February BaM

February BaM

By seeking and blundering we learn. — von Goethe

I thought the von Goethe quote to be quite apt, as I certainly blundered my way through my first Bivvy a Month trip. I spent the rest of January impatiently waiting for payday, so I could upgrade various bits of equipment and try and put some of the things I’d learned to the test.

I bought some Tannus Armour for my rear wheel, in the hope that it will stem the number of punctures I’ve been getting, especially if I hit another pothole. On strong recommendations from the Bearbones forum, I bought an Exped Downmat Lite to replace my old Ultra-lite Therm-a-rest, it wasn’t comfy twenty five years ago, so I’m not sure why I thought it would be comfy now. Finally I bought a bigger handlebar extension widget, not for fitting my lights to, but to hold the handlebar harness slightly higher, so it didn’t keep rubbing on the front tyre. 

Finally, I had the unexpected expense of buying a new front light, after my cheap Chinese one died when I was about to commute to work a few days before this trip. I was ready to postpone if it didn’t turn up in time, given that Storm Ciara hit on the Sunday, I’m glad it did turn up promptly.

All this expense meant I had no money left over to buy a tarp, or any other form of packable shelter. Wanting a bit more protection from the elements than just my GoreTex bivvy bag, I decided to head to a different nature reserve and another bird hide. This decision was made easier by the nature reserve having a toilet that’s open all the time and a pristine chalk stream, for refilling water bottles.

After a bit of dithering and repeated attempts to pack everything into my bags, I headed off at around a quarter to ten, which was a bit later than planned. I managed to fit a mug, spork, stove, gas canister, aeropress, porridge mix and ground coffee into my bags this time around, but left my Kindle and reading glasses behind. While the handlebar extension meant I could have fitted the front feedbag to the handlebar harness, it would have blocked my new front light, which I couldn’t fit it onto my helmet.

For some reason I’d managed to work myself up into a bit of a palaver before leaving. Lots of negative thoughts about the weather, the underlying conditions on the local bridleways and byways, but mostly of who might already be in the bird hides. Would I get there to find a bunch of yoof in the carpark, off their faces and up to mischief; would they see me and follow me to the hide to create more? It’s interesting how the human mind works and how easily you can talk yourself out of doing things, based on nothing but a few negative thoughts.

Once I’d pushed off from the driveway and started cycling, it was oddly liberating, like I’d been freed from the shackles of negativity. Just me, the noise of the tyres on the tarmac and the occasional crunch of a badly timed gear change. With nothing to focus on, other than the circle of light dancing just out of reach of the front tyre, it was a chance to empty the mind and focus on the repetitive action of turning the cranks and breathing in the night air.

Obviously this state of mild nirvana was shattered as I cruised up the road towards the nature reserve, only to see an occupied car sitting there with its headlights on. As close to the entrance as you could get without blocking it too, cue all the negative thoughts telling me how right they’d been.

I was soon at the hide though, which was a large, old, raised up on stilts affair, that is accessed via a narrow wooden stair. Once I’d managed to squeeze myself and the bike up and into the hide, it became apparent that it would be a somewhat breezy nights sleep, as along with there being no door, you could see the night sky through various gaps and holes in the walls and roof.

I’d brought one luxury with me this trip, a can of Thornbridge Jaipur, which I drank while getting all my sleeping kit out. The beer finished, I was soon changed into my thermals and nicely snuggled up in my sleeping bag. The local wildfowl took this as a sign that they should start honking and quacking like their lives depended on it. The racket continued sporadically throughout the night, from occasional outbursts, to full on mass panic take off and landings. 

The noise of the birds, coupled with other nocturnal crashings and bangings, plus the light pollution, lead to a pretty fitful night’s sleep. Unlike January’s bivvy, where I got colder as the night progressed, with my new Exped Downmat, I was toasty warm all night, even with a cool breeze blowing over my face. After what felt like an ages, it was ten to seven and time to get up and packed, before any twitchers arrived.

I boiled up a mug of water for my porridge mix and then another mug full for making coffee with my Aeropress. I sat eating the porridge, which would have benefited from some cardamom, ginger and nutmeg, and drinking the coffee, while looking out of the hide. Soon enough, it was time to put everything away and head off to use the facilities. 

