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.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Peak 200

"What the ..." I stare disbelievingly at the seat harness, where there should be a bright yellow dry bag containing my bivy kit there is nothing. At some point in the last couple of Km it has come adrift. It's half past midnight and I've been riding since ten the previous morning. Nothing for it but to hide the bike in the nettles and walk back along the route hoping that I find it.

The Peak 200 ( a slight misnomer since it's actually 230Km) has the dubious honour of having had no finishers from group starts. Just five of us had thrown our hats in to the ring for this year's edition. With heavy rain forecast for Saturday I wasn't even sure about starting but loaded the car up anyway, by Saturday morning the forecast was for rain clearing by midday. Off to Edale it was then.

I turn in Hope towards Edale and the first spots of rain hit the windscreen, by Edale it's heavy.

Javi, myself and Mark. Yep, that's the group start sorted!


There's a van in the car park with a bike leant against it and a large beard sticking out from a hoodie fussing around it. I wander over and introduce myself. The beard hides a big smile. It would turn out that we were the group.

Having seen him ride off in to the mist on Cut Gate whilst I was dealing with a minor mechanical I thought that would be the last I would see of him but he has a bad patch near Hayfield so we end up riding together for most of the first day.

"Have you seen a rider with a big beard on a singlespeed?" I ask two bikers at the top of the descent into Birch Vale. "Ah, yes. He's about ten minutes ahead. We rode with him for a while, could only just keep up, he's a bit determined." Then I notice that they are on e-bikes.

Climbing out of Roych Clough Javi treats me to a masterclass in line choice, ... , well riding a bike really. There's little that stops him.

We have been riding down Long Dale for five minutes followed by a large herd of inquisitive heifers and finally come to the escape gate. As I'm opening it I turn round and see Javi hoist his bike above his head and run towards the cows and shout ... "Boo!"


The rain of recent weeks hasn't been kind to the trails in the southern Peak. My drivetrain is making horrible noises and seems to have picked up a kilo of mud and grass (Gratton Dale). On getting home and getting the bike out of the car it felt very heavy even though I'd removed the front wheel. A good half hour of cleaning and it still felt heavy - the cassette was completely full of clay that wouldn't shift with the hose and so required a full strip down and about an hour's work to get clean.


Surprisingly there aren't a lot of resupply points on the route. I don't know the area well enough that I could nip off-route to get to a tap or spring. Consequently I didn't have enough water, especially come nightfall. Javi did ask about whether the rivers were safe to drink from but a reasonable rule is not to drink from water with habitation upstream and in a densely populated area like the Peak that's not easy. With the heavy rain on Saturday morning all the becks in the Dark Peak were brown with peaty runoff, those dropping off Bleaklow were particularly impressive.

I wander back through the darkness scanning the track from side to side for the bag. I know it can be no further back than Froggatt Pinnacle since that is where I'd originally intended to stop and had taken the bag off but obviously not refastened everything properly. As I get to the moor gate it's there in the middle of the track. Just a long trudge back to the bike and sort myself out for the bivy.

The elastic had finally snapped between Javi and myself, I was always intending to bivy whereas he was aiming to ride through so with a handshake we part on the track above Froggatt and his light disappears in to the distance. Up to that point I'd surprised myself keeping pace with him but then I didn't have 550 miles of the Highland Trail in my legs which has got to take a while to get over. 

Mark heading towards Lockerbrook, rather damp.

After Cut Gate I'd ridden steadily in to the strong head wind, some restocking in Gamesley near Glossop: "Big tyres mate - do you ride on mountains with them?", "Err, yes, that's kind of the point". 

Much of the Western section was the Pennine Bridleway which I'd done once in the opposite direction. I meet up again with Javi at Chinley Head - "had a bad patch a while ago" and we ride together across the transition to The White Peak. I feel cramp coming on as we climb out of one of the small dales but manage to suppress it and I have little problem thereafter. At one point we have to make a detour to avoid a large herd of cows being led in to milk. We miss the correct way out of Chee Dale so end up with some road climbing.

We turn on to The High Peak Trail and suddenly the wind is on our backs: "Hooray! Easy going!". A few Km later and there's a pub, it's 1930 and we need food. With no reservation they make room for two filthy mountain bikers and we tuck in to a mammoth fish pie and chips.

Javi tucking into a well deserved fish pie and chips

More easy riding along the High Peak Trail before we meet the cattle in Long Dale and the mud and rocks of Gratton Dale

The morning's preparations are as much about getting mud and grass out of the drivetrain as anything until the midges win out so it's on with the show. Some nice singletrack, a bit of road, more singletrack until I'm dropping down to Fox House and then the Burbage Valley. Halfway up this I spy a pipe with clean water pouring out of it so take the chance to rehydrate. A minute or two won't make any difference to my time.

