Monday, 28 December 2009

No cure for sprouts.

My body feels polluted. It's like one of those thrillers when the hero is pumped full of drugs: you know, trifle, brandy butter, pudding, lard ganache, sprouts - yuk - Christmas cake, enough chocolate to sink the Titanic and then put every whale within 500 miles into a diabetic coma, and then combs the back alleys and dives of some godforsaken American hell hole in search of an antidote. And yes, I know it's self inflicted, but it kind of goes with the season. And there is no known antidote for sprout poisoning.

But there you go.

One thing made me ridiculously happy this Christmas; Swedish-made  Icebug running shoes with tungsten carbide studs in the soles. On Christmas Eve, London's pavements were plastered with the sort of hard, white ice that would be ace rotated 90 degrees into the vertical plain in combination with axes and crampons. I got as far as the end of the street in my normal running shoes before realising that any more Bambi on ice moments were likely to end in painful injury.

On with the Icebugs and into a whole new world of head-fucked running on ice. There's something bizarre about being able to cruise effortlessly across the sort of slipperiness that would normally have your feet heading in three directions at once and your body splitting painfully at crotch level. It takes a while to get used to and then, when you do, you start aiming for ice patches just because you can.

But perhaps the best bit are the priceless 'how on earth is he doing that' looks on the faces of tarmac-bound pedestrians and the inevitable 'if he can do that then, so can.... argghhhh...' moments that follow.

The things do have their limits, steep downhill gradients on smooth, hard water ice call for a definite cramponesque stamping motion if you're not going to slip a little on each foot plant and flat-footed foot strikes seem to work best, but mostly you just run as normal.

Absolutely brilliant. And nothing to do with sprouts at all. Even sprouts in stealth mode disguised with a gratin topping and some sort of high-cholestrol cream sauce - don't ask...

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Kicking back...

Kicking back at the end of family Christmas by proxy with my oldest friend, Keith, and his family in sunny North London. I'm missing the Peak, but it's no bad thing to remind yourself of how the southern half lives and I'm looking forward to seeing hills on all sides tomorrow. Just love the final stretch up from Chinley with Chinley Churn on one side of the road and Mount Famine on the other - feels like home.

A funny sort of day. I've single-speeded the Roadrat and fitted drops to it as well and it stowed away on the journey down. Imagine that. So this morning, there it was scratching at the front door like a febrile moggy. Or was that me?

At any rate, the ice has mostly melted, so I took off through the suburban wastelands, up to Barnet and beyond. Christmas reclaims London's roads for bikes, temporarily at least, and there's something lovely about humming past the seeping warmth of other people's Christmases. Brief glimpses through windows of people turned in on their families with just the odd runner breaking up the post-apocalyptic quiet. Cars hibernating quietly.

Running 32 semi-slicks and, compared to the 25s on Mog, you don't half feel the extra weight and drag on the ups. I think 42:16 with those tyres will kill my legs in the Peak. I'm just not that strong. But today it was just nice to skim along the lanes, take in the views and appreciate quiet roads.

I came back via the street I grew up in. Oddly familiar and oddly foreign at the same time. And somehow much, much smaller than I remember. How did it shrink so much? Familiar houses but with different people in and the one I grew up in looking slightly scruffy and unkempt, but with a shiny Merc sitting in the drive. Just odd, not sad, not nostalgic.

And then the cold water shock of total immersion in someone else's family Christmas. After four hours of solitary, reflective cycling.

Keith's parents are almost like surrogate family to me, I've known them my entire life. Grew up on the same street as him. Was born eight days before. Best man at his wedding. We're very different, but there's a comfort and ease and trust in familiarity that makes this an easy place to be right now.

Feels right.

Now lounging on the sofa of a sleeping house and channel-hopping sporadically in a forlorn quest to find something, anything, mindlessly watchable. It's easy to look down and spot the rubbish in the gutter, but look up and there are happy sheep in green fields.

Er, I think I need to go to bed.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Ghostly white.

I like snow, it kind of adds epicness to everything. Cover Catstycam with a blanket of the white stuff and it suddenly looks like the Matterhorn, which is nice. And cheaper than flying out to Zermatt. So snow saves you money as well.

Had a proper white weekend up under Rivington Pike with friends. Biking Saturday on deceptively grippy snow. Food, wine, conversation on Saturday night, then a relaxed stroll in the snow on Sunday. All quite lovely.

Miniature epic drive to get home to a white-blanketed Glossop and, well, it would have been rude not to go running. Rubber-studded soles gripping nicely on crisp pavements, running past warm, glowing houses and best of all, a ghostly white, snow-lit detour up the bottom section of Doctor's Gate, glistening in the moonlight.

