It is beginning to feel like the weather has a personal vendetta against me.
Race weekend = biblical conditions
Mountain Mayhem 2012 – oh, the mud
SITS 2012 – oh, the mud. But enduring it lap, after lap
3 Peaks Cyclocross 2012 – wind, rain, bare-knuckle fighting with Mother Nature
Anglesey Trail Ultra 2013 – cancelled due to snow
Edale Skyline 2013 – cancelled due to snow
I was meant to be running the 20 or so miles of fell encircling Edale, in the Peak District on Sunday. I was really, really looking forward to running. My last “serious” foot race before things take a two-wheeled turn for the rest of the summer. Fit. Fast. Keen.
Except it snowed a little bit. Quite a lot actually. The Edale valley was pretty much shut off from the world. A few hardy locals headed out on Sunday, and it took them two hours to reach Win Hill. At that rate, no one would have made the cut off time at Mam Nick.
Body and mind ready to race, ready to exert effort. Sitting on the sofa on Saturday morning, enjoying a second carb-heavy breakfast, the cancellation text message came through. I was left with an emptiness and loss of purpose for the weekend. I was ready to suffer, and to enjoy the extreme conditions. I wanted to be out there and experience nature, but I wanted it because there was a purpose. I was racing. Now that was taken away. I could of course still go out, but now that there was no need to, my urgency and drive disappeared.
We headed out for a local bike ride, earlier frustration slowly melting, unlike the trails which were buried deep under a luxurious carpet of snow. Ducking between trees, drifting wheels, vague steering, effort, warmth. Never more than 3 miles from home. Viewing familiar trails in less familiar conditions. One of the lovely things about riding locally with Jenn has been that she has now explored many of these trails herself, with the eyes of an inquisitive newcomer. She’s been up the trail just up from the one I normally turn off at, and been back down my usual climb. I now get her view of “my” woods.
Sunday. The day of cancelled race. We run anyway, changing in the warmth and convenience of the bedroom, rather than contorting in the car. Closing the front door and stepping out on to the snow. Run north west, snow now stained with black-leaf-litter footprints. Out into open countryside, wind-torn fields, bare of snow. Drifts, towering high. Picking footpaths linking place names more usually visited in the car or by road bike. Eccup, Bramhope, Chevin, Menston. Climb on to Ilkley Moor. Biting wind, wild. And descend, with loose legs, on loose snow, we tumble and slide, giggling. Within minutes bleak moor becomes Victorian residential, becomes Ilkley town centre. Coffee, warm train. Home. It wasn’t “hard” in the same way a race would have been, but it was out there. It wasn’t the comfort of the sofa. It wasn’t feeling sorry for ourselves.
The weather may have a vendetta against me, but I actually still quite like the weather*
*although would be really happy if it warmed up significantly and the sun came out, please.
It was just your average weekend ride in the Dales. The four of us were lying in our bivvy bags, under a children’s climbing frame, in a pub beer garden, in Aysgarth, as it started to snow. Again.
Stuart Rider (has there ever been a more appropriate name for someone in the bike trade?), owner of Riders Cycle Centre had planned out a two-day-with-a-bivvy-in-the-middle ride, that he was planning on guiding clients on later in the year.
Rob, who I met, and rode with on the Cairngorms Loop travelled up to join us. Reprising a Cairngorms Loop foursome, including Jenn and Stu. It’s no coincidence we are all planning on doing the Highland Trail in May. Stu’s mate Simon also joined us for the Saturday section of the ride.
Pre-ride fettling. Pic credit to Stuart
So, under a cloudy, grey sky, heavy with snow we set off from Stu’s shop. Our loop was going to be run anti-clockwise, 50-ish miles each day. Not huge, but a serious enough undertaking, and the furthest I’ve ridden off-road for a while now. We spun away on singlespeed gears (other than Stu, who runs 1×9 on his Ragley, chatting as we left Skipton, and gradually (and then less gradually) climbed our way on to the fells behind it.
