Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Fat bikes at the BearBones winter event

"So, where are the motors then?"
"You're looking at them. We're the motors!"

The farmer was obviously a bit confused in the encroaching gloom. He had mistaken our fat bikes for moto-cross bikes. The ensuing conversation was slightly bizarre with him talking about the course that Dan and Rachel Atherton had built nearby: "ramps that they jump off are as big as my house!"

This was my second and Cath's first BearBones Winter event. This is a bit like a make it up as you go along Trailquest or orienteering on bikes. You get sent a list of grid references - including the obligatory location in the Irish Sea! No prizes for visiting all the given locations, choose where you want to go and make up your own route as you see fit. The locations generally follow a theme, this year it was "Church or Chapel" - eight churches and eight chapels, choose one or the other.

Laying out the maps of the area on the living room floor we plotted the locations (the errant Irish Sea church had been relocated to somewhere less isolated), 20p pieces for the churches, pennies for the chapels. It was apparent that most of the chapels were in areas we had visited either on the BB200 or when riding into and out of last summer's Bearstock shindig. Churches it was then.

With going to Rovaniemi in a month's time it was time to get some fat biking training done. Having done last year's event and found that the grassier bridleways are a little on the interesting side during winter the plan was to stick to roads, tracks and firmer ground wherever possible. A bit of map work and we'd a 100Km route for the two days with a rather hefty 2600 metres of ascent thrown into the mix. The route did allow for some short cuts which are always handy at this time of year.

Our plan to stop at Oswestry for the Friday night then head to Llanbrynmair early on Saturday morning proved to be a decent option given the tales of struggling to get to the "official" pre-event pub in the snow. On the other hand the restaurant we ate at did have their "heaters" blowing cold air at us until I pointed it out to the staff!

Saturday morning is a chance to have a chat with some familiar faces whilst being fed tea and toast courtesy of Dee and Stuart. Perhaps more importantly given that I've forgotten my full weight waterproof is Mark Evans turning up on time with an insulated windshirt that I was buying off him. A check and it fits, and doesn't get taken off! I think I'm going to need it. Time to go.

Then after 300m realise that I've left my rear light in the car - doh!

A ford on a hidden lane.

Back for that then we are really on our way. The first bit of the route didn't look too bad, especially when compared to riding over Bwlch y Groes later on but in reality it was going across the grain of the land so was: up; down; up; down, with hardly any flat whatsoever. Thus at one moment you were sweating away then chilling off as you dropped back down the hill.
Straightforward after some very slippy rock.


Yep! It's another long climb.

Now while I'd tried to avoid grassy bridleways there was one that was unavoidable as it traversed a hillside before plunging down to some woods. While fat bikes have great traction most surfaces, a couple of centimetres of wet, muddy grass overlying subsoil isn't one of them, some of the resultant slides were quite comedic. Fortunately the steeper parts of the descent were a different, rougher species of grass and you could get grip but as soon as the angle eased things had been seeded with pasture varieties and we were back to sliding around. After getting lost in the woods - well you'd take the big obvious track rather than the faint line wouldn't you? The proper line was really good if short lived, eventually dropping through a rock cutting so presumably an access track to an old quarry. 

By now time was getting on and with the cold and damp we needed some refreshment. Andy and Adam's cafe in Corris was the eating hole and most excellent it was too. Cath had the broth and I had the chowder. 

Nearly sided it all up!

As we were leaving a couple of other riders arrived from the direction we were heading - decision time for them: late lunch or early supper? There wasn't going to be much daylight left by the time we set off and riding along winding main roads in the dark didn't appeal so a short cut was called for. This was also on a main road but much more open so drivers would be able to see us in good time.


Checking out the tiger bike at the cafe in Corris

First of all there was the little matter of a col to cross. This was on a national cycle route and was probably an old lane at one point but is now tarmac. It was a long slog though on a fat bike, interrupted only by our conversation with the farmer. Down to the Cross Foxes pub then along the A470 to Dinas Mawddwy before heading up valley and a search for a bivy site.

We were back on the planned route now, the way ahead lay along a steep bridleway. A building on the map that we hoped might be a farm building turned out to be a house - no go there then. A little further on I notice a relatively flat spot amongst all the steepness and trees. It would have to do, certainly it was a lot better than my bivy last year - we were well sheltered from wind and rain. A quick clearing of twigs and other debris and the tarp was. Our evening meal was rice and tuna, the pan is just big enough for one serving each so while one of us ate the other was getting their sleeping kit ready.

A view from a room

One disadvantage of bivying under tree cover is that things are much darker than you are used to. Consequently it was gone eight when we decided to move. We hadn't finished off the climb from the night before so there was about 100 metres of steep track to start with.

This got us to a junction of ways but it was downhill for us and a nice bit of singletrack contouring above the river turned into a quad bike track then a farm track all the way down the valley. A bit muddy but all rideable. Eventually we passed through a farmyard with associated "friendly" dogs and some rather excitable bullocks to a blast down to the main road. Back on with the rear lights (don't want any excuses about "Sorry mate I didn't see you") for the couple of Km or so to our turn off.

On the bridleway by Afon Clwyedog

This was the home straight, all forestry tracks and roads from now on. First a long, long drag up into and through the forestry. We headed north for a couple of Km before doing a 180deg turn and heading south for a couple of Km by which time we'd nearly circumnavigated a complete ridge! I'm not a fan of riding in forests - you don't get any sense of progression or sense of place. Eventually though we began to descend and came to the forest gate: locked! Lifting loaded fat bikes over five bar gates isn't easy! The track continued in a generally downhill direction with just the occasional 100m of pedalling required for flat sections or short rises.

Just before the next section of forestry there's a track heading down into the cwm to our right, it will get us out of the wind and drizzle. It's steep and fast and eventually drops us into a farmyard with a rather deep looking ford in the middle of it. Luckily there's a bridge to the side that we can ride across. We are now on tarmac and it's all downhill, really. There's virtually no pedalling involved until we get to the main road in Llanbrynmair. This does mean that we get chilled through the lack of effort on our part.

Lots of tea and grub courtesy of Dee and Stuart again, get into some dry clothes, chat with others until it's time to load the bikes into the car and head home.


