Ten years of whining

Brecon Ride - April 2002

Oh Lordy. That’s me back in 2002 equipped with “the best bike in the world, why would I need anything else?”. Cue hollow laughter. Also with hair. And none of it grey. I was already convinced that my best times had passed and that 40 was basically the end of the road. But no, here we are 10 years later still riding, still making excuses, still buying bikes.

And writing about them. This rather waffly piece was completed after my first proper ride in the Black Mountains. Led by Russ a year before his accident, it was a proper all day yomp that left me mostly broken and extremely humbled. I’ve left the text as is even tho some of it makes me wince a little nowadays. Not because I’m seeking some kind of redemption, more because I’m too lazy to do anything about it.

I dug this out after writing a piece for Singletrack based on the 2011 ride of that route. Less things have changed than expected. Even aside from rubbish grammar and spelling. It’s a proper 2-mug-of-tea read if you can bare it.

It did leave me with one enduring thought; riding for ten years and I’m still no better. I expect this also means I’ll have to accept that playing on the wing for England is probably out.

7am on a Sunday is never a civilized time to haul ones’ weary arse out of a warm comfortable bed. Even with the early spring sun shining on your tousled features and the prospect of an epic Welsh loop just two hours away, it was still an effort of will to drag oneself to the vertical.

Packing the car the previous day had been a good idea. Wandering out in shorts and a T-Shirt was not. A balmy 2 degrees at a mere 300 feet above sea level drove me back into the house for more clothes “ in fact as many clothes as I could usefully find and wear was my approach to potential hypothermia. Collecting a bleary eyed Mike fifteen minutes later, we were somewhat perturbed to find a decidedly energetic Andy cycling at our pre-arranged meeting point. Not only energetic but with the build and demeanour of an XC racer about him. Ah, we wondered, had we bitten off more than we could chew. Ah indeed.

The 36 mile loop with over 3500 feet of climbing had seemed like a damn fine idea when we accepted Russ’ offer to lose our Welsh virginity. The when for me was ensconced in a warm pub after a two hour ride on the Ridgeway and for Mike it was via a text message whilst he was looking out to sea on holiday in Copenhagen. Running out of excuses, we turned west and followed the A40 towards the border surviving on crap jokes and stories on how good we use to be. 120 miles later we arrived in Tal-Y-Bont meeting up with the rest of the riders easily spotted as they assembled their steeds in the shadow of Russ’ abandoned Saab.

And it was a worry quite frankly. Barely an ounce of bodyfat between the lot of them and some seriously pimpy hardware on display. 2002 Speccy FSR in front of me, TI lightspeed over there, Sub 5 glinting in the sunshine here. Fit riders and Fast bikes “ was it too late to pull a hamstring I wondered. Still we were half there fishing out the Superlights from the car and attempting to assemble them in some professional looking manner. Fast bikes, Slow riders. What’s that phrase too fat to climb¦ too gay to descend

Russ adjusted his GPS, checked his watch and after promising an easy pace set off down the high street like he was being chased. A six mile climb awaited us so it was hard to see why he was in such a hurry but follow him we must and away we went climbing on a good track out of the valley bottom with great views of Lake Lin being offered through the trees. The fast boys powered off up the hill leaving Mike and I to make sure no one was left behind (other than us). Tortoise and Hare we declared thinking that their short term fast pace would leave them with nothing left at the end. Ah again.

Half way up we called a halt for the obligatory photo stop with the lake in the background.

