February 26, 2022
Remote places with rare humans
I should probably warn you, this may be long, some or non of it may make sense, it’s my thoughts, it’s what happened and it’s what I hope will help you and also me……
Here is the video footage if you are not good with words but hey you have made it here, have a read why don’t you…
As the descent of Jebel Shams starts to flatten out you have the option to take a hard right onto a gravel road or you can continue straight on the tar road, both routes get you to the same destination but in their uniqueness offer up a totally different experience.
My 2018 visit coupled with our impromptu meeting with a Frenchman in a G wagon in a coffee shop some 24 hours before left us only one option which was to take the hard right.
It was December 21st 2021 as Tom and I were making our way back to Dubai after an awesome few days in the Omani mountains. As we made our way across the gravel road which cut through the mountains we started to talk about how amazing this would be on a bike. (It was actually part of the route for the race I was training for in 2018 when I was hit by the truck and so never got to ride) I think we both knew at the time that it would not be long before we would be back riding these gravel roads in this beautiful country. 1 small issue. I did not have a mountain bike.
When you feel something like I felt that day I think it is a sign and it should not be ignored. I needed to ride again in this country, I needed to ride up and down these mountains, I needed to ride on this gravel. That was what I felt I needed, what I felt was the energy passing through into my body as we drove the roads. I had to make it happen.
Fast forward 61 days and it is happening. You see you can ignore the energy you feel, try and go against the flow, think you know better or you can embrace it and roll with things and see where it takes you. Do not get me wrong I am super anal and massively OCD in various areas of my life (those of you that know me know this) but I am also big on energy. We are in the car, two mountain bikes packed on the roof and ready for a new adventure. We have an approximate idea where we are going although we have never been there before, this in itself brings excitement. Ed who is joining us on the trip did a race in a certain part of Oman back in 2012 and 2013, 4 days 400km, mainly gravel, plenty of climbing, pretty remote. Nothing can go wrong.
The 5 hour drive down to Oman always provides good time to chat, challenge theories, throw ideas around, figure things out, make things up. It’s always fun and always in pretty much the same direction as both Tom and I continue to question human performance, motivation, why certain things happen, how we could do things different to get better results and so the list goes on. You rarely solve things during the drive, it’s not for that, in fact it would be quite boring if we did. It’s more planting and watering seeds with conversations, they grow, it’s good, I always look forward to it. For the most part we never have any music on, maybe that’s strange for some, maybe not.
Where you sleep is always important so to take time to find a good camp spot is time well invested. Our criteria is simple.
Remote: We do not want to be close to people, we need silence and in that peace and opportunity.
Flat ground: Sleeping on angles is saved for special occasions only.
Views: this is not mandatory as if we complete point 1 then happiness is pretty much immediate but a view always helps.
No phone signal: We actually go against this one this trip as we need to let Ed know where we are. Irony.
After about 30 minutes we settle on a place to call home for the next few days and it’s wonderful, still and silent. The magic carpet hits the floor and in a matter of moments the BBQ is on its way and the smoke from our fire is engulfing us. We do not mess around when it comes to a set up. We keep it simple but there are a few things that are important and given this is not our first rodeo we are in good shape. Prepping for a trip like this is important and ties back into many areas of life. We set very clear standards and expectations and everyone comes to the party. This ensures that we have everything we need but no baggage. One thing that Tom mentioned this trip that’s super interesting is to think of 1 thing that could make our adventures better and maybe incorporate it next time, lets see, we have some ideas. Cool mindset though.
If I shared with you our menu you would be jealous and ask us to take you camping every weekend. I absolutely believe that we eat better than 80% of the population in the middle of butt f**k nowhere with no running water or power. The food is one of the most enjoyable parts of these adventures.
8:30pm, kindle and sleep. 12:24 someone put the floodlights on….oh hello moon! You are somehow annoyed as your initial feeling is someone is shining a flashlight in your eyes but then in your sleepy state you appreciate the beauty of it and the stars that litter the clear skies above. Rolling onto my back I look directly up, have a moment of gratitude and close my eyes again only to open them just after 5am. If it works at home then why change it when you are not at home I say. Coffee, reading, silence and a dump in the wild, what a start to the day.
We have the routes from the 2012/13 race that I mentioned above but at the same time we check google maps and see some things we would like to see and set off just before 8:30am on a day of adventure. I have one goal which is not dissimilar to every other day which is to have one of the best days of my life. No idea why but I ask myself a lot that if today was my last day on earth will I sit as the sun goes down with a big smile on my face and able to say that “I lived” today? I think if you challenge yourself with something like that each day then you can not go far wrong.
It’s beautiful from the outset as we spend the first 15km riding through sweeping wadis with changing shadows in the morning sun and some nice rolling parts to check if we brought our legs with us. We hit the beach which although brings a nice smell of sea air disappoints me somewhat in the way that the coast line that we land up on is heavily under construction with the main work going on is reclaiming land from the ocean. “Why when you have such a huge country” I ask myself already knowing the answer is the sick societal desire to live on a coast but at the same time conveniently forget that it was man made but feel one with the ocean, what a load of shit. We can be quite a horrible breed can’t we.
