Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Mud and gears and rock and roll(ing over it)

Autumn colours
Bike with bags

I apologise to Joel because I think my phone is playing up - he tried calling me Saturday morning to arrange climbing as we had discussed, but couldn't get through. By the time my phone did ring, I had had enough of sitting inside the house watching the un-forecast blue skies and sunshine and had decided to go bikepacking, so the climbing got shelved. Helsinki has had the wettest September for 150 years or something equally depressing (there have been floods elsewhere in Finland, something that is pretty unusual here), so climbing has been a bit hit and miss this summer anyway. The Finnish Meteorological Institute also seem to be incapable of getting their forecasts right more than 24 hours in advance anyway, which makes planning if and where to go climbing difficult in times of changeable weather. So bikepacking seemed the less conditions-dependent option.

oh bugger...
Once having made a decision, I needed to pack. Compared to climbing where I have a bag packed with my current rack/rope/shoes of choice, this took some time - it's not so much that I didn't know what to take, it's more about getting that packed in bags that can be strapped to my bike or me successfully. I've used a seatpost rack in the past, but this time I decided to see what would happen if I just strapped a dry bag under the saddle. This turned out work almost perfectly. Fortunately one of the Alpkit dry bags I have has lashing points on it and with some bungee hooks and web straps it stayed on fine. I threw some more gear in my Alpkit Gourdon 'dry' rucksack and some more in super-cheap but effective handle bar bag and it all seemed to work out well - very little weight on my back but the bike felt balance and stable as well.

Sausage and beer, what else do you need?

slightly damp trails
By this point it was late afternoon so I knew I didn't have huge amounts of riding time before it got dark. Fortunately from where I live I can use some single track and forest roads to hit the top end of Nuuksio national park in about 20 kms, there's even a convenient petrol station just before going into the park to pick up that bivvy essential, beer. Quite a lot of the way I was following Reitti 2000/Route 2000, which must be a really dull hike, but makes an OK if very untechnical off-road ride. The woods are so wet currently with all the rain, that being on prepared trail is a big help, otherwise you'll be up to your ankles/axles in mud. The first challenge of the ride was just after if had got proper dark and I was riding by headlamp. A sudden "ping" and my chain snapped. Oh, the joy of fixing a chain by headlamp in a dank, cool, dark forest where the soil is typified by clay-like mud. Oh well, the pliers on my new half-price Leatherman tool came in handy but the main thing was that past chain breakages have taught me to CARRY A BLOODY CHAIN TOOL! And so I had - insert smug grin here. I arrived at my chosen camping ground a little later and more dirty handed than intended but you can't win 'em all.

View from my campsite

The one thing to say about horrible wet windy weather is that when the sky finally clears, it is really clear. Finland is for the half the year a dark place and the cities compensate for this with lots of street lighting. It's odd, but it's much easier to see the stars where I come from in small and crowded England than it is anywhere in the Greater Helsinki area. So it's always nice to get out away from town and see the stars, planets and even some shooting starts so clearly. After pitching my tarp and stowing my kit under it, I rode the kilometre down to one of the 'official' campsites, with the a huge supply of chopped wood for the fireplaces. National parks in Finland are a rather "convenience" type of "wilderness experience" but it stops people from attacking the standing trees in order to grill a sausage. So I chopped plenty of logs into smaller pieces, loaded them into my bags and cycled back up the hill to my camping spot and had a nice little fire in the fire ring there. A slightly out of date but still surprisingly good chicken casserol ready meal followed by grilling sausage on the fire, drying my socks out, drinking beer and reading this week's Economist on my phone (again, "wilderness" is relative) filled out the evening under the stars. Just before going to bed I thought I saw headlights shining through the trees, but with no engine noise I wondered if it was other late night mountain bikers with very bright/expensive lights. Only after watching for a little and the lights not moving, did I realise it was actually an incredibly bright moon rising. Later it was above and bright enough to cast shadows. Magic. In the morning, I had some breakfast, packed up and rode home getting rather muddy in the process.

Normally that would be enough to feed the biking bug for a weekend, but - oh no - some people just don't have the good sense to know where their very limited limits lie. Having recently become the proud owner of cyclocross bike, in a fit of completely abnormal enthusiasm I had signed up to the Facebook group of VPCX - a (the?) Finnish cyclocross group - and promised to attend a race. If you don't count some sportives I've ridden, I've not done any type of race since leaving school - knowing that I'm just not one of life's natural athletes and generally, even when trying hard, I will suck. Anyway, I tried really hard... and I sucked, but that was almost completely besides the point. All of the other VPCX people were super-welcoming and friendly to the foreign idiot falling down rocky hillside on a bike only vaguely designed for that. Then again, they were doing exactly the same, only faster and in more style.

Strapping on my race number. Photo courtesy of Jasu. Click here to see the rest of the set.

The Kivikko track was a horror. When some people started strapping on body armour I should have realised. Before Sunday, I would have been quite happy riding it on my mountain bike and surviving. The evil geniuses at VPCX have even tracked down some utterly horrible cobblestones (built by the Russians a century ago to haul artillery along) to include in the course. There was technical rocky single track, bomb holes full of muddy water, more slippy tree roots than you can shake a stick at and even spectators to applaud/laugh as you passed.
The fear! The fear! Photo courtesy of Mikko, see the rest of set here.

It hurt like hell and was ridiculously good fun. Then we all went for sauna and beer, Finland at its best. I didn't come last although only just. Somewhere at the back is my natural place in athletic endeavours though, so I look forward to floating around last place at next race in a few weeks.

Taking your bike for a run. Photo courtesy of Ville. Rest of the set here.

Thanks to all the photographers and BTW, you don't need a cyclocross bike to join, any bike will do - so if you're in the Helsinki area and want to get muddy and have a laugh, join up!

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