Full Circle: The ‘Evolution’ of Mountain Biking

Add a number plate and you've got a race. Photo: Caleb Smith spokemagazine.com
Add a number plate and you’ve got a race. Photo: Caleb Smith spokemagazine.com

Think back to the early days of mountain biking. A bunch of friends, getting to the top of the hill any way they could, not needing to ride up at any great pace, saving themselves for the real buzz, the ride back down. It didn’t matter who got tot the top first, as long as everyone made it and then could share a chat, maybe a beer and a toke, before they pointed their rigs back downhill. The hair was as flowing as the conversation, and that was just the guys.

The weight of their bikes wasn’t a factor, just making it to the bottom with functioning brakes and their jeans not tangled in the chain was the most important thing. Most of the bikes and parts were derived from road-going machines, and most of the early wheels were either cut down and re-welded road hoops, or beach cruiser wheels which came in some strange diameter. Innovation and invention was strong from the start, with a bunch of them making their own frames and cobbling together parts. They shaped the development of this new sport, which in turn helped revive and push road bike technology too.

While racing down the hill was the way it all started, soon the predominant racing genre would become riding around in circles, up long climbs and then back down again. Even though the climbing was the major element, the races were dubbed cross country. Downhill was usually raced on the same day, on the same bike, on the same part of the XC course. Gradually downhill technology advanced with suspension at both ends getting longer, while the XC bikes (and riders) looked to go on diets that would make Jenny Craig envious. Somewhere in between, regular mountain bikers just rode their bikes on the trails, up and down, without a label of their own to identify with.

Sometime in the last few years, the bikes that most people ride on most trails most of the time took on an identity of their own. The marketers, in a moment of brilliant clarity, called them trail bikes. But what were these trail riders going to do if they wanted to compete every now and then? The bikes didn’t fit into the XC category (too heavy, too much travel), they were too under-gunned for proper downhill racing, and most of the riders just wanted to have a bit of fun more than set any PBs or have to wear lycra and shave their legs to be considered worthy of the ‘racer’ tag. What they needed (even if only the marketers knew it) was a new type of racing, where the fun bits, the singletrack and the descents, mattered more than the boring hard bits, the climbs. Enter enduro.

Just about every company at Interbike recently released something that had the word enduro attached to it. Bikes, components, shoes, helmets, clothing, there’s something for everyone to just go and ride with, just like we used to, but now only better. Enduro has maybe not saved mountain biking, but has given it a whole new lease of life by bringing back the core elements of why we ride a bike on trails. Whether that needed a tag or not, well that’s debatable, but I know that the bikes we ride now are some of the most dialled and most versatile that I’ve ridden in my 23 years of mountain biking. They have certainly brought the fun back to my riding, by allowing me to ride faster, with more control and more confidence.

Those hippies back in the 70s and 80s were way ahead of their time in many ways. That the preferred wheel size back then was 650b could have changed the way bikes developed a lot sooner, and the way we’ve arrived at this ‘new’ wheel size via a smaller and then a bigger one is maybe a blessing in disguise. Maybe we wouldn’t have three sizes (soon to be two) to choose from, and all bikes would have at least one component that was a true ‘standard’. The way things are heading though, most trail riders in the next three or four years will be on the medium hoops whether they like it or not; the 26″ wheel holdouts will have nothing left to complain about except the fact they can’t get any tyres any more, and that they secretly wished they’d switched to medium wheeled bikes sooner, because, shhh, don’t tell anyone, they’re actually better.

I get to ride a few bikes in my job, on a lot of varied trails all around the place, and it’s hard to find many bad bikes these days. Whether it’s down to frame design, angles, suspension technology or wheel size, I don’t know. Probably all of those, combined with other factors like wider bars/shorter stems, the banishment of the front derailleur, big fat tubeless tyres, and the best invention in mountain biking in the last ten years, the dropper seatpost. All these things are staples of the modern trail bike, and whether or not they have the word enduro attached to them doesn’t really matter. But I know this; mountain biking is looking healthier than it has since the halcyon days of the early nineties, and racing is becoming popular again because the fun is being put back into it. Heck, I’m even having a crack at one of these new races next weekend too, and I’m actually looking forward to it.

Thanks, enduro.

burner-26351

This is what a modern mountain bike looks like… my new Turner Burner.

