Adventures

6 things I Wish I’d Known About Bike Packing Luggage Before I Set Off

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I’ve been tinkering with the idea of bike packing for a while. It looks brilliant for a start, all that fancy luggage and those beefy trail hungry bikes. Bike touring for extra rugged types, count me in! The luggage ain’t cheap, so after deciding that this might be my new passion, I started collecting bits, and then did a mini mountain bike tour back in the summer on easy trails around Ben Alder. All this was building up to the big one, two weeks in the mountains of Crete in October. So now I’m back, and I have the benefit of hindsight. Here’s what I have learned.

 Adventure Bike, my go anywhere, do anything bike.

Adventure Bike, my go anywhere, do anything bike.

1. Start With the Bike.

It’s a no brainer really, if you’ve got a big trip planned, start with thinking about how your bike needs to be set up. For Crete, we knew we would be riding a mixture of tarmac and unsealed agricultural roads with lots of height gain every day. Tracks can be rough and thorny. I’m lucky to have a choice of bikes (n+1 anyone?) and decided that my Adventure Bike would be the most comfortable ride for this trip. It’s fairly light, with a tough aluminium frame, strong wheels, and we fitted brand new Schwalbe Landcruiser tyres to keep those thorns out (which they did, with zero punctures in 2 weeks of riding). Adventure Bike has a triple chainset but with my lack of training, I knew the hills would be my nemesis. I decided that I wanted to bring as little luggage as possible, staying in rooms and hotels along the way. This was a good call as the hills were massive, so I got this bit right at least! However, some aspects of my bike weren’t ideally suited to the luggage I wanted to carry. More on this later. Meanwhile, Wally was riding an adapted Scott mountain bike and had even friendlier gears on the hills, but he compromised with less performance on the rare tarmac flats.

 Fully loaded and adventure ready.

Fully loaded and adventure ready.

2. Aerodynamics: You Win Some, You Lose Some…

The point of bikepacking luggage is twofold. Firstly, by distributing the weight around the bike in small packages and using frame bags, it’s possible to keep the centre of gravity low and close to where the rider sits. This is great for rough trails and technical terrain. Secondly, in theory, it is also a lot more aerodynamic than bulky panniers clipped on to a bike rack. I bought a secondhand half-frame bag from a pal, to optimise that centre of gravity benefit, but I quickly realised that it made using my bottle cages awkward. I knew water could be an issue in the dusty heat of Crete so carrying plenty of water would be essential, but no bother, I excitedly purchased an adapter kit that allowed me to fit my bottles to my forks. My bike now looked awesome, and like a proper Adventure Bike! My delight lasted until my first headwind, when I discovered that fork mounted bottle cages are a bit like sails. Great with a tailwind but rubbish in a headwind. My sporty bike with drops and a relatively tucked riding position was transformed in to a plodder.

 The perfect bread carrying solution?

The perfect bread carrying solution?

 3. Improvise

As we got the hang of things, Wally’s handlebars became the perfect place to store fresh bread and delicious Cretan pies, snuggled safely between a map case and his bar bag.  To be honest though, from the word go, our gear was definitely a bit DIY… Proper bikepacking luggage is gorgeous and exciting but also very expensive. My set up ended up being a bit of a mishmash of off the peg luggage (love the Koala 13 from Alpkit), and bits cobbled together from drybags and assorted straps that we collected in the run up. I strapped a drybag to my handlebars using segments of alkathene water pipe (thanks to a plumber friend), to hold it off my bars and leave space for my hands, (I bought an Alpkit Joey handlebar harness to help with this). I carried a small roll of gaffer tape, which I regularly applied to protect the bag from an exposed section of brake cable. At the last minute before we left, I found an old lens pouch for a camera which strapped on to my bar bag and could be filled with snacks, and a luggage strap that held my flipflops on to the saddle bag, so that I was always beach ready!

