Team VeloCake take on Bristol Bikefest

Another Saturday, another race. Another Friday, another long post-work drive. I sat in traffic, listening to the rain bounce off the wind-buffetted car, and struggled to muster much enthusiasm.

Fast forward a couple of hours and I was sat in my car, drinking beer at the campsite, waiting for the others to arrive.

All I could do was cling to the hope that the weather forecast was correct, and Saturday would dawn dry and bright. Mikey and Katie were first to arrive, after a similarly long drive, up from Penzance. Not that you could tell by their Lancastrian accents. It was the first time I’d met both, and a pleasure to meet the informal Directeur Sportif of VeloCake and a fell Lego lover. We set-to putting up tents. 2 minutes later, my Decathlon pop up number was up, pegged out and filled with a thermarest, sleeping bag and pillow. Mikey had nearly finished putting the poles together. Another ten minutes later, we were taking the poles out of the incorrect sleeves, and starting again. It was in my interests to help. Mikey and Katie had a porch!

We lazed around inside the tent, as the summer sky finally darkened. We sipped a few beers, ate some pretzels and kept our eyes peeled for Piers, who had travelled down from Penrith. It was properly dark by the time he arrived, but it wasn’t long before he was sat in the tent porch joining us drinking, and even supplying some very tasty sloe gin. Hmm… the theme for the race tomorrow had already been set. It maybe wasn’t textbook preparation.

The one sad note was that Mikey Summers had a delayed flight, so would miss the race. We were prepared to take on the opposition as a mighty threesome, but Dave Jevons stepped into the breach at short notice.

All-weather trails

The sun was indeed out for the 9am start the next day. The wind was still up, and it wasn’t hot, but I wasn’t complaining. No time for a practice lap, I headed down to the start (for I, lucky old me, had been nominated to start. Sommat to do with running occasionally). I dropped the bike somewhere near the side of the course and continued walking down hill, ready for the Le Mans style start. At which point, I bumped into Lee Eaton, who was racing solo for Team JMC. We had a catch up, and were so engrossed in conversation, that we may have missed the countdown to the start, and were taken somewhat by surprised when 3, 2, 1, GO! Was shouted out. A less than marvellous get away ensued, but I did get away, found my bike without too many problems, and set off. Then was forced to trackstand. Then got away. Then got barged. Then got away. It was all a bit manic, but good fun.

The course was utterly fantastic. It genuinely was all-weather, with no real muddy sections, and fast rolling combination of gravel and limestone finishing. Not only that, but there were berms and jumps galore. Generally, I settled into a familiar pattern… bury myself overtaking people on the wide climbs, tuck in and recoup some energy by maintaining flow down the singletrack. Tag onto the end of a train of slower riders, then bury myself to pass them when the trail opened up. All round good fun.

My two laps were over all too quickly, and passed the baton (or hair bobble in this case) on to Piers. Now, this was new ground. I’ve not done an endurance race in a team before. What am I meant to do now? Well, turns out it was quite easy to fill the time. I had a coffee and a bacon butty. Bumped into Dean (who got 3rd in the singlespeed pairs category on his Jones spaceframe), said hi to Shaggy, chatted with folk, heckled the other VeloCake team and generally enjoyed the sun. Dave was up next, then Mikey, who sported the best race face I’ve seen for a while.

Before too long, I was back out again, and having even more fun. The trails were less crowded, allowing me to carry more speed round the course. This is what racing should be like. POP, pssssssssshh. Oops. I had been getting a little carried away and after nosing my front wheel into a berm a little clumsily,  I rolled my tyre, and broke the tubeless seal. I quickly banged a tube in, but it cost me 5 minutes or so, and I was annoyed. I then had to stop at the pits and add more air. Grrr. Lap two was without incident, but I just wanted to keep on riding!

More socialising, eating, watching, sunbathing, chatting followed. Maybe I could get used to this.

I headed out on what I thought was to be a single lap, with Piers to go out straight after, in a bid to keep our lap times short. And I made the most of the one lap. Arriving in the pits breathless and sweaty, I looked around. There was no Piers. Oh. Only one thing for it. I went back out. And actually, despite feeling a bit hanging, did an alright time, and enjoyed myself. Dave took over from me for a lap, and Piers finished off, with around 20mins to go. Sadly not enough time for us to go back out for a final flourish. Probably a good thing. I had already opened a beer.

The other VeloCakers had been busy too. Matt, Andy, Phil and Dan smashed out the laps and looked to be enjoying themselves, apart from Matt who always looks a little grumpy… (sorry Matt :-))

Those of us who could stay the night met back up in the beer tent and enjoyed a few drinks, planned some new adventures and drank a little more.

Oh… p.s. we came 26th in the end. Not too shabby. And VeloCake/3 Counties came 40th… very respectable too.

And double p.s. on my third lap, pre-puncture I made a slightly clumsy overtaking manoeuvre and clipped another rider. I did shout out sorry, and got an insult for my troubles. Fair play, it wasn’t a great place to try and pass. So, to whoever you were, sorry again. No need for the swears though hey mate? 🙂

Glentress 7

I checked my watch again. I’m sure time was speeding up. I had 20 minutes to finish the lap. I needed to keep pushing hard if I was to stand a chance of getting out on another lap. 16.30 was the cut off time. 16.10, and I was still climbing. I felt tired, but not exhausted, but I just couldn’t eke out any more speed from my legs. A hastily downed gel at the wrong time didn’t help and I coughed most of it back up on “Rue de Souffrance”. Damn, this was going to be tight. Liquid crystal bars flicked off and on, counting off more minutes. I kept on riding.

Marathon or a sprint?

Seven hours is not a short race by anyone’s reckoning. It is a lot shorter than anything I have attempted this year though. The Glentress Seven was an event I really enjoyed last year, and it was one of the first I entered at the start of 2012. The sentiment was the same for last years winner, Rich Rothwell. It was a real shame then, when I bumped into him pre-race to find out he had broken a rib during the week and had taken the sensible decision not to ride. I carefully laid out my pre-prepared bottles and gels in the solo pit area. I was by myself for the weekend, and wanted to make sure my pitting would be as smooth as if I had a support team. The plan was to stop for no longer than it took to remove my old bottle and replace it with a fresh one, with gel ready elastic-banded to it.

