Wednesday, 15 June 2022

A Differerent Pace

While I like to challenge myself on ITTs sometimes it's just nice to travel in a more relaxed manner. Cath had long ago booked the week of the HT550 ride as holiday with a view to riding it but working from home and a short spell of Covid had put paid to that. Still, a week in Scotland was not to be sniffed at. I'd a few "trails" in mind to explore, some had been talked about here and there but to some extent they were definitely "trails less travelled". We'd actually nearly two weeks to play with so no rush, really we'd just see where the time and weather led us.
We elected not to take the tarps but use the tent instead. A couple of reasons: a bit more protection should the weather turn; midge season was starting. Slightly heavier (750g each when split) and a bit more awkward to carry the poles but the extra comfort would be worth it.
Similarly with cooking kit - usually we go with alcohol/meths stoves and have simple "boil water, add to something dehydrated" type meals plus a bag of chocolate something or other. We took a small gas stove, a lightweight frying pan, oil, pre-chopped onions and veg, herbs, spices, etc. and made something a bit tastier. Not that you can't do that on a meths stove but the fuel usage does go up for longer cooking times and meths isn't energy dense so you end up needing a lot of it. For three of the nights out we took wine! Small bottles (17cl or whatever) on a couple of nights but a full bottle of white on one night that sat in the river chilling while we cooked and generally faffed about. One thing about not taking lots of cooking kit is due to packing it, pots and pans are just awkward to pack on a bike, so it got us thinking about making some full frame bags for the bikes. Depending on frame size there's a limit to the diameter of a pan packed inside one, there's also a limit to the pan depth of about 100mm due to Q-factor and the like. Most pans however maintain proportions and increase depth at the same time as increasing width. The only problem then would be fitting a water bottle or being forced to go to a backpack but it should be possible to have a twin compartment bag with the rear one sized to fit a water bottle or maybe a Sigg bottle if I was taking the MSR stove.
Perhaps the best indication of our overall pace, attitude, was that our bivvies/camps lasted close to fourteen hours, each! The antithesis of "arrive late, leave early" though being in the Highlandas and only three weeks away from mid-summer meant that "darkness" only really lasted from 2300-0300 at most. In fact bivy time seemed to outweigh riding time and other stopped time such as cafés combined. We seemed to arrive in the 1800-1900 time frame and would leave around 0900. Dead lazy! This being the Highlands, no-one was bothered.
We'd ridden the Deeside Trail from Ballater over by Lochnagar down to Braemar (with café stop of course) and then on to Derry Lodge. Six hours or so for 52km but only 4 1/2hrs riding. It was just 6pm when we got there, masses of daylight left but it meant that we could spend time to find a camp spot away from everyone else - absolutely no need to crowd anyone when there's plenty of room. We got the tent put up in the afternoon sunshine (it needed some drying after the deluge of the previous night) and just chilled. I'm making a brew when I notice movement in the river beside me. There's a couple of, very small, brown trout feeding in the evening. A bit of investigation and there's another four using the trunk of a fallen tree as cover. The trout were small, I'd be surprised if they were 100g, and it got me wondering both how big the fish grew in these rivers and how long it took them to do so as there's not a lot of apparent food other than the gluts of Mayfly, etc.
A couple of days later we were camped right on a gravel shoal "in" the Quoich Water river bed as it was the only flat area around. As I was cooking tea there were a couple of small trout rising to snatch mayfly dancing over the water. Obviously the rivers have enough food for these predators, a bit surprising as somewhere I'd picked up on a comment that Cairngorm rivers were somewhat sterile due to the granite base. (need to dig out where I found that, might just have been a misinterpretation on my part).
Overall our riding speed wasn't much slower than when doing an ITT, it's just that we weren't bothered about the stops and the proportion of riding time to stopped time was much lower.

Sunday, 24 April 2022

Sweet Dreams are made of this

I'm flat on the road leading to Honister Pass screaming in pain. If there was anyone (really) close to hear by then they'd think I'd broken my leg but it's my right hamstring which has a habit of spontaneously going into cramp. This episode has been brought on by the wind blowing me off the bike. I walk the rest of the way to the summit.