 Front end, with asymmetric bar bag…

Front end, with asymmetric bar bag…

4. Do Dummy Runs

I left my dummy run until too late, and discovered that my number one problem was going to be the interaction of my bar bag and my road style gear levers on my drop handlebars. Adventure Bike has narrow profile Bontrager bars, designed for women and other people with small hands, which I absolutely love, and have improved my confidence when descending. The massive down side which I had not appreciated until I was in the thick of it, is that if you strap a bulging bar bag to them, you can’t easily use the gear shifters. This was a particular issue from my front (left) shifter which needs more room to travel than the right. Getting the set up right so I could push the levers required lots of trial and error every morning, pulling on the straps to deform my bar bag to exactly the perfect dimensions for my gears to work. This was intensely annoying, for my companion as well as me (I swore and grumped about even more than usual in the mornings) and I’m keen to hear from anyone who has solved this problem.

 The daily kit faff before we can set off.

The daily kit faff before we can set off.

5. It’s a Big Faff

Which brings me to the thing I really hadn’t appreciated. Panniers fitted to bike racks are easy. They are big buckets of happiness ready to accept whatever kit you throw in them. It doesn’t really matter what order your gear goes in to a pannier because you can always have a rummage about later. In contrast, bike packing luggage is a total faff. The bags are smaller, and odd shaped things like tools or guidebooks will only fit in certain places. Some of your gear is going to be totally inaccessible all day without dismantling the entire set up, so packing requires planning. And then each bag needs fitted and tensioned perfectly to withstand the bumpy ride it is going to get on those fun trails. I’ve realised that although bikepacking gear definitely looks the epitome of rugged adventurousness, if I know I’m only going to be on tarmac, I’d much prefer to tour with panniers and a bike rack. That said, a bikepacking set up really is superior on rough and technical terrain.

6. There’s No Such Thing as the Perfect Set Up.

I’ve been doing lightweight trips on foot for decades and I am still constantly honing and improving my gear. I’ve come to realise that in this respect bikepacking set ups are the same. What works for one person, on a particular journey, will not work for another, and tinkering on the road is also absolutely going to happen. I’m looking forward to hanging my nose over other people’s set ups, and if anyone reading this has some top tips they’d like to share, I’m all ears.

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Crete on two wheels

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And…. breathe! It’s been a busy season and the blog has been a bit neglected, although if you’ve been following us on Instagram or Twitter. you might have noticed that we’ve packed a lot in to summer 2018. As well as our mountain leading and wildlife guiding days here on Arran we’ve also been working for other fantastic companies across Scotland and overseas. Wally has been guiding Scottish bike tours for Wilderness Scotland, and I’ve been supervising young people on big adventures in Europe with our friends over at Adventure Expeditions. A couple of weeks ago things got a bit quieter, and we managed to shoehorn a cycling holiday in to our diary.

 My bike, fully loaded. Note: plastic pipe, psychological deterrent for angry loose farm dogs… (thankfully never needed!)

My bike, fully loaded. Note: plastic pipe, psychological deterrent for angry loose farm dogs… (thankfully never needed!)

Not just any cycling holiday either- this was the culmination of a long held dream of mine to tour by bike around the mediterranean island of Crete. Last time I was there I was an enthusiastic archaeology student, travelling with my mum in a clapped out Fiat Panda. I remember epic mountain roads and lots of dirt tracks. Fast forward nearly 25 years and Wally and I were hoping that not much has changed. Although we’ve both done a bit of bike touring, this would be our most adventurous and physically challenging trip to date, and our first real tour (rather than a wee overnight) using “bike packing” gear rather than traditional panniers and racks.

The advantage of the bike packing set up is that it concentrates the centre of gravity close to the bike where the rider sits. The bike is more stable, and in theory more aerodynamic. Because of those hills, we packed super light, and cheated slightly by treating ourselves to the luxury of rooms and dinner in tavernas every night. This decision was spot-on, as the hills were as big and steep as I remembered, and I don’t think I'd have enjoyed them as much with a tent, sleeping bag and stove on board.

