As I descended from the Widdop Reservoir on what should be a trail, although it seemed more like a river, my feet were swimming inside my waterproof cycling shoes. It was dark, very wet and getting chilly... but I couldn’t be happier!
The two lads I’ve dragged out for this test ride probably think I’m a bit nuts. To take a brand new bike just built, and ride it 50 miles off road in the middle of the pouring rain seems a bit extreme, but I guess, thats what I enjoy. Finding extremes.
This bike has been a pipe dream of mine, ever since looking at the Rovaniemi 150 Arctic endurance fat bike race, in the north of Finland, in winter! This race was the reason I got in contact with Alpkit, asking for support to win the race in 2018. Boldly, I told Dan and AlpCol at Alpkit HQ, "you give me the Vir Fortis and I’ll go and win you Europe’s biggest winter race". No British riders had ever won the race, although to be fair Shaggy came close, as did Ed Oxley. No disabled rider had ever won either. Of course, I had no idea if that was possible at the time having never raced anything like that before. However a background in Scottish winter mixed climbing and a couple of Paralympic gold medals in cycling, I thought was a perfect skillset.
Thankfully Alpkit backed me, and a couple of weeks later I collected my brand new, race ready Vir Fortis, with Alpkits' custom Stingray frame bag and bike luggage. I took that bike straight to Scotland two days later to give it a good savaging, bike packing around the Northern Highlands, learning to ride this new machine.
After 5 days I had fallen in love with the bike and spent most of the year training on it for road racing at elite international level. I figured, if I can ride a loaded fat bike around, getting back on a road bike will be a piece of cake! I even rode that very fat bike from Lands End to John O’Groats for a laugh over 9 days, on the road!
I went to Rovaniemi with Ibrahim (who acted as my sight guide)and my mighty Vir Fortis and we smashed the race. Finishing 58 minutes ahead of second place in some of the worst conditions the race organisers have ever seen. 80% of the field didn’t finish and were rescued off the course. The bike and the set up was a dream to ride, however since the first day I collected the bike, I had questioned the lack of options for carrying loads. The guys at Alpkit never designed this bike for the sole purpose of extreme bikepacking, its geometry albeit ridable for long periods, was more designed as a trail bike. Something fun to blast around the local trails on and have little adventures on, fair enough, it does those things brilliantly, and it even does big adventures pretty good too!
I’d badgered Sonder Guru Neil for a couple of years about a custom fat bike, a full on racing adventure machine. In my head I was thinking Rovaniemi 300 or the Iditarod, some massive epics! Anyway, to cut a long story short, Neil agreed to use those design skills of his to put pen to paper and draw out my full fat dream ride. Titanium tubes, 100mm rims, 4.8” tyres and the option to run a 38 tooth front chain ring. Oh, and a dropper seat post for the gnarly stuff. We went through a few different ideas, I spoke to a number of people asking what their dream rides would or should include. I dragged in Brant Richards for his take on it, and this thing started to take shape, slowly but surely.
It’s a scary thing when you have a bike custom built. The Vir Fortis is a proper weapon and I really love riding the thing, still do. So how can you make it better? In my head, it was to give me more options, a do it all bike, but still with a race focus, albeit fatty race focus. And here it is……the BEAST!
So after six and a half hours riding the Beast around the Calder Valleys, Mary Towneley Loop, on one of the wettest days of the year so far, I couldn’t be happier. I felt after a change of clothes and some hot food, I could have headed straight back out and done another lap. Which is now the plan come the summer, the double lap! It didn’t miss a beat and after getting off the beast I had no issues with my back, neck, shoulders or hands, it really was so much fun to ride in those nasty conditions. Neil had nailed it! The only issue I had was my submerged feet. As much as I still love my Vir Fortis, this bike for me is going to see some huge epics, and I can’t wait to get involved, once Tokyo 2020 is out of the way.
A massive thanks to Sonder Bikes Guru Neil and the team at Alpkit for their ongoing support of me “going nice places and doing good things”. If you’re after a dream build of your own, get in touch with Sonder Guru Neil and have a chat, but be warned, you may end up shelving all your other bikes.