Friday, 16 February 2018

February BAM

BAM number 2 in the bag!

There was a bit of opportunism for this one as we seem to be in the middle of a period of decidedly unsettled weather with some large variations in temperatures. Friday was looking good so I decided to go for it, leaving work at 5 and heading north on a varied route bagging various trails old and new linked by quiet roads. I'd scoped out various woodland retreats as potential bivvy spots - I was determined to camp out this month and not use a bothy or any other form of man-made shelter - so it was just a matter of riding until the time was right and finding a suitable spot.

Pitmedden forest was my first choice but it was too early and as I needed food, I'd have had to descend to Newburgh and climb all the way back up again. Plus in the face of a not to pleasant forecast I was also keen to be close to home for an easy escape the next morning. So I headed to Kinross for the Co-op and the chippy and then climbed up into the mid Ochills on the wee road to Path of Condie.

It was 10pm by this time so once I reached the woods I started looking for likely bivvy spots. A track at the side of the road provided a way in then a fire break lead to a reasonable spot in the shelter of trees on a nice soft bed of pine needles. I got the tarp up and my gear sorted in short order and then settled in for the night. 


Sleep was hard to come by again thanks to being far to warm in my -12 rated bag. I eventually nodded of at about 1am and woke to a somewhat damp dawn with wet snow falling around me.

First trip of 2018 for the Jones, I'd forgotten how comfy it is...

Breakfast was made and eaten then I packed up sharpish and opted for an easy ride home thanks to the weather. Hopefully next month will be lighter and warmer!

Sunday, 28 January 2018

January BAM

As a way of making myself get out and camp / bivvy / bothy, I'm committed to doing the Bear Bones Bikepacking forum Bivvy A Month. Basically every month of the year you have to go out on your bike, and bivvy, camp or doss in a bothy. As long as its not in a paying campsite or other form of accommodation, anything goes. There is a cop out option of using friends back gardens but my intention was to aim to go out into the wilds for every month.

I'd meant to go out last weekend in the snow and the weather was certainly looking good for it but a day of ski-touring, on the back of some hard commutes in the snow meant I was just too knackered to even contemplate riding my bike on Saturday evening. That left this weekend and the weather was looking decidedly ropy.

It didn't help that I had a works night out on the Friday as this would have otherwise been a fine night to head out. Oh-well, I would just have to brave the elements. I'd made various plans to head for a bothy somewhere given the forecast but I couldn't be bothered driving. The easy option was my pals newly constructed cow shed on their farm near the village but this seemed like a cop out. In the event I headed for a place I'd bivvied in November, shown there by another BB forum member. 

Its an events / craft etc space owned by the Falkland Estate Trust and used for various group activities during the day. At night its gets less used and its generally accepted that anyone can use it provided they leave it tidy. Of particular interest to me were the teepees, large timber gazebo (with stove) and proximity to the house (25 miles of easy back roads and a few trails).

It felt odd leaving the house at 7pm on a Saturday evening when most people would either be in the pub or at least in a heated house watching telly. The ride went well as I had a monster tailwind. One brief splurge of rain threatened to spoil things but most of the trip was done under a clear sky and moon.

I arrived at 9, gratified that no-one else was in residence as the wind was getting up and the thought of pitching a tarp in a dark and windy woodland did not appeal. There was plenty of dry wood lying around so I soon had a good fire going in the stove and spent a pleasant couple of ours sat in front of it reading and sipping whisky.

Apart from the noise of the wind I had a good night. The temperature was around 5 degrees so I'd made do with my normal sleeping bag as a -12 rated bag would have boiled me alive. I woke up just after the dawn chorus at a decadent 8am. The wind had dropped completely so after a quick breakfast I packed up, swept up the remains of the twigs I'd collected for the fire and left. The ride home was rather wet but at least the forecasted gales didn't appear until I was sat in the house having my second breakfast.

Roll on February!

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

How much is too much?

Last week saw the most snow I've seen in Fife since 2013. Depths varied depending on where you are and how high you were but here at home (145m AOD) the depth topped out at nigh on 10" just before the thaw set in.

It all kicked off on the Tuesday with a forecast of substantial snowfall throughout the day. I'd got the Ice Cream Truck ready for an early start to ride down to Dunfermline train station, catch the train to Thornton, thereafter a short hop to work. The way home would depend on how much snow had fallen and how adventurous I was feeling......

