Sunday, 21 September 2014

Garavine and the Tourmalet

Mountain High has a lot to answer for, those smooth glossy pages with crisp pictures of endless switchbacks rising up a mountainside put ideas in your head that are hard to shake. The book which we had come to refer to as the bible had been a mainstay of our evening entertainment detailing in sumptuous detail the hard won challenges of today and the kilometres to be won tomorrow.

Hidden away in its pages was Gavarine a stunning Cirque of mountains and one of Frances finest national parks. From the town of Luz-Saint-Sauveur a beautiful climb winds its way into the park and up to the Spanish border. At 30km and a whopping 1500m of climbing it would be the biggest test ever on my bike. 

Cirque du Gavarine (photo by Eusebius (Guillaume Piolle)

The big problem was in the way between our campsite and the start of the climb was the Col du Tormalet, and the thought of driving over the most famous mountain pass in cycling bordered on the sacreligious. The downside of this though is that the Tormalet itself is 1200m high and 20km long and the thought of tagging this onto the start and end of the day was a bit much!

Rather than follow Rule 5 and climb the Tourmalet twice we drove to La Mongie a small ski centre which is perched on an alp about 4km short of the col on its eastern side. The resort itself is one of the myriad of less than picturesque examples that litter the mountains here with buildings whose architectural standing is somewhere between abysmal and appaling.

The Tour had been over only a few days before so the road was covered with graffiti which made the short hop to the summit and interesting one although quite how a line of giant sperm swimming there way to the summit was supposed to motivate the riders I'm not quite sure.

The decent of the top was fun, cars were overtaken, corners carved with a flourish and towards the bottom when the road straitens and widens to a long trail of brand new tarmac the speed must have hit an exhilarating if scary 80kph although I struggled to keep up with Josie who was flying.

The Gavavine climb was suitably epic, gentle for the first 10km or so as it follows a steep sided ravine. As you approach the Cirque the road steepens but does not really kick in till just after half way when you leave Gavarine village and begin the climb to the border. Here you also leave the tourist hotspots behind and consequently the road surface deteriorates with cracks and loose gravel as it cuts its way upwards at between 8 and 9% for the next 12km or so. 

The effort is worth it the road runs out at a small car park as a track winds off to the border, the view is spectacular with peaks towering above and grate slabs or rock on show from a relatively recently retreated glacier. Not for the first time on this trip I regret the fact that road cycling and photography don't really mix as I would love to have had my SLR with me. The decent was gripping even if the road in places wasn't.

Well done legs

Where the road runs out

Back in Luz-Saint-Sauveur and with 80 plus kilometres in the legs I will admit that despite its uber classic status I was not 100% thrilled at the thought of taking on the Tourmalet. From the west the climb stits at a gradient of practically 8% for its entire length so it was just a case of getting into a comfortable gear and plodding upwards at a good cadence. I had the added motivation that my phone was close to dead as I was running Strava and I wanted to get to the top and claim the segment for posterity (unfortunately it died a few km short of the summit).

Low down on the Tourmalet

As the climb went on the weather deteriorated, mist and cloud enveloping the hills  although fortunately the rain held off. I had spent the last hour and a half with my short sleeve jersey open, the effort of the climb keeping me toasty and thought I was prepared for the vicious temperature gradients cyclists can sometime experience going over a big hill. I was not... By now the summit was a dreary place, visibility was about 20m with a bitter wind cutting across the ridge. Despite quickly changing into long leggings, a winter smock and windproof I was soon shivering as a tried to hold my phone still long enough to take the obligatory summit photo. 

The decent may only have been 4km but was deeply deeply unpleasant; the cloud blocked out all visibility apart from a short stretch of slimy saturated tarmac and which ended in a steep grey void into nothingness at the edge of the road. As I crawled down road into the drizzle my body attempted to shiver itself off the bike as I tried to balance the risk of going too fast on the slippy surface with the desire to be in a warm car as soon as possible.

