Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Ben Alder bike rides

If you look at a large scale OS road map of Northern Scotland your eye maybe drawn to a large area of wilderness bounded by the A9, A86, A82 A85 and A827 with only a couple of C roads and the B road alongside Loch Rannoch intruding into the southern area. This is one of the biggest areas of wilderness in the British Isles and only loses out to the Cairngorms due to it being bisected by the West Highland Rail line and a few remote lodges. For the adventurous there are a number of biking opportunities in this area and some truly classic through routes. One of my favourite bits is in the north eastern corner centred around Ben Alder, an 1148m hill with a few fellow munroes around it. As well as great scenery there are some fabulous trails offering the full range of riding experiences. This post is meant as a guide to this area by way of describing some of the rides I've done there in the last few years.

Ben Alder from Loch Pattack

I'm not about to bang on about safety or navigation or kit choice as per normal guides because as far as I'm concerned its up to you to sort this out. My only comment is that you pass the magic 500m mark a few times on the routes described here. The reason I say magic relates to my skiing expeditions. Above 500m seems to be the point that you go from wet slushy crappy snow to full on mountain winter conditions. In 2014 most people thought we had a mild and snow free winter. Below 500m we did. Above was the most snow recorded in a generation but only a skier or mountaineer would have realised this. Away from winter (which runs from October to May!) this altitude seems to mark the point where temps can still drop alarmingly, the wind increases dramatically and you generally get the impression you've just changed seasons... So be warned and take the right kit. Nav is generally easy as you are mainly on well defined trails or following burns, rivers, glens and other generally noticeable features. For that reason I'm not going to try to post up maps or detailed route finding notes. If you look at an OS 1:50k map of the area you'll figure it all out easy enough. All the trails are on Open Street maps too. So that's all for lecturing, onto the riding!

My first close encounter with these hills was in 2003 when me and two pals rode from Fort William to Newtonmore in one (for those days) long day. We rode out of Corrour estate and along Lochan Earba, the Ben Alder hills to our right. The plan had been to ride over Bealach Leamhain to Loch Pattack, then out to Dalwhinnie, thence to Newtonmore by NCN 7. As it was we were too knackered to contemplate a big climb over a trail of unknown provenance so rode out to Ardvericke and followed the road to Newtonmore instead. It was not until November 2014 that I finally did this trail, as part of a circuit from Dalwhinnie. 

This small village makes for a good starting point as its easy to drive to and can be reached by train. You ride down by Loch Ericht on a motorway standard track, up past the posh lodge and over a low moor to Loch Pattack. You are now in the middle of the area and able to contemplate all of the views around you. The track shown on the map that runs along the south shore of the Loch actually goes into it on several occasions. If its been very wet, don't bother as the levels will be too high. 2014 had been dry all the way through Autumn so this day it was fine. At one point there is a highly dubious looking suspension bridge which takes you over the Allt Chaoil Rheide (more of this river later)

The worst bit of the track is just after this, thereafter it climbs away from the loch and over to the Allt Cam. You can miss this bit out by way of the single track to Culra Bothy and the track back from this. The next challenge was to cross the Allt Cam which was a shoes and socks off job. Its then a case of fighting your way up the bank on any likely looking line. Eventually the path coalesces out of the tussocks and climbs steeply up towards loch Leamhain. Before this you have to cross a small burn which this day was more iffy than the Allt Cam:-

From here the gradient eases although its rough going. Theoretically you can avoid this burn crossing and stick to the north side of the loch but this is a very rough and little used path, so will likely be a push. The main path keeps climbing until it passes below a crag at its high point of just over 750m. 

Looking down the trail to Lagan.

And looking back the way you've just come

The descent down Coire Pitridh is a corker on a good stony trail. In terms of rideability you'd maybe be better doing this the other way round as you can get up this good trail and the rough descent is all rideable. Just be sure of your river levels though!

The trail dumps you on the main Lochan Earba track. Follow this to the Loch end but bear right when the track starts to descend in earnest. Watch your turns along here as there is now a new hydro scheme access track not on the map. Bear right again heading for the Coille Doir-ath. Keep on until you join the main river Pattack track and head south up by the river.

This dodgy looking bridge is actually OK. Its days are numbered however and goodness knows who will replace it when it eventually goes..... Beyond this the track deteriorates somewhat and about 1k of it is rather boggy. The hot tip is to stick to the middle as although this looks the worst, there is a firm base under the gloop whereas either side its bottomless. When you pass back into Ben Alder Estate the surface improves dramatically and then its an easy pedal back out to Dalwhinnie.

