Monday, 27 June 2022

Midsummer Ride

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!

Friday, 10 June 2022

Grampian Wanderings

You don't hear the name 'Grampians' much these days, people just tend to use the more generic Highlands; however the Grampians neatly describe the area I've just ridden my bike round covering the hills of Perthshire, the hills around the Ben Alder area and the Cairngorms. As usual for a holiday my plans had been fairly fluid to make the best of a typically variable weather forecast. A couple of days of wet weather were predicted for Monday and Tuesday, followed by (apparently) wall to wall Sunshine. Monday ended up being fairly dry, signaling the inevitable difference between the forecasted and actual weather. So of course on the Tuesday it looked to be much wetter. I held off for an afternoon departure from Dunkeld in the Tay strath as I wouldn't have far to go to a small shed in the woods I'd scoped out that would allow a dry and bug free sleep, whatever the weather did. My route took me up and over Griffin and Grandtully hill through forest and wind farm - a route I've done a few times before so easy to follow. As it happened I seemed to be surrounded by large black clouds but in a break with tradition, above me it was pretty clear and even sunny! 

I paused by Loch Kenard for a while noting the many fire sites and rubbish, this being only a mile from the road. It would make a good bivvy spot but only if you knew there was no-one else around i.e. just such a damp evening as was forecast. But it was too early for me and I needed food at Aberfeldy. After a fast descent I followed the narrow path alongside the silvery Tay (that river again) that was looking decidedly gray as the rain started. Aberfeldy was reached just as it got heavy, with monster clouds rapidly building. Fortunately a decent looking pub presented itself (the Fountain bar) just as the heavens opened. I grabbed an expensive but good beer - Schiehallion obviously! - and watched the rain increase to a full on deluge. So much for a dry night so I ordered food and then had another pint and checked out progress on the Highland Trail group start. I spent a pleasant 2hrs doing this, reflecting on my own progression round this route last year. From the reports it looked like they were getting much drier weather than I was...

Finally it dried up and the sky cleared. I figured on a fast getaway to try to get to my chosen bivvy spot before it clagged in again. The plan was to find the trail that I had failed to find on my July 2020 bivvy trip. I'd scoped it out properly and even put the route onto my GPS to ensure no repeat of the frustrating too-ing and fro-ing of my last visit here. Its actually fairly obvious and a good trail to ride down. I was going up of course and it was saturated thanks to the rain, but thanks to single speed I was pushing in any case. Finally I reached the forest track and reversed my route of two years previous.

Looking up to Loch Tay and the receding clouds. 

More incoming behind...

This lead me to the woods of Dull (they were) close to my bivvy spot of July 2020. That year I'd actually been making for tonight's destination - a tin shed in the woods - but missed the turn and on trying to get in from the other side just decided to bivvy on the track. On trying to find the hut the next morning the track had stopped me at a large swamp. This time I'd figured a better way via a forest track and a fire break. Of course I'd no idea if this track was any good or covered in wind blow; or if the route to the hut along the fire break was also blocked with fallen trees or a bog. I hoped the hut would be a fine shelter from the elements but it could easily be a dump, demolished or occupied by drunken neds. The last was extremely unlikely as the track through the forest pretty rough and with a large climb. But I was experiencing that feeling you get when your in a slightly dubious situation, with the potential for it all to go horribly wrong, that seems an intrinsic part of bikepacking. However things were looking up! (in a break with tradition) There were no fallen trees on the track and the fire break I had to descend was also tree free, had a quad track down it and whilst wet, not too boggy. Thank god for sturdy boots and gaiters! Then the hut was revealed.

Finding this place was a relief as the rain was just starting again.

It pre-dates the forestry and was clearly an old stalkers shelter as there was still gunracks in it and a couple of rough benches and a table.

