I’ve largely given up on winning, although even that phraseology hints of some podium chasing form in some long past phase of my life. Loose vowels I’m afraid*, in that other than a brief dalliance with that cock-munching class who confused winning with counting money, and a much re-lived 13rd place in my first proper MTB race, I’ve always been closer to the back than the middle**

So tonight when under-commuted legs met over-sized hill, grumpy sighs and wheezy rasps charted my glacial progress into a stiff headwind – cheekily flipped 180 degrees since battering me this morning. So distracted by the world being against me, I was very nearly blown into the roadside vegetation by a pristine roadie flying by like a homesick angel.

Let us pause to examine this cycling mismatch before the inevitable excuses begin. My tarmac conqueror was a vision in white from his Sidi Road shoes through tight Lycra sponsored ensemble topped out by a£200 peakless helmet. His bike – and that word completely fails to describe the engineering miracle reeling in the horizon at frictionless speeds – was somehow even whiter, draped in expensive componentry, and sporting a set of tyres so thin I honestly thought they’d been pencilled onto the rim.

Now allow the eye of disdain pass over a rather grungy middle aged man bedecked in a flappy set of paint stained shorts, a careworn top of dubious vintage, a£20 helmet much repaired with packing tape and shoes clearly stolen from slumbering tramp. The bike was a perfect match, tired from many campaigns, heavy and made heavier by commuting accoutrements, held back by tyres knobbly and wide. On top of this rather unedifying spectacle was the legendary commuting sack, now divested of the emergency badger, but still the unhappy receptacle for the weighty laptop of doom.

Give up now” I thought. Preserve the few remaining strands of dignity by feigning a mechanical or hacking an arm off with a rusty multi-tool. I am sufficiently self aware in my old age to understand the frustrating dichotomy of ambition gapped by ability. And I know enough about bikes to realise that Mr. Shaven-Legged-Sculpted-Thighs was going to hand me my arse on a plate if temerity became my watchword.

And yet. And yet the last vestige of an overworked competitive gland fired up some anger and demanded death or glory. Death then probably as I snicked a couple of gears, took in a huge breath and went commuter racing for the first time in 18 months. And you know, I’d forgotten how to do it because a determined effort saw me close the gap to a blissful draughting distance where everything just got a whole load easier.

But it felt like cheating. And that’s odd because I like cheating. Always preferred it to hard work on the grounds it leaves more time for beer. Never really been troubled by feelings of guilt when looking for angles and bending the rules. Tonight though, it seemed the wrong time to die wondering and somehow losing worthily trumped winning ugly.

No idea if he knew I was there. He certainly did two seconds later as I waved like the Queen I can be while pulling along side. Duck like, all was serene where it could be seen, down below the legs were piston pumping at a rate that’d have Scotty chucking a big one regarding Dylitherium crystals. The next 45 seconds were horrible. Proper going to be sick, going to explode, going to just die right here horrible.

I dared not look round as I was already spent and even the sight of the cycling Jesus right behind me could not have spurred me on. Best I could have managed would have been a hearty pebble dashing of his lovely team gear with a rather fine pie I’d inauspiciously downed a few hours earlier. So tired now, my default position of cheating seemed a good place to skulk back too. What with the alternative being A&E.

Although my turn off was some 300 yards distant, I came off the drops, passed the momentum baton to the freewheel and ripped off a Rimmer-Like Signalling Salute. If he comes back on the inside, that’s okay I reasoned. It’s fine, I’ve still won. In my own head anyway. But he didn’t, he was MILES back, miles I tell you, honestly sweeping away onto a new course, I almost had to stop so I could barrack him remorsely as his humourless form finally swept pass.

Rationally there’s an explanation. He may have had all the gear but I’m not sure he had an idea what to do with it. His level of spring chicken-ness was similar to mine from what I could determine of a face squashed between expensive clothing. I have to accept that maybe he wasn’t very good, and the very act of overtaking yours hedghoggingly had left him without the physical wit to respond.