The Rise of Enduro – Teaser from Tom Teller on Vimeo.

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84 Replies to “Full Circle: The ‘Evolution’ of Mountain Biking”

  1. Nice one Brett, those races look like blast.

    I won’t be going down the mid size wheel route for a while, there are too many bike further up the list. Possibly an upgrade to ten speed and a decent air shock for my Prophet but I’ll keep it until it dies. 

    sur la petite plaque!

  2. so if the 26″ wheel is going away, it might not be worth rebuilding my 18 year old Schwinn Mesa GS with newer components…..

  3. Oh FFS! Extolling the the virtues of Mountain biking on Velominati?!?!?

    Do I now have to start worrying about looking fabulous on my mountain bike too?

  4. Nice steed indeed Mr Brett (and nicely shot too).

    I’ve been considering moving to a zero stretch stem myself but can’t imagine how much it will mess with the overall setup. Did you switch to the short stem or size the bike with the shortie on there? I guess its a relatively cheap experiment.

    Don’t show Cobo that chainring…

  5. Finally rode a 29er at Phil’s World in Cortez last weekend. It made me appreciate my 2010 Jamis 650b that much more. Although I worried that my socks were too long.

  6. What an awesome article, and beautiful Turner!

    I’m still so out of touch with modern Mountain Biking, though, I’ve got to say that buzzsaw on the front just looks so wrong!

    The notion of just easing back and having fun is so great though; road cycling does tend towards taking things seriously, and going offroad can be so much fun in how casual it is. Enduro sounds great in a lot of the ways graveling and CX can be.

    Plus, this is an opportunity to go and post all the cool vids from the 90’s.

    Like Herbold and Tomac talking about Downhill. The “fun” just oozes out of this, don’t it?

  7. @Harminator

    Nice steed indeed Mr Brett (and nicely shot too).

    I think someone got a new camera and maybe some lights. That shot and his updated shots of his Merckx over on the Cable Obsession discussion are glorious.

  8. @DeKerr

    Oh FFS! Extolling the the virtues of Mountain biking on Velominati?!?!?

    Why not? Its still Cycling. In order to understand the Great Mystery, we must study all its aspects. Mountain Biking will make you a much better road cyclist.

    Do I now have to start worrying about looking fabulous on my mountain bike too?

    You should worry about Looking Fantastic at all times. On the road bike, off road, waiting for the bus, going to the office. Everywhere, always.

  9. @frank

    Here’s a great video on the Klunkerz over on Mount Tam:

    Those guys look just like most of the guys we ride mtb’s with every Thursday, although the latter have later-model bikes than the ones in the video.  Here’s a candid shot from last week’s post-ride party in the woods (anonymous, so I won’t bother getting permission from the subject):

    Thursdays are so not super serious.

  10. Just having fun is exactly what it was all about for us. The late 80’s was when Specialized ushered in the Stumpjumper and everyone had to have one. Once the 90’s hit, the explosion of all kinds of bikes was amazing. We were lucky enough to live in Austin, TX where trails were abundant but people and rules weren’t. This little gem took me through some good times… Still have it because we have too much history together. Recently updated just for fun.

  11. @Brett Good lookin’ Flux there, especially in that orange.  Yours?  I’ve always had a thing for Turners.  Couldn’t agree with you more about the rise of Enduro and its benefits to mountain biking.

    The differences between my trusty Titus Racer-X Ti and an S-Works Enduro 29er I tested recently are astonishing.  It really is a changing of the guard in terms of the capability, bantam weght, XC efficiency and DH speed.  Long live enduro.

    Despite my own feelings on Specialized, the S-Works Enduro 29er is definitely the next N+1.

    @frank Love that video.  A lot of those guys in the video still live in Norcal and show up to rides, especially around Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz.  Hopefully @Nate and I will run into some at Levi’s Gran Fondo!

  12. @frank They had a cool exhibition of NorCal MTB history at SFO’s international terminal last winter, including several of the original Klunkers they used to race down Repack.  Cool history here.

  13. @frank

    @DeKerr

    Oh FFS! Extolling the the virtues of Mountain biking on Velominati?!?!?

