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.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Bearbones 200 - Wales for a weekend

I should really start this post with a wee reminder (to myself). This blog only came about because I started to pass on some personal notes I was keeping about some of my trips. I find it fascinating going back over them a few years later and re-discovering what was going through my head. That anyone else finds them interesting is just an added bonus so excuse me if I sometimes seem a little self-indulgent or introspective.

Bikepacking. It now seems to mean a lot of different things to many folks. My simple take on it would be to consider it a fashionable word for what was always just touring. However, many are creating a bit of an ethos around it, differentiating it from traditional touring on the basis that bikepacking is more concentrated on lightweight, speed and efficiency. Thing is, it's difficult to determine where the crossover lies. And then there's "adventure racing".  Now, I'm not a racer. I just wasn't born with that gene. However, I do enjoy the buzz that's obtained from participating with other folk. It's a feeling some understand and some don't. Those who've ridden in Sportives or taken part in 10km/Half/Marathons with no chance of being at the front of the field will likely feel where I'm coming from. With that in mind, I decided to sign up for the Bearbones 200 in 2016. 

Green. It's my favourite colour.

The BB200 is a (roughly) 200km circuit in Wales, put together by Stu from the Bearbones Forum. The route changes each year and includes a wide range of surfaces and track types. The goal is to complete the route in 36 hours, though many will go much, much faster. The rules are few: it's all self-supported, no sag-waggon, no emergency phone number, no waymarking, no feed-stations and there's a minimum kit list that's there to help ensure all participants can make it through a night in the hills. 


With a few long rides and some overnighters completed over the summer, I was relatively certain I'd manage the route in less than 36 hours. Of course, that would require a number of other conditions to be met. I'd have to avoid injury, mechanicals, particularly foul weather and the possibility of simply getting "lost". Specific preparation consisted of getting the bike organised, choosing the right amount of kit and then, finally, having a look at the route. In terms of bike setup I opted, unusually for me, to take a small rucksack in addition to some bike bags. This gave me more water-carrying capacity (important for long rides in the dark), somewhere to stash extra food if I had to acquire it en route and it would also make the bike a bit lighter and, hopefully, easier to manage over the infamous BB200 hike-a-bike sections.

Stu only publishes the route a week before the event so there's not a huge amount of time for research. I was pretty busy anyway but resisted the temptation to look it all up on Google Streetview. It was enough just to work out where any food/drink stops might be and pack food accordingly. On the OS map it certainly looked a lot different to where I normally rode in the Scottish Highlands. Typically, I'm used to there being few paths and tracks and for long periods of wild riding. Here, the route was surrounded by many other tracks, crossed roads and went through small villages and hamlets on a regular basis. With a lot more junctions to go wrong at, I felt the opportunity for making wrong turns was much greater. 

At almost the last moment, we were also told that there was a Community Cafe at Bwlch-y-sarnau about 140km into the route that would be open all through the night. This looked like terrific option and I took a mental note so see where it would fit into any refuelling plans.

Getting there

Of course, even to get to the start line I still had to drive to Wales. I woke the night before departure at around 2am with a splitting headache and realised I was suffering from a migraine. "Shit", I thought "that's all I bloody need". Trying to get back to sleep was impossible until I'd manage to calm it down with some painkillers. Waking up to set off I wasn't much better, so the drive was undertaken in silence (noise really goes for me) and trying to make sure I was concentrating on the road ahead. I knew that riding (or any strenuous exercise) usually dumbs the pain so wasn't so worried about the BB200 itself, if I could only get there safely. With a couple of food stops and a small shopping trip on the way, it eventually took me 12 hours - all of Wales done in the dark. Suffice to say I was pretty washed out when I arrived at the Star Inn and parked up my van for the night. I got the sleeping area sorted out then disappeared inside for a couple of soft drinks - trying to be sociable and taking in some of the chat from other participants, much of which seemed to be about past events or the technicalities of various GPS systems.

The short drive to the start area gave me my first opportunity to see the terrain I'd be riding in for the next couple of days. More pastoral than I'm used to certainly and no huge mountains, but enough closely packed, steep sided hills to justify the expected 5,000m of climbing. 

