Wednesday, 2 July 2014

2012 - Seven Stanes

When I said that cycling entering our lives would change everything I was not kidding and 2012 was a stark example of this change.  This year marked Baz's stag do and the event was to be all about the trail.  My stag do in those early years involved a trip to Budapest, 196 units of alcohol tipped into my body, shooting handguns, shotguns and AK47's in an old KGB bunker and my overall punishment for being me.  I am not inflating the truth when I say that the Wolf Pack damaged me that weekend.  I remember hiding in the basement of Starbucks on New Bridge Street on my first day back to work, wondering why my eyelids had swollen up and wishing the ground would swallow me.

For Baz, with cycling now dominating our social lives, we chose to embark upon the Scottish adventure of The Seven Stanes; seven red runs at different trail centres each marked with a stone structure carved by a Scottish artist.  The tourism plot is for people to visit the various trail centres until finally able to say they have completed the Seven Stanes.  For us we were short of time, so became the first group ever to complete the Seven Stanes in just 3.5 consecutive days.  If not for the driving between centres it would have been even quicker, but do not be fooled; this was far from easy and although not a liver bashing session (for most of those present excluding myself), our bodies seriously suffered!

Wednesday 11th April 2012

I was on Paternity leave when this came around, having taken over from my wife for months 10, 11 and 12.  I was close to the end of my time as "stay at home dad" so was in dire need of a break.  One huge difference having a child had introduced to my life was the need for a car licence rather than just a motorbike licence, so rather than being stuck in the back of a car I was able to drive myself up to Carlisle.  The Travelodge on the M6 was our starting area for the first trail centre the next day and it was dark when I came off the motorway to follow a strange loop to the other side of the motorway where our digs where.

Mark and Dan had travelled up together and collected Paul from Carlisle train station  on route so our group was mostly complete.  We would be adding Baz and two of his local boys at the first trail centre the next morning.  The excitement as we came together in the deserted car park was almost palpable and I suspect a little of this was due to fear induced by the Aston Hill fiasco.  A quick look at our surroundings suggested a need to take our bikes to bed with us if we wanted to ride the next day, so they came off the roof and we walked to the entrance of the lodge.

An odd chap let us in.  I couldn't work out if he was drunk, tired or stoned.  Either way, he wasn't quite in the same world as us so we untangled ourselves from his attempt to socialise while he put our bikes in a room of their own and drifted off down the hall to the rooms.  I admit, from first impressions of our host I wondered if our bikes would still be there when we woke up and considered whether the Thule rack on the car might have been more secure after all.

The hallway was like time travelling, carrying us back to the seventies.  The rooms were seemingly refurbished at the same time but it was a bed, I had real ale in good supply and we all knew we had slept in worse places.  I was sharing a room with Dan while Mark and Paul took a room down the hall.  I cracked open the real ales as quickly as I could and spent a little time with Dan exploring our new kit.  The days of having cargo shorts and t-shirt were long behind us now.  This was now the age of compression tops, MTB specific shorts and clip in shoes.  After the rummage we joined the others in their room, drank a little more (Mark had opened a bottle of scotch like all good Scotsman should) and called it a night a little later than was appropriate, all feeling a little nervous and excited for what was about to come.

Thursday 12th April 2012

Against all odds, the bikes had not disappeared during the night, so we had a quick and dirty breakfast in the services beside the hotel and then returned to the cars feeling utterly unsatisfied.  I took Paul and his kit in with me for our drive to Mabie and I let Dan and Mark lead the way.  Even though we were at the top of the M6, the drive was still close to an hour, but tearing  along twisting roads between majestic forest was far from a chore.

Mabie; The Ghost Stane

We reached Mabie and parked up, to find this centre a  little less commercial than Winlatter, with no café, bike shop or tourist centre.  Baz was already there with his chauffeur for the weekend, having travelled in a burgundy Citroen Picasso.  As usual his bike was upside down behind the car while he fiddled with parts of it.  His buddy, named here in as Jock to save confusion, was a large bloke with a good laugh and quick smile.  He also wore a bandanna, which was something I had forgotten existed up until then.  The last rider, here in named as Stan, arrived while the rest of us threw an Aerobie around the car park, having already removed our rides from the car and were still waiting for Baz to complete his faffs.  Stan was a quiet sort and a little dark and brooding in nature.  He had a matter-of-fact air about him of just getting on with things and I realised, considering the rest of the group, this was rather desperately needed.

