Monday, 29 June 2015

On an ITT no-one can hear you scream!

I try to push on the pedal but it's no use, the pain is too much and the air turns blue with pain and frustration. Again I get off the bike and massage and beat the offending muscle. Back on the bike but this time it's the other leg, off the bike and attend to that. I'm on my own, I think, on the track up Great Pinseat above Swaledale and I've only done 110 of the route's 300 kilometres.

I stagger on, walking and pushing the bike even on the flat, eventually I reach the summit and can freewheel down the other side. Then there's another hill. The reality is that there's more of those ahead, a lot more. Quitting is looking the sensible option. There's an old joke about fighting a gorilla: you don't stop when you are tired, you stop when the gorilla's tired. Except this gorilla cannot tire, its unyielding stones impervious to fleeting rubber.

My companion for the last 50Km has moved ahead and the rider behind isn't catching up (I later learn that he too is suffering from cramps) so I'm still on my own for the crux of the route: the descent in to Gunnerside Gill is steep, technical and hard to find the correct entry point. I get the wrong line and resort to walking down 45 degree boulder strewn heather. The old mine workings mark the end of this and the route down to Gunnerside is dry and fast. There's a pub = food.

The idea of a Yorkshire Dales ITT had started last year when Stuart Rider had attempted the Highland Trail 550. He'd had to withdraw but it gave him an idea of a similar event in the Dales. So when he announced it, I signed up. So did another 60 or so. The original route was 320Km and had another, big, hill but with a bit of tweeking the distance dropped down to just over 300m. Oh, and the small matter of 6700m of climbing. In the event just twenty started on Saturday morning and only ten finished.

Simon Lerpiniere on Stake Moss

The gorilla is winning. I know there's a descent coming but it's nearly midnight and I'm weary and becoming prone to mistakes. The descent is fast but with some lose sections. Time to stop. Fittingly the bivvy is at the highest point of the route at the head of Cam High Road. A wall provides some shelter from the wind. It's never truly dark through the night at this time of year and I drift in and out of sleep. There's the occasional very light shower. One of my wraps suffices for breakfast and I'm on my way.

The rain arrives about an hour later. On a fine day the route over the shoulder of Whernside and across Great Wold has grand vistas, today it's grim. On the climb on to Great Wold I pass another rider with a mood to match both mine and the weather.

Temptation: I come to a T-junction. I have to take the left towards the forestry and then down to Horton-in-Ribblesdale but I know that if I turn right and go through the gate then in less than a kilometre I'll pick up the route again where it joins the Pennine Bridleway and crosses the Ribble. Local knowledge can be a cruel thing. By the time I'm at Horton, I've run out of water. I can't see any outside taps from which to refill. Head down to hide from the rain and carry on.

Stuart's idea was to include as many of the best tracks that the Dales have to offer. I'm beginning to feel like he's included all of them. The route is intestinal in its loops and there will be more such shortcuts on offer later in the day with the route ahead in sight but an hour or two's riding away.

Wet limestone is very slippery and once or twice I nearly come a cropper on the lanes leading off Sulber Nick. I'm out of the clag and things ahead are looking a little brighter. Passing Austwick I've a choice of ford or clapper bridge - I chose to walk the bridge, wet slate is also very slippery. A couple of kilometres ahead is Feizor and a cafe but it doesn't open until 0930. Completely unsure of the time I turn on my phone: 0950. Decision made - I'm having some breakfast!

The rather filling full breakfast at the cafe in Feizor
A couple of riders arrive and I dally longer than is needed but we are social creatures and company feels good. Having seen no-one since the rider leaving Dentdale I spend the rest of the ride shuffling around in a small group that is dispersed over a ten minute or so gap.

My hands are bruised and sore, holding the bars is increasingly difficult, the soles of my feet are burning and I have to continually adjust my position on the pedals. None of this matters, the end is in sight, another minute or so of concentration and there's 10Km of tarmac left to the finish though I convince myself it's only 5Km. One last climb and the descent in to town then it's just the ramp to cross the railway, "Attack! Attack! Just one metre of climb to do!" Quite what the bloke walking beside the road thought of the shouts of a filthy, smelly rider on a bike I've no idea. Turn on to the last road, pot hole avoidance and then finally ride in to the yard nearly 36 hours after leaving. My first ITT event is complete.

