Wednesday, 27 August 2014

A tale of thirteen rivers

On the night of 10th of August 2014 the tale end of hurricane Bertha swept across Scotland leaving a trail of devastation. Not quite on the magnitude of what it had wrought in America but the damage it did seemed out of proportion to its magnitude. The problem was a rare dry summer which left the ground iron hard and impermeable. Several hours of torrential rain therefore went straight into the numerous rivers originating in the Cairngorms raising their levels in a few short hours to way above what even a winter storm could produce. Roads were washed away, bridges damaged, properties flooded. Within 24 hours rivers were back to normal and the clear up began.

This was in my mind as I approached the Fords of Avon deep in the heart of the Cairngorm Mountains. The sound of rushing water seemed loud in my ears. A group of walkers in front of me seemed oblivious and were more intent on enjoying the stunning scenery - maybe they weren't needing to cross. For me, this would be my biggest barrier, both physical and psycological, on this route I had undertaken. I knew if I could get across, nothing would stop me. If I couldn't it would be yet another failed attempt.....

That morning and thirteen days after Hurricane Bertha had done her damage I was getting my gear together in Blair Atholl ready to start a final assault on the Cairngorms Loop ITT. The number 13 was auspicious as this is the number of significant river or burn crossings on route. A previous attempt on a bone dry July weekend failed due to a combination of factors and a lack of motivation. Today my motivation was at its peak. I'd failed to do the Highland Trail earlier in the year and I was determined to do it in 2015. Route planner Alan Goldsmith was now requiring people wanting to do the group start to do one of several ITT routes to prove their worth. With daylight hours reducing daily time was running out. If I didn't do this route this weekend then I wouldn't have another chance and there would be no more Highland Trail. Friends added to the pressure with threats of much slagging off if I failed again.

I knew I could do it. I had the legs and the gear, I just needed to get my head in order, set aside weather and trail conditions and, in the words of my mate Rob, "Get your waterproof man suit on!" So at 7.30am I set off into a bright but fresh morning heading north. 

Riding up the glen by the Edendon Water a large grey cloud rolled in and produced a dense fine drizzle. Not what was fore casted which put me in a grumpy mood. In fact the forecast for the weekend was good with a return to the weather that persisted for most of the summer and made everything so dry before Bertha struck. The drizzle soon blew through as I approached Sronphradruig Lodge and river crossing number 1. 

This was the point where I got an inkling of what I would be facing. The route makes you cross this river twice in quick succession. On a visit here a couple of months previously this had involved stepping over a narrow channel for one crossing and riding though a shallow gravel bed for the next. Today the river was flowing swiftly though a deep but narrow channel at least thigh deep. Further up it looked worse. There is a way up the steep bank to avoid this but in the end I decided to keep to the route as near as possible by picking my way along the river edge and climbing up where the Gaik pass path starts. I put this to the back of my mind and also tried not to think of the many other rivers the route crosses. The trail through the Gaik was pretty damp but the sun was shining so my good spirits were back.

I'd kind of guessed the trails would be pretty wet and this had determined my bike choice. Not the Krampus this time but my beloved Salsa Mukluk which I knew would ride over everything in its path and hopefully wouldn't be too much of a drag on the easy sections. River number 2 is just before the Gaik lodge and usually no more than a shallow gravel bed. Once gain at the crossing point it was a deeply eroded channel in full flow but fortunately I was able to cross feet dry 50 meters further upstream

As I rolled out of Glen Tromie it was sunny but clouds lurked over the hills where I was headed. I knew all of the route having done it at various other times but I was feeling somewhat apprehensive about the passage through the main Cairngorm Massif and the infamous Fords of Avon. Riding alongside the Feshie revealed more devastation with a large section of the bank (and trail) gone since my attempt in July. The pleasant trails of upper Speyside and Glen More kept spirits high but everywhere I looked was flood damage. River number 3, the Druihd is crossed via the Cairngorms club footbridge. The trail after had clearly been underwater during the flood and was still wet. More rain came in as I reached the Glen More cafe so I sat inside and ate whilst it beat against the windows. 

Climbing up to Ryvoan at 2pm seemed slightly bizarre as my first ride along the next section had started here at 7.30 am several years ago. Having done it the previous month I knew what was coming however and so I cracked on up the long Climb up Bynack More. Descending into the long strath up to the fords of Avon was harder work than previously. The trail was saturated with peat under the gravel surface so wet even a 4" tyre was sinking in. This made for more pushing but I guess my pace was similar to previous when it had been bone dry, given the terrain. The sky was grey as I made may way up to the fords but no rain was falling. I waved at the group of walkers but made an effort not chat as I was fully focused on the river ahead. River 4, the Avon is a significant watercourse draining a vast area of peaks above 1000m. Its a geographers heaven around here. In fact the wee burn the route crosses after descending off Bynack more, which is only a few K from the Fords of Avon, flows in the other direction and doesn't join the Avon until near Tomintoul, some 30k downriver and over 120k further along the route!

With my heart pounding I surveyed the river in front of me. The stepping stones I had picked my way across several Weeks ago were covered by at least a foot if water. "Don't think, do" I thought. Boots and socks off, socks into shirt, boots back on, bike on shoulder, go. Balancing on a series of round rocks with fast flowing water calf deep and 40lbs of bike and gear on your shoulder is not for the faint hearted. The front wheel dipped into the water and nearly had me over. I faced upstream and side stepped across. Getting out on the other side was a massive relief, I was on my way. 

The next section of trail is hardcore as previously noted in my tale of my failed attempt. That time I was on a mission to ride everything I could. Today I was taking it easy and was happy to push knowing this would give contact points a rest and stretch aching muscles. Topping out on the Lairig an Laoigh was a good moment as I now faced a long descent and some easy pedalling.

I should have known. The trail was wet and much more washed out than previously. Then came the next problem. The side burns. This aren't counted in my 13 rivers total but they were major obstacles. Not because of their depth - now no more than splashing wee burns but due to the massive scoured out channels they now ran in. One in particular took a deal of time to get through. It was a 6 foot drop down, across the burn and then a 6 foot scramble back up. With the bike this was hard work and seemed to take ages. Further down a vast area of mud and rock had slid down the hillside. There were footprints across it but my feet sank ominously as I tiptoed across, terrified of disappearing into a gooey mass, never to be seen again. The huge dips in the track down to Derry Lodge were a pain but at least I was making progress again.

