Saturday, 30 December 2017

The Northumbrian

The Christmas to New Year period is an awkward time to take time off in the UK, the weather is rarely kind, but many including my wife have to take the non public holiday days as holiday so there's some pressure to make the most of it.

Last year we headed up to The Highlands and did a two day trip on our fat bikes around Loch Rannoch and Ben Alder which was rather damp with both rain and snow melt leading to very high burn levels. This year we wanted something a bit closer.

Philip Addyman had put together a route in and around Kielder Forest and along with Stuart Cowperthwaite had ridden it earlier this year. It looked a prime candidate with most of the route being on forestry tracks and just one tricky section along the English-Scottish border to Windy Gyle before dropping to Alwinton and heading back through the Otterburn firing ranges.

For once the weather looked fine so we packed the car and headed up to the start point in the small forestry workers hamlet of Stonehaugh. It was a bit later than planned before we'd got everything set up on the bikes and we headed into the woods.

Easy going on wide tracks.
A start time of 1430 meant that our target for the night, Spithope bothy, was always going to be reached in the dark. Slight problem: neither of us had been there before so hoped it was easy to find.

The sun was low in the sky from very early on in the ride

By the time we were looking down on Redesdale the light was fading.

While the riding was technically easy you couldn't really relax as the puddles in the track were all frozen and there were longer streaks of ice so you had to be on your guard all the time. We put on lights as we descended into Byrness and into more heavily wooded areas and the light faded to night. After a short section along the main road we cut up into the Spithope valley. After a false turn along a track we figured out where the bothy should be and headed further up the valley. There were footprints in the snow and at about the point where we'd figured the bothy should be they disappeared. Lights on full and we spotted the building on the other side of the valley. Fortunately there were steps and a bridge to get there.

I opened the door to find six already inside. Things might be a squeeze! There's bunks for six so two would have to kip on the floor. After food and drink and much banter - "Do you want more turkey?" we put the table and chairs outside to make room and kipped down for the night.

Leaving Spithope bothy in the morning

With morning light everyone rose and after breakfast and packing it was time to reverse the path to the main track. This led ever upward to a sharp bend when the line on the GPS headed off into what might best be described as "rough". Snow covered thigh high vegetation hid the line of whatever path was on the ground. There were also hidden becks and drainage ditches, the bikes picked up water and snow and required regular cleaning to avoid the wheels becoming stuck.

The hike-a-bike out of The Hart's Toe

Finally we emerged onto open ground and a (hopefully) final cleaning of the bikes and it was time to pick up some speed. Except conditions dictated otherwise. I'd hoped that the ground was frozen and wind had shifted any snow. It was just the opposite! There'd been little wind and the deep snow had insulated the ground so there was still bog underneath. Progress was slow.

Cleaning mud, ice and snow off the bikes.

Hard going along the border between England and Scotland

Eventually we reached a signpost: Pennine way along the ridge and alternative Pennine Way down the valley. We'd taken two hours for the last two kilometres, we'd no time to do the next ten Kilometres to Windy Gyle. We headed down the valley. Some bits we could ride but even heading downhill was hard work and needed pedalling. Once past the Roman fortification works at Chew Green we hit the road. This wasn't much easier, irregular patches of sheet ice meant things took much longer than we'd have liked.

The sheep had paddled down the snow so we could ride sections.
An artistic farmer at work!

Eventually we got to Alwinton. Philip and Stu had lucked out here as both the pub here and in the next village of Harbottle weren't doing food. Today they were and we were hungry! Sometimes an hour not moving forward can be an hour well spent and we tucked in.

The sun was still shining when we left. A bit more road then a turn right and we headed upwards once again through Harbottle Woods. Forestry work meant a diversion but it only meant that we debouched onto the road on the firing ranges a little higher than would have been the case.

In the shadows of giants

Leaving Harbottle forest and entering the firing ranges.

The ranges are wide open spaces.

The roads were frustrating. Vehicles had compacted snow and there were yet more random sheets of ice. This meant slow progress, downhill was often slower than the uphills. We reached the final junction and could head back down into Redesdale just as the light began to fade. At this point we were just 2Km from the bothy we'd stopped at the night before.

Wide open spaces on the Otterburn firing ranges.

Icy roads slowed progress

All day the temperatures had been below freezing but now it was getting seriously cold. At least we had the forest drive to look forward to, a long climb to Blakehope Nick warmed us up though I'd been in my lowest gear for much of the climb. The descent to Kielder cooled us down again. By the time we got to The Anglers Arms in Kielder it was -7C and with us feeling tired it cut to the quick.

