Monday, 18 December 2017

Scotland Winter Bivvy 2017

Last weekend was the Bear Bones Scotland Winter Bivvy. This comprised and informal meet up of regulars on the BB forum from various parts of Scotland. The aim was to bivvy or bothy out somewhere - simple!

The plan was to meet at Duinish bothy at the watershed of Loch Garry near to Drumochter on the A9. I'd scoped out a route starting from the Garry bridge just north of Pitlochry heading west through the woods above Loch tummel, a bit of road riding to Loch Rannoch and then up the ROW to Glen Garry. Likely attendees were Ray and Alasdair from Edinburgh, Blair from Falkirk Jamie from Yorkshire and Colin from Aviemore. There was no fixed plan for a meeting time as we were all heading up under own steam at various times. For my part I was limited by alchohol consumption the night before thanks to my works xmas night out. I eventually got up there for just before 3.....
The machine ready for the off. Depsite only going out for one night it was jammed with stuff.

The temp was around 0 and there was a dusting of snow. I was concerned that a lot of the tracks we would be riding would be melted / frozen snow and lethal. Sure enought the first section was exactly that so it was a case of slithering around or using the still snowy middle bit. Several sets of tyre tracks indicated that Ray et al was in front. Entering the woods got us off the ice and into around 2-3" of powder snow. Vehicle tracks made for easy going and at the high point of 450m there wasn't much more. As this was the same height as the bothy it looked like we would have a straightforward climb up to it.....

I caught up Ray, Blair, Blair's mate and Jamie not long before the woods section finished (they were all on normal bikes). They seemed to be making good progress in the snow so all was well.

Looking back to Ben Vrackie.

Looking up Strath Rannoch. We just missed the sunset.

Heading along the road to Kinnloch Rannoch seemed to take ages. The temps dropped alarmingly and I was getting chilly so with Rays blessing pushed on. Blairs Mate was on his first trip and was a bit under dressed so departed back along the road at this point. Given what was to come he made a wise choice....

The further west we went the more the snow cover increased. Past Kinnloch Rannoch the road was pretty snowy and off to the side it was solid white away from tree cover. At the start of the ROW you were straight into it. Climbing up from the farm there was 5-6", way more than had been in the woods previously. I stopped to drop tyre pressures to 3 / 5psi and got stuck in.

This looks horrendous but was actually straightforward - just aim along the rut and pedal. A quad bike had been up so no need to break trail!

I was following another bike track and up ahead I started to get glimpses of a light. Some tread spotting suggested this was Alastair on his half-fat Jones. I eventually caught him just before the track met the main estate road up the glen. He was riding and walking so I kept going with my steady pace. On the main track the quad tracks were replaced by an tracked argo cat track. This is pefect fat bike riding as it leaves a nice level  surface on which you can ride pretty easily (Alasdair, Ray, Jamie and Blair will probably want to repeatedly punch me for saying that) The only spoiler was loads of foot prints. They all seemed to be heading downhill so hopefully there would be no-one in the bothy but Colin. It was now seriously cold -  frost  was building up on my bags and I had a proper Iditarod icicle under my nose! The climb was steady but seemed to go on way longer than the map suggested. Its always hard to guage your pace in the dark as all you can see is a small pool of light in front of you and no idea of how quickly the landscape is passing. A flurry of snow came in but otherwise the sky was crystal clear. I turned my lights off and stopped to check out the stars. No Northern Lights tho.....

At one point all the footprints turned off in the direction of, presumably, the local munroe / corbett. So it was just me riding across a pristine argo track. It was still climbing but good going. I've no idea as to snow depth but 8-10" I'd guess. There was barely any wind but I started seeing snow drifts of increasing size as I made my way along to the bothy. Fortunately the argo had ridden across it all and it hadn't drifted back in. Finally I got a glimpse of the bothy windows reflecting my light back to me. It still seemed ages before I at last got to the turn off. The bothy was dark and cold. No sign of Colin which was slightly alarming as he'd said he would be aiming to get there before dark o'clock. Oh well hopefully he'll be here soon.

Made it at last, 42k and 4 hours after setting off.

The bothy was occupied after all - two wee sparrow hawks were curled up in the entrance and seemed mightily p*ssed off when I clomped in.

