Mount Keen is a good day on the bikes, doubly so when taken with the Fungle road.
The loop is a long shift taking in everything from some superb singletrack through to long tough climbs and fast fire road descents. Its has been a tradition for me to do the loop at least once a year for a while now and I’m still undecided whether it is best tackled clockwise or anticlockwise.
Clockwise, you unfortunately climb the absolutely sublime Fungle singletrack but Descend the north side of mount keen, which is as testing a natural descent your likely to find. Anticlockwise you get the ridiculously fast LRT down from Keen to Tarfside with its water bars giving you ample opportunities to boost off of, as well as the glorious ribbon down to Birse Castle finishing off with the Fungle in the downward and correct direction.
They both have their charms
It is a great litmus test for fitness and as training loop for events like the Tour de Ben Nevis, the route being only slightly shorter with essentially the same climb, albeit on a faster course than the Tour De ben’s.
My course record was clockwise as 4:21:22, If I did the Tour at that pace I would be incredibly happy with my fastest Tour time being 5:33:15 in 2014. Frustrating as I knew that race could of been faster had I ran it smarter and keep my food intake up and drank more to avoid cramping, but we’re not here to talk about failed race strategy.
Here are some shots from the loop collected over a few years.
Some people would warn against emotional attachment to objects, they would say that a bike is simply a tool that serves a function, versatile it may be it is still a just a utilitarian object. I am not one of those people, having spent the long hours together I know not only the characters and capabilities of my bikes but their names also.
Sven is a Specialized Hardrock, he is not a flashy frame, nor a poorly conceived one. he is part of a long line that through gradual refinement and evolution has led to him being a compliant, comfortable, fast and adaptable frame. If we borrowed language from the drug world he would be a “gateway bike”, easy to ride, forgiving to beginners but fast and surprisingly capable once you’ve gotten to know him.
Hardrocks are usually considered a beginners entry level bike, they have a special place in many peoples hearts as they introduced them to riding. I rode mountain bikes as a teenager, but after a long break when I discovered gin and other distractions at university Sven reminded me of what I didn’t know I had missed.
I wanted a Hardrock that was unique, the build has been a continuous project which has left no component stock. I liked the colour and graphics but the paint was a little tired and my tastes in colourways has matured. A respray was the answer.
I spoke about Fat Creations in a previous post, having had some email conversations with Ali at Fat Creations I started the tricky process of designing my own colour and graphics package.
ruling out everything from murdered out stealth to candy apple red I settled on a petrol blue and teal colourway in metallic pearl paint.
With the RAL codes confirmed I parceled Sven up and confused the local post office with the size of the box and waited impatiently for Christmas.
Needless to say, Ali did a stunning job the photo’s honestly don’t do it justice as the depth of paint and metallic finish really sing in natural light. All that is left to do is to build him back up, get some nice finishing touches and take the time to service and build the best bike he can be.
I ride bikes to test myself, make a measure of where I am and to go inside.
To lose myself in the work, the trail, the flow, repeating the rites that make up the routine of riding bikes. Routine it may sometimes be but the anticipation for the ceremony can begin days in advance, the thoughts and lessons from the last observance repeated in my mind.
On the day of the ride wearing clean kit with bottles filled and bags packed I perform the rituals, I check the bike, the tyre pressures, the brakes, some bolts but not all. Turning the cranks I pass the chain rosary like through my hands, applying oil one last time before I depart.
leaving early the dawn yet to fully break around me I enter the woodland, the early light slowly working through the canopy, mature trees buttressing high above the trail-head. The cold has worked into my fingers but my core is warm with the effort of the climb, it is never long before my hands have acclimatized and I become unmoved by the cold.
The climb is fast as winter has frozen the long autumns worth of water and rain in the ground, giving cold sure grip. Breathing slow and deep I take in the woodland, drinking deep from the ever changing yet familiar trails, time disappears as vertical metres are gained.
I run through the little motions that precede descending, clipping in I begin to build momentum, I ease around turns with the bike telling me what the ground feels like beneath its tyres, he lets me know when it is safe to attack and when to be prudent. The silent song of the trail plays loud in my ears, the satisfying silence of a well prepped bike broken only by the whirring click of the freehub and the buzz from tyres compressing through turns.
Breaking through the tree line and back onto the fire road that punctuates the landscape, it marks the end of the single track. Carving to a stop I lean heavy on the bars and breath deep, I pause and let it soak into me.
The fire starting to recede in my legs I clip back in and crank it back up the hill to earn another descent, I climb then descend, climb then descend.
I climb then descend, climb then descend.
The light is growing now as we enter the golden hour, shafts of light break through the canopy creating pools of rippling gold in the under story either side of the trail. The sounds to have started to change, as melt water drips heavy from the boughs above, disturbed by the birds flitting from tree to tree.
Time has again disappeared and the day is starting to dawn for those back indoors, its time to thread a path through fire road and trail back to home. The route possibilities running through my mind I quickly decide on the best use of time and height to return home on singletrack, I clip in once more.
