The Week In Riding:

After taking a few days off the bike, followed by a couple of shorter days to ease the legs back into it, I embarked on my biggest ever week of riding. I wanted to do a run of back-to-back long rides to see how my body adapted to the build up of fatigue. Having historically always stuck to a pretty regimented training plan, where I would take a recovery day every three days on average, I’m not that accustomed to getting back on the bike day after day and riding very long hours again and again. It definitely takes a shift in mindset, and an ability to keep going even when the legs tell you they’ve had enough. The enjoyment somehow increased throughout this block, even through the moments of exhaustion. The feeling of pushing through a challenge is its own unique type of fun.

From past experience of stage races, and a couple of bike packing trips over the years, I knew that there was a pattern I could expect. I always find the first day pretty easy if I do it right, on the second I often feel strangely better, then the third is a struggle, the fourth hurts, and by the fifth it just becomes the new normal. Starting the ride feeling tired no longer phases me, I almost don’t think about it at all, and a routine has been established that the body adapts to surprisingly quickly.

Then came the sixth day, and I would say that this one had its fair share of rookie errors. I’d spent the previous couple of days feeling so much better than expected that I started to get a bit cocky, and somehow convinced myself I was still flying. I set off fairly fast, and continued to ride a lot harder then I should have for a good five hours. I know all about pacing, and the need to ride within yourself in the early stages of any kind of ride or effort, and yet I clearly don’t always take advantage of that knowledge. The opening hours of the ride took in thousands of metres of hard climbing, and by the halfway point I knew I was in trouble. To add insult to injury, I’d also woken up a bit sick that morning, and the riding didn’t help matters.

Rookie error number two was compounded by the heatwave we were experiencing. I had barely managed to eat all day, but that wasn’t even the biggest issue. It was around 30 degrees for the whole ride, and I forgot to take any water purification tablets. Given that I was already a bit unwell, I definitely wasn’t going to risk drinking dirty water. I passed rivers and streams throughout the whole ride, and as dehydration set in it was torture to not be able to use any of it.

I was kicking myself for a good amount of time before I pulled myself together and focused on getting home. It wasn’t pretty, and it certainly wasn’t fast in the closing kms, but there was a sense of achievement in pushing through the pain. Wallowing in self pity never helped anyone, and I learnt a couple of good lessons along the way.

Route Of The Week:

I planned on putting a really long ride in this week’s blog, but all of the routes I did this week were fairly challenging to map. Along with lots of exploration, there were also a fair amount of wrong turns, corrections, and accidental forays into Wales. Living on the border has made riding long slightly more difficult, and trying not to cross the invisible divide hasn’t always been successful.

Instead, I’ve been busy trying out a new and improved version of the Cross Cartel Spring Challenge (now rescheduled for the Autumn) route recently. It’s got a couple of awesome new gravel sections, and has become a favourite short ride as of late. I’ve ridden it dozens of times since lockdown started, and I never tire of it. As someone who generally gets bored of routes pretty quickly, I guess that shows how good this one is.

Tech Of The Week:

Given that we’ve experienced the full range of weather in the past couple of weeks, I thought this would be a good time to talk about tyres. From torrential rain and thunderstorms, to a heatwave; the conditions have varied a lot recently. Some days it’s been bone dry and dusty out there, and others it’s been back to deep mud and slippery trails.

Since getting into off-road riding I’ve tried out a ridiculous number of tyres in a short time. I’m fortunate to have access to a wide range of brands (thanks to Epic Cycles) and so have the luxury of swapping them pretty regularly. Whether that’s because the conditions have changed, I’ve worn them out, or I try a tread that doesn’t perform well, it’s been good to experiment and find what works best for me.

The tyre that strikes the best balance between the fastest rolling speed, and appropriate grip for the conditions, is always the winner for me. I would take a more robust tyre over a lighter one most of the time, and I always ride tubeless on the gravel. I’ve lost track of the amount of punctures I’ve avoided thanks to sealant, and so far I haven’t had to experience the downsides of changing a tubeless tyre on a ride. Over thousands of km’s, zero punctures is a pretty good number.

It’s no good having a smoother tyre that flies along the road sections if you can’t stay upright on the rough stuff, but equally you don’t want to add extra resistance to your ride when it’s unnecessary. A happy medium can be tricky to find, but it’s worth searching for.  A few of my favourites for varying conditions are listed below, but make sure to check your bikes tyre clearance before embarking on any new purchases.  Don’t forget (roadies take a deep breath) it’s perfectly fine to mix and match different tyres, from different brands, front and rear.

MUDDY – Maxxis Ravager – easy to set up tubeless and outstandingly grippy in the deepest of mud.  Not too draggy on paved roads and great over loose rocks.  The perfect winter gravel tyre.

SLIGHTLY LESS MUDDY – WTB Resolute – reasonably easy to set up tubeless, and a bit faster rolling than the Ravagers, but not quite as grippy in mud or on loose surfaces.

ALL ROUND (ROUGHER GROUND) – WTB Nano – the black walled version is tough, and they come up quite big (so won’t fit in some frames) which gives a fast rolling ride over rough ground, with decent grip in all but proper mud, good performance on tarmac and a decent amount of shock absorption.

ALL ROUND (MID) – Panaracer Gravel King SK – fast and light, easy to set up tubeless and available in a huge range of sizes, including 650b. Great 3-season all rounder over slightly less challenging surfaces.

ALL ROUND (DRIER) – WTB Riddler – light and quick in drier conditions.  An ideal summer tyre, but with enough grip to keep you in control if it gets a bit damp or the surface is a little loose.

650B MUDDY – WTB Sendero – big diameter tyres with huge amounts of grip. Not the fastest rolling on smoother surfaces, but excellent when things get really challenging.

My only other advice is to be careful with pressure. Coming from a road background, and growing up with the old-school practice of ‘more is better’ when it comes to pumping up tyres, I definitely put a lot too much pressure in them at first. Not only does this massively reduce grip, but it also makes for a very uncomfortable ride.

In The Next Installment:

In the spirit of making rookie mistakes at a time when there are no consequences, I’ll be trying out some new things in the next week. After much deliberation, consultation and advice, I’ve decided on my GBDuro bike setup, and the fine tuning will be happening in the coming days. Given that I might need to do emergency fixes while I’m going solo, I’ll be making sure my mechanical skills are polished before I head off into the unknown.

Along with bike tinkering, and some more long hours in the saddle, I’ll also be having my first camp-outs in the garden. Not only do I need to make sure my equipment choices are the right ones for me and that I am totally familiar with setting up camp, I also need to be at ease with sleeping under the stars. A someone who has never camped alone, or in the true wild, or in any capacity at all in my adult life, it isn’t a natural place for me to be. That being said, I want to show that you don’t have to have grown up in the great outdoors to be able to do these things.