Sunday, 15 June 2014

Fat Bike in the high hills

Well fairly high; just not as the high as the nearby Cairngorms...

Anyway, I went for a wee jaunt today on the Mukluk with the aim at tackling the least well known of the rights of way that head vaguely northish from the A9 in the vicinity of Pitlochry, Blair Atholl and Calvine towards the main lumps of the Cairngorms. There are four in all offering different degrees of challenge and rideability. The Gaik which runs from Dalnacardoch due north to near Kingussie is the easiest closely followed by Glen tilt which offers a long through route to Braemar. The Minigaig is a more serious challenge with a long length of single track requiring varied amounts of hike-a-bike depending on the ground conditions and your determination. I've done all of these at various times over the years as part of multi day trips and one day epics, but one that had always eluded me was Comyns Road or at least the main section between Calvine and the Gaik lodge.

Looking on the OS 50k map an estate track heads north from Clunes lodge (abt 3k up the cycleway from Calvine) up Glen Chrombaidhe. Where this track turns NE the ROW drops down to the burn by some old shielings and then strikes north up over a significant bump before dropping steeply into Alt Gharb Gaigh and out onto the main Gaick track just up from the lodge. The challenge being that a lot of it was pathless or at least the path looked vague and largely undefined. I'd never given it much thought but Fatbikes open up endless possibilities for routes such as this so at long last I was going to do it.

Driving up into the horizontal rain didn't fill me with confidence about tackling a large section of trackless wilderness over a featureless heather moor. Neither did my GPS going in the huff and eventually powering down with a dead battery despite it having been fully charged the day before - fecking things. But the weather cleared before Pitlochry and I brought a real map with me as a back up so there were no excuses. After easy riding up the track I stopped for an early lunch at the old shielings shown on the map  prior to tackling the main gig. The first section was OK with a clear argocat track following a reasonable line through the marshy ground and climbing easily but steadily. Heading up onto the main ridge the going got firmer but steeper eventually requiring a push for a few hundred meters before remounting to get to the summit of Sron a Chleirich.

Looking back down the first pathless section - in reality a good argocat track shows the way

The actual line of the ROW misses the summit and skirts round to the west but easy pedaling over the short heather encouraged me to keep on the ridge before rejoining the route where it dips down to cross a burn.

The line of the ROW clearly visible but hard going. I stayed higher on the ridge and avoided a fair bit of down then up

Another short push and I was back onto more great riding before dropping down significantly to cross another burn. This was the roughest terrain encountered so far - big tussocks and the beginnings of peat hags. The line of the path is actually quite clear - these routes were all drove roads for cattle and this is clearly evident looking at the wide strip of rough grass marking the line of the route, often benched into the hillside. I've no idea when cattle were last driven over this route but evidence of their passing still hasn't fully grown over even now. There is also minimal evidence of foot traffic - not many people use this route... A final push up to the top of Bac na Creig and a serious area of marshland and then it was downhill all the way to the Alt Gharb Ghaig.

Final summit...

The route is marked by the odd wee cairn but care is needed here as there are many false descents down to the burn line. The line of the route is just about discernible as a bench into the hillside keeping its height until the last plunge. This section is well steep and oddly shows signs of having been worked on - a few eroded waterbars were evident – but a lot of it was rideable, albeit on the brakes at walking speed.

Looking back its hard to see where I came down - its the upper most of the various vague lines you can see on the left hand side of the ravine and much clearer when your on it!

Once into the glen bottom there was a k of nadgery single track followed by easy riding on a grassy then stony track. I emerged into the main Gaick pass glen feeling like I’d conquered some major climb – in truth it was a lot easier than I’d allowed for and definitely worth doing again.

I’d vaguely thought of heading up Glen Tromie and then back over to Calvine via the Minigaig but it was 4pm and there was now a stiff north easterly breeze blowing down the gaik route. No contest. I’ve been doing some incredibly hard riding recently either due to distance, terrain, wind, pace or a combination of all of these so the prospect of doing the Gaik single track followed by the easy run down from Stron phadruig lodge with a generous tailwind seemed like some serious redemption. I’ve done the gaik a few times in recent years and its always been into a headwind – north or south. The singletrack section isn’t particularly difficult just a few wee rocky bits to keep you on your toes but on the fatbike with a tailwind and with plenty of life in my legs, it was a hoot. The final run down the estate track was a lazy cruise with the racket of bud and nate on gravel music to my ears. The tailwind continued down the few miles of tarmac on the cycle way back to the car. 

This kind of route is a big reason why I get fatbikes so much. I could have done this on a normal bike but it would have been a slog with far more pushing and carrying. This was the first time I’d tried my fat and a half set up on the Muk with a Bud wedged into the forks up front and my more usual nate out back. It works ace and kind of makes me wonder whether I need an ICT as the big front boot jacks the BB up a bit and kicks out the head angle as well – both criticisms of the original muk geo….

Monday, 2 June 2014

How not to do the Highland Trail

So the HT560 is coming to an end and I'm sorry to report I binned it after day 2. Mucho pissedoffo as I'd trained my baws of all winter and thought I was well capable of knocking it off. My failure was for a number of reasons but the following sumarises my learning points from this sorry debacle, just in case anybody else is fancying this madness next year....

1. Training - I knocked f*** out of myself since last November, starting from a pretty reasonable level. However training advice for a race involving 5/6 14-16 hour days over totally hardcore terrain is thin on the ground. The advice I found was mainly aimed at club stage racers. Still 5-7 hour rides on road and mountainbike at full gas should hone my endurance and stamina to a level plenty capable of the aforementioned? Yes and no. The problem I had was that the 'easy' pace I rode off at on day 1 wasn't easy enough. Overtaking the entire field should have been a clue.... Also I did tons of hill climbing but this just meant I stomped up the first 5 climbs of the route far too fast, whilst thinking I was cruising. Plus by the Sunday lunchtime my carefully toned quads just ended up being so much dead weight... See point 2. What I missed was lots of long 12-15 hour rides to learn a good easy pace that would last the distance.

2. Pace. Don't overtake the whole field on the first climb, including all of the race favourites. Even if I was capable of maintaining this pace for the whole event (some hope) its still a bad idea. In my defense my pace felt like a nice steady tempo which I would use on every climb and I didn't know who anybody was so didn't know I'd blasted past Phil Simcock on the climb out of Loch Tulla until we got to Fort Augustus (98 miles in 10 hours) and he told me I'd lead the race for 40 miles. Gulp..... If I 'd stopped for some proper food (see point 3) at KLL it would have made all the difference. In any event backing off would have meant I'd have finished yesterday. Keith Bremner also made it to F.A on Saturday but took 3 hours longer than me. He finished yesterday in 8th place - bloody well done!

3. Food. You don't need to carry 4 days of food in Scotland. There will always be a shop open, or a pub / hotel or something. I was paranoid about missing open shops on the northern loop, hence the 4 days of grub. If it looks like your gonna miss something you alter your pace so you don't. I reckon 1 full days food, some extra odds and ends and maybe emergency rations for say 1 more day which you top up if you use them. Also a constant diet of cereal bars, porridge oat bars, chocolate and horrible fecking gels don't work for more than 5 hours. I had a constant upset stomach from about Saturday lunchtime onwards until I got some decent scran in Contin which made me feel immediately better. For next year I'm going to really look into what food to take and eat.

4. Gear. I got this spot on. Fook bivvy bags and race kit, this is Scotland. I had all the right kit for surviving the miserable drookit day Sunday turned into (15 hours of rain, 130 miles) and was able to don full waterproofs and gaitors to keep me dry and to keep the resulting mud and filth out of my kit. Plus having a tent meant I could have got out of the rain and midges and still operated well the next day, had I not blown my legs up on day 1. On my feet I had goretex boots, seal skin socks and merino wool inner socks. Despite numerous dunkings on the flooded track over to Contin past Orrin Res my feet were warm and dry

5. Bike. Anything goes as long as your comfortable on it. It doesn't have to be bling as long as it all works. Its going to be totally wrecked by the end so don't worry about renewing everything before the race. My Kramp was nigh on perfect despite weighing in at 30lbs less kit. Where I went wrong was several changes to grips / bar ends etc. prior to the day. I should have spent much more time on this over long distances and probably just stuck with my extra thick super star grips. Instead I ended up with a pair of ergo grips which were utterly horrible. After day one they felt like 2 ill shaped blocks of wood and my hands were in agony. My left pinky is still numb. One thing I didn't have with me was spare brake pads. After I'd bailed and got back home I discovered the horrible noises coming from my front brake were due to the pads being down to the metal, despite being only a quarter worn before the start. 130 miles of gritty water will do that..

6. Attitude. However good you think you might be, its always worth taking it canny on your first race so you can prove how good you are (or not as the case may be). If things are going well you can always up the pace later on - you have 5-7 days to do this.... That said I'm glad I quit when I did as if I'd have pushed on I would have had a truly miserable experience which might have seriously affected my desire to try this again or in fact go anywhere near a bike again.

7. Planning. I thought I'd planned this thing to death but I got it completely wrong and in such a totally obvious way - I underestimated how long it would take (durr!) sections I thought would be easy - Strathglass to Contin being the worst case of this - took ages and knackered me mentally and physically as a result. I think you should work out a schedule then add a day to it as with point 6, if things go well you can up the pace later on in the race.

8. Why? Dunno really - I was looking for a challenge and this fitted the bill. Plus I would bag a large number of trails that have been on my to do list for several years. I like the low key organisation and the whole informal format. My plan was to do it once only and then look to other things but having failed dismally I'm very likely to try again next year as what I learned in the 210 miles of the route I did should immediately mean I'm better prepared already. We'll see, what I'm really looking forward to this summer is just doing some normal bikepacking and touring where I set my own route, pace and schedule with no need to stick to anything prescribed. I fully intend to do the norther bit and the Fisherfield and torridon sections this summer, midges or not.

9. Etiquette. Work out what the favourites look like before the race and don't burn past them on the first climb....

This was taken in ullapool on Monday morning after I'd jacked it. A minute later, eventual winner Phil Simcock rolled into town having done the whole northern loop in less than a day. His eventual finish time was 4 days, 1 hr 45mins. Bloody hell....