Back to the big fell races

The Old County Tops has been a feature of the year for my friends and me since we first completed it in 2004. It’s a classic long fell race taking in most of the central Lakes and visiting the highest peaks in the old counties of Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire. At 36 miles and 10,000ft it’s a proper challenge but with 12hrs to complete it the skill is pacing and route finding as much as running speed.

We generally run a bit over the winter then build through the spring, moving out to running at Rothbury when the clocks change – all training geared to completing the OCTs, preferably faster than ever. Our high water mark was in 2008 when we got round in 9hrs 30min, although I’m prouder of the mug we won in 2011 as second fastest V80 team (the veteran category being determined by the combined age of the team). The race must be run in a pair so the choice of partner is important – inevitably one is weaker although that may swap as the race progresses.

For various reasons we (Nick, my team mate) haven’t done the race since 2013. I couldn’t in 2014 because of a family wedding and then broke my wrist in any case; in 2015 we were both injured or ill and in 2016 I just thought it was too soon after my neck surgery to be doing that amount of effort – we’re normally pretty broken at the best of times when it’s all over! Frustratingly we were going well in 2013, despite poor weather, but then got lost coming off Coniston Old Man and lost all the advantage and impetus we’d had. So would this year be the best ever?

Conditions should have been very favourable – dry underfoot, cool, clear. There were forecast showers and it was going to be cold but nothing that should be a problem. Since we last did this Nick has become quite obsessive about training and is much fitter than me at the moment. He also analyses all the data relating to the race and had come up with a schedule that he hoped we could follow and which would give us a good finishing time. This was also our last time as V90s – if the race was one day later we’d have been V100s!

It’s 9 miles to the top of Helvellyn and Nick knew exactly how long each mile should take. I was constantly being updated on our progress and despite being the rate limiting factor and feeling I was holding him back we got to Helvellyn bang on schedule. I wasn’t feeling so great though, not bad, just not great. We’d both done the Yorkshire Three Peaks fell race three weeks earlier and I began to wonder if my legs had fully recovered. Also, I’d been ill after the 3 peaks and I wasn’t sure I was fully recovered.

The run down off Helvellyn is brilliant – 2,500ft in 1.5miles it is straight down. Our years of experience has taught us the best route and sure enough we picked up a few places with our tested shortcuts. The checkpoint at the Wythburn car park offers welcome food and drink and we re-fuelled gladly. We were on schedule – 4.15 at Angle Tarn said Nick. One of my insoles had got a bit scrunched up on the descent so I stopped and sorted it out for a couple of minutes.

The next section is not fun – the Wythburn grinds on up but at least this time it wasn’t too boggy. We took a good line down and round from Greenup Edge and then over the hills to Angle Tarn. Often the focus is to get to the next checkpoint and I had made an effort to do it in good time but when we got there Nick looked at me and I could tell from his expression he was concerned about me. I thought I needed to eat so gradually fed myself as we trudged up towards Esk Hause. Trouble was I’d slowed right down and now it was really wet and getting colder as we went up. There’s a shelter just below Esk Hause and we stopped to put more clothes on. As we set off I suggested we wouldn’t  be breaking any records today…..

Conditions worsened. That section up behind Great End is high and exposed and often unpleasant if the weather is poor. This day was cold too, really cold. With our slow pace we weren’t getting any warmer and then my legs cramped up. By the time we’d put our waterproof trousers both of us were shivering uncontrollably and my legs were so cramped I could barely walk. And that was it. After a brief discussion we bailed out. In the space of maybe 20 minutes we’d gone from being pleased with our progress to being seriously concerned about our well-being and although it was hard it was definitely the right decision. We weren’t the only ones either – I wouldn’t be surprised if a third of the field dropped out too.

As soon as we turned round and started heading downhill we felt better but it was still a long walk of shame and a long time until we warmed up again. Amazingly we didn’t get back to the finish before the winners but we did get to see the second finishers and Nicky Spinks break her own record for the women’s team. We don’t normally see the presentation either! At least we got  home in good time and were still able to walk the next day.

Next year….

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The Pennine Bridleway

Somebody bought me the book about the PBW and it seemed like a good way to get to the Manchester area to see my dad. Vague plans began to form then I had a chance to ride down to Sale while Sarah and the boys were further South and meet them before a family holiday.

University holidays meant I could set off on the Wednesday afternoon. Inevitably I was later getting away than expected but it was a lovely day. The PBW starts at Kirkby Stephen or thereabouts so I had to get there first. A few nights poring over maps had found me a suitable route which went over Hexhamshire Common to start with. I thought High Cup Nick would be a good place to stop for the night but I was prepared to stop anywhere if I made good progress.