The weather was colder than I would have liked and I was aware that I was wrapped up in virtually all my clothes before the start. I finished last year’s race with borderline hypothermia. This wasn’t an experience I wanted to repeat. At least it was dry for the time being, and the overcast sky was not particularly threatening.

I enjoyed the ceremony of pulling on brand new, fresh kit. I felt the part, and looked the part. Lou at Patisserie Cyclisme had sorted me out with their lovely new shorts and jersey, and I stopped off in Lancaster on the way up to Scotland to pick them up in person. Good news for Lou was that I got lots of compliments about it over the weekend, so I’m sure her next batch will sell like hot cakes (pun intended). I’ll keep racing in the kit until the Garage Bikes team strip is ready, later this year. Only problem is, a white jersey leads to lots of time with the Vanish, post race!

I finally managed to get my stiff legs warmed up, and it wasn’t long before I took to the start line. Near enough the front to guarantee a clean get away, far enough back to make sure I didn’t get in the way of the genuinely quick boys. The start was pretty unpleasant. Fireroad climbing all the way up to Buzzards Nest. Nearly warm legs complained. Lungs felt restricted. Not long after I was descending and dropped my chain. Grrr. I was getting flustered. Deep breath. Replace chain (it didn’t drop again for the entire race, but I’m tempted to try out a Shimano clutch rear derailleur). And settle down. Climb with composure. Descend with a smile on my face. This is more like it. I was still near enough to the front to not get held up, and no one was passing me.

In fact, the first two laps followed this pattern. I was riding almost by myself. By lap three, the fresh legs of some of the team’s third riders started catching up to my less-spritely pins, and I had more company again. One of the things I really like about endurance racing is the politeness and friendliness of people out on course. Not once did I have a problem overtaking with a quick “on your left please”, or “can I pass when it’s safe for you?”. Not once was I subjected to anything less polite myself.

And the laps kept ticking by. I was tiring, but felt comfortable. I was aware that I wasn’t as fast as I wanted to be, but whenever I attempted to pick up the pace, my legs just didn’t seem to have the answers. I knew this was a likelihood. I just haven’t given my body much chance to prepare for the intensity of shorter races. For this year, I have just had to concentrate on getting a solid base fitness to make sure I can keep on going for the duration of endurance events with minimal performance drop-off. So, I settled in. I kept half an eye on my lap times, but without much seriousness. I made sure I kept pushing. Then, come the end of Lap 6, I started doing sums. It was probably going to be tight for me to get through the cut off of 16.30.

Nearing the highest point of the course (conveniently flagged up as such), I checked my watch again. My instinct told me I would struggle to make the cut off. I couldn’t ease up though. I had to at least try. I hit the downhill sections with more aggression than I had for a while. I took more risks. I ignored the painful need to pee. I took the short climbs as hard as I could. I descended again. I peed in my shorts. I knew I had no time to spare. I did not look at my watch. Just keep on going. One last time down the drop. Jink through the trees. Lock up. Mess up a corner. Crap. On to the last grassy dual-slalom descent. I know I haven’t done it. But keep on riding. Click down the gears ready for the tight turn into the start/finish. And… 16.33. Race over. 8 laps.

Disappointing, but not the end of the world. I drink a chocolate milkshake, watch others come in. Put on layers and pack away my kit. I chat to a few others and eat a burger. I feel so fresh still. I could do another few laps, but only at the pace I’d be sat at all day.

Eventually, the knowledge of a long drive home, and the desire to meet up with friends before last orders pulls me away, and I fire up the car. With plenty of time to reflect on the drive home, the disappointment magnifies. I hate not doing as well as I know my body should. Despite the logical reasons why I didn’t, despite a reasonable result (17th senior), it isn’t good enough.

Luckily a few drinks, some good friends and a whisky nightcap ease the negative thoughts, leaving determination to keep training, to train smart, to learn, to race hard. It’s all part of the journey.

I was very lucky that Jamie Hunter was in attendance, and got these great photos of me. Particularly like the “race face” one above. Why not take some time and head over to his website and flickr pages.

Cotton Riding

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It is a mild late spring evening, cooler than of late, but there is still warmth in the gentle breeze.

I have 5 minutes to change and saddle up before meeting mates who are currently going through exactly the same post-work ritual. Knee pads, SPD shoes, Camelbak, helmet are thrown in the dusty Ikea blue bag. Time to get changed.

Capilene, Coolmax, X-bionic, 100% polyester, Lycra, anti-bacterial, Spandex, wicking, compression, Roubaix, performance, fitted, base layer, technical, breathable, thermal, cooling, Windstopper, Pertex, flat seams, bonded fabrics, contoured, stretch, zips, pockets, Lifa, smelly Helly, even good old natural merino, and weirdy hippy hemp and bamboo fabrics.

Screw you all. I don’t need thermal properties. I’m going for a social rides with mates. It’s a warm evening. I’m not going to die of hypothermia. I don’t need to wear something that looks like it’s been spray painted on to me. I laugh in the face of aerodynamics. I’m not racing. I don’t need pockets. I don’t care if I end up a little damp and sweaty. I don’t need layers. I don’t care if I don’t look like a cyclist, or mountain biker, or Outdoors Consumer.

I pull on a favourite, bright, cotton t-shirt. I’m ready to ride (ok, I also put on a pair of shorts). Cotton. The least practical of all the fabrics. Read the right (wrong) magazines and you’d be forgiven for thinking that you might die if you dare set foot outside of your house wearing something so, so untechnical. You are one of those irresponsible people that Mountain Rescue are hoovering off Snowdon in the middle of winter, with a Greggs pasty in a carrier bag and 5 inch heels.

There is also a risk that you might pass for a Normal Person. Where is your badge that says “I’m a rufty-tufty mountain biker”? Grrrr.

Now, I am aware of the contradictions in what I’ve written. Camelbak? What’s wrong with a water bottle? Knee pads? Pah… Consumerism for people who can’t ride their bikes properly. And, my drawers are stuffed full with every single piece of technical clothing imaginable. I appreciate the comfort that the right choice of clothing brings when the weather is at the extremes of the spectrum. I like having layers that I can add or remove, dependent on changing conditions on long rides. Let’s face it, we live in the UK. The correct clothing often means the difference between deep discomfort and a fun ride.

