Hey stranger, long time no see! What's new? Who's your lady friend?
Don't worry, this is a pretty Covid-free tale. There have been plenty of column inches written about the bloody pandemonium, but the only double jab we are currently interested in is the one we do boxing, followed by that tricky left hook to the head. Have you ever heard the dubious fact that if you stitch together all the documentaries and films about World War 2, they would last longer than the war itself? That's Covid, that is. Enough already.
Three-ish years ago Maddie the teenage witch had a premonition I reckon. She decided that after ten years of self-unemployment we should abandon all the reckless abandon and get proper jobs. No more hours on the M5, no more callouses on top of callouses and nice simple work diary. So that's what we did. We always intended to carry on with our own events, as we regard our stewardship of the Soggy Bottoms and the Stinger as like two Knights Templar guarding the Holy Grail, but on the whole it was a life of sauntering into town after work, getting fit, eating well and marvelling at the fact that money comes in at the end of every month.
If you read the previous post about my retina losing the will to live and dropping off, you'll see that I was generally in a jovial, optimistic post-operative mood. Pretty soon I was going to be back in the saddle, my chances of being Top Gun were undiminished and all was well with the world. Then the retina dropped off again. And then the other one fell off. And I woke up blind one day with the realisation that I suddenly had a great excuse for pissing all over the toilet seat, floor and most of the bedroom carpet. Six eye operations later and while I do tend to hit more trees, lamp-posts and large dogs at least I can't see the jellyfish when I'm swimming. I'm now the go-to guy in the Royal Eye Infirmary; that annoying expert patient that knows the name of every doctor, rolls their damaged eyes at the newbies, and scares the living bejeesus out of everyone with tales straight out of Clockwork Orange.
But the voice in Maddie's head that had shouted 'GET A JOB, LOSER1' had saved our bacon with the magic of sick pay. If we'd stayed in the events world, with me spending so much time as an unfragrant house ornament, we would have been in pretty dire straits, and I always hated Dire Straits due to bandanas and yuppies. I will be eternally grateful to the school I work in for continuing to pay such a lame duck as I staggered from operation to operation. But not so grateful that I'm going to stay there!
Our job choices were actually pretty sound. Working in schools meant long, regular holidays, every weekend off and tripping out the door like a young deer ten minutes after the kids have left. Or does it? In reality working in a school has left me a shadow of my former self. I'm so knackered by Friday that the only things on my mind are beer, a lie-in and more beer to forget that I'm due back in on Monday. So things have to change, and Fully Sussed is back in action.
6What can you expect?
1) Soggy Bottoms. It's been too long folks, and now that I'm allowed to carry things heavier than a feather duster it's time to get our track build heads on again. There's been good stuff happening in the South West fat tyre fraternity recently and it's time to find the next Tom Pidcock. Let's make a weekend of it, with some short track, some e-bike, a dog show and a raffle.
2) The Stinger. All aboard the pain train for our favourite ever day of suffering. We are determined to keep the mountain bike duathlon flag flying as it reaches parts other races cannot reach.
3) The Filthy Foxes will make a glorious return, although in truth they never went far away. Look out for the Filthy Foxes Surf and Turf soon, where they get to go all jumpy.
4) Come and see us at TwentyFour12, where we've hooked up with The Printery to bring you some hand-printed mountain bike goodies. Anything to avoid actually riding a bike.
5) Now that the you-know-what is petering out, we'll be putting on some MIAS instructor courses for those with a wont to carve a career as a mountain bike coach.
6) if the current appalling weather carries on, expect to see us on a plane to Canada for the winter.
I've had a lot of injures in my life, with most of resulting from some sort of bone-crunching impact or the wear and tear from thousands of hours spent in futile pursuit of fleeting fitness. But these have always provided a cracking tale for when you're in the pub and engaged in one of those injury anecdote battles, of the "You think that's bad? Check this out!" ilk, where a middle aged man lifts his t-shirt or drops his trousers to show off a war wound.
My retina detaching wasn't like that at all. I was sat on a coach on the way to a concert when a black blob appeared at the corner of my left eye. As the day progressed, the blob spread further across the eye until the next morning, when I was completely blind in that eye. Now we tend to be firmly in the 'stop making a fuss' and 'just run it under a cold tap' camp, but this didn't seem likely to get better with liberal applications of TCP, so after a bit of a leisurely mooch round Bristol, a cooked breakfast and a coach journey back to Plymouth, I 'immediately' dashed off to hospital, and 3 days later I was under the knife. I'd always thought retina detachments were the result of a punch in the eye, or some yuppie style eye / squash ball collision, but it appears that one in fifty thousand retinas just can't be arsed to hold on any longer and fall off.
This is baaaad news. I've just secured a space in the Man v Horse mayhem, which is in a mere 6 weeks time, and I had been running really well. But enough off that negative thinking; after receiving the bad news I was allowed the standard one day of wine-fuelled feeling sorry for myself, then it was time to get ready for some serious rehab. First thing was drag the bloody turbo trainer out of the cupboard for the first time in years. I've done many, many hours on the turbo, with assorted body parts in plaster and bandages, and stick to the principle that turbo should be such a boring, miserable ball-ache that you can't wait to get off it and outside again. Next up was fluffing up the sofa cushions as some serious sofa bashing would be inevitable. Little did I know just how right I was, and no amount of cushion fluffing was ever going to make it better.