The day got off to a good start with about 2" already lying when I set off. It was cold but not much less than freezing. In lowland Scotland its typical for snow to fall when the temps are just above freezing resulting in what is little more than white slush, no use for anything other than causing traffic chaos and a lot of mud.... Only in 2009/10, 10/11 and 2013 have we seen snowfall at sub zeros and low levels and the resulting powder usually only found above 500m or in the Alps. Sure enough the heavy snow came but at Glenrothes was only the aforementioned white slush.

Home time saw a dilemma. I could head back to the station for an easy option and short ride home or head for the Lomond hills over one of many routes I've used to get me home over the years. Without really thinking I turned left out of the office entrance and headed round Glenrothes on a snowy cycleway. You climb all the way and sure enough when I got to Leslie, snow depth had gone up markedly and further flurries were coming in. My route took me up to Holl reservoir and then up and up past West Feal Farm and on up to the Bishop hill. 

This was a good choice. The farm track had vehicle tracks up it and despite some drifting was reasonable going. Above the farm it got harder but once in the woods the track was barely covered. Emerging onto the summit just past the radar station I contemplated the full folly of my route choice. It was blowing a gale and spin drift made forward visibility minimal. Undeterred I set off down the single track which was un-tracked and covered by many drifts. This really is where a fat bike is in its element. Normal tyres would bog down on the deeper stuff and fail to grip elsewhere. Fat bike tyres just float and grip. Exiting the trail at Kinesswood I reckoned I would be in for an easy pedal home round the Loch Leven Trail and then various back roads home.

Oh how wrong I was. It started fine with easy pedalling down the east side of the Loch through the woods. The path was largely snow free and even quite wet in places. The problems started after Vane Farm. This section is exposed and it was now snowing and blowing hard. Snow depth was around 5" with lots of tracks for easy going but longer and longer sections were drifting in, erasing tracks and increasing snow depth to 12" or more. The fat bike would go through it but it was like riding up a continuous 15% grade into a brutal wind. Kinross was reached eventually but the hard work continued. The back roads were snow covered and the wind full in my face. A further hour of hard pedalling was required before I finally got home. Total distance was 30 miles but it had taken my 3 3/4 hours. I'd tried to take some photos but the wind and snow was so strong all I got were blurred images of dark and snow.....

After two days of brighter weather and quite a bit of a thaw below 300m I was ready for another fat bike commute. The forecast was for more snow but only light falls. This time I was determined to train it from work to Lochgelly and then home via another oft used route through the Country Park, up to and through Blairadam Forest and then over to Cleish and back roads. 

However the 'light snow' manifested itself as 2 hours of heavy snowfall. This made little impact on Glenrothes thanks to + temperatures but I knew there would be much more higher up. Sure enough after an easy pedal around Lochore Meadows snow depths went up markedly climbing up through Blairadam. At first the tracks were well trodden and I was even following another fat bike track. Eventually all the tracks petered out and I was riding though an unbroken swathe of fresh powder snow.

Managed some pics this time!

The going was hard but I was determined to press on rather than back tracking to slush covered roads. The hill road over to Cleish was un-ploughed but had vehicle tracks. The key here is to get up speed on the compacted wheel tracks and then plough into the full depth snow between ruts. Its a mix of biking and skiing in that you are never quite sure how much control you have over the bike.

Proper road riding. 

Lower down the snow depth dropped off again and the back roads home were covered in a firm compacted layer of snow. 2 1/2 hours this time and only 20 miles.....

Saturday dawned crystal clear as promised  - a true bluebird powder day. I knew that crowds would be heading up to the ski centres so it was some local touring for me. I parked up the hill above Dollar and skinned up to the top of Whitewisp Hill through gratifyingly deep powder snow. 
Rare to have such a clear, still day in winter in Scotland.

After a couple of runs down the back side of the hill on some lovely firm windblown snow I went back to the summit and then followed a wide line of wind blown powder off the summit followed by a short skin up and a steady run back almost to the car.

Sunday was the change day but it was not clear how it would pan out and how quick the thaw would set in. The night before temps had dropped to -9 so I knew that the snow would still be good. Time for one more fat bike ride. The plan was to find well trodden tracks up and then do some powder surfing downhills. This took me up the flanks of Seamab hill above Muckhart with a modicum of hard pushing seeing a great run down totally off path through 18" deep powder between the trees. I had the tyres at 2psi for this and the snow depth you can go through on even a modest downhill gradient is really quite amazing. 

Deep powder and trees!

