Velo Club Moulin

Thursday 23 September 2021

Deeside Trail Group Start

Idly browsing on a Monday evening I read a forum post about the group start of the Deeside Trail. Interesting but not practical as it's only 5 days away and my mountain bike has broken forks and practically no front brake. Nevertheless a seed has been planted in my brain.

I browse a bit more and find myself checking the forecast for the weekend, it looks great.

By Tuesday morning the idea has grown and I drop an email to Adam to say that I'm keen to ride if I can fix my bike and find somewhere to stay before the 8am start.

A few hectic evenings later I've rebuilt the fork and most of the rest of the bike and it's looking like it might all work out. I try to book some accommodation for the night before but it's much more difficult than usual and most places are booked. After a bit of indecision I decide to drive up in the morning so I'm up and out the door by 5.

There are 4 of us signed up for the group start and it's good to catch up with Brian McCardle who I used to regularly race cross against. Bob McGregor has completed the route multiple times and he's tackling it on a singlespeed and Colin Calder has a completion to his name in 2020.

I rode the route in 36 hours in 2018 but between damaging a brake hose on the first singletrack descent and getting caught in a thunderstorm it wasn't the smoothest ride. I stopped for 3 good meals and enjoyed the luxury of a tent. I'm not sure that I can ride any of the sections much faster so if I want to get round quicker I need to stop less. Straight after I emailed Adam I ordered a bivi bag from Alpkit, my untested theory is that I need to be less comfortable to go quicker. My theory is about to collide with reality.

After a quick hello we roll into the sunshine at 8. Brian and I are slightly too busy catching up and it takes a while for us to realise that we've ridden past one of the early turnings, we retrace our route and after an extra km or two we're back on the route.  

After regrouping with Colin and Bob we all ride together for the next couple of hours, probably slightly too fast given what's ahead of us but it's fun and the early stages of the route pass quickly under our wheels. At the end of the Carnferg traverse my seatpost slips and it takes me a few minutes to sort it. Eager to catch up I set off down a fun descent that I don't remember from last time. Ah, that's because this fun descent is off route. I work my way back up and join the Fungle Road singletrack, it's so engaging and fun that within a few minutes I've forgotten about the mistake. 

I catch up with Colin on the next big climb and for the next hour or so I ride pretty hard to try and catch up to Bob and Brian. I assume that they are together and I don't spot Bob filling his water bottle at the side of the trail so I keep chasing shadows. After a while it dawns on me that I've got a long way to go and I better rein it in a bit. There's a long fast bumpy descent off the hill but the grass is damp and there's definitely the potential to get it very wrong so I take it easy.

It's a bank holiday weekend but I've never seen Ballater so busy. Even a quick Co-op stop takes an age and thanks to the sunlit uplands of Brexit the shelves are decidedly empty and they don't have any water. I eat a fruit salad and strap a sandwich to my saddlebag before setting off for Loch Muick.

I'm surprised when Brian catches me on the climb as in my head he was miles up the road never to be seen again. He's had a more leisurely lunch stop in Ballater. It's good to have some company and we ride together for a while but he's obviously going better than me up here. I stop to eat my sandwich in the shade while he presses on.

Climbing into the sun above Loch Muick

The climb up to the shoulder is tough, I remember this being mostly ridable but in the heat I'm reduced to pushing. My knee feels sore when I walk and I have some doubts about whether I'll complete. I've got two choices, turn around or get over the top and I focus on getting to Braemar and push on. The descent to Braemar is as fast and as easy as I remember it and now that I'm heading downhill I can enjoy the warmth of the afternoon.

Super fast descent towards Braemar

I'm surprised to find Brian and Bob outside of the Co-op in Braemar. We have a quick chat and it turn out they've had a meal in Braemar. By the time I make it out of the busy shop they've moved on but as I'm sorting myself out Colin rides past. After 8 hours of riding we've all ended up in Braemar within a few minutes of each other.

Crossing the Quioch Water near the top of Glen Quoich

I catch up with Colin in Glen Lui and we ride together for a couple of hours. It's good to have some company through Clais Fearnaig, up the side of the Quoich Water and into Glen Gairn. I'd built these sections up in my head to be the crux of the route but we get through them without too much trouble. Glen Gairn in particular is easier than I remember it, there's even a reasonable path through most of it.
I ask Colin how he managed to pack so much lighter than me and I'm surprised to discover that he's planning to ride right through and isn't carrying a sleeping bag or mat. That explains how he's managed to do without a seat pack and I'm slightly envious of his dropper post as we cover some of the more difficult sections. The conversation plants another seed in my mind, maybe I can ride further than I thought I could? My initial plan had been to get through this section then bivi in lower Glen Gairn.

Glen Gairn 'singletrack'

As we get towards the end of the difficult part of Glen Gairn I look back and there is a reasonable gap to Colin. I can see that he has turned his lights on but if I'm going to ride on I don't have that luxury quite yet. I was planning to bivi so I've only packed the small battery for my light. It's been great to get through these sections in the daylight and luckily the skies are clear and there is still a bit of twilight.
It's around this time that I notice a problem with my Garmin. I've never used the map in the dark before and with the default colours it's almost impossible to see the route when the device is in night mode. Unfortunately I don't know that this is the problem until later and the issue plagues me through the night and I have to stop frequently to check that I'm on the route.

I stop once I reach the better track to put another layer on and can't decide whether I should wait for Colin or not. The midges quickly make the decision for me and I start riding into the beautiful evening. My legs feel remarkably good and I'm onto easy terrain at just the right time. For the next 45 minutes or so I ride into the darkness before I am forced to turn my light on.

The golden hour in lower Glen Gairn
I'm starting to consider riding through the night as a serious prospect so I stop at the main road to put on my warmer layers; leg warmers, dry socks, jacket, hat and long fingered gloves. The next section is relatively easy riding and I make good progress to Ballater. I've got plenty of food so I ride straight through.

It's about midnight when I arrive at the Cambus O'May woods which turns out to be one of the highlights of the ride. As I climb the hill  music gets louder and louder. There's a house party nearby but it feels more like a personal soundtrack encouraging me to the top and down the sinuous singletrack descent. I'm soon crossing the road towards the paths around Loch Kinord.

