#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.

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What are you waiting for? Crack on.

Kinesis IX carbon fork

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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).

Roots

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.

Reservoir

Cobbles

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.

Windmills

Home

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

Imelda Marcos

I’ve got two new pairs of shoes at Chateau Hill… Sitting at the opposite ends of the off road riding spectrum.

I’m testing some Lake MX330 for Singletrack Magazine. They are top-end cyclocross race shoes, designed for when the going gets muddy.

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And a pair of Mavic Alpine XL shoes, bought with my own hard-earned. Designed to be comfortable for prolonged periods of hike-a-bike, without giving too much pedalling performance away… These will hopefully be perfect for non-racey stuff, and big mountain adventures… And I’ve got a small eye on the Highland Trail next year…

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Welcome back

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It has now been over two months since I last rode a mountain bike. Not just any two months either. It has felt like every day has dawned brightly, skies have permanently been blue, the weather always mild. My mind has fizzed with frustration, gradually eased by running, and more recentlyriding on the road (even if I did get carried away immediately take the Kinesis Pro 6 off into the woods). The reality of summer in Leeds so far hasn’t been quite so stunning, although we do seem to have faired better than recent years.

My shoulder never really hurt, at least not after the initial aches of the surgery. I have felt it get stronger by the week. This has fed my frustration, as I have had to deliberately avoid my bike, make the conscious decision not to ride, rather than be physically limited. It is still technically too soon. I have another x-ray tomorrow, and will hope for good news.

I was in the Yorkshire Dales, camping in Grinton, next to the brilliant Dales Bike Centre. Jenn was racing the ‘Ard Rock Enduro, so I thought I’d keep her company, but do my own thing while she raced. I was willing to take a calculated risk and have my first mountain bike ride. I think racing a gravity enduro would have been somewhat foolish, even if the FF29 wasn’t in rigid mile-munching mode. I must be getting sensible in my old age. Garage Bikes team mate Joe Roberts was there though, and bagged a very respectable 7th in his age group.

The FF29 was looking in fine fettle. I’d fitted some lovely new Kinesis Strut bars – the crash was heavy on my USE bars, and while I probably trusted them, they have always been a little too narrow for my taste, especially when hauling on the singlespeed. The Struts add an extra cm each end… not a huge amount, but noticeable. While fettling, I also added a nice new Charge Scoop saddle to test for Singletrack (I’ve always been a fan of the Spoon, so I have high hopes for this) and swapped my 32t front ring for a 34t Renthal offering (thanks Garage Bikes). Maybe not the best timing, as my legs aren’t exactly full of miles after the recent lay-off, but the FF29 is so light the previous 32-18 ratio always felt a bit spinny. The added benefit of a “magic ratio” and doing away with the tension was a bit of aesthetic win.

Swaledale has some impressively steep climbs, made even harder by the gale that was now blowing through the valley. Much of the morning seemed to involve cranking out of the saddle, with my nose glued down to the stem, sofa-softened legs getting a harsh wake up. The gradient/terrain never got so hard that walking was necessary, but I slowed to a trackstand in places, before finally turning over the pedals and recovering a mite of forward motion. It felt odd to be by myself having been in the company of hundreds less than an hour ago, but it felt right for the day. I think I’ve missed the solitude.

Climbing into the wind had its pay offs, as I whipped down wide grassy carpet-like descents at warp speed, trying not to think about the consequences of a hidden dip or gust of wind. Singletrack was a rarity, but the little of it that I discovered was superb. Dry, twisting, flowing, exaggerating the sensation of speed, rewarding the conservation of momentum. The FF29 revels in conditions like this. The carbon fork has enough twang to take away the immediate sting of small vibrations, it tracks well as the tight rear triangle transfers power brilliantly. Short stabs of power are rewarded with quick acceleration, belying the usual 29er criticisms.

This was a day for one-more-hill-ism. While the wind was ever present, the sun had burned through morning grey. I linked up familiar trails with new ones, found new views across known landscapes. It was the kind of mountain bike ride that I have done since I first ventured out. Bridleways, tracks, distance. Little technically challenging, or adrenaline fuelled, but just out there. It felt good, and I lost myself in riding, checking the map, and riding some more. As the ride came close to its natural conclusion I eked out one last climb/descent and rolled back into the garden at DBC, where Stu had a barbeque on the go, local beer was being served, and riders were sunbathing, full of excited tales of their day.

