The best race report I ever wrote….

… because I didn’t actually race 🙂

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

Three Men and a Malady – D2D 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RACE TIME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick

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

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

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

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

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

I wondered how the boys were doing.

Nick
05.30 AM

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

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

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

8am

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

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

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

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

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

Nick

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

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

“Cheers Al”

Alex Leigh
Nick Cummins

August 2002. (2002! Twenty years ago!)

Old articles never die..

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

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

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

Dusk Till Dawn 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Yellow is the new slack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tradition

Gap Ride - December 2021

If you don’t want to read all this – and who can blame you – then more pictures and less words here:

A month has passed since so many of us do things we don’t really want to because we’ve always done them before. That’s right, tradition.

Or as I really like to think of it ‘the things we do because we lack the ability to think beyond pagan festivals‘.  I’ve never really understood the annual firework event that is ‘let’s pack flammable DNA matched individuals, with nothing else in common, into a small area and ignite with alcohol to see what happens’.

We know what happens. Controlled explosion of the ancient relative. Hard stares over under boiling sprouts . Passive aggressiveness spilling over to slurred finger pointing. Old grievances and new stupidity. Goodwin’s law upgraded to ‘Do your own research

Thankfully we don’t have much of that, and even if we did fucking off on the 27th of December is as close to tradition as our MTB club has. If we had one. But we don’t have one of those either. We do have a history of setting out more in hope that expectation to ride the classic ‘Gap“loop.

Previous escapes have seen us mired in snow, broken by wind, terrified by ice and faced with imminent benightment. Which is pretty much why I love it. A fuck you to the the previous year and a thumbs up to what’s coming. Ride this route in summer and it’s lovely. Busy but convivial. Finish in the pub by the canal and toast the awesomeness of the South Wales valleys.

Winter tho, it’s a different beast entirely. 2021 was all globally warmed rather than the epic snowy death-march of 2017, replacing snow and ice with dankness and endless rain. Which seemed an ideal time to test the new heavy and un-mudguarded bike against a trail well known for a full body water-sports experience.

it started well. Mostly I’m terribly hungover for this ride after we host a Boxing Day ‘All my friends, all the booze‘ event which tends to end with at least one individual* promising to give up alcohol for ever. Knowing how these things go, we pushed the ride back one day so my arrival was not accompanied by ‘piss eyes it the snow‘ or any lack of kit**

No snow but it wasn’t warm. Blue sky flirted with us but it was nothing more than a temptress. The north wind was keen to find any chinks in our winter armour. The van to trail transition was somewhat delayed by the need for some GoPro footage. On reviewing said footage not sure it was worth standing about in the cold for.

Classic Gap.. Classic conditions

We began climbing on the old Tram Track. I’ve ridden this so many times. Today – regardless of my increasing years – I felt pretty good. Sure the Giga is heavy but it’s still a good climber if you don’t rush it. I was in no way keen to rush it.

Classic Gap.. Classic conditions

Even so, the awesome grip mentioned often by proper reviewers failed to compensate for my lack of commitment on the two steep pitches.

Classic Gap.. Classic conditions

Still the sun was out*** and so were we. Next up was the climb from to the moor. Upside amazing view to your right of your Talybont reservoir. Downside a 30 MPH wind making that whole climbing thing somewhere between tedious and endless.

Got it done. Had some shouted conversations “WINDY ISN’T IT” that I’m not sure anyone heard. Slogged across that very wet moor which wasn’t much fun until it turned downhill, at which point two weeks of rain became focused on an increasingly damp arse.

Gap Ride - December 2021

First proper descent. On my new bike. That’ll be awesome. It was. It was also wet. So very, very wet. Every rock was a skipping stone offering occasional grip and frequent terror. It was like riding down a river. Hold that thought. The next 5km are mostly traversing a fire-road mostly known for its bastard headwind. Today it wasn’t so bad. Again hold that thought.

Matt decided this was the perfect time to add another trail to the route. That was a 20 min climb in chilly rain to access what was most definitely a river. Honestly a kayak would have made a whole lot more sense. In fact sitting in a pub by a roaring fire would have been the preferred option. Still we’re here now.

We were here for a 25 min climb to the Gap that names this trail. It’s never fun with lots of loose, slippy rock for ages, then more of that and some unwanted steepness at the end. It’s considerably less fun in the aforementioned 30mph headwind. When I finally made it to to the top, Matt and I emptied our rucksacks of any and all clothing before pitching into a maelstrom headwind funnelled through 30m of rock.