Sound System Singletrack 

On the grassy paths I can clearly see the tyre tracks that Brian and Bob have left in the dew. It's slightly magical how clear they are and it removes the loneliness of riding at night. The tracks abruptly disappear in Tarland and I guess that they have both stopped there for the night. 
I'm starting to plan how I should approach the rest of the ride. It's still 5 hours until dawn and I don't think I've got enough battery to make it through. If I run out of light somewhere inconvenient I won't have many options. After 17 hours a deep tiredness has started to set in, I could make it through but I'm not sure I'd enjoy it. 
The thought of waking up and pushing for an hour up Pressendye seems awful so I might as well get it over with and sleep near the top. I push slowly uphill into the mist.

I eventually reach the plateau at just after 2am and fall into my bivi bag. I set my alarm for 5am and fall asleep within minutes.

When my alarm goes it's unexpectedly dark and wet but I'm soon moving again albeit slowly up the final climb to the summit. By the time I hit the descent the light has improved enough to turn my light off. It feels a bit odd to be riding fun singletrack descents before 6am.
The Pressendye descent is quick and relatively easy but it's overgrown in places at this time of year. 
Breakfast is a miserable afair in the drizzle. A squashed, barely recognisable croissant that has been in my back pocket since Braemar, a Peperami and a packet of cashew nuts. It's followed by a struggle to lift my bike over a locked gate and another steep hill. The euphoria of riding through the night has evaporated, my spirits reflecting the change in the weather.

It's not long before I hit the fun, swoopy descent into Lumphanan which lifts my mood. It's just before 8 and by a stroke of luck the shopkeeper is opening the village shop early as I pass. It's not long before I'm enjoying a second breakfast of coffee and a chunky Kit Kat. I'm take the opportunity to top up my water bottle which is a bonus. The last section of the route is more urban and there aren't many chances to get water.

A big road climb leads to the Hill of Fare which is easier than I remember. I'm closing in on the finish and without too much more effort I'm back in Banchory, just over 26 hours after I set off.

The mist lifting on the Hill of Fare

I've only been back at the car for 10 minutes when Bob arrives. It's good to catch up and compare our experiences of the ride. 
I was sure that someone must have already finished as I had been following tyre tracks in the mud all morning and had a vague memory of hearing disk brakes howling as I was falling asleep. We later heard that Colin had ridden through the night and finished a couple of hours earlier while Brian finished slightly later in the day after a more relaxed overnight stop.
This ride was a great experience. It's a brilliant route which includes lots of fantastic singletrack but it does have a bit of a sting in the tail. The weather on the first day was fabulous and I was lucky that I felt good at the right times and made it through the difficult sections in the daylight. I was able to knock 10 hours off my first attempt, partly by riding some sections quicker but mostly by reducing how long I was stopped for. Using a bivi bag encouraged me to stop for less time and it was far quicker to set up and pack away.

Saturday 6 October 2018

Puddle ducks swim the Tour de Ben Nevis

While others VCMers think about CX season or walking up West Yorkshire hills, I'm still clinging on to XC season. No Fuss Events' Tour de Ben Nevis has been on my bucket list for years, but as it always falls on the weekend of Mrs W's birthday, I tend to lack the requisite brownie points.

For those unfamiliar with the event, it is a 60km loop around Ben Nevis, starting in Fort William and finishing (for 2018) at Nevis Range. It is run as a sort of enduro/XC mash up, with points allocated based on placings in timed stages, but with the whole loop from start to finish also counting as one of those five stages. My previous attempt in 2016 coincided with biblical downpours so the race became an "out and back" rather than the full loop. In 2018, with rumours that this might be the last edition, I made myself unpopular at home and headed up to Fort William.

After a spirited early morning drive through Glencoe, I lined up for the usual trackstand procession along the High Street behind the piper. As the pace increased, the first climb appeared sooner than expected, and my mid pack start position left me still some way behind the leaders. Bugger. I burnt a few matches to move up to a top 10 position and settled into my own pace.

Arriving at the top of Stage 1 (a rock strewn descent to Kinlochleven), my only ambition was to be less cautious than in 2016. A plan to recce this stage had not come to fruition due to work and weather, but I pedalled into the stage and hoped for the best. Riding my Giant Anthem gave me a bit more confidence than the hardtail ridden previously, as I popped off rocks and hopped a few water bars. Two larger water bars had me hauling on the anchors though: whilst I could probably hop them without incident, the consequences of a slightly mistimed landing would be a dented rim and a long walk back. An inelegant foot down over those two bars saw me getting to the bottom without any drama, still with inflated tyres and a good chunk faster that 2016. Job done.

The following road section was a chance to grab a bar and save some energy for Stage 2: a 12 minute landy track climb which I reckoned should suit me. After faffing with my timing chip at the start, I tapped out a reasonable pace which turned out to be good enough for 2nd fastest of the day. Boom.

From there, bow-waving through a succession of puddles alongside Loch Eilde left me cold and damp. I knew the river crossing and stage 3 hike-a-bike would be soon though, so I pressed on, eventually wading the river (thankfully only knee deep) and stopping for a couple of bars and a bit of banter with the marshal. As I dismounted for the walk/jog/ride/walk routine, it quickly became clear that my super-stiff carbon soled shoes had not been a wise choice and I probably should have eaten earlier, as the legs ran out of gas. A front wheel plunge into a deeper than expected muddy puddle and the resultant over-the-bars compounded my woes, as the two riders in front skipped off into the distance. I didn't ever get into a decent rhythm on this stage and arrived at the checkpoint to regroup. Unfortunately the jelly babies in my top-tube bag had taken a dip in the aforementioned muddy puddle and were not looking too appetising. The marshals were great though, helping me replenish my supplies quickly and sending me on my way.

Armed with the news that there were "4 or 5" riders in front, the aim became to preserve my position. Eventually (probably about an hour too late) I gave in to the cold and stopped to put on the lightweight Endura jacket that I had been carrying in my back pocket for the past 2 hours. This (combined with the sugar finally kicking in) gave me a much needed boost for ticking off the final 10 miles.

