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 ever 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.

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.

As good as it gets?

About the best feeling ever

So was the Basque Back Country tour the trail nirvana everyone promised it would be?  Oh Yes. Miles better than the previous twenty years of mountain biking globetrotting? By some distance. Stunning vistas? Fantastic guides? Every type of trail mostly going on for approximately ever? All of that and quite a lot more besides.

Not riding that!

Perfect then? Well no but pretty damn close. Weather had its moments. Most of those were filled with rain. More time sat in the van wondering if maybe this was a little bit too much a little bit too late*. Some frustration walking sections that were absolutely ridable. But plenty more when I puckered up and got it done in a parody of bravery and competence. In my head anyway.

Yep it rained 😉

Better still no one came home in an ambulance**. Not that thirteen riders hitting trails eight hours for a solid six days was ever going to end without a few injuries. Most of which where of the ‘fucking hell, dodged a bullet there‘ kind except Jim (of the fantastic Northern Contingent making up most of the other half of the group) who was properly fast and apparently fearless.

Broken Jim 🙁

I arrived pretty late to his crash what with that speed differential, but early enough to catch a gritted ‘fuck it, dislocated my shoulder‘ which since we’d barely dropped off a high ridge above any kind of civilisation wasn’t ideal. He forebode that journey down, the hospital visit and the next couple of days in a sling with way more fortitude than anyone looking like me.

1800m. The descent went on for a bit 🙂

Much as we felt for Jim, we were, frankly, having too much of a good time to think much beyond ‘might back off a bit‘. Still with many of the trails being at about 102% of my skill level, backing off pretty much meant getting off. But since I was pretty sure we weren’t coming back, the prospect of post trip self loathing was more than counterbalanced by praying the bike was quite a lot better than me.

Rock. So much rock!

This led to so many memorable moments. Not the weather ones. The thousand metre descents, the 15 minutes of thigh burning ecstasy, the desperate need to stop to shake out brake-numbed wrists, the hanging on to the back wheel of a mate totally unsighted to what comes next, the endless switchbacks, the whip-fast Jedi-Speeder blasts through the trees, the tight and techy, the flat out ruler straight bedrock, the ‘fuck don’t look down there‘ exposure, the raise your head and marvel at the mountains, the banter and the bollocks. The thing no one at home gets.

Steve on some of that epic bed rock

So like every great ride I’ve ever done. Yes but no. Harder, longer, more intense. Trail Evo if you will. No filler, all killer. And each trail transported you to a different location. Oh this loamy forest, that’s the Ardeche in France. Rocky switchbacks? Sopsel in the Maritime Alps, loose sandy frictionless madness, Malaga and the Sierra Nevadas, Badlands Grey Earth? Well fucking hell, this is new, surely I’ve just ridden through a CGI movie set?

Grey earth. You have to go and ride there!

An assault on the senses, and the muscles holding those senses in place. Reviewing the GoPro footage, the ‘house style‘ is mostly heavy breathing, cursing, gibbering and the camera slamming into the bars as I repurpose them as a full body rest. Clearly my plan to mitigate age with a rigorous diet and fitness plan lasted all the time it took to illuminate the light in the beer fridge.

Si on one of a million rocky switchbacks

Talking of which, the food was mostly amazing. Accompanied with only moderate servings of beer and wine. Because 102%commitment is not compatible with 18% blood alcohol ratios. We stayed in villages literally at the end of the road, pretty rural towns full of spirit and community, then MTB hubs split between modern metropolis and ancient castles.

Not actual accommodation 🙂

But mostly we lived outside of normal time. Wake up, remember where you are, hot showers fail to ease aching muscles, eat everything in front of you then snaffle the remainder for trail snacks, find your bike, kick the tyres for the look of the thing, worry not about patina begat by rock strikes, high five the guides, stumble into the van, watch your world get many hills deep, relish the stillness as  engines fade, flick your brake levers, focus on the gap in the mountains. The future is right there. Waiting for you. Best get amongst it.

