A chink of light

Go through the motions, count the short days, lament the long nights, bitch about how the endless slop is indescribable. No that’s not true, we just don’t want to talk about it. Fantasise about early Spring instead.

Sun on your face, trails dry-ish under leaf still a bit sticky but no longer greasy snot death. Climbs not demanding 100% effort with tyres muck spreading water cosplaying as soil until gravity kicks in with a half hearted effort to make things easier.

You’re still pedalling but that’s not really the issue at hand. A hand gently pushing a grip or carefully caressing a brake. No precision tooled summer lines, more a broken compass occasionally pointing in the right direction-  sometimes as a direct reaction to rider input, but mostly handing the whole thing off to luck.

That’s the reality of riding right now.

It’s kind of fun. Until every part of the bike is either broken right now or merely waiting its’ turn. The washing machine is on suicide watch, and with a weather forecast predicting clouds full of rain and days full of bone chilling cold, you wonder if this is the year to fuck the whole thing off.

And then you get a day. After 10 previous of hardly any rain and those drying winds. You’re hoping for something like a dry line but you pretend you’re not. Don’t want to jinix it because today might just be that day. The mid winter miracle.  When an extra trail isn’t a chore, a favourite corner loams itself out of the mud, a tricky obstacle can again be a brakeless giggle.

Yeah we had one of those days. And by god we’ve earned it.

More pragmatically, this is the first time i’ve ridden the BFE in the dry and it just came alive. Set of bends I love and the steel frame throws itself into the apexes in a way that’s hard to describe, but desperate to repeat. Grip is still mutable, but mostly  banging the stops on the fun-o-meter. Speeds ramp up, misery is tamped down.

There are – in my view – mostly heavily medicated riders who embrace the winter in a way I cannot. They talk of a skills upgrade when trading speed for grip. They offer up nebulous benefits of bastard muddy climbs and plastercine fire roads. For them this is not a season to be ignored, but to cherish as an antidote to summer dust.

We’re a pretty broad church on the hedgehog but there are lines never to be crossed. Places we cannot go. Fake news that shall not languish unchallenged. Hills on which we shall righteously die. And this is absolutely one of those. Winter is horrible. Its four months or more of enduring the grim. I know this to be true, and one day of riding dry trails confirms I am the only sane man amongst a bunch of lunatics.

Or night. Three days later just Rex and I headed out onto our local hill. Not only had the Wednesday night crew been denuded by injury*, no other rider seized the opportunity for a dry ride. You can count those on the fingers of one foot most winters, so we’re in good spirits climbing into the woods. This local patch of goodness was exclusively ours, and we were going to make the best of it.

A plan had been formed. As it had been formed by me, it wasn’t a great plan but we were soon shouting “hey this bit is dry, it’s NEVER dry in winter” at each other rather than concentrating on trails crispy under crinkly-dry leaves. Which made finding the dirt a little challenging, but this seems a churlish observation to make on otherwise brilliant conditions.

Rather than just poking the Weather Gods with a stick, I’d gone full frat-boy and pulled down their pants while flicking V’s by riding my how-many-pivots-no-forgotten-going-to-have-to-start-counting-again Rascal with summer-y tyres and no rear mudguard. Way beyond brave and long into stupid, we were lucky not to be drowned.

Instead the skies cleared, the wind dropped while the Earth did her stunning organic planetarium thing. We gave that a nod before turning our attention back to riding as fast as we could before winter again slapped us icily in the chops. This involved recalibrating how quickly stuff was fired into the aged optics, and how little braking was needed to deal with that. This is my kind of problem.

Even when my helmet light ran out of amps at the exact point a gap jump should have been its entire point of focus**, I couldn’t stop marvelling at how fantastic the trails were. This time of year we’re pining for summer rides, but after this one Rex and I agreed we’d happily ride these conditions every night without worrying about sunlight and warmth.

Life affirmingly good. As I explained, at length, to a – temporarily – broken Matt in the pub. I promised myself I wouldn’t gush how great it was out there, because he’s two+ weeks away from getting back on a mountain bike. Yeah, about that.

Will it last? No of course not. It’s not spring or even pre-spring. we’re a long way from emerging blinking out of the dark. But it’s a marker, a memory of better things, a signpost for what is to come, a reason to keep buggering on in the face of bike destroying shitiness. And for that I’ll happily take it.

Chinks are good. Full spectrum light will be better. Right now tho, two dry rides has me desperate to go long. The weekend awaits 🙂

*some post medical procedure, others long term sick, one nursing injuries entirely attributable to significant alcohol and a detailed facial analysis of the local tarmac while under the misapprehension that physics doesn’t apply to drunks!

**luckily my trusted technique of closing my eyes and hoping for the best defused any danger of a lie down and some performative groaning.

Friday the bloody 13th

It’s a myth*. Empirical thinkers everywhere dismiss such nonsense. We shall apply the scientific method and sweep away these weak minded fallacies**. Well yes, I’m mostly entirely sympathetic to that viewpoint. And yet…

Bad things happen in threes (they really don’t. I cannot begin to bore you with the volume and breadth of research that proves its biases and coincidence, but you know we’re on a fact free roll here. Tarot cards might be out next).

Not on the 13th tho. One day before. 5:15PM. A distracted Al is running late which partially explains my attempt to fit two large objects into a space only big enough for one. Partially suggesting there is a primary cause; that being I am an idiot.

Carol’s car reared up in the mirror just in time for me to lift my foot off the accelerator. But not in time to jam the brake. The jarring thud shattered the trailer lights, bent all sorts of previously straight things, and removed significant paint from the Fabia.

Sighing I slammed my car into park and trooped inside to ‘fess up. Carol was remarkingly sanguine about the whole thing other than reminding me this was the second time I’d attempted to punt her car into the kitchen. The previous incident WAS NINE YEARS, ago but I didn’t feel this was the time for mitigation.