Some more hard pedalling took me along various other paths and then I took a snap decision to climb back up a forest track which had some firm cross country ski tracks in it. This worked well in the main but as snow depth increased and the thaw was starting to set in lack of traction eventually beat me. Up top the wind had re-appeared so I took a short cut down to Dollar gratefully following a well trodden slot in the deep snow. The forecasted sleat was heavy, if wet snow, which was lying quickly. This made for hard going as you tend to slither around all over the place. I also had a rather spectacular crash on a fast descent when my front wheel strayed out of a wheel rut and immediately washed out in the soft slush in the middle of the road. One second I was upright, the next I was face first into the thankfully soft snow in the opposite road verge. Only pride was hurt along with more scrapes on my shins....

Later on the snow inevitably turned to rain and the big thaw set in, in earnest.

Since getting my first fat bike in 2012, I've enjoyed pushing the limits of what they can do and where they can ride. Prior to this week my snow riding has been mainly high up in the hills where wind blown snow is the order of the day. This can be incredibly frustrating and / or hard work. It was immensely satisfying seeing the panic on colleagues faces as the snow set in and they contemplated trying to drive through the crowded roads, knowing that no amount of snow would stop me. Yet they all thought I was mad for riding a bike in such conditions. In fact, despite the physical hardship, I had an absolute ball and discovering just how deep you could go into powder snow and still keep riding on a fat bike has been a further education into just how versatile these beasts are.

So how much is too much? Not enough yet!

Monday, 18 December 2017

Scotland Winter Bivvy 2017

Last weekend was the Bear Bones Scotland Winter Bivvy. This comprised and informal meet up of regulars on the BB forum from various parts of Scotland. The aim was to bivvy or bothy out somewhere - simple!

The plan was to meet at Duinish bothy at the watershed of Loch Garry near to Drumochter on the A9. I'd scoped out a route starting from the Garry bridge just north of Pitlochry heading west through the woods above Loch tummel, a bit of road riding to Loch Rannoch and then up the ROW to Glen Garry. Likely attendees were Ray and Alasdair from Edinburgh, Blair from Falkirk Jamie from Yorkshire and Colin from Aviemore. There was no fixed plan for a meeting time as we were all heading up under own steam at various times. For my part I was limited by alchohol consumption the night before thanks to my works xmas night out. I eventually got up there for just before 3.....
The machine ready for the off. Depsite only going out for one night it was jammed with stuff.

The temp was around 0 and there was a dusting of snow. I was concerned that a lot of the tracks we would be riding would be melted / frozen snow and lethal. Sure enought the first section was exactly that so it was a case of slithering around or using the still snowy middle bit. Several sets of tyre tracks indicated that Ray et al was in front. Entering the woods got us off the ice and into around 2-3" of powder snow. Vehicle tracks made for easy going and at the high point of 450m there wasn't much more. As this was the same height as the bothy it looked like we would have a straightforward climb up to it.....

I caught up Ray, Blair, Blair's mate and Jamie not long before the woods section finished (they were all on normal bikes). They seemed to be making good progress in the snow so all was well.

Looking back to Ben Vrackie.

Looking up Strath Rannoch. We just missed the sunset.

Heading along the road to Kinnloch Rannoch seemed to take ages. The temps dropped alarmingly and I was getting chilly so with Rays blessing pushed on. Blairs Mate was on his first trip and was a bit under dressed so departed back along the road at this point. Given what was to come he made a wise choice....

The further west we went the more the snow cover increased. Past Kinnloch Rannoch the road was pretty snowy and off to the side it was solid white away from tree cover. At the start of the ROW you were straight into it. Climbing up from the farm there was 5-6", way more than had been in the woods previously. I stopped to drop tyre pressures to 3 / 5psi and got stuck in.

This looks horrendous but was actually straightforward - just aim along the rut and pedal. A quad bike had been up so no need to break trail!

I was following another bike track and up ahead I started to get glimpses of a light. Some tread spotting suggested this was Alastair on his half-fat Jones. I eventually caught him just before the track met the main estate road up the glen. He was riding and walking so I kept going with my steady pace. On the main track the quad tracks were replaced by an tracked argo cat track. This is pefect fat bike riding as it leaves a nice level  surface on which you can ride pretty easily (Alasdair, Ray, Jamie and Blair will probably want to repeatedly punch me for saying that) The only spoiler was loads of foot prints. They all seemed to be heading downhill so hopefully there would be no-one in the bothy but Colin. It was now seriously cold -  frost  was building up on my bags and I had a proper Iditarod icicle under my nose! The climb was steady but seemed to go on way longer than the map suggested. Its always hard to guage your pace in the dark as all you can see is a small pool of light in front of you and no idea of how quickly the landscape is passing. A flurry of snow came in but otherwise the sky was crystal clear. I turned my lights off and stopped to check out the stars. No Northern Lights tho.....

