Monday, December 21, 2009

Why eat malt loaf?

Why eat malt loaf when you're riding? Because it makes your spit brown, so you can pretend you're a tobacco-chewing cowboy without having to chew tobacco. Now, where's that spittoon? Zp-ting!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Motivation and the lack thereof

Well, the Voodoo is back. A new frame under warranty and no questions asked, so that's pretty good of them. It's weird to have the same bike but shinier and with the logos intact. The first ride back was incredible: suddenly, I could pick lines that required some precision rather than leaving huge margins for error. Every landing was like Tigger, bounding back up for more. Awesome fun.

But that was a few weeks ago now and now my motivation has mysteriously taken leave. Generally, I take it for granted that I want to ride. For fun, with friends, or in training for future goals. Occasionally, people ask me where it comes from or how I don't get bored. There's so much depth to mountain biking in making yourself strong enough for an event, in reading terrain, in understanding the dynamics of moving weight to get the effect you need, in all kinds of ways. But it is demanding. And sitting on the sofa today, as yesterday, that demand seems like an unnecessary hassle.

My last ride "ended" with a fall that hurt my knee a fair bit, leaving me without the strength in it to keep my leg in line as I pedalled. From there, I had to limp home with my tail between my legs and the snow in my face. I hadn't felt like going out in the first place and had forced myself, expecting to wrap up warm, crank up the iPod, and find some rhythm once I was out there. My iPod wasn't working (it's not great to rely on such things!), and my riding was laboured until the fall, then it was just slow.

So, I've been indulging in doing nothing. Newspapers, TV, and tea. Feeling that little ball of steel forming inside me, waiting for the will to go out and ride like I need to in order to have the legs for the Tour Divide. It is coming, but today I'll be cranking up the heating and keeping it lazy. Mmm... croissants!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

So that's another bike down. My bike-breaking history is not as bad as some: two aluminium, and now one titanium.

I've never really got that excited about the bikes, it's always been about the riding. Last year, I happened to be in Portland at the time of the North American Handmade Bike Show and it was just about the most boring thing ever. Wow, lugs. Tidy welds... super. But what made them better than my 1x1? Lighter, and more niche but well up the slope of diminishing returns. I'm kind of glad that beardy frame-builders exist, but I don't think I want to go hang out at a convention centre with them.

So, I've tried to pick bikes on the basis of functionality. The label and the finery does too much damage to the wallet when decent geometry shouldn't cost the earth. And what makes me deserve a multi-thousand pound frame? And that's pretty much how I look after my bikes. They're the vehicle to a world of singletrack and fun, not an end in themselves. So clean them when you have to, and chuck them in the shed when you don't.

The Voodoo was my most expensive bike yet. £1500 complete from Halfords, it's still 4.5 times less expensive than a top-of-the-range "race" bike. My first ride on it was beset by problems. The head-tube badge popped off after less than half an hour. The slidey dropouts kept sliding up, so the chain kept coming off. There was no honeymoon period, but it sprinkled gold dust over the descents and whipped up the climbs. I could sort the dropouts and bollocks to the head-badge.

Since then it's been ridden and crashed, scratched and left caked in mud, hosed down and ridden through rivers. And the mantra has been "forget about the bike" - if it's good enough to get me there and back with a grin, then it's good enough. This summer I rode other bikes for a while as the rear wheel from the Voodoo was away for serious repairs. When it came back, I hated that bike. Too whippy and unstable. Too big to crouch low. But I settled back in and the ride came back. I knew how far I could lean forwards, how much I could grab an edge from the tyres, how to flick my hips over jumps and drops.

So, I'm sad that I can't have those ride experiences right now. The Voodoo is with Halfords while they decide whether I'm a fat ape who runs his seatpost too high or a victim of a dodgy weld. Part of me hopes that they don't send a new frame, then I can go choose something else. But that ignores the money and the important thing:

The ride.

For now, it's fun time on the Pug. I don't know what I'm going to end up riding next week, but as long as the trails offer up challenges with one hand and fun with their, it doesn't matter. I suppose I'll want a new bike for the Divide, though :)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I'm old

And late with posting about it. But the festivities were pretty good.

It was an early start so that Emily could go swimming with her club and I could sneak in a ride. As I pulled into the Look Out car-park, it was remarkably quiet but it was also 7.30am. I hadn't ridden off-road in about a week and every time that happens, I revert a bit to being an indoors person. The air felt cold and I wanted to start out wearing a jacket. In fact, part of me didn't want to start at all. But as soon as I turned those cranks, a massive weight left my shoulders and a massive grin slapped me in the face. Oh, yeah - bikes are awesome! Everything felt good: the bike felt lively underneath me, the trails were in good shape, and I was loving it. No time to ponder age, there was singletrack to go for!

There's a trail we know as "the rooty trail of death", and it has claimed victims. I came into it having pedalled and pumped and ragged my way from the car-park. My iPod was thumping and images from last night's Earthed DVD danced around in my brain. You know the rest. All speed and no plan, my front tyre went diagonally along a root, bounced off a mound of earth, and back into a tree. I tipped over the bars in semi slow motion, seeing the tree stump that I was going to land on. There was only time to go loose before I hit the ground.

At first, I couldn't move at all. Then I could get up, but the pain was all-consuming. Slowly it faded to the point where I could think. I'd kinda spoiled a good ride and set myself up for a painful birthday. Damnit. The dead leg meant that I couldn't ride back up the other side of the hollow I'd flapped into. The graze on my hip was sore under my jersey. I kept up the ride, though, knowing that these things fade.

My style was cramped now, and never as free as the first 1/2 hour. Still, it was a ride and you can't knock it. One patch of crash damage below...

The next part of the day was present-from-Emily time. Heelys! Ever since they came out, I've been jealous of todays kids growing up in a world with wheely trainers. It turns out that they come in adult sizes, so now I have my own. We went down to Hyde Park to give them a spin. With my battered legs, it was hard to balance on the wheels but I got there in the end. Emily's roller-blades were much quicker, but the Heelys got the attention (possibly in amusement/sympathy, but they were fun).

And in-between, there was time for Anish Kapoor's very playful works at The Royal Academy of Art. From sort of woven concrete in forms that echo industrial manufacturing, caves, and primitive art to huge mirrors that put the whole building into a snow-globe, to a giant block of wax that travelled through the gallery, it was fun. And then there was Homer's giant belly-button.

So, older and still none-the-wiser.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Maybe I am a singlespeeder?

After an annoying session of fixing bikes (broken cranks on the Balfa, snapped rack mounts on the Karate Monkey, buckled wheel on the Voodoo, Rockhopper built as stand-in for KM), I took my frustrations out on the Voodoo's gear hanger.

Now I have a nice Ti gear-hanger key fob. Take that bike maintenance!

This might make me a singlespeeder, though...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Porky Panniers

A few weeks ago, I broke an eyelet off of the back of my Karate Monkey. It's my work bike so I frequently have to carry loads of stuff in the panniers, and one day it was just too much. The bottom of the rack broke free of the frame and made a horrendous noise as it jammed into the rear cog/chain.

Keeping it real, I took the bike to my local garage and they brazed the eyelet back on. Hooray for steel frames! But the cheers were premature... today one side failed due to incompetence, then the other side (the recently fixed one) broke off again leaving me with over 5 miles to get home. Doh!

The incompetence was hearing that something was loose on my way to work and deciding to fix it when I got there. The number one thing I've learned about riding bikes a long way in various places is "fix it now, it can only get worse if you leave it." But, like an idiot, I left it anyway. I went round a corner, and suddenly the back of the bike went crazy as a bolt fell out and my load got jiggy. I paced up and down near the site of the wobble, but I couldn't find the bolt. Nearly 10 miles to get to work and 5 miles back. Time to improvise and (would you believe it?!), no cable ties.

The one thing I did have was my cable lock, so I worked it around the frame, rack, and pannier itself. Pulling it as tight as I could, I had low expectations. But bodge-tastically, it held. I got all the way to work without as much as a rattle. Sweet.

Then, on the way home, I hulked the bike around on the way up a bridge (they pass for hills in London). There was the hideous noise again as the non-bodged side of my panniers snapped off the frame again. OK, now it's more than 5 miles with a bike lock holding one side of my panniers and nothing holding the other. I jammed the free side into a convenient bit of dropout and thought smooth thoughts all the way home.

