All posts by Benny

The Bearbones 200

So the Bearbones 200 is a 200km mountain bike ‘event’ in mid-Wales. The route is dreamt up by Stuart whose baby is the website bearbonesbikepacking.co.uk and it is known for being tough. I’ve been trying to get to this event for a while, 2015 saw me miss the entry day because I was abroad and out of wireless/mobile signal and last year I was entered but not able to attend as the logistics of getting there didn’t line up. This year with access to a car and a stable base being on the start line was going to happen.

The rest of the ride though was daunting. I haven’t really ridden that much this year. The first 6 months were full of riding a couple of miles here and there. Around town to explore Bristol but nothing that was long or arduous. My 12 mile round trip commute to work is fairly flat and I only ride it 2 or 3 times a week. In the summer I went on the ‘Run to the sun’ ride organised through the Bearbones forum and this was a real eye opener. I know I was ill at the time with a summer cold but of the group of 8 I was the weakest by far and out of energy and unable to continue at 3am (5 hours in). The weather admittedly wasn’t great but I just felt like I was a shadow of my former cycling self.

So did I train hard off the back of that in preparation for the Bearbones 200? Not really. I basically put one mountain bike ride per week in my diary and managed to hit that target/ride most of them across a 3-5 month period. They weren’t particularly hard rides usually only covering 40 to 50 miles but I made sure there were a few hills in there and tried to get across to the steep climbs and mountains of Wales as well to help increase my familiarity with the up and down.

I also experimented with my kit trying to find a set up that I knew would be fairly comfortable (in good weather) if I needed to sleep during the event but which wasn’t taking the proverbial kitchen sink and so super heavy. I was quite pleased with how much I paired my kit down in the end although I felt like I was carrying a lot after chatting to a few people in the pub before the start.

Friday I had the day off work so could spend time packing, preparing food and then driving up to mid-Wales. In the back of my mind I didn’t want to arrive at The Star Inn (where we were able to sleep in the car park) too early as the lure of one too many pints would be a temptation. As it was I arrived at 5pm, and pretty much at the same time as Andy who had been on the run to the sun ride. This didn’t bode well but my lack of will power was tempered by a good two course meal and I headed back to the car to sleep about 10:30pm with only 5 pints in my system. It was a really friendly atmosphere among all the riders and so I’m really glad I took the ‘risk’.

Fact; at 6 foot 4 tall I don’t fit in the back of a Ford focus. I still somehow managed to get a fair bit of sleep in a foetal position though, despite being woken by the wind and rain a few times. The general consensus had been breakfast at 7am and then quickly down to the start in Llanbrymair to get away as close to 8am as possible. I remember opening my eyes and thinking – “it’s very light out there” – before realising that my phone doesn’t turn itself on when you set an alarm and switch it off (a function I thought it did). The phone said 6:57 when it finally came to life, so I pulled on clothes and went inside the pub to get breakfast. I didn’t have to wait long before a veggie fry up was in front of me and I wolfed it down and was off back to the car pretty quickly. Next stop the start.

I arrived at the start got the bike out of the car, changed into my cycling gear, stuffed my jersey pockets with food, signed in and then quickly downed a cup of coffee. Drinking the cup of coffee so quickly was a bad idea and cause annoyance later on. I watched another rider (Burty – who had also been on the Run to the sun ride) roll over to the van where you registered that you were leaving and set off. After a touch more faff, I headed to the van and said hello to Stuart before setting off. Time of departure 8:24, that would do. I started riding up the road climb out of the village and looked down at my saddle. Oh for fucks sake, it was wonky and the nose was pointing off to the left by quite a margin. I pulled over to the side of the road to fix it, opened my bag of tools and was presented with the sight of my multi-tool in pieces. Argggh! Luckily I had another allen key that I could use to reassemble said multi-tool and then used that to straightened the saddle. 6 minutes of extra faff later I was moving again, kicking myself for not riding my bike around the car park before I left.

The first miles of the BB200 passed by and I was enjoying myself. There was a grassy climb that required some pushing but I didn’t mind, it wouldn’t be the last time I would be off the bike and walking. Although there was a little bit of rain in the air, that – in my experience – counts as ‘dry’ for this part of the UK. Under wheel however was a different matter the past few days had contained a lot of rain and the trails were waterlogged and sodden with deep puddles on every surface. Somewhere in the Hafren forest I felt like I was flying along, I caught site of the blue helmet of Burty bobbing up a climb ahead and realised I was going to catch him up. “Hang on, hang on” whispered part of my brain “maybe you’re going too fast and will burn out”. To be honest there was no reason to worry, almost as soon as the thought crossed my mind the route left the fire roads and entered a section of steep slippy uphill followed by a some flowing (well if it had been dry) downhill singletrack. This section quickly knocked the wind from my sails and any notion that I was going to maintain the speed I had been doing quickly fell away.

