Monday, June 10, 2024

A love letter to (mountain) bikes

Mountain biking in the French Alps 

I have always loved bikes. From my first junior step through to my latest electrically charged steed, they’ve given me more joy than any other mechanical invention I can think of. In almost sixty years of pedalling, I’ve ridden (literally) the length and breadth of Britain, climbed countless passes in the Alps and once traversed the Pyrenees on a tandem. Together with the friends they’ve brought me, bikes are one of the greatest joys of my life.

So it was perhaps inevitable that I’d be an early adopter of the trend to 'all terrain' cycles.

In the mid-eighties, before many folk had 'proper' mountain bikes, I co-organised an ‘off road’ weekend in the Lake District. We had no idea how many riders would come or even what contraptions they’d bring. In the event, two dozen of us ground our way up High Street on a motley collection of bone-shakers, descending with squealing brakes, several blow outs and one broken collar bone. By the next morning I’d say about half were converts; the remainder saying it would never catch on!

I wonder what those doubters would think of popularity of mountain biking today? In the Alps, it’s become the summer equivalent of skiing, attracting hundreds of thousands to the mountains every year. A vital part of the tourism economy, resorts compete to host events, promote their trails and provide a network of lifts that mean some riders don’t even pedal uphill!

The alpine club, for which I edit a monthly newsletter, embraced mountain biking as late as 2017. I suspect that’s a reflection of the age and interest profile of members; but I wonder if there was also a certain reluctance to see fat tyred bikes as quite the right thing in the hills? I can understand if that was the case, for despite my love of cycling, I too am often frustrated by an irresponsible minority of riders.

But then I like to remind myself that all the mountain activities I love are relative newcomers to the landscape. My house in France was built long before the Matterhorn was climbed, before downhill skiing was invented or anyone thought of descending rapids in a kayak! It seems to me that adapting to change is as much a part of the outdoor experience as the putative permanence of the views.

And as for electric assistance – well that’s just brilliant!


This post is a very lightly ammended version of my editorial, published by AAC (UK) e-newsletter in June 20024

Friday, May 3, 2024

Digital dilemmas

On the Tour des Fiz last summer —
I didn't once look at a map; all navigation by phone.

James, from the Apple Store, was young, personable, and clearly capable in what he was doing… and yet his breezy confidence was equally terrifying. ‘Just leave it with me,’ he said, ‘if you come back in forty minutes, it’ll all done.’ I wanted to ask, but what about…, and can you explain…. and how does … but I didn’t have the courage.

Instead, I wandered around the shop-cum-gallery, trying to ease the pit in my stomach. What would happen if he lost my data? Would my banking apps still work… and do they back up my photos first…? Honestly, I reckon buying a new phone must rank with house buying and divorce as one of life’s most stressful experiences.

Okay, I exaggerate a little. But it’s significant how much of our life we now hold, literally, in the palm of our hands. In my case, my phone is my letterbox, my bank, my photo album, my document store, my daily newspaper… it’s become an essential connection to the everyday world, as much as to my family and friends.

And yet as I pondered the walls of screens in the store, I noticed how many of them depicted mountains and wilderness. From the Alps to the Arctic, they promised an aspirational paradise of travel and adventure - the very places we visit to escape the trappings of daily life. I doubt if any of the idealised landscapes on those screensavers have a mobile signal or a charging point nearby.

Sometimes, I wonder if I ought to take off with no more than a map and compass – just as I did for decades before succumbing to the digital dark side. For the truth is, the things we truly treasure are not held on a microchip or lodged in the cloud – they are the result of our physical efforts, our successes and failures our love and our laughter…

Or as James from the Apple Store might put it, 'our analogue experience!’

Meanwhile, if you're wondering about my new iPhone 15 Pro Max - everything transferred without a hitch.  

Amen to that!

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Mountain memories

Lake District 2020 -more than fifty years after my first visit 

Earlier this year my mum took the difficult decision to move to a care home. She’s increasingly frail and immobile, but still takes joy from simple pleasures such as sunshine through her window and the accompanying dawn chorus.

Like many very elderly people her memory isn’t great and large parts of her past are now at best a blur. Sometimes when I visit, we sing together, for it’s well known that music, and particularly the association of lyrics with melody can help. But last week it was a conversation about mountains that triggered a surprising recollection.

We were talking about a childhood holiday to the Lakes and I mentioned how we’d climbed Latrigg Fell on the edge of Keswick; it was my first mountain walk, I said. ‘But oh, you did more than that’ she interjected, ‘we went up Cat Bells and Skiddaw and Haystacks too.’ And she went on to mention Blencathra and Red Pike and the Old Man of Coniston, describing the routes we’d taken and even the weather.