Then today, stuck some Bonty Mud Xs on the Voodoo Wanga singlespeed and went for a gentle roll along by the Longdendale reservoirs, except that the snow meant it wasn't very gentle at all. But it was beautiful.

Making the most of it before it turns into brownish slush and I migrate south for Christmas.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Almost Christmas Crackered by a denizen of venison...

Back from the Lakes and sportive number four of the year, the Cumbrian Christmas Cracker, a gently rolling 65 miles of festive Lakeland scenery starting from Grasmere, out to Cartmel on the coast via Coniston and its rather substantial duck pond then back through Grisedale Forest. It was cold. Very cold. Cold to the point where the route was neutered to avoid sheet ice, but actually the mix of gently rolling roads and relaxed friends was lovely and just right for appreciating some stunning views, especially across the Lake near Brantwood.

 Pre-Cracker frostiness, brrrr... - pic by Harsh

A few things I've learned this year: how to look sideways and still ride in a vaguely straight line; that I don't have to try and beat people up every climb; that there are always lots of people much, much faster than I am, including this time, a fella in full GB kit on a pukka time trial bike; that following people's wheels in a sportive is a bit like juggling a live hand grenade; and one more from yesterday.

After tea and cake at Cartmel, the three of us rolled gently back towards the Christmas pudding pausing only to lose a pair of ruthlessly-competitive roadies from our wheels - easily done, we simply slowed down and let them ride off - and really just enjoying the ride and the views.

Skimming along towards Clappersgate, someone shouted something at me as I went past him, that I didn't quite catch because at the same moment, I spotted a deer running flat out parallel to the road on the other side of the dry stone wall to my right. First thoughts were what a beautiful animal it was and gawping at the speed and flow of its movement. Then reality kicked in and I realised that something had spooked it and walls aren't much of a barrier to a frantic deer.

Gently on the brakes as the deer turned hard left, bounded over the wall, crossed the road without slowing one iota, took the top off the left-hand wall leaving a portable TV-sized rock on the ground and slammed itself through the gap between the top wire and the gridded part of a wire livestock fence before disappearing across a field.

Ten metres in front of me, maybe less.

All so fast and so slow at the same time that it seemed unreal and unfrightening in the instant. It was only afterwards, pedalling back towards Grasmere that the pointless thoughts about what might have happened kicked in. And the concern for the deer which must have hurt itself hammering into that wall.

Lesson? Deer don't conform to the Green Cross Code. Lesson two: Christmas pudding with custard beats chocolate milk shakes in the comfort recovery stakes every time.

A really mellow, lovely day in a beautiful place with good people. Thanks guys. And thank you Mog.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Nice Ride.

Great ride yesterday above Ladybower with a bunch of guys off the STW forum, really nice mix of people and attitudes and terrain and some stuff still a lot more rideable than you'd think, though the bottom of the Whinstone Lee Tor descent above the pub is a real mess at the moment. Massively impressed by Will who managed the whole loop, including the so-called Beast on a singlespeed cross bike. Can't imagine ever having the combination of finesse and fitness to manage that.

Then, on impulse took off again from the car park at Ladybower for an extra loop - packing lights always a good idea in the Peak, they're like a riding passport after the curfew. Headed up the cattle grid, down the concrete switchbacks in fading grey twilight, then struggled up Potato Alley - smoother than is has been for a while - and was wrapped in darkness on the Roman Road.

Funny how night changes everything. That odd, warm thing of existing in a small pool of bright white light, the way your brain morphs odd shapes into things it might recognise - posts into people, rocks into crouching dogs - and how a slithery but manageable trail in daylight, feels so much more tenuous when all you can feel is the grip of your tyres, or the lack of it.

Drove home in a different bubble of light, tired but happy.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Motivation 2: Rivers of mud...

Riding trails that were streams. On memory. Up to the cranks. Up to the knees. In water. Watching erosion in action as the torrent carved living channels through the grit and piled soil against water-bars.

Every puddle a memory test and a leap of faith. Hub deep? Face deep? Weight back with gritted teeth. The endless pause before. the. bottom. of. the puddle and solidity and relief.

Ridiculous comedy laughing, bubbling up like water and washing away a residue of reluctance. And all the better for knowing how many people would be wrapped up warm and dry inside.

A perfect Sunday.

Sunday, 29 November 2009


Given that there are no fewer than six bikes - four mountain, two road-ish - sitting in the bike cave, how on earth is it that today none of them seems quite right? It's grey and wet - that super-cooled rain that somehow hasn't quite become sleet or snow but should have done - and intermittently windy.

