Tuesday 26 April 2011

Tired but happy.

I'm not fit. I'm fitter than I was, and the odd hill no longer reduces me to a gasping wreck, but there's still a long way to go.

I got back on a bike after an absence of over a decade just last year. I don't get the chance to ride as much as I'd like, and when I do it's a gentle pootle rather than full-on time attack.

"The mountain bike version of a short stroll? That's the ticket! Yes please!"

But I'd always fancied the Big Country Ride around the Galloway Forest, billed as an all-day ride.

It's an area of the world I love, and promised some stunning scenery. It also promised some serious hours in - and out of - the saddle. From the 7 Stanes website:

"Don’t be misled by the absence of technical singletrack, as this is a challenging day in the saddle, with testing climbs and big descents."
Yeah, they weren't kidding.

With nothing more than a healthy dose of optimism, and an all-time off-road maximum of ten-miles-in-one-day, yesterday was the day I decided, foolhardily, to give it a go. I'd never contemplated anything this difficult before; my much fitter friend's advice, delivered on drive down to Glentrool, that I should mentally prepare myself was perhaps a little more chilling than he meant it to be.

The weather was glorious, and the first 20 km was relaxed, easy, and fast, as we spun along merrily before a juice stop and the opportunity for Chris to have a fiddle with his wheels (the boy loves to fiddle).

The very definition of false sense of security; the world suddenly got steeper.

We climbed and climbed, until it felt like there was no more 'up' to go. Then whizzed down avoiding sheep and logging trucks. Then more climbing. Then more whizzing.

We took a lunch break at the side of the Black Loch, after a missed turning that - unbeknownst to your hapless blogger at the time - added an extra 5 km to the route, but did let us wave hello to some wild goats who were plainly more at ease in the hills than I.

We lunched in the shadow of 'The Eye' - a pointy tile structure sitting on the banks of the loch; the spy hole at its base didn't reveal any hidden mystical truths, at least not to me.

After snacking on fruit, water and a Cadbury's Mini Egg nest, we got back on our trusty aluminium steeds and climbed. Slowly. We were overtaken by a camper van, and I thought for a second about grabbing onto the ladder at the back for a cheeky tow.

And so it went on. Pain in my legs, thighs burning so even the downhills hurt. Pain in my ass, that oh-so-important and tender contact point.

But I wasn't going to give up. Not that I could; my chauffeur had the day off and my private helicopter was getting serviced. I had to keep going, and I was rewarded with some simply stunning scenery that I would never otherwise see.

I snapped a few photos that simply don't do justice to the views we witnessed, like the image of Loch Dee (top picture). I bagged my second Stane, the Giant's Axe Head Stane, pictured right (read about my first Stane, too).

This 1.5 ton sculpture overlooks Loch Dee and resembles neolithic stone axes found in the area.

The runic text inscribed onto its top surface I quickly translated as "Bet your legs hurt, GeekBoy. What were you thinking of? Oh, and by the way, the website lied, there's loads more climbing to do."

Finally, I was greeted with the welcome sight of my car where I'd left it six hours and a lifetime ago. With the ride complete I'm quite proud of myself. Five and a half hours for over 62 km (nearly forty miles) mostly off road. And I didn't fall off (which I do a lot), and didn't puncture (which I do even more).

Yes, it's been done faster, and yes, I pushed some of the horrible final hills, but this was a personal challenge for a nearly-forty-something long-time couch-dweller.

It was a day out on my mountain bike, doing what I wanted to do and, for a short while, I was master of my own pain-filled destiny. And that, dear readers, will always be a good thing.

Sunday 24 April 2011

Just can't get the staff these days...

Bad customer service is a personal bugbear of mine. Working in an industry that consistently delivers bad news to people who are often working through some of the most difficult periods in their lives, good customer service really matters - because that's all you have to play with.

If good customer service can be delivered in those kinds of circumstances, good customer service in a more relaxed environment - and, to pick any random example, let's say the BikeHut department of your local Halfords - should be kittens and cake.

So, my question is (to anyone who will take up the baton for the store) "Why, dear Halfords, do you get it so wrong, so consistently?"

Regular readers will know the initial difficulties we faced when trying to make Carole's pennies stretch a little further in these difficult economic times, and opting for the UK's largest cycle retailer rather then, well, anywhere else really.

It got worse.

We finally got someone to listen to us. We knew our budget, we knew what we wanted. The first salesperson tried to sell us the bike without actually getting the display model down off the rack for a feel. It was the right model, the right size. So, thanks, but no thanks.

We returned the following day, and got someone who actually let us see what we were buying. Satisfied, we placed the order, paid 100% up front, and were promised a delivery date at the end of the week. We agreed to pick the bike up the day after delivery. "We'll call you to confirm," we were told.

And call they did. At 7:30pm on the day of delivery. "I'm sorry, we haven't been able to get your bike off the truck."

So, a failed hydraulic lift isn't the store's fault. But the lack of communication that followed was very poor. The simple query of "When will my bike be ready?" was met, variously, with "Tomorrow," or "It's away back on the truck to Hamilton, I don't know." or "No, I can't find out. It's not my fault." or "You said you'd be away this week so we haven't arranged to get another one."