The Nevis Range firetracks were a headwindy gurn on tired legs, made better only by the thought that I definitely had it easier than the plodding ultra-marathon runners I passed. I eased past a flagging rider with a few miles to go and just kept turning the pedals, longing for a singletrack descent. Pedalling into Stage 4 it soon became apparent that my front brake pads were shot after hours of muddy puddles though, so I lacked the control and flow I would have liked, and lost a few crucial seconds.

Rejuvenated by the swoopy descent, tired legs were briefly forgotten and the sunshine of the Nevis Range finish seemed to arrive too soon. Crossing the line in 5th in around 3h30min (still some way behind overall winner Gary Macdonald) I was pretty pleased to be towards the sharp end. Final results confirmed that my hesitancy on the descents cost me on the overall points though: despite finishing 5th overall and 2nd on stage 2, my lower placings on the other stages saw me drop back to a still respectable 6th.

It will be a shame if No Fuss don't run the race or something similar next year. This event is a great day out in big hills with a properly remote feel, and there are precious few races of this distance. Fingers crossed it returns in some form. I know I can go faster on those descents, bring some brake pads that last, eat a bit earlier, and shave a few minutes off in the hike-a-bike. Maybe next time it could even be dry. More of this sort of thing.

Tuesday 14 August 2018

I Know What You Did Last Summer: Tour of the Cairngorms

Tap tap. Is this thing on? Time to blow the cobwebs off the VCM blog. The lack of posts suggest that everyone has been too busy making the most of the first Scottish summer for about five years. More riding, less writing. You can't waste opportunities like these. Dusty trails needed to be shredded before everything reverts to standard Scottish dreich (like today).

I can't speak for the other few dozen VCM reprobates, but one of the highlights of my summer was a cracking two days riding a Cairngorm loop with Simon Fairfull in late May. We dismissed THE Cairngorm Loop as we only had two days, and whilst the full 300k route is of course more than do-able in that time, we elected to do a slightly shorter version so that we could enjoy it, rather than making it feel too much like a race.

After some scouring of maps and consultation with Scottish bikepacking oracle Russell Stout, we settled on the lesser known "Tour of the Cairngorms" route:- most of the outer loop of the Cairngorm Loop, but eschewing the Aviemore section in favour of Loch Morlich and Glenmore, and then finishing down Glen Tilt rather than climbing up to Fealar Lodge and the south east side of Beinn a'Ghlo.

Basking in late May sunshine we set off as pasty faced Scots on a Sunday morning (I elected to ride some of the first day in a running vest to keep cool, but the less said about that the better). The first few hours out of Blair Atholl were ticked off at a worryingly easy pace. Without trying, we were averaging over 12mph for several hours. This didn't feel like the bikepacking I'm used to. Gaick Lodge was dispatched and onwards down to Feshiebridge and a brief return to civilisation at Loch Insh. After seeing barely anyone for the first few hours, we knew that the section through Rothiemurchus and Loch Morlich would be the busiest of the route, but nothing could prepare us the bank holiday Sunday on Costa del Loch Morlich that faced us. Thousands of lounging Scots completely covered the beach and the main Cairngorm road was a double-parked strip of tarmac carnage. We stopped for a drink and ice-cream to soak up the hilarity of it all for 15 minutes before getting the hell out of there as quickly as our laden bikes could carry us. As expected, 20 minutes later and after passing the Ryvoan Bothy, Highland normality was restored and all was blissfully quiet again, save for the crunch of tyre on gravel, dust and pine needles. The next few hours saw a gradual slowing of pace as weary legs began to take their toll and the route became just a little rougher.

We had set our sights on Tomintoul for dinner and a camp spot somewhere along the river just out of town, so we rolled into the town square eager to fill hungry stomachs. Perhaps it was the sight (and smell) of two tired cyclists that caused the reception (or lack of), but something felt decidedly odd about the town. In a town square filled with restaurants and hotels we eventually honed in on the one with outside tables and the most buzz about it. That was our first mistake. Apparently we would have to wait over an hour for food (on a Sunday evening in May?!) so shuffled across the road to the next pub. Despite a close call where our requested 'orange and lemonade' was almost served as a bowl of sliced oranges and lemons, we were filled with generic greasy food which at least replenished some burnt calories. Limiting our losses we set out for a third hostelry for our post-dinner pint, and nipped into what looked like the smartest / newest hotel in town. Despite the white tablecloth attempt at an upmarket look, the barman was at pains to stress that grubby bikers would still be welcome, and so our cold pint was enjoyed over a discussion with a barman who turned out to be a mountain biker (and a pretty fast sounding enduro rider). Result. Oddly, the only other family in the bar elected to leave soon after we arrived. My damp shoes from that river crossing must have been smelling pretty bad by that point.

We had planned to ride a few miles out of town and pitch near the river somewhere, but our helpful barman pointed out that the Highland Games field would be empty, flat, closer, and suffer less from the evening midges which were undoubtedly congregating by the river keen for an evening feast. In a win-win for everyone we ordered a few more pints since we wouldn't have to pedal far to our new not-so-wildcamping spot.

Day two was due to provide a shorter ride (85km vs 120km on day one, and only 1,000m of climbing vs 1,700m). The first few miles south down the River Avon road and track were easily dispatched, although in a slightly annoying fashion as every punchy climb was followed in short order by a descent back to the river. "Somebody" had glanced at the map on his Garmin screen and naively assumed that the high point of the morning's climb over to Braemar was at Loch Builg. It therefore came as something of a surprise to have to climb a further few hundred metres over the shoulder of the adjacent Corbett. Oops. All good character (and appetite) building. A fast descent to Braemar and welcome coffee and brunch followed in the always excellent "The Bothy".

