Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Inspiration . . . and the West Highland Way by bike

It was almost a year ago that I came up with the idea of putting myself through the physical (and mental!) pain of riding the West Highland Way by mountain bike in a day, to raise funds for the Beatson Cancer Centre.  With my history of doing 24 hour mountain bike races, and then choosing to do that, I'm often asked what it is that makes me want to put myself through these challenges.  Actually, the question most people ask is "are you mental?"!

I'll not answer that question . . . but I have been thinking quite a lot over the past couple of weeks about why I did that last year, and ultimately what this year's challenge will be.  I've set myself the challenge of taking my XC racing much more seriously this year, but as much as I enjoy the racing, I also need an "epic" mountain bike adventure to look forward to.  Something where I can push myself to my limits, both physically and mentally.  If there's one thing I've learned through doing these challenges, and perhaps the main reason I keep doing them, is that it's amazing what the body can be put through - it's always the mind that wants go give up first!

So, why?

Well, as I say, it was about a year ago that I decided to do the WHW in under a day.  It was about a year ago that I attended the Banff Mountain Film Festival's UK tour visit to Glasgow and watched a film, Crossing the Ice, about two Australian guys crossing Antarctica, to the South Pole and back again, completely unassisted.

I'm not kidding myself on for one minute that what I've done on a mountain bike is anywhere near as tough as what these guys put themselves through, but, like so many people who go to this fantastic film festival every year, that film really inspired me.  As much as I have a 9-5 office job, which obviously funds this silly hobby of mine, it's films like these that remind me that the Monday to Friday is just a job (no matter how much I enjoy it).  It reminds me that you only get one chance at this life and you should experience things that push you to your limits, that challenge your mind, that don't just involve getting up, working, then going to sleep again at the end of the day.  I left that film feeling I just had to do something that would push me in that way.

So, having done the WHW in 3 days a couple of years previously, I decided it was time to step it up and do it in under a day.  On my own, unsupported.  For a charity that means a lot to me and my wife.  

I've decided to copy below the write-up I did on TrailScotland.co.uk last year after completing this challenge, just in case it maybe inspires some of you mountain bike readers out there to do it yourself.  Or just in case it has any good advice in it for someone thinking of doing the WHW by bike, whether that's in 1, 2, or 3 days.  My original 3 day WHW write-up can also be found on that site, and although it still has some good advice in it, it was back in my flat pedal and not-so-fit days, so some of my advice would now be different.  Still worth a read if you have time though!

However, my main reason for posting this is that it's gone and happened again!  I've been to the Banff Mountain Film Festival again.  And yes, you've guessed it, one of those films has left me with a feeling that I need to do something even more challenging this year!

The particular film this time was "35".  A film about a climber (who happens to also be called Derek!) who did 35 routes on his 35th birthday.  About living for the moment and trying to achieve something new, exciting and challenging in your life every year.  About being able to realise your dreams on a Tuesday and not wait for the weekend or that big holiday every year.

Guess who will also be the ripe old age of 35 later this year . . . !

So, what to do this year?  Do the WHW again and try to beat my previous time of 17.5 hours?  Find another natural route to do on the mountain bike in one day?  Ride all the 7 Stanes red trails in one day, including riding between them by road bike (it's been done before but I'd love to try it!).  Or something else completely different?

I've not made my mind up yet and I'm open to suggestions, so please leave suggestions in the comments box below.

In the meantime, if you're interested in what it's like to mountain bike the WHW in 17.5 hours, make yourself a cuppa and read on . . . 

The West Highland Way by Mountain Bike in 17.5 Hours (July 2013)

I originally did the West Highland Way by mountain bike over 3 days back in September 2011. I've since done various sections of it again and been working towards the ultimate goal of doing it one go, in one day. I do various MTB events and friends, family and workmates are always asking if they are for charity. So, I thought: why don't I use one of these challenges to generate some donations for a good cause that means a lot to me: the Beatson Cancer Centre.