    Why not? Its still Cycling. In order to understand the Great Mystery, we must study all its aspects. Mountain Biking will make you a much better road cyclist.

    and vice versa, here’s hoping anyway, racin the roady up a big fuckin hill to race the MTB down a bigger fuckin hill!!

    http://www.milkandhoneyrace.com

  14. a MTB should be included in every Velominati’s stable for the reasons @frank has mentioned. its just plain fun and your handling skills will improve.

    that said I tend to lean toward the XC style of riding. Hardtail 29er with 2 inch tires at 28 psi. That makes it fast and a bit touchy on soft sand but thats part of the fun for me. Oh and I ride in Lycra.

  15. @brett

    Strong work. You’re absolutely right, enduro is more fun than any other type of MTB racing; having raced XC and DH quite a bit it’s certainly an improvement on either, but it still results in me getting my ass handed to me by people with more talent and bigger cojones.

    If you want an education in riding DH in a hurry, go out with a mate of mine I think you know. He’s a tall Brit with a white Santa Cruz Blur LT – shouldn’t be many of those in Welly, I’m sure you can figure out who I mean.

  16. @EricW

    Yeah it’s my Burner, longer travel than the Flux, which is also now a 650b bike (though Dave prefers to call them 27.5). The Burner is 140mm travel, the Flux now is up to 120. My mate who runs the Singletrack Colorado tour I did recently was on a loaner Enduro 29 and loved it. I was on a loaner Burner and that’s what helped my decision. Funny how when 29ers were first appearing, Specialized said they’d “never make a 29er” and now that’s about all they make… looks like they’re doing the same with 650b, so it’ll be history repeating when they finally catch up in a couple of years.

    @Fausto

    Max?

    @frank

    I think someone got a new camera and maybe some lights. That shot and his updated shots of his Merckx over on the Cable Obsession discussion are glorious.

    No, I can’t claim that, they are shot by Caleb Smith who owns Spoke and is a Pro, one of the best in the world…

  17. Ok so this has been laid up since it broke its rear axle in a race in October 1989 – haven’t been sure what to do with it since.

    Suggestions?

  18. Thanks for this Brett. Mountain bike XC is where I started many years ago with my steel Marin Bear Valley SE. I still have that frame in the garage. One day it may be restored If I can get the BB out. I’ve resisted the 29er as they look unwieldy and so out of proportion but this 650b size does have some appeal. Maybe it’s time I upgraded, the current hardtail doesn’t get out much, even less since the CX arrived this year.

    I have to agree Frank, road can sometimes be riding with a required grimace through the pain but for me the mtb is all about fun and pushing the limits of bike handling and tyre adhesion. After a long session of road, the first time the knobblies slide a bit to find grip can be a bit unnerving.

    A visit to the LBS is on the cards.

  19. @brett

    @EricW

    Yeah it’s my Burner, longer travel than the Flux, which is also now a 650b bike (though Dave prefers to call them 27.5). The Burner is 140mm travel, the Flux now is up to 120. My mate who runs the Singletrack Colorado tour I did recently was on a loaner Enduro 29 and loved it. I was on a loaner Burner and that’s what helped my decision. Funny how when 29ers were first appearing, Specialized said they’d “never make a 29er” and now that’s about all they make… looks like they’re doing the same with 650b, so it’ll be history repeating when they finally catch up in a couple of years.

    @Fausto

    Max?

    @frank

    I think someone got a new camera and maybe some lights. That shot and his updated shots of his Merckx over on the Cable Obsession discussion are glorious.

    No, I can’t claim that, they are shot by Caleb Smith who owns Spoke and is a Pro, one of the best in the world…

    So what is it with the 29er and 650b thing? The first move was to 29er and everyone seemed to agree that was the way to go, but now it seems like 29ers are considered to be a bit too big? Not responsive enough maybe? Is 650b just a middle ground between the two?

    As for the single ring, top marks on the approach, although I’ll have to learn more about why you want a 12T on the front. I remember Tinker used to ride only in the big ring and when I’m CX’ing I never – ever -use the 38T. I just grind it out in the big ring and chain cross as much as I need to. Big gears on technical climbs is a massive advantage because if the wheel slips at 50 rpm then its just a quarter turn, whereas if you’re spinning at 90 or 100 rpm a slip with send you buzz-sawing. (I exaggerate, but you get my drift.)