Operation day arrives. I find myself sitting in a waiting room with a load of cheery old uns, patiently waiting for their cataract operations. Say what you like about the older generation, but not being surgically grafted to their smart phones does make then a sociable, chatty lot. And as they were facing the prospect of seeing the world clearly again the following day, they were a jolly fun crowd to sit with. The surgeon confirms my diagnosis, and informs me that I can also look forward to cataracts of my very own in the near future. Another bite of shit sandwich anyone? The retina operation is apparently done under either general or local anaesthetic, but I seemed to skip the bit where I can opt for the big sleep and instead I am soon wearing hugely flattering surgical stockings with a local anaesthetic which was the numbing equivalent of a can of Fosters. A sheet is placed over my face like the shroud of Turin, with only my bad eye uncovered. The eyelids are prised open, and the surgeon informs me that he's going to get medieval on my ass. Well, he may as well have.
The whole situation wasn't helped by the fact that I had to listen to Classical FM for the hour. I appreciate that it keeps the surgeon relaxed, but all that caterwauling makes my teeth itch. Having the jelly sucked out of my eye will go down as one of most interesting sensations of my life, and in terms of the sorts of fluids I could have sucked out of my body, it doesn't take top spot. I think they used a Henry the Hoover for the procedure, and followed it by inserting an array of power tools into my eyeball looking for the lost city of Atlantis. At no point are you told how much pain / sensation to expect, and being totally subservient when it comes to medical professionals, we assume that doctor knows best. You get to hold a nice nurse's hand, and I think the guidelines are that when you break two of her fingers, the pain is too much. The retina is stuck back in place with a Frozone freeze ray, which was excruciating, and if this wasn't bad enough, the surgeon had spent much of this time leaning on my good eye! Next time I'm just going to ask them to go straight for the waterboarding and get it over with. The NHS is a wonderful thing, but sometimes you suspect that they did their training in Guantanamo Bay.
Ten minutes after having your eye stitched up (yes, I know, it makes my stomach flip too) you are given a cheese sandwich and are just about good to go. But first, they have to break the good news about the post-op rehab, and for the first time they mention the dreaded 'POSTURING1' Sounds a bit like posing doesn't it? Conjures up images of strutting, posing, preening teenagers, hanging out with their mates and attracting the chicks with a good bit of posturing. Well it isn't like that. Just like immobilising a broken arm or leg, in this instance you are immobilising your head. The reason for it is that instead of jelly inside your eyeball, you'be now got gas and you need to keep the gas in a certain place. Or something. You do this by lying down in a prescribed position for 50 minutes in every hour. You then get 10 minutes off to do the necessary, get blood flowing again, then back to the sofa. There are a variety of stress positions you might be prescribed, and pity the poor buggers who get to be face down for weeks on end. They either a) hire a massage table and watch TV through the hole or b) stick an ironing board in front of their chair and lean forwards over it. All these medical miracles, and we're reduced to Wallace and Grommit style post-op solutions. I got 'lucky' and got to lie on my right hand side. My right ear will never be the same again but, surrounded by the TV, audio books (no reading allowed) and BBC Sounds, I settle in for the long haul.
Very quickly, you get into a sort of pattern. Some would call it institutionalisation - how you get used to the environment you are reduced to. Fifty minutes lying on my right side, planning how much I can cram into my ten minutes of freedom. The clock ticks down, you've got your plan streamlined to perfection in your head and it's almost time to execute. Nearly there, have you got your priorities right for the ten minutes of freedom? If you skip the wee in favour of pot noodle, can you hold on until the next break? Is it worth brushing your teeth as snogging is off the agenda for a while? No time for second thoughts, your time is now! GO! GO! GO!
1. Put the kettle on. Starter for ten.
2, Down to the basement for 5, 6 or 7 minutes on the turbo to restore blood flow and morale.
3, Off the turbo for a wee. I'm an old man now.
4, Back up to make a brew to be drunk through a straw, grab a snack and back to the sofa, all in ten minutes.
As the worst part of a turbo session tends to be the first few minutes, you get that over and over again throughout the day, but if you get up early enough and keep at it, you're soon doing an hour a day on the turbo in the world's most bizarre interval session. It might not help your fitness, and it makes the sofa a bit 'frousty' but it makes you feel good and that's the main thing. Fifty minutes squashing your head into the sofa, plotting your next ten minutes of freedom, and repeat all day long for the next couple of weeks. In the two weeks I spent posturing, I went as far as the back garden a couple of times, but as your pupil is kept artificially dilated you react like a ginger vampire at dawn. Gorgeous sunshine outside and our house had all the curtains drawn like a crack den. After a few days you start to feel like a hostage, and wish someone would pay the bloody ransom.
Your world shrinks to the principles of a) do the rehab properly because I don't want to do this again b) stop feeling sorry for yourself c) try and find some joy in the tiniest things and d) don't be a dick to your loved ones. You find yourself rediscovering those things you'd forgotten - audio books, Radio 4, classic albums from the back of the CD collection, and a ban on reading means no social media, which is joyful. You try desperately not to pile back on all the weight that you spent months trying to lose, but your stomach capacity is still the same as a shipping container through years of eating like a teenager, so good luck with that.
