February already! Rik and Andy and I decided that it was time for a bit of an adventure, rubbish weather not withstanding. A few options were discussed before we settled on exploring around Cross Fell and visiting the bothy known as Greg’s Hut for an overnighter, combining most of the fun of a bivvy with less of the discomfort and potential hypothermia of a winter night sleeping outdoors. We set a date and, despite weeks of horrible Atlantic storms, on the day the wind dropped, the rain dried up and it looked like we might enjoy near-perfect conditions for the first proper trip of the year. It didn’t quite turn out that way as you’ll see, but we still had a great time.We set off from Kirkland, ten miles or so past Penrith, at about 10.30pm, climbing straight up into the dark over the slowly freezing mud. The track grew rougher and more vague until after an hour or so it vanished into a bog, by which time the snow was covering the ground and we were carrying the bikes for long stretches. We followed the footprints of walkers through semi-frozen sphagnum swamps and over the saddle of Skirwith Fell. At the top the frozen crust was mostly hard enough to ride over. A kilometre of entertaining snowy descent took us to Greg’s Hut, which is a renovated miner’s shed, well-sealed from the elements and kitted out with a wooden sleeping platform and even a working stove. It had taken nearly two hours to reach our accommodation for the night, rather longer than expected due to the heavy going in the snow. Even at -5°C outside the bothy was comfortable enough, and once we had fuelled the stove with the heat logs we had carried up taped to our bikes we got the thing sufficiently hot to more-or-less dry our socks out. There were also gas cannisters, instant noodles, even a half-bottle of decent single malt, all presumably left by the mountain rescue team who had used the place as a marshal point for the recent Spine Race. The whisky in particular was appreciated, as my hipflask chose this trip to develop a terminal leak – as a result my rucksack now smells more stereotypically vagrant than ever, and I was left without anything to drink, which is frankly intolerable for a night on the hills. Greg’s Hut is positively luxurious compared to most bothies, and we half-jokingly discussed making up some story of being trapped by adverse conditions to enable us to stay for a peaceful extra day away from home.We slept well, and were back on the bikes by 7.30am, setting off into fog and snow. The clear conditions we had hoped for failed to materialise but we determined to stick to our planned route over Cross Fell and down from Tees Head. Retracing our tracks of the night before to just short of the ridge, we then turned south towards the summit, and head on into the wind and snow. Awkward ground conditions and a fair amount of navigational uncertainty meant that it took us nearly an hour to reach the huge shelter that tops the fell, and we didn’t hang around for long in the blowy spindrift.The going wasn’t much faster on the way down, and with no sign of the path under the white stuff I was very thankful for the little blue arrow on my GPS keeping us on course. We still overshot the junction for our descent from Tees Head, and floundered along for a good distance trying to spot what amounts to little more than a sheep track in amongst the drifts. Any attempt to ride was thwarted by sticky snow clogging in our frames and locking our wheels solid. We had to shoulder our bikes again, frustratingly, even to walk downhill. Then, at about 700m, the snow thinned significantly, the mist and snowflakes cleared as we dropped out of the cloud, and we spotted a cairn marking the trail. Finally we could ride for more than a few yards.The subsequent descent was fast and smooth, snaking rapidly down, around Wildboar Scar over frozen ground until we were nearly at the bottom. The sun was out, the views were dramatic and wide with the Eden valley spread out in front of us. Brakes squeaked back into life and I managed at last to shift into the big ring, the bike finally becoming useful rather than an encumbrance. Traction was minimal but nobody had any serious crashes, and sliding the back wheel around the corners was easy fun. The final kilometers were soaking wet and left us caked in mud and sheep shit, so we were glad to get back to the van and peel off filthy outer layers. The round trip took us around four hours, excluding our stay in the hut, but we guessed that we could easily knock at least an hour off this with drier, snow-free ground conditions. Our average moving speed was an appropriately glacial 5.7 km/h, and we were aching all over from all the pushing, carrying and yomping through icy bogs and snowdrifts. The views were non-existent, the trails were mostly unrideable, the accomodation didn’t even have running water: we all agreed it was a cracking night out.(Additional pics by Rik and Andy.)
