Yorkshire Dales Bikepacking

It was just your average weekend ride in the Dales. The four of us were lying in our bivvy bags, under a children’s climbing frame, in a pub beer garden, in Aysgarth, as it started to snow. Again.

Stuart Rider (has there ever been a more appropriate name for someone in the bike trade?), owner of Riders Cycle Centre had planned out a two-day-with-a-bivvy-in-the-middle ride, that he was planning on guiding clients on later in the year.

Rob, who I met, and rode with on the Cairngorms Loop travelled up to join us. Reprising a Cairngorms Loop foursome, including Jenn and Stu. It’s no coincidence we are all planning on doing the Highland Trail in May. Stu’s mate Simon also joined us for the Saturday section of the ride.

20130226-151550.jpg

Pre-ride fettling. Pic credit to Stuart

So, under a cloudy, grey sky, heavy with snow we set off from Stu’s shop. Our loop was going to be run anti-clockwise, 50-ish miles each day. Not huge, but a serious enough undertaking, and the furthest I’ve ridden off-road for a while now. We spun away on singlespeed gears (other than Stu, who runs 1×9 on his Ragley, chatting as we left Skipton, and gradually (and then less gradually) climbed our way on to the fells behind it.

The subdued green of the valleys became white, and our view was largely sepia toned, other than for our bright drybags, loaded with warm bivvy kit… and the sick green FF29 of course…

After a fast, long and cold descent to Appletreewick, complete with snow/hail stinging our faces, we hit our first bit of off-road, and steadily climbed along the bridleway to Stump Cross. Greenhow edge was appropriately bleak and buffs were pulled over chins as we cruised along the road, before diving off left for more bridleway descending to Pateley Bridge and a well earned brew and toasted teacake. Layers peeled off in the warmth of the cafe were replaced in preparation for the next leg of the ride, up the east side of Nidderdale, past Gouthwaite reservoir, before climbing higher and following the valley round to the NW, on to Scar House reservoir. The snow got deeper as we climbed, rarely so deep that it made riding impossible, but certainly enough to make things a little slower going than the last time I rode these trails, back in an early spring dry spell last year, when they were dry, compact and fast flowing. The wide trails again allowed us to talk some more as we rode, each of us tracking forward and back, sharing conversations. Often there would be one clear line, and we would drop into line. This left me in a world of my own thoughts for a while, content in the stillness, listening to 29er tyres roll over squeaky snow.

Solitude shared with great company. One of those oxymorons that mountain biking throws up sometimes.

20130226-150057.jpg

Just above the dam at Scar House, we waved goodbye to Simon, who was heading off back to Skipton, a family and a warm bed for the night. The prospect of a warm bed may have briefly triggered pangs of jealousy, but I was looking forward to sleeping out, and had no desire to head home just yet. The next section was a long, slow push up on to the tops.

20130226-151721.jpg

Pic credit to Stuart

The snow was deeper than it had been anywhere else, and the gradient was tough enough that gears wouldn’t have helped a great deal anyway. After the climb, we were rewarded with a sketchy, drifty descent in flat light, making it almost impossible to spot changes in the terrain. Often the first tell tale sign of a change in camber was finding the bike pointing towards a ditch at the edge of the trail, and showing no inclination to stop. The snow, which had stopped falling for a while, came back, accompanied by low slung, ominous looking clouds, and we were all chilled as we followed tarmac ribbons through grey looking Dales villages and hamlets. Time was getting on, and it was still only February. Daylight was still short lived. As we made our way over to Wensleydale, the clouds lifted once more, and we were treated to stunning pastel colours, and crisp skies. Onwards, and downwards towards Aysgarth. It was dark enough for me to pop my lights on for the two miles on road to Aysgarth. We climbed out of the valley floor, and our tea wouldn’t be earned without a 1:6 haul. Thankfully it was brief, and the pub lights were on.

