First bikepacking trip of 2014

Last Saturday I had my first bikepacking night away of the year. After faffing packing, it was 15:00 when I eventually left. No matter as I was only going local, to the Pentland Hills outside Edinburgh, as I just wanted to test some new gear, Wild Country Zehpyros 1 tent and Rab Ascent 500 bag (1c rated). These new purchases mean that I now have all possible tent/tarp/bag/mat combinations to deal with all four seasons in Scotland. Ten minutes in I realised that I had not packed my down jacket. Although 6mm of rainy snow was forecast for the tops, I decided not to delay further and u-turn as I would be in a tent not tarp.

Aside from commuting, this was my first ride in more than a few weeks having spent my leisure time with two snowboarding holidays since Christmas and well as managing a dodgy bad back. Conditions on the hills were muddy but not too glupy. However, my legs were heavy having not put in many miles recently and the realisation that I had forgotten to eat much so far that day. Nevertheless, it was good to be out, grinning as puffed up the hills or as my tyres slid in the mud.

Edinburgh and the Forth are north, behind the hills. Not a soul around up here.

I decided to camp in these trees to get some cover from the weather up this high. And time was getting on before it would soon be getting dark.

This clearing looked like a pleasant spot, flat and sheltered.

New tent up. Very easy too with inner and outer put up together.

Gear unpacked, cous cous and curry reheating, and a large bowl of coffee. Dinner of champions.

After refuelling, I settled down in the warmth and comfort. The new sleeping bag in the new tent felt good. So toasty, full and content, I could have turned in, particularly now that the sleet started pattering on the tent, but I watched a film on my phone. It still only 20:00 after all. And I treated myself to a few snifters of black russians.

The sound of the weather on the tent was becoming louder around midnight so I got up for a nosey and was surprised to see so much snow. Much more then I was expecting; more than the forecast 6mm. A very quick visit to the Gents and then back into my cocoon. The missing down jacket was not missed as the tent and bag where doing great.

By 07:30 in the morning, with the snow already beginning to thaw slightly, I packed up while my coffee and porridge were on the go.

Packed and keen to set off home. The myog drybag strapping worked well and was okay to reattach out in the field.

The landscape had changed dramatically since yesterday. After slip-sliding down the hill over snow covered mud, I took the quick, road way home and made it back for second breakfast.

Badgers beware. SolarStorm X2 light first look

I entered the Chinese bright bike lights arms race two years ago with the then de rigueur CREE XML light. This has been faultless and plenty bright enough. (Too bright? Of course, but let us not worry about that.)

This year's preferred bike light is clearly the SolarStorm X2. This cost me an incredibly low £23 from Lightmalls. It is amazing how much light one gets for less money than even just a few years ago. Arrived in 14 days. Includes light unit, bands for holding onto bars (I'll investigate if a better clamp is required), battery and pouch, charger with UK plug.

Initial impressions are very favourable. The button cycles between low > medium > high, with the strobe only coming on with a long press, which is a good thing. Connector is a more waterproof screw-fit and with an o-ring. Old XML and X2 batteries/connectors are interchangeable (although the screw-fit on the X2 means the connection to the old battery is not so tight, although old XML light to new X2 battery is fine).

For size reference, here it is on the bars next to my old (two winters ago) CREE XML light

The informal, unverified 'self-induced blindness test' indicates that it is VERY BRIGHT, utter bad-man - I had red spots in front of my eyes for an unnervingly long time. I had thought the older light was bright enough to ruin retinas (it is!) but this is something else, spots linger for longer! An indirect squint at the older light and the X2 on together suggests high on the former is somewhere just under medium on the latter.

It is straight out on the box so I've no idea on performance. I should get the chance to do some proper brightness photos and run-time tests this weekend. Badgers will melt crossing my path.

With obvious concerns about the suitability of the stock batteries, I will now keep an eye out to see what the community decides on as better batteries for the long-term.

MYOG saddlebag hack

I am a big fan of Alpkit and own various of their products, including a few spare drybags bought to try-out something inspired by an Alpkit post about making a saddlebag from their Airlock Xtra drybag. But all that cutting and sewing seemed rather unnecessary and a pretty good way to not make a drybag waterproof - I can sew on buttons but that is certainly it.