Being objective it was a bit rough and ready but compared to pitching a tarp in the soggy grass at the mercy of the winged menaces, luxury. Having said that my wanderings around between showers revealed no midges, despite it being fairly mild, totally still and very damp. Odd. I sat reading by daylight then candlelight, glad of my whisky to keep out the chill. Eventually I rolled out my bivvy and had a reasonable kip. I was variously disturbed by the sound of rain on the tin roof, the creaks and cracks the corrugated iron made as it cooled and contracted and then was rudely awoken by an ear shattering dawn chorus (bloody cuckoos!) I was still feeling pretty bleary and it was only 4am plus it was quite cold too. Eventually I nodded off again and awoke after 8. Breakfast was leisurely as I contemplated my onward route options before packing up and departing into a bright day. That said there was plenty of big clouds around, somewhat at odds with what the forecast had stated the previous day. Sound familiar?

I followed the track out I'd failed to find two years previous. It was actually dead obvious so I must have been day-dreaming that day (which had been a long one to be fair) and the best way into this place should I ever need it again. I stopped to fire the phone up and check on the progress of the HT560 and text Bob to say where I was going. Bob and Cath were in the general vicinity (i.e the Grampians) and we had a very vague plan to meet up if our paths crossed. A longish bit of road riding down to and along Loch Rannoch took me to that classic traverse from Bridge of Gaur to Dalwhinnie via Ben Alder. Climbing up through the woods lead to a certain amount of introspection of my previous visit on last years Highland Trail, as well as idle curiosity as to how this years lot had got on with the next section, it being my favourite of the route. It was much colder back then and my body was about to object to the high pace I'd set leading to my spectacular bonk and near bale out. 

Looking ahead to a largely snow free Ben Alder, somewhat different to the winter wonderland this area was on my ski trip in March

Looking across to the West Highlands with Ben Cruachan in the far distance centre. It occurred to me that the fast folk on the Highland Trail would be passing through this area as I took in the view.

I was in no such rush so the boat house veranda at the end of Loch Ericht provided a fine lunch stop whilst a light sprinkle of rain came through. This persisted to the boggy approach to the cottage, which was very boggy, not helped by the passage of 70 bikes four days previous. I guess I've been lucky through here the last few times as it's been pretty dry above and below. 

Ben Alder Cottage. As I took this pic a woman came out and we chatted a bit about our routes. It seemed far to early to stop and she looked like she was for chatting but I had a ways to go to get within a reasonably easy ride of Rob and Iona's the next day. So it was off up and away up the singletrack climb 

Looking back down the fab trail to Loch Ericht and the Perthshire hills behind. No energy issues this time round, in fact I rode a fair old bit of the climb.

The descent was the usual blast and lo and behold, I passed a chap doing some work on the trail a few miles up from Culra. Whilst Ben Alder Estate is stinking rich, they do carry out regular maintenance of this path, solely at their own expense. I'm not aware of any other mountain path in Scotland that gets anything but token maintenance, mores the pity. Mind you he gave me a funny look so I wonder if they are aware of the Highland Trail coming through. The steeper part of the descent is getting a bit loose these days and it's down to this routes growing popularity with bikepackers.

Rolling along loch Ericht, the sky was starting to clear considerably with a light breeze to keep me cool. Dalwhinnie garage provided food eaten whilst sat out in the sun.

Local wildlife

Now what? I knew of a few bothies and huts hereabouts but getting up into the woods of Inshriach or the Baden would make for an easy day tomorrow. There was plenty of daylight and for once I was riding in pleasant evening sunshine. So off we go. I went up to loch Cuaich and a good track over to Phones Lodge. I noted its been done up over the climb but the bit by the loch is still a nice basic landrover track. I think I need to start a campaign to preserve these as they are getting thin on the ground thanks to windfarms, power stations and stalking access needed for cars rather than argocats, leading to most estate roads being motorway standard.

This odd sculpture is on a low hill overlooking this little used track but not much else - its a large arrow stuck into the ground. I've no idea what this signifies and there was no sign to explain. I've since done some web searching and drawn a total blank - very strange...