Here's my ride on Strava.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Back o' Skiddaw

Before I began looking at the Bob Graham Round I'd done no walking in the Northern Fells of the Lake District. Even then I only visited the summits of Skiddaw, Great Calva and Blencathra that are on the round itself, Mungrisdale Common was visited as a default since the route passes within a few metres of its "summit" (probably the least prominent summit of any of those in Wainwright's books).

In the last couple of years I began visiting the remaining fells as part of getting all the Wainwrights done and last year I completed the Northern Fells book with a day on the mountain bike ticking off the last four. Of course concentrating on the fell tops means that you leave the valleys largely untrod so with a ride organised around the bridleways of the area it was a chance to put that right.

Over the years there has been quite a bit of mining in the Lake District - the lead mines of Newlands and the copper mines around Coniston being the best known examples but there were several mines in the Northern Fells and these lasted until quite recently, the tungsten mine in Grainsgill    for example closed in 1981. One of the legacies of these workings are a series of tracks that are ideal for mountain biking.

A bit of road work to begin with then the tracks began. One thing about the Northern Fells is that they don't peter out in to lower ground, they just stop so you get great views from the Pennines all the way round to the Dumfrieshire Hills. The track snakes its way around the fell sides undulating along but generally upwards weaving its way in and out of sets of old mine workings. Eventually there's no more up and it's a blast of a descent to the next little bit of road.

A short climb up this then another section of track, greener this time, leads down to the longest road section leading round to the start of the track to Skiddaw House. I've walked down the first tarmac bit of this when fell bagging but other than crossing the tracks at points when on BG recces and attempts the next fifteen kilometres was going to be all new to me.

The challenge on the first part is blindingly obvious: the climb up by the side of the waterfall of Whitewater Dash. Fortunately it's mostly up a bit then recover on a flattish section then up again. Unfortunately the last hundred metres or so steepens and becomes loose so maintaining traction and forward momentum begins to take too much energy so it's just easier to get off and push. From just short of the gate however it becomes rideable again. Once at the high point of the track it's a fast blast down to a ford across the beck. Left line or right? Cath chooses right so I follow her and we both come to a halt in the middle of the beck! Not the only ones apparently.

A short climb up to Skiddaw House and it's an enforced wait as one of the riders behind punctures both tyres. There are a couple of teams out reccying the BG that I can see, obviously I know where to look. With the wind it gets pretty cold by the time we are moving again. The track following the Calder is singletrack for the next four kilometres or so, constantly interesting chosing the best line around and over rocks and boulders until eventually it becomes landrover track then tarmac and it's freewheel back down to the cars.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Wet Highland Way

It's always good to have a little adventure now and again especially somewhere new. Of course with having traipsed through the fells and hills of the UK for over forty years there aren't that many places that are both reasonable to get to for a weekend and that are "new". The advantage of a new sport though is that areas you know well in effect become new as the sport uses a different part of the landscape.

So it is with biking, particularly mountain biking. I'd thought about doing the West Highland Way by bike but tales of the section along the upper part of Loch Lomond being serious hike-a-bike (think carrying your bike up 20ft high steps) made me consider just doing the northern half from Crianlarich to Fort William.

Due to its popularity you have to book bikes on to the train on the West Highland Line so that immediately commits you to a schedule. The plan was thus: drive up to Crianlarich on the Friday night; ride to just past Kinlochleven on the Saturday and then finish off the WHW on the Sunday morning; get the 1140 train back to Crianlarich and drive home.

Of course there's a catch. In this case it was the weather with a deep low passing through the area on Saturday with both strong winds, gusts to 45mph, and heavy rain showers. All that you can do is hope that you miss the worst of it all.

Friday night saw us find a small hidden road where we could doss out for the night - all accommodation in Crianlarich being taken. About 2am it began to rain. 

In the morning we headed in to the Crianlarich Hotel for breakfast, as we were paying I asked if there was anywhere we could leave the car overnight. "Our carpark if you want, just leave details and when you expect to be back." Sorted!

Joining the WHW from Crianlarich is a bit of a climb, in fact the biggest climb until we got to the Devil's Staircase leaving Glencoe, at least we were in the trees and out of the wind. Once on the WHW it was a rolling track until the final drop down to cross the main road, it was fortunate that there were bridges across the burns as they were all in spate. The next few Km were in the open and quite hard work heading in to the wind but once back across the main road again we were rewarded with some nice riding along the crest of some moraine which brought us in to Tyndrum.

