HTR550 2015 attempt day 2

Waking with the sun around 5am, I packed up my stuff quickly and got moving for 5:30. Early starts are fine when out on the bivi, I find that waking with the sun means you feel refreshed and ready to go, almost all the time anyway.

My goal for today was Oykel Bridge, I’d heard good things about the food offering and it seemed like a nice stretching goal to aim for. No point in not being ambitious. I rode out to the start of the Loch ma Stac climb, and then pushed up towards the loch. I’ve never seen the problem with this push, it’s just annoying and a walk but not the end of the world. However, this year, it was anything but annoying. The Stooge on big tyre was frankly amazing. I was able to power through about 80% of the crossing without stopping, the big grip and bounce of the 3″ tyre helping keep me going where a narrower tyre would be slowing me down. I hit the top of the track towards the bothy, grabbed some food and started the descent.

Arriving at the bothy, I caught up with Rich and Tom Seipp, riding the HTR550 on Tom’s half term (Tom is 10). Tom is an incredibly determined biker, as is Rich, knowing Rich from both the HTR last year where we both finished, and the Puffer where Tom soloed with dad acting as chaperone. The hike a bike was proving to be an issue for them though, so they were considering dropping onto the HTR430 and missing out the ‘fun’ of the Bealach Horn. I don’t blame them, especially not with the benefit of hindsight…

Arriving in Contin with another rider, Karl, we met Alan G at the Contin Store. I’m a bit disappointed to say I’d never been there before, instead using just the garage for my food supply. The Contin Store is brilliant, selling a huge range of goodies for the discerning biker. I stocked up and pressed on for Inchbae via the fire road.

Karl soon caught me up, as I’d stopped for some clothing alterations. My ¬£18 Tenn shorts were now chaps, after catching them on the nose of my saddle I’d torn them and then repeatedly torn them until they were practically two shreds of fabric. This was the first year that I’d decided to take wide Gorilla tape with me, I’ve got some of the three inch stuff for seating fat bike tyres, and I figured it might come in handy. Taping up my shorts to an almost acceptable level, I was able to continue. Arriving at Inchbae, I noticed it was open and looking considerably less dilapidated than last year. I had a goal of Oykel Bridge though, so pushed on towards Lubachlaggan, my stop for the night last year.

I had mentioned to other people, and possibly people had read it on this blog, that Lubachlaggan was an abandoned cottage that made for a great overnight in poor weather. Unfortunately this time it was no longer abandoned, there was a 4×4 outside and some people tending a fire outside it. Perhaps they’re doing it up for the benefit of any passing weary travellers, but more likely it’s being put to hydro use. Either way, it would be interesting to see how it turns out.

Deanich Lodge came and went, and I was soon on the road to Ullapool. Rob Waller and Phil Clarke soon passed me, an ongoing theme of faster riders overtaking me and me catching them up by riding longer or avoiding stops. I turned off onto the Oykel Bridge track, and began the descent in horrible rain and wind, but knowing fine well that food would be available to me.

I was right, the Oykel Bridge Hotel was simply a godsend for all of us. They had been watching track leaders so were prepared for our arrival every time. Three courses of filling hot food and I felt human again. A few of us left into the rains, riding into Glen Cassley to camp for the night. I found a sheltered spot in a small forest and set out my bivi and tarp. I was knackered, this had been a 17.5hr day covering another 104 miles.

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HTR550 2015 attempt day 1

I didn’t finish the HTR550 this year. I’m unhappy that I had to quit, but at the same time it was the right decision.

Some back story:

I started the race in a similar fashion to last year, but with the express goal of hitting Fort Augustus on day 1 for food before 10pm. I realised that I could probably manage this by minimising my stopping but without any particular uplift in my pace, looking at last year’s race on Strava and counting all my stops. I reckoned that I could drop half an hour in Kinlochleven and half an hour at Loch Ossian and I’d make Fort Augustus with time to spare to get my order in. As it happens, things started better than this.