Luck of luck, I made it. Adding to my luck, it was only a few days ago that I got my new saddle bag from Epic Designs. The perfect replacement for my panniers (at least for now). I think I'm going to be in the market for a steel frame with tougher drop-outs now. And I'm going to loctite the damn things into place!

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Still Not Loud Enough, Still Not Fast Enough

Well, last weekend was Maxx Exposure and once again the sun shone on me (at least until it went down). I'd imagine that 75 miles of chalk and dark would be quite intimidating in the wet, but when I arrived at Beachy Head it was all dust and ice-cream vans.

I was pretty motivated for this one. No racing in a while had given over to a month or so of proper training rides where I cranked out single rides over 70 miles every weekend. If I was going to get back in a competition, I wanted to go well. The only hitch in my preparation had been a slip-up at work that meant I'd had to race up to Harrow (the far end, 18 miles) at high speed to pick something up from a school and zip over to another school (6 miles away) before everyone went home, and then a 15 miles return trip. It had felt good to zip around London on fresh legs, but I knew that it wasn't the right preparation for the weekend.

Nonetheless, the good weather meant that my plan of riding the race, sleeping for a few hours and then riding back again seemed like it could fly. My kit list looked like this:

2x 1.5 L bottles Maxim
Malt loaf
9 bar

12 scoops dry Maxim
Lemon squash
Malt loaf
9 bar
Fresh riding top

Torq Recovery
Sleeping bag

2x Ay Up
2x 6h batteries
3x 3h batteries
Extension lead

I was being pretty safe about taking loads of kit. I was hoping to finish the race in 7 to 7.5 hours but carrying 9 hours of food and light, plus a spare light and extra battery. I wasn't expecting to change from a short-sleeve top on the bike, but took a jacket anyway. Fortunately, my camping/return gear was shipped to the end for me. Even so, I wasn't ultra-light but I wasn't going to be rescued by anyone.

The safety briefing was more amusing than these things usually manage. Apparently, a rider had run into the back of a sleeping cow last year and complained when he got covered in cow poo. Mind the cows, then.

Soon enough, we were off though, and I was spinning like a fool. I know these races are long, but getting caught behind people in the first hour is really frustrating so I tried to push on without being an arsey racer. It was great to see the green landscape stretching and rolling ahead, with cliffs standing tall to the sea. I flowed and cranked and hoped that the lactic pain from yesterday's London riding would dissipate.

Things thinned out pretty quickly and I soon found myself behind a sponsored but not very elite rider. In typical style, he shut a gate in my face when I was only 2 bike lengths away. Charming. There are some fast chalk descents in this first section and I cruised up behind him with my hands loose and my brain mellow. I could carry way more speed than him, but decided not to overtake and risk a pinch-flat on the rougher line. Backing off, I followed him down to another gate. At least he held this one, but as I slowed I could feel my back tyre bouncing too much... I had pinched anyway.

I stuck in a new tube as quickly as I could with many riders going by. So much for not getting held up in the early stages. Making double-sure I hadn't been lazy about reinflating, I was off again. Up to checkpoint 1 was a steady stream of overtaking and jolly riders. Everyone was enjoying our high-speed ribbon of South Downs. I knew the approach to CP1 from riding that area with Emily a few weeks ago, so I could remember our sunny cow-herding antics as I hurtled through the dark descent and kept a sharp look-out for them cows.

The checkpoint was fairy-lit, but only the briefest of stops for me. I hoped to refill on water once later, but otherwise stay self-sufficient. The climb out of there is tough. It is steep enough to be a bit too hard to fully attack, but not steep enough for a slow grind. So a slow grind attack got me there, and straight down the other side only pausing to offer help to a rider with an uncooperative light-mount.

I was feeling pretty strong, only about 2 hours in and just closing down each red-lit bike in front of me. Passing people in the open terrain, the red rear would turn to white front light and seem to follow me forever. Eventually, I'd look back though and see the source was dropping back but the modern beams cast huge distances. I hadn't run both of my Ay Ups together in a while and it was turning out to be fantastic. The bar mount gave me shadows to pick out rocks and holes, the helmet mount let me look round corners. I could look where I wanted to go and let peripheral vision take care of the immediate trail - just like in the day.

Most of the rest of the race was a blur. The white trail glowed like an imagined thing, and I just kept going, deliberately pressuring myself towards speed. I came across one racer who seemed to be a local and pretty friendly but singlespeed necessity dropped him on a climb. I came across another who was taking things pretty seriously but got away when I had puncture number 2. With the second puncture, I gave up any calculations of where I would finish. I just wanted to push hard and see what happened.

So it was a great surprise to see Mr Serious with about 5 miles to go. I could see he was suffering and tried to chat, but it wasn't going anywhere. And then he tried to race me up every rise. Still keeping it chatty, I turned the screw. My pace turned up and up, I used my attempts to cheer him as a way of showing that I wasn't out of breath. It wasn't nice, but he'd been rude and was acting for all the world like he was going to try to out-sprint me to the line. Then, with 3 miles to go, he stopped. It took me a distance to notice and, looking back, he seemed ok. I debated going back to help, but decided that he would have said something if he was in real trouble.

So I rode on, and into QE park. As I was riding, I could remember how this stage felt last time. I had been suffering badly then, but now I was cruising. Good. I crossed the line and that was it. About 7.5 hours for 75 miles, and a pretty enjoyable ride.

It was time to refuel, pitch my tent and get some sleep before heading back. Sandwich, Torq recovery, dry clothes, bed. Nice.

Through the night, I could hear other riders coming in. The last guy took about 12 hours, ouch. By morning, I lay in my tent wondering if there was a way out of riding back. Unable to think of one, I went about the necessities. Breakfast, loo, pack up tent. I had my camping kit in a big Camelbak and last night's kit in a normal Camelbak. With no space to spare, I rode out of the campsite with my little bag strapped to the outside of my big one. As I left, an organiser asked where I was riding back to. I told him Eastborne, and he thought I was joking.

It was tough to get going, and I felt further disheartened as someone out for a normal ride cruised past my rolling trudge. The day was still beginning though, and I hoped that the stiffness would evapourate with the mist.

On the way back, I was using the public taps described on the SDD site and it wasn't too long before I reached the first. I dropped my pack on the ground and made no hurry to refill my bottles. This was going to be a long day and I hate carrying loads on my back. It is really good that a national trail like this has the taps. They open up all kinds of independent travel along it. For walkers, bikers, or horse-riders carrying food is OK but carrying enough water would be an absolute killer.

The stop had helped and I could appreciate unwinding the route in reverse, this time with views. Postcard sights of rolling hills and trees connected me to the sea in the distance. The trail was busy with other users and it was nice to see them out. I had very small reserves, though, and any kind of real hill was pushing me off the bike and into a depressing push-fest. As soon as I got to the top, my good mood would be back and the miles would fly by. So, I tried to settle into doing this all day and knowing that arriving would take care of itself.

Unfortunately, it was hot... baking hot. And I wasn't drinking enough. The day wore on and I wore out until 25 miles from the end I just lay down near a tap and considered bail-out options. I knew I didn't have the legs to ride up the remaining hills so it was going to be a long pushing session with aching shoulders and no real rewards. So, I did bail. I caught a train from Lewes to Eastborne and finished off pushing up the tarmac to Beachy Head.

Looking back on the weekend it was fun, but disappointing. Matt Page had beaten me by an hour in the race, and I'd bailed on the ride home. It's hard to know how to react to the race... averaging 10mph despite 2 punctures is pretty good by the standard of what I was aiming for, but a world away from the top riders. So what's the point of training hard and spending so much time if I'm still in the second division? I've either got to be faster or riding for another reason. Iditarod this year and Great Divide next year are for their own reasons - they're days in the mountains, they have their own beauty and rewards, the race is just a pretext. But UK races are usually another matter. As a piece of riding, they mostly suck. The competition is what makes them and the closer you get to the front, the harder it is to take the next step.

So maybe I should ride for fun and ride for epic and skip the race part. Or maybe it's just winter coming on :)

Monday, September 14, 2009


Hooray for things beginning with "Max". Not "Maxed out! Stoked!" like some sort of Californian, but Max for Maxxis, Maxim, and Maxx Exposure.

First there were tyres. I've been running Racing Ralphs for the last few months. They're light, fast-rolling, and all-round grippy. But they're expensive and fragile in rocky environments. So with one set of them shredded beyond use, it was time to get another set (for racing, duh!) and something for everyday riding. Being a magazine-skeptic and a cheapskate (and stealing the idea from Tim B), I went for Maxxis High Rollers. By picking them up in an actual shop, I was able to get my hands on their zillion different versions and go for 2.35, 60a, wire. Big, cheap, not too sticky.

Now until I read an article in the one good magazine, Dirt, I thought tyre were somewhat simple. Then, I saw a WTB tyre designer saying that their Weirwolf tyres weren't very popular because there's a big gap between the central knobs and the side ones. So as you lean over, you get grip at the vertical, slip in-between, and then more grip when you get leaned all the way over. With my old (lesser) skills, I hated that tyre. High Rollers look kind of similar and ride as he described. They brake and accelerate with gobs of traction in a straight line. They carve amazingly if you give it some. But if you only lean a bit, then they drift. Since I've been working my skills upwards recently, the aggressive carve has come into force and I love it. I jammed my weight down so hard in one corner this weekend that the bike hopped itself out of the exit. The weight shift had given me the grip to snap around the corner and a giggle-inducing jump/acceleration out of it. Fantastic.

On your left, High Rollers. Big aggressive middle bit, big aggressive sides, big gap in between.  (the picture must be from a small size, it's more noticable on the real tyre). On your right, Racing Ralphs. Lots of little knobs mean similar traction the whole way round and not much drag.

Then there was Maxim. I've been riding on a diet of Malt Loaf, Oat Cakes, nuts, potatoes, and water. It has worked and I've been able to feel smug about not putting expensive sports-crap in my body. But I've also been comprehensively out-ridden by top riders who do use all that stuff. So I did a little experiment. Convention among these sport drink sellers seems to be that you need 1 g of carbs per kilo of body weight per hour. Looking at the back of my Malt Loaf, that's 1.5 loaves per hour. Crikey! I usually eat 1 loaf over about 4 hours. Since Emily has a big tub of Maxim from her swims, I used some on my big weekend ride. 3 scoops (180 g of carbs) per bottle with some lemon squash for taste. I rode for 2 hours with 1/4 bottle per half hour. Then two hours with 1/2 a malt loaf per hour. Then two more hours on the carbs. Then 1 more hour with nothing (should have planned that better). Now, I know that it's dry around here at the moment and that I'm getting back into training so feeling pretty good, but that was the longest time that I've ever felt that powerful on a bike. It was unbelievable, 6 hours in and I was still playing around. Still smiling. And still making more than 10 mph average in hilly terrain. The bonk when I ran out of food was pretty gruelling but, if I take plenty with me, this could be a new source of speed and freshness.

And finally, there's Maxx Exposure. Named after Exposure Lights (which often seem to have Maxx in the name but aren't as nice as Ay Ups), it's an 85 mile night race along the South Downs way. You get to see the white cliffs of the South Coast at sunset and then the night is yours in a big point-to-point race with fairy-lit, sofa-equipped checkpoints. I haven't done this one in a while, but I'm planning a South Downs Double, so it seems like a fun way to ride the route in the meantime. Ordinarily, you set up your tent at the end, they bus you to the start, and you ride back to the campsite. With my eyes on an upcoming double, I'm going to drop my tent at the end, and drive to the start. I'll ride the race, sleep a bit, then turn round and ride 85 miles back to the car again. Or something like that. It'll be silly fun.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Flip flops and big drops

Some photos that summarise the summer.

Bike-wise it's been about progression, taking it easy on the training front, fiddling with different bikes and set-ups, and lots of riding with flats. The pedal choice was first brought on by frostbite making my toes too big for cycling shoes, but I enjoyed it so much that I've stuck with them. I like the bigger platform, the extra control (when I twist, the bike comes with me rather than rotating in the cleats), and the changed attitude. For fast XC, I'm back on SPDs now but it's nice to appreciate both.

Welsh Ride Thing: Spread across 3 days and mid-Wales, it was the chance for some wild camping and epic riding. Our first choice of camping spot wasn't that wild, but it was chosen with darkness well and truly falling (photo from the next morning).
Welsh Ride Thing: Some good views!
Welsh Ride Thing: We're not obsessed by cows (honest).
Welsh Ride Thing: Not a bad view from your canvas bedroom.
Just before the start of Emily's swim of Lake Zurich:
During the Lake Zurich swim:

Northern France in a The Mystery Machine (unknown cyclist):
Bringing gourmet cooking (and tea) to le froggies. Mmm... beanfeast:
Cow pretending not to be interested in farmer carrying food near campervan parking spot number 2 (not obsessed by cows, remember):
Monet's garden in Giverny:
For some people the hippy van may have caused them to wear flowers in their hair, not me:
The aforementioned flip flops. Not performance footwear, not a performance summer:
Faux free-rider contemplation (while Adam finds his focus with the camera):
The aforementioned big drop:

So that's some of it. Fingers crossed for an Indian summer, but the one we've had so far hasn't been too bad.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Iditarod 2009 Part 5

Damn. I'm way behind. It's August and I still haven't put down everything that happened out in Alaska. That very fact has been stopping me from writing about all the other stuff that's happened this summer. Maybe I'll get there eventually. I've been on a CTC Mountain Bike Leader course, Emily's swum the length of Lake Zurich (that's 26.4 km! photos here), we both swam across Lake Geneva, and the riding's been laid back fun. All of which deserves some words, but may only get photos, if that. So, time to get the snowy monkey off my back, then I can resume the normal waffle.

Buffalo Camp is a hunting outpost that doesn't get many hunters these days, but Bill pays them to keep the camp there for us riders. Coming in an area that is often the coldest part of the race, it is a massive relief to get there. What happened to me when I got there, I'm not too sure about. I was so tired that my mind was in and out. I had planned to have something to eat before I slept but I don't remember if I managed much. I do remember trying to make some couscous but being defeated by the wood stove and not managing to get the water hot enough. Poking the logs ineffectually, I reflected on how un-Ray Mears I was. The darkness was swallowing up my mind and the water wasn't getting any hotter, so I dumped a bag of cold water and couscous into the pot on top of the stove and lay down. I half-convinced myself that I was just going to wait for the re-arranged wood to get moving, but in reality I knew I was going to sleep.

The next thing I knew I was surrounded by other racers. I had dropped off with only Billy, Lou, and Eric around. I had no idea where my gear was or how long I'd slept for. This wasn't my finest hour. As we got ourselves ready to go, Billy was pretty cheerful. He'd piled up my strewn out stuff and we were going to fuel up before getting back on the bikes. My couscous had cooked (and the bag had melted to the pot a bit, but I got away with it) and Billy had lentil curry. We stuffed down our butter laden food, sharing the meals between us. As I left Bison Camp, I actually felt good. I'd borrowed Lou's pump to sort out my tyres and topped up Billy's front as well. Soon we'd be at Nikolai and within striking distance of the finish.

The trail was similar to what we'd come in on - well packed snow-machine trail swooping up and down over little hills. Billy kept falling back and eventually we decided to just take it at our own paces. I was attacking each rise and fall of the trail with eagerness born of knowing I was going to make it to McGrath. After a while, I saw a pair of eyes up ahead on the trail. They hovered above the shadows of long legs and I thought it was strange to see someone with completely unreflective clothing. Then I realised it was a moose. I stopped way short of the beast - they have a reputation that I didn't want to mess with. It turned and carried on down the trail, with me rolling after, still keeping a distance. Eventually it turned off the trail to go on its way and I could get back into my groove.

Spinning through the night, I felt acutely alone. Having been with Billy for the last few days, I missed his company and doubted whether I should have left him when he was struggling for speed. We'd made our choices though and he'd seemed happy with it so there was nothing to do but pedal. Ghostly cracks rang out around me as the top layer of encrusted ice on the surrounding snow shifted. Each noise jolted me with adrenaline and awareness, but each time I settled back into making progress.

After a few hours, I needed to poo. A featureless tundra is not the ideal place to have that need, but I knew there were occasional trees so I just had to wait. Eventually, I saw one and pulled to a stop. Down jacket on, I stomped off the trail to a lone tree. Unhooking bib-longs is awkward at the best of times, and had to be done super-fast out here. I did my business, buried it and moved along with no new frostbite.

I had been moving at a high pace and effort for hours and there was still no daylight. I started to feel fatigued in mind and body - I knew I could keep going but I had an intense longing for the sun. The picture below was taken to see if I looked as bad as I felt, which I pretty much did. I was riding robotically in my down jacket, generating little heat but still approaching Nikolai and that was all I could do.

As it always does, the sun came up. I kept moving and expected nothing else. I could keep this up and get there when I got there. In the end, I was so patient and unexpectant that it was a surprise to see a power line across the frozen river that I reached mid-morning. I had made it to Nikolai!

Once again, the welcome was warm. I grabbed some food and water, could have slept, but I just wanted to get to McGrath now. Whether it was going to take a bivvy or not, I wanted to move on and see things though. Before I left, though, Kathi phoned to find out if I expected to be at McGrath for breakfast. The word was that the trail was good so, perplexed, I said yes and was soon back on the trail.

Riding in the mid-day sun, it was so warm that I even rode without a jacket for a while. I felt light and free. I could walk the last 50 miles if it came to it, so if I kept my head the finish was in the bag. My happiness (and lack of coat) didn't last long, though. Any breath of wind was chilling without an outer layer, and back on it went. More worryingly, the trail was mush. It was far too warm and the snow was too soft to ride. I could see John Ross' tracks and he had been able to ride this stuff earlier, rubbing salt into my frustration.

After a brief hissy fit, I just got on with it. I would have been better sleeping at the checkpoint and joining the trail by night, but there was nothing I could do about it other than walk. I left my GPS on and in front of me so that I could see my crawling progress. After a few hours, Tim and Tom strode past on their snow shoes. They were sympathetic, but annoyingly jolly before they made off into the horizon. The day wore on and I'd walked over 15 miles dragging the useless lump of my bike. My GPS was said that I was approaching 26 miles to go and that meant there was only a marathon left - easy. Not long after that, I saw a signpost: 35 miles to McGrath.

My will was broken. I was going to sleep before I got there and I might as well sleep now. I could sleep until it got cold and dark, then have the chance to ride a firmer trail. This called for a luxury bivvy. I waited until I reached a little copse that looked good to set myself up in. I stomped down a trench of snow wide enough and long enough for my sleeping bag, then widened the head end to make space for my stove. I gathered thin branches from the trees and lay them down with my thermarest on top. With food, stove, and other bits brought over from the bike, I lay down in my big comfy sleeping bag. Before sleeping, I had to melt snow and used the opportunity to boil the water for hot water bottles in my bag. One bottle right down by my feet - they weren't going to get more frostbitten tonight! I ate muesli and eventually went to sleep. No alarm, I'd sleep until my body was ready to go on, whenever that was. Thinking "race" had got me sleeping here instead of the checkpoint, so I wasn't messing around again.

I awoke hot and claustrophobic. A mummy sleeping bag and the blackout sleep of the exhausted make for a confusing moment on waking. Sticking my head out a bit, I could feel it was colder now, and things looked good. Back up the trail, I could see a pair of riders. Probably Eric and Lou. I packed up and hung around for a minute to chat.

They told me Billy had set off as well and was making good progress. With their non-snow tyres, though, Eric and Lou were having to push a lot. It was good to see them, but time to move on and make my fat tyres work. I dropped the pressure and pedalled off, leaving them to their push.

Once more it was cold and lonely riding through the night. I hoped to catch up with Billy again and cross the line together, but all I saw was endless winding rivers and his tyre tracks. It was iPod time. In that moment of cold, of alone, and of dark some things stood out. Aesop Rock's convoluted lyrics and beats kept me positive. Mayhem finally made sense. Bad Religion seemed a little out of their depth.

I could ride the trail, but it was pocked with moose tracks. They had walked through during the day and left lots of tiny deep holes with their tracks. Each one sent reverberations right though me. After miles of this frustration, I came across a snow bank with "F**KING MOOSE!" written in it. Obviously, Billy was thinking the same thing as me. I was getting closer, but the night was getting colder. The air in my rear tyre was contracting to dangerously low pressure. I had to weigh it up: try to use my faulty pump and risk losing what pressure I had, or just keep going. I decided to try to warm the pump up under my jacket for a while then try pumping.

I attached the pump and pumped it for all I was worth, immediately popping it off when my arms gave out. The tyre seemed, if anything, flatter than before. I tried again, still no big change. I gave up. If the tyre gave up too, Eric and Lou would catch me up and I could use their pump. If not, I might chance my way to the finish on a squidge of air.

Riding gingerly, I came out of the little clump of trees where I'd stopped. Only to find Billy bivvied around the corner. His bike and bag had been thrown down in a hurry. I wanted to see if he was ok (and, yes, I wanted to see if he had a pump) so I woke him up. Fortunately, he was glad I did. So I pumped my tyres, and we set off to ride out the remainder. Billy had fallen asleep while riding and decided to bivvy right then and there. It seemed unbelievable, but following him now, I was just about holding my lids open.

If we could make it to day-break, we'd make it to McGrath. Eventually, the day came and the sleepiness receded. We'd made some miles and started to look forward to gorging ourselves at McGrath. Now it was time to go with all the speed we could. Unfortunately, that speed was too much and we missed a cardboard sign that had got folded over. We went into McGrath along the river, where the sign had directed us off onto the road. With only the hint of a trail, the river was hard work. Tens of metres, then sinking into the snow. Every section done on the bike was on the limit of being able to ride. After about 40 minutes, we saw a snow machiner and he told us that we had taken a wrong turn but it was about the same distance to carry on now. So carry on we did. An hour later, the GPS said we were no closer to McGrath and we cursed the guy. For the next few hours, we cursed the snow, the river, the sky, the earth, the snow machiner as we battled on.

It was a horrible and deflating end to the event, but we overcame it and eventually rode down the main street of McGrath. We got to Peter and Tracy's house together to find a massive table of food and a room full of racers relaxing. It was done.

I chatted and ate, and eventually went upstairs to see Kathi. When I got there, I saw a pile of my clothes. I asked her about it, but she pretty much ran away. Back downstairs, I saw Emily's boots. I thought those two must have got on well and traded boots. Then it dawned on me, Emily must have been in McGrath. It wasn't long before she walked through the door and our hug marked the real end. It was a moment I had been looking forward to for days. She had been out looking for me and Billy as we had been so overdue with our river diversion. But everyone was together now and I had finished my journey.

Iditarod was spectacular and tough. It taught me how far I could go on willpower and preparation. It taught me how fantastic some people in this world are (and how those who push themselves to extremes tend to be in that number). I will be back for Nome.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Iditarod 2009 Part 4

The checkpoint at Rohn is tiny. Just a wall-tent to hold as many racers as arrive at once. We were lucky enough to coincide with a few guys leaving, so Billy and I could get our sleeping bags down without having to head back outside - others were not always as fortunate.

Getting to the food was a case of stepping over and around many prone bodies. Feeling drunk with exhaustion, it was a hard job to not just fall right on someone. I ate a couple of tins of lentil soup and sat down to get ready for sleep. As I took off my socks, my feet looked horrific. They had been wet all day from snow falling into my boots, so even without the frostbite they would have looked gross. They were unrecognisably white and puffy, like I'd been clopping through the Somne for the past 24 hours. The more worrying part was the stinking and oozing from the frostbite blisters on my toes. There wasn't much I could do about them, so I just hid them away at the bottom of my bag and went to sleep. I'd get my socks dry on the stove and have another look at the toes when I wasn't so deliriously tired.

As I "slept", I heard others come in and out. A bunch of walkers arrived, some of whom couldn't find anywhere to sleep and had to bivvy outside. That must have been frustrating, but there was nothing to be done about it. After a while one of the walkers who had been able stay in the tent shook me awake, "Your buddy is snoring". Frankly, I had no idea what to say to this. You're taking part in a wilderness race, deal with it. What am I supposed to do about it anyway? He went away and I went back to sleep. Billy was snoring pretty loud, but if you couldn't sleep through that, you weren't trying hard enough on the trail.

We only took about 3 hours rest and then it was time to asses the toes. They were blistered, but there was no black skin. I wasn't going to give up because of them, so I just dressed and started to pack up. As soon as they were in my boots, I could ignore my feet and get on with the task in hand. The first job was finding the outhouse. Billy had used the outhouse last time he'd done the race and near-frozen his ass off on the ceramic seat. His complaints had got him kicked out of the cabin, but now, years later, he had been vindicated. A polystyrene seat awaited me... Aaah!

With all the camp stuff done, we headed out to the trail. It was nice and early so the trail was cold and hard. Perfect to get some miles done on the bikes. We dropped air pressure and rolled well, watching the story of previous passage unfold in front of us. The distinctive tracks were there: endomorph tyres on one side and foot-prints on the other. We were riding where others had had to push. Awesome.

The trail climbed as steeply as I was prepared to ride, but I was glad to make steady progress. We crossed more exposed frozen lakes and just seconds after commenting about how much I enjoyed riding this stuff, I was suddenly on my arse and elbow. There is no magic to riding ice out there - you just can't turn or brake more than the tiniest amount. Having hit the ice, I watched my bike spiral away gently. Prising myself up like Bambi in Neos, I tried to fetch it. My boots had come with studs for grip on ice but I'd taken them out so that I wouldn't have to worry about damaging people's wooden floors at checkpoints. Right now, that seemed like a bad idea. Slowly, though, I managed to retrieve my bike and get over to a small patch of snow. From there, I could re-start and try not to make any sudden movements.

The day turned out to be glorious. As the sun came up, it blazed across pristine ice, snow and pine. It lay out the mountains we had just crossed as a beautiful backdrop to our lake crossing. The very particular weather eventually gave us a very particular trail. The snow had melted a little at the surface, refrozen, and cracked again. It was just like riding on North Wales slate. Up to 12 inch plates of ice skidded and clattered underneath our wheels as we hared down singletrack. Suddenly, I was in a white Betws Y Coed cruising along the trail for fun and I even had Billy's company to enjoy it with. For hours, it could have been any given Sunday.

As we got closer to Bison camp, I knew we were approaching the coldest part of the trail. On this side of the mountains, we got weather from Alaska's interior. Fortunately, it was quite a warm year and there were only odd occasions when the cold really bit. One such occasion was crossing a huge lake. Even in daylight, I couldn't see the other side. After 20 metres or so, the wind was so savage that I knew I had to take action. My face was being battered by the wind, my ears deafened by the roar, and I could feel my whole body cooling. Despite being so exposed, I stopped to get out my down jacket. It felt crazy having to go fiddling with my bike to detatch the jacket, but as soon as I had it on I knew I had made the right decision. From deep inside its hood, warmth and quiet descended over me. It was like I'd gone from being in Alaska to watching a video about it from under the duvet. Insulated from the sound and the cold, my bike seemed unreal as I got back on and set off to catch up with Billy.

We to-ed and fro-ed a bit with Eric and Lou again as the miles went by, eventually reaching the Farewell Burn. A major fire had destroyed many of the trees in this area years ago, but Billy didn't recognise it as so much had grown back since last time he was here. The day was getting long again and our tiredness started to be compounded by tyre problems. Big drops in temperature were causing big drops in tyre pressure and it turned out that my pump leaked air almost as fast as I could pump. Between us, we managed to get enough air in to limp along but the fear of a pinch flat or torn tyre followed us all along the trail. If a tube failed, it would be impossible to re-inflate a new one. If a tyre failed, I'd be walking to McGrath. Tense times, but it was all the sweeter to see Bison Camp up ahead.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Iditarod 2009 Part 3

Another big gap between instalments. In the unlikely event that anyone is holding their breath - sorry. I've been looking for a new job, enjoying the dusty trails and still ploughing around on the Pugsley. My normal bike is just about ready to go again, but there was one more outing for the Pug this weekend. The Dyfi Enduro - short distance for an enduro, but it's all either up or down and the downs are fearsome. Fortunately, I didn't have to ride the bit that claimed some of my skin last year as another rider was spread across that bit of trail. I just helped him to his feet and was thankful to get through there unscathed. It's still my favourite "race" in the UK. You get the most technical course out there, bands, cheerleaders, a gorilla suit, and people riding all sorts from lightweight XC bikes to full on freeride. I had pretty good ride with the silly bike choice removing any pressure I may have put on myself. I tried to flow where I could on the descents, but fully rigid on trail that allows you to get a ton of speed before throwing up a pile of pointy off-camber rocks did force me to take things steady. And then at the end of it Nick Craig wanted a go on my bike. He lived up to his reputation of being about the nicest professional sportsman you could meet, which is always good to see. Some pics of the event here.

Back to Alaska..

At Puntilla, we heard that the lead group had already gone into Rainy Pass but no-one had heard from Bill Merchant for a few days. Bill was supposed to be breaking trail for us, so that was worrying. Fortunately, there wasn't much need to worry about Bill's safety - if anyone can look after themself out there, it's him. Given the lack of trail, the fact that I'd been tortoise/hare-ing with Billy for the whole way up to Puntilla, and that Billy's a fun guy to hang out with I decided to ride with him through the pass (Billy Koitzsch, not Bill Merchant. Too many Bills).

Billy, Rob, and myself set off into the darkness expecting to push a lot and probably bivvy before Rhone. We rode steadily to begin with - Billy's dynamo LED casting massive shadows despite our slow progress. Pretty soon, Rob dropped back. I wasn't too worried about letting him go, expecting another sneaky gear-related move from him later in the day. With relatively ride-able trails, my single gear necessitated that I move ahead of Billy. This was my first view of the tripod trail markers: 8ft high tripods made of large logs with reflectors on them. They gave us a rough path up the valley but it was another case of looking with your feet. This part of the trail had been bedded in so the trick was to search for relatively solid ground and use that. Bunched up together again, Billy and I would occasionally fan out to find something we could ride rather than needlessly hurting ourselves by pushing through deep snow only a few feet from the real trail.

I knew it was going to be pretty much uphill all day and looking out into the mountains, I tried to pick out where Rainy Pass lay. Unfortunately, the twists and turns of the trail made it hard to figure exactly where we were really headed. We whacked through the brush and frequently laughed our way through adversity. As we got closer to the mountains, though, the trail got hard to even push on. We were on a very recent snow machine track and our feet would frequently punch straight through, sinking to the knee. Having set ourselves mentally for this kind of treatment, we didn't mind. We just kept on plugging and resolved to have a hot lunch on the trail.

Whilst pushing our bikes kept us very warm, as soon as we stopped to get out the stoves, it was time for the serious clothing. In my puff trousers and down jacket, I was pretty toasty. It was a good feeling to be completely comfortable so far from civilisation and in such cold conditions. I had to be quick with fiddly tasks before getting my big gloves back on, but that was all. Our lunch stop was twice interrupted though - once by a former trail breaker (sorry - I forget your name) who was out to rescue Bill, and once by John Ross. John declined the invitation to join us for lunch... could he be racing again? :)

From the state of the trail and the information we'd learned from the trail breaker, it was clear we weren't going to be riding for a while. Billy took his pedals off to stop them from bashing into his legs as he pushed along the narrow trail, but I stubbornly carried on with mine. It would be more than a day before he'd put them back on. The trudge went on and on. We passed Bill's abandoned snow machine and carried on until we reached a frozen lake. I was looking with my feet again and the trail seemed to veer off to the right. I followed it, and I saw a snow machine approaching. It was Bill, with his rescuer. He told me that the snow was too deep and the light too flat to do much trail breaking. The snow machines just kept sinking and the flat light made it impossible to read the snow. From here there were untold miles before we'd see trail again. But, in the abandoned cabin by the lake Lou Kobin and Eric Warkentin had holed up to wait for the trail breakers.

The cabin had no roof, but Bill had christened it The Rainy Pass Hilton. It may not stop the snow, but the 4 walls did stop most of the wind. Billy and I headed up there to talk to Lou and Eric. We wanted to press on and bivvy in the pass, but after some wavering we decided to stay. We would head out as a group of 4 in the morning. Hanging out with them and Bill for the night seemed much more appealing than a storm-whipped bivvy in the unknown.

During the night Tim and Tom arrived. They are incredible walkers and were eating up the distance as we struggled with the deep snow. Bill must have recognised them - their arrival prompted some classic dry humour, "If you shine that light in my face, I'll shoot you!" It's a good job we all know him well enough to get the joke. As morning came, we all filled up with hot water and faffed. Even more snow had fallen and no-one was in a hurry to get out there.

Eventually we did, though and things soon became comically hard. I was at the front to begin with and thought I had taken a bad turn when the snow was knee deep. Leaving the bike for a moment, I tried some other directions: they were waist deep. We tried to guess which of the utterly exhausting directions would be the least gruelling, but it was impossible to tell. Each step would take tens of seconds as it would involve the same procedure: step forwards, sink (sometimes up to your waist), stumble, reach up to you bike (now above your head) and drag it forward a bit, climb out of the hole you're in, sink again. Just trying to progress at all once you'd sunk was like being in a children's ball pit. Everything you could reach would collapse under your weight.

We rotated like a peloton. Being at the back of the group was more like walking along a trench and much easier. And through it all, we had chat from biking stories to Napa Valley wine. Surreal, but it kept us going and it was particularly good for me to hear from the veterans that these conditions really were extraordinary. Every directional decision was tough. If we wanted to head for higher ground, it would take an age to get there and might not be any better than our current position. The only sure thing was that if we kept moving through the pass, eventually we'd come out.

As we got higher, the terrain got steeper but rockier. The wind was so strong into our backs that the hair exposed under the back of my hat froze solid. It felt pretty crazy, pretty epic, and pretty good to have this place and moment for ourselves. That was the high point, though. Sooner than we were ready, it was over the top and into more waist-deep slogging. Here, we were zig-zagging down the valley and in places we could see open water from the river. Getting wet, particularly on this section would have been seriously bad news so every crossing was tense. Thick willows forced us to keep doing it though, sometimes edging along a narrow ledge dragging/carrying our massive bikes. One memorable section had us 10 feet above the water on a scree slope with varying depths of snow. Each step could be shallow or deep, it could slip or hold and the way was too narrow for a bike to be anything but a clumsy anchor.

In my mind, I had hoped that we would be out of the pass by nightfall. The hours went by, though, and the sun dipped as we lifted and grunted our way through a maze of willows. And then, we could hear engines. The trail breakers had made it through to us. I was so relieved, I could hardly stand. Lou ran up and hugged the first snow machiner. The trail wouldn't be packed enough to ride until the night had frozen it, but at least we had something to follow.

So, it was back to sinking in the snow but now only up to our knees and with a straight line to follow. Moving at our own speeds, our little group broke up. Eric and Lou moved off ahead while Billy and I progressed more slowly. Darkness fell and we were still pushing. Hunger and tiredness were beginning to take their toll so I was swearing at everything: the snow, the dark, the stupid bike, and eventually at Billy stopping to put his pedals back on. At that point, it was definitely food time. I was hating my trail mix (yeah, Pete Basinger was right) and Billy was sick of sweet energy food. A quick food-trade had us both in a better mood for what turned out to be a long way to Rohn.

We saw the ghostly traces of the lead group who were still having to make their own trail at this point. Deep furrows through soft snow. I knew the pain involved in that kind of progress and could only marvel at how they'd pushed so far. Then as we finally got close, there was the first exposed ice. The wind had blow parts of the frozen lake clear and it was like entering a different world. The ever-present crunch of snow was gone, along with the accompanying drag. My light was much less effective as the black ice soaked it up, only the cracks showing up bright. Those cracks were re-assuring though, as they highlighted just how much ice there was underneath us. Tiredness, silence, legs used to a day of pushing, a slippery surface, and a heavily weighted front tyre made it a strange, beautiful experience.

Longer and longer we went, my strength dipping and Billy pulling ahead. Until, at last, I heard a whoop from him. We were at Rohn and had cracked the hardest part of the ride.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Iditarod 2009 Part 2

It's beautiful and sunny in England at the moment and, due to my lack of other working bikes, I've been bulldozering around on the Pug. It was the North Downs yesterday for dusty trails and the constant accompaniment of people's muttered comments. Usually I'd be able to make out only a single word, "tyres", in the middle of whatever else they had to say. It's all good, though. Riding fully rigid (ok, fat tyre's worth of suspension) and flat pedals is helping me to flow with the trail.

Back to the story...

When I got up at Shell Lake, I notice a couple of changes to my physical conditions. First, my eye had sorted itself out - maybe it just needed some real sleep. Second my toes had come up in big yellow blisters. I knew that these weren't like normal blisters, but put some Compeed patches on anyway. They probably wouldn't do any harm and have always helped me with real blisters.

Patched up, it was a quick trip to the freezing outhouse (Puntilla has the best outhouse, but more on that later) before Rob and I set off for Winterlake Lodge. The lady at the bar had given us some directions the night before but all I could remember was that we would end up at some homesteader's place if we went wrong and it would cost us miles. You can probably see where this is going.

A funny thing about riding with Rob was that I warmed up much quicker than he did. So we set off together, and let our individual paces run their course - me leaving him behind for a few hours, then him catching me later in the day. The terrain was more flat tundra and straight lines but the trail conditions were pretty rideable so I set my mind to "mulling" and watched the relatively fresh bike tracks in front of me. Eventually, the trail split and I followed the tracks to the left.

The riding conditions got worse and I was having to use speed to keep me afloat on the narrow track of a snow-machine ski. It was exhausting and as I saw a "Private Property" sign, I began to wonder if it was all in vain. With tyre tracks still ahead of me, I decided to continue and find out where I'd get to. If I turned round now, I still wouldn't know which way was correct. When I saw a bike ahead, it seemed like good news until I could make out that it was heading straight towards me. This was the route to the homesteaders and some other racers had been there. So we set off back, a drop in the 350-mile ocean of the whole trail.

I saw Rob again as I backtracked and he was getting warmer but still not on a pace that we'd ride together so I plugged on alone. A few hours later, I came to another branch. This time I was going to make a decision not just unthinkingly follow the tyres. Checking my GPS, one direction was clearly right. As I wandered up the trail a bit (GPS can't tell which way you're facing unless you are moving) I saw promising looking tyre-tracks to confirm my decision. Before resuming, I paused for chocolate coffee beans and a wee break. The latter is not a simple thing in bib shorts and bib longs. You have to unhook them from your shoulders and still end up crouched over during the act. I still think it's worth it for the riding comfort, but it feels silly every time you have to go.

As I faffed, Rob caught me up. The cleat had come loose on his shoes so he couldn't unclip. We rode together for a bit but eventually his pedal troubles caused him to fall back. I knew it wasn't far to the checkpoint now and it was a great to joy to see across the last frozen lake up to the Winterlake Lodge. Such a joy, that I stopped to take the photo below (you'll have to look pretty close to see the buildings). And Rob nearly ran into the back of my. He'd snuck up with his sneaky gears as I was spinning out.

Lunch at Winterlake was amazing. Some kind of black bean plate with fried eggs - so good. And this was the first re-supply drop. I opened up my bag to see what Billy had packed for me. Lots of quaker oats bars, peanut butter ritz crackers, some soups and curries, hand-warmers, and a condom. Nice work Billy.

I wanted to make it to Puntilla that night so the stop at Winterlake was short. Just enough time to make sure Rob had his shoes sorted out and get my head together. I'd seen John Ross again and, I'll admit it - I wanted to beat the other English singlespeed rider. The next section of trail was even better than coming into Shell Lake. It twisted and flowed, and I twisted and flowed with it. I pumped the bike over little jumps, drifted round corners with both wheels sliding and one foot out. It took the slightest amounts of subtle braking to keep things going but the rewards were like riding the switchbacks at Afan. Fun and grins, and why can't this last forever? The last part of this section is (I think) known as the steps and got to the point where I was finding the trail steep for the conditions. I wonder at how a dog team can ever cope with this. All too soon it was over, though, and down onto a frozen lake. I saw Cory on his skis - I'd gained 10 minutes back on him pretty quickly which should have been a clue but I couldn't help asking how he'd enjoyed that last bit. Apparently, it's tough for skiers.

And then I saw the trail that took us up off the lake... So steep that it would take hands and feet to get up. It was maybe 12 feet up and I know I'm not that strong at anything but riding, so I stripped all my gear off the bike and threw it to the top. Then, bike on back, I climbed up the wobbly steep trail. I reloaded, had a snack and it was straight back to pushing. All the height I'd lost on the fun stuff would have be regained as we were heading for the Alaska Range. The pushing was a case of shoving the bike forwards, putting on the brakes, walking up to the bars, and shoving again. Repeat until the hill is over. I wasn't going to be catching Cory again for a while.

