My leg is still sufficiently knackered that I’ve yet to get out on a bike, and the weather’s rubbish anyway (although I have been doing my exercises and everything). Having cleaned, serviced and repaired pretty much everything bike-shaped in the house, I decided to amuse myself by building a new set of wheels for the Rocket. They are Stan’s Arch Mk3 on Hope Pro4s with DT Comps, and I’m very pleased with how they’ve turned out. I do love wheel-building, it’s very therapeutic lacing and truing up a nice new set of wheels, and immensely satisfying when you finally check everything one more time and it all runs true.
I haven’t had a big crash for years now, so I suppose it was coming. This time wasn’t as bad as my last, and I was able to walk off the hill and get home without a detour to A+E, so I suppose I should be grateful for small mercies. I have now been off the bike for over four weeks, though, and frankly I’m getting a bit bored. Much as I like vegetating with my feet up in front of the stove with a glass of wine, when you have to do it for a solid month because you can’t do much else it honestly starts to become a little frustrating.Most enduro stages have intermediate marshal points where the organisers station someone to keep an eye on the trickier parts of the course, and to sweep up crashed riders, broken bikes, body parts and whatnot. Stage two of the PMBA Grizedale Enduro had two marshal points, the first at an awkward rooty-rocky slippery corner section, which had caught me out in practice, but which I cleared pretty well in my race run. The second marshal point was at a rocky drop which I had barely even registered as I shot over it in practice. Under timed conditions, sadly, I took a different line, my front wheel washed out and I went down onto the rocks hard. My leg got twisted up under my bike and once I’d stopped sliding down the hill I knew my riding was done for some time. I couldn’t stand up, or bend my leg at all, and I tentatively pulled my pads off to survey the damage. Nothing appeared to be obviously snapped or sticking out, but I still couldn’t do anything much movement-wise, so the marshal called for the paramedics to assess things. A few minutes later, having prodded and poked me to ascertain that I wasn’t seriously broken, they hauled me to my feet and ordered me off the hill under my own steam (in the nicest possible way, I hasten to add, helping me with the tricky bits and making sure I didn’t pass out or anything). I limped slowly down to the bottom of the course, dodging flying riders, several of whom had the decency to bin it in the same spot as me, and made my way to the campsite, which I had fortuitously managed to crash about as close to as it was possible to get without leaving the race route. We packed up the van (well, Rik did, with me helping as best I was able) and once we’d got the farmer to tow us out of the field and driven the three hours or so home, that was the end of our weekend.Approximately a week after the crash I ended up in A+E for real with a suspected DVT related to the walloping my calf had taken from the rocks. This was really painful, like having six-inch nails hammered into my leg at times, but ultrasound revealed that any clot was far enough down my calf to not pose a serious risk, the doctors advised that I’d basically just strained everything about as far as possible without rupturing anything, and I was sent home with painkillers and told to take it easy. Since then I have managed to hobble slightly faster every day, and I can now turn the pedals on the turbo trainer on easy for maybe fifteen minutes or so, and I am walking almost like a normal mobile pedestrian again. I may even be able to ride a proper bike in the next few weeks, according to the physio I saw recently, provided I religiously practise all the prescribed exercises with which I’m now allowed to torture my lower leg. Fun fun fun.
Here’s the official video of the (otherwise completely smashing) PMBA Round 7. I’m in it, you can see me bumbling along at about 1m06 in a red top on a green Rocket. And then again at about 1m18, lying on the floor behind the marshal, looking monumentally pissed off. It looks like most other people had a much better day than I did, which is gratifying…
Cycle speedway is a rather improbable discipline of cycling, where you go as fast as you can round a tiny dirt track on a bike with no brakes. There’s a track in Tyldesley and a few of the Monday Night Pub Ride gang got together to have another go this last Monday, following an entertaining visit at the start of summer where almost everyone crashed out spectacularly. Amazingly, none of us crashed this time, possibly because it was dark, I dunno. Here’s a video of proceedings (warning: contains cussing, heckling, and some very poor bicycle handling on my part).