So, earlier this year, I decided to do the WHW in under 24 hours by mountain bike, solo and unsupported, and set up my Just Giving page for the Beatson. I had some holidays in June/July so decided I'd do it the last week I was off and just pick the best day for weather that week. Turned out it was one of our hottest weeks this year, so I actually picked the coolest day that week! (Wed 10th July).

For a while I'd been deliberating what time to set off. I'm happy mountain biking in the dark, but from previous training rides on various sections of the WHW, I figured I could hopefully do most of it in daylight. I'd already decided to go North to South so that (a) I was facing most of the walkers and they would see me coming and (b) it felt like I was going home! I also prefer it in that direction for the climbing/descending mix. I know the last sections in that direction really well so I figured I would start in the daylight, knowing that I could do the final sections from Conic Hill back to Milngavie in the dark as I've done that before.

So, on Wed 10th July at 4am, I set off from Fort William High Street.

The sun was due to rise at 4.40am but I ended up not needing my lights at all and could see okay as I headed up into the forest near the start. As I climbed out of Fort William, I was a bit apprehensive . . . I'd raised over £1000 already and loads of people had donated so I felt a bit of pressure to make sure I did this, not just for the Beatson, but to not let down all the people that had donated and written kind messages of support.

However, I soon rose above the early morning mist to see the beautiful sight of Ben Nevis poking out above the clouds and it made me realise just how much I was going to enjoy it. The scenery was stunning! I was just back from a foreign holiday but this reminded me just how beautiful our own country is and how much there is to see in sunny Scotland!

I had set myself some targets to keep on pace as I realised if I could do this in 18 hours I would do it all in daylight. I thought 20 hours was achievable but had no idea how fast I would actually do it . . . more on that later!

I got to Kinlochleven by 6am, so was really happy to be on target. I did have to stop a couple of times to mess with my seatpost as it was slipping down, but soon sorted that and got underway again. I met a walker on the KLL descent but that was the only person I saw until I got to Glencoe, other than some tents with people sleeping besided the Way. That was so nice having the WHW to myself!

Then it was up the slog of a climb from KLL to the top of the Devil's Staircase. It's one of those climbs where you just have to get your head down and get on with it, granny ring up a fair bit of the fireroad and then a lot of pushing the bike up some sections when it goes singletrack again. I have a recurring calf injury which plays up when I walk in useless walking shoes like my carbon-soled disco slippers and it started to play up a bit. I tried to forget about it and do a bit of stretching but it was niggling on my mind as it started to play up so early when there was more walking to come.

I took it easy on the Devil's Staircase (and KLL) descent as I figured it was more about self-preservation than going all out, but I still had loads of fun descending it without any walkers to worry about. I got to Glencoe at 8am so again was really happy with my time and on-target with the pace I'd set myself.

I've never done the Rannoch Moor section heading south so I had forgotten what it was going to be like. I vaguely rememberd a bit of an uphill drag heading northwards. The climb up out of Glencoe was quite fast and then it was mostly high-speed to Inveroran. It's bone-rattling in places though! This is where I started to meet more walkers but, as always, most gave a friendly smile or a comment of "your're mental!".

I definitely prefer Rannoch Moor in that direction, and also the climb up and over to Bridge of Orchy. I got to Bridge of Orchy well ahead of schedule and headed on down to Tyndrum, where I stopped to grab a lucozade sport from the shop and refill my camelbak. I'd brought some additional carb powder to top up the camelbak with water but it's sometimes nice to have something different like the lucozade. These wee treats keep you going. I also text my wife just to let her know how I was getting on. While I was doing this unsupported, we agreed I'd drop her a text at points so she knew where I was and if something did go drastically wrong she could at least drive to come help me out and scrap the "unsupported' part of the challenge. I'm glad to say I didn't need to do that so it was indeed completely unsupported.


