Thursday, 8 June 2017

Highland Trail kit

As ever with ITTs, the kit taken is a balance between taking as little as possible (the only item of gear actually mandated for the HT550 is a SPOT tracker) against taking enough to be able to survive, if not entirely enjoy, the experience. Most are going to take five to seven days for the route and unless the forecast is very settled it's likely that you'll experience most varieties of Scottish weather.

It's almost a given with gear that:

a) you'll get things that don't work;
b) nearly work; work in some conditions but not others;
c) could be lighter, etc.

Over time you learn and adjust what you take. A couple of years of doing shorter ITTs had taught me what did and didn't work for me and given me ideas about what I needed, there's always a balance to be struck between conflicting aims. There's no way I'd set off on a long and, on occasion, quite serious and committing route like the HT550 without having the whole system "dialled", so I'd used it for several shorter and not so short trips earlier in the year to iron out any problems.

Time is also an advantage in that you can read up on what other people have taken and had success or failure with on previous editions of the ride. Learning from other people's mistakes is very satisfying! The trick is to avoid fixating on "they had X bit of gear and it went wrong" and look at the factors what led to it being the wrong bit of kit. Mistakes are rarely down to one thing, they are usually a combination of compounding problems that individually wouldn't have been a problem.

I had approximately 22L of pack space on the bike. The idea was to have a little spare just to allow easy packing in the morning after bivying. Generally I pack according to need, so all the bivy gear is in one bag, spare clothes in another, etc. Before you read any further: remember that this kit is what I can handle and deal with any shortcomings. It may not be suitable for anyone else or even myself in different circumstances. With that caveat this is what I ended up taking. From front to back on the bike ... 

Wildcat Lion handlebar harness with Wildcat 8L double ended dry bag.
This held my bivy kit:
  •   Trekkertent cuben fibre tarp
  •   Borah Gear cuben fibre bivy
  •   Klymit X-frame 3/4 length mat
  •   Cumulus 150 down quilt
Also in the harness were a piece of Tyvek as a groundsheet and an Endura MT500 waterproof jacket.

Super-8 strap
  •   Pole and pegs in bag
  •   Windshirt (could be in back pocket or seat pack)


Apidura Food pouches

  •   Trail food of whatever description


Alpkit Fuel Pod
  •   Charging leads for Joystick, Garmin, phone, camera
  •   Thermometer for Garmin (this and the leads in plastic bag)
  •   MSR Trailshot water filter, Reviews here and here
  •   Toothpaste and toothbrush (from a long haul flight courtesy bag)
  •   Glasses
  •   Midge net
  •   Smidge, suncream, lipsil, cold sore cream, chamois cream.
  •   Ziplok bag with talcum powder.
  •   Minimal first aid kit



Beerbabe downtube bag
Basically repair/emergency stuff that, apart from the chain oil, I hoped not to have to use.
  •   multitool (has chain breaker)
  •   pump with wraps of Duct tape
  •   spare innertube
  •   Short section of chain
  •   tyre boot ( a piece of old toothpaste tube)
  •   powerlink
  •   Small tube of chain lube.
  •   Repair kit for X-Frame mat.
  •   Innertube patches and glue
  •   Small tube of sealant
  •   Sewing kit
  •   Tubeless repair kit
  •   3 x spare sets brake pads
  •   Spare mech hanger



Wildcat Tiger seat harness with Wildcat 10L tapered drybag
  •   Spare cycling bib shorts
  •   Spare cycling top
  •   2 pairs spare woollen socks
  •   2 pairs spare gloves
  •   buff
  •   Microfibre towel
  •   Long sleeved thermal top for sleeping
  •   Thermal shorts for sleeping
  •   Battery to recharge devices
  •   SPOT tracker clipped in to harness straps but the holder came loose so it ended up in my jersey pocket.
  •   Small rear light clipped to harness straps
Arm warmers, phone, SPOT in the pockets of my cycling top.

