Mostly, this is random stories from my various trips as I collect them, but I've a wee backlog to get through too and those will pop up occasionally.

Feel free to leave comments.

Friday, 8 July 2016

10

Interesting number, 10. 10 fingers, 10 toes, we count in 10s, we talk about top 10s, 10 things to do before you die and then, of course, there was Bo Derek.


I don't know what Dudley Moore saw in her

I got to thinking about it recently, looking at some folk who were competing in the Tour Divide Race and watching their ability to sustain a good overall average speed. Now 10 miles per hour doesn't seem very fast in that regard. Most reasonably fit cyclists will be able to average 10 mph. Sit on a bike, start pedalling and you'll soon be at 10 mph. But it's sustaining that over longer distances and durations. What becomes obvious is that trying to maintain an average of 10mph also means reducing stopped time. Every second the wheels aren't turning eats into your overall average speed and maintaining 10 mph suddenly isn't so easy. 

I recently had the opportunity of a free lift to John O'Groats so I planned to ride down to Inverness on National Cycle Network Route 1. I was keen to do this as we lots of customers going this way (though normally northbound) and the Cromarty-Nigg ferry service had just re-opened, making the Black Isle section of NCN 1 a good through route again. However, after a phone call from home relating to a family illness, the ferry option became untenable. The last evening ferry is at 18:00 and the first morning ferry isn't until 8:15. Frankly, I was never going to make the former and I didn't fancy hanging around all night. I therefore opted for plan B -  I'd stick to the "standard" NCN1 route through Alness, Evanton and Dingwall and I'd see what was needed to do to get through a long days riding at that target of 10 mph.

With a bit of route planning I was able to come up with a nice ready-reckoner for when I would have to be leaving a few points en route and this would be my quick look-up for the day. Mainly, these were places where I might find food. I was carrying a little with me but was also hoping to see what I could shop-forage as I went. As back-up, I also had my bivvy, sleeping bag, mat and tarp (all having been packed when the ferry option was still on). The weather forecast was for light westerlies and showers. I knew I had 60-odd miles of riding west to start with but this sounded perfectly fine. 

Fabulous still evening on the Saturday night before departure
Standing at the famous John O'Groats signpost on the Sunday morning, I was very aware that the "light" winds were a bit stronger than ideal. It was knocking a few degrees off the temperature too as they seemed to have swung more towards the North West. On the upside, the skies didn't look too threatening.


Not quite so pleasant the following morning.
Undaunted - and with little option - I set off up the hill and onto NCN 1. It was 8:32.

I'd cycled this bit fairly recently, doing a signing check for SUSTRANS so it was quite familiar. I was though, struggling with my gears. Stupidly, I'd not checked them out after fitting the handlebar harness. The right shifter was a little stiff - though this loosened up after I jiggled the cables about a bit. The left shifter stayed stiff even after this - a sign that everything was not well.....  

Looking down to Gills Bay I could see the morning ferry from Orkney just arriving. As a result, there was quite a bit of traffic on the main road. I was glad to be up on NCN 1 and away from all of that. Initially, the headwind didn't seem too bad, but as I approached Thurso it was already beginning to get a bit annoying. My first "checkpoint" was Strathy. I arrived a whole 53 mins ahead of schedule, having averaged 12.6 mph. This was easy.


There's a  change in terrain as NCN 1 reaches Sutherland, the flat, rolling moors giving way to some real hills

Into Bettyhill and checkpoint 2. Due to hills and the headwind my speed had dropped a little to 11.4 mph and it was obvious my options for grabbing food were going to be very limited. Being Sunday, the only shop in the village was closed, a pattern that was repeated throughout the day. I did manage to find a hotel and bar offering lunch so opted to climb off the bike for a while. With an overall average speed in mind, it became a frustratingly slow experience. Find staff, explain requirement, wait to be seated, wait for menu, select food. wait for staff, order food, wait for food, eat, wait for staff, ask for bill, wait for staff, offer payment, wait for change. Every minute sat waiting becomes 1/6th of a mile not travelled. As a result my 45 minute stop had dropped my speed to 9.7 mph so I was now behind schedule. 

Just for good measure, the wind also seemed to be getting stronger, however it was blowing all the cloud and rain inland so at least I was staying dry. I was, though, glad to reach Coldbackie where the route turned south, even though that meant I was heading into darker skies. I'd been having to pedal downhill in places and I was looking forward to being able to freewheel a little more often. In fact, so happy was I about this prospect that I stopped for a celebratory coffee and cake. More delay, but I hoped that not fighting the wind would make a difference to my moving average. A short stop here meant that I went through Tongue 36 minutes behind schedule, an average of 9.6 mph, despite all the hard work along the coast road.