The Pace did a tour of duty yesterday around Hope and Hayfield and all points in between. The Wanga, true to form, has blown its front tyre off the rim with Satan's voodoo-equse assistance, the 'vento has the wrong rear tyre and no front brake pads, the road bike is shivering and trying hard to hide in the corner and besides, its brake pads don't do anything in the rain (must fit those Koolstops) and the Rat is, well, just semi-slicked and not quite what I fancy.

Horribly tempted to build a crosser. This year's must have accessory, but somehow it feels like the sort of day it would thrive on.

Ah well. New pads and a new rear Minion DHF for the 'vento then and a quick, chilly, wet two hours it is then. Brrr...

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Fear of singlespeeding...

Saturday morning. Grabbed the Wanga by its ridiculously wide bars, put some air in its tyres and dragged it out kicking and squeaking into a slidey, slippy, grit-slurried November Peak morning. The Pace has eaten its drive bits - chain, jockey wheels, cassette all expensive trash - the 'vento has a flat front and, well, it was the obvious thing to do.

Anyway, cliche or not, it was like meeting up with a an old friend, a good but slightly eccentric one. After a first five minutes of fumbling for shifters and awkward spinnning out, a gradual dawning recollection of why I liked the thing in the first place, followed by a glowing, grinning, warm fug of affection.

I don't do quasi-religious, singlespeed-niche, self-definition - not that there's anything wrong with that, you could be into, erm, unicycling, for example, and that would be considerably worse - but for me anyway, the nice bit of singlespeeding is the way it changes familiar trails into something else altogether. The climb you habitually breeze up on your geared full-susser is suddenly a tricky amalgam of line choice mixed with sudden demands for spurts of step-clearing power.

On long Peak climbs, half the battle is knowing where to be slow. Being able to back off and still turn the pedals, so when you do hit the steep technical step that really does need that turbo-charged moment of sheer power to clean, you have't left it lying around somewhere lower down on the climb.

And that's the bit I'm missing. That top 10 per-cent of the rev range, the ability to push through just one more pedal stroke when your legs are screaming. The point where you suddenly become just lungs and legs and nothing more or less, and the bike improbably, impossibly pops over that step and leaves you bent over the bars, a mess of hyperventilating lungs and lactic-filled legs.

Need to ride it more.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

I believe in miracles.... erm.

Want a miracle? It's easy mate, just buy a brace made from this new fabric and wrap it around your sore elbow, it'll cure it in days. And while you're at it, these 400-quid pajamas made from the same stuff will lower your resting heart rate during sleep by 5bpm. And the baselayer? Er, increased power output, core strength and 100% better recovery.

How does it work? Hmmm, the fabric contains titanium, platinum and aluminium so it releases Infra Red radiation which messes with water molecules so they move across cell walls faster and everything goes from there.

Journalistically I ought to, have to, need to, keep an open mind, but every fibre of my unaligned being is just screaming 'BULLSHIT!' I've been to Lourdes and I've seen the cast-off crutches hanging in front of the holy grotto and strangely, I didn't believe that material anecdotal evidence either. Oh, did I mention that Simone Moro uses the stuff?

But the funny thing is, a small voice in the quiet corner of the mental auditorium, just behind the curtains over the fire exit, keeps whispering: 'Wouldn't it be great if it really did work? We don't understand everything in the world.' And, most persuasively: 'Wouldn't it be great to fix your elbow without evil friction massage and anti-inflamatories and rehab, because then you could lift your bike over stiles again and ride more footpaths.'

And that would be a proper miracle. A fabric that lets you ride footpaths more easily. So I have my fingers crossed, even the broken one that isn't broken because that would be annoying, and when the 80-quid or whatever elbow brace thing arrives I'll dutifully wear the thing and see what happens.

But I'll ride the bloody footpaths anyway. That's what they're there for, miracle fabric or no.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Cracking day...

Had a cracking ride in the Peak yesterday with a big group of folk from the STW forum. Started with quite low expectations - cynical, me - but it turned out to be an ace day in bright autumnal sunshine with just a hint of crispness in the air.

Not a fast ride. Not a long ride. Not even a particularly difficult one, but a mix of old and new faces, a consistent pace with stops that were never quite too long and some ace trails - Shooting Cabin, the gnarly bit above the Hayfield campsite descent, the rooty thing off Chinley Churn for three - and getting to know new people all made it a lovely day and all the more lovely for being quite unexpectedly so.

Thanks all, that was great.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Aftermath... And grippy ice.

It's a grim time of year to be my washing machine. Or my kitchen floor. Or my bath for that matter. Everything is covered in a grating, crunching, indestructible layer of Peak grit that's migrated in with bikes, boots, clothes and body.

