Lights out

There is a time for quiet contemplation, trading sanguinary* for calm reflection and playing the long game. Apparently. So I’ve been told. Comes with age and wisdom allegedly. Still time then even for humans of such antiquity as me. But not today. Let me take a deep virtual breath and scream:


Last night I’d have happily settled for just a bit of light. My recent expensive purchase delivered fantastic illumination for ten road pounding minutes, before switching off, shutting down and engaging in a permanent state of electronic sulk. This happens to me far too often during working hours, so my initial diagnosis was the now cooling appliance could only be running a form of Windows software.

Sustained hopeful prodding and poking about** for five more minutes achieved only frustration amidst continued benightment. As is the way of such disasters, my helmet light was uncharged and the repaired Hope Vision was resting some fifteen miles away. Luckily a spare was harvested from Jezz’s toolbox, leaving us with the repeat joy of a soggy road climb we’d only recently dispatched.

Good thing about the road tho was its’ wetness merely irritated rather than injured – a flipped condition come a switch to dirt. Tyres properly aslither, bloke on top wobbling about and bracing for bark impact, and any braking was just crashing by another name.

So we were late, partially lighted, muddy and – in the case of my riding buddy – extremely knackered from the bastard work week from hell. Obviously being a good mate, I took full advantage by suggesting ridiculous epics deep into the hills none of which I had any intention of actually riding. This is entirely opposite to what normally happens, except we end up actually doing them.

My Yang to his Ying was feeling pretty damn good probably as we weren’t going far nor ‘lung-out-of-the-arse‘ fast. This was an entirely unexpected state of affairs as, less than two days before, I’d not so much fallen off the alcohol-free week wagon as set fire to it – before toasting it with multiple double brandies,.

And it was still a proper laugh fighting tank slappers, transferring mud from trail to face via sliding tyre, then sloshing about in dank puddles. But really, we’ve suffered enough and it is starting to take a toll.

My ST4 has a set of rumbly hub bearings that’ll not survive another month. Already the winter has eaten through a shock bushing, broken that shock, destroyed four pairs of brake pads and turned my not-long-since shiny bike into something rather less showroom.

It’s not done that much for me either. Sure I’ve managed to get/stay reasonably fit. I’ve maintained motivation through the hardest month, and plans are afoot to cash in on the coming Spring. But it doesn’t feel we’re there yet.

Dark commutes stretch out a further six weeks, gawd only knows where I’ll dare venture back into the Forest, even the road bike almost seems like a good idea. I’m not sure I can hang on for much longer!

One thing I do know tho, is if we’d turned back, given up, called it a day as sense/tiredness/mechanical catastrophe strongly suggested we should, it’d have been a quick win but a long disappointment. Riding is always better than not riding. It’s also a shit load better when the outside environment plays nice.

Got to Keep The Faith for a few more weeks.

* My “word of the week“. Beats f*ck I suppose.

** Pretty much describes most boys sexual awakening.

Consulting the inner cat

Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride.

There are times when riding – as with life generally – that make you think ‘woooah that was a close one‘. Events that invoke the thought that one just dodged a bullet, sailed a little close to the wind, felt the icy shiver of impending dread, that kind of thing. Generally followed up by a commitment not to do it again, or at least not for a while until the balance of karma is restored.

To paraphrase: “got lucky once, probably won’t next time” deep breath, nod to deity/pagan god of choice, move on. Today I had a ride just like that except for the moving on bit. If I were a cat, I’d be desperately scanning the small print for options to buy extra lives.

Riding with Martin always goes like this. Afternoons out are short on miles, long on smiles and celebrated for going heavy on “shiiiiiit, eek, arrrghh, phew, never-in-doubt” moments. And because of riding lots, I’ve lately been overcome with a high dose of smug.

Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride. Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride.

Enough in the legs to climb anything – albeit still quite slowly – and enough pedalled in muscle memory to let the bike go fast and be fantastic while I hang on up top. Not asleep at the bars tho, because this kind of riding guarantees serial hits on the adrenal gland.

First a top to bottom trail starting wide and windy, dropping into narrowing singletrack that throws out wheel stopping rocks and increased gradients before you can say “I wonder if I should have braked back there?”. A cheeky left throws up more steepness, a set of “qualifying” steps punching you straight into a second set easily identified by being sodding narrow, buttressed by shoulder high rock and long enough for major internal organs to switch locations.

Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride. Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride.

Wet as well today as were all the trails. Best to look vaguely in the direction of proposed travel, loosen your muscles and your mind and go with the flow. I did, Martin didn’t leading to a bit of light ribbing especially as he’d brought his big bike to the rock party.

Multiple goes on a lovely steppy drop proved insufficient for Martin to understand how my camera worked. Never mind, big climb to height, fall off the side of another hill where I arrested a monster back-brake slide with a flick of the hips before my smugness was replaced by confusion as Martin snaked down the trail at a speed and smoothness entirely missing from the bloke behind.

No matter, one big climb to gurn, one favourite descent to dispatch. Lately I’ve been having a splendid time down here thinking that maybe – of all the riding crew – now I am the quickest. Chagrin served up with a double can of whupass for me then, as Martin careered off at a truly remarkable speed. Somewhere on the way down – between remembering to breathe and trying so hard not to crash – it became apparent that the only way of catching him would be to fly past at head height having been spat off at high speed.

Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride. Malvern "Ooh I say" Ride.

Consulting my inner cat, I found a large flashing zero in the “remaining lives” column, and a terrified kitten hiding behind it. Did my best tho, still got whupped. But it’s not just bravado, or the not unreasonable joy of arriving alive at the bottom that makes us do this.

I cannot tell you how much fun riding fast, jumping off steps, bouncing off rocks or holding a two wheeled slide can be. I just know I want to go back and do it all again.

That’s new then.

There is much love for newness. We a’e all constantly beseeched to embrace change. New is cleaner, brighter and somehow better. Built is obsolescence is the marketeers’ wet dream. The true cost of disposal are lost in the economics of shiny.

My loyal and – I can only surmise – medicinally enhanced readers may register surprise at my stout resistance to the pull of the new. Hard to reconcile this position from a man who disposes of bicycles at speeds close to light.

Here’s the deal; some new experiences are not welcome. And while avoidance of camel buggary, the upper-classes and time trialling are simple even for a man short of patience and sanity, others creep up on you before unleashing their horrible newness.

Chill Blains of the todger. That’s one. In fact, the argument could be closed right there. The juxtoposition of a much anticipated warn shower striking frozen gentleman’s regions can be aptly summarised thus: “FFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK

-5 is not a super temperature to begin a night ride. Frankly it’s not even a good time to be outside. And yet here were the magnificent seven presenting themselves in various genres of a fashion crime, shivering and looking for excuses to go straight back home.

Fair amount of scope for that. Frozen mechs could be thawed by a desperate wee, but stuck cables proved trickier. Freewheels were gluey with thickening grease, fluid froze in brake lines, pistons in calipers*

Trails were fantastic though, when we could get to them. Access was via icy fireroads which claimed more than one victim. The normally impressive array of lights were displaying all sorts of new things, although the old, tired idea of illumination didn’t appear to be one of them.

Cold batteries sent high-precision electronics into winter meltdown. After a few descents I learned to blink in sequence with the flashing approximation of lumens on the bar.

Eventually even turning on occasionally became too much for the poor thing, leaving me to divine the trail with the help of a fading helmet torch and occasional bark.

Stamping feet, and our own special-needs version of the sprinkler did little to return warmth to extremities bone-frozen by the unrelenting cold. Increased heart rates as dry, grippy singletrack morphed into tyre sliding ice sheets didn’t help much either.

After a couple of hours, we called halt before at least one rider shaped puzzle was ice entombed for the next generation of Channel 4 discovery programs: “An amazing find, the human shaped object is clinging to a tree, mouth open and wearing shorts. He may have been in a tribe, but appears he has been abandoned”

Damn straight. Not hanging around when there is a nice warm shower waiting at home.

* This is not a euphamism. Although later it could have been,

You have to laugh….

Malverns @ -7
That's me. Looks cold eh? There's a reason for that.

… mostly at yourself. Often at your friends. And increasingly at the Met Office PR team who appear to have their credence radar permanently set to “pratfall“.

First we had the BBQ summer which triggered floods not seen since Noah was a lad. Then we had the promise of a mild winter at which point the entire country was transformed into a set for Narnia. And now this- “2010 is the warmest year since either a) records began or b) 1997 depending on how hard we’ve hit the cosmic fail button

A logical counterpoint would suggest the poor old tea leave diviners have been chronically misrepresented. Firstly the sizzling summer was a 60% probability which is about as statistically significant as a shampoo poll. Then the Arctic conditions of this year were the result of a freakish crashing of hitherto unseen variables, camping out well past any computer model could predict.

