Not Bikes, Trails

Two Halves


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Sandwiched between Brecon town and the vast wasteland that is Sennybridge Training Area lies a surprisingly expansive piece of countryside that is covered comprehensively by bridleways. In the shadow of the Brecon Beacons this area looks less attractive compared to the better known trails within the Park. But don’t be fooled – there’s good riding to be had here, as I found out on Saturday. One in particular is the bridleway that runs south from Battle to Aberyscir that looks nothing on the map. It turned out to be a gem of a trail.

My tyres slithered over the greasy stones as we made the first few turns of the trail. I tried to preserve the delicate balance of keeping the bike both upright and moving forwards as the trail dived down through the trees and into little narrow gullies where exposed roots and loose rocks tested your skill in the wet conditions. We emerged at the bottom, grinning. The joy of riding new trails was almost enough of a distraction not to notice the weather. Yes, it rained for more or less the whole of the three and half hours we were out, but with the right gear on we were never in a situation of discomfort. It’s funny how some of the best rides I’ve ever done have been in foul weather.

Back in Brecon, the upbeat tones of jazz instruments played out from the pubs around town – the 25th Anniversary Brecon Jazz Festival was here. With the worst of the rain past, we ventured into town to soak up some of the atmosphere, drink beer and eat too many Welsh cakes.

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Jazz

Though there were fewer than previous years, some of the buskers were pretty good – like this guy. The notes that  poured out of the end of his saxaphone were amazing. A nice end to a day of two halves.

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Races

Chasing Checkpoints


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It’s a good few years since I rode in Cannock Chase Forest. In fact, I was on the Pace which dates it a bit as I’ve been through quite few bikes since then. I remember a bewildering array of singletrack – paths cross-crossing open moor and darting in and out of birch scrub and conifer forest. Easy to get lost if you weren’t paying attention.

The perfect place to have an orienteering event then. Specifically, Round 3 of the Quest Adventure Race Series. Round 1 didn’t even feature on my radar, Round 2 was in Brecon the week after Henry was born so I had my hands full. My mate Alan did the Brecon event solo, and having had a really good time, persuaded me to join him for the Cannock Event.

Checkpoints everywhere...

Following a very similar format to Polaris whereby you navigate to various checkpoints within a specified time limit, it mixes the disciplines of mountain biking and running.  The biking obviously being our strength, we headed out on a mission to get all the bike points available. With a few navigational errors along the way to counter some really slick navigation through bits I knew, the checkpoints began to fall pretty quickly. There was a specific transition area for the running in the forest some distance from the start/finish, which we arrived at after 2.5 hours. We’d ridden pretty hard and accumulated a good points tally already. The legs felt pretty good going into the run, but it wasn’t long before the undulating nature of the forest (read as: everything felt as if it was uphill) began to wear us down. With seven of the 18 running checkpoints tagged, we got back to transition with enough time left on the clock to pick up the remaining bike checkpoints. It was good to be back on the bike after an hour and half of running, but my legs defintely felt heavier than they did before the run. A puncture 20 minutes before the end cost us the extra time we needed to get the last fiddly bike one, so we rolled into the finish with 7 minutes remaining of our 5 hours.

With 615 points on the board, we were hopeful of good placing. We waited tentatively at the prize giving only to discover we’d posted the highest score! Cool. Overall, it was a superb event – well organised and very friendly. Still slightly stunned we actually won our category, but extremely chuffed. Roll on the next one: Round 4 – Isle of Purbeck.

Babies, Not Bikes

Who’s the Daddy?


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Well, me actually. And Beth’s a Mummy too.

The miraculous birth of Henry in May marked the beginning of an exciting new chapter for us. For once (maybe twice, if you count our wedding) bikes haven’t taken preference in this household for a good few weeks. It’s difficult to sum up in words the joy, elation, excitement, happiness, tiredness and even worry, to name only a few of the emotional feelings we’ve experienced over the last few weeks. When we’ve had spare moments we’ve taken quite a few photos. In fact, it’s easier for us to portray our lives, moods and experiences through pictures rather than words.

To infinity and beyond!
To infinity and beyond!

We’ve started a photo blog, called Un Mil Geiriau (a thousand words, in Welsh), which hopefully is nice and easy to update. We seem to have accumulated a huge collection of photos over the years, some of which wouldn’t see the light of day if I didn’t make the effort to share them with others. The theme that surrounds the blog also changes to reflect the tone of the picture to give each page a totally unique feel.

Trails

The Hardest Climb You’ve Ever Done?


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It’s much easier to think of the hardest descent you’ve done, but stangely pointing the question upwards is different. Talking to a good friend of mine recently, all either of us could think of were plenty of climbs we either couldn’t do, or have nearly done. It reminded me of my years bouldering in the Peak District, where problems were impossible up to the point that you solved them, and suddenly they weren’t hard anymore.

