Monthly Archives: June 2016

This Is Why…

DSC_0322I 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.DSC_0296The 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.DSC_0319After 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 the finest trails I have ever encountered, in some of the best conditions I’ve ever experienced.DSC_0329After 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.DSC_0342

Scotland 2016

DSC_0206Following 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.DSC_0211The 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.DSC_0221The 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.DSC_0227I 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.DSC_0239Race 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.DSC_0266As 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.DSC_000041We 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…

Billions of bloodthirsty midgies not pictured