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?

Friday, 11 May 2018

The Welsh Ride Thing

A bikepacking institution. The first bank holiday weekend in May sees a gaggle(? what's the collective noun for bikepackers?) of assorted shapes and sizes descend on a small farm in mid-Wales not for a rave but to have a chat about bikes and maybe ride them around the Welsh countryside aided or hindered by a set of grid references that people may or may not chose to visit. This year there was a set for mountain bikes and a set for "gravel" bikes.

This was its tenth year.

We'd never been.







Pubs


The Star at Dylife is becoming another institution, it reopened a couple of years ago and a pre-event meet up has started to become a "thing". Again, we'd never been. Cath was insistent that we didn't go in until 7pm but I overruled her and we had a meal before most people arrived and the chatting and drinking began. We didn't have too much to drink and crashed out in the tent at a sadly sensible middle-aged hour.

Despite having driven past it many times I'd never been in to The Cross Foxes above Dolgellau. Very posh. There were quite a few other BBers sat outside having a drink. Two drinks and two packets of crisps, that'll be ten pounds please sir. Hmm, come to think of it, it felt quite good to be standing there covered in sheep and cow muck adding to the general ambience for the benefit of the G&T swilling Jaguar driving crowd.

Oh, yeah. That's The Hand, you know the one with the massive carved tree trunk outside just in case you can't read. We went to the other one. Two pints of lager shandy and a couple of packets of crisps please. that'll be ten pounds please sir. Still we'd ridden over the Berwyns via the Wayfarers then down to Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog. And it was hot. We decided on a second pint each but in an attempt to look after our waistlines and save money skipped the crisps.

Navigation

One thing you soon learn about Mid-Wales is that there's a disconnect between bridleways and tracks on the ground, it's as if they are from separate realities. Be especially aware of those lines on the map that look suspiciously straight. Wales doesn't do straight lines, not even the bits the Romans did for us, it's where they sent Slartibartfast's cousin to try and get the crinkly bits out of his system. Basically unless you've been on a particular stretch of bridleway/track you can't guarantee it will exist.



We spend/waste half an hour in Dyfi forest trying to find a non-existent bridleway. Actually the first two sections existed on the ground in roughly the right place, one bit being used by one of the Mach MTB trails, the last section was nowhere to be found. We ended up following a track out of the forest and going cross country to join up with where we should have been.

You might also find "identical" features parallel to those you are expecting: BW gate at bend in woodland fence for example, then force the rest of what's around you to fit. The problem here is that it will shortly put you smack bang in the middle of an hour's hike a bike and a marital screaming match discussion. In this instance not only did the parallel universe bridleway not exist but neither did the one in our own universe that we were meant to be on.

Kit and its malfunctions

With 150 riders (and bikes) there's a lot of potential for things to go wrong though turning up and asking if anyone has a spare chainring ... One of the "interesting" parts of the pre-ride milling about is the "weigh-in": bike and all your kit, food, rucksack, etc. goes on the scales. The weights ranged from a mighty 50kg or thereabouts down to a very impressive 14kg (my bike was 18kg so nowhere near the weight weenie prize of a pork pie)







On the way to Bala we come across a chap with his bike upside down and fixing a puncture. "Just went bang! and deflated."" A definite big hole in the inner tube that's lying on the deck. As he's inflating the replacement he notices a tear in the side wall of the tyre next to the rim - the cause apparent of the blowout. We offer various suggestions when I remember that I've an expedition sewing kit in my bag. I bought this in the mid 1980s and had never used it in all that time, I'd just thought I'd shove it in. Looking through the items there was some nylon thread so handed over a needle and some of that and he proceeded to stitch the tyre together. He managed to get to Bala where the bike shop eventually opened and he purchased a new tyre. Passing on the trail karma from the Dirty Reiver the other week.

At the cafe in Bala another rider, Craig, arrived with a rough bottom bracket. I'm not sure how he sorted that out - if indeed he did.

We'd just done an hour's hike-a-bike having lost the non-existent bridleway (see marital "discussion" above) when we rerouted from the next bit of non-existent bridleway and through a wind farm to get to the road. The rider ahead wasn't moving quickly, or at all as it happened. Broken saddle rail. I think he did a lot of standing up on the way back to the finish.

Forests

There's loads of 'em. I fekking hate 'em!


