They reinforce the broken axiom that we must arrive in the same place at the same time. They channel the passive aggressive or – more often – the XY chromosome vein-pulsing aggressive.

Upside is there is a golden thread between bikes and cars. A reimagining of a future not constrained by walking distances or tired parents. Heading out with nowhere to go. Illicit meetings expanding little worlds. Occupying the space between innocent childhood and the rules of being an adult. Limitless and faithless. Fuck me writing that reminds me how youth is wasted on the young.

Moving on, as I must, we still have some kind of responsibility for offspring of an age where sixth form blocks are stuffed with badly parked L plates. Before going any further, let me share with you a universal truth. I’ve never thought of myself as brave or courageous, merely an average joe with the occasional ability to feel properly scared while tweaking the nose of terror.

I was kidding myself. No one has known real terror until they’ve ridden shotgun to their seventeen year old progeny who – on setting a collision course with a articulated truck at a closing speed of more than fifty MPH – has looked desperately to you for advice on which one the brake pedal might be.

Independence is a bit of a double edged sword*.  Wanting your kids to find their way in the world is tempered by the realisation that you’re no longer the centre of it. Still if I’ve learned anything it is that you can only use time, not buy it.  I used mine to research ‘cars least likely to explode in the hands of seventeen year olds’ with  a second filter to ignore anything more expensive than ‘the lovely MX5 I’ve just sold to fund it’

Diving into a pool somewhat larger than expected, had me scrolling an endless list of manufactures pretending their preposterously named model was somehow differentiated from an almost identical version rolled off the same production line.

Moving from the virtual to physical delivered interesting if bewildering insights into the psyche of your not-so-average teenager. An individual who cares nothing for quantitative data scoring vehicles on performance, reliability or safety. Such things pale into insignificance once one has considered the material items such as external body colour and the horror of a lowest-cost-bidder interior.

At the end of that day I’d mostly lost the will to live, but at least narrowed down any potential purchase to a couple of marques. I found one in a lock up in one of the many less salubrious suburbs of south Birmingham where a man, who somewhat distractedly doubled an an Asian George Clooney, gave me so many reasons to hand him over a wad of cash.

Being entirely useless at this kind of thing, instead I bored him with my memories of my first car. The one you approached more in hope than expectation. Doubly so if rain was in the air – a liquid fighting for hedgemony as you bathed the engine bay in WD40.

It might start. It might not. And if it did the myriad of catastrophic problems would present themselves to the driver. No insulation of worrying engine noises, square bearings or combustable electrics were spared to the man joggling the choke. A man who was also wrestling with unpowered everything, and mechanical disappointment requiring first gear should the gradient ever point upwards.

Mine was a real beauty. Externally it’d been repainted by a stoner armed only with a balding paintbrush and a tin of Hammerite. This hid the horrors inside  including an engine that wouldn’t, an heater which didn’t and steering that might occasionally do. All which ignores the windows with two settings – up and fallen into the door.

I could go on. And I probably did. George nodded sagely in the salesman’y manner of a man pretending to give a shit, but soon we were back in the lockup – test drive over – and he reverted to a bloke who expected to be transacting a purchase with a proper adult. At this point I handed him the phone at the end of which Carol fulfilled that role in a way I never can.

We bought the car. Two days later I arrived to collect it. At which point I noticed loads of cosmetic issues somehow hidden during the initial negotiation. No matter, if Jess or Aid have any of my skills, the poor buggers are going to spend a significant amount of their time fetching vehicles out of hedges.

It was great to drive home with Jessie in a car she’d soon be driving and – oh yes please let it be so – legally fetching her old man from the pub when he calls in the the PRV*. So enthused with our purchase were we that it wasn’t until I noticed Preston as a possible destination did I realise how much I’d come to rely on the SatNav in my own car.

Other than that, it’s pretty good fun. Even I can park it. It’s less than half the length of mine and missing all the toys. Which I don’t miss at all when I’m driving it. This brings us full circle back to the pointlessness of cars and why bikes are better.

Until we’re living in that utopia, I’ll be the bloke rigid in the passenger seat re-evaluating how brave driving instructors must be.

*or – as per the previous example – more a Sword of Damocles. At least I could cherish the thought that I’d be dying with at least one member of my family by my side.

