Welcome to South Downs MTB Skills, we are a progressive MTB skills coaching company based in West Sussex. We can do skills coaching at Stanmer Park in Brighton, more advanced techniques on the Surrey Hills at Peaslake, and guided rides all over West Sussex and the Surrey Hills.
Why not read through the blog to find out about skills sessions other people have taken, check out Jim’s Blog for what’s going on at the moment and check out some of the equipment reviews too.
The Welsh Ride Thing last year was my first foray into multi day bikepacking, and it was such an amazing weekend. Well how things change in a year, now I’m on the countdown to riding the Tour Divide and this years event was a good excuse for Tom and I to test our bikes with all the kit we are taking to America in June.
We had the added bonus of having “converted” some of our usual crew to this slightly unusual offshoot of mountainbiking over the last year too, so it was awesome to turn up in Wales with a big crew of my usual riding buddies. It was set to be a great weekend, even if the previous great weather had blown itself away to leave us with a terrible forecast. However, as we’d discovered last year, it’s rarely as bad as you think it’s going to be and somehow when you have resigned yourself to riding for three days bad weather doesn’t seem quite so hideous for some reason.
So we’d planned a pretty good route that was around 110 miles, however there were some bad weather shortcuts and with what was forecast it looked like they would be the safest and more sensible options. It was a mixture of country lanes and off road bridleways and singletrack. As we discovered last year though, when in Wales the route marked on the map doesn’t always equate to what is on the ground. In one or two places a certain amount of “improvisation” was required, and maybe a bit of fence vaulting too!
On the first day our route also took us through the excellent Climachx trails in the Dyfi valley. This was the same weekend as the Dyfi Enduro, fortunately we were there the day before as my Garmin had us riding some sweet singletrack that also happened to be marked as the enduro route, the only problem was we were going the opposite way!
We lost the trail a couple of times, but eventually ended up in Dolgellau, hungry and thirsty at dusk. A quick top up of water and some munchies and we were heading off into the darkening skies looking for a bothy Richard had told us about near Coed y Brenin. That would mean we kept all our kit dry for at least one night and also didn’t have far to ride for a slap up cooked breakfast in the morning
Fortunately the MBA web site gives grid references for bothies, however that doesn’t make it any easier finding them in a forest in the dark! Eventually though we rolled into our luxurious accommodation at about 22:00. Dinner was quickly cooked and consumed before we all settled down to a relaxing night lying wide awake listening to Duncan snoring.
Day two dawned and it was wet wet wet! We packed up and headed for the Coed y Brenin visitor centre for breakfast, fantastic bike shop by the way, who deserve an honourary mention for sorting out Duncan’s crash damage from the previous day and getting him rolling again with a full set of functional gears. We all stuffed ourselves silly and headed back out into the rain, this was where our first wet weather option was taken. After a long off road section our original route had us going high onto an exposed ridge line, it was not really safe to do this with the high wind and so we opted for a valley route. Back down to the main road and once again our stomachs were announcing their need for a top up. We endured the main road to Barmouth and went in the amusingly named ISIS Pizzeria. No radicalisation occurred though, unless you count destruction of radically large pizza.
After that lot we headed back out into the rain and we were riding across Barmouth bridge, leaning into the wind at forty five degrees, whilst the Irish Sea did it’s best to try and shot blast us and chuck us in the river below. This was where we took another road option rather than what we had planned. Originally we were going for an off road up and over and then a trip to the top of Cadair Idris, but again in the conditions that would have just been a stupid move.
We opted for the coast road south and then rode up the delightfully named “happy valley”. It was nice to get back out of the wind (slightly) and we wound our way along. It turned out to be another of what Daryl named “FFS Valleys”, they seemed OK to ride along and then you get to the end and FFS there’s a massive climb at the end!!
After a day in the rain though we were fantasizing over somewhere dry to stay and when we rolled back into Machynlleth we tried to find the bunkhouse that Google had listed. However it turned out to have been sold and returned to residential use, at least that’s what the woman wrapped in a blanket, drinking out of a tinnie sat outside told us.
Still wishing for at least some facilities we headed for the nearest campsite and the weather cooperated and let us put up our tents and cook dinner in the dry, amazing! We all hit the sack early as it had been a tough day and to be honest it was nice to be in a warm sleeping bag.
This left us with “just” fifteen miles over the mountain road to get back and we got up, packed away and headed back to Machynlleth for breakfast. Another massive feed and when we went back outside the rain was torrential again and the wind was very strong.
We grovelled our way up the road, leaning into the wind, occasionally being blown off the road into the verge completely. The upside of course was about four miles of descent, with a strong wind assistance down the other side.
Back down to basecamp and the tea urn was on. I very quickly drank four cups of tea and several bits of cake later we walked back to the van to get changed. Just to taunt us once we had all loaded up and got changed the sun came back out!!
However it didn’t really matter, despite the weather we had the Welsh Ride Thing delivered again, riding bikes, fun with friends, food and laughter.
Excuse the somber music on the video, it was fun, honest!!
So as far as our kit went, we used everything we took and there wasn’t anything we needed. I make that a success, while there is no way we can plan for everything that could happen in America I feel like we’re pretty well sorted.
Not long now till we set off so if you can help us along our way by making a donation to Cancer Research that would be awesome.
So when you do any big trip one of the big things these days is keeping your gadgets charged, especially if you aren’t going near mains electricity at all. Camera, phone, GoPro, GPS, as well as lights all need powering and recharging. The dynamo hub is great for this job, but some extra electronics is required to give you a USB output to charge your stuff too.
So this is my set up, some off the shelf, some Jimbo made! But it all does the job and I’m now self sufficient for the Tour Divide.
So, starting with the hub, I have the SP 8X hub, I’ve got this on all my bikes as I’m totally sold on dynamo lights now! You can run the e-werk cable and the Revo light cable together down to the plug, but I decided to make a switch box so that I could turn them on and off independently. So I took a trip to Maplin and came home with a small plastic enclosure some switches and some terminals.
SO the box has two switches, one goes to the E-werk, the other to the Exposure Lights Revo.
The Revo light is great, small, light and bright and the exposure red eye rear light plugs into the back of it.
The Busch & Muller E-werk puts out a variety of voltages and currents, I have it set to a USB output, that way it will charge all my stuff. The output of the E-werk goes into a cache battery which provides a stable output so that you can charge the GPS while riding without it dropping in and out as you speed up and slow down. You can also either plug an additional power bank or your other gadgets in.
So here’s a diagram of how it is all wired.
So all the gear is falling into place, and there’s only sixty five days to go!!!
Andy and Digby got in touch, they were heading off to Bikepark Wales and were looking for a bit of a skills tune up. I managed to leave the camera in the car so didn’t get any pictures, so I’ve pinched Andy’s one off Instagram!
We decided to opt for some more challenging terrain that Stanmer so went to the Surrey Hills, here’s the session off Strava.
So we started off with a ride up to the top of Holmbury Hill. We rode the Yoghurt Pots a couple of times so I could do a skills check and see what we needed to work on. We headed over to some fireroad and started working on the ready position, braking and cornering. After practicing all the cornering elements we headed back the the Yogurts for another go. Then we moved on to Telegraph and looked at manualling and how to tackle drop offs. This done it was time for I Should Coco and looking at line choices, drop offs and braking.
This was a really fun session and it was great to see the difference in the guy’s riding, the last go through the Yogurt Pots was such a blast and we all finished with a large grin on our faces
Lianne got in touch, she Grace and Janette were after a skills session to set them up for a planned trip to the Sierra Nevada. We decided we’d split the session in two and we did the groundwork for Lianne at Stanmer Park, then a further session for all three on the Surrey Hills for some more challenging terrain.
We started off doing the ready position for Lianne, then looked at body position during braking and also a long look at cornering.
Then we moved on to the Surrey Hills for a session with everyone. First we recapped the ready position and cornering and then moved on to tackling drop offs and line choices on more challenging and steeper terrain.
Who am I kidding I love bikes, I love shiny stuff, and I love putting something together from the ground up and building a bike that works exactly the way I want it to.
I’m lucky as I work in the cycle trade and have had a lot of help sorting bits and pieces out for this bike, making sure the spec is suitable,everything works together and it will stand up to the challenges it will encounter this summer. So I must say thanks to JP at Quest Adventure and Martin at South Downs Bikes for help with components and Daz at Strada wheels for helping me to navigate the 29+ boost width minefield!
A photo posted by Jim Barrow (@southdownsmtbskills) on
So I started off hunting for the perfect frame. My previous Genesis Longitude proved to be an awesome bikepacking machine, super capable, carried the bags well and was really comfy. The main problem though was it’s weight, not too bad at 31lb, but I didn’t want to pedal that every day for over a month so I started to look for an alternative.
Titianium was the obvious choice for me, I already have a kinesis Sync, which is an awesome trail / race bike, but it can’t take the extra volume 29+ tyre width I was looking for. I stumbled across Travers Bikes, chatting to one of their team riders at Mountain Mayhem, it seemed perfect for the job. I exchanged a few messages with Michael Travers and they were coming to race the Brighton Big Dog so it was a perfect chance to get a go on a bike and see how it felt. On paper it’s very similar to the Kinesis, but will take the 29+ wheels I was looking for. Michael gave me a spin on his bike and it felt great, so the following monday I ordered a frame.
I had custom options to turn it into a bikepacking machine. Direct mount front mech, extra ‘anything cage’ mounts that I jigged around till I had them in the perfect spot, full length gear and brake outers externally routed (standard frames have internal routing) along with the Travers Ti bar and seatpost I wanted as comfy a ride as possible.
So starting with the wheels, I needed a wider, plus width, rim. There aren’t too many options at the moment. I wanted metal, rather than carbon, for durability. Whether metal is actually any more durable I don’t really know, but in the back of my mind I wanted silver rims so that decided it for me.
The big choice was whether to go for a rim like the Surly Rabbit Hole or a solid one like the Velocity Dually. The big factor was the front hub, I need a dynamo and because the hub flanges are nearer together a rim like the Rabbit Hole will not build as strong a wheel as the spoke holes are offset, so Dually it was. Nice and easy to set up tubeless too as well as really shiny
So the front hub is a Shutter Precision PD8-X, I have them on my other bikes and they see to be reliable. The rear is a Hope boost width pro 2, I built the wheels just before the new pro 4 came out, if I’d have known I’d have waited! Both wheels are built with tandem spokes to help them deal with being ridden so far loaded with extra weight on the bike.
Next up was measuring the frame for a custom Alpkit frame bag. They make it to fit your frame exactly, so you have to make sure all the information is correct or it’s your fault!
Next up came the groupset, Shimano XT 2 x 11, I know that 1 x 11 is the thing everyone raves about these days, but I need the gear range to get me over these mountain passes, the Tour Divide has 200,000 feet of climbing along the route!
The handlebar bag and the seatpack are Apidura, all the others are Alpkit. The forks hold a Free Parable Gorilla cage each side for extra water capacity, and there is also one under the downtube which will hold my tool kit in a Lezyne Flow Caddy to keep it all dry.
Up front is an Alpik Fuel Pod and two Stem Cells.
Due to the nature of the extremely long gravel and forest roads on the Tour Divide most people run tri bars of some description, whilst googling I found the BarYak, naturally being really shiny it was perfect for this bike!
Lighting / gear charging is taken care of by the Exposure Lights Revo, more on that on a later post……
Gorilla cages for water carrying.
Currently I have Bontrager Chupacabra tyres on, but after exchanging a few messages with the guys at Bikepacking.com these will be changed for Maxxis Chronicles nearer the time, with the reinforced sidewalls and fast rolling tread pattern I think they will do a better job and certainly be a bit more durable.
Shimano XT 2 x 11
Brakes are TRP Spyke, mechanical, not hydraulic. Reduces the risk of handlebar bags rubbing the hoses over a long period of time, and you can get a new cable from pretty much any bike shop if you need to.
Last but not least here is my top tube sticker for a bit of motivation when times get tough, please donate to a great cause if you can:
Charlotte got in touch, as a regular road and sportive rider she’s starting to do more mountainbiking and was looking to get her self a little more confident on the bike before an upcoming trip to Afan.
We started off looking at the ready position, which she was already familiar with, however after chatting ablout her last trip to Afan where she had trouble on some of the steeper sections we put the emphasis on getting her to put her heels and wrists down further to get her weight back on the bike and hopefully reduce any trips over the handlebars as she had had a few.
Then we looked at cornering, Charlotte was by and large keeping her pedals level through everyting, so we spent some time getting her outside pedal down, riding ‘telegraph’ a number of times until she started to get the hang of it.
Then we moved on to manuals and getting the weight right back for steeper trail sections, she had some difficulties in Wales on the steeper sections, hopefully that will help out.
A fun session on sunny and dry Surrey trails, sweet!
I started riding with the Stanmer Riders a few months ago and although my riding has improved I just felt I was just crashing through the forest so I set up a lesson with Jim (who was recommended by the group) to do an assessment of my riding and agree the top 3 things I need to work on. Jim was great – he did an assessment ride and quickly identified what I needed to work on – cornering! Jim then broke it down and we worked on vision, weighting the outside pedal, arm and torso positioning – really weighting the outside pedal was a revelation in the grip it created in a muddy stanmer as was pointing your torso to hold a tight line. We also worked on manualling the front and rear wheel – and there were my 3!
