Penmachno Enduro

A couple of weeks ago I did my first mountain biking Enduro race and enjoyed it so much, I’ve already signed up to do another! The race was held at Penmachno mountain bike trails in North Wales and was not only my first mountain biking race, but the first to be held there.

IMG_9333We’d driven down to Liverpool to stay with family a couple of days earlier but still had to get up at 5.30am to make it to Penmachno for an 8.30am start. By the time we crossed the border into Wales the sun was on its way up, and without a cloud in the sky, it soon became apparent that we’d totally lucked out with the weather.

As we’d done a recce a few weeks before, we knew where we were going, but as we drove out of the tiny village of Penmachno towards the trails, it looked completely different to the modestly signposted fire road that we’d encountered on our last visit. A local farmer had allowed the organisers to use his two adjacent fields for parking, camping and event base, and judging by the quantities of horse shit we had to dodge, its usual residents had only recently been evicted.

IMG_9303After registering, we set off on a practice run of the course, which was compulsory for everyone. As with any Enduro race, the route and timed sections aren’t disclosed until a couple of days before the race, although I suspect most people already had a fairly good idea, particularly the locals. One of the reasons for holding the event was to showcase a load of new trails that have just been built, so we knew that those sections would be included. What we hadn’t anticipated was just how long each of the timed sections would be, and after talking to more experienced enduro riders and the organisers, we learned that they were considerably longer, and flatter, than most enduro stages.

IMG_9313One of my biggest worries in the build up to the race was that I’d fall and mess up my timed run, something that proved to be a legitimate concern when, 20 minutes into the practice lap, I hit a root badly and toppled off the trail down a steep bank! Fortunately, other than a rather large bump on my shin and a bit of a scrape, both the bike and I were ok and I quickly clambered back onto the trail before anyone saw! Initially I thought this might not bode too well for the rest of the event, but fortunately it wasn’t a sign of things to come and I managed to stay on my bike for the rest of the day.

When we got back to the base we had an hour or so to wait until our allotted departure time for the timed loop so we grabbed a bite to eat and chilled out, quite literally, in the winter sun.

As our departure time approached I started to get a few butterflies, but the whole thing was so relaxed that they soon disappeared. And besides, we had a fair bit of climbing to do before the first of our three timed descents anyway. We set off in groups of ten people, ten minutes apart, in order to reduce congestion, and although everyone went round the course at a different pace, IMG_9321we pretty much stuck with the same bunch all the way round. I’d noticed at registration, and from general observation, that out of over 200 entrants, less than 20 were girls, so it was nice to see that three of them had chosen to depart at the same time as us.

When we arrived at the start of the first timed section there was a queue of people waiting to set off, which gave us the perfect excuse for a breather before what was commonly being referred to as “the killer” section. Although classed as downhill, it wasn’t all that steep and even had some short uphill stretches, so required a lot of pedaling if you wanted to get a decent time. When my turn came I dibbed in and started pedaling frantically down the rocky trail as if my life depended on it, my old hardtail bike rattling all over the place. When it got IMG_8987steeper I eased off the pedaling to focus on negotiating the obstacles, but as soon I was able, I spun the cranks as fast as I could. By the end of the section I could actually hear my lungs screaming, so when the finish came into view, it was quite a relief. I clearly wasn’t alone as at the end was a congregation of other riders recovering from their exertions before embarking on the next climb, which was also a bit of a killer.

After a steep slog of a fire road it felt good to arrive at the start of the next timed section, especially as it was my favourite of the three. Like the last, it was also quite a long one that required a fair bit of pedaling in places, but there was also plenty of fun downhill to blast down. When we did this section on our recce a few weeks previously, it had been practically dark and pouring with rain so this was a piece of cake by comparison.

SC Ross Media-PenEnd11_14 - 641The stage started with an older stretch of narrow, rocky singletrack through thick forest before giving way to the first section of new trail – a series of smooth swooping berms that are great fun to ride. After popping out onto the fire road, which you could have been forgiven for thinking was the end of the section (I did in practice!) we were directed back onto the older trail again for another pedal-intensive section before the final descent to the end. I got so carried away that I nearly went flying past the dibber, but fared much better than the poor girl in front who went flying over the handlebars on the final drop. She managed to pick herself up though and hobble to the dibber on foot to clock her time. Respect.