Wales has hills. Who knew?

Day 1

I faffed around at the start for a while, drinking Stus cofee and eating Dees toast, watching other folk and their bikes, or listening to some of the chat. With a self-selected departure time between 8:00 and 10:00 I didn't want to be right at the sharp end and neither did I want to hang around too long and waste daylight. Around 8:30 I passed the starter and made my way out of Llanbrynmair. 

It didn't take long for one rider to pass me. Then, a few minutes later, I passed a couple of others. That was to set the scene for much of the event. Like Sportives I've ridden there's a varying state of fitness, stamina, speed and strength that makes some of us faster in some parts and slower in others. 

To be honest, I was finding the scenery a bit uninspiring. This was at least in part due to the mist that was hanging around. dulling all the colours and ruling out any longer-distance vistas. Partly also due to the migraine. Meanwhile I was applying what little "strategy" I'd decided upon; go steady, don't race, don't worry about timings and progress. I was studiously avoiding looking at the track counter on my GPS, sticking to the map page by turning on the screen whenever I reached a junction, trying to memorise the next couple of junctions then riding off again. This tactic meant that my GPS batteries wouldn't need changing often. However, it was getting a bit of a faff as there were so many junctions. Even when with other riders, there would usually be a quick discussion of which was the correct direction. 

As the ride progressed, I'd meet other riders on and off. I'd either catch up or be caught, maybe ride in company for a wee while, then something would happen and we'd be split again. At one point I was in a group of 5-6 riders and for quite a stint it was just Richard and I sharing the gate opening and closing duties. 

The riding was certainly different from at home. I loved some of the old "ways" like Offas Dyke and was less happy when trundling through some field margin. Still, judging by the daylight I was making decent progress and I was happy to reach Knighton earlier than I'd envisaged. In my initial estimates, I thought I'd be arriving in the early evening. I'd even started thinking of it as Night-town. I knew this was approximately half distance and was the place most likely to provide hot food and a stocking up of provisions for the up-coming night section. It was certainly a bit of a sight, with various bikes leant up against shops and cafes, others being ridden up and down the street as riders contemplated their options. After being solo or in a small group for so long it was actually strange to see so many gathered together here. 

I opted for a wee cafe with a couple of bikes outside it, and found Jo and Mark inside just about to head off though other riders were still coming in. It turned out to be 16:30 when I arrived and, unbeknown to me at the time, the cafe normally shut at 16:30. However, the lady serving said nothing as I placed my order, nor when others did. Seems she was quite happy to extend her day a wee bit. 

It was fully an hour later when I set off again, still happy to have made it round this far, albeit with somewhat tired legs. Perhaps it was that feeling of tiredness that made me look down at my back tyre. It was looking really low so I pumped it up a bit, watching a couple of riders (including Richard) pass. It always takes me a wee while to warm up after a stop so I took things very steady. The all-night cafe was only 40-45km away so I knew there was no need to rush. 

Lights on time heading West

Not long after that, the daylight started to fail and we were presented with a rosey glow of sunset. That also meant lights-on for the first time. The ride into the darkness was really enjoyable as was the route itself although finding the correct track in the dark was sometimes proving problematic. This wasn't helped by not being around any other riders, though there were a couple of times I'd see a light off ahead of me which was strangely comforting. Around now, I also started to develop an irrational fear. Although I'd taken a good look at my brake pads prior to leaving Aviemore, and was at that time convinced they were fine, I suddenly started to worry that I was running out of pad material. This was, I think, related to the amount of muddy track we'd gone through but it's not something I normally think about. Now, it seemed to be preying on my mind on every descent. 

My navigation also seemed to be going to pot. I was trying as hard as I could to stick to the GPS track we'd been given but in the dark the correct route couldn't easily made out amongst many of the sheep tracks. I got to one particular section halfway between Llanbister and Bwlch-y-carnau where the GPS track made a sharp left turn and I couldn't see anything at all even when I was right on the track point. I searched back and forth for almost fifteen minutes then just headed downhill, pushing the bike through head-high bracken to get to a mapped lower track. Stu had warned about requiring a sense of humour and it was here that I lost it for a moment. 