Finally, we got in touch with the Manager who, to be fair, gave an honest explanation that - had we been given up front - would have prevented three days of frustration and the prospect of me turning up with a rubber hose to beat information out of someone.

Said bike was finally collected from a different store by the Manager himself, and assembled. Full safety check, everything signed, us - finally - happy customers.

For two point five kilometres. Then the left hand crank fell off.

Luckily, Carole was only going at walking pace on a perfectly flat strip of tarmac, away from traffic and pedestrians. Had this been at pace, or off road, under load, or in traffic, the consequences could have been horrific.

Not happy clappy cyclists at that moment. The store was lucky it was closed at the time and, the following day, lucky that the hapless minion who had conducted the safety check was on a day off. Presented with a stripped crank and crank bolt, the staff were, initially, indifferent. I was seething, but remained calm - the Easter Bunny only knows how.

The Manager was duly summoned - "Oh, I don't know, I think he's over there." "Well, I'll just go and fetch him, because clearly you can't be arsed."

The Manager was apologetic, understanding, and put it right - in terms of a new and properly fitted crank, anyway - explaining that it was a problem with the assembly at the factory rather than the store. Fair enough.

But nothing else by way of apology or consolatory gesture.

The result? We're happy with the bike. But not the store. Or the chain. Returning customers?

Not likely.

Sunday 17 April 2011

A mountain biking-saturated weekend...

...but not too mountain-y!

Yesterday, Carole had her first real taste of off road action of the two-wheeled-pedal-powered variety - and she did really well! This was the first off road action for her new steed too - you remember the one: it came with added bad customer service, free of charge. And I will finish that story. It isn't pretty - I may need to put an age-warning on that one.

But back to yesterday. The weather was dry (but perhaps not as warm as we would have liked) and I wanted somewhere quiet where Carole could get used to the bike, and hills, and rocks, and trees, and tuna toasties. So, off to Glentrool! Sadly, the hot chocolate machine in the visitor centre was on the fritz, but everything else was just as we needed it to be, and a wee jaunt along the Big Country Route for a few kilometres taught us a few things:
  • I'm not as hopelessly out of shape as I thought - but not far off.
  • Carole made friends with some hills on the way up, and didn't fall out - or off - on the way down.
  • People you meet on the trails are nice.
The views, as always, were spectacular. Three hundred and sixty degrees of trees, and hills, and trails, and sky. With one farmhouse, one land rover, eleventy billion sheep and, in the distance, one wind farm.

So, happy that Carole had enjoyed herself, and happy to be out in the good weather. Happy happy happy.

And today we visited The Scottish Bike Show. For a geek like me, drooling at all the shiny, shiny bikes, I knew I would enjoy myself. Bike of show - a droolworthy Trek Remedy 9, although the wooden bicycles were kinda cool. If I were the kind of person who had a workshop, I could see a winter project on the cards...

Other noteworthy elements:
  • The guy promoting Hoo Ha Ride Glide - did a good job of promoting the girliest of products. I'm trying to persuade Carole to review the product...
  • Purple Harry, for the product, and for the best hippo-related logo.
  • The tiny kiddies on the tiny mountain bikes battering round the Tirol Austria bike track with scant regard for faceplants and splinters. Awesome!
The BMX dudes were pretty exciting to watch but, for me, the 7 Stanes Display Team was the live show of the event. You've seen this stuff on YouTube but, until you've seen it up close - and I mean really close, you can't appreciate how hard this is, and how easy they make it look. Check them out, and while you're there have a look at Bottle Green Biking, too.

I really enjoyed the event, and managed NOT to part with any hard earned pennies - until having to pay the extortionists who run the car park £6.00!

Sorry, Jonny14, didn't see any Trail Scotland stickers though!

Sunday 3 April 2011

Mountain Biking Communities

I will happily admit that when it comes to skills, nerve and fitness, I'm pretty near the bottom of the pile. I'll get more skilful, I'll get fitter, and - I hope - those two will bring with them a little more nerve.

What I have not seen since I've returned to two-wheels-good outdoor activity is snobbery amongst fellow mtbers, and other cyclists. Guys on two-and-a-half grand Orange Fives have chatted to me quite happily, roadies have given me a friendly wave as we pass, and that weird bloke who cycles in a kilt and tweet jacket nodded in acknowledgement. They're all faster, all fitter (well, maybe except for that last guy, but he's about eighty and it's still a pretty close run thing) and all quite pleasant people to be around.

Cyclists are united by many common factors. We love being outside, we hate cars (I love my car, but I hate cycling in snarling, angry traffic), and we all suffer the odd puncture.

You can find evidence of that camaraderie everywhere. The car parks at trail centres, your LBS, or anywhere cyclists gather. And online, too. Facebook and Twitter are great communities, where you can find like minded individuals, share stories, get advice. They're not just about embarrassing pictures from work parties!

Dedicated online communities are also definitely worth looking at for friendly advice and good-natured banter.

Trail Scotland is a new site with a new, young community, but it shows promise. The forums are already pretty active - and respectful! - and the site looks like it could become a popular hub for mountain biking in Scotland.

Good luck, guys!