Our target was KershopeHead bothy a further 25Km ahead but I didn't think we'd get there so asked at the pub if they'd any accommodation. Unfortunately they were full but the owner did offer an unheated caravan. A search showed one B&B in the village and they had a room! It would have to do. We headed over after having had something to eat. Warmth and a bed. bliss!

The morning brought a change in the weather. No longer clear skies but leaden clouds heavy with snow which had already deposited 5cm and was adding to it with every passing hour. A second decision - we'd follow the Lakeside Trail back to the dam and then return via our outward route. At least we knew it rather than the circuitous line we would have taken on the actual route.

Heavy snowfall on the Lakeside Trail around Kielder

The Lakeside Trail was hard work in the deep snow. The 20Km to the dam took over two hours for a nearly flat trail. The one oddity was a car on the trail, quite how it had got there was a bit of a mystery but there were several blokes in the process of trying to get it out. We'd now just the simple matter of climbing back over the hills to Stonehaugh.

As the snow fall stopped it led to pretty views.

A bit different from two days earlier.

Progress was slow, we tried to find the thinnest snow cover under the trees but even so we were working hard. The selfie below was taken at the top of the biggest climb. Temperatures were rising and the snow was getting a little thinner. Occasionally there'd be vehicle tracks so the best line was in these as the snow was nice and compact.

More snow build up on the bikes.

Selfie at the top of the big climb up from Kielder Dam.

Eventually, just over 48hrs after leaving we rolled back in to the car park.

Back at the car.
So we didn't manage to complete the route but we had a good if hard time out. The route's quite varied and despite much of it being in forest it's actually quite open as the areas to at least one side of the tracks have been felled. I can't comment on the border ridge section (we've done Clennel Street down to Alwinton many years ago and that's straightforward). You also need to ensure that the firing ranges are shut before attempting the route.

It's definitely worth having a go at the route though mid-winter might not be the best time of year! That said, a good frost without much snow and I think it would be a goer. Looking on a map it appears that you aren't too far from "civilisation" but when you are on it it does feel pretty remote especially on the firing ranges.

A good use of a good weather window.

Here's the Strava bit ...

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Winter bivy

Every year various groups of riders from the Bearbones forums head out the weekend before Christmas for a bivy. It consists of cafe, a bit of a ride, pub, a bit more of a ride, bivy, some riding, a cafe stop finishing with more riding back to a cafe. Generally the groups are organised according to location so Wales, Scotland, North of England, etc. though occasionally there's some cross border raiding.

After a bit of humming and harring with no-one wanting to stick their head above the (icy) parapet, Chew took control and set about organising a ride in the Dales. A slight problem in that it had to be the weekend before all the others. Oh, well. After a bit of checking with the proposed route along with some changes to account for certain sections not being a bridleway and actually going through farm yards so therefore not being a good idea, the plan was formalised.

There was the usual: "I'll be there", "Err, no I won't" shenanigans which resulted in a grand total of seven of us turning up at the cafe in Kettlewell. There were two - Dave and Rob - whom I'd not met before. After some grub we managed to tear ourselves away from the warmth of the cafe fire and head up the Dale.

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We'd not gone far when there's a mechanical. It turned out to be Chris' (Zippy) freehub that occasionally wouldn't work as intended. He thought it was due to the oil in the hub being stiffer due to the cold as the bike had been stored in sub-zero temps for a while and that with some use it might warm up. Then again it was significantly below zero so he'd have to be putting some serious work into it to heat it up.

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Without further ado we headed further up the Dale with the road becoming increasingly white and icy as we gained height. Halfway up Langstrothdale we chose to take the path on the opposite side of the river, well, because. I'd never been along this before so it was interesting. Especially interesting was negotiating the sheets of ice where streams crossed the path and had spilled out and the thankfully short sections of limestone pavement. A couple of Km later and we are back on the road but by now it's even dicier than the path with a dusting of snow covering any ice. Fortunately all stayed upright.

Then it was through the woods. It's a long, long time since I'd been through these. By the time we got to the other side the clag was down thus kiboshing Chew's idea of a big reveal of Ribblehead viaduct. As a result we decided to cut the corner and head along the Pennine Bridleway up on to Cam Fell. What presumably was a shooting party similarly stymied by the mirk were heading the other way in their 4x4s: "You're off your tits you lot!" seemed to be their consensus. They might have been right.