There's no escape. Follow the grit trail down the stairs into the kitchen. Across the bathroom. And in a stunning demonstration of its Houdini-like properties, down the back of the leather Ikea Poang chair in the corner of the kitchen.

Damage limitation means undressing in the shower after rinsing grit off leggings and shorts first, then tippy-toed rushing down stairs to the washing machine for minimal floor splatter. And outside the pile of grit from hosed-down bikes is growing into a small, scaled-down replica of the Cairngorms and vegetation is starting to sprout there again.

It's all strangely, comfortingly familiar and will be for the next six months or so. Six months of changing brake pads and chains and chain rings. Of throwing-star jockey wheels. And ride soundtracks that ring like sandpaper being run over every part of your bike, because of course, that's pretty much what's happening.

But the pay-off is trails that are rideable all year round. No gloopy, clinging mud here, just a gritty slurry that rinses off in seconds. And grim, smiley, gritted-teeth rides with mates that are all the more satisfying for being conducted in the abrasive face of Peak winter.

And somewhere in the middle of it all will be the sparkly, special days when temperatures fall below zero and the trails freeze into sandpaper ribbons of frozen velcro. And even the ice with its core of powdered quarzite clings desperately to tyre knobs in a way that makes you imagine each tiny ruggosity being torn individually away.

And why does just thinking about that make me grin like a muppet. New washing machine please.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Sportive Trinity

Just done the Tour of the Peak, well, kind of half done it, seeing as by the time I got to the point where the 100-mile and 64-mile routes diverged, I was about as dry as a jellyfish and I just didn't see the point of dragging my dripping tentacles over Strines, Holme Moss and Chunal. So discretion was the best part of riding and I took the easy option.

It's the third big sportive I've done this year after the Whitton - ace and gritty northern - and the Dragon Ride, less ace and with pink accoutrements and the third one I've drifted into with someone else's unwanted place. I phoned Keith afterwards to tell him how he'd done.

Was it lovely? Well, in a wet, windy, slippy sort of way. And I mean slippy, I saw two ambulance-attended stacks, one a mass pile up on a greasy descent, the other a solo effort. Just hoping everyone involved got off lightly, lots of treacherous wet leaves and polished asphalt strewn across the course.

The funny thing is, a year ago I'd have been comedy indignant at the idea of doing an organised mass road ride. What? Me? With a load of roadies. En masse? Hmmm... yes mate, you. But actually the Fred Whitton sort of converted me. There's a real epicness to the Whitton, it's partly the looming prospect of hitting the Hardknott with 90 hilly miles in your legs, partly the ever-present drama of Lakeland scenery and partly a funny, indefinable, northern grimness that seems to colour the whole event.

It's hard. And honest. And beautiful. You can't argue with that.

Thinking about it today and I realised just how much I've improved on a road bike in six short months. Not my doing, I owe it to the long-suffering people I've ridden with, who gently explained why Camelbaks are rubbish on the road. How to overtake people - never look back - and how many bottle cages are allowed.

And the end result? I can ride along and actually look around me without veering helplessly across the road. Gentle gusts of wind no longer scare the beejayzus out of me. I can get on the drops, if not seamlessly, then at least quite smoothly. And I only ever wore those stripey Sugoi arm warmers once...

I'm never going to be effortlessly smooth and fast. And I'm never, ever, going to shave my legs. And I doubt anyone will ever use my name and 'graceful' in the same sentence, when referring to road riding. But I'm a lot better than I was and, more importantly, I ride on the road because I love it. Simple.

And the Tour of the Peak? It would be a lovely ride on a sunny warm day. Or even a dry, crisp, winter's one. Today was neither. But there was a moment dropping down towards Whaley Bridge with the road heaped in russet orange, fallen leaves and the sunlight grated by trees, that made it all worth the wet and the windchill and the sideways-slithering tyres.

Really. Quite. Special.

Sunday, 18 October 2009


Back from a lovely weekend lightpacking in the Lakes. Just a stunning Saturday, proper mind-blowingly beautiful views and all the better for being an autumnal special bonus limited edition. Just walking, talking and enjoying being in the hills. And that's it, apart from a couple of phone pics.


Monday, 12 October 2009

Wasn't expecting that...

Ooops, for a London boy, I seem to have been thoroughly de-urbanised. Hopped a train into Manchester on Sunday morning on a shopping mission for the first time in ages. It's 33 minutes away and a different universe full of shiny things and people, spending their weekend ogling and buying stuff. People who care about their clothes. And look each other up and down for labels. And have started to do that London thing of retreating into themselves because there simply isn't enough space for too many people.