I wasn’t quite ready for the crowds, and could have happily turned round and headed out again. The smell of burgers cooking, and smiling friends convinced me otherwise though…

Welcome back mountain biking. How I’ve missed you.

Grizedale Duathlon Race Report

Run, bike, run.

The commas are important. In a duathlon, these represented the transitions. The briefest of pauses to swap shoes, to grab/replace bike, and probably not much else. Each of my stops were around 90 seconds. The quickest people were nearer 30 seconds per stop. Where did two entire minutes go? Those two minutes were the difference between a top 10 overall and my 15th place. There is no way I could have shaved off two minutes from my run. I may have been able to on the bike, but more on that in a bit. Two entire minutes?

The Grizedale Duathlon took place on a bitterly cold morning, starting from the Forestry Commission trail centre. We arrived early (Jenn was meeting her brother to go and have their own epic adventure on Coniston Old Man), and wandered through the huge complex of trail centre buildings to find registration. There has been a fair bit of development since I was last here (which, to be fair, was probably 15 years ago). Modern buildings sit within the forest, complementing the landscape really well. I can imagine lolling around on the grass after a summers bike ride, drinking tea and eating cake.

The transition area was small, cramped maybe. But, it was early, so I had a choice of where to rack up my bike. I went for as close to the exit as possible. I laid my MTB shoes out neatly, open and ready to be stepped into. I placed my helmet on top of them. I hung my gilet on my bike, aware that while I would be more than warm enough running, I could well cool down while on the bike. I sipped flat coke, I felt nervous. A different kind of nerves to what I have experienced previously. I had no doubt that I would finish it, no doubt that I would do reasonably well. No fear of the total exhaustion that 12hrs+ of racing brings. I did have fear of the intensity, fear of the pain, fear of the taste of blood at the back of my throat, fear of cramp. Fear of not finishing the race having given everything. Fear of wishing I had pushed harder, fear of what could have been.

I did my best to empty my mind of those thoughts. Matt Brown, @singlespeedmatt from twitter recognised my kit and bike and came to say hello. It was reassuring to see that someone else was stupid enough to attempt this on a singlespeed. Unfortunately, Matt is seriously fit, a good rider, and a good runner. He also works for Inov-8 and was sporting some spanky new shoes.

Time stretches and compresses before the start of the race. The hours before seem to drag, nerves mean watching checking on a regular basis. All I want to do is start. Then, at about 30 minutes to go, everything seems to change. I am focussed on last minute fettling. I am focussed. I am. I am taking of my warm layer. I am standing on the line. Near the front. I want to get away fast, I don’t want anyone in my way. I am.

Minutes to go, and they hang in the air, like a wave waiting to crash down. Seconds span hours of thought. Go. Run, a line through chaos. In front of chaos, clear. Passing runners in front of me, gradient increasing. My system hasn’t yet caught up with what I am asking it to do. The beauty of the first few hundred metres. Pain receptors start firing. My lungs start to try and wrestle control of my deliberate breathing pattern. Legs already want to slow down. Ignore it all. Just keep running.

I can’t keep this up.

Just keep running.

At the top of a dirt road, there is a sign pointing to the right. Straight up. I can’t keep this up. And I can’t. My pace drops, but so does everyone’s. The climb gets steeper. We burst through, and back onto fire road. Flat. Quick, again, then back into a jumble of rock and mud. Steep. Upwards. Top out, and drop like a stone. Legs full with blood and lactic struggle to move fluidly and react to the technical, rocky descent. I don’t flow, but I progress. I stay conservative, no wild jumps and leaps, just safe foot placements, and progress. Until, after an age, I pop out on to the farm track back to transition.