We didn’t get on to the main ‘Ard Rock event this year due to internet problems at sign up time, so we drove up on Sunday morning to ride the ‘Sport’ version instead. This was originally supposed to be a sort of timed-round-the-whole-route challenge thing, I think, but it turned into a back-up version of the main enduro after loads of people grumbled about not getting to race properly. I got round well enough by my standards, in spite of having done nearly no riding in the past couple of months. It was bloody windy but the rain held off, and I had a pretty entertaining time of it on the stages, which had a few new fun bits here and there. That probably wraps up any riding of interest now until September: work, DIY and summer holidays have done their usual number on my free time.
I flatter myself that I am a resilient mountain biker. I am fine carrying my bike up snow-covered hills in the dark, or slogging my way over every last sodden lump in central Wales through incessant rain, or grinding out the miles through the dark, long winter nights. Waterproofs and mudguards and decent lights can ameliorate most problems, and I enjoy a challenge, so I am pretty well adapted to British off-road riding at its worst. I take a certain satisfaction from battering through the grimmest, wettest, most mud-caked rides, in the same way that roadies enjoy turning themselves inside out up massive hills, or climbers enjoy having their fingerprints erased by gritstone, or runners enjoy, well, running. This is not to say, however, that I prefer riding in our customarily horrible British weather; I do not.
To use a hypothetical, average any-given-bike-ride as an analogy, the best bit is never going to be the climb to the top of the hill; however satisfying it may be to haul yourself upwards, maybe even beating a personal best on the way, or cleaning that nadgery bit that always defeats you, all things being equal it’s always going to be more fun coming back down. The best descent in the world kicks the crap out of the best climb, and if you disagree with that you’re some sort of perverted freak, and I suggest you take up cyclocross or time-trialling.
In the same way, whilst bad-weather rides are good, and even fun sometimes, good weather rides are better. If it was all bad weather rides, all the time, I’d just give up and find a new hobby. In the middle of winter (and sometimes in the middle of our so-called summer too) I wonder if I can face another N hours of grinding, sodden slog through headwinds and rain and slimy ruts. I sink into the sofa, guiltily poring over maps of places I’d like to ride in better conditions. I dream idly of dusty, sinuous trails under blue skies, perhaps with a gentle breeze softening the heat. The thought of some idealised summer ride, out on big hills in perfect weather is often the only thing that gets me out of the door to squelch my way around yet another dark, drizzle-soaked, bog-dodging Pennine tour-de-grim.
On Monday, almost unexpectedly, I managed to go on one of those idealised summer rides, in Torridon, on the last day of our Scotland 2016 bike trip. Having monitored the precipitation in the far north-west for the weeks leading up to our Fort William visit, and having noted that things were somewhat drier than in 2015, we decided to add on a second attempt at the well-known “Lollipop” route, which I had screwed up last year by taking a wrong turn on the first hill. From the outset things went swimmingly, the day dawned still and warm, with barely a cloud in the sky.The climb from Annat was dry and grippy, and the views spectacular, and as we had set off relatively early things weren’t too hot. We were soon off and pushing in places, but made good progress up towards the stepping stones at Lochan Domhain. The bulk of Liathach which had loomed above our camp as we set out sank back and expanded into a vast panorama behind us as we climbed, with Ben Alligin and Ben Eighe flanking the huge ridge on either side. The sandstone that makes the bones of these giants, and also the hills we were crossing, is wonderful stuff; the aeons-worth of pulverised igneous rock, compressed into dense sedimentary strata, create surfaces of pure traction even in the wet, and after several weeks of next-to-no rain the rocks and slabs comprising these paths flatter even the most inept mountain biker (you can take my personal assurance on that).