Felt like an alien floating above it all. Light years away from the urban-savvy London kid I used to be, the one who couldn't imagine living anywhere else and missed the buzz when he was away. I've still got the twitching urban danger antennae, the ones that work everywhere from Brixton to Bogota, but where I used to enjoy the edginess of big cities, now I just find them slightly unsettling.

Did you know that there's a clothes shop in Manchester with a glass frontage lined and columned with dozens of old Singer sewing machines? Fantastic. No idea what it's supposed to say, but it looks amazing.

Did the shopping except for the bits where the shop I wanted had gone. Or relocated. Or been absorbed by some other shop. And wandered slowly back to Piccadily in classic Mancunian murk.

There's something lovely about looking up and seeing sun-stroked hills all around you. Dumped the shopping at home, wolfed some carbs then chucked the Rat in the car - which I'd not normally do - and drove over to Ladybower.

Same place, different day...

Just span gently around the reservoirs on semi-slicks. No rushing, no racing, no hammering. Drinking in spectacular views, chatting to folk along the way, washing the morning's claustrophobia out of my head. And feeling lucky.

ps: It's 33 minutes into Manchester and 31 minutes coming back, what happened to the missing two minutes, can I have them back please?

Friday, 9 October 2009


It's fantastic out right now. Enough recent rain to damp down dried-out loose trails and hold them together but not so much that things are draggy and sludgy. The Shooting Cabin is a primo ribbon of white, quarzite sandpaper dotted with currant bun gritstone boulders and improbably fast and grippy.

Crested the climb last night to see folded alp-style summits layered across the skyline in the last of the evening sun and just stood and gawped. No rushing, no hammering, just a steady, smooth cruise into the light then down the not quite legal narrow singletrack that clings to gorse-smothered hillside above Kinder Reservoir then dives down into William Clough with the light dying all the while.

Then lights on and up behind the quarry and onto Chinley Churn. Tired legs still spinning away with a life of their own. Picking through puddles and rocks, following familiar lines under the water, diving directly over the ever-changing rock step then. Stop. Gawp. Huge hanging moon filling the sky like a cartoon still. Breathtaking.

Chilly now with cold hands, colder for being dunked along with the rest of my body in a Jon-sized puddle on top of Middle Moor. Rail the descent, tip-toe through the walk-through garden, then the dive down Highgate Lane into Hayfield, fly in and don't touch the brakes on the narrow singletrack for rushing gorse-lined speed.

All that's left is the trundle back home, salivating tragically at the thought of fish and chips and tea. And the reality is at least as good as the imagining. Summer? It's over-rated...

Friday, 2 October 2009

Summer's last knockings...

Maybe it's not fashionable, but I like autumn. It's honest, you know which way things are going - winter - and you don't kid yourself that you're about to cop a bucket-full of Sierra Nevada sunshine and if you do, well, that's just a bonus.

Which was yesterday all over. Dry, bright and breezy, so popped over to Ladybower and rode Cut Gate out and back in a riot of smooth, fast, grippy singletrack with added bonus rock and rubbleries and that proper big moorland feel that takes your breath and reality away.

Somewhere in the middle of it, I got my technical riding mojo back. The Pace's new shock has, erm, pertened up the rear end nicely, the Pushed Pikes just do, and the new single-ply Minion DHF up front did sterling duty of gripping and pointing as directed. But the bottom line was nothing to do with kit and everything to do with soaring spirits, a grin as wide as the Derwent Valley and the thumping, pattering, rush of gunning a bike hard down an epic, rock-strewn trail.

The conditions are lovely right now. Just enough recent dampness to stick the dusty bits back together and make for proper hero-grip under-wheel traction, but not enough to slow things to a sludgy crawl. There's plenty of rubble on the Mickleden Edge singletrack singing broken crockery style under the wheels. Stay loose and let the bike dance across the looseness, surf the corners and STAY OFF THE BRAKES!

Just catching the looks of walkers as you whisk past, curious spectators to a world they don't quite get and proper satisfying, 'you're mad, you are' expressions.

All the sweeter for being transient and doomed. In a few weeks it'll have reverted to sludge, brooding, belligerent clouds and wind that tries to bend you double and spit you off the trail. Just a distant memory.

And of course, that has a discrete charm all of its own. But that's another story altogether. Watch this space.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Just the best day...

Been out in the French Pyrenees with the nice people from AQR for a week now, but due to the vagaries of Bmibaby's Manchester flights and my inability to plan more than 20 minutes in advance, I ended up with an extra day here. On my own. And what a fantastic bloody day it was.

It's been an ace week generally, but a big group of quite mixed abilities meant lots of stopping and waiting. In some ways that's great, lots of chances to admire the stunning views, talk to horses and keep a wary eye on circling vultures, but the downside is that sometimes trails lose their flow and so do riders.