Perhaps that is why it was so refreshing to be sitting in the pub a few hours later, with my t-shirt still stuck to my back. Laughing with friends, watching the last of the warm sun drop below the horizon.

Patisserie Cyclisme Jubilee Ride

GOD BLESS THE QUEEN

For another day off in summer. Another day off means another day riding surely? Even an ardent anti-monarchist like me finds it difficult to argue against one day less at the desk and one day more behind the bars.

At a loose end as to where to ride? Well, Lou, over at Patisserie Cyclisme, working with Polocini has made things easy for you. Bikes. Cake. 60 flat miles in Cheshire. Win. Win. Win.

I’ll be there sporting the new Patisserie Cyclisme kit.

Enter the sportive here.

Go visit the Patisserie Cyclisme site here. It is having a big facelift this week, so eyes peeled for that.

Racing season hotting up

I have a hectic month of racing ahead of me.

I have 3 races in June. Each of them has their own challenges and will require a different physical and mental approach.

Let’s take them in chronological order, starting with Glentress 7, this Saturday 2 June. It is a pretty straightforward format. Start at 10am, complete as many laps as possible within 7 hours. Most laps/quickest time wins. I came in the top 20 last year, while singlespeeding. Theoretically, I should do better this year. I’m fitter. I have a bike with gears (which should be a real advantage on a course that has a large amount of up and down per lap). I’m more experienced, and feel back into the swing of things as far as racing is concerned.

Weirdly, compared to the last couple of months worth of exertions, a seven hour race feels rather short. I’m under no illusion that this is no sprint, no walk in the park, no other stock expression for “easy”. I want to do well. It will be hard, relatively fast racing. To add to the challenge, I’m working all day Friday, and driving up after work. I will be “solo” in the purest of terms. I’ll be camping, and I don’t have a pit crew. All my bottles will have to be made up (by me) in advance, and I need to make sure my mini pit (luckily there is a solo racer’s tent) is suitably stocked.

I’ll be dropping my bike off with Garage Bikes tomorrow for a quick once over. ‘Arry is beginning to show the signs of well over 1000miles use since February. The lower headset bearing needs replacing, I’ve worn through a set of tyres, and the BB area has developed a familiar creak. Luckily Al knows his business. It makes a huge difference to my self-confidence knowing that I can depend on the bike.

The following weekend, I will be donning my VeloCake jersey, and it will be a new experience for me… I’ll be taking part in a mountain bike race as part of a team. Bristol Bikefest sounds like a great sociable event. I had originally hoped to race solo, but numbers mean it is far more sensible for me to join a team. Another “as many laps as you can” event, this time in 12 hours. It introduces some new challenges for me… going flat out for a lap, then sitting around for a while, then doing it again. Could prove difficult. The team I’m in will be trying hard, but not taking things too seriously. It will be all about just doing our best. I’m looking forward to meeting up with some old friends and turning some “twitter buddies” into real life acquaintances, especially Directeur Sportif Mikey Mullerton.

I then have a week off from racing, and I’ll be taking things (not so) easy with a lap of the Mary Townley Loop with my friend Peter. I’ve done big parts of the loop before, but never linked it all together into a single ride. It may not be the best riding, there may be a million gates, but I still feel the need to get it ticked off. It will also be a great opportunity to catch up with a guy who I don’t get to see very often.

Finally, into the last week of June, and Original Source Mountain Mayhem. An all time classic in the mountain biking calendar… and event that has all but passed me by. I’ve never been, but I’ve heard all the horror stories from the bad weather years. I will have my fingers firmly crossed for a dry weekend. Again, I’ll be competing in a team, with Jenn and Tim, amongst others. Tim is doing rather well in the summer CX and is a bit quick in general, and Jenn is bloody rapid. I don’t want to let the team down, so I’m glad it won’t be my first team racing experience.

I’ve been working on trying to find a bit of speed in my endurance legs… lets see if it pays off this month!

Bike packing, learning lessons

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The photo illustrates how I started the ride. The drybag at the front contains bivvy bag, with sleeping bag already inside. I then bodged my OMM Trio Chest pouch over the top, with gave me a nice zip pouch in which to store sweets and a couple of other items. The top-tube bag contained a few energy gels and the saddle bag (just) held 2 x tubes, a puncture kit, multi tool, tyre levers, CO2 and zip ties.

I then carried spare clothing and some bulkier food items in my rucksack. As the weather forecast was for a cold one, I hurriedly added a few more items of clothing.

At around the same time as my GPS failing, my saddlebag tore off. The fabric gave way around the velcro straps. Not very impressive, as I’ve only had it a year, and rarely used it. Saddlebag went into the rucksack for the rest of the ride.

Water was carried in one bottle on the bike. There were more than enough streams to refill at. I never ran completely dry.

Lighting was dealt with via a USE Exposure 6pack (thanks Garage Bikes) and my shiny new USE Joystick

I wore:
Craft string vest style base
Scott bib shorts
Craft knee warmers
On-One SS jersey and endura arm warmers
North Face “Dirt Track” jacket with zip off arms
Endura waterproof shorts (was expecting to remove these at some point once I warmed up, but temperatures were never particularly high, and keeping a dry bum helped my comfort levels)
Endura baa baa merino socks
Pearl Izumi midweight gloves
Mavic shoes
I carried:
OMM Kamleika Smock waterproof
Lowe Alpine waterproof trousers
Decathlon roubaix style leg warmers
Finisterre Etobicoke primaloft jacket
Decathlon hooded softshell
Aldi winter gloves
Low Alpine peaked gore-tex hat
Fleece skull cap
I pulled on the winter gloves during my evening hike-a-bike and wore them for the rest of the ride (sweaty hands in the warmth, but not a disaster). The Decathlon softshell was a heavy luxury, and probably not necessary. I pulled it on over my existing layers at the same time I swapped gloves… it did a job at the time, but I had other layers in my bag that I could have used.

At the bothy I pulled on legwarmers, primaloft jacket, big hat, and put my softshell over the top. Waterproofs were used as a pillow. I wasn’t cold, but it wasn’t exactly a comfortable night.