I really enjoy the section from Tyndrum until it crosses the road. After that there are some killer climbs on the way to Crianlarich so it was quite hardgoing. The clear sky had clouded over for a while but by this time it was clearing up again and it was hardgoing in the heat up some of those climbs.

When I was nearing Inverarnan (and the Drovers area) my calf started to go again. I wasn't planning to stop until I was past the Drovers/Beinglas but I had to stop and have a nurofen for the pain. I also had a wee snack and a short break, which put me a bit behind schedule again but having been ahead of schedule at Tyndrum I wasn't too fussed. I was trying to eat gels and energy bars on the move but it was nice to stop now and again for a bit of soreen or a banana for a change.

Once past the Drovers, it was time to psyche myself up for the bit we all hate as MTBers - the section at the north of Loch Lomond down to Inversnaid. I've said in the past that this section is not as bad as some people make out - you don't have to carry your bike the entire time. It's a mixture of carrying, pushing and riding short sections. Some parts of the WHW seemed quicker than I remember but if there's one bit you definitely don't want to feel longer than you remember it's this section. This is my 3rd time doing this section and for some reason it felt so much longer.

This section almost broke me. The heat was unbearable and I was having a hard time climbing over the rocks with my bike, my sore calf and my carbon-soled disco slippers! It felt so much longer than before and I guess it was just the heat and fatigue. I was definitely slower than the last time I did this bit and I've never been so happy to see the Inversnaid hotel! I kept thinking about the reason I was doing this challenge and the other way I kept myself going was to think of a wee treat when I got to Inversnaid. I think people who don't know much about the WHW or mountain biking listen to me going on about this section and probably think I'm exagerating. I'd love to take them and show them what I went through: dripping with sweat in the heat, legs scratched from the rocks, my legs were also covered in a rash from cycling past all the bracken, and just generally fatigued because I'd MTB'd all the way from Fort William!

I had to resort to desperate measures at this point and had a can of Pepsi from the hotel at Inversnaid, along with some water and soreen. There was a risk of a sugar low after this, but I just needed it.

This really picked me up and I got going again after a 15 min break. Rowardennan came quicker than I remember and so did Balmaha. This really motivated me and after another food/drink/rest stop at the shop in Balmaha it was on up and over Conic Hill. The path has been resurfaced recently but it's still mostly a push or carry up to the top. Again, this was a slog in the heat and more nurofen was required to stop my calf pain stalling me, but it felt so good to be at the top. This is the point in the WHW where I genuinely feel like I'm nearly home. There are no more tough hills and the final section from Drymen to Milngavie is pretty fast.

Once I'd finished the road section at Drymen and was back on the track, I called my wife to let her know where I was. It was almost 8.30pm. If I got a move on, I could be at Milngavie in an hour . . . could I really do this in UNDER 18 hours?!

I felt so full of energy on the last section. I can't believe how fast I did it. One hour from there to Milngavie would be a good time any day, but after what I'd been through, I was amazed. It was a mixture of adrenalin and sugar, but I was flying! Determined to get there by 9.30pm.

And I did it! I got to Milngavie at 9.30pm, after 17.5 hours in total (approx 16 hours of riding). No falls. No punctures. No mechanicals. No support required. All in daylight. It simply could not have gone any better. I didn't realise some friends and family were going to come see me finish - my wife had called them and it was amazing to be greeted by them all.




I wasn't as emotional as I thought I might be. I think I was still on a sugar high and actually could have kept going further! But I was so glad it was over. I still can't believe I did it in that time. It's funny . . . I'm always saying how something I've done on the MTB is the "hardest thing I've ever done" but that actually wasn't. I'm not saying it was easy by any means, but the first time was definitely harder and more emotional. I was a lot heavier back then and nowhere near as fit so it was a hell of a challenge and that's why I think it was actually harder the first time I did it over 3 days.

But this was still one of the toughest things I've ever done on a MTB and I'm just overwhelmed with how much money it has raised for the Beatson. People continued to donate afterwards (http://www.justgiving.com/derekshanks) and my fund is now at £1600!