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The Track round Dodd Fell is wet at the best of times so today it was going to be an ice-fest. Fortunately it wasn't too bad with just one section that needed dismounting to get round a rather ominous frozen puddle. At Ten End we cut east on the bridleway. Again frozen in places necessitating walking there were usually boggy sections where the temperature actually helped, in fact it was the first time I've been able to ride the final field without dabbing. By the time we got to the road it was nearly dark.

The first section of road was really slippery and it was a bit of a relief to get onto salted roads. After a restocking at the Spar in Hawes it was decided that we'd just head along the road to the pub. At least this was fairly flat and clear so you could keep a good pace.

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The pub was lovely and warm - it took a bit of effort from Chew not to fall asleep by the fire! The food was very good as well. Having imbibed and eaten it was time to head out and get to the bothy. This was uphill! A lot of uphill. Again the freezing temperatures had frozen whatever surface water was on the track so one or two short bits needed to be walked. Upward, ever upward until the track levelled off only to reveal more uphill. This eventually relented and before long we arrived at the bothy.

It's really quite well appointed. We get a fire going and the temperature inside becomes bearable. After a lot of banter, whisky and more banter we decide to turn in for the night.

Morning replaces last night's clear skies with more mirk. There's no point rushing as the cafe in Leyburn doesn't open 'til ten. A fast descent is no way to start a ride on a cold morning but at least it was followed by a stiff climb to warm things up. Not so good were the regular sheets of ice across the track. Cath came a cropper on one of these, you go down hard and fast on ice and she was a little more circumspect after this. After sussing out another potential bivvy spot for next year and more ice we transitioned to limestone country. There was the small matter of an icy road in-between mind.
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After a few Km of limestone gravel tracks and tarmac we dropped into Leyburn to find the intended cafe was shut. Fortunately there was one open across the square. Phew! The cafe was rather good and had decent sized portions, certainly I struggled to finish my breakfast.

An hour later several plumper cyclists headed out into the cold again. At least we were now heading in the same direction as the wind. Some fast road work got us to the valley floor then some slower riding got us to the same height on the other side of the valley. A steady section of riding ensued around the edge of the dale before a nice fast descent to West Burton. All that was between us and Wharfedale was the small matter of the climb onto Stake Moss from Thoralby.

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The only other time I've been up this way was on the YD200 when with a very lightly loaded bike with light wheels I'd resorted to pushing the concreted lower section. Today I'd got the plus wheels and was fully laden with winter bivy kit and clothing. So I rode it all! No idea how I did it really. At least higher up what in summer was soft pasture that dragged at your tyres was now crisp and pleasant to ride.

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The top of Stake Moss was wide and wild - Dave said it reminded him of shots of the Tour Divide: empty spaces and big threatening skies. Steady going across the top until the descent to Kidstones. This was surprisingly icy and I walked the steeper bits though Chris rode them all. Once at the road it was a choice between the bridleway down to Buckden or the road. We all elected for the road. Then again 3Km of fast downhill is pretty chilling so I was glad of having to pedal hard along the road back to Kettlewell.

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Most wanted to head off ASAP but Chris (who'd actually come up from Essex) Cath and I headed to the cafe for cake and a cup of coffee.

A good weekend.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

A River Runs Through It

Questions, oh so many questions.

A few years ago when I was just thinking about bikepacking (or whatever it was called then) a couple of friends rode one of the early editions of The Cairngorms Loop. My interest was piqued and I'd many questions for them: what did you carry? How? Did you take cooking equipment? And so on and so forth.

I didn't get round to actually asking the questions, instead I went on a learning curve.

I put my name down for the group start for May 2016 but that was cancelled due to heavy snowfall in the week preceding the event. This year's May start was a bit hampered by being close to the JennRide and not too far ahead from the HT550, we ended up reccying the Northern Loop of the HT550. Steve Wilkinson the organiser had obviously got a little fed up with the weather gods messing him about in May so had announced a September group start as well.

For a while the start list looked very meagre but on the day around twenty appeared at the car park at Old Bridge of Tilt.

At the start in Blair Atholl. Steve Wilkinson, the organiser, is in the blue top.
At ten o'clock Steve announces "Go!" but it seems as if we are as reticent at actually riding as at signing up for the event and it's a minute or so before the first of us puts foot to pedal and sets off.