One of the benefits of this chosen route is that we knew the following section would be relatively flat and easy, and so it proved. The ride past Mar Lodge was uneventful on the way to the Geldie 'Fords'. A bone dry May allowed the river to be pedalled over without difficulty and onwards to the top of Glen Tilt. A momentary SPD-fail style topple saw Simon turning his leg into a quite impressive balloon which wasn't ideal, but thankfully the mystical properties of some recovery Haribo allowed us to continue southwards, with the promise of a dip in the river still to come. Having ridden this section before a couple of times, I knew it would be an easy blast to the finish after tight singletrack at the top of the glen. Pedalling back into the promised land of well-earned sugary drinks and ice-creams in Blair Atholl we passed a couple of fresh looking riders heading up towards the loop. Knowing nods were exchanged. This was Scottish summer bikepacking at its best - memories of great riding that will last even longer than those sunburn marks.

Scores on the doors:
Mileage: 205km over 2 days
Climbing: 2,700m
Wildlife: A lazily slow moving adder
Mud: None. Not a single spot. Nope.

Monday 29 May 2017

The Rider

"Good riders?  Bad riders?  You can tell good riders by their faces, bad riders by their faces too - but that only goes for riders you already know."

In the spring of 2015 I was studying a map of France in anticipation of a family holiday to the Ardèche.  Familiar names leapt out at me; Ales, Anduze, Nîmes, Uzès.  Cycling clubs described in Tim Krabbé's "The Rider".

If you're not familiar with The Rider then beg, borrow or steal a copy.  It's a great book which happens to be about cycling.  It describes Krabbé's attempt to win a fictional road race: The Tour of Mont Aigoual.  But the map suggested that this imaginary account borrowed real terrain.  A kernel of an idea began to form.  Was it possible to ride the route described in the book?

A closer look showed that Mont Aigoual lay in the heart of the Cévennes to the east of Meyreuis, the start town of the race.  I had never considered that it might be possible to step into the world described in a work of fiction.  The prospect was exciting.  Would I be able to climb like Kléber, descend like Reilhan, ride like Lebusque or would I be climbing off early like Sauveplane?

Hours spent poring over a well thumbed book revealed enough detail to piece together the two loops of the race.  The first loop seemed to fit the map but I just couldn't make the second loop work.  Had the roads changed?  Were the maps I had not good enough?  Had my plan of recreating a fictional route run into the hard barrier of reality?

Satisfied that I had enough information to ride at least half the route I started to work out logistics.  Meyreuis was about 2 hours drive from where we would be staying so with an early start that would be quite achievable.  I was able to hire a bike in Prades, close to the route, which I could pick up on the morning of the ride.  Now I just had to keep my fingers crossed for good weather, the Cevennes in summer is one of the wettest areas in France.

After arriving in France I bought a 1:25000 map of the Cevennes to complete the route planning.  I was in luck.  The route described in the book fitted the map perfectly, every place name and junction seemed to fit.  This was going to work.  

The south of France was in the midst of a heatwave with the mercury hitting 40 degrees most days.  As luck would have it the day I had arranged to hire a bike was forecast to be the coolest of the week with an overcast start and a strong wind.  With the weather in mind I elected to modify the route slightly.  I would start in Les Vignes at the foot of the first climb.  Hopefully this would allow me to minimise the climbing in the hottest part of the day and would leave me to finish with 50km of descending and easy riding.

Tim Krabbe The Rider
Route planning and daydreaming

After an early start I found myself on a magnificent driving road.  Mile after mile of sweeping bends and no traffic provided an enjoyable start to the day and I arrived in Prades earlier than expected.  I collected my steed for the day, a weighty but perfectly set-up Giant Defy.  Driving though the amazing setting of the Gorges du Tarn I arrived at my starting point.

"Meyrueis, Lozère, June 26, 1977.  Hot and overcast.  I take my gear out of the car and put my bike together.  Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafes.  Non-racers.  The emptiness of those lives shocks me."

It was overcast, windy and relatively cool as I started the first climb of the day.  The hairpins of the climb wouldn't have been out of place in the Alps but as I gained height the view back into the Gorges du Tarn was unique.  Six hundred meters abover my starting point I reached the Causse Méjean, a vast limestone plateau.  A remote and desolate landscape even on a fine summers day.  The frequent stone shelters at the side of the road gave an indication of how hostile this environment could be in a winter storm.  Riding here was fantastic with no cars, no people and an amazing sense of isolation.

Gorges du Tarn Les Vignes
Looking back into the Gorges du Tarn above Les Vignes
Causse Mejean shelter
Stone shelter on the Causse Méjean

After a gradual descent I turned onto a slightly larger road heading south towards Meyreuis.  Mile after mile of false flat was eased by the warmth of the sun on my back as the sky cleared and the day warmed up.  The traffic was still incredibly light and it was ironic that I got stuck behind one of the few cars on the road as I descended into scenic Meyreuis.  I took the opportunity to fill my bottles before setting out on the next remote section.

The heat was really starting to build and I was relieved to discover that much of the steep climb out of town was shaded by trees.  Reaching the Causse Noir was stunning and my abiding memory of the day is riding through this amazing landscape with a strong tailwind speeding me along. 

Causse Noir
Enjoying the tailwind on the Causse Noir

Causse Noir view
On the Causse Noir

The race doesn't follow the main road to Mont Aigoual and I turned onto a minor road that passed through Lanuéjols but there was no-one there.  I had barely seen another person since I left Meyreius.  The descent into Treves began.  Krabbé, the self confessed worst descender in the race, struggled here and so did I.  He was overcome by thoughts of flying off the side of the mountain but my worries were more prosaic; greasy roads, gravel, blind corners and the overwhelming sense of being a long way from other people.  Krabbé was dropped here but he quickly regained the lead group on the next climb.  I stepped out of the novel for a moment and stopped for a coffee, une treve (a rest or let-up) in Treves.  There was only one cafe in the tiny village but it was a perfect fit to this ride.  A rustic, quiet place from another decade where I enjoyed an interesting chat with the owner who was was amazed to discover that her village formed part of the backdrop of a well known book.

There was no gendarme to wave me down the correct road but it wasn't difficult to find.  The road started to climb into a narrow gorge with a strong headwind funnelling down it.  I struggled to recall the description of this section but it was clear that I had underestimated it.  An hour of climbing on heavy roads that didn't suit me.  Not steep enough to be a real climb but enough to hurt and an ever-present headwind.  I was starting to wonder if I had misjudged the route.  It was now fiercly hot, I was barely half way through the 140 kilometres and I had been riding for close to 4 hours.  I had to trust that the climbing was front loaded and the last 60 kilometres would be fast.