That all said from Phones lodge you end up on a corker of a track. The old military road is a nice set of parallel lines through the heather and for the most part good going. As with all such tracks there are a few soggy bits but this is all part of the fun.

I'd an idea to stop at Luibleathan bothy but a curl of smoke out of the chimney put me off. It might have been fine or it might have been idiots in residence but I was keen to get a few more miles in, in any case. So I cracked on, on this fine track, the Kingussie chippy my destination. After a fine fish tea (and a beer, drank whilst sat on a park bench, it's come to this!) I headed back aways and into the forest above Drumguish, on the Cairngorms loop route. There are a few bothies around Newtonmore but this would be in the wrong direction now. Jack Drakes hut in Inshriach was another option but it's pretty well known and likely to be occupied. Instead I headed for a spot I'd passed a few times and figured would be a good 'un. It was - a bit grassy and tussocky but I found a reasonably level bit and pitched up. Again there was not a midge to be seen so I figured on a fine night. Then the mozzies appeared. Oh for f**** sake, not again! There were only a few and fortuitously I had head net, smidge and my nano mesh mozzy tent thing so after a lot of faffing and running around I got installed into the bivvy eventually. Then the rain came on....

The sky had completely cleared by the time I'd started to pitch up but suddenly clouds rolled in from the east and a light rain started. I read and drank the other two beers I'd bought and then got my head down. The rain kept on and off for a few hours eventually clearing out at about 3 am. I knew this as uncharacteristically, I couldn't get to sleep. The rain didn't help, or the incessant buzzing of the mozzies, plus my bladder drove me up and out three times, requiring a large amount of finesse (faffing) to get out of the bivvy, out of the mesh screen, into boots and jacket and then reverse. Finally when the sky cleared, a snipe appeared with its siren warble which seemed to calm me and sleep followed.

A clear dawn is always a good thing. I packed up in double quick time but fathomed that the nearby track was mozzie free thanks to a bit of a breeze (it wasn't and I got stung several times) so made and ate breakfast and contemplated my onward moves. Given the improving weather it occurred to me to do another night out and head to my pals place in lower Speyside the next day. But to be honest the thought of another night getting savaged by those sodding buzzing, flying, stinging things was far down my list of wants. So a quick text to let them know I would be there mid afternoon and off I went on the fine route up through Inshriach forest, Rothiemurchus and Glenmore. I noted two tents outside Jack Drakes Bothy so this would have been of little use to me - hey ho. I had a proper breakfast of fried things at the cafe and hammered Ryvoan pass in the now warm sunshine. Of course this meant I had to stop at Nethy Bridge to lie around on the grass eating ice cream and pies (in that order) Further rumination suggested I should give the Speyside way a go to just past Grantown. As advertised there were multiple gates but most are new self-closers, two were being held open by a school group out on bikes and the remaining old style walker gates had field gates next to them which were unlocked and open enough to squeeze through. A bit of nosing got me on a trail at Cromdale bridge to miss some more road out and I finished with a leisurely twiddle down the road to Blacksboat.

Lazing around followed but rain swept in which kyboshed Barby plans (this was entirely un-forecasted, even whilst it was happening!) Just as well I wasn't sleeping out as I'd have likely had a colossal sense of humour failure. The next day finally looked like it was going to be a roaster so.... I lazed around all day chatting (we did go for a brief bike ride) and we finally got our BBQ in the late afternoon.

So homeward bound at last. I'd various ideas to extend my route and throw in another bivvy but I actually fancied getting back to Dunkeld in a oner as it's a great route - back road to Tomintoul then the Cairngorms Tour route to Blair Atholl, fun riverside path to Pitlochry, finishing with back roads and cycleway of NCN7/78. It's also 90 miles but that seemed a fine way to end a good trip and would allow me a lazy Sunday to recover. As it happens this was a fortuitous decision...

