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!

I rode through forests and farm land and passed some beautiful villages and towns along the route which rejoined the River Lahn near Weilburg,  a town sitting on a rocky outcrop surrounded by the river.   Alas it was too early to get some food so I had to make do with a coffee and water.

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Weilburg
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Weilburg

The rest of the morning and afternoon was tough going in the heat.   Looming in the distance I guessed I could see the last major climb of the ride up to the Grober Felberg – the highest mountain in the Taunus at 880m.   It seemed a long way off in the stifling heat.   In between there were more climbs, towns and some really nice single track riding.

I climbed the Groberg Felberg at dusk to find hoards of people watching the sunset over the valleys to the west below.

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Riding off the mountain along some good tracks the descent was fun and soon I was meeting more populated urban areas as the finish approached.   Jesko had still managed to keep us off the roads and in the darkness I overshot a couple of turns but managed to follow the track and arrived at the finish line just after midnight.

Jesko was greeting all the finishers which is a tough ask – great to see him and Richard and I was followed home shortly afterwards by Lukas who I had been watching on the tracker for most of the day and anxious to keep ahead!   A bit of fun because its not a race but one always wants to go well!

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Finished at midnight
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Lukas at the finish

The lateness of the finish meant another night in the bivouac at the finish line.  I was beyond caring and fell asleep in a few seconds.

The last day was 203km and 3720m elevation gain.   This made a total of 800km for the ride with 13,000m of climbing in 3 days, 15hours and 16 minutes.   I finished 12th from the 49 starters – but its not a race!

End note

The next morning it was difficult to get out of the bivouac.   The body was so stiff  – the ride was concluded so psychologically the mind had probably told the body to chill out and shut down a little.

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The morning after – struggling to get going!

The day was spent sorting a local hotel for the night and greeting riders arriving at the finish.   Jesko was ever present and had run an very special event for us all.

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Jesko – the main man – soon off to the Black Sea to ride the Trans Continental Race

The Mason InSearchOf lived up to is name!   Having only ridden it for about 30 km before this ride I developed a high level of confidence in the way it handled on the rough terrain from single track with rocks and roots to big trail descents where the gravel was lumpy limestone shale.  All that with a full compliment of Apidura bags which in truth were overloaded for this ride but I wanted to test it for longer rides I had planned.  A very special bike – JennyBee.   A big thanks to Dom and the Mason team for their help and support.

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Thanks again must go to Jesko, his mum Julia and their team coupled with Ryan and Richard on the cameras.   Thanks guys –  a brilliant event.

 

Bikepacking North Island, New Zealand – Aotearoa. Part 1 – Six Days on The Coromandel

I toured New Zealand with my Jenny twelve years ago. We saw my brother and his lovely family and sailed in the Bay of Islands and then took off in an old Camper-van for a month and experienced the beauty of North and South Island.

Since starting to ride long distances a few years ago I wanted to return and experience this beautiful country close up and on a bike. I have registered to ride Tour Aotearoa starting on the 3rd March 2020 – a 3000km ride from Cape Reinga to Bluff. So there was a good excuse to explore and recce some of the country, it’s roads and trails, before next year and visit family again after 12 years.

This Blog is an account of 14 days Bikepacking with my Mason Bokeh in March 2019. This first part describes six days around the Coromandel whilst visiting my brother and his family in their Bach in Whangamata and down in Mt Maunganui.

Part 2 ( to follow) will cover eight days riding further south in North Island. In between I rode for a day on Waiheke Island whilst saying hello to an old school pal – last together 51 years ago!

The map below shows my track (from my SpotGen3 tracker) which took in some spectacular roads and trails. I covered a little over 2000km with 22,400m of climbing. Whilst the ride was mainly on sealed roads I rode a few hundred kilometres on gravel and over one hundred on trails including the Hauraki Rail Trail, Coromandel Coastal Walkway and the Pureora Forest Timber Trail.

The rough stuff was intentional. Not least to get off the beaten track but also to test a prototype front fork with eyelets for cages on my Mason Bokeh for Dom Mason – the designer of the Mason family of award winning bikes made for riding fast over tough terrain – #fastfar bike company.