*PRV=Pub Retrieval Vehicle. There’s no point going to all this trouble if there’s nothing in it for me.

Seller’s remorse

Things I have sold this week!

Now buyer’s remorse I’m mostly fine with. Familiar with certainty, as it demotes the full stop to a few days punctuated by shoddy rationale, desperate excuses, unquantifiable promises and the receipt of a shiny new thing.  That thing generally being whipped off the delivery lorry and secreted in the ShedofDreams.

Four years ago though we broke with the tedium of the ‘Alex new bike protocol’ to trade cash with a bonkers fella  keen to sell his wife’s car. To this day I’ve absolutely no idea if she was even peripherally involved with this transaction. No matter we left with an MX5 that’s given us no trouble, and not a little joy with every summer since.

The same could certainly be said for my Mojo3 and the Smuggler – the latter in a more muted manner. I’m aware that my constant tedious banging on that experiences beat things is not a lesson long lived in any purchasing history, but these particular things are at least a catalyst for fun times and happy memories.

Our little roadster didn’t do many miles but it certainly delivered many smiles. Entirely viceless and as eager to please as a Labrador. It played its role as commuter, pub bringer and occasional shopping cart horse without missing a beat. Sometimes I just found an excuse to go nowhere reasonably briskly, and thats not something the 20+ other cars I’ve owed ever had me do.

It’s been lent out to good mates, sat under inches of snow, ignored through months of rain, but still kept coming back to put a huge grin on my face. Like I say, it’s a motoring Labrador. The Mojo3 was a lot like that. To be fair it was a bit more of a problem child especially when conditions turned un-Californian.  But it was just so much damn fun, I could forgive it anything.

In my happy place, I remember an amazing trail in Spain last year. A ribbon or bedrock snaking around a handy mountain. Seven minutes of mountain biking perfection riding a bike apparently designed for just this trail and just this rider. Yeah it was shit load of cash but that run, that memory, that untempered joy of being alive may have a cost but it does not have a price.

I’ve left the smuggler to last, because – well – it was. It was a frame always on my short list, so it was a small step to actually owning it once a newer model came out. The discounted price was still in the ‘really? is that all you get? Surely it should come with a car as well’ bracket, but perception is never a precise science.

It didn’t disappoint dragging me through a grim winter after extensive dicking about on an autumn long on dry trails and short on mud and clag. Last winter tho – even after my eight week mandatory riding cessation – reminded me that US designed bikes tend not to acknowledge that at least an extra inch of room is required out back to propel bikes through soggy dirty long distanced from firm.

Some frustration followed including carrying a heavy bike like a tired child across shitty trails because the rear tyre was jammed in the chainstays.  This macro problem was not really the issue at hand tho. A wider view would reveal three full suspension bikes, two of which looked very similar once you squinted past the graphics.

Desperate times ladies and gentlemen.  Through the medium of various internet channels, the whole shebang was cleaned, photographed, described – mostly with a semblance of honesty – and then thrown to the masses. Most of whom confused market price with the barter system. No, right now I’m good for a MOT failed rust-heap, 200 partially burned pallets and a ton of hooky aggregate.

Still from this sow’s ear of a global marketplace, a silk purse of three individuals – at least partially steeped in adulthood – came close enough to the asking price for me to grudgingly hand over the items in the hope they’ll enjoy them as much as I did.

In the case of the MX5, that’s pretty much a given based on her smile as she gunned it out of our drive. Strangely that’s the one I’m struggling the most with. Bikes come and go with revolving door frequency, but moving the Mazda on was a wrench. A last drive reminded me how much I have loved to keep it.

It’s not getting driven tho. I’m away far too much, and selling it now releases a wad of cash to buy Jess and Aid a car. That in itself brings a whole new set of problems, many of which will involve me going postal at some fuckwit salesperson who has dangerously attributed me with a iota of patience for their fist-twitchy spiel.

It might be best if I let Carol take the lead on any negotiations. Until then I look outside at the drive and inside at the ShedofDreams, and cannot feel anything but we’ve been burgled by a thief who really knows his stuff.

Seller’s remorse. I don’t know if that’s even a thing. It is now.