Contouring round Loch an Eion and over Bealach na Lice we reached the point where I had misdirected us the previous year, perhaps the only point where it’s possible to go significantly wrong on the entire route. The descent to Coulags is not bad at all, but it loses height fast and the remaining drop down the valley is littered with square-edged water bars, so it works better as a climb. Taking the left fork this time, and traversing the head of the valley over Bealach Bàn into Coire Grannda meant another few hundred meters of ascent, but it took us (via yet more stunning views of the Torridon mountains) to the top of one of the most incredible trails I have ever had the pleasure of riding.After skirting a nameless lochan we dropped down a series of lose, fast chutes of white limestone pebbles, drifting on the edge of control between the two imposing Munros of Sgorr Ruadh and Beinn Liath Mhòr. Exiting Coire Làir the gradient eased and short sections of uphill had us pedalling to maintain momentum, but the winding track lost none of its charm. We met a couple of walkers at this point, our first sighting of humanity for over two hours, and politely acknowledged the usual incomprehension at our mode of transport. “Is it not too rocky?” they asked. “No, we love the rocks, they’re the best bit!” The trail steepened again towards the woods, and a series of switchbacks and rockeries strung together into a crescendo of technical fun, just on the edge of my capabilities, a brilliant closing movement to a sublime singletrack symphony. The last kilometre or so through the woods, muddy, vague and overgrown, ending in a detour along the railway track, couldn’t take the shine off riding down what is undoubtedly one of the best bits of trail I have ever encountered, in some of the best conditions I’ve ever experienced.After a flat, tarmac interlude down Glen Carron to Coulags, and a brief chat with a little old lady, of whom I begged a refill of water, we paused for a bite to eat in the shade beside a stream. It was about noon and the thermometer on my Garmin was reading an alarming 35°C; certainly this was an exaggeration due to the black-plastic gadget being in direct sunlight, but still an indication of just how hot it was – I shared the detail with a pair of ramblers, who appeared to be almost melting in the blazing sunshine. A surprising amount of the valley was rideable, certainly compared to the swampy paths we had encountered here last year, and with a few clouds building up above the peaks the temperature began to drop a little. It was refreshing to leave the path and splash along the shoreline of Loch Coire Fionnaraich for a while before starting the final push back up to Bealach na Lice.
Retracing our tracks back down to Annat from the top took us around half an hour, including stops for photos and view-admiring (and resting our by-now fatigued limbs). The Annat descent is not quite as intense as the Achnashellach trail, but it still comprises some of the best mountain biking in the UK: rocky, fast, swooping singletrack of the highest order. We clattered our way down towards the sea, encountering at the last moment a couple more walkers, only the third pair of people we had seen out on the hills in six hours of riding. I was silent on the spin back to the campsite, looking around at the mountains for one last time. Lost for words, I was rerunning the ride over and over in my mind to fix it in memory: a bright, shining day when I was happy, like a piece of armour for the soul, ready for the return of those dark, cold winter rides, and for all the other things in this life that demand a reason why.
Following the incredibly damp but rather enjoyable experience of Fort William and the Highlands last summer, Rik and I decided to have another shot at watching the Downhill World Cup, possibly even in less horrific weather, hope springs eternal and all that. We took the precaution this time of booking a B&B, however, and our cunning meteorological reverse-psychology paid off, insofar as the universe arranged itself to deal a fortnight of blazing heatwave out to the northern reaches of Great Britain at the end of May and start of June. In the days leading up to last weekend it became clear that the conditions in the mountains of Scotland were about as good as they are ever likely to get, so we rearranged a few things to facilitate some riding of our own on the days around the pre-booked main event.
