Equations.

Take: “It’s been pissing down with rain for three days“. Add “it still is“. Multiply by “It is not going to stop

Subtract “Motivation“. Divide by “eyelid dropping tiredness”

Solve “Hardly Ridden Hardtail“+“2.35 DH tyres“+”Rubbish Brakes” = “Perfect bike for slippy and shitty conditions”

Apparently this all equals “Yes! A Night Ride. BRING IT ON, I CAN HARDLY WAIT, OH HOW LUCKY AM I

Yes I know there may be an article in Singletrack that talks up the joy of muddy rides when you can’t see and you can’t steer, and you can stop but only by hitting a tree. And yes, I accept I wrote it. And if it makes you happy I’ll further concede that exactly one post ago my extollation on the joys of four season riding was unbounded.

That was when I was inside and dry. Anyway, this time it’s a public service as my riding bud reckons he’ll be forced to strike out on his road bike if I don’t go. That’s the lowest form of blackmail. He’d better have got the tea on and primed the hose pipe*

I’m sure it’s going to be lovely.

Afterwards.

* for post ride bike cleaning. In case you were in any doubt.

It was one of those nights…

… when you turn out the lights at which point song lyrics and riding reality diverge. While AC/DC rock on with “while everything comes into view”, my personal world was essentially pitch black and silent. Except for the horrible sound of tyres sliding on wet roots and some associated whimpering.

This was a day which had started badly, then spiralled ever downwards leaving me desperate to crush the unenlightened in a pedal revolution. But it is hard to unwind your mind and plot vindictive revenge when the first obstacle acts as an organic off switch.

The trails were in that transitional state between grippy and slippy, while the trees were still resolutely bone breaking hard. I caressed the first with a shoulder before juddering to a desperate stop. Some cable fiddling later convinced me my darkened days were behind me – which as a belief system lasted about as long as a wine gum.

When the lights died again, so nearly did I – this time bouncing off a tree which at least had the beneficial effect of slowing my progress to a somewhat larger drop to my left. When the going gets tough, the terminally cheesed off go home and that was my strategy, until Martin generously halved his own lumen count by insisting I took temporary ownership of his helmet light.

Funky little Exposure Joystick thing with a buddy attached. The dead weight on the bars was at least twice as bright but since it wasn’t working, I wasn’t complaining. Well not more than usual anyway. Martin’s reward for his selfless sacrifice was a flat tyre which split the pack, and led to some comedy communication failures due entirely to only one person actually having a phone about their person.*

My enlightened status was dependant on a tiny battery Martin admitted he’d never tested to destruction. So most of my riding was spent with a well focussed torch on my head and absolutely no idea what was going on left or right of that. Or whether it was about to get permanently dark again.

Which puts the whole Lumen Arms Race into perspective. Most of us started riding with 2/3rds of bugger all fading to yellow after less than an hour, after which we navigated by memory and bruising. So while Tail End Charlie was the only option, if I didn’t want to be thrown into a megawatt shadow, there was a certain nostalgic rush riding at the limit of an ickle light. Slower it may have been, but less fun?

I’m not sure that’s right because one much loved section of singletrack felt so different with sufficient illumination to enjoy it, but not enough to turn it into daylight. And taking it easy was absolutely the right approach since my entire evening seemed to suggest a better way to spend my time would be programming A&E on speed-dial.

Really it was if I couldn’t quite decide where to crash; “ooooh nearly, no let’s go a bit further, no that doesn’t count you’re still on the bike, hang on slamming testicles is merely a coping technique, sorry you’ll need to try harder“. I was trying pretty hard discovering helmet lights are ace for showing you where you’re pointing, but not entirely stable on a head wobbling about on wibbly trails.

The final descent probably had my name on it, so – if proof were needed that God Loves me sometimes – when my chain snapped in a way suggesting it only had a future for harvesting powerlinks, I gave up and dug out my pumping skills** to roadie it home. Martin punctured again, which if karma means anything would suggest I’d have been medi-vac’d off that hill with a spatula had my mechanical not saved me.