At one point all the footprints turned off in the direction of, presumably, the local munroe / corbett. So it was just me riding across a pristine argo track. It was still climbing but good going. I've no idea as to snow depth but 8-10" I'd guess. There was barely any wind but I started seeing snow drifts of increasing size as I made my way along to the bothy. Fortunately the argo had ridden across it all and it hadn't drifted back in. Finally I got a glimpse of the bothy windows reflecting my light back to me. It still seemed ages before I at last got to the turn off. The bothy was dark and cold. No sign of Colin which was slightly alarming as he'd said he would be aiming to get there before dark o'clock. Oh well hopefully he'll be here soon.

Made it at last, 42k and 4 hours after setting off.

The bothy was occupied after all - two wee sparrow hawks were curled up in the entrance and seemed mightily p*ssed off when I clomped in.

The only way to avoid the rest of the party from lynching me for riding up so easily was to get a fire going. Ray had stashed some coal two weeks previously but I'd no idea where it was. A big bag of kindling, fire lighters and a couple of spadefuls of coal from someone elses visit saved the day. Alastair turned up not long after and Ray, Blair and Jamie arrived about another half hour after that, cursing the bloke on the fat bike that had ridden everything they had spent 2 hours walking up...

Ray went in search of the coal, the stashing of which should earn him a BB hero of the year award. Sadly it wasn't to be found - either buried under a snow drift or found by someone else the previous weekend. Instead he produced two fire logs that he'd humped all the way up with him, earning him the BB hero of the year award. We managed to chop up some bits of wood that were lying in the back room and got a good blaze going in the grate. Not only that but he'd also brought tunes! So there then followed a very convivial evening chewing the fat, listening to good music and having the odd nip of whisky finally turning in at 1 am. I'd guess at about -7 to -10 outside but a balmy 2 or 3 inside so everyone seemed to have a decent nights kip (judging by the snores anyway....)

The next morning dawned grey and damp as forecasted. It was a case of eat breakfast, pack up and get going. The temps had gone up to above freezing so with the heavy rain the snow cover was rapidly heading for porridge-hood. The fat bike can be a liability here as it floats across the snow / slush rather than digging in. I left the narrow tyres pushing and slithered my way back down to Loch Rannoch. Overall the going was OK but much harder than the previous evening - I even had to push at one point! The downhill seemed ludicrously short given how long it had taken to grind up it so I was onto the road after less than an hour.

Loch Rannoch looking west.

After a stop to pump the tyres up it was a case of pedalling steadily east. Santa greeted me at the FC place at Queens View but all I wanted for xmas was a flushing toilet so I quickly side stepped him. Xmas music blared out of the speakers whilst I was doing what had to be done, further driving my humbug like spirit away from this nonsense that we put up with every year....

Back to the car at 1 and straight of home for heat and hot water!

Monday, 16 October 2017

Autumn touring

In the last four years we've had some particularly fine weather in October and I've never had any holidays left to enjoy it. This year I was determined to hold a week back to cash in on this run of indian summers. Predictably the generally wet weather that had written off yet another summer showed no sign of let up as my time off approached.

Plans were changed and the east seemed a better bet than my original idea of heading through Argyle. After a damp start Saturday noon approached and with the threat of sunshine and a stiff tailwind I headed away from the house. This seems to me to be the best way to start a holiday - no transport to arrange or flights etc to catch, you just load up and go. I followed a variety of quiet roads to Perth mostly on NCN 1 and 775. Perth itself was largely bypassed and NCN 77 takes you on a fine route alongside the Tay and out to Almondbank. From here its more back roads to Dunkeld.

By this time it was about 5pm and the weather was fine. I stocked up with some food and headed up into a network of tracks and trails just north of Dunkeld, generally heading for Loch Ordie. 

For a while the pedalling was easy until the main track ended and a rougher, wetter trail climbed steadily away to Loch Oisinneach. I rode this in about 1994 and had a memory of the tracks being rough but dry. 20 odd years of zero maintenance had taken their toll however as many sections were flooded or sunk into the prodigious marshland the track passed through. 