If the above looks a bit drastic but you want to explore the area, then just ride up the various bits of double track and back again. The views are fab and there is plenty of scope for bivvies. Culra Bothy is technically closed after the MBA discovered asbestos in the roof space but I've stayed in it twice since then and the main room seems (to me) to be fine. 

For a bit more adventure there are two trails that are effectively dead ends (unless you are feeling really adventurous!) but really are worth a look as there and back again rides. First up is the path shown on the OS that goes up the Allt Cam. Follow the above route but instead of descending to the river to cross, keep along the excellent path. This is one of several that the estate did up in about 1999, entirely at their own expense. They also get annual maintenance! Anyway following the path is well worth it and it makes for a very nice easy descent on the way back. The last 2k as shown on the map is a lot rougher and not really worth it unless you want to push right through the missing bit to link up with a track that takes you round to the Lochan Earba track.

Lower section of the trail. Where the glen widens out there is a good camp / bivvy spot.

If you do decide to push through, its around 4k of difficult going. Not all of this is a walk, especially if your on a fat bike, so its worth it if things are reasonably dry. Watch your nav through the missing bit, I followed my nose from the end of the marked path and this seems to be where most people are going as when you join a wee side burn there is a path of sorts. From here its fairly good going down to the start of the onward route.

Near the end of the marked path looking back the way you've come

At the start of the continuation of the marked path. I crossed the river about half a mile back from here.

This path is a bit rough at first but has been extensively upgraded after only a k. Follow this until it joins the Lochan Earba track and return to Dalwhinnie as per above (or back over the Bealach Leamhain if you want more fun!)

Creag Meghaid

Looking north east through the strath carrying Lochan Earba. This defile sits around 100m higher than Loch Lagan - more glaciation. The old HT550 route went through here and its a pity it doesn't any more as its all very nice....

There is a wee patch of woodland alongside the second of the lochs which is a good stopping point. It would also make  a good camp spot although annoyingly there is a fire site here.

Another good there and back again ride is the trail alongside Loch Ericht beyond Ben Alder Lodge. This is a bit harder than the Allt Cam path but its well worth it for the views alone. As above there is a through route option if you are willing to risk a rather drastic hike-a-bike section. Getting onto the Lochside trail involves a diversion away from the Lodge. This may seem a bit of an embuggerance but actually it follows a great bit of single track. Head up on the Loch Pattack track and look for a left turn (signed to Loch Ericht) about 100 metres past the lodge. Follow the obvious singletrack through the woods above the lodge, its sundry buildings and the underground heli pad (I kid you not!) 

You then pop out on a big track which is an easy pedal to a bridge over a small burn. The trick here is to ignore this as the old path it leads too is no longer used. Instead, go downstream a bit and look for the track on the far bank, not shown on the map. You could use the bridge if the burn was up and then walk down stream to pick up this track (which follows the line of the path shown on 1:25k maps) with dry feet. This (roughish) track goes for about 2k before it climbs up into the hills. Keep straight on what is now a nice made single track. This is a bit overgrown in places so keep an eye on your GPS as I managed to lose it at one point and stumbled around for a bit to find it again. Other than that its a peach.

There are a couple of bits that have washed into the loch and have been re-aligned but a couple of bits haven't. They are short though. As the slope you are crossing steepens things get more interesting but its all rideable with a modest amount of technical skill. If you are doing it as a there and back again stop just before the burn when you can see the kissing gate into the dodgy section. 

If you are determined to push through then be warned the next two hundred metres are tricky. Steep rock slabs, big steps and two annoying kissing gates are the challenge. If you are up for it its well worth it as you then pick up another nice trail to Ben Alder Cottage and get to ride the best trail in the area - see below..... Of course if you are into bike rafting then this would make this route much easier.

This is the first iffy bit. It gets worse....

....In the trees ahead. No margin for error!

The main event

Ask anyone about Ben Alder and bike riding and they will exude much enthusiasm about the single track from Ben Alder Cottage to Culra Bothy. This is one of the best trails in Scotland (I reckon!) and should be on anyones Scottish mountain biking to do list. That said incorporating it into a circuit is tricky. You've either got to do the above, do the equally hard Ben Alder tour or include it in one of two epic circuits (more later!) However doing it as a there and back again would be an excellent use of about 3 - 4 hours or so.

