Bikepacking, Polaris

Sub Four

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Five is something of a nice round number, and I was quite pleased when I finally achieved it. Four, on the other hand requires a good deal of thought, research and a little bit of compromise.

What am I talking about? The weight of a pack of kit for a Polaris Challenge.

If you’re not familiar with the Polaris Challenge, its two days of MTB orienteering with a wilderness camp. You have to carry all your gear with you for both days for up to 12 hours of riding and be completely self-sufficent. The event has been around for years, and is probably the route of my competitive interest in mountain bikes (not least for the fact it not all about fitness). I’ve done over 15 in total, with a 2nd and 4th place being my most creditable placings. I’ve also organised one, and I have another in the pipeline this Spring.

Anyway, I digress. After a casual comment on the PC forum, I looked hard at my 5 kg kit list starting to think of ways to save weight. Cutting the weight of something you depend upon for survival by as much as 20% will take some doing, but having spent a bit of time researching various lightweight camping equipment websites and blogs, there are no shortage of ideas out there. Hopefully next time I jump on my bike with a rucksac stuffed with tent, sleeping bag, stove, food, spare clothes and all the other mandatory bits of kit required for the event, it won’t weigh any more than 4 kg, less than 9 lbs.

As I acquire these various pieces of kit, I’ll post up more details…

Polaris, Trails

Rain or Shine

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I should have know better when the weather man said “light rain”. It’d been pouring down all week, but I thought “Light rain? That’ll do, beats heavy rain any day of the week”. So I chucked the bike into the van and off I went towards Rhaeadr. I hadn’t been riding long before Light Rain had brought along some friends and I found myself riding in the company of a lot of water. There’s a trail on the route that has a number of stream crossings. Getting your feet wet is expected under normal circumstances but last weekend it was something else. I’ve never seen the river so swollen, so much in fact that it had overflowed onto the trail on some sections. Fording them was impossible, as I tested the depth with a fence post to discover the edges were waist deep… If I wanted to get that wet, I’d have gone swimming. After a bit of a bog-hop and a sneaky bit of footpath that probably hadn’t seen any feet in a good while, I was back onto the fireroad and back to comparative safety.


Yesterday was another story all together. I picked Al up in the morning and we headed out to Abergwesyn to ride Doethie Valley. A cool breeze made us think twice about leaving the waterproofs behind, but it wasn’t long before we’d shed the extra layer and found ourselves riding beneath a bright sky. I’ve always done Doethie Valley via the track over from Soar y Mynydd, but the bridleway past Nant-llwyd provides a stunning entrance into the valley where you can see a couple of miles of sinuous singletrack stretching out in front of you.

Alan descending into Doethie Valley

There was still plenty of water about from the deluge of the weeks that have gone before us, but trails were a delight to ride – the sort of trails you can just keep coming back to and never get tired of, whatever the weather.

Not Bikes, Races

Two Thousand and Eight

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Earlier this month Steve organised an excellent Duathlon Challenge on Mynydd Llangorse for the Multisport Club. After a week of rain, and even a bit of snow on the higher ground, it was almost miraculous that the day of the event was almost clear and sunny. Suffice to say the ground was wet, with patchy ice and snow and the right choice of tread was important for both bike and feet. A pair of gnarly NB fell running shoes kindly donated by Ryan and a pair of Bontrager Mud 1.8’s (which hadn’t seen any use since Mountain Mayhem) did the job very nicely in some very soft and slippy mountain conditions. Given that it was my first off-road duathlon, I got round in just under 1:55 for the 1.5 mile run/ 8 mile bike/ 4 mile run, about 8 minutes behind Matt who won. I was quite pleased with that and it was a good start to 2008.

Of course, 2008 actually started in the traditional fashion of a party and lots of alcohol. Our club got together for a T-Party, which means you have to come dressed as something beginning with “T”. After much thought and pondering, I put on a brown pin-stripe suit, a badly tied tie and pair of converse all-stars and armed myself with some psychic paper and a sonic screwdriver to go as a Time Lord. Other T’s included Tank Girl, Thor, a Thespian, Mr T., Tigger, Tinkerbell, with Beth going as a Tooth Fairy.