Before you know it, the two weeks are up and you can sit upright again. We no longer have sofa cushions down the middle of our bed to stop me rolling onto my back, because that would have made my eyeball explode. It was not the most romantic two weeks of our married life, I can tell you. No bouncing around means no running and no cycling outdoors, but the turbo remains a part of my life for a few weeks longer and there is the outside chance that I can run Man v Horse, albeit having missed weeks and weeks of training. Having run it in the past with a broken collar bone, it can't be any worse, or can it?
For the past too-many years, I have been living with Haglund's Deformity.
No, it's not that kind of deformity, although I am looking increasingly like Keith Richards when I wake up in the morning.
Haglunds Deformity is actually a big old lump of bone in the heel, where bone doesn't really need to be. On the x-ray below, the bit that looks like a rhino's nose shouldn't be there; the heel should be a nice round shape that fits beautifully into your slingbacks.
In the flesh, it looks like someone stuck half a golf ball under your skin. As we all know, the feet of endurance sport folk already look less than palatable, with a heady mix of fungal infections, missing toenails and skin that you could sharpen knives on. What my feet don't need is another deformity, especially one that doesn't allow me to enter the Paralympics.
Considering how obvious the lump looks to the sufferer, it is amazing that most heath care professionals claim to not see anything wrong, even when you limp into their office, dragging your leg behind you, pointing to the source of the pain. We have had everything from podiatrists trying to sell us expensive (and unnecessary) orthotics to acupuncturists doing their voodoo thing and the inevitable cortisone injections, perennially popular with the NHS as it invariably provides several minutes of relief, costs them tuppence a gallon and gets you off the waiting list. Then it all flares up again, and you limp back to clinic to be told that you need to stop this foolish sport nonsense, get a job in a library (I kid you not) and what do you expect at your age?
Perhaps the most surprising part of this tale is that Maddie had exactly the same problem, also in her right foot. This pre-dates my heroic suffering by some time and unfortunately came at the time when she had qualified for the GB endurance running squad. Very quickly the injury put paid to her running career, and with the wonder of the NHS it only took ten years for a diagnosis and treatment, by which time Maddie could only wear her GB running knickers in the privacy of our house, and needed prolonged assistance and a shoe horn getting in to them.
My first notion that something was amiss was after a run, especially if I'd jumped straight into the car at the end of it. Getting out the car and getting moving involved an extensive period of heel - toe walking / limping before the pain reached a tolerable level and normal walking could resume. It got so bad that after any car journey I would be limping badly for the first few minutes, I could only walk for 20 minutes or so before having to sit down and have a cake, and running worthy of the name was out of the question. I couldn't use flat pedals, as the pressure of pushing my heel down was too painful, racey bike shoes were just too harsh, and my weekend treat of wearing stilettos round the house had to stop.
As our job mostly involves wearing steely boots and wellies, and spending a lot of time on our feet, you can imagine that this was quite a problem, especially as my personal volume control precludes me from any library based employment.
Maddie finally got lucky. Due to the wonder of Derriford Hospital, she was introduced to the nation's finest foot surgeon, who was not afraid to get the power tools out and get stuck in. The operation is a really big deal and the odds aren't fantastic, but Maddie being Maddie she grasped the nettle, had the work done and stuck rigidly to the rehab, which was slow and frustrating. But now she is back running, setting course records, and generally kicking my arse again.
Having seen Maddie's recovery, I marched into my GP's office and demanded a referral to the same saw-bones, which they willingly did, and a mere 8 months later I was sitting opposite the miracle worker, only to be told that as my injury had got so bad, the post-op recovery would be a mind-boggling 5 months. If I still had a proper job, that wouldn't have been a problem, and I would have leapt at the chance of an extensive bit of leg-up sofa action. But I'm self-employed, and to go 5 months with no income was out of the question, so the operation would have to be deferred until I was back being an untrustworthy employee, immediately buggering off on sick leave. So no operation, just another bucket of man-up pills, but a ready excuse for why I was in such bad shape.
Wind forward 12 months and something amazing has happened. Through the Power of Greyskull, a can-do attitude and making changes to my footwear, I am back running, walking mostly pain-free and running our of excuses why I continue to be in such terrible shape.
I don't really remember making conscious decisions about throwing out footwear that could be crippling me, but sticking to certain kinds of running and cycling shoes has paid dividends and got me back in the game. The footwear that really works for me are -
La Sportiva Mutants. These are always tagged as extreme off-road shoes, with massive lugs for tread, only to be used in the event of a National emergency. I use them for just about everything, and the reason why they are so good for Haglund's sufferers is the lack of any padding around the heel. Lots of padding might seem like a nice cushioning affair, but when you crank your laces tight it just presses on the pump-bump and causes mega pain. Lack of padding = happy trails, and the Mutants have been my go-to shoes for years.
Sketchers shoes have the magic combo of shoes as soft as baby poo, and a decent heel raise, which I reckon is key to alleviating Haglund's symptoms. I've been wearing the same pair in the gym and boxing for the past couple of years, which is a treat for everyone. The lower the heel, the greater the stress on the Achilles and calf, which is not good news for heel happiness. In fact, I've thrown out all the minimalist shoes that I used to wear regularly, and while I'm not quite in the Tom Cruise cuban heel territory, I make sure that there is a good heel raise in the shoes I choose.
On the bike, it's Shimano gimp shoes all the way. They might weigh as much as my bike, but good Lord, they are warm and comfy. Nice soft heel cup, but I can still only wear SPD versions, which is a convenient cop-out of wearing flats.
