Sculling along, singing a song

This is a long story, but it should make up for not having posted anything in almost a year. 🙂 Anyway, it started in 2010, when I headed off to Whistler Bike Park with the intention of making all the jumps on A-Line. I made it home without any life-changing injuries, but on returning to Scotland I discovered I had lost the will to ride, and all my old mountain biking buddies had bought road bikes and had children. The following year I decided to sell my collection of mountain bikes and take up rowing. After many hundreds of miles of floundering in various boats, I found myself on the Castle Semple Rowing Club’s veteran squad. I’ve mostly rowed in quads, fours and eights, but this year I’m trying to race the single scull.

Ah, the single scull. I want to write about it like a Victorian warning his readers of the evils of the penny farthing that bucketh its rider off in the street. It’s basically a long, narrow plastic tub with 2 paddles, how hard can it be? Well, it is narrower than your backside and completely unstable, and to get it up to racing speed requires at least 30 strokes per minute with a good fraction of your body weight behind each one. The oar blades have to go in at just the right depth and come out again cleanly, and you also have to keep track of where you are and steer a course backwards without looking over your shoulder too much.

If I stay calm and don’t try too hard, I have a chance. If I get nervous, the boat starts to lurch around. If I try to figure out what is going on and fix it, that just makes it worse.

All this was explained to me by Rachel our coach from a small motorboat on Castle Semple Loch, after a series of disastrous 200m and 500m pieces at what was supposed to be race pace. “I can’t fault your committment”, she said, “but you’re getting nervous and you’re overthinking it. You know what I like to do, is pick a song with the right tempo and sing it to myself. Nothing too manic though. I like the Nolans.”

Suddenly it dawned on me that sculling had become a metaphor for life itself. Hadn’t I just spent a day lurching around the office and making things worse through trying to fix them? Made an entire career out of getting nervous and overthinking things?

Well, now I’m in the mood for dancing.

Fort William or bust. Or both.

The United Kingdom has exactly one track suitable for World Cup downhill racing, and it’s situated at the Nevis Range ski resort near Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. According to the Nevis Range blurb, the track is “built to test world-class riders and their bikes to the limit”, or something like that. The gondola juddered out of the bottom station and began its crawl up the mountain, with me inside and my Hustler dangling on the back. I wondered, not without a little fear, what kind of a “testing” would be dished out to a so-so rider on a cross-country bike with Domains bolted to the front.

I’ve known about the Fort William track ever since it was built, and like many other Scottish mountain bikers (I should imagine) I’ve oscillated between wanting to ride it, and being scared to go anywhere near it. I nearly did it last year, but after watching this YouTube footage I was scared off by the gratuitous amounts of big air. But this year, with a week off work and nothing else to do, I oscillated my way onto the 9.07 train from Glasgow Queen Street to Mallaig, via Fort William.

Some magazine poll somewhere voted this the most scenic railway journey in the world, and once you get over the shock of passing through the nastiest parts of Glasgow, it probably is. The journey across Rannoch Moor fills you with a massive sense of “Whose crazy idea was it to build a railway here?” And if you carry on from Fort Bill to Mallaig, you’re on the route of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Express. (The big bridgey thing is the Glenfinnan Viaduct.) In fact, if you catch the Jacobite Steam Train, it probably is the Hogwarts Express.

But I digress. I analyze things too much, and if I thought about the consequences of everything I was going to do, I would never even get out of bed. I found that the secret is just to take steps one at a time, without thinking about the ultimate goal. Get out of bed, get dressed, get packed, get on the train, get off at Fort Bill. Follow the (very nice) cycle path along the A82 towards Inverness. When you reach Torlundy, leave the road and follow the signs through Leanachan Forest. See the downhill track slashing clean down the side of Aonach Mor, a white scar of switchbacking loose dirt and rock gardens, recently regraded from “Black” to “Bike Park Orange”. Oh no! But that’s the beauty of the baby steps method, by the time I actually think about the stupidity of what I’m going to do, as old Will said, “I am in blood stepped in so far…”

The next step was to get a gondola pass, and if you’re not a regular user, to do this you have to sign a “participation statement”. It’s basically a waiver that says, “I understand that the downhill tracks are hardcore badass and if I get hurt or killed riding them, it’s not Nevis Range’s problem.” I actually like signing these things. I hate the culture of litigation. I ride mountain bikes in full knowledge of all the awful things that could go wrong, and I wouldn’t dream of blaming anyone else for an accident.

