Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Preparing for the Highland Trail

How do you prepare for something that's outside your current knowledge and comfort zone? Not easy to answer, in fact I'm not sure I'm asking the right questions or even if I did that I'd fully understand the answer. Is it the mental equivalent of "If you need to ask the price then you can't afford it"?

It's entirely possible that you can't prepare for it, you can only hope that you've found sufficient pieces of the jigsaw to let you recognise the full picture.

Physical training will help but only get you so far. You need to know that you can repeat that 100 mile ride tomorrow and the day after and the day after that and ...

We'd done a recce of the Northern Loop at the beginning of the month over three days so a nod towards multi-day rather than simple day trips or overnighters, there's no point in doing full 200Km days as the stresses on your body and mind will take some recovery. I'd done a full refit of the bike: new brakes; new drivetrain; seatpost; very nearly a lot of money of new bits. Summer tyres fitted so all this needed some shakedown rides to ensure everything worked as intended. The first was a quick 80Km ride around the Dales but the second was the second edition of the JennRide in the South Lakes.

Last year I'd used this to test a different bivy system. Suffice to say: I've not used it again! This year I considered riding the route in one go but this would depend on how I felt, weather, etc. Bikes all packed up and into the car on the Friday night, drive up Saturday morning.

The rain began at Ingleton. Then stopped. Then started again. Ah, one of those days eh? Faces familiar and not milling around at the start, lots of talk. Then the shout goes up "Five minutes to go!" except we are in front of the start line so ride round to the back of the group.

Then they're off. Which is all well and good except we aren't as in riding round to the back we'd stopped at a line of traffic cones! No rush, steady away and we head up the first climb. A goodbye and good luck to Cath and I press on. I'm chatting to George for a while until he decides that he's now overdressed and stops to remove a layer or two of clothing.

Soon I'm in a group of three heading over to Longsleddale with not many in sight in front of us. Hmm. Things come to a halt at Sadgill with a hiss as my back tyre deflates, no idea what I'd run over. One of my companions has some of those olive/anchovy/string repair things and with a bit of elbow grease trying to reinflate the tyre I can continue. At the top of the hill I put more air in, the fix seems to be working.

Down into Kentmere, then up and down and up again before easier going gets us round to Troutbeck. We catch the edge of a shower as we approach Jenkin's Crag, a bit of dithering about whether to put on a jacket, I decide not, but we all decide discretion is the better form of valour on the descent as the rocks are very greasy. The next discussion is whether to stop at the Co-op in Ambleside, the vote is "no" but I decide to pop into Ghyllside Cycles to borrow a track pump to get my tyre up to full pressure. I'm on my own from now on.

The Coffin Road leads into the tourist trap of Grasmere, I'm glad to leave, but out of the frying pan into the fire as Loughrigg Terrace is heaving. One big climb onto the southern shoulder of Loughrigg then it's easy going as far as Stickle Barn. This is the only really easy bit of the whole route, everything else is ground that needs constant attention to ride.

I fail to notice my earlier companions having a snack at Stickle Barn so head on over the horrible path leading across the bottom of the fell to the ODG. More easy riding leads back to Elterwater, one stiff climb - sometimes I clean this, sometimes I don't. Today I'm on a roll and nail it, including avoiding the walkers. Little Langdale is over far too quickly then a new trail for this year, Iron Keld. This puts in one of those frustrating loops where after half an hour you end up five minutes from where you were.

I get into Hawkshead and check the pub - there's two bikes there, decision made. It's Burty and Martin so we chin-wag while waiting for our meals,  Martin's had a couple of nasty falls and is looking rather stiff in his movements. Just ten minutes waiting time for the food this year. More riders arrive and take a seat. Eventually I'm getting cold so make my excuses and head to the Co-op to refill my trail snacks then away again.

I find the start of the North Face trail this year, somehow I'd missed it last year, but it's not nice riding and it takes concentration to avoid sharp rocks and pinch flats. The climb out of Grizedale leads to the lovely but easy track to Parkamoor with its spectacular views across Coniston Water. I'm riding in and around another rider, sometimes he's ahead, sometimes we are together. Parkamoor is the furthest distance from Staveley so heading back now. On the climb out of Satterthwaite he has problems with his gears and falls behind.

