The darkness returns….

It’s that time of year again. The darkness has just arrived.

Fortunately it’s that time of year too, and so today at Beics Brenin the darkness came in the form of a new bike – 2013 Stumpjumper Comp Carbon HT in super slinky Testbike colours.

The darkness returns.
The darkness returns.

The last time I rode a bike this stealthy was in 1991. Oddly, that too was a Stumpjumper. Technologically, that bike from 21 years ago couldn’t be more different from this new version. Back then the Stumpy (Team) was a chromoly, fully-rigid, small-wheeled (26″!) all out race bike, decked with the finest Suntour XC Pro jewellery that money could buy, including lightweight canti-brakes, delicate thumbshifters, and grease-port bottom bracket (Back then Suntour were the bollocks). It was the most beautiful colour – black from a distance but deep, deep purple up close, laquered with zesty orange graphics. All in all, it was one sweet-lookin’, fast ridin’ bike. (It was stolen. I never got over it)

Old-skool steel loveliness - the 1991 Stumpjumper Team
Old-skool steel loveliness - the 1991 Stumpjumper Team

The new Stumpy is built from carbon fibre, it’s a 29er, it has front suspension, disc brakes, and press-fit everything. It has some beautiful attention to detail  – the brake hose clamp on the fork and the boltless cable guides I particularly like, as well as the bolt-through axle at the front where it’s needed. Of course there’s no Suntour on there – it’s all Shimano XT (solid), SRAM X-Whatever (a necessary evil for 2×10), and Magura (hydraulic brakes – at least some things don’t change over time).

Neat little touches and dependable kit.
Neat little touches and dependable kit.

Despite the technological differences though, I think the two bikes are almost identical in a spiritual way. They’re both flat-out race bikes using the best available technology, with everything aimed at forward momentum; there’s not an extraneous item on either of them. Oh, and of course, in their own eras they’re the stealthiest looking things on the trail! I wonder of course whether there’ll be any of these original carbon Stumpys running in 21 years.

Usually when I ride in an event I try to finish somewhere near the front. I don’t always succeed, but I’m not often very close to the back of the pack. However, this Sunday I had the pleasure of riding the sweep on the second half of the Coed y Brenin Enduro, and that meant being dead last, picking up the signs and tape that marked the course as I went.

The Unsuspecting Masses before the start
The Unsuspecting Masses before the start

To say that it was a hard route this year would be putting it mildly. A week of almost constant rain prior to the event meant that some of the natural trail sections were pretty muddy, especially by the time I made it through behind the other 500 or so riders; Starting from Big Dug, I squished up the deer glade, squirmed down the miners’ track, refuelled at the flapjack-laden feed station, and then glooped through the twisty, wooded section at the end of the course – a total distance of 42km with an average speed of 4.7mph – flying! (not)

The lovely Dyfi ladies dishing out the famous flapjack at the feed station.
The lovely Dyfi ladies dishing out the famous flapjack at the feed station. There wasn't much left by the time I got there!

It must have been somewhat less muddy and much easier if you were riding near the front. Matt Page was the first rider across the line with a time of 3 hours and 21 minutes, and I’m guessing he did a lot less pushing than I did!

One of the nicest aspects of riding at the rear was that I got to spend some time chatting with other riders – something I suppose the racers at the front missed out on. These backmarkers weren’t competing for places, weren’t worried about their times, and yet they were just as deserving of respect as the racing snakes at the front. I rode for over 5 hours (and was knackered) – the riders just ahead of me (doing the full 60km) were still riding after 8 and a half. What amazed me was that they were still laughing and joking despite being physically destroyed.

Amongst the merry band at the tail end was 16-year old Charlie who, every time he was offered a short-cut, opted to carry on with the full route – top marks! Also having fun at the back was Anthony, riding happily along with his phone blaring out some god-awful tunes. He apologised for riding so slowly (forgiven) and also for the music (not forgiven). What impressed me most though was the fact that he was still finding the energy to jump off every lip he saw, even as we descended into the woods near the finish. There was another lad I’d caught up with at 40km who could barely move with cramp – I saw him later about 4km from the finish, still pedalling through the pain. Finally, there was Ian, who’d lost an hour or so when he (and his mate) chose to stop and help another rider who’d crashed and broken his ribs – the pair had lost all momentum and ruined their ride, but were still making the most of their day out in the saddle.

