Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Hardtailing in Inverness, Aviemore and Paisley

Another rather late blog entry this one. Significant time has passed since my last work visit to Scotland, so many of the fine details have been lost, but the photos are a great reminder and as always, the trip holds a lot of unforgettable memories. What a privilege to be able to take the hardtail on a work trip to the top of our little island.

It was a long ol' drive from home to Inverness, via a site in Edinburgh, so a gentle roll around the canals and cycleroutes of Inverness was a perfect way to end the day. 

I've been to Inverness a few times, but am still finding exciting new places hidden away.

It was a stormy evening, the distant mountains coming and going on the horizon as the rain traveled in.

The ride was mostly flat as a pancake, other than the climb over the Kessock Bridge. No dolphins or seals in the water, but certainly great views and a great roll back down again!

Inverness also has a lovely little series of islands, bridged by beautiful metalwork.

Even late in the evening, the islands are always busy with folk and they never feel unsafe. I like it there.

Obligatory 'here comes the train' picture.

The next day's surveying was over reasonably quickly and I had plenty of time to get to Aviemore and meet Colin for another tour of his fabulous area. It was looking particularly stunning with the carpets of flowering heather and sun dancing over the mountains.

We headed out via the forests of Rothiemurchus and up onto the higher land by unsurfaced access tracks. 

Always a great tour guide, Colin provided the facts (and Gaelic) to accompany the views.

There were numerous water crossings. Some small.......

Some assisted by bridges.....

And some requiring a whole lot of pedalpower and hope that the current wouldn't sweep us off. We both stayed on the bikes, but wet feet were unavoidable!

The Loch was beautiful, for about 30 seconds, until the clouds of midges smelt us out and descended. With no visible sheep in the area, we were the only blood target and thus got the full force of the swarms looking for an evening dinner.

I managed to get a snapshot of the beautiful harebells before we got moving again. Just 5 mph is all that's needed to keep the midges at bay!

We went much faster than that though, as it was pretty much steadily downhill all the way back to the forest

Thank goodness Colin was in front on this section, or I suspect I would have been tumbling down the cliff and into the river below. A corner arrives out of nowhere at the bottom of a relatively fast downhill, definitely one you'd want to know about. It was nice to stop just after, and take in the scenery, for you don't see much riding a hardtail down bouldery trails. Everything goes a little blurry!

We also stopped to raid the wild bilberries. So different to the blueberries you find in supermarkets. These are little intense packets of wonderfulness!

Just beautiful. We couldn't have asked for a better evening.

On the way back, Colin offered to show me some more of the forest trails and we rode some perfect singletrack. Swooshy, twisty and tree lined, it was so much fun.

Beautiful stonework in a memorial to something I can't remember.

It had been a fabulous tour and I am, as ever, grateful to my tour guide for the trip. So good to have company, and to churn out a fair few miles on a work day evening. I really do appreciate how lucky I am to have a job that allows me to travel the UK.

The next day I had nightwork in Paisley, and my afternoon plans to ride were truncated through traffic woes of work colleagues, leaving me to obtain keys. However, I did have a spare hour once I was at the city, and found a compact little country park on the outskirts.

Gleniffer Braes is a busy place, even on a weekday, with dog walkers, school-holidayers, and teenagers making the most of the escape from the urban central band of Scotland. It really is worth a visit if you are passing.

There was a real mix of paths, steps, technical rooty bits and bridges. It was nice to have one last ride before an evening's work and the very long drive home through the early hours.

I miss Scotland already. Roll on the next trip! 

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Old Roads and Drove Roads

I couldn't resist another day out on the Old Roads and Drove Roads 200 Audax this year. Last year it was so enjoyable on the carbon roadie. In fact, one of the best 200's on the calendar, although a lot of time was spent worrying: "is that my tyre going down" "I'm sure the back of the bike is squirming" "I can't believe I haven't flatted, I hit that pot hole so hard", all whilst watching my riding buddy fix numerous flats.  

This year I figured it would be good to attempt it on the MTB. It would be just what I needed training-wise for an endurance MTB coming up in October. It would be a great test of the new bike over significant distance at a reasonable pace, although I had no idea what that pace would be, and even whether I would get round in the 13 hour 20 minute time limit for the event. 

Whatever happened, I wouldn't have to worry about punctures, and I'd get to trial the new ISM Adamo Saddle.

The saddle was a last minute purchase on Thursday. I couldn't face another painful day's riding, thus I visited the ISM dealer gorillafirmcycling on the way home from East Anglia. The guy was great and spent most of the afternoon changing saddles for me to test in the car park. This was particularly appreciated, as they are a squeaky clean, high-end roadie shop, and I dragged in a dirty mountain bike with an awkward seat clamp! 

Overall, the saddle, and the audax, were fantastic, what a day out!

It was all amazing fun, other than around 8 minutes close to the start. I had started the front of the group because, well, that's where I was positioned when Iddu waved us off. The MTB isn't that much slower on climbs than the roadie, and I kind of got caught up with the pointy end of the group on the first hill, chatting through gasps with everyone as our legs and hearts began to get into gear.

Once over the climb and on the flat, into a headwind, the one real disadvantage of the MTB came to the fore. It doesn't cruise like a road bike and I had to work very hard to try and hold a wheel. I soon realised that was a stupid idea. I'm on knobbly Specialized Ground Control all round off-road tyres (albeit inflated more than normal), in an upright position, with a completely non-aerodynamic bag on the front and I am trying to keep up with some fast roadies (that I'd probably not hold on to, even on my road bike). 'Deal with the headwind you bluddy wuss' I said to myself, and chuckled as I remembered I hate riding in a bunch anyway.

