Sunday, 5 September 2021

200 miles

I recently read 'The Year' by Dave Barter, a history of the year cycling record i.e. the furthest travelled by bike in one year. Its a fascinating read (this was my second as it happens) for anyone interested in long distance cycling. After a succession of ever increasing efforts in the early part of the 20th century, it was smashed by Tommy Godwin who just made it to the finish as the second world war kicked off. 75k miles in one year equals a daily average of 205 odd miles. That's every single day for one year, rain, snow or shine. Of particular interest was Tommy's routes which took him all over the country. In recent years the record, having stood since '39 and after a long abeyance in terms of anyone trying it, was finally broken in 2015 and again in 2016. It now stands at over 86k but Amanda Coker who took it, stuck to a short local circuit which she lapped to the tune of 237 miles a day average.

I've bashed a fair few miles out over the years and done some awfully long days (and nights) in the saddle. But the most I've ever done in a year is 7000 miles - my bumper year of 2015. I've no intention of trying to go more than this as my riding these days has to strike a fine balance between distance and injury prevention, however the long daily distances these year riders were doing set me thinking of how far I could ride in one day and where I could get to. My longest distance in one ride to date was midsummer 1992 when myself and three fellow Watt Wheelers members (Heriot Watt Uni cycling club) did our annual solstice ride. These involved leaving Edinburgh at about 6 and heading off which ever way the wind was blowing, pretty much until we dropped; relying on a train to take us home again. That year the north easterly dictated a ride south. We ended up in Lancaster some 190 miles from Edinburgh via a fine route through the borders and the lake district. That was the longest I did, with subsequent rides heading north east and generally running out of land before we ran out of time.

At this years Yorkshire Dales 300, there was an option to do a 200 mile road ride which I was mightily tempted to do, eventually sticking with the 300 on the basis that this would be much harder.... But a seed was sewn and reading 'The Year' motivated me to go for a double century, in order to beat my own daily mileage record, see how far north I could get from the house in a day and consider how feasible it would be to do such a thing twice in a row. Or even 365 times in a row.....

After some thought and a bit of map appraisal I plotted a circuit which would take in Loch Rannoch via an off used route west and north; followed by various (hopefully) quiet roads east and back south. It would take in roads I'd not cycled in many, many years (over 30 years in one case), pass through a range of scenery and views, but not be too hilly, given the distance. Saturday looked liked it was going to be sunny, possibly the last sunny Saturday of the summer, so I was all set. The route went into the GPS, primarily so I could keep track of my miles and ensure I hit the 200 target, rather than for nav purposes. I knew the route well and would easily follow it without re-course to any form of mapping. I stashed a modicum of food, on the basis that there were several Co-ops en-route, removed the mudguards off the Straggler as it was to be dry (less than 5% chance of rain all day and evening) and also went with just a lightweight windproof by way of additional layers. 

7 am saw me spinning at a leisurely pace west. Typically the sunny forecast had deteriorated to cloudy although still dry; but in the event, the early morning mist lifted to reveal blue skies and even sunshine. I was still sporting bare legs but had gone with long sleeves and a light base layer in a bid to keep my pace low. Using a bike with single speed for such an undertaking may seem slightly odd, given my equally capable Pacer had gears. But the straggler has a far more upright riding position, a comfier saddle and 40mm tyres that would allow stress free riding over some of the rough road surfaces I would encounter, as well as the gravel of NCN 7. My 2:1 ratio had proved to be ideal for the two long rides I'd done on this bike last month and in July allowing easy pedaling on the flat and hill climbing without too much strain. I had two climbs pegged as requiring a push but that would just give my dodgy knee a rest.

Traffic was light at this early hour so I reached Callander at 9 with zero hassle. I made use of the public loos (this would be yet another ride where my attention seeking digestive system dictated my pace) and then headed up the cycleway, 21 miles of traffic free riding to Killin.

On the cycleway between Strathyre and Lochearnhead. This bridge was a key part of the project and caused me a certain amount of stress. Not because I'd designed it, but because the contractors made a mess of assembling it and the route nearly didn't get finished in time for the midsummer ride through planned for the whole NCN that year (2000). The plaque commemorates Nigel Hester, a cyclist who was killed in a collision on the A9 the previous year. Sad to say but it was this incident that pushed the Scottish Government to get behind the NCN and do the route up the A9. 

Onwards and upwards. The route switches from the lower rail line to the upper above Lochearnhead via a series of steep switch-backs and my first push, or so I thought. In the event I got up without too much in the way of gurning at my perfected low cadence grind. Once on the higher line, it follows a constant 1:50 all the way up the glen. Afterwards when eyeing up the vertical profile of the route, this section almost looked like the GPS had interpolated between two points rather than tracked them as the line was perfectly straight, a testament to the skill of those Victorian Engineers. 

The highlight - Glen Ogle viaduct and the glen below.

Hmm, there has been a burger bar at the car park at the top of the climb for years immemorial but it wasn't there today. No real problem as Killin Co-op was my targeted first stop. I'm nearly a regular here given how many times its provided breakfast, lunch or tea on various trips. I sat out in the cool air eating food and stashing more for later. The sunshine hadn't lasted and I'd even had the odd spot of rain but at least the cloud level was high enough to get plenty of views. Riding up Glen Lochay soon got me warm again and the sky to the west looked brighter. Then the crux climb of the day and my next walking opportunity.

I'd last been here on my LLTL ride (going down) so the climb was fresh in my memory. It's a big one to be sure, 275m from the glen bottom to the top, but once again I was able to keep the plot moving by pedal power alone, my super slow stood up cadence in flat contradiction to accepted wisdom for such things. Then it was into Highland Trail country. After a careful descent round some fearsome potholes (this road is technically private and Scottish Water don't really maintain it to any degree) I joined that route at the end of Loch Lyon and cruised down the glen into a stiff breeze. Talk about a change of fortunes. That day in May it had been cold, fairly bright and breezy. Snow covered Schiehallion and I was decidedly nervous about what was coming. Today it was warm, with some most welcome sunshine driving away the chill of earlier, I was pedaling easy and I felt fairly relaxed about what was to come. 

I did consider a cafe break at Bridge of Balgie but a fair few other cyclists had taken up the outside seating and I had plenty food on board, a desire to get home before dark and the urge to just keep going. Heading down the glen I encountered numerous cyclists coming the other way, many with the look of the Audax crowd all on lightweight tourers with full 'guards, dynamo lights, extra bags and the look of the long distance rider. Maybe that's why I got plenty of cheery waves off them as they saw the same in me. A subsequent look at the Audax UK site indicated this was the 'Lyon, Lawyers and Moors' 200k. Nice to see a few others riding well beyond what would be considered 'normal' distances!

I was approaching a possible bail out point but felt no need to take it, despite feeling a bit weary. Not ideal seeing as how the second substantial climb of the route, over the hill to Loch Rannoch, was approaching. I've been up here a few times over the years (most recently on the Jones last summer) so knew what was coming. In the event I again made steady progress upwards to my final point of no return. But I'd made it this far so saw no need to bail, especially seeing as how 'bailing' would still put the days mileage at 175. Instead the Schiehallion road beckoned. A club ride was coming the other way, once again leading me to wonder about the appeal of such things. A couple of largeish groups went by, all shiny carbon and immaculate kit. Then came the stragglers, on a variety of machinery with maybe just the club shirt rather than the full monty, and all looking a bit glum. And that's where I struggle to see the appeal. The girl who was tail end charlie looked like she wasn't having a good time. Doubtless struggling to keep up with the run, feeling no connection with the pocket rockets up front (who in turn would be miffed at having to wait for the stragglers) and constantly battling beyond a comfortable pace to avoid being lost. My advice? Go on your own and ride at your own pace, in your own time.