If it was, I’d have pointed out she never parks her car there. And if she does, well she knows the risks! Wrestling the remains of a once expensive trailer made me later still and managing a ‘fuck this shit, let’s hit the beer fridge‘. Instead, I convinced myself I’d had my accident for the evening so joining the ‘Slitherati‘ would trump beer therapy.

There were as supportive as ever 😉 More than the trails for sure which resembled little more than sad muddy rivulets. Hardtail country for sure and dispensing with the front mech at least makes chainsuck a thing of the past. Or, you know, maybe not as it was both present and frequent when pedalling through misery repurposed as rain slumped dirt.

As I abstractly wondered what horrors daylight would inflict on my now not very new frame, it began to rain. And pretty much didn’t stop until this morning when Em’s birthday ride took a bit fat rain-check. That sign ^^^ is probably 30 feet from the banks of the Wye, and the bottom three are rarely submerged.

Plan B Was Zwift. That’s a terrible plan and should never come before Z. And the whole “Fatman to the Shedmobile‘ thing is at best a stuttering cipher of years past. There are many reasons. Most of which start with ‘Can’t” and end “be arsed“. Unsurprisingly then, 60 minutes felt 59 minutes too long.

Too long pretty much describes my maintenance regime for various bikes in states of obvious distress. I hitched one to my mate David’s borrowed trailer*** and reversed VERY CAREFULLY out of the drive. arriving to see Matt cleaning the BFEMax abandoned after Thursdays’ ‘drivetrain destroyer’.

I expected things to be a little abject on the chainstay front. I didn’t expect the physical instantiation of a savage bear attack. Can we fix this one, before starting on that broken one I asked, casting a grubby digit at the wall art Giga not ridden since Molini. Affirmative, to the garage we go.

I expected to be heavily invested in the frustration of manipulating protection tape over curvy tubes. Matt felt this lacked ambition, so after a brief skip-rat in one of his many bins of plenty, he emerged triumphantly brandishing a copper pipe. Closer inspection confirmed a plumbing offcut sporting the full gamut of 90s solder and paint.

Fair to say I was dubious. Although a stopcock to drain water from the frame felt like a timely upgrade. Undeterred, Matt sawed, hammered, tutted, measured, hammered some more and then just set fire to the thing. It was quite an education.

I had no idea where this was going, but it was certainly exciting. Matt’s garage is full of potentially flamable insurance claims. Today tho the pervasive dampness negated any need to dive for the fire extinguisher****

After more fire, hammering, and execution of skills so far beyond my own they might as well be magic, Steampunk Chainstay became a thing. And what a thing it is.

I’ll like it even more when it tarnishes to the point I can pretend we nicked it off a church roof. Until then it’ll perform admirably to ensure the chain stay remains attached to the rest of the frame. I feel this is an important role, and, as such, relieved someone else was responsible for it.

Through all this tho, I am loving riding. Even when someone someone stupidly suggests ‘well it can’t be as bad as last week‘. Of course it was and we’re barely half way through winter.  So it’s not going to get better any time soon.

Still, Birthday ride postponement is only until tomorrow when I expect to be circling a Venn defined by 90% difficulty and 10% terror, and intersecting on giggling, doing the best slides since you were 11 and maybe the odd mud splattery.

Friday the 13th has been and gone. I’ve bracketed it with two rides. Another one tomorrow. Good luck comes in threes.

*Loki, the god of mischief, gate-crashed a banquet in Valhalla, bringing the number of gods in attendance to 13. Deceived by Loki, the blind god Hodr was tricked into shooting his brother Balder, the god of light, joy and goodness, with a mistletoe-tipped arrow, killing him instantly. So you know, scenes 😉

**I’d bet tho they’d stay away from wide open spaces, where a carefully directed lightening strike may cause them to reconsider.

***which considering I’d just smashed mine in act of naked stupidity shows what a great mate he is for lending me another one!

****that would likely to be empty or repurposed as a legally dubious Nerf Gun.

Trail running is the new middle aged jogging

Stumbling into my 50th year seemed exactly the right time to attempt a half marathon. Five years ago this week, that attempt crashed, howled and limped off into rehab never to return. Post that injury, which kept me off the bike longer than any actual riding related incidents, the running shoes have moved only between dusty shelves in the shoe cupboard.

I ran 5km on the beach path in Gran Canaria in 2019 whilst on holiday with Aid. Mostly as a buffer against the mountain of food and booze I was ploughing through on a daily basis. I remember it being hot and horrible. It’s also my last recorded run on Strava.

I’ve never enjoyed running. I’m really not very good at it. It tends to cause injuries – and not just when I’m not painfully face planting in the local woods. Even without professionally diagnosed broken body parts, everything aches.  That’s not much of a coda to start again.

So I’m not. Not training for an event, not trying to run very far, not running on the road and not trying to hit some narrow metric that no one cares about*. Instead I’m taking advantage of a single wood accessed from the dog walking assembly point. Carol meets up daily with mutt owning friends for an hours peramble around a flat-ish circuit.

Which means I can jump in her car, all runner-geared up**, head into the woods at a slightly higher speed than the dog wranglers, loop back to the car about thirty minutes later, quick stretch, fleece and wellies on and walk back to meet them in a parody of a cool down effort.

Got to complete the run first though,  as the woods are slick and slippy. There’s not much elevation (85m) in the 5km circuit, but every gravity edged metre is flashbacking me back to that 2018 ankle catastrophe.  Even the flat bits are hard with the soft ground shifting sideways under now sodden feet. It’s a proper workout, so it’ll be a while before I don’t walk some of it.

On the upside, it’s a upgrade on road running. I’m shrouded by the woods, in amongst the trees is my happy place.  While riding alone bores me, running doesn’t- I don’t want any company, any competition, anyone to try and talk to with limited breath.

Also I’ve no interest in extending the circuit or upping the frequency. A run is a turbo session I don’t need to do. It forces me to stretch properly and fits nicely into my vaguely coherent approach to ‘doing stuff other than riding bikes‘.  In a couple of months, the ground cover will spring from the muddy forest floor.