It's just a case of pedalling when you can, which is most of the time unless there's a steep loose section when it's easier to walk. There's already riders bivvying out on Claife Heights, they made one or more of the many short cuts that the route offers to get to this point. "You are continuing?" "Yes, there's still a couple hours of daylight". The temperature is cooling as the night descends and fast fire roads aren't ideal at the moment. A more technical descent leads to the road. I startle a deer who had been standing in the road, obviously not expecting a smelly cyclist to be there at that time of day.

I skip the climb back onto Claife Heights as I know the descent is going to be really greasy and on pitched stone. Instead I zip down the road to the lake shore and ride along the path to the church at Wray, wash from a passing boat lapping at the shore.

With luck I'll get to the filling station in Ambleside before it shuts at 10pm, a coffee, text Cath to let her know how I'm getting on. Except it shut at eight! My phone's flat as well. Lights go on and it's a quick spin along the main road to Brockhole and a BW that I never knew existed. This leads ever upward in the night to rejoin the outward route at Town End.

High above I can see a flashing red light on the track over Garburn Pass, another rider! No way am I going to catch them, it's too close to the finish. My turn, it's uphill but there's only one more hill after this one. Again I ride what I can but in the dark the rougher bits aren't a goer. I start to ride down the other side but after only a hundred metres or so I get off and walk - I'm on my own, it's nearly midnight and the rocks slippy as hell, no time for heroics.

The angle eases and I'm back on the bike then almost immediately off it but not in a controlled way. Sod it! Just walk. By the midway gate it begins to chuck it down so on with both jackets. Fortunately the rain doesn't last long and by the time I'm in Kentmere it's clear again. The climb back up onto Green Quarter is frustrating, it's rutted and in my tired state I keep catching the sides and coming to a halt. More Jelly Babies, more walking. Finally the top.

The Jelly Babies are kicking in and the track across the fell goes easily. One descent and it's road to the finish, I remember that there's one drop in the track that in my tired state isn't rideable, fortunately I spot it in time. Down to the road then start clicking up the gears and head for Staveley. I get to the finish at 0045. 15hrs15.

Back in the field that's the car park and my first attempt at using the cuben fibre tarp and bivy bag. It goes up not too badly. Time to sleep.

As a shakedown ride it went pretty well. I've figured out most of what will and won't work and whether I've enough space (or even too much) on the bike. I've decided not to use the Lioness front pouch, the use of the small double ended dry bag in the Lion harness meant that it occasionally came loose as the straps worked their way over the ends of the bag. As a result I'm going with a top-tube bag instead. This will require a little rejigging of where stuff goes but one advantage is that the weight is now more evenly balanced on the bike with just over half the weight carried being between head and seat tubes.

So a week of rest before the drive north to Tyndrum and the group start at 9am on Saturday morning.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

A recce of the Northern Loop of the Highland Trail

It always amuses me when around the level of Inverness the road signs have the simple word "North" emblazoned on them. People from the south of England must wonder just how much of the country is actually left. It is a bit different up here: there are more roads on your typical Barratt's housing estate, probably more people as well. It's none the worse for that.

With bikepacking becoming more popular we had options for the first Bank Holiday of May of the Welsh Ride Thing, the Cairngorm Loop or something of our own. With the last weekend of May being the start of the HT550 one possible option was to recce part of the route which since I'd done very little of it (and much of that in the opposite direction to that used by the HT) might be useful. For once it looked like being further north might pay off as bad weather was forecast for the south. Rather than drive up in one go I took Friday afternoon off work and booked a rooom in Inverness for the Friday night.

The overall plan was to park near Rosehall and ride the loop over the next couple of days just taking things relatively steady with bivvies planned for Lone/Achfary and the bothy at Suileag near Suilven which would give two days' riding of 75Km and one of 30Km or thereabouts. This was touring and checking things out rather than racing, there'd be time for that later in the month!

All too soon we were ready to head off up Glen Cassley. This is quite a gentle introduction and you slowly gain height over the course of twenty kilometres or so. Just as the tarmac ended we came to a padlocked gate. They were obviously serious as it was doubly padlocked and had CCTV mounted on the post. Fortunately there was a way past though it did require a bit of bog hopping.