Sometimes words are an inadequate medium. Sometimes pictures are all that you need.
In John Berger’s fabulous book Ways of Seeing, a collection of seven essays, three consist solely of images. These essays are no less detailed or illuminating than the other four which use both words and pictures.
So, here we have the story of a thwarted adventure at Loch Muick, a Munro bagged, and a plan B route taken. But I didn’t need to tell you that, if the pictures do their job properly.
they don’t think they are “proper” mountain biking. They think the guaranteed conditions and sanitized nature of the trails dilutes the challenge, complementing a poor rider’s lack of skill or fitness.
Right or wrong, these people have obviously never been to Fort William and ridden the NevisRange.
Looking through old photos, I am reminded how lucky I was to get out there three times last year; twice racing (1o Under the Ben and Tour De Ben Nevis), and once on a guided ride session and general jolly.
For me, Fort William (not “Fort Bill”) has a special feel about it. There is something in the air or dirt that makes it different from other riding spots. It carries a heritage for our sport that few places, and nowhere else in the UK, can match.
I grew up not far from Fort William, but the sense of home I feel when I return to Kingussie or Aviemore is present here as well; it’s like coming up for air. The town itself can be a bit bleak, with the backs of shop units and hotels bizarrely facing out on to the waterfront with anonymous housing estates fringing the town like so many places, but its somehow different here.
The natural riding from the town is next level, with short, steep tech through to long-and-arduous all being catered for, but we’re talking about trail centres here.
The Nevis Range itself is a little way out of town just past Torlundy, the road snaking its way through mature woodland, the views of Aonach Mòr and Nevis itself obscured by the canopy and clouds. The hill has an elevation gain we’re not used to in the UK, from sea level to the UK’s highest peak in such a short distance gives the hill a monolithic quality.
Ben Nevis above
Fort William below
Ben Nevis rarely seen
The trails here present an embarrassment of riches. Two are accessed by the gondola, whilst below the deer fence among the trees, lies a full network of testing ribbons of singletrack. From the sublime World Cup XC Red and Witches Trails, through to stalwart stages of both the SES and Tour De Ben, to name but a few.
Gondola-accessed trails are a rare thing, the Nevis Centre is the only place in the UK to boast such a luxury, and if you have travelled to Fort William to ride, chances are these two trails brought you: the infamous World Cup Downhill course, and the “red” graded Red Giant XC route.
If you like mountain bikes, then the Fort William stage of the World Cup needs no introduction. The track is legendary, and has been a consistent stage on the race circuit since it was first included back in 2002. The track is as tough on bikes as it is on riders; it will reward you for going big, but will punish you for getting over-ambitious. I once rode it on a 100mm XC HT, it was like descending into the heart of darkness. I am surprised that my hands still work.
Setting off down the other side of AonachMòr, there is the XC red option if the downhill track is a bit too much. If you’re thinking a red route is a groomed Spooky Wood, prepare to adjust your expectations and true your wheels afterwards. Before you embark on the gondola you have to sign a waiver and fill in medical details. This is for the XC red as much as the DH; if they called it an XC orange or a pedally DH, less people would come.
It is both fast and slow, flowing and technical, it is a trail to measure yourself against, to see where you have progressed, and to be humbled by the hill as it shines a light on your weaknesses.
Starting off on a fast sprint where speed comes for free, you all too quickly reach the boardwalk. When dry, the acceleration only increases as you traverse the hillside with the roaring thunder of the boards beneath your wheels. Large slabs of grippy granite, interspersed with stacatto drops and bridges, bring you steeply down the hill before a slight uphill reminds you this is a cross country trail.
Crossing the saddle
The gradient soon drops again with multiple line choices, more drops and bridges. Painted dots on the stone guide the way, but not always on the fastest or smoothest path. Switchbacks punctuate the descent but this alpine trail is devoid of berms. Soon the deer fence approaches as you enter the tree line. Once in the woods, the trail changes character; turns begin to berm, and jumps begin to appear, but the trail still has a sting in its tail if you let your guard down too soon.
In some ways, this trail is my white whale. A clean run has always eluded me, clearing sections that have previously challenged me and being schooled as soon as I got complacent.
I’ll get there one day, maybe next year.
Laggan Loch Beach
Loch Washed Peat
Also, a visit to Fort William is not complete without a visit to Loch Laggan beach on the return journey.
Going fast on a bike, or in my case, moderately fast requires a few key elements including but not limited to confidence on and in the bike.
If your confidence in the bike is shaken either through potential mechanical, the something not feeling right or the dreaded rattle of something that is definitely not right. This for me usually results in the end of any pace during that particular ride, the off feeling or rattle claws at my confidence until its probably best to just head for home and call it a day.
Or the slightly harder to quantify feeling of confidence on the bike, confidence on the bike only comes from time spent on the saddle. Some bikes take a little longer to bond with than others but once you truly know a bike you can achieve performance beyond what the spec sheet tells you.
