Monday, 15 October 2018

BB200, the 2018 wet edition

Great things are done when men and mountains meet.
This is not done by jostling in the street.
William Blake


The last time I'd been at this stream it was fast flowing but clear and I'd almost managed to ride across it. Today it was a dirty brown roaring maelstrom. It didn't look good.

Two years ago I did my first BB200 gaining one of the coveted black badges. There must have been something about that year as over a third of the entrants also got a black badge. Rumours spread that that course was "easy". With the course being different each year it's hard to compare them but the 2014 route has a mythical status: apparently the riders didn't speak to Stu on their return to Llanbrynmair and there's lots of dark mutterings in to cups of coffee when it's mentioned.

"The bridge at 20km has gone. Use your own judgement on how to get round or across that stream." With that advice, I was away. The stream looked like one of those African rivers in the rainy season, a red-brown soup, surface features flitting past in the current. I knew that there were no tributaries joining it between here and the ford and also that I wasn't going to be crossing it. Farm and forestry tracks rejoined the route further upstream, they would do.

In truth none of the BB200 routes are "easy", they aren't meant to be, but the conditions on the day can make them much harder. The short daylight hours of October just add to this. There's no "winning" or "losing" but scratching is a hard choice. Making decisions in such conditions as we experienced on Saturday can have serious consequences.

In these days of 250km+ per day multi-day rides a mere 200km might not seem much to shout about but they are tough kilometres. Even the easy grassy bits you have to keep concentrating as a lot of the surface is a layer of wet soil and grass that has little resistance to pedalling and you can easily find yourself sideways to your original line of motion.

It's taken nearly seven hours to do the first 60km to reach the filling station/shop in Ponterwyd. There's a group of riders there refuelling. A cup of coffee, a sandwich and replenish supplies and I'm on my way in ten minutes or so. No point in standing around getting cold, it's another 50km to the next potential stop in Llangurig so time to crack on.

I'd not done the next section around the two bothies before so I don't really know what to expect. In the event there was another stream crossing, quite a bit deeper this one, and what would turn out to be the biggest hike-a-bike of the route. A bit of cramp at the top of this just as I get hit by a gust of wind. Fortunately it's downhill for a while and I work it off. Some stream enabled bridleways to the second bothy then I'm on familiar territory but the Broken Road is tricky in the wind.

It's also hard on kit. Given the number of GPS and light failures I think it's reasonable to say that manufacturers don't employ the 24hr spin cycle on their nearest industrial washing machine when testing their products. There was much discussion beforehand about the best way of keeping your feet dry with lots of "systems" being bandied about. It's probably safe to say that by the first thigh deep river crossing none of them were still working if indeed they ever had.

The road to the head of the Elan Valley is eased by what is now a tail gale. Darkness falls along here so lights on and finding the next bridleway is tricky. The "problem" is solved by blasting downhill through tussocks until I find the track. I'd thought when looking at the map that this was mainly downhill so I'm confused as to why there are three lights on the hillside above me. Then I work my way back on to the GPX line and it becomes clear: the downhill has a large bit of uphill in it. I've no idea of the time when I get to the road so it's just press on.

It's 2030 and I've made the pub in time for something to eat. "We've just turned the fryers off. We've had no-one in all night." "Soup?" "Can do that for you." There won't be anywhere else open until I get to the finish. Twelve hours to here. They've felt like hard won miles. Another couple of riders arrive seeking shelter from the storm. I'm there for thirty minutes. Things are calming down when I head out, in fact for a while there's stars in the sky.

A good mental attitude will get you a long way on the BB200. Enjoying your own company helps since in the latter parts of the route you will likely be on your own. Equally true is that you can spend a large part of the route with other riders. These tend to be chatty affairs given the likelihood of some rather large personal space in the not too distant future.

The track is doing the best approximation of a river that it can when my front wheel drops into a muddy pool and hits a hidden sloping rock and I'm eating rock. No damage done. Except for the flapper on the end of a finger. Blood drips down washed away by the rain. It takes an hour or so for the flow to stop. A second fall ten hours later bangs my knee which is still sore a day later. Oh, there's more blood.
 Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. My front wheel is making an odd but regular noise. I stop and check the brake rotor for debris but there's nothing obvious. Another spin of the wheel. Tap. Tap. Tap. Hmm. Then I notice the stick across the top of the tyre. I pull at it. It's attached to a thorn. There's a quick hiss and the sealant does its job. (I find another thorn once I get home) There's been a lot of hedge cutting and I've been lucky to get this far.

The BB200 is a curious beast, some call it an ITT, some a challenge. It can be both but at times it's as much an exploration of your psyche with the clinician's couch substituted by the mountains of Mid-Wales. A game of open air chess with a myriad conflicting aims and decisions: can you make it round? Have I enough food with me? Do I have time to get to the next shop? Do I stop at the cafe and cool down or push on?

2am and I'm sat under the market hall in Llanidloes. A couple walk past, they're the first people I've seen in three hours since I left the last couple of riders near Bwlch y Sarnau. I'm not sure that my light has enough juice to see me to the end so I've decided to sit a while and grab a bite whilst it's getting some charge. After fifteen minutes I'm starting to get cold so it's time to pack up and get moving again.