Gap Ride - December 2021

180/170mm of travel doesn’t really have a lot of truck with rock. It assumes you can accelerate to a decent percentage of light speed. I had a go with variable success but the views and the lee of the hill made everything really rather splendid. There are millions at home biting their tongue, watching shit TV, managing perceived butt-hurt while we’re living in the moment.

That moment is a sun streaked valley mapped out by higgley-piggley dry stone walls and two hundred years of community. It’s a brilliant thing and I feel so privileged to be seeing it. Even with my wet arse and damp feet. Still not as bad as Matt who squeezed out about a decent sized pond from his socks.

Before that we’d dropped into the fall line where big rocks and high speeds meet. I was astonished on how good my new bike was. You can call it a skills compensator and I’d be fine with that. But for me, it’s maybe the best all round trail bike I’ve ever ridden***

We’ll see. There have been a few. Anyway, we yomped the 5km on the canal and declared it done. Tradition ticked off. Just the best day. Feeling alive versus being alive. It’s a hoary old metaphor, but this really is our church.

Classic Gap.. Classic conditions

*me, obviously.

** Forgot my helmet. Bought the only £15 one available. Dog ate it. It was a mercy killing.

*** this didn’t last as long as I hoped.

****Early days, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here!

What’s this, and what have you done to the RipMo?

Nukeproof Giga - first ride

Good questions. I’ll do my best to answer.

But oh God. Where to start? Maybe at the end. Or ends. The rear one has a frankly ridiculous 170mm of travel which leaves me short of adjectives to describe that 180mm fork.  In between sits a carbon frame strong enough for the worlds rowdiest riders to plunge it into some terrifying freeride abyss.

It’s obviously very slack and noticeably long*. What may be less obvious is what the hell is in doing transiting the one-way departure lounge that is the ShedOfDreams(tm)? It’s akin to handing an automatic weapon to a toddler**. Clearly inappropriate and someone is going to get hurt.

Let’s rewind a bit. Remember this?

http://s921463159.websitehome.co.uk/?p=4900

The SlackMo was awesome in Spain. No that’s not quite true, Spain was awesome. Probably my favourite ever trip for all sorts of reasons, many of which had nothing to do with riding. We’ll be back to that when my to-do list fucks off and leaves me in peace for a few days.

Anyway the bike was faultless, but not perfect. I kind of felt like I’d – if not ruined it- pushed it a bit too far from its design parameters. It still saved my arse from many full-pucker moments, and sped a whole load of perfect memories through dusty optic nerves.

But it lost a bit of the RipMoNess which is hard to define, and seemingly impossible to replicate***. I would really like my fantastic trail bike back and that’s a problem. As the Rascal has taken top spot in that category. Which made em-biggening the RipMo a logical evolution. Shame it didn’t quite work out.

Which is kind of where we came in. What started as a desultory search for a new rear shock to take the RipMo further into Full Enduro territory somehow morphed into ‘well that looks interesting, mm only full bike that’s no good, oh here’s a frame only in my size, I wonder if there is a deal to be done, Hey Carol I’ve got an idea……’

There was indeed quite a deal. Fellow keen-of-eye hedgehogers will endorse their spotters badge cataloguing familiar parts recently attached to my forever bike. Apart from the bars, stem and pedals because, I dunno, let’s go with a schism in the space-time continuum.  Better than anything I’ve got.

I don’t know what was worse burgling the RipMo for parts or washing the Spanish dust of its blameless tubes. No I know what was worse, the frame abandoned in the rafters glaring balefully at the back of my head. I’m sure I can hear whispering ‘after all I did for you, THIS is how it ends, you ungrateful bastard‘. I mean harsh, but it’s a fair point.

There’s a very good chance it’ll get rebuilt. I have many parts and a desire to ride it again in stock configuration. I might have to dig down – Batcave style – to carve out sufficient space to store it tho. It’s getting a bit crowded on the workshop side****

Having decided to go big and then go home, we had a couple of freezing nights in Matt’s unheated garage to build the Green Monster. The Pistachio Princess came together with little drama, other than Matt fixing the many and varied issues created by yours truly not really being on the RipMo disassembly ball.

