Ride to the Sun (first double century in old money)

Back in 2015, I rode the inaugural Ride to the Sun with a mate. This ride is an overnight trip from Carlisle to Cramond in Edinburgh, the aim being to arrive for sunrise at around 3:45am. This was a great ride, the antithesis of sportive riding – something which has never appealed to me.

In 2016, I was unable to attend, so wanted to do it again in 2017. Unfortunately its popularity had exploded, so it was impossible to get bike spaces on the train. This left me with two options – Brompton on the train, or attempt the double. 

I’d always wanted to attempt a double century but never got around to it. Some pretty long days on the Highland Trail, including a 24hr stint to finish, convinced me that I could ride many hours, and given that I could knock out a century in around 7hrs I figured the double was achievable.

I started writing a trip report but realised it was actually really boring words about a road ride. 

In short, I finished, 220 miles all in, and met Rich and Tom at the end. I didn’t take any pictures, couldn’t stay long at the rave due to midges. Well-fed, didn’t feel tired, could ride further in future. The end.

Highland Trail 2017 attempt (and success)

I really loved it this year, everything seemed to come together perfectly. I originally wrote this as a post on Bearbones but I’ve fleshed it out a bit and added pictures as it’s easier on here.

Day 1: lost maybe an hour on the Ben Alder climb with a tyre hole that wouldn’t seal, stuck in an anchovy and made a mental note to bring a pump that’s easier to use at higher pressure. Bivi after fish and chips, on the Great Glen Way.

A shot over Loch Ericht 

Day 2: Passed Tim sleeping in a bus shelter in Invermoriston. He couldn’t sleep easily on the tiny bench due to the risk of falling off, so tied himself to it with his tent. Expert level ingenuity!

Pushing along Loch na Stac wasn’t that bad either, ridden earlier than usual due to a 5am start, something I’d continue all week. The lodge on the Loch looked as spooky as ever, but I didn’t venture across despite my curiosity.

Avoiding date night in Contin, I pressed on:


Dynamo not working, so a night at the Oykel Bridge to recharge batteries (actual batteries as I was feeling fit). Nothing much special to comment on here, other than seeing two WW2 warplanes flying down the Glen I was in at the time. Sadly too fast to get my camera out, but it definitely happened.

It was that same Glen where I slept in 2014, so it was nice to pass it mid afternoon and not around 9pm. It also made for some nicer shots:

Day 3: The Bealach Horn was just great, the climb was faster and the traverse through the bogs wasn’t as boggy as I remember. An early finish at Suileag Bothy, knowing that the Ledmore traverse in that weather could have been horrible.
Day 4: Met Anita on the Ledmore traverse, she’d missed the bothy turnoff so had erected her tarp instead – brave! Breakfast at the Oykel Bridge, Anita stayed back to recover, but she did press on later. En route to Ullapool I met a guy who had spent a night at a local bothy, and he didn’t mention any other riders, so the route ahead was clear. A stop at Tesco in Ullapool to resupply, and the weather started closing in on the Dundonnel climb (desperate as ever). Descending off Dundonnel it cleared up again into a lovely day, and then I began the Fisherfield ascent. The drop into Fisherfield was an ideal stop for a photo.


Shenavall was packed, so I decided to cross the Strath na Sealga that night to see what I could find. The crossing was easy, calf level, although the water provided temporary respite from the aching legs from four days of hard riding. 


I figured Carnmore was perhaps a step too far so I thought I should investigate Larachantivore. Knowing that there was an emergency shelter, I figured a night in a garden shed would be acceptable, but the porch of the lodge provided perfect shelter from the wind. I’d probably call it my favourite bivi spot, as it was open enough to be spectacular but sheltered enough to prevent any wind chill.


Day 5: Climbing out of Fisherfield, again not hating the push despite its toughness. By this point I was loving the whole route, proper type 1 fun. Stopping for a photo at the top, I couldn’t see any riders behind me, so I felt truly alone. A great feeling.


Descent to Carnmore was even better than I’d remembered, as I’d forgotten it had two parts! All of it very technical and loose, and some landslip that required lifting instead of riding. The ribbon on the right of this photo is the trail I’m about to follow:


Rounding the corner, the view to Carnmore revealed the second part:

Things were going well, but everything changed at the Postman’s Path. I wasn’t a fan at all, a tough traverse with lots of obstacles and pushing.

