Standing silently behind Clachnaben, Mount Battock looks a innocuous little peak behind its more popular sibling.
Not one to be underestimated, it is nearly 200m higher than Clachers and enjoys unbroken views in all directions. Sometimes, all you need is a proper hardtail hoof, a stiff climb and to go 40-50km on the way back down.
On these sorts of rides I like to listen to music, tunes help me keep a good rhythm in the climbs and off the anchors on the way back down. But a playlist on random can be a funny thing, when your going full gas and Belle and Sebastian’s “The Boy With the Arab Strap” comes on, it is a little incongruous to be on the attack, if you know what I mean.
So heres the soundtrack to a ride, a great climb (almost) up a stonking big hill and a fast charge back down.
An iconic Aberdeenshire hill with a wild and punishing descent, a loop of Clachnaben is nothing short of a mini epic.
We all love wild natural rides, big days on big hills with big distances. But sometimes you want the feeling of remote riding and the challenge of truly rugged terrain, but only have a few hours to spare.
With its distinctive tor of rock visible from as far as Aberdeen, Clachnaben is a popular hill for walkers and trail runners. It benefits from a well maintained path, with substantial water bars and when required, uneven but substantial stairs. Which comes as a welcome relief as the sustained climb hovers between 15% to over 25% gradient. Once at the top looking down, when that gradient starts being measured in the negative, it becomes one beast of a descent.
It is a modest loop when measured in kilometres, at 15.7km its not that far. But when you take into account the 582m elevation gain, it takes on a much more formidable guise.
The loop starts in the walkers carpark and rounds the shoulder of the hill. Climbing from the rear so to speak, before topping out west of the summit. Then downhill essentially all the way back to the carpark.
I was blessed with blue skies and temperatures in the 20’s, the ground was baked dry and dusty with a light (for now) wind keeping things tolerable.
Following the course of the river into Glen Dye, the first leg was a fairly sedate and fast spin on smooth fire road. Its not long before I reached the natural rest break of the Charr Bothy. Worth a visit as part of a longer trip, today it merely provided me with some shade before rallying myself for the climb.
The climb is a hard one, the sandy track giving little traction with a slow zig-zagging grind being the only option. It starts as it means to continue, with the gradient rarely straying out of the low 20%’s. Gradient isn’t usually a measurement mountain bikers concern themselves with, its a “Roadie thing”, but its something that you come to fully appreciate whilst on this trail.
The traction slipped away in little roosts of sand
The heats oppression was only slightly moderated by the wind that started to grow with the Elevation. The traction slipped away in little roosts of sand with each pedal stroke as my resolve to stay in the saddle started to slip away. My heart rate monitor (a very thoughtful gift from my wife) was not needed to tell me how hard my heart was working, I knew how hard it was working as I tried to breathe through the work.
Stalling out completely on the loose sand, I was glad of the rest and resigned myself to push the rest of the way. It was not far before a reminder (if one were needed) that the climb is a suitable challenge for even motorised vehicles.
Peering over the heather the frame of a crashed WW2 aircraft stands in equal parts of rusting steel and immaculate aluminium. The wreckage, deemed to difficult and costly to remove, has been left for time and the elements to reclaim. Crash sites from this period are a surprisingly common feature of our hillsides, but serve as a poignant reminder of past sacrifices.
The final push of the climb was a more forgiving affair, with slight undulations and short downs giving free speed for the next up. Hauling myself to the top, the view offered a suitable reward for my efforts, literally being able to see my house from here.
My first run of the day is usually a bust. Its not that I’m not warmed up physically, but it usually takes me at least one trail to both sharpen up and loosen off. Not a luxury availabile on this ride, in front of me lay a 2.2km descent that I had to get right first time.
Starting with a technical mine field of rocky steps and water bars followed by drifty sandy trails and narrow steps with genuine exposure at times. All this before entering a rooty narrow wooded section with blind turns that are usually occupied by sheep and/or ramblers.
At this point in a post you might expect to find a POV video of the descent, a short edit of the day perhaps. Due my own ham fistedness, I managed to turn my Drift camera’s lens into portrait mode, smooth. So stills it is.
Breathing deeply in and out, it was time to clip in.