I first did this trail as part of a lengthy tour which actually included the Western Isles. I was heading through this area on the way back to where I'd left my car from Aviemore. I got to Culra Bothy around 7 and it was raining torrentially, hence me ignoring the closed signs and spending the night in the main room. At this point I'd not much idea what I'd be in for other than what a mate had said i.e. the trail was a good one. The following morning the rain had gone and the sun was looking like making an appearance. The trail starts right at the bothy and its immediately good - a narrow gravel path winding up alongside the Allt Chaoil Rheide. (this bit is my favourite section on the descent) Its one of those trails that you expect to peter out round every bend but just keeps going.

Typical trail shot looking back towards Culra. I've not actually got many pics of this route, simply because I'm usually enjoying myself too much to take photos!

Despite the rain the previous evening (and a generally wet summer) it was dry and stony. Technical challenges come in the form of various burn crossings and assorted random rock features. Its all rideable until the last bit of the climb where the gradient will likely defeat you unless your running a 20/50 granny gear. 

The summit, looking down to Loch Ossian (This was taken on a trip I did in May 2016). If you look on the map you'll note a path shown a couple of k down the glen. This is worth a miss as its not really on the ground and the terrain is rough boulder strewn peat hags. And why would you go that way when the main trail is such a joy. You descend a bit on a super narrow line then climb again for a short section to the Bealach Cumhann. Then your into the main descent, contouring down the southern flank of Ben Alder. Its a quick descent but not steep. Its all pretty easy excepting the crossing of the Alllt Chamhlain. This used to be rideable (I rode it on this day blind) but Storm Desmond in 2016 wrecked it. It should still be possible, but so far has defeated me! The bottom section steepens somewhat with a few pitched sections but it all goes right to the Bothy. 

So your next move is to reverse this. South to north is probably marginally better as the climb is all rideable and the descent seems longer (its not, in fact Culra bothy is about 50m higher than BA cottage). Technically its harder this way but all good stuff and there are no significant challenges. Of course I'm talking from the perspective of a rider of rigid bikes. If your on a bouncer your main challenge will be not to slide out on the corners as most of it can be ridden flat out..... Note that its not a hugely popular walking route as most munro baggers go up the direct route to Ben Alder. However its a popular spot for D of E groups and trekkers so don't get too carried away.

Cross Drains and Water Bars
If your familiar with the principals of Upland path management you'll know these terms and what they mean. Being a path nerd I know more than is good for me but its always interesting to compare construction styles across Scotland. I'm not sure who did the work across the Ben Alder estate but clearly they got a different brief from what the NTS provide. Instead of the NTS standard 26" wheel swallowing cross drains, most of the ones on this trail are nice and narrow and can be ridden flat out with only the merest hint of un-weighting. Most of the rest, by accident or the design of a mountain biking upland path designer, have enough of a kick from the rocks either side of the gap to enable an easy jump over them. There are a few that have bigger gaps but my view is that as we are in the mountains, get over it and get that front (and back) wheel airborne. Best of all, waterbars (those lines of rocks across the trail to divert surface water) are few and far between, a sure sign of a designer who knew their shit.

The total length of this single track (Ben Alder Cottage to the double track above Pattack) is 16k, if you want more you have to go to Fisherfield.....

The big circuits

One of the appeals of this area is the scope for short circuits, easy ride in / ride out trips (a perfect break from the drudgery of the A9 if you are heading north) but there are also a couple of classic big day rides. 

Ben Alder and Glen Garry
As a starter for ten herewith is the basic description of a 50 miler start-able from either Dalwhinnie or the west end of Loch Rannoch.....

Do this clockwise and ideally start at Rannoch but it works fine from Dalwhinnie. I did this in October '15 starting at Rannoch and it was dryer than when I did it on the above mentioned tour in the August. This was my first time south to north of the Bealach dubh trail. 

Abandon ones conveyance at a small layby 100m east of the Rannoch power station. Head west along the road to the obvious right turn into the forestry at 507577. Follow the double track north west until you leave the forestry and climb up to nigh on 450m. This is a top view point and should be enjoyed! 
Top of the climb looking west over to Blackwater Reservoir (the furthest away one) and the Glencoe hills.
Looking north east along Loch Ericht, Ben Alder with its head in the clouds.

Carry on to Loch Ericht and along the west shore. OS maps show the end of the double track here but it continues to 494655.

The end!

