Monday, 13 June 2016

Riding the HT550 (or a big walk with a long bike).

It's 8.45 on a saturday morning and outside the real food cafe in Tyndrum 48 people are waiting for 9am, the official start time for the Highland Trail 550. The HT550 is a long distance, self supported 550 mile off road time trial route around the highlands of Scotland. There is no entry fee, no prize and definitely no outside help. The route is notoriously hard with around 16,000 metres of climbing and traverses some of Scotlands wildest and most beautiful landscapes. 

Fresh faced with shoes intact!

We'd been trying to make the group start for the last two years but circumstances had dictated otherwise, not this year though. We also decided that we would attempt the route on our new Salsa Powderkeg tandem, it would be a first if we could but we also knew it was going to be a tough ride. 

Blue skies.

9am came and we rolled out of Tyndrum following the West highland Way for the first few miles before turning off to head towards Ben Alder. The fast boys and girls raced off and we tried to settle into a steady pace knowing it was gong to be a long week of riding. By mid afternoon we'd already had water crossings, hike a bike sections and the first of many climbs. 

Long climbs.

We pushed on late into the evening, passing through Laggan then heading for our final big climb of the day up and over the Corrieyarick pass before dropping into Fort Augustus and  heading on a couple of miles before we stopped on the edge of a clearing for the first of a week of bivvys. Knackered we climbed into our bags to grab a few hours sleep before heading off again at dawn. 

Early morning hike a bike round a loch.

Next morning was an easy start following the fast rolling trails of the Great Glen Way, some hike a bike round the rocky shores of a hill top Loch and a bit of bog trotting before dropping into Cannich and the finding the cafe for breakfast. With 5 hours of riding already done we'd definitely earnt the large plates of food that arrived. We were hoping to manage another 100 plus mile day as we knew the route was going to get a lot tougher, the hike a bike sections harder and inevitably we'd be slower. More hills, more glens, a stop in Contin to stuff our pockets with food then a few more hours till we stopped just outside of Okyel Bridge to grab some sleep.

Soloing the switchbacks.

Two days in and we'd notched up about 210 miles, from here however it was going to get slower and harder. We were headed up to the most northern part of the route- through Glen Golly and the loose switchbacks, the start of the big pushes, near vertical loose slopes, trackless paths, huge peat hags, more pushing up the Bealach and long fast descents off the other side. 

Places to not take a tandem- yes we are on the route!

We continued on heading past the most northern point on the route at Achfray before dropping down to the north west coast. A brief respite from the loose tracks and pushing came in a road section to Lochinver - however this too was typically hilly but with stunning views it helped take our minds off tired legs and numb bums. 
We stopped on the coast that evening hidden away behind some rocks a nice breezy spot that helped keep the midges away.

More early morning pushing.

4 hours sleep and another early morning start, we knew day 4 was going to be a hard one.
 A short spin along the coastal path dropped us in Lochinver sadly before the famous pie shop had opened, a climb out along a glen heading for Glen Canisp and the first  'proper' hike a bike. Having done this section of the route at Christmas we knew we had a good 
5 1/2 hours of bike hauling ahead of us. Eventually we hit the road on the far side, passing a school group en route who didn't believe that we'd just carried the bike over. Back on tarmac it felt good to be logging the miles again as we headed again for Okyel Bridge this time timing it perfectly for brunch and re-stocking our pockets with flapjacks. 

The old road to Ullapool.

Bellies bulging with food we trundled off slowly onto the old road to Ullapool, for a while we made pretty good progress with wide open tracks until the path became a ribbon of single track overhanging the Corriemulzie river. More off and on the bike, more chatting to estate workers about what we were doing and a bit more pushing thrown in for good measure. It was as we headed to Ullapool we realised that we'd managed break our cache battery which meant we were without a power source for charging our Garmin. This was potentially a big problem as without the Garmin we'd be relying on maps which would slow us down again. We made the decision to head for Ullapool asap to find the outdoor shop and get ourselves sorted. We  came off route a couple of miles out and hurtled down the road to town, we made the outdoor shop 5 mins before closing but they had no cache batteries or Garmins. We did however find an electronics shop where the owner was amazingly helpful, we bought a huge cache battery off him and while we went to eat some chips he helpfully made sure it and our Garmin were fully charged. A couple of hours later with our crisis averted we rolled up out of town and back to where we'd left the course to regain the route. 

Above the aptly named Coffin road.