As usual a group blasts off at the front. Let them go, I'll ride my own pace. I catch a couple up at Bruar as they strip off outer layers. It's all tarmac until the crossing of the A9 (easy peasy, there was nothing on either carriage way) and then fine estate track leading to the first of the river crossings just before Sronphadruig Lodge. No way were you going to complete this ride with dry feet!

Some moorland bog led to the first bit of singletrack along the edge of Loch an Dùin. I really liked this section, not too technical but still required thought. I caught one of the tail end of the lead group but Ian Fitz passed me about halfway along it.

More easy track (with one very deep burn to cross) then road and some nice singletrack to Feshie Bridge before diving into Rothiemurchus Forest. Easy to get lost in such places so just follow the line on the GPS. After Loch an Eilein I got in among riders on an "adventure triathalon", quite what they thought of me blasting past them on a laden bike I've no idea.

Early evening light in Ryvoan Pass

Cafe stop at GlenMore where I temporarily caught up with another of the front group then through the rather nice Ryvoan Pass and a question: straight on to join up with the outer loop or right for the inner loop?

Right it is!

The Nethy was looking angry at the footbridge which might not augur too well for what was to come but first there was Bynack Mor to deal with. This is the biggest climb on the route, chatting to Philip Addyman in the pub on Friday night he'd commented on the water bars and cuts - some just too wide to contemplate riding. Unweight, hop, push, ride. I was doing fine until "Bang!" My rear wheel clattered against a particularly sharp looking rock on the upper edge of one water cut. The tyre held but later inspection showed a very new and prominent mark on the wheel rim. I was walking and pushing from about here anyway.

A sharp shower causes the rider I'd temporarily caught earlier to stop and put on a waterproof. More plodding and pushing. Once on the top the route is more rideable though still with a few water cuts that require dismounting. A pair of walkers comment on a rider ahead:

"She just waded straight into the burn and waded across. It was up to her waist!"

That'd be Jenny Graham then. We reckon there are three riders ahead of us: Philip, Jenny and one other who we are unable to name.

Soon enough we get to the burn, Craig notes that he's never seen this burn so high before. Doesn't bode well for the crux of the route, The Fords of Avon, a couple of Km ahead. The route ahead might as well be a burn, it's that wet that we are rarely riding out of water. The burn before we reach the refuge at the Fords is also high. This is one of the remotest places you can be on the British mainland.


I've never been too comfortable around water, too much capricious power for my liking, so when we finally arrived at the Fords of Avon I was none too happy at what lay before us. The A'an was at least 30cm higher than in shots I'd seen of people crossing and the prominent island in the middle was partly submerged and looked like being lost for good in the maelstrom with most of the "stepping stones" merely hinted at by their addition to the foam and eddie.

We pace up and down the bank looking for chinks in the armour, I'm for heading down to Faindouran bothy but that means recrossing the burn we've just struggled across and perhaps unknown ones to deal with. Craig decides to go for it, I'll wait on the bank as "safety" though quite how I could be of much use without a line I'm not sure, maybe recording his last words for posterity: "Whoops! Aaagh! phht! Glug!"

Craig on the first section of the crossing. I crossed from mid right to the head of the island then took a line above Craig's head to the far bank.

He reaches the island fairly easily but the next section takes some five minutes of battling the current and controlling his bike in the flow. I don't fancy the line he's taken so head upstream to where I think there's a shallower line to the island and beyond. So it proves, but it's at the limit of what I can cope with in terms of resisting the power of the water.

As I reach the far bank Ian Fitz turns up and we guide him via the route I've taken.

Ian Fitz crossing the A'an.

He seems happy enough!

Once across the doubts begin, not of myself but of Cath who'd been very nervous about the river crossings and the reports of the water levels in the week leading up to the start. I'm hoping that she's chosen to do the outer loop. This part of the 'Gorms is known for having no radio contact let alone mobile phone coverage.

The first half of the climb up to the Lairig na Laoigh is mostly rideable if somewhat tricky at times but the last Km is more pushing. The descent into Glen Derry is again enlivened by water cuts and the crossing of the Allt Glas Mor. Ian pulls away then eventually I pull away from Craig. By the time I get to the path to the car park at the Linn of Dee it's dark and time for lights.

This part of the route is used by both inner and outer loops, the track up to the point where they part is easy angled and fast. Ian's rear light flashes in the distance, I nearly catch him before the junction. Then it's over to Glen Feshie, once the vehicle track ends and the path begins it's mostly walking, in the light I could have ridden most of it but black peaty holes when on your own in the middle of the night isn't wise.