We loaded the van on Friday morning and set off with a couple of possibilities for a ride on the way up in mind. The further north we went the better the weather got, and just before Glasgow we elected to detour via the high road; specifically the summit of Ben Lomond. From the start at Rowardennan it took us a couple of hours, mostly pushing, to climb the 950 or so meters to the top, through improbably glorious sunshine, with only a slight breeze to moderate the 30°C heat. The views all the way up were beautiful and the panorama from the top was spectacular, stretching all the way from the edges of the Southern Uplands right up to the distant outline of Ben Nevis on the horizon, almost fifty miles away.The rocky, technical descent started pretty well, until Rik clipped his rear tyre on a pointy rock, losing pressure, which led to him subsequently picking up three successive punctures, after which he gave up putting tubes in the now terminally damaged wheel and rolled down on the grass as best he was able. I picked my own way down the entertainingly rough trail, not much more quickly, reaching the van only five minutes sooner. The descent took around an hour, but half of that was spent dealing with mechanicals. I was glad to tick off my first proper Scottish Munro, and on a bicycle too, although it was a shame that Rik had his ride ruined by bad luck. We rolled in to Fort William much later than anticipated, but still managed to track down beer, burgers and chips in a chain pub before turning in, worn out and slightly sunburnt.The first job after breakfast on Saturday was obtaining a new wheel, and Nevis Cycles in Inverlochy sorted us out at a fair price. Patched up and rolling again we set out to explore the trail up to the CIC Hut below the imposing northern crags of Ben Nevis itself. On the way in we encountered a couple of (strangely familiar) riders, who shared some useful local knowledge on the best route back down the hill, before we started the slog up the valley beside the Allt a’Mhuilinn. The weather was less scorching than the previous day but still beautifully sunny; the mountainous scenery was doing a very passable imitation of a corner of the Alps, with snow lurking in the gullies and huge precipices all around.I didn’t enjoy the descent as much as I had hoped I might, chiefly due to the numerous wheel-sized culverts in the trail, which were so frequent, square and large as to prevent any sustained fun. By the time we reached the deer-fence gate I was thoroughly tired of hopping the bike to negotiate these obstacles, or dismounting for the really big ones. I had clattered into several of them with sufficient speed to thoroughly unnerve me to the point where I made a total mess of the informal downhill line we chose through the woods. I even ended up carrying my bike down to the track at the bottom after a painful top-tube interaction, and was quite glad to head for base along a tame access road.
After quick showers at the B & B we jumped on the free bus to the Nevis Range to explore the World Cup event village and watch the 4X racing. We bumped into a few friends, ogled lots of very expensive equipment, spotted numerous mountain bike celebrities, and generally enjoyed ourselves until things ran down and we made our way back to town for a couple more beers before bedtime.Race day dawned even warmer, without a cloud in the sky. We packed up the van and abandoned it in Sheil Bridge in order to make a speedier getaway that evening, catching a very busy shuttle bus into what was already a rather livelier event than last year’s. We explored the pits more closely, whilst dodging riders returning from early morning practice. At around half eleven, after rider introductions, we were privileged to see Martyn Ashton ride down the final section of the main downhill course on his modified Nicolai, an incredible achievement, and I hope we get to view a bit more footage of his run before too long.As the racing started we began to make our way up the course, watching first the under-23s and then the women racing their way over dry, dusty jumps and through the tricky new sections in the woods, before the elite men started coming down the hill as we climbed closer to the top gondola station.We saw Steve Peat take off on his last ever Fort William World Cup run, distinctive on his lairy custom-painted tartan V10, and then zoomed down in the gondola to watch the final twenty or so riders on the big screen. Greg Minaar made what turned out to be the winning run just after we arrived in the arena. The remaining riders threw everything they had at the dusty, blown-out track but Minaar’s run stood the test and a minute or so into Gee Atherton’s last-man run a front-wheel washout for the Brit effectively confirmed the South African’s sixth Fort William victory.
The most remarkable moment of the day came not at the end of the racing, but at the point when Stevie Smith would have made his run down the course. Following his tragic death less than a month ago, the mountain bike community understandably wanted to mark his passing, and the weekend was full of little touches dedicated to the Canadian: from stickers and t-shirts declaring ‘Long Live Chainsaw’ to rider jump trains and banners and, naturally, chainsaws all over the place. But the crowning moment of the weekend’s remembrance took the form of a specially sanctioned ‘ghost run’ during the elite men’s World Cup race itself. The usually raucous crowds watched in silence as the big screen panned down the empty course, showing the space where the talented 26 year old should have been; the shot swept through the trees and down the motorway jumps, from camera to camera, approaching the finish line in sombre stillness, until the arena commentator called home the missing rider and the spectators erupted in celebration of a life cut short, but well lived. It was a moving experience just to be part of that crowd.
