Sunday, 28 February 2021

February BAM

Well, after some of the best snow we've had in a long while, this month I ended up going out on a weekend that was positively spring-like. I could have been bivvied in a snow hole at -10 but inevitably spent the snowy week (not very) firmly attached to the boards in order to make the most of what would very likely be the only skiing I'll be doing this season. But; what I did was probably the best Scottish ski touring I'd ever done. My local Ochills had caught a vast amount of snow, with enough wind to blow it into some very useful places.

1.5k run with 300m vertical. To be honest, even if I could have got up north I wouldn't have missed this. Compensation for turning 50....

The final run. Tree skiing in Scotland is a very rare occurrence as typically the snow only resides where there are no trees. Dropping through birch trees, in a foot of powder, in my local hills is, I suspect, a once in a lifetime experience

It disappeared as fast as it arrived but the weather last weekend was pretty grim so I took a chance on an optimistic forecast for the last weekend in February. And for once the weather delivered. I set off into a cool but fine day, clouds overhead but hints of a nice day in preparation. As usual I had a vague idea of a route but allowed whim to guide me as much as the map. Up through Blairadam, a quick decision to miss out Benarty hill in favour of the Lomonds as the trails showed hints of much drying. The downside was the long push out of Kinesswood and the cloud was down up top. But the trail was amazing - way drier than I'd expected.

Still some big snow patches around, even at 300m.

So a fab descent then straight up the flanks of West Lomond. The afternoon was wearing on and most people were away so this often busy place was deserted. Down to Falkland I met a few people finishing their walks but on the way across the Howe of Fife I had the place to myself. On a further whim I decided to find my way a bit more round Ladybank woods. Usually I just burn straight through, just picking up a few bits of singletrack. A bit of nosing found a whole network of single track, perfect in the drying conditions. How had I missed this before?! Road took me to Monimail then up into the hills again, this time the eastern Ochills, the lowest of my favourite bumps.

Looking north to the hills of Perthshire. Still a fair bit of snow in evidence but I doubt it will last out the restrictions keeping me away from them. Fair to say a large amount of frustration is in the offing. It's all very well the politicos telling us its nearly over but my naturally conservative (little c!) attitude fully expects this to drag and drag. All the more reason to get out and do normal things, as long as you follow the most important rule - stay the hell away from folk. Funnily enough I tend to do this anyway...

From here it was a fast descent then a bit more road work to Weddersbie forest. I'd thought of stopping here but it was only 6 and a full moon was rising so I figured on my original plan to get to Pitmedden. Typical. It was now dark and as I approached the turn off into the woods, a van which suddenly appeared behind me revealed it self as the Polis. Instant paranoia ensued however I already knew that they weren't remotely interested in people on their own, whatever they were doing, and there lack of a challenge (or in fact any acknowledgment whatsoever) confirmed this. Helicopters also failed to arrive as I ground up the last climb of the day, my way lit by an orange full moon.

My spot was a guess at a place I'd passed by and had a nosy at a few weeks previous. It turned out to be a gem - a level grassy area at the edge of the forest but sheltered in the event of any breeze.

Morning world. The dawn chorus had awoken me and its clear the birdies also think its spring as it was deafening. I had a leisurely breakfast then headed home via a fairly usual route out of the forest, picking up a couple of new trails near to Dalqueich.


Sunday, 31 January 2021

2021 Bivvy a Month

 Another year and another BAM. No specific goals this year other than to get out and bivvy. As everything is still up in the air I'm not even making any firm plans for the Summer at present. I've lots of ideas and all being well I'll be doing the Highland Trail in some shape or form. Other than that it will be my usual mix of opportunism and optimism.

So to January. I'd meant to go out last weekend but my beloved Ochills were plastered in snow so skiing was the order of the day. I had two days that can only be described as Alpine. In fact the winter so far has been decidedly Alpine - discreet days of snow (falling vertically!) mixed up in some stunning clear and still days. Its very rare we get such weather in Scotland - Only the winters of 2009/10 and 11 spring to mind. Usually we get more arctic weather and the inevitable Atlantic storms so this was very welcome. Of course I can't get anywhere near real mountains which is monumentally frustrating given that the March '20 lock down wrote off one of the best spring skiing seasons in years. All minor worries in the grand scheme of things just now but that's a consequence of living on your own and not getting out very much. Your perspective narrows to your own little world....


Ski where you want. I've never seen so many skiiers in my local hills - there was a skin track right across the plateau. The black dot just below and to the left of the pointy hill is my January 2020 bivvy spot.

