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. 

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HTR550 2015 attempt day 3

By this point I’d got quite good at setting up camp and putting it back down again. Not quite as good as my fellow riders though, merely unrolling a bivi bag, climbing in and then doing the reverse the following morning.
I was still up by a reasonable hour though, and on my way after a couple of porridge bars. Not so for Giacomo, who remained in his tent as I pressed on. 

Glen Cassley, another headwind. Mapping out the route for some respite from the wind, hoping that a corner rounded would take the wind out of my face for a while. Sadly this was not meant to be. The dam was reached quicker than I’d imagined it would be, perhaps the early hour contributing to an increase pace. The climb from hell last year, the roadies’ paradise, was easier too, with the headwind interspersed with the luxury of a tailwind or the compromise of a crosswind.

Up at the top of the climb, things changed again. Last year’s hoot of a descent, best described as “whee!!” was now a downhill slog into the wind. Sunshine last year was now mist and clouds.

I reached the bottom of the descent and turned back on myself to traverse a short section of Loch Shin. The road section to the Bealach Horn turnoff seemed fine by this stage, not too tough going.

Last year I walked this entire climb, this year I rode most of it. A small victory in the dreich conditions. Pushing up Glen Golly into a headwind felt a lot worse than before, the ground far wetter and going a lot slower. By this point I was tiring, the wind in my face and intermittent rain showers. I hit the Bealach eventually, after much more pushing and swearing, and once again saw the horrible descent and climb ahead of me. It’s one of the sections I didn’t enjoy both times, but both times I knew it needed to be done. 

I think when you get into this style of riding, you push through anything knowing it’s a means to an end. There’s always something on the next hill worth riding, or if there’s not you hang on to the belief that there might just be something on the one after.

Anyway, the peat hag descent came and went, the river crossing not overly memorable, and the push up the other side just as horrible as expected. 

I hit the end of the climb, the metres counting down on the GPS, and began the fast descent to Achfary. I was feeling pretty burst by this point, the early stages of a bonk setting in. A fun descent though, especially the technical section at the entrance to the forest. Into Achfary, nothing of note. No pay phone, no food supplies. No matter, Kylesku was just over the next pass…

The next pass was the site of a legendary bonk for me. I’d been eating all day but clearly, with hindsight, not enough. I felt all my energy, and then my motivation ebb out of me. I slowed to a near crawling pace, each step a mere shuffle, the temptation to curl up into a ball and cry particularly strong. Emergency food time, more Stoats bars and probably four gels, plus a bottle of Coke. I think dipping this deep into my reserves at this point set me up to fail the following day, truly a horrible feeling.

It was mid afternoon, and I hit the top of the climb, with a sum total of zero pedal revolutions. Back on the bike, a bit of the descent, and then some further gorilla tape clothing repair attempts. The rest of the descent was a blur, not through pace though. 

Kylesku did not look too inviting for food, so I kept going. At this point last year it was around 10pm, whereas it must have been around 5pm. I decided to press on, with the intention of stopping at a B&B on the Drumbeg road somewhere. I knew this was going to be horrible, but my 2015 motto “make hay while the sun shines” was fresh in my mind. Every mile today is one less tomorrow.

Drumbeg arrived, nothing was open. 7pm this year, 9:30am the next morning in 2014. Things were looking up, I was well ahead of time. No room at the inn, anywhere. A flushing toilet though so a luxurious visit to the loo was in order.

Achmelvich next, via some lovely singletrack that I only remembered when the turnoff for it arrived. Only a couple of miles from Lochinver though, and at this rate I might make the Pie Larder. I sprinted on, another gel in the tank. Sadly arriving at Lochinver just before 9, I found the Pie Larder closed. As was everything else. No rooms in any hotels, even the completely empty one by the end of the front. Nothing for it but to continue…

Suileaig bothy was the next place of interest on the map. I knew that getting there would make sense, as my food options were zero anyway. No point in a bivi on the front either as it would be hours lost. With hindsight I should have stopped for a proper feed. However, the climb into Suileaig wasn’t too bad, easy trail so I knew the crap would be ahead of me at some point.

