EBaGum

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?

Stuck in the middle with you

Giga gets a new shock :)

Those of a certain age will remember “Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, Here I am stuck in the middle with you” from 1970s Scottish rock band Stealers Wheel. That’s a useful description for my Rodin posed discombobulation of the latest ShedofDreams(tm) upgrade.

It’s a shock I hear you say. It certainly was. Carefully installed where a perfectly acceptable air powered version was recently located. A synonym for ‘perfectly acceptable’ would be ‘bloody expensive and significantly more competent than the meat sack positioned aft‘.

Let’s address that first. Not the rider held back by non race-tuned suspension. We can all agree a block of stout oak preventing the front and back ends smashing together would be a proportional solution to the needs of this pedalling idiot. The stock shock tho – while marketing itself as the perfect Venn between lightness and performance – proved itself to be serially rubbish.

200 miles in, it acoustically cried for help in a manner that precision aluminium components for an interference fit never should. Unbolted and packaged up, it returned with most of its significant parts replaced and managed a further 800 miles without exploding or shitting its internals.

Although not exactly with flying colours. It’s key characteristic was a chirping unhappy squish under any kind of load and a damping circuit offering a graveyard feel somewhere between recently deceased and full rigour mortis. I wasn’t sure if to get it tuned by a professional, or exorcised by a man of God.

Options then. Nukeproof offer a few on new frames with real springs replacing their nitrogen based proxies. Those options have passed through the marketing department with offerings of ‘cheap but not very good’, ‘stupidly expensive for the most discerning customer‘ and ‘make loads of these, the idiots always go for the middle option’

Not this idiot. Fuck, I tried. Convinced myself the middle option was most of the performance at barely half the price. Referred myself to the law of diminishing returns. A suspended sentence ending with ‘don’t get yourself into trouble buying the wrong thing’. Repeat offender and all that,  but I was going straight for the middle option.

Until I made the terrible mistake of asking my riding pals what they thought. Jokers  and clowns the lot of them. In case this clumsy metaphor isn’t obvious, let me be clear the crash landing of fiscal responsibility lies entirely with those who I think of both as my friends and a devil on the shoulder.

Honestly I considered telling Carol the bike had been stolen and this is how I found it. Still we’re here now with a shock hand built it Italy*, calibrated forensically in Wales and bolted onto my Enduro Sled**. Regardless of how it performs, just look at it, a thing of mechanical beauty.

So how does it perform? Absolutely no idea. Fetched it from the suspension tuners, dropped it off a couple of curbs, downloaded the amusingly translated manual, poked around with the adjusters but mostly just sat in the shed nodding. It definitely looks right, so it’ll probably ride right.

Tomorrow we’ll find out. Not against any kind of baseline from the previous three months since it’s been absolutely rodding it down all week. My guess is I’ll be far too exercised on what’s happening to the muddy front end to notice any improvement out back.

I expect the only empirical analysis will be based on if it’s easy to wash the mud off compared to an air shock. This is no way denudes it’s general awesomeness. Because anything costing that much really needs to be quite a lot better than the thing it replaced.

Giga gets a new shock :)

I’ll find out properly in two weeks when we’re heading to the birthplace of the shock. Well close anyway, Molini in Italy where – after a mere 14 hours in the van – we’ll be riding lush late summer trails under blue skies. Still I said that about Finale in 2o19 a mere 75 miles to the south. It rained all week and Tim travelled home with  smashed leg bones encased in a cast running from ankle to thigh.

Best not to dwell on that. While I know pointless upgrades are very much my thing, this one feels like it might deliver something. Something other than looking properly bling. Still delusion is pretty much my thing as well so I’m hardly a trusted witness.

Guess we’ll find out. That never gets old.

*let’s not hope like the 80s Alfasuds tho. The standing joke being ‘what would you do in a three minute warning’ / ‘I’d let my Alfa rust to nothing’

**I accept that is a terrible description of a bike. Whole it’s not as stupid as ‘rig‘ or ‘whip‘ , it’s not really acceptable.  Assume I’m being ironic.

Plugged in.

1965 Newport Folk Festival, Rhode Island USA. Bob Dylan plugged in. And most of the folk world freaked out. That’s the summary, the detail is a limitless rabbit hole of contemporary accounts, first hand interviews and long shadowed documentaries. I have spent far too much time burrowing deep into fact and myth but “Dylan was said to have “electrified one half of his audience, and electrocuted the other” pretty much covers it.

It’s also a solid metaphor for the eBike revolution. And be in in no doubt this is exactly what it is, right down to eating its own children. My ambivalence / shifting views on whether this is a good thing recently sparked a bit of Twitter back and forth which, on reflection, was firing darts at the heart of the periphery. There’s no Canute pushing back the sea here*; anyone riding mountain bikes (in fact all bikes) cannot miss the opening up cycling to the masses/debasing the purity of the thing. Delete as applicable. Nobody cares. Especially the manufactures scrambling to play to an audience through the power of electricity.

Plugging in has the historical whiff of full suspension versus hardtail, 29 or 26, trail centres or natural tracks. Except it’s way bigger than that.  And more diversive. It’s is one of hardened positions, not arguments on both sides, it lacks nuance. It’s become a bit of a cult, the root of which appears to be guilt.

Right table, see those cards they are all mine. I have absolutely no problem with eBikes. Appreciate that’s a sentence adjacent to ‘I know lots of gay people‘  and ‘some of my best friends are black‘. I’m not trivialising the problem with such phrases often being – at best – cultural adoption or virtue signalling. Rather I know this is a position oft taken to claim some nebulous moral high ground before righteously pissing off it.

So let me be absolutely clear on what irritates me when conversing with our electrically enabled brethren.

1. I’m working just as hard as on a normal** bike. “riding twice as far, twice as high, loads more upper body strength required, etc“. H’mm if you’re racing E-EWS then sure.  In my experience of trail eBikers, you’re really not. Cinderella pedalling on glass cranks as you breeze by. ***

Jealous? A little. Bottom of another 20 minute climb, I’d be lying if wishing for a bit of assistance isn’t a guilty daydream. But I’m at an age where a cheese and beer diet is incompatible with going steady. Or taking an easier option. I hate it sometimes, but it still feels good to get it done.

And I don’t need to ride all the trails. I’m happy – deliriously so – just riding a bike with my mates. Making choices based on trail conditions, companions, capacity of legs etc is all part of it. I am not a completist, I am not a Strava whore, I’m not confusing time on the bike with only descending.

So sure, eBikes mean you can ride more downhills. That’s not the same as riding more.

2. I only have an hour. This I have more time for. If I don’t drive, it’s 30 mins to decent trails and half of that for Gravel bike technicality.  Sometimes this cranks the  ‘can’t be arsed‘ gauge deep into apathetic self loathing. Would I turbo charge my motivation with voltage? Amp up my laziness into a new me? Maybe. Probably not. Everyone is not me though.

3.  I can’t ride a normal bike. You’d have to be a total twat not to be swayed by this rationale. That’s before we agree that more people on bikes can only be a good thing. If it’s mountain biker with a ruined knee or a commuter getting out of their car, electric bikes level a previously lumpy playing field.

When I smashed my ankle a few years ago, I’d have given the other foot to get off the turbo to ride outside with my friends. An eBike would have enabled that.

So for the hard of understanding I get it. What I don’t get are the endless reasons for why someone has chosen an eBike. Just be honest about it. We’re moving into a new phase where riding is about making choices not entirely based on fitness or injury. I still don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing. But it’s a thing and it’s going to be a majority thing at some point. Feels quite soon.

There’s something else here. Price of entry and all that. eBikes are expensive – even compared to normal bikes – and I worry this is just another barrier to riding bikes. Don’t want to ride a normal bike, can’t afford an eBike. It’s not a new issue because there are already massive disparities between buying a utility bike and buying a mountain bike. eBikes amplify this disparity but they didn’t cause it.

Oh I just bought an eBike. For none of the reasons above. Obviously we’ll be back to that.

*to be fair, didn’t go well. Still you got to admire the self-belief 🙂

**The bike lexicon fails to align on what a non eBike is. It’s not acoustic whatever the mags might tell you.

***Yes I know this is massive stereotyping. It is based entirely on what I see every week.  I’m sure there are many examples / outliers. But the plural of anecdote is not evidence.

Sun’s out, Rain Jacket out…

Matt, Em, Steve, Old Ferrie Inn, Herefordshire

….yeah about that.