 Griffon vulture

Griffon vulture

Recalling those hills, I was unsure how far we’d be able to travel so only booked our first night of accommodation, and kept the rest of our options open. This was also a great idea, as we quickly discovered that riding gravel tracks with around 1-2,000m of ascent per day, and zero training, our mileage was not going to be very impressive. We were also blessed with a heatwave when we were on the coast, which made riding up hills, hot and thirsty work. We tended to keep the days short, riding in the mornings and avoiding the worst of the afternoon heat. But those hours we did ride? My god they were brilliant. We were treated to epic views of limestone peaks, studded with olives and kermes oaks. Swarms of griffon vultures soared above us while we negotiated wild gravel roads. Occasionally, we would encounter inexplicably gorgeous, perfect tarmac. On these occasions we’d say a little prayer of gratitude to the tarmac gods, for smiling on us from time to time.

 Contemplating the descent from the Dikti mountain all the way to the sea.

Contemplating the descent from the Dikti mountain all the way to the sea.

 Hot roads around Lendas and the Asterousia Range

Hot roads around Lendas and the Asterousia Range

Our route took us over two big mountain traverses- the Dikti and Psiloritis ranges, but nothing was ever flat. Our traverse to the coast from the Lasithi plateau in the east, over the Dikti range and down to the sea was almost entirely off road. This was probably the finest day’s riding I think I have ever done. The views were astonishing, and the 1000m descent on farm tracks was surprisingly technical. Once we hit the south coast, we explored the Messara Plain and adjacent Asterousia Range. These smaller but equally impressive mountains (the highest, Kofinas Peak, is a mere 1280m), plunge precipitously down to the Libyan sea. The hills here are dry and dusty near desert.

Our second big mountain traverse took us over the shoulder of Mt Psiloritis, via the incredible Nida Plateau (1,500m). This was the most intimidating ride of the trip for me. Locals shook their head in disbelief when we said we were taking that road, but the reality was a glorious climb on smooth tarmac with precisely graded hairpins, followed by rolling rough tracks through remote valleys, before meeting more tarmac for our descent. At the end of two incredible weeks. Heraklion beckoned, and home.

 The Nida Plateau

The Nida Plateau

Extreme Weather

 Great views from the Montagne de Gresse on Saturday. 

Great views from the Montagne de Gresse on Saturday. 

Happy New Year! 2018 has been a bumpy ride out here in South East France with lots of extreme weather, heavy snow fall and Storm Eleanor, who brought avalanches, rock fall, landslides and flooding to the region, including all of the above to our valley. Being from Arran, we are used to wild conditions, but recent days have surprised everyone, including the locals. The avalanche hazard in the high mountains is still at Level 3 in the valley, and it is even higher further east. Sometimes a cafe or admin day is the best option. 

Nevertheless, we've enjoyed some excellent adventures in between the storms, and when Eleanor was at her peak, we headed south and west to Provence for a couple of days respite, cycling in the sun. I was also grateful to grab a solo day sunshine on Saturday, snowshoeing near Gresse en Vercors. 

This week my friend and colleague Cat from Reach the Peak has joined me as a partner in snowshoeing crime.  Today we were in the Vercors massif, enjoying firm snow, and watching rain fall on all the peaks around us apart from our own- St Michel, which seemed to resist the rain until we were well on our way back to Bourg. The Vercors has been a brilliant place to retreat to while the higher areas have such difficult conditions, but the snow pack is melting there, and becoming increasingly patchy.  If only we could coax some of the snow falling in the east a bit further down hill? 

 Ascending Pic Sant Michel via the Col de l'Arc. 

Ascending Pic Sant Michel via the Col de l'Arc. 

A White Christmas!

