Sendero GR 247 – A Ride on the Wild Side

FE8118F9-1D89-48D9-8E7A-1E07B8A09D44Some of the best experiences are the slightly spontaneous and unplanned ones…

I recall a good example… five years ago in mid-June time I got a call from a running friend (Stu Walker) – “do you fancy joining a team in the Three Peaks Yacht Race…?” He explained (simplistically) that it was a sailing race from mid-Wales to Scotland and the two runners had to run up and down the highest peaks in the land and it would be a good adventure – “Alex you best book a couple of days off work…” He had sold it to me! I got domestic clearance sorted and booked the “two” days off.  In the end I needed a week off work and was having to call-up my boss from the middle of the Irish Sea having to blag some more holiday. But it was worth it and what a way to race and climb the peaks – using natures energy and human energy alone – sailing and running day and night …it was raw and pure, a baptism of fire and I loved it and what made it better still was that we were the first boat to finish. I returned to that race for four more goes I liked it so much, I formed new friendship circles with the slightly crazy end of the sailing community and the lovely people who put the race on. So the moral of that story is… sometimes its best just to wing-it and jump-in at the deep-end – it’ll be good! What could possibly go wrong…?

Three Peaks Yacht Race – 2017 ( Being grounded in Whitehaven Harbour was not a ‘race-winning tactic! – 6hrs of waiting for the tide to return and right us)

As the years go by my thirst for racing lessens, but my thirst for adventure and exploration increases. I like to plan what I call –  ‘adventure rides’ and challenges (or ITTs – Independent Time Trials as they are sometimes known in the bike-packing community). Also unless its really important to me I don’t ever like to be too meticulous and over-plan an event, it builds up unnecessary worry, you waste time and often it’s more fun just too wing-it a bit – its all about preparing the ‘right things’, the things that you can control and not trying to plan every detail or eventuality ..however having a ‘Plan B’ can sometimes be useful and pay-off. Nowadays ‘we in the modern world’ have access to information on just about everything – we can fly through a GPX route using google maps, we know exactly what the re-supply points are and  when they open and close, we know where all the bothies and shelters are, you can see the terrain and surface that you a riding over etc. You learn all this and start to lose the adventure, the surprises. Don’t get me wrong I spend many hours poring over maps and planning routes and finding POIs etc…

So to the GR247… What is it? And why?

D5880436-00F7-4DE4-BB2A-DB2F677AC60CThe route (credit: bike-packing.com)

This 220 mile (330 KM) loop through Andalusia’s Sierras De Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas Natural Park offers a nice mix of fantastically rugged riding. 

Well it was the week before Christmas and I had a few days of unused holiday to take. I had planned a mid-Wales trip like last year, I went at a similar time and enjoyed it, despite the horrifically wet weather (which was at times quite laughable and fun, but other times grim and character-building – you know its bad when you seek refuge in a PC and spend twenty minutes under the hand drier!). I do like the mid-Wales bothies and they are quiet at that time and linked by nice trails. So I checked the long range forecast (as you do!) the weekend before and it looked set to be another wet one, with a series of Atlantic lows coming in –  Hmmm…! Then a slight change of good fate was going to come my way… my wife announced that her mum had £100 worth of Easyjet vouchers that needed to be used up. I quickly put my hand-up I could help you out there and thought what better place to head than Spain! – some winter sun, drier trails, tapas…  There had been a few routes in the south that I had been looking at on the superbly informative www.bikepacking.com  website that really appealed, also it meant I could visit a couple of friends who reside out on the Costa Brava during the winter months (what a life!) In no time at all I had it all booked, it was going to be a nice cheap trip to please the Yorkshireman in me and convince the wife I was not going to endure any luxuries! As it happens I’m not such a fan of that posh stuff, give me a wildlife or nature experience any day. I hate opulence and those that waste our resources on things that don’t matter (don’t get me started …).

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The route starts from a small town of Siles 200kms west of Alicante. My first plan was to store the bike box at the airport luggage store and then get a train to Albacete, looking into that, the storage was not cheap and the train not so frequent. It was suggested I try a car rental and was pointed to www.doyouspain and found a nice little rental car for less than 50E –bargain! going out of season is ace!

 

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DE5C0FC8-E54D-4F54-8576-68FAC51EC3BCSegura de la Sierra

The trail is around 330km and it said it was a mix of surfaces and terrains. The pictures I had seen were enticing and I liked the idea of seeing this place in winter. The temps were around 10-12deg, higher up in the mountains it reduced to around 5-6deg, so not warm, but the sun helped. The trailhead is about 2km from Siles, I had 2 days of food with me packed and a couple of small whiskys and one tin of interesting craft beer. Its important to have a few small ‘luxury’ items on these rides, oh… and I also had some mature edam (a great cheese to take as it lasts and does not sweat or go manky!). I took a bivvy bag only, as the route was full of Refugio’s (if the weather was warmer / drier I would have taken the tent – to enjoy the camp experience). The route headed south and snaked its way through forests and small farming communities, the first place of any size was mountain village of Segura de la Sierra – it had a nice name and it also had a very nice castle, that was perched high and could be seen for miles around.

I did not stop long as I was conscious of a long way yet to go and not really enough days. I had got what I had got and had to make the best of it and in the back of my mind I had a feeling a would be back again… My itinerary was further compressed by the weather, a storm was forecast to come through central Spain on Friday, it was Tuesday, so best I press on! As it happened the town was pretty deserted, mid-afternoon, maybe they’re all asleep..? For the night I had my mind on a refugio some 60km away. The next part caught me out… Forest fires had torn through the nearby mountains some months earlier and part of the trail was decimated, sad to see, but worse for me as I had to make progress through it dragging a bike over, under, around – about two hours of really hard toil, all to do about 2km, I was black and filthy and had the look of a miner! Sometimes that the way it goes! Once out I did a map-check and made for a longer detour, off-path / route and on a forest road, to save any further unwanted obstacles. Then it started to rain a little, a bit patchy, no longer bright and in my head it all started to feel a bit ‘hard’. But it was better than being behind a desk at work, so stop feeling sorry for yourself!

80019B84-931B-42B3-BE5F-9022FDA30F63I passed another village and in this one I actually saw a real person, it was 4pm and I had been riding 6hrs and seen not a sole. He was the last person I saw that day (apart from a couple of cars that went by on a short road section). I was getting in tune with things and enjoying the twisty, narrow, limestone tracks with olive groves all over the hills, trees thick with black olives, I tasted one, it was soft and looked ideal, but it was so, so bitter and unpleasant. Night time soon came even with the extra daylight of being that bit further south.  The lights of choice for these winter rides are an Exposure Toro (good for around 24hrs) and a Petzl Nao, also very efficient. Just upping the light when needed on a down section, or to see the route ahead, no need for ‘big light’ all the time! My high point that day (altitude wise!) had been 1600m, starting at 850m and I had just dropped deep into a gorge, down at 500m. A big climb was therefore due and somewhere up it was my refugio… No moon and a very dark night sky, it felt very wild and only a few odd lights could be seen far away, it was deep forest, and steep mountains, with the sound of running water often around. It was not what I had expected of southern Spain, it was really exciting and a relished the night and the sound of the owls and other night creatures, I wondered if there was wolves in these deep, remote mountains…? I hit a small road and my refugio should not be so far away… I rode past the spot where it was marked, but nothing there apart from a nice Fuente (lots of these on the route). Earlier on I was also puzzled as it was not signed, all the others had been, in fact the route was very well way marked. I looked at the map and the next refugio was another 20km, tough terrain and I was thinking that I’m ready for a break – ‘I had programmed myself to reach this point’ and not counted for a problem occurring. In the end something came up not far away; a small road side shelter, the road was small and no cars had been down it as it was well into the evening. ‘It’ll do’ its not pretty, but its flat and dry and not that smelly. I did not take a picture as it was pretty mingy, but I now wish I had so that it could visualised and be better appreciated! It was a good sleep anyway and I stayed warm and set the alarm for 6am. Already looking forward to the next day…

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I awoke to the cool morning air, tickling my face and a star studded sky above me. I wasn’t going to have a coffee and just gets off’, but I decided to have one and anyway I needed something to dunk my oat biscuits in! – that’s breakfast, it’s no Rock n Roll lifestyle here!  Little did I know when I awoke that I was going to be for some of the most picturesque and exciting, rock-spitting mountain biking that I have ever done. Highlights were deep gorges, forged by refreshing looking blue rivers and soaring limestone cliffs, the pictures tell the story… A stunning refugio came up and with it the first of days sun rays, this called for another coffee stop, which turned into a noodle stop as well. The trail continued and led higher, slowly the trees diminished giving way to green fertile terrain that led into the distance. The presence of the sun had warmed me up, being in the cold gorge for most of the morning had chilled me down. Cresting a col I saw an eagle then another, then several..! I was buzzing. We were now riding on ancient pilgrim routes, narrow and contouring for many kms around the edge of the high Cazorla Plateau, in the distance olive groves stretch as far as the eye could see – Spain’s nicest produce, after the grape maybe… I had been riding for hours, detached from much sign of human life, just seeing the odd shepherds hut now and then. I was looking forward to getting to the town and getting some fresh produce, I had started the shopping in my head and I could see the little hill town way-off in the distance, around two more escarpments. It was two more hours before I reached it and then followed the maze of tiny streets into its picturesque square – the first time that I had seen human life buzzing!

A973F008-97F5-41D2-824E-64C5F30E76D6Cazorla

Bananas, Grapes, an Orange some Serrano ham  and a small stick of bread, oh and some tomatoes and a couple of cans of Coke! I gave the café a miss and decided to go for a picnic further along the route. I passed some more castles and took some photos, the eagles were back too, not just one or two but a dozen or more, soaring on the thermals – a good time to stop and soak it up and have my butty! I was pondering the remaining part of the day as it was late afternoon, it was great because it was still light enough to ride until 6pm down at this latitude. I had no idea what was on offer for the night, it was the usual problem I always seem to have; of passing a nice stop at not quite the right stopping time. I ideally wanted to turn the corner of the ride and start the north bound leg, it would be a ‘feel good’ factor, particularly as I was wanting to do most of the northbound route in one push. The forecast now showed showers for tomorrow and heavy showers for early the day after. It would be a wet finish to the ride… Back on the saddle I pressed on and rode into the sunset. I chose a longer road option, as it was now night time and I did not fancy doing the next 20km off-road section over the high mountains. The route was not an ITT for me and I was not purist about doing the exact GR 247 route, as I knew I would be back again to the place. The road was a welcome respite after 12hrs of hard graft on a mix of challenging terrains. Spainish roads are superlative, even the ones that lead to nowhere and don’t get used – like the one I was on!