So it was this weekend or bust but as it happened a forecasted change to milder and wet weather didn't happen and more cold temps were on the way. I ruminated on a destination but went for Devilla again as per last December and February. As noted in my washup of last year I won't be doing any back garden bivvies again. Living on my own allows me to form an extended household with friends or family which I last did at Christmas. So for this weekend I joined up with my old friend, the forest. 


Departure was at 6 but I should have left it for another hour. The trails were starting to firm up but there was still plenty of mud around. I took it very easy through this as spraying the bike in mud would turn it into a block of ice the following morning. I followed a varied route of trails and cycleway and headed for a spot that I'd scoped out last year. Its more open than my December spot but the dropping wind meant this wouldn't be an issue. It was -1 as I threw up the Deschutes and snuggled into my winter bag. Last January I was under my tree in the Ochills. I'd visited it last weekend and could have dug a snow hole in the drift behind it; but getting there would have been a labour of postholing through knee deep windslab. So instead I was in the lee of yet another isolated spruce on the edge of a denser plantation in the far reaches of Devilla, well off the beaten trail. Another pleasant evening followed heating and eating food, drinking a couple of cans and finishing off with a dram or three to ensure a good nights sleep.

Morning sun (its just visible behind the trees). I'd actually been woken up at 6 by the nearby silica sand quarry. Starting this early on a Sunday seems a bit keen, especially just now, so maybe the world still needs glass. Anyway distant clanking of machines, reversing horns and various other noises; as well as a helicopter flying past a couple of times; meant I wasn't getting any more sleep. So I lay back listening to owls, geese and other birdies, eventually making breakfast at 7.30, packed up and away before 9.

More trails and cycleway to Dollar and then up the hill and through Glen Quey. This confirmed that the hills would be off limits on the fatty for now. Below 300m there was barely a dusting but above there was around 6" of frozen crusty snow which would have been a 1psi job if it wasn't for a trampled slot over which I flew. Cheating, I know, but the final steep and off camber trails which had only been trampled by a few folk were challenge enough. Home for a late lunch and an afternoon snooze. Looks like there is plenty more winter to come so I suspect February will be a cold and snowy one as well. Now where's my snow shovel?

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

How Many Gears has that got Mister?

So said a small urchin somewhere back in 1989 eyeing up my bike

"18" I replied with maximum nonchalance. His jaw dropped and he was lost for words. I looked coolly into the distance and rode off.


That said I was always one step behind the times as 7 speed cassettes had just been announced. When 8 appeared I grudgingly moved to 7 and avoided 8 until 9 appeared. When the 8 speed stuff dried up I finally ditched my beloved XT thumbies for those weird under-bar shifter things. "27" I answered the next time a similar urchin asked the same question but this time I thought "thats far too many." A good few years later I made the jump to 10 sprockets but at the same time I ditched two chainrings up front so that was alright. 


This was a revelation. Front derailleurs have always been rubbish. Shimano tweaked them to a point where you could do a front shift without too much grief but it was still a mud trap and a cludge, mashing the chain into the next ring up leading to twisted chains, 'chainsuck' (remember that?!), chains jamming between rings and rings smashing into rocks. One by means only one gear shifter to worry about, one chainring, more ground clearance, less weight, less faff, less is more. Interestingly many old timers turned their noses up at this minimalism saying it was nothing but fashion. I recalled chatting to a cycle tourer in about 1988 whose trusty iron was sporting one, yes one (small) chainring. I asked: "but what about on downhills?"

"You just freewheel". Hmmm

Over the next few years all of my bikes lost their front ders and multiple rings. I lost nothing. I realised pretty quickly that the trick was to have a diddy wee chainring so you kept the important low gears and lost the irrelevant high gears. I didn't miss being able to keep pedaling at 45mph....

I was getting up hills and riding everything it was possible to ride. The chain never fell off, unlike when you ran a double or triple leaving you spinning madly and going nowhere. After a snowy / muddy / icy fat bike ride, my two-by die hard mate looked at my bike and his and the large build up of ice and mud jamming his wheel into the seat tube. The next day he removed his front der and 32T ring and has run 22- 12/36 ever after.