I arrived at the bothy, four bikes outside – a fat bike and a Camber so I knew I’d caught up with Phil and Alan at least. Not wanting to make any noise as everyone else had bedded down, I ate what savoury food I had outside (two bags of cashews and half a chorizo) and snuck inside to fall asleep.

A 90 mile day after two back to back centuries – tough going.

HTR550 2015 attempt epilogue

I woke on the morning of the 5th day to a good breakfast. It wasn’t enough, I still felt rubbish. I had realised I had three options: 

  1. Carry on the race – no chance!
  2. Wait in Ullapool for the postbus – I don’t think there’s a day’s worth of things to do there!
  3. Ride out to the nearest train station

The third option won, so I started on the road to Garve. I met Steve Large on the road, he’d had an enforced day in Ullapool after a mechanical. He soon shot off into the distance, and I carried on the road out to Garve. A massive burger at the great roadside cafe and on the train home.

I had time to think about this year’s attempt. Nothing went spectacularly wrong, just my ability to refuel. I think I pushed too far each day, slowly chipping away at the reserves. However, I know now I’ve got it in me to push those sorts of distances so I just need some consistency and I’ll be set for my future challenges.

HTR550 2015 attempt day 4 – the final day

Everyone else had left the bothy by the time I got up at 7. I think they were desperate to get the horribly shit trail ahead done and out the way as soon as possible. I don’t blame them, it’s awful. 

Anyone who moans about the Loch Lomond carry on the West Highland Way clearly hasn’t tried this one. Four or five hours to do ten miles, it’s as tough as it gets. Uneven trail that you need to push up, along and down. Some carrying, a vague trail in places that you need to keep hunting for. More wind, this time enough to make cycling impossible in the brief sections of rideable trail.

I’m always reminded by the part in Robon Hood Prince of Thieves where a bemulleted Kevin Costner leaps from his boat at the shore and kisses the ground on his arrival in Britain. I wanted to do this when I got to the road. I settled for squeezing out my waterlogged socks and eating more porridge bars.

Next stop Oykel Bridge, although the motel en route seemed to be serving food. Oh well, Oykel Bridge was a known quantity. I arrived, and started stocking up on food and caffeine. A vague conversation with a local, and it was clear to all in the bar that I was exhausted. However, it was lunchtime and only the easy roll into Ullapool remained.

I stopped at the Duag Bridge schoolhouse for a quick look around, and pressed on towards Ullapool on a good trail. The trail soon deteriorated, as did my condition. 

Another bonk less than an hour after lunch – this wasn’t good. Three bacon rolls and a dessert yet my energy levels were low. Something had gone seriously awry with my ability to digest food and get energy from it. I couldn’t pile in any more calories, and knowing I’d taken in so much recently I knew that something was wrong. I could tell the warning signs, the negative outlook, walking on perfectly good trails. Simple sugars would be my only way out of this situation. A can of Coke and then I started on the Sports Mixtures. A bag of these always lives in my pack on biking trips for emergencies such as these, but rarely do they get used. I rationed these out slowly, riding slowly to Ullapool. At times the combination of the headwind and my energy levels meant I had to walk on flat Tarmac. Pretty poor going but I knew things were slowly coming to an end for me.

I arrived in Ullapool around 6pm, my lead over my 2014 pace reduced from 8hrs at its peak to half that. I was lucky enough to find a great B&B so checked in there and started contemplating my fate.

I knew it was game over, I just could not continue. My knee was hurting, and I felt completely broken. This race had broken me, I had pushed too far and my body had said enough was enough. Aside from my knee and my food problem, I was on great form, riding strong but I had nothing to prove which made the decision easier. I had my HTR finish, I didn’t need to risk breaking myself further, going into worsening conditions not feeling my best.

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.

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.