Heading up Glen Cassley with Ben More Assynt as backdrop

The next couple of Km are on a gravel track which ends at a hydro electric facility. This must be operated remotely as machinery was in use but there were no vehicles or anyone about. The access road to the facility is lovely smooth tarmac. Unfortunately there's a 300m hill in the middle of it! A good climb though and an even better descent on the other side.

The descent off Moavally with the route to Gobernuisgach Lodge through the fold in the hills in the background

The miles have passed quickly but we'll get slower as we head into the northern part of the Reay Forest estate to head round to Glen Golly and Bealach Horn. A couple of bikers ahead are moving very slowly, it turns out to be a mother and daughter and the latter's bike needs a bit of TLC as the rear mech is in an odd position. An exploratory push and the mech springs back to its normal position: a stone probably hit it and it had flipped upside down.

Heading to Gobernuisgach with Ben Hope in the background

Before too long we are rattling down to the remote (and unpronounceable) Gobernuisgach Lodge and the start of the climb up Glen Golly. Initially a good quality quad bike track it begins to deteriorate with a series of very steep and loose hairpin bends on the edge of a deep gorge that lead to a hidden meadow. We stop here to have something to eat trying to find somewhere out of the strengthening wind. The track continues in a mixture of rideable and steep loose unrideable terrain, ahead loom the zig-zags on Creag Dubh. These are definite push terrain though once on top it's a broad plateau with most of the climbing done for a while.

Approaching Creag Dubh

At the top of the zig-zags

Whereas some estates keep their tracks in good condition, Ben Alder being a good example, other have for whatever reason let them decay. This could be for a number of reasons, economic, change in use or technology snowcat instead of pony. Unfortunately the path past Lochan Sgeireach is one of the latter. In places it is rideable but then big holes block the way and you have to man-handle the bike across them. Even where the surface is apparently good and solid stone/gravel it feels soft under your wheels though I suspect this is due to the loosening effect of winter frosts.

Some parts are rideable.
Some  aren't!

The descent into the valley of the Allt an Easain Ghil is steep and the path is in very poor condition and hard to follow. Originally it must have crossed open ground but erosion has caused the surface peat to slip down the hillside in a series of huge slabs. The result is a few tens of metres of path then a drop of a couple of metres down a wall of peat before trying to find the path again. Finally we reach the burn, time for wet feet.

Climbing up to Bealach Horn. An Dubh Loch behind.

The climb out the other side is on a track but this also seems as if it's falling into disuse as large sections are covered in moss and lichen. For a kilometre it's a push until the angle finally relents and it's possible to ride the remainder to the bealach. There's snow patches, winter still has a tenuous hold on the ground here. A rainbow highlights Cath as she gains the top. Just the descent to Lone then we'll bivy.

Approaching the bealach

Starting the descent to Lone

About a kilometre down the descent Cath gets blown off her bike, fortunately no damage done, it shows how strong the wind is getting. We take our time picking our way down the occasionally steep and loose track until a series of zig-zags leads into the trees and then through the large split boulder. We find a reasonably sheltered spot in the trees and set up the tarp and get a brew on.

Our hotel for the night.

The famous split boulder. Pure luck it didn't block the track!

The following morning it's still windy. Amazingly there's no dew on the tarp so packing is easy and we are away by 0730. The day starts with the biggest climb, up out of Achfary. Quite a lot is rideable but some bits it's just easier to push. On the plateau there's a howling wind but there's an old shieling to shelter in while I wait for Cath. The track is in good condition and it's a blast down the other side all the way to the coast. Time for a second breakfast at the hotel in Kylesku.

Approaching Kylesku

Just one of many hills on the way to Drumbeg

The next section is all road but it's not easy as it's one of the bumpiest roads in the country. Fortunately the wind is now mostly on our backs, at one point I'm trackstanding to allow a car to pass and the wind is blowing me uphill. Another stop is in order at Drumbeg stores. "A lot easier now to Lochinver" says the owner. She's mostly right, it's just that about halfway along the coast we turn into the wind and things get a lot harder.