As the racing finished we grabbed some food, and took our place in the queue for the bus to Sheil Bridge. A three hour drive later we rolled into the campsite at Torridon, and hastily put up our tent under the fierce attacks of clouds of midges, before retreating inside for a couple of beers in preparation for the final day of our break, which I’ll write up separately in the next few days…
On Sunday’s ride I decided to revisit what used to be a nicely entertaining little downhill, sadly ruined by the local council and their imbecilic notions regarding right of way maintenance. Harden Hill Road was once a little-used, grassy bridleway with a gently snaking ribbon of winding singletrack path, until a few years back when Kirklees Metropolitan Council decided to fritter away a few tens of thousands of pounds of their annual highways budget dumping several hundred tons of MOT Type 2 aggregate on it. I remember riding down here as the crew were working on it, and one of them remarked something along the lines of “We’re making this really nice for you, eh?” I think I lamely responded with “Yeah, thanks,” or similar, and I mentally rerun the conversation I should have had every time I ride up or down here: “No, you bloody idiots, you’re ruining it!”Three or four years on, and frankly it’s a total mess. Massive ruts and rain channels scar a loose and unpredictable surface of gravelly unpleasantness, and I say that as a fan of loose, rocky descents. This is just like riding down an unstable slag heap. Tons of limestone wash out have pooled in a couple of shallows on the way down the hill, and have overflowed onto the road at the bottom, no doubt trashing both the tarmac and the paint on the cars that use it. Photos flatten relief, so here’s a pic showing the depth of a rut picked at random. That’s a 29er wheel, too, these aren’t little divots; if you land in one of these at speed you are in trouble.When I grumbled about this when it first happened, various contrarians predictably defended it in the name of accessibility, but as you can see the path is now anything but accessible for anyone other than an able bodied walker or a masochistic mountain biker. Not only has it ruined a perfectly stable, sound bit of grassy bridleway, turning it into an ugly, unpleasant strip of gritty rubble, even the feeble defence of opening it up to more users is totally negated by the fact that the surface is clearly totally unfit for purpose due to the lack of any drainage or other stabilisation measures. It has also failed to wear into any sort of decent shape over time, as some assured me it would. It’s just a horrible mess. What a waste of time, money and effort.
Set off from Hollingworth Lake, lovely conditions, big group of about twenty. Headcount at top of the first hill: five of our number missing (various mechanicals). Left group waiting and rode back down to investigate; riders meanwhile showed up at the top of the hill, no idea how we missed them. Chased back up hill and then up next hill to catch group. Further mechanicals. Brilliant dry, dusty descent, random bike light battery ejection issue for another rider. Arrived at pub in total disarray. Smashing ride!
Then, on the way home, we spotted a raging inferno (ok, a small fire) at the side of the road, on the edge of a tinder-dry peat moor. We tried to stamp it out, failed miserably, and phoned the fire brigade, who dispatched a crew to deal with it. In the meantime I remembered that I had a portable pressure washer in the van, which turned out to be a surprisingly effective fire extinguisher. We also used it on a second fire that was, rather suspiciously, now burning a little further down the hill. A bloke who had been sat in a car at the side of the road nearby drove off, after mumbling something about a phone call out of his window; we noted his registration number. The fire engine turned up about ten minutes later and finished the job off properly by thoroughly dousing the smouldering ashes. I got back home pretty late as a result, but feeling like I done my good deed for the day by stopping Crompton Moor from going up in flames.
As you can see, the Dyfi Enduro 2016 was wet. It was fun, absolutely, and the descents in particular were brilliant, but it was mostly just wet. Those are my very best bits of waterproof kit there, and they’re totally sodden inside and out. If you look past the grin on my face you can see that my eyes hold the empty despair of a man who suspects that he’s only half way round a very long, very wet ride, and the during the second half he is only going to get wetter.
