You could be forgiven for harbouring the belief that part 5 of this saga was never coming and to be fair, that belief was largely correct, yet, here we are with another instalment. Why now? You may ask. The reason is two-fold, firstly I figure that I need to write this stuff down before I completely forget everything that went before and secondly because as I write, the nation is under lock-down … which means you might be more inclined to read it.
Last time, we left having just opened both the ‘Winter event’ and BB200 chapters. The WRT was coasting along nicely and had almost become a veteran event. People were slowly but surely beginning to find the forum and there was a feeling in the ranks of ever increasing interest, although the general cycling populace still kept bikepackers at a reasonably safe distance. To the industry bikepackers were a largely unknown element on the fringes so were generally ignored apart from the occasional prod with a shitty stick from the more enlightened members of the press. I don’t say this while peering through rose tinted Oakleys but it was a good time to be a bikepacker. The scene was growing but it still remained small enough for those involved to feel like part of a community and it was uncommon to see a loaded bike that belonged to someone you couldn’t put a name to. As a bikepacker, your kit requirements couldn’t be met with a visit to your LBS or large on-line retailer. If you wanted something, then chances were you bought it directly from the same person who made it in their dining room or shed. Experimentation was rife and innovation an everyday occurrence as people tried to work out their own personal formula for lightweight, extended travels on a bicycle.
|There was no shortage of riding and the community was starting to grow … but I was getting no better with a camera.|
2013 kicked off with the cunningly titled ‘Elan Back’ in January. I recall that rider numbers probably doubled from ‘Mach ‘n Back’ the previous year. Both familiar and fresh faces filled the community centre on Sunday and whether they like it or not, I’m fortunate to now call many friends. I appreciate that all sounds a bit cliched but there was a definite feeling of family developing which I think still exists now. It’s something that more people than you might imagine comment on when they first enter the fold; maybe it’s developed from the bond of shared experience or perhaps it’s simply that bikepacking attracts nice people? Don’t know but either way, it really does exist.
These days, you could probably attend a bikepacking or adventure type event every weekend if you wanted to but in 2013 events that catered for cycling’s special forces were pretty thin on the ground. New rides or routes didn’t crop up at the almost weekly rate they do now, so those that did emerge were usually greeted with some excitement. In May 2013 the first Highland Trail took place. It was and still is, the brainchild of Alan Goldsmith and when he unleashed it on the bikepacking community he not only raised the bar several more notches but also set the benchmark by which all other UK ITT would be judged. It’s a route which over the years has produced some truly astonishing feats of endurance and also dished out some crushing blows – my personal experience involved four weeks of physio and the inability to walk for a fortnight.
|The Highland Trail ended quite badly for me but what a route.|
At the time, I was a mountain bike coach and I still recall how nearly all my clients would look at me with a face that expressed the dual emotions of disbelief and disinterest. The suggestion of a bikepacking trip nearly always proved less popular than that of stapling your genitals to a table. Most riders still didn’t get it which makes todays popularity quite remarkable when you think about it. In the company of normal people, I began to keep my dirty little bikepacking secret to myself but would indulge it out in the hills and by making meths stoves – lots of them. Ultimately, all that fiddling about in the workshop lead to the 8g meths stove which itself was the catalyst for every other product that’s ever emerged from a barn in mid-Wales since.
|An 8g stove – probably still the lightest stove you can buy.|
2013 also marked the third year of the BB200 and the last year that it was run from Bear Bones Towers. In 2011 and 2012, the route had remained identical but this year it was reversed. Obviously that meant some good bits were now bad and some previously bad bits were presumed less so. I do remember that the weather was mild but not much else; I was taking part, so the lack of sleep means that I really can’t be sure whether any recollections are of things that actually happened or simply hallucinations. However, I do know that Phil Simcock completed the route in something like twelve hours! People had gotten faster and ideas about what was and wasn’t possible were changing quickly. What seemed almost unthinkable one month seemed positively normal a few months later.
|Ahh, the original Bear Bones jersey. Any resemblance to a WWII uniform was accidental.|
In a bid to topple Coca-Cola from their position as the kings of branding, it was decided that some Bear Bones jerseys would be a good idea. I’ve already spoken about my chimp-like prowess with crayons, so once again the task was given to Dee. Now, we hadn’t really intended to go for the SS Stormtrooper look but I liked it so we went with it. If I were to order a batch of jerseys these days, it would probably be for around 150 but just 13 of the very first design were ever produced. If nothing else, that should give you some more perspective as to how small the bikepacking community still was. How many of the 13 still survive I’m not sure but those that do must surely be collectable by now or maybe not.
Sometimes it’s the smallest of sparks that produce the largest fires and around this time Kevin Cunniffe set peoples imaginations on fire when he proposed that he was going to do a ‘Bivvy a month’. His idea was a simple one and the clue is very much in the name. It was seemingly pondered on for a few minutes by some and then seized as the perfect motivational tool to keep you out on those nights when you’d prefer not to be. Every January heralds the arrival of a new year and every year more people pledge themselves to the cause. It’s had its imitators over the years but I’m always proud to say that it was started by Kev C on the Bear Bones forum.
They say that you should be careful what you wish for; 2013 really had been the year when peoples abilities had surpassed their expectations. A Trans Cambrian Way Double had been completed by Ian Barrington and the solo record got broken on a fairly regular basis. As mentioned, Phil Simcock convincingly demolished the BB200 and the Highland Trail had showcased the glory and misery of the ITT in a colourful and potent cocktail. With a degree of hindsight, it’s little wonder that some had declared that year’s BB200 as being ‘too easy’. In reality, it was no easier than it was for the two years prior. The event itself hadn’t really altered, the difference lay with the riders. Taking those calls and opinions on board, I decided that perhaps people were correct and maybe it was time to turn up the big nob on the challenge-O-meter.
|My gift after the 2014 BB200 … says it all really.|
Contrary to how it might have appeared in October 2014, I spent a considerable amount of time exploring some of the lesser known tracks and trails north of the Avon Dyfi from early spring onwards. My goal was to create a new BB200 route that would increase the level of challenge yet still remain enjoyable even if only in retrospect. Did I succeed? Did I bollocks. By midday on Sunday the writing was on the wall in very big letters and the fact it wasn’t written in my blood is still a surprise. There were those who finished within 24 hours. There were those who broke themselves utterly and were carried to the finish on a wave of stubbornness but there were far more who returned to record a ‘Did Not Finish’. Quite unwittingly, I’d managed to piece together a route that was far bigger and much nastier than the sum of its parts. I received an anonymous package a week later which contained a T shirt with the single word ‘Bastard’ written across the front and there were people present that day who still don’t talk to me six years on.
|And a gesture of goodwill I sent to those who were there.|
I felt quite bad about it really and sent everyone a special badge by way of an apology and in appreciation of their efforts. However, if you look hard enough then perhaps every cloud really does have a silver lining. Prior to October 14th 2014, the BB200 was simply an event. Yes, it had received some press coverage previously but it remained below most people’s radar. After that date, the BB200 became something akin to legend and those who were there became legends along side it.
That is pretty much that. The first five years of Bear Bones and I wouldn’t have missed any of it for the world – it was both a pleasure and a privilege. Who knows, I might even write an account of the last five years too. If you’ve no idea where parts 1 – 4 are click here