You've then got 2k of bog trotting. Today it was pretty easy. In August it was very damp and I've done it since when its been nigh on bone dry. It typically takes 20 to 30 minutes from here to the bothy so don't sweat it. Top tip - keep to the right until a short plank bridge, its dryer and smoother. After the deer fence on the left stops is the boggiest bit. Keep right for maximum chance of dry feet. The descent to the bridge is a free for all, see a line, ride the line. The bridge is a significant technical challenge but the Author feels that if you can't manage this, you shouldn't be here.

Ben Alder Cottage - one of Scotlands top bothies. I've never actually stayed here but its a belter. If you are doing this circuit as an overnighter then this is an obvious choice for a stopping point as there are plenty of good camping spots nearby. 

Next up is the Bealach dubh trail, then roll out alongside Loch Ericht to Dalwhinnie. Supplies are available at Dalwhinnie from the petrol station and a small cafe that operates out of the old hotel. This is a good one so well worth a visit.

The next section is on NCN 7 - a smooth cycleway alongside the A9T. I've done it on a fat bike and its fine so relax and enjoy the views ready for the next great trail. Also remember to smirk at all the suckers driving on the A9..... At Dalnaspidal lodge turn right down a double track to Loch Garry. In front of you is one of many Scottish geological marvels - a wide strath at 400m altitude running pretty much bang on 90 degrees to the main Glen Garry / Drumochter Strath. Glaciers, we salute you. The track runs out at the end of the loch and the marked path is another vague boggy none line. Its not too bad and I did once do this on a Salsa Fargo so don't be put off as its only 1.5k. Follow your nose here as there is an argocat track to the left of the marked line which can be very wet. A rougher but dryer path is to the right. At one point the argo track crosses the marked line up a steep bank. Get on this as its the best route to the bridge.

More luxury accommodation - Duinish bothy. Its a bit run down being none MBA but makes for a good bivvy spot if you are doing this circuit in two days. Thereafter its a good doubletrack descent back to the road and your start point. It took me about six and a half hours of steady going to do this.

Ben Alder, Rannoch, Corrour and Ardvericke. 

This one is 79 miles and when I did it in a oner in 2016 took me 9 hours. In 2018 I did it as an evening / morning overnighter which was equally entertaining. If you've read (and ridden) this far you've already done all but one of the trails in this route. Its an absolute cracker of a circuit and best of all, you pass almost no civilisation (barring the odd remote house) on the whole route. Be warned, you need all your food with you. Water is, however, in plentiful supply.

Nav is simple - start at Dalwhinnie, head down Loch Ericht, Over to Loch Pattack, down the river and cut round west to Lochan Earba (i.e. the reverse of the first route described in this post) and then down along the lochs to their end. Keep going down to the end of Loch Laggan. Don't quite reach the road but turn left back on yourself on the smooth motorway standard track which takes you into the forest. Take either of two left turns to take you all the way up Strath Ossian to Corrour Shooting Lodge (this is all obvious on the map). When you get there look to the North East up the narrow glen. In about three hours time you'll be at the notch at the top of this glen looking back down to your present location.

On the climb into Strath Ossian, looking east. Lochan Earba is to the right of the small hill just off centre.
Looking up Strath Ossian to the Lodge

From here take the track on the east side of Loch Ossian. This is pleasantly rough after the main access track but still level and easy to the YH.  

Ossian Youth hostel - a very lonely place but accessible by train so quite popular. If your planning on doing this circuit as a 2 dayer and want to stop here, best book in advance.

At the end of the loch just opposite the YH turn left on a new (in 2017) track which climbs back eastwards away from the loch. This is the Old Road to the Isles and part of an ancient right of way from central Scotland to Fort William and beyond. Its shown on OS maps as a single track and used to be hard going in all but the driest of weather but was upgraded in 2016/17 as part of one of many micro hydro schemes that the estate has implemented hereabouts. So its now an easy surface which (yes) you can do on a gravel bike. Look out for Peters rock, I've not found it yet. This is a fabulous through route which could be used as part of a long south to north off road touring route. I scoped this out about the same time as I did this circuit so I'm pleased to see that it now forms part of the GB divide ITT off road lejog route thingy as well as the recently announced Great North Trail. If it was possible to copyright and license bike routes I'd be a rich man.....

Anyway your now on a long, long climb to Corrour old lodge. This was originally an estate lodge but then became a hospital for TB sufferers on the basis that they needed isolation and lots of fresh air. Look to your right (i.e west) and you should see the West Highland rail line crossing the desolation of Rannoch moor. Its a great train journey so whilst your up here, do it!

A fine evening in 2018 looking west to the Glencoe hills

The old lodge is also a top bivvy spot, I'm here on a tour north.