We didn't manage our planned 100Km route but ended up doing 85Km and 1700 metres of ascent. A decent amount of training done.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Scratching the N+1 itch

One of the Velominati rules is "The correct number of bikes to own is N+1 where N is the number of bikes you currently own." In real life this is limited by W which is the number of bikes your wife owns.

Since I got the Cotic Solaris it's pretty well scratched that N+1 itch, every time I've looked at another bike to cover some particular off-road activity I've realised that the Solaris will do almost all of what I'd be getting the extra bike for and most of the time the new bike would gather dust. As a result I've stuck with the Solaris, modern steel hardtails are surprisingly adaptable beasts.

I did get myself a set of "Plus" or "semi-fat" wheels which is a cheap way of completely altering the nature of the bike. As their name suggests they are a sort of halfway house between standard MTB wheels and tyres and those on fat bikes. With limited space in the house they are also an efficient option in that regard. Which sort of brings me to the one category of bikes that the Solaris or any standard hardtail can't cover: fat bikes.

Yep, those comedic looking bikes with a pair of life buoys for tyres.

I'd an idea that required a fat bike and it just so happened that I remembered seeing a post on the Bearbones forums that someone had one for sale. A bit of crawling back through the classified section and there it was: a Singular Puffin rolling chassis, basically frame, forks, wheels, seatpost as well as a prototype frame bag. It was being sold by Ian Barrington who'd used it for the same ride I was thinking of. It was still available so a couple of messages and a transfer of funds later it was mine. Now there was just the job of getting it to me. We were both doing the BB200 so easiest to get it then. He was also selling a set of Avid BB7 brakes which he'd used on the bike so I grabbed them as well since they'd be set up for the bike.

In the meantime ...

Internet shopping!

Walk in to any decent sized bike shop (or even the mega-stores that are appearing) and there's a bewildering plethora of parts on offer, not only that there's multiple choices for each part. Look closely however and you'll notice something, or rather you won't, there are virtually no parts for Plus or Fat bikes. Not even tyres. Even though a fat bike might stick in the memory when you see one out on the trails they are very much a niche product. (There are fat bike specialists like Charlie the Bikemonger but these are the exception.) To accommodate the wide wheels three areas also need widening: the front fork and axle; the bottom bracket and cranks; the rear triangle and axle. In my case the front and back ends of things were already dealt with since the rolling chassis had the wheels, all what I needed was a set of cranks. 

It turns out that there aren't that many fat bike cranks around, who'd have thunk it? I'd another item on my shopping wish list: a 28T oval chainring. This really limited my options as to use that sort of chainring would mean a direct mount rather than a traditional spider where the arms would foul the chain. The choice came down to two: a fairly expensive alloy model or a stupidly expensive carbon jobbie. Of course I went for the alloy one - the carbon set would cost £2 for every gramme saved in weight. Why a fat bike specific crankset? Well the width of the tyres means that using a normal width crankset would cause the chain to rub against the tyre at its closest point to the bottom bracket so things need to be moved out a bit.

The rest of the parts weren't fat bike specific, derailleur, chain, stem, shifters but one does stand out, the Jones Loop bars. These look weird and to anyone accustomed to standard mountain bike handlebars, just wrong. This summer I'd had a very short ride on a bike with them fitted, the ride was actually to try out the Lauf forks that the bike also had but I couldn't isolate how they worked because of the Plus tyres on the bike. The bars felt right though in the same way that the Solaris had felt right when I first rode one around the car park at Dales Bike Centre. More searching and I managed to get a virtually unused 2nd hand pair of carbon loops for £200.

The first evening of work was fitting forks, stem and bars as well as brake rotors to the wheels. I just had an hour or so before having to make tea. Because of their shape getting the angle of the bars is quite critical to comfort. Without riding it I could only make a guess.

Raceface cranks and Absolute Black oval chainring.

The next evening's short work session saw bottom bracket, cranks, cassette, derailleur, brakes and saddle fitted. Again, without riding, I wasn't able to judge the best angle or position for the brake levers. I left the calipers loose as I needed daylight to be able to get them properly aligned. The same applied to setting up the derailleur.

So on a Saturday morning I set to work to complete the build. The brakes were easy enough, I've had BB7s before, but I did need a new set of pads for the rear brake which I fortunately had "in stock". On to the drivetrain. At this point I noticed two things: 


  1. In my eagerness/stupidity I'd ordered cable outer for brakes not gears!
  2. I'd fitted the bottom bracket without the spacers so needed to remove the crankset and the BB to sort that out. The instructions for the cranks had notes on how to install them but not how to remove them! More internet searching and it turns out I need an ISIS crank puller.


A trip to Rider's Cycle Centre got me some gear cable outer but none of the shops in town had the crank puller. Back home I began to ring round more local shops, the shop near my work had one so I asked them to keep it for me and headed down the valley. An hour and a bit later I'm back home. It took longer to get the puller out of the blister pack than getting the crank off! The right tool for the job and all that. I also checked my phone to find a missed message from the same bike shop that the bar tape I'd ordered had arrived! Oh well, that would have to wait.

With the bottom bracket and cranks sorted it was on to the derailleur. I've never fitted or set one up before. I read some notes on the web, then re-read them several times, then read them again. Cable outer on, measure twice cut once, set the high stop, fit the chain, fix the cable and click down the gears. A bit of twiddling of the low stop and I'm in the bottom gear. Going fine. Except I can't now change gear plus the gears are making an awful grating sound. Then I realise I've not set the B-screw! So turn that in a couple of turns and now everything's working as it should. Last job is to cut the cable and put on the cable crimp.

Cassette and Derailleur.

The Puffin comes with removable cable guides in case you run singlespeed so these need fitting and the relevant cables fixing in them.

Having picked up all the bar tape on the Monday morning I got home then realised that I'd need some black electrical tape to finish things off so another day of waiting and a visit to the local hardware store. 

Taping the bars. I've gone for a two colour scheme to reflect the multi-coloured beak of the puffin itself: the rear part of the loop will be yellow and the front part orange. I could equally have gone for orange and red. The central part of the front loop is clear to allow fitting of lights, this gap is the same width as that around the stem clamp on the rear part of the loop. The real difficulty comes with how to tape around the junction of the two parts of the loop as the welding and fillets make it quite awkward to get a complete coverage without creating excessive bulk.