I dropped off the back, but then my pelvic cramps hit. Something that I suffer with only rarely, and normally never triggered by riding, just running. It's an agonising cramp that is so strong it makes me feel sick. I tried to ride through it for 8 minutes, but it wasn't easing. I started to wonder whether it was the new ISM saddle that had triggered it through a different pelvic position and whether I would be suffering for the whole ride. Eventually the nausea got so bad I just had to pull over as I couldn't turn the pedals any more. I stretched out a bit, took some painkillers and started to feel relief rapidly, as then entire field of audaxers whizzed past.

There went any chance of a tow, but I was pretty glad to have my own road space and be able to trundle, enjoy the scenery, and without the temptation of trying to hold tyres I'd never stick with for long. Once back on the bike, the pain had eased completely and my legs felt strong, well before the painkillers would have time to kick in, The pain may have been triggered by the new saddle position (possibly), or it may have been going to hard at the start (probably), but whichever it was, it never happened again and I was feeling really good.

I happily cruised through the scenery, under the big skies and past fields of corn, being battering in the wind.

At this point I should probably clarify the blurry, wonky pictures. 99% of them were taken on the fly, camera in one hand. I have resisted editing, they are 'straight out the can' and (IMHO), give a good representation of the ride.

I wasn't expecting to see anyone again, but gradually picked my way through the tail end of the field on the climbs, often to amusingly watch the guys whizz past on the descents, and repeat. The atmosphere was great, everyone I was riding with seemed to be having a jolly time!

Then we reached Savernake, the first off-road section, and the real bonus of the MTB hit.

It was an easy blast on the 29er, little difference in speed to tarmac, and I slide my bike happily round the gate at the end, with a massive grin.

By the first control I had passed a number of unlucky puncture-fixing folks, and found a really great rhythm. Pushing flat (rather than clipless) pedals wasn't much of an issue, my pedalling technique is always a bit mash mash mash so I didn't miss the power of pulling through cleats.

And then, yet more unsurfaced loveliness. Despite the killer 40 mph+ headwinds on the plains, it was just wonderful on the top.

Warning signs of certain death were everywhere!

I didn't stray, tempting though the tank trails looked!

There was much grinning and stupid-selfie taking.

The beautiful windswept desolation seemed endless. Just miles of gravel, wild flowers and wild grasses.

Old storage tankers now appear to supply water to the cattle. Much time was spent pondering how many, if any, cows stand on ordnance each year as they wander freely across the plains, well beyond the signage that keep us tied to the roads.

Hidden watchtowers whizzed past

Tank graveyards rusted in the distance

Even with the giant potholes, I spent the majority of the time looking at the scenery, and taking one handed photos. The joys of big tyres!

I was very much settled into the desolation, and then, suddenly, the red London buses started to appear. On the Salisbury Plain! Multitudes of them. Quite a surreal contrast to the situation they found themselves in.

Eventually the route passed through Imber. A peculiar place; despite hoards of tourists milling through the road, it has a foreboding darkness. Zombie houses, soulless, without windows and without the warmth of a community.

Generations were there, some as tourists, some with a purpose, to visit their stolen community in the short window of opportunity afforded them by the powers that be.

The sun came out on the way to Warminster, thus more gratuitous I'm-in-the-sunshine-selfie taking was needed. It was supposed to be horrendous torrential rain all day. The headwinds were a killer by this point, even the roadies seemed to be struggling, but I think we all knew, deep down, there would be payback on the way home. I've got so much better at dealing with headwinds, not that I will ever be strong into the wind, but it doesn't break me mentally anymore.

More tanks. No matter how many I spotted, the excitement never lessened.

Warminster was the turn, and the tailwind back through Imber was amazing. The MTB is set up for off-road, so there is only a small chainring up front and I soon ran out of gears with the wind behind me. There was no frustration though, I could literally spend long stretches cruising, and soaking up the scenery. By that point it was clear I wasn't going to struggle to make the cut-off.

More photos of zombie houses. For some reason they remind me of the Pac Man ghosts.

After the return over the military land, the rain finally started, and it rained, and rained, and rained. The final food stop at Melksham saw me soaked to the skin, eating prawn cocktail crisps, drinking pineapple squash and sheltering under the canopy of the convenience store. Grateful as always for a waterproof camera, I couldn't wipe the lens clean as everything snip of fabric I owned was wet through. The pics got even more blurry.

Once back on the road, watching rivers of run-off, I was grateful for the whopping tailwind to push me out of the storm. It took several miles, but eventually the skies cleared, and I got to appreciate the views, and take more blurry pics, from the Hackpen Hill climb.

There was one more unsurfaced section of ride left to enjoy; the Wiltshire Ridgeway section. It had been interesting the year before on the roadie, enjoyable, but challenging. This time though, I knew I could just switch off. Sure enough I was able to pedal my heart out, down the descent and not even brake.

Overall I would be much quicker on the road bike, as blasting the lengthy tarmac return with a big gear on road tyres would have been significantly faster, and my off-road handling on the roadie isn't that slow. However, it was an absolute pleasure to ride the MTB on the unsurfaced sections, on the steeper gravelly greasy lanes, and to be able to take photos whilst moving, and never have to worry about punctures. It was vastly more enjoyable, and that is by far the most important thing. I was round the 210 km with 2400 meters in 10 n a bit hours, and, although I didn't have a proper sit down meal, there was a good deal of faffing with info controls, stops to get receipts, taking a few wrong turns and running out of top end gears with the tail wind. It was nice to realise I could comfortably pedal the MTB over that distance with no ill effects, and to know I can still do some constant work without too much stopping. I'm going to need that kind of endurance come October.