I miss the turning for a bridleway and find myself over a kilometre further downhill than I need to be. Even on the climb back up I fail to locate it so go the long way round by road. Stanage Causeway is new to me, on a bike anyway, the last time I was here was walking back to the car after a rock climbing accident that resulted in a broken wrist and a dislocated elbow.

Things begin to go wrong once over the top of Stanage, my GPS has "lost" the map so I've no idea where the route now goes. I cut left and eventually end up on the A57 but not at the point I should be. I know some of the route to the finish but nowhere near all of it so decide to ride what I know. Crossing Ladybower Dam I meet Paul who had seen us off and he turns round to ride back with me at least as far as Hope Cross. Apparently Javi isn't too far ahead though I've cut a couple of loops out by this point so not really a fair indication.

I'm flagging, lack of water and food have had their toll and I'm struggling to walk and push my bike up The Beast. Once at the top I head down the Roman Road while Paul heads more directly to Edale. It's all I can do to keep moving on the road and I eventually roll back to the finish just under 24hrs after setting off.

After a bit of hanging around and consumption of drink and food from the cafe I have to leave so don't get chance to see Javi get back in a time of 25hrs30, the first finisher from a group start.

It's a tough route, I think it would be quite a bit easier after a reasonably long dry spell, it would also be easier earlier in the year when the nettles, thorns and grass aren't so big. Must come back.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Yorkshire Dales 300

There's a bike outside the shed, I push at the door and a voice says "There's three of us in here", "Any room?", "Maybe". The three are laid out lengthways in the shed but there's space to lie down across the opposite end.

Bivy bag out, strip, get into dry clothes and into the bivy. It's 0045 I've been up since 0300 yesterday and riding since 0800. I'm knackered.

Some pre-start nerves showing.

The second running of the Yorkshire Dales 300 ITT was proving to be a little harder than last year's affair, an extra twenty kilometres of mainly off-road riding at the start meant that getting to resupply points before they shut meant pushing hard.

I'm mostly on my own, occasionally I'm with another rider but generally there's no-one else in sight so I'm left to ride at my own pace conscious of the middle 'T' - time. A rider passes me descending in to Coverdale but he's too strong for me to keep pace with and the elastic snaps. Soon after my gears begin making an awful noise which no amount of fettling will deal with. It's only after riding through a deep puddle that the noise stops and the penny drops - the chain needs oiling. A cheeky request at a Buckden cafe and the chain gets a healthy dose of 3-in-1 oil which does for the rest of the ride.

The weekend's forecast had changed almost daily, the latest had given showers in the afternoon. Heading up from Kidstones the first of them passed over, not too heavy but you definitely needed cover. A few more showers in and around Castle Bolton then on the top of Harkerside Moor a big shower hit. With only descending to do I'm getting cold.

I get to Dales Bike Centre five minutes after they "have shut" but Stu knows we are coming and is keeping the cafe open a little longer, ace man. I'm surprised to see some of the fast guys just leaving, I didn't think I was that close to the front. Once inside a look at my GPS stats shows why: an average moving speed of 15.5kmh with just 32 minutes of stops. A bit of that will have been dealing with gates, oh and the chat with the farmer at Thornton Rusk. Coffee and soup hit the spot while the rain subsides.

Mike (who would eventually finish third) at Dales Bike Centre cafe. Stu having a giggle.

Heading up Fremington Edge I get a slight spasm - cramp! I don't want a repeat of last year so a different strategy: straight off the bike and walk until I feel better. It just so happens that I'd have been getting off and walking a few metres later anyway and it's the top gate before I begin riding again. It continues like this for the rest of the day, twenty minutes or so riding then a bit of a spasm so walk but at no point am I incapacitated with a full attack.

I can see clearly now the rain has gone!

Mike (the rider who'd passed me in Coverdale) passes me again at top of the descent to Langthwaite and I don't see him again - he rides through the night to finish in third.
About to descend to Langthwaite

Rainbow from Great Pinseat
I carry on over Great Pinseat and am approaching the descent to Gunnerside Gill when another rider catches up with me. This time I find the right line, except it's too hard for me so I walk it all. The ride out along the gill edge is as good as ever and then down to the pub in Gunnerside. It's taken three hours to do the 20Km from Dales Bike Centre to here. A couple of quick pints of orange and water then I'm on my way.

My new companion decides to stop near the top of Buttertubs Pass to have something to eat and it's the last I see of him. The blast down the other side is chilly in the evening temperatures and it's a relief to pedal along to Bainbridge. I see some lights on the climb up the Roman Road, soon it will be my turn.

Despite it being a further distance to this point than last year I feel much fresher but even so there's no way I can ride through the night so I need somewhere to bivy.

It's half four and someone's alarm goes off. It's quite light outside and the four of us make our preparations to get going. No hanging around, the midges see to that. One lad's away then a few minutes later two of us head off. We end up riding the rest of the day together.

Pennine Bridleway bridge over the Ribble.

