Occasional readers of this blog will note that it hasn’t had a lot of attention of late – 10 months in fact.
The reason is two-fold: Firstly, I’ve not had a great deal to write about and secondly I haven’t found the time to write about anything exciting that has happened. On the face of it, they’re two pretty hollow excuses – generally, excitement is something you make happen rather than wait for it to happen to you.
For the first time in a good few years (since starting a family), my attention is beginning to focus properly on my riding again. I’m quite excited at the prospect of doing the Highland Trail in May, and a certain amount of preparation is required to do it justice. I’m hoping too that in preparing for this event, it will open up opportunities to do a few other big things in 2013, but I’ll keep those under my hat for the time being.
Of course, 2012 wasn’t without its successes; my successful defence of the Bear Bones 200 title was the obvious highlight of the year, where I knocked over 2 hours off last years record despite conditions being generally worse this year. Despite comparatively low “training” inputs, I found I had enough to pull a 15 hour ride out of the bag when I needed to. But, there’s a big difference between the 15 hours required to complete a 200km ITT in Wales, compared with a 4-odd day assault of the Highland Trail.
Which brings me back to the purpose of this post: in order to get myself of the right place for the HT both physically and mentally, I need to start doing something about it now. That something is making time to ride my bike quite a bit more than I did throughout 2012. I hope that a good deal of excitement will result, and the progression towards my Highland Trail goal will certainly be interesting.
I switch my light off and stand for a moment in the forest while my eyes adjust from the bright white of my bike lights to the silvery glow from the half moon high in the sky above me. Tonight is a beautiful night for ride. Stars twinkle in a crystal clear sky and the air is mild and calm.
I ride on and up through the forest, my eyes now accustomed to the moon’s glow. This world of silvery grey and black constantly changing and casting new shapes and shadows around me. The climbing continues. The forest track is flanked with broadleaved trees, and their bare crowns cast complex shadows over me as I ride beneath.
Nearing the top the track enters into some dense spruce trees. I leave the light off and enter the blackness. My world of silver grey and black is reduced almost entirely to black. I can barely see the ground beneath my wheels and the edges of the track are only visible out of the corner of my eye. A faint glow of moon light gradually appears in the distance as the edge of the forest approaches.
Eventually I burst out of the dark spruce trees into a mountain landscape bathed in moonlight. The lower flanks of the Beacons rise up from the edge of the forest, their crisp dark edges against a bright starry sky.
I linger for a while, content with my solitude in the landscape that surrounds me and the vastness of the universe above. I hesitate to embark on the descent, knowing that as soon as I switch my light back on I will leave this intriguing world of moonlight and shadows and all the infinite beauty of the stars and confine my world once again to a pool of stark whiteness.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
After an amazing run of weather for the Welsh Divide trip, I couldn’t believe my luck that the forecast was generally dry and sunny for the event. This played in my favour a bit as there were certain things I was prepared to sacrifice in terms of kit. However, clear sunny days also tend to turn into cold nights, so a couple of last minute changes were made to the gear list that looks like this:
Terra Nova Moonlight bivvy bag
Balloon Bed Mark 2
PHD Minim Ultra sleeping bag
PHD Ultra 900 vest
Small first aid kit
Endura arm warmers
Assos leg warmers
Medium weight merino long sleeved top
Extremities fleece hat
Gil eVent waterproof jacket
SPOT satalite tracker
Wildcat Clouded Leopard frame bag
Wildcat Mountain Lion handlebar harness
Gear weight came in at around 1.9kg before I added tools (500g), food and two water bottles on the bike. I had a Exposure Enduro on the bars, along with a GPS and back-up paper maps stuffed into a jersey pocket with some more food. The bike weighed about 34 lbs or so with food and water on board, which I was pretty pleased with.
