Saturday, 16 September 2017

The Yorkshire Dales 200, 2017

As I sat in the sun in West Burton, N.Yorks, I contemplated the full folly of my current undertaking. My legs hurt, I was feeling like a 4 hour siesta and I wasn't even halfway round this forbidding route.....

Back in June it seemed like a good idea - 200k of road and track around one of my favourite places in the world - the Yorkshire Dales, home of countless wonderful villages, excellent pubs, cheese, homebaking, dry stone walls and sheep. And hills. Lots of hills. In fact more hills than you can shake a dead rat at, even if you live in Wales. I'd entered on the strength of the 2016 route - lots of nice trails, plenty of hills but a climbing total of around 3300m seemed like a recipe for a hard but generally fun ride. Except Route setter and ride organiser Stuart Rider changes the route every year. This year was "Gravel Friendly" i.e nothing too rough but plenty of hills. I noted with moderate concern that the climbing total had jumped to over 4500m but it was mostly on road so nae bother right? A quote from Road Race veteran and all round good guy Jens Voight sprung to mind:- "Why oh Why am I doing this" (After a lone breakaway on stage 1 of the 2014 TdF in this same fine part of the world)

Oh well, it can't be that bad, I mean I'd done the Highland Trail and one day of the Borders 350 this year so I'll be fine aye? errr....

Friday evening before the start saw me take a leisurely drive from fair Fife to my parents static caravan in Hawes. 5.30 am Saturday saw me up and eating in preparation for along day. There were around 15 or so folk at Riders Cycle Centre in Skipton and I made full use of the laid on breakfast. Several people commented on the general size (and weight) of my chosen bolide - yes the Jones plus had been dragged out again and seemed somewhat out of place lined up against so many svelt gravel racers. Bob Wightman who I'd rode with on various parts of the HT was there on a more conventional 29er and the benefit of much local knowledge. My machine choice was circumstance. I was off to the Isle of Man for a few days and was looking for mountainbiking so the Fargo, which I had originally planned to use for this had once again missed out. The jones would be a bit of a drag on the road but would at least enable brakes off / brain out on the various double track descents the route presented without fear of punctures or smashed teeth. My pace would be steady but I was confident enough in my abilities to have brought only kit for a day and nothing to tempt me into sleeping....

8am saw us all rolling out steadily. A group dissapeared up front and I was happy to see them go. I fell in with Bob and a couple of others on big tyred machines. One chap was on a single speed 29+'ed Mukluk which smacked of either extreme heroism or extreme optimism. My Kramp is single speeded permanently these but I've had one experience of riding it in the Dales and I'm too much of a wimp to ever contemplate such folly again.

Inevitably on the first climb my stupid, hated and useless competitive gene reared its ugly ahead and saw me pushing hard leaving the sociable group behind and leaving me in the company of no-one but the bike. This was to continue until Skipton.... Having said that I felt strong, much stronger than I had a right to be given my somewhat casual prep for this monster of a route. This carried on up the next climb, and the next, and the next and the.........

The thing with the Dales is that there is no end to the climbs. Even the descents go uphill. The second off road descent saw me passing two of the gravel bike crew fixing punctures. Hmmm - it was loose and rocky and I was flat out with only minimal mental input required. Maybe I was on the right bike after all?

Thereafter was a long section of road riding which on (OS) paper looked easy. In reality it was a continuous serious of climbs and descents. 29+ and slack geometry is just the job for 1:4 gravel strewn country road descents it would seem. I let a group of motorcyclists past just before once such plummet and ended up being held up by them. On the plus the side the weather was stunning. There had been a brief shower earlier but now it was blue skys and a strong sun. I was baking and drinking rapidly. East Witton had a tap on the village green but it was jammed shut. Salvation came in the form a local roadie just finishing her mornings ride offering to fill my water bottle up. It was empty again within an hour.... 

As I progressed along this section my legs started to complain. The wind was 'fresh' and now right in my face. Cooling but hard going on exposed sections. Hells bells. Once again I'd gone far too fast and now I was paying the price. Scratching was absolutely not an option so I would just have to suffer.

The next trail was about the only easy bit on the whole route - a steady traverse around the lower slopes of Penhill with great views up Wensleydale and over the 'Tank Road' to Richmond. This road is part of the vast Cattrick MOD training area and often sees huge metal tracked monsters getting driven along them. The Jones would be right at home then!

The descent to West Burton was rough and loose and again I was glad of the big tyres. Hmm. On the Fargo whis would have been a case of brakes on and take it steady. Not a great compensation for all the hard work to get to!

Pies, Crisps, juice and cake all eaten in the sun on the village green made a new man out of me. I rode out feeling full but much more confident about the next monster climb. As I left Stuart Rider was coming the other way. OK. Guess he'll soon pass me but where were the rest. Climbing the (inevitably) ridiculousy steep track out Thoralby revealed only two sets of fresh tyre tracks in front. This is an old favourite of mine, albeit downhill. Its changed now though and much of it was huge rocks which made for hard work, especially with the now strong headwind right in my face. Eventually the top was reached and I was now feeling much stronger than an hour previously. The descent was another blast and the wee road down from Cray to Hubberholme was taken at a suitably innappropriate speed. Next up was an absolute stinker of a climb to Horse Head moor. I've been down this many times so I knew what to expect. I.e a push. However this seemed to be just the ticket as my aching limbs seemed glad of a change of muscle use and the top came after not too much effort.

The descent was rough. I was still following one gravel tyre and one mountainbike tyre but the gravel tyre print was shallow. i.e. the bike was being pushed..... Gravel Bike friendly? hmmm.....

A brief respite of flatish road along Littondale gave a fine view of the next climb - a super steep and loose track up out of the dale and longside the flanks of Pennyghent - much loved by cyclocrossers! The afternoon was wearing on but I was starting to feel increasingly confident of my ability to do this thing. 

