Sunday, 22 January 2012

Something A Bit Different - Mach 'n Back BikePacking Event

Bear Bone BikePacking
Organisers of the Mach'n Back
I'm always looking for new challenges and this winter BikePacking has caught my imagination. I've always had half an eye on this side of multi-day challenges, so when I decided to have a go recently break I headed straight for Bear Bones BikePacking's website, the organisers of the best challenges in the UK. I was delighted to find that their Mach 'n Back event would be held in mid-Wales in early January. A time and location each of which would have presented a good challenge, but together would promise a proper test of both rider & kit outside of just pedalling.

It was an extremely cold, but bright and sunny weekend. I had a fantastic, but undoubtedly hard, time and enjoyed every second. I'll be sure to be back for more! Here's a quick round up of my weekend:

A long week at work and an inevitable slow start to the morning saw us arrive a little late to the start, but with a 4hr window in which to get under way we made sure we'd filled up on tea and toast before we loaded up our bikes and set off.
Bike & rider loaded up and ready to head into the hills
Before we set off there was a lot of tyre kicking as equipment and kit lists were compared, no-one had the same kit or luggage arrangements.... which mostly caused everybody, including me, to wonder what they'd done wrong. Nothing we could do about it now, everything we'd bought with us was on the bikes and everything else was over 200miles away in Hove!

The first climb set the tone for what was to be a ride that was much tougher than we had envisaged as we were forced to push for a section of the very first climb as the recent warm weather had turned sections of the trail to deep mud.

Enjoying working up the first climb and the view around us, we started at the very bottom in the background
By the time we got to the top we'd already caught the first group of riders who had set off in front of us and realised this was going to be a longer day than we'd initially expected. Not long after the top we had the reward for our efforts of ticking off the first checkpoint and we headed off into the rolling hills ahead of us. We were then treated to a brilliant pair of views, afforded by the steep slopes ahead and behind us (one of the few benefits!); ahead of us the north facing slopes were brilliant white, covered in a thick frost and ice. Behind us, the late morning sun had melted the frost and there were lush green summertime pastures illuminated brightly buy the sun. However, whichever way we looked, it was still cold!
The trail that contoured along the hillsides in the background here was a great reward for the climb to the top
The miles ticked by slowly but the time flew, so much so we almost rode right through lunchtime! The hills made sure we were hungry though. Straight afterwards we were treated to a lovely short swoop through the woods, interrupted by shafts of sunlight breaking through the trees. Wonderful.
Worth getting out of bed for
The late afternoon saw us follow our planned route without much incident, but the going remained slow due to the trail conditions so we didn;t get much chance to look up from the handlebars and maps. I say "without much incident" we did have one near miss on a brief road section, heads down on a descent, we turned a corner to be faced with 20mm of sheet ice hiding in a shadow. I managed to make the grass bank but Grace hit it at full speed! The first wobble was caught and it looked like she would miraculously make it across, but a sudden and somewhat dramatic high speed discount proved this was not a correct assumption! No harm done, and hearts now removed from mouths, we carried on slightly more gingerly and got back onto the trails asap.

We caught up with some more riders and rode (and pushed up steep hills) with them briefly but it was apparent they had a different, shorter, day planned so we said our cheery goodbyes, exchanged agreeing opinions about our annoyance at the deep unridable mud on the slope we were all struggling up and (literally) pushed on.

Grace tackling our impromptu stepping stones
 and I can assure you that's quite the raging
 torrent there, despite how it looks!
Darkness came and it was now clear we would struggle to make our planned route before midnight, a quick look at the map and an alternate rote that we hoped would shorten the day, but still collect all the planned points for the day was decided upon and we headed back out into the darkness and our most exciting hour of the day. No sooner had it got dark than we hit what looked like a little Ford, and turned out to be more than annoyingly deep and fast stream. A quick assessment of the temoerature and our tiredness and taking our shoes off and wading through, normally not an issue, appeared desparately unattractive. Spying some rocks in the stream and a log nearby a stepping stones plan was hatched. Well, we had our bikes with us, surely this would make things easier? After a small "who's going to go first?" moment, I tottered across without too much wobbly excitement and Grace followed me over and we managed to keep all 4 of our feet dry.