Steve has risked moistening a body part to sneak a very localised weather report. His damp head darts quickly back under our broadleaf organic umbrella. “Not stopped yet? we ask pointlessly. He responds with a Labrador shake* and at least one of us wonders where his lightweight rain jacket might be**

Too warm for a jacket anyway. Still pissing it down though. We’re back in the Yat heading east up the ever steepening escarpment. Until five minutes ago it’s been tinder dry so cementing a plan of riding everything on this side and beer medalling*** without crossing back over the bridge.

A fine plan until one understands the relationship between recent moistness and the local geology. That geology being propped up on layers of sloping limestone. If you’ve ever wondered what riding on wet glass might feel like, let me introduce you to damp limestone. Offers between zero and a bit less than zero grip.

This seemed an ideal time to check out some of the steepest trails. The rain had finally stopped some forty minutes later leaving only shiny roots and sweating rock as its legacy. A legacy we hurtled into with the kind of wild abandon best captured in after action reports.

Before recording our heroics and possible injuries, I’d taken stock of my riding companions and broken out the big bike. 35lb of 170mm of Enduro ready beastliness isn’t my favourite thing to winch uphill, but it’s a willing climber if you’re not in a hurry. Flip gravity tho and it’s a calming sled occasionally flicking Vs at gnarly terrain.

Good job as I was bloody useless. One of those ‘not going very fast, but everything seems to be happening far too quickly‘ days. We headed out to ‘Merlin’s‘ where performative tyre deflating failed to raise my confidence level. Still we’re here now. Well the front tyre is, the rear is partying hard out back flicking left and right on the steep switchbacks.

That front tho is planted deep enough to qualify for a drilling permit. Lean on that, wave the enduro tripod leg out for the look of the thing and remember that sometimes 64 degree head angles makes sense for normal humans. After which we were in need of strong coffee, and some excuses not to climb to the old hill fort for a while.

250m ish of ascent. A new route, occasionally confused but we got there eventually. Last time up here, I was barely post-Covid and it felt stupidly hard. Today it was still hard but not quite as stupid. Because heading down from the trig point is a descent jumbled with rocks, roots, occasional steepness before opening up to life affirming flat out sections.

God, it was so good. Even when riding like a twat. There are a couple of fast flicks through ride ending rocks which must be timed perfectly. Want to live in the moment? Go ride that section off the brakes. It’s spectacularly good even before you lift your eyes to the old**** broadleaf doing its summer forest thing.

We headed back up because, well, why wouldn’t you. These are perfect days. Do not sacrifice them to apathy or tired legs. We ended on the ‘bridge‘ trail known for being steep, chute’y and peppered with steep sided bombholes giving off a “going over the bars here Al‘ vibe.

Except with slack angled long bikes you’re going to be just fine. So much so that you get to play in the steepest chute, chucking the back wheel up a vertical bank and getting all giggly as it slides back down. Try that in winter and it’d be emergency dental procedures all round.

Not now. Not today. We slipped down a cheeky rocky footpath to emerge thirsty at the pub. Steve brandished his locals discount card and all was right in the world. Even with the post beer 11km ride home. Matt and I have done this countless times and it passed in mostly companionable silence. Except for whinging about never ending headwinds.

Four rides in a week, four different bikes. This was the latest and maybe the best but that’s not the point. It’s never about the bike. It’s about riding a bike – any bike, banter with your mates, then watching the shining river host SUPs, Canoes and occasional swimmers****** all while nursing a beer or two.

Last week I didn’t really celebrate another orbit of the planet. 55 years old. That’s pretty fucking ancient. But I still get to do this, so that’s okay then.  For now. Yeah let’s go with that living in the moment thing.

*without the actual hair. Steve and I are the “Brasso Brothers

**at home. Under the bench. Carefully placed at 7am this morning. Because I’m an idiot. Natch.

***I’m just trying to get down with the kids here.

****not that old. Most of this hillside was coppiced for Industry less than 150 years ago.

***** Mostly paddling. River is pretty low right now.

I feel the need for a change…

… Not me. This website. Or whatever we call blogs these days to make ourselves relevant and funky in the “what a time to be alive” Web 3.0 ecosystem*. Anyway ‘we‘ have a symbiotic relationship the electronic hedgy and I. It stands ready to receive yet more half arsed shit from yours truly, before serving it up to those desperately short of content and purpose in their life.

That’s all going to change. Not the ‘Incoherent ramblings of an idiot‘ as the on-the-nose strap-line promised from day one. That’s a feature not a bug. No, the occasionally desultory tossing a page to a passing browser thing. The site has been generously hosted by a mate for the last fifteen years, but now he’s keen to get his own life back.

Woooah. BACK RIGHT UP THERE FELLA. Ten years and another five? Sure you can’t actually kill electrons and the flickering pulse of hosting power is hardly contributing to the climate emergency***, but even so we’re talking about 180 months of writing about riding bikes and other unimportant stuff! No one of ! isn’t enough. I think fuck and !!! might cover it.

That is a lot. Quality and Quantity. Yeah they both start with Q. One may have won out. Although not so much in the last few years. No issue with writers block when your muse is a city of ten million fuckwits attempting to splatter you onto the tarmac. And a daily train journey caught between not much internet access and much needed middle aged naps.

Now, it’s when I can be arsed/can type after a few beers/can remember a great idea from ten minutes ago that has now left the cerebral building. And all is not well back in that hinterland of four posts a week. Broken links, UTF****, pictures not displaying, questionable copyright when they do. Yeah, there be dragons, best leave it alone.

I can’t leave the hosting alone tho. Andy – said mate – has gone above and beyond hosting (and amusingly paying for it -at least I’ve recompensed him now) a few bottom feeding sites lapping in the surf of that global internet thing. So it’s the right time for the prickly fella to be dropped into a virtual cannon and punted hyperbolically across cyberspace.

I did consider hosting it on the website that represents me as a working adult. Clearly that’s beyond risky. I mean two articles in and it’d go all Jerry Maguire only with a more realistic ending of shelf stacking.  So in a sideways move, it’s crash landing on the platform best defined by ‘lowest cost bidder‘. A hosting side lamented for ‘suffering performance degradation under load‘.

I think, dear readers, that IS a risk we can safely take. All 23 of us. Longer term, because, honestly it’s not like I’m busy or anything, I intend to bring the Prickly Pickly back in house. That diagram up there was my half arsed attempt at formalising a plan based on state of the art network design knowledge from 25 years ago. Bored of that, I’m going my with Standard-Operating-Procedure of winging it, while pretending the smoking ruins of Raspberry PI’s and paper thin security was the plan all along.

We’ll get back to that. At some point. It’s on my list of retirement projects. No that’s not true, it’s not on any list because we’ve decided the correct response to both offspring moving out is to entirely remodel the house. From the roof down. I feel that whole writer’s block thing may not be an issue for a couple of years. Assuming we’ve still got access to electricity, and the village isn’t flooded.

As I write this, internet address books are being updated, database clone wars have reached a peaceable settlement, and the hedgehog cannon ball is arcing on a ballistic trajectory to its new home. That is probably overall a good thing because, while I’m not under any illusion the over 1,000 (I know, really I mean what have I been doing with my life?) articles would be any loss to critical literature, I’d kind of miss that narrative of my life.

Which is hard to reconcile with the last backup being 2018 before last night 😉 Again I have to thank Andy for keeping the lights on when nobody was home.

So what’s next? More of the same, less of something different? No idea, but for £12 a year I think we’ll keep buggering on. In the short term, we might go offline but even I probably won’t notice. Wonder if I can get one of those animated GIFS with a builders hat?

*I remember the fourth age of computing. It was the “information age”. Taught to me about 1989 – all about the data. Web 1,2 and 3 appear to have been mostly about animating cats in ever more sophisticated ways, and porn**

**I am not being entirely serious of course. But God I feel old. I remember being excited about animated GIFS!

***Looking at you and glowering darkly Bitcoin.

****Don’t go there. I won’t bore you with what it stands for. If you find yourself lost in about 2008 posts, think of it as Ugly Tilde Font. Or Unknowable Text Fuckup 🙂

The best race report I ever wrote….

… because I didn’t actually race 🙂

It’s stupidly long. Nick (see below reminded me it was published in Singletrackworld magazine. It’s a two hander between Nick and I. He was racing, I was mostly sulking.