The final descent is a beaut with some wicked hairpins and a good surface. No traffic lead to proper racing lines and minimal braking, all vital when you are well beyond your maximum pedaling speed. Above me Schiehallion had her head in the cloud so the crowds of people walking up it wouldn't be having as nice a time as me! On the flat road beside Loch Rannoch I took stock. My first look at the GPS indicated I was at k170, 10k over half way, and it was 2.45pm, pretty much on my notional schedule of 15 hrs total ride time. I was definitely feeling the distance and generally feeling quite weary so the easy tailwind assisted pedal was just the job. I turned off to go to the FC campsite, in order to use the loo and get water, but before the site I came across firstly a small trackside burn for water then a handy portaloo provided by P&K council to discourage all the roadside campers from leaving bodily waste the length of the loch. As I left, the views west opened up and I knew I'd done a very good thing in doing this ride.

Ben Alder looking a bit gloomy bereft of snow.

Ah yes, road side campers, those horrible nasty people who are the scourge of the covid world. Its always been a problem along here but covid has been a perfect excuse for landowners to put 'no parking' signs up everywhere, fence off every bit of land by the road and to bully the council into putting a clearway in. I'm not sayings its not a problem but its back to foot and mouth. Any excuse for these vultures to stop the plebs from enjoying themselves on their land, without them making a fat profit it out of it. At least the council have tried to manage it, with the loos and other bits of parking set aside and various helpful signs. Of course I cruised past all of this feeling maximally smug, as no cars had been used in my day trip and I would have happily bivvied in the woods away from the shore with impunity if I wanted to. Hmm. Thinks. This would make a good winter bivvy trip, when all of the masses were hidden in their centrally heated homes!

Approaching the end of Loch Rannoch, the bumps in the far distance are the Glencoe hills with the Old Road to the isles just to the left of the lower bump centre.

The HT route swept in from the south, near to the head of the loch. No-one was on it although I'd bumped into a bikepacker doing the Badger Divide at the public loo at Bridge of Balgie who would have come this way (she was heading south.) Lucky women, as she would have had a dry week and dry trails, with north easterly winds keeping midges at bay and providing a nice tailwind. Why can't I pick these weeks for my bike packing trips! I paused where the Highland Trail route heads up to Ben Alder. This point had been the start of my day one woes so I was pleased to note that my earlier slump was gone and my legs were back to full capacity. The north side road is a bit lumpier but nothing of note. What was a surprise at this hour was an endless stream of traffic coming the other way - a car every few seconds on this road to no-where. Of course this was rush hour to get all of the lochside camping spots. I was glad I was leaving this place behind.

Soon enough the track out of Duirnish was passed and Kinloch Rannoch reached. I was tempted by a cafe again but kept going knowing the Pitlochry BP garage would fulfill my nutritional needs. 

View west along Loch Rannoch to the hills of Glencoe, some 50k away.

More hills up past the Glen Errochty turn which I hoofed up in defiance of my 120 mile legs. At Tummel Bridge I spun out to exceed the 20mph limit and started the long climb towards where I'd been some two hours before. Turn off after a bit on a road I had last cycled in the early '90's along the south shore of Loch Tummel. So why is it that along all of the east / west lochs in Perthshire, the main road goes along the north side and the minor road along the south. I don't know. More roadside campers indicated that the clearway was being ignored. I didn't see any parking attendents.... 

Its a great road though descending to the loch shore and then undulating along until a climb past the dam, the lush woodland of the Garry / Tummel / Tay valley below me. Finally a long but steady run down to the A9 crossing and into the back of Pitlochry by a short cycleway. The garage was a fine place to stop. I could have headed into the town for the Co-op, chippies and cafes but all I wanted was right here - a sandwich, crisps, coke, cakes and water. I sat on the pavement by the paper rack and finally checked watch and GPS. 17.45 and 236k so 94k to go and two and half hours of daylight. Fine, I'd have an hour in the dark at the most. Best of all I was leaving the tourist haunts behind and my exclusively back road route would be largely traffic free on a Saturday evening in September.

Bloody hell. A few miles out of Pitlochry I got a view down the wide Tay strath and saw... a large rain cloud. This quickly advanced towards me and delivered a fine but dense dreich entirely at odds with any weather forecast I'd seen the previous day. Given my bare legs, lack of mudguards and lightweight jacket, this was of concern. Two hours of cold and wet after 13 hours riding was a recipe for a very unpleasant finish to what had been a near perfect ride. Not that I had a choice so it was (as usual) simply a case of keep going, grin (or grimace) and bear it. It came and went and the road was mainly under tree cover so it wasn't too bad. I was also plenty warm so only the spray round my legs (and up my behind) was a bit unpleasant. Dunkeld and its Co-op was ridden straight through as I had enough on board for the last of the ride. One last bit of cycleway and then the old road to Bankfoot, empty of traffic. Finally after Bankfoot the sky started to clear. The sun was heading for the horizon to my right but blue sky was above so I could take my jacket off for the final miles. All on familiar terrain now and the last of the significant climbs. I've been up the Dunning glen road on many different bikes over the years and know every inch of it. Not sure I've been up in the dark though....

As I rode along bats flitted in and out of my light and kept pace with me, attracted by the many moths also attracted by my light. Every so often I came across a frog sat on the road, obviously enjoying the warmth from the tarmac. I implored them to move, having seen many flat frogs on the roads of my rides in previous weekends but I don't suppose they paid any attention. Such wildlife encounters make these rides as you are seeing things which a car driver would miss (or squash). The very few on coming vehicles showed faces looking at me with surprise - who could be out on a bike after dark up here? For me riding through a long day, watching the light fade from the sky, finally putting lights on and then focusing on the beam in front of you is now so familiar and yet it always makes me smile. 

Finally the miles counted down and home was reached after one final pull up Knockhill and the village main street. The time was 9.45, 14hrs and 50 minutes after departure, 202 miles done. Into house, shower, microwave chili left out earlier, crack open a beer, lie on couch eating and drinking, reflecting on a fabulous day out. Sleep for 10 hours.....

Some thoughts whilst I was lazing around on the couch today....

The time passed quickly, despite being out for nearly fifteen hours. A lot of this was down to the ever changing scenery, transitioning from the rich farmland of Fife and Clacks, to the green hills of the Trossachs, bigger hills of Perthshire and then the high peaks of Glencoe, Ben Alder and the Cairngorms; and then all the way back again. At no point did it feel like a drag, even when the rain came on. Compare to my drive up to Lairg in July - about 180 miles in 5 hours - which felt like purgatory.

The bike was comfy. For a while I got a real ache between my shoulder blades but this seemed to pass after k 200. Odd.

I'm now looking at where else I could get to from the house in a day. Sight seeing is far better on a bike, even if you don't stop (which I only did for an hour in total despite several loo stops) as you are going at a pace ideally suited to sight seeing.

Singlespeed worked perfectly. If I'd had gears, there would have been a temptation to really push on, on the tailwind assisted flats, likely burning me out.

The thought of doing another 200 miles this morning (and tomorrow, and the next day etc.) was not something I could remotely consider. I guess if I had to I could have but I'll not be challenging the year record in this life.

Now then, what next - 250 miles?

Sunday, 22 August 2021

August BAM

I decided to do a 'proper' bivvy this weekend rather than rely on my snooze in a bag that I did on the YD300. Definitely a ride to bivvy rather than a bivvy for a ride, but I've done a few of each this year so that's alright. The weather forecast was decidedly uninspiring making me think that Saturday evening would be a better bet. However Friday turned out to be dry all day and after a brief sprinkle of rain as I finished in my 'office' it brightened up considerably. I had tea then threw stuff into bags and bags on bike. At 8pm I left into a warm evening. 

