Tired is for tomorrow

This, dispatched lightly, from my good friend Matt, landed with more of a thud than expected.  Equally unexpected was the thud as first my shoulder, rapidly followed by the remainder of my tumbling torso, smashed into a fire-road baked hard by a capricious sun long driven from the sky by endless rain.

Ironic that* I pontificated mightily a second before, as what proxied for an out of body experience was – in fact – a precursor to a full body slam experience.  The rapidly shrinking distance from air to ground triggered some desperate dendrite-synapse action mostly focussed on a less than balletic twist to protect the drinking arm from the inevitable blunt force trauma,

How did we get here? Short answer, riding bikes in the sunshine in what felt like the first time for about ever**. Longer answer is our spring-lamb keenness to be released into the fields triggered an early start and a few extra trails before a gathering of those matriculated in the study of ‘bluebell day‘.  The forest looked mighty fine; swathes of flowering garlic and bluebells slashed by petrichor drying dirt.

Dryer than last week” was my pointless assertion to those who I share almost every ride with. Nods affirmed Spring – while not in the ascendancy – was striding through the trees, extracting moisture from our favourite trails and repurposing it to trunk tributaries. So a mostly green canopy shielded us from above and grip pulled hard at clean tyres from below.

Oh God we’ve waited so long for this. Sure there’s a skill and a dopamine hit of pitching the bike in on sodden trail and managing the slide, but dry trails hit different. Slam the front end in, know the back is following in an exact arc, smash an off camber root stack knowing you’re going nowhere but fast.  It’s such a thrill and I’ve missed it. Even tho I didn’t feel I could fully trust it, as lying in wait were shaded puddles and sweating rock.

We were nearly late because fun beats promises 100% of the time. Finally fetching up with the rest of the crew, route faffage was at a minimum as we knew exactly where we were going. Bluebell day has many destinations but the first is the ‘main line’ when riding is secondary to experiencing.

Had to get there first. Up the notorious ‘middle climb‘ – a 150 metre pull from the river I’ve done 100s of times and it never gets easier. Making the ridge, we extended our out lap through a secret garlic trail presenting at its absolute best. Not massively exciting to ride, but what a thing to look at. But still not the main event.

To get there, we diverted just a bit to ride a couple of favourite trails at speeds not realistic even a couple of weeks ago. So enthused by the conditions, Matt and I abandoned the agreed route and pedalled hard back to the top for another full run. Great concept, terrible execution.

There’s that thing about ‘not dying in a ditch‘ over something. Never thought it had a literal quality, but as kinetic energy was converted to an airborne vector, that certainty took a bit of a hit. As did the bike falling into a recently dug trench someone inadvisably positioned at the end of a fast trail. The bike and I piled in. Only I came out. Mostly in a parody of a working human with flapping limbs akimbo.

“Impressive” was the comment from behind as I groaned my way through a full system reset.  There was some bleeding, later there would be some bruising, later still my shoulder still isn’t quite right but considering the smash bang thud denoting things had gone a bit wrong,  I’m taking that as a win.

Patched up***, we finally converged on the prime forest bluebells. Fifteen years of riding this trail when they’re at that absolute finest has in no way diminished the experience. It was as sensory-overload-y as ever and just remembering to do bike things is mashed into a tiny corner of your brain, while the rest attempts to catalogue those wide angled images for future retention.

No chance. it’s a confluence of people/place and time. It’s why we slog through winter. It’s why we lament the changing of the seasons. It’s why we watch the ground cover grumpily emerge from the slop. It’s why we celebrate the first flower. It’s just why we ride.

And then ride some more. Ended up with nearly 1400m of climbing on a 60k day. Those are big numbers even for us. Most I’ve done for a while. Life in the old bruised dog yet. That feels better than good.  Excuses are easy, doing it is hard but I love that feeling of being totally finished, washed out, done in.

So that extra climb, that little bit more, that little nod when asked ‘shall we just ride one more trail as it’s so bloody great today?“, that ‘shut up legs’, that first taste of a cold beer, that talking shit with fellow travellers, that next 24 hours when stairs are a problem, that  wishing it could happen again right now.

That.  More of that.

Tired is for tomorrow.

*90s hit Alanis Morissette ‘isn’t it ironic’ is lyrically distanced from irony in a way that’s really bloody annoying. Just me then? Right, as you were.

**last week, was Neil’s “10 feature” birthday ride – made about 9 of them stuck somewhere between committed and Newtonian inevitability. Dry it was not.

***My friend Em lent me a plaster to stem the bleeding from an elbow. She didn’t want it back 🙂

The GrimWagon(tm)

Post ride, every ride right now.

This is a post ride image familiar to any cycling enthusiast/insufficiently medicated masochist* marching on through a winter campaign of dark, cold misery. Those identifying primarily in the secondary characteristic claim not only that sliding through three** months of endless filth is a riding hack for upgraded summer skills, but further it is just damn good dirty fun.

Grudgingly I’ll partially accept the skills thing, although – for me – those skills are primarily mental; acceptance of tyre sliding anxiety, bloody mindedness on wheel sucking climbs, acknowledgement that ‘still alive’ is an excellent outcome on a favourite descent, and a stiffish upper lip enduring endless slogs finishing in twilight or starting in the dark.

As a list, it’s hardly compelling. Alternatives include fitness hibernating in winter and only being dragged painfully from the dark as evenings lighten, exchanging real landscapes for virtual worlds, or refusing to interact with the elements until that fabled bluebird day or frozen ground. None of these in isolation replace the type 2 fun of arsing around in the mud. And while I still enjoy it, as I get older so it does too.

This year, the seasons have basically disappeared. Started raining in December with no sign of it ever stopping. Spring may be emerging slowly from sodden ground, but everything trail related is still very much in winter mode. Okay the water might be a bit warmer as it floods over your ankles, but even that is overselling the joy of slop redux represented in the long term forecasts.

Here’s further evidence of the mudmageddon aftermath of a night right. Trousers may be mocked by a few of my riding buddies, but these water repellant bastions of leg wear save my arse and points south from high pressure trail enemas.

Why do you wear trousers?

The state of the kit tho? Ready the bucket of doom because the washing machine is off limits!  By February I’m really done with it, but persevere because Spring is just around the corner.

