The toughest MTB event in the UK?

17 10 2011

Well that was quite some ride! The Bear Bones 200 is a unique kind of ride, billed as a bikepacking independent time trail, with no support or route marking. It’s just you, your bike, 200 km of Mid Wales and what ever the weather throws at you. Stuff of adventure.

Bear Bones Map

Due to MOT reasons I had to travel to Machynlleth by train the night before and had a fantastic nights sleep in my bivi bag on the side of a hill. Come Saturday morning a small huddle started to gather round a tipi in a cold field.
Bike envy started early with many exotic 29er’s and various bikepacking systems containing an ultra lightweight backpacking wish list were pulled from van’s and cars for last minute fettling. At 10am the 30 or so people rolled out of the field past the farm and up! And, up, and up, and up! The first climb nearly sent me back to the start wanting to bail. Seems my fitness had dropped further than I’d thought, but the clear blue skys and fantastic views kept my spirits up, well that and the thought that I’d quit to many rides this year to not make it round this one. I soon fell into riding with Clive and Jase and the miles started to pass by, well grind by if I’m honest, but they were going by.

The trails put together for this ride were a mixture of high open moors, forest tracks, single track, tarmac with occasional river thrown in so we could clean our bikes, (thinking Strada Florida here, check out this video). Due to the remote nature of the route, one of the challenges would be your approach to food. Do you carry everything you might need? But how much would you need? And how much does that weigh? Or do you carry enough to get between possible shops or pubs? What if they are closed? Clive and I both opted to take enough food to get between the two possible shop stops on route. Jase had enough to get round the whole way. So it was at Pontrhydfendigaid that Clive and I hit the pub and Jase rode on in to the dusk. It had taken us about 8 hours to ride 60 miles and the shop had closed. If the pub had not been open or serving food then I’m not sure what I would of done!

With sweet potato curry inside us and the sun now set, we headed back into the dark hills. I’ve always enjoyed off road riding in the dark, ever since those dizzy days of my twin vista lights and their combined 10w output. Lights have come on but the sensation remains the same, exploring with no visual landscape aids, just you and the trail, and the starts if your lucky. We rode Strada Florida in the dark.

Somehow,  leaving a forest I spotted another good bivi spot tucked up on a bank with soft dry grass. It was either stay here or risk having to push on for another 15-20 miles until we could find a place with cover not in a valley. Clive and I slept well until about 4am when the rain started. I learnt on Saturday night that without the use of a tarp, I’m unable to keep the rain from falling on my head using my bivi bag. At 6am, we were back on the bikes and heading in to a very misty night. After a long, step, rocky bridleway climb, the devils staircase, a remote moor top crossing, and crossing the hill top south of the Elan valley we found breakfast in Rhayader around 11am. Eggs and baked beans on toast with tea, ohhh the tea!

Back on the bikes, and topped up with water and food Clive continued to keep me entertained with stories of his many adventures, one of the benefits of a riding partner a good few years wiser than I. We soon picked our way up the final forest climb and down in to the Staylittle valley, nearly home. Thankfully there was no sting in the tail of this ride, indeed quite the opposite. The final few miles are a fast tarmac decent. Clive and I arrived back at 2.38pm, earning ourselves a green badge and a very welcome 3 course lunch, thanks Dee 🙂

So Clive and I took over 28 hours to ride the 200km, where as Kevin Roderick and Ian Barrington were back in 17h 23m. OK, they did not stop for sleep, but that’s one hell of a time! To be honest, I’m surprised I got round that ride at all, my current fitness did not desire a finish time at all.  Check out the results.

Does it deserve to be called the toughest mtb event in the UK? Well, most people are not going to be able to get round in one go so will need to sleep. It’s self supported, there are no race marshals to hold your hand or pink arrows to tell you where to go.  You might run out of food and water, and you will climb 4000m. I’d say a wet Kielder 100 is harder on the bikes, but the Bear Bones 200 is in a different league altogether, it’s was a real adventure and not just a race. It’s the toughest ride I’ve ever done on a mtb. But as one of the other finishers reminded us at the end “the weather made it easy”


Adventures with the GPS thingy

25 01 2011

I like paper maps, I really do! They are nice to touch, they fold out to give a great overview of where you are, and just using one makes me feel good. But when your on a bike and have hundreds of miles to cover they can become a real pain to use. As my rides have increased in length, the further I have travel from home the less interesting the roads I use have become. I can’t realistically use paper maps to navigate the many thousands of narrow lanes that cover this country. On top of this, I’d like to take my cycling adventures off the tarmac and on to the even more complex network of bridleways that cover the countryside. There was only one solution, use a GPS device to navigate. So after much research, and by a lot I mean A LOT! A lot more than went in to buying our new house, I ordered a Garmin Dakota 20.