When the trail levelled out, the views into the mountains were spectacular. The sun shone down and the perfect air was a beautiful place to be. When I caught sight of John Ross off to the side of the trail, I was glad of someone to share it with. Just as I slowed down Rob nearly ran into the back of me. Once again, he'd snuck up on a flat bit of trail. The three of us were just happy and privileged to be out there. John even claimed to have given up on racing for position. The competitive streak in me told me two things... (1) Good, maybe that's my chance to beat him (2) He's a racer, he'll be back on it later.

Regardless, the three of us rode more-or-less together towards Puntilla. There was more of the narrow stuff, but this time John and I were floundering. There seemed to be even less grip and putting a foot down off the trail would result in sinking to knee or even thigh level. My riding was a bit slapstick, but it was still getting me closer.

The final hours into Puntilla were horrible. The twists of the trail were frustrating me again and I was mentally done for the day - walking sections that didn't need walking just because I was fried. Again, over-reliance on GPS made it worse. I could tell that I was at 90deg from where I wanted to go and the stupid damn trail wasn't going there. The drive to finish was there, though, and I kept moving however low I felt. As day turned to night, I got closer and closer. When I finally saw a head-torch bobbing around near the checkpoint I was ready to drop through the door. Fortunately, I composed myself at least a little before saying hi to the collection of racers inside...

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Iditarod 2009 Part 1

Wow, it's been a month now since I set off on my big adventure. Time's flown for various reasons but here it finally is: the first instalment of my Iditarod story...

Alaska is an amazingly beautiful place - just looking at it from the window of the plane filled me with excitement and anticipation. And, as before, my time there was filled with extraordinary people adding to the experience.

It seems wrong to call the Iditarod Invitational a race. Leading up to the event, it was "The Race" - needing no further qualification. During the adventure, though, thinking of it as a race tended to result in making stupid mistakes. So leave the racing to veteran nutters like Jeff Oatley. I'll probably keep using the word "race" by accident though :)

As I had said in earlier blog posts, the lead-up to the race was far from perfect but it was fantastic to meet some familiar faces at the Speedway Cycles pre-race party. Nerves and jet lag kept me from sleep the night before we started, though, and as I arrived at Knik, I felt numb and a little bit queasy. The sun shone down on us and the other racers seemed to be going through similar thoughts as we stuffed down a last fatty meal. A few tweaks to the bike and I was ready to say good-bye to Emily for a few days. There was, literally, a mountain to climb before I'd see her again.

Time unwound quickly and soon we were riding across the first frozen lake through an inch or two of snow. I tried to stay calm and settle into the ride. The trail helped by quickly becoming firm, swooping, packed snowmachine-singletrack. I chatted to John Ross and the time sped past in the sun. I was feeling overdressed and grateful for a bit of easy mileage.

There is no real set course for the race. There are checkpoints, and there is the Iditarod trail, but we don't have to follow it. This adds to the adventure but makes the first section from Knik to the Susitna river a confusing place for newbies... so John and I duly got lost. After a certain amount of casting around in knee-deep snow, we eventually made it to the river but south of where we wanted to be. Heading north, I could see other racers coming in along Flathorn Lake and saving miles compared to us. Doh! Thinking like it was a race, I upped the effort and soon the back of my jacket was a frozen sweaty husk. There was still a long was to Yentna Station.

A lot of the following section was very marginal riding. You'd progress a hundred metres, then sink into the snow. Casting around across a wide possibility of trails, I'd eventually settle on one and ride another hundred metres or so before sinking again. In the dim light of my head-torch this process went on and on. At least running into Billy was a nice diversion. He was setting a steady "Nome pace" so I said hi and carried on at my own (too fast) speed.

It was in this first section that I learned not to put too much stock in the GPS. Straight line distance to a checkpoint means nothing on a winding river, it just frustrates a tired body. The frequency of my stops increased the further I went and every time I saw a cabin I hoped it was the checkpoint. As the wind picked up, I stopped to swap my normal hat for the one with the pull-up balaclava bit. This simple task was complicated by only having one source of light - my head-torch - and that source being frozen to the hat. Finally, I swapped hats and was able to carry on. The sweaty first hat remained a frozen lump all the way to McGrath.

I was really struggling to set my mind to the speed that I was moving. Every GPS-led estimate of when I would arrive came and went. I wanted to stop, but that wouldn't help, so I carried on. I scolded myself for making promises to my body that I couldn't keep. Promises like, I'll be there in an hour. Eventually I accepted the one truth: if I keep moving I'll get there so keep moving. At around 2am I got there.

Yentna Station was the busiest checkpoint as the field had yet to spread out fully. I rolled up, signed in, and tried to stuff down food. My plan was to sleep for 4 hours and get back out there. So I set my soggy socks and shoes in front of the stove and went to try to sleep.

But sleep wasn't happening. Too much excitement, too many nerves, and my eye was itching, hurting, and watering. As the time came to get up I was glad to be "doing" instead of just lying there. By the time I reached the next checkpoint, I was bound to be so tired I'd sleep like the dead.

Heading downstairs, I found Jill Homer. She was hesitating to put any weight on her feet. Frostbite had got to them after overflow had doused them. I was too spaced out to talk to her properly, but I felt her pain and hoped that she would be able to continue. I gathered up my socks and shoes to find them soaked. They had been lying in a puddle while I'd been lying in bed. "Well, my boots are waterproof anyway so I'll just go," I thought. Mistake.

The word was that it was cold outside, but as I loaded up my bike it didn't seem too severe. Of course, the temperature on the river, in the wind, is a lot colder than up at the checkpoint but that didn't occur to me. I set off into (if anecdotes be true) -30C heading for Skwentna.

Now I was more attuned to things taking absolutely ages. Not quite zen yet, but I could at least appreciate the sunrise and the cold as I pedalled away. Occasionally my feet felt cold so I walked a bit. My eye was watering a lot and freezing up. But, on the whole, things were good. I was doing it, actually feeling like part of the event. At one point, I got off to walk and it felt like my toenail was being torn up by something. I took off my boots to check it out - the toe of my sock was frozen solid and the nail had been pushing against ice. I crunched it around and decided to ride as it was more comfortable. Mistake.

The rest of the ride to Skwentna was uneventful. Jay and Tracy Petervary overtook me; I chugged along. Eventually I reached what I expected to be the driveway for the checkpoint and turned in. No cabin in sight. In fact, it must have been a mile of extra riding through what would have been pleasant surroundings. Sadly, I was squinting at every tree, thinking it was a cabin in disguise. I still didn't have all the patience I would need, but eventually the checkpoint did come into view - heading inside I found a bunch of other racers...

It was great to see James Leavesley looking so cheerful and preparing to go even as I had only just arrived. Already, there were stories swapping around from the first day of travel and, even through my excessive tiredness, the glow of other people was as welcoming as the warmth of the stove. Which is not to exclude the warm welcome of Bonnie and her family into their home. They're lovely people!

It was still only about mid-day so my plan was to warm up, eat, and head on down the trail. As my feet warmed up, though, they started to burn. Taking off my socks, I saw that the flesh of both big toes had turned grey and I couldn't feel anything as I pressed concerned fingers into them. As other people noticed them, I was advised to massage them a bit and try to warm them up in front of the stove. This turned out to be something I could only do in short bursts as the warming hurt quite badly. Eventually, though, my toes felt a normal temperature (but still numb and grey) and I had eaten enough to relax a little. It was getting awfully tempting to sleep for a while.

After some near-dozing on the sofa I decided to head out and try to get to Shell Lake - halfway to the next real checkpoint, but somewhere we could sleep indoors. Rob May thinks I talked him into riding out with me... I'd say the mere suggestion of having someone heading out now was enough. Either way, we set of into the warm afternoon with dry clothes and full bellies.

The ride to Shell Lake was a revelation. Almost all of the pictures I have seen of the trail (including the ones I took) show a single straight like heading across flat tundra to infinity. In fact, there are long section of fun riding out there and the only explanations I can come up with for the lack of photos are: 1) We're having too much fun and making too good time to stop (2) If you want to see those fun bits, you'll have to go do it for yourself and earn them. So, Rob and I swooped along snow-machine singletrack under a golden afternoon sky. It was a breath of fresh air after so much slogging along frozen rivers. I had a chance to get out of the saddle and let the bike flow a little - a strange feeling indeed on such a weighty beast.