I was therefore extremely happy to make it to the Glyndwrs Way Community Cafe at Bwlch-y-sarnau at 23:00. With a few bikes already outside I wandered in to what appeared to be a wee oasis. Food and drink were my immediate priorities. Despite only being 40km from the last stop I'd been out for another 5 1/2 hrs and felt I needed topping up. I also met Richard again and reckoned it was his light I'd seen across the moors earlier.

With only 60km to go I reckoned I'd had enough of night riding and would prefer to see more of Wales by riding during daylight hours. That meant stopping for a few hours and I scanned the cafe looking for somewhere I could get some rest. Luckily, Mark was just vacating a nice sheltered spot so I threw some gear in that area and went out to get my overnight stuff. By stopping riding I'd also cooled down a bit so was glad to strip off my damp kit and crawl into my sleeping bag.

I'll not say it was a fulsome sleep. With riders coming and going there was a general hubbub going on but I was tired enough and managed a couple of good hours before being woken by another couple of riders (Mac and Rob) setting off. Aware of not trying to disturb anyone I crept around for a while, helping myself to a cup of coffee and re-packing my gear before slipping out into the still-dark morning around 5am. Thinking of the bike, I applied a little chain oil but, curiously, neglected to even look at the disk pads I'd been so worried about earlier.

Day 2

If the ride out of Knighton earlier had been a bit tough due to an hours stop and some significant hills, the first section after the cafe was worse - due to the state of the track. I'm guessing it's also used by quite a few off-road vehicles and it was certainly the worse for wear. Huge muddy puddles, some filled with cow shit and piss. It seemed everything was getting covered by it and riding faster only made it spread. 

Llanidloes was the next major settlement. In my preparation I'd noted that it had a supermarket and some cafes but it was still not yet 7:00 so I knew nothing would be open and trundled through in the pre-dawn. On the first hill out of the village, I remembered to start looking around a bit more and caught the sun coming up.

Another day in Wales
I didn't see any other riders for quite a while and I was rather enjoying touring round the countryside early in the morning watching yesterdays mist being burnt off and brighter colours popping out. Hafron Forest was a particular highlight though I was expecting to meet other riders coming towards me on some of the sections as they appear to be well used as a trail centre. 

Coming out of Staylittle I saw a couple of riders ahead and pushed a bit harder to catch them up. This was Mac and Rob who'd left the cafe about an hour before me. We settled into a wee bit of a rhythm for a while, swapping gate duties and chatting about the route. We all knew there was to be a bit of a sting in the tail and found it not long after passing the Star Inn at Dylife. Here, the GPS track clearly had us going up untrammeled ground through grassy tussocks. We'd sometimes take a different line, being pulled away by a tempting sheep track before checking the GPS and tacking back again. I'll not lie, it was frustrating, especially when there would be a better looking track just off-line somewhere which would disappear round a corner. After a few more climbs and descents I found myself slowly pulling away from them until the "elastic" snapped and I was once more riding alone for the last five or so km into Llanbrynmair. 

At the finish, Dee checked me in while Stu supplied me with tea and a bacon roll. Some riders who'd finished earlier were hanging around and others were still arriving. it was a sort of quiet chaos A total time of around 28h45m was a bit better than I'd expected and within my original target of 32h. I was therefore quite happy and contented. I could easily have sat about longer, just relaxing in the pleasant atmosphere and banter but knew that I still faced a long drive home.

The journey home

Determined to make it as far north as possible before stopping, I motored on until reaching Tebay services, all the time dreaming of a bowl of pasta. The best they could do was a rather insipid macaroni cheese, which completely missed the spot. Further north approaching the central belt I had a sudden craving for Chicken Chow Mein and remembered there was a little service area near Cumbernauld that had an adjoining Chinese Restaurant. I made it with barely three minutes to spare before they closed up but they made a big carton of Chow Mein up for me and I wolfed it down in the van. That felt much, much better and I headed further north before I felt that tiredness was finally catching up with me. I pulled into the car park at Bankfoot around 22:30, laid out the sleeping bag in the back of the van and lay down for a couple of hours rest. It was 6 hours before I awoke.....