Thereafter is a similarly steady but long descent down to the Allt Eigheach. I bivvied here in 2018 doing this circuit as an overnighter. There is a small island in the river perfect for a pitch up. 

Rannoch station and Loch Laidon

The track rolls out to the road and then you turn left and head east to the start of the track described in the previous section. In other words follow the now familiar (and as used in the Highland Trail) track up and over to Loch Ericht, bog hop to Ben Alder Cottage, over the pass to Culra and then back out to Dalwhinnie. If you want food there is a good cafe at Rannoch Station as well as a Hotel. Its about 2 miles off route.

Other trails worthy of note.....

The flanks of Geal Charn
One dismal November day I'd driven up from home on the way up to see friends in Aviemore. I'd intended to do a ride around Ben Alder but the weather looked foul so instead kept going to Loch Lagan and the car park at Feagour. I'd thought about just doing a lap of the Lochan Earba / Loch Lagan double track but on reaching the bottom of the Bealach Leamhain trail decided to give it a go. 

Track at the end of Lochan Earba under water. This was the warm up for all of the horrible storms late '15 early '16

After a short while I passed through wet snow then deeper and dryer snow overlaying some seriously wet ground. This was one of those fat bike 'moments' as a normal bike would have been hopelessly bogged down through this stuff whereas the fatty rolled through the lot. Just before the pass summit I decided to turn left on a path shown on the map. I figured the Allt Cam would be epic given the rain we'd had so this seemed a better prospect. It was in that it didn't involve waist deep river crossings but it was hard going. Only do this if its been dry for a bit would be my advice. That said its a good view with the various bumps of the Creag Meagaidh group looming out of the cloud....

The descent is a bit marginal but a hoot on a fatbike in 6" of freshies. The final descent was a bit more engaging and did require an iffy river crossing but its all fairly short and soon enough your back to the Lochan Earba track.

The Ben Alder Tour 
This one has been around in various guide books for a while - it even pre-dates the path work so must have been hard going in those days. The route starts out easy - down Loch Ericht over and across to Culra, over the Bealach Dubh / Cumhain to Ben Alder Cottage. Then comes the exciting bit. Basically you carry straight up the hillside behind the cottage (there is a path marked but no single clear line on the ground) until you top out on the Bealach Breabag at 840m. The trail then improves and you descend down to loch Beithe where the trail improves again, finally descending back down to culra on another fab built path. Confession time, I've not actually done this despite several attempts all foiled by rubbish weather. If I'm going to carry my bike up to 840m I want to have a view off the top. The last time I tried it was sunny but a late fall of snow would have made it a schlep. When I do it I'll report back.....

So thats about it. As well as the above there are two through routes (well one and a half as they both start at the same point) either on the Highland Trail 550 route to Lagan or else as a means of getting into the Cairngorms via Dalwhinnie. I'll not bother describing them as the above covers all of the bits and a GPX of the HT550 is freely available.

Just get out there and ride it!

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Non Bikepacking Interlude:- UK Singlespeed Championships 2019

Anyone who rides single speed will know the feeling:- You hit that climb, push the imaginary thumbshifter that has hee-haw effect grit your teeth and input maximum power into your already wrecked legs. Lap 4 of the 2019 Singlespeed UK championships at Comrie Croft trail centre on the final climb and I did exactly that. I'd only done 21 miles, it was only a trail centre and I could stop anytime I wanted. But inevitably, my little exercised competitive gene kicked in and off I went, my face twisted into a classic single speed gurn.

Every year a bunch of die hard singlespeeders gather for a 'race' - the UK singlespeed championships. In spite of the name its more of a social event than a competitive one but good bike riding is a key ingredient and a few do actually try to win. I wasn't one of them. I'd entered, as usual, after a few beers in a fit of enthusiasm to do a bike thing that wasn't going to be a multi hour marathon. Given that the venue was only just up the road at the Comrie Croft trail centre it seemed like a good idea at the time. The clincher was convincing my mate Rob to also do it and given that he hadn't done a race in about 25 years, this would be a sure fire way of ensuring I'd not try and do anything daft, like race....

Tea up

I rocked up on the Friday evening after work, pitched the tent and immediately got stuck into the beers. The on site bar was serving a Fallan Brewery offering brewed especially for the event called 'Golden Ratio' Geddit? Amazingly the weather forecast for the whole weekend was good - a miracle given what we've been having over the last few weeks. Info on the event had been sparse for someone like me who doesn't do f***book so I was largely unprepared. I'd dragged the Krampus out of the back of the garage the night before, washed it and ensured everything appeared to be working by way of a quick ride up and down the drive. I wasn't bothered as the course was a mash up of blue and red trails so I felt no need to do any other prep. Rob appeared a bit later so we had a few more beers and turned in at about midnight.

