Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Making the Most of a Shortened Winter.....

It feels like hardly any time has passed since I last wrote a blog, yet once again it’s been months! I think after the frustrations of the start of the Winter and feeling like I was missing out on Winter fun, I’ve been determined to fit the whole of a Winter’s activities into half the usual time…I reckon I’ve been closed to doing so too. As a result of this, I feel like I’ve barely had a minute to stop and relax, but hey, I had months of relaxing whilst I was injured anyway!

Skiing in the unexpected bonus that I didn't think was on the cards this season! Photo Ben Jones
February’s adventures began with a bothy trip with Aoife and Phil in the Lakes. Aoife is a journalist (and a very good one at that…read her articles on BikeRadar if you need convincing…she writes brilliantly!) and her boyfriend Phil a photographer. They had never been on a bothy trip but were keen to get out, and Aoife had a Bikepacking bike to test as well as a load of gear to review, a perfect excuse for an overnight trip!

Home for a night...
As “Bothying” has become more popular and recognised in recent years, I’ve had loads of people asking me about taking them on trips. I love staying in bothies and will always be up for doing this…but the number of people who like the idea of bothying more than I imagine they would like the reality is probably fairly high! They’ve been made to seem in recent films and photos like idyllic spots to have a mini adventure and get away into the hills…and they are. BUT, they are also essentially just incredibly rustic shelters…4 walls and a roof, and a fireplace if you’re lucky. No toilets, showers, heating or light. Pretty much just a shed!

Bothy nights
So I was more than a little concerned about how 2 bothy virgins would fair on a cold Winter’s night out! Thankfully I needn’t have worried. Aoife and Phil absolutely loved it, and subsequently we all had a great weekend.

Room with a view
The weather was magical…dry and cold with a sprinkling of snow overnight to enhance the view the next morning. We had wine, a roaring fire, and baked camembert amongst many other tasty treats. Aoife got to fully test the kit she was using, and Phil got some incredible photos over the 2 days. Fantastic!

Aoife in full bikepacking mode!
From here it was up to the Fort William Mountain Festival, where I was honoured to have been asked to be a speaker at the Bike Night. Joined by Chris Ball (Enduro World Series Founder and Director, and all-round adventure enthusiast) and Crawford Carrick-Anderson (Legend of Scottish ski and bike racing and basically anything he turns his hand to), and hosted by Aneela McKenna (fellow Juliana Ambassador, co-owner of Go-Where Scotland, and owner of the most outrageous laugh you’ve ever heard), the evening was a sell out and seemed to go really well, despite how nervous I’d felt beforehand! I’d taken my mind off it by taking part in the “Runduro” event that day…25km of fell running with lots of climbing and descending, in typically Scottish winter weather. It definitely worked as a distraction technique…My legs were suffering from it for days though! The rest of the weekend was enjoyed catching up with friends and being inspired by talks and films from those involved in the outdoor sports world. A great event which I thoroughly recommend to anyone.

Chris descending Diagonal Gully
My shoulder gained it’s first real test of “Proper riding” on a quick weekend hit in the Tweed Valley, and thankfully felt great! With steep, rooty, technical trails, and a fast group of friends to chase down the hill, I was worried how it would feel, and how I would feel psychologically too. Strength wise I was fine, the shoulder gave me no pain at all. I was definitely not up to full speed and riding a bit more cautiously than normal, the fear of falling off and facing time off the bike again too much to bear after months off over the Winter! But as I rode more, I began to relax more and feel a little less rusty, and it was just what I needed to give me the confidence to start pushing myself on harder trails again.
Tweed Valley Inversion on a frosty morning
Taking advantage of the great conditions that the Highlands were blessed with, I headed up to the Highlands for some Ski touring in Torridon and the Cairngorms at the end of February. Clear, cold days and blankets of fresh powder make the hills of Scotland seem even more magical than they normally appear, and everything was looking particularly spectacular this year. With various friends, old and new, there were many great days out in the hills in incredible conditions, and a good chance to regain some of the fitness lost after my injury and surgery. I even managed to drag myself up some Winter climbing routes with Simon and Jonny in the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms, and even more surprisingly, I actually really enjoyed them (Note: winter climbing is usually of the Type 2 fun variety!)…a sure sign that the arm was getting stronger!

Kev scoping out the untouched pow fields for our way down!
My main objective this Winter had been to start my training to become a Ski Instructor. After thinking about it for a few years, I decided I would go for it, and even if I decided not to use the qualification, it would be a great opportunity to learn something new, with no doubt many transferable instructing/leading skills to take back to the bike. And if I did enjoy it, and pass, it would give me the potential to be able to work outdoors, year round in the Mountains.

Torridon skiing Photo: Brodie Hood
When I had my shoulder surgery back in November, I basically wrote off the Winter….cancelling all the plans I’d made, and not wanting to make any new ones because I didn’t know what and when I was going to be able to do anything again. I was scared of getting to certain points and not being ready to do things I’d had in mind that I would, and what that would do to my mental wellbeing! This turned out to be a good way to look at things…and as a result, when it got to the start of March and my shoulder felt good, instead of feeling gutted that I hadn’t already completed my instructor training, I felt excited that I could start it and maybe get even some of it completed….anything I got done this Winter has been a bonus from what I expected!

