Thursday, 31 May 2018

Went the Day Well? No!

There's the saying "Fail to plan, plan to fail!" but sometimes even if you do come up with a plan and gone over it a hundred times, things don't turn out quite how you'd wished.

But quite how I ended up in an en-suite bedroom free of charge takes some explaining.

Last year on the HT550 I finished in 5 days 2 hours and 38 minutes. Not bad, actually now I look at it it's a decent time, but I knew I'd made mistakes and that with very little extra effort I could get under five days. I made a plan.

Then I threw it away and made another. And another. And, yeah, you get the idea. It wasn't until a few days before I was due to head north that I had a lightbulb moment. There was one point where I'd messed up my timings, I just had to get to that point two hours earlier and I'd be fine. What's more I wouldn't actually need to ride any faster than I had last year. I made another plan and went over it in my head again and again. The plan seemed good. I went to sleep. The plan still seemed good the following day and the next. Good!

Leaving the rain of Northern England behind I headed up the M6 and into Scotland with a live version of Led Zeppelin's Trampled Underfoot blasting out of the car stereo. Sunshine, Led Zep, (thinking of) biking, doesn't get much better than that. The plan was still in place.

Familiar faces and new at Tyndrum. We rode over the hill again for a drink and chat by the burn. Back into the village for something to eat then bed.

5am and it's fully light and there's people moving on the campsite fettling their bikes. Eventually I join them then it's time for breakfast.

Craig Thomson, Matt Mcwhirr and Jenny Graham at the Real Food Cafe
Alan (Goldsmith, the event organiser) is somewhat amused by my luxury item. Useful I insist, so it would prove. At 8:45 we wandered up to the start by the village hall.

A bit of milling around, some words were spoken and then Jenny sets us away. Usual plan, let the fast riders head off then ride at my own pace. The advantage of this is that the first technical bit isn't then a crush as you head down to the railway.

I get the correct right turn this time and it's a long drag up and over to Glen Lyon, not helped by a headwind. I'm riding around various riders I know and we chat away - basically if you can chat then you are going at the right pace.

The track along Loch Lyon
But something isn't right. There's a number of fords along the track and at each rise out of the ford I feel a distinct lack of oomph. There's just no power in my legs. We drop off the track and head down the glen on tarmac but with the headwind it's hard work.

Past the cafe, a bit early to stop plus I'm drinking and eating OK. I manage the climb out of Glen Lyon in one this time but I notice that I can't get into bottom gear. I'll fix that later. (of course I never did) Alan G passes me at the top of the climb and notes "This heat will cause some riders problems". Whether it was aimed at me or not it was about then that I felt the onset of cramp. After just three hours!

What followed next wasn't pleasant. All power in my legs began to go, even on the flat I was struggling. At the start of the next climb not only were my legs a worry but so was my stomach, I felt distinctly "queasy". A couple of riders pass me, "Are you OK?", "I feel a bit ill and I might pu..." with that I was retching but nothing really came back up.

Heading to Ben Alder

So it continued. A bit of riding, a bit of retching, a bit of walking as the cramps were now taking hold. By the time I was crossing the first hike-a-bike (actually mostly ridable this year as it was so dry) to Benalder Cottage my retching was now vomiting. A couple of riders suggest I get into the bothy and out of the sun and have a rest for a while. I'm in a bad way.

At Benalder Cottage

A while later I set off on the singletrack around Ben Alder. This is one of the highlights of the first day but I can't do it justice, I've no energy to hop the water bars and soon enough there's a "pssst" as my rear wheel hits a particularly sharp edge. I run tubeless but I've dinged the rim and the tyre isn't holding air. Out with the spare inner tube.

I'm on 29" wheels and the inner tube is 27.5"! Still it will stretch. Except that the sealant makes everything ultra slippy and the exertion makes me want to vomit again. Another rider passes and provides a third hand and the tube and tyre are on. Inflating the tube is another matter, I just want to throw up. Eventually I'm on my way again but it's for all of five minutes as I hit another water bar and the tube goes. Instant thought:

"Ride over"

How to get back to Tyndrum? Just over the first bealach is a glen that heads down to Loch Ossian and Corrour station. There's a stalker's track by the burn in the glen. That's plan B, not had one of those before so might as well use it.

I plod on, easing the back wheel of the bike over any rocks or water bars trying not to do any more damage. I rest by a burn and bring up the last of my breakfast. Whatever disagreed with me is now gone and I don't vomit again.

Ben Alder singletrack

There's no path down from the bealach it's just plough down through heather and bog and wade across the burn. The path is rough, almost unridable even if the bike had been in good order. Just keep plodding.