After considering various sequences I settled on doing the rear tape first, starting from the stem and working towards the joint, this way allows the tape to sit better on earlier wraps on the taper between the 31.8mm and 25.4mm tube sections. The end of this tape was then wrapped around the joint in a cross pattern, extra layers in the corners of the joint aren't a problem. Then I did the front tape, again starting from the front and working back towards the joint. This let me apply the tape in a spiral that matched the angle of the joint. I did a sort of figure of eight around the joint covering up the finishing loop of the first tape before finishing a couple of centimetres behind the joint.

Repeat on other side.

The taped bars. Ignore the grips, they'll be replaced with black ESI grips. 

I've a couple of old grips lying around so put them on as an interim measure but I'll keep them on for a while and move the levers and shifter around a bit to get an idea of which position is best for me, then I'll cut the ESI grips to suit. My Hope flat pedals that I swap on and off the Solaris get fitted, time to have a quick ride round the yard. But first a weighing, there's no bar tape but the lock-on grips are heavier than the ones I intend to use so probably balance out. The scales say 14.3Kg. Pump the tyres up to something that should be OK, 7.5psi!

The final build!

So, apart from the grips it's done.

First ride: it's definitely different. Yes it's a bike but the front end seems to have a mind of its own due to the gyroscopic effect of all that spinning mass, particularly when you build up speed. There's a feeling that the front wants to tuck in as you turn, there's also a slight twitch when you come out of a turn and you are bringing the bike upright again. All this is much more noticable on tarmac as the tyres have so much grip. This grip also manifests itself by amplifying those small lateral movements that occur when riding. On something like a road bike on 23C tyres you'll see the front wheel "twitch" almost continuously but it has little effect on riding. On the fat bike these all continually conspire to pull or push you to one side

The next ride sees a bit of progress: lean in to a corner and give a definite shove to the handlebars on the side that I'm turning towards, it's just enough to counter the tuck feeling. I've never ridden a motorbike but I imagine the riding technique is pretty similar in terms of handling the spinning mass. A bit of investigation reveals that it might be caused by running at too low a pressure so I have a look around and find a fat bike equivalent to the Stans formula: 


  • weight in Kg divided by nine then subtract 0.5psi for the front and add 0.5psi for the back.


There's another formula:


  • 1psi for each 10Kg in weight of rider and kit


These both produce very similar values.

With the tyres now at the "correct" pressure the next ride was somewhat less fraught and the bike just about went where I aimed it.

One thing that I wasn't sure I'd got right was the angle of the bars. I'd fitted them with around a 20deg slope towards the rear almost the same angle as the rake of the top tube but this felt a little strange so I lifted them up by five degress. Another ride or two and that didn't feel right so eased the angle a little more as well as ease the downward angle of the saddle nose. Having the saddle level doesn't work for me as the constant buffetting from the trail forces my weight on to my hands causing numbness over time. A slight nose down is the answer. I also move the saddle back a cm.

All this is really trial and error to find what works. What setup works on one bike won't necessarily be correct for another.

On the descent into Kentmere

I've been using the Puffin for my commute in order to get used to the handling and as a set of shakedown rides as well as getting the handlebars and saddle positions sorted.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Bear Bones 200


Mid Wales isn't somewhere you associate with lots of bridleways and mountain biking but look around and there's quite a number of bridleways, lanes and ancient rights of way that can be linked together. Every year this is what Stuart Wright does creating a route of around 200Km and invites others to ride it. The route changes from year to year and it's one of only two UK ITTs not to have a fixed route, the Yorkshire Dales 200 is the other.

It should be noted that Stuart's idea of a bike route and that of others don't necessarily align!

Expect interesting terrain.

So it was that on an October Sunday morning he emailed a GPX file to everyone who had signed up. I loaded it in to a suitable mapping web site and the disection began. Even though I haven't done much in Mid-Wales there were a few bits I had visited on the winter ride and Bearstock but these amounted to maybe 10% of the route, more investigation was required. Already there were murmurings on interweb forums, those in the know proffered digital nods and winks.

Tracing along the route in a photo website didn't reveal anything untoward but then the photographers were more interested in dilapidated old pieces of farm machinery than TPM (Tussocks Per Mile). Stuart mentioned a general slowing down might be expected after the halfway point. There was talk of a fast first half with the second half taking twice as long. A cruel finish was being spoken of.

More questions were forthcoming on the forum: where were the resupply points? What about pubs? What are the opening hours of the chippy in Knighton? Oh, hang on - the Sunday Co-op hours are different aren't they? Plans formed and disolved in equal measure.

Like many rural areas Mid-Wales has suffered from the tyranny of the motor car, village shops and services have closed as people  became more mobile and retail chains became the norm. More interweb searching leads to the conclusion that the only viable resupply points are Knighton at 100Km and Llanidloes at 160Km, the latter coming after some of the "slowing down". Most would be able to use Knighton but depending on strategy and pace Llanidloes might be shut.

Generally on events like this time is "made" by not losing time. My "steady away" pace is about 14kmh and at that sort of speed five minutes in a shop getting resupplied equates to just over 1Km, too many stops adds up. The countryside isn't a trail centre and there are often gates to contend with. These range from smooth and bike friendly to "it's better to lift the bike over" but if you weren't concentrating then each can take a minute to negotiate. A 14kmh pace would mean getting to Knighton in around 7hrs. Someone noted that there was 90Km of road on the route but a look at the map confirmed it wasn't all flat and most of it was in the first half. A possible strategy was emerging.

Aim for Knighton and refuel there. The next target would be to get to Llanidloes before the Co-op or Spar shut which would mean 7hrs for the 60Km (it would get dark about halfway through this section), however I'd take on enough supplies to ensure that I didn't rely on getting there in time. Once at Llanidloes there was about 10Km of easier riding until I got on to a section I'd done before, that would get me to the "sting in the tail". Depending on time and how I felt after Llanidloes I'd either bivy if feeling tired or ride through to the finish. I didn't want to commit to doing one or the other. Then came the news that a community cafe in Bwlch y Sarnau was going to stay open through the night for riders doing the event! ByS is at 140Km so a handy spot meaning that getting to Llanidloes wasn't the make or break it could have been.