"Another four kilometres to Camprieu, another four kilometres to climb.  Why am I whining about Camprieu?  After Camprieu there are two kilometres of flat road, then an eight kilometre climb.  Camprieu is a fallacy, an overgrown kilometre stone.  Another four kilometres to Camprieu."

With no Lebusque, Kléber or Cycles Goff to share the work I was on my own and it was with a degree of relief that I reached Camprieu.  After an hour of daydreaming about lunch my appetite abandoned me in the heat.   Nothing seemed appealing and I ended up ordering a crêpe au citron and two scoops of vanilla ice cream.  At least it was quick and I was soon back on the road, somewhat apprehensive about the climbing to come.  But even suffering doesn't last for long when you don't have to worry about reality and a combination of smooth tarmac and a strong tailwind meant I was able to make short work of the climb. 

Climb to Camprieu
Climbing towards Camprieu

Mont Aigoual cycling recreating the rider
Looking back towards Mont Aigoual

Mont Aigoual cycling recreating the rider
This is why I ride

Col du Perjuret cycling
Approaching the Col du Perjuret

The descent from the top to the Col du Perjuret was punctuated by several small climbs but rather than feeling like hard work they offered a chance to enjoy the fabulous scenery.  As I rode through this terrain it occured to me that the book reads like a genuine account of a road race taking almost no notice of anything outside the small bubble of the race.  Most of the descriptions in the book deal with how the landscape affects the race and the few comments on the world beyond the road are offered with an element of detachment.  Another dimension which the riders do not have the capacity to be troubled by.

On the long and straightforward descent off the Col du Perjuret I started to slip out of the story.  My ride wouldn't finish in Meyreius and I certainly wouldn't be contesting the sprint.  None the less I kept looking ahead for the 'CULTE PROTESTANTE' sign that marked the start of the sprint but it's long gone, or perhaps it was never there.

Several hours after my last visit I was back in the same shop to top up my water supplies.  The temperature had risen significantly as I descended from the summit.  The Gorges de la Jonte was beautiful but the headwind was strong enough that I had to pedal reasonably hard to make progress on the gentle downhill slope.  The heat in the gorge was incredible, riding into the headwind felt like opening an oven door.

As I suffered in the heat my thoughts were dominated by the prospect of the sting in the tail; 20km into a headwind up the Gorges du Tarn.  Again I was on the right side of the thin line between fiction and reality and when I reached Le Rozier I was greeted by an uplifting roadsign:  "Les Vignes 10km".  I turned into the Gorges du Tarn and it became clear how hazy my recollection of the final part of the route had been, the walls of the beautiful gorge provided shelter for an easy spin back to the car.

Recreating this route was one of my most enjoyable cycling experiences and I've struggled to get the same satisfaction from similar rides.  The blurred boundary between the novel and real life allowed me to become part of the story.  The heroes of this race never existed so there are no fallen idols to cast any shadows.

On a more practical level these were wonderful roads to ride offering lots of climbing in near solitude.  Outside of Meyreius I only saw a handful of people all day, at one point riding for over an hour without being passed by a car.  

After riding this route I discovered that others had made the pilgrimage before me.  CyclingTips wrote an excellent article on their adventure, it looks like they stopped in the same cafe in Treves as I did.  The fantastic InRng blog featured Mont Agioual as part of the Roads to Ride series.

Gorges de la Jonte cycling
Riding through the Gorges de la Jonte

"One more kilometre to climb.  It's so incredibly pitiful that I ever wanted to do this, but now I'm stuck with it."

Sunday 19 February 2017

A Month Of Cross

As it's prone to do life got in the way and as 2017 ticked over a year had elapsed since my last cross race and even longer since my last good crack at a season.  In no particular order selling our house, buying a 'project', training for the London Marathon, illness and a lack of mojo had conspired to keep me off the bike and away from racing.

When it dawned on me that this was the longest period of my adult life without riding a bike I decided it was time for some shock therapy; the Super Quaich.  I figured that if I missed the first round I would have a month to get myself into some sort of shape before the 'big comeback'.  That didn't quite go to plan and I ended up spending practically every spare hour fixing up the new place.  A couple of cross rides with friends left me in no doubt about what to expect, even my normally easy ride to work had become hard work.

Having seen photos of the mudfest at Doonbank in 2016 I decided to keep things simple and race on my singlespeed.  Handily this meant that I could ignore the fact that I didn't have a working geared bike for another week or two.  The evening before the race was spent searching frantically for my race kit which seemed to be spread across every unpacked box in the house.

Arriving at the race I had no idea how I was going to go, I knew it wasn't going to be pretty but just how ugly would it be?  It was great to be back at a cross race and catch up with friends that I hadn't seen for a while.

One advantage of not expecting anything was that I felt really calm on the start line.  I was planning to take the first lap easy but when the gun went I got the perfect start and a huge gap opened in front of me, that never happens!  Left with no choice but to take advantage I managed to get to the bottom of the first climb in a good position.  Half way up it was obvious that I needed to back off and ride a steadier race.

The course was a cracker and really suited the single speed.  Lots of off camber after the lung bursting run ups gave me a chance to recover without losing too much time and I managed to hold it together for a decent result; 42nd.  Better than I was expecting and best of all I had avoided relegation.

Photo by Christopher Hogge

A few turbo sessions and I'd be able to kick on at Foxlake, a course that I know really well and have gone well at in the past.  Well, that was the theory..., no.  That's not quite how it went.  Surprisingly the turbo sessions went to plan, once I'd found  dusty turbo lurking unloved under yet more boxes in the garage.  I even managed to find some tyres for my bike, a Limus for the front (perfect) and a Chicane for the back (I'm sure it will be fine).

The race didn't go so well.  I started near the back, had a shocking start and an even worse first lap and went backwards from there.  I felt like I was running on empty for the whole race and a disappointing 68th was the result.  Luckily I had done just enough to avoid relegation but given the stacked field for Dig In I wasn't sure if that was a blessing or a curse.