So I was sorted. Until 2015. I'd viewed single speed as an affectation which presented many more disadvantages than advantages. I read Aiden Harding and Ian Barrington's tales of their single speed rides round the Highland Trail in 2013 and just thought...."Why? you guys are just making it unnecessarily hard on yourselves!" But Tom Rowntree's winning ride in 2015 started to make me think. This is not an affectation, this is a conscious decision made by people who know their stuff. The only option I had was to try it. So I dragged out my old On One 29er which had horizontal drop outs, bought a cheap spacer kit, did some net research on gear ratios and lashed it all together.

Hmm. Riding round the village suggested that the recommended gear ratios were either: for flat areas, for people with considerably bigger quads than me, wrong. I took stock, and eyed up the Krampus. A bit of riding where I steadfastly didn't change gear led me to give it a better go and suss out a good gear. 32T up front and 21 out the back (1.5:1 ish) seemed to be my magic ratio. Some guy on the old fat bike forum told me "You'll be spinning like a crazed hamster in a wheel man!". I knew better. Gear for your favourite trails. Spinning like mad on the road didn't matter, just avoid roads.

So that winter I rode SS (man) and it ruled. level(ish) woodland trails were the best, no gear faffing, just pedal the bloody thing. Cleaning was easy. No gears to scrub, just give it a skoosh with the hose and you were good to go the next time.

Every Christmas I head down to my parents and always take at least one bike with me. For 2015 I took the Kramp, thinking the trails around home would be ideal for SS. On the way down I stopped off at Bowes (northern edge of the Yorkshire Dales) for a good long ride. This was the day after Storm Charley so everywhere was flooded but the forecast was for breezy sunshine. Breezy actually ended up as gale force but I carried on regardless.

Oh dear. From Bowes to the Tan Hill inn is about 6 miles of steady climbing on a back road, then a byway. This was straight into the teeth of said gale. I was on a good track barely climbing but I could only make progress with max effort stood up pedaling. Soon enough I was broken. At one point I got off and started pushing but this was ridiculous, I was on a flat track! So onward I struggled, the 6 miles taking over an hour of max effort pedaling. Thereafter the route went OK but I had another singlespeed moment later in the ride. I noted a couple of guys up ahead (climb up from Surrender bridge to Merry Field.) A few seconds later I blasted past them and their cursed granny gears. Later on I did end up pushing along a level track. This was back into the gale and I was too knackered to pedal on its sodden surface.



So I appreciated what SS was all about but I had no intention of making it a permanent feature of my riding, just something to use for local woods rides and through the winter. So why, a few years later, was I pulling sprockets, derailleur and shifter off the Jones and instead fitting a single sprocket and some nice shiny multi-coloured spacers from Velosolo. Partly this was down to having a further epiphany - the 2019 UK Singlespeed Championships held at Comrie Croft trail centre not too far away. I'd heard from a few veterans that it was a right laugh. I even persuaded my mate Rob to do it. The Kramp was obviously the ideal tool for these trails and what a laugh it was. Rob left the 22 tooth ring on his moonlander and fitted a 20 out back. This made me think as afterwards he said how he'd be
en able to get up all of the climbs without too much issue and had never felt the need to pedal much on the downhills. I too had got up the climbs but nearly crucified myself in the process. But all of these wicked looking SS bikes, including a guys green Jones plus, was making me think.


I'm grimacing, not smiling


Single speed perfection

The previous year I'd been dead set on fitting a Rohloff hub gear to the Jones. However, although Rohloff list a 148 spaced hub, SJS cycles, who are their main UK dealer, insisted that they would need my frame in order to correctly machine the torque arm. No amount of persuasion that I could do this myself changed this view (warranty reasons) and there was no way I was taking the bike to bits and sending my precious frame down to them. An email to Jeff himself about Rohloff fitting got a curious reply: "Don't bother, they aren't worth it, fit Sram eagle 1/12 instead; or, go single speed." Hmm...



Another reason was the forthcoming Highland Trail, which at that point (February 2020) was still on. I'd done it twice, failed it twice, all on gears. So why not do it single speed. The constantly varying pedaling position and having to walk quite a bit would give my knees and contact points an easier time, the bike would be a chunk lighter and there would be no chance of a derailleur / rock incident. This neatly edited from my memory my previous view of such an idea but I told myself I'd test the theory on a few long rides before finally committing. Of course events overtook things but being limited to local rides made single speed an ideal way to make the most of what I could do.