Fortunately Tom seems to think there is a route back into the mountains which is very clearly not a route even on the map in his hand but we justify our attempts based on the fact that it looks like there will be a route in a few hundred meters. For clarity as we would quickly find out that’s a few hundred meters forward and also upwards. My favourite. I have always looked at mountains in absolute awe. Every-time I see one since a young age I have wondered what it would be like to run, walk or ride up it. I feel an incredible amount of appreciation that mother nature has put this thing of beauty right where I want to pass. The toll you could say is the climb up it although I see that as an absolute gift. We laughed hard as we crossed Corsica in 2018 (Sean, Rob and I) in that every mountain we saw we were going up and the top that you could see was never really the top, you only had the authority to decide it was the top when it was physically impossible to go any higher, then you were maybe at the top. This is a mindset and I think one that if you have you will rarely be disappointed.
I can not remember clearly at which stage of this trip it was exactly but there were the option of 2 routes we could have taken, one was some mayhem gravel climb and the other was easy on the tar, both leading to the same destination. I am not sure if I spoke it to Tom and or Ed or just to myself but it ties in with my point earlier as the thought in my mind was. “If this is the last time I I am able to ride my bike, what memory do I want to have in my mind? The fact that I chose the easy option on tar? Naaaah mate!” We went the mayhem gravel and it was unreal.
About 30 minutes (not that time is overly relevant) of carrying our bikes up some beautiful Wadi and we were on the most amazing plateau which gave way to rolling gravel roads and some amazing riding. A few dead ends and no care that we had cycled 2-3km down them only to have to turn around and loop back on ourselves. I think I was having one of the best days of my life. Of course to make it better we rode into a morning coffee stop and with a mixture of the cafe staffs non existent English and my limited amount of Arabic and Urdu a few minutes later we were staring into a thick cup of coffee. International language seemed to work although international coffee standards did not seem to be in place, but the guy smiled and we smiled back and all was great in the world!
The mixture’s of terrain made this trip super enjoyable on many levels. Savage gravel roads for kilometers on end even with our full suspension bikes create a different dimension to things so to hit a few KM of rolling tar which was actually part of the Tour Of Oman route was a nice change. Needless to say when you see KOM (king of the mountains) painted on the road you give thanks for the mountain bike gear set up as you engage climbing mode. I like riding my bike up hills, I always have done, it is as hard as you make it unless you are over 15% gradient and then your choice on how hard you make it is removed, it is hard no matter what. Ha. Every pedal stroke I feel like I am dropping pennies in my piggy bank of mental toughness. For those of you who know or have read about “flow states” this is what I am searching for during climbs, singular focus on the task at hand because I truly want to be there. It is beautiful. I am again appreciative of the mountain. It’s not quite the same on the flat.
We have earned our lunch but perhaps were given our appetizer whilst still on the bikes as the final section into Ruwi was downhill, a very steep hill. Knowing we are headed back up it we eat well at lunch even though we do not really know what we are being served, we are assured it’s chicken and it’s served with a smile and in a generous portion. Petrol straight to the legs I think of it as. Beautiful. Remember we are here to ride!
The afternoon part of our ride is mainly gravel and I guess you could call it dramatic as it is never flat, either 15% up or 15% down. We stop from time to time to appreciate the enormity of the terrain and the fact that some good dude has carved some sort of trail through it for us. Surprisingly we only come off the bikes to walk them once of twice. This happens when the bike is unable to get traction on the terrain, in some I would like to say very rare cases because the gradient is too much or because on the way down it’s simply too sketchy……I want to walk off the bike later in the day.
As we make our way down the big mountain we have been playing on we see the first 2 humans we have seen on the trails the whole day coming towards us. Tom suggests that we stop and chat to them and try and get some local knowledge. They speak English which is a good start. Whilst they are talking I notice one gentleman is wearing a hat with a fish on. I think to myself “I know a guy that fishes down here” and I ask him his name. Raed……of course he used to train with me ten years ago. The world is amazing isn’t it.
Ed meets us with about 15km left for the day stating “I was expecting to find you guys sun bathing at the camp…” I think to myself “Ed you should know better” as we share the last part of the day together back through the beautiful winding wadi, the sun starting to drop behind the mountains and Tom and I sharing some of the great moments of the day with Ed. I am not sure if he is excited to be joining us for tomorrows ride or wished he had stayed in Dubai. Ha ha. Nah he knows the score, we are going to have an amazing day.
Day 1. 99km, total time out, 8 hours! What a day to be alive.
Of course day 2 starts in a similar fashion with our simple morning routine and by 8:30 we are on the bikes ready to ride on a whole new route, explore new places and create some new memories this time as a trio. I will certainly remember the first climb that hit us at the 10km mark just as we were warming up you could say. A nice 20% gradient, only lasted less than a KM though, perhaps just to check that our legs were fresh from the day before. The answer was yes and Tom and I both commented that we felt good all round on the MTB’s considering that was probably the biggest day we had both had on these bikes. Legs and shoulders all good and most importantly gooch also in good shape.
