The French Divide

Ok, so I am terrible for regular updates and now I’m going  to skip almost three weeks worth of cycling in Finland in favour of talking about the French Divide ‘race’.

I’ve always had my eye on the Tour divide/Great divide mountain bike route as something I would like to do, however the expense of such an endeavor has always put me off. So when the French Divide crossed my radar I thought it looked like a great, more ‘local’ alternative. I entered and then tried to work out whether I was in anyway physically up to this challenge. To be honest the jury is sort of still out on that question.

Touring in Scandinavia had a dual purpose, fun and exploration but also acting as some last minute training for the French Divide. I have a good base of fitness from years of cycling/touring but was unsure how my body would cope and adapt to riding the sort of distances required in the ‘race’. I thought I could ride the route in probably 12 or 13 days which equated to 110 and 100 miles per day on average.

So after a week spent in Bray-Dune ‘tapering’ and generally getting more nervous the day of the start rolled around. I lined up on Saturday August 6th with 50 odd other competitors at a time far too early in the morning and at 6:24 (sunrise) we set off. It felt good to get going and the first part of the route was pretty flat although surfaces were varied. After 6 miles I had a bit of a tyre malfunction which required me to re-inflate my rear tyre, I’m still not sure why it suddenly lost air. However this meant that I was the last rider the main group having disappeared into the distance.

To be honest this really didn’t bother me, I was happier riding my own pace and just sticking to the ‘plan’ I had formed. Even at the slow pace I ride I did start to pass other riders especially when people started stopping for food etc. A feature of the way I rode in the event was that I stopped as little as possible. Long distance cycle touring has removed any resemblance of top end speed I might once have had. So to compensate I pretty rigidly would only stop for 10-30 minutes at a time and would try to limit these breaks as much as possible.

After covering 140 miles on the first day I camped in some woods with a French guy called Alex and agreed that as he was setting an alarm for 5:30am that I would also do the same. I had originally planned to set alarms for 6 or even 6:30 I think but getting up before dawn and being on the road/trail as the sun rose was definitely a better idea so I continued in this habit.

To be honest my resounding memories of the first couple of days are what I would view as the ‘annoying’ bits. Overgrown paths resulting in being repeatedly stung by nettles and cut by thorns. Short sharp ascents that I couldn’t ride. Waterlogged trails with large expanses of water. These elements really detracted from the fun bits. After 36 hours I arrived at the first checkpoint in Reims. I was pretty astonished to be told I was the 21st person to get there. Where was everybody? It’s a really odd feeling to pass people but not actually see them because they are eating/sleeping etc.

This was a real confidence boost and after a good feed I pushed on into the woods to the south my enthusiasm being slightly tempered by an uphill push through some of the stickiest clay/mud I’ve ever seen. After this point the route started to include more field edges/boundaries and gravel paths and less mud which made going a bit quicker and easier. However it also included more climbing.

French Divide 2016 - Ben Day 1 - Canal 1On Wednesday (I think) after camping just outside of Avallon I entered the region of Morvan, which I really enjoyed. It was a fun day on the bike despite 110 miles and 3000 metres of climbing. The area in my eyes is ‘alpine light’, some really good ups and downs without being as technical as the alps. My first taste of ‘mountains’ again gave me confidence as I seemed to cope well both in terms of fitness going up and technical ability on the way down. I was starting to feel like I could definitely complete this challenge and had a small buffer of miles in the bank for when I reached the higher peaks in the Massif central and the Pyrenees.

At the end of Wednesday I had pushed on riding longer than I normally would so that I reached the checkpoint in Toulon-sur-Arroux. Again I was in 21st place. For the last 5 miles or so I was nursing my gears because I knew my rear derailleur cable was about to snap. I wasn’t worried though as I had a spare in my bag. The cable snapped literally as I rode into town and when I tried to change it at the checkpoint I suddenly discovered that the cable I had was too short! Now officially according to the rules at this point no one should have helped me or given me assistance and I would have had to essentially covert my bike to single speed until I found a bike shop. I however learnt at the checkpoint that there were other riders who had stopped in the town and that maybe I could ask them for a cable (bending the rules).