At last Baz decided his fiddling was complete and flipped his bike over, only for the rest of us to put him right.  The tinkering was indeed far from over because we proceeded to add to his bike a set of spokey-dockey for his wheels, a white handlebar basket with pink trim and flowers, a splendid Paisley shirt to wear, Chop suey backpack to carry and handlebar tassels.  All of this was much to Baz's disdain, but he accepted his lot.  With the group complete and Stag dressed to impress, we set out for our first Stane. 

Phoenix Trail
Distance: 19Km
Singletrack: 80%

The Mabie Phoenix Trail was a mixed cross-country route in stunning woodland, with natural trails a world apart from our fear of it being another Aston Hill.  From the car park we cruised into a woodland and started a very steep climb that switched back and forth so we could see each other as we spread out, regardless of the distance.  This seemed to go on for quite some time and in places really ramped up in steepness.  However the view from the summit paid for all the effort.  We were now working our way carefully along the ridge, with a drop to our left that would break man and bike alike if disaster befell one of us.  Mark, who was not great at heights, was probably wishing he was back at Aston after all,  but the death ridge soon ended and we enjoyed a quick, switching descent back to earth.

Having taken the lead with Baz and Paul, jumping and pumping the trail for speed, we came to a halt and let others catch up.  The last to descend was Stan and we watched intently because he had a style that was the antithesis of our careless disregard for self-preservation.  He was poised and controlled, almost dancing to his own tune all the way to where we waited.  When he did join us I thought he might even have smiled.  Had it been me commanding a bike in such a fashion I would have been grinning from ear to ear with self-worship.

The highlight of the centre for me was the Descender Bender.  This was a willy fizzing high speed roll through a series of interconnected berms that had to each be more than 25ft tall.  We rode them fast and high, getting spat out from one directly into the next and hanging on for dear life as one particular berm exited onto an unexpected table top jump.  Onwards and down we flowed, screaming with near ecstasy and not a single one of us will forget it.  Nor will we forget the talk we had with a guy at the end of the trail who explained how a man had recently broken his back on that surprise table top by hitting the tree beside it.  I personally couldn't remember the tree; only the sheer horror blended with elation from having transitioned from a berm into mid-air rather than into another berm as was expected.     

A final sharp climb known as The Scorpion for the sting in its tail put us into less manicured trail through lovely forest, much like we had experienced at the start.  In the Misty Glade we had a few photos with the "Ghost Stane" and pressed on knowing we had another trail yet to conquer that day, but the back end of Mabie was as sweet as the first half with water to blast through and sweet trail to churn, interspersed with the odd piece of north shore and rocky chutes that were either taken at overly enthusiastic speed so as to clear the double drop in one (my method) or to get off and step down (the sensible choice taken by others).  My method was not in fact a demonstration of skill, but more an example of failure to look ahead.    

Ae: The Talking Head Stane

With one Stane down, we quickly re-packed the cars and took the 30 minute drive to Ae.  I was following Dan again, although not on his race lines that seemed to take up most of the deserted roads.  Nor did I choose to get air over the cattle grids which I would not have thought possible for a Mercedes loaded with bikes unless I had seen it with my own eyes.

Ae as a centre was a little more civilised, with a café and bike shop, so we stepped into the café and had a quick calorie top up before heading out to the red trail.

Ae Line Trail Stats
Distance: 24Km
Singletrack: 65%

Ae started with a climb on switchbacks much like Mabie up into the forest and this was quickly paid for with a series of jumps on the way back down.  Despite the trail centre already in our legs we were motoring along, buoyed by the increasing flow we were achieving from being longer in the saddle.  Undulating single track led us around the flanks of Green Hill, but then broke into the open and onto a steep turning climb, again greeted afterwards by more jumpy descents.  The flavour of Ae was much like this, with short, sharp and steep climbs met very quickly by swooping descents peppered with jumps and table tops. 