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228B6860-84A6-4DC2-9342-EAD35632E3FFThrough the ‘portal and then back north-bound…

I hit the southern most point at 7pm and decided I’d ride north-bound for a couple of more hours, it was a nice night and I was happy to bivvy-out. After 30kms and passing through a small town the road gradually narrowed and became dirt again, it was wash-boards this time, a friend had mentioned the torture that these can inflight on a cyclist (he was doing the Tour Divide in the Rockies), I’d not endured them really before, it was indeed pretty unpleasant and I was glad of only a couple of kms of them – getting shaken to death – I thought there’d have one use – when your super-tired they’d stop you falling asleep! The trail followed a lake, then a river, the sound of the water being amplified by the cliffs and exaggerated yet more by the darkness, we were entering another gorge, I couldn’t see it but I sensed it around me. A lovely boulder soon presented itself with a nice little leafy sleep spot underneath it. I stopped, inspected it and claimed it! I had filled up my water bottles earlier in anticipation of the camp and started the un-pack routine and got some water warmed, I was using hex-blocks, which work okay inside, but outside even the slightest breeze can affect them, some I was sipping a warmish hot-choc, then started cooking a cous-cous supper. Everything was dry and nice, a damp bivvy (aka UK style) can be a bit miserable, at least it can be in winter. I was tired and happy, it had been a cracking day, one of best.

 

FA9C0F19-2CEA-49BA-B7A8-096CE207CDCEI woke early and sensed I had to get going, but after a coffee! The trail was narrow and bumpy, it climbed, then it rained, it was only 8am, I was expecting the rain at midday, it was heavy rain too, so I sheeted up. The scenery and surrounds took on a look of the Scottish highlands – like I had just been teleported! The rain lasted for an hour and then eased off. The next Refugio of a close packed bunch came up, I detoured to it and stuck my head in, this one had two guest (still asleep), so I continued on. The pines were now like the American giants, it was a lovely natural forest and yetanother different landscape presented itself ahead of me, the variety was an everlasting surprise to me on this journey. Then another vista appeared as the trees yielded to the harsh karst, it was like changing planet this time! 

E810A911-5302-413A-B3D3-C6384D74F8B2Scottish Highland feel…

I stopped for a coffee and noodles and met a couple of telecom engineers out in their pick-up doing the same and having a smoke, I laughed as they told me that they were working – looked like the best job to me, driving around the mountain dirt roads in a big truck! They looked intrigued at my bike and luggage set-up. They then left in the other direction and I left in mine – still northbound and almost halfway up the leg, another little mental success. The trail was flat and the landscape was far reaching, black clouds surrounded, it would be wet soon for sure! Another 20km and the trail and landscape still looked the same, it really was a weird place, the rain was now heavy and the surface had changed from gravel to dust, only the dust was now a sloppy dirty gravy like substance covering the bike and me. I had done 40kms since the noodles and decided to make a stop at the next hut, just visible in the distance, also I had just summited the platue at 1800m – the highest point of the ride, a long stretch of down lay ahead. I was pleased to get to the hut, the rain was battering it and I had not expected this weather, but it added to the wild feeling of it all and I was happy just to be out of it and getting a brew on. Inside was pretty basic – a bunk and a sink and a hand-cranked water pump to pull water out of what would normally be a dry landscape. I checked the map and it was 20km to the next town, here I hoped to get more food for later on and maybe a meal or some real food. The ‘dirt’ road continued and riding the fat tyres was really sketchy and it meant I could not make the most of the pull of gravity – almost as depressing as having to carry your bike down a hill!

A8802AEC-07F2-4D37-8950-3EDBB0A4D81FCazorla Plateau – 1600m

01869EE1-A804-403B-90DC-59B3C5E374C3Tapas – pt3…

Eventually I came to the road-head and decided to get in the overflowing stream and try my best to wash me and the bike off – I had to look presentable for lunch! The town was basic but quaint, ancient and still really wet, a small store was open and a similar set of produce was selected (plus a couple of Cuzcampo beers for later!) My cleaning wasn’t to great as I left a trail of brown wetness across the shop floor …oops! The ‘senior’ was okay and was very helpful in directing me to the bar – take make more mess there! I was not expecting anything great, however it looked perfect, big fire, a table a radiator and many pots of food and a floor full of tissues  – then I remembered its standard practice in tapas bars to chuck them on the floor. A beer was tempting, but I stuck to coffee and a coke and some tapas. The garlic was however overwhelming, but I ate it all, little did I know that it would repeat on me for 12hrs from both ends! The rain eventually stopped and the sun appeared, as did a rainbow, it was nice to be on a paved road again. I made a route change and decided to miss the section advertised as ‘a big hike-a-bike’, the next bit was a bit of guess work as the line on the map meant nothing on the ground, I hoped for the best.

What came next, again set the hairs on the back of my neck tingling – I rounded a corner on the tiny road and two massive Vultures took to the air immediately in front of me, they even dwarfed the eagles that I had been seeing with their huge 3-4m wing-span! The little road lead down, the terrain was bare and rocky and some more gorges could be seen in the distance slashing the landscape. Where would my route go I wondered? It was exciting to be entering the unknown,. There was a way-marked trail and I checked the map, it was a twisty downhill single track, disappearing over the steep terrain, I was expecting that down hill hike-a-bike that I was so hoping to avoid. But it continued and was rideable, albeit technical, with just a couple of ‘bad-steps’ to negotiate, I descended deep into the gorge and the thin blue of the river could be seen below, the path, edged along the cliff, with a small hand rail to provide moderate protection from a slip, but it was all good and o more dangerous than usual… I stopped at a bench / viewpoint and enjoyed a pastry and watch some deer on the other side traversing a narrow trod above the cliffs, very exciting last hour and again unexpected. The gorge eventually widened and gave in to some flat ground, which had been cultivated, yet more olive trees and some orange trees. A village appeared, but again not a soul in sight, it all looked ‘shut-down’ for winter, I made use of the Fuente and refilled my bottles, probably a couple more hours before the camp and a couple of refugio’s were on offer, one in 20km and one in 34km.

I heard a village bell in the distance, six rings, it was going dark and I was at a junction the nearer hut, was signed and was 4km off-route, I decided to carry on to the second and hoped it would be okay, it was at the roadside and I was not expecting anything special. I should of mentioned that the whole route was broken down into 20 etapes and I was just starting on number 18, each start point had a info board and route profile – 14km 600m down, 300m up, that was fine – about another hour if it stays double-track, pleasingly at this late stage of the day it did and I soon reach the hut at a wide junction of small mountain back-roads, festooned with sign-posts in all directions to all sorts of places. The hut was opposite and looked different to the others, it looked new, or re-furbished and I entered through a lovely door, inside it was clean and spotless (apart from the plaster dust) – a perfect overnighter and time for a beer! Another superb, but hard day, almost as good as the previous day ad rounded off by a nice lash-up of couscous, cheese and Serrano ham and another beer. It felt kind of sad that the next morning would see me finish this wonderful journey, I slept well on that thought – apart from the tapas garlic farts all night waking me up – someone told me that you can’t smell in your sleep…?

The morning came and I afforded myself a little lie-in until 8am, didn’t fancy a dark headtorch start. While in the hut, I did not realise that it was raining so hard until I pocked my head out ,the concrete roof suppressed the sound very well. I had a lovely double coffee and a porridge – it needed using, since I had carried it from the start – just 18km up the trail from here! The pack-up routine takes from about 20 mins to an hour, depending on motivation, it was an hour today! I donned full body cover and edged out, it was almost warm, but really, really wet. A road option existed and was tempting, but I stuck with the trail, as for once I was in no particular rush. It was fun cycling the river-like path, which contoured and descended the final mountain, more great single track riding to me back to the point were it had all started, almost exactly 3 days ago to the minute. Siles eventually came into view far below, and then started a barrage of switch-backs, 20-30 of them, really tight, really good fun, it was a nice finish to this journey and the route was well suited to an a/c direction. The last 2km along the road and back to my little hire car, was like cycling a river – it cleaned the bike!

Final wrap, I’m always thankful to be a able to do these things, either solo or with friends. This ride offered a lot and I would be keen to return and enjoy the journey with friends taking longer, having the social and soaking it all up. Europe has so much on offer, in terms of landscapes, cultures and wildlife, we are lucky to be a part of it…! You rely on your kit for these trips, again the Fatster was well suited and didn’t miss a beat, it does not like the mud though! Next time I would like to take a tent, so that I don’t feel so compelled to use the refugio’s.

Slovenia by Bike – Up Close and Personal

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It’s taken a long time to get this story wrapped up, as I had some media upload issues on the PC, but I’m pleased to have it done now (before Christmas!) – using the iPhone (coincidentally the iPhone also got us round this ride, after finding the route had not uploaded properly to the Etrex – thank you phone!)

…I am pretty sure that many of you will agree with me that the best way to discover a country – particularly a small country is by bike, any bike is fine, however a mountain bike lets you get into all the exciting bits – unrestricted adventure up close and personal!

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I feel quite lucky and privileged to go bike-packing, not everyone is fond of the appeal, I find it ‘re-sets’ your basic needs, it allows a good detox from the usual pressures, mechanisms and routines of our modern lives and as an added bonus you get intimate with the environment that you are passing through.

So why Slovenia?

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Well last year I toured the Trans-Pyrenees with  fellow local adventure companion – Mark Wildsmith. It was Mark’s first ‘big’ bike-pack tour and probably a big ask for someone to do – at quite a fast pace and with little ‘roughing-it’ experience. At the journeys end it was clear to see that Mark had ‘found the love’ of this type of adventure holiday… [I think…] This basically comprised big-days on the bike, lots of great eating, the odd beer or two at the end of a long day and either the thrill of a bivvy in the wilds or the relative luxury of a hotel, which provide good recovery and a good rest and clean-up opportunity.

Sorry I still haven’t answered the question…
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Located at the eastern end of the Alps, slightly off the beaten track, with a wide variety of landscapes and a tested bike-packing route to follow, Slovenia sounded appealing. I have a fondness for Eastern Europe and have enjoyed several trips to what were the former Yugoslavian states. Also for this trip we would experience some of Croatia as well, since we fly into the Pula, situated on the on the coast – sort of opposite Venice on the other side of the Adriatic.

