The Black Earth Convention
Bike designer, travel agent, track builder and event organiser assemble for The Black Earth Convention...
Bike designer, travel agent, track builder and event organiser assemble for a couple of days of wisdom and mockery
DIRT ISSUE 130 - DECEMBER 2012
Words by Steve Jones. Photos by Steve Jones
Having spent the best part of Sunday morning nursing two dozen Kronenbourg through a precipitous canyon north of Nice, we spilled out into the high plains of Digne Les Bains curiously out of shape. Wrestling a ‘c–t of bags’ from the remote platform it soon became very clear that the town (population of about 20,000) had decided to go out for the day.
Afternoon slipped into evening, which through natural selection, skidded into calculated confusion. There was no way it could have possibly ended any other way without some kind of sin binning. Red or yellow cards would be the order of the evening…the week.
By the time ‘Messrs’ Richards, Oxley and Smith arrived in the village, which is one of the layovers at Transprovence (the ultimate multi–stage enduro race/event), at lord knows what time, we’d started experimenting with the local reds, a model stupidly assumed by the latecomers to be of cheap variety. I can but recollect only brief moments of what exactly happened past nightfall, but a UN delegate being marched out springs to mind.
At a 1m gauge the railway between Nice and Digne is a 151km, four–hour journey. On the outward leg of our trip we’d slipped into a six an hour tempo with our incumbent crate (like I said, calculated), with local cheeses and saucisson to line the gut. By way of countless mini stops along the Var river, the ride is an adventure, the stops small, personal and ancient. It takes you to places inaccessible by car, a savage valley – Puget Theniers, Entrevaux to name a few villages.
The aim of the trip had been to sample some Transprovence delights, section a few tracks, take in some missing beads that cannot be included in TP due to them being directionally back to front (so to speak). Hitting Digne black earth sections early doors we proceeded to Sospel, a date with the great Nico Vouilloz (10 time DH World Champion), another night out. But that was after the team had discovered…well…each other for starters. Four self–made mountainbike businessmen all with tales to tell of the varied angles and places to where two wheels have taken them.
Hebden Bridge, UK
I think maybe my mum has had the most influence on my career. Certainly starting out, as when I was about 13, she worked in a church charity shop and brought me home a load of bike magazines, which I read from cover to cover, and learnt lots of technical stuff. She then rang up the bike shop I used to go to a lot and got me a job there – something she only came clean about quite recently.
Working in magazines was an amazing way to get into the industry. I worked on MBUK, launched MBR magazine, BikeMagic, and the lad’s mag Front. The expenses accounts were amazing – I used to ship my washing home by FedEx and get a taxi home from the station for my dog, so I could go to the pub.
Working customer direct with On–One, Titus and Planet X is a great way to stay in close contact with the customers. I really enjoy the pace of development, the less links in the chain, the way we can get our message across clearly and also offer crazy value because of less people taking a slice.
Taiwan and China are amazing places when you meet the right people. There are some infuriating meetings, where culturally you just can’t click and things don’t work right. Then some meetings just flow, with them having an expertise that we can’t match, but us complementing them perfectly. Those are the best.
I can’t use Solidworks, or Pro–E, or any 3D CAD package. I work on a very basic 2D CAD drafting package, then wave my arms about and point at things, and get factory drafts–people to do the drawings. We then test, test and test on machines, on the trail. It’s worked for revisions; it’s worked for ‘ground up’ stuff. I would love to learn 3D but fear it would be a complete time–suck.
I don’t think I’ve ever asked for feedback on a future design, a “would you like this?" There’s a Henry Ford quote, “if we asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse". We go off what we ride, what we think. Clearly other brands do influence stuff, but it’s seeing little trends and then thinking about them that shapes the direction we’re going.
I really want to hate 650B more than I do right now, but it’s sort of growing on me. What’s really holding things back are forks. I keep hearing how it makes sense in the trail bike class, but still the only RockShox fork you can get is a Revelation. It needs either a Lyrik, or a mid–platform Fox 34mm model. But then 29" will get the same, and frankly I’m not sure what the point is then. For the same standover height, I’d rather take the bigger wheels and a bit less travel.