The only way to avoid the rest of the party from lynching me for riding up so easily was to get a fire going. Ray had stashed some coal two weeks previously but I'd no idea where it was. A big bag of kindling, fire lighters and a couple of spadefuls of coal from someone elses visit saved the day. Alastair turned up not long after and Ray, Blair and Jamie arrived about another half hour after that, cursing the bloke on the fat bike that had ridden everything they had spent 2 hours walking up...

Ray went in search of the coal, the stashing of which should earn him a BB hero of the year award. Sadly it wasn't to be found - either buried under a snow drift or found by someone else the previous weekend. Instead he produced two fire logs that he'd humped all the way up with him, earning him the BB hero of the year award. We managed to chop up some bits of wood that were lying in the back room and got a good blaze going in the grate. Not only that but he'd also brought tunes! So there then followed a very convivial evening chewing the fat, listening to good music and having the odd nip of whisky finally turning in at 1 am. I'd guess at about -7 to -10 outside but a balmy 2 or 3 inside so everyone seemed to have a decent nights kip (judging by the snores anyway....)

The next morning dawned grey and damp as forecasted. It was a case of eat breakfast, pack up and get going. The temps had gone up to above freezing so with the heavy rain the snow cover was rapidly heading for porridge-hood. The fat bike can be a liability here as it floats across the snow / slush rather than digging in. I left the narrow tyres pushing and slithered my way back down to Loch Rannoch. Overall the going was OK but much harder than the previous evening - I even had to push at one point! The downhill seemed ludicrously short given how long it had taken to grind up it so I was onto the road after less than an hour.

Loch Rannoch looking west.

After a stop to pump the tyres up it was a case of pedalling steadily east. Santa greeted me at the FC place at Queens View but all I wanted for xmas was a flushing toilet so I quickly side stepped him. Xmas music blared out of the speakers whilst I was doing what had to be done, further driving my humbug like spirit away from this nonsense that we put up with every year....

Back to the car at 1 and straight of home for heat and hot water!

Monday, 16 October 2017

Autumn touring

In the last four years we've had some particularly fine weather in October and I've never had any holidays left to enjoy it. This year I was determined to hold a week back to cash in on this run of indian summers. Predictably the generally wet weather that had written off yet another summer showed no sign of let up as my time off approached.

Plans were changed and the east seemed a better bet than my original idea of heading through Argyle. After a damp start Saturday noon approached and with the threat of sunshine and a stiff tailwind I headed away from the house. This seems to me to be the best way to start a holiday - no transport to arrange or flights etc to catch, you just load up and go. I followed a variety of quiet roads to Perth mostly on NCN 1 and 775. Perth itself was largely bypassed and NCN 77 takes you on a fine route alongside the Tay and out to Almondbank. From here its more back roads to Dunkeld.

By this time it was about 5pm and the weather was fine. I stocked up with some food and headed up into a network of tracks and trails just north of Dunkeld, generally heading for Loch Ordie. 

For a while the pedalling was easy until the main track ended and a rougher, wetter trail climbed steadily away to Loch Oisinneach. I rode this in about 1994 and had a memory of the tracks being rough but dry. 20 odd years of zero maintenance had taken their toll however as many sections were flooded or sunk into the prodigious marshland the track passed through. 

I turned off the main trail and things got immediately better until a 'burn' crossing nearly defeated me. Quad tracks ploughed straight through a swamp which looked like it would be knee deep, at least. No way was I doing that so instead I managed to tip toe past it using the dense reeds as support over the marsh. Thereafter things got a bit better but the prolonged wet weather we've had made this trail slow going. At around 6pm I'd climbed out of the woods and was heading for a large section of open moor. Before this I encountered Sarah's Bothy - definitely 5 star accommodation with 2 bedrooms, well stocked bookshelves and soft furnishings!

It was an easy choice to stop as I reckoned I had about an hour of daylight left and I'd no idea what was ahead in terms of bivvy spots. Unsurprisingly no-one else had made the effort to plough through the swamps to get here so I had the place to myself. There was plenty of wood for a fire so I got a merry blaze going and had my tea after watching a fabulous sunset. 

The view south from the bothy seemed to follow a clear gap in the hills so that I could see the Lomond hills clearly in the distance, the lights of Perth twinkling in between. I've ridden the Lomonds countless times and surveyed the amazing views they offer to the north. It still surprises me when I see them from those same places, however so remote.

Eventually I turned in and had a lengthy sleep until cold woke me just before 8. I had a leisurely breakfast, did a quick sweep and clear up of the bothy (There was no litter for a change and I was sure to leave it as such), then headed out.