And, to be honest, after a week of communal living, it's just great having some space and quiet again. So this morning me, and the Pace - minus its blown DT Swiss shock - took off into the hills for a repeat of an awesome ride we did as a group on Thursday. It starts with a steep, moderately techy climb with big drops to one side and the promise of an early bath at the bottom, screams through rough downhill meadows, then climbs an endless fire road to the crest of a big mountain ridge marked with a single, solitary tree. And today complete with circling vulture.

Finessed my way up most of the climb, remarkably remembered the way and bludgeoned it through the horse meadows before snicking down into granny and starting the long spin up steep, dry, rough fire road. Fantastic and strangely effortless even after riding seven days out of the last eight - tiny lizards scuttling across the track kept my brain vaguely alive - and stunning views back across then into the valley.

No stopping this time, just a steady climb to the top and awesome views down two of the main local valleys. Lots of sitting with jaw dropped to the floor, surviving energy bars munched, then pads on and it's off and away down a screamingly fast descent alternating tussocks and rockeries before diving into downhill traversey forest singletrack spiced up with the odd rock and root step to keep you awake.

Then before you know it, a proper gravity sink of a roller coaster dip and a fast super steep downhill through a forest of shoulder-high ferns. You don't realise just how big the vertical drop is till you stop, look back and realise where you've come from.

And then, looking down, Luchon itself spread out below you, a lot closer than you expect. Bonkers. The rest is all good too. A mad, fast rocky trough of a descent into a village followed by a lovely, kamikaze switchbacked descent on black, shaley rock that finally spits you out on the road just above Luchon itself, all smiles and pumped forearms.

Galette earned. Ice cream paid for. Funny how different the same ride feels ridden alone. Less time, but more time to think and more thinking too. And more flow. A perfect end to a lovely week of riding a magical mix of loamy, hair-pinned forest singletrack and steeper, mountain rocky stuff.

All that's left to do is the familiar routine of stripping and packing the bike. Swapping the dead DT Swiss shock for the emergency and welcome but slightly unconvincing Magura stand-by, battling with greased but stubborn pedals and hiding away the vulnerable bits from the baggage handlers.

And now it's off out with a good book - the Time Traveller's Wife, no less, bought on impulse at Manchester Airport and strange and beautiful, unlike, I gather, the film - for something to eat and a solitary, celebratory beer. Home tomorrow and a week of British riding beckons. Phew, I need a holiday...

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Ground to a halt...

Ground to a metaphorical halt in the Pyrenees. Stopped. Dead. Somewhere at the arse-end of a year that's mixed improbable happiness and surprise, discovering something rare and special, changed the way I viewed so many things and that turned out to be founded on shifting sands.

And by the magic of Bmibaby - ironic huh? - here I am, beamed into the middle of the French Pyrenees and the familiar unfamiliarity of a riding holiday in the mountains. All that matters is the next loamy, rocky switchback. The delicate slide of tyres on forest mulch. Which cake to eat next and where to hide the Collective DVD to prevent another communal viewing - 'mountain bikes, beer, chocolate and women, yes, you can have all four'... Or something of the sort.

Turned up a day early thanks to airline vagaries, met the outgoing group then on Saturday morning built up the Pace, eased 50 psi into its knobblies and went for a gentle tarmac climb up the Col de Peyresourde. There's something faintly ridiculous about riding a 30lb full suspension mountain bike up a Tour de France climb, but it's impossible not to smile as the realisation dawns that yes, you are on holiday and green, rolling Pyreneean vistas roll out below. Pretty villages hunched in the valleys, pointy hill-top churches, cars that actually move out to pass cyclists.

And at the top of a set of deceptively easy-angled, hair-pinned terraces, the obligatory sign, caff and a grey-ruffed hawk of some sort perched nonchalantly on a fence post - where's burd-spotting burd when you need her, eh? - somewhere to pause and wonder and take stock for five minutes before pulling on gilet and arm warmers and hurtling back down into the valley.

And then, because, well, just because, another road climb followed by a gentle descent back along the other side of the valley, a mix of double and singletrack spotted with delicate crocuses, half of them still vaguely upright. Blisteringly fast. Blisteringly smiley. Just lovely.

And more lovely, I guess, for being the polar opposite of the rest of the week which will be familiar to anyone who's ever been on an organised riding holiday, but none the worse for it. A disparate group of riders, quiet, pointy-elbowed competitiveness at the sharp end of things and careful, tentative, self-doubt at the other. Cake waiting back at the ranch and folk who drink beer and folk who don't.

The odd thing of being thrown together socially with a group of people who have only bikes in common. And the riding. Really quite lovely riding. But all that is another post. Today is a rest day and the halt I've ground to is all too real. And actually quite calm, mellow and lovely. Bring on the cake.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Packing frenzy...

