I love biking in the snow. The landscape and trails change so dramatically in such a short time, and its great to ride snow-covered trails that you’ve already ridden in rain, wind, sun, baking heat, and whatever else we put up with (enjoy).
On this occasion, the drifts were a bit bigger than I’d expected, but it was still a great ride.
Being a mountain biker means travelling a lot. Unless you happen to live in the Scottish highlands, or in North Wales, you don’t tend to have huge amounts of trails on your doorstep. And even if you do, who wants to ride the same trails all the time?
So, we drive. A lot. We get up early on a saturday morning and load bikes and kit into a car or van and set off in search of trail gold.
But what’s the best sort of vehicle to use if you’re a mountain biker? I’ve had fast cars, new cars, old cars, small cars, big cars, and vans. I also used to drive tractors, but they’re a bit slow and unless you count a trailer, don’t have much storage space.
Currently, I drive a ford focus estate. It’s awesome. It’s a few years old so i don’t worry about the odd scratch and scuff, and I can get a full suspension mountain bike inside without taking the wheels off and still pile all my kit in. With the front bike wheels off, you can easily get two bikes and two people in, plus kit. It does over 50mpg because it’s a diesel.
The estate version of the focus has a flat boot, so there’s no lip to get the bikes and kit over when loading or unloading, and the rear with the boot up provides a good sheltered seat to get changed if the weather’s not too bad. There are also some handy little compartments in the boot that are useful for storing tools and/or food.
Previously, I’ve had a lovely Audi A3. Brand new, company car. Climate control, leather and incredible sound system. Bloody nightmare. Constantly worried about scratching it, and had to use a bike rack, which means you can’t leave it anywhere unattended, and your fuel economy drops pretty drastically. Gorgeous car, and great to drive, but completely impractical for someone who wants to put dirty kit and people inside it, and dirty bikes on the rack on it.
On a trip to Scotland once, we hired a transit van. This was pretty awesome, to be honest. We got about 8 bikes and lots of kit in, although it took some working out, and careful arrangement of fork stanchions and blankets…
Three people in the front, and we were sorted for a road trip (the other guys went in a car). However, you can’t get from the cab to the rear of the van because of the bulkhead, and the fuel economy isn’t great.
Now, what about this? A pickup truck. We saw this in Wales on a recent trip to llandegla. I doubt it’s road legal. Anyhow, a pickup truck is great for biking, but do you ever actually need to drive off-road? I’ve been mountain biking for most of my life, and I’ve never actually needed to drive off-road – that’s what the mountain bike is for. Of course, it’d be amazing for shuttle runs…
I have to say however, there are some beautiful VW caddys around, but who could risk chucking a mountain bike in the back of this beauty?
To be honest, the best vehicle I’ve ever had was this Mercedes Vito. I genuinely loved driving it because it handled so well, and it’s perfect for short or long trips with the bike(s). With split front seats and a row of seats behind that you can also split and remove one, it means you can get from the drivers seat into the back of the van perfectly easily. I’ve had four people and four bikes, plus kit, comfortably in the vito.
If the weather is bad, it’s easy to get changed inside before the ride, and even do some pre-ride mechanical checks and lube the chain and stuff. After a ride, the rear door lifts up to provide some shelter from the rain (or sun..?), and you can chuck the bikes in before hopping in yourself to get into dry clothes without doing that ridiculous manoeuvre of trying to get changed in the seats of a car without giving yourself cramp. Also, it’s rear wheel drive, and that always means a little extra fun.
On Tuesday 10 May 2011, a bunch of mates and I biked up Ben Nevis, and back down again. We’d been planning it for quite some time, as we’d previously mountain biked Snowdon, and it got us thinking about the next level.
We knew Nevis would be a much bigger challenge, especially with bad weather, but given we’d had terrible weather when we did Snowdon, we figured ourselves fairly well prepared for it. Planned as part of our mountain biking Scotland 2011 8-day riding trip, we sandwiched the Nevis ascent between a couple of days biking Glentress and Innerleithen, and the rest of the trip afterwards that included Fort William DH and XC, Laggan, Golspie, and Balblair.
Snowdon’s summit is at 1085 metres above sea level, and took us 2.5 hours to climb on mountain bikes, up the Ranger’s path (which starts around 50m above sea level). Ben Nevis is 1344 metres above sea level.
We stayed at the Ben Nevis bunkhouse, which is conveniently sited right at the start of the trail up the mountain. The night before, we prepared well, by having a big dinner at the Ben Nevis Inn, and sinking quite a few local beers. We also discussed safety, made sure we each had maps, knew the route, and had the right kit, including waterproofs, layers, walkie-talkies, first aid kits, whistles, torches, spares, tools, tubes, food, drink, and something to celebrate with at the summit…
On the day, the weather was poor, but not terrible. Some wind, and some rain, but not torrential, and not too cold, so we kitted up and set off around 11am. Just a few pedal strokes from the inn, we found ourselves pushing and carrying our bikes, which was to be the style for the next few hours. The first section, up to the lake at 570m, is stepped and rocky, with rocks worn smooth by years of walking boots passing by. This was pretty tough stuff to carry bikes up, as the steps are just that bit too big for a wheel to roll up. Those of us with heavy full-suspension bikes were struggling a bit compared to the guys with light hardtails. We passed one poor chap who looked in a pretty poor condition, and Joe kindly provided him with some painkillers so he could make it the rest of the way down after hurting his leg earlier on.
We both passed, and overtook a few groups of hikers, and almost each and every one expressed some form of surprise or disbelief that we were biking up there. One very hairy and Scottish trail maintenance guy described us as “fucking hardcore”.
We had a few stops to regroup, and got to the lake within two hours, I believe. From there, there actually is a bit of riding for a while, and as long as you can hop the drainage gullies, you can get a reasonable ride out of it. Soon, however, it begins to steepen, and get considerably looser, so that even if you could find the strength to climb on the bike, I doubt you’d find the traction. This is where the trail begins to zig-zag up the mountain, and the loose scree, rocks and pebbles make it tough going, so you’re either pushing the bike and frequently slipping your footing, or lifting the bike up and over the boulders in your path. It’s more punishing for your arms than your legs.
The cloud level must have been about 850-900m on this day, so visibility was poor – we could easily see the path ahead of us (usually), but we never saw any decent panoramic views across the mountains. Up here, even in May, there was quite a bit of snow, and the temperature noticeably dropped. We could tell we were nearing the summit when we came across a 100-metre stretch of deep snow to climb, which required innovative technique to haul a bike up and not slip back down with every step. Once over the snow, it’s a gradual loose scree path winding up to the summit, avoiding the two nasty looking gullies to the north. The summit itself felt somehow even colder, quite suddenly, so we all very quickly climbed up onto the cairn with our bikes, took the appropriate photos, and got back down to find some shelter to have a quick snack before the descent.
Mark celebrated his ascent with a can of very Scottish BrewDog punk IPA, while I preferred the more traditional slug of whisky from my hip flask. That combined with a more sensible Torq energy bar and gel, prepared us for the descent. This was the bit that I was most looking forward to.
Imagine one of the most technical downhill trails you’ve ridden. Now imagine it with extra rocks and loose scree, at around minus 15C, wet, windy, and tired. Now imagine you’re nearly 1.5km above sea level, and where you’re heading is just 20m above.
Until you’ve warmed into the descent, it’s quite tricky, and easy to pick a wrong line, slip the tyre, or grab too much brake, but once you’ve warmed into it, it becomes actually quite flowing. The descent through the snow simply requires a little speedway-style foot-out drifting down, using the rear brake and foot to modulate your speed. Once over that, and into the zig-zags, you can let go a little, but with cold fingers and bad arm-pump, the constant braking becomes hard work indeed, so the stops to regroup and wait for the slower riders to catch up involve quite a bit of arm-waving, clapping, and fist clenching to bring the blood back and loosen / warm up.
Down to the lake, you can pick up some quite high speed, which is probably unwise this high up, so careful braking and gentle turns are the name of the game, watching out for the drainage gullies that are just wide enough to drop a front wheel into. From the lake for the next 300m or so down is certainly not rideable in the wet, with tired arms, as the steps are big and close together. A good trials rider could do it, and a skilled downhiller might be able to nail a few sections in the dry, but it wasn’t to be on this day.
As a final treat, Ben Nevis provides an awesome and fast last 10 minutes of trail back to the Inn. Rocky, fast, technical, switching, and unpredictable, this section rewards a fast rider with kickers over mini-rock gardens, drops into turns, and enough pump to build up insane speed without pedalling. Through the gate, and we were back at the bunkhouse, where our good friend was waiting with hot coffee, dry towels, and more beer.
