Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Perfection of the Peak District

The outstanding day had yesterday was in danger of never being scribed.  It was just one of those rides that was so perfect, with so many things to remember, it's nearly impossible to get started. Wood for the trees and all that. 

I have a great friend Mark to thank for it all, for he saw immediately that I would be in need of an adventure as soon as possible after last weekend.  "Want to meet up for a non-pressure ride, perhaps the Peak?" to which I responded with a GIANT THUMBS UP. Some proper exploration, in a section of the District I've never ridden, with big climbs, big vistas, and my favourite kind of hang-on-and-hope descending.  Just what the doctor ordered.  

I will refrain from a detailed ride report. The mapped loop can be found here, although we did add a few alternatives, starting with a visit to the Riley Graves on the way out of Eyam (pronouced eem, apparently).  Very moving to consider the plague hit the village in 1666, and yet we still remember the heroic act of self-quarantine by the residents, 450 years later. 

Following the lane led us to a bridleway, running parallel to a dry stone wall and covered in boulders. It was an instant reminder of why I fell in love with mountain biking. I miss the big adventures and the natural descents, the constant change in terrain and that feeling of success when you arrive at the bottom still upright. To me, this is mountain biking.  Despite years of downhill, trail centres, riding our local stuff, my heart still lies on rocky tracks.

This beautiful and agile lady was waiting at the bottom of the trail. Three legs was no obstacle to the exitement of being out and it was a pleasure to talk with the kind hearted man who had given her a home from the shelter.

We had a number of long steady climbs through the day. The kind you can spin and chat,  just enjoying the scenery. And the winter sunshine!  Blue skies have been such a rarity this winter, it was bliss to see them again.

The company was fabulous, Mark is stronger on climbs than I, and I a little quicker on the descents, but riding together works well, as we both seem to appreciate the same fine detail in life and are happy to stop and stare.

The descents were great fun, with so much variety, from grassy sections, rocks, roots, steep gradients, shallow rolling sections and a ford. I only noticed the little bridge adjacent to this when I turned round to grab a photo of Mark getting his feet wet. Sorry!

I was glad when Mark suggesting stopping on this climb to look at the view, it was a toughie.

The golf course descent was everything promised, and more, with techy root sections, mud, ruts and some sneaky jumpy off-shoots.  We got seperated here, so I pushed back up to check everything was OK, only to find out we had just crossed paths somewhere and Mark was already at the bottom. Ah well, another run down that was well worth the push up.

Watching shafts of sunlight chase over the distant hills.

Random metalwork in a lichen covered rock, the sky blackening with a hailstorm that we watched 10 minutes later in the warmth and friendliness of the Eyam Tea Rooms. We sat for 2 hours, chatting and reliving the ride, before it was finally time for the long journey home.

Friday, 29 January 2016

An alternative Thursday Social

The turnout for Thursday Steady Social was smaller than normal, and all seven riders technically capable, so we shook things up with some muddy trail variations and a little more climbing.

Trials Tim was out hopping about despite the gales on the top. Always a pleasure to watch.  The Malverns are only a small set of hills, but their bare flanks leave riders exposed to the full force of the weather.

The fog swirled and thickened as we pedaled over the ridge; an orange glow the only reminder of the villages below.  We regrouped in the howling wind as Chuck gave a briefing of the upcoming descent. 

Soon enough we were greeted by an outstanding trail, hidden and well ridden, branching off a main line and swooping in and out of the trees. With some higgldeypiggledy criss-crossing of lines, we all arrived at the bottom unscathed, before climbing back up, up and up, for a final flat out fast descent to the pub.  Now regulars, we were greeted warmly; the landlady ready with the soya milk for my cuppa and reassuring us that the muddy kit really didn't matter. 

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Retro steel love

Poor grandad bike has been neglected of late. Left alone, hidden in a shed with flat tyres since last autumn.

Why I don't ride this bike more often I know not. For he is just magic. Even with two working gears and twenty year old rubber, he still makes me smile.

It was a late evening steady 10 miles, passing in and out of rain showers, riding for the love and precisely no other reason.