The climb over Great Wold is a push, the descent on a rigid bike interesting. The last rider from the overnight stop passes us at Ribblehead but stays just within sight until Feizor. Timing now is critical, too quick and the cafe at Feizor won't have opened so take it steady whilst still making progress. Drop off from the limestone plateau and then it's the lovely lanes into Wharfe and around Austwick, I even manage to ride the clapper stone bridge usually it's blocked by walkers. We get to Feizor at 0845 and the cafe doesn't open until nine. A minute later and they've opened! Coffee and full English, good portions too.
Ali and Dave having breakfast in Feizor cafe

The young lad is having saddle problems - the top section has unbonded from the post! While he's finding a workaround we carry on. Climb, descend, climb, descend. Although it doesn't feel like it we are  grinding down the remaining distance. Rewater and an ice-cream in Malham and we are a group of three again and ride together to the end.

The final climb up on to Barden Moor is a walk for all three of us until finally the angle eases and though there is still some climbing to do it's nothing to what's gone before. We enjoy the moorland singletrack then it's just a blast down the estate track to the road, one section of farm track and it's just road to the end.

Once on the road I find some energy in my legs and it's hammer time, push on as fast as possible in to the headwind slowing only for the final hill. There's some sort of fair/concert going on in Skipton High Street so a bit of local knowledge to get round it and we are in the final straight.

We roll into the yard together. "Well done" says Stuart "joint eighth." Final time was 31hrs53 almost three hours quicker than last year.

Anyway, here's the facts and figures ...


Monday, 13 June 2016

Yorkshire Dales 200, 2015 Edition

"If we hear they've found a body of a mountain biker we'll know who it is."

The barman's words were muffled in the mist, I was crossing Foul Moss on the Occupation Road and it did not look good.

The Yorkshire Dales 200 is billed as the little brother of the YD300. I had done the latter as my first ITT last year taking part in the group start. Just ten riders finished. The first running of the YD200 took place in October last year and the route will change each year. As a preparation ride for this year's YD300 it seemed like a good objective.

As ever rides of this nature are useful for learning and I was keen to try out some changes and strategies in several areas:

  1. Ride speed: rather than try and push it all the time I was looking at a steadier pace with fewer and shorter stops. 
  2. Food: this follows on from the first strategy in spend as little time refuelling, don't carry loads. 
  3. Kit: with it being summer I was looking at an ultra-light setup. More later.

5am and being the north of England it's already light, some breakfast then ride down to town to start. The first of the market traders are already setting up their stalls. The route heads through suburbia and the first surprise of the day - a deer trots out from one of the wooded gardens, it's a while before it realises I'm there and heads off up the road in front of me until it finds a way off to safety.

Steady away up the first off-road climb up Sharp Haw then a comedy descent (think 1kmh OTBs) through the heather to regain the main track. The following descent is technical for so early in the morning. Back on familiar tracks from testing out different tyres I become damp from spray from the morning dew. Soon I'm at the foot of the climb up Mastiles Lane. Plug away until I feel that it's more effort to ride than push then on over Malham Moor to Stockdale Lane. Every time I ride down this it seems to change, rough skittery sections over limestone bedrock are no longer where I remember them. It's over all too soon as is the next short section of bridleway and I drop in to Settle. No need to reprovision here, head on over the hill to Stainforth.

Feizor tea rooms.

I roll down the concrete road in to Feizor and the tea rooms. I'd spent an hour here on the YD300 - a full english took half an hour or so but then others on the event rolled in and as I'd not seen anyone for many hours ... Today things were to be much quicker, coffee and a butty, get the water bottles refilled and I'm on my way in just twenty minutes. Points #1 & #2 covered but probably should have asked for the bottles to be filled whilst eating. I'd worked out several schedules with a limited number of stops, the only one that I didn't make was at Horton on the return but that was due to the large number of less salubrious looking visitors and I didn't fancy leaving my bike outside the pub.

It's warm and humid now, oppressive even. Quiet old style bridleways through the valley floor then head up on to Sulber Nick and across the limestone plateau following the Pennine Bridleway back down into the valley and over the river. A pair of Oystercatchers sit on the high point of each parapet of the bridge only rising when my wheels rumble across the bridge's deck. On up past Ling Gill, I rarely ride this track in this direction and it surprises me with its steepness. Then it's down the logging road and along to Ribblehead.

Another stop: a cup of tea and a piece of cake along with a chat with the woman running the tea van. This is the most number of people I'll see all day. An easy section now along tracks to Chapel le Dale then road to Twistleton Scar End and another gaggle of people at the ice cream van, I think of stopping but it's too busy.

Viewpoint above Ingleton, but no time to sit down.

A quick repair to my home made bar extension before climbing out of Kingsdale and round to Ireby via the Turberry Road. It is here that the rain starts. At first it is chilling as I'm heading in to the wind and also downhill but once I turn off the A65 towards Barbon it is much more manageable with it on my back.