I still struggle to wear stuff like wetsuit boots and climbing shoes (both way too tight), getting my wetsuit on and off over the lump is a teeth clenching experience, and if I ever bang my heel against anything harder than a cloud, I can offend a navvy with my colourful Anglo-Saxon. But compared to where I could be, it's not bad at all.
So if you're a high arched runner, with a tendency for the foot to roll outwards, who suddenly finds that they can't put their feet up on a hard surface, Haglund's Deformity could be in your future. Get in there early for a happy outcome, but all is not lost and it could get better with some footwear modifications. Your 'just call me Susan' weekends might be over, however.
I'm not sure when our holidays evolved from mostly 'normal' holidays, with a fair amount of P.E. thrown in to ward off hangovers or earn our dinners, to their current incarnation of mostly P.E. with the occasional break for food, booze and sleep.
As Franz Ferdinand said "it's always better on holiday...that's why we only work when we need the money", and we love our holidays, and the tougher the better. But have you got what it takes to hack it on a Fully Sussed holiday?
1. Pack light.
We're not talking 'travel light, freeze at night', and we are generally not so hard core that we saw our toothbrushes in half, but you can definitely leave the hairdryer and the stilettos at home. Not only have you got to cram all your cargo into a Bob Yak trailer bag, you've then got to drag it all over everything that stands before you and the bag of peanut crisps that is waiting for you at the campsite. So how many pairs of pants do you actually need for a fortnight? Two? Perfect.
Put the GPS away. We're going old school folding maps, and asking a nice Frenchman for directions when we inevitably get lost. On our holidays, the cycling is the holiday, so it doesn't matter if you get to your planned destination for that day or not, as long as you found some nice riding, got to speak to a bemused Frenchman and had some top tucker on the way. A day of successful navigation is a triumph, and you can sit on the campsite in the rosy glow of the map ninja. An eight hour day dragging the trailers through the French Black Mountains by mistake was not triumphant, and the only thing rosy was...well you can probably guess.
3. Life's a drag.
Our trailers are probably the only thing we'd go back into a burning building to rescue. With the worrying trend for bolt through axles on all bikes, we will always have a place in our garage for a bike with traditional quick releases and proven towing ability. Our trailers have been dragged across Dartmoor, Exmoor and Scotland, through France and Spain, and there is no greater satisfaction than passing a gaggle of lycra clad, carbon riding roadies in the mountains, when you are the cycling equivalent of a tortoise.
4. Do the trangia squat.
As Masterchef's resident baldy Greg Wallace said "cooking doesn't get any tougher than this". Not only have you just shredded your legs on an epic day in the saddle, you've then got to bend your body into complicated yoga squat poses, and hold that position while trying to rustle up something half edible while trying not to eat France's total stock of peanut crisps and getting it done before a) the beer you just drank renders you unconscious and b) cramp sets in.
5. And they made me suffer...
Trail racing in France is the modern equivalent of Madame la Guillotine. Designed specifically to kill off the English, they remain the toughest thing we do these days. This photo documents my mental anguish when asked by a lovely French lady whether I wanted butter or sugar on my crepe at the free post-race buffet. And yes, of course the correct answer was "BOTH!"
6. ...and suffer,
Trail racing in France is so bone-crushingly brutal, you end up crying mud. Maddie used so many calories in this particular photo that her head shrunk. Our current holiday format always revolve around riding to numerous trail races in Brittany. Forget hitting the autoroute down to the mountains, following the herd on the route most trodden, you can be off the ferry and hitting the trails almost straight away.
7. ...and suffer.
Racing over, it's trailers on and off we go again. At some point the paranoia of "I'm sure Maddie has sneaked all her heavy kit into my trailer" will set in, and a non-scientific trailer weight comparison will quickly follow, but you have to accept that it's OK to be tired and in France there will always be a jump-leads coffee available before long. So suck it up, buttercup.
Freaky eaters need not apply. If you are a windfall fruitarian, then you are going to be very, very hungry. If you've ridden for hours, only to find that the tiny campsite shop only stocks Haribos, rice and cider, then that's what you've got for tea. But this is France, and when you've got the opportunity to take in a day's worth of calories at breakfast, you're not going to starve. When Horton motto number 42 is 'Another crust bites the dust', food is always going to be important to us and generally turns into another speed eating race, slow food be damned.
I guess a certain level of exercise produces Olympic standard sleepers. The attribute that we rate highest on our CVs is the ability to sleep on a chicken's lip, and it's stunning that we've never fallen asleep on our bikes. One day we'll undoubtedly be moaning about not being able to sleep, or getting by on four hours sleep a night, but currently we sleep like teenagers, and never better than when in a cramped, sweaty two man tent.
And off we go again. Only another 120 km before rice and haribo stew.
There may be some public Fully Sussed tours kicking off in the Summer of 2019 so you can come and experience some trailer joy with us in Britanny. If you're tough enough.
There's an image problem in XC racing, and for once it has nothing to do with garish lycra. It's all about the 'B' line, and for some riders it's a big issue.
'A' lines are big and bold and in your face. They carry with them an element of fear, and kudos for the riders who take them on, and are quite often surrounded by spectators. But that doesn't mean everyone has to take them on.
There are plenty of reasons for a rider to pick a 'B' line over it's riskier 'A' alternative - tiredness late in the race, lack of confidence, lack of the required skill, brittle bones, malfunctioning rear brake, just don't fancy it. But for some riders, the self inflicted shame of taking a 'B' line is just too much to bear.
