Thursday, 4 March 2021

The Aire Watershed

 This has its genesis in two threads on the Bearbones forums:  the North Peak 100 and the Strictly local threads.

When Shaf posted up his NP100 I thought it was a good idea and worked out a local loop in the southern Dales of similar length but it didn't really feel consistent and then the second lockdown started so it got shelved.

Craig's "Strictly Local" ride around the city limits of Aberdeen was interesting. Locally the boundaries of North Yorkshire, the largest county in England and Wales would be way too big to fit within the current guidelines. Our local authority area, Craven, would also have a large boundary, not really doable in a day. As a "rural" sort of chap, human imposed boundaries didn't really sit well with me, a more natural solution would be better.

A short ride last weekend gave the solution: the watershed of the upper River Aire. A bit of searching came up with this:, pull the bottom end up to Steeton/Silsden to avoid Keighley (if you've been there, you'll understand), onto bikehike and plot a route that follows the watershed as closely on legal RoWs as possible and I ended up with around 108km. Mostly road and stone track there were just a few potentially boggy sections. Very little technical terrain - the descent of Stockdale Lane being the hardest.

With fine weather forecast I decided to head out yesterday for a "midweek" hit. I rolled down to the "start" at Steeton & Silsden railway station but since I met the route a little before that and hit the lap button on the GPS at that point. The roundabout by the station was thankfully quiet and into Silsden before the long drag up and over to Draughton. Draughton's phone box is one of those that have been repurposed, in this case as a book club, it made national headlines a few years ago when it was vandalised.

Down to the A59, crossing this can also be worrying as it's a fast road with an overtaking lane at this point, then into Halton East which according to my unofficial schedule was to be my first hour point but I was ahead of that. The first off-road section will be familiar to those who've done the YD300 & YD200 routes as it's the last downhill section. A bit harder going uphill! The last thirty metres to the gate is the hardest and reaching it marks my hour point. The next section leading up to the road is the first boggy section but I'm in luck - the farmer has filled in all the deep puddles and it's pleasantly straightforward.

Not so pleasant is the strong wind that greets me when I get to the road, it turns out I'll be riding straight into this for the next three hours or so. The climb up and over Barden Moor is taken steadily, no need to burn matches at this point. Two weeks ago much of this track was sheet ice and we had to ride on the moorland to the side, today it's just slightly damp.

The climb over the moor is straightforward but harder work than it should be because of the wind. Even the start of the descent needed pedalling rather than a straight freewheel.

This gate was frozen in place a couple of weeks ago, the ice was about 30cm deeper than the water level seen here.

I'm still ahead of schedule at Hetton but the first "boggy" section slows me down. Normally it's ridable but I have to walk a couple of hundred metres due to the mud caused by the farmer out feeding stock, just no traction so I'd end up spinning comically at a standstill. The subsequent rocky track is fine as is Boss Moor which isn't as damp as I expected and the bit by the old barn hasn't been churned up too much by the cattle so is ridable with a bit of oomph.

Once I'm onto Mastiles Lane the going becomes firmer but the wind is pushing me back, slight downhills where you'd normally feather your brakes need hard pedalling. My third hour mark comes and goes but I'm now well "behind" schedule. I get some respite from the wind as I pass through the trees around Malham Tarn but then it's back into it as I head to the last big climb for a good while which leads to the top of Stockdale Lane.

I'm actually a bit cold by now - the temperature is nowhere near the forecast 10/11C and the wind is making that feel even cooler. My level of output is only just enough to stave things off. As soon as I turn east at the foot of Stockdale Lane the effective temperature soars and I begin to warm. The next bit is one of those RoW anomalies - the BW just stops in the middle of nowhere. There are plans to link everything up and local riders have used it for years without problem, the last time I rode it I met the farmers and had no hassle so I've no problem in including it.

Back on the road at Otterburn it's easy going to Coniston Cold and the second crossing of the A65, again relatively quiet. I'm riding through the next set of fields when there's a regular ticking from my back wheel, the rear brake pads have worn through, I'll fix it when I get to the next road. Unfortunately I don't have the right sized hex bit to undo the retaining bolt so I'll have to do the rest of the route with just the front brake, luckily there's only one steep descent remaining to deal with.

Another stony track leads across to the the A59 (again) but no need to cross it as I drop down to the Leeds Liverpool canal and pass under it. The canal is followed, muddily, as far as the Pennine Bridleway in Barnoldswick then it's the next big climb up Weets. Six hours ticks by as I start the climb, my unofficial schedule had me at the top by now. The climb is steepest at the start but then just seems to drag on and on. The last section to the next road is the last of the boggy bits, my rear wheel grinding at the brake pads that aren't there.

From here to the end is nearly all road but I'm debating whether to modify the route slightly and just follow the main road for a bit rather than a long climb on a minor road. In the end I decide to stick to the planned route. After Foulridge there's a ford to negotiate, well I say ford, it's more like the road follows a river bed for 200 metres, it's possibly the longest ford in Britain!

The ford ends around two corners just before the trees!

A long road uphill then a long road back downhill lead to some lanes near home that I don't remember ever riding. I pop out on the A6068, it's quiet at this time of day so straight across and onto ...

The last section - I've only ridden some of this in the opposite direction so make one or two minor navigation mistakes but then it's one of the very few bits of the route I'd not ridden before and it becomes a really steep downhill! With only one brake it's a bit sketchy. Fortunately it soon eases off and after a couple of small fords it's a steady climb up the other side.

Moon rising.

Eight hours sees me at Keighley Tarn, it's nearly all downhill from here, just one off-road section to finish things. The light is going and with it the heat and I'm getting properly cold, no heat being generated. I turn off for the final bridleway and it's there's an uphill to reach it that I've forgotten about. The true last descent appears and sunglasses are inappropriate under the trees in the gathering gloom. The road leading down to my finish is really rough as it's made up of sleeper sized lumps of stone.

I debouch onto the main road next to the chippy along with a socially distanced queue. I hit the lap button 8hrs18mins. I ring Cath, turn on lights and head (uphill) back home.


So there you have it: The Aire Watershed, 110km with 2400m ascent.  I was on a rigid 29er but given the road-track-field distribution it should be perfectly fine on a CX/gravel style bike, even more so if it was a bit drier. The route is 100% ridable, no hike-a-bike sections, though obviously a little conditions dependent - I walked about 300m in total because of boggy ground. At a guess there’s 50km of road, 50km of track/gravel & 10km of “rough” - if you use Komoot then it might give slightly different figures but the proportions aren’t far off.  There aren't many facilities between Silsden at 2km and East Marton at around 70km:

2km Lots of shops in Silsden.
71km Cafe at East Marton.
76km Cafe at Greenberfield locks
77km Shops off-route in Barnoldswick
86km Shops and pubs in Foulridge
92km Pub at Black Lane Ends
109km Chippy and shop in Eastburn

Water might also be a problem since the section from Hetton round to the bottom of Stockdale Lane is on limestone so not many surface streams.


If you want the GPX and route notes see the first post in this thread.

Monday, 19 October 2020

BB200, the Covid Edition

You know that scene in Independence Day where Will Smith and Jeff Goldbloom have taken the alien fighter from Area 51 and are inside the alien mothership having downloaded the virus and left a primed atomic bomb as a present, are then being chased by other alien fighters as the mahoosive doors in the side of the ship are being closed and they get out in the nick of time?

Well this was nothing like that.

With the "fluid" situation regarding Covid this year's BB200 was, erm, different. Firstly, rather than being in Mid-Wales it was a bit further south around the Brecon Beacons, an area I really didn't know - I can't even remember taking family holidays there - certainly never walked or biked in the area. The second main difference was that rather than being on the second weekend of October and starting from one location we could choose when (in October) and where on the loop we started/finished.