No posts for ages because I’ve barely ridden a bike in anger outside for months. Pathetic, but I can at least plead house-moving and work-craziness as a defence, in addition to my usual laziness and disinclination to get cold and wet. In fact I missed pretty much all of the unseasonally lovely weather in October due to having loads of things to unpack and screw together and paint and nail to walls, etcetera. More recently, in between DIY sessions, yes I may have been hiding from the frankly hideous wind and rain of November and December with a woodburning stove and a beer or two. I have been BMXing a couple of times, ridden disused railway lines with the boy, and done a few turbo sessions with an old friend who is working on his rehab following some serious illness. Until Friday though I hadn’t been outside on a night ride, or indeed any kind of proper ride, for much longer than I care to contemplate.
Having finished work for the year (insofar as is possible when you’re your own boss, basically all emails and voicemails will just be ignored until January) I arrived home and instead of faffing with shelves or paint rollers, or just collapsing onto the couch, I asked permission to actually go outside and ride a bicycle. This being granted I dragged my sort-of-new Surly Krampus up and down some muddy tracks in the dark for an hour and a half, and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
I built this bike up in summer, after buying the frameset from the guy who won Relentless that time it nearly killed me just riding four laps of the course. Sadly I don’t think the bike-riding ability that won that race is included with the frame. I spent ages figuring out rim, tyre, hub and mudguard options in the aim of building up an ultimate winter machine for minimal maintenance and hassle, and added a selection of bits and bobs from the spares box to finish things off. Oh and a fancy dropper post. Fully rigid apart from the extra give in the massive tyres, with home-rolled wheels on a proper freewheel single-speed rear and dynamo front hub providing free lighting, and full coverage oversized guards sourced from the US – this is a very dorky bike, and I’m rather proud of it as a build project. Also it’s that lovely sparkly green colour that I have admired since I first saw one at a Singletrack film night in Hebden Bridge. It was good to finally take it outside and ride it in the sort of weather it was built for – windy, wet, grim.
The first hill was horrible, 32 x 20 sounds like a low ratio but hauling that gear out of our steep-sided Yorkshire valley on a 29+ bike into a headwind is bloody hard work when you’ve not really got the miles in your legs. My lungs were not happy with me when I reached the top 25 minutes after leaving the house. Still, I thought to myself, if I can manage this a couple of times a week through the winter I’ll be pretty much unstoppable come April. Rattling back down into the valley a few downed trees and lots of new, unexpected trail features bore testimony to the entertaining weather we’ve had of late, but the bike did what I needed it to do and I have to say I’m quite impressed with the steamrollering ride of the huge wheels and the softening effect of the 3-inch tyres. Getting the thing to go round corners demands a bit of forethought and the required manoeuvres occasionally border on interpretative dance, but once you get the hang of throwing the necessary shapes it’s a lot of fun. The massive, knobbly Dirt Wizard tyres didn’t lose traction once, even honking up a muddy slope that had clearly presented a problem to the local farmer’s pick-up. Their only weakness seems to be wet tarmac, on which they squirm like a politician explaining his expenses, but they didn’t drop me on the floor so I suppose I’ll get used to that. They’re not fast rollers either, but if you’re riding a bike with 3.0″ tyres and expecting XC whippet responsiveness you’re a bit daft, frankly.
I have said in the past that I don’t think I’d get much benefit from a full-on fat bike; although I have always been intrigued by them I certainly don’t need one (in terms of how much anyone really needs any kind of mountain bike at all, obviously). I think the half-way house of plus-sized 29er wheels might suit me more than a full-fat monster truck, and I certainly noticed that the big rubber offers a very effective amount of squish, taking the sharp edge off rocky tracks that are actively hard work on a regularly-tyred fully-rigid machine. There are a couple of things I need to tweak with the Krampus still: I want to run the tyres tubeless, I need a better saddle than the uncomfortable spares-box horror on there now, the seatpost is slipping a bit, the front mudguard is too low. But these are very minor snags and I’m looking forward to trying to get the most of out it over the coming winter months. Perhaps it’ll even get a chance to play in the snow at some point.