I bailed from Strathpuffer (and I'm happy about it)

It was months in the making.  Everything had fallen into place.  I had all the kit I needed, and a perfect pit crew, in a perfect pit-van, for an seamless Strathpuffer.  Thursday night I slept, 10 hours. Friday night I slept solidly for 12.  I was rested, perfected and really looking forward to it.

The gaiters fitted (and worked)

The event was exceptionally well organised and the volunteers a pleasure to deal with, so helpful and kind.

The mass start and run had me chuckling no end, absolute chaos, in a good way!

So why, after three laps, was I hating it? 

I admit my heart had sank a little at the start of the week as the weather forecast showed not the extreme conditions of a deep Scottish winter. 6 months before Strathpuffer had been a 'bucket list' dream; to survive 24 hours in the toughest of endurance events.  A real challenge, to take my physical experiences to the next level.  I wasn't mentally prepared, at all, for ambient monotony.  It wasn't just me.  Several people, including marshals, made comment about how it wasn't 'proper puffer' and how everyone had it easy this year.  The weather had devalued the event in the eyes of some, and it certainly derailed my own personal reasons for being there.  The challenge, for me, had been to survive the cold.  

That is not saying that this years event wasn't tough.  It was tough, in a different way.  It was tough for me as the course was seriously lacking appeal.  That wonderful little trail that glistened, with interesting rocky sections, fast descents, line choices and beauty was gone.  It had been replaced by a slow, draggy muddy mess of miserable soulless swamps, descents that required pedaling and barely any smiles.  Warm mud at that. People were cutting corners, taking short cuts, riding straight down the hill, anything to avoid the mud and make up some fun.  

A spectator asked me to rate how I was feeling on a scale of 1 to 10 on about lap eight.  I say 'about' as I wasn't keeping score.  I don't keep track of time, lap or placings - what's the point, they'd have no impact on my ability to keep pedaling, the point is to just keep going, and that's that.  Anyway, I couldn't answer him, because it wasn't an easy question to answer.  Physically I was a 7, still feeling strong, tiring yes, but no soreness, no aches or worrying issues, no saddle sore, comfortable clothing, perfectly warm feet.  In fact some tightness I had in my knee at the start of the event had gone and I was probably in better physical shape than expected at that point in time.  But mentally I was barely scraping a 1.  Life had lost it's colour by then, and not because of the encroaching darkness.

Normally night riding is a favourite thing, seeing the lights weave in and out of trees, the colours of the tents and they are illuminated internally, the glow from fire pits.  None of that was warming my soul, I just didn't care.  I had a war inside my head that was taking over, and there were several factors at play.  

I was feeling guilty for being so reliant on Steve.  I couldn't tell if he was enjoying it or not, because I know he would do anything to keep me happy. But I was worried it was putting unfair pressure on him to keep me up and running.  My hatred of the course had me coming in and stopping on every lap for tea and food whilst he tried to fix everything that had got jammed with mud or broken on the lap before.  My shifter broke on a descent and I was praying it would be terminal, but Steve fixed it in a few minutes in perfect pit crew practice. He never once complained, but that didn't stop me worrying that I was expecting too much.  I hate depending on others and I hate people feeling like I take them for granted.

Mostly though, the issues ran far deeper.  What had originally been a personal challenge to survive the winter weather had become something much more.  Just like racing downhill, by the time race day arrived I was dealing with all sorts of expectations from other people.  Comments about which podium place I would come home with, how I would no doubt do well.  People were expecting me to race and perform at the top level.  

The truth and purity of endurance is lost for me when it becomes about being better than others.  It shouldn't be about placings, or results, it should be about meeting personal goals and finding yourself. I wasn't finding anything.  I was wasting annual leave not having fun on a slow mucky course in the most beautiful part of the UK when I could just be appreciating my time there, taking photos and spending quality time with Steve. I could have spent the weekend lost in the wilds having a true adventure, immersed in the scenery, not desperately trying to be mindful of it, whilst trying not to think about the expectations others had for my performance.  

I kept plodding for another lap.  I knew I could keep going physically, but I had no desire at all to keep going mentally.  I also knew, if I did talk myself back into continuing, the vicious cycle would continue.  Likes and kudos and positive feedback. More expectation.  Again I would be looking for a challenge to validate my worth to others, rather than fill the sense of adventure and longing I have for high places.  Money, time, and effort to be 'recorded' to have times put down, to race and be ranked to prove my worth to other people.  Stopping felt pure and it still does. It was pure, because there was no excuse to pull out.  Physically I was good, materially I was good, and I was well supported, but stopping was all too easy.