Bivvies

Being out for three days means two nights of sleeping under the stars. Route planning helps here as you want a variety of options depending on how fast you move and  on weather conditions. You don't want to get to your chosen spot too early in case someone sees you and asks questions but equally you don't want to be too late which makes setting up the tarp harder.

Saturday night we found a grand grassy balcony overlooking the Wnion valley with a temperature inversion filling the valley beneath us with mist. Our bivy bags have very slippery bases so finding somewhere flat is almost essential otherwise you end up somewhere you don't want to be! The mist did come in through the night but had gone by morning but there was huge amounts of condensation, the tarps were as wet as if it had been pouring down all night.



Sunday night was on the "shores" of Lake Vyrnwy, we'd been told of there being lots of bivy spots along the lake but they must be on the east shore whereas we went along the west shore so that we'd get the early morning sun. The main problem was that everything was at an angle of 45 degrees! By the time we found somewhere we'd ridden most of the way to the end of the lake. A bit of fussing and we ended up using the trunk of a fallen tree to stop us sliding down the slope! The second night couldn't have been more different to the first as everything was bone dry and just packed away.



Cafes

Our route didn't really pass any on the first day but an executive decision, i.e. we were hungry, took us in to Bala on Sunday morning for breakfast. The cafe didn't really do cooked stuff, well apart from bacon pancakes???



Monday morning we rolled along the road by Lake Vyrnwy to find a gaggle (still no collective noun for bikepackers) by a cafe near the dam. It wasn't serving food but the woman was filling water bottles which given the heat was welcome.

Over a couple or three hills and we rolled into Llangadfan. I spied a flag advertising ice cream but instead found a cafe. The owner must have wondered what had happened as about fifteen sweaty, grubby cyclists arrived in close order! Nice food though.



Oh and Cath got a Strava QOM on one climb, I think she's been doing some secret training. That's her going for it!

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Dirty Reiver

Sometimes I have good ideas, sometimes I don't. Saturday was probably one of the latter. We'd signed up for the Dirty Reiver 200km "gravel" event around Kielder Forest. Now neither of us have a "gravel" bike, which is just a marketing term for a fatter tyred cyclocross so Cath chose to ride it on her Stooge (with MTB tyres) and me? Yep, the Pompetamine - drop barred, 39:28 single speed, commuter with 37c CX tyres!

Confidence wasn't helped by chancing upon the only three people we knew doing the event when we arrived: "What you riding Bob?", "Single speed", "What ratio?", "Err, 39:18", "Good luck, I'll be thinking about you when I'm spinning up in 32:40!". To be honest I was more worried about the lack of cushioning in the tyres and frame than the gearing.

After a rather chilly bivy, just under 2C according to one of the organisers, we grabbed breakfast then milled around as the throng of riders worked out how to get their bikes pointing towards the start rather than away from it. There was some sort of announcement, well it was a different muffled noise from the Euro-pop that had been playing over the PA, I don't think it was Mongolian throat singing or Gregorian chants.

Shortly after the announcement/chants/throat warbling we could see riders heading down the starting ramp so we presumed that someone had said "go!". The first kilometre was neutralised as it was on the main road through Kielder village so it wasn't until we actually got into the forest that the racing started. Well perhaps for those in the front, mid-pack it was basically track-standing uphill, the flats and downhills spread riders out but each ramp would see us bunch up again. Rather bizarrely there were lots of riders at the side of the trail with mechanicals on the first climb.

The route to the first food point was a mixture of old and new to me so I'd turn a corner and suddenly realise where I was. There's not much flat so mostly I'd be standing on the pedals for the downhills or waiting for the clunk of bad gear changes to signal getting out of the saddle to stomp up a climb. As a result I didn't have a sore bum at the end of the ride, there really hadn't been much bum to saddle contact!

Heading into the first food stop Stu Rider was heading the other way, hmm, going quicker than I thought. The food stop was packed with riders milling around so I headed for the plain water to refill my bottles and grabbed a couple of slices of malt loaf and got going. The road section leading back into the forest was hard work then on the first drop I thought the back tyre felt a bit "funny".

It was losing air quite rapidly. I tried pumping it up but within a few pedal strokes it was nearly flat again. Hmm, put the inner tube in (I was running tubeless). All well and good until putting the wheel back in, pssst! The tube had been patched and the patch had come away! My fault. So back to tubeless but now the pump refused to work. Honestly! Fortunately another rider stopped and gave me an inner tube and had some CO2 to inflate it. Half an hour wasted but I was on my way again.