The first ten miles or so were over minor roads, generally up, so it was good to finally leave the tarmac and start on the bridleway known as ‘The Broadway’. A mile later I was not so happy – trail bikes have chewed up the path and created a deep rut which was difficult, if not impossible to cycle along. I stopped for a photo then realised my sleeping mat had fallen off. It’s bright yellow so I could see it wasn’t far away but I wasn’t planning a run as well as a cycle.

IMG_2131The mat slipped off a few more times before I worked out how to secure it properly. This was getting frustrating……then I relaxed. It was a clear, sunny day; I could see big swathes of Northumberland and Tyneside laid out before me; I’d been looking forward to this for weeks or months; there was no hurry so I just enjoyed it.

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The track improved and soon I bounced down some lovely single track to the road just before Allenheads. It usually takes 1.5 hours to cycle here by the road – it had taken me 3 hours… Over to Weardale then a skirting minor road, past a reservoir and over the next hill by a byway.

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IMG_2136 The whitewashed houses indicated I’d arrived in Teesdale (painted to assist the landowner navigate in the mist apparently) and soon I was passing the end of Cowgreen Reservoir and looking for the Pennine Way path to High Cup Nick.

IMG_2137Whilst not super technical mountain biking this was on the edge of what I could ride easily on The Reiver, especially loaded up, but it was fun enough. Even though I’d seen plenty of pictures of High Cup Nick it’s still stunning when you approach from the East – it just suddenly appears and the head of the Nick is basically the top of a cliff. Conveniently the wind direction made the edge of the cliff the most sheltered spot so I rigged up my tarp and sorted out some tea before dark.

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A chap on the internet suggested there is a bridleway that runs south from HCN over Murton Fell but it wasn’t marked on my map and unfortunately it was misty in the morning so I decided to just follow the Pennine Way down to Dufton instead. Once out of the mist the morning was fine but I knew the forecast was poor for the rest of the day. Following the roads towards Kirkby Stephen I realised I’d missed turning and instead was close to Appleby but off the edge of my map. Instead of turning round and going back I decided to follow a suitable looking bridleway but this was a big mistake. After battling through some fields with long wet grass in I discovered a ford, or rather a river crossing I was supposed to make but it looked about waist deep! Bleeding time I went back to the nearest farm, apologising profusely for not being on the path I asked the farmer how to get to Kirkby Stephen. I’d hoped to be there for breakfast and I was ready for it by the time I got there late at about 10am.

By now it was raining so I decided to follow the road instead of taking the first bit of the PBW. Cheating I know but I was intending to get to Hebden Bridge and spend the night with Brant and Yvonne and that was a long way away. I picked up the PBW at the Moorcock Inn and followed it all the way to Horton in Ribblesdale. It’s well signed and well surfaced and just right for the Reiver.

IMG_2142I covered the most remote, moorlandy bits which was great, despite, or maybe because of, the weather. I was glad to get to Horton for a late lunch though. Again I was well behind schedule so decided to follow the road to Brant’s instead. The PBW would have to wait.

Progress was much quicker, even with 650bx2.1 tyres. Then I got knocked off in Colne! A car turning right hadn’t seen me even though I thought I’d eyeballed him and he’d slowed down as if he had. I’m 6’3″ and I had a bright flashing light on but still. Luckily I was fine bar a few scrapes and a bruise on my thigh and more importantly the bike was fine. I’d had the surgeon’s words in my head all day – the answer to the question of whether I could ride my bike again – “Yes, but don’t fall off”. I’d been so careful all day on the offroad sections then some twerp knocks me off. What was most shocking was that nobody stopped and actually getting to the roadside when I’d established I was ok was really hard because nobody in their little boxes wanted to let me across the road. There’s something incredibly de-humanising about being in a car. Awful. Fortunately the rain soon stopped and the sun came back out and the road over to Hebden Bridge was delightful, if hilly. After 90 miles Brant educated me about the beer in the pub and we had a good nosh and a natter and all was well.

Next day we had some trouser duties then Brant showed me the way onward over pack horse trails and his local tracks.

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The canal towpath is a sustrans route all the way through Manchester and makes an easy and remarkably pleasant way to Sale. Brant had only intended to go with me to Littleborough but he got carried away and went all the way to Sale. We had a pause to take a picture of the two pactbikes at the watershed.

2016-07-29 13.53.11 Canal life is interesting. Some canada geese gave an impressive display of formation flying and landing. A heron decided to fly along with us. Naughty motorcyclists blasted past us as did a lad on a tweaked e-bike. And fishermen – were they really all fishing or was it just a cover for some nefarious activity? We sat on the pavement outside Greggs in Newton Heath and ate pasties and cakes and Brant let out a shout as another pair of trousers were sold. Some local lads thought he’d caught a Pokemon but were still impressed by his level!

