Thursday, September 29, 2011

Road biking in the Helsinki hinterland

Old bike
Shortly after washing up on Finnish shores about a decade back I decided I wanted a road bike. I'm not sure why, watching Greg Lemond beat Laurent Fignon on the Champs-Élysées in 1989 probably. I went to Velosport, at the time probably the only serious shop for road biking in the capital. The guy there who served me looked suspiciously like 'Il Pirata', an impression that I'm sure he was only too happy to cultivate. Nevertheless he was great, talking me through everything with no hard-sell, despite my budget was the bottom of their range. I was sat on the jig and measured up before all that info was faxed off to the Olmo factory in Italy where (I would like to think) a little man called Giovanni built by hand the frame of my bike. My red, all Italian beauty did a decade a grand service, working impeccably over many thousands of kilometres and seeing me comfortably through my first long sportive rides last year (see here and here). But this summer revealed that really its whole drive train needed replacing - along with the wheels - and the cost and hassle of doing so actually made getting a new bike a consideration.

Bikes have moved on, road riding has increased hugely in popularity with rise of the MAMIL of which, I guess, I am sadly now one. My Olmo was probably at the end of the era where hand-built steel frames were more common. Now aluminium and carbon frames are the norm, with most of them I've been told coming from the same few massive factories in Taiwan. Unless you have a lot of money to spend, bikes are off the peg, so buying off the internet is a bit of a worry with educated guess over what size to order. But on the other hand, huge competition between so many brands and shops in different countries means that you are getting a lot of bike for your money - mine was a more than a third off in an end of season sale, letting me get something much nicer than I would have been able to afford at full price.

New bike
Road biking has definitely gained in popularity here in Finland as well; the Tour de Helsinki had another record breaking year for numbers doing it earlier this month. Out here on the edge of the city its quite normal to see groups gathering to head out into the countryside for evening rides, and through the summer it was normal to see a few other riders out when I went out to ride. Ten years back it was quite different, other riders would come for a chat if they saw you because road bikers were pretty rare - I remember at least a couple of guys, despite my lack of Finnish, invite me to club rides and the like as they were just pleased to meet other roadies. It's a very similar situation to climbing that I've watched rise massively in popularity here over the last decade and a half.

Typical rush hour in the Helsinki hinterland
Nevertheless, I think road biking could/should be more popular here. The Helsinki hinterland is just such a great place to ride. Firstly, unlike further inland, there are lots of roads. Secondly, most of these roads are paved - no need for cyclocross or hybrids. Thirdly, and most importantly, there is virtually no traffic on them. The five motorways radiating out from Helsinki take a huge percentage of the traffic leaving or entering the capital region, leaving a big network of well paved country roads with next to no one driving on them - and making them just wonderful for cycling on. You get to notice all the 'old Finland' of human history that is still there; sagging barns, elevated cow sheds, the plentiful volunteer local fire stations and small schools - stuff you never notice zipping up and down the motorway - alongside the natural environment. Expect all the birds, from tiny songbirds up to storks and hawks high above, or currently - fields full of geese getting read to migrate. You'll see squirrels and hares, and might see badgers and deer - I have. Best of all, I almost ran into a moose once, free wheeling nearly silently around a forest road corner. It's all out there, and for the vast majority of the time you'll be completely on your own to enjoy it.

Anyway, from a few pics and some video - all taken from my phone so please excuse the low quality - I've made a little film. It's my bit to help out Helsinki's tourist board to promote the quiet lanes of Helsinki's hinterland to the world road biking community. Enjoy.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Scotland: one wedding and two hill walks