I'm trying hard to ignore the clunking noise from my left pedal (I think) hopefully that will fix it. I've ignored the creaking chain for a good seven hours now and that still works so the tactic seems a good one.

I do a bit of faffing about in Hafren Forest and one of the riders I pulled away from at Bwlch y Sarnau catches me up and we will ride to the finish together. One big climb through the forest then it's mostly downhill and a few small bumps to deal with. As we approach the last bridleway I can feel cramp coming on so we walk the last climb. With over twenty hours of riding done we are tired so the descent is steady then it's just 20 minutes of road and we pull in to the community centre car park. It's 0618, the first light of the new day is just visible.

┄┄┄┄┄┄┄┄┄┄┄┄┄

So how did it compare to two years previously? In 2016 for the 205km I had a total time of 19hrs1min with 16hrs35mins riding. This year for 202km I had a total time of 21hrs20mins with a riding time of 19hrs35mins.

The Strava bit:


Two years ago 25+ riders, over a third of the field, went home with a black badge. This year there were just seven. Definitely harder, not a repeat of 2014, people even spoke to Stu afterwards, but hard.

Cath arrived back at the centre 29hrs30mins after setting off having ridden through without a bivy. Tough lass! She didn't look anywhere near as tired as two years ago.

"That" stream? My companion crosses it bike on shoulder so it's doable. My turn. The water comes to the top of my thighs and I'm struggling for purchase on the boulders then I'm over to the far bank. We wait for the rest of our loose group and help them across.

Of course on the drive home it was nice and sunny and I needed the sunglasses that I'd left at home by the back door.

This black badge was hard won.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Revisiting a bike build

A couple of years ago I built up a Singular Puffin fat bike for the Rovaniemi 150 bike race. My first fat bike, it would take a little getting used to and there was a good chance I'd have to modify one or two things.

One of the things that I definitely didn't get right during the Rovaniemi was tyre pressures. I made the classic newbie mistake of running too high a pressure so struggled when the snow got softer. I'd fitted a 28T chainring but since I've rarely used the 11T cog I thought I'd drop down a couple of teeth so ordered a 26T oval chainring and fitted that. Bling gold so I can tell it apart from the 28T version!

Update

On a ride a few weeks later I  noticed a crunching noise when in the 42T cog. Bike up on workstand to see what's going on. It turned out to be at the chainring end. There were two BB spacers on the drive side and one on the NDS so swapped a spacer from the drive side to the NDS thereby moving the chainline inward by 2.5mm and it was sorted. There's still plenty of clearance between chain and tyre.



A weekend in the Lakes doing some rather steep stuff led me to realise that the brakes (Avid BB7s) were a little underpowered so I moved the 180mm rotor from the front to the back and added a 200mm rotor to the front, except ... Hope rotors don't play well with Avid brakes - the tabs on the pads foul the "rivets" connecting the inner part of the rotor to the braking surface. The easiest solution was to cut the tabs down. It turned out to be the one practical solution I later found when searching online.

That's a big rotor!

And so's that!


At the time I noted that I'd take time to get used to the handlebars. Earlier this year I built up a Salsa Spearfish and rather than buy a new set of Jones Bars I moved the bars to the Spearfish and put some On-One Mary bars on the fat bike. The Loop Bars felt right on the Spearfish so it obviously wasn't the bars themselves that were the problem but I put things to one side and got on with riding and generally doing stuff. As it happened the Mary Bars didn't feel right either so time to have a ponder and mull things over.

It dawned on me that Ian, the previous owner of the Puffin, was a little shorter than me so he'd have cut the fork steerer to suit him. Basically the bars were too low. As it happened Jones had recently released a new model of Loop Bar, one with an inbuilt rise of 2.5". A set were duly ordered.

They didn't get put on the Puffin straight away, they went onto Cath's Stooge to give her a chance to see if they suited her. A month or so later and she's decided they aren't for her, so ...

Put Cath's Stooge Moto bars back on her bike and remove the On-One Marys from mine.

Jeff Jones recommends that the brake and gear levers are situated as close to the bar joint as possible but I wanted to use a set of Revelate Williwaw Pogies with these bars (See this post about the pogies I used during the Rovaniemi 150) so I needed to make sure that wherever I fitted them they weren't going to interfere with one another. It turned out that about 50mm further out towards the ends of the bars felt right. It's worth noting that Revelate state that the Williwaws aren't for use with Jones Loop Bars but they seem all right to me, angling the bars downwards appears to help in this regard.

While last time I'd gone for a double colour taping scheme this time I've gone for a single colour, red, but the bars are double wrapped which will help with cold temps.

I'd got a set of ESI Chunky Monkey foam grips so rather than use bar tape to cover the bars all the way to the levers I'd use a section of the grip on the inside of the levers and with luck this would also grip on to the bar tape at that point. The last time I'd fitted these grips I'd really struggled but this time a good dousing of Iso-Propyl Alcohol and they went on in seconds. The inner sections were really easy since they were so short. Then the levers, then the longer outer section.



The last job was to angle the bars and then tighten down the levers to suit.

At the weekend I went for a test ride over on some new to me bridleways in the Forest of Bowland. Seems pretty sorted.




