Tuesday, 16 September 2014

MTB Endurance - sort of

Most mountain bike rides are pretty short, last week's ride in the Lakes for example was just 37Km for example, they feel a bit more intense as the terrain isn't conducive to rolling along but that of course is part of the attraction. With Cath away riding on the Seven Stanes I'd free rein in getting out for a longer ride.

The Pennine Bridleway passes quite close to us so I worked out a route that picked that up and headed north in to the Dales then back via other trails. Most of the outbound route would be new to me but the way back was on known trails, we'd actually done most of them when riding the route back from Garsdale Head earlier in the year.

The morning was foggy, really foggy and some of the early road sections up above the house were quite worrying but once I was on the trail leading down to Earby the visibility improved and the stress level reduced. A bit of main road along to Sough and the start of the PBW part of the ride.

Climbing almost immediately on steep grass felt hard work, I still hadn't warmed up, but once that was over the trail followed hard packed ginnels and lanes to gain the edge of Barnoldswick. The climb up from the main road was a bit of a shocker - I'd expected a steady ascent but it began with cobbles at 20%. Fortunately the angle soon eased and I climbed steadily to cross round to the road leading to the top of Weets. All this was new to me, but the route was easy to follow for the moment, the tarmac gave way to an old track dropping down towards Gisburn. This was quite wet and muddy and I was filthy by the time I gained the roads in the valley bottom.

The next section hadn't made much sense when I had looked at it on the map as it looped in and around Gisburn Park (which is a rather grand looking stately pile) but by dint of following the most obvious way I didn't get lost even though I didn't really have much clue where I was! From here to Paythorne was a bit frustrating as there were quite a few gates to negotiate. The gates continued all the way until just short of Long Preston. This was probably the hardest section as even though it was flat(ish), riding over pastureland is much harder work than you might realise, it was relief to get on to the climb out of Long Preston.

The bridleway over to Settle was really quite nice, you are on the very edge of the Craven Gap so have a great view over to the Forest of Bowland and the Southern Pennines, or you would if the weather was clear. A blast down in to Settle and time for some food. I'd been on the go for just over three hours.

The climb out of Settle is hard work on a recently filled stomach but soon I was descending back down to Stainforth and a section on tarmac up to Helwith Bridge. This was my turning point and from here on I was on tracks I'd ridden before and knew that they were fast going.

First though was the little matter of a big climb back up on to the tops. This was a long loose track fortunately with a few easy bits to get your breath back. There were a couple of bikers coming down (only saw six MTB riders all day and not many more roadies) so a quick hello and it was onwards and upwards. The next bit was on road and possibly had the steepest climb of the day out of Tongue Gill then it was on to Malham Tarn and an ice cream.

From here on the end was in sight (for most of the time) or would have been if it hadn't been so mirky. On to Mastiles Lane then cut through to the short steep climb up to Weets Top. The last time I was here it was blowing a hoolie and you had to pedal to keep moving downhill. No such problems today and the descent towards Calton was a blast.

By the time I got to Gargrave I was in need of more refreshment so a quick trip to the Co-op was in order. The next few miles were easy in that I followed the Leeds-Liverpool canal for a while before roads and old railway line lead back to Earby. All that was left was the climb back over Pinhaw. I stopped the GPS with 104Km of riding done in 6hr45. I don't think I'd have liked to have done much more with my current level of fitness but it was good to find out what a long distance ride feels like. 

I think a hardtail is best for longer rides like this - lighter and less faff, but against that is the constant minor bumping of the saddle against your backside, non-technical tracks seem to be worst for this. This for me is the only real downside of hardtails vs full-sussers: you tend to be out of the saddle for the bigger bumps so don't notice them as much.

No photos as it was such a mirky day.

I just went for a steady spin over to Clitheroe and back on the Sunday to get some of the tiredness out of my legs.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Tour de Coniston

Following on from the last posting about mountain biking in the Peak District I've also done very little in the Lakes. Although I grew up there I didn't take up mountain biking until some time after I moved away (to North Wales) so I've only done maybe four or five days of riding in the area. Whereas the Peak ride was before my skills session, this was the week after so hopefully I'd be able to put things in to practice.