I rode into Kinlochleven feeling fresh and strong, and without hesitating to stop at the Co-op I started the push up to Mamore Lodge. Eating as I walked, I soon made it to the Eilde lochs and the gentle roll down to the Abhainn Rath. Knowing that I’d be in wet feet for the next couple of hours, I overtook several riders who had stopped to muck around with shoes and socks, and ploughed through the river and into the hike a bike on the other side. Things were rolling well, I flowed between walking and pushing quickly and soon had the section out of the way. I was already 90 minutes up, making good progress. Loch Ossian Youth Hostel came and went, and my first actual stop of the day came in Strath Ossian, the wide valley and dusty road making me imagine that this would be what the Tour Divide was like. Five minutes of sitting around and I was off again.

I noticed at this point that I was being far more efficient in my stops. No point in pausing to do just one thing, so I’d perhaps change layers, take a pee, eat some food and lube my bike in one go, as it was far quicker to do one slightly longer stop that four or five shorter ones.

Passing Laggan around 5:30, I noticed a few riders emerging from it. It turns out that the cafe was open at that time, but with my goal of Fort Augustus in mind I ignored temptation and continued. Turning West, the westerly wind that had been pressing me on whipped around and slowed my pace to a crawl. I knew I had to keep going though as a pizza was my goal. Melgarve came and went, and I was now over two hours ahead of last year. Things were looking good, but I knew not to let myself slow down in case I missed the food stop.

Approaching the top of the Corrieyairack, visibility was down to about 100yds at times. My usual indicator of whether I was at the top was failing me – the power lines going over the top could not be seen, so I couldn’t tell if they were pointing up or down. I made out the small building on the map, so figured that I wouldn’t have much left to go. Before I hit that, I came to a snow patch covering the trail – this is meant to be late May but we’re still in late winter in the Highlands…

Reaching the top, I descended into Fort Augustus, got my pizza, as did about fifteen other riders (doubling the pizzeria’s Saturday trade I’m sure) and then I made my way out on the Great Glen Way to find a bivi spot. I found a nice flat space under some trees, giving me ideal rain cover, and then pitched out and attempted to get some sleep. 102 miles done, my first mountain bike century.

Micro adventure in the Pentlands

Every so often I like to get a bivi somewhere, just a few hours in the hills tinkering with kit, testing setup for races etc. I’d not really managed any of that this year, and with my two pre-HTR bivi opportunities not happening (Capital Trail in a bothy, Cairngorms Loop in my car), I really wanted to test my new bivi bag before the big event.

I’d been looking at a spot in the West Pentlands, beyond where most bikers venture, in a disused quarry. I’m not going to publish the location as part of the fun of getting out there is finding the spots yourself.

I set out at about 8, intent on carrying the bare minimum and being out for the bare minimum – leave after dinner, return before breakfast. My spousal warnings about the weather were duly ignored, as the point of tonight was to experience the poor weather in testing my kit.

Arriving at the site, I ditched my bike and started unpacking:  

The area in shadow here is all kept dry by the outcrop above, the only concern is whether it is flat.

I found the flattest bit and inflated my mat – a perfect fit:

 
Out with the hip flask and the book, and after a couple of hours, sleep came. Not the most relaxing sleep, but still something. Good training for the HTR anyway, and a good way to confirm that my new bivi (Terra Nova Discovery Lite) was up to the job.

Heavy rain fell through the night, but I stayed perfectly dry in my cave. I’d recommend this wee place if you have an inflatable mat (it’s a bit lumpy), the approach is completely rideable until the last fifty yards, and it’s downhill all the way in the morning.

The Stooge

These days I seem to be changing a lot more on my bikes, and my frequency of purchase has dropped from a bike every 18 months to three in the past 18 months. First it was the Salsa El Mariachi, and then a Rocky Mountain fat bike, and finally a Stooge.

I think the mistake I made with the Salsa was buying it as a full bike as the ability to build from frame up gives you exactly the bike you need.

The Stooge is advertised as a progressive trail hard tail, which in practice means it’s slack, short back end and high front end. Ridden rigid, big tyre up front, it’s meant to be comfy to ride and will get through a lot more than you’d expect on a rigid bike.

I bought the Stooge to replace one of my El Mars (I had one rigid and one SS), I wanted a rigid singlespeed just for knocking around on. 