I'd already done one over-nighter so had experienced single speeding a loaded bike, albeit on a fairly short run. Over the months of Spring I did longer rides involving some big hills and eventually got out for a few more overnight trips. That said, when I was planning my tour up to Speyside over that summer on the Straggler, I figured gears would be a better bet given the distances I hoped to cover and the hills I would climb. The straggler had been singe speeded at the start of the previous winter and it too had been left like that during the lock down. This hadn't stopped me doing my 120 mile Trossachs bash but I felt gears would make my tour more relaxing. In the meantime I'd gone a step further and built up a fixed gear Surly Cross Check. I was now a true Single Speed convert.



And bore. A lot has been said about the pleasures of running single speed bikes of all types and as with everything to do with cycling many have waxed lyrical about it on various media forms. "Ultimate simplicity," "purity," "good for the soul," "spiritual cycling" etc. etc. ad nauseum. I'm largely resistant to such nonsense but some of it does ring true. In particular is the simplicity. No worrying about which gear you need to be in just aim it where you are going and pedal. Or push. Yes you do a lot of pushing; but as I'd been told, not as much as you might think. I thought that this would be what scuppers SS for me as I do like grinding up a nice techy climb. But so far I've not missed such things (or I do them on the fat bike which is keeping its gears) and as I'd hoped the varied pedaling and walking has done wonders for my dodgy knees.

That said, my top tip if you have read this and are thinking of giving single speed a go is to build up your core strength substantially. Since I did my back in a few years ago I've done a weekly pilates class and this has turned my scrawny middle into a rock solid torso. It's sorted my back problems and is a big help generally for all types of cycling (most pros do pilates type exercises). But for single speeding its nigh on essential. You are putting a lot of strain on your lower back, especially on those low cadence climbs. So having good core stability really helps to keep yourself in line and injury free. So far my back has only given out a few squeals of protest at heaving a bike up a hill at 20 rpm.....

Doing the Cairngorms loop was the ultimate test I suppose. As I noted in my tale of this route, what really impressed me was my performance through the famously nadgery Fords of Avon strath. I've always thought that the best way to ride such stuff is in a very low gear (it is to be fair) but turning a big gear seems to work as well. You need a bit more fore thought and prep, especially for getting up steps (eye up, line up, blast it) but I was getting through stuff I'd have never thought possible. That said its fair to say the gale that tormented me for the last 65k did show up its limitations.....


Finally downhill is where single speed shines. Having 500 grams less on your back wheel makes a huge difference when clattering down a rocky descent, hopping the wheel around is so much easier, the bike feels more responsive and there is no more banging and rattling of chain off chainstay.

Looking to the future I'm committed to doing the Highland Trail on single speed. I'm not sure when as the end of May group start is still up in the air but if this doesn't go ahead I may look to do an ITT later on. This feels like a rational decision and not just affectation but we'll see how it goes. Its been done a few times now by several people, including the irascible Javi Simon who currently holds the SS record time of 3 days and 21 hours, so I'm not the only one to think this is a good idea.

Whether single speed will be permanent 
on the Jones remains to be seen. The krampus definitely but the Jones may get its gears back at some point if I was to use it for a longer tour over a range of terrain - something it excels at - as gears will make such a thing much more relaxing. Also gears seem to be going the way of suspension in that more is seen as more. I don't want 12 or 13 sprockets, 6 or 7 would do, spaced over a typical 1x 11-46 range. Racing seems to be (as ever) leading development rather than simplicity despite the majority of people being bumblers not racers. Maybe I'll stick to a lower range of gears with a road derr to keep things nice and compact.... For now though 1x1 is serving my needs and when I see a hill, rock or bog, I'll just aim at it and pedal!

Monday, 28 December 2020

BAM 2020 Washup

Fair to say that when I snuggled into my winter bag underneath the lone sitka perched on the flanks of Tarmangie hill back in January, at the start of my 2020 BAM campaign, I'd no idea how the year would pan out. Looking back this was an auspicious start as it was (slightly) wintery, I was bivvy bag only, and yet I had a fine night only slightly spoiled by a non-functioning stove the next day (actually due to lack of petrol, something I have a long history with). I had no expectations of the year and no specific plans about the type of bivvies I wanted to do; as usual I would wing it. I was slightly miffed that I didn't go out on the weekend before lockdown as if I had, I would only have had to do one backyard bivvy. But overall I did pretty well, with only two in the garden and a couple of bivvies requiring a fairly loose interpretation of the 'restrictions.' I've pitched in a range of weather from freezing to scorching, dry to wet. A particular score is getting to grips with using a flat tarp for shelter. I tried it a few years ago but as I was trying to incorporate the bike into the pitch it seemed too much faff. Using a single pole has made it as easy to go up as the Deschutes, much more flexible in marginal sites and only a bit less weather proof. I also seem to have refined my kit and bivvy technique substantially over the year. The culmination of this was on the Cairngorms loop where I had a very minimalist set up but was able to set up a shelter that would protect me from the worst the weather could chuck at me, in double quick time. Nearly all of my bivvies (excepting the BYB's which I made up for) were as part of a proper ride, with only December being an out and back again.


