Bikepacking

Bikepacking, Races

Bear Bones 200 – Part 2


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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.

Photo Credit: Pete Bartlett aka Valleydaddy

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.

Badge of Honour

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.

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Bikepacking

Bear Bones 200 – Part 1


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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.

To be continued…

Bikepacking, Trails

Welsh Divide


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I feel like I’d waited years for this: to link up all those trails that I knew into one big tour to follow the spine of Wales from the north to the south – a Welsh Divide, if you will.

From the top of the Great Orme to the end of Worm’s Head: 4 days, 430 km, 11,300m ascent.

 

Bikepacking, Trails

Abstinence


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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.

Wildcat Clouded Leopard

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.

Zpacks Hexamid Solo

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.

Bikepacking, Gear Reviews

mKettle Review


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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:

mKettle and scavenged bits of woody debris

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.

Fired up for breakfast

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:

Cons:

  • 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)

Pros:

  • 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.

Conclusion:
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.

Bikepacking

Arctic Adventure


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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.

(more…)

Bikepacking, Homemade Gear

Six months later…


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How embarrassing. It’s nearly six months since I posted something here.

You will, perhaps, be pleased to see that I’m still alive and if you cast your eyes rightwards towards to the twitter feed, things have indeed been happening. Finding the time to write more than 140 characters has been more of a challenge, and even up to 140 has been a stretch at times.

I do sometimes lack the inspiration to write something interesting, and try not to blog for the sake of blogging, but Taylor said he was getting tired of looking at that stove review, so it’s time for something else.

I’ve found myself doing a bit of bikepacking lately, and there are four trips that have yet to grace these pages. Running beside all that are some little make-you-own-gear (MYOG) projects that I want to share, and of course some pictures. I like pictures.

Maen Madoc

So, anyway, this post is something of a trailer for the tales of high endeavour and excitement to follow soon:

  • braving deep snow with a half-fat Pegasus in November
  • braving minus 10 degrees Celsius in a bivi bag in December
  • braving driving Welsh rain and high winds under a tarp in February
  • making a cool and effective wind shield during the cold, dark evenings
  • helping Beth to launch www.WildcatGear.co.uk – UK, nay, Wales-made custom bikepacking equipment
  • braving two days of riding a SS in Wales with Aidan Harding
The most important thing of all though is worthy of a post all of her own, but I’m going to save that one for little bit longer.
Bikepacking, Gear Reviews

Stove Test: Whitebox vs Vargo Triad


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Curiosity got the better of me in the end. I’ve had a Vargo Triad for a while now and used it on several bikepacking trips. A Whitebox stove is a variation on the same theme: an ultralight meths stove. I was intrigued to actually see if the Whitebox was better or not, so the only way to find out was to buy one and test it against the Triad. (more…)

Bikepacking, Homemade Gear

Solo Bike Tarp Mk 1


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When I sat down to think about making a tarp, my train of thought went something like this:

Keep it as light weight as possible >> Using as little fabric as possible would help achieve this >> Using less fabric would keep the cost down >> If I use less fabric the packed volume will be less for any given fabric >> I should utilise the bike as a frame to pitch the tarp over to allow use in open areas if no tree cover available.

I came across some fabric that was silicon coated on both sides, was cheap and dark green. Having looked at numerous tarp set ups including some that used a bike as a frame, I worked out that I could use the wheels at either end of the tarp would use least fabric. I lay down to work out how much horizontal room I needed if I lay full length between each wheel. Being of average height, 2m was enough. I then figured that a 50cm flap over the wheel to a guy point would probably be sufficient.

I ordered 3m of fabric, 1.5m wide. When I arrived, it measured 3.10m by 1.57m, which was a bit of a bonus in both directions I thought. It was soft, handled quite well and wasn’t particularly noisy when you flapped it about, like some spinnakers are. The fabric weighed 398g, which converted to a weight of 2.4 ounces per square yard. This gave me a comparison to other fabrics like ultrasil/ silnylon, which are typically 1.1-1.3 oz/sq.yd.