I’ve got a bronze medal from the Kamikaze at Mammoth Mountain. But it was in the 25–29 Beginners Class. I ended up there on a trip with MBR magazine and as I wasn’t downhill racing in the UK they said I was in the beginners class. I raced with no gloves (left them at the bottom), on a Proflex Animal with a 42t chainring. I talked to JMC in my head all the way down.>>
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Trainer and travel agent
Hebden Bridge, UK
"So what do you think you're doing here Ed", Jones asked. "I've come to do an all mountain 29er feature for Dirt," I replied. Then Rowan (Sorrell) punched the little model of a bearded man and the real story began.
If you want to have a job that you love you need to invent one for yourself. I was asked recently, along with other parents, to go into my daughter's primary school to talk about my job. I put my riding kit on and took my bike into the classroom. I told the kids that I had wanted to work outdoors and loved riding my bike, so I made up a job to make this possible for me to do. I told them that you don't always have to go for an interview and do a job for someone else. They liked this idea. It's not for everyone but it's the best thing for some of us to do.
In my line of work I often find myself sleeping with men. In the last month I've had to share a bed in a static caravan, a double bunk in a postage stamp sized French hotel, the floor of a bothy and a wooden camping pod. The common theme in these situations is farting, laughing, beer and the smell of damp.
It was just out of curiosity that I started growing the beard a few years ago. Then I started my company and the beard just became my trademark so now I'm stuck with it! I'd be really proud if I'd actually thought this up as a marketing strategy as it certainly gets me recognised.
It's very satisfying to see someone progress their riding, whether it's being more confident through rocks, flowing through turns or clearing a simple drop off. Usually it's the simple things like when someone gets how to steer with their hips and all of a sudden they're smiling and loving being on their bike.
Running holiday trips has given me the chance to ride abroad loads more than I ever did before. It's all about the trails but I also love to see new places and enjoy the local specialities of food and drink. I'm writing this at the airport waiting to fly to the Basque Country in Spain where you can find the best Pintos (tapas) in the world and some excellent riding.
I'm sold on 29ers even though I'm only 5'8". For the trail riding I do the big wheels are smoother over rocks and give more grip in turns. I'd just like to see a Marzocchi 55 or RockShox Lyric type 29er fork.
Before I worked with bikes I was a massage therapist and also ran didgeridoo workshops in schools. One of my first jobs was at a shopping mall doing Punch and Judy and dressing up as the Mad Hatter to run tea parties. It's been a varied career.
Hebden Bridge, the rainbow capital of the Pennines, is where I live. We've got miles of great techy trails, some good pubs and plenty of freaks. I feel right at home there.
I'd like to run a course called 'Cornering is Sexy' just to see who turned up. It is sexy though isn't it?
Track designer and builder/Zookeeper
Riding wasn’t my first sport; ashamedly my first love was football. I played every day and was scouted to play for Norwich City schoolboys. Now I can’t bear to watch football, they are overpaid Prima donnas, whereas Rugby I have grown to truly appreciate as it’s played with pride and honour. Cardiff when the six nations is on, is a special place.
It all began behind my house in Lodge Woods, both racing and trail building when I was about 14. We built a track called the ‘Grundig’ after the then title sponsor of the World Cup series, and 17 seconds was the record down the main track. I remember being totally committed on my fully rigid bike and thinking to myself after my best run, ‘I wonder if Nico (Vouilloz) could actually go much faster than that?’ I know the answer now, I have ridden with him!
Broken bones and injuries suck. Breaking my Tib and Fib was a low point. I remember seeing my lower leg heading the wrong direction, I quickly moved it back to somewhere near to a normal position before the pain really kicked in. A few minutes later a lady came over to show me her bruise (my bike had crashed into her afterwards) in doing so she kicked my foot and span my broken leg back around again! For the break to come at the point of my racing career where I felt like I was going somewhere was heartbreaking at the time, but now I realise it just refocused me and opened up so many other doors.
My first car was a four–speed Vauxhall Nova 1.2, however my fondest memories are without doubt of my 1.7 diesel Volvo GL. An uglier car has not graced this planet. It was my sleeping quarters for races, had a renowned wrestling ring on the roof with an almost permanently compressed ceiling from these activities that I would have to kick out before being able to fit in to drive. She was driven at over 100mph up the M1 with the bikerack dragging on the floor and she shuttled me from Leeds to South Wales regularly to race at weekends. Driving home was a challenge undertaken with a discman, large headphones and diet pills to keep me awake after the heavy socialising that we did at races back then. Not something I’d recommend these days! The shed became undriveable and I ditched it in Newport with no tax, MOT or insurance when I went to race the Lisbon downtown event. Somehow months later it showed up again on my street, I still have no idea how?>>
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That jump in Verbier…it was just one that had to be done. I was pretty nervous the night before, but myself and Rob Breakwell (ex Dirt team racer) both stomped it, the landing was so harsh that it bent the steerer on my forks. Looking up after the big compression on landing I sailed straight off another 10ft drop to flat – always check your run–out. To this day I’m gutted I never saw the photo of that jump as Steve Jones lost it!