Granny Green Love came at us next which was a lift in technical demand, with a loose surface and much more rock, while the more manufactured features were replaced with natural ones offering the brave a chance for more air.  The manicured section soon returned though, with table tops back to back that increased in size to either take advantage of growing confidence, or to teach a rider the folly of arrogance.

Ae also had a series of berms, but nothing was going to come close to Descender Bender.  These appeared just before crossing the river on a narrow bridge.

The pace dropped for us all as we fought our way up the climb after the river and I took the chance to chat with Jock a little more, liking his loud and brash nature, but the breath even for talking was snatched away in the final stages of the climb which not only increased in gradient, but also in technicality with scattering stones beneath our wheels.

I admit that climbing was not and is still not a great skill of mine.  The training I had done focused more on putting down power in short bursts.  The long climbs simply drained me and at one point, on a bend turning up alongside the forest I was incredibly unfair to Mark and Paul as they powered past, snapping at them for being good climbers.  It was completely irrational and unfair, but in the midst of suffering we often drop the ball.  Admittedly, they were climbing so fast they had no time to respond, but it was a chat we had to have later.

Once the climbing was over we found ourselves at the Heart Stane sat with a background of forest and sky.  I had almost forgotten that we were also seeking out the Stanes, but seeing it and knowing photos would require us to leave the saddle for a while was a blessing.

The section of trail we had all been waiting for was at the end and known as the Omega Man.  When I saw the signpost indicating a descent my heart skipped and new energy rushed in to my legs.  It was slightly galling to roll downhill about fifty metres only to then find myself climbing again, but this was a brief blip in the section and soon opened up into a hair tingling race over singles, doubles, drops and table tops right back to where we had begun.

I was ruined though and not the only one.  When we were back at the cars I suggested the pub as a means to close the day and all agreed.  Meanwhile, feeling the strain of the trail as much as me, Dan whipped out his phone and arranged for Mark to be put on his insurance to share in some of the driving and although I needn’t follow in admin terms, I saw the idea of sharing the driving as a great excuse to really go at the beer in the pub.  There are some benefits to having the non-drinker Paul with me in the car and this was certainly one of them.

Our digs for the night was a Mongolian Yurt at the Galloway Activity Centre sat on the banks of Loch Ken.  We decamped from the cars and instantly littered the place with our junk, claiming beds and then focusing on the footage I had managed to capture on my headcam.  The footage was absolute rubbish and made us feel sick with how it juddered and spluttered, but fortunately our memories were clear and while we relived what had only happened that day the drinks stores depleted.

Friday 13th April 2012

We woke up frozen to the bone, if we had slept at all.  The log burner in the centre of the Yurt had held the chill away for a while, but without being tended had quickly died out so we all felt rough.  We quickly dressed for the day and made our way over to the café for breakfast, only to be plagued by two opportunistic little Jack Russells while we attempted to chow down on one of the worse breakfasts I have ever experienced.  Eating the bread was like biting into a wad of toilet tissues and the internal structure of the sausage was akin to playdo that had been left in the air for slightly too long.

I resorted to the staple of coffee and smokes, standing on a jetty beside the lake and admiring a beautiful tepee that was an option aside from the Yurt we had taken.  When the group had suffered enough for calories we filled the cars with bodies and drove for an hour to Glentrool.

Glentrool: The Giant Axe Head

We parked up, set up and set off for the trail board only to discover that the Stane was not on the red trail in this instance.  Instead it sat halfway round an excessively long cross country purple trail which would offer very little in the way of challenge, but would seriously affect our ability to drive to and complete the next centre.

We decided to take the blue route, forsaking the photo with the Stane and instead improvised with Baz on a nearby rock.