So we rolled into Sale safe and sound. Brant obviously hadn’t brought a change of clothing so had to borrow some from my dad – that’s what uncles are for isn’t it? I reflected on a mostly off-road trip through the North of England – I need to go back and do the bits I missed but what a great journey. More please.

The Artisan Baker

I’ve been baking bread for our family since 2007. Once a week my routine involves making enough bread rolls for the week which then get frozen and defrosted as necessary. I like it. It’s quite therapeutic kneading dough and it’s been good for rebuilding strength and dexterity firstly after breaking my wrist and then after falling off my bike last year. Generally the bread I make has flour, yeast, salt and water in it. I’ve also dabbled with hot cross buns, olive bread sticks and we have pizza most Fridays with home made bread base. I’ve dabbled a bit with sourdough and recently found a mouldy old rye starter at the back of the fridge…..

Visiting my French friend Marianne and her family after our cycling trip I was delighted to find that her brother-in-law, Olivier, was an artisan baker and that the day after we arrived was baking day. He was quite happy for me to watch (and even help) but suggested I came to the bakery at 7am because he needed to concentrate for the first hour! Olivier and his family live in a converted barn next door to Marianne’s mother and father’s converted barn. Marianne’s father bought their barn and some land when he came back from the Ivory Coast in the 80’s. That land is now in use growing organic wheat for Olivier and fruits and vegetables and a few animals.

I stumbled into the bakery which had been made at one end of the barn at 7am and found the brioche well on its way and most of the rest of the dough being mixed and kneaded by a big machine. A spreadsheet showed the quantities of flour and other ingredients needed based on the number of loaves of different types required. Most of these were to meet regular orders and the rest would go on the village market. All the while the oven was being stoked with wood from their land (of course).

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The brioche was made with yeast, the rest with a ‘levain’ – what we would call a starter. This is basically using the natural yeasts that are present on wheat grains and have been allowed to ferment to the extent that the bubbles produced are enough to raise a loaf of bread. The final mix of dough was using a wheat called petite epeuatre, an ancient variety which has less gluten in it and is genetically different such that some people with gluten intolerance could eat it without any problem. Of great interest to Sam.

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The whole process was very carefully managed with exact quantities of flour and salt, etc being weighed to the gram and temperatures accurately measured. Olivier explained that when the 2016 wheat was available he would introduce it gradually to see how it behaved and adjust the quantities as needed. Each harvest has different properties because of the unique set of weather conditions it grew in affecting the amount of gluten and so on. Written on the master sheet of ingredients was 6h28 – the time the first mix of dough had started its first rise. It needed 4 hours which meant we had time for breakfast after we’d rolled out and plaited the brioche. Mine was noticeably more wrinkly than those done by Sophie, Olivier’s wife who’d come to help.

All the time we chatted and discussed the lifestyle he and his family had. They “work like slaves but eat like kings”. Olivier agreed they were very lucky and suggested that their business might not work so well were they not in a wealthy village with a decent sized town nearby. Artisan status is not necessarily anything to do with skill (although an unskilled baker would soon be out of business), more to do with the size and tax status of the trade being carried out. They were part of a group of organic manufacturers and could sell each other’s products, all within 50km radius.

Time for the next stage. By now the oven was hot enough for the brioche which gets baked at a slightly lower temperature than the bread so in it went.

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We got to work shaping the rest of the dough. Big boxes of dough were emptied onto a floured worktop and stretched. Next a piece was cut off – 500g or 1000g – and shaped by rolling it whilst stretching out the surface or folding the edges under to make a round shape. Some were in tins, some were in the folds of some heavy cloth, some were baguette shaped, some were sprinkled with sesame seeds. By now Sam was helping and Olivier joked that he would be losing money because we were so slow. Once all the loaves were shaped the first ones were ready to go in the oven, the brioche was out and the temperature was up. The final flourish was to make a cut in the surface of the dough in a different pattern according to what shape or type of loaf it was.

So here’s the thing – Olivier bakes on a Thursday and goes to the village market then again on a Saturday. They have a farm shop, open only on a Thursday afternoon, where they sell jams and preserves that Sophie makes as well as produce from other local suppliers. That’s it. The rest of the time they are farming. I guess their overheads are low, their food bills are non-existent  but I’m amazed that it works. Can you imagine that in the UK? Clearly the French value the skills of artisan food producers and the fact that the food is organic and completely traceable and they’re prepared to pay for it. Obviously it isn’t possible for everyone to live like this but for those that choose it the lifestyle appears amazing. Then again it was hot and sunny and we were on holiday!

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I made some brioche as soon as I got home and it went down well. I’m working on the sourdough and getting a feel for it. I think it will be a while before I buy 8 hectares of land to grow my own wheat…..