My chosen venue was Glendevon forest and a spot I scoped out last year. Except I missed it.... I'd ridden straight out there and you climb steadily up through the woods. It was starting to get dark hence peadling past the turning without realising it. I couldn't be bothered back tracking so kept on, eyeing the woods either side of me but fancying something a bit more open. Near the top of the climb I spied a gap in the trees which lead to a gate out onto the moor. It looked a bit marginal but my expert bivvy spot eye noted a level section big enough for my bod just up from said gate. I got the tarp up with a modicum of fiddling and the rain finally came on as I got under it. It came and went as I had a couple of beers to while away the time whilst watching various insects wandering around.

Amazingly there were no midges, despite it being damp, warm and still. Very odd. Most impressive were the ants who fielded the crumbs from a couple of double biscuits I'd scoffed. One carried a bit much bigger than him / her. Think carrying a lump of shortbread 10' x 4' x 2'.... I Crashed out eventually and had an OK kip apart from a few random gusts blowing drizzle under the tarp. As usual the wind seemed to be in a completely different direction and much stronger than what was on the Beeb. I got a bit concerned for a bit as if the wind got up it would be blowing the rain in onto my shower proof bivvy bag leading to much dampness. I wriggled further under the tarp and all seemed well.

I woke at 8.30 to dreich and mist (again) so had a leisurely breakfast in the hope it would clear before I decamped. Which it did! Well sort of. Rather than head straight back I went for a spin round the woods on various tracks and then over to Dunning where I binned my empties and headed east on the wee road to Forgandenny. Then over the easiest of the Path of Condie 'X' roads and home by my usual back road route. The rain came and went but I finished in the dry and even sunshine. Not long after I got home the heavens opened however and it stayed wet all afternoon and evening so good call on ignoring the forecast and looking at the sky!


First time on the Straggler with bags and singlespeed. I'd been thinking of gearing up from the 36/18 I've been using for a while now but its spot on loaded up and I got up all of the climbs with minimum gurning. All being well I'll be out on it for a few days next month round Dumfries and Galloway.

Thursday, 5 August 2021

Hill and Dale, 300kms of ups and downs.

I've done the Yorkshire Dales 300 once before and two iterations of the 200. In my youth (and later) I rode pretty much everything there was to ride within a 30 mile radius of upper Wensleydale, road, bridleway, byway and the odd footpath. So when I entered this years 300 I knew what was coming. 300k is a long way to ride a bike in a weekend but that's not the problem. The problem is 7500m of climbing. Its only when you are well into this route that the unrelenting brutality of this becomes apparent. You seem to be continuously going up, then down, then back up. Occasionally there is a brief respite in the form of a section of road or easy trail along a valley bottom or across a moor but even these tend to feature short sharp climbs that all add to the toll on your body. To cap it all I was going to do it single speed. I quote the comment in my write up of my 2016 ride on observing a chap on a SS Trek Stache - "My only single speed exploits hereabouts resulted in much pain and suffering and I'd vowed never to try it again..." Of course since then I've done the Cairngorms Loop, Loch Lomond and Trossachs Loop and the Highland Trail on SS so I had no excuse.

And no-one was making me do it so I can't complain. Plus 7500m of climbing equals 7500m of descending! My prep was fairly basic. I'd trained for and rode the Highland Trail then spent the intervening two months doing a few bike rides. The weekend before I'd ended up doing 210k on my gravel bike (also SS) which was probably a bit much but zero issues (or knee pain) doing this suggested my form was adequate. Digs were booked for the night before, weather was scrutinised, bags were packed and I was off.

Stuart told me mine was the best bike, but he also rides a Jones so don't take it personally. It was nice to chat to a few folk at the start as well as drink some of Stuart's coffee and eat the laid on breakfast. Around 20 odd people had turned up which seemed a bit light given what was on offer. As well as the 300k off-road (mostly) route, there was a 200 mile(!) road route available. I'd given serious thought to doing this as it only had 6000m of climbing and was on tarmac (obviously). In the event I figured I should stick to my original plan. 

The start line, typically relaxed.

After a dreich start in Burnley where I'd stayed, it had brightened up somewhat. I've never started an ITT in the rain and I nearly did this morning as a shower came through just before kick off. More were in the forecast but I was fairly relaxed about this given the mild temps. So it began - uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill, repeat. I was making a concerted effort to keep the pace down so no singlespeed screaming past others. In fact I spent the first 50k largely focused on my pace, drinking plenty and nibbling as I went along. I was swapping places with Steve Large and a chap on an in-vogue Stooge klunker. Both seemed to be pacing off each other (and me) but I stuck to my own unique pace in a bid to avoid an repeat of my Highland Trail day 1 woes.

The trails as far as Coverdale are fairly benign (apart from the climbing) which served as a good warm up. I'd vowed not to push on road until the Buttertubs pass however the road up Coverdale was typical of the Yorkshire Dales - in theory a steady climb but a steep descent midway lead to a double arrow section which had me onto shanks pony to avoid too much effort. The trail fun began on the Starbotton cam road. I'd caught Steve and Stooge man here but they left whilst I snacked. The trail is also YD standard - bumpy but short grass - but this lead into something of a rarity hereabouts, a nice narrow rocky section followed by a more typical rough track descent into the village. Don't do this route on a gravel bike as such descents would be a pain and poor compensation for the effort needed to get to the top. 

Up the road (easy bit!) to Buckden and my first stop for drink and some food. The cafe that had caused so much upset in 2016 was shut and the guy behind the shop counter different from the chap who had the meltdown when faced with four hungry bikepackers. He had a horrific toupe arrangement and looked like he was no stranger to the bottom of a bottle but was very friendly. I sat out for a while eating and drinking. Four twenty-something roadpackers appeared looking for food. All their kit was mint - a far cry from me in my twenties on a hard ridden bike, mis-matched clothing and cheap panniers on the inevitable Nimrod rack. I watched stooge guy ride the climb out of the village but I was happy to take a breather - all part of my tactics to take it easy over the first 100k.

I can get up the climb out of Buckden normally but not on SS. However I stomped up in reasonable order, got up the road section on the pedals and pushed more on the climb up to Stake Moss. It seems I can hit that single speed rhythm without any drama these days....

Top of the Stake Road.

Looking up to Cam fell, I'd be there in a few hours. Semer Water below. 

Amazingly the sun was shining. We'd had a few sprinkles of rain and there were some large clouds to the north but this, and the dry trails, made for pleasant going. I was really enjoying this. As I've said elsewhere on this blog, I love the Yorkshire Dales, and I love the riding. After the battles of the Highland Trail it was fab, even with the hills. On the long descent to Carpley Green, I vowed I would return for a week doing some nice day rides and sample the many fine local ales.

After a short sharp grind out of Askrigg was one of the routes rare easy bits. As I twiddled along I became aware of a road bike approaching. As she passed the rider suddenly hailed me and I recognised her from the start - one of the 200 mile road riders. I returned her encouraging shout as she rode away effortlessly. The easy riding didn't last and once again it was a max effort climb, albeit to one of my favourite trails in Wensleydale. Its blessedly easy on smooth grass, contouring above the valley bottom. Best of all I had a tailwind and it was sunny. In fact I was overheating as I'd deliberately over-dressed for this - another tactic to keep the pace down, as well as in prep for riding overnight. A bloke on an ebike whizzed past and chatted for a bit before whining off ahead. I was content to cruise, knowing this respite would be brief.