Three Men and a Malady – D2D 2002

Some men are born to compete. Some achieve competitiveness. The rest of us have competition thrust upon us . Traditionally post ride, mid-quaff and laughably ignorant of the consequences. And that’s peculiar as mountain biking has little in its’ inherent social dynamic to suggest the elbows-out, humour bypass and, dare I say, shaven legged attributes affecting our Roadie brethren.

But something about the gathering of riding buddies all approaching, or looking back with affection on, their mid thirties generates a critical mass of an idea fuelled by the fear of passing time. Endurance racing was always going to get the nod over the two hour pigeon legged frenzy characterising XC racing when a single look in the mirror reflects the truth about tortoises and hares. And the word on the trail spoke of respect being given for competing apathetically, being crap but cheerful and understanding someone has to be last. In short, qualities we felt represented both our aspirations and ability.

Before the mood left us, we’d gone mad with form filling and in spite of the physical evidence determined a 24hr race would be a good way to fire up our racing career. Sadly those organising the Red Bull disagreed and we were out before we’d even started. A setback rather than a disaster; we were unwavering in our quest to fulfil what little potential we had. So finding a twelve hour race was a good thing, finding it was taking place during the hours of darkness was less delightful but already half of the team had lights with measurable commitment from the other half to blaze a trail to Mr. Lumicycle. Now for the first of many serious decisions: the team name.

I really liked “Crouching Badger/Hidden Beaver” but the team felt it was a little infantile for a quartet pushing 150 in combined age. Team “Global Custard” went the same way as did “Well played that badger” with the team becoming increasingly concerned with my fetish for small furry rodents. Nick restored team karma and gave us a sporting chance of getting the entry in before the race with Team “Lights are on but nobody is home”. Only afterwards did I realise the missed opportunity presented by Team GIMP (Gay[Nicks Lemon Spesh], InBred[Al’s OnOne], Misunderstood[Steve’ life statement] and Punctured[Daves’ MTB Jonah]). Sadly too late – so all that remained was general endurance training, specific night riding training and minor logistical issues such as remembering to buy a tent. We did our best which wasn’t very clever with Daves’ lights turning up the week before the race, Steve taking most of July off on holiday and Al buying a tent that could easily accommodate two well grown hamsters. Although not at the same time. It also had the porous properties of a Tetley T-Bag but then for £44.99 from Argos what the hell did they expect? It was hardly an Everest expedition.

Still we had bikes, we had lights, we had spares and most important of all we had Team Spirit. I’d packed that in a bottle marked “medical supplies”.

One week before
Clearly one bike wasn’t going to be enough for a serious three lap assault on this flat singletrack infested eight mile course. Having skipped the normal rite of passage from hardtail to full suspension, it was clear than a step back into the land of no pivots one week before our first race would improve our times and my riding. I honestly believed this having fallen under the spell of Witches Cummins and Watkins who not only truly understood the way of the righteous ones is paved with steel but also that all that suspension malarkey is no more than marketing hype for XC Jayboys. Enter an On-One Inbred purloined from the premises of Nice but Tim at Sideways Cycles morphed to a Deore Groupset and a pair of pre-loved Zocchi X-Flys. It weighed about the same as my Superlight, was a disk free environment and sported tyres as wide as the estate agents’ smile. And I’d never ridden it. So absolutely ideal then.

Four days before
Seventy miles on the Inbred taught me a lot. Some of it good with me waxing lyrical about the realness of steel and the sheer pleasure of arriving alive at the bottom of a descent that in my full suspension guise would have invoked nothing more than “any rocks in that? didn’t feel a thing”. Some of it not so good with my back feeling it had gone five rounds with Lennox and he had the baseball bat. Still it’d make a man of me by all accounts. The last ride was a 22 mile loop completed in 15 minutes shy of two hours and I felt strong and fit. But also cold which did not bode well since the sun was beating down and everyone else was sweltering.

36 hours before the race
“Is this a spot I see before me?” . Cue fever which had me sweating, shivering and barfing bizarrely all at the same time clued up those smarter than I that all was not well. Thirty Six hours before the start, I was dispatched mumbling and moaning to the quacks. It was not the leaches and embalming fluid I’d envisioned – rather a bloke with a kind expression explained that the rapidly expanding spot legion was in fact Chicken Pox and would I mind standing a little further away. The remainder of the conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’m going to be racing in 36 hours”
Doc: “No you’re not”
Me: “I’ll not touch anyone”
Doc: “If you go and race, you’ll pass out and probably die…”
Me: (Seeing a chink): “Ok, I’ll go and watch”
Doc: “.. and if you don’t you’ll create a Chicken Pox Pandemic”
Me: “So that’s a maybe then”
Doc: “It’s a no. Any more questions, that’ll be no as well”.

Deeply pissed off I phoned Nick to explain and whilst my recollection of the conversation was a matter-of-fact synopsis backed up by a stiff upper lip, Nick tells it more as a whinging-whining-self pitying outburst with quivering bottom lip noticeably in attendance. Whatever. Four had now become three and a sicknote so we hatched up a plan to add a ringer to the team who not only would put in consistently faster laps than I ever could but who also didn’t fart so badly in the tent. I’m sure Nick sounded quite cheerful about the whole thing.

I even called my mum and demanded why – like all the other kids – I had not had the mandatory month off school with Chicken Pox and further how she could have allowed me to reach adulthood without contracting a decent strain. The conversation was surreal enough to warrant recording here:

Al: “I’ve got chicken pox”
Mum: “No you haven’t, you’ve already had it”
Al: “Mum, listen to me here. I’ve just left the Docs, I’ve got it”
Mum: (belying the fact she was 200 miles away and hadn’t seen me for a month) “No you haven’t, you had it in 1974”.
Al: “Well I’ve got it again”
Mum: “Could have been your brother then”
Al: “He got it last year”
Mum: “Well it must be a mistake”
Al: “I look like an anatomical dot to dot puzzle. There are more spots than skin”
Mum: “It must be something else”
Al: “Like what? Oh for Christs sake. Here’s the doctors number, argue it with him”.

24 four hours before the race
Chicken Pox is like modern day leprosy. Unsightly and contagious. I didn’t want to go out regardless of the fact I’d be the centre of the South Oxfordshire Pox pandemic – sure I could be altruistic about it but basically I looked like zit boy, my skin painfully stretched by the ever increasing lesions blistering from every available pore. I’m surprised I didn’t get a bell with the prescription.

12 hours before the race
Alex
I grump about the house short on humour and short with the family. Go to bed and itch all night. On waking I feel better but a glance in the mirror shows this is a fallacy with every part of my torso and face overrun by red welts. If anybody wants me I’ll be slurping lager from under this carrier bag. I spend the rest of the day kicking tyres and cats and shouting at people adding yet more anecdotal evidence that when I’m not in control of things, I am a real pain in the arse to live with. Shame I can’t go to the pub but even that small pleasure is denied me.

Spots everywhere. It’s a glandular thing and guess where many of your “man” type glands hang out. Yep down there in the nether regions. I can honestly say that when the invading army of red soldiers crested the ball bag and camped out on the old fella, it was a bit of a relief really because I believed then it couldn’t get any worse. Any other time in my life, the smallest spot or blemish in that area would have caused blind panic.

I was locked in my own “itchy and scratchy” movie. There is a certain irony in that old saying about an itch you can’t scratch. Being scarred for life seemed like a tiny price to pay if I could rip these spots off with my fingernails, an emery board or best of all some kind of powered angle grinder. One of the basic tests for intelligence is the ability of a subject to ensue instant gratification for greater rewards in the future. If this test has been applied to me right then I would have had the mental age of a four year old as I searched for a plug socket.

Nick
I stop over to Al’s place on my way on Saturday morning, partly to see how he’s bearing up, and partly to grab the tent he bought specifically for the event, and nab some beer, having forgotten to buy any in the rush to get myself organised. Alex is visibly pissed off, if his bottom lip stuck out any further it could be used as a diving board! After coffee and commiseration, I depart, feeling more sorry for his wife and 2 kids.

2.00 PM
Roads full of holiday traffic conspires to delay my arrival, although I’m certainly not the first, the camping site is noticeably empty. I go and sign on and explain about Al. I had spoken to Frank Ho, another sometime riding partner about maybe being his replacement. Frank has entered as a solo, however a moment of realisation dawns on me and I enter his name. Team ‘Lights on no-one home’ needs all the help it can get, I can only hope he understands.