At the top of the last climb I found myself giggling as a tailwind blew me along a quiet lane, below the star-filled gaps in the clouds and above a well-earned singletrack drop down to home. The final descent was fun even if I had to stop halfway to shake the cramp out of my left calf. I rolled back to the house and dumped the bike straight in the garage, which is pretty much the whole point of a single-speed, right? In due course I crashed onto my sofa, but feeling like I really deserved the beer in my hand for the first time in a couple of months. Test ride: successful.
This sorry sight is the contents of my garage, bikes and all, stacked in storage due to a spectacular balls up on the part of some lawyers, who have managed to make me and my family homeless for two-and-a-bit weeks. We are currently bunking down with family until such time as the lady who is selling us her house gets round to moving out of the place so that we can finally move in. In the meantime it looks like there will basically be no riding going on around here at all. Very frustrating.
Last Friday’s day off was booked in my diary months ago, after I spotted that the Tour of Britain was due to roll through the Peak District not far from one of my favourite rides. Even if the weather had been rubbish I would still have headed out no matter what, as a combination of work-bother and an impending house-move had raised stress to almost intolerable levels, and I badly needed to clear my head and blast away the scurf of lawyerly intransigence and managerial incompetence.
Luck smiled, though, and Friday was not just a dry, sunny day, but one following a whole week of dry, sunny days. Rik and I set off from Hayfield into cloud and wind but by the time we reached Edale Cross the sun was burning through nicely. We noted the sobering fact that out of the five other guys we’d been here with last, two and a half years ago, one was dead, and one was currently barely able to ride a bike following massive cardiac surgery and associated complications – for all I’d had a bit of a bad week I still had infinite blessings to count. After a bit of a pause to reflect we realised that the others who’d been out that day had much less watertight excuses, and we resolved to get the lazy buggers out again as soon as possible.
The descent down Jacob’s Ladder was fast and loose and rocky, hard-earned fun; hold on tight and see how quick you dare go, look out for the new drop halfway down the top section where the repairs have all washed out, clatter down the crazy washed out chute to the gate and remember you’re alive and how. We arrived at the bottom arm-pumped and grinning, notwithstanding a bleeding leg where a rock had flipped up and smacked into Rik’s shin.
Next came the long winch up Chapel Gate, which nowadays is just a matter of keeping pedalling, and your lungs inside your chest, as the road-planings dumped here by Derbyshire County Council have removed any real technical challenge from the climb. I slogged my way to the top, oblivious to anything but the few feet of track in front of me, deliberately pushing as hard as possible to see what I could do. There are times when you need to get off and push your bike and admire the view, and there are times when you need to smash yourself to bits on a hill. This was the latter; taking it all out kicking the pedals around did me a great deal of good. I crested the hill, slumped on to the grass, and after a few minutes gasping noticed that the sun was well and truly out, and the buzzing anger at solicitors and other idiots had subsided significantly. We dropped down the Sunken Road, still fun at the top but brutally ruined lower down by DCC, and then left the trails for a detour down tarmac to Perryfoot to lie in wait for the break and the peloton of the Tour of Britain 2015 Stage Six.
The break came through, eight riders off the front, then a gap of about twenty seconds, and a second large bunch of riders including all the jerseys and a few key domestiques. There followed a huge gap of 12-13 minutes before the main peloton followed at a more sedate pace, settled in for an easy ride home, with Ed Clancy and Sir Bradley Wiggins chatting away at the back. The bunch had clearly taken a look at the spiky route profile and the headwind and decided as one man to bin the entire day as a bad job. The gap at the end of the race was over 45 minutes.
We packed up after watching the team cars roll through, and climbed back to our chosen route with a couple of roadies looking for a café. Riding back over the Roych was much more pleasant than the last time I passed this way, when I ended up in A&E having my face glued back together after an idiotic over-the-bars crash. The trail has been repaired since then, and excellently so, by people who actually care about what they are doing. It is now brilliant, a steppy, slabby joyride down to the stream, which feels challenging enough to be interesting, but harbours none of the lethal wheel-eating holes that caught me out previously.