Event entered, GPX received it was time to start planning.

Having decided on one starting point just before the biggest climb of the route we changed our minds and began about 40km before that which meant that we'd hit two, possibly all three of the towns on the route during opening hours. You've got to think about these things.


Debouching from the sunken track I head up a thankfully dry and firm farm track. A fancy car is heading down. "Are you lost?" says the woman driver in a very well-to-do voice, "Err, probably!", "Follow me, I'll show you where you need to go." With that she reversed at speed back up the track - obviously done that before. Once I'd told her where I was trying to get to she explained where the track went and what to avoid. Very nice woman.

There's a shout from the driver of the flat bed Transit, whatever he'd said it didn't sound like the usual anti-cyclist tirade, turns out they were looking for a farm or something, "sorry mate, I've never been here before so I'd be no help."

There's definitely fresh tracks in the mud. Two MTBs and one gravel bike. On the big climb I see a figure ahead pushing a bike up a steep grass slope. The slope is actually rideable but the mud bank after the stream definitely isn't so I might as well walk to the top. The rider waves, I wave back. Eventually I catch up, it's a woman on a gravel bike: "Ah, you're the set of tracks I've been following this morning!" A few words in reply but I'm now back on the bike and breathing heavily so can't reply, sorry. I get to the top and look back, she's heading back down the hill, maybe she's dropped something. Whatever, she's the only other rider I see.

I never did see the two MTBs though occasionally there'd be a wet set of tyre prints on a rock.

It's about an hour after dark and I've just shut the gate at the end of a farm track when a car approaches and indicates to head down the track so I open the gate for them. "Thank you!" says the farmer with a smile. Apart from a couple of walkers he'll be the last person I see until the finish in another twelve hours. Being alone on ITTs is common, you need to deal with it.

I ride on in my small pool of light.

Going past properties at night can be tricky, you need to keep your lights pointed down rather than shining into bedroom windows and waking people up. Then the dogs start barking. Nothing much to do about that but carry on and hope that the gates are easy to negotiate and don't creak or bang.


It's quite chilly. I decide to take two pairs of long fingered gloves rather than one short and one long. I start with arm warmers and a windshirt thinking I'll take them off later in the day and put them back on at nightfall. It turns out that I never take them off but just undo the windshirt on climbs. A buff (also used as face covering for shops) is my only other temperature regulator. Ease off on the climbs so as not to sweat as the descents could be fast.

BEEP! My GPS shows low battery so despite only having done 60km I swap in my spare set. Hmm. BEEP! It's 1am and again my GPS is showing a low battery warning despite only having done another 100km. A good job I'd thought to buy some plain AAs when at the filling station, just hope they'll last to the end. The rechargeables are Duracell, maybe they're at end of their life.

I'd be worried about riding this route with tubes. The farmers have been out cutting their hedges and the roads are littered with the thorns and brash that haven't yet had time to become weathered or trampled to soft pulp by passing cars.

One section of moorland down another three to go. I'm passing through the farm on the edge of the moor when my bar light starts flashing, the battery's running out of juice. Hmm, a long way to go yet, if the other light goes I'll have to sit things out until dawn. It's been hard enough distinguishing the ruts and mud with both lights, it will be much harder with just the one especially since I'll have to keep it on one of the lower power settings to see me through the next six hours or so. The dead battery pack is probably fifteen years old, maybe time for a new one. Annoying, you need to be able to trust your kit.

I ride on in my smaller pool of light.


A Red Kite is quartering the hillside. She flies close, silent, tail rotating to hold her steady in the breeze, her massive wingspan shading that part of the sky. Close enough that I can see the outline of each pale feather on her head, eyes unblinking, she's obviously checking me out but decides it's too early, she'll come back and pick over my carcase later.

A pair of spots glint in the dark. It's a fox. It scurries back and forth unsure what this one-eyed monster is, never too far away that I can't also see the shape of its body in the faint beam of my light. The cattle further on were less sanguine. Somehow I drift away from the line and have to heft my bike over a fence and head across the field until I find the track again Then it's downhill, with that comes speed, even though I can't go too quickly because of the light levels, and chills.

Bats flit around in the dusk, a sign that I need my lights. No idea what species, too quick in the low light for my eyes to determine. Late in the year for them I suppose, but they need food to have enough weight to survive their winter roost.


I only check the GPS for the mapping, ignoring the data screen except at specific points. I'm pleased to note I'm on time at the first town, down at the next. I'm also pleased to note that I reach my next milestone at 9pm, 125km done, 75km to go, 20hrs is doable. If only.

I'd miscounted the moorland sections, there's five. A myriad of tracks twisting hither and thither make progress frustrating in the dark and my "line" is a sawtooth as I drift away then ride back to the line. There's full cloud cover so I can't fix on a star or constellation for a bearing and ride to that. The last section finishes with a steep descent, would be great in the daylight but not at 4am having been on the go for over nineteen hours.

I carry on in my small pool of light.

My mind's playing tricks on me. I've turned off the main road and turned right and right again so I'm heading back towards town? I'm not, the left bends are bigger than the right and I'm heading the other way but I'm totally confused. It's as if I've been blindfolded and spun round and asked to point to North.

I trudge on in my small pool of light.

It's getting lighter, the dawn is near, and I'm at the end of the last off-road. There's form to the land now, faint light and shade rather than mirk and dark. The main road arrives soon enough and climbs away at that awkward angle you think should be easy but isn't. I'm wishing for the summit at every turn. The pedalling suddenly eases and I'm picking up speed. The downhill is short and the van appears where we'd left it, no police stickers or anything to say: "You shouldn't be here". 22hrs45mins. Twelve and a half hours for the first 125km, ten and a bit hours for the next 75km. I'm knackered so leave the bike lying outside, grab the sleeping kit and crash out for a couple of hours.

Perhaps it was something like that. Elvis has left the building.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Stubborn is as Stubborn does

"You're supposed to be my FRIEND!"

I'm lying on my back, head down on a 40 degree slope of wet heather above a turbulent River Tilt nearing the end of this year's Cairngorms Loop. My bike is on top of me with my lower leg jammed between the chainring and the bottom bracket. I've been walking this bit because of the wind and still ended up like this. It's actually the second fall, the first saw me fall onto rocks with my elbow. It's not really my bike's fault.

I struggle to push the bike away, any potential injuries to my leg aren't of concern, I lean over the bike holding back sobs.

"Look," I say out loud because no-one's near enough to hear "you are just really tired. Get on with it."

Just sixteen loosely congregated riders were in the car park at the start on Saturday morning. Colin Cadden, who'd taken on the organiser's role from Steve Wilkinson for this year, was trying to get us all ready in time but herding cats would have been simpler. There were one or two who I knew already and a couple who I'd conversed with online so there were bits of chats going on. In the end we rolled out four minutes late, not that it would make any difference over the course of a day or two. Cath had entered but decided her fitness wasn't up to it so was doing the Tour of the Cairngorms which is basically the outer loop less the sting in the tail.

There'd been talk of people going for fast times but Huw Oliver had broken the record a couple of weeks earlier so that particular hare wasn't riding this weekend. My plan was just to get round.

The initial pace was quick but tempered by a decent headwind. I rode alongside Phil Clarke who I'd not seen for a while, he was on a singlespeed Jones so speed was limited on the flatter sections. There was also a rider on a singlespeed fat bike. I'd joked about bringing mine along but decided against it. Pretty soon we were at the crossing of the A9 and Phil pulled away on the climb because, well, he had a single speed. "That's the last I'll see of him." I thought.