But you know what? Don’t give a flying fuck about that. Don’t care one jot. No difference to me if he was a thousand years old. I won, he lost. Oldest game in the word and Christ I cannot tell you how good that felt.

Shallow? Like a tea spoon. That’s me 🙂

* I blame loose bowels from last week leaving me vocationally undernourished, but I can see that’s information you’d rather I’d not shared. That’s the hedgehog for you, we’re all shop front and tackle out round here.

** Feel free to insert your own sexual innuendo here. I’ve done it for you far too many times, it’s about someone else showed their smutty credentials.

Kids Play

Let’s be honest here – there is a bit of Competitive Dad inside all of us. And for some that’s because they had Competitive Dad outside for all their formative years, and never really worked out how to stop. Not for me, my old fella wasn’t so much hands off as completely disinterested. Which is something of a reason why I vacillate between total commitment and tired apathy with my own offspring.

But the parent I’ve never wanted to be is that one screaming from the sidelines, desperately striving to put the Victory into Vicarious. There’s always a positive stop between my frankly pervy love of mountain biking and forcing my kids to try and share something of that. Good reasons abound – they’re girls, they’re (still) not that big, MTB’ing is a tough sport, and they have variously preferred scooters, ex-board, walking and – well – anything else really when I’ve punted a spot of weekend dirt riding.

Today one of them mined the giggle-lode I so cherish, while the rest of the family had a damn fine go, before retiring slightly scared. Random (8, bonkers, untouched by reality) demonstrated a level of focus that made me wonder about alien abduction. She piloted her little 20inch Spesh Hardrock down trails the big boys ride, and showed a level of bravery making me wonder again – this time about adoption.

That’s not her in the photo. Verbal shares her Mum’s terror of hills and my oft repeated maxim that “your brakes control the speed, not the hill” failed to unlock tight muscle or deflate the scary gland. But she had a proper try even though it was apparent the only thing more scared in the entire forest was probably Carol.

Who – having narrowly avoided plunging into a dangerous ditch – rode bridges she hated, survived downhill trails that offered nothing but fear, and a truly, scary off camber bend that gives me the heebies before retiring with eldest daughter to the safety of the fireroads. I was properly proud of them for giving it a go without the hint of a whinge, and riding stuff that was clearly shitting-the-bed scary.

My kids don’t ride much and I don’t push them to do so. I’m always amazed how quickly they pick it up again, and while I was picking up my lovely old Kona having helped Random over a nasty log bridge, it became apparent she wasn’t going to stop. A cocktail of roots, dips and little drops were mastered with nothing more than youthful bravado and a happy chuckle.

I watched her ride it – having stopped talking since she clearly needed no coaching – with a lump in my throat. Where do they learn that shit? Even when she was properly gorse bushed at the trail end, she just picked herself up and got on with it. Well sort of, I had to push her home but she’s desperate to get out again. I may have found myself a sleeper 🙂

On returning home, the hound was walked by bicycle and suddenly these two wheeled transportation devices are the best thing since… the last great thing, but I’m happy with that. We then jumped our fence and went exploring in the stream at the bottom of the garden. Which was way more fun that it probably sounds.

There are times when kids are bloody difficult. Anyone who tells you different is on strong medication or telling lies. This was not one of those days.

Ah there’s the f’ing snow

I whinge. God answers. Thursday and Friday added sufficient snow to make any attempts to leave the county largely fruitless. Although much of this was the result of the three local councils having only sufficient salt to season a small stew.

I took the opportunity and the Kona for a short, silly, woody retro ride. And to get in character, I dispensed with all that fandangly modern equipment, and instead sallied forth in jeans, Vans, sweatshirt and wooly hat.*

Everyone has fond – if inaccurate – memories of crisp rides in firm packed snow, drifting effortlessly betwixt trees in a magical winter landscape. The reality is a hard slog uphill, your progress measured by both tyre and foot marks, followed by an uncontrollable descent where everything ends up full of snow.