Mason Bokeh on the Timber Trail, Pureora Forest

My main guide for the rides was the Kennett Brothers book – Classic New Zealand Cycle Trails. They also organise the Tour Aotearoa and are famous for developing long distance and trail riding in New Zealand. Great advocates for biking in New Zealand.

Coromandel

I was staying with my brother and his wife in East Auckland in Cockle Bay. They were headed for their Bach in Whangamata for the weekend and I planned to ride down to join them and take in The Hauraki Rail trail on the way. I delayed my start for a day due to heavy rain forecast – wimp I hear you say – but it backfired because the following day was probably worse and I got soaked good and proper.

I set out at dawn in light rain and took the scenic route via Maraetai to Clevedon and then via Kawakawa Bay to the Firth of Thames. The rain turned heavy early on and at 20km I got my first puncture – luckily right next to a garage so I had shelter and a coffee fixing it. I had tried to run my tyres tubeless but before leaving the UK had real problems getting them to hold air and after a few days with deflated tyres every morning gave up and stuck tubes in. I think it was a dodgy sealant that caused the problem.

Back on the road the rain persisted and a second puncture at 100km was sorted with rain pouring down my neck!

Second puncture stop. Riding the shoulder in the rubbish was the risk.

I picked up the Hauraki Rail Trail at Kopu and followed it through to Waihi. Flat through farmland with endless cows and not another person, the trail turns at Paeroa and heads through The Karangahake gorge past the old gold mining works. It then emerges in Waihi with its enormous Martha open-cast gold mine crater and historic Cornish pump-house standing proudly on the hillside above the town. Gold mining is still active to this day.

Hauraki Rail Trail – easy going.

Right of way!
Karangahake Gorge rail tunnel
A bit dank but fun to ride

Karangahake Gorge. Nice not to be on the winding busy road.
Riding towards the Victoria Battery Mine Relics

The rail trail runs out into Waihi and the road over the hills to Whangamata has a couple of good climbs before descending into this vibrant coastal resort with beautiful golden beaches.

Mount Maunganui

Visiting family gave me the ride down the coast to Tauranga and Mt Maunganui. A fairly uneventful couple of days riding there and back mainly along State Highway 2 which was ok at the weekend but weekdays, with commercial trucks, was a bit sketchy at times where the shoulder ran out.

A lovely family get together and a walk up Mt Maunganui were special as was the diversion off the highway on the return leg via Golden Valley.

Early morning climb from Whangamata.
Tauranga Port. Massive timber exports from here
   Maunganui Beach

View from Mt Maunganui.
Nice gravel diversion off the State Highway
Short cut through fields of gold

Called in to Whiritoa to say hello to old friends and pick up some keys – what a beach

Exploring Coromandel

Whangamata sits on the Pacific Coast on the southern end of the Coromandel Peninsula and I wanted to ride to the northern point and ride the Coastal Walkway that runs between Stony and Fletcher Bays for 10km.

I started riding early up State Highway 25 to Whitianga via the Cooks Beach road and the ferry. Lunch at Whitianga and then continued along the Highway to Coromandel where I found a nice Motel for the night.

Cable run across steep hillsides to drag the trees for stripping and cutting.

Welcome coffee stop after good climbs out of Whangamata.
Spectacular coastline everywhere
A short diversion to Hot Water Beach but didn’t dig my warm hole in the sand!
Ferry to Whitianga
Squid for lunch
Kuaotunu – North from Whitianga

Over the hill towards Coromandel

A welcome beer at this classic old bar

The next morning I was away at first light and not quite sure what the day held. I was riding the gravel road over the mountains to Kennedy Bay and then north via Little Bay, Port Charles (named by Captain Cook in 1769) to Stony Bay and the start of The Coromandel Coastal Walkway that was the only route to make a complete Coastal circuit of the peninsula. I had been told in Coromandel that bikes were allowed on the Walkway. I was not sure if I could complete the circuit back to Coromandel in a day but had my tent if needed.

Cloud was hanging over the mountains as I climbed on the gravel road. Made for a beautiful early morning and once over the top it cleared into a glorious day on the descent to Kennedy Bay.