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Pula is well worth a few days visit, it is an interesting little city, with Roman architecture and also the less pretty but no less interesting boatyard relics – large ships half built and a collection of large cranes, well worth viewing on a nice evening as they are brought to life by large lights. Sadly the shipbuilding industry there is no-longer, due to in-efficiencies, lack of investment, the odd bit of corruption and the cheaper/better offerings from the Far East. Despite its touristy quaintness Mark and I were keen to leave the place and get on the road and trails. To make life a little easier for us we would take a local train and travel 75km north, our plan for the trip was to do roughly 100-120km a day (plus quite a lot of ascent/decent!). The village of Lupograv is were we get off the train would then have about 75km to ride to where we would pick-up the West Slovenian Loop, at a nice town called Postonja.

Day 1 – Out of Croatia to Slovenia
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The train journey was successful and interesting, an old state funded railway, very steady, lots of stops and good way to see some of Western Croatia, it also climbed up to about 400m, which felt good, taking us into the wooded rolling hills. The character inland is much different, most noticeable was the large number of unoccupied and derelict buildings, many of which would make lovely projects. Also as the first part of journey was mostly road, it was noted that there is far less traffic, we were on back-roads, but they were good roads, yet we could often go for 15-20 minutes without a passing vehicle. Also on this section we would be confronted by a closed border crossing, luckily not such a big set-back, perhaps 8kms out n back detour in total, we were surprised to see a big locked gate across a track and coils of razor wire extending in each direction.

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After the re-route back to the road, this incurred a hefty re-route to another border crossing point, meaning that our carefully planned off-road trail route to Postonja could not be finished, instead it was more tarmac, but it was quiet and picturesque, so no complaints. We passed through a few villages and it was noted the lack of shops and cafes, that would often be in abundance in somewhere like SE France.

We came into Postonja late afternoon and did not really need to stop for anything, being a bit later than planned we pedalled straight through, in our minds we had an overnight location planned, this was about 25km further in a forested karst landscape. If there is one thing that Slovenia is dominated by, it is forest and limestone, it makes for a pretty yet impenetrable landscape, full of great sink-holes and boulders, a hobbit like landscape even. We enjoyed a dusk explore of some old collapsed caves and disappearing rivers, a magical place. But we had to find a camp spot and it was all looking to bushy and dense. However the forest is good for camping as it regulates the temperature and keeps away the morning cold and dampness, also we could have a little campfire to add some warmth and cosiness to the night. [The fire was in a small pit that was covered over and undetectable afterwards – I don’t like seeing a nice camp-spot splatted with fires everywhere – so enjoy a small fire responsibly, discreetly and leave no trace – everyone’s happy or non-the-wiser…].

Day 2 – Forests, Hills and a Lovely City
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Out of the forest (briefly) to head across some plains, also home to Europe’s largest disappearing lake… It was quite an eye-opener seeing this vista early in the morning, I forgot to mention that the route was now following a series of gravel roads, since we had entered the forest shortly after Postonja. The other thing I forgot to mention was that we had no gas to cook on and had spent half the afternoon on the day of our arrival searching Pula for a small screw top gas canister, we found all sort of other gas canisters, but none to fit our stoves, as back-up I had some hexamine blocs for the first night.  So the object for today was to visit Decathlon in Ljubjana, we know for sure they have gas there  …and they did! We also took advantage of a Slovenian Aldi (form some reason called Hoffer – which is a way better name!!!) to stock up on food and buy some fresh fruit and stuff for lunch. Ljubjana is a lovely city, it is the capital, it is not a big city either, around 300k people. We cycled through the centre, but did not stop as we had spent extra time locating the gas and previously stopped for our lunch in a park, we still had around 60km to go and it was mid-afternoon. Incidentally Ljubjana is the usual start / finish point for the ride, we would of like to start / finish here, unfortunately there are no flights from norther UK airports. It is a city I would like to re-visit again with the Mrs!  …Back to the park for a moment, it was interesting to see that many of the locals accompanied there lunches with a can or two of the local beer Lasko!
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Leaving the town was exciting as we were straight into forest on some lovely interesting trails, it had become very hilly again and we started to pass the hilltop churches, that would become a frequent sight to us, we pedalled for about 4 hours before it became time to look for a camp spot.

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We needed more water and knocked on the door of ‘Hansel and Grettle’ cottage, located in the middle of woods on a hillside, a lovely old dear filled up our bottles, chatted to us in thick Slovenian and waved us off, I wish now I had ask to get her picture as she was a characterful person. Soon after we find a wooded knoll and find some flat ground for our tents. Another great day and so much other stuff that I’ve not mentioned, the photos show some of the highlights.

Day 3 – Off to the Big MountainsB1AF5308-5A31-4B33-937D-7F8585FCD6D5

Usually by the 2nd night of camping, you get a better night’s sleep, we had been getting a good amount of sleep, but sometimes minor things like the tent being on an ever so slight slope can cause issues – these modern inflatable mats just seem to be so slippery that they slide out from under you and end up on top of you and it’s a right faff trying to re-position! Anyway the morning was another belter and we were rolling by about 7.30, our camp was up quite high, around 800m and therefore a decent would be instore. Our first main destination / stop of the day would be Lake Bled, but not before visiting another couple of lovely hill top church’s, with stunning views over the cloud filled valleys. We were really starting to like Slovenia! We also passed a villager out early with a wood chopping contraption, so we now knew were all the piles of logs came from, as they are a frequent feature along the trails and lanes. After a stone spitting decent, a café stop and a bit of road we arrived at Lake Bled (Mark says the name in a very good accent!). The beauty of the place was mesmerizing, it seemed like a made up fairy-tale set! After some several photo stops on various points of the lake shore we were back on our way, heading up some lovely valleys towards the mountain town of Kranjska Gora. We were expecting a hard section here, but in fact it was a nice steady climb and then a 15km spin along a very good purpose built cycle road. We also had a route choice here, as we had the option of the ‘old’ WSBP route or the ‘new’ one, the new one head introduced more single track and really confirmed the best direction of the route to be a/c, which is the way we were going luckily. The old route headed up high towards the Austrian border, this would have added about 4 hours to the ride and because we were on a longer journey all-together and time-limited we stuck to the new route, up the cycle road and into the town.
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Kranjska Gora was another lovely place, there was an ultra-trail run taking place, so there was a good buzz to the place, we had got lunch stuff and decided to carry on out of town and start to head up the river and find a picnic spot, before the big climb… Being a sunny Sunday the place was quite busy, however the climb was not too bad as it was a mix of road and trail, the road was called ‘Russia Street’ as it was built by them and it was cobbled in many places and probably one of best and prettiest cycle climbs that I have done. It took just over an hour and we had climbed about a 1000m up to our highpoint of the whole journey (around 1600m). The decent was all tarmac, but it was twisty and adrenaline fuelled as we were being chased by some German motor bikers, I counted 27 hairpins. We were now in the Soca valley, famed for its blue river and swim spots, however for us it was getting late in the day and quite cool and the appeal for a swim was somewhat minimal after that long chilling descent . We stopped at an old barracks block, now used as a bar and had a lovely half pizza each and some beers. About 2 hours of daylight remained to ride on a little further and find a camp spot. Riding down the Soca valley was stunning, with many stops to looks at the incredible river as it cut through gorges. Being in the valley, quiet camp spots seemed less frequent and it was gone dark before a wrong turn took us to a lovely hidden meadow, which even had a nice picnic table for us – Oh the trails gods!
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Day 4 – Waterfalls and Huts and Monster Climbs
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We were both well practiced in our morning ‘get-up’ routine – Mark was getting much slicker with every morning and he could now pack his tent away in less than a few minutes. It’s important to get to know your kit on these journeys, so you know what works and what doesn’t – I know one thing for sure and that is, I will try to find some form of grip treatment to add to my mat, so that it stays in place in the tent! Must remember!

We were rolling by about 7.30 and it was a crisp morning, but not quite frosty. We would reach another POI (point of interest) in few Kms and this one is the Slap Boka (or Boka Falls) the highest in Slovenia and well worth the 10 minute walk up to the view point, needless to say no one else there at 8am!
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Back to the bikes and we were next on the lookout for a café, we did pass one, but did not open until 10am – bah, never mind. Next up was another big climb – around 1000m. The first 300m was on a nicely graded and very quiet road, then it was a little turn off on to an old military mountain road that climbed endlessly through thick beech forest. The top was eventually reached, we had made good time and decided it was worthwhile doing a 8km detour to a little mountain hut for a coffee and noodle breakfast stop.
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The hut was quaint and well cared for, no one there, we were not in a rush and decided to air-off our stuff and enjoy a couple of hours chilling out, we also lit the stove as there was a good stack of wood and need some warmth, since the sun was not quite out. Many curious cows wandered past, some taking a close interest in Mark’s tent, which was hung over a get drying. It was a shame not to have timed our arrival for a night stop …next time maybe! The route down the mountain was rough and loose and we were thankful not to have climbed up from that side, the decent was about 1200m, taking us to just 100m above sea level. Once down we were on the look out for a store to re-stock, but it was a Sunday and all the little shops were shut and we were not due to pass a large town until tomorrow, eventually we made do with a filling station, we also wanted a decent meal from somewhere, but cafes and bars were not that forth-coming.
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The next section of the route was another ‘new’ bit, that took us up high again on to ridge that form the border with Italy. It was early evening by the time we had climbed up – another 1000m climb! The ridge felt ‘spooky’ as it was a bit dull and the light was fading, we were keen to do another 20-30km of the ridge this evening, as bad weather was due the following day. We past several old WW1 and WW2 fortifications, that proved worthy of inspection, these historical connections really enhanced the journey. We sped quite nicely along a mix of trail and road, however by 8pm we had not yet passed a suitable camp spot, and now being night time it was harder to find a good pitch …but something always comes up. And basically it did, 20min later we found a nice flat grass patch near a log pile and old barn, it was a little bit close to someone else’s building, but we figured our late arrival and early departure and no one be any the wiser of our stay. The barn was handy as it was now a little drizzly and we brewed up and better still it had power sockets – so we could pinch a little electric and charge our depleted batteries and phones – a critical thing when bike-packing believe you me!
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Day 5 – Vineyards and Bush-whacking