I turned off the main trail and things got immediately better until a 'burn' crossing nearly defeated me. Quad tracks ploughed straight through a swamp which looked like it would be knee deep, at least. No way was I doing that so instead I managed to tip toe past it using the dense reeds as support over the marsh. Thereafter things got a bit better but the prolonged wet weather we've had made this trail slow going. At around 6pm I'd climbed out of the woods and was heading for a large section of open moor. Before this I encountered Sarah's Bothy - definitely 5 star accommodation with 2 bedrooms, well stocked bookshelves and soft furnishings!

It was an easy choice to stop as I reckoned I had about an hour of daylight left and I'd no idea what was ahead in terms of bivvy spots. Unsurprisingly no-one else had made the effort to plough through the swamps to get here so I had the place to myself. There was plenty of wood for a fire so I got a merry blaze going and had my tea after watching a fabulous sunset. 

The view south from the bothy seemed to follow a clear gap in the hills so that I could see the Lomond hills clearly in the distance, the lights of Perth twinkling in between. I've ridden the Lomonds countless times and surveyed the amazing views they offer to the north. It still surprises me when I see them from those same places, however so remote.

Eventually I turned in and had a lengthy sleep until cold woke me just before 8. I had a leisurely breakfast, did a quick sweep and clear up of the bothy (There was no litter for a change and I was sure to leave it as such), then headed out.

I had a vane hope that the track might improve after the bothy but its still part of a well used circuit from Dunkeld so was just as bad. Several other sersiously swampy sections forced a fair bit of dismounting and careful picking my way round. 

Eventually I reached the turn off for Kirkmichael and this was far better. The path was hardly used so whilst a bit damp was easy going. This joined a better track which in turn joined the Cateran trail - a shortish long distance path starting and ending in Blairgowrie - that took me to Kirkmichael.

Kirkmichael provided an excellent shop cum cafe for a nice second breakfast. Thereafter it was more back roads east into the Angus Glens. There are a lot of trail hereabouts. I wasn't in the mood to be too ambitious this trip so my route followed what in theory should be two easy moorland traverses over to Glen Prosen via Backwater Resevoir and then over again to Glen Clova via the Ministers Road. Both are Angus core paths and signed. Apart from a minor bit of overgrow trail out of the resevoir both of these routes were nice. Another two trails bagged.
Looking back to Glen Isla at the top of the descent to Glen Prosen

On the Ministers Road climbing out of Glen Prosen

Next up was a famous climb - the Capel Mounth road out of Glen Doll, one of several hard trails out of this amazing place. Its a steep push but not too bad all in all. The only minor concern was overhead as the cloud that had been thickening all afternoon seemed to be finally building to a point where it dumped on me. 

Looking back to Glen Doll

The Top of Loch Muik

Cresting the final rise gives great views over Lochnagar and sure enough a large rain cloud sat firmly on its summit. That said, looking ahead, Deeside was in Sunshine, so I cracked on hoping to miss the worst of it. As it happens, apart from a wee sprinkle of rain I stayed dry and the descent into and out of Glen Muik was bone dry. 

Lochnagar and rain cloud!

Ballater was reached at about 5 and once again holiday mode kicked in. I'd vaguely thought of heading down to Glen Tanar for a bivvy but this would mean either a long evening in the tent or a lot of riding in the dark, neither of which appealed. Instead I opted for the luxury of the Ballater hostel and a beer in the Alexander hotel. I love touring....

Day 3 dawned rather grey with the roads wet from the early morning rain. I had a leisurely start at 10 with the sky showing increasing signs of brightening up. The destination for today was my friends place in Speyside just downstream of Aberlour. The obvious route was to go up Glen Gairn over into Glen Builg and down Glen Avon to Tomintoul. I fancied a change however so actually stayed on the (very quiet) A939 to the top of the climb above Strathdon. Just off the top there is a great track which follows Wades Road to Corgarff. Nothing drastic (I once took a touring bike along here) but nice scenery and a cheeky shortcut compared to the Tarmac. 

One of several stone arch bridges on Wades Road.

From Corgarff Castle I turned off the road again onto a route I'd been meaning to bag for years - a roughly westerly track which emerges in Glen Avon just by Inchory Lodge. This is (yet another) great through route. The riding is easy on tarmac then a good track with only a gentle climb then a nice switchback descent into Glen Avon.