Brecon Ride - April 2002

Two months ago it had been blizzard conditions but today the sky was cloudless, the wind no more than brisk and the trails were dry in the main. That would change a little as the route opened up but most of the guys who had been here before couldn’t believe the state of the ground so early in the spring. I couldn’t believe how high it was after the monster 300 feet climbs we puffed up in the Chilterns. The track became more rutted with evidence of four wheel drives and MX bikes clear to see. I’m not good in ruts “ well not entirely true, I’m quite good to watch as I bounce from side to side like a human pinball before the inevitable face plant into the verge. However, we emerged intact at the zenith of this climb only to be confronted by a quarry. Anyone tells you different “ call them a liar: Sharp flinty rocks of various sizes from medium to huge strewn across the track in a pattern most likely to rearrange your front teeth for as far as the eye can see. That’s a quarry “ no argument. Imagine my surprise when Russ grinned (a little manically if I recall correctly) and explained what a fantastic section this was and moreover the only way to get down with the same number of limbs as you started with was to attack it. What with pick axes and shovels I mumbled thinking this may make it more manageable. But no, off they went hurtling down the rock garden with little concept of personal safety floating over rocks and whooping it up big style.

More circumspect, Mike and I checked, in no particular order, our wills, our valuables and our bravery coefficient. Finding them lacking in similar amounts, we gingerly embarked on what I certainly felt would be my last journey. From three feet away, every rock was my personal grim reaper, scythe in hand, waiting to grip my front wheel and hurl me headlong to my doom. Bounce, Boing, Swear, stall and swear again was an approach that saw us plunge down the track rigid on the bikes like we had already contracted rigor mortis. And then in a shift that was 90{45ac9c3234d371044e23e276755ef3a4dde8f1068375defba7d385ca3cd4deb2} mental and 10{45ac9c3234d371044e23e276755ef3a4dde8f1068375defba7d385ca3cd4deb2} physical I decided if I was going down, then I was going down in a blaze of glory rather than some innocuous pratfall brought on my a lack of momentum.

Brecon Ride - April 2002

Off the brakes, things improved rapidly as the trail became less threatening and infinitely more fun. This is where full suspension bikes earn their corn; four inches of travel is a whole shit-load and as a pilot your task is to simply point the bike downhill, take a deep breath, relax and wonder at the clever mechanics happening underneath you. Bounce, Boing, flow, giggle replaced the previous mantra and the rocks stopped being a singular threat and started being just another free ride to the best drug in the world “ Adrenalin.

Happy and exhilarated to be in one piece at the bottom, I explained to those who had been there waiting a while that really the technique was to let the brakes off and let everything hang out. They smiled politely enough before pointing to a ribbon of tarmac that was our link to the next challenge. These fellas were fit pushing out the road miles in pelaton style, draughting each other and then breaking away just because they could. It’s a funny way to enjoy yourself I thought taking the last but one place but hey if it floats your boat, go with it.

Mike was struggling a little now. Having been on the bike but once since our return from the Andes, the pace was a little too hot. And he wasn’t getting on at all with the rocks much of which was down to his SIDs providing a total of 1.5 inches of travel and no rebound damping. The efficacy of these forks was entirely of his own making with the only maintenance in 1,000 miles being a wave of a shock pump in their general direction once a month. Even so, you couldn’t but feel sorry for him. Well a little bit anyway.

Pausing for a food stop at the bottom of a Roman Road leading up to the gap, most of the group broke out standard trail food comprising of bananas and energy bars. Peter, an old hand at all this, magic-ed an entire brown loaf from his back stuffed with cheese and assorted chutneys. Either he was milking the cows on the way up and fashioning his own diary products or the marketing hype surrounding the capacity of camelbaks is actually the truth.

The track to the gap was less than entirely smooth. Flints, Rocks, Sandbars and the odd localized river destroyed any rhythmic cadence. Cleaning each section with the minimum of energy was the name of the game and just when you thought you had the technique some combination of geography would throw you off line, off balance and occasionally off the track completely. To add spice to an already relatively spicy accent, a bolder strewn drop tending to the vertical lay in wait for the unwary. Building on my crusading attitude of before I set off down it with arrogance far outweighing ability and so it was no surprise that after cleaning the steepest section my lack of technique saw me jam my love plums into the saddle at a reasonable velocity. As I lay winded but waving to show I was still alive at the side of the track, the others shot past and up the other side. Once Mike and I had remounted (not a painless experience for me) they were mere specks in the distance.