The next step was to determine the shape the fabric needed to be when stretched over a wheel. With more time and a lot of thought, we could have gone to the trouble of stitching in tapered sections to allow a better fit over the wheel, but we decided against this in order to keep it simple. The obvious areas of excess fabric were going to the back corners, away from the front edge where the wheel was. We cut off two triangular pieces about 50cm by 75cm which gave us some extra fabric to reinforce the guy points. All the edge seams were folded over twice and double stitched. Some sections that were going to be under greatest tension were also reinforced with some gross-grain tape into the hem, with small loops at the ends to tie the guys to. We also stitched in a line of gross-grain between the front and back guy points, in line with the wheels for extra strength and added durability over an obvious contact point (the wheel).

Solo bike tarp

The finished product seems quite good. Though it’s not been out of the back garden yet, it was easy to erect and easy to get a good even tension. There are eight guy points which go out to six (titanium) peg locations. I’ve got 2.1m between each of the wheels, taking the extra 10cm of material supplied to give me more internal space.

Side taper detail

The rear tapered section where we took a triangle of fabric off didn’t work as envisaged, but instead allowed a sort of drop down at the back which would be more effective at keeping weather from coming under the edges. The fabric does go over the wheel quite well and does appear to have equalised the tension in the fabric very well without a lot of very tight or very slack areas of fabric.

Final weight, with guys, pegs and stuff sack

The guy lines were 1.5mm dyneema (15m, total) which is nice and light, easy to handle and knot. For further ease of tensioning, I’ve used mini line-loks which are hugely effective and weigh hardly anything. The whole lot stuffed easily into a Size 1 Granite Gear air bag to tip the scales at just over 480g, with six titanium pegs. Now I just need to find an occasion to test it out for real 😉

Bikepacking, Bikes, Trails

Fat Fun


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The week following my last ‘cross race, I was invited to join some mates on a Bothy weekend at the end of November, and a Bivvy trip at the beginning of December. Exciting.

Equally exciting was the large box that arrived from Alaska just when we got back from holiday. It was fork: steel, black and wide. Specifically, 135mm wide. It was to go with a special wheel I’d precured from Singletrack World classified the previous month. A 135mm custom Phil Wood hub laces to a Speedway Cycles Uma II 70mm wide rim and shod with a Surly Larry 3.8″ tyre.

Welcome to the world of FAT

After an evening in the garage the fork was on and ready for its first ride on the Bothy trip. We rode out from Rhayader early evening on Saturday and took a winding route around the dams to Cwmystwyth before turing steeply up hill towards the forest and the Nant Rhys bothy. Despite the loaded bike and the singlespeed (32:20) the bike didn’t seem all that hard to pedal. Rolling resistance wasn’t that significant and while the extra weight in the front wheel was noticeable it didn’t detract from the ride.

Ready to ride on Sunday

Sunday’s ride was a fairly easy, if slightly longer than planned fire road based ride designed to link the bothies of Nant Rhys and Nant Syddion. The “it must be this way” strategy to navigation failed amongst the various junction options within the windfarm above Nant Rhys. All was not lost, if you excuse the pun, as we happened to hit upon an excellent fire road descent to the north of the forest. This is where the Larry tyre started to show its benefits: all the smaller rocks and stones didn’t really feature as trail features with the tyre just soaking them up. In the corners, the large tyre footprint yielded so much more traction than I expected that allowed me to carry my speed through the corners very effectively.

Finally, with nearly 35 miles ridden, I was at the top of the Golf Links descent: the final descent back into Rhayader and the final initial test for the fat tyre. Considering I was on a singlespeed with all my Bothy gear strapped to the bike, I found I was able to ride at a much faster pace than with a normal rigid fork and tyre. The Larry tyre functioned as a sort of passive suspension system soaking up the smaller stuff and not being thrown off line with the bigger stuff, and it stuck to off-camber sections of exposed rock.

It was a really eye-opening ride and I got much more from the bike than I expected. Looking forward to the rest of the winter with this set up.