Saturday, 19 May 2012

Munros By Bike

First attempt at a "How to" type blog...

A few years ago Paul Tatersall took a bike to the top of all 284 Munros, apparently this involved the bike arriving at a number of summits in bits. Funnily enough this particular type of Munro round hasn’t caught on and the first complete sweep of the Corbett's is still up for grabs!

Just because cycling may not be the best method of ascent for the Inn Pin does does not mean we should ditch the idea entirely however as there are many Munros, including some of the highest quality when starting and finishing your day on a bike makes perfect scene.

The highlands are crisscrossed with a network of estate roads and tracks accessing remote lodges and crofts. These offer great access routes into many of the more remote peaks and a bike is the perfect tool for making the miles fly by both at the start and perhaps more importantly the end of your planned walk.

Knocking off long miles on estate tracks quickly on a bike makes isolated hills more accessible in the shorter winter months as practical day trips making the most of the light. Compressing your time at the start and end of a walk also allows you to spend more time up high enjoying the view for longer or grabbing that extra peak.

It's also possible to cut down all that weight you have to carry on your back by fitting your bike with panniers or towing an off road trailer such as a BOB Ibex. This makes riding much more comfortable and easier on the body generally but it also means the centre of gravity of the bike is kept lower with less chance of an unintentional dismount.

Another advantage of a trailer or panniers is you notice the weight much less and can therefore load up with a few extra luxuries such as a brew kit to fire up at the bike drop off point. If your heading out for a few days a bike allows you to carry your “delux” camping gear or some extra food, or maybe haul in some coal or wood if your planning on spending time at a bothy many of which are accessible with relative ease by bike.

Access With Responsibility

Access for cyclists is much bettser in Scotland than in the rest of the UK thanks to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. This enshrined into law access for cyclists to huge swaths of the highlands with a right of access granted to land not covered by buildings, private gardens, industrial plant (such as quarries), and farmland.

This right however is granted only if the access is exercised responsibly by the user. This means showing respect of other users and the landscape itself by controlling your speed when near others and not cycling in such a way to cause excessive damage and erosion to the terrain. Take special care on trails through woodland as many users especially those from south of the border may not be expecting you to fly past them on what they may think is a walkers footpath.

The Bike

Terrain can range from well maintained estate roads to sinuous singletrack with all the mud, ruts, and rocks you can think of in between. Unless you have arms and wrists of steel a mountain bike with front suspension is probably the minimum.

Personally I run 2.4” tyres with an intermediate tread which is fine for most terrain most of the year. Mountain bikes with 29” wheels are relatively new to the market but won me over straight away as they are particularly good on off road touring type terrain. The bigger wheels run through mud and over objects easier giving an overall smoother ride.

Bike Kit and Safety

It goes without saying these days but always ware a helmet, and if you expect to be coming back at night some lights for your bike in addition to your head-torch. River crossings with a bike should be taken no less seriously than without; the bike can be used to give added support in the current but always cross with the bike downstream so it can't get pushed on top of you.

The last thing you want is a mechanical far from home, from experience I know pushing downhill is a really frustrating experience having thrown away all the mornings effort at climbing. Pump, multitool, chaintool, spare inner tube, and break pads should allow you fix most problems at the trailside, the most common of witch will probably be pinch punctures from failing to hop drainage ditches! I also carry a pair of nitrile gloves so I don't get covered in oil if I have a problem with the drivetrain.

It's hard to say what to do about security, personally I always take a bike-lock with me to lock wheels together and try and leave the bike as well hidden as possible but this is just force of habit from living in a city and I'm not aware of bike theft being a big problem in remote areas.

Getting Involved: Five Bike Friendly Hilldays to Sink Your Teeth Into.

Ben Avon and Ben a Bhuird (M17/M11; OS Explorer 44; 093006/132018 ;1171m/1197m)

These two Munros are huge table like plateaus set well back into the Cairngorms. An estate track is rideable all the way up Gleann an t -Slugain to the ruined lodge at about eight kilometres. Beyond this is a good stakers path which is a joy to ride as it weaves up the valley; make sure you confident with your bunny hopping skills however to avoid the dreaded pinch! The path is ridable to about 13 kilometres and 750m almost all the way to The Sneck a coll between the two mountains and offers great view across to the remote eastern coires of Beinn a Bhuide. Needless to say the ride out is a joy with all that stored up down hill whisking you away to the road in record time.

Seana Bhraigh (M262, OS Explorer 436; 281879 926m)

Possibly Scotlands most remote Munro Seana Bhraigh is a northern outpost in far off Easter Ross. A great approach on a bike and probably the best approach overall is down Strath Mulzie following the Corriemulzie River beside which runs a good track. In clear weather the approach offers fine views of the great north east facing Luchd Coire the headwall of which falls almost 400m from the summit of the mountain. The track which includes one potentially difficult river crossing can be followed as far as Loch a Choire Mhoir (11km) where the bikes can be left. From here the finest route leads up the Creag an Duine ridge on the eastern side of the coire (some scrambling), this leads the summit via the brilliant rocky promontory of An Sgurr.

Ben Adler (M25; OS Explorer 393; 496718; 1148m)
An incredibly fine yet remote mountain situated in the heart of the central highlands north of Loch Ericht; on a good day Ben Adler's high plateau offers fantastic views over a huge portion of the Highlands. The route from Dahwhinne on the A9 involves a mammoth round trip of approximately 42Km but using a bike the first (and last) 12km as far as Loch Pattak can be easily dealt with. A further four kilometres of slightly tougher cycling leads from here to Culra Bothy, indeed it is possible to to a complete circuit of the mountain by bike although this is recommended for experience riders only (more details in Scotland Mountain Biking)

Breariach, Angels Peak, and Cairn Tool (M3, M5, M4; OS Explorer 403, 953999/954976/963972; 1296m/1258m/1291m)

Everything about these giants of the Cairngorms is big especially the walk in's; unless that is you know the key to the backdoor. The estate track up Gleann Eanaich to the loch at its head allows you to knock off about 12km of distance in little over an hour. Although not quite as spectacular as the Larig Ghru approach route the scenery at the head of Gleann Eanaich is still beautifully wild. The lower section of the ride is through the scots pines and seas of heather of the Rothiemurchus estate before climbing out onto the more stark and barren upper reaches of the glen as the mountains begin to crowd in on all sides. Leave the bike at the Loch and head up into Coire Damph and onto the plateau and three of the big five are there for the taking.

Baosbheinn and Beinn an Eoin (Explorer 433, 870654/905646; 875m/855m)

Hidden away north of the more famous trio of Torridonian mountains these fine pair of Corbetts offer a fantastic walking experience in one of Scotland great wildernesses with terrific views south towards Beinn Alligin and Beinn Dearg. Climbing the hills individually or together a bike is very useful to quickly knock off the first seven kilometres or so to Loch na h-Oidhche or push on to the (locked) bothy of Poca Buidhe a few kilometres further at the far end of the loch.

Mount Keen (M235; OS Explorer 395; 409869; 939m)

With most Munros the bike must be dumped at some point as the route becomes too steep or impractical, this is not the case with Mount Keen where arriving on the summit on two wheels is relatively easy. Approaching from the south it's good going on a track up Glen Mark; just after Queens well the track begins to climb following the old Mounth Drove Road. It's a tough climb from here, but it is all ridable and you have the motivation of the fun your going to have coming the other way. For those with something left in the tank Mount Keen can form part of a 55km circular route combining the Mounth and Fungle Roads for an epic day in the saddle (again more details in Scotland Mountain Biking).

Sources and Further Information

In writing this article I drew on the information and from the following sources and authors.

The Munros, Donald Bennet, Published by the SMC
Scotland Mountain Biking – The Wild Trails by Phil McKane is a great little book of fantastic wild rides to which the odd hill can easily be tagged.
The Central Highlands, Peter Hodgkiss, SMC District Guide
The Cairngorms, Adam Watson, SMC District Guide
The Northern Highlands, Tom Strang, SMC District Guide

Monday, 14 May 2012

Coast to Coast: The Final Chapter

Day three began with more of the same a couple of big climbs straight out the door; these hurt and rapidly sapped whatever energy had seeped back into the muscles overnight. The first is an up and over into the village of Stanhope where a seemingly impossibly steep road climbs back out onto the bleak moor.

During this final climb the wind turns against us and Lisa and I take it in turns to take the lead position offering the other a slight shelter against the headwind. Driven by the delicious rumour that a cafe exist somewhere at the summit we plod slowly on in search of the mythical tea and biscuits. The cafe materialises converted out of an old railway station, bikes piled in serried ranks against its walls as cyclists crown inside for warmth 

 Where's the Cafe?

From this station in the middle of a moor the old railway line ran down to the town of Consett and it's steel mill presumably carrying the ores grafted from the mines that littered these hills. Both mill and railway no longer exist but the route of the old line offers a beautifully graded long decent down back to green field and trees. 

Entering Consett we cross through the site of the old steel works, nothing remains but a giant metal cauldron mounted on rails that once fed the mighty blast furnaces. We grab lunch but with no way to lock our bikes it's spent out in the cold and for the first time during the ride the proper rain.

From Consett we follow another disused railway right into the heart of Newcastle, the track is muddy in places but passes over some spectacular viaducts giving views down into steep sided wooded valleys.

I must say I did not really enjoy the section through Newcastle and along the north bank of the Tyne. The cycle track runs past a procession of industrial decay, wast ground and demolished factories mere shadows of the cities grand industrial past. Dog excrement, and broken glass litter the roadway interspersed with tarmac melted from the heat of burned out cars; the contrast from Thursday and Friday could not be more stark.

Things improve as you enter the old town of Tynmouth the estuary opened out into a grand vistas and we cycle along the sea wall till the tyne spills into the north sea and our journey is at an end.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Coast to Coast: The Middle

Leaving Greystoke the morning is cold and clear with small wisps of cirrus cloud decorating the blue sky; today is the big one, hills, lots of hills are on the menu along with a big chunk of distance. The first stretch of the ride towards Penrith is pretty gentle and level, allowing the blood to get moving without too much of a shock to the system, like a boxer toying with their opponent before clubbing them with a left hook.

Out of Penrith we leave the Lakes behind and head out into the Pennines, and start the first of many climbs. Just out of Langwathby JC spotted a stone circle on the map which we make a short detour to see. The circle sits on a gentle rise overlooking the hills of the Lakes to the west Blencathra and Skiddaw standing prominently on the horizon; and to the east the high fells of the Pennines dominated by the bulk of Cross Fell. Much of today will follow a great sweeping arc round this a peak which dominates the northern pennines.

 Standing stone, complete with prehistoric rock carvings looks towards the peaks of the Lake District

It's hard to read the story of these standing stones, so out of context in the modern world; the feeling that they were set here three or four thousand years ago by people long gone. What was the landscape like like in those days; endless forest stretching up to the empty moor? These stones were old when the Romans marched through on their road north standing their lonely vigil for some ancient tribe; Vikings, Normans, Scots, Cavaliers and Roundheads all came and went their fortunes rising and falling with time and the battles that raged over this border country. After a few minutes letting my mind run away with itself and wishing for a time machine we jump back on the bikes and the long road ahead.

Our route has been climbing steadily but now really begins to pull, I can see the road winding back and forth up the hillside. This is the biggest climb of the day and done on reasonably strong legs it's not to bad; Lisa is powering ahead sustained by the thought of the cafe at the summit. Towards the top things ease as the angle eases off and I can actually move the bike out the big cog and begin to pick up a bit of speed. The cafe sits on the brow of the hill offering fine views back down the way we have come, it's packed with bikes and more importantly it's lunchtime.

After the big one; looking back towards the Lakes

After lunch a high speed downhill results in navigational chaos, and missed turnings that leaves our merry (not so after this) band strung out over random hill sides and at the mercy of modern telecommunications till reunited about thirty minutes later in Garrigill. 

To rework the earlier analogy the climb out of Garrigill was the left hook; short, shape, but brutally steep this was the closest I came to pushing on the entire ride. The road was so steep and I was moving so slow the only way to make progress without falling off was to weave wildly from one side of the road to the other in a massive zig zag before collapsing in a big heap on the summit. The route down the other side is if anything even steeper with some deceptively shape corners just waiting for the overconfident rider.

 Lisa arriving at the C2C summit towards the end of day 2.

...and on into the wilderness (welcome to the north)

The last climb of the day out of Allenheads is a real battle of attrition after about six hours in the saddle; it's probably not the steepest thing we've been up but on tired legs if feels really tough. I knew it was coming but turning the corner and seeing the road climb away out of sight delivers a subliminal kick to the body and drains the mental reserves of enthusiasm. I bully my legs into shifting into power mode; they respond but it's only a vainer, the power quickly drains away lost to fatigue and tiredness. Despite this they just about manage to deliver the goods and finally we are stood beside a giant cairn which marks the summit, no more hills today just 5km of glorious downhill on sweet smooth tarmac to a cup of tea and a warm shower.

Speed, air, and wind; legs liberated by the joyous force of gravity drive the bike down the hillside past the gaunt ruins of old lead mines. The road a black ribbon laid through the yellow and brown moor disappears behind as the bike sweeps into corners and powers out the far side. As we pull up outside the bunkhouse Lisa shows me the reading on the cycle computer;  exactly 100.0 miles from yesterdays start, a neat symmetry to the ride that makes us all smile.

Part 3

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Coast to Coast: The Beginning

Recently I have been getting more and more excited about big bike rides, plans to go touring in Iceland this summer still keep me staring at the big 1:300,000 map on the wall tracing the gravel roads over the interior. However the impending purchase of a house and ensuing festival of DIY required to make it habitable is likely to dent both finances and time, so thus to more modest attractions.

The idea to cycle the coast to coast pretty much came out of nowhere; well thats not quite true it came out a book as it's probably the most popular multy day ride in the UK. Anyway it was about February this year; over a post ride cup of tea and plenty of cake the idea was mooted, discussed, and rapidly agreed too. 

I  was joined by my friend and old laboratory colleague Lisa and her partner JC; we would be  crossing between Whitehaven and Tynemouth perching somewhere between the challenging and the relaxing by planning to take three days over it. Apparently the crossing has been done in a day but really whats the point of physically breaking yourself? The joy of covering distance on a bike is that you can take in the landscape and atmosphere in much more detail than flashing through it in a car;  powering allong head down on a bike does very little for me.

After all sorts of crazy transport shenanigans (by far the hardest part of the trip) we found ourselves at the start line. From the harbour in Whitehaven you pretty soon get onto the old railway lines which wind there way gently uphill towards Egremont, Cletor Moor and the Lake District. The start was "entertaining" in a Russian Roulette kind of way as the trail was librally decorated with dog mess which required cat like dexterity to avoid at speed.

The railway ends and leaves you on quite back roads winding through the Lakes; the  "official" C2C route does a remarkably good job of avoiding the traffic at all but the most obvious bottlenecks. There is a particularly nice section of riding along past Lowswater a part of the Lakes I've never visited with beautiful views across to Mellbreak towering out the valley like the upturned keel of a boat.

The only real big climb on day is up the Whinlatter Pass which is steep but mercifully quite short, fortunately there is a mountain biking trail centre at the top of the pass, this has a cafe and the cafe has cake, both Lisa and I are big fans of cake. From Whinlatter I manage to set of the wrong way and realising half a mile later that no one has followed me! Looking a bit of we head off the right way for a fast decent down to Braithwaite and on into Keswick.

Out of Keswick the trail follows the old railway, it's actually quite muddy, stony and loose. I'm glad I upgraded to 28mm marathon tyres giving me some extra grip. After a short section beside the A66 we set of on a massive meander round the eastern edge of Blencathra which appears to go on forever and has me worried for a few minutes until a small blue sign tells us all is well. With tiring legs and under a spitting sky wheels roll into Greystoke and tonights bed, a rather nice bunkhouse in the grounds of Greystoke Castle, the wet room is particularly awesome.

Part 2