La Mongie did not appear until I was practically on top of it with some monstrosity of concrete looming out the mist. Just before the car the ride threw in one last curve ball with a flock of goats strewn across the road perfectly camoflaged in the mist, a mad end to an epic day.

Nice day for it

Monday, 17 February 2014

Winter Starter - Brown Cove Crag and Helvellyn

It's been a pretty awful winter so far, with storm after storm battering the UK. On the plus side this has left huge amounts of snow on the Highlands. Sounds good you say; yes, but the problem is that the wind has barley dropped for long enough to make moving on the tops possible and on the occasions where it has done it has left the slopes loaded with windslab. Not conditions to chance the petrol money to head north of the border.

 Looking towards Skiddaw, not much sign of snow
Thats better!

So the middle of February had arrived and I was yet to swing an axe in anger a deeply frustrating experience. Finally yesterday the weather relented to offer the promise of a good day in the Lakes with light winds and clear tops, and the rumour enough snow was hanging around to make the trip worthwhile.

Brown Cove Crags was covered in the white stuff and the gullies were well banked out;  thanks to the slightly milder conditions down south they were also reasonably consolidated with good neve most of the way. I ran up Right Parallel Gully (grade I in current conditions) before descending back town its left hand twin (also I) having broken my way through the cornice.

Looking up, Right Parallel Gully

And down...

After heading back up Central Gully (I) the clag which had accompanied the walk in cleared a bit and although bitter it was worth heading up to the summit of Helvellyn, and once there the obvious thing was to pop round the horseshoe and the frozen red tarn. The ridges (down Swirl (I) and up Striding (I)) were well covered and busy including a few people with neither axe, crampons, and I'm assuming consequently brains.

So appetite temporarily stayed and with the reported snowfall hopes high that once the weather settles a long season will be in order.

Striding Edge looking towards Helvellyn

Looking towards Great End and the Scar Fell peaks

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Skye Cycle Touring - Day 3

When I first planned this trip today had been the exciting one, finally getting to visit the Trotternish. During my previous visit to Skye I had caught glimpses of the Trotternish from afar, a great line of eastward facing cliffs, and the narrow needle of the Old Man of Storr flitting in and out of view on the horizon, familiar from a hundred pictures, vivid in my mind. Today's ride would take us up and over the peninsular before diving down a great gash in the escarpment and traversing along beneath it on what mush surely be one of the great stretches of road in the UK.

Looking back towards Uig as we start the morning with a climb.

The day starts straight out the blocks with a tough little pull uphill out of Uig as we clamber up on to the moorland via a couple of switchbacks, the gradient then lessens as the road turns inland climbing steadily to the horizon. Again the weather is cold but brilliantly clear with a deep blue winter sky over a calm sea which appears to glow in the sunlight. Today there is also very little wind to pit ourselves against. Easily distracted I spend my time stopping regularly to take pictures looking back out to sea and Lisa soon pulls out a big lead.

The single track road winds its way through a landscape of open moreland with no hit of the geological bonanza that awaits us just over the horizon. The brown and yellow hillside is coated with a thin frost and icicles cling to the vegetation where the road cuts into the earth. After about 45 min of steady climbing the edge of the plateau begins to appear as the moorland fall sheer for a hundred meters or more in a great line of black cliffs leaving isolated pillars of rock like crazy ruined castle towers pointing skywards.

Looking north along the escarpment as the road winds down like a miniature alpine pass

The small car park at the top of the pass must have one of the finest views in the UK a celebration of what our planet can do given enough time and energy. The view is almost other worldly and slightly mythical no wonder the place is a favourite for film and TV crews. For the cyclist there is also the thrill of what is to come; the road a narrow line of tarmac drops away sweeping steeply down through a weak point in the cliffs then straightening to charge towards the sea.

Once through the initial twisty section it is easy to build speed and the dial soon creeps over seventy which is fast enough on a slightly rough surface. My new bike has been a joy to ride so far, dancing up hills and now feeling really nimble on the decent. The wind chill from such a rapid decent is terrific and once we arrive at the junction with the main road it is decided a trip to a tea shop is in order.

