Sunday, 6 September 2015

I see Thin People

Sometimes it's good to do something new, it shocks the body and mind and gets you out of a rut. So it was that I decided to enter the Kielder 101. That's kilometres not miles. It's a mountain bike race in and around Kielder forest with the "unique feature" of heading over to Scotland for part of the route.

Registration is on the Friday night so after that and something to eat I turn in for the night, kipping in the car - the campsite was full though apparently they were letting people pitch up without having booked.

I wake at 0400 with the arrival of more cars and having failed to get back to sleep get up at 0600 and make a brew and have breakfast. More people arrive and bikes are removed from cars and assembled and tested. The start is at 0730 with a final briefing at 0715.

Like a pro road race, the start is neutralised behind a vehicle for the first couple of kilometres then we turn off the Forest Drive and it's every man and woman for themselves. The first mile or so is uphill so everyone gets strung out before the first bits of singletrack.

The nature of all open races like this (fell races are similar in that you can be on the start line between the national champion and someone who is in their first race) is that you pretty soon get in to a group of riders that you pass, get overtaken, pass again. So, at least as far as the first border crossing I'd keep seeing the same people.

Apart from the first couple of kilometres and two road crossings the entire route is off-road, a mixture of fire road, single track and event specific sections that cut through virgin terrain. The first of these was a "short cut" between two fire roads and  mainly consisted of picking your way through moss covered tree roots.

The second food stop was at Newcastleton in Scotland, one of the options was being able to pack a bag with your own food and have it ready for you there, so savoury food rather than sweet was in order plus a restocking of my on-board supply then it was off again.

The rider I was with at this point would pull ahead for a while then stop and try and stretch his back - "Pilates on the bike is hard work!" Eventually on a climb I think he stopped for longer and I didn't see him again.

By now everyone was well spread out and between the second and third feed stations, 30Km in distance I saw only six riders - two passed me and I passed four more. I didn't stop at the third feed station just got my timer clocked, I'm well inside the cutoff, and then on my way. A long drag uphill then bits of singletrack descent to the road. Just one uphill to do.

Marked on the map as "Scorpion, the sting in the tale" it seemed to drag forever, just when you thought you were heading downhill you'd be taken in the opposite direction and yet more climbing. Eventually there's basically no more up and it's a case of sweeping down the singletrack descent. At one point there's a marshal who notes the two technical options ahead. I get off and walk, "Good choice!" says a voice behind. A rider catches up with me but declines to pass. The last technical section is down two sets of steps then a roll in to the finish and a "well done" and a handshake.

My official time is 6hrs47, I'd been aiming for 7hrs so am pleased with that.

No photos or video but here's the Strava trace.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

The Sandstone Way

"What is it?"

"I don't know, it wasn't there yesterday"

"Where's it come from?"


"What's that?" said the third.


"Does it move?"

"Not seen anything."

"Ooh, that's new." Said the fourth "What is it?"

"We don't know"

I roll over. There's a line of cows looking over the fence at us lying under our tarp.

With fine weather forecast for the bank holiday (now where have I heard that before?) on Friday night Cath came up with the suggestion of doing The Sandstone Way up in Northumberland. A slight problem in that she was heading down to her sister's for the night and would be back mid-morning so we (by which I mean I) had to get things sorted that night.

The general plan was to drive to Berwick, leave the car there and get the train down to Hexham, ride the route back to Berwick and drive home. The winds were forecast as strong south westerlies so we'd be going with the wind on our backs. All the descriptions of the route are for a north to south direction, this meant I had to reverse the downloaded GPX files (what I didn't realise at the time was that the route is slightly different depending on the direction you travel). I also ordered the route map from Amazon and hoped that the one day delivery would get to us in time (it didn't). The final problem was booking the bikes on the train, even now you can't book a bike reservation online to go with your ticket.

Fortunately on Saturday morning five minutes at Skipton station procured both seats and bike reservations, phew! Now we just had to get to Berwick in time to catch the train. The roads were generally clear, unusual for a bank holiday, and we arrived with plenty of time to spare. With the bikes kitted out we were ready to go. This particular train had a guards van with bike racks, unfortunately it was at one end of the train and our seats were at the other so a long walk through first class was in order - at least it was before we had started the ride! A change at Newcastle then we were crammed on to a two coach Sprinter train which became even fuller after the first stop at the Metro Centre and half of Primark's stock got on board. It was a relief to get off at Hexham.

Now we just had to find the start of the ride, I had partly remembered it began by the golf course near the river so we headed there and just began riding alongside the river. Eventually the GPS indicated we were on route. The rest of the evening consisted of riding along, realising (from a frantically buzzing GPS) that we were off-route, back-tracking and carrying on. The route is well signed for going N-S but not so much going S-N and not having a map didn't help matters.

We were on the lookout for these.

We had no bike lights with us as we weren't planning on doing any night riding and the sun was starting to set, in such circumstances you are very much dictated to by nature so time to stop. Ahead was a drop to a river which looked like it was sheltered but had the potential to be very midgey so we decided to stop out in the open The tarp went up quickly and just as quickly the wind dropped and we got mugged by the flying death. Eventually the breeze returned and we ate our tea and had a few sips of whiskey. By 2100 we had turned in for the night.

Our first bivouac.

In the morning we were up and away by 0630 having used the last of our gas making a brew. Not many people are up at that time and we try not to wake the occupants of the first farms we passed. A couple of ups and downs and we roll in to Bellingham which is one quarter of the ride. The Co-op was open so we grabbed some breakfast before pressing on.

The next section was frustrating as it wasn't obvious and was also hard work - it is new trail to link up existing bridleways and as such isn't yet marked on the ground, there'd be occasional tyre marks to show we were on the right (non) track but it was mostly guesswork. We eventually reached a good track and the next few miles went easily enough until we once again went wrong. Another trudge through rushes and long grass to find a hidden gate and we'd be back on track. A good bit of singletrack across a moor and we were spat out on to a road, this led in a remarkably straight line to the start of a long forestry section.

Now forest tracks are forest tracks and there's only so much you can take. After a point of indecision we took the wrong track which actually turned out to be the right track as we had a fantastic descent through bright purple heather to the Coquet valley. Some more bad route choices (we should have just followed the road) got us to Rothbury where we had a big meal in a cafe and managed to buy a map.

Among the heather above Rothbury.

The climb out of Rothbury is technical and would be a great descent (probably the only good one going south) but as a climb it was easier to push. What it did do was get you on to an easy but brilliant track contouring round the edge of the moorland through more irridescant purple heather. All too soon and we are descending back in to the valley. We've decided not to head out to Alwinton but use one of the shortcuts to get further north before nightfall.

In the event we miss the turning for the next bit of bridleway so have more road work to rejoin the route. We decide on bivvying at the next available site but in an arable valley this is harder than you might imagine. Eventually we find a spot and settle down, along with the cows.

A well deserved crab sandwich.

Another early start the following morning and we make good progress getting over the last major hill and down to the coast for a not too late breakfast. All that is left is an amble along the coastline back to Berwick. Unsure as to where the route actually ends we ride around in circles for a bit before deciding that the signpost with a sticker on is it. We're done!