    That said, I’m still riding my 50T on the front because of the Heck of the North I’m riding this weekend, and I’ll be grateful for the 44T on those steep, rooted climbs when the race is over. Long way of saying, if this was a dedicated CX rig, I’d go single front for sure.

  20. Posted this in another article a few weeks ago. There are some ski trails that get fairly hard packed in the spring. 20 psi in the tires and you can get around alright.

    It has certainly made me a better CXer having a large mountain background.

  21. Some mtb riders have cable obsession too…graceful arc, long enough to clear the head tube but not too long ….

  22. @GordG

    Some mtb riders have cable obsession too…graceful arc, long enough to clear the head tube but not too long ….

    Wondered when someone might pick that up! My Reverb hose and rear brake hose need shortening, but hey, that bike was shot straight after building…

  23. @frank

    @brett

    So what is it with the 29er and 650b thing? The first move was to 29er and everyone seemed to agree that was the way to go, but now it seems like 29ers are considered to be a bit too big? Not responsive enough maybe? Is 650b just a middle ground between the two?

    As for the single ring, top marks on the approach, although I’ll have to learn more about why you want a 12T on the front. I remember Tinker used to ride only in the big ring and when I’m CX’ing I never – ever -use the 38T. I just grind it out in the big ring and chain cross as much as I need to. Big gears on technical climbs is a massive advantage because if the wheel slips at 50 rpm then its just a quarter turn, whereas if you’re spinning at 90 or 100 rpm a slip with send you buzz-sawing. (I exaggerate, but you get my drift.)

    That said, I’m still riding my 50T on the front because of the Heck of the North I’m riding this weekend, and I’ll be grateful for the 44T on those steep, rooted climbs when the race is over. Long way of saying, if this was a dedicated CX rig, I’d go single front for sure.

    Mountain biking and CX/Gravel are worlds apart, unless you ride a mountain bike exclusively on gravel fire roads. The 1×11/1×10 systems now favoured use fairly similar front ring set-ups, Pros tend to use 34 or 36t depending on the terrain, schlebs like me use 32 or 30… high end doesn’t suffer at all unless I’m riding on the road to the trail. Talking to SRAM head engineer Chris Hilton the other night, he said more and more riders, both Pro and rec, are going to smaller front rings, 30t and even 28t.

    @Weldertron

    I run 20-23psi in my tyres for most trail riding. Traction galore, never burped a tyre. I don’t understand why some riders run 30psi or more.

  24. @frank

    29ers still have a lot of merit for sure, I rode one for 3 years and it was a great bike, but when I rode some 650b bikes (Rocky Mountain Altitude, Cube Stereo and Lapierre Zesty, which I’m still testing) they really changed my riding… the playfullness of a 26er came back, I can rail corners faster and harder than on a 29, they are way more stable than a 26, and they just beg to be jumped and popped of every trail feature. The marketing guys will tell you it’s a best of both worlds, and I’d have to agree that the wheels take some of the traits from both other sizes for sure.

    I think the mtb market will look like this: hardtails, short travel XC race bikes and some short travel trail bikes, 29.

    Trail/enduro/AM bikes 120-160mm, some hardtails, 650b. (Though there are a few companies developing 650 DH bikes now too.)

    DH, long travel freeride, dept store hardtails, 26.

    Trail bikes being the biggest part of the market, 650b will be the dominant wheel size.

  25. @brett The wise editor of an obscure MTB journal in NZ once wrote that riders shouldn’t fuss over whether their wheels are small, medium, or large, but should just get out and ride.

    I give you the same advice.

  26. @G’rilla

    @brett The wise editor of an obscure MTB journal in NZ once wrote that riders shouldn’t fuss over whether their wheels are small, medium, or large, but should just get out and ride.

    I give you the same advice.

    And I still subscribe to that view fully. But I pick the best wheel size and style of bike for my style of riding.

  27. @brett

    Mountain biking and CX/Gravel are worlds apart, unless you ride a mountain bike exclusively on gravel fire roads. The 1×11/1×10 systems now favoured use fairly similar front ring set-ups, Pros tend to use 34 or 36t depending on the terrain, schlebs like me use 32 or 30… high end doesn’t suffer at all unless I’m riding on the road to the trail. Talking to SRAM head engineer Chris Hilton the other night, he said more and more riders, both Pro and rec, are going to smaller front rings, 30t and even 28t.

    Forgive me if I missed it, but what’s the spread on your cassette?

