In preparation for our upcoming feature on Nan Bield in issue 97 of Singletrack (out 30th April – You’ve subscribed right?), here’s a contrasting tale of total Nan Bield failure.
First published 2013
Dave and Mark get their fingers windburnt in the company of Bionicon’s UK main man, Roger Seal. What good is an adventure without an inclement weather forecast, anyway?
An invitation to try out a company’s bikes in the UK that didn’t involve a trail centre sounded good to us. ‘You may want to bring pads’, added Bionicon’s Roger Seal. ‘I’ve got this route in mind I’ve been wanting to do for a while…’.
An early start gets us to the prearranged meeting point of Wilf’s in Staveley with enough time to squeeze in one last coffee and a bit of flapjack while we talk over the day’s plan. The plan? A simple one. Complete a route that Roger has been jonesing to do; the pass-storming Nan Bield/Gatesgarth Loop. It’ll also give us a good opportunity to test ride the Bionicon Generation 2 bikes: the Alva 160 and Alva 180 Air in suitably mountainous terrain. There’s the small matter of an unimpressive, veering towards storm warning, weather forecast which could push the venture firmly into epic territory. In all honesty though, from the warm and dry setting of Wilf’s riverside cafe it’s fair to say we’re firmly leaning towards the ‘it’ll be reet’ optimistic outlook.
Go with what you know.
We park up at the top end of Kentmere and begin fitting pedals and fettling test bikes. I make a quick move for the Alva 180 which is kitted out with the more familiar 2×10 and a dropper post. It’s also a bit more downhill-orientated than its 160mm sibling, which I figure is going to make the techy descents off both passes that little bit more enjoyable. For the first part of the ride it’s going to stay firmly in low front end, climbing mountain goat mode, so after a quick play up and down the road with the suspension adjustment the forks get depressed to adjust the bike for a steeper and more ascent-friendly head tube angle.
Mark meanwhile defaults to the Alva 160, a bike Bionicon aims more at the ‘one bike for everything’ crowd. It’s a bit lighter and designed more for the German mountain ‘tour’ rider and Transalp racer, than the more gravity-focused 180. Both bikes feature low bottom brackets and Bionicon’s ‘HyperX’ system, which promises to eliminate pedal bob when the bike is in climbing mode. With the planned route I’m hoping we’ll get plenty of opportunity to test both the bikes’ climbing and descending prowess.
The sheltered valley start proves to be a nice quick warm up as we spin along the rocky doubletrack. Although technically spring, it’s feeling much more like a late winter day and pads are donned as much for the thermal benefits of an extra layer as for any protection they offer. While it’s calmish down in the valley, the clouds are fair scudding along over the mountain tops. But the dark clouds, rough and empty rocky trail and remnants of snow high on the fellside just lend themselves to the wilder and more desolate feeling of these eastern fells as we chat and head on up the valley.
It’s a quiet Tuesday morning and Roger invokes the special midweek access ruling, seeing as we’ve got the place to ourselves.We haven’t seen a soul since leaving the cars. Roger, it seems, has a better plan than taking the obvious bridleway that climbs the hillside to the pass in the distance. Instead we follow a lovely bit of singletrack that flows along above the river; short little drops and climbs proving technical challenges to riding technique, balance and suspension action. The wind is on our backs, the day is young and all is good.
As we gain height the wind keeps getting incrementally stronger. It’s not that noticeable at first but when we reach the reservoir the overflowing water is being picked up and blown back the way it came, like some sort of natural perpetual motion phenomenon. I’m fairly sure that’s not on the Beaufort scale. It’s the first clue that there may be a bit of weather building up and coming our way. As we hit the more exposed track around the reservoir the wind is letting its full force be felt. At first we’re getting accelerated along, a sort of bonus no-effort propulsion, like a horizontal gravitational pull that’s helping us make swift progress. But as the trail curves around the lake, that assistance takes on a different nature as gusts threaten to blow us off our bikes or throw us into the hillside we’re riding along. It makes for sketchy riding but we just suck it up and carry on.