This is another track I've only ever ridden in the opposite direction. That was in winter, now in summer it is nearly completely overgrown and it's jarring work dodging both snagging vegetation at the sides and slippery rocks under wheels. Eventually it debouches on to the road and I spin along towards Barbon and the whine of motors.

It's the annual Barbon Hill Climb event where drivers race their cars up the driveway of Barbon Manor. I drop down to the village and in to the pub, it will be my last chance of food or drink until Horton. The barman informs me that the bridleway that I should be taking is shut because of the event so I'll have to head round by the road instead.

The Occupation Road connects the heads of Barbondale and Kingsdale and dates from the 1850s and was likely in good repair until misuse by 4x4 drivers led the authorities to ban motorised traffic across it. Too late the damage was done. The western half is still reasonably surfaced and is in similar condition to many other Dales' tracks: mostly pitched stone with some sections flooded or washed out. It is once you head east past the head of Flintergill that things turn nasty.

You just have to cross Flow Moss and Foul Moss to get there.

At first it doesn't seem too bad, a little rougher than what's gone before but also more pools and wheel ruts meaning you have to pick a line. There's even long sections of grass to aid progress. What's the fuss about? Then you get to the junction: just turn left and head downhill in to the dale, all will be well. No, no, no, no, that's not where I'm going. To the right is a section rejected as being too rough for a World Cup DH course, except you are going up it, it leads to a gate. All that is missing is a sign: "Abandon all hope ..."

What looks as if it would be a good line shuts down after a few metres and you have to cross the track hoping to find a way there. The ruts are deeper now and only avoided by riding over skull sized rocks, which only serve to push you ever closer towards the pools. Pools, mirky pools with an oily scum, under their surface myriad dark forms flit around, they might be tadpoles but I'm not sure.

Sometimes it's not possible to avoid to ride through them, I feel the back wheel struggling to break free, more effort and the wheel moves forward leaving a rasping sound. Every time you think you can make good progress a slot, rock or hole put paid to that idea.

All the time over your left shoulder across Dentdale is the next climb up and over Great Wold, impossibly far below is a sliver of tarmac connecting what you hope is the end of this track and the start of that one.

By now even the bike is groaning, protesting at the effort but the end is in sight. A few bad line choices requiring a dismount and finally I'm on the renovated last mile. Time to fly!

The Occupation Road does this to a man!

Freewheeling down the road from White Moss I look up at the dark hillside, a black line that cuts across it frowns back.

The climb over Great Wold is a long push today at least until the angle starts to ease. The recent rains haven't reinstated the puddles and bogs here so quick progress is made across the shoulder of Whernside until the start of the descent. This has been washed out many years ago and is basically redundant water bars with rocks randomly strewn around the path. At the point where the Three Peaks path joins a surprise: the path has been refurbished and it's suddenly much easier going. The becks leading off Blea Moor are nearly dry and it's a matter of picking a line and going for it. I get to Ribblehead and the remnants of today's walkers and realise that I've not seen anyone since leaving the pub in Barbon three and a half hours earlier. Three and a half hours for 30Km, 10Km of which was tarmac.

Push on down the road towards Horton, legs working fine, good power, good cadence. At Horton, crowds of "Engerrlaand!" supporters call for a rethink about a quick bite in the pub and I refill my bottles at the tap outside the public toilets before a midge attack forces me on. I'm not that hungry and have enough food with me to see me to the end which is probably about five hours away now. More road then it's the next to last big climb.

Again I decide that wasting energy on trying to clean the steeper sections covered in storm detritus isn't worth it and walk a couple of hundred metres until the track levels out. I continue like this to the top of the hill, walk the steeper bits and ride when it gets easier. It's starting to darken now with approaching night and rain bearing clouds as I drop down to the road disturbing sheep settling down for the night on the track. A bit of road then the next bridleway down to the valley taking care as the light rain is making the limestone slippy. At the bottom I stop to turn on my lights for the long road section down the valley.

Legs still feeling strong I push on, the miles coming easily. I get to Rylstone and the start of the last big climb. A group of fed up looking cows are at the fell gate and need "encouragement" to let me through. At the start of the first steepening it's off and walk again and as I climb my head begins to drop, it's the first time I've really felt weary all day, not sure if it's a blood sugar drop after eating a handful of Jelly Babies a while back or the cumulutive effect of the day's efforts. All light from the day has gone.

When looking at doing the route I wasn't sure whether I'd be able to "ride through" so had packed a lightweight bivy kit consisting of bivy bag; inflatable sleeping mat; down vest; thermal top and midge net. Again this was partly an experiment, use training rides to learn. The down vest is a very old one which weighs more than my sleeping bag! I've a new one on order along with a smaller tapered dry bag. Total weight for the new setup is under 1Kg. Now that I'm so close to the end I decide to press on.