I woke the next morning to the unwelcome sound of rain and the unwelcome feeling of a sore head. Not a good start but the rain was just a brief shower and paracetamol sorted my head. Breakfast was laid on down at the cafe so we wandered down and ate rolls and drank tea whilst chatting to a few folk who'd also come down from Robs part of the world in lower Speyside. Thereafter I ate more food, wondering how much energy I'd need and as usual erring on the side of caution. I was also figuring what to take with me and came to the conclusion of nowt. The race route went right past my tent so if I got any kind of mechanical I could just freewheel or walk down the hill, sort it then get back out if I could be bothered. A key feature of the race is the mandatory beer stop each lap. At the pre-race briefing the organiser stated that the first three places would get a prize and everyone else would finish fourth. Nice one.

The start itself was a leisurely affair. We'd all parked up our bikes on the track that would be the first section (and climb) of the day and on the word of go, we all wandered up to grab our bikes and get going. A few jogged and I felt compelled to be one of them just to make sure I'd not get caught up in any traffic. The bugger with a single speed is that you only have one gear (obviously) and therefore only one speed. On a steepish climb this means a need to either turn the pedals at a knee wrenching slow space or a lung destroying normal cadence (or walk). I compromised with a mix of the two. My long distance legs and lungs would not tolerate a mad thrash as all that would happen would be that I'd go deep into the over-draft zone, never to return. Given that this was meant to be fun, I'd no intention of such a thing. That said I passed a fair few folk on the first climb before settling in between two riders of similar pace.

The start line....

The circuit was actually a peach and had all the right ingredients for an xc race:- big climb to string everyone out, brakes off descent into the first single track section to be taken absolutely flat out, lots of twisty / turny trails, a few short sharp ups to really test single speed prowess, a flat out blast down a fire road with a 120 degree turn at the bottom to test bottle and brakes, and a good mix of nadgery rooty / rocky stuff, some nice steps (up and down), a few tricky bits and the trail centre mandatory berm and jump bit, blessedly without horrible braking bumps due to it being more rock than dirt.

Heh heh, I'd forgotten how much of a laugh this was, given that it was a race you could go full bore without fear of upsetting anybody. Overtakes were also easy - people generally heard you coming thanks to the wheezing of lungs and the scraping of tyres every torturous pedal stroke or else you just said something like "excuse me but could I possibly pass you?" Which always elicited a polite response and quick side step. Everyone was cool and better yet, there was plenty of scope for a few good dices with people all round the route. On lap three I caught a guy just before the last bumpy bermy bit and he was obviously quick downhill, I risked everything to hang onto his back wheel so the two of us hammered down the trail rarely more than a bike length apart, massive grins all round.

I did fail on the beer stops however (which weren't actually mandatory). Just before the start I scoffed a banana which had immediately knotted up my stomach on the first climb. By the end of the first lap I was feeling decidedly icky so rode through the start line thinking I'd stop after the next lap. Up the climb I backed off and grabbed a few water bottles from helpful marshals en-route. My stomach settled down and I was feeling much better by the end of the lap so figured I should cash in on this and keep going. A good move as I hammered up the climb, cleaned everything (I'd had two fails on lap 1 and one on lap 2) and rode even harder on the descents, including the aforementioned mad chase on the last bit. I'd passed my mate Rob on this lap and had a quick catch up to see how his gearing was working. He'd gone with 22/20 on the basis that it would get him up the climb without too much strain and so far it had been spot on. Hmm, I was on my usual 32/21 but it had been too high as it required huge efforts on the climbs and most of the descent were freewheeling. Hey ho, too late to change now. That said I also passed a guy heroically riding a fixed gear. He had it off to a fine art and seemed to be riding strongly through everything. I made it clear that he need not go out of his way to let me past so got to check out his technique for a bit before he let me go by at the top of a climb. Top effort but the need to pedal all the way round made this something I didn't have the gumption to try....

Well so much for not racing. At the top of the climb you traversed a large rock outcrop with a group of marshals there to provide aid to anyone who blew up at this high point. One guy showed me three fingers. I says "Nah, I'm on my last lap". "No" he says back "your in third place".
Eh? I'm a 48 year old on a Surly Krampus, what happened to all the folk on the Ti and Carbon super light rigids??