And it was sociable. Tomintoul seems to be bikepacking central these days. A chap was just leaving as I arrived and 6 more turned up as I ate an early lunch on the village green. Heading up the glen, after fighting my way past a large family group on bikes with two dogs (which were wholly out of control, thank god for 29+,) I slowly reeled in the chap who had left Tomintoul as I arrived. This turned out to be Steve who was on the Bearbones forum and recognised me (well my bike anyway), doing the full Cairngorms Loop. We chatted for a while and he tapped me for some route info until my antisocial singlespeed cadence took me away up the climb out of Glen Builg. The sun was blazing....

Loch Builg looking across to my March Bivvy spot

Ben Avon - similar sky to March but snow largely gone - I think we are heading for an entirely snow free Scotland this Summer

Heading out past Linn of Dee presented a stiff headwind (I passed a further two bikepackers along here) which was somewhat at odds with the gentle easterly breeze forecasted. After an easy and dab free crossing of the Geldie I paused at the ruins of Bynack Lodge for a late lunch - I actually took the trouble to boil water and do a freeze dried meal and coffee, sat in the cool shade of a Scots pine looking at the fine view.

On the singletrack descent I met another ascending bikepacker who is also a Bearbones forum poster. Again we chatted for a bit about our respective routes before I headed off on the fab descent (again!) This was much easier than in 2020 so me and the Jones have put that experience to rest. Another guy on a Genesis longitude was filling his bottles at the burn by the path end and rolling out to Bridge of Tilt I came upon a guy wearing a BB jersey who with his partner had just done the Cairngorms tour. Bikepacking central indeed!

So much for my excellent Lake winter boots. I'd gone with these in view of the weather and the terrain and they'd been ace. They are so much more comfy than the Shimano MT91's / XM9's and despite being advertised as good down to -10 are in fact fine for plus 15 and only a bit warm at plus 20. I'd finally found my perfect cycling footwear. Except on leaving the Blair Atholl Spar shop I became aware of something catching as I walked. Both soles were coming adrift and flapping uselessly about. Most annoying and it had only just happened as they had been fine on the various scrambles across side burns on the Tilt descent. Just as well I didn't opt for a longer route as I'd have had to bodge them. I'll send them back for a replacement or repair and hope these are just a Friday afternoon special.

Anyway I had around 25 miles to do in the warm evening sunshine. After a bit of old road I picked up the riverside path from Killiekrankie to Pitlochry. This was a hoot as it was ped (and dog) free so I could let rip with impunity. The final easy miles down the road to Dunkeld provided a great way to reflect on and finish up a fine few days.

Logierait Bridge on NCN 7 - private but publicly accessible.

A fairly light load out this week although I really should have gone with the deschutes and mesh inner as this would have allowed a much nicer sleep on Wednesday. It will be midge world until September at least now so this will be my go to for the summer bivvies.

Sunday, 22 May 2022

Adventure Commuting

A chap on the Bear Bones forum recently announced he'd done an 85 mile commute to an agency nursing job, only turning up a few minutes late for his shift. On the face of it this sounds a bit optimistic but if you considered driving (or training or bussing) 85 miles to a job the chances of arriving at a specific time would be very slim. Traffic, broken down trains, cancelled services etc. etc. could stop you in your tracks. If you commute on a bike however, journey time is easily planned and it's reliability will be pretty much guaranteed. So whilst a non-cyclist (or even a fairly keen cyclist) would be appalled by such an undertaking, in reality it's actually a pretty sensible option. Not only that, it will be fun, enlightening and add substantially to your weekly mileage quota, so what's not to like.

My own bike commuting hasn't been anywhere near that distance in one outing, although timewise I've come close, thanks to a large amount of snow between my office and home on one occasion. I've commuted by bike for a lot of my adult life, either for all or part of the journey between house and office. Two jobs have prevented me for various reasons, leading to massive frustration. You tell yourself you'll get out for a ride when you get home but inevitably a late finish or crap weather leads to the couch magnet doing its work and welding your (increasingly fat) backside to its warm embrace.