Setting off in the early hours, I kept all my clothes on until I started to warm up, then layers were slowly shed throughout the day.

What I would do differently
Less weight on my back. I’d look to use a decent, large saddle pack and some form of framebag.
Winter shoes. The Mavics just weren’t warm enough.
Spare socks
Fewer clothes if the forecast is milder
Less food
Consider a small back up “point you in the general direction” type GPS in case of failure

Cairngorms Loop. The long version.

***Apologies for the lack of photos. I was concentrating on the ride so much, I didn’t really think to stop and get pictures. Luckily a few other competitors did. I’ll do a separate post with links to their photos and blog write ups***

Dancing around the incident pit

It’s dark. If I’m being honest, I’m as much following tyre tracks in my lights as I am the map. The direction feels right. What on earth am I doing?

I see a light ahead. Or is it a reflection? Or hallucination? No… its a reflection. It can’t be the bothy yet though. There are bikes outside. There are people outside. It’s the bothy. It doesn’t matter. I’m carrying on.Ten minutes later, I climb into my sleeping bag and bothy bag. I have every single piece of clothing that i brought with me on. I wouldn’t describe myself as warm, but I’m not cold.

The last few hours were not pleasant. A slow plod through bog was demoralising and exhausting. Push, climb on, ride 30 metres, spin out, climb off, push. Repeat. And again. The sun setting was a beautiful distraction. Snow flakes gently fell. The glow of my GPS offered reassurance and company. But, body, machinery and electronics slowed down in the heavy cold of dusk. First, I noticed that my GPS screen had remained fixed for a suspicious length of time. I wasn’t quick, but I wasn’t that slow. Hmm. I switched it off, then back on. That made matters worse. An odd collection of lines and patterns was all it could offer. Luckily, I brought a print out of the route, so dug that out of my bag, found the right page and carried on. I was increasingly aware that I no longer had a flashing blob to let me know if I wandered off from the blue line mapped out before me. Stops became more frequent to reassure myself that I was going in the right direction. The cold started clawing at my body. Extremities showed the signs first. On went the warm softshell, warm hat and winter gloves. Snug and cosy. I ignored that I could see ice crystals trying to form on my shoes. Or that shifting gears was becoming a clumsy, noisy and generally ineffectual exercise. Wet cables froze, as did the mechs themselves.

Still, I was making forward progress. Over the precarious Eidart bridge, then high above the Feshie, cruising along fun singletrack. The way ahead was nicely lit by my USE Exposure 6 Pack/Joystick combo, and despite feeling tired, I didn’t feel like I was considerably slower than if I had been riding in the daylight. Then it got a little more technical. And then I hit the first of a number of landslides. Goodbye trail. I tiptoed across where the trail should be, carefully pointing my light one footstep ahead and deliberately watched each foot placement, a mistake now was not something I wanted to spend time thinking about. Events could very, very easily spiral out of control if I rushed.

Slowly but surely, the trail mellowed and dropped down into the Glen, following a damp line by the side of the river. My lights caught the bothy. I was a few miles south of Aviemore. I had been riding for around 13 hours. It was some time after 11pm. I had covered approximately 90 miles of the 195 Cairngorms Loop.

I guess every epic tale has a start

I pulled up in the car park outside Blair Atholl train station. A few bikes were propped up about the place. They had bags strapped to them, and there was the usual pre-ride faffing taking place, as you would expect at any National Park, or trail centre car park on any weekend of the year. I unloaded my bike, and uneasily surveyed other people. They had a lot less on their back, and a lot more on their bike than me. Too late to worry about that. Jack wandered over and introduced himself. We rode the short tarmac climb up to Old Blair and the official start together. I think he was more talkative than I was. I was still tired and mentally drained after a hard week. I didn’t feel prepared. Other people’s apparent calm and superior experience magnified and intensified my own deficiencies.

At the start

Steve W read out a quick register. Tom? “Here sir”. Straps were tightened, GPS switched on, photos taken. Then, without drama and in a manner fitting of the low key event, Steve said, “right, lets go”. And we did. 20 riders headed out along the cycle way that runs north, parallel to the A9. The sky was cloudless above us, and the pace was relaxed. I chatted with other riders, some of whom’s names were familiar from the start list and their previous achievements. The usual questions about bikes, home town, experience were repeated and answered. Anyone watching on would have seen a group of relaxed riders, presumably friends, enjoying each other’s company on a casual Saturday ride.

After the SI unit of time/distance combined; “a while”, we turned off on to landrover track, and pointed towards the hills.

The Yorkshire Dales on steriods

For those who don’t know the Cairngorms, they are a little different to the mountains in the west Highlands. They have a rolling bulk to them, rather pointy triangles. On the southern fringes, there was definitely a hint of the Yorkshire Dales or Brecon Beacons in their form. The only clue to the true size of the landmass was hints of snow on the higher land to which we were heading.

By this stage, we were split into smaller groups, although most people were in eyesight. As we reached the first true singletrack of the ride, a ribbon of tricky and exposed trail above a loch, I was quickly by myself. Absorbed in the task at hand, I didn’t even really notice. This was the first time I had ridden with a bar bag, and it was taking a little bit of getting used to. Floppy steering does not lend itself to making technical riding easier. At the end of the loch, the trail widened back out, and was beautifully smooth. I rode for a short time with Jack, who I think caught me up while I was having a wee stop. I was feeling fairly strong though, and wanted to make the most of the good going while it was still on offer. I slowly pulled away as trail turned to tarmac, turned back to trail.

I reached Drumguish, home of my least favourite single malt, and carried straight on through. Then tracked back and took the right hand turn I had missed. GPS doesn’t turn the handlebars for you. The landscape changed once more, as I entered pine forest and rode past John, who was sat having a quick snack at the side of the trail. I got my first experience of Glen Feshie of the weekend, making quick progress up to Feshiebridge. After crossing the bridge, it took me a little while to work out the correct trail to take, and as I was beginning to point up in the wrong direction, I heard a shout from Jack and John calling me. I tucked in behind, with a slightly bruised ego… I’d have realised my own mistake in no time. We pedalled as a threesome into Rothiemurchus forest. Buff trails guided us through the trees and again, I was happy in my own world of riding. Simply riding. In fact, I wanted to enjoy it by myself. There were points were I wanted to carry a line more quickly through a corner, or span out on a climb, and either had my momentum stalled, or stripped one of the others of their hard earned mph. My water bottle was getting low, and my tummy started to let me know that I hadn’t taken on much food so far. I took the opportunity and allowed myself to drift off the back and stopped by a stream. An unusual, but effective combination of jelly, Dairylea and Pepperami was quickly consumed, and I set off once more. The trails here were one of the few times we had to share our ride with significant numbers of other people. Families were out walking with pushchairs, others were cruising on hire bikes with smiles on their faces. We were all enjoying the same land, possibly sharing the same emotions. Achieving them in different ways.

