4 Comments

#jennride 2017

I tentatively open my sticky, bleary eyes. My head has a dull ache, accompanied by little stabs of sharper pain. Wearily, I open the tailgate of the van and swing tired legs around to sit on the edge while I make a coffee. I feel like I've just ridden 100 miles.

Unfortunately, this is just the hangover. The morning after the night before. The morning before the day and night after. I did exactly the same at last years #jennride. This time, I vowed not to get lured in by the ever expanding beer menu at the Hawkshead Brewery in Staveley. I failed. 

Coffee consumed, I lay out my kit. New waterproof shorts... an offering to the weather gods, Morvelo sweary socks (obvs) and a battered old Morvelo cap. Not mine, but hers. Jenn would have loved this event. We rode so many of the trails on the route. She'd have liked the sense of fun... the freedom for people to follow a route if they choose, to cut it short if they wanted, to do something a little longer and harder if they felt like it as well. Having fun on bikes for a little bit longer than a normal day ride. 

I wheel my bike out of the van. It feels light, and is unencumbered by luggage, save for a couple of food pouches near the bar. Most people are splitting the 100 mile route into two, camping out somewhere on the route. I plan to do as I did last year, and keep riding through to the finish... not because this is about being fast, or 'winning', but because I want to ride into the night, want to feel tired, want to step outside of my comfort zone again. I've not been riding enough recently... actually, I've been riding plenty, but they've been short bites. Every ride has been fun and I wouldn't have swapped a single one; I need more though. I need to remind myself that I can go further if I try. I need to feel fit again. I feel soft, my legs feel skinnier than normal, my head feels weaker than normal. 

The official start time was 9:30, although a few rolled out earlier to get a head start and make the most of the daylight. I sat in More Bakery, ordered another coffee and almond croissant and looked out over Staveley Mill Yard as the heavens opened. Fat rain. Fatter rain. Hail. Hmm. Thanks for nothing, weather gods. It actually brightened as 9:30 rolled around. I casually pushed away, behind some, before others who were still fiddling with luggage straps and layers and GPS devices. Climbing up to the Green Quarter, I slowly rolled past individuals and groups, my singlespeed necessitating a pace a little higher than I might otherwise had chosen. My head thumped with each heartbeat, a steady 'whuuump, whuuump' replaced by a quicker 'whump, whump, whump, whump'. 29+ tyres make a bit of a racket on tarmac, rhythmically echoing my cadence. I think there was a point where heart and wheels were beat-matched. God isn't a DJ, she's a mountain biker. It didn't last long as my cadence got lower and my heart rate raced.

By the time I climbed out of Long Sleddale, past the aptly named Tom's Howe, I was alone. As the day stretched out, I would pass the odd group of early starters, or folk who had taken a shortcut in the name of continued enjoyment. I was enjoying the solitude. Last year, I rode with Rob and Stu... friends who I met because of bikepacking and whose company have made many long rides more pleasurable. Where last year chatter, stories and laughter filled the gaps between climbs, this year, I had my thoughts for company. They ebbed and flowed with the terrain. There was never silence, but there was calm. 

Cranking up the last, short tarmac rise to Jenkin Crag, I was already thinking about what foodie delights I would find in Ambleside. On the top of a pedal stroke, fighting the resistance of pedal, crank, chain, tyre, road, gravity I heard a loud ping. In the split second following I processed the familiar, if rare, sound and decided it sounded like a snapped chain. As I came to my deduction, my knee impacted the stem and the bike came to an awkward halt. Fucking fuck. I knew I should have replaced the chain when I fitted a new singlespeed sprocket yesterday. At least I'd brought a few spare links worth with me. It was an inner plate that had shattered and a quick link would have left me with a frustrating walk/freewheel to the bike shop. After a surprisingly efficient bit of mechanic-ing, I rolled on, promising myself that I'd be a little more sympathetic to the chain for the rest of the ride. Less gurning, more spinning. 

Ignoring the bemused looks outside the Rambleside Tesco, I shoved a chicken caesar wrap in my mouth, downed a Coke and cracked on, keen to get away from the crowds. Unfortunately, the following sections of trail are always busy. Rydal and Loughrigg are understandably popular with those looking to spend an hour or two outside... even more so when the weather is threatening and the high tops are in cloud. With lots of 'excuse me', 'hello', 'would you mind if I squeeze past?' I broke free of the crowds and into Langdale. After another quick sandwich stop in Chapel Stile, I found a rhythm, enjoying the contrast of rolling tarmac then technical, awkward singletrack. 