We were, at least, warned in advance; the weather forecast had been predicting varied horrors all week, before settling the day before on a solid seven hours of 80%-plus probability heavy rain. If a few lightweights had bailed out as a result, making the total number of riders slightly less than the 1,000 or so on the start list, it certainly wasn’t noticeable at the roll out from the town centre. The roads were officially closed in the middle, and indeed effectively closed all the way out to the end of the tarmac by the army of riders. As at the start of similarly large mass rides (such as the Dunwich Dynamo for example) cars are forced to the roadside by the sheer volume of bikes, but the addition of cheering crowds of locals lining the route, happy that we were there, makes for an even more uplifting experience. Everyone was grinning and laughing and the thickening rainfall was forgotten for a few minutes. I rode along with friends to the start of the first real climb, one of numerous long, steady fire-road slogs, where I settled down into a comfortable rhythm and started to knock out the miles as best I could. On the first descent I discovered that my glasses were useless, instantly covered as they were by rain and mud, and they spent the rest of the ride wedged in my helmet vents. I got round by blinking a lot, and my eyeballs felt like they’d been sandpapered by the end of the day. The first descent was also mostly spent in traffic jams, being a narrow strip of muddy singletrack with hundreds of mixed-ability riders trying to chuck themselves down it all at once. It did serve to spread everyone out, and the subsequent descents were much less crowded, and although I still had to share lines on numerous occasions I didn’t encounter any serious issues with how busy things were. Several of the downs were excellent even in such lousy conditions, and the famed ‘World Cup’ line was brilliant fun as promised, choppy and rocky and quite steep in places but never unpleasant. I was pleased with myself for riding everything that pointed downwards, and also for thoroughly enjoying nearly everything as well (with the exception of the last, bonus descent, of which more later).
It rained almost constantly. I think there was a gap of about five minutes where it relented back to light drizzle, but mostly it just steadily rained and rained and rained for almost the whole five hours I spent on the bike. I had every bit of decent waterproof kit on, but inside the first hour I was soaked head to foot, inside and out. I squeezed water out of my gloves reflexively until I realised that my hands stayed warmer if I just left them alone. I emptied about half a pint out of my shoes at the end. Even our second day of the West Highland Way was less relentlessly sodden than this. Fortunately it wasn’t that cold or windy, and spirits remained good, but I did have to hunker down and grind away to get myself around, meaning that if there were any views to see I missed them, along with much of the trackside entertainment put on by locals – there were a few zombies at one point, I vaguely recall, and a tea party of some kind, and apparently even Rachel Atherton was out cheering us all up one of the hills, but I missed most of this by staring fixedly at the mud a foot or so in front of my wheel as I slogged my way through the raindrops. At one point I nearly rode clear into another rider, so focussed was I on the next pedal stroke, and the next, and the next, and so on.
Until the last half hour or so my legs and lungs and skills did everything I asked of them, but my lower back gave me grief all the way round. I need to work on my core strength, clearly, because I was out of the saddle honking away every few minutes to ward off the pain, and even that didn’t help much. Coming up to the four hour mark my legs started to cramp up, and I had to hop off and walk it out for a bit. My reactions were fading similarly by this point, and I found the last couple of descents much harder work than they should have been. I only just made it to the start of the optional long route before the cut off, but decided that I would regret it if I didn’t ride the whole thing and, after knocking back the free beer on offer, set off up the final drag at a steady pace. On the final descent I encountered my fatal weakness, wet, slimy tree roots, all beautifully embedded in slick, off-camber mud, and had to stop and scoff some jelly babies whilst I gathered my thoughts. After a few minutes I got back on the bike and slithered my way down to the finish line, rolling over 4 hours and 17 minutes after the official start at 11am. I was one of the slowest riders on the long course (189th), but not the absolute slowest. I’m pleased that I managed the whole thing first time out, without any real training, and in such lousy conditions. I put on my final, spare emergency waterproof to ward off hypothermia and set off on the unfairly long road spin back to the campsite to collect my commemorative mug and start on the ride post-mortem with my friends.The Dyfi course is the result of nearly a decade and a half’s refinement, and the fact that it holds up as well as it does under a thousand riders’ wheels in such appalling conditions is testament to the organisers’ skills and experience. Only a handful of tiny sections were unrideably muddy, and all the descents were entertaining and challenging without being too scary or dangerous for reasonably experienced riders. The course is long enough to be a challenge for even the best, and yet is attainable by nearly all regular mountain bikers. The atmosphere is excellent and the organisation brilliant. The event surrounding the race itself is fun, and being run along side the Machynlleth comedy festival there are plenty of things to entertain when not riding bikes. I had a brilliant weekend, and will certainly be back next year, when the weather will be unimpeachably glorious, oh yes.