Early morning looking back towards Coromandel town.
Down to Kennedy Bay
Reflections always demand a photo!
Mason Bokeh loves the gravel

The ride to the Coastal Walkway was spectacular and almost free of traffic – about a dozen vehicles all morning. I found a lovely secluded cafe and got a coffee and bite to eat.

Cafe/Restaurant – part of Tangiaro Kiwi retreat – beautiful and remote.
Port Charles
Stony Bay Road

The Walkway itself was very special. I had to push the bike a fair bit but most was ok riding. Described as ‘like walking through a 10km film set’. There were breathtaking views everywhere. The sort of place where one has a permanent smile on your face and a few expletives gasping at the beauty.

Once at Fletcher Bay I picked up the gravel road again and followed the coast south to Colville where the sealed road ran back to Coromandel Town and after 124km and 2400m of elevation I was happy to book back into the motel. A tough day with 85km of gravel and 10km Coastal Walkway but one of the very best on a bike! A couple of pints of IPA at the Star And Garter went down well.

Coastal Walkway at the start. Variable surface but generally rideable.
Coastal Walkway hugs the cliff most of the way.
Dip down to small streams and a bit of rock hopping.

Lovely German lady said she had been walking the Walkway for 20 years. Insisted on taking this photo!
Poles Bay
Bit of a push up here.

Needed to walk some of the track.
Mountain bike route joins here.
Fletcher Bay – end of the Coastal Walkway
Beautiful riding along the gravel road at Port Jackson
Port Jackson
Welcome coffee and cake here after a long afternoon.

Towards the end of a magic day.

Back to Auckland

Up at first light I followed the road south from Coromandel down the Firth of Thames and picked up my outward track at Kopu after a good lunch break at an excellent garden centre cafe.

It was a hot day and I needed plenty of water and ice cream stops for the long haul around the Firth of Thames and the sharp climbs towards my destination at Cockle Bay.

The six days saw 815km and 9166m elevation. It was nice to have no time limits for a change.

Road south from Coromandel town
Kiwi Breakfast Pie at the top of a climb. Turned out to be mince meat!
Lovely flock of pied oyster catchers. They are migratory whilst the black variable oyster catcher stays put.
Wharekawa on the road north around the Firth of Thames looking across to the Coromandel
Firth of Thames across to Coromandel – AOTEAROA – Land of the long white cloud.

 

 

 

 

Bikingman Oman Race 2019

Seventy five riders gathered in Oman in late February for Edition 2 of the 1000km Bikingman Oman Race.

Well I say a race – indeed it is with Solo and Pair classification for male and female riders – but in truth there are only a handful of riders with eyes set on the podium and a top ten finish. I hope I am not belittling the majority of the rest who like me were happy to make it an adventure and experience the landscape and culture of Oman whilst still pushing hard for a good result.

That in essence is the beauty of the Bikingman concept with a series of challenging races across the world developed by Axel Carion and his team.

I arrived in Dubai a few days before the race and enjoyed the generosity and hospitality of Ed and his lovely family. We drove down to Oman in company with Derrick who was riding with Ed as a South African pair in the race but based in the UAE.

Ed and I had met at Bikingman Taiwan so had some notion of what ultra distance was going to be but this was Derricks first such ride – albeit he is an experienced road racer.

We drove to the race in Ed’s Ford pickup – a five hour journey with visa requirements at the Omani border. Rocky desert landscape prevailed along the route which was mostly a modern motorway carved through the desert.

Race village was the Barka Al Nahda Resort, some 45 minutes drive West of Muscat, where we shared a villa with one large double bed – Ed and Derrick sharing whilst I was happily on the floor!

Upon arrival it was good to meet the Bikingman team and renew old friendships made in Taiwan and Corsica. Registration was a disciplined affair with all riders having a thorough check of bike and essential kit plus confirmation of medical fitness and insurance.

We went for an easy spin to turn the legs and check the bikes followed by a few beers, some supper and an early night.

Ed and Derrick – pre race spin
Enjoying a pre race beer.

Pre-race day was a lazy affair. I went for a short ride with full kit and to check the Wahoo Element navigation was working. The race briefing took place at 2pm.