A few weeks after that there’ll be fence to field edge wild garlic and bluebells. Slowly the green canopy will return, and I’ll dump the winter gear to scare fellow forest users with pasty legs dangling from budget running shorts.

Right now tho, it’s just a case of getting round without falling over. I accept this isn’t much of a stretch for a normal human, but I’m dangerous at any speed and without the gyroscopic effect of two 29inch wheels, staying upright is not a given.

I’ve spent longer writing this than running my single effort so far. Once a week is the plan which may appear to lack ambition. But pesky customers tend to want virtual engagement at 9am, and it’s hard to see how that and being breathless outside are compatible.

Really it’s more of a back handed swipe at my ‘plans‘ to work less. This is the year I tell myself on the 1st of January ever single time. Could 2023 be the charm? Work less, run not much, ride more, remained uninjured?

Doubt it. But sitting in this chair isn’t going to move the needle. If nothing else recording my paltry efforts as ‘trail runs’ make me laugh. Strava really need a category for ‘laboured middle aged jogging‘ because that’s all I’m doing!

*My plan was not to record the runs. But I’ve not been able to wean myself off Strava yet. I’m just going to ignore my zero progression.

**with my internet-sourced / MTB crossover kit that would likely get me expelled from any proper running club. One of the many reasons I’ll never join one.

Bait and Switch

For those of you reading in black and white the Yellow is behind the Blue*. Above actually. Dispatched into the ‘rafters of the discarded’ where old and – more often – not very old bikes go to be forgotten. Wiped from the record, regardless of service length mostly accompanied by a hollow excuse. I hesitate to use the word ‘reason

Not so this time. But, as it’s me, it’s a bit complicated. A diagram might help. Probably won’t.

 

This wasn’t a straight N+1. It didn’t even start with me. Well only peripherally, after my response to Aid wanting to ride more was to sell his bike. While this may appear incomprehensible and incoherent**, there was both method and a bit of madness.

Deep breath. Aid’s bike too small -> Sold it but couldn’t find a good replacement -> Nig’s lad needed a bigger bike ->He liked the Scout-> His current bike would be a perfect fit for Aid -> The BFEmaxs were on sale -> I’ve wanted one for ages -> Serendipity.

Aid’ll get a bike that’ll both fits him and be way more fun to ride, Nig’s lad gets a sorted hardcore hardtail, my overflowing spares bit will be further rationalised, and – as a by product – I get a new bike. Genius. I’m so selfless- it’s hard to know why I’m also so often misunderstood 🙂

Anyway enough of the backstory, what do we have here. Superficially something quite close to the Scout (and the Bardino and.. well let’s not dwell on the past); a modern hardtail, sorted geometry, designed for stout forks, long droppers and big tyres.

Look a little closer though and the differences are significant. Most importantly frame material – it’s back to steel for me after a short dalliance with Alu. It’s an itch that needed scratching, a box needing ticking, a scouting of the fat tubed side. Done that, unlikely to do so again.

Because I just love steel hardtails. There’s something voodoo about how they ride. Each one I’ve ridden has felt special in its own way- back from my original DMR Trailstar through a few era of Cotic Solaris’s and now the BFE. And this one feels very special indeed, which considering every of the 100km ridden so far has been in pretty shit conditions, may be something more than new bike glasses.

Arriving as the ground thawed, ride 1 was 15km of slithering darkly in the local woods. How’s the new bike my friends asked? Well, the mudguards work well was the limit of my initial review. Maybe there was a certain stableness possibly missing from the Scout. Could be the longer chain stays, longer reach, shorter stem or none of those things.

Second ride was the classic Gap where again mudguards were about the most important component under test. The bike shone tho on the rocky descents, plants it’s front tyre and daring you to go faster. Cy’s been designing hardtails a long time and he knows what he’s doing. The BFEmax climbs really well on a steeper seat angle than the Scout, but it’s when pointing down it really becomes the bike I wanted my last Solaris to be.

It’a also easy to clean, bit of a bonus this time of year. If I’d taken the Rascal, I’d have just tossed the remains in the handy skip. Back in the Yat for a third outing, the astonishing thing was the grip generated. Sure it’s running a 2.6 Magic Mary at not many PSI but this is exactly the same component stack as the Scout. Other than 15mm off the stem and the same on the bar rise, the only variable is the frame.

And that frame has some steely magic going on. I really do not like those ‘just gone‘ winter conditions where ground conditions change between corner and corner, or sometimes in the same corner. Yesterday it all felt very manageable which is about as good as it gets.

So good then, we might have to try and few other things. Hardtail season starts late Autumn and finishes early Spring. A few guest rides when the weather turns crap again, but mostly it’s the tool for the local grim. Having found the Gap more than okay on a single sprung end, we’re now talking about a couple of hardtail days in North Wales. The Beast at Coed-y-Brenin would be a great way to test the you can ride these things anywhere theory.

While we’re up there, what else? Cadair Idris? Hmm might be a rock too far, but I’m sure we’d find something inappropriate to try. I was pretty done with hardtails due to aging and aching bones, but now I’m not so sure. 2.6 tyres, low pressures, forgiving frames*** and a keenness to embrace the basic silliness of what we do rather than worry about the statistics.

The humble hardtail was how most of us first discovered Mountain Biking. Likely rigid, assembled around a shocking set of rebadged roadie components. They’ve come a long way, but I’m not sure I have.

Riding hardtails keeps you young. On the inside anyway.

*1985 World Snooker Final. Ted Lowe commentating. Legend 🙂

**You’re aware of my bike buying history? That’s a fair summary.

***Still a hardtail tho. Always going to beat you up.

Lies, damn lies and….

…. statistics of course* It’s a hackneyed phrase oft adjacent to ‘we had enough of experts‘ and ‘do your own research’. Being a data chap myself, I prefer ‘if you torture data long enough, it’ll tell you anything

And here we have an excellent example of exactly that. Except we don’t, as abused through a dodgy pivot table as it is, this Strava data from all of 2022 doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know.