Nukeproof Giga build

Nukeproof Giga build

Nukeproof Giga build

The frame is really nicely finished. It shares its brand name with my 2014 Mega but not much else. Composite curves have replaced brutal industrial design. Clever details  take precedence over lowest possible production costs. Really this frame has a close equivalence to all my boutique Ibis’s, except for the price.

So how does it ride? This was very nearly a review of riding it along a freezing river towpath after we built it. It’s debut on the Wednesday night ride was raincheck’d by a 90 minute deluge flinging freezing rain at the windows. A collective ‘fuck that‘ saw those of us with ‘something of the night about them‘ heading straight for food and booze without passing any sodden trails.

Nukeproof Giga build

Dark clouds and a misty head greeted the morning as I trudged out to this shed. Work needed to be done. Deadlines to be met. Commitments to be honoured. Adulting absolutely required. Luckily I’m not the man for that job, so I waved a couple of fingers at the Mac and, instead, wrestled the shiny bike onto the trailer.

Trail conditions rocked that lethal combination of still hard dirt covered with about an inch of rain filled slop. Known locally as ‘Greasy Snot Death’ they are without doubt my least favourite way to crash horribly. And yet nearly two hours later the only thing needing plastering was the shit eating grin on my fizog.

The Giga is like a very capable trail bike. Until it isn’t. In trail bike mode, it’s super supple, finds grip everywhere and has exactly one speed going uphill. It’s an efficient climber, but not a fast one. Downhill tho, you have to recalibrate exactly what a modern mountain bike can do.

Then you let the brakes off and it becomes something else again. I’m not sure what that is as the experience left me a little shaken. I’m probably going to need some faster eyeballs to do this bike any kind of justice.

We’ll see how that goes. Modern bikes are all pretty much brilliant. The RipMo is one of the best in that trail bike category. The Giga feels like it can do that and quite a lot more. And if it can’t, well I know the old stager won’t ever let me down.

Let’s find out shall we?

*just fits on the bike trailer without needing a wide load warning. “Just” is doing some heavy lifting here.

**unless you’re a certain type of US citizen. In which case that’s called a 2nd amendment birthday gift.

***I’ve tried a few times. Fair to say mistakes have been made.

****Somehow a broken road bike has slipped into the shed. There are reasons and most of them start with ‘that bloody turbo’

There are no fast bikes

IMG_5432

There are, of course, fast riders who will be rapid on anything sporting a wheel at either end. There are, also, frame designs likely to be quicker on specific terrain be that up or down.  Especially with our faster rider on board.

Further, expensive components may harvest marginal gains just not within the metrics defined by marketing departments.  The issue with modern bikes isn’t that they aren’t fast, it is that your average Joe is not. On race courses, winning is time sliced by tenths of seconds, outside of the tapes we could probably make do with a sundial.

Which is pretty much how we find ourselves today and looking back maybe ten years. But cast your gaze a little further and you may remember the noodle-tech 90s where mountain bike frames were barely mutated road bikes. Purple anodising and bar ends hardly masked a hundred years of thin tyred DNA.

Back then Joe or Jo Average could easily overwhelm frame stiffness, brakes, tyres, elastomers and a whole bunch of components barely fit for purpose. Yet our magazine heroes wrestled those steep angled bridleway bashers through downhill courses in ways that still amaze today.

I miss those days even if I don’t miss the bikes. And if I did I could buy something labelled gravel and replay the whole experience*.  But jump onto a contemporary trail or enduro bike and while you may be going faster, that velocity is hard limited by the six inches above your shoulders, not the six inches below**

So far, so old news. Sure, but I’m just riffing on the periphery of an important point coming soon. We’re travelling in that direction, and shall arrive shortly***. Before we do let me share a vignette of todays’ ride. March likes to remind you we’ve barely closed the door on winter with hail, hard rain and bitter winds. All of which soaked the trails under my tyres.

The last of which is steep, committing and unforgiving. There’s lots of places to crash and none of them are good. My standard earworm is Pinball Wizard as I attempt to present a thin veneer of competence in the face of sustained terror. Ridden this on many bikes including this new one last week. Never ridden it in these conditions. My brain is distracted by rocky wet limestone promising geological trauma keen to collect another victim.

But I’m okay. Not because of an unlikely skills upgrade. Or a sudden lack of imagination. No, I’m managing the whole thing in my sphere of ability because I trust the bike. But it’s more than that. The last few hours we’ve been hooning down mellower trails where all my usual hang ups have been knocked down.