On a related note, my cousin (bike designer of the Reiver) has started up a trouser business with a friend in Hebden Bridge. The town was known as trouser town and he found a barely functioning factory within 100m of his house and they’ve started making quality moleskin and cord trousers. The first batch of 176 sold out in 5 hours! Made in Britain using locally sourced fabrics. When I visited recently I helped pack some trousers for posting out to customers – accompanied by Bangra music chosen by the DJ. Sure there’s a process but basically the trousers go in a bag then in a sack which Brant carries through Hebden Bridge like Santa Claus to the post office. Other pairs are collected from a local bar (where customers can try on samples beforehand). Surely this is how it should be. It’s certainly made me think again about how I consume and what it’s worth paying for. Maybe this is what a post-Brexit UK will end up like – full of artisan bakers and trousermakers.

Alpine cyclisme.

Sam’s finished his GCSEs so we’ve been to the Alps. What a trip! We set off with nothing but a channel tunnel crossing booked, £600 of euros and a vague idea of where to go.

Getting there was quite hard going. We left on the Wednesday evening, drove to Cambridge and camped on Aunt Rach’s lawn. Up fairly early, onward down to the channel tunnel and a slightly earlier crossing than booked. Which was then delayed. Whether it was because of Brexit or Boris Johnson announcing he didn’t want to be PM, who knows, but we didn’t get to France until about 4pm and decided a news blackout was a good idea. Stopped at Troyes for a meal and ended up staying there for the night after passing through some pretty impressive rainstorms. A pleasant mediaeval town centre but just a big French city in the middle of some uninspiring countryside (for us) and not what we’d come for.

Better weather the next day and a temperature that just kept on rising until we arrived at Allemont, along the road from Bourg d’Oisans and at the foot of the road to the Col de la Croix de Fer and the Col du Glandon. I’d had a quick look beforehand and found a campsite that was half the price of the others and when we got there we discovered it was because there was no bar or pool. Perfect.

Eager to  be on the bikes we set off through Allemont towards the barrage (dam) at the top of the village. It was the day before the Marmotte Cyclosportive so there were hundreds of cyclists out stretching their legs on their incredibly fancy bikes. We headed off up the hill then turned towards Vaujany for a proper climb. I’d expected long, twisting roads uphill but fairly steady gradients that allowed you to just spin up with graceful coolness. No. Within a couple of turns my heart was pounding, sweat was pouring and I was so glad I’d put a 32t block on the back and cursed I hadn’t put a smaller chainring on the front! Sam pulled away and I resolved to make my own way up these hills. Once through Vaujany we stopped for a rest. I felt dizzy, sick and ridiculously hot and eagerly dowsed myself in the roadside fountain, probably breaking all the rules of the local administration in the process. I also realised I’d only had a tin of  mackerel fillets for lunch and that was a while ago and had probably been used up! The road carried on up and so did we, intrigued to see where it went and how far we could get. Eventually after 13.5 miles of up we got to the Col du Sabot at 2100m having ascended more than the height of Ben Nevis but the views across the other side towards the Glandon and Croix de Fer made it all worthwhile and the local geography started to make sense.

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Now it was cold and we needed to get back before the shop shut and get ourselves sorted in the campsite but, of course, the return journey was MUCH faster.

2016-07-01 17.48.37 Dodging the cow muck, staying upright when crossing the gravel and judging the speed through the hairpins was all great fun and soon we were eating ice cream before stocking up on food in the village shop. Satisfied and excited we settled in for some much needed rest before day 2.

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Day 2.

I’d left the route choice to Sam but there was no discussion about this one – the Alpe!

Apparently the target time is below an hour so as soon as we hit the bottom I suggested Sam could disappear and I would make my own way up. He’d gone by the time I got to the first bend but I just plodded on keeping my heart rate steady at a level I knew I could sustain. Sometimes I passed people, often they passed me. The views gradually opened out. The engineering involved in the road construction is remarkable, even the idea to make a road here is amazing. Each numbered bend (counting down to the top) is dedicated to a famous cyclist and has a board full of stats. All these things occupied my mind as I ground up the hill. The Marmotte finishes up here and as I entered the town some glamorous and sensible people sitting in a cafe were cheering and clapping folk who looked like they needed it. I met Sam coming down from the top to find me – he’d taken ten minutes less than me to get there. Eventually we declared the hill conquered and I demanded a sit down to recover.

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We found somewhere to eat and the first finishers of the Marmotte were arriving to great applause – quite rightly. Our route took us over the Col du Sarenne and sadly the weather packed up and we descended in heavy rain and wind. It doesn’t last long and by the time we’d warmed up at a lovely Salon de the on the way down (3euro for two hot chocolates!) the sun was almost back out.