As I neared Glenmore Lodge, snow started to fall. The sky had gradually becoming greyer as Cairn Gorm grey larger in my sights. Thankfully it was oxymoronic dry precipitation and rolled off my jacket harmlessly.

And, for the first time, the lure of company caused me to change plan, and upon hearing a shout from John (I think), I pulled into the Glenmore Lodge cafe and enjoyed a sausage roll, Irn Bru (well, I was in Scotland) and a coffee. Steve W and his pals, John, Rob and some others (I think…my memory has let me down a bit here) were all in there. I set off by myself, but there were others near by. Rob was in the distance as we started the climb, and John quickly caught, then slowly passed me on the climb. The gradient was steep, but ridable. The water bars and steps were annoying though. I was thankful for 29er wheels and tubeless tyres after a couple of clumsier manoeuvres. The higher we climbed, the closer John, Rob and I got, until we climbed as a threesome. Off bikes and pushing at this stage, I was enjoying the company that previously had felt jarring and uncomfortable. Snow flurries blew over us, then cleared. Layers were put on, and then removed. We moved as three individuals, although could have been attached by elastic. Occasionally the elastic stretched. Didn’t break though. Upon reaching higher ground, the terrain deteriorated to bouldery hike-a-bike. Again, the elastic didn’t break. We talked. We stayed quiet. We ate. I maintained my sweet/savoury combo. Rob devoured his “secret weapon” of Cadbury’s Creme Eggs. At some point I think John fell back. I can’t remember exactly when.

The red hills

Rob and I carried on, comfortable in each other’s company, matching pace without trying to do so. Hitting the Linn of Dee, our mood was good, and confidence high. It was here that I voiced my thoughts on trying to push through all night, or until I wanted to drop. Rob liked the idea. There was never any agreed partnership. It certainly wasn’t discussed, but there was a level of camaraderie. We were enjoying this. We definitely got a boost as we briefly caught Steve W and buddies, after they had stopped for a quick cup of tea. And the two of us continued up the valley, into the evening as the good trail petered out and we settled into boggy hike-a-bike. Rob was moving a little quicker than I was, and soon disappeared behind a hillock, or a corner. I would glimpse him now and then, but I was content with my own company. The sun was low in the sky, and the Cairngorms were true to their gaelic name of Am Monadh Ruadh or “red hills”. I settled into fighting a battle against the frustrating terrain, the growing cold and my just dead GPS…

Hut living

On entering the hut, I squinted, covering my head torch, simply using it to find a spot to lay out my minimalist mat, dig out every stitch of clothing I had and hide myself inside my bivvy and summer sleeping bag (sorry Jenn, I changed my mind and left the warmer one in the car). I halfheartedly chewed on a malt loaf, while rubbing my feet together to try and generate some warmth. It didn’t work. I gradually grabbed fitful sleep, but my head was too focused on the task ahead. I couldn’t stop myself from making mental calculations about who I was sharing the hut with, how far I had to go, where I would be able to stop for food tomorrow, how I would I find navigating with just my map if my GPS didn’t come back to life? Others arrived after me. An alarm went off at 2am. The A-team (Steve W and boys) were up and out quickly. I lay in my bag. I wasn’t ready to move. At 3.30ish I thought about moving. I’m not sure, but I think Rob might have woken me when he started packing up. I quickly followed suit. I needed to break out from my relative comfort.

The bike was frozen. Actually frozen. The chain links wouldn’t bend, the mechs refused to move. Frost crystals dusted my bags and saddle. I wished I hadn’t urinated before realising this. Luckily the shock of the cold triggered a physiological reaction and my bladder obliged. At least I now had a singlespeed. With non-functioning brakes. I think there was ice on the rotors. Rob and I set off with all our layers still on. There was light in the early morning sky already. A beautiful inky blue, as we hit tarmac south of Feshiebridge. With the tarmac our speeds increased. Cold, wet feet became numb, useless appendages. I swung my arms and wiggled my fingers to keep some blood flow to them. Despite the cold, we both felt good. We chatted and began to fantasise about breakfast. Aviemore wasn’t far away. Unfortunately it was a 5am and a Sunday. We carried on riding, and didn’t even waste time looking for somewhere. Next stop Tomintoul. Lights were switched off, and miles were easily won on the tarmac. We were riding together still. Side by side. Neither pushing the pace, neither hanging back. Sometimes in silence, sometimes talking. We hit some beautiful woodland singletrack, missed a turning, got wet feet again. My recollection of the next section is sketchy, but in my head it was largely steady away riding. Jack caught us up as we all made a slight wrong turn. It turns out he had bivvied just south of Aviemore and was moving smoothly today. He wasn’t with us for long as I realised my right cleat had loosened, so I stopped to reset it.

“Your biggest breakfast please”

The tarmac to Tomintoul filled me with mixed emotions. It was 9.30am. Would there be anything open when we arrived? I had already decided that I would wait until 10am if necessary. While I had food in my bag, it wasn’t the right food. A wave of unbridled joy washed over me as I rode ahead up Tomintoul high street (maybe a slightly grand term, but any signs of civilisation felt grand). The Old Firestation Cafe had a familiar looking bike propped up outside. It was open. Without looking at the menu, and barely greeting Jack, I walked straight to the counter and (with a twinkly in my eye) requested the biggest breakfast they did. Incredibly, I had managed to find a greasy spoon in Scotland that didn’t serve a fry-up. No matter. Two bacon and egg butties, a scone, a bakewell tart, cup of sweet tea and two cans of coke saw me right. It did for Rob too. Profits must have trebled for the owners that day.