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A damp start, Mark was up a little earlier, I guess keen to make an exit from our camp spot before daylight, we had observed that Slovenians seem to like to work long hours – particularly the woodsmen, who we saw. It was a good call being up an hour early as it had start to rain at about 6.30 and it was nice to be all packed and ready to go – hopefully to get a decent breakfast somewhere…? It took a while to work our way back down from the ridge to civilisation. The character of the landscape had changed, now out of the mountains and in vineyard country, but not a day to the celebrating as it was drab, the roads seem to drag on and even the sight of the largest single span stone arch bridge did not really excite us – we just want coffee and food. Luckily it was soon found in the large town of Nova Gorcia that we had just entered. The café was busy, but did not serve food, the waitress pointed us to the bakery and said you can eat it here with the drink – that’s a winner!
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This would be the last day on the main loop ride and in the back of our minds was being able to get some way back down the route to Croatia, also in our minds was the heavy rain forecast for later in the day. We pressed on out of town, the route was intricate to follow, and I was thankful of the charging-up of my phone and power-banks, my phone was the main source of navigation, as my Etrex mysteriously had dumped all of my loaded routes… I was cross with that as the one thing that I wanted it for was the line to follow on the map! On we went at one point the track disappeared into a lot of wind blown fallen trees and we had come too far to back-track. Bush-whack time, it was like an Adventure Race and I love this sort of stuff, slightly lost, trying to find a trod or a few gaps to tread through, after about 15 minutes we were out and rolling again. We then rode though miles of vineyards, most having been harvested, eventually we found some succulent bunches of grapes and afforded ourselves of some – we were low on found, maybe a few emergency gels left, so the grapes felt lush, maybe a little naughty though…
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The next small town eventually arrived and the rain was coming down heavily, we spotted a ‘Hoffer’ and went for it, grabbing lunch and restocking for another (damp) night. The route started to climb again and after a quick map check, we realised we were in for another monster climb, 800m maybe. It was hood up, head-down grinding away, but we had a castle visit to look forward to… and this would be our finale of the West Slovenian Loop, we pressed on at a good cadence and soon ‘boshed’ out the 30km and big climb and even had a sweet single track to the castle, which was a mind blowing sight – built into a massive overhanging cliff. We choose not to make a full visit and satisfied ourselves with a few photos, besides it was a tourist trap and rather busy, we were soon moving again, to find a café to have a short break.
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The café arrived, but was shut, however the adjacent shop was open and we sat under a sheltered outdoor seating area and watch the rain, turn heavier. We had a chat about the sleeping options and agreed a motel would be the best option as rain was forecast until midnight. We got somewhere booked about 40km, it was 4pm and we were ready for beers and a de-gunge, we nailed the 40km in just over a couple of couple hours. The motel was ideal and had a pizzeria. The guy there gave us a bigger room, which was soon festooned with wet kit, the air-con was set to 30degC and the window opened to let the damp stinky air out!

Day 6 – Borders, Sunshine and Trains

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We had a pretty big fill at breakfast and it felt lovely to be setting off in dry kit, in dry weather, it was going to be a nice few hours riding, our target was the 13:00 train from a little place called Buzet, 55km away. We could have a gone a shorter, faster route, but decided we had enough time to go the quiet scenic way – it was well worth it and we still made good pace, afforded by a slight tail wind. Soon we were above Buzet at the top of a plateau and decided to find a place to brew-up our last brew of the journey, we soon found a nice quiet village, with a perfect picnic table and lovely view, there was no rush as we had 2hours and it was all downhill to Buzet Station.
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We were earlier than planned for the train, but it was nice to see the old and rather graffiti’d beast on the platform. We do what bike-packers do and got our cook-set out and made a brew and cooked some food remnants. It was a pleasant way to round off what had been another stunning and successful bike adventure. To sum things up – Slovatia was a nice balanced ride, not too hard but yet enough of a challenge to feel stretched at times. Slovenia is a place I’d go back to, for the landscapes alone I could live there! but it has so much more to offer, not all of it jumps out and you have to find the best parts. And then the people – modest and unassuming residents, yet very proud of there special little country.
– A five star B-P award👍

Gentlemen Start Your Engines…

Not the HT550…

IMG_0908.JPEGPrologue – A nice rider get-together, we stood where the river ‘should be’ the evening before – at the end of a dry spell!

IMG_0906 A short shake-down and spin out up the trail

The Highland Trail 550 2019 – a really ‘buzzing’ start line, new faces and old timers. A bunch of riders with ambitions of conquering the mighty HT550. Alan Goldsmith the route creator and the organiser does a splendid job of building up the atmosphere, it may be a low key event, but the undertaking, passion and commitment to do this is massive. There is no other race as long, as tough or as rough as this on the UK calendar, entry is restricted to around 60 participants with just under half of the riders travelling from overseas and always over-subscribed.

IMG_0911Start-line – Gentlemen (& Ladies) Start Your Engines!

Everyone rider has ‘worries’ before the race, but this year the collective and most immediate worry was about the weather, it would rain – but by how much and for quite how long…? Well we’d just have to see as the forecasts were all saying different things…

IMG_0900The forecast…

Most people seemed to account for the weather factor, it’s a long race and the conditions will be tough and with bad weather in the mix it will be even tougher. As a precaution to this I put in some new heavy duty trekking type waterproofs and two primalofts as well the base layers – which I thought should be enough for May time in Scotland… So the rain started late morning, about two hours after we were rolling, it got colder and an easterly wind picked up. Coming off the Corriairack Pass into Fort Augustus was not a pleasant experience – wet and getting numb to the bone! I soon got to the chippy and ate my food as near to the fryer as possible. It was hard work for me getting going again after the 20 min stop and I was not enjoying things as well as feeling pretty exhausted and not particularly keen to get back on the ‘ride’. I succumbed to it and once back on the trail I was a little happier, but was not looking forward to the next couple of mountain sections.

The early part of the ride I was leap-frogging with Scot Lyndsay and enjoying some general chit-chat with him which helped pass some time, unfortunately an earlier side-wall tear fix, popped open and he had to stop and fix it, so I lost my ‘company’. James Hayden came along shortly after and again it was nice to ride the short road section with him before the tough climb up to Loch na Stac. James was a young and already accomplished endurance rider, keen to make the transition from road based adventures to off-road adventures, he admitted he was in at the deep-end and on a big learning curve, I admired his courage and told him he would not regret  a switch to the trails. 

The next mountain section, past Loch na Stac and its spooky house was cold and gloomy, but I did enjoy riding the rocks along the shoreline. Coming back down off the hill was another chilling and unpleasant experience just like the last one. Despite new waterproofs, I was riding ‘wetted’ out and only just keeping warm by the heat generated from propelling myself along. I had decided that I would kip somewhere in the glen below (nr Struy) and before the next mountain section, as I was cold and tired and did not feel up to another 20km of tough mountain trail in the dark and wet, to get to the Hydro Bothy (a very basic concrete shelter, not a warm place or nice place – but better than a puddle outside!). I came across an empty lean-to and snook inside it, it was just after midnight and I needed to sleep and recover ready for a  another tough day tomorrow. All the wet stuff apart from shorts came off, as these were just damp, I hung it all up in the vain hope that it may dry a little… I had a good sleeping bag, a good mat, and a spare primaloft to put on, so despite the general grimness of the place I should be cosy. And I was.

The loud and cheerful birdsong (don’t know why with all the wet weather) woke me up at 4am, it took me longer than usual to dress, pack, eat and get going, normally a 20min operation, it took me nearly 40. I was not ‘on it’ and the rain was lashing down loudly on the tin roof, so I had no motivation to get out and ride and nothing to look forward to in the next part of the journey. They call it the ‘road of a thousand puddles’, and it was more like just one continuous puddle in both track ruts. 10km in and you come to the first river, normally a water splash, today a raging torrent. I was on my own it was 5.30am and I did question my sanity, but it was not wide and the depth was not enough to sweep me over, the only thing was I had to carry the bike, as it was not possible to roll it through without it being dragged down stream. Made it through okay – just wet to the top of the legs. I soon discovered that that this one was the ‘tester’, another river crossing loomed further on, wider this time. Same as last time bike on head and head across diagonally down stream, so the current would help progress, only this time I lost my steady and dropped the bike as I started for the opposite bank, I caught hold of the bars in shallower water and retrieved it. I was now much wetter and a little un-nerved, but okay. On my bike and rolling again I was trying to re-count all the up-coming crossings in the mountain section over to Croik. I passed the Hydro and 3 bikes were outside, not quite sure who’s, I did not plan to stop as I was cold and keen to get off the mountain.

IMG_0926The tester! (photo credit – another rider)

At the bottom I stopped before the village of Contin, it was 7.30 am and knowing the shop was not open until 9 am I was left in a quandary – I needed to warm up and I needed a coffee and some hot food, a passer-by suggested I go to the garage 5km down the road (off-route) at Muir of Ord, so that’s what did. The garage was great, albeit no café, but good coffee and bacon sandwiches. The girl in there was interested in the ride and happy for me to make an ever bigger puddle of water as I stood an inch from the pie-warmer – she said if I got any closer I would be in it! It was good to have this bit of humour, as it was the first thing that had brought a smile to my face for a long while! Once I got my hands warmed up I made a call home, the first since riding, I had made up my mind and decided to bail and did not want to keep pushing further north in the bad weather. In my mind I had decided to enjoy a touring route back to Tyndrum, stopping at a couple of friends and taking in some new routes and POIs. In retrospect this nearby comfort of friends being relatively close to hand was the main reason I bailed, also I decided that I did not want to batter myself or my bike or my kit by pushing on, I was already feeling pretty exhausted and  I was happy with the decision and keen to spend the next two days exploring and getting dried out and fed. There will be another HT550 next year!

Better weather for my ‘tour’ back to Tyndrum, with the WHW inglorious splendor!