Not pedalling up hill 🙂

Back to that first image. Fag end of a long first day. Already overloaded on amazing trails and fading fast. There’s not much downtime on this trip. So no surprise it’s another climb and a carry. But the reward is riding the gap between two freaking mountain ranges. It is a stretched minute of ‘holy fuck‘ as the trail narrows to a sliver of perfect rock.

And then we had to get down. Chasing Si I forgot everything other than there is nothing else – absolutely nothing – that can better this right now. For a man who spends far too much time worrying about the time that has gone and how much is left, that’s as good as it gets.

Other than us finishing in a bar. With a beer and my best friends in the world. And knowing we were doing it all tomorrow. And the next day.

That’s a good memory.

What I’m feeling now is mostly loss. Lamenting I can’t get that time back. But I can go back. There’s still time. Money I can make every day, time, tho, I need to spend. And spend wisely.

*more of than privileged introspection in the next Cranked mag. Don’t worry there is lots more interesting stuff in there 🙂

**Si was lucky not to go home in a hearse. We ‘shared‘ him between the three twin rooms. Each of which showed great restraint not smothering the 8 hour snore monster he transmogrified into at midnight 😉

Flat lining

MTB Yat both sides

Been a while. Life and all that gets in the way of writing stuff. Most of what passes as content is virtually penned lying wide awake in dark times. None of which passes the 8am-what-the-hell-do-I-absolutely-finish-today test. And behind that existential angst is plain lazy lethargically waving in plain sight.

Still did take loads of photos. Spring naughtily flirted with us and it was all t-shirts and mostly dusty trails. Then winter gave spring a slap for coming too early, and we were back to icy winds and horizontal rain.

So let’s start with things that didn’t happen. Our third tilt at the King Alfred’s way was more windmill than charm. There were reasons. Individually resonating, cumulatively adding up to not much more than ‘it’s cold and wet and we can’t be arsed‘.  So we did something else instead.

Katy Curd Coaching - FoD

Katy Curd Coaching - FoD

Before that though, this. A more successful third attempt at something – in this case being coached by the never less than fab @katycurdcoaching. Katy did her stuff and I mostly worked on my timing. The sun shone and mostly good things happened. As ever, trying to make them happen outside of that environment is a challenge I’m up for, if not entirely qualified to tackle.

Abandoning the KAW, Adam and I headed up to North Wales for me to burnish those shiny new skills at a couple of trail centres. Sandwiched between was a big day out on the gravel bikes which made me wonder if four days of this might have been another of those challenges eagerly accepted right up to the point of attempting them.  I doubt we’ll find out, it feels the time for this tour has passed so we’ll dream up something even more stupid. Quite looking forward to that.

Dolgellau Gravel Epic

Dolgellau Gravel Epic

Dolgellau Gravel Epic

Nant y Arian

Looking forward is the new dealing with disappointment. Specifically I was more than a little keen to complete a whole ride without being sleeted on. Shivering needed to be yesterday’s problem. More than anything I just wanted to ride in the sunshine and toast dusty bikes from the pub garden. Not wrap myself in every packed layer to combat hail and headwinds.

Someone listened. Unlikely to be the cloud fairy of your choice. Not with he/him being busy with the whole resurrection thing. Logistical nightmare right there. Worse than a wedding “for God’s sake make sure he’s sober, on time and looking the right way” – how hard can it be. And find someone to take all that fish off our hands*

FoD/Pludds

FoD/Pludds

Easter tho. Tradition is more about the resurrection of anecdotes of either a) snow or b) heatwaves.  This weekend we had something a little closer to the latter setting me up for riding four days out of five. Every one was a blast, carving up dry trails, watching the bluebells bloom, heading to the pub for a cold beer and doing it all again the next day.

Penyard - Easter 2022

Penyard - Easter 2022

Short of nearly t-boning Dave in a ‘what the hell are you doing on that fire-road‘ situation that ended with a relieved giggle rather than a hospital visit, it’s been a incident free long weekend.