The track to Sronpadruigh Lodge was fast, helped by the now tailwind. The burn crossings were low which augured well in comparison to three years ago. Then it was a bit of bog trotting to get to the singletrack alongside Loch an Dun. 


This is just ace and all rideable though I did get blown off by gusts of wind a couple of times near the end. A rider caught me here and we rode together as far as Rothiemurchus. The next river crossing which had stopped last year's group ride in its tracks was low and we just rode through it. My companion lived at the foot of the glen so we got the turn off the road right unlike the pair ahead of us who shot past it.

We head into the lower reaches of Glen Feshie and wend our way along the singletrack through the meadows. A slight confusion as to the exact route at Feshie Bridge and we are heading through the woods on Feshie Moor quickly followed by Rothiemurchus Forest. This always seems to take longer than it should. Still we pop out onto the road and arrive at the shop in Glenmore in just 4hrs30mins, really quick and some forty five minutes quicker than previously. I'm surprised to see Phil there, he'd only been a few minutes ahead but of course in the woods even 30 seconds is out of sight. A quick loo visit, a drink and I'm ready to go. Phil leaves at the same time.

Simon and Hamish

The Nethy is low, last time it was a brown torrent, so I refill with water again. Then it's the climb up Bynack Mor, I get so far then get off and push, no point in red-lining just for the sake of it - there's another 220km to go. As I near the top of the steepest section a rider passes me - he's managed the whole climb without dabbing which is very impressive in the windy conditions. I do see him dab once a little later but I think we can let him off with that. "I'm Hamish" he says as I catch him "I'm waiting here for my mate" - he spent most of this section as intervals, riding off and then waiting for his mate.

I struggle on the next section to the Fords of Avon (pronounced A'an) and take one OTB where I bash and bruise my legs. The first burn, the Uisge Dubh, is crossed dry, last time it was waist deep! The fords themselves are low and the crossing is easy. 

Compare the above with these shots from 2017



I don't think I rode any more of the section from there to the Lairig an Loaigh on the Spearfish as I did last time on the rigid Solaris, maybe the wind played a part but I just couldn't get going. Four of us reached the pass together and then it was the blast down into Glen Derry. The others were quicker than me but I catch one up, Hamish's mate, - "puncture or valve playing up" - he'd got kit to sort it so no point stopping. Further down we pass a chap on a gravel bike heading to the Fords, we think he was under the misapprehension it was rideable!

Once in the glen floor it's very quick riding again apart from the occasional water bar. Most of these have now got bypass lines to ride but there's still one or two "big" ones that can catch you unawares, I'd taken a tumble on one last time as then the light was fading. We reach Bob Scott's in full daylight, in fact I'm nearly two hours up on last time. I've now just one companion who introduces himself as Ian. "You rode that glen smoothly" he says "you just swept away from me." - I'm confused as he must mean me since there's no-one else around.

Straight through the Linn of Dee woods and the long drag up to the Geldie Burn. This is straight into the wind and I begin to struggle but we're catching another rider. It turns out to be Steve Waters and we'll end up riding together to Aviemore. The Geldie looked wide but really low, good news for later. Part of this year's rules was no use of bothies (the MBA have closed all of theirs due to Covid-19) but was surprised to see lights at the Red House. It turned out to be an MBA working party getting it refurbished for future use. No stopping, on over the watershed.

Lights went on at the end of the vehicle track and we managed to ride a surprising amount given that some of the "holes" cast by our lights were rather deep. Steve took a couple of tumbles, no injury as they were into bog not stone. Ahead were a couple of lights but we didn't catch them. Ian noted that he felt quite spooked by this terrain and scenario but having grown up in the country it felt quite normal to me. In fact it felt a bit weird having company on a night section of an ITT, I was totally on my own the last time I crossed here. Eventually the Eidart appeared, or rather the sound of the waterfall began to be heard over the wind, and the rickety bridge was more rickety with a board or two now broken. This time I managed to find the singletrack that winds in and out of the muddy argo-cat trail - much nicer riding. The forecast rain is just starting.

As we are dropping down towards the Feshie my light starts to flash. Surely it can't be running out of juice? Unless it had turned on in the bag and been discharging for most of the ride. My recharging system only really works when I'm not riding so I was stuffed. Fortunately Steve had a spare Joystick! Game back on! Then we came to the Feshie.

"Err, we've gone wrong lads, should have turned off about 50m back". 

We find the track leading to the landslip and drop into the tracks in the glen. "Your mudguard is flapping around" I'd wondered what the buzzing sound was, turned out a couple of the zip ties holding the Mudhugger on had snapped. A simple fix. Hmm, bad luck comes in threes?

Then we drop into the Feshie river bed, err, this is wrong. We back track through the undergrowth and get on the track. Then my chain breaks! Fortunately I've a quicklink so we get that fitted. While getting out my tools and spares I notice I've no spare brake pads, I'd moved them to the Solaris for the YD300 and not moved them back. I say nothing. Lights appear, "Who's coming up the glen at this time of night?" It turned out that we'd set off on the track in the wrong direction and it was us going the wrong way. The lights turned out to be Sean Belson, Hamish and his mate. The glen is mostly a blast, we pass the bothy, this turns out to be "locked" by the simple expedient of the estate renting it out as accommodation! I notice that two of our group were missing - nothing untoward they'd planned to bivy in the Glen so had stopped. It later transpired that they scratched at that point.

The tracks were fast until we got to the Allt Garbhlach, last time I'd crossed this higher up but now we'd reached the bit where it had really washed out and it involved a steep downclimb and climb out manhandling our bikes. After this things sped up and soon we were on the road. Rear lights on (don't know why we didn't see a single car!) and then it was time trial mode to get to the 24hr filling station in Aviemore.

Where the fuck did all the time go? The two hours I'd been "ahead" had all gone and I arrived here at the same time as last time. Sean had arrived a little earlier and had ordered his grub. You couldn't go into the shop so you ordered at the kiosk, not easy when you don't know what they stock. A coffee and a bacon butty later, oh, and a bollocking from the Polis for using a mobile on the forecourt (actually I'm turning it off as there's only 7% battery left - hence no more shots), and I'm ready to go.

"You don't hang around" notes Sean

"Starting to get cold and I've nothing else to do here."

"Where are you bivvying?" Ian asks. 

"I'm just heading on the route through the woods until I find a dry shelter or somewhere to bivy.

"Mind if I join you?

"Not at all

And with that I set off. I turn off the Glenmore road and notice there's no lights behind me, oh well. I need to get some warmth into me before bivvying, fortunately the butty has done its job and I've plenty of energy. I pass where I bivvied last time and turn into the woods. A few km along the tracks and there's an old horsebox next to the track. Perfect. A bit of rearranging of the dry hay on the floor (really) and I'm just settling down when Sean rides past.

"I'm riding through. Steve's light is playing up so he and Ian have bivvied just outside Aviemore"

With that he rides on and I get into my quilt. It's 0200.

"What's that?" Something moves nearby. I'm not sure if it's a mouse or rat nestled in the hay near me or something just outside the horse box. I'm too tired to worry and drift off to sleep.

I wake at 0530 and there's just a bit of light in the sky so back on with my wet cycling kit (euch!), pack everything away and get going by 0550. No chance of using my stove because of all the hay. I notice that I'm only 100m away from a group of houses, shows how close you can bivy to folk. About fifteen minutes later there's a light at the side of the track. It's Phil who was putting away his bivy kit. Again we ride together, noting potential bivy spots amongst general chatter until again he pulls away his single speed being well the single speed he has to ride.