A bike like this moves not under you but as part of you.
Some believe that the tools of the craftsman take on some of the knowledge of the owner, the well used hammer helping to guide the hand of the novice, transferring its tactile knowledge born of experience.
When you truly know your bike it feels like this, the bike guiding you as much as you pilot it, the shared experiences and time together bonding you together as brothers of the trail.
Sven is my bike, he is that sort of bike, we have spent the time, the miles, the metres climbed together. Some people name their bikes, Sven told me his but only after time together on the trails.
He has taught me most of what I know about riding bikes, he has taught me the joy of the trail, the elation of the climb, the thrill of the descent and the deep darkness of bonking. His build has been a running project for most of our years together, 3x 2x 1x, 8, 9 and 10 he has been through them all.
In my youth I rode bikes in the woods but I was oblivious to the growth and evolution of the sport, I simply hurtled down chutes on my rigid Raleigh MAX Ogre. I knew the bike, I knew what the brakes would and mostly wouldn’t do but I did not know what cycling could really mean.
Sven was the bike that brought me back into the sport, he taught me what it was, what it had become and he showed me what it could mean to me and for that he should be cherished.
I want to thank him for the gift.
Fat Creations is a custom painter who specializes in bicycle frames working with 100% paint, no decals or vinyl, his work is fantastic with a flawless finish. A Custom respray is a fitting thank you for a friend this loyal, he is one of a kind and deserves to look that way. It is all a bit of a love letter really.
The seasons march on, the contracting of daylight hours mirroring the trees receding sap, falling like the leaves that blanket the trails on which we play. The sap in the legs also slowing as we are ironically in the best condition of the year if not our lives but tired from a year of training and riding, riding and training, the wheel always spinning. There are those who move away to other pursuits waiting out the wet months for fairer weather and dryer times. There are those who change tyres, clothing, pack lights and every autumn relearn how to let a bike slide. There are those who change discipline and count miles rather than meters descended, on the road or on the trail trying to stem the tide of seasonal decline.
On any given Sunday we can be any of those riders, Struggling to find the motivation to maintain our gains, work on our weaknesses or ride trails that challenge us as they will be too loose, too wet, too sketchy, almost too easy to find reason not to ride. These months are long and many in Scotland, if you don’t ride in the wet here then you won’t ride at all, with the same hill frequently having dusty corners and deep scarred muddy ruts that will never fully dry.
Even so when the mist clings to the hills, the air wet with the slow creeping cold that only a dreich autumn day can provide it can be especially tough to step out the door and turn those wheels. It may be canon to road culture but Rule #9 still applies here, it is still acknowledged by people who ride mountain bikes even if they don’t know its cultural significance to our lycra clad cousins. If such a manifesto as The Rules were ever written for mountain bikes it would be a much shorter tome, probably along the lines of like bikes, like beer and don’t be a dick to your fellow rider, but that is an argument for another time.
Once on the trail and turning into the wind the rain gathering on your helmets visor as your eyes narrow to see, goggles and glasses are useless here, pray you don’t get grit in your eyes at the wrong time. Your feet cold but the worst held off by water proof socks, the wet slowly working its way through the outer layers. You know you are the only person on the hill, everyone else is warm and inside, your mind wanders as you try to keep focus as a tough climb is round the corner.
Low cadence, just south of top of the block you keep the pedals moving, forcing yourself to look up trail rather than the ground in front of your wheel, each oncoming turn is a new goal, somewhere else too aim for. Metronomic in movement the grit in the drive train equaling that in the limbs, counting your breaths to clear the mind. The meditation of the climb settling in as the heat in your legs starts to mount, you start to enjoy the work as the flow comes from the ups as well as the downs.
Flow comes in the ups as well as the downs.
Transitioning onto the plateau the deraileaur moves the chain through the block to keep a constant cadence whilst building speed, nursing the changes as any oil has long been washed from the chain. Moving into a descent, heals dropping and moving over the back wheel, keeping your weight low carving turns and letting the bike move beneath you. The flow brought on from the climb still in control of your thoughts.
Reaching home you wrap yourself in the warmth and sanctuary, the ride that is begun is never regretted but if taking those first steps to go for a ride are hard and the conditions poor just remember there is always Rule #5 to help motivate us.
My work at Gray’s School of Art is involved with a diversionary program called Street Sport, the program brings a portable football pitch to areas where sports facilities aren’t readily available for kids to get involved in positive sporting activity. Street Sport also runs arts and creative learning sessions along side the football.
The program has been shown to reduce disruptive and antisocial behavior as well as introducing a healthy lifestyle to the kids who engage with Street Sport.
Recently the team with support from partner agencies from across Aberdeen looked to expand the program with cycling and a weekly portable pump track session to engage with a wider audience who don’t just want to play football.