With good weather forecast for the weekend it looked like it was worth heading over. As it happened the Saturday was pretty poor weather wise and we didn't get out at all, apart from a quick drive up on to Pinhaw to watch the Lancaster bombers fly by which was cancelled because of the bad weather. So an early start on Sunday morning saw us heading up the A65 through the morning fog hoping that we didn't collide with any of the idiots driving without lights.

Our intended route was a tour of Coniston Water and took in two of the classic Lakeland descents: Walna Scar Road and Parkamoor. I'd found it on the PedalNorth site () as one of the harder routes. Parking up at Blawith (pronounced Blah'th) it was still pretty cold so I decided on a full jacket rather than a simple short sleeved jersey - big mistake!

On Blawith Common with Caw and the Coniston fells on the skyline

The route headed west over Blawith Common towards Green Moor before cutting north towards Torver. We'd done a few of the trails on here some years ago in April. Now though the bracken was fully grown and the stony singletrack felt hemmed in. Even on this first easy section I was beginning to warm up, about the only benefit of the long sleeves of my jacket was not being scratched by the bracken. At the first high point of the day I was waiting for Cath and noticed a fox running away through the bracken, you quite often see them early in the morning before the numbers of walkers and bikers increases. The first descent was fast and ended with a great splash through a ford - no dry feet today then.

Making a splash!

The next bit we'd done before and was basically a traverse bashing through bracken to reach a steepish vehicle track. Not technical but you did need a bit of oomph to get up it. From the top there's a great view of the Coniston fells as well as a view in profile of the next big climb up to Torver Common. The descent is fast and rocky and leads to a small tarmac lane before we cut across to the main road and head back on ourselves to find the start of the bridleway.

The climb is steep from the first gate and becomes indistinct after a short while whereas the footpath is more pronounced but steeper forcing a push. Eventually we figure out we've gone wrong and get back on the track. It's a long climb but again is about lung and leg power rather than anything technical like rock steps. By the time the angle eases we are a long way above the road we've just left. The last bit to the next road is much easier.

Climbing up towards Torver Common

Then it's in to the first of the wooded sections and even on the fireroad it feels distinctly claustrophobic in comparison to what we've done so far. There's a couple of bridleways that cut corners and these provide a technical interlude. The described route takes you to Stephenson Ground then follows the west side of the wonderfully named River Lickle towards Walna Scar however Cath had done this before and reckoned it was a bit much as a climb so we stayed in the woods and followed the fireroad to Natty Bridge.

Snaking ahead on the fellside was a ribbon of hardcore, obviously some path "improvements" had taken place but it looked distinctly out of character. Fortunately it ended at the top of the slope, unfortunately it didn't provide a way across the first boggy section. A bit of walking and we were soon back on terra firma and heading along a great piece of easy singletrack that contours the western side of White Pike. In front was a magnificent panorama of the upper Duddon and Esk valleys, the skyline consisting of the Scafell range round to Bowfell and Crinkle Crags.

On the bridleway above Dunnerdale with the Scafells, Esk Pike, Bowfell and Crinkle Crags forming a magnificent backdrop.

Heading down to the old mine workings.

After another boggy interlude the track sped us easily through the old mine workings to the Walna Scar Road. This is now shut to motorised vehicles and was resurfaced about ten years ago. It's still steep though. I make it a short way before having to get off and push again but it's only for a short distance before the angle drops enough to make it rideable. Well, just about, it probably took more energy to ride than push. Even so I couldn't ride the last steep section to the col.

Cath on the last bit of the climb up Walna Scar

There was quite a breeze on the col so for once I was glad for my jacket. Cath arrived a few minutes later. As we were grabbing a bite to eat and admiring the view a mountain biker came up from the Coniston side, surprisingly he was the first person we'd seen since setting off. A bit of a chat about the state of the track on our respective descents and we were ready to roll.

