Thursday, 23 October 2014

Shand Shindig ... a night out in Scotland

Shand Cycles, a frame building company based in Edinburgh, hosted a final goodbye to summer at their Shindig event, a social gathering of bike packers with a social route and very sociable intentions.  Strathblane local Bryan Dawson crafted the route offering and we were promised great trails and stunning scenery.

The weather did not disappoint and the riding was indeed great.  

New people were met and a good time was had by all.

Our ride in images.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Dorset Gravel Dash 100 ... "this is not a race"

I don’t remember how I discovered gravel racing, its not as though the UK has a huge scene… until last weekend it had no scene at all.

I guess probably an article featured in XXC Magazine or one of the ultra racing forums probably brought gravel to my attention.   Some people cannot imagine anything worse than ‘grinding’ long sections of hilly gravel road but to me it struck a chord and I wanted in.

My first event was in 2012, the Dirty Kanza 200 in Kansas, 200 miles starting and ending in Emporia, Kansas.  I met amazing people and got a taste for the gravel scene.  The following year I went to Iowa to take on the well-respected Trans Iowa, famed for its long distance at 325 miles and often brutal riding conditions.  Trans Iowa tested me but again I was inspired by the people I rode with and the whole feel of the event.

This year other events conspired to keep me from the US and another gravel race but luckily in 2014 gravel came to the UK, the Dorset Gravel Dash 100.
The event was hardly local, in fact I have driven to events in Europe that took less time to get there but when some one has not only spent time but also stuck their neck out to put on something new as a rider you need to make the effort to attend and show support.

Charlie the Bikemonger … the man, the organiser, the legend … those who favour one gear over many will of heard of if not met Charlie.  Running a bike shop out of Swanage Charlie has always pioneered so it was no surprise he was the man to step up and launch UK gravel.
Swanage is nestled down on the south coast, the town sits on the sea surrounded by steep hillsides.  Swanage was the start and end of the Dorset Gravel Dash 100, specifically the Red Lion pub.  Now in my mind all great events should start and finish at a pub !

The ‘race’

Firstly the ‘Dash’ was not a race ... lets make that clear though it was however ridden as quickly as possible by all that rode it.  91 ish miles in distance (100 if you count wheel spins too) the course covered a lot of bridleway gravel, some road , some trail and the occasional bike swallowing puddle !
The start was a fairly comfortable 8am and being able to start and finish an event not only the same day but with time for an afternoon pub lunch was novel.
I don’t think I have ever seen such a diverse selection of bikes line up for an event before … thin, fat, geared, singlespeed and even fixed!  Most boxes had been ticked.

Post ‘race’ the bacon sandwiches and coffees were handed around, this was not to be a day fuelled by energy bars and gels.

8am and we are on the high street riding out of town …  a leisurely start was soon rudely interrupted by an attacking George Budd, UK Salsa rider, off the front racing away (a stewards enquiry was held regarding possible racing during the dash.  Not wanting to miss the party at the front I had to ride over to George, this was made easier as he realised his GPS (the whole course had to be navigated by GPS) made a better paper weight than a means of navigation.

George’s fait to ride with me for the entire route (almost) was sealed as though he had the physical advantage I was clearly the more technically endowed with a fully functioning GPS.
The course was superb, the views alone made the effort worthwhile as we rode headlands that allowed us to survey the Jurassic coastline this region is famed for … steep cliffs and secluded bays were dotted along the coastline.

In the first few hours there was a loose group of around 4 or 5 guys who would come together every now and then though George being a pure bred racer was always keen to establish a comfortable gap and in the process make sure I was working hard, he even gave me a nose bleed!

The first and only feed station came just after mid way and after bottle refills and a slice of bacon cake (a first for me) we were quickly back on the bikes just as the 3rd place rider, Jack Peterson, rolled in.

The varied course was an interesting comparison of which was the better machine for the day as George had gone 650b mountain bike against my Halo Twin Rail tyred Salsa gravel bike ... the Warbird.  On the gravel and flat road sections the Warbird eased my effort and allowed me to ride at least alongside if not occasionally in front of George.  When the mud got deep or we found ourselves bashing alongside or up a farmers field the 650b’s fatter tyres and lower gearing was envied.
A few times the twin rail semi slick tyres gave me a quick wake up call as the bike tried to escape my grasp.