It all fits neatly in one van
Can be built quikly
To help secure the funding a portable pump track was set up at Northfield Academy, an area that Street Sport already operates within so that pupils at the school could sample the pump track to help build interest.
We used the session to film a pitch video that kids and young adults at the school will be able to watch, they will have the opportunity to vote on it and other potential projects in their area.
I used the pump track event as an opportunity to hold an on location filming workshop with some of my students who produced the video above which was used to support the application for funding. Filming and document in live environments is a difficult skill to simulate in the class room so whenever events such as this come up I try to get the student out the school and on site for some real world experience.
Hopefully the demo event and the video will be enough to excite the pupils of the school and win their votes so the project can run for a full year.
The Fair City Enduro offered a change of race discipline in a low pressure race to test myself again.
I haven’t raced this year, not properly, more important family matters where at the front of my mind with the arrival of my son. Once bitten by racing though its a tough itch to scratch, so a one day enduro an hour 30 from my house provided the right opportunity and hard to resist.
Having made it through the spring and summer with less riding and gym work than previous years, my fitness was a slight concern. I hadn’t gained weight but my base level was down on what I was used too so training would have to be tougher and concentrated to get me race ready.
This, thankfully, was enduro, so a new approach to training was on the cards anyway. With my weekends happily occupied by the wee man it was the gym at work, so short and regular sessions focusing on strength training and sprint intervals on the spin bike. Gone were long training rides at 3/4 gas in were brutal visits to the pain cave pushing 100%, why does everyday feel like leg day? reminding myself that it wasn’t meant to get easier I was meant to get better.
I was however, very aware that my pace would be down, I had been at skills coaching sessions at the start of the year and felt that my pace was up in the spring, but time off the bike I knew had dulled that edge, by how much we would find out. The night before the race brought on rain of biblical proportions, so as I loaded the bike up in the dark and dreich I like many of the riders was unsure of what conditions would await us on the hill.
Jonathan McConnell and myself waiting for our starting wave.
as I loaded the bike up in the dark and dreich I like many of the riders was unsure of what conditions would await us on the hill.
The event was organised by Muckmedden Events, they put on a fun easy going race with an encouraged fancy dress dress code, apart from the usual bottle neck on the first lap/stage you always have with races with 300 + riders the event was well run and supported. With only the occasional issue with taping on transitions causing some pilot error on my part inbetween stages, I enjoyed cutting the tape and “enduro lines” that this race format can be infamous for being on the transitions rather than the stages.
The first stage had the usual nerves but I shook them off as there was long sight lines and the dibber was manned by a marshal so it was fast out the blocks. It was flat cornered and loose but not particularly steep, having been told this race hadn’t had much tech in past years I was expecting this sort of terrain. all was going well when on a soft going sprint section boosh, I slipped a pedal. Struggling to keep momentum and clip back in at the same time I cursed at forgetting to adjust the spring tension on my new SPD’s and battered on to the finish. My prep had let me down showing how easy it is to loose significant time on a short stage due to the tiniest of things.
The climb up to stage two was a sociable affair which is probably why I didn’t notice how much height we had gained. Lulled into a false sense of security by stage one I dibbed in and sprinted hard out the start gate, keeping light on the bike and off the brakes hopping over roots and building speed when suddenly the trail flew into a tight left and into a steep loose chute, I was not expecting this.
If this were horse racing I believe the term is refusing the jump
I slipped out and essentially half tripod half slid down the chute, clipping back in I was well aware that this stage was done for me (as was the race) but I was determined not to be overtaken by the rider 30secs behind me. My expectations well and truly adjusted for the days trails I dropped into a bike park section with some berms and tabletops before drifting to the end of the stage.
That was fun but my race brain was still not thinking for Enduro, I reminded myself this was not a lapped course; this was not a point to point raced over hours and there simply was not the scope to gain back lost time, with this in mind I moved onto the next stage.
Stage three shared the same start point as stage two it was just the other side of the hill, spinning hard off the start popping over roots and working the bike to keep momentum I now knew if I couldn’t see the exit of the turn it was probably a drop and it was. Prepared for it this time I dropped in and down seeing a climb immediately after I smashed through the gears and kept my speed up the climb. I closed on the rider in front of me and made it past them during the climb, swooping into the downs again a marshal shouted “rider down”, I knew they were ahead of me but I didn’t know where.
Checking my speed but not wanting to lose too much when it was going so well, I kept on the gas feeling the acid build in my legs as the trails turned bone dry and dusty. I passed the downed rider on a flat sprint before dropping back into tight trails drifting the last few pine needle covered turns before dibbing out.
I was absolutely beat breathing hard with fire in my legs it had been an incredible stage, I was the last rider down before they closed the stage to clear to injured rider which gave me ample time to recover whilst waiting for my riding buddies.
The transition to stages four five and six was the longest and most scenic with the weather having a dramatic change of heart over the course of the day, with glorious sunshine breaking through the technicolour forest canopy, it was a great day to be on the bikes.
