It was never meant to be like this.
A fraught week gathering kit together in preparation for the Cairngorms Loop 300km ITT suddenly got a whole lot worse when on Wednesday night I discovered a problem with my “race bike” that I wasn’t going to be able to get fixed. Casting an eye around the garage revealed a cyclocross bike with 8 gears and a fat bike with one gear. I dusted off the 10sp clutch mech I bought last year, but had not got round to using and stripped the 8sp cassette off the cyclocross bike, mated the bar-end shifter to a Paul Components clamp and set about fitting it all to the fat-bike. If only it was that simple. It turns out that 8sp shifter + 10sp mech = 5 gears. I may be a singlespeeder most of the time, but I was not about to do a bikepacking race around the Cairngorms on a 45lb fat-tyred singlespeed, or a five geared one for that matter.
My train to Glasgow left at 6:20am on Friday morning. I did my best to blend in at Crewe Station with a fat bike, but you can’t avoid the fact most people have never seen bike tyres that wide. At Glasgow I took the train to Milngavie – the West Highland Way would have to wait for another time – and rode out to Solid Rock Bikes. At short notice, they sorted me out with a 10sp cassette, shifter and the tools and workshop space I needed to get it all fitted. Thanks go to Bryan and Mark for sorting me out here.
Saturday morning dawned cool with patchy cloud that looked like it would burn off later in the day. The forecast was for rain later, and it being Scotland you prepare for a lot worse than the forecast otherwise indicates. There were about a dozen of us at the start of the Cairngorms Loop. As expected, I was the only one on a fat bike, but someone had to be first.
After the two minute warning prior to the off, everyone waited patiently for Alan Goldsmith to shout “Go!”. Being the closest to the exit of the car park, I lead the group out and we span quickly along the cycle way along the A9. The first part of the route is very straight forward, but the group still split to reflect the different strategies and objectives of those riding. I maintained sight of the first three riders, spinning my newly fitted 10 speed gears along the tarmac to the gentle rumble of 4″ wide tyres.
The off road started properly after the A9 crossing, where a good stone track lead to a piece of single track beside the Loch an Duin. The track became increasingly tricky, and gave me that mental nudge to bring me out of “dirt track” mode, where you don’t need to think about the riding so much.
The route continued through various bits of forestry, and on to Feshiebridge to start the Inner Loop. After some thoroughly enjoyable singletrack through Glenmore Forest Park, you start to climb steeply into the high Cairngorms, now bathed in warm sun of the early afternoon. On the bottom part of the climb I was in a world of my own listening to music when Gary Tompsett rode up to join me. It was quite a surprise and we rode together for a while as he told me about the other riders he’d seen in the cafe at Glenmore. It was at this point I discovered I was running in second place. On a fat bike.
The climb was punctuated with large water-bars made of lumps of granite. Occasionally the gap was too wide to ride, but most of the time I could ease the bike over them without any problem. The front just bumped over each lip, and the unfailing traction from the rear quickly followed. I was enjoying a 32:36 bottom gear too. Once at the top, I looked back down the climb to see Alan Goldsmith and Phil Richmond – full of lunch from the Glenmore Cafe – coming up behind, and Keith Bremner between them and me.
You’d think that once you got to 800 metres elevation, it’d all be downhill. It wasn’t. After a short downhill and another push up, where Alan caught me up, the track climbed gradually over some almost insanely rocky terrain to reach the Fords of Avon. The fat tyres came into their own on this bit, where I was able to ride through, around or over the medium to large lumps of granite set into the ground. They yielded very little as you road over them – presumably being attached to the centre of the earth. Occasionally the rocks would give way to boggy sections, which I could either skirt around through the heather or float over the top. Although it was only 3 km along this section, it was very slow riding – high demand on the whole body and requiring unerring concentration.
The above photo was taken just before the little descent to the Fords of Avon. I got back on my bike, pedalled off and there was a loud crack from the rear of the bike and the pedals seemed to move half a turn without me going anywhere. It felt a bit odd, but drive appeared to resume with the next half turn, so I carried on. At the Ford, I lifted my bike to carry it over and noticed the rear wheel felt loose, as if the skewer was undone. It wasn’t, and a wobble of the back wheel revealed a lot of play in the bearings. At first I thought the free hub bearings had given in, but on spinning the hub around, I saw the split in the hub shell. Game over.
All the preparation for the race, the difficulties in getting the bike ready, psyching myself up to do it on the Puffin and the chance to be the first round the Cairngorms Loop on a fat bike, the sense that I was feeling in good shape, the third place position that had just evaporated… My mind was filled with all these things and the overwhelming disappointment and realisation that you’re going to have to scratch from the race. There was no easy fix here.
I was with Keith Bremner when it happened, and he was great in making sure I could get myself down out of the mountains safely. The bike was rideable – only just – but the drive would slip under any reasonable load on the pedals. The route out to the Linn of Dee was not too bad, but the more I tried to pedal flat sections the more the ratchet would slip inside the hub. It was tedious to say the least. It was 50km back to the car, back down Glen Tilt. It took me about 5 hours of freewheeling, a bit of pedalling and quite a lot of pushing. The rain seemed to come in late evening just as it was getting dark. It seemed to match my mood quite well.
Maybe next time I won’t be so unlucky.