Photo by Iona Fisher

A stinking cold followed and that was the end of the training plan.  Suddenly the weekend of Dig In arrived and I was feeling nervous.  A great day of coaching with Helen and Stef Wyman on the Saturday left me feeling more confident in my skills and with plenty to work on.  At least now I only had to worry about the pedalling in between the skills.

Another shocking start and I was at the back of the race.  Man, please don't let me get dropped by the whole race in the first lap.  I knew this was a possibility but now it seemed to be coming true.  Fortunately Bo'ness is a lot more forgiving of a lack of top end fitness than the punchy climbs of Foxlake and I managed to get my head down and grind myself away from the tail of the race.  71st.  Not exactly setting the world on fire but I'll take that.

So goals for next season:
1.  Try and re-discover some mojo and the fitness that follows.
2.  Fit an outside tap.

Sunday 1 January 2017

Keeping VCM Weird - Always Exploring

This was never supposed to be some sort of New Year resolution post, or a pat on the back for rides in 2016, but the reality is that I only ever manage to sit down and type these things in the Christmas holidays.

I'll not claim to be the most adventurous rider (exploits of VCMers around Europe and further afield are far more glamorous) so this is more a call to arms to the local adventurers. A show of solidarity to those who, like me, currently lack the time, the money or the "family passes" to get further afield for their riding.

I've been lucky in having a new backyard since May, so having spent years getting to know the Pentlands like the back of my hand, I now have a vast new playground in Highland Perthshire. Every ride offers the opportunity for a new bit of trail, a new way to link things up, or a bit of "I wonder where that goes...". Evenings are spent hunched over OS maps (or their digital equivalent). Weekends are spent riding my trusty Kinesis hardtail or CX bike (now a combined 10 years old) from the back door with a new horizon over every hill.

Sure, you might get some weird looks in the office on a Monday morning (or from the hill runner who laughed in my face as I slid my CX bike down a section of muddy hillside that it was completely inappropriate for), but I've (almost) never come back from a ride in a worse mood than I left in, and there is beauty to be found in those hills.

Today, despite the 0 degree temperatures and the northerly headwind, I shouldered my bike over a heathery hike-a-bike section to be greeted with one of those "this is why we ride" moments: a genuinely stunning view of the Lawers hills covered in snow set against a blue sky. 5 minutes later I was metres from the herd of deer that had generously formed the "path" I was riding. An hour later, rays of sun between sleety squalls were illuminating stripes of snow covered glen, made all the more striking by the contrast with the surrounding greyness. Even in the gloom of midwinter, there is natural beauty to be found. There is nothing that a few extra layers of Endura kit and a positive attitude can't overcome.

As the ever wise(?!) Chris Duncan often says after his usual Pitlochry based forest loops, outside is free folks. Get out there and ride.

Sunday 11 September 2016

Cross is Here

After the Social event on Mull in July, the Scottish season kicked off yesterday with a warm up at Balloch. It was a TLI event which meant you could choose your race, a "B" race lasting 40 mins or the "A" race for the full hour.

Most of the VCM squad plumped for the A race with Erika and Colin on the front row, Marty and I hung a bit further back. The excuses had been flying beforehand, colds and various infections had interrupted training plans.

The course was a fast flowing pretty flat affair with one dismount section and little mud. On the start line I noticed that my front brake cable hadn't been attached properly, oops. A quick bodge and we were off when Jammy shouted bang........
Marty, Erika and I found ourselves in the same position at the first corner so worked together along  to the first twisty grassy section and then down to the muddy slight downhill section.There were a few mechanicals and fallers in the melee of the first couple of laps before things settled down properly.
At the pointy end of the race the young guns were setting a ferocious pace which bodes well for the future of the Scottish scene.

Erika won her race, a great result since she has been ill, Colin was well up there and Marty and I weren't.

A good fast course, with good weather and will set us up in good stead for the first series race at Falkirk. All in all a grand day out and good to see the familiar faces not seen since Mull last December.

The new Endura kit really stood out and was as usual faultless. The Challenge tyres (tires) did a great job, I only wish I had used the chicanes as there was very little mud even at the end of the hour.

Big thanks to Michael Martin for the photos.

Monday 8 August 2016

Old man strength ~ Wilderness 101, 2016

Before this years Wilderness 101 - a  ~101 mile back country mountain bike race which highlights some of central Pennsylvania's best singletrack - I stocked up on spare tubes and energy goop in Freeze Thaw cycles. With old friend Harry, Justin and the guys who work there we shared a laugh about my lack of preparedness and the fact that, at the end of the day, 'old man strength' would get me through.

I think 'old man strength' is another way of saying pertinaciousness. In other words, the lack of fitness, small number of miles in the legs and poor acclimatisation to the heat and humidity could be overcome by resolve and experience.

I was to put this theory to a harsh test.

It had been many years since my first flirtation with the rocky and demanding trails in Bald Eagle and Rothrock State Forests which form the core of the W101. Years that have not treaded lightly. At the time, I never rode anything other than a singlespeed. I rode tall gears on improbable grades and trails as often as I could. Fitness was not the result of training, just a by product of riding far and often.

Nevertheless, at the time I had never ridden 100 miles off road in one go. I was also nervous of how my rigid bike (with new fangled 29er wheels consisting of crap tyres and Open Pro Mavic road rims and tyre-roll preventing über high pressure) would treat me.

It was tough, but I finished in a respectable time.

In 2016, I had decided to ride a geared, but still rigid bike (albeit with a 29+ front wheel) and although my preparation was relatively poor, I retained confidence in my ability to finish having done several 100 mile races in the USA and UK in the intervening years. This was the experience bit.

The weather in Pennsylvania was hot and humid (95°f and 90% plus humidity). I had ridden early in the a.m with my friends Frank and Sean, but we were generally done by 10.30 a.m, missing the heat of the day. Come race day, I knew that I needed to get as many miles under my belt as possible early on, otherwise I would suffer. I had all I needed to stay hydrated - 2 bottles and a 1 litre bladder (minimising weight on my back) and my bike was sorted. I had minimal stuff stashed in the 2 drop bags allowed for aid station 2 (which then went to aid 4) and aid 3.