I crossed the road near Llangurig and headed up past Nant Rhys bothy and down the path the other side. Familiar territory although in the summer we had ridden this in the opposite direction. At the bottom by the river I stopped to eat some sandwiches and have a pee. First a group of riders turned up and then quickly left again after one (Duncan) had expressed how close they were to the Elan visitors centre and the cafe there. Close is a relative term, it would take me another three and a half hours to pass the Elan valley visitors centre. Next Andy appeared had a wee and a chat and then headed off up the next climb.

The road up the Elan valley gave a much needed break to just spin the legs, admire the view and do some introspective thinking. Although most of the time my brain kept reverting back to maths on this ride. Where was I, how long had it taken to get here and therefore when would I finish? I skirted Rhayader and my thoughts turned to my dwindling water stocks. I didn’t really want to stop and have to use the filter I was carrying as that would be a lengthy process. Then I passed someone gardening, memories of getting water from strangers on the French Divide suddenly popped into my head so I hit the brakes. The gardener was more than happy to fill both my bottles and I was soon on my way again knowing that I didn’t need to hit the Elan visitors centre before it closed as I had food and water.

Not needing the amenities of the visitor centre was a good thing as I passed it 10 minutes after it was supposed to shut. I didn’t even stop to investigate. The part of the route from Rhayader to Elan village included a pretty steep push up and a steep descent that was beyond my technical skill level. Yep, a push downhill. I think this was the first time I crossed paths with Richard who went past me intent on reaching the visitors centre before closing time. After the visitor centre and climbing out the valley I stopped and ate a second round of sandwiches as energy levels were dropping again. All through the ride I was eating one cliff shot block per hour with the occasional Eat Natural bar when I felt I needed a boost. However some form of solid ‘meal’ was required every now and then to top up the all important energy levels.

Up, down, up, down, ride, push, road, grass, bog, rock etc etc. On the route went, passing LLanwrthwl and on to the B4358 which mentally for me marked the point where we turned and started to head back north towards the finish. I had asked another person in their garden for water and they also gave me a can of San Pelligrino which was nice, however I soon realised I was going to have to drink it on the next bit of moorland before it was too shaken up. The next challenge after the B4358 was Carnau which had been talked about a lot in the run up to the event. It was dark by this point and my helmet light was turned on to supplement the Exposure Revo dynamo light on the bars. On a grassy slope immediately after the B4358 Richard caught me up and we chatted as we followed other tracks across a grassy field. We seemed to lose the route through some woods but all it meant was some extra pushing up a steep zig zag track. There was a third rider with us at this point but he fell behind as we rode (well I pushed some of it) up the forest road climb and then out onto the exposed part of the Carnau summit.

To be honest Carnau didn’t seem that bad. There was a clear track to follow left by other riders and because I was behind Richard most of the way he found all the deep boggy bits for me by falling in them! I think though we both appreciated the others company as we hiked most of it. We also helped each other get ourselves and the bikes across a fairly deep and fast flowing stream that the route crossed. I went ahead on the descent and followed the vague track whilst ignoring the line on my gps. I manage to ride some bits the track swinging to the right whilst the gpx line carried on vaguely left.I wasn’t overly concerned I had looked at satellite images the week before so I knew I had a bit of a plan for this section. Eventually I hit a fence and followed it back to my left and down quite a steep slope to the gate/fire road we needed to reach to escape from Carnau. Whilst I was doing this Richard at the top of the slope clearly following the GPX line more rigidly and found his way down. He had previously been extolling the benefits of the Jones bars we were both riding, at this point he started stating how the drawback was when they swung round and gave you a dead leg. I probably should have been more sympathetic, but he seemed mobile and ok, although in hindsight he did say something like “bugger, that hurts”. Trying to be helpful I highlighted the track we needed and set off at pace down it.