Well, except maybe Mr. Newton and his law of universal gravitation, which says that objects attract each other with a force proportional to their masses and the inverse square of the distance between them. Standing on the “Pinkbike.com” start platform, feeling like a total newbie in the ridiculous plastic body armour I hired from the bike shop, that gravitation seemed awfully strong. But there was now only one baby step remaining, to release the brakes and put in a couple of good cranks, and that was what I did.

The little board at the gondola station said “DH track conditions: Fast and dry”, and indeed it was. The speed began to build amongst clouds of white dust. Right hand berm, hip jump, doof! came up short, into a left hander, some rocks, boardwalk, more rocks, left hander onto more boardwalk, Yeeha I feel like Steve Peat! Then the first of the big rock gardens, Hey what does all this red spray paint mean, Smash, Arrgh, fuck! I fly over the bars, bounce off an enormous red crash mat (no doubt placed by Nevis Range in fear of litigation), plough along on my side for a bit, and I’m lying face down in the dirt, everything hurts in spite of the armour, and I hear a hissing noise which is of course, to cap it all, a puncture.

Could this be why real downhillers walk the course before riding it for the first time? I had plenty of time to reflect on this as I mended the puncture, a process whose details I won’t bore you with. Was this real mountain biking at last? If you go to a major trail centre like Glentress, the trails are smooth and manicured. Even the rock gardens are just token features, with smooth rocks deliberately placed to give an exciting feeling of riding over rocks without actually being dangerous. But here it was as if the rocks were just left the way they were on the hill, or worse, arranged in diabolical jagged heaps to “test world-class riders to their limit”. And yet in the middle of all this hardness and machismo, someone thoughtfully placed a big foam crash-pad.

After a few more of these comedy crashes, I somehow made it into the section that the DH riders call the “motorway” and was able to lay off my burning brakes at last. As the name suggests, this is fast and smooth, but unlike the M74 it’s packed with big TV-friendly jumps, each one with fire road access and viewing platform for the World Cup camera crews. This is the section I was afraid of, after watching all the big air madness on YouTube. But now I was actually riding it, the jumps didn’t seem that big! They were only about two-thirds of the size they had grown to in my mind. Ok, I admit I was so tired from the top section that I couldn’t go fast enough to clear them, but nothing bad happened when I came up short, and in my book, any jump that you can case without getting hurt is an easy jump. The World Cup riders must be pedalling like stink all the way down here to get the amount of air that they do.

The last bit of the motorway drops straight into the Nevis Range car park. It’s the main part that punters at the World Cup will see, so they made it pretty big. You plunge down a steep chute called “The Wall”, a flat left-hander, then over a huge mound of dirt which is also a berm for the 4x track (with a little kicker ramp that you can use to launch yourself clean over the hill, if you’re faster than me and didn’t scrub speed before going down the Wall) and finally two large drops to flat. Bang, doof, the dent in the Hustler’s seat tube from the rocker link slamming into it gets bigger. Thud, screech of brakes, holy shit, it’s over and I kind of survived it. “Are you coming back up for another go”, asks a guy on a Santa Cruz Bullit who saw me crash on the way down. He came all the way up from Portsmouth to do this track, which is dedication. Yeah, I’m coming.

Waiting for the train in Ft. Bill station, I got talking to an elderly couple whose son, they told me, was into mountain biking. “He broke his collarbone down at Glentress, you know.” Oh, I said, did it heal lopsided? Yes, he now has one shoulder wider than the other. And yet he never signed a participation statement. They commented on my leg, which looked like it had been cheese-gratered in spite of the knee and shin guards.