Castle Bolton was busy with tourists but I rode straight on through, missed the turning and then pretty much pushed the whole climb out of the dale. I was aware I was a bit dry mouthed and feeling a bit wabbit as a result. Then my water ran out. Many burns were dry after the fab summer so this was of mild concern. Fortunately, after the fly down to Apedale, I came across the burn in full flow. Thankfully I'd stashed my filter as although there are plenty of water sources en-route, I'm suspicious of drinking from streams given the number of sheep hereabouts. I brimmed the bladder, drank my fill then filled it again. Stooge man appeared looking a bit wrecked. It is one of those routes where you are inevitably going to have ups and downs (like the terrain). Its just a case of keep on eating, keep on drinking and try not to go to hard. Despite me having a wee dip, I was basically fine and dealing with the endless climbing with only a token amount of grumbling.

Swaledale looked sunny but dark clouds loomed to the north. It's funny really. That morning as the rain came down I'd psyched myself for doing the whole route in water proofs. Then as it became apparent it was going to be dry, I'd gotten used to the idea of having a dry run so on seeing the onset of the inevitable rain, I felt a bit glum. Oh well, I had the gear and I was too far in to bail so it's just a case of keep on keeping on. 

I was happy as I finished the long descent down the side of the dale and rolled into the Dales Bike Centre cafe. It was in full flow and Steve had just placed his order.  I hope this alfresco dining continues beyond pandemic world as its far nicer sat on picnic tables under a marquee than crammed into a small cafe, especially if you have 115k's of effort wafting from your body. I chomped my way through much food thankful that I had plenty of appetite and hopefully energy for what I thought would be the hardest bit of the route. Stooge man turned up soon after complaining of feeling knackered. This was a common theme as several others turned up, all complaining of the climbing. As I'd said in one of my 200 write ups - even the downhills have uphills!

Top of Fremington Edge looking south to where we'd come from over Wensleydale. 

There is nothing like a 250m climb on a full stomach but this further highlights why we should all be riding single speed. As soon as it got steep I walked which doesn't lead to any belly upset, unlike if you were trying to grind a granny gear. The moor up top was gloomy and rain was a-coming. Hurst looked identical to when I first encountered this remote and high level hamlet, 35 years before. It's desolate and like something out of a distant epoch but his is one of the nice things about the Dales. For all the influx of rich retired people and tourists, its still retained many of its original folk (who can trace their ancestry here for many generations) as well as its character. This is largely absent in much of the Scottish Highlands with many people you encounter an incomer. That said, the clearances are substantially to blame for this, eradicating village life which is a key feature of the Dales. In Yorkshire, as in much of the North of England, the farmers own the land, and have done so for generations.

The descent into Langthwaite is a fave of mine. There is a lot of lead mining detritus here and part of the descent is almost quarry like -  a taste of things to come! 

Up over a low moor, rain coming in and more threatening, then down to surrender bridge, Steve in sight. Riding up the steady gravel road to Level House led to further memory laning as this area is all a key part of the Swaledale Marathon route which I'd done several times in my youth. From Level House the climbing continues into Merry field, an early example of industrial destruction of the countryside, and looking particularly grim in the cloud. This area is the center of a vast lead mining industry which peaked in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and evidence of it is everywhere from the old buildings that housed smelters and pumps, to the levels and hushes used to extract the precious lead.

The crux descent. This is a hush - all man made. They would build a dam at the top of a slope, direct burns into it to collect a large volume of water, then breach it so the water ran down the hill scouring out all in its path, exposing the galena - the lead ore. This was repeated until you got these large man-made gorges. It's only when you get right into it that you realise there is no burn at the bottom. It's pretty tricky too. I rode this clean on the fat bike a few years ago, but whether it was more eroded now or I was being more careful, I walked a couple of bits and was mighty careful on the rest. At the bottom I drank deeply again and spied a burn coming out of an old level (a mine shaft that goes into the hill horizontally rather than vertically.) I figured this should be fresh without filtering so filled up again. Then a fun ride down Gunnerside Gill, me grinning from ear to ear as the dark clouds had broken and it was dry again, followed by a long section of road riding.

I'd passed Steve taking photos on the way up to Level House so was a might concerned when he didn't appear by the time I'd finished up an evening snack at the foot of up the buttertubs road. The cloud was back on this fearsome climb which I walked a fair bit of. I noticed another figure ahead but couldn't work out who this was. Steve had assured me earlier that only Rich Rothwell and another superfast guy were ahead so this dark figure was a mystery. I didn't really care as I was only interested in my own ride but I did wonder if one of these pocket rockets had blown up. Until I realised this climb was on the road route as well so the person was likely one of the roadies. Of greater note was the fact that this is also the halfway point and I felt fairly pleased with myself to be still going strong and about an hour up on my 2016 ride. 

The buttertubs were passed and I peered in, recalling many childhood visits to these natural features so called as they are vertical sinkholes which, due to being cool, were used to store butter on the long trip between the markets in the dales. Finally I topped out and hit the downhill, which is a hoot (45mph.) Once again the cloud was clearing all around as I got a view of upper Wensleydale with hints that this could be the forecasted change to better weather. What a fine place, in which I'd spent many happy times throughout my life. Hawes was bypassed alas but it was nice to finally get some easy pedaling on the back road to Bainbridge. I'd missed the Farmers Arms at Muker this year but on passing the Rose and Crown at Bainbridge I figured a drink was in order.

"How far have you gone?!" says the landlord. "105 miles" I said a bit sheepishly. "And I've got 80 to do" More gasps of amazement followed. No I wasn't doing it for charity, no it wasn't a race and no I'm not mad. Why was I doing it? Err... It's what I do..... 

Two pints of coke and two packets of crisps hit the spot and then off I went into the gloaming feeling excited about pushing on into the night on trails that were so familiar. Oddly I had a further energy dip on the long, long climb from Bainbridge to Cam fell on the old Roman Road. I've been up and down this countless times, never without gears.... Some bits I walked, waiting for my consumption to catch up with my expenditure, but mostly I rode, albeit at a very slow cadence. It was now largely dark but I refrained from using lights for as long as possible - something I always do when riding into the night.  Behind I saw a light - (Steve??) and I flashed mine once to let him know I was just ahead and then kept them on. But it had gone by the time I summited. This is a nice bit despite it being the longest climb on the route and I noted the various turn offs to Burtersett, Countersett and Weather fell, all trails I'd ridden many, many times. Finally the track levelled off. It had gotten gloomy again but suddenly, gaps in the cloud appeared once more ahead and then all around. The road at the top of fleet moss was deserted and I turned off on the Cam High road wondering where I would bivvy. It was too early however as I had to stop after midnight, in order to claim it as an August BAM! 

Off the Cam road onto the Pennine Bridleway and a descent that is also fab on a lovely grassy trail then an easy stony path to the road. Sadly the little concrete hut me and three others had dossed in, in 2016, is partially ruined and full of nettles. I wasn't going to stop there anyway as it was too early but it was a dry and cosy spot back then. No; I was for pushing on, despite knowing that another monster climb was approaching. First up another fast road descent from Denthead, the road wet but clearing skies above. In fact just earlier I'd been talking to myself about how it would be nice to do one of these things in amazing sunny weather with no threat of rain. In the event it had been OK despite the crap forecast but it would be nice to ride in moonlight with stars overhead. I looked up. There were stars. I was very, very happy.

I've done the trail from Dentdale over the flanks of Whernside to Ribblehead twice before but both times in the daylight. The climb was a killer tonight, the late hour a factor as well as the dark but it seemed way rougher than my (vague) memories. And on it dragged, disappearing up an infinite hillside in the beam of my light. After an eternity it gave and I could ride a bit, only for it to ramp up again. Repeated stabbings of my GPS screen gave no indication of how far this was going so I resigned my self to a slow but steady plod. A hut at the trail side nearly tempted me but, in a break with tradition, I kept on, sticking to my plan to get to Ribblehead viaduct before bivvying. 