We rolled out from the start just after 10am, and I found myself at the front and setting the pace almost immediately. The first climb up through the forest was long and a shock to legs that had neither warmed up properly or turned the cranks since the Welsh Divide. Once out of the forest there was little respite as route required a long push up a steep grassy bridleway. Eventually, I reached a short linking piece of tarmac before heading off along more bridleway towards Hafren. This was varied in nature, sometimes rideable, often not but I knew once I cleared this section the course opened up onto forest road and would allow me to get into a rhythm. At about 30km, I was caught and passed by Kevin Roderick and we exchanged places for a good while as the terrain favoured either geared or singlespeed.
With Hafren dispatched, followed by the section past Nant Rhys bothy, I arrived at the first long road section into the Elan Valley. It was uphill and into the wind. Kevin was a good way off in front of me, but with a long road climb I managed to reel him in just as we turned off road again. At this point I noted I was one quarter of the way through, in a bit over four hours. At the five hour mark we were nearing Claerwen Dam. It was time to stop for a bit of food, as up to this point my GPS was saying my total time and moving time differed by only ten minutes. At the food stop, I looked south into the hills to see where the return route came over the top – this is a notorious bit of bridleway that degenerates into bog quickly if you stray off the correct line. But, I had a long way to go before I would get to the other side of it.
Claerwen Reservoir track is long and twisting. It is also rough and punishing on the upper body and my legs were still coming to terms with the severity of the opening sections of the route. I struggled to match Kevin’s pace along here, where gears and suspension allowed him a slight advantage on the rough slightly downwards gradient.
The first food stop was at Pontrhydfendigaid, and the clock was ticking if we were to get there before it shut at 5pm. It turns out that rushing to get there early was a waste of time – it shut at 2pm. Whilst I had food with me, I had dreamt of milkshake, a can of Coke and a pastie of some sort. The Red Lion in the village was open, filled with glum faces from Wales’ earlier defeat in the RWC semi-final at the hands of France. I got my Coke, some crisps, nuts and a sandwich. I totted up the calories – about 1200.
We left the pub at 5pm after a 30 minute stop and headed into Twyi Forest, where a very long forest road climb lay ahead of us. I’d ridden this on the Welsh Divide on a fresher pair of legs, so was quite pleased to have made it up in one go and, this time, ahead of Kevin. The route stayed in the forest a long while and we generally continued to exchange places from time to time, but usually always remained in sight of each other. Darkness fell as we went through Cwm Berwyn Plantation, and it was fully dark by the time we arrived at Ty’n Cornel hostel. The lights were on and they were too inviting to ride past. We made a domation to the Trust who look after it and the warden there made us a cup of tea.
After another 30 minute break, we tackled another steep push up a gravel track past the top of the Doethie Valley. Any attempt to dry feet out of the hostel were soon undone by the numerous stream crossings and track-wide puddles that appeared on our route. With some relief, we reached another long road section, but this one offered little opportunity for rest as it contained the Devil’s Staircase, with its 25% gradient. I pushed right from the bottom and watched as Kevin’s light faded into the distance. I think at some levels it was less effort and nearly as quick to push and not need a rest at the top than it was to ride, as I soon caught Kevin again on the other side. More favourable road gradients finally brought us to Coed Trallwm. It was decision time: either rest up here and get up early (like, 4am early) for the final leg back to the start to ensure a sub-24 hour finish, or push on through the night and forego sleep entirely.
We decided on the latter. It was clear and cold now, and the clear was in our favour for the next section of open hill or bog I referred to earlier. I’d put on my leg warmers and waterproof to fend off the chill air, and we rode the steep fireroad through the forest and eventually out onto the hill. I found a good line to push up to the cairn, and some bits were occasionally rideable. The line was tight amongst thick grass or scatter rocks and while forward progress was steady, the toll both mentally and physically was high. We made a small navigational error towards the end that cost us 10 minutes or so while we back-tracked.