The top of the moor is in the cloud and it's hard to see some of the track so again it's a mixture of riding and pushing, no prizes for pranging at this juncture, eventually I get to a point where I know it's all rideable. The final drag to the summit takes forever, each bend in the track that I think is the last turns out not to be. At some point the pedalling becomes easier then a bigger gear is needed. The nightlife is out including a hedgehog, we probably both wondered what the other was doing up here. Roll down the track with the occasional rise until the access barrier is reached and I know there's only a couple of hundred metres to the road.

Most of the next couple of miles is freewheeling, a bit of a rise here and there, I've decided to miss out the loop over Embsay Crag - "pointless" says Cath - and I'm soon in town. There's the occasional drunken comment from the late night revellers then it's over, 19hrs. Cath is there to meet me with a celebratory beer. She mentions that I don't look particularly tired even though I definitely feel it.

Really pleased with how it went. An ITT is much different from a group start - even if you intend to ride alone there's always someone catching you up or just ahead ready to be caught so there isn't that sense of just being "there". Going at a steadier pace also helped massively as I didn't get even a twinge of cramp which I've suffered from quite a bit in the past, surprisingly I was pushing harder on the pedals later in the ride than at the start. I didn't even get any post ride cramps either. I also had a good riding to stopping ratio, just 1hr40 stopped out of 19hrs some of which will have been opening gates - another side to riding alone where there's no chance of leap-frogging the gate duties.

Not sure if I got the food completely right: Jelly Babies whilst easy to digest do cause a bit of a sugar spike, well they do if you eat a handful at once! I didn't get chance to try out my bivy system so that will have to wait but again everything that I had and used worked as intended. I'd fitted some new tyres (Bontrager XR2 on the front, XR1 on the rear) which are lighter tread than what I'd been using and while they struggled a bit in certain scenarios they are fast rolling and were fine on most of the ground being covered.

Here's the Strava bit :

The pub looks posh, no place for a wet smelly mountain biker, though the porch is filled with wet walking boots and socks, I head inside. "Come in lad, no sort of a day to be outside". I order a soft drink and some crisps.

"Where have you come from?"


"On a bike? That's a fair way on't road."

"Err, I'm on a mountain bike."

"Bloody hell! How are you getting back?"

"Riding", I explain my route. His mood changes,

"Occupation Road eh?"

Monday, 16 May 2016

Jenn Ride

Cancer touches many people.

Last year the husband of one of my cousins died from cancer, eighteen months earlier another of my cousins died from pancreatic cancer, his father had also died of lung cancer some thirty years before that. Nearly thirty years ago my mother died of cancer. Cancer touches many people.

Jenn Hill wasn't someone I personally knew but her death last year at a distressingly young age affected many in the UK mountain biking scene. There have been several fundraising "events" for Manorlands Hospice who cared for her, as they have done for many others, in her last days. The latest of these, a 150Km ITT, took place last weekend in the Lake District.

We hadn't considered entering the group start primarily since it had filled up very quickly. As is often the case with online registration there were a few who then decided that it wasn't for them or had other commitments so there were some places available, a donation via justgiving and the organiser, Rich Munro, gave us the nod.

A look at the route showed a convoluted line that didn't stray too far from the start/finish point in Staveley but managed to include just about all the quality riding in the South Lakes. There was about 50Km that I hadn't ridden before. I wasn't thinking about racing the route so enabling distance markers on the web display showed some likely bivvy spots at about the right distance for a day's steady riding. With the route passing through or close to many villages there would also be plenty of opportunities for cafe stops and a pub meal!

The weather was set to be fine (after at least a week of fine weather) though slightly cooler than of late and with chilly nights down to about 6C. I reckoned I'd be warm enough with just the quilt and a decent sleeping pad inside a bivy bag.

An early start got us to Staveley in good time. Park up, have some breakfast at the cafe, get the bikes ready. Near the allotted start time the organiser Rich gave a quick briefing - "there'll be lots of tourists after Ambleside" and Jenn's husband Tom said a few words. Then we were off.

The first Kilometre or so was a rolling start, a depart fictif if you like, before the first hill hove in to view and the fast guys were unleashed. No need to rush for me, I only needed to average 10kph to make it to my intended bivy spot accounting for a couple of cafe/pub stops. Chill, have a chat with other riders, take some photographs. In the event it didn't turn out quite like that.

It's a selfie!

Once the initial jostling for position on the first section over to Longsleddale is done, the riders start to string out with increasing gaps. Sometimes you are with riders, other times you are on your own, sometimes the elastic snaps and you fall behind, sometimes you snap the elastic.

Heading up Garburn Pass I hear my first cuckoo of the year. As I descend I'm enjoying it that much that I miss the turning for Dubbs Tarn - by the time I realise I'm actually on the return part of that loop. After a bit of umming and arring (well swearing actually) I decide to just carry on. It turns out that there are quite a few riders who end up being "economical with the route".

