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The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!   I have been riding for a few years now and slowly riding longer and longer distances.    This is my first attempt at a blog so please bear with me as I learn the ropes!   Please find my blogs below as they appear.

May the road rise up to meet you – May the wind be always at your back.

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BIKINGMAN CORSICA 2018 – 700KM UNSUPPORTED RACE

 

Tour Aotearoa – ‘land of the long white cloud’ – New Zealand end to end – March 2020

(Note – click on small photos to enlarge – depending on your device)

Riding the roads, gravel and trails of New Zealand was always going to be a bit special – and so it turned out to be. Tour Aotearoa follows the paths less well travelled and is one of the worlds great Bikepacking trips. Stunning landscapes, friendly communities, magical sunrises and sunsets greet you every day.

The Route

The TA route stretches 3000km from Cape Reinga at the northern tip of North Island to Bluff in the south of South Island. In between the route follows cycle trails, tracks and paths all connected by relatively quiet country roads.  These are roughly one third sealed road, one third gravel road, and one third cycle trail (gravel usually) with some beach riding, serious single track and a few ferry crossings thrown in.

The Bike – Mason ISO

The most common bike used for the TA is a 29er mountain Bike. With the variety of terrain and surfaces my ideal was more than a gravel bike but not a full mountain bike. As luck would have it Dom Mason of Mason bikes had just designed a machine that hit the spot perfectly. The Mason ISO – In Search Of – was conceived for just such adventures. As Cycling Weekly put it “The Mason ISO will take you into territory where a dropped bar bike has no right to be”

Mason ISO

I arrived in Auckland a week before the start and spent time with my brother and his lovely family and combined that with all the last minute preparation. I always find it virtually impossible to decide on what to pack. I have a habit of packing far too heavy – pack this – just in case – no not that – but then what if that happens? And so it goes on.

Its a fair journey from Auckland to Cape Reinga but luckily my sister in law had family living up north in Cable Bay and we headed up together a couple of days before the start and spent some relaxing time there.

Tour Aotearoa

Riders of the Tour start in blocks of 100 per day and each group start is timed to arrive at 90 mile beach on a falling tide. Towards high tide the firm sandy beach is under water and bikes would have to take to the soft sand and the dunes. Get the timing wrong or face a strong headwind will occasionally result in an overnight camp in the dunes.

Our start time on March 3rd was 0700 and I was booked into the organised camp at the remote Tapotupotu Bay the night before – a short ride to the Cape.

Luckily the afternoon before was clear and bright so we went to Cape Reinga to take some photographs. For Maori, Cape Reinga is the most spiritually significant place in New Zealand. It is here that after death, all Maori spirits travel up the coast and over the wind swept vista before travelling underwater to the Three King Islands where they climb to the highest point of the Islands and bid their last farewell before returning to the land of their ancestors.

Cape Reinga lighthouse
Cape Reinga
Looking south from Cape Reinga

Day 1. 

I woke early after a restless night in the tent and scrambled around in the dark packing bags and grabbing some breakfast. A thick mist hung over the camp as I set out riding to the Cape. It was only a few kilometres but a steep climb to over 200m in the dark and mist coupled with clouds of gravel dust when the occasional truck passed made it a tough start to the day. I did wonder if this was some kind of omen!

Nervous anticipation was tangible among the eclectic group of riders milling around on Cape Reinga carpark. Ahead lay 3000km to Bluff as we set off at 7am, following the road for 15km before riding down the Te Paki Stream, the only access to 90 mile Beach.

Quick Briefing at Cape Reinga before the start in dawns early light

Te Paki Stream and 90 mile beach had been weighing heavily on my mind having read about riders wading through flood water in the stream and battling prevailing headwinds on the exposed sand and getting caught by the rising tide. As it turned out we were a lucky group of riders that day. The stream was a bit sticky in parts and the beach benign with a developing breeze caressing our backs and pushing us along towards Ahipara. The actual ride on the hardpan sand is 55 miles. Stories suggest its misleading name resulted from early settlers relating it to three days of horse riding which on average was 30 miles a day.

90 mile beach – a few hours of this – unique experience!

Arriving in Ahipara at the end of the beach ride I was just in time for some much needed lunch after taking advantage of the bike wash station generously provided by the local holiday camp. Salt and sand don’t mix well with drivetrains!

The beach ride was special and I was happy to make the first 100km by lunchtime but started to think about the night stop and the 2 to 3 hour Kaipara Harbour crossing that lay 250km ahead. There was only one ferry a day leaving late morning. Tomorrow’s ferry had spaces but the day after was fully booked so if I didn’t make it tomorrow I would need to ride the tedious road alternative adding loads of km and missing out on one of the iconic experiences of Tour Aotearoa.

The day had warmed up and I pushed on riding sealed and gravel roads towards a short ferry crossing that got me to Rawene late afternoon and onto Opononi at the mouth of Hokianga Harbour arriving in the dark and found a bed for a brief sleep at the holiday park.

So Day one was 193km of beach, gravel and sealed road with 10 hours of riding and quite a few breaks and the short ferry. My dynamo power converter had packed up which was a worry because I used it to charge my Wahoo Element Roam for navigation and phone charging. Luckily I had a spare but it was at my brothers house in Auckland, a few km off the route, so if I made the Kaipara Ferry I could divert and stay tomorrow night in Auckland.

A long hot afternoon!

Day 2

I got riding just after 0200hrs and had 150km to make the late morning ferry. About 50km was gravel roads and there were a few good looking climbs. The first task was to reach photo control point 3 in the Waipoua Kauri Forest. This was Tane Mahuta – Lord of the Forest and one of New Zealand’s tallest trees. Sadly it was night when I arrived.

Access to Tane Mahuta has heavy bio security – Kauri Tree dieback is a serious problem in NZ
Tane Mahuta – in the middle of the night!
Day 2 Dawns early light

There is always something magical riding through the night and slowly emerging into the dawn. I made good time, even on the gravel sections where the 2.4 WTB tyres gave me comfort and confidence. Five hours and 80km later I arrived in the small town of Dargaville as the residents were awaking for the day and found some good coffee and breakfast.

Mason ISO – looked after me the whole way – designed by Dom Mason to fit between gravel and MTB – perfect for the TA route

The ride to Pouto Point was another 70km with 25km of gravel which was slippery after some rain but little climbing and I arrived at the point in good time for the ferry and found another half dozen riders waiting.

Pouto Point – waiting for the ferry
All the bikes had to be lifted to the top deck for the crossing

Three hours on the Kaipara ferry was a good time to snatch a little sleep and recharge for the ride into Auckland for a night at my brother’s house to replace the power converter. Helensville was a good stop for food followed by easy riding south towards Auckland Harbour and Photo control point 5 at the top of Mt Eden overlooking the city. Its a steep climb to the top of the extinct Volcano and it was great to find a cardboard box at the top marked for TA riders and full of goodies including a cold beer!

Evening sun on Mount Eden overlooking Auckland City centre

A busy evening ride followed but thankfully Auckland has an impressive network of cycle paths so it felt pretty safe. I headed past the airport and in the failing light across the City to my brothers house in Howick after 20 hours plus on the road. It turned out to be my biggest day of the Tour with 246km and 3,300m of climbing. I slept well!

Day 3

Seemed a little strange, but a nice bonus, to be at my brothers house so soon after he dropped me off up at the Cape. I sorted the replacement power converter and after a good breakfast set off at the relaxed hour of 0930. I made my way through the morning traffic to the TA route where I had left it the night before. I headed on the inland course option towards Miranda Hot Springs on the Firth of Thames. I had ridden the coastal route before but the inland route resulted in some good climbing and heavy localised rain showers so after an hour or so regretted my route decision! Progress was slow and my legs felt heavy and it took me to early afternoon to reach Miranda and the coast but found a great lunch stop a few km inland. The Stray Dog Cafe had great food and probably the best stained glass window made of bottles in an outdoor brick shit-house – anywhere in the world!

The rest of the day was really easy as I rode the beautiful Hauraki Rail trail along the bottom of the Firth of Thames to Kopu before re joining the trail turning south towards Paeroa where I had booked a B and B stop taking day 3 as a bit of a recovery day. I often find day three is the hardest of any long distance ride and this was no exception.

Hauraki Rail Train – cattle country!
Andrew from Auckland on the Rail Trail – he was riding with Davide
Davide from Italy with Australian connections – riding with Andrew

The day ended in a great pub after an easy 146km in 7 hours.

Day 4

My lovely host offered a great cooked breakfast so although I wanted an early start it was too good to miss! I got away at 0830 and headed on down the rail trail to Te Aroha and on to Matamata where there was a photo control point at Hobbiton HQ!