I grew up in the Lakes and have done lots of stuff there: fell walking and running; climbing; biking, so the Lakeland 200 would be a good way of visiting old haunts. I've wanted to do it for several years but somehow each year things didn't happen. A prolonged dry spell and with a forecast for it to continue I made the rather late decision on Easter Monday to set off on Friday morning as early as possible. The forecast was also for being a bit cooler than recently which always helps. Being a loop you can start anywhere you want, the supplied GPX starts/finishes in Staveley but that's as much because most people would be coming from the south and that's the nearest point. I settled on starting from Coniston which meant that the second biggest climb was done right at the start and the crux section of Black Sail Pass and Scarth Gap came while I was still relatively fresh.

I'm pushing quite a bit of Walna Scar, my legs haven't warmed up yet.

There's the turn off to Goat's Water and Dow Crag, an old climbing haunt. The last time I'd been up there was to scatter a friend's ashes who'd died from an overdose.

The wind had nearly got me earlier just dropping off the top of Walna Scar when it nearly pushed me off the track so I had to walk a hundred metres or so (downhill on an easy track) until it was safe to ride again. 

Sunrise over the Lickle Valley


There's some really nice riding by the lovely named River Lickle and skirting to the south of Stephenson Ground that I'd not done before then it's the rocky descent to The Newfield.

Ah, The Newfield, we spent many a Sunday in here post climbing or other activity. One time: Simon, a Cornishman known as "Arr", and Pete (universally known as Nitto for some reason) decided that they'd jump into the Duddon from Birks Bridge as you do, in January. After said activity we retired to The Newfield and played one of their old university drinking games where you took it in turns to say "Arr" and if Nitto didn't like how you said it he drank your beer! Only ever seemed like one winner there. A couple of years ago whilst riding the Jenn Ride I mentioned to the landlord that I remembered him from when we visited in the 1980s. He stared at me: "That. Was. My. Dad!", Oops! "You're banned" With a twinkle in his eye.

I twiddle up the lane to Birks Bridge and I hear a bike approaching behind. He's the first person I've seen since I set off. We stop to chat, he's off on a quick loop over Wrynose Pass, turns out he's from a village not far from where I live.

Harter Fell is a long steady climb, a bit of a rocky plateau then a good descent. Halfway along the top there's a worrying "Pffft" as the rear tyre burps and partially deflates. Oh, well, get the pump out. Hmm, is that a cuckoo? As I begin to try to inflate the tyre the bird starts up again. The pump isn't working so plan B is to use the CO2 canister which works first time. All right cuckoo we've heard you. Drop the seat for the descent which is great fun.

The start of the descent off Harter Fell

A new bit of bridleway to me leads down the valley but there's a worrying noise from the bike. On inspection the lower jockey wheel is stuck, it rotates forward OK (ish) but won't move when spinning the pedals backwards.. Curious. A little later it's cleared itself, must have been some dirt jammed in there. Another odd loop to take in a bridleway rather than road and I arrive in Boot. It's shut.

The old water mill at Boot


Across the valley from Boot is Gate Crag. Four of us had headed up there prospecting for unclimbed routes. Al Phizacklea found one and about 10m up posed around hanging from a large hold. A short while later keen to get the second ascent I set off up it. Grabbed the hold which promptly broke off and deposited me on the (fortunately sloping) ground with luckily only bruises to show.

The old corpse road over to Wasdale doesn't go quite to plan as I mistakenly take the path to Miterdale instead! A bit of cross country through tussocks gets me back on track.

Down to Burnmoor Tarn which is very unusual in that the main feeder beck and the outflow are very close together, maybe 200 metres apart which must make for some strange hydrographics.

Wasdale is the first time the route crosses paths with the Bob Graham Round (BGR), no matter which way you do it there's a big climb out of the valley. I was definitely "feeling it" by the time I got here way back in 2005.

The Wasdale Head Inn. I had my stag do there, ended up with a Karaoke session, don't think they did much trade after that.