The subdued green of the valleys became white, and our view was largely sepia toned, other than for our bright drybags, loaded with warm bivvy kit… and the sick green FF29 of course…
After a fast, long and cold descent to Appletreewick, complete with snow/hail stinging our faces, we hit our first bit of off-road, and steadily climbed along the bridleway to Stump Cross. Greenhow edge was appropriately bleak and buffs were pulled over chins as we cruised along the road, before diving off left for more bridleway descending to Pateley Bridge and a well earned brew and toasted teacake. Layers peeled off in the warmth of the cafe were replaced in preparation for the next leg of the ride, up the east side of Nidderdale, past Gouthwaite reservoir, before climbing higher and following the valley round to the NW, on to Scar House reservoir. The snow got deeper as we climbed, rarely so deep that it made riding impossible, but certainly enough to make things a little slower going than the last time I rode these trails, back in an early spring dry spell last year, when they were dry, compact and fast flowing. The wide trails again allowed us to talk some more as we rode, each of us tracking forward and back, sharing conversations. Often there would be one clear line, and we would drop into line. This left me in a world of my own thoughts for a while, content in the stillness, listening to 29er tyres roll over squeaky snow.
Solitude shared with great company. One of those oxymorons that mountain biking throws up sometimes.
Just above the dam at Scar House, we waved goodbye to Simon, who was heading off back to Skipton, a family and a warm bed for the night. The prospect of a warm bed may have briefly triggered pangs of jealousy, but I was looking forward to sleeping out, and had no desire to head home just yet. The next section was a long, slow push up on to the tops.
Pic credit to Stuart
The snow was deeper than it had been anywhere else, and the gradient was tough enough that gears wouldn’t have helped a great deal anyway. After the climb, we were rewarded with a sketchy, drifty descent in flat light, making it almost impossible to spot changes in the terrain. Often the first tell tale sign of a change in camber was finding the bike pointing towards a ditch at the edge of the trail, and showing no inclination to stop. The snow, which had stopped falling for a while, came back, accompanied by low slung, ominous looking clouds, and we were all chilled as we followed tarmac ribbons through grey looking Dales villages and hamlets. Time was getting on, and it was still only February. Daylight was still short lived. As we made our way over to Wensleydale, the clouds lifted once more, and we were treated to stunning pastel colours, and crisp skies. Onwards, and downwards towards Aysgarth. It was dark enough for me to pop my lights on for the two miles on road to Aysgarth. We climbed out of the valley floor, and our tea wouldn’t be earned without a 1:6 haul. Thankfully it was brief, and the pub lights were on.
We tumbled in, and were hit by the warmth. Layers were ditched as quickly as possible, amongst locals out for an early Saturday drink, and more suitably attired for the occasion. It felt fitting to have a pint of Wensleydale while pondering a great looking menu, and settling in, enjoying the welcoming atmosphere. As well as a great guide, Stu also does a fine line in tall tales, and kept us entertained with stories of his youth, as we tucked into big meals and more beer.
Our pace of consumption and conversation slowed as the days efforts took their toll, and we reluctantly thought about making a move back out into the cold and setting up camp for the night. Our original plan was to bivvy near Aysgarth Falls, but it didn’t take much persuasion by the pub landlady to use their beer garden instead. A children’s climbing frame was perfect for rigging Stu’s tarp up to, and after a few swigs of Jura Superstition, we all drifted off to sleep quickly. I woke a few times in the night to snow being blown on to my face, rolling over and drifting off once again, drowsy and warm, thankful that I brought my winter weight sleeping bag.
“Camp” Pic credit to Stuart
An unconventional breakfast of chocolate, nuts and seeds and chorizo had me ready and raring to go on Sunday morning. Actually, ready and raring is an overstatement, but “go” we all did. We would broadly be trending south and west, for what was actually going to be a longer day in the saddle than the Saturday. Our day followed a similar pattern to Saturday, with low cloud and snow showers to begin with, but it cleared significantly as the day progressed, treating us to blue skies and epic views. We picked up the Pennine Bridleway for a while, descending towards Dent. More sketchy snow. More fun. Then a bitterly, bitterly cold road descent, that had us all stopping for extra layers, and looking forward to the next climb, purely to generate some heat. The next climb would be on a familiar hill for me – Whernside, but from the north, on a trail I’ve never used. The climb was a little too steep and prolonged to make on loaded singlespeeds, but would be a good granny ring winch in other conditions. We then dropped down towards Ribblesdale, picking up the 3 Peaks Cyclocross route off the hill, popping out alongside the railway line, and following it to the hulking mass of Ribblehead viaduct. Tummies were rumbling, so Stu took an executive decision to shorten the next leg slightly by going straight along the valley road to the Pen-y-ghent cafe. Pint of tea, cheese and beans on toast, extra toast and a bottle of coke. Fuel.