I reached the gate at the bottom and turned around to find myself once again alone. To my discredit I just carried on, I don’t think Richard held this against me (and he was actually ok). The last time I rode the next section around Claerwen resevoir it was 3am and into horizontal rain. I was dying on my arse and so happy when we went to Claerdu bothy at the top. This time there was a tail wind and once again I felt like I was flying. We had dropped below ’24 hour pace’ crossing Carnau so I was intent on making up some time. Again the brain was mentally doing maths. The familiar gravel/rocky/puddled track gave way to tarmac and then the route turned right onto unknown tracks. In my head after Carnau the route was plain sailing and was going to be ‘easy’ tracks and fire roads back to the finish. How wrong I was! The next section was very muddy with the choice of riding in a gully or on a ridge. I really struggle riding gullies or ridges and not wobbling out of/off them when alert. After riding for 15 hours, when it’s dark and the middle of the night, I had no chance. Again it became a trudge.

I think I saw Richard’s light behind me again on this section (although I have to admit it all gets a bit confused in my head from here) but he hadn’t caught me by the time I reached Pont-rhyd-y-groes. I do remember wondering where the moon was earlier on in the night and as I climbed out the village I looked over my right shoulder to see a thin red slither of moon rising up into the sky. I instinctively sang “I see a bad moon rising” because, well why not? Despite the line on the gpx being non-committal I knew the route took the turn down NCN 81 so I wasted no time in getting through the gate and onto a familiar track again. The intial part was quite muddy and cut up from previous riders but my tyres seemed to grip ok and it is fairly flat. When the cycle path rejoined the road I stopped and ate some more of my ’emergency Jamie’.

‘Emergency Jamie’s’ is an in joke with my partner Judith. The easiest ‘adventure’ food I’ve been able to source are essentially packet pulses/grains (e.g. lentils or chickpeas) that you can get in pretty much any supermarket. They don’t require cooking and you can just rip off the top and dig in. They’re not massively heavy in calories but can get you out of a jam if you’ve failed to find anywhere to eat. There is a range branded by Jamie Oliver which is where the term stemmed from. Earlier in the ride (I forget where) I had started on a packet of Moroccan Bulgar Wheat. I couldn’t eat it all in one sitting so I popped it back in my jersey pocket for later. This is where downing that cup of coffee came back to haunt me as it had burnt/irritated the top of my mouth making eating less than pleasant and a slower process.

More fuel put in the tank, it was off up to ‘the arch’ on the road and then up the forest road to where Nant Syddion bothy is. Earlier in the night I had asked Richard what colour the light on the back of my Exposure Joystick helmet light was. Confusingly he said white. This was the first time I had used the joystick in anger having not managed to have a practice and I had no idea if it was on the right setting. On the climb up to Nant Syddion, I discovered that no it wasn’t on the right setting as it promptly turned itself off! I didn’t actually see the bothy, I’m not sure how as apparently it is right by the track but I just pushed on past and round to the left up the next climb. Making do as best I could with my now reduced vision/light.

I did manage to eek a bit more light out of the joystick later on by putting it on the setting I had thought it was on in the first place. It was only for a short section of track though so most of the time I had to make do. Navigating in the dark and especially not missing turns became more difficult with just the front light but I still pressed on. I should probably mention that at this point I really didn’t feel sleepy. I had yawned maybe two on three times around 3 or 4am but was pretty awake. I’d now moved onto caffienated shot blocks though. Crossing the A44 at Ponterwyd passed and it was onwards across the last off road section. I genuinely thought this was going to be nice gravel fire road like the first part of the Hafren forest earlier in the day.

Fat chance. First up I rode into a knee deep stream and then instead of pushing across to the other side I retreated back. It then seemed a really good idea to ‘ghost’ my bike across the log bridge next to the track and shimmy across after it. This idea was shown to be terrible when my bike fell over on the far side with a crunch. A closer inspection showed I had broken the mount for my Revo light on my bars. Fuuuucckkk, you stupid tired idiot! Luckily pushing the clamp back together around the bar seemed to work and it sort of stayed put. I was really paranoid on anything bumpy though that it was going to then come apart again.

Going under wheel started getting boggy again and the line on the gpx suddenly took a sharp left turn across a stream. I walked up and down a bit swinging my front wheel back and forth but couldn’t see any sign of a path. Sod this I thought and followed the obvious ‘track’ that appeared to loop round to rejoin the gpx line. As I followed the track though it became more and more like a canyon. It had obviously been washed out and eroded downwards. Eventually I had to lift my bike and then myself out of it and push through the tussocks beside it. This was a low point for me, I had definitely had enough of pushing through boggy tussocks! If Carnau has been alright, this was not. Plus I wasn’t following anyone so I was finding my own deep patches of bog to get wet in.