The first couple of hundred metres of track was smooth and fast and I began to wonder if the tales of the trail being sanitised were true. Then it began to get rocky, not excessively so but it was obvious that the elements had been at work. As the track steepened there began a set of zig-zags and it was a case of taking a line that used the widest radius turn for each even if that meant heading through some rocky territory. A temporary respite from the hairpins only lead to a steeper section of open bedrock, fortunately there was a good run-out so it was a case of look ahead and let the bike run and do its stuff.

Cath descending Walna Scar. Grizedale Forest and Parkamoor just beyond Coniston Water.

A rock strewn channel followed by more hairpin bends (this time with attendant walkers) and the angle eased and the surface dramatically improved down to the old packhorse bridge over the outflow from Goat's Water. Below this the track surface was loose rocks again and I knew there were two "rock gates" coming up. The first was straightforward being just a simple double step that you could take at any reasonable speed. However there was a walker coming up who then stopped in the gap. "There's another cyclist coming down" I shouted to him so he promptly moved to the middle of the gap! I repeated the warning and he suddenly realised what I was saying and moved to the side just in time for Cath to come through. The second rock gate was a get off and walk but it was easy after that and a long easy descent threading our way through the walkers to Coniston.

Time for a cafe stop and some well deserved grub! It was also really warm so off with the jacket for the rest of the ride. The next mile or two was easy being on the roads round the head of the lake but having "memorised" the route description I wasn't sure just where the bridleway leading in to Grizedale forest left the road and it was just off the edge of our map! We managed to get the right one and began the climb. Pushing at first until the angle eased we took guesses at which track to take all of which proved correct and it wasn't long before we were on the ridge.

In to Grizedale Forest. Coniston Water, Coniston and the Coniston Fells behind.

Again the feeling of claustrophobia returned along with pure guesswork as to which track to take. Luckily some mountain bikers appeared and gave us directions, well "Keep going on this track to the sharp left bend then go straight ahead at the sign". About a mile later the sharp bend appears and we bear off on the old singletrack to emerge from the forest high above Coniston Water with fantastic views.

On The Park leading to Parkamoor.

The track to the old farmstead at Parkamoor was fast and not too bumpy. This must have been an amazing place to live. There's a short pull up to gain the start of the descent down to High Nibthwaite though to begin with the track traverses the fellside undulating in and out of the various small becks. "It gets rocky" says Cath and soon we come to the first of the rocky sections, somehow I manage to get a good line through this and roll out the other side. Cath had come to a halt but went back and gave it another go.

On the descent to High Nibthwaite.

The next rocky section was a walk though watching videos of this we should have taken a sneaky line off to the side, ah well, next time. More traversing of the fellside led to the longest rocky section, 100 metres at most, in three parts I got the first and third but messed the line on the middle bit. Things started to get faster and soon we were in to the bottom hairpins which began to get steeper. Before I'd chance to drop my seat I was rattling over rock steps trying not to brake and also not let the bike buck me off. Finally we are at the gate. All that's left is to follow the road and cross back over to our starting point.

Only 37Km or so, this felt like a big day out, including all the food and navigation stops we were out for about 6 3/4 hours but knowing where to go would cut quite a bit of this out, six hours is probably a reasonable time.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Peak District Wanderings

I've done quite a lot of rock climbing in the Peak District though it isn't my favourite area. In addition getting there always feels like hard work, the roads from us go cross country and it's hard to avoid large towns without even more shenanigans. I've not done a lot of biking in the area either, a few routes round Hayfield, the lower part of the Pennine Bridleway and a day around Edale. That's it.

So on the Bank Holiday Saturday a couple of weeks ago we headed down to Castleton in the Hope Valley to do some riding. Arriving in the car park just to before 10 it was surprising to see so many empty spaces (it wasn't exactly heaving when we got back either).