The Green Torr Stats
Distance: 9Km
Singletrack: 65%

The trail was simple in design and a joy to ride despite being only a blue grade.  It began with a climb that continued all the way to the highest point, moving through forest to start with until it opened up to awesome views.  After this it was all downhill back to the start, on wide, manicured single track with berms, but very few real air opportunities.  We found one section that was dripping with flow as it swooped down into the forest, ending on a beautiful berm before kicking out on a fire road.  Knowing we had a time window die to the shorter and easier blue, we pootled back up to do it again, but this time leaving a few elephants between us to save Mark from shouting at whomever was squealing on the brakes behind his back wheel.

The final descent was sweet and steep for a blue and kicked us out at the visitor centre where we had begun, giving us all good smiles and a fire in our belly for the next centre.

Kirroughtree: The Gem Stane

It was a 25 minute drive trail to Kirroughtree trail and on beautiful twisting roads.  The centre also had a nice café which allowed a coffee top up and a dripping cheese toastie just for good measure.  The painful start to the day had somehow been eradicated by the almost effortless and utterly enjoyable blue run, so we were full of beans starting Kirroughtree.

The Twister Stats
Distance: 17Km
Singletrack: 80%

The Twister trail was a wonderful mix of technical rock sections and flowing forest.  The flow was delightful, with the red trail often sharing a route with the blue, but then pairing away for the red to tackle the gnarly sections before coming back to the blue for snappy climbs.  This was a trail of gliding rather than flying and seemed well in our abilities, boasting our confidence even further.

We tore along at pace into a section called White Witch and whooped as we left the granite boulder behind; a feature that not long ago would have had most of us walking.  The single track from here grew narrower and I had Paul harrowing my back wheel, so the power went down even more.  On and on we raced, skipping through leafy woodland, flying over the roots of a grand old oak beside a lake, over a bridge and off down more dark single track.

We stopped at a natural end of the Rivendell section and waited for the others.  A few more groups passed through and we started to wonder if we had gone the wrong way, but without phone reception we couldn’t contact them.  Then yet another group came through and stopped beside us.

“Are you with a bigger party?” they asked.  “They are waiting for you at the Stane.”

Paul and I had been so intend on the trail we had failed to see the Gem Stone beside the lake and had to trek back up the wrong way on a section that was very fast for those coming down it.  It was slow progress and more than a little hair raising, but we made it in one piece and were at least included in the pictures after suffering a justified wind up from the others.

At least Paul and I got to ride the awesome section again and the trail ended with a giddy section known as Jabberwocky, filled with turns and rocks, rock slab climbs and descents, step-downs, step-ups and bomb holes pre-warned with a death sign, adding to the fun of it.  All in, the trail centre had earned the title of “best so far” in my heart and I barely registered the 45 minute drive back to the yurt as me and Paul relived the trail in words. 

Saturday 14th April 2012

I didn’t wake up cold because I had not been to sleep.  On our way back the day before we had stocked up on more real ale from a super market and I had plopped myself down near the burner to both drink and stoke the fire.  The whole group woke up grateful, but I was soon to realise the error of my ways when even a long soak in the shower block, poor coffee and smokes failed to clear the fog from my head.

Dalbeattie: The Heart Cleft Stane

We packed the cars fully as our last night in the Yurt was over.  We had a 50 minute drive to Dalbeattie, had Newcastleton to polish off after that and then were staying at a guest house in Innerliethan.

Hardrock Trail Stats
Distance: 25Km
Singletrack: 65% (black-graded sections are 100% singletrack)

For a foggy brain, Dalbeattie was a brutal place.  The trail started in a car park with no facilities that led us out to long stretches of north shore over bogs and beds of reeds, always ending with a drop onto rock or loose shale.  Then the hard granite surface of the trails beyond this encouraged too much speed for the features all too quickly arriving from ahead.  Paul and I tore off again, tearing along a slim, loose surfaced trail with a rock face to our left and a severe drop to our right.  Our hardtails skipped over the features and skidded through the loose stones until we were both overwhelmed with excitement.  Then out of nowhere a tree stump, cut down to just above pedal height, reared up in the trail.  The metallic smack of my pedal catching it, adding to the scars in the wood present from other mishaps in the past, was nothing compared to the crunch of me hitting the unyielding ground.