Alone again I push on, little energy in my legs or body, there's a tarp fluttering in the wind up above the track, it turns out to be a guy bivvying but I don't know if he's a rider or not. Quite how his tarp is offering any protection as it's set at about 2 metres above the ground. He waves and I wave back. I catch Phil up in Eag Mhor and we ride on through heather to the Dorbach burn. "One of my favourite bits of riding" he notes. Again he pushes on and I won't see him again.

The Burn of Brown is an easy crossing, it was this burn that was impassable three years ago, I say crossing, you actually cross it back and forth seven times. Tomintoul is still shut, I don't even ease up pedalling and turn into Glen Avon. Breakfast will have to be in Braemar 40km on. "Glen Avon's going to be a bitch in a headwind" Phil had noted. Actually it wasn't that bad for the most part. The worst bit was my drive train, it was making an awful racket. A five minute stop and application of oil sorted that out.

The singletrack around Loch Builg was nice apart from the gusting wind. The loch is meant to be in a wind funnel so if this wasn't so bad then it boded well for the rest of the route. No chance! I dropped into Glen Gairn and almost came to a halt. Even the flat sections along the glen floor were a real effort. Light showers hid the view and added to the fun. I'd already walked sections by the time I got to the fancy shooting hut at the foot of the Cullardoch climb. I walked nearly all of that. I'm at the summit when I notice a figure on the climb, probably Ian.

Even the descent from Cullardoch was a bit dicy with a cross wind but then I was on the descent through the trees to Invercauld, lovely. Braemar looked so close but you ride for a couple of km in the other direction to get to the bridge. Of course you then had that couple of km plus some more into a headwind to get to the village. Straight to the cafe. 

"Only customers using our app allowed" stated the sign. WTF! 

"How am I supposed to know that in advance? Plus my phone battery is dead.

"Just fill out the card".

While waiting for my food to arrive, Steve Waters turns up. It turns out Ian was struggling a bit and since he'd arrived by train had realised he wasn't going make any of the Sunday services to get back home so was taking it a bit easier. An hour had gone by by the time we'd finished eating and chattering. I needed some medication for my arse which was really sore so headed to the Co-op.

Steve was long gone by now. I ate my ice cream while riding along looking for somewhere I could pull off the road and apply the arse cream. Slightly better. It's all road to the Linn of Dee but it's also into the wind and is hard work. Not as hard as the next section which is the only bit of the route that repeats, Linn of Dee to the Geldie Burn. This takes me an hour. My mood's worsening, I'm screaming obscenities at the wind. Just before the White Bridge I have to walk as I feel the first twinges of cramp. Normally I get this after about twelve hours so to get a day and a half into a ride is good for me. Doesn't do anything for speed though.

Then the Geldie. Yesterday this was benign, now it had risen substantially and was brown with flood water. Nothing for it but to wade across. It wasn't particularly deep, maybe knee high at worst but I knew there was more to come. Almost immediately there's two crossings of the Bynack Burn, the first of which looked really deep and strong flowing. A slight detour to find shallows meant trudging upstream along the middle of the burn until more shallows led to the other side.

The wind still hadn't let up and was pushing me around making what would normally be easy riding very hard work. As I approached the Tilt watershed there was more and more walking involved. I note the Tilt flowing down from the opposite side of the strath, I'm finally on the home stretch, just the Tilt to cross to get to the Sting in the Tail.

Then the wheels came off. By the time I got to the Tilt crossing I was in no mood to continue. Looking down the glen there were black clouds heading my way. I really didn't want to be up high in that lot, I really didn't want to have to cross the Tilt. I headed down the glen.

Even this was hard work - normally you'd do a couple of pedal strokes and freewheel for a minute or two. Not today, half a dozen pedal strokes and you got maybe three bike lengths before you had to pedal again. Plus my sore arse meant that I had to do all this standing up! It took nearly an hour and forty minutes to reach the car park. Cath had got there about ten minutes earlier. We got changed staccato due to all the dog walkers going past then headed to the pub for something to eat. Even the pint felt heavy.

I think my lack of mileage showed. The first 80km to Glenmore were really fast even accounting for being on a full suss rather than a rigid with the amount of road involved. Even with the high winds the section over Bynack Mor and Lairig an Loaigh I was over half an hour faster. Mechanicals and faffing/getting lost then ate up all that time gain. I ate reasonably well but probably not enough given how I felt on the second day, I should have stopped somewhere sheltered and cooked the food I'd brought with me rather than just pushing on.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Bikepacking Toolkit and Spares

A while since I've posted so since I haven't done any notable rides I thought I'd do a few posts about the kit I take. Starting with bike tools and spares.

Despite our best intentions occasionally things go wrong and generally there's no-one else around to sort it out. Enter the tool-kit. With a little forethought you can carry tools and spares that will fix most problems short of major breakages. So here's a run down of things to take along with techniques and the occasional tip. As with most things in life, prevention is better than cure so a well maintained bike is less likely to suffer problems - "A stitch in time" and all that. They still happen though and accidents do occur - the only time I've needed to use any tools out on the trails in the last few years was to refit my shifter after a crash. Before we get to the tools and stuff there's a couple of ancillary items that are well worth taking.

Firstly a light of some kind. Obviously if you ride at night then you'll have a light on the bike but these are pretty vicious in terms of output, even at their lowest settings, and aren't designed for close up work. In the case of dynamo lights they are fixed to the bike and the standlight only lasts a couple of minutes anyway. So a small headtorch (with charged batteries!) will let you see what you are doing. Petzl Zipka, Alpkit Muon or Viper are all fine and pack up small, the Zipka with batteries weighs just 65g. An alternative (and something that you are likely to have with you anyway) may be your mobile phone - some have a "spotlight" option. Next, if it's cold (or winter) then one of those chemical handwarmers to keep your digits nice and flexible and capable of doing the work or even putting on the area of bike being worked on to avoid cold induced brittleness.

As ever with practical things it's worth practising in a comfortable environment - being out on the moors in driving rain as darkness is falling isn't the time to start reading the instruction manual: "Thank you for purchasing this product, we hope it gives you many years service ...". As above it's pretty rare things go wrong: I've only used a tyre plug in anger twice in seven years which is hardly enough to become proficient.

  • get an old tyre and stab and slash it to see how plugs/anchovies work and how to sew a tyre back together; 
  • use the chain tool on old chains or the bit of chain you removed when fitting the new one. 

Even then when using the tyre plug it's a different matter inserting it on a mounted tyre than on an old one just lying around, you've got to avoid puncturing both another part of the tyre and disturbing the rim tape.


Seemingly derigeuer these days, choose your favourite one. There's a few newer designs that aim to make use of empty space around your bike such as inside the crank spindle or the steerer column. But while convenient, multi-tools by their nature try to be all things to all riders, they're the Swiss Army knife of biking but do you really need all those bells and whistles?

Work out what your bike needs in the way of tools. There's a small range of hex/Allen keys that will do most of the bolts on a bike:  3, 4 & 5mm covers my Cotic Solaris' needs while my Singular Puffin fat bike needs 2, 4 & 5mm. Disc rotor bolts are usually Torx T25, some chainring bolts are Torx T20. Mech hanger bolts are usually 2mm hex.

I've got a set of Fixit Sticks that were on sale in a local bike shop. Only four "tools" (3, 4, 5mm hex and a Philips screwdriver) but the two halves slot together to make a T-shaped proper sized tool you can hold in your hand. Fixit also do a set of these with magnetic holders and replaceable bits. On a similar note a magnetic holder/wrench with the required standard hex bits is another alternative and can be lightweight and cheap to put together but does leave the problem of a chain tool.

You may need either a flat or Phillips screwdriver, in cold weather a regular screwdriver might be worth considering. One tool that is well worth taking is a set of pliers. For bike purposes the Leatherman Squirt covers most bases. Again, work out what you need and how a particular tool or feature will work in conjunction with your other kit.