I spot wet tyre prints across stones, someone isn't too far ahead, no lights to be seen though. I'm unsure if there's one, two or three sets of tyres. No point, press on. Somewhere on here is a big burn, the Eidart, with a rickety bridge to cross it, after hearing several small burns it finally comes into earshot. The bridge isn't too bad but you really wouldn't want to fall off.

Eventually a vehicle track is joined so some riding but still with some pushing where things are too soft and I spot the path leading away from the vehicle track. This leads to the landslip and through bushes to the bothy at the head of the main glen. Time to push on.

This is another glen that just goes on and on. I take a fall trying to avoid one of the pines that is part of the estate's regeneration scheme as I remove a hand and the tree grabs my handlebars. Tarmac is joined but it's still twenty minutes of riding to Feshie Bridge and another half hour to Aviemore.

Checking my phone whilst scoffing grub at the twenty four hour garage. No text from Cath but an email from Steve stating that the Burn of Brown is impassable. Hmm. Can't do anything now, time to find a bivy spot. A field with an open gate will do.

Fuzzy shot of my bivy


Where's Cath? There's no contact by morning.

Which route to take? I don't know Abernethy Forest so finding a bypass should I come across a swollen burn won't be easy. I decide to head round to Tomintoul by road. On a bike with 3" tyres this wasn't as easy an option as it might sound especially with some climbs of 20% thrown in the mix.

I get to Tomintoul just as the village shop is opening. A quick grab of chocolate and something to drink then I notice that the cafe is open so a chance to get out of the dreich. There's no rush now that I've deviated from the route.

The ride up Glen Avon is steady especially with a tail wind. A few short steep ramps lead to Loch Builg and some techy singletrack then some bog before more estate trails. At the top of the climb up Culardoc I replace the batteries on the GPS but forget to restart the unit until I get to Braemar.

The descent into Deeside is, hmm, interesting as my front brake is almost down to the metal. Once in Braemar I find a cafe and check my phone. There's a text from Cath - "At head of Glen Feshie". Relief. I need a pair of pliers to reset the brake pistons but the bike hire place is of little use. Oh well.

Back up to the Linn of Dee and the track to the Red House. The Geldie Burn is only ankle deep and not a problem to ford. I elect to walk the singletrack at the top of Glen Tilt. Having not done the correct route to this point and with basically no front brake I decide not to head to Fealar Lodge and just freewheel down Glen Tilt back to Blair Atholl.

I'd just grabbed some grub from the village shop when I get a call from Cath: she's in Aviemore and is going to scratch. She'd got to the Fords of Avon at 2100 with a couple of other riders and decided not to cross in the dark. They crossed in the morning, the other two headed down the Tilt and she carried on to the Feshie alone. Her text was from the Geldie-Feshie watershed, basically in the middle of nowhere!

So not an outright success. Physically I was there but mentally I was at a bit of a loss. Worrying about high water levels and how Cath was doing took its toll. Still the route's there for next year.

Success doesn't force you to ask questions in the way that any sort of failure does, it's just I don't know what those questions should be.

The Strava or it didn't happen bit. The straight lines between Aviemore and Tomintoul and just north of Braemar are due to me not restarting the unit.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Dipping a toe in the Single Speed Kool-Aid

A couple of years ago my commuting bike, an On-One Pompetamine, died. It had an 11spd Shimano Alfine internally geared hub which had never been entirely sound (I believe that the 8spd is much more reliable) and one day on the way home from work I ended up with just two gears. Or three. Or two. I ended up buying a new bike and I put the Pompy into storage with the idea of converting it to singlespeed to get more use out of it.

Well, it sat there untouched for two years apart from a raid to get the front wheel with its dynamo hub and associated front light to put on to the new commuter.

Finally I decided to sort it out. A bit of interweb shopping for a suitable rear wheel turned up nothing. The bike has disk brakes and getting a disk compatible road rear wheel on its own isn't easy, at least one that's cheap. A final look around and I came across a wheel set on On-One's site at a reduced price of £70. In fact the pair of wheels were considerably cheaper than any single rear wheel I could find. Welcome to the crazy world of modern product pricing. At 2.3Kg for the pair they aren't exactly light but at the price I'm not really complaining. There was also a singlespeed conversion kit available for a tenner so that got added to the order.