A short section of road took us to the aptly named Coffin road, a steep seemingly almost vertical push up and over the tops before dropping down to Dundonnel. It was cool and bright night so we pushed on for a while until eventually we started to drop down and found a flat (-ish), dry spot to bivvy for the night. Tomorrow would be a big day- the loch crossing at Fisherfield and the Postmans path.

6am and bright sun, the climb to Fisherfield.

An early morning push/climb took us up behind the mountain tops before a fast, loose decent into the valley bottom heading towards Fisherfield. Some single track took us past the Shenavall bothy and onwards to the shoreline and the crossing point for the infamous loch crossing. Unlike last year when some riders had been at chest level when crossing the loch for us it was just past the knees. 

Surrounded by mountains the loch crossing at Fisherfield.

This was to be our longest and slowest day, we managed a total of 35 miles, our estimate is we pushed, hauled, carried the tandem over 26 of them. Another long steep rocky climb followed as the day got hotter, more hauling the bike over loose rocky slopes and three point turning it to get it around harpins and over rocks- this was definitely 'Type 2 Fun'. Once we reached the plateau we found this too was unrideable, the wheelbase of the bike being a little too long, more walking and scooting followed. Eventually we were rewarded by the amazing view of Dubh Loch and Fionn Loch as well as some bits of track that were rideable.

Dubh Loch and Fionn Loch.

Not all tracks are rideable. 

We crossed the causeway between the two lochs and started on a long slow grind up the 'Postmans path". The Postmans path is a historic path about 10 miles in length that runs from Letterewe to Fisherfield causeway where once a month the postman would make the journey to deliver mail. One heck of a route!
We'd thought that once we'd made the end of the path we might be able to make it to Kinlochewe for tea. We couldn't have been more wrong.

Somewhere there is a path...

Sense of humour failure.
 Manhandling a tandem over a tree filled ravine has that effect.

The trail suddenly disappeared to become a footpath barely 3" wide in places that clung to slopes that were about 75 degrees. Covered in a mixture of ferns and rose bushes we dragged the bike along being scratched, torn, burnt in the sun and eaten by midges when we stopped. Progress was slow and only got slower as we encountered one of 3 ravine crossings that was filled with fallen trees. After much swearing we manhandled the bike over, under and through the trees- having a 'moment' or two in the process. 
6pm came and went and any thoughts of tea at the Whistle Stop cafe were well and truly dashed, we decided to camp a few km's outside of Kinlochewe get a proper nights sleep and roll into town for breakfast in the morning. Tempting as it was to push on the prospect of a large breakfast and good coffee was all we needed to call it a day. Absolutley knackered we crawled into our sleeping bags, the last thing I heard was another HTR rider cursing as they bounced down the path towards Kinlochewe. 

More mountain tops in Torridon.

A short spin into Kinlochewe and we hit the Whistle Stop cafe for breakfast. Smoothies, quinoa and mushrooms with fried eggs on top, peanut butter on toast and lots of coffee, now we were ready for another day of bike hauling. So far the bike had been perfect (except for losing a chainring bolt- which was holding together nicely with  zip tie!) it was just us that were starting to feel it. Riding a tandem seems to necessiate a lot of sitting down- especially on the loose slopes of Scottish hills. We both had developed a rather uncomfortable saddle/pressure sore on our ass plus rather worryingly our shoes had started to split across the soles. It would seem that dragging a bike across many hills had taken it's toll on our footwear which was patently not HT550 rated. This was not what we needed when the mornings objective was to haul the bike through and over Torridon. We rolled out of town and had a few gentle miles of road before turning off onto some fast rolling fire road, this didn't last long before we started the inevitable climb into the mountains. We popped our heads into a bothy we passed and managed to find some suncream someone had left- winner! Maybe today we wouldn't fry as much. We eventually reached our high point and then started to drop down, we did manage a bit of riding before deciding that maybe a full suspension bike would be a better choice for the large slabby drop offs. A quick and fun  blast through some wooded trails at the bottom and then back onto the road for a while to knock out some more miles. By now we were pre-occupied by the fact we wanted to get to Dornie before the general store closed otherwise it was no food for us. More hills, more swearing at the non existent river side path to haul the tandem along before finally hitting tarmac again. By our reckoning we had 15mins to get 5 miles to the shop, we decided to give it everything we had and screamed down the road, a headwind was not what was needed right now. We didn't arrive in the 15 mins- but it turns out we had the opening times wrong by half an hour and it was still open. Result!
An impromptu picnic outside followed as we stuffed restocks into bags and bellies for later. 