A quick resupply at the Kinlochewe Stores, looking for a USB battery pack. Sadly their cabinet of ‘The Things’ included a dusty camcorder tape and an old torch so it was never meant to be. Several hours of electricity at the Whistlestop Cafe, I felt like I was holding court as so many riders came and went. Great food though, and the porridge from the all day breakfast menu made for a good starter. Torridon climb, much easier than in 2014, and the descent was simply sublime. The Jones was ideal on it, quick and direct and not as ridiculously underbiked as a rigid bike could have been.

A pause at Dornie for an obligatory photo (not ideal in the dark) and some Haribo, and then bivi search commenced.


Bivi just beyond Morvich campsite when I realised Camban would have been a step too far.

Day 6: I crossed the date line at Camban at 9am, because in 2014 I was faffing with a cracked rim at Camban at 9am on day 7 of my HT ride.


 Another tyre hole later in Glen Affric, this time at the sidewall. Anchovy in, and on my way. 

I met up with Matt around this time, having seen him behind me on the climb into Glen Affric. We’d ridden together a few times already on the route, but from then on we rode as a pair. Tomich for bacon rolls in the post office cafe (another gem of a place), and late lunch in Fort Augustus, this time getting the pizzas we’d been looking forward to on day 1. Fort William in a headwind and rain, more of the same to Kinlochleven. Pitch black pushing up to the Devil’s Staircase, some mist for good measure.

Just up from the ski centre, I flatted. My anchovy hadn’t held, likely due to its position on the sidewall. Some more air (cursing the pump again), and then a few miles of riding. At the end of the Rannoch section, with no respite from the inflate/deflate cycle, a tube went in. Inflation complete, pump was removed, taking with it the valve stem. Tube #2 in, valve would not tighten. Typical! I left it as it was, fully inflated it at Bridge of Orchy, and we rode into Tyndrum at 6:23am for a greeting from a midge net wearing Alan and a beer.

I’ll finish with a quote I got third hand from Matt, who had heard it from Steve, the Cairngorms Loop organiser. I think it sums up the last day, as having company on the route meant I rode more climbs than I would have ridden on my own, and I kept pushing homewards when there was someone else to push with.

“Ride faster, ride alone. Ride further, ride together”

Highland Trail 550 – 2017 kit musings

Spoiler alert: I finished the race. Blog post to follow sometime.

When you’re in a ride like the Highland Trail 550, you’ve got a lot of time to think about things. As I was pushing up some hill somewhere, I started thinking about how much of my kit that I’d used in 2014 was with me in 2017. Let’s be clear, bikepacking can be cheap, but it can also turn out really expensive as you iterate through kit setups.

Firstly, an image to give some context to the following post:


Thinking back to the kit required for a week-long race, here’s what I still use three years later:

  • Midge net
  • Multi tool – Topeak Hexus II
  • Pump – Lezyne Mini HV
  • Sunglasses – Oakley Flak Jacket XLJ
  • Sleeping bag liner

Everything else has been upgraded, broken or simply replaced. Admittedly I did carry a lot more in 2014, but for everything else to have been swapped out is quite surprising.

