Friday, August 27, 2010

Full Circle

Way back in 2000, I was sitting on a train out of central Birmingham. I saw a free newspaper and, flicking through, I saw an advert: "Ride from London to Paris for the NDCS".

Back then, I was did no sport. I was crazy about music, my friends were all crazy about music, and I even played in a band. When I read that advert, I wished that I could do something like that ride. I had recently finished my degree and was trying to take a positive attitude to life. It was the commitment to positivity that made me question my immediate reaction: Why wish I could do it? Why couldn't I do it?

Soon after, I had signed up to do the ride and bought what I thought was a nice bike. I couldn't understand why the shop had tried to convince me to buy the lighter one. The lighter one was a bit cheaper, but it didn't have a suspension fork and the steering felt too fast. The shop said it was better, but I wanted stability and that suspension looked cool.

So it was a mountain bike-shaped-object that I propped up against the wall of the lab. And it was the same bike-shaped-object that prompted a fellow student to invite me mountain biking.

We went to Coed-Y-Brenin. Packing the bike into the car, I deflated my tyres to get them past the brake blocks. When we got there, I thought my friend looked ridiculous in his purple cycling jacket and tights. I thought that there couldn't be that big a difference between his suspension fork and mine. They looked pretty similar. I thought that the Race Face sticker on his bike was pretty funny... What a stupid name.

It was raining, but we set off into with me dressed in heavy cotton clothes. I could not believe how tough this was. My head span and the stupid gears wouldn't change, especially when I was pedalling hard and really needed them. I wanted to take short cuts, but my friend wasn't having it. We'd driven for hours to get here.

When the impossible climbing was over, we turned to riding along terrifyingly thin trails. Everything was pointy rocks, and built up so that I felt like I'd stumbled into Kickstart. It wasn't so bad - if I kept looking right down at my tyre, I could make sure it was on-line but stuff kept surprising me as I hit it. Then, at the end of the narrow bit, the track dropped down vertically to a gravel road. I just hit the brakes hard. "You can't ride that on a bike", I said. When my friend rode it and it looked much less vertical, but I pushed down to be on the safe side.

The rain just kept coming, and my clothes were heavy with it. My trousers kept catching on the saddle. Somehow, though, this was the most fun I'd had in years.

More downhill narrow stuff, and there was a serious guy behind me. He started shouting abuse at me and I wanted to get out of the way, but I was braking as hard as I could manage and just hanging on. I wished I wasn't holding him up.

We let a load of people past before my friend and I made our way down to the end of the trail. It ended with a confusing maze of roots. Every one looked slippery, but my perspective had changed since we set out. People could ride bikes on this stuff. So I tried.

And I failed. The pointy bar-ends caught me on the inside of my thigh as I crashed over them. I was OK-ish. It hurt to walk, and I needed a cup of tea, but I would be OK.

Before London to Paris came around, I had dumped the bike-shaped-object and laid down £500 on a Specialized. Again, it felt like it had twitchy handling, but I realised that it was a good thing. It was precision, and soon it was natural.

I kept riding off-road and trying to learn about this sport. Crashing on every ride, making friends to ride with, and generally having a fine old time. I couldn't believe how fast my mind had to work on the bike, and how much technique there was to all this.

So, I rode out of London as a "mountain biker". I arrived in Paris with another new idea of what bikes could do and how they could bring people together.

10 years later, and just last weekend I travelled from London to Paris again. This time working as a guide with a fair bit of cycling experience behind me. And I had the privilege to see people exceeding their expectations and extending their boundaries. I had the pleasure of Northern France and their farmer's hay-sculpture.

It's good to look back and seen how transforming cycling has been for me. To remember how many things seem natural now, but were alien then. I'm lucky to have the chance to share people's discovery of cycling. I just try to share the enthusiasm without all the crap we think is necessary. And it's great.

Weirdly, I'll soon be going back to Birmingham for the kind of music that drove my life back then. Swan, Godflesh, and Napalm Death all together at the Supersonic Festival. Moving forward, but not forgetting where I came from (until beer intervenes).