Lucy: We've heard a rumour that has travelled all the way from Scotland to le Bourg d'Oisans... Apprently there has been a White Christmas in some parts of the country... We hope that many of you have been able to get out and enjoy the snow, as we have over here. Today sadly,  it is mild and raining so we are hiding at home.  Above the house they are blasting loose rock to clear a road that was blocked in the last big storm. Tomorrow another epic snowfall is forecast.

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I've been absolutely blessed with a fantastic welcome and a great new snowshoing companion. Kirsten and I made the most of the interim good weather over the weekend in the run up to Christmas. On Saturday I was a guest of the Grenoble-Oisans sector of the Club Alpin Français on one of their regular saturday meets.  This active club enjoy a lot of Snowshoeing and Kirsten is a regular particpant. On this occasion we met on the outkirts of Grenoble and headed in convoy up to Engins, in the Vercors Massif, for a snow shoe hike up to the plateau above Sornin.

As we set off the mist hung thick in the valley and it was a dark and depressive atmosphere in the forest.  It's quite a pull up to Sornin but once above the hamlet the mist began to disperse above us, and it wasn't long before we popped out of a cloud inversion in to brilliant blue skies. We paused at a chalet to "casse le croute" and also for some transceiver/probe/shovel practice, with the wise Francis patiently coaching us all on our technique. After lunch we continued in a circuit through the woodland on the plateau before eventually descending in to the mist once more. For me, this was an excellent experience- once more I was made to feel very welcome, and I enjoyed practicing my dodgy french on the group. It was also very interesting to see "how the locals do it", and I am grateful to Francis for sharing his knowledge and experience.

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The following day Kirsten and I were a little tired! However, we managed to muster up some energy and Kirsten skillfully drove us up the steep snowy road to Villard Reymond from where we could easily access the small but steep little summit of Le Pregentil, that looms above the valley where we live. It was late afternoon, the sun was beaming at us from across the mountains, and we lingered for a long time on the summit taking it all in.

Yesterday of course was the big day, and we decided to spend the daylight hours outside, knowing that it would be the last good day for a while. Wally and Lee joined us for an ascent of La Quarlie, a 2322m summit above the village of Besse with incredible views of Le Meije. The sun beamed down on us and at times it was so hot we felt we were snowshoeing in the Caribbean not the Alps in December. The Quarlie itself is a big rounded lump, dare I say it a slog, nevertheless dwarfed by everything else around it. Again, we lingered on the summit, and the sun was setting as we raced back down to Besse so as not to miss our Christmas Dinner.

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The coming week looks a bit mixed for us out here, with bands of rain and snow coming through and topping up the mountains with their winter garb. We hope that all our friends and clients have had an enjoyable Christmas, with lots of time to spend with family, including some time outside having fun. In the closing days of 2017 we are reflecting on a busy year for us, and to looking ahead to perhaps our busiest yet to come. We would like to thank our customers for choosing to book their outdoor adventures with us and to wish them all the very best in this festive season.

Hitting the Ground Snowshoeing...

 Wally and Mikaela amongst the snow ghosts on Le Moucherotte.

Wally and Mikaela amongst the snow ghosts on Le Moucherotte.

Lucy: Its exactly a week since I joined Wally in Le Bourg d'Oisans, where we are spending the winter season. Life is a bit different here to the one I'm used to back home on Arran. It's bitterly cold outside, (rather than damp), and everything is covered in snow. Everything! Great early season conditions here in the Alps mean that the mountains are in excellent condition for snowshoeing, yet at the same time, the avalanche hazard is considerable or higher.

My job this winter is to build up my experience and fill my logbook as I work my way along the IML qualification pathway. I've hit the ground snowshoeing, literally, and already enjoyed some quality days in the mountains. Here are a few pics from the week which I hope you enjoy.

 Mikaela in the forest at Chamrousse.

Mikaela in the forest at Chamrousse.

On Monday, Wally and I met with Mikaela Toczek, who is based near Grenoble and on a similar mission to me. We headed in to the Vercors Massif, with snow falling all around us, and bagged Le Moucherotte, a small summit overlooking Grenoble. Conditions felt distinctly Scottish, with a cold breeze and rime ice all over everything.