The ride back to Tyndrum took me 2 ½ days and another 300km, it took me to some new places that I had previously by-passed (like the impressive Plodda Falls). The weather improved for the ride back and I really enjoyed the WHW route back from Fort William to Tyndrum it was in the day light and with a fresh (ish) mind and body. At Tyndrum on the Tuesday night we enjoyed a ‘Scratchers Party’ and it was interesting to hear the take from other riders; my heart went out to Liam Glen, who pushed hard from the start and built up a big lead, the conditions got to him eventually and he had to withdraw at Dundonell, similarly for Bergen de Cane (the Belgian!) he was determined to complete but had to withdraw at Kinlochleven as he had a ferry to catch…!  The winner was an Alaskan chappy – Dustin Eroh in something like 4 days 3hrs – not bad considering the poor conditions! Also interesting to note that out of the 60ish starters only about 20 completed the full course. A big thanks as ever to Alan Goldsmith for organising the group ride.IMG_0962Dustin recounting his ride with Alan. It was nice to see him come in.

Winter Wanderings

This is a bit of a rambling script, and is mostly made up of pictures from this winters bike-pack journeys…

You have to love the winter as we have so much of it, but you have to be opportunist to make the best of it, especially for us in the UK with its nortoriously unpredictable weather. It would be nice to move to Spain or somewhere and enjoy those blue sky winter days  …but this is not really possible when you have a life that revolves around a 101 home based commitments. This winter (2018-2019) has all in all been a pretty kind one to us – generally mild, dry and not that windy, with only a small handful of ‘named’ storms trying to get the better of us.

During the winter I believe that it is also important to try to maintain a base fitness, it is also the time you are most likely to get colds and illness and avoiding these is always a good thing, keeping active, involved and in tune with yourself is important, likewise is having good rests and recovery.

In winter time the mountain biking is sometimes superb, okay, you do have to pick your trails as everything will be wetter, but mountain biking and mud / wet is par for the course, unlike road cycling which can be pretty miserable when it is wet, windy and cold.

With the onset of late November and the shorter days it is easy to go and hibernate, but sometime you can still get a good weather window pop-up. This leads me on to an amazing ‘smash-n-grab’ opportunity to head to the far north. Incidentally after the freekishly good summer I have become addicted to Scotland and not just the Highlands, it is my mission to explore it all, the wilderness there is my new second home. I often keep an eye on the weather up that way, usually a quick peek on a Monday morning when back at work – it helps me get through the working week, and to start planning the next weekend adventure…

A Smash-n-Grab Ride Along Some of The North Coast Route

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NC500 – Empty roads, near to Gairloch.

I have long fancied doing a simple, unsupported no-faff North Coast 500 ride, ideally going minimal on the road bike, but with bike-packing kit and having a couple of camps. So with a ‘weather window’ of several days over the North Highlands and some ‘Brownie Points’ that i’d somehow managed to credit I blagged 3 days away. I decided I would do a variation of the NC500, thus avoiding the A9 return and also starting / finishing at Dingwall, as I knew that to do the full route would have been a big undertaking (in November) and that was not what I really wanted, I wished for long days on quiet roads of around 110 -130 miles, rather than 170 mile days of just churning it out! I got some well priced advanced train tickets, splitting the route, the ticket machine spewed out 28 orange cards – crazy! and off I went…

I will tell the story in pictures, but to get you started I roll out of Dingwall station at 7pm Friday evening and start heading west on a clear and quite warmish night…

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Road side camp spot, just after Applecross 130km in, pitching up at just after midnight, the highlight was most surely the monster Bealach na Baa pass under the moon and stars.

 

R.I.P. Whistlestop Cafe!

Very sad to see this lovely place close, I hope that it gets re-opened, it was closing that weekend. I did manage a very nice breakfast and stole some warmth from the wood stove.

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Lock Maree and Slioch – possibly no finer Loch and no finer mountain. And all to myself in November!

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Seaside village of Gairloch, just further on I watch some whales surfacing in the flat almost oily waters.

 

Half way through and a change of plan, I decided to miss-off the far North West loop and head back east from Ledmore Junction, I think I had bitten off more than I wanted to chew! The second night I happened to stumble on this amazing wooden chalet, perfect place to sleep in – but it was cold and I wished that it had a door! After a clear crisp start and a further 70km I was back in Dingwall midday Sunday for my train home. I only really managed one full days riding, but I think it was worth the effort of getting there and I amassed almost 420km (260 miles) of riding. I quite like not finishing things, as it means you have a reason to go back again!

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A Pre-Xmas Escape – A Girt Lush Mid Wales Bike-Pack – and a very wet Mid Wales too!

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Wet weather kit testing in the Elan Valley (on the 2015 Chiru Pulse)

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Pumping!

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Bothy life – getting dried out and re-hydrated. I could not persuade anyone else to join me on this ‘ratch’, maybe the weather… My memories from this ride are, spending much time in PC’s under the hand driers trying to warm everything up! I also remember lots and I mean lots of Red Kites and finding two bothies, both well stocked with wood, to get dry and cosy in. Screen shot 2019-04-27 at 12.41.16.png

The route…. Wales was deserted…

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Borders Bothy Raid… Objective to visit the 10 bothies in around the North Pennines / Borders / Kielder Area …oh and starting that from home (Settle)  …oh and going over Cross Fell…

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Late evening, not really a good place to be on bike in a blizzard – time to get moving!

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To spend the night here – an all time favourite!

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Early morning over the Pennines.

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The beautiful Langley Viaduct on the South Tyne Cycle Path.

 

bothy
noun: bothy; plural noun: bothies; noun: bothie
  1. (in Scotland) a small hut or cottage, especially one for housing farm labourers or for use as a mountain refuge.

    Super cosy night spent at Kershope Head, having visited: Gregs Hut, Shepherds Hut, Melmerby Shop, Haughton Green, Green, Roughside, Flittingford, Spithope, Wills Bothy. Screen shot 2019-04-27 at 13.25.43.png Many miles! (or Kilometres – I am trying to positively switch to the metric distance… and its hard!) I was very pleased to report that all the bothy’s visited were all in pretty good shape, clean and looking well cared for – very gratifying. One day I will be a Bothy MO (Maintenance Organiser) …its my retirement ambition! (or one of them)

     

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    A Whisky Tasting visit with the MO  …and the odd job to do as well.

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    I have helped at this bothy on a number of occasions, the fancy stove door you see above was made by my brother Roger, this has turned out to be a popular attraction at the boutique bothy, that Greensykes is – This is Bothy TV and it does not get any better! Get it glowing and sit and watch it, while sipping whisky and talking about noodles, fish and stuff…

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    Waking up to a winter wonderland!

    Leysburnfoot (aka Will’s)

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    Eastern Highlands and then Glasgow

    The odd month of February, it was unseasonally warm. At the end of half term I had some days free and combined a forray into the East Highlands then a meet up in Glasgow with my eldest son – Henry. I have to say it felt odd going from 3 nights in bothies to the Hilton in Glasgow. Strangely (but not un-surprisingly) I preferred the bothies!

     

    Night one in a lovely ‘off-the-grid’ bothy, met a nice couple from Perth who arrived a little later than me, with mucho whisky!

    Bothy Bus-stop – I gave up waiting in the end!

     

    The road over to Glen Shee, mid-Feb and no snow. Quite sad seeing the ski station empty, it looked ugly and forlorn. I stopped in Breamar at the Mountain Rescue Centre to catch up with an old friend for an hour (but really to warm-up!) and have a couple of cups of tea. Lots of interesting rescue stories and a shed full of ace kit to look round, from skidoos to pisten-bullys. My night two destination was Faindoran, the most remote of bothy’s – 30km to the nearest road-head.

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The super-remote Faindoran Bothy in the centre of the Cairngorm Massif, quite how it ended up with ten Bike-Packers and Belgium Girl staying in it was beyond me – but what a crazy night it was – stove roaring, more whisky and quite a lot of fine cheese’s and putting the world to rights!

After Faindoran, I had no real fixed destination for the coming day (and had a bit of a sore head as well) and the only main thing on the itinerary was a coffee and a proper greasy breakfast. The route out from the bothy to the north, heading towards Glenmore Lodge was advised against, as it was banked out with soft, wet snow – which is horrible to make progress over, so the decision was made to head into Tomintoul about 35km away and then make plans.


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Exiting Tomintoul I saw the sign for the Speyside Way (Whisky Trail) and decided to ride along that. The route headed east with great riding, going past Glenlivet, then Tomnavoulin, then Knockandhu, then Dufftown, then Aberlour – this was Whisky country for sure – and a great trail too. For the evening I had decided to try the boutique bothy up in Glen Feshie and it was great as the Speyside Way took me most of the way there.

Distillery’s and the Rothiemurchus Forest – endless forested trails  …and so to the boutique bothy…

The magnificent Ruighaiteachain Bothy in Glen Feshie, its Danish owner, is very in tune with the re-wilding activities and encouraging people into the mountains. [Editor’s note – modern life is terribly cruel and there are people who commit heinous acts against mankind – In the Sri Lankan bombings 3 of his 4 children were killed. This is so sad.]

And then back to the city of Glasgow… what a great journey!

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Towards the end of February our lives were also shattered, as my father-in-law passed away. His death was sudden an unexpected, he was mid seventies and had a stroke while playing tennis. He was a massive part of our lives and his absence has taken a lot of adjusting too.

 

The last ride of the winter, in fact I think that it was probably Spring, just, was the…

Barkley Marathons of Bike-Packs

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Another bike-pack and another highland train journey. It had the sign of an exciting trip at the point of stepping off the late train. Corrour Station at 9.30pm, I left the warmth and comfort of the train and was the only person getting off into the dark, silent wilderness. I was buzzing with excitement and anticipation already, my planned bothy for the night was ‘Staoneag’ (Mammore Forest), which lay about 20km away, with a mixture of estate tracks and mountain path to get there, it was my first visit, which always adds to the interest. I arrived at around 11.30pm and it was all dark and silent and empty – I think it was pleased to have me as guest that night. I collected wind blown twigs and got small fire going, lit some candles, had some food and enjoyed a tin of craft ale, popping out occasional to check the stars.

My destination for day 2 was the remote and rugged Morvern Peninsula, (via the Corran ferry) then onwards to Arisaig around 160km ride in all and mostly road, which was good, because the weather had turned sour – very wet and a measly 5-6 degC. Despite the wet, the riding was nice going along sea loch coasts then wild moorland terrain, with the moody weather egging me along, the destination was a secret coastal bothy…

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The view from the room – nice hey!

 

 Amusing log bog entries. It was indeed an idylic place and I recommend sniffing it out!

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After Arisaig the plan was heading south to Mull, the picture above is the mighty Loch Sheil, it has a lovely estate road running down the side of its 22km length, connecting Glen Finnian to Strontian. After Strontian the plan was to go off piste a little and explore a ‘coffin route’.