Saturday, August 07, 2010

I'm crap at pedalling

It's that in-between time now where I don't have any big adventures sufficiently close to have to be training. Usually, this means a bit more time away from bikes and spending what biking time I have playing about - trying to improve technique and just have fun. Essentially, falling off a lot.

Weirdly, it hasn't been like that this time. A combination of Emily being away, and me working from home has resulted in all-day-eating and my mind being stuck in a very small rut. The answer? Keeping up with somewhat big miles until Emily is back :)

Technique-wise, I have been looking at my pedalling, though. I've always suspected it wasn't good but I finally took Adam's suggestion and tried some 1-legged time on the turbo-trainer. It was even worse than I'd imagined. With one leg against the resistance of the machine, I could feel how little of the time I was actually driving the pedal. I jerked and clanked against the cleats. My left leg was way weaker than my right. I felt like a cheap puppet being operated by a drunk.

Turbo-training in the shed... yes the puddle is sweat!

And that's how I pedal... terribly.

It's easy to take for granted that there is no technique to the pedalling part of mountain biking. With all the corners and the mud and the stuff to jump over. The only comparison I can make is to swimming. I can spot a poor swimmer, even if they're moving quicker than average, by their lack of economy. You can see lots of unnecessary movement and splashing rather than efficient forward motion. So swimmers go and do drills. In the last couple of years, I've even done some of these drills. And suddenly it challenged the individual parts of my stroke, bringing improvements when I put things back together.

I don't expect such a dramatic change from pedalling drills, but the thought of "free speed" is mighty appealing. Maybe I don't just have to mash up and down on those pedals like a dumb singlespeeder. Turbo training, riding without a camelbak, tubeless tyres. What next road bikes, gears, and leg shaving? No!

Monday, August 02, 2010


2700 miles. Canada to Mexico. Alone.

That's the strapline for the Ride The Divide film. It's easy to focus on the first part of that statement, but the gravity of the final word is not apparent until you go there.


No-one to support you, no-one to love, no-one to share with. At times on the Divide, there's only dust and wind. And there's no help in screaming at the wind... I tried that and it neither f**ked off or turned around. The land can extend to all horizons with no features giving you either beautiful solitude or mind-eating vastness.

For a long time during the race, it wasn't a burden to be alone. It was a change from normal life and allowed me to have a Singular (subtle branding!) purpose. I could get on with just riding and being. But the burden crept up on me. By the final miles of the Divide, I decided to ride it out and get to Antelope Wells. Largely so that I could arrive that night and sooner be with people again.

While I was riding, I would sometimes imagine being at home, or out to dinner. Sharing the day and the night; some food and some drink. It would be so great to really live in a moment and not in the continuum of the race. I wanted the ease of the understanding and the bright thoughts of others.

And I wanted to ride with others. I wanted to chase and race for no reason. Face the bad weather with humour, face the dry and fast trails with anticipation. To have someone laugh at me when I fell off. Have someone to goad through the corners if they backed off.

But in the first couple of weeks of being back, the "alone" has continued to pile up. In riding I've missed people with good excuses (training for national champs) and bad excuses (feeling a bit tired) but it meant that even after being home for two weeks I hadn't shared a single ride.

So my return to the UK was plodding round the same old places. Not fast, not training. Just feeling like a ghost who didn't know any better.

Thank goodness Sam asked me to race for Singular: a weekend of bikes, beer, and hanging out? Yes, please.

We had a team of 5 for the 24 hour race at Bontrager 24/12 and it was fantastic to meet the guys. It wasn't a group ride, but it was something just as good. There is some common thread connecting those of us who race solo endurance events and it was a fun change for us to work together. They spurred me on harder than I have raced in a long time. To the point of riding that fine line between success and disaster, to the point of effort that I can only just sustain crank up towards the finish so that I collapse straight after crossing the line.

Part of the reason I want to do things like the Tour Divide is because they do make you appreciate what you've got. I appreciated that I was able to be there, in those beautiful places and travelling huge distances. But more than that, I appreciated what is here at home. It looks like I won't be writing a blow-by-blow account of riding the Divide, but bits and pieces like this will probably escape along the way...