At the Linn of Dee I stopped to eat food, use the loo and contemplate the next section. It would be hard and wet but I was on a fat bike. The muk had swallowed everything in its path so far and I knew it would take the infamous moor crossing from the Geldie to the Feshie in its stride. As I headed down from Linn of Dee the sun was shining and the sky largely cloud free. An NTS ranger in a truck seemed bemused by my bike - "I've never seen one of those before and we get all sorts up here!" I laugh and smile and talk about the weather. Several footbridges had gone and many miles of path. No idea where the cash was coming from to sort them. Hmmm that's the problem trying to build things in these places, nature just laughs at your efforts and destroys them at a whim. I had a quick glance at the Geldie (River number 11) to check out the level and it looked OK. Good I wouldn't be riding over the Cairnwell the next day then!

As I pedalled up towards Bynack lodge I was alone in the vast wilderness. I remember doing this in 2006. We had a map and no real idea of what was to come. In that event it was fine, a fair bit of path work had been done recently and route was reasonably straightforward. Time and weather have taken their toll but even with the wet ground I made good progress again this fine evening. The fat bike justified itself purely on this section. Bogs were pedalled across with ease and the few rocks ridden effortlessly. The Feshie glinted in the evening sunshine down below me and a gentle North Westerly breeze kept me cool. Despite its grim reputation as a bog fest this is one of the wildest traverses in the British isles you can do on a bike. The landscape with its wide river valleys and huge rolling hills seems vast. I've been through here a few times now and ridden other routes in the area many times but it never fails to impress.

River number 5 is the Eidart and crossed with a seriously rickety looking bridge. Given its precarious location it would not be good news if it failed underneath you. I'd not done this route in this direction since our ride in 06. Its a great descent. An argocat track has appeared in recent years but this should be avoided as its very wet. The line of the path is mainly gravel or rock with only a few wet bits and great fun. When you eventually hit the double track you'd be forgiven for thinking the worst was over but the best is yet to come.....

Oddly even recent editions of the OS map show this double track all the way to the now washed away bridge near to Glen Feshie Lodge. In reality its a tiny goat path of a trail with some rather hairy sections. The first bit is the worst - a narrow flywalk of a trail across a scree filled chute with several large rocks perched precariously above you and the roaring Feshie below. Its possible to miss this out if you can cross the Feshie but this evening there was no chance - waist deep and fast by the looks... Thereafter its a mix of fabulous single track, random bits of double track and the ever present river beside you. The Feshie is a monster and regularly changes its course during the frequent storms the area sees. The trail had been undercut in a few places and washed out in one but thankfully Bertha had forced the Feshie mostly in the other direction. 

At Ruigh Aiteachain Bothy a new path has been built right along to the road. The GPX track follows the original route but a quick check showed that this had gone into the river... The new path was a peach with a smooth surface and only a few steps here and there. Oh and river number 6. This shouldn't be on the list as its only a side burn really but I got a shock when I approached. The new path had been trashed and the 'burn' was a wide flow with loose rocks, tree trunks and other debris littering its once smooth and narrow bed. The worst bit was fighting may way up the bank on the other side. Numerous small sitka spruce trees seemed determined to grab hold of the bike and refuse to let it pass. I finally swore my way up and back onto the path and pedalled off relieved that this time I really had got out of this lengthy section.

A couple of k later and I hit the tarmac. The route stays on road to Aviemore which might seem a little unimaginative given that it could follow the outward route or several variations thereof, all off road, however after a long day, finishing the inner loop with some easy pedalling on a deserted road was spot on. It was 8pm and I was riding with a huge grin on my face. Mileage was coming up to 100 and I was is fine fettle. The worst of the trails were done, rivers ahead were of a much smaller scale and I would reach Aviemore in time to get the chippy.

Rolling into town at about 8.30 I noticed rather a lot of large Harley Davidsons and their larger riders all strutting around the place. It was Thunder in the Glens - one of the biggest Harley Owners Group events of the year. I was on a mission to eat so ignored them all as I dived into the Happy Haggis Chippy on the edge of town and not far off route. As I ate a truly amazing fish supper I noted with amusement the reaction to the fat bike. It still amazes me that people seem to be, well amazed by the 4" tyres, especially as this is old hat now with 5" being the new fat. Oh well I guess these guys related to them given the size of the things adorning the back of some of the bikes parked up. 

Heading back to the route I looked into the Bridge Inn thinking I might have a pint to celebrate my first successful day. As it happened my pal Iona was having dinner with a few friends and they had ridden the next section to Dorback that day so it  was good to catch up and get the low down on the trails (and rivers) ahead. All seemed to be good so I left them to their puddings and rode of into the now warm and dry evening well pleased with myself. It was now nearly 10 so a stop was in order. I had my tent with me so I was fairly flexible as to where I could get my head down. A few miles later I passed by Loch Pityoulish. A wee path entrance at the side of the road caused a screech of brakes - this would be perfect. And it was - a couple of hundred meters along, out of site of the road, was a nice level grassy area next to the loch. Up went the tent and I snuggled in for a nice long kip after my days efforts - 106 miles in 14 1/2 hours.

It was not to be. No sooner had I settled down when there was a loud bang from the direction of Aviemore. Not a 220 x 16 tyre letting go but the first of many fireworks. Worse, after they had finished all I could hear was the strains of various '80's heavy metal tracks wafting through the air from the Rally site which I'd assumed I was well away from but was actually only a k away on the other side of the Spey. Oh well ear plugs and the days efforts meant it didn't disturb me for long.