You don't have to buy bike specific "kits" or tools, a look around most hardware stores will get you something that does the job if a little less elegantly.

In really cold weather it may be more worthwhile just taking full sized versions of whichever sizes of Allen Key your bike uses. The four needed for my fat bike weigh just 40g and I can get my whole hand around the handle/long side. Wrap in heat shrink (but not over the business ends) to avoid contact cold burns. Similarly a full sized Leatherman or Gerber tool rather than something like the Squirt will be easier to handle in the cold.


You need a pump designed for high volume as opposed to high pressure tyres. There's only a handful that are genuinely useful out on the trail: the Topeak Mountain Morph and the Lezyne HV mini-floor pump. Both have a "foot" as well as a T-handle for easier pumping and they both come with a hose so you aren't putting strain on the valve. The pump doesn't get used much so check that the seals haven't dried out prior to heading off on a trip and that it will pump the tyres up to the required pressure, again maintenance plays its part.

Inner tube

Even if you don't run tubeless (why not?) having a spare inner tube covers those situations where the tyre is damaged to the point where on its own it won't hold air. No need to go overboard, get the lightest tube you can find, something like the Surly ultra light. See a little later for mending tyres. There's also the Tubolito which are even smaller and lighter but various people have had problems with them. They aren't cheap either!

Tyre plugs

When something punctures your tyre and it's too big for the sealant to work then somehow you've got to plug that hole, ooer missus! Enter the tyre plug, often known as anchovies or bacon strips. Basically a strip of material along with applicator that you use to push said material into hole. There's a few systems around, they all do the same thing, usually there's two tools - a rasp or file to roughen up the edges of the hole and the applicator. Some also have a small blade to cut the material once you've plugged the hole but any knife/blade will do. I've the Sahmurai Sword which replaces the end caps on your handlebars thus making use of a somewhat wasted space.

The strips as supplied are a bit long so cut them in half, they only have to be long enough to pass through the tyre wall when bent in two.

TIP: fit one length of the material in the applicator before heading out so you are ready to go.

Assuming you are quick off the mark, put a finger over the hole to try and stop too much air from escaping, after all you are only going to have to pump the tyre up again in a minute or two. Grab the rasp and push it into the hole and roughen the edges. Now grab the applicator and push in until the strip is in the hole a reasonable amount then put a finger on the strip and gently pull the applicator back out. Trim off any excess if you feel the need. Pump up the tyre. If you want to make a really permanent job then when you get home clean and dry the area and apply some flexible superglue over the strip and let it set.

Back to inner tubes. One side effect of the tubeless system working is that you tend not to know when you've had an "incident" that with tubes would see you stopped at the side of the trail either repairing a puncture or replacing the tube. Sometimes it's obvious when the sealant sprays out but more often than not the sealant just does its job especially with larger volume tyres that run at lower pressure. An inner tube should be your last resort for when all else fails. If you are lucky then you'll find the thorns and nails by running your fingers (carefully!) around the inside of the tyre before fitting the tube. The problem is that often you'll get embedded sharps that don't fully push through the tyre carcase and only show themselves when that part of the tyre strikes an edge and the thorn or whatever pushes into the tube then retreats back into hiding. On one occasion I put in a tube after carefully checking the inside of the tyre. The tube would slowly deflate over a couple of hours. When I got home and checked there were six pin-prick punctures in it!

TIP: get some tissue paper or similar and wipe it around the inside of the tyre. Any thorns will snag the lightweight paper and will be easier to find. Leatherman/Gerber like tools usually have some form of pliers which are ideal for removing any thorns.


Again this is very bike and component specific.

Spare valve and valve cores: Over time tubeless sealant can clog up the valve so grab a few spare valve cores, and pack one or two. You'll need either a valve core tool or a pair of pliers (e.g. Leatherman Squirt) to remove/replace it. If your multi-tool has a chain tool then there's a suitably sized slot on that that will also work. I also take a spare valve especially if it's a remote trip or I'm heading somewhere where I'm not sure whether I'm going to get spares.

Chain: Quick links of appropriate size for your chain. Also keep that short length of chain you removed when originally fitting it, if you do break/wreck a chain then it's easy to repair. You don't need any special tools to remove the quicklink, an old piece of gear/brake cable or even zip-ties can be used to squeeze the two sides together - thread the cable through the links either side, cross the wires over and pull. Alternatively use some pliers. One other technique is to use your chainring: position the quicklink so that it sits on the chainring, now lift the chain at one side and pull it towards the quicklink by one link such that you form a triangle sticking up from the chainring with the quicklink forming one side. Now push down on the QL and it should come apart.

One "tool" that is worth having is a chain holder - basically a piece of wire about 10cm long with hooks at both ends. Some chain tools and some multi-tools come with one but they are easy enough to make out of an old spoke or wire coat hanger. They are used to hold the chain either side of where you might break it with the chain tool or when putting the chain back together so that there isn't any tension in the work area.

To fit the quicklink it's a case of applying enough force to pull the pins into the correct parts of the slots. Put the quicklink together and spin the cranks until it is in the upper part of the loop where it will be under tension. Now stamp firmly on the pedal and it should snap into place. Make sure that both sides have engaged!

Gear cable: Some people pack one but I've yet to break one, again with proper maintenance this shouldn't be necessary - I'd replace gear (and brake cables if you've mechanical brakes) prior to a big trip. Then again only 10g and takes up next to no space.

Spare brake pads: I'd pack a set but it does depend where you are heading. Make sure you pack the correct pads for the bike! My Puffin has Avid BB7 brakes but I've a Hope rotor which has a set of rivets holding the braking surface to the spider which foul on the arms of the Avid pads so those need to be cut down before I head out.

Mech Hanger: One of those items that's almost impossible to source should you break it, I've bent one when out riding but not broken it. You'll almost certainly need a 2mm hex key for the bolts holding this.

I'll divide the spares in to generic and bike specific packs with the latter living permanently on the relevant bike. The pack is marked up with the bike's make/model so I don't head out with the wrong set of spares but I've usually got bags permanently fixed to the bikes and the kit lives in there.

In the shot below are the contents of one such bike specific tin, it measures 90x32x32mm and is at top right of the shot, an ex-work colleague vaped and this is one of his empty vaping gunk tins suitably washed (several times). All the items beneath it plus the nitryl glove go in to it.
  • Allen key with magnetic holder
  • 2, 3 & 4mm hex bits (the Allen key "handle" is 5mm), T25 bit
  • Loctite flexible super glue
  • pack of tyre plugs
  • a set of spare brake pads and spring with retaining bolt
  • spare valve core
  • various nuts and bolts
  • cable end crimps
  • chain powerlink (appropriate size for the chain)
  • spare mech hanger (with bolts)
  • chain holder. 
 Total weight of tin and contents is 130g.

The pump is a Topeak DA something or other. There's a few wraps of Gorilla Tape around the handle.  To the left of this we have: tyre boot (old toothpaste tube); Leatherman Squirt tool;  tyre lever, Topeak mini chain tool (40g).

Along the top: Sahmurai Sword tyre plug tools that fit into the bar ends. A bunch of zip ties. A Tubolito emergency inner tube.

All that lot comes to under 500g (the pump and inner tube account for 200g of that) which isn't a great deal. Volume wise it's not a lot if you exclude the pump, I've a Wildcat Cheetah "Jerry can" top tube bag and it all goes in there with room to spare.

For more remote trips items like the Unior lockring tool that lets you remove the cassette and the Fiberfix emergency spoke can be useful. In the latter case a few spokes taped to the seat stays or inside the seat post (held by foam to stop rattling) is also an option.