My 2017 kit list in its entirety

  • Martha
    • Jones Spaceframe 3d Ti
    • Rohloff internal gear hub, Velocity 35mm rim (now dented) and a 2.2″ Nobby Nic
    • Shutter Precision PD-8 dynamo hub, laced to a WTB Scraper i45 and spaced (badly) to 135mm. Vee Trax Fatty 3″ tyre
    • Exposure Revo
    • Jones Ti Cut bars, foam grips
    • Brooks Cambium C15
    • Thomson layback post, 70mm stem
    • Garmin Edge 810
    • Single 750ml water bottle
    • Two inner tubes, taped into the frame at the seat mast
  • Revelate Viscacha saddle bag, containing:
    • Alpkit tapered drybag
    • PHD Autumn Racebag
    • Rab Survival Zone Bivi
    • Klymit X Frame short mat
    • Exped inflatable pillow (well worth the minimal extra weight)
    • Silk sleeping bag liner
    • Running shorts (suitable for bedtime)
    • Icebreaker Oasis crew neck, long sleeved (bedtime)
    • Spare Woolie Boolies, worn at bedtime
    • Gore Windstopper knee warmers
    • Icebreaker skull cap
  • Revelate Sweetroll, containing:
    • Berghaus hydrophobic down jacket, inside a 2l Alpkit drybag
    • Spare/emergency food – bag of cashews, unused
    • Food, 8 hrs of energy bars, which would not be revealed until the last day
  • Revelate Pocket (large), containing:
    • Food
    • Smidge
    • Riemann P20 sunscreen
    • SIS electrolyte tablets
    • Pump
    • Batteries
    • Sinewave Revolution
    • USB cables
    • Lube (Finish Line red)
    • My Lucky Spork (Light My Fire, carried everywhere just in case)
  • Alpkit Roo pocket, strapped into truss fork (bad idea, it wore through)
    • Topeak Hexus II multitool
    • Topeak tyre levers
    • Tubeless repair kit
    • Puncture repair kit
    • Tubeless valve
    • Cable ties
    • Nipples, various bolts
  • Blackburn Designs top tube bag:
    • Gels
    • Stoats porridge bars
    • USB battery and cable for charging the Garmin on the go
  • Osprey Talon 11 rucksack
    • Aqua Traveller filter bottle, which wasn’t used
    • Food bought en route, plus bars in the hip pockets
    • Lock
    • Charlie the Bikemonger’s Bum Butter
    • Leatherman Skeletool CX
    • Vitamin C tabs
    • Phone, inside a Lifeproof case
    • Basic toiletries
    • Exposure Diablo, carried in the bag for mounting to my helmet at night

I think that’s it for the kit I carried, and my clothing for riding is below. I’m not sponsored by Endura, I’ve just discovered that I buy a lot of it without really thinking about it.

  • Specialized Rime shoes
  • Woolie Boolie socks. I wore the same pair for a week
  • Endura FS260 bibs, suitable for long rides of 4hrs plus. Again, wore for a week and very very good
  • Endura Singletrack shorts
  • Endura long sleeved jersey
  • Endura MTB gloves
  • Howies shower-resistant jacket
  • Berghaus Goretex Active Shell jacket
  • Oakley Flak Jacket XLJ with photo chromatic lenses

My only regret is the dynamo debacle. I spaced out the 100mm hub to 135mm to fit the Jones truss fork, using a kit bought from eBay. Sadly the combined width of the 100mm hub and 35mm of spacers is less than the 135mm axle (probably a job for the Vernier scales to find out how much). This means that the hub doesn’t stay completely static in the dropouts, so it spins and rips the wiring out periodically. A real pain in the arse.

Thinking about it though, battery and light technology has got to the point where you don’t need a dynamo for rides of up to about a week. The weight penalty of the battery is less than that of the hub and charging solution, so I’m going to think about whether I keep the hub or not in future.

Cairngorms Loop 2017

It’s been three years since I last finished the Cairngorms Loop, with probably three rounds of the inner loop in the intervening period. Weather, weather and more weather have affected other attempts, so it was refreshing to get around again.

The 2015 mass start commenced well, but the forecast gale on the Sunday meant I rode the inner to the Geldie Burn and then straight down Glen Tilt. 


This was me in late 2015 I think, after a bivi in a ruined cottage. The Geldie burn was a mere trickle the night before, but heavy rain all night meant its character changed somewhat and it was all but impassible.

2016 saw the mass start cancelled, so I rode the bottom half of the West Highland Way instead. 

Now, to 2017, and seventeen of us assembled on the start line. A week spent watching the snowgate webcam and worrying about weather, but committed to riding as much of this as possible. Two American friends came over for the weekend, and I’m determined that they get to see this route. Contingency plans discussed, and we’re off.

I led out the ride, nobody wanting to take a shot at the front until we’d got to the House of Bruar. This early in the morning, nobody wanting to stop for overpriced tourist tat.

Six riders started pulling away, dropping the rest of us on the long drag along the old A9. Martin and I were riding together here, a pattern that would continue through the entire ride. Daniel and Louie, my Transatlantic chums, were slightly further back in another group.

The Gaick Pass came and went, and we arrived at the Loch an Eilean singletrack quickly. My tyre started losing pressure, more air was added, but I realised I was fighting a losing battle with a burping tubeless tyre.

I put a tube in at Glenmore, while being disappointed with the food service. “We’re too busy so we’ve stopped doing hot food” – Highland hospitality at its best.