We tumbled in, and were hit by the warmth. Layers were ditched as quickly as possible, amongst locals out for an early Saturday drink, and more suitably attired for the occasion. It felt fitting to have a pint of Wensleydale while pondering a great looking menu, and settling in, enjoying the welcoming atmosphere. As well as a great guide, Stu also does a fine line in tall tales, and kept us entertained with stories of his youth, as we tucked into big meals and more beer.

20130226-150239.jpg

Our pace of consumption and conversation slowed as the days efforts took their toll, and we reluctantly thought about making a move back out into the cold and setting up camp for the night. Our original plan was to bivvy near Aysgarth Falls, but it didn’t take much persuasion by the pub landlady to use their beer garden instead. A children’s climbing frame was perfect for rigging Stu’s tarp up to, and after a few swigs of Jura Superstition, we all drifted off to sleep quickly. I woke a few times in the night to snow being blown on to my face, rolling over and drifting off once again, drowsy and warm, thankful that I brought my winter weight sleeping bag.

20130226-150611.jpg

20130226-152258.jpg

“Camp” Pic credit to Stuart

An unconventional breakfast of chocolate, nuts and seeds and chorizo had me ready and raring to go on Sunday morning. Actually, ready and raring is an overstatement, but “go” we all did. We would broadly be trending south and west, for what was actually going to be a longer day in the saddle than the Saturday. Our day followed a similar pattern to Saturday, with low cloud and snow showers to begin with, but it cleared significantly as the day progressed, treating us to blue skies and epic views. We picked up the Pennine Bridleway for a while, descending towards Dent. More sketchy snow. More fun. Then a bitterly, bitterly cold road descent, that had us all stopping for extra layers, and looking forward to the next climb, purely to generate some heat. The next climb would be on a familiar hill for me – Whernside, but from the north, on a trail I’ve never used. The climb was a little too steep and prolonged to make on loaded singlespeeds, but would be a good granny ring winch in other conditions. We then dropped down towards Ribblesdale, picking up the 3 Peaks Cyclocross route off the hill, popping out alongside the railway line, and following it to the hulking mass of Ribblehead viaduct. Tummies were rumbling, so Stu took an executive decision to shorten the next leg slightly by going straight along the valley road to the Pen-y-ghent cafe. Pint of tea, cheese and beans on toast, extra toast and a bottle of coke. Fuel.

The blue skies and sun beaming through the windows of the cafe gave an illusion of warmth. The reality was that there was still a chill in the air as we set off, and while it felt like the back of the ride was broken, we still had a good way to go, including a long climb up to Malham Tarn. More pushing, followed by tarmac slogging. Mastiles Lane was dealt with, fuelled by bullet-hard Skittles, a handful stashed in my cheek, gerbil style until they reached a warm enough temperature to chew.

Eventually, we popped out on to tarmac at Rylstone, leaving us with a 5 miles tarmac spin/slog/spin to get us back to Skipton. The light was fading quickly, but we were welcomed back to where we started by ringing church bells (I’ve no idea how Stuart managed to get that organised ;-)) and confirmation by Mr Rider that we had ticked over the 100 mile mark somewhere on the road stretch back to town. A couple of hours later, Jenn and I were tucked up on the sofa, eating enormous quantities of toad in the hole and mash, my face glowing with windburn and the joys of central heating.

The FF29 and bikepacking

So, I’ve established the FF29 makes a fabulous, fun trail bike. How did it cope with being loaded up and taken out on a long xc ride? Very well, actually. The light weight meant that, despite being loaded up with a bar bag and saddle roll, it felt far from sluggish. The extra weight over the back wheel actually provided a little more traction, which was handy for hauling up a few of the steeper climbs. Aluminium has a reputation for being harsh, but the FF29 was anything but. I was as pretty much as comfortable in the saddle at the end as I was at the start. Again, the carbon fork continues to astound me. It is so compliant and comfortable, it really does feel like there is a little bit of travel there, but I love the direct feel of the rigid fork. Happy days.