 

I found some great swim holes! The riding started well but soon turned  into a tussocky bush-whack, uphill for 3km, it took me 90mins and I was pretty shattered. At the top I realised I was rewarded with more pushing and carrying for the best part of 5km down. Some routes you win some you lose, still I thought it would make for a good ‘Barkley Marathons of MTB’! I was ready for getting to a bothy for food, warmth and rest.

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So it was to an old favourite on the Ardtornish Estate. In the morning I was greeted with a stunning sunrise over the Loch, which is meant to be full of ‘brownies’. [Editors note – bothy is currently closed April / May ’19 for re-roofing and internal improvements].

 

Day 3 involved a couple of ferries, which also have nice toilets to clean up in! I was heading south to eventually make Glasgow, but first Mull (for 10km) then Oban and then through the fingers of Argyll.

 

Loch Avich single-track and the iconic bridge to Seil Island – worth a small detour. Argyll is very forested and full of trails and quiet roads to explore, also the odd nice cafe, like the one at Dallavich on Loch Awe. The plan for the evening was Carron Cottage, but still 80 or 90km to go. I was expecting Carron to be empty as it was a Monday, but surprisingly on arrival it was pretty full, with a bunch of sailors from the Merchant Navy and enough beer to sink a Merchant Ship. I enjoyed a Sol beer with them and was given one for the road (or to bugger off!), so I thought best to go elsewhere – I just hope they cleared up and left the place nice, as it was a pretty sweet bothy. My plan B was either Abysinia or Mark Cottage, a further 50 – 70km away. Hmmm, at least it was a nice evening for some more riding… I decided on Mark Cottage on the west side of Loch Long and unbeknown to me just opposite a massive and well illuminated oil depot, which detracted greatly from the cottages ambience. There was one other guest, surprised to have company when I arrived at 9pm, he had a good fire going and cooked me a fried Pollock – very good it was too!

IMG_0640The morning of Day 3 and a moderate 90km to get me to the ferry at Dunoon. After a 450m climb, I was rewarded and surprised to have a lovely 10km single track, it was narrow forest paths that followed the fingery coastline. It went past more castles, quaint villages and quiet beaches.

Almost at the end of the journey, I mis-calculated the distance and I had 20km to do and 60 minutes to get to the ferry it was a real push and I made it with 6 minutes to spare – another nice crossing to Gourock station, then to Glasgow Central and back home, to start earning brownie points again… I am very lucky to have an understanding wife and family and it’s not all about my own adventures, most other weekends we have slightly easier family outings, club rides or just rest (quite rare) .

Next up is the inaugural Dales Divide Race and then in May the Highland Trail 550, let’s hope the good weather keeps going!

Go on get out on your adventures too!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dales Divide – The Inuagaral Ride

The Dales Divide, but more just some words about the slightly weird world of Bike-Packing

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It’s always with some relief when the wheels start rolling at the start of any big bike-pack event, the start of the Dales Divide, the inaugural ride, the brain-child of Chris Ellison, its proud creator is just like any other bike-packing event – a small wave-off at best from something not much more than a car-park. But soon it is super-sweet as you hit lovely wooded trails straight away, you then know that this is going to be a good adventure (a really good adventure!), a coast-to-coast and all the way back. All the build-up and anticipation and time spent in preparation is going to pay off. You are going to be presented with a succession of mini-challenges and goals non-stop all the way through, one after the other for many hours to come. Days will merge into nights and nights will merge into days, a succession of sunsets and sunrises and even a full moon if you are lucky. The line that you are following on your GPS screen is YOUR world, nothing much else matters – you just have to keep making progress! You will be presented with an ever changing landscape and terrain, you will be totally buzzing as you whizz along new found trails. Eating will become a chore and keeping a regular check on your health and wellbeing is critical, likewise for your trusty stead on which you sit. The clock will always keep ticking, you sleep for as long or little as you wish. You will be a ‘dot’ being watched by another world. You will meet many people and have those random moments and encounters. You will forget chunks of the ride and hallucinate others; everything becomes a fragmented kaleidoscope like experience*. You may take stock of your life while riding and sometimes remember those ‘special ones’ that are no longer with us. You will experience highs and lows like being on drugs. You will share the journey and talk to fellow riders, making new friends, but you will more likely just talk to yourself. You will be feral, being tracked or tracking someone else and in tune with the wild life up close and personal. Your values will change while you are journeying, the world on the outside will continue as normal and you will not be really be noticed as you pass through. Things will hurt and then stop hurting when they can hurt no more and then new things will hurt, and then when it’s all over you will forget the all the ‘hurting’ that took place and recall just the pleasures – often too many of them. There will be no one to hug you when times get tough. At times you will want to be back at home with your ‘loved’ ones, you will miss that cosiness. You will be constantly peering into other people’s cosy lives as you ride by at night, you may knock on a door and ask for a refill of water, but sometime get a cake, a meal or more – those small acts of kindliness can be so gratifying. What you put in is what you get out and you will always have the memories for evermore. Each rider’s race is personal to them and any rider that finishes is a winner …and if you didn’t finish then bank that learning for next time when you will. Luck will always play a part – we are all so lucky and should be ever thankful to be able to do this sort of thing, because this IS living…

Alex Pilkington – April 2019

* Having done a fair bit of AR racing over the years you learn to manage on as little sleep as possible in each race, but there are limits. It is the lack of sleep and rest for the brain that creates the weird effects that one may experience in multi-day racing when pushing hard – also known as ‘sleepmonsters’

This stuff may not be everyone’s cup of tea and some folk don’t relate to it at all, but for those that like exploring, adventure and the thrill of a challenge then there is no better way to do it than the grass roots, no-frills bike-packing. You can pay hundreds or even thousands to undertake some over hyped and commercialised mtb adventures, but bike-packs are usually free and as a result are friendly and non-elitist and quite often a lot harder as you have no support and have to totally look after yourself.

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Arnside 7am, after coming off the night shift and 47:07hrs after the GD. Happy to be first rider back and a little tired – not sure if I needed beer or breakfast (I settled for both!) And thank you to the family for being here for me – its always nice to have someone greet you after a ride like this.

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Heard of this place…?

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Scarborough, early morning – just me, the street cleaners and this beautiful sunrise.

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North Yorkshire Moors – Hot ‘n’ Hard!

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Feed Station / Water Hole outside Chris Ellison’s house at 80km.

Trans Pyrenees by Mountain Bike

All good ideas….

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Early in 2018, in the grip of a hard winter… you can’t always get out as much as you’d wish, so you sometime resort to dreaming and scheming… It was then that I thought about the idea of merging a bigg’ish ride into the start of our summer family holiday in northern Spain. As the Pyrenees was close by it seemed almost logical to capture the Trans Pyrenees route. After a bit of research (and there was not a huge amount of stuff out there) it lead to me finding some GPX tracks of various routes – all Mtb of course! or ‘BTT’ as it is known in Spain. The route seemingly had a choice of start points on the Mediterranean, either Llanca or Roses, both small seaside towns. We chose Llanca as it was connected by rail and had more choices of places to stay. The GPX traces indicated a route distance of approx 950km, altitude gain was suggested to be around 24000m. We knew it would involve lots of climbing!

Mark Wildsmith a friend from the running club indicated an interest in doing it as well and I was glad to have some company on a ‘tour’ style ride and share the experience and journey.

As usual in life, time is often the limiting factor and I could only really ‘eak’ out 7 days to do this journey and after comparing with the Trans Pyrenees Race stages it seemed easily doable – albeit some long days cranking the pedals.

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Dreaming of this….

The splits are shown below and gave us a target of what to aim for. Most people take 12-14 days to do it.

116km2200m LLANCA > CAMPRODON

114km2700m CAMPRODON > LA SEU D´URGELL

115km2930m LA SEU D´URGELL > EL PONT DE SUERT

98km2785m EL PONT DE SUERT > AINSA

97km2200m AINSA > JACA

132km2595m JACA > BURGUETE/RONCESVALLES

97km1980m RONCESVALLES > HONDARRIBIA

Like any long journey the memories often get merged, blurred and mixed-up, so mainly for my benefit I have done a short recap on each day…

Day 1 Llanca to Llongrriu (area) 109km 2728m

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Saturday morning, a poor nights sleep in an uncomfortably hot hostel…  It always feels good to start rolling, a lot of worry and anticipation builds up before hand and almost as soon as you set off it all seems to disappear as you’re off on the adventure, and pretty well nothing else matters! Concentration goes into the bike, the route finding and keeping the body going. Then the sights and wildlife you pass are a bonus and will be collected all the way along the route. The extended UK summer had helped to condition us, however today was a hot day, in fact a ‘really’ hot day –  the forecast suggested 38degC and the hostel owner said that it was the hottest so far this year, not great for setting out on a long journey, but hey ho, it has to be better than rain, or wind, or no ride at all. The bikes were reasonable well loaded up – probably around 8-9kg of kit and liquid and that was ‘paired-down’, but it allowed for kit in the mountains and bad weather – most of which felt superfluous at this stage. The trails were pleasant jeep style tracks and small roads, it generally felt all uphill as we climbed into the mountains.  Of the villages we rode through and they generally all had drinking water taps, this is a real bonus and removed a lot of worry of where to find water.

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We passed by a large lake and made a short but worthwhile detour, it was late morning, things were hotting up and a cool off was required. It was like a bath! We dried in an instant, the journey continued through scrub and bush, it took us through some delightful old villages, one of which we stopped at for lunch. This is where we realised our diet for the week would largely be made up of egg tortillas and Coca Cola. The first big climb was reached and I was conscious of drinking way too much and not being able to stay cool. The climb was around 800m and would take two hours. I started to suffer, pedalling was just unpleasant, with cramp onset and a feeling of weakness and nausea. I had to push on many sections, meanwhile Mark seemed relatively unaffected. In my head I was not overly bothered, I just knew it was the heat and I would have to manage it and then get over it, but when my legs locked up with cramp I just had to lie down. Mark had the look of ‘hmmm Alex is broken, its day 1, Alex does not normally break…’ I had 30 minutes of pained rest and eventually got back on the bike, we had made the col and Mark had assisted by pushing my bike as well as his. Good teamwork Mark!