On the way to Jenkin's Crag with a fine view over Windermere

A stop to refuel in Ambleside at the filling station, a couple of minutes later I come across a large group stocking up at the Co-op so a bit of a chat then out towards Rydal. Heading round Loughrigg a couple of riders catch me up and we ride together until the steep climb on the south side of Loughrigg. One of the riders is riding straight through and I realise that his pace is much too quick for my strategy so I let him go and wait for the other rider.

"Bike behind!", the woman steps to the side and as I approach she makes another step, slips on some dead bracken and screams. We stop and check how she is. A couple of fell runners who were nearby come down to assist. After a while we try to get her to stand but she is in no state to move. Time to call out Mountain Rescue. After a bit of technical wizardry our position is determined and they are on their way. By the time they've arrived and dealt with her and got ready to carry her down an hour and a half has passed.

Heading up Langdale towards the New Dungeon Gill, I pass a couple on road bikes who obviously take umbrage at a fully laden mountain bike overtaking them as I'm aware of them drafting behind. I slow up as I meet another rider and after taking on water at the Stickle Barn we begin the "interesting" track over to the Old Dungeon Gill. This is a mixture of hike-a-bike, riding and occasional boulders to hop around. The other rider is on a singlespeed so once we are back on the road the elastic snaps and he falls behind.

There's a lot of the next section that I've never ridden before, some of it's a push, some is rideable, the woods are full of bluebells and flowering wild garlic. I join another rider just before High Tilberthwaite and we ride together as far as Hawkshead via an extra unscheduled loop to get to Hodge Close, ah well. I had intended to eat in Sawry but with the MRT delay Hawkshead seems a better bet. The first pub we come to has rather a large number of bikes stashed outside - seems like a lot of other people have the same idea.

"Forty minutes wait for food love. We are a bit busy." It will have to do. Some riders leave, some more arrive. Tales from the trail. Non-riders looking puzzled at the variety of tyres on show. The food arrives in twenty. Needing water bottles filling I nip back to the bar and they are still "busy" so it's off to the Co-op and grab some there. It's only when I've begun to pour it into my bottle that I realise it's sparkling water - euchh!

I get lost in the ginnels trying to head up in to Grizedale Forest until a resident (kindly) puts me right. I get lost again in the forest and miss out the second part of the North Face trail but have quiet fire roads instead. As I head out of the woods towards Parkamoor the sun is ready to set. It's always stunning up here and this evening is no exception, I stop to take some shots.

Early evening on Parkamoor overlooking Coniston Water

The normally wet track back into the forest only has a couple of deep pools then it's a long technical descent to Seathwaite and a stiff climb back out. The bridleway on the other side is blocked due to forestry work so there's a detour down a footpath which suddenly gets very technical and steep so there's a bit of walking downhill. Another climb and descent and I'm out of the forest before dark.

Riding along the shore of Windermere there's only dog walkers for company. One last climb in the arboreal gloom to get on Claife Heights and it's properly dark by the time I call a halt - I've been riding by natural light up to now not bothering with my light. We've only one proper one person tarp between us so Cath's using that and I've a Tyvek sheet that I can use as a tarp - it's actually its first outing. I've just set it up when two riders pass by. One stops and asks if he can take shots of my bivy (!?), he's doing an article for the magazine that Jenn worked for. I hope that my efforts don't cause too much merriment.

My hi-tech bivvy!

It's a cold night, close to freezing and a few degrees cooler than my quilt is rated to. I spend the night half asleep getting woken at intervals by the geese on the tarn, really noisy and loud birds. It's starting to get light so up and make a brew. Nearby is another rider bivvying out, it happens to be the same guy who I was with on Loughrigg. The brew's just come to the boil when I knock the whole thing over! Sod it! I pack and get on my way.

An early morning vista. Somewhere in there are some very noisy geese.

One thing about being up and about very early is that there's lots of wildlife around that hides away once "normal" human life takes place. I see deer and small mammals taking advantage of the small amount of daylight that we permit them. Windermere has an autumnal mist hanging over it slowly burning away as the sun's power increases.

Breakfast courtesy of Ambleside Co-op then it's on to the climb up Jenkin's Crag and back down to Troutbeck. I get lost in Limefitt Park trying to find my way out of the maze of caravans. Steady riding now, round by High Borrans then on to Kentmere Park and a blast down to Kentmere Hall. Just one climb to go.

Not sure of how many of my five a day are in this lot!

Halfway up this I catch up with the lad on the singlespeed again - he had originally thought about riding through but had bivvied a little further on than I had. We ride together to the end.

Final time of 25hrs11mins but that's not the point.

Over the next few hours more groups of riders arrive but where was Cath? There are various reports of her, some from the previous afternoon but the last reported sighting was in Ambleside: "She'll be about an hour behind us, she's going well.". I'm just starting to get worried about her when she appears out of the final ginnel looking rather tired, she'd had a blue air moment on the last climb. She'd bivvied near Parkamoor so had three or four hours extra riding to do compared to me.

Cath about to finish.