I had a vane hope that the track might improve after the bothy but its still part of a well used circuit from Dunkeld so was just as bad. Several other sersiously swampy sections forced a fair bit of dismounting and careful picking my way round. 

Eventually I reached the turn off for Kirkmichael and this was far better. The path was hardly used so whilst a bit damp was easy going. This joined a better track which in turn joined the Cateran trail - a shortish long distance path starting and ending in Blairgowrie - that took me to Kirkmichael.

Kirkmichael provided an excellent shop cum cafe for a nice second breakfast. Thereafter it was more back roads east into the Angus Glens. There are a lot of trail hereabouts. I wasn't in the mood to be too ambitious this trip so my route followed what in theory should be two easy moorland traverses over to Glen Prosen via Backwater Resevoir and then over again to Glen Clova via the Ministers Road. Both are Angus core paths and signed. Apart from a minor bit of overgrow trail out of the resevoir both of these routes were nice. Another two trails bagged.
Looking back to Glen Isla at the top of the descent to Glen Prosen

On the Ministers Road climbing out of Glen Prosen

Next up was a famous climb - the Capel Mounth road out of Glen Doll, one of several hard trails out of this amazing place. Its a steep push but not too bad all in all. The only minor concern was overhead as the cloud that had been thickening all afternoon seemed to be finally building to a point where it dumped on me. 

Looking back to Glen Doll

The Top of Loch Muik

Cresting the final rise gives great views over Lochnagar and sure enough a large rain cloud sat firmly on its summit. That said, looking ahead, Deeside was in Sunshine, so I cracked on hoping to miss the worst of it. As it happens, apart from a wee sprinkle of rain I stayed dry and the descent into and out of Glen Muik was bone dry. 

Lochnagar and rain cloud!

Ballater was reached at about 5 and once again holiday mode kicked in. I'd vaguely thought of heading down to Glen Tanar for a bivvy but this would mean either a long evening in the tent or a lot of riding in the dark, neither of which appealed. Instead I opted for the luxury of the Ballater hostel and a beer in the Alexander hotel. I love touring....

Day 3 dawned rather grey with the roads wet from the early morning rain. I had a leisurely start at 10 with the sky showing increasing signs of brightening up. The destination for today was my friends place in Speyside just downstream of Aberlour. The obvious route was to go up Glen Gairn over into Glen Builg and down Glen Avon to Tomintoul. I fancied a change however so actually stayed on the (very quiet) A939 to the top of the climb above Strathdon. Just off the top there is a great track which follows Wades Road to Corgarff. Nothing drastic (I once took a touring bike along here) but nice scenery and a cheeky shortcut compared to the Tarmac. 

One of several stone arch bridges on Wades Road.

From Corgarff Castle I turned off the road again onto a route I'd been meaning to bag for years - a roughly westerly track which emerges in Glen Avon just by Inchory Lodge. This is (yet another) great through route. The riding is easy on tarmac then a good track with only a gentle climb then a nice switchback descent into Glen Avon.

At the top of the pass into glen Avon, Ben Avon in the distance

It had been a bit gloomy to this point but the sun finally made an appearance as I headed down to Tomintoul and lunch at the usual Fire station Cafe.

From Tomintoul its possible to roll down a quiet B-road to within a shout of my pals place but I was out for more trail bagging so turned off the road at Tomnavoulin and headed roughly east through Glenlivet on a rather wet track which climbed steadily up the glen. Glenlivet is actually part of the vast Crown estate but unlike Balmoral where every building is in mint condition and every track a smooth motorway, this area had an air of dilapidation and neglect. As you climb out of the valley the route passes two fine old houses at Suie which are sadly dropping to bits. I don't suppose there would be many people willing to live in such remoteness but its sad to see properties like this simply being left to wrack and ruin. 

Suie looking back to the Braes of Glenlivet

Beyond these houses the track improves somewhat but this too seemed to be in serious need of maintenance with numerous washed out sections. The descent down Glen Fiddich is a gem - double track but the upper section follows a narrow gorge with rock walls on both sides and a narrow burn right beside you. Watch out for the Elf House! 

Several sections of track seemed to have become the burn so this could be tricky in wet weather. Further down the Glen there was evidence of a vast windfarm going up on the right. This is in the neighbouring Cabrach estate and cause of much concern by locals as the multi billionaire owner apparently is only interested in screwing as much profit out of the estate as possible.