 Roosting "igloo", probably for Black Grouse.

Roosting "igloo", probably for Black Grouse.

On Wednesday, the avalanche hazard went through the roof, with a cold northerly wind shifting the powdery snow around, so Mikaela and I headed to the forest behind the ski area at Chamrousse. There were lots of signs of nature around for us to enjoy without sticking our necks out to much. We enjoyed discovering fox tracks, mountain hare, and the roosting burrows of black grouse amongst the trees. 

Yesterday was the shortest day of the year, a time that back home on Arran,  is invariably dark and damp. My normal response is to enjoy cups of tea and cake by the fire, but yesterday I joined my new snowshoe buddy Kirsten for an exploration of the plateau and ridges above Les Signaruax. We were treated to a magical display of winter light as we emerged through a cloud inversion and in to the sunshine.  I can safely say that this is the first time that I have been sunburned on the winter soltice!

 Kirsten on the plateau above Les Signaraux.

Kirsten on the plateau above Les Signaraux.

Snowy Goatfell

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Winter is off to a flying start!  On Sunday we were out on the hill with our friend Kirstie and her wee search dog Cailleag, looking for some snowy fun, and we were certainly not disappointed!

We took the steep path from Corrie, in to Coire Lan, and then up the headwall towards the bealach between North Goatfell and Mullach Buidhe. The snow lay deep, but not particularly crisp, more deep and a bit sticky... Once on the ridge the wind began to blow. We wrapped up warm, actually quite excited to feel the nip of winter after so much rain, and headed along the ridge towards Goatfell.

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We took the traverse path that avoids the rocky scramble of Stacach ridge.  This is not always the easy option as is also potentially quite tricky in snowy conditions as it lies in the lee of the ridge and can sometimes be buried in snow.  However, prevailing winds have been northerly recently and the ridge was mostly quite well scoured.  It's worth mentioning that although the deeper pillows in the sheltered bits were well bonded this time, retracing our steps is an option we always have in our minds on this route in winter.

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We reached Goatfell summit and were delighted to find another friend up there- Zabdi of Flying Fever Paragliding School (on foot for a change). Arran is a beautiful place, especially under a blanket of snow, but it's the people that really make it special.  I absolutely love this place and am going to miss home like mad this winter.  For more pics of our adventures, check out Kirstie's twitter feed.  She's a talented photographer, and her pics really do the day justice!

It's not too late to book your winter adventure on Arran.  Lucy is a qualified Winter Mountain Leader and has some availability over the next couple of weeks.  The forecast is awesome, so this is a great opportunity to see the mountains at their best!

A wintery day on the Mainland

Lucy: It's been a long damp dark autumn, and the snow has been slower to arrive than some years, but the mainland is at last looking persistantly wintery and there is snow in the forecast for Arran towards the end of the week! Yesterday I was in the east of Scotland catching up on some hill time with my friend Jen.

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Jen who is normally unstoppable,  is recovering from injury so we picked a relatively easy day that we could adapt and make longer if we wished. The munros to the east of Dalwhinnie fitted the bill perfectly, with a land rover track from roadside to ridge, and a gently undulating plateau to explore.  We targeted Carn na Caim first. It's a steep climb up from the road but not difficult and before we knew it we were away from the hustle and bustle of the A9 and enjoying the open feel of the heathery plateau.  Visibility was mostly good, but a few whisps of cloud played with us from time to time. Crampons were not needed, but it was bitterly cold. There was a dusting of snow, the ground was mostly frozen, and the light was gorgeous. 

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We made short work of Carn na Caim, and feeling strong, headed for A' Bhuidheanach Beag. It wasn't long before we were congratulating ourselves on the second summit of the day and heading down. All that remained to top off a perfect day was to grab a brew and a bowl of soup by the cosy fire at Dalwhinnie's Snack Shack.