Looking over Tongue Bay to the Rabbit Islands
Heading south definitely seemed easier and, despite the impact on my speed, I also stopped for a couple of photographs. The view over the Kyle of Tongue is superb, often matching that of some of the Hebridean beaches. Today,  the overcast sky had knocked much of the colour out of it but Ben Loyal stood to the south looking like some mischievous god had plucked it out of Skye, dumped it in Sutherland and thought "this'll keep them guessing". 

The route skirts right round the bottom of Ben Loyal
Heading towards Altnaharra on the "main" road.
As the road wound up and down past Altnaharra and lonely Crask Inn I felt I was going a little faster and passed through the latter now only 15 minutes behind schedule. Digging into my food bag I found a Eat Natural Protein bar and managed to rip the wrapper open with my teeth. What followed was 15 minutes of laborious chewing. It was dry as a budgies litter tray and barely more tasty. I reckon I actually consumed more calories eating it than it gave up.

On the faster descents towards Loch Shin I was in the big ring and as I hit Lairg all attempts to shift out of it failed. I knew that staying in a 52-tooth sprocket was never going to work so stopped in Lairg to see what could be done. Despite fiddling around with cables and trying everything I could, the only option available was to reset the front mech so it was over the middle ring. Despite it being gala week, Lairg was pretty dead. I knew there was a hotel serving food but I was now very aware of how much time delay that would cause so I passed it by, leaving Lairg 14 minutes ahead of schedule, average speed now 10.2 mph. 

I now knew that the only option for hot food would be at Invershin so pressed on arriving 24 minutes ahead, 10.4 mph average. The menu had a limited range and I struggled to work out what I wanted and what wouldn't take too long, eventually opting for a burger. Though it arrived promptly enough, I found I really struggled to eat it. It felt more of a necessity than a desire and so it took me quite a while. I also had to call home at this point, further delaying my departure. As a result I was now 29 minutes behind schedule, overall average 9.6 mph. On the up side, the weather had taken a turn for the better and it looked like I might make it back to Inverness dry. 

NCN 1 takes an unconventional line
Across the weird bit of cyclepath by the rail bridge and I was now on some very quiet roads, becoming familiar as I hit Ardgay. 


Long evening shadows heading almost due south at this time of year

Coming on to the A9 at the Dornoch Bridge was a bit mind-jarring though. It's hard to believe Britains premier long distance cycle route is routed on the A9 trunk road with no path, markings or other form of segregation. Mind you, it's a wide enough road and at 10pm on a Sunday evening it's not like there was too much traffic. 


Looking back over the Dornoch Bridge as the sun finally sets
The turn off to Tain soon appears and what's then required is some careful sign-watching as this is where the optional route via Nigg and Cromarty peels off. Tain also marked a return of westward riding and hence of the headwinds I'd been sheltered from for several hours. I'd made up some time on the last leg and just hoped this wind wasn't going to be a problem as I was now only 7 minutes behind schedule, 9.9 mph, tantalisingly close to my 10 mph target. 

It was about now that the lights came into play. I'd had the dynamo running  all day (attracting a few flashers) and now switched on my helmet mounted lamp too. This proved essential on the run into Evanton where the cycle path flits around from one side of the road to the other with lots of 90 degree corners and road crossings. Frankly, I found it all a bit frustrating, slowing me down unnecessarily, although I can see why it would be a great thing for kids cycling to/from school etc. The road rises away from the A9 for a while before quickly dropping into Dingwall. Again, a wee bit of careful observation for NCN signs is necessary but I was past the railway station 11 minutes ahead of schedule and now at 10.1 mph. I knew it was now just about the climb over the Black Isle. The westerlies were now crosswinds and there is a decent path/track all the way to Kessock. With that in mind I just kept a steady pace up to and past Tore roundabout (where some workmen were completely mystified by this late night cyclist) and to my penultimate checkpoint just before Kessock where I found I was 24 minutes ahead of schedule, 10.3 mph. 

I was now pretty sure I'd done enough and was feeling elated but the rain I'd mostly managed to avoid all day finally caught up with me crossing the Kessock Bridge and then I was suddenly into the various twists and turns of NCN 1 again. I was eager to get back to the van and dry but also dreading making a wrong turning and having to back-track  at this late point. 

A final photo stop alongside the River Ness and I arrived at Bellfield Park at 00:39. 28 minutes ahead of schedule and with a final overall average speed of 10.2 mph.


Almost there

Target met then, with a little to spare, but quite a few lessons learnt or at least driven home. 

The most obvious conclusion is that stopping for any length of time really knocks back the average speed in a way I'd not really been consciously aware of before. A couple of minutes here and there will always add up. Minimising stop time makes for faster times or less effort for the same time.