Will I do it again? I said definitely not that night, but next year . . . I might just have to try and improve on that time!


A few wee tips for anyone thinking of doing the WHW by bike, whether in one go or over a few days:

- You’ll enjoy it more on a full suss, especially some of the descents like Kinlochleven
- You will go through brake pads if the weather is bad, so carry spares
- Fit a rear mudguard if it's wet
- Consider taking padding to put on your bike for carrying it north of Inversnaid, or just deal with the bruises on your shoulder!
- You will have to push your bike more than you think
- Don’t just ride – stop to enjoy the sceneary . . . it’s stunning!  Take a camera if it's not too heavy
- If you're doing it over multiple days, stay in hotels / B&Bs . . . I love camping but couldn’t face it after a day on the bike like that.  When I did it over 3 days, I stayed in the Drovers and the Kingshouse (heading northwards)
- If doing it over 3 days northwards, do the Inversnaid section of the first day to get it over and done with

- If doing it in one go, do it southwards
- If you’re doing it on your own like me, keep in touch with someone so they know where you are and a wee text now and again reminds you you’re not on your own


I hope you've enjoyed reading this, despite the length!  If you've got any questions at all about doing the WHW by bike, just leave them in the comments field below.  And remember I'm open to suggestions for this year's challenge!

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Back to basics

In training for XC mountain bike races, you can sometimes get caught up in a world of endurance, power, turbo training, hill intervals, lactate threshold and all those things that ultimately do make you a faster racer but don't necessarily do much for your technical mountain bike riding skills.  My view is that only I can make myself faster going up the hills (by training hard!) but that to get faster downhill and at high speed through corners or technical sections, a helping hand from an experienced coach can make a massive difference.

So, although I spend most of my off-road training rides on my Trek Superfly race bike, it was time to get back on my 26 inch all-mountain bike, with flat pedals, dropper seatpost and its 140mm of suspension travel:


(sorry to my sponsors for posting a picture of another manufacturer's bike! ;-)

I had booked myself a 3 hour private tuition session with Andy Barlow of Dirtschool, and we took to the trails of Glentress 7 Stanes with one goal in mind: to make me faster when gravity is involved . . . by getting back to the basics, focussing on smoothness and control.

You only need to look at Andy's achievements listed on the Dirtschool site to see the wealth of experience he can bring to anyone's riding.  Whether it's a private session like the one I did, or a group session with people at a similar level; whether you're an absolute beginner, have hit a plateau in your riding, or a racer like myself looking to gain those extra few seconds here and there; everyone can benefit from taking time out of your "normal" riding to focus on your skills.

The day began at the Buzzard's Nest carpark at Glentress, although I'm not used to seeing it like this:






Thankfully the trails were clear under the cover of the trees and even the exposed sections were just slushy rather than icy!

We had a good chat about what I wanted to get out of the session.  I explained my goal above and expanded a little . . . Some people think us XC boys and girls are roadies in disguise: fit but no skills.  I really don't think this is true, as XC courses can be quite technical in places.  That's where you can really gain speed over some of your competitors if you are smooth, fast and in control through the tight downhill bends, technical rock gardens or slippy roots.  Plus, you just need to look at the skills of some of our home-grown talent like Rab Wardell, Kenta Gallagher or Grant Ferguson to see that it's not just all about the speed on the way up the hills!

While I'd like to think I'm not the slowest on the way downhill (hopefully!), I do know I'm not the fastest.  Last year, the biggest improvement in my riding was my climbing but I did also improve my technical descending skills.  But sometimes it feels as if it's just luck, or the suspension on the bike, getting me down some of those sections.  And sometimes that luck runs out . . . and ends with a few bruises (both on my body and for my pride!).

I know that if I want to be competitive this year, I need to find those vital few seconds on the fast sections, whether that be a series of bends, or a technical line.

