30 07 2013

There’s been a load of stuff happening but not much riding. Things should turn around soon enough, hopefully as the good weather gets reinstated. In the meantime, I have been using the sewing machine a bit more. The first project was a saddle bag. Why? aren’t saddle bags easily available? Yep. Indeed, I admit to owning several Jandd ones that are all pretty good. Define pretty good? well, they are all made of durable cordura, have good quality, strong zips that throw off mud, are a reasonable size and don’t flap around too much.

So why would I want to reinvent the wheel (so to speak)?. Well, they are not quite big enough, they are not light, (I know this is a relative thing, but lots of heavy webbing and cordura might be overkill), the openings are relatively small, meaning you often have to completely unpack to get at the contents and they are not water resistant. Probably most importantly, they are not made by me and I am becoming quite interested in bike bags. I mentioned previously my general ideas for making bags. The summary would be I want to have the option of lots of well placed, small-ish bags (so they can be made light, and due to not stowing much, are durable enough whilst being less likely to flap around), securely fastened on the bike in non-awkward places, allowing me to carry enough stuff (kit, fuel and water) for longer rides and allowing me to leave the back packs at home.

Under the saddle is a great place to stow some kit. The trick is to use the space in such a way that I am unimpeded when I need to get behind the saddle on steep stuff, but allow reasonable volume for stuff and have said stuff easily accessible.

The bag was mocked up in cardboard, I tried to think through the placement of straps to keep it solid and I used materials in such a way to minimise weight, keep shape, resist rubbing and make it light. I did forget to sew in the seat post loop of velcro when I had planned to and that forced me into some X-Pac yoga, trying to get it attached. I used 500d cordura for the top panel of the front wedge, VX07 elsewhere with strong polyamid webbing and velcro to attach it to the saddle and post. The closure is a roll top with side release buckle and a small run of plastic under grosgrain on the non-buckle side to aid rolling.

I think overall, I succeeded in concept. Of course, the proof will be in the pudding – it needs to get some use! This bag will also act as a first step in making a 3-5 ish litre under saddle bag, that will require much more thought and effort to make it stable and maintain it’s shape in such a way that it does not rub my legs. This one fits my post to saddle angle very well and is a great fit with no leg rub or interference getting off the back of the bike.

So, more as it happens.

Next was another feedbag effort, putting into practice what I learned from the first one, but improved construction, less materials, better mounting and a ‘right hand’ shape to complement the first, ‘left’, one.

In this case, I used 160d cordura for the ‘bellows’ closure, with heat sealed and folded seams, instead of grosgrain on the edges to combat fraying and the VX07 for the main bag. I used a mixture of 50mm and 25mm velcro for attachment, but will update the placement of this next time. My stitching was much improved on the oval bottom seam, but I still have a lot to learn!

I have continued to learn a lot with each step, although I am sure the rate of acquisition will slow down! I have also gained from some new bits and bobs to make my tasks easier, including this wee pair of snips Trina got me…they are ace! even for fat fingers like mine.

I built a wheel for the upcoming cross bike project. Basically, I hardly ever use my singlespeed cross bike. So, it is going to get some gears, courtesy of a messed-around-with Saint M800 rear derailleur mounted to a 10mm thru axle, with a Zee hub which I just built into a No Tubes Ironcross rim. It built nicely, as do all the No Tubes rims I have used, though they do persist in under estimating the ERD. The idea here is a 48 tooth front ring, with an 11-34 rear and a Dura Ace bar end shifter. We’ll see. If it doesn’t work out, it will also fit on to the pink IF.

Ok for now.



21 07 2013

Make your own gear. I don’t have any qualms about modifying components if I have the ability to do it well and I believe it will make the part better. The most successful modifications I have made were to my XTR M985 trail pedals and to combine several chainguides to allow for a wider chainline on the Maul. Rewarding, educational, absorbing.

Recently, I have been bikepacking a bit more and – as is my want – I have been messing around with my set up to get it as functional and light as possible. As important as ‘light and functional’ is, encumbrance must be considered if you are tackling rough trails. If you need to pick up/carry the bike, or drop a loose rocky descent, the balance of the bike needs to be as unaffected as possible by your kit, in addition to it being lashed solidly so it does not swing around or come loose at a critical moment.