Note: the photos aren’t quite in the correct order, but you’ll work it out.
Last weekend (30 October 2010), we biked up Snowdon.
We’d been planning it for a while, and used facebook to organise the trip – it turned out to be 9 of us, so we booked and stayed at the Eagles bunkhouse in penmachno, which is a great place to stay if you’re in the area, and want somewhere cheap to use as a base for whatever outdoor activities you’ve got planned. It’s basically above/in the Eagles pub, so the evenings are usually spent drinking good welsh ale. They don’t serve food at the pub though, so we ate at a pub down the road called the silver fountain (and I can recommend the HUGE gammon steaks).
On the day of the ride, we set off a little later than planned and had a little bit of trouble finding the correct car park, but found it in the end (The rangers’ station car park, near Rhyd-du). It was raining, and it’s pretty difficult, psychologically, to start a ride in the rain, but it soon tailed off and we got our stuff together and set off. We were well kitted up, with waterproofs, lots of layers, food, drink, first aid kits and lots of mobile phones.
We chose to ride the rangers path, as it’s shorter, but harder, and there was likely to be quite a few people on the llanberis pass, many of whom might not appreciate moving out of the way for a bunch of mountain bikers. The first 30 minutes of the ride was steep, but rideable, with only the odd small section where it was necessary to get off and push or climb. Incidentally, I was carrying a cracked rib from a stupid crash in the peak district a week before, and found that out-of-the-saddle climbing hurt quite a bit, so mostly I’d sit and spin up. Further up, the trail essentially turned into a stream, with water up to 6 inches deep, and technical rocks underneath. This was where it turned into real mountain biking, and you could neither let off the power, or lose concentration – really good fun.
At some point, though i forget how far we had come, we got to where the cloud was hanging down, and it was also the point where it was no longer possible to ride. From here on in, it was 90% pushing, lifting, and carrying the bikes up and over the rocks. Those with light xc bikes, or who were particularly strong, could carry their bikes on their backs, but most of us just opted to push and pull our bikes. Slower – but less painful.
After another half hour or so, the wind really picked up, and it was possible to see the clouds whipping through the valley at incredible speed. Shortly after that, we had rain, and shortly after that, hail. The hail was the worst – strong, bitter wind at 90 degrees to the trail, flinging hailstones hard at you, while you’re struggling to push the bike just a few feet up some rocks. In terms of pure difficulty, it was some of the hardest “biking” I’ve ever done, and there were times when we would just look at each other with a kind of “What the hell are we doing?!” look on our faces.
With visibility terribly poor – between 20 feet and 50 feet, depending on the thickness of the cloud at the time, we never really knew how far we’d come, or how far we’d have to go, but when we reached the train line, we knew we were nearly there, and it also levelled out a bit, with a few sections actually rideable. It was much busier here though, so it was slower going, having to pass a lot of walkers on their way to the summit. We got quite a few funny looks, and lost count of the number of times people asked “You rode your bikes up here?!”
Rather suddenly, we were at the summit, and while it was heaving with walkers, we still managed to get our bikes up onto the triangulation point (we were damned if we were getting our bikes all the way up there and not to the top!), and took some photos. The ascent had taken us just over two hours.
We all then had some sort of hot drink and a bite to eat at the snowdon cafe, added a base layer or two as it was definitely getting colder, and got ready to head back down. As there was a far higher risk of crashes on the descent, we planned to regroup regularly to ensure we didn’t lose anyone (though we nearly lost someone in the first few minutes, due to some confusion about whether they’d seen us head down).
Around 90% of the descent, if not more, is rideable – more so if it’s dry, I’d guess. And with only one or two minor spills, a couple of stops to regroup, it took us not much over 20 minutes to ride down. The trail had definitely collected more water, and we were soaked pretty quickly once we got to the wet sections. It’s a fantastic descent though, and some sections are really fast, while others take a bit more low-speed technical riding. Most of the walkers we passed were very good natured and let us pass easily, though there was a small minority who didn’t appreciate us being there – though I don’t know if they’re aware that bikes are permitted on Snowdon at this time of year.
Sorting ourselves out again at the car park, there was already a lot of talk about which mountain to do next time…