With a gap established over 3rd place we had just to maintain a consistent effort till the finish, the weather was fantastic and the company excellent, it was a great day to be riding a bike.
The final foray in to Swanage and the finish line involved a climb from Studland up on to the cliff tops then a traverse along the headland before the final descent to the finish along the sea front and back to the Red Lion pub.

As we started the climb up to the cliff top the density of walkers increased on the trail and as George got out the saddle and comfortably eased away it was soon apparent that the natural born racer was going to for home, I had to sit and suffer with no reply to offer. 

As I arrived at the top of the last agonising grassy climb along the headland a group of local riders had gathered to cheer the riders on and indicated the slopes of the final descent to the finish.
A spin along the sea front and short road section saw me back at the pub and as soon as I had finished in true Charlie style I had been furnished with a pint.

George in the last few miles of climbing had put nearly 10 minutes in to me, made more amazing by the fact that the previous day he had won a 6 hour solo race on a fat bike!
All that was now left was to enjoy the weather and cheer those finishing after us whilst enjoying the company of local riders and those that had made the trip for the previous days singlespeed ride out.
My prize for second place was a food and drink voucher for the local bistro, the tastiest prize I have ever won and enjoyed the same evening.

A huge thank you goes out to Charlie and everyone that helped him put on this amazing event.  The first of its kind and hopefully the first edition of many more.

Thanks to George for you company during the day and a fine ride to win the ‘Saw of Glory’.

Thanks to Salsa Cycles as always for the bike underneath me, the mighty Warbird now a veteran of many awesome events.

Thanks to Halo for my wheels and importantly tyres, the Halo Twin Rail which again proved itself as a master of all surfaces, almost.

Thanks to Alpkit for the stem cell feed bag that kept food at hand all day.

Thanks to Jon Macey for the photographs and video.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Holyland Bikepacking Challenge - Part 3, The desert dash to the finish line

Under advisement we had spent the night in Arad as we had been told the descent to the Dead Sea was worth riding and appreciating in daylight.  We weren’t disappointed.

A gravel road descent into a wadi then led us to a seriously technical and steep descent.  I chose caution whereas Ricky and James went fully committed.  

As technical descents go this one was long … really long … a real physical effort to get to the bottom.  When we did finally reach the bottom we were at the lowest point of the race … the Dead Sea.

Today and this whole last few hundred km's to the finish in general felt a whole lot more serious than any other section had prior to this.  We had been warned so many times about taking care when we reached the desert, 40 degree heat and physical activity aren't very comfortable bed fellows.
Breakfast as most mornings was a gas station though this one was treat with much more attention as it would be the last point of food and water we would see on course for 120km !  With this in mind we weren't in a hurry to leave.
The usual suspects gathered as we were joined by Tom, Ingo and Shay. Tom lightened the intense mood with the tale of his previous nights bivi spot.  In short Tom had chosen a pristine grass lawn away from our sandy playground bivi though at 3am in the morning discovered why the lawn was pristine … sprinklers.  A rude awakening by all accounts and a forced early morning ‘house’ move for Tom.
After we had satisfied our hunger we then turned to the important task of carrying water.  Straps, folding bottles and bladders were all pulled out, filled and strapped to the bikes in a variety of manners.  We all wanted to carry as much as possible as I managed to secure 8 litres of water across varying parts of my bike and person.

Rolling out of the gas station felt like we were leaving behind a little safety and really getting in to this race properly.

There are moments in cycling where all of a sudden an immense realization of just how amazing what you are doing hits you … apprehension was suddenly replaced by joy as we rolled through a steep sided narrow wadi.  The scenery was alike something from Star Wars .. all of a sudden we were on Tatooine in search of Old Ben Kenobi.

Tom stopped at a bus shelter deciding to take some time out and approach this section on his own.  Ingo and Shay would stop for food shortly after.

When you are riding south in sight of the shoreline of the Dead Sea and you know the route heads West you know there is only one way that the trail is going to take you … up.