The final climb up to South Head was passed pleasantly in sunshine with a tailwind and chatter about suspension technology or something like that. Dropping down to Hayfield was as brilliant as ever, each section of the descent has its own distinct character, broken up by small sections of gentle uphill or farm track allowing you to catch your breath. A line of rocky steps leads into a path covered in miniature kickers where you can boot yourself into the air, then a small climb after a gate delivers you to the top of a multi-option moorland downhill where at this time of year you must second-guess the best line-choice hidden in the long grass. A lane and a brief climb back to the ridge lead you to the top of the campsite descent, which starts fast and open before rucking up alarmingly with water erosion and large drainage gullies. I surprised myself here, somehow making decisions that carried me clear over all sorts of hideous rocks and holes, skipping across horrible boulder-strewn fields of death like some sort of high-speed, two-wheeled mountain goat. That’s what it felt like anyway, although I doubt I was particularly fast in reality. When my brain finally caught up with me at the bottom it gave me a proper bollocking for being silly and pointed out that it had been my turn to take a massive rock to the shin, just look at that bump, that’s going to hurt in the morning you daft git.
I thanked my brain for its input but told it in no uncertain terms to shut up because we still had the last bit of descending to do, the entertaining little singletrack drop along the edge of the woods back into the village. A few minutes later we rolled into the Royal Hotel for pints of coke and then beer, feeling like we’d thoroughly squeezed the last bit of goodness out of summer.
The family went away for a night, without me, which is something that almost never happens, so I took the opportunity to get outside and do something interesting. Time was a bit limited so to make the most of the chance I decided to pack some kit and head off for a bivouac in the local hills. It was blowing quite a bit on the tops but it didn’t feel likely to rain much, and for all it looked more like October than August it wasn’t too cold either. I traced my way along the Pennine watershed, up to the motorway junction at Windy Hill, where I scuttled quickly past the corral of looming overnight HGVs beside the transmitter mast. I dimmed my lights to avoid attracting the attention of the figures engaged in furtive activities around the various attendant cars parked up among the trucks and kept them low until I was well away over the footbridge. About and hour and a half after I set out I reached the top of Blackstone Edge, where I scouted about for a likely spot to shelter from the wind. There was a perfect little corner just north of the trig point, with a gentle slope, dry rock to lean on, and even some complementary reading material.Settling down for the night with my hipflask, I watched the occasional cars passing on the road below until the clouds drew in and hid most of the outside world from view. I think I dropped off at around midnight, and slept well enough through a dry night. When I woke the wind had died down considerably and the clouds were clearing up nicely. I watched a pair of kestrels hunting for their breakfasts whilst I sorted my own out. It was a wrench to leave the bivvy bag, and I lay wrapped up for quite a long time, but I was on my way by 6am, crossing the already seething M62 and dropping back towards home shortly after 7. I didn’t see a single other person more than a few feet from tarmac during the whole trip.Whilst reading the section on Blackstone Edge in the bouldering book I found, I came across a quotation from a poem by a chap called Edwin Waugh, who I’d never heard of before but who seems to have had the right idea:
My heart’s away in the lonely hills,
Where I would gladly be—
On the rolling ridge of Blackstone Edge,
Where the wild wind whistles free!
There oft in careless youth I roved,
When summer days were fine;
And the meanest flower of the heathery waste
Delights this heart of mine!
Oh, the lonely moors, the breezy moors,
And the stormy hills so free;
Oh, the wild, wild moors; the wild, wild moors,
The sweet wild moors for me.
(Dont worry, I’ve posted up on UK Climbing to try to reunite the book with its owner.)
August means it’s time for the ‘Ard Rock again, so Rik and I headed back up to Swaledale to chuck ourselves down hills with hundreds of other lunatics. I entered the enduro proper this year, after having a go at the course as part of the ‘All Mountain Challenge’ last time. There were a few changes to the stages, 1 and 4 in particular having much longer lower sections, and the additions were excellent, challenging bits of trail. Riders got the opportunity to preview these on the Saturday as part of an entertaining practice course, the other three stages being tied up for a mini-enduro event. Saturday’s weather was glorious, sunny and calm, and we finished off the course reconnaissance with a pint at a very local pub.