And because I am fairly wedded to good data as the cornerstone of empirical analysis, let me explain why. That graph is a careful summary of 300+ data rows each representing a stored ride. Each of those rows is enriched with a further data points on obvious stuff such as bike, time, distance, etc and some ‘well just because we can meant we did‘ nonsense like calculated power and pedal balance.

It’s nonsense because data should drive a narrative, tell a story, not be dumped into excel with all the graph options turned on. No I don’t believe you can correlate moon phase with bike choice although…. anyway enough of my whinging about how crap 90% of often also crap data is presented, instead let’s see what plot nuggets we can unearth from this single view of my ride data**

1)  The basis of the graph is skewed. For any kind of longitudinal analysis you need data at each reference point. We don’t have that because – here’s surprise number 1 – I have bought, sold and changed bikes through the year. More of that on the updated bike page

2) Even with this limited data to consider, we can see the Boardman and Bardino (early 2022) and Scout (late 2022) make up most of the bike selection during the winter/early spring/late autumn months. Since the Rascal is basically 8 pivots too many for mud, and the Giga is a bit overkill for paddle steaming on waterlogged trails, again not a huge insight here.

3) The Giga was ridden a lot. That’s actually a bit interesting. Sure the two big spikes are the Basque and Molini trips, but I rode it often in between as it’s a fantastic if weighty trail bike. Also Matt and Steve always ride their big bikes through the summer and I need all the help I can get following those 2.

4) I rode the Rascal 35% less distance than the Giga. Kind of makes sense. All the hardtails (ahem 3) represented 50% of the full suss miles. Again makes sense, crap conditions shorter rides. eBike is included but really that’s a car subsitute which brings us to..

5) .. the not very secret dirty secret. Even with my Zwift apathy this year (down over 25% on last year – I didn’t include the year on year analysis because even I know only I am interested) just over 30% of my total milage. Less than 20% of the climbing and a similar percentage of time. Go further in less minutes.

I could go on (no really I could, but I won’t) other than to say statistically I’ve ridden less kilometres, climbed less hills and spent (a bit) less time on bikes this year. And that’s where the numerical story ends. Because I have had WAY MORE FUN.

Most of that is no lockdown, back to whatever normality is here. Also pretty good weather, so much local riding and I finally ditched my FOMO of needing to tick new location boxes every month. Two brilliant week long trips with fantastic friends bookended that summer season.

Still some regrets, didn’t get to ride the King Alfred’s way and probably won’t bother now. Not sure we rode any trail centres either. Next year I’m going to put at least one of those right having got properly excited reading my new gravel routes book. Trail centres/bike parks tho. Meh.

Obviously one mandatory issue with another year passing is I’m another year older. This is where I tell you of my plans to at least partially mitigate that decline through diet, moderation and a rigorous fitness programme. Er, no I’m not. Not happened for the last 15 years, so no point in setting myself up to fail there!

2023 then. Just round the corner. The one thing I think I’ll do is ditch Strava. Subs due in Jan. Based on dicking about with spreadsheets for a few hours today, it’s not telling me anything I don’t already know. I have friends who can point out I’m slower than I was, and they’ll do that for free 🙂

And no MTB eBikes. Unplugging and going strictly analogue for ’23. Have a good one and catch you on the other side. If you’ve nothing to do in the meantime here are my favourite articles (from not much written) this year.

*Mark Twain attributed it to Disraeli who denied it. And the original full quote from old Marky was ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” which actually makes more sense if he’d said it.  Which apparently he didn’t. All clear now? Excellent we’ll move on 🙂

**I did, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, look at elevation, time, location etc but it added nothing other than amplification and confusion. Normally work wise I’d leave that shit in there, but I’m throwing you a bone here 🙂

Grimageddon

Following Matt down the start of the Gap descent

Most of the stills grabbed from the video below. It’s 20 minutes of Grimageddon for you to enjoy 🙂

Exactly twelve months ago, some idiot extemporised ‘it can never be this wet again’ after watching Matt decant around a litre of water from each sock’. Last night same idiot repeated himself. And this time I may be right. Stopped clocks and all that.

Mountains in the winter will make a fool of those far cleverer than me. As we splashed across the Welsh border, I took a bead on familiar peaks, all lost in the mist, before declaring ‘really it can’t be as bad as last year can it Matt?‘. Matt didn’t look so sure, and my three other riding companions has missed that infamous ride. One of them by many years!

Can’t wait to ride!

The so named “Ed’s Birthday Ride‘ was graced today by the man himself. 67 years young with absolutely no interest in getting old. It has been ‘twenty years or so’ since his last ascent to the Windy Gap and in deference to this, er, gap he came clothed in a one piece dirt suit accessorised by a rather natty eBike*

Double digit temps and persistent rain met us in the Tal-y-bont car park. The former probably saved us from much strife from the never ending latter. A few degrees colder, even with packs spared up with waterproofs, we might have been in trouble.

Packs never opened during the next four hours due to increasing grimness in rain quantity, wind speed and exposure. The only thing scaring me more than the weather turning – say – snowy, was the prospect of a mechanical stopping the blood flowing. It wasn’t a day for standing around.

Photo fails to catch absolute grimness of conditions!

Better go riding then. As ever the old tramway represented the easiest part of the ride. Still a different experience climbing it on the new hardtail** so noticeably a bit more ‘real‘ on the cobbles. As my other three friends were also on a) hardtails and b) not complaining, I kept this early review to myself.

Climb done, wind strengthening, rain curtained skies somehow darkening further, we hit the little rocky crux leading to the exposed moor. Last year on the Giga, I failed early, today my new bike luck was with me so I powered up without too much trouble. This success was made even sweeter when Matt didn’t 🙂

The Happy Four! Me(L), H, Cez, Ed on the seat. From Matt’s phone.