IMG_9339The climb to the final timed section was another stretch of fire road but was nowhere near as much of a slog as the last one, which was just as well, as I was starting to feel a little weary by that point. After popping an energy gel to I set off on the final section, which started with another section of smooth new trails. After a series of berms, whoops and drops, the trail climbed a bit (something I hadn’t even noticed before, but really felt this time!) before a series of massive swooping berms that eventually spat you out onto the fire road again to join the final stage of singletrack. This last bit had some really tight switchbacks to negotiate, but was otherwise pretty straightforward. I didn’t have much left in the tank but kept pedaling as fast as I could whilst telling myself not to mess it up now. I would have been gutted to fall or anything so close to the end after having had a pretty good run until then. As it turned out, the unthinkable had happened to Dan as he’d got a puncture just before the end and had to finish the final stretch, which involved a short but rocky climb, with a flat tyre.

IMG_9344As I dibbed out for the final time I felt pretty happy with how it had gone. I’d given it my all, had no real mechanicals (other than a slow puncture that I discovered later), and had managed to stay on my bike the whole way round! Result. Out of around 20 girls who took part (only two of us on a hardtail) I finished around half way down the field, which I figured it wasn’t too bad for a first shot.

The Enduro season is now over for this year, but entries are already starting to open, and close, for next season. We managed to sign up for the Scottish Open King & Queen of the Hill race in the Tweed Valley in August just before it sold out, so can’t wait for that, and will hopefully get a few more in the diary before then too. Until then, there’s lots of winter riding to enjoy, on both bikes and boards!

Penmachno Preview

IMG_8847“Fancy doing this?” read the message, followed by a link to a mountain biking Facebook page. “Places are going fast, so we’ll have to make a decision quickly”. I clicked on the link and had barely read the first paragraph when my phone rang. It was Dan. “So, are you up for it?” By making a quick decision, I thought he’d meant sometime in the next few days, but apparently it meant straight away.

“Umm, yeeeeah… maybe”, I replied trying to be as non-committal as possible, without sounding too unenthusiastic. From what I’d managed to deduce from the Facebook page, the event was an enduro in Penmachno,Wales, mid-November.

IMG_8856We’d been talking about entering an enduro (a mountain bike race that tests endurance and bike handling skills with a series of timed downhill stages within an otherwise untimed circuit) all summer, but now that the season was over I thought I’d now have until spring to hone my skills a bit more before entering something so scary sounding.

“Well, what do you reckon” he urged as I desperately tried to find out a bit more about what I might be letting myself in for. Last time I said yes to something like this, I found myself riding in a sportive incorporating the toughest road climb in the UK.


“Umm, okay then…” I heard myself reply, not entirely convincingly. And that was it. Within ten minutes I was signed up to do my first mountain biking race.

Entries for the event closed minutes after Dan signed us up and there was a moment when I thought we hadn’t got places after all. But rather than feeling relieved, I was disappointed, which made me realise that deep down I obviously did really want to do it. I love organised events and am intrigued to see how I fare against other female mountain bikers. I’ve been doing a fair bit of riding over the past year and feel like I’ve improved loads, but other than through Strava results, I haven’t really been able to see how I compare to anyone other than Dan (who’s much better than me) and a handful of other guys who we’ve ridden with.

IMG_9039However, as the race approaches, I’ve been feeling an increasingly nervous. I’m worried that everyone else will have been riding for way longer than me and be loads better; worried that everyone else will have been competing in enduros for ages; worried that everyone else will be familiar with the trails; worried that I’ll mess it up and not do very well; and most of all, worried that my competitive nature overrides my sense of self preservation and I injure myself, again.

In order to eliminate one of the unknown entities that was giving me the fear, we decided to pay a visit to Penmachno to check out the trails. We’d already planned to tag a bit of mountain biking in Wales onto a trip to Liverpool so we figured we might as well go there.