Hobbiton in Matamata

After 25km of sealed road from my coffee stop in Matamata the route turned onto the Waikato River Trail and real fun began. One of the NZ classic rides which included a real mixture including some serious single track – well serious for me having limited MTB skills!

We all had to take a diversion onto sealed roads just after Arapuni and then rejoined the trail on the final section to Mangakino where I had booked a B and B – interesting set of rooms built in a shipping container!

Day 5

Timber Trail day! I got going at 0500 in the dark and got a little lost following the local trails alongside the Waikato but soon found my way and steadily climbed with a mixture of gravel path, sealed and dirt roads for the next 50km.

At 35km the photo control point no 8 was a marker for the Centre of North Island.

Centre of North Island!

Leaving the sealed road the Timber Trail climbs through cloud forest to Mt Pureora at nearly 1000m. One of the great NZ trails it has 73km of single track and 7km of old logging road and crosses many river gorges with spectacular swing bridges which sway and induce some dizzy unnerving moments when you are glad not to suffer vertigo.

Mt Pureora – Mason ISO in perfect territory!
Riding across is unnerving as the bridge starts to sway!
Shared some trail with Tony – here he exits the Ongarue Spiral tunnel
Warnings here – no stopping – falling rocks!

The end of the Timber Trail at Ongarue was followed by a lovely evening ride along a gravel back road to Taumarunui.

Evening day 5 with Tony on the back road to Town

Into Town after 153km and 2500m of climbing on a hot day I was glad to find a motel and more important a fabulous Thai restaurant.

Day 6

A quiet Sunday morning and I got going just before 0600 hrs and rode along the main street alongside the rail tracks hoping for breakfast and hey ho – MacDonalds had just opened! A Mac breakfast is as good as it gets. Lucky because there was a tough day in prospect heading towards the famous ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ and the Jet-boat ride down the Whanganui River.

The first few hours were gravel riding to Owhango and then the Oio Road to Whakahoro where I met up with Tony again at the Blue Duck Cafe for a second breakfast 67km into the morning.

Six km after the Blue Duck Cafe the single track begins – the Kaiwhakauka Track – described in the guidebook as a tough challenge – expect walking.

I had seen quite a lot of media coverage about this – was a bit apprehensive!

I had pre-booked the Jet Boat and made good time. I was lucky to have such a good day. The following day it rained and the papa mud on the stock road is notorious – a soft blue-grey sandstone turns to cement like sludge.

The Bridge to Nowhere across the Mangapurua Stream was built to serve the farming community but landslips and flooding saw the demise of the community in 1942.

A short winding path leads to Mangapurua Landing – the pick up point for the Jet Boat. The great Whanganui River is spectacular and made all the better for the 28km ride down to Pipiriki.

Goose Race!

So a spectacular day finished at Pipiriki after 106 km of riding that took just short of eight hours in the warm but dry conditions. Riders had a murderous time in the mud the following day. I shared a hut with Tony at the local campsite and joined up with Andrew and Davide for supper and a couple of beers.

Day 7

We had asked for an early breakfast and were well looked after before setting off at 0700 heading down the beautiful Whanganui river valley towards the ‘big city’ on the coast. A few rain showers came through but quickly cleared away.

I arrived in Whanganui around lunchtime and found some great food in a restaurant attached to the Tourist Information Centre on the riverfront. I had broken my only pair of reading glasses and asked the lady at the Information desk where I could find a shop to buy some. She asked how strong I needed them and said to “try these”. I hesitated, she insisted, and they were perfect – she said have them you are doing a great ride – I tried to pay – we had a polite argument but she insisted! So I won some glasses from a very kind lady.

Whanganui from Durie Hill

A quirky exit from the city followed. Crossing the river the route takes a 200m tunnel to an ancient lift operated by a lift attendant. Rattling and banging it climbs 66 meters to Durie Hill. Thoughts now turned to catching the ferry to South Island in a couple of days time and that meant two 200km plus days were needed to set up a shortish run into Wellington.

Sixty km of sealed road got me to Hunterville by mid afternoon and a useful stop for food. By now I was sharing the road a lot with Andrew and Davide. Andrew had found a good night stop at a remote farmhouse a few kms after Apiti. I arrived at dusk and shared a good evening with great food with the friendly host and my two travelling pals. The day was 203km with 2700m climbing over 10.5 hours and so the first week of the adventure was complete with 1228km.

Day 8

Up before 0600 and on the road by 0640 after a good breakfast. Ahead lay 35km of gravel riding and now we were heading due south towards Wellington. Two and a half hours into the day riding through remote cattle and sheep country and a few rain showers I arrived at Pohangina to be flagged down at the side of the road by a lovely lady Mary – a Trail Angel – offering coffee and muffins – oh what joy!

Mary – A lovely Trail Angel from the Pohangina Community

Next was Ashhurst and the large town of Palmerston North. Along the way Davide’s rear tyre got a bad puncture which the sealant couldn’t repair and he was forced to divert to the town to make repairs.

I pushed on and planned to stop at Martinborough for the night. The roads were fairly easy going with short gravel sections and late afternoon I diverted into Masterton and found a great self service Chinese Takeout. Bliss after 12 hours on the road.

I arrived in Martinborough late evening and found my way to the Holiday Park where they had left a chalet key for me taped to reception window. A long day of 238km and 12 hours in the saddle.

Day 9

A good day in prospect with an early afternoon ferry booked to South Island but it needed an early start so I was up at 0400 and away by 0440. Andrew’s wife had kindly booked our ferries. To my surprise I found a bakery open and had a great breakfast – they open at 0300 in this small town – night owls rule!

After a few kms I joined the Remutaka Cycle Trail – a spectacular trail following much of the old rail track and rising to 340m.

After the rail summit tunnel it was pretty much down hill for 65km taking in the Hutt River Trail along the way and then full steam ahead for Wellington.

Bus stop rest – love this

The run into Wellington was a little busy but I arrived in good time for the BlueBridge Ferry at Waterloo Quay. Andrew’s wife, who worked for the company, had booked tickets and it was special to get welcomed with some food and drinks – nice.

The crossing takes three and a half hours and was a great opportunity to get some rest so I got into a cabin and grabbed a shower and a couple of hours sleep. We docked in Picton early evening and I headed out to reach Havelock about 35km away.

Picton Sound from the road to Havelock

Night fell before I reached Havelock but I found a small motel after a short riding day of 133 kms on the bike. Great to be in South Island.

Day 10

I got riding at 0700 but not before finding a fabulous breakfast in Havelock that set me up well for tackling the Maungatapu Track and it turned out to be a tough old day.

Pelorus Bridge at 19km soon turned to a gravel road and then the challenging Maungatapu Track that climbs to 740m over 20km.

On the steep climbs some walking was needed

Out of the hills and into the city of Nelson and some easy riding on great cycle trails along the coast to Richmond and onto Wakefield. The rest of the day was pretty much gravel cycle trails and took in the interesting Spooners Tunnel.

I arrived at the small settlement of Tapawera just after 5pm and called it a day after 125km. I found a rustic campsite that had a spare cabin and a short walk for some good food and early to bed.

Day 11

I was up just after 0300 and away by 0400 with 60km of mixed sealed and gravel road to Lake Rotoroa. I had seen photos of this beautiful lake and arriving at the beach was not disappointed.

The next 30km to Murchison took in the beautiful gravel Braeburn Track, a good climb of 650m to the Saddle and crossed by several fords – lucky it was dry!

Murchison to Springs Junction is 80km mostly gentle climbing on gravel up and over the Maruia Saddle.

Next was a 6km climb to the Rahu Saddle and then a 30km downhill that just kept on going all the way to Reefton my night stop after 215km and 12 hours in the saddle. I found a motel and joined Andrew and Davide for supper. We had a long conversation over supper about the following day where the Tour route took in the Big River trail. Mud and rock with up to 5km of bike pushing had been reported after heavy rain and we decided to opt for the easier road bypass. Difficult decision to miss one of the classic trails but I am not a good MTB rider and as the endgame played out a few days later it was a good decision.

Davide and Andrew were riding the Tour together and I bumped into them so often since way back on the Kaipara Ferry on day two that we decided to ride the last few days together. The three amigos – a Kiwi, an Italian and a Brit – got to be a joke there somewhere!

Day 12

And so we headed out at 0600 along Highway 7 and headed towards the coast arriving at Greymouth late morning after 80km. We found a super little coffee shop on the seafront road and dived in to refuel and take a rest.

A gravel cycle trail took us 25km along the flat coast and inland to Kumara through sand dune country. This was the start of the West Coast Wilderness Trail and over 150km of trail riding lay ahead.

The trail heads inland, literally into the wilderness, and is great riding with a variety of off road surfaces. Bizarrely half way around the trail loup inland we came across Cowboy Paradise run by a crazy sort of guy (check out Trip Advisor reviews!) We took some refreshments but worried about his attitude and the pole dancing pole in the middle of the room! Seemed out of place!