The track over to Helwith Bridge seemed to be indicating I was now only following one bike and noone had caught me up despite my lowered pace.... There followed some more pleasant riding and a first use of lights in a couple of tunnels going into Clapham. As I entered first person on the trail was just leaving. A brief fizzle of competitiveness nearly made me give chase but I had other priorities - namely the public loo and a cafe that was closing but supplied a glorious cup of tea, juice and crisps. 

Next up was a lengthy road climb. Not exactly plus tyre territory but my limbs seemed happy to propell me steadily up it with not much effort. Bombing through Gisburn Forest was a hoot and I started to grin to myself as this was all coming together. Of course there was still two enormous climbs on the cards but I was getting that feeling of unstoppability which always seems to strike at around 6pm. True to the map out of Long Preston was steep but this was old news now. The trail above it was plastered with signs indicating some kind of event was about to take place - "Caution - Technical Descent", "Slow, Sharp Corner", " Feed station" etc. were all totally ignored. In Settle I once again felt the need to feed.

Thank god for the Co-Op. This establishment really is the bike packers best friend. A Whole range of food and drink and opening hours ideally suited to the sleep avoiders. I felt I had enough solid food on board so drank several hundred calories and got stuck into the last (and worst) major climb of the route. Actually its not that bad and the worst of it is tarmac. Once you hit the gravel it eases off after a bit and puts you into a really quite amazing piece of landscape. The Limestone bones of the earth are much in evidence around here and the terrain is quite unique. Not quite the scale of the Highlands or the drama of the Lakes but still as fine a piece of geography as you will find on these sceptic isles. The last section of trail is seriously nice - a smooth dust path across the moor with only a token bit of climbing and a fine decent to the road above Malham.

Dusk was falling as I screamed down the tarmac descent into Malham. This is a beaut and often covered in glaikit walkers heading up to the famous cove but this evening it was desterted. I bombed through Malham itself at high speed with a huge grin on my face as I knew I'd cracked this. The Malham show had been on but most folk were away apart from a few diehards in the beer tent. I was mightly tempted but pushed on knowing that the end was in sight.

Of course there were still plenty of ups and downs to do but nothing compared to what had gone before. The last road section had more traffic than I was expected and I got paranoid about my back light failing as if it did I'd be stuffed. Fifth car to pass was the polis but they carried on without stopping me so I must have been visible. Skipton was reached at last and I bombed through the town centre eyeing up all the folk in the glad rags on a night out. I'm as keen as anyone to have a few beers of a saturday night but this evening I was on a massive buzz from having ridden 200k and still be in good shape. I reached Riders Cycle Centre at about 9.20pm, 13hours 20minutes after I'd left. First Rider back Danny had only been back 15 minutes or so and I was well happy to be the second person home. Stuart Rider himself appeared just before 10 and we chatted about the route and our experiences until I felt the tiredness come on at half past and so left to drive back to my bed for the night.

I've done a fair bit of bike riding this year but this is the stand out hardest days biking I've done.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Epic Fail on the Borders 350

This is my second attempt at this route. In 2015 it was a lamer attempt - my head wasn't in it and I was desperate for an excuse to stop. This year I was motivated but carrying injuries which I told myself I wouldn't knock the arse out of. And that's the problem - this is hard route and not one that tolerates either lack of motivation or any other physical or mental reticence you may be experiencing at the start line.

Route setter Ray Young has put a lot of work into this (he's still the only person to have done it - chapeau) and it shows. On the face of it the Border Hills and Southern Uplands suggest easy riding and pleasant terrain. The reality is very different - think Wales and the Yorkshire Dales rolled into one. Rays write up of his ride last year says it all really so I'll not pontificate.

Saturday 8am saw myself, Karl Booth and Ollie from Newbury waiting for the off. First bit of good news - Karl had a bag of banana and choc chip muffins provided by Bear Bones regular Bridget aka Borderer for the intrepid riders / idiots. My pre-ride banana turned out to be rotten mush so this was very welcome.

Karl went off like a bullet out of a gun so me and Ollie took a more leisurely start to warm up. The first climb sets the scene - steep fire road then straight into the first of many rough, peaty, boggy trails. Heavy rain the week before meant lots of surface water so it was defo gonna be a wet one. I caught Karl and we chatted a bit about what was to come. Neither of us was underestimating this route. On the descent my nav skills left me - first a missed line then a total inability too find the route along the first of many heather, tussock and bog infested 'trails' down to woodland and then into a fire break which is seriously wet. Cue first above ankle plunge and water into my totally waterproof boots....

Thereafter it was the Southern Upland Way over to and round Meggat Resevoir. On the climb up to Dollar Law the sun was beating down and the track was at a grade requiring max effort. From the track Ray has scoped a reasonable way to pick up the path but once again I was struggling to follow the line on the GPS. The first person to invent a heads up GPS display will get my money.... Eventually I got on track and onto a trail that was dry and fun. A fast descent was followed by back roads and a really nice section round the John Buchan Way to Broughton and its excellent village store.
View from the summit of Dollar Law
It was very pleasant sitting outside the shop chomping my way through a wide selection of foodstuffs. Hmm. No sign of Karl or Ollie despite me being there for half an hour. Was I going too fast?? I've pretty much got my pace off pat these days but I still have this tendency to get carried away...

The next track over Common Law was nice. Well, nice apart from the locked gates and snotty signs. I really don't get this. The landowner will have got government grant to plant the woodland and will be getting further grants and tax breaks 'maintaining' it and yet they still can't get their heads round Land Reform. I was almost hoping some estate worker pitched up so I could tell him exactly what I thought of their 'Land Management' policies and who was paying for them. OK rant over but given that most landowners seem to manage this fine, it really pisses me off when you come across the ones who are still stuck in the 18th century.

Up to Cocklie Rigg was a max effort push and then it was wind farm world. I run hot and cold with these things. On the one hand if we are going to burn so many ions charging up a vast array of gadgets then we can't complain about any method of generating said ions (including nuclear) but I just wish they would make a bit more effort to landscape the roads post construction. Hey ho, at least it made for easy pedalling and another flat out descent to Kingledores (ROW goes right through the Farm yard - they don't appear to mind) more nav errors then onto an old railway line parallel to the A701. 