IMG_8872Penmachno is a little village near Betws-y-Coed in Snowdonia, and around one and a half hours drive from Liverpool. The mountain biking trails are independently run and refreshingly non-commercialised. As you drive out of Penmachno, an unpretentious handwritten sign directs you up a fire road to an information board and space for dozen or so cars to park. There are no ticket machines, just a slot on the board in which to post a small donation towards the upkeep of the trails.

The contents of the donation box must have stretched a long way, as the local trail fairies have been extremely busy lately building two whole new sections of singletrack to add to an already extensive network of trails.

IMG_9037The trails are split into two red-graded loops, which can either be ridden separately or as a complete 30km circuit. From the car park you join the 19km ‘Dolen Machno’ trail, or ‘loop 1’ which, after a fairly grueling stretch of fire road, takes you into the forest for some enjoyably technical stretches of singletrack. Unfortunately the first proper descent was closed due to felling so we had to continue up the fire road until the end of the diversion.

About half way round the loop, you meet the start of ‘Dolen Eryri’ or ‘loop 2’, which takes you deeper into the forest for a further 11km. It’s a great trail that leads you through thick wooded areas and open stretches of younger forest, over exposed rock and deep water-filled troughs. The scenery is stunning and other than the wildlife, we felt totally alone, and most probably were.

IMG_8877Eventually you pop out onto the fire road again and rejoin ‘loop 1’ to climb up to the top of a rocky ridge. From here it’s pretty much down hill all the way, although the first stretch still requires a fair bit of pedaling and negotiating rocky outcrops. However, when the downhill proper starts, it’s a fast, flowing, fun ride that will leave you grinning from ear to ear.

Unfortunately by this point the sun was starting to descend as rapidly as we were, something we hadn’t fully appreciated until we plunged into the darkness of the forest and had to rely on blind faith to get us down. The challenge was intensified by fact that the heavens had opened and heavy rain was penetrating the thick canopy and turning the trail into even more of a mud chute. It was still IMG_8987great fun though, and I felt reassured by the fact that conditions were unlikely to be any worse than this on the day of the enduro! As we got further down, we hit one of the new sections, which swooped through the trees in a series of impeccably manicured berms.

By now, the rain had intensified and the combination of low sun and rain clouds had made the sky even darker. We were soaked through and getting pretty cold so decided to skip the last section and head straight back to the car via the fire road. On the way we caught a glimpse of more of the new trails that we were missing out on and cursed ourselves for not getting there earlier.

IMG_8995The next day, we had planned to head to Coed-y-Brenin, but after having had to cut short our ride at Penmachno, we decided to go back and do loop 1 again. It was a really fun ride that was definitely enhanced by being able to see this time! The end of the loop consisted of a nice mix of smooth new trails and rougher, more technical sections, and while I tend to prefer the latter, it was definitely fun to blast down the rollercoaster-esque new bits.

It was great to be able to check out the trails at Penmachno before the enduro, and although we won’t know the exact route until the day of the race, I at least feel reassured that there’s nothing there I can’t handle. I still feel slightly apprehensive about how I’ll do on the day, and the butterflies will no doubt be fluttering frantically as the event draws ever closer, but more than anything I’m just excited to ride those trails again!

For more photos head to the Riding Switch Facebook page or Instagram 

Higher Calling

UK premiere of Higher, the final installment of Jeremy Jones’s backcountry trilogy.

Looking around at the grand pulpit, rows of pews, and ornate stone features of London’s Union Chapel it seemed fitting that we were here to see the god of backcountry snowboarding. This divine setting played host to the UK premiere of Higher, the final part of Jeremy Jones’ epic trilogy, and the great man was there in person for us to worship.

WP_20141028_025Unsurprisingly the event was a sell out and when we rocked up ten minutes after the doors opened, there was already a massive queue running right the way along the street. We headed up to the balcony and chose a pew that was ideally situated to take in the beautiful surroundings and get a perfect view of the big screen and spot in front of the pulpit where His High(er)ness would be speaking.

Jez, as I feel I can call him that now that we’ve ‘met’, introduced the film and made an instant connection with the audience by reminding us that he too came from somewhere low and flat before climbing, quite literally, higher.