Not being worried about grip in corners. Especially off camber corners. Not being scared by the speed through trails narrowed by trees. Not dithering on drops or braking for jumps. Not over-thinking what’s coming. Not thinking anything at all, so getting as close to living in the moment as I ever am.

All of which means I’m riding more quickly on these familiar trails. Don’t confuse this as fast. And certainly don’t confuse it with the limits of the bike. But there is something important here; there is something unquantifiable about bikes – any bike – that gives you the confidence to push a bit harder. Towards your limits, maybe beyond them. But not within screaming distance of what’s underneath you.

It has nothing at all to do with the material the frame is made of. It’s definitely not related to wheel size, head angle, chainstay length, reach or stack, suspension travel, bar width, tyre compound, yada yada yada. All of these thing play a part. But not to set a limit, more to encourage you to push yours.

Great bikes do this. They are not fast bikes. They may not be expensive bikes****. They will probably not be race bikes. They are the bikes you grab every time the trails waits, the bikes you mutter a silent prayer to when it’s all getting a bit serious, the bikes you sit and stare at in your shed. The bikes that make you fast.

Back to today and I’m on one of those bikes. There’s some shit coming up that’s has two outcomes. Well maybe three if getting off and walking counts. Deep breath, muscle memory, bit of a death grip, hand the thing over to your trusted sidekick and let that breath go when you sail out the far side. Total non event.

For the bike. Up here in those six inches a light blinks on. This is what happens when you stop trying to fix bikes because they can fix you better. I’ll never tire of the simplicity of feeling like that. Because it’s takes the limit out of limitless. So I tap the bars, whisper thanks, pretend my organic mate can hear me.  Breathe again and up the pace.

No bikes are fast. Some bikes make you faster. Go find that one.

*Only every single thing is quite a lot better. Because long term evolution beats revolution.

**Just so we’re clear, I’m talking about suspension travel here. You filthy animals 😉

***You may ask why does it take you so long to get to the point, to which I’ll reply ‘You’re new here, right?’

****Okay yes for this sample size, I accept they are.

Wait, what now?

Ibis Mojo4 build

You may be disappointed. Possibly even appalled. But likely not surprised.  A new bike portal’d into the ShedofDreams(tm) is hardly news at all. Even so I expect you have questions. Starting with what, moving onto how and finishing with why. Or simply a shaken headed ‘what the actual fuck?

I have no answers. Nothing within sectioning distance of rational anyway. This time there will be no talk of an end game choreographed by 4-D chess moves. Or reasons pertaining to opportunity or guile. Nope none of that. It’s something of a relief not torturing logic to slight the insisting hand that the emperor may indeed be fully clothed.

There was no need. There was only want. There are many excuses. But when the result is three carbon full suspension bikes from the SAME brand, you don’t need excuses, you need a therapist. Please take that role, while I recline on the chaise longe and explain how we got here.

It started on a cold winters night when I harvested the Ripley from hibernation. First time riding anything other than the hardtail for five wet and grim months. Dirt was frozen solid, basically summer from the axles down. It should have been amazing. It wasn’t.

I’ve never quite gelled with that bike. Which is pretty fucking annoying considering it’s wanted for nothing other than a decent pilot. Entire suitcases of cash failed to secure that bond.  I told myself it was the dark or the cold, and my inability to deal with either.

So a week later the RipMo* sallied forth on muddy-again trails, and we just had a brilliant time. Until the following day revealed exactly how much damage one muddy ride inflicts on Californians’ finest**.  The RipMo and I have shared three amazing years, so it’s as close to a permanent fixture in the shed as anything I’ve owned***

Those last three paragraphs are mostly displacement tactics. They offer nothing to explain the escalation of financial destitution on the following Sunday. It started with me musing how the Mojo3 was my favourite ever bike and how – flawed as it was – I really should have kept it, and ended with the latest of its genus being added to basket some four hours later.

Along with a plethora of parts best categorised as “heritage wheel size”. Not satisfied with buying a bike that has around 100{45ac9c3234d371044e23e276755ef3a4dde8f1068375defba7d385ca3cd4deb2} overlap with the Ripley, I also felt it was exactly the right time to significantly invest in 27.5 inch wheels. They were the future once. Just not recently.

So after all these shenanigans, what have we ended up with? A trail bike balanced between 140mm and 130mm air springs. Short chainstays, long front centre, slack angles and Ibis’s ludicrous design approach to mud clearance****. So it’s compromised, but pretty. Like my Mojo3.