It was a great weekend. I achieved pretty much everything I wanted to; a ride in Wales, a chance to meet up with some folk I'd only chatted to online, a test of some different riding and packing strategies.I was well within my original target time and could have made it in less than 28 hours (for a Blue badge) simply enough. Could I have made it round in less than 24 hours for a Black Badge? Maybe - on that route and in those conditions and without a long stop in the cafe. But then I'd have missed seeing so much and that, to me, would have been a bit of a waste. Other than weary legs, I didn't suffer any other aches and pains so riding position, pedal position etc. all seem to be well dialled. Even carrying the rucksack didn't induce any back pains.

The bike worked perfectly despite the clart it was covered in. The brake pad worry that haunted me on the first evening and throughout the second day turned out to be completely unfounded and there's still lots of life left in them. The choice to run with rigid forks and 29er wheels also seemed to be the right one given the state of the surfaces and the extensive tarmac stretches.

My one equipment glitch was the GPS. I always run it in power saving mode for best battery life. With a new set of Energizer Lithiums in at the start, I got round the whole course without needing the spares I'd brought and it was only switched off for the 5 hours or so I was at the Glyndwrs Way cafe. However, that meant having to switch the screen on at every junction and often taking a wrong direction. Without doubt, I need to consider how I set it up when there are quite so many junctions.

Wales is a lot different from my usual riding. In some ways it's more like the Scottish Borders, especially with the amount of livestock around. I found the number of paths and tracks confusing at times, especially in the dark. The people were exceptionally friendly. Most I met en route were keen to know about the event and very happy to see us all. I'd certainly come back to ride some of the nicer tracks and explore many of the ancient sites.

And other events? Maybe. I felt this was an ideal "taster". I enjoyed being part of something, feeling the buzz of the other riders and meeting up with them occasionally through the weekend. I'm not quite sure that would be true of much longer events where the field would be more stretched out through the route. A Cairngorms Loop certainly appeals and has the advantage that I'd be more familiar with the area and so could concentrate more on riding and less on looking around. However, I suspect my desire to see where I'm riding rather than racing through it means I'm still a tourer at heart.

I'd also like to add a massive thanks to Stu and Dee. They've created something wonderful. The enthusiasm of the many participants and the affection they feel for the event is well justified.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

NCN78 - The Caledonia Way - in a Day!

Although I didn't mention this at the time of my last-but-one blog entry, my little investigation into maintaining a 10mph average speed was a prelude to another ride I'd been thinking about for a year or so. National Cycle Network Route 78 - The Caledonia Way - was recently launched as a signed route between Campbeltown and Inverness. At just under 240 miles and with some significant hills en route it certainly makes for a bit of a challenge. I'd originally thought about riding it over two days, with a camp or B&B somewhere mid-way but the logistics of getting to (or from) Campbeltown made this somewhat impractical. Ferries from Ardrossan only make the direct crossing three times per week. The Sunday sailing is too early to catch by train from Aviemore and the Thursday/Friday night sailings arrive after 9pm, enforcing an extra night away.

The solution was simple - ride back in a single trip. That there were two other ferries required only complicated it slightly more....

Looking at weather patterns, working days, seasonal ferries and general fitness, it all came together on the first weekend in September. That would give me a decent amount of daylight (though sadly no moon). I changed the tyres on the Amazon from the GP4Seasons to the rather more robust Schwalbe Marathons, fitted a third water bottle (for the long night riding) and made sure the dynamo lighting was all OK. 

Stage one of the actual trip was to get to Ardrossan. That meant three trains and a pedal across Glasgow. In fact, I opted to drive to Inverness first as that left my van in the right place for the end of the cycle. Changing at Perth, I was sharing the cycle space with a Pole who was travelling through Britain. I had to ask why he'd come all this way and his answer was that he'd already cycled in every other European country (Iceland excepted). In fact he'd cycled to Beijing for the Olympics in 2008. And here was me thinking my ride was a bit of an adventure!