A 5 a.m wake up was less harsh than it could have been due to jet lag and we headed to Coburn park with little time to spare before the start at 7 a.m. Daisy, Trina and good friend Buck waved me off and I tried to just remain calm and in the moment as we pedaled through Coburn and then onto the first forest road of the day.

[The following is my memory of trail name and events and I admit it may have some inaccuracies. The course had changed since I first completed the race and due to it being one big loop, you ride a *lot* of different trails. If there are any glaring errors and you happen to spot them - please let me know!]

The first ~20 miles are on rolling forest road. No difficulties or hard gradients. The weather was warm but as it was so early the humidity hadn't built yet and despite having to stop twice for a loosening bottle cage, I kept the pace up but well within my abilities. Aid 1 was a simple bottle fill and after this I made sure I started to eat some food.

Longberger, Spruce Gap and the Three Bridges Trail brought back memories and I enjoyed the technical riding. A photographer - Derek Bissett - snapped a picture of me still looking pretty lively as I cleared Three Bridges.

Then it was time to climb Laurel Run road and turn onto the Little Shingletown double track descent. Fast as.

The last couple of miles into Aid 2 were on firm road - I cannot remember if it was forest road or even sealed road: I was just glad to have completed the first ~40 miles in 3 hours.

I knew from reading others' reports that there was a monster of a climb out of Aid 2. Seeger road delivered on this threat, no doubt! Up and up it went. the heat and humidity were stifling and the harsh gradient sapped energy from my legs. Keep calm, spin, eat and take in fluids.

At the top of the climb, we turned onto Croyle Run Trail - the first of the really rocky descents. It was clear that I was handling my bike like a sack of potatoes. I struggled to focus on one thing - my eyes were darting to and fro and I was breathing fast and shallow. Noticing my arms were completely dry - no sweat whatsoever - I stopped riding and pulled to the side of the trail in some slight shade and sat for a minute on a rock.

Sometimes my day job can be pretty useful for bike riding and my diagnosis? early heat stroke. I knew I was well hydrated, with electrolyte and I knew I had been riding (just!) within myself. In that sort of humidity, being bone dry while exercising is a clear sign my body's thermometer wasn't registering correctly. Much more of that and things would go south, quickly.

I was just over 50 miles in and the bulk of the hard riding was still to come.

I mulled over the options and in truth there were precious few: call it and give in or find a way to keep moving round the course. The latter was clearly more attractive and a streak of obstinacy (old man strength, remember) acted as an emotional and mental anchor.

Beidlehmeimer, then Bear Meadows roads, before more climbing on Stone Creek and Seeger road led into Aid 3 and a welcome refreshment of fluids. I was still able to take in calories at this point, but most climbs and some of the narrow gauge trails that required a lot of effort meant I had to stop for up to 5 minutes at a time and allow my breathing to slow and the heat to dissipate a bit. It was disappointing as  basically this was not a race for me any more - it was akin to survival.

Climbing Pigpile and then Sasspig and Sassafras trail were next and we were soon in Coopers Gap. I climbed Beautiful trail (it was) and then No Name trail before Lingle Road and Aid 4.

By this stage I could not tolerate electrolyte or food - a worrying sign. My energy levels were dreadful - any effort was draining me. I could feel hot, hot air in my mouth with every breath: I just wanted to cool down.

After Aid 4 I walked up Sand Mountain road as the gradient required too much physical output even in a 32x42 gear and it was only when we continued onto Lingle Valley and Siglerville Pike that I could start pedaling again.

My original aim had been finishing in 9 hours and some. At this rate I would be lucky to come in under 12 hours.

All around me there were racers suffering in the heat. One racer noted the temp on his gps as 100°f (40°c) and I can well believe that.

With a race this long, there are always going to be multiple stings in the tail and although the next trail, Panther Run, wasn't the last it was the most painful. A slight downwards gradient but an absolute mess of sharp mobile and immobile rock. I can't quite describe the intensity of this trail. It got to the stage that I could not control my bike in any meaningful way - fast or slow. I simply let off the brakes and pedaled up to speed and sucked up the impacts, relying on my bike to not break under the onslaught. This went on and on. I stopped and rubbed feeling back into my hands then went again. And again.

I was bellowing without meaning as we finally dropped on to Poe Valley road.

Aid 5 signified 12-13 miles still to go. The old Mingle road climb with it's multiple false summits took  an emotional toll and the Fisherman's trail by the river was barely walkable let alone rideable in my state.

The railroad grade back to Coburn saw me sitting, somewhat petulantly, with my back to my bike, muttering to myself 'I can't do this anymore. I can't do this anymore'. Of course, I knew that I could, I just needed one last chance to slow down, calm my mind and breathing and cool myself as much as possible in the shade. I got going after a brief fit of dry retching.

Why I didn't jump in the river is anyone's guess and probably another sign of my poor physiological functioning.

On returning to Coburn I heard Daisy and Trina and friends Frank, Gareth and Teri urging me into the finish. A welcome home from the race organiser Chris Scott finally penetrated my consciousness that the day was done. 11 hours and 37 minutes. A terrible time compared to what I had hoped, but the number of DNF's and the shell shocked bodies all around told the tale of the day - the heat had made everybodies efforts a real test of metal. Expectations had gone out the window and survival was the goal for all but the hardest of racers.

For me, old man strength got me through. Just.

(With thanks to Derek Bissett and Trina for their photos. )

Friday 5 August 2016

Out of gas on the Galibier

Two days into our summer holiday in Bourg d'Oisans and I've got a hire bike sorted and a full day to enjoy it.  There's surely only one route for today; Col du Glandon, Col du Télégraphe, Col du Galiber. Most of the route of the Marmotte although I'll save the final ascent of L'Alpe d'Huez for another day.  160 kilometres and over 4000 metres of climbing.

By 6:30 I'm heading out into a chilly but fine morning.  My plan is to try and climb the Glandon before the heat starts to build.  The first few miles up the valley to Allemond are cold and my rain jacket and fingerless gloves aren't quite enough.  Once I get onto the climb my shivering soon subsides and I can enjoy having one of cycling's most famous cols more or less to myself.  At this time in the morning there aren't many people around and the few vehicles that pass give me plenty of space.