Off to somewhere warm and dry tomorrow to leave the broken things behind. Zip up the bike bag fast before the hurt can get in.

There's something lovely and special about packing a bike for holiday riding, the familiar routine of removing mech and bars, pedals off and stowed away, skewers out and padding, just so, in the places where it always goes. Minimal tool kit. Pads or not.

Favourite riding clothes horded for days to avoid last minute drying panics. Tyres agonised over, fitted and gunked. Arm and leg warmers thrown in as insurance against the worst. Duffle packed and weighed.

Load the car. Lock the front door. Run away.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

I'm not riding with you on that monstrosity...

'I'm not riding with you on that monstrosity...'

Death sentence. For my budget Giant OCR2. I swear you could see it flinch.

Monstrosity? Cheap, yep. Harsh, yep. Fun to ride, er, nope. Not at all. In truth the OCR took to the Peak's pock-marked tarmac like a duck takes to, well, full contact karate. It hated the place.

On southern Spain's Botox-smooth, sinuous limestone roads, none of this mattered. But over here it felt like a low rent John Travolta clone trying to strut its stuff in a northern working men's club. More importantly, I hated riding it. Every other bike I own, well, I feel something for - warmth, fondness, whatever - but the Giant was a harsh, badly-fitting, wrist-cracking trial of patience at best and just painful at worst.

So it found itself on bike death row. Waiting. For something else to arrive and replace it.

And something turned out to be Planet X - Lynskey - Ti Race thing, a beautifully welded collection of matt-brushed titanium tubes recommended by a mate who ought to know as something that would have soul and smoothness in one. Speccing it was a step into the unknown, but it was built up with love and meandering procrastination - Campag Chorus 11 - 'it has to be Campag' - in a Spinal Tap stylee, FSA compact drops, USE finishing kit (free), Ksyrium SLs and, eventually, with help, gorgeous bar-tape from the lovely And no, not pink or with flowers on.

The best thing I ever bought.

There's a warmth to it that's hard to describe. It's supple, arrow fast, sharp but forgiving and next to a mountain bike, feels like a jet plane rushing down the runway for take-off. And every time I ride it, it makes me smile, which I never thought a road bike could or would.

Why? The speed. The liberating minimalism of riding without a pack. Sharp, synapse-shredding downs and leg-burning climbs and, above all, two other things: the sheer ability to cover distance at speed, 'we're where?' and being able to ride along chatting away with friends in a way you just can't on a mountain bike. Just lovely.

And it all started with what I thought was pure bike snobbery. And wasn't.

I'm never going to be a lithe, shaven-legged, graceful Tour wannabe. And I'll probably always feel a bit like a mountain biker on a road bike and look like one - no, there's no peak on my helmet - and I'm never going to be properly fast, too far gone and too slow for that, but who cares? Snap, click, go, pedal, straight out of the door. Every time, any time.

Road bikes are lovely. And lovely road bikes are the icing on the cake.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Gently Trashed In The Sun...

Summer seems to be having a last fling in the Peak. Yesterday might have been September on paper or digital calendar for that matter - can you still get paper? - but it had glammed itself up with extra glittery eye-liner for a non-negotiable, one-day only, Return of Summer special promotion.

Really I should have rested up. Stretched. Gone for a gentle stroll and fed ducks. But it was like being a kid when your mates come round, bang on your front door and drag you off down the park to play footie, or whatever the gurlz equivalent is. So the Pace was eased out of the bike cave, dusted down, lubed and seat-posted with one of those adjustable thingees and it was off up sunny, grindy, Chunal tarmac for a gentle roll around the local trails.

I don't know about you, but it's hard not to smile when you're bathed in late-summer sunshine and the trails are dry and loose and fast and familiar. Off the road and onto the Shooting Cabin the wrong way for a steady, slidey, climb on tenuous looseness. Beaming at grumpy walkers and picking lines with familiar, relaxed care.

And at the top, after failing miserably to clean the steps out of the ford yet again, I snuck around the corner. Parked the Pace in the heather and lay in the sun, helmet and pack off, gazing over at a sun-washed Kinder plateau across the reservoir's beaming blue. Funny mix of joy and sadness, brittle, temporary beauty. Filed away under summer memories and winter pending.

Then a lazy drop down past 20 Trees - there are n-n-n-n-n-nineteen of them now, I think - into Hayfield and a roll around to Kinder Res and up through the grassy field to Kinderlow End. And yes, I do carry chain-ring bolts. Yes, I have two of them. No, you don't need to pay me for them. Except in karma maybe. Though chocolate would have been nice...