How strange – and yet how wonderful – that when so much of her past is lost in mist, she could remember these hills and wild places with such clarity. It made me wonder if, through the effort of climbing, our footsteps embed themselves more deeply in the pathways of our minds. As if they somehow create a sort of memory map that’s as hard wired to our brains as the circuit board is to the computer I’m typing this piece on.

That’s probably cod psychology but I’m not sure it really matters – what’s important is that it feels that way. If I’m lucky enough to last as long as my mum, I pray my own mountain memories remain as clear as hers. For in truth, they are high among the most precious moments of my life.

Here's to making memories that last.

(This post was first published in the AAC UK monthly e-newsletter)

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Awe and understanding.

Me and my dog in the centre; my friend to the right - forty years ago now...

This afternoon as I wandered from my lounge to the kitchen, I considered for a moment all the technology that’s become ubiquitous to our daily lives: the laptop by my chair, the TV and its remote, the microwave I popped a cup of coffee in to reheat…   And it occurred to me, as the phone vibrated in my pocket, that I haven’t a clue how any of it works. 

Like most of us, I can operate the gadgets we take for granted, and indeed, consider myself pretty nifty on the PC or scrolling through supposedly intuitive menus. But if you asked me how the contraptions actually function, at best I’d give a vaguely plausible narrative about digital signals or electrical circuits, before quickly drying up. 

Which is why, as the microwave pinged and I read the message that had come through seconds earlier, I'd no real understanding of the science that underpinned what it said. 

My lifelong best friend; my best man (twice) and me his (once), is going through a stem cell transplant. The process is brutal and the odds not great, but the alternative even worse. He’s the same age as me, has two boys like mine, and today is his thirtieth wedding anniversary. I spent this morning walking on the beach; the air, sea and hills lifting my spirits.  He was wired to a bed, drugs being pumped through his veins… 

Such is the lottery of life.

But thankfully, his medical treatment doesn’t work like that. I may not understand the process, and even less the deep workings of oncology, but I know it favours the fit and the courageous, and today, the deserving too.

For the message from his wife read:

Unexpected good news and the best 30th Wedding Anniversary present…. K ‘may’ be coming home on Friday. Much earlier than what constitutes normal but his bloods are definitely starting to show new cells. Whoop.

Reading her words from afar, none of my ignorance mattered a jot. Rather, as I took in the news, I felt a profound sense of awe… and a heartfelt gratitude, that we live in the time and places that we do.

Hold tight my friend and get well soon.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Winter meditations...

Every month I edit an alpine newsletter - here is my introduction to February's issue

Twenty years ago, the philosopher Alain de Botton published a collection of essays titled The Art of Travel. They’re a witty and playful reflection on the pitfalls and disappointments of our urge to explore, to sightsee, to find ourselves or a putative nirvana…

If there’s a theme to his musings, it’s that the process of planning and anticipation is the chief pleasure of any adventure – thereafter, the reality invariably falls short of our idealising. Most of us, I expect, will have experienced something of the sort.

Perhaps this is why, whenever I make a trip to the mountains, I refuse to look at the weather until I arrive. To be clear, I still meticulously research what’s likely to be the case (a holiday of Scottish midges taught me that lesson) — but once the tickets are booked and we’re committed to going, I regard the forecast as nothing more than a source of potential disappointment.

My friends laugh at this eccentricity, regarding it a sort of superstition. Perhaps there’s some truth in that, but I’ve come to look forward to the element of surprise — and to making the most of whatever we encounter. This week I arrived in the Alps for some skiing, only to be greeted by biblical rain… but then again, for a kayaker, the river is running at its brim-full best.

And you know, for all I like Alain de Botton’s writing, I reckon he’s wrong that we’re doomed to disappointment. My travel memories are as much of people as they are of places; of what could never have been planned as much as what was. Last night the temperature fell by ten degrees, and we awoke to snowscape that I venture would surpass any expectation, or serve as nirvana for all but the most jaundiced or joyless of heart.

I’m glad that hills don’t dance to anyone’s tune.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023



Pausing mid-scramble 

 noun (plural hiatuses)
a pause or break in continuity in a sequence or activity: 
there was a brief hiatus in the war with France.

It's a dark irony that no sooner had my book on blogging been published, than my own practice was interrupted by a combination of events which left me caught between accepting the need for a break and the desire to make sense of it all through words. Had I followed the later course, I've no doubt I'd have tried to unpick the overwhelm with logic; the first refuge of the angry man...  or at least this one.