I'm slightly unsure about how my legs will cope with a big ride.  I've only managed three substantial rides this year and two of those were off road.  With a lot less miles than normal in my legs I take it steady on the first climb.  The majority of the climbing comes in the second half of the ride so it's easy to forget that the Col du Glandon is a 24km climb which tops out at almost 2000m.  It's such a long climb that I welcome the unexpected descent half way up, a good way to tick off a couple of easy kilometres.

Allemond from Col du Glandon
Looking back down the valley towards Allemond from the Lac du Grand Maision

As I break into the sun towards the top the scenery changes.  I've left the confines of the valley to emerge into a alpine meadow straight out of a film.  I'm lucky enough to see a golden eagle circling high above and a marmotte in the meadow alongside me.  What a wonderful place to ride.

Col du Glandon
Looking downhill at the start of the alpine meadow on the Col du Glandon

After a quick stop at the top to put my jacket back on I set off down the descent to Saint Etienne de Cuines.  It starts off very technical with tight hairpins and lots of gravel on the road.  Aware of my relative isolation I take it easy at first but the further I descend the faster and more flowing the road becomes.  This side of the Glandon is frequently climbed in the Tour and was the scene of Armstrong's famous bluff which was followed by 'that look' on the slopes of L'Alpe d'Huez.

The Maurienne valley is initially scenic but I'm soon in amongst the industry it is known for.  The surrounding hydro-electic schemes provide the power required for the multitude of aluminium smelters and chemical plants.  I'm struggling to follow the route, the GPX file I downloaded seems to just be a straight line down the valley and constantly tries to take me onto the autoroute.  After an unplanned detour through the center of Saint Jean de Maurienne I decide it's time for the first cafe stop of the day.

The roadside bar I stop in has wifi so I'm able to sort out my route to Saint Michel de Maurienne.  I enjoy a coffee and read the paper to catch up on the previous day's Tour stage.  While I'm inside someone flicks a switch on the weather, I step outside into a wall of heat.  It's almost 10 degrees warmer than it was half an hour ago.

The next section is straightforward.  A friendly local falls in with me and we talk for a while but he's a bit too strong for me today and I let him ride on.  From Saint Michel de Maurienne almost 2000m of climbing awaits in the space of 35 kilometers, quite a thought.  I spin up easily, taking advantage of the low gearing fitted to my hire bike.  There is barely a cloud in the sky and the sun beats down ferociously, almost directly overhead.  There isn't much shade but I greedily ride through every patch I can find feeling grateful for the respite it offers.

Close to the top the view opens up and I stop to take a photo, the first time I've stopped climbing in over an hour.  I felt fine when I was riding but I get a shock when I stop, my legs are fine but I feel light headed and a bit dizzy.  Luckily I'm soon at the top of the Télégraphe where I had planned to stop for lunch.

Col du Telegraphe
Not too shaky!

I pick a table in the shade and enjoy a massive baguette followed by apple tart and a coffee.  I'm probably at the furthest point from home and I still have well over 1000m of climbing to get over the Col du Galibier.  I need a plan to make sure I keep this ride enjoyable.  Right now it consists of eating lots and trying to cool down.  I accept that I'll need to ignore my ego and ride as easily as I can over the Galibier and take regular stops to cool down.  The temperature is well into the 30s and I'm struggling with it more than usual today.

Refuelled and rejuvenated it's time for the fun descent to Valloire.  After only a few minutes I've reached the ramp at the start of the Galibier.  For the next 18 kilometers the road climbs with absolutely no shade.  The scenery is spectacular and the traffic is very light.  I'm riding well within myself but the heat is overwhelming.  I stop at an abandoned building and drink in the spectacular view hidden for a few minutes from the sun.  A group of cyclists see me and do the same.  From here to the top I'm continually yo-yo'ing riders as we stop in what little shade we can find.

Col du Galibier climb
Spectacular views on the Col du Galibier

Col du Galibier climb
The only shade for miles but what a view, spot the parked cars for a sense of scale.

Plan Lachet
A coke with a view

I'm happy to reach the cafe at Plan Lachet and stop for a well deserved coke, my third cafe stop of the ride.  The final 8 kilometers from Plan Lachet to the top are considerably steeper but suit me better.  I'm gaining height more quickly and the steep ramps and constant changes of direction are easier mentally than the unrelenting straight ramp on the first part of the climb.  The scenery just gets better and better as I climb into the high mountains.  I have to stop a couple of times to cool down, once in a culvert where a stream runs under the road and then in the tiny slither of shade offered by a parked car.  A final steep section and I reach the top at 2642m.

Above Plan Lachet
Hiding in a culvert above Plan Lachet

Col du Galibier summit
Almost there

Col du Galibier VCM

I can't really say I climbed the Galibier, I simply made it to the top.  I try my best to appreciate the view before tackling the descent.  It's incredible.  8 kilometres of sweeping bends take me to the Col du Latauret, passing motorbikes and cars along the way.  A cafe stop for a quick espresso and I'm back on the road.  50 kilometers separate me from Bourg d'Oisans but I've got almost 1300m of elevation to lose, hopefully the engineers who built the road used it well.

Col du Galibier descent
The descent from the Col du Galbier is pretty special

Col du Galibier descent
Who knew the B in BMC stood for banana.

The first 20km are unbelievable, the descent is super-fast and so much fun that I've already forgotten the suffering on the last climb.  The main road past the Lac du Chambon has been closed for over a year because of a massive landslide and I'm re-directed onto a bizarre temporary road that has been bulldozed along the other side of the lake.  The next part of the descent is brilliant but it's obvious that I'm losing height too fast.  A short climb followed a draining headwind section provide an appropriate sting in the tail.

I arrive in Bourg d'Oisan and find my waiting family just about to go for an ice cream, perfect timing.  I haven't returned my bike yet so I'm claiming it, a 5 cafe stop ride!

Col du Glandon signs

Col du Telegraphe summit

Col du Glandon summit