We regrouped on the windy summit of the Gap taking deep breaths and in my case, refusing to listen to Russ’ tales of impending injury on the next downhill section. And what a section it was. Rocks the size of windows stood between you and the base of the hill with the dismount option tending to the painful. So trusting the bike and occasionally closing my eyes, we perambulated down the track clinging to the side of the mountain. 100mm forks are where it’s at here with the bang of the inners hitting the stops signalling these were real mountains for real mountain bikes. The group in the distance were not getting any more distant so a combination of improving technique and a might-as-well-die-young attitude was clearly paying off. The lower section was smoother (but that’s a relative concept on this ride) and hurtling down it at speed was the most fun you can possibly have outside of the bedroom. The bottom of the track was populated by the onset of mild hysteria and tall tales of which I added my own. Absolutely bloody fantastic.

Brecon Ride - April 2002


A few more bouncy moments saw us arrive at Brecon with half the ride done and no casualties no far. I’d been close on the last descent but somehow remained attached to the bucking bike and aside from a couple of punctures all was well. Whilst the group refueled on appropriately balanced proteins and starches, I was the proverbial kid in the sweetshop stuffing Yorkie bars in my mouth and camelbak ignoring the old bollox being talked about blood sugar levels. If lettuce tasted like chocolate I’d eat it. End of argument.

On the first bridleway out of Brecon, we had our first mechanical and it was a major one. I’m not mechanically minded but a derailleur lodged in the spokes is clearly not something you can fix with a puncture repair kit and a positive attitude. The result saw Jon, [I think] frustrated with his steed, call it a day accompanied by Mike who was on the wrong side of completely shagged. The rest of us headed onwards and inevitably upwards on good roads and bad bridleways. Russ had never ridden this part of the ride which showed with tracks deteriorating from slippy mud to unridable streambed in the time it takes to say are we going the right way?. My personal favorite saw us humping the bikes up the side of a vertical bank and throwing them over a tree where allegedly the trail started again. Ride a bit, give up, push, ride a bit more. Still the first three miles were the worst. After that it just became a dull and repetitive. Finally we cleared the last section bouncing over some pre-war farm machinery and were faced by our last challenge of the ride. And my it was a biggie.

Climbing out of the valley on the road, the gradient turned from ow that hurts to bloody hell that’s a wall. Amazingly in some sort of parody of fitness I found myself in the middle of the group and accelerating fast. Some small legacy from climbing the Andes I guess but it was extremely satisfying not to be at the back for a while anyway. Mutiny nearly broke out when Russ’ GPS pointed unerringly up a grassy climb torn up by 4 x 4s. So we pushed up there, splashed round the base of the hill and eventually came face to face with the last 500 feet of mountain above us.

I pushed as being overtaken was going to be too embarrassing and I was going to push at some time anyway. Andy and Dave rode most of it “ I have this horrible recollection that Andy cleaned the whole thing but by the time we crested the top Andy and Dave were already looking rested and restless but I refused to move from the mountain top until my heart rate dropped below 100. And what a place to rest with panoramic views through 360 degrees taking in the lake, the hills and the general lack of the South East!

Brecon Ride - April 2002

Finally we set off back down the Blewch at the bottom of the valley with thousands of feet of descent between us and the village. And what a descent it was with the track following the side of the hill descending steeply in places and shallowing out in others. Jumps if you wanted them, straight line speed if you didn’t. Russ waited for me and we took a small detour seeing us drop onto the road via a rock garden attacked with contempt for the consequences of getting it wrong.

Breathless and exhilarated, we made tracks for the car with every little incline in the road burning our legs. Once reunited with our group (sorry lads!) it became clear the epic was a real epic totalling 37.5 miles and 6.5 hours. And my word did it feel good.

I missed two turnoffs on the drive home with 15 foot green highway signs having little or no effect on my rapidly tiring body. Abandoning my car with the bike still in-situ, I returned to the pit abandoned some 15 hours earlier and dreamt of laughing the face of 10 foot drop offs and beating Dave and Andy up the hills.

(Originally published on BikeMagic April 2002 – GULP)


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