And yes this is the warmest year on record. If you look at medians and not specific events. Right now though, I seem to be riding into , through and shiveringly out of such events which is rather fab during, but motivationally crippling before and toe poppingly painful afterward.

Sunday, 7am. -7.4. Five minutes loading the bike and I’m already late. This is mainly due to an unscheduled pet activity; namely defrosting the dog. 7:30 warmed by coffee and central heating, I struck out onto icy roads with the temperature gauge beeping -8 and suggesting the Siberian engine setting.*

No matter. At least the mud shall be temporarily banished under an ice crust. and no other silly bugger is going to be icy toe side of a warm duvet. More right than wrong, but the hills were alive with the sound of nutters’ knee knocking by the time we’d been over half way out and back.

Every trail was rock hard and tho – where foot traffic was negligible – pretty damn grippy. All the time being crunchy under wheel and framed by a child-painted blue horizon. Wales was full of snow and foreboding, but due east was just lightly dusted and crackling. In the middle, we rode on ridge and woody singletrack that felt like summer from the axles down. Above that both Jezz and I were swathed in layers of expensive fabrics and heroic grins.

And rather than our normal “got to get back, got to get back, got promises to keep” approach to Sunday morning rides, we took it easy, took some pictures, stood astride fantastic bicycles feeling pretty damn good to be taking in some altogether more fantastic views. Lots of climbing, quite a few kilometres, all felt pretty fast which bodes well for when cold and dark becomes difficult and boring.

Normally late January when motivation is in thrall to sofa suck. Which makes the daft nonces who wait until the new year to start winter riding all the more unfathomable. The Malverns are a tough gig at the best of times, which January absolutely isn’t. Early this year the hills were full of huff and puff, until New Years’ resolutions wilted in the face of not being arsed.

Not us. We’ll be getting up at stupid o’ clock. Stumbling about in the dark cursing at the stupidity of it all. Getting wet, cold and unpleasantly windswept. Chipping off frozen mud because the hosepipe’s been frozen for six weeks. Looking at the confused faces of our dear ones who have all sorts of good reasons why we shouldn’t, and then doing it anyway. And it’ll be good – sometimes great, sometimes averagely ok but always epic – once tyres hit the dirt.

I’ve said it before, but it needs repeating- Mountain biking is like the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

* I have a photo of that in case you think fibbing for the sake of strutting a heroic stance may be at play here. I can’t show it to you though right now for which explanations may follow. It really depends on whether the embarrassment falls below a level acceptable for public ridicule.


Post FoD Night Ride

My previous FoD night ride started in daylight and ended in darkness. This time around pitch black was wrapped round my shivering preparations, before even a wheel was turned. It may still be a month until the Winter solstice, yet it feels as if we’re there already.

Other differences presented themselves out of the darkness. Firstly, a nearly double digit turnout of riders I’d not seen for two months. The lumens’ arms race showed no site of abating, although it has branched off in interesting technological directions. Of all those branches, I am hopeful that the “Mickey and Minnie Ears” evolution is subject to brutal natural selection.

Following that helmet light setup put me in mind of a Disney rave with the mice off their faces on acid. This was an unwelcome distraction to a man already much distracted by a trail surface offering the traction properties of polished glass.

Post FoD Night Ride Post FoD Night Ride

In one of those ‘it’ll be funny afterwards’ ironies, my toes were frozen as were my fingers and probably my ears. Although that was nothing more than a guess since feeling had left the helmet some time ago. The trails however were not frozen. They offered a number of alternatives; 1) deep mud but rideable 2) slidey mud sort of rideable 3) large puddles hiding patching of mud rideable if you were lucky and 4) Chiltern-esque stretches of absolutely no point in even trying to ride.

We did of course. And much falling off and general finger pointing followed. Even the Singlespeeder was cut a bit of slack until the full moon rose hauntingly above the treetops, and it became clear that Adam’s Facebook profile reads “Likes: Singlespeeds, exploding knees, beards and werewolves“. Can’t turn you back on ’em for one second – it’ll be off with your derailers or something even more ghastly.