There are many brands of bikepacking bags on the market now. My very first bikepacking bag came from Wildfire Designs, Alaska, in about 2005 if memory serves. A simple frame bag. I augmented this with some Epic Designs (as they were named at the time) custom Old Man Mountain rack top bags that Eric christened ‘trunk turtles’. Those bags served me well for a number of trips, but as I became both braver and more organised, I needed to pare everything down and the OMM racks in themselves are heavy.

By this time, Specialized had thrown their toys out of the pram about somebody using a word for their company name that they felt they had trademarked or some such rubbish, so Eric’s Epic Designs became Revelate Designs and his highly evolved products were again top of the shopping list.

If you need to carry a full bikepacking set up I strongly recommend checking out Revelate kit, now available at Backcountry Biking, or Scott Felter’s excellent Porcelain Rocket bags. Incidentally, Scott is on the Canning Stock Route in Australia – talk about product testing!

However, what I lack is slightly smaller bags that allow me to carry the kit needed for variable weather, 12-ish hour, backcountry riding. Keeping weight off my back is a priority.

As I looked around, assessed others’ set ups and tried to work out what I might want, it became clear that the bags would need to be highly personalised to the bike I ride and the kit I carry. The next step was a small one, but it felt like a light bulb had been lit – I needed to learn to make my own bags.

I did a *lot* of reading around. The internet gives easy access to a lot of information. Specifically the community are incredibly forthcoming with their experiences and advice.

My wife, Trina’s, sewing machine has been pressed into action and I have used various shops (I will do a supplementary post soon, with a list of links and resources I have used) for materials. I have made a total of 5 items so far. The first was an iPhone bag made of waterproof, ripstop, nylon. Then I made a camera bag from the same stuff. The iPhone bag was poorly made and I decided to re-make it with improved seams and more durable routing for the elastic closure.

The next bag was made from X-pac VX07 – the white sail cloth that is waterproof, light, abrasion resistant and has a slight stiffness that keeps a shape well. I had thought of making a smaller ‘sweet roll’ double-ended roll top bag which could fit tubes, extra clothing and perhaps some tools and or a mug/mini stove. Unfortunately, I made a bona fide school boy error and, when cutting the material, I didn’t let Pi get in the way of my calculations, thus the roll came out just a wee bit on the small side. Still, I learned a lot and the bag fits a tube, a waterproof, a midge net and a mini tool easily, so it will be used.

The latest bag is an UL feedbag. It was a struggle to think through the placement of the velcro and I am still not giving myself enough material overlap, but sewing the oval bottom panel in was less horrendous than I thought it might be and the 160D cordura baffle worked well. Overall, I am learning fast and I am really enjoying the process.

I have also had excellent guidance from my wife, my mother and mother in law and Kris at 44 Bikes. I have wholesale copied Eric at Revelate Designs bags where I have been able (if you are going to learn, copying a master craftsman is a pretty good start) and it has given me an entirely different perspective on just how cool his (and others) bags are.

More on this as it happens.

Monkey off my back.

14 07 2013

So sunny, still. With a full day to go and mess around in the hills, a long run of very dry weather and stable conditions, you might just try something a little out of the ordinary. I’ve been turning over a crossing of Ben Macdui as part of a route ever since I first dropped down to Loch Etchachan and made the mistake of riding past the shelter stone, before the most hideous ‘schwack ever down Strath Nethy several years ago.

Heading down Coire Etchachan to Glen Derry is the clever plan. All that remains is connecting the dots: how do you close the loop? With a relatively early start and the super stable conditions, I knew I could get up Macdui pretty quickly and travel light – no need to take thermal and winter layers. With B.A’s help, the descent would be fantastic, so the only remaining question was how to get back to base. I decided to start at Feshiebridge and take in some of the Inshriach trail, before heading around Loch Gamhna and Morlich and taking the ski hill road. The two options for returning without making the loop massive are Glen Feshie, in which I have recently been bitten and remain a bit shy, or the Lairig an Laoigh. This pass is rocky and usually wet and boggy – not a problem on this day. If you have to use it, I much prefer north to south, but on this occasion I was just going to have to suck it up.