Some of my favourite cycle trips involve trains 

Glasgow itself was a bit of a shock. I guess I've been out of the city for too long as I found the noise, smells and general busy-ness of the place all a bit scary and unpleasant. I was very glad when my train to Ardrossan pulled out and then deposited me at the ferry terminal for a bit of a wait. The ferry was a bit bijou compared to those that sail to the Outer Hebrides and has seen better days. It was a calm sailing though and we were treated to a lovely sunset over Kintyre.

I'd be riding somewhere over there - once it was dark.

My original plan had been to depart at exactly midnight. This was just a bit of a whim, it appearing tidier in my mind that the whole route was done on the same day. However, at 9:30pm I'd already been awake for 14 hours, travelling for 13 and was just keen to get going. Add to that the need to be at the Camusnagaul ferry by a specific time, a forecasted dry weather window that was due to break down at midnight and the frankly depressing thought of finding somewhere quiet to relax in Campbeltown on a Friday night and it was better just to get on the move.

Desperate to get out of "Dodge"

It didn't take long to leave the lights of Campbeltown and a couple of outlying little hamlets. Then it was just settling into the rhythm of night riding. For those that haven't tried it, there are a few differences; fast descents are taken a lot slower to allow for unseen potholes and sharp corners that would be very visible in daylight, as a result, hills are often approached slower too (no fast run up). With not much to see, other senses have more opportunity to intrude - the smell of a beach as you suddenly come down to sea level, the rushing noise of a fast river, the chill of entering a small patch of trees. All of these seem sharper, keener than during daylight hours. Perspective also alters - a few times I was wondering what lights were off to my right before I figured out they were on Arran, they just seemed much too close.

Folk might also think there's very little else to see when night riding but more of the local wildlife is up and around. Toads and frogs pause crossing the road; voles, moles and mice scrurry back and forth in a panic; rabbits and badgers usually try to outrun you; after a while you begin to panic as every bit of brown bracken looks like yet another young deer ready to spring out across your path and bats swoop across the road caught momentarily in the headlamp. Owls are frequently heard and every flock of sheep you pass starts a chorus of baas. One thing I'd not experienced so much before was to see so much gossamer from spiders caught across the front of my bike and illuminated by the lights. At first I ignored it but after a while there was so much it was distracting and I'd sweep it off occasionally.

With nothing to stop for, I was nibbling some food and taking the occasional drink whilst just grinding away at the pedals. Of course, it's important to sometimes just stop and look around at the night sky, especially when there is so little light pollution. The stars are also a good omen - as long as you can see them the skies are clear and you're not going to get rained on.

The bright lights of Ardrishaig
The street lights of Ardrishaig and Lochgilphead came as something of a shock after so much time spent in the dark and I was treated to other little patches of light as I went along the Crinan Canal towpath before heading north again to Kilmartin. From there, the road along Loch Awe seemed to be one constant climb, one where I was having to play dynamo pothole chicken. This is when you climb slowly up a hill, with your dynamo light down to a mere dim glow, crest the summit, then you're flying down the other side before the dynamo has a chance to get the light back to full strength. Don't speed up so quickly and it stays dim longer, speed up quicker and risk hitting a pothole. It's a difficult game....

It was round here that some daylight started breaking through the clouds and I started to meet the occasional car. Taynuilt would have made a good place for a break if it hadn't still been too early so I was back into the hills for a seemingly crazy detour to Connel (the NCN78 spur to Oban breaks off along here now). 
The fascinating Falls of Lora on an incoming tide
Around this point, my chain started skipping in the smaller cogs. This was a fairly new chain and cassette so it I knew it shouldn't be wear so messed around with tightening the cable a little, but to no effect. Listening more closely, I worked out that I had a stiff link on the chain. I was approaching the half-way point and, as expected, the little shop at Benderloch was open for re-supply. I took that as an omen to grab breakfast (sausage roll, coffee, chocolate milk shake) top up my drinks bottles and fix the chain by using a Powerlink. It was a fair bit of time stopped but I was actually well ahead of schedule - not only by the two hours premature departure from Campbeltown, I'd actually made time up on the road too. In fact, I was now considering the Camasnagaul ferry. My original plan was to catch it at 16:30 - that being the last of the day. However, I was now over three hours ahead. That meant I could, if I pushed it, hope to make the 12:30 instead. 