Back at the pitch, I erect the tent, and set out the deck chairs, chatting to my new neighbours, a couple entered as a pair, they have a long and tiring night ahead of them. As I’m opening my well-deserved beer, my phone rings “Where are you?” It’s Dave, another of the team members, he sounds awfully close. I look up to see Steve and Dave crossing the field in Steve’s Passat. Team LONOH has landed.

Some words about my fellow riders: Firstly Dave, the rider that everyone wants in their team. Fast and unflappable, never complaining about his lot, even when ‘volunteered’ for the first lap. Steve is also a fast rider, lightweight and neat, with a cat’s aversion to mud and puddles. He often comes back from a ride with a cleaner bike than other riders start off. Frank the erstwhile member is an ex US Marine blessed with speed and fierce stamina; he will hopefully be the cornerstone of our assault on the leader board. However as I’m in the team that particular target has floundered already. Questionable riding technique and a complete lack of any fitness make me a liability. I’m only tolerated because I bring ready made pasta, made by my long-suffering partner, Laura.

4.00 PM
We faff about for as long as we can plausibly put it off, until we decide that as we’ve come here to race, it would be prudent to tackle the course. Camelbacks filled, tires kicked, we head off to have a look. The 11-mile lap is essentially two loops of 6.5 and 4.5 miles. The first starts with fire roads to get warmed up, before getting into some blinding singletrack for a good length of the loop. The route then goes past the campsite to begin the second loop with more fire road this time but the singletrack that is here is even more twisty than the first section. There are no real climbs at all, just a couple of slopes to blast up. It’s very pedally (big ring all the way) with no real rest the entire length. It’s very well sign posted, but we still managed to get lost, as we backtrack, we find a sign that’s been knocked over, feeling a bit better about our navigation skills we re-erect the fallen sign and carry on.

Back at the campsite, we establish a 50-minute lap as a benchmark, and find Frank. Who seems strangely quiet on discovering he is now the latest member of the team. A Chinese parliament establishes the running order, and we agree on the victim of the opening lap. Dave has foolishly declared that ‘he doesn’t mind’ and is duly elected to carry the honours in the Le Mans start, still a good 2 hours away. Still time for some food, some beers and some arsing about, and a rider briefing. We stroll over clutching our beers, and get a good look at our fellow competitors for the first time, very few of whom are carrying beers I notice. Ken, the organiser gives a short welcoming speech, and the actual brief is given by Chipps Chippendale, the Singletrack editor. That sorted we stroll back to see if we can eat some more pasta. Frank comes in from his recce lap in 47 minutes to declare that this is ‘Full suss country’ which is slightly disappointing, as between us there is my Spesh, and 2 Konas, all hard tails. Only Frank will be riding full suss, his Trek Fuel.

RACE TIME

Al
8 p.m. – Time to crack open a beer and fire up a DVD in which people are righteously having their heads ripped off. Try very hard not to scratch by wondering what was happening to Nick and the boys.

Nick
Dave is preparing his bike for racing, he has taken off the mudguards, and he is obviously nervous despite his smiles. We try to make conversation as he pushes his bike to the hand over area. We bid him luck, and with 10 minutes to go he wanders down to the tree line some 150 yards away for the running start. All the other riders are gathered at the start/finish line as the gun goes off and finally the race is under way. The teams with a good chance of a position at the end are taking this seriously, and there is an elbow out sprint to the bikes.

Dave is somewhere in the middle, as he gets away pedalling hard. Some of the Soloists and singlespeeders take it noticeably easier, strolling up as if out to take the evening air. One even bows to an appreciative audience before cycling away at a leisurely pace.

8.55 PM
Frank is keyed up and ready to go all out.

The leading teams are putting in startling lap times, as the first pair comes in side by side in a staggering 38 minutes. Dave is still 20 minutes away at this point battling hard in the midfield. Finally I spy him coming into the arena and Frank gets ready, turning on his lights and taking a sip from his camelback. Dave’s upon us, we shout and he brakes hard looking for the source of his name, we pounce on him and he gladly hands over the green glow stick that will be our relay baton for the next 12 hours.

He’s done the lap in 55 minutes, an excellent time as we all watch Frank standing, dance on the pedals rushing out to the evening gloom.

Dave is out of breath, and high on endomorphines, “we won’t be last” he predicts accurately, “but you can’t overtake on the singletrack and I was held up.” We amble back to the tent pushing Dave for info about the conditions; he’s done well in what is effectively the only real race of the night. The riders will soon be so spread out that only the occasional lights will be seen by the others to remind us that we are not alone in the forest.

9.45 PM
“Is my rear light on?” I ask, Steve’s reply suggests that I must have asked the question one too many times, as he and I wait for Frank. Soon I see him appear out of the dark, 2 last bends and he’s here. Steve shouts and Frank brakes neatly next to us. He passes over the baton, and I push it up the leg of my shorts, where it glows dully. Flood on, and clipped in changing up to the big ring for the grass run to the first corner. A 90 degree bend right and I’m out onto the course. Already the noise of the campsite is fading and the only light is the bright glow from my own lights, the moon not yet having risen over the trees.

I consciously slow for the corners not wanting to ‘come a cropper’, and soon enter the singletrack through the trees. It’s smooth and sandy already packed down by the previous lappers. It feels even faster in the dark, trees rush out of the dark, and I brake too hard spoiling my rhythm. The Panaracers that I have, although providing excellent grip, are slow to accelerate, and I slip down to the middle ring finding a more comfortable cadence. Still not having seen any of my fellow competitors, I burst out of the singletrack onto the next fireroad section. I reach down to turn off one of my lights, only to plunge myself into complete darkness. “SHIT” the lead has come out of the other light. I try to find the lead, look where I’m going and keep up the pace, doing all dismally. Cursing, I come to a stop. I finally locate the battery lead, and bully it back in, straining in the big ring I grind back up to pace, 2 riders overtake me. More singletrack and I resolve to leave the lights alone. Past the campsite for the first time, another swooping section is straight away upon me. This goes on for what feels like ages, and has some steep drops and slopes that will catch some out (twice in the same place for Steve). The pedalling is tough over the rough ground and the next section of fire road is a welcome relief.

The next, more open section of singletrack ends with the only real puddle to contend with. Although it’s a bugger to clean, needing a ‘huck’ over an off camber rooty section, and a quick turn back on ones self. I manage it this time, and the end of this loop is marked by a second “flypast” of the campsite. Out onto the longest section of fire road, a top/top grind slightly uphill turning right onto one of the few sections of singletrack. More fire road follows, past two house sized piles of wood chips, the next turn into a tree lined path causes my specs to mist up, I can still pick out the next marker however. One last section of rough climbing scrub and a fire road blast to the finish. Scanning for Steve, I see him standing clear of other riders. He’s positioned himself for an easy hand over. Frank steadies my bike, as I pass Steve the baton, and he duly charges off.

I look down at my computer, it reads 53 minutes. Although the official timer puts me a second under 52 minutes. I’m happy not to have had a major off, or mechanical. Back at the tent I’m gabbling, and laughing, Dave tells me to shut up. I tally my lap. 4 overtook me, and I think I passed 3 others (I did pass another, but he’d stopped to fix something, so I’ll be generous, and not count him)

Al
1 a.m.
Despite marinating in Belgium’s finest, sleep is clearly to be denied me. I stalk around the house looking for things to be irritated with. Instant guilt follows as my wife stumbles sleepily down the stairs but for once I’m not the problem. A guy, who if we are charitable we would call socially confused, is bouncing off lampposts, throwing up in the street and having a little lie down between to get his strength back. I wander out hoping to add disease to his list of ailments only to find him totally lucid but under control of none of his limbs whatsoever. He’s going home he tells me although the physical evidence is not compelling. I offer help, phones or another drink all of which he swats away with a deceptively sober “thanks but I’m fine”. Again I have my doubts but leave him to cannon into street furniture for another hour or so before he finally locates his house and engages in that long game of the very pissed; “stab the keyhole”. It was amusing whilst it lasted and took my mind away from the thousand fire ants burrowing into my skin. Knowing it was pointless I retraced my steps to bed although not before the irony of being awake and sober at 1 a.m. which is exactly what I’d expect of the rest of the team.

Nick

2 a.m.
Dave Frank and Steve put in steady laps of 55, 51 and 52 minutes respectively. And unexpectedly we’re lying 12th overall, on the same lap as the leaders but about 15 minutes behind.