I’ve bought one of those Exposure jobbies mostly for being able to find my way round the Forest in darkness, but also because some old school/anti nightsun riding may call. Look at it this way; shitty, cold winter night, force yourself out, might as well throw in some naked terror because misery works better in threes.

Ask me how I know.

* That’d be the one doing the texting. I’m sure Alexander Graham Bell felt the same way before he’d shed’d the second unit.

** The bike ones I learned from Tony Doyle, the dogging area is on the other side of the Malverns. So I’ve been told.

Beer or Bike?

Not so much a quandary, more of a life decision. Many times I’ve moodily watched expensive vegetation being drowned or whooshed horizon-wards by tornado winds thinking “I’m good at excuses, this would seem an ideal time to make one”, before bearing down on the sofa waypointing at beer fridge and crisp cupboard. The consequences of such an easy choice are bigger trousers, unreconstructed feelings of guilt and entirely missing the point.

Before moving here, riding rarely ended without beer. Some started that way as well although inevitably finished in a heap of limbs making giggling noises half way up a tree. Only when the shock of failing to recognise your riding buddies in civvies after two years of sharing trails, do you realise how much things have changed. All the good bits are still there; like minded people, gentle piss taking, hidden competitiveness, schadenfreude, pain, suffering, lucky escapes, joy, pain and scars. But post ride is a quick go on the hose pipe* and away to general duties.

This week we invited the Forest crowd over to sample some proper hills not bounded by bar spinning trees. This was – for most of them – a first experience of the geological oddity that are the Malvern Hills. Powered by volcanic activity, they rise from a flat alluvial plane with unrelenting steepness to multiple jaggety peaks. We set off up the North end which is busier, rockier, higher and criss-crossed with plunging trails and bastard climbs.

First up we had hoards of riders to escape giving the poor FoD crew an experience similar to dropping Robinson Crusoe into Central London. To spare them from having to explain where all those extra fingers came from, we dropped into the shadow of the Worcester Beacon and kept it right side and looming on the approach to the last proper Malvern Peak. North Hill brackets the end of the ridge, and offers many secret delights down into the town itself.

First tho a stiff pull*** skywards before a cheeky cut back on moist grass enlivened with tyre stopping rock. Everyone got down but not without some wide eyed stares. The perception seemed to be that the ride would mostly be on soft grass with a few rocks thrown in. This end of the hills is exactly like that only entirely the other way round. Crash in the forest and you’ll be picking teeth out of ancient oak roots, lunch it here on something steep and they’ll be using those teeth for identification.

We skirted the worst of the grassy climbs before summitting high on the ridge end, stopping only to enjoy the popping sound of cooling singlespeeder knees. Yes, Adam was back on a bike lacking 26 out of 27 important mechanical parts, but the bugger did stunningly well to get up everything. Confirms my hypothesis: Alien. Good times tho playing to Al’s first rule of riding “50% of what’s good is where you are, the rest is who you’re with

And where we were was topside of a rocky horror switching to mad steep dirt abbreviated by vertical granite sleeping policemen keen to make a tyre arrest. Riding it at dusk on the hardtail was reasonably involving, but my mind was distracted by the general carnage in front of me. Nobody died which seem to spur the boys on to tackle a nasty set of steps incongruously located in the middle of bloody nowhere.

I gave them a miss but liked to think earned a few man points with a brisk clearance of a much loved rock step accompanied by a silent “glad I didn’t fuck that up“. Now we’re in Malvern proper and that’s the low point of the ride. Elevation wise we’re a big hill from home, and it’s a 25 minute climb to get there. No point rushing I offered, I’ve tried that in the past and while the hill doesn’t care, you’ll end up spatchcocked over the bars making the kind of gestures un-bowled goldfish are known for.

There’s a cheaty, easy way round the Beacon to crest the final climb. It seemed a shame to share that what with a few of the boys showing such enthusiasm for the steep and unforgiving front face. Those buggers have had it over me enough time in the deep, dark woods and it’s important to restore karma. Not that I was in any way counting. Oh no.

