Sunday, December 23, 2007

How I got into mountain biking

Me and Jude in Glencoe, 2004

I took up climbing whilst I was still at school, introduced to it by teachers and school trips. I'd always been crap at school sports and took every opportunity to skive out of them. maybe as a result of that I always tended towards being a bit of a chubber. Not fat, per se, but a bit padded.

With the discovery that I liked climbing, the first physical activity, apart from masturbation, which I had any real enthusiasm for, I began to change my physical shape, simply by getting out there and climbing. I became lean and fit, enhanced by my taking up running and yoga whilst at University.

I climbed throughout the 80s, but when I got married in 1988, my climbing gradually tailed off, and I saw less and less of my climbing friends. I kidded myself at the time that it was just a result of us drifting apart as we forged the courses of our own lives, but in reality, my (now ex-) wife didn't care for my climbing mates, or perhaps, for the amount of my time and affection which I devoted to them, and which she felt should be all devoted to her.

Whatever the reason, by the start of the 1990s, I was no longer climbing. Not only that, but my running also gradually tailed off, as I failed to set aside time for it amidst my household chores and sundry pieces of life. One day, around 1994, I was suddenly no longer a runner.

The result of the incremental decline in physical activity was that I began to put on weight and to get unfit. By 1998, I weighed 16 stones, compared to the 12 I'd been in 1990.

OK, we all put on a little weight as we age, but I was up to a 36" waist and found it hard to climb a flight of stairs without getting out of breath. I had to do something, so in desperation, I took up running again. I managed several runs of around 5 miles, and began to feel fitter again, though I was still overweight. I split up with my wife that summer, and even got a new, much younger girlfriend, like the classic mid-life crisis man.

The stress of that split caused me to lose my appetite, and weight fell off me (mostly muscle loss I suspect), until I was down to 12st 6lb by August 1998. That month, I spent a week camping in Dufton, in the Vale of Eden, and did some fell-walking and even a fell-run on one day. I was feeling spiritually low, but physically better than I'd been for years, due to the weight loss.

My dalliance with the younger woman fizzled out. There was no heart in it, and I decided to give it a go with my ex-wife again. After a long period of joint counselling from Relate, we got back together. My diet returned to normality and immediately, my weight began to climb again. I reached 14 stones before deciding I had to do something.

I'd tried to pick up running again, but was having problems - persistent shin splints. My GP suggested I was too heavy for running and should try swimming or cycling.

I'd swum in the mid-80s, when I suffered from knee trouble, but found it boring as hell, just plodding back and forth in the pool, even though it got me fitter than I'd ever been before. So I decided to buy a bike. I fancied a bike which I could use out on rough trails in the countryside; a mountain bike.

I'd not had a bike since I was at school, and knew little about them, so I began to pore over mountain bike mags, gleaning advice and information. I set a budget of £300, but ended up spending £500, in July 1999, on a shiny red Specialized Rockhopper, from Ellis Briggs in Shipley. I rode it home to Pudsey, and though it was hard work, I realised this was what I needed. It replaced both running and walking, getting me out into the countryside without damaging my already damaged legs even further, and without taking up an entire day, thus making it easier to fit into my life.

Unlike running or walking, there was an extra dimension, the dimension of speed. A fast downhill brought adrenaline pumping through my brain, and provided the link to my other long-abandoned outdoor love, climbing. It was perfect.

Below: The 1999 Specialized Rockhopper FS

More importantly than the thrills perhaps, it began to get me fit. I started to commute to work in Leeds, detouring along the way to reach the Leeds-Liverpool canal, whose towpath took me into the heart of Leeds. This sinuous route took almost 9 miles, compared to 7 at most on the most direct roads. But it was worth it, and I began to enjoy it more and more, the fitter I got.

Below: me and Horse in Glencoe, 2004

That was 8 years ago. I've since moved to Sheffield, but still commute every day on that same bike, though my commute is only about 3 miles each way now: less distance, but more hills (for those who know Sheffield).

The commuting got me somewhere resembling fit again, but the real joy came when I began to venture out onto the moors and do some 'proper' mountain biking. My skills developed, and although I still can not do a bunny-hop or pull a wheelie, I can ride most of what I come across, wherever I may be.

Through mountain biking, I renewed friendships with people I'd not spoken to in years, and visited parts of the country I'd not seen in over a decade. Most importantly, I found a new facet to a life that had grown stale, and that facet continues to lead me into new territory.

