Sunday, May 7, 2017

Tyres, Gravel, Gnarmac, Grinduro, Grrrrrrr

The rise and rise of the 'adventure/gravel/bikepacking bike' has been well observed and truth is for a lot of the riding that takes place casually it's probably a great choice of bike style. I jumped on the bandwagon with the purchase of a deeply uncool Raleigh Maverick Comp last year as it ticked all the boxes for me, and was on sale, and I got discount thanks to British Cycling. Being a tinkerer I couldn't leave it be and so of the original bike, all that's left is the Reynolds 631 frame and cromoly forks, shifters, cables, front and rear derailleurs and cassette, and brake calipers. Oh and the bar tape although that has begun to delaminate so I'll likely change that soon too.
To the real point of this post though. Tyres. I love tyres. I mean I really love them. I have around 15-20 pairs in the shed at least, loose or mounted. Tyres for all wheel sizes I own and all bikes, and some I no longer own. I try not to think about how much money is tied up in them. With the growth of the market mentioned in the opening line, there has been a revival/corresponding growth in the tyre market to suit.
On of the main reasons I plumped for the Raleigh was the very good tyre clearances on the frame and forks. Why is this important? Well bigger tyres means higher volumes means more grip and more comfort. All good things.
My first foray into the larger tyres was with a second hand pair of Compass Barlow Pass in 700x38c size. Skin/gum/tan wall of course.

Here they are on the stock Raleigh wheels during a christmas day ride. Great tyres, very supple and grippy but a bit fragile off the road and on the chippings and loose seal that makes up some of the towpaths, sorry gravel, around here. I had a new set of wheels built by the excellent Ryan Builds Wheels over the water in Bristol around an SP dynamo front hub, and a Hope Pro4 rear hub with DT Swiss XM421 tubeless rims and the Barlow Pass wouldn't stay up happily tubeless. As a note, they're not supposed to be, but sometimes tyres will work.

With some trips coming up I was searching for some tyres with more grip for off road, and that would work tubeless. I had narrowed it down to the Bruce Gordon Rock n Road 700x43c, the Soma Cazadero 700x42c and the Panaracer Gravelking SK (small knob, teehee) 700x40c. All built on/by Panaracer in Japan. Being precious and vain I wanted tan/skin/gum walls which meant pre-ordering the Gravelking SK's from Winstanley's Bikes who were very helpful, and ordering a pair of the Rock n Roads from Bruce Gordon himself, shipped to my friends in Canada who we were visiting a few weeks later in early March. This being mid-February and me being the sort of person who can't get an idea out of their head unless it's acted upon. My trip was in April...

Long story short, the Rock n Roads were/are excellent off road on the dry and loose surfaces I rode and slightly draggy but not terrible on road. Which you would have guessed from the tread pattern.
On the 25mm wide rims, they came up slightly oversize

They cleared the frame just fine, and were a lot of fun in use.

I didn't weigh them, but stated weight was 560g each. I would guess they would be around that. They went up and stayed up tubeless and worked well at around 40psi with camping gear laden up.
The Gravelking SKs arrived last Friday and as I wasn't going to be doing some KGnarr-shredding I swapped them over from the RnRs. They have a coloured wall over a black carcass, as opposed to the RnRs and Barlow Pass's which are black over a tan carcass. Just an observation. The other observation was that the carcass felt markedly stiffer than the other two tyres. Maybe twice as stiff as the Barlow Pass's.
Straight up tubeless and a little oversize, again on the 25mm wide rims so to be expected.
Riding on them on- and off-road they really do roll very well and there was even a lot of grip in the dry. I ran 50psi to begin with as I was expecting a little air loss from the first tubeless inflation. I think they could be dropped to 40/45psi with no problems. I really am rather happy with them. Weight was 490g, and they came up at 498g. Strangely they felt heavier in my hands than the RnRs.
I am waiting on delivery of a pair of the Snoqualmie Pass 700x44c tyres again from Compass for winter road use, this post will be updated.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Of plans, ideas and notions.

I can't remember the exact date or programme I was watching but sometime last year I caught a snippet on television about the Wayland's Smithy and the folklore attached to it. Now I'm a superstitious pagan at heart, and the the thought of being able to plan a trip around this location; and the village of Avebury somewhere else I had long wanted to head to, excited me.
I booked a chunk of leave off work many months in advance and began to plan.
It made sense to make use of the Ridgeway* to travel between the sites and as I was doing it by bicycle I might as well see how far along the Ridgeway I could get as well. After all, April was normally nice and warm wasn't it?

Last week was certainly warm, but with an unerring inevitability that comes with trips being planned this week marked a turn in the weather toward the rather fresh side. Still the forecast (ha ha) looked manageable for cycle touring. The last comparable trip had been in September with my friend Dave with whom I explored the southernmost bothy in Wales on my cyclocross bike. This time I had a new bike; my hefty Raleigh Maverick which has an all-up weight heavy enough to plough furrows.

Loaded up with seat pack containing sleeping bag, tipi flysheet and gas canister, frame bag containing tipi pole and pegs, flapjacks, wash kit, loo roll and other ephemera, and bar bag containing sleeping mat and mess tins I rounded off with a small Acre Hauser backpack containing some spare clothes, super noodles and maps. I was carrying my water on the bike this time instead of on my back and that helped a lot. I still took too much and I think each trip is an exercise at thinning down. What would be beneficial would be fork mounted bags or a larger bar bag or porteur rack so I could ditch the backpack all together. I digress.

Setting off from my Mum's just outside Chippenham I headed cross country toward Avebury. I was using the frankly excellent Polaris map trap to keep ahold of the maps and it made life so much easier. As a note, OS maps fold just right to fit into a large Ziploc bag. Instant waterproof map! My step-dad had kindly given me the map of the local area as it was one I was lacking, and he provided the details for the first leg to Avebury.

The first sighting I had of something really exciting was the white horse at Cherhill and set me in good mood for carrying on toward Avebury.

A gentle trundle along the A4 and soon I reached the chance to leave the main road and head along the byway taking the more traditional route into the village. This meant passing by the two long stones, Adam and Eve, the only two left standing from that direction.
Leaving them the gentle byway took me right into the village with only a pause to stop by the community shop for postcards, and not bother looking in the commercial gift shop next door.

Postcards written and posted it was time for a pint and some lunch in the pub. Mixed affair but still it filled a hole. I had a quick look at the other stones around the village and chatted to another cyclist before pressing on.

The village was nice enough but still lots of signs of erosion around the stones and the National Trust doing a lot of work to keep things in order. Granted I was a tourist too but it was a quiet Monday afternoon and there were enough people milling about to keep it busy. Out of Avebury and to West Kennett where the recent iteration of the Ridgeway begins. The photo at the top was taken by the initial fingerpost. The conditions were dry and the ground firm with plenty of washboard and ruts to bounce across. I'll be honest I didn't feel too much hope about enjoying it at this stage as my arms and legs took a pounding from the rigid bike and surface.
Gradually it smoothed off, as the distance from the car park grew and soon it was quite pleasurable to ride.
I wasn't sure when to expect surface changes but with each rise and fall of the landscape the underlying geology revealed itself where the grass or crops were worn away. The views from Barbury Castle were quite spectacular and it took me a while to realise that the large grey/purple/blue patches weren't lavender (too early) or water (too neat) but solar farms.
Heading on from the tops I paused to chat to a chap riding the other direction and who it turned out lived locally. As I asked a few questions about directions and conditions he told me that the Ridgeway as a route had many iterations and most points could be reached by several of them. I stuck to the main trail as marked on my map, and supported by the fingerposts but it was interesting to know. I caught up with a couple of walkers further along and rode alongside chatting for a while. The common denominator was we were both carrying whisky. I said I was stopping to make a brew further along the route toward Liddington and would maybe see them there.
At an intersection of 3 ways I had a pause and look back to see from where I had come and to see if I could spot the walkers.
I couldn't so I pressed on toward the hill fort at Liddington and a chance to find somewhere out of the wind to brew up. Whilst the view from where I had come was pleasant enough