Which is good since in 12 days we’re heading out to Basque MTB** for a week of shuttled riding and really I need every available limb to be in the best condition it can manage hanging on the old withered frame. Swerving COVID is a secondary priority as too many friends have contracted it these last few weeks.

First beer outside after a ride in 2022!

There’s other stuff to deal with. But we all have that. And 99{45ac9c3234d371044e23e276755ef3a4dde8f1068375defba7d385ca3cd4deb2} of the time I know I’m in a pretty good place to make the right choices. Even when those decisions slam up against my own well documented mortality hang-ups. More than ever seizing the bloody moment feels like the right thing to do. Not to create the kind of memories digitally archived by those images, but because there will a time when those are the only things you have left.

The last few months have shown me what that feels like. Second hand but first receiver. The middle aged fella creaking a bit in the mirror needs to find a way to deal with that. That’s more than riding bikes of course, but these last few weeks reminded me – as if I needed any prompting- it’s sometimes a great first response.

2D images are great for what they are. 3D immersion tho – that’s where it’s at.

*yes I know I’m mixing made up stories. I expect this will be brought up, along with many other misdemeanours, come pearly gate time. I am atheist but I’ve still prepared a robust defence 🙂

**I’ve been desperate to do this trip for approximately ever. Still I said that about Finale and it’d rained the entire week. Lightening can fuck right off if it thinks about striking twice.

Dig it

I don’t want you to get distracted by that image up there. Even while accepting that  a cursory glance suggests yet another bike crowding the diminishing floor space in the shedofdreams(tm).

Conclusions are assumptions, but context is everything. Well something anyway. Maybe an excuse thing. Whatever this isn’t N+1, it’s merely N, a holding pattern, more of the same but a little different. A day before whatever that is arrived, something far better defined left in the hands of a very happy man three days short of a significant birthday.

What has he bought? Previously we’ve described these triangular garments, entirely failing to clothe the emperor, as last century’s mountain bikes wrapped in shiny marketing cloth. That holds regardless of their party trick is being pretty damn good at a lot of things, and amusingly useless at a few others. In a time of no bad mountain bikes, this is to be celebrated.

We came into the sport as silly. Seriousness is not something to be applauded. Riding excitedly to your local woods, playing between the trees before trudging home with a bloodied knee is exactly how your eleven year old cherished their spare time. So more of that can’t be a bad thing, right?

Yes, Al maybe/possibly/what the fuck are you talking about? Get to the point – what is this new thing and why’s it replaced something that looks – at first, second and forensic glance – pretty damn similar? I’m glad you asked. No really I am, as this is not just drunken purchases disguised as a grand strategy.

Nobody who rides mountain bikes with any level of obsession would allow ‘well they’re all the same, why do you need more than one?‘ to pass without a vigorous defence probably including complex charts, longitudinal analysis and peer reviewed research. *

So it its with gravel bikes, or whatever we’re calling them now. We have road bikes with a nod to imperfect surfaces** and mountain bikes Frankenstein’d into drop bar mutants. Grade them on a curve and the Tempest was a refined, comfortable mile muncher, while that green monster prefers to paw away at raw soil before thugging its way through the countryside.

Look closer and there are many differences; frame material, wheel sizes, head angles and other items of irrelevance. The important disparity is intent. The Tempest wants to pick a distant spot on a dusky horizon and navigate there via interesting paths. The Digger (what is it with me and stupid bike names?) tolerates a bit of tarmac, but what it really wants is to hunt down an enduro bike and poke it with a stick.

The Tempest is background, the Digger is front and centre. It needs to be ridden, it’s not interested in being out all day, it’d rather rip your legs off, scare you shitless and then drop you off at the pub. Which is  absolutely brilliant for a mountain biker looking for a bike to make the local woods a bit more interesting.

Unless the same individual was tilting at a third attempt at a multi-day self supported King Alfred’s Way in less than two months. I used to have the perfect bike for that. Until yesterday but now I have something else entirely. There’s a hurtful rumour my purchasing criteria was based on ‘I‘ve already got one that colour’ and ‘last years model is going at a heck of a discount‘.