Post FoD Night Ride Post FoD Night Ride

There was plenty of time for piss taking, excuses and the new sport of precision mincing because this ride group isn’t exactly motivated by speed. Oh sure, it rambles along at a decent pace but stops are not mere halts for breath catching, more an opportunity to select the next victim. Compare this to Malvern rides which are all a bit “wham bam thank you mam” and non the worse for it, but there’s fun to be had with nine people and no mercy.

Everyone fell off. Some more than others. Some – smug mode – not at all until the penultimate descent on a fast, flowy trail barely hovering above the water table: “oooh nice drift, I’ve got it, I’ve got it, I’ve….. not got it”. It was almost peaceful as I slid down the trail on my arse, the bike long gone behind a distant tree.

A new ending started tonight. Final grind up a fireroad to access a cracking bombhole hidden deep in the woods. Again many of the group were in the vanguard of “All Mountain Free-Mincing” while a few of us just rode down the bloody thing. From below, the circling lights of the lesbian horde put me in mind of a very camp UFO experience “ooohhh I’m not sure about that, noo you go first

Honestly, just get on with it man. They did. Eventually. Proper cold at rides’ end. Six desperately defrosted cars and hurriedly packed their gear. Three had a more leisurely experience via the pub.

Post FoD Night Ride

I love the FoD in the dry when it’s fast and whippy and you can rocket through the trees for ever without riding the same trail. I’m quite surprised to find much of that love extends to the muddy season as well. C’mon winter, I’m ready for you.

Black is the new black.

Brechfa MTB – Black Run Mov 2010 from Alex Leigh on Vimeo.

Fantastic day at Brechfa yesterday. 40ks, 1550m of climbing.

A loop of the Red and then the Black taking in disappearing trails, mud, massive berms, tabletop jumps for the talented, rock steps for the brave, even a bit of “Welsh Shore”. And some very, very fast and tasty singletrack.

I’ve no idea why – between the three of us – there wasn’t an accident that required hospitalisation. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, as there is something about this trail that brings out the Devil May Care/Body Might Go to A&E in any lucky Mountain Biking individual.

That’s my first attempt at video with the new camera. It’s not great but better than the static shots. Sorry it flips the horizon half way down, best thing to do is to lie your head flat on the desk. That’s worked well for me.

I could go on – yes I know as usual – about how brilliant riding bikes with your friends is. I could talk about the soul destroying fireroad climbing that put the never into ending. It wouldn’t be a surprise for me to wax lyrical on the joy of line astern descending, absolutely flat out but wanting to go faster. It might even be of interest to discuss just how fantastic the egg and bacon doorstep butty was half way round.

But instead I’ll summarise.

Mountain Biking makes me happy 🙂

PS. That might look a bit lame but the drop’s bigger than it looks and those steps had a nasty little, er, step in them. Anyway it was damn good fun, even when a Downhill Boy separated from us by a 7 inch travel bike, balls of steel, talent and about twenty years basically cleared the lot of them 😉

Time please Gentlemen.

Glancing at my watch was a grim reminder that, only seven hours later, the alarm’s strident call would trigger the much-hated 5am start for London.

Faced with such an early morning horror, standard practice is early to bed in the hope of a reasonably satisfying – if curtailed – sleep. Or you can take the approach that what happens tomorrow is far less important than what’s happening now.

Which sort of explains why, at 10pm, I’m watching my breath curl into a frozen night sky and failing to hide a big grin as we grind up the last climb of another epic ride.

Conditions were “slippy-grippy” which I love. Anyone can be fast in the summer assuming a slavish following of bravery to the power of stupid. But now the trails are caught between seasons; dry and wet, muddy and firm, traction and slides.

It was the kind of night where both my riding pals mistook slip for grip and were well rewarded with an out-of-bike experience. I didn’t crash this time, but it is unclear how this could be a reality where at least three times my on-bike experience was essentially as a crash-test-dummy.

After climbing for thirty minutes, the first descent claimed the first victim. Wet grass has all the adhesive properties of glass, and down he went in a cascading slide. No real damage done, no real sympathy from us either.

We traversed further into the hills, sheltering under the muscular shoulders of the peaks. Properly freezing up top with tussocks frosting up ,and a biting wind testing the first season’s outings of winter boots and jackets.

A short, brutish switchbacked climb opened up the rocky descent to the Wyche. One of my favourites and, heading out first, I made a reasonable stab of briskness including nailing the rock step that requires either a careful roll or a committed jump. Anything in between and you’ll be welcomed with a granite facial.