So, we got right back to basics, looking at my "attack position".  Most mountain bikers will have heard this term but there can be differing views on the ideal position.  The main thing I learned today was that I was not far enough forward and so I've taken that away as a key thing to work on.  The majority of your cornering grip on a mountain bike comes from the front tyre and if you don't have enough weight over that end of the bike, you're at risk of the front wheel washing out.

We also worked on my weight transfer to aid grip through the bend, as well as line choice.  I always thought I had a good idea of the best line choice through a bend but Andy opened my mind to a whole new way of thinking about it and not only is it faster, but it uses less effort and saves you frantically pedalling between the corners to make up time you lost in braking in the wrong place.  Here I am putting some of this into practice towards the end of the session, through a series of bends on the Glentress red route.  Note the attack position, with my elbows bent, head over the stem, eyes looking at my exit from the next corner (not the one I'm currently in!) and legs ready to extend into the next corner for more grip.  Sorry for the blurry image - it's a still from a video Andy took of me:




I should mention the video analysis at this point.  This is a huge benefit of a private coaching session.  While video could obviously be used in group sessions, the benefit in the private session is that you can spend more time analysing it, discussing the good and bad points of your technique, and then repeat the section of trail as many times as you need to get it right.

One thing that also really helped me was just following Andy down some trails.  The line choice made such a difference and this is exactly what I was looking for from the session.  In some ways it feels slower but that's because I was more in control, smoother, and therefore giving myself more time to react.  Plus, having to pedal less between corners as an XC racer means you've got more energy left for the next climb!

We also got right back to basics.  I'm ashamed to admit that wheelies, manuals and bunnyhops have never been my strong point.  But there's no point learning these just to look cool (although they do look cool - you can't argue with that!).  As well as really helping me with my techniques for these skills, Andy always explained where you can put them into practice on a trail.  I'll definitely be back for another session with Andy and we will spend more time putting things like the manual into practice on trail features:






I had some real "light bulb" moments with these skills today and I'm so determined to perfect them that I'm going to keep using this bike, with the flat pedals and dropper post, at least once per week during my training.  I always have built in skills practice into my training but would usually do it on my 29er race bike.

However, like a lot of XC racers, I had got a bit lazy being clipped into my SPD pedals and cheating when bunnyhopping or jumping.  We spent a bit of time doing jumps too, in order to put some of the same techniques that can be applied to corners into practice on the take off of a jump.  

So, while I'm not about to spend all my time in the bike park, I'm going to ensure I do at least one session per week on this bike, practicing everything I learned with Dirtschool this weekend.  As Andy explained to me, I can then transfer it all to the Trek Superfly 29er race bike, but just more subtly.  The flat pedals really help you focus on your technique and weight transfer, rather than just pulling the bike around using SPDs.

I finished the day with a lot of ideas buzzing around my head and that was Andy's aim: to fill my head with lots of new knowledge that I can now go put into practice.  And that's the key thing: practice!  While it was fresh in my head, I took a note of the key points and areas I need to work on so that I can get straight back out on the bike to improve them.

It may seem like a lot of money for a private coaching session, but I guarantee it is worth every single penny.  The dedicated attention, personalised advice, and time spent working on exactly what you need will improve anyone's riding.  Even if you think you're fast and have all the bike handling skills you could need, I guarantee you'll have more to learn.  Often, like myself, you think you are getting faster on the descents through skill but it is sometimes just a bit ragged and can only take you so far.  By getting right back to these basics, and making things smoother and more in control, you'll open up so much more speed . . . and a whole lot of fun too!  After all, that is why we all ride these things and it puts a far bigger grin on my face when I'm doing it properly and in control.

So, I'll definitely be back to see Andy in another month or two, perhaps to transfer these skills to the race bike and work on some more advanced techniques, but for now I'll be getting as much practice in as possible and I hope some of you reading this perhaps join Dirtschool for a private or group session in the meantime, having heard just how much you can get out of it!