The top of stage four was open ground with some rock slabs before the tree line, the marshal said that there was a corner just as you entered the trees, it was flat, grassy and wet and everyone was sliding out on it so watch yourself. The open start gave lots of free speed which continued into the trees With the crash corner ahead I scrubbed my speed, swung my hips and carved perfectly round the turn. Letting loose the anchors I cranked hard enjoying the playful feel of this trail, as I braapped through a speed section before approaching another flat turn.
Scrub, Swing, Sideways, slide on my arse, the marshal hadn’t told me about this corner, but why should he this was blind racing after all! What had been perfect before led to me sliding out and tangling my foot in my chain. Starting from zero on a wet sprint I made it to the end without further incident.
Back up for stage 5 and to bit of a queue who were having a pow wow about how best to start this trail, on the right there was a smooth line to the right with zero tech, not particularly fast and a good bit longer than the main line. To the left was a greasy steep rock chute with plenty of scope to grab a wheel, this set up straight into a sweet speed section before you disappeared into the trees.
A number of riders wrote it off and went right thinking better of the slick rock, to be honest it wasn’t a particularly techy section and was very similar to parts of my favorite home trails.
I spotted my line clipped in hollered “ALLEZ” and with a few crank turns the rear wheel buzzing my shorts I was down and whooping through the trees. This was a fast trail with slick muddy grass everywhere, the flat turns of stage 4 fresh in my mind I scrubbed speed and drifted turns trying to not get too rowdy. At the bottom with a clean run I was happy but knew there was still one last stage and it was going to be a long one.
On the climb up to stage 6 I wound my Fox Talas down from 160 too 120 and powered my way up, the queue at the start was short so I started eyeing down the trail before it was my turn to drop in. Sprinting into the broom that flanked the narrow trail as it ran along the cliff Tops, with flashes of exposure to my left weaving through the trees the trail was fast, grippy and absolutely prime.
The first steep chute had a sweet catch berm at the bottom, getting over the back wheel flowing into the drop the front end was twitchy and vague as I wrestled the bike through the turn. The handling felt very odd just then but shaking it off as just loose dirt I cranked it as the trail started to climb and contour the cliffs. Another steep chute with a drop to pop off approached, pre-loading the bike the front end wandered understeering over the drop, this was getting strange.
My confidence in my usually unshakable steed well and truly shook I took the remaining trail with less commitment than was needed and less speed than previous stages, frustrating as the trail was amazing and the dirt prime.
Dibbing out I hung my head leaning over the bars, looking down I saw the cause of all my woes, my Talas was still set to 120mm. If the head angle was any steeper my bike would of fallen over, never mind robbing the fork of any hard charging abilities severe school boy error.
Severe school boy error.
Rolling back into town the bonus stage awaited us, stage seven consisted of a flat sprint course with wooden rollers and berms as obstacles, it was in the event village so the spectators where out in force as was the heckling from the commentator. Falling over the finish line in a surprising amount of oxygen dept I handed over my dibber to be given my stage times and a flapjack, I don’t even think I saw the flapjack it was eaten so quickly.
It had been a great day of racing but it had been a school day, I knew exactly where my pace was compared with myself earlier in the year, comparatively this was probably my worst placing within my category. But I knew a change of discipline would be a hard one to manage, with a few years of lapped and long races worth of training and strategy wired into the legs and mind the days results where always going to weaker than previous races. With a few key repeat offenders on my events to do list for 2016 I think there will be at least one enduro joining them.
We are preoccupied with the idea of “flow“ as a tribe, a trail has flow, a rider can flow through a techy section, a trail is appraised and assessed on how much flow it possesses. However the language of flow usually isn’t very sophisticated, with this ephemeral measure often being communicated and quantified through hand gestures and whoosh noises. When we are talking about the character of a trail it is a easier quality to define, albeit a very personal definition, one mans flow trail is an other mans sanitized blue.
Flow is a very interesting idea, it is spoken about outwith the mountain bike community, in fact you could argue that flow is a borrowed term with it being common place in other spheres and other activities that require skill. We would accept that a musician in the height of a performance can be in full flow.
Flow or flow state is usually used to describe a state of mind brought about by performing an activity of skill by the participant that brings about a state of complete mental absorption and heightened focus. This is what I am sure some riders are referring to when they describe flow, however illusive and intangible a flow state may be there are some commonly agreed criteria that have to be met for it to occur.
I gave a lecture at my work to a class of art students about flow and how it can affect artistic performance, I used cycling as the example to illustrate the sensation that some may of experienced was not unique too artistic output.
Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi is a philosopher and psychologist who has studied the phenomenon of flow states, he has defined characteristics and criteria to describe a flow state and how one can be achieved and I used these to help describe the sensation, they are.