P1100317Soon we could see the main road down from the Galibier and it was full of the thousands taking part in the Marmotte.

P1100318We joined them and had a blast down on the closed roads, through tunnels (scary in sunglasses) and passing crowds of cheering spectators. We latched onto the back of a short train of blokes who kindly dragged us into Bourg d’Oisans before they continued up the Alpe. All we had to do was get some more food and eat it.

Day 3.

There was a little more discussion this time about where we should go but in reality there was only one choice that wasn’t too intimidating or far away and that was the Col de la Croix de Fer. You get the Col du Glandon tacked on too because it’s only a few hundred metres up from the main road so it would be rude to miss it. The route started up the road we’d already travelled on the first day through Vaujany but this time we would continue up past the reservoir we’d seen from the top of the Col du Sabot. Either we were getting used to it or this was a bit easier but the initial section passed very pleasantly as the road wiggled up through the forestry.

P1100322Soon the village of Rivier d’Allemont was passed then surprisingly downhill for a few hairpins – noted for the return that there was more climbing here. More strenuous climbing up to the Lac de Grand Maison then things opened out and we could see where we were going in the distance.

P1100325After some undulations in the open country we eventually arrived at the restuarant below the Col du Glandon.

Once again I seemed to have run out of fuel. Sam eats a gluten free diet, something that is often poorly understood nor accommodated in France it seems, and the problem of trying to find him some food, and find a seat, and decide what I wanted (FOOD!) caused the proprietor to take control, make me sit down and behave as if I was in a restuarant! Soon we had full meals in front of us and after that the world was a much better place. Only a few km more led us to the top of the Croix de Fer where the best view of the trip so far awaited us.

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P1100336 Many people had made the journey and there was some rotation of people wanting pictures next to the iconic signposts and view points. At the same time the top was buzzed every few minutes by someone on a helicopter flying loops around the mountains.

Time to move to on and our first taste of overtaking cars on the way back down to the Glandon and another photocall.

P1100339Then down and down, reliving the moments of the ascent as they flew past. The re-ascent to Riviere was nothing to be feared in the end being fairly insignificant compared with what had gone before. Onward down through the woods, this time mixing it up the motorbikers who couldn’t always pass us through the bends. Exhilarating for sure.

We’d got the evening meal sorted by now – either sausages or steak with boiled potatoes and salad – quick and easy and just the job.

Day 4

It felt like we should have an easier day. The obvious objective that we were mulling over was the Col du Galibier but at over 2600m and about 70 miles that was a little daunting. Instead we set off up the road opposite our campsite towards Villard Reclulas.

Within a mile or so we saw a group of about 8 cyclists up ahead, moving more slowly than we were. Sam inevitably picked up the pace a little and we soon caught them and discovered they were all English apart from their French host who seemed to have a little more ‘baggage’ than any of them and was finding it tough up the hill. I started to chat with them and discovered they were all from Essex and had come to do the Marmotte. This was their first ride out after that having taken the day after off as a rest day! Apparently the biggest hill in Essex is 98m high – how they’d trained for the Marmotte I have no idea but they’d all got round, some in very impressive times. Chatting passed the time and we soon arrived in Villard Reculas having barely noticed the climb. We paused for some photos and to take in the atmosphere and discuss mountaineering with one of the Essex lads – his friends obviously knew he could talk as they just pushed off without him leaving him to chase after them once he realised!

DSCN1467 Having got rid of our post cards to the passing post lady we continued on towards the village of Huez.

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The road was to become one of the famous French ‘balcony’ roads and although we weren’t at the dramatic section yet we did have a sense that we were traversing the side of the valley at a high level.

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The village of Huez coincided with what felt like lunchtime so we stopped on a terrace and ordered some lunch. Here I discovered that it is possible to order a sandwich even if it is not on the menu and having confirmed there was nothing gluten free the proprietor was happy for Sam to eat his own sandwiches on the terrace. This is the village of the eponymous Alpe and Sam explained to me how the pastor of the church had been Dutch when the Tour de France began and had rung the bell whenever there was a Dutch winner of a stage. The corner on the main road up is still known as Dutch Corner and is covered in orange on race days.

Having stopped to admire ourselves in the mirror we dropped down a few bends then continued along the real balcony road towards Auris.

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What an incredible place! There were sections where the road is literally chiselled out of a cliff face and a memorial along the side indicated that this was done in 1902. Why? I couldn’t find out a reason except that it links the villages without having to go right back down to the valley and back up again.

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Being France the precipitous drop was protected by a huge 18″ of concrete at the side of the road.

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Travelling by bicycle was by far the best way of taking this in – passers by in cars miss so much as well as struggling with oncoming traffic.