The rain mainly held off on race day in spite of threatening clouds and wind, and I was most glad of this in the wooded section at the bottom of stage 1, which would have been horrendous in proper mud. As it was the piles of dusty earth covering the steep chutes in this part of the course hid an entertaining selection of lurking roots, and although I managed to get down cleanly both in practice and the race itself, I didn’t manage it with any great style. The rest of the course was much more to my taste, crossing open, bleak moorland quarries on trails of loose rock and grass, through spoil heaps and gullies with the odd hairpin and occasional fearsome cliffs to keep you on your toes. All the stages were brilliant fun, and I reached the bottom of stage 5 positively buzzing (although I was annoyed to discover afterwards that I’d somehow completely missed a really entertaining little jump halfway down).
Outside the tapes we made our way round at an extremely leisurely pace, walking most of the steeper hills to conserve our energies for the racing, and clocked up a total lap time of over 5 hours. Rik was unlucky enough to suffer a puncture on stage 4 so he came in a few minutes behind me in the overall, but was faster on all the other stages and would have beaten me had he not had his mechanical. My timed stage total came to about 22 minutes and I ended up about 2/3 of the way down the field, which is respectable enough for pack-fodder like myself. The fast lads were up around the 16 minute mark and frankly I have no idea how they achieve that level of skill and speed.
The event itself had clearly grown considerably from the previous year, with around twice the number of riders in the combined events, and a much bigger, better organised event village, with almost the feel of a little festival. There was a better choice of food to be had, more easily, and a proper mobile bar too. It was busy but not unpleasantly so, and they had hired enough toilets this time. We saw quite a few people we knew, the weather was much better, and overall we had an excellent weekend. Oh, and we also made it into the official video – blink-and-you’ll-miss-us but we’re at about 4m59s, me and Rik doing a cheesy but (honestly!) spontaneous high-five at the finish line.
I’d been eyeing this one up for a while. Since I was about thirteen, in fact, and let’s not consider how many years that is precisely. When I was a teenager I spent many happy summer days exploring the local hills on my beloved Breezer Storm (until it was stolen from my garage , without brake blocks, I sincerely hope the theiving scrote broke something). My mate Ben and I used to head out into the Peak District and put in forty, fifty mile days with one bottle each, some sandwiches and a battered copy of OS Landranger 110, jumpers for goalposts, isn’t it, mmm. I first planned this route back then, the aim being to ride from home to take in as many highlights of the Dark Peak as I could string together off-road in one big loop and then head back, but I never got chance to ride it all in a single day. It was always that bit too intimidating to take on, covering a number of hefty climbs over its theoretical sixty-to-seventy mile length, and featuring many descents that can leave you nearly as tired as the uphills do.
We did do most of the ride once, but we decided to make it more manageable by breaking it up into two days with a stop at Edale Youth Hostel, my first encounter with multi-day bike touring. On the first day we learned the importance of packing a chain tool when I twisted a link coming down Jacob’s Ladder, forcing me to ratchet my way to the YHA, and then on to the bike hire place at Fairholmes the next morning to borrow the necessary kit for a repair to get me home. In spite of this minor mishap we had a brilliant time that weekend and I have revisited these trails countless times over the years, watching them change, always feeling at home on them. But I never actually got round to riding that big old loop I planned out all those years ago, until yesterday.