The bike was set up with this in mind: seat pack with bivy gear and two stem cells with food. Although I try not to use a backpack this time it made sense as I could carry water in it and not using a frame bag or water bottles would mean that the main triangle was clear so carrying the bike would be easier should there be any serious hike-a-bike. The bike and luggage weighed 14Kg with 3kg or so on my back.

Saturday morning and there's a nervous group of cyclists loitering in and around Llanbrynmair Community Centre. Inside Stuart and Dee are serving up tea and breakfast. There isn't a group start, you can set off any time between 0800 and 1000. This has the advantage that you aren't immediately in "race" mode trying to keep up with others and overdo it early on as it's likely you'll set off on your own. The choice really is about whether to start early to make the most of the daylight or start later and have some riders ahead of you to act as "targets" to pull you along.

Cath's away early on to make the most of the daylight, I wait a while getting more food and drink inside me before starting at 0855. The first few Km are road but generally uphill until a turn left and things steepen. Eventually the gradient eases and forestry tracks lead to and from the high point. Once on the road again it's mostly downhill for the next half hour or so but even the uphill bits aren't hard. The fast riders are already going past with alarming ease. At Llandinam the next bit of hard work starts in earnest, there's 400m of height to gain in the next few Km with a nice muddy traversing bridleway to make things interesting. I catch Cath on the first really steep climb, all but the strongest are walking.

For those of you who have only ever seen his back, this is what Stuart "it's not a race" Cowperthwaite looks like.

As the day goes on I begin to catch up the early riders and more of the faster riders pass me. Sometime I'm riding with company with a bit of chatter then the elastic snaps and I'm on my own again. The route is quite easy to follow with just the occasional check of the GPS to make sure. The early morning clag clears and it's a bright if not sunny day and just the right temperature for riding.

On the outward leg.


There's a few squiggles in the route where you are riding along a ridgeline only to drop into the valley before climbing back up on to the ridge. At the last of these climbs we have a strange encounter with a local resident.

"You can't go up here, it's not a right of way."

"The map says it's a bridleway."

"Yes. So it's for horses. Bicycles aren't allowed."

"Err, a bridleway is for horses and pedal cycles. It's just motorised vehicles that aren't allowed."

"Is it? Well I never knew that!"

A bit more dealing with moaning then it's on with the climb. Eventually this climb becomes a push until the angle eases and we roll through fields to Bucknell Woods. At some point on here my GPS bounces out of its mount but fortunately it's also on a leash so it's a moment's work to remount it. A blast down the fire-road to a tight bend then a little working out where we are meant to go gets us on to a great bit of singletrack flowing down through beech and oak trees. All too soon we are on the road and it's a steady few Km to Knighton. I sip the last of my water from the Camelbak. I get to Knighton in 6hrs45 so just inside my projected pace.

Knighton cafe stop.

There's quite a gaggle (dunno what the collective noun for a group of bikepackers is) of riders in the Spar and at a cafe across the road. Just what the staff thought of twenty muddy cyclists suddenly turning up goodness knows. I think we cleaned them out of bottled water! A few bites to eat, refill the water, drink the rest then on my way.

Another rider, Richard, leaves at the same time as me, we'd been riding together for a while earlier on but he'd pressed on ahead about 20Km earlier. The first big climb out of Knighton and we both decide to walk, I can feel a small twinge of cramp but nothing that a bit of walking can't deal with. We walk a bit further than the gradient dictated then it was back on the bikes and keep on rolling.

Up, down, gates, lanes, tracks. It was all nice flowing riding. The route then pulled on to moorland and everything opened up with great views over the Mid-Wales countryside. I was now about a minute behind Richard, he was always in sight but I was basically riding alone. The riding was quick with just the occasional ditch that had you thinking "Can I ride through it?" Some you could, others looked a little too much. I like riding through heather moorland, you get a feeling of floating on a sea of purple and it's nearly always well draining so doesn't get too boggy for most of the year. All too soon I'm blasting down the descent off the moor and in to Llanbister. The light's now starting to fade so on with the rear light as there's a little bit of road work then it's more up.

Once out of the fields there's more moorland tracks but by the time I drop to a road that crosses the ridge I definitely need the front light. Through a farmyard and up again. Away to the east there are lights descending the previous block of moorland. I catch my erstwhile companion who's taking a short break and I get the good line down to the next farm. From here to the cafe is forestry tracks and tarmac lanes. The forestry is mainly uphill though and drags somewhat.

The long descent into Bwlch y Sarnau chills me and I need to put my spare clothes on once inside (I've been riding in just a short sleeved top to this point), Richard arrives a few minutes later. A pot of tea and a bowl of soup for starters. That all goes down nicely. I'm looking at the cake. Hmm. Maybe a refill of tea first. Finally I give in and have a piece of coffee cake. Richard heads off, I won't see him again until the end, as it turns out I don't see any other riders once I leave the cafe. More riders arrive at regular intervals but eventually after nearly an hour I decide I'd better make a move and after refilling my Camelbak head out.

Belinda, an absolute star.


The chill air is a shock and the first few hundred metres is downhill so no chance of warming up. Turn left and along a track, this turns muddy then mucky when it passes a silage feed cage for cattle - riding through 20cm of slurry isn't nice! I aim for the next few puddles to clean things up. Getting to Llanidloes is mainly road though quite a bit of up and down. The 20Km takes me 1hr20 and I ride through town just as the Co-op is closing. I've no need of restocking though. I do need to stop to get more stones out of my shoes. I take the opportunity to text Cath that I'm feeling good and will probably push on to the finish in one go. While I'm sat there a bloke in drag passes me - "Charity pub crawl mate". "Ah".

The next climb is another steep one and I'm walking it. Once it eases I'm back on the bike and making good time. The road turns to track but it's easy going. Most of the gates are open on this bit and when I reach the next lane and head down the hill I'm on terrain I've done before. From here through Hafran Forest to Staylittle is familiar. Somewhere on one of the forestry tracks I'm told there was someone kipping by the side of the track but I didn't see them. As I blast down the road out of the forest my back light dies - shouldn't be a problem as there's no traffic and not much road left anyway.

The climb out of Staylittle to Dylife is a drag, just the wrong angle for me at this time and I walk quite a bit of it. As I drop down to the pub I see a couple of sets of lights near the top of the climb on the other side. Just 15Km to go. As I start the climb I take on more food, just walking along getting energy in. Then I lose the line. There's no tyre tracks on the other side of the gate but I can't see where anyone has gone. Eventually by dint of lifting the bike up and shining the light around I spot a faint track but I have to carry the bike up the banking to get to it.