Kick running shoes off. Put helmet on. Pull cycling shoes on and try to do up ratchets. They won’t grab. The plastic teeth are so worn, there is no purchase left. Finally I get both shoes secure, grab my bike and pass through on to the bike course. CX style remount and start riding. As I set off, I see Matt arriving into transition. I was expecting him to pass me on the run, but give him a cheer, and wait to be passed later. The climbing starts immediately. Jelly legs push my singlespeed gear. This feels wrong, but the gradient is ok, the track smooth, I keep pushing, ignoring the alien feeling in my legs. I turn on to singletrack climb. Steeper, rockier and requiring strong pushes and attention to maintain momentum. It would have been a pleasure if I was fresher. Grit teeth. Keep going. Why, oh, why did I decided to do this on the singlespeed? I struggle to stay on top of the gear. The trail joins fireroad, and my legs are able turn at a faster pace. I drink, take on a gel, spin my legs as fast as they will go, get passed by people cruising by. Where I can, I tuck in and grab their wheel for a while. At some stage, I am aware that my seatpost is slipping. My legs are becoming more and more cramped, unable to stretch to an efficient pedalling position. Stop, get passed. Re-adjust. Go!

Often, when the trail turns rougher, and back into the rocky singletrack, I am able to catch and pass people again, the higher gear forcing me to maintain momentum. Dig in. The Kinesis FF29 is so fantastically capable. Despite the tiredness, despite my mind being focussed on the race, it affords me moments of pure joy as I carve a corner, or manual through a rock section. It feels like a precision instrument. A scalpel cutting through the trail, rather than a chainsaw chewing it up.

After a long descent, the trail points straight up. The path, cut into the woods is steep, and unmade. In the interests of energy conservation and keeping cramp at bay, I dismount and push up, running where I can. My legs scream. I continue. I’m passed. I continue. Back down. Traversing. Descent. I sense the end. Another gel. Keep riding. Christ it is cold. I can’t feel my hands.

I run through the transition process in my mind. Park bike. Remove shoes. Replace running shoes. Leave. Quick.

Park bike. Remove shoes. I can’t feel the buckles, but no problem. Replace running shoes. Jam left foot in. Try and wriggle the heel cup up. I can’t feel anything, I can see my fingers are where they should be though, and eventually the shoes slides into place. Repeat the tortuous process on my right foot. Ignore the pangs of cramp in my abdominal muscles. Just try and relax. Stand up. Breathe. Go. I know what is to come. I hit the first climb, like a slow motion replay of my first lap. Gravity has grown stronger over the course of the last 90 minutes. My legs no longer have the power to push onwards. I simply move one in front of the other. Despite this, I am making up places. Onto the proper steep stuff. I can no longer maintain a run. Quick, long strides replace my shuffle, and still I progress. I can hear myself breathing. Gone is the controlled two breaths in, one breath out. It is replaced by a ragged sucking in of any available oxygen molecules in my vicinity. Groan.

Despite slower progress than the first lap, the climb seems to pass more quickly. I start descending, cautiously initially, but keen to keep those behind me at bay, and aware that others are not far in front of me. I will have nothing left when I cross the line. Powerful strides, quick paces, jumbled legs. This is no game of chess; I am not plotting a line, just the best place to plant my next foot strike. Reactive. Switch off head. I can hear the person in front of me. I am faster than him. I am gaining. I am running out of time. I will have nothing left when I cross the line.

I am a projectile shot out of the bottom of the trail, on to the track. He is in front of me. I can only hear my breathing. I’m sprinting. Not like at the start. There is no semblance of control, no reserve of energy. This is my last gasp. I’m alongside him. 20 metres to go. I accelerate.

I have nothing left when I cross the line.

It turns out I was racing for 15th place. This isn’t the glory of the podium. I’m not even that bothered that I came 15th instead of 16th. But, I absolutely had to feel like I had given everything. I would not have been satisfied if I sat up. I’d like to think that I would have sprinted as hard if there was no one in front. I had to give it everything. In the end I held Matt off – he finished about 6 minutes after me, after an over-the-bars on the bike stage robbed him some time. Still a strong effort, especially given a super-stiff gearing choice.

So, a few days down the line, I look back. I can pick points that I would like to have gone better. Yes, my transitions could have been a bit smoother. No, singlespeeding was not the fastest option. Yes, if I’d have checked my bike more thoroughly I might have noticed that my seatpost clamp wasn’t as tight as it should be. But, most importantly, I have learnt to give it everything in a shorter race. My ability to work at an intense level for a “short” (I know 2.5hrs isn’t short) length of time is improving. Ironically, I won’t be doing many short races for the rest of the year. But, it is nice to know I can.

Thank you as always to Kinesis for giving me a superb bike to race, and Garage Bikes for making sure it works and never let’s me down (and giving me the most visible kit on the start line!)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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…

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Pic credit to Stuart