Up and out of the door by just after six AM, I made good time to the Pennine Bridleway, something that didn’t even exist back when I first contemplated this idea. My original intention would probably have involved something stupid like riding over Holme Moss, but I took advantage of fuzziness of memory and a changed start point to follow a route down the Tame valley and over to Tintwistle instead. I had set myself a target of getting to Glossop within two hours without killing myself to determine whether to undertake the full loop or bail out. I managed this easily enough even with a minor wrong turn due to a path closure, and then slogged through the most unpleasant half hour of the route all day, surrounded by idiot rush-hour drivers on a long, tedious tarmac section. I was very happy to reach the bottom of the Middle Moor bridleway above Hayfield, signifying the start of the real riding. I pushed up what is normally an entertaining, loose descent, climbing around the edge of Kinder Scout, then dropping down and climbing back up to reach the high-point of the day at Edale Cross (541m). The next descent, Jacob’s Ladder, remains one of my favourites, although I’d not ridden it for a long time. The last couple of years have been pleasingly hard to it, and much of the debatable repair work on the upper section, presumably undertaken by the National Trust, has been loosened by winter frosts and then smashed out of the ground by storms. It’s brilliant to ride right now, if you stay on the track and keep off the chicken lines round the side, rocky as hell and full of interesting little drops and loose rubble. My recent trip to Torridon stood me in good stead and I had a blast all the way down, although I stopped to catch my breath and take a photo at the half-way gate.I shot down Edale at a remarkable pace, carried along on a glorious tailwind, and all the way up Jagger’s Clough I tried to make the most of the assistance and block out the knowledge that I’d have to ride back into this westerly blast for most of the last quarter of the ride. From Hope Cross I weighed up the options of a longer, simpler drop along ‘Potato Alley’ followed by a steadier climb through Rowlee Farm, or a short sharp shot down ‘The Beast’ and a similarly spiky hike back up past Hagg Farm. I opted for the quicker but tougher route, clattering down greasy rocks under the trees and back up the other side of the valley to the top of Lockerbrook, then down more greasy rocks into the Derwent Valley. I encountered a number of other cyclists on the quiet lane alongside the reservoirs, practising my most determined, weathered look as I spun along. Nobody asked me where I was riding to so I was denied the opportunity to pretend to be some sort of fearless marathon athlete. Still, I got to visit one of my favourite unnecessary cycle-infrastructure safety signs, warning unsuspecting riders of a treacherous 1-in-70 slope followed by a lethal off-camber (just) 10 degree right-hander. I reckon my son could have ridden this one out successfully on his brakeless balance bike, aged two. Still, you can’t be too careful.Next on the menu was Cut Gate. I stopped at the foot of the climb for a snack before shouldering the bike for the steep slog up the switchbacks. Somewhere up here I began to develop a headache that persisted for the next couple of hours. At the summit the wind had dropped totally, it was almost dead calm in spite of my being at the second highest point of the day, and totally exposed to the elements. I hoped, futilely as it turned out, that some freak weather anomaly had killed off the prevailing wind, and set off on the longest descent of the day. Cut Gate itself, the peculiar trench through the peat hags, was muddy and puddly on top, but wherever there was a noticeable gradient the path was dry and the descent down Mickleden Edge was as enjoyable as ever, with rubble all over. Presumably this was a further sign of the storms that broke up the surface of Jacob’s Ladder, which must have been relatively recent, as I rode here a less than two months ago and it was much less loose then.
Diverting down past the ruined farmstead at North America to Langsett Barn for a refill of water, I grabbed a bite from my pack, and pressed on toward the Trans-Pennine Trail, attempting to ignore the persistent throbbing ache at the top of my skull, and the noticeably rising breeze. The usual bridleway link to the TPT was shut for some reason, so I enjoyed another brief spike of unwanted adrenalin courtesy of the Great British motorist and his astonishing faith in his own driving abilities. I then escaped up the quiet old railway line on the nice new surface installed by Sustrans, straight into the teeth of what was fast becoming a brutal headwind. A cheeky detour up and across the dam of Winscar Reservoir provided brief respite before turning back into the full force of the gale. It was chilly enough on the tops to merit putting on my waterproof, and I ground my way to the top of the hills above Holme feeling distinctly cold. Dropping down Ramsden Road to Yateholm was actively painful. At the bottom of the rocky descent I dug out my emergency paracetamol to deal with the now un-ignorable headache, and gritted my teeth for the final grind home.
More tarmac carried me to the start of Springs Lane, by which time the painkillers had taken effect, and I climbed steadily up over familiar ground to the Isle of Skye road, where the wind bullies you nearly as much as the motorists. A white van man drove me clean off the road, but I barely had the energy to show my appreciation. I turned gratefully off the blacktop after a grim fifteen minutes where I must have averaged barely seven miles-per-hour. As a final kick in the teeth the headwind required me to pedal most of the way down the last descent just to keep moving, but I was running on autopilot by this point, smiling at myself just for finishing the ride, and (just) inside the nine hours I had down as a vague target to aim for when I set out.