We headed back towards the Tasman Sea with Hokitika our destination for the night. The clocktower was a photo control point and we found a good hotel with a busy restaurant and we went a bit overboard with the food! A great day of 176km and 9 hours in the saddle.

Day 13

We were away by 0600 heading south along the beautiful West Coast and marvelling that we had not had a drop of rain in this notoriously wet part of NZ.

We arrived at Fox in the late afternoon and booked into a Motel and had a little trouble securing the bikes, locking them together around the back of the building. One of the few places that did not allow us to have the bike in the room. But before that we carried on a few kms and turned towards the mountains in the hope of seeing Fox Glacier. Sadly with global warming the glacier had retreated and we hardly got a glimpse!

GLACIER? – Fox Glacier is the white smudge in the far distance!

Another magical day of 172km finished off in style with some good food and beer.

Day 14

Another 0600 start and a beautiful day ahead but a bit brass monkey for a few hours until the sun arrived. Dawn’s early light is always special on these rides.

Leaving Haast Village we headed inland to climb the Haast Pass (564m). A steady gentle climb of 50km got us to the steeper section over the pass.

After Haast Pass there was an nice descent of 20km to Makarora where we found a chalet at the tourist centre after 200km and another day to remember.

Some surprising numbers came out of the day. I improved my FTP – functional threshold power – which is the maximum power you can ride for an hour. Not something you would expect to do on day 14 of an ultra ride but suggests I was not too knackered!

Training Peaks screen shot for 16th March 2020 – day 14

All change – Plan B

There was no phone signal at the Tourist Centre and only a very weak wifi in the building. We had been watching the development of Coronavirus for the last couple of weeks and late in the evening I suddenly read that Air New Zealand were going to stop all international flights at the weekend. Panic! How will I get back to the UK because I was booked on Air New Zealand to London via Los Angles in ten days time.

No phone signal but I managed to get an internet call into my brother, John, in Auckland. The hero – he stood on the phone calling Air New Zealand until the early hours and eventually got through and was able to book me on the penultimate Air New Zealand flight to London in two days time. I got the “good” news in the early hours trying to get an internet connection in the freezing cold outside the Tourist Centre – lucky it was not switched off!

Sadly there was now no prospect of finishing in Bluff so the plan was to get to Queenstown the next day and fly back to Auckland the day after to catch the flight home. It was an strange feeling – having to curtail the ride – but given everything that was happening it seemed irrelevant and of no importance or regret. I was happy to finishing in Queenstown – one hard days ride from Bluff. Still an amazing adventure.

Day 15 – Final Day

Up early and we were on the road by 0545 in some chilly conditions. We were soon riding alongside Lake Wanaka.

The Neck

By the time we got to Albert Town after 65km we were in desperate need of coffee and food – it was so cold.

After Wanaka we faced a 40km climb to cross the Crown Range at 1076m – the highest point of the TA course. The famous Cardrona Hotel at 25km into the climb was a good stop to refuel at the cafe opposite.

The climb to the summit was pretty relentless at times with the heavy bike but the arrival was good because in the far distance we could see Queenstown.

Crown Range Climb

Despite the fact we could see our destination we still had over 50km to go and it turned out to be an variable mix of tracks and trails after the quick descent off the Range to Arrowtown. It seemed to take an age – “are we nearly there yet?”

We called into the small Queenstown airport as Davide and I were flying back while Andrew was determined to crack on and finish the following day which he accomplished in style. We needed to get a couple of cardboard bike boxes and after a bit of hassle we got two and paid a taxi driver to deliver them to the hotel.

Arriving in Queenstown felt like a different world. Busy streets, bars and restaurants humming with the good, the bad and the ugly! We found a hotel and set about packing the bikes and kit ready for the flight to Auckland in the morning. We had a good supper together and Andrew got to bed early. For him there was a long day in prospect, water taxi across the lake and big ride to Bluff. Chapeau Andrew. He finished at 8pm.

Queenstown

In Conclusion

Family

A big thank you goes to my brother John, his wife Net, and their lovely family who met me on arrival, took me to Cape Reinga and had planned to pick me up in Bluff at the finish. He then ended up sorting my early flight home to UK to beat the lockdown – a close run thing – a couple of friends waited 8 weeks to get home when the flights stopped and it cost them a fortune. Love you guys.

Kennett Brothers

The TA route has to be one of the best ultra distance rides anywhere in the world and great thanks go to the Kennett brothers who organise the ride, provide the route and the Spot Tracking system. They have developed the parcours since 2016 when 250 riders christened the route. Over 1000 riders signed up for TA 2020! Big thanks too to the New Zealand Cycle Trail Organisation for many of the spectacular trails. Chapeau the Kennett brothers.

Kiwi Kindness

Like most TA riders I experienced a lot of kindness and friendship along the way. Apart from the odd aggressive, impatient Kiwi driver there were numerous occasions when people went beyond the call of duty to help and it was lovely to see the ‘Welcome’ signs along the road side in towns and villages. Thank you Kiwis.

Mates along the way

I shared the road along the way with some good mates, especially Andrew and Davide. Andrew from Auckland and Davide from Italy were great company on the bike and generous mates – we enjoyed some good meals and beer together. Cheers to you amigos!

Coach Rob

The bike is one thing but its still needs an engine and big thanks goes to Rob Wakefield of Propello Cycling. A great coach based in Barnstable, Devon who got me into good shape for the ride with a good plan and loads of encouragement. Thanks Rob.

The Bike and Kit

Of course us addicted cyclists always believe its about the bike. Well I reckon I had the perfect machine for the job. The Mason ISO – In Search Of – worked so well in all the conditions.

It was so well set up with Apidura Bags and a carbon Tailfin rear carry rack. The beautiful little front mudguard can carry a couple of kilos too. My tent sat on that and to my shame I never used it – there always seemed to be a B&B or motel that called louder! Well I am 71! Wimp I hear you say!

I ran with WTB Ranger 2.4 tyres on Hunt 29er wheels with a SON dynamo. Comfort was enhanced with a Cane Creek eeSilk seat post together with Redshift Sports Shockstop stem. The Aero-Bars were essential and were stacked 50mm high off the drops for comfort. I probably spent over 50% of the ride on those bars.

The 1x Deore XT Di2 with an Oval chainring worked perfectly and I was able to recharge the battery from the onboard power converter.

Navigation with a Wahoo Element Roam was flawless with downloaded (Ride with GPS) route maps on my phone for backup. My Spot Gen3 Satellite Tracker worked well and allowed friends and family to follow my ‘dot’. All the photos and video were taken with my iPhone 10 with a lanyard attached and kept for quick access in the top-tube bag.

There are three key elements to enjoyment and comfort on long multi day rides – feet, backside and hands – the three points of contact. I’ve tried many saddles and now ride the Selle SMP Lite 209. My feet always hurt until I found Lake wide-fit shoes. (thanks Richard from Salt Dog cycling) Perfect feet now! As for hands the Aero-bars have done the trick. Rest the hands, relax the shoulders, different position on the saddle and of course little more aero – whats not to like?

Mason Cycles

Finally, a special mention is needed and a big thank you to Dom Mason, Cal, Alex, Matt and the team at The Barn nestled in the Sussex Downs. They make some great bikes and have given me top support. Thank you guys.

You beauty!

The Numbers

Fifteen days averaging 183km per day. In the saddle moving averaging 11.6hrs a day. A total of 2,757kms and 39,300m of climbing.

A final thought

Not many long distance cyclists have managed to ride their big events in 2020. So many were cancelled. I was so lucky to get to New Zealand and ride the TA. Lucky to get home in the nick of time. Lucky to be able to ride locally here on the beautiful Isle of Wight and compared to the heartache of many in these Covid times a very fortunate man.

As Captain Sir Tom says – “Tomorrow will be a good day”

PEDAL ON – KIA KAHA

Cheers Now

Morocco Bike Adventure 2019 – the fun stops too early!

The prospect of riding the back roads of Morocco from Tangier over the Riff and High Atlas Mountains and ending up on the coast at Essaouira was too good to miss. Andi Buchs had piloted the route and this was edition #1. 1750km in length (with extensions available for keen riders) and over 30,000m of climbing.

I have a great love for Morocco. Jenny and I spent over a year of our lives there during the last ten or so years. Two months each winter in our campervan gave us warm African winter sun and time to enjoy some of the beauty and culture of this friendly safe country. In the last couple of years my boys,Tom and Jonny, have joined me for surfing at Imsouane on the coast, biking in the mountains and Astro photography in the dark deserts of the south. (I just did the biking!)

After riding Bikingman Portugal in late September and averaging 300km a day I intended to take it a little easier in Morocco however the parcours was going to be tough and remote at times and so it proved to be!