Still, I'd not actually tried to get to this point so I figured I'd both honoured my original intentions for the event as well as honouring the organisers by giving it a good go. No-one was in sight behind so I took it a mite easier on the last descent, not wanting to crash out at this juncture. Most folk at the finish were too busy drinking beer so I pulled up quietly, looked across at the guys manning the finish table who smiled back and confirmed I was in third place. The race organiser shook my hand and I felt chuffed I'd done what I'd done and had a great laugh to boot. That said I had some catching up to do so crashed out it in the now blazing sunshine and drank four laps worth of beer. Rob turned up soon after having done three laps. We then lazed around in the sun chatting and drinking.

The evening was brilliant. I'd managed to grab a shower, we scoffed a large amount of the laid on hog roast, drank more fine ales, listened to good music and chatted to the wee small hours. I was somewhat self conscious at the presentation but I did feel absurdly pleased I must admit. Rob got best (and only) fat bike, last places got prizes, a box of freebies was laid out for everyone else to help themselves so everyone was a winner. Chatting in a group of folk later, one of the marshals was complementing me on my riding style when he said "I know you from somewhere"
"Yeah likewise but I'm not even going to try to remember from where"
"Green Krampus right? were you in Torridon a few years ago?"
"Yep 2013, the same week I broke my collarbone" (I recently dragged out a write up I did of this trip for the UK fat bike forum and edited for this blog - see here) He was one of the guys I'd met on the Annat descent and had a couple of beers with in the sun at the Torridon hotel before they headed back over to where their cars were.

Eventually I staggered off to bed and woke to more clear skies and another sore head. There was a ride planned for that morning but it left before we finished breakfast so after further sunbathing and chatting I packed up and headed home. Next year SSUK is to be in North Yorkshire so I reckon I'll have to do this one too!

 I've said it before and I'll say it again:- The Krampus rules!

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

August Bivvy

The weather this August has been largely horrible. Torrential downpours, flooding and general dampness have finally saturated the trails which stayed remarkably dry through a fairly damp June and July. This went through my mind as I planned where to ride this weekend. I needed to do a bivvy or else I'd miss another month thanks to commitments for the next two weekends. A bit of head scratching lead me to check out the newly opened Fife Pilgrim Way. This is a short long distance path from Culross to St. Andrews. A few bits on it looked quite interesting so I figured on picking it up at Glenrothes as the bit near me is a bit dull. Thereafter I'd follow it to St. A and then make my way back the next day via the coastal path. There are plenty of bivvy options past St. Andrews so it was just a case of seeing how far I'd get.

I think my ongoing knee niggles seem to be seriously knocking my motivation as after planning all of this I nearly couldn't be bothered... A slightly marginal forecast didn't help, however I headed out late morning into a stiff and cool breeze (It appears to be Autumn). To Glenrothes I did pretty much the reverse of one of my many commute routes home - through Blair Adam forest, up Benarty Hill, round Loch Leven and then through the Lomond hills. I stopped on the climb up Benarty hill to listen to a track being played at the nearby music festival (not sure, an SLF track I think but its name eludes me) I contemplated waiting for Bad Manners to come on but a looming cloud persuaded me to keep going.

Descending to Loch Leven I spied many more clouds and it was clear I wasn't going to miss them. Hey ho. I did miss the first cloud but ran smack into the second on the Loch Leven Trail. I hid under a tree for a bit and fortunately it blew through pretty quick thanks to the strong wind. Along the dryside road I caught the tail end of a third shower and was compelled to hide under another tree on the start of the Glenvale path whilst it blew through. Thereafter it seemed to brighten up considerably.....

Looking up Glen vale in the Lomond hills. This is an easy made trail that mostly goes all the way through to Holl Reservoir. One section is unmade and rather boggy but I picked my way through without any drama. Then the steep climb up the flanks of East Lomond, the wind giving me a big helping hand.

View back the way I've come (ish)

I bombed down to the edge of Glenrothes on another smooth trail and picked up the Pilgrims way at Balbirnie park. Markinch provided food which was eaten in the sunshine. I then headed out on a new section of path. They seemed to have chucked a lot of cash at the route as there are several sections of new path or upgraded ROW's / core paths. It was a mix of gravel path, farm track and field edges to Windygates and then a bit of road riding through Kennoway. The next section crossed Clatto hill and was one I'd been looking forward to. A lot of work has gone into this section and its really nice following various farm and forest tracks linked with new trails, including one particularly fine bit of singletrack down by a burn

One of several sections of totally new path

Clatto res - a new one for me. I've lived in Fife for fourteen years now and it amazes me that there are still some bits I've not been to yet.