I've never had much money, and lately, things have been extremely tight, financially, due to heavy debts left over both from my and Jude's divorces. As a result, I've kept the same old Rockhopper, replacing parts as they wore out until only the springy steel frame is original, and even that's been bent by occasional crashes. This year, therefore, I determined to buy a new bike, one which would better suit the rocky downhills of the Peak District. One, in other words, with full suspension! I was getting fed up of teeth-jarring, arse-kicking bouncing down steep rocks, and felt the need for more control and more comfort.

There were so many to choose from, I had to do a world of research on each and every one I came across that seemed to fit the bill. I looked at new ones, second hand ones and ex-demo ones, until my head ached. Until, that day... I looked on ebay and there was this bike, made by Canadian bike giants Norco. Only 3 months old, not ridden much, top spec parts throughout, and on offer at almost half what it was costing in the shops!

Catch? There was none. The seller was a reputable guy, good ebay ratings and feedback, a Cytech bike mechanic. I placed my bid and got the bike, all £3,000 worth (if you were to buy it in a shop, that is!). No-one else bid on it. For some reason, the Norco brand hasn't really caught on here, despite good reviews in the press for all their bikes.

It cost a lot of money (for me) but it was worth every penny I'd saved up for it.

This is it. It's a Norco Six SE (the SE stands for Special Edition)...

For the bike-minded amongst you, this is its specification:
Frame: Hydroformed Aluminium
Swingarm: Hydroformed Aluminium
Fork: Fox 36 Talas RC2, 20mm, 100-160mm
Rear Shock: Fox DHX Air 5.0, 7.875 x 2.25" 145 or 165mm
Headset: Chris King
Rear Hub: Mavic Crossmax SX 135mm
Front Hub: Mavic Crossmax SX 20mm
Spokes: Mavic
Rims: Mavic Crossmax SX
Tyres: Bontrager Big Earl Tubeless
Shift Levers: SRAM X-0
Front Derailleur: E-13 DRS, Shimano XTR
Rear Derailleur: SRAM X-0
Cassette: SRAM PG-990, 11-34, 9 speed
Chain: SRAM PC-970
Crankset: TruVativ Stylo OCT, GXP 24/36
Bottom bracket: TruVativ GXP
Seatpost: Titec Scoper telescopic 30.0
Seat: WTB SLT Rocket V, with Titanium Rails
Bar: Synchros Race Gain 35mm Rise
Stem: Synchros Race
Grips: ODI Lock-On's
Brakes: Avid Juicy 7 with 150mm Rotors
Brake Levers: Avid Juicy 7
Pedals: Time ZZ freeride
Colour: Anodised Gold

Yes. GOLD! I am indeed a pimp on wheels. Or would be if a combinatiuon of illnesses, DIY demands, social events and shite weather hadn't kept me off the trails between August and now. In four months I've onlt ridden it in anger ONCE! That's not really on, and is an insult to a great machine. Well, I have 10 days off now, and I'm just about over my cold, so I will get out on it soon. There's a christmas to do, but then....vroom!

Mountain biking doesn't have the spiritual dimension that walking or mountaineering has: you're concentrating too hard on what you're doing, much of the time, to fully commune in any reflective way with your environment. To get that diimension, you need to stop and sit down and watch the sky and let it flood your soul. Then you can capture that same communion. Not all mtbers (as mountain bikers dub themselves) seek a spiritual element, but I do. It's part of why I'm out there.

Check out these images of riders in the Peak District. This is what I'm talking about...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Comet Holmes - Towser's comet

Last night, around 11.30 pm, I spent 10 minutes lying flat on my back in the darkness of the frosty back garden, peering through binoculars at the latest comet to grace our skies; Comet Holmes.
It's an unusual comet, in that its tail is pointing away from us, so we see it end-on as a fuzzy circle, rather than the classic comet shape, such as Comet West (below).

Comets have always struck a particular chord with me. Their ghostly, spectral appearance in the sky evokes visions of the cold remoteness of outer space, whence these visitors come from. I remember comets Hyakutake in 1996 and Hale-Bopp in 1997, and the way, night after night, they hung like ethereal phantoms in our night skies, and I can well believe that ancient peoples believed them to be harbingers of doom, or evil spirits (see articles here).

Below: Comet Hyakutake

Below: Comet Hale-Bopp

Comets are still mysterious objects. There are billions of them orbiting our sun, most of them way out beyond Pluto in deep interstellar space, in the Kuiper Belt or the even more remote Oort Cloud. Those that are disturbed from their orbits by whatever means, may veer inwards towards the planets, to become visible to us as their icy surface is heated by the sun, producing the jets of material which make up the characteristic tail.