I stopped for a chat with a photographer, who pointedly told me that he was quietly photographing a barn owl. I carried on, filled both water bottles up from the chalk stream, and wound my way back to the entrance. It turns out that there’s a stand pipe with tap, next to the toilet, so there was no need to dip my bottles into the stream for water; useful to know for the future, if I’m passing.

I followed what I thought were going to be quiet roads to Ashwell, where I wanted to check out a potential bivvy spot for later in the year. I’m glad I did, as it was behind a padlocked gate, that had plenty of barbed wire on top, so I’ll be finding somewhere else to sleep that month. As I was in Ashwell I decided to follow the Icknield Way riders route home. This was a chance to check out bits of bridleway and byway that are new to me, while the bike was fully loaded.

I didn’t quite stick to the exact route all the way home. I’d made a slight error with the GPX file, which saw my GPS trying to route me through a hedge and across the middle of a random field. The route also crossed a barren tilled field, which I didn’t fancy cycling across after all the recent rain, so I took a small diversion and bypassed it. I should also have bypassed part of the old Roman Road just outside Balsham. It was a total mud bath and I ended up dragging the bike for nearly a mile, as the mud was so thick, it stopped the wheels from turning.

Things I Learned 

Don’t let negative thoughts stop you.

If you plan to sleep in a bird hide, pick one that is as far away from the birds as you can get.

Porridge without spices is Bland, with a capital B, pimp your breakfast.

It’s really good to check out potential bivvy spots properly, if you have the chance.

Check your planned route for errors, it’s not hard to cross check against services like RoW Maps.

Cheap Chinese handlebar extensions that are meant for holding lights and GPS units, are not very strong. While it did hold the handlebar harness up for most of the trip, it failed when I tried to shift all the accumulated mud, by lifting and dropping the bike. I’ll have to investigate some heavier duty options, maybe even tri bar extensions like you see in ultra-endurance races.

It’s not a race, no one is checking your GPS trail for conformity, it’s fine to detour around stuff you think will result in type three fun.

Seriously, there’s no need to drag your bike along a mud bath of a byway just because that’s where your GPS tells you to go…

January BaM

Bird hide

As part of my desire for more adventures, I’ve decided to take part in the bikepacking Bivvy a Month challenge. In a similar vein to things like Run every Day, the clue is in the name, once a month, get out there on your bike and spend the night outside. The rules, as they are, are as follows:

  1. At least one night out during every calendar month … feel free to start any month you like, just as long as you tot up 12 consecutive months,
  2. A single trip taking in both the last night of one month and the first of the next, will count as two months if you wish – but you still need 2 nights out, just that they’ll be combined within a single trip.
  3. No paid for accommodation inc’ campsites or hostels. Bothies are okay.
  4. A bike must be involved – it’s bikepacking, the clue’s in the name … ‘Involved’? You really don’t need me to spell it out do you?
  5. Your own garden doesn’t count, although next door’s does … if you really must.

As I alluded to in my previous post, the only way to work out what equipment you need, is to get out there and get some experience. Then and only then, can you work out what works and what doesn’t. So I dug out some of my old mountaineering kit from the loft, namely my Gore-Tex bivvy bag, Thermarest and Rab down sleeping bag, then bought some bikepacking bags from Restrap to put them all in.

You can easily spend all your time preparing, accumulating more and more equipment under the false pretence that if you only had that other thing, then you’d be guaranteed success. At some point though, if you actually want to go on an adventure, you have to pack your bags and head out the door. On Friday night, at ten past ten, I headed out the door, into the unknown.

I’d picked an on-road route to the spot I’d picked for my first bivvy. While it would have been quicker and more direct to utilise some of the local bridleways and byways, I’d been suffering from a spate of rear wheel punctures, so thought that staying on-road, would be less risky. The spot I’d picked did require a short walk down a country footpath and then over a field. So it was with much anguish I felt my rear tyre deflate just as I was arriving at the point where the hike-a-bike was about to start.