For many years I've taken the shortest route between home and work to minimise the time it takes. However since getting into doing the long distance stuff, the need to get the miles in has lead to me add in extra distance to the commute. This has taken me over hills, through forests, down dales, through bogs, puddles, rivers and (of course) vast amounts of snow. So this piece is dedicated to turning a boring journey to or from work into an adventure. Yes that oft used (and oft hated) term which in my case is fair, given that on more than one occasion there has been a very real possibility I'd disappear somewhere en-route...

It all started when I got a job with Fife Council working at Lochore Meadows. I was living in Edinburgh at the time, just next to South Gyle Station. Having spent the previous two years driving to Alloa and back this represented an opportunity to use the bike for at least some of my journeys to work and a refreshing change. I settled for getting the train out and riding home - some 25 miles. A mate sold me his old MBK road bike which was ideal for this. When it's frame rusted through (on just such a commute) my mate Derek turned up an old Peugeot Tri frame which served until I actually bought a brand new road bike, the start of my roadie love affair. My miles and fitness soared, plus you were out in all weather, at all times of year so I refined kit and got better at judging what I needed to wear. Plus it was the first time I was doing bike rides going full gas for the whole journey. Why? well you were going home of course! A house move to Fife removed the need for the train and added some forest trails into the mix. Suddenly, my commute could be a mountainbike ride.

My next job lead to a gap in commuting as noted but a return to Fife Council meant the long distance commute was back on - 17 miles each way. This was when I started doing off road options as the roads weren't that great. Then an office move to Glenrothes lead to a period of crazy road riding.

My route was now 20 miles dead and I became fixated on doing it in an hour, or less. 52 minutes was my fastest time on breezy days but this was leading to increasingly dubious moves to get through traffic which even on rural roads tended to get in your way. Give ways in particular could be a cause of crucial delays so timing moves through them was critical, as well as the need to stay ahead of glaikit car drivers who seemed determined to stop at every available opportunity. Worst was the final roundabout from one dual carriageway across another, which was busy, being the A92. The best way to do it was to keep your speed up and merge with flowing traffic. Drivers in Fife aren't used to cyclists filtering so this lead to a certain amount of consternation. Not only that but work colleagues were also using this junction and a not a few commented about the suddenness and speed I was appearing in front of them. I finally got my time to below 50 minutes (48 actually!) but realised this nonsense was only going to go one way. So the road bike was ditched and I started using the train to get (most of the way) in. Going home could then be done by means of various routes with varying amounts of off road and little in the way of busy roads. My favourite took me round the outskirts of Glenrothes, and then across the Lomond hills, finishing with the quiet back road from Cleish. This was around 30-35 miles and took me between 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hrs depending on weather, wind and time of year.

Looking across Loch Leven and the Cleish Hills in the Westering sun of the endless summer that was 2014. Most commuter shots show some hard bitten cyclist fighting their way through rush hour traffic. I hope this inspires people to find a better way home from the daily grind.

Sometimes I use the train back as far as Lochgelly and then head home by the country park and various woods. I generally only do it twice a week, or three at the most but this adds 4-8 hrs of riding into my weekly routine, and via some ace trails instead of a dull road ride. It's harder in the winter of course but whilst hoards of cyclists retreated to their turbo trainers, I'll be riding the hills on my way home from work giving me valuable training miles, speeding up my pre-ride prep (have to when you are tying in with train timetables) and refining my clothing choices. I vary my route depending on the weather and trail conditions and I figured out a couple of low level routes, including the coastal path, for when the hills are too wild. Other variations are used for dry or wet weather. If it's particularly bad I'll train it back to Dunfermline and do a ride round the West Fife and Clacks cycle and back road networks. 