I had two seatpost packs that were nasty-looking, cheap things but bought because they where on offer for just £1 and they would surely come in handy. They did. I cannibalised them for parts - the clip attachment for the saddle and an inner piece of plastic used to provide rigidity and distribute the load.

The saddle clip and inner plastic are attached with bolts (low-profile heads on the inside so they do not snag the contents) with four small holes carefully poked through the drybag for the bolts. The bolts are tight, which should minimise water ingress, but I have also put small dabs of marine silicone sealant on the holes.

A drybag turned inside-out and with the plastic rigid-ity bit attached

I used a 3ltr (costs £5.50) and a 13ltr (£8.50) Airlock Xtra, suitable for a day-trip and a bike-packing trip, respectively. No need for an additional harness - the saddle clip, straps, and a velcro strap around the seatpost keep things secure. No cutting and sewing required. Boom.

Tinkering with my mtb

My hardtail has been neglected for a couple of months following a new-found love of road cycling. I had made some component changes but had not yet tried my new set-up, so I had a run to the Pentland Hills on Sunday. Before the pictures, here is a run-down of the changes.

Added slightly wider bars - 750mm - to go with the 50mm stem. I can not go back to narrower now. In the last two years I have gone 585 (admittedly this was just on a crappy commuter) > 685 > 720 > 750.

Dropped the front mech and the 9-speed and have gone 10*1. I went for 11-36 rear and 32 front. This honestly fits all eventualities even at the Pentlands, and the simplicity is a real delight. Got a new 10-speed cassette, chain, rear shifter, rear mech, all in SLX. Up front is now a single 32T Renthal chainring. Also fitted a Superstar chainkeeper just in case.

Finally, On-One Smorgasbord 2.2 tyres. I have not had much experience with different tyres, but these feel very, very good: grippy, bouncy and not too draggy.

Oh, forgot, and a Charge Spoon saddle.

The changes really make the bike into a very different beast that is now optimised for thrashing around the hills. I am REALLY happy with this new set-up, with all the changes together somehow hitting the sweet spot for me.

So, so lucky to live in such an amazing city as Edinburgh, and with the Pentlands just six miles away. Mile and miles of trails that I've still yet to discover...

Anyway, to the bike:

Seduced by the darkside

In Nov 2012 I bought a Charge Scourer hybrid bike, a deal I couldn't refuse - £285 from £630 after stacking a number of discount codes. I knew this isn't a great bike: the geometry is just wrong, and it rode like it. The frame is compact, more like a road bike than a mountain bike, with only a 52cm top tube (small frame). But it was set up like a hybrid mountain bike. My hardtail is 56cm, my single speed mountain bike is 55cm (both also small).

Lots of similarly built-up bikes had been appearing, which had little thought to geometry - different versions based on the same frameset but with either flat bars, drop bars or bullhorns thrown on without thought as to how this changes the cockpit.

Here is the original, with flat bar, looking like a sit-up-and-beg hybrid

Nevertheless, the spec intrigued me and offered an interesting possibility. Compact road geometry, road drivechain, skinny 700c wheels but with mechanical discs. CX bike? I added new bars, shifters and brake levers to transform the bike.

On-one Midge bars. These take road shifters but fit OS mtb stems. Also, unlike road bars, they flare out at the ends to 55cm at the widest point, which provides more control over the rough stuff than standard narrow drop bars (about 40-44cm).

Mechanical disc brakes adds an extra problem when using with drops and road levers. STI levers with brakes and shifters combined aren't possible. Off to Google cos I know nowt about road bikes...

Tektro RL520 levers solved the lever problem. These are for mtb-style long-pull callipers rather than short-pull road callipers.

It isn't optimum but my only option was bar-end shifters but hey. I found Shimano Dura-Ace 7700 on offer (£42, down from £60-75). These can be switched between index or friction shifting, which means they are compatible with any road or mtb mech. Setting up friction gears was new to me, but very easy once you know how. Shifting is very much like making love to a beautiful woman: they need to be caressed rather than tapped. One bonus is that being friction they allow dumping of gears in one go.

This is the new bar set-up

My first ride on drops was fun but brutal while I worked on my new riding position. The pain of still being 30 miles from home while on a 79 mile ride. Helmet peaks are for cool kids on mountain bikes but have absolutely no place on a pain-free neck road ride.

My cockpit (for want of a better word) has been changed massively: stem flipped, saddle up and up and up, saddle further and further forward. I just need an in-line seatpost to move a touch further forward and then I am sorted.