Misty start in Glen Affric.

We climbed out of Dornie, stopping briefly at the viewpoint before heading to Shiel bridge and the turning to Glen Affric. We then had a few miles of nice fast riding as we dropped into the Glen before realising that the footpath that clung to the mountain side above us was where we were headed next. Off the bike again for another night of pushing the bike up and over rocky paths that clung to the glen side, crossing waterfalls, and becoming more remote the further we travelled along it. We knew we were going to be passing Camden bothy en route and guessed it would be a full house in there as we spotted a couple of other HTR riders heading for it. We rolled on by saying hello to the few riders outside who were trying to quietly get their stuff off bikes and inside without waking the others. Shortly after we decided to bivvy for the night as the mist had dropped in and visibility was deteriorating. 

Old military road to Fort Augustus.

An early start as we kept heading through the Glen passing the SYHA hostel- surely one of the remotest youth hostels in the country. It was a misty morning and gave the glen quite an atmospheric and spooky feel. Eventually we crossed the river at the end of the Glen (bridged) and continued on fire roads. Progress quickened as the going got easier and we could see where we were gong, we picked up the military road heading for Fort Augustus climbing up and through more forests, hills and past remote hilltop lochs before the hitting a massive long fire road decent- the sort of decent that leaves you with the smell of overheating brake pad in your nostrils. A final hill to climb, another descent through a gorse filled hillside of switchbacks before arriving in Fort Augustus. 
More food (pizza!), a restock at the petrol station and a visit to the chemist for blister pads.

Nice venting!

Our deteriorating footwear meant we now had a number of blisters on heels and toes so a quick stop on the banks of the Caledonian canal gave us some time to patch these up. It should also be noted that a Compeed blister pad can do pretty good service to a pressure sore on the ass- and apologies to the couple cycling by who may have witnessed what probably looked like some pretty deviant behaviour as I was applying said item to Rich's backside. 

After the relentless hills we'd encountered spinning along the flat banks of the canal was a welcome relief, some woods, some lochsides and a few hours later and we hit Fort William. We'd forgotten it was World cup weekend and were a bit shellshocked by the amount of traffic and people we suddenly encountered. We skirted the edge of town and started the long climb through the woods heading for the old military road to Kinlochleven. It was mostly easy going except we'd blocked out the memory of a set of stairs we'd have to contend with.

Stairs- *sigh*

Once on the military road we trundled on our thoughts being to push on through the night and get in on a 6 day finish. However, with Rich's new open toe spd arrangement it became apparent this wasn't the best idea and he was probably risking a broken toe or two in the process. As darkness fell we made the decision to stop and crack on again in the morning, a 6 day finish wouldn't be likely but we would have 10 working toes each.

Last view of the 'Ben'

Another early morning start of walking the bike down to Kinlochleven, followed by our last big push of the trip up and over Devils Staircase, we were definitely glad we hadn't tried to do this in the dark.  Once over the other side we followed the Military road to the Kingshouse hotel (too early for coffee!) and on to the Glencoe ski station. A fast stoney downhill took us past the many highland Way walkers that were now on the move and on to the Bridge of Orchy, we had a quick caffeine & cake hit here and then pushed on past the station and onwards to eventually rejoin the route we'd last been on 6 days ago. 

We rolled in to the Green Welly stop at 7 days 4 hours and 44mins after we'd left.

We lost one chainring bolt, trashed 2 pairs of shoes, and can honestly say that taking the tandem around the HTR550 is the hardest physical thing we've ever done. 

It's taken a week for the cankles to go down but we're already talking about which bike we'd 'solo' it on :-)

Free to a good home, one careful owner.

Bike specs and kit list.

Frameset Salsa Powderkeg - awesome
Wheels. Rohloff & SP Dynamo hubs built with Sapim Race spokes onto Velocity Blunt SS rims - straight as they come
Tubeless system by StansNoTubes, faultless - as was the mix of Schwalbe Nobby Nic up front with a Rock Razor on the rear. Grippy, tough and fast rolling - no punctures.
Chainsets RaceFace NextSL - super light and tough enough for the rocks of Torridon
Pedals Issi, colour matched and a lot more cosmetically challenged than when they left
Seat posts Thomson and Cane Creek Thudbuster
Saddles both running SDG
Bars Salsa carbon flats - flex enough to take the sting out of riding rigid
Grips Ergon of course. 
Chains & chainrings provided by KMC and Hopetech - took the knocks without complaint.
Lighting provided by an Exposure Revo and a pair of Joysticks
Luggage provided by a mix of Salsa frame bag, Apidura feed pouches and Wildcat seat pack and handlebar harness - mixing it up was essential for the special needs of the tandem. 
We carried chain links, tubes, lube, Park multitool, Leatherman plyer type tool, zip ties (thankfully) no spare chainring bolts (oops) cables. Luckily we only used lube and a zip tie. 
For shelter we carried a small dog tarp, ultralight Terranova Moonlite bivvy bags and PHD Minim sleeping bags. 
Spot tracker, Garmin 800s x 2, a Canon G7X and a couple of back up cache batteries for electronics. 

