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.

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