That bike – built exactly four years ago – brought my riding on when I believed my limit had long peaked at bang-average. That same year, a week in Spain remains my riding high water mark where fast and confident displaced over-thinking and hesitant.  Did I buy this bike to recapture those glory days? Maybe. Don’t judge. It’s as good a reason as any.

The silhouette is similar, the numbers aren’t. 2 degrees slacker, 2 inches longer, back end fettled with updated kinematics, front end bouncing on better damping. Stuff in between more expensive if not actually better.  Rider pretty much the same confused graft of enthusiastic and stupid. And bloody impatient when four weeks of stuff got between delivery and a proper ride.

First ride of the "Prince of Grayness"

A ride on trails not ridden for six months. In the dark. Initial impressions were confused. Turns really fast, feels a bit flighty.  Agile and lithe or nervous and needy? Lots of time to pontificate on the climb back up. Climbs well, maybe not quite Ripley efficient, but held back by nothing but noodle-legs here.

Next trail is fast and twisty. Bike feels good in the corners but I can’t trust it yet. It’s egging me on but I’m not feeling very eggy.  Steep and chute-y very nearly ended in lying down and bleeding. Luckily Rex took one for the team showcasing his full-body-slam signature move on some unexpected mud.

Mmm so like it but not sure, Skived off today to try again. First trail totally fucking useless with a head full of work stuff. Deep breath required to deliver inner monologue to whit “past is back there, future out in front, get on with it”

Which kind of worked. Cleared the two big gap jumps that require suspending the belief that crashing is going to be really sodding consequential. Kept Matt in sight which is a good measure things are going okay. Massive grin plastered on my fizog which may be a new bike thing, or a dry trails thing, or a Friday skive thing. Whatever, it’s a thing. I’ll take that.

All that means I can give you some answers. Was it worth the money? Fuck knows, go find me a measure of value. Will it replace the Ripley? Fuck knows, find me a metric to choose. Does it actually make any sense at all? Fucked if I know. Makes me happy so you know, there’s that.

Are you done? Surely there are no other niches to chase? Wait, what now?

*Yes I know it’s hard keeping track. Think of it as a Christopher Nolan Movie without the special effects. But with more swearing.

**I asked for three particularly muddy trails to be renamed ‘Collapsed Bearing‘, ‘Ruined Pivot’ and ‘Warranty Claim‘.

***Except the beer fridge. You’ll be prising that out of my cold dead hands.

****That being the Californian assumption that such a soil compound is a European myth.

 

Project 76

It’s tragic really. You can eat and drink what you like well into your late 20s. Then you hit 30 and wake up as a fat bastard“. Thirty was so long ago for me,  it’s probably classified in the Jurassic period. However the axiom holds; that is youth being wasted on the young and fat bastardness is pretty much your future once its gone.

I’ve flirted with the porky*. Having the physique of a wonky pipe cleaner, weight doesn’t so much hang off me as throw shapes in the manner of Kane having a bad day on the Nostromo.  Although increasingly this manifests itself as a gut like trouser roll, and a pair of moobs wobbling in their own gravitational fields.

Before life got in the way I’d struggle to nudge past 11 stone in old money. Chest like a toast rack. To get close to that today I’d have to chop at least one leg off, or maybe remove the hard working liver with a spoon. That’s probably the firmest muscle in the entire withered frame.

2018 was particularly bad. Too many hotels, far too many hotel bars, not enough exercise and menu choices starting with ‘burgers‘ and ending with ‘extra chips‘. Returning from a family holiday in an all-you-can-eat-resort where I-ate-almost-everything, a behind the hands eyeballing of the scales showed them starting firmly with 13. Nothing else was firm. Like My Blobby but without the happy countenance.

I was determined to do something about it. I remember chugging down a beer while considering it. And a biscuit. Maybe two biscuits. Possibly the whole packet. My ruminations didn’t come to much other than ‘Al, this is mostly vanity, you’re not obese you’re just in denial. Exactly one person cares you’re a bit tubby and unpleasant to look at’“**

Another tired maxim is you can’t out-run or out-ride a bad diet. That was fine because I was working such stupid hours I wasn’t troubling the bike much- other than an odd weekend effort finishing with an avalanche of beer and crisps. And running was definitely out after an incident best remembered as an attempt to remove one of two feet the previous winter.