The Firth of Clyde
The last couple of years of school in a small English town weren't really bad, but for loads of us sixth form was just a waiting room. Pass your exams and get the fuck out of there; young men and women with better places to be. It's nothing personal against small towns, it's just what being young is about. I chose Glasgow, or maybe Glasgow chose me. I wanted bright lights and the big city, but with snow dusted mountains on the horizon. I got it all and more. Perhaps I should have never left, but life moves on and other cities yet further north beckoned. How a decade slipped passed since my last proper visit I don't know. Looking out of the plane last weekend, the crumpled green of Northumberland and the Southern Uplands evened out as the Central Belt stretched below. Sun glinted on the bridges of the Firth of Forth and Edinburgh to the east before we banked left running north of Glasgow along the Campsie with Loch Lomond and its Ben above marking the edge of the Glaswegian sprawl. The plane swung south as we approached GLA and looking down the Firth of Clyde nostalgia washed through me like an adrenalin jolt. Dumby in the sun - how many afternoons were spent amongst the boulders summoning up the balls to try any of the routes? The cycle track along the river to Balloch and then out onto the moors before dropping back down to Milngavie - really the first mountain biking I ever did. Sitting in the wind-shelters on Helenburgh seafront, eating chips and laughing with the most beautiful girl I had met at that point in my life.

The happy occasion: a mate's wedding, dragging the old posse back together from all corners of the UK (and indeed world), made Glasgow all the more glorious. Things change, but many don't. The underground is still laughably small. Saturday night: the gallus townies still pack the wine bars and restaurants, all togged up, showing someone, anyone, themselves, that this is Glasvegas now rather than no mean city.

Things of great beauty can still be injurious to your health
Up in the west the students are as students do, just younger looking than I remember being. We drink too much and lose our voices yelling happily over the din of a heaving bar. I have a 2.30 am doner kebab on Great Western Road, it just seemed the right thing to do, although in the morning I would be disagreeing.

Sunday was the wedding day, and it was everything a Glasgow wedding should be; kilts and a piper, plenty of Stellas at the reception and a wedding band that did ceilidh numbers and Auld Lang Syne next to the Glee theme and Deacon Blue's Dignity. By the end, men in kilts were doing one armed push-ups on the dance floor. I don't know why but it all made sense as these things do at the time. It was cracking wedding for a cracking couple. Have fun together guys.

Matt, former MRT member, is disapproving of Ed's alternative approach to hill walking gear
Monday, Ed, Matt and me headed out to Arrochar. It rained. Of course. Somebody has fixed the path up the Cobbler, the first 300 mtr slog isn't quite the hellish mud squish I remember, but by the time we got to the dam, it was officially pissing it down so we beat a retreat back down to the tea shop. I notice "the Moorings" in Arrochar village has gone - now somewhere else must hold the title of the worst pub in the UK. Perhaps its formica and hostile grimness has gone forever.

Arrochar, now minus the worst pub in the world
I dropped the guys for the train back into Glasgow, and head northwards solo. There is a touch of sun around the top of Loch Lomond, by Tyndrum the drizzle is back, and it's hammering it down by Rannoch Moor. Glencoe passes in rain lashed greyness, but the westerly gale running up Loch Linnhe blasts a few gaps in the rain. Fort William deserves its name - a tough hold out against never ending inclement weather. I remembered why Northern Norway feels so familiar, Tromsø is just Fort William with more ambition and a richer, better dressed population. Nevisport Bar is no longer called Nevisport Bar yet remains a pub that still plays its old role of the site of much prevarication and hiding from the weather. But a man with no accommodation can only prevaricate for so long, so eventually I head out into the night and drive up to the top of Glen Nevis.

Blustery showers and utter darkness meet me on getting out of the car. My tiny headtorch doesn't light much beyond the sign at the trail head saying something about fatalities having occurred in the canyon ahead, but I shoulder my pack and head up into the dark and dank forest. I've only been on this path once before, as I remember it, going the other way with skis strapped to my pack after Matt and I had done a telemark traverse of the Aonachs then skied down into Glen Nevis in stormy weather. It's warmer this evening but otherwise the weather isn't much better. After a km or two the path comes out of trees. Pitch black wet forests provide plenty of fodder for the irrational mind to play on, but coming out of the shelter of the trees it is the rational mind that starts to worry as driving rain soaks you. I needed to find somewhere to camp pretty sharpish but with the wind barrelling down the glen and not being able to see more than a few metres with my little torch, this isn't the easiest of operations.