First up it was the old road up Mam Tor. This was shut in 1979 when the council finally gave up trying to keep it open due to the landslips continually pushing it down the hill. It's a steady climb enlivened by the traverse of the worst of the landslips. The road climb continued round to the back of Mam Tor.

There's an easy bridleway leading from the nick to the ridge line above Hollins Cross, the blast down to the cross is slowed by walker's blithely walking across the path without looking. There's a couple of descents leading down to Edale from here, actually we've used one as an ascent in the past so that one's out. Cath isn't too confident about the other. It begins by following the line of an old collapsed wall before a grassy section leads to a gate.

Descending from Hollins Cross to Edale

From here there's really only one line so you have to take whatever it gives you. There's a few drop-offs and occasional large rocks which are only just avoidable. After a sweeping left hander it becomes a lot easier and the drop down to the farm isn't too bad.

A bit of road work and Cath suddenly cuts in to a gap in the hedge, "Nearly missed it", a narrow bridleway leads round the back of a farm before opening up as a broad track heading up to the ridge. It's easy climbing before a short drop in to Jaggers Clough. We have to wait a while for a group of horse riders to pass by. It's just as well as the next climb looks steep and loose, "It goes on for a long while" says Cath. After a false start getting across the beck, clattering my shin on a pedal in the process, I start to climb.

As the gradient steepens the surface becomes looser and forward momentum slowly fades. I spy a cleaner line out to the right and I'm able to keep moving. Just as I thought that I was going to have to walk I see the angle begin to ease, a bit more effort and the worst is done. There's still a long way to the top though and it requires choosing the line well in advance. A gate gives some respite but the lane beyond is a lot easier and soon the summit at Hope Cross is gained.

Climbing up to Blackley Clough

There's several ways down from here, from right to left: the Roman road leading past Hope Cross itself and then back down in to Edale; straight on through the woods down the descent known as The Beast; left up a long steady climb before the descent past Blackley Clough, known locally as Potato Alley.

Left it is. The climb is easy, especially after what we've just done, then there's a short drop to a ford and a gate before the track traverses round the moor and begins to drop. As the gradient increases so does the size of the stones making up the bed of the track (it's called Potato Alley as that's the size of the stones but I'm sure some were the size of turnips!) Now I don't really get on with loose, rocky descents but the Peak is full of them so ... The technique is actually simply but you have to force yourself to do it: keep a good speed going and keep the weight on the front wheel.

The start of the descent from Blackley Clough

The steepest part of the descent. This is Potato Alley!

Well I'm sure that the local cognoscenti would say that I went too slowly but I got down in one piece and with just one dab so not too bad for me.

Across the A57 and another long climb up to Lockerwood Farm then another of the classic Peak descents: Gores Farm. This isn't as loose and rocky but again you have to keep moving as momentum is your friend, though I did get overtaken (at speed) by a local!

A bit of road around Derwent reservoir before our next climb up to Derwent Edge, this takes the form of a line of gritstone slabs set in to the field. They are like a ramp test slowly getting steeper the further you climb. Eventually, lungs bursting, we have to dismount about 100 metres short of the old farm above Grindle Clough. The next section after the beck is all but unrideable going uphill so it's hike a bike time until the gradient and surface roughness ease a little and we can ride to the next gate where the track leads to the open moor.

The last climb, reaching the ridgeline of Whinstone Lee Tor.

Easier riding leads to a steepening before the last wall so a bit more walking. Then the track traverses the edge just above the wall and we make good progress to Whinstone Lee Tor. From here it's a long traversing descent to Cutthroat Bridge. Normally this is boggy but the summer's dry weather is still holding out and our tyres hardly make a mark. The last hundred metres to the bridge is increasingly rocky and I have to make just one dab which I'm well pleased with. I wait a few minutes for Cath wondering where she's got to.

Dropping down to Cutthroat Bridge

Worried I work my way back up the track. No sign. "She went off down that track" say a couple of walkers. Somehow I'd managed to miss a major track junction! Pushing on I could see her heading back towards me, Oops! The descent was another Peak rock fest, just keep moving as fast as you can to keep control. The track ends suddenly and without warning on the A57 next to the Ladybower Inn. Time for a drink.