Langdale gave way to Little Langdale, Tilberthwaite, Hodge Close and Arnside. Classic low level Lakeland riding – engaging, fun and cutting through beautiful woodland with the occasional glimpse of bigger hills. It is tough going on a singlespeed. The trails undulate and climb at a gradient that is just about rideable, but with 40 miles in the legs I could feel myself riding harder than I'd like to given I wasn't yet halfway. Fortunately Hawkshead came at just the right time. I was clearly a little tired as I forgot about the pie shop and headed straight to the Coop. Wandering the aisles, struggling to make up my mind what I wanted, I settled on an unconventional meal of sausage rolls, wrapped in kraft cheese slices and finished off with peanut M+Ms. 

The climb out of Hawkshead towards Grizedale is tough, and was made worse by a tummy busy digesting food. Left over M+Ms rattled in my feedbag, and I was reduced to walking early on. Fortunately it didn't take long to reach the red mountain bike trail and the flowing singletrack left me rejuvenated. Parkamoor was as beautiful as always, as were the singletrack trails that carried me to Claife Heights. The sun dipped low in the sky as I completed the wonderfully pointless and demoralising loop of Claife, returning to the trail I had left an hour ago, just 200 metres further down. 

My spin back to Ambleside was accompanied by the sound of a rumbling tummy, but I had little appetite. This time last year, we stopped at the chippy, ate lots and readied ourselves for the final push. This time, I once again called into Tesco, bought enough food to feed three and ate enough to feed a small child. The nausea of tiredness left my unable to finish a pasta salad, so I shoved my other culinary delights in to my pack along with a can of Red Bull. 

Lights on now, as I span along the road towards Bowness before peeling off and taking the sublime singletrack climb towards Town End. Tucked between drystone walls the darkness was heavy. It sat on my shoulders and pushed me into the ground. I tried not to think about finishing. Even though the distance remaining was ticking down, there were still hills to come.

There was still a hint of light at the bottom of Garburn Pass. Now back in the open, there were no trees to cast their shadow, and I looked out at slithers of sunset shining through brooding clouds. Garburn is a slog when fresh. I was now reduced to walking long parts of it, my lights catching sheep's eyes in the darkness. The descent wasn't much better. Tired arms and mind led to stupid line choices and delayed reactions. I walked until the gradient mellowed slightly. 

Reaching Kentmere was psychologically tough. It would have been so easy to roll down the tarmac, so close to home. The route, however, zig-zags back up in the Green Quarter. The gradient was mellow, but my legs had weakened to the point that it was quicker to push large chunks of the rutted track upwards. Occasionally, I'd remount only to have to dismount once more a few metres down the track. Rain hit, reflecting in the beam of my lights, quickly drenching me. Were I not so close to home, I'd have stopped and pulled on another layer, but the trail now tipped down. Twisting singletrack gave way to wider track, and finally tarmac. 

There was no grand finale to the ride. Just quiet streets, signing my name back in, and avoiding the drunk, fighting men in the yard. Returning to my van, I wiped away the worst of the mud, peeled off wet layers and climbed in the back. Lying flat on my back and staring into darkness, I waited for sleep to come. It wasn't a long wait.

The #jennride was organised by Rich Munro. It raised over £10,000 for St Gemma's Hospice and Macmillan. Thanks to him for arranging the event.

4 Comments

Comment

Talking

I like taking photographs when I ride. Snaps. Insta-memories. Distraction, interaction, reflection. 

Old pictures now carry a weight that I never expected when I took them. It's easy to make the photograph the memory. They don't capture the temperature, the mood, the argument 10 minutes beforehand or the smiles 10 minutes after. Still, I treasure each one, and try to take them as often as possible. Mundanities become records and marks in the ground. A way of tracing time more creatively than simply crossing out days on a calendar. Counting forward, rather than counting down to something that I know not. 

I didn't even take my phone out of my bag today. Ride, talk, smile. Look at the view. One that is so familiar, and I have shared with family, friends and Jenn. One which is as much part of me as any other. If landscape can be part of our DNA, then these steep sided valleys are my double-helix. 

Ironically, I think my first instagram photos are of a winter's day on these fells. Post-industrial packhorse trails covered in boiler plate ice. Today we ride them side-by-side, a combination of sweat and humid mist clinging to our skin.