The film begins by touching on Jones’s upbringing on Cape Cod, Massachusetts in the early 80s and his progression from professional slalom racer to ten-time ‘Big Mountain Rider of the Year’.

jeremy_drops_in_HigherJeremy Jones isn’t a man who does things by halves. Like the previous two films in the trilogy, Deeper and Further, Higher follows him as he seeks out new and ever more challenging locations in which to test his riding skills and endurance. As the title of the film suggests, the focus of this installment is his assault on a series of previously uncharted vertiginous peaks.

Higher focuses on three separate expeditions, to Grand Teton in Wyoming, Alaska and the Himalayas, and follows Jones and his carefully selected riding partners (Bryan Iguchi, Ryland Bell and Luca Pandolfi) as they experience everything from the ultimate highs to most crushing lows in remote parts of some of the most inhospitable mountain ranges on the planet.

Not one for heli drops, Jones is a true mountaineer for whom a big part of the challenge is accessing his chosen lines under his own steam, even if that means being stuck for days in massive storms with nothing but a tent for shelter, which it invariably does.

over_the_edge_HigherThey target seriously impressive terrain with near vertical spine walls that look impossible to climb, let alone ride. At one point we see Jones and Pandolfi scale a 2,000ft near-vertical face, one energy sapping step after another, only for the weather to close in as they reach the top and thwart their descent. Over the course of the film it becomes apparent that these type of set backs are commonplace, and that for every few minutes of exhilarating descent, there are invariably hours, days or even weeks spent at the mercy of mother nature at her most brutal.

The film culminates with Jones embarking on his biggest challenge yet when he heads to Nepal to take on the Shangri La spines in the Himalayas – the biggest he’s ever seen. After weeks of preparation involving acclimatisation, trial ascents and descents, he finally attempts the line he’s been aiming for. Conditions are sketchy, to say the least, and he describes it as: “the hardest thing I’ve ever done”. It may not have turned out to be the dream line that he’d hoped for but in getting down that spine on the Shangri La, he certainly fulfilled his brief. After all, short of riding down Everest, you can’t really get much ‘higher’ than that.

Higher isn’t your average snowboarding movie. At 1 hour 40 minutes long, it’s a feature length documentary on the incredible feats of a true backcountry snowboarder and mountaineer. Unlike many freeride snowboarding films, which edit together footage of perfect descents, deep powder, backcountry kickers and pillow lines, this is a realistic, warts and all account of backcountry riding in its rawest form. Jeremy epitomses the notion of “earning your turns” and the ascents he takes on are equally as impressive as the descents.

Although there’s inevitably a certain amount of aerial footage, much of the action jeremy_climbs_ridge_in_ak_Higheris filmed using head cams, which make you feel like you’re there with them on every precarious ridge and heart stopping turn. Almost.

There’s also a refreshing absence of lingering shots of logos on boots or boards, or energy drinks being consumed. This is not a vehicle to promote Jones’ range of snowboards, or at least not directly. We know they’re riding Jones boards but other than the odd uncontrived glimpse of the logo, you wouldn’t know. There are obviously nods to his handful of sponsors but these are at least subtle.

The film by no means glamourises Jones’s adventures and doesn’t necessarily leave you longing to get yourself a splitboard and transceiver and hit the backcountry. Instead I was left reflecting on the hostile nature of the mountains, and the skill and expertise required to tackle them – something that was confounded further still by the end credits which dedicate the film to several of Jones’s close friends and mentors who’ve lost their lives in this perilous jeremy_climbs_in_nepal_Higherplayground. And although I’m not a particularly religious person, our situation in this place of prayer and worship made it seem all the more poignant.

I obviously wasn’t alone as the subject was raised in the Q&A session after the film, where Jones spoke of how hard he’s been hit by the deaths of his friends and heroes. He also touched on the inner conflict he now faces as a dad, continuing to put himself in potentially life threatening situations and risking leaving his kids without a father. It’s certainly not something that he takes lightly and acknowledges that “taking stupid risks is definitely irresponsible”. Ultimately though, he just can’t imagine living his life in any other way and feels it’s important for his kids to “see people living life and drinking life up as much as possible”.

Amen to that.

Higher is available to download on iTunes now.

Have you seen the film? What did you think?