At least there is no lengthy moor to cross up top, you pretty much start the descent over the top of the climb. But the first section was a mess of rocks, gulleys and tussocks. The hour was telling as I failed to stop my bike going in every direction but the one I wanted. Eventually I dragged my dormant brain back into the here and now and got the required neurons firing to keep the plot on the straight and narrow. The trail off Whernside was joined and this is mostly a smooth gravel path, with only a few sections of flattish cobbles to keep you on your toes. Then you pass the railway line, a couple of remote farms and finally Ribblehead Viaduct. I'd thought of using one of the arches as a bivvy spot but it all was a bit cool and breezy. Someone seemed to be setting up under one of the arches but I didn't go and investigate who.

Now what? I could do with stopping as I'd passed 200k and it was now 1am, way past my bed time. I'd thought of just keeping on going but I was aware of various aches and pains starting to intrude and I did not want this to be a suffer fest followed by a lengthy recuperation. But all I had was a lightweight bivvy bag, mat and an extra layer.  After all the roasting nights of late, it was ironic I was now in cool temps and a stiff breeze. Local knowledge is invaluable. I knew of a couple of sheltered spots further down the route so off we go. Down onto another deserted road and then the turn off to the Cam High road that I'd been on earlier. Of course this is another climb but this was old news now and it's now a smooth forestry road, instead of the rutted and rocky byway I'd ridden so many times in the '90's. Then the moon came out - a classic crescent lighting my way and lifting my mood. The climb was done before I knew it and the once rocky track to Ling gill also improved and fast going. In case you were wondering, I was enjoying myself!

Bivvy spot wanted, all offers considered. Must be dry, level and sheltered. Ling gill bridge offered a smooth and flat grassy patch but I nosed along a bit, seeking perfection as usual. A small cluster of mature sycamore appeared beside the track, with a convenient gate to access them. Long grass surrounded them - I'd found my spot. It was 2am, and I'd done 210k.

I was stopped for two and a half hours. Of course after fumbling the bag out, inflating mat and crawling in, then pulling on all my clothes in it's confines, I was wide awake. Plus I was a bit uncomfortable curled up on a 2/3rds mat with no pillow. I did nod off eventually as suddenly I was aware of being woken up by the noise of the wind in the trees. Next to wake me was an owl, seemingly right above my head, with a heart stopping whoo hooo! I lay awake grinning at the thought of this wonderful creature nearby, aware that rain was falling but the dense leaf cover above was keeping it all off me. I looked at my watch - 4.25am. Time to move.

Despite the briefness of my rest, I felt surprisingly chipper. I didn't have much appetite so nibbled what I could and kept nibbling over the next miles. The rain had stopped but all was grey in the early dawn. That said the cloud was breaking to the north and it was slowly brightening around me. I'd timed my stop to perfection as there was now a good long bit of the route that was really pleasant, easy going and hill free. In fact most of the climbing (5000-odd metres!) is done in the first 200k so this was fab after the battles of the previous day. In fact it was grins all round as I knew I'd cracked it, it was just a case of keeping it going, and keep the food and water intake going.

Cloud clearing over Birkwith Moor. Moughton Scar in the foreground

The trail from Selside to Crummack is another favourite - a classic dales grassy track with a vast area of limestone paving to one side and the three peaks to the west, north and east. The route to the farm was a fast and smooth blast and after a brief bit of road you enter a real highlight of the whole route - a network of narrow walled trails, all done up as part of the Pennine Bridleway. Easy, level going as the cloud rose around me and a nice day seemed in the offing - perfect!

That said its fairly short lived as the next monster moor loomed ahead. Worse I got views of the final challenge - Barden Moor....

It is a nice section mind. After a gut busting climb out of Stainforth the gradient eases and you end up on a smooth gravel path across Gorbeck moor. I was hunting for water so stopped to filter some out of a burn, brimming my bladder once more and also eating as much food as I could lay hands on. You then turn almost back on yourself on a really fun trail down the Stockdale road - another favourite and just what was needed to wake me up.

View to Malham Tarn with Mastilles moor behind. I would be back here in an hour or so, but a long descent and monster climb separated me from this. 

It's a feature of this route that you often end up close to where you will be hours and miles hence. It does make baling out easy (not necessarily a good thing) but I was fixated on the purple line so such thoughts never entered my head. Unfortunately I was too early for the cafe in Malham. I dithered a bit then realised I still had plenty of food on board so sat next to the loos and ate, whilst going over the remainder of the route in my minds eye. I was feeling rather wabbit and had struggled to do anything but plod all morning. I'd eaten plenty but my body seemed to be on a go-slow. Probably down to only having had an hours sleep....

Still, I got up the climb past the cove in reasonable order and with a minimum of pushing. At this hour the place was quiet which was nice as I couldn't be doing with hoards of tourists commenting on my climbing style, as per my last visit here.

The cove

From here it was a steady run along Mastiles lane, also much easier thanks to improvements and a ban on vehicles. The wind was against me but having been a south westerly all of yesterday it was now in the north east which would make for mostly tailwinds all the way back to base. It was also sunny and I was overheating so the headwind was actually really nice....

I was nearly done, but hungry and I'd eaten everything but an energy powder and a snickers. I hammered the fast descent to Kilnsey, twiddled down a wee road to Grassington and then fell upon the Spar shop at Threshfield. Finally I could get my hands on fizzy drinks, caffeine and proper food that my body craved. Despite being near the end I lazed in the sun and idly wondered where everyone else was. All of today I'd been following what I reckoned were four sets of tyre tracks, none of which I recognised from the previous day. At first I thought they were just others on day rides but they persisted on this route so they must be fellow riders. I guessed people had pushed through the night and passed me in my bivvy. None of them were Steve's (specialized) or Stooge man (bombolini and Maxxis) so this was a bit of a mystery. Of course I didn't really care that others would be back before me but it's just one of the many appeals of this kind of thing - identifying tyres and tracking them, something not available to our road riding brethen!

If I were to criticise this route, it would be to observe that their is no Co-Op on it (you come close to the Settle Co-Op but getting to it would require a big descent / climb and we've enough of those already!) This Spar shop goes some way to compensate.

Eventually I packed up and left. The next section was fairly easy but it gave a fine view of the sting in the tail - a monster final climb up to Barden moor and one I'm now very familiar with. No messing, I rode to the start of it and pushed to the top. Then a nice last bit of singletrack, a fast descent and then a final rough track to the road back to Embsay and Skipton. All the previous day I'd encountered signs noting 'Cycle Event, Caution' and directional signs labelled 'The Struggle.' Eh? what's that about then? Well on this last bit of road I worked it out - a road sportive as a number of roadies went the other way with numbers on. Funnily enough the only ones to acknowledge my nods, greetings etc. were the ones on shonky bikes, rather than the 'proper' roadie types. And as for 'the Struggle?' Please. Its a road sportive. Why can't they just call it 'The Tour of the Dales' or something. You want a struggle dudes? Ride the YD300.

I filtered past the town centre traffic and rolled into Ryders cycle centre at 12.45 making my time 28 hrs and 45 minutes, an hour and 25 minutes faster than my time in 2016 so I was well happy with that. After much scrutiny of the check in sheet, I determined I was actually the second person back. Rich Rothwell had arrived back at 7.25 am but the chap in front of him had scratched as his GPS had croaked. The other tyre prints were people who had bailed and were short-cutting back home. 

I chilled in the bike shop chatting to Stuart and drinking his coffee and snacking on soup and toast. Steve rolled in an hour later. As I'd feared he'd ran into problems on the gunnerside descent - a puncture then another one requiring superglue and patches. Not long after the other two guys we'd bumped into on route turned up. I was well happy. The weather had ended up being pretty good, the trails dry and the temps warm. I'd say that this is as fast as I'd ever do such a thing as pushing through the night is a no-no for me, I'm just too old! Eventually I packed up and left, destination my folks place for some well earned R&R and one of my Mum's famous Sunday roasts.

