Velo Club Moulin

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.