This is the start of the sting in the tale. The next 2Km to the top of the ridge is a push, carry, push again, look for gate through fence, keep pushing. On the ridge there's a track, easy going. I can still see the lights of the two riders in front of me. But why are they up there and I'm heading downhill? I stop and check the GPS, yes this is right. I keep descending until eventually I come to a stream and the uphill starts again.

A clean bike is a happy bike.

I'm tired now and as I ride along I periodically check the GPS (the screen is off by default to save batteries). Damn! I've overshot the turning. I turn back and head up the only track. After a couple of hundred metres I check again. I'm on the wrong track. Back down to the fire road. I wander back and forth trying to find the track that matches the line on the GPS screen but there isn't one. Cursing I start climbing the only track again. I reach a gate - keep going I'll figure it out when I get out of this damn wood.

On top of the ridge, I'm on the right line again!? How? Never mind, this bit's a blast. Keep going and watch out for the left turn where the bridleway drops to the road. Except I don't see one. After overshooting I retrace my steps. No track, what's going on? Never mind I'll chuck the bike over the fence and wing it. On the other side of the fence is another track! Just beyond that is the track descending in to the dark. This is steep but I don't care, just ride and keep going.

Cross the road and the next bridleway is a push - the forestry has been felled and it's unrideable. Out of the woods and the route traverses a grassy hillside. I keep getting lost, losing height and having to push my way back up hill. Eventually I get on to the final bridleway but it's only rideable in bits, there's gorse and old stone walls in the way. Finally it's rideable and it's all downhill.

With the bright lights of Llanbrynmair ahead it's full steam ahead. Then I lose concentration, catch the edge of a rut and I'm airborne. No damage done but I take the rest of the descent a bit more circumspectly.

I roll back into the community centre at 0348 for an overall time of 18hrs53mins, good enough for a black badge. The fastest time was 15hrs09mins.

I done gone and got me one of these!!

After a couple of hours' kip (and being woken by some lovelorn teenage girl sobbing and shouting for her boyfriend) it's time to get up and start spotting the incoming riders. Cath arrives, she had a great first day getting 150Km in to the route but a bit of a 'mare on the second day.

Cath finishing

What have I done to her!


Overall I think I got just about everything right, possibly my best ITT to date:

  • I ate well but still had some food in reserve;
  • I drank properly, I ran out of water just before Knighton so perfect timing, refilled there and at Bwlch y Sarnau which did me to the finish;
  • I only got the occasional twinge of cramp but didn't need to get off and walk to sort it out.

The Strava bit or it didn't happen:

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Iceland Pt 1

We come from the land of ice and snow,
From the midnight sun,
Where the hot springs glow.
Immigrant Song, Led Zeppelin


When Robert Plant wrote the above on a plane back from Reykjavik he missed out "weird", "wacky", "jaw dropping" or any other myriad terms you can pull from a thesaurus that apply to Iceland. Given the war like tone of the rest of the song, it's ironic that Iceland is one of the few countries in the world that doesn't have to go to war to increase the size of its territory, nature just keeps going: "Here, have some more".

Coloured landscape at Landmannalaugar

They should really hand out jaw straps at the exit to Keflavik airport, all those cliched phrases about the place are true, the locals must have a phrase for "tourist standing open mouthed at something". The landscape looks as if they got hold of H R Giger and Salvador Dali and just let them get on with it. Cobalt blue pools? Check! Blood red streams? Not a problem. Rainbow coloured scree? Did that before breakfast! Vast lava fields that can be used as Mordor? Of course!



There's something else that will make your jaw drop - the prices. Coming from the UK where everything is driven by pricing as low as possible Iceland is a shock, typically add 50% to UK prices as your starting point. Surprisingly one of the few things that isn't expensive is fuel which is around 10% above the prices you'd pay at an urban filling station in the UK. For nine days touring around the SE of the country and covering nearly a thousand kilometres we used just £50 of fuel.

The harshness of the landscape and the relatively isolated location do mean that Icelanders have their own take on things: a 3 metre wingspan eagle and a Massey Ferguson 135 tractor as garden ornaments? In the same garden BTW. Then again they did have a geothermal vent steaming away in their back garden.

If the landscape is totally over the top then the weather is more than a match. The weather forecast on the other hand takes British understatement to extremes: a gentle breeze translates as "hoolie" for the northerners among us or "A woman rang in to say a hurricane is on the way" for the southerners.

Although we took the bikes (see the next post) this was as much a general holiday as a biking one, there's a lot to see. A day and a bit seeing the sights in Reykjavik is enough city for us rural folk. We managed to see most of the museums, some traditional and a bit staid/boring but others were really interesting like the Viking long house that was preserved "underneath" a modern building. Eating out at night was fine, if expensive, though we probably dropped in to the "tourists out of their depth" on the first night. On the second night I remembered seeing a small restaurant as we'd walked in to town and it was much better. It's worth noting that although the restaurants are pricey the food is very, very good 

The next day after our first trip to a thermal baths we head out of town (although it's the capital, Reykjavik is little bigger than a British provincial town) towards Thingvellir, the world's first parliament. When we get there the car park is packed plus there's four coaches, as a result the first viewpoint is packed. As we walk further along there are fewer and fewer people. By the time we get back to the car the car park is almost empty. With the weather being poor we decide not to go for a ride but to continue along "The Golden Circle" tourist bit. It turns out that we are following a "wave" of tourists, we get to each attraction just as most of them are about to leave.

Strokkur letting off steam

Next up is Geysir the eponymous, err, geysir. Due to geological activity it is regarded as dormant these days and only the smaller Strokkur performs on a regular basis. The eruptions are all very sudden and it's a bit hit and miss getting a shot. The final stop is GullFoss which is simply stunning, even several hundred other tourists can't detract from the spectacle.




We camp in the area for a couple of nights doing a ride (again, see next post) before heading towards the centre of the island stopping at the rebuilt viking long house at Stong. 

Inside the reconstructed long house at Stong.