Below Auris the ascent of Deux Alpes begins and we’d thought about going up here at the end of the day. I think we were both a little tired and considered not  going up but in the end we did. Less steep and shorter than the Alpe d’Huez it was no less an effort at the end of the day but again worth it for the views, the ice cream at the top and the descent. It’s also popular with mountainbikers and the armour clad downhillers were something we hadn’t yet seen. I’d had my second ever days skiing here in 1991 and I remember it as the place I learned to turn where I wanted rather than 50 yards past where I intended to.

Apart from a bumpy corner 10 on the way down we had no problems and were prepared for the tunnels this time as well. We spotted the Essex boys on the roadside and bumbled our way home on the biggest day so far.

We’d had fun watching an English couple at our campsite who were clearly cyclists and runners but seemed reluctant to talk to us. He spent hours cleaning and fettling his bikes so we came back eager to see what cleaning had been done today. More pressing was the fact that the car battery was flat after we’d charged mobile phones,etc without starting it up. I asked the helpful campsite owner and he produced an ancient battery charger for us to plug in overnight.

Day 5

The only remaining obvious objective was the Col du Galibier. Sam had been hesitant about this because he thought it was too far away and too high to do from the campsite so we decided to drive up to the Barrage at the foot of the Deux Alps climb to start. This meant we had to get the car started though and the ancient battery charger hadn’t worked overnight. I approached a Dutch chap on the campsite because he had a suitably large car and I guessed he would speak good enough english to understand what I needed. Once he had finished his substantial breakfast we were gratefully on our way.

The road we’d gone up yesterday was closed to cars with a policeman and a ‘flamme rouge’ at the entrance. This is something which happens every Tuesday morning so that cyclists can enjoy the roads without cars on. Imagine that in this country – if Hartside was closed for the morning for cyclists there would be outrage!

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We’d seen on the Sarenne day that the normal road round the Lac du Chambon was closed and an emergency road had been made on the south side of the lake. Although this was a temporary road (and technically closed to all but local traffic) they’d gone to town in building it and there were some impressive machines with long legs designed for working on steep sided roads.

La Grave was the first place of any note and we paused for something to eat (I was getting the hang of this) and to gaze at the lower slopes of the Meije. A couple of teenage lads and an older man (a Guide or their father – not clear) had just come down off the chairlift following a mountaineering excursion by the look of it and reminded me of past adventures.

Beyond here there were some tunnels (we had our lights this time) and more pastoral mountain scenery and some smelly goats before we got to the Col du Lautaret for lunch. The top of the Lautaret is really the start of the Galibier which is a further five miles up!

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The scale of these passes and mountains is staggering. This was a bit more like I was expecting though – the gradient was a little easier and I didn’t always feel the need for my lowest gear.

At the top the weather was starting to close in. It was windy and rain was in the air and the other side of the pass looked a little more menacing. A kind lady took a photo of us together but declined my offer to return the favour – “It’s better if my husband and his wife don’t see us together” she said!

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So we turned and headed back down. Sam didn’t like this descent, fearing the consequences of a mistake with the steep sided bends, but the rain stayed off and soon we were back at the Lautaret. Now we had a headwind. It seemed a bit cruel having to pedal hard to maintain a reasonable speed downhill but still easier than on the way up. On and on it went driving home the point that we’d gone a heck of a long way up – 20 miles in fact. Gradually getting warmer as we got back to warmer air we were eventually undulating or way past the lake and back to the car and that was it – cycling done. Special tea tonight with extra salad.

Day 6

We were meeting an old University friend of mine in Grenoble so we’d mostly packed the night before then went for a run before leaving the campsite. Tired legs!

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Had a fantastic time with Marianne and all her family and Sam enjoyed trying out his GCSE French with her nieces and nephews. I had a fascinating morning with her brother in law – an artisan baker and we returned home with the smell of fresh bread filling the car. I’m going to write some more about the artisan baker in another post.

1000 miles of Reiver-ing

Seems like an appropriate milestone for an update.

Still loving this bike so much that I really haven’t ridden any others. I re-built my Scandal singlespeed, partly as an exercise in encouraging dexterity and strength but mainly because Brant borrowed the Reiver while I couldn’t ride it. I’ve probably ridden 10 miles on it since. Last night I put the wheels on the Uncle John and rode round the block. It’s good, of course, but I took the wheels back off and put them on the Reiver.

When Brant borrowed it he put a really short stem on (and a smaller chainring but it’s hilly where he lives). I swapped the stem back but then he complained and explained that he’d designed it for a shorter stem. In the end I found a stem somewhere in between and now I’m used to it that’s perfect. Actually having a less stretched out position may be more comfortable for my neck as well. So the front hub is well in front of the bars and the steering is lively.