At the top of the pass into glen Avon, Ben Avon in the distance

It had been a bit gloomy to this point but the sun finally made an appearance as I headed down to Tomintoul and lunch at the usual Fire station Cafe.

From Tomintoul its possible to roll down a quiet B-road to within a shout of my pals place but I was out for more trail bagging so turned off the road at Tomnavoulin and headed roughly east through Glenlivet on a rather wet track which climbed steadily up the glen. Glenlivet is actually part of the vast Crown estate but unlike Balmoral where every building is in mint condition and every track a smooth motorway, this area had an air of dilapidation and neglect. As you climb out of the valley the route passes two fine old houses at Suie which are sadly dropping to bits. I don't suppose there would be many people willing to live in such remoteness but its sad to see properties like this simply being left to wrack and ruin. 

Suie looking back to the Braes of Glenlivet

Beyond these houses the track improves somewhat but this too seemed to be in serious need of maintenance with numerous washed out sections. The descent down Glen Fiddich is a gem - double track but the upper section follows a narrow gorge with rock walls on both sides and a narrow burn right beside you. Watch out for the Elf House! 

Several sections of track seemed to have become the burn so this could be tricky in wet weather. Further down the Glen there was evidence of a vast windfarm going up on the right. This is in the neighbouring Cabrach estate and cause of much concern by locals as the multi billionaire owner apparently is only interested in screwing as much profit out of the estate as possible.

The dilapidation theme continued on passing Glenfiddich lodge. This and several nearby farm cottages are empty with windows and doors broken in and (apparently) still full of furniture. The owners aren't interested in occupying it or selling instead electing to let it fall apart in its own time. This is somewhat at odds with the image of Glenlivet Whisky and seems unfathomable to me. I rolled quickly passed and down the now tarmac (with huge potholes) track to the main road above Dufftown. A bit more road bashing got me to Aberlour itself and then the Speyside Way and some forestry tracks took to my destination.

Day 4 dawned with a herald of a change in the weather with high winds and rain forecast. I left at my usual 10 and headed to Grantown on Spey by the back road. The Speyside Way is a no go by bike along here and not much fun by foot as it departs the nice disused railway line and follows a convoluted route through fields and woods. This is inevitably due to a landowner refusing permission for it to follow the railway. Signs at the side of the road proclaiming 'Private' and 'No Access' hinted at yet another landed idiot who can't get their heads round Land Reform and the irony of the fact that it was their kind of attitude that lead to Land Reform in the first place. Hey ho, The SPW was picked up just before Grantown for a nice run in through woodland paths. Breakfast 2 was eaten in the cool sunshine and then more road riding took me to Nethy Bridge.

Straight through here and over one of my favourite through routes in the area - Ryvoan Pass. This is a steady climb through the woods of Abernethy finally topping out at just over 400m. As I approached the edge of the woods a chap on a Krampus with his daughter astride the top tube was coming the other way. He looked familiar and as my slow brain processed who it could be he beat me to it - 
"Stuart!" (And Isla)
These encounters never cease to amaze as the chances of meeting anyone you know in such a spot is rare, let alone a fellow Fat Bike Forum type. We chatted for a while about bikes and routes and stuff then went our separate ways. 

Hmm. The cafe at Glen More was full and the bar was shut. In May it was 'Closed for refurbishment.' Now it was 'Closed until further notice.' I don't know what the story is here but it seems odd for such a gold mine to close. Tourists were still in abundance despite it being October so I pedalled off in search of quieter places. Not at Rothiemurchus - this cafe too was busy and expensive. Aviemore town centre suddenly seemed to be more trouble than it was worth so I hightailed it down the Insh Road sharpish. 

15 miles of empty B road and I rolled into Kingussie. Now the weather had been getting progressively gloomier as I headed south and the wind was strengthening in my face. All as forecasted but my enthusiasm for weathering the impending storm was waning. A plan was hatched - I needed food but a quick stop at the station determined that there was a train south due in just over an hour. I found a great (and quiet) cafe in the town, ate the food I craved and hatched various other plans to find one of several bothies should the train be full. In the event it was half empty and no bikes were on it. Better yet it was due to stop in Glen Eagles, a short hop over the hill back to home. The run down was fine, the weather was grey and I was happy I'd had another great trip. Riding up Glen Eagles I felt slightly displaced as a few hours earlier I had been climbing steadily up the Spey valley. The rain came in down Glen Devon so I was happy to have quit whilst I was ahead. I feel no need, these days, to deliberately put myself in the way of bad weather - I was on holiday after all!

