Intro-(En)duro

Wetter Than an Otters Pocket.

The inuagural No Fuss Intro-(En)duro was held a few weekends back at the hallowed ground that is the Nevis Range. Hallowed however it may be, one thing the ground certainly was, was wet!

The forecast had been for heavy snow fall with a weather warning for the day preceeding the race with only rain and/or snow on the day itself. That however did little to deter over 200 riders from turning up on the day.

The race itself had a bit of a so called mash-up format to procedings. Whilst being an enduro, it was an enduro with a twist. The course was made up of three relatively short stages that all shared the same access road and finished within a stones throw of one another at the car park and a coffee. The twist was that each stage can be run as many times as you wanted with only your best times counting.

The race was pitched as being a race for those who wanted to dip a toe in the enduro waters. But judging from the vans and rigs rolling through the car park, this was not the first rodeo for the majority of those turning out to race. A pre-season race to get through those winter blues.

What the race was however, was destinctly un-racey.

The stages were hard packed and impervious (mostly) to the weather. They were fast flowing blues and red graded trail centre fair. So whilst lacking in technicality, the shortness meant that times were tight, with sub 1:45 times necessary to be at the sharp end.

What the race was however, was destinctly un-racey. With everyone able to repeat stages and socialise at the cafe created a really relaxed atmosphere. Groups could split up and run different stages but meet up again for a catch up at the bottom. Mechanicals were a non-issue, sure you lost one run, but you were back at the car to get it fixed and go again, day saved.

The weather was to put it politely, absolutely horrendous. Vearing from rain to snow to stong winds to sidways rain. But again, you could wait out 20 minutes to get warm and get back at it without penalty. Your dibber could only store 9 runs, which again, you could easily clock up in the time allowed without breaking yourself.

Enduro racing is probably at a bit of a tipping point. Racing a whole series is an expensive affair both financially and in time commitment. For a race series to continue it needs fresh blood. It needs new riders to enter the races, even if they are only trying one or two, an organiser can’t rely on repeat racers to sustain. That is why I think single weekend festival style events are so popular, its a lot easier to justify one big blow out weekend than four or five smalelr ones across a year.

And that is where events like this come in. Not sure if your up to it but want to try it? Then this is a gateway event. Something to let people get a taste for runs between the tape and hopefully, they will come along to a national race or two. The format has potential, but might be hard to roll out at some venues. But as for relaxed racing experiences, this one like the rain, was horizontal.

Tour De Ben Nevis 2017

No one is speaking anymore.

We have all staggered out, finding our rhythm as we pick our way across the peat bog. We have climbed past the point of making banter and conversation with our fellow riders, now we all just want is to pass the cairn and make it down to the bothy. The mornings rain is easing, but the effects on the course are fully felt underfoot. On passing the cairn everything is greased with a slick mud that makes the usually predictable granite an uneasy exercise in slipping the rear wheel round large loose rocks.

The staccato nature of what is rideable takes its toll, with the constant mounting and dismount burning through my thighs. My right leg is making a damn fine attempt in trying to cramp. Experience has taught me that once it has, it will become a constant feature for the remainder of the day.

No one likes the goat track, when people tell others about this race, the hike-a-bike is what they talk about, but I don’t remember it being like this.


6 hours earlier,

I was here for the 2016 edition, but when the weather was looking to be especially mental, I thought caution was the better part of valor and pulled out. Back for redemption in 2017 I was eager to run the race differently than I had before, going with a long travel full suss and pack-less over my previous attempts on a XC hardtail. This time I would be going full enduro (note, never go full enduro).

20171007_171453

Assembled on Fort William High Street, the customary rain fell lazily on 230 riders of all stripes. It is a self seeding event, so everyone is casually looking for riders that look a bit like themselves, in both bike and attire. Milling around with an air of sodden tension, we all await the start.

 

After a brief pre-race speech from on of the organisers atop a bin, we are informed that the river crossing is open, this is good news as the full course will be raced unlike the previous year. The pack tightens up as the trials bikes position themselves to escort us to the road in a rolling start.

I keep to the right of the peloton to avoid be snagged up by parked cars as we break off up the first climb of the day. The course starts on single track roads which quickly build in elevation as we make our way towards the West Highland Way. The pack starts to thin out but it is not until we move off road that the race really staggers out.

 

My strategy for this year was to go easier on the whole course and make up time and points on three of the special stages. The Kinlochleven decent, the climb to Eilde Mor and the final special stage on the Nevis Range single track. I knew that this would be a very different race with the bike I’d chosen (a Banshee Spitfire). I felt it was a strategy that could work well, if I was able to kept my average speed up where I knew I could maintain it.

Tour De Ben NEvis No Fuss Events Stravaiging 12

This started well with the mix of climbing and descending resulting in me hitting my target average speed of 12.9 KM/H perfectly. I may have reached the start of the first special stage later than in previous attempts, but the queue was shorter.

 

Feeling fresh and ready to go I dibbed in and cranked hard out the start gate. The bike felt great, floating over the loose rocks and tracking perfectly, hopping the water bars that have claimed so many riders in their time. I had forgotten how steep the trail was, keeping the bike light I built in speed and confidence. I was just passing my third rider as I approached, the corner. If you know this trail you will know the corner I am talking about.

He panic braked with all the anchors he could muster

It is a tight left-hander with a drop onto shale covered slab with a few water bars just before the treeline. It is usually typified by two or three riders standing to one side fixing punctures.

As I made the turn, in front of me was a rider who may well of been an experienced rider, he may have been a novice, regardless, was not expecting the trail to be like this. He panic braked with all the anchors he could muster, stuffing his front wheel into a water bar. This threw him out the front door and down the slope, his bike flying through the air and into the centre of the trail. With no where to go without running into him and crashing myself, I hauled hard on the brakes. With all my effort going into not crashing I hit the water bar that had swallowed his front wheel, I managed to lift my front wheel but this just meant my rear tyre took all of the force. Pffftt, sealant sprayed everywhere as it ripped a centre knob on my tyre, well thats my race strategy scuppered.

An inner tube it is then.

In what felt like deja vu from the first time I ran this race, I was shouldering the bike and running down the trail, as there was no point trying to fix it mid stage. The clock after all, was still ticking. Finally dibbing out the stage probably couldn’t have gone much worse for myself. Thankfully the guy that had crashed was unhurt, but he had snapped his front brake lever.

Vainly hoping that there was enough sealant left that some CO2 cartridges could re-inflate my tyre and let tubeless work its magic, I pushed my inflator onto the valve stem. With the rain coming on heavy frost instantly built up around the cartridge, the tyre was halfway there and another blast of CO2 would surely be enough. Engaging the inflator a second time resulted in the rainwater that had worked its way in whilst changing the cartridge freezing instantly and the inflator exploding under the pressure. An inner tube it is then.

With the help of one of the frankly amazing roving marshals, we fitted a tube and got my bike moving again.

One stage was done, but there was still opportunity to make up time and my place in the field, I would just have to push a little harder. Replenishing myself at the bountifully stocked feed station at Mamore Lodge, I made my way to the start of the second stage and the climb up to Loch Eilde Mor.

Taking a deep draft of magic potion, (High5 gels decanted into a small flask) I locked my shock and pushed in as high a gear and cadence as I dared. Knowing how long the climb is and therefore, how hard to push is a big advantage on this stage. My constant steady pace led to me working past 9 riders before the sweet little descent at the end of the stage.

The next job was to get to the river crossing and make the ascent on stage three, the infamous hike-a-bike. The trail followed the shoreline of Loch Eilde Mor, the standing water on the track was frankly insane and felt more like multiple river crossings. Climbing slightly higher lifted me out of the wet and I looked forward to the rowdy little descent down to the river. Not far into descent, I remember that I washed out my front wheel here in a previous race, as if the thought had been a curse, I felt the unmistakable feeling of a rear puncture.

Laughing at the predictability of it I thankfully wasn’t sitting for long before the same marshal that had helped me before rocked up. Within minutes the tyre was back up and at a ridiculous pressure to ensure it wouldn’t happen a third time. I was also informed that there were roughly 25 riders behind me, how on earth did that happen!

Descending like Bambi on ice, I make my way to the river counting riders as I pass them, each pass is a small psychological boost after the rain and setbacks so far. The river is flowing strong and deep, but it is a quick crossing. once at the start of stage three I pause to eat and get let my legs have 5 minutes of rest before what is the most physically demanding part of the course.

The stage kicks straight up at a ridiculous gradient, before mellowing out to a leisurely average between 10% and 20% incline. None of this is rideable, the sodden boggy hill side broken with burns turning into peat hags, making the hike feel like half an hour of attrition.

No one is speaking anymore, we have all staggered out, finding our rhythm as we pick our way across the peat bog. We have climbed past the point of making banter and conversation with our fellow riders, now we all just want is to pass the cairn and make it down to the bothy. The mornings rain is easing, but the effects on the course are fully felt underfoot. On passing the cairn everything is greased with a slick mud that makes the usually predictable granite an uneasy exercise in slipping the rear wheel round large loose rocks.

The staccato nature of what is rideable takes its tole, with the constant mounting and dismount burning through my thighs. My right leg is making a damn fine attempt in trying to cramp. Experience has taught me that once it has, it will become a constant feature for the remainder of the day.

No one likes the goat track, when people tell others about this race, the hike-a-bike is what they talk about, but I don’t remember it being like this.

Crossing the final stream before the dibbing out, the usual collection of partially broken bikes and riders are huddled around the bothy. The final feed station has run out of barbeque but still has plenty of other provisions. A quick feed and a refill of my bottles  was all I need before cranking hard into a headwind for the riotous descent down the Lairig Leacach. This is a fast 7km section of LRT, it is perfect for making up some time and to get drifty on some wide loose corners. Its all over too quickly though, even with the headwind, before entering the trees of the Leanachan Forest for the final stretch of the tour.

 

11.5 km of good fire roads with a modest overall incline were all that were left before the final special stage. I just have to keep the pedals turning to get there. I had made the mistake in previous attempts of not eating enough during this leg of the race. Having burnt all the reserves on the hike, the tank is running pretty low. The possibility of bonking on this stretch is very real, but thankfully my frame bag still held enough flapjacks and jelly babies to get me comfortably to the next dibber.

 

The final special stage consists of some classic sections of single track, Blue Crane and Cackle (those who know, know). I have ridden and raced these trails before, but there is always the question of how much is left in the legs after 60km? Thankfully, knowing the stage, helps with managing what effort I have left to give.

The clock was ticking loudly between my ears and I was keen the press on

The first section starts steep and rocky, with awkward rooty corners and tight lines between the trees before opening and speeding up. There are a few steep technical sections to keep you on your toes and it was on one of these that I found two riders off their bikes. Standing in the centre of the trail and not really going anywhere, my first thought was that a bad off had occurred just around the next corner. Waiting at the top long enough to ascertain the trail was clear after them, I politely called (to their mutual surprise) “Rider“.

With them stepping aside I dropped in, the clock was ticking loudly between my ears and I was keen the press on. The middle of this stage is a flat pedal heavy sprint, this is where to go full gas and max your heart rate one, last, time. Passing another rider during the sprint was another wee boost just as I made the start of Cackle. This trail is a lot of fast flowing fun, it has some board walk sections as well, but grip is in abundance. I was flying into the finish, having caught two more riders just at the end, we all dibbed out and let our heart rates come back down.

The final few KM are a smooth return to Fort William via the North Face car park and Torlundy. Most this is on quite roads or pathed cycle paths, that doesn’t mean that this is a gentle cool down. Most riders (myself included) find the temptation to sprint what is left in you, out of you, for those final few minutes too much to resist.

 

With the final dibber dibbed, it was time to stretch off, rinse the bike down and see how badly the whole affair had gone. I’ll be honest and say I wasn’t looking forward to dissecting my times, I knew I had been slower than I thought I would be. The punctures had slowed me down and caused me to lose some descending confidence in the middle of the course. But I they where not going to explain away a lack of preparation compared to previous attempts.

Much to my surprise, I had improved my placings on all the stages apart from the Kinlochleven descent! I had also jumped 200 or so in my total points. The biggest surprise was that the 32lb enduro bike was only 29 seconds slower on stage 2, who says big bikes cant climb!


Ultimately this is what the Tour is about for me.

I’m not going to bother the fast boys, I’m never going to break the top 10. It is a personal challenge to race against myself, to push hard on a demanding and challenging course that tests all aspects of my riding. It is a measure of where I currently stand as a rider, both within the MTB community, but most importantly against myself.

Will I race it again? If I do I will take what this years race has taught me and remember the lessons of past races and come back better prepared. Because however well you do, you can always better yourself at the next race.

Tour De Ben NEvis No Fuss Events Stravaiging 7

 

Nevis

Some people don’t like trail centres,

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 Nevis Range.

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 Fort William
It’s not always cloudy

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.

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.

Nevis Range Gondola Accessed Mountain bike Trails

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.

Downhill Mountain Bike World Cup Downhill Start Hut fort william
World Cup Downhill Start Hut

Setting off down the other side of Aonach Mòr, 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.

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.

Also, a visit to Fort William is not complete without a visit to Loch Laggan beach on the return journey.


Elsewhere

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Tour De Ben Nevis 2014

No Fuss’s Tour De Ben Nevis is one of those events that makes first timers question why they entered.

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?

Tough call.

Ready for the off Tour De Ben Nevis 2014 Race Fort William

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.

Pipe band Tour De Ben NEvis 2013

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!

Start of Stage 2 Tour De Ben Nevis 2014

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.

Tour De Ben Nevis 2014 Race Stage 2 Kinlochleven descent
A uncharacteristically mellower turn

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.

Tour De Ben Nevis 2014 2 Scotland

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.

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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 Range the 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.

Tour De Ben Nevis 2014 Stage 4 Nevis Range Race

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.

Tour De Ben Nevis 2014 Race Route Enduro

Tour De Ben Nevis – 2013

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.

Tour De Ben NEvis 2013 Stravaiging

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.

Pipe band Tour De Ben NEvis 2013

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.

Tour De Ben NEvis 2013 Stravaiging 13

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.

Tour De Ben NEvis 2013 Stravaiging 20

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.

Tour De Ben NEvis 2013 Stravaiging 14

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.

Tour De Ben NEvis 2013 Stravaiging 6

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.

time  position points
 Stage 1
05:36:04  140 461
 Stage 2
00:11:17 290 111
 Stage 3
00:19:46 122 279
 Stage 4
00:59:13 168 233
 Stage 5
00:09:21 247 154

Total Points: 1238

Overall: 95

Tour De Ben NEvis 2013 Stravaiging 16