The blue skies and sun beaming through the windows of the cafe gave an illusion of warmth. The reality was that there was still a chill in the air as we set off, and while it felt like the back of the ride was broken, we still had a good way to go, including a long climb up to Malham Tarn. More pushing, followed by tarmac slogging. Mastiles Lane was dealt with, fuelled by bullet-hard Skittles, a handful stashed in my cheek, gerbil style until they reached a warm enough temperature to chew.
Eventually, we popped out on to tarmac at Rylstone, leaving us with a 5 miles tarmac spin/slog/spin to get us back to Skipton. The light was fading quickly, but we were welcomed back to where we started by ringing church bells (I’ve no idea how Stuart managed to get that organised ) and confirmation by Mr Rider that we had ticked over the 100 mile mark somewhere on the road stretch back to town. A couple of hours later, Jenn and I were tucked up on the sofa, eating enormous quantities of toad in the hole and mash, my face glowing with windburn and the joys of central heating.
The FF29 and bikepacking
So, I’ve established the FF29 makes a fabulous, fun trail bike. How did it cope with being loaded up and taken out on a long xc ride? Very well, actually. The light weight meant that, despite being loaded up with a bar bag and saddle roll, it felt far from sluggish. The extra weight over the back wheel actually provided a little more traction, which was handy for hauling up a few of the steeper climbs. Aluminium has a reputation for being harsh, but the FF29 was anything but. I was as pretty much as comfortable in the saddle at the end as I was at the start. Again, the carbon fork continues to astound me. It is so compliant and comfortable, it really does feel like there is a little bit of travel there, but I love the direct feel of the rigid fork. Happy days.
Thanks to Jenn, Rob, Simon and Stu for the great company. Biggest thanks to Stuart for organising, and planning the ride. He is a fully qualified guide, and can take clients on this trip, or one tailored specifically for you – longer, shorter, bivvy, hostel, hotel…
Pic credit to Stuart
What do I say about a bike/frame that I’ve been given to ride? What if I hate it? What if I just don’t get on with it. It just doesn’t feel right?
I did wonder that when I stood in my kitchen at 23:15 on Friday night, sipping a tumbler of Bowmore and admiring my handy work. A phone call from Al over at Garage at around 15:00 had me diving out of the office as early as I could get away with. Unpacking the frame, the bright “sick” green shone out from the cardboard, despite the opaque bubblewrap protection. It certainly isn’t subtle. Luckily, I don’t really do subtle.
Back home, after getting the bottom bracket expertly faced by Al, and the fork steerer trimmed while he was at it, I took my time assembling the bike. 6Music on in the background, a mug or two of tea, mostly new or as-new parts. Methodical, calming, fun. Brain occupied enough to forget work, yet not taxed enough to stop me daydreaming about riding on Saturday. A big group of mates, a trail centre blast, a fun-per-miles quotient maximising social ride. The weather turned out not to be ideal… Sleet, rain and the kind of grey, penetrating cold that I have grown bored of this winter. Luckily the bike made up for the disappointing conditions. First impressions don’t always mean a great deal when riding bikes. Some take a bit of getting used to, or setting up to get the most out of them. Others just seem “right” immediately. It was nice to find out that the FF29 fell into the latter description. So far, my thoughts have been:
-wow, it’s light. The full build as pictured is 19lbs.
-that lightness translates into a fantastic bike for climbing on.
-after a winter of riding 26in wheels, I’d forgotten how well 29in roll over small lumps and bumps in the trail
-this is so much more than a cross country race bike. A rigid bike, this light has no right to be so confidence inspiring and composed over quick, rough ground
-it is the most nimble 29er I’ve ridden, capable of quick changes in direction, with little effort
-it might look out of place on a the build, but the dropper seat post is a great addition. Getting the saddle out of the way really let me throw the bike around a little more, extracting as much speed and fun out as possible of every situation. I only fitted it as a stop gap while I waited for a new post to be delivered, but I’ll leave it on for for the time being
-I currently have 710mm bars fitted – wider than I anything I used until a few years ago, but times have changes. They are now the narrowest bars I own, and I miss the greater leverage of an extra few mm either side. Again, for pure xc duties, this is not an issue, but as an all-rounder, I think I want to go wider. The Kinesis Strut bars have caught my eye, and will allow me to gain the extra width without sacrificing low weight.
All in all, I’m a happy boy at the moment. I’m looking forward to a few longer rides, and some serious time in the saddle, but things have got off to a great start…
Backpacking with a bike.
I’ve had a few adventures over the years which have involved riding somewhere, carrying camping gear, sleeping out, then riding home the next day. The concept appeals, not least because it allows one to explore that bit further than can be done during a day. Or, do a longer “day” route, but at a social and relaxed pace. I’m also a sucker for sleeping outside. Little differences, like the changes in sounds: no creaks and clunks of a cooling down house, no muffled traffic noise. Crinkles of synthetic fabrics, wind, rustling grass, creaking trees, the hollow echo of rain against tent/bivvy bag/tarp fabric.
May will see my longest bikepacking adventure yet. Not huge, but big enough, and with an additional time pressure. It’s an individual time trial, so while no one will be racing, it carries with it an implied goal of completion as quickly as possible. I’ve already mentioned the Highland Trail. I’m sure I will talk about it a lot in the months to come.
In the mean time, I want to be as prepared as possible. This will involve the “usual” training rides, and as much long distance stuff as I can fit in. I also want to make sure my camping routine is completely nailed, and is a “routine”, so when I’m two days in to the Highland Trail, and shattered, I know that my sleeping bag will be warm enough, where my stove is packed, etc. That means a few preparatory rides and nights out. I.e. a perfect excuse for more fun.
1st up will be later this month, with Stu Rider, of Rider’s Cycle Centre in Skipton. Stu is a top bloke – I actually met him on the Cairngorms Loop last year, and we have bumped into each other at CX races and the like since then. He is going to be taking on the Highland Trail too, so is equally keen to get some miles in. He has planned out a route in the Dales, on tarmac and less muddy sections of off-road. We’ll be over-nighting at Aysgarth, before returning home. 50 miles each day, at a social pace. If you fancy joining us, there are more details on the Riders Cycle Centre Facebook page. The route is here:
The kind of news that has made me feel excitable for a few days.
Kinesis Bikes are kindly giving me a FF29 to race/ride/play on this year. The FF29 is their first foray into the world of big wheels, but looking at the reviews it has received so far, they took their time to make sure they got things right.
I will be building the frame up with Kinesis’ own IX carbon forks initially, although I may swap between them and some suspension forks as and when I feel like it. Other parts will be an eclectic mix of stuff that I already own and a few new bits and pieces. Can’t beat shiny new kit. I’ve decided to keep things super-simple to start, and run the bike single speed. Again, I’ve got a full complement of 2×10 gears to fit should the mood take me. And for some of the events, like the Highland Trail, I’m not sure if one gear will be a compromise too far for me. Riding all day on an SS is ok. Riding all day for days on end might be a bit much. We shall wait and see. Plenty of time to make up my mind on that front.
So, the next few days will be a matter of waiting for the odd parcel to arrive, doing a bit of preparatory fettling, and trying not to get too giddy while I wait for the good stuff to make its way up to Leeds.
Oh, and on a final note, the frame will be “sick green” (Kinesis’ description, not mine). I love the colour. (Un)fortunately, it will clash amazingly with my Garage Bikes race kit. I’m going to spend a year looking like a two wheeled tic-tac. I actually quite like this
Huge thank you to Dom at Kinesis for the frame. I just hope to do it justice, and have fun while I do so
Not only has January snuck up on me, but it is now nearly the end of the month.
I’ve not raced since an ill fated Rapha Supercross in October (sticky mud and wide tyres in the CX bike were not good bedfellows). This was all part of The Plan. A rest. Time off from racing. Riding for fun. Not riding so much. This has been a mixed blessing. I’ve enjoyed some rides with mates that I might have missed out on otherwise. I’ve been doing more running (see post below). But, occasionally I have struggled mentally. I’ve missed long rides, yet not felt motivated to do them, yet beaten myself up for not riding more. Telling myself it is part of The Plan doesn’t always help.
Post Christmas and I have gradually been getting back into things. A few more miles, more regularly. A mystery New Years bug and a cold haven’t helped, but I’m slowly but surely getting fit again. I’ll need to, I’ve got some fun plans for this year.
-Hit the North… 2 hours intense riding. Crashed out last year. Lots of Good People going. Will be fun.
-City Cross… Not yet decided whether I’ll race, but should be a laugh
-Edale Skyline fell race
-No races planned yet, but an Easter break on Skye will involve lots of riding
-12hr solo champs – only two weeks before the biggie
-Highland Trail – 400+ miles of Scottish wilderness. Brilliant. Bit scary.
-Brisol Bikefest – so much fun in a team last year, back to do it solo this year
-Mountain Mayhem – only a week after Bristol. Maybe another team ride?