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 a long 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 Krampus is single speeded permanently these days 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 sky 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 this 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 were 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 alongside 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 expecting 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.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Deeside Holiday

I had a week booked off work at the end of July. As usual I had various plans in my head as to what to do but in the event rather than another epic bikepacking trip went for the easy  option of a proper holiday in Ballater, upper Deeside i.e. - luxury accommodation (Vango cyclone 200+) Fine food (courtesy of Co-op and my full sized trangia), fine ales (courtesy of the Alexandra Hotel) and (gasp) amazing sunny weather.

My planned rides roughly revolved around a little known bikepacking ITT route, the Deeside trail:- this 150 mile route traverses a large chunk of Deeside and includes some of the best mountainbiking in the UK. A bold claim but if you ride it you'll agree, believe me....

Friday early morning saw me taking a leisurely drive up to Ballater, abandoning the heap and setting off at 9.30 am on the first of several ace day rides. Glen Muik is part of the Balmoral Estate as owned by HMQE2. In days gone by there was a lot of anti mountainbiking bullshit in this place but these days its pretty much a free for all as long as you behave yourself (and doff your lid to any Royals encountered). The climb out of Glen Muik up the flanks of Lochnagar is a beast with a fine mix of gradient, rocks and gravel. I got up a respectable amount of it past numerous walkers out to bag the 'gar, Munro as it is. Past the turn off to the summit I was alone on the trail. Clouds were gathering but a diversion to Geldershiel bothy allowed a late morning snack whilst the shower passed through.

Well posh bothy courtesy of HM QE2. Full pine cladding, a water tap and a loo.

More easy double track followed with the promise of sun on the horizon

Top of descent from near Gelder Shiel to Lizzies Scottish back garden. This descent is an absolute gem - steep, rocky and rooty. Best of all was no-one but me and the bike to be seen. After a brief section of double track the next obstacle was Glen An-ti-Sluggain. This is a stead climb which gets rougher and steeper as you gain height. I spent (wasted) a good hour trying to find the Sluggain Howf here but failed dismally. I'd been directed to its alleged location by a Geordie Teacher I met in a bothy back in April but he obviously gave me a bum steer as it was nowwhere to be seen.

One final heave out of the glen took me into what is my favourite trail anywhere - Glen Gairn. This is Nadgery central - no big scary drops or fast bits, just a technical, engaging, hardcore trail with zero 'flow' and much grin inducement. If you are bored of trail centres, ride this.
Approach to Ben Avon and the climb over to Glen Gairn. No photos of Glen gairn but its a lovely trail - some seriously nadgery bits but with lots of nice riding too.

The easy roll out of Glen Gairn on double track was a fitting end to a great day. Once back in Ballater I checked into the campsite, pitched my 5 star digs and settled in for a night of fine food, ale and sleep. Ballater Campsite got it bad during storm Frank in 2016 - most of the static caravans got washed away, never to be seen again. The owners did a great job of getting it back in order for the coming season. However a walk around the town indicated still a few properties that are uninhabitable after the devastation this storm wreaked.

Saturday dawned somewhat grey with a forecast of much rain. Not to be deterred I headed east down the glen and rode various double track in the forest of Tanar to a background of light but incessant drizzle. This cleared up towards lunchtime as I approached the Halfway Hut - a tiny wee bothy that you could bivvy in at a push but today served as a useful lunch stop.

The halfway hut - one day I will bivvy here....

The day ended in the sunshine and an ice cream in Ballater.

Another evening passed with more food and drink. The forecast for Sunday was better and I was keen to bag more new trails. My route took me up a dead end C road that runs up the Gairn parallel to the A939. beyond the farm at Lary it becomes gravel and climbs steadily towards Morvern Lodge. The sun shone, the trails were dry and all was well with the world. My route took me around the Flanks of Morvern and into a single track descent which really was a beaut. Ultra narrow, endless rock steps and all downhill. Back roads and obscure double track followed - for all I love sussing out routes and finding out if they 'go' its great following the route of someone with local knowledge.

