2004. That’s me and a bike. So far, so standard. Mostly everything on that bike has changed though. Frame design, suspension sophistication, tyre compounds, lengths lost from stems found on bars, dropper posts, fatter rims and proper brakes.
Less obvious is any rider metamorphosis. Seventeen years on and that awkward stance memorably described as ‘crouching badger, hidden terror’ remains very much in evidence today. Nowadays I’m sporting significantly more joint protection and a niggling pantheon of injuries*
Still have those shorts somewhere if not the calf muscles. The bike is, somewhat predictably, long gone. In my defence the ‘hinge‘, as it was known, was not one of my finest purchasing decisions. Alcohol was involved.
It was a study in unbalanced design; the front compressing and the rear extending at the perfect amplitude to eject crouching badger into now very visible terror. Often a concussed and bleeding badger if memory serves.
In my mid 30s tho, those scars were a badge of honour. Returning bleeding to a young family, I’d make up stories focussing on extreme bravery and stoicism in the face of blunt force trauma. Because back in those days capturing that truth was an experience closely allied to a massive ball ache.
Phones and cameras were still separated by technology. Even digital soul stealers had shutter speeds best recorded by a sundial. My old friend Julian has done well here with long forgotten skills to capture movement without blur. To be fair we weren’t moving very quickly.
We were having fun tho. I poured over those photos of riding buddies mostly missing from todays social circle. Some moved thousands of miles away**, a couple more are shockingly no longer with us, a few more have given up cycling or replaced dirt with tarmac.
The rest of us old bastards soldier on. Heavy on memories and light on what’s left to rage against. I wish that ride still resonated somewhere, but after thirty years in the dirt it’s lost amongst three thousand others. I expect it’d follow the grooved pattern of every organised group ride. It goes like this:
Early start. Someone has forgotten something. Or we’ve forgotten someone. In days before vans, there’s a complex Fibonacci sequence of bikes, riders, trailers and cars. Eventually we crack the sequence and we’re on the road. Nervous talk of what is to come, bravado and arse-wind compete for mockery. Pre Sat-Nav Man-Nav makes us later still.
Arrive eventually. Some people we instantly recognise, others only from their early internet personas. “Hi, I’m John” from a normal looking if slightly embarrassed fella. Pause. “You probably know me as ‘Rubber-Jonny‘”***. We pretend we don’t.
Check out bikes and riders. The Mid-2000s wasn’t a stand-out period for frame design. Natural selection has yet to take its course. I offer up the ‘hinge‘ as an example but it isn’t the only one. Over there is a tiny hardtail with a massive fork. In its shadow is a race bike with 600mm bars and cow horns. Rubber-J is astride a weird looking V-shaped frame vibrating around a protruding undamped coil shock. Entirely appropriate username then.
Eventually we ride. These are the days of 20+ riders of – let’s be charitable here – differing skills. I am one of those riders. Although skills is probably being a little too charitable. Looking at the photos, it’s not conceit to know my riding is way more proficient today, regardless of those extra 17 years on the clock. Much of that is the bikes I ride, at least a little is how much I’ve ridden them.
Photo stops are just that. The ride stenographer dumps his sack****, fiddles with tiny dials and low res screens, declares himself ready, choreographs the now tetchy riders into ham and fail, before declaring he’s captured something. Until he gets home and makes various electronic offerings to a PC, no one quite knows what that might be.
This stop-start-to-you-to-me goes on for a while. Friendships are forged on the trail and cemented in the pub. Talking bollocks bridges the two. More drinking evokes more piss taking and before long we’re everyone’s best mate, this is the best thing ever, and you need to come and ride with us. Even Rubber-J is invited.
Back in the Chilterns, we host a ‘weekender‘. It was a qualified success. The trails were dry, the pubs were welcoming, no one suffered a major injury. We also lost three riders within 5 minutes and never saw them again. They may still be out there.
Seventeen years is long time. They ride different trails there. Simpler times for sure. No existential dread of age ending all this soon. No riding the same trails for a year because of a pandemic. No wondering over wheel sizes, pointless niches and technology confused as progress.
Better? I don’t know. Part of a glorious seventeen years of riding bikes in amazing places with brilliant people many of whom I’m glad to call my friends? Oh yeah, in bloody spades.
We’re not done yet. But I’d love to do that 2004 thing again.
*these two things are very much related. Sadly not in the right order. The stable door is open, and the horse is nowhere to be seen.
**I don’t think this a direct consequence of riding with me. But I never had the courage to actually ask.
***This kind of situation is made even worse when it goes like this: “Crikey I never expected ‘Devil-Balls’ to be a women”
****”Hey are you Sack-Dumper off the Forum?” / Frosty Silence / “Oh sorry, honest mistake”