We are trying to get to the pie shop in Lochinver before it shuts for the day so decide to avoid the route through Achmelvich and keep to the road. I doubt it was any easier. It was only made worse by the fact that the shop was shut all day. In fact all the village seemed shut apart from a couple of bars. A soup and a toastie each and we make our way onwards.

Heading to Suileag bothy with Canisp as backdrop.

The trail to Ledmore has been described as being 95% rideable to where the Suilven path leaves it and 95% unrideable after that. We are stopping at Suileag bothy so mostly rideable for the remainder of today. There's no rush since we've got five hours to do about 3Km. There's a walker in the bothy waiting for his mates who've headed up Suilven. We won't be alone tonight.

We've eaten by the time they arrive back, they turned back before reaching the summit due to the winds. We're in bed by 2100 as we plan to get up early in the morning.

The morning is no less windy. We have been this way before: ten years ago we looked at riding through to Ledmore but about a kilometre after the bothy we turned round and took the track to the north which was rough and mostly unrideable. True to reports the quality of the track soon deteriorates and we are reduced to pushing with the very occasional  bit of riding. The views though are fantastic with Suilven wearing a cloud cap.

Those clouds aren't static! Suilven looking moody.

The hours pass and we seem no nearer the road at the far end. The track looks as if it should be rideable but every time I try to ride I only manage a few tens of metres before the ground becomes too rough again. It's well into type two fun territory and a long descent to the final loch and finally there's a track that is mostly rideable. One last rise and the gate is in sight. It's road from here back to the car.
A few bits are rideable

But mostly it's pushing.

Not far to the road from here

The bad news is that it's into the wind. Even the downhills need pedalling. An executive decision to stop at the Oykel Bridge hotel for something to eat before the drop down to Rosehall. The last bit of road is enlivened by a deer rushing across the road between Cath and myself, fortunately missing us both. Back at Rosehall I hear my first cuckoo of the year. Time for the long drive home.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Trans Cambrian ITT

It's getting late though I daren't check. The wind and rain are becoming a bit of a problem. The track becomes tarmac and the general gradient is now down, sometimes steeply down. Hang a right and I'm getting tired and beginning to make mistakes, I need to find somewhere to kip and there don't seem to be that many options.

I'd a couple of days' holiday to take before the end of the company's holiday year so got left with the last two days of March. A couple of plans fell by the wayside until I finally settled on the Trans Cambrian ITT. Starting in Knighton on the English-Welsh border it takes a meandering line to reach the coast at Dyfi Junction. It would link up with bits of riding I'd done before. Both end
points are railway stations so that's an obvious means of getting there.

A trip to the local ticket office got myself and bike booked on trains to Knighton along with a reduction in fare from £61 to £18.60! The only problem was that it meant I got there at 1500 so unless I managed to ride the route in the fastest time ever I was going to have to bivy.

Your carriage awaits sir.

The journey was fine though the final leg from Shrewsbury to Knighton along the Heart of Wales line was in a single carriage train that was packed - apparently there were some concessionary fares during March and it seemed like everyone was taking advantage.

A quick trip to the Spar in Knighton then I was ready for the off. Set the tracker going, turn on the GPS, check tracker. Hmm not all the lights are flashing so turn off and back on again. Now it's fine.

Ready for the off!

The first few kilometres are on road then it's off-road and up. It's soon apparent that things are going to be pretty damp, anything more than a slight incline is a push since there's very roughly zero traction. Once the first big climb is out of the way it's a bit easier going but care is needed in line choice to avoid sinking into vehicle ruts and drainage channels.

And the sign said "Let there be mud", and there was mud.

Just over the hour gets me to the junction with last year's BB200 route, at least I know where I'm going for the next bit. It is however very wet, downhills are slow as well since the bike just washes out if I don't concentrate on every bump and off-camber slope, there's no just letting things rip.

Rather than heading south over more moorland to Llanbister the route now drops steeply to Llanbadarn Fynnydd. The route crosses the river by a ford but it's way too deep and fast to even contemplate so round by the village. A long drag up a muddy lane leads to fields and more walking due to lack of traction then it's down a road covered in sheep shit to something a bit cleaner and then forestry tracks down towards Bwlch y Sarnau.

