Monday, 20 June 2016

Audax Out, Tour Back

I was lined up in an ultra-marathon supporting role this Saturday, for a friend racing in Snowdonia. However, due to unavoidable circumstances, his race never started and thus neither did my feed station duties. Suddenly I was in possession of a three day weekend, all to myself, as the other-half disappeared off on a lads weekend to watch the Motocross GP. Boyz only, no wimmins, they spoil the fun. 

Good job I am perfectly content in my own company, and, in fact, was pretty happy with the entire turn of events. A plan was quickly scrabbled together. Get the 200 km Audax done for June with a DIY route to Mum's, stay the night there, then tour back at leisure. The return journey had no plans in place at all; no distance expectation, no route and no firm location for the overnight bivvy. 

The Audax route was an easy 200 km, with only about 1400 meters of elevation as it wasn't clear how I would cope with the weight of the luggage on the bike. I did not travel light. 

As it turned out, I was a little dumbfounded how easily the bike rolled with so much weight on the back. I suspected the 'flat effect' played a part as I am just used to tough hills, but still, it was like an oil tanker. Once up to speed it felt like the bike just kept on rolling, not at turbo speed, but a steady effortless trajectory. Past hedges, hedges and more hedges. The route was quaint, but, in all honesty, you don't see a lot in the summer months on flat roads, other than, well, those bleedin hedges. I was so excited to see a field through wire fencing I had to stop and take a photo! 

To be fair, the scenery wasn't that bad, I had mixed it up as much as possible and some urban higgldypiggldy cycleroutes dropped the average speed but upped the interest significantly once in the Gloucester-Cheltenham conurbation. Criss-crossing the M5 never got old, even after the tenth time. Bridges always make me smile.  

I also had a smug sense of satisfaction knowing I was self sufficient. Such a strange feeling, to know, if I wanted to, I could literally disappear off into the unknown. Work wouldn't be too happy of course, but the feeling of freedom is everything. Knowing you have the choice to leave the rat-run is normally the best way to realise that, in fact, being in a good job with all the luxury it brings is exactly where you want to be......(to fund your expensive bike habit).

Tea duties fell to the Jetboil as I sat listening to a radio documentary through the cleaner's open van window. An extended complex review of the nationalism that led to the formation of Nazi Germany was a rather surreal soundtrack as I sipped Earl Grey with the English flag by my head. Large scale war and unrest, spreading far right views to counter religious ideologies, it seems these things are unavoidable side-effects of human nature, and they increase in scale concurrent with globalization.

Everyone should probably just sit down and have a cuppa. It makes everything feel better.  

Not that I needed to feel better. I felt positively great. The miles just ticked off easily and before I knew I was 30 km from Mum's. Short of water though, and I pondered stopping, but the skies were threatening. It was time to actually do a little endurance training and push through dehydration. It's all good suffrin. My pace slowed as my mouth dried, but it was no doubt just psychological. Audax teaches me one thing, and that is tolerance of discomfort. Dehydration is the worst of all.

Of course it was hardly the Marathon Des Sables and before I knew it I was rehydrated, sat in the bath at mums as the loudest thunderstorm hit. Mum shouted 'I bet you're glad your not out in this' and I smiled knowing she was right, and there was a reason I had pushed on for those last few kilometers and ignored the corner shop in Sharpness.

After a relaxing evening, comfy bed and steady morning I was back on the road and ready for some proper adventure. No pink line to follow, no plans, just head in a general northerly direction, do as I please and find a nice place to camp. 

First things first though, visit a camp shop, obtain some cheap Jetboil fuel, half pound of strawberries and some purple sprouting broccoli to throw in the evening's cookpot. Why? Why not! I was still in the amazed-stage of how easy it was to handle the weight of the bike, so why not add some more comforts. Touring mode had begun in earnest and it never stopped. 

Over the next flat 20 kilometers I sipped coffee, took photos, stopped to take clothing off, take more photos and got excited watching the pivoting road bridges over the canals. No discomfort now, just total relaxation.

I trundled alongside the Severn, diverting the long way round to avoid catching a large group of very steady female riders. I'd either have to sit behind at a pace I wasn't comfortable with, overtake and possibly offend, or gatecrash. I was tempted by the gatecrash and chat option, but in the end avoidance prevailed.

I doubt they would have ridden my route in the end anyway. Despite the major puncture paranoia (I have no idea how to get the wheel out with the rear rack on there...yet) the skinny towpath seemed like too much fun to resist.

It was much more challenging than expected, with the lightweight front end waggling in the narrow singletrack and the heavy rear end hanging up in potholes and puddles. There was quite some concentration going on, as I really didn't fancy ending up in the canal!