Refuelling. Double bacon and egg butties out of shot

Refuelled, Rob and I set off while Jack digested, although were overtaken pretty quickly. Next stop was Braemar. A good psychological target. a long way off. Again my memory of this section is sketchy, I remember Rob snapping a chain. I remember a beautiful long downhill to reach the small town. This makes up my memories of a ride that took us from mid morning to mid afternoon. As we pedalled the couple of tarmac miles to Braemar, Stuart joined us. He set off from the bothy a couple of hours after us, so had been making strong progress all day. Another epic food order was placed, and while we ate, John saw the bikes outside and came in to join us.

Proportional vs actual mileage to go

So, again it was Rob and I who left Braemar together. Stuart and John would follow shortly, and I was expecting to be passed by them both. I felt as though the back of the ride had been broken. 50 or so kilometres remained. But, a quick glimpse at the route profile and a few murmurs from Jenn (who had ridden the last section as part of a route guide at some point in the past) stopped me from running away with myself. Optimism is a strange thing though. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad? The first 10k certainly wasn’t. Blasting along familiar landrover tracks into the Linn of Dee once more. This time however, we were to cross the Dee and head due south. A good feeling. It didn’t last for long, as the track deteriorated into more bog trotting. Joy. It was around here that I had to remind myself to keep drinking and eating. Proportionally we were on the home straight, but actually distance still to cover was easily that of a “normal” ride. The kind of ride that I wouldn’t dream of doing without a bit to eat and plenty of drink. The day had been warm. On occasions I was down to just my jersey. The sun had also been bright, and I could feel my face was a little sunburnt. The cold, dry air of the last 30 hours had given me a hacking cough. My body was beginning to deteriorate. Just. Keep. Going.

Hike a bike turned into more technical singletrack. High above a river. It is my favourite kind of riding… when I’m fresh, riding an unladen bike and I’m awake. Careful riding was the order of the day. And more pushing than I would otherwise have liked. Points for style were not on offer though. It was all about completing he ride. The gorge continued south into Glen Tilt – one of the few parts of the ride I was familiar with, after a Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon took it in back in 2003. We didn’t continue south though. As a sting in the tail, we turned left, and up. Up an impossibly steep spur. It was thankful short though. Back on the bike, and my front wheel slipped down a ledge in the trail and I rolled my tyre. My tubeless set up was definitely the way to go, bet the front has always had a tendency to lose pressure. I guess it had imperceptibly been leaking air. Quick tube change and I was expecting Rob to ride on, but he graciously waited for me and took the opportunity to eat.

It wasn’t long before we hit some of the fastest track in the loop and were flying along. My mood lifted, and I tried to ignore the niggling voice reminding me of the big bumps in the route profile. The first was actually relatively pain free. Steep track meant eventually dismounting, and eating a tuna sandwich as I walked. Again, details are now a bit hazy, but at some stage we turned off the good track – completing a dog leg and now pointing straight for Blair Atholl. Unfortunately this also meant a return to less good track for a while. And another climb. Were it not for the impending end I could have suffered a sense of humour failure.

Finally. Finally, the climbing was done. I could sense Blair Atholl in the valley. I could taste my celebratory beer. The descent was fast. Track, then narrow tarmac. We whooped and laughed. My eyes filled briefly. A quick glance at my watch confirmed that not only would we beat 36hrs, we’d sneak in under 35hrs too. Turning on to the main street in Blair, we sprinted out of the saddle. In the wrong direction. A sign for the train station pointed out our error after 20 metres. Oops. I grabbed my photographs and waited for Rob to do the same. He’d been a fantastic companion during the ride. His company and sense of humour had us both laughing at points were I’m sure if I was by myself I’d have been having a quiet word with myself , expending mental energy in the quest to stay motivated. There were times we rode separately for long sections. A trail length apart, a glance over the shoulder or up ahead confirming that the other was still “there”. It felt right that we ended the ride together. My first photo was of both our bikes in front of the clock. Evidence we completed at the same time.

Blair Atholl train station clock. Finished. 20.49.

Rob and me

Stuart wandered over. He had passed us on the steep climb out of the gorge, and finished around 20 minutes before hand. He told us of Aidan’s epic effort to finish in 22 hours, before we propped bikes up and headed into the pub. Pints of Braveheart all round felt fitting. Haggis, neeps and tatties the perfect comfort food with which to celebrate. Excited tales were shared. John finished not long after us. Jenn came in a couple of hours later, a fantastic achievement as she was feeling ill. Three pints later, and my sleeping bag was calling. The adventure was over. I cannot wait for the next.

Reflecting on the loop. Short version.

It’s almost exactly 48hrs since I finished the Cairngorms Loop. Mountains are still in my thoughts. All the time. I’m dreaming singletrack.

I’ll write a proper update later this week, but here is a distilled version:

  • Start. Cold. Sunny. Surreal
  • Ride. Soak up landscape
  • Talk. Meet great people.
  • Ride. By myself.
  • Ride. With people again.
  • Hike a bike.
  • Snow. 
  • Epic, epic views
  • Dark
  • GPS failure in the cold
  • Map nav at night, negotiating landslides
  • The lure of the bothy
  • Frozen bike
  • Wildlife
  • Best breakfast ever at Tomintoul
  • Sunburn
  • Berms to Braemar
  • Last push
  • Exhaustion
  • Camaraderie
  • Definitely not shedding a tear while whooping on the final descent
  • Photos
  • Beer

Thanks to:

  • Steve for organising
  • Jenn for Friday night chat, and general aceness
  • Every other rider I chatted too
  • Especially Rob, who became my best friend for the weekend
  • Garage Bikes for fettling my bike. It worked flawlessly (except for seized gears at -8. I’ll let em off for that one

Crayons

Team kit designs by Sarah at Garage. Luckily Endura “professionalisimicate” for a non-felt-tip look. (Sorry Sarah) 🙂

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I have seen the light

I’ve already mentioned how impressed I was with the USE Exposure Joystick and 6 Pack at 24 hours of Exposure.

I was so impressed that I decided that I wanted a Joystick for myself. Chatting with Al at Garage Bikes, he very kindly offered to order me one, as a perk of being sponsored. Wow. Not only that, he arranged for it to be engraved with the Garage Bikes logo, and this here website address. Double wow.