I left my car with Paul and Debbie, in El Palmar, and loaded my kit on the Mason ISO before riding 60km down the coast to Tarifa and ferry across to Tangier.

Riding to Tarifa. Cape TRAFALGAR lighthouse just off the headland

Africa on the horizon

Precious cargo on the fast ferry to Tangier!

Tangier is a great port of arrival. Suddenly so different from Europe, notwithstanding some architectural influences in its historic sea front buildings. I was greeted with the call to prayer from the harbour side mosque – such an evocative sound of Morocco.

Tangier

I was staying for a couple of nights before the start at the Rembrandt Hotel, dating from 1950, and although comfortable was showing its age a little – a bit like me I guess!

Andi, Donncha, Mark and Daniel with me for some lunch

Over the next day I met up with organiser Andi and the eight other adventurers and it felt strangely relaxed because all the kit I had was what I was riding with and no “take this – ditch that” decisions had to be made.

The other riders were all experienced ultra distance guys with Trans America, Transcontinental race, Tour Divide race experience.

Andi had been out on the road to check some of the route and there were a couple of changes that had us scratching heads as we gathered for GPS updates and downloads into various navigational aids. We all had Spot Gen3 trackers which allowed for live tracking on MapProgress. Good for safety and nice for friends and family dot watchers. Local Maroc Telecom SIM cards were loaded into phones to give us data access and good mobile coverage. 4G was pretty much available everywhere.

First light – day one. View from Rembrandt Hotel at breakfast

Day 1

A relaxed start was planned for about 0830 at the lighthouse point that sits above Tangier Bay to the east. We gathered at the Rembrandt and rode through light city traffic the 8 or so km to the start.

With Donncha at the start

With Rod at the start

A few photos later and we were off right into a steady 500m climb onto a ridge that was clouded with early morning low mist.

Tangier in the distance – the first climb

We were soon up among a farm of massive wind turbines, blades whirring in the clouds with the occasional hazy sun visible.

Spooky turbines whispering in the morning breeze

Mark riding on

It didn’t take long for the clouds to clear and a warm day was in prospect as we descended into valleys and made more climbs on our way to Chechaouen and Check Point 1.

Motorway and Railway to Tangier Med Port in the valley below

We were soon heading back towards the coast and arrived at Tétouan where I made a good lunch stop at a roadside fuel station.

Tetouan food stop

A spectacular ride along the rocky coast then followed with some lovely descents followed by the inevitable climbs out of the coves up over the cliff tops.

Come mid afternoon I arrived in Bni Said on market day as we headed back inland. A short distance out of town the roads were deserted and then rolling into town you are faced with the shock of a busy market, everything for sale at the side of the road, thousands of people milling everywhere, lots of noise, food being cooked and the road completely blocked at times. Car boot type selling on the outskirts and then the more established stalls nearer the centre selling just about anything and everything. Exciting to pass through but you need your wits about you on a bike!

Market Day

Complete roadblock here for a while!

The road then rose up 1000m climbing towards Chechaouen and suddenly a turning right gave us the first taste of gravel.

Bee hives in the valley below

Pretty steep at times I jumped off a couple of times and pushed for a few meters to get over the steep ramps.

Mason ISO

First gravel climb

Once over the top of the climb there was a short descent and Chechaouen came into view in the evening twilight deep down in the valley below.

I rode into town away from the route and found a small hotel, had a reviving shower, and kit wash before walking into town for supper. Chechaouen is famous for the blue buildings and did not disappoint.

Chechaouen

Kefta Tagine

However I had limited time to explore and sat in the corner of a small square eating a good kefta tagine. Walking back to the hotel I picked up some provisions for breakfast and got to bed.

Day 2

I was up and away at 0630 just as dawns early light was emerging over the mountains to the East.

Dawn over Chechaouen

Rough gravel all the way.

I climbed out of the town and back onto the gravel/rock/sand road that climbed pretty steeply to the summit of the first mountain at 1800m. And what a morning it was. The road was little used and headed towards the Riff cannabis farms that make the area famous. The going was tough and on numerous occasions I had to push the bike up sharp ramps where the surface was too loose or rocky to ride.

Just see the zigzags of the road up the mountain

For much of the climb I was in company with Mark who had narrower tyres than me and had decided to push the bike a good distance.

Mark sorting a mechanical

After one such bike push I was setting off but I had a silly tumble when the wheel spun. I landed hard with my ribs on a perfectly placed rock. Cursing and swearing I carried on and initially the bruised ribs did not feel too bad.

Mark on a steep section.

The morning was warming up with no breeze and the road stayed rough. I got to the top of the second climb by lunchtime and reckoned it had been one of hardest mornings I had had on a bike.

The afternoon ran through more spectacular landscapes with lots of climbing and cautious descending.

I rode on into the dark with no prospect of anywhere to stay so decided to bivouac when I found a suitable spot.

At the top of a small climb I found a remote area of flat ground with a few low bushes to hide behind. It was warm and I put on a jacket, laid out the sleeping mat and wrapped the lightweight groundsheet over me for a few hours kip. The half moon was falling to the horizon and lying there looking up at bright stars was one of those special moments. The only downside was the pain from my ribs and a couple of lads arriving in a car a few meters from my bivouac and stopping to listen to loud music for half and hour! I couldn’t really tell them to go away!

Day 3

The night was a bit restless and my ribs had got a little worse. I was up and away by 0530 after a breakfast of cake, biscuit and a couple of yoghurts.

The joy of riding into the dawn

The road descended to a completely different landscape with bone dry grasslands and a couple of substantial reservoirs that sat there waiting desperately for the winter rains to arrive.

School bus!

The land was incredibly arid and by late morning the Mercury was heading towards 40degC.

The day was not great for progress with pain from the ribs pretty acute at times when moving position on the bike bars or reaching for a bottle.

A real challenge to drink enough liquid

Just love the loading of straw on these lorries – a common sight. No drafting!

Again there was no prospect of accommodation in the small towns and villages – we were well off the tourist’s beaten track. I had resolved to bivouac again – not great after two days riding in 40deg of heat! I stopped at a fuel station for drinks and sat in the shade for an hour feeling a bit miserable. After a while a policeman came and chatted and after the usual passport checking he offered me the police station yard to camp. I thanked him but it meant retracing my steps a few kilometres so I pushed on.

After dusk I had passed through the town of Tissi and then arriving at the next village stopped outside a cafe and asked a couple of locals if there was any food available. They said “no” but invited me to have some tea and coffee with them and they would sort something. One kindly went away and came back with bread and eggs and we sat there chatting in broken English with a little French. The other, Mohamed Zarzour, invited me to stay with his family for the night. I was so happy to accept his kindness and after registering with the local Gendarmerie (required by law) we went to his house.

Mohammed Zarzour and his son Riad

Perfect biking fuel!

His wife, Mounia, and three young children, Hasnae, Razane and Riad were lovely and she had been warned of our arrival and we sat down to spaghetti and a bowl of soup. I had a shower and they insisted on washing all my kit. I must have been pretty ‘high’ after a couple of days riding in the warm sun. We chatted away as far as we could in broken English and French. The kindness of strangers.

Day 4

Zarzour was up for the call to prayer just before 0600hrs and I was up and away just after 0700 in the early morning stillness of a village still slumbering. Thanks seemed hardly adequate.

I rode on and the route crossed the main A2 motorway and started a steady climb. At the first cafe, after 13km of warm up riding, I stopped for breakfast and took time to assess my situation.

Long cafe stop – decision time = scratch.

Forty eight hours after the fall my ribs had become even more painful. Just getting on and off the bike was difficult. Once in a stable position on the bars I was ok but any movement – onto the aero bars or reaching for a bottle was horrible. I was pretty down and realised the game was over. Heading to the remote High Atlas made no sense and would be risky.

So decision made I retraced my steps and joined the N6 road and headed towards Fes, a bustling City, where I would be able to stay and get transport back to Tangier. It was a 60km ride and not too hilly and the following wind was a blessing in one sense but made it incredibly hot at times.

On the Road to Fes

Another day at 40degC so I stopped at just about every opportunity to take on cold drinks.

In 40+ deg I stopped at most fuel stations.

Once in the big City I aimed for the car hire places and managed to dodge some crazy driving. I found a hotel and enjoyed a couple of Flag Speciales in the bar before going out for food.

City of Fes

Home run and thoughts

I guess once you make the decision to scratch with an injury the homing instinct kicks in. So the following day I got to Tangier and the late afternoon ferry to Tarifa where Paul kindly met me and we drove to his place. One night in El Palmar to sort bikes and kit was followed by a 1000km drive to Bilbao and the overnight ferry to Portsmouth.