The above should show that there's no reason a comprehensive set of tools and spares need either cost the earth or take up masses of room. Working out just what you need can pay dividends.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

JennRide 2019

Back to the Lakes and rolling in to the car park and the first four people we see we know. It's that kind of event. Tent up and it's off to Wheelbase to listen to a variety of short lectures ranging from bovine avoiding Highland Trails to windswept Asian plains.

Up early, well this is the Lakes in summer, breakfast in More then a bit of hanging around until around 9am we decide not to wait for the Grand Départ and set off. Familiar lanes lead to the top of a descent I've not done before, a bit blind and rocky and quite narrow, not one to be in a big pack descending really. Minor lanes lead to the ferry crossing on Windermere. We've just missed one sailing so by the time the ferry is back on our side pretty well everyone from the GD has arrived.

Rather a lot of cyclists on the ferry.

Once across I'm riding alongside Tony who's on an ebike and fairly shifting! He's only out for a short spin with his wife so after a couple of km he stops and waits for her. A check to see if Cath's OK before the climb over Claife Heights then I push on.

The first technical climb and I almost make it without dabbing, Stu Rider gets passed me and cleans it so now I've a target to keep up with. The descent past Wise E'en Tarn is fast, I don't realise how fast until I get home to discover I'm in the top ten on Strava! That never happens on a descent for me.

Riding round to the next bit of off-road I'm chatting to Alan Goldsmith about my bike and I make the stupid comment that I've finally got it dialled for climbing. "Now's your chance! This next one's tricky". And so it proved, I'd not done it before but got within a few bike lengths of the end of the difficulties. Annoyingly Alan got to within one.

A rocky descent into Grizedale before climbing up on The North Face trail and over towards Parkamoor.

A quick stop for something to eat and then on to one of the main descents of the route. This went well until about halfway down when I got the wrong line, stopped then as I tried to get going again went over the bars! Landing on bedrock hurts! Then I noticed something flapping on the bike - turns out the bolt holding my shifter to the brake had chosen that moment to disappear. A zip tie and a bit of tape from Mark (the chap in the shot above) and I was good to carry on.

Easy riding led to Torver and the deli at The Wilson Arms. Pete McNeil offered a bolt to fix my shifter but it was slightly too short. In the end Alan Goldsmith came to the rescue with a slightly longer one - "that'll be a DQ then" he remarked.

Up and over Torver Common, past Stephenson Ground and another rocky descent down to The Newfield Inn. Time for refreshments.

A couple of pints later and I was ready to go. Now the JennRide has a short option and a long option and the Newfield was the turning point for the short route. But it was only 3:45pm so way too early to start heading back. However I didn't really want to go over to Wasdale so decided to do a medium option of my own: Road up on to Ulpha Fell then cut right and take bridleways down to Boot then another BW along the valley floor to by the Woolpack Inn. Sorted!

By the time I got to my turn off the official route Stu Rider had caught me up again. The BW down the hillside was great, not technical but just nice fun. The one along the valley floor was a little different having been subject to some recent bulldozing in places to make it passable for farm vehicles.

There was a music festival on at The Woolpack so no stopping. On to the climb back over to Dunnerdale. This is basically a push for half an hour or so. As I reached the top of the steepest section I got a text from Cath - she was doing the same as me but using the roads in the valley as she didn't know the BWs. On the final track before the Wallowbarrow Descent I started with cramps which was a little annoying.

I got back to the Newfield three hours after leaving so time to grab something to eat. Tony Craig was there having come off on the rocky descent down to the pub - he'd end up getting a (expensive) taxi back to Staveley. I spent nearly two hours in the pub! There was no rush I was going to bivy on the Coniston side of Walna Scar so only had to get there by dark.

Chatting to one of the other riders it turned out that we'd both worked for the same building firm in Kendal many years ago so there was a bit of "what's X doing now?". He chose to set off with me and head up Walna Scar.

It looked like my timing was right, there were long shadows on the push up the bottom section.

My companion dropped back then another rider appeared and caught me up at the midway gate. We walked together up the next bit, my cramp preventing me from attempting to ride any of it. Finally at the summit we were treated to a great sunset.

It was a bit chilly on top, time to head down. I managed to ride more of it than the last times I've ridden it but I was still a bit shaken by my fall earlier in the day so walked a couple of sections of about 50 metres. Then it was just a blast down to the easier track.

There were plenty of people bivvying out but I thought I'd better find somewhere that Cath could find me. I ended up just on from Boo Tarn (more of a reedy swamp these days) and texted her to let her know. She arrived about an hour later having missed me in the pub by about fifteen minutes.

The morning turned out grey so we didn't get the matching sunrise. Ah well. A quick butty from the filling station in Coniston then it was time to start heading back to Ambleside.

There were a few bridleways in here that I'd not done before. The one below is a fairly steep lane leading up from Yew Tree Farm.

Round past Tarn Hows then another new to me descent towards the Drunken Duck. I'd done the bottom bit the other way some time ago but the main part of the descent was new. The last new to me bit was a bridleway from Outgate towards Brathay then it was familiar territory into town and breakfast.

All that was left was up and over Jenkin's Crag and the bottom bit of Garburn Pass (which has been pitched with stone since I last rode it, definitely much easier to try and climb now). Round by High Borrans where Rich the organiser and another rider caught us up which meant that we could sort ourselves out and take turns to open gates.

Then just the Three Rivers descent and back into Staveley in time for lunch.

All in all a good weekend even if I'm still somewhat battered and bruised from my low speed, as in 0 kmh, over the bars incident.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Rovaniemi Kit

This year's race was a bit different to that two years ago primarily because of the temperature being 10C or so warmer. Although I've not "raced" on the fat bike at home I was far warmer during the Rovaniemi 150 than on most UK winter rides where I've ridden it.

I'd done some adjustments since last time - , changes are noted in the comments, they are mostly about better cold protection but it just so happens that I'd have been OK with the kit I'd used last time.

I've put links to the manufacturer's pages for some of the items but the standard stuff is easily located on CRC, Wiggle, etc..

The bike

Singular Puffin medium frame with Travers Fat Prong carbon forks. Industry Nine hubs with Sun Ringle Mulefut 80mm rims. Tyres were 45Nrth Vanhelgas set up tubeless. Raceface Aeffect cranks with Absolute Black oval 26T chainring. Shimano rear mech and Sunrace 11-42 10spd cassette. Avid BB7 brakes. Nukeproof Electron plastic/composite pedals. Jones SG Riser Loop bars.

Apart from the Jones bars this is the same setup as two years ago. I'd originally fitted a set of carbon Jones Loop bars to the bike but got nerve damage after the last time. I suddenly realised it was because the previous owner was a little shorter than me and the steerer had been cut to suit so the front end was too low. The only way to lift it would have been to get a new set of forks but then Jones released their riser bars. Perfect!

Bags and Kit

Wildcat Lion handlebar harness with 20L Exped dry bag. Two Revelate Mountain Feed Bags. Wildcat Snow Leopard frame bag.  Alpkit Fuel Pod top tube bag. Wildcat Tiger seat harness and tapered dry bag.

The 20L dry bag held a Rab Expedition 1100 sleeping bag and an Exped Winterlite sleeping mat. I can get the bag in to a 13L bag but it's a struggle. I used the 13L bag last time and wrapped a CCF mat around it.

Revelate Williwaw pogies. A big step up from the Alpkit model but a bit warm this time. Garmin Oregon GPS mounted on the front loop of the bars.

One Feed bag held trail food and the other my goggles and battery from MTB Batteries for one of my lights.