Windmills slice through cloud lackadaisically. One of "those" trails. I'm sure there used to be trail there before. Now nettles and undergrowth conceal holes. Flowing singletrack, intertwined doubletrack. Paths overlapping and diverging. Lifetimes converging and parting. 

Words paint a thousand pictures. Or something like that. 

Comment

Comment

One in a million bluebells

There are fifty miles of memories beforehand, and fifty miles of memories after. Wonderful, unique moments, shared with good people.

For all my years of riding, for all the brilliant experiences I’ve had on a bike, there have been relatively few moments of perfection. I wasn’t expecting to find it here. The sun was low in the sky. Golden hour. Shafts of honeyed light tore through the pine trees, hitting vibrant bluebells lining the narrow snake of trail, trending downwards. I felt a tickle of adrenaline as my fatigued arms guided rigid forks in search of Flow, and I upon finding it, each turn created speed.

It was simple serendipity. Nothing more than a pleasing coincidence of evening light, seasonal flowers and a well-designed chunk of manmade singletrack, winding across the gentle contours. I was overwhelmed though. The scene felt hyper-real.  Sensual overload. I felt my cheeks fill with a smile, my eyes fill with tears and mind prickle with endorphins. I could hear her giggles ringing in my ears, chasing me down the trail. We rode faster.

I neither want nor need anything else in the world. Perfect. 

Comment

Comment

Run fast, fast boy

She used to tell me to 'run fast, fast boy.'

I did. For her. For me. Because I can.

It hurt, unrelentingly. Stuff does, though. 

Run fast, fast boy.

Comment

Comment

Quiet

Caught in a lull. Days of ferociously working and socialising and exercising. Knowing that there is more to come. Afraid of what might happen if I rest for longer. Not wanting to anyway. Doing everything with mediocrity. Just keep going. 

For now, I do rest though. At least my body does. Days of being surrounded by people simply turns up the volume on the silence now. I like my own company. Tonight I don’t feel lonely. Just alone. Slumping on the sofa is much better when there is a head resting on your shoulder. Fresh bedsheets to get crumpled on one side. Half a pizza for lunch tomorrow.

Being alone with the right person is maybe the best thing ever.

Comment

Happiness is fleet of foot.

Comment

Happiness is fleet of foot.

Sleet pinches and nips at my bare forearms. A cold wind whips at pink flesh and goosebumps form instantaneously. I like the sensation. Just enough discomfort to keep me lucid...

Comment

4 Comments

Rings

I’m standing at the washing up bowl, looking out of the kitchen window at our back garden. In just under a fortnight, it will no longer be mine. The garden never really was mine, though. It was yours. You cared for it, you tended and looked after the plants, you cut them back when they became unruly, you knew what they were all called. You bought the bird feeders, and kept them topped up...

4 Comments

Comment

Noise

The downside to one of those runs where the endorphins simply tumble out is at some point they stop.

The opposite of noise isn't necessarily quiet.

Comment

Comment

Supermoon

The train is racing through a bitterly cold night, pointing south. My hands are still regaining their warmth after fifteen minutes spent pacing the station platform, collar turned up ineffectually against the wind.  

I place my headphones over my ears. A huge moon hangs low in the sky, bridges across the Tyne illuminated. Soon I've left the city, and can only see my ghostly reflection staring back out of the darkness.  

Newcastle felt big - not geographically, but architecturally. Grand buildings, the grandest of bridges. A city in the way Leeds is not. Maybe I saw it with a tourist's eyes, but it felt like there was a greater substance. Leeds so often feels like nothing more than a themed open air shopping mall. Culture and history are a sideshow to high consumerism.

I will arrive in Leeds station in an hour, walk through the city centre, catch a bus to my corner of suburbia. I will walk under the same moon, now higher in the sky, smaller, less grand. I will ride in my small hills tomorrow. I'm beginning to crave something bigger. I'm not sure what yet.  

Comment

Comment

Corridors

I park the van at the Thackray Medical Museum. It is too big to fit in the multi-storey carpark next to St James's Department of Oncology, Bexley Wing...

Comment

Comment

West

She always took the photos, I did the riding and the words. It kind of worked, even if I thought she looked better in front of the camera, and wrote better words than I did....

Comment

Brown and soft

3 Comments

Brown and soft

It's fucking 2016. It doesn't feel very different to the end of 2015 if you ask me. 

The streets are brown; tinged in wet, filthy hues....