This took me into Tarland by way of a small trail centre - its amazing the places these mini bike parks are cropping up. A guy on a Haro cruiser BMX complemented my bike and I complemented his. Next up was more climbing into the strengthening sun and increasing temperatures. First a farm track North west out of Tarland and then a series of overgrown and obviously little used or maintained trails all still signed by the now defunct Upper Deeside Access Trust. This organisation developed many trails in upper Deeside (obviously) but then got absorbed into the National Park as its main deliver of infrastructure. Many of its old trails get followed by the Deeside Trail but many seem to have fallen into obscurity as they fall outside the National Park Boundary. A shame as they offer a good network of walking or riding routes. Anyway much climbing took me out of the woods and onto Broomhill, a fast descent and another hard climb then took me onto Pressendry 620m above sea level.

Looking up Deeside with Lochnagar in the distance, Mount Keen to the left and Morvern to the right. A fast descent took me back towards Tarland and then an easy run back to base camp.

Day 3 was to be the crux of my trip - a ride to the upper reaches of the Dee and a chance to pit myself against one of the hardest trails in the UK.

The day started fine with promise of more heat and sun to come. I'd driven for the first time to Bramaer to save on road miles and once started I was straight into the rough stuff. The Deeside trail misses out the road to Linn of Dee for a while and instead follows a lovely bit of single track which crosses a moor and enters woods with views all around the glen. The route takes you through the NTS's place at Mar lodge and out to Linn of Dee before the fun really begins. I've ridden the route from Linn of Dee down to Blair Atholl loads of times so it was with much excitement that I finally turned right of the main track at White bridge up 'that' trail that I had passed many times but never had the chance to ride. Today was the day and off I went into what would be a serious piece of technical riding. As usual the first bit was easy on made trail. This didn't last long before it deteriorated into a mix of totally natural and washed out made trail with the odd random section of newly made trail.

In the early 2000's the NTS threw a vast amount of cash at the whole route through the Lairig Ghru. Previously it had been a hard route through boulder fields, bog and rock, a dubious prospect by bike. For a few short years it was a reasonable trail and worth doing but the weather quickly wrecked all the good work and what is left is little different to what was there before.

Looking up towards the Devils Point and the Lairig Ghru on a rare easy bit. Its an absolute nadge-core tech fest. Most trails (like the Glen gairn trail) comprise shortish sections of rocky bits with nice bits of easier riding. Not this one - it just goes from one section to another with little or no breaks (section as in trials). I hate to boast but I rode 90% of this and I was thoroughly chuffed with myself. Being pretty dry helped as well!

Corour bothy (Another posh one avec a WC). I slept in this in 1987 along with 12 other school kids and a few adults. Looking into it now its hard to see how (it was a bit of a squeeze!) as its tiny. I sat outside in the sun eating a late lunch before heading back to the outward route and the long climb out of the 'ghru and into Glen Luibeg. This is more head f*ck stuff but the following descent justifies it.

The descent into Glen Luibeg.

Yeeharr this was bloody amazing. Most guide books suggest you do this circuit the other way round (ie anticlockwise from Linn of Dee) but this is bollocks as the trail down the Dee to whitebridge is no more rideable downhill than up and doing it clockwise leaves this descent as a finisher! Note there are some gargantuan open cross drains on this route but to be honest these are the least of your problems. There are also a few of the ones with a central rock. The trick is to hop your back wheel on the central rock and then hop again onto the far bank. My one attempt at this nearly ended in disaster....

Oddly the last section is a mess of lines over a boggy field despite all of the rest of it having been constructed. The NTS really don't have a clue how to manage a trail properly despite much money and experience. Whatever I enjoyed an easy roll out down Glen Derry but instead of following it out to the road took a left over a trail I'd only ever walked. This climbs steeply out of the glen and then traverses a narrow defile - the Clas Fhernaigh.

Another gem of a trail with evidence of a few minor 'improvements' most have which have eroded back to natural. Oddly there was a line of bags full of aggregate on the last bit (despite there being nothing wrong with it) however these seem to have sat there for a long time so there doesn't appear to be any immediate threat of the NTS spoiling another nice descent. The track out of Glen Quoich got clobbered by Hurricane Bertha in 2014 and its yet to be fixed. Stupidly I followed the signed diversion up off the track and through a frustrating kilometre of heather. Looking back the track was in tact apart from one bit where the river had trashed it but this was easily bypassed given the low water levels.... Rather than ride back out on the road I felt compelled to reverse the first bit of single track - good move as it was a lovely descent all the way back to the car.

My final day was spent doing (most of) the lower section of the route (i.e. the bit from Banchory to above Ballater and the last 50 miles). This is more straightforward going but with plenty of climbs and some really nice trails. Doing it in a oner as an ITT is defo on my radar for next spring as it's a great route!