Due to the variety of weather I used (and needed to use) just about every piece of kit I took, I didn't use the spare cycling top or one of the pairs of gloves. I'd intended using the Assos bib shorts but they are a bit too well padded and on longer rides seem to cause more problems so after the first day I switched to the Endura bibs and wore those for the rest of the ride.


Bivy kit

My requirements for the bivy kit were that it:

1. was adaptable to as many sleeping situations as I might encounter.
2. could deal with midges!
3. was light and not bulky.

  • Trekkertent tarp (130g): Cuben Fibre 2.5m x 1.5m in size. Standard apart from four extra lifters in the middle of the sheet (similar to the Alpkit Rig3.5); the tie-out points at one end being a different colour and having some attachment points on the underside of the sheet for a "drying/airing line".
  • Borah Gear bivy bag (125g): bought second hand. Has a sewn-in anti-midge panel so on warm dry nights can be used on its own. Has a lifter that can be used with shock-cord to attach it to the underside of the tarp (or tree, etc.) and pull the upper fabric away from your face. I could have gone without this but on nights with heavy dew or mist it's an extra layer of protection for the quilt. Not forgetting the midges!
  • Tyvek ground pad (40g): 600x1000mm. I'm not as flexible as I once was so this isn't a groundsheet, it's enough to kneel or sit on while I get changed or in or out of the bivy bag. It folds up and goes between the Lion harness and the dry bag.
  • Klymit X-Frame mat (173g): This has next to no insulating properties but it does give a bit of comfort. The X-Frame is meant to be used with a sleeping bag so that the insulation on the bottom of the bag fills the holes but I'm OK with using a quilt.
  • Bearbones carbon pole and pegs (149g): I do have some aluminium poles I made from old tent poles but I thought I'd get a lighter one that is also held together with shock cord. The bike's handlebars served as the pole for the other end. Carbon pegs: they're pegs, made of carbon, err, that's it. 6g each. Stuart made me a bag that attached to the Lion harness.
  • Cumulus 150 quilt (375g): Fine for me down to around 5C. While I'm a warm sleeper I do tend to get cold very quickly once I stop exercising so a warmer covering helps with that. Being a quilt it's easy to vent should things get too warm during the night. One point not often mentioned about quilts is that if you get cramp during the night they are easy to get out of!

Clothing

I wore the following:

  • Shimano SPD shoes
  • socks
  • Assos Bib shorts
  • Short sleeved cycling top
  • Gloves
  • cycling cap
  • helmet


Extra cyling clothing amounted to

Arm warmers
Windshirt

I tend to be quite warm when riding so don't need much in the way of clothing - on the Rovaniemi 150 I was fine in some pretty light kit down to -16C (OK, just about fine at that temp), the extra clothing mostly lived in my shirt pockets so easily to hand. There are some mountain bikers who dislike arm and leg warmers because they "are roadie kit" but a hundred years or more of figuring out what works shouldn't be dismissed. Early mornings can be chilly so arm and leg warmers are useful for a couple of hours until things warm up when they can be stashed in a pocket. Leg warmers are also useful on river crossings - take them off before crossing and put them on again after so they don't get soaked which would happen with full length trousers. This also means that you can put something on to help warm you up.

The windshirt is useful for avoiding a chill on long descents and early in the morning but also handling light drizzle. I had considered buying something like the Rab windshirt but there was a Haglofs semi-insulated windshirt for sale on the BB forum for £30 - it fitted so that was that. I carried it in my shirt pocket: handy for light showers and for putting on as soon as I stopped so that I didn't chill.

The thermal top and shorts were just used on bivvies. Having something dry to change into makes a big difference to me staying warm and therefore how I sleep, no use in expending energy to warm back up. The midge net went in the top tube bag - needed to be handy just in case.