Memory lane - the line goes past a CTC owned hut which was an annual destination for the Heriot Watt Uni cycling club. We'd ride down from Edinburgh on a Friday evening, get wrecked at the Crook Inn, do the Tweedsmuir / Moffat / Boreland / Eskdalemuir / Megget circuit on the Saturday, get wrecked in the Crook Inn, Ride home Sunday via Innerleithen. Happy days. Sadly the Crook Inn is long shut but I was pleased to see signs indicating that it was to be run as a Community owned facility.

Pedalling alongside Fruid resevoir I contemplated the next section. I was in good shape, mentally and physically so felt ready for anything. Another nav error climbing away from the resevoir spoiled my mood. Somehow I missed a turn and ended up following a quad track which would have taken me fully into No-Mans land. Back on track it was actually pretty rideable. Wet in places and tussock central but 3" tyres deal with this stuff well. Not as good as a fat bike but good enough to make steady progress. Higher up it got progressively worse. Then the weather closed in - no drama, one second I could see, the next I couldn't.

I was in a narrow world of grey and green. I'm no stranger to this but I was struggling today. With views and sun its easy to ignore the immediate problem of the terrain your crossing. Without the view you just end up staring at, and cursing, the terrain you are crossing. I guess this is where a music player would help. I rarely bother with such a device as they are too much faff plus high speed dreich and electronic components don't mix. So someone needs to invent a faff free, waterproof music player that automatically responds to your moods. Mainlining some Shostakovitch would definitely have helped here....

On and on it went. I was now largely pushing but a sudden change to descent confused me. My pre ride map appraisal hadn't shown this. Give or take 50m I was still on 'the line' but not being able to see feck all made it hard to work out what the hell was going on. Hmm. I had no map back up so if the GPS failed I was screwed (yes I know this is stupid - I've never claimed to be otherwise). After a while I was again climbing and then, finally, the Annandale way. Except there was no respite. The path was now clear but it was still a bog and inevitably more climbing ensued. And more. And more. Up and down with little sign of the end. One final monster climb loomed out of the now lifting cloud followed by a final short descent to the A701.
Rising cloud on the top of the last climb on the Annandale Way
Yet another wet climb and then finally the reward - fast single then double track descent with only cowshit and a bit of mud to spoil the party. Not that I cared by this stage. The bike was covered in peat, grass and vegetation so just as well its green! Rolling into Moffat it felt like I'd taken hours over this section. In reality it was 2 1/2 hours which is actually not that long considering what I'd just done. But my mood was at rock bottom. I vowed I would never ride that again. I was done with this route and wouldn't be back. Pizza in the sunshine revived me somewhat. Co-op provided food for the next morning and then it was off again.

That's when it all went wrong really as the first climb produced much knee pain and worse, sharp stabs of pain from my lower back. Also my legs were totally shot and barely able to produce enough power to get up this (tailwind assisted) climb in my lowest gear (which is LOW).

The Southern Upland Way from Moffat to Overphawhope is a gem - nice singletrack and a suitably dramatic bit over the pass. Buzzing down towards the bothy I got a glimpse of fire light and on entering was greeted cheerfully by Stuart (I think that was his name), his son and a his sons Italian exchange pal. They had biked in from Ettrick and were planning on a circuit of the SUW / Romans and Reiver route the next day - a true mini adventure. We chatted for a while and then I turned in.

Sleep came instantly but my bladder woke me at midnight. I lay awake not willing to leave my cosy cocoon when the front door went. After a few vague noises a light shone into my one bed on-suite. 
"Is that you Karl?"
"No its Ollie, whats the score?"
"Plenty of space on the floor here or there is another room through the back"
"Cool I'll investigate"

Hmm - great news that Ollie had made it this far but where the hell was Karl? I figured he must have seen the lights in the bothy and pushed on. Bladder emptied I drifted off again and then was rudely awakened by my alarm. On autopilot I got up, made a brew, ate food and packed up. 5 am saw me leave into a breezy but bright dawn.

The first climb revealed my worst fears. Knee pain was instant and my back joined in shortly after. Not only that but my legs had nothing in them. In effect I was in the same place as I was at mile 530 on the Highland Trail. Except I had 250 miles still to do. Then the weather closed in again. I stopped and stared into space for a while. Then I checked my GPS. I was right at a turn that would take me out of the forest for an easy return to Peebles. The decision was made and I departed the route.

Driving home my mood lifted and I hatched a plan. I would do the rest of the route at some point this summer (Start at Inners, follow the SUW to Ettrick and pick up the route there). Assuming Ray hosts another group start next year (and assuming he'll let me back after two fails!) I'd make it my main / only goal for next spring / summer.

Reading the above you'd be forgiven for avoiding this route like the plague. Don't be put off as there is a lot of excellent riding, fine scenery, fine food and bothies! But; its a beast and on a par with anything else out there, including the Highland Trail so don't underestimate it! In terms of distance it fills a gap between the likes of the YD300 or Cairngorms Loop and the HT so in that respect is unique (for now!) The Scottish Borders and Northumberland tend to get ignored as destinations as most people heading up to Scotland are looking for mountains, lochs, tweed and haggis. This is a shame as they provide excellent mountainbiking opportunities, with as much to amuse the avid bikepacker as there is the legions of trail centre warriors that come here.

Borders 350 - I will be back!

Monday, 26 June 2017

Adventures Begin at Home

The Fife Coastal Path provides some fine riding and if you are into fat bikes some excellent beach riding to rival anywhere in the UK. I've ridden it end to end in various day rides of various durations however I've always had a hankering too do it as an overnighter as there are numerous great bivi / camp spots along its length. The opportunity came at midsummer with an early depart for the train to work in the gloom and drizzle. That said it was a fine forecast for Friday afternoon / evening and the following morning so my hopes were high.
What better way to end the working week than to depart the office on your bike into the evening sunshine, great trails ahead and no particular destination.
From an earlier trip - don't worry there is a nice grassy path just off the beach!