Just when you thought the finish was near....
Just when you thought the finish was near....

I caught the last rider on the course just before the final muddy climb as it was starting to go dark. He was completely shattered and said that the ride had been too much for him – too long, too hard, and too technical. I pointed out the shortest route to the finish line – a forest track descent which would avoid the sadistic final twists across mud-glazed rock. He thanked me and then turned uphill. I didn’t see him again, spending the final half-hour getting caught up Andrex puppy style in route-marking tape, so can only assume he made it across the line.

The Andrex puppy - Coed y Brenin style!
The Andrex puppy - Coed y Brenin style!

Following the ride I headed up to the tent for the after party – a fairly quiet affair as most people were far too knackered to stay up for long. A few partied hard though, and I saw some worse-for-wear faces the next morning (in the mirror!). All in all it was a great event, with a superbly tough and technical course to challenge even the hardiest of riders. It was also really inspiring to see such determination right across the field, and a real pleasure to have a laugh with the guys at the rear end. If it wasn’t for all that tape I’d have to collect again I might even aim to come last next year too.

Stravation – the need to feed on ride data.

Exposure Lights Big Night Out 2012
Exposure Lights Big Night Out 2012

On Saturday evening I rode the Exposure Lights Big Night Out marathon at Ruthin.

I’d been away for the previous two days at a wedding, arrived home late, and had literally thrown my bike kit into the car before heading to work on the morning of the event. So, when I arrived at Ruthin after work, with less than half an hour to go before the event started, things were a little hectic to say the least.

I discovered that I didn’t have any spare batteries for my lights, my camera was still at home, and that the mice in my shed had eaten the bite valve on my Camelbak bladder. I also realised that my backpack was too big given that I wasn’t even carrying a coat, and I’d forgotten to have any tea.

After some rushing around trying to get organised I finally made it to the start line, only to find that I hadn’t even remembered my GPS unit.

Heading out into the dark with no data
Heading out into the dark with no data feed!

Now, to most people, forgetting your GPS unit may seem like a triviality. Like forgetting your spare emergency woolly hat perhaps. But to anyone who has discovered the phenomenon that is Strava, it’s a serious error to make. How can you keep track of the ride distance, figure out comparitive times and rankings on specific trail segments, or know whether you’ve really suffered during the ride?

It seemed I was about to find out: enforced Stravation – the removal of my cycle data feed.

As it turned out, forgetting the GPS was a stroke of unintended genius; my mate Cliff was riding with 15 stitches in his knee after a crash the week before and was planning a relaxed ride, so I forgot all about Strava segments and competing, and opted for a leisurely ride round with him instead.

Taking it easy meant that I could attack all the climbs and wait at the top of each for Cliff to catch up. It meant that I could look around and enjoy the views. At one point I even sat down in the spongy heather atop one of the Clwydian hills (I’m not sure which – it was dark), and watched riders’ lights twinkling across the hillsides, the stars twinkling above, and the orange lights of the towns and villages twinkling below. It was delightful – peaceful and silent except for the occasional yelp from a rider as he discovered another wheel-sucking boggy section on the trail.

What happens when you're suffering from Stravation - pure unadulterated joy!
What happens when you're suffering from Stravation - pure unadulterated joy!

The downhill sections didn’t need to be rushed either. I kicked back and followed riders down some trails, and just let go and flowed fast along others, enjoying the variety of terrain and taking time to focus on technique.

Crossing the line.
Crossing the line.