Much nudging regarding quality of the view from the top. Not surprising since riding in the Forest is brilliant but visually merely slightly different coloured bark. No time to linger though, with a straight mile of lumpy descent unencumbered by corners but fast enough to promise breakfast through a straw should liberties be taken. Martin (proper guide and reason we didn’t spend the entire night going “er, this way not sorry that way, er anyone got a compass, or a rabbit’s foot?“) is a man who does indeed take liberties on this trail, and raced off with the Forest boys in determined pursuit.

I was sweeping at the back, and nearly had to sweep myself up after a rather vigorous if unwise pace was applied to a part of the trail where the ground drops away and tyres scrabble desperately for grip. I slowed down a bit after that which was fine as I wasn’t catching anyone anyway.

A quick loop back over the top of the wyche so we could finish fast and loose on big steppy rocks and then just big steps found us at 8:45pm having climbed 2,300 feet in a lot less than ten miles – the result was a bit of cheek blowing democracy on what we should next.

We went to the pub. Obviously. And it reminded me what a great natural high dopamine mixed with decent beer will give you. So now Al’s rules of riding runs to three, the one up there, an assertion that “riding is always better than not riding” and now “A proper ride only ends when stumbling tiredness is mixed with conversational bollocks and decent beer“. I reckon there’s a book in here somewhere.

So it’s not beer or bike. It’s beer AND bike.

I know what some of you are thinking. And I know how old you are. You should be ashamed of yourself. Really. Next thing you’ll tell me farting is still funny**

** Okay I accept that.

*** There you go again. Not role models for your children really.

Rag it. Ragged.

Last night, on wonderful summer trails, I rode my blisteringly quick titanium hardtail in a harmonic partnership of a singletrack machine and a bag of spanners. In fact, it wasn’t so much a ride rather an orienteering exercise hunting for the scene of a crash. Finding one early in no way dimmed my enthusiasm to keep on looking.

Released from a vein throbbing vocational space full of other people’s problems masquerading as my own, my focus was more inside that out. So a certain internalising of “grrrrr” propelled an angry Al on the first downhill at the speed of stupid. Or stupid squared, because my little talent requires constant compensation by awesomely clever bike parts, of which a fully functioning fork ican be thought of as key.

A fork I had locked out for the bastard steep climb immediately before Mr Kamikaze was placed firmly in the drivers seat. The trail feedback suggested all was not well, but any inkling that fully rigid and full speed may not be compatible for a man wishing to retain all his teeth, was sidelined by every upstairs neuron desperately searching for solutions to a high speed off track diversion bringing an extremely difficult looking tree into my immediate future.

Not having any feet on the pedals by this time wasn’t helping my internal or external balance. and really that tree was getting mighty close. Fuck it, foot down, wrench the bars, register pain shooting upwards from the heelbrake(tm) and a further sharp ow from my knee. Miss tree, regain control of bucking bicycle, further register howls of derision and giggling from behind. A quick call to damage control suggested nothing broken, although many parts significantly shaken and a good armful of blood from a knee/bar interface.

What I actually cut my flesh on was the lockout lever for the fork. Oh the irony.

The remainder of the ride retained a similar level of excitement coupled with raw, naked fear. First a 30mph drop from a grassy hilltop collected a gulley full of super-loose shale about half way down. It nearly collected me as well, and if I’d even looked at the brake lever, the sky would have become ground and the ground sky. Survived that, somehow made the corner, plunged into the dark woods barely registering the important difference between brown dirt and brown tree.

Back on the hardtail is ace. It’s properly direct, steers just on the right side of flighty, rewards every pedal stroke with a surge forward but is still beautifully poised on a long fork and clever materials over the rough stuff. But after riding the ST4 for seven months, you not only realise how damn good a sorted hardtail is, you’re also pretty much in awe how fucking amazing a full suspension bike is as well. Nice to have the choice because you can never have too many toys. Unless you 11 and 9 and you’re asking your dad for some new ones. That’s different. Obviously.

Last descent and it’s proper dark. I’ve yet to manage anything smooth and fast. I’m sat on the rear wheel of someone quick and I’m hanging in there but it’s ragged, constantly locking the rear brake and sliding on trail marbles. There’s a myth that the reason Full-Suss bikes are quick is because they soak up the bumps – there is a bit of that but the real USP is grip and especially when it’s at a premium under braking. I’ve lost the finesse of finding it through modulation of the lever and my progress is fast-slow-fast.