Good mountain sense dictates that plans are changed to allow for variables like weather. But good mountain sense has not visited with us just yet. We’re still on a mission and Roger is focused on completing the ride he’s travelled up from Bristol to do. The trail has petered out to a faint hint of something vaguely path-like through the boggy tussock grass. Some people would turn back at this point but I recognise a lot of myself in Roger’s need to keep going. As friends would attest, I’m always up for a bit of vague hike-a-bike if there’s the promise of something good to ride at the other end.
Roger heads off, I happily follow and I’m fairly sure a little bit of Mark dies inside. I don’t think he’s feeling the love.
The truth? You can’t handle the truth…
The truth is, there is no path. But Roger is sure he’s headed up one here in the past and I’m happy enough with that to follow him. Head down, dig in and push on. There’s a fair way to go before we’re going to hit the obvious line of the bridleway far above our starting point. We’re being buffeted by the wind – if buffeted means nearly getting blown clean over to the point you have to crouch with your head down behind the bike. It’s getting a little bit crazy, truth be told and while part of me is starting to admit the possibility of defeat, starting to see the sense in heading back, part of me wants to carry on and complete the route despite the inherent craziness of attempting to ride both passes in such dodgy conditions. Or just maybe it’s because of it. Nothing ventured nothing gained, or something like that anyway…
My abiding memory of this ride is of Roger marching on impervious to the deteriorating weather and increasing wind speed. I admire his determination, his focus on a dream, his need to complete this route he’s travelled here to do. I’ve been in that same position and know just how it feels. It keeps me happy to tread on behind him, one hand on the saddle, one hand on the bars; pushing the bike over tussock after tussock and lifting over gullies and other obstacles.
After what seems like a decent amount of time spent hauling and climbing we hit the bridleway that heads on to Nan Bield. As we regroup it’s time to face the facts. With the wind roaring through the pass above and gusts hitting 60mph, it may be time to reassess the viability of the planned loop. Faced with trying to negotiate an insane-sounding wind funnel of a pass or heading back down the somewhat more enticing flowy and rocky bridleway that drops back to the cars, we take the only sensible option.
A quick press of the magic Bionicon button on the handlebars converts our mountain goats into mountain hooners. Front travel increases, angles slacken and we’re ready for the downhill. I use the photographer’s prerogative of ‘needing to get set up for photos’ to get a clear run at blasting down the first section of trail, with 180mm of all mountain travel and a Maxxis Minion up front making the most of the high speed descent. It’s important at this point I keep reminding myself we need photos, because the temptation to keep up the speed and just blast down is high. As it turns out there’s a certain braking effect during stronger gusting episodes, which encourages the need to stop and shoot.
The traverse section is brutal with a headwind that necessitates the need for spinny climbing gears. It’s feeling like the route back down to the cars will need just as much energy expended as the route that led us out here. More time spent with heads down just grinding on. Brief interludes between the gusts where speed picks up and we all fall victim to front wheel-eating boggy holes but we’re laughing now, both with relief and partly because the end is in sight. The descent is a belter, with short technical rock chutes and stepped sections which keep you focused and pleased when you clean them.
The rock sections keep on giving all the way until the valley bottom. I’m happy we turned back because it would have been a shame to miss this. A ride is never over ‘til it’s over though and as Roger drops into the final section it’s obvious that something’s wrong by his jerky pedalling. As we drop to the gate below, his freehub finally gives up the ghost, dying into permanent freewheel. We reflect on how this would have changed the rest of the ride if we’d managed to get over Nan Bield on the spin (and push) back to the cars. It’s been a wild ride, it’s been a good ride and a memorable one to boot. I’m pleased that Roger’s already planning for a rematch later in the year before we’ve even packed the bikes away.
I reckon I’m up for that.
With thanks to Roger and Bionicon.