Here's a short video.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Braunton 150

Pink! PINK??! Which idiot's idea was it to make the default nighttime route marker on a GPS pink? And it's only half the width of that used in the daytime. I'm stood at the bottom of a very steep hill. I know it's steep because I've just ridden down it. I now know that the bridleway I should be on is at the top of the steep hill. It's coloured PINK! My "reward" having pushed to the top of the hill is a lovely piece of flowing singletrack along the top edge of the woods. Things were going to get worse. (This paragraph originally had a lot more words!)

Pre ride at the Wild Thyme cafe

Friday had started well. Get into a rhythm, don't push too hard and see how far I'd get. I rode with another rider for a while until I gained distance on a hill so carried on. On a part push, part ride section (cattle and horses really do cut up soft ground) three of us grouped up and we rode together for most of the rest of the day. The bridleways leading to and from Simonsbath alongside the River Barle are ace in the sunshine. As evening approaches, one drops back to put on more clothing while myself and the other push on past Tarr Steps and over to Winsford. The light is fading quickly as we pull out on to the moorland of Dunkery Beacon. The other rider has pulled away now and I'm on my own. I'm struggling to see the PINK line of the route but I've been here before so have a vague idea where I'm heading. I spot the tail light of the other rider ahead so have a clue as to where to go.

One of the early lanes

There's a bog ahead, not just your ordinary bog but one a leprechaun would be proud to have as a moat around his home. Even in the gloom it's luminous green. Fortunately there's a fence where I can practice my Indiana Jones bog crossing technique. Using the bottom wire of the fence for footholds and the top for my hand I edge across, the bike partly supporting me as well. My hand tingles, trapped/damaged nerves from the constant battering, then ZAP! It's an electrified fence!

Climbing up from Cornham Ford

The descent off the Beacon goes on for a long time, initially a stony track to a road crossing then a loose, rocky bridleway that seems never ending and it's taking a lot of concentration. The pub in the next village turns out to be a very posh country hotel - I don't think they'd be too impressed with a mucky mountain biker turning up. Minehead it is then. Except I get lost in the forestry between me and there. I'm trying to make sense of the map on the GPS when the battery dies. Great! Then I hear traffic - just round the corner is the main road.

Somewhere in the middle of Minehead I bump into a familiar face outside a convenience store that has everything you'd never need, by the time I've raided the shelves the third member of our disparate group has arrived. My plan now is to find somewhere to bivy. The other two press on ahead on the climb out of town. On the hillside I come across a potential site but the wind seems to change so knowing there's a tricky descent I carry on. Eventually I find a suitable site by a community hall. No need for the tarp there's plenty of shelter should it start raining.

A community bivy spot

Left down the rocky track or right up the rocky track? It's going to go up isn't it? A few minutes of pushing then a bit of riding through the farm yard then eventually the track steepens and I get off and push again. When the gradient does ease off I am now facing in to the first part of the forecast storm and it's all I can do to keep walking and pushing the bike forward across soggy fields. I'm not happy and am thinking of quitting. Eventually I reach a road, turn and have the wind on my back. The GPS indicates a right turn and through the mirk I see a track skirting the hillside. But it isn't that, instead it's a sublime piece of rocky singletrack dropping in to the coombe and out of the wind. It twists in and around trees teetering, balancing above the beck until I reach a gate. There's a climb before another great piece of sandy singletrack.

Riding by the River Barle

The problem with following a course on a GPS screen is that you could be anywhere. Yes, you know that the marker on the screen is you but, where is it? Where are you? It could be Devon, it could be Somerset, it could be Cornwall. No, not Cornwall, things aren't that weird. Yet. People in cafes ask me where I've come from: "Bollock?" I reply uncertainly, "then round by Badgerwank Water and down to Lynn Foulds Wood. I don't know! It was PINK!"

"Unsuitable for Motors", I'm pushing up a stupidly steep road, the surface ravaged by previous storms, as I get higher the road appears to be moving - it's water from the surrounding fields taking the easy route to the sea and it's pink. At the top of the hill I'm once again facing the teeth of the gale, it's all I can do to keep pushing the bike, with the cramps I can't ride so I'm unable to generate enough warmth to fend off both wind and rain. I'm done. I make the decision to stop at the next pub or cafe and quit. Of course the next pub is at the bottom of the hill I'm now at the top of so I get even colder reaching it. They've stopped serving food so I'm reduced to cups of coffee and hugging a teapot of hot water.

Despite quitting and having done 200 out of the 240Km (I was that near the end)  I have to say that there's some great riding, some tough climbs and great views.

Cath arrives to pick me up and we head in to Ilfracombe and food: pink crab!

Monday, 11 January 2016

Bach to Bach

I'm starting to worry. It's 9pm in January in rural Mid-Wales, there's not a house light to be seen and I've been in driving rain or sleet for hours now, my light has decided to go in to emergency mode and I've no idea how much longer the battery will last and no opportunity of shelter has presented itself. 