By this time it was pretty late and I was tired, I cycled to the campsite but it was well and truly shut and I could see no sign of other riders. So I carried on – my bike grinding from the chain being crossed-  along the route out of town and camped in some woods by the road. I would have liked to have set my alarm slightly later for the next morning but knew I couldn’t. It wasn’t a good nights sleep mainly due to a rather noisey donkey and some French people at a nearby farm having a heated argument at midnight. I was up early and started packing up by the side of the road. The idea, to flag down one of the riders leaving town and try to get a gear cable. I missed two riders because I was still packing up the tent but for the next rider who came past I was prepared and on the road side. A quick exchange of gear cables short for long, road side installation and I was moving again with a full quota of gears.

French Divide 2016 - Ben Day 1 - Canal 3Apart from those riders in the morning I didn’t see a single other competitor for all of Thursday. There were two days of the seven I rode when I didn’t see people and it felt very strange. After a 20 or so miles to get out of the mountains the middle section of the day was fairly flat to Moulins which enabled me to quickly gain distance but also to have some slightly longer stops in order to refuel/stock up from a food point of view. I was suffering a bit from the lack of sleep and the exertion from the day before but knew I needed to recover before I hit the Massif central the following day. Towards the end of the day the trail started to include more climbing and I stopped early with only 90 miles covered in order to get some sleep/rest.

The next morning the alarm went off at 5:30am again and onward I went. The previous day I had passed the halfway point in terms of distance and today if my target of 13 days was to be achieved I would pass the halfway point in terms of time. I was feeling good, a slight twinge I had felt underneath my knee at the end of the previous day wasn’t there and I was prepared for lots of climbing in the days ahead mentally knocking back the daily mileage targets to compensate.

At some point in the middle of the morning I noticed an ache in my right thigh/quad. I think it was after a steep bumpy descent but it’s all a bit hazy now. As time went on the ache worsened. I had to shift down into low gears on hills and try to spin as much as possible and on the really steep stuff I was walking. I longed for lower gears, my choice of a 38/26 double and an 11-34 cassette suddenly wasn’t working. I reached the town of Riom and started up the climb which takes you up into the mountains of the Massif central. My leg was now starting to approach agony. It hurt to climb, it also hurt to descend and at this point I self diagnosed the problem as a pulled a muscle sustained whilst going downwards. I realised I had ridden every descent with my left foot forward putting  a lot of stress on my rear right leg in exactly the place where the pain was. I cursed my naivety.

Around mid-afternoon I reached a point where the route flattened slightly and I was still struggling to ride despite the lack of gradient. Ahead of me I could see a mountain rising up with a cross on top. I was pretty certain that was where I was headed. I had only covered 44 miles due to extended rest because of the pain. With no power available in my right leg without pain again I stopped. I burst into tears, I just couldn’t stop from welling up. It was an outburst of emotion because I pretty much knew that the ‘race’ was over for me. It was sadness but also frustration because I was feeling confident that I could complete this and then suddenly I couldn’t.

I found some shade and sat down to work out my options. I knew I couldn’t ride anymore that day. The question was either finding somewhere inconspicuous to camp here or heading back down the hill to Riom. I decided on the second option figuring that if I was ok the next day the extra 5 miles wasn’t too much to cover again. To my annoyance the ‘campsite’ in my GPS in Riom was actually an area for campervans so I paid more than I wanted for a ‘cheap’ hotel on the outskirts of town. I had a good feed and turned in early, setting my alarm for 6am so that if my leg did feel better I wasn’t losing too much daylight.

The next morning I packed up and rode to the station. My leg wasn’t excruciatingly painful but the dull ache told me that if I attempted to continue it would worsen again to the point it had reached the day before. Dejectedly I texted the organisers to say I was withdrawing. The train took me to Cherbourg via Paris and then by late Sunday evening I was back at my parents house. I rode the 6 miles from the ferry port to the village, I am glad I did as it settled in my mind that withdrawing was the right thing to do. The route ‘home’ involves going uphill and was incredibly painful, probably not the right thing to do in terms of recovery/healing!