It’s worth mentioning that this was my first real tough test for a new pair of shoes. Having been using Shimano MT91 boots for the last two or three years I had grown tired of them taking forever to dry and holding water. So I bought some Pearl Izumi Drift IV shoes which are essentially all hole! Paired with two pairs of wool socks my feet stayed warm all night. It will be interesting and possibly character building to find out how this ‘system’ fares in the deep of winter. There was an initial ‘ooh that’s cold’ shock when you plunged your foot into water but then the water drained back out and subsequently when stomping/pedalling my feet began to feel dry again. They weren’t, the shoes/socks were pretty damp at the end but they never felt sodden/squelchy which was really nice.

After the end of the canyon section as the track became more rideable Richard caught me up again. We were clearly both suffering a bit by this point and he highlighted that finishing sub-24 hours was looking touch and go. I think that gave me a bit of extra resolve and even if I had to walk some of the hills I tried to ride more in an effort to give myself the best chance of getting back before 24 hours were up. I was also really paranoid I was going to finish in 24 hours and 6 minutes and my saddle faff would come back to haunt me. A locked gate briefly slowed our progress especially as it took me far to long to realise it was locked. We hit the penultimate climb and I started walking again whilst Richard carried on upwards. Eventually I got back on the bike though and caught him at the top. He expressed that he was tired, possibly with a few choice curse words.

I started off down the descent and suddenly Richard appeared again beside me. “I’ve had a small piece of chocolate and now I feel great!” I don’t think I’ve heard anyone enthuse about eating a piece of chocolate quite so much in the space of a couple of minutes. The bit now between his teeth, Richard yelled “final climb, and it’s a baby one”. Up he went as another rider appeared behind me (I assume this rider passed me but I have no recollection of where he went!) and finally I reached the top of the last climb and rejoined the road at Dylife.

By this point the sun had supposedly risen. It was definitely partially light but grey clouds obscured the sun and there was almost drizzle in the air. No time for weather watching though. In my head over the final few off road miles the sums had gone like this.

– Dylife -> Llanbrynmair = approx. 8 miles
– Therefore if I hit the tarmac at 7:50am then I have 30 minutes to ‘descend’ 8 miles with a 4 mintue buffer.
– Therefore when I hit the tarmac I need to peddle above 16 mph to be finish sub-24 hours.

(I think) I hit the road at 7:47am. Time for a sprint finish!

By this point my Garmin was saying I’d ridden well past 200km (in fact it picked up a couple of extra miles from somewhere over the whole ride) but that was fine because the route was actually 215km long with the final 15km being downhill. I had however not failed to notice driving down from the Star Inn to the start that the final 15km were definitely NOT all downhill and had a few little inclines to slow you down. I turned my Garmin from map to trip computer so I could concentrate on my speed. Up through the gears I went and although initially I was only doing 13 or 14mph I started to gain speed as the descent steepened. I could see Richard ahead of me and then I lost him as I concentrated on riding at 20+mph. I reached the t-junction with the B4518 and looked right for traffic and saw Richard a little way up the road in the wrong direction. The outwards and homeward legs of the GPX crossed at this point and he’d followed the wrong line. I yelled at him – although he had stopped and clearly realised his mistake – and then turned left. I actually got slightly paranoid that the route to the finish wasn’t the one I thought it was and turned the map on again!

I pushed on the pedals as hard as I could. Which surprisingly (especially for me) was fairly hard. I seemed to have plenty of energy and hit the inclines as hard as possible trying to maintain as much speed as possible over them and down onto the next section of descent. As I passed through Pennant and then Llan I started to relax a little. I was going to do this. I cracked a wry smile as I passed where I stopped to fix my saddle and then rolled into the car park of the school at Llanbrymair. At first I was confused as there was no van to welcome you back/sign you back in. I rode over towards the entrance to the school to find a welcoming chap (Chew) with a clipboard. As I reached him Dee started talking to Chew about the cycling jersey I was wearing. My attire was a Northwave skeleton winter jersey (which is the first jersey I ever owned) and apparently there was a motorcycle racer in the 60’s or 70’s who used to paint a skeleton on his leathers. I think I may have got slight panicked or annoyed because (I think) I may have theatrically coughed and then sarcastically said “it’s ok I’ve got 10 minutes to spare”. Chew got the message and said “we’ll call that 8:15, shall we?”.

He then handed me a black badge.

Job done. 23 hours 51 minutes.