The second was that sitting down to eat a meal is often almost instinctive rather than logical. That burger at Invershin seemed like such a good idea before I had to eat it (and it was a lovely burger). Eating little and often, especially if undertaken while pedalling, doesn't place such a sudden big load on the stomach.

Third was remembering not to panic if a leg or two is a bit slower than planned. If you're not taking hills and winds into consideration then expect the average to ebb and flow a bit.

The fourth lesson only really hit home the following day. Although it's been years since I did a ride of this length, a steady easy pace saw me through it with no major pains and aches. I was comfortable during the whole ride and was still able to enjoy it all. There's something to be said about not underestimating your abilities.

Metric schmetric


The "what if"s. 

What if I'd set out to do the whole ride in one day, I'd have not had bivvy gear and overnight clothes with me, the load would have been lighter and less of an effort required. 

What if I hadn't suffered that headwind for the first few hours. I'd have been quite a bit quicker and my legs would have been a lot fresher later on.

What if I was actually fitter and had a few long rides like this under my belt?

What if the route was a bit longer - 200 miles, 240?


And the shifter problem? Turns out it was nothing at all to do with strapping the harness on the front. A little "nut" has managed to dislodge itself, going AWOL somewhere. As a result the shifter is basically now a pile of spares

So, will there be a follow-up blog entry for "11"? I think not. I give you this instead.....



Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Act 3: The Bike (caution nerdsville ahead)

The final push to restarting my overnight adventures comes in the way of a new bike. I say new, it's now covered over 1,200km so I've had a chance to get used to it round my local trails. I thought it might be worth explaining what it is - and why I've arrived at this particular design.

In previous posts I've told of my fatbike and where I've been with it. Truly a revelation, the fat tyres and frame have shone on "proper" fatbike terrain like snow and ice but have also shown their capability on other, more common, conditions where the amazing traction and wide floatation transform what's possible on a bicycle. However, it's impossible to deny that there is a weight and drag penalty in many other conditions. 

I was therefore intrigued when Surly launched the Krampus. 3" tyre width promised to be a good compromise between fat and non-fat tyres. Unfortunately,  with me being 5'7" the Krampus was never going to be suitable as a bikepacking platform - wee legs and tall wheels rule out many luggage hauling options.

My previous decision to buy a custom Burls Ti 29er for bikepacking was looking pretty astute until WTB came along with 27.5+ or 650B+, whatever you like to call it. Here was the 3" tyre option for those of us shorter in leg. Of course, as a new "standard" there was the question of how widespread it would be adopted but being the impatient sort, I immediately set about seeing how I could obtain it. 

Initial investigations showed that, despite the suggestion B+ might fit in many existing 29er frames,  my Burls was not amongst them. The chainstays were simply too narrow to permit anything larger than a 2.4" tyre. Shame - the frame was otherwise ideal and the cost of converting it was simply going to be too great.

The next option to consider was too look at what was on sale.  At this time, there wasn't much and, having gone the custom route already,  I felt willing to do so again to get just exactly what I wanted without having to compromise on details. 

Step up Brant Richards and Pact Bikes. Brant was offering to work with buyers to help them arrive at a good solution to their requirements without them having to know all the intricate details. This was ideal. I'd fire over some geometry, Brant would model it and together we worked out how to fit everything I wanted into something that could be manufactured. It's a good system. Too many times I'll look at a bike (or frame, or something not bike related at all) and it won't be just what I want, requiring some compromise or other. And with a bike designer in the loop between me and manufacturer, I was a lot less likely to end up with something that handled like a dog or had some other strange characteristic.

Some of the features I decided on were as follows;

  • Clearance for a 3.5" tyre. A range of B+ tyres was only just becoming and I wanted to keep all options open.
  • The ability to use a front derailleur (new Shimano side-swing). I still much prefer 2x gear systems to give me a range for uphill-loaded cycling and faster "road" transitions. The side-swing style creates extra clearance between the downtube and the fat tyre, though it requires a different cable routing.
  • Boost rear axle. This longer axle provides a suitable chainline for the wider tyres. As a "bolt-through" 12mm style it also creates a stiffer rear end, something I'd experienced on other bikes and appreciated.
  • Aimed at 100mm travel forks. I wanted the option of fitting rigid forks and these mostly come with axle-to-crown lengths to match a 100mm travel suspension fork. I also reckoned 100mm of travel was more than enough for the use of the bike.
  •  31.6mm seat tube with "stealth" cable routing for a dropper post. This was way down the list of my requirements but seemed to offer a "something for nothing" option.
  • No rack mounts. THis was a bit of a departure for me. Previous frames always had these and I'd specified them for my Burls. However, I never used them and have adapted to the soft luggage options completely now.
  • 100mm head tube. I wanted to keep this short as I knew the taller wheel would result in quite a high bar position anyway.
  • Small BB drop. A bit of careful juggling with numbers indicated that retaining a slightly higher BB would sit me slightly higher, increasing the space between saddle and tyre and reducing the possibility of the tyre rubbing on the bottom of a fully-loaded seatpack.
  • Three sets of bottle cage mounts. Two are internal to the main triangle and the third is fitted below. This has the triple cage mount suitable for the likes of a Surly Anything Cage, providing an additional luggage carrying option.