Keeping low on mellow tracks occasionally enlivened by foliage covered mud, we headed back with lights picking out the leafless trees made stark by November’s howling gales. Two climbs to home, the first is on a boring firetrack as we decide to press onwards rather than bag another ridge.

A decision that brings us quickly to a lovely wooded singletrack which claims the second victim on a treacherous bend. Then off the side and onto the fall line, couple of epic drifts on a leaf carpet under which the trail switches grip and no grip in second long bursts.

Proper mountain biking this, picking a line, reacting, riding it out, trusting your instincts, letting it roll and feeling your way through experience, bravado, luck, bloody great forks that kind of thing.

So now we’re back where we started. Four minutes to then, four hundred ish feet to climb and my bed feels a long way away. So does the summit as tired legs demand lower gears, but we’re already out of easy ratios.

The warmth from the climb is stripped away by increasingly frigid winds as we bugger about on the summit, lowering saddles and flicking suspension damping to “fun”.

I’ve fallen thirty yards behind after overambitious corner entry speed delivered some face-time with innocent shrubbery. In chase mode, I’m still ragged hitting a drop too fast, but rather than slow then carrying the speed into a perfect kicker which sets up the next corner entry.

Well it would if you don’t fly off it and almost miss the corner entirely. Off the trail again – that’s twice in thirty seconds – and all sorts of scary things are happening. Front wheel scrabbling for any grip, me half pitched over the bars, rear wheel in the air, hard to see how it can end well.

But it does, somehow rider stays tyre side up and I’ve made a few yards. Result. Make the rest up thinking the bike in front is gliding over the trail, whereas I am mashing it up in a hang-on-and-hope style.

Nose to tail we drop into the woods, feeling for grip on off camber roots and putting velocity and momentum in the driving seat. This serves us well, with the trail end coming far too quickly punctuated by big smiles and the pinging of cooling brakes under a cold night sky.

It takes me 45 minutes to drive home, sort the bike and kit, de-trailer the car, deal with Murf’s perception of dog abandonment, quick shower and late supper of toast and a small beer. It takes the same again and a bit more for the adrenalin to be flushed from higher level functions demanding sleep.

This morning I was standing on a rain soaked platform waiting for a late train, barely able to keep my eyes open. It could be much worse though, just think how shit that would feel if I hadn’t been riding.

“If you can’t see it, it can’t hit you”

Post FoD, pre-clean

This was one of many teachings from an old school friend. He was a nutters’ nutter, mischievous to the power of insane and almost every time my teenage years were crossed with big trouble, John was chief provider of the big ideas.

Ideas that on the surface had an elegant simplicity, but scratch beneath that and the horror of what might follow immediately became apparent. Generally with older people looking extremely upset and the destruction of property.

For example, if a few of us thought shinning up trees and stealing apples was a bit of wheeze, John’d stand by, look puzzled for a second and then set fire to the entire garden. His reasoning was thus: “the fruit is falling out of the trees AND we’re getting roasted horse chestnuts“. See what I mean? Mad as cheese.*

The can’t hit it proclamation was confidently delivered while door-handling over the Snake Pass in the pitch darkness navigating only be memory, the interior light and a youthful naivety that death happened mainly to other people.

To pass the time before we plunged down the cliff in a fiery ball of tortured metal and soft squidgy bits, I tried to find out more. Apparently his firmly held view was that even if a great sodding dry stone wall was looming out of the black, we were perfectly safe as long – and this was the important bit – he never even glanced at it. 25 years later, I’m still alive so maybe he was on to something.

Riding last night, and again this morning, had Deja-Vu writ large as the constant worry of a big accident JUST passing me by but having so much bloody fun played on repeat. Malverns and Mud are rarely that close together but incessant rain turned hardpack to slick and autumn fall hid gripless roots. Our philosophy was waving two fingers at a proper ride, instead picking climbs entirely on the quality of they scary descents they would open up.

First one, me up front helmet light scanning for big rocks. Head for those because the ST4 isn’t a knackered old Ford Fiesta and is unlikely to be fazed by such hazards. Make lots of mistakes, ace bike compensates sufficiently for teeth not to be spread across the trail. Excess velocity into a step section has the bars clipping a railing which means you giggle a lot because the other reality would have been fairly nasty.