I actually felt pretty good at the finish. Even better for the veggie fry up provided by Dee and Stu. I mean once I got off the bike I had a bit of John Wayne about my walk but I drove home without the need for a sleep and only hunger forced me to stop. Whilst I was packing down the bike and getting changed into clothes not covered in bog muck Richard arrived with 15 minutes (I think) to spare. The weird thing is that we never asked each other what their name was or introduced ourselves whilst riding large sections of the route together. I only know Richard is called Richard because Strava says I rode with him. I think the one time he addressed me on the actual ride he said “hey skeleton”. Oops.

I had no idea I could achieve a sub-24 hour finish on the ride, it was definitely not planned. I set out to ride until I couldn’t any more then have a sleep and carry on. However I always felt I had gas in the tank and so I just kept going. I think I rode the last 25-30 miles with pretty much no water. I really tried to limit stops. According to strava I only stopped for 1 hr 15 minutes in total across the 23 hours 51 minutes. In hindsight that seems a bit nuts. However I know that is also my strength, if I eat on the go I find a (slow) pace at which I can chug along and then I just do that for hours and hours and hours and hours. It’s what I did on the French divide, although with more sleep stops.

After finishing my mental feeling was never again, however now I’m looking back and wondering. If I actually did some form of training, if I actually pushed myself could I get round more quickly. Dave Barter wrote on the bearbones forum;

Could I have gone faster.

No. It’s easy to look back and think “if I’d done this or that I’d have been quicker”. It’s bollocks, you are who you are and the mistakes you make are yours and part of the ride. I always have made some and always will.

However the temptation to think I can go more quickly is there and so I’ll probably be there next year in the Star trying not to drink too much before another Bearbones 200.

That’s a year away though, so what about now? What next?

Jonesin’

Hello world?

So I’ve decide to change up my cockpit and I figured it was worth writing about. I used to have Genetic Digest bars, which I really liked but I’ve now switched to Jones bars which after one ride I love. So I’m going to tell you why and look at some of the pros and cons of both bars.

The digest bar is a flared drop bar which I ran with Tektro RL-520 v-brake pull levers, bar end shifters and Tektro Spyke brakes. I used an 80mm stem with a 45 degree rise to put the drop part of the bar in a position as to be the main hand position. I really enjoyed this set up and it worked for me. I can’t describe why but the bars made me feel like I was more ‘in’ the bike rather than perched on top. In addition I could have a fairly straight wrist position on the drops which was good for comfort whilst having multiple hand positions available on the hoods/flats. The digest bars have a bit of flex to them but as someone who isn’t heavy this meant comfort over long rides rather than a lack of control.

However the digest bars did have negative points. My bar end shifters weren’t great. This is partly due to them being secondhand units which after use by me are now well used and very stiff/not that responsive. I also found that the bar end shifters had a tendency to wear out/break gear cables every 6 months or so. The position of them on the digest bars was always a slight worry too, stuck out and exposed on the end of the bars. The Tektro brakes whilst good were still cable disc brakes which need to be ‘fettled’/maintained to keep them running sharply. When doing a long day in the saddle – especially in bad conditions with accelerated pad wear – this could mean stopping mid-ride to adjust for pad wear. A simple task but still frustrating. On long descents I found my hands would grow tired from pulling on the levers even if the braking was good and so this would make me nervous and reduce my confidence.

I’ve been curious about Jones bars for a while and so thought I had to try some if just to put that curiosity out of my mind. I bought quite an old secondhand set that are nominally 660mm wide. However they have 20mm control tech bar extenders fitted which mean they’re more like 690mm wide. I think this size is pretty much perfect, not too wide so you struggle to get through train carriage doors but they feel a nice width when riding. They also came with the Jones foam grips that had been cut down a touch and these, although a pain to fit seem to work well. I am however interested to see how the foam grips last/wear in the long term.

Yesterday I gave the Jones bars a maiden voyage/test ride on a 86 mile ride from Bristol to Goring in Berkshire. The route took in cycle path and tow path along NCN 4 to Devizes. Some gravel farm roads and bridleway from Devizes to Overton Hill and then the chalk, grass, gravel of the Ridgeway to Goring. It was a hot day and the dry weather meant the Ridgeway was dry, dusty and bumpy in places. I rode the Ridgeway part of this route in less favorable conditions on my digest bars when leaving to go to Scandinavia last summer so a direct comparison of the bars was in theory almost possible. The negative for the Jones bars is that I found them less comfortable over the course of a long day than the digest bars, however I need to remember that the Ridgeway was wetter and therefore softer/less bumpy when I rode it last summer. The Jones bars weren’t so uncomfortable that it affected how long I could ride for, just that I noticed a feeling of ‘buzz’ in my hands and feet when I stopped. In fairness I still had that buzz when I was doing long days on the French divide over sun baked trails so I’m not overly worried and don’t feel the need to change the grips of position just yet.