Won over by Whinlatter

Over the last few months I’ve been managing to ride Glentress fairly regularly and have got to know the trails pretty well – something I appreciated recently when, having forgotten that the clocks had gone back, I found myself blasting down in near darkness, trying to beat the sun.


North Loop climb

I feel really lucky to have such a great mountain biking centre nearby and love being able to rip down its awesome trails able to anticipate (almost) every drop, berm and exposed root. However, as good as it is to ride reassuringly familiar local trails, I also love to visit new ones and test myself on unfamiliar terrain. After all, it’s very well to tear down a trail that you know like the back of your hand, but an altogether different matter to do the same on a trail that you haven’t ridden before.

As Dan and I have family in Liverpool, we spend quite a lot of time down that way, and whenever possible try to tag on a bit of mountain biking. As the journey down takes you through Dumfriesshire and The Lake District, there are plenty of places to stop off at en route, with loads more within easy reach of Liverpool. On our last trip we stopped at Ae Forest in Dumfriesshire so this time decided to head for Whinlatter in The Lakes.


Epic berms on North Loop descent

It might sound crazy but, although I’ve driven up and down the M74 and M6 countless times, I’d never actually ventured deeper into The Lake District before. I was immediately struck by how beautiful it is and I couldn’t wait to get on my bike and view it all from above.

Having seen and heard great things about Whinlatter, I’d been desperate to visit for some time. Resisting the temptation to ditch the bikes and follow the Gruffalo, we decided to ride the red ‘Altura trail’, which consists of two separate loops of around 10km each.


North Loop descent

We took the North Loop first, not for any particular reason other than we happened to find its starting point first. After a challengingly steep climb near the start, it’s a steady ascent to the top at 500m. From here you’re rewarded with an exhilarating descent, which takes you through rocky and forest sections before you pop back out into the open for what has to be the highlight of the entire trail – a fast and flowing section of swooping berms and jumps cut into the steep valley sides. The views are fantastic but it’s a good idea to keep your eyes on the trail if you don’t want to launch off into the valley below! There are also some optional black sections to dip into on the way down if you want to test your skills a bit more.


Tight switchbacks on South Loop climb

The loop ends up back at the car park, which is great if you need a toilet stop or to pick something up from the car before continuing onto the next loop. Or, as I imagine is fairly common, repeating the one you’ve just done!

The South loop is slightly longer (10km as opposed to 9.5km) and a little less technical than the North but still equally enjoyable. The trail snakes relatively gently up the opposite side of the valley via a series of tight but easy-to-ride switchbacks, making it far easier on the legs than parts of the North loop climb. And if fatigue does start to set it, the stunning views should help to distract you from any lung or leg burn. There’s also the option to start the descent early but it’s well worth continuing to the top for the additional descent and incredible views from Hospital Fell Ridge.


Stunning views from top of the South Loop

After a bone-shakingly rough (especially on a hardtail!) cobbled section at the top, the trail winds through trees and heather, and over patches of exposed rock and loose shale, which keep you on your toes. The lower section is a fun blast through open hillside with lots of nice berms and jumps. And then, before you know it you’re back at the car park, desperate to go again.

I like trails with a defined climb and descent, and you certainly get that on the Altura Trail at Whinlatter. Nothing irks me more on an unfamiliar trail than preparing for what I think is going to be a decent descent and then after a couple of hundred metres, finding myself climbing again! For the most part the climbs on both loops are interesting and, although challenging in places, rarely feel like too much of a slog. And, when you get to the top, you’re treated to long, varied and great fun descents. The fast open bermed section on the North Loop was a definite highlight, but by no means overshadowed any of the other sections.

End of the South Loop

End of the South Loop

The nice short loops mean you can mix and match your ride and do as little or as much as you want. It’s also never too far to get back to the centre if you have any mechanical problems, with either your bike or your body!

Whinlatter is definitely up there with one of the best UK trail centres I’ve ridden, and while it may not quite steal my heart from Glentress, it could certainly become a love rival if we were to become better acquainted.

Where’s your favourite place to mountain bike? I’m keen to hit up more new trails so would love some tip offs!