Tuesday, 28 August 2018

YD200, the 2018 Edition

2018 has been a somewhat frustrating year, I'd scratched on the first day on the HT550 and on the fifth day of The French Divide so I was a bit down about things. We'd toured Brittany after scratching on the FD but if I'd completed the FD then I doubt I would have considered riding this year's YD200. As it was I thought I'd be OK so rang Stuart on the Friday to see if there were any spaces.

"There's only eight due to turn up! A few who registered have emailed to say they can't make it."

"See you tomorrow morning"

Which meant I had to get the bike ready. But I'm a dab hand at this now. The forecast was fine and cool (hurrah!) for Saturday with rain coming in on Sunday morning. Riding through was the obvious tactic but I'd pack a lightweight bivy system that I've used before: SOl Escape bivy and a PHD lightweight duvet. Along with a windshirt for possible trail use it came to a mighty 600g! An Alpkit Top Tube bag mounted in the frame behind the bottle cage held tools and spares, the pump was strapped to the bottle cage, and two Revelate Feed bags for trail snacks and odds 'n' sods. Pretty lightweight but some did have even less.

Up early and ride into town. Yep, just eight of us. I knew, in varying degrees, four of the others, ITTs are a small and apparently shrinking world. One of those I know is Phil Clarke who I'd ridden with on last year's HT550 and who I'd last seen at Corrour this year when he gave me an inner tube for my busted rear wheel. Returning that we had a chat then Stuart gave his usual pep-talk and soon it was time to go.

I led the small group out of the yard and towards town, that certainly wasn't going to last! Soon enough the front runners are off in front. Let them go. Most of Stuart's rides finish over Barden Moor but this started that way which isn't that usual for me to ride. It's a long drag to the summit especially with the head wind. Soon enough we are dropping down to Rylstone and heading up to Bordley.

The front two (Tom Bruce and Phil) are well ahead but there's a group of four of us riding at roughly the same pace so Mike, George, Ian and myself spend most of the next few hours riding together or as various pairings as our strength ebbs and flows. There's quite a bit of surface water on Mastiles Lane, evidence of Friday's rain, nothing's particularly boggy or muddy though and we keep pressing on.

The Saturday of the August BH weekend is Malham Show Day which has an associated Trailquest meaning that as we pushed westwards towards Settle we'd cross lots of bikers with map boards mounted on their bikes as they rode around picking up controls and points. There was one part of the route that I'd not done before, at the time I thought it was a footpath but checking the map afterwards it wasn't even that, definitely cheeky!

Mike, myself and George at the 3 Peaks cafe in Settle

An agreement was made to have a coffee in Settle then the first of the hard climbs, it's in the 100 road climbs book, where Mike gets a bit of lead on the rest of us before a rapid descent and some nice BW around Wharfe. Lights on for the descent through the tunnels at Clapham and we pop out of those to find Mike dealing with a blown rear tyre.

The next bit to Wray is all road but it's lumpy. There's just George and myself at this point and by the time we get to Wray we could do with refreshments as there'll be nothing until we ride back over the Roman road across Salter's Fell to Slaidburn. The pub is convenient and a drink and ice cream do wonders. Steep road before an equally steep drop and climb back out lead to the end of the tarmac. The first part of the track is a good surface but it deteriorates after a gate, presumably an estate boundary, then again after another gate.


We almost gate crash a wedding on the way in to Slaidburn where we meet up again with Ian. We've just about finished our coffee when Mike arrives - George and I thought he'd passed us when we were in the pub but fixing his tyre had taken longer than anticipated. As we pass through Gisburn Forest he nips off to the cafe/shop to see if they have inner tubes for sale.

There's short sections of one of the marked routes we need to follow and I'm reminded why I don't like trail centres. Ah well, at least it's over pretty soon. Unfortunately as we climb through the forest I get the early signs of cramp and George and Ian leave me behind. Nothing to do but ease off and pedal through it. At least there's a long bit of generally downhill road next. One climb up to above Settle then a bit of bridleway I'd not done before and then I'm in town.

George and Ian are sat outside the Co-op, I nip in and grab what I need. I leave five minutes after them and won't see them until the finish. I normally manage the climb on the Settle Loop out of town but the cramps force me to walk some of it - at least I clean one of the rocky sections for the first time.

Once on top it's easy going as now there's a tail wind. Most of the puddles on Mastiles Lane have gone, in fact one beck that we'd avoided on the way out because it was so deep was now almost dry. With lots of interlinked loops in the route at this point it was possible I'd see the front riders and so it proved as Phil and I met at a gate. A quick chat about timings and we head on. I'd enough food to not need to visit the Spar at Threshfield but I needed to walk the steep tarmac back onto the tops. Down to the foot of Mastiles then start heading up again.

Mike catches me at this point - he'd stopped for something to eat at Tosside - as we get to the steeper top section we both get off and walk. The moon is just rising and we both stop to take a shot. Once on top it's nearly dark and the wind feels keen so on with the arm warmers and press on. I switch my lights on just before Lee Gate farm, no point in risking things.


There's just one short steep climb to Weets Top and as the cramps come back Mike pulls away. I'll be on my own to the finish. The descent to Calton is a blast in the dark. I text Cath to let her know my expected finish time and polish off the road section to Bell Busk. Just Markhouse Lane, the canal towpath and the old railway track to do.