You have to be 100 percent focused to ride round in circles for 24 hours, with clear heartfelt reasons to do so.  I loved 24:12, it was a challenge to see how far I could take it and whether I could survive the night.  The course was brilliant and, even on the last laps, the descents were still making me smile.  I had reason to be there, and that's why I did so well.  My memories from the event aren't about the final results, they are the night sections, the flow when you know every root on a descent, the people, the feeling that I was indeed, finding new strength inside myself.  There was none of that at Strathpuffer.  No fun, no winter challenge, just a horrid desire to perform for other people.

As soon as I made the decision to stop, the colour returned to life. Fairy lights twinkled brightly, yet I had barely noticed them when I had ridden past 20 minutes before. The moon hazed brightly though the trees. It was stunningly beautiful as I sat with Steve by the fire pit, no longer caring that my lungs were filling up with smoke.

I read into the evening, a book called 'Into The Wild', envious of the true adventures within.  There is so much of this life to experience, and pushing my limits will still be part of that, but not in the context of competition.  I don't want my own achievements being devalued by their ranking against those of others, and I don't want others to use me as an inspiration to race, unless that is where their heart lies.

Postscript: The next day, after a good nights sleep, in the cold light of day, the decision to stop could be assessed with a clear head and no flight-or-fight response.  It was still very much the right one. We had a fantastic trip home, criss-crossing through some of the stunning Scottish scenery, plotting our adventures for the year and with no regrets.  

Thursday, 21 January 2016

The last ride

A chaotic day cramming in work, packing, obtaining magic-menstruation-prevention, and collecting borrowed batteries to power lights for 17.5 hours of darkness. Steve was busy still insulating the van and finishing off bike maintenance until late in the evening. I'd never have been able to do this without him. The best pit crew ever.

It was 9.30 pm yesterday evening by the time the Enduro was on the road for one last ride. Wearing odd gloves, jeans and trainers, everything else packed away, it was 30 minutes of solace. 

It wasn't far, just far enough to keep the legs spinning and keep some sanity. 

It was nice to be out, the half moon glowing in still air.  Clear skies, crisp trails, so cold

.. . And then it was done. The last three months have seen my mileage and time on the bike drop to a third of what I would normally consider adequate training for an endurance event. Here's hoping less is indeed more. I am certainly well rested, not in the slightest overtrained. Saturday I will find out if the balance has slipped too far the other way. Fingers crossed it's all little red riding hood. 

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The wonders of modern technology

A perfectly planned taper involved a couple of steady road rides this week, just to keep the legs spinning.  However, the roadie is in pieces and the tarmac is covered with black ice, so the choice was mountain biking or bust.  The 29er would have been perfect, steady, nice low gears, easy to spin, but that's in pieces too.

In fact everything is packed or in pieces, except the Enduro, so I went out on that and stuffed-off the zone 1, for fun on the hills. 

It was all going well until I came to the first section of tech.  Press on the seat dropper lever....nothing.  "Oh, it's frozen".  Darn.  Press again, nothing.  Figure I may as well enjoy a ride, even with an XC style stance, I didn't have to plummet steep stuff tonight, just stretch my legs.  But oh no, that seat post had been released and that was that.  It wouldn't lock up, or down.

Well, until I pulled out the zip ties, my new Leatherman and DIY'd a solution. 

No crappy descents home for me.  Ha! I had awesome photos of my repair skillz, but the laptop died and they are now being retrieved by the technological geekcrew.  I'll add them at some point. (EDIT - added and OK, maybe not that awesome, but you know, it worked)

'Tis a bugger though.  Damn wish I hadn't sold my (hydraulically activated) reverb.  Steve is going to be replacing cables and greasing like mad tomorrow, but I'll have to chuck a normal solid seatpost in just in case.  It'll be like 2007 all over again!

It was superb on the hills tonight, through streaming eyes the frost glistened and there was barely a breeze.  I could have ridden for hours.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

My body hates me, and why did no one tell me about Norethisterone?

