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.