Final musings.....

Singlespeed. No excuses now - given what I've done, and now this, I don't need gears any more. Who knew?! Something that had always been scorned upon, then accepted as a winter / short ride only deal was now my norm. But its why I'm writing this largely injury free. When you are pushing up a hill you are recovering, your joints and contact points are getting an easy time and your recently filled belly quite happy. Instead of focusing on the gruesomeness of the climb, you are looking at the gradient ID'ing which bits you are going to ride, which bits you will push and which bits will be the 'intermediates' i.e. the bits you will ride if they are short and you are feeling good, or push if you are feeling knackered. At no point in this 300ks did I feel totally wrecked. I had a few ups and downs and I didn't really wake up properly until 9am on the Sunday; but no total crashes or mood dips that had plagued me on the Highland Trail.

Sleeping. Is a good thing. Pushing through may save some stopped time but it slows you right down and leaves you in a foul mood. This is my perspective and if you are quick enough to bash through in under 24 hours then this doesn't apply but for us mortals, even an hours kip can transform you. I'll stick with full bivvy kit for the multi-day routes though...

Bike. Me and fourth place were on steel rigids. Enough said.

Other gear. I used my full frame bag so I could carry a 2l bladder rather than a one liter bottle so I could drink more. In here also went lots of food, including a dried muselli which finally got things moving on Sunday morning, a water filter which was a life saver, given the scarcity of re-supply points; spare tube, pump, waterproofs (goretex active jacket and pertex troos - I was travelling light!) and trowel / loo roll (used once.) In my commuter mini seat pack I had a Rab survival zone lite pertex bivvy bag, a neoair 2/3rds mat, a pair of HH merino long johns and an ancient Alpine Lowe fleece pullover. In the event this was warm enough, albeit a bit uncomfortable compared to my usual luxury bivvy. I know that people have used similar set ups on multi day trips. I wouldn't. Up front I had a couple of pouches in the loops for on-the-go snacks (haribo, peanuts, crisps, peparami, babybells and snickers). I wore a merino long sleeved top, a bearbones lycra jersey, my trusty (and ancient) DHB aeron pro shorts, Madison Trail shorts, BB cap and Endura lid, Dexshell Bamboo ankle length water proof socks and Scott Crus-R lace up 'leisure cycling' shoes. This was all good. I was probably a bit to warm at points but who cares - too warm is better than too cold. The shoes were a worry and I nearly just bunged my boots on but in the event they caused zero foot issues, despite much walking. My wider, stiffer boots (MT91's or XM9's) cause my bunion to hurt, I've no idea why the narrower shoes don't. Lights wise I had just bought an Exposure Race (cheap, obviously) and this was ace, my maxx D may well be up for sale. On the lid was my recently acquired Diablo which has sadly usurped my beloved Joystick but is an great lid light.

I didn't wear my shades. I should have.

Finally.... I've done two 300's and a 550 miler this year so far. This is the best shape I've been in since 2015. Long may it continue!

Finally finally.... On two bits of road (I can't remember where) I saw 'Be More Mike' graffiti which dates back to the Dales Divide but must have been refreshed for this. It definitely spurred me on....

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Holiday in the Highlands

There seems to be much talk of holiday destinations just now with the whole nation desperate to get abroad (apparently) but everyone having to stay in Blighty or suffer endless hassles testing, quarantining, de-contaminating etc. For me its situation normal though - heading for the hills of Scotland to do some bike riding. I'd had a few ideas of various routes spanning the entire Scottish mainland but ultimately it would boil down to where the best weather was. As usual my week off work promised to be the worst for a while with thunderstorms forecast for most of the country. 

The exception was the far north. I was slightly suspicious of this but three different weather providers agreed so I guess that's where we are going then. I'd already scoped out a possible trail across the flanks of Ben More Assynt starting in the the upper end of Glen Cassley. A bit of map appraisal suggested I include this in a circuit starting from the town of Lairg, at the southern end of Loch Shin, which would also pick up an area I'd contemplated but never ventured into - Ben Armine Forest. On Saturday morning I loaded up the bike then threw it and a load of extraneous camping and outdoor gear into the car on the basis that once I was up there I would stay there until it was time to go home.

A lengthy car journey followed thanks to mega tourist traffic and roadworks on the A9. I noted the latest bit of dualling north of Perth is nearly done and caught myself falling into the trap of looking forward to it being finished so that this journey would be much quicker. Of course this is a silly thing to think as they will likely move straight onto the next bit meaning more queues etc. etc. I don't know why they are bothering to be honest given that by the time its finished we will all be driving electric cars no faster than 40 mph in order to make the battery last the journey. 

I finally got to Lairg at 5.30 or so and after a bit of kit faffing I pedaled off on the A839 heading east. There was no traffic and the stress of the car journey quickly faded as I settled into a leisurely pace and the total relaxation that bicycle travel brings on. Several miles down this road I turned off into the hills to the north firstly on back roads and then finally into the wilderness.

Heading for the hills. My chosen area for the first part of the ride was Ben Armine Forest. I'd done minimal research on this section, just a map appraisal and a squint at aerial photos to determine that a path did actually exist on the ground where it was shown on the map.

On the gravel road to Ben Armine Lodge. This is all part of the infamous Sutherland Estates whose factors, with the un-admitted but evident support of the Duke himself, were responsible for some of the worst depredations of the Highland Clearances. Most famously was the incident that ended up with several families getting driven (i.e. burned) out of their houses and having to shelter in Croik church. I reflected on this and my comparatively easy life wondering if such atrocities were really left behind. It was gloomy but dry, warm and breezy.

The lodge - a somewhat remote spot to live. Beyond here the track quickly deteriorated to a grassy trail that clearly saw little use. The good news was that everything was bone dry. After a bit of this I figured that 9pm was late enough and stopped to bivvy by the river.

A nigh on perfect spot - level, grassy and breezy enough to keep the midges at bay. I lay in my bag and read for a while, to the accompaniment of some fine whisky. Finally my eyelids drooped and I was out for the count. I had a good night but woke at dawn to light rain, a stiff breeze and low cloud. I zonked out again in the hope it would lift later. 7am saw me up for breakfast, packing up and moving. The rain was off and the cloud started to lift with a few breaks revealed to the east.

Mandatory trail shot. As far as I can figure, a typical stalkers path built in the victorian era that has been upgraded to an argo cat width around twenty or so years ago. This has now grown over heavily. I did see another bike track but after a few k the argo and quad tracks all turned off so it was just me and the tussocks. Fortunately I was on the destroyer of tussocks so all was well. That said I felt a degree of trepidation as I climbed into the cloud given my lack of intel on this trail. This took me back to the good old days when all we had was an OS map and the boundless enthusiasm of youth. We had no idea whether those beguiling black dashed lines would lead to an easy trail or a hideous death march. It was just a case of trying them and finding out!

The view. A shame really as the views should have been amazing. 

At least it was dry so in actual fact the riding fairly straightforward. I was keeping an eye out for a turn off to the left that would climb out of this glen (actually called the Strath na seilge) over to Loch Choire. 

Somewhat dubious bridge which I rode across without thinking. Maybe that's the best way....

The lack of view meant much peering at the GPS to fathom the exact turning point. The trail wasn't immediately obvious until I crossed the river and started up it. But it was a lot vaguer and even more overgrown than the one up the glen. As I approached the summit the rain inevitably came on - a cold blatter that had me into full waterproofs - adding to the drama. However, as I started on the descent, the cloud suddenly lifted, the rain went off and a view was revealed. The track was still quite overgrown but well defined with only a few boggy bits (finally!) to negotiate. 

