Sanny waxes lyrical about the latest edition of the UK’s definitive fat bike gathering, Forth Fat
What is the collective noun for a large group of fat bikers? A chubby? A flump? A chunk. Given the amount of facial hair on display (but thankfully no man buns so beloved of the Hipster), I would respectfully suggest a beard. The brainchild of fat bike aficionado and connoisseur of cider, Bruce Mathieson, Forth Fat is now in its fourth year.
What started as a ride among a group of friends has morphed into something rather special where riders from across the UK and beyond gather on the east coast of Scotland to ride the beaches and trails of North Berwick with like-minded folk. With nary a race number in sight, the vibe is definitely one of chilled out bonhomie.
Friday – The Gathering
With riders coming from far and wide, Friday night is the official starting point for the weekend. While several folk took the opportunity to arrive early and ride the shoreline and slopes of Berwick Law, a distinctive volcanic plug that dominates the skyline of North Berwick, most arrived at the campsite on the outskirts of the town over the course of the evening before heading down to Steampunk coffee shop, our centre of operations for the evening.
To kick things off, Carl Hutchens of In2dust, importers of Squirt chain products, gave an engrossing talk on his experiences of riding fat bikes in the Yukon as a competitor in Iditabike.
To top up on fuel for the next day, The Big Blu pizza van was in town offering some truly excellent thin crust pizzas from the wood burning oven of their restored Citroen H Van. While one was good, two was definitely better and it didn’t take long for our hungry bunch to clean them out of pizza.
Suitably replete, we returned to the campsite only to discover that Kevin of Ghyllside Cycles in Ambleside had arrived with a fully operational beer keg set up in the back of his van with proper tap! I have seen many things when camping but this was a new one on me and one which garnered approval from the gathering crowd.
Saturday – the big ride out
As has now become customary, the assembled mass gathered at the Celtic Cross in the harbour for the big ride out to the dunes of Gullane and Aberlady Bay. Destination: two X-class mini-submarine wrecks which are part submerged and can only be visited at low tide.
With remarkable ease, Bruce demonstrated a hitherto hidden talent in cat herding, cajoling and encouraging folk to saddle up and actually leave on time!
No mean feat when you have over eighty people participating in pre-ride faff, taking pictures and blethering. I’m not quite sure what the good people of North Berwick made of the fat biker invasion as they moseyed on up the main street. There was a lot of oohing and aahing, pointing and small children laughing with cries of “Look at those wheels, Daddy! Can I get one?” Clearly, the youngsters of North Berwick have impeccable taste in bikes!
Leaving the masses, Ginger, our friend Iona and I opted for a more leisurely ride to the subs. For Iona, this ride was a very big deal indeed. Of all my riding buddies, Iona has to rank up there as the most nails that I know. The first woman to complete the Highland Trail 550, her cheery demeanour and love of biking hide a steely determination and can do attitude that she has honed over many years of touring and adventures with her partner, Rob.
However, a chance conversation with her in a pub back in 2014 talking about Jenn and her battle with cancer prompted her to visit her GP. A cough that wouldn’t go away proved to be something much more serious than just a cold as she found herself on the wrong end of six months of chemo and a very long ride back to recovery.
When I last rode with her back in February, she could only manage ten minutes on the bike. Two months later and she was going to attempt to ride from the subs back to North Berwick along the rocky shoreline.
As challenges go, it makes her achievement on the Highland Trail 550 pale into insignificance. Both physically and mentally, Iona was going to have to push herself harder and further than she had been able to do in a very long time. It was going to be really tough for her but we had a plan – lots of rest stops, plenty of food and drink in our bags and a new concept which Iona has been championing, the day bivvy. Think of it like an overnight bivvy but during the day, power kip style.
Hitting the trail, the first section of tree lined singletrack through John Muir Park was a beautiful start to the ride. Above us, swallows ducked and dived with effortless grace while the dusty trails made for easy progress on a pleasant Spring day. Arriving at the subs, we were left somewhat slack-jawed by the sheer number of people who had shown up for the ride.
With well over eighty riders on fat bikes and plus size bikes of all shapes and sizes and nationalities including Forth Fat veterans Tommy and Lars from the Netherlands as well as John and Alex from Surly who had flown over the pond just to attend, I was left slack-jawed by just how popular and mainstream fat biking has become.
Old friends greeted, pictures taken and food scoffed, we were soon on the trail back to North Berwick. Letting the assembled throng head off into the distance, Ginger, Iona and I took our time to meander and take in both the scenery and make the most of the technical trails on offer. Several stops were made as we travelled at what I like to call a more civilised pace.