That happy glow was mostly extinguished with the prospect of climbing up the exposed craggy hillside in front of us. This is the gateway to the moor proper and it’s a steep, broken roaded bastard of a thing. Especially with the now howling wind flipping between heads and tails.

Heading up to the moor via navigation of an unmapped canal.
Ed and H 3/4 of the way up the Moor climb.

Flipping again to a crosswind, the rain arced in like a thousand angry javelins. My waterproof hood was doing its best to repell the angry tempest but it was tough going. It felt as if the mountain didn’t want us to be there, and I was starting to feel the same way.

Finally dropped into the partial shelter of the next valley. Oh God it was so flipping wet. Hub deep puddles in parts, rivers everywhere else. The trail was fully submerged, water was flung at spotted glasses or blinking eyes, lines were mostly bad guesses. Through this though the new Cotic felt both a little surer and less pingy than the Scout. It was another small win and I was taking all of those.

Following Haydn down the next pitch the trail had essentially turned tidal. White eddies swirled and broke like waves driven by an onshore wind. It was a properly wild ride that had us giggling as we ran out of gradient. My GoPro didn’t find it so funny locking up to leave us chilling fast as I faffed.

First descent. Told you it was wet!

Faffing over, the ride continued through a maelstrom of increasing weather and challenging conditions. Including a sketchy ford of a raging torrent I remember as a tiny stream last year.  Finally arrived battered but not bruised at the start of the Roman Road. Ascend this final big climb to access the gap in the ridge this ride is famed for.

Thank fuck it wasn’t a headwind. Gusting at 40MPH that might have broken me. Even as a tailwind it was exciting enough, creating four W-Bikes scooting up the trail and occasionally off it. Water was pushed before us as we continued to struggle through streams hiding slippy rocks.

Heading through the gap. Funky GoPro angle!
H heading down the first section of the Gap descent. Saddle in background.

No tarrying at the gap, wind assisted descending sending me too fast over rocky steps. Lacking any travel out back, this went surprisingly well. Probably just endorphins released by non wind splattage. The remainder of the Gap descent was as I remembered it – rocky, more uphill than it should be, until it isn’t.

Following Matt down the early part of the Gap descent

The water bars were transformed to underwater bars***, the treacherous sky cleared a little, the water didn’t but we were still left with a horizon tearing epic view. Eyes off that prize, back on steepening rocky path, remind myself this is both a hardtail and a no crash zone.

Half way down the gap descent. Blue sky sighted!

The bike wasn’t having any of that nonsense. It just wants to go fast. It’s got the chops for it as well. The rider not so much but my initial white knuckled grip relaxed to something more confident as we skipped over rocks, ploughed through gulleys, and generally behaved in a way a 140mm forked hardtail really shouldn’t.

Last trail. B&W seemed appropriate based how washed out we were!

Still Matt gapped me and Cez left us both. He is a proper nutter tho. Only a few seconds later Ed arrived with a massive grin in his face. Just brilliant all round and we were cheered into having a go at the last trail/river combo. That didn’t go at all really with much dabbing onto slick rocks lurking under mucky water. Still time for one rider to put the “H into Hedge’ before we exited onto the road, and a long trek back along the puddle stained canal path.

DeathMarch then that Matt?” I asked “No argument there he replied, a solid 8 out of 10“. Had that gap climb been into the headwind, it would’ve earned an 11.

Cez(R), Ed, Matt and H. From my phone.

Beers had been earned for sure, after a car park transmogrification from sodden wet mountain biker to pub-respectable human. But we know who we are and what we do. Even when it’s bloody stupid.

Next year? Oh yes. Hoping for snow.

*My multiple eBike whinges have no currency here. Ed is Sixty-Bloody-Seven and still having fun doing silly shit like this. He’s an inspiration to us all. It’s also like having Kenneth Branagh in the van 🙂

**Contrary to unfounded rumours, riding this route doesn’t automatically mean buying a new bike. I accept, however, this has been the case in the last two years. We’ll be back to ‘Blue Steel‘ in a later post.

***Should only be found in hotel pools.

Snowtivation

Snowy Pludds / FoD ride

Or, to paraphrase an old joke, “where’s the “F” in motivation? There is no FinMotivation‘*. Already last years mileage total has sailed off over the horizon after which I reclassified it from ‘target‘ to ‘unrealistic aspiration‘.

My increasing winter slackness normally has, at least, some slack removed through repurposing the shed roof as a winter jacket. Going nowhere slowly, not really having any fun but remaining dry and very warm except for the steaming moistness of my personally created humidic shower.

The pattern has been firmly established over the last five years. 1500 guilty kilometres mostly spun out through the dark and depressing season. Post cheese desperation in January, pre-spring preparation come Feb, tapering off as outside becomes invitingly warm and light. Nothing then until the nights draw the curtain on Autumn late October.

Not this year. Not even close. December 2021 I put in a late surge to nudge me over that 6000km target. January started well but tailed off after two weeks. February, I really couldn’t be arsed at all. After that, bog all until the physical evidence of too many summer beers heralded a brief return to the virtual world**

Yeah that didn’t last long either. Backintheday(tm) I semi-regularly endured three torturous hours in that static experience. Physically it’s a pain tho, not just a saddle slammed arse, but – other than non freewheeling legs – body parts not designed for locked positions. Apparently there’s people out there who’d pay good money for a half day session with all those attributes. Still so do I. Twelve quid a month which seems stupid based on the last few paragraphs, but here we are.

I’ve not fallen out of love with the turbo because I never got much above a base hatred for the input, only buggering on for some perceived output. Sure there are options to tempt even those with absolute zero boredom thresholds. I’ve tried them all: racing (no, was rubbish in real life, mirrored on Zwift), training programmes (12 weeks is at least 9 weeks too long), and riding groups (better than riding alone, but you know you’re still on a turbo).