Orange bikes – it just happened after buying an old Orange 222 and doing a season in Les Gets on it. It worked, nothing went wrong, despite getting a hammering day in day out. Ever since then I have raced and ridden Orange bikes. I think we suit each other, there’s a lot of bollocks in mountain biking, unnecessary complications that people buy into. Those guys who just put their bike back in the shed and take it out the next time they want to use it and give it absolute hell – well I’m with them all the way.
When I started trail building I was particularly carefree, whistling and singing songs to myself, wielding my mattock happily in the woods all day then riding my bike afterwards. I was working outdoors, fit and strong and riding plenty. Employing people and running a business changes everything…more than I ever would have believed.
My best friends, family and girlfriend have always brought a sense of normality to my life, they don’t ride and only take a flirting interest, it’s very much my hobby and when I’m home we don’t talk about it too much. I quite like that, I feel grounded.
I have calculated that I have just one more year of work left in me at the current rate. I’ve been burnt out for the last three years! Seventy–hour weeks are slowly but surely grinding me down, but I have a focus and I have a dream that I will see out. After that I will need a long holiday and some hair dye!
If it wasn’t for Brant Richards I probably wouldn’t be doing what I am today. Let’s not forget we all owe everything to Brant!
Sadist/Event Organiser/Map Collector
Yes, of course I'm a map freak. It started at a very young age with road maps and A–Z type things that I'd have dug out of the family book shelf and scanned for hours on end. I’m obsessed by the layout of geography's natural and man–made features and how this could be represented on paper.
I’m fascinated by place names and by the idea that people can ‘belong’ to somewhere. I was born in the North East of England in the late seventies, but was moved abroad at a young age because of parents' work. And so, since 1984, I've felt like (and have been perceived as) a foreigner wherever I've lived, nowhere more so than in the UK. For much of the time from then until the present, I've thought it must be deeply satisfying to belong to and therefore be able to ‘represent’ a town or a region…or even be able to give a simple answer to the question "where are you from?" because I never did or could do that at any level really, in any country.
In order of duration (longest to shortest) I've lived in Belgium, Switzerland, England and France. Belgium isn't an outdoor person's place, but apart from that it's great. Switzerland...seriously f–k Switzerland, I hate the place, or at least I hate Swiss society – indoctrination of a nation, surely close–on North Korean standards. I don't like England very much personally (can't speak for Wales or Scotland). France, in my view, is an unfairly judged country..."oh, the French, especially in the service industry, are so rude"... are they? In the UK, I can well imagine the uttering of the "deux bieres!" in any bar outside the M25 making front page of the Daily Mail. They just wanna little r–e–s–p–e–c–t–(–e).
The idea of using a mountain bike to travel to and through this discovery and adventure, leads me to what my current occupation is today.
It would appear that railways are in my blood...they aren't. I was born in Stockton–on–Tees (home of the world's first railway), there was a railway line behind the back garden when I was little, I worked for the Swiss Federal Railways for nigh–on 10 years, and now there's a line out the back of the house again, where we currently live.
Then there was the almost attempt at a music career. A few collaborations, and even a demo tape (well a CD) was recorded as the singer–songwriter guy. For one reason or another I never pushed it or sent anything off to anyone. I'm not sure it was me and, looking back now, maybe I was just worried about the type of shit you might get into as a successful musician. More likely, it wasn't truly good enough to be one. I doesn't matter now.
Fast–forward to the present day. It's always nice to be working on a little project and this time it’s personal. I want to attempt to take a step (even just one) into the world of being a fast mountain biker (I'm talking descending not ascending, the latter will never happen). There are so many Enduro races to do that it'd be rude not do to a good few a year, if only to serve as a personal reminder of the pain that I myself put 70 riders through each September at the Transprovence.