With new purpose I set off on the excellent new cycleway that's been installed between Benderloch and Ballachullish. I'd had some reservations about this section after driving past it often. It just seemed to be forever crossing the main road. However, this impression is misleading as, at cycling speeds, the crossings are actually quiet intermittent and unobtrusive. From Onich, NCN78 makes use of the (sometimes widened) pavement. Less than ideal but better than the A82. I was lucky enough to make Corran just as the ferry was arriving and that there was a decent queue of cars ensuring a fast turnaround. I made a pleading phone call to Highland Ferries asking that they hang on a couple of minutes for my arrival and then pushed as hard as I could northwards. I could have taken it easier as the wee ferry hadn't even arrived when I did.

I wasn't the least bit worried.....

Stepping off the ferry in Fort William I felt a tremendous sense of relief. I was ahead of schedule, it was a lovely day and I could now finish the ride at any pace I wanted. What's more, I'd already ridden all of NCN78 north of here and knew exactly what was to come. McDonalds was my chosen spot to relax. Fast food, cold drinks and a place to keep an eye on my bike. I didn't even mind that it was so busy.

There's an easy canal and road section to the wee hamlet of Clunes but then it's a forest track for around 10km. This was the main reason I'd decided to fit the more robust tyres. They handled it OK.... ish. It was certainly a rough ride and I could have perhaps reduced tyre pressures a little but I sought out the smoothest sections and tried to unweight the bike as much as possible on the roughest. A bit more easy path, the lovely new cycletrack along Loch Oich and then more canal path took me quickly to Fort Augustus. This was its normal bustling self with lots of folk watching the canal locks in operation of just sitting out enjoying the evening sun. For me, it was a chance for another wee break - my third of the trip. The Londis store furnished me with another coffee and more juice for my bottles. I was caught between the desire to finish the trip as quickly as possible but also trying to steal myself for the final big challenge - The Struie.

This is a bit of a monster climb out of Fort Augustus. I've done it before, with fresher legs and on a much lighter bike, and knew it would be really hard this time. I wasn't wrong. Twice I just gave in and walked the bike for a while. Once I reached Loch Tarff, I knew the end of the climb was in sight and just ground it out to the top

All downhill from here. Sort of.
With that out of the way, I started to feel quite strong again and used the downhills to maximum advantage (actually creating a few Strava PBs on the way - a surprise given I'd now cycled 200 miles). As I sped along the shores of Loch Ness, the sun started to set again and I reflected that I'd seen the whole day go by from the saddle of a bike. Surprisingly, I didn't feel tired - at least not in the sleepy sense. I knew that some fatigue was there though as tight maneuvers past small bridges etc weren't quite as  sharp as they should have been.

NCN78 takes a final small detour when entering Inverness but gives a really fast descent, on a shared-use pavement, down to a roundabout. I was glad it was now quite late again as there were no pedestrians likely to be mown down in my haste. Past work and then the wee climb to "not quite" the castle and then it's the "End of NCN78" sign. It all seemed a bit of a low key ending.

It was much darker than it looks here!

The Numbers

Total distance was 372.5km (231.5 miles)
Total climb was 4,237m (13,900ft)
Total time was 22:39:14. Riding time was 19:24:42
Average speed was 16.5kph (10.25mph)

The Route

NCN78 makes a fabulous challenge or an enjoyable tour. I met a couple on the Camasnagaul ferry who'd taken two weeks to get there from Campbeltown, stopping at various places en route. The roads in Kintyre are undoubtedly hilly, though they'd be more flowing in daylight. The Loch Awe section suffers from being enclosed by trees for too much of the time. The new cycle tracks through the Appin section are absolutely splendid - a real credit to everyone involved and should be used as an example by councils everywhere. The section at Onich is, by comparison, a poor compromise. What's most needed though is a better surface on the 10km of forest track at Clunes. This just jars (literally) when the rest of the route is so well executed. 