Storm clouds brewed as I got hungry but I plodded on until I was in view of the big-blue-bridge. It was good to know it was close enough to make a dash for shelter if a torrential downpour started, but other than a little spit-spot, nothing happened to interrupt eating of veggie sausage and tomato sandwiches. Mum's are great, aren't they? I think most of us value them more and more as we get older, and they age along with us. Mine is now 83 year young, but still active and fully independent.

After feeding crusts to the seagulls, and watching a pair of swans and their five cignet brood trundle past before diverting intelligently well in advance of an oncoming narrowboat, the journey continued on the, now wide and gravelled, cycleroute, Through Gloucester Docks. Past the empty, soulless shells of fire damaged buildings, cargo barges and into the hustle and bustle of shoppers walking through the pedestrianised Quays.

The sleek stone and polished surfacing of the shopping plaza didn't last and I was soon directed across historic cobbles and into a network of muddy purpose built 'cycleroute'. Trails that would justify a mountainbike, as they weave between the canal, city and river.

Once through the urbanisation and into the lanes of Newent, an executive decision had to be made. Find some hills immediately, see some views, and see how the weighted bike climbed.

Well, by immediately, I mean after drinking two full Jetboil's of Earl Grey tea sat on a step, watching a tiny rabbit nervously grazing with constantly twitching ears. It seemed he was listening unsuccessfully for the stranger he couldn't see. The tea was made with water from a strangely unlocked church hall; sparkily clean, with working facilities. The small porch penciled it in for late night cubby if the weather turned.

A road mirror selfie, just because.

Sitting around had been much fun, but I was having to be frugal with my reading. Not many pages left in the book I was carrying after getting a little too absorbed in yet-another circumnavigation account the day before. The situation had an easy solution, ride to Newent and pick up something else from the mad-cat-women's rescue. Actually I'm sure the lady serving was perfectly sane and not mad at all, probably. For 80p the reading material (and my increasingly heavy panniers) was substantiated with...yet another trans-siberian crossing. It may soon be time to expand my horizons on the literature front, there can't be many more Russian travel logs left, can there?

From Newent I found another motorway to cross and noted and expansive selection of potential bivvy spots in Dymock Woods. If all else failed, I'd surely find something there without a massive muddy trek from the road. It is definitely easy to find secluded spots with an off-road suited bike.

Then some proper uppy-downy stuff started. The kind of riding I know and love, and I still loved it, even with the weight dragging behind, the satisfaction of topping out and seeing views well beyond the limitations of hedges was utter bliss.

It's nice not being scared of climbing. Sure, them hills sometimes hurt, but they always pay back in reward.

Hills do, however, use resources a lot more than pootling along on the flat. The day before, riding that 200 km, I can't remember getting out of breath, and only needed a 6 biscuits, a few sweets and three little chocolate snowmen. Hills tho. Hills are something else. Booooom, glycogen use, calorie deficit and time for a sit down to finish those sausage sandwiches and chill in the warm sunshine.

Time was ticking away, the afternoon aging to evening and my hopes of camping on the common dashed when it was evident that the rough grass stayed waterlogged. I could've backtrack to some of the earlier options, but instead drifted aimlessly toward the river, stopping to buy lentil salad and pretzels before finding myself stomping up a really stiff climb on the way to sit and eat it.

At the summit was another cyclist, and we got chatting, about that climb, the lanes, bikes, bike technology, downhill, Le Tour....cycling really does bring people of all backgrounds together under a common banner and it's nice to feel part of a community. We wished each other a good journey as he left to continue his, and I waited out mine for five minutes longer, taking in the view from the top.

After a long rolling descent, a hidden gateway to a disused track caught my eye. Heavily overgrown, definitely workable, it was filed in amongst all the other 'potential spots' as I gave in to my Starbucks weakness and headed over to the cafe in the evening sun.

Other brilliant camp spots were eyed on the way, but all were on 'estate' land, and the chances of being moved on seemed high. I pondered the potential of this, and how the hell a dead canary ended up in the middle of a cyclepath, as I drank some sort of vastly-overpriced liquid ambrosia, with only a slight tinge of guilt that my self sufficiency didn't stretch to resisting cool lime refreshers.

The phone charged in the cafe sockets as I read, feet up, an eye half on the book, and half on the bike resting the opposite side of the window. It felt like I was waiting for something, and not just a thief to try and grab the bike. Once that drink was gone I was ready to be too, and headed straight back to my perfect pitch.