A short walk behind this reveals a fantastic set of waterfalls. This is something that we've not really expected, sure there are the well known falls like Gullfoss, Dettifoss and Skogarfoss but there are countless others which whilst not having the sheer size and impact of the main tourist oriented falls are nevertheless just as impressive or beautiful.






After more jaw dropping, stop the car and take a photo, vistas we arrive at Landmannalaugar. This is one of the main hiking centres in Iceland (it's the starting point for the Laugevegur Trail, reckoned to be one of the best trails in the world) and is known for the multi-coloured mountains and its hot springs. The name translates as "community hot springs". 

The campsite at Landmannalaugar

The campsite is a little "firm" and we have to pitch the tent using rocks rather than pegs. Iceland is as close to being a cashless society, even here in what might be described as "The middle of nowhere" you can pay for the campsite using your debit card. The site attendant suggests we only pay for one night in case we change our minds. The weather is, hmm, bracing.

In the morning we prevaricate for a while, decide not to go for a bike ride but go for a walk instead. We do a combination of three trails and come to the conclusion that we'd have struggled to stay on our bikes in the wind. Deciding to cut our losses we head out of the area that afternoon and head down to Skogarfoss on the coast.








Skogarfoss is one of the posterchildren of Icelandic waterfalls, plainly visible from Route 1 it's a simple walk to the base. Even better is that the campsite is all of 100 metres away, though the constant noise through the night takes a bit of getting used to.


The big waterfall you can walk behind

Like this.

At the top of Skogarfoss
Just along the coast is a turning to a low lying glacier. Low lying as in 50 metres a.s.l. What is shocking is the amount that it has receded in the last twenty years - nearly a kilometre.

Heading back west towards Reykjavik we stop in the Hveragerthi area. More hot springs (this area is known for them) and then increasingly bad weather means we chicken out of camping for our next to last night so find a hotel which is very nice.

Our last day is taken up trying to stay dry interspersed with a visit to a geothermal power station and the Blue Lagoon thermal baths - yes it's really tacky and touristy but I suppose it's got to be done. Then it's back to the airport to drop off the hire car and check in at the hotel. We pack the bikes in to their bags in the foyer, grab a meal, arrange a 5am alarm call and we are done.

And what's with the horses?

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Yorkshire Dales 200, the 2016 edition

Skipton's that way mate.

"So where are you heading?"

"Skipton"

"But, ..., you're going the wrong way!"

"Well ..."

So begins yet more explaining another round of madness instigated by the chief sadist, Stuart. To be honest I'm not sure who's madder, Stuart for coming up with these routes or us for heading out on them. Whatever, the resulting stares tend to be one of either incredulity or pity. I don't know which is worse.

Getting ready before the off

That morning nineteen of us had left Stuart's shop under bright sunshine. Actually eighteen, Emma was late, as usual. From the off the pace was lively and even before we had pulled out of the estate a group of five had a gap of a hundred metres. No point in me being there I'd just blow up, take it steady. Except that the pace wasn't steady, it was brisk and before long we've hauled in one of the five. A few kilometres later and we haul in another. "That's Mike". Now I'm worried, an ex-racer he normally leaves me standing, I'm going too fast.

At the top of the first off-road I decide to ease off and Mike slowly increases the gap between us. His place is taken by a couple of local lads out for a short ride. We leap-frog each other taking turns to open gates until our routes part. Now alone I head over the moor until a nature break and a drink allow another two riders to join me. For a while we are caught up in the Trailquest that is part of Malham show but soon we split, they are much faster than ourselves. On the descent to Arncliffe Cote there's a rider fixing his bike, it's Mike. "Hit a rock and punctured!" He'll pass me later.

Descending to Arncliffe Cote

I wait at the bottom gate for one of the two riders to catch up and we ride on up the dale. I've descended but not climbed the next bit of off-road and I stop at the bottom to get some food in me and a bit of drink. I think I might be walking this as it's quite steep, the other rider is on a CX bike and is already walking. Somehow I manage to keep going, it isn't that bad and by the time I'm at the first gate the other guy isn't in sight. By the next gate I stop to take a shot of some ponies and still no sign of him so I press on.

At the end of the track I surprise a roadie who thought for a moment I'd caught him up riding along the road! We chat for a while then he carries on to Stainforth as I turn right towards Penyghent and the descent of Long Lane. There's no-one in sight now and I push on towards Feizor.

Near the top of the track is a pile of cartons with water, bananas and packets of crisps put out by the trail faeries - one of the riders behind lives here. I see a rider dropping off the road, must be Mike catching me up. I grab a banana and head over to the cafe at Feizor. Coffee and a toasted tea-cake ordered, it's not Mike but Stuart that pulls up. "Care to join me for a coffee sir?", "Don't mind if I do."

Lunch at Feizor

The two riders who'd caught me earlier turn up and order a larger meal then the rider who we'd overtaken earlier rode through without stopping. "Four ahead of us" says Stuart. He's first away and a couple of minutes later I'm off. Except for a short meeting with Stuart again I won't see another rider in the event until I finish.

The first narrow BW has been strimmed so there's no dancing around avoiding nettles and briars. Not so the second and as I get to the clapper bridge I have to wait for a walker to reel in his extendable dog lead and then wait for his wife to dawdle across the bridge: "Only enough room for one way traffic love.". The next clapper bridge is one I've not ridden in this direction before and there's a slab missing which makes it interesting.

I'm in limestone country now and the heat of the day is making itself felt. I keep seeing Stuart about five minutes ahead of me which at the pace we are going is a kilometre or slightly further, no way I can catch him without going in to the red. Ride my own ride. Soon I'm heading round to Ling Gill and then up on to Cam Road. I ride for a while with a couple of guys touring on the northern part of the Pennine Bridleway: "I'm from Surrey, not quite so hilly down there!". Eventually it's time to move on and I take the descent down to Newby Head. I'm counting down the big climbs left, one is just in front of me and I take it steady knowing that it's basically downhill after this to the next refreshment stop.

Traversing Great Knoutberry Hill

Low gear, a bit of food and I'm dropping down to the top of Arten Gill. I walk the short climb up from the gate to start the traverse round to the Coal Road. This is an old cart track but one strip is hard packed singletrack and it's brilliant fun to blast along. A dog walker takes care of the last gate before the tarmac and then it's a blast downhill. I get to The Moorcock Inn just as Stuart is leaving, he'll gain time on me from here to the end as I take extra stops.