Other factors like stand-over height, bent downtube to ensure fork control clearance and tube shapes/sizes were arrived at between Brant and myself and, with a final check-over of all the numbers, the frame was ordered. made and delivered in a few weeks.

With all of that coming together, I also had to consider some of the other components. 
  • Rims; The first proper B+ rim available was the WTB Scraper i45 rim. This promised a nice wide rim and tubeless compatibility at a reasonable weight.
  • Hubs; Hope Pro2 Evo. I've used Pro2s extensively without issue and again there was little choice at this time.
  • Tyres; My original tyre choice was the Panaracer FatBNimble 3.5" front and rear. Light weight and a tread pattern similar to my beloved 45Nth Husker Dus on my fatbike.
  • Drive train; Shimano XT M8000 2 x11 for the gear range and suide-swing mech.
  • Brakes; Shimano XT M8000 again. I've always liked the fell of Shimano brakes and these offered a simplified brake/shifter arrangement to reduce handlebar clutter.
  • Forks; I found some rigid carbon forks through ebay that took a 15mmx110 Boost axle and had the correct A2C height. A bit of a long-shot but the only option I could find. Suspension forks are Boost Rebas. The only models available were 100mm travel with a bar-mounted lockout or 120mm travel with a crown lockout. The lockout isn't a feature I use a lot and I prefer not having that additional cable (bar clutter and bar bag mounting issues) so I opted for the 120mm to try out and reduce travel if necessary.
So - what does it look like and how does it go?


First build - FatBNimbles, rigid forks, Loop bars

Initial impressions were favourable. Light, easy rolling, seeming to pick-up and carry momentum from nowhere, comfy and grippy. Everything I was looking for really. And then it got wet. Frankly, the front tyre became a liability. With a profile wider than a standard MTB tyre but not as wide as a 4" fat tyre, the front end would just skate across any thin mud and I'd lose control. Luckily, salvation was at hand. Unlike the 29+ tyre market, B+ was coming on stream really quickly and I bought a 3" Nobby Nic for the front. This made a huge difference to grip - and therefore confidence - without it feeling like I was getting a lot of tyre drag. 

I also fitted the Rebas to replace the rigid forks. I'd been happy with rigid on my fatbike, though as I explored its capabilities on a wider range of terrain, I'd come to understand how suspension and fat tyres might work. As an initial option, I just fitted them with 120mm travel (in theory more than the frame was designed for) and again it just seemed to feel "right" from the first ride. As a result, I've left them on. With a few more subtle changes, the bike now looks like this.

Nobby Nic, Rebas, flat bars

Nice dropouts and the 12mm axle.

Additional bottle/Anything mounts

It had to have a name!

Tyre clearance ample with FatBNimbles

"Asymmetric" chainstays 

Plenty of clearance in the Boost Rebas


In summary, I'm really pleased with the frame - and the bike it has helped me create. Inevitably, there are a couple of minor tweaks I'd make if I was doing again, the most important being that I tend to clip both the chainstays and seatstays with my heels. This has been a problem with all my bikes and it's mainly because I pedal like a duck!

Some things I've still to play around with are; a more extended test using Jones Loop bars, fitting and riding the 29er wheels I also built, fitting the rigid forks again, trying a different rear tyre, maybe even fitting a B+ front and 29er rear. 

And the name? Well, though I like the look of Titanium frames, I do think the bare metal needs something to break it up. I ordered some decals from RetroDecals and was looking for something in addition to the Pact logo. Brant had taken to giving some of his frames names like Fatcat and Battlecat. I thought Wildcat was appropriate given that Speyside is a home to the rare Scottish Wildcat and the frame had been conceived - and would be largely ridden - here.