When I woke up it was to that feeling you get when you know you've slept in. Actually 6.30 am, around 2 hours after I'd hoped but the ear plugs meant I missed the alarm. Oh well too late now and I was in no mood to rush. A leisurely breakfast and a brew set me up perfectly. It actually rained for about 5 minutes as I was packing up but as I headed into Abernethy it was a fine clear morning with the promise of sun ahead. A special mention should go to the first bit of road into Abernethy. This is now unadopted so not maintained. Evidence of this was the enormous flooded section just after the turning of the main road. Bloody hell it was too deep to ride so I had to pick my way along the verge determined not to get wet feet right at the start of the day. I suspected that this wouldn't be the first obstacle the day would offer. Boy was I right....

Abernethy Forest is as fine a place as you could ever hope to ride a bike through on a sunny August morning. Its all Scots Pine and various other evergreen breeds excepting the serried ranks of Sitka which seem to make up so much UK forestry. Red Squirrels abound as well as Capercaillie which a cyclist will often see due to our quieter passage over the ground. A portaloo next to some forestry works provided a welcome pause and then it was up towards the Egg path, a particularly favourite trail of mine. River 7, the Crom Allt, was first but for a change a breeze as this too can be a bit wild. The egg path is a narrow defile between Eag (egg) Mhor and Carn a Loinne with views to the eastern 'gorms and the route ahead. It was a bit boggy still but the sun was starting to burn. It occurred to me that within 24 hours this route could be so much drier. Hey ho, them's the breaks. 

The route to Tomintoul is a classic with generally easy trails and great views. River 8, the Dorback Burn, after the Egg path was much easier than I had feared. After a climb and a descent I contemplated river 9 and felt a now familiar sinking feeling. The river Brown is another smallish river where the route crosses it but it (and the route) follow a steep sided glen for about a mile in which its written its path with many variations over the years. An old double track is largely gone and the best way though is to follow a narrow winding trail which crosses the river once and then hugs the eastern bank. Hmm. The river had obviously multiply burst its banks and carved new channels everywhere. Deep pools and holes and countless loose boulders littered the valley floor. The GPX track just follows the old track but I headed towards what I knew from previous visits was the best way through. No longer. I found the path eventually after picking my way through the debris and a tip-toed crossing of the river. At first all was well but the last 200 meters were gone and I had to fight may way though a narrow strip of land between the river and the fence which was covered in Sitka spruce trees that once again seemed determined to prevent my passage. Finally I got out of it and picked my way round more scoured out channels and holes before climbing out of the glen.

Phew, it was a relief to get out of that. Now at this point in the route, scratching isn't to be thought of as the best way out is through. But it never entered my head in any case. Something had changed in me. I was now treating these obstacles as challenges to be overcome, not threats to success. I guess a bit of desperation played a part as its not like I could have back tracked at this point. Not so long ago that last challenge would have had me shouting and swearing but now I was just taking it all in my stride. Having a bike that would go over (or through) anything was also a big help....

Tomitoul is a key town on the Cairngorms Loop. Its a strange place - 2 dead straight main streets running up a ridge of land with only a few short side streets. Its elevation is about 340m in the middle and it fights for the claim of Scotland's highest village. A wild and bleak place in the winter but friendly in the Summer with many tourists and cyclists enjoying its facilities - a few good pubs and shop and the fire station cafe which supplied me with a fine second breakfast and lunch rolled into one.

Suitably fortified I started the long grind up Glen Avon. The Avon is huge here, even during normal levels. Damage from its flood was everywhere. The public road becomes private but its surfaced for several miles. A couple of sections had obviously been washed but these had already been repaired - this is a rich estate. The good news was the wind, fresh but firmly behind me all the way up this long, long climb. Past the lodge it gets steeper and rougher but I was feeling good and made good progress. The Avon defile had turned off heading up to the fords but the route keeps on south along a lesser burn (The builg) which gets crossed twice but only counts as one river (9) in my count as the lower crossing is easy, oddly enough. The dry weather was having an effect here too as the burn was low and my feet dry. 

The loch Build singletrack is nice and was finally showing evidence of drying in the sun. I turned into the wind thereafter but it was a cooling breeze not an impediment to progress. The river Gairn is number 10 but has a fine bridge across it. I knew what was coming - a big climb out of Glen Gairn and over to Invercauld. In the event it was fine and I got up it in good order and blasted down the other side knowing that I was getting to a point where nothing would stop me. 
On the descent I made my one nav error of the route missing a lesser track turning off a wide gravel motorway. No choice but to backtrack up a hill. Once last descent and then the only section of A road on the route. But the A93 was pretty quiet for an August Sunday and passed quickly. Braemar provided a final food stop and then I was off back to Linn of Dee some 20 hours after I'd been there yesterday - the price of a lie-in.

River number 11 is the Geldie. This also has a bad reputation for stalling walkers and cyclists in their tracks thanks to its huge catchment and fickle course. At the crossing point it flows through two engineered channels, one of which is typically dry. I've been riding through here for nigh on 20 years and the crossing had changed little over that period. Not now - both channels were heavily scoured and the river had trashed most of the grassed and rocky berm between them. A couple of walkers were busy dropping stones in the river to create stepping stones. They looked at me as if expecting me to help. No chance - I didn't like to say but they were wasting their time as it would all be gone that winter. (2017 edit - in Winter 2015 another storm wiped out more of the channels and left a mess of rock and mud through which the river flowed in several courses. In 2016 Storm Frank annihilated this and left the river in a wide and shallow bed)
I got though dry again (more tip toes) and headed down a strong contender for my favourite trail in scotland, Glen Tilt. This is a cracker with some really nice riding down a narrow trail clinging onto the side of a ravine containing river number 12. In a just world the route would roll out of Glen Tilt back to Blair Atholl but its not to be. Near to the bottom of the single track it takes you across river 12 (The Tilt) and up a gruesomely steep trail out of the other side of the glen and over a boggy moor to Fealar Lodge. I passed a guy out on a day ride coming the other way (sensible) he made a comment about the suitability of my bike on this bog fest and I refrained from telling him what I was doing. Funny really some people feel the need to boast of such things but I tend to feel quite self conscious about it as people tend to think your mad for doing such a big route for no other reason than its there.... 
Whatever, the final climbs were coming. In terms of big steep climbs, the CL is actually blessedly free of them. This may seem odd when you eye up the Cairngorms on a map but in the main the route follows the bottom of long glaciated glens which make altitude slowly over many miles. The climb over Bynack More and out of Glen Gairn are the only real monsters but the two climbs after Fealer are pretty hard, given there appearance right at the end of this route. I was starting to feel the distance and there was a deal of huffing and puffing out of both Fealar and Glen Loch. The last is always the worst.....
The descent saw a further comical nav error as my tired brain failed to equate the purple line on the GPS to anything on the ground. In the end I just rode in the general direction of the route over whatever was in my way. River 13 is the Allt Coire Lagain - actually an unregarded blue line on the map but today provided a final opportunity to get wet feet which I took with enthusiasm. I just couldn't be bothered trying to pick my way across feet dry I guess and just stumbled across any old how. The last track dragged interminably but at last I hit the last bit of road, a final track and then rolled out onto Blair Atholl Main Street, 34 hours and 54 minutes after I had departed the previous day. I took the mandatory photo at the station clock, threw the bike in the back of the car and drove home with an incredible sense of achievement (and relief) that I had done this route at long last.