Enter the turbo.  A device designed to repeatedly demonstrate not only how unfit you are, but configured to broadcast that rubbishness to thousands of people on-line***. It’s hard to believe you actually have to pay for the humiliation of the whole experience. But under the cartoon graphics and in-your-face gamification lies a dirty secret. It’s way easier to lose weight going nowhere slowly in the shed than outside. Mostly because you don’t finish in the pub.

Even so, I still suffered weight fluctuations that cannot be explained by slow metabolism****, glands or big bones. They can be explained by zero will power, a love of beer and significant denial. This last year tho I’ve travelled exactly nowhere. Both inside the shed and outside in the real world. I rode 5500km of which a third were turning circles in the virtual world.

This made a difference. But not enough. So at the ripe old age of 53, I redefined my relationship with alcohol. That’s a pretty way to say I was drinking too much, too often and it needed to stop. Well honestly that wasn’t going to happen, but knocking it on the head Mon-Fri has become pretty much learned behaviour. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss a beer in the week, but not enough to sneak a visit to the fridge of plenty.

Piling on the misery, I’ve mostly given up crisps, biscuits and all sorts of other shit that makes life worthwhile. I’ve probably substituted cheese but come on throw me a bone here. It’s not like I’m accessorising that with a bottle of Merlot. Except on Fridays.

So what’s the result? I aimed to hit 12 stone/76kg by March 31. That was going to be a bit of an effort but it’s not a just 2021 thing. I’ve been smashing myself on the turbo since October and riding lots once the uber-grim dropped back to just mostly-grim.

My jeans now sag a bit. But the beer storage area – while reduced – has not completely disappeared. I can see some of my ribs but I’m fairly sure I have more than three. On the bike I definitely feel a bit lighter, and that’s backed up by the scales confirming my target weight last Friday.

Obviously I celebrated with an orgy or chips, crisps and booze. I feel bad, but – you know – not THAT bad 😉 More importantly, is this now a stable state? I’m confident it might be, because we’ve postponed too many places to ride. There are two years of brilliant trips coming up, and I am determined to be in good shape.

So yeah I need to give myself every chance to do those justice. Being as light and fit as I can be arsed should be a given.  And it’ll save me buying any new trousers which appeals to my inner Yorkshireman.

So yeah Project 76 is done. What’s next? Tune in next week 🙂

*that didn’t scan quite as well as expected.

**Carol is far too polite to mention it. Although I think ‘Oi Fatty the bed is in danger of capsizing‘ would have been useful motivation.

***Zwift avatars are funny, No way I’d recognise anyone from the virtual world in the real one. Me included, I pretend to have a full head of hair.

****or as my friend Ian Says ‘Slow Metabolism, fast pie hand’

Zoom in.

2020 then. Hard to know where to start. The year may be coming to an end, but we’ll be reaping its’ shit-storm a little while longer yet. A global pandemic brought local by incompetence, ideology and insanity repackaged as winning. Brexit Britain ruling all those statistical waves, where deaths per million stamp exits on the petty nationalism passport.

Still on the upside, I rode quite a lot. That image is my ‘Covid-Box’. More a 5x10km rectangle fencing 98{45ac9c3234d371044e23e276755ef3a4dde8f1068375defba7d385ca3cd4deb2} of every time I tried to leave the madness behind. Early on alone and introspective, later on with friends I’d desperately missed, occasionally normalised in the pub and latterly under darkening skies.

Zooming out fills in the 2{45ac9c3234d371044e23e276755ef3a4dde8f1068375defba7d385ca3cd4deb2}. Three trips to Wales, all the more unusual for blue skies and sun baked trails. The last of which – late September – felt like the start of something normal. Eight of us descended on Coed-Y-Brenin to climb the steep sides of those North Welsh hills.

To then plummet down the other side, reacquainting ourselves with what we latterly took for granted. Post ride sitting in a pub garden toasting the end of the beginning. Yeah, that’s aged well. Still a great memory and there’s been a few more of those.

Zoom out a little more and a few tracks fan out from Malaga where we had the most amazing time way back in Feb. Feels like a different time.  A different life where social distancing was swaying away from an unwashed pal, or masking your drunkenness by hanging on to a handy lampost.

That’s it tho. Andorra for Alex’s 40th went early, whereas a second trip to Spain suffered a realism deficit right up to the point when common sense overcame desperation to ride dusty trails we knew so well. I totally accept this is a first world problem, but it’s still my first world problem and while everything else can be postponed getting older cannot.