In total my Garmin tells me I covered 107.66km (66.9 miles) with 2,866m of ascent over some fairly tough terrain, without dying horrifically or having to phone someone up to bail me out. Here is the Strava trace, with slightly different numbers for some reason. I ate 1.5 bags of Jelly Babies, two houmous sandwiches and one cereal bar on the road, and then half my bodyweight in chilli when I got home. Then I slept for about twelve hours. A good day, well spent. Damn, I love mountain biking.
Well, I’m back.
Me and Rik went to Scotland to ride bikes and watch the Fort William Downhill World Cup. It rained, lots, but we had an ace time anyway.
We drove up on Thursday, originally intending to ride up and back down Ben Lomond, but rain and low cloud led us to divert to Laggan Wolftrax instead. This turned out to be an excellent idea. Laggan is reputedly quite technical (for a trail centre), and a couple of features on the black certainly merit stopping and considering rather than blindly riding in. It is all technically rollable, though. We did the three main loops in more-or-less sensible order, bar a few diversions due to dodgy signage. The two red loops are good fun and the black is entertaining, with scary looking features that turn out to be quite flattering to ride, provided you don’t choose a stupid line (obviously I chose a couple of stupid lines, but still lived to tell the tale). Also kicking around the track were a few staff members of the Canyon Enduro team, who took a sideways look at my knackered old Nerve AM before blasting down the huge qualifier rocks like they were insignificant pebbles. Must have been down to the fancy new bikes.
Friday saw us emerge from a rain-sodden tent and make our rain-sodden way to rain-sodden Glencoe to ride the Devil’s Staircase and Ciaran Path (both rain-sodden). The push up the staircase was amusing, if you find the sight of very miserable, very wet ramblers amusing (I do). The ride down the other side was brilliant and I didn’t puncture, unlike the last time I was here. We turned right at the penstock and rode up to the scary-looking Blackwater dam, which felt like approaching the gates of Mordor, only soggier. You’re not supposed to use the dam to get across the valley, there are big signs warning you about deep water and whatnot (which is daft, there’s a four foot concrete wall in the way of the water, you’re more likely to fall off the front of the dam). Duly noting the warnings, we somehow magically found ourselves on the north side of the valley, no, I have no recollection of how we got there yer honour. We then promptly rode off in the wrong direction through a massive bog and had to climb back up before setting off down the real route. People rave about the Ciaran Path, apparently. Presumably they rode it during one of the Highlands’ bi-centennial dry periods. I can only say that I’m sure it’s fun when you can differentiate it from the thousands of burns that cross it. I don’t mean to imply that the riding was bad, it wasn’t, it was excellent in parts, but all the excellent bits were punctuated by swamps and rivers and mostly submerged under half a foot of water. When we finally made it down to Kinlochleven we were very wet and very cold and sorely in need of refuelling. The Ice Factory café sorted us out and we began to climb back up, slowly and painfully, towards the top of the Devil’s Staircase again. And then the rain stopped. The wind dropped. The clouds reluctantly loosed their grip on the summits and the whole world altered its aspect completely in a matter of minutes. We forgave Scotland for the previous four hours and had a cracking final half hour riding down an amazing trail in glorious sunshine.
The brief break in the weather turned out to be a minor blip and proceedings reverted to type for Saturday. In fact the weather was so bad that practice and qualification for the Fort William round of the UCI Downhill World Cup was called off completely. We squelched around the event village ogling fancy bikes and spotting mountain-bike celebrities (Manon Carpenter! Loic Bruni! Nigel Page! Danny MacAskill! Danny MacAskill’s mum!). We took the gondola up and walked down the course, which was muddy and terrifying and cold and wet. We retreated to a pub, then retreated to our tent to hide from the weather, worrying vaguely about the trees overhead dropping limbs on us in the night. Sunday dawned much better – the sun even came out later on, and the racing was excellent to watch. We set off for Torridon almost immediately after Greg Minnaar clinched the win, and three hours later set up our tent in the free camp site below the imposing mass of Liathach.