Route choice. Up the side of the Beacon and then off on a stupidly steep and slippy cheeky entry onto a trail barely clinging to the edge. Martin takes what I consider a sissy line around a rock slab. I go straight over and straight over the bars rolling sideways and into soft ferns on a steep angle. Clambering back up – giggling again – Martin has gone and I give chase with all sorts of looking at the wrong stuff, lights in the valley getting closer and a widening gulley nastily adjacent to this narrow singletrack the tyres are doing their best to keep me on.

Back up top via the road because tonight is all about going down. Off the top looking to pop this drop but the run in is so slippy, we turn around and head back the “normal” route. The top of which has about a 30 mile cross wind desperate to whip the wheels away and send you pin-wheeling down the slope sans bicycle.

A fast blast back to the car via a kilometre of much loved – if unsurprisingly sketchy – trail was followed by the admission that if we dodged any more bullets, we’d be in line for playing Neo in the matrix.

This morning I spent another couple of hours trying not to look at things that were scary. Most of those were glassy roots more than keen to whip your front wheel away and provide a not-at-all soft landing for your arse. Somehow mine stayed on the bike, although any FoD dwellers were subjected to many instances of the “Tripod” where two wheels are further supported by a desperately unclipped leg.

To access Tea and Medals, we took the “SheepSkull” DH track which proved the ST4 is basically a mini-DH bike with the seat down which is an excellent fins. Except I am riding at a speed so far ahead of my ability, it’s only a matter of time before I wrap my face round a tree.

Still, if you can’t see it, it can’t hit you. As good a motto for being silly in the woods with a bicycle as I’ve heard this year.

* We’ve stayed vaguely in touch and he’s now an airline Captain for a major flag carrier. One that I absolutely will never travel on.

The same, but different.

ST 4 built not ridden
Bike testing is something I take very seriously. Mainly because the sheer volume passing through the hedgy shed is long past double figures, and can’t be far from celebrating a silver jubilee. So it goes; build, test, declare undying love, upgrade, cast aside, discard in the shadow of shiny new things, then sell.

Notice at no point do the words “Research”, “Logic”, “Profit” or even “Enjoy” gets close to elbowing their way into that tired list of bike rental. I did consider building a shed with just two openings labelled “in” and “out” with little space for actual occupation.

Lately things have improved, although this is analogous to a 50 a day man boasting he’s cut down to 48 fags during any 24 hour period. The difference with the Orange ST4 is it had become a firm favourite which I had no intention of selling.

Really, none at all, rebuilt the Cove, rode it, liked it, put it back on the hanger. Pace was occasionally dusted off but failed to excite, Trailstar is kids woody accompanied for which it is ace, but I’ve no intention of riding it anywhere else.

So a certain irony then when the ST4 decided to dump me and some of its’ more important internals after less than a year. Still fickle chap that I am, its’ rather burlier mutant twin has already displaced it in the “keeper” category*

So bike testing. Here’s my approach honed over far too many random purchases. Finish bike build at exact time red wine bottle is empty. Ideally this will be before midnight, but rarely is this the case as the “last small job” appears to have triggered a rebuild from the wheels up. Forget to sleep properly due to lame excitement, chicken issues** that apparently must be discussed at 3am, and multiple visits to the bog.

Groan when alarm chirpily informs you that 7am is actually a real time on a Sunday. Lurch out into the rain and lash bike onto trailer. Select least stinky riding kit and motor off in search of other early morning nutters. Turn back at three quarter distance to retrieve trailer key left on kitchen table. Get stuck behind tractor and nearly end life attempting risky passing manoeuvre. Find friend still drinking tea and dither for a bit.

Riding eventually had to happen after we’d run out of new things to poke and prod. First 25 minutes was climbing, first on the road switching to a much hated shaley double track expressly laid to make me miserable. Goes on for a bit, nearly as long as my technical evaluation of the new ST4’s climbing prowess “pretty stiff back there, pro pedal is a bit keen, shit I’m knackered today“.

Finally a descent, flick the happy switch on the shock which instantly sits the bike deeper in the travel. Throw it into a couple of slippy corners and down a steep rock gulley and it feels the same but different. Up front is a bloody good fork, but it feels out-classed by what’s happening out the back. Super plush over the bigger rocks but ramping up nicely deep into the stroke. Probably a bit too much meaning a stop for some “biffer air” in the chamber.