I am hanging in there tho, letting the bike have its’ head and trying to keep up with the blur of scenery when I do. Case a 2 foot drop that I’ve nailed forever on the ST4, curse, get back on it, smash through a bush on a bad line, be brave through three bends to bridge the gap before we’re in the trees where steep, rooty and off-camber come together in a three dimensional problem solved every second by shifting weight, feathering the brakes, picking desperate lines searching for the flow, finding something else – call it fun, reasons to live, drugs for free, outdoor therapy rolled into a line of dirt and a wheel to chase.

We all get it. It’s all “fucking hell” and “did you see…” and “how bloody good…” and there’s another three months of this before we’re back to slop and grime. The night before a good old friend and I navigated randomly in the Forest, me on the ST4, him on his hardtail and we had pretty much the same conversation. Whatever you may have been told, it’s not about the bike. But it’s damn good fun finding that out.

Right, that’s me done for a week. We’re off on holiday to enjoy the great British Summer. Which has been great until about a month ago, but never mind I find the beaches less crowded when it’s 12 degrees and hailing. One day we’ll be in a Helicopter which is going to properly test my fear of height/exposure. Expect wibbling come this time next week.

I blame the singlespeeder.

And if we blend in the Government of the day augmented with traffic wardens, estate agents and any person who volunteers to be on a committee, we have created a body onto which all the evils and ills of the world could be blamed.

“Ready the Scorpion Pits and Bring Fresh Spiders” I hear you cry, but even in the benevolent dictatorship much loved by the Hedgehog, first there must be a trial where evidence of misdeeds and character assassinations can be aired. I didn’t say it was going to be a fair trial.

The Wednesday FoD ride is become a confusing juxtaposition of slack and speed. Which I reversed by turning up early, before becoming increasingly lethargic. Whereas the riding widdle* rolled in at ever increasing intervals, with excuses ranging from forgetting what day it was to a total boycott of the Julian date system.

Now I had every reason to invoke faff-time what with the Cove maidening its’ reincarnation, no such latitude should be available to a man who has dispensed with his entire selection of gears. And yet, Adam appeared to be having significant car-park issues with his Inbred** resolved largely with rolls of gaffer tapes, and the occasional targeted trail tool wang.

Obviously I made jolly jest at his japery, and just as obviously he paid me back in spades. First tho a rude awakening – of the arse mainly – riding a single sprung end. Immediate and direct are good things when the front wheel is sniffing dusty trail, but less appealing when the rear attempts to insert the saddle up ones’ jacksey.

I stopped for a pointless fettle only to find I had been abandoned. I don’t think you need to be told which individual failed to pass on my need for a halt do you? In his defence, his knees may have been exploding, but this gave me little comfort in my increasingly desperate meanderings searching for riding pals, tell tale tyre tracks or a mobile phone signal.

I found the latter at exactly the time one of the Al-finding splinter groups called me up, established my location, listened to the confused silence after directing me back to the riding cluster, before hovering me up with more cheerfulness than I’d be exhibiting in his position.

There was some joshing around my under-developed sense of direction. I countered that it was developed just fine thanks, it’s just a bit rubbish. Anyway while I was happy to re-united with the fine fellows who’d spent 15 minutes chasing round the forest searching for me, I couldn’t help thinking the uni-cogged one was entirely responsible.

“Split ‘em up and the do ‘em one at a time” I could see him thinking. My imagination ran wild projecting a vision of a forest full of smashed derailers and severed limbs, as this advance guard of the one-geared Jihad carried out his dreadful night-work.

I was installed mid-pack and given stern warning not to wander off on my own again. A pack that snaked on some old-school trails skirting an enormous lake hidden by vegetation and some kind of invisibility field. Honestly, one minute there was nothing but trees and the next, some great bloody body of water looms in your field of vision. I fully expected to see some Athurian knight fetching a sword out of it.