Perfect conditions for my BASI level 1 course in Aviemore
The week long Level 1 course up in Aviemore was HARD!! I felt like I had to unlearn all the bad habits I had from 30 years of skiing, and relearn how to ski from scratch. There were many moments when I thought “I’m not good enough to do this”, but slowly, surely, with hours of practice and drills every day, things started to click and I felt my skiing improve day by day. The others on the course were great fun and I don’t think a single one of us found it easy so we all stuck together and supported each other as much as we could. The conditions were great for Scotland, good snow coverage and quiet slopes, and not too many moments of flat light and sideways snow! I think what I enjoyed most was learning again for the first time in a long time. I’ve been skiing for as long as I can remember, but I’ve never really thought about what I’m doing when I ski, or how I make my skis do what I want them to. Breaking things down to scratch and working back from there is a fundamental part of learning how to teach others, but also essential to understand, improve and refine your own skiing and take it to new levels. I really really enjoyed it, despite how hard it was, and thankfully I passed!

Assisted by magical light sabre Juliana skis....
The following week I began the shadowing of Instructors that is needed as part of the Instructor award. I guess this is where the real learning of how to teach comes in! It’s all very well practising on each other during a course but it’s hard to simulate what it’s like to have a group of 3-4 year olds that you are supposed to be teaching how to ski! I absolutely loved it though, and learnt so much from all the fantastic Instructors I shadowed over the course of a few weeks both up in Aviemore and at the Chill Factore in Manchester. The plan is to take the next level award at the start of next Winter and see where it takes me!

Emily descending to the valley after a fantastic hut trip
The busy theme didn’t end here though…A last minute offer of a Ski touring trip to France to stay with friends Emily and David came up and couldn’t be turned down. The lure of sunny days and spring touring in the beautiful Alps proving too much of a draw despite the dwindling bank balance!

Alpine hut lunches...the reward for a long climb, mmmmmm! Photo Emily Horridge
 It was an awesome week…packed full of hut trips, full-moon overnight tours, great off-piste spring sking, good company, red wine, cheese, tartiflette, and generally all that is wonderful about the French alps! If only it could have been longer!

I love ski-touring! Photo Emily Horridge
Since then, thoughts have turned to riding again as the bike season has begun. I think having an enforced period of time off the bike and away from the things you love and that bring you so much happiness, has been a fantastic way to refresh my enthusiasm and motivation for it! I literally feel like a small child in a sweet shop every time I’m out on my bike.
Every ride is exciting, even ones I’ve done hundreds of times before…I cannot describe how much I’m enjoying being out in the hills and flying down trails again, for both work and pleasure!

It's hard to get out of bed at 3.30am, but sunrise rides are oh so worth it.
I wrote a blog for Bikmo Insurance this week on what I think are some of the best things about riding a bike for a living, and I think this sums up why I’m currently so happy again!

New bike day! Whoop whoop!
There is little like a new bike to bring a huge smile to your face, and when it’s a bike as beautiful as this year’s Juliana Roubion, enhanced by shiny coloured components and wrapped up in magical Invisiframe protection, well, let’s just say my face has been aching from smiling so much!

I’m incredibly proud to be supported by Hope Technology this year, as well as continuing to be an Ambassador for Juliana Bicycles and Invisiframe, and am super grateful for the support from these awesome companies. Hope are based in Barnoldswick in the North of England, and design, make and test all their products in their factory there. How rare is that these days?! It’s fantastic to be supported by a company that are flying the flag still for British engineering and manufacturing. The Factory is an amazing place which I was lucky enough to have a tour of a few weeks ago. It basically blew my mind seeing what goes on there!

Beautiful shiny components

It was a day where Gareth was very much in my thoughts, or maybe even right there with me…. He loved nothing more than pimping up his bike, and Hope components featured strongly in many of these upgrades (or “safety improvements” as he used to tell me they were at the time!). I remember the first red Hope Bottom Bracket and Wheel Skewers he bought for me and how exciting it was to put them on my bike… He would have absolutely loved to see the Factory, and understood a lot more of what was going on there than I did I imagine. But he also would have been SOOOO excited to see my new bike kitted out with full Hope bling! I was proud of myself, and I know he would have been very proud too….(and incredibly envious, in fact, he probably would have already swopped most of the parts onto his bike by now!)

Still not convinced I'm fast enough to have my name on my bike....but at least I know it's mine!

Hope have been running fortnightly Women’s rides at various places in the North of England for a few weeks now, and they’ve been a roaring success. More than 40 women have turned up to ride with each other, test out demo bikes kitted out with Hope componentry, shares stories and banter, shred the trails, and eat cake! They’ve been a great way for girls to meet new people to ride with in their local areas, and to encourage more women out onto their bikes, and also just a huge amount of fun. If you know anyone who might enjoy these rides then send them in the direction of the HopeTech website to find out more!

Since then it's been into guiding up in Scotland on Mountain Lassies women's trips, as well as taking a bit of time to work on my own skills with a day's coaching from JP who runs A-Line Coaching. I feel like my riding is going great after all the tips I picked up and things we worked on last week....thanks JP!!

Mountain Lassies guiding in the Tweed Valley! Photo: Andy McKenna
Skills and drills at Parkwood Photo: JP Jones/A-Line Coaching
There are LOTS of exciting things happening this summer that I can't wait for.....Bring on the sunshine and long summer days in the mountains!

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