Paul helped me up from the ledge and the others soon joined us to see the scratches and beads of blood forming on my legs.  I had survived physically, but mentally I had been crippled and that tone remained for the rest of the trail. Faced with step ups and step downs over smooth, damp granite ate away at my resolve to continue and put fear in my heart of another disaster.

Dalbeattie was also peppered with black features.  The first we attempted was a mini slab, all knowing in the back of our minds that the real slab awaited us further alone.  Only me and Baz attempted this and both succeeded, giving back a little confidence.  Then there was a run off, which was simply a short vertical drop down a smooth piece of granite.  Again, me and Baz took it on and survived.  This however did nothing to prepare me for the real slab when it finally filled our path.

Still affected by my crash, sleepless night and boozy habit, I simply accepted defeat and instantly put my bike to my shoulder and walked down before anyone had even started to ponder the “should I or not” question.  This was the one feature I had been most driven to conquer prior to the trip, but right there and then I saw it as the potential end of my trip, so as much as I was disappointed in myself, I was also pleased at having for once shown a modicum of sense.

Baz was the only one to ride the slab in the end and at last we had some good footage because I used a Flip camera instead of headcam.  It was a true sight, seeing his tassels flap out behind him as he coursed arrow straight down 15-metre section of sheer granite.  He reached the bottom and stepped off the bike, letting it fall as he dropped to his knees and roared for the Gods to hear that Man has prevailed!

We collected the picture at the Stane and with the Slab behind us my flow started to return and the back end was more like the riding I had enjoyed the previous day.  There was an unusual amount of closed sections, forcing us onto fireroads which sometimes proved the reward for a prior bitter climb, making the climb all the more bitter, but when there was single track open the trail still threw rock and root at us in ample measure. At the very end I landed on the top of my head trying to follow Baz over a skinny plank between two boulders, but we made it to the end alive.

Strangely, despite it having been me (and a little bit Baz) who had shed the blood on the trail, Dalbeattie actually took Stan out of our group.  His knee gave way after the pummelling and he decided to call it a day, leaving us after a bottle of Punk IPA from out of Jock's car boot.

Newcastleton: The Border Stane

It really was the driving that was making the challenge tough and the 1.5 hour drive to Newcasleton after the brutality of Dalbeattie was enough to take the fizz out of any mans’ tail, but I had bottled it at the Slab and had something to prove to myself.  For this reason, when we finally did pull up beside the toilet block in the car park (the only facility available) I was filled with a determination to redeem myself.

Red Route
Distance: 16Km
Singletrack: 60%

Newcastleton claimed the top seat for “best centre” within the first few minutes and held it to the end.  I could not fault it in terms of flow and character and sang to me more of freeride than trail centre.  The isolation added to the overall effect of the place and I felt enriched by the end of it rather than tired. 

The nameless red route was fast, narrow single track that wound its way along the side of a valley, crossing bridges and boardwalks that led into sharp, but short climbs into the next long ribbon of single track draped out ahead.  Unlike the other trails, which seemed to alter as you progressed from manicured trail to natural and back again, Newcastleton was simply natural in feel from beginning to end.

We had our first and only mechanical here – a puncture that came at the top of a climb and meant we stopped in a beautiful, open glade to make the repair.  Not one of us seemed to mind, as if we had left our cares at the car.  Things were fixed without fuss and we were back on the trail, swooping through the forest like native deer on the move, both fast and graceful, stopping next only when we reached the Stane.

A single black grade feature reared its head towards the end; a raised timber trail line across a pond, but the flow was too delicious to be abandoned for what would likely have been carnage.  We tore past it without debate, plummeting into dark forest before crossing the Tweeden Burn over a stunning arched laminate bridge.

The trail ended a little way from the car park, spitting us out onto green fields and then a short road climb back to where we started.  The Punk IPA made another show and we lingered by the cars whooping and grinning.  What had started out as a horrific day had ended on an utterly true high and six of the Stanes had been ticked off just as we had planned.