It's not that reasoning isn't right which stopped me - by definition it sort of is. Rather, it's more that its not enough; for the truth requires the tears and tantrums as much as the whys and wherefores. And only when they are disclosed and settled (at least in our minds, if not on paper) can we properly begin afresh. Suppressing them altogether, would imply something less than human.

A week ago, I was in France, where I wrote a short piece for an alpine journal:

From the mezzanine window of my house I can see the ridge of Mont Billiat, its lower slopes clothed in the dazzling hues of an alpine autumn. Last night’s storm has flecked the summit with snow, accentuating the gullies and arĂȘtes that make it an intimidating and serious winter climb. Today there was a walking group, maybe thirty strong, setting off from its base to make a tour of the surrounding forest.

The walkers were from a local club, and in broken English their leader told me this was the first autumn they’d scheduled regular meets since the pandemic. His mention of that period —which sometimes seems like history now — reminded of how wary we became of each other, as much we were of the virus. With obvious satisfaction, he added that their membership was now greater than before the lockdowns.

And how wonderful is that I thought. 

The purpose of posting this extract here is, I suppose, to form a sort of hiatus too; a tangential break in the stream of thought; an interlude and yet a connection...

For in some ways, my respite from blogging reminds me of the current UK public enquiry into the Covid pandemic. An odd parallel perhaps, but an example (if you've followed proceedings) of how we seem necessarily programmed to vent our emotions before learning any lessons. Arguably, we need time too, to see things in perspective.  

On the subject of which, it strikes me that those who (largely for political reasons) called for an immediate review were most definitely wrong in one respect...  It will be many years before we can truly assess the collateral and counter-factual impacts of, say, lockdown and whether it was or wasn't a beneficial policy...  But there I go again, reasoning away...

When what I need to do is pause and, metaphorically at least, go for that walk in the woods.  Meanwhile, little Oscar is scratching at the door where his lead is kept— he would seem to know that the tide has turned.

It feels good to be back.

Monday, July 3, 2023

Finding radiance - memories of a friend.

Riding tandem in Wales - many years ago now.

Last week, while walking in the mountains of the Haute Savoie, I received a call from Jane. An old friend needed to speak to me urgently, she said; there'd been an accident in which 'Pat' had been killed while riding her bike. 

It took a moment to register the volley of information... a collision with a car... on holiday in  Scotland... riding her 'solo'...  Pat...?

And then it hit me.

For in the milliseconds it takes to compute, all becomes clear and irreversible — the future forever altered by something so swiftly related: a person gone, a chainlink lost; memories tinged with sorrow now...  

In truth, I hadn't seen Pat or her husband Reg for perhaps two decades. And yet I'd rank them high among the seminal people in my life, inhabiting that curious space of persons whose impact extends far beyond their physical presence. 

It's a time and place thing — the fatalistic collision of personality and circumstance that makes some encounters pivotal while consigning others (for all they may be closer, deeper and longer lasting) to a more marginal role in the trajectory of our lives.

The phrase that struck me most, when I spoke to my friend who relayed the detail, was 'riding her solo'.  It's a term that tandem riders use to distinguish between standard bikes and their two-up cousins. Pat and Reg were made for the latter; a strong couple in every sense, and leading lights in a gang of enthusiasts who've stayed loosely connected for almost forty years. 

I always think that the bonds of shared experience are the hardest to break. In this case, forged by the tens of thousands of pedal revolutions we shared in Northumberland, the Dales and later Wales...  And by those nights of laughter in hostels, the attempts at time trials, the coming to our wedding in Betws y Coed...  the sheer delight of cocking a leg over a crossbar. 

We used to call them 'Peg and Rat', they even adopted the moniker on their email address. For all I know it may still be the same.  

Except it can't be, can it?  Not ever again.  

And all because of time and circumstance and the fatalistic collision of iron on skin and the breaking of bones that we could so easily allow to go round and round... and round again, by thinking if only this or what if that ... and how there, but for the grace of an effing God, go any of us...

I have no faith — or at least none of the religious sort — but I know this much: that unless we embrace life and live it to the fullest that we can, then it is nothing; that joy and meaning are as interconnected as the steersman and stoker of a tandem; that risk and reward are two sides of a coin that's weighted in favour of the latter, but just occasionally flips the way we didn't foresee.

Pat lived like that when I knew her well. It's how I'll recall her and perhaps how we might conjure a radiance in her memory.

Today —with some dark irony — I'm writing this tribute of a sorts from a hotel patio in Mallorca, an island that's a magnet for cyclists. All around me is sunshine and life; mountains and sea; youth and the future... She would have loved it here.

Of that I have no doubt... so too, that the wheels and gears of our lives will continue to turn, and, in time,  just as smoothly as ever.  

Just as it should be.