A vaguely flat spot by the side of the forest trail will have to do, I break out the tarp. A few minutes later the shelter is up and the wind changes and blows straight in. Things aren't looking good. Head down, I look round. Nothing but steep slopes with sparse vegetation buffeted by the wind. I wander down the track and round the corner I pick out a shape. It's a calf creep feeder, I look inside and the floor is dry. Result! Back to the bike and get everything together again and return to the creep feed. Draping the tarp at the windward side and end I manage to get things windproof. Sleeping mat and bag unpacked, time to get in to dry clothes and make a brew.

I'm halfway through the Bearbones winter event, this year entitled "Bach to Bach" as the points of interest all contained that Welsh word (it means "little"). I had ideas of visiting all the fourteen grid references that had been sent to us and had worked out a 190Km route that linked them all up with as little hike-a-bike as possible. There's no requirement to visit all the points, it's up to the individual as to which and how many they visit, but I like a challenge and it would be a good assessment of my fitness.

It didn't quite work out like that.

All this area is new to me which has advantages and disadvantages, the latter would become quite apparent. In a few minutes I catch another rider and we ride together for a couple of kilometres until I head east to pick up a checkpoint that he has no interest in. I didn't know it at the time but he would be the only one out of nearly seventy who had turned up for the event that I would see away from the event centre.

Off-road the effect of the winter's incessant rain was soon apparent, uphill was basically a push as there was no traction unless you were on a stone track, downhill was an exercise in care/frustration, any attempt to turn at speed was really about controlling the slide. Somewhere admist the slipping, sliding, spinning, pushing I was looking down in to the remote Hyddgen valley. It was around here that the rain started. The ford by the farm steading could be avoided by a bridge that had seen better days though the river might just have been manageable. The next river most certainly was not. A footbridge further upstream provided temporary salvation, an attempt at crossing a side stream saw me in thigh deep water, if I wasn't wet before I was now.

The track became road and I picked up speed again until I came to a junction: left or right? A thrubbing of knobbly wheels announced the arrival of a solitary mountain biker who just happened to know where he was. A chat and some directions and we went our separate ways. He was the only person I spoke to or even saw between leaving the rider near the start and Rhayader. I missed the turning for the shortcut so ended up hitting the main road at the bottom of a long, long hill. This wouldn't have been so bad but the wind and rain had picked up so I had to pedal down the other side as well. The two grid refs on the ridge between the road and the Elan Valley would have to wait, I was getting cold. So cold I couldn't even undo the buckle on my helmet or turn on my rear light. Some serious manning up later and I was on my way again.

The pub in Rhayader was already serving food but my first request was for a cup of coffee, not so much to drink as to warm my hands by. I was putting out more heat than the fire in the corner so it took a long while to warm up. The cold had also affected my stomach and it was hard work eating. When I said I was heading out again to carry on riding I got some very strange looks, not sure if they were of astonishment or pity.

My optimised "all points route" had missed Rhayader by a valley to the north, now the way lay up a long road hill. Fortunately the wind was on my back. The road turned to track then entered more woods. Somewhere I missed the exit for the other side and emerged in the wrong place though I didn't know it (I had to check my Strava trace to find where I'd been). The next grid ref should have been left then almost immediately turn right so I turned left except there was nowhere to turn right. I carried on, a farm building offered the prospect of some shelter for the night but on inspection there was no room at that inn. The village I should have entered a while ago loomed out of the dark, at least I knew where I was now but sod the grid ref. There were woods ahead and hopefully shelter, I was in need of it. The creep feed beckoned.

Your room sir!

The morning light was grey again, putting on wet cycling trousers isn't pleasant. My seat pack is now full of yesterdays soaking cycling kit and weighs about double what it did before. The next grid ref is further along the track but not before another section of pushing across a grass field. There's a couple of tyre tracks here so someone has been here before me. The bright lights of Llanidloes beckon but I'm too early for the Co-op so a quick out and back to visit another grid ref. Pre-tax sugar drink and a Mars Bar are my reward before it's uphill again to the next grid ref. I can't find the start of the bridleway to cut across to the next road so it's back down the hill and up again. Easiest now to stick on this road to the next village then up the valley. Not as aesthetic but who cares.

The last hill, just one chevron on the map presumably because they couldn't fit in the three it deserves, even after leaving the road and the angle eases I'm still pushing as it's simply more energy efficient than trying to pedal up what used to be grass meadow. I reach the forestry edge and there's no let up as clearance work has created a minefield of brushwood and swamp. Finally I see the windfarm that marks the start of rideable ground again and clearing the woodland I pick up the access track, one short rise then it's down hill, track giving way to tarmac, open fell to hedges, cars. All that's left is the main road back to the start.

The scores on the doors were: 155Km ridden; 3300 metres of ascent; 8 grid refs visited; 2 sets cycling kit soaked.

Day one

Day Two:

Thanks to Stu and Dee for the organisation, tea and cakes.