It was about midnight now, and the effect of the last 14 hours of riding was showing. Physical reactions were slowing, it was difficult to sustain hard effort for any length of time on the climbs. It was also bitterly cold in the valleys. We made a few small stops for food. Both of us could have fallen asleep at any of these if we’d have just laid down. Without knowing how long the final section back through Hafren would take, we were still inclined towards just getting the whole thing done than stopping and having to wake early and cold in a few hours.
The route eases after Rhayader. A long section of lane work followed the river up the valley until we reached Llangurig. Again, Kevin had and edge here. New-found strength or gears or just the desire to get it over with allowed him to cover the ground faster than I did. I caught him again at Llangurig, where I was prepared to forego a rest and get through Hafren: the last section of off road.
My memory is a bit hazy for this bit. I remember lots of gates and a long fireroad climb that I pushed. I was so tired I felt like I could have fallen asleep standing up. Eventually, the road appeared before us and my senses livened up a bit. It was mostly downhill from here. No sting in the tale: the route was hard enough as it was.
Kevin and I arrived at the finish together. The clock said 3:28 AM. Total time of 17 hours 23 minutes.
I awoke at about 9am later that morning. I couldn’t quite believe we’d done it in one go. The terrain was seriously tough in many places, and my choice of singlespeed I felt was not the best at times. We sat and chatted with a few others who’d cut their route short the previous day, and waited for Stuart and Dee, the organisers, to serve up the food.
Finally, after 10am had passed, Stu presented the sub-24 hour finishers with their black Bear Bones 200 badges. There’s only two of these in circulation. Kevin has the other one.
Before I tell you about the Bear Bones 200, you need to know about some things from earlier in the year.
In May this year, I took part in 3rd Welsh Ride Thing (WRT), which is a three day bikepacking and navigation event run in aid of Wales Air Ambulance. A series of checkpoints are set across a wide area of Mid Wales, and you plan a ride of you own choosing to visit as many or as few as you wish over three days. I happened to spend most of it in the company of Aidan Harding. Within the right circles, Aidan is well known for a number of big achievements for long distant races such as the Tour Divide and Idita Bike. Indeed, for Idita Bike, he narrowly missed first place in the 1100 mile race to Nome, and posted the fastest singlespeed time for his second place finish. When he caught me up and suggested we ride together, I thought then that I would be in for a hard time. Here was a man who had ridden more miles in a month than I’d ridden all year, and who would go on to ride more miles next month that I would probably achieve for the remaining part of the year. It was slightly intimidating, but I dug deep and kept pedalling.
The WRT course was tough this year. It took on very lumpy terrain north of Machynlleth, which anyone who has done the Dyfi Enduro will know. The first day took us out over Glyndwr’s Way along a surprisingly challenging route before we tackled the even more challenging 600m summit of Tarrenhendre in deteriorating weather conditions. We stopped eventually at a lower and calmer elevation with about 60 km ridden.
The following day we were rolling for around 8am, which was fairly leisurely all things considered. Our day two route would take us right around the north side of Cader Idris and back into Dyfi Forest before eventually heading SE along more Glyndwr’s Way before making the link back over to the finish at Pennant. In all, we rode 92 km in about 11 hours. It was the furthest and longest I had ever ridden a singlespeed before, and I was suitably tired by the end of it.
Though it only turned out to be two days of riding, it was really useful to pushed a bit in terms of distance and severity of riding. Aidan said he thought it was harder than a typical day on the Tour Divide, which was encouraging in many ways.
A couple of weeks after the event I got an email from Stuart Wright, WRT organiser, asking how I’d felt about the distance we’d ridden and how we would have change our strategy if we were doing, say, 300km. My reply was
If faced with a greater distance (with equal severity), I would take gears – no question. As such, I’d most likely be a bit quicker and/or not quite so tired at the end of the day.