“You mean you got hurt like that, and you went back to ride the downhill course again?”

I said, “Yeah, it’s like falling off a horse, you have to get straight back on again, or you’ll lose your confidence.” Or something like that.

Carron Valley in black double diamond shocker!

I was doing some reading on the failure of the Carron Valley trails project, when I came across this… Funniest thing I’ve seen all week! Black diamond grade? Doubles with aggressive faces? Massive air?!

Are we talking about the same Carron Valley here?

I ask you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is this really “massive air”?

The headless biker of Carron Valley

And if that was massive air, then what’s this?!

Or were CVDG simply stitched up by the 7Stanes crew?

It’ll never look this shiny again.

my new cove hustler frame

My new Cove Hustler frame, just after I’d finished building it up with the parts off the cracked Stinky. I’m very pleased with this frame. The long top tube is much more comfortable for my lanky ass, but the head angle is still slack enough to make it handle well at high speed, and it looks reasonably sturdy. The result is a kind of cross between an XC bike and a mini freeride bike, ideal for riding up to the top of Innerleithen and back down again several times in one day! 🙂 I wouldn’t feel happy doing full size DH and freeride stunts on it, but I’m scared of those anyway, so it all works out. I actually prefer the 5.3″ of travel on this frame to the 6″ that the Stinky had.

So far, I’ve taken it to Inners, Glentress and Ae several times, and raced it in the Avalanche Enduro, where I came 73rd out of 105 riders. Hoping to try the Fort Bill downhill soon, and maybe a trip to the Alps if we end up with rubbish weather in Scotland this summer.

Oh and RIP Stinky! (note the difference in cockpit size…)

deceased stinky

Kona name their bikes after farts

So I guess it’s only appropriate that I cracked one.

While dismantling the back end to renew the swingarm bearings (which turned out to be completely shot)

Busted Kona after dismantling

Oh noes, what’s this funny little lump in the paint? I ground the paint off to reveal…

Cracked swingarm overview

A nasty little crack 🙁 Oh well, this explains the creaking noises that were coming from the back end last season.

cracked swingarm closeup

I have no idea how this happened. Stinkies are supposed to be tough, and the previous owner didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would huck off his garage roof all day. And I didn’t ride off anything that big, either! This part of the frame seems to be exposed to a lot of bending forces from chain tension, so maybe it just came to the end of its fatigue life.

Or maybe I’m just rad to the edge of sickness.

When a man is tired of tires…

Yes, another gripping blog post about bicycle tires!

First of all, big up the Bontrager Hard Case, a “puncture-proof” tyre for road bikes. I put them on my commuter bike and have had 0 punctures so far, down from an average of 2 per week with the stock tyres.

Second, fat rims need fat tyres! I run Sun Mammoth rims on my Stinky, and Alastair at Wheelcraft persuaded me that it’s OK to run regular sized MTB tyres on them. His “loaf of bread theory” is that the tyre works better sat inside a wide rim like a loaf of bread in a baking tin, than bulging out of a narrow rim like a Starbucks muffin. Well, he’s wrong. I put a 2.5″ Big Earl on the front, in place of the old 2.25″ tyre, and the bike corners so much better it’s unreal. I think the narrower tyre ends up with a flattened tread profile that stops the contact patch from assuming the right shape when you lean into a corner. Like putting a car tyre on your motorbike. It kind of works on the back, but you wouldn’t want it on the front.

Finally, an apology to the Conti Gravity tyre that I bitched about a few posts ago. I got hate mail from someone who lives next door to the Conti factory 😉 I put it on the front of my Inbred and it works great. It’s just a bit wussy to be a back tyre on a freeride bike.

10 things left to ride in Scotland

Here are my top 10 features on Scotland’s MTB trails that I’ve tried to ride and failed. (the list of things that I know about but haven’t dared to try yet is about the same size, but not as interesting.)

  1. The diabolical cunning of Rik Allsop gives us the skinny bridge at Drumlanrig Castle. A 4 inch wide plank covered in slippery moss that crosses a large ditch, cunningly positioned after a sharp bend at the top of a long climb. I haven’t even managed to approach it on the right line yet, let alone cross it.donezor’d!
  2. The amusingly named “Back, Crack and Sack Attack” at Laggan. The Crack Attack section tipped me over the bars and ripped a hole in my brand new back tyre. Lord knows what Sack Attack would have ripped a hole in, if I’d got that far :-OWent back, attacked, sack intact.
  3. The McMoab rocks in Kirroughtree Forest. They’re too lumpy and go on for too long, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
  4. The wall ride in Glentress bike park. I still have scars from the last two times I’ve tried it. Should have ridden more BMX back in the 80s.
  5. The Slab at Dalbeattie. I believe this 30 foot long, 45 degree rock slab with a poor runout is made of gritstone and is exceedingly grippy in all weathers, but it still looks scary when you’re peering down from the top on a damp day.dealt with!
  6. The qualifier for the Slab.
  7. The Matador downhill run at Innerleithen.
  8. Glentress’s Ewok Village. I always end up falling off the skinny bits. I swear when I fall off, so maybe it’s North Shore Tourette’s. (Ewok Village rotted and was demolished)
  9. Any steep climb with wet roots near the top.
  10. The 4X course at Fort William. This was embarrassing, I had to get off and walk part of it with people watching. Do not pass go or collect 100 Rad Points.

I’ve not really noticed any trends except that if I wear tights I always end up having a really bad day. I think I need baggy shorts and kneepads to get Frankenstinky’s respect. Also, Continental Gravity tyres are crap. If you inflate them hard enough to stop pinch flats, they don’t grip any more, and I have a big hole in the knee of my new baggies to prove it. Go for the Panaracer Cinder 2.3 or the Maxxis Minion instead, folks.who disabled=

Hone Schmone

I enjoyed myself so much at Innerleithen that I decided to go back on the uplift day. This is a service that hauls riders to the top of the mountain in a bus, and their bikes in a cattle truck. It’s popular enough that they ran two 50-seater buses and two 10-ton trucks all day. Grinding up a dirt road in a bus packed full of 49 middle-aged guys in Robocop-like body armour is a weird experience.

It was all going great until I crashed on my third or fourth run of the day. I took the wrong line over one of the drop-offs on Cadon Bank, landed in some loose rocks to the side of the trail, and wiped out completely. I wasn’t too badly hurt, and I carried on riding for the rest of the day. I even went down Matador and took a look at the big drop-offs. (That was all I did though: look at them. These guys make the 8-foot drop look easy.)

But then on my ride home one of my pedals just dropped off! The thread in the arm of my brand new Shimano Hone crank was totally gone. I thought maybe I’d wrecked it when I crashed, but if that was the case, why didn’t it break there and then? I’ve heard Internet rumours of other people stripping the threads in Hones and having the steel inserts come out of Saints, but I assumed it would never happen to me! 🙁 Maybe Shimano’s Hollowtech system is based on an Easter egg, with cranks made out of high-tensile chocolate.

The shop where I got them said they’d try to submit it as a warranty claim. But now I’m without my bike while they sort that out, and what if I don’t want another chocolate crankset?! Oh well, commuting on a 38lb freeride bike was getting old anyway, and my Genesis Skyline just arrived. All I need is a pair of my sister’s jeans and I’m good to go.

Danger Day – a mountain biking story

Normally on a Saturday morning, I’d drag myself out of bed around 10 o’clock, make some strong coffee, and check my e-mail.

Last Saturday was not normal.

At 10 o’clock I was squinting in the sunshine, peering into a black hole in a forest. A trail led steeply down in there, somewhere in steepness between a chute and a cliff. I was expected to fling myself into this hole. On a bike.