Spillway and reservoir house

After this was a bit of backroad and then some field margin path - a novelty for me....

Then more old paths and tracks to Ceres. I briefly contemplated a pint here but the pub was full with a birthday party so I figured a muddy bikepacker wouldn't be welcome. Instead I bought food at the local shop and sat in the sun eating and contemplating my onward route. The strong south westerly wind was of mild concern. It was forecast to get worse and rain to come in the next day. The more north east I headed the longer ride home I'd have back into it. So I figured on giving St. Andrews a miss and instead make my way north and then west back towards home. I did this by an oft used route over the hill via a nice trail to Cupar and then a bit of back road, some nice farm track, more back road and then on a whim a new track from Monimail to join another track I'd used to link to the coastal path.

Doing this meant I narrowly missed another monster rain cloud that was moving over the Lomond Hills and tracking east through the Howe of Fife - a large area of flat farmland that tends to funnel the weather between the Lomonds and the East Ochills. I caught a few drops going through Pitmedden forest but as I emerged on the road down to Strathmiglo it had largely passed me by.

But looking west the sky was darkening generally with more rain to come, somewhat different to the dry evening the weather forecast had indicated. I figured a cop out was in order but in the event it worked well. I rode down to Strathmiglo, grabbed food and beers and then headed up to the posh bivvy spot in Falkland estate that I used last April and January. A huge rain shower came in on the cycleway out of Strath justifying this. On arrival at the site (an events and woodland craft space including a rather fine timber bandstand like shelter, complete with wood burning stove) I observed that no-one else was in residence so I unpacked and managed to get the stove going after a bit of faffing (it was remarkably chilly). Further justification of my chosen bivvy site came in the form of about two hours of solid rain. I sat in splendour in front of the stove and ate food / drank beer / read my book before turning it at 11. My sleep was disturbed by dance music fading in and out of earshot depending on the wind. Not sure where or what this was all about but it went on until 5. I woke up to go to the loo and noted with horror that several slugs were closing in on me. Glad I'd zipped up the bivvy bag....

Morning view, slugs all gone

The Fife 5 star bivvy spot.

I departed the site at 8.30 into steady drizzle. This came and went to varying degrees until Loch Leven where it actually dried up and the sun came out. The rain returned for the last half hour though making this ride yet another one where I ended up like a drowned rat.... Roll on Winter!

Sunday, 21 July 2019

July Bivvy

This one was meant to be another wet weather practice bivvy and the forecast for the weekend was certainly looking like it would deliver, right up until Saturday morning when the forecast changed and suddenly it looked like another sun fest. In the event I stuck to my plan of heading into the Ochills as I couldn't be bothered doing anything more drastic plus I wanted to watch the Tour de France live coverage.

So it wasn't until 5.30pm that I trundled off into the evening sunshine tracing a well used route to Glen Devon by various back roads, tracks and trails. An old drove road goes down Glen Devon and very pleasant it is too. You then cut across a couple of fields, pick up a back road to Blackford and then turn back south climbing steadily on a good track.

This passes the various springs that supply the highland Spring Water factory in Blackford. After a good climb you then go through a narrow pass and after a bit of faffing down to upper Glendevon reservoir. This was my chosen spot. It also supplies my water so in effect my tap water is Highland Spring Water....

My first choice was a bit overgrown so I actually ended up in the reservoir - well not in it as such but on the level banks that have been exposed since last April thanks to a dry summer and snow free winter.

So I sat in the evening sunshine, eating food and drinking beer. None of your daft dehydrated sachets and fancy carbonators, just two bottles decanted into two bike water bottles. Eventually at 10.30 I turned in and slept soundly through to 8. It did rain in the night and the morning was breezy and cloudy.

There is a path here somewhere

My route took me round the north side of the res on a nice single track and then up a big moor climb to Skythorn hill. This is looking a bit vague these days and only the farmers quad is keeping it open.

On the climb - the reservoir (and my bivvy spot) in the distance

From there it was along the ridge up to Tarmangie hill and then further ups and downs to Innerdownie, a long descent a long climb up to Seamab hill and then another long descent to Muckhart and home.
Summit of Tarmangie hill, 645m; the hills near Crianlarich and Tyndrum in the distance

Lots of bracken bashing today!