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I started out with Midge Bars as they seemed appropriate for the intended use but the way I had them set up meant the lower section was short and angled downwards. It occurred to me that  this makes it easier for hands to fall off the bars when riding on the drops if there is a sudden jolt (I’m desperately seeking reasons why I fell off!) so I started experimenting with other bars. When I had my bike fit done they fitted some 46cm Salsa PRT3 bars which I really liked, especially the width. They don’t make them any more but Cowbells are the same design but with a flare in the drops. I’ve fitted these and I’m very happy with them.

I’ve done all sorts of riding on it now. Through the winter I used some Schwalbe Dureme 700x40c tyres which work well on the road and are surprisingly grippy off-road too. For days when I knew I’d be going on tracks then the 650b wheels came out. I helped out marshalling for the ‘Dirty Reiver’ gravel bike event in April – 200km on the forest tracks round Kielder. My marshalling point was beside a ford which provided great entertainment – everyone asked how deep it was (hub deep!), whether it was ridable (maybe 50% made it), if anyone had fallen in (maybe 5-6 including one of the ‘sweepers’!). There’s a lot on the web about the event which was well received and most reports mention the ford – surely the best marshalling spot. In the end I spent most of the time re-building a poor chap’s chain so that he could continue (slowly) rather than walk back 11 miles to the feed station.

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I love riding it with either wheelset on but especially with the 650b wheels – it just feels like you could go absolutely anywhere. I’ve currently got the 700c wheels with road tyres on but this feels a bit limiting! It’s only because I’m trying to keep up with Sam. We’re going to the Alps when GSCEs are finished to ride up and down some passes.

I’ve just built a dynamo front wheel using the Alpkit Love Mud dynamo. The plan is to have some means of charging phones/Garmin, etc rather than lighting but I’ll probably try a light too. I’m going to try and ride to Manchester down the Pennine Bridleway over a couple of days in the summer and this makes it a bit more self-sufficient. Bikepacking is all the rage anyway.

Six months 0n

I’ve just had my birthday; I’ve now notched up 1000 miles on the Reiver – 600 miles of which I might never have been able to do; it’s been six months since my neck operation. All things which have prompted some reflection.

The ‘fizzing’ in my hands described in the previous post has settled into a bit of dysaesthesia on the back of both hands between first finger and thumb. It’s quite variable, even during the day, but crucially it doesn’t seem to affect function and strength and co-ordination have gradually returning to normal. Dysaesthesia is something which, for some people, has  a profound effect on their lives causing them to dwell on their symptoms and to structure their lives and activities in ways that avoid provoking discomfort. I think I’ve probably got it in a mild version but I decided to just get on with it – I’m wearing slightly bigger gloves at work for comfort but otherwise behaving as normal.

The surgery on my neck happened a month before Christmas.  This was ACDF of C5/C6 – basically removing the disc between two vertebrae and fusing them – to re-create the space lost by ageing. Recovery was uneventful although I realised I was affected physically more than I appreciated at the time. The week after the surgery Storm Desmond arrived and we wandered down to the river to have a look. In the end we probably walked 2-3 miles but the last half mile home took some focus to keep putting one foot in front of the other, like at the end of a big endurance run! This leaden feeling lasted a couple of months before suddenly lifting in early February.

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The surgeon said I could cycle (“as long as you don’t fall off”) but not to run for three months. Riding a bike again was surprisingly fine – you never forget – but I’d lost some proprioception in my right leg which meant that my foot would fly off the pedal at the top of the stroke unless it was clipped in. Weird. This gradually disappeared and I’ve just realised I rode a bike last night without being clipped in and never even thought about it so it must be fine. I wasn’t allowed to  cycle alone for a good while so when joining in with our usual Wednesday night runs I would cycle with two doctors on hand just in case.

Around Christmas I was out for a walk when I noticed that dipping my head down produced a startling tingling sensation in my left leg. I’d noticed a strange sensory disturbance in my left leg before – as if a layer of tissue inside was numb – but this was different and disconcerting. It was brought on by exercise and eventually passed once I’d stopped but nobody, including the surgeon, seemed to know what was causing it. The amount of exercise  needed to start it got less and less and the area affected spread to both legs and up my sides. Eventually another MRI scan – with me in different positions squeezed into the scanner – showed nothing except some residual oedema (fluid) in the spinal cord in the area where the original trauma had been. Presumably bending my neck was causing the cord to slide and this irritated area was producing some strange sensations. Just confirming how lucky I’ve been but reassuring that nothing else was going on. A patient suggested I should “embrace the tingle” so that’s what I’ve done.

Running in this state was a bit strange but I’ve gradually got back into it. Both that and cycling have pretty much returned to normal. By the digital benchmarks of strava and the physical benchmark of my 16 year old son I’m not as fit as I was but just delighted to be able to do any of it. I suspect the graph of Sam’s improvement and my decline have crossed anyway so he can have the baton!