I've done bits of the old railway track where the Land-Rover experience use it but not the section heading back to town. The pools looked particularly black tonight, well worth avoiding. The "new" bit starts off as double track but slowly gets less and less well defined until soon you are on a path riding through bushes. There's no lights to indicate where I am but all of a sudden the angle goes downhill sharply and I debouch onto the road. Just TT mode back to the finish.

I finish just before 11pm having taken just under 15hrs. Phil and my three companions are there and we chat for a while before it's time to head home and get some kip. The fastest time was 12hrs22mins.

Overall not a bad effort. I could still feel this summer's efforts in my legs, in particular there's no real top end power and sustained tempo is a bit lacking - going up long draggy hills I'd invariably drop behind whoever I was with.

Monday, 27 August 2018

ITTs, Touring and Powering Electronics

We all like our electronic gadgets but keeping them powered on a multi-day bike ride can be frustrating. There's no "one best" solution as both riders' preferences and the nature of any given ride change. For the French Divide I needed to keep the following (in priority order) going:
  • GPS (Garmin Oregon 600)
  • Phone (iPhone 5)
  • Front light (Exposure Joystick) & Rear light (small USB light)
  • Camera (Sony Rx100)
The GPS was most important as I'd be following a predefined route on it.

The phone was on air-plane mode for most of the time unless I was checking/sending texts from/to Cath.

I didn't plan to or actually ride much at night so the front light was mainly used on low mode at camp-sites and bivvies and would probably have lasted the whole ride on one charge. The rear light similarly saw little usage, usually early morning when heading out of town.

The camera was a different matter. While the documentation states that the battery will last for up to 200 shots that tends to be: power on, take lots of shots, power off. I was using it like : power on, take shot, power off. Most of the power consumption is in physically getting the camera ready to take a shot and then physically going back to storage mode. The actual shot uses very little power unless you zoom in and out a lot. This meant that I got about 40 shots before the battery was flat. In retrospect I'd have been better using the camera on the phone.

While I've long been a convert for dynamo hubs on commuter bikes I'd not been convinced of their usefulness off-road where speeds are usually much slower. There'd be no guarantee that I'd have access to power sockets cheekily or otherwise so I settled on using a dynamo hub to generate the power. Having forks with 15mm through-axle somewhat limits you to only a couple of models so I went for the Shutter Precision PDX-8 and Stuart Rider built it up into a nice wheel for me. There have been a lot of reports about the bearings on the SP dynamo hubs failing, particularly the through-axle versions, so it was a bit of a risk going for that rather than the Schmidt version. So far I've done over 1600km on it and it's fine.

There's a slight problem with using a dynamo to directly power devices like GPSs, Garmins in particular, in that when your speed drops or you stop to check you are still on route or take a photo, whatever then the device thinks power has been removed and a screen pops up asking if you want to stay powered on. Annoying especially if the default is to then turn the thing off if no button is pressed! Consequently my strategy was to charge a battery during the day then use that battery to charge the devices at night. Hopefully I could maintain speed to keep everything going.

A test ride, on my commute, showed that I could generate 500mAh at a steady 20kmh. I wouldn't be maintaining that speed as an average, more like 10-12kmh so at a rough guess I'd generate 300mAh (I'll have to do a ride at that speed to confirm this) for about 12hrs each day giving 3600mAh in total. Keeping my power consumption below that would mean that I would be effectively energy neutral in that I wouldn't need to search out power sockets to top things up. The 3600mAh figure is quite useful as that's generally around the capacity of standard 18650 cells which are used in powerbanks - these all have stated capacities that are multiples of 3500/3600mAh.

My setup thus consisted of the dynamo hub which was connected to an Igaro D1 converter which itself connected directly to a 10,500mAh battery (i.e. one with three 18650 cells). During the day I'd charge the battery then at night change the battery from "sink" to "source" and top up the GPS then whatever device might need it. Occasionally I ran the GPS directly from the battery. For this scenario I also had a single cell battery that I could charge, converters like the Igaro don't like to be left "open circuit" with nothing connected and you can fry the electronics if you take a long descent at speed. A bit of "on the track" testing showed that the system would begin to charge once I got to about 8kmh but would then continue charging even if the speed dropped to 5kmh. Obviously you aren't getting huge amounts of charge through at those speeds but it does show that you can keep trickle charging things at little more than walking speed.

I started with everything fully charged and for the four days that I was riding the event it all worked as planned. It helped that much of the first day was fast riding. Once I'd scratched and then met up with Cath we went touring in Brittany which involved gentler speeds.

During the six days of touring we averaged around 90Km a day with around 6-8hrs of riding per day. With phone on air-plane mode and using the GPS screen sparingly (canals tend to have fewer options for going wrong than roads!) I was power neutral in that I could have continued indefinitely without requiring mains top-up. Except ...

I recharged the camera! This obviously has a fairly hefty battery inside as I basically drained a three-quarter full powerbank in recharging it. I spent the next two days slowly increasing the charge in the powerbank and generally ekeing things out. In retrospect I'd have been better using the camera on the phone. I should have probably recharged it when we were staying in hotels in either Reims or Paris.