A drink of orange and some crisps then I'm on my way again and across the border in to Cumbria. I'm not sure where the bridleway back over towards Hawes leaves the road but it turns out not to be hard to find.

What looks from the map as being a hard climb turns out to be anything but and I just sit and spin until I get to "The Water Cut" a piece of art installed on the moorland next to the PBW. This is one of the few sections of the route I've not ridden before, Cath and I had ridden part way along from the Hawes end before turning and dropping down the PBW back to the Moorcock.
The Water Cut (with attention seeking bike in front)

Hell Gill looks an interesting limestone gorge, at least it's bridged unlike the other becks which provide a variety of entertainment in their crossing. (Cath bivvied at the Water Cut and there was heavy rain overnight, where I was crossing ankle deep water she had to deal with thigh and waist deep crossings.) Finally I'm back on familiar ground, it's still uphill but the angle eases. Finally I'm at the high point but there's no easing as the track soon drops steeply through old quarry workings then straight down the nose of the fell. I just manage to spot and count five tracks in the wet grass, I'm sixth on the road(trail).

Soon enough I'm on the road and heading in to Hawes. There's a big queue outside the chippy so it's the cafe and a coffee and panini - cheese, tomato and pesto, it turns out not to sit too well on my stomach. The plan is to be away by 1800 and it's a minute before that when I set off. There's a bit of drizzle falling but not enough to justify putting on my jacket as I'll overheat.

The only times I've done this climb have been on a road bike so it's a matter of just keep plodding along until I plunge down the descent to Semer Water and up the other side. This is the penultimate climb and the only other bit I've not done before. A bit of cramp forces me to walk short sections until once again I'm on familiar territory and an easing in the angle. Even with a headwind it's a quick blast across the top and down to Kidstones and time for a quick bite. It's now 1925, with luck I'll be starting the final climb in just over an hour.

There's 20Km of road before then plus a little detour around the back of Swinden Quarry and it becomes properly dark while I'm on that. Just the last climb to do now, no way I'm riding it my legs are too tired. Just before the top I put on my waterproof, better to do it now than in the wind. In the mirk I can't see the holes in the track and keep dropping in them so walk a section until the track improves. The beck is a bit deep so detour that and push on through the rocky section until I arrive at the sleepers across the boggiest section, just track now.

Push on in to the wind, even when the angle eases I still have to work at it then finally each pedal stroke gains more ground and I begin to move up through the gears. Suddenly everything goes black as I drop out of the cloud and my light isn't being reflected off the water droplets. The downside is that it's beginning to rain quite heavily. I know that I'm turning to be with the wind shortly so it's not a concern. Just the last track down to Halton East to negotiate and it's a bit muddy then it's just road.


As I get in to Embsay the heavens open, I really wouldn't want to be riding in the other direction it's bad enough going with the flow. Through town and there's no-one about, up the ramp by the station and in to the finishing straight. I pull up outside Stuart's workshop at 2225 It's taken 14hrs25mins, I'd an optimistic target of 14hrs so pretty pleased with that. The first rider back managed 12hrs5mins.

Here's the Strava bit ...

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Wheels and Tyres

One of the great things about bikes is that they are very adaptable machines. Swap out a couple of components or add something like bikepacking bags or racks and panniers and you get a "different" bike. Traditionally one of the easiest ways to get a different "feeling" bike was to change the wheels and/or tyres. In fact many quality road bikes come with fairly cheap wheels on the assumption that the purchaser will immediately swap them out for their favourite, a bit like installing a new kitchen when you move into a new house (if you are posh).

In recent years there's been a plethora of new sizes and variations. One of these is 27.5+, AKA 650b+. These "plus" sized tyres are roughly halfway between a traditional trail tyre and fat bike tyres with widths somewhere in the 2.8" - 3.2" region. The idea is to give some of the benefits of a fat tyre without the drawbacks. In order to use these tyres a wider rim is required. As ever with something "new" there isn't a huge choice when it comes to either rims or tyres but this is slowly changing. By a happy coincidence the overall diameter of a 27.5+ wheel and tyre combo is close to that of a normal 29er wheel and tyre which means that many 29er frames can run with the plus sizes, the limiting factor is the width of the tyre since the frames and forks weren't designed with them in mind. Again this is changing, the Mk2 Solaris for example has slightly wider chainstays to allow for the plus tyres though the Mk1 (which I have) is compatible if a little "close".

Until recently if you wanted to go "plus" then the only real option was to build your own wheels using one of the rims available but Alpkit now sell a set of 650b+ wheels called the Rumpus for the bargain sum of £199. Definitely worth a punt.

One of the problems with plus tyres is figuring out if your rim/tyre combination will fit in your frame or forks, some 2.8" tyres come up wider than tyres marked as 3.0" for example, generally unless someone has actually tried the combination you are looking at using and has come up with figures then it's just a guess. After some searching around I settled on a couple of WTB tyres: a Bridger 3.0" for the front and a 2.8" Trailblazer for the rear. I knew that the Trailblazer was likely to fit as it's the tyre that Cy at Cotic used when trying out plus tyres on a similar width rim to the Rumpus (45mm) but the Bridger was a bit of a punt as I hadn't come across anyone using it with my forks.

First impressions of the Rumpus wheels: sturdy but not that heavy given that they've obviously been built to a price. Front and rear were set up for 15mm axles whereas I have a 9mm QR on the rear so had to swap out the provided axle converters which is pretty easy. It's worth noting that the QR converter on the drive side does not have the flats for a cone spanner to work with which may make converting the other way a little tricky as it is a threaded interface.

Running tyres in tubeless mode means using an air-tight rim tape to prevent air loss. Finding 45mm wide tape isn't easy(!) In the end I took the Gorilla Tape option, this is a cheaper method than the branded tapes (which are just generic industry tapes repackaged) but potentially a bit messy as it has contact adhesive on one side but since I've no intent of changing tyres on a regular basis this shouldn't be a problem. The rims are quite shallow so I only needed a single wrap of tape.

