Winter for a cyclist is traditionally a time for laying the foundations for whatever grand plans have been schemed for the forthcoming year … time has to be invested into miles and miles of riding and from this investment comes the success in whatever challenges we have chosen to undertake.
The only difficulty is that here in the UK winter brings a whole host of challenges to hinder our forward progress testing the motivational skills of even the most hardened riders … whilst our American counterparts seem to effortlessly switch from autumnal rides to great adventures on ski and fatter treads in picturesque snow we get dealt endless days of rain. When temperatures begin to fall sufficiently enough for the rain to cease we are left with trails of endless sticky bike ruining mud and roads coated in black ice ready to pull the tyres from under you.
When an opportunity comes along to break up the winter slog with something a little different … a challenge not a race… a chance for people to gather and enjoy riding no matter what the conditions may be then you take that opportunity … for me this was a bike packing event called ‘El and Back’.
El and Back, based in Wales and named as it involves riding into the Elan Valley, is one of many great events organised by Stuart and Dee Wright who amongst other things are the people behind the UK bikepacking forum Bearbonesbikepacking.co.uk.
The event is beautifully simple and effective … there is no set course… you have a set of checkpoints with only one of those being compulsory (just so happens it’s the furthest from the start) and some suggested spots for overnighting … you plot your own route and ride at your own speed whether that be solo or in a group … there are no prizes and the only rule being if you do choose to sleep then it must be done outside whether in a tent or a bivi.
I rode the event in a group of four .. myself, Steve Wilkinson, Alan Goldsmith and Paul Pomfret … our machinery covered a wide spectrum … 2 fat bikes 1geared and 1 singlespeed .. 2 29ers 1 geared and 1 singlespeed…. I was singlespeeding a Salsa Mukluk all the way.
I must profess that in regards to route planning I was merely a passenger .. too many cooks etc so Alan set the route and that formed an informal starting point with alterations made on the fly as the weekend progressed.
The route we took for the 2 days saw us moving over varied ground .. mostly very wet and muddy ground but varied … feet were wet but the mood was good … rain subsided and was replaced by snow which eventually gave out to a clear sky.
The first day we covered a mere 70km though everyone seemed hard fought as defined trails on the map were non existent on the ground as we hauled our loaded bikes across tussocky fields and up steep hillsides.
The overnight stop was at a high point on a hillside utilising a phone transmitter mast as a windbreak … again the group was divided by chosen shelter with bivi bags, a tarp and a tent being used… our group for the evening had swelled to 5 with the chosen spot already having a tenant ... as chance would have it a friend and also sponsor Nick from Alpkit.com.
The night sky was exceptionally clear and allowed for excellent stargazing … the temperature dropped and sleep was fitful as choices in sleeping gear were in some instances quite wrong. I woke to the sight of Alan defrosting his boots with his gas stove and Steve running up the hillside trying to warm up.
I made a coffee from the comfort of my sleeping bag having left my stove nearby the night prior … then the unwelcome task of getting out into the cold and packing up every strap and buckle on the bikes luggage now frozen.
The second day was a much easier affair … we utilised familiar tracks and roads to the group so the day was near entirely rideable back to the start to find Stuart and Dee treating the finishers to coffee and cake.... 2 days totalling a meagre but thoroughly enjoyable 110km.
The conditions of the weekend were typical of the UK winter ... on your own you would find riding and training in them a laborious task but as a group with an event to complete the whole affair was a lot more pleasurable.
A big thanks to Stuart and Dee for this event .. a great winter motivator … a taste of what the year can bring.
I came away certainly more motivated and also with a desire to sleep out more this year … not to mention with a sizeable bikepacking gear shopping list !!
February brings a polar opposite event in Hit the North .. 2 hour MTB vs CX bike event .. a totally different flavour of riding but no less motivating to get out and train and make the most of every opportunity to ride … no day on a bike is a bad day.
Thanks to Paul Pomfret for capturing the experience with some great images whilst my camera curled up and died in the cold.