Race Briefing
Jacques – a great racer. He speaks no English and I speak no French but we are good mates and will meet again in Peru – inshallah.

The main topic of conversation between riders was the Jebel Shams Climb which weighed heavily on peoples minds. Billed as one of the worlds toughest iconic climbs it starts about 300km into the first day and rises to 1990m over 25km but includes some brutal 20% ramps early on followed by 10km of gravel and a final surfaced 5 km to the top at Control Point 1 – Jebel Shams Resort. Jebel Shams – Mountain of Sun – is the highest in the Hajar range and the country.

Race tracking from my Spot Gen3 Tracker gives you a feel of the course.

There was an optional gravel route available to the base of the Jebel Shams climb. I had checked the details and although there was more climbing on steep rough gravel it saved a considerable distance. I had set my Mason Bokeh up with WTB Exposure 34 tyres so it made sense to go for the gravel option.

Briefing complete we prepared the bikes for the race and dropped our bags for delivery to the Muscat finish. Early to bed after a good supper.

Race Day 1

We were up at 0145 and grabbed a quick breakfast and arrived at the Red Bull starting arch at the resort entrance just after 0230. A nervous air prevailed and one unlucky rider got a puncture just before the start.

Nervous moments before race start

Countdown complete we set off at 0300 in a peleton under the control of the Omani Police escort and the roar of two Harley Dividson motorbike escorts. This ran at a steady pace for over 40km, longer than expected and at about 40km I eased off the back to ride my own pace – there was a long way to go.

I missed the first turn off the main road and was warned by the Wahoo bleeping and flashing red. A quick about turn and the smaller road meandered through a pretty village in the early morning light with the first stirring of local life. The road slowly climbed to nearly 1000m but progress was good and I reached the optional gravel turn at 190km by 1130hrs

Great roads – nearly all had safe shoulders to ride.

About this time my front brake packed up. Hydraulic disc brake repair/bleeding are not my strength. I could not find any leak or loss of fluid but no matter what the lever hit the bar and nothing happened! So it became a single back brake ride for the remainder of the Race. Not too much of a problem other than big descents and if I needed a quick stop. I tried a couple of bike shops but none had experience of hydraulic brakes.

At almost the same time the dynamo stopped working! I took time to check the connections but all seemed good. Even found an auto electrical shop and the kind owner tightened the connections and re taped everything but to no avail. After 30 minutes he refused any payment – “welcome to Oman”. So I had lost my main lights – supernova front and rear and also my USB charging system for electronics. Luckily I had a head torch and small backup lights and a 10,000milliamp power pack.

The ride to the gravel section was on good sealed road and once on the gravel the Bokeh with 34mm tyres came into its own.

Climbing the optional gravel section

The gravel climb rose to about 1200m and was pretty rough in parts. There was then a sharp descent to join the main road climb up to Jebel Shams. Without a front brake I had to walk down the steeper sections after a couple of scary rear brake lockups that could have been a bit disastrous. I reckon I had to walk for about 20/30 minutes in total.

Joining the main road climb to Jebel Shams I was surprised to meet Xavier who like most riders had taken the main road route via Ibri. That gave me a big lift because he was one of the quicker riders going for a top placing.

And so the climb to 1990m and Check Point 1 at the Jebel Shams Resort began. It was an epic climb. One of the hardest I have experienced. The early ramps rose one after the other often high teens and some 20%. A kind Omani stopped his car and handed me a bottle of water and a little further up on the gravel section another car driver was parked up and handed me a couple of bottles and some chocolate.

Such kindness lifts the spirits and was to become an abiding experience and memory of the next couple of days. I have never ridden a bike where people are so friendly – a toot on the horn and a wave was frequent. On several occasions during the race I was stopped and asked where I was going and invited to coffee!

A couple of the gravel section ramps were very loose and I had to walk the bike.

Dusk was beginning to fall as I neared to top of the climb and I rode on the last 5 km of sealed road to Check Point 1 in company with Ed who kindly lit the road ahead – my head torch was not too great (later realised the batteries were nearly done!).