The route was excellent, a mix of long, drawn out climbs, and steep and grassy or narrow and winding descents. It was marked well with reflective signs, and dotted regularly with marshalls and others, happily shouting encouragement despite being stood out in the dark and cold all evening. A hot cup of tea and a piece of Bara Brith at the feed station in the middle of the ride was a lovely treat, and gave opportunity for some banter with the other riders. Everyone just enjoying being out in the dark. The ride ended with a fast, whooshy tunnel ride, through overhanging trees alongside a dark stream, and Cliff and I crossed the finish line grinning like Cheshire Cats.

All in all, it was a great ride, and no worse for the lack of a GPS. I don’t miss the ride data: I have plenty of fond ride memories instead.

 

The Summer is Dead! Long Live the Summer!

Hurray, hurrah, whoopeee, and root-tee-toot! The summer is over!

Now don’t get me wrong – I love the summer as much as the next man, it’s just that the summers here in mid-Wales are when ‘The Outsiders’ come.

The school holidays bring tourists by the bus load, car load, van load, and train load, all eager to sample the beautiful delights of the splendid Welsh countryside.

Here they come....
Here they come....

Queues of traffic snake slowly along the normally deserted lanes, fumes turning the green air grey and filling the sweet air with noxious exhaust gases, the sounds of engines replacing the bleating of sheep and the gurgling murmur of streams and waterfalls. Crowds of people fill the open spaces, tread the lost paths, and ride the silent trails.

It’s crazy busy at the bike shop; a never ending battle just to keep all the bikes running smoothly. Chainrings lose teeth as inexperienced riders grind through rocks. Hangers bend, and derailleurs are torn apart, as gears are mashed up the steep climbs. Brake levers, gear shifters, spokes and rims all give up the ghost during the innumerable crashes that mark the season and leave marks in the dirt.

Wired on coffee - one of the tell-tale signs of the season.
Wired on coffee - one of the tell-tale signs of the season.

The stock in the shop disappears like its being stolen. I struggle to keep up-to-date with the ordering. No sooner does new stock arrive than it’s gone and I’m back on the computer trying to find replacements. Jerseys, helmets, cables, chain links, cassettes, spokes, pumps, knee-pads, glasses, rucksacks, and bladders, pour into and out of the shop at an inexorable rate. The lads in the workshop become hollow-eyed with tiredness as they wash, fix and service bike after bike; only the constant flow of strong coffee keeps them standing. Half-empty cups pile up on every flat surface.

There’s no time to ride the bike. The commute to work is definitely out of the window. Who knows what time work will finish, how long it will take to escape the daily bike-service schedule, whether the till will balance, and if I’ll ever actually make it home?

All in all it’s just the craziest time of the year;  a non-stop, frantic whirlwind, and it feels like I’m at the epicentre.  By the end of August I’m a nervous wreck, smeared in Green Oil and Dot fluid, battling through piles of discarded cardboard boxes, gibbering randomly about the flaws of X9, staring blankly into the middle distance, and occasionally found lying face-down in the jetwash trying to cool off.

Where'd everybody go?
Where'd everybody go?

But now, finally, here’s September. The kids all head back to school. The families all pile back into their giant campervans and disappear back to the flatlands. The dogs stop barking, the toddlers stop crying, the sounds of engines fade into a distant memory. It all goes very, very quiet.

I finally find time to get back on the bike. I ride along empty lanes and deserted trails. I watch the leaves change colour.  I enjoy the silence and the slow slide into the dark winter. I fall in love with Wales all over again.

And it’s now that I remember: this is what the visitors come for. This ideal of peace and  quiet, solitude and escape in a vast landscape. And it occurs to me that it’s because they come that I’m here. Without them there is no bike shop. There are no trails. I don’t have this crazy job.

I realise that I’m the lucky one: I live here. This is home. I get to enjoy this all year. And I get to share it with those less fortunate.

This is what I and they are here for.
This is what I and they are here for.

So roll on next summer, when I get the pleasure of riding through this beautiful landscape with the visitors for whom this is an occasional treat; when I get to show them the best trails, fix their broken machines, and help them to take a break from their lives outside of this little bit of paradise.

 

 

 

Garneddwen Ten Time Trial

It might have been the thunder. Perhaps it was the torrential rain. Or maybe it was the warnings about the road closure. Whatever though, I didn’t predict a great turnout for the inaugral Garneddwen Ten time trial.