Looking south after a thrilling decent

 Checking out some more funky geology

Freshly warmed up with tea and biscuits (always an essential part of any good ride) we begin to follow the coast road south towards Portree. The escarpment runs along side us to the west although it occasionally disappears behind the lower rolling coastal hills and forestry plantations. Two and a half days into the riding and my legs are beginning to show signs of tiredness, Lisa is certainly much stronger than me in the afternoon and I'm always playing catch up.

The view of the Trotternish's most famous landmark the Old Man of Storr are quite poor from the road either blocked by mounds of grass or merging with the massive cliffs in the background. The best views are from further afield where the Storr stands in sharp profile against the blue sky. The quite road briefly turns into a busy tourist trap around the parking  for the Old Man of Storr; but with nowhere safe to leave the bikes and little enthusiasm to lug them up the hill to get a close up we press on and enjoy the fast sweeping decent down into the town.
 The Old Man

Is there a much more inviting view for a road bike?

From Portree its a simple traverse over to Sligachan with the Cuilin forever growing in grandeur ahead of us until we rejoining our road of two days previously. Although we plan to stay at the inn tonight the thought of the short tip back to Broadford the following day seems a bit pointless so putting the peddles hard down we dash back to collect the car. 

The following day for a rest we pop up a nearby hill to take in some amazing views of the Cuillin, bikes where not involved. 

The Black Cuillin

Looking towards the mainland

Monday, 20 January 2014

Skye Cycle Touring - Day 2

A Morning Detour
Day 2 began with an out and back from Dunvegan to Neist Point, a narrow headland of rock with towering cliffs jutting out into the sea, a solitary lighthouse seemingly perched on the tip dwarfed by its setting. The spot is really photogenic and I wanted a chance to take my own picture of the much copied image. 

The road to Neist was rough and rose up and down like a roller coster, the wind was also freshening, not too strong but bitterly cold if you stopped for long. We made good progress, but on arrival the sky was grey with no real colour in the scene or a good horizon to really spark the view. Lisa went and hid from the wind whilst I messed around with my camera for a few minutes before beating a retreat; lycra is not the best clothing for landscape photography. 

The view however is as spectacular as the photographs that have sat on my wall for years  suggested, not just out over the point itself but looking along the cliffs to the south where the high rolling moorland plunges into the sea. Its a shame the light does not really allow me to do the view justice.

Neist Point

 Looking south along the coast at the gargantuan cliffs facing the sea

Dunvegan to Uig
Returning from Neist we grab an early lunch before starting to work our way round the north east of the island. Dunvegan is dominated by the view out over the loch to two flat topped mountains called MacLeods tables, probably decapitated by some great scythe of ice 10,000 years ago. As we climb out of Dunvegan they slowly recede behind us, the surrounding landscape a flat expanse of heather, dull compared to the scenery we were treated to yesterday.

This being a main road for Skye the surface is generally good and we speed on past small plantations of trees sheltering the odd white painted house, in the distance a line of turbines rotate slowly in the wind and right on the horizon the Cuillin flit in and out of view behind the now gently rolling landscape.

After about 42km we swing right and join the A87 which works its way up the west coast of the Trotternish peninsula. A massive bedding plane rind the length of the peninsula dipping towards the west giving this coast a much gentler profile, the fireworks will come tomorrow. 

On the road back from Neist

Lisa looking towards one of MacLeods Tables

The youth hostel in Uig sits high above the village with a quite stunning view out over the bay. The sunset in the evening is breathtaking, high cirrus clouds lit with yellows and oranges with a lower band sitting on the horizon a deep blue and purple.  The lights of the ferry port twinkle below the dark headland which shelters the bay. 

Sunsets by the sea always seem special, the memorable ones in my mind are all associated with the big vistas you get looking out from the coast. Tomorrow should be as special day on the bike as we turn and head south along the geological bonanza that is the east coast of the Trotternish.