So in terms of my overall 'score':-

Best Spot - Lubvan, Ardvericke. In fact best overall bivvy as I had a nice ride to the spot, spent a few hours relaxing and wandering around and had good food and drink to boot. I also had an ace ride the following day.



Most remote spot:- Camserney woods, Dull, Perthshire. Not that remote, in fact I've not really done a really wild bivvy and my Lubvan pitch is nearly as remote; but this one was probably the most off the beaten track.



Most relaxing bivvy:- May - First time out overnight post lockdown plus I had a full menu including drinks, a nice spot in the middle of a forest and fine weather.

Wildest weather:- Devilla Forest, February. Plenty of rain and overnight winds hit gale force briefly although my sheltered spot kept me well out of it...


Worst bivvy:- all relative but the full on midge event of my bivvy in Drumtochty Forest nearly made it the bivvy from hell. Good admin and kit (i.e. a mozzie net and smidge) meant I just about got away with it.


Best Bothy:- Dunalistair shooting hut. Not an official Bothy per se, as these were all shut; but a nice little shed well away from the usual haunts of bothy baggers.


Coldest and highest Bivvy:- January under the tree at 610m (higher than 2018!) - it went down to about -3 at one point so not that cold all in all.


Best trail ridden to and from a bivvy:- The Cairngorms loop (before it got windy!)


Best Morning View:- Lubvan again!



Best overall view:- ditto on the ride the next day.


Longest ride as part of a bivvy:- The Cairngorms loop (186 miles and 25 hours of riding).



Shortest ride to a bivvy:- round my back garden to BYB 2.



Most adept and faff free pitch:- Forest of Ae, October. It was nearly dark, the rain had let up for a very brief time but I had a good spot and despite more rain later I stayed dry. Flat tarp perfection!




In total I spent 14 nights out which is pretty good given how the year has gone; and only three less than my bumper year in 2018. Not wanting to come over all philosophical but this year really highlighted how incredibly relaxing it is to ride a bike with all your gear on it, pitch a shelter in a quiet and out of the way spot and lay back listening to the night's noises, knowing you are far removed from people, places and modern life. 

I'm in again next year starting with the Bearbones Winter event in a week and a bits time. Thereafter I will be out every month, rain, snow or shine. Whilst the back yard bivvies were a laugh, I've no inclination to do them again and will slip out to one of many local bivvy spots if restrictions remain in place as is likely for a few months at least. One of my other goals after 2018 was to have more social bivvies which wasn't an option for this year. Hopefully a few more with others next year, even if meet ups are accidental.... I'd also like to grab a proper snowy one but we'll see how the winter pans out.

Monday, 21 December 2020

December BAM

I'd a notion to do this one on the way down to Mum and Dad's for Christmas as per my successful 2018 campaign, but in the event I decided to keep it simple and finish with a local bivvy in Devilla Forest. In fact I was going to head for the spot I'd found back in February. In view of the short distance and the season, I took a half litre of mulled wine, a beer and some whisky to help pass the evening. On arrival at the general location of my pitch I could find no trace of the nice level area I'd found by accident in February. A fair bit of wandering round drew a blank but eventually I found a reasonable enough spot, albeit a bit lumpy. Still I got the deschutes up and into it just before the rain came on. So I had a pleasant evening listening to the wind in the trees, eating, drinking and reading. 




I found a level space between the tussocks so not as bad as it looks.

I woke to a still morning, still dark given that this was the longest night. Various birds regaled me as dawn slowly broke - swans, geese and ducks on the nearby Peppermill reservoir; a couple of barn owls hooting and screeching finally followed by the usual selection of small birdies. As per February, the ever present roar of Grangemouth was a background to all of this but I had a good nights sleep so I'm happy with this as my finale to what has been a very strange year. When I got back I compared GPX tracks and discovered I'd got within about 10 yds of my February pitch...