Though before we could get on the climb to gain some height there was the small matter of a negotiating the sinuous network of wadi’s .  Wadi, and I guess this should have been explained earlier, is an Arabic term for valley.  It also refers to ephemeral rivers, those that only contain water in times of heavy rainfall.

The clue to the nature of most of the trails we were riding is in the term ‘river’.  We were basically on the whole riding along the dry river beds and as such the trail was a mix of gravel and sand.  Sometimes it rode well and sometimes not so much.

Navigation was challenging even with GPS as we traversed in and out of these small valleys often having to complete a bonus climb to get a feel for where the trail actually went.  On one occasion the trail navigated me straight into a patch of extremely soft clay near losing myself and my bike in the process.

The persistent Wadi traversing seemed to go on forever and by the time our wheels touched tarmac and we could see the large climb ahead of us it was already approaching early evening.
Though we were initially relieved to have reached what we deemed a midpoint of the day we were amazed at the time it had taken to get here … then the climbing started !

The tarmac switchbacks eased the gradient but it was persistent and every crest ever revealed more height to be gained.

Daylight had run out and not close behind was our water supply.

A scroll out on the GPS indicated that we were far from our goal of the next source of food and water and we were now each down to our last litre of water.  At this point I started to worry… genuinely worry … coming from the UK a lack of water is not something we ever have to deal with too much maybe.

We stopped at a road junction and made the decision for the first time to really ride off course and use a marked point of interest 4km from the route where it was indicated water could be found.
The pint of interest in question was a large processing plant of some description and its lights lit up the surrounding desert.  We lived in hope we would find someone receptive and able to help us.  We were certainly not disappointed.

The obvious point of call was the security office, again Israeli hospitality was unmatched as not only were we pointed in the direction of the water taps in the car park but the guys also raided the office fridge and gave us a bag of cold apples, cottage cheese, bread and assorted foods.
We sat down in a circle in the middle of the lit car park and shared our hosts offerings, no sooner had we sat though than the security guys had gone back to the fridge for a second look and brought us more to share.
A chilled apple had never tasted so good.
We rolled away from the processing plant with full water bottles and full stomachs and a road climb later we slept directly on the trail tired from the physical efforts and worrying about water the day had dealt us.

The sound of others conversing and the occasional flash of a headtorch woke me from my sleep … 4:30am and we had been caught up by Tom, Ingo and Shay who we had left the day prior.  Time to get moving.
It was soon light as we moved along the trail.  We had packed quickly and started the catch up to the others.  We were riding through a huge crater its rim we had slept on the night before.  The views were spectacular.

It was over another 2 hours of riding before the previous days planned destination even came in to sight.  When we finally reached the small town we found an oasis ... a top notch coffee shop, a supermarket and a bike shop .. heaven.

After the previous days toils there was no rush to leave these luxuries so a few coffees were ordered and multiple trips to the supermarket were made.

The day started out as many others before it had.  We would ride out as a group of 6 but quickly diminish to the 3 of us.  The trail was fast moving to start as we descended in to the valley and rode gravel roads quickly ticking off the kilometres.  This day was the hottest yet and the lower down the valley we went toward the Dead Sea the hotter it got.
Learning from the previous day we did not miss an opportunity to refuel and aside from another chance meeting with an HLC fan and a raft of punctures this was maybe the least eventful day we had had.  Though what it lacked in interesting content it made up for in duration.

We were now riding to finish as we figured this could be our second last day on the HLC trail so we pushed all day and through until early the next morning till we reached Paran at 2:00am… a 22 hour day.

Paran had been ‘shut’ when we reached it.  A gated town the gates were firmly shut so we had slept just outside and keen not to waste any time we made do with 3 hours sleep and were up at 5:00am.  I didn’t even bother to get my sleeping bag out and had just climbed straight in to my bivi bag.

This was it, our last day, today no matter what we would ride until we had finished.

Typical of the HLC route even the flat gravel roads we began on wouldn’t give us an easy km as we suffered in to a head wind, the event was not giving us up easily.
The pace between the 3 of us was more variable than it had been all week and while Ricky and James decided to stop for food I decided to roll further up the trail until it met the road crossing prior to another venture West.