In some ways I was glad of the challenging conditions. I had definitely turned a corner both in terms of the physical ability to ride for long hours but also being able to deal with obstacles in my path (and in my head) in good order. I knew that this would set me up perfectly for next years Highland Trail.

Phil Clarke August 2014

Monday, 21 July 2014

Cairngorms inner loop

So the plan was to do the Cairngorms loop adventure race as an Individual Time Trial, in order to qualify for next years Highland Trail. I'd hoped to leave Saturday am but a forecast of torrential downpours for much of the eastern Cairngorms along with the potential for thunderstorms kiboshed that idea. The forecast for Sunday into Monday looked better, particularly Monday so I decided a 24 hr delay was in order. OK to avoid undue suspense and drama I didn't do both loops, just the inner and an exit via glen Tilt. My main goal for this ride was to do the Bynack Stables to Glen derry path, the rest being optional depending on my level of arsedness. To avoid unnecessary weight and maximise fun I went without camping kit, only a cheapo bivvy bag for emergencies - ie I was looking to do the whole route in more or less a oner give or take the odd power nap. Given that the longest bike ride I've ever done was 190 miles on road, this presented something of a challenge hence the lack of determination to do the whole lot as the ride progressed. A poor nights sleep on Saturday didn't help either.

Ready for the off - poor old Krampus dragged out again!

The morning forecast of mist and drizzle was nowhere to be seen - the sun beat down and my decision not to bring sun cream suddenly seemed like a deal breaker... Oh well it won't last... At the inauspicious time of 9.48 am I hit the trail. The route starts at the Glen Tilt car park and heads north to the Gaik pass. I'll not go into the route details for a change but the single track up the Gaick showed signs of the previous days rain being by far the wettest I'd seen it this year.

In the Gaik

However over the watershed past the lodge the landscape became parched once again - it looked like Aviemore had missed the worst of the rain as forecast - a good sign for the route ahead. After various wrong turns through Inshriach and Rothiemurchus forest I got to the Glen more cafe for some much needed coffee and calories. I'm crap at following a line on a GPS as I tend to keep riding by the line of least resistance in a world of my own. This not helped by my sat maps extremely quiet beeps when you reach a turning...

The cafe had cairngorm ales on tap which I steadfastly avoided, instead fueled and rested I headed off into the depths of the Cairngorm massif. I and three friends did this route in 2007 as a circuit from Aviemore - we started at 7.30 am and took 14 hours to do the 60 mile route which we thought was pretty bloody impressive at the time. Now here I was starting it at 2.30pm which seemed madness given what I was about to tackle. I guess this was the point I knew I wasn't going to do the outer loop. My hands were already hurting despite only having done 50 miles or so of easy riding and the approaching trail seemed like a perfectly satisfactory challenge for a day ride.

The climb ahead - I remember this from my 2007 ride and knew it to be the biggest climb of the cairngorms loop. If you didn't know this route you'd be forgiven at this point for uttering the prayer of the adventure racer following someone elses GPX file - "Oh god where the f*** is he taking us!" There are plenty of opportunities for this in the next 20 odd miles...

The climb is steep but in general not hard. All of the path up to the shoulder of Bynack beg has been improved and the only challenge is hopping over the stone cross drains. I failed on a couple which had steps immediately after them, and was forced to push on one section with several steps but overall I was pleased with my riding. This boded well for what was to come. The first part of the descent is pure natural trail - in this case a wide-ish line of large bolders and ruts, all bone dry on this fine summers day. Confusingly after a spell it goes back to a made path before dumping you into a large wetland area at the head of Coire Odhar. On this day it was largely dry with barely a squelch from under tyre.

A wee tasty - this looks hard but you aint seen nothing yet. The trick is to jam it in your granny gear and to try to thread a line between the worst of the rocks. that said, some times hoisting over one large boulder is a way of avoiding several others. My riding was accompanied with the constant sound of knard scraping off rock. The granite hereabouts is incredibly grippy wet or dry but rather hard on tyres.

Onwards and upwards over the shoulder of Bynack more into the main event - a long strath actually comprising 2 watersheds and a valley but with no serious gradients - all praise glaciation. Interesting point for all you Geographers out there - you follow the first river upstream for a km to its source which is about 2k from the fords of Avon. However it flows the other way and joins the Avon at Tomitoul some 30k downstream - good eh? I paused to dunk my head in the river and wash out my lid. It was incredibly warm - 25 degrees at a guess and the sun was beating down. I was drinking constantly but still my head ached with dehydration and cramp kept hitting hands and legs suggesting salt and mineral deficiency....

What looked like a cluster of huts resolved itself into... a cluster of huts - a couple of guys were working on the path and this was their accommodation. Fortunately the work they were doing was all of the 'Light Touch' variety so no gargantuan cross drains, just some nice sections of path with the odd stone feature entirely in context with this boulder field maskerading as a path. This was also the scene of my first hike a bike - they were busy levering large rocks to make a stone causeway over a wet area but it was work in progress and my bike skills don't stretch to back wheel hopping... I got back on again but I knew that this would not be the last time I carried the bugger.