Following on was a rooty trail needing pedalling to maintain motion. Puts the hard into hardtail that does, and watching the dual-spring boys riding away makes you appreciate just how damn good modern full-suss bikes are. Come the next big climb tho, the low weight, high power transfer of the Cove reels it back a bit.

But bikes – mountain bikes especially – are for riding downhill and a perfect example of such a trail now awaited. Two brilliant things happened down here, firstly I was reunited with the simpe joy of sorted hardtails nailing swoopy singletrack, and secondly the Singlespeeder fell off.

Adam looked a bit bemused at the cause of the accident. I was able to help him out by explaining that he had been unable to select the correct gear. What with him not having any. He may have laughed but I reckon when the rest of his alien tribe land, I’m first in line for the anal probe.

Light running out, we made hasty tracks onto “Green Lane” a peach of a trail arcing through head high vegetation. The super fast boys disappeared pretty quickly, as did any sense of where the trail went next as I found myself heading up the rest of the pack.

These fellas are also pretty rapid and I certainly couldn’t deal with ignominy of being passed by an injured man missing vital components, so head up, imbibe virtual bravery pills, let the bike do its’ thing. Which it did stunningly well even with my wide eyed twitchiness at the speed we were now travelling.

Ace. Not quite as ace was Steve’s short cut through a spiky part of the forest where he pretended there was a route. Clearly he’d been egged on by the Singlespeeder, or the mind control was beginning to take over.

It did at least take us to a trail I ACTUALLY HAD DONE BEFORE. Only in the wet and on one of my first visits to this MTB playground. It did seem to pass far quicker this time around, but maybe I am just thinking slower nowadays.

Properly going dark now***, we finished up on a rollercoaster of a track that you probably wouldn’t risk in the day. No better way to round off a great ride than some dusky trail poaching. Except possibly for beer which was on the agenda, but a 5am start meant I had to wearily decline.

But, I thought, probably time for a quick cold one when I get home. Except the fridge was empty of liquid therapy, and the only alcohol alternative was to make myself a Snowball. Not even I am that dependant.

No beer in our fridge? I know, it’s unheard of. Almost an impossibility. How could it be allowed to happen?

I blame the Singlespeeder 🙂

* What is the collective noun for a group of mountain bikers? I’ve always favoured “Flange” but could be persuaded on “Gusset” or even “Trunion”.

** This is a bicycle brand. Oh to be a fly on the wall during those marketing meetings. The hilarity eh?

*** I was going to use the phrase “Those nights are drawing in” but dare not say it out loud in our house. It tends to trigger a violent rolling pin reaction from Carol.

Lessons Learned

You never stop learning” as preppy and enthusiastic training types are want to brightly scold you. At my age, it’s more of a “never stop forgetting” decline, but there may be some merit behind the over-reaching ethic of self-improvement.

Take last night for example, some representative example to share:

Meet time is not ride time. Oh no, because first there is “faff time” and “chat time” before we’re ready to go. And then we don’t because someone’s disappeared for a spot of dogging*, someone else hasn’t even turned up yet, and the route is still in the “committee” stage.

It’s all part of the ride experience, and – I’m sure – backed by some EU rules.

Mid April is still night riding. Even if you’ve forgotten your lights. Then it’s more “dark riding” really.

When bikes > 5, there will be a mechanical. Ahem, that’ll be me then, serially stuffing air into my shock which still has some damping, but not any associated with compression.

Don’t think that because the route pathfinder is also lightless, you will not suffer benightment in a dark forest with people you hardly know. This is because he can clearly see perfectly in the dark, and may have been crossed with an Owl or a Bat. You however, will find your way by crashing into trees.

It is not possible to avoid chasing people. I am like a labrador, they are the juicy stick. I can hear Tony DoyleSlow in Fast Out, Looking round the corner” in my ear but the Ego Devil is on my shoulder shouting “GET ON WITH IT YOU MINCER” and it’s his advice I follow. Predictably, the stick remains uncaught.

New trails should not be taken at full pace. Becuase you will find yourself entering an obstacle (let’s hypothosise a very large and deep roll down) at a speed far exceeding your skill base. Regardless of the parlous state of the bike’s suspension, you absolutely will acheive full travel on the anal sphincter.