Distance for the day 82km.

 Sunset in Uig

Friday, 17 January 2014

Skye Cycle Touring- Day 1

Continuing the recent theme of very late posts this one dated back to Easter last year...

My only previous trip to Skye had been the weekend of the royal wedding in an attempt to get as far away from the sycophancy as possible. We were rewarded for our unpatriotic behaviour by brilliant blue skies, low wind, and bright sun; the weather is obviously republican.

After last years coast to cost I had suggested to my friend Lisa that we head to Skye for a bit of cycle touring in one of the most spectacular landscapes in Europe. As the easter weekend approached the weather in the highlands resolutely refused much to our general consternation, to get much above freezing point.  Fortunately though, although cold temperatures were forecast there was also hints of virtually no wind and clear skies, this sealed the deal and the car was turned to point north.

There was a little extra excitement in this trip too; I had just collected a new bike from the bike shop only the day before. Replacing my ten year old metal Carrera was 7.7kg of the finest carbon fibre in a rather fetching matt black sitting in the boot just waiting to be let loose on the roads.

So pretty, and the view is not bad too!

Under Pressure!

Day 1: Broadford to Dunvegan
After a days driving and an overnight in the Broadford youth hostel we woke to a stunningly clear day with views out to the mainland over Broadford Loch. Dispite the distinct chill, the air was clear and fresh; with alacrity lightweight bags were packet, bikes were fettled, and the road was hit.

The first stage was to take the main road out of Broadford and head out towards the Sligachan Inn which has perhaps the most ridiculously scenic location of any accommodation in the UK. After about 10km the road swings round and follows the shore of Loch Ainort and you get the first great vista of the mountains of Skye with the hills of the Red Cuillin stretching along the north side of the loch.

The water is almost mirror still reflecting the grey red cones as perfect images set against a blue sky. The harsher more jagged Black Cuillin are visible at the end of the loch dusted with a light covering of snow and looking a much more fearsome proposition. Memories of my previous trip to Skye and a first experience on that ridge spring back into my mind, another reason to return here.

Lisa had never been to Skye before, I think she was impressed

Once round the head of the loch the road climbs for the first real hill of the day, its never actually that steep and the road surface is excellent. The effort of the climb is rewarded with a fast sweeping decent which carves down the hillside through a sea of brown heather towards Loch Sligachan which glints a deep blue in the distance.

We cycle along the great cone of Glamaig towering above us at a quite ridiculously steep angle as slowly the peaks of the Cuillin ridge creep out from behind its towering sides. Arriving at the Inn I quickly check they have our booking for a few days hence and we warm up with a cup of tea and a fantastic view.

 The Red Cuillin, reflected in an almost mirror still Loch Ainort

Here we leave the "main" road and take the tuning to Dunvegan tonights stop; there is a brief climb over the top of the island before we drop down to loch Harport and call in at Talisker for a nosy at the distillery (sadly no sampling of the famous fire of Skye was thought sensible) and to grab a bite of lunch. 

Feeling suitably refreshed we tackle the final climb of the day which although not that hard still requires a few rest stops to enjoy the staggering view of the whole of the Cuillin ridge laid out in the background. With its covering of snow under clear blue skies it looks absolutely perfect for a prized winter traverse possibly the finest mountaineering experiance possible in the UK.

From here its only a short dash into Dunvegan where we find that despite putting 80km under our wheels we have made much faster progress than expected;  this does not turn out to be a problem as Dunvegan turns out to have the best cake shop in the world.

 The Cuillin on  from the road to Dunvegan

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

A Saturday 100 - North York Moors Biking

The North Yorkshire Moors with the possible exception of Northumberland is the forgotten national park of Northern England. Compared to the big three of the Lakes, the Dales, and the Peak, the Moors are often overlooked barely registering on peoples radar when fresh air calls.

After a holiday period which would have had Noah nervously looking for his oars, last weekend offered a brief interluded of blue skies and cold dry conditions when cycling might be a pleasure before the next cyclone of misery piled its way onto our shores.  