In August the inaugural Bear Bones 200 was announced: a 200km individual time trial starting and finishing in Mid-Wales and taking a challenging route south through Hafren Forest, Elan Valley, Twyi Forest, Devils Staircase, Coed Trallwm and back over to Elan Valley for a return route back through Hafren. For a bit of perspective, the route was half the distance of our Welsh Divide Trip and with 50% more ascent. You needed to be prepared for a night under the stars too, with a sleeping bag and bivvy bag being mandatory kit items. Don’t forget to take enough food with you either as the only places to get food were at 60 and 100 miles into the route.
A week before the event was an announcement that anyone who completed the event would get a green badge. If you could get under 28 hours you got a blue one. The black badge is reserved for those who could get under 24 hours.
Naturally, I would be aiming for a black badge. I also, for reasons I can’t quite identify but possibly related to my poor memory, decided to take the singlespeed.
I’ve lost count of the number of days that have elapsed since I last rode my bike. Way back in August sometime, maybe, but I can’t be sure.
We’re having some building work done at home and earlier in the year when the specification was being drawn up I took out a series of items. Tiling? I can do that. New floor in the bedroom? Sure thing. Decorating? No problem. Well, the tiling is done (at last) and the floor down (finally). Decorating is still work in progress…
But, despite the unfinished state of things its all very live-able in and that means, rain or shine (rain most likely – looking at the forecast), I’m off for two days riding in an often overlooked bit of Wales that is Radnor Forest. The Radnor Ring is a Sustrans route of 80 odd miles of quiet country lanes. Between these, however, is a great network of tracks, bridleways and forest trails that I haven’t ridden for over a decade or more, and certainly never has a nice big loop with a night out under the tarp.
It’s also an opportunity to test out a couple of new bits of kit. Beth has finished a nice Clouded Leopard frame bag for me that fits around my water bottles and still gives me room for a tarp, bivvy bag, sleeping mat and a few other bits and bobs as well. It’s super light too, weighing only 150g. With sleeping gear up front and food etc in a seat pack, I should have a total weight of around 4 kg with nothing on my back.
I’m also excited about my new tarp: 94g of cuben fibreness, this neat tarp is produced by z-packs in the US. Nearly half the weight of my siltarp, it should provide more protection from the rain and increased headroom allowing me to sit up out of the rain and eat my dinner.
I’m just glad to be going out on the trails, regardless of the weather, and quite excited about my new bits of gear. It’ll be a great way to end my abstinence from riding bikes.
I recently tried out an mKettle (on loan from Stuart) as an alternative to my usual meths stove that I take with me on bikepacking trips. Its first outing was on a short single night bivvy a few weeks ago. The real world test went like this:
I’d planned to bivvy in a suitably exposed spot with a great view but not much in the way of fuel. I’d intended to pick up some sticks on my way up to the summit but forgot in all the excitement (the sun was out, it was a beautiful evening and I’d not been on the bike for a week). Once I’d pitched the tarp, I looked around and picked up numerous small bits of wood, dead bracken stems and a bit of wool – all within a 10m radius of the bivi spot:
I also had some tinder card with me to help get things going. Lack of familiarity with matches and tinder card, it took a little while to get things to catch, but once lit the kettle did it’s job quite well. It didn’t seem long, though I didn’t time it, before a pint of water was boiling. It was also surprising how little fuel it required and how much heat was generated. Once the water had boiled, the neoprene sleeve around the outside was enough for me to pick it up off the burner and pour the water into another pan. A generous lip at the bottom of the kettle prevents the neoprene from getting burnt.
The following morning I was able to quickly scout for more bits of wood and get the kettle fired up again. This time I was better at getting it lit – the previous night was the first time I’d used it at all – and it wasn’t long before I had a pan of hot porridge to eat while I watched the sun rise.
This was the first time I’ve ever used a stove to boil water than wasn’t fueled by either meths, gas or petroleum of some sort. As a result, its tempting to compare things directly, though there are some unique attributes to the mKettle, good and bad. So here’s a list of the pros and cons, beginning with the latter:
It’s smoky in use (depending on what you burn) some of which inevitably blows in your direction while you’re using it. (The tinder card didn’t help in this regard actually, as I did a subsequent test at home with dry wood and it seemed that all the smoke came from the card). If you’re used to quiet and clean meths, then the mKettle is something of a departure from this system.