Where the Jones bars really won over my heart was in terms of handling. My initial rides up and down the street when I had fitted them and set up brakes and shifters felt a bit odd. I felt I was sat more ‘on top’ of the bike than before despite my hands being in nominally the same place as with the digest bars. I deliberately used a stem that placed the grips of the Jones bar roughly where the drops of the digest bars were previously. The angle of the part of the bar I was gripping was naturally different as the Jones bars are flat bars and not drops. However after rotating my brake levers to point downward more I can still ride with a pretty straight wrist on the Jones bar too. The improvement that I found with the Jones bars in terms of bike handling I’m pretty sure is to do with weight distribution. The digest bars seemed to shift my weight slightly forward from a flat bar but in a way that meant it felt right most of the time. Importantly on occasion though I found it hard to then shift my weight back enough when things got steep. With the Jones bars my position seemed to be more upright despite as mentioned my hands being roughly in the same place, my weight appears to be more on my feet and I feel I can move my weight around the bike a lot more. Suddenly the bike feels more lively and easier to ‘chuck’ about. I actually watched the video below on Friday before going on the ride so maybe it’s my brain trying to fulfill what Jeff Jones is saying but I genuinely found I had exactly the experience that he talks about.

The Jones bars still give me multiple hand positions and putting my hands where the rear curve welds to the front feels really comfortable and about shoulder width. This gives a good ‘on the hoods’ position for me to rest my hands, I need to tape the front section of the bars and around the welds to improve the comfort but already on fast straight road sections it feels good to grip the bars at that point and cruise along. A real benefit of the Jones bars is being able to use trigger shifters and hydraulic disc brakes. Going back to these after cable discs and bar ends was frankly incredible. My old mismatch of Deore/LX and XT 9 speed shifting kit worked really well yesterday and it was almost a pleasure to click the right hand shifter and get a nice responsive up or down shift from the rear derailleur. My front mech is in worse shape and I’m running two rings where I should have three but it does the job, the only place where the friction shifting of the left hand bar end shifter would be vaguely useful. Going back to hydraulic brakes I’m not sure how I lasted so long without them. I felt I was descending faster and with more confidence than I have for a long time. Clearly multiple factors were at play; the handling and control provided by the bars but also the confidence provided by having good, easy to modulate stopping power available at my fingertip. Definitely no hand/finger fatigue on long descents with hydraulic brakes.

So, Jones bars. After one ride I honestly love them. It sounds cliche but they make riding the my bike more fun and that is never a bad thing. For the first time this year I really can’t wait to ride my (touring/mountain) bike again.

News of [my] world.

Hello?

HELLO!?

I’m not dead, I’ve just been concentrating on ‘life’ and well doing rather than writing. However here is some news.

1. All of my recent writing output is available in physical and digital form on a gumroad shop at the link below. So if you want a book or fanzine feel free to click/buy.
https://gumroad.com/ctznsmith

2. I’m still selling my record collection and have 51 records left so if you fancy some vinyl then check out the link below.
https://www.discogs.com/seller/ctznsmith/profile

3. I’m going to be speaking at the Cycle Touring Festival in Clitheroe again this year. Tickets are on sale now and available at the link below. It’s a good, fun weekend and you should come.
http://cycletouringfestival.co.uk/

Sales pitch over.

4. I went to a talk by a guy called Rob Greenfield yesterday evening and it was really good/interesting. If you are at all interested in your impact on the planet (and you should be) then check out his website at the link below. He has some really good blogs on practical steps you can take based on the ‘stunts’/adventures he’s had. The easiest way to find those is to put food, water, waste, energy and transport at the end of the URL.
http://robgreenfield.tv/

5. I’ve moved to Bristol. If you fancy a pint/bike ride/coffee, get in touch. Particularly if you play drums and like punk/stoner music. To mis-quote a film I’m trying to put [a] band back together.

6. I’m looking for a part time job and quite fancy twirling spanners and working on bicycles again. So if you know anyone who wants a mechanic for a few days a week then let me know/point them in my direction.

Sorry for the gap in proceedings. I’m not saying it won’t happen again, lets see where inspiration and energy take me!

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.

Unemployed.

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.