 
Around this time, I cracked the rim on another bike so picked up a pair of white Flows – this is the work in progress build, awaiting the rear wheel. Up front I’m running a dynamo hub, hoping to donate the wheel into my bikepacking El Mariachi at some stage.

However, it didn’t work like that. I stopped riding the Salsa completely, the Stooge really was that good. It feels nothing like the rigid Salsa, the slack and high front end in conjunction with the 3″ tyre means it just powered through anything, and the short back end keeps it really agile. It’s a bit like riding half a fat bike, you hit the mucky stuff with the front wheel, float it, and then the rear digs in and grips and you drive forward. It won’t replace a full fatty for the gloopy or snowy stuff but for general trail riding it’s great.

It does feel a bit heavier than my Salsa but it’s not noticeable when riding it. If anything the twin top tube makes it both easier to lift and shoulder so it’s a blessing in disguise.

Anyway, riding this bike as SS and my main bike was hard work, so I decided to gear it up with some old bits I had lying around. It became a 1×9 initially, just for mucking around and not as my bikepacking bike.

That was soon forgotten though, as the chance of a free weekend and an attempt on the Capital Trail loomed. The trail incidentally was pretty poor by comparison with both the Cairngorms Loop and the Highland Trail, but the bike was simply phenomenal. Comfy throughout even on rocky descents, good seating position and the high front end meant my hands weren’t destroyed.

The photo was taken at the Three Brethren between Selkirk and Innerleithen.

  
The Stooge was en route to becoming my race rig. For up to a week of pedalling, comfort is more important than outright weight, so I’ve done what I can to turn it into my HTR550 bike for 2015.

Wheels are Flows, dynamo hub and Salsa/Formula Rear, strongly built by my Local Bike Shop – Matt at Just Bike Repairs in Juniper Green, near Edinburgh. These wheels are bomb proof – I tore four spokes out with a stick to wheel interaction and despite the rim being oval the rest of the wheel held for my ride.

Surly Knard 29×3″ up front (the 127tpi one) and probably a Geax Saguaro out back. It was originally a Nobby Nic but when that exploded rather quickly on a descent I decided that other tyres might be more durable…

Drivetrain 1×10 SRAM XX (got it cheap) with Absoluteblack expander cog and oval narrow wide chainring giving me 32-40T lowest gear.

Hope stem, Race Face risers, Cane Creek bar ends, Thomson seat post and my favourite contact point, a Brooks Cambium C15. It’s heavier than a normal saddle but very comfy.

I think I feel a lot happier with this bike than last year’s, in part because I built it myself to my exact spec but also because it’s a really nice bike to ride. As comfy as steel can be, definitely making the most of the material.

The 3 Fs

I’ve had time to think about what is important when riding long days. Mostly while riding long days, there’s always time to think.

I’ve been trying to come up with a catchy moniker for it, and I reckon the 3 Fs is as good as it gets:

Fitness: A good base fitness is needed. Speed is unimportant unless you’re in it to win it, but you need to be able to keep cranking the miles in without pain or discomfort, for days on end. Think rides of longer than 12hrs, back to back, and you’re getting there.

Fortitude: a certain amount of mental strength is important. Experience brings this. The understanding that when you’re feeling negative, considering quitting, you’re most likely hungry. The acceptance that pain is part of the experience, that pushing beyond your comfort zone is normal, and that dragging your bike is just something you do.

Fortuity: The most tenuous F here, but the only one that means luck. Good fortune is important. A weather window, good kit and a bike that doesn’t break. A tailwind, arriving at a shop while it’s open or avoiding that stick on the trail that would have gone through your spokes. Finding a river crossing low, a bothy empty or bogwood dried out.
I’ve not mentioned what proportion of each is important as it’s a very dynamic relationship. I see each F as a point on a triangle, where compression of one point means the other two need to pick up. Lack of fitness? Hope for a lucky day and some mental strength to see you through. Broken bike? Be a tough bastard and walk/run your way out. Wanting to quit, you just need to hope you can keep riding through it…

If I was to estimate ideal proportions, I’d say 40% fitness, 50% fortitude and 10% fortuity for me. I’m a stubborn bastard who can keep biking for hours, but I do still need to rely on good fortune at times to see me through. 