For more photos head to the Riding Switch Facebook page or Instagram

Strava Striven

I have a problem. I think I’m addicted to Strava*. Every time I go out for a ride, whether on my road or mountain bike I can’t resist the urge to tap that little orange icon on my phone and hit go. But only just before I set off, of course. Any additional seconds could skew results. If I forget something and have to go back, which is not an infrequent occurrence, the activity has to be deleted and reset. strava-logoSee, I told you… And that’s just the beginning. I’ve come to resent anyone or anything that slows me down, be that traffic, traffic lights, slow cyclists, wind… even children and dogs. Not that I would ever ride recklessly. I do manage to suppress the impatience and intolerance that burns inside, although I did take out a pigeon recently, which I still feel awful about. It’s also got to the point where I feel loathe to stop at any point during my ride, just in case it ruins my chances of getting a personal best. This is fine if I’m on my own, but when riding with other people I find myself getting frustrated if they want to stop or slow down. Recently I was mountain biking with my other half and he stopped to sort something on his bike. Knowing that it was nothing IMG_8427serious I decided to carry on to the top of the climb and wait at a point where we usually have a break. When he caught me up he accused me of never looking back. Defensively I protested that I did and had seen him stop, before sheepishly adding that I’d just wanted to push on to the top in order to clock my time. I’ve also become obsessed with getting a best time on the Spooky Wood descent at Glentress. Gone are the days when I can just blast down enjoying its awesome berms, jumps and drop offs, maybe stopping to do a bit of filming here and there. Now each descent is executed as quickly as possible in a desperate attempt to shave seconds off my time and secure a new personal best. I’ve always been competitive when it comes to sport – apparently when I was little I’d challenge my siblings and friends to a race and then run with my elbows sticking out incase anyone got close. I would never employ such dirty tactics now but I still enjoy a bit of healthy competition. That’s what sport’s all about, isn’t it? IMG_8554 I do, however, draw the line at competing with virtual strangers on the app, although that’s not to say that I don’t find it interesting to see how I compare to other women who ride the same routes. As I mainly seem to ride with men and often trail at the back, it’s quite reassuring to know that I’m actually not doing too badly. I don’t ‘follow’ anyone on Strava and I don’t set out to beat anyone else’s records (except on Spooky Wood!) although it is always quite satisfying to get a ‘Queen of the Mountain’, even if it is on a completely random section of road or trail. These days my competitive urges are generally satisfied by competing with myself, and I really only use Strava as a tool to measure and improve my own performance. There’s no doubt that being able to compare my performance with that of others makes it more interesting though. However, fitness tracking apps do have their limitations and are nowhere near as accurate as using a computer. There are times when I know I’ve ridden a section fast and it doesn’t even register in my feed, and others where it hasn’t felt so good, yet I’ve apparently earned a PB. It doesn’t happen often but the odd glitch is enough for disillusionment to set in. Interested to know just how accurate the data collected by Strava is, I got Dan to time my descent of Spooky Wood by stop watch and compared it to the time awarded by Strava. The stop watch time was 3.40 minutes whereas Strava clocked it as 3.18 minutes – quite a difference. IMG_8626Perhaps the best example of its unreliability was when I forgot to stop the clock after a mountain biking session at Glentress and only realised half way through the drive back to Edinburgh, by which time my average speed had increased from 16 to 60 km/h, and I’d supposedly burned off thousands of calories. Needless to say I got lots of ‘Queen of the Mountains’ that day! Don’t worry though, fellow Stravaholics, I surrendered them. I think a much better outlet for my competitive streak might be to enter more events. Despite having plans to enter an Enduro this summer and at least one other sportive, I’ve only managed the Bealach Beag sportive in May. I really enjoy organised events and definitely get spurred on by riding with other people. And, unlike my five-year-old self, I keep my elbows firmly tucked in, unless, of course, I’m on a mountain bike where elbow sticking out is acceptable. Fitness tracking apps are a great way to log your rides and analyze your performance, but should never be taken too seriously. As with anything in today’s increasingly web-based society, competing against actual people is much more fun and rewarding than striving to beat a virtual stranger, especially when there’s every chance they’ve done it in a car anyway!

*Other fitness tracking apps are available!