The tyre wasn't quite inflated enough but it was good enough for now. The Paddaburn ford wasn't too deep and I got my front wheel on the far bank before stalling, ah well. By now we were riding along the edge of the forest and with the fine day the views over to the North Pennines and The Lakes were fantastic. Lots of riders were stopping to take shots. The next bit was the roughest part of the route and with an under-inflated tyre it took a bit of line choice to get down without puncturing.

Where the track debouched onto the road there was a marshall's van and I noticed a track pump, time to get some air in the back tyre. It just so happened that one of the marshalls was an ex-Lakes climber who knew me. After a bit of a chat I asked him to give Cath some encouragement when she came through and headed on to food stop number two.

Again lots of people milling about but grab a bit of grub, refill water bottles and oil my chain and I was on my way. The climb over to Kershopeburn from here was one of the more awkward parts of the ride, damp and greasy. Some had complained before the event about the climb past Kershopeburn but I found it OK then a long rolling descent to the route split: left for the 200km, right for the 130km. Left it is.

More climbing then a long descent to cross the Kielder road and begin the final third. There's a steep ramp to get round to the Forest Drive which is the hardest climb so far, or perhaps my legs are feeling it. The drive isn't as bad as I remembered from our crossing in the opposite direction at New Year and I plod slowly upwards with the occasional "Good effort mate doing this on a singlespeed". There's one ramp I have to walk (my first of the ride) then it's the long blast down to the final food stop.

More people milling around including Mark Evans who I hadn't realised was riding. After a bit of a chat he heads off and I grab some of the savoury food on offer, a welcome change from the sweets at the previous stops. After ten minutes it's time to go.

Of course, it's now a long climb to get back over the hills we'd just ridden. Some more walking then the angle eases and I can keep riding. We'd done most of this in reverse at New Year but once at The Combe it's on to new stuff to get over to Kielder Water. Another long drag but at an easier angle than the last one so I can keep riding, but ever so slowly. Finally the route drops and there's no more big climbs left to do.

Unfortunately the Lakeside Way is nowhere near flat and there's a few short steep climbs I'm forced to walk. Just keep moving forward. Eventually I start seeing features I recognise and I realise I'm near the end. There's a final ramp to get to the finish complete with cowbell wielding crowd so I can't walk this bit.

I cross the line in something like 11hr35, a bit slower than I'd have liked but hey ho. Beer, food, more beer.

Cath gets back about 90mins later.

That was by far the longest I've ever ridden on a single speed. For me it wasn't the best choice but it was definitely a challenge, which is what it's about really. I wouldn't do another similar event on SS or on such narrow tyres. I also possibly didn't eat enough - most of the food at the first two food stops was sweet and that's what most riders carry anyway, something savoury feels much better and seems to sit nicer in the gut.

Hopefully the effort will have put some strength into my legs and the failure of the pump was providential as I'd rather it happened now than in a month's time on the HT550. There's a couple of long rides we've slated in before then so I'll use those to fine tune the setup of the bike and kit.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Sunlight and Storm

With the media predicting another national crisis - the mini beast from the east - for the weekend road riding was out of the equation. More fat bike action!

Cath had agreed to go on an all women's ride but there were a couple of blokes invited along so we headed up the Dale to Threshfield. It was all a bit nippy getting ready, even in the lee of some trees, but soon we were away.

I'd swiped Cath's pogies as they don't fit the bars on her Stooge. Unfortunately they don't quite fit the Mary bars either so although I used them today, I'll need some different bars in the future.

Pete and Jo on the climb up from Threshfield
There was quite a lot of ice on the track leading up on to the moor but it had a rough surface so was easy to ride on. I'd put too much air in the tyres and was bouncing around a bit so let a couple of PSI out and things were much better from then on.

Heading off Threshfield Moor

And then the sun came out!

Heading over towards Kilnsey and Mastiles Lane

A wintry upper Wharfedale ahead.
We got to the foot of Mastiles Lane just as the first shower hit. There was a discussion as to whether to head down the lane to the pub in Kilnsey but by the time we'd come to a decision (pub) it had cleared out so we changed our minds and headed up the lane.

The start of the climb up Mastiles Lane

Now I've only ever cleared the climb up the lane once, many years ago, but it was ideal conditions with all the usual loose material frozen in place so I just span away and crested the top without so much as a thought of dabbing.