With wheels sorted I just needed some tyres for them. The local bike shop had some 28c tyres which should be comfy enough. £23 each. I've plenty of inner tubes lying around the place as well as a pair of 160mm rotors.

So what was I starting with? This:

Different wheels because I swapped the original front with a dynamo hub for that off the Croix de Fer

Closeup of the Alfine hub.

Current weight is 12.3Kg without pedals (weighing method du jour apparently), the Pompino/Pompetamine frame is, shall we say, sturdy and it's quite likely that a modern steel frame like a Cotic Roadrat would be quite a bit lighter - actually more than likely as my Cotic Solaris 29er mountain bike weighs 11.5Kg.

First job was to strip the kit off that I wasn't going to need: old wheels, cabling for the Alfine. I could have replaced the Alfine Crankset but it still works OK so I'll keep it for now even though the associated chain guard isn't particularly "on message". Similarly for the brake/gear levers.

  • Build the wheels up: fit inner tubes and tyres; fit brake rotors. 
  • Loosely fit the singlespeed cog on the rear freehub and play about to get the right chainline. Tighten everything up.
  • Fit chain.
  • Fit front wheel. Align brake calipers.

That's it! Took about an hour, most of which was building up the wheels as tightening rotor bolts is just fiddly and getting new road tyres on to rims can be frustrating. The wheels didn't come with rim tape and the only rim tape in the LBS was for tubeless and expensive so I ended up using Gorilla Tape. The next longest job was getting the chainline right though it turned out I'd actually fitted it correctly to avoid losing the parts, reset it at a "guess" then had to change it back. The new weight (with pedals) is 10.8Kg. Total cost of parts was £133 but if I'd already had compatible wheels, i.e. the rear wheel was a standard freehub design, then nearly all that could have been avoided and the cost would have been the mighty sum of £10 for the singlespeed kit and £7 for a new chain.

Actually there was another job: the bike had stood for so long that the rear brake cable had seized so a quick trip down to the nearest bike shop procured some cable and outer for £9 and a bit of fiddling and fettling and that was all good. All that was another hour! Here's the result.

I just hope that my chosen gearing of 39:16 is about right, it's roughly 65 gear inches. I ended up with this due to keeping the crankset, I'm aware that many recommendations for singlespeed are along the lines of 44:16 or even 48:16 but there's some steep hills around here and the idea is to be able to ride things!

First ride out was up the dale which is fairly flat (for round here) having just 850m of ascent in 55Km. The climbs, such as they are, cover just about all gradients so a reasonable test. My max speed when pedalling was 44kmh which with a bit of reverse maths apparently comes out at a cadence of around 140rpm! I hadn't tightened up the rear QR enough so on the way back the wheel slipped in the drop outs and the chain dropped. I tightened it up and it held for the rest of the ride but I should get either a steel QR or bolt through to prevent this happening though another possibility is something like a Surly Tuggnut. The spacers on the conversion kit weren't quite enough to keep everything tight so that needed looking at, I'd a 2mm BB spacer that did the job by replacing one of the 1mm spacers.

The second ride was a bit hillier. OK, not entirely accurate as there was the same elevation gain but the profile was completely different with a big hill at the end of it with sustained sections of 12-14%. That was hard work and I only just made it past the steep bit at the end of the longest ramp.

In total I've spent £142 and about 2 1/2 hours on the conversion. It's not a bike that will do everything road related, it's just too hilly round here for that, but as a winter hack/training bike it'll be fine. If my experience with 1x systems on my hardtail is a guide then in about a year I'll probably get a higher gear fitted.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Highland Trail kit

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

It's almost a given with gear that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apidura Food pouches

  •   Trail food of whatever description

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

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

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

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

Bivy kit

My requirements for the bivy kit were that it:

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

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


I wore the following:

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

Extra cyling clothing amounted to

Arm warmers

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

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

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

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

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

Some pretty serious wear!

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

Tools, spares

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


Where would we be without all our gadgets eh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Highland Trail 550

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

Riders getting ready for the off.

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

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

Ben Alder Singletrack

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

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

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

Pete McNeil and Phil Clarke in Strath Vaich

Old fighter planes in Gleann Mor

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

The northern hills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First view of Fisherfield

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

Crossing the Abhainn Srath na Sealga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What's That?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

At the top of the Devil's Staircase

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

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

5 Days 2 hours 38 minutes

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

Just a couple of things to do: