Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Brecon Epic

Monday was a much better day for weather, with the clouds less set on the hills and the sun breaking through into a Spring day. I had been debating a trip back up to Talgarth, to the North of the Brecons, to take on a ride I’d done once before.

Last time I rode this loop I had lost some sunglasses, swapped some brake pads badly and dropped them out, so had to fit a second pair. I’d then missed a turning or two and ground out the route home into a constant headwind before burning my calf on a hot rotor at the bottom of a late descent. I wanted to go back and see if my Oakleys were still on top of Y Das, and I had a couple of improvements to add another level of rollercoaster descent into the ride. Oh, and another brutal climb of course.

The ride is a proper big day out. It starts basically straight up the mountain in a climb that most guides claim is a push and carry for the last 250 metres. I want to meet the writers of these guides and ride with them as I consider the climb virtually all a push.

Once on top the pay-off starts with a long fast rocky downhill which is everything that riding can be, even if it’s off singletrack. The old pack route drops beside a stream on open moor towards the reservoir at Grwyne Fawr, then past the dam and on down to the valley bottom. It’s a long fast ride that makes you remember what mountain biking can offer as you drop through the open mountain side.

The road cruise from there is where I’ve struggled before to find the turning to take me right back onto the hills, this time was no different, but we took a track that seemed right and winched up into the woods. Another push up a trail that has been adopted as a downhill track and we were out on the top of Crug Mawr ready for a spot of food and then a real treat of a singletrack run curving over the shoulder of the hill and then down into the valley steeper and steeper.

Right onto the road and then the climbing slowly started, on tarmac at first and then a quick sharp up leading into a long hard drag up the valley. This is one of those climbs that never gets hard but just keeps coming. Spinning through and inching higher it takes you up on an ancient through-route up and over the saddle of the mountain.

Straight into another brake-melting rocky drop and then another kick past Castell Dinas and a surprise rocky sunken lane next to the gliding club and then we were spinning back into Talgarth with a whole lot of climbing in tired legs but immensely satisfied with a day in the mountains.


Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Riding in the Clouds

Abandoned for the weekend I headed for Wales and some mountain biking. Over Saturday and Sunday the clouds were sitting down on the top of anywhere high in Wales and so rides on both days would be up in the mist with visibility right down.

Saturday was a ride on the Blorenge above Abergavenny, apparently a classic, with a big climb followed by a long and fun technical downhill singletrack. There were a number of navigation errors that meant that the climb was more protracted than it might have been, but eventually we made it on top in weather that had closed right in, meaning we could see no more than maybe 50 metres ahead. This made it tricky to find the way and to look ahead to read the track. Despite this the fun was definitely there. Dropping off the top of the hill on rocky singletrack that kept on delivering. Snaking round the hill the track swept past the Punchbowl lake and then we dropped back to Llanfoist wet and trying to hold off the cold.

In the end it’s an area I’ve always kind of ignored, but I’ll be back to do it again on a proper summer day to blast it out and actually get to enjoy the views, rather than the constant whiteout.

Less than a mile from the cottage I was staying in is the Raven Trail at Brechfa. Connected to the Gorlech trail I rode last summer, this starts from a different point and offers a tougher, black-rated challenge. Compared to the red trails this went more directly straight up a load of climbing, dropping back on trails that pushed to the top of what might usually be red-rated at least. So, fun swoopy bermed drops, roots, rock drops, and steep climbs were the order of the day, as we rose and fell into the cloud and the rain.

Back in the carpark and discussing the top quality of the riding we treated ourselves to a gigantic burger and then scuttled off to get warm and dry.

Wales offered up some excellent riding as usual and there was still Monday to look forward to.


Monday, 27 April 2015

Safety and Danger

There are competing forces at work in the world of bicycle innovation.

On the one hand there are moves to try and make cycling as safe as possible. This can order on the ridiculous as more and more technology and impact protection is crammed into what should, in my opinion, be a simple and immediate pleasure. The latest version of this thinking is this bike that hit the headlines a couple of weeks ago..

To make a serious and unfamiliar bike advocate-type comment, I think that this does a lot to damage the work to make bikes accepted on the roads. A bike that bounces off trucks suggests that we should accept that lorries will hit cyclists. Also, the more protection that is built the less it’s somehow acceptable for people to ride a bike in a relaxed and enjoyable way, whichis what it’s all about.

Much better as far as I’m concerned is the pursuit of fun and perhaps a bit of danger on bicycles. This is nothing new, as the BBC proved this week with a look at the bicycle speedway gangs that grew up racing on bombsites in the Second World War.