I was checked in at 1902hrs after 292km and 3688m climbing. Road time was 14hrs 06mins at an average of 20.7. I had burnt over 9000 calories according to the bike computer and was really glad to book a shared room with Ed and then get to the restaurant and some great food and liquid.

CP 1 food and feeling tired.

There was no real option of riding down the mountain in the dark with no main lights and only a back brake.

Ed and Derrick arrived while I was eating – they had stuck to the main route and I think had ridden at least 30 km further than I had done over the gravel.

Day 2.

I had set the alarm for a dawn start down the mountain. I grabbed some breakfast and set off with great care on the sharp descents especially on the gravel where I walked down on several of the steeper sections.

It was a marvellous dawn over the great canyon where David and the team were taking photos.

Further down the mountain I found Luke and Mike who were climbing after a night stop at Al Hamra. We stopped for a chat and exchanged photos!

Luke and Mike on Jebel Shams – riding as a pair. Always smiling.

The rest of the day should have be memorable for the distance and speed achieved with a beautiful following wind blowing us along the Ash Sharqiyah Desert roads for our rendezvous on the Arabian Sea at Check point 2.

Camel train

Strangely it is a bit of a blur. I stopped for an early second breakfast and I was keeping in touch with Ed and Derrick and we caught up and at one point and found a good spot for a late lunch together. I often find the second day of a multi day ride the toughest physically and mentally.

Derrick looking happy with his lunch!

Progress was good and during the afternoon for an hour I was flying along at over 40k. Evening approached and I found a good restaurant in a busy town before booking into a small hotel for the night in Al Kamil recommended by Ed.

Supper stop

Day two was a hot day in the desert riding to the Arabian Sea – you don’t get to say that very often in a biking life! It was tough but resulted in 318 km with 1103m climbing at 27.6 km/h average.

Day 3

Up and away before dawn there was 50km to Check point 2 followed by a turn north and then north-west along the coast and through the Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve.

Dawn rising – the quiet before the “storm”

Approaching the sea there was a noticeable change in the atmosphere – one could smell the water. At the same time the wind started to pick up and this was to be the start of a long tough day.

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CP2 – Jacques – probably as tired as the riders!

I arrived at CP2 and checked in with the ever friendly Jacques and wolfed down some good food. Cat was also resting a while and we exchanged our experiences and were both concerned by a day of riding into a headwind up the beautiful but barren coastline.

Desert and Sea will eat anything

Sand streams blowing across the road

And so the hard work began. It was pretty relentless with a full on headwind often creating a sand storm with the sand stinging my face and legs – sometimes quite painful.

Blown sand cresting the dunes

At times on a flat road I was turning the pedals at 200 watts power and only making 11km/h whereas normally it would be double of treble that. But it had to be done so it was important not to let the adverse conditions get into your head. “It is what it is” so accept today just like I had enjoyed the tailwind the day before. Once into that positive frame of mind the day became a lot better.

I stopped for water and food at every opportunity and swapped places with Cat throughout the day. It was her first experience of an ultra distance race and she was clearly loving the challenge. I loved the way her mum back in Canada was watching her Dot on the tracking page – even phoned her when she missed a turning. Her guiding angel – special.

Cat – wind blown in the desert

Occasionally along the road there were shelters – bus stops I guess – and most had water tanks available. I was amused to arrive at one for a rest to find a fellow rider already there only for him to be dialled into a business conference call. I waved and carried on!

About mid afternoon I was starting to get some sharp knee pains – not previously experienced. I pulled into a cafe for a break and some food. After a few minutes sat outside drinking my coffee a Jeep pulled up and out jumped the race Doctor! I had just been thinking about something to help the pain. Well she sorted me out with anti-inflammatories and off I went. It’s was soon eased and never returned! Strange but true!

Race Doctor to the rescue!

The town of Sur was my target for having a break and getting some food. I wondered about stopping there for the night but felt I should push on and make the last day and run to Muscat a bit easier.

To my delight I found a brand new MacDonalds and dived off the road and tucked into a chicken Mac meal with some enthusiasm – not my normal choice of fast food but this one was heaven!

MacDonalds meal with this intrepid adventurer- respect!