What do you think of fitness tracking apps? Do you use them? 

Mountain Biking at Gisburn Forest

IMG_7889On a recent trip to Liverpool we took a detour through the Ribble Valley to ride the mountain bike trails at Gisburn Forest. I’d heard good things about Gisburn and couldn’t wait to check it out. It was a gorgeous day and the drive there through the Lancashire countryside was stunning.

Like most of the UK’s main trail centres, Gisburn Forest is run by the Forestry Commission and has a very similar feel to my stomping ground of Glentress. The trails are expertly built and maintained, and the facilities excellent.

IMG_7892We decided to take the red trail, ‘The 8’, an 18km long figure of eight route with optional black sections. Unusually, in my experience at least, it started off with a short downhill section. It was quite nice to have a little downhill blast without even having to earn it first, but once we got to the bottom the climbing began.

I actually enjoy climbing, especially when it’s up meandering trails through the forest. The climb sections of ‘The 8’ at Gisburn were particularly good, with lots of steps, dips and rocky sections to keep it interesting. There’s a pretty steep stretch of fire road half way up, which can feel a bit relentless, especially if you want to ride the Hope Line (a short downhill section with berms, rollers, tabletops and drop offs), which means you have to do it twice!

IMG_7893Once you get to the top of the steep section, you’re not only rewarded with the option of riding the Hope Line, but also beautiful views of Bowland Forest and the Ribble Valley. Continue up the trail and you soon arrive at a quarry where the trail takes you over solid rock and features built from massive slabs. Shortly after, you hit the Sheep Hill boardwalk section. Unlike smooth Northshore sections that you just cruise along, the boardwalk at Gisburn is made from rough, uneven planks that you actually have to concentrate on riding if you don’t want to risk falling off! Good fun though.

Hully Gully - Ian CawthorneFurther on you arrive at Whelpstone Crag with its weird stone formations and plenty of good technical black sections to challenge more advanced riders. It’s here you’ll find ‘Bigfoot Slab’, a short, steep section of trail made entirely from, you guessed it, massive slabs. It’s one of the things to do at Gisburn and tends to attract crowds of people either psyching themselves up to do it or just watching others give it a go. We decided to give it a miss but will definitely do it another time when it’s not so busy.

The other main attraction is Hully Gully, which you arrive at soon afterwards. This section of trail is certainly worthy of its acclaim as it’s unlike anything I’ve ever ridden. It consists of a series of swooping, exaggerated berms that plunge down one side of the gully and up the other. It’s about as close to a rollercoaster as you’ll get on a bike and is such good fun you want to do it again and again. Sadly we only had time to do it once, so that’s another good reason I’ll be heading back there as soon as possible.

IMG_7899Continuing on, there’s a fun, albeit gentler, swooping section through more forest, followed by a trail with a series of log skinnies, some of which are pretty challenging. By this point the best of the route is over, but it’s a pleasant cruise back to the car park nonetheless.

With its varied terrain that’s both technical and fun, plus some great features, ‘The 8’ at Gisburn is without a doubt one of the best trails I’ve ridden to date. And to top it off, the scenery is absolutely stunning too. Can’t wait to go back!

Where’s your favourite place to go mountain biking? Let me know below as I’m always looking for new places to ride!

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Blood, sweat and low gears

As is often the case with these things, I agreed to sign up for the Bealach Beag cycle sportive in the pub after a few drinks. The fact that I’d only acquired a road bike a couple of months earlier and hadn’t ventured much further than the cycle paths of Edinburgh did make me a little apprehensive about the prospect of taking part in a 43 mile event in the Scottish Highlands alongside a load of serious cyclists, but Dutch courage and reassurances that “it’s only a short one” eventually twisted my arm.

The gruelling but stunning climb up Bealach na Bà

The gruelling but stunning climb up Bealach na Bà

I do remember some mutterings about there being a steep climb but my other half assured me that it’d be no worse than anything I’d done on a mountain bike. Given that he took me round the black route at Glentress on my first ever mountain biking excursion though, I probably should have been highly suspicious.

The next day a sobering email appeared in my inbox confirming my entry. I had two months. Time to get training.