Quandary then. Requirements: not getting fat, managing decline of a mid 50s body, not being a grumpy bastard. Issues: lack of any kind of fortitude when it’s cold, rainy and just fucking horrible adjacent to my ability to ride in mud shattering the myth that practice makes perfect. Options: many different bicycles that only work outside.

Frozen Night Ride

Mud not a problem right now. Cold tho. Jeez, proper baltic these last two weeks. Rides  reintroducing me to the pain of frozen fingers, ‘one foot‘ toes, locked jaws** and watering eyes. Got it done tho, four rides, two in the dark, all starting below zero, one finishing at a arctic minus six.

Frozen Night Ride

Before the snow, the benefits of carefully examining the winter wardrobe for the best garments before deciding to go with ‘all of them‘ were legion. Dry trails, like summer from the axles down, hills to ourselves and the inestimable joy of walking into the pub like a Shackleton explorer, ordering a properly earned pint before acknowledging the respectful nods of the hardy locals****

After the snow, frozen ruts were one of many disappointments hardening the ride to deep mud conditions. Lots of effort, not much velocity uphill. Other way had a 50PSI vibe as cold hardened tyres pinged off unseen frozen tundra. It was like riding down a bloody Stegosaurus.

And then there was Saturday. Thaw was coming so we’d best get going.  A slightly broken Steve, Matt and I headed over a still frozen hill having decided these were the perfect conditions to explore little used trails on our way to a favourite riding spot. This went as well as expected with much bike portage, low hanging trees dispatching snow into previously warm garments and much map bemusement.

Snowy Pludds / FoD ride

Snowy Pludds / FoD ride

We popped out on icy roads leading me to offer that the scariest trails we rode in Spain and Italy this year weren’t a patch on the almost certain death under the wheels right now. Slide off here, next step Walford at close to terminal velocity. Trails tho were just so good. Variable for sure, but at least a million times better than proxy bikes in virtual environments.

The sun was low. Mostly it was absent. The sky was clamped in that cloud promising cold now and sleet later. The woods were full of contradictions; snowy in places, icy in others, occasional mud to keep you on frozen toes, glassy roots to knock you off them.

We went pretty long as well. I’ve not done enough proper ‘thank fuck this is the last climb, I am totally spent‘ rides lately. 1200 vertical metres and 40 kilometres in the cold will do that. Lots of layers being added as we climbed onto the somewhat slushy roads, some four hours after we’d left them,

We returned to those new trails. Some may complain these are actually footpaths, but they would be incorrect. These are winter bridleways. No one is walking them other than snuffling boars. And us, dropping into a gulley full of winter and fun, sashaying on frozen leaves, feeling the back then the front tyres vibing to a different rhythm. *****

It’s all good. We’ve been managing that all day. Then we’re out and into that final climb to a warm pub and a proper sit down. Yeah it was cold and tough and that’s how it should be. I have been broken many times climbing off the turbo, but it doesn’t feel like this. This feels like what I should be doing. Need to be doing.

If I’m going to spend time with electronic equipment, it really should be the washing machine, not the turbo trainer. Right now I’m ready to go long through the season of the grim. Because, when you consider the options, it’s absolutely the right choice.

*say it out loud. Sounds way better. Well a bit better. Maybe.

**normally accompanied by a grimly grunted “FatMan to the Shedmobile

***a benefit to my riding buddies.

****I might have been imaging this.

****This time of year, my only religious commitment is to a unquestionable belief in my front tyre.

 

The Grim returns…

Probably going to need to clean that.

Denial is wonderful thing. Hmm, maybe not. It’s certainly a thing, let’s agree on that. Nights draw in, rain lashes down, leaves turn and fall, all while our favourite trails disappear under the water table.

Yet we still pretend the return of the grim is still someway off. ELO may sing “Here comes Mr Night”  but the cult of summer endures regardless of mounting evidence. Still, Mr Night welcomes us to a Wednesday ride. It’s only 6PM but British Summer Time has flown south so lights flick the mandatory switch from the start.

It’ll should still be great. Because as an ongoing climate disaster has left aquifers and reservoirs dry, so we’ve ridden through an apparently endless summer. Autumn tho feels a little more familiar with tree bending winds accompanied by horizontal rain. The grey sky is a crucible forged by dirty clouds heavy with precipitation. Temperatures fall into single digits and forgotten drawers are scoured for multiple waterproofing layers. Even so, how bad can it be?

Steve and I head out. The night riding crew has suffered denudement through injury, apathy and excuses of such quality I’ve added them to my special list. We’re barely a month from a stunningly brilliant week in Molini, so this feels both different and familiar.

Familiar in that we’re both riding hardtails. The Giga rests against the wall of the ShedofDreams(tm) as gravity strips it of Italian dust*. While choosing the ten pivot Rascal after October 1st pretty much invalidates the Californian warranty. Not only have we switched to single sprung ends, both wheels are protected by “ugly guards” reaching over and behind thickly treaded winter tyres.

 It’ll be fine I said. This after riding last week before the ‘pair me some animals and send me an ark’ rain of the following days. Then it was forgotten skills dusted off as steering input went one way and wheels another. All good fun ending in a swift pint not encumbered by the need to jetwash ones arse.

It wasn’t fine really. Taking a wider view it had all the being outside when others are not happy vibe. The clouds scuttled away under the glare of a waxing moon. Stars – shorn of light pollution – sparkled prettily in a cosmos full of a tilting planet. We made slithery tracks over the recent detritus spread by double tracked logging vehicles. And worried what further rain would mean for trails mauled for commercial gain.

No matter. That’s for another wet day. First downhill is a double-wheel-slidey wake up call. Evidence based steering has been replaced by a questionable belief in your front tyre. Things are going sideways but that’s okay, speeds are down and we’re still upright. It feels alien tho managing grip that flits dangerously between ‘Well that’s surprisingly good’ and ‘rather less than I was expecting‘.

Based on how well that went, I send Steve down the next trail- one I’ve ridden about 200 times according to the devil wears Strava. My 201st effort isn’t close to my finest hour, as a gap opens up to my mate who has just reminded me how he is quite slow on this track.