The labels don't help either - 'A' suggests Top, Best, Strongest, while 'B' suggests something a bit inferior.
Back in the mists of time, when I used to wear lycra and race a lot, the worst part of every race experience (apart from the lycra) was the inevitable chatter pre-race that generally went along the lines of:
"have you ridden the 'A' lines?"
"Are you going to ride the 'A' lines?"
"Did you see so and so crash on the 'A' lines?".
Sadly, although xc racing, bike technology and the skill level of riders has moved on, the conversation has not.
It's worth remembering that, at some point, we're all 'B' line riders. Everyone has a cut off point - the important thing is recognising where that point is for you.
In a bid to banish the negative conertations of the 'B' line, we're rebranding it. At Soggy Bottom XC events in the future, expect to see the following signs replacing the old hazard arrows.
So if you are one of the many riders who doesn't quite feel comfortable taking on some of the techy features of XC races, chill out, practice your skills, and if you don't fancy it on race day smash it down the 'Smiley' line with a big old grin on your face and all your teeth in your head when you reach the bottom.
Author: Maddie Horton
We're just back from racing round 2 of the Brass Monkey series, which was the first time we've put a number board on a bike in 18 months. There's no real reason for the lack of bike racing, it just got to the stage where nothing really floated our boats, and we'd inevitably be working on those weekends when anything piqued our interest. Occasionally we'd find something that was on a weekend we had free, looked pretty exciting and different, and we'd get as far as the 'enter now' page before inevitably snorting an emphatic "HOW MUCH!?", spraying our laptop with phlegm and bile. People have suggested events to us, encouraging us to go and do the 'Tour de Somewhere Expensive', but the entry fees for these races tend to be equivalent to several months of what you might call bike-packing, but we still call camping. When we use our traditional formulas, where hours driven are roughly equal to hours raced, and price per hour of racing is less than a tenner, the Brass Monkeys always come out as great value...as long as you finish the race.
We decided to race our rigid single-speeds, which we got a few months ago, second-hand in a dodgy deal behind a shipping container. We wanted cheap bikes that we could ride year round, not worry about leaving outside the co-op, and bikes that reflected the kind of riding we do now, which is more about cruising and exploring, happy to get off and walk when the going gets tough and the knees go crack. We ride them a lot, and still don't really understand anything about gear ratios, which seems to be vital to single-speeding, gear ratios and beards are de rigeur and we fail on both counts although Maddie tries hard on the beard front. You can't help but get drawn in to the ratio discussions, and being competitive you want to join in on the 'who's got the biggest ratio' competition, despite the fact that a) most of them are lying and b) the rest live in Norfolk and have quads like Chris Hoy. Our bikes came with really low, twiddly gears, we are spinning like a Kenwood Chef on anything other than a 1:4 climb, so I caved in and got a slightly bigger gear, a mere 2 teeth smaller on the cog, how hard could it be? First ride out, and having lost two teeth on the sprocket, I also lost two teeth from my head from grinding them off on the first climb. The hills go from comfortably hard, hill-climb grinders to eyeball popping, tooth grinding, quad rippers.
But the elderly among us have history in this area. Those that remember double chain-rings, and even triple chain-rings (oh, the weight!) and rode regularly in groups will have experienced the Battle of the Big Ring. There's no disguising the click of the left hand shifter (the weakling's friend). When I rode in the Chilterns for all those years in local clubs, every hill would see the unspoken Battle of the Big Ring or, if it was exceptionally steep, his younger, punier brother - Battle of the Middle Ring. We'd all start the hill on the same chain-ring, and conversation would stop as we all knew what was going on. Then it would be the man-test of how long we could stay in that chain-ring, without whimpering, before the humiliating, unmistakeable sound of 'ker-chunk' as you are forced to change down. There's nothing you can do to disguise the sound of shifting down a chain-ring, which even on the most expensive groupset has always been borderline agricultural in its subtlety. You can fake a cough, start talking loudly, or drop off the back of the group, but still everyone knows what you've done. Shifting down a chain-ring registers on the Richter Scale. It is accompanied by a visible drop of the head in shame and snorts of derision from your riding companions. You're left to dribble up the hill on your own in your little chain-ring, stand apart from the group at the top and though your knees might be intact, your self-respect is not.
But I was persuaded that big was better when it came to single-speed racing, failing as ever to learn from previous, innumerate mistakes. Some time back I went along to a local hill climb on my fixie. I took my fixie as it is my only road bike, and I thought perfect for the task. Now me and my fixie can get up anything, in our own time and at our own speed, and only occasionally needing a lie down at the top. Like walking a Jack Russell, you and your faithful short-arse dog will tackle all sorts of terrain at a leisurely bimble, stop at the top for a brew and a biccie, lovely. But ask you and Stumpy the Wonder Dog to cane it up that same hill and I guarantee that the dog will have wrapped his tits in within the first twenty paces. Come race day I 'happily' rode the hill to check it out, waited for my two-up start spot, the gun went off and I went ABSOLUTELY NOWHERE! I could happily grind up the hill all day long, but once I tried to whack in a big effort I blew my doors within seconds, coming to a complete standstill with quads on fire and resorting to zig-zagging up the remainder while my opponent was on his way back down. Riding home after the event, I rode away from everyone else on the hills, utterly bewildered as to why me and the bike couldn't muster a decent effort between us.