After a couple of km there's two women camping by the burn, Munro bagging of course. They offer me a cup of tea and we chat a while. Maybe nine miles to the station they reckon, at the most. A couple more kilometres of the path then it's hydro or estate road.

I plod on, the path ends and I'm on decent track. I get to Loch Ossian and there's a choice of track to either side of the loch. I go left.

I'm out of the woods and a couple of kilometres from the youth hostel when I hear bike wheels rolling along the track behind me.


I turn round, it's Phil Clarke who I'd ridden with on the Highland Trail last year, he's out for a weekend loop taking in part of the old and new HT start sections. He gives me an inner tube so at least I can ride the last bit to the station. We chat away until his route heads towards Rannoch and I try the youth hostel to see if they've any cans of pop (no).

It's only a couple of km now to the station. It's late and I know the cafe will be closed so I'll doss down in the waiting room and get a train in the morning back to Tyndrum. Sure enough the door is locked but the kitchen windows are open so I stick my head inside:

"I know you are shut but do you think I could buy a couple of cans of pop?"


I sit on the bench outside slaking my thirst and I can hear mutterings from the kitchen. A moment later a head leans out:

"Do you want a pie?"

"Err, yes! How much?"

"No charge, it's on us."

The old signal box

Wow! Some proper food rather than snacks and sugary stuff. I ferry my bike and kit over to the waiting room on the platform and get my bivy kit out. I take my time and finish the last of the pop and am about to get stripped off and into dry clothing when a bloke appears at the door.

"We've been watching you go back and forth. You look knackered! We are stopping at the old signal box and there's a spare room with en-suite shower you can use"

I did offer a little resistance, honest, but I roll my bike one last time for the day along the platform, get what I need and stagger inside. Bliss!

Your bed for the night sir!

One shower later and I'm clean enough to think about getting in to bed. Sleep doesn't come easily, the cramps see to that.

In the morning time to use my luxury item - a shoe horn! Makes getting tight shoes on when you have cramp quite easy. To my suprise there's even breakfast included with the room. I buy a bottle of wine for the kindness of random strangers. The rest of the morning is lots of pots of tea.

The train is at 1230 and I hope that I can get the bike on without a pre-booking, I do and the first thing I notice are three bikes with SPOT trackers. I'm not the only one having problems. Severe cramps, heat exhaustion and a mechanical are their scratch reasons.

So what went wrong?

I think the lack of power has its roots in a chronic fatigue I've felt since last October/November. I've struggled even on my commutes. This meant that my long distance power output was actually very close to my current maximum which then led to the early cramps. Rather than tapping away at 60-70% I was at 90% from the off which is why the cramps started so quickly.

I'm pretty sure that something in my breakfast disagreed with me - as soon as I'd got rid of the last of it whilst I didn't feel "fine" I certainly didn't feel nauseous. Once you start being sick and losing fluids in heat like that there's only one outcome if you carry on.

The plan is still there, I think one or two of this year's successful completions may have implemented it for me. Congratulations to all finishers and commiserations to my fellow scratchers.

That plan is going to bug me now isn't it?

Friday, 11 May 2018

The Welsh Ride Thing

A bikepacking institution. The first bank holiday weekend in May sees a gaggle(? what's the collective noun for bikepackers?) of assorted shapes and sizes descend on a small farm in mid-Wales not for a rave but to have a chat about bikes and maybe ride them around the Welsh countryside aided or hindered by a set of grid references that people may or may not chose to visit. This year there was a set for mountain bikes and a set for "gravel" bikes.

This was its tenth year.

We'd never been.


The Star at Dylife is becoming another institution, it reopened a couple of years ago and a pre-event meet up has started to become a "thing". Again, we'd never been. Cath was insistent that we didn't go in until 7pm but I overruled her and we had a meal before most people arrived and the chatting and drinking began. We didn't have too much to drink and crashed out in the tent at a sadly sensible middle-aged hour.

Despite having driven past it many times I'd never been in to The Cross Foxes above Dolgellau. Very posh. There were quite a few other BBers sat outside having a drink. Two drinks and two packets of crisps, that'll be ten pounds please sir. Hmm, come to think of it, it felt quite good to be standing there covered in sheep and cow muck adding to the general ambience for the benefit of the G&T swilling Jaguar driving crowd.

Oh, yeah. That's The Hand, you know the one with the massive carved tree trunk outside just in case you can't read. We went to the other one. Two pints of lager shandy and a couple of packets of crisps please. that'll be ten pounds please sir. Still we'd ridden over the Berwyns via the Wayfarers then down to Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog. And it was hot. We decided on a second pint each but in an attempt to look after our waistlines and save money skipped the crisps.