Some rather flighty horses on the moorland. Then again I could just have been smelling a bit.

The last time I was here was about 10pm on the BB200 and the cafe was open, no such luck at 5pm on a Thursday in March. Oh, well. One more hill then it's a long blast into Rhaeadr. 4hrs15mins to here.

A paltry raid on the Spar, a quick phone call to Cath, then to the chippy for something a bit more substantial. I'm sat outside scoffing my grub when the first spots of rain begin. Can't complain really, it's been lovely and warm and sunny until now.

Unfortunately the battery in my rear light has died so with the onset of darkness I'd better get the road section over and done with. The tracks to the south of the Elan valley are new to me and are great fun even in the dark and wet, need to come back and explore a bit more.

I make the first nav mistake of the ride by heading south on the route to Carnau, at least the return to the correct line is downhill. The next bit is the Claerwen track - if you've got submarine mode on your bike then engage it now! Half an hour of frustration and I'm back on better terrain. The track alongside the reservoir goes with and then against the wind, the rain it brings isn't nice. I'm looking for the bothy here, not realising that it's much further on and is actually a Km away from the track I'm following. I need somewhere to kip.

I pass an old cottage and something makes me stop and check. It's in the process of being renovated and isn't locked. Result! Out of the wind and rain I get a decent night. (for obvious reasons I'm not mentioning where it is or showing photos)

The morning brings more wind and rain but it should be easing (if the forecast can be believed). The track I was on continues in the same manner as before: two deep wheel ruts filled with water with a couple of ridges in between. Back on tarmac I weave between isolated farms and cottages, one has had the bridleway diverted, there's a few like this according to the amiable owner.

Obligatory arty shot in front of a stack of felled timber.

Back into the woods for the traverse above the Ystwyth valley before dropping down and following the road past the old mining works. Bear left at the end of this on the mountain road. It looks very steep and most of the tarmac has been washed out leaving just a narrow strip in the centre. I manage to climb it OK even though my legs are beginning to protest. Steady climbing and a fast descent through forestry lead to the main road near Llangurig. Left then first right.

I've been in this area four times and I've ridden the next bit of bridleway on three of them! Unusually, when compared to the state of the rest of the route this bit is drier and relatively easy to ride. It pops me in to Hafran forest, I know my way through here and soon I'm at the ford on the River Severn. Footbridge for me.

About to enter Hafran Forest.
The climb up from Staylittle is a drag and it's into the wind. Once on the ridge I'm reduced to walking on the flat, the combination of sodden ground and wind mean I'm using less energy. The drop into the upper Clwyedog is nice riding. At the bridge I'm out of the wind so stop for something to eat and sort everything out.

Dropping into the Clwyedog valley. The tyre tracks are from "pushing" the bike into shot, not riding it, it was that soft.

Push up from the bridge then broad trails over to Glaslyn. A bit more climbing then it's a steep descent on what is effectively scree down the side of Foel Fadian. Again once on the grass I can't just let the bike go as there's so little grip. The brakes smell a bit by the bottom!

I had a sense of humour failure on the next bit, getting lost more than once and having to backtrack. Once at Bwlch y Groeson there was just the traverse of the ridge and it was then downhill to the mainroad.

Hang a right and along the track by the railway, up onto the platform and down to the far end. Finished! 23hrs27mins but with just fifteen hours of moving time.

Journey's End.

That was hard work. Not sure what it was but I certainly wasn't firing on all cylinders. That combined with the soft ground and strong wind. Maybe March is the wrong time of year for it, the ground hasn't dried out plus fairly short days.

Here's the Strava bit,

I'd a couple of reasons for a long ride as I needed to check out intended kit and systems for the Highland Trail at the end of May. Most stuff worked, a few things didn't. Best find out now.

Post Script

My phone beeps, it's a text from Cath:

"Well Done! ..."

I open it to read the full message.

"Well Done!

Horrid news from Australia - Mike Hall was killed in an accident overnight"

I'm ejected from my bubble by the real world. I spend the hour waiting for the train in contemplation and barely holding back tears for someone whom I didn't know and had only ever met briefly once. As someone once said:

"It's not about the bike."