One day I ran the Garmin directly from the powerbank. In typically Garmin fashion in this mode the unit ignores all the power saving options you've set up! I think it assumes that an external power source will be something with "infinite" reserve like a lighter socket in a motor vehicle or something similar on a boat. Consequently the screen stayed "on" all the time running the battery down! The Oregon actually works in opposite ways when using internal and external power - when using internal power the screen auto turns off and you have to press the power button to turn it on but when using external power you have to press the power button to turn it off.

In conclusion. For rides where you are able to maintain even a modest speed then a strategy of charging a battery through the day then using that to charge your devices is likely to work. For something like the Highland Trail and Cairngorms Loop where speeds are much slower I think you are better simply taking enough batteries to recharge your devices and not bothering with the dynamo, maybe a plug to use in a cafe if you can get away with it.

French Divide Kit List

The French Divide would be the longest (by far) ride that I'd attempt so working out what kit to take required a bit of thinking. Generally things would be warm, but they turned out to be a lot warmer than anticipated, but there could also be big storms.

Having done enough bikepacking and ITTs I've got most of my kit sorted so in the end there wasn't much difference to something like the HT550. I took a few extra spares as I wasn't sure of finding anything en-route.

I've linked to some of the items I took, the harnesses and bags should be searchable with how I've listed them. Clothing and the like is pretty generic but when looking at cycling shorts and shoes, what fits one person another will completely dislike.

I used my Cotic Solaris (Mk1) with Travers Prong carbon fibre forks. I fitted a set of Velo Orange Crazy Bars to give me more hand positions. I had an SP dynamo built into a front wheel, Stans Blunt 35mm rim, and mounted a Vittoria Mexcal 2.6" tyre to it. The rear wheel is a Hope Pro 4 XC hoop with Bontrager XR2 2.2" tyre. I used my usual 1x10 drivetrain, 30T up front, 11-40T cassette.



So from front to back:

Wildcat Lion harness
Wildcat double ended wet/dry dry bag. I find this very useful to separate the wet and dry parts of my bivy system. It's all standard off-the-shelf stuff and apart from the mat being full rather than torso length is the same as I took on last year's HT550.
A pair of flip-flops for walking around camp.

My SPOT tracker was fixed to the top of the Lion harness.

Mounted on the handlebars were a Garmin Oregon GPS unit and an Exposure Joystick light. The latter was mainly used around camp as I did very little night time riding.

Strapped underneath the stem was an Igaro D1 converter unit to sit between the dynamo hub (AC) and the batteries (DC). I'll deal with how I went about powering stuff in another post.

Revelate Mountain Feed Bag (x2)
The Revelate bags are a bit bigger than most other stem cell type bags plus the external elasticated pockets are usable even when the bag is full. They also can be open and closed one handed so usable on the move.
Trail food went into one bag. This also had midge repellent in one of the pockets.
The other bag was generally a free-for-all but usually contained my glasses, camera, phone and wallet (plastic bag with money and card). The external pockets held a whistle (mandatory for the event) and a bag with all my electronic cables.

Alpkit Top Tube Bag
This is the medium size I think. Contained a lot of odds and sods.
  • MSR Trailshot water filter (not used)
  • 10,000mAh Powerbank battery
  • 3,500mAh battery
  • Baby wipes
  • First Aid kit
  • Passport (well it had to go somewhere)
Bearbabe downtube bag
This held all my tools and spares. Even though there might be bike shops along the way they aren't going to be of use if one of your bike specific parts breaks so best to be as self-sufficient as possible.
  • One spare inner tube (the right size this time!)
  • Multitool
  • Leatherman Squirt pliers
  • Tyre levers
  • Emergency spoke
  • Spare mech hanger
  • A tin of spare nuts and bolts
  • 50ml tube of sealant
  • Tube of chain lube - wet as the dry variety doesn't last if you are going through puddles.
  • Black Diamond expedition sewing kit
  • Puncture repair kit
  • Repair kit for sleeping mat.
  • 2 sets of spare batteries for the SPOT tracker.
  • Carbon fibre pole for the tarp (from Stuart at Bearbones)
  • Pegs for tarp
Wildcat Tiger Seat Harness
Wildcat tapered dry bag
  • Buff
  • Light thermal top
  • Light thermal shorts
  • Spare cycling bibs
  • Spare cycle top
  • 1 pair spare cycling gloves (not used)
  • 1 pair spare socks (not used)
  • T-shirt
  • Mountain bike baggies
  • 1 pair underpants
  • A dry bag containing toiletries. 
  • Endura lightweight waterproof tucked into the harness strap.
The baggies, t-shirt and underpants were for getting to and from the ride and for wearing at night if I needed to. The baggies were a bit on the heavy side but I'd nothing else suitable.

I wouldn't take a second pair of gloves as I only wore the main set for one day to avoid sunburn before my hands got a tan. I'm not sure about taking the spare bib shorts and top either, a bit of talcum powder on the pad at night and I'm usually OK. I use the dry bag as a pillow at night and the buff is a cover to that to give a bit of extra comfort.

Not sure of the overall weight, the only bit that felt "heavy" was the seat pack. I didn't bother with any cooking kit, relying totally on finding cafes and shops en-route. Even if I had it would only have been a meths stove, a mug and a small amount of fuel. As I noted at the top of this post, I've got things pretty well sorted and mostly it's just tweeks for the circumstances of each route/ride.