Tuesday, 8 December 2020

50 Words for Snow

Apparently its a myth that the Eskimos have 50 words for snow. When you add in the various dialects that make up 'Eskimo language' (bear in mind that 'Eskimos' comprise several different distinct cultures) there are either many more than this or many less, depending on whether you count nouns, verbs, tenses etc. etc. If you are into winter sports, particularly of the skiing and boarding variety then you'll know a few. As a rider of fat bikes I have plenty, many unrepeatable in a family friendly forum, so I think I need my own vocabulary as you tend to notice the differences in snow conditions much more acutely on a bike than if you are strapped to a long pair of planks (or one plank). I got my first fat bike in January 2012 but a rubbish winter meant it never got into the snow until the following year. At first I stuck to the low levels and had great fun riding my local woods in snow depths that stopped everyone else dead. Come November however I finally headed on high and got a crash course in Scottish snow conditions and their suitability for a bicycle.

This is actually a classic Ski tour. Start at the Glenshee car park, go up through the ski area to Meall Odhar and then right up onto Glas Maol at 1068m. Then tick off Cairn of Claise and Cairn an Tuirc then descend back to the road. Easy? The snow started at about 800m. Literally as below this height there was none and above it a surprising amount for a November day. Other than the gradients it was fine - generally low volumes and dry, given the sub zero temps. The fun started when I hit a large patch of wind blown snow and had my first experience of windslab. So called as the wind blows snow into a sheltered location but the continual blowing compacts the top layer until it forms a firm slab over the softer snow underneath. On steep slopes this gives rise to that worst case of winter scenarios, the avalanche. Above about 25 degrees the slab can break away from under your feet and start to slide taking the whole snow slope (and you) with it. Steeper than 45 degrees it doesn't tend to form and at less than 25 degrees it just becomes a pain in the backside, unless you are on skis. Sometimes it supports your weight, if its dense enough, often it doesn't and your feet (or wheels) punch through the slab and into the soft layer below. This makes for incredibly hard going and there is no way of knowing when you will break through and come to a halt. You hit a patch of windblown snow and at first start to ride across it in relative ease. Suddenly there would be a creaking crunch and you'd plunge through. There then follows much high energy pushing until your feet suddenly are supported again. You then hop back on and ride for a bit more (anything from 6 feet to a hundred yards) before 'creak, crunch' and you stop again.....


Winter 2014 saw huge snow volumes above 500m but little below and this only really white slush. I'd done a few low level rides through this resulting in a mix of snow and mud that has an amazing ability to jam your drive train solid. Snow on my local hills persuaded me to head up for a day to get away from the slush. This ended up being an epic as lower down the saturated snow had absolutely no traction whatsoever. Worse the big tyres floated over what a narrow spiky tyre would cut through so my first couple of miles ended up as a continual slither with me being more sideways than upright. On crossing 500m the snow levels went up dramatically and suddenly I was having to drag my bike through knee deep snow that had drifted over the trail. Three hours of maximum effort flailing was enough and down I went to dryer climes.


To this point, the ability of fat bikes to reach the parts that other bikes couldn't (and with ease) had mightily impressed me. It seemed ironic that the stuff they had been invented for was what was beating me. 
Of course on the Iditarod Trail, the Arrowhead and the other winter races, you were following snow-mobile trails, not trying to ride across virgin fields. That didn't stop me, towards the end of the year, from lusting after and eventually buying Surly's newly released Ice Cream Truck with the ability to take 5" wide tyres. As it happened we got a good amount of early season snow and the results this time were much better.



Winter 2015 was similar to the last year but I was now regularly venturing up into the Ochills and cashing in on the large amount of terrain above 500m. Many days saw me battling through some pretty impressive amounts of snow, including the aforementioned windslab. As I was training for the Highland Trail, this was all to the good. I also discovered that if you dropped tyre pressures down to the point where the inner tube was just filling the tyre (around 3psi), you could ride through stuff which previously had stopped me dead. More amusement was had when you emerged on a snow free, damp and mild Dollar main street, wheels full of snow. Most people here seem oblivious to the large lump of hills on their doorstep and the snow they can catch. 

One late season ride in particular stands out. I'd decided to do the minigaig pass in the Cairngorms and hadn't appreciated that there was still tons of snow on high. This was all old stuff that had multiply thawed then re-froze, consolidating it into a dense layer that would easily support you. The problem was traction. The top layer was melting in the sun and any slight uphill gradient resulted in the wheel spinning you to a stand still. Drop the tyres down to 3psi however and off you went, no probs. A normally hard route became a leisurely pedal linking vast fields of this super dense snow.