The logistics of getting to/from Campbeltown will undoubtedly hinder greater use of this as an "end-to-end" route, which will be a real shame. Perhaps a marketing exercise as has been carried out for the North Coast 500 would start the ball rolling on increasing demand and it would be nice to see the public transport operators helping out by increasing ferry sailings and bike spaces on trains. While we don't yet have all of that, it shouldn't put anyone off.   


Despite feeling great at the end in Inverness with only some mild muscle tiredness to contend with, three hours later I was in absolute agony. My left Lateral Collateral Ligament was sending out massive waves of pain from my knee and no position could be found to alleviate it. For a while, I was seriously considering dialling 999 and demanding some serious painkillers. I eventually fell asleep by keeping it completely stationary and letting the previous 40 hours catch up with me. A day later, rested, with more painkillers and the application of ice, I was able to function again. Two days later it's like it never happened....

Saturday, 6 August 2016

A Northern Cairngorms Loop

Between walking and cycling I've managed to find most ways of crossing the main body of the Cairngorms but a couple of options had somehow eluded me. In an attempt to correct this oversight and as way of familiarisation of a possible future ride I chose to combine them for a short overnight bivvy. 

The first part of the ride was definitely familiar to me. The route from Aviemore to Tomintoul passes through lots of interesting spots. Safe to say this was by far the wettest I'd ever ridden it though. Lots of puddles and muddy spots didn't promise well for the later river crossings.

A wet warning of what was to come - bottom bracket depth.
The sign has to be a joke - there's no way round this.

Some of my favourite singletrack after Forest Lodge
Looking across to Strath Nethy

The Faeshallach was flowing but I made it across through careful use of boulders as stepping stones. I doubted the next crossing would be as straightforward.

The Faeshallach - I made it across here with dry feet.

Approaching the Big Egg (gaelic Eag Mhor - the big notch)

It's a cracking place for a ride

Some care required. Having an accident here would be no yolk.

Purple poo - a sure sign it's Blaeberry season

On reaching the Dorback Burn my suspicions were confirmed. Not only has the burn changed its profile through the gravel banks, it was flowing fast and deep. Knowing that the Burn of Brown was still to come, I didn't bother faffing and just waded straight across. That was the boots properly wet now, and no chance of drying out. 

The Dorback Burn. A change of direction and deeper than I've seen it.

Looking back at the Big Egg. I was going for another pun but I reckoned an oeuf is an oeuf.

The Burn of Brown was crossed three times before I made it to the path on the south bank. This wanders in and out of the trees a lot and, having wet feet already, I'm not sure it was worth the effort compared with just making more crossings. 

I wonder how many folk this has put on the right path?

The first of three crossings of the Burn of Brown
 On reaching Tomintoul, I popped into the Post Office for some food and drink, kicked back, took off my boots, wrung out my socks and let my feet air in the sun for a while. Of course, I'd no sooner done this when a big cloud came over and killed the warm sunlight.

Going my way?
Leaving Tomintoul I was finally on some unfamiliar territory. I have to say, the middle reaches of the River Avon are really very pleasant and there was a definite feeling of heading upwards and into more remote territory as I went. The road and track certainly made for good progress, though when this ended to become rocky singletrack it was even better fun. 

Just below Queen Victorias viewpoint.I bet she didn't cycle here!

Disguising itself as a fallen tree, the carnivorous Highland Bearcow awaits an unsuspecting salmon.
Reaching Loch Builg, the track became a bit more boggy and less well defined, necessitating a little walking but with already wet feet I wasn't making much effort to avoid puddles. 

Unexpected beach on Loch Builg
The climb up Culardoch went a little quicker than I'd expected. Perhaps it was the threat of the impending rainclouds approaching from Ben Avon. They finally broke as I was at the summit so I stopped being so stoical and donned a jacket for the first time of the day. 

The descent was on loose and steep estate road. I was always tempted to go faster but I kept repeating my two wilderness riding questions; where are you? and who are you with?  The answers kept coming back the arse end of the Cairngorms and I only have my Spot tracker for company. 

The descent off Culardoch just as the rains came.

Reaching the woods near Invercauld was a welcome change of scenery. There's a definite "Braemar-ish" feel around here that somehow differentiates it from the Rothiemurchus side of the massif.