I’ve no idea how many of these trips are left.  Again let’s focus on the good stuff; I’m mostly uninjured, 1/2 a stone, in old money, lighter than the last time we passed round the sun, feeling good on and off the bike, and not yet bored of slithering around the local trails in a percussive manner.

That summary hides a dirty secret. Of the rather impressive 6,000km I’ve ridden this year, 30{45ac9c3234d371044e23e276755ef3a4dde8f1068375defba7d385ca3cd4deb2} were racked up going nowhere slowly in the shed.  First time I’ve cracked 100,000 metres of climbing but again 25{45ac9c3234d371044e23e276755ef3a4dde8f1068375defba7d385ca3cd4deb2} of that elevation was nothing more than a flywheel and a desperate urge to chase people I’ve never met.

The other 70{45ac9c3234d371044e23e276755ef3a4dde8f1068375defba7d385ca3cd4deb2} is encapsulated by the Covid-Box. Living smack bang between two areas of Areas of Outstanding National Beauty does have its advantages. Forests and views being a couple of them.  Bike forums are awash with those having neither. Apparently getting bored of your local trails is a thing.

Not for us. The trail network is criss crossed with classics, old favourites and new digs carved out by furloughed trail pixies. Digging into my ride data unearthed a couple of nuggets; firstly I’d climbed the bastard-oh-god-are-we-there yet track into the local woods a one less than make-your-own-joke here 68 times.

Over half of those were to access the two forks of our trails; Penyard being more trail dense, shorter and a bit less technical. Chase benefiting from a little more elevation, lumpier geography and longer runs. On long summer days we’d fork both left and right, before forking off to Matt’s Speakeasy to neck cold drinks toasting perfect sunsets.

The rest of the time we’d go long. Penyard being a gateway to the Yat where trails sprout from every forest road. Climb enough to be rewarded by views across about five counties and one other country.  Descend on perfectly sculptured tracks until arms pointed to the pub when the legs were done. This was pandemic-lite – we knew what was happening but it was mostly happening to someone else*

Sometimes that was people we knew. Seb (editor of www.cranked.cc) and I swapped rides. After a fantastic Mendip loop, I hosted him on our local trails in perfect conditions. We had such a blast finishing in the pub, accessed via the local Church steps, arrowing you into the welcoming garden of the Kings Head.

These – and so many more – are the memories I’m taking from this shitty year. Because I can’t control any of the scary externalities. I honestly don’t know what normal is going to feel like, nor when we might celebrate that moment.

I know this tho. 2021 just has to be a better year. And we all have a part to play in that. We’ve learned to endure so many things, but it is the random acts of kindness which stand out. Almost like spies behind enemy lines. There’s more to bring us together than to divide us.

None of us can fix the clusterfuck that is 2020. But all of us have shown we don’t need to. We can be there for each other. Nothing is more important than that. Even riding bikes.  Although, let’s be clear, that is still extremely important

Happy new year all. Fingers crossed it’s going to be at least okay.

*Herefordshire having the lowest rates of the virus right up until we went into Tier-1 the week before Xmas. At which point those five counties and one country pretty much fucked it for everyone.

Back in the room

Back in the shed!

Back in 2008 we had a new house, lots of ideas but not much money. Therefore the priority was some form of heating to combat the inrushing winter. That form ended up hoovering up all our funds, and lots more beside as, in the process, we created an authentic WW1 trench experience*

Having swerved difficult conversations with social services**, thoughts moved to freeing the house of bikes, bike stuff and the primary bike rider. My thoughts anyway which envisaged a cycling cathedral soaring high into the Herefordshire skyline.

After all we already had a 50×25 foot slab laid for an unbuilt stable. We didn’t however have the budget to fill it, so instead commissioned a modest*** structure satisfying both ‘bike storage‘ and ‘home office‘ requirements. Some dithering, a stud wall and a purchasing strategy best summarised as ‘lowest cost bidder‘ brought forth the ShedofDreams(tm).

Considering it’s not build of the highest quality materials, it’s survived remarkably well. Apart from the roof taking flight last winter and the fascia boards demanding a monthly paint refresh.

Emergency roof repairs

The bike side has seen extensive use. It’s looking a little tired but is still home to many of my favourite tools, all correctly labelled and mostly unused.  Actual bikes tho they’ve all been campaigned extensively. If – in most cases – somewhat briefly.