This was likely to be the last opportunity for a cafe stop so we headed in to The Real Food Cafe - one of those establishments who just seem to have got things right. Sat at the "breakfast bar" we had a chat with a solo cyclist doing the Land's End to John o' Groats and a bloke who was heading out to the islands to spend time studying dolphins.

Then it was back out in to the rain and onwards along to Bridge of Orchy. To a large extent it didn't matter if it was raining or not as the track was covered in an inch or two of water so you were going to get wet whatever. Bridge of Orchy came and went, we decided to take the road round to Victoria Bridge rather than go over the small hill that the main WHW takes.

Leaving Victoria Bridge takes you on to Rannoch Moor. The main road is further east and most simply blast over getting to something more interesting beyond the moor. We were on the old military road which winds its way round the foot of the Blackmount which is generally good going with long gentle ascents and descents. We stopped at Ba Bridge to grab a bit of food - a walker was there trying to warm his hands - everyone seemed to be suffering with the weather.

The descent in to Glencoe was freezing and we decided to head in to the Kingshouse for something to eat. Despite the unseasonable weather outside there was no heating in the bar! We ordered a couple of soups and I nearly dropped one of them on the floor as I was so cold. We still hadn't got enough food inside us so ordered a main meal each as well.

Then it was decision time: the WHW goes up over the Devil's Staircase and drops to Kinlochleven and is the most direct route but with the high winds we were unsure if it was safe or not. The alternative was to ride down the main road to Glen Coe village then follow the old road round to Kinlochleven. We headed along the main road for the first part and by the time we got to the point where the Devil's Staircase began my mind was made up. I'd had enough of gusty winds and traffic trying to squeeze past so whatever the conditions were like up top they were preferable to mixing it with idiot bullies on the road.

As we began the ascent (which is basically a push) three mountain bikers  were blasting down. A bit of a chat "It's OK up there" and "The descent is 95% ridable" and we continued on our way. Cath was getting tired and I was pretty soaked through despite having a winter jacket and two waterproof jackets over the top of that.

The descent was mostly ridable, I probably did 90% of it with the missing 5% being down to the wind blowing me about. We were both glad to get to the landrover track that marks the end of the technical part, it was also in the trees so not as windy. This was just as well as we were both on the edge regarding safety so we thought about getting a room for the night in Kinlochleven.

Unfortunately there was no room at the village as the World Cup downhill was on in Fort William and pretty well all the accommodation in the area was taken. So it was press on and bivvy out. 

The climb out of Kinlochleven is a push and about halfway up I found a flat spot in the trees that would have to do so began setting the tarp up. By the time Cath arrived things were ready and we just had to try and dry ourselves a bit and get in to our sleeping bags. I'd spare clothing inside a dry bag but the rain and wind had been so bad that even this was wet. With some food and a couple of shots of whiskey inside us we settled down for the night.

This was Cath's first night sleeping under a tarp and apart from the completely knackered state we both were in she didn't find it too bad though she said she took several hours for her feet to warm up and there were mutterings of "I want a divorce"! at various times :-)

In the morning we just wanted to get going - so there was the procedure of putting all our wet cycling clothes back on - not pleasant. At least it wasn't raining and we had the rest of the climb to help us warm up.

The track over the Lairig Mor was one I'd not been along before, it's steady going but with a few ups and downs. Even with no rain there was still a lot of water on the track. As the track becomes tarmac the WHW cuts off to the right, another decision time: 7.5 miles on the WHW or 4.5 miles on tarmac. With Cath being so tired we took the tarmac option. Even this wasn't as easy as it might have been, even the downhills in Scotland have climbs!

Finally we were at the top of the last descent, no more ups, and we rolled in to Fort William with an hour and a bit to spare. A supermarket raid and we sat in the station stuffing ourselves before the train from Mallaig arrived and we could relax as we trundled our way back to Crianlarich.

Here's a short video.

Wet West Highland Way from Bob Wightman on Vimeo.

I'd intended the trip to be a steady introduction to bikepacking for Cath, in the event it turned out to be anything but - the Saturday was one of the hardest and grimmest days in the hills I can remember. We were both close to the line dividing being safe and being in trouble.