Sitting down next to me was a long distance cyclist (not part of the race) and we got chatting as you do. From Europe he had cycled through Iran – such a friendly country – and was tootling around Oman waiting for his visa to enter India! Real nice man and some rider.

Tiwi was the next town that looked promising for a bed so I pushed on for 50km and kept on the main road. Riding at night felt safe enough with street lighting most of the way and a good shoulder. I pulled off the road at the Sama Wadi Shab Resort and checked into a room that would take Ed and Derrick as well who were a short distance behind.

Night riding – street lights in the desert!

One of my toughest days on a bike was done. 206km in 10 hours of riding into a desert wind with only 825m of climbing at an average of 20.7km/h. I had quite a few hours of “coffee time” to keep me going.

Last day – run to the finish

After a short sleep I was awake and felt the need to go so quietly sorted my kit and crept out of the room trying not to wake the guys. I got going at 0330hrs with the route following the main road without much prospect of breakfast.

Dawn’s early light. Foreground lit by the desert street lamps.
Town of Ramlah

About to turn away from the coast – 100km from the finish

It was a long haul into the dawn and beyond before the first opportunity for food came in a small cafe at 78km.

So welcome after 0330 start and 78km. Omelette, pancakes and dhal.

Refreshed, I set off for the run into Muscat. There were a few surprises and it turned out to be a great finale to the race. Some sharp climbs and the gravel ride through the gorge leading to Wadi Jiba were special and challenging in parts.

The final approach to Muscat was through some sharp foothills with some great views of the coast and city.

Muscat
Muscat Gate Museum

It is always a bit special when one approaches the end of a multi day ride. One gets some extra energy to drive towards the line. Into Muscat there were numerous twists and turns but the route was clear on the Wahoo and I enjoyed the run to the finish.

I was greeted by the Bikingman team and it was great to see Cat and Chris who had finished just before me. We had crossed paths throughout the race and I think we were all very happy with the result.

Looking pretty tired at the finish!

Finish line with Cat and Chris

I finished at 12.25hrs after 159km with 1225m climbing and 22.1km/h average over 7hrs riding. My final position was 43rd from the 75 starters in a time of 81h25m.

After the Race

A few photos later and we were given a lift to the race finish hotel – The Grand Hyatt Muscat. I managed to get a room for Ed and Derrick and myself – they were a little behind me having stayed at the Sham Wadi Shab Resort a bit longer.

I was soon at the pool bar and the first pint was very special!

Ice Cold in Alex moment!

The following evening we had a dinner and prize giving in grand style and the next morning with Ed and Derrick headed back to Dubai after a brilliant few days on the bike.

Race dinner and prize giving

Axel and his team were excellent as usual. Friendships with race staff and riders were renewed and new ones made. Thanks to David for some great photographs along the way. It was always great to meet the media teams around the course – a source of encouragement but often a dilemma – do you smile and wave or look serious and racing!

Big thanks to Derrick and Ed for their company and friendship and especially Ed for collecting me from Dubai airport and delivering me back and everything in between! Chapeau Ed.

The Race had great support from sponsors Oman Air and other generous sponsors.

My Mason Bokeh with WTB 34 Exposure tyres was perfect for the ride. I just love that bike. The front brake failure was air in the system and the dynamo a simple connection problem. Both easily fixed and a good lesson for the future.

But the final word has to go to the people and country of Oman. Such friendliness and generosity is very special and much appreciated. The landscape is stunning and set a magic backcloth to a memorable few days in the mountains, desert and Arabian Sea coast.

Through cycling long distances in new places I can feel all the emotions and elements in their entirety. The sun, the wind, the rain, the loss, the pain, the joy – the wonder of it all.

Jebel Shams gravel descent.

New Mountain road creates a Classic Moroccan Climb

How many times in your cycling life do you start a ride you know well and then discover a couple of brand new Category 1 climbs that have been carved into the side of a mountain along the route?   That happened a couple of days ago riding with my son Jonny from Aourir to Imozzer along Paradise Valley, just north of Agadir, Morocco.

