I followed my usual routine when we found our bivvy spot for the night, quickly stripping off my riding layer and changing into a fresh base layer… snuggling into my new FINDRA Leithen baselayer, the instant warmth bringing comfort on a chilly fellside. The heat of the day was beginning to die, and the sun was dipping behind the western Lakes fells and over the Irish Sea as we turned our backs on it to descend Walna Scar Road. Pinging down, tired arms and legs and bikes carrying our overnight kit, we lost height quickly – pausing only to top up water bottles from a stream. As we unrolled sleeping mats and bags, we traced the headlights of fellow riders making their own way down from the ridge – some hoping to make last orders in the pub, others aiming to push on further before calling it a night. We were done, for now though. Far enough through the Jennride that we were over half way. Enough to go that tomorrow would still be a big day. Tired, but not exhausted. Weary, but eager to ride again. In the time we took to prepare camp, my sweaty riding t-shirt (a FINDRA Raasay Enduro short sleeve) had dried a little in the breeze, and I stuffed it into my sleeping bag allowing my body heat to finish off the job during the night.
There are so many choices available for outdoor kit now. I spend half my life as a gear tester, putting clothing for running and riding through its paces – from high tech waterproofs to the latest lycra. While I’ve been doing this, I’ve learnt a few things along the way:
- Cut is king. There’s no point having a great fabric if there is so much of it that it ends up billowing around you. Equally, I don’t want to have to breath in to do up a zip, or have to suffer cold wrists thanks to too short sleeves.
- Clothing can be the difference between simply enduring bad weather and enjoying making the most of it. More than that, it can be your margin of safety if things go wrong or conditions turn in the mountains.
- While form may follow function, there’s no reason activewear has to be boring or ugly. I like colours and bold patterns. I don’t necessarily want kit that looks like I’ve just stepped off the pro-team bus, with logos emblazoned everywhere.
- It’s easy to develop outdoor kit for every niche. It’s harder and rarer to find an item that is so good it works generally… whether it be running, riding, short sessions, multi-day trips, hot or cold weather. When you stumble across something like that, you cherish it, wear it constantly, wear it out. My wardrobe is bulging at the hinges with very good test kit. Only the best get to come out once I’ve finished the testing process. I’ve still got my first merino base-layers… now somewhat threadbare after who-knows how many washes and wears, but they are the ones that I have reached for first throughout cold winters and when visiting somewhere new. The old faithfuls that have repaid their initial cost many times over.
- It’s hard not to build an emotional attachment with our gear. It might be a tool to do the job, but our memories become entwined with it. The top that I wore while touring the Faroe Islands last year still reminds me of cobalt skies, multicoloured rooftops and towering sea cliffs twelve months on. I have race jerseys that I may never wear again, but I can’t bear to part with, still mud-stained from their last outing – as if without that reminder the memories of the race will fade faster than those stains.
- As much as bad clothing frustrates, good clothing is a joy. Never underestimate the joy that tugging on a cosy top brings, or pulling a bobble hat over cold ears, or watching rain run off a jacket while you stay dry inside. It is as much about the details as it is the big stuff though… a zip puller in just the right place, a pocket that is big enough to fit a smartphone, thumb loops to keep those wrists cosy.
- Price and value are very different things. It’s rare that the most expensive kit is bad – and the few pieces of top-of-the-range kit I have are often the ones I use the most often and appreciate the most. Equally, while clothing that is cheaper will more than likely do the job, it is often compromised in terms of functionality or durability. I’d rather have a small number of very good, multi-purpose items than lots of middling kit.
- Layering is great in most circumstances, allowing you to fine-tune your clothing depending on the ever-changing conditions we have in the UK.
- For me, merino is the ultimate multi-functional fabric. I appreciate its warm when cool, and cool when hot properties. I love that I can wear the same top day after day while bikepacking or on longer trips, without the familiar pong that synthetic fibres bring. I like that a merino t-shirt or base layer works as well in the pub as it does when I’m running or on the bike.
- Finally, and most importantly, ignore everything I’ve just said. Because ultimately, a great ride or run is still great, regardless of what happens to be covering your body as you do it. Clothes might enhance the experience, make it more comfortable or even safer, but the key is still getting out there in the first place.
By 2 am, we lay in our sleeping bags, regretting the decision to leave our tarp at home. Rain pounded against our bivvy bags, some inevitably sneaking its way inside soaking sleeping bags and dry layers. Sometimes stuff doesn’t go to plan, hey? I’m not going to pretend that my FINDRA merino magically kept me warm, but once the rain had eased off and I drifted back into fitful sleep, I was safe if not entirely comfortable. The sun rises early by mid-May and with no curtains to obscure the light, we woke early too. By 6:30 am there was already welcome warmth to those rays, cutting through the chilled post-storm air. We bundled sleeping kit away as quickly as possible – keen to generate more warmth by moving… and the knowledge that breakfast was still many miles and many hills away from being earned. It only took until the first of those hills for me to remove layers, back to my riding t-shirt, still sporting mud-splatters from the day before, but otherwise no clues to the fact that it had been sweated in for twelve hours the day before. Over the course of the day, it would gather more mud and spray, keep me comfortable in temperatures ranging from high single figures to around 20°c – slogging up climbs, pinging down descents and sitting in the sun enjoying a bottle of beer when we eventually reached the finish.
As I said above, what I wore wasn’t the most important thing about this ride. Riding with those close to me, sharing stories with good friends, remembering those who are no longer here to ride, and simply playing bikes will always rank higher and it would be crazy to suggest otherwise. Somewhere, as a personal footnote in the memories, maybe a scrawl in the margin of my mental logbook, I’ll still take some satisfaction from knowing that I’d brought no more than I needed and (nearly) everything I wanted. Maybe next time, the tarp will make its way into my luggage though.