I collected it last week, and it is now fitted to my helmet, waiting to be used in anger this weekend.

Luxury

One thing that I haven’t need to worry about is my bike for this weekend. The Planet X Dirty Harry is nicely up to the challenge.

Even better, Al at Garage Bikes has given ‘Arry a once over, to make sure he is running sweetly and smoothly. The FSA headset is already on it’s way out. Bit disappointed with that to be honest. It is apparently a £75 unit (it was fitted as part of the full build). I’ve only had the bike since Feb. Admittedly, I’ve done a lot of miles since then, but not that many?

Ah well, here is a photo from Garage Bikes of the fettling in progress.

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Preparation

This weekend marks the next big challenge of this year. And what a challenge it is. 185 miles, in real mountains, unsupported.

The Cairngorms Loop has been weighing on my mind since Steve confirmed that I definitely had a place a month or so ago. I have done a good few multi-day trips in the mountains, some with bike, some without. None have been quite this long.

I’m feeling pretty fit, but my head has been struggling a bit recently though. For the most part, I know exactly why it has been, and it probably isn’t appropriate to talk about it in an open forum, as it involves someone else. This has also had the impact of knock on physical side effects. Vomiting, dizziness and finally a cold aren’t ideal preparation. Mentally, I cannot wait to get out into the wilderness, to be by myself and to concentrate on riding my bike. However, the act of preparing has been incredibly hard. Concentrating on what I need, what I don’t, what I might need has been challenging. This might sound a bit pathetic, but after working all day, I was struggling to be able to concentrate on anything in the evening, and tended to fall asleep by 8pm each night.

Luckily a quiet weekend got me back on track, and despite a long “to do list”, I’m well on the way to being prepared.

FAST AND LIGHT

Did you ever do the Duke of Edinburgh award? I did. Well, I didn’t. I did the “expedition”, but got bored during the other bits, and never finished. I just wanted to go back outside…. but, I digress. I still see DoE students out in the hills every now and then. They are easy to spot, because they are walking around with a 75litre rucksack, filled to bursting point. All for a night out in the hills. Teenage legs crawling forward under the weight of trangias, big tents, 25 layers and a few tins of food.

In contrast, I’ve long been a fan of the fast and light approach… taking it to extremes where suitable. (Such as Saunders Mountain Marathon… summer in the Lakes, with good forecasts can allow sensible, calculated risks around sleeping bag weights etc).

Now, for the Loop, I want to go as light as it is safe to do so. Every unnecessary gram will be pedalled around for well over 24hours. Not only that, but a dramatically heavier approach will actually guarantee a significantly longer time. To bring a full tent and overnight gear will guarantee that I need them. However, the Cairngorms have experienced some pretty wild weather over the last 6 weeks. There is a significant amount of snow on the tops (fortunately, this is mainly a low level route). Rivers will be in spate. I estimate that I’ll be riding for at least 30hrs. Temperatures could be anywhere from high teens to sub-zero. Sun, wind, rain and snow are all on the cards.

So, given this, what will my approach be?

Flexible. I don’t want to take every bit of kit with me around the route. I will probably bring it up in the car with me though, and take my pick before the start. Having said that, I’ve already made some decisions:

  • Bivvy bag and lightish sleeping bag, to be carried in drybag secured to bars
  • Tri-bag on top tube for easy access re-fueling
  • Saddle-pack for bike spares
  • No stove
  • Primaloft jacket as additional night time warm layer
  • Satmap GPS navigation
  • USE Exposure Joystick/Six pack combo
  • KIMM sack
  • Water bottles for hydration – easier to refill than a bladder
  • Aim will be to push on, with minimal stops, including through the night. I have made note of some key decision points though, and more suitable looking bivvy locations

All that remains is to concentrate on getting my head back fully in shape, ensure the body follows and drive up on Friday pm.

 

Exciting news

I’m just back from a chat with Al and Sarah, over at Garage Bikes. They have already been very generous to me, and loaned the shop lights out for 24 Hours of Exposure.

Garage Bikes is based in Morley, and is a relatively new-comer. They are celebrating their 1st birthday this Saturday. In their first year they have gone from strength to strength though, combining experience with an infectious enthusiasm and good customer service.

It is therefore a huge honour that they have offered to sponsor me. I’m looking forward to pulling on a Garage Bikes jersey at a race soon, and will be genuinely proud to have their name across my chest. Al and Sarah have put no pressure on me about results, but it will certainly be an extra motivation to get out and train, and push myself to do as well as I can. Not just for me, but for those who have backed me.

Work to do

The gentle rumble of mountain bike wheels over fireroad leeched into wherever my subconscious had taken me. I raised my head from my toptube to see the silhouette of a rider, detail shadowed by his helmet and bar lights. I mumbled a hello. Why was I sitting on a picnic bench instead of my bike? How the hell had I fallen asleep? How long for? What on earth was I playing at?

The entire lap so far had been horrible. Nausea, double vision, and an inability to keep my eyes open left me feeling pathetic, and opened the door into the dark corner of my mind. The one full of self doubt, the one that revels in suicidal thoughts, the one that cares about nothing, but attaches negative value to everything. I didn’t want to be me, let alone the me that was two thirds of the way through a 24 hour race. I swung my leg off the bike. Sat on the bench and forced a gel down my throat. It was time to regather. It turns out regathering led to 40 winks, but at least I felt a little better for it. Back on the bike, shivering as my hard earned body heat had long since risen into the misty/damp sky, I rolled down one of the wonderful trail-centre descents. No longer whooping, pumping and jumping I was nevertheless savouring the opportunity to not turn the pedals for a while.

The previous 30 minutes had defined my race. I am not the endurance racer that I want to be. Yet.

36 hours earlier, I had arrived at Rock UK, lying next to the 7 Stanes trails of Newcastleton. Nice and early, I set up camp next to the course, in a perfect spot for my pit crew to look after me during the race. Over the next few hours I caught up with Jase, Dave and the other JMC boys. Amy and Ali arrived, as did Greg and Pauline. My own pit team arrived in the Bike Doctor Leeds van, and I settled into the task of eating, drinking, talking, eating, drinking and repeat. Sleep came surprisingly easy.