Completely involved in what we are doing – Focused
A sense of Ecstasy – of being separated from the everyday
Complete inner clarity – Knowing what needs to be done & how well you are doing
Knowing the activity is doable – that our skill level is high enough
Serenity – no thoughts beyond the immediate
Timelessness – Hours and minutes are interchangable
It is its own reward – The activity that produces a flow state is reason in itself
I am sure any seasoned cyclist of road or dirt will recognize these in their own riding, having experienced them in some form or another.
The participant or in our case (the riders) sphere of focus narrows down to the immediate trail before them. Everything else falls from their mind, hunger, pain, time, even the sense of their own self dissolve away. This is because we can only focus on so much information at once. When you are riding hard, the trail is providing you with a huge amount of information. For you to react quickly enough, the brain stops processing information that is not necessary for this activity.
The bike becomes an extension of your body, you feel the trail through your feet and hands. You know exactly where your wheels are in relation to obstacles on the trail, and can pick and place each one at will without even thinking about it. You react, you don’t think, you simply do.
Flow will only come when the rider has adequate skill for the trail they are riding. The task at hand is well within their abilities and as such they know the “activity is doable” because they posses a developed technique. This allows the rider to not think about what they are doing, they are not engaged with thinking about how to ride the bike, it simply flows beneath them. Obviously this requires a pool of experience that has allowed the rider to develop their skill over time and when faced with new challenges gives a depth a prior experience to draw upon. This practice and experience is similar in some ways to the 10,000 hours rule theory.
So once a rider has enough relevant skill, and is engaged with a trail, a full flow state can occur. A sense of joy and serenity wash over the rider, as the speed and trail bring on the almost deep meditation of full flow. The time that the rider inhabits becomes elastic as minutes and hours blur, time can speed up or slow down and will frequently do both within the same trail.
Satisfaction is received through the act of doing, the heightened awareness with the sense of clarity and joy brought on by flow are reason enough to repeat the task, to ride the trail to achieve and seek flow.
Descents are not the only times where this can be achieved, on prolonged climbs I have entered in to a full flow state only to discover the 30 minute climb is over and my legs are sore as time contracted and the awareness of my limbs fell from my mind.
It is also important to note, that sometimes when we speak of flow we simply mean you don’t have to brake and you can carry speed effortlessly through the trees, joy in itself really.
But this is no bucket list race that you simply tick off and move on from, it gets under your skin. Once raced and short term memory loss helps you to forget the lactic acid and oxygen debt, you are left only with the memory of a real adventure. Of a truly wild route, with some spectacular scenery and the nagging mistakes you made that you know you can improve on, next time.
Any bike is both the perfect bike and totally the wrong bike for this race. A XC whippet will get you so far (pretty far in fact), but a 140-160mm enduro weapon will get you further on some of the special stages. Your final place is based on points earned from each stage so bike choice and tactics play a big part of your day. Are you racing some stages and winching the distance, or racing the distance and losing time on the gravity stages?
This was the second time I had entered the Tour, I had ramped up my training with gym work and a lot more long distance training rides on natural and rugged terrain. I was feeling fit and the bike was riding well.
The previous year it had rained for a prolonged period in the run up and it showered throughout the day. This brought on certain challenges but kept the temperature and the dust down, the wet conditions made the loose land rover tracks a good bit firmer and easier to climb on. This time the sun shone down with the mercury hovering in the low twenties, the trails were bone dry and some key climbs were loose and dusty.
The race always starts with an atmosphere that is unique to the tour, the sense of pent up tension is palpable as the racers follow a Pipe band down Fort William High street in a rolling start. Reaching the start line the race breaks with the contenders going full gas up the road climb that helps to thin the pack out. The race is self seeding, so you quickly discover how optimistic or unrealistic your performance expectations were.
You gain height fast during the first few kilometres, climbing the road out of Fort William towards the West Highland Way the pack naturally thins out. Upon reaching the end of the tarmac, the long, loose and rocky road begins, the races rhythm changes and the work truly begins.
The undulating trail is flanked by some jaw dropping scenery that helps to distract from the fact that you are still climbing. The usual bottleneck at the start of the first of the special stage gives you a nice break and a chance to refuel and taking in the view. You clock out once you get there so the queue doesn’t affect your overall time, its not far off of one third of the race route, but you would be a fool to think the rest will be straight forward, that was the easy bit!
This stage is a descent from the WHW down into Kinlochleven, it starts on open hillside and is rough, rocky and loose with the kind of water bars that would stop a small tank.
It is a trail that will bite you hard in the tubes if ridden clumsily and requires your A game to take at race pace. Having brought my A game the previous year and still flatted hard I was determined for a clean, if not a competitively paced run.
Dropping through the rocks and keeping it light on the rear wheel I was passing fellow XCers with tyres around there feet as they had been bitten by the trail. A tyre change on the stage could be considered a tactical error as the clock is still counting, last year I shouldered the bike and ran the remainder of the stage, another tactical error as it was a waste of energy when the stage (and arguably your race) was already done.
On meeting the tree line the trail mellows, slightly, with a wet roots and rock adding to the mix with grippy wet loam in the damper turns with a final sprint down a shaley rut.