The frame bag came with the bike and is one of the prototypes. It contained a spare inner tube; two spare buffs; three spare pairs of gloves; small pan; more food. GoPro lay along the top of the frame bag and strapped to top tube.

The top tube bag was fitted at the top tube - seat post junction to aid with standover. It held spare batteries for camera and GoPro; tools (multi-tool, Leatherman squirt, sewing kit). I also had a Sahmurai Sword tyre plug system which fits in the end of the handlebars. I had a Topeak Mountain Morph pump strapped to the down tube.

The saddle bag held: a spare thermal top; spare socks; 3/4 length waterproof trousers; lightweight waterproof; PHD lightweight down jacket.

Lights were a Hope Vision 2 mounted on the front loop of the bars and an Exposure Joystick mounted on my helmet (Lazer Revolution). The helmet has an inbuilt GoPro mount so I've an adaptor between that and the Exposure style mount. Generally you don't need a huge amount of light because the snow reflects so much so both lights were on their lowest settings, even with virtually a full night of riding I hardly used any of the battery charge. A small rear light was attached to the Tiger harness.


Mostly nut and raisin mix with a bar of marzipan (doesn't freeze or crumble in to bits). I'd also a packet of precooked rice and grains and a couple of packets of porridge (hence the pan) but didn't use this.

On Me

Bridgedale socks; Scarpa Mountaineering boots with in-built gaiters; Madison thermal bib long; long sleeved thermal top of uncertain make and vintage; Gore Windstopper Jacket; lightweight buff under helmet.

Between thermal and jacket I had a Revelate Wampak drinks pack with a 3 litre bladder.

Camera and a few cereal and chocolate bars in the jacket pockets.


Mostly I got things right with just a few niggles. As stated several times the conditions were somewhat atypical and all the kit I'd bought to supplement/correct the mistakes from last time weren't really needed.

One worry was the chainring getting bent on the flight out. I'd taken a spare but packed the wrong tool to replace it so I ended up (carefully) bending it back into line. It held up for the race and I didn't have any shifting problems so a bit lucky there.

Later on I had problems with the brakes freezing up. I think this is because of everything being so wet earlier on in the race then when temperatures fell that turned to ice. I'm not sure if it was the callipers freezing up or water in the cables. I've seen a blog post about weatherproofing BB7s so will investigate that.

I got tyre pressures pretty much right this time - I was riding quite a bit more of the lake than those ahead of me for example plus on the long tracks heading to CP7 where there was a lot of soft or broken snow I pulled away from Mike Collins who's much stronger than me. It's a bit of a balancing act between having pressures low enough to ride but high enough to reduce drag. The route surface also ranges from soft tracks to ploughed roads so it was a matter of judging whether each section was long enough to justify stopping to adjust pressures, having done the route before made this easier.

I didn't think they were too low until I got off the second lake and the rear felt "squidgy". Whether it was the drop in temperature or I'd caught the edge of an icy rut and the tyre had burped some air I don't know but it needed a couple of PSI adding. I was possibly down to 2psi at that point.

This is how low I got with tyre pressures - probably a bit too low at this point!

My hands were roasting for most of the ride! I had the ventilation zips on the pogies open all the time until after the temperatures dropped well below freezing. I only used one of the spare pairs of gloves. In a similar vein my feet were very warm until the dampness built up from sweating. They only really got cold due to this at the stops, particularly the hut at CP6, but warmed up once I got moving. Constantly wriggling my toes helped.

The Williwaw pogies have their own bar end plugs to use as part of their mounting system. Using the Sahmurai plugs meant that I had to loop the mount on to the bar grips which didn't really work.
A) they would slip off the end of the bars occasionally.
B) the mounting loop sat under the palm of my hand and was somewhat irritating.

I'd wanted to have my sleeping kit at the back of the bike but I've no saddle bag big enough to stuff it in. This meant that I'd 2.5kg or so on the front of the bike affecting handling. One option might be to use a rear pannier rack and strap the bag to that. It would add around 700g over and above the Tiger harness and dry bag. While "soft" bikepacking kit is generally fine, it's intended to be streamlined to allow riding through narrow trails. On events like the Rovaniemi 150 the terrain and trails are much more open so that isn't so much of a problem. Certainly if I had to carry more kit it would be an option.

I'd strapped the pump on the downtube next to the frame bag. When I came to use it after getting off the second lake it was rather icy so it might be better strapping it to the top tube. I'd not had this problem last time because it was so consistently cold.

I'd looked around for a quick release mount to be able clip the GoPro and its "selfie" stick to the top tube but didn't manage to find one so I ended up using Velcro One-Wrap to fix it. As a result it was awkward to release and start using so I didn't get as much footage as I'd have liked.

Of all the mandatory and spare kit I carried on the bike, the only items I used were the pump and one pair of gloves. Of course most of it is for when things go wrong or you are much slower and intending to sleep out.

Ever more learning!

Thursday, 28 February 2019

What Lays Beneath

Snow's weird. Well its primary constituent, water, is weird. In fact it's one of the weirdest compounds known. The only substance that is naturally solid, liquid and vapour at the earth's surface. One of very few substances whose density isn't linear with temperature (the others are mostly rare elements), it's densest at +4C which is why ice floats on water and forms on the surface of bodies of water and not at the bottom.

We woke to -25C. Putting a bike together in those temperatures is "interesting". A bent chainring should have been swapped out but I'd forgotten the adaptor so some careful rebending with a set of adjustable spanners was in order. The day was forecast to get warmer, a lot warmer, by the time we headed down to the mandatory gear inspection and race brief it had risen to -15C. Two hours later it was -5C.

Race day and it was just below freezing as we headed down to sign on. It wasn't even nippy standing around on the river waiting for the start.

The start
Phil Clarke at the start
Simon and Lisa Bryant

The start was the typical dash. We've 11km of this to spread the field out a bit and already the conditions feel harder than two years ago. I keep pace with Phil Clarke, one of the many British riders in the race and who I'd ridden with for a couple of days on the Highland Trail in 2017. We pass Mike (Collins) who'd had a puncture within the first kilometre.

I'm on my limit when Phil pulls away as we work at passing a couple of other riders and he's leaving the first checkpoint as I head in. 47mins to there, a full eleven minutes slower than last time. Hmm might be a long day. There's a long minor road section before the first of the proper off-road sections. It feels firm until I get to a lead where there's soft windblown snow across the track and I'm off. Time to let some air out of the tyres. Soon I'm at checkpoint two.

The forest road on the way to checkpoint two

Each of the race distances (66, 150 & 300km) have separate sheets to sign. I notice there's only five numbers before mine. "Is this the first sheet?", "yes". Gulp, I wasn't expecting that.

The next bit is one of the pain in the ass sections and is unrideable. It's so narrow and convoluted twisting in and around trees that the organisers can't use snowmobiles to create the trail but have to flatten it using snowshoes. It doesn't feel as bad as last time and soon I'm on the lake.

It's definitely warm on the lake, probably +5C, and it's hard work. Ahead, still some way in the distance, I notice riders getting off and walking before remounting for a short distance then walking again. I stop to let more air out of my tyres. There's lots of overflow on the lake, these are definitely walking sections but the rest is mostly ridable - it's just a case of choosing the right line and speed for any one  obstacle. I catch one of the riders I'd seen earlier. No, no, no, NO! He's walking in the main tyre tracks with his bike to the side thus wrecking any semblance of line for those following. He probably thought I was a grumpy old git going past.

Ice lying on water isn't static, it lives and breathes in response to the weather and its immediate environment. One factor is variations in atmospheric pressure, these cause the ice to fall with high pressure and rise in low pressure. These changes lead to cracks forming in the ice and the underlying water overflowing on to the surface.