More recently the Drop and Roll team have been out and about for a year demonstrating just how to control a bike:

This has been also gathering attention:


Friday, 24 April 2015

Hadleigh Castle Olympic Legacy Mountain Bike Track

After the trip to investigate the Olympic Legacy track at Hadleigh Castle a week or so ago I finally found time to get there with a bike and check it out for real.

A day off work booked with a gamble on the weather holding was one nervy part of the trip, compounded by my memories of just how steep some of the pro “Olympic” lines were on the bits of the course I’d seen. I escaped London in a grey but dry day that would brighten significantly. Arriving at the course I was relieved to find it open so unloaded the bike and warmed up on the pump track and skills area, where the practice drop-offs did nothing to calm my nerves. One trip back to the car to fix a slipping dropper post cable-stop and I was off onto an exploratory lap. First up it was longer than I expected and my aim to run it all in a big ring might be doable but wasn’t fun.

I took red runs all round and was slightly disheartened by the size of the black lines at first look, as I hit the end I was loosening up and riding better, so it was time to drop a couple of gears, stick the tracker on to record it for Strava and go again.

This Strava log is nothing special, apart from the slight thrill of being on the same table (much, much lower down) as Cross Country superstar Nico Schurter.

By lap three I was much more dialled and the pro lines seemed less daunting. I started taking these options and found them well within my abilities and in some cases easier than the red options by virtue of losing some of the sketchy turns that had been included to keep the gradient down. By lap four I’d cleared them all and ridden a clean lap of the whole loop. The riding is tough and technical, and over the 5K ish route you’re barely allowed to relax. My legs were feeling the constant work and I decided to call it a day after a couple of hours of riding to leave myself wanting more and to prevent any stupid tired injuries.

So, in summary, a shortish technical track that challenges you to be better, faster, take harder lines and compare yourself to the pros. However pleased with myself I might be with riding the hard lines, I can’t ignore the fact that I did them on an enduro bike with nearly 140mm of suspension either end, and dropper post, while the Olympic riders did the same on race-spec hardtails with fixed seatposts. You have to admire the skill of those riders really and it takes riding some of the same sections as them to drive that home.


Monday, 13 April 2015

New Legacies

This weekend peaked on Sunday for bike riding. The much anticipated Paris Roubaix, supposed to be a final win for Bradley Wiggins for Sky was dry and hard racing, momentarily split by a train and with Wiggo featuring in an attack with 20miles to go, it was a race that would not see the fairytale ending.

Wiggins couldn’t stay with the final attack of the day, finishing 18th and beaten by Sky team-mate Luke Rowe who claimed eighth behind the winner John Degenkolb.

Almost straight away it was off to the other end of France for the first round of the Downhill World Cup at Lourdes. The women’s race was more competitive than ever, with Tracey Hannah qualifying first but crashing on her run to not challenge winner Ragot and second place Rachel Atehrton. Manon Carpenter was noticeably absent from the podium, perhaps feeling the pressure of being World Cup and World Champion.

Qualifying crashes would set the tone for the men’s race, as Gee Atherton broke his wrist and finished the race well down in the 40s. Aaron Gwin’s crash meant he had to rely on his protected-rider status to race the final and he put in a blistering run very early on in the day. This remained the time to beat all day and solid runs from the top names couldn’t touch him, although it was encouraging to see Josh Bryceland back from his ankle destruction and racing on pace, even if not managing to hit the podium. Second place went to Loic Bruni the local favourite, but possibly feeling the expectation from the top and his run never really recovering from an over-cooked first corner. Surprise of the weekend goes to British Chain Reaction Cycles Rider Michael Jones who came down his first elite race to finish third and bring all eyes on him.

If you’re worried about British performance, don’t. Behind the two top placed finishers were six British riders in a row, even with some of the best known riders missing this week.

See for yourself here.

Talking of top level riding there had been little news form the Olympic course at Hadleigh Castle so I headed out to Essex to see what was going on there, and also enjoy the sunshine. I can report that things look very close to being open. The trails are in place and look pretty fun, with the Olympic lines a definite challenge I’m itching to get on. I didn’t take a bike this time, but people were riding there, and the infrastructure is in place, with carpark pay-machines ready to open and the café open, if not yet taking cards. I guess things aren’t 100% ready and there is little control on access, so a number of dog walkers roaming over the trails, which will definitely get dangerous when trails are being thrashed. I’m planning on when to get back to try them out as soon as I can but in the meantime here are some pictures to give you a flavour.

These black-graded “Olympic” lines look like a real technical challenge that I can’t wait to get on.

Here's the map of the area.

And the trails.