Annual ShedofDreams deep clean

Annual ShedofDreams deep clean

The office side has seen rather more sporadic occupancy.  When the kids were young, my attempts to project a thin veneer of professionalism were often punctured by noisy sibling rivalry and occasional violence. So a ‘safe space‘ had many things going for it- a good part of that was its lack of said rumbustious offspring – but a decent internet connection wasn’t one of them.

Back in the day not a massive issue. We weren’t 100{45ac9c3234d371044e23e276755ef3a4dde8f1068375defba7d385ca3cd4deb2} dependant on the Internet and even if we were, our broadband bandwidth was somewhere between dial up and despair.  The phone worked tho, and occasionally I’d be delighted to find an email dated within the last month pop into my inbox.

Other issues need to be surfaced though. We’d gone a bit insulation mad when building the shed. This kept it lovely and warm in winter – even with the wind whistling between most joints, I refer you back to lowest cost bidder – but come summer it was an unpleasant fusion of a grotty Sauna and the Hot Boxes best known from the ‘Bridge of the River Kwai’.

I gradually migrated back into the house. The office became mainly an auxiliary dumping ground for shit we’d never need but you know just in case. It also became home to a rodent population gorging themselves on said crap. Not an attractive proposition in terms of moving back in.

Then COVID. Before which I was on the road so much of the time, my ‘home‘ office was generally a hotel or a train. Now 6 months after snaffling Carol’s craft room, my marching orders were received, notarised and absolutely not to be considered a request. Which is entirely fair since I’d annexed a decent chunk of the house.

We cleaned out the mouse-poo, had the painting finished we’d abandoned some ten years before, assembled a ‘zoom wall‘ of cheap Ikea bookcases and attempted to fit everything around the turbo by accidently burning it. Sadly it appears both bloody annoying and inflammable.

Testing the new WFH second monitor :)

Internet tho. My weeks now are filled with a minimum of 50{45ac9c3234d371044e23e276755ef3a4dde8f1068375defba7d385ca3cd4deb2} ‘you’re on mute, I can’t see your video, can you see what I’m sharing?’ While the cosmetic upgrade was impressive, the digital footprint was still mired in the sand. Turtles racing through treacle best describes the pedestrian opening of a web page.

Not to worry, we’d foreseen this problem during the excavation phase, so burying a hosepipe route between shed and house. Sadly no-one could quite remember where it might be located. As ever my friends rallied round my incompetence with practical solutions; a box of externally rated Ethernet cable from Matt, A crimp tool and a bloody big drill from Rex*** and some strong managerial support from yours truly.

In my defence I designed the not-very-complex non physical network stuff. On the grounds I’ve built some proper fuck-off massive global networks in a previous career, so I’ve got this. Nobody cared. Quite right too.

Back in the shed!

All a bit anti-climatic really. Cable laid (insert your own joke here), outside wall drilled with a bit barely fitting in a LWB transit, cables crimped, slight fuck-ups corrected, connections snapped in and we had all the good lights. ‘Communications have been established from the MotherLode‘ I bellowed triumphantly from the shed. Again, nobody cared.

Now that's a proper internet connection :)

Makes me happy tho. 50 meg from the shed. 50 bloody meg. On the downside Zwift will now never drop out so that’s that excuse gone for good. Upsides tho? Many, out of Carol’s hair for a start. A door to close so I know when to stop working, a chance to flex my Sonos speaker without upsetting – well – everyone really.

https://flic.kr/p/2jLKU5w

There’s more. I have a double zoom wall, one containing the BEST PICTURE EVER commissioned for my 50th, the other stuffed with my favourite books and a few lego offcuts. I might have cracked that professionalism thing, Until I start talking obviously.

And I haven’t even got to the best part. Smart-Plugs. Why was I not told about these digital sorcerers? We’ve run out of space this time, but a thrilling post is in the works. I know, I know you can hardly wait.

Until then, I’m back in the room. For a laugh I might move the laptop to next door so the customers can see what their custom mostly pays for 🙂

*300m of ground source pipes dug to a depth of 1.5m. I’m sure we had more pets before we started.

**both of your young children have called us asking for heaters, blankets and some proper parents.

***it’s still bloody enormous compared to normalised shed dimensions. Yet I look out on 8 feet of slab and feel a bit sad 😉

****who last year risked life and least one limb wrestling the 4G antenna on our chimney. Goodbye shit ADSL, hello 50meg off the the local transmitter.