The spot I was brewing in was rather less salubrious!
Still, it was out of the wind and a chance to rest up.
As I packed away the skies darkened and the wind began to pick up in gusts; bending the trees above me and really whistling around the pillbox I was sheltered by. I paused a moment to consider waiting out the ensuing rain in the pillbox but it was just too scuzzy so I donned my rain jacket, tugged the peak of my cap down and pressed on. I was only in the rain for about half an hour but with the wind chill it was enough to have me considering options for tea and warming up. My back was twinging and the thought of somewhere warm was appealing. At another byway intersection I slowed to speak to two ladies in a pony and trap and ask their advice about local pubs. With a couple of names in my ears I carried on until I found a water stop at Ridgeway farm and then another chance to drop off the Ridgeway down into Ashbury. I noted wryly that the descent down carried a warning sign of 10% gradient. Wryly as I knew to rejoin the trail I'd be riding back up it!
With the kitchens just opening and some tasty pie on the way I soon settled in.
If you're ever passing, I can heartily recommend the Rose and Crown in Ashbury.
The problem I now had was that I was warming up, comfortable and with a few hours of daylight left, contemplating my next move. My inner monkey was twitching to head back to my Mum's 30 miles away by road but I knew I wanted to get to the Smithy which wasn't too much further up the trail. After a coffee to spur me on I departed the comfort of the pub and climbed back up that hill.
It was worth it.
Utterly worth it.
My goosebumps had begun from the moment I turned off the trail to get to the Smithy and they tingled strongly the whole time I was there walking around the barrow.

It really is quite impressive. With a tot of whisky poured and supped I moved on.
Next up was the White Horse at Uffington and the ground began to reveal the bone-white underlying chalk as I rode.
With the time passing and the sun beginning to set as I wandered around the hill fort I saw the horse from an odd angle

with Dragon hill just below and the hill fort behind me it was a commanding view of the landscape.
I made the call to stay the night instead of taking the stupid option of riding back. After all that was the underlying reason I had come this far and carried all the kit. I found somewhere out of sight and set up the tipi before turning in for the night as the cold came. I was so cold I put every item of clothing I had on. Predictably it was about an hour later when I woke in sweat absolutely baking. Removing all the extra layers and just down to my base layer and ron hills I was settling back down to sleep when I cold hear a rustling outside. Peering out of the fly and I was bemused; was it the wind just being amplified by the tipi? A moment of silence was broken by rustling and the shadows of rabbits moving about. Phew, it wasn't the smithy come to get me, or ancient horses.

Woken at just after 4am by a skylark my grump at being awake was tempered by the beauty that is birdsong. I was warm and cosy in the sleeping bag but a peek outside revealed that the temperature had dropped enough to frost any damp areas. With more layers donned I set up a brew for breakfast, cursing the lack of a windbreak.

The backpack helped a bit and once the coffee was made I dropped the tipi and packed everything up. Coffee drunk and the recalcitrant sleeping mat squeezed into the bar bag on the second attempt with numb fingers I double checked my surroundings and pedalled off.
I had decided that I didn't have enough warm cycling gear to continue further along the Ridgeway, and this was reinforced as I rode out to head back towards my beginning. Again despite having all the clothing I had with me on, I was shivering. I rolled along the lanes instead of along the top to try and find warmth out of the wind but it was no good. The weather was bitter. Surprisingly I passed several other cyclists though all with far more clothing on than I! A brief pause at a village shop for a Snickers, my long-standing favourite snack of choice and a phone call from a friend and I was away again. The change from riding along the Ridgeway to passing through the villages beneath meant I was spending time checking my route on the map a lot more instead of being able to roll freely. I should have stuck to the top and gritted it out. A lesson learned.

By around 9 I was feeling somewhat jaded and my hummingbird metabolism was kicking in. Time for second breakfast. It was to consist of the same as the first but still it would be welcome.

I sat for 20 minutes whilst the water boiled and I subsequently supped the coffee and munched the flapjack. I was about an hour from finishing and felt satisfied with what I had done. No great mileage but certainly a challenge and an opportunity to see new old sights. My final few miles took me alongside the Maud Heath Causeway and despite the road being dry at this time I felt the need to make use of the monument.
Within a quarter of an hour I was back at my car and able to change and warm up. It was almost 22 hours since I had set off yet it seemed like so much more time. The stats, dull as they are; were 78 miles ridden, 4,800ft climbed, average speed 12 mph. I really learned a few more things about bikepacking and how best to do it, I'm sure these will be refined further. I've not finished with the Ridgeway yet. I also learned more about my anxiety and how to deal with it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. The trick is to keep trying and to remind myself to keep trying.

*I found the National Trail website very useful in detailing where the route went, and water points as well as additional info regarding the leniency on trail-side camping; leave no sign of doing so and be considerate AKA don't be a dick. Good rule for life.