The Heat of Darkness


Apologies to Joseph Konrad for the title ...

Some time ago Cath announced that she wanted to do the French Divide. Hmm. I had a look and thought that I didn't fancy dot-watching for two weeks so I'd try it as well. 2200km of mainly off-road riding from the top right corner of France to the bottom left. (Easier than trying to describe where the start and finish towns are). Limited to 150 entries, Cath was starting on the Saturday and myself on the Sunday as I'm normally a bit quicker than she is. Note the word "normally". There's no real time limit but the organisers hold a party at the finish two weeks after the start.

With getting to the start and the time to get back you actually need three weeks' holiday.

Each start has a registration and briefing on the day before so you need to be in the starting town of Bray Dunes for that. A ferry to Dunkirk then a late night ride to find the camp site full and we had to find another campsite a bit further out of town. Registration was all quite convivial with each rider introducing themselves and explaining where they were from, etc. Then it was final packing and something to eat.

I got myself some beer goggles



These bikes didn't make it.





The start was at sunrise, 0624! which I suppose is as good a time as any but you needed to be there 45mins earlier. So a very early alarm call. Cath headed off to get there in time while I sauntered along at my own pace.





The first few Km had a lead out car, a Citroen 2CV no less.










And then they were gone. In another 24hrs it would be my turn.

Sunday morning and another sunrise, the same procedure as yesterday. Shouts of "Allez! Allez!" and we are off. It's a hell of a pace, I'd be happy with it on an unladen road bike let alone an MTB with bivy gear and kit - I hit 50kmh at one point, on the flat on a mountain bike! The lead out car pulls away but the pace doesn't let up. There's no way I can keep this going so at the first dusty farm track I stop and take a shot.


It's the last I'll see of the fast riders. The rest of the day is spent flitting between the tail enders. The route weaves in and out of the French/Belgium border. Not a problem except that this is Sunday and as one lady at a "Surprise revito" (think trail angel with a van full of water and fruit) noted "La Dimanche? La Belge dorme!

At one of the few places we found open



It turned out that I'd ride nearly 150km before finding somewhere open that served anything more than a croissant. A McDonald's on the outskirts of Seclin. It's at this point it's worth noting that this was only the fourth time in my life that I've visited a McDonald's. Fast food? Quite how a pre-packed salad can take 20 minutes to prepare is beyond me. A good job I was the only person in the queue or being served. Also why does a salad need something deep fried in it?

Around this point we hit the pave sections used on the Paris-Roubaix race though we were doing them in the opposite direction. We didn't do all the secteurs but quite how you ride in a bunch, at speed, on a road bike along them is beyond me. I recognised a few of the corners as well as the Arenburg section with its cutting and bridge. There was a guy here with a "Allez le French Divide" board on his bike who'd ride alongside you then take shots.

Up to this point I'd been going quite well. Tucked up in my own little world following a track on the GPS screen. Then the heat turned up. While my speed in the morning was reasonable (though not the 35kmh+ of the start) as time went on I slowed and slowed. The last 20Km to the town of Le Quesnoy seemed to take forever. When I get there there's a fair on. I find the campsite and grab some food from one of the fair stalls and crash out only to be woken by a firework display. ah well.

239km, 1200m climbing, 13hrs moving, 3hrs faffing

Day 2

Up and away by about 0600, well before the campsite office is open so I shove my seven Euros under the door. If only I'd ridden another five kilometres I'd have had a nice quiet bivy in the woods. There's a lot of woods actually and for much of the day I don't see much or indeed anyone whether a rider on the event or not. A few deer cross the path in the early morning. Again as the day progresses the heat rises and my speed falls.



As evening approaches I get to a small town, Rocroi, the information sign shows 37C! No wonder I'm struggling. What follows next is an ace couple of km swooping through woods until a long drag up a fire road intervenes. I miss the next turning but pick it up and follow the quad bike track as it undulates along a slope. The GPS trace shows the next bit as turning sharp left. That's straight downhill! So it proved, over a kilometre of pretty steep track straight down the fall line of the slope. Great fun.

Then it's more pushing and at the top of the next hill I decide to skip the last little bit and head into town to the first checkpoint. There's a long easy climb to begin with though, less than 5% gradient but I have to walk it. My "reward" is a long downhill blast into town, getting all the lights on green. I'm just in time for food at the bar. My brevet card signed I head for the campsite.

166km, 2100m climbing, 13hrs moving, 2.5hrs faffing

Day 3

Up early again and I'm away pedalling steadily up slopes that yesterday afternoon would have seen me walking. I'm going well as I pass a fancy gateway to a big house. Common style I think, there was one like that yesterday. I look to the other side of the road to see a water storage facility and it hits me. It's the same house I saw yesterday evening! I've followed the route I should have taken into town last night but in reverse. Back the way I came (easily riding the climb I'd walked the night before) and start again. What I didn't know was that was just to be the start of my problems for the day.

Having lost two hours I pushed on. It was already getting hot. By 11am I was in need of food. Just off route lay a town, even better there was a big sign saying "Intermarche". Time for some resupplies. I sat in the shade of an old filling station forecourt roof eating my purchases and just getting hotter and hotter. Time to move on. The route lay along the flat bottom of a valley for a few km before turning off and heading up the valley side. Only a slope of 5% but I could only just walk it. That tree at the top's got my name on it. I lay there in the shade exhausted when I hear another rider approach. We sit there numb with the heat. Eventually we push on.