As I write this the six remaining riders are still out riding in southern Morocco and have faced a storm, flash flooding and some stomach problems. It’s been quite hard Dot watching their progress, wishing I was with them, but pleased they are battling on so well. My bruised ribs actually got worse a few days after the fall so it was the right decision to scratch.

I only managed to ride a small part of the course but still enjoyed a great few days on a challenging parcours. I rode 500km with 9700m climbing. Thanks Andi.

The Mason ISO was so good on the rough stuff – pity about my lack of skills that resulted in the off as I tried to get peddling on that climb on day two. I undoubtedly carried too much kit – it seems to border on a psychological block I have! I decided a tent with sleeping bag and mat was needed for the remote mountains. The ISO is so well set up to carry the kit with my set of Apidura bags there is always room for more stuff!

The Absolute Black 30t Chainring with a 42/10 cassette gave me a great range of gears for the mountains. The Cane Creek EE Silk seat-post worked well again and saved my backside from problems! The WTB 2.4 Ranger tyres were good on the rough and rolled well on paved road.

Thanks Dom Mason and team for a great bike

A well documented experience after a big ride is the feeling of emptiness as one adjusts back to normality. One way to help is to have some challenges and objectives to look forward to in the not too distant future. Well I am fortunate to have the opportunity to plan such things and have the Tour Aotearoa in New Zealand next March and have just registered for the Pan Celtic Race, riding with my son Jonny, next July. Lucky man🤪!

And right now I will take time to rest and recover after a busy year on the bike. Over 750 hours in the saddle riding 15,300km and 192,000m of climbing. I have been so lucky to maintain my fitness throughout which is in no small measure down to my coach Rob Wakefield of Propello Coaching. Thanks Rob.

Thanks too go to Dom Mason and the team at Mason Cycles – the FastFar bicycle company – for your great support. Thanks too to Adrian who runs Adrian’s Bike Shop in Freshwater who always has a solution!

Last but not least I have shared the road with so many special people – thanks guys.

Bikingman Portugal – Faro – September 2019

It was one of those decisions that in hindsight you start to question, but in late 2018 I had signed up for three Bikingman Events in 2019 and Portugal was the last of the three. It might have been a step too far after a busy year on the bike but it turned out to be an excellent decision and great fun meeting up with old friends and meeting the diversity of riders that make up a Bikingman Race. And not forgetting the opportunity to ride a tough but beautiful 950km parcours in southern Portugal in balmy warm daytime conditions.

After riding in Portugal I was planning to ride an off-road event in Morocco and needed two bikes. Portugal was all paved road except for a short gravel section near Cape St Vincent and I rode the Mason Bokeh while Morocco needed the Mason ISO. So I drove down from the UK via the Plymouth/Santander ferry and a 1000km through Spain into Portugal.

I spent a night at a lovely rural hotel near Tavira about 25km from the race start in Faro. Found it on booking.com at the last minute and got lucky.

Rural hotel bedroom view

The following morning I rode a random 50km route into the hills behind the hotel and didn’t realise until later that I was actually on the first big climb of the race topping out just under 500m.

It was then a short drive to Faro and the Eva Senses hotel set in the heart of the bustling town overlooking the marina and coastal lagoons.

I was sharing a room with Derrick – we had met on the Oman ride where he had ridden as pair with Ed (I rode with Ed in Peru). This was to be Derrick’s first solo ultra distance race and from his kit and preparation clearly meant business.

With Derrick at registration

Pre race days were the usual indecision about how much kit to take. Bags packed and unpacked in between walking into town to grab some food and a drink (or two). We were in the heart of the tourist streets packed full of good places to eat. A few Bikingman riders sat at a bar often expanded to a large group – on one occasion a poor woman quietly reading a book generously moved twice to accommodate us. Derrick did put a beer behind the bar for her when we left! Such a gentleman!

Race briefing was a formal affair in the town hall and we had the honour of being welcomed by the Mayor of Faro. Quite a protracted detail briefing followed being in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese – not surprising it took a while.

Day 1

Awake before the alarm sounded at 0315hrs we were up and after a good breakfast gathered at the historic arched gateway to the old city. Nervous tension prevailed until the gun went at 0500 and we were away under a neutralised start to safely clear the city for the first 25 km with a police escort.

Jacques – rode a great race.

Derrick ready to go

With Vincent

Once set free I could see a procession of red lights climbing the first big hill ahead as dawns early light, a beautiful red and purple glow, started to turn black to grey and finally lit up the browns and russet of the rugged Portuguese landscape.

Derrick and I rode together for a while until he finally took off and that was the last I saw of him. He was riding strongly and it was great to follow his tracker as he built a great ride up ahead.

I played leap frog with Vincent, from the island of Ireland, during the first day. We had last met on the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland during the TAW ride last summer. We were skirting the Spanish border and rode the shore line of the Guadiana River after 100km of riding. It was a surprise to see ocean going yachts moored so far inland. Spain lay the other side of the river. I was delighted to find a nice riverside cafe and ordered coffee, sandwich and cold drinks. The day was warming up fast.

I had passed a group of stationary riders a little earlier and saw the problem was a broken derailleur that looked pretty terminal. Fair dos to the rider – he got back to a bike shop in Faro, got it fixed and still finished the ride ahead of me!

Many hands could not save the derailleur

The route took us north towards CP1 and we passed through an ever changing landscape of lakes, cattle country and olive groves as far as the eye could see.

Olive groves as far as the eye could see

As dusk approached I stopped at a lonely restaurant and managed to order a large Spanish type omelette and chips. A couple of other riders arrived while I was eating. There was still over 60km to go to the Vila Viçosa Checkpoint and I decided to keep going.

I headed off into a dark night, there was no moon, and soon made a silly mistake and missed the turn towards Monsaraz. Eight kilometres later on a lovely gentle descent I realised my error and cursing and swearing at the black sky above rode back to rejoin the course! My only excuse was that the GPS signal had been out of sync with the map and the Wahoo had kept giving me false off course alarms – it had cried wolf once too often and I missed the genuine call! Schoolboy error!

Just before midnight I pulled into CP1 to be greeted by the volunteer team sat with blankets against the cold.

CP1. Volunteers were cold in the middle of the night.

There were in the courtyard of a hotel and right next to the Ducal Palace, a royal palace of Portugal. An impressive stopover but all too brief and in the dead of night. I asked at the hotel desk and they were happy for me to bivouack in the car park. I found a quiet spot and set the bivi up and got a couple of hours sleep.

Day One was 352km with 4432m of climbing. Moving time was 15:32 at an average of 22.7km/h. In hindsight I had probably gone too hard but reaching the CP was my motivation.

Day 2

I got a bit chewed by mosquitos in the bivi and and crawled out, stiff and dopy at 0400. I had saved some bits and pieces for breakfast and said goodbye to Didier at the control and got on the road just after 0430. Winding my way over the cobbles of the town it took me a while to get warmed up.

An early morning mist was lying in the hollows and got thicker on occasions as the route headed south west towards the coast. As daylight approached the mist cleared for a while only to settle back in. The sun arrived for a few hours and the humid heat built.

There were numerous long straight undulating roads until we arrived at the coast where conditions changed yet again with some driving rain showers running through the coastal hills. Pine trees prevailed and the run due south along the coast was scenic but I caught a couple of the showers along the way.

I was beginning to feel the effects of the heavy first day by early afternoon and needed a five minute nap in a bus stop. I was keen to arrive at CP2 in daylight. Cape St Vincent, the SW point of Europe, could not be allowed to slide past in the dark. So with the need for a good sleep I booked a hotel in Odemira which was 100km short of CP2.

Nice hotel stop

The hotel owner told me where to find the best food and suggested I try BlackPig a local pork speciality. I settled in and headed for the restaurant which turned out to be quite posh but welcoming of a smelly Lycra clad old man – but I was wearing some shorts over the bibs! The Black Pig was special as was the pint of beer. A good evening and I relished the shower and clean sheets!

Black Pig

Day 2 was 263km and 2071m climbing in 11:29hrs moving time at an average 23km/h.

Day 3

I let myself out of the hotel and got going at 0500 after a great nights sleep. A little mist was again hanging in low spots but created a beautiful landscape as the dawn approached.

The run to CP2 was memorable. Pine forest and small coastal resorts passed in the dark and included a few very sharp climbs similar to Cornish coves. Approaching the Cape we ran along a gravel section, Axel’s surprise, for a few kilometres. The Mason Bokeh with 35mm tyres was made for gravel and she enjoyed the run.

Gravel over there was a nice run down to Sagres and CP2. I arrived at 1025hrs to a friendly welcome and started thinking about how I was going to tackle the remaining 262km to the finish.

The route now headed north east and the first few kilometres were pretty exposed and a strong northerly headwind was blowing making the going tough. I soon pulled into a cafe and had a good bowl of soup and bread with a massive bowl of olives.

