Originally published on Singletrackworld.com.

Momentum, friction, gravity – all of these are powerful physical forces that define and shape the way we ride bikes. Yet there’s another force which is even more potent than all of these, yet is mysteriously ignored by conventional science. I’m talking about faff.

I consider myself something of an expert in faff. If I was a professor, the little sign on my desk would probably have an F.a. FF. somewhere after my name. Prior my last bike ride I managed to spend a fair amount of time unsuccessfully trying to get a tubeless tyre to seat, had to return home briefly to swap out a dead light, lost and found a glove, spent another 5 minutes on Facebook telling everyone I was going to be late, stopped to tighten an errant stem faceplate, and finally, after a few minutes on the trails trying to catch everyone up, my bottom bracket vomited its balls, which resulted in a slow coast down the hill to the pub. So I know what I’m talking about here.

Faff (from the dialect word “faffle” – “to flap aimlessly in the breeze”) is the natural enemy of riding. I’ve been on more than one ride that has literally been faffed to death, as a steady stream of chat, clothing adjustment and mechanical issues gradually eroded the riding component of the enterprise. What can you do to avoid this? In the spirit of “know your enemy”, I’m going to try and coin some universal laws of faff.

Faff is hard to define, often masquerading as an essential activity. Adjusting your saddle height, removing a jacket that’s suddenly taken on the properties of a bin bag, splinting a broken arm – you’d clearly be foolish not to do these things, which might categorise them as fettling, rather than faff. But I’m going to take a hard line here, and say that anything which isn’t riding is potential faff. Fettling takes place the night before, whereas faff happens during the ride. Which leads me to the first law: faff is in the eye of the beholder.

If you’re just going out on your own, there is no faff. You can sit around in your riding kit for an hour before you go out to the shed – I frequently do. It’s only when you throw more people into the mix that your procrastination solidifies into something problematic. If you’re doing anything to hold up the progress of a ride, there’s a chance someone else will start feeling narky. Which unfortunately leads me to the next law: Faff increases exponentially with the number of people on a ride. A ride consisting of two or three people has a fair chance of being an efficient enterprise with the minimum of stopping to tighten headsets. Whereas a ride of twenty or more will stretch out like a bank holiday trip to IKEA, and no matter how early you set off, you’ll invariably do the last part of the ride in the dark.

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This is due to the next universal law: Faff begets faff. As soon as one person begins to faff, another person in the group will whip out their phone in a futile attempt to guide a latecomer to the ride’s whereabouts (the mountain biking equivalent of finding the Higgs Boson), or utter the dreaded phrase “Has anyone got a shock pump?”. Once this circle of faff has started, it’s hard to break without disrupting the bonhomie of the ride. Shouting “GET ON WITH IT” and then dropping the hammer works, but may also generate some social awkwardness, and if repeated enough times may cause people to start arranging their own rides, without inviting you. It’s a tough call.

Some people are born to faff. We’ve all got a mate who feels the need to bleed their brakes in the car park, or turns up to the start of a ride with a bike that’s still a collection of components. These people are quite capable of botoxing a ride all by themselves, but the nature of human social relationships often means that unless they’re an utter toolbag, you end up inviting them along anyway. As above, it’s a choice between sacrificing some riding time or gradually becoming a wheeled hermit.

dsc00055Attempts to avoid faff inevitably generate more faff. Think of tubeless tyres, and the amount of garage bukkake that prefaces every puncture-free ride. Some people prefer to ride a more basic bike, which means less to faff with. Ditch the gears, the dropper post and the suspension, their facile thinking goes, and you’ve got much less to adjust and therefore lose less time to faff. But they’re missing another fundamental law. Faff has limitless potential. Even if you dispensed with bikes entirely, there would still be faff. I’ve never been out with a group of fell runners, but I bet it’s a constant parade of stopping to tie shoelaces, debate the choice of café stop, or adjust sagging Ron Hills.

Think of a scenario where you absolutely must not stop – a race. The amount of military-style preparation that goes into even the least serious race always dwarfs the amount of faffing required for a normal ride.  If someone made an 80s action film about doing a mountain bike race, this is the bit would have to be dealt with via a montage. Although 80s action film montages don’t generally feature someone trying to jam a partially dismantled work stand inside a folded gazebo and stuff the lot into the back of a car.

Ultimately though, faff isn’t all bad. Faff can be your friend. If you’ve just started mountain biking, or you’re dangling off the back of some considerably fitter mates, faff can be your only hope of finishing a ride. A break of a few minutes at the top of each climb, while someone tries to reconnect their Reverb hose with a drinking straw, can drag the average speed down to the point where even if you’re doing more walking than riding, you can still keep up. It’s also surprising how unsociable and tiring mountain biking is if you don’t stop. And heaven knows there are enough unsociable tiring sports out there already.

If faff was an animal, it’d be a friendly but dopey pet that followed you around everywhere, got in your way, and occasionally tripped you up. You can lash out at the faff-beast and try to drive it away, but it will inevitably return. Better to accept it, enjoy its company, and treat it like another member of the ride.

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