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Rovaniemi Kit - what worked and what didn't

Everything is a learning experience (if you want to improve) and I'll look at kit after every trip to see what worked for me, didn't work for me, things I can learn from others, even on rides where I think everything went OK. With that in mind here's a look at what I got right and wrong on last week's Rovaniemi 150 race.

What worked


Looking at what I wore it doesn't look like much (Roubaix bib longs, thermal shirt of uncertain vintage, lightweight cycling top (that was on its last legs) and a Haglofs ultralightweight windshirt that I'd bought secondhand off the Bearbones forum) and certainly at the start I was "cool" but I'd done a couple of rides the previous days in the area at low intensity and kept warm so I was confident that in the fine weather we had on the day it would be fine. Keeping in the "Goldilocks zone" is paramount in cold weather, you don't want to be too warm and so get your base layers soaked with sweat. Equally you don't want to be chilled. My hands did get cold (see below) but the rest of me was always comfortable to warm.

I also had several buffs that I used to cover my head and face as and when I needed to. This along with unzipping the top few cm of the windshirt meant that regulating my temperature was relatively easy.


With good conditions it was a fast start and while I was fairly quick to the first checkpoint I was well behind the leaders. I've no idea how many were in front of me as we were all a bit quick for the guys at the checkpoint and they photo'd us rather than us signing in and out (plus there were the 66Km racers in the mix as well) but at the third checkpoint (which was the first without the 66 Km competitors) I was at the bottom of the second page. From then on I was continually moving up the leaderboard but never quite made it to the first page until the finish.

My pacing was also good in that I didn't get a single twinge of cramp, in fact I was fine overnight and the next day as well which proves I didn't go "into the red" for any significant period of time.

What didn't work

The pogies

I'd left things a bit late plus I needed something that would fit the Jones Loop bars which many of the standard "go to" solutions explicitly say they don't do. As a result I ordered a pair of Alpkit Bear Paws which are a new line for Alpkit so there was no user feedback anywhere. Suffice to say, they aren't up to the job when temperatures really drop, a lot of the "features" are really faults in low temperatures: no elasticated wrist closure; velcro opening for quick exit; not fully lined (see the photo below). It's now a case of "I know what doesn't work so I'll find something that does what I want". The Alpkit Bear Paws will be fine for the UK and in temperatures down to around -5C.

The paper is aligned with the edge of the fibre pile insulation.

Stupidly, I'd got chemical warming pouches with me but didn't use them.

Packing of my bike Bags

I basically used my summer/autumn/UK winter system which has bivy kit in the front harness, spare clothing and stuff I don't expect to use in the seat pack, stove and evening stuff in the frame bag then food and other trail items in stem cells and the like. This meant that I didn't have spare gloves to hand when I needed them. Eating on the go when riding on potentially untracked snow isn't really feasible - it's better to stop and eat. The food should have gone in the frame bag while spare gloves and buffs should have been in the Lioness bag out front.


I was a bit worried about this beforehand. I happened to find an insulated flask with flip-top plastic drinking spout in town so used that and a normal water bottle inverted in a fleece mitten. It didn't really work.

Not sure how I'll work around this.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Rovaniemi 150 The 2017 edition

Finally my hands are warm(ish), I'm somewhere on the last hill of the route. A street light appears over the brow of the hill, incongruous in the vast forest. Street light means road, road means end of the hard stuff, I cross and drop down to the Ounasjoki which will lead me to the finish.

Suddenly the temperature plummets and in the 200 metres between the road and river my hands become blocks of ice. The next, final, checkpoint is a kilometre along the ice. I can warm up there.

I turn my head and notice something. There, hanging in the sky, is a curtain of green light with translucent veils to either side. The Northern Lights. I stop, hang the race, I take in the moment, the silence and beauty are stunning.

"Meenus sixteen" says the woman as I warm my hands by the fire. "Minus six?" I say, confused as to what she is really saying, "No! No! Meenus sixteen. One, six". It`s stinging and I spend time to fully warm myself.

I don't know what got me thinking about the Rovaniemi 150, perhaps it was watching the blue dots on a tracking page a couple of years ago, maybe the idea of something different. Anyway, I filled the form in, using my Himalayan and winter alpine climbing "career" as my background experience. Alex, the organiser, seemed happy enough with that and with a bank transfer of the entrance fee I was in. It would be my first bike race. Ever. Just one problem.

I didn't have a fat bike.

I then remembered that that I`d seen a rolling chassis for sale on the Bearbones forum. A quick check and it was still for sale. It was being sold by Ian Barrington who`d been one of the blue dots I`d watched eighteen months earlier. A bit more internet shopping and spending of money and I had the parts to complete the bike. See this post about that process.

Alex spends the first few minutes of the briefing listing the reasons that we might be disqualified, then it's on to the safety aspects of the route and what to do in case things go wrong. The discussion and slides of frostbite had a few squirming.

Getting ready for the off

It`s cold down on the Ounasjoki river as we mill around, the weather is clear skies rather than the cloud of the last few days. A couple of recce rides in the days before had revealed that conditions were fast, I'm thinking that fifteen hours might be a reasonable target. Finally the clock has counted down and we are sent on our way. The pace is fast, too fast for me but there are three races and quite a few of those ahead will be on the shorter 66Km route.

Myself and Cath at the start.

It`s almost a carnival atmosphere as we head up river, TV crews track us on snowmobiles, locals clap and cheer. The pace still isn't letting up and the lead riders are already dots in the distance. I get to the first checkpoint, we are so quick that they haven't had time to get themselves set up: "Thirty seven minutes, very quick" Thirty seven minutes for eleven kilometres! Maybe Alex was right and the fastest riders will beat ten hours.

Already spread out heading up the Ounasjoki River.

Still, that's them, the fast riders, not me.

The second checkpoint marks the start of the first "Pain in the Ass" sections, only 700 metres but it's unrideable as it twists in and around trees, saplings and boulders. Eventually it debouches onto the first lake section.

Legs feel good, I'm not overheating or struggling at this pace. Sod it! This is a race, let`s race!

I start to reel in the dots in the distance, the first is one of the 66Km racers, the next is on the 150. The lake goes on for ever and it's beginning to get tiresome when a sharp left signifies the split between the shorter and longer routes and leads up and off the ice onto a track. Another couple of riders are caught, they talk to themselves but don`t reply to my "hello". Their problem.

There are, apparently, 188,000 lakes in Finland, pity the poor sod who had to count them:

"Hi, I`m Laassi, I`m new here, I finished college last week. Do you have a job for me?"

"Yes, we need some lakes checking." (snigger)

Checkpoint three takes forever to appear, I`m beginning to think I've missed it. Sort out water, my left boot is niggling so retie the lacing. Grumpy and Grumpier arrive, still not talking to anyone but themselves. Time to go!

Fat bikes are for snow right? Except that in Britain we don't get lots of deep dry snow, just a centimetre or two of slush. The next kilometre or two demonstrate my lack of technique so to cheer myself up I decide to make some snow angels. Others were less complimentary and called them holes. Grumpy and Grumpier aren't impressed by my artistic merit and disappear down the track.

Eventually the tricky stuff ends and I can make good time again. Four hours gone and I've done a third of the route, could twelve hours be doable? Checkpoint four is in the middle of nowhere and is the last one before the Bridge of Doom. We`ve been told not to ride this as getting wet isn't advised. No worries, but it's dicy even on foot. "Pain in the Ass" number two follows, it's not as bad as the first.

About half the notes I make at the briefing are for this section of twenty kilometres between CP4 & CP6: bridge of Doom, wolves, open areas that could be windy and cold, etc. "You probably won't see the wolves".

Checkpoint five is also in the middle of nowhere - the guys have just turned up on snowmobiles, put up a tarp and got a brazier going. "The leaders went through an hour ago. The guy in second place is doing the 300Km race" Crikey, that`s some pace, he must be on a promise! Grumpy and Grumpier are there, still not talking to anyone else. Time to leave them behind. I won't see them again.

I`m enjoying this, really enjoying it.

I'm over halfway now and at the furthest point of the route from the start/finish. There's three bikes outside the hut at checkpoint six. The riders are inside warming themselves by the fire. I spend time drying my gloves and eating. Time to go. I leave at the same time as another rider and initially struggle to keep up with him but he takes a tumble, he's OK, but he never catches me. 