The regular stops for food and a nap opened my eyes to the concept of slow travel. Taking our time, I was able to take in our surroundings in greater detail than ever before and really came to appreciate the details – the sound of the water lapping gently on the sand, the sea bird calls all around us, the flotsam and jetsam that littered the shoreline, the riot of colour from the delicate flowers hidden amongst the long sea grasses, the smell of pine in the warming afternoon sunshine – think biking done as an exercise in mindfulness.
However, more than anything, both Ginger and I were getting a huge kick from seeing our friend Iona enjoying herself on her bike again. Sporting what can impolitely be described as a sh*t eating grin, Iona was nailing it.
Riding is something that many of us just take for granted but seeing our friend back on her bike when at times she must have wondered whether she would be able to do so again was nothing short of brilliant.
It’s easy to be impressed by riders who travel huge distances and post comedy fast times on their latest grand adventure but for Ginger and me, we felt privileged and grateful to be riding with our friend. Distance and time were irrelevant. This was truly inspirational riding.
Long after the masses had reached the sanctuary of The Ship Inn for the post ride refreshments, the three of us rolled up the slipway onto the tarmac. Iona had done it! So how do you celebrate such a momentous achievement? Simples! Three enormous ice creams from the Gelateria, that’s how!
As we stuffed our faces, I contemplated getting a head tube badge made with the phrase “Iona the f*ck up!” We were all convinced by it until the following day when Iona met up with a friend who looked horrified at the suggestion and pointed out the importance of proper punctuation. On reflection, she had a very good point! “Just Iona the f*ck up!” it will have to be instead!
What followed was an evening of bonhomie, camp fires and snoring that reverberated across the campsite. Conversations ranged from everything from Star Wars to quantum mechanics and the nutritional merits of pork scratchings. As the skies darkened, everyone drifted off to their scratchers in preparation for next day of riding that beckoned.
Day Two – Biggerer and even betterer
If day one was the main course, day two was the triple helping of dessert. With the Big Chap Upstairs once again smiling upon us with sunshine, Bruce was determined to show the incredible variety of trails that the east coast of Scotland has to offer. However, before I even got started, I had the small matter of a flat front car tyre to deal with.
With air slowly leaking out through a hole in the sidewall, things were looking grim until my friend Stuarty popped up with a self-tapping screw, tyre sealant and the confident swagger of a man who has honed his car bodging experience over many years of owning and rebuilding Land Rovers. A bit of ingenuity saw us able to get the car to drive to a local garage to replace the tyre. We were back in business! Win!
Catching up with the assembled throng at our start and finish point for the ride, Whitekirk Golf Club, I was grateful that today’s ride start was a little less prompt. Starting with singletrack between recently seeded fields, we rode like Sandpeople (in single file to conceal our numbers), making our way to the world’s smallest harbour beneath Tantallon Castle.
Every time I ride here, I cannot help but be impressed by it. There is space for just one small Lobster boat. Nowadays, nobody would even contemplate building such a facility but it is testament to the tough east coasters that they cut and built it by hand all those years ago. It is just wonderfully bonkers and all the better for it.
Swapping sand and rocks for seaweed strewn bedrock, rock pools and wave ravaged shoreline, Day 2 is all about the tech. If you aren’t used to it, rock crawling can come as something of a shock. It is a skill that has to be learned.
For the experienced hands such as Bruce, seemingly impossible lines were tackled and conquered while for the less experienced, it was a lesson in honing riding skills.
By the end of the rocks, there was a feeling of elation in our band combined with an eagerness to continue. After the rocks came the dunes. Some fifty feet high, just clambering up them is a challenge while riding down looks deceptively easy but offers opportunity for comedy gold as sand collapses beneath tyre with nary any warning.
Previous years have seen broken limbs and comedy falls but this time round, in the words of BBC War Reporter Brian Hanrahan, I counted them all out and I counted them all back in.
Part three was the secret trail – a tank block strewn sliver of shoreline singletrack that wends and snakes its way through the trees on the very edge of the beach. The ground was baked solid which meant we were able to corner fast and hard. It was intoxicating fare.
Add in a short but steep climb onto a broad ridge of trail where the assembled masses stood to heckle / cheer (delete as appropriate) the riders who took up the challenge and the atmosphere was one of good-natured reverie. No Strava. No race numbers. Just fun!
So how do you top off such a weekend? Well, if you have Bruce as the organiser and Dave of local bike shop, Law Cycles, on hand with several enormous bags of locally sourced meat, you do so by having a barbeque. Wearing his old Fire Service jacket and helmet, Dave cut a dashing figure as he acted as mine host for the assembled throng.
His generosity and chef skills proved the perfect end to what had been a memorable weekend. As the forth Forth Fat, it had proven to be a truly memorable weekend. If you are even just fat curious, pencil it into your diary for next Spring. If it is half as good as this year, you’re in for a treat.