Checking first, for ground nesting birds and other wildlife, I flattened a small area of the scrub to make a level support for the mat, made good use of the wire fence to attach the tarp and dug out the Jetboil for food. Tarp erection, sounds easy, but in fact it turned into a bit of a mission to try and get some sitting upright space, maximise floor space and not loose the tiny titanium tent pegs amongst the long grass. I only spent 10 minutes looking for them. Or maybe 20....

It was a nice place to sit and read, eating couscous and drinking smokey tea. Comfy even, until I noticed I was on cold ground.

Oh. That is not a good feeling. 'Maybe it's the valve come loose?' Tighten valve, puff puff puff......hissssss. 'Nope, definitely a puncture'. 'Or maybe several?' Was it thistles in the grass I had flattened? Bramble? Who knows. Inspection luckily revealed just one hole and, totally out of character, there was no panic from me, just a calm consideration of the situation. I figured I may as well try a puncture repair patch, for the Syncros ones work extremely well on inner tubes. Sure enough, it sealed the leak completely and the repair lasted all night. Lesson learned, Alpkit mats are much more vulnerable than I had realised, and repair options will be required in future.

The night was a little restless to start with, I was too warm, despite having just the OMM 1.6 unrated bag and sleeping in a thin riding top. I woke up later, a little chilly, but not awake enough to realise that putting on some of the extensive volume of coats, long sleeved tops and socks I had overpacked would solve the problem. Instead I drifted in and out of sleep for a while, having nightmares about ripping sleeping bags and being hassled by locals. 

Eventually I dragged myself out of bed, put on some warm clothes and went properly back to sleep. Another lesson learned. If it's a clear night and I'm running hot when I got to sleep, I'll have extra clothing with me in the bivvy to put on if I chill. 

I woke up properly at 4:40 am as a skein of Canadian geese cackled loudly, flying just a meter or so above the pitch. Songbirds sung, phesants yaddered and somewhere, I swear, was a resident peacock. A decent night's sleep overall I thought, having been out for the count not long after 9 pm. Time to make tea, drink tea, read a bit.....

....get a tired looking selfie.....

.....look at the sunrise.....

.....appreciate the beauty of the flowering grasses against the pink sky.....

..and then?  Promptly fall back to sleep in a proper deep sleep to awaken again to cloudy skies, more tea and a steady 50 km pootle home. I let my pigeon sense direct me, and it worked wonders, finding new lanes in an area thought I knew every contour.

More pointless but amusing road-mirror photography. I have no idea why I find these things so satisfying. It's almost like they are a portal into a parallel life, or a reminder that I am exactly where I want to be

Some of my favourite local lanes pass through the sandstone bedrock of the Ketford-Bromsberrow area, 3 meter high walls of weathered sandstone cuttings, ancient routes now tarmacked and tunnel-like with the overarching vegetation.

The morning's ride was over before I knew it. Tempting though it was to ignore the forecast and keep riding, I knew the real world was calling me back and it was time to unpack. Still, this little baby was waiting for me as I arrived home, a refurbished Brooks Cambium C15 that I picked up for a good price this week.  It was a welcome reminder that the proper bivvy bike will be here soon and that longer adventures will also soon be in the post.

Thursday, 16 June 2016


Monday, started in an overwhelming haze of mindbuzz. There was so much to get through in the digital work world as I sat fidgety and restless, watching the remote IT guy work on my machine. The weight of the to-do list was heavy, as was my heart.

Until I remembered the blissful insignificance of these matters last week, spent laughing, riding and taking stock in the Highlands with Steve. He's insane, and I love him for it!

We had such a wonderful break.

Of course it wasn't all plain sailing. After a Friday evening watching the dumbfounding tricks of the Nitro Circus tour, we decided on a midnight drive and thus avoid the horrors of the M5 and M6 motorway daytime traffic.

It was a great idea in principle but, even with the four hours sleep at a truck stop, I was exhausted for the Saturday. A whole week of rushing around to pack and prep had taken its toll. It was obvious how much when I struggled to find the energy to lap a normally fun and flowy trail centre. I felt bad. Physically overheating and exhausted and mentally stressed, concerned the exhaustion would last the entire trip.

It's times like that, that really reveal the depth of a good relationship. Steve, like always, was happy to wait, and we sat in the grass at the top of a climb chilling as I finally started to remember it was a holiday, and there were no deadlines. He made me smile and so did the trails.

By the end of our visit to Mabie we'd had the immense privilege to see a wild Golden Eagle, and the de-tune had begun.