Of course my work colleagues think I'm mad for doing this but compared to my normal rides, such commuting is straightforward and huge fun. The good days are when the wind is in the east and the sun beating down. Various trail improvements and route refinements meant my route has used less and less road over the years. My best effort covers 5 significant hills - East Lomond, West Lomond, Bishop Hill, Benarty Hill and Blair Adam. In fact I can add a 6th - Ben Glow in the Cleish hills although this needs some interesting route finding through fire breaks. What better way to finish the day with a fab mountainbike ride home, when everyone else is having their tea, trails are empty, the sun shining and the wind helping you on your way.

Singletrack commute

It's not always like that. Brutal headwinds, un-forecasted rain, unusually muddy trails and floods all have been encountered...

One particular ride springs to mind. This was Autumn 2017 after another below average summer. I was on the Fargo and planned to use my low level route home as the hills were likely to be a bit bleak, given the weather. I'd used this route in the January of that year on the newly built Jones. Bizarrely, I'd finished the ride with barely a spec of mud on the bike, the first of several similar rides during two weeks of unseasonably dry and mild weather. This day it was anything but. The first challenge was the narrow trail alongside the river Ore. I noticed the river looked a bit high so it wasn't a huge surprise when the trail disappeared into it. Of course I kept going thinking it would be short lived; and of course it wasn't. So wet feet and a near drowning later (slight exaggeration) I got through thinking my remaining route would be OK, being generally on made paths. Oh dear, forestry work had been going on in the woods near Cardenden and the neat singletrack was like a ploughed field. I ploughed on (it was pitch dark at this point and it didn't look too bad) only for the bike to grind to a halt as mud had totally blocked the wheels into the mudguards. I managed to clear it and eventually pick my way through. But it got worse. A section of farm track was covered with a thin layer of slurry-like water and grit. This is my least favourite kind of mud as it seems to spray everywhere. Then on the trail down the hill to Lochore Meadows I became aware of orange flashing beacons and spot lights ahead. This turned out to be a hedge cutting tractor working on the path ahead. Quite what it was doing out at 7pm on a dark Wednesday is anyone's guess but it had thoroughly churned up the path and spread thorns everywhere. On I went and when I got to the road and streetlights I surveyed the damage. The bike looked like someone had hosed it down with mud and I wasn't much better. No alternative but to keep going, waiting for the inevitable puncture from the thorns. I made it home in the event, the front tyre just starting to go soft as I rolled up the village main street.

But the winter lead to the biggest adventures. It started in 2011 when the bike seemed to the best way to make progress given the huge volume of snow clogging up the road network. Car drivers thought I was mad by the looks they gave me but I had the last laugh when they got stuck and I kept going. That year also highlighted the disadvantages of living at 140m above sea level. I'd leave a cold and snowy Dunfermline, and head west along the cycleway. But on the climb up the hill to home, the weather would get worse and worse. On the last section you were in full on winter mountain weather - blizzard conditions and brutal wind chill. Home and a hot shower was only a mile away so this was hilarious but I didn't particularly want to be the first person to die in a snow drift in West Fife....

Not the usual bike you see on a morning train...

When I got my fat bike this all became even more fun. Winter 2018 was the one with several periods of heavy snow. I've written about this before elsewhere. Suddenly there was no choice (well I could have skied) as cars were going nowhere. A fatbike is generally unstoppable in lowland snow conditions but I did test that theory to it's limits. Again work colleagues thought I was mad but I had the last laugh as their cars were buried and they were house bound. Funnily enough when I was in Finland the next year, the snow conditions were comparatively benign...

Freshies on the way home!

Wild weather on the way to work

Not my best look - after 4 hours of blizzard and headwinds

Not so nice - dark, wet and snowy...

The pandemic scuppered commuting obviously but finishing up in my home office, throwing my gear on and going for a blast round the dusty trails locally was a fine way to end the working day. As office working re-commenced I soon got back to my old ways however. I'd used the gravel bike a few times on various commutes and soon started throwing in some longer rides into the way home when I'd brought the Straggler in.