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Dirty Reiver 200 #1

Dirty Reiver 200

Personalised plates.

We first expressed an interest in a Salsa Powderkeg around four years ago. Prototypes came and went, we couldn't get our hands on anything small enough. There was obviously a lot going on Stateside that helped to produce the amazing bike we have just got our hands on. One Saturday two weeks ago a very large box popped out of a courier van and landed in our workshop. We got busy with the spanners and nipple wrench and had a shakedown ride on Sunday. Amazing. Felt right at home from the go and before long we were on our way to Kielder to ride 200k of gravel...

Photo: Rich
 We got to Kielder Castle late on Friday night, just in time to register before it closed for the evening. After a cosy nights sleep we woke up at 5.30 to a light dusting of snow on the ground and fluttering from the sky. Thankfully that didn't last long and we lined up at the back of the pack for rider briefing and an unhurried start to the day at just after 7am. Everyone was in chirpy spirits!
Photo: George Harris

Lately we've been pretty short on long bike rides, busy at work and bouts of sickness keeping both our mileages modest. Our plan for the day was to go super steady, have a bit of banter and get home without incident. We'd looked at the profile for the course and unsurprisingly it didn't show a lot of flat sections - rolling terrain with three big climbs. The nature of tandems meant the those climbs were taken nice and steady but once at the top we could take advantage of gravity and hit speeds of up to 46 mph on the most hardpacked of descents. The rolling stuff in between could be taken at pace so long as we got our gear selection right, all helped by the Rohloff hub of course. We've got some big 200mm rotors on the Powderkeg so stopping wasn't an issue - the brake pad eating reputation of Kielder wasn't a problem, we carried two sets of spare brake pads but there was no need. This time.

Photo: Greg May

Got wood?

Many riders, including us, were also carrying far too much food. The event catering was simply amazing. Three food stations crammed with chatty people, sandwiches, scones, energy food, bananas, tea and coffee, Jaffa cakes and more. All still available when the tail end of the field was coming through. A triumph of organisation and something other events should take note of.


We got plenty of all kinds of weather. Climbing got everyone warmed up nicely to be shortly followed by long, straight descents that were pretty damn chilly. There was a sustained period of snow and hail that was quickly forgotten once the blue skies & sun came out again. Everyone was smiling throughout, happy days.

We're hoping to return for this event next year. Nothing at all to criticize, well put together with super friendly people and a great course. Well done to Paul and all involved.

Keep up with goings on at and

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Winter Highland riding - Top loop of the Highland Trail 550

It's been a while since we've been this far North in Scotland.

Once we'd closed up the shop on Christmas Eve, dropped Olive the Dog at the minders and had a chip supper we headed 431 miles North to Oykel Bridge. We arrived reasonably early and grabbed a couple of hours sleep before heading even more North, on our bikes of course. It got quite chilly the higher we got naturally.

We bottomed out at -4* and being blown off the hill. Thankfully the wind/snow/hail was behind us.

This was the view from across the valley, not quite so snowy but the wind picked up a bit.

Down into the valley and the continuation of the deserted town/village/everything trip - not a lot open around here this time of year.

The eastern section of the loop and where we were closest to the sea - no filters needed here!

Third night and we hid from what sounded like awful weather about to tear the roof off. If we'd been in our tent it wouldn't have stayed up long. Had no idea the bothy was on our route, just lucky.

Final day was pretty much hike-a-bike for most of it. Once we left the double track the trail was designed for walking...

There's a trail over there - only visible as a purple line on the gps mind you.

Before we hit the road for the last 20k back to the van we sat on a beach.
Ate some, drank some and looked at the view.
It's a long way from Manchester but it sure is worth the trip - if only for the overwhelming sense of bugger all as far as you can see and then some.