Sunday 15th April 2012

Even the 1.5 hour drive to Innerliethen could not deplete my joy from Newcastleton and being so close to the end of the challenge, with a whole day left in which to do just one trail, filled me with self-pride.  When we pulled into the drive of the house booked for us to stay in my good mood only increased.  It was beautifully clean, had everything we could need and most of all there was a bed and central heating rather than a bunk and wood fire.

Once all showered and dressed, which is a long process for six men, five of which who are attempting to drink ale at the same time, we popped out for the short wlak into town to get food.  Now Innerliethen is not what you would refer to as a “tourist destination” and our group seemed to stand out like a sore thumb.  We had not even walked more than ten metres up the high street before an angst filled drunk crossed the road to get in our faces.  He stood toe to toe with Baz and we all waited for the inevitable “kick off”, which would have been a slightly messy affair with six lads against one drunk.  Baz, knowing he was target no.1, took a step back to give room for a clear headbut should the situation seem unavoidable, but this action must have registered with our foe.  He suddenly became aware of the size of the group, maybe even noticed he was being lined up for a nutting and backed off.

With the drunk now returned to his shop doorway where his ragged queen awaited him, junky sores and all, we slipped into a pizza house and ate enough to feed a small army.  From here we moved into the pub, avoiding standing near Paul who had developed the most sinister batch of wind and began drinking with gusto.  The pub also had a healthy array of scotch which led to a game of “Guess the brand” for me, Mark and Baz, resulting in many units and strangely, many a correct guess.

The walk back to home was without the drama of the walk in and a cozy bed was all that was needed to completely polarise how the day had begun.

Glentress: The Meteorite

We were up in good time and packed early.  I had moved Paul’s bags to Dan’s car as I would be travelling home solo after Glentress, but I still took him and his bike with me on the 18 mins drive.  Upon arrival I looked out at the commerciality of this centre in comparison to something like Newcastleton and was stunned.  I could see fields of wooden huts, there was a café, shop and bike shop as well which led to my instance of coffee before beginning and as we were time rich I received no complaints.

The Glentress Red Route
Distance: 18Km
Singletrack: 65%

Whereas Newcastleton was awesome for being entirely natural and flowing, Glentress was awesome for the complete opposite because it was manicured from one end to the other and involved all the climbing up front followed by all the descending in one long session.  The climbing was done in order of ability and we quickly spread out, but once we reached the top, amusing ourselves on route with the odd log feature and balance beam, that order flipped on its head for descending.

I was shocked to see a smattering of snow as we got closer to the top and then enthralled to catch my first ever glimpse of a red squirrel.  All in, despite the manmade feel, Glentress was beautiful to climb.  Beauty, but not flow, stepped aside when it was time to descend.

The most memorable section has to be Spooky Wood, which started out technical and challenging as it whipped in between the trees over rutted and rooted ground long abused by rubber tyres.  I had been second to leave the start behind Baz and was on him all the way down, pitching Crank against his full-sus 29er and not finding Crank wanting.  The trail then came out of the woods and into purpose built drops, jumps and berms, adding to the speed as we battled for space with a dangerous lack of distance between us.    Twelve 180-degree berms, 18 jumps and 17 table tops truly paid for the climbing and that was in that single section, which fired us out with big smiles on our faces, right beside the final Stane.

If Spooky Wood had been the only descent I would have been satisfied, but Glentress was not finished with us yet.  We still had sections named “Super G”, “Hit Squad Hill” and “The Pie Run” to add handfuls of cherries to our cake.  There was also the Matrix, which was a trail of choice, like a rabbit run in how it branched off, rejoined and littered the side of the mountain like the runoff from a waterfall.

Back at the centre we paid to shower and had a quick coffee together, but all knew it was over.  Our parting was sad, but I had an 8.5 hour solo drive home to dwell on all that we had faced and achieved.  So this was not a boozy affair for a stag-do.  It had been an endurance style challenge, filled with the need to bring technical ability, mental strength and a little bit of a strong liver.  We had passed in all aspects.  We had beaten the Seven Stanes.