I struggle in the rain and have to be quite careful that I don't get cold so while I could have taken a lightweight waterproof I chose the much heavier MT500 jacket. Last year on the Braunton 150 I'd made the mistake of taking the lightweight jacket and once the bad weather came in I couldn't keep warm as the fabric was too light and pressed against me then things became wetter and wetter. Conversely I used the MT500 in Iceland and it dealt with wind and driven rain very well indeed. The MT500 is over half the weight of the whole bivy kit so in some ways it's robbing Peter to pay Paul but for me it's worth it.

The shoes are about a year old so nicely worn in, I'd probably done about 1500Km in them before this ride. In the event they only just lasted - the toe box on both shoes was basically worn away and the soles were beginning to delaminate. Another day or two of riding and they'd have fallen apart!

Some pretty serious wear!

The rest of the spare clothing went in the seat harness. My general modus operandi is that stuff in the seat harness is not something I'm likely to need or might only need at the end of the day. For shorter routes this usually means bivy gear but on a route like this it's spare clothing.

Tools, spares

All very bike specific but there's very little weird stuff on the Solaris so I can get by with normal tools. I only used the chain lube. This was actually too light a formulation and a few puddles would strip the lube. On the last day I needed to reapply lube three times.

Electronics

Where would we be without all our gadgets eh?

Power was provided by a 20,100mAh battery linked to whatever kit I needed to charge or keep running. The battery weighs 370g(!) but I don't have a front wheel with dynamo or the related kit like converter, buffer battery, etc. I had three main rechargeable electronic devices, one (the GPS) saw near constant use whereas the other two were intermittent.

1. Garmin Oregon GPS. I've a USB cable with a right angled plug that allows easier connection to the Oregon when it's on the bike, it also reduces risk of lateral knocks or strains on the connecting socket. There's upto 20 hours' run time on the batteries

2. Exposure Joystick light. Very lightweight (87g) and it can be helmet mounted so no problems with the bar harness and bags getting in the way. The light has lots (too many?) modes but I settled on programme #3 then mostly used the lowest setting. With the amount of night riding I did, and with it only "dark" for four hours a night in May/June at these latitudes, one full charge was fine, I still had 50% of charge at the end having ridden through the last night.

3. Phone. Most of the time this was switched off, I'd only switch it on if I was somewhere I knew I could rely on getting a signal and I happened to be stopped for food/supplies. With such limited usage I hoped that it would last the whole ride on one charge.

A SPOT tracker is required if you are part of the group start. A fresh set of batteries would be enough for the whole route. I clipped this to the top of the Tiger harness - I also had an extra tether just in case the main attachment broke. It's a Gen 2 device so needed resetting every morning - basically turn off on reaching bivy spot then starting it up again in the morning.

The route (supplied in two parts - northbound and southbound) was loaded onto the Oregon. I also had some very basic directions: "L at edge of forest. L (SA) below dam. Take RH track below second dam" that I could refer to without needing to turn on the GPS' screen. Finally Ian Fitz let me have a copy of his route notes which have things like shop opening times, I adjusted the timings on these to something that I thought I could manage.


My strategy was to ride steadily in the evening, hopefully I'd get to an uphill bit at that time enforcing the pace, until about eleven pm when I'd look for somewhere to bivy. This way there was limited riding at night, the only significant night riding was on the last night when I was attempting to get a finishing time under five days.

Summary

I'm not sure what if anything I'd change. Probably take more socks as well as something to take care of my feet which were a bit shot after five days' riding. Even if the weather was worse I wouldn't take much more in the way of clothing, maybe an extra thermal top and some waterproof cycling trousers.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Highland Trail 550


Keep pushing on! We can make it! Focus is concentrated by the circles illuminated by our lights. Riding has become easy: we ride lines that aren't there; find traction where there is none; obstacles move out of the way as if by thought alone. This is easy!

Riders getting ready for the off.

My strategy for the ride was: "Let the fast riders get out of sight then ride your own pace." and that's pretty much how it played out. I'm nicely trucking along by the side of Loch Lyon and then down the road to Bridge of Balgie. There's a couple of riders around me, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind. Too early to worry about losing or gaining places at this point. Lee Craigie appears as I refill my water bottle, she'd dropped her GPS so had headed back to find it. One minute she's a hundred metres ahead then as I rise a crest she's just a dot in the distance.