Cath at the top of Mastiles Lane about to get clobbered by the next shower.
 Cath managed the steep part of the climb clean for the first time only to get blown off by the wind just before the very top.

A lunch break behind a convenient wall then it was round by Lee Gate Farm and back to Bordley. Of course as soon as we turned back in to the wind another shower hit. With no goggles it was painful riding, I could only look at the ground behind my front wheel and it was as much memory of where the track went that got me down to Bordley Farm.

Another shower arriving at Lee Gate farm.

We were now riding into the wind, hard work!

No sooner than we had got out of the wind in the shelter of the buildings than the shower passed and the sun came out!

The gang heading away from Bordley Farm.

Despite the wind, the temperature wasn't particularly cold and quite a bit of ground and puddles weren't frozen. This meant that there were a few brakes and rear mechs that got wet and then froze up. We spent a few minutes dealing with Jo's rear mech after it jammed.

Finally it was back down to Threshfield. Normally on this descent I have to hit the brakes quite hard at certain points. Today it was a block headwind and you had to pedal downhill! Only 21km but those kilometres were hard won.

Here's the Strava bit.



Monday, 5 March 2018

And the East wind doth blow ...


And we shall have snow
And what will poor bikers do then poor things?

Get the fat bikes out!

As our neighbour noted: "When you bought those (fat bikes) did you think you'd get to use them in this country?" Well we have done on occasion but it's been dribs and drabs TBH, this week was different. We'd got almost to the end of February and realised that we needed to get a bivy done to keep in the Bivy a Month challenge so on Tuesday night after we'd had our tea we headed out, me on the fat bike, Cath on her Stooge. We were only going very local so just packed what kit we needed into small rucksacks.

With the strong easterly we really needed somewhere sheltered but my first option, known locally as "murder wood" following the discovery there in the 1970s of the body of a lady of ill repute was rejected by Cath. Fussy! We continued on snow covered roads with my Van Helga tyres making a right racket on the hard surface. We ended up just shy of the summit of the local hill in some old, shallow, quarry workings. Just enough shelter to be usable. I'd used this spot a couple of years ago so knew it was OK. The only problem was that there was a slight slope to the site and with the wind in the direction it was it meant that if we slid around in the night then we'd slide out from under the tarp. Oh Well.

It was almost a full moon so with the lying snow it was very bright and you certainly didn't need a torch to find kit by. Things were enlivened during the night when one of us knocked one of the poles away and we took a few minutes to get a sense of normality back. I was using my bag and quilt combo whilst Cath was using her better rated quilt. I think it's safe to say that we both found that we were at the limit of what was comfortable for the kit. I recorded -7C whilst Cath recorded -8C, suitably nippy. Whatever, come the morning we weren't about to hang around so we were up and packing before our 0630 alarm went off. It was cold enough that we kept our duvets on as getting back home was nearly all downhill.

It was just as well we got the bivy that night as the following day The Beast from the East (as our press liked to call it) or Thursday as it's known to the Finns, arrived. I chickened out of biking into work, it turned out I'd have been the only person in the office anyway as no-one else got in. I had to dial in to a video call but that could be done from anywhere, most of the day was spent keeping the wood stove going. We were still blocked in on Friday so that was another "snow day" and another conference call. I'd noticed a knocking in my headset and couldn't fix it - the top bearing had collapsed so a quick phone call to Stuart Rider to check he'd got the appropriate bearing ("Is it the 41.2mm or the 42mm version?" - typical bike industry and their standards) so head into town to get it fixed.



It comes to something when you have to wear full on winter mountaineering kit to ride a bike but I was wearing a full set of Paramo salopettes and jacket just to keep the wind at bay. No drama except for two incidents: I came across a council grit spreader stuck in a snow drift (didn't take any shots as the guys weren't happy and they had big shovels!) and whilst negotiating said drift I sprained my already sore back. Bummer! Headset sorted there was no problem getting home.

Come Saturday and it was going to be something local again. We worked out a route that used a mixture of mostly roads to gain height and mostly bridleways to lose it that looped in and around the hills. If things started to get out of hands then we could just use the roads to get back home. So back up the mostly cleared road up to Murder Wood (not dropping any hints dear, honest!) then a short bit of bridleway that I'd never been on before. Cath said it was usually boggy but with the cold and snow it was fine, just the odd drift as you rode across a sloping step and the back wheel would give way or coming to a comedic halt as the drift ahead deepened. 