I’ve had instruction before and Jim is by far the best mtb coach I have worked with – insightful, understated (ie it’s about you), easy to talk to, a great rider (ie great demo’s of how it’s done) and a thoroughly nice guy. As a result I’ve decided to have 4 monthly 4 hour sessions to keep me honest & make sure I keep improving
Martin, Richard and Alan got in touch, as members of their local triathlon club they were looking to enhance their MTB skills. With varying levels of experience on the MTB it was going to be an interesting session. We started off with the bike check and as is often the case with people with a road or tri background they had their tyres way too hard. After a bit of adjustment we headed off to the trails.
With the current bad weather we have been experiencing I have recently opted to use some different trails in Stanmer that can handle the wetter weather a bit better, despite the recent rain the going was good. We started off with a skills check, riding ‘community coppicing’ three times so I could get a good look at everyone and their habits.
Again, as is ofter with way with road or tri people, they all spent a lot of time in the saddle and also the footwork needed some attention too as they tended to stay pedals level through everything. We started off looking at the ready position and making sure everyone was happy being out of the saddle before taking a look at braking and shifting of your body position.
Then it was onto cornering, getting the guys to put their outside pedals down, immediately though they were beginning to feel the difference and were soon getting much smoother.
Then it was on to manuals and tackling trail obstacles.
This was going to be an interesting weekend, first time away somewhere more remote for Tom, first time loaded up on my new Travers and first time for us both with what we imagine to be our Tour Divide kit shared between us.
The weather forecast was horrific, but the reality was somewhat better, initially anyway. We headed out on our planned route in light rain, but it soon cleared leaving us with some nice sunny spells. My nagging concerns over whether a switch to 2 x 11 would give me a low enough gear to climb on a fully loaded bike were unfounded and the first few steep climbs proved to be rideable.
Terrain later though proved to be totally saturated and although I was pleased to find that I had no clogging issues it was just so wet and muddy that there was no traction for anybody on some sections of trail.
Mid afternoon the rain started and we stopped under the overhang of an F.C. toilet block and brewed up coffee and topped up water from the river. The conditions meant the ride was taking longer than expected and after getting temporarily lost on a road link we decided we would re-route to a nearby bothy as the temperature was really dropping.
After having to clamber over a load of fallen trees we were happy to finally arrive at the bothy around five and the chance to put on some warm, dry clothes. Quite a few others had similar ideas too though and we were packed in.
The bothy at Nant Rhys consists of two rooms, one with a fire and bunks, the other with an area that lends itself to cooking. Parked outside was a bling camper van and a Ford Transit van. The room with the fire in had six drunk builders and three fellow bikepackers in. “Our” room had the six of us and another fellow rider in. It was a tight squeeze!
As usual though everyone was friendly. Tales were told in the warm room, the builders kindly added some whisky to my coffee and we cooked up some warm food. We eventually settled down and fortunately Tom and I had brought additional merino stuff to sleep in, but it was zero degrees inside and I ended up waking up in the night and putting on my down jacket. Very cold!! Some more thought is required for me I think as I sleep cold, Tom was OK though.
We woke up to a thin layer of snow on the ground and after porridge headed out into the cold and light drizzle. Again though the weather picked up and the sun came out. The next checkpoint was on top of a steep grass hill. It was too muddy to ride, so a long push commenced, but the view from the top was amazing and well worth all the effort.
Dropping through the country lanes we headed to Llanidloes for a deserved cooked second breakfast. We joined some fellow riders in a cafe and it was very difficult to get ourselves back out into the cold! But when we were well fed we headed back out and decided to skip the next waypoint and digest our food on the road in stead.
Seven miles of mountain road later it was becoming clear that Duncan, who had been ill all week, was really finding it tough going, struggling to breathe normally. The decision was made to skip the last big climb up to the wind farm waypoint and end the day on the road in stead.
The weather decided to reward us for wimping out at the end by soaking us again for the last half hour, typical! But lots of tea, toast and cake waiting at the end made all the suffering worthwhile.
So it was a great weekend, thanks again to the guys at Bear Bones Bikepacking for organising another great event. Although we didn’t cover the intended distance it was a great chance for Tom and I to try new bikes loaded up and carry all our kit for america.
Lessons learnt this time:
Some sort of sleeping bag liner for more warmth for me required
Better air mats with insulation needed
We need to filter water before we need it and still have some energy to do it!
Better water bottles needed to fit in my gorilla cages
Don’t forget our upcoming trip this year and donate to help a great cause if you can…