Tuesday, 11 December 2012

All Things to All Men

The bike below is the Stumpy that was almost mine, thrilled to see it in nearly unadulterated form almost 15 years later.

We all want a mountain bike that just does 'everything'. Yeah, sure I want to be able to ride it to work. And to the shops. And on my local xc loop. But sometimes I want to go a bit further afield, up and over the Peak District or the Welsh valleys.

But I'm kind of getting into a bit of dirt jumping, and I've just raced in the British Universities Students Union downhill nationals. What if I want to do more of that? I quite liked it, even though my backside was kicked by by a girl - Tracey Mosely I think her name was...

It was the spring of 1998. My first MTB, a Claude Butler Miura had been upgraded well beyond its worth. The Shimano Altus groupset had been gradually worn and replaced by LX, and the cheap hi-tensile steel forks bent and swapped out for a very snappy pair of pre-Kona Joe Murray Project 2's, that still hang in my Mum's shed.

I'd returned from my Uni placement year in the Purbecks to a final year full of study, but still manged to carve out plenty of time for fun, the Wednesday afternoon University of Hertfordshire (Hatfield Poly to any older readers) MTB club ride being a sacred fixture in the diary.

Claggy Hertfordshire flint & clay is a serious come-down after a year of cutting your fat-tyred teeth on the chalky Purbeck ridge, but persevere I did, and I was introduced to other sides of the 26"-wheeled coin. We would regularly ride out to spots where people had got to work with shovels and would take turns in seeing who could jump the furthest, or the highest. Bernards Heath in St Albans, Panshanger Lake in Welwyn or Pig Woods near Stevenage were the favourite haunts. Big single jumps and fast steep runs were the order of the day, the idea of 'trails' or 'flow' still to make it to our shores.

One morning, literally 'just riding along' on my way to college I both heard and felt a ping, which led to a somewhat sloppy handling bicycle. The cheap metallic turquoise Tange steel tubeset had finally had enough and separated from itself just behind the bottom bracket.

Roy Pink Cycles in Newport Pagnell from where the bike had originated were very good, honouring the fact that the frame had failed whilst simply travelling from A to B, despite its erstwhile adventures. They sorted me out with an alloy replacement frame under warranty, transplanting most of my upgrades across.

This new beast saw me right for a few weeks, including those student nationals, until a day out riding at Chicksands, Woburn and Heath & Reach in the Easter holidays. We stopped outside a bike shop in Leighton Buzzard on the way home and a couple of members of the local scally family (who were later charged and convicted though I was never compensated) nicked it, along with my brother's bike off the back of a friend's car.

I scraped through the summer term on a mate's Marin Palisades Trail (black & fluoro pink) that was a size too big, and by the end of the academic year my Dad had managed to get around £350 each from the household insurance towards a new bike for my brother and I.

The plan, at this crucial point in my life, should have been to get a job. A proper one, something to do with my degree, that paid enough for me to be able to leave home and stand on my own two feet.
But frankly I just wanted a new bike and a summer to ride it in before taking such drastic measures. I think I told my parents as much, who, in retrospect, should have given me a kick up the backside - but they seemed happy for me to move back home and sign up for temp work with an agency whilst daily scouring the national press for serious work. I had a token amount of rent to pay, but beyond that it was every penny towards a new bike, with an occasional exception for a Friday night beer.

Several month's worth of devout MBUK readership had left me in no doubt that there were only two bikes that would fit the bill for my by-now incredibly diverse riding needs. Full-suspension was interesting, but was expensive, unreliable and inefficient for all-around use (although the legendary Marin B17 was rapidly changing that). Disk brakes had also become established, but they required special frames, forks and wheels, and were again not fully proven.

No, it was to be a compact hardtail with v-brakes and decent suspension forks. Something that could climb, pin woodland trails fast, but also descend well and take a beating. And everyone knew there were only 2 bikes that fitted this bill - the GT Zaskar and the S-Works M2, the latter to be run JMC-style with a short (think 90mm) stem and riser bars. Some would add the Cannondale Beast of the East and the Killer-V to this category, but they couldn't compete in my mind.

I wanted the S-Works, but this working for a living was delivering a serious reality check. So, eventually I revised my plans and decided to settle for the S-Works' little brother - the mango coloured Stumpjumper pictured below. I figured that at the rate I was earning I'd be able to afford it and still have a few weeks of summer left to ride. I knew exactly what size I needed, and not having a Specialized dealers close-up, I trawled the magazine ads to find the cheapest place I could buy it. The anticipation was building, only another week or so before I could place the order...

In the end, the story turned out quite differently. I am sure I would have loved said Stumpjumper, and it would have served my needs superbly. Except that an elderly auntie had passed away and I unexpectedly received a sum of money in excess of anything I'd even thought of spending. It should have gone towards something sensible like a house deposit, but around the same time a new breed of hardtail had emerged - the Santa Cruz Chameleon at its forefront. And everyone knew that the only forks to fit to a Chameleon were Bomber Z1s. And it would have been churlish to put anything lower than XT spec on such a fantastic chassis...

I still have the Chameleon, and I love it dearly. It doesn't often get ridden, and isn't even the same colour as it once was, but is a part of who I am as a rider. It has raced downhill, it has 'caught big air - dude'. It has taken me on rolling all-day epics, many blasts round the woods and has jumped long flights of city centre steps.

But I don't forget how much I wanted a Stumpjumper back then, and am sure it would have given me just as much fun and pleasure. And it always makes me smile to see one in near-original condition like this. Just put some fat tyres on it, eh?

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