The road crossing turned out to be a tunnel so opportunity to escape the intense heat was taken and I lay out for a few minutes to cool off.

Leaving the tunnel you were immediately immersed in baking heat and as the trail wound across flat ground prior to the climb there was no shade to be had.  

The ascent was a relatively short but very steep affair and required a push rather than a ride.  Unlike the previous days though what I thought was the top was actually the top and with minimal effort after the climb I found the water stop indicated on the GPS.

With a sink complete with running cold water and some benches under shade to lay out on I decided this was the perfect spot to wait for Ricky and James to catch up.  When they arrived I was a little disappointed to learn they had found a great breakfast just off route at a store though I was happy enough with the food offering we found a few km further down the trail.

The next section of riding was mostly singletrack winding up, down and on top a large plateau on the mountainside above the Dead Sea.  We were under no illusion about how long this section would take to ride before we would finally descend back to the valley floor below and then head almost directly to Eilat and the finish.  We paced ourselves in the heat and when we could took some shade.

The riding, though on the hot side, was outstanding.  For the most part the trail was singletrack and had great flow.  Every now and then the odd sand dune or rocky river bed would be thrown in to check we were still suffering but as the daylight faded we were still enjoying the bike and the scenery.

The final section before we reached the valley floor was rode in the dark and on the whole was downhill.  The last water stop was utilized 40km from the finish then the mental high of nearing completion was starting to take hold.

A last final flourish on man made trail spat us back to the main road.  As we crossed the road expecting the cruel nature of the event to deal us some rocky riverbed with associated headwinds to ride on we were very surprised with what we found … tarmac !
Not only a tarmac surface but the mornings southerly headwind had switched to a northerly tailwind … possibly a parting gift from the elements that had tested us for the previous 8 days.  For the first time since we had started the km’s felt easy.

The lights and soon the Vegas style hotels of Eilat were in sight, a strange departure from the landscape we had been familiar with though we were not complaining.

The nature of self-supported racing means that though there is a mass start the finishing of riders is spread out over a matter of days not hours so we rolled in just the 3 of us.

The finish is basically the end point on your GPS file so when we reached Eilat and the finish there were no banners or cheering supporters just the Friday night revellers partying on the beach, no one aware of what we had just achieved or even endured.  We stopped and enjoyed a silent satisfaction of accomplishment.
In true British style we congratulated each other with a firm handshake and duly collapsed on to the beach, it was 2am Saturday morning and just under 9 days since we had begun.  The early morning then involved picking up some food from a store, eating sat at a quiet bench a few km down the beachfront then sleeping on a not so crowded beach.

The HLC had been ridden and completed.  My first self supported event finished.

The days after the event were spent mainly socializing and eating.  I continued to meet so many amazing people and continued my positive Israel experience until the moment the plane took off destined for the UK.

Huge thanks to so many people that helped me out especially Zohar Kantor and his whole family who welcomed me to their country and home and made sure I was looked after every second outside the time spent on the HLC route.

Thanks to Gordon Active for their help with my travel logistics and making getting to Israel as painless as possible though I wasn’t so keen to leave.

The bike and all equipment worked flawlessly and right now I wouldn’t change much about my set up so thank you Salsa, Ison and Halo for keeping top class wheels underneath me.
Thank you Alpkit for making sure I always had a comfortable bed and some means of carrying it.

The HLC right now is the toughest challenge I have ever undertaken and I have tried plenty of tough things.  

The event will without doubt be back for 2015 and will be a great success.

I came to Israel open minded with no pre conceptions about the country or people.  I made sure media or other opinion did not cloud my outlook.  I left with new friends and a genuine love for a country and its culture.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Holyland Bikepacking Challenge - Part 2, Sun, sea, sand and Jerusalem

Waking in our dusty clearing we were soon rolling and the trail we couldn’t find the night before was just as elusive in the daylight.  We resorted to bush whacking through the vegetation until we popped out on to a very distinct trail.

Today’s goal was Tel Aviv and beyond.  The promise of a roll along the coast and plenty of food options on offer spurred us on.