Would I go back and have another go at the French Divide? To be honest I don’t know. The annoying elements of the first few days and the expense of entering sit at the back of my mind despite the route on the whole being good.

Would I like to enter another ITT style race?  Yes, definitely. There is something about being totally focused on just riding, eating and sleeping that I really enjoyed. It’s like touring plus, even on the bike my mind didn’t wander to other things. I was always considering time, distance and food/sleep stops. I really liked the intensity of the experience.

What have I learnt? If I was to do another event of this type I wouldn’t tag it onto touring in quite the same way. I’d arrive with just ‘race kit’, i.e. only that which I needed for the event so as to carry as little weight as possible. Despite sending things back to the UK I was still carrying items from my tour and that I needed for a few days holiday after the race.

I need to address the issue that caused me to pull a muscle and look at varying which is my leading foot as well as how I stand on the bike. I also need to put days with lots of rough descending into any training as well as just considering riding miles/distance. I do know that my ‘training’ could have been better/more consistent and maybe I was surviving on base fitness. I also wonder if I could (re)gain any more speed on the bike to cover the distance quicker.

So hopefully my leg will heal quickly and then it’s time to look to the future. Instead of satisfying the ITT itch I had I think the French Divide has made it worse…so what next?

I didn’t take a single photo during the French Divide despite having a camera with me, those of me above are from the French Divide instagram/twitter feed and I don’t know who took them.


Well I definitely picked the right week to take a week off cycling as it’s pretty much been wet the whole time I’ve been in Oulu. As mentioned I’ve been thinking about the fallout from the EU referendum and I still can’t order my thoughts to a point where I feel comfortable writing a coherent blog on it. I’ve been using my free time to read a lot and it’s interesting to see the reactions and thoughts of others being put forward. However parsing those through my own filter and creating something worthwhile is proving difficult even though a part of me really needs to do it (if only for my own piece of mind).

So instead of anything coherent below is something I wrote for the June round of the writing group I’m involved in. I actually wrote it on Monday so yes, I was late submitting. The piece was supposed to be a response to this by Robert Macfarlane however my post  (and pre?) referendum pessimism seems to have come through. As an aside I don’t really like the writing of Macfarlane as I think it is unecessarily ‘flowery’ but this is better than the ‘The old ways’ book I read by him. However that is just my prejudices around writing style.

Also if you think that my clearly dystopian future vision could never happen (and the likelihood is that it won’t) then this article provides a nice bridge to get to the point where you realise that it is still somewhere in the realms of possibility rather than total fantasy. Also my response to that article was that it was a lose/lose situation as follows:

Is it not a lose lose? Defend freedom of movement, economy tanks due to unsustainable debt bubble, immigrants blamed, rise of right. Stop freedom of movement, withdraw from common market, right wing dystopia as described in the article. The Media is never going to publicise widely the real reasons for misery.”

I’m a happy sort, anyhow here’s the fiction.

This ain’t no anthem, we must fight them”

I sat down with my back against the cool stone of the monument and looked across the battlefield. In my head I imagined this place in the past. The smell of smoke and gunpowder, the noise of muskets and cannons, shouting, screams. The two sides floundering in the mud of this flat fertile plain. After over 200 years people would fight again here soon. To a degree it would be the same sides Swedish versus Russian in a land that for the last hundred years had been neither. Except this wasn’t really a battle on the basis of nationality but ideology. Both sides would be a mixed group of people from across Europe. ‘Our’ side here was mostly Swedish but there were also native Finns, British, Norwegians, German, Dutch.  The other side did comprise a large portion of Russians but equally there would be British and other Europeans with them. Strange to think that a political ideology with a name part formed from the word national was now an international force.

I thought back to what had brought me to this place for the second time in my life. It’s hard to admit that what you viewed as scaremongering came true. Even when that was no fault of your own and you did your best to fight it. When it was clear that the Nazis were going to take control in England we had fled to Scotland and then onwards across the North Sea to Norway.  Myself and my girlfriend crammed into a small yacht with six others. Including myself there were only two of us with any experience of sailing, and neither with experience crossing hundreds of miles of sea. We had made it though against all the odds, to a notion of safety. It was naturally logical to answer the call when the Norwegian and Swedish governments had agreed to combine their limited resources and asked for people to fight the forces amassing now to the east and west of their borders.