Loaded up

Cat and Dog

Friday, 10 June 2016

Act 2 : The Ride (Affric Kintail Way)

In days long past, the outdoor recreation community in Scotland would scoff at their poor cousins south of the border. "Look" we'd all say "they can only go on particular trails whereas we can go anywhere". Then some bright spark had the idea of creating the West Highland Way. "Oh no", came the cry "it'll result in walkers' (for it was mainly walkers) access being restricted and we'll be just like the English". In time, the WHW and its subsequent cousins, the Southern Upland Way, Great Glen Way and Speyside Way became an accepted part of the landscape and other Long Distance Paths (LDPs) have been springing up. One of the more recent creations is the Affric Kintail Way. Shorter than many of the others it does, nonetheless, represent a significant undertaking given that it passes through some of our most remote countryside. Casting around for a bit of inspiration to get back into bivvying and camping I considered that this might be an ideal candidate - especially once I added on a bit of riding at the start and end to make the logistics work. My plan was quite simple; head out on the Great Glen Way from Inverness to Drumnadrochit, meander over to Cannich, then head down Glen Affric for an early stop and a relaxing evening outside before heading through to Morvich the next day and riding up to Kyle of Lochalsh for the train home. The weather was looking great, the trails would be dry and I'd eventually get a chance to take the bike I'd designed just for this experience out to where it was meant to go (more on the bike in part 3).

Not being in any particular rush, it was late morning by the time I headed out of "the office" in Inverness and onto the Great Glen Way. 8 degrees and misty wasn't what I'd expected but I was hoping things would improve. Having cycled down this section last year I was aware that there was a bit of a steep start and just ground my way up until the slopes levelled off and I was on to the moor at Blackfold. That's when I spotted the cyclist up ahead of me, bike on the ground and fiddling with her bag. It turned out that this was one of our customers who'd just had a puncture so I helped her get it fixed (discovering that my pump wasn't working) and sent her on her way, only to catch up again later just before the wee Eco Cafe at Abriachan. Now, I've always meant to stop on here and as the sun broke out we both pulled in for what must be Scotlands finest al fresco eating experience. I could try to describe it to you but would no doubt fail to convey it properly. You'll just have to visit for yourself.


Definitely chilled
Heading on, it wasn't long before I reached the more interesting forestry sections of the GGW high above Loch Ness. These undulate a bit but they are definitely better heading south than north! 


Quite a bit of height gain between Inverness and Drumnadrochit
A speedy descent into Drumnadrochit marked the end of the "Prologue" so I stopped for some frozen yoghurt. I also noticed that the power LED on my SPOT tracker was flashing red, meaning low battery. A visit to the local shop only turned up Alkaline in AAA size but beggars can't be choosers and they were fitted whilst enjoying my froyo.

Wandering over to the Tourist Information Centre, I had a look around to see if they had any maps or guides to the Affric Kintail Way and found a lovely Harveys map of the whole route. One can never have too many maps so this was added to my pack. 


6,000ft of climbing, eh?
Whilst looking at the AKW information board, I was spotted by a hiker who'd just come through it and was concerned that I'd have a big push up the first section. I'd already spotted this on the OS map and was OK about it but we got talking about the route and my kit. As is often the case, he was astonished at how little space it was taking up and, after swapping kit details, we parted for me to head west. 

The map didn't lie. Not long after entering a pleasant bluebell woods it started to climb steeply and very loose, not helped by the dry weather.


Just before the "big push"
With a longish day in prospect I decided to take it very easy and walk where most appropriate. Eventually, it flattened out enough and I started to make decent progress. As it turned out, despite having the route in my GPS, I found there were many more tracks around than indicated on the OS map and the Harveys version I'd bought was referred to constantly.

At Corrimony, the AKW takes to the road for a few miles into Cannich. This includes a rather fast and long descent, which seemed such a shame on a mountain bike after having to suffer the climbs. I always like coming to Cannich. There's nothing particularly inspiring in and of the village itself but it does mean you're entering a stunning piece of countryside with Glen Affric, Tomich and Mullardoch all spinning off from here. It's a bit like your favourite TV show having a really naff theme tune. You might hate it but it gets you excited for what's to follow. On this particular afternoon, Cannich was hooching. There was some sort of mountain marathon event on and the place was full of campers and vans. Having plenty of time to spare, I decided I grab some food and went to the pub hoping it wouldn't be rammed with runners. I was in luck. It was rammed with drunken shinty fans instead! Still, I managed to grab a burger and chips before heading out of the village again.

The AKW climbs steeply up the Mullardoch road, before heading off on more forest track. The height gained is pretty substantial so there are some decent views for a while before the forest encroaches once more. There follows a steep descent down to cross the road at the Dog Falls but there's a strange subterranean arch on the way down that I've yet to find the purpose of. 


Not very much of this, but nice while it lasts



What's this then?

It went back further than my flash could cope with

As expected - water levels were low

Again, the track rises and I eventually reached the viewpoint looking out to the South West. It's stunning on a clearer day but even with the heat haze it's a fantastic place to sit and ponder for a while. 


Good place for a "pause"

Haze knocking back the visibility quite a bit!


By now I was seeing the tyre tracks left by the HT550 participants (who would have been going the other way) and got to wondering what state they were in (mentally and physically) when they'd passed here a few days earlier. 