One thing you soon learn about Mid-Wales is that there's a disconnect between bridleways and tracks on the ground, it's as if they are from separate realities. Be especially aware of those lines on the map that look suspiciously straight. Wales doesn't do straight lines, not even the bits the Romans did for us, it's where they sent Slartibartfast's cousin to try and get the crinkly bits out of his system. Basically unless you've been on a particular stretch of bridleway/track you can't guarantee it will exist.

We spend/waste half an hour in Dyfi forest trying to find a non-existent bridleway. Actually the first two sections existed on the ground in roughly the right place, one bit being used by one of the Mach MTB trails, the last section was nowhere to be found. We ended up following a track out of the forest and going cross country to join up with where we should have been.

You might also find "identical" features parallel to those you are expecting: BW gate at bend in woodland fence for example, then force the rest of what's around you to fit. The problem here is that it will shortly put you smack bang in the middle of an hour's hike a bike and a marital screaming match discussion. In this instance not only did the parallel universe bridleway not exist but neither did the one in our own universe that we were meant to be on.

Kit and its malfunctions

With 150 riders (and bikes) there's a lot of potential for things to go wrong though turning up and asking if anyone has a spare chainring ... One of the "interesting" parts of the pre-ride milling about is the "weigh-in": bike and all your kit, food, rucksack, etc. goes on the scales. The weights ranged from a mighty 50kg or thereabouts down to a very impressive 14kg (my bike was 18kg so nowhere near the weight weenie prize of a pork pie)

On the way to Bala we come across a chap with his bike upside down and fixing a puncture. "Just went bang! and deflated."" A definite big hole in the inner tube that's lying on the deck. As he's inflating the replacement he notices a tear in the side wall of the tyre next to the rim - the cause apparent of the blowout. We offer various suggestions when I remember that I've an expedition sewing kit in my bag. I bought this in the mid 1980s and had never used it in all that time, I'd just thought I'd shove it in. Looking through the items there was some nylon thread so handed over a needle and some of that and he proceeded to stitch the tyre together. He managed to get to Bala where the bike shop eventually opened and he purchased a new tyre. Passing on the trail karma from the Dirty Reiver the other week.

At the cafe in Bala another rider, Craig, arrived with a rough bottom bracket. I'm not sure how he sorted that out - if indeed he did.

We'd just done an hour's hike-a-bike having lost the non-existent bridleway (see marital "discussion" above) when we rerouted from the next bit of non-existent bridleway and through a wind farm to get to the road. The rider ahead wasn't moving quickly, or at all as it happened. Broken saddle rail. I think he did a lot of standing up on the way back to the finish.


There's loads of 'em. I fekking hate 'em!


Being out for three days means two nights of sleeping under the stars. Route planning helps here as you want a variety of options depending on how fast you move and  on weather conditions. You don't want to get to your chosen spot too early in case someone sees you and asks questions but equally you don't want to be too late which makes setting up the tarp harder.

Saturday night we found a grand grassy balcony overlooking the Wnion valley with a temperature inversion filling the valley beneath us with mist. Our bivy bags have very slippery bases so finding somewhere flat is almost essential otherwise you end up somewhere you don't want to be! The mist did come in through the night but had gone by morning but there was huge amounts of condensation, the tarps were as wet as if it had been pouring down all night.

Sunday night was on the "shores" of Lake Vyrnwy, we'd been told of there being lots of bivy spots along the lake but they must be on the east shore whereas we went along the west shore so that we'd get the early morning sun. The main problem was that everything was at an angle of 45 degrees! By the time we found somewhere we'd ridden most of the way to the end of the lake. A bit of fussing and we ended up using the trunk of a fallen tree to stop us sliding down the slope! The second night couldn't have been more different to the first as everything was bone dry and just packed away.


Our route didn't really pass any on the first day but an executive decision, i.e. we were hungry, took us in to Bala on Sunday morning for breakfast. The cafe didn't really do cooked stuff, well apart from bacon pancakes???

Monday morning we rolled along the road by Lake Vyrnwy to find a gaggle (still no collective noun for bikepackers) by a cafe near the dam. It wasn't serving food but the woman was filling water bottles which given the heat was welcome.

Over a couple or three hills and we rolled into Llangadfan. I spied a flag advertising ice cream but instead found a cafe. The owner must have wondered what had happened as about fifteen sweaty, grubby cyclists arrived in close order! Nice food though.

Oh and Cath got a Strava QOM on one climb, I think she's been doing some secret training. That's her going for it!