Newcastleton Village centre… 11.30am, just before race start. Nervous chatter fills the air. Everyone looks fit and focussed. This is not your usual race. The minimum 12 hour solo option self-selects a certain kind of rider I guess. It felt like the whole village had come out to cheer us off, and there was a lovely atmosphere as we were counted down and rolled out behind the USE van along a neutralised tarmac section up to the trail head, and race course proper. BAM. The pace went through the roof as soon as the van peeled off. I was in a reasonably good position, and held that for the most part, which was useful as we hit the mud-like-plasticine-but-more-slippery-steep-climb-through-the-trees. Something wasn’t quite right though. It took a few seconds to work it out. My seatpost was slowly slipping. GRRR. A frustrating couple of minute stop sorted things out and I was back on my way, but worked that little bit harder to regain time lost.

I caught up to Greg on Lap 2 and we shared a quick chat. He stayed in sight for a good while longer, but at some point I had a bit of a low patch and the gap opened to 15mins or so.

The first 8 hours passed remarkably quickly. I ate, I drank, I rode, I walked some of the steeper climbs. I felt ok. Food wasn’t going down so well – I was regularly feeling rough for the first third of the course while my body struggled to digest whatever I put in it. Including gels, which is unusual, as I normally cope really well with them. This had the effect of making high effort sections like the climbs really unpleasant, but it’s a 24 hour race, I wasn’t expecting it to be pleasant. Head down and crack on Tom.

Night arrived quickly in the woods. My borrowed USE Exposure 6 Pack and Diablo/Joystick combo was, frankly, amazing. I kept both the bar and helmet light on low the entire time, and was never wanting for more power. It was a pleasure not have to worry about swapping batteries. A couple of minor hiccups though… somehow I managed to not charge the Diablo properly, so that died midway through one lap. Oops. Quick swap to the joystick saw things back on track. Later, on a rough fire road descent, the 6 pack bounced off its mount. ARGH! Thank god for a helmet light. I think my number plate had somehow flicked the otherwise excellent release button on the clamp.

And then, the lap of the nap. I’ve never, ever, ever stopped like that during a race. Not in my previous 24 hour race, not in anything shorter. I’m furious that I did, but at the time, I simply didn’t have the mental strength to keep moving. Doing some forensics… I think I can identify a few cause factors:

  1. Fitness. I’m reasonably in shape, but did I follow the training plan that I set out for myself back before Christmas? Not really. I allowed excuses to get in the way too often
  2. Mental strength failure. Black, dark thoughts have become a normal way of life for me over the last couple of years. I failed to identify them as a symptom of tiredness, and manage them immediately. Instead they grew into something almost unmanageable.
  3. Lack of caffeine. I largely used caffeine free gels and drink. I think a few more hits of the chemical pick-me-up may have seen me through the vital last few hours of darkness.

Lap from hell was finally completed. Layers changed. Much needed pep-talk from Andy received. Back out into the dark, but in the knowledge that there was already a feint inky blue tinge to the previously black, black sky. Rebirth. I rode. I enjoyed riding. The simplicity of being on a bike was wonderful. This is all I want to do. And it was all I did until crossing the line a few hours later. It wasn’t easy, there were more dark moments, but an element of mental strength had returned. I would not be broken. Not by my own thoughts anyway.

My final lap was a relaxed affair, taking things easy, chatting with Rachel – who went on to be the womens winner. Wow. Great effort from her in her first 24 hour race.

And then, over. Relief. Happiness? I guess. Satisfaction? I guess… no, actually, no. I didn’t do what I set out to achieve. This wasn’t just a result of the 24 hours of the race, but the months beforehand. I can still do more. I will do more.

But, another race compete. 16th in the Open male isn’t too shabby, and I’ve got some brilliant memories from the weekend.

The thank yous:

  • Andy, Gemma and Alex. My wonderful family, and perfect pit crew
  • Garage Bikes, Morley for the lights.
  • Greg, for his good humour and shoe strap
  • Amy, for making me laugh
  • Ali, for being lovely
  • Pauline, for her cheering
  • Jase, Dave, Phil, Lee and the wider JMC crew for wise words, piss taking and encouragement
  • The organisers for putting the event on

The highs:

  • Super happy snail trail
  • Thunderbird and Bumblebee marshalls
  • Cruising the blue
  • Chatting with Rachel
  • Beer on the finish line
  • Monster meal in Newcastleton in the evening
  • Torq rhubarb and custard gels

24 hours of Exposure

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved”.*

Enough of the eulogising though. I’m off to ride my bike as fast as I dare and have fun for 24 hours.

*Quote courtesy of Helen Keller, with thanks to Rob Lee who included it in his book “Endurance Within”

One week to go…

This time next week, I’ll be a nearing the end of 24 hours of Exposure.

I’m experiencing my usual pre-big-race mixture of emotions.

  • Feeling unprepared
  • Feeling unfit
  • I’m scared. Scared of embarrassing myself, scared of the pain, scared of the mental torture
  • Worried about putting my brother, sister and two friends through 24 hours of looking after my every need, watching me self-harm
  • Worried I won’t do as well as I should
  • Excited that I’ll be testing myself
  • Excited about riding a fast bike along lovely trails
  • Excited for every single moment of clarity, where it is just me, a bike, a trail. The ultimate escapism.
  • Looking forward to meeting old friends, and making new ones
  • Feeling fit
  • Feeling prepared
  • And repeat

Bring it on.

Doing laps

No exploration, no map stops, no socialising, no admiring the view. Nothing to distract me from the pursuit of riding my bike as hard as I can for a few hours.

Two laps of Dalby red, with a loop of the world cup xc course for good measure.

First lap. Chasing speed, concentrating on try to hold back, but largely failing. New bike romance is blossoming. Despite the tiny proportion of the ride completed, I can’t help but accelerate into berms, popping off kickers and stamping up short climbs.

Second lap. Testing memory. Half remembered lines through corners. Some noted and ridden faster, others ridden in an identical manner while cursing my poor memory. LIstening to my body for the first signs of tiredness. Was I pushing a harder gear last lap? Am I getting slower? My legs definitely feel a little weaker. Not long to go. Head down and and focus.

Grit teeth.

I needed that.