A quick dog-leg on the next road and then it was more bridleway, this time through heather and a mixture of pushing and rideable. Soon the gradient headed down and we could ride for longer sections. The next bit was tracks and fields to get us down to the old Skipton to Colne railway track. There were some good snow banks here that were firm enough to ride down, great fun.





This bit of the track is used by a "Land Rover Experience" setup which in practice means puddles, not nice in winter so we'd wind on and off the old track bed trying to keep our feet dry. The next bit of track is now access road to a farm and easy going. What we came to next was the result of one person clearing the road from one end "as far as possible" and someone at the other end clearing the road "as far as possible". We were just left with "possible", except it wasn't. A couple of hundred metres of steeply drifted snow. Hmm.



Next the big climb of the route. First bit on road (part of my preferred road ride route home) then some cheeky riding through some woods to the top road. Cath managed to clean the first of the steep ramps of the route through the woods for the first time. 



We'd got into the woods and spinning steadily away when I got the feeling that the bike was handling differently. The back tyre was nearly flat. The thing was, in the snow it gave brilliant grip so I thought I'd leave it and see how I got on. Pretty well as it turned out so once at the road I pumped it back up hoping that the (fifteen month old) sealant would do its job.



Another bit of cheeky riding ensued, well it would have been riding if the track wasn't a metre deep in snow! We'd ridden this bit getting to the bivy the other day but now it was twenty minutes of hike-a-bike. Our bivy site looked quite drifted in, a change in  wind direction had scoured some parts of the hill and deposited everything here. You could see our tracks from Wednesday pressed into the now bare ground. No time to hang around at the summit, the wind was biting, down the same descent as Wednesday but on lightly drifted ground not 30cm deep snow.

The white strips are our tracks from three days earlier.

Lower down the snow was again in a completely different configuration to earlier in the week and we got to the next road to find that my tyre was semi-flat again. Another re-inflation and we decided just to head back on the road, the next bridleway looked drifted in.

So, you are just going to park your bike there then?

For a 20km ride it packed a lot in!

Saturday, 30 December 2017

The Northumbrian

The Christmas to New Year period is an awkward time to take time off in the UK, the weather is rarely kind, but many including my wife have to take the non public holiday days as holiday so there's some pressure to make the most of it.

Last year we headed up to The Highlands and did a two day trip on our fat bikes around Loch Rannoch and Ben Alder which was rather damp with both rain and snow melt leading to very high burn levels. This year we wanted something a bit closer.

Philip Addyman had put together a route in and around Kielder Forest and along with Stuart Cowperthwaite had ridden it earlier this year. It looked a prime candidate with most of the route being on forestry tracks and just one tricky section along the English-Scottish border to Windy Gyle before dropping to Alwinton and heading back through the Otterburn firing ranges.

For once the weather looked fine so we packed the car and headed up to the start point in the small forestry workers hamlet of Stonehaugh. It was a bit later than planned before we'd got everything set up on the bikes and we headed into the woods.

Easy going on wide tracks.
A start time of 1430 meant that our target for the night, Spithope bothy, was always going to be reached in the dark. Slight problem: neither of us had been there before so hoped it was easy to find.

The sun was low in the sky from very early on in the ride

By the time we were looking down on Redesdale the light was fading.

While the riding was technically easy you couldn't really relax as the puddles in the track were all frozen and there were longer streaks of ice so you had to be on your guard all the time. We put on lights as we descended into Byrness and into more heavily wooded areas and the light faded to night. After a short section along the main road we cut up into the Spithope valley. After a false turn along a track we figured out where the bothy should be and headed further up the valley. There were footprints in the snow and at about the point where we'd figured the bothy should be they disappeared. Lights on full and we spotted the building on the other side of the valley. Fortunately there were steps and a bridge to get there.

I opened the door to find six already inside. Things might be a squeeze! There's bunks for six so two would have to kip on the floor. After food and drink and much banter - "Do you want more turkey?" we put the table and chairs outside to make room and kipped down for the night.

Leaving Spithope bothy in the morning

With morning light everyone rose and after breakfast and packing it was time to reverse the path to the main track. This led ever upward to a sharp bend when the line on the GPS headed off into what might best be described as "rough". Snow covered thigh high vegetation hid the line of whatever path was on the ground. There were also hidden becks and drainage ditches, the bikes picked up water and snow and required regular cleaning to avoid the wheels becoming stuck.