TBC… Summat big
-Scotland Coast to Coast. Did it two years ago. Fancy another crack
-3 Peaks CX
Saturday morning. 6am. Ouch. Dry mouth. Pain behind my eyes. Groggy. Whisky night. A monthly gathering of mates, which starts as a relatively reserved catch up, with food and sampling some of Scotland’s finest single malts. Inevitably it descends into bad jokes, wild plans and “just one more dram”. Brilliant.
I get up. Empty out the cold, damp grinds from the Moka pot and refill with fresh. Listen to the click, click, roar of the gas hob lighting. Carrying enough espresso to wake a heavy-sleeper from a coma, I sit down in the armchair. Look at the new bike, directly opposite me. Look at the smoothness of the satin finish on the carbon. Immaculate. It will never be this clean again. I imagine myself riding. Stretched out, big-ringing along wide bridleways. Powering up climbs, hands on bar-ends (bar-ends! I’ve not had those since the 90s!).
The pre-ride faffing process is longer than normal. It looks very cold out. Most of my bike kit ends up on the bed. Much of it is left there, to be put away when I get home. That Helly Hansen that is so old it has horizontal stripes on the sleeves (none of that “modern” diagonal business) is left. As is the thick softshell that is perfect for sub-zero road rides, but always too warm on the mountain bike. Decisions made, I leave the front door. The car will stay outside the house today. I’m aware that it is very cold. The retained warmth inside my jacket and cap doesn’t take long to begin to fade. I swing a leg over the bike and pedal down the road. I stop after 10metres. Move the seatpost up by a few mm. And set off. The sun is still low in the sky, but is bright. There isn’t a cloud to be seen.
10 minutes later I’m in Leeds city centre. Shit. I’ve left my ipod at home. The ever present company on solo rides. I could go back, but today, I’ll be absolutely by myself. Another 10 minutes later and I have a coffee in my hand and am walking towards the train along a quiet platform.
The journey is broken up by chatting to a guy who is off to Rochdale to collect a van. He’s travelled up from Ipswich this morning. And then two young lads with stunt-scooter things. We compared notes. How much? Is it any good? Can you do wheelies? How long are you going to be out for? How far can you ride? How many bikes have you got? Can I have a go?
We disembark at Hebden Bridge and I pedal up and out, towards Peckett Well. Turning pedals feels great. Warmth creeps through my body, despite cold air filling my lungs. I notice a glossy finish to the stone walls. Literally as though someone had varnished everywhere… ice.
The first descent proves interesting. That’s interesting as in sheet ice and slippery as hell. Slip. Bruised forearm.
I climb Midgehole Rd. Ice. Slip. No crash, but all of a sudden I’m pointing back down the hill. How did that happen? Walk.
I get to Widdop reservoir. Inch thick ice across the top of the dam. The reservoir itself is frozen. I’m using the studs at the front of my SPDs as crampon front-points. Kick, step. Kick, step. Things only get worse as I start to climb out on the Pennine Bridleway. It’s a good job this new bike is light.
None of this matters. I’m in my own world. Absorbing the environment. No thought in my actions, just moving forward. The sky has changed. No longer is it blue. It has the milky nature of an artist’s jam-jar.
Push, push. Straddle bike. Ride. Slip, wiggle snake hips, stay upright. I’m absolutely aware of every miniscule change in gradient across the trail. I drift to the lowest point as tyres slide down, like a bowling ball dropping into the gully at the side of the lane. Slip, wiggle snake hips, stay upright. SLAM. Bruised hip. Up. Slip, wiggle snake hips, stay upright. SLAM. Bruised palm.
Discretion is the better part of valor, I think is the saying. Time to head home. More slipping, more tumbles. Then a road descent to chill me to my core. The waiting room at Hebden Bridge station warms me, and I share tales with a group of pensioners who were equally enthused by their epic day out on the icy hills. “We slid down the steps on our bottoms!”
I do like being out there.
Sometimes, it isn’t the length of the ride. Sometimes, it isn’t the weather. Sometimes, it isn’t the speed. Sometimes, it isn’t the technical challenge. Sometimes, it isn’t the view.
Sometimes, it is riding with the right person. Sometimes, it is talking. Sometimes, it is sharing a view. Sometimes, it is sharing a pint. Sometimes, it is riding, quietly, comfortable in each other’s company.
Sometimes you experience a perfect ride. Thanks Si.