I made quick time up to Macdui and decided, due to having been there once or twice before, that I didn’t need to go to the actual top. Instead, I tracked around the vague trail to the ruin that marks the start of the trail down to Loch Etchachan. No snow today, just a rocky, steppy, highly enjoyable technical descent. I don’t usually ride on the limit when I am solo in the backcountry, the risks if you hurt yourself properly are not worth it and I don’t want to have to rely on any emergency services just for the sake of an extra ‘cc’ of adrenalin. However, I was pretty close to my ragged edge on this drop, slamming the ground at one point and lightening my Saint cranks a smidge.

As I came to the throat of the Coire and looked down on Glen Derry, I couldn’t help but smile, soaking in the view – what an environment! The higher you get, the higher you get for sure! the views of the peaks around were intoxicating. Truly, when the weather allows you to feel comfortable enough to take your time and look around at that altitude, you are blessed!

I tore myself away and danced past a party of young walkers before making the scrabbly, loose descent down to the Hutchison Hut, which was in fantastic condition after recent renovation.

From here the Lairig an Laoigh beckoned me on. The climb was rough, water damage to the trail obvious and I was walking more than I was riding. I knew that this would continue until the Fords of Avon, where I met 2 hikers and their ample supply of vino tinto. Why not, eh? it was shaping up to be a beautiful evening and there had been no midge and the only cleg I saw all day landed, somewhat optimistically, at my feet before a size 43 ended his reverie.

There is somethign to be said for pedal removal if you have to make a prolonged ‘schwack. Every time the bike gets hung up on vegetation or a rock, the rear of the bike swings around and the pedal took another slice of the back of my leg. Those Alaskan backcountry bikers know their onions! On this occasion I decided to just put up with it, afterall, the pass is short, right?

Not short enough! but after passing the tors of Bynack Mor, with a short yomp up onto the improved access trail, there was only 400 sharp water bars and the descent past the Ryvoan Bothy until I could take the soothing, smooth tarmac back to the car.

The route took 7 hours total. B.A behaved impeccably and I felt like a large monkey had been plucked from my back. I don’t think Macdui would be good as part of a bikepacking route: the trail deserves your full attention and effort on the way down and I think even if you were travelling extremely light, as I was almost exactly a year ago, it would encumber you to the detriment of enjoyment.

Ok. Next up, some buff, woodsy singletrack, no rocks. Or some sewing…

To return, so soon?

12 07 2013

Last week end, as Sunday evening began, I took to the road again and made my way to Bridge of Tilt. Extricating my gear and body from the car as the sun’s light waned, I cinched straps, adjusted my shoes and headed north towards the Gaick Pass. I was pretty bushed and had no idea how far I would get, not least because the sun was relaxing towards the horizon and I only had an LED head torch with me. The aim was to push through the Gaick as far as possible, bivi, and re-supply (namely with water) in Aviemore in the morning. If it was looking like I had enough time, I would head over Macdui, drop to Linn of Dee and then come back along Glen Tilt – basically another stab at the route I had tried to do some weeks ago, but punctuated by a sleep stop.

By 11.45pm I came to the end of Loch an Duin singletrack, which had been a wee bit challenging in the low sun and with a loaded bike. I climbed up onto the end of the estate track from the Louis Vuitton lodge, realising that this was the highest point that was both flat and open to the passage of the wind for miles. I was pooped and as the wind is your friend when there are midge to be downed, I unrolled the sleeping gear, popped open a beer and watched the hills in the gloaming. I’m not sure if Scotland ever gets truly dark at this time of year when you are as far north as I was, but the night was warm, and it took me no time to fall asleep.

At 3am I was awoken by some grouse squawking, perhaps there was a fox around or something, and it took a wee while to go back to sleep. I woke again, soon after, cold, but the vapour barrier sleeping bag liner I had brought to experiment with seemed like overkill, so i just cinched the shoulders of the sleeping bag in, and zipped up the bivi fully. Maybe I should have just got up and started moving because I ended up sleeping in until 7.30am. In addition, I had forgotten my coffee filter. The combination of my slow thought – working out if my midge net would work to filter the grounds in boiling water or melt in the process – and the arrival of the day’s contingent of midge, as well as the distance I needed to cover, got me on the bike within a few minutes.