However my inexperience with lights was about to put paid to a top half finish. Surprisingly, the one thing I did do right saves the lap from complete disaster. I hadn’t been able to see the computer on my handlebars so I had bodged a mini mag torch onto my helmet. Hey presto I can see where I’m looking, not where the handlebars are pointing. The lap starts well enough the helmet light is surprisingly effective despite being only about 3 watts and I can see the apex of turns and glancing down, I can check my progress on the computer. I’ve nailed the first section and I’m convinced I’m doing a faster time this lap. I notice that the other riders that I can see all seem to have Cateye Stadiums though, and I’m certain the light from the helmet torch is becoming more distinct. A hand in front of the lights confirms my worst fear, a weak dribble of orange light – no juice in the battery, gutted I have no choice but to continue in the dark, coming onto the second half fire road. Nature conspires with the lights to bugger my lap as the mist comes down so thickly that I cannot see further than the cone of the mini mag. In the final insult, the heat I’m pushing out meets the cold air, and my specs fog up. I cannot cycle fast enough for cold air to clear them naturally, and I’m forced to wipe them with the back of my glove. Rider after rider fly past me, and I try to keep up, using the light spilt from their bulbs, tired legs and a bad attitude slow me to a crawl however and 56 minutes later, I hand over to Steve, who’s champing at the bit. His eyes saying, “Where have you been?”

Later when Dave, also a lumicycle virgin does the same thing, Steve goes through some of the basics. “Just use the spot”, he says, “it’s only 12v, and will last longer”
“Hang on”, I say, “I thought the flood was the lower voltage light” No wonder the battery only lasted about an hour and a half. Oh well, I’ll know next time.

Al
I don’t like spirits much unless drunkenness bypasses the hangover warning or it’s cognac and someone else is paying. However, in these circumstances, I would have imbibed meths from the bottle to build up a buffer between the urge to scratch and the need not to do so.

It would be great if you could “tune” the human body to filter out unwanted outputs from the nervous system. Like Junk E-Mail filters for your internal email – “junk all the scratching requests for two days”. Sadly on a model of my age, such things are not available so I uncorked my medicine and diverted my attention to the digital t.v. graveyard schedule. Whiskey, Coke and programming that left me wondering what the hell the BBC were doing with my license fee occupied the next three hours. The itching clambered unsuccessfully for attention battering as it was against a wall of alcohol. I’d suffer in the morning but right now that seemed like a long way away.

I wondered how the boys were doing.

Nick
05.30 AM

Team lights on, have had mixed fortunes on the next set of laps. Frank and Steve again put in steady low 50’s, Steve, after me has the first completely light lap. Dave has a nightmare, not only does he lose his lights, but he also loses one of the little radios that we’re using to alert waiting riders of imminent arrival. He searches for over 10 minutes for it, but gives up and a lap of 1hr 10 that drops us down to 15th, although by now no-one really cares.

Through sheer good fortune, I get to ride the dawn lap, and it’s an amazing experience, cycling through the still and foggy forest in the gathering dawn. Early on I can switch off the lights for the fire road sections, later I turn them off all together, and my eyes adjust to the weak light. The start however was not so romantic, the whole race had taken it’s toll, despite only 3 laps totalling 33 miles, the lack of sleep and adrenaline has worn us all out. Pulling on a cold and clammy jersey and a cold wet helmet are not activities that any of us are used to at this time of day. On tired legs I can only manage a 53-minute lap. However I still overtake more than overtake me. One of the mega-fast Marin boys comes up behind me in the singletrack, where no easy passing places mean he’ll have to wait. After what seems like an age of inward cringing, an opportunity presents itself, and with a snick of changing gears, he’s past me in a flash. I expect some rebuke, instead I get “Cheers mate, have a good one”. I might not have done his lap time any good, but he’s not going to take it out on me.

A quick lap from Steve has meant that Dave gets to do the Extra lap. The clock won’t stop until we’ve past the finish line after 08.00 am. The brief from the rest of us is to lurk in the forest section until well past 8. When we realise that Dave has no watch, we make Frank kit up, just in case the competitive urge overtakes Dave. It doesn’t and Team LONOH finishes 13 laps at 08.01:25.

8am

Al
3 hours sleep curled up on the sofa had done little for my state of mind but I knew it was over for our team. I envied them the glow of satisfaction they were undoubtedly feeling. Not that they didn’t deserve it rather I wanted so much to be part of it.

I sent a SMS Text to the team congratulating them on their achievement. Well done I offered assuming they were still alive. Not only alive but finished 16th which was a hell of an achievement. With my help, we’d have finished about 10 places lower I guess but more beer would have been drunk.

Mobile phone technology provides instant updates and the breathlessness of their efforts came through loud and clear. There had clearly been ups and downs to their performance but the enduring message was one of “this is the first of many”. And I needed to hear that – if they had all hated it I would have felt responsible and selfishly I’d have missed my chance to join the next one.

Spent physically and emotionally – both the team and I – they retired to their cars and latterly their beds. I missed out the first step and collapsed back onto the sofa, eyes heavy with tiredness but mind wide awake imagining how it would be next year.

We’ll be there. And this time I’ll be part of it.

Nick

We finish 16th out of 27, and although no one is gloating, we’re all satisfied. The post race bullshitting starts early, and we reckon that without the lights and fog, we could have done better, maybe even retained our 12th position. Steve and I celebrate with the best tasting Bacon butties, and we eat in companionable, knackered silence. A short award ceremony is well attended and I for one cheer and clap my fellow competitors with gusto. They’ve all done exceedingly well. But reserve my biggest cheers for the soloists, the winner has done 15 laps, which is an amazing feat of guts and drive.

We pack slowly, all very tired. First frank is off, not having pitched a tent, he changes into civvies, puts the bike in the back of the station wagon, and he’s ready to go. Next, Steve and Dave, and at last, again I’m on my own in a half empty field, with a tent. The race is done, and I’m no mood for a beer, but there’s something nagging that my foggy mind can’t quite grasp. I decide I need coffee for the drive home, I wander over to catering tent to sit and sip, and then I remember. I raise my Styrofoam cup,

“Cheers Al”

Alex Leigh
Nick Cummins

August 2002. (2002! Twenty years ago!)

Old articles never die..

… they just cost you £2.49 a month on iCloud.

After a root around in the archives for an article, I became properly distracted looking for something else. Here it is. The “Race” report from 2004. It makes me very happy because what I’d worried was declining mental faculties was actually just the house style. There’s some grammar in there, but you’ll need to search hard for it 🙂

Nowadays, 1000 words feels too long. Back then, not so much 🙂

Dusk Till Dawn 2004

Time for a simple IQ test. Identify the next number in this sequence: 4-2-?. For those with the numeracy skills of special needs warthog, let me help you out. It’s 1. Yep that sequence defines my Dusk Till Dawn experience. This year, I had one gear, one sprung end, one sick riding buddy and one pulmonary infection. And probably one lap completed if I was lucky.

Some background called for I think. In 2002 our team of four became a somewhat less balanced three with a dose of Chicken Pox invaliding me out. Then last year, I endured a swingers “car keys in a basket” partner scenario – yet more prospective partners broke multiple bones rather than ride with me – ending up with young Tim whose fitness and aggression dragged us up into thirteenth place. I rode my full suspension race bike which cosseted my arse and mocked my weary limbs delivering consistent lap times right to the end. In fact, it was so suited to such events that, in a moment of mental instability, I sold it. With the increased number of teams this year, it was clear that either my fitness and attitude would need not only to raise the bar, but leap over it or a different – possibly sly – strategy would have to be adopted. Obviously I went for the latter captaining the “singlespeed suicide squad” pair, defined by a composite age normally only recorded on gravestones. We haughtily announced they would be the fastest uni-coggers in the club. First amongst equals or to be more precise first among one.

I tapered down from not much to nothing at all during a weeks holiday in France where, after a concerted attack on the European cheese mountain, I risked scaring small children when faced with a bloated Al in lycra. My riding buddy did far better sequentially slogging up and down the Chilterns almost every day before declaring himself “fit and ready”. Then, the very next day, he contracted Pneumonia. In some kind of twisted symbiotic relationship, his disease spawned a bastard love child which germinated in my lungs and left me gasping when tough physical endurance events, such as climbing stairs, presented themselves. Subtract 1 lung from 2 and amazingly we back to that most uninspiring of numbers again.