All of us with ‘something of the night‘ about us cloak ourselves with winter skills. It seems to take longer every year- lights are better, eyes get worse. Bikes are more appropriate, motivation follows the sun south. What was once mandatory now has a level of optionality. And this is November, come late Jan it’s pretty much ‘fuck that, I’m wearing the shed roof as a rain jacket’.

Sticking with that wider view, we’re riding fantastic bikes under skies resembling shit CGI, we’re staying rubber side down and relearning what proper bike handling feels, we’re having a giggle, a laugh, an age inappropriate view of what’s important, a caught flick, an emergency tripod, a moment of mild terror, an hour in the pub on how good it was.

Sure there was some slogging through mud, the sound of expensive drivetrain components grinding to swarf, emergency tree dodging, legs hating the plasticine under wheel, brown bikes requiring extensive post ride maintenance and a lament for summer nights and dusty t-shirts.

That’s still to come. Seasons are cyclical. Maybe not as timeless as they once were but then neither are we.  So the short game is where its at; drop into the last trail, trade grip for bravery, nail the gap, sideways getting it stopped before shrubbery becomes your immediate future, drop onto the muddy fire-road, snatch a deep breath followed immediately by a bus stop full of steepness and moist leaves.

Deal with that, fall into the rut-of-doom pushing those leaves into the next apex, pretend that went well, throw a pair of tyres into a micro berm and give thanks for a gravity pass. In and out of a fetid bomb hole, flick right into a second steep rut that’s the claimed more souls than the Bermuda Triangle, haul it right again on a slick berm, pretend you cleared the tabletop, stuff it left back onto the footpath, swerve the hard line, bounce down the muddy steps and roll to the gate.

75 seconds of righteous stupidity. And, of course, we’ll be back. Maybe not every week but with a frequency that defies logic. Because if we’re not doing this, what the hell are we doing with our lives?

The grim is back. Bring it on.

*Entropy is a bastard. The problem with living in the moment is it doesn’t last long.

Going forward

Molini MTB - Sept 2022

I am searching for something. Mostly my riding buddies, visually absent from the trail in front of me. Which gives me plenty of time to wonder just when I forgot how to ride a mountain bike. In the evidence column are blind trails barely chronologically separated from a 24 hour rain storm. Coincidentally a similar time spent in the van motoring the 1200km to Molini nestled deep in the Italian Maritime alps.

Molini MTB - Sept 2022

A region of steep sided wooded valleys hiding partly abandoned villages hacked out of rocky hillsides with 1000 year histories of Machiavelli commerce, inquisitions ending in burning witches and WWII German occupation – all of this and much more against a backdrop of agriculture industry powered by water and burning timber. It’s both a medieval time capsule, and a cultural lament for what happens when a nation finds other ways to feed and clothe itself.

Molini MTB - Sept 2022

Tourism has taken up some of the slack. Helpful geography and a whole lot of hard work has developed an extensive trail network augmented with natural trails grubbed in by hunted and hunter. Accessed mostly by uplift van – and ever more frequently by eBike – there’s awesome dirt below a 1000 metres and endless rock above that. Significantly less well known than Finale Liguria – it’s boastful brother on the coast – but, for me, a better riding experience.

Molini MTB - Sept 2022

Well, it would be were I not a million miles behind where I needed to be. No, that’s the wrong metric, really just a few inches further back than optimal. But when you’re riding a slack 64 degree enduro sled thing with 180mm of travel up front and barely less some way behind you that’s a problem. More so if you want to actually make some use of all that capability. And ride round corners. Both of which feel important.

Molini MTB - Sept 2022

Not important enough for me to stop hanging back, jerking my head away from perceived danger, fixating on corner entry while smooth apexes are happening to other people. I’d be better off, getting off and grabbing some handy logs from the forest to portage my way round. A bit of me is loving riding in such an amazing place, but the rest of the cerebral loaf is chafing at my inability to do it any justice.

This is not a “comparison is the thief of joy”* thing. I’m genuinely happy the fast fellas are busting out rooster tails with all the skills and none of the worry. It is a tooth gritted ‘what is the point of coming all the way here, with this bike, on these trails and riding like a twat?’. What indeed? If I were piloting a boat – and based on local climatic conditions this would be a shrewd choice of transport – steering from the back is by design. On a long travel bike, it’s more by idiot.

Molini MTB - Sept 2022

I got through the day. Didn’t ride very well. Reasonably content tho what with not ending as a fleshy tree motif. Stole a cig from a local, stood outside the bar under stary skies and applied some rigorous post ride introspection. If you want to be nearer the front, you need to start with your position on the bike. Right then, that’s sorted, best toast it with a few more beers.

Molini MTB - Sept 2022

Next day riding God from the start then? Er, no but things improved a whole load over the week. Riding every day will do that, as will chuntering into the GoPro that unless a dropped saddle is rustling the inside of your shorts, you need to drag yourself forward.  Head over the stem regardless of gradient. The view from up here is amazing, the bike just wants to go – push the bloody thing into corners, over precipitous drops, away from endless death-by-exposure. If we’re going forward, we’d best get forward. It won’t fix all my riding defects, but it’ll hide them for long enough.

Molini MTB - Sept 2022

Final day it rained again. Last run. A couple didn’t want to get out of the van but how could you not? Having exited the vehicle, I realised exactly why not what with the spiteful rodding of sideways precipitation. Jacket on, drop into the trail. Finally, the bike feels supple and I feel good playing with the brakes rather than leaning on them.

Molini MTB - Sept 2022

The conditions are a great leveller even as the track steepens and I’m still hanging onto the train.  Just let the bike run then gather it up way later than your brain demands. You know what, I might even risk going a little bit faster. Maybe I’ve finally cracked it. ***

Molini MTB - Sept 2022

If I have, it’s not because I’m in that perfect Venn of confidence and competence. I’ve pretty much stopped thinking at this point. Everything is operating on herd instinct. Don’t lose the tow. When it’s gone so are you. Do. Not. Lose. That. Tow. Hang in there and let it hang out. It’s about three minutes of mud-flecked giggling madness.