As it happened though, there were twice as many riders as I’d expected. Two. Me and Andy Braund – the MTB Ranger from Coed y Brenin. So, instead of sitting in the rain, marking down the times, I decided to join Andy for a steady ride of the route.

Massive turnout of two for the inaugral Garneddwen Ten
Massive turnout of two for the inaugral Garneddwen Ten

It’s a bad one. You climb straight from the start, 250m height gain over 3 and half miles of winding, narrow country lane. It flattens briefly at the top before plummetting downhill to the turning point at the Cwmllecoediog cattle grid.

Here we stopped to collect a marker stone – proof that you’ve made it to the turn – before turning round and heading back up to the top. If the first climb was tough, the climb back is worse – 250m upwards over one and a half miles with an average gradient of 20%. Nice.

Andy gets a red stone from the red tin at the turning point.
Andy gets a red stone from the red tin at the turning point.

The final descent though is awesome, fast and twisty back to Garneddwen. The particular highlight on this ride though was the road closure; the highways agents had positioned their diggers and dumpers to create an low arch and a tricky chicane to ride through. A nice feature to end the ride.

Road closed!
Road closed!

We made it back to Garneddwen just as it began to get dark, and so headed to the Dwynant Tavern at Ceinws to dry off, warm up, and enjoy the rejuvenating pleasure of a well-earned post-ride pint.

So, given the glorious weather, the impending winter, and the current state of the route, I think we’ll leave the second time-trial till next spring!

Days like these….

You don’t get days like these very often. In fact they rarely happen at all.

It started with an early morning blast around the Minotaur trail at Coed y Brenin – they’ve just opened the 3rd loop, which climbs parallel to the River Gain towards the waterfalls on the Gain and Mawddach rivers. It’s a steady rolling section, and adds another couple of kilometres to the blue-graded trail. Nice.

What made it really special today though was that I got to ride it on the MTB Ranger’s shiny new Specialized Stumpjumper Comp Carbon Hardtail 29er (thanks Andy!). This is one quick, quick bike! In fact it’s so quick I’d go so far as to say it’s cheating. So, I’ve ordered one for next year. Roll on 2013!

Ben and Caitlin hitting the trails
Ben and Caitlin hitting the trails

After the fast-blast on the Minotaur I spent a few hours running a Beginner’s MTB Coaching Session with Caitlin and Ben from Dorset. Even despite the rain we had a great time, and it’s always a joy when I see young people really taking to the sport. Both Ben and Caitlin learned quickly and we managed to squeeze in a couple of more advanced red trail sections before heading back to the Visitor Centre. Awesome!

Wiggo!
Wiggo! Wiggo!

To round off the day I made it home in time to see Bradley Wiggins absolutely nail the Olympic time trial. What a joy. I almost cried when he came over the line 42 seconds clear of Tony Martin. This man has done more for cycling in the UK than he can ever comprehend, and if I don’t hear the words “Arise Sir Wiggins” soon I’ll eat my hat.

 

So, all in all, it’s been one of those days.  Days like these. I want some more.

Rain? Rain? Go away (to a small island in the Mediterranean)!

This year in the beautiful mountains of North Wales the summer has been very….erm…..well….Welsh. The sun has come out on occasion but, like everyone else venturing out around here, it has peered through the incessant downpour, seen the flooding, and decided pretty quickly that it’s time to head back inside and sandbag the doors.

So, misinterpreting the rhyme for my own advantage (rain, rain, go away…) I decided to go away to Menorca for a spot of riding in an area where the sun wasn’t quite as afraid to show its cheery, yellow face.

Menorca - sun, sea, sand and singletrack - the perfect destination.
Menorca - sun, sea, sand and singletrack - the perfect MTBing destination.

Menorca is the smallest of the Balearic islands at just 35 miles long and 9 miles wide, and has but a single mountain (Mount Toro) which reaches a height of 357m. Not exactly, you might think, the best place for MTBing then. First appearances can be deceptive however, and with a guide, a decent hardtail, and a willingness to drop the bike and swim in the ocean at every opportunity, it actually offers some very fine riding.