Fate seemed to suggest that a quick name change to Billy-No-Mates was all that separated me from a 12 hour wheeled trudge through cold and dark forests that – get this – over 400 people paid good money for. The Dusk Till Dawn event at Thetford forest nearly didn’t happen at all this year but intense lobbying and some mildly undignified logistics built us a field and boy did we come. The format was unchanged; 12 hours racing on a 10 mile circuit in a light spectrum graduating from black to white via a glorious dawn. Some nutters were doing it solo (and as is the way with these masochistic men and their rigid machines, a few were nutter squared decrying gears as for losers). Pairs was where it was at though – this class outnumbered both the solos and the larry lightweights whose teams were easily identified by three people looking very cold and checking their watches.

Having been crowned the all Buckinghamshire extreme snot champion, it became clear I needed someone to share the misery with. Jon and his famous exploding patellas came to town – albeit some 90 minutes late – and defended his embarrassment of gears on the grounds of the aforementioned dodgy knees. My premonition that this may affect the karmic harmony of the team was to be borne out later that evening. Still we’re getting ahead of ourselves here and it was good to have a companion to stave off further depression as wet front after wet front attempted to turn the car into a boat. “Clearing up shower this one Jon” I’d confidently predict time and again as another bow wave broke over the bonnet. Our spirits lifted, however, as the event “field of streams” had been annexed by our riding club. The C1XV banner was proudly unfurled for all to see and a tented village of gazebos sheltered the troops from the incessant rain. Tent up, kettle on, bikes unloaded I decided that since my first lap could potentially be my last, a sighting circuit was probably a dumb way to waste it. Instead I hurried to the Lumicycle tent and akin to Gizmo when faced with a fluorescent cried out “bright light, bright light” when the demonstration HID blazed a perfect trail through my wallet. I haggled for a while until the chance remark “this is the only red one we’ve got sir” made a direct appeal to my pimpy gland without passing through Mr. Brain. On leaving the tent, it appeared that the hitherto apolitical MTB community was now the centre of a targeted airstrike. The sight of F-15s rolling and banking low over the field held my interest for all the time it took me to plug in a battery and point my latest purchase at innocent passers by thereby offering an easy to reproduce alien abduction scenario. If the jets don’t get you, feel the power of the ETs rectal probe.

I carbo loaded on pasta and lager loaded on Stella to pass the time between boredom and nerves. Jon offered only insubordination when I played the Captains card and ordered him out on the first lap. So although technically I was at the head of the chain of command, he’s bigger than me and I found myself milling around at 7:58pm waiting to go. Not being a total rookie, race nerves were compressed into a five minute pre-start period resulting in my nearly missing the start when a litre of high-5 demanded to go right now. The hooter sounded and I received a pre-emptive elbow from an XC-Racer-Wannabee before we’ve even started riding. Winded and promising revenge, I was the last of the club to get away – my reward the sight of a hundred lights setting halogen fire to the forest ahead of me. Knowing congestion is always a factor on the first lap, the expected slow quickly become an unexpected stop as the first stack shuddered our brightly lit metal snake to an abrupt halt. Still the way I was feeling, a rest every half a mile was working for me.

This part of Norfolk is virtually below sea level. It’s “dog runs away you can still see it three days later” flat. Except if you’re on a singlespeed when the gentle inclines slice away your energy core and warrant investigation of hidden contours on the local map. The singletrack is superb though and this course cut through the forest in a number of imaginative ways. Firstly there’s some super fast rolling bends interspersed with bombholes and rooty jumps. Then the first fireroad winches you gently back into the trees again where now its tighter and more technical. Keep faith in your tyres and the berms magic you round trunk based apexes with hardly any loss of speed. The course is bone dry despite the rain and thankfully far less sandy than last year. Soon we’re out of the trees again and into a rapidly clearing and cooling night. The stars are out there somewhere but bathed in a 1000 watts of our big torches you don’t really see them. The next fireroad is a long one and while I’m still taking it easy, my singlespeed pace takes me past a few riders. I’m just thinking maybe I can keep this up all night when the God of Singlespeeding (long hair, ragged t-shirt, beer belly, lightly stoned and righteous) demands a sacrifice for ‘the geared gate” in our team. This is the only explanation I can offer for my sudden and unexpected balletic rotation over the bars. The impact pings my riding glasses into the shrubbery and flings sand into my eyes. And it’s pitch black as well because my super sexy new light has gone out. I ignore my aching shoulder as I desperately flick the switch to re-ignite it. Just as hope is fading, it blazes back into life and so stuffing my glasses back on, we’re off again. But not for long as battery straps trap wheels and glasses mist up and I’m riding on my own personal line in, out and occasionally head on though the trees. Okay, it’s a twelve hour race and I’m being stupid but while adrenaline and competitiveness are the perfect combination for chasing slower riders, they really aren’t ideal bedfellows for faffing with battery straps while those recently passed stream by.

A little more circumspect now and trying to preserve energy for later, I maintain line astern with a moderately paced group as we swoop into the campsite. This isn’t laps end rather the middle of a figure ‘8’ that sees us disappear back into the dark again for another four miles. It’s a great idea though as this early on, the crowds are big and the cheers are loud. Their enthusiasm drives me to the head of our group as yet more swinging singletrack draws us into the woods again. This part of the lap is easier except for the ‘little dippers’ – small foot deep holes that you really don’t want to take sitting down on a hardtail – which this time are taken with a whoop and a rhythm I never get back the rest of the night.

The course is very different to last year and none of it is familiar until a section of sandy singletrack right angles into a grassy climb and I know we’re nearly done. I’m chatting to another disciple of 32:16 as the camp site hoves into view and it’s almost a shame to stop as warm muscles and forest clean lungs are at their optimum. It was tempting to ride past Jon and back out for a second lap but he looked kind of plaintive and, er, big so I bottled it. He grasped the pink pairs glowstick with somewhat worrying pride and rode off into the night.

He’s going to be back in less than an hour which is not enough time to do anything but get cold. Again I did all the right things, ate, drank, swapped riding tops and ensconced myself in a warm fleece as heavy condensation and visible breaths were the physical symbols of a rapidly cooling evening. It’s dark now and aside from a few cars on the road that cuts the forest in half, there’s a precious silence unbroken by the irritating audible flotsam of civilisation. That is until the generators fire up because obviously having Hondas finest chugging away just below the pain threshold is key to your challenge on the leader board. Well it powered some lights (“hello this is a BATTERY, they work great”) and a kettle (“and we call this a GAS STOVE”) so I’m sure it was worth narrating the entire night with.

Most of the other club teams were doing well. Everyone was racing pairs, some guys who’d never been racing before, some who’d done almost no night riding and a couple of cup chasing couplets that wouldn’t be that far behind the factory sponsored teams. The other singlespeed team suffered the ignominy of component failure as a crank bolt was discharged into the bushes never to be seen again. To his eternal credit, not only did Nigel (he of the Uni-Crank) ride six miles on a single pedal, he also overtook a slower rider. Now I know it’s only a bit of fun for most of us, but how would you feel if a bloke on a singlespeed with one gear, one crank and one pedal overtook you? We reckon the passed guy is still in therapy.

Jon came back breathless but happy. I set out for a two lap stint that was to be my last. I didn’t know it at the time or even as I headed out on the second of these laps. The first has gone well – again I’d taken it easy, not pushed it at all, just a steady pace and if that meant I was passed on the fireroads, well I pretended it was part of a strategy. And it was because the second lap was supposed to be much quicker driven by more effort, more out of the saddle honking and more aggression in the singletrack. It didn’t happen. I really tried but I couldn’t fill my lungs with the oxygen they desperately needed and rather than kick back and listen to my body, I continued to push. Until I could push no more – the point of which was about seven miles in. I started to cough and I just couldn’t stop, dry wretching over the bars and desperately trying to squeeze in a lungful between coughs. To their credit, most riders stopped to see if whether I was in fact dying or had just swallowed some poisoness bark or something. I feebly waved them away embarrassed at being spent less than three laps in. After a minute or so – knowing my race was over – I span over the crest of the climb and prepared to get myself back with the least amount of effort. When a guy on a Yeti ignored the dual line in the trees to elbow his way past on mine, it kind of summed up my evening. Still one mile later his stricken face appeared, caught in the oh so bright beam of my HID, disbelievingly watching his lights rapidly fade from white to yellow to black. I probably should have stopped and helped but I didn’t. That’s karma that is. The new Lumicycle HID proudly adorning my bars was a highlight (sic) of the event for me. It was so good I forgot about it – no searching for the perfect position, no switching on and off of auxiliary lights, no worrying about battery power. Turn it on and night becomes day for 30 yards. Some would call that cheating but frankly I needed all the help I could get.