I didn't feel much like stopping again so soon after Boot so pressed on up Black Sail Pass, the crux of the whole route.

I'd been having problems with my rucksack - no matter how I packed it it always seemed to niggle and dig in my back. Finally as we headed up Black Sail Pass to get to Pillar Rock I decided to sort it out once and for all. I emptied the sack and got my mate to push on it - the niggle was still there. The sack had a sleeve for a foam mat to sit next to your back, out with that and the culprit was found! A peg (piton) had fallen in there. A comfy sack once more.

Black Sail Pass is our next meeting with the Bob Graham as it drops off Pillar and head onwards up the screes of Kirkfell. It takes almost the quickest route between here and Honister Pass. The LL200 will take a more circuitous line.

We usually approached Pillar Rock from Wasdale Head via Black Sail Pass and Robinson's Cairn but for our visit in 1984 we approached via Ennerdale. This was before the days of mountain bikes so would normally have been a long walk from the car park at Gillerthwaite but sat in the car was a rather large and sharp blade for a bench saw. Tony King had been sharpening it for a woodsman who lived next to the Youth Hostel. We were due to meet Dave Kirby and Penny Melville at the gate.

We were about to set off when the woodsman looked at our sacks and asked where we were heading. "Oh, hop in, I can give you a lift to the bottom of the path". Dave and Penny pulled up as we were walking down to his car on the other side of a rise in the track. Soon we were at the foot of the climb up to the rock, our lift headed back by a different track. It was a lovely warm day and the steep but now thankfully short walk-in was soon dispatched. Sitting by the beck in the sun someone noted, "Isn't that Dave?" Sure enough heading up the path were Dave and Penny.

"You lot don't half shift!" he panted as he got within earshot. We looked at each other guiltily wondering if we should let him know.

They hadn't seen us get in the car so when they got to the gate a minute or so after we had walked out of sight we were nowhere to be seen. "No problem, we'll see them round the next bend." At every bend the track ahead was bare and they sped up sure that they would catch us up: "It's a long straight after this bend, we'll definitely see them!" They had taken just fifteen minutes longer to walk the whole of the valley than we had in a car!

The route down from the pass is hardly less arduous than the ascent and I'm only able to ride for the bottom third. Scarth Gap though lower is just as rough.

Heading from Gatesgarth towards Honister and I'm in bottom gear on the flat due to the wind.

"What's your name?", "Paul", "Where are you?" "I don't know." That was worrying. We were doing the Borrowdale Bash and Paul had decided to fall off at the only point where the track leading off from the Honister Pass road wasn't protected by high bracken and had fallen into a rocky gully. We get him down to Seathwaite and the ambulance takes him to Carlisle for a scan, fortunately nothing serious.


The last bit of the Bash leads me into Keswick, it's taken 10 1/2 hours to get here.


The first bike shop doesn't have any jockey wheels, aagh! Fortunately the next one does, £11 please sir. Back to the Spar to get refreshments and more provisions and I make the jockey wheel change in their car park, the original was actually seized, I'd probably effectively had a brake on for most of the ride so far!

The route follows the BGR again out of Keswick as far as the car park on Latrigg then heads round to the Glenderamackin valley. Cath had warned me not to attempt to ride the rocky section here but there was no chance - the wind meant I could only just stand let alone ride a bike. The next bit was good riding and once on the other side of the valley and out of the wind it was much easier going.

The bit you really don't want to fall off!


Crossing the A66 I decide to get out the wind and ring Cath. I'm tucked under a wood at the start of The Coach Road before I find anywhere just "quiet". 

The first dip in The Coach Road is the last time the LL200 and BGR cross paths, the BGR sticks mostly to the west of the Lakes, Fairfield being as far east as it ventures. The LL200 on the other hand manages to visit nearly all the main valleys of the Lakes, just a few to the far east that are missed out.

Heading to Pooley Bridge after The Coal Road I make a mistake in not putting the windshirt back on and I chill on the descents. I'm pretty cold by the time I get to Pooley Bridge, even a coffee in the shop and the next climb don't really warm me up.