Cami de Cavalls - the Horse Path which skirts the entire island.
Cami de Cavalls - the Horse Path which skirts the entire island.

The real secret to Menorca’s attractiveness to the mountain biker is the medieval Cami de Cavalls – the Path of Horses. This trail, used over centuries for spotting potential invasion, and re-opened only five years ago, runs around the entire coastline of the island. It links dusty singletrack with minor roads to create a 220km trail which is perfect for mountain bikes.

For my ride on the island I hired a Giant Talon hardtail MTB from MTB Menorca in Es Grau – a bike and kayak hire company located in a tiny fishing village in the heart of the island’s Parc Natural S’Albufera d’es Grau. My guide, Didac Pujon, planned a route through the Parc to the lighthouse at Favaritx, returning along the Cami de Cavalls to Es Grau.

The lighthouse at Favaritx
The lighthouse at Favaritx

The riding was excellent – a nice warm up past the lagoons and old salt flats of the natural park, and then some technical, rocky and sandy singletrack skirting the coastline. Even though the island has only a single mountain, it is covered in smaller undulating hills, and the coastal trail is consistently either climbing or descending. In the summer heat, the Cami de Cavalls proves to be an excellent route for a proper work-out, with enough technical riding to suit even the most hardened MTBer. Regular rest stops at beautiful and deserted beaches were not to be missed and gave ample opportunities to cool down, by taking a plunge into the ever-so-refreshing turquoise-blue sea.

Didac - my guide for the best trails and sweetest beaches.
Didac - my guide for the best trails and sweetest beaches.

All in all, it was a fabulous ride, made more interesting by Didac’s extensive local, environmental and historical knowledge. So, if you too are in need of a break from the excessive dampness of the UK, I can thoroughly recommend a visit to Menorca. I for one will be returning soon to ride the entire Cami de Cavalls!

Cami de Cavalls. Not just for horses.
Cami de Cavalls. Not just for horses!

 

Sometimes you eat the trail….

There’s an old saying in the world of mountain biking: “Sometimes you eat the trail, sometimes the trail eats you.”

It refers of course to the difference in performance and feedback you can experience between rides – some rides are incredible, effortless, fast and furious – the trail is delicious and you just eat it up and spit out the crumbs. At other times the riding can be gruelling, the pace slow, and the effort required to pedal almost too huge to cope with. Everything feels wrong.  Crashing during such a ride is just evil icing on a miserable cake, and the trail licks its lips to wipe it up.

The trails are already marked. Don't leave your own.
The trails are already marked. Don't leave your own.

Well, this week I had the pleasure of riding with my old, old friend Rich, and took him out onto some of Coed y Brenin’s finest waymarked and hidden trails. The sun shone, the riding was good, and we even took the time for a quick dip in one of the blue-green pools that lie hidden along the river Cam. We were both nailing the technical stuff, floating through the rolly stuff and laughing along the way. All in all it was one of those days when the trail got well and truly eaten.

Until the last descent.

Perhaps it was tiredness, perhaps we just did one too many runs, perhaps it was the first drops of rain from the oncoming storm. Maybe it was a little bit of inconsiderate riding by the guy behind, who insisted on buzzing my friend down the last descent. Whatever though, only yards before the finish, the trail decided it had had enough of being eaten and decided to bite back.

Sometimes you eat the trail, sometimes the trail eats you. Sometimes both happen simultaneously.
Sometimes you eat the trail, sometimes the trail eats you. Sometimes both happen simultaneously.

So, two hospitals, two missing teeth, 30-40 stitches, and several hours later, we ended what was nearly a perfect day.

There was no beer. No kicking back and reminiscing about the superb sections we’d ridden. Instead, just a long long drive in wet shorts (from the swimming!) to get Rich’s face put back together.

And so, as for that saying, well I’ve made a slight modification:

Sometimes you eat the trail, sometimes the trail eats you, and then occasionally, very occasionally, you eat each other at the same time!