Today again we have a loose route that we want to follow based on the race of 2012 but today again our objective is to enjoy riding, enjoy each other, enjoy the landscapes and enjoy life. I can not help but be excited. I am often hungriest on the second day of adventures like this, hardly surprising although despite lack of trying I am in a big food deficit after yesterdays work. I try and correct this at our morning coffee stop where hands down we found the most extensive menu of any coffee shop on the planet. It always amazes me when we pull into these coffee shops in remote towns (that probably haven’t seen 3 men in lycra riding their bikes in the last week if at all) that they do not bat an eyelid at us, they do not ask us what we are doing, where we have come from or where we are going. Compare that to a country village in the UK and you would be asked a million questions. I am still thinking why they do not ask, is it rude, do they just not care, is it a language issue. Who knows but interesting all the same I think.
Of course you always feel quite revitalized after a break specially one where a load of calories and some caffeine is involved. Whilst it was a welcome break what came next on our route probably gave us the biggest natural high of the whole trip. I wish I was good enough at writing to put it into words, but maybe it is like trying to take a picture of something that just is not the same as it is in real life. You just have to be there an experience it. If I had have died after that 20km section I would have died with a big smile on my face only broken by the fact that I did not share my final moments in that paradise with Holly. It was truly unreal and it brought around an interesting silence between the three of us that was only broken when we all could feel it was coming to an end as the mountains started to taper off into the ocean town we were entering.
Times like those on days like those with people like these are very rare in the modern era as social norms are changing. I am all for us moving forward as a human race but I feel we are leaving behind some of the most natural super powers of our time due to our impatience and desire for constant comfort. It took effort for the 3 of us to be where we were, effort on many different levels which to some would scare them off at the thought and in doing so deprive them of these experience and unique perspectives on life. If I could wish one thing for anyone who has taken the time to read this far (and I thank you for doing so) then it would be to please always search for these moments in life, they are your life, they shape you, they are what you are made for.
There is a pattern, after lunch we climb….well if you consider it happening 2 days in a row for it to be a pattern then a pattern it is. Having found a speciality coffee shop 200m from our lunch stop we not only have the right frame of mind to climb but we also have a little bit of zing in the legs. Another set of KOM markings on the floor and this time with 500m count downs to the top of the mountain from 3.5km out. Whilst each reduction of 500m brings some sort of relief it also somehow takes a piece of me away in that I just do not want it to end. I remember one day riding with a guy up a hill and he told me climbing was not a team sport but a chance to be alone. I think about it pretty much each time I climb either with a pack or solo. When I am solo its just another awesome chance to be, to push, to push harder if you want, to create a mental state like no other. It’s cool.
On day 1 we had some solid head winds which Tom and I both agreed would turn into tail winds in the latter half of the day. They did not, they were once again head winds which provide a lovely bit of mindset training. If you base your life and or your day / ride plans on winds and weather and set expectations you can only be disappointed. I am always ready for a headwind and when it blows I smile. Maybe it’s from the countless hours in Al Qudra in 2017 when I am convinced I spent 70% of my time riding into headwinds, so much so I used to go looking for them. The first half of the afternoon we were actually blessed with a tail wind which was a lovely treat as we retraced our path back toward camp. And then of course with 20km to go as we left the gravel and hit some tar the wind blew and it blew right in our faces. Tom also loves a headwind and moved to the front giving Ed and I a beautiful draft to sit in and he went to work. 190km in the legs and still ready to work for each other, that is what you need if you are building a team to have adventures with. An attitude that says “we are leaving no man behind” and one that knows “we are a team and we are stronger together.” Tom pulls us all the way to the gravel, leaving us an undulating 10km that kicks off with the same climb we came over 7 hours earlier. I was pumped for it as I knew on the other side there was an epic decent that I had in the back of my mind all day.
From then on it was all smiles, no matter how much the road went up we were smiling and as it dropped down and we picked up speed we smiled still enjoying every pedal stroke of what had been an unreal two days of riding, exploring and living. With 215km in the legs that were covered in dust and a touch of sunburn we stopped our Garmins fist pumped each other and continued to smile and laugh as we had been doing for the past 2 days. It was time to pack up and drive to Muscat and support our team mates in a triathlon tomorrow.
What a couple of days, what a life. On the drive back to Dubai we talked more about our experience, about our coaching, about our athletes and about how these sorts of adventures help us not only develop as athletes but also as coaches. Each time we drive back my head is literally exploding with ideas for both my own training and that of the people that allow us to coach them. I guess it’s like reading Conde Nast and thinking you do not need to visit the destination as you have seen the pictures, so the same as reading the text books on how to coach and think you can deliver. Nah mate, that’s not the game. The game is out there, the game is testing your theories on yourself, proving to yourself that they work and then being able to share that with those that put their trust in you. That’s what drives us, that’s what is special and that’s the real deal.
Thanks for reading. I know it was long. I knew it would be. I hope it helps.