And to cut a mellow, sun-breaky ride home short, mellowed back down behind the campsite in Hayfield, then crawled semi-broken back over Lantern Pike back home for post-ride bacon and egg tiger bread sarnies. Tired, happy, end-of-summerish. Just pedalling. The ducks can wait.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Geese and Cows and Sheep and Chill

Started writing about the Kielder 100 and how I crashed and buried my race at 50 miles with a broken front brake and how flat and dispirited I felt and how it turns out that I cared quite a lot about finishing the event that I said I didn't give a stuff about. But it seems pointless. Took the road bike out yesterday and had a 90-minute tear up, hammered every climb, big-ringed the flats, screamed down every descent and came back with a smile on my face.

Still regret crashing, but I know it was my own fault for riding too fast in the wrong place, end of. So, I'll go back next year. Fitter. Faster. Brighter. And make up for it. So let's close that box. For now.

And then this evening took my tired legs and the Rat and span out along the Longdendale Trail, looking around at fields full of cows and geese. Which seemed odd. And sheep. And mirrored lorries on the water's surface. And crags I've climbed on. And crags I haven't. Then rolled home in grey, melancholic early evening light with just a hint of autumnal edge in the breeze.

And there was something comfortable and familiar about riding a bike in the chill. A distant echo of winter. And somewhere inside there was a little buzz of anticipation and faint memories of knobblies buzzing across frozen grit trails into a pool of focused bright. Yes please.

Monday, 31 August 2009

A sea of purple heather.

My favourite place in the world is a sea of purple heather lapping gently against the dry-stone walls above Little Hayfield. Locally it's known as the Shooting Cabin, a twisting snake of smooth, fast and sometimes rubbled moorland singletrack that links the fierce, sporadic, petrol-fuelled rushing of the Glossop to Chapel road to epic views of Kinder Scout and the Downfall and burning, red-charcoaled sunsets.

It's a lovely piece of trail that changes through the year. From dry, loose and sketchy in summer when the surface falls apart and before the debris has been hurled sideways by passing wheels, to the gritty sludge fest of winter. And, last January, I think, briefly, a diamond white toboggan run of unexpectedly gritty fresh snow tamped down just enough for bike tyres to hiss sizzling hot along the surface and slide gently along the fine line between grip and slip.

It's the place I go when I need to reaffirm my faith in the world. The place I've only ever really shared with a handfull of people, who I knew would 'get it'. A place where I know every rock and line like an old friend.

Rode it the other day. In a slow, troubled sort of way. Legs not quite firing. Brain as sluggish as a winter Peak trail. Bike feeling badly set up and out of sorts. Cruised the flat-out 'just pedal' ribboned smoothness to the ford, then, rode the steps and balked at the crossing through line indecision, thinking too hard.

Slow, cautious pedal-strokes then the five or six hard ones that take you over the lip onto the flat, smooth plateau section where, in proper late summer style, the line has smoothed and flattened and twists through clumps of heather and petrified grit mud ridges. But I didn't notice that. Because I was gawping, meerkat style, at the purpleness of the heather. Funny how views can just sneak up unannounced then smack you in the face.

And I rode the rest of the trail - the fast, furious, loose descent to the road - slowly and gently, soaking in the views and the details, noticing the small steps I'd normally scream past in a cloud of dust or a spray of sludge, scanning the smooth line that's formed through the looseness. And than, at the bottom, I rode the narrow bridge on auto-pilot, with no bouncing handlebar ends on wood and just the right gear for the kick off the end and up to the track.

So many times. And people. And days. Thinking too hard in a place where often I don't think at all. And just do. Miles? God only knows. Time? Enough to remember. Heart rate? Yes, it was beating. Just.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

In the beginning... and yes, it's a joke.

I guess that since this is my first ever blog post, I should start by telling you a little about myself. First off, I'm not actually a dog. I gave some consideration to a species swap operation, but in the end, the difficulty of sourcing canine-compatible cycling kit called a halt to the operation at the eleventh hour.

So I remain a human being with the mind of a dog and a badly wired one at that. Generally that's not helpful in life, but for my purposes, it's not such a bad thing. And here's why. I am, by my own admission, just an average, normal mountain biker, but my aim, is by this time next year, to be fit and fast enough to represent Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics.

That may sound ambitious, but I am faster than most of my mates already and I have some really quick tyres in the cupboard that my mate gave me, which I can get out for races and an old training plan by a professional coach who used to train some of Britain's top mountain bike racers.

And, to give myself a head start, I've had not one, but two rest days, which means I'm starting super fresh and super committed. I'm going to start off with some phosphate sprints and report back later, by the end of the week, I should be substantially faster. Just watch this space.