 

Tropical Heat in the Celtic Rainforest

Last Friday I spent exploring new trails, in and around the Rhinogau (the Rhinog mountain range) to the west of Coed y Brenin, in an attempt to link up some familiar trails for some extended mountain bike guiding.

Y Rhinogau - Y Lethr, Rhinog Fawr, and Rhinog Fach

The Rhinogs are often touted as the last wilderness in Wales – not many people walk here, almost no-one rides here (except on the southern Pont Scethin loop), and you’re more likely to meet one of the Welsh Blacks (the traditional mountain cattle) than you are another human.

Y Rhinogau
Y Rhinogau

There’s some great riding here but there’s plenty of boggy stuff to push through too. Mostly though, it’s old drovers’ trails (used for herding cattle to market), packhorse trails, farm and forestry tracks, and linking sections of narrow sheep trails to follow. The views remain consistently spectacular though, no matter where you are, or how deep you’re in.

As you travel south along the western side of the Rhinogs you enter Cwm Mynach  – the Celtic rainforest.  It lies in a hidden valley and has to be one of the most beautiful forests in Wales, mixing ancient broadleaf woodland with more recent pine forest. Lying hidden amongst the trees is Llyn Mynach – occasionally visible (and extremely tempting) as you speed past along the forest track.

At the southern end of Cwm Mynach I climbed eastwards through Bryn Erw towards Pont Scethin. A small pass near the top opens out to one of the prettiest views around, looking out across the Mawddach estuary towards Fairbourne, and from there it’s all hillside singletrack back to the valley floor.

Singletrack heaven above the Mawddach estuary
Singletrack heaven above the Mawddach estuary

To say it was a warm day would be something of an understatement. I went through 4 litres of fluid in the Camelbak, and continually struggled to keep cool and hydrated. The heat really affects one’s ability to think straight, and by the time I’d neared the planned final loop I was struggling to keep my mind off a nice cool beer. In the end I gave up struggling and gave in to the cravings. Anyway, the George III, with it’s views towards the estuary, has to be the best place in the whole of Britain to end a ride.

If Calsberg made pubs......the George III
If Carlsberg made pubs to end your ride at......the George III

All in all, it was a great day out. I found some sweet new trails, caught the best of the second Welsh summer, and learned that sometimes even the most spectacular journey can be enhanced by its destination.

If you fancy some guided riding around the byways and backlanes of North Wales drop us a line!

Dyfi Enduro 2012

Last weekend saw the 11th annual howies Dyfi Enduro. It’s the fastest selling ticket in the world of mountain biking (sold out in 62 minutes!) and given the epic nature of the ride, the attention to detail, the friendly atmosphere, and the free bar before the finish line, it’s a well deserved accolade.

I just love the climbs.
I just love the climbs and smile all the way up. Honest.

As ever there was plenty of weirdness on the trails: a Welsh Harpist playing on the first climb, cheerleaders at the summit, road works at the start of the Big Dipper, a Star Wars battle raging in the middle of the woods, Johnny Pickles waving from the bottom of Rocky Horror (just kidding Johnny!), and of course a free bar and disco at the bottom of Dicko’s . All these added to what was a truly memorable (if knackering) day out.

The highlights of my ride were blasting down ever-steepening ridge of the World Cup descent, a ride-long to-and-fro battle with a lad on a Trek Slash (I lost), being attacked by Luke Skywalker in the woods, and discovering that I’d spent most of the ride alongside our local Trek rep without recognising him till the final climb.

Another (post-ride) Beer
Another (post-ride) Beer

The biggest surprise was the incredibly refreshing nature of the beer at Dicko’s Bar which gave me renewed vigour for the final climb – it even overcame the memory of local legend Tegid’s words “this climb seems to go on for ever”. Maybe the beer was a lot stronger than I imagined.

So I’d like to say a big thanks to all the ladies and gentlemen who make the howies Dyfi Enduro such an amazing event. You know who you are, and I love you all.

My Dyfi Enduro Ride Log