It's starting to get dark now. Rather than follow the ridge from here to High Street the route drops back to the valley before climbing back up again before another descent and yet another climb back up. The first descent is a blast I just get to the bottom before I need to actually put on my lights. 

I'm still cold and decide that I'll find a barn or something similar to get out of the wind and bivy for the night, I might even ask a farmer if I could use a building. The first one I decide to check out I turn my lights to the door and am met with barking. No good there then. The next faces into the wind. The third has been used as a lambing shed but is unoccupied but is empty. The floor is, shall we say, slightly soiled but it's not too bad. In we go.

It takes me about an hour to warm up. 

I awake and check the time 0230 and I need a pee. I'll get up now and get going. I'm away by 0300 and the route begins with the first big climb up Breda Fell. Once on top the wind makes the singletrack awkward.  Seat down and the next descent to Hartsop is a blast in the dark. It's still only 4am! 

I stop before the next climb from Hartsop for breakfast.

Off in the gloom to the right lies Raven Crag, Threshwaite Cove. A friend who began climbing in the 1960s said it was known about back then but left as it was definitely a crag for future generations. It wasn't until the mid 1980s when the first route was done at a standard at the top of what the climbers of the 1960s were capable of, the rest are quite a bit harder still.

The next climb up to The Knott is the biggest on the route. I remember this from a school fell-walking trip, it was a pain then, it's still a pain (with a bike) fifty years later. Once on top there's a bit more pushing until you get to the Roman road running across the top of High Street. Even two thousand years later it's still rideable. The wind is back and making things very cold, I've little feeling in my hands. Then you leave it for one of the few Lakeland tops that I've ridden a bike to the summit, Thornthwaite Beacon, notable for its remarkable cairn some 4 metres high.

What goes up must come down and I pick my line through the mist until I spot the main part of the descent heading off right. There's another "pfft" and my rear tyre burps again and is flat. It's so windy I need to walk downhill for several hundred metres to find some form of shelter. Even then my cold hands can't unscrew the valve so I have to resort to pliers to do so. I use the last of the CO2 to mostly inflate the tyre. The rest of the descent will need care, really not sure what Garburn Pass will be like with a tyre in this state. There are sections that are unrideable, not least because of the steep hillside to the right and the fact that I'm wearing a very slippery windshirt and I'd be unlikely to stop very soon.

Some of the few easy tracks lead to the foot of Garburn, a push up this (into the wind) and a wary descent just trying to stay upright and things have warmed up enough to take off the windshirt. The Three Rivers descent leads down to Staveley. A detour to the bike shop to get more CO2 and provisions then back to the route.

Heading westwards with the destination now in sight there's a couple of riders heading towards me. I recognise one as Alan Goldsmith the proginator of the Lakeland Loop. We have a chat, he's somewhat stunned that I'm attempting it in the current wind conditions. "Just the easy bit to do now." he notes, unfortunately he doesn't know the state of my legs.

An ice cream in Troutbeck then over to Ambleside via the last technical descent of Jenkin's Crag. I'm in no mood to tarry in the town, way too full of tourists. The next climb is a walk, no way can my legs manage a 20% gradient.

Let's ride, err...

Without realising it I'm slowing down dramatically, just about any upward rise means I'm walking. Even when I get to a section I know I can ride in my condition I'm presented with wind blown trees blocking the way. Finally I'm at the top of the last climb, just the descent of Lawson Park down to the road leading round the head of the lake back to Coniston. Except the top 200m or so is again blocked by wind blow and takes some time to circumvent. The lower descent is ace.

The end is nigh!

On the road I very nearly overcook it on the very last bend of the last descent, eek! Stand up, pedal for a few revs, coast, pedal, coast. I return to my start point and hit stop on the GPS, 38hrs 1 minute. I'm absolutely knackered.

Back at the van I ring Cath, she's been worried as she though I would have finished several hours ago and was thinking of calling the police to look for me.

That was really hard, harder than something like the Cairngorms Loop. Glad I've done it but not something I'd do again in a hurry (or even slowly).

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.