After a couple more hills where the above was repeated I'd had enough even though it was only mid-afternoon. Signs for the nearby town stated that it was home to "The European beer museum". Get somewhere to kip and recharge. Even coasting downhill at 50kmh I was getting hotter. The info sign in the main square stated it was 44C :shock: Even allowing for a couple of degrees inaccuracy, it was hot.

I found a B&B - first thing was to sit in a cool shower for 20mins to try and cool down. I went into town to get something to eat but everything was shut for various reasons. The family at the B&B took pity on me and fed me an evening meal while we chatted in broken Frenglish.

116km, 1300m climbing, 8.5hrs moving, 3hrs faffing

Day 4

Overnight there were thunderstorms, Cath got caught in these, by the morning the temperature had dropped but it was pretty humid in its place. A late start due to having breakfast at a reasonable hour. I meet another rider in the next town, he's scratching, I'm on my own again. I wasn't sure what I was going to make of today as it passed through the battlefields around Verdun. In the event I sobbed my way through the deserted villages, reflecting on how modern stupidity is taking us in the same direction. One village had ghostly life size images of the families who'd lived in each destroyed house another a simple stone marking the location of a home. The simple white crosses at the official memorial of men who died over an argument over a line on a map were similarly moving.





I arrived in Verdun too early for a proper evening meal so grabbed what I could and headed onward. I found a spot in a field overlooking a valley so settled down for the night. Or would have if half the local village hadn't used the nearby track for their evening walks and goodness knows what.



104km, 1900m climbing, 8.5hrs moving, 2.5hrs faffing

Day 5

Never quit at night, sleep on it and see how you feel in the morning. It was becoming increasingly apparent that the heat had got to me and I was managing less and less each day. With a fifteen day limit you need to be doing at least 150km a day and this first bit is the easy part. Mornings were fine, it was just the afternoon heat. Each day had been a battle. Decision made I headed back to Verdun.

Unbeknownst to me, Cath had been hit by thunderstorms on successive nights soaking all of her kit including her phone which subsequently had given up the ghost. She couldn't remember my mobile number, who remembers any number these days when the phone does it for you? The only number she could remember was her sisters so the campsite let her ring her sister who texted me what had happened. Eventually I managed to ring the site and speak to her. She was going to scratch as well. She'd got just beyond the next major town of Vitry le Francoise. We sorted out where to meet and let the organisers know our plans.

We'd still got nearly two weeks' holiday left so decided to do a bit of touring, after a bit of touristy stuff in Reims and Paris.

Take aways

  • Don't start on the Sunday - everything's shut!
  • Be prepared to ride fast
  • The French have set hours for eating, get to towns for those times.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Went the Day Well? No!

There's the saying "Fail to plan, plan to fail!" but sometimes even if you do come up with a plan and gone over it a hundred times, things don't turn out quite how you'd wished.

But quite how I ended up in an en-suite bedroom free of charge takes some explaining.

Last year on the HT550 I finished in 5 days 2 hours and 38 minutes. Not bad, actually now I look at it it's a decent time, but I knew I'd made mistakes and that with very little extra effort I could get under five days. I made a plan.

Then I threw it away and made another. And another. And, yeah, you get the idea. It wasn't until a few days before I was due to head north that I had a lightbulb moment. There was one point where I'd messed up my timings, I just had to get to that point two hours earlier and I'd be fine. What's more I wouldn't actually need to ride any faster than I had last year. I made another plan and went over it in my head again and again. The plan seemed good. I went to sleep. The plan still seemed good the following day and the next. Good!

Leaving the rain of Northern England behind I headed up the M6 and into Scotland with a live version of Led Zeppelin's Trampled Underfoot blasting out of the car stereo. Sunshine, Led Zep, (thinking of) biking, doesn't get much better than that. The plan was still in place.



Familiar faces and new at Tyndrum. We rode over the hill again for a drink and chat by the burn. Back into the village for something to eat then bed.

5am and it's fully light and there's people moving on the campsite fettling their bikes. Eventually I join them then it's time for breakfast.

Craig Thomson, Matt Mcwhirr and Jenny Graham at the Real Food Cafe
Alan (Goldsmith, the event organiser) is somewhat amused by my luxury item. Useful I insist, so it would prove. At 8:45 we wandered up to the start by the village hall.



A bit of milling around, some words were spoken and then Jenny sets us away. Usual plan, let the fast riders head off then ride at my own pace. The advantage of this is that the first technical bit isn't then a crush as you head down to the railway.

I get the correct right turn this time and it's a long drag up and over to Glen Lyon, not helped by a headwind. I'm riding around various riders I know and we chat away - basically if you can chat then you are going at the right pace.

The track along Loch Lyon
But something isn't right. There's a number of fords along the track and at each rise out of the ford I feel a distinct lack of oomph. There's just no power in my legs. We drop off the track and head down the glen on tarmac but with the headwind it's hard work.