  28. Short stem and wide bars? Next you’ll be saying that a 100mm fork isn’t enough for attacking the downhills!

    I’m testing my new set-up on Saturday. You may want to set aside some time now to visit me in hospital on Sunday…

  29. My old 1990 ish era Mountain bike from Raleigh had a dubious little sticker under BB that stated “this bicycle is not intended for off road use”  WTF

    Needless to say I took that sucker almost everywhere and over things that should never be ridden over.  Still in one piece.

  30. OK, something I can wade into fully here …

    I ride a 29er dually – Santa Cruz Tallboy with 2.25 Nobby Nics – this suits my build – a bit of a clydesdale at 182cm and 100kg. I had a 2007 Scott Genius 26er but was continually breaking suspension bolts  – the rear suspension set up on the Genius didn’t help though.  Great bike all the same – had 140mm travel up fornt and 120mm rear. Frank – that bike (Genius) is definitely not for you – you would be snapping seat tubes off at the frame!

    The big wheels suit bigger blokes in my opinion – I don’t have any problems on the technical stuff & switchbacks, but then again I’m not the fastest through that anyway. Also age and wisdom has seen me take the descents a little more cautiously – I do not bounce! The 29er suits me and I don’t think I’ll go back to smaller wheels, even 650B.

    I read an article that when they fitted a 2.25 tyre to a 26″ the diameter difference between that wheel and a 650B was around 10mm – really – why all the fuss! But I think if you’re of smaller lighter stature, and want a new bike, 650B will be a definite improve on the 26″. Bigger wheels definitely roll over shit better.

    I currently run a triple up front – the bike came that way, and I was going to convert it to 2*10, but I do like the granny options. Whilst I could climb almost anything on the middle ring of the 26, the 29er is a bit hard to turn on the middle & 36 at back. Really do need that granny ring. I read recently that the new 1*11’s have a 42 tooth dinner plate at the back. Yet to see one, but doesn’t appeal to the aesthetist.

    I currently have my CX/graveller and roadie so never short of riding options. I see that even Niner is bringing out a graveller (v. sweet) – this is what I though you meant about going full circle at the start of your article.

    Great article Brett.

  31. Re: the great wheel size debate, I think 29ers are the way to go when you’re racing XC and you’re interested in speed and nothing else. The handling is a bit ponderous but the lower rolling resistance lets you fly.

    26ers are great for techy trails and when you want a bombproof wheelset – the handling difference is immediately noticeable.

    I’ve not had a chance to try 650B in anger but I like the idea – I’m just not sure I want to shell out to replace two 26ers that I don’t ride enough as it is for a minor improvement. I may be tempted to sell the hardtail to replace it with a 29er for racing though, at least that’s seen some race action this year, even if it did beat the shit out of me in the process.

  32. @El Mateo Sweet Bontrager.  I have just gone back to fully rigid on my Race Lite from the mid-90s with a pair of Project Twos. Its a real gem and fun to whip around after bouncing around on a modern bike.

    Not better, just different.

  33. The day I turned to the road I turned away from the dirt…this article gave me a sense of longing for the first time in ages so well done @Brett

    The thing is I now barely understand any of the language used, tech or even gearing but at least it looks interesting.  I have recently given my son my old Dawes Watoga, which was in mint condition, now I am thinking I have either given him something very uncool….or a classic that I should be saving for a future retro rebuild!

    Nice article, although I think I will stick with the road….there is something beautiful about winter road riding which completes the cycle of the seasons (see what I did there!)…

  34. @the Engine yes, you should give it a really good clean, and then chuck it in the skip – wouldn’t risk a lawsuit if someone else decided to ride it

    @brett
    Blimey, I just sold my FS MTB to fund a new Cx bike, thinking this would garner approval of the V tribe, only to find we are now suggesting MTB is cool!

    That said, I’ll take a couple of points for my new TRP V-brakes as per @Fronk’s suggestion, and also propose that De Feet’s Woolie Boolies are the best socks a man can by for winter riding in wet conditions

    More to the point Brett, my heart felt commiserations on your boys delaminating in the Americas Cup – to have it taken away within 2 minutes of the finish line on friday because of a stupid time limit, and another due to it being too windy, and just to lose it because Larry specified first to 9 rather than first to 8, must be pretty shit – I do worry about Dean Barker, constantly talking about swallowing bitter pills, I hope he is okay – it was a very sad day in SF, a great day but a sad day, but you Kiwis are still the master race when it comes to sporting brilliance, awesome attitude, and being fucking hard as nails – bloody unlucky (but for the fact Ben Ainslie was on the Australian boat, I would be inconsolable myself!!)