Snow Riding Snow Riding

That’s tyres, brakes, shoes, ears and nose as either the front washes out and you lowside into a bush. Or the wheel drops into a hidden divet, leaving you with little option other than to ponder the full might of potential energy as you spin carelessly over the now motionless bike. The result is a credible impression of a fat snow angel and the cold seeping through your bottom as you lie there trying to get your breath back.

Snow Riding Snow Riding

It was still fun though, and after spending half a day yesterday fetching the kids from the bottom of icy slopes high in the Malverns, I think today should be spent trying the same on a bike. This time I’ll be properly kitted up although the concept of an SPD wellie is appealing.

* Which had the added impact protection of a comedy bobble.

Updated the bike page..


Looking for a picture of the Jake, I typed in “Kona” to my Flickr Photostream. What was returned reminded me of lots of dead relatives turning up unexpectedly for tea. I think I’m up to about 30 frames now in seven years. I don’t know for sure as a) I dare not look and b) the spreadsheet of shame has been mothballed onto a memory stick labelled “Pandora’s Electrons”

Can’t afford any more bikes. Have walls to knock down.

Kona hits the dirt!

Kona Kilauea by you.

Although hit the mud would be a more accurate description of the first meeting of old bike and recently squelched trail. It’s a build completed through the scavenger process of beg, borrow and reverse-steal*. The wheels are borrowed, the outer ring offers no toothy service other than stopping the chain falling off and the tyres are a cheeky combination of old and useless.

A lovely warm morning greeted my childish pre-ride enthusiasm. And while I was ready, the Leigh brood were not. And in accordance with the law that any actiivty with Children – up to and including a week long holiday – takes twice as long to prepare than actually participate in, it was rain not sun which greeted our cautious slither onto the trails.

It’s been nearly eighteen months since the kids rode out on proper dirt. A gap only just long enough to ease the trauma of Verbal’s repeated facial braking experiments last time out. And although they both had little falls and the biting back of hurty tears, they also made their old man properly proud with no whinge mud sloppage, some fine turns in leafy singletrack and brave attempts at muddy roll-ins.

At the end of which, demands were coming thick and fast for grippy pedals, mud tyres, cooler riding togs and bigger wheels. All of which were apparently “holding them back”. I cannot imagine where they learned such things.

As 3/4 of the family retired to the inside of the love bus to munch snacks, I took the Kona for a fast run through some sweet rider built singeltrack. The handling is on the lively side of involving mainly due to a stem a full two inches shorter than stock. But the whole experience was about as I remembered it – instant pickup from a pedal stroke, look-corner(tm) steering negating the need for any obvious muscle movement and a wrist battering experience vaguely remembered from 1995.

I’ll leave you to decide exactly how such an experience came about 😉

If I close my eyes, I can see long summer evenings offering up dust and hardpacked singletrack in equal amounts. Riding something like this through the trees toward a dropping sun and a well earned pint could very well be a path to cycling nirvana. Although not until I can find a tyre that is a) less than 2 inches wide and b) points in the same direction as the front one.

* This is where you enter a shop, request a small but vital component only to stagger out some five minutes later having been legally mugged.

Old Kona, new paint job

Old Kona, new paint job, originally uploaded by Alex Leigh.

Arrived today in the midst of a work crisis so deep they’re calling it the “UK Trade Deficit”. I just had time to insert non boingy fork into lovingly repainted frame before spending most of my evening driving to Swindon.

Not for work, to offload the roadrat to a very nice man who has absolved some of my new bike buying guilt, by taking an old one off my hands.

Already the Kona is showing it’s age with a noticeable lack of cable stops that shall require my best shed-bodgery, or a load of white gaffer tape. I’m not in a huge rush to build it as the tyre clearance does not suggest awesome mud performance.

In fact, after last weeks slopfest in the Forest of Dean, I’m considering a switch to tracked vehicles until light again becomes a feature of the hours post 5pm.

Right I’m off to search eBay for a turn of the century mallet. It’s important to respect the age of a thing. As I keep trying to explain to my kids….

Guess what?