We talked about riding, racing, and training for the event and the miles slipped by easily. It almost felt like cheating, but I knew I had to sleep at Shell Lake and catch up on all the missed zzzs since leaving England. Rob was happy with that idea so we rode like a Sunday afternoon saunter until we could see the cabins ahead of us on the lake.

The bar at Shell Lake is a weird place. The kind of place you'd expect to see at the start of a horror movie, it was quiet and very slightly strange. I could just picture some horrible secret in the basement. That didn't stop me ordering food though. And here is one of the sad parts of my race - my bean soup had bits of sausage in it and I just ate up the lot. I could rationalise it by saying that it had already been cooked and probably would have been wasted anyway if I'd have sent it back. But the truth is that it was expensive, I was hungry, and the only alternative was my own food so I just didn't care.

Sleep here was the best I'd had in a long while. I don't recall how long I was out... Maybe 6 hours. But It was perfect and I woke ready to take on the next stage of the adventure...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Getting back on the horse

It's been ages since Iditarod, and I'm finally back onto bikes and blogging...

The briefest possible story of my experience is that I finished in McGrath after 6 days 22 hours; it was spectacular and difficult; I'd love to do it again.

Some of my photos are on Facebook. Bill Merchant's video is here. Lou Kobin (one of our group of four that took on Rainy Pass together) has her account on her blog.

I will be writing about the race in more detail over the next few days, but one event from the race is worth mentioning now - as a reason for my absence from bikes and lack of motivation to blog. Like an idiot, I managed to get frostbite on my feet. So the week after I got back from Alaska was spent immobile and in pain. I can ride again now, but I still need to bandage my toes and they still make a mess when I do so. It's not really something to dwell on - especially since I'm back in action now.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Music to get me pedalling again

Well, things are coming together for the race. My injured leg is hurting less (but still hurting - under ice at this very moment), my food is going to be there in time for me to pick it up, and the bike's all packed for flying. Without using drops, I'm going to have to carry about 8kg of food beyond what I'd originally planned, but at least the bike will get lighter as I go along!

My bike loading has had to change to accommodate the extra food. I only wanted a front rack, but now I've had to put a rear on. This involved bending and cutting the mounting kit to fit those funny offset chainstays. With that done, I've now got my thermarest wrapped around my sleeping bag and my down jacket out back with the extra food panniers. The thermarest looks untidy, but it seems secure. As on the training camp, bungie nets are holding stuff onto the tops of the racks i.e. the sleeping bag and down jacket. The one new trick is to fix one side of them with cable ties so that I don't loose the nets in the snow.

And I've finalised my iPod playlist. I don't plan to use it all the time, but if I need a mental lift it's only a few grams. Here's the playlist...

Aesop Rock Labor Days
Aesop Rock None Shall Pass
Asian Dub Foundation Facts And Fictions
At The Gates Terminal Spirit Disease
Bad Religion New Maps of Hell
Bad Religion The Process Of Belief
Converge No Heroes
DJ Shadow Endtroducing....
Give Up the Ghost Year One
Heartless Bastards All This Time
Heartless Bastards The Mountain
Ignite Our Darkest Days
Integrity To Die for
Joe Pug Nation of Heat EP
John Coltrane A Love Supreme Deluxe Edition [Disc 1]
Josh Ritter Golden Age Of Radio
Massive Attack Mezzanine
Massive Attack Protection
Mayhem De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas
Minor Threat Out of Step
Mogwai The Hawk Is Howling
The Pogues If I Should Fall From Grace With God
Propagandhi Less Talk, More Rock
Propagandhi Potemkin City Limits
Propagandhi Today's Empires, Tomorow's Ashes
Shai Hulud Hearts Once Nourished With Hope And Compassion
Shai Hulud Misanthropy Pure
Shai Hulud A Profound Hatred of Man
Shai Hulud That Within Blood Ill-Tempered
Sick Of It All Life On The Ropes
Steve Earle El Corazón
Supersuckers Devil's Food
Zombie Apocalypse This Is A Spark Of Life

Monday, February 23, 2009

Finnish Winter Swimming Champs

It was a couple of weeks ago now, but back on February 7, I went out to Imatra for the Finnish Winter Swimming Championships. It was a completely ridiculous distance to travel in order to swim two 25m races but I'd always wanted to go to Finland and their competition was the inspiration for Tooting to start the UK champs. It was really another trip lead by Emily's swimming, but one that I could get into and one that gave me the chance for a cheeky snow ride too.

The venue was at the leisure centre in Imatra where a pontoon had been put into the river before it froze. The "pool" was then the 25m inside the pontoon which had been kept clear of ice by constantly agitating the water. During the competition, however, there was a man going around with a net. Normally, you might expect him to be fishing out leaves. Actually, he was taking out small lumps of ice. Icicles hung off the lane ropes, and the steps (insulated with pipe lagging) were encrusted - crunching under your hands as you got in or out. And to add the icing (ho-ho) to the whole thing, just outside the bounds of the pontoon were some guys ice-fishing with their little holes and little chairs.

There was a great atmosphere from the start. Even though we went straight to the pool and missed the opening ceremony, there were plenty of other people on the grandstand. It was a long wait until we got our turn to swim, but it was fun to be in such a supportive crowd and we did get the chance to witness a Swimtrek cap-wearing, thong-sporting nut-case.

Unlike Tooting, the pre-race preparation was indoors. For some reason, it's always really hot in Finnish buildings. Far warmer than I'd keep my house in an English winter (16C for me). So, as I waited, I couldn't bear to have my coat on and was even sweating a bit. Maybe some of that was anticipation. I'm not that great a swimmer and a terrible sprinter at any sport, but I can't avoid feeling competitive. I was nervously trying to remind myself to go fast, not just the loping pace I normally do things at. Knowing that you're about to get into the cold does always bring a lump to the stomach, but it just as surely brings a buzz afterwards.

The race itself was breaststroke. The Finns have traditionally used head-up breaststroke for cold water because putting your head under takes your breath away. And with head-up you can wear silly hats. But, this time they experimented with normal breaststroke. Until a masters session a couple of weeks ago, I hadn't done breaststroke since I was a kid so it wasn't an ideal choice. Into the water I went, though, eyeing the others for clues about when to do what as the instruction were in Finnish. Once everyone's shoulders were under, we were off. Seconds later, we were out again. It was a fleeting series of images: brown tinged water, another swimmer out of the corner of my eye, my breath bursting a bit, no real time to feel conventionally cold. At least I'd remembered to try to go fast.

Impressively, and stylishly in her flowery hat, Emily took first place in the international category. Sadly, I couldn't see the race as it was only minutes after mine.

The evenings are one of the main reasons to go cold water swimming. Everyone parties and has a good time. It was organised fun here though. A few dancers and entertainers before the band started; then there was the Finnish approach to dancing. Everything in a Waltz style, whatever the music. I'm not the greatest or most enthusiastic dancer, but it was a weird sight and a weird dance-floor to share. At some point during the night, we met the other member of our relay team. It was thong-man, Nigel.

The relay was very much more of the same, except this time with team spirit. So the racing was more fun, the swimming experience was pretty much the same, and I had the surprise sight of a steward taking my clothes away thinking they should be at the other end for a team-mate. Fortunately, I stopped them!

After the swimming, we headed up to Ruka - where the Finns go for skiing and I was hoping to ride my bike a bit. Having carried it with me this far, I was going to make sure it saw some snow action. I set off for their snowmobile trails with high hopes. The first section was on snow-covered roads which whizzed by until I saw the distinctive "two skis and a caterpillar" track that I was looking for. Checking behind, I swung off the road and onto the trail.

It started with a little 2ft hump, and stopped immediately after. As I came down the hump, my front wheel sank way down into the snow, pitching me over the bars. Arms outstretched, I flew and landed face down with both arms sunk up to the shoulders. Huh - I wasn't expecting that. I had noticed that the snow was too powdery for snowballs but I had hoped the trail would pack down. I was dead wrong. Every time I tried to ride, my rear wheel just dug a little hole. Even pushing, my feet would occasionally go straight through the tracks and up to my thighs. The "ride" was a 5 hour push. Objectives were made though: it was nice and remote, the trail mix went down well, and I got back exactly on time with a little water and a little food left. For scenery, though, Alaska's better :)