About 2k short of the fords of Avon the trail becomes utterly hardcore. The whole landscape is basically rock covered in rocks and the trail no exception. Suddenly my whole attention became focused on the ground in front of me, sussing out lines, hoisting the front wheel over boulders, moving my body around to counter balance an unwieldy bike determined to hit every rock in its path... fantastic! I have to say this is my favourite kind of riding and the whole reason for being here. It seems in recent years every trail worthy of the name has to 'flow' which in my book means its easy; the only challenge being to see how fast you can go and how high you can get over the jumps. This is fine (in moderation) but its only part of the picture that is mountainbiking and its easy to get suckered into the hype surrounding them. Tight, nadgery, techy trails are the antidote and this path was the creme de la creme of such riding. Of course its utterly knackering and the sweat was pouring off me but I was in seventh heaven. The odd times I did stop was to take in the amazing panorama of cairngorm mountains around me.

The fords of Avon at last and low enough to cross with barely wet boots - The 6km from the summit of the main climb had taken me nearly 2 hours...

There was a brief interlude of easier trail for a bit after the ford and then it was back into it

The Krampus was proving its worth but I'll be back with the fat bike as it would make such terrain a much easier prospect, or at least reduce the amount of bodily input into the riding. When I did this in 2007 I was on an Orange patriot with 6" of bounce at each end. I can't remember how much I rode of this back then but probably not any more than today, albeit in a bit more comfort.... Finally the last km before the col over to Glen Derry defeated me. The rocks suddenly became a lot bigger and the sections of smooth trail between them a lot smaller. I was happy with what I had achieved however and the pushing / carrying to get me to the top was done without much drama.

Looking back north to the Fords - only a few k but a lot of the best kind of hard work. Descending into Glen derry was the reward. In 2007 this path had just been done up and the water bars and cross drains were brutal but 7 years of erosion had softened the path with many sections reverting back to a natural rocky trail.

Looking up to Corrie Etchachan - another trail for another day. Should be doable from Linn of dee as a loop over to Fords of Avon, up into Loch Avon and then over a wee rise to the top of this. Now that would be hardcore!

The last section of trail to Derry lodge would be a blast if it wasn't for a series of huge dips with wheel (and face) destroying rock channels in the bottom. Fortunately most of these have neat little bypasses caused by years of cyclists gleefully ignoring NTS's anti bike policy (they still have a sign up at the Linn of dee car park telling cyclists not to ride on 'footpaths' aye right!) so you can ride through all of these, not at speed, but without the need to hop(!) The track out of Derry lodge was a blessed relief but it was clear that it had been seriously raining here and recently. I'd actually had a few sprinkles of rain coming out of Glen derry but the cause of all this rain wasn't clear - above it was cloudy but nothing too ominous. I stopped at the Linn of Dee for some serious calorie consumption. I'd been experimenting with different types of foods in recent rides and today was the turn of a new discovery - rice cakes - pretty good all in all particularly as a jam sandwich as the jam soaks in resulting in a satisfyingly gooey mess. Snack pork pies also featured heavily in my repetoire along with my latest favourite energy generator, the humble banana. I'd managed to keep this one in reasonable shape despite several hours of battering and it went down a treat.

This was also the point I finally decided to miss the outer loop. My legs were good and I knew I had the energy (and food) to get to Aviemore and its 24hr petrol station. However my sore hands (and derriere) were of greater concern. Carrying on would require serious pain management and the prospect of long term damage to nerves in my hands. I'd thought my current set up of high(er) bars and thick grips would sort the problems I had with my hands on the Highland trail but in fact they had started hurting long before I hit the serious rough stuff. This was a problem for another solution, another day and wrecking them today for the sake of a technically easy but physically demanding 120 miles seemed stupid. There would be time yet to knock off the whole route in a more reasonable 2 and a half days to qualify for an official time and a ticket into the highland trail.

Riding out down Glen Tilt in the evening sun seemed a far more pleasing way to end what had been the best days biking I'd done for many a year. The only thing that would change my mind was the Geldie burn being an un-fordable raging torrent but it was low enough to cross without incident or wet feet (aside - whilst crossing a tiny wee burn somewhere before the fords of Avon, my foot slipped and dunked my left leg in above both goretex boots and sealskin socks resulting in wet tootsies - hey ho)

Flat, smooth and fast. This is one of my favourite places in the Cairngorms / Scotland / UK - hard to say why, something to do with the vastness of the landscape with hills on all sides and little evidence of civilisation. That and the various routes leading away from it into places both wild and extreme.

A large rain cloud was passing to my right over the Geldie, further justifying my decision to head home. I did catch the tail end of it however but the short lived deluge of hail and rain just served to cool me down to a tolerable level. The only downside was the effect it had on the single track in the upper Glen Tilt. Its an ace descent with plenty of rocks and rock to keep you on your toes but these are of the slippy when wet variety which makes an unplanned excursion into the deepening abyss to your left as you descend all the more likely. Furthermore there were frogs all over the path, obviously brought out by the rain shower after such a scorching day, and I was determined to avoid them. That morning riding out of Glen Tromie I'd been about to ride over what I thought was a twig when it suddenly moved. A desperate hop meant I just skimmed the slow worm that had been basking in the sun which wriggled off hissing curses at all cyclists no doubt but I feel terribly guilty about mowing down wildlife at the best of times hence the need for me to avoid wholesale frog squashing.

A last look back at the rain storm that would have been making my traverse of the geldie / feshie watershed rather damp.

And looking ahead down a sun drenched Glen Tilt. The single track passed without incident (or squashed frogs I hope) and soon it was the usual transition of rocky trail to easy trail to rough track to easy track, all with a gradual descent to Blair Atholl. I got back to the car at 8.48pm, exactly 11 hours and 90 miles after leaving and was happy to drive home and finish a fabulous day with a large glass of whisky. It don't get much better than t

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Touring to The Tour

I took a few days off last week to head down to Yorkshire to see the first stage of the Tour de France. I'd planned this a while ago as a relaxing recovery ride after the Highland trail and at one point I was going to continue on into Belgium. In the event I rode to yorkshire in back in 6 days with one day spent sat on a hillside waiting for a bunch of blokes on road bikes to fly past....