With dry, i.e. uncovered by snow, surfaces this water will freeze if air temperatures are below zero but remain liquid in warmer conditions. More interesting is what happens if the ice is blanketed with snow.

In such circumstances the snow acts as an insulator (well it's the air inside the snow that actually does the insulating) and the water remains in liquid form at temperatures well below freezing, the actual temperature depending on the depth of snow and ambient conditions. Unless someone has passed across the overflow then it's effectively hidden and the first you know about it is a sudden wet squidge. If air temps are well below zero then the water can freeze near instantly to boots, skis, drivetrain.

As much of a worry is the thought always at the back of your mind that this isn't actually overflow but a break in the ice.

The next rider is some way away and it takes a while to catch them: I'd pull close on the tricky sections but then they'd pull out a lead when it was easier. Eventually I was close enough to see that it was a woman rider and when I passed I noted that she was riding the 150 as well. Her troubles were caused by too high tyre pressures for the conditions. I was in fifth! By the time I turned left at the route junction I looked back and she was just a dot in the distance.

Finally, after 11km of sheer bloody effort I'm off the lake. Last time this had been fast smooth ice. A bit of road (still snow/ice) and then it's the longest and steepest hill on the route. "On your right" a voice announces, I wobble and fall off the marked track. "Shit! Sorry!" It's the woman again. It takes me several minutes to find purchase to climb back on the track.

I catch her on the descent and she passes me again on the next section of road. I see her for the last time at the third checkpoint. Also there is Phil. He's been there a while sorting out a chain dropping issue. I leave on my own. For the next few hours the only riders, indeed people, I see will be at the checkpoints.

Checkpoint three

More track, more road (with reindeer!) and more track get me to checkpoint four. The sunny morning has turned to a cloudy afternoon and it's really hard to make out features on the track. It's the Bridge of Doom next and the descent to it sees me headlong in to the snow at the side of the track as I catch a rut where one of the riders ahead has pushed through the surface. The bridge isn't as bad as last time - it gets its name due a competitor who fell in the stream and carried on rather than returning to the checkpoint five hundred metres back. He lost most of his toes to frostbite. The second pain in the ass section follows.

The Bridge of Doom (photo from 2017)
A longish road section then tracks through the forest with more comedy falls - they don't hurt, other than pride, the snow's too soft and deep for that.

Even several metres of dry snow can't support the weight of a bike and rider so we are following snowmobile tracks through the woods. The machines are a tracked rubber band (for want of a better description) with an outboard pair of steering skis. This has a micro effect on how and where you ride.

The tracks thus formed need time for the cold air to firm up the disturbed snow, it's almost impossible to ride on fresh snowmobile tracks, especially uphill.

How quickly and how steadily the driver has passed along the track can affect the firmness of the track: a little too much throttle can lift the front end just enough that the skis don't compact the snow quite as much.

I'm following the line of a steerer ski when my front wheel disappears and I'm over the bars. Giggling I look at the bike - the downtube is lying on the snow surface. I lift the bike out and carry on.

In and out of checkpoint five without stopping other than to sign the sheet. I need to get the next bit done before dark as it's probably the most technical. The steep descent done it's lights on and I'm reduced to walking to the next checkpoint after a couple of snowmobiles pass in the opposite direction.

On the trails after checkpoint five.

Checkpoint six (out of eight) is actually just over halfway in distance and just under halfway in time. I spend time in the hut by the fire drying gloves and buffs whilst eating as much as possible. Two Italian riders arrive, they are on the 300km race, then a while later Mike turns up. He must have been storming to catch up after fixing the tyre at the start.

Mike leaves before me but I catch him again on the long descent back to the starting river. He's having a bad time mentally with the conditions. I ride with him for a while but eventually the elastic snaps and I'm on my own. The forest track gives way to minor road and I reach the river and pass through the village. A food stop under the street lights then onward. It's 34km between CPs 6 & 7 and it feels very lonely.

Riders also have an effect on the trail - follow someone who hasn't lowered their tyre pressure enough for the conditions and there'll be wiggles in the tyre tracks as they slip around and dips in the track as they apply too much torque and the tyre begins to dig in. In the worst case they'll step off or fall off and leave holes in the trail.

There are so many micro conditions to contend with: breaks in the trees allow the wind to fill over the track or the sun to soften it.

There's a light behind, it can only be Mike. I push on, the gap closing as I reach the climbs, extending as I hit the descents. At the turn on to the forest track there's no light in sight. I push on. This section just seems to last for ever as you follow forest tracks in the night. Like last time I smell the wood smoke from the fire before I see the shelters of the checkpoint. I spend time holding various bits of clothing to the fire to dry them out. I'm about to leave when Mike arrives. He's thinking of kipping here for a while.

A snowmobile pulls in to the checkpoint and leaves again just after I've got going. The track is now too soft to ride so it's more pushing. Eventually I get on to a forestry track and the surface improves. The snowmobile is heading back, the driver signals me to stop: "man then woman ahead, about 5km on the lake, but woman is not looking good. If you see her check with her." It turns out that she'd taken one of the many tracks leading off the route on the lake and rung race HQ to say she was lost. Somehow she got back on track and finished in fifth.

I'm halfway across the lake and all of a sudden the wheels come off. Not the bike, me. I've bonked. Apart from the road sections it's all been hard work, the track surface just soft enough that you were pushing maybe a centimetre or more of snow in front of your wheels. It was like riding with a binding brake. I've eaten enough, I probably ate 2/3rds of the food I took and we'd stocked up with more than we thought we'd need. I'd also drunk plenty. I walk significant parts of the track across the lake.

Mike's light appears on the lake behind me and the catch is made just before we reach the far bank. I stop to put air in my rear tyre (I think a drop in temperature had also had an effect) and apart from his rear light blinking in the distance it's the last I'll see of him. The hill over to the river is a long steady drag, still mostly rideable but I have to walk a couple of bits.
This is how low my tyre was when I pumped it up!
Down on to the river, turn left and the last checkpoint is a kilometre away. In and out with no stopping, just the 11km back to the finish. This is interminable - I ride 500m then walk 500m. I look back, the white of the iced river fades away with distance until it merges in to the dark of the forest. Nothing. I'm on my own. Those 11km take 1hr40mins.

I lean the bike against the wall, stop the Garmin and open the door. A small round of applause from the volunteers manning the desks, a handshake from Alex. I'm done.


I finished in seventh place. I'd lost an hour to Mike in the last 20km. The next finishers, the first on foot, arrive nearly three and a half hours after me. It's five hours until the next fat biker arrives. It seems that the seven of us were well out in front of everyone else for the entire race (Mike's puncture at the start excepted). We all had roughly an hour between our finishing times. Phil gained an impressive third place in 16:04

The finishing times

I grab a couple of naps - trying to sleep in a sleeping bag rated to -30C in a heated storeroom isn't easy. Cath left the halfway hut at 23:03 so I reckoned she'd be finishing sometime between 1pm and 2pm. She eventually finished at 9 minutes past two as second lady on bike and in 18th place overall.

Cath receiving her prize from the organiser Alex.
Conditions were much harder than two years ago, only ten competitors finished in under 24hrs compared to over twenty then. The first lady was Hungarian but on the roster she'd put "UK" so I'm not sure if she's dual nationality. If she is then five of the top seven were Brits. Apparently she'd recently completed the Seven Summits which might explain her amazing aerobic performance.

Trail conditions required constant attention, you couldn't relax for a moment in case you caught the edge of a shallow rut or failed to spot a post hole. My shoulders were sore for a couple of days afterwards with the effort of keeping the bike upright and pointing forward.

Full results here:

Here's the Strava activity link:

Is this going to be like hangovers? "Never again!"