Amazingly this was my fastest (remember this is all relative) lap so Jon was surprised to hear me declaring ‘game over’ at the handover. I wheezed back to the tent, to inhale much needed coffee and ventalin from the Motorhome cum childrens bedroom cum cookhouse cum infirmary. Then I hit the pit and cursed the generator. It’s just gone midnight and with eight hours to go, I’ve already left. Even wrapped up in the ‘staying awake bag’ layered with fleeces I just couldn’t get warm. On pushing aside the condensation soaked tent flap some four hours later it became clear why. It was bloody freezing. The camp looked like a war zone with combatants sprawled into chairs wearing everything they owned. The early evening enthusiasm for rapid changeovers was now a far more relaxed but brittle affair. Rider A would arrive back at the tent asking politely, or not, whether Rider B fancied a lap. Rider B would point at various body parts while shivering and offer Rider A another lap after which Rider B would ‘probably be ok’. Rider A would espouse his theory that Rider B was a lazy splitter who’d better get his sorry and sore arse back on the bike RIGHT NOW or Rider A would be inserting said bike into a part of Rider B where the sun, was it up or not, does not shine.

I smiled through a coughing fit but still wanted to be out there. My legs and back felt fine and I briefly considered the magical dawn lap. Unfortunately my lungs were shot to hell and just walking round the site left me breathless. I wondered how many laps my team mate had done in the spirit of shared misery – I was miserable so he can ride the course and be miserable too. I knew it had been worth recruiting him, he’d be out there giving it everything for the team, doing it for the Gipper, enduring because there was no one else to endure, etc. It made me proud. Until, that is, I opened my car door and found said team mate peacefully snoring away having managed exactly zero laps since he’d come back in. He eventually relented under a stream of invective and emotional blackmail which resulted in inserting “not quite” into a sentence that had previously said only “last”. The rest of the guys faired better with our best team managing 13 punishing laps between them (which was a true demonstration of a determined mind over a shredded arse at 6:30am I can tell you) and the rest getting into or close to double figures.

Our club had more teams registered (notice I’ve deliberately not used the word racing here) than any other. It was great to see everyone looking out for each other and a noticeable lack of inter team rivalry. Well, I knew our team was going to get stuffed so made it clear very early on how injured I was, leaving them in no doubt that if I’d been fit and my team mate had been awake, we’d have been mighty. Sadly most of them have known me a long time and smiled encouragingly in that way you do when your 3 year old explains they’re going to be an astronaut.

Dawn gently bathed the course in late summer sunshine from around 6:30am and it was full daylight when the hooter signalled the pedal revolution was over. We had a few riders left on the course and hoarsely cheered their lined faces and spasming limbs as they crossed the line. They were all proud of their achievements and rightly so. The club did pretty well – not on a par with the sponsored teams but mixing it with everyone else – but more importantly everyone had a great time. Me too actually because with the traditional 8am beer in hand and feeding off the joy and relief of those who’d done it properly I knew I’d be back. And I’m due a slice of luck next time.

The Dusk Till Dawn is the first event to be scribbled into the calendar. Why? Because it’s a great course, well organised, chilled out and yet to be filed in the “been there, done that properly” box. One night, one gear, one partner, one light and one hell of a lot of fun. Maybe this number has got something going for it.

 

Hotel California

"Petrichor" Yat

That’s Steve throwing a bit of a shape off a moist limestone drop. It’s just one of many trails snaking off the hill east of the Wye at Symonds Yat.  Most of a day was spent traversing this then the west side, never riding the same trail twice. Same as the last three weeks: ride, beer, sleep, repeat.

This is both a good and a bad thing. Good because the geography of our river cut valley is criss crossed with trails built by animal, forester but mostly mountain biker. Perfect terrain steepening from not that much to mostly a cliff. East side especially has a real old feel to it, ancient broadleaf, protruding rock, hill forts and a sense you’re riding through both history and geography.

West side is a blind-eye sanctioned trail nirvana with new digs nestling comfortably adjacent to recognised classics. In the last fifteen years I’ve ridden a good chunk of it, walked a few bits, and suffered stone cold refusals where those with all the skills hang out.

Tech-fests are absolutely available. Head up either side of the valley and there’s steep, difficult and jumpy. Often all within about a metre of each other. Most go for us in the dry if our heads are in a good place, wet though that same head leans heavily on the discretion side of valour. That’s fine because there are so many trails, so many options, so many link ups, short cuts and long ways round. The only constant is the vertical distance at around 150 metres. Not that much until you’ve done to a few times. Bring your climbing legs.

It’s also a constantly changing landscape. In late spring, bluebells carpet the forest and we know exactly where to find the perfect trail accompaniment. Summer brings dust, shiny dirt, shirt sleeves, thorn bloodied limbs and rear wheel steering. Autumn is almost the best season, the dirt sinks a little lower, loam breaks out and we toast fading light with cold beer and warmer clothes.

Winter slides between grin and grim. Muddy slogs and death marches are the norm. Full suspension bikes are dust preserved in dry garages, while hardtails take many for the team. For me, it’s three months of keeping up while counting down to dry lines and colours other than brown.

Four seasons of great riding then. So what’s the downside? Basically we’re riding in the Truman show. Other than 14 hour Van based epics to foreign climbs, we barely leave the valley. Backintheday(tm), we’d be off at least once a month: Black Mountains an hour away, Quantocks a little more, Bike Park Wales about the same, Cwmcan a little less and Afan still within a 90 minute drive.

There are big days out, big skies, big scares, big memories arrayed in a south-western arc * needing nothing more than advanced cat herding skills and bike/van logistics. These routes includes some absolutely bangers – the classic Hermitage ride from Tal-Y-Bont, the never less than spectacular Gap, Rhayader taking in the dams, the loaf like challenge of a Quantocks loop, maybe a bit of a reach down to Exmoor. Or trail centres offering thrills without much jeopardy.

Closer still, Llangorse offers nothing hard to ride but so much to look at. A few years ago we had a fantastic late September ride, the highlight being a half way stop overlooking the lake. Classic is an overused word – I’ve already done that twice – but you have to experience that kind of day to remember riding is way more than the trail you’re on.

We don’t even bother much with Pedalabikeaway now. That’s the thriving Forest of Dean hub located at the start of the built trails. It’s reinvented itself spectacularly since the sleepy bike shop I encountered when we moved here. There are some fab trails pretty close to a half decent coffee, but there are also too many people and a noticeable primacy of e-bikes**

So what changed? Covid-19 obviously. Wales being mostly closed for two years. A nod to the climate emergency- driving to ride does not stand up to environmental scrutiny. A deeper, if unsaid, understanding that mountain biking is more about the people you’re with rather than the trails you’re riding. Unless those trails are shit, which for us is clearly not the case.

I’m not getting any FOMO***. These last three weeks on familiar trails are not stained with any kind of longing for something else. They have been all the fun that hard physical effort and a little bravery can bring. They have all finished with a beer, or a night at the Speakeasy rolling out Pizzas and nonsense.

They look something like this. Guess what we’ll be doing next weekend?

A hot lap of a hot Yat!

Garlic Extravaganza!

Dusty Yat

Dusty Yat

Dusty Yat

"Petrichor" Yat

mmmm Pizza :)

You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. Eagles had it right 🙂

*looking North, the Peaks are doable just in a day. Between here and there tho not much worth driving for. I’m looking at you Cannock Chase 🙂

‘Most of the time I am right on with “Hey more people on bikes, good thing“, there’s something about PAB tho that brings out the ‘For fucks sake, what happened to mountain biking?“. I fully accept this is both ill considered and pejorative. I’m fine with that 🙂

****Fear Of Missing Out apparently. I have 20ish offspring. They explain these things to an old man.

“LagerVac”

Because mountain bikers are righteous, riding inevitably ends up in the pub. And sometimes the craic, conviviality, closeness to a warm fire in winter, or a sun drenched bench come summer leaves these chosen ones geographically embarrassed.

Getting lost in the book of reasons, we find ourselves mostly making excuses. Tired bodies needing a mechanical boost, drunken brains desperate for a soft place to rest, laziness proxying for strategy, or simply lacking the equipment to make it home unaided*

In winter this may be stout jackets languishing in a shed or uncharged lights sentencing the unready to an early bath in the river. Switching solar alignment, it’s more likely to be excessive rehydration ending in a wobbly body largely incapable of independent movement.