The push up Bynack More was a drag as ever, into a persistent headwind, but it was clear and the uphill at least was devoid of snow. 


The top wasn’t, and we’d experience snow continually until we’d cleared the watershed at Glenfeshie. 

This entire section was slow going, slushy snow that you’d sink through with vague traction, very on-off. I was thankful for the grip on my shoes, but not for the fact they didn’t drain at all. Wet feet for hours – trench foot in the making…


Reaching the Lairig an Laoigh and descending into Glen Derry, I remembered the drawbacks of inner tubes – punctures. Replacing one tube with the other, I gingerly rode down to join everyone at Linn of Dee and begin the Glenfeshie connector.

I noticed this warning second time I passed Linn of Dee but thought it somewhat prescient to the experience we’d been through:


Again, tough going. Banks of snow to posthole through, and darkness falling, but luckily the weather was clear. It was spooky to ride this in pairs, Martin and I led the way. It was spooky looking back to no lights, the contours of the land hiding Louie’s floodlights. We paused at the Feshie, reckoning that the vague navigation might see the Americans crossing the river and not seeing the path etched into the hillside.

Some Indiana Jones-style bike carrying around waterfalls, and we got around this obstacle. Daniel and Louie decided to scout out a bivi spot on better ground, but Martin and I had set our objective as Aviemore. It was about 11pm, but we were still feeling strong after 13hrs so wanted to continue.

One thing that changed this year was the route through Glen Feshie. The course of the river had changed and eroded the path, so Steve instructed us to use the most obvious route on the ground. Estate work to improve access meant that some quick routes now exist from the bothy, so we made great progress to the road head, and then spun out way into Aviemore.

The first tragedy of the ride – where’s the petrol station?? The 24hr garage was a building site, and our thoughts of a 1am feed diminished. For some reason we kept pedalling into Aviemore and found the late night butcher selling burgers (cooked). A godsend, some hot food that was demolished quickly, and then we set off to find a bivi site.

Finding the picnic area behind the Tree Zone at Inverdruie, and not surprised in the slightest to find it empty, we set up a bivi for the night. Alarms set for 6am, sleep arrived quickly for me. 

I awoke before my alarm went off, feeling surprisingly alive for under four hours of sleep. We got moving by 6:40am, saddle sores making themselves known.


A few pauses en route to Tomintoul, then we got to the disappointing Fire Station Cafe at about 11. I didn’t realise that anywhere still served those single serve Rombouts filter coffee cups, but I didn’t manage to secure one because the “large coffee” was a couple of spoonfuls of instant. Yum yum. The bacon rolls were fine though.

Anyway, task in hand, finish this ride. Knowing that the South Easterly would continue, that the next stage was open and exposed, and that it was a South East direction of travel, I was not looking forward to the next stage of the journey. I was right. The open valleys made the next stage a brutal fight against headwind, and I had some fearful thoughts around a Tour Divide attempt. Day after day of flat riding into the wind could be horrific!

We climbed to the end of the doubletrack, and then hit the lovely singletrack along the loch which broke up the climb. 


An odd lodge appeared, likely a hunting lodge but new since my last visit. It looked like the far side had a lot of glass so likely some spectacular views across the valley.

A quick descent into Braemar, some food, and then the flat interlude to the Geldie. It was perfectly easy to cross, and we were making good time so would manage at least Glen Tilt in daytime.

I do love the Glen Tilt singletrack, especially ridden downstream as it flows so well. Techy riding on narrow trail, deliberately slipping the back of the bike out around obstacles, it’s one of my favourite pieces of trail in Scotland.

We stopped before the sting in the tail, grabbed some food and then commenced the desperate slog uphill. Once the trail evened out, we pressed on to Fealar Lodge. This next part should be fast riding on good estate road, but the wind meant we were pedalling downhill in a low gear.

Reaching the singletrack and the final descent, we had perfect light so I really started enjoying the descent. This time it felt like I wasn’t on a desperate drag to the finish, and not worrying that I might need a second bivi, so I could just let go and have fun. The open views were great, and helped with the navigation somewhat, even when the path and GPX didn’t match.

Lights came on for the very last part of the route, the road descent into Blair Athol, and then we were done. 35:30, nearly 2 hrs quicker but moving slower. I think if we had better conditions (no wind) and had kept to the same schedule then we could have dropped a couple more hours off, so I’m maybe not quite finished with this route yet.