The initial long descent then turned in to long straight flat sections on agriculture plantations, with the weight of my pack annoying me these long sections were really testing as I developed a dull back pain from lack of movement in the saddle.  Speed was high but interest was low… then there was sea.

When you are bikepacking the lack of hygiene is never really an issue as there is little to draw comparison against.  The people you are riding with are just as dirty and grubby as you but when we reached Tel Aviv, a popular beach resort, it was obvious even on just day 4 we needed a shower.  Luckily the beach facilities were at hand and we maximised with a shower and rinse of clothes much to the holiday makers amazement.

The trails into Tel Aviv had been deep sand and frustrating to ride so post shower and heading in to the city it was a pleasure to roll on a tarmac bike path though it was crowded so you had to ride with your wits about you.  Bringing a fully loaded mountain bike to a stop is not a quick affair.
The evenings meal as had become the norm was a gas station just off the route, crisps and chocolate milk had become my staple diet.

We pressed on for another hour or so until at around 10pm we came to a picnic ground, mown grass, tables and hard standing were all on offer so not knowing what we might find later down the trail we opted for an early finish and to go for a slightly earlier start.

The next day started with more singletrack.  This is maybe a good time to illustrate just how good the singletrack riding is in Israel and the quantity that the route takes in is large, every day was filled with singletrack flow to lift the spirits.

Again as on day 2 we came across a mountain bike marathon event though this time we were riding through the event car park, as we did so we were greeted by a rider that had been following our progress on  We chatted about our progress and he let us know that Steve Heading, a very accomplished British rider, who had started so strongly with the leaders had become ill and had had to leave the route and make his own way to Eilat.

No sooner had our guest rider joined us another rider decided he would like to follow the route with us for a short while.  This was a chance meeting and it was nice for a short while to add another dynamic to the group and discuss not only the event but allsorts of topics as we compared the UK and Israeli outlook on many subjects.

Our hope for a breakfast at a local gas station was dashed as it was closed but our new guest rider had no problem approaching a couple outside their home for some help.  Soon water bottles were filled and pockets were stuffed with dates.
This brief restock was enough to see us further down the trail to a gas station that was open and as we knew this was the start to what we thought would be the long climb to Jerusalem (we now know it was the start of an epic climb) we stopped again to address our ever increasing calorie debt.

As we began the climb we had all agreed to climb at our own pace so we drifted apart on the fire road, Ricky taking the lead as I settled in to a comfortable pace with James occupying the middle ground.   The climb was not all up and was punctuated with some fast rocky downs.

As myself and James started a section of downhill there was the now unfortunately all too familiar site of Ricky fixing a flat, an aggressive riding style coupled with under performing tyres had dealt Ricky some serious flat changing practice on this trip.
Knowing they would catch me up I continued to roll along the trail on my own enjoying the tree lined track providing shade from the days heat. 

As I flowed more singletrack I came to a small campground and met with more local riders who were following the HLC and showed me a natural pool of cold spring water to wait by till James and Ricky caught up.

The awareness in the cycling community for this event was astonishing … many times we would ride past people who would shout ‘HLC’ at us !

The climb to Jerusalem was long, so much longer than we had first thought and every time we thought we were there scrolling out on the GPS screen indicated another false summit.  By the time we reached the outskirts of the city it was already early afternoon and we pulled up at the first store we found.
At this point some emergency shoe modifications were needed as I could feel the cleats through the soles of my shoes.  The addition of some padded tape to the inside of the shoes offered a cushioned layer offering much welcome respite to my feet.  Riding this kind of distance is all about body maintenance and you neglect any niggle it will be sure to bite you at some point and endanger your ability to finish.

The old city of Jerusalem offered up what I consider to be the most comical route choice of the whole trip.  The GPS line pointed us down a narrow enclosed market street bustling with traders and people either side and barely only a handlebar and a half wide a corridor to negotiate.  All was going well until a group of elderly ladies decided to stop directly in front of us to make a purchase from a shop.  Unfortunately that left us no room to manoeuvre around and as the ladies were clearly immersed in their purchase they were oblivious to the traffic bottleneck we had caused.  People couldn’t pass in either direction as we were the subject of much annoyance by people trying to go about their day to day business.  Eventually after 5 minutes the ladies moved and the huge backlog of traffic could then flow again.  We made out exit from this narrow confine as quickly as possible.