All that's left is a ramble through lanes and along old railway tracks to get back to Castleton. For a bank holiday in the Peak District we'd hardly seen anyone, with the exception of Hollins Cross we probably saw more mountain bikers than walkers. Not a big route, about 37Km but a lot of up and down and a lot of terrain that made you think.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Never Too Old To Learn

I think I must have been in my mid thirties when I first rode a mountain bike so definitely a late-comer to the sport and the techniques required. You might think that it's just riding a bike but it differs from riding on the road in that road biking is more about efficient transfer of power to the wheels and the bike set-up, body position, etc., is all aimed at that one goal whereas mountain biking is as much about weight transfer and pressure as efficiency. It's more like skiing than road biking.

I got the feeling that my ability on a mountain bike had plateaued: I could get down most descents but didn't feel "in control" if obstacles came thick and fast. Cath had been on a skills course earlier in the year and reckoned it was a day well spent. After a bit of looking around I settled on Great Rock http://great-rock.co.uk/ run by Ed Oxley. As much as anything it was that the course was run at Gisburn Forest so fairly local and I knew most of the trails so it would be a case of riding them better rather than thinking about what was ahead. At my age the fewer the uncertainties when learning the better! So course (Stop Crashing - level 1) was booked.

The night before I had a sudden thought: I didn't know the meeting place or time! There are three possible locations at Gisburn, a quick email with the hope that the response would arrive before I left in the morning. In the event the response was sent before I set off but I didn't receive it in time so I checked all three spots arriving about five minutes late (I'd had to go back for my wallet about ten minutes in to my journey as well). A quick assemble of my bike, payment of the car park fee and I was good to go.

On the first section Ed checked out our positioning on the bike - we all sat too far back apparently, so we had a discussion about what we were doing and why and a demonstration of what we should be doing - in effect letting the bike pivot around us so that our centre of gravity was always above or slightly behind the bottom bracket. On to the next skill.

Trackstands. Now I've tried these before and I'm shakey like a shakey thing stood on jelly. I happened to be the guinea pig: my stance was wrong! Bum stuck out behind and bent over the bars, it was a struggle. With a firm push to get my body straighter it became easier. Working in pairs, there were eight on the course, we spent a while either practicing or acting as steadier. Most showed progress, some managing a reasonable while.

The rest of the day followed the same pattern: find a section of trail to isolate a particular skill; watch Ed demonstrate it and detail why he did things that way then take turns in trying it ourselves. Even something as basic and simple as cornering was disected and explained how to be more efficient. Ed's view was that a lot of problems people have stem from language, where people are describing the consequence of an action rather than the initiator: "get your weight back" being a good example, your weight goes back as a result of letting the bike pivot around you. I think most of us took a fall at some point - mine was a comedy 1MPH scenario, unfortunately on to solid rock - ouch! But in general we were never far out of our comfort zone.

Some people criticise skills courses saying that you can learn the skills just by riding. However in biking quite a few skills are counter-intuitive and without tips and tricks being pointed out to you, you could spend a lot of time and energy doing something or everything wrong. It's the nature of physical skills that you aren't going to perfect them in ten minutes, you need to build up muscle memory so that it becomes instinctive, second nature if you will, for some things this will take weeks or months of repeated practice. As mentioned above riding on trails is similar to skiing: you are weighting and unweighting the bike/skis to generate a better interaction with the surface beneath you; the use of momentum, balance and weighting/unweighting to smooth out the trail. Also similar is the (mis)use of language in skiing: "Bend ze knees!" isn't how you turn but is the result of pushing your weight forward and turning your hips in to the bend to initiate the turn.

Was it worth it? Well I didn't leave a better rider than at the start of the day but I now know how to become better. There's a level 2 part of the course which is run on the following day but I need a few weeks (months?) getting the current ideas working for me.