I have done everything I can.  It may be a once in a lifetime opportunity to do Strathpuffer, so I've done my best to get prepared, trained to the best of my ability trying desperately to balance work and not overtraining.  Money has been spent on kit, ice tyres, boots and hotels.  Steve has worked so hard to prepare the van to sleep in.  I even managed to visit the course thanks to Devs and work coming up trumps with a survey in the far North. Everyone has been supportive and I've been really excited about the entire event. 

And the one thing I can't control is my body.  Six months ago my normally pretty regular menstruation was perfectly timed to get it all out of the way, with a few days recovery, before the race. 

You know what?  Of course, everything has gone out of synch.  I was very late last month, and again this month.  Call it 'Sods Law' 'God Hates Me' 'An Extra Challenge' or whatever you wish, it is a nightmare.  I can barely get up out of a chair with cramps when my period hits and it takes a few more days to shake off the tiredness.  If it doesn't arrive today, 6 months of training, all that money spent, all the hard work, all the effort Steve has put in to help out, all of it will have no bearing on my ability to pedal for 24 hours and I will be spending my time in agony, drained, bleeding profusely and dosed up on painkillers. 

I was so angry yesterday (probably not helped by those hormones grr), but I keep telling myself, in the big scheme of things, this is all just nonsense.  There are women in the Third World that have to go through hell every month, at the hands of brutal men and medieval belief systems.  There are young children who are forced into an adult world by the arrival of menstruation, married off and pregnant at 12.  There are people and animals abused every day, starving, dying and hungry, and my biggest worry is whether I can torture myself for 24 hours when I can stop at any time, and have endless supply of cheap pain medication.

Well, you know what.  It'll be challenge, but it is what it is and there is nothing that can be done.

Or is that so?  For years I have thought this was another one of those 'can't control' things.  I have looked before for chemicals to 'induce' a period.  Bring it on, on time.  Nothing.  Well, other than nasty stuff like Penny Royal Tea, of course.  Mind you, I probably would have had a go with that yesterday if I could have got hold of some....

Today though, I randomly decided, in desperation, to do the really obvious thing and speak to a pharmacist.  She tells me that there is, indeed, a magic pill!  One that doesn't induce, but delays your period.  Suddenly, the Western World need to be in control of absolutely everything is fulfilled.  I smile with relief....until I find out it is prescription only.  I phone the surgery.  They refuse to let me see a doctor today "only emergency appointments for real medical emergencies are left", but they can get me in with a practice nurse tomorrow.  5 pm tomorrow.  I am supposed to start taking this Norethisterone stuff three days before my period is due, and it is already 3 days past due right now.  The literature states it doesn't stop bleeding.  I may be too late.  I am back out of control, again.  However, the last glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel is this random forum thread.  Perhaps it may stop the bleeding after all.  I don't want to take the stuff, I don't want the side effects, I don't want to mess around with nature, I don't want to risk a nasty dose of side-effect PMS, an unbearable headache or sickness for the weekend, but neither do I want to be in physical pain and unable to make the most of an event I have been preparing so keenly for.

Why am I posting this?  For information, for others.  There are other options than being at the will of nature, I've just found out too late.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Foggy Fun with Friends

There wasn't much time.  What with cleaning off yesterday's integument of mud,  panic-packing for Strathpuffer, arranging work for tomorrow and the dreaded supermarket trip, life was most definitely getting in the way of cycling.  However, I was keen to get out on a social ride.  Luckily, riding friends Heather, Mark, their son Magnus and Vicky were happy to join me and enjoy the wonderful Malvern views we all know and love. Or perhaps not....

....but views are only a tiny part of what makes Malvern great.  Big wide bridleways must never be under-rated.  It's so much more social being able to ride along side by side, chatting and riding, rather than consistently following the wheel in front.  How wonderful to see a mother and son sharing the trails.

Hands up who's going to open the gate.

Styling it up for the camera

We pedalled for an hour, steadily and with care for walkers.  It's all too easy to let the speed build up on familiar trails, riding on autopilot, until silhouettes suddenly appear out of the shroud of fog.

Magnus looking down on the last descent to the bus shelter.  There is something mysterious about riding in the fog, even on a busy Sunday.