As already said above, my plan had been to stop early but by the time I reached Loch Affric I was on a bit of a high. The legs were spinning, there was still loads of light, I was well fed and watered and I was getting a real buzz from just crossing the country so smoothly and effortlessly. Like an addict separated from his choice of drug for too long I didn't want to say "enough", I just wanted it to go on like this forever. I was even thinking "I'm not stopping for photos" when I'd come round a corner and just have to slam on the brakes and get the camera out.


Fantastic light in the early evening

The little oasis of Strawberry Cottage, just before the "big hills"

The far end of Loch Affric was passed, then Strawberry Cottage - looking well busy. Just after the fork in the track I saw two folk running towards me. We exchanged a few words; they were running from Morvich to the Glen Affric car park. I said they were even more mad than me but they were intrigued by the bike and that I was planning to stay out overnight. I left them to complete their final five miles and continued making my way along the bouldery, loose track.  Five minutes later and two cyclists were approaching - pushing across the boulders gingerly. They'd been up Munro bagging, so we exchanged notes on gaelic pronunciation and they too were taken by how small my load was. The more so when the woman realised I wasn't even wearing a backpack of any sort. They were also fascinated by the big tyres and their ability to cross the rocks as they were struggling and had resorted to pushing. With a few minutes lost to chat, I was again on the move, making easy progress past Alltbeithe Youth Hostel.


Alltbeithe YH. No driving to this one!

Not long after, I passed another group out camping and then I had a decision to make. I reckoned there was still enough daylight to get me past Camban and down to Glen Lichd - and potentially Morvich - but then the plan had been to camp out somewhere remote. I swithered for a while, not wanting to waste the fine night and my great mood, but eventually gave in and selected a reasonably sheltered spot just off the track and not far from the river.

Despite lack of recent practice it didn't take me long to get the tent up and my sleeping kit sorted out. I guess one advantage of having little kit is that choices are easy and it's hard to misplace anything. The ground was comfy, my pitch was well chosen and I eventually took the time to relax. It wasn't long before the cooling evening air saw me half-in/half-out the sleeping bag while I cooked up a little instant meal, which was eaten more out of a sense of duty than of hunger. I didn't even pop open the hipflask of whisky I'd brought along.


At the watershed

9pm in the Highlands in June...

It was a stunning evening though and as the stars started to show I reckoned it was late enough to zip up the midge net door of the tent and settle in for the night. It certainly didn't take me long to nod off, though I soon woke up feeling too warm and having to remove my jacket. I woke up a couple of times through the "night" too, not that it ever really got dark.

I eventually decided to get up around 5 and, still not feeling hungry, skipped the porage option for a wee cereal bar and a splash of water. Out of interest I timed myself; 30 minutes from deciding to get up I was packed and on the move. Again - little kit, little faff. The sun from yesterday was now hidden above a layer of hill mist but I had high hopes it would clear as the day progressed.

The path to Camban was a complete contrast to the easy forest track and even the bouldery stuff from Strawberry Cottage the evening before. This stuff was proper hard and rocky and made even more difficult by the fact I was climbing. Most of it was ridden - I'm pretty sure it would have made a fun descent - though the proportion of pushing was definitely increasing as the distance was covered. 


Camban Bothy appearing out of the morning mist

Past Camban bothy and the same story continued. What's more, it seemed that there were so many ups and downs. The hard geology here certainly belies the contours on the map so I was glad when the mist started to clear and I could make out both long stretches of track in front of me and the higher mountains. 


  

  

Mist finally breaking 

Yes, that's the track descending away down there...

Amusingly, the river can be seen gradually running downhill on its way West but the path keeps climbing higher and higher above the river in apparent flouting of the norm. The reason for this becomes clear when a large gorge appears on the left, with the river now tumbling down an impressive waterfall through a gap in the cliffs. 


No way down here
The path becomes quite vertiginous for a while, especially where it crosses a large landslip. Again, I was resorting to a large amount of pushing.  I'm sure that with a different bike, unladen and with company, I'd have ridden more of it but I was happy here to jump off whenever things were looking a bit too gnarly. As it went on, I could find myself getting more and more frustrated but had to fight back the urge to be too reckless.

Falling to the left would be a really bad idea

The effect of this pushing was, however, that I was now running behind my planned schedule for catching the train in Kyle. By the time I reached the estate road at Glen Lichd House, I was beginning to have serious doubts I'd make it in time. 


Glen Lichd House and the start of the estate road

Finally at valley level. A couple of nice new bridges here.

Stripping off my jacket now that the mist had completely cleared I zoomed down the glen, scaring sheep off the track, fueled by large handfuls of chocolate peanuts and the last of yesterdays energy drink. Thing was, I hadn't booked my bike on train anyway so there was a chance I'd be racing up the road for no reason!