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Heading out along Paradise Valley Gorge

The new road appears to have been built as an alternative route to the famous tourist attraction of Paradise Valley.   The lower end of the valley, and only practical route from the coast, winds along a narrow gorge that has always been vulnerable to heavy rain storm damage.

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The ride to Imozzer – the new mountain road is the loop to the north

The engineering of this new mountain road is staggering.   Quite literally carved out of the mountainside rising from the coastal end at the start of the gorge up a 1000m and then descending over 600m to rejoin the original road above Paradise Valley – a total of 30km of surfaced two lane road with over 50 hairpin bends.

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We could hardly believe the way the road just went right up the mountain!

Strava stats suggest the southern climb from the coastal end is 980m over 16.4km and average 6% while the northern climb is 677m over 8.7km and average 8%.   We rode the loup from the north on our way back from Imozzer – cheekily we named it Col d’Paradise  – North as a Strava segment.

A Special Day

Jonny and I had set off from Aourir Camp to climb Paradise Valley and beyond with the plan of having lunch at the Hotel des Cascades at Imozzer  (1300 meters) in the mountains.   The original overcast cloud cover was quickly burnt off and we soon arrived at the start of the gorge.   In 2018 we had seen some road building on the mountainside and as we got closer this time realised it was a new surfaced road.    We asked a local if it went to Imozzer and he said no and suggested the only way was via the gorge.

So we set off through much heavy road building along the gorge and emerged to climb out of the valley and headed up towards Imozzer.   Near the top of the first climb we found a new road junction on our left with an amazing set of hairpin bends brutally carved from the mountainside above.   We assumed this was the other end of the new road and were excited with the prospect of exploring it on our return.   There were no road signs indicating where it went.

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Original climb north out of Paradise Valley

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We lunched at the Hotel des Cascades on its splendid balcony overlooking the valley below in company with a dozen Russian tourists who had arrived by Landrover.

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Hotel des Cascades for lunch

And so we returned down the mountain to start the climb up the new road.   It was fairly steady to start until we hit the set of hairpins that gave some recovery but in parts were over 15%.

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Lower hairpins of the Northern Climb

We stopped on numerous occasions to take photos – the construction and view as we climbed was just staggering.  We rode the whole 8km climb without a single person or vehicle passing us in either direction.

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Some of the surface was heavy with gravel  due to limited vehicle use.   In fact over the full 30km we only saw three French motorbikes and two local vehicles.   It was very remote with no dwellings  except for a couple of traditional mountain buildings near the top of the climb.

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The road levelled out at the top and we rode into a small shallow mountain valley before riding along a mountain top ridge as we started the descent.   At one point the road dipped down and rose again in a series of sharp hairpins.

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The Southern climb hits this dip before climbing the ridge to the Col in the distance

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There followed numerous sets of hairpins in the final long run down to the the small village at the start of the Paradise Valley Gorge.    The 16km climb back up would have to wait for another day – but felt a bit like unfinished business.   It looks a classic and I guess at that length borders on an HC climb?

And so we finished the ride back to the camp and headed out in the Camper van for Jonny to catch his flight home the following day – and the roads at home were blocked by snow over Bodmin Moor – so delay in getting back to Cornwall.   What a contrast!   Jonny is a longboard surfer and described it like finding a secret surf spot – virtually unknown!    If these climbs were in Europe  they would be crawling with cyclists!

It was a pretty special day in Morocco!   108km with 2500 m of climbing.

Morocco – Road Biking

Morocco is well known for some brilliant mountain bike locations.   Less well known are the road bike opportunities that have increased hugely over recent years.   From Southern Desert to the High Atlas and Anti Atlas Mountains we have found newly surfaced roads this year.   One drive from Zegora to Tata in the south saw less than 50 vehicles in the 250km drive on perfect roads and mind-blowing desert landscapes.

 The Bikes

Mason Bikes took us over the climb in style.   I was riding my blue Mason Definition2 and Jonny the Mason Bokeh in splendid orange.   In Morocco one is likely to want to ride a variety of road conditions – there are still many kms of piste – and Dom Mason’s bikes are perfect for the job – the fastfar bike company!

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Mason Bokeh
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Mason Definition2