Fife sits between Edinburgh and Perthshire and is generally only known for St. Andrews with its posh uni and golf courses. The coastline is a mix of flat sand and rocky shorelines which catch a lot of migratory birds heading north and south and so has earned a number of conservation designations and is actually a particularly fine place to be. The Coastal Path runs from Kincardine to Newport. Between Kincardine and Leven its all pretty easy going but thereafter gets progressively more interesting. Your never far from civilisation but the sections in between feel much wilder and remoter than the distance suggests.

On this occasion my plan was to join it at West Weymss and head round the coast to near to Newburgh then turn in land back home. Normally I would choose the fat bike for this route but a lot of the north section is on trail and back road. The forecast was for hard westerlies therefore I elected to go for 29+ to make the return ride a bit easier. There are several sections of the FCP which follow the beach but high tide alternatives exist making this a route suitable for all bike types.
After some easy gravel paths the route takes you through Buckaven, Methil and Leven. Not the most scenic of places but towns of character in their own way and all played a part in the considerable industry that grew up and then died in this part of Fife. Beyond you hit the first of many golf courses. A quick check for low flying golf balls and shouts of "fore!" and its into Lower Largo - a very different place from the previous towns with vast houses and far too many posh cars. I think I prefer Methill.... 
Beyond Largo is where the fun starts with a nice length of sandy singletrack to Shell bay caravan park. I took a diversion off the coastal path here to pick up some woodland single track and an easy farm track to miss a section of path with lots of steps. If your ever walking this section don't miss the Elie Chainwalk. If you think your hard enough, take your bike - the Fife branch of the CTC Rough Stuff Fellowship did it in 2004!

The fun continues beyond Elie and I was making good progress with the stiff tailwind. You then tick off St. Monans, Pittenweem and finally Anstruther. These places still have a fishing industry of sorts (Shell fish mainly) but are the dictionary definition of "Quaint". Anstruther has a fine Fish and Chip shop but as usual it was queued out the door so I pushed onto Crail. Crail provided an excellent chippy and the Bikepackers best friend, the Co-op. 

Caiplie Caves - one of many wacky rock formations along the route
I grabbed food and drink for the rest of the trip as I wasn't sure what would be open when. Between Crail and St. Andrews the coastal path is pretty hard going. Its definitely worth doing as far as Boarhills on a Fat bike as there is some good sections of beach and rocky shore riding but it can be a bit fiddly on a normal bike as there are two sections on the beach with no high tide alternative. No big deal but best follow, as I did this evening, the cycleway which follows farm tracks then a short section of disused railway, a back road and then a core path link to the coast just south of Boarhills.

You can't see it but in the distance is the Bell Rock Lighthouse - some 20miles off shore!
The Coastal path is easy here and its worth doing this bit, particularly the woodland single track by the Kennly Water.
From Boarhills the Coastal path is a series of short climbs and descents, all with stone steps. I've done it but its not really worth the hassle so I jumped onto the A917 and buzzed into St. Andrews the quick way. I must scope out a better alternative to this but at 9.30pm there was little traffic on it.

St. Andrews was ridden straight through as I didn't fancy risking my bike outside any of the pubs. From St. A to Guardbridge its all surfaced cycleway. The light was starting to fail but slowly, slowly so close to Midsummer. Leuchars follows Guardbridge, once an Airbase but now home to the Royal Engineers. All was quiet as I rode past the airfield and out towards Tentsmuir Forest. 

This is another nice section of the Coastal path with a mix of grass single track and bog spanning boardwalk. I was now looking for bivi spots but a brief pause in the trees confirmed my worst fears - the midges were out in force. The wind from the west was still blowing strong so I went up the west side of the forest in the hope of finding a suitable spot that was nice and breezy. Sure enough in amongst some spaced out trees just in the boundary of the forest was a perfect spot. The time was 11pm and I'd clocked 85km.

Now part of the purpose of this trip was to get some bivi bag time as I've been meaning to get some more use out of my Rab Ascent bag for ages. I'm too much of a wimp for it to be honest and much prefer the sanctity and security of my not much heavier tent. The speed of getting it out and getting into it impressed me however and the midge beating breezy and clear evening made it a fine choice. Sleep took a while but I finally nodded off at about midnight.
Tayport looking back to Tentsmuir Forest at 6am
4.30 am and my bladder got me up and out. A quick brew of the stove made porridge and a cuppa and then I was off once more. This was all to the good as it meant I'd likely not meet a soul on the path and would be home for a late breakfast. Less good was the hard westerly wind but at least most of the route along the coast would be sheltered. Out of the woods and through a sleeping Tayport, then more surfaced cycleway to Newport. The Tay Bridge was empty of traffic and the railbridge gleamed in the morning sun, freshly painted to match the silvery Tay. Beyond Wormit the coastal path hugs the wooded slope above the shore line. Its good and bad - some great sections of singletrack but some annoying kissing gates and a couple of stepped climbs and descents. 

At Balmerino there was a surprise - a new section of route continuing along the shore following an old Right of Way. This was fabulous - a narrow winding path through the trees with no steps or gates. Eventually the coast was left as the route climbed on path, track and then road to the foot of Normans Law. Fortunately the Coastal Path follows a route that is really quite sheltered so good progress was made despite the strengthening wind. I departed the FCP above Newburgh and then followed a fine mix of farm and forest tracks to Auchtermuchty and then Strathmiglo.
Gathering clouds and wind - in the Eastern Ochills above 'Muchty

Thereafter it was me and the wind - no hiding just a steady grind straight into its face. One last section of dirt down to and round Loch Leven then it was more headwinds and back roads home to a large fry up. Total distance 170k.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Highland Trail 2017 Stuff

For those interested I thought I'd post up the kit I used on this years HT, how it performed and what did or did not work. This is more for information than a definitive guide as what works for one person may not work for another and the only way to find out is to go out their and try it!