Local knowledge rocks. Fifteen miles of perfect singletrack, grippy on the corners, fast on the straights, rooty and tight one minute, fast and open the next. Dust motes backlit by the setting sun. Finish one section and immediately dive back into the woods for more trail perfection. You know it won’t always be like this, and somehow that makes right now even better.

Riders make the ride. If I’d been accompanied on this trail only by GPS and my own company, the ride would downgrade from great to good. Regardless of the long back stories from the guys on the ride, I still felt part of a kind of group conciousness that just wants to ride, to have the craic and to feverently help someone falls off in front of them.

One thing I didn’t learn last night was just how brilliant riding bikes is. Because I already knew that. But it is brilliant to the power of giggle when you add all the summery elements, so badly missed in the never ending winter we’ve endured.

I’ll be there 6:30pm next week. Ready to faff 🙂

* this may not be entirely true, but they came back looking flustered, yet satisfied

Filthy Rich

That’s pretty much how I was feeling when taking that photo. Which would seem a difficult mental equation considering the evidence; endless swathes of wet, mud to a depth which offered drowning as a real possibility, encroaching darkness and being quite properly lost. But I always find it really rather simple to solve: Bikes + Dirt = Happy Al. Hence my plan to make my personal World a better place snatching a ride between work ending and family stuff starting.

It didn’t start well. I was gritting my teeth on the first road climb soon to be picking detritus out of them, as my choice of mudguard* failed to prevent tarmac shrapnel fired by water tracers blasting me at high speed. Inevitably this wetness extended to an all over moist experience which at least prepared me well for when tarmac switched to trail. The woods here share none of the porous geology found in the Malverns. Instead they hold rain in a thick clay soup, making them largely off limits for MTBing during any prolonged wet spell.

This “Red Death” sets in about October and hangs around past Easter. There are – for the adventurous rider – some lovely dryish trails** but these are mostly lost in a delta of mud fed by rivers of gloop. I’ve seen terrible thing happen to great tracks when over-ridden during shitty conditions, so my approach is always to head straight down the centre regardless of any wheel swallowing puddles.

This served me well until I attempted to pedal or steer. Pedalling immediately drove the rear wheel sideways, and any attempts at cornering boldness immediately led to the kind of catastrophic oversteer where the front wheel ends pointing back at you. Or at least it would be, were you not now lying winded on a handy stump laughing your tits off. I dusted off the old cerebral CD cabinet and loaded up the forgotten “Chiltern Hills” riding skills to see if five years of falling off there would be in any way useful.

It was in a nudgy-nurdly approach to making progress. The fantastic ST4 was largely pointless as when it’s this wet – you’d be as quick on a shopping trolley. But that is not the point here; love the Malverns as I do for their all year riding, their steeps, their proper mountain-lite ness, woody singletrack still feels like home. And even when it’s under about four inches of mud, there’s still fun to be had switching drift for grip and sideways movement for speed.

90 minutes was all the time I had, which included a total of eight pot-holed road miles miles to reach the woods. Talking of totals, the scores on the now darkened doors were not terribly impressive. 13 Miles with a smidge over a 1000 feet of climbing. That distance in the Malverns, and you’re half way up Everest.

But it was brilliant fun, and entirely fitting in with my goal of doing something silly every day. Which may go some way to explain why tomorrow 5am will see me getting up to drive sixty miles to Birmingham in order to get a train to London. When ones leaves about the same time as the one from just up the road.

That’s not silly, that’s on the mentally unstable side of bonkers.

* None. Bought one of those fancy RaceGuard ones. But the clearance under the Reba fork arch is, well, Californian.

** Where the horses haven’t been. Clearly most horse riders are illiterate as the “Please Don’t Ride in these woods” are generally ignored.

Gym Membership.

I’ve written often, tediously – and some would say tediously often – on the subject of exercise/gym membership and the indisputable fact that the world is not merely going mad, it’s doing so with with big trousers and an apparent glandular problem. Earlier this summer, the planets almost aligned with a fatist agenda meeting vanity publishing, but – passionate as I am about such things – I really couldn’t be arsed to do anything about it.