The Bridger comes up about 12mm less in diameter than a Bontrager XR4 on a Hope XC rim. The Trailblazer is about 23mm less overall diameter, again on a Hope XC rim. The front weighs 2805g (with disk rotor) compared to the Bontrager XR4/Hope combo weighing 1960g, it does add noticeable weight to the front of the bike. The Trailblazer weighs 2580g (inc rotor but not the cassette). I checked the Bridger in the forks and there's a couple of mm clearance to either side. Something to note is that with the rims being approximately 40mm less in diameter means that the widest part of the wheel may not be at the same point as with a 29er. The widths were as follows:

The XR4 (@ 25psi) measured 59mm at the tread
The XR3 (@ 27psi) measured 56mm at the tread.

Given the quoted sizes this difference isn't too far from what's expected and are spot on (to within 0.5mm) of the stated width.

The Bridger (@12psi) is 74mm at the tread, the sidewall is very roughly the same, possibly slightly less.

The Trailblazer (@13psi) is 69mm at the sidewall and 58mm at the tread.

So despite being quoted as a 2.8" tyre, the Trailblazer is only 2mm bigger than the XR3 and is narrower at the tread than the XR4! Of course it's a lot bigger in volume.

Bridger 3.0" on left, Bontrager XR4 2.35" on right

The smaller diameters of the wheels has two effects. Firstly the gearing is slightly lower by about 4% which is roughly half of the difference between two gears. Secondly, the bottom bracket is lower: take the average radius difference of the above values: Front radius difference = 12/2 = 6; rear = 23/2 = 11.5. So each axle is lowered by that amount. With the BB being halfway between these it's roughly halfway between the two: (6 + 11.5)/2 = 7.75mm, call it 8mm.

Cost of the whole caboodle:

Rumpus Wheels     £200
650b+ tyres       £ 95
Disk rotors       £ 33
Valves            £  9
Rim tape          £  4
----------------------
Total             £341

So what difference does it make to the bike? Is it faster, slower, more or less responsive? The only way to find out is to ride it so I came up with a loop with a variety of surfaces and plenty of climbing and descent that should give me an idea of what to expect. First though I needed a baseline so headed round it one afternoon. Whereas many wheel/tyre comparisons concern themselves purely with speed I was more concerned with overall efficiency so wore my HRM and logged that data as well as speed. On subsequent loops I'd try and keep my heart rate similar so that I'd see if the wheels really did make a difference.

So using Strava as the comparison tool and wearing a HRM so that there's a second metric to compare other than just speed this was the ride using the 29er wheels -



There was a strong SouthWesterly and due to recent heavy rain the ground was wet with lying water but underneath the surface dampness it was pretty solid, not muddy at all. I think most of the PRs are due to being on my own rather than in a group and having to wait at gates etc. I didn't really push it - at most times I would have been able to hold a conversation, but equally I wasn't dawdling.

With the new wheels fitted I headed out again. I'd had the bank holiday weekend to get a little familiar with them but I wouldn't say I'm completely up to speed with them, though ... In the intervening eleven days things have dried out completely, now rather than compliant damp turf you had rock hard ridged soil. This time the wind was from the NE so into my face on the early climbs. Again I was keeping things at about the same perceived level of exertion and the HR figures bear this out, some are slightly higher some a little lower. This is the B+ ride

and I'm somewhat shocked to get so many PRs. Remember that the B+ wheels and tyres make the bike over 1.5Kg heavier.

I expected it on one or two segments - "Boss Moor techy climb" for example is ideal for fatter tyres being stony with a few larger loose rocks lying on the surface leading to a rutted section for example. On the Mastiles Lane climb it was just a case of sitting down and spinning your legs, very little back wheel spin/slip. On the descent from Weets Top there is a very short and steep climb up from a beck, slightly loose, I have never managed to get up it. This time it just wasn't a problem (the parade of cows and their calves heading up the track shortly after was a different matter). There is a similar loose section at the start of the last climb which since it got washed out I've never managed but again nearly got it. So the grip is amazing - keep your weight just forward of the back wheel and so long as you can pedal you'll get up things.

The tyres make the bike feel "plush" for want of a better word - on ground where with normal tyres you would get a lot of high frequency chatter it's just all smoothed out. Some of the descents that normally have my eyeballs shaking in their sockets were silky smooth.

So if those are the positives, what are the negatives? Well on the descent from the top of Mastiles I hit a rollercoaster of bumps and hollows and the undamped suspension of the rear tyre set me pogoing and threatened to bounce me over the front. This made me a bit wary on some of the similar stuff later on. The little bit of road on the ride was again hard work - the largest section had the wind on my back and it felt harder than riding in to the wind on the 29er wheels. A few days later Cath and I went out for a bivvy ride, part of the ride out was along a gently rolling road. Whereas normally I'm having to coast a bit to let her keep in touch that night I had to pedal quite hard just to keep up.

Another area where they aren't as precise as normal tyres is in mud - you get a weird combination of wallowing and twitchiness, you just have to make sure you are putting pressure on the front of the bike otherwise the front wheel has a mind of its own.

It's early days. I haven't got the pressures dialed in yet, particularly the rear tyre, and when you are running at 12-15psi just one psi up or down can make a big difference. I think that for routes/rides that are predominantly off-road and composed of tracks of packed hardcore or a little rougher then they are well worth considering. For any route with a significant amount of road normal tyres would be preferable.

One thing to watch out for is the new gear "halo effect", basically being ultra keen because you are using new gear. Since I needed to get used to the tyres I ran with them for a few weeks before revisiting the loop. I also needed to get the pressure sorted, at the values in use on these large volume tyres a single PSI change can have a massive impact on handling. The starting point for standard MTB tubeless tyres is (weight in stone x 2) then subtract 1 for the front and add 2 for the rear. For me this is about right, certainly for the back tyre. For plus tyres the advice seems to be "just try pressures until you're happy", but generally start at 15psi and keep dropping 1psi until it feels wrong.

What's important to note about these "results" is that they are specific to me and how I ride that bike so they may not be applicable to anyone else.

Since writing the majority of the above I've fitted rigid carbon forks to the bike. With standard 29er wheels there's quite a bit of chatter but the "plushness" of the plus sized tyres mentioned earlier is a distinct advantage and I've not really noticed the rigid forks on subsequent rides but this might be that I've also adjusted my riding technique to handle the forks better. I used the Plus tyres on the Peak 200 last week and only really had a problem with those sections that had a thin layer of mud overlying harder substrate where you just get a wallowing effect, other than that they were fine.