Actually, it all started with the bike. I’ve ridden mountain bikes for years. I always worked on them myself, and upgraded them part by part, so technically I still have the same bike that my dad bought me when I was 15. Like George Washington’s axe, it’s had several new handles and several new heads, but it’s still the same old axe. This year, with the addition of a second-hand Kona Stinky frame, it got full suspension with 5″ of travel at the front and 6″ at the rear. It already had disc brakes and burly Sun Mammoth wheels. It lurked in my hallway, and every time I passed, it whispered: “Dude. Ride me off a cliff. It’s gonna be sick.”

So, inexorably, the Stinky and I were drawn towards heavier and heavier riding. Spooky Wood and the freeride park at Glentress. The amusingly named “Ae Line” at Ae Forest. A weekend of mayhem at Fort William and Laggan. Now the downhill trails at Innerleithen were the proverbial bomb with my name on it.

Still that hole in the forest was waiting. I put on my full-face helmet, strapped on knee, shin and elbow guards, while the rest of the party did the same and then put on body armour too. I didn’t have any armour and wished I did. A sign by the trailhead graded it: “Bike Park Extreme. Tabletops, doubles and drop-offs. Jumping ability mandatory. In case of an accident, dial 999 or 112 from a mobile phone…” Accident. Flies buzzed round a dead rabbit in the blazing heat.

I knew that if any accident did happen, it would probably involve jumping ability. I learnt to jump a BMX on ramps made of scrap wood as a teenager and have been a mediocre jumper ever since. Now add an extra three stone of flesh, make all the jumps four times bigger, and put it all on a steep downward slope to make it five times faster. Kids bounce, adults shatter. I got coaching from Chris Ball at Dirt School.

To cut a long story short, Chris was awesome. He pointed out a few silly flaws in my jumping technique, and by the end of the day I was feeling a lot smoother and more in control. The video evidence showed that I was getting more air than before, too.

But nevertheless, the hole with its “doubles” and “mandatory jumping ability” was still waiting. I now knew what this implied. A double is a jump composed of a launching ramp and a landing ramp, separated by a pit that you have to jump over. Mandatory means that if you land in the pit at speed, you’re screwed. Two local riders showed up, invited us to follow them down, launched themselves into the hole, and were gone in an instant. Ed, the newbie freerider with the bright orange hair, flung his chunky Norco Six in there next. Iain, psyching himself up for a fortnight in Whistler, would go last. The hole was now waiting for me and there was no reasonable excuse to get away.

I took a run-up, dropped in over a small rock ledge, and straight away I was in what could be best described as a spin dryer trying to mix me with gravel and pine trees. The trail plummeted down over drop-offs, snaked left and right, and then there were a bunch of jumps. And I messed them all up and landed in that pit. It was really just a hollow, with sides shallow enough that sheer momentum carried me straight out of it, though I came within an inch of flying over the bars and headbutting the ground.

It was a mess. There really was nothing for it but to go back and try again, until I either cleared the doubles or woke up in the Edinburgh Royal. On my second attempt, I went slowly and tried to read what the trail was saying, how the builders intended it to be ridden. It explained that I had previously been going too fast to roll the jumps safely, yet not fast enough to clear them safely. It said “Commit, and go a shitload faster”.

The day had started sunny, but now the air was hot, dull and sultry, and growls of thunder could be heard, getting closer, echoing around the mountain as we neared the top again. The light was now dim, and there was the hole in the woods, now completely black, waiting for my third attempt.

And I was determined to make it my final attempt, one way or another. I took a couple of hard pedal strokes along the fire road and dropped in as fast as I could.

Something then happened that I can’t explain. I don’t know what I did, but I swear that I spent more time in the air than on the ground, sailing through the dark woods like a deranged hang glider, or a butterfly stapled to a brick and lobbed. The section was over in an instant. I caught up with the other riders who had gone before me, and still carrying all of our speed, we burst out of the forest and tore down a disused trail that the locals had tipped us off about. We were now carving down the open hillside as fast as we could, blasting over drop-offs, down into a valley shrouded in sheets of rain opening before us as lightning cracked, and spray from above and from the wheels below began to soak us through, as if we were bringing the storm, the act of our descending itself carving open the clouds and pouring out torrential rain.

I swear that’s what it felt like. It f***ing rocked.