Regular readers will back me up that such salacious gossip is entirely at odds with my unimpeachable integrity, ruthless logic and legendary fiscal responsibility***

Regardless it’s been pedalled out to those local woods which was perfectly fine if a little slower than previous drop bar bikes. The payoff is picking lines on muddy singletrack when you reach that destination. Wide bars, knobbly tyres, dropper post, this really is an MTB hiding in plain sight.

It’s fun on easy trails in a way that my 160mm hardtail really wouldn’t be. There’s nowhere here I’d bother dragging the full-suss bikes for. But an hour on muddy trails going mostly sideways with a big grin on my face? Lots more of that please. Yeah sure that was the same face accessorised by new bike glasses. But even so, it’s quite a thing and if my thing is 90 minute escapes from this long-stared pane of glass, then it’s my new favourite thing.

For now anyway. As Herefordshire’s undisputed “Mr Fickle‘ for 14 years running, who knows if my fruit-fly attention span will bridge the gap between new and bored. I’m ever hopeful. And possibly delusional.  Let’s try working a bit less and riding a bit more to find out.

Oh and we’re not done with bike laundry either. A second much loved frame is on the edge of shed and sullied. Still might not happen. There’s a real danger this may become a habit.

*just me then.

**99{45ac9c3234d371044e23e276755ef3a4dde8f1068375defba7d385ca3cd4deb2} of the roads where we live. We’re net importers of potholes. While `asphalt comes here to die.

**Laughing is beneath you. As for pointing, there’s no need. I buy 50 bikes with absolutely no rationale whatsoever, and this is the respect I get. Really, you should be ashamed of yourselves.

Cheers 2021, it’s been emotional

This is the best bar in the world. Yes I’m sure some of you have sipped sophisticated cocktails in high rise buildings overlooking what passes as progress, or risked the local firewater in a far flung shack where the international language is ‘drunk’

But this IS the best bar in the world. A backdrop of the Sierra Nevada’s and – more importantly – one of the best trails in the world. The Elephants Tail etches a dusty scar on the edge of those imposting mountains. After riding that, we dived into the hot tub sharing one of those epic post ride moments, and a decent sized gin.

A gin improved by local pomegranate harvested from a trail we’d ridden about an hour earlier. In the tub are Matt, Mike, David, Si, Em, Steve and me. Names you don’t know and faces you wouldn’t recognise. But that’s exactly my point, these are my friends and this is our moment. I hope you all had at least one of these moments.

It’s an image I’ll treasure because of the continuing shadow of COVID-19 and all sorts of other stuff mostly related to ageing parents. It was a week of escape, and I couldn’t have chosen better people to avoid responsibilities with.

Right, enough of that let’s talk bikes and stuff. Firstly the bike page has had what can only be described as a massive update. My 2021 resolution  to spend absolutely no money on the fallacy that new bikes make a new me failed to survive first contact with reality.

The litany of failure is laid out here:

Updated bike page

There’s more. But not much. I didn’t write as much stuff but all that new bike nonsense generated enough content to update the ‘who read what the most’ page.

2021 most read articles

And that’s 2021 done. Big plans for 2022 while the withered frame can just about keep up with major physical commitments. Time is definitely ticking. Let’s not waste a moment of it eh?

Behold, the “SlackMo”

Presenting the 'SlackMo'

In lieu of starting all the work I airily promised to finish before my holiday, instead I’ve been binging Top Gear re-runs on YouTube. While putting the “pro” into procrastination, I couldn’t help but notice that almost every episode has May telling Clarkson “You dolt, you’ve ruined it“.

This is normally preceded by said dolt bolting on an Spitfire engine onto a Mini or some such thing. I tell you this because of a slight nervousness a similar fate may have befallen the Mighty RipMo. I mean not a Spitfire engine, which by the way would have been AWESOME, more engaging ‘Ludicrously Slack Mode‘.