When I volunteered they initially sent me to Umeå where I joined the Swedish brigade known as the Umeå blacks. A name given due to the colour of the shirts and clothing worn by most of the rag tag bunch in lieu of uniforms and the far left bent to their politics. The irony of this name was not lost on me knowing the history of the ideologies we were fighting. From Umeå we crossed the Gulf of Bothnia to the small area that was controlled by our side in what was once Finland. They said my previous knowledge of the area would be useful, I wasn’t sure. So unexpectedly for the second time in my life I was here, at this monument to the battle of 1808, looking out across the plain.

I looked to my left and saw a figure in black climbing the path up the hill towards the monument. My hand closed briefly on the handle my rifle. “Hei” came the greeting. I replied in kind recognising him as one of the Finnish fighters on our side. Anything to report he asked.  “Ei” I replied, no. He smiled and from his pocket handed me an apple. Getting to my feet I responded with thanks, “kiitos”. We embraced and with a last look back over my shoulder at the plain I set off down the path to the village.

A new language.

Well then, my last post on here is from Östersund. That seems a very long time ago.

I’ve travelled a long way but I don’t feel inspired to really be expansive on that journey. My route took me from Östersund to Umeå, this was the swedish lanscape that I was familiar with, lakes and seemingly endless forest. There were hills but no mountains to climb. I reached Umeå just before midsummer. Apparently midsummer is like xmas in Sweden but celebrated with an almost pagan ritual involving some form of flower covered pole/crucifix. I don’t know any of this first hand as I didn’t see any midsummer celebrations in Umeå. I have a feeling that most people go to the countryside during this period. The result was three days in an almost empty city where everything was shut. Not the most exciting of times.

After Umeå I crossed the Gulf of Bothnia to Vaasa in Finland. I quite like Vaasa from a brief first glance around the town but my impromptu extra day there was spent sheltering from terrible weather. Around this point I decided to take a small detour from my original plan. So now I’m in Oulu 200 miles further north east. Considering I was heading towards Tampere and then Helsinki I’ve essentially cycled for six days in the wrong direction. The reason is a hardcore punk festival next weekend which I discovered when trawling facebook for gigs in Finland. A part of me needs some ‘normality’ or familiarity on this trip so as I had lots of time Oulu became a new destination.

In my usual fashion I arrived here two days earlier than I had planned to. However that has meant I’ve stopped cycling just as the weather has turned. Last week was warm with the occasional thunderstorms or heavy showers. You could see these coming as the clouds built in the sky and seek appropriate shelter. However now the sky is leaden grey again and most of the time there is a light drizzle. Heavy downpours are unannounced and so catch you out, this happened to me on the way into town today so I type this whilst slightly damp. Also seeking shelter from the rain anywhere that isn’t wall to wall tarmac and concrete results in the unwelcome attention of mosquitoes. I’ve actually used campsites pretty much all the way here from Vaasa as forays into the woods presented swarms of mosquitoes and insects beyond levels I could handle. I’m hoping as I head south from here though the ‘season’ for them will be ending and their numbers will diminish.

So there you have it the last two weeks or so in a nutshell. Lumpy riding in Sweden followed by flat riding in Finland. Forests, lakes and in Finland coastal islands. Mosquito bites which itch and go very red. Rain, sunshine and mainly tail winds. I can’t really complain. My body has definitely got back into the routine of cycling and so leaves my mind free to wander. I’ve made some notes, I’ve had some thoughts, but I don’t feel ready to share those yet especially where they relate to current events like the EU referendum.

Against the grain.

Today I woke up to a leaden grey sky, the rain wasn’t really bad but there was really no incentive to ride. So another day off, because essentially I’m feeling lazy. It’s a hard life.

However today the library is open so here is some expansion on yesterday’s brevity. Although only 9 days ago it seems an age since I set off from Trondheim. My first day set the tone for the 5 days I spend cycling. I covered a good distance on tarmac and gravel roads with a short detour along a route that had been ‘designed’ for mountain bikes. There was climbing and descents, forests and lakes. Then I decided to venture into the mountains more fully and follow a hiking trail on my map. Around 5 hours later having pushed my bike for most of that time up steep inclines, across marshes and snow patches and finding little trail I was able to ride I arrived at Kvikfjellhytta.