The hike-a-bike out of The Hart's Toe

Finally we emerged onto open ground and a (hopefully) final cleaning of the bikes and it was time to pick up some speed. Except conditions dictated otherwise. I'd hoped that the ground was frozen and wind had shifted any snow. It was just the opposite! There'd been little wind and the deep snow had insulated the ground so there was still bog underneath. Progress was slow.

Cleaning mud, ice and snow off the bikes.

Hard going along the border between England and Scotland

Eventually we reached a signpost: Pennine way along the ridge and alternative Pennine Way down the valley. We'd taken two hours for the last two kilometres, we'd no time to do the next ten Kilometres to Windy Gyle. We headed down the valley. Some bits we could ride but even heading downhill was hard work and needed pedalling. Once past the Roman fortification works at Chew Green we hit the road. This wasn't much easier, irregular patches of sheet ice meant things took much longer than we'd have liked.

The sheep had paddled down the snow so we could ride sections.
An artistic farmer at work!

Eventually we got to Alwinton. Philip and Stu had lucked out here as both the pub here and in the next village of Harbottle weren't doing food. Today they were and we were hungry! Sometimes an hour not moving forward can be an hour well spent and we tucked in.

The sun was still shining when we left. A bit more road then a turn right and we headed upwards once again through Harbottle Woods. Forestry work meant a diversion but it only meant that we debouched onto the road on the firing ranges a little higher than would have been the case.

In the shadows of giants

Leaving Harbottle forest and entering the firing ranges.

The ranges are wide open spaces.

The roads were frustrating. Vehicles had compacted snow and there were yet more random sheets of ice. This meant slow progress, downhill was often slower than the uphills. We reached the final junction and could head back down into Redesdale just as the light began to fade. At this point we were just 2Km from the bothy we'd stopped at the night before.

Wide open spaces on the Otterburn firing ranges.

Icy roads slowed progress

All day the temperatures had been below freezing but now it was getting seriously cold. At least we had the forest drive to look forward to, a long climb to Blakehope Nick warmed us up though I'd been in my lowest gear for much of the climb. The descent to Kielder cooled us down again. By the time we got to The Anglers Arms in Kielder it was -7C and with us feeling tired it cut to the quick.

Our target was KershopeHead bothy a further 25Km ahead but I didn't think we'd get there so asked at the pub if they'd any accommodation. Unfortunately they were full but the owner did offer an unheated caravan. A search showed one B&B in the village and they had a room! It would have to do. We headed over after having had something to eat. Warmth and a bed. bliss!

The morning brought a change in the weather. No longer clear skies but leaden clouds heavy with snow which had already deposited 5cm and was adding to it with every passing hour. A second decision - we'd follow the Lakeside Trail back to the dam and then return via our outward route. At least we knew it rather than the circuitous line we would have taken on the actual route.

Heavy snowfall on the Lakeside Trail around Kielder

The Lakeside Trail was hard work in the deep snow. The 20Km to the dam took over two hours for a nearly flat trail. The one oddity was a car on the trail, quite how it had got there was a bit of a mystery but there were several blokes in the process of trying to get it out. We'd now just the simple matter of climbing back over the hills to Stonehaugh.

As the snow fall stopped it led to pretty views.

A bit different from two days earlier.

Progress was slow, we tried to find the thinnest snow cover under the trees but even so we were working hard. The selfie below was taken at the top of the biggest climb. Temperatures were rising and the snow was getting a little thinner. Occasionally there'd be vehicle tracks so the best line was in these as the snow was nice and compact.

More snow build up on the bikes.

Selfie at the top of the big climb up from Kielder Dam.

Eventually, just over 48hrs after leaving we rolled back in to the car park.

Back at the car.
So we didn't manage to complete the route but we had a good if hard time out. The route's quite varied and despite much of it being in forest it's actually quite open as the areas to at least one side of the tracks have been felled. I can't comment on the border ridge section (we've done Clennel Street down to Alwinton many years ago and that's straightforward). You also need to ensure that the firing ranges are shut before attempting the route.

It's definitely worth having a go at the route though mid-winter might not be the best time of year! That said, a good frost without much snow and I think it would be a goer. Looking on a map it appears that you aren't too far from "civilisation" but when you are on it it does feel pretty remote especially on the firing ranges.

A good use of a good weather window.

Here's the Strava bit ...