The Norway plan and the test run to Ballater...


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May 12th 2008
Published: May 12th 2008
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Welcome back to my blog. As you may know I'm now just about to hit the road on a cycle epic to Norway lasting 2 months or thereabouts. I'm starting tomorrow from Dundee with a quick 50-miler down to Rosyth where I'm boarding the 17:00 ferry to Zeebrugge, yes Zeebrugge - probably further away from Norway than Rosyth! But the plan is to then cycle around the north sea coast, via my Belgian friend in Ghent for a few days 😊, and then up across Denmark to Copenhagen maybe in time for my birthday on the 27th (last years birthday was spent on the Inca Trail in Peru!). This part of the trip should be 'the gentle introduction' since I've been reliably informed that Belgium, Holland, northern Germany, and Denmark are all as flat as the proverbial pancake. And with luck I'll have a gulf stream induced tail wind behind me all the way. I'll have a few days rest in Copenhagen, see the mermaid, eat lots of pastries to maintain my healthy middle age spread. From there depending on how things have gone I'll make may way either through Sweden, or Denmark, and maybe with the help of a short ferry crossing up to Norway. I'm hoping to start my norway trip from Kristiansand and then weave my way at least as far as Tromso, with a detour to the Lofoten Islands. That I'm sure is going to take me at least 6 weeks. The good news (to my parents) is that I've actually managed to secure a job on my return - it looks most likely that I'll be working in memory for a company called SanDisk (if you haven't heard of them then you need to join the digital age fast) up in Edinburgh again from the 14th July.

So, it seemed like a good idea to take my newly-purchased bike (Ridgeback World Panorama), panniers (lovely red Ortlieb ones) and me out for a test run to make sure that all three would be up to the task. Thankfully I had a willing accomplice in this mission, my friend Mike (Fongster) from Edinburgh who toddled up to Dundee on the Friday night ready for an earlyish start on saturday. The test run was going to be an overnighter up north west out of Dundee through Glenshee to Braemar then around to Ballater for the night, looping back via Fettercairn then down to the coast at Arbroath and home. A seemingly modest 150 mile loop, no problem for strapping young men like us.

Off we set along the banks of the silvery Tay in the warm sunshine, then up through Camperdown park (home to the last red squirrel population in the country) and out back through the Sidlaws and down to Alyth. So far so good. The only problem we'd had was when my front pannier slipped in the first 100m - easily fixed with an allen key. Alyth actually seemed like a nice place. A wee square with a cute river running through, and lots of overweight people waiting at the bus-stop for their weekend shopping trip to Dundee. Leaving Alyth we encountered our first climb up across into Glenisla. Up until this point I'd barely noticed the panniers - the bike had handled like a dream. But this hill was too steep to take at speed, and gradually I was forced down the gears to the granny wheel with barely the leg-strength to keep things turning. Meanwhile Mike was maintaining a depressingly good pace ahead - these recent 40 miler runs that he'd been doing were obviously standing him in good shape. My most recent long outing had been a bit of mountain biking (maybe 15 miles) and before that the now imfamous Copper River Delta mission in Alaska (see previous blog entry) some time ago. The sun was beating down on us too and my arms were beginning to take on an all too familiar lobster red glow. Once into Glenisla the ride wasn't too punishing and gradually the hills began to reach skyward around us.

It was just as we were joining the main highway to Glenshee that disaster struck. Mike broke a spoke and at that point it looked like we might have to give up the trip only 40 miles in. We limped in to the Spittal of Glenshee to assess out options. Mikes wheel was looking somewhat shaky. I have to say at that point camping up there and treating ourselves to a nice cider in the sun or maybe a meal at the very pleasant pub was looking like a good option. But it wasn't to be. Another friendly cycle touring couple pulled in, and proclaimed that really a broken spoke was nothing to worry about. We'd already discovered that there was a bike shop in Ballater where we could do the repair the next morning if need be, so on we pushed following the original plan, but an hour and a half down.