The dilapidation theme continued on passing Glenfiddich lodge. This and several nearby farm cottages are empty with windows and doors broken in and (apparently) still full of furniture. The owners aren't interested in occupying it or selling instead electing to let it fall apart in its own time. This is somewhat at odds with the image of Glenlivet Whisky and seems unfathomable to me. I rolled quickly passed and down the now tarmac (with huge potholes) track to the main road above Dufftown. A bit more road bashing got me to Aberlour itself and then the Speyside Way and some forestry tracks took to my destination.

Day 4 dawned with a herald of a change in the weather with high winds and rain forecast. I left at my usual 10 and headed to Grantown on Spey by the back road. The Speyside Way is a no go by bike along here and not much fun by foot as it departs the nice disused railway line and follows a convoluted route through fields and woods. This is inevitably due to a landowner refusing permission for it to follow the railway. Signs at the side of the road proclaiming 'Private' and 'No Access' hinted at yet another landed idiot who can't get their heads round Land Reform and the irony of the fact that it was their kind of attitude that lead to Land Reform in the first place. Hey ho, The SPW was picked up just before Grantown for a nice run in through woodland paths. Breakfast 2 was eaten in the cool sunshine and then more road riding took me to Nethy Bridge.

Straight through here and over one of my favourite through routes in the area - Ryvoan Pass. This is a steady climb through the woods of Abernethy finally topping out at just over 400m. As I approached the edge of the woods a chap on a Krampus with his daughter astride the top tube was coming the other way. He looked familiar and as my slow brain processed who it could be he beat me to it - 
"Stuart!" (And Isla)
These encounters never cease to amaze as the chances of meeting anyone you know in such a spot is rare, let alone a fellow Fat Bike Forum type. We chatted for a while about bikes and routes and stuff then went our separate ways. 

Hmm. The cafe at Glen More was full and the bar was shut. In May it was 'Closed for refurbishment.' Now it was 'Closed until further notice.' I don't know what the story is here but it seems odd for such a gold mine to close. Tourists were still in abundance despite it being October so I pedalled off in search of quieter places. Not at Rothiemurchus - this cafe too was busy and expensive. Aviemore town centre suddenly seemed to be more trouble than it was worth so I hightailed it down the Insh Road sharpish. 

15 miles of empty B road and I rolled into Kingussie. Now the weather had been getting progressively gloomier as I headed south and the wind was strengthening in my face. All as forecasted but my enthusiasm for weathering the impending storm was waning. A plan was hatched - I needed food but a quick stop at the station determined that there was a train south due in just over an hour. I found a great (and quiet) cafe in the town, ate the food I craved and hatched various other plans to find one of several bothies should the train be full. In the event it was half empty and no bikes were on it. Better yet it was due to stop in Glen Eagles, a short hop over the hill back to home. The run down was fine, the weather was grey and I was happy I'd had another great trip. Riding up Glen Eagles I felt slightly displaced as a few hours earlier I had been climbing steadily up the Spey valley. The rain came in down Glen Devon so I was happy to have quit whilst I was ahead. I feel no need, these days, to deliberately put myself in the way of bad weather - I was on holiday after all!

Saturday, 16 September 2017

The Yorkshire Dales 200, 2017

As I sat in the sun in West Burton, N.Yorks, I contemplated the full folly of my current undertaking. My legs hurt, I was feeling like a 4 hour siesta and I wasn't even halfway round this forbidding route.....

Back in June it seemed like a good idea - 200k of road and track around one of my favourite places in the world - the Yorkshire Dales, home of countless wonderful villages, excellent pubs, cheese, homebaking, dry stone walls and sheep. And hills. Lots of hills. In fact more hills than you can shake a dead rat at, even if you live in Wales. I'd entered on the strength of the 2016 route - lots of nice trails, plenty of hills but a climbing total of around 3300m seemed like a recipe for a hard but generally fun ride. Except route setter and ride organiser Stuart Rider changes the route every year. This year was "Gravel Friendly" i.e nothing too rough but plenty of hills. I noted with moderate concern that the climbing total had jumped to over 4500m but it was mostly on road so nae bother right? A quote from Road Race veteran and all round good guy Jens Voight sprung to mind:- "Why oh Why am I doing this" (After a lone breakaway on stage 1 of the 2014 TdF in this same fine part of the world)

Oh well, it can't be that bad, I mean I'd done the Highland Trail and one day of the Borders 350 this year so I'll be fine aye? errr....