Heading up into the hills was hard but rewarding with some spectacular landscapes.

I solved a mystery where numerous trees had had their bark stripped and were numbered. I came across a store with all the bark – cork! Cork oaks are harvested every nine years and have the year of harvest marked in the trunk so the tree isn’t harvested at the wrong time.

Cork store

I am not sure when I decided to go for the finish but once the decision was made it gave me a lift – probably thinking that Derrick and I had got a room booked and the Eva Senses hotel did one of the best breakfasts!

The evening arrived and I struggled to find a restaurant for some supper so opted for a pot of pate with a loaf of bread and some fruit. I rode out of town and settled down at the roadside for supper as the last of the sunlight kept me warm.

Bread and pate supper

The evening turned to night and at times it got very cold, especially descending into the bottom of valleys where water lay. I cannot remember such sudden temperature changes on a ride.

A little before midnight I started to hit the wall, feeling dog tired. I stopped in a bus shelter on a quiet road and got a 20 minute power nap. Again the mosquitos did their thing. I got going feeling much better and felt quite strong in the ride back to Faro helped by the run down from the hills to the sea.

Still 30km to go!

In the last few kilometres I saw Vincent ahead and we joined each other for the final run through the cobbled streets and into the Race Village arriving just a few minutes after 0500hrs.

Vincent and I finish together

Day 3 was 372km and 4693m climbed at an average of 20.2km/h. Total time was 24 hours and moving time 18:28hrs.

My finish time was 3 Days and 7 minutes and came 28th from the 80 starters.

I woke Derrick and got into the room for a couple of hours sleep before hitting the breakfast just before it closed. The rest of the day was spent lazying about and greeting other riders at the Race Village.

The finisher party took place in a beautiful old building and we were treated to some local music and song as well as presentation of certificates. We ended up on at the marina pizza place for food and a few beers.

The Bikingman event organisation was superb as always and a hard task with such a spread out field. The winner completed in just 40 hours! Most of us took much longer!

Many thanks to Axel and his great team.

My Mason Bokeh carried me and my kit with its usual comfort and efficiency. I ran 35mm tyres that went well and were puncture free.

Bikingman Inca Divide – August 2019

This is Bikingman’s hardest Race, the Crown Jewel of the series, and I am not quite sure how I came to sign up for what was to be an experience of a lifetime in the Andes mountains of Peru. In brief it is 1680km of mixed paved road and gravel with 30,000m of climbing.

Race preparation

My biggest concern was the high altitude of the ride – after climbing to over 3000m in the first 300km the route pretty much stayed at that height for the duration with a high level loop after CP2 rising to over 4000m. This had potential for altitude sickness let alone the debilitating impact on power and performance. Daily distances covered would need some re-assessment.

My altitude acclimatisation was thorough. I hired Hypoxic equipment for a month before leaving from the Altitude Centre in London and slept in a hypoxic tent simulating 2350m (to generate more red blood cells) and exercised on a turbo bike with mask linked to the machine simulating various altitudes.

I had trained well working with my coach Rob Wakefield of Propello Cycling with a good mixture of endurance riding and high intensity work.   I had a lot of distance in my legs with over 12,000km riding since the start of the year.

I arrived in Trujillo, Peru early and joined my friend Chris and we hired a old pickup and went inland about 180km to Huamachuco at 3150m for five days. Later we were joined by Ed and Kerry.

Chris and Ed

Kerry, testing her SPo2 (blood oxygen level) and Ed

The ‘Real Hotel’ in Huamachuco was perfect. A good base for some riding and close to the town square. Basic and rustic but staff friendly and once we had worked out what was available for breakfast we set off each day for some easy riding culminating in one good climb at the end of the few days. We could feel the pressure on our chests as the lungs searched for more oxygen but it improved each day.

The town was a busy place with ‘tuk tuk’ taxis racing everywhere but we struggled to find good food – we ordered a pizza the first night and got chicken and chips! Spanish lessons needed!  We did find a great cafe specialising in fresh fruit smoothies!

Two days before the race start we returned to Trujillo on the coast to join the other riders for registration, briefing and the usual faffing about how much kit to take for the next nine or ten days unsupported riding.  Day time temperatures could be mid thirties up while at sundown there would be a dramatic drop, especially high up and down to nearly zero.

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Early morning school run!

Pollo and Frites were pretty much our go to staple diet for much of the time in Peru but our best discovery later was Arroz a la Cabana – rice with fried banana with a couple of fried eggs on top. Biking fuel!

The Race

I tried to write a few notes on Facebook each day so what follows is based on that contemporaneous record of the ride over 10 days.   I tried to capture the scale and beauty of the country with photographs which were enhanced by photos from Ed and Chris when we rode together.

Inca Divide Day 1

Forty four riders gathered at 0500hrs for the start outside the Costa del Sol hotel. The usual last minute nerves meant we were all anxious to get going.

We rode the Pan America highway for a while. Sand dunes and sugar cane along the coast for the first few hours in dawns dull early light.

Sugar Cane harvest

Represa de Gallito Ciego – a man made lake – we tracked its shoreline for miles

Pan flat so good speed with light wind and then turning East to the mountains had lovely tail wind and the day brightened up. Reaching CP1 became a possibility.

Friendly cops wanted to talk bikes. Tricky with no Spanish!

The big climb started after Chileti. Topped out at 3200m. Mid 30 deg with the sun. Wahoo said 40 one time.

Ed and bike looking clean and tidy for the last time!

Stopped for cold drinks at every opportunity.

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Daniel, Holger and Jonas at a drink stop – Jonas Deichmann on the right is a legend – world record holder for riding the length of the Americas and across Europe and Eurasia.   In September he sets out to tackle the record from Cape (North Norway) to Cape (Capetown – South Africa) – 18,000km!

A night climb for the last four hours – dark by 1830 and I arrived at CP1 at 2215. 316km done with 3926m of climbing to Cajamarca. Good to have it in the bank – slow mountain climbing and gravel ahead. Hostel San Vincent for the night.   Worried that I might have gone too hard for the first day.

Inca Divide – Day 2

A difficult day with little energy. Sorting food is a challenge. Eventually got a great soup and rice/chicken/egg meal. Put me right for the climb to 3400m before descending to Huamachuco (where we acclimatised a few days ago).

 

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Piggys go to market.  I overtook on the downhill, they passed me on the climbs – a lot of laughing!

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Election advertising was painted on house walls – just loved the last of the evening sunlight lighting this one.

Going to sleep in a bit tomorrow morning. 177km with 3100m climbed. So many stops today and dog attacks in the dark this evening were a nuisance – must have been a dozen. Tactic is to stop and shout at them. Now I have a sore throat. Kerry, who is part of our group, has had to scratch – horrible sickness. Gutted for her after months of training and the effort getting here from Dubai.

Inca Divide Day 3.

A stunning day of riding in the mountains but a slow day of mostly gravel roads (some more rocks than gravel) at 3000m+ and midday temps at 35C. Add to that very few options for food along the way. A bowl of potatoe soup was the main meal – not good.

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Four of us ended the day at Mollebamba after 100km. Managed to find a ‘rustic’ hostel. Twice I had to push/ride the bike over gravel road roadworks and everything is coated in red sticky mud.

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Typical river bed crossing – lucky it was the dry season!

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High Plains Drifter – Clint Eastwood country?   Classic 1973 film!

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Gold Mines were plentiful – just rip the mountain apart.

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Dust got a bit choking at times – luckily not too much traffic.

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Rustic hotel stairs to bedroom

Lucky to find a guy with a water hose to unclog the drive mech. Add to the mix a nasty cold – I’m not feeling my best at 0600 on Day 4 as I write this!

Inca Divide – Day 4 and 5

Been off the grid for a couple of days in more ways then one. No decent phone reception and horrible head cold continued.

So I set off from Mollebamber at first light. Problems with brakes (so much dust and muck – but now sorted). The day consisted of one big descent and one big climb to Pallasca. Just stunning.

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The big descent – recent road widening made for a loose surface – this was the last third of the descent..

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Zig zags carved out of the mountain opposite were the next climb!

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Road closed – Grader at work so rest for 20 minutes and chat with the foreman.

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Arriving early afternoon I decided that rest and recovery were the priority so booked into a small hotel. Ed, my pal from Dubai, arrived shortly after and we shared the room. Later that evening Chris – also from Dubai arrived and we decided we would head out together at first light.

 

Quite a few other riders were in town. Sadly a number were to scratch from the race through injury or more common sickness. Jacques my French pal (we can’t speak each other’s language but are close in age and there are laughs and good fun) lost his bike shoes – apparently stolen from the hotel so he is headed back to base in a pickup truck.