Casting our mind back a few months, we find the RipMo at the end of an upgrade cycle. Absolutely perfect. Wanted for nothing. First name on the team sheet, etc. Expect it wasn’t the end, it wasn’t even the beginning of the end, it was rather the end of anything within cackling distance of sanity and fiscal responsibility.

There are reasons. There always are. Mostly we’re back to riding in far flung places. Sierra Nevadas in Spain next week* and a Back Country epic with Basque MTB next spring. Such trips provide what I like to call ‘justification‘ for something bike shaped from the shiny cabinet.

Regardless of bikes not being immune from the supply chain crisis, even if I could find something to buy, there was nothing I wanted. I mean sure I bought the Rascal but that hardly counts. In terms of the ‘big fraud’ bike writing cheques I cannot hope to cash, nothing, nada, no idea why.

Maybe it’s because the RipMo is way past good enough in the same way I don’t reach that grade. Or maybe I was sideswiped by an unexpected case of adulthood. I’m really hoping it’s the former. Anyway since I didn’t want to buy an enduro bike, I thought I might as well build one instead.

A sensible start saw the head angle slackened off by just a degree. One is enough regardless of the Internet suggesting all sorts of Frankenstein savagery. Plugged into the slackset up front was a slightly longer fork. Well the same fork that had been Matt’d with a longer airshaft or maybe a spitfire engine. I am, as ever, hazy on details.

These simple changes didn’t change that much. It felt even more capable and maybe a nadge less agile. Neither of which detracted from its general , genial “RipMoNess’. It still felt very connected to the first ride some 4000km and 40 months before.

And now? Well we all know sensible can go a bit batshit.  Pop into the pub for a quick pint only to find yourself ordering a round of flaming Sambuka’s while dancing naked on the bar*. In my case, I was a victim of circumstance after being offered a set of forks with a normal lead time of ‘they’ll put them in the coffin with you”

They are marketed as for the rider who needs the stiffest fork out there for extreme gnarliness, probably involving smashing through rocks the size of houses and a wing named after you at the local hospital. To be honest, I’d feel less of a fraud pretending I could dance naked on that bar.

Having now accelerated on a trajectory heading for crazy town, I went all in with a rear tyre so fat it barely fits between the stays. Leaving me with a high risk of wheel locking disaster if facing a metre of mud or good sized cowpat. Matt’s whirling spanners then arced from front to back putting firmness into brakes and rotation into bearings.

Declaring it done, I whipped it off the stand to calibrate the new parts at the Ross MTB proving ground. That’s two sets of church steps, over the humps of the old crazy golf course, and a cheery hello to the bowls club regulars who regard this kind of behaviour as birch-able.

It feels different now. I think it’s angry. It’s definitely ready for something. Maybe in the way a stallion can’t decide if to clear a ten foot fence or chuck the twatty ballast into the undergrowth. The best way I can describe it is to use a phrase first recorded when tanks were deployed to the Western Front ‘I don’t know what it’ll do to the enemy sir, but it scares the shit out of me‘.

It's in the bag!

I thought the best cause of action was to hastily take it to bits before it started terrorising Matt’s neighbours or eating his cat. Subduing the bike into its individual components was as much fun as it always is. It’s ready to go to another country but I’m not sure if I need some kind of permit now. “Hello Spain, okay to bring my Sabre Toothed Carbon Tiger? It’s hardly eaten anyone. This week.

So have I ruined it? Don’t think so. Guess I’ll find out in a week. I mean only someone with supreme confidence he HADN’T ruined his fantastic bike would risk shipping it 800 miles south for six days riding.

Or an idiot. One of those two. I’ll let you decide. In the meantime, welcome to the rebooted SlackMo. Can’t wait to ride it on rocky trails under sunny skies**. I have a feeling it’s going to be emotional.

Presenting the 'SlackMo'

*I mean we’ve all been there. Well I haven’t, but it’s how I expect places like London operate.

**I have sneaked a look at the forecast. If it rains all week, my friends will – rightfully – hate me for triggering an atmospheric river.