It would seem that deciding which device to buy was the easy part. Most people’s experience of using a GPS is in the car. You tell it where you want to get to, it works out how to get there and then the women directs you, most of the time. On the bike it’s a little different. Often you want to follow a route that starts and finishes in the same place and to do this you either follow a  a route that someone else has created or you created the route yourself before you set of. This is where the fun starts.

I’ve spent the last 2-3 weeks learning GPS talk. What is a track? How is this different to a route? How does my device follow a track? How does it follow a route? Can I get it to beep at me and tell me which way to go at a junction? How do I turn the screen off to save the batteries? Which maps should I use? Can I get on-screen instructions? It’s all a complete minefield as it seems there’s more than one way to skin a GPS.

So what have I learnt so far about the Dakota 20? I have to stress that I’m not going to explain how to do things on the Dakota, such as how to load the maps, or how the software works. What I want to do is let people know how I have found using the Dakota as that might inform other people’s decision as whether to buy it not. If you do have any questions and if I can help then I will gladly reply.

First up some basics, it uses AA batteries which are easy to replace, so if you carry spares you will never run out of power. Not tested battery life properly yet, but the biggest variable seems to be how much screen backlight is used. It has a touchscreen which works well and I’ve used it with big winter gloves whilst riding and not found it a problem. The screen is also more visible than I had thought it would be. The Garmin bike mounting kit is a lot smaller, neater and effective than I thought it would be.

I have loaded UK Open Street Maps onto the device which are free. I’m using the maps produced by Andy Gates which you can get from here: I want to get a copy of 1:50,000 UK OS maps for off-road and walking use as the Open Street Maps can be patchy when off the road network. I use both G5 and Intel mac’s. The Dakota mounts with no problems on both systems. I’m using Garmin’s Bascamp software on both mac’s with copies of Andy’s maps available from the link above. For creating tracks and routes (see below) I’ve been playing with Bascamp as well as Bikehike and Bike Route Toaster. You can view Ordnance Survey maps using bikehike which is very handy.

If following a route using autorouting in follow road mode then the Dakota works like a car GPS and gives you instructions on where to go. Using it like this you can turn the screen off and set it to beep and light up when you approach a junction. I think this will be good for saving the battery. A route is the journey between any two way-points. The Garmin can create a route that contains up to 50 way-points. This means a long route will need to be broken down in to smaller chunks in order to fit within the 50 way-point limit. The way-points should not be too far apart or the GPS may direct you down a road you do not wish to take.

A track is like an electronic breadcrumb trail. You can set your GPS to record where you have been, it will record a track point every few seconds which can show up on the map if you wish, like an electronic breadcrumb trail. You can also create a track using either software on the computer such as Basecamp or a websites such as Bikehike. You can load a pre-created track on to the GPS that will show up as pink line on the map. You can follow that pink line when cycling but I have not yet worked out how to get the Dakota to behave as it does when following a route, alerting me at a junctions, and turning the screen on, I don’t think it will. This means when following a track the screen always has to be on which I think will take its toll on the battery. However, a track can have up to 1000 track points, which means you don’t need to break a long track into smaller chunks.  I’m finding the differences in functionality between using routes and tracks slightly annoying. I believe other devices such as the Garmin Edge series may not suffer from this problem as they also use courses that are kind of a combination between a route and track, I think?

That’s it for now. I’ve not used the Dakota for off-road navigation yet because I’m in the process of servicing the mtb, but I suspect I will have to use the track approach. Well that’s unless I can use autorouting in follow road mode on the OS maps to navigate down bridleways, which would be very useful! We shall see.

Despite the slight track/route frustration I love having this device. My long road rides have typically headed south from Birmingham and into the Cotswolds, but this morning I put together a nice 100 mile loop using Bike Route Toaster that goes West to Shropshire and then South to Worcestershire on roads that I’m not very familiar with. See all that open space to the West of Birmingham, it’s quite exciting. Click on the picture below to see the route.

What’s most exciting about this route is that I’ve found the much talked about but all elusive Western passage from South Birmingham to Shropshire avoiding the Black Country and Kidderminster. Yay!

OK, time to go exploring.

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