Day 5 – 0515 alarm and away at first light at 0600. The Three Gringos had a great day.

 

Not a flat road all day and bar about 10km gravel all the way. 76 km and 2100m of climbing on gravel to a number of peaks – all at about 3400m – in the warm sun saw us reach Llapo.

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Dusk – hotel balcony

 

Found the only rooms in town and the only restaurant and now trying to warm up in bed as I write this. Finding food continues to challenge us. Lunch was a sort of puffed wheat with yoghurt from a store – the food places had closed for siesta.

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We hope to reach CP2 – just over 200km away – by Tuesday. That means we will be scratched – being out of time.

I made a decision yesterday that I would not be capable of riding the high altitude loop from CP2 to CP3. Basically I realised I have reached my limit. It would not be fun chasing the clock through the darkness to make it. So with Ed and Chris we plan to rest a while at CP2 and then ride what we have called the ‘short course’ back to Trujillo (330km). Strangely I feel good and content with that decision. This has easily been my biggest challenge on a bike.

The experience and grandeur of Peru totally outweigh any feelings of failure or disappointment.

Inca Divide Day 6

We keep going and Ed, Chris and I have been rewarded with the best day on a bike. Scenery just spectacular.

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Sun rising – a cold start but hot day ahead.

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We started with a 1000m climb and at the top the snow capped high Andes came into view – just so special.

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We then descended over 2000 m and during the whole day had several hundred switchbacks. Often the road is just carved from the mountain side with hundreds of meters drop off and no protection. Guaranteed to keep you concentrating so plenty of stops for photos and just gasping at the next amazing vista – beautiful Rocky mountain angles with different hues of blue depending on the time of day.

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We managed food well today and once at the valley bottom had supper before a 25km night ride to Huallanca and a tidy small hotel – £18 for three good beds! 142 km today with 2000m climbing but over 4000m descending – sore hands from braking!

Well it’s 75 km to CP2 tomorrow at Carhuaz and we will rest up but hope to dump the heavy kit and make a day ride to Punta Olimpica – a famous climb at 4700m. If that works it gives us a couple of days to ride back to Truijillo in time for the Friday party! We shall see.

Inca Divide Day 7.

At 5pm last night we were officially scratched from the race through missing the CP2 cut off time.

No worries – we came to terms with that a while ago and now ride as a team of three and enjoy the amazing Peru experience.

Ed, Chris and I gave ourselves and extra hour in bed and set off from Haullanca after a good egg and coffee breakfast.

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Early morning school run across the canyon

 

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We had about 75km to ride to CP2 at Carhuaz. We climbed alongside the Rio Santa river roaring below and soon entered the Canon del Pato (Duck Canyon) often cited as one of the most dangerous roads in the world. It is spectacular with the road hewn out of sheer rock and over thirty unlit single lane tunnels. We eventually emerged at the top of the gorge into a broader valley and had a good run to CP2 with a lunch stop in Caraz for a classic bowl of Peru soup arriving early afternoon.

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CP2 at Carhuaz is well chosen and we have booked rooms for two nights at this comfortable hostel.

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Our plan is to do a day ride up the famous Punta Olimpica climb tomorrow with heavy kit off the bikes. That will feel so different!

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The star of the ride – Leandro from Brazil – heavy old bike, home made storage, flat pedals and sandals – he finished 6th!   And rode to Peru from Brazil and is riding home!  Always smiling. Chapeau! 

 

 

The run from CP1 to CP2 was 617km with the majority gravel roads together with 14,500m of climbing. The three Gringos are having fun!

Inca Divide Day 8.

Today was our pitch for altitude. Climbing Punta Olimpica has been on our minds ever since first looking at this crazy bike adventure. The climb tops out at 4736m and enters a Tunnel that was the highest in the world until the Chinese built one recently.

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Switchbacks to Punta Olimpica Tunnel

We had been riding consistently over 3000m but not sure what would happen to the body over 4000 – so a good test!

A lazy start for Ed,Chris and me saw us having breakfast together with five other scratched riders who had come up to Carhuaz.

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Breakfast with other scratched riders in Carhuaz – “Scratchers Breakfast”

The climb starts right out of the town and keeps going for its full 46km rising 2100m to the top (and only 50m of descent along the way).

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We entered the Huascaran Park and Ed paid the dues. The clouds looked threatening and shrouded the glacier covered peaks. It started to rain and we had a headwind up the valley to the foot of the switchbacks that start just after crossing the river.

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Not a steep gradient but it rises through numerous switchbacks for 700m over 15km and needed a good pedalling rhythm. Then the rain eased and visibility improved. Ed arrived at the top first with Chris and myself shortly after. Ed was very cold and not feeling great (2 deg at the top)

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We took a few photos at the tunnel and headed back down for a hot drink and hard boiled eggs at the park entrance. The descent to Carhuaz was fun – all 46km!

 

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I felt good throughout the climb and was pleased that my altitude training had worked well.

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We now have a couple of days to ride back to Truijillo.

Inca Divide Day 9

This was due to be an easy 200km ride to the coast – nearly all downhill.

It started well and the first 100km was great. We went through the famous tunnels in the Canyon Del Pato riding alongside the roaring Rio Santa River. We then carried on into the lower section of the Canyon and was hit by a nasty gusting headwind. At times the spray from the river rapids was blown 50ft up and rained on us as we rode.

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We stopped a few times, the temperature was approaching 40deg at midday. The gusting wind made the vertical drop off into the raging river a constant thought in our minds. There is virtually no roadside barrier protection here.

As the afternoon wore on we were determined to make Santa for the night. Luckily the gorge turned into a wider valley, the wind dropped and we made it with a couple of night hours riding.

We booked into a rather dodgy ‘Romances’ hotel – well it’s a bed! After a quick trip to the local roadside stall for crisps and a beer we were sorted for the day.

Tomorrow we have 120km to the Truijillo finish and evening party. All being well our timing has been good. I think we are the only scratched riders still out on the road enjoying the unique chance to see this stunning country.

Inca Divide -Day 10

We rode the Pan American Highway for 120km to finish at the Coast Del Sol hotel, Truijillo just after lunch.

 

A little anticlimax in a way riding the busy road on the hard shoulder but a following wind helped and the prospect of good food, a beer, a shower and party tonight pushed us along in good spirits.

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French connection – Jacques and Didier – always smiling – two special characters.

It’s been such a privilege and pleasure riding with Ed Menzies and Chris Cameron. The second half of the adventure became a boys trip – the three Gringos – with lots of fun and laughter- special mates.

 

 

With only three riders still out on the full race course there have only been 9 finishers from 39 riding solo and a few more in pairs. It has been such a tough ride. We are quietly pleased that although we missed the high altitude loop we still rode 1,359km with 20,381m of climbing and effectively rode the unofficial short course to the finish! Oh and we got up to the famous Punta Olimpica tunnel at 4736m a couple of days ago. One of our pre ride targets. (That is 700m short of Everest Base camp)

We experienced Peru’s Andes Mountains close up and I will have the scale and beauty of the landscape etched in my mind for ever. Roads are cut from mountain sides where angles fear to tread!

My bike – a Mason Bokeh – was the star and looked after me so well. Much of the road was gravel, some horribly rough, but she took the lot in her stride with the WTB 700 Venture 40mm tyres run tubeless were always rock solid. Thanks to Dom Mason for that. They hardly look used and a couple of plugs quickly fixed the two punctures I had along the way.

 

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I did a lot of altitude training before the ride. Apart from 5 days at 3150m in Huamachuco I slept in Hypoxic tent for a month at home to simulate high altitude. A bit OTT I hear you say but it did work! I felt fine with normal breathing albeit power is much reduced at altitude.

The Bikingman team led by Axel Carion together with David and Didier and some fantastic volunteers were in good form as ever. Quietly efficient and supportive as the days progressed.

Abiding memories – friendly people, dog attacks, soaring eagles, tooting cars and trucks, searching for food and the shear beauty of the vast mountain landscape.

Thank you Peru.

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Taunus Bikepacking – a self supported bikepacking adventure in the Taunus hills of Germany

The second Edition of Taunus Bikepacking started in Hofheim, close to Frankfurt, on the 22nd June 2019.

A challenging fixed route of 800km on quiet farm and forest lanes and tracks with a few trails and single track.   Paved road connected the route through beautiful German towns and villages nestled in the steep valleys of the Taunus landscape.   The ride was full of tough short climbs and blessed with a spectacular ride alongside the Rhine and Lahn rivers.

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Taunus Route – Start and Finish at Hofheim between Frankfurt and Wiesbaden – riding clockwise

Rules of the ride were the normal unsupported ride conditions.  No drafting or outside help and all riders had to keep their trackers on for the duration.