What followed was possibly the most gruelling climb of my life up to Glenshee, via the aptly named Devil's Elbow. A 2 mile stretch around an everso long bend rising 1000ft with an ambomnably steady gradient (14% or so). It seemed never ending - it almost was. I actually had to stop 4 times on the way up as I ran out of strength to keep my bottom gear going. My speedo was reading 2.7mph. Rabbits were hopping past me and sweat was stinging my eyes and every time I'd try to wipe them I'd carreen into the middle of the road (not advisable with motorbikes flying back at 90mph). Mike struggled too. But he struggled much less than me. I believe he has a photo of me during my final pull to the top, it won't be pretty.

Well by this stage it was already getting late. We flew down the other side into a cloud enshrouded valley towards Braemar, pressing through Braemar down the Dee valley towards Balmoral it started raining. Much as I'd have like to make it to Balmoral and some royal hospitality it was already late and I pressed Mike to stop at the first decent looking spot. A lovely spot as it turned out, under some magestic pines with a royal view of the Dee. We were 15 miles short of where we'd intended to be, which meant that Sunday would have to be a 90-miler to get us home.

Morning broke to light rain which thankfully had stopped by the time we emerged from the tent. After instant noodles and potato salad for breakfast we forged on. The cycle down the valley following the river was very pretty with, here and there, the odd castle emerging from the mist. We raced by Balmoral and on to Ballater via the back road which rightly seemed very popular with the local veteran cycling clubs. At Ballater we found the cycle shop, a nice spot behind the church, and got Mike's wheel repaired. That took an hour so we didn't leave there till well gone midday and we still faced a stern 75 miles to get home. The route wend it's way down the valley some more and was all seeming rather comfortable till firstly we faced a short sharp climb out of the Dee valley at Finzean (pronounced Fingan) and then a real killer across to Fettercairn. Remind me to check the contours next time a plan a wee test jaunt. This route climbed and then dropped, climbed again then dropped and finally climbed some more to 1500ft with gradients hitting 16% and although it didn't have the intense one off brutality of the Glenshee climb the previous day the overall rise was probably more. Whatsmore there seemed to be a motorcycle grand prix going on, hardly a pleasant experience. At the top we took a well earned break and donned our tops for a fast and chilly switchback decent. Doing this on a normal bike would be scary but doing it on a bike with 30 extra kilos of gear was downright frightening. My speedo maxed at 43mph and that was when I was approaching a bend with my brakes on full already beginning to look for a safe landing spot. Credit to my little Ridgeback though - it never flinched around the bend. At the bottom we felt the bike rims and our skin sizzled.

So that left a modest 40 miles on to home. There were moments of feeling great, and moments of pain. My knees would throb occasionally and my ass would groan. My hands were sore just about everywhere. Mike was feeling it too, and from leading me through all the big climbs he suddenly found the strength had left him and it was just about making it home. We pressed on eventually hitting the coast at Arbroath and thankfully with a sea breeze whipping our tail the last 15 miles into Dundee weren't too bad along the very pleasant North Sea route 1 (which goes all the way to London and beyond). Once home I almost collapsed off my bike into a very welcoming armchair. In all we'd done a little over 150 miles at an average speed of 12.1mph. Mike still had his drive home to Edinburgh and work in the morning (which I believe he made!). I said my farewells to him (till July when I'll work with him!) and with stiff legs flopped on the sofa. Numerous unmentionable parts of my body were sore, aching and yep chaffed. My leaving present tub of Vaseline from my Oxford housies may well be a lifesaver.

So things I've learned (I'm using this as a memo for tonights packing):
1) panniers are heavy they do not like to be cycled up hills
2) take spoke tool nipple twister thing and spare spokes
3) tape for where pannier bags rub on frame
4) camelback rucksack is uncomfortable and sweaty whilst riding - make do with panniers and water bottles
5) mountain bike cycle shorts chaff over long distance, swallow pride and go for regular lycra
6) maps could be helpful
7) don't forget pan scourer and washing up liquid.

Well I imagine that subsequent blog entries won't be as detailed as this. Wish me luck!


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13th May 2008

good luck!
good luck!.... i see from point #2 that you have started learning norwegian... have fun! hugs, Pia xx

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