I’ve had a good go at numerous hard climbs scattered over the country – Jacobs Ladder, Peak District; Snowdon, North Wales; Lonscale Fell, Keswick; Gwyrne Fawr, Black Mountains; Cockit Hill, Llangorse and many other unnamed trails. I cleared a few of those, but some required the tiniest of foot dabs to deny me that clean ascent.

There’s one climb, though, that for the last 5 years I’ve tried on and off. Above Talybont Forest, the final piece of track that brings you onto the Bryniau Gleision steepens beneath it’s covering of medium size loose rocks. The gradient is sustained, but the surface changes from loose rocks to fixed rocks and a maze of steps and wheel swallowing grooves obstructs what little momentum you have left from the lower section.

Saturday’s sunshine was warm on my back, and I had the feeling that I could ride all day. My tyres rolled easily over everything and my legs felt great after the 45 minute ascent through the forest. The lower section looked more loose than normal, and it was difficult to keep any kind of momentum up before you get to the steps. They looked like they aways did – an awkward maze with no obvious line. The left hand side looked marginally better, but had the most difficult entry. I fluffed the first attempt and returned to the bottom. The lower section was better second time around as I got the measure of floating over the loose material. I cleared the step that stopped me first time, only to find a wheel swallowing groove. I was annoyed – a stupid error ended what was otherwise a good attempt. Back at the bottom, I recomposed myself. It’s a maximal effort to complete this climb, even though it’s only about 70 yards long, so recovery was important. I had an audience now, too. A group of riders we’d passed earlier had caught us up and pushed their way to the top to watch.

It\'s harder than it looks...

I was getting good at the lower section, coming out of it smoothly with more speed. The first big steep cleared, and keeping away from the groove, I muscled the bike over steps two, three and four. Everything was a blur and my planned line now somewhere over to the left. I picked the front up over the final step, but I was tired now. The back didn’t follow. Bugger. I stepped off the bike, having lost my balance at critcal moment. I looked back down the maze of steps and grooves, and then at the (comparitively small) step I’d failed on. Gutted. The assembled crowd dispersed.

I’ll be back for another go soon I expect, having come so close. For now it remains the Hardest Climb I’ve Nearly Done 😉

Training

Naked


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I rode from Bala in North Wales to Brecon last weekend. It’s not often I get to do point to point road rides, but work sent me northwards so I blagged a lift off the boss and took my bike so I could ride back.

The goal was simple (besides getting home): ride 100 miles of Welsh hills. Despite all my years on a bike, and three 24 hour solo’s under my belt, I’d never actually done a ton on a road bike.

The wind down the valley was strong, and the ribbon of tarmac that wound up the valley in front of me seemed all the more steep in these conditions. As I leaned on the pedals and thought aerodynamic thoughts, I glanced down to see my power meter was reading 450 watts – well above my threshold. I’d only been riding for 6 miles. It was going to be a long day…

Eventually the gradiant relented (the wind had other ideas) and I tucked up for the fast descent down to Llyn Vyrnwy. The route round the lake was very pleasant and calm in comparison to the previous valley. I continued onwards to Welshpool and then to towards Newtown. Here I met up with my friend Alan who’d ridden from Brecon to meet me. This was halfway and I was grateful to be able to share the headwind a bit. We headed back through Newtown and began our climb up into the hills. The wind was persistent and for the next 30 odd miles it began to wear us both down.

Builth Wells represented the final brief stop. Here we had a choice. The hilly route over the ranges, or the valley route which was 5 miles longer. My legs were feeling truly empty, and I was probably a bit under fuelled – I’ve never been good at eating on the bike. Neither seemed very attractive.

A can of coke and a Torq gel we were back on the bikes and heading for the hilly route. The combination of simple and complex carbs did the trick by the second hill and before we knew it we reached the top and it was practically down hill to Brecon. With 6 hours 37 minutes on the clock and 100 miles ridden I surprised to find my normalised power as high as 190 watts. Not bad considering I’ve not really done very much riding over the winter.

Contrary to any assumptions you may have made from the title of this post, I was in fact clothed throughout. I’d just forgotten to take my helmet, so felt a little under-dressed…

Bikepacking

Fine Lines


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The definition of Lightweight is interesting. The most obvious to me is this:

Being lighter in weight … than another item or object of identical use, quality, or function

In my pursuit of items that satisfy these qualities, there is a risk of equipping yourself with stuff that falls under this much less desirable definition:

Without seriousness of purpose; trivial or trifling

There is a fine line between the two. I don’t expect the extra 120g of a Laser Competition would have done me any harm, and if the reviews I’ve read are anything to go by, the Laser Photon might not last quite as long either. But then that’s not really the point – my intended use for this tent is exactly what it is designed for: adventure racing where grams count.