Then I came across a locked gate. These seem to be plaguing my rides this year and are a bloody nuisance. There is no way anyone is going to get any kind of vehicle up here so why? Because the landowners still don't like the idea of the plebs wandering across their precious ground. The lock was corroded solid and the case cracked. I had a go with the leatherman pliers to break it open to no avail. I then picked up a large rock and after a few well aimed blows the lock split open and fell off. I launched its remains into the nearby burn, un-hooked the chain, proceeded through and re-secured it. There, that's much better. Then I came across this.....

Going back (or round) wasn't an option so I ploughed on through. It wasn't very long fortunately but it was shame that such a long length of trail should be spoiled by this short section. It ended at another locked gate! I swore loudly, fully and violently. Beyond there were piles of new fencing materials lying around but no tools and the the padlock resisted further rock smashing attempts. But it too was siezed to a point that it would never unlock again. Maybe the new fencing works would remove all of this and install nice self closing gates. Hmm. I heaved my bike over the fence and joined a well used track out to the loch. At one point there was a damp peat patch through which I rode, leaving a clear fat tyre print that would hopefully enrage the land owner to apoplexy.

The beach! This is Loch Choire; its been yonks since I hit the sand so this was a bonus. Various argo cat tracks stuck to the shore to avoid the first of two foot bridges. The burn crossing looked a bit dubious so I figured the bridge would be a better bet. I'd noted on aerial photos that the bridges were still present but unfortunately they didn't indicate their condition!

Blimey this was very dodgy. All the planks were well rotted with several missing. I stepped very lightly across, aware of the depth of the river below me....

The next bridge was avoided as the river was shallow at the mouth into the loch. It's a shame as they are two fine structures which the estate will very likely have no interest in fixing. I wish our useless government would stop fannying about with road improvements and throw some dosh at getting such things fixed and maintained, for us the great unwashed.

Finally I hit the stony track on the north shore of the loch. This is on a lengthy route from the Crask Inn on the A833 to the B871 at Badanloch lodge. The Great North Trail actually shows this as an option but you really wouldn't want to take a gravel bike along here. I got up the climb clean (gears!!) and finally got some views.

Looking up

And back down.

The descent was a nice singletrack but then the trail faded into the undergrowth with just a variety of trampled lines to follow. The 'track' re-appeared where the land levelled out. Today it was still bone dry but evidence of much bog and peat would make the roll out to the road a schlep under normal circumstances. It still took a while but just as noon was approaching I hit the road by the Crask Inn after what seemed like a massive traverse. Actually 23 miles in total so not the longest I've done but a fair old way without tarmac all the same. I've passed the Crask Inn loads of times by motorcycle but never stopped. I was hungry after all of that lot so waited five minutes for it to open and dived in for cheap but cheerful food. Of course I also had to have a pint of Orkney Gold. More people arrived as I finished up, including two pairs of cycle tourists. It seems to be a popular spot for them being on NCN 1 and various bikepacking routes.

As I headed north the sky was clearing. There was even a hint of sun!

Clouds boiling over Ben Klibreck. I should have had a view of this substantial North Highland hill as I'd crossed the pass earlier so I guess that means I'll have to do this route again at some point.

One of several new windfarm schemes going up in this area. Anyone who thinks this is 'green' energy needs to see the environmental destruction these things cause and the gear needed to build them. It's not as if they generate much electricity either! What's worse is that the raised bog and wetland of Caithness and Sutherland is actually one of the worlds biggest absorbers of CO2. So why we are allowing it to be damaged in the name of preventing climate change defies all logic. Until you realise how much money is involved of course. It's big business for the generating companies as they have to prove that a percentage of supplied electricity is generated by so called 'renewables.' Then there is the whole carbon credits scam. So the high cost of installation and running is passed onto the consumer (i.e. us), they get big tax relief on the projects and likely other less visible incentives whilst their share holders make a massive profit. The absolute worst of all aspect of them is that the landowners get huge payments (we are talking millions per year across Scotland) for 'allowing' these turbines to go up on their land - real money for old rope and all payed for by us. Its a scandal that has been lost in the panicked rush for governments to be 'seen to be doing something' (a horrible phrase which basically means its got to look like they are doing something, without actually doing something) 
to shut the eco warriors up and pretend they are addressing climate change. It doesn't and they are not.

Anyway enough soap-boxing, on with the ride. Fully half a dozen cars passed me on the run up to Altnaharra. I've always wanted to cycle these roads and in the strengthening sun it was most pleasant. The landscape is much less dramatic than the west but the wide open views are glorious. At Altnaharra I turned left on the Ben Hope road. This is a great wee road running all the way to Hope on the north coast. It deteriorates to a near track like status further along it so is huge fun and blessedly free of other traffic as a result. To cap it all I was now in full sunshine with a stiff following breeze.

As I turned off the road onto the track to Loch Merkland and looked into these forbidding hills the Highland Trail route climbing into Glen Golly could be seen with the direct route to Lone also visible. I seem to have gained quite an affinity with these hills starting when I climbed them with my dad on a sunny day in 1988 and three passages on the HT. The contrast of these fearsome hills with the surrounding rolling moors was stark. Its a feature of Sutherland and Caithness - Bens Klibreck, Armine, Loyal and Hope all isolated from each other by a vast wilderness of raised peatbog and small lochs. I've never actually ridden the full pass between the Hope road and Loch Merkland, just the bit on the HT route and either early morning or in horrible weather or both. I reflected on the contrast between todays weather and what it had been like in May...

Gobernuisgach Lodge. The hut next to the oil tanks was used as an impromptu bivvy shelter on HT 2015 by Ricki Cotter and Stephen Sloof. It was full of dead deer carcasses apparently.....

I occurred to me to do the Horn route given the weather and dry trails. The direct route west to Lone was also a prime candidate for my onward route as I've never done this before. I could see it climbing steeply up the glen and I confess was stricken with a dose of laziness. Instead I twiddled up the track thinking I would spend some time along here to finally appreciate the landscape and the scenery.

The pass to Loch Merkland. I sat here eating food for some considerable time. The sun was shining and the breeze kept the insects at bay. The dramatic peaks of Ben Loyal were shrouded in cloud to the north but it still made for a pleasant break from the labours of that mornings trail.

Eventually I took off and bombed down the track to Loch Merkland. Riding down the road I noted the climb over to Glen Cassley, my next destination. It looked huge! I came this way on a tour in 2010 (in rubbish weather) so I knew roughly what was coming. I took it slowly so actually got up in good order, despite the hugeness of my tyres. 

From the top looking back to the Northern Hills

I hammered the descent then took stock. Next up was another big climb and another tough trail over the southern flanks of Ben More Assynt which also looked like it would go. I'd scoped this out during my Highland Trail route homework. Its actually on google street / hill view - part of the Central Sutherland Crater Walk - which covers the HT route right through to Glen Golly, so its a good resource for ID'ing bivvy spots and trail conditions. Given the dryness of everything and the weather I  knew I should really crack on and bag this trail. But it was now 5.30 so I'd been going for 9 hours at this point and, crucially, I was on holiday. I've three times passed the Dam at the top of Glen Cassley and noted the near perfect bivvy spot just below it. It was sunny, breezy and I'd done enough. So I pitched up, went for a wander and generally lazed around.

Hydro electric dam and gear. Not without their own environmental impact but its a lot less than stupid wind turbines and at least they produce lots of power, reliably, given the preponderance of water in the Scottish landscape. Of course the real answer is to use less power but given the headlong dash towards electric vehicles (another dead end) this seems to be an impossible dream.