I'm struggling in the heat. I feel nauseous as if I've drunk some bad water, if I try to force the pace I feel like throwing up, If I don't then I won't make Fort Augustus in time for food. Worse, my vision is blurred. The singletrack around Ben Alder is hard work when it's like this. I'm glad when the rain starts and while it's light don't put a jacket on to help cool myself down. 

Ben Alder Singletrack


No stopping at Laggan, keep moving. Cramp strikes on Corrieairyack Pass and I am forced to walk most of the ascent. The descent is longer than I thought as well. I get to the pizza cafe at 8:30pm and manage to get the last pizza! Two pints of SevenUp just about slake my thirst. Another rider catches me up on the trails through the forest to Invermoriston. It's dark now and we look for a bivy spot. Underneath a semi-trailer will do.

Keep pushing! Five days is within our grasp but the clock is ticking. Dawn light begins to give form to the land, darkness losing its grip. The bike is forced to one side by a rock and the hips imperceptibly flick it back into line, we are just floating along the rough track.

A big pull out of Invermoriston towards Loch ma Stac and I leave my companion behind. Loch ma Stac is a mixture of riding and pushing before a big downhill on a new access road. The next climb is up to the "track of a thousand puddles" though I only count 351. I pass another rider but at the turn towards the Hydro bothy he catches and passes me. The headwind makes reaching the bothy hard work and we pause there for a rest. Then it's a blast down to Contin and refuelling.

Pete McNeil and Phil Clarke in Strath Vaich

Old fighter planes in Gleann Mor

The pull up Strath Rannoch is one of those that just drags, it's not steep but just goes on more slowly than you'd like. The view into Strath Vaich is stunning but there's another drag to get over to Gleann Mor. Two riders pass me and as I'm closing a gate I hear engines, I look round to see two WW2 planes heading towards me. I get the shot below. Alladale and Croik seem to take forever as does the glen up from Croik. Eventually the northern Munro of Ben More Assynt comes into view and it's basically downhill to the Oykel Bridge Hotel.

The northern hills

There's four riders there and we debate where is best to bivy for the night. Enough talking and eating, time to press on. Glen Cassley is pretty in the evening sun but it's just as long as last time. The climb out over Moavally is just as steep. I should have put a top on for the descent as I'm freezing by the time we reach the bottom. Phil decides to camp here, I press on. I spy a woodshed, there's room for two and there's only me. 

A bit of road to start the day. I pass Pete, one of the riders from last night, who'd slept in a pipe! The track over to Gobernuisgach Lodge passes quickly enough and then it's time for Glen Golly. I make good time on this, only pushing the steeper and looser parts. All too soon I'm at the junction with the old stalker's path heading to Bealach Horn. Good lines and I ride a large part of it, avoiding all the bike sized holes. The descent to the Allt Dubh is still a bit of hike a bike though and it's still a bloody steep push up the other side. 

The descent to Lone is a blast and I'm soon at Achfary ridding my shoes of gravel. The whole of that section has taken just 3 1/2 hrs. The next climb feels like hard work though. As does the bumpy road to Drumbeg. There's two riders at the stores: Pete and Ian, we chat whilst eating, they leave just as Phil arrives.

The coastal singletrack around Achmelvich is lovely but I'm getting fed up of "one more rise" as I want some grub. Lochinver comes into view and I head for the pie shop. Ian mentions that my SPOT tracker isn't working as apparently I've done zero distance. Try telling that to my legs! I've no phone signal so no texts to try and sort it out. While eating Salmon pie and mash I try to reset the device but no joy. Time to head on.

The next bit is one of the hard sections: The Ledmore Traverse. I ride most of the way to the end of the first loch then it's time to take the bike for a walk. An hour into the traverse it begins to rain, with the headwind it's a bit grim. Another hour and I'm back on the road heading back to Oykel Bridge. Time trial it as best I can.

