Every year I try to do some kind of midsummer bike ride involving riding until last light and bivvying. This dates from my university days when the cycling club did an annual midsummer ride involving setting out from Edinburgh on a Friday evening and heading off in the direction the wind was blowing until we dropped, the train then taking us home again. This year I was working on the 21st which was a pity as if I'd gone out on the 21st/22nd I'd have been roasted. As it was I had to wait until the 24th, the nearest Friday to the solstice. Of course the weather for the Friday afternoon and evening was looking a bit dubious after the usual dry week. I was committed however as I was heading, once again, to my friends place on lower Speyside for a BBQ planned for the Saturday. Key to my decision making was another friend who would be driving up for some mountainbiking, so providing an opportunity for a lift home. Weatherwise, the good news was a southerly breeze to help me on my way with a possible shift to the east on the Saturday.
I'd (as usual) ruminated on various routes, including doing it in a oner starting early Saturday morning and bashing up the famously hilly A93 and A939 (around 125 miles.) But in the end I went with the Friday evening / Saturday morning plan in order to get another bivvy in. I'd wanted to go via Perthshire and the Spey valley as this would give easier hills for the singlespeed but the forecast suggested it would be much wetter this way - a repeat of the torrential showers of my last trip up north. So instead I trace a similar route that we'd used on a couple of occasions on those club midsummer rides - up the A93, including the Cairnwell pass which at 665m is the highest public road in Britain. This would get me to Deeside and lots of options to get to the Spey valley.
Straggler looking fairly svelte although with a few last minute wet weather additions to my kit.
It started well - after a sunny day spent shouting at the computer I got away just after 4 with the sun still shining. I'd plumped for an oft use route over the hills to Dunning and then various back roads skirting Perth to take me to the A93. As I summited the Dunning road behind me a wall of black cloud was building, however ahead all was blue and sunny.Looking across the wide vale between the Ochills and the Perthshire hills, the Trossachs in the distance.Meiklour Beech Hedge - possibly the tallest in the UK / Europe / World.
A short section of the A93 got me from here to Blairgowrie and an evening snack courtesy of the Co-op. This gave the clouds a chance to catch up and as I started the long, long climb to the Spittal of Glenshee, a few spots came in. I took a short section of the old road just out of Blairgowrie which is still accessible but getting somewhat overgrown. This bit was always a pain when driving up as there was a give and take over a Bailey Bridge installed to span a section that got washed out in the '80's and remained in use until they re-aligned the road about 12 years ago.
The whole of the A93 is something of an oddity in that various sections have been improved but much of it is still on the original line of Wades Road and somewhat hilly / bendy as a result. This dates from when it was a trunk road and so got sporadic funding for improvements with the intention for the whole lot to be done up. Of course it then got de-trunked and cash strapped Perth and Kinross Council will not be spending money on a road that takes people out of their area, so its unlikely to get any further improvements. Which is a good thing as it's a hoot on a motorbike of course but somewhat arduous to pedal up. Occasional sprinkles of rain persisted all the way up the road. That said it was warm and the wind made the cycling a breeze. The fab scenery helped - I'm usually motorised up here and tend to be focusing on the road rather than the view. On the two passes by bike with the Uni cycling club it was dark... By the time we got here in those days, the miles were telling and it always seemed like a drag, especially knowing that the monster Cairnwell pass was at the end of it. It's also a bit of a strange place in that their are quite a few properties scattered along the road, including an old primary school that only served the glen (now long closed) and two hotels, also long since closed, and lend the place an air of the land that time forgot.
I'm always slightly bemused by this in that for all that Scotland seems to be a tourist Mecca, and this road a key way into one of the hot spots, as well as accessing Glenshee ski area, it's not possible to make a hotel viable. The tourism dilapidation theme continues as you reach the Spittal of Glenshee. There was a large hotel there for years. In it's latter days it was getting a bit run down until succumbing to the inevitable fire, so obviously an insurance job. I noted that a machine was parked up and a lot of the ruins have been cleared, so maybe someone is going to make a go at it again. In the eighties and nineties, hotels across Scotland seemed to decline into a state of unviability. This appeared to be due to being run by insouciant management, probably paid a pittance by an uncaring estate, driving people away and so eventually having to close. Ask anyone who travelled around Scotland during this period and they will all say the same - Scotland is great but the pubs and hotels are over priced dumps. I suspect that the landowners always resented the fact that their clientele had changed from rich Victorians up for the hunting and fishing to bourgeoisie tourists up for the hill walking and sight seeing.
Ironically in the last ten years, tourism has become massively popular and many hotels that were on their last legs have been turned around. So whilst pricy they are at least decent. I guess this is what is happening at the Spittal so it will be interesting to see what they come up with. Of course this was of no interest to me as I had a fine sheet of nylon to sleep under!
Climbing away from the Spittal the clouds receded and the crux was revealed: The Cairnwell.
It's one hell of a climb - others may be longer and / or steeper but this steady 10% grade over 2k, after 30k of steady climbing, has destroyed many a cyclist over the years. The sting in the tail is the last half a k where the gradient notches up to 12%. Again this seems trivial but after the effort so far it fair wrings you out, particularly on single speed. The tailwind blew me up to the start but the first section across the southern flank of the Cairnwell turned me into the wind until the road swung back north on the final pull. I figured I could walk it but managed to grind away at a steady 45rpm. The worst of it is that it's arrow straight and this makes the distance deceptive as it looks like only a couple of hundred meters at first, but just keeps giving. Passing the 12% gradient sign my pace slowed but I had the bit between the teeth by now. Again the distance is deceptive looking like a short hop to the summit but it's actually another 500m to go and takes a subjective age.