Initial preparation involved relentlessly hitting the streets, not so much clocking up the miles on the bike, but rather searching for the perfect pair of cycling shorts and all the other paraphernalia that I’d need to at least look the part.

I did of course get out on the bike too, although by the time the race came around the furthest I’d cycled was 35 miles, with hill training amounting to little more than a few laps of Arthur’s Seat.

Team photo at the top of Bealach na Bà

Team photo at the top of Bealach na Bà

At no time in weeks preceding the event did I think to check out just exactly what I’d signed up for, which was probably just as well, or I may well have pulled out! Had I Googled it, I’d have seen headlines such as “nightmare ride on Bealach na Bà too much to handle…” or images reminiscent of the type of road your car would struggle up en route to an alpine ski resort. At 43 miles Bealach Beag may be a relatively short cycle sportive but what it lacks in length, it more than makes up for in vertical climb. The route encompasses the infamous Bealach na Bà, which climbs 2053ft in 6 miles and is the toughest road climb in the UK.

Fortunately I was still oblivious to this fact before we set off although alarm bells did start to ring when, on chatting to a fellow road biking newbie, she confessed that a recce by car the previous evening to sus out the climb had reduced her to tears. Her admission nearly did the same to me, particularly as we’d spent the previous evening “carb loading” in the local pub.


Beautiful Applecross

The first ten miles of the course were pleasantly easy and in no time at all we were “dibbing in” to start the climb up Bealach na Bà, which was timed separately to the overall route. The first couple of miles of the climb also felt reassuringly, or as it turned out, misleadingly easy, and for a while I was starting to wonder what all the fuss was about. Needless to say, I soon found out. The gradient started to increase gradually and before long I was on my lowest gear, wishing that I had more than an 8 speed set up, particularly as I could now see what lay ahead. I tried to focus on the road in front of me but couldn’t help but notice the road ahead that snaked right up as far as I could see. And when I say snaked, I actually mean zig zagged, as these were proper alpine style switchbacks. If I looked right up to the highest point I could see the tiny silhouettes of the leaders on the horizon, so I looked down and tried to pretend I was nearly there.

Useful info!

Event info!

I’m not one to shy away from physical exertions but I can honestly say that climb was the hardest I’ve ever pushed my body. I was off the saddle for most of it and had to push down with all my might on every single stroke of the pedal. My only comfort was the fact that I was by no means alone and there were many around me who were faring a lot worse. I managed to push past several blokes on fancy bikes, which was quite satisfying and probably even spurred me on. Towards the top a man in front’s legs appeared to buckle and he suddenly swerved all over the place, hitting the rim of my tyre in the process and knocking me off. Fortunately, other than a couple of scrapes, I was unscathed and got back on even more determined to get to the top than before. After what felt like an eternity, but was actually only around 45 minutes (only), the gradient decreased and I was able to crank the gears back up and power on to the very welcome sight of the water station at the summit.

After a brief pause to catch our breath, take a team photo (amateurs) and reflect on what we’d just done, we set off down the other side. I don’t think I’ve ever gone from being so hot to so cold in such a short space of time, but it felt so good to be flying downhill that I didn’t care. As we came down into Applecross bay I was finally able to appreciate just how stunning the scenery was, particularly now that the sun had made an appearance.

IMG_7324We’d thought that now the mega-climb was out of the way, the rest of the route would be plain sailing, but we were wrong. Although there was nothing anywhere near as relentless as the Bealach na Bà climb, the undulating coastal road around the Applecross peninsula proved to be almost as challenging, with its seemingly endless series of climbs and all-too-brief descents gradually sucking the life out of our increasingly tired legs.

When the town of Sheildaig eventually came back into view I could not have been happier, and when we got to a signpost indicating that there was only one mile to go I actually shouted for joy.

It felt amazing to finish, even if I did feel pretty wobbly when I got off my bike. I’d managed to achieve my goal of keeping up with the boys all the way round and in doing so managed to get a pretty decent time for a noob. I now can’t wait to do another, although I probably won’t be joining the boys in the epic Bealach Mor sportive in September, which follows the same route but is twice as long. Unless, of course, I get talked into it at the pub!