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Mileage so far was around 80km and it was now late afternoon, the plan was to get down off the hill and find somewhere for a drink. We passed through a stunning gorge, were there where families picnicking and swimming, but not for us, we pressed on and found a hostel and got drinks, first a coke and then a beer – it seemed to sort things a little. We had planned to get to a little town called Comprondon, but the map indicated that it was around 40-50 km away – too far. So we made progress up a quiet valley and found a nice bivvy spot in a forest near a river. It was nice to wash and get some food into us and we were asleep by 10pm with the intention of rising at dawn, which would be around 6.20am, so a good rest really.

The image below so the temperature trace for the day, I usually knock off 5degC as the watch is not always in the shade and rides higher – nonetheless it was around 38degC, the hottest that I have ever had to cycle in, I think.

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Day 2 Llongrriu to Baga 128km 3810m

We were rolling at 07:30, things felt a little sensitive and weak to start with, but the rhythm of the continuing climb soon distracted us and it was a case of getting on with the job in hand – and getting to the mythical Comprondon for a proper feed. It took quite a while, but we eventually rolled into the bustling, medieval place at around 10:30 and a nice little bar-café was awaiting us for breakfast. Lots of food, some nice coffee and a coke seemed replenish us nicely. After leaving town we knew that the first big climb lay ahead, we had climbed 400m to Comprondon, the mountain col was a further 1200m, peaking at 2100m. We passed through more lovely mountain villages, slowly, and they get smaller and more rustic the higher we progressed, eventually it turned to dirt at 1600m. We would climb for about 30min and then have 5min rest or push, just to rest the muscles on this relentless climb. It was exciting to feel that we were now in the big mountains – the Pyrenees proper! The trail however was slightly disappointing as it seemed that some people were doing the route in their cars, which spoilt the ambience a little.

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After a 1000m descent we had lunch and studied the route ahead for the day. We realised that we were not making progress fast enough and with so far to go, we elected to miss out a mountain loop, it looked nothing too special and it would give us probably 2hrs to cycle on further, we had no idea where we get too and tried not to think of the ‘big picture’ too much. Another big climb lay ahead and the small road seem busy with the Sunday traffic, after an hour we were back on the trail and in the wilds, we saw many eagles in the next section and the weather looked moodier and was feeling a little cooler and damp – we were high up and started to pass some ski small stations, which I think always look ugly without the snow cover to hide the mess. Route finding was quite fun and it was lovely to do our first bit of ‘single track’, if we had more time we would of preferred more of this stuff. At the second top of the day (2200m) it was now getting on a bit around 19:30pm and we wanted some food, so we decided to make the descent by road instead of the forest tracks. Baga was our destination around 30km and all downhill. We passed only one car and had the pleasure of a race track like surface – we were in town 45min later buzzing! and so was the town with a carnival and fair. A bar was found and much food was ordered. A good day, but no plan of a place to sleep so we headed out of town to a park and found a nice little area and bedded down. Here we found to our annoyance that the town clock rings throughout the night and strikes twice on the hour…

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Day 3 Baga to Livorsi 125km 3111m

The body was now adjusting to the new routine of life – long days in the saddle and a big feed-up in the evening and a bivvy-spot on the trail. As usual the morning started with another long climb and we were soon warmed up. With the sun poking through the trees we were already trying to hide from it and enjoyed the steady woodland climb that took us into Cadi Moixero Natural Park, here we passed several other groups of bike-packers – comrades of our journey! As we came out of the trees big limestone monoliths appeared, this was spectacular country for sure! After a short breather at the col we were soon speeding down with the thoughts of a late breakfast in mind, the next village was Tuixent, perched high on a rock, and were we hopefully we would find a café… Typically a four hour climb on one side will be rewarded with a 45 minute descent on the other – and so we were soon nearing the little hilltop village, with a climb of its own. We sniffed out a little café and shop and enjoyed an egg tortilla some coffee and cold Cokes. The route after this seemed to take a series of roads over some medium sized cols – it was good to get a rest off the bumpy trails, but the tarmac soon became a chore and it would be several hours before we met the trail again.

Day 3 was tough going again for me, I was still not finding my form and this extra struggle distracted a little from the ultimate enjoyment and I was hoping it would soon change! After another monster climb that seemed to take most of the later part of the afternoon we reached a large Refuge that, as it happened had a road up to it and so quite a few people where milling around there – we had not seen many people all day and it weirdly felt uncomfortably busy, but I wanted to stop and fancied another cold Coke and some crisps. It was here that Mark the genius, suggested we try to get a hotel or B&B in the next town – the wonders of 4G and Booking.com and we had a nice little place booked. We would pass the previous Plan A accommodation on the way down – another little refuge and as it happed it was  a gem, bad timing it would be nice to have stayed there or had another like this for the night after. Livorsi was the next town and it had a few shops, hotels and bars. The hotel was lovely and as soon as we had de-kitted and locked the bikes we both raced to the shower! It was good to wash and refresh our kit. That done we headed out for food …and a good feed was had!

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Day 4 Livorsi to  Col de Espina (near to Laspaules) 128km 3534m

Usual routine… shop for food then start mahoosive climb, expect this time it would be our biggest; a 1400m non-stop and to the high point of the whole journey passing through the Parque Nacional De Aigustortes. A picture paints a thousand words – so here it is…

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We met another couple of Brits up here on a motorbike tour which looked good fun and maybe a little easier/quicker than our effort…? The scenery was magnificent and we had a lovely contouring track that endlessly lead around the mountains until the next big valley was reached. Mark was now mastering his bike and his descents and he took off at speed and it was great to follow his dust infused trail, down at least a hundred switch-backs to valley floor – time for Coke stop..? and so we switched on our bar-radars …before too long we had found a watering hole, this time nuts and double Cokes – we needed it!

We checked the map and the next 40km looked a little non-descript and some of the GPX trace did not sit on a map trail, so that could be interesting… I felt more on it today and was happy on the next climb, after several kms of tarmac we hit a little trail over some cols. These became small and eventually lead to an hour of Hike-a-Bike, but it was quite pleasant. The villages we passed through were really out of the way and very rustic, quite often we would not see a sole and they would feel like ghost villages. As always we could always get water in these places and it was our little routine to find the tap and fill-up our bottles and splash the face. We heard some thunder and as we climbed up to the next relatively short mountain stretch the skies really darkened. The urgency meant we upped the pace and the wind would pick-up little ‘dust devils’ it was very eerie…  The thunder soon came nearer and the lightning flashes were very intense, as was our pedalling – on we sped with some rain drops getting us. Would it pass? …No after another 20 minutes it was coming down thick-n-fast – time to find shelter and layer-up.

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We dug out our jackets and duvets and put them on the temperature had gone from 26deg to 16deg, we had a big descent and it would be cold… The next town was 15km off and we decided to make a dash for it! We got soaked, but were soon rolling in to it and on the lookout for a food place, soon enough we found a bustling little café/bar and rushed in. The rain continued for a while and after much food, beer and our body weight in olives we did not have a plan of where to stay… Mark suggested that we stay and drink beer and ask to kip in the bar. We soon dismissed this and I persuaded Mark we could ride on into the damp night and find a ‘doss’ somewhere! We rode and climbed and then climbed some more, through damp woodland – not very appealing, eventually at the col it opened out and we thought it wise to stop – now that it was almost midnight and pitch the tent… I had a scuffle around and saw a faint outline of a building, on investigation it turned out to be a view point on the col and in the circumstances was almost perfect – trial gods on our side yet again! Mark put on some club music and we sorted our stuff and had a little party and scoffed a bit of emergency whisky. Not long after we were in our bags and snoozing. However…

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Day 5 Col de Espina to Fiscal 120km 3200m

The cows, the cows, the cows and their damn bells – they were making so much noise all through the night!!! It was a damp cool start and Mark was not for waking up, even when on the bike, I think this was his first big low point and quite often I find the first of morning after a hard day (or nights) ride tough to deal with. But you do come through and the solution would be to find a place for a proper breakfast and coffee. It took a while but by 9am we found a reasonable town and had the usual platter of stuff. I laughed again at Mark as he now the face of a man who needed a good sleep – like an adventure racer on day 4!

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After breakfast we found a market and stocked up on some lush fruit and provisions for lunch. Rolling out of town the descending valley closed in on us and we had a magnificent gorge to pass through. The weather warmed and our combined morals grew some. After the gorge came a turn off and the start of the next long climb section. Our legs churned away, slower than of the previous days, with all the riding so far wearing us down a little. We head off the tarmac into a deep forest, very vegetated and damp, almost like a rain forest. As we climbed to the col we detoured to a refuge and decided to stop for lunch, which turned out to be a very wise decision as the heaven’s suddenly opened. We had lots of bread cheese and tomato – it was a great feed! As usual the big map was our table cloth and we studied it and looked at it – we were only just over the halfway mark, maybe 2/3. The reminder to be done the time we had left depressed me a little as I knew it would mean some decisions would have to be made on ways to accelerate our progress.

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We headed off the mountain in more haste as we felt the pressure to press on our travels. At the next valley it looked like we would be heading up a long gorge, however on arrival at tits start the sign said road closed, which meant a detour, but thankfully not that much longer – I was majorly disappointed not to do the Gorge de Huica, we thought about trying it but decided a thwarted route would be a pain and mare our progress some more, on we pedalled on the detour. Day 5 was a tough day and at the next stop we talked about a hotel stop for the night and get a good evening feed and a monster breakfast, Booking.com did not reveal much and I suggested that the trail gods would sort something for us, so on we pressed. We now were at the top end of said gorge and the mountain scenery was stunning, it was a popular spot as would had seen a lot of traffic and folk around holidaying. The next town we headed for was called Fiscal, we had our fingers crossed for finding a place and before too long we were checking into another ideal place. Everything was such good value here in Spain – 90E for dinner B&B for the two of us, and beers only 1.40E a bottle – Bingo!

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Day6 Fiscal to Jaurrieta 163km 3150m

Running out of time and not particularly near to the end of the road…

The previous night’s map studying suggested we had somewhere between 250km and 300km to the finish – a tall order to do in what was ideally just less than 2 days riding, so we planned to defer to the road were possible and try to take the easiest route, while avoiding any main routes. The start out was a bit of an exception to this as we had about 40km on the N260, which traversed the south side of Pyrenees. It wasn’t overly busy, but it did have the appearance of a road built to drive quickly on… and there was a long 3.5km tunnel, which Mark was dreading… We soon reached the tunnel and switched on our lights so we could be legal and seen.