My route down involved training it to Paisley via Glasgow and then down NCN 7 to Ayr, cut across to Galloway forest and doss down in the trees somewhere. Thereafter it would be a leisurely ride east then South to the (hopefully) sunny Dales.

Arriving in Glasgow Central I noted a train leaving for Ayr in 5 minutes - hmm cheat time? Instead I got the slow train to Paisley canal as it finished right on the cycleway. NCN 7 follows an old railway line for around 20 odd miles. This was meant as a bit of memory laning for me as the last time I was here was in '99 when I worked for Sustrans. I spent a lot of time on this route doing upgrades, bridge repairs and putting sculptures in so it was nice to see how it was looking 15 years later. There were tons of folk on it - all ages and bike types.

This thing was a total nightmare to erect - I was young and stupid in those days and trying to co-ordinate a crane and two excavators to get it in place was a bit of a challenge. Its supposed to represent the northern lights...

After Glengarnock your on road down to Kilwinning and then its a mix of cycleway and back streets down to Ayr. The route gets a bit convoluted in places but its better than the A78. I came down this way on a bike tour in '92 before the cycleway was put in and ended up on said A78 - total nightmare! In a couple of places I did take a few on road short cuts just to chop a couple of k off my run. Ayr sea front was mobbed - I had chips but forgot the mandatory food photo - sorry...

From Ayr NCN 7 heads up over the heads of Ayr in a big loop south so I headed on a more direct route to Maybole. This was the end of the flat riding and the road climbed in earnest. Maybole provided food for the night and a couple of much needed bananas and then it was climb, climb, climb out of Crosshill. This is quite a bump - in fact 2 bumps as you go up to  340 m, down to 145 and then back up to 345m.

Looking up to the Nick of the Balloch - 345m

As per the rain arrived at the start of this climb but I didn't need to put waterproofs on until the way down to Glentrool when the rain came down in sheets. It eased off as I went alongside Lochtrool and stopped as the road ran out and became an easy track. This is signed as NCN7 with a dire warning about needing a mountainbike and all manner of kit to survive but the fargo handled it with ease. In '98 I lead a team of volunteers to build a path from the bottom of this track along the line of the Southern upland way. All I remember is the horrendous midges, the hassle getting plant and materials as you were so far away from everywhere and continuous rain all week....

Climbing out of Glentrool over to Loch Dee.

The rain kept coming and going, albeit fairly lightly but worse, the midges were horrific - every time you stopped they materialised instantly. I'd say that Galloway midges are actually worse than their west highland cousins - maybe its due to there being less victims to feed on around here. Just over the hill from Glen Trool I'd sussed out a bothy on the MBA site - White Laggan. I suspected it would be full of folk doing the Southern upland way on this damp evening but lo and behold, it was empty. I could have gone on as it was only 6pm put the rain and midges made up my mind. No wet tent to manage and the ability to hang up damp kit and have a relaxing evening reading and eating. Total distance for the day was 90 miles.

Thursday dawned with the forecasted sun shining and much mist rising off the hills.

Loch Dee, blue sky and sun.

I cruised down to Clatteringshaws loch and tarmac, made a quick diversion to the visitor centre for some ablutions and then headed south east along the Raiders Road forest drive. All day Wednesday I'd had a head wind but now heading east it was giving me a gentle but welcome helping hand. The raiders road was super smooth gravel. At this time there was no other traffic on it and I made rapid progress to Loch Ken. You can follow estate roads and then an easy track through the RSPB reserve and the bottom of the Loch, then pick up a wee road which avoids the A762. This was followed by a couple of B roads, one short but extremely unpleasant section of the A75 (turning right across a busy trunk road with a climbing lane in the other direction and no central island...) and then I was back onto NCN 7 along the old A77 (and old military road) which is now a quiet C road that undulates gently toward Dumfries. Dumfries provided food courtesy of Greggs and a tin of gas courtesy of halfords. Thereafter it was more C and B roads along the Solway Firth to Gretna via Annan. Into Englandshire then more wee roads and one A road to Brampton. This had been one of my possible places for a camp but it was only 4.30 so I settled for a cuppa and an incredibly good scone with jam and cream, bought food for tea and then spun gently up the hill heading due south. This area between the M6 and the North pennines has a network of B, C and U roads which I've explored extensively on a motorbike so it was nice to be pedalling gently along them in the early evening sun. I'd sussed out a campsite from Cool Camping about 15 miles south of Brampton and this seemed a good place to stop. As I headed through the village of Kirkoswald I spotted a fine looking pub with benches outside - there followed a screech of brakes then refreshment!

There was a lot of chat in the pub about where people were going to watch the race - from normal people!

1 mile later and I pulled into Mains Farm campsite. It also had a bunkhouse and did baggage transport along the nearby C2C route. As I was eating tea a bunch of guys appeared on road bikes - they had cycled down the A7 from Edinburgh to here in one day - pretty good going as its about 125 miles and they had headwinds all the way. The next day they were heading for Leeds to see the grand depart - nice one. For me the total distance was 101 miles.

Friday dawned overcast with rain clearly coming. I got packed up dry but it started as soon as I set out. Only 50 miles to do today to the town of Hawes in Wensleydale but I knew I would have to fight for it. Soon it was lashing down with a strong headwind - head down and pedal. The good news was that I was staying in my folks static caravan in the town so at least I would have a dry night. After 3 hours of this the weather cleared and the sun came out for the last few miles. There were signs of the race everywhere and loads of cyclists out. Cars were giving me a wide berth and thumbs up signs and the town was mobbed with thousands of bikes and people - fantastic!

On the hillside above the Cote du Buttertubs (honestly, I ask you!)

I'd just got into my luxury digs when the heavens opened once more. It lashed it down non stop until the early hours of the morning. The forecast for Saturday was good but I had my doubts... In the event it dawned warm and sunny. The buttertubs road was already filling up with people so I got my gear together sharpish and headed up there. Rather than take the easy way up the road I followed a Byway / bridleway I knew to avoid the crowds and bring me out near the top of the road climb

Apparently you can go mountainbiking on a fargo

After much waiting, several hundred cars and bikes, the bizareness of the caravan and various team cars, the race arrived...