Eventually some flatish non-soaked ground with a small rock buttress giving some protection appears, beyond that I'll worry about it in the morning. I get my little tent up in record time, pull its scant guylines as tight as I can, double peg the corners and then dive in, zipping myself away from maelstrom outside. I don't get the best nights sleep, wind and rain wakes me once and I remember the story of an old UKC mate with the same tent as mine. He said he had to break camp in the middle of night once when the weather threatened to destroy the tent. Mine was working impeccably, but still every time it flexed in a gust, Douglas' story came back to me.

The next time I woke up it I was sure the roar of the river nearby was louder. A relatively scary experience in the Indian Himalayas taught me long ago how fast rivers can rise, it didn't make any sense as it hadn't been raining that much in days before, but the noise was definitely there. I got out of my bag pulled on my headtorch and went out to look. The wind was blasting around, but the river looked relatively placid and low, so were was the roaring sound of water coming from? I went back to bed and tried not to think about it. In the morning, on unzipping my tent to some sunshine, I was greeted by the majestic sight of Steall Waterfall cascading down the hill side just a few hundred metres away across the river. I had been completely oblivious to both that and the nearby cable bridge that I simply hadn't seen in the dark of night.

I quickly packed up and jogged back down to the car to dump my tent and sleeping bag, wolfed down an excuse for breakfast, then headed back up through the gorge, across the cable bridge to start the "Ring of Steall", a classic hill walk around a series of Munros that ring that side of the head of Glen Nevis. Getting to the start of the ascent included a boots-off fording of one burn (haven't done that in a long time) and then a few hundred metres of boot sucking bog before the ground dries out as you start to climb.

Raw Egg Buttress on Aonach Beag
The views were spectacular - Aonach Beag was free from cloud at some points, although the brooding bulk of Ben Nevis never cleared completely. White streaks of fast running streams, strengthened by the rain of the day before, painted the sides of the hills all around. I realise I don't hate walking uphill as much as when I was younger. Stronger legs from cycling? Or a better attitude to being in the hills? A bit of both most likely.

Steall meadows
At about 700 metres the next rain came in and the views went. I pulled on full waterproofs and kept on trudging upwards.

Summit grimness
Reaching the summit of An Gearanach, 985 mtrs, the weather was officially foul. Winds were hammering me, rain blasting, and I needed to swap out some wet underlayers to combat the first shivering. My fingers got cold despite two pairs of gloves that weren't water resistant enough for the conditions. Nevertheless, I scrambled on along the fine ridge to the next top, An Garbhanach, but the weather hadn't improved by that point, and all the summits along the ridge that I could see were in the cloud and the gust were enough to blow you off balance - not ideal on a narrow rock ridge. The full traverse will wait for another day - it does look mighty fine - but I turn around and head back down.

Plans rarely survive first contact with weather in the Scottish mountains. Needing to play on their terms is what perhaps make them so rewarding. My feet didn't dry out on the walk down, nor whilst having a coffee and cake in Morrison's cafe, nor whilst driving back down to Glasgow.

Loch Linnhe
My newly married friends wouldn't hear of me sleeping in my hire car that night, as had been my original plan, and with great grace insisted I bring my slightly smelly and muddy self to their spare room for the night.

Towards Ardgour
The road back into Glasgow next to Loch Lomond used to be one of mixed emotions; Sunday nights - leaving the privation but purity of the mountain behind and heading back down into the busy, complex world of people and relationships under the orange glow of sodium street lamps. But that evening there were none - happy faces of friends, a shower, hot food, a pint in the pub and then clean sheets and no dreams of tent poles snapping and rivers rising. Still Glasgow's miles better.
Sunlight breaks through over Blackmount

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Marmot Plasma 15: revisited.

Some one left a comment on my original first look post at the Marmot Plasma 15 sleeping bag asking about the stuff bag size. Hence the photo above shows the sleeping bag in its stuff sack against a 1 ltr nalgene bottle and an average sized paperback for comparison. It's easy to put the sleeping bag into the stuff sack, and it is not very compressed in there - it will squash down quite a lot smaller than the size it is in the stuff sack if you need it to.

My full review of the Plasma 15 can be read on