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It was not too bad when in and to our surprise as we entered a large overhead road sign illuminated ‘bicecletas’  80kph > 60kph. Amazing we both thought, the tunnel had recognised our presence and had slowed the traffic – what little there was for us, how nice! Fast progress was made, until we reach a more exposed part in the valley and the wind seemed to funnel into our path, but the kms ticked quickly by and by the mid-morning cola stop we had done some 50-odd kms. Back on the little roads it was pleasant going, but quite up/down again. The hills were a little softer but to the north the main ranges could still be seen. Dinner was had in a beautiful old town called Hecho, were we found a nice grocery and grabbed bread, cheese, tomato, fruit, crisps and drink. We enjoyed the feed before the next long climb to a 1300m high point, through some more spectacular gorges. We picked up a few bits of technical downhill, to spice the ride up a little and it was nice to be whizzing through dark, lush woods then sun-drenched open meadows. We had enjoyed the days ride so far, despite it mostly being tarmac and soon we had reached the part of the map where all the places had ‘Zs’, ‘Xs’, in the name and this was good, as it meant we were getting nearer to the coast.

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We passed through more quaint mountain villages, that look distinctly Austrian/Romanian – certainly not your typical Spanish names or looks – It felt like we’d been transported to Eastern Europe! We found places that served food were few and far between and all busy, so we made do with an expensive delicatessen that night. It was now the evening and we had one quick beer, before we decided to press on and find a sleep spot for the night – the last of the ride it would be… It took some time and was almost dark when we found a little roadside picnic and bbq spot, with nice grass area and a water tap – sorted! Your needs really boil down to simple things on these trips – food – shelter.

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Day 7  Jaurrieta to Hondarribia 137km 1597m

So far the ride had been one of those – rides-of-a-lifetime, so much amazing scenery, lots of nice people and places and lots of great things to remember. The last day is often mixed feelings, but I have to say I was keen to get to the Atlantique, see the family, have a swim and get my sore arse off the this bike. I think the heat and sweat had given me a hard time on this ride and despite feeling okay on the last day I was wanting ‘normal-life’ back! But not before some more kms and hills – but it would be downhill surely…  …as we spent the night at 1000m..?

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We continued on a lovely road crossing rolling countryside in the hole of finding a bar or café open for breakfast, everywhere was still sleepy looking at first light, with no signs of life, it wasn’t until we had done about 35kms of riding that we found a nice little place to stop for breakfast and again we had the usual order of stuff.

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More road continued, quite a big road, but not too busy, however there where a lot of ‘roadies’, coming the other way – I’m guessing out of Pampalona, the next big city some 40km away. Luckily we would not pass through this place and turn on to smaller roads that would take us over our last ‘col’. We passed through some woods and the last climb took an hour to get to the top, it felt good knowing we had downhill to the coast. The road was twisty and it was a good buzz as we raced down, it also noticeable warmed up and at the bottom we found a place for food and final snacks to get us through the last 30-40km. The road had been upgraded, with tunnels and bridges to make it faster for vehicles, cyclists were prohibited and had to go on the old road, which was good, but meant more distance and some extra hills. We soon reached the outskirts of towns, first ‘Irun’ then Hondarriba, it was bustling and busy with cars, the cycle lanes seemed to come and go and it was hard to find the best route through all this metropolis stuff –  our senses were not attuned to this! The exact finish point was not really known but we rode to the beach at the end of the promenade and parked our bikes and waited for the ‘Pilkington Support Team’ to arrive.

The Finish! – After some 580miles and 76,000ft

Post Script.

A journey like this provides lifelong memories of all the special places visited, the hard-ships enroute, the funny moments, the kind/interesting/unusual people we met, the wildlife, the mountain weather  …the list goes on.

I would like to thank Mark for joining in on the expedition, he was a rock-solid, biking companion and sharing the journey with someone like this is really important. You need people with a strong resolve, but also chilled-out to take the rough with the smooth. It would be remise of me not to mention our bikes, which were both impeccably reliable – with not a single mechanical, or puncture or anything, they just performed. My biggest thank you however goes to my family who tolerate, or dare I say support my passion for exploring and adventure and being at one with nature – and that’s with just the basic things you need to stay safe and keep moving. Go and find your journey and do it!

Southern Upland Way – A Labour of Love…

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Getting Hooked…

Last year (that was 2017) I set out about extending my long range bike-pack rides into the borders area of southern Scotland as a new region to explore. It was an area that I for one had passed through many times before when heading to the bigger mountains in the north and it is probably the same case for many others… My first foray was a 3 day expedition from Carlisle to Edinburgh, where I was going to meet the family and go to my cousins wedding – what classier way to arrive than as a dirty hobo bike-packer and make your mark! On this journey I stepped on to the SUW near the Lowther Hills and headed east for many miles. It was a lovely wild trail and what I had done of it had captivated my attention to do more…

The first attempt…

Roll on a couple of weeks and the May time weather was still holding out, also I had been given the offer of a lift from Portpatrick back home. I started to prepare a plan and my kit. I also tried to do some research on the whole route. There was not a huge amount of information, particularly for the Mtber, I did find some interesting descriptions though and this excerpt is worth a mention:

At 212 miles or 341km, the Southern Upland Way is Scotland’s longest official Long Distance Path. Southern Scotland is all too often overlooked by visitors simply seeing it as an area needing to be crossed in order to get from the Scottish Border to the “interesting” parts of the country. Anyone walking all, or even some, of the Southern Upland Way will realise that this too often overlooked part of the country offers plenty of variety, interest and challenge in its own right.

And it is worth holding onto that word “challenge” for a moment. Given the widespread lack of knowledge about southern Scotland, it comes as a surprise to most people to find that the Southern Upland Way is Scotland’s most challenging Long Distance Path. In part this is because it passes through some of the least inhabited and most remote areas of countryside in the United Kingdom; in part it is because it cuts across the grain of the country, involving a series of climbs and descents and a highest point of 725m or 2,378ft; and in part it is because the lengths of individual stages can be very long, up to 27 miles or possibly longer, depending on how you divide the walk.

All of this makes the normal warnings about fitness and equipment levels, and need to be able to read a map and use a compass, especially important. The Southern Upland Way itself is well waymarked. But if you stray from it – always a possibility, especially on upland stretches in poor visibility – you are likely to find yourself, literally, on your own, without any signposting, and possibly a very long way from help. Oh, and quite possibly without a mobile phone signal as well, so “phoning a friend” is often not an option.

Interesting…!

The plan was to get a Thursday PM train to Dunbar, just south of Edinburgh and then cycle to Cockburnspath – a little village, still with a shop and some public toilets, but no pub and little in the way of accommodation, so a bivvy it was – but where…? There is always somewhere to bivvy! I remember it being a cold bivvy (I had a very old sleeping bag, which I was going to bin as I didn’t want to ride with it …perhaps a mistake, see later on…). When I set out at 6am there was a spot of frost on the trail. The weather was good, the trials were quite dry and I had a bit of an easterly tail wind, all this made the journey quite pleasant. My kit was pretty minimal and most of the weight was in my food. I had expected it to take me around 32 hours to complete. I got to the half way point in about 14hrs, which supported my belief in my estimated time. What I had not estimated for was what came next; the tough trail sections in the western half, like crossing the Lowther Hills, then Benbrack, these were really slow going sections and all my flow was lost.

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St Mary’s Loch.

I eventually reached Glen Trool at around 11am after 29 hours of riding, I still had around 45 miles to go. I needed food, coffee, more coffee and a bit of a rest and the café in Glen Trool provided this. While in the café I worked out that the next section could be taking 7-8hrs. Also I was having to manage with a bike problem – the saddle had snapped in the middle and had lost all its support. During the ‘rest’ I had decided that it was better to finish the attempt along NCN roads to Portpatrick. There-by doing a good C2C, but not completing the full SUW. A felt happy and disappointed at the same time, but was not overly fussed as I had had a great ride.

I got to Portpatrick in just under 3 hours from where I had decided to bail and I had a lift home from my brother waiting, I did not really want to abuse his hospitality and to keep him waiting for hours, as he was not there just for me.

Roll on a year and some success…

2018 and gosh how it has turned into the best summer ever – it just keeps on giving! You just can’t ignore these lovely dry trial conditions. When it is warm and dry riding both day and night is a pleasure and so is bivvying. So roll the year on to early July and after the best part of 3 months of non-stop dry weather, my brother Ben mentioned he was heading to the North East and Borders area to see family and do some walking and could  offer me a lift home from the finish at Cockburnspath, up near Edinburgh. Given the opportunity of another nice long adventure ride, it did not take long to convince myself that it was  a good thing to do, especially given the firm terrain and reasonable looking  forecast. So domestic clearances were sought and sorted – yet more brownie points to earn! Then the logistics of getting to Porpatrick had to be worked – luckily a train from my home village to Stranraer would get be there in a pretty respectable 6.30hrs, not the easiest corner of the country to get to…


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River Tweed Crossing

Learning from last time, I knew that a West to East crossing made much more sense. The west half is super tough, yet it does yield some good riding, but it has to be worked at and the rate of progress is quite slow due to this tricky terrain. Once you pass under the M74 the route characteristic change to more flowing and faster trails and far less gates!

The SUW is a tremendous bike-pack journey taking an iconic route across the wilds of Southern Scotland, yet hardly anyone does it…  [see reasons above] The West Highland Way has a hundred walkers for every one walker on the SUW! With a little investment the west section could be made much better for bikes – lets hope they can do something…? I met one other bike-packer – Chris Johnstone doing the whole route, or most of it and then just three other end-to-end walkers, that’s all.

Like last time I went for a non-stop crossing, however this time I did take a sleeping bag as I needed it to bivvy in at the start. I also had a 2hr sleep in some nice woods near to Moffat after 20 hours of riding. This rest was more to give my backside a break, with the all the heat and some extra padded Assos shorts I seemed to be sweatier that usual and sweat is so bad for inducing the chaff syndrome! The rest and some sodocrem really helped.

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Near White Laggan.

This time I did not buzz off-route and stuck to the full way-marked SUW finishing at Cockburnspath at in 38.34. I had supply stops in St Johns, Sanquar, Galasheils and Lauder. Again the Fatster bike performed perfectly and its lack of weight made for an easier job on all the stile and gate lifts and the fat tyres helped it roll over the grass sections. More memories to last a life-time!

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Cockburnspath – the end.