For those not of a bikeacul persuasion, the last paragraphs may read like nonsense. In fact, even those who do will rightly question my ability to critique anything much more complex than “the wheels go round when you press the pedally bits“. And you may be right, but I contend that riding the same trails with the same kit on a different frame is a fine way to work out what’s different.

We rode on past our normal switchback point and headed deeper into the hills. Lots of steep climbs on wet grass and loose shale demonstrated a total absence of flex, rather the bike hunkers down and demands grip from the surface. It’s pretty damn effective until my lungs give out.

The middle Malvern hills throw silly steep and loose descents as a challenge to the fat tyred, and we took them on without much drama but quite a lot of speed. Couple of jumps, then a significant flight of cheeky steps were soaked up and spat out by a bike that appears to have eliminated flex in this third incarnation.

Too early to tell for sure, but by this time I’d abandoned any rigorous evaluation of the suspension performance, instead removing the analytical part of my brain entirely to allow the section marked “Silly and Impulsive” to have its’ head. Quick scoot through some lovely Autumn-turning singletrack, plunge down into the quarry before a last 200m climb close to where we started.

Close but above. Good, because I am really knackered now – being easily outclimbed by my pal on his proper heavy Heckler. Windy up here too, so it’s a quick nod to the God of Staying Wheel Side Up and we’re away. Off the ridge spine, rock drop into a loose ninety degree turn, then the same but reversed, line up the drop, dispatch with nary a worry – when did we start thinking 5 inches of travel as Trail? Jeez these things are awesome – fast turns lead us into a final off camber woody section.

Boom-Boom down there, hip swinging the rear tyre away from the trees, quick breath, brakeless eyes wide open over steep and wet roots shooting us out onto a grassy slope where rain and due ensures braking traction is a bit of a random affair. Grin, point, tea and medals.

Riding any bike almost any day is generally a joy. Today should have been the end of a painful disappointing journey with the old ST4. In fact it felt like the start of another altogether happier one.

3 posts in three days? Unheard of. Work tomorrow, normal silence will be resumed I suspect.

* Yes it’s a very small category. But statistically, it counts.

** One of the poor buggers appears to have been shot if the wound is anything to go by.

Three things..

ST4 - New Linkage

… I lost after coming back from the Pyrenees. Firstly my motivation to ride, secondly the feeling in one of my toes and finally the ST4. Let’s take those in turn shall we?

Local trails didn’t really cut it for a couple of weeks when compared to being high up in the mountains. I trudged round, not enjoying any extra alpine fitness, not really enjoying being back on the hardtail, so spending the entire ride looking for my mojo, or a new place to crash.

A day walking in SPD’s reduced a previously frost-nipped toe to not-terribly-amusingly wooliness making walking a bit of a chore. It’s mostly back to life now, which is comforting considering I’ve been eyeing up a sharp knife in a Randolph Fiennes “Hack Your Own Extremities off” kind of way.

The ST4 tho was more than a little broken. Frankly it’s been a proper Marmite bike from the start; firstly the BB shells needed cleaning out, then I had no end of issues with chainsuck which may have been causal to the shock failing and taking the pivot bearings with it. Like a high maintenance girlfriend, it was awesome when it was good, but God could it piss you off during the many and varied drama queen moments.

And while it was obvious that all was not well with the bike while hauling aged carcass up proper mountains, the full horror wasn’t revealed until I removed the cranks and the bottom bracket kind of fell out at the same time. The threads, responsible for preventing such an event, were now wispy shadows of their former selves.

I was understandably upset. 750 miles, 9 months and the frame was both knackered internally and seriously cosmetically scared on the outside. Disregarding the warranty protocol involving form filling and original dealers, I rang Orange, spoke to their main man in Warranty and whined. At length.

He stopped me by offering a new 2011 frame, entirely re-designed and available in a couple of weeks after the Eurobike launch. I shut up then other than to say thanks. True to their word, Orange have painted one in my preferred colour*, recycled the shock and headset off the previous frame remains before shipping it back today.

All within three weeks, and all without a hint of trying to pull a fast one or looking for some plausible deniability.

So there we are. In fact there ^^^ it is. And once I’d spoken to Orange, suddenly riding became an official fun thing to do again. Come Sunday with a following wind, and a firm hand on the spanners, mark 2 ST4 shall be committed to the Malvern trails of lumps and bumpiness. Hopefully this time without the histrionics.

After all, that’s my job.

* and I’m shallowly happy that there will be no other Red frame only deals until 2011.