I’ve bought it! Mike is going to brew me up a rear hoop through the alchemetic art of wheelbuilding, and also provide some pre-loved spiky things to attach pedals then legs too. And I have found some brakes in my spares bin that I cannot remember ever owning.

So either I have been “Sleep-Thieving” or a hole has been wrenched asunder in the space time continuum. Smack bang in the centre of the “Jiffy Bag Of Unknown Bicycle Spares“. I’m basically short of just an 8 speed cassette and a 27.0 seatpost. A delve in the grotty aperture of doom still raises enough stuff to build something else.

Assuming that something else needs three handlebars, two saddles, no transmission and just the one wheel. I think we’re into the realms of a unicycle here.

Things left to do? Well apart from carefully build it when all the bit converge on a time poor Al. Tell Carol, really mustn’t forget that bit.

It must be the cold.

Because what other reason could there be to find myself stroking the monitor, when I saw this:

1993 Kona. Also known as Als Insanity
1993 Kona. Also known as "Al's Insanity"

I used to have a really nice Kona but sold it when the Emperor turned up with some new threads. That one up there is even older. About 1993, which is WAY before I even started riding Mountain Bikes. Although those of you privileged to have seen me ride would probably prefer the more accurate “Short legged man being inconvenienced by a bicycle

This one was built before the advent of suspension forks, fat tyres and the marketing fallacy that without a ‘integrated component stack of class leading technology” you would die the instant you hit the trails.

It is not without problems. Some of them are technical around old standards and the need for some advanced shed-bodgery. Others are more ethereal, but rooted in a houseful of bikes already and the proximity of a rolling pin. After the Pace, I said no more. Then I bought the Jake. Which reminded me how good Kona’s are.

You see. It’s not my fault. And I have a whole box full of spares – okay none of which will actually fit but that’s just you lot being negative.  Shame on you. Anyway I’m going to sell the Roadrat. And some pedals. So basically we’re looking at the financial instrument of extreme dubiousness “Cost Neutral”.

In no way related new,  those of you wish to read something that is not merely an electronic prod to my vanity, try my friend Alan’s blog. He doesn’t write much but what he does makes good sense. Almost the opposite to me then 🙂

There’s some good news..

Its like that only blue
It's like that only blue

.. and some bad news. The good news is I completely failed to spend a number closely associated with the sound of a high velocity rolling pin connecting with ones wedding vegetables. The bad news is that I still appear to have bought a cross bike. Not a new one, not even close to a new one, but not one that has been ridden much either.

After the trauma of buying from a bloke in a shed, this time I’ve gone for a purchasing strategy involving someone I know. And not just someone, the renowned Seb Rogers of taking-fantastic-photographs fame. I’m giving him some cash, and his under stairs space back in exchange for a pre-love Kona Jake and a quick rag round some of his local (Mendip) trails.

The eagle eyed amongst you will notice a chainring count of ones less than optimal, and a rear cassette with cogs ranging from “small” to “dwarf”. So an ideal set of ratios for an area of the country that is reasonably well known for not being entirely flat.

Seb’s also throwing in the amusingly named “suicide levers” which may prevent almost certain death on the first off road descent. Yep, I’m definitely taking it off road, although my innate honestly forces me to admit that a) it’ll be lame off road and b) I’ll be going even slower than normal.

So does this mean the end of the trusty Roadrat? At 3000 miles and 28 months, it is both the longest serving and longest riding bike I’ve ever owned. Obviously in AlWorld(tm), this makes it just about the perfect time to sell it. Dunno tho, the Jake isn’t costing much, the Roadrat owes me nothing, and when is an extra bike ever a bad thing?

Still I may very well be hating everything duo-wheeled tomorrow after rotating up and down the Malverns with nary a tube. Fitting tubeless tyres wasn’t exactly difficult, but I hadn’t factored three tyre levers into the purchase price. One of which shattered in such a manner, I’m pretty sure there’s a bit embedded in my skull somewhere.

But it’s like the cross bike. I mean, really, what can possibly go wrong?