Why was I here?   I first met Jesko von Werthern riding the 2018 TransAtlanticWay (TAW) race in Ireland which he was riding for the third time.  We shared a bivouac camp stop one of the nights and I learnt about his plan for edition #1 of Taunus that year.   Jesko is proud of sharing the opportunities to ride the beautiful Taunus mountains, hills and the Rhine valley and has spent many days and ridden thousands of kilometers planning the Taunus route.    In addition my daughter-in-law, Shirin, lived her childhood in the same region and I was keen to explore that area and ride in Germany and experience cycling in a new country.

I drove to Hofheim in company with Ryan Davies (@rnides) having enjoyed a road trip together back from the TransAtlantic Way (TAW) in Ireland via Mason bikes and Hunt wheels in Sussex and home to the Isle of Wight.  The visit to Mason Bikes to pick up a new Mason ‘InSearchOf’ – ISO – and Hunt Wheels for Ryan to sort a damaged wheel he needed for the North Cape 4000 he was riding in July.   Ryan together with Richard (@richardmarshallphotography) were photographers for TAW and were continuing to cover Taunus.  Both great guys to spend time with and experts with the camera.

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Handover of the ISO with Dom Mason at the Old Stables, Lancing, Sussex

I am a road rider with limited off road experience and was unsure of what the ride would entail.   I was lucky to get great support from Dom Mason and the team to get the ISO set up ready for the ride.   The ISO is Dom’s latest design and having entered off road events in Morocco (Oct 2019) and New Zealand (March 2020) I wanted to test the bike in similar conditions, fully loaded for unsupported ultra distance rides.   Comforting to know that Cycling Weekly gave the ISO 10/10 in review – “Go anywhere capability and Set up for off-grid load lugging”.

Pre ride registration at the Speedway track north of the town brought together the riders for an evening barbecue organised by Jesko and his team, and not least Julia, his mum, who was in constant support throughout the days of the event.

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Pre Ride Barbecue

Day One

Forty Nine riders gathered for a 0900 start and parade lap of the speedway stadium and then set off across the main road straight into the forest trails.   I was determined to start slow and let the main pack of riders go.   I had a target of at least 150km a day given the tough looking terrain and predicted hot conditions.

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All lined up and ready

 

The morning was a lovely mixture of tracks and trails in perfect conditions.   I followed the trail on my Wahoo and it was difficult to orientate as the route twisted and turned through the Taunus hills, villages and towns.  Nearly every opportunity was used to gather food and top up the bottles.

 

I rode into the evening, picking up a tasty doner kebab for supper, and feeling good carried on through a beautiful dusk and sunset and into the short night eventually finding a spot to bivouac at midnight.   I was on the hillside above a large town, with twinkling lights and settled down for a few hours sleep.

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Fields of golden barley and the perfect sunset

It was a good day.   I felt strong, the ISO was looking after me on the trails and I was delighted with the set up.   I had started quite cautiously but gained confidence in its handling on rough ground as the day progressed.    Day one was 212km with 3,985m of climbing.

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Quiet bivouac spot – more comfortable than it looks!

Day Two

The good thing about long days and short nights is the birds wake you and after a lazy doze I was up and away before 0500hrs.  An added boost was the knowledge that I had four hours riding before the first complete 24 hours after the start.  Small things but good for the motivation and keeping your head in the right frame of mind.   Oh – and the dawn was as beautiful as the dusk!

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Dawn on day two

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Villages sparkle!

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This was a regular view – ride off the hills and forests down a deserted farm road to the village set in the valley

I rode out of the forest and onto a route taking me parallel with the River Rhine.

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New Bike – New Logs!

After about half an hour I came across a small bakery in Kiedrich that appeared to be open.

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They were awaiting a delivery and not open but kindly served me coffee and I added a couple of energy drinks.  Whilst drinking the coffee the delivery arrived so all was well and I set off feeling good.

One of the special things about unsupported rides is you end up riding with people of a similar speed, often overtaking, being overtaken or bumping into each other at rest and food stops.  One such was Lukas and we stayed within a few kilometres of each other throughout the 800kms.

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Lukas taking a rest.

What a delight it was to join the Rhine at Winkel and ride the river bank passing cruise ships and some massive commercial barges as well as taking in the beauty of this spectacular river, a lifeblood of Germany.   A few kilometres further downstream  I stopped for a second breakfast at Rudesheim am Rhein.

 

The rest of the morning was one that will stay long in the memory as I rode through the Rhine valley vineyards for many miles.  The route tracked the river, mostly on the eastern bank high up in the hills.   I lost count of the times I stopped for photos or to simply take in the beauty of this great river.

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Warm climbing alongside the Rhine

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My plan was to reach the half way Control Point at the 400km mark before dusk.   Food and a welcome were promised together with somewhere to sleep.   A good incentive.

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Slow going for these big guys against the strong flow of the river

After climbing from the Rhine for the last time there was a twisty descent to Friedrichssegen and then a beautiful ride along the banks of the River Lahn, a tributary of the main river.   The town of Bad Ems, a spa town, was packed with tourists on a busy afternoon.   Just before Bad Ems I was riding with Lukas and we came across a friendly local cycling group selling cakes and drinks on the riverside.  They were supporting a charity ride – GlucksTour.  I very welcome stop and some great homemade cakes!

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Welcome cakes and refreshments.

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Bad Ems

The route was now at the northern edge of the Taunus and then turned and looped towards the Control Point.   Approaching Hohenstein a castle was high up on the hillside and predictably the road visited the castle via a horrible 20% plus climb.  I gave it a go but had to walk the last half.

The sun was going down as I rode through fields of golden barley and descended to the Control Point.   A warm welcome from Jesko, Ryan, Richard and fellow riders was followed by some tasty barbecued chicken.   The CP was based at Jesko’s family barn and I got a good night’s sleep in a giant teepee on a comfortable mattress.

Day two was 189km with 3298m Elevation Gain.

Day Three

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Leaving the Control Point at dawn

Awake at 0400 just before dawn I was away at 0440hrs and relished the relative cool conditions that were a precursor to a very hot day with temperatures of 35 deg forecast.   Another spectacular dawn was breaking that demanded more photography!

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After about an hour I came across a bench set in the corner of a field alongside a water fountain which was perfect for a quick wash and some breakfast.

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The next few hours saw the route take farm lanes and forest trails north west back towards the River Lahn.

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Back alongside the Lahn

As the temperature rose it was good to have some relatively flat riding alongside the Lahn with a few short diversions and I stopped on a bench under the spectacular seven towers of the Catholic Cathedral at Limburg to rest and refresh a while.

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Limburg Cathedral – towering over the City – dedicated to St George

Late morning now and the mercury in the thermometer was rising fast.   I came across Dino resting alongside a fountain in the small town of Villmar.  He looked how I felt but said there was a supermarket half a km up the road.  I diverted to it – with an 8% climb – and got provisions.

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Dino taking a break in Villmar

A short while later I stopped under a tree with a bench on the hillside to eat a nectarine only to look up to see I was under an amazing cherry tree laden with ripe fruit!   Perfect.

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Cherries galore!

More shady forest trails were a blessing in the heat but I was suffering a bit in the conditions and needed plenty of stops.

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Supper time – fill the bowl as full as you need – pasta and fruit – sad about the plastic waste

Some good climbs followed – the first of three hill tops with massive wooded lookout towers.   I started to climb one but after a couple of flights said to myself “this is nuts” and went back down!

Another day was drawing to a close.  Nearly always a lovely time for the soft evening light to create memorable vistas that demand you stop and enjoy.

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Available light

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This was close to a little hotel – very tempting but I carried on!

The final delight of the day was arriving at the town of Bad Camberg.  Once through the town gates I found a great ice cream parlour and settled down for a real treat!

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Bad Camberg – ice cream.   Bad means Bath and indicates a health resort – I guess like the English Spa towns

I rode on into the cooler night and started to look for a bivouac spot.  I checked out a school yard in Hainchen but having set off the security lights decided to carry on and found a shelter with a park bench off a small carpark just outside Wolfenhausen.   I pitched the Bivi and settled down to sleep only for a couple of motorbikes to arrive at 0130hrs and start to roar around the carpark for ten minutes!

A total of 199km and 3340m of elevation for the day left me with about 200km to the finish so I was hopeful that this was my last bivouac.  People near me probably hoped for the same.  No change of kit since the start!   I was not a pretty sight nor smell!

Last Day

I woke early and was packed and on the road before dawn at 0400.   I wanted to get some distance before the intense heat of the day arrived.   Dawns early light was again beautiful and I make no apology for another photo!

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The final morning

I had shopped for breakfast the evening before and after a while stopped for a yoghurt with some crisp bread and cheese.   Sitting in the deserted countryside watching the dawn approach with the birds singing whilst eating breakfast is a pretty good reason why we do what we do!