Dibbing out I was instantly hit with cramp in my hands and calves, this would a recurring feature of the rest of the race. The hands eased up with some ibuprofen to keep it at bay. My legs were another story, fives minutes of crippled crouching and I was able to straighten my legs enough to get back on the bike, it was going to be a long day.
I think preferred doing it in last years rain.
The next stage was the first climbing stage of the day and one many riders will be familiar with, the long haul out of Mamore Lodge up to Loch Eilde Mor is a 3.5km thigh burner with 135m vertical gain. Easy, knuckle down and grind it out, or so you would hope. The unseasonal heat had turned the land rover track into a morass of bone dry sand and pea sized stones that robbed you of all traction and momentum, having to keep changing your cadence so you wouldn’t dig into the trail meant the burn was pretty fierce. All under the blazing sun that still showed no sign of remembering it was the end of September, in Scotland. I think preferred doing it in last years rain.
Not far after the end of the stage was the river crossing and the fabled hike-a-bike climbing stage, at least the dry weather was on our side for the river crossing. The previous year it was thigh high this year you could ride straight across, well, almost.
The Goat track that forces you to shoulder your bike goes 250m up a narrow rutted peat bog between Meall a’ Bhuirich and Meall Mor in a mere 2.7km, before a sprawling delta of slab and rock take you down to the bothy and the second feed station. When saturated with a fortnights worth of rain the previous year it felt like a full on rout. Curtains of rain washed over muddied and broken riders who were sinking into mud and peat, this year, who know what we would find.
The Indian summer had dried the bog all the deepest pools and was a quick scarper up the stair like ledges of turf and stone. The cramp was never far behind as the acid build up caused me the hunker down on more than one occasion. Cresting the many false peaks it was starting to look like something you could ride down rather than climb up. letting the bike run and using the trail, the decent from the saddle was a total blast of natural terrain. Line options were abundant with some sneaky dead ends to catch you out, it rewarded heads up and looking long down the trail.
Reaching the bothy, the barbeque was in full flow, quickly feeding up and changing socks it was a short spin to the 5.5km of unbroken descent on fast and rough Landrover tracks down the other side. Back into the respite of the forest after a day without shade, the relief from the heat was soon tempered by yet more cramp followed soon after by the slow, creeping, hollow feeling of being on the edge of bonking (ahem).
slow, creeping, hollow, feeling of being on the edge of bonking (ahem)
For cyclists that have never properly bonked, it is a feeling of near desperation and helplessness that makes you want to lie down by the side of the trail, and to wait for the woodland creatures to finish you off. Your body has run out of fuel and has nothing left to give.
Once you’ve bonked its too late, you cant get back to feeling fresh and recovering on the ride, the best you can hope for is a limp home. Eating like mad and pleading with the velo gods that I could eat enough, fast enough, to arrest the bonk and get enough steam to get me home. I tried to block out the knowledge that another special stage was at the end of the forest slog.
Crossing the classic Puggy Line at the Nevis Rangethe noise and fury of the SDA downhill race roared over head as we Tour De Benners quietly made our way underneath the track.
Making the final push to the top of the stage four, it was a mix tape of brilliant trails linked together with a punishing fire road sprint. Starting With Blue crane and bomb hole then on to Nessie before dibbing out.
The final push is through to Torlundy and onto Fort William, the race actually ends before you reach the main road to keep riders safe and not racing on the roads. That said the group that had built up at the end of the course couldn’t help but slowly build into a sprint to the finish.
Totally smashed and grinning from ear to ear, it was time to collect the timings and make plans for next time.
First time on the tour and the weather had been playing against us in the weeks and days leading up to the race, the day itself wasn’t looking to hot either.
Waiting for the rolling start to kick off I was wondering if my decision to stick with my XC rubber and to not go with mud spikes had been a good idea. it was to late for that now as the pipe band were warmed up and the procession down Fort William Highstreet that marks the start of the race had begun.
Reaching the start point the pace accelerated quickly as racers didn’t want to get caught by slower riders or parked cars.
The pack started to thin as the first climb was long road haul out of Fort William and towards the West Highland way, this road section rose and fell and rose again. The road was wet and slick with a few moments of two wheel drift on the fast descents as we finally went off road and the real work began.
The rain had washed out the already rough West Highland way turning it into a rocky river bed, some sections had flowing water moving over the trail which retained a surprising level of grip if you trusted your tyres. The peaks of the hills that towered over the route were lost in cloud and fog, whisps of rain drifted down the hill on the race going on below them.
Reaching the queue for the first special stage (stage 2 stage 1 is the complete journey) I dibbed out so the wait wouldn’t affect my overall time. Taking a breather and a feed I nervously dropped my post as I started to notice the number of 140/160mm bikes around and worried that my 100mm HT was going to be under biked at some point.