  35. @Dr C

    @brett

    …and also propose that De Feet’s Woolie Boolies are the best socks a man can by for winter riding in wet conditions

    +1 matey. They’ve become my everyday winter sock. Too good to just ride in.

    @Dr C

    @brett

    More to the point Brett, my heart felt commiserations on your boys delaminating in the Americas Cup – to have it taken away within 2 minutes of the finish line on friday because of a stupid time limit, and another due to it being too windy, and just to lose it because Larry specified first to 9 rather than first to 8, must be pretty shit – I do worry about Dean Barker, constantly talking about swallowing bitter pills, I hope he is okay – it was a very sad day in SF, a great day but a sad day, but you Kiwis are still the master race when it comes to sporting brilliance, awesome attitude, and being fucking hard as nails – bloody unlucky (but for the fact Ben Ainslie was on the Australian boat, I would be inconsolable myself!!)

    Brett’s not a real Kiwi, more of an Aussie export so he’s probably quite happy the Aussies and Brits won.

    Those boats are ridiculously quick. I remember when someone cracked 30 knots on a windsurfer, the idea of 72 foot cats doing 40 knots and being able to sail in more than one direction was just nuts back then.

    Dean Barker must be suffering a lot at the moment. To have been that close. To be fair though, I think the sickest I’ve seen him looking was when Jimmy Spithill put all the pressure back on Barker when the Kiwi’s only needed one more win

    i think the question is, imagine if these guys lost from here, what an upset that would be

    It would be nice to think that for Ben Ainslie, this was just a fact finding mission before putting together his own team.

  36. We’ve had such a good summer in the UK I’m not sure I’m ready for my midweek evening rides turning back to this……

  37. @Teocalli

    We’ve had such a good summer in the UK I’m not sure I’m ready for my midweek evening rides turning back to this……

    It’s the two Yeti paw prints that would cause me concern!

  38. @Chris  re – It would be nice to think that for Ben Ainslie, this was just a fact finding mission before putting together his own team.

    According to the good old Beeb headline he is already there.  Got someone else to pay for it all too.  Neat.

    “Sir Ben Ainslie’s Oracle Team USA sealed one of sport’s greatest comebacks when they overhauled an 8-1 deficit to beat Team New Zealand in the America’s Cup decider in San Francisco.”

  39. @Deakus

    It’s the two Yeti paw prints that would cause me concern!

    Darn it, Bigfoot has emigrated and taken up residence on Leith Hill.

  40. @Teocalli

    “Sir Ben Ainslie’s Oracle Team USA 

    I’m surprised they made any reference to the USA at all.

    Amazing to think that a guy who spent all his time sailing from a very young age had the time to build up and run a tech giant like Oracle.

    The BBC are incredibly fuck useless at times.

     

  41. @Chris

    @Teocalli

    “Sir Ben Ainslie’s Oracle Team USA

    I’m surprised they made any reference to the USA at all.

    Amazing to think that a guy who spent all his time sailing from a very young age had the time to build up and run a tech giant like Oracle.

    The BBC are incredibly fuck useless at times.

    Good work by the Grand Ole Lady – let’s see what they make of Sundays thrash around Florence – Maybe Sky’s owner Chris Froome might do the business?

  42. I show that Klunkerz video to my Intro to Parks Rec and Tourism students every year. I use it to illustrate how an entire billion dollar industry from design, to natural resource development/conflict, economics, marketing, recreation, and equipment can develop from simple stoke. From first bikes for five year olds to Olympians, the impact the likes of Fisher, Breezer, Ritchey et, al. had can’t be understated. Students really identify with it, it’s fun for them to see how it happened and not take for granted.

    Anyone seen Pedal Driven? I just picked it up as well to show to class.

  43. @Dr C

    If he has an ounce of Aussie in him, can I retract my commiserations for Brett?

    He used to be Australian but he’s live in NZ so long now that its nearly his turn to emigrate to Bondi.

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