There was a brief respite in January when winter bit back with proper minus temperatures, freezing the ground hard and our faces with it. But for a couple of snatched rides, it was summer from the axles down and we returned from rides not obviously auditioning for the part of Wye Valley Swamp Monster.

The rain returned and I didn’t. Lots of reasons but hardly rode for a few weeks (I like to blame the treadmill but honestly if we didn’t have that, I’d have found another excuse) and other than assuaging guilt didn’t feel the slightest inclination to drag myself through a few hours of mud.

None of which we found on our stolen weekends riding in Malaga (back to that next time). T-shirts, dust, beers on the beach. Oh yes this is why I love mountain biking. Returning to – you guessed it – torrential rain, the four Spanish Exiles were still motivated enough to head back out for a tour of the forest over the Easter weekend.

Central to my winter riding is the GrimWagon. Steely in purpose and shorn of all but a few bearings, it’s the perfect foil for real mud and imagined glory. Fat, chunky  2.6inch tyres running low pressures provide the grip while a gert 160mm fork up front offers the bounce. In between are consumable components aging quickly, but unlikely to be upgraded until the mythical dry line returns.

Riding a full suspension bike in conditions like we’ve had suggests an edge of lunacy  far distanced from the general stupidity of riding when you’re the owner of a nice, warm house. You’re not getting much benefit of all that extra travel when the tyres are rim deep in soul sucking mud. And after the ride, the already tedious clean up routine would be augmented by the counting of collapsed bearings and a checking of available funds to replace.

Not so the GrimWagon. Ride ends, gets chucked in the shed. Sometime before the next ride, gets taken outside, beaten lightly with a brush to remove the worst of ‘dust clods’ and freshened up with some chain lube. Occasionally I’ll spray some WD40 into the mech, but really only out of a sense I should probably be taking maintenance a bit more seriously.

It just soldiers on tho. First 1000m of climbing for a while and much of that hard earned on tracks barely recognisable from their summer forms. Downhill wasn’t much easier, sliding around, trying to be brave in the corners- often with ‘enduro leg’ flailing about in a parody of balance.

Occasionally tho due to very local sandy topology and a fair wind, a dry trail emerged from the slop. And very welcome it was too. Then the GrimWagon reveals its other side, a proper sorted ‘hardcore‘ hardtail that’s slack and carve-y while being supple and somehow precise at the same time.

Is that a dry trail I see before me?

Sunshine was as welcome, if not more so. It’s hard to be annoyed that more bloody rain is coming when the big yellow orb is in full joy delivery mode.

I know it’s a rare privilege to get to ride bikes mostly whenever I like with friends who make any such ride a giggle, even when the grim has fully descended. I also know I shouldn’t moan about it, because one day I won’t be able to ride whatever is happening on the ground and in the skies.

I know all that and I’m still going to moan. But only for a few more weeks hopefully. We may not have escaped winters grasping muddy clutches, but Spring is on its way. I can feel it, I just can’t see it right now.

*delete as applicable. Or not. Both states can exist simultaneously. Schrödinger’s mountain biker.

**oh I wish. Feels like at least six.

Lost in place

All rideable you said?

We knew where we were. Had absolute confidence on our destination. How to get there? Not a scooby’s. Welcome to part 2 of ‘when it all goes wrong, let’s call it an adventure’ where we abandon riding our bikes for carrying them awkwardly down a trail cosplaying a cliff.

Our arrival at this point wasn’t without incident. After faffery of the critical kind, we  saddled up in the pre-dawn gloom to discover a 100m hill hidden in shadow. Pretty sure we didn’t ride down that last night- whatever on arrival at what Si promised was the start of an awesome trail, he headed off in an entirely different direction*

Dark O’clock

Chris took that as a positive sign and was immediately rewarded with an over the bars dismount triggered by a hidden stump. Who knew it would be even darker under the trees? Not me suffering from fuck all sleep, terrible coffee and apparently 100% memory loss of how bicycles work.

Fetching Chris the right way up, adrenalin caffeine jolted me into riding mode and what skills I have were fully deployed on a trail throwing out shady challenges as the light crept up to manageable levels**. The air hadn’t got the memo tho and i was glad of full body clothing coverage as deep breaths condensed in the visible spectrum.

Worth getting up early for
Worth getting up early for

We needed to keep moving. If only to keep warm. More so in that we had a train to catch. 10:20 at Olette. Some 20 minute drive from where Si’s car was parked and quite a lot further from the Van still abandoned some 1000m above Vernet. The Yellow Train is a fantastic thing but what it isn’t is frequent. Miss our booked slot and we’re three lost hours and shit load of broken logistics from reaching Les Anges sometime before midnight.

Clearly what such a machine-tool honed plan needed was a navigational conference confidently sending us out over an unridable ridge. Which is we came in. We emerged some thirty minutes later, properly late and a bit worried with the sun  dialling in time we didn’t have.

We rendezvoused with Si and he sent us down ten minutes of awesome trail that made me forget our day was going to poo. A high speed blast through the forest punctuated by moments of ‘well I hope that corner doesn’t tighten up‘ and ‘if Trusty disappears over that rock step, it’s bigger than I planned for and things may go badly‘. Way too much fun over far too soon, hence we were buzzing and still just about on schedule rolling into town.

Matt headed back up the mountain courtesy of  Caty’s van, while we jumped into Si’s barely street legal race-car with plans to reconvene at the train station. Except Si’s car wouldn’t start. Steve and I applied ‘Top Gear rules‘ and headed into the main square for a proper coffee while Si ran a full diagnostic check on his engine***

Trusty showing his proper upbringing 🙂

Coffee fuelled we managed to bump start the cursed Clio and Si was off to retrieve his helmet, while we clock-watched for Matt to wind back down the mountain. Finally arriving with zero fuel adding more minutes we didn’t have. No surprise then to roll into Olette just in time to wave the train goodbye from the car park.

Fuck.  What now?  No good options until our examination of the timetable cracked out a glimmer of hope. We might be able to race the train up the valley and be waiting for it at the next station. Exciting times as Matt’s spirited driving fully tested the ‘chassis dynamics‘ of our parcel van, while the ‘unbelted three‘ deperately hung on to groaning trim and, sometimes, each other.