Come the Brass Monkey, and having no ability to learn from my mistakes, I pitched up with the bigger of my two gear options. Preferring to swan around the car park, chatting to equally old, bewildered friends than warming up or pre-riding, and relying on assuming that there won't be anything too technical in Minley Manor, I didn't see the course until lap one. All well and good, great course, steep climbs needing some grunt but how cool is it overtaking expensive bikes on a £200 hacker? Smug, moi? Lap two and three come and go with minor backache and worrying levels of leg tiredness. I've always reckoned that you've got a given amount of hills in your legs on any given day (x). At race pace, you can reduce that number by half (x/2), and clearly racing on a single-speed halves that number yet again (x/4). After two hours of the four I was toast, having already reached my x/4. I started walking up the hills started soon after, which is the kind of behaviour I have always abhorred and considered on par with make-up for men. I played those mental games we play -"ride the hill this lap, and you can walk it next lap" was a common negotiating tactic. With two laps to go I wanted to sit down and have a good cry, so instead I stopped for a snack, a back stretch and a stern word and off I pootled with the determination to maintain the drive time / ride time ratio, like the true tight-arse that I am. As we always say, 'anyone can do the last lap', apart from the single-speeder I overtook near the end of said lap, pushing his bike on a flat,grassy bit. It turned out that at the time he was the third place rider, an accolade I therefore inherited as I huffed and puffed slowly past him.
So we survived our first single-speed event. We learned a lot, but like Guy Pearce's character in Memento, I'll have to have the lessons tattooed onto me before they get mixed up in all the other nonsense. It's great that I can remember all the words to 'Bat out of Hell', but sometimes I wish I was wired differently.
I am prepared to admit that the weather outside is shocking. The wheelie bins heading off wind-assisted down the alley look like March of the Daleks, and they know they'll have the last laugh when their contents are strewn all round the hood, so the neighbours can see who among us has eaten the most shit over Christmas. I think it's what Jesus would have wanted, so I've done my bit by speed eating chrimbo cake since November. They say that you are what you eat, but no matter how many Heroes I inhale, it doesn't make any difference. I probably need the right situation to arise and I'll be on it like a tramp on chips; the first damsel in distress or cat up a tree, I reckon my inner chocolatey hero will emerge, but I'll probably be too fat to be any use.
As the magic reset button that is New Year's Eve passes, and we wake up the next day without magically becoming 20 years younger, fit, flexible and motivated, the wind lashing the windows doesn't exactly lend itself to pursuit of physical excellence. New Year's resolutions last only until the first news report of Storm Bernard with dire warnings to stay indoors, buy crap online and vegetate.
We're not much better. Our garage is full of bikes that we love to tell people are "ideal winter bikes", and indeed our rigid, single-speed mountain bikes and fixed road bikes are the perfect cheapo bikes for smug winter training. Unfortunately, we are still the weak willed, weather dodging cyclists that we were before we had those bikes, and with our determination never to sit on a turbo trainer or rollers again the net result is limited cycling, but no saddle sores. I might be cultivating the beginnings of middle aged spread, but at least my bare arse is more presentable than when I was riding a lot.
But sod the Met Office, what do they know? Today we went for a run, in the middle of Storm Elanor, which is the most miserable name for a storm so far this winter. Met Office give a severe weather warning, advise us to avoid exposed coastal areas at all costs so where do we go for a run? On the coast path if course! The thing about any kind of outdoor fitness is that it takes us back to those primal, chasing down velociraptors days. Even when you're mincing round that 4 miler on tarmac, round the block from your house, you're still channelling Conan the Barbarian. Add in some severe weather and there's no escaping the fact that you are one hard-core muddy funster, battling the elements when the rest of the Walter softies are rearranging their sock drawers. Go to the woods for a run at the moment, and you've got yourself a mud run whether you like it or not. You'll be up to your knackers in mud, water and something smelling a bit canine, jumping over fallen branches, on all fours up and down slopes, laughing like a loon. People pay serious money for this kind of action, you might not get a medal and a photo at the end but you won't get stung for a tenner for a burger.
The great thing about the UK is the weather. There, I said it. When the severe weather warnings happen over here, we can say with some confidence that it won't really be all that bad, The likelihood of a tsunami, hurricane, earthquake, blizzard or anything remotely life threatening is pretty remote, Carol Kirkwood can be totally earnest with her warnings of death and destruction and we can gleefully shout "Bugger off, Carol!" and head out the door into severe weather (by UK standards). Think about the poor sods in Dubai, who had to import tons of mud for their Tough Mudder event! Yes, they imported mud. We have this incredible natural resource that we spend most of the year moaning about and hosing off our legs, and they are paying a fortune for it in Dubai, presumably only for it to dry to dust and blow away within an hour.
The incredibly gullible Americans have developed yet another health-boosting theory called grounding or earthing. Here, the simpletons claim that exposing your bare feet or hands to the earth will have incredible health benefits while simultaneously draining your bank account as you need to be guided into earthing by a qualified instructor, probably called an earthworm. Again, those of us that brave the dangerous outdoors in the winter find that rather than consciously touching skin against the earth, the earth graciously comes up to meet you as it is sprayed up your legs, on your face and forced into every orifice. You'll repeatedly have to 'earth' your hands to prevent you 'earthing' your face.