Slogging up the next, muddy, hill we were then treated to perhaps the low point of the day. A swoopy pretty steep down hill as a reward but one that was so muddy we had to pedal down it and even then, staying upright was a challenge. Not good for one's positive mental attitude.

Almost through the tree maze
Picking off the next grid reference, we were now well into the darkness and it was clear we were going to have to modify our plans a little and we put a pragmatic straight line on the map where we had previously planned what we had hoped would be a scenic loop. it was a good plan! No sinner had we done this than we were faced with the most precarious descent of the day followed by a large tree completely blocking the subsequent climb up a sunken track. I managed to get around trunk and roots, but Grace didn't fancy trying to replicate my manoeuvre and, much to my amusement, took on the tree canopy... head on!

After this it was heads down for a final hour, the last two points of the day and then what seemed like an endless climb up a frozen wasteland to the designated overnight spot. More than ready for dinner and bed by what was "only" 8:30, we were greeted by just one other rider, "griffdowg" who had battled through the day on a 'cross bike, was bitterly regretting the optimistically aggressive gearing that had left him with and who was already fed and sheltered in the trees tucked up warm for the night! Route notes and the day's experiences were swapped, with a constant theme of "that was a lot harder than I though" running through each anecdote, filling everyone with some fear of what lay ahead for the nhext day to make it back to the start.

Scotchbrite guylines!

The tent went up and dinner was first cooked and then inhaled in a matter of minutes before we got down to the serious business of getting a good night's sleep. Not a problem as it turned out after the day's efforts and we awoke, some 10hrs later, ready for breakfast and set to launch into Sunday's riding with (almost) carefree abandon.

Can you spot where the tent was piched?
Early morning trails
The start was a rude awakening of an exposed hillside and a chill wind coupled with a short ice sheet that witnessed a little tumble coupled with some scowls and unhappy noises, but it wasn't long before the trails turned into a huge area of woodland and everything warmed up, a brief interruption for a precarious steep hillside trail later and we were whirling along happily towards Machynlleth and the rewards elevenses.

Two very happy riders
Proof I actually made it to Machynlleth
Only two grid references left after this one, good times!
A very happy rider indeed! :-)
It was a couple of very happy riders that eventually arrived at Machynlleth and found a café open serving fortifying sausage sandwiches and large portions of chips

The rest of Sunday flew by  in that way that Sunday morning rides in the sunshine do, we paid attention to try and ride only on South facing slopes to absorb as much of the day's heat as possible and this made the ride rather pleasant, almost gentle! After a few short sharp climbs we found ourselves at the last checkpoint. We'd done it, all the grid references had been ticked off. Time to head home for the promised tea and cake.

On the final push we spotted a lone rider in front. This was an adventure event, not a race, but just in case there was a short moment of heads down and we soon had a third rider to chat to and exchange route notes and experiences with. We rolled into the car park with massive grins on our faces. Maybe a little too tired to say "again?" just at that moment, but it was only a matter of seconds before the brilliance of the experience was agreed unanimously and plans for a bigger and better ride in 2013 were already being made!

Once in the kitchen, we joined the other riders in sitting in the curiously welcoming school chairs, exchanged tales of great daring, while not quite so daringly wolfing down tea and cake. And then it was time to go home.
Tea & Cake (+ stories of great daring)  with the other riders, hard earned!
Photo cheekily nicked from the BareBonesBikepacking website
The weekend was a great way to spend two cold days in January, I got to test out my navigation in the dark (and was pleased to pass and not still be wandering around the hills on Sunday morning!), the kit choices proved to be sound and I picked up a few handy tips to make things smaller and lighter next time from my fellow riders.

All in all the Mach ' Back was a weekend's cycling I'd recommend to anyone and it was great to. Well, anyone who owned a nice warm, sleeping bag ;-) It was great to try something new and bikepacking is something I'll definitely be doing a lot more of and be hoping to be getting more proficient at as 2012 progresses.

You can also read about Nick Gilling's ride at the Mach 'n Back in his write up here


  1. Hi Rob, thanks for the link, I've added one to your excellent write-up in return, cheers.

  2. Hi Rob,
    Thanks for visiting my 'purpletraveller' blog and linking in as a follower.....I in turn have done the same.


  3. Thanks Trevor & Nick. It's always good to read about other riders' adventures and to learn about their plans, what inspires them or just what makes them smile :-)