3 Comments

Comment

Improvisation

An ellipse of sepia tones. Leaves, mud, rock, roots, puddles, trail. My eyes strain in the artificial light of my head torch. My mind tries to fill in the gaps, it sees things that aren't there, I stutter and falter and slow down. I forgot to eat when I got home. I can see blobs in my eyesight and feel lightheaded. I know this feeling, I know it will pass and I will soon feel a surge of strength as my body settles into working its way through deeper reserves. I don't need to fear the bonk, I will be home in 30 minutes.

For now though, I feel clumsy, slow and heavy. I have barely run in weeks, and when I have pulled on running shoes it has been socially or isolated sprints. These are not the ingredients for strong running legs, speed or moving efficiently. No matter, I am out now and I have the woods to myself. 

Gradually I find my legs. I touch type my way through the trail. I no longer need to see exactly what I am placing my foot on. I read a few steps ahead and improvise when my foot hits ground an inch before I expect it, or sinks deeper in wet leaf mulch. I stop expecting and just react. I keep flowing, finding acceleration and momentum. 

I'm a long way from perfection. I'm a long way from my own high expectations. I don't really mind. I'm moving. Then I'm home. Eating. A lot.

Comment

Comment

Moments

Half light, soft around the edges - mentally as well as visually. My soundtrack is wet. Tyres parting standing water on tarmac, almost sticky sounding. Rain tapping on my helmet like a secretary keen to get home at the end of a Friday afternoon. It gets heavy enough that I can feel individual stair rods drilling into my back. It is nearer midday than midnight, I've had my light on since I set off. Rain is illuminated in the blinking light, strobing and slowing down before dropping out of sight, hurrying over its final few inches to contact...

Comment

Comment

Community

Some days are harder than others at the moment. Some minutes are harder than others. Those moments just after waking up, when reality hits again, don't get easier. Riding bikes was hard for a while. I may have ridden bikes for long before I met Jenn, but it was something we did together, and never will again.

Riding bikes, being outside, doing things outside it who I am though. I need to do it. I need it more now than ever. The support of family, friends and the biking community as a whole has helped me keep going. One step in front of another, one pedal stroke after the next. Every message, hug, kind word spoke, gift, letter, moment of company has meant the world to me. Each one is stored away for when I need it. 

I was riding yesterday. The third day in a row that I'd been out, in the wind and rain again. Seeking head space, seeking some base fitness, seeking the beginning of something new, whatever "new" might be. I heaved the fixed wheel up the climb out of Menston to the back of Ilkley Moor. I was only 30 minutes into riding, but my legs and heart had had enough. I stopped in the mist. Told myself to ride to Ilkley. I could turn around then. I rode past Ilkley. I could turn around at Bolton Abbey. My tired legs trembled, I grew more tired, but continued to my furthest planned point - Appletreewick. I tried not to think that I still had to return. I tried not to think that the distance was modest, and that in years gone by this was a post-work "fun" loop in the summer. I just thought about what my wife would do, and made a point of looking at the view when I wasn't staring at the patch of tarmac in front of my front wheel, up each of the bastard little ramps which were definitely not there when I rode this road a week or so ago. But, I got round. I felt better for it. Felt better for not quitting, making it through another day.

I can't ride all the time though. This morning was a three coffee morning. I tried to lie in, but my mind, despite being foggy with tiredness revelled in playing games. Up. Make headway into the mountain of washing. Do day-to-day things. Mundanity.

The postman knocked at the door. The same postman who delivered wedding cards, who knew to wait a couple of minutes longer when Jenn was ill and slowing down, who checks I'm "okay". I signed for a parcel, and opened it. It was from a friend, a friend who despite having never quite managing to plan a ride together (we live at the opposite ends of the country) knows me well. 

I kept opening the smaller parcels within, overwhelmed. The picture below says it all.

So, a heartfelt thank you to Lee, and to the companies who came together to help him help a mate. Next time I'm riding and it is all a bit too much. I'll have a visual reminder of why I will keep on going. Thank you also to the wider community - I was going to say friends, but it include people who I've never met. I was going to say biking community, but it includes runners, or as we sometimes like to call them, just People. Good people. Thanks for every little bit of help and support. It all keeps me going when I can't do it myself.

http://wisecrackerltd.com | http://www.hopetech.com | http://www.kapz.co.uk | http://www.rapidracerproducts.com | http://www.racewaredirect.co.uk | http://lizardskins.com | http://www.ultimatesportsengineering.com/exposure-lights

Comment