Sea level again. That makes it another Coast-to-coast

As it turned out, I needn't have worried. I arrived with lots of time to spare and, after speaking to the driver, just loaded my bike onto the train before disappearing to Hectors Bothy for breakfast. My original intention had been to get a takeaway but I figured that the later I got back to the train, the less time there would be for the conductor to throw me off in favour of some pre-booked cyclists.

The train ride back to Inverness gave me plenty of time to reflect on my trip and such wee adventures in general. I'd definitely missed them. The difficulties of the morning had in no way diminished the buzz of the previous evening and had just added to the emotional mix. Maybe next time I'll stop earlier and relax a bit more, but then there's this other plan.........




Thoughts on the Affric Kintail Way

I'd been intrigued by this route for a while and the development of it as a signed trail definitely makes navigation of the Drumnadrochit-Cannich section a lot easier than it was just trying to follow the GPS. There are just so many twists and turns here in close proximity. I'd also pondered over what direction would be best. If relying on trains,I reckon the logistics would probably be simpler/more assured heading from Morvich to Drumnadrochit. That would mean a huge climb out of Glen Lichd of course and all of the difficult terrain would come early on. However, aesthetically and emotionally I reckon heading west, towards the larger mountains, always feels like the adventure is building rather than diminishing. Besides, travelling east it would have to be the Kintail Affric Way.....


Without overnight gear, and given two cars (or a willing driver) it could be completed in a day.  

It certainly has some full-on biking - especially the descent to Glen Lichd - some great, fast forest tracks and is always in amazing scenery. The best thing I can say about it is that I'd definitely do it again. 

You can find a lot more info on it by going to the official site: http://www.affrickintailway.com/



Download a GPX file of the route: here (Right Click/Save as...)



Monday, 6 June 2016

A Blog in 3 parts - Act 1: The Metablog

Once again I feel a little explanation is necessary. It's be so long since I updated this blog and I've been giving some thought as to why.

This whole blogging thing started when I stuck a couple of post-riding stories in the Singletrackworld forum. Prior to that I'd simply been taking wee notes as a personal reminder of some of my trips. They are fun to look back on and help re-live the thoughts that were going through my head at the time. The feedback from my posts was encouraging and I decided I'd blog a bit more so that a wider audience might enjoy them. Primarily though, it was still for the benefit of my future self. Of course, it was flattering to get some nice reactions and to think I was inspiring other folk to get out there too. 

However, as I've got more and more into reading other blogs and forums, I've come to realise that my wee adventures are actually quite pedestrian. There's no end of folk out there pushing boundaries and doing much more inventive and difficult trips. That got me to questioning not only the act of writing it down, but the "value" of doing the trips myself. It like; you might think it's an achievement climbing Ben Nevis but when someone is doing Everest, it causes you to have a bit of a re-think. Then, a couple of years ago, I decided I'd do the Highland Trail Race. It was working out OK for a while - the riding became all about "training" for the race and I was definitely at the level whereby the fitness was fine. Thing is, my head just wasn't in it - and so I pulled out. And we moved to Aviemore. Frankly, the riding around here is awesome and I've really struggled to find enough of an incentive to travel elsewhere to ride. Plus there's again that nagging self-doubt that simply being out and enjoying riding just isn't enough on its own. 

All of the above have somehow discouraged me from exploring and, therefore, from blogging about it. That's not to say I haven't been riding at all. My mileage over the past couple of years has been pretty steady and more of it tends to be off-road these days. However, I've now been prodded by a couple of folk, I've been inspired by the recent Highland Trail Race and I've managed to put together a wee bucket list of trips I intend to do - just for myself. I'm hoping this rekindling of spirit helps encourage and inspire some more folk too.  

Friday, 21 August 2015

Cycling the Great Glen Way


After completing our northerly C2C2C, Shaun and I immediately pressed on with arranging the next ride on our bucket list. This was to be the Great Glen Way, running between Fort William and Inverness. I also had a professional interest in this as we get lots of customers hiring bikes to go this route and I was curious to see exactly what it was like, having only previously cycled the section between Fort William and Fort Augustus. I was also wanting to understand why so many mountain bikers seemed to write it off, and what might be the best type of bike/tyre for it.

Our logistics this time were much simpler. Shaun would drive us both to Fort William and my wife would meet us in Inverness, ready to drive south back to Fort William.

On arrival Shaun and I set about readying the bikes. Shaun had obviously thought about the need for a little top-up of energy reserves given the time elapsed since breakfast and had brought a couple of extra cereal bars, of which he offered me one. I had also thought about this and headed for McDonalds......