Oh well, you can't have everything. As I started to make tea the wind dropped and the midges appeared. Not the horrendous storm I'd faced in Drumtochty Forest a year ago but bad enough to have me scampering about the place whilst the stove did its job. The breeze came and went a bit but eventually I dived into the tent and relaxed with food and whisky as the little bleeders battered fruitlessly at the mesh. 

The wind got up later allowing further wanderings. But when I woke in the early hours to go to the loo it was still again. I was in and out sharpish but a while later I became aware of numerous itchy bits - clearly I was being bitten! switching on my headtorch revealed your worst nightmare (well not really but you know what I mean) - a cloud of the swines above me, inside the tent!! Arrrgghhhh how did that happen. The door was firmly shut so they must have sneaked in with me. I spent twenty minutes swatting every one of them before finally crashing out again.

The morning brought much wind and more low cloud. As I'd predicted I had a further failure of motivation to tackle a high level trail as I wanted the views. There are a few options to do this as a day ride or part of a longer tour so it could wait for another day when the weather was better. Instead I had a lazy cruise down the glen checking out a few good bivvy spots, another dodgy bridge and Achness Waterfalls, near where I'd bivvied in May.

Thereafter a steady climb and descent back to Lairg.

Most of this route was actually on road, distance wise. That didn't make me regret bringing the fatbike however as it had rolled through all in its path without any fuss. I didn't even bother pumping the tyres up for the road sections but the rolling resistance was of no issue and it was super comfy.

What next? My vague plan had been to stay up here and do some hill walking or bag some north coast beaches - anything to avoid the drag back down the A9. Not as easy as you might think. The campsite a few miles out of Lairg looked perfect for my needs (on a raised moor with plenty of midge beating breeze) but a sign at its entrance announced the toilets and showers were closed due to refurbishment. Fabulous - Scottish Tourism at its best. This was of no use to me being tent bound and in dire need of a shower so I returned to Lairg to fire up the phone and see if anything else was available. In short - no. Any accommodation was booked up and I couldn't face the north coast campsites, doubtless packed with people doing the wretched NC500. Some texting with my friends in Speyside meant I could head there but ideally not until the Tuesday evening. Finally I phoned the campsite at Evanton which I've stayed at on a couple of bike tours and most recently on the motorbike tour in 2019. Glory be, they were empty so I booked a pitch. An hour later I arrived and got the tent up in double quick time, given the somewhat threatening clouds. This is not far out of Inverness so I figured it would be NC500 free. A chap on a touring bike turned up so we chatted a bit whilst he set up.

It turned out he was 5 weeks into a tour around Scotland having done the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland and was now making his way back down south. I was slightly alarmed when he seemed to have no knowledge of any of the NCN and I got the feeling he had been on the A9 all the way south. I implored him to use NCN 1 to go along the Moray coast rather than the horrible A96; or at least one of the many back road alternatives but his route knowledge seemed vague. Oh well, hopefully he'd realise that Scottish Trunk Roads are to be avoided at all costs.

Just then a couple of cars pulled in next to mine. I got a sinking feeling observing the lowered suspension, loud exhausts and horrible wheels. On cue four young kids got out and immediately started the Glaswegian ned banter (an F word every other). They then proceeded to walk right up beside my tent and start pitching their cheapo Go Outdoor specials. Given that the rest of the field was empty this was extremely frustrating. Biting back words along the lines of "It's not T in the park you know" I went for a walk whilst they fumbled up their tents.

I'd discovered the Black Rock Gorge, just up from the campsite, which shares the same name, a couple of years ago. This turned out to be dramatic so was worth a repeat visit. At the top it's only a few meters wide, sometimes less than two but fully 40m deep. You peer down this dark crack in the ground that extends for several hundred metres, the burn a rushing torrent far below. I wandered around for a bit but a fine drizzle came on so I returned to the campsite before it turned heavy. My neighbours had managed to get the tents up and I overheard (inevitable given that they were ten feet away) that they were doing the NC500, causing me to once again curse this tourist abomination. They were planning on 'wild camping' (their words) up north which made me smirk. Anyone who knows the roads on the North Coast will also know that its pretty much the road, a big drainage ditch and then several thousand square miles of raised peat bog. Roadside camping is nigh on impossible and when you throw in wind, rain and midges it was clear that they would be in for a terrible trip given their crap tents. As I started on making tea they departed for the shop and then the rain came down heavily. I retired to my spacious and totally waterproof Vango spirit 200+ relaxing with a few beers and fine food. The rain was my saviour as it kept them in their tents and quiet. 

The rain was on and off all night but I slept OK despite the chatter from next door. The morning was sunny so my tent mostly dried as I had a leisurely breakfast and packed up. The neighbours had clearly had a rough night as various sleeping bags were draped over cars to dry and the cheapo pop-up tent looked like it had been water-logged. I did consider offering some sage advice about where (and how) to camp up north with a view to steering them away from the inevitable fires and mess but they were such a surly lot I decided to leave them, and the site, to it.

Next up the beach. The drive to the Moray Coast was a bit slow and I had one aborted attempt to park in Culbin forest; foiled by having no cash for the parking ticket machine, before rocking up to Findhorn, home of a hippy commune, a bunch of wannabee eco-warriors and much sand. I'd thought of camping here the previous night but the site was mobbed so that was a good miss. The beach car park was also busy but I abandoned the car easily enough and pedaled into the dunes.

This is actually the first beach ride I've done since New Years Day 2020, also here, so this was fab. I traced a random route through the dunes, rode along the top of the coastal slope for a bit, and then plunged into Roseisle Forest and its network of sandy singletrack.

After getting lost in the woods for a while I emerged at the main car park to be greeted by the fabulous site of a burger bar. And not the usual purveyor of abattoir floor scraping efforts either. So I sat in the coolness of the woods eating a fine Steak (Aberdeen Angus of course) burger in a nice roll, a coffee and best of all a double biscuit (two layers of shortbread with jam in the middle, icing and a jelly to on the top)

Then it was off again. I'd noted mist rolling in from the sea (to coin a phrase) obscuring Burghead so when I eventually reached this small coastal town I only paused for a bit before dropping onto the beach and heading back west with a fine tailwind. 

Flat sand riding may seem like a very dull thing to do but I love it. I cruised along the shore looking at the waves coming in and the opposite coastline slowly disappearing into the mist. I popped a few wheelies (mandatory on sand below the tide line) and generally relaxed. Findhorn was also fast disappearing into the fog so after riding right round the shore into the harbour I threw the bike back in the car and headed for my pals place at Aberlour.

Socialising followed and the next day me and Rob tried a new route in the Cromdale Hills. The weather finally caught up with me here but a steady drizzle rather than the predicted deluges. Evidence of such downpours was manifest however so I felt quite lucky really. After a steep climb we emerged into... a cloud. Our route would follow the ridge line west in the hope of picking up walking trails linking Creagan a Chaise to Bridge of Brown.

Less than inspiring. There was a vague quad track for a bit but it stopped at a small cairn. Beyond was extreme tussocks, heather and bog. The cloud kept lifting (briefly) to reveal the further hill which looked like peat hag central. I guess if it had been dry and clear I'd have been more motivated to plough across all of this. Rob was but I persuaded him that it would be far better to do it with a view. Eventually he concurred and we bombed back down to the truck. The day was still young so we drove onwards to Bridge of Avon with a view to doing the western most bit of the loop, exploring some ruined cottages in the process.

The rain came and went but we were only out for an hour or so so that was alright. Later it cleared up and we actually managed a barbie!

My final day was spent exploring singletrack near to Grantown. This looks like a bit of an un-tapped resource as there were trails everywhere. This was a fine end to what had been a relaxing trip away from home. After tea at R & I's I had a very easy drive home on empty roads, nicely compensating me for the troubled trip north.