So let us change tack a little and consider the rather wobbly backside of the problem. A fella at work has seen Jabba The Hut staring back at him on too many mornings, and decided the answer is to join a Gym. He proudly announced this to a hardcore audience, all bitterly cynical and wondering how their dreams of becoming an astronaut had not properly been realised while working in an office shouting at computers, and frankly they weren’t impressed.

Twp reasons; firstly we all know that Gym’s have a cunning business model based on 90% of their customers not turning up after the first two weeks, and secondly because this 14 day usage had extracted£480 UP FRONT from his trousered funds. Okay it’s London and everything inside that alien planet has many shades of wrong, but the thick end of five hundred smackeroons in order to wobble sweatily in front of mirrors and watch Jeremy Kyle?

And they say Mountain Bikers are mad. We’re barely borderline psychotic compared to Mr. Fat Fuckwit and his body issues. Really, two types of people go to gyms, those who have genetically fast fingers, eyes and mouths wrapped in lazy blubber, and those who don’t need to go at all, but enjoy waxing themselves up with whale jism while admiring the results. Most of them seem to work in sales or marketing. You never know, outside chance of a heart attack and they’re not anywhere near me, so hey fill your boots/boobs/whatever.

That picture represents about£480 and it’s my unimpeachable counter-argument to gym membership. Ah, but you don’t have a bike in there I hear you wheeze. Well fatty, here’s how it goes, the bike is a given, riding through the seemingly unending winter is quite something else. Because like the gym run, slogging through four months of the grim is almost entirely based on guilt. No rider wants to get fat and sloth like over winter, but many do because the trails are under the water table, and it’s easier to change channels than change clothes.

So this is what you do, turn that guilt into opportunity. Go out and spend proper money on wet and cold weather gear that makes riding for hours in those conditions, which has most ordinary people worrying about the roof, in almost complete comfort. Okay it is not sofa comfort, the wind still bites, exposed bits are apparently unattached and there are times when the “what the fuck am I doing ?” gene is straining to overwhelm your commitment gland. But that’s not a reason to stop, it’s nothing more than an excuse – between which is the gap between keeping the faith and keeping a larger winter wardrobe.

Last night was another great example. For the first time in weeks, it wasn’t pissing down. But the ground was sodden from a month of rain, the tops were ice cold and freezing, lower down the mud sported the thinnest of frozen crust easily breached by knobbly tyre. The windchill was epic, and we had one of those rides where everyone has a mechanical or a puncture or both. But the visibility was unlimited, the sparkly views warmth for the soul and the temporary ownership of the hills absolute. And while you’re feeling pretty damn privileged to have unlimited access to wide open spaces and big hills, all that stuff is just getting on with making sure you have the best time possible.

It’s so different to even a few years ago. Suspension forks don’t need nightly rebuilds, tyres grip on almost anything, gears work well and brakes better, lights no longer shake themselves to death, waterproof shorts are, breathable jackets do and leak proof shoes don’t. Whenever someone asked – generally with a look of incredulation – why you would “want to go out in THAT”, I sort of feel sorry for them.

Because they’re going to the Gym. And worse still, they seem to think they’ve got the better half of the bargain.

Bless.

That night ride was brought to you by…

  • Zero visibility fog
  • Amusingly intermittent LED lights
  • Leaking Camelbaks
  • Cheeky rain showers
  • Tractionless wet leaves
  • Occasional mud, always in a place most likely to cause an accident
  • Bruised testicles
  • Vertical exposure

This rider would like to thank

  • The bloke who designed Avid Juicy disc brakes
  • New Zealand Merino Wool
  • Kenda Tyres
  • Giro Helmets
  • GroundEffect toasty socks
  • Endura waterproof shorts
  • Shimano boots

without which I’d be communicating from a hospital bed.

That was a PROPER night ride 🙂

Embrace the mudness.

Last week, at about this time, I looked out of the window and spiteful, freezing rain glared right back at me. So I ventured outside to check whether rain’s winter* twins were physically in evidence. Indeed they were, a biting cold wind under a thunderous sky clamping the world in grey and misery.