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As I don’t actually remember the accident I’ve not had any flashbacks thankfully. I’m much more cautious descending off-road, partly due to confidence and partly imagination and awareness of what could happen. Sometimes I shudder when going at 20mph and imagining hitting a tree or hedge at that speed…..

This is really just a record for me to remember my progress at this stage but if anyone with a similar spinal injury reads it and wants to compare notes then please do get in touch.

 

The Reiver

Cyclocross bikes are everywhere these days – some even suggest they are the ‘gateway drug’ of choice for mountain bikers who want to get into the growing road cycling. When I got mine, in 2007, it was just a model in the range of then new brand Genesis (a range, including single speed road and MTBs, steel frames, hardcore hardtails, in fact not a million miles away from that of a certain Yorkshire web based mountainbike company…) stocked by our local shop. Its robustness made sense to me who had recently discovered my enthusiasm for cycling along with my old Raleigh ‘racer’ in the back of the garage and felt the need of an update. Northumberland roads can be rough, at least the interesting ones can be, so having wheels that wouldn’t explode and a frame that wouldn’t snap seemed like a good idea. I had no intention of riding my Vapour off-road and stuck some road slicks on it straight away.

Curiosity got the better of me after a couple of years and if you read back through this blog you’ll see I ended up doing the legendary Three Peaks Cyclocross five times along with many other ‘cross type events. On top of Ingleborough I usually think how useful it would be to have a mountain bike but there is a certain perverse pleasure in piloting an unsuitable bike at times like that. In fact, on a recent holiday in Wales, Sam and I headed off, mapless, into the forest near Machynlleth and ended up riding down what was basically a full-on down-hill mountain bike track. We were on ‘cross bikes, with slick, road tyres but the grins on our faces said it was brilliant, if sketchy, fun!

After I broke my wrist last year I found riding a flat handlebar’d bike more uncomfortable than a drop barred bike. Even off-road on a ‘cross bike was more comfortable than the same on a suspension MTB with a flat bar. I’ve always had a hankering for a ‘cross bike with fat tyres (known as a Monstercross bike by some) and suddenly this concept became even more attractive. At about this time my cousin Brant was setting up his new company, Pactbikes, and he was talking about 650b wheels (the new MTB standard) having the same diameter as road wheels and tyres. Disc brakes means that wheels can easily be swapped and the idea of a bike with a couple of sets of swappable wheels seemed so versatile that I couldn’t resist trying it out.

The Kielder 101 event (next weekend) was advertised as being open to Monstercross bikes too. I asked Brant if he could make me a suitable bike and after several months of musing, discussing and throwing designs back and forwards my bespoke Pactbike frame arrived last week.

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What would it be like? Would everything fit? How would it ride? Would it be too much of a compromise in all areas?

Well, it’s brilliant! Firstly the frame seems very well made, smooth welds and all of that. Everything fitted together perfectly. The fork has masses of clearance – 650bx2.1 easily fits with room to spare. It’s all surprisingly light – 11.4kg with 650b wheels and mtb tyres on.

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I’ve built it with 1×10. A 9sp rear mech works perfectly with a 10sp STI shifter and, although I was worried about the gearing, I think it’ll be fine. Another concern was using a MTB chainset – something that aids the clearance for wider tyres – but really it’s fine. Maybe Graham Obree wouldn’t like it but increasing the Q factor by 6mm really isn’t a big deal.

So how does it ride? Well, magnificently.

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This is not a drop-barred MTB, this is a ‘cross bike with the comfort and grip of a MTB but with geometry that allows you to go fast off-road and on the inevitable road sections linking bits of trail. That statement probably gives some insight into my intended use for this bike. I’m not going to put it in the car and drive to Glentress. This is more about riding around on the tracks and trails around here which are what is considered XC mountainbiking these days – nothing too steep or technical, just rough. I want to just ride my bike and explore – this is about enjoying myself, not racing or chasing Strava segments. I’ve never been competitive, either in nature or ability, and getting older doesn’t improve my chances of either getting better!

So, it’s great off-road and the trade off of extra drag with bigger tyres (2.1 Smart Sams) seems minimal compared with, say 35c, ‘cross tyres. What about on-road? Well, surprisingly good with 700×40 tyres on! Again the fit and geometry are familiar and the handling is secure.The gearing is a bit more limited at the top end but having ridden a single-speed bike spinning out or pushing high gears is fine. Plus you get to use the whole block instead of wearing away the same three or four sprockets.

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It’s early days in this relationship but so far I’m thrilled. This bike is more than I ever hoped it could be and I’m looking forward to exploring both the countryside and its abilities. I reckon there’ll be loads of bikes like this in years to come. If you fancy one give Brant a shout!