It is looking a little bit arid around here at the moment. Not a lot going on. Here’s a bit of virtual spindrift for you.

Part of the reason things have been quiet is that I’ve been busy elsewhere… I am writing a semi-regular web column for Singletrack magazine.

My first was on the joys of a doorstep, post-work ride in the daylight.

My most recent has been about the lure of the mountains.

While you are on the site, check out some of the other great new columns. I’ll also have a few words in forthcoming magazines, including a classic ride and other bits and bobs.

I’m also working on a few creative projects connected with fell and trail running, but can’t say too much about those at the moment, other than I’m really excited about them, and I’m looking forward to seeing them come into fruition.

Race-wise, the calendar is fairly empty until next January – I’ve had my entry to The Spine Race accepted for 2016. I’ll be doing the mini version – “the challenger”. This is still 108 miles of fell running on the pennine way, continuous, in mid-winter, with a substantial kit requirement. Not to be sniffed at or underestimated, but pretty exciting. I can’t wait.

#fromthefrontdoor of work. A lunchtime run along the canal.

I work just outside Leeds city centre, to the south of the river Aire, which splits the city like a miniature Thames. Running alongside the Aire, to the west is the Leeds-Liverpool canal.

At exactly midday, I grab my bag and head to the work changing room (I’m very lucky to be in a modern office, with plenty of showers and a dedicated drying room for wet kit). I hurriedly get changed into my running gear. I’ve been in an air-conditioned open-plan space for the last few hours. I have a limited view out of the window. I barely know what the weather is doing, let alone how warm it is out. I’m planning on running quickly, so accept I’ll probably be uncomfortably cold in a light base layer and shorts for a few minutes, but know I’ll still be sweating by the time I finish.

Zipping my security pass into the little pocket on my shorts, I step out of the carefully controlled work environment. In to the real world. I stand, looking at the sky through a letter box space between buildings… frustrated by waiting for my GPS watch to find signal with its restricted view. I want to escape as soon as I can.

Beep. I’m off. Less than 4 minutes, and under a kilometre later, I’m on the canal bank, treading the old towpath. I know this because said new GPS watch vibrates every kilometre. I reach the first railway bridge as it vibrates for the first time. Within the first few kilometres of canal, there are many crossings. For the most part they are the result of newer forms of transport requiring their own direct route into the city. I’ve crossed over many of them, unaware that the canal is directly below me. As I run though, the roads and railways don’t exist. They are simply bridges. My world is a long stretch of path, next to the canal. I run through (or more accurately, below as the canal feels sunken into the surroundings) places with names, but they don’t matter. I’m just on the canal. I’m running. I’m not at work.

For a short while I am colder than I was when I started. The cool, low air clings at me. I increase my pace slightly. My stomach rumbles. I forgot to eat a snack half an hour or go, and I’m ready to eat lunch. Were I out for longer, I would be concerned, but I’ll be back where I started within 20 minutes. My watch vibrates again.

I’m trying to carefully manage my pace. I want to run a negative split – to do the second half of my run quicker than the first. My feet are tapping a rapid rhythm. I feel loose, light, comfortable. I start to leave the city behind as I duck below the inner ring road. It is by no means countryside, but the buildings are lower, and office blocks are replaced by light industrial units. There are a few old mill buildings still tucked in there, most looking decrepit but still somehow stately in their presence. I’m overtaking other runners – out in ones and twos… the odd bigger group. Winters used to be my time along the canal, but now it is almost as busy as the summer. It’s nice to see, and there are now lots of familiar faces. We all have our routines – if I leave my run until a little later, I see a completely different group of people.

I reach the turnaround point – a bridge with a sign. In upside down text it reads “the remains of a wooden icebreaker lay here”. Reflected in the water, it can be read normally. My velocity is reflected at the same point. I touch the wall of the bridge and retrace my steps, consciously quickening my pace. For a few seconds I try to find a new balance between my breathing and footsteps. I stop thinking about it, and it comes. There are two or three locks on this stretch of canal. They were uphill bursts on the way out, they are now downhill sprints. I let myself go and force my legs to keep up.

I’m settled into my favourite pace. I know it isn’t completely sustainable, but I also know that I still have more to give. I could kick if I wanted to. I hold off. The Leeds skyline fills my view. Tower blocks are growing larger. Granary Wharf is getting closer. I push a little harder. My footsteps are still light, my form is still tight, my lungs are beginning to burn. I push harder again. I have a few hundred metres left, I feel myself faltering, I run faster. My last few steps are long and slow as I slap my feet down through the gate at the end of the towpath. I press stop on my watch, and slow down to a jog. I fill my lungs with cold air. I empty them. I refill them and increase my speed slightly, snaking my path around buildings full of desk-bound workers, ready to return to the fray.

#fromthefrontdoor project

I’m on the bed, legs covered by the duvet, feet sticking out the end. The nooks and wrinkles, under my toenails, the cuticles are stained black with mud. I did (kind of) wash them in the shower, but I was cold and just wanted to stand in the jet of warm water, carefully keeping my still icy hands out of the stream. The temperature differential meant the water felt boiling, and I did’t want to risk chilblains. It was an interim stage in finding warmth, quickly followed by dry merino and a down gilet.

Now, warm, fed and sipping a mug of tea, I can allow post-exercise hormones to wash over me – less frenetic than the water tumbling out of the shower, more like sliding into a deep, warm bath. Contentment that I can only achieve through aerobic exertion.

We have had an active Christmas – a mini-break in the Lake District spanning the 25th itself involved mountain biking, hiking and running in near-desered hills. Upon returning to Leeds, I have had solo rides, rides with friends, rides with Jenn. Each has had a similar feel, if a different route and different company. Pace has been relaxed, and duration squeezed into daylight hours – usually after a luxurious lie in.

A couple of days ago, tucked up on the sofa with a beer and a laptop, I was catching up on film-based inspiration, playing Vimeo and YouTube hopscotch, clicking from a backcountry-skiing video to a Himalayan mountaineering one, to another trail running on pristine desert tracks. Sitting in a small front room, in a small terraced house, on a small backstreet, in a suburb of a city in northern England, I felt a yearning to be out “there” – anywhere. There was maybe even a pang of jealousy, as I sat watching these people completely immersed in their chosen pass time. I clicked on a series of videos on the Arc’teryx website. As well as making very posh, very expensive outdoor kit, they have some excellent quality media content tucked away on their small corner of “http land”. Justin Lamoureux is a backcountry snowboarder, living in Squamish. After travelling the world ticking off “must do” locations, he realised he was neglecting his own backyard, and decided to set aside a season to ride all the mountains visible from his house.

It’s a nice idea, and the resulting videos are well worth grabbing a brew and a biscuit for and settling down to watch. Squamish is a pretty amazing backyard though. From my house, I can see rows of other terraced houses that’s it. There are no mountains accessible without getting in the van and driving for a few hours. I can’t run or ride a trail without spending at least some time on tarmac first. I almost started to feel sorry for myself again. A seed was planted though…

Riding with friends a few days ago gave me the chance to see my local trails with fresh eyes, share my enthusiasm for “the good bits”. We managed to string together a 25 mile loop with minimal road riding, right from home. I can hit off road trails within minutes of closing the door. Not only that, they are fantastic trails – real quality stuff. Admittedly they aren’t in the best of nick this time of year, but it just means that I can appreciate them all the more come spring. There are still trails that I haven’t explored. On today’s run, I took at least two minor detours from my usual well worn path. Road riding with Jenn a couple of days ago, I was on an under geared SSCX bike, it forced me to look up and around more than I usually would. Bare trees and bushes allow for a longer line of sight than summer. I spotted paths to explore – a few were the best kind, little snickets tucked against the wall of a house or barn, begging to be investigated further.

So, this year I will be starting my own backyard project. I will be taking the time to appreciate what I have available to me on the doorstep. Fun powered by nothing else than my own steam. I will shut my red front door, and keep exploring locally. I will be recording my experiences here, on instagram with the #fromthefrontdoor hashtag and keeping a track on the actual routes via Strava. I will savour the moments of solitude that a few square kms of woods can provide, even when it is tucked on the outskirts of a busy city. I will appreciate the joy that can be achieved by sharing the best experiences with friends. I will deliberately get lost, I will have to untangle myself from brambles, I will ride through dogshit, I will plunge into muddy puddles, I’ll discover dead ends. I’ll also touch history, take the time to stop and look, I’ll watch red kites watching me, I’ll hopefully find some gems of undiscovered trails, be able to increase the variety of “getting from here to there” options and find new “theres” to get to.

Realistically, I’ve been doing this as long as I’ve been running and riding – it is nothing new, and hey, if I didn’t I wouldn’t get to ride or run a tenth as much as I do. I just want to take the time to document it, both mentally and in cyberspace, to take a step back and appreciate what I’ve got. I want to make sure I don’t get stuck into the routine of doing the same rides and runs, forever taking the same path.

I’ll also climb into the van with riding and running kit. I’ll visit new places, I’ll savour being in hills, mountains and wilderness. I’ll travel shorter distances, to friends’ houses, to Garage Bikes, to ride the trails that are out of their front door. I will, however always come home. Local runs, rides (both road and trail) will not be training for the next adventure. They will be the adventure itself.

I’m not the first person to use the hashtag #fromthefrontdoor, and I’ve no intention of being the last. I’d like to extend the invitation to all my blog followers – show me your local trails. That patch of woods that you run past on the pavement? Go and explore. The left hand lane, when you always take the right? Take the left. The esoteric crag at the back of the guide book? Go climb it.


What are you waiting for? Crack on.


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Subtle #teamsatsuma ready to race

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I leave the security of our pits. The fluorescent glow of the Garage Bikes orange gazebo is unmissable, but I won’t see it again for another hour and a bit. I push a too hard gear – a symptom of the final downhill at the end of my previous lap. I quickly flick through gears, feeling my freshly lubed chain skip up the sprockets. Spin. A shiver passes over me – again a hangover of a long descent and a few minutes of rest. The course meanders, maximising pit space, I sweep through, acknowledging the friendly shouts and support. I want to stop and chat. I don’t want to stop and chat. I can’t stop and chat. The mellow start ends abruptly. Greasy, awkward rocks create a tricky and technical climb. It is only 20 metres or so long, but it is a rude awakening. Attack, spin, adjust weight, push bike forwards, shift my weight back to maintain traction at the rear. Later on in the race, my efforts are rarely enough. I’m two moves behind. My success rate drops from 75% to 50% to not attempting it. Walking is just more efficient. Efficiency is good. 20 metres done, but a mental leap taken. I’m now out on course.

Snaking singletrack climbing kicks up rudely after a claustrophobic tunnel. Again, I can trace my physical deterioration as the race draws on. Seated climbing becomes an out of the saddle effort becomes a 10 metre walk. Back on to wider track, steep and loose. I can describe the minutiae. The sand, the right line, where the rocks are, the colour of the ground, the sound Rideable, even when exhausted, but requiring concentration, requiring effort. I don’t have much more effort left to give – except I do. Each time round, I do.

Respite – horizontal, gentle descent. Enough time to regain composure. Earworms twist and play in my head. Never the same song, never a full song… just half-remembered choruses and lyrics. 5 seconds of guitar riff. Every lap I forget. Forget what is coming next. A reflective yellow sign reminds me, I hate that sign. Enough time to shift half a cassette block before a tight hairpin left and then a few more gears as I start the steeply ramped singletrack climb. The surface is white-grey, much like how I imagine my face is as the moment. Useless legs turn, but I’m barely moving forwards. The gradient mellows, but only for long enough to allow me to look up at the steeper finishing ramp. Topping out reminds me of being a child doing my “lifesavers badge” at the local swimming pool. Heaving my weak limbs out of the side, dragged back in by the impossible weight of sodden pyjamas. I can’t do it. But I do. Until I don’t, and again, I’m back to walking. Slow progress is still progress.

Racing tuck, elbows in, nose near stem, flat back the world rushes by as I accelerate down the fireroad. In the dark, my speed is amplified, Star Trek warp-speed special effects are applied. I don’t care about the time that tuck saves me, I care that it will save me one or two pedal strokes up the remainder of the climb. Free speed is the best kind. I start pedalling and enjoy the first few effortless turns; momentum,oh how I love thee. A few seconds later, plod mode is engaged. For the first time this lap, I am above the trees and I’m treated to a view over to Fort William in the distance. I can see riders grinding up the climb ahead of me, I can also make out the descent, and hear the squeal of brakes and the unmistakable scraping of rear wheels locking. At night, Fort William glows orange. It acts as a reminder of how close normality is, yet how far away I am from being tucked up asleep. I pass through the tunnel that marks the cross-over with the descent and say hello to the marshals. Their friendliness is welcome. My response borders on a grunt on some laps. It’s a well meaning grunt, it’s all I can manage.

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The pits at WEMBO

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Fireroad kicks up again. Early on I have gears spare to drop down and spin. Later, I am already in those spinning gears. I’m not spinning. I smoother line sits on the right hand side. I stick to it like glue, except when I wander. I then curse myself for wasting more precious energy. It is at this point on my 18th lap that I look behind and see the rider in 5th place closing in on me. The are barely 20 metres between us. I’ve been in 4th ever since the first few laps.

An interlude:

It sounds perverse, but I didn’t enter this race to race. I knew that I wasn’t very fit, I knew that I didn’t have the miles in my legs, knew that if I tried to push too hard, I simply wouldn’t be able to finish. Therefore my entire game plan was to just ride. Be conservative, have fun and enjoy myself where I could, then suffer. Block out the pain, ignore the natural desire to stop, just keep riding. Apply a bit o mental fortitude. This plan was working beautifully. The first few hours went by in a blur of sheer, unadulterated fun. The climbs were merely challenging with fresh legs, the descents were equally challenging, but incredibly grin-inducing. I spent some time riding with Greg – generally climbing a little quicker than him early in the lap (probably down to my slightly stiffer gearing), then descending away – the FF29 inspiring confidence over the rough, high-speed trail centre plummets. He would then reel me back in while I recovered on the flatter section of the course. I wasn’t racing him, and I don’t think he was really racing me. We were just riding. A few laps in, I knew the pace was a little high for me, so I waved Greg on, and settled into a plod.

At some stage, Jenn told me that Greg was 3rd, and I was 4th, with a good cushion over 5th. I still didn’t want to race Greg. I still had so much to do to just finish and I was giving as much as could to just keep going. As I finished lap 17, every part of me just wanted to do one last lap. One to say thank you to the marshals, one to wave goodbye to each climb, each slippery rock, one thank you to each berm, jump and drop. 5th place had been riding well though, and I’d been resting longer between laps. He was catching me. Slowly, but very surely he was catching me. He arrived in his pits as I left for lap 18. I was almost certainly going to have to do two more. I didn’t want to race. Even with two hours to go, I didn’t know whether I’d be able to get around two more times. It felt so long, so far, so much. I was going to have to race. 

When I saw the rider (Alex Watts of Flitch Bikes), my heart sank. He caught me so easily, I was so tired, I was beat. I would have taken 5th at the start, I’d have been overjoyed, but now it felt like a failure. I stood on the pedals and starred in front of me. I willed myself not to look back until I reached the top, and treated myself to a glimpse back, expecting him to be on my wheel. He’d dropped back. Actually Further Away. My arm-hairs bristled. Something clicked – a button that is deep down, hidden. It is big, red, and has one of those clear perspex boxes covering it. It probably has a sign above it saying, “DO NOT PRESS”. I pressed it. I smiled. I dropped like a stone.

He was gone when I looked back up the slope. Just not in sight, anywhere. I couldn’t relax, Greg always caught me up along the bottom of the course. I had to keep pushing. The layers that added comfort during the night were now suffocatingly hot. I fought to undo every zip while riding hard. I looked back more than I should. The view was always the same. I rode smoothly over every technical section, I caught and passed riders, I grimaced on short climbs, I raced.  Final climb, just as the trail behind disappeared from view, I looked back once more, and there he was. Not close, but not far. A few minutes? Keep riding. Keep racing. Again, hairs bristled, I drank long and hard and kept pedalling. Simple… My pit stops had been getting long and lazy. I had been stepping off the bike, wrapping myself up and drinking soup. Not this time. I stopped, stripped layers, swapped bottles and went. It was afterwards that Al said, “if you’d tried to unclip your other foot, I was there to hit it back in”. I didn’t need anyone to motivate me. I knew what I had to do. I left the pits emptier than I have been for a long time, but full of purpose. 

Back to the lap…

Fireroad climb doubles back to sandy singletrack, stretching above. I can see snow patches on the Ben, the view on the sunset lap will last with me for a long time. The remainder of the climb looks harder than it is, but tests weary legs. Cresting, there is no time to take in the view, I click down a few gears, and accelerate into a sandy, rocky, switchbacked descent. While fresh it is a playful, fun drop. Speed can be held through bermed corners, small jumps allow me to clear rocky sections, I place the bike where I want. Later, it hurts, I don’t have the confidence to take some of the lines, it beats me up more. My forearms get pumped and I stiffen up. Much later again, I rediscover my flow, bliss. Fireroad leads to more descending, becoming more technical as it drops back into the trees. Rocks become greasier, technical sections are taken at slower speeds. Absolute concentration is required. Not easy, but while I mess up sometimes, I never crash. I contour along the valley – woodwork, more fireroad, even a section of tarmac. Generally I find it hard to push any pace along these sections. I just spin away, enjoying a mental rest as much as a physical one. The only bit of fresh cut trail lays through a small section of trees. It is muddy, rooty, slippery, and has a tricky off-camber, then fall-line descent. Every time I mince my way down, thankful not to take the same spectacular OTB that I see Greg doing early on in the race. Irish men are sweary when they crash. The course cruelly returns to the pit area not once, but twice before a lap is completed. First time, I cling to some slippery singletrack along the back of the pits next to the Team JMC and Greg’s gazebos. I always get a shout from one of their supporters. I always try to respond. Try. A short, steep climb, lacking in any redeeming features leads to a a short downhill into on the last few rollers of the World Cup downhill course. I can’t help but drop off the last of them, requiring a quick adjustment and a knee out to squeeze round a tight corner at the bottom. One last climb. But what a climb it is. Up a blue descent, up steep berms. Up through trees, up to the top. Except it isn’t the top. There is more firetrack beyond. My mind aches. Everything aches. I’ve ridden some of the final descent before. On an 8inch travel downhill bike. To be fair, the FF29 isn’t too far out of its depth. Tuck, lean, float, brake, BRAKE, turn, traverse. Final, final descent. And what a way to finish. Steep, bermed, fast, just plain fun. I’m talking to myself. Reminding myself to focus. “Concentrate Tom”, “brake Tom”, “that left hand berm is next, Tom. The run-in is loose, so brake… now”. Every time, literally every single time, I get spat out onto the final straight, looking forward to riding it again. Finish: Except this time. I’ve spent all of my last lap looking back. Trying to pedal, feeling my strength drift away. Pushing, trying to stay smooth. As I passed the arena halfway round, the welcome sight of Jenn and Sarah tell me that 5th place took a long time in the pits. I just need to keep on moving. It sounds so simple. It is that simple. It’s just riding my bike. I ride my bike. I still pedal hard down the final straight. Not because I have to, but because I want to. I want to race. I am racing. I pump through the final lumps in the course, and cruise through the railings. People are clapping, the sun is out, people are smiling. I cross the finish line and slump over my bars. I want to just find Jenn, hug her, find Al, Sarah, Amy, Ali. Hug them. I’m lost in a sea of people. I hand over my timing chip in a daze and get given my commemorative beer and hat. I think I smile. I want to sit down – I don’t have the energy to process what is going on around me. Finally, I fight through and find the people who mean the most to me. The team that “solo” racing doesn’t give credit to. We worked together, we had fun, we kept on going, we won.

Copyright No Fuss Events

Afterwards: I had already decided I wasn’t going to do any more races for a while, long before lining up at WEMBO. I didn’t have the fight anymore. I don’t have the time to train. There are so many more important things in my life at the moment. I restated this to myself many, many times during the race. But, on the last couple of laps I changed my mind. I’ve rediscovered something that I thought I’d lost for good. I want to do it all over again this weekend. I want to feel the pain, feel the hopelessness of a hard night lap, I want to race again.

Thank yous:

No Fuss Events and WEMBO for putting on an incredible race. So well organised, such a good course. Perfect.

Jenn, Al and Sarah, Garage Bikes, Ali, Amy, Cybi.

Kinesis UK for the incredible Maxlight FF29 frame. Comfortable, light and and efficient from the 1st to the last lap.

Paul Masson

Rachel, Ant and the rest of the AQR crew

Pauline for the cheers, Greg for the chats (and congrats on 3rd buddy – well deserved)

559 Bikes for their constant cheering

Team JMC, particularly Phil Simcock – who should have been racing elite, but broke his collarbone a few weeks ago.

Budge, Rich Rothwell, so many others for their good words on course.

Alex Watts for pushing me, and reminding me how to race.

A Fixed Fix

A week has passed since Torq. My riding has been limited to a roll down the hill to work (and a slow slog back up again after). A combination of tiredness, laziness led to a slightly extended “recovery” period.

The upside to this was I was really looking forward to getting out on Saturday. With a slightly changeable forecast, and wet roads after a rainy night I decided to take the mud-guarded-up fixed wheel bike out, partly inspired by Tim Pulleyn’s recent blog post on The Broken Line. One of the great things about a long, hard race is that marginally less dumb things feel actually rather sensible. So, I mentally plotted out a moderately long and hilly route – one that I knew would be a leg tester, but fun. 

It was only as I got out of the house that I realised how strong the wind was. Passing the first side road on my left, I felt the force of a gust slide me over by a few inches. Lean in. Through luck, rather than judgement, my route would make the most of the prevailing wind-direction. A head/side wind for much of the way out was replaced by a regular shove in a homewards direction after a short grovel directly into its face at the top of Greenhow Hill.

A weeks rest did wonders for my legs as they relished the work I was asking them to do. I felt relaxed, working with the bike, efficient, strong. One of those rare days when hurting doesn’t hurt, it just turns the volume up on the experience. A cool morning rapidly warmed up, and I paused at the top of Almscliff to stow my arm and knee warmers, alone except for a lone climber brushing his teeth next to his van, ready for an hour or two of solitude at the crag before the inevitable crowds. 

Turning into the wind, my legs churned, pulsing a rhythm governed by the gradient and shelter from the wind. Climbing, out of the saddle, with my body low to the bike, trying to slip under the violent gusts like a surfer diving through an oncoming wave a lone field of unharvested grass danced in pulses of swell. I was cast adrift in a stormy sea. Air rushed into my mouth before I could properly exhale, I drowned in oxygen. Royal Blood’s Little Monster roared through my headphones. Bass with volume, in all senses of the word. Audio synchronicity.

Whenever I was out of the wind, I felt free. Every small undulation was attacked, as I revelled in the sweet feedback loop of having my drive being directly linked to what I’ve already driven. 

Pushing up to Greenhow village (via Greenhow Hill Rd, rather than the “proper” way up from Pateley Bridge), the cross wind was choppy enough to disrupt my rhythm, looking at the grass at the side of the road it should be helping me, but we are fighting each other, and I settle down as best I can. Keep churning. The hairs on my arms would be bristling with cold, were they not being blown flat on the summit. As I crest the highest point, and begin to drop towards Grassington I fought for every inch of forward movement, despite having gravity on my side. Eventually I built enough speed to punch through the face-on-onslaught. A quick left, a steep, twisting descent, and before long I’m in the quiet of the valley floor, again I’ve cast away the sea monsters grabbing at my legs and fly along the sheltered roads.

By the time I’m on the back road from Bolton Abbey to Ilkley, via Askwith I had a full on tailwind. I’d become a windsurfer, skipping across the tops of waves, while my legs span furiously. I travel fast enough to be held up by a car travelling in the same direction as me. No matter, I was lost in my own world, easing up my cadence and I became aware that the sun was back out (or I’d ridden back to it) and enjoyed the heat. There won’t be many more bare arm and legs rides this year.

Sitting at a red light in Otley, my legs complained about being stationary. Virtually home. My tummy felt empty, but it didn’t matter, I could run on fumes from here. And I did, with no eye on fuel economy, I just rode – with frivolous spurts of pace, joyful lazy spinning, ugly final pedal strokes on the minor lumps in my way. 

Home. Done. Grateful for simple pleasures.

Changing seasons

A few weeks ago, my morning ritual was simple. Wake up to sunshine beaming through the window, heating up the already mild ambient temperature. Pull on shorts and a jersey, and pedal off to work. High pressure height of summer.

Summer is freewheeling into autumn though. An unseasonably chilly couple of weeks have led to a few misjudged shorts and jersey commutes with cold knees and blue hands. Equally, when leg and arm warmers have been deployed on the way into work, they’ve been stuffed into my bag for the way home, once the day has warmed up. Gilets have been zipped up on setting out, only to be stripped off after half an hour, to be replaced in a rain shower minutes later. The wind has swung round from the south to the north, bringing a biting crispness – a wearing solidity. Hard.

Early starts are accompanied by blinking LEDs, flashing out a rhythm that sleepy legs can’t keep pace with. Summer isn’t over yet, but it is leaving quicker than I can keep up.


Sitting completely still, nothing really aches.

Moving my stiff fingers to type offers the subtlest of reminders of the rough, rooty course at Minley Manor for 12:12 Torq in your Sleep. The tops of my shoulders, and lower back have similar low-level aches. Grazes on my legs and shoulder (oops) pointedly remind me that branches and the ground are harder than I am. 

Every now and then I wipe my eyes and a bit of congealed dust comes away. 

My legs. Well, considering I’ve not ridden for 12 hours for a very long time, my legs feel remarkably good. In fact, my legs would feel worse had I been out for a hard couple of hours on the road bike. They do feel used though. Warm, gently stiff, weak. Occasionally muscles twitch as if I’m still riding.

This is not a list of complaints. Far from it. I’ve missed this feeling; I’ve missed the warm, foggy-headed afterglow. I’ve missed feeling like I’ve earned my exhaustion through physical (and mental) effort. I’ve rediscovered an insatiable appetite, with the added bonus of guilt-free eating (at least for the rest of today). I settle into the Tom-shaped depression in the sofa and enjoy my rest.

The race

The only real objective for the 12 hours was to finish. Ride conservatively, and keep plodding. No thoughts on placings, no delusions based on previous fitness. I settled into a relatively high position at the start line. I hadn’t pre-ridden the full course, but of the sections that I did see there was lots of tight, twisty singletrack. Amazing for riding, but not good for passing slower riders. That nearer-the-front start allowed me to race the first lap at roughly my own pace, without the inevitable stop-start traffic jam further back. I probably went a bit too quickly on the first two laps, but it was a course that encouraged and rewarded speed and conserved momentum. It was bloody fun. Jinking between trees, manualling through hollows, bunny-hopping roots. 

Settling down and finding an enduring pace was difficult. As my body started to fatigue, I was less able to hop the roots, I carried less speed into corners, and even less out the other side. The twisting nature of the course meant that I was always trying to slow down or speed up, with very few opportunities to just sit and pedal. For the most part, even the climbs were short-sharp lung busters rather than steady drags. I also had to be careful to take on energy at specific points on the laps, making the most of a couple of hundred metres of forest tracks here and there. 

Each lap meant another visit to the pits. Garage Bikes had a huge representation, given that the race was several hours drive from Leeds. A team of four, a pair and two other soloists all sported the satsuma jerseys, and did them proud. We also had three dedicated pit helpers. It makes a world of difference for someone to do your thinking for you, swapping bottles, reminding you to eat, offering a few words of morale-boosting encouragement. Special thanks to Vikki for being utterly lovely and taking care of me, Daz for the man-hugs and Al for being Al and giving me the reassurance that if I needed any mechanical help, he’d be there. Usually, I’d go for a grab-and-go technique at the pits, aiming to spend no time there at all until lights-on time at 7pm. But, in an effort to force myself to pace my efforts, I deliberately stayed for a few minutes, took the time to eat something solid while standing still, then headed off. 

As the light started to fade, my first major mishap took place. Pumping through yet another bomb hole, I felt my bars rotate in the clamp. Presumably a symptom of the constant vibrations of the course. Disconcerting, but nothing a quick nip-up with an allen key wouldn’t fix. Unzipping my seat pack, I quickly realised that my multitool wasn’t there. In fact, I could picture it sitting in my pit-box waiting for me, five miles away. Fucksticks. Not much for it, other than to carry on, tentatively. Gradually, the bars were becoming looser and looser, and I was having to concentrate all of my mental efforts in to balancing them in a roughly sensible position. This was compounded by the now full darkness, meaning that any rotation of the bars lead to my light pointing either straight down, or in my eyes. 3 slow, frustrating, worrying miles passed until I got to the DJ under the bridge. Not only was he banging out some quality tunes, he had an allen wrench and nipped up my now comically loose stem bolts, before offering me a slice of cake. I could have hugged the man, but after 8 or so hours of dusty racing, I think it would have been a little unfair on the chap.

Onwards! Slowly… I had settled into a mellow pace, my body had become accustomed to the jolts and efforts of the course. I ceased to do anything else other than pedal, eat a gel, have a sip of water, pedal. Before long though, it was time to start doing mental calculations about how many laps I had to go, when it would all be over, when I could curl up and go to sleep. Rather worryingly it looked like I was maintaining pace well enough to do a 13th lap (not that I was counting laps, or had a clue what my position was – I deliberately didn’t want to know). The end was not yet in sight as I set off for lap number 12. 

Climbing a short, steep section I heard a loud ping from the rear of my bike and the depressing sound of air rushing out of my rear tyre. Fucksticks, again. A spoke had broken, which must have then dislodged the tubeless tape and caused an air leak that wasn’t going to seal. Quickly, I wrapped the broken spoke around its neighbours, and set about popping in a spare inner tube. All was well, until when going to inflate the tube with a CO2 cartridge, the adapter’s seal broke, sending the all important pressurised gas escaping into the cooling night air. Swear words were uttered. After replacing the rear wheel, I started a slow and depressing jog, moving out of the way for riders still rushing to make it back in time for cut-off. After a mile or so, an amazingly generous guy stopped and lent me his inflator. (If you happen to be reading this, please get in contact. At the very least, I’d like to send you a replacement cartridge). Back up and rolling – sort of. With “not many” psi in my tyre, I tentatively continued, wincing every time I passed over a root or rock. Only three miles to go. 

Then my front light died, abruptly. I haven’t ridden in the dark since the spring, so the battery had been sitting unused for a number of months. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that I should probably charge/discharge the battery once or twice before relying on it to last 4 hours or so. Oops. At least I was riding slowly enough that my helmet light sufficed for the remaining few miles.

Then, it was over. A strange finish. I was fatigued, but not exhausted – partly a symptom of having a physically less demanding final lap. Glad it was over, happy to be in the company of great friends. 

Well done to all of the Garage Bikes riders for their efforts, but especially to Ali and Sarah, who grabbed 3rd spot in the women’s pairs category. An amazing effort, especially as Sarah’s “one last lap” when she was feeling rough was enough to take them on to the podium.

Thank you again to Garage Bikes for the entry and the support, and to Kinesis Bikes for the excellent FF29 frame, which was the perfect race bike through the twists and turns of the course.

Writing lists

To do:
-Find lights
-Charge lights
-Fit gears
-Spend a bit more time adjusting suspension
-Add more sealant to tyres

To buy:
-Other race food
-Normal food
-Weird shit may or may not crave at 10:30pm

To pack
-Garage Bikes race jersey (SS) x 2
-Garage Bikes race jersey (LS)
-Base layer

The lists are long. A couple of years ago, I’d got to the point where I could almost pack for a 24hour race without thinking about it. The same stuff went into the holdall a few times a year. I knew what I’d want to wear, what I definitely wouldn’t, what was worth bringing just in case. I’m not just out of practice with packing. More importantly, I’m out of practice at racing. Frankly, I’m “out of practice” at riding for longer than a few hours. Broken bones last year, and much more important things this year have meant that I haven’t had the opportunity or desire to train or race. Rides became too precious to be about training, fitness, targets, goals (not that they ever have been for me, really, but entering a race certainly creates an increased focus and intensity to my riding). Rides were rides for the sake of them. The best kind of riding. Fast when I wanted them to be, about the company when they could be, about the solitude when I needed them to be.

There is a part of me that I have been ignoring, though. The part that needs to push and challenge myself. The part that needs to test what potential I have. The last 8 months have brought more challenges than I ever thought I’d face in my life time. Real challenges. Life. Riding bikes is just riding bikes – whether it is at speed, set against the desire to be faster than other people and the clock – or whether it is a grabbed moment of gratification before a day in front of the computer screen.

Perhaps I’ve missed the luxury of the gratuitous challenge, though. Perhaps I’ve missed setting a goal that means nothing at all, other than something to me. Playing a game with the lowest risks going, even if it feels like the exact opposite while wrapped up in the experience.

So… the WEMBO 24hr solo race entry has gone in. Before then though, I have Torq 12:12. 12 hours of solo riding from midday to midnight. Not easy, but achievable. A challenge, for which my goals are modest – to finish, to spend as much of the time on my bike as possible, to enjoy as much as I can, to embrace the suffering and pain – to remember it is a luxury that I have chosen to put myself through.

It’s an honour to pull on the Garage Bikes kit and swing my leg over the Kinesis FF29, to stand on a start line. Both have offered incredible support over the last few months. True friends – in life, not just the game of bike riding.

The “satsuma army” will be descending on Minley over the bank holiday weekend… Garage Bikes teams out in force, with Al wielding the spanner as required. Look out for us on course, and give us a shout.


I feel like now is the right time to write a blog post about why I am not writing about the Highland Fling, or the Highland Trail Race, or any of the other things I expected to be doing this year.

The people who are important already know, for those of you who don’t, I’m sure you appreciate that plans and priorities change. While I hold running, riding, being outside dear and close to my heart, racing isn’t life… it’s one of those nice indulgences that we can participate in when the important stuff allows us to. As it has been, Important Stuff means being close to home and the ones I love for a while.

It would be untrue for me to claim that a part of me isn’t yearning to be out there, participating (despite, at the time of writing, the Highland Trail Race entering its fourth day of bad weather and general hardship which has led to a lot of strong riders bailing). However, there is no regret, no sadness. I have a little motto that I repeat to myself at the moment. I tell it to others. I believe it, most of the time.

“I am lucky”

Every run, every ride, every sunrise, every sunset, every raindrop, every breath that is taken outside, every quickened heartbeat, every moment of clarity, every moment alone, every moment with Someone, every new experience, every view earned, every word read, every friend made, every friendship sustained, every kiss, every “goodnight”, every “good morning”, every smile, every tear, every bluebell, every corner railed, every puddle splashed through, every night spent outside, every return back Home, every crash, every mechanical, every mistake, every effortless stride, every hard-fought footstep, every blue sky, every cloud, every silver lining, every thunderstorm, every moment of calm, every week, every day, every hour, every minute.

I am lucky.

One foot in front of another.


Give me trails over pavement. Irregularity over consistency. Rough over smooth. I live in a city though. If I want to run from my doorstep, or my office, at least part of that run will be on tarmac, flagstone, pavement.

I’m sucking air in. Filling my lungs. It isn’t enough to sustain the pace that I’m turning my legs over. It doesn’t matter, I’m near the top of the hill. While the pavement doesn’t have the rocks, mud, gullies, rises and irregularities of a trail, it isn’t uniform. I can feel the minor imperfections through my minimalist running shoes and adjust my body to absorb them. All it requires is the most delicate, subtle of movements. A small twist of the hips, throw my hand out a couple of inches further, a measured shortening of my stride.

I’ve run too hard to be truly fast. I’m at level of oxygen-debt fuelled lactic haze that means I’m no longer efficient in any kind of way. I’m bones and jelly. I don’t drive forwards, I just fall into my next step. I’d stop, but I think it would take more effort to engage my muscles to put on the brakes than it does to just keep putting one foot in front of the next.

Uphill becomes downhill. It always amazes me how quickly that self-generated hell dissolves. Strength returns. I consciously try to not over stretch my stride. It is tempting to slap my way down the hill in long, lazy leaps. My speed increases, then again, until I’m at terminal velocity as the gradient bottoms out before the final climb home. I come to a near halt as I try to break free of gravity. We were working so well together seconds ago; now it just wants to hold me back.

Turning on to my street, I wearily allow myself to slow to a stop. After shallow, grasped for breaths return to regular, deep, luxurious lung fillers, I open the front door, fill a cup with water and return to the front step. Clumsy fingers prise apart the double knots in my shoes. I feel in shock. I don’t feel fit, or healthy, just abused. I also feel deeply lucky. The last 40 minutes or so haven’t been hardship; they haven’t been a chore, or a burden to bare. They have been a privilege. I am fit and healthy enough to run when I want to. To run hard when I want to. To play games, to train my body, to free my mind, to escape. I can choose whether to put myself in pain, or to ease off. I am free.

Every single run, every ride, every day is precious.

I’m a lucky lad.

TFI Friday

A light frost clings to the rooftops and car windscreens. Low mist shrinks the world.

Sounds are muffled. Sharp edges of the city are smoothed into soft focus.

The relative quiet amplifies my own noise. The crunch and squeak of metal cleat against flagstone. The reassuring click of that cleat into its home on the pedal. Tyres crunching over eroding tarmac.

No time to ride anywhere other than straight to work. Straight down the hill. Cold burns my fingers through neoprene gloves. My right eye streams as cold air sneaks round my glasses. Legs move quickly to keep pace with the fixed rear wheel gathering speed.

Arriving into the city centre, I glimpse my reflection in office windows. Fluorescent shoe covers luminescent, contracting against the monochrome morning. Black leggings accentuate thin legs that still show signs of doing more running than riding over the winter. I flash past, now looking into a butty shop. Steamy windows and bacon smells.

Despite being tired, my body is not. It could offer so much more if I gave it the chance. Legs rested after a day of train travel yesterday feel light. I want to keep on riding, to stay out for hours. I want to stay in my silent world. I pull up at the last set of traffic lights before work, lazily track standing for the couple of seconds before they change. Do I drag out my last few hundred metres, saving each last second? No, from the standing position, I strain against the bars, throw the bike left, then right, I roll over the heavy gear. The bike pendulums while my head remains still, staring at the tarmac immediately in front of my wheel. Slow, powerful revolutions become quicker, then quicker again. What felt like a tall gear when I set off is now being span out as my body begins to wake up to the exertion. My skin prickles, I take in a couple of gulps of air and just as my legs start to really complain, I am already engaging different muscles, pulling back on the pedals, drawing to a halt.

I am a cyclist.

Within 5 minutes, my bike is locked away. I am sat at my desk, waiting for the computer to awake. I make a cup of tea. I scan through unread emails, while still wearing my lycra. I feel as alien in this world as I look from the outside.

TFI Friday.

Kinesis IX carbon fork


Ever since I’ve had the Kinesis FF29 (about a year now), I’ve paired the frame with a set of Kinesis IX rigid carbon forks. I originally intended to use them for long XC adventures and bike packing, and swap over to suspension at some point, to create a more all-round trail bike.

I never quite got round to making the switch. I love the direct feel of the rigid forks. I love that as I pick up pace through tricky terrain, it feels as though I am juggling daggers. Pick the right line and all is well, make a mistake and… well, it’s best not to make too many mistakes. When combined with decent volume tubeless tyres, the carbon fork also had a nice degree of compliance, meaning that trail buzz is smoothed out and the ride is actually nicely comfortable, if not plush.

Obviously, there is a tipping point. Quick, rough descents eventually become a bit tiresome – a difficult balancing act between maintaining pace, skipping across obstacles and clattering over/through stuff, scrubbing speed to maintain control. I was re-introduced to arm pump at the bottom of a few long hills.

My original forks were QR, and while being excellent, possibly suffered from being too flexible; there was a bit of “flutter” under hard braking. Nothing that couldn’t be lived with, but I was excited to see that Kinesis now have a 15mm thru-axle version of the IX. I’ve now done a couple of rides on the new fork – both a few hours long and over a variety of terrain. The new fork is noticeably stiffer. Brake flutter has disappeared, and tracking over rough ground feels even more precise. Theoretically this should mean that the fork is less comfortable as well, but I’m not sure if it actually is. The ride quality feels just as good (although I haven’t done a back to back test to be able to say with any confidence).

I can’t see the FF29 getting suspension forks any time soon. I love the bike as it is. I love the light weight, love the single gear, love that it is ultimately compromised for much of the riding I do. The whole package though means that it excels at the niche I’ve built it for. And when I take it out of that comfort zone, it is all the more fun (at least until my forearms begin to burn).

Pont Scethin – a true classic ride

Back in January, I headed over to the west coast of Wales to ride one of my favourite loops. This time it was for a photo shoot and as a refresher before writing the route guide for Singletrack. I was lucky enough to share the ride with one of my favourite riding partners, Greg May, and Chris Davies, who got some brilliant photos on one of those days that had all four seasons packed into a few hours.

Singletrack have put the feature up as a “sneak peek” on their website. I still prefer reading a paper copy of the mag though. Garage Bikes have it in stock if you do too.


Second breakfast

Shortly after getting off the train in Hebden Bridge, I pass through landscapes that mean “mountain biking” to me as much as any bike. These are the bridleways that I did my first rides on, aged 13 with my Dad as company at first, then by myself during long summer holidays. They are etched into my memory, to the extent that it feels like the ridges and furrows of my brain map the contours of the landscape.

The distances have becomes shorter now. As a reasonably fit 34 year old, I am quicker and more experienced than the not particularly sporty teenager. Horizons feel shorter, less daunting. Of course, it helps that my significantly stronger legs and lungs now only have to propel a sub-20lb aluminium and carbon 29er, rather than the hi-tensile steel 33lb Giant (both branded and in terms of size – I think it was a 22in frame!) that was my first mountain bike. The FF29 is beyond comparison to that Giant, in every conceivable way. But, the real, truly important things haven’t changed at all. I still get that same sense of freedom when I’m out riding. I still smile as much. I still reach the top of a hill breathless. I still play with the limits of my skill and the bike’s capability. I still become utterly absorbed in the act of riding.

Sunday was the first sunny day that I can remember. The ground still bore the reminders of the soaking wet winter that we’ve had so far, but blue skies stretched out above me. They widened as I swung the FF29 from side-to-side, turning its single gear with all my body, lolloping up the steep sided valley walls. Hup-hup. Onwards. Headwind. Hup-hup.

Stopping on the dam of Widdop Reservoir, I stare up at the rock climbing routes that inspired me for a while, before I returned to the biking fold. A group of other riders joined me, each on lovely multi-thousand pound machines, each curious to see the scalpel-like Kinesis, bereft of suspension or gears. We share route plans and bike appreciation, but before long I am by myself once more. I love riding with other people: friends, family, strangers; today, though I want to be by myself. I want no distractions, no external influences on my relationship with the land.



I drop into Lancashire, but only briefly. Tarmac swiftly transports me back to Calderdale. Traversing the valley, I slot between dry-stone walls. Tight confines despite being out in the open. Despite being mid-February, the sun brings with it real warmth. I shed layers when I am in its direct glare, only to have to readjust as drop down into the winter shadows. More climbing, this time on tarmac, staying on top of the 34-18 gear, ignoring rasping breaths and accelerating, knowing that the pain is short lived.



I turn east, maintaining my height for a while, before I eventually, lazily slice contours until I’m in the valley bottom, swapping between canal towpath and groomed Sustrans tracks. I’m in no hurry to finish riding, but I’ve got a late lunch date back at the home which was the base for so many of my early rides. A cup of tea in the family kitchen is a fitting end to the ride, my bike propped up in the flag-stoned yard that I first circled on two wheels.

Let the train take the strain

Never Give Up

Disturbed sleep before an important race is a common enough occurrence. Nerves and anxiety about what is to come are not conducive to restful sleep.

What isn’t talked about so much is the night after the race. Back home, after the CTS Anglesey Trail Ultra, I’m lying in bed. My legs are aching, my stomach rumbling, and my mind unwilling to switch off. It is still playing through the race, still running mental footsteps, while my wet, muddy race shoes lie festering in my kit bag. The adrenaline has worn off, the caffeinated gels long since metabolised, but the body and mind has gone into survival mode. Alert and awake. This is obviously somewhat frustrating, as I have been up since 5:30am, raced my first ultra marathon, and sat in the car for 4 hours to get back home. Skim the surface of a superficially wired mind, and I am fatigued. It is the ultimate cruelty – my every effort is put into crossing the finish line, my conscious focus ends as I have my SportIdent tag cut off my wrist and a medal is thrust into my hand. The rest of my mind has other ideas however.

I get up, and creep downstairs, painfully and stiffly. The walk of a man who’s quads are letting him know that they’ve been asked to go beyond the usual call of duty. Bowl of cereal, toast, back to bed and eventually sleep comes. It feels light though, and I’m back awake before 6am, content lie still and to feel my body repairing itself – my heightened heart-rate, my still sore legs (definitely the biggest difference between endurance riding and running. My legs feel tired after a 24hr race, but not as stiff and sore as after five and half hours of this trail race). It is a pleasing indulgence. A tired satisfaction, not based on race results, times, positions, winning or losing – just one of completion. One of testing my body, taking it close to its limits, and keeping it there.

EnduranceLife, who run the CTS have a motto on their merchandise – Never Give Up. This reminds me of a No Fear t-shirt I bought as a teenager, which had something along the lines of “Never, Never, Never Give Up” (a quick google suggests this was a Winston Churchill quote originally – presumably talking about something a little more serious than a race…). On one hand these are cheesy “motivational” quotes, that don’t have any substance. We are talking about a race, a game, something that we do for fun. No one dies if we do give up, and, really it is not that hard. I am incredibly lucky to be fit and healthy enough to contemplate running for a few hours in a row, to be outside in the elements, to be able to afford to drive across the country to indulge my superficial obsessions. On the other hand, to keep pushing oneself isn’t easy. To eek out every last bit of effort when “that’ll do” hurts. It is easy to give up in the moment, to ease off, to listen to all the physical signs, to end the hurting now. Except, after the event, all the aching is still there, the physical tiredness is still there, but there is a deeper emptiness. There is no satisfaction, no indulgence. Just a hollow feeling – that of cheating myself.

I didn’t need motivational quotes at the start. The weather was exactly as forecast. Rain, due to steadily get heavier over the course of the race. It didn’t really matter. I was just looking forward to racing again, after being injured for so long. We set off after a count down, along a waterlogged track, splashing through puddles, setting the theme for much of the 34 miles. I set a steady rhythm, not pushing too hard, but mindful that after a couple of miles, we would hit the coastal singletrack around (and up Holyhead mountain). I wanted to make sure I was able to move at my own pace through that section, rather than getting held up by others. It was easy running, a pleasure to just have a light race vest on my back, rather my usual commute-run 30litre rucksack. The day and mile stretched out in front of me, and I knew a relatively conservative approach now would serve me well later. I was part of a loose group, making up the placings from 3rd to around 7th. (A pair set off at a sprint together and finished joint first, comfortably breaking the course record). This group fractured going up and over the west flank of the hill, before dropping down to the lighthouse. I found myself alone, occasionally getting a glimpse of runners in front of me, and a few hundred metres behind. Trail gave way to tarmac, gave way to coastal trail – wide open, closely cropped grass, which would have been lovely in the dry. As it was, the top couple of inches were waterlogged, making forward progress slightly harder, energy generated by leg muscles lost to cutting through the mud. The sea to my right was wild, and if the terrain had been even a little more even, I’d have enjoyed the view. As it was, I focussed on where my next foot placement should be, and treated myself to the odd glance to the side.

Time passed quickly, as I was lost in mental calculations of pace, questioning when I last ate, was it time for another bar? Was I warm enough? Was the now heavy rain going to persist? Was it worth swapping my sodden windproof for a waterproof?

At some point, I caught a pair in front, we ran as a three for a while, until we were just two. We dodged waves on the sea front, then waded through the sea… I guess it was the Coastal Trail Series after all. Turning in land, the trail tightened, right angled turns along wall edges and avoiding low trees. And after one turn, I was alone. Hitting a stretch of straight tarmac, I looked back and saw no one. Head down, content in my own world.

Moving north again, on the “back” leg of an out and back, I was re-collected by the runner I’d left in the twists and turns, and we in turn caught up with the runner in 3rd. Moving as a three we chatted, all starting to feel tired, all aware that our pace was not what it had been. Holyhead mountain stood proud in our line of sight, playing tricks with distances, as it appears much larger than it really is. It still took a long section of tarmac to reach it, during which two became three, and we were passed by the eventual third place finisher – looking as fresh as he did when I was running with him in the first two miles.

The final 10k+ of the course were the most technically challenging of the race. Rocky, and steep, we ascended to the trig point at the top of the hill, before dropping back down the start finish. Once again, I was on my own. I could feel my energy draining, my legs had lost the elasticity and spring that they had been carrying, each footstep felt jarring rather than fluid. Jenn had walked her way to the top and after cheering me, told me I looked pale and told me to eat something. Good advice. I finished the descent, knowing it required my full attention, before passing through the finish… only to carry on running, back out to do a final lap of the 10k course. The sting in the ultra tail.

Necking a gel had little immediate effect, but I continued, concentrating on forward progress, regardless of pace. Hitting the climbs meant walking instantly, clambering up rocky trail, hands on rock to steady my path. Looking around nervously, I knew I would be losing time to others. It didn’t matter… forward progress was all that mattered. Creeping towards my goal. Down to the lighthouse, one last, long climb to go, and twinges of cramp ran down my quads, never enough to bring me to a halt, but enough that every misplaced footstep was painful. Somewhere below the trig point, mixed in with the 10k runners, I thought I was passed by another ultra competitor, frustrating, but inevitable. Cresting the top and turning for the final steep drop, I could see him below me.

I usually love fell descents. I can let my legs go, tumble, roll, fly over the terrain, dabbing feet purely to maintain momentum, as my body continues smoothly on its downward trajectory. Now, I bumped, stalled, thudded my way down, wooden legs unable to work as quickly as my mind willed them to do so. Picking my way between other runners, I eventually found a rhythm and started to build pace, increasing as the trail became smoother, if no less steep.

It wasn’t enough to make up the place (or another that I must have lost at around the same time), but I crossed the finish line having pushed myself to the limits of my current capability and experience. There was a bit of a mix-up over placing at the finish, but checking the results, it looks as though I came 6th. In retrospect, it is annoying to have given away a couple of places so close to the end, but for my first running race of this kind of distance, I’m still pleased. While I’m satisfied for now, I’ve already got the nagging feeling that I can go faster, push harder, train better, race better… it is why I keep returning to races.

Lessons: what went well:

-I love my Salomon S-Lab race vest. It is a revelation to have easy access to fuel while running, without the downsides normally associated with a rucksack

-The Salomon Fellraisers were the perfect shoe for me on the terrain. I missed having something a little more minimalist, but they gripped superbly in the mud, and weren’t too slippery on wet rock.

-Clothing was bang on. A windproof kept me just warm enough despite the rain. I was glad I had a “just in case” waterproof and hat with me though

-My pacing was broadly ok. I could maybe done with leaving a little more in the tank for the last 10k, but I think that was as much to do with being further than I have run before, rather than over enthusiasm too early in the race.

What I could improve:

-General experience of running longer distances.

-Fuelling was mostly bang on, but I should have had another gel or two earlier than I did on the last loop

-Carried a little more water, as I was loathe to stop for long enough to fill up my bottle. I had just enough in the end, but would have been sensible to have had another bottle.


Finally, thank you to Jenn for being brilliant and travelling with me, despite being too ill to race herself. She cheered me on during the race, generally looked after me once I crossed the finish line, and drove home. I know how frustrating it is to not be able to compete, and I wouldn’t have blamed her for wanting to stay at home and do something else altogether. It meant lots to have her there.

Day Tripper

***Most of the words were written Thursday evening***

In the office, early. Ploughing through a day’s worth of email inbox, coffee mug cupped in my hand. Sitting in an air-conditioned, tinted-windowed, automatic fluorescent bulb-lit office it is a world away from 24 hours ago.

Garage Bikes close on a Wednesday. Bike mechanics need to ride too. Usually Al and the team ride locally, or drive a couple of hours to destinations a bit further away. A one-day window does have limitations though, especially as the shortest day is merely a month away. Al, Joe, Sarah and Hannah were keen to get in a visit to Bike Park Wales, after Jenn and I raved about it, following a trip for Singletrack (feature in the next issue, available from Garage – probably next week). BPW is a good four hour drive away. Not really daytrip-friendly. A plan was hatched (and then mostly planned by Sarah and Jenn) to throw bikes and kit into the back of a van and a car and drive down on Tuesday night. Grab a few hours comfort in a B&B, before riding until we could ride no more, then head home (via a visit to Mojo suspension to have a wander around their workshop).

The riding was great, the company was (of course) great. Mojo were friendly and welcoming, and kind enough to show us around the whole workshop, seeing their technicians servicing forks, their huge stock of spare parts, and the staff bouldering wall.

Ultimately, the drive home was never going to be fun, despite eating large quantities of Waitrose posh service-station food, but we were safely tucked up in bed by 11pm, and had a great mini-adventure in just over 24 hours.

While I might be a little more tired than a normal Thursday, the week is a little brighter than normal.

Thanks to Sarah and Jenn for doing the grown up stuff like booking B&Bs, Al for having the idea, and to Garage Bikes for paying for our BPW ride tickets.

Gear Tart

“Gear Tart”

It was a jokey jibe, and one that I had no comeback for… We were walking along the road having spent a fun few hours watching some inspirational films at the Kendal Mountain Festival. Chat moved onto gear (proof for the marketeers that it is worth sponsoring these kind of events), and I listed off a few bits and pieces that I would ideally like for the Highland Trail. They were items that I even admitted probably weren’t even necessary… Often a true word is said in jest, and it is an accusation that I wouldn’t even dream of countering.

I like kit. From clothing, to bike parts, to bags, to sleeping gear, to cooking gear, to any other accessory that is designed to make life in the outdoors that little bit more comfortable/enjoyable. I like to be able to deliberate over what to wear, use and carry to best meet the conditions and my own goals for the trip – even if that means that I choose to leave the kit at home and travel as light as possible.

An inevitable consequence of enjoying a number of different pass times, is that they all “need” their own specific gear, designed to be optimally functional for the given pursuit. This is, of course, bollocks. The base layer I wear running is equally functional when riding a road bike. My lycra bib-shorts are equally comfortable on road or mtb. My current favourite waterproof jacket has been worn (a little too often recently) while riding mountain bikes, walking to the pub, running in the mountains; all in the last month. There are some areas that don’t cross over though. I don’t really like a hooded jacket when riding on the road. My racy cross country mtb shoes are not that great for hike-a-bike adventures. My lightweight running rucksack doesn’t have enough pockets or compression to work well as a riding pack. My Kinesis FF29, when in singlespeed mode will happily pootle away on the road, but it isn’t the best tool for that job (some may say that singlespeeding isn’t the best tool for any job, but I digress).

My gear freakery goes beyond function however. I like there to be form as well. If I am to spend £100s (and it so often is in the hundreds) of my money on an item, I want it to look good as well as work. I want it to be flattering, to fit me well… I want to feel good when I wear it. And within this lies a conundrum… I do not go into the outdoors to be part of a fashion show, indeed many of my reasons for doing what I do is to escape the day-to-day. A great trail is still a great trail whether I am wearing a green jacket or a black one. I can run as fast in trainers with bright flashes on as I can in some that are all-grey.

But, given a certain level of functionality, then why not have something that looks good too? I may not be faster, but I feel faster as my multi-coloured shoes dance through the undergrowth. My bright green hooded midlayer makes me feel brighter and lighter. The Garage Bikes orange kit stands out. It still feels special when I pull it on.

Other than the more personal choice around colour, form and function seem to be improving in leaps and bounds in the outdoor clothing market. There seems to be a greater willingness to try something new. Maybe this is a result of more people venturing into the outdoors (or wanting to look like they do?) creating a bigger potential market to be tapped into. Stretch panels, thumb loops, water resistance, breathability, warmth, weight (or lack of)… technology moves on. As importantly, manufacturers are using more complicated cuts to get a better fit. Finally companies seem to be making athletic clothing in an athletic fit. So many times I have tried on “perfect” piece of clothing only for it to be hampered by a boxy fit, even in a small size (with corresponding lack of sleeve length). Here form and function meet – better fitting clothing performs better. No drafty gaps, or tight spots hampering movement.

None of these developments come for free though. Outdoors clothing is often painfully expensive. There are cheap basic alternatives out there, and sometimes with minimal difference in performance. But, as with many things in life, it is that extra 10%… in price and performance that turns “functional” into “exceptional”. And, for the most part, I will suck it up, and buy the best gear I can afford. I try to buy gear that I think will cover more than one base… that I can wear mountain biking, road biking, running, to the pub. I will shop around and look for deals and discounts, but I prioritise spending on my hobbies over almost anything else (one look at my car confirms this. I own several bikes that are worth more than it, never mind one).

I try to carefully choose the best possible kit for my money, through a balance of experience, other peoples view and instinct… although I am as susceptible to the lure of a “bargain” as anyone else, and my cupboards pay testament to the gear that seemed perfect at the time, but is not quite right – either functionally or aesthetically. There are some items that are just right though – that do everything that I want them to, work and haven’t fallen apart yet.

Here is my current list of favourites:

Finisterre Etobicoke Primaloft jacket… one of those sale bargains that really was a bargain. It is warm, packs down small, is fairly light, keeps it’s warmth when damp, and has a nice classic look to it. I’d love it to have a hood, but other than that, I think it is close to perfect

-Mountain Equipment Eclipse Hoody… a new purchase and only used outside once, but it is a perfect winter midlayer. A really nice high neck that can be snugged up, and a tight fitting balaclava-esque hood. Perfect for bivvies and bothies, and wearing under a waterproof when things get truly horrible. The waffle style fabric traps heat, without adding any bulk. Ace.

-Aldi (or was it Lidl?) running tights. Actually a bit short, but other than that, a really nice fit, and I just roll them up and turn them into 3/4s. Wear at least once a week between late autumn and spring, and they’ve kept on going for a few years now.

Rapha long sleeve merino base layer. Has withstood being worn for a few too many days in a row, thrown in the washing machine, then worn again. Beginning to show signs of neglect, but after two years of solid use.

-Jetboil stove. Another relatively new addition. It shouldn’t be so good. It is relatively heavy and bulky – there are far lighter and smaller alternatives. But, it is the fuss-free nature of cooking with the Jetboil which makes it so good. I like that a small gas canister packs away into the cup for transporting. I like how quickly it’ll boil water. I like the ignition which means I don’t need to worry about forgetting the matches.

-Shimano SPD pedals. I’ve got a few different types, from XT (not that I am adverse to trying out some XTR ones… there are some limitations to my budget though) down to the entry level ones. Some with a “trail” platform, some without. All work flawlessly, and durably – which is more than can be said for my experiences with Crank Brothers.

And what were the bits and pieces I would still like to buy?

-A super light hooded insulation layer, which doesn’t mind getting damp. One of the new generation of hydrophobic down jackets, or (more likely) a light Primaloft jacket. It might have stretch sides, it will have a hood. It will be used for activities before I’ve warmed up – pre-dawn post-bivvy riding, it will be a mid-layer on cold and damp days when I am not moving at hyper-speed, it will be an emergency layer that spends entire trips in a dry bag. It will be more durable than my existing down jackets, and less prone to losing insulating properties when it gets wet.

-A dynamo hub and compatible light set up. Primarily for the Highland Trail, to allow me the freedom to ride when I want, without any worries about battery life. However, I can see it being great for winter commuting, and a useful way of keeping other electrical items, like a GPS charged at other times. USE Exposure looks like the place to go, and I’m more than happy with that, as I’ve happily used their lights – courtesy of Garage Bikes for many, many miles.

-A close fitting, lightweight, zipped base layer. Synthetic please – merino is brilliant for a lot of uses, but for intense exercise I end up overwhelming it. Preferably with thumb loops.


I enjoy riding bikes for the act of riding bikes. Simple boy. If I never enter another race, or challenge of some sort again, I will always ride bikes. It has become a fundamental part of who I am.

Thanks to my various injuries this year, competitive riding has very much taken a back seat. In fact, until a round of the Yorkshire Cyclocross series at the start of October, I hadn’t raced since March. All of my big aims for the year were written off. Disappointing at the time, but I dealt with it, put up with the frustration, and just looked forward to swinging my leg over a bike again. Never mind racing, just pedalling was something to get excited about.

And when I could ride again, I was largely very sensible. I shelved events like the Three Peaks that I would only just be recovered for (but by no means “in shape” for). This meant I was able to just ride. I indulged in a few more rides with friends than I have been able to do for a while. I shared some epic pushes into the mountains of the Lakes with Jenn. Lots of commuting into work, not going the shortest way, but not really pushing the miles either.

That first CX race bike was great. I was slow. My body hated the intensity of 1hr flat out riding. But, I was competing. I was riding harder than I had for months, and while I wouldn’t have said it during the race, in hindsight I loved it. In reality CX races will never be my forte. I will always prefer going exploring on my bike to fast intervals. I’m not very good at “training”. I am good at having lots of fun on a bike, a lot of the time.

But, to do this, I still need a goal; a reason for getting out of bed early, to ride in the dark and cold. It isn’t always fun. Being on a bike isn’t always reason enough, particularly not when I’m tucked up nice and warm. However, to do some of the more challenging races and events I find “fun”, I need to be at a reasonable level of fitness. If I want to excel (given my own, modest, ability), I need to train. There is a virtuous circle in there somewhere:
Enter something big, exciting, scary
Realise I need to train
Ride more
Get fitter, but also get my riding fix, even when I wouldn’t normally be motivated to get out the door
Feel better
Get to do the big scary exciting stuff
Look for more adventures

To this end, I’ve been putting in a lot of thought into what I want to do, and what I want to get out of any events I do enter. There are literally hundreds of great sounding races going on every weekend of the year… realistically I can’t do all of them – and I don’t want to. Racing is still just one facet of a huge world of riding that I want to enjoy. So, I need to pick a few that mean a little bit more to me, that excite me the most, that will inspire me to turn up on the start line in the best shape I can be.

For 2014, that is just three races.

April – The HOKA Highland Fling – a trail ultra marathon along the southern half of the West Highland Way. 50ish miles of running (and most likely walking). It is going to be difficult to balance getting sufficient training miles in on both foot and pedal, but I’m hoping there will be some cross-benefits.

May – The biggie. Highland Trail – 560 miles of riding through Scottish wilderness.

October – The 24hr Solo World Championships – the WEMBA World Champs are coming to Fort William. It is too good an opportunity to miss out on, and I still have unfinished business with 24 hour racing. I’ve not put together a race I’m completely satisfied with.

I will go to other races, and when I’m on the start line, I will be as committed to doing well as I always am, but they will not be objectives in themselves. They will be purely about having fun, maybe useful training, and just riding my bike.

I am incredibly fortunate to be sponsored by two brilliant companies.

Garage Bikesgo from strength to strength out of their small shop in Morley. I’m lucky enough to say that Al and Sarah are now great friends, and their support means that my bike is always in perfect working order on the start line. I can also head to the shop and get a coffee and friendly chat any time I fancy. Their passion for riding, and supporting the local riding scene is amazing. The Local Bike Shop is under increasing pressure from online retailers, but if they all follow Al and Sarah’s approach to customer service, there will always be a place for the LBS on the high street.

Kinesis BikesKinesis Bikes don’t have a huge and overwhelming range of bikes. They don’t update their range on an annual cycle, regardless of whether it’s needed or not. They do design their bikes with a purpose. Every bike in their small range has been designed, tested, tweaked in the UK before going to market. Most importantly, from my point of view, their bikes are fun to ride. The Crosslight Pro 6 has been everything from a road bike to a trail bike to its intended purpose of a CX race bike while I’ve owned it, and it has done everything superbly. The Maxlight FF29 is light, nimble and efficient. It is everything I want from a race-oriented bike, and much more. I’m a bike tart. I lust over the latest and newest shiny bikes and kit. In reality though, I am utterly happy with these two bikes. I will be using the FF29 for both the Highland Trail and 24hr solo, and can’t think of a better tool for the job (except for a Maxlight Sync Ti maybe, but then that wouldn’t be a nice bright green…).