Some, a few, even occasionally crash into the planets, as Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 did when it hit Jupiter in 1994 (lots of links and info here). The comet was torn into several pieces by Jupiter's immense gravity when it made an initial pass-by the giant planet years previously (below).

Below: Jupiter in 1994, showing the huge scars left by the impacts of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9

Of course, we know more about comets these days. We even crashed the Deep Impact probe into Comet Tempel 1, to see what happened, and analyse the material ejected. We have detailed close-up pictures of the surfaces of Tempel 1 and Wild 2. They look like the Moon.

Below: Comet Tempel 1

Below: Comet Tempel 1 being hit by the Deep Impact probe

I prefer by far the image taken of the nucleus of that most famous of comets, Halley. It's taken from a great distance, and is fuzzy and indistinct, but there's an impression of great size, and immense activity, coupled to a chilling remoteness, which no other picture of comets has ever conveyed. I find it almost terrifying in its ghost-like qualities and hints of unimaginable violence.

Below: the nucleus of Halley's Comet: impossibly remote, supremely terrifying

So what of Comet Holmes? Well, it's been reported on the national news, but has gone largely unnoticed by the public. It looks like a fuzzy patch in the night sky, and only through binoculars or a telescope does its ghostly image make itself clear.

The peak of Comet Holmes' activity, its closest approach to us, more or less coincided with Towser's death. I can't help but think, as I lie there on the cold decking, gazing at that sky-bound phantom, that Towser's spirit has somehow latched onto the comet, and is up there in the darkness, receding from us, from our lives, as the comet carries him away. Because of this, I've called the comet 'Towser's comet' and if I ever see it again, I'll think of him, of his spirit soaring through the universe.

Below: Towser's comet, seen through a telescope

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Just a cat: Farewell to Towser

He was just a cat, when I first met him. He sniffed round me, unsure of me, then warmed to me when I offered him peekaboo fingers round Jude's gatepost, which he vigorously attacked with his little paws. I noticed then how the tufts of white hair poked out from between his toes, kept immaculately clean by his constant grooming. With his pointy fur 'sideburns', he looked like a cartoon cat, like Sylvester or Tom or Top Cat, but was funnier than all three.

He was just a cat, but never a big cat, or a heavy cat, even at 13. His long soft fur hid the lightness and smallness of his frame. Towards the end though, he felt hollow, like a bird, as his muscles wasted away and the flesh fell from his bones. I picked him up and stroked him, just five days ago, the day he stopped eating, and I felt each rib, and the knobs of his backbone, still hidden beneath his deceptively fluffy coat. The picture of him under his fur was no longer a pretty one. I worried then. I worried that he was going, like Barney back in May, wasting away until his spirit left his body like the last wisp of smoke from a dying candle.

He was just a cat. He was just a cat, but he was much more than that. "Just a cat" is what soulless people say. I have no time for people like that. Say that to me and I'll laugh in your stupid face.

He was just a cat, and he was my friend. He knew me as well as I knew him. We understood each other, each in our own way. We trusted each other. He knew I'd never hurt him. He showed it in so many ways: in waiting for me to come up the road on my bike after work, just so he could roll on the ground and purr and stretch whilst I rubbed his sheepskin tummy; in the way he'd be there sometimes, on the pillow next to my head when I woke on a morning, sleeping softly, or the way he followed me down the garden and sat vigilant on a rock, defying the Big Toms of the neighbourhood to come near, because I was there to scare them off.

He was just a cat and I worried about him, when the vet named his illness, his reason for wasting. When he stopped eating and just lay there, eyes dull, I already missed him. I missed my friend, missed his mincing walk and his feather-duster tail and his constant need to sit on my knee whenever I sat down. Missed the way he used to sit on the table and reach out with his paw when it was feeding time as if to say "just give me the tin, I'll open it". I forgave him all the times he deftly flipped a piece of food off my plate as I ate, and ran off to eat it under the table.

He was just a cat, and I could see him waiting for death to come and I knew he was going, even as I muttered unfelt words of hope. The operation which would save his life was already planned, but he was never going to reach it.

He was just a cat, but yesterday I woke up and he wasn't there, and he wasn't just a cat, he was an empty space, an absence of cat, and a gentle fear in my mind. I looked and looked and found him, lying amidst dead wet leaves in the back garden, under a bench. He was cold, like he'd lain there for hours in the rain and dark. I carried his weightless body in as he purred gently against my chest.

He was just a cat and he's gone now. A last straw was clutched at with a night spent in a vet's cage, fed by a tube. Poor small, soft Towser, in a cage, without his friends, alone, would never see his home again. I can still feel his paw against my lips, waking me just days ago, to tell me it was breakfast time. I can still feel it, warm and soft, with the faint trace of claws. Yes, I can feel that and I always will, even though I'll never feel it again.