Perfect conditions for riding a mountain bike at night then. And if you read last months Singletrack magazine**, articles abound on the joy of slogging through two seasons of mud, grit and grimness. Now we all know that such writings pour forth from the deluded, the medicated or the untruthful, and yet I find their tone worrying in that it fails to resonate at all.

You see maybe I’ve stopped being a Mountain Biker. Oh I still ride quite a lot, on different bikes in different places with different people. And yet, I enjoy being out with the kids for an hour on some play dirt, as much as I do humping up hills and scaring myself shitless going down. Maybe “recreational cyclist” is a more appropriate moniker.

That’s not good, and neither is my attitude to night riding at the best of times. Those times being mid summer, zero chance of benightment, short sleeved tops, comedy tan marks and trails of dusty grip. Even then, shifting my arse and mental state from ‘sofa‘ to ‘saddle‘ takes way more effort that it should when you consider how 99 times out of a 100, I love being out there.

My new tactic is not to go home at all. Ignore the distractions of family, warm rooms, hot food and a million things on the to-do list. Throw the bike in the car, and throw myself into a days work that’ll demand unwinding through a thousand pedal revolutions. But more than that, stop thinking it’s cold, and shit, and horrible and instead revel is the silliness of slippy trails, the joy of solace in normally crowded hills, the big deposit in the summer karma bank – all of that and all of the other stuff you can neither define or explain but makes up a big piece of the “why we do this” pie.

A difficult day morphed into a traffic stained drive home leaving me far too stressed for the gentle ribbing of my riding pals. But within the first hundred yards of splashy spinning, all that was behind and only things marked fun lay ahead. I felt good – and the older you get, the more random this seems regardless of any perceived levels of fitness and vim – and it was great to settle into the comfy armchair cadence of of the like-minded.

Better still, we bypassed the first 600 foot climb which leaves me breathless and broken every time. It’s a horror, and I wasn’t sorry to feel the shadowy presence of the big hill brood over our valley borne souls. We still put in a good shift at the climbing face though, and it was nearly thirty minutes before we commanded a high point overlooking twinkling lights of the towns and city below.

I’ve always loved this bit. Imagining the hundreds, thousands of people down there washing up, watching television, getting old by proxy and living little lives that didn’t explode a couple of times a week when mixed with mountain biking. I know this is a shallow and naive view of the world, but it warmed me as that cold wind howled over the tops. Time to go. Better still time to go downhill.

A descent through an old grassed earthen-work ditch is the only place in my riding world where two wheel drifts don’t lead directly to Accident and Emergency. A hasty discussion when we’d stopped giggling sent us onward – deep into the Malverns to ominous heights. Black Hill, Perseverance and Hangman’s point all connected with zig zagging paths and windy summits.

Below the three line, it was warm, pleasant even, to grind up the few hundred feet lost after we’d cheek’d our way down some alpine like swtichbacks. On top, the wind drove us on and back towards home taking in a descent that is so steep and so fast I’ve watched my life pass behind my eyes many, many times. Nowadays I displace the terror of the speed and the hiss of loose gravel under wheel by fast forwarding past the dull bits.

More climbing – there is so much here in such short distances. Every mile you ride, expect to climb 200-250 feet, but my legs and lungs had taken their cue from Mr. Positive Thinking up top. Which made the plunge back through steep woods with a couple of dicey chutes to finish seem more than a fair return for endless pedalling.

In fact, I was up for more up, a climb back up the bastard face of “MidSummer” to access a trail full of steep off-camber, slimy, frictionless roots pre-worried by a little drop that’s had me close to visiting endo-city for about, oh, the last year and a bit. But I was mad keen, or maybe just mad as my normal contribution to this part of the ride is a whining request for flatlander status.

But we called it a night, and also called it a damn good ride. The bikes needed a little hosing, I needed about the same when I got home, but I felt like a proper mountain biker again. And as I look outside, if anything it’s even worse right now meaning more slippy trails, more cold, more out in the grim conditions for tonight’s ride. You know what?

I can’t wait 🙂

* I know it’s not winter officially yet, but according to my internal barometer, it’s bloody freezing out there.

** Which, since I’m in it, is worth the cover price alone 🙂