Arriving both shaken and stirred, bikes were unloaded with a haste suggesting we may be stealing them, before running across the tracks to a platform where the trains should be. Had we made it? Had we ever, we beat our train and the one that was due in 10 minutes before. Si never shut up about how this was somehow a win for him 😉

Load ’em up on the Yellow Train
Proper uplift vehicle 🙂
Heck of an engineering marvel!

Bikes loaded, we took a victory lap of the open coach installing ourselves between some slightly shocked looking tourists. 30 mins up the track on this engineering masterpiece/money pit, we arrived most of the way up the mountain and declared ourselves ready for a second breakfast.

Trusty, do you have the GoPro (not for long!)

This was the perfect opportunity for Steve to abandon one of the GoPros. A discovery we made some two hours later having climbed another 500+m through first a forest and then an abandoned artillery range. With tanks! So you know we had to mug about there for a bit.  Proper boys toys stuff.

T(w)ankers 🙂

This proved a welcome distraction from the climb which I felt was going on a bit. Might have mentioned it. Finally topping out at just under 2500m, we donned knee and elbow pads. Well everyone except me who’d thoughtfully left his to protect the inside of the van.

No matter, we were off on a wild trail that had everything other than obvious lines or evidence of previous tyre tracks. Which didn’t stop us having a properly good time letting the bikes run on grippy compacted dirt. Dirt that was clearly haunted by a root graveyard with questing polished white bones popping up at the most inappropriate moments.

Steep ‘n’ Deep!

The odd rock appearing as well. This signalled the transition to a full on bolderfest which rocketed straight into one of ‘my favourite five trails ever’. It’s very apparent on the GoPro how the terrain changes as we break out of the forest and onto the edge of that endless ridge. What is less obvious is how bloody great this was to ride.

Absolutely full on, stalks for eyeballs, surfing the line – fast enough for rock rollover, slow enough to set up for the next challenge. Committed, steep, switch-backy, technical and bloody long. At one time we appeared to be riding in a rocky trench walled with sand. Proper ‘feel the force Luke‘ stuff and whatever I was feeling right then should be bottled and drunk on dark winter nights like right now.

Fist pumps and other inappropriate middle aged emoting marked the end of more than ten minutes of  the whole ‘this is why’ thing.  Amazing trails, jaw dropping landscapes, a train of your best friends synthesising joy from dust. Putting it all on the line, even the bad lines on bikes that are so much fun they surely can’t be entirely legal.

We weren’t done. Still a few hundred metres of elevation to cash in albeit on lesser gradients. Dialled in as we were, this soon became a no braking challenge folowed quickly by some emergency anchor hauling when bravado out paced skill. In our defence reining it in felt impossible – sun was out, bikes felt great, trails were mint and the bar was waiting.

Rolling back into Olette we ran the numbers. 650 metres climbed, 2620m descended. That’s a shuttle day right there with the train doing much of the heavy lifting. It was also one of the best days I’ve had on a bike, and I’ve had many brilliant trips over the years. But this just had everything.

Bikes resting, riders drinking
Love the Yellow Train 🙂

Including me not riding like a dick, so you know there’s that. Pushing back on the whole getting too old for this shit schtick. Thumbed that the finger as I sank a well earned beer. Tomorrow we’re heading out to the ‘Devil’s toilet’ which has a fairly brutal hike-a-bike price of entry.

Another adventure then? Count me in.

*still sans helmet, not even Si is stupid enough to ride full on trails mostly in the dark without some form of brain protection.

**if you watch the GoPro you’ll see how bloody dark it was!

***Open bonnet. Look confused. Close bonnet.

It’s not a ride, it’s an adventure

Having a drink and a breather – photo: Steve Trust.

So when does a ride become an adventure? At what point does everything familiar flip into an entirely new experience? And is this always a good thing? Anxiety can spike when variables – weather, terrain, navigation – are mutable in a way they rarely are on your local trails.

I think the point is when the bike becomes the least important part of the ride. It’s essential, of course, to get you to your destination, but the adventure is the uncertainly of how you’ll arrive there at all.  Living in the moment is something I’ve always struggled with, and yet resting here and glancing skywards, I’m not quite sure what happens next. Whatever it is, it certainly feels nothing like riding at home.

Matt and Si above the ‘white rocks’. Still not at the top.

We’ve just topped 2000m above sea level with distant peaks shrouded in cloud. All the time watching mountain weather racing down steep sided valleys and darkly threatening  hail or cold rain onto those aping Prometheus* and claiming these high places for themselves.

Fuck I love this. Being too tired to carry on but with nowhere else to go. Another 400m of climbing on broken fire roads with ever thinning air and the Gods of Thunder rolling a double six. Get back on the pedals, marvel at the wind exposing the peak before shrouding it back in cloud, feel the first raindrop, determine the top is ‘quite close‘ all the while husbanding energy in case it is not.

RipMo at the gate! Which I thought was the top. It wasn’t 😉

We clear the last switchback. Lean the bikes on a gate. Attempt to discern what happens next through switching clouds and mist. Whatever happens, it’s only happening to us. no one else is up here today. We’re 500m above our planned refuge for tonight but it feels so wild and exposed our here, we’re struggling to believe a man made building might be somewhere in the valley below.

Giving off strong Mordor vibes!

Only one way to find out. Climb a little more to the ‘white rocks’, lose ourselves in a a landscape carelessly categorising you as totally insignificant.  Feel the bikes shimmy on shale long torn from the mountain edge, gibber a bit when the cloud lifts giving even the hardened agnostic a view from the heavens.

Starting the descent. Getting dragged into that view. Amazing stuff.

From there we finally began to descend. It lasted all of 30 seconds before the sound of sealant failing to close the tyre rip begat by a knife shaped rock hidden in a water bar. Three of us expelled liquid and air as tyres slashed rims and one of those rims pringled in a manner suggesting weighing it in was pretty much the only option.

You can see the carnage on the video above 🙂

Except we were above 2000m, so many miles from a bike shop and attempting ghetto fixes under skies increasingly keen to dart hail at our rapidly waterproofing persons.  My tyre was toast, Steve managed to shove enough anchovies into his to maintain temporary inflation. Matt tho was left with a stoved in rim looking to have barely survived an asteroid strike!