My first impressions of this tent are: “Wow, that’s really thin”. And I don’t just mean the fabric, everything is thin. The flysheet is a super fine slightly translucent material – the sort you might expect to use to cover the wings of model gliders, but a lot stronger. Nevertheless, its thinness sort of commands your care when handling it “just in case”. The inner is a similarly tightly woven thin fabric with a half mesh double zipped door allowing easy access to the ample porch. Two (nonadjustable) triangular mesh vents at each end help keep condensation to a minimum. It’s stitched neatly to the bath tub floor fabric, again specced for its light weight. A coarser rip-stop fabric is used here sufficient to keep ground moisture at bay but not sharp rocks. The poles are cool blue anodised with DAC Featherlite lasered onto each section. At 8.55mm diameter, they’re all of 0.29mm narrower than the previous versions. The pegs are titanium, naturally. Twelve thin wires, coated in orange powder coat for identification, rattle in the bottom of a small bag made from the same material as the flysheet. They flex easily between you fingers but quickly return to their original shape. They pushed into the ground quite easily, finding their way around rocky obstructions fairly easily.

Once erected (in the garden) it’s more or less identical to my old Laserlite, but just a good deal lighter and less bulky when packed. In fact, it’s so small when packed up it’ll fit into a Number #1 size Granite Gear Air Bag. Once I’ve made it out into the hills I’ll give you a proper review with some photos of it pitched in a suitably remote location.

Polaris

Winter’s Last Stand


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Spring didn’t quite make it to Llanwrtyd Wells this weekend…

While Saturday morning started fine, the rain had begun to fall by the time the last pair, Gary Tompsett and Phil Hodgkiss left Llanwrtyd Wells. The weatherman was right for a change, which was something of a pity as the few days preceding the event were really nice while I was putting checkpoints out. You should have been treated to views like those below

Sugar Loaf

View from Checkpoint 23

Cwm y Rhaiadr (Checkpoint 2)

Instead, the rain got progressively harder and the trail conditions got all the more difficult. A few dropped out, but I was pleased to see so many make it to the overnight camp. The rain continued to fall into the night, before the clouds cleared and the temperature dropped to freezing.

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I was relieved to see the second day dawn beneath a predominantly blue sky to reward those who had endured a difficult and cold night under canvas. Apart from the odd hail storm, giving the hint that winter hasn’t quite left us behind, riders were at least able to get a feel for how spectacular this area and the trails that criss-cross it are.

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Well done to everyone who made it back in one piece. Maybe see you at another event – either as a competitor or perhaps a planner…

Bikepacking, Polaris

Look after the grams…


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…and the kilo’s look after themselves.

I’ve accumulated a good few pieces of kit towards the Sub 4kg project now.

Stoves

There’s a lot of choice in this department. I started off with an MSR Pocket Rocket (83g) which ran off a gas canister (about 150g, part used). My Snowpeak Ti pan (105g) could be considered something of a luxury compared to a foil tray from the curry house, but it makes cooking a bit more straightforward. An MSR Ti spork tipped the scales at 16g, bringing the total weight of my cooking gear to 354g. Using gas, this is pretty light and to save any weight I needed to look at an alternative source of fuel.

Meths stoves are the obvious choice here, solid fuel stoves don’t quite have the punch to bring your water to the boil quickly. Things have moved on from the trangia, and there’s a vast array of websites with instructions on making your own pepsi-can stoves. Fortunately for me, there are also companies that have taken the hard work out of it and have refined the design in the process. Whitebox and Vargo are two brands that are at the head of the game. I plumped for the Vargo Triad in the end as it’s better suited to small pans with its vertically orientated jets, and its all-titanium construction keeps the weight to a modest 23g. To maximise efficiency, I made a wind shield out of some special silver bubblewrap which added a further 18g and doubles as a pot cosy. It boiled 400ml of water in about 6 minutes and kept it at a rolling boil for a further 25 minutes on just 30ml of fuel. I concluded I needed about 60ml of meths to have sufficient fuel to cook for two days, which weighs 63g in its little nalgene bottle. Without really looking for one, I found a good light and cheap replacement for my Ti spork: the Light My Fire Spork weighs only 10g and costs £2.00. The final component is the pan, which if I’m not comprising on it being a proper pan, doesn’t leave me many choices as the Snowpeak is light for its size. I concluded I need a capacity of only 550ml to cook either a pack of noodles or a pack of smash, and I have my eye upon a such a pan that only weighs 65g. This would bring my cooking gear down to only 179g, which is a saving of nearly 50% and considerably less bulk.

