Thursday, 28 February 2019

What Lays Beneath

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

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

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

The start
Phil Clarke at the start
Simon and Lisa Bryant

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

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

The forest road on the way to checkpoint two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Checkpoint three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the trails after checkpoint five.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The finishing times

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

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

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

Full results here:

Here's the Strava activity link:

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