Curiously, I was 45 minutes slower to Aviemore in total ride time than I had been on the Maul a few weeks ago, reinforcing the impression that I had been shifting it a bit that day, Along with the late start, I did some sums, coming to the conclusion that anything other than returning via Feshie was going to get me home later than required. Somewhat ruefully, I stared up at the inviting summits, nomnommed a bacon roll and headed back to Insh to take a different approach into Feshie. It was clear that the weeks dry weather would be kind to me as I covered the notoriously boggy ground of the Feshie/Geldie watershed area with relative ease on the fat Knards. Unfortunately, I must have represented the highest concentration of blood meal for miles around because there was an unprecedented amount of clegs paying me far too much attention. I nearly broke myself in the 30c heat pushing super hard across the moor land, all the while desperately slapping at the inch long, incisor wielding, nasty bastards as they went for any exposed, and even unexposed, flesh in their quest for blood. In the end, I got 2 bites, but killed 5. I think that was a reasonable score.

As I made my way across the Abhainn Rath, this time with shoes on, a fighter jet passed very low overhead, swooped lower and then west as it turned into Tilt. Amazing!

Soon enough, I was making my way into the glen myself when another came over, totally unannounced until it was directly overhead, so close I could see the pilot in detail, which I don’t mind admitting caused just a wee bit of jittering.

Although there was a headwind again down Tilt, I made good time, closing the loop in pretty much exactly the same amount of (riding) time as I had done the other week. Interesting in some ways, because on the boggy sections in Feshie, I could ride on the Krampus, just, and it was also generally drier than previously, so I made up for being slower in nearly every other section.

It took 2 hours 40 minutes to get to the Abhainn Rath from Aviemore, with the detour at Insh, and I was back to the car 1 hour 40 minutes or so after that. Useful, for future reference. A good day, but unfinished business…

Glen Tilt.

6 07 2013

It always happens like this. I spend the evening getting my kit and bike sorted, a destination in mind. By the time I turn the light off and try to get some precious sleep, I begin to wonder if I ought to strike out for somewhere new, unknown. I drift off to sleep, with trails in my dreams. Over coffee, I pull out some maps, crank up the internet and do a little research. An hour of riding time slides by and I haven’t left my home. Then 2 hours. Frustration bubbling, I finally throw everything in the car, and head to where I was going in the first place, or – if I have evaporated too much time – I just ride off with out any clear plan and a furrowed brow. So it goes.

The last time this happened, my original intention was to do the ‘classic’ Glen Tilt loop. I have no idea how many times I have ridden the route, pretty much exactly as it appears in countless guidebooks and magazines, but for some reason always (to my mind at least) in reverse: it is better anti-clockwise. It may not breed contempt, but it is so familiar it lacks excitement.

However, it is close, gives a taste of ‘out there’ and scratches the itch for solitude that I always feel. So, after messing around, looking at Glen Lyon, various other places and generally asking more questions than i answered, I decided to go with the flow and head up the A9. And, to be fair, I have not ridden the classic loop for several years, indeed the last time I was there I went over Beinn a’ghlo.

It had been relatively dry and I was optimistic that both the Allt Girnaig crossing and the peaty, heather covered ground on the other side, before the land rover tack down to Daldhu would be easily rideable.

So it was. The descent from there was very enjoyable, despite it being a wide, loose land rover track. The Maul was handling telepathically. The new rear, tubeless, set up felt superb and offered excellent traction. The whole bike just amazes me every time i ride it.

After turning at Daldhu, I realised that perhaps the reason I had been making such good time was the howling wind! Penitence was the name of the game as I crawled my way up to Fealar Lodge. Again, the recent dry weather meant the usually boggy, grassy trail down to the Falls of Tarf was in superb condition. I met another rider, doing the route clockwise, and then a few guys who were battling a broken chain before I made my way down Glen Tilt, again, screaming into the wind, back to Bridge of Tilt. Overall, completing the 54 km loop in 3 hours 45 minutes was pretty satisfying. I worked very hard down Tilt, my legs felt like they would split, but I am getting some strength back. Time to plan another big ride.

Jones and Surly demo.

3 07 2013

If you have any curiosity about Jones bikes, or Surly bikes, there is a chance to demo some of the bikes soon.


Eds bikes is the oprganiser. See here, for more info.