Rather than fixing the puncture there and then, I decided to get to the bivvy spot and get set-up. I would then be able to fix the puncture immediately, or leave it till morning. I should have had a look at my potential bivvy spot during the day though, as in the pitch black, without using my head torch, I walked passed it, twice. I knew roughly where it was, I’ve cycled in the general vicinity many times before, I’ve just never gone to have a look at the actual site.

I decided not to use my head torch while walking across the field, as it turned out there was at least one abode that was much closer than I was expecting. So I ended up walking in slightly the wrong direction, following what I thought was a track that would lead me to the site. I knew something wasn’t quite right when I go to the other end of the field and a tarmac road. I could also see some flashing red lights on the other side of the road, which I decided not to investigate.

I backtracked across the field again, trying to stay close to the edge, as I knew this should take me to the site. I couldn’t follow the edge of the field for long though, as there was a fenced off section that forced me out into the middle. I still didn’t want to use my torch, as I could clearly see some sort of structure that was light up quite brightly. I wasn’t sure if this was a house, or someone else at the bivvy site. It was at this point I decided to stop aimlessly wandering around a field in the dark and head for Plan B, one of the bird hides at Wicken Fen. I still had to fix my puncture though, so headed to some picnic tables I’d seen about a mile away. I whipped the inner tube out of the rear tyre, but couldn’t find any holes, so swapped it for my spare and headed off into the night again.

I arrived at the bird hide without further incident and quickly got myself inside and set up. Off came the cycling kit, on went some old thermals, then into the sleeping bag. I’d decided to take a couple of luxuries with me on this trip, so read my Kindle for a bit while drinking a can of Thornbridge Jaipur. Eventually, I put everything away and tried to get some sleep.

It was surprisingly bright inside the hide, as none of the widows had any shutters, so all the light pollution from the local towns and villages seeped in. I must have slept, as I jerked awake a number of times, although it mostly felt like I just lay there, staring at the ceiling. Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore, my feet were cold and the rest of me wasn’t much warmer, so I got up. I wasn’t sure what the time was, as the light level didn’t look like it had changed, when I checked my phone it turned out to be ten to seven.

The two main points of anxiety for me on this trip, were having enough water in the morning and access to a toilet. The reason I picked the original bivvy spot, was due to it having a composting toilet, the bird hide had no such luxury. Thankfully, the main toilet block next to the car park at Wicken Fen was open, I’m not sure what I would have done otherwise.  As I didn’t take my stove with me, it turned out I had plenty of water, which is just as well, as the cafe at Wicken Fen is being extended, so the outside tap wasn’t there.

Rather than heading straight home, the plan was to follow quieter back roads to Phoenix Cycleworks, have a coffee and some cake, then head home. Rather than cycling along the busy main road between Wicken and Soham, I decided to go off road. The fens are still waterlogged and while parts weren’t too bad, some parts were barely ridable, with the rear wheel spinning madly in the slop. One section was being sanitised, with two thirds of the width under a load of un-cyclable rubble, while the other third was ankle deep liquid mud.

Thankfully the rear wheel stayed inflated and I eventually rolled into Phoenix Cycleworks for my coffee, which hit the spot. Then it was simply a case of riding home around a load of the local villages so that my completed distance was just over a hundred kilometres. Thirteen hours, twenty six minutes after I left, I rolled back up the driveway and switched the cycle computer off, my first overnight adventure of the year completed.

Things I Learned

If you have a planned bivvy spot, it’s wise to also have a backup. I went back a few days later to find the spot I’d been aiming for, and to see where I’d gone wrong. It turns out that what I thought was a house, was the bivvy site I’d planned on using. So it must have occupied by a group, so it’s just as well I went to my backup of a hide.

I really need to investigate some tyre protection for the rear wheel. The number of punctures recently has been ridiculous.

One thing that kept annoying me during this trip, was the handlebar harness rubbing against my front tyre. I need some way of lifting it slightly higher, which might mean I can also fit the feed bag.

I need a better sleeping mat. I didn’t find my Ultralite Thermarest comfy twenty five years ago when I used to take it mountaineering.

It would be nice to have something hot before setting out. A coffee at a minimum, maybe some porridge, just something to warm the insides.