He was just a cat, but he was himself, his own being, unlike all other cats. He was Towser, and I wanted him to stay Towser and carry on being just a cat. I wasn't there when the needle went in. I never got to stroke his fur and hear his last purr. I never said goodbye to my friend.

Goodbye Towser my friend. You were just a cat, but I'm just a man.

Below: Jude with Towser as a kitten

Below: a distraught and tearful Jude cradles Towser's body, 5th December 2007

Below: Towser in typical repose

Below: Towsers "sheepskin tummy"

Below: Me relaxing with the cats in our back garden, after a bike ride; summer 2004

Below: Towser sitting on Barney's coffin; April 2007

Below: returning home for the final time

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


OK, I have neglected my music fans;

Please note: there is a degree of irony in the title.

Do you all like to PARTY? OK, let's go back to the Manor Hall Disco, Pudsey, in 1977: Catherine Shaw doing a striptease for 50p; some disco dancing extraordinaire, and this; Heatwave - Boogie nights; big tune in 1977, the soundtrack to my summer hols in Perranporth, to teenage snogging at parties, the counterbalance to punk's sneering and spit(e), and above all, a perfect slab of funky pop...

Roxy Music 'Ladytron' - great title and it unfortunately passed me by in 1973, even though it's GENIUS!
My non-existent teenage readers will find it astonishing that in 1973, 11-year olds just weren't musically aware, but that's the way it was. Consequently, I was cheerfully oblivious to most of the amazing music being made at the time, even that which bothered the charts and made daytime radio.
Here is Ladytron, performed in '73 on the Old Grey Whistle Test, the coolest music programme ever...

Right, two tunes don't make a party, do they? SO on to the next piece of music for you to shuffle awkwardly to (so far, apart from Boogie Nights, the 'DANCE' element of the title has been ironic: I challenge anyone to dance to Ladytron).
Way back in 1972, I used to walk to Junior School (on my own!) with this tune ringing in my ears, fresh from the Jimmy Young show.
Widely reviled, sneered at, I have it here as a guilty pleasure, and the warm Northern swell of the brass band, coupled with the blunt, almost flat, vocal style, are guaranteed to warm the cockles of my heart and bring me out in a fever of nostalgic yearning. Oh, and despite what critics may say, it's a gorgeous song of love.
Peter Skellern, with 'You're a Lady'...

Easy listening eh? I love the North, me.

Next up, a contrast. Back in the late 80s, the Son of God, John Peel, went through a phase of playing 'tunes' by death, thrash and doomcore merchants like Extreme Noise Terror (photos), Carcass, Napalm Death, Electro hippies and their ilk.

Below: Electro hippies:

As a lifelong fan of metal (except US hair and pomp metal like Kiss, Van Halen or GnR, collectively known as shite metal or false metal), I thrilled to this new offshoot of the genre, often featuring songs growled or barked out over devastating explosions of guitar, bass and drums, many of them less than 30 seconds long. Timing was critical, to avoid a structured mess of sound becoming just a mess. I ventured to the late lamented Duchess in Leeds (good thread about the Duchess here)to see several of these bands, and very exhilarating they were too.

An offshoot of this metal offshoot was a slowed down version, like the above named bands played at 33 instead of 45rpm. This grindcore was exemplified by dutch masters Gore (whose epic instrumental 'Arena' remains a monolithic statement of the music's visceral power - seek it out if you can!), and by our very own innovators, Bolt Thrower (note the touching Peel tribute on their homepage), whose 1988 LP 'In Battle There is no Law', set the pattern for countless bands to follow.

I now urge you to climb on the sideboard or other suitable item of furniture, and to throw yourself off it into an imaginary crowd of sweating moshers. Repeat until song ends....

Bolt Thrower - Cenotaph

I hope you are now bruised and battered, soaked in sweat, and that your room is totally trashed. Typical Bolt Thrower gig.

Now let's all calm down shall we? Not too much though, because we've already gone all last of the Summer Wine with Peter Skellern, so let's have some still extreme 'easy listening' courtesy of Tokyo's masters of Noise, Merzbow. For those who found Bolt Thrower harsh and tuneless, better skip this next piece (CLUE: Merzbow are described as sounding like "a robot in a woodchipper" - GREAT comment! and "like a cow being castrated" - BULL, surely?)

Nice. Thing is, I really like this stuff, even though it's 'just' noise.

OK, ta ta for now. maybe next time we'll do African, yeah?