Rolling in slowly the granite steps were an uneven jumble of square edged drops and awkward turns, staying as light as I dared on the brakes, the key was to keep momentum. The grip of the granite slabs became punctuated with sandy trail, the acceleration was incredible, as soon as I stopped feathering the anchors the bike just took off.
The back end let loose on the corners, the rear tyre buzzing the heather as I relied on the bike to find grip. Bunny hopping water bars and looking as far down trail as I could, I rounded the shoulder of the hill. Taking on a series of exposed narrow stairs it was slow in and fast out.
the prolonged descent had steam practically pouring from the pistons
The brakes were starting to lose their edge, the prolonged descent had steam practically pouring from the pistons as the tree line fast approached.
A robust lattice work of roots encroached on the trail, the game changed as I entered the wooded section that was more within my comfort zone. Letting completely loose the anchors I was popping over the roots and down drops, this short section was over far too soon as it has real rhythm and pace, when dry. All this fun comes to an end when you reach a deer fence, a quick hop over a stile followed by a mellow pedal for the final push back to the carpark.
A clean run, no matter how fast, on this EWS worthy trails always delivers a sense accomplishment and adrenalin that only comes from a mountain bike.
There are some things that are constant, they may evolve but can you reinvent the wheel?
I have been curious to try oval chain rings ever since reading an excellent article about them a while back on James Wilson’s site. Now, thanks to my support from absoluteBLACK I have one of their oval chain rings to find out for myself.
Off round chain rings are not a new idea, back in the late 80’s Shimano championed their Biopace system. Seriously flawed, users complained of knee and joint pain. Time has thankfully moved on, and the oval chain ring is not the oval ring of the past. AbsoluteBLACK’s offers gains and benefits over conventional round rings.
“Absolute Black oval chainrings deliver power more smoothly to your rear wheel. This means you are better able to generate and maintain, constant cadence. Because oval chainrings reduce the peak loads on knee joints, riders using them get less stress on the joints (knees) and therefore are able to keep certain level of effort for longer. This results in higher average speed.” (source absoluteBLACK.cc)
With the timing and shape being completely different to that of the Biopace rings, comparisons between them are less apples and oranges and more like apples and tuna.
Out of the package it was immediately obvious these were not your average narrow wide chain rings. The oval shape was subtle, but enough to make you look twice if you didn’t know it was not a round chain ring. The asymmetric tooth profile is superbly detailed and shaped to hold the chain and move dirt and oil off of the tooth’s face.
AbsoluteBLACK offer a 30 day trail period, if oval is not for you they will swap it for a round one; as a brand ambassador I was still more than ready to make use of this trial period.
Assymetric tooth profile.
Impeccable CNC machining.
Fitting the ring was a straightforward affair with the 32 tooth ring having built in threads, once on and with a fresh new chain it certainly scored in the good looks department. One thing to note is if you are running a top guide, make sure to adjust and check the height of it to avoid it hitting on the high point of the oval!
It was time to hit the trails and to see how the theory applied to reality. The initial test ride would be on some newly cut trails that were steep and loamy, hitting them blind would mean drive train worries would need to be the last thing on my mind.
Clipping in I was expecting to feel something very pronounced through the pedals, a pulsing in the torque. Being completely honest, it felt natural, very quickly it didn’t feel strange at all and most importantly I noticed I was losing my fellow riders on the fire road climbs.
It encouraged a smooth, even pedal stroke, but it still felt good even at lower cadences, one thing I was concerned about was that it would have a “sweet spot” in terms of cadence, but it just doesn’t.
When the terrain turned steep it again performed flawlessly, we have all gotten used to not dropping chains thanks to 1X and narrow wide chain rings, in this regard the oval ring performs perfectly and inspires confidence in your drive train. On more pedally trails the extra gains in power and torque led to faster acceleration and less fatigue in the legs.
My initial feelings are that I will not be needing the 30 day trial offer, the additional power in the strong part of the pedal stroke provides a noticeable enhancement to performance and encourages a smooth pedal technique. Long term durability is not a concern as the build quality is just so good, with the grinding paste of Scottish dirt doing nothing to take the shine off of the teeth’s anodizing.
I’ll no doubt be returning with some long term assessments once I have a few months of turning oval under the belt, but for now I can certainly recommend them.
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.
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.
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.