Sunday, December 08, 2013

An early winter bikepack

It seems that a late November weekend scout camp is now part of my kids's annual schedule, so a couple of Fridays back I found myself back up in the Forssa area, about 100 kms northwest of Helsinki with 36 hours to kill. It was mid-evening, slightly below freezing and very very dark. Last year I had taken my mountain bike and tried bikepacking the hiking route, the Lynx Route/Ilvesreitti, with limited success. The 'trail' was marked by waymarks but not enough people had actually walked it to make much of trail on the ground. I did a lot of pushing and carrying the bike through forest brush. This year I decided to stick to roads and forest tracks, including riding sections of the long distance bike route the Häme OxRoad/Hämeen Härkätie, that goes from Turku to Hämeenlinna, so took my cyclocross bike. A lot of the roads and trails are unsurfaced so the CX was a great choice, I could nip along paved sections at a decent pace, but had plenty of grip on the gravel.

Last year it was grey and just above freezing for the whole trip, and in November in Finland the days are so short and the sun always so low that it brings a whole new drab meaning to “grey”. This year I lucked out and the sky cleared early on Saturday morning and stayed clear until after I was asleep that evening, the temperature never got above 1 degree and was often just below freezing according to the thermometer on my excellent newish bike computer.
Saari Folk Park
The Saari viewing tower
I camped in a carpark in LiesjärviNational Park on Friday night with the luxury of a tent and left the car (and tent) there on Saturday morning. That day I rode a bit over 90 kms; this included some hiking single track in the Saari Folk Park but mostly was on unsurfaced roads and forest tracks. A good day of gravel grinding. It didn't feel that big a day but I ran out of daylight and had to ride the last hour or so with lights on to get to the laavu (lean-to shelter) I had decided to use that night. This was actually the same one as I had camped in last year, but it was much nicer this time with all the stars out above and no wind.

I lit a fire in the fireplace with out much trouble, although it never really got to that pleasantly roaring stage. There was only the dregs of the woodpile left, I guess after a summer of visitors, and although the logs burnt they didn't seem to put out much heat. I made lots of hot drinks to rehydrate – it's easy to not drink enough riding in cold weather – and ate my dubious far-eastern pot noddle thingy for supper, but with an indifferent fire retired to my sleeping bag very early.

Sunday morning, I didn't have much time before needing to go and pick my son up from scout camp so got up early, made some hot drinks with breakfast and packed up. It was still only getting light as I left the laavu and the moon was shining brightly over the lake. I only needed to ride about 20 kms back to my car that morning. It had snowed over nigh; enough to make most of the world white but not enough to bother me in terms of riding. My new tyres seemed to grip through the snow perfectly well and reasonably soon I was back where I had started and putting the bike back on the car.

Overall, the Häme Lake Uplands area is nice region to ride and the available map designed for hikers andother outdoors user is a great resourse. The roads away from a couple of highways, that I only crossed, are almost deserted. I reckon only around a dozen cars went past me all day. At this time of year in particular though, it is rather lonely – even though there are national parks with the related infrastructure you might expect, everything was closed. I found one cafe in the post office in Porras open, where I had a lovely chat with the ladies picking up their parcels and having coffee (I suspect and Englishman on a bike speaking very bad Finnish might have been one of the more novel events of their day), but beyond that I went past no open shop, cafe or similar. Make sure you have enough food with you. There are also large numbers of abandoned and decaying buildings in the area, barns and old farm houses like this are quite normal in rural Finland, but the empty petrol station and shops (see photos above) had an unnerving feeling of looking a bit too much like a scene from "The Walking Dead".

Of course you can camp pretty much anywhere, but I pushed on to get to a laavu I used last year – knowing it was great spot and has a fireplace, wood and a compost loo. But because of the hiking, riding, canoeing and cycling routes around that area there are quite a few similar laavus around.

I had new tyres for the trip, SchwalbeMarathon Plus Tours. I was still using my original Marathon Pluses through this summer on that bike. They came on my last bike and have been absolutely superb. I must have done at least 10,000 kms over five years on them and have never had a puncture but they're showing their age with the sidewalls beginning to crack and the tread must be wearing somewhat even if it doesn't look like it. I've ridden a few cyclocross races this autumn and using my light CX tyres and have had a puncture in one race then a double puncture in the next – all pinch flats from hitting rocks and having the tyres blown up firm doesn't seem to help. Hence deciding to try the Marathon Plus Tours – the same hopefully bombproof construction as the normal Marathon Plus, but with a bit of tread that seemed more suited for gravel roads and forest tracks of Finland. On this trip they were great – the grip felt great, even on Sunday morning riding back on snow. The only downer is that with those very meat tyres plus mudguards on, the bike felt bloody heavy. I'm not sure if serious CXers would want to race on them, although for me if they didn't puncture it would offset any slowness caused by their weight. For touring like this though they seem perfect, hopefully I'll get 10,000 trouble free kilometres out of this pair.

For cold weather bikepacking you need a bit more gear just to keep warm. I used the same set up as in September with my new Alpkit bikepacking bags and lashed-on dry bags but also took a waist pack; just that bit more capacity than I needed in summer. One of those bigger things for winter is the excellent Jöttnar Fjörm down jacket that I'm reviewing for UKClimbing currently. It's very warm and a nice “insurance” layer to have, obviously designed as an belay jacket for ice climbing but works great for any cold weather camping. It was stuffed with my sleeping bag in the dry bag that goes under saddle. This is fine when riding, but I need a number of straps to hold it in place which makes getting things out of the bag a hassle if you're not stopping for long. The obvious if a bit expensive solution to this is to buy one of Alpkit'sKoala seat packs, meaning retrieving a jacket from the seat pack would be easy, but I'm not convinced the Koala packs would fit as much as my current arrangement despite supposedly being the same size as my current dry bag I use there. Nevertheless, I know from winter climbing that your belay jacket HAS to be easy to reach because otherwise there is the temptation not to use it with the inevitable downwards circle into shivering. I guess with cold weather bike touring the situation is not dissimilar so I need to work this one out.

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