Past the cafe, a bit early to stop plus I'm drinking and eating OK. I manage the climb out of Glen Lyon in one this time but I notice that I can't get into bottom gear. I'll fix that later. (of course I never did) Alan G passes me at the top of the climb and notes "This heat will cause some riders problems". Whether it was aimed at me or not it was about then that I felt the onset of cramp. After just three hours!



What followed next wasn't pleasant. All power in my legs began to go, even on the flat I was struggling. At the start of the next climb not only were my legs a worry but so was my stomach, I felt distinctly "queasy". A couple of riders pass me, "Are you OK?", "I feel a bit ill and I might pu..." with that I was retching but nothing really came back up.

Heading to Ben Alder

So it continued. A bit of riding, a bit of retching, a bit of walking as the cramps were now taking hold. By the time I was crossing the first hike-a-bike (actually mostly ridable this year as it was so dry) to Benalder Cottage my retching was now vomiting. A couple of riders suggest I get into the bothy and out of the sun and have a rest for a while. I'm in a bad way.

At Benalder Cottage

A while later I set off on the singletrack around Ben Alder. This is one of the highlights of the first day but I can't do it justice, I've no energy to hop the water bars and soon enough there's a "pssst" as my rear wheel hits a particularly sharp edge. I run tubeless but I've dinged the rim and the tyre isn't holding air. Out with the spare inner tube.

I'm on 29" wheels and the inner tube is 27.5"! Still it will stretch. Except that the sealant makes everything ultra slippy and the exertion makes me want to vomit again. Another rider passes and provides a third hand and the tube and tyre are on. Inflating the tube is another matter, I just want to throw up. Eventually I'm on my way again but it's for all of five minutes as I hit another water bar and the tube goes. Instant thought:

"Ride over"

How to get back to Tyndrum? Just over the first bealach is a glen that heads down to Loch Ossian and Corrour station. There's a stalker's track by the burn in the glen. That's plan B, not had one of those before so might as well use it.

I plod on, easing the back wheel of the bike over any rocks or water bars trying not to do any more damage. I rest by a burn and bring up the last of my breakfast. Whatever disagreed with me is now gone and I don't vomit again.

Ben Alder singletrack


There's no path down from the bealach it's just plough down through heather and bog and wade across the burn. The path is rough, almost unridable even if the bike had been in good order. Just keep plodding.

After a couple of km there's two women camping by the burn, Munro bagging of course. They offer me a cup of tea and we chat a while. Maybe nine miles to the station they reckon, at the most. A couple more kilometres of the path then it's hydro or estate road.

I plod on, the path ends and I'm on decent track. I get to Loch Ossian and there's a choice of track to either side of the loch. I go left.

I'm out of the woods and a couple of kilometres from the youth hostel when I hear bike wheels rolling along the track behind me.

"Bob!"

I turn round, it's Phil Clarke who I'd ridden with on the Highland Trail last year, he's out for a weekend loop taking in part of the old and new HT start sections. He gives me an inner tube so at least I can ride the last bit to the station. We chat away until his route heads towards Rannoch and I try the youth hostel to see if they've any cans of pop (no).

It's only a couple of km now to the station. It's late and I know the cafe will be closed so I'll doss down in the waiting room and get a train in the morning back to Tyndrum. Sure enough the door is locked but the kitchen windows are open so I stick my head inside:

"I know you are shut but do you think I could buy a couple of cans of pop?"

"Sure"

I sit on the bench outside slaking my thirst and I can hear mutterings from the kitchen. A moment later a head leans out:

"Do you want a pie?"

"Err, yes! How much?"

"No charge, it's on us."

The old signal box

Wow! Some proper food rather than snacks and sugary stuff. I ferry my bike and kit over to the waiting room on the platform and get my bivy kit out. I take my time and finish the last of the pop and am about to get stripped off and into dry clothing when a bloke appears at the door.

"We've been watching you go back and forth. You look knackered! We are stopping at the old signal box and there's a spare room with en-suite shower you can use"

I did offer a little resistance, honest, but I roll my bike one last time for the day along the platform, get what I need and stagger inside. Bliss!

Your bed for the night sir!

One shower later and I'm clean enough to think about getting in to bed. Sleep doesn't come easily, the cramps see to that.

In the morning time to use my luxury item - a shoe horn! Makes getting tight shoes on when you have cramp quite easy. To my suprise there's even breakfast included with the room. I buy a bottle of wine for the kindness of random strangers. The rest of the morning is lots of pots of tea.

The train is at 1230 and I hope that I can get the bike on without a pre-booking, I do and the first thing I notice are three bikes with SPOT trackers. I'm not the only one having problems. Severe cramps, heat exhaustion and a mechanical are their scratch reasons.

So what went wrong?

I think the lack of power has its roots in a chronic fatigue I've felt since last October/November. I've struggled even on my commutes. This meant that my long distance power output was actually very close to my current maximum which then led to the early cramps. Rather than tapping away at 60-70% I was at 90% from the off which is why the cramps started so quickly.

I'm pretty sure that something in my breakfast disagreed with me - as soon as I'd got rid of the last of it whilst I didn't feel "fine" I certainly didn't feel nauseous. Once you start being sick and losing fluids in heat like that there's only one outcome if you carry on.

The plan is still there, I think one or two of this year's successful completions may have implemented it for me. Congratulations to all finishers and commiserations to my fellow scratchers.

That plan is going to bug me now isn't it?