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.


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.

May the filth be with you

May should not look like this.

Beyond bored of the filth. Properly and totally fucked off with it. Six months of November compressed into six weeks. False spring in February triggered two months of Autumn come March.  In the twenty of so rides since endless rain became the weather event of choice, only twice has the sock drawer been harvested for a non waterproof item.

The Uglyguards are a constant companion. As are the sounds of a drive train crying for help / grinding its own suicide note. I’ve given up cleaning the bike, instead artfully positioning it in an occasional sunshine arc, before beating it with a brush to hammer off the worst of the mud.

Horrible. Dry arse tho. Priceless 🙂

Upsides? Reaching a bit here so let’s go with System 1 mud skills* and, er, no, wait for it, there’s more, really, no don’t go, nearly there, ah yes Bluebell day. That herald of Spring was as optically visceral as ever. Broad lakes of purple split by damp dirt tributaries. Beer and non shivering t-shirt action to follow. Felt great but did not feel like early May.

Still lovely. If a bit wet

Nature whinges less than me. Just gets on with carpeting the forest floor with bluebells and wild garlic. Up top the skeletal canopy leafs up and casts shadows on the trails below.  And us, grateful for an organic umbrella as the next storm rolls in. We’ve had hours of the much anticipated dry trails, hero dirt between the puddles, pub ready without a jetwash. Days tho, they’ve been full of rain, thunder and latterly hail. Black as a winters night, and about as appealing.

Jimmy doing his thing

This is normally my favourite time of the year to ride. Twixt between Easter and the late May bank holiday. 2023 had a cheeky extra as some old fella was anointed with a funny hat while the Met ‘without fear or favour‘ arrested anyone who’d mistaken government sponsored censorship for our much trumpeted democracy.

Rained on the bugger tho. Probably should have learned the lesson of Canute. Rained on us as well, but we’re numb to it now, arriving at a ride start waterproofed, hardtail’d and mostly stoical**.

This is not my bike. Details to follow 🙂

Slide about for a few hours, idly wonder if the trails will ever dry out and more importantly consider the best way to drop back into the valley on a trail that’s not going to displace you from a much needed pint.

Trusty having it fairly large

Displace being a synonym for disadvantage, dismember or disembowel. I consider myself a ‘tree whisperer’ after two months of taking a bead on some innocent bark while grip, steering and stopping are mostly happening to other people. Assuming those people are in Spain riding dusty dry trails.

Which is where we should be in two weeks. Italy not Spain but still a 1,000 mile due south. Current weather there somehow mirrors our own storm tossed island, so  I may be grateful for those hard slid mud skills. I won’t be though, I’ll be bloody annoyed. Molini was awesome last September. It wasn’t insane to assume riding the start of June it’d be even better. Which is an odd way to spell wetter.

Yeah, keen to get back there

But for all of that, this. My friend Jenn Hopkins (Great rider, fearless adventurer, awesome human being, cruelly lost to cancer at the age of 38) once sat me down and explained forthrightly (probably while I was hosting a one man seminar on why today was so shit) ‘Hey, the sun is shining, you’re in control of you’re own arms and legs, you’re on your bike, the rest is gravy, you’re the luckiest person in the world

She was right. Because between the hurumphing of internet forecasts, the sighs as another rainstorm hits the windows, the crumbling drivetrain graunching through the gears, the frustrating loss of traction when mud is in the ascendancy, there is a continuum, a reference point, a happy place –  that is riding bikes with your friends.

About as clean as it’s been since February

It’s a simple test. Would I rather be on the sofa impotently shouting at rain clouds, or be amongst them? Wait for the storm to pass or dance in the rain. I do not want to wait. I am not going to rage against the weather. Well maybe a bit, but only when I’m sat on one of my fantastic bikes doing what others are not.

Find me a ride where going out has been trumped by staying inside. Tell me when dicking about in the soggy dirt is somehow less of an experience than cosplaying adulthood. Explain the difference between getting out and giving in. Arms, legs, sunshine, bikes, gravy. Jenn had it right for sure.

What else would you rather be doing?

Every time I hoik a filthy bike onto the trailer under broken skies, I can’t help but proxy a bit of Maverick from the original Top Gun “Keep sending him up’ I mutter.  Sending myself up is the key to getting ahead of other members of the ‘Slitherati‘ who never miss an opportunity to take the piss. As it should be, BlokeTherapy*** is a big part of why I ride.

Extending that to the pub, we turn mud into dirt, dirt into stories and stories into memories. We remember sunny rides but our happiest reminisces are the broken, the grim, the wet, the benighted. The hard stuff baseline that elevates the dry and dusty to the perfect living in the moment.

Told you Feb was amazing!

Light and dark. Wet and dry. Mud and dust. Two sides of the same thing. Riding bikes is a journey you’ve chosen. Important to remember that. Even when it’s pissing it down.

*I’ve been re-reading ‘thinking fast and slow‘. You should too. It’s properly thought provoking.

** Not sure the Stoics have been authentically recorded as offering a ‘For fucks sake, six weeks of rain, really I’m just meant to shrug my shoulders and marvel at the majesty of the weather?’

***I suppose we could talk about our feelings. But ‘Matt, want a hand there or were you intending to prostrate yourself face down in that innocent vegetation?’ feels a bit more authentic 😉

Ground effect

If you subscribe to Wikipedia, ground effect is “the name given to the positive influence on the lifting characteristics of the horizontal surfaces of an aircraft wing when it is close to the ground. ”

If you ride Mountain Bikes through all the seasons, Ground effect is the “name given to the positive influence of emerging vegetation horizontal to a previously muddy surface close to the ground

The wild garlic is out, a few early bluebells are out, the sun is out and we are “out out“*.  After February cosplaying June’s rainfall, March redressed the balance with rain everyday unless it was the turn for sleet or sideways hail. This moist meteorological construct turned mud free trails to just mud. Our first ‘light‘ night ride finished without lights, but the winter companions of wet, filth and steep trail jeopardy continued to outstay their welcome.

So with an Easter forecast promising sun, double digit temperatures and warmer mud, we yomped out to the Yat. Cold start, chilly in the wind, warm under the climbing sun, we stripped layers to follow it, finding trails mostly mud free right up to the point they weren’t.

More grip than expected, but often just a little bit less than you need. “Little‘ doing some heavy lifting here after we switched valley sides and chose to descend back to the river on a slick track offering either sweating limestone or not quite dry enough slick earth. But before that, there were new trails to ride.

New to me anyway. News of some rocky slabs had percolated through the WhatsApp group so we were keen to try them while they were hot. Spicy for sure with all sorts of shapes being thrown over no roll features, rolling into no obvious exit features, and exiting down steep muddy chutes. The latter offering your riding Hobson a choice between making the tight corner or braking on dirt brothered by glass from another mother.

Such good fun under more blue than we’d seen for a month. Applying winter skills hard learned under leaden skies to similar conditions but feeling distanced by a season. Sensors working overtime** with Spring happening all around regardless of our own sense of the season ratchet grindingly stuck on ‘for fucks sake, 14 days more rain forecasted

All that is forgotten with our criss-crossing of much vertical. My legs are sadly not solar powered though, and it’s a grind to our final top out is on a trail that’s known to be a bit lively after rain. The precipitation of the previous month suggests it’s probably been reanimated.

Sentient or not we’re committed to a fast approach into a plummeting fall line qualifier for a bombhole that’s fast in, fast out or fast in and crash out. When it’s this slick, fate is mostly in the riding seat. Which is where she should stay for the next 20 seconds of limestone teeth keen to take a bite out of you. Summer you ride them like a toothbrush, yesterday navigate like a toothpick.

Next section pretty anticlimactic (other than the search for a miserable anti-mtber who is keen to share his views with nobody who cares). Then we find the motherlode of his angst, a group of kids***, some shirtless, all riding bikes with truly shit tyres, a few whooping, a few more lying down in the dirt, those upright mostly pushing.

We pushed politely through eliciting cries of ‘these guys are going to make this look so easy‘. Have to say I’m shallow enough to take that as a testament to my skills, composure and – most importantly – appropriate tyres choice. Also have to say that was the EXACT moment it all went a bit wrong with Jim one bike ahead keen to reposition the rear axle as the steering fulcrum. As he was flipping ends, I was laughing until my rear tyre went full trade union to  join his slithering picket line.

Yeah I bet those kids were super impressed with our skills. At this point, I was less concerned in burnishing my image,  because there was a certain priority to keeping that image right side up and occasionally on both pedals. Mostly tho I was proceeding sideways in the vanguard of the new sport I’m naming ‘unipedal’

Like a demented hokey pokey, the leg was in, out and often shaking about. Performative balance performing badly. Stayed on the bike but a no point did I make it look easy. Ride like you think no one is watching and all that.

After making up some nonsense about how “I’d barely had a dab” we decanted ourselves into our favourite pub where well earned cold beer was accessorised with single layers, sunnies and a vague notion than sunblock might have been a good idea.

A better idea was a second beer. Right up until the 10km ride home. After a smidge under 55km supported on 1125m of climbing, those non solar powered legs were mostly in limp home mode. Ram raid on the fridge and a shower sluicing salt off my face revived me sufficiently for a Pizza and beer evening at Matt’s which was even better than it sounds.

Tomorrow off to Afan for the first time in 3 years. I have the perfect trail centre bike for that. Because, well, me I’ve decided to take something entirely inappropriate instead. But the sun will be shining again, I’ll be be riding with my friends and there will surely be a beer to finish.

I could get used to this. Hello Spring, we have missed you.

*(c) Micky Flannigan.

**(c) XTC

***anyone under the age of 40.

On a hardtail? With my reputation?

Hardtails for the win!

Sometimes it’s good to try hard things. Taming “The Beast” at Coed-y-Brenin on a hardtail is an excellent example. Making it harder still though speeds past good on it’s journey to bad, pausing only to transit through stupid.  Take a tough trail, remove a sprung end, add a head splitting hangover, then drench the whole endeavour in all the Winter weather a North Wales March can throw at you.

Trusty enjoying the conditions 🙂

Yeah, now that’s properly hard. Still at least we were riding which was no way guaranteed after the snow fell long enough to close many roads, and one of the trail centres we’d intended to tick off as part of Em’s birthday weekend. Ten of us took the brief thaw that followed as a sign to rendezvous at this fantastic and massive farm house.

The home to much debauchery 🙂

Where most ripped into the copious supplies of brought alcohol with inevitable consequences. My party trick was drinking wine from half pint glasses apparently. Not that I remember, but from the splitting headache and inability to make any noise other than a groan for coffee, sounds about right.

Ten friends riding together is fun. It’s also a faff so it was nearly 11 o’clock before we unpacked a slew of steel-y hardtails from the van. Cez’s was suffering from a split tyre which ensured a bit more of that stomping feet in the cold, feeling quite poorly, while it was rebooted with fresh rubber.

Cez, bike much improved with two working tyres.

My only two aspirations for the first trail were not to either crash or be sick. I only just clambered over that low bar mostly due to the distraction of being battered by rock, and evicerated by a wind failing to carry any kind of Spring breeze. The other riders all looked in a lot better shape, especially those who’d made more sensible bike choices, and especially the one with a motor!

Things improved but only because they couldn’t get any worse. My brain/optics pairing were separated from the rest of my body by about two corners. This led to the odd moment of great hilarity and many more of abject terror. The only approach that didn’t end with a crash and a whimper was to recruit Haydn as my harbour pilot and follow his lines all day.

Without the good ship H, I’d probably still be out there. As it was fun started to creep in around the edges of my hangover. And while the wind didn’t abate, the forecasted sleet and snow stayed away. But only because icy rain had snuck in and nicked their midday slot. Em then attempted to impale herself with the end of the bar, before wisely calling it a day and taking the road back to the trail centre.

The ‘remains’ of the goup – which seems as an appropriate noun as any – winched up the 3km fireroad climb suffering multiple precipitation types with increasing snow and decreasing temperatures. While it wasn’t the greatest riding experience of my life, it did have the welcome effect of finally pushing the hangover into 2nd on the misery podium.

Still a great trail

Only podium in my purview for sure. The Beast tho is such a great trail, properly old school, lots of different challenges, not always flowy but always rewarding and rocky enough to make even modern hardtails feel close to their limit. My legs and arms certainly were and regardless of really enjoying the latter sections, when they were over I was done.

Embrace the grim!

Neil “Nobby” Phillips before his whiskey thrashing session!

The really heavy rain held off until we’d returned to the van, but sadly not before we were inside it. Despite my protestations* we decanted our damp selves back out a few minutes later into the warm environs of the local pub. I ordered a lime and soda… for Matt while declaring my early morning proclamation of “I’m never drinking again” as fake news and hair’d the dog for a well earned celebratory beverage.

No alcohol was involved in the making of this image 🙂

That night tho, I stuck to beer and not too much of it while watching various bottles of tomorrows-bastard-hangover being quaffed by those significantly more hardcore than me. At least one of the quaffers had the decency to look a bit rough the following morning, which in no way kept him or us away from a fried breakfast slow cooked in the aga**

Pouring him into the van under sunnier skies, we all headed off to Nant-yt-Arian where a much curtailed – the ongoing larch disease issue – route had us climbing the first pitch twice to ride both the red and blue descent. I was feeling a whole lot better and just a big smug.

Sadly watching the video suggests I wasn’t riding any faster 😉 Where is the video from the first day I hear almost no one ask? Could barely operate myself, no way was I risking the GoPro. Also didn’t want to be sick all over it.

Watching the kites before the rain came

All in all a fab weekend. Great bunch of friends, decent chunk of riding, loads of amazing home cooked food, quite a lot more booze, even more piss taking, but accidents or injuries other than the continued abuse of my liver.

Think we’ll do that again. Maybe nearer my birthday in August. When at least the rain will be a bit warmer. Oh, and no more wine in pint glasses. Honestly, I’ve learned my lesson.

Gin however….

*Oh do we have to? Go on then.

** because there is no other way. They look great but it’d be quicker to set fire to the mature grounds and flash cook the bacon before the fire brigade turned up.