Rucksacs

The hunt for a lightweight rucksac was more difficult than I expected. Most manufacturers (Karrimor, Salomon and others) seem satisfied that 500-600g represents a lightweight bag. For at least the last ten years, I’ve had a PB Walsh rucksac that weighed 400g – sadly rather tired and no longer available. With the exception of the paper thin Gossamer Gear Whisper bag weighing 108g, sub-400g gram bags seemed very hard to come by. A solution came via a British company, Inov8, who produce a range of bags for adventure racing. While most of them weigh over 500g, their 20 litre pack tipped the scales at only 330g. By trimming the straps to the correct length and disposing of the external bungee cord I got it down to 309g. What impressed me, besides the weight was the number of features: two hip pockets, mesh lower sections for stuffing kit in, waterproof zip, compression straps and quality construction throughout. Well thought out shoulder straps and waist belt are also comfy without contributing too much to the weight. Top marks.

Sleeping Mats and Bags

For the last few Polaris events I’ve used a Balloon Bed as a sleeping mat. Weighing less than 100g and packing down to next to nothing (which it needs to if you only have a 20 litre pack), it’s saves you both weight and space. Opinion is divided on their performance though. Some people don’t like them, but others – me included – think they’re great. The Mark II has performed better for me than the Mark I, with less popping over the course of the night. Tipping the scales at 200-odd grams less than a Thermarest and about 50g less than my severely cut-down foam pad, it’s a must for this project. Now, if I could just get the hang of inflating the balloon with my mouth and not the pump, I could save myself a further 18g for nothing!

For the sleeping bag, I use a Rab Quantum 200, which I won for my efforts at the infamous Leyburn Polaris in Spring 2004. Its OK in all but the coldest conditions, though I do normally wear some thin layers and a hat to boost its performance a bit. It weighs only 508g stuffed into a Granite Gear Air Bag.

Tents

I’m still using my Terranova Laserlite at the moment. Weighing 1108g, there is good scope here to take over 300g off with a Laser Photon, which is currently on my wishlist.So, my Polaris bag is currently tipping the scales at just under 4500g.

Next time I’ll review clothing and sundry items, and maybe a tent…

Bikes, Polaris

Finishing Touches


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Once again, I’m not quite sure where the last month has gone. My weekly pilgrimages to Llanwrtyd Wells were interrupted by a cough that just about everyone else I knew had already, so it was going to my turn eventually. The cough cleared and I was able to get back out with renewed enthusiasm to liberate yet more bits of trail for the event.

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This enthusiasm was driven in part by a new bike: Cotic Soda. Though the transition to this lively hardtail from the Nicolai will take some getting used to. So far, it’s been great fun to ride and I’ve had a pretty wide grin at the bottom of some favourite descents 🙂

dirtysoda.jpg

The rain finally eased and the sun nearly shone last weekend when Gary Tompsett came over to see how the finishing touches were going towards the event. If you’ve come here via the Polaris Newsletter, you’ll know that everything is in place for what I hope will be an excellent challenge. For me, perhaps for the first time in probably 4 months, I can finally sit back (albeit briefly) until the end of next week. Then all I have to do it put out the checkpoint boxes… See you at the event 😉

Polaris, Trails

The Right Way Around


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The cat is out of the bag now. The intended location of Spring Polaris will be Llanwrtyd Wells, and the event planner is none other than, erm, me. Though the location of the event is kept quiet until a few weeks before hand, clues were threaded through this blog in the riding stories I have told. This will be my second Polaris as a planner, the first being an uncharacteristically warm and sunny weekend in the Brecon Beacons in March 2005.

The thermometer said minus-nine on Sunday morning as I wheeled my bike out of the garage. A cloudless sky heralded the promise of a good days riding, not least for the fact we were bound for Llanwrtyd Wells with the aim of correcting a few wrongs. A couple of weeks back, Al and me planned a challenging and slightly exploratory route through a load of trails neither of us were familiar with. We found ourselves pushing our way up several long sections of bridleway, all the time thinking “We should be coming down this…”. They weren’t entirely without reward of course, as we enjoyed some eye-watering descents on the other side, like this one:

penrhiwiar.jpg

The first long climb of the day through the forest afforded spectacular views across the Irfon Valley, over the Sennybridge Range and beyond to the Brecon Beacons. Soon, we left the bright sunshine and disappeared back into the trees to find the target at the end of our gravelly ascent. The bridleway turned out to be a surprisingly technical descent with short sections of exposed rock making line choice critical. Eventually the path opened up enough for it to become a full on blast down through trees. We re-emerged in the valley bottom, which was still thick with frost, and began our climb out again.

That was very much the flavour for the rest of the day – fireroad climbing beneath crisp blue skies, followed by exiting and nicely technical bridleway descents threaded through trees and over rocks. Over 60km and 2200m of climbing later, we arrived back at the van with four excellent descents under our belts, this time completed the right way around.