The next morning we set out on our Big Mountain Day. The weather was pretty good but everything was still soaking wet from the previous week’s downpours, so we ended up soaking wet in pretty short order. It barely mattered, the scenery was superlative, and the trails astonishing. A wrong turn led us to complete a different route to that originally intended but we didn’t feel that we’d missed out as the riding was pretty much perfect. The hills were almost deserted, we saw one other group of riders and a total of four walkers in almost seven hours of riding. The paths we rode were incredible, rocky and challenging but immensely rewarding. The only midgie in the ointment was the obligatory stupid square-edged water-culverts, one of which booted me over the bars on the last descent – but these were happily fairly rare and didn’t detract from an excellent day’s riding. We finished off with a fancy meal at the incongruous Torridon Hotel, a swish establishment in the middle of nowhere, proper posh like.
On Tuesday morning, after a night disturbed by the loudest cuckoos I’ve ever heard, we set out on the Ben Damph loop. “Damph” is a typically Scottish understatement: the entire hill was utterly sodden. Three hours, mostly of slog over boggy, wet paths led us to the top of an excellent rocky descent. It wasn’t a bad ride at all, but I feel that it’s probably one best reserved for a dry day, one preceded by at least a week of no rain.
And that was it. We arrived at the tent utterly knackered, and abandoned vague plans of riding somewhere else on the way home in favour of a nine-hour drive straight back. A week of Scottish water erosion had taken it’s toll: all our kit was soaked, our bikes were making some very alarming noises, and we were twitching involuntarily at every drip or splashing sound. We broke camp, chucked everything in the back of the car and set off for home. It was a brilliant holiday, we had a great time, shame about the weather. I will definitely head back to the Highlands and to Torridon in particular one day, there’s riding to be had there like nowhere else I’ve ever been. I might factor in alternative activities in case of rain, though.
It snowed heavily midweek, and the hills were buried under nearly a foot of it until yesterday. It was falling fast enough to justify working from home on Wednesday. Then it warmed and the rain started, and the moors are mostly back to their customary winter colour, with only a starling spatter of white where the snow hides in pockets between higher ground.
I have to be back by five so I head up to the conduit, with a brief pause where the Local Shop was to inspect the vicious waterbars and scout out alternative lines that will avoid slashing holes in my tyres next time I come down this way. I make a quick stop at the top to admire the sunset, then carefully pick my way down the reservoir track, switching over the lethal frozen tramlines of compacted snow left on the hardpack and tarmac by farmers’ 4x4s. Across the river, across the stream, these new waterproof socks work better than the old ones. Grind up Wessenden Head into the teeth of a hearty headwind, all the cars are giving me lots of room today for some reason, and a white-van-man even holds back uncharacteristically to wait for space to pass.
At the very top of the hill I discover a rolled car, ten-fifteen feet off the road on its roof, assorted motoring detritus all over the ceiling, a child seat in the back, but no sign of any driver or passengers. The exhaust is cold, it looks like it’s been here for some hours at least, but there’s no sign that anyone else has been along to do anything about it. There is ice and snow all over the road, it is not hard to reconstruct what probably happened. This isn’t the first time I’ve found a crashed vehicle up on the tops, they seem to crop up every couple of years, a few yards off the road, upside down or on their sides, sometimes obviously stolen and deliberately trashed or burnt out, other times like this, oddly abandoned chunks of somebody else’s very bad day.
Satisfied that no-one’s life needs saving I ride on, pedalling round the curves as fast as I can, between banks of snow encroaching onto the road. It’s getting dark, I want to get off the tarmac, away from the cars and their drivers. Swinging right and down onto the path home, I feel safer. The snow is melting fast even up here but deep patches of slush still grab at the front wheel, throwing the bike against the side of ruts, fishtailing me down the hill. Halfway down the sound of metal on metal tells me that my rear brake pads have worn through completely. My front brake is screeching, probably headed toward the same failure mode as the rear shortly. The headwind is strong enough that this hardly matters, I have to pedal to keep up any real momentum anyway. I meet one other rider about halfway down, we exchange appreciative comments regarding the conditions. The steeper, rockier sections are free of snow or ice, so there’s no real risk of serious incident. It’s ten past five but I think I’ll probably still get away with it and I roll back to the village happy to have got out for a bit.