Reaching the head of the line a marshal counted me in, charging blind down a line that would be technical for me in normal circumstances, I had no idea what was round the corner. I was not expecting the waterbars gouged so deep in the rock that they could swallow a 29er whole, or the loose shale over everything. Picking my way through the rock minefield (rock garden is to gentle a term) pleased not to have been over taken, seeing the tree line up ahead it happened, I’d flatted the rear.
With the clock still ticking I shouldered the bike and made like this was cyclocross and ran the rest of the way. Passing a marshal who said something to me which I later decided was “your my hero” whilst being passed by several Orange Fives, I also ran past people wrestling with tubes in the driech conditions. finally reaching the end I dibbed out and looking around there was at least a dozen fellow riders fixing mechanicals and flats which I joined and performed a puncture repair at F1 pitcrew speed.
The game had changed, the flat had effectively ended my race but for the overall time, changing strategy I had to go full gas on the transitions and not do to much damage to my time during the remaining special stages. Easier said than done as the next two stages where climbs, tough climbs.
Having lost all our elevation in one not so swift descent it was now a prolonged climb out of Kinlochleven past Mamore Lodge, made all the more interesting as climb was the third special stage.
making steady progress on the climb and passing riders who had flown past me on the descent, I started to appreciate the wide spacing of my 8 speed cassette, the water washing the mud and grit from my drive train, it never skipped a beat the whole race. The now considered narrow ratio also necessitated a fast climb as there was no 36 tooth to fall back on, that said the granny on the triple up front saw plenty of action.
The race was starting to feel like a shared ordeal that only riders who had raced this year would truly understand, riders had the middle distance stare of a true physical ordeal. The full gamut of mechanicals where starting to rack up along the route with more and more riders dropping out, I even saw a race ended by a snapped Renthal single ring.
Reaching the end of the climb and the stage I could see I was mid pack and was keen to try and maintain my position. Clouds were still rolling off the hillsides with misting showers drifting over the route. The next transition was a straightforward and fairly flat landy track to a river crossing and the next and toughest special stage, a hike a bike up a peat bog.
Cresting a rise the river came into sight with a undulating descent to the river bank, letting the bike move beneath me and enjoying some free speed a sniper rock suddenly shot out the front wheel beneath me. Sliding out side ways a fairly substantial rock came towards my face in slow motion, “well here it comes” was the surprisingly calm thought that drifted through my head as I hit the dirt like a sack of spuds.
Abandoning their bikes other racers huddled round me, no doubt expecting a bloodied mess and a broken face. To everyone’s surprise I was completely unscathed, my wrist was a little sore but nothing that would stop me holding onto the bars. Checking the bike was fine it was onto the river crossing and the dreaded hike-a-bike up the goat track.
Fording the swollen torrent the bank on the far side was no more dry or inviting than the river itself, the trail leading to the dibber and the start of the stage was a muddy unridable mess with pushing the only reasonable option. This was to be the theme for this stage, once committed to the climb it was a slow jog uphill with the bike on my shoulders, here the XC bike made sense as I was able to make good time with the lighter bike. The climb was without flow over a saturated and flooded peat bog. Hints of granite slab teased at what would become the descent as the vertical metres were slowly counted up.
Topping out the climb transitioned into a sprawling delta of narrow rocky ruts charging down towards the bothy and final feed station. A barbeque for a feed station is a fairly unique feature for any race, so a quick feed and change of socks before getting back to it.
After an incredibly fast storm down a drifty fire road it was onto a traverse through the wood land leading to the Nevis Range and the final special stage. This would be a fairly uneventful clocking of kilometers if it wasn’t for the second puncture of the day. Another fast tube change and I was back on in, but something was up, having had so many free kilometers on the fireroad I had forgotten to eat and I was starting on the road to bonking.
I knew it was coming, I could eat now but it would get worse before it got better. Forcing myself to turn the pedals the fireroad just went on to the horizon, the incline went back towards the heavens and the emotional breakdown and numbing of the full on bonk was in the periphery of my vision. Then finally, I reached it, Shangri-La, the promised final stage and a rest to allow the feed to kick in before the final sprint.
With my emotions returning to a harmonius state and with some more fuel in the legs the last stage awaited, this “Enduro” style trail incorporates some of the Nevis Range classics. Starting off with Blue Crane, Bomb Hole, Cackle and Drop and Nessie all making an appearance with a straight out fire road sprint in the middle. This 1.9km greatest hits mix tape has become a trail classic in itself and having visited it again on the big bike the red mist of a run between tape has always resulted in my PB time.
leaving the North Face car park and the final few KM to Fort William, you could catch your breath and allow your legs to recover but that wont happen as this is still racing even after 60km+. A small pack of similar paced riders had gathered together and none of us wanted to be the last over the line, it was purely pride making us hurt ourselfs on this final leg as the points system meant it was irrelevant who actually came first out of us. But right now that didn’t matter.
Rolling onto the opposite end of the High Street from which we had left that morning the circle was complete, Sven was done, I was done, it was done.