Looking back, this blog is now 1 year old (and a couple of weeks). Its was quite a year with one thing and another, the high point of which had to be TransScotland. The latter half of 2007 wasn’t quite what I had hoped for, but it’s showed me the way for 2008, and there’s lots of excitement ahead. Watch this space…

Polaris, Trails

Not So Hidden Gems


It’s always a joy to discover a new bit of trail in an area you thought you knew. The Real Ale Wobble a couple of weeks ago takes you through a couple of woods I manage, and through a bit of Wales I (should) know like the back of my hand. After a lengthy climb on fire road, and with the rain getting heavier we were looking for short cuts to the first ale stop. A last minute change of heart saw us stick to the planned route across an exposed piece of moor. It looked pretty unexciting at first, and the rain feeling all the more sharp in the wind wasn’t helping. Eventually the sinuous line through the heather brought us to the top of a steep tricky grassy descent before joining a superbly fast and slightly off-camber bridleway. The slippy conditions commanded your attention all the way down. A real gem, hidden in plain view.



Now, if this rain would just ease up a bit, I’ll get myself back out to Abergwesyn and ride all the other trails I thought I knew but haven’t actually ridden…


The Art of Dunking

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There’s a fine line between a perfectly soaked biccy and the ultimate dunking catastrophe. I’ve gone through a good number of mugs of tea while fitting this kitchen, and have extensively tested a variety of biscuits in the process. Rich Tea biscuits should carry a warning: Do not dunk for more than a second for risk of breakage. Fox’s crunch creams are equally dangerous, as they soak up too much tea and then collapse back into your mug under the weight. Bourbons are nice, but a bit small, and Digestives are only good in coffee. The best tea dunking biscuit has to be the McVites Ginger Nut. Excellent strength even when soaked in tea, and robust enough to retain its form even after an extended dunking of a few seconds. Seldom will the Ginger Nut have you reaching for your spoon to fish the soggy bits from the bottom of your cup.

I concluded that the quality of the a good dunking biscuit is all down to materials and composition. Which kind of brings me around (in an obscure fashion) to bikes. The last couple of weeks have seen a change in my bike shed. After the fun and excitement of the Omega Axis, I’ve decided that a ‘cross bike isn’t quite for me. The ride was superb; its lively spring weaved harmoniously into its capacity to be supremely comfortable on the roughest of roads. Soon I forgot the harshness of the aluminium frame it replaced, and extra weight of the steel one before that. Though they were all great in there own way, each successor was better. As much as I would have liked a titanium road specific bike, I couldn’t afford it. Instead, I have strayed to the Dark Side. Carbon to be precise. Propped up in the garage waiting for the rain to stop is a shiny new Scott CR1*.

When I test rode it I was amazed firstly at the weight, or lack of. I headed out of town on the smooth tarmac at a brisk pace, the bike eager to go faster. The rear end felt tight and stiff when I kicked up a few short hills out of the saddle. Yet, when I turned purposefully off onto a rough piece of road I wasn’t shaken to bits. It seems to have all the qualities you need in a bike neatly woven into one very light yet extremely robust frame. The Ginger Nut of bikes. Remarkable.

* photo to follow shortly…

Not Bikes, Races

…and, we’re back…

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It’s been a busy few weeks with one thing and another. After a lengthy period of writers block, I’ve found some time in between plastering the kitchen* and getting ready for a duathlon tomorrow.

To recap, the latter part of August and September were spent preparing for the final round of the Dragon XC mountain bike series. Having spent a good deal of time entering races, I felt quite qualified to actually try and organise one. In a sense, it helped quite a bit, but in many other respects I under estimated the amount of work involved both before hand and on the day. Four of us spent days strimming tracks, building berms and little bits of north-shore, putting arrows and marking tape out. The result was what many racers regarded as an excellent course – one of the best of the year if you read the straw poll on the forum. Anyway, suffice to say there’s much more to running a race than meets the eye, but seeing 60 odd happy (and tired) riders kind of made it all worth while.

In between times, I’ve continued to try and get the hang of this swimming malarky, with at least two sessions a week. Its the one thing where my base fitness from cycling doesn’t actually count for much because its some much down to your technique, or in my case, lack of. I’ve done a bit of running too with the local club, completing my first bench-mark mile the other week in 6 mins 22 seconds. I wasn’t sick when I crossed the line, which was something. I’d hope to get under 6 minutes pretty quickly now I’ve learnt a bit about pacing for that sort of distance.

St Brides Haven

I’ve been away with Beth on holiday, for the first time on what seems years. Taking time of work to train or do DIY isn’t really much of a holiday. Looking at the photo above, you’d think we’ve been somewhere really exotic, but it’s actually Pembrokeshire. A vast array of photos, trimmed down from over 400 is here.