24" Jones Plus with 1x10 drive train (RF crank with a 28T ring mated to a Sunrace 11-42 Cassette), SLX brakes, WTB scaper rims, Bontrager Chupacabra tyres, WTB Speed saddle, Jones loop bars and a 30 degree by 80mm stem.

I built this at the start of the year as I needed something with a back friendly riding position which somewhat limits your choices. The bars sit nearly 2" higher than the seat and its short. This equates to a very natural and comfortable riding position which seems to work well over distance as well as making for extremely nimble handling. It took everything in its stride and left me in reasonable shape at the end of it all. In particular its ability to cope with the nadge-core that was the trail from Lochinver to Ledmore impressed me mightily. Even the weird bars seem to work well although they took a while to get used to. Multiple hand positions were a real help to wrist and hand comfort.

Camping kit
After much debate I stuck with my trusted Force 10 Helium 100 carbon. I've been through a lot with this tent and I knew it would work in a variety of weather conditions and allow me to deal with the dreaded midges. I'd earlier thought to go Bivi Bag only but didn't get enough practice in using it (other than in bothies) pre-event so I didn't want to risk it given the weather forecast.

For sleeping I used a Cumulus / Criterion ultralight 200 down bag, a Thermarest neo air 3/4 mat and an exped pillow.

I took a Bearbones 8g stove which I'd siliconed onto a bean tin lid for stability, a windshield, a Ti mug with a foil lid and 100mm of meths. This was to cook the 3 dried meals I had with me (2 brekkies and 1 main meal) and for brews if I needed a hot drink. Weight wise this made more sense than humping hydrated food around and provided flexibility if I missed a supply point. In the event this proved fortuitous and gained me nearly 3 hours over people who had to wait for food at the Kinlochewe hotel. The cuppa I made on the Wednesday morning was one of the best I've ever drank and doubtless was a deciding factor in me being able to ride for 25 hours that day!

After much debating and cash outlay I ended up (on the Saturday morning) throwing on the same DHB aeron shorts and Torm merino cycling shirt as I's used in 2015 and on countless other rides. The assos bib shorts and Rivelo Bib 3/4 tights I'd bought were ditched as bibs are a damned nuisance when you want to go to the loo, particularly when its raining. In short, they worked. I also had arm and knee warmers which got a lot of use. At the last minute I chucked on a pair of Club Ride baggy shorts as I like pockets for going into shops and things but this was a mistake. I started to get chafing on both inner thighs due to these so they ended up in my bag. In Ullapool I added a thin Rab base layer T as I knew it would be cold over Fisherfield and I wanted to keep my spare T dry. On my hands went a pair of Spesh gel gloves bought for HT2015 and never used in between times as I'd thought I'd lost them! I had a pair of light fleece gloves to go over the top if it got cold. For the temps we experienced this worked well and justified not taking my usual Sealskinz wet weather gloves which are much heavier.

For wet weather I used my usual Paramo Quito jacket and a pair of Berghaus goretex paclite trousers. On my feet were sealskin socks and Shimano XM9 boots. Between boots and trousers went a pair of short goretex gaiters which were replaced by a pair of cheap calf length gaiters in Ullapool. The jacket was as good as ever and warm enough to mean I didn't need a mid layer. That said it was a bit too warm during some of the wet weather periods such as on Saturday evening.The trousers leaked during both heavy rain periods on the Monday evening and Tuesday afternoon and will shortly be binned - recommendations on a pair of lightweight overtrousers welcomed! The short gaiters allowed water into my boots hence the change in Ullapool.

For the tent I had a pair of merino boxers and a merino T. Cold weather paranoia meant I also packed a pair of HH merino 3/4 length bottoms but these never got used.

Tools, spares and odds and ends
I spent a lot of time pondering what spares to take and was reminded of an account I'd read of a gentleman who cycled from east to west Africa in the early part of the 20th century. His comment was that after much debate on what spares to take, realised he would need a complete spare bicycle so instead took nothing on the basis that he could make do and mend. I went with a bare minimum - brake pads (2 sets), a spare rear mech link, 2 chain joining links, a few useful nuts and bolts and a gear cable. I also took a comprehensive puncture repair kit for both tubeless repairs and normal repairs including tyre repair stuff for rips etc. None of this was needed.

My beloved Topeak Alien was ditched in favour of a lightweight multi tool also from Topeak. I'd been carrying a large and a mini Leatherman with me for ages as I needed both for the range of tools I wanted. Specifically pliers, wire cutters, saw, scissors, knife, screw drivers and a spike. A bit of research got me a new Leatherman which had all of the above tools in one smaller unit. The upshot of all of this was a 200g weight saving over what I'd previously carried. For a pump I used a basic lezyne thing with some duct tape wrapped round the handle. It was used once. I used the 5mm allen key to adjust my seat a bit and the 4mm allen key to tighten up the Eccentric BB.

Other odds and ends included a head torch bright enough to see by, an exposure flash tail light, an exposure joystick helmet / bar light, smidge and a midgie head net and a small bit of aluminium sheet used as a trowel. All of these got used. 

Food and Drink
Aforementioned dried food, many snickers, crisps, pies (various), frys peppermint creams, cashew nusts, peanuts, haribo, bananas and about 10 gallons of Irn Bru (this has more caffeine than red bull and a lot more energy). Water was carried in a 1.8l platypus bladder plus I carried a 0.5l platypus folding bottle for a back up and for mixing energy drinks. I had 3 sachets of these with me and in future will avoid as every time I had one I got an immediate upset stomach. I had a tube of hydration tablets which got swallowed dry rather than mixed in with a bottle as I hate the way they make a bottle / bladder taste

Tent and waterproofs went in a Revelate sweet roll, Dry / sleeping kit went in a Revelate Terrapin dry bag, Wildcat Snow Leopard custom made frame bag in which I carried 2 spare inner tubes, stove, water bladder, pump, trowel, washkit, smidge, food and anything else I had. This bag had an excess of space which was handy for grabbing and stashing food easily. A revelete gas tank and jerrycan carried tools and spares; two revelate fuel cells carried folding bottle, drink sachets, hydration tablets and snacks. A wildcat Tomcat sat neatly on the loop bars and carried money, cheapo samsung phone, painkillers and voltarol gel.