I did one the other day - a fine gravel trip home after a mixed ride / train ride in. Annoyingly, Scotrail have changed the timetable so I have to get up even earlier, and it looks like more changes are coming thanks to the Government's balls up of taking over the company. In fact I often joke I'm on the Scotrail cycling training programme. The way it works is that if Scotrail think you aren't doing enough miles, they cancel a train so you have to ride all the way in (or home), thus adding valuable extra training time. Maybe not but it did seem that cancelled trains always coincided with me deciding to take the easy option....

So I got in early and therefore obviously left early to cash in on the sunshine. I'd used the route last summer so no need for any nav. There is one busy bit up and over to the Markinch cycleway and then back roads, some cycleway and easy trails are the order of the day. A stiff breeze was blowing but across the Howe of Fife its pleasant, flat farmland with hedges and trees to shelter you from the worst of it. A reasonable road climb took me up to my route of last Saturday but I kept on up the hill to do a full traverse of Pitmedden Forest. The forest was devoid of other people, it being tea time across the nation. My stomach was rumbling a bit but it would have to wait. 

I picked up a hitch-hiker when I did this route last summer!

He seemed remarkably reluctant to let go. I could feel his claws digging into my finger!

From the forest I followed my usual route of back roads and an odd bit of trail home. The clouds had come in as it happened and I even got a spot of rain, but the last few miles were done in the westering sun. Total distance for the whole day was nigh on 60 miles. I got home at just after 8pm and relaxed in the warm glow of self righteousness that all cycle commuters feel. Not because I was single handedly saving the planet but because I'd just fried about 2000 calories over an above my 'normal' day load so could tuck into lots of food and cake, knowing I would still be behind my bodies energy demand as it recovered from the effort of a fine ride home.

Tuesday, 17 May 2022


I usually do my May bivvy somewhere fairly exotic as part of a longer trip or, like last year, on the Highland Trail. In view of my non-entry in this years group start, and a possible trip at the beginning of June, I thought I would make this one fairly local. Then I got to pouring over maps and figured I'd do a variation on some of my north Fife rides, pushing right out to Tentsmuir Forest which I've bivvied in once before but always fancied doing again. Thereafter I would return via a variation of one of the many routes I've used to get to the east end of Fife over the years.

A fairly light load (no beer) given the forecast. Also first use of Wildcat mini Harness.

It started well. The forecast was for sunshine all weekend with a stiff westerly for Saturday, switching to an easterly on Sunday - i.e. my whole route would be with a tailwind. I keep thinking that I'm in for some horrible headwind bad karma given how colossally lucky I've been in the last few years, wind wise (CL2020 excepted), but I do keep getting these bonus wind switches. Maybe it's making up for all the headwind misery I suffered as a youth!

I left just after 12 and headed north to the hills. I'd scoped a few trails out in the woods near Path of Condie with the potential to link through from the Dunning Road to P of C itself. This went remarkably well, the dry trails helping. So I celebrated with an early lunch reveling in the feeling of sitting in the sun, in a bit of grassland / woodland, with no biting insects. If only I knew what was coming....

Vague line through the grass - this could be a bit 'deep' later in the year...

I then threaded together a fine route east via Pitmedden Forest and some of its ace single track, a few other core paths and trails, and the Fife Coastal Path, linked by a few very quiet backroads. This route roughly follows the hills that border the fair Kingdom of Fife, overlooking the Tay estuary. It's a real mix of trails, with some really nice riding, plenty of ups and downs and fine views. 

Lindores Loch and the hills of Perthshire in the haze behind.

On one of the nicest sections of the northern part of the FCP - Looking back to the remote community of Glenduckie. It's actually only a 100m off the A913 but always seems like the land that time forgot. In the foreground is a terrace of farm cottages only accessible by a rough track.

After some road riding the coastal path drops down to the estuary shore and follows a fab noodly, rooty single track through the woods. Other than a couple of families having barbies on the shingle I had the trail to myself. 