A steady drive through the Highlands to Fort William followed. In a last minute moment of 'glamping' sensibility I had booked the van into the wonderful Glen Nevis campsite. It was not the availability of showers, easy access to clean running water and free WiFi to watch Isle of Man TT footage that made the decision, although these were indeed very beneficial side effects. No, it was the panic brought about when I realised the very reason we were heading up, the downhill mountain bike world cup, would be the same reason for thousands of others. The competition for free overnight parking would be high.

So our plans to rough-it were transformed, and I admit I smiled with contentment as we drove into our reserved pitch, past the 'no vacancies ' signage and the mass of tents, and bikes.

We really came up trumps on the Sunday. World Cup day. I had told Steve I really needed a full nights sleep to catch up with myself so we didn't set an alarm. It was still cool and quiet when I woke up, laying in the van. Figuring it must still be early (as there was no ruckus of the masses heading to watch the racing)  I asked Steve what the time was. 10:30 am....seems I slept right through that ruckus!

It had been a 12 hour sleep. Much needed, but there was racing to get to and we weren't sure we'd make it in time.

We made it, in perfect time to watch the start of the ladies race, and found some great view points in the shade of the hill. It was an amazing day, dry as a bone as the top pros tore down the hill, focused only on those extra few seconds that make them better than their rivals. This is Rachel Atherton, without a doubt, the very best female downhiller in the world right now, on her way to a ninth consecutive win at world cup level.

So much talent, so much skill and so great to watch the pros. Stitching together complicated line choices and hitting warp speed before landing in the arena entertaining the masses of spectators.

I spent the entire day trying to get the best out of my TG4 compact camera. Of course it's never going to produce SLR type images, but there is something rewarding about getting a rider in focus, in shot and without the need to edit after. My favourite pic of the day captured the amazing Aaron Gwin as he flew over the pedestrian course-crossing. 

The day was, as expected, full of buzz, noise and hero worship, most notably for the legendary Steve Peat, on his last season as a downhill pro after a 21 career at the top end of the game. Peaty deserves the acclaim, those who have had the pleasure of meeting him will know he remains soundly down-to-earth and happy to engage with fans, despite his A-list MTB celebrity status.

In contrast, the silence during the Stevie Smith 'Ghost Run' was deeply moving. To hear the hill hush in  memory of a young life. Taken too young? Maybe, but certainly better to loose a life lived fully, than waste a lifetime never living.

The next day we lived our lives at Laggan, the first part of the day spent in the wonderful company of Bobby, 3 years old and already riding a bike well. With a little help from his dad, he made it up the climbs on the green trail, but no help was needed for the descents. He was a proper downhiller in the making!  Best of all was his huge smiles and obvious love for riding. Apparently it was 'like a boy's ride, but there's a girl'

After the trip around the green route, a tired Bobby was left with his mum and baby brother, and Neil joined Steve and I on the infamous Laggan techfest. The red is challenging enough, although the descents are uncomplicated with lots of lovely drops, rock gardens and a great big slab to ride down. But the climbs...oh boy, did they ever show how weak my technical climbing has become. With relentless determination I did manage to clear the few sections that had me stuck, and it was useful practice for out-of-the-saddle-stand-up-and-stomp climbing which I find exceptionally difficult on flat pedals.

It was definitely worth the frustrating climbs to get the amazing views at the top. And did I mention the descents? They were superb.

Even being submerged into the normal 'trail centre' style of riding (fun, but mostly unadventurous), there was still time to stop and stare, to take photos of the beautiful grasses and generally just appreciate the location. We may not have had to think about direction, but this just gave more time to focus on the good stuff.

Physically the routes are not long, but the technical aspect is tiring, so an evening roadtrip around the western coast was a welcome way to relax. Some time to really become immersed in the best of Scotland.

We has escaped the storms over the mountains for the tranquility of the crystal clear waters of the pre-cambrian coast.

Thunder grumbled in the distance, but the brewing clouds stayed away and the sea was calm. We chilled, sat on rocks with the water gently, but relatively quickly, rising around our legs.

Plans to wade to the island changed as we soon realised the speed in tidal change would require a swim back, and the jelly fish were numerous. I was happy to stay planted on the shoreline!

Continuing the drive, we encountered this critter. A good lifelike representation we felt, looking at our savaged arms and legs from three days of Scottish-summer midge bites, and the furious scratching that follows.

Passing the Ardgour-Corran ferry terminal (far too expensive to cross with a large van) we found these fellas. I stopped to take a photo of the boat, and they came running over. Steve was waiting in anticipation for me to be bunted, but they were just friendly and inquistive, probably off to eat someone's garden and cause trouble along the way.

The evening light was stunning as we turned west, the earlier rain evident on the ground, but the air still and the waters calm. It had been the perfect way to spend the evening.