My load was definitely on the conservative side but actually wasn't all that heavy and allowed for a range of weather and temps. I made a concerted effort not to have anything on my back to give it as easier time as possible and this, I think, made a big difference in terms of contact point comfort and general well being whilst still allowing the bike to be ridden over some pretty rough terrain. For future jaunts I'm looking into bivi tents as these seem to offer a nice compromise between a full on tent and a bivi bag and tarp set up for trips where the weather is going to be wet but not too wild.

In 2015 I took a Surly Ice Cream Truck round the Highland Trail so it was interesting comparing the two experiences after this year. Overall the Jones was the tool for the job this year due to the extreme dryness and I did note significant time savings over the easy riding sections. That said the fat bike provided major physicological benefits on the large sections of boggy trail experienced in 2015. This year Fraser McBeath used a cyclocross bike and made it to Suileg Bothy on day 2 before illness put him out. Many others were on bling full carbon suspension bikes as well as a number of XC type hardtails and the usual mix of rigids and two Single Speeds. This suggests that the best bike for this route is the one you are happiest on....

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Highland Trail 2017

Someone at work asked me why I wanted to ride a 550 mile mountainbike route, as fast as possible over some of the hardest biking terrain in Scotland, at the mercy of the notoriously fickle Scottish weather. My answer was vague as it seems hard to pin down the appeal of such an undertaking to someone who has never remotely experienced such a thing. In 2015 it was all about the people I met and the shared adversity the weather and trails presented. My motivation to do it again was various – to prove that 2015 wasn’t a fluke; to experience good weather and the stunning views; to ride some of the best trails in the world but also to once again meet like minded individuals and by sharing the experience multiply its enjoyment…..

Given all the factors that needed to come together to achieve even some of these goals, I feel privileged to report that in the event, I achieved them all.

Tyndrum 9am May 27th

Quite how this all came about still surprises me. My build up was far from perfect with back and knee problems threatening to spoil the party. Just making it to the start line seemed a major achievement but once there it was like a huge weight off my shoulders, all I had to do was ride my bike, eat and sleep.

I eyed up my fellow riders. There was some serious talent waiting for the off this year with a number of people clearly ready and able to destroy all previous records. The rest of the bunch seemed focussed and ready. I compared this the field of the 2014 start. Many (including myself) seemed to be somewhat shocked to be contemplating the route ahead. Many (including myself) quickly ran into more problems than they could cope with and the attrition rate was high with only 12 out 36 riders finishing. In 2015 people seemed more focused, prepared and willing to tackle the challenges ahead. The weather had other ideas and hours of endless grind through mud, wind and rain took their toll with only 16 of the 43 starters completing.

There was one noted absence – Mike Hall. Maybe that’s why the leaders went off so fast - a fitting tribute to someone to whom fast was a way of life. Even down the field the pace was high. People seemed quiet with less of the early chat that 2015 saw. Maybe people were absorbed in their own ride, checking their pace and their kit and keeping an eye on the weather awaiting the forecasted thunderstorm and deluge. I went up the Ben Alder climb and down the descent fast. Too fast and my reward was massive cramp in both thighs. 3 hydration tablets and a litre of water sorted it.

The storm never came, substituted instead by a more traditional highland drizzle that cooled a few fevered brows on the climb and descent of the Corrieairyack pass. No snow this year. The Fort Augstus Pizza Shop provided the usual meet up of riders – an ever changing group as people came and went. The leaders disappeared into the distance and disappeared from my consciousness. Leaving Fort Augustus I met up with Ian Penton-Voak, we talked tactics, distances achieved and what could be done that evening. In the event I took an easy option not wishing to push my luck this early in the race. Ian pushed on to the next climb. What you ride today, you don’t have to ride tomorrow became an oft used phrase.

Sunday May 28th North to the sun

Sunday started grey but slowly changed to blue. Winds were stiff but behind us. This was the race north – big distances to be covered on an almost direct path to the remotest part of the route. I passed three people who I would meet regularly over the next couple of days. Pete McNeil was taking a break near to Corrimony bothy, Bob Wightman and Pete Gretton were checking out the Hydro bothy by Orrin Dam. I’d also passed Craig Mac who had spent the night in an Invermoriston Bus shelter. When shelter is needed, anything goes….

We met up at Contin stores, the last shop for 120 miles. The sun was making an appearance and we all stocked up on food in bellies and bags for the next section. There was some swapping of places then I fell in with Pete McNeil. He’d caught me up which read as ‘he’s faster than me, let him go’ but his paced slowed to mine, or mine increased to his and we rode together as far as Oykel Bridge. Pete was tapping me for route info having worked out I knew it backwards, then we moved onto jobs, biking, life the universe and everything. I was glad of the chat to distract me from aching knees but they weren't feeling good...

We caught Bob Wightman above Strath vaich. "Good weather over the next few days" he noted. I had to carry on as this would never happen again in a lifetime. Anyway Tom Seipp (aged 12) did this route last week with his dad so I could cope with a few aches and pains. Onward. I think all of us were taken by this vast landscape through which we were travelling. It was only a hint of what was to come but the views tantalised us with Suilven, Canisp and Cul More marking the vastness of Assynt that we would have to traverse the next day.
 I was shocked out of a rare period of contemplation by two world war two aircraft flying low through Glen Mor. What the hell were they doing there? It seemed a surreal moment that Bob captured on photo to prove we weren’t dreaming.