On looking inside the burner part of the kettle, it was coated in black sticky resin type stuff presumably as a result of burning the dead bracken. Subsequent burns did not seem to get rid of this residue.
The kettle itself get very dirty/sooty/sticky which means you need the stuff sack to carry it around to keep your other gear/ inside of frame bag clean.
You could find yourself in a situation not being able to find anything suitable to burn, perhaps in very wet or sparsely vegetated conditions, but compared to other systems you could equally find yourself out of meths/ gas/ petrol.
It gets very hot (surprise surprise) and it’s quite a while before its cool enough to pack away again. On reading the instructions afterwards, they suggest using a small amount of water to extinguish the flames. I admit I didn’t think of this at the time.
You still need to take an extra pan/ mug unless you intend to eat entirely dehydrated food from its cooking bag, or intend going without a hot drink.
It ultimately takes longer to boil up water by the time you’ve gathered your wood etc, perhaps no more so than meths, but that’s not really the point I guess (see last on the list of pro’s)
It weighs 429g in its stuff sack. I took with me an extra pan that weighed 67g, therefore a total of 496g. The weight of my meths setup, which comprises of numerous titanium items selected for their light weight, with three nights of fuel weighs 507g.
It’s pretty quick to boil up water once you got the fire going, and if you needed to boil more than one pint of water, then once the fire is lit you can easily add more wood to the burner to keep it going.
My tibetan ti 550 pan was a perfect fit over the top of the stove, so when packed up the pan added virtually nothing to packed volume.
It fits in a Wildcat Leopard frame bag.
You didn’t need very much fuel to get it lit and for it to burn long enough to boil a pint of water.
You can use it to store a pint of water with you as you go, so extra storage capacity on top of your other bottles/ bladder if you pick a spot without water.
You can use it to burn any rubbish you generate on camp.
You could use it to warm hands/ feet on a cold trip.
Gives you a generally satisfied feeling of having boiled your water using the ancient and manly art of using a real fire, rather than the more “sterile” meths/ gas systems.
My initial feelings were a bit mixed. Not having used this type of stove before, I wasn’t sure what I should expect from it. Initially, I wasn’t sure it was as good a system as perhaps imagined it would be, but I would undoubtedly get better at lighting it with more practice and probably more savvy in sourcing fuel that will light quickly and burn efficiently. Would I buy one? Yes, though I think it’s suited more to trips longer than one night as the weight benefits pay off with not having to carry more than one night’s worth of liquid fuel.
Sophie was born at the end of March weighing 7lbs 13 ounces, in good health and with a full head of hair. She’s now up to 12 and half pounds, still with lots of hair and big beaming smiles. It’s a real treat to watch tiny babies grow up, and the biggest changes seem to come in the first few months. It’s also good to look back to the day (night) she was born. So tiny.
Three months on and she’s a very content and happy little character. Its amazing that their little facial expressions can convey so much without words. She’s also really active. At birth she could properly hold her head up, and at just over two months she could roll over. Now she’s discovering the joys of standing up with us holding her hands. A real joy to watch.
At the beginning of November 2010, the prospect of a bivvy trip at the beginning of December didn’t seem out of the ordinary. At the time, temperatures were still in the middle teens, and it was dry. By the end of the same month, over night temperatures were regularly to minus 8 degrees Celsius, and I even recorded minus 13 here in Brecon. Then followed some of the earliest snow I can remember.
After studying the forecast very carefully (which had warmed slightly to only just below freezing), a small group of hardened riders assembled from the forums of Singletrack World met outside a chip shop in Machynlleth to embark on an arctic adventure into Mid-Wales’ remote and frozen wilderness for a night under the stars.