Just some ramblings from me…

Cairngorms Loop attempt

I’ve ridden the Cairngorms Loop twice now, it’s become an annual tradition for me. 185 miles of amazing riding in under 56 hours, a worthy challenge and great training for the Highland Trail later in May.

This time I signed up for the mass start, and was ready to set off at 10am on the first Saturday in May. Through the week, the weather was doing its worst to dissuade me, with constant snow forecast for all Sunday. Decision time – to fat bike or not?

In the end, I went back to my original choice, the Stooge. More about the Stooge here as I finally got around to writing a review of it.

Anyway, at the start line, Steve, the organiser, relays the weather warnings. 60mph winds and a lot of snow, heavy rain at lower level. Still snow on Bynack Mor, and most of the Cairngorms really. This might be a year to cut the ride short.

Starting quickly, I soon got onto the Sustrans that runs along the old A9, chatting to Gary and Graham. Gary Tompsett is a fellow Highland Trail Race veteran, albeit one considerably faster than I, so we shared stories and experiences. There is a shared pain and camaraderie among riders of this, we all hated the same bits and loved the same  bits, truly a brilliant experience.

Anyway, back on the race, and we hit the Gaick Pass. The scenery opens up in front of me, and the off-road begins properly. Some techy singletrack along the side of a loch, and then a fast double track and road descent. 30 miles down, this is easy!

Moving into more singletrack following a river for a while, and then we start to skirt Loch an Eilean’s simply sublime singletrack. Lovely riding here, worth visiting Aviemore just for this. Loch Morlich approaches and then Glenmore shops. A stop for some food sees me meeting up with several other riders all mulling their options. Alan, Greg and Steve all opt for the outer loop diversion, Phil F-T and I look at the inner instead. Bynack Mor might be snowy and the Lairig an Laoigh brutal but it’s the race route I still want to finish. 

I start my push, overtaking another pushing rider, Mark Aston, who would later go on to finish the route. The snow starts, first on the ground and then in the sky and then both. Drainage ditches become knee high leg traps, the risk of stepping into one through the snow becoming ever higher. Riding is possible for short stages, but moreso with my choice of big tyre up front (3″ Knard) than without. I contemplate my choice to not take the fat bike, but am having so much fun on the Stooge that this is soon forgotten. 

Reaching the Fords of Avon, I stop for a photo.  

 

It’s quite snowy. Last year at the same time there was a twenty foot patch of snow to navigate through on the whole course; things are slightly different now…

Pushing on past the Ford, the end of the Lairig an Laoigh is reached. I do hate the Lairig due to the lack of riding it offers, but love it at the same time as it’s tough going and stunning scenery. I make a mental note to climb these mountains instead of pass between them.

Glen Derry opens up, and on my fourth time passing through, today, I decide to take a photo  

I immediately regret having not taken a photo on any of the three times prior, especially the one where Glen Derry is lit by the sun yet the surrounding hills remain dark under clouds.

Some lovely singletrack (not counting the drainage ditch) and Derry Lodge is reached. I decide to press on, my route decision still not made. 

Reaching the Geldie after Linn of Dee and White Bridge, I have a choice. Ride through to the bothy at Feshiebridge and onwards, or bin it and ride down Glen Tilt. At this point I feel great, about 75 miles in and legs are fine, I’m certain I could ride for hours more. However, I know how badly the Geldie floods after heavy rain, so it is a tough call for me to abandon the race and head down Glen Tilt. I could have kept going onwards but the exit down Glen Tilt is to my car, whereas Glen Feshie is to a train from Aviemore.

I ride down Glen Tilt, the narrow and techy singletrack, while not particularly difficult, taking on a completely different element being ridden in the dark. The option to complete the route comes up, but is ignored, common sense prevailing.

Double track becomes estate road, becomes road, and I’m back at the car, 13hrs after I started. A good day’s biking and definitely the right decision to exit where I did. I don’t regret it as the day wasn’t right to continue, it was just a tough break with the weather. Great training though, and it’s put me in the right frame of mind for the HTR…