After we said goodbye, I dropped back via the new trail.  Linking it in seamlessly from the main line makes for a wonderfully long and varied run to home with steep loam, extended off-camber, many corners, a plummet into a natural berm, rocks, roots and a couple of stream crossings.  Muddy and smiling, the Enduro was hosed down again, all the washing a minor price to pay for the fun had. 

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Stinchcombe and North Nibley

It was another solo ride, a bit of escape, a little pedal turning as the wind-down week to Strathpuffer starts.  18 very muddy miles, finally putting together a decent, mostly off-road, link between Stinchcombe and North Nibley downhill trails.

The ride started with a steady warm up through the Woodfield estate before hitting the tough bridleway climb to the golf course.  Rather than follow the usual route, I braved a little singletrack exploration, following a lovely trail which undulated along the side of the hill, eventually dropping to converge with the main bridleway run to Stancombe. 

A little road work brought me to another new adventure, a byway leading off the main road, identified that morning on Google Streetview.  "Ah, why not have a look?" It was great; an easy off-road pedal up to North Nibley, and, from the look of it, a sneaky bit of swoopy singletrack running alongside, obviously ridden in by the local mountain bikers, perfectly placed for some fun on the way back.

The main climb up to Nibley was much easier than expected,  My memory held visions of pushing the heavy downhill bike up a barely-walkable hill.  In fact, it was a steady spin to the top, past the large number of walkers, all of whom were pleasant and happy to make way to let me past.   

The view across the extensive Severn floodplains to Bristol is wonderful from Nibley, even more so from the top of the Monument.

I spent some time checking out the current state of the downhill trails, which are better than I have ever seen them.  The trail pixies are a hard working bunch in those woods.  Despite this, I didn't do a lot of riding.  I just wasn't really in the zone for big stuff, riding solo, in XC kit, on a trail bike, with no pads and no recent downhill practice.  The head was definitely saying 'no, not today' and so I headed back over to Stinchcombe, pretty content that it would be there for another day. 

Stinchcombe downhill trails, however, are on the opposite end of the spectrum.  Not because the trail pixies there are lazy, far from it, it was a fantastic (albeit smaller scale) play-place.  No, it is now 'no more' because of mass felling.  It's mortifying to see.  So much hard work lost, just like that.  Even the main bridleway has been torn up and overlaid with hardcore. 

At least the field edge path had been given a reprise and it was still a nice pedal over to Breakheart Quarry.

Breakheart Quarry is a fantastic little community project.  There is a range of facilities, including walking trails, a field centre, play areas for children and a purpose built mountain bike trail. 

It's not a long loop, but it drops the entire height of the hillside with some great corners, a few small jumps and interesting traverses, before climbing out again on a very well constructed switchback climb.  I have still not got over my surprise at finding such a great little gem in Dursley, and it makes me smile every time I ride it.

There is also a small cafĂ©, with a coffee machine, honesty box, handcrafted seating area and recycling facilities for the cups. 

The light was dropping.  I had the lights in the rucksack, but the mud and steep climbs had made the ride feel tough and I was just about ready to call it quits.  I cruised the easy Cotswold singletrack along the top, looking down over Cam, Dursley and the surrounding hills. 

No matter how long I live in Malvern, Dursley will always feel like home.  I sat on this bench as a toddler, and here it still is, 35 years later, overlooking the Severn and the Forest of Dean beyond. 

Before the drop back to Woodfield, I rode over to the Weatherhouse, and just sat there a while, watching the light fall as the birds tried to out-sing the rumbling traffic of the M5. 

 It was so loud, and so peaceful, all at the same time.

Riding back to Mum's, I passed the tiny Quarry chapel.  It is indeed 'small' and not 'far away'

A familiar field, planted and five minutes from home.  Or twenty, as the case may be.  Sticky, heavy, red clay took less-than-no-time to clog up the bike and stop the wheels turning.  I cleaned the mud off.  It plasticined itself back on. Eventually the field drops away a little, but only just enough to keep the bike rolling slowly to the gate.   

More cleaning with a luckily available branch followed

But it wasn't enough and the chain spat itself off in a big mud-induced tantrum. I resorted to pushing, with a big grin it has to be said, through the estate and home to a horrified mother. Heh.  37 years old, and I have yet to grow up.