Oykel Bridge was a welcome sight and a place of meeting for many people. No sign of Alan Goldsmith but I was content that I wouldn’t be playing the cat and mouse game we’d done in 2015 as Alan seemed to be motoring. The evening was breezy and pleasant promising a fine night for camping. The Pete’s had pushed on and I was riding with Bob W eyeing up places to stop in Glen Cassley. I spied a good spot but didn’t wan’t to stop without telling Bob who was now onto the next climb. So it was on and up, ignoring the protest from my knees and back. What I do tonight doesn’t have to be done tomorrow…..

The campsite was perfect, Bob went on to find shelter and left me to pitch my tent at the head of Loch Shin. The midge defying breeze allowed an easy pitch but it dropped before I’d got inside meaning that a bunch of midges joined me in my refuge. Ten minutes were spent swatting them and spraying myself and the tent inner with Smidge followed by 5 hours of solid sleep.

Monday May 29th Sutherland and Assynt

Day three dawned grey. I departed quickly to leave the midges behind and passed the Dutch guys soon after. They didn’t seem that happy bivvied by the road side at the mercy of the biting menaces but I wasn’t going to stop to console them. I was happy -  a stiff breeze followed me up the road and up the track out of Loch Merkland. The cloud was lifting and the views were opening up. The thought occurred to me – would I see Foinaven and Arkle? This would make my ride, anything after would be a bonus. Glen Golly was a cinch – hard track and a tailwind, the exact opposite to 2015. On the start of the climb out of Glen Golly, Pete Gretton summed up the previous night – ‘It was the midge apocalypse!’ how we laughed…..

The stalkers path was dry, the riding ace and I was moving fast. On the big climb out of Coir an dubh loch two walkers asked me “are you doing this race?”

“More of a plod for me!” to which they laughed. But this set me thinking – is this what it is? Not for me. Racing was elbow bashing, line taking, sprinting, drafting, blocking. This was a calmer form of competitiveness – human against the terrain, the weather and the midges. Going fast meant going slow, conserving energy, being smooth, timing re-supply points, eating enough, carrying enough (but not too much!), sussing out overnight stops, minimising sleep and stops.

At the summit of Bealach Horn I revelled in the views of Arkle. I’d climbed these peaks with my Dad 30 years ago almost to the day. I was happy to achieve my main goal for the ride, smiling all the way down to Lone.

Bob and Ian PV were in the distance but I never caught them. Our pace had been high. In 2015 this section took me 4 ½ hours. Today it was 3 ¼. I paid on the Achfary climb. The day before Bob W had been complaining about the prices charged by the Kylesku Hotel to which we all assented. No way would we stop when Drumbeg stores offered better value and a friendly reception. In the event I needed the stop. The price was high but it was a sellers market and the bacon and sausage roll washed down with coffee and Irn bru gave me a new lease of life for the famously lumpy Drumbeg road.

Its hills were as nothing compared to what had gone before but the traffic was an unpleasant change. I’d gotten used to brakes off, flat out descents of the gravel roads (I Blame Pete McNeil!) to maximise momentum and minimise pedalling on the inevitable uphill. On the road I had a rude awakening – oncoming traffic. It was the North Coast 500 in full flow. It may benefit tourism but confronting a german campervan the size of a bus and showing no sign of giving way was no joy for me. ‘Ride according to the conditions!’ easy to say when your not nursing aching legs and trying to avoid loosing as much speed as possible. Drumbeg stores provided relief, tea and good cheer. Ian PV was stressing about his forks, they went up and down so I figured he’d be fine. Departing the Drumbeg road onto the trail to Lochinver was a huge relief. Goodby NC500, I won’t miss you.

Fuelled on Pies and more orange peril the next section was attacked. Bob stopped for ice cream, Pete and Ian were way ahead so I was on my own again. Compared to the gruesome grind of 2015 it was pure joy, at least as far as Loch na Gainimh. The rain finally made a re-appearance near to the end but it was too late to dampen our spirits. Ian had exited his bike via the bars so we joined forces for the road ride down to Oykel Bridge. Pete McNeil had met up with Craig Mac. A lorry nearly took them out and the driver shouted at Pete for being there. Highland hospitality or just another dick in a Truck? Me and Ian were hatching plans for a night in the hotel. So was Craig and so was Bob but Pete was planning his move to the second group. In the hotel there were many folk – ITTers making their way north. Steve from Aberdeen had started late and broke is rear mech but still made it up here on day 2 with daylight to spare. We talked about what had gone before. Pete, Ian and me all agreed – we ride everything we can as that’s what we are here for. The path below Suilven provided some of the hardest techy riding I have ever done. Short sections only between the walking but worth it for the sheer joy of such a physical, mental and technical challenge. This was mountainbiking.

Pete left and we settled in for a night of luxury. Steve ate two meals and headed north. The staff updated us to the leaders but it seemed un-related to what we were doing, unreal. Its an easy question to ask – how can people ride so far without stopping. Only they know the answer. We were all happy – we’d pushed through the northern loop in 24 hours. The Queen stage awaited.

Tuesday May 30th Rock and water

The ride down to Ullapool was damp but no sign of the forecasted rain. Gathering clouds didn’t worry me but my knees were. This looked like the end as I couldn’t contemplate Fisherfield unless I was fully functional. Food at Ullapool, stretches and painkillers did the trick. Phil FT appeared, back from the second group and fresh from 11 hours sleep waiting on shops to open to source inner tubes. “There’s a storm coming, due to hit at 2”. I gobbled food, ignored open cafes and left.

The next section remains etched in my memory. Hard climbs, steep descents, mud, rock, rivers and rain. This was why we were here. In 2015 the approach to the Strath na Sealga had been stomach churning as we knew it would be deep. Today Rocks poked above the water all the way across – I rode it without hesitation, dry and fast. 
Craig M aces the Strath na Sealga

 Showers came and went with tantalising glimpses of sun and blue sky. The weather chose its moment well striking just below the main climb with brutal force. I cowered behind a bolder adding a layer and cinching down jacket and hood. The trail across the top was narrow and technical into a hard rain filled wind. The descent a joy with a backdrop of a stunning vista made more dramatic by the rising cloud. This was mountainbiking….