Tubes were retrieved from packs. At which point we counted our remaining spares. Above zero, but only by one. And no chance of replenishment for at least a day separated from right now by quite a few rocky descents.

Rolling on hard rear tyres, we made tentative tracks to the refuge. 35psi is a horrible way to travel when you’re used to about half that. Still one tube left and all that, chances were not being taken especially as the weather had that ‘go on, I dare you‘ look about it**

A wild trail separated us from some form of safety at the refuge. A trail about as wide as a well upholstered walker firing poles out either side would need. 780mm bars had us punching shrubbery that didn’t move much while seemingly keen to grab a brake lever or a pedal.

30 seconds before tyre explosions!

You really don’t want to crash here. Not much short of a helicopter is taking you out. It’s not like riding at home. You settle in for 2 hour+ climbs and back off when gravity sirens you down the other side. Trails are not groomed, mistakes have consequences, mountains are not your local hill. Respect is due.

Respect was given. We trained out of the singeltrack onto a fireroad which lead us to our destination for the night. Completely off grid but still stocked with an impressive bar and a hammer***. The refuge owners were serially surprised that those of us riding tomorrow were keen to have at least one more beer.

At Refuge “Marialles” – moody looking sky thankfully dumped its rain a few hours later.

And I’ve been here before. Lucky not to be barred I suppose 😉 Still got our heads down, didn’t sleep much due to snorey bastard in the next bay knocking out his greatest hit ‘none of your fuckers are getting a wink’ which made the next days 7am start one of those things I’m keen to forget.

Places to stay awake in the darkness 😉

But somewhere that day, I forgot about what comes next. The mountains don’t care and neither should you. Just being here, on my bike with my friends. sharing an adventure is such a bloody privilege.

Fab as that is, time doesn’t stop. Tomorrow we were cashing in our gravity credits before breakfast and then grabbing an uplift train.

That’s as awesome as it sounds.  And after today nothing else could go wrong surely. Really? I mean REALLY?

Whatever, it’s going to be an adventure. And that’s always a good thing.

*more attempting to steal beer from the gods.

**300 days of sunshine apparently. Clearly all used up when we arrived.

***Which Matt used to ‘re-profile‘ his rim.

What’s in the bag?

Currently, nothing. Soon a bike-packing inventory ruthlessly configured for autumnal days in proper mountains. Thursday at stupid o’clock we’ll be driving past  at least two local airports to endure the depressing couplet that is ‘Ryanair‘ and ‘Stansted‘.

Once we’ve navigated check in queues, bike bag wrangling, the walk of pain to outside baggage while being sliced by each mini death from a thousand lowest-cost-bidder cuts, the Pyrenees await. And I’m beyond excited by an itinerary including a night high up in the mountains, a sweep of loops showcasing everything this southern half of a proper range can offer and – I expect – a fuck ton of banter, booze and bedazzlement. The latter from horizon bending views and awesome, dusty trails.

This is not our first rodeo. Since our good mate Si swapped Shoreditch for sunshine, we’ve sallied forth on ambitious adventures conceived on wine drenched maps and instantiated through 4 hour hike-a-bikes and 1000 metre descents down the WRONG MOUNTAIN. Love Si as I do, he’s a flakey as a late stage leper when it comes to any kind of rigorous route planning.

2010 called and it wants that bike back
A rare riding shot on that first day.

Recognising his limitations*, Si has handed much of the route planning to those more skilled at surviving big mountain adventures. Including his daughter who hopefully takes her mothers side. Assisted by local french dudes who appear to close the competence gap. The six days of fun has the whiff of a military plan**, accommodation has been booked, vehicle logistics located by waypoint, even a train uplift shuttling us up a 1000m from sea level.***

Juliette – Si’s daughter – taking on the role of ‘responsible adult’

Reassuring as this sounds, it’s left me with a nagging worry that unexploded logistical ordinance labelled ‘clusterfuck‘ awaits. As my favourite project manager used to explain ‘the law of unintended consequences rarely arrives lubed’.  Meaning we’ll be sleeping under the stars, risking frostbite while making difficult decisions who to eat first*****

Reminds me of those B Movies when the hero opines ‘it’s too quiet‘ triggering a latex alien face eating incident.  Whatever, we’re committed now or at least probably should be. It feels like the right time – had a pretty shitty summer, hardly left the valley, bored of local trails, desperate to insert ‘mountain‘ back into mountain bikes.

oooh a train. I wonder if it has a bar?

Before then though, boring stuff needs to happen. Packing for 27 degrees at blue sky sea level and ‘fuck me it’s cold up here‘ some 2000m higher in the clouds. Existential angst on which bike to take. Paddle steamer kit selection, diving deep into the drawer of plenty selecting almost everything. Then realising Ryanair charge a million pounds a kilo and reluctantly placing the ‘4 season rain jacket’ on the optional pile.

Of the three packs, the Evoc has a back protector which is a boon when 99% of the trails we ride over there are spine splitting rocky. The Osprey is basically a Tardis. I could pack the house and kids in there with space for an emergency helicopter. The Camelbak tho has a special place in the pantheon pack having been campaigned on the 2010 route when just about everything went wrong.

Never let this man read a map 🙂

It was such a memorable trip tho. The exhaustion, the navigational disasters, the ‘full Ghandi‘ barefoot experience in a posh French town, the Gin bar where Si befriended the owner and we watched 1950s movies on a cave wall while getting properly limb loss drunk. A lift over the mountain from Rob which pretty much saved our life the following day.

It was emotional 😉

Great memories. I’m very much invested in making some more of those. Based on the increasingly diverse whatsapp group, we’re definitely in synapse firing territory. The night at the refuge has a nearly double figures riding crew rocking up. Which is fantastic for all sorts of reasons including riders who can actually speak French. Last time out I expanded my vocab more in four hours than four years sitting in a classroom. If hand waving counts.

The – slightly fuzzy headed – morning after saw the rising sun clawing at a palisade of rocks stretching long shadows above the refuge. It was an amazing experience watching orbital mechanics burning through morning mist. I’ve seen the Northern Lights and they’re a long distanced second from a high mountain wake up call.