Again the initial exit from Jerusalem as in Tel Aviv was a busy cycle path but this led to a huge gravel descent.  Unfortunately the descent was proceeded by a huge gravel climb … well we expected nothing else.

After every night so far sleeping out we decided to try and locate some indoor accommodation with hopefully a shower.  We had been informed on the route that other riders were using the Bikepacking Israel facebook group to locate accommodation so a message back home to Grace set her looking for a trail angel via social media.  It didn’t take long to find a spot at someone’s home in a Kibbutz and with the thought of a bed we rode the last 20km at a brisk pace.

That night we were guests in a stranger’s house but treat like old friends.  Food was forced upon us though we tried to be polite and not impose too much.  Israel at every turn was offering us up stellar examples of the countries hospitality and welcoming attitude toward visitors.

It was no surprise when we left the next day that the trail quickly turned in to more beautiful singletrack.  6:30am, the sun was shining and so early in the day we were already enjoying life at its best … then we rode past grazing camels … what’s not to love!

We had given little consideration to our standing in the event as a whole, we had no feel for where anyone was in front or behind us and in fairness our only concern was covering kilometre’s and getting to the finish.  Even so it was still exciting to see a rider in the distance and more so as we could make out the outline of a bike sporting full bikepacking regalia.

We had caught up with Ilan Rubenstein, a man that at the pre race dinner had promised us overnight accommodation in the aquarium in Eilat  where he worked… in the actual subsea aquarium!
We were pleased to see Ilan though his mood was anything but jovial having endured little sleep the night before.  The day previous Passover had ended and Ilan had been caught up in the noise of celebration.  Still with little sleep Ilan was happy to see us and share some tales from the trail of his HLC experience so far and also offer up some advice on a possible final destination for the days riding, Arad, the start of the desert section.

An over enthusiastic Ricky had shot up the trail down a wrong turn and while we waited Ilan made his own way to a gas station breakfast while we waited for Ricky.  When Ricky arrived he was not alone and had been joined by a fast moving Tom Willard, another British rider.  We hadn’t seen Tom since the first day and he had apparently been gradually gaining ground on us for the past few days having spent the previous night within a few hundred metre’s of our hosts house.

So after spending days just the three of us we were now in the proximity of another few riders … when we reached the gas station that number grew by 2 more as we caught Ingo and Shay.
We didn’t know it at this point but with the exception of Ilan, who would leave the event once he had completed his own journey, these riders would never be far from us till the end of the race.

This day brought a change to riding companions.  I decided to let Ricky and James ride on at a water stop while waiting for Tom to do some ‘self maintenance’ in the form of a shower.  I had exchanged emails with Tom before the event and had ridden briefly with him at the start but this would be the first extended period of time we would spend together.

Tom had mostly ridden this event on his own and this was his first bikepacking event so he was learning as he went.  I loved this guys enthusiam and the fact that he called it a ‘holiday’.  Any negativity I had about any of my current niggles dissolved in his company.

The days riding would see us skirt the Israel/Palestinian current border.  While doing so we witnessed car loads of Palestinian’s being dropped off near a gap in the fence where they would exit to waiting cars on Israeli soil before being sped away.  Another highlight as to just how real and raw this event can be.  This was TV esq images occurring right in front of us.

We rode good pace all day as we progressed up to and on to the long climb and when the climbing was done we could look out across to Arad and the start of the desert.  As we crested the highest point of the day it was if a line had been drawn to indicate a boundary between the previous vegetation rich landscape and the stark contrast of the rock strewn desert ahead of us.  Everything felt a little more serious now.

We rolled across the mostly flat middle ground between mountain and city until we entered the Arad were again we joined Ricky and James who had been forced to stop due to GPS issues.  That night we ate pizza, one of very few hot meals we had had.  The nights bivi spot would see us again meet up with Ingo and Shay as we took refuge in an adventure playground, the sandy floor making a comfortable bed.