Friday evening before the start saw me take a leisurely drive from fair Fife to my parents static caravan in Hawes. 5.30 am Saturday saw me up and eating in preparation for a long day. There were around 15 or so folk at Riders Cycle Centre in Skipton and I made full use of the laid on breakfast. Several people commented on the general size (and weight) of my chosen bolide - yes the Jones plus had been dragged out again and seemed somewhat out of place lined up against so many svelt gravel racers. Bob Wightman who I'd rode with on various parts of the HT was there on a more conventional 29er and the benefit of much local knowledge. My machine choice was circumstance. I was off to the Isle of Man for a few days and was looking for mountainbiking so the Fargo, which I had originally planned to use for this, had once again missed out. The jones would be a bit of a drag on the road but would at least enable brakes off / brain out on the various double track descents the route presented without fear of punctures or smashed teeth. My pace would be steady but I was confident enough in my abilities to have brought only kit for a day and nothing to tempt me into sleeping....

8am saw us all rolling out steadily. A group dissapeared up front and I was happy to see them go. I fell in with Bob and a couple of others on big tyred machines. One chap was on a single speed 29+'ed Mukluk which smacked of either extreme heroism or extreme optimism. My Krampus is single speeded permanently these days but I've had one experience of riding it in the Dales and I'm too much of a wimp to ever contemplate such folly again.

Inevitably on the first climb my stupid, hated and useless competitive gene reared its ugly ahead and saw me pushing hard leaving the sociable group behind and leaving me in the company of no-one but the bike. This was to continue until Skipton.... Having said that I felt strong, much stronger than I had a right to be given my somewhat casual prep for this monster of a route. This carried on up the next climb, and the next, and the next and the.........

The thing with the Dales is that there is no end to the climbs. Even the descents go uphill. The second off road descent saw me passing two of the gravel bike crew fixing punctures. Hmmm - it was loose and rocky and I was flat out with only minimal mental input required. Maybe I was on the right bike after all?

Thereafter was a long section of road riding which on (OS) paper looked easy. In reality it was a continuous serious of climbs and descents. 29+ and slack geometry is just the job for 1:4 gravel strewn country road descents it would seem. I let a group of motorcyclists past just before once such plummet and ended up being held up by them. On the plus the side the weather was stunning. There had been a brief shower earlier but now it was blue sky and a strong sun. I was baking and drinking rapidly. East Witton had a tap on the village green but it was jammed shut. Salvation came in the form a local roadie just finishing her mornings ride offering to fill my water bottle up. It was empty again within an hour.... 

As I progressed along this section my legs started to complain. The wind was 'fresh' and now right in my face. Cooling but hard going on exposed sections. Hells bells. Once again I'd gone far too fast and now I was paying the price. Scratching was absolutely not an option so I would just have to suffer.

The next trail was about the only easy bit on the whole route - a steady traverse around the lower slopes of Penhill with great views up Wensleydale and over the 'Tank Road' to Richmond. This road is part of the vast Cattrick MOD training area and often sees huge metal tracked monsters getting driven along them. The Jones would be right at home then!

The descent to West Burton was rough and loose and again I was glad of the big tyres. Hmm. On the Fargo this would have been a case of brakes on and take it steady. Not a great compensation for all the hard work to get to!

Pies, Crisps, juice and cake all eaten in the sun on the village green made a new man out of me. I rode out feeling full but much more confident about the next monster climb. As I left Stuart Rider was coming the other way. OK. Guess he'll soon pass me but where were the rest. Climbing the (inevitably) ridiculousy steep track out Thoralby revealed only two sets of fresh tyre tracks in front. This is an old favourite of mine, albeit downhill. Its changed now though and much of it was huge rocks which made for hard work, especially with the now strong headwind right in my face. Eventually the top was reached and I was now feeling much stronger than an hour previously. The descent was another blast and the wee road down from Cray to Hubberholme was taken at a suitably innappropriate speed. Next up was an absolute stinker of a climb to Horse Head moor. I've been down this many times so I knew what to expect i.e a push. However this seemed to be just the ticket as my aching limbs were glad of a change of muscle use and the top came after not too much effort.

The descent was rough. I was still following one gravel tyre