I ended the year in more early season snow up north. Conditions were also something of a Scottish speciality. Snow that was quite deep in sub zero temps (so dry and grippy) but over lying soggy and unfrozen terrain. Everytime you punched through the snow into the gunge below, your drive train got sprayed with mud which then froze solid. Cue much scraping, chipping and cursing.



Winter 2016 saw me going tubeless which allowed even lower tyre pressures - practically zero psi. I'd been watching vids of a guy from Germany riding through knee deep powder snow with the then prototype Vee snowshoe 2XL - an alleged 6" wide tyre. They were single ply and he was basically running them almost flat. The production version was narrower and thicker but running Bud and Lou at a similar pressure allowed riding through spectacularly deep snow and even the dreaded windslab could be ridden across well beyond the point that a walker would be punching through. I discovered a new joy - riding prophet like over the snow past beleaguered hill walkers post-holing along with looks of extreme misery.

In a way that's part of the problem - the more you can ride over this level of snow, the more you try. On a rare snow ride in 2017 (which was largely snow free) I ended up way up high in the hills, totally knackered and realising there was no way down without hours more of struggle. When I finally emerged onto Dollar Main street it was a different world with passers by looking at this snow covered wreck (i.e. me) with bemusement.

2018 was the clincher though. The season started at the end of 2017 and we got more snow in the first couple of weeks of December than we'd had all of the previous winter. The annual Scottish winter bivvy was the scene and ended up in a marathon effort (for the non fat bike riders) getting up 6 miles of snowy track. For me it was hard work but I pedaled all the way. I also got my first taste of arctic biking. It was -10 and I was following the track of a (tracked) argocat. This allowed easy pedaling over foot deep snow and got me thinking of those arctic fat bike races....

(Funnily enough the return leg of this bothy trip was in the traditional Scottish snow conditions known as porridge - saturated slush on which nothing gets any form of traction....)


January saw the first of several big dumps of snow. The hills were often inaccessible as there was just to much. I managed a couple of rides following well trodden trails up hill and powder surfing on the way down. 

I did discover another joy -  fat bike commuting. When all around were in a state of panic and traffic chaos ensued I pedaled through it all with no worries whatsoever. Bloody hard work though!


2019 was another rubbish winter but I had bigger fish to fry than my local hills. Finland. I'd entered the now well established Rovaniemi human powered race; the arctic beckoned. Ironically the conditions on the day of the race were more like Scotland - plus temps during the day and sub zeros over night. But suddenly I was on snow mobile trails with many other people on fat bikes and therefore in subjective heaven.



On the last day of 2019 I encountered yet another Scottish classic snow type - boiler plate. The fickle Scottish weather can produce snow conditions at any time of year that are generally only seen towards the end of the season in the alps and other high places. Wildly fluctuating temps in between some significant precipitation of both snow and rain had left the Cairngorm plateau covered in large areas of snow that had freeze/thawed to iron hardness. Fortunately the frozen solid snow surface was rough enough for grip. I've yet to try studded tyres and got paranoid on the way up that the whole plateau would be one big skating rink but in the event I was able to cross large areas of the famously boulder strewn landscape with ease.


So here we are at the end of 2020 and the winter has started with some fine pre-season snow. I got a fair mixture of snow with some great riding mixed with some incredibly hard going sections.



So by way of a finish, herewith my snow types as seen by a fat biker (there aren't fifty!)

"Normal" Snow, aka white slush, aka the end of the world:- Usually no more than three inches deep but it still brings the road network to a halt. Off-road this mixes with typical winter mud and sprays everywhere.

Scottish Powder:- Arrives horizontally and so is quite dense. 1psi allows you to go through this up to depths of around 12" but its like cycling with your brakes on up a 15 percent grade. In exposed locations can lead to.....

Windslab:- dense layer of snow overlying unspecified depths of Scottish powder. Has varying levels of support but all looks the same. Beware cycling up a scoured slope into remote hills only to find your descent is windslab central and even riding downhill is impossible.

Goldilocks Snow:- Neither too deep or too shallow, cold enough to be dry but not so cold you need arctic equipment. Actually quite common between about 300 and 600m and early season. Too much for a normal bike but a fat bike will blow through it without too much effort. Add in some minor drifting and it definitely provides the best laughs.

Boot filler. Like above but deeper:- up to a point you can ride through this if its fairly dry but this typically leads to the longest of pushes as depth increases with altitude. The trick is to find places where its been tracked by an argo or other tracked vehicle, or even a skier. The problem being when such tracks stop in the middle of nowhere and you end up ploughing through deep, un-rideable snow as you always think that continuing is easier than backtracking.