In the hotel there's talk between Phil and Ian of staying there the night. I'm wet and cold and let their decision influence mine and I decide to stop in the bothy as well. A hot bath and dry clothes for the morning.

It's on! We can do this if we get down to Kinlochleven in good time. We are feeling strong and will make short work of the ascent on the other side. I point out a spot that Cath and I used as a bivy then fall over. Every time I move and try to get up I slide further under my bike due to the nylon windshirt. We are both in fits of giggles. Not good for time.

I'm up and away by 4am just riding steadily towards Ullapool. Estate tracks lead to a sublime bit of singletrack traversing a steep hillside above a curious black gorge. Then a rapid descent into Glen Achall and more easy spinning along this before a frustrating detour over the hill behind Ullapool. I'm too early for Tescos so seek out a store on the harbour front and throw my money around (literally) to get breakfast. I ring Cath and get a text about the SPOT which I now get working. Ahead lies Fisherfield.

A second breakfast at the foot of the Coffin Road which isn't as bad as has been made out. The track across the top is frustrating and I don't find any flow. I get spat out at Dundonnell. The Corrie Hallie track is loose but steady until the ford then it rears up and pushing is the order of the day.

First view of Fisherfield

The view at the top is stunning, even with low cloud. If your soul isn't lifted by it then there's no redemption. The drop into Strath na Sealga is fast but once the old house at Achneigie is passed the going becomes tougher. I spend twenty minutes in Shenavall having never been there before. Coming out of the bothy a rider approaches - Phil Fraser-Thomson. He'd been forced to wait for the shops to open in Ullapool for spares. He pushes on ahead and crosses the river in front of me. I'd been expecting Shere Khan but got Bagpuss, it's below knee height.

Crossing the Abhainn Srath na Sealga


The proportion of riding to walking changes as you head up Gleann na Muice and by the top it's just a push or carry. Bad weather hits as I reach the top, on with my heavy duty jacket. It's grim and I'm heading into the wind and rain. Soon the path turns downhill and I drop out of the cloud and begin the descent to Carnmore. No time to visit and I'm across the causeway and heading along the track towards Poolewe. Another river crossing then it's time to cut through to Letterewe House and the Postman's Path.

I'm tired and the technicalities of the track frustrate me. A French lad who catches me at the gully learns some new English phrases as I have a sense of humour failure. Eventually the path deteriorates to rubble and it's a push. A steep descent and a bridge and things become easier but it's still a long way to Kinlochewe. Eventually the track becomes tarmac. Time for food.

There's bikes outside the hotel. "Whistle stop cafe has shut for the night." I'll eat here then. Four pints of Orange and Lemonade go with the meal. I was thirsty as well as hungry.

I'm riding out of Kinlochewe wondering how far I'll get tonight when a Pine Martin runs across the road, if you can call the mustelid gait a "run". Never seen one before. Quite makes my day, well that and the fact that I've just done the Queen stage of Fisherfield. Eleven hours for just thirty kilometres of distance, hard work, amazing views, rough weather, perhaps even a sense of humour failure on the Postman's Path. One of the most amazing places on the British mainland. A plan is forming, with luck I should make it back to Tyndrum in under five days. Tiredness is taking over though and I find a bivy spot debating whether to set an alarm, I haven't used one so far so decide to forego one and just set off when I wake up.

More taking gravel out of shoes at the bottom of Kinlochleven descent. We head up the steep and loose landrover track that's the start of the climb. We are still finding traction. My legs aren't struggling and my lungs don't feel like they are going to burst, alien like, out of my chest. Can we still make it? Progress seems so slow. I've been going since 4am yesterday, I should be tired but I'm not. I've a goal, we've a goal. Five Days.