Bike now in CX/road mode

Shop-mobility mode, with rack

Since this transformation I am afraid that I haven't been mountain biking, but it's all good as I have been really enjoying road riding and done some miles. Love the fitness improvement and the distance one can cover in a ride. In the last six weeks I have done rides of 47, 61, 73, 76, 79 miles as well as numerous other quick 10-25 mile blasts.

My transformation to full roadie is now complete - I now own five Rapha jerseys. Lovely.

Kit list

After months spent carefully researching the best stuff for weight versus price (which is as much fun as actually using it!) and snagging bargains when they appeared, I have collected my core bike-packing and bivvying kit. Happy with everything on the list, and I don't think I've compromised anything so that I'll have to re-buy an alternative in future.

Top row:
Alpkit Airo 180 mat (616g); Rab Ascent 3-4 season bag (just about, but probably not quite, stuffed into an Alpkit 8ltr bag) (1456).

Middle row:
Rab Storm bivi bag (524); Terra Nova Competition 2 tarp 3m x 2.5m (515); 1.2m pole stolen from my Argos Tiger Paws tent (80); plenty of paracord lines with Line-Loks (92); Alpkit titanium pegs (61); mini lantern (28); cheapo inflatable pillow (55).

Bottom row:
Antibacterial wipes and gel; tooth bush/-paste; large hip-flask containing 8oz of Black Russian; meths (101); MYOG supercat stove (6); waterproof matches (15); wind-proof lighter (49); MYOG pot (115); Spork (10); Orikaso fold-flat dish, bowl and cup (110).

Hanging up my boards for the summer

I wanted to get my boards out of the way but not have them laying flat (it might knack the camber, I dunno). Saw these Burton thingies but they cost £10 per board, so I dreamt this up. It is dead simple, works really well and is dirt cheap, a few pence
You'll just need:
Spirit level. Screwdriver Drill 2" screws (the kind without the thread all the way to the head). Rawl plugs. Screw head caps

Measure the board waist an inch or so in from its widest point. Drill two holes that distance and level. Add rawl plugs, put caps on the screws and screw them in leaving the head protruding about 1-1.5cm. The board actually rests on the screws, not the caps. While the board is in place, adjust to the screw so that the cap is near the board but not tight up to it. It works with both my rocker and normal camber boards. Coolio.

MYOG Anything Cage

Came across a Bell expandable bottle cage in Asda for only £2.30. Figured it was worth a punt at that price to see if it could be modded into something like a Salsa Anything Cage.

The rubber strap would only fit up to a 1ltr bottle so replaced it with two webbing straps. Added a bit of felt to the contact points to stop the fork being scratched and clipped on using rubber-lined clips that I had spare from those I bought for securing the mudguards. Not been for a shakedown run yet but all seems to be sturdy enough although I think I'll get some jubilee clips so they can be easier tightened/removed. Will be getting a second cage next time I am in there.

With a full Alpkit 5ltr drybag  for size reference

Back from the powdercoater

I've an old, inexpensive commuter (£245 Beone Aspire) that I utterly ragged for 3 1/2 years and recently replaced. It was really ready for the bin, with the components well worn, but the frame was still OK. I just going to bin it as I was using my new bike for commuting but then decided to get the frame powdercoated. Glad I did - essentially a new bike, which is nice. From this:
To this, for just a £25 powdercoat it has been transformed. The orange will really make my eyes pop. Plus a used set of carbon rigid forks. I've been collecting bits in the sale and now have enough to build a new bike:

New sleeping bag

After two uncomfortable nights freezing during my trip to Cairngorm last September using a cheapo sleeping bag with a supposed rating of 0°C, I needed to spend some money on a descent 3 season bag, but with an eye on budget.

I was after something like Alpkit's Pipedream 400 or 600 but got fed up with the  (lack of) stock control. A few hours browsing and I made an impulse purchase at the right price: a Rab Ascent 700 sleeping bag. 

For all its failings, the GoOutdoors can result in some real bargains. Rated as 3 to 4 season: comfort -5°C, limit of comfort -12°C, extreme -31°C. I now reckon my old bag was bigging itself up and quoting its extreme rating.

Now I need to give it a test run. Thinking about a night in the Pentlands but am being a bit nesh what with the current snow and cold...