The following day we returned to Laggan for a few hours, passing through on the way to Aviemore, as it is a really great trail centre. Third time down this slab, and the third time it sounded like the bike was broken when it hit the g-out at the bottom. These carbon bikes though, amazingly tough.

So tough in fact, Steve's survived this quality over the bars moment! I can't even begin to explain how loud it was when he hit the ground. It was a massive surprise to find he wasn't broken, and neither was the frame.

His knee was pretty swollen though, cut and bruised through the pads, showing just how hard the impact had been. Thus we called it a day, and rolled back down the fireroad as an intense storm kicked in.

It rained and rained and rained, yet it was of no issue to us, sat in the van, sheltered by the awning and brewing up on the stove.

The rain had left an imprint of Steve's bike in the carpark. Like a memory that wouldn't be washed away.

The knee injury meant no more riding for Steve that day, and left me in the capable hands of our friendly tour guide Colin on the Tuesday evening tour of Aviemore.

What a wonderful tour it was! With Colin's knowledge of the area, fascinating tales of tree ladies, and why Fairy Glen is so beautifully coloured (because the fairies wash their clothes there, of course!) it was a enchanting trip around Rothiemurchus and Loch Morlich

The most memorable thing about the evening was the smell. Not Colin! But the intense oily depth of tree pollen in the heavy evening air. That, and the snow covered mountains in the distance, revealed occassionally beyond the heavy cloud.

The next day Steve decided to try a spin to loosen up the knee so I offered to show him as much of the route as I could remember. The pollen was still on the ground, dried in streaks and bright yellow. The smell was much lessened though. Daytime lacks those heady scents of evening, but makes up for it with warmth.

The pine forests are just beautiful. We rode mainly the flat gravelled fire roads, but did explore a little singletrack until we were lost and had to backtrack with the aid of the Garmin

There was an obligatory photo stop at Loch Morlich, as we baked in the humidity of midday. Not a place to pause for long however, lest you get eaten alive by midges!

 The ducks didn't seem to notice as they swam in circles gobbling the nutritious pollen.

I took too many photos of yellow globules in my fascination. 38 years old and having never seen a mass pollen shed before, it was a little too exciting for this once-was-botanist.

We pedaled to Fairy Glen and found this little fella. Maybe he could have done with some of that pollen too, for he didn't look well and was probably on his way out. However, he was happy to share my Trek bar and I hope it gave him happiness, if nothing else.

It was supposed to be a totally non-technical ride for Steve's knee. Of course, he forgot all about that as soon as he saw the steps to the water. I couldn't resist either, just too much fun!

The evening before, Colin had explained the route to the Bothy a little further on, and I was keen to investigate, in hope of a future wild camping tour, utilising bothies where possible. It didn't take long to find as we travelled upwards in the exposed hills, away from the groomed gravel of the tourist forests.

It was exactly the kind of riding I was hoping to see in Scotland, and, although our time on the route was brief, it was one of my favourite parts of the trip. Next time (with four working knees, maps and preparation) we plan to explore this area much further, following the trails into the wilderness.

Before long the storms started to threaten again, and we headed back to the van, passing back through dominating towers of trees and vibrant low lying vegetation beneath.

I was sad to know my riding time was over, for work was calling and we had to head to a hotel in Ayr. There was a big difficult site to survey, and an early morning wake up planned to meet my second man the next day; the return to worklife was not going to be gentle. Of course, it wasn't all over, there was still the extended drive down, through the shadow-cast mountains of Glen Coe

We stopped to clamber up the waterfall, and just spend time appreciating the change in seasons, and absolute love of van-life since we first visited in January. Having a van in which to tour is just so massively liberating, and the freedom is something I will never take for granted.

Two days of work followed for me, but Steve stayed in Scotland and rode Ae in the sunshine, whilst I scrabbled around dark disused shops with torches and hammers. I wasn't that jealous, honest, the work was pretty rewarding and, most important, we got to continue the roadtrip back home on the Friday afternoon, leaving my colleague free to leave early, rush back and fight the traffic whilst we toured, stopping at picnic sites, and generally taking it very easy.

I could get used to being chauffered around, having driven many thousands of miles a year, every year, for many many years, it's great being a passenger (see gratuitous selfie below).

Once home, after the initial shock of daily life, the holiday inspiration really kicked in and bikepacking kit and adventure planning restarted in earnest. There is a Dechutes tarp on it's way from the States, and new panniers from the local bike shop. The last few items required to complete the bivvy kit. I am now awaiting the arrival of my custom frame with anticipation, there will be a blog entry about that soon.........