Snow is coming to Arran in the next few days so give us a shout if you fancy a guided day in the Arran hills this weekend with a Winter Mountain Leader.  If you also fancy a mainland Winter Munro Day, we are taking bookings and enquiries for March- just get in touch and we will endeavor get back to you straight away.

Work and Play in the Peak District

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Lucy: Things are getting quieter here on Arran and as usual November is the month that we can catch up with ourselves and begin our winter preparation. With less work in the diary and the nights drawing in, it can be hard to keep active at this time of year, and this is one of the few periods when I have to consciously push myself outside to exercise. After a busy year it is of course good to rest, but we also have one eye on winter, a time when we need to be at our fittest! Last weekend I was working on a Lowland Leader Training for Adventure Expeditions all the way down in the Peak District so we both decided to head south and add a bit of rest and relaxation on to the trip in the form of riding bikes and rock climbing as well as spending time with friends.

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With a cold wind forecast on Thursday, we headed to Rivelin Edge for some rock climbing. The crag is sheltered and south facing so it was agood choice. It is also relatively quick to dry, which was a bonus as the day started damp. Some of the greener crack climbs stayed slimey all day, but we enjoyed some delicate face climbing. It's a long time since either of us have played on grit so Wally was very happy with his lead of Left Edge (HVS 4c).

The Peak District is also a great place for road cycling, and we enjoyed a spin amongst the showers, with obligatory cake stops on friday, and Wally who is keen as mustard on the bike,  was out and about on his bike while I was working over the weekend.

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The Lowland Leader Award is a Mountain Training walking and leadership award for people taking groups out in lowland terrain in the UK.  It's part of the Mountain Training leadership pathway and benefits from a structured training and assessment process, with candidate experience consolidated and recorded along the way. Our friends at Adventure Expeditions are providers of this excellent award and this is the first Lowland Leader Training course that I have worked on and I can't wait to do more. Training future leaders is an interesting and rewarding process!

Winter News and 2018 Bookings

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The first snow is dusting the summit of Goatfell, and on the mainland, the hills are starting to look genuinely wintery. With the change of season, it is time to update our clients and friends with our winter availability and accordingly,  announce some big news about our own plans.

In short, we will be spending much of the season in the French Alps!  This is obviously very exciting from a personal perspective, but will have a knock on effect for clients for which we are very sorry. We won't be available for bookings from the 10th December until early March.  Wally is expecting to be staying out in France until the end of April but Lucy will be back to grab some proper Scottish winter fun from the beginning of March. She already has bookings for winter mountain work on the mainland and is taking bookings for mainland winter munros throughout March. However,  if you are keen for Arran wildlife watching or an Arran mountain day in March it is still worth getting in touch to check availability.

Looking ahead to Summer 2018 (May onwards), we will start taking bookings for these dates in the New Year.  We realise that this may be a little frustrating for those of you who wish to get in early with bookings and appreciate that we book up fast, but this is due to the large amount of schools/contract work that we do.  This can block up weeks at a time, and is an important part of our work which we enjoy very much.  Sadly we don't yet have these dates firmed up, and would absolutely hate to take your booking and then cancel you further down the line. We hope you understand that your bookings are just as important to us and would be delighted to hear from you in the mean time to chat about options and ideas for your day out on Arran.

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Finally, we hope you are looking forward to winter as much as we are.  It's a brilliant time for watching wildlife and getting out in to the hills.  Don't forget your head torch as the nights are drawing in, and pop a few extra layers in the bag!

Lucy and Wally.

Vacances dans la Forêt

We've reached the end of our busy season at last, and last week, we took a much looked forward to break with friends in the Forest of Fontainebleau, France. It's a regular escape for us, a heady mix of bouldering, nature and pastries. This year we took our bikes as well as our bouldering mats which was a good shout for when it rained. Here are a selection of our snaps from our week in the magic forest.

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