It was also for my friend John that special occasion when one gets to break in a brand new bike and really stretch its legs. Not wanting to be outdone in our devotion to the worlds most promiscuous element (carbon for those without a chemistry degree) it felt only fair that I prize my Fuji away from its winter quarters attached to the turbo trainer and let it run free for a few km's.

mmmmm carbon

The ride begins with a long slog up out of Helmsley a pretty village of orange white limestone building which glow even in the weak winter sum. The road surface is good and we gain hight slowly with very few cars to disrupt the peace. After eight km a short exhilarating decent morphs into a fast level section through where the legs tick over whilst the tarmac flashes beneath the wheels.

From Chop Gate the road begins to climb to the edge of the moor and Clay Bank (@25km) and a stunning view out over the low lands of North Yorkshire and Teeside as the edge of the Moors stretches out east. The unmistakable profile of Roseberry Topping one of those hills whose stature belies its impact completes the view. 

 Roseberry Topping, from the top of Clay Bank

Flying down Clay Bank is fun although the road surface is damp and I'm still a little nervous about really attacking the corners after having come off my commuting bike over Christmas even when running intermediate tyres. All too soon the hight is gone and we take a left in Great Broughton and begin to ride parallel with the high escarpment of the moor edge.

The roads, quite and pretty well surfaced climb gradually until about 40km when a series of sharp hills see gradients head the wrong side of 20%. The pain is short-lived however and the ramps offer the opportunity for a bit of out the seat action. There follows another fast decent down into Castleton (@50km) a village situated in a lovely aspect running up the base of a ridge dropping off the moor. 

Looking back at one of the steep valleys on the way to Castleton

From Castleton we take the road to Hutton-le-hole and Kirbymorside which runs right over the top of the moor and is by far the longest climb of the day at 7km, although the hight gain is only about 280m. The thin line of tarmac runs up the ridge at the base of which Castleton sits giving spectacular vies down into the valley, and as you gain hight green fields give way to coarse grass and brown heather stretching away to the horizon.

As we reach the summit of the more the welcome sight of The Lion Inn  (@60km) comes into view perched beside the road right on top of the moor like a stone ship in a sea of heather. The lure of a warm fire, a hot baked potato, and tea prove too much and we settle down to let our calves relax and our feet warm.

I think he likes his new bike

Fully content and full of food a viciously clod crosswind has risen whilst we have been inside and this buffets us on the long decent down to Hutton-le-Hole which is spent in our drops as the speed rarely drops below 50km'h for well over 10k.

To the right lies the beautiful vally of Rosedale with its sark but beautiful mining ruins and old railway that now makes an excellent mountain bike ride. Somewhere down there too is a road so ferociously vertical it's rumoured to be Britain's steepest with a chain snapping gradient of 33%. The challenge of riding Rosedale Chimney without ending up in a broken heap must wait for another day.

The old mines of Rosedale

At Kirbymoreside (@75km) we cross the A170 and work our way back to Helmsley on the quite back roads. that litter the plains south of the moors, the roads here are flat with only the merest hint of a hill now and then. Arriving in Helmsley just with the failing of the light the trip computer reads 98km, being so close to the ton it is only fair that we put in a lap of the village to make sure we gat the magic three figures.

GPX to come when I work it out!

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

A Belated Update and the Kungseleden

Its been over six months since my last post with various things getting in the way of both getting out and getting something down on (metaphorical) paper.

Anyway here is a video and some pictures from my summer trip to Arctic Sweden to walk a section of the Kungseleden or Kings Trail. Hopefully at some point I will be back to add some text too.

 View above Abisko

 View above Abisko

 Slightly odd colours with the Polariser

 Walking in on day 1

 The first of may duck boards to protect soft ground

 The rain clears on Day 2 

 Out comes the sun

 Not a bad view to go to bed with

 The cabins of the day 2 halt

 Getting wilder - day 3

 Vast spaces

 Day 3 halt

The final view of the hills