Stepping back a bit, this is my third riding trip in 2023. The first was shared with Carol and we cheated on eBikes. Didn’t stop it being brilliant. Then a week in Molini which is officially my bestplaceintheworldtorideabike(tm).  And now back to a landscape I know a bit, but nowhere near enough.

The passing of time is definitely a thing. A thing I’m trying to ignore. We’ve a week living in the moment smashing up against my inability to do so when faced with non riding priorities. Pack the bike, pack a bag, set the alarm, sleep barely a wink before it trills.

As stated, I am beyond excited. Filling the bags needs to be done. Filling the memory banks awaits.

*and not wanting to be thrown off a cliff. Arriving back at our start point having climbed that 1000m in 30 degree heat, his life was in the balance. Had I not been so completely knackered, I’d have dispatched him there and then 🙂

**Which brings to mind “No plan survives first contact with the enemy

***Which still leaves about 1200m to go. But you know, I’m sure it’ll be fine.

****Not that difficult. Si Steaks all round 🙂

The ultimate riding machine

30 mins hard graft to get here. Absolutely worth it.

BMW went full Carlsberg with their pre millennium sloganeering when promising the impossible to the ineligible. ‘Ultimate‘ tops out a class system bestrewn by ‘platinum‘, ‘exclusive‘ and most importantly ‘special‘. The vain and vacuous amassing status points pointing to entitled. Get one of these, be one of those.

It’s absolute bollocks of course. Porsche did it better, with a generation of wannabees wanting it so hard their hedge funds positioned endings in actual hedges. 95% blokes, mostly found lapping in the tosser shallows of the gene pool.

What has any of this to do with bikes? Well quite a lot, but not before we return to my eye-rolling reputation of ‘context‘* and how to apply it. There is no perfect bike whatever the marketing folk spaff at distracted eyeballs, through the fabrication of ChatGPT and their credulous  ‘boosting socials‘.

No bike is perfect. It can’t be. Outside of making things up, compromises begat decisions, budgets slice away at idealism, manufacturing swaps bespoke for standards. What you get isn’t what you’ve seen. Which is absolutely fine because modern bikes run close to the marketing lies in the hands of the ordinary rider.

As an ordinary rider, my RipMo unashamedly presents itself as exhibit A when calls for the perfect trail bike are shouted out. I’d be the first to agree, but not without caveats. Californian design has little truck with four seasons on a storm tossed island, battered by an increasingly random jet stream. Mud breaks it fast, and fast will side load clevis mounted shocks to early destruction. Bearing sealing is average at best while that sculptured back end shimmys noticeably under even my load.

How’s your Thursday going?

But on the perfect night, on the perfect trails ridden by the less than perfect rider I’d  slap my hand on a bible** and tell you my this is the best trail bike in the world. Right here and right now.  Right here we’re a relenetless thirty minute climb from the river, and right now four of us are clustered under a tree canopy amplifying incoming dusk, all the while twitching for reaffirmation of the good stuff.

The RipMo is a great climber. First one was great, this one is a little better.  I’m probably a little worse but that declining physicality is a whole other post. One I may never write, but a nominal datum punting me closer to 60 than 50, thereby nailing the venn between treating age as an abstract number and the very real manifestations of getting older is a daily existential conundrum.

End of a very long climb

Whatever, live in that moment, focus on this four minutes of everything you’ve learned and everything in front of you. A trail not desperate to please. Not ready to be categorised. Couldn’t give a shit if for the flow love-in. Narrow, nadgery, gradient diversive, squeezed between unforgiving trees and bedrocked on nasty tooth shaped  limestone positioned to throw you off line.

Off line is often going to hurt. No soft landings here, get it wrong and you’ve a Hobsons choice between chewing bark or slicing flesh. Pick one good line, get stiffed by a tight corner or a broken tooth of rock sticking it to the man. Beat that down only to be rewarded with root stacks desperate to punt you off camber and into a stone wall.

Drop onto the fireroad – long slogged some twenty minutes before – take a breath before you’re back into it, lean forward, loosely grip the bars, take a bead beyond those tyre punting rocks, go loose as they go hard, don’t get greedy tho, there’s a tight corner coming and that’s 100% commitment to the outside before tipping it in, shaping a body, moderating the brakes, eyeballs on the prize.

Then you’re through, over a steep root monster – tentacles out – into a narrow V, precision is important here, swing it left and then it’s fast switchbacks, watch out for those summer shrouded stumps, drop into a couple of horrible fork smashing compressions, boot it out, lean it into the final perfect right and brake hard to avoid the ancient gate.

Every time I ride this trail it reminds me of Molini, or similar uplifted amazement to the power of four in terms of ascent and distance. This doesn’t diminish what these last few minutes mean. And all of that without mentioning the bike. Because it’s disappeared under what skills and bravery I have.

Much of those are engendered by trusting what I have under me. Knowing the bike is better than me isn’t helpful. Knowing how far I am from those limits absolutely is. Brake a bit later, release those anchors a second before something scary, edgily pitch tyres on questionable terrain and – when options are scarce – death grip the bars and let the bike remind me what happens when you throw your trust at an inanimate object.

Bike parking :)
Every ride should end in the pub. That is the lore 🙂

So does this make it the ultimate riding machine? Of course not. But on trails I know, when conditions are perfect and my head is in the right place it is the perfect machine for me.  As a man steeped in the quantitate spectrum, anthromopising plastic and glue are an anathema. The bike is a thing, a means to an end, an engineering marvel for sure but no more than that.

I will never get bored of this view. Especially as it’s taken from the pub!

And yet. Rolling it into the shed after one of the rides of the year, I cannot help myself ‘that’ll do Pig, that’ll do’.

Ultimate no. Making a old man, very happy? Oh yes.

*I teach this stuff. Data v Information isn’t the right question. Context is everything. The numbers don’t lie, but people do.

**As an atheist, this maybe isn’t quite the assertion it would seem on first reading.

Somedays you’re the slugger…

Like a jump. Only not for me 🙂

… sometimes you’re the ball. Sometimes you’re caught between, betwixt hope and expectation, kidnapped by events, released by the moment. Mostly though you’re being shafted by the weather. In winter, this is stoicism blunted by seasonal storms. Summer tho, it is that hope that thrills us.

And thrilled we have been. After two months of ‘is it safe to go outside?‘, the incessant rain finally stopped, so the happy times started. Burnished trails puffing a million dust molecules into blinking optics. Nuclear stuff happening close to a 100 million miles away narrowing clothing choices to the acceptably skimpy*

We could get used to this. Mostly we did and – while the rest of the continent caught fire** – dry summer flakes combined with moist rider heat management starched frame tubes with Mandelbrot tattoos. It was never terrifyingly hot, but it was perfectly configured as one of those endless summers.

Until it wasn’t. Notice the past tense here. It feels absolutely wrong to focus on a stubborn localised low pressure system while the rest of the world basically burns, but you know what that’s just too scary so I’m drilling into the macro environment. One characterised by storms, wind, rain, sideways rain, drizzle, persistent rain, downpours, almost sleet and – no surprises here – more rain.

I swerved much of this meteorological mischief by retreading my pre-Covid gig to bisect the UK with all the efficiency a US maps App can offer*** This meant missing a couple of night rides already tagged with ‘blimey those nights are drawing in’.  I did manage to snuck out Friday after a week in Scotland with eBrown which does all sort of exponential things to a heart rate used to stopping occasionally.****

Woody 🙂

The previous weekends ride was not without incident. Starting with ‘the grip is fine, amazing really considering all that rain, oh hello tree, can we be friends?’ and ending in some extreme tripoding while pretending to be ‘riding it out in a new-school ‘style often arriving both without a bike and upside down.

Lessons to be learned then. I didn’t learn them even while populating the trailer, dodging another shower, post a hard days rain on the back of a weeks’ worth of filth. My one concession to summer being a wet-ass was to load the hardtail, long ignored but always Labrador ready, to get stuck in when the going gets horrible.

Most of me loves riding the BFEmax. Not my knees tho, they tend to write a strong letter of complaint. Ankles aren’t wild about harsh landings and stutter bumps either. Lower back warns of consequences later. My strategy of ignoring age related frailties instead sets me on a splashy course of harvesting fun from dirt presenting in all forms from firm to barely suspended in liquid.

Best way to deal with that is to plug a likely looking soil stack with a low pressure 2.6 inch tyre and lean on it a bit. Winners get a bit of a corner rail, losers slide but rarely fall as speeds are lower and  the ‘emergency dabber’ is on hyper-alert.  It’s not the summer smashfest we’re no longer expecting, but it was balancing the unexpected with the experience of riding this stuff for 20+ years.

Sun came out!

Still feels good. Doesn’t feel particularly fast, and while it’s not all hanging out, there’s definite evidence of sashaying back ends and tyre flung ‘clods of dust’ as we like to characterise these conditions. Stuff is happening mostly behind me which is absolutely fine as all I care about is the rubber in front of me bisecting glistening white roots and bog deep depressions.

Couple of features get done with the minimum of fuss. Any uplift I get from that bottoms out when compared to talking a couple of others down the same stuff . Although they are both smart enough to ignore my line recommendations. Getting it done, getting back on the bike, getting a bit closer to what’s important, getting dangerously near a post ride beer.

This is rightous stuff. It’s not the longest or hardest ride. The 200m optional climb was received as if I’d offered the opportunity to cuddle up to the farm animal of your choice*****.  Instead we rode the valley floor to a sun kissed centre of bikes, sausage rolls and cold beer. I went with the most important of the three, diffusing a difficult world into to one I better understand.

mmm beer. And Ali 🙂

I’ve ridden lots of scary stuff this summer. Which considering my years flipping around this planet is quite a thing. What is more of a thing is the ‘for fucks sake how many times now?’ realisation that riding is at least 50% of who you are with, and often less than 50% of what you are riding.

8am this morning it was pissing it down. Yesterday it never stopped. Not for a minute did I think I would. Dunno if I was the slugger or the ball.

I’d take either. Rain is forecast for next week. Bring in on. I’m ready to ride.

*and hats. For those of us managing climate emergencies and follicle sparseness. Also one riders’ skimpy is another’s extensive therapy session.

**We are so fucked. So  great to see a debate on whether to extend the ULEZ in London  is a vote winner.

***“The M6 at Stoke is blocked. Would you like to re-route via Hull?’. I wish I was making this up.

**** That’s me. Not my heart. Not keen on that stopping.

*****This is the Forest tho. So could have gone either way.

Return of the bling.

I always thought the RipMo was a classy bike. Especially when compared to my Giga which is essentially a carbon wrapped shaven headed bouncer, or the BFEmax rocking the more classic than classy vibe. In 2018 I bought about the first one off the boat because it looked just right. Then kept it for four years / 4000km* / for riding all over the UK and Europe.

Feb 2020, Malaga.

Then, during an extended field trip to the land of the stupid, I serially ruined it, replaced it and sold it. Because I was a desperate dreamer chasing the next big thing. Last month I bought another one. Because I woke up and smelled the reality.

The elephant in the shed is the Rascal. One of many ‘middle-bear’ bikes slotting neatly between the thuggary of the Nukeproof and the single sprung Cotic. A March to October bike nailing the gap between too big for big days out and too hard for aging joints. It’s a tough gig – many have come, few have stayed long. The Rascal lasted nearly two years, but that elephant had long learned to write on the wall before then.

Sidebar here: I am acutely aware whinging over a shed full of brilliant bikes is entitled stupidly at best. It’s easy to justify two**, whereas a totality of ridable steeds > number of available legs inevitably leads to a ‘shed queen‘. A role the Rascal was increasingly taking even when conditions / routes were perfect for a lightweight 140mm/130mm trail bike.

Instead I rode the slacker bikes with the steeper seat angles. And I had more fun because confidence is a big part of spiking the dopamine gland. Then I rode the Rascals’ big brother and got smacked with the memory that 160mm trail bikes are a victimless crime. Sure they’re a bit heavier, but you’re pitching that to a bloke well used to hoiking a 37lb Enduro Weapon on 60km rides.

Rascal’s big brother. Lovely bike, too much money

Problem solved then, buy a bigger trail bike. Save the super big bike for proper big days and uplifted utopia hills deep in proper mountains. Hardtail for the slop and general arsing about. Problem is the 160mm version of the Rascal is as beautifully crafted as it’s shorter travel sibling. With a price to match. For the first time in about ever, I just couldn’t justify it to myself***

Sulked a bit, attempted to make the Racal that bike – messing with the Geo, changing the tyres, tweaking the suspension. Took it for a ‘final‘ ride in perfect conditions and it’s one I’ll remember. Mostly tho because I’d moved it from a brilliant bike to curator of extensive parts list ready to be harvested.

RipMo’s don’t solve the ‘how fucking much’ problem what with their Californian Coolness and costs to match. So I hit PinkBike classifieds to find an updated version of my much loved V1. Changes are subtle but noticeable niggles are negated from the original. Bit slacker, coil compatible, new colours 🙂

An affable fella in Northern Island was asking pretty strong money for a 2021 example. He’d dropped the price twice but not by increments twitching my ‘buy it now‘ muscle. Engage WhatsApp as a fun negotiation tool. Shameless lowballing met with long ghosting followed by a counter offer. We ended up at a price neither of us really liked which probably makes it about right.

A few days later a battered box arrived. Inside a frame clearly ridden, cosmetically abused, mechanically ignored but the shell was there. Mostly hidden under Invisitape protection clearly applied by someone both a) drunk and b) blind. Happy times in the shed stripping all that off along with glue projecting serious abandonment issues.

Properly took it to bits to clean it!

Cleaned up pretty nicely. Carol took on the re-engineering of frame protection with her normal world weary competence, and we were ready to go. To Molini**** and beyond before life stuff rushed back in on our return. Finally tho, Matt cleared enough space in his garage to trigger his zen like spannering skills to deliver a freshly bearing’d, fully serviced bike for me to ride.

This is *after* Matt cleaned his garage 🙂

So what’s it like then? Unsurprisingly like my first RipMo but better. Not so much v2 as Evo. Ticked off four previously unridden features in the three weeks since going wheels down on our favourite trails. More important tho is how it disappears when I’m riding it. This is a very Ibis thing and it’s a very good thing. My Mojo3 had the same “go on, get it done, I’ve got you” vibe, and I’ll never not love that making me a little bit better, a little bit braver, a little bit less over-thinky.

It’s a keeper. What’s that at the back? Heard it before? Had one before which stood firm as other fads rotated through the shedofdtreams(tm). Can’t see this one being any different. And the Rascal? It’s such a beautiful frame, I can’t see me selling it. Maybe Jess’ll ride it one day. Until then, purple wall art is where it’s at.

I still feel bad about stripping it 🙁

RipMo v2. Al v300.7. We make a good team 🙂

*You may be surprised to hear this is not the bike longest owned. Veteran hedgehogers may remember the long campaigned ‘Grellow Pyga‘. Most won’t tho as there have been *quite* a few since.

**No, really it is. There’s a 3000 word article ready to smite the unbelievers 🙂

***No way I could justify it to any other sentient being. Other than “I want” being a well constructed investment case 🙂

****What a trip that was. Even ancient as I am I learned something. Hopefully to go in a Cranked Mag soon.

Head Games.

Right, that’s all gone a bit wrong. Evidenced on the intersection of misplaced confidence and new bike* enthusiasm.  Pub-bound on a trail I’ve ridden hundreds of times. Mid-Winter it’s an exercise in bike-uprightness dealing with steep ruts, relentless off-camber and a trench black-holing even the best riders.

We’ve all tales to tell. Tall ones “no idea how I styled that out, let me explain in some detail…‘, short ones ‘dropped in, crashed out’ and narratives proxying for excuses ‘you know just the wrong tyre/light flicked out, UFO sighting put me off’.

Summer tho, it’s a barely bucking double log, drop into the trench with a ‘feel the force Luke‘, brake stab to manage the tight berm, fling yourself over a little table and almost taste the beer a few hundred yards away.

That brake stab? I’ve always wondered if some righteous railing might ping you over the jump with dusty insouciance. Analogue black box recorder went something like this ‘don’t brake, going to make it, definitely going to make it, blimey this is quite fast, reckon it’s still on… oooooooh fuuuuuuuuuuck’, Followed by static as eight pots of Shimano’s finest represented the difference between a save for the ages versus a high velocity head strimming of the local vegetation.

Got it stopped. Gave myself a ‘never in doubt’ nod, glanced behind only to see a fully committed Al ‘The Wallinator’  on a crash course slamming the terminal into velocity. The arse of my bike perfectly marks the apex and Al – as per his one line operating manual – is coming in hot. Being blessed with quite the imagination, the frontal lobe suggests a strong possibilty we’re about to be punted headlong into one or many trees at a speed best thought of as ‘splattering‘.

Warnings of such outcomes punctuated not only this ride, but every one  since Molini stopped being a thing and started being a confidence trick. Stuff I’d built entire walls of excuses for avoiding have come tumbling down. Some cipher looking like me exchanged endless worrying for moment-living. Not so much taking risks, more not giving a shit for consequences. At an age when you’re really meant to be slowing down, this is life changing stuff.

But it’s still me, so it hadn’t all gone well. At no point did  a mental shift trigger some excalibur like physical skills. No swords removed from rocks, more crashing into the mineral record barely avoiding blunt force trauma through the power of awesome bikes. Getting away with it doesn’t even get close.

Close enough tho. I’ve ticked off a nasty steep chute bastardised with a wheel stopping rock half way down. First 2023 ride of the rockiest thing we ride in the FoD**, had a proper go at a rock jump I mostly fall off in the manner of an aging seal sliding torpidly into the sea. A gap jump swerved for a year barely cleared recorded a review of “not as easy as advertised, would not do again’.

Even a bomb-hole surely ripped from the hill by a WW2 ‘Tallboy” was inked into the ‘got it done’ ledger, mostly by following Matt in and closing my eyes when the horizon flipped what felt like 90 degrees. Blood was about 95% adrenaline at this point.

Which may explain how the means really doesn’t justify the end. Progression is really happening to other people. I’m a month away from the dark side of my mid-50s. Upside is any managed decline is nothing more than starting from a bang average baseline. I was never that great at mountain biking, so it’s not so far to fall.

Fall to what? eBike? Gravel bike? Touring with panniers? None of these things are terrible and I’m trying very hard not the be judgey about them***.  This New Al would rather focus on the positives. Twenty years ago I tipped the scales at 174 pounds. I still do today*****, four rides a week are still a thing in summer, I feel both pretty fit and completely knackered, broken bits are manageable while stretching/pilates/staying away from the beer fridge stays the inevitable reasons to stop.

Back to where we came in. It could all end right now tho with Al shortening the ‘punting distance’ by the millisecond. He sees me and his eyes widen, there’s bits of me puckering madly, but short of a early doors dive into evicerating  shrubbery I’m right out of ideas. Instead a desperate bike shuffle gives Al another few inches and he responds by RAILING the berm in exactly the manner I pretended I could.

Cheeks blown out. Some gabbling. Go to pub. Do not pass A&E.

Next night, a whole lot of steeps only a few miles away, often talked about but never ridden. Day after a cheeky Friday night blast fuelled by tired legs and the prospect of a cold beer. Day off and then back on it tomorrow. Still properly excited.

This is not riding transmogrification. Matrix like skills are not in my purview. I didn’t suddenly find bravery when meekness has served me so well all these years. It’s all in my head.  A head normally full of reasons why things can’t be done. Days ruined by worrying about one feature. Nights awake wondering if faking it is really any fun.

No idea where it’s come from. No idea how long it’ll last. Know one thing, it’s bloody great fun right now, and that’s more than enough.

*Another one? Colour me surprised. There’s a reason, a rationale, certainly a story. Only one of those nouns is reasonably adjacent to the truth.

**Somewhat predictably labelled ‘Rockadillo‘ but in my head it’s almost “Dr Rillo” – makes it feel a bit less scary.

**Trying. Not succeeding.

****To be fair, there’s quite a lot of ‘slumping‘ in the last two decades.

Counterpoint

Against the last post, entirely made up of whinging. Standard operating model for AL v.Old but not without some justification. Mid May, Mud May, Minging May, Motivationless May – you get the drift. Well not so much dusty drift, more slithering about in search of an accident. Welcome to Spring 2023.

In my moments of maximum delusion, I pretend a man shouting at rainclouds correlates to strongly worded letter to the weather Gods. Who, after a beat down on blameless customer service operatives, magnanimously snatch a quick look at our watery planet and ratchet the season switcher.

Whatever, things have changed.

Summer comes fast when the rain stays away. Head high swaying vegetation hides leathery spikes whipping out at exposed flesh. Mud turns to dust turns to marbles, soddden troughs to sun hardened ruts. tractions stays about the same but post ride switches from decontaminating the swamp monster to a desalination event. And some itchy and scratchy behaviour.

Between then and now was a second trip to Molini. Where our long-seasoned mud skills were at a premium during thunderstorms of world-ending violence. Then it dried out and it was epic. Three weeks have passed and I’m still mired deep in post holiday blues. We’ll be back to that, and it’ll be a multimedia event*

Right now tho riding at home is pretty damn good. Tempered by the date – the Summer solstice always comes too soon. I can’t help feeling it’s all downhill from here** And not in a ‘oh there’s the van, take us to the top o the next great trail, beats the shit out of pedalling‘ kind of way.

Time to live in the moment. Still unclued on how to instantiate that. Maybe sofa bound flicking crap food detritus into empty beer cans or launching a culling “I never fucking liked you” event on random digital  connections, might be mooning off Nelson’s column**** or  striding nonchalantly into your workplace and punching the boss?

No idea. So instead I swapped a night in a bland hotel some 200 miles north for a skive ride with my good mate Haydn. We slacked off early for no other reason than riding always beats working. It wasn’t the longest of rides nor the fastest, at no point did Zen pop in to educate me on flow, neither of us felt the urge to break out a fist pump, progression was hidden – camouflaged by our hinterland.

But what a thing. Dump the inbox at 3pm, make slow but continuous progress on the first few climbs. Fresh logs dumped on the fireroad have us worrying for the loss of favourite trails. But weaving between massive logging trucks, we’re soon flashing blades scything through vegetation seemingly hell bent on reclaiming those trails for nature.

I’m okay with that. We have no entitlement of  permanence here. Visitors at best, vandals at worst. Might explain why puddles from weather cells forming flash storms are incorporated into heat management. We don’t stop much because the insects are hungry, and some of those winged bastards plug exposed skin for about a pint.

So we ride, we descend with normal excuses leaving plenty of time to rationalise those on the climbs, We see the sun optically trolling us with an apparent azimuth of high noon. We know we are lucky – mid 50s, skiving off from some 1950s 9-5 worth ethic, riding brilliant bikes on perfect trails. And while maybe we’re not brilliant, we’re good enough. The year I can’t do this is going to feel like a milestone marking a slow death.

Last weekend, we revisited my last barely noticed celebration of another planetary rotation survived. Tintern was as magic as ever, old school route with a lot of the old being sunken bridleways, ancient woodland barely changed in millennium, ruler straight tracks linking long forgotten trade routes.

And lots of full on ‘well fuck me that’s steep‘ and ‘oh I see that’s not actually the steep bit’. Riding it in the wet would be nothing more than a cry for help and/or some quality time spent in a local hospital. We got to ride it in conditions so perfect they should first be preserved is aspic, then donated to a local museum.

I was pretty much bouncing off the ceiling in the pub. The day that doesn’t happen, the solstice I don’t love/lament, the week weather forecasts are not forensically examined, the year we don’t plan summer riding while shivering on a winters’ hillside, the decade starting with six when I might need to consider a bit of help with a motor.

Yeah, that’s been known to keep me awake at night.

All that can wait. In fact it can fuck right off. Dylan might be raging against  the dying of the light, I’m sat here watching that light backlit by a still high sun and wondering if I can ride again tomorrow.

Longest day? Shortest reason not to get back out there

*not from my GoPro tho because Numpty here packed everything needed for a weeks worth of ‘nobody other than you is watching’ this footage except for the small matter of the harness to connect it to the ‘moobtube’ 😉

**This is the time of year where I say ‘I can already feel the nights drawing in’ and Carol attacks me with kitchen implement/spiky gardening tool/small piece of furniture for being such a grump.

It’s one of the most important cornerstones of our long relationship 🙂

*** FNAR. Just me then. Ok, as you were.