Real powder, aka fluffy bunnies, 'pow':- very, very rare in Scotland as it requires snowfall without wind, on frozen ground and in zub zero temps; an almost unheard of combination. Can be ridden through at quite amazing depths up and downhill.

Spring snow, aka boiler plate, aka neve (posh term):- worth finding, particularly if its in big patches across rough terrain, whereby riding it is one of the most uplifting experiences you will have. This can make the worst boulder field in the world a flat table over which you can ride anywhere. Covers burns, bogs, gorges and holes. Note - can collapse underneath you unexpectedly.

The Crust:- formed when the top layer of snow thaws then freezes. If its breakable, go home as trying to ride it makes pushing through windslab seem like riding a TT bike downhill. If its thick enough to support you then see Spring Snow. Note that the top surface can turn to sheet ice without any warning whatsoever.

Ice:- either snow that has thawed and frozen or open water that has frozen. If its sub zero then you'd be surprised how much grip you'll find on it with tyres at 3psi. If its melting and has a layer of surface water it will be absolutely lethal unless you have studs. Be particularly careful on untreated cycleways, tracks and minor roads, also next to corrie rims.

Porridge, aka crud, aka slush:- The other end of the spectrum and causes as much problems as ice. Has little grip and a surprising amount of resistance to ride through. Off camber trails covered in this stuff can be one of the most frustrating type to ride. No grip and a tendency for wheels to go all over the place. On a steep descent you will inevitably end up going face first at some point.

Sastrugi:- rare other than on the Cairngorm plateau in a good winter. Essentially extreme windslab - the wind blows the snow into ripples which harden under the wind pressure and can then build up to ridges and finally strange almost sculpted shapes up to a couple of feet high. They are iron hard so under no circumstances think you can plough through them.....

Postholes:- Any of the above after a load of hill walkers have been through. You'd be amazed at the difference footprints can make to how rideable snow is. Worst case is when they have frozen post formation - think riding across the worst potholes and rocks you can imagine. If there are enough they can trample out a slot which makes for easy riding in windslab, scottish powder and boot filler. But we owe it to ourselves to not take advantage of this and instead ride a virgin line off to one side of the path.....


One final bit of myth busting is the age old adage that snow is soft and will therefore provide a soft landing if you crash. It can in theory but in reality there are many other obstacles which can cause you any amount of pain once the snow has caused the crash. Some typical snow related crashes to watch out for.....

The face plant:- this ubiquitous mtb crash is the most common suffered on the steep and the deep. Windslab is a good source - you're surfing across the top of it down a nice hill, you build up speed and then it collapses under you. The bike stops dead and you keep going. Dropping below the freezing level on a big patch of spring snow can also cause spectacular OTB episodes. I did a beauty in March this year going down a steep rib of snow filling in a shallow burn line (I'd skied it the previous weekend) suddenly it collapsed under my front wheel which disappeared up to its axle. I went sailing over the bars and as the slope was around 30 degrees was suddenly about ten feet in the air (it felt like 20). Fortunately I landed on a steep slope and the snow was soft so injuries were minimal....

The washout:- usually occurs on wet snow / slush. You turn the bars and the front disappears faster than you can think. Next thing your face hits the deck. I did this on a road once when my front wheel strayed out of a clear wheel rut into wet snow. I managed to land on the other wheel rut (i.e hard tarmac) rather than soft snow in the verge. It hurt. Downhill is a particular problem on wet snow. The mechanics are usually that you realise your front wheel is going to go away from you just past the point that you can do anything about it. Best bet is to drop your butt groundwards in order to avoid another high flying OTB.

The stop. Your riding along, the snow is deep (any of the above), your front wheel suddenly shifts to one side and pitches the bike outwards. Next thing you are lying on your side - remember to make a snow angel.

The disappearing act. A variation on the above. You washout, the front wheel drops into a hole or you otherwise come to a halt. On putting a foot down it disappears into a posthole up to your thigh. The rest of your body quickly follows. Happens on deep windslab and on compacted snow mobile trails through deep powder snow if your foot goes down off the side of the trail....

Death by ice:- the worst of the lot. You hit a patch of wet ice and the whole bike just instantly de-materialises from underneath you. A variation is hard water ice covered by a thin layer of powder which serves as a perfect lubricant between your tyres and terra-firma. In either case the force with which you hit the deck is totally disproportionate to the distance fallen.....