Martha

Time to rationalise the bike collection. I’ve still got a Stooge, albeit the Ti, and have sold the fat bike. This was to make way for another ‘bike for life’, and this time I’m pretty sure I won’t get another hardtail for a while.

The name Martha came from Dr Who, because the new bike is a Jones Spaceframe. 

It’s as short, if not shorter than the mk1 Stooge, comfy over long distances and stiff yet flexible. Very little lateral flex, but with vertical compliance like a short travel full suspension bike. I’m undecided on the Rohloff for now but will give it some miles over the next few months and see how it copes.

I really like bikes that you can throw around, with quick steering and tight handling. Hands are kept well back from the axle, so it feels very comfy to ride over anything. Once again, suspension not required…

Another day, another Stooge…

I don’t have to work in London anymore, which means I get to live at home and commute via the hills. My fitness has been generally shocking though, nine months of minimal riding has destroyed it. Only one thing for it – singlespeed!!

I sold my old El Mariachi, and immediately regretting not having a singlespeed in the fleet, I bought a steel Stooge again. This one is powdercoated battleship grey, so it’s one of a kind…


Gearing is 32:19, a 2.2″ Nobby Nic on a Crest at the rear, with either the same up front (not shown) or a 52mm Stans Hugo which is currently sporting a Chronicle in this picture. It’s tough going, and I am only ever really riding it flat out (or walking), but I am already feeling the benefits. My legs have returned to being sore all the time, which means they’re getting a good workout – I think! Time will tell as to whether I can get fit again, but this is a start…

Bikepacking on a wee bike

I’ve been working in London since January, and recognising the negative effect it would have on my training I decided to get another bike (as good an excuse as any). I figured that Boris bikes, while utilitarian modes of transport, are a bit rubbish for training on.

Security is a concern, so I needed something that could live in my office over the weekend when I’m home. This is where the idea of a folder came in. I’ve looked at Bromptons, and their fold is truly ingenious, but the quality of ride was my main concern. 

Enter the Tern. It’s kitted out like a fast hybrid, with MTB shifter, cassette and mech, and a road chainset. This gives an equivalent range to a 2×10 road setup, so was exactly what I was looking for.

  
It doesn’t flex too badly in use and is surprisingly comfortable.

Back to the point of the post: Easter. It’s about time I took a week off work, and given that my bike is in London and I live in Edinburgh, why not ride home?

As usual, my route planning was haphazard at best (Google Maps), but I reasoned that I could get some miles in after work on the Thursday, then just ride back over the next few days.

Never before in any of my bikepacking trips had I considered my kit carrying as much as this one. I needed to travel to London with all my work stuff, plus bikepacking, limited to hand luggage, and then return with as much of it as possible.

I opted for a new Revelate Viscacha saddlebag, somewhat larger than my Wildcat one but also more convenient to unpack on the go. Into this, I put my sleeping kit including my omnipresent Montane Prism jacket. I’ve opted for a very lightweight sleep system, this time a SOL Escape bivi, a Klymit X Frame pad and a sleeping bag liner. It’s stupidly light, about 600g all in.

  
Sadly on this trip I didn’t get to try it out, but that’s an excuse for a midweek micro adventure.

On my back, a 33l Osprey pack, chosen only because I took it down to London and needed to return it. It had minimal kit in it, just a change of clothes and some light tools.

The bike as it stands looked like this:

  
I think if I’d taken a Stem Cell I could have gone without the rucksack completely.

Leaving work at 4:30, I headed for Cambridge. Darkness fell around 7pm, just as I’d finally escaped London traffic. The ride up was nice, dark, flat and surprisingly quiet on the road. I’d expected some dodgy road conditions as I was following an A road up, but it was surprisingly deserted. Villages came and went, and I hit Cambridge around 9pm, in time for food service at the hostel. 

Day 2, I rode 165 miles to York. This was a long day, with Google Maps sending me along grassy muddy paths, making progress difficult on the small tyres. I arrived in York around 11:30pm, not tired but happy to have gone the distance.

Day 3, 110 miles to Newcastle. Rain started about 5pm, so the last miles on the Sustrans were rubbish. The NCN1 is pretty poor in places, a boggy mess and not the flagship national cycle route it makes out to be. I still made it to Newcastle, but the punishment meted out on my hands and the back wheel made a train ride home a nicer option.