Scale and 650b

At the start of September I was lucky to be able to squeeze in a quick roadtrip to the Alps to visit Sam at Bikevillage, where I guided in 2011. the condition of the 3 of us going was that I finished converting the van into a rustic passion wagon within the 4 days that I had left myself. Many shuttles to B&Q and several 18 hour days later though, and a minor miracle of improvised design and self-tapping screws had replaced Van Mk 1.

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The weather forecast wasn’t amazing for the week, but the reality turned out a little kinder, with cool mornings giving way to warm afternoons, and the first snows of autumn draped the high summits as they stood above wreaths of cloud. When I spent the summer there 2 years ago I kind of missed Scotland’s stumpier mountains. Compared to the Alps they’re barely even mountains at all, but in the washed-out heat of August I had missed the turbulent weather and the emptiness of the hills; the Alps felt too busy and bleached out in summer to beat home. Maybe back then it was a case of too much of a good thing though. Especially with the moody weather that week, the journey from the Highlands to the Savoie in 2 days made the change in scale unmissable. Layers of cloud hanging at different altitudes make the massive size of the French peaks even more apparent, and the riding goes up a notch to match. 2,000m climbs and weeks of potential riding start on Bikevillage’s doorstep, pretty much dwarfing any UK riding destination. The riding there really feels like part of the landscape, too – old mining trails like Cotton Picker and the precipitous Ruins Trail feature pristine bench-cut singletrack that has almost melted back into the living hillside over the years.

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On one day I was lucky to be able to test Tom’s journo-tastic 650b Five on an alpine tech-fest called Sketchy Dismount. I was really keen to see if there’s anything in everyones new favourite wheel size, and to ride the same bike as my own, in the same frame size, seemed too good to miss. Was it faster than a 26″ Five? It’s hard to say, as finer things like tyres and even handlebar shape made the 650b version feel a little awkward, especially as the thin sidewalls lead to several punctures as confidence and speed increased. Underneath the unfamiliarity though, there was a small but noticeable difference in rollover resistance, like a ‘lite’ version of the 29er effect. Unlike a 29er though, the middle-sized wheels felt just as nimble as the smaller ones that I’m used to.

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We found Sketchy Dismount in an autumnal mood. Climbing ever upwards from the start point at 1400m, the temperature dropped and the breeze picked up. Short sleeves and sunglasses started looking like a poor choice. The climb tops out at 2,600m, only 50m below the snowline that day, and up there the alpine scale really slaps you in the face to make sure you appreciate how lucky you are. The trail sweeps closer and closer to the edge of the Nancroix valley 1,000m below, and long traverses are punctuated by frequent technical, rocky steps  (the reason for the name is pretty apparent once you get there).

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Despite all the riding, I think I came back heavier than I went out, most of that being accounted for by cheese and bread. One of the best things about going abroad to ride is the number of interesting people from back home that you bump into along the way! As well as some familiar ones, there were new faces to meet and ride with, and riding in such a fantastic place with such a like-minded and friendly group of people takes some beating.The questions of scale remained largely unanswered though – Alps or Scotland? Traditional wheels or new-fangled ones? I have no idea, but doing bikes remains a pretty good way to avoid being boring, however you go about it.

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