Jens Voight - age 42 and smashing 'em up the hill - star!

Cavs backside heading out of shot...

'Oh my legs hurting, give me medical attention!' hitching a lift up the hill is allowed apparently

From Jens going through until the broom wagon went by was about 10 minutes, after a 4 hour wait. It was well worth it though. The town was still buzzing until the wee hours, so I soaked up the atmosphere and a few beers while it lasted. Sunday was 45 miles of easy riding up to my folks near Darlington. For forms sake I road over the butter tubs road (fully loaded I kicked numerous roadie ass up it) to Swaledale. I was amazed at the number of campsites along the road set up just for the tour. Also loads of cyclists and people giving me thumbs up and smiles. All cars that passed me gave me loads of room a fair few gave thumbs up and waves - I wonder how long this will last....

Spent some QT with the folks then rode up to Kielder on Monday via the old waggon ways linking Bishop Auckland to Durham and Consett - 28 miles of continuous off road on a mix of tar and dust cycleways. I finished with the lakeside path round Kielder water and pitched up at the Kielder campsite after another 90 miler.

Funky bridge on the Kielder path.

Tuesday dawned  to the unwelcome sound of heavy rain, contrary to the last forecast I'd seen. It kept easing off to allow the midges a go at me (Kielder midges are also nasty) but looked set in. No messing about I just got my head down and rode. It cleared up after Hawick so I had sunshine heading through Edinburgh and got home just before the rain clouds came back in. Mileage for this day, 100!

So in total I did about 500 miles. The fargo was brilliant - comfy for long hours in the saddle and just at home on forest tracks as tarmac. The wtb nanos also seemed the ideal tyre for this kind of riding. I was carrying kit in my now usual bikepacking set up of frame bag, bar harness and saddle bag and it worked great. I was surprised at the number of people checking the set up out and a fair few folk asked me about it having never seen anything like it before. I tend to think this set up is common these days but it seems we are still niche...

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Fat Bike in the high hills

Well fairly high; just not as the high as the nearby Cairngorms...

Anyway, I went for a wee jaunt today on the Mukluk with the aim at tackling the least well known of the rights of way that head vaguely northish from the A9 in the vicinity of Pitlochry, Blair Atholl and Calvine towards the main lumps of the Cairngorms. There are four in all offering different degrees of challenge and rideability. The Gaik which runs from Dalnacardoch due north to near Kingussie is the easiest closely followed by Glen tilt which offers a long through route to Braemar. The Minigaig is a more serious challenge with a long length of single track requiring varied amounts of hike-a-bike depending on the ground conditions and your determination. I've done all of these at various times over the years as part of multi day trips and one day epics, but one that had always eluded me was Comyns Road or at least the main section between Calvine and the Gaik lodge.

Looking on the OS 50k map an estate track heads north from Clunes lodge (abt 3k up the cycleway from Calvine) up Glen Chrombaidhe. Where this track turns NE the ROW drops down to the burn by some old shielings and then strikes north up over a significant bump before dropping steeply into Alt Gharb Gaigh and out onto the main Gaick track just up from the lodge. The challenge being that a lot of it was pathless or at least the path looked vague and largely undefined. I'd never given it much thought but Fatbikes open up endless possibilities for routes such as this so at long last I was going to do it.

Driving up into the horizontal rain didn't fill me with confidence about tackling a large section of trackless wilderness over a featureless heather moor. Neither did my GPS going in the huff and eventually powering down with a dead battery despite it having been fully charged the day before - fecking things. But the weather cleared before Pitlochry and I brought a real map with me as a back up so there were no excuses. After easy riding up the track I stopped for an early lunch at the old shielings shown on the map  prior to tackling the main gig. The first section was OK with a clear argocat track following a reasonable line through the marshy ground and climbing easily but steadily. Heading up onto the main ridge the going got firmer but steeper eventually requiring a push for a few hundred meters before remounting to get to the summit of Sron a Chleirich.

Looking back down the first pathless section - in reality a good argocat track shows the way

The actual line of the ROW misses the summit and skirts round to the west but easy pedaling over the short heather encouraged me to keep on the ridge before rejoining the route where it dips down to cross a burn.

The line of the ROW clearly visible but hard going. I stayed higher on the ridge and avoided a fair bit of down then up

Another short push and I was back onto more great riding before dropping down significantly to cross another burn. This was the roughest terrain encountered so far - big tussocks and the beginnings of peat hags. The line of the path is actually quite clear - these routes were all drove roads for cattle and this is clearly evident looking at the wide strip of rough grass marking the line of the route, often benched into the hillside. I've no idea when cattle were last driven over this route but evidence of their passing still hasn't fully grown over even now. There is also minimal evidence of foot traffic - not many people use this route... A final push up to the top of Bac na Creig and a serious area of marshland and then it was downhill all the way to the Alt Gharb Ghaig.

Final summit...

The route is marked by the odd wee cairn but care is needed here as there are many false descents down to the burn line. The line of the route is just about discernible as a bench into the hillside keeping its height until the last plunge. This section is well steep and oddly shows signs of having been worked on - a few eroded waterbars were evident – but a lot of it was rideable, albeit on the brakes at walking speed.

Looking back its hard to see where I came down - its the upper most of the various vague lines you can see on the left hand side of the ravine and much clearer when your on it!

Once into the glen bottom there was a k of nadgery single track followed by easy riding on a grassy then stony track. I emerged into the main Gaick pass glen feeling like I’d conquered some major climb – in truth it was a lot easier than I’d allowed for and definitely worth doing again.

I’d vaguely thought of heading up Glen Tromie and then back over to Calvine via the Minigaig but it was 4pm and there was now a stiff north easterly breeze blowing down the gaik route. No contest. I’ve been doing some incredibly hard riding recently either due to distance, terrain, wind, pace or a combination of all of these so the prospect of doing the Gaik single track followed by the easy run down from Stron phadruig lodge with a generous tailwind seemed like some serious redemption. I’ve done the gaik a few times in recent years and its always been into a headwind – north or south. The singletrack section isn’t particularly difficult just a few wee rocky bits to keep you on your toes but on the fatbike with a tailwind and with plenty of life in my legs, it was a hoot. The final run down the estate track was a lazy cruise with the racket of bud and nate on gravel music to my ears. The tailwind continued down the few miles of tarmac on the cycle way back to the car. 