So get our there and run, even if you're not a runner. Just going out for a jog, walk, wade and swim in your local woods will make you feel better than looking mournfully at your bike collection rusting in the corner, and is infinitely more human than going on Zwift. If you need someone to guide you through the process, we are available at ridiculously extortionate cost.
RIP Sharon Laws.
It was with deep sadness that we learned of the death of Sharon Laws on December 16th at the age of 43. We didn't really know Sharon, she was one of those elite athletes that would occasionally turn up at a mountain bike race from road or cyclo-cross and proceed to rip the legs off the cross-country purists. Maddie shared a start grid with Sharon a few times, and I would have met her when working registration at the Nationals and it's a damn shame that we won't see that happen again. Sharon's palmares and history in the sport is stunningly impressive and she crammed everything into an all too short and belated career, with a work ethic that puts us all to shame.
This isn't one of those call to arms, or demands that we all immediately get off the sofa and go for a ride in Sharon's name, it is just an acknowledgement that an outstanding member of the cycling community is no longer with us. If anything, it's an inspirational example of how you can achieve greatness in a sport without being on the British Cycling talent pathway since you were on a balance bike. If you get chance to read her story, I highly recommend it.
found this blog hiding in a file somewhere. better late than never?
As previously reported, Kevin Yim fell off his bike while pre-riding at Soggy One (2017), and turned his arm into a meccano set for the surgeons at Derriford Hospital to put back together again, which they duly did and now Kevin has all the titanium he ever requires. We're not sadists, we hate it when people fall off during our races, and spend the next week in all manner of critical incident debriefs, which is not the most romantic over dinner conversation a couple could have. I have no doubt that the sneery, sceptical critics would say something along the lines of "You must be used to people crashing by now!", but let's examine the evidence.
We've been organising mountain bike races for eight years or so now. If we ignore the National XC for the moment (because XC racers clearly aren't ready for our jelly) and look at the last couple of years of Soggy events, the figures stack up like this -
An average of 150 riders competed in each round of the Soggy Bottom and Summer Soggy Series. Since the winter of 2015, we have put on 10 regional MTB races, so 10 x 150 gives us 1500 bums on bikes. (Nice work SW racers BTW.) In these same regional races, we have records that indicate that four people had to attend hospital for a check over, and three were sent home with some paracetamol, and told to stop wasting the NHS's time. One, the aforementioned Kevin Yim, had to stay in for treatment and some proper drugs. I'm happy to be contacted by other riders who got home and realised that they'd broken their backs, but those are the figures as best we know them.
That gives us a figure of 0.2% of riders at these events needing to go to hospital for either treatment or a 'mummy kiss it better' intervention. With the incidence of injury at youth rugby, for example, somewhere in the region of fifty people across a similar number of participants, I reckon that we're doing pretty well. We used to quote a figure of 1% of racing MTBers requiring treatment when looking for first aid quotations, but in the spirit of beating your sat-nav's predicted arrival time, we love the challenge of beating the stats.
So Kevin, while you are recovering, you can rest east in the knowledge that you didn't fall off because of anything you did, or any fault with your bike, you were actually just knocked off by statistics.
Statistics are really useful in other aspects of XC. The once raging debate of the technicality of XC courses are a great example. The UCI guidelines state that XC courses should be 100% rideable. I reckon this must have been written somewhere without the level of rainfall in the UK, as I can think of many courses that had impossible sections for all the riders once the mud got hub depth, but the principle is a good one. So what percentage of riders do we think should be able to ride ALL the sections of the course, i.e. how many racers should be able to ride all the 'A' lines on a given circuit? 50%? 25%? 100%? In my head, as long as ONE racer in the field can successfully ride all the 'A' lines on a race circuit, then you have a course that is 100% rideable. If 75% + of riders can consistently ride the 'A' lines, then surely it's no longer an 'A' line worthy of the name?
We then have the awesome interface of people, statistics and fake news, which brings us the myth that was apparently circulating, of 200 people making complaints after the Newnham Nationals 2016. There were less than 600 people in total at the event, so more than 1 in 3 people complained about the event? And people believed this!? We actually received zero complaints, to our faces. If there were 200 cowardly custards complaining to their MP, the Daily Mail and British Cycling once they got home, I do wish they'd come over for a chat on the weekend. I'd have given them something to complain about!
So what's the big idea?
Every good party needs a crowd, and a big event field like Newnham Park needs an army of campers to fill it. South West mountain bikers are generally a fun bunch, and the cani-sport crowd need to have a sense of humour to tolerate being dragged by their four-legged friend at 20 MPH across a rutted field. Put the two groups together in an action packed Devon weekend, and what could possibly go wrong? Ladies, gents and doggies - we present The Newnham Bark.
So how will it work?
Don't be afraid to have a go at all the disciplines over the weekend. There will be cani-cross harnesses available for you to try, and if you have a functioning mountain bike you can have a crack at the fun category of the bike events too. Challenge yourself and do something different!
(All times are subject to fudge-factor alteration, but we HATE being late!)
Campsite opens at 5pm
Cani-sport self guided leg stretcher on the 5km course
Times are approximate, depending on entries
0800 Bikejoring/scootering time-trial
1000 Canicross 5km time-trial
1300-1500 Mountain bike course open for practice
1530 Stage One (Unofficial MTB Champs)
1800 Stages Two and Three (Unofficial MTB Champs)
0800 Bikejoring/scootering time-trial
1000 Canicross 5km time-trial
1200 Under 12s mountain bike race
1400 MTB XC race (including Unofficial MTB Champs Stage four)
Campsite closes at 1000
Newnham Park is a gorgeous place to spend a camping weekend, if you don't mind a bit of rough and ready, m'lady. There will be banks of portaloos, drinking water, a luxurious natural spa bath in the river, catering on site courtesy of Kerno Forno and a keg of beer on tap for the relaxed racers.
There are numerous eating out opportunities near to the park, and local takeaways are happy to deliver if you are that way inclined.
How do I enter?
The River of Life, as best I remember from my student days, is a metaphor of us being different people with different needs at different points on the wibbly-wobbly river that is our lives. We are physically the same body; maybe a bit fatter, maybe a bit slower but our needs, aspirations and outlook change as we are exposed to life’s events. I certainly no longer need several bottles of wine before a night on the tiles, and having recently heard an ex-girlfriend describe me as being ‘happy-go-lucky’, it’s pretty clear that I was emotionally a different person several years back upstream.
When we do something on the xcracer website, it always makes me chuckle to see our profile describe us as ‘prolific racers’, when in reality I can’t remember the last time we zip-tied on a bike race number. But that would have been an accurate description back around 2010, although I still don’t remember being happy-go-lucky. We’ve moved on, the sport has changed and our priorities lie elsewhere.
Those that have read any of the previous blogs will be aware of our Big Guns Challenge – the quest to beat our mate Keith in the bicep growing championship of the world. We’ve been doing this since October, and while there were some initial ‘beginner gains’ my body soon cottoned on to what I was doing and over-ruled every effort I made in a bid to stay exactly the same bloody size. While I was having delusions of intimidating adversaries with a flex of my mighty triceps, my body was clearly going to rely on the ability to out-run any predators and squeeze through tight spaces. But we are still getting stronger, and probably heavier, so I suspect that we have some impressive muscles that are defying the rules of nature and actually growing inwards.
You’ll probably also be aware of the kind of gym we use for our iron pumping. Bodylines in Plymouth has been the most intimidating place I’ve been since trying to get past the line of massive Welsh trannies outside a Dolly Parton concert. The tales of 50% of the gym users wearing offender tags is overstated, but they probably don’t have 2 ‘A’ levels to rub together between them, and are still the nicest bunch of people it has been our pleasure to share a squat rack with. At the back of Bodylines is the fabled boxing gym; just a small ring, a load of punch-bags and a box full of the worst smelling gloves and pads since my last 12 hour MTB race. We used to use the boxing gym for circuits occasionally but always scuttled out of there tugging our forelocks if anyone menacing-looking came in, yellow bellied, submissive weaklings that we are.
Then we were given some money for Xmas. I am sure the giver envisaged ‘something nice for the house’ being purchased, but there’s no pockets in a shroud and as givees, we’d rather blow the cash on life experiences as we drift aimlessly down our river. Maybe we should learn metaphoric paddling. Last winter we spent time and money learning to cross-country ski in Canada, with the aim that we get to such a level that we wouldn’t look like complete bell-ends next time we had a go. After Xmas we had a Horton meeting about our next bid for sporting fame and decided that it was clearly going to be boxing. Obviously. With our background of skinny ass endurance sport and dinosaur arms, boxing is a natural fit, isn’t it?
Our first lesson saw us lying on the floor exhausted after an hour, unable to hold our glasses of prosecco when we got home, which is a problem Rocky Balboa suffered from, but it was the most addictive thing I can remember since discovering my favourite adolescent ‘hobby’. Our house is now full of boxing gloves, pads, whey protein and hand wraps and throwing a decent punch combo is our Holy Grail. Imagine jumping on a MTB for the very first time, and within an hour of coaching you’d be able to nail a decent jump. In most sports there is a varying degree of buggering about and hours of frustration before you get to any level of feeling like you are actually doing the sport. You might hit a golf ball / tennis ball / football with the orgasmically satisfying noise of the sweet spot, that gorgeous ‘DONK!’ that means that the interface of body, bat and ball was bang on the money. But the chances are that the ball will then spin off into the near distance, nowhere near where you’d imagined it might go, cancelling out all the glory of the ‘DONK’. With boxing, we were throwing punches within minutes of the start of the lesson, and threw so many punches in the space of an hour that we actually started to get a decent strike rate of ‘DONK’s. When you get the range, your feet, the twist and strike just right it feels like you could punch through a wall, and if you don’t get it right you can have another go immediately rather than having to line up again, retrieve the ball or set anything up. You just keep on swinging.
A lot of it is down to Del, our instructor. For those that know what I mean, Del is a classic Janner and is actually Del junior, with Del senior (his father) also being a boxing coach. And they are bloody good, with the right level of encouragement and positive reinforcement that sees you push yourself beyond your usual limits and puking out of the window. They turn you into a complete puppy dog, and you strive for a positive comment like it is a Scooby snack. What started as ‘having a bit of a go’ has turned into an obsession and my latest long term ambition – to have an actual boxing match before the age of fifty. The choices at fifty are to either join the ranks of the grand-vets, or get in the ring for one last grand hurrah, death or glory, carry me out on a stretcher and tell my mum I did my best. I choose the latter. The river of life may turn into a river of blood, but what a way to go.