The valley floor was dry and the weather improved as I climbed out over to Letterewe. Bob was finally caught. He’d pushed on hard over the summit to preserve heat in bare legs – hard man. We talked – what do you do if you come across a fellow rider whose succumbed to such hardship and cold. The answer was easy – help them but you’d be getting rescued to as it wouldn’t take much inactivitiy for hypothermia to set in in those conditions.

The sun came out on yet another fine descent to Letterewe. The Postie path was the only bit I hadn’t ridden before. Speaking to people from last year suggested a range of experiences were possible. I went in with an open mind and a tailwind.

Heaven – this was by far my favourite section of the route. A narrow goat path of a trail, smooth and firm contouring around the hillside. A couple of checks round a crag and through a gorge did nothing to spoil the flow and it kept on going and going. Eventually it stopped me but not for long and way past the point I’d expected. Phil FT was seen wandering off line. I whistled and pointed and he got back on it. One final rocky climb and the only dissapointment – a descent too steep to ride on this day. 
The final 4k to Kinlochewe dragged but it was all good riding so I didn’t complain. I checked my watch at Kinlochewe – 2 hours from Letterewe.The whistlestop café was closed and the pub wasn’t serving food until 8.30. Jenny G had made the cut and was tucking into an appetising meal but I couldn’t wait. Bob, Phil and Fabien all had to as they had no alternative. I pushed on with a view to get over Torridon before it got dark. Another amazing trail but the descent beat me. Pete M rode it all but I stumbled down slowly but surely, old age and the late hour catching up. Near to Strathcarron I pitched camp in a blessedly breezy spot and prepared and ate a dried meal. Somehow I was now 24hrs ahead of where I'd been in 2015. The end beckonned.

Wednesday May 31st / Thursday June 1st. No sleep 'till Tyndrum

4am and I was up. 5 am and I was off. The leaders were finished, I had 150 miles to go. I headed west alone, no one in sight ahead or behind. In reality I was one of a train of dots steadily progressing along the route. The weather was warm and a stiff breeze pushed me along Glen Affric. It was all easy riding and I started to grin at the the thought I might finish this after all.

At Fort Augustus I spoke to a couple of bike packers at the pizza shop who hadn’t met another rider. They were impressed at what we were doing. I was envious of their easy ride from Tyndrum and plans to tour Skye. The easy run down to Fort William led to much introspection – this was coming to an end, would I do it again? Why? I’d done it in bad weather and good, top ten in 2015, maybe sub 5 days this year. All my prep had paid off and I’d beaten injury to get this far. Trying again was pushing my luck maybe….

A few days ago me and Bob had been of one mind – no way were we pushing through the night. It wasn’t worth it and much better to stop even for an hour. Now here I was contemplating exactly that. The thought of riding through the night seemed to be the ultimate adventure. Lets do it. Food was eaten and stashed and I was off.

To Kinlochleven went well. The pub was still open but what the handful of clientele must have thought when this staring cyclist marched in ordering tea, crisps and irn bru I don’t know. I hung around thinking I might wait long enough for dawn down the Devils Staircase. Eventually I left, not caring if I had to walk it in its entirety. The climb was hard and for the first time I suffered. It’s the longest on the route and brutal after over 500 miles. Tents were pitched either side of the path. What they must have thought hearing me stomp up past them cursing this rocky path and endless climb I’ll never know. Near the top the pain came – right down the back of my left knee. I’m no stranger to pain having dealt with it for 15 months thanks to my back and I know when its good and when its bad. This was bad pain. I couldn’t lift my left leg without it striking. I paused to stretch, take tablets and apply gell. Not far now and I was not for stopping. Cresting the summit at 2 am was a major relief. Descending was not. The surface was like marbles needing speed and no brakes to ride. With a small light, near exhaustion and doubling vision I walked.

The finish

Some good news – the path to the Kingshouse had been surfaced making it just the easy pedal I needed. Knee pain receeded and the end was near but on the climb past Glencoe ski centre the tiredness descended like a lead balloon. No problem, I would lie on the path and sleep. I looked back to the Devils Staircase and saw lights. Rocks at the side of the path had looked like people. Wet grass had cast strange after-images in my light. This was halucination just like people said would happen. I blinked and the lights were still there. This wasn’t hallucination, this was other people. Suddenly I was wide a wake and for the first time, racing. It was now near full daylight and the normally busy West Highland way was deserted. Elation filled me – I’d done it again. The final hike a bike caused my bad knee much pain but I’d have crawled up it if need be. Then the last few k and a lonely finish before much sleep. It wasn’t to be. I stopped at the line to activate my tracker and became aware of a couple getting out of a van parked nearby. “Are You Phil?” they said.

“That’s me”.

“We’re Jenny Graham's Parents, well done you’ve finished!”

I was gobsmacked – it was 5.45 am and complete strangers were welcoming me back. I'd just ridden for 25 hours and 150 miles. In total the route took me 4 days, 20 hours and 46 minutes. Soon after Phil FT appeared. Handshakes were exchanged, coffee was drunk. Doro Maurizio appeared, then Craig Mac. It was over and sleep beckonned.

The day was spent sleeping and eating. People gathered in the café as they got back. Some of the front runners were there. Stories were exchanged and hands shaken. Pete MacNeil had got the jump on Alan the previous morning. Florian Ponzio hadn’t stopped since Ullapool and beaten them both. Bob and Jenny were back and had also rode through the night. I'd been close to Alan at one point the previous day but my painfully slow progress in the dark meant he beat me back by several hours. Ian and Pete finished that day too. Others appeared the next morning at breakfast. I was happy, everyone I’d met had made it and all said the same – amazing trails, (some) amazing weather and good company. Another memorable experience and all thanks to Alan Goldsmith putting in the time and effort to create a fabulous route and gathering a group of like minded people together to ride it. Bravo!

Phil Clarke
June 2017