The GGW makes a strange start through the streets of Fort William and Inverlochy and it's sometime necessary to differentiate between NCN78 and the Great Glen Way as you go. Of course, it's all easy pedalling out to the end of the canal, up the side of Neptunes Staircase and onto the long, flat canal section all the way to Gairlochy. For us, the weather was fine - a few puddles and a mild tailwind - but I've cycled against a howler of a wind along here and so know that the canal-side can be very exposed. 


At Gairlochy there's a short section of road before the Great Glen Way is signposted off to the left. This section, and the part by the loch that follows it, is a pleasant singletrack diversion through some lovely woods and a couple of decent picnic/bivvy spots. 


Artful angles

The road along here is signposted as NCN78 and is quiet enough too, so anyone looking to stick to easier surfaces has an option. The two options (GGW and NCN78) come together again for a short distance before both carrying on along some forest track at Clunes. This undulates enough to provide a bit of height and the occasional view along Loch Lochy before returning to tarmac at Kilfinnan.


Looks a lot like summer
It was here that I spotted two cyclists coming towards us, both loaded up with camping gear. I recognised them as participants in the Highland Trail Race and stopped for a quick natter. I think they were both surprised at the amount of attention their exploits had been achieving and as we left them to carry on South I couldn't help feeling it was putting our little expedition into some sort of perspective!

Past Laggan Locks and we were back on to the newly-surfaced NCN78. While I can appreciate the difference this makes for easier cycling, I couldn't help but look on at the old loch-side route that can often be seen alongside, gravelly, muddy and root-strewn, with a little sadness. 
It's big, but is it clever?

More angles

Just outside Fort William, we had to cross a set of locks and saw the largest boat I'd ever seen on the Caledonian Canal. We stopped for a brief chat with the lock-keeper who confirmed that it was just below the maximum dimensions for the locks - and had, in fact, been shortened as it was originally 2 metres too long. It certainly filled the lock, especially as the water level lowered.


We definitely don't need a bigger boat!

Always keen to keep the tummy occupied, it was time for a lunch stop in Fort Augustus. Luckily, it was pleasant enough outside so we commandeered a table overlooking the canal. It had taken us a little over 3 hours to reach here, despite a couple of wee stops, so I was happy that we were making decent progress. I also knew that all of the climbing was yet to be encountered so didn't want to hang around too long. Leaving Fort Augustus, it wasn't long before we encountered the first steep climb. Having already decided that we should take the High Level variation of the GGW, I knew that there would be quite a bit more climbing and wanted to make sure I had legs for the rest of the day so it was off the bike to push up for a while. A look at the figures shows that this was a 300m climb in around 5km. The big advantage of this though was that we were treated to some great views back to Fort Augustus and beyond and also up along the rest of the Great Glen. The track along here swoops over the terrain and we found it about 95% rideable, with just a couple of very steep sections to test the legs a bit. 





Dropping down into Invermoriston, the path was more reminiscent of a Blue/Red graded MTB Trail with suitably impressive drop-offs. Of course, reaching the loch level at Invergarry required another big climb out and this time there was a lot more pushing as we negotiated the zig-zags through the woods. 


High again
It would be fair to say that I was in some need of refreshment by the time we reached Drumnadrochit. Thankfully, the scones at the Fiddlers did not disappoint, coming with a massive dollop of fresh cream. I was, however, keen not to sit around too long as I know my legs get difficult to "re-start" and that there was yet another big climb coming up. In fact, Shaun almost missed the start of this one where it turns off the A82 pavement. Either that, or he was secretly trying to find a faster way to the end. The scenery hereabouts was quite different to that we'd been seeing earlier, with more farmland and signs of actual human habitation. The GGW was lovely though, with sections through a narrow tunnel of gorse and whin that swept to and fro.

Having heard about the wonderful cafe at Abriachan Woods, I was keen to try it out and all the lovely handmade signs as we approached it lent it a strange charm of its own. However, knowing the end was almost in sight, we agreed to plough on to Inverness so I'll have to make a special effort to pass this way again sometime soon. 

Having got all this way on what were surprisingly dry tracks, the wet and mud through the forest at Craig Dunain came as a wee bit of a shock. It certainly went some way to explaining why so many of the bikes I see arriving in Inverness are filthy. Coming into the suburbs of Inverness, the GGW gets a massive amount of signposting to take into account the various streets and paths meaning we had to pay a bit of attention lest one be missed. 

Finally crossing through the Ness Islands left us with a wee carry up some steps to get onto the last wee kicker to the castle and the official end of the GGW. 



So, that was the Great Glen Way. Having completed it, I can honestly say it's a great route. The new high level sections obviously make it more of a challenge (in fact, I'm now planning to do the low level options to see what they are like) and it felt like a perfect, long day out in the hills. 


Channeling Vitruvian Man

The figures show we did 119km with 2,148m of ascent. We were riding for just under 8hrs30m.


A ride of two halves!