I look at my purchases spread along the wall: a bottle of Sprite; a black coffee; a tin of sardines in tomato and chilli sauce; a block of Wensleydale and Cranberry cheese and a white chocolate Magnum ice cream. Ahhh! Breakfast! Torridon pre-dawn and Glen Ling done (with a truck that had been forced off the road for good measure), Glens Licht and Affric to come. Never been to either of them. The climb to the viewpoint is taken steadily, the main road is quiet and soon I'm spinning my way up Glen Licht. 

A rider is catching me very quickly. Am I moving that slowly? It turns out he's out for a day ride and meeting his mate at the hut at the head of the glen. I leave them chatting and begin the push and carry over to Glen Affric. The two catch and pass me as they are unladen (and fresh) but ahead I see another rider. It turns out to be Jenny Graham. She'd ridden through the night to Dornie and only set off from there about half an hour before me. We chat for a while before she decides to stop at Camban bothy and I head down Glen Affric.




Glen Affric is long, very long. I hardly touch the brakes as the track improves as it heads down the glen. At the last bridge I catch up with another rider and we start to ride together. Looking good for the sub five day now, the weather's fine and the only difficulties are in and out of Kinlochleven.

"What's That?

Something slides out of my front harness. Groundsheet. Where the hell is my dry bag with all my bivy kit? No choice, I'll have to go back to look for it. This could be a long day now. I ask walkers if they've seen it but no luck. It's there by the bridge, phew! Some repacking and I'm on my way again. Only a kilometre or so back but I'm now on my own again. Glen Affric is very long.

"Fuck!"

I'm at a junction in the forestry track but the line of the route is nowhere to be seen on the GPS screen. I zoom out. I've taken the first left when I should have taken the second. Other than the expletive there's no anger, it will only use up energy. I roll back down the hill to pick up the correct line. Pizza will have to wait a little longer. There's the soothing sweet smell of broom as I pedal uphill again to find the old military road. The descent is fast and ace and I emerge onto a street with kids playing around. "Mummy! there's a funny smelling man on a bike!" For a moment I consider heading north again, keen to prolong the experience, but pizza calls.

I'm the only rider at the cafe this time. "Soup for starters please, a 12" veg pizza. Oh, and a pint of 7Up and a pot of tea". The pizza doesn't stand a chance even if it is unexpectedly laced with Jalapeno chillies. Neither does my navigation as I go the wrong way again. By the time I'm back on track there's Jenny about to set off down the Great Glen. We'll ride together to the finish.

The Great Glen is still, the waters of the canal are mirror smooth reflecting the fading light. We swing from one side of the glen to the other. Easy riding, a 50Km time trial in the middle of the ride, sit and spin and chat easily. Slowly the light dies and we turn on our lights. We are near Clunes now, not far until Fort William. It's 1AM when we raid the 24hr garage. It's not a pretty sight.



"Come on! We've 30 minutes in hand. We can do this!" Coffee drunk and food pouches restuffed we're away again.

Past the youths drunk on Buckfast and turn left into Glen Nevis. We pedal steadily upwards on fire roads until the WHW leaves them and brains have to be switched on. Dips, rises, bends, waterbars. Keep going!

We reach the top of the Devil's Staircase and our time buffer is up. In fact more than up, even riding along the road wouldn't get us back to Tyndrum before five days is done. Might as well take it easy now. 9am passes as we reach the ski centre. We just ride steadily now, avoiding the walkers heading the other way a fall on this surface would really hurt.

At the top of the Devil's Staircase

A chat with some mountain bikers just after Bridge of Orchy and then it's the last climb, really, honestly, the last climb. We both struggle to get our bikes over the gate by the railway and push up the other side. It's a roll down the other side but there's a bit more pedalling before the final gate and we head down to the finish.

We'd expected one or two to be there but there's about twenty people cheering us in.  A handshake and a beer. We've done it!

5 Days 2 hours 38 minutes


Ah, that thousand kilometre stare. Jenny and myself at The Real Food Cafe.


Just a couple of things to do:

Eat.

Sleep.


Repeat.

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."