Whatever the excuse, it’s always a cry for help. And that cry is “LagerVac“**. Evacuation via a partner, spouse or sober friend. The arrival of a vehicle to take you away from all of this is met by effusive thanks and, generally, another round. Might as well make a night of it eh? Out, out.

More times than I’m prepared to admit under oath, my LagerVac terminates a journey that started some eight hours earlier when riding, fresh legged, from home. Arriving back in Ross somewhat socially confused and not relishing another 10km laced with 170 metres of climbing, I’ve cravenly texted the PRV*** wondering if there might be something motorised I could stumble drunkenly into the back of. Sometimes I even remember to take the bike with me.

That picture up there tho is something a little different. I was neither without working lower limbs or most of my faculties. Lights tho, yeah they were in the shed some 70 miles away.  As working in Oxford at the posh old university there, I found myself less than 5 miles away from my old mate Marty.

He was part of the Chiltern crew that introduced me to the best sport in the world and many situations – home and abroad – we look back with much amusement and affection. It doesn’t take long for us to pick up where we left off. A few things have changed, Marty is sporting an e-bike and I’ve no real memory of the trails here. We’re spoiled in the FoD and it’s never been a priority to go back.

For the first half hour I remember why. Marty lives in a lovely spot anchored in the hill becalmed vale south of Oxford. That’s thirty minutes of tedious road riding before finally lapping in the surf of the escarpment where I cut my MTB teeth. Quite often literally.

It’s not a happy reunion. I’m managing a leaky rear tyre under leaden skies – always wet, often significantly so. There’s a lot of damp field edges hiding ruts that are oh-so-little fun on the hardtail. Still it’s great to be out even in the rain, because I’m riding with an old mate who can make me laugh without even speaking.

When he does, Marty tells me his news and I reciprocate. Then we hit a hill and he does the ‘well fuck that escalated quickly‘ e-bike thing. I’m pretty fit and a half decent climber but those motors are quite the thing. Ten pedal strokes and he’s gone getting a singletrack fix while going uphill. Me, not so much.

We ride on, reminisce over a few remembered landmarks, get lost, get found because now we have GPS enabled phones, slog through more fields and then – finally – find a trail I recognise. Used to give me the heebs back in the day. Remember a slalom’y gully rooted by ancient trees. Fast and committed.

Mmm. Bikes have moved on a bit. As have I probably. It’s a fun descent but no more than that. The only jeopardy is the fading light which seems an apposite time to explain to Marty I’m mildly concerned by imminent be-nightment. It’s 8pm already and the 25 min ride back to my accommodation starts some 10km from where we are now.

Marty – because he is a good egg – reassures me this is not a problem. He has a plan. Hose the bikes down, throw mine in the back of his car, hot wheel it to a local pub serving great pizza, down a pint and then he’ll drop me off without a pedal needing to be turned.

A non requested LagerVac. That is a beautiful thing. We finish the ride with 40km on the clocks and add ourselves to the ‘things to be hosed off‘ list.  Just about decent, we limbo under the last orders bell, celebrate with an excellent local beer and carry on catching up from where we left off.

It’s been a fantastic evening. So easy to sit in a bar (and shit I’ve done that for twenty+ years) when travelling dreading another dinner for one.  Instead, with a little effort, you can have a ride, catch up with an old friend, toast that friendship with a beer, AND be Lagervac’d to your place of rest.

I mean that’s just bloody awesome. Sat in Marty’s car with wet feet, damp shorts, gritty eyeballs and probably a bit of a sweaty whiff, I relax into the comfortable seat watching the non-riding miles roll by under the cover of darkness. We parted as the friends we’ve always been, but maybe a little more aware that time accelerates beyond any kind of theoretical constant.  It’s all good.

My take is this. Sometimes not knowing how you’re going to get home is a good thing. Trust in the LagerVac 🙂

*sometimes this includes your legs.  “No way these bad boys are turning a single revolution. We’re going to need a bigger transit

**first explained by my good mate Steve. Followed by many examples 🙂

***Pub Retrieval Vehicle. Upgraded from the SSV (Spousal Support Vehicle) once both the offspring passed their driving test.

Yellow is the new slack

Oh a new post. Not many of those recently.  Content being a new bike. These come at a frequency not aligned to any kind of writing cadence. Which is as closely related to my time impoverishment, as it is to your fading interest in my allegedly far sighted shed acquisition policy.

Yeah about that. There comes a point* when joining the dots between what came before and what’s in front of us is – on first glance – something between a Fibonacci sequence and a random number, But, as any data geek will enthusiastically explain** regression to the mean is where you’ll find to cool kids.

What that mean means is we circle back to things hiding in a normal distribution. In my case this means hardtails short of vertical stature, not stupidly long out front, not pointlessly chopped out back, head and seat tube angles within a standard deviation of progressive, clearance for chunky tyres on wide rims and a firm nod to winter clearance.

So very similar to the Bardino then. Sure similar measurements but different frame material. I’ve ridden steel hardtails for the last decade so trading ferrous for alu saved a couple of pounds but risked my knees. Everyone*** knows 6061 tubes are essentially arthritis in tubular form for a man of a certain age.

I’ve always like the Scouts tho. This third version ticked all the boxes for a playful bike to be chucked down local trails in summer dust and then hidden underneath a thousand versions of muddy crap come the winter. Sure the previous hardtail performed flawlessly in this role for the last two years. It wasn’t yellow tho.

I’d be lying if the choice of colour didn’t tip me over the edge of falling for a third Nukeproof in barely seven months. Great value, good people to deal with, shit paint. The latter explains the ‘Jailhouse Tats‘ frame protection long lost in a dusty drawer only to be fitted as part of the budget build.

A budget managed almost exclusively by stripping the Bardino of every part other than those yellow grips that exactly one person considers classy ,and a non intuitive less-is-more reduction in fork travel to ‘only‘ 140mm. Matt built it of course, while I was many miles east and south on holiday.

I threw a leg over it on the back of a very long travelling day when I’d eaten not much and slept not at all. This affect on my cognitive processing mostly ensured the rain barely registered as I took in the whole ‘big bird’ vibe it was giving off.  A couple of reviews have lambasted Nukeproof for their lack of boldness in terms of pushing the longest and slackest numbers to, and beyond, the limit.

For me tho, that’s perfect. I’ll stick a couple of braking fingers up to stability at high speed when the payback is a neutral agility not demanding commitment in every turn. Bikes I want to ride rather than bikes designed for how I wished I could.

Still with a 64 degree head angle, a whole load of plush travel up front paired to memory-lapsed ankles and knees out back, it’s not some eyebrow steering race machine. What it is – with 2.6 tyres damped by rim inserts – is just a whole load of fun with pretty much no vices.

And so much grip at the front. The bottom half of the internet predicts fiery death for those devilish to run their tyres at less than 20 PSI. The bikes will not only go round corners but there’s a fair chance of a combustible apex****. Let’s just say this was not my lived experience 😉

I’ve not ridden hardtails much for the last few months. Which means I’d forgotten exactly how much simple fun the are. Simple being the key word here – climb well, accelerate quickly, turn in on a brilliant fork/tyre combo, exit the corner with the rear tyre making all sorts of shapes, launch over stuff with what feels like zero effort while all the time reminding you the contingency if it all goes a bit wrong is you. Not some fancy rear suspension.

You have to love that. And I did. The whole experience from the first pedal stroke to the bollocks talked in the pub is visceral. Everyone will tell you hardtails make you a better rider and maybe that’s true. But they are so much more than that. They connect you to the trail in a way a full suss never does.

But that’s missing the point as well. What they really do is reconnect you to the 11 year old riding their first every dirt singletrack. They take you back to that time when everything was a whole lot more simple. You can’t put a price not that.

Well you can. In the case of the frame around £450. And in the case of this post, Covid-19 means I’m banished to the shed for a few days. Still I can look at that Scout and plot many childish adventures to come.

*a data point. In this case 55 frames. I mean we’re deep into an ironic wink to  “vertically compliant and laterally stiff” territory here. I’ve glossed over all the reasons and run out of excuses. Still here we are again. It’s become virtual therapy.

**trust me on this. Ensure you have access to significant material on statistical theory and easy access to the bar. We’re great on explaining what the numbers may mean, less stellar on noticing if our audience are feigning organ failure.

***2.6 tyres at 14 PSI > any frame material properties perceived or proven.

****I exaggerate. But only a bit.