Quite a welcome sight after the bleaker high terrain

Looking towards Braemar and Glen Dee (and a bed for the night)

Been there, done that.
Braemar was an opportunity to grab some food (from the chippy) and take stock. I'd not been watching the clock, occasionally trying to judge time of day by the amount of daylight. I was happy with it being not quite 7 o'clock and headed out towards Linn of Dee to ponder a bivvy spot. 

Getting nearer

Still too early - crack on

Demanding and potentially dangerous - just like being at home then!

Nice spot - but not for me

Linn of Dee came and went - far too early. White Bridge then? Too early and some campers already there. 

The Geldie would have to do. I got there just as the rain started and even looked at the old building as a potential stopping point but the midge were numerous and good ground hard to come by. I decided to head upstream. I knew that wet ground was sure to follow and hoped it wouldn't slow my progress too much but it became a bit of a boggy trudge, interspersed with the occasional bit of pedalling. I was now in that spiral where it was getting dark and I was getting increasingly slow, leading to it being even more dark as I headed towards the watershed. What's more, the whole area was sodden meaning I could see no decent bivvy spot. As it got darker, I opted to continue on to the waterfall of the Eidart, hoping that the change of terrain would give me more options. It turned out not to be so and I (carefully) crossed the bridge with the water roaring beneath me. By now, all I could make out of the track was the line of tyre-marked puddles. Another look at the map confirmed that I'd now be heading down to the riverside and closer inspection showed a building. I expected this to be a ruin but I figured that no one would build something the middle of a bog so this was likely to be my best hope for dry ground. 

I was, thankfully, correct. An old stable, walls mostly gone and with holes in the roof it did, however present my best bet for stopover point. I had, briefly, considered pressing on to Ruigh-aitchechan bothy in Glen Feshie but I knew this was likely to take quite a while, would involve crossing the landslips in the dark and might not make me too popular with anyone else already asleep there. My tarp made a useful temporary wall patch, cutting off the breeze coming from the west and though the ground was a bit rocky, the air mattress took it in its stride. A quick change out of wet gear and I was in the sleeping bag in double quick time. I had a stove with me but that seemed like too much faff and, having managed to forget a hipflask, I made do with some water and nuts for supper.

Not exactly 5 Star
It wasn't a bad night, the midge netting on the bivvy bag kept the menace at bay and I fell asleep very quickly. The 5:30 alarm call wasn't necessary though. I'd woken a couple of times and watched as the night broke into reluctant daylight. By 4:45 I adjudged it to be bright enough to consider making a move. A quick breakfast and hasty packing session before donning my wet clothes (brrr!) and I was on the move. Thankfully, I was able to pedal most of the way out, though I doubt I'd have made as good progress in the dark. 

A faint glow of sunrise

The upper reaches of the Feshie in this area have a definite non-Cairngorms feel about them. In fact, it reminded me of my trip into Kintail earlier this year. I was also coming back onto familiar ground and soon reached the area where two significant landslips make manhandling a bike a bit precarious.

A bit tricky this one - not to be attempted in the dark!

The purples of late summer developing nicely

Some astonishing light in the morning sun.
 I'd also somehow miscalculated how far these were past Ruigh-aitchechan and kept expecting it to appear well before it eventually did.  

The last bit of bike-pushing came when crossing the Allt Garblach. This minor river crossing was transformed into a deep canyon last year when we experienced lots of flooding. What was a nice stepped descent, small bridge and stepped climb out now necessitates a lot of manhandling on steep, loose ground. 

Allt Garbhlach devastation - check out the steps on the far side

A big drop from this side too

Easy to miss this in the dark - and suffer a serious fall

Back onto tarmac for the final stretch home

After that, it was a quick spin to the road (watching out for a further landslip area) and back towards Aviemore. Not yet 8:00, I arranged a suitable postscript in the form of breakfast at the Mountain Cafe with my wife. With my own breakfast gone, I was forced to finish hers - and a couple of rounds of toast. Safe to say, I did so guilt-free!! 

Fear not - there's bacon in there too!
136km, 2,061m of ascent
GPX File here (Right Click, Save As...)

Friday, 8 July 2016


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.....