This kind of route is a big reason why I get fatbikes so much. I could have done this on a normal bike but it would have been a slog with far more pushing and carrying. This was the first time I’d tried my fat and a half set up on the Muk with a Bud wedged into the forks up front and my more usual nate out back. It works ace and kind of makes me wonder whether I need an ICT as the big front boot jacks the BB up a bit and kicks out the head angle as well – both criticisms of the original muk geo….

Monday, 2 June 2014

How not to do the Highland Trail

So the HT560 is coming to an end and I'm sorry to report I binned it after day 2. Mucho pissedoffo as I'd trained my baws of all winter and thought I was well capable of knocking it off. My failure was for a number of reasons but the following sumarises my learning points from this sorry debacle, just in case anybody else is fancying this madness next year....

1. Training - I knocked f*** out of myself since last November, starting from a pretty reasonable level. However training advice for a race involving 5/6 14-16 hour days over totally hardcore terrain is thin on the ground. The advice I found was mainly aimed at club stage racers. Still 5-7 hour rides on road and mountainbike at full gas should hone my endurance and stamina to a level plenty capable of the aforementioned? Yes and no. The problem I had was that the 'easy' pace I rode off at on day 1 wasn't easy enough. Overtaking the entire field should have been a clue.... Also I did tons of hill climbing but this just meant I stomped up the first 5 climbs of the route far too fast, whilst thinking I was cruising. Plus by the Sunday lunchtime my carefully toned quads just ended up being so much dead weight... See point 2. What I missed was lots of long 12-15 hour rides to learn a good easy pace that would last the distance.

2. Pace. Don't overtake the whole field on the first climb, including all of the race favourites. Even if I was capable of maintaining this pace for the whole event (some hope) its still a bad idea. In my defense my pace felt like a nice steady tempo which I would use on every climb and I didn't know who anybody was so didn't know I'd blasted past Phil Simcock on the climb out of Loch Tulla until we got to Fort Augustus (98 miles in 10 hours) and he told me I'd lead the race for 40 miles. Gulp..... If I 'd stopped for some proper food (see point 3) at KLL it would have made all the difference. In any event backing off would have meant I'd have finished yesterday. Keith Bremner also made it to F.A on Saturday but took 3 hours longer than me. He finished yesterday in 8th place - bloody well done!

3. Food. You don't need to carry 4 days of food in Scotland. There will always be a shop open, or a pub / hotel or something. I was paranoid about missing open shops on the northern loop, hence the 4 days of grub. If it looks like your gonna miss something you alter your pace so you don't. I reckon 1 full days food, some extra odds and ends and maybe emergency rations for say 1 more day which you top up if you use them. Also a constant diet of cereal bars, porridge oat bars, chocolate and horrible fecking gels don't work for more than 5 hours. I had a constant upset stomach from about Saturday lunchtime onwards until I got some decent scran in Contin which made me feel immediately better. For next year I'm going to really look into what food to take and eat.

4. Gear. I got this spot on. Fook bivvy bags and race kit, this is Scotland. I had all the right kit for surviving the miserable drookit day Sunday turned into (15 hours of rain, 130 miles) and was able to don full waterproofs and gaitors to keep me dry and to keep the resulting mud and filth out of my kit. Plus having a tent meant I could have got out of the rain and midges and still operated well the next day, had I not blown my legs up on day 1. On my feet I had goretex boots, seal skin socks and merino wool inner socks. Despite numerous dunkings on the flooded track over to Contin past Orrin Res my feet were warm and dry

5. Bike. Anything goes as long as your comfortable on it. It doesn't have to be bling as long as it all works. Its going to be totally wrecked by the end so don't worry about renewing everything before the race. My Kramp was nigh on perfect despite weighing in at 30lbs less kit. Where I went wrong was several changes to grips / bar ends etc. prior to the day. I should have spent much more time on this over long distances and probably just stuck with my extra thick super star grips. Instead I ended up with a pair of ergo grips which were utterly horrible. After day one they felt like 2 ill shaped blocks of wood and my hands were in agony. My left pinky is still numb. One thing I didn't have with me was spare brake pads. After I'd bailed and got back home I discovered the horrible noises coming from my front brake were due to the pads being down to the metal, despite being only a quarter worn before the start. 130 miles of gritty water will do that..

6. Attitude. However good you think you might be, its always worth taking it canny on your first race so you can prove how good you are (or not as the case may be). If things are going well you can always up the pace later on - you have 5-7 days to do this.... That said I'm glad I quit when I did as if I'd have pushed on I would have had a truly miserable experience which might have seriously affected my desire to try this again or in fact go anywhere near a bike again.

7. Planning. I thought I'd planned this thing to death but I got it completely wrong and in such a totally obvious way - I underestimated how long it would take (durr!) sections I thought would be easy - Strathglass to Contin being the worst case of this - took ages and knackered me mentally and physically as a result. I think you should work out a schedule then add a day to it as with point 6, if things go well you can up the pace later on in the race.

8. Why? Dunno really - I was looking for a challenge and this fitted the bill. Plus I would bag a large number of trails that have been on my to do list for several years. I like the low key organisation and the whole informal format. My plan was to do it once only and then look to other things but having failed dismally I'm very likely to try again next year as what I learned in the 210 miles of the route I did should immediately mean I'm better prepared already. We'll see, what I'm really looking forward to this summer is just doing some normal bikepacking and touring where I set my own route, pace and schedule with no need to stick to anything prescribed. I fully intend to do the norther bit and the Fisherfield and torridon sections this summer, midges or not.

9. Etiquette. Work out what the favourites look like before the race and don't burn past them on the first climb....

This was taken in ullapool on Monday morning after I'd jacked it. A minute later, eventual winner Phil Simcock rolled into town having done the whole northern loop in less than a day. His eventual finish time was 4 days, 1 hr 45mins. Bloody hell....