So, that brings you more or less up to date. After a hour fettling in the garage this evening, I’ve got my tri-bars in the right position for tomorrow. It’s not a particularly serious event, between the local triathlon club and the athletics club, but it’ll be a first time I’ve done an event such as this. The route starts with a hilly 2 mile run, followed by a 9 mile bike and a 2 mile run again. The trick I suppose is not being totally wrecked when I get off the bike so I die on the final leg of the race. Full report to follow soon…

* or rather, the room where the kitchen used to be. Most of “the kitchen” is in pieces outside waiting for me to fit the new one which is taking all the space where we used to have a dining room and a lounge. Like all good DIY jobs, there’s more to it than you first thought…

Not Bikes, Training

Fish Out of Water

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I went swimming last week for the first time in what must be nearly two years. When I asked the advice of a few friends on swimming, one them said:

There are only 3 things you need to know for swimming.
They are, in no particular order, technique, technique and technique.

Having got quite used to my legs going round and round for hours at a time on a bike, the coordination required to get them to paddle backwards and forwards whilst at the same time moving my arms (rather than clasping a handlebar) required considerable levels of concentration. Suffice to say, at the moment, I’m not much of a swimmer. But there lies the challenge. Beth used to very good at swimming, and now there’s an opportunity for her to teach me how to do something.

The other discipline into which I have dabbled is running. On the face of it, I’m the right build and have a good level of fitness already so how hard can a bit of running be? Well, at the moment quite hard. My running muscles have been a bit underdeveloped in recent years, but with some steady practice I guess I’ll improve, along with the swimming.


Burnt Out


In search of the root of my short-comings at Mayhem, I looked over my training for the earlier part of the year. The base had been good, and I was churning out the highest zone 2 wattage I’d ever managed by the middle of March. The build phase of late March and April produced a good result for the Nightrider 12, and everything seemed fine. Then I got ill. For over 2 weeks I didn’t ride, and then only had a short preparation period for Trans Scotland. Trans Scotland took quite a bit out of me I think. Besides the physical aspect of riding a bike hard for 7 consecutive days, there’s mental fatigue in there too. The result was me going into Mayhem a little more tired than I realised, and I lacked the mental commitment that helped drive me to 3rd place at SITS last year.

After Mayhem I rested a bit. When I got back on the bike I just felt empty, and quickly realised that I wasn’t going to be able to turn things around for Sleepless in the Saddle.


To try and improve on the successes of last season has taken a massive amount of commitment which, sadly, has left me a little broken. So, here endeth two and half years of hard training. While there’s still some summer left, I can retreat to the Welsh Hills with Beth and chill out a bit – something that I’ve not done enough of for a long time.

Trails, Training

Bad Habits

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If there’s one thing I’ve got good at over the years riding my bike, its bad trail habits. As is the way with bad habits, you don’t know you’re doing them until someone points it out to you.

So, it was at the A Quick Release skills day in Sherwood Forest last month where Paul pointed out my mistakes as I made a bit of meal of trying to ride (too) quickly through a complex of three rooty turns we were using for cornering practice.

I met Paul in 2005 when I went out to Luchon for the TORQ Fitness/ AQR training week. He was helping Ian and Kate Potter with their first year of guiding. I was quietly impressed by his skillful yet modest approach to riding and that extra bit of flair he had on descents that told you he was a) really very good at riding a bike and b) not trying that hard, so as not to make us look crap.

Back to those corners then. Paul broke them down into pieces and talked through three fundamental things we needed to do to get more traction and speed out of the bike. I started out slowly and struggled to coordinate the movement of my bike and my body in sync with the trail in the way Paul had described. A different approach was required, I thought. I accelerated down the trail, missed the braking point into the first corner, came out of it late and into the next berm too low before finding the line again for the third having lost most of my speed. At the second attempt I got the braking right, carved through the first corner on the right line, railed the small berm and shot out of the third corner – the three things Paul taught me had begun to come together. It wasn’t perfect, but refinement would come through practice.

A month later and I was riding the Pen Hydd trail at Afan Argoed. The trail flowed fast beneath me as I used every inch of its width to carry my speed through the rocky turns of the Sidewinder descent. Now I’ve been shown the right way to do things, its down to me to make sure I don’t slip back into those bad habits.

Thanks Paul 😉