Molini MTB - Sept 2022

Something clicked. Not a mouse on yet another ‘how to ride video’. Nor a single inspiration spearing sun-cracked clouds.  Something else, I dunno let’s call it knowledge retained by awesome topography. Whatever, the speed is out there mostly still a memory just beyond recall- the harder you try, the more nebulous It becomes. Without getting all Zen on you, sometimes you just need to let the trail come to you. And when it does, you’ll be surfing the whole fast without fear thing.

Molini MTB - Sept 2022

It won’t last of course. Knowing it’s there is enough. Because this means every single ride you get to go looking for it. And sometimes you’ll find it in the last place you looked. How fantastic is that?

Going forward is the new falling behind.

*my second favourite US political quote (Roosevelt). My favourite is the founding father Benjamin Franklin who said “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”**😊

**Except he didn’t. Which is annoying.

***five minutes later, biggest crash of the week. Still didn’t die wondering 😉

EByGum

Orbea Vibe

Authentically delivered in a strong Yorkshire accent, all stretched syllables and associated physicality. Cap off, head scratch, pause, further pause, furrowed brow then ‘ha’ tha’ gone soft lad?’

Possibly. Probably. Certainly gone E. The noise you hear is the irony meter banging against the stops since only last month I had a proper ‘old man shouting at clouds moment’ calling out the electric false narrative. At the end of which I casually dropped in that I’d joined the ranks of the plugged in.

But for none of the reasons I was attempting to lampoon. This is not N+1, it is one less car. It has nothing to do with getting fitter, but everything to do with fitness for purpose. It’s less about riding less proper bikes, but everything about riding more bikes. It’s not an acceptance of age related decline, but everything about dealing with what’s left.

So let’s get into that. This is not an impulse purchase. There is solid rationale for not wanting to drive to either of the two towns five miles away. I bloody hate it. It’s why I sometimes ride my MTB from home only to return empty legged some eight hours later.

The issue is geography. Herefordshire is known for its rolling hills. They aren’t vertically impressive but there is a shit load of them. We live on the top of one of those with a couple of hundred metres separating us from the river trundling through Ross on Wye. Once down there, it’s a pull home especially with beer or a big ride on board.

I’ve ridden many bikes to and from Ross (and Ledbury) over the years. It’s not a big gig and I could swap my car for two wheels every time. But I don’t. Because I’m lazy.   Hard work may pay off it in the long run, but laziness works right now. So I drive, or – if we’re going to the pub – Carol drives and I feel bad about that. I mean not bad enough to drive myself, but you know low level bad.

Enough rationale, excuses to follow let’s move to the present and the achingly pretty eBike up there. Integrated loveliness. Not your standard eBike. Here’s what it isn’t; a complex geared motor offering twice as much power as my legs can put out, an obvious electrified steed with a motor stepping out the bottom bracket area, a down tube housing a battery powerful enough to light a  small village for a few days.

So what is it? Both a rather complex hub motor and a simple approach to delivering the power. There are no torque sensors here, no power matching, no clever brain selecting the right mode. If the cassette is spinning the motor is on, and that motor is delivering less than half of a ‘standard‘ eBike.

Vibe - 2nd ride

This is all good. For starters, the final weight isn’t much more than my Stenduro* Giga. There is no display, only a discreet mode selection switch toggling between not much, oh that’s nice, and fuck me I appear to have Tour De France legs. That last setting comes with a warning tho- the battery buried in the downtube is a mere 250w/hour and that’s going to get drained faster than a burst pipe if you lean on the turbo button.

Even showing some restraint, we’re taking 75km range. Quick sidebar, I was absolutely clear when I bought the bike Turbo wasn’t ever going to be engaged. Well that lasted about 20 seconds. It’s a bit, er, compelling sailing up steep road climbs at 20MPH. I’m not sure the top half of the cassette is going to see much action.**

First proper #onelesscar ride

My first #onelesscar visit to the physio in Ross was fantastic. Arrived in about the same time as if I’ve ridden my gravel bike. But far less sweaty. The 25kmh limiter gets hit on every flat, but I just drop the motor into Eco and tell myself I AM NOT IN A HURRY. Every hill spikes my ‘must pedal like a bastard gland‘ and that’s a hard habit to break. As is spinning at a non MTB stomping cadence which is something to re-learn, as this is a pretty low torque motor most efficient with a bit more leg twirling.

I sense questions; will it pay for itself in saved fuel? Fuck no, I bought the posh one and it’d need to follow my hearse to get close to break-even. Will you ride it off road? Absolutely not, because it’d be crap for all sorts of reasons mostly tyres and weight distribution with that heavy rear hub****. Is it a gateway drug to buy an eMTB. Nope, but they are brilliant things. I’ve not had an epiphany but I’m definitely more on the fence than I was. Will you ride it through the winter? Christ, no I’ve paid my dues with 10+ years of 4 season commuting. Best jacket in crap weather is the car roof.

But I will ride it. When before I’d take the car. I’ll wobble home from the pub, mule some light shopping home, maybe go exploring when I need a view that’s not the shed wall. We’ve decided to stay here – post kids doing adult things – and part of living in a stunning landscape is I want to ride a bike every day.

So this isn’t an ending, nor a slow descent into giving up proper pedalling, not an excuse to make the hard things easy. Rather it’s expanding my options to ride a bike. And that can never be a bad thing.

EBaGum? eBike Fun more like.

*stupidly, pointless Enduro and I love it for that.

**reviews said 250 watts isn’t enough to get you up steep hills. Maybe if you’re out of shape but for me, I’ve barely got out of breath half way up the block. I can’t imagine what a full fat one must feel like.

****Rohloff users, what were you thinking?