Monday, 12 September 2016

Tyre Trauma

Some bike days are dominated by one thing. Recently for me it was tyres.

To set the scene I had three new tyres to fit to bikes. I’d splashed out on new rubber for the Process, before having to consider a new rear tyre for the commuter as a puncture on the way to work suggested the old one was too worn to last the winter. These had sat waiting to be fitted as I was seriously concerned about the effort it would take to get the road tyre onto the wheel given my previous bad experiences.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny and I felt like it was worth a go. I approached the commuter with trepidation, all ready for a frustrating fight with the tight bead of a Schwable City Jet. All that would be forgotten as the tyre almost fell onto the rim and I had everything back together in no time at all. Heartened I moved onto the endure bike to fit the Maxxis High Roller 2s (a classic choice). This was more of a fight and cost me two tyre levers but they didn’t put up too much of a struggle and were fitted in the end. Along with finned brake pads this meant a fairly aggressive set-up for Bike Park Wales at the end of the week.

So this is a fairly boring story so far, which only gets marginally more interesting when I say that after about half an hour of watching the DH World Championships I went back to find the front tyre on the Process flat. I fixed that puncture and made the story no more engaging. Having done so I took the hardtail out for a bit of a ride in the sunshine, which is all very usual for a Sunday.

It was around 20 km into an entirely pleasant ride on baked mud and dusty lanes that there was an almighty clatter and metallic racket, followed by the unmistakable sound of a rapidly deflating tyre. I stopped as that seemed prudent, and looked…

A photo posted by @andy_c_11 on

So that was bad.

Given this situation I had to engage more with tyres, in this case patching the holes in the tyre with puncture repair patches and fitting a new inner tube and then hoping that it would all be fine for the remaining 10 km back to the car. It was a bit of an operation getting it all fixed but it was done after a while and (while not adding to the excitement of the story) I successfully rode back to the car and home.

So there we go, lots of tyre issues. Who said this blog was boring?


Monday, 5 September 2016

Balls, Brawn or Brakes?

Once, long ago, I read something in MBUK that said the key to going faster is good brakes. This was in a time when there was arguably no such thing as good brakes, and I don’t entirely agree. I think going fast is a combination of big legs, big balls, and possibly good brakes (or not having good brakes at all and being unable to slow down). There is only a limited amount I could do about the balls and the legs so I elected over the weekend to address the brakes issue on the hardtail.

This bike has had a set of Hayes Stroker Rydes on for a long time, and they have been ok, but far from spectacular. They haven’t been a patch on the SLX brakes on the Process and it was that feeling I thought would improve the ride considerably (and make me faster).

Fitting new brakes is pretty easy in its simplest form. If you buy a fully set up system it really is a case of just bolting everything on and you’re done. However, I’ve been feeling pretty adventurous with bike wrenching recently and this was supposed to be a step up so I wanted to do it properly. This meant shortening the hoses to a sensible length to keep the front of the bike neat.

Having unbolted the old brakes, and bolted the new ones on I was in a position to try to do this. To add context there are a number of bike tasks I’ve never attempted and everything to do with hydraulic brakes fits within that category. Some people might suggest that doing a brake bleed might be a better starting point to the world of hydraulics, but I was feeling brave(Ish). I had an idea of how to do it but figured that watching this film from GMBN might not be a bad idea…

I have to say that this was the second tutorial I found and easily the easiest to follow. Still, I had shaking hands as I started with the front hose. I had no spanner small enough so had to use an entirely inappropriate large adjustable to start with, but from there it all went well. The hose was cut, a minimum of brake oil spilled on the desk, the new fiddly bits put in place with the help of molegrips to hold the hose and it all went back together. I tested the lever and the brake felt as positive and precise as it had before. I had a sit down then started the rear brake with slightly fewer nerves.

I was cruising through this one and marvelling at how easy it actually was as I reached the last move and was just about to screw everything together, when the twisted hose slipped form my hands and flicked away. Convinced it had fired the brass “olive” off to end up somewhere in my highly organised bike workshop (cluttered spare bedroom) I spent the next little while searching the floor and eventually resolving to go to a bike shop and see if they had a spare they would sell (or give) me. At the last minute I thought to check in the end of the lever and found the small brass part shining back at me where it had stuck before the hose twisted out of my grip. Massively relived I screwed it all together and tested the brake again. It was solid.

Feeling pleased with myself I swapped the new finned pads onto the big bike and the part-worn ones from there onto the new brakes on the hardtail and headed out to try it all out.

The brakes felt far, far better than the ones they replaced and the lack of rattling levers was a relief, even if it highlighted the other rattles on the bike. So did it make me faster? See for yourself:

Er. No. Apart from on one uphill, which wasn’t really what MBUK was on about. Must do more on the balls and legs, I guess.


Thursday, 1 September 2016

Moorland Fix

While grabbing all the local riding I can has been a theme of this summer I have managed to squeeze in some longer trips to find that elusive big open space feeling that I catch myself daydreaming about. One of my recurring dreams involves the tough but rewarding landscape of Exmoor and I actually managed to get there twice this summer, combining new and old favourites.

The first trip was helped by an invitation to stay with a university friend who put in the time to contact some locals and find some cool riding. The key route offered some of the best singletrack on the moor, as advised by a Park Ranger. With Exmoor you have to earn the thrills and this one made you pay heavily up front.

Starting from Porlock, a reasonable road start very quickly gave way to the type of brutal climb Exmoor can serve up. Straight up from the sea to the top of the hills. There are no two ways about this, it hurts, as a succession of steep sections smash you up and up through woods to finally emerge drenched in sweat into the biting wind. Here you pull on extra layers and wonder if it can all be really worth it, as you roll onto flatter ground before diving off into the coombs. Soon all ideas of the climb disappear as you plunge and swoop down back towards the sea, on what has to be one of the most fun downhills I’ve ever ridden in the area.

There are some things to explain about the video in this case. Firstly, yes, Steve did fall quite spectacularly down a steep bit, in a move that is entirely out of character. Secondly after the excellent descent back to Porlock neither of us could handle another similar climb so, as you can see we only rode for half the day on Exmoor.

After sandwiches and a pint outside a pub we retreated to Steve’s more local trails on the Quantocks. As local riding goes this gives a whole lot to be jealous of as semi-legitimate trails trace hundreds of options down the side of coombs, and fireroads give the easiest possible way to regain height on the steep-sided ridge of hills. We spent another couple of hours on these trails before the cumulative riding time took its toll and we powered back to the car in a chaingang of two. Before doing this there were some real downhill thrills and beautifully satisfying climbs to log.

That was a full day of riding on the best of the near-South West but the secret I kept from Steve was that I hadn’t quite scratched the itch.

A few weeks later I used the excuse of being nearish in Bristol (more about that soon) to drive through killer traffic back to Exmoor to do a ride that I suspected no one would want to join me on. This would involve more steep hills to strain every part of my body in the blazing heat, long ridge rides and much, much more.

The real highlights for me on this ride at two ends of a scale in terms of riding types. There is the long, loose, gruelling, but superbly satisfying climb up to the top of Dunkery which I love as a challenge. This track climbs steadily and technically for miles to finally reach the highest point on Exmoor and while it hurts every inch of the way, you are out on wide open landscape, grinding upwards constantly, with the price of a trig point and views to reward you. If you can take your eyes off the track and stop swearing for a moment there are wider and wider vistas to enjoy as you climb, and the whole thing never feels anything less than a real achievement. Of course the pay-off is also the clattering descent back off the hill once you’ve paused at the top to appreciate the climb you’ve just managed.

The other end of the scale is represented by a track that will always have a place in my memories of mountain biking. The loop finished on North Hill, above where my Grandparents used to live and where I decidedly cut my mountain biking teeth. More specifically, having dragged every last ounce of energy and power out of myself to get up from the valley floor to Selworthy Beacon I faced the fast and endless-feeling descent across the ridge. To me this sits in my dreams as a way to make riding bikes virtually perfect. Point the bike, click up some gears, suspension open, and you blast full-pelt. The hills are behind you and to your right and the sea sits to the left as you drop across what are really not technical tracks but which take you through regal gold and purple moorland and then into the woods to find your way eventually to the Minehead seafront. Riding from a high point on the moors to the seaside. Somehow that’s perfect for me…


Monday, 29 August 2016

Heat in the East

What do you do when the hottest day of the year looms midweek and the idea of being in an office looking at Excel doesn’t seem to quite the way to make the most of it?

Well I don’t know about you, but I book the day off and sneak off for some riding in the sunshine.

It seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore a new area I’ve been looking at. The North Downs had offered a good ride when I’d hit the Surrey hills and I was eyeing up the Eastern end of the ridge, which looked near enough for an escape without spending more time in the car than on the bike. I bought a route guide, as a shortcut for finding the best stuff, paid the Dartford Crossing charges and made the drive to Kent early on a Wednesday morning.

Just under an hour later I was in Meopham (mɛpəm, because I was confused too), I parked by the delightful village green, got ready, checked the early directions and swung onto the bike and up the first lane.

With a new guide book, and one from a publisher I’ve not used before it takes a ride or two to work out how the feel of the book fits with your view of a good ride. Sometimes the level of technicality is way out from what you want, sometimes the writer enjoys a brutal climb, or shies away from them. In this case I rapidly went from “this is a little tame” to “*%$£ me this guy is a sadist” as the ride went instantly from a cruisy sunken lane to a massively steep chalk climb. The book claimed it was slippery in the wet which I imagine is a massive understatement having ridden on ice-like wet chalk before.

This climb was followed all too soon by another brutal ascent as the ride jumped off and on the escarpment. As if I needed warming up in the high twenties heat this was doing the trick and I had sweat pouring off me. Everything calmed down for a bit as some time on the ridge then a road descent put me on some super singletrack for a few kilometres. There would be more steep climbs to tackle before the end, some time lost in the woods above a motorway and then some lanes and tracks back to the car. Much of the ride was in sunken lanes within a tunnel of trees, which wasno bad thing as the day heated up considerably

Overall there were perhaps one or two super fun descents, and for most of the ride I felt over-biked on a 140mm full susser. I have an inclination that the ride in reverse might be more fun, so that’s something to try in the near future. There is no doubt that the area looks like it has plenty of potential to justify the drive and expect more from here in the future.

With a full day off work it seemed a shame to waste the rest of it so, after lunch on the green, I braved the lorry-jammed Dartford Crossing and turned right to make up for any lacking technical riding on the 2012 Olympic track at Hadleigh Castle. There’s also no doubt that I had been inspired by watching the Rio Mountain Bike races.

It was hot on the estuary. With 37 km in my legs and temperatures reaching up towards 35degrees I was physically shaking after one brisk lap, although pleased to have gone back to riding all of the black lines on the first time of asking. I had to take a break in the shade before tackling another slower lap and the technical lines all over again. After satisfying myself that I could still do it I cut my hot losses and headed to the carpark to inhale all the drinks I could find.


Thursday, 25 August 2016

Going Further into the Hert-zone

It’s hard (and tiring with driving) to make every summer weekend a trip away, so it’s not all been big adventures. However a season of feeling fitter and wanting more and more riding meant some tweaks to my favourite local rides.

The fields and tracks of Hertfordshire offer great summer riding as they dry out and stop being solid mud-plugging affairs, so I’ve been extending existing rides all over the place to sail through seas of golden corn and through dappled woodland, as well as past the kind of homes I can only dream of owning.

I’ve been adding an extra loop to existing rides, blasting onwards to try and ride through the pain of stinging-nettle and bramble-raked arms and legs:

I’ve adventured further afield up the A10, for a ride that started in high humidity and sunshine and ended racing across wide open fields with lightening flashing around to every side as thunder rumbled away with constant menace and torrential rain pounded down on me. Perfectly safe as far as the end of rides go… Still, it had the advantage of a windmill, long section of roman road and going through a place called “Nasty”.

Finally, I’ve tried two different methods of a highly satisfying ride entirely round Hertford and Ware. Both take in the full range of what Hertfordshire offers, from open fields that reflect the seasons to sunken woodland tracks and urban sections. This one took in the open land to the North East and then finished along the canal between Hertford and Ware.

While another version skirted closer to the town to start but then took in more to the South West and more of a complete off-road experience, with less dodging shoppers and strollers on the canal.

With the frame of mind I have now there is clearly an even bigger and brilliant ride in there, taking in both extremes and maybe a full day of riding. It remains to be seen if there is time and weather left in the summer to get that in, and how I’d cope with a ride that took me over any distance I’ve done before. Now seems to be the time to do it with the weather and the accumulated fitness from the summer (not to say the faster-rolling ground conditions), but will there be time to do it when I’m not tempted away to a bigger ride and before the autumn catches up on us all?