I was expecting the mountain huts to be like bothies in the UK. I was wrong, the hut was locked. Fairly exhausted I just pitched the tent and got on with the task of eating and sleeping. The next day I had a choice. Continue on into the mountains with a potentially three days of pushing ahead or give up on this trail and push out to the nearest road. I chose the latter option and after a couple of hours of mostly pushing with the odd rideable section I reached a gravel road and descended back to tarmac.

I was fairly deflated but this was just the beginning of the journey and if I followed the road eastwards there were other opportunities to enter the mountains and test other trails. So this is what I did, a couple of days ride and then I headed up the gravel road to Nedalshytta which lies fairly close to the Swedish border. Again the hut which is a ‘serviced’ hut was locked with no signs of life. No one to ask about the trail and the stupidity of taking a bike along it or not. So I set off up the hiking trail. More pushing, some riding, more solid under foot/wheel and less steep than before. However more snow, much more snow. The patches that I was having to cross were getting bigger, more tiring and were importantly worrying me more and more.

I crossed the border into Sweden which involved getting bike and person over a high stile which crossed what looked essentially like a deer fence tracing where the countries meet. After eating my lunch I again pressed on and around 1km further on reached the largest snow patch I had encountered so far. The trail is marked by rocks/posts marked with red paint. At this point I couldn’t see the next marker at the end of the snow the distance to be crossed was too far. I also could hear multiple streams underneath the snow. My feet were already wet from plunging into deep snow and also going through into streams beneath. I had seen a number of large collapsed areas of snow where it had melted sufficiently to create a sort of ‘sinkhole’.

My nerve gave. Looking beyond the snow patch to the mountains ahead I could see that my route which climbed further still to cross the shoulder of  a peak was going to get worse. More snow at a higher altitude. Even if I had been just hiking I would have been having second thoughts here. The fact I was alone on the mountain hung heavy on my shoulders eclipsing the weight of the bike I was dragging across this landscape. As I said my nerve gave. I decided that ‘sense’ won out and turned back. Back over the stile/fence, back along my own tracks losing altitude. Annoyingly now I could ride more sections travelling downhill with momentum. I savoured those moments.

So after successfully reaching the mountain hut it was back along the gravel road to the town of Stugudal and square one. 27 miles covered to the same place. Talking to the bar man in the local hotel restaurant it transpired I was early. In my planning I hadn’t appreciated that although temperatures wouldn’t be low in this region at this time there would be significant snow on the ground at the beginning of June. Essentially I am between seasons with the summer tourist season not quite yet here which is why the mountain huts are closed. Two weeks later and the path would possibly have been a different proposition.

Failure? I’m not so sure. The landscape I witnessed even in my short foray into the mountains was incredible. So my planning was lacking but that didn’t mean I didn’t achieve something in getting so far up the trail to experience that landscape.  I would like to come back without the bike I think and hike through those mountains.

So my route from Stugudal on in to Sweden and to Östersund was almost exclusively tarmac and gravel roads bar some short cycle/mtb tracks in Funasdalen. However some of those gravel roads were equally spectacular. The road from Funasdalen to Ljungdalen climbs up to over 950m above sea level and you traverse a large plateau/fell chasing herds of reindeer down the road. Where are the photos? I hear you ask. Sadly I can’t seem to upload them on this PC so you’ll have to use your imagination. In addition I didn’t manage to photograph any wildlife including the moose I saw.

So tomorrow I am more mentally prepared to break my current lethargy and truly will ride onwards…

Fast one.

So I’ve been in Östersund for a few days and had planned to sit down with a PC today and write about what has occurred in the last week. However the library is shut so I am using  a PC in the council offices and don’t have as much time.

Expect a potentially huge update when I reach Umeå but the short version is:

– Possibly unrideable trails were unrideable.
– However gravel roads are awesome.
– The landscape is stunning.

East is still the favoured direction, so onwards tomorrow.