I missed the last section beyond Balmerino as this is quite steppy and has a few annoying kissing gates, but it was a short hop up to the road to miss it. Looking at the map afterwards there are maybe a couple of other trail options along this bit although these would miss Wormit and Newport out.

The Silvery Tay and the rail bridge that is the subject of no less than three poems by William McGonagall (One celebrating the first bridge, one describing its collapse and a third celebrating the replacement i.e. this one!)

I wanted to go through Newport as I was needing food, given how light I was travelling. I spied the 'Fifie' chippy and procured a particularly fine fish supper which I wolfed down whilst sat in the evening sun. Timings had worked out to perfection as a few short road and cycleway miles saw me entering Tentsmuir Forest at 8pm and along to a bivvy spot I'd used a few years ago. That's where it all went horribly wrong.

First of all my digestive system announced it's demands and as soon as I stopped a cloud of mosquitos appeared in force. Of course I had neither a head net or any form of repellant so was totally at their mercy. I considered moving on to another spot to bivvy but I couldn't think of anywhere else close by and I figured the mozzies would be everywhere in any case.

I moved out of the grass and under some trees thinking this would be better. It wasn't. After dithering some more I set to and threw up the tarp as quick as I could. There then followed a variation of my usual pre ride faff, this time with insect bites!  I dived into the bivvy bag then got back out to rescue my specs and head torch, then dived back in. Then I got out again and rescued my phone and dived back in. Then I got out one more time and rescued my whisky (which was essential) finally getting into the bag and staying in. So much for my well practiced and slick routine... In the event I seemed to be inside alone, with the mozzies outside; so had a fairly peaceful evening. However despite wearing my beanie and throwing my cycling shirt over my head, the little ba*stards still severally stung my head through the bivvy bag mesh and both layers. Eventually I crashed out to the sound of a million (well a hundred or so) buzzing mosquitos.

The dawn chorus was deafening and the mozzie buzzing still hadn't let up, dashing my hopes that as the temps dropped over night they would hide in the grass. In fact it had stayed warm enough that even my lightweight quilt was a bit much. After lying awake for a while I realised that sleep was impossible and my bladder was making it's demands so packed up as quick as I could and departed post haste.

Bivvy shot taken after I'd torn the tarp down...

A few miles down the trail I stopped as I was out of the woods. Lo and behold no mozzies (should have bivvied here!) so I got the stove out and made breakfast. Of course as I was sitting eating it, the midges appeared, somewhat early for these eastern climbs. I wandered around to avoid them, packed up for the second time and cleared off.

Morning sun over Tentsmuir. The whole forest is very low lying and very boggy in places, probably why it's such a Mosquito haven!

My route home was a bit easier and as predicted, an easterly wind was building to assist me on my way. I departed the coastal path at Leuchars and headed back roughly through the middle of Fife following a few bits of easy trail and various back roads. Cupar was deserted at 8.30 am but the Gregs had just opened so I sat on the High Street having a leisurely second breakfast, entirely bug free. I headed across the flats of the Howe of Fife but figured on heading through the Lomond Hills on one of my usual routes home for a bit of interest and further good riding. The trails were bone dry, although the sun of the early morning had gradually given way to cloud and at one point the rain came on. But oddly enough it cleared for the final miles and I even had some sunshine. 

Total distance was a creditable 195k and I felt quite weary. If I'd bothered to look at the GPS I could have made it a round 200. In fact I've been doing some fiddling with GPX tracks and hatched a route following my outward route of Saturday and returning by the Pilgrims Way route I'd ridden out on at Midsummer in 2020. This would come in at just over the 200k mark with about 3500m of climbing. I might have a crack at this in a oner - the Kingdom 200!

Top of the last big hill looking back to the gloomy lomonds over which I'd just ridden.

As I type this a large number of bumps all over my body are itching madly...