There follows fifteen kilometres of fast, smooth, logging road that is almost all descent. Descent means no effort helping keep you warm and I'm cold by the time I get to the main road. Two thirds distance done in eight hours, twelve hours is still doable, just. The light is fading, time to put an extra buff on as a face mask. Keep pushing on, lights go on, the road gives way to forestry track.

It`s not fun anymore, but perversely I'm still enjoying myself, my hands are still cold and the next checkpoint is beyond some indeterminate number of corners along this forestry track. There`s a light behind me, slowly gaining. It`s a snowmobile and it digs up all the good surface so the going becomes harder. I smell the woodsmoke from the checkpoint fire before I see it. There`s another light gaining on me, a rider, one of the three from the hut thirty kilometres earlier, but he doesn't quite catch me before I stop.

I`m cold and sit by the fire for a good while. I get my phone out to text Cath, it`s so cold that the touchscreen initially fails to respond. There's a text: she was third lady in her race and won a cup! 35Km to go, a couple of hours, I don't think I'll make twelve hours though. Readjust to thirteen. 

"If you're going through Hell, keep going."

Tired now, the other rider leaves before me, I don't care, just finish. More fire road with soft surface and I'm having to walk some of the slight uphills. I can see his flashing red rear light about a kilometre ahead. The track twists and turns dropping down to the last lake. Just keep going.

In the middle of the lake I stop, the crunch of my tyres on the ice dies away, Orion is hanging in the sky in front of me, Cassiopeia suspended above. I scan the night sky, nothing but stars, no magic. Press on.

The last hill, it`s a drag, that gentle angle that you think should be easier than it turns out to be. I can see the lights of planes landing at Rovaniemi airport, the track swinging left and right so sometimes they are in front of me, sometimes to the side. Over the brow of the hill I see a street light.

At the last checkpoint there are two riders: the one who`d caught and left me at the previous stop and the 300Km race leader. He's mad as a box of frogs and aiming to complete that route in one go without sleep. I ring Cath to tell her I'll be 45mins to an hour. Once I`ve warmed my hands I'm away again, the light of my competitor acting as a target. It`s now 2110, I have fifty minutes to get under my target of thirteen hours.

Within a kilometre I've caught him, we ride together for a while: "The first third is a race, the second third is touring, the last is survival." he says, I know what he means. My hands have gone cold again, push on, keep generating heat. The elastic snaps (he said afterwards that his back was hurting and couldn't apply power) and he falls further and further behind, the lights of the city beckon me on.

I check my GPS: 2153, seven minutes for the last Km and a bit, could be close! Off the river now, up the bank. No traffic on the road so I'm not waiting for a green light. In the hotel lobby I lean my bike against the wall and head to the event HQ and give my number. A shake of hands, some photos. I'm done.

Too tired to ask anything, it's the next day when Cath checks Facebook that I find that I finished in tenth place in 12:59, the winner took 10:25 so 25% longer which is good for me. I'm really, really pleased with that. She said that at the next to last stop I was still only an hour or so behind the leaders so my time for the last bit reflected how truly tired I was.

"Hi, I've finished counting. Can I go now?"

"Sure Laassi. Do you want to take your clock and retirement card with you?"

The route is great, varied, even the "Pain in the Ass" sections are enjoyable in their own way, if it was all lake and fire road it would be fairly boring. I really enjoyed it, even the bits where I struggled with the cold (my fault really, damp gloves along with pogies that weren`t capable of dealing with moderately low temperatures). I definitely made mistakes: apart from the gloves I didn't get food and water properly sorted, my understanding of snow and appropriate tyre pressures also needs work. On the plus side: my pacing was fine, I could see myself working my way up the signing in/out boards at each checkpoint and my choice of clothing was just right, having seven pairs of gloves and four pairs of trousers to choose from helps!

Getting to Lapland for the Rovaniemi 150 might seem a lot of logistical effort for one race but it is much, much more than the 150Km distance and 1300 metres of ascent: alone, at night, in the vast forests of the north you realise just how much we take for granted and how comfortable and secure our lives really are.

    "If you are eaten by wolves, you are disqualified!"

Tough but fair.

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.