Thanks to Jenn, Rob, Simon and Stu for the great company. Biggest thanks to Stuart for organising, and planning the ride. He is a fully qualified guide, and can take clients on this trip, or one tailored specifically for you – longer, shorter, bivvy, hostel, hotel…

20130226-152626.jpg
Pic credit to Stuart

Advertisements

Bikepacking gear

Back at the end of the Cairngorms Loop I had a little think about the gear that I had used, and talked about what I might do differently next time.

Winter… long nights. Wet nights. Less riding. More time to spend looking at a glowing screen, researching kit. It is easy to fall into the trap of “needing” the best of everything.

The last few years have seen the evolution and maturing of the fast and light philosophy. What was once the preserve of alpine climbers, is now pretty much the de-facto way of doing things for anyone spending more than one day in the mountains. I’m sure that part of this is marketing led. Outdoor gear manufactures find a new niche to sell to, another reason for the consumer to buy a new jacket, or sleeping bag, or rucksack. What is interesting though, is that away from the Berghaus, Rab and OMM, there is the antithesis of consumerism. People making things for themselves, adapting existing gear (usually by cutting off superfluous weight, which is often driven by the big companies adding unnecessary marketing-driven features to gear), small companies being born making uber-niche products. Many of these small companies are American, but there is an increasing number of Brits out there as well.

Interesting times, and the result is more choice for the discerning consumer. And potentially more bewilderment… The challenge will always be to balance weight with practicallity, durability, function, fit and cost. Cost is an interesting one. Lightweight kit almost always sacrifices features and size, sometimes the price comes down correspondingly, sometimes it doesn’t, as lighter weight (and more expensive) fabrics and materials are used. Everyone’s priorities are different (and may vary depending on what kit we are talking about), but I am willing to make some sacrifices in the name of lightness, understanding that weight is not the end in itself, simply a means to an end. Broadly speed and comfort while moving take priority over comfort while stopped. There are a few caveats on this approach:
1) I live in the UK. Our weather is not known for being predictable. “Just comfortable” can quickly become dangerously cold/wet/exposed. Depending on the situation, I’d rather play it safe.
2) I’ve not yet been out for longer than two days/one night. A single night of discomfort isn’t so bad when you know you’ll have a warm bed the next. I also don’t believe that one bad nights sleep hugely affects performance the next day. Head down and carry on. On longer trips recovery becomes more important.
3) I sleep very well, and in the short term can make do with not much sleep anyway
4) I can’t afford to buy the best of the best for all conditions, so inevitably have to make compromises when choosing gear.

So, based on all that, what recent purchases have I made?

Top of the list was a sleeping bag that would keep me warm for three seasons of the year, to replace my worn out, and never very warm in the first place synthetic bag. I’ve gone for a Rab Neutrino Endurance 200. Toasty warm down, with a water-resistant finish on the outer. Useful for damp bivvies, hopefully.

20130222-123449.jpg

I used a rucksack to carry much of my kit on the Cairngorms Loop. This wasn’t the end of the world, but there are better solutions available, which keep the weight off ones shoulders, and should hopefully reduce fatigue. At the moment, I am testing a Wildcat Tiger and Mountain Lion for Singletrack Magazine. They both feel secure, and allow the use of dry bags to keep kit totally dry.

For time off the bike, but not in my sleeping bag, I’ve bought a Golite Bitterroot down jacket. I’ve been looking for a hooded, lightweight down jacket for a while, along the lines of the Rab, or Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer. I spotted the Golite on sale for £100 (from £260) though, so snapped it up. So far, all I can confirm is that it is keeping me toasty while I have my first brew of the morning (at home), but it feels good.

I’ve used an MSR Pocket Rocket for years and years, and always been happy with the reliability and cleanliness of gas cooking. Meths brings back memories of heavy trangias and DofE expeditions. Times change though, and there are a new generation of ultralight meths stoves out there, ranging from DIY coke can jobs to something a little more sophisticated. Jenn has been sent a couple of minuscule meths stoves by Stu at Go
Bearbones
to try out. I’m interested to see how they fare.

First test for a lot of this kit will be this weekend. Can’t wait!