Finally the gradient eased and I cruised down to the ski centre for a breather. Looking north there was much in the way of blue and red skies, hinting at the forecasted nice weather for the next day. Behind the sky was also clearing somewhat so my next thought was a bivvy spot. It was coming up to ten so progress had been good but I wasn't in for riding beyond nightfall and I fancied a decent kip. The woods of QE2's back garden would offer shelter but I was determined to avoid a repeat of my mozzie experiences of the last two bivvies so figured somewhere a bit more open would be a better bet.
The cafe was shut of course but they leave the loo open which is mighty handy for passing bikepackers.
The descent was hammered with speeds in excess of 60kph and I cruised along the flats of the Clunie water figuring that if I stopped along here, I could get breakfast in Braemar. A lot of road side camping goes on around here so I was going to be fairly selective but, as predicted, the huge numbers of folk doing this during the pandemic have largely disappeared to foreign climes. There were a few camper vans but on turning off the A93 onto the backroad to Braemar there were only a couple of tents. I avoided these and headed off the road to a level area, ideal for my needs. Up with the tarp and in sharpish as the breeze was dropping. It was 10.15 so I'd been going for 6 hours, 125k done.
Well so much for the weather forecast, quelle surpise.... After sipping some whisky I turned in, only for a large rain shower to come through. These persisted over the next couple of hours so my sleep was interrupted and brief. At the beginnings of first light the rain eased but now the wind was on the rise - so much for the weather saying winds would be light and south easterly - this was brewing a south westerly gale! Then the rain came back on.
Oh dear - much as I love tarp camping, I've always been careful to use a sheltered spot when wind or rain was incoming. Here I was on an exposed space in the middle of a glen that ran directly in line with the wind. I shuffled about to make sure my bivvy bag was in the most sheltered bit of the tarp and tried to ignore it. Sleep came and went but eventually, at 6.30, the now gale and heavy showers were too much. I munched some food, got dressed, got packed up and got out of there.
I'd actually remained dry, apart from some water that had splashed onto the bivvy bag from the tarp edges, and despite a fair bit of flapping, the tarp had remained in one piece. Best of all - no midges, no mozzies! Also, by the time I got going blue sky was breaking out ahead, it was warm and the wind would be behind me all day.
After a co-op breakfast, eaten in the Braemar visitor centre (actually an open shed that had I known was there would have been slept in!), I rolled out of town into clearing skies and hints of sunshine. I left the road at last for the fine track through the woods to Balmoral. Of course many bivvy spots were revealed and I suspect the wind would have kept the winged menaces at bay. Oh well....Queenies Scottish pile
From Balmoral I left Deeside on another long and steady climb over to Glen Gairn. I hit 68kph on the descent. Could I break 80 before the days end? Before my next chance of this was another long, steady and singlespeed killing climb. But the gale behind me took the pain away and I whisked up it in good order.Grinning as I've got a massive descent to come
76kph was the best I could do before braking hard for the turn off to a nice section of Wades road that cuts a huge corner off the road.
A fine old bridge on Wades road. I paused here to snack and check out the views around. All much less dramatic than the Cairngorms to the west but apart from people whizzing along the A939 very much off the beaten track. There used to be an independent hostel along here that I stayed in with my then girlfriend in 2001. It's no longer advertised as such but seems to have a couple of wooden huts in it's garden that look like bunk rooms. No idea - it was run by an ageing hippy in 2001 and seemed to have links with Findhorn. A nice spot to be sure but likely a midge hell hole so maybe not as peaceful and tranquil as it's clientele would have liked
Rolling out back to the A939 I contemplated the Lecht Road that I could see climbing steeply out of the glen. There would be no way I'd get up this without a walk but the upside would be a chance to hit 100kph on the descent. The alternative was a fine through route to Inchrory lodge in Strath Avon and a fine run down to Tomintoul. No contest, I've done the Lecht road before (and hit 100kph) so off I went up the glen.
This is a very nice route. The first couple of miles are actually tarmac, accessing a couple of remote farms. After this it's a good track and fine for a gravel bike, in case you were wondering... The wind caught me a couple of times, funneled into my face by the twists and turns of the glen but as I dropped down to the lodge, and the mighty River Avon (a trickle!) it swung behind me and I barely pedaled all the way to Tomintoul and a fine late breakfast in the Fire Station cafe. A couple of roadies turned up just after I did, complaining of brutal headwinds on their ride up from Alford and over the Lecht. I eyed up there uber light aero bolides and we had some banter about our respective machines and routes. On learning I'd had tailwinds for most of my 190k ride they were less than pleased although I pointed out they would get a blaster of a wind behind them all the way back. I refrained from mentioning my lift home. Texting my friends to advise an eta I learned they were actually at the nearby trail centre and Iona wanted to ride back to their house on the road so we joined forces for one of the easiest 27k of my life - a steady downhill and a gale force tailwind!
The wind and sun dried the tarp in about a minute as I snoozed in their back garden, then we had a fine barby which ended a fabulous ride. 215k in total, most of which was with a tailwind. This will probably set me up for some terrible headwind karma, given my lift home. That said the weather was terrible heading down the A9 on the Sunday so I'm perfectly happy that I didn't have to battle through that!