Monday, 21 July 2014

Cairngorms inner loop

So the plan was to do the Cairngorms loop adventure race as an Individual Time Trial, in order to qualify for next years Highland Trail. I'd hoped to leave Saturday am but a forecast of torrential downpours for much of the eastern Cairngorms along with the potential for thunderstorms kiboshed that idea. The forecast for Sunday into Monday looked better, particularly Monday so I decided a 24 hr delay was in order. OK to avoid undue suspense and drama I didn't do both loops, just the inner and an exit via glen Tilt. My main goal for this ride was to do the Bynack Stables to Glen derry path, the rest being optional depending on my level of arsedness. To avoid unnecessary weight and maximise fun I went without camping kit, only a cheapo bivvy bag for emergencies - ie I was looking to do the whole route in more or less a oner give or take the odd power nap. Given that the longest bike ride I've ever done was 190 miles on road, this presented something of a challenge hence the lack of determination to do the whole lot as the ride progressed. A poor nights sleep on Saturday didn't help either.

Ready for the off - poor old Krampus dragged out again!

The morning forecast of mist and drizzle was nowhere to be seen - the sun beat down and my decision not to bring sun cream suddenly seemed like a deal breaker... Oh well it won't last... At the inauspicious time of 9.48 am I hit the trail. The route starts at the Glen Tilt car park and heads north to the Gaik pass. I'll not go into the route details for a change but the single track up the Gaick showed signs of the previous days rain being by far the wettest I'd seen it this year.

In the Gaik

However over the watershed past the lodge the landscape became parched once again - it looked like Aviemore had missed the worst of the rain as forecast - a good sign for the route ahead. After various wrong turns through Inshriach and Rothiemurchus forest I got to the Glen more cafe for some much needed coffee and calories. I'm crap at following a line on a GPS as I tend to keep riding by the line of least resistance in a world of my own. This not helped by my sat maps extremely quiet beeps when you reach a turning...

The cafe had cairngorm ales on tap which I steadfastly avoided, instead fueled and rested I headed off into the depths of the Cairngorm massif. I and three friends did this route in 2007 as a circuit from Aviemore - we started at 7.30 am and took 14 hours to do the 60 mile route which we thought was pretty bloody impressive at the time. Now here I was starting it at 2.30pm which seemed madness given what I was about to tackle. I guess this was the point I knew I wasn't going to do the outer loop. My hands were already hurting despite only having done 50 miles or so of easy riding and the approaching trail seemed like a perfectly satisfactory challenge for a day ride.

The climb ahead - I remember this from my 2007 ride and knew it to be the biggest climb of the cairngorms loop. If you didn't know this route you'd be forgiven at this point for uttering the prayer of the adventure racer following someone elses GPX file - "Oh god where the f*** is he taking us!" There are plenty of opportunities for this in the next 20 odd miles...

The climb is steep but in general not hard. All of the path up to the shoulder of Bynack beg has been improved and the only challenge is hopping over the stone cross drains. I failed on a couple which had steps immediately after them, and was forced to push on one section with several steps but overall I was pleased with my riding. This boded well for what was to come. The first part of the descent is pure natural trail - in this case a wide-ish line of large bolders and ruts, all bone dry on this fine summers day. Confusingly after a spell it goes back to a made path before dumping you into a large wetland area at the head of Coire Odhar. On this day it was largely dry with barely a squelch from under tyre.

A wee tasty - this looks hard but you aint seen nothing yet. The trick is to jam it in your granny gear and to try to thread a line between the worst of the rocks. that said, some times hoisting over one large boulder is a way of avoiding several others. My riding was accompanied with the constant sound of knard scraping off rock. The granite hereabouts is incredibly grippy wet or dry but rather hard on tyres.

Onwards and upwards over the shoulder of Bynack more into the main event - a long strath actually comprising 2 watersheds and a valley but with no serious gradients - all praise glaciation. Interesting point for all you Geographers out there - you follow the first river upstream for a km to its source which is about 2k from the fords of Avon. However it flows the other way and joins the Avon at Tomitoul some 30k downstream - good eh? I paused to dunk my head in the river and wash out my lid. It was incredibly warm - 25 degrees at a guess and the sun was beating down. I was drinking constantly but still my head ached with dehydration and cramp kept hitting hands and legs suggesting salt and mineral deficiency....

What looked like a cluster of huts resolved itself into... a cluster of huts - a couple of guys were working on the path and this was their accommodation. Fortunately the work they were doing was all of the 'Light Touch' variety so no gargantuan cross drains, just some nice sections of path with the odd stone feature entirely in context with this boulder field maskerading as a path. This was also the scene of my first hike a bike - they were busy levering large rocks to make a stone causeway over a wet area but it was work in progress and my bike skills don't stretch to back wheel hopping... I got back on again but I knew that this would not be the last time I carried the bugger.

About 2k short of the fords of Avon the trail becomes utterly hardcore. The whole landscape is basically rock covered in rocks and the trail no exception. Suddenly my whole attention became focused on the ground in front of me, sussing out lines, hoisting the front wheel over boulders, moving my body around to counter balance an unwieldy bike determined to hit every rock in its path... fantastic! I have to say this is my favourite kind of riding and the whole reason for being here. It seems in recent years every trail worthy of the name has to 'flow' which in my book means its easy; the only challenge being to see how fast you can go and how high you can get over the jumps. This is fine (in moderation) but its only part of the picture that is mountainbiking and its easy to get suckered into the hype surrounding them. Tight, nadgery, techy trails are the antidote and this path was the creme de la creme of such riding. Of course its utterly knackering and the sweat was pouring off me but I was in seventh heaven. The odd times I did stop was to take in the amazing panorama of cairngorm mountains around me.

The fords of Avon at last and low enough to cross with barely wet boots - The 6km from the summit of the main climb had taken me nearly 2 hours...

There was a brief interlude of easier trail for a bit after the ford and then it was back into it

The Krampus was proving its worth but I'll be back with the fat bike as it would make such terrain a much easier prospect, or at least reduce the amount of bodily input into the riding. When I did this in 2007 I was on an Orange patriot with 6" of bounce at each end. I can't remember how much I rode of this back then but probably not any more than today, albeit in a bit more comfort.... Finally the last km before the col over to Glen Derry defeated me. The rocks suddenly became a lot bigger and the sections of smooth trail between them a lot smaller. I was happy with what I had achieved however and the pushing / carrying to get me to the top was done without much drama.

Looking back north to the Fords - only a few k but a lot of the best kind of hard work. Descending into Glen derry was the reward. In 2007 this path had just been done up and the water bars and cross drains were brutal but 7 years of erosion had softened the path with many sections reverting back to a natural rocky trail.

Looking up to Corrie Etchachan - another trail for another day. Should be doable from Linn of dee as a loop over to Fords of Avon, up into Loch Avon and then over a wee rise to the top of this. Now that would be hardcore!

The last section of trail to Derry lodge would be a blast if it wasn't for a series of huge dips with wheel (and face) destroying rock channels in the bottom. Fortunately most of these have neat little bypasses caused by years of cyclists gleefully ignoring NTS's anti bike policy (they still have a sign up at the Linn of dee car park telling cyclists not to ride on 'footpaths' aye right!) so you can ride through all of these, not at speed, but without the need to hop(!) The track out of Derry lodge was a blessed relief but it was clear that it had been seriously raining here and recently. I'd actually had a few sprinkles of rain coming out of Glen derry but the cause of all this rain wasn't clear - above it was cloudy but nothing too ominous. I stopped at the Linn of Dee for some serious calorie consumption. I'd been experimenting with different types of foods in recent rides and today was the turn of a new discovery - rice cakes - pretty good all in all particularly as a jam sandwich as the jam soaks in resulting in a satisfyingly gooey mess. Snack pork pies also featured heavily in my repetoire along with my latest favourite energy generator, the humble banana. I'd managed to keep this one in reasonable shape despite several hours of battering and it went down a treat.

This was also the point I finally decided to miss the outer loop. My legs were good and I knew I had the energy (and food) to get to Aviemore and its 24hr petrol station. However my sore hands (and derriere) were of greater concern. Carrying on would require serious pain management and the prospect of long term damage to nerves in my hands. I'd thought my current set up of high(er) bars and thick grips would sort the problems I had with my hands on the Highland trail but in fact they had started hurting long before I hit the serious rough stuff. This was a problem for another solution, another day and wrecking them today for the sake of a technically easy but physically demanding 120 miles seemed stupid. There would be time yet to knock off the whole route in a more reasonable 2 and a half days to qualify for an official time and a ticket into the highland trail.

Riding out down Glen Tilt in the evening sun seemed a far more pleasing way to end what had been the best days biking I'd done for many a year. The only thing that would change my mind was the Geldie burn being an un-fordable raging torrent but it was low enough to cross without incident or wet feet (aside - whilst crossing a tiny wee burn somewhere before the fords of Avon, my foot slipped and dunked my left leg in above both goretex boots and sealskin socks resulting in wet tootsies - hey ho)

Flat, smooth and fast. This is one of my favourite places in the Cairngorms / Scotland / UK - hard to say why, something to do with the vastness of the landscape with hills on all sides and little evidence of civilisation. That and the various routes leading away from it into places both wild and extreme.

A large rain cloud was passing to my right over the Geldie, further justifying my decision to head home. I did catch the tail end of it however but the short lived deluge of hail and rain just served to cool me down to a tolerable level. The only downside was the effect it had on the single track in the upper Glen Tilt. Its an ace descent with plenty of rocks and rock to keep you on your toes but these are of the slippy when wet variety which makes an unplanned excursion into the deepening abyss to your left as you descend all the more likely. Furthermore there were frogs all over the path, obviously brought out by the rain shower after such a scorching day, and I was determined to avoid them. That morning riding out of Glen Tromie I'd been about to ride over what I thought was a twig when it suddenly moved. A desperate hop meant I just skimmed the slow worm that had been basking in the sun which wriggled off hissing curses at all cyclists no doubt but I feel terribly guilty about mowing down wildlife at the best of times hence the need for me to avoid wholesale frog squashing.

A last look back at the rain storm that would have been making my traverse of the geldie / feshie watershed rather damp.

And looking ahead down a sun drenched Glen Tilt. The single track passed without incident (or squashed frogs I hope) and soon it was the usual transition of rocky trail to easy trail to rough track to easy track, all with a gradual descent to Blair Atholl. I got back to the car at 8.48pm, exactly 11 hours and 90 miles after leaving and was happy to drive home and finish a fabulous day with a large glass of whisky. It don't get much better than t

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Touring to The Tour

I took a few days off last week to head down to Yorkshire to see the first stage of the Tour de France. I'd planned this a while ago as a relaxing recovery ride after the Highland trail and at one point I was going to continue on into Belgium. In the event I rode to yorkshire in back in 6 days with one day spent sat on a hillside waiting for a bunch of blokes on road bikes to fly past....

My route down involved training it to Paisley via Glasgow and then down NCN 7 to Ayr, cut across to Galloway forest and doss down in the trees somewhere. Thereafter it would be a leisurely ride east then South to the (hopefully) sunny Dales.

Arriving in Glasgow Central I noted a train leaving for Ayr in 5 minutes - hmm cheat time? Instead I got the slow train to Paisley canal as it finished right on the cycleway. NCN 7 follows an old railway line for around 20 odd miles. This was meant as a bit of memory laning for me as the last time I was here was in '99 when I worked for Sustrans. I spent a lot of time on this route doing upgrades, bridge repairs and putting sculptures in so it was nice to see how it was looking 15 years later. There were tons of folk on it - all ages and bike types.

This thing was a total nightmare to erect - I was young and stupid in those days and trying to co-ordinate a crane and two excavators to get it in place was a bit of a challenge. Its supposed to represent the northern lights...

After Glengarnock your on road down to Kilwinning and then its a mix of cycleway and back streets down to Ayr. The route gets a bit convoluted in places but its better than the A78. I came down this way on a bike tour in '92 before the cycleway was put in and ended up on said A78 - total nightmare! In a couple of places I did take a few on road short cuts just to chop a couple of k off my run. Ayr sea front was mobbed - I had chips but forgot the mandatory food photo - sorry...

From Ayr NCN 7 heads up over the heads of Ayr in a big loop south so I headed on a more direct route to Maybole. This was the end of the flat riding and the road climbed in earnest. Maybole provided food for the night and a couple of much needed bananas and then it was climb, climb, climb out of Crosshill. This is quite a bump - in fact 2 bumps as you go up to  340 m, down to 145 and then back up to 345m.

Looking up to the Nick of the Balloch - 345m

As per the rain arrived at the start of this climb but I didn't need to put waterproofs on until the way down to Glentrool when the rain came down in sheets. It eased off as I went alongside Lochtrool and stopped as the road ran out and became an easy track. This is signed as NCN7 with a dire warning about needing a mountainbike and all manner of kit to survive but the fargo handled it with ease. In '98 I lead a team of volunteers to build a path from the bottom of this track along the line of the Southern upland way. All I remember is the horrendous midges, the hassle getting plant and materials as you were so far away from everywhere and continuous rain all week....

Climbing out of Glentrool over to Loch Dee.

The rain kept coming and going, albeit fairly lightly but worse, the midges were horrific - every time you stopped they materialised instantly. I'd say that Galloway midges are actually worse than their west highland cousins - maybe its due to there being less victims to feed on around here. Just over the hill from Glen Trool I'd sussed out a bothy on the MBA site - White Laggan. I suspected it would be full of folk doing the Southern upland way on this damp evening but lo and behold, it was empty. I could have gone on as it was only 6pm put the rain and midges made up my mind. No wet tent to manage and the ability to hang up damp kit and have a relaxing evening reading and eating. Total distance for the day was 90 miles.

Thursday dawned with the forecasted sun shining and much mist rising off the hills.

Loch Dee, blue sky and sun.

I cruised down to Clatteringshaws loch and tarmac, made a quick diversion to the visitor centre for some ablutions and then headed south east along the Raiders Road forest drive. All day Wednesday I'd had a head wind but now heading east it was giving me a gentle but welcome helping hand. The raiders road was super smooth gravel. At this time there was no other traffic on it and I made rapid progress to Loch Ken. You can follow estate roads and then an easy track through the RSPB reserve and the bottom of the Loch, then pick up a wee road which avoids the A762. This was followed by a couple of B roads, one short but extremely unpleasant section of the A75 (turning right across a busy trunk road with a climbing lane in the other direction and no central island...) and then I was back onto NCN 7 along the old A77 (and old military road) which is now a quiet C road that undulates gently toward Dumfries. Dumfries provided food courtesy of Greggs and a tin of gas courtesy of halfords. Thereafter it was more C and B roads along the Solway Firth to Gretna via Annan. Into Englandshire then more wee roads and one A road to Brampton. This had been one of my possible places for a camp but it was only 4.30 so I settled for a cuppa and an incredibly good scone with jam and cream, bought food for tea and then spun gently up the hill heading due south. This area between the M6 and the North pennines has a network of B, C and U roads which I've explored extensively on a motorbike so it was nice to be pedalling gently along them in the early evening sun. I'd sussed out a campsite from Cool Camping about 15 miles south of Brampton and this seemed a good place to stop. As I headed through the village of Kirkoswald I spotted a fine looking pub with benches outside - there followed a screech of brakes then refreshment!

There was a lot of chat in the pub about where people were going to watch the race - from normal people!

1 mile later and I pulled into Mains Farm campsite. It also had a bunkhouse and did baggage transport along the nearby C2C route. As I was eating tea a bunch of guys appeared on road bikes - they had cycled down the A7 from Edinburgh to here in one day - pretty good going as its about 125 miles and they had headwinds all the way. The next day they were heading for Leeds to see the grand depart - nice one. For me the total distance was 101 miles.

Friday dawned overcast with rain clearly coming. I got packed up dry but it started as soon as I set out. Only 50 miles to do today to the town of Hawes in Wensleydale but I knew I would have to fight for it. Soon it was lashing down with a strong headwind - head down and pedal. The good news was that I was staying in my folks static caravan in the town so at least I would have a dry night. After 3 hours of this the weather cleared and the sun came out for the last few miles. There were signs of the race everywhere and loads of cyclists out. Cars were giving me a wide berth and thumbs up signs and the town was mobbed with thousands of bikes and people - fantastic!

On the hillside above the Cote du Buttertubs (honestly, I ask you!)

I'd just got into my luxury digs when the heavens opened once more. It lashed it down non stop until the early hours of the morning. The forecast for Saturday was good but I had my doubts... In the event it dawned warm and sunny. The buttertubs road was already filling up with people so I got my gear together sharpish and headed up there. Rather than take the easy way up the road I followed a Byway / bridleway I knew to avoid the crowds and bring me out near the top of the road climb

Apparently you can go mountainbiking on a fargo

After much waiting, several hundred cars and bikes, the bizareness of the caravan and various team cars, the race arrived...


Jens Voight - age 42 and smashing 'em up the hill - star!

Cavs backside heading out of shot...

'Oh my legs hurting, give me medical attention!' hitching a lift up the hill is allowed apparently

From Jens going through until the broom wagon went by was about 10 minutes, after a 4 hour wait. It was well worth it though. The town was still buzzing until the wee hours, so I soaked up the atmosphere and a few beers while it lasted. Sunday was 45 miles of easy riding up to my folks near Darlington. For forms sake I road over the butter tubs road (fully loaded I kicked numerous roadie ass up it) to Swaledale. I was amazed at the number of campsites along the road set up just for the tour. Also loads of cyclists and people giving me thumbs up and smiles. All cars that passed me gave me loads of room a fair few gave thumbs up and waves - I wonder how long this will last....

Spent some QT with the folks then rode up to Kielder on Monday via the old waggon ways linking Bishop Auckland to Durham and Consett - 28 miles of continuous off road on a mix of tar and dust cycleways. I finished with the lakeside path round Kielder water and pitched up at the Kielder campsite after another 90 miler.

Funky bridge on the Kielder path.

Tuesday dawned  to the unwelcome sound of heavy rain, contrary to the last forecast I'd seen. It kept easing off to allow the midges a go at me (Kielder midges are also nasty) but looked set in. No messing about I just got my head down and rode. It cleared up after Hawick so I had sunshine heading through Edinburgh and got home just before the rain clouds came back in. Mileage for this day, 100!

So in total I did about 500 miles. The fargo was brilliant - comfy for long hours in the saddle and just at home on forest tracks as tarmac. The wtb nanos also seemed the ideal tyre for this kind of riding. I was carrying kit in my now usual bikepacking set up of frame bag, bar harness and saddle bag and it worked great. I was surprised at the number of people checking the set up out and a fair few folk asked me about it having never seen anything like it before. I tend to think this set up is common these days but it seems we are still niche...