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.

A chink of light

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

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

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

That’s the reality of riding right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday the bloody 13th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bait and Switch

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riding hardtails keeps you young. On the inside anyway.

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

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

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

Lies, damn lies and….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grimageddon

Following Matt down the start of the Gap descent

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

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

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

Can’t wait to ride!

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

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

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

Photo fails to catch absolute grimness of conditions!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First descent. Told you it was wet!

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

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

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

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

Following Matt down the early part of the Gap descent

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

Half way down the gap descent. Blue sky sighted!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next year? Oh yes. Hoping for snow.

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

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

***Should only be found in hotel pools.

Snowtivation

Snowy Pludds / FoD ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frozen Night Ride

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

Frozen Night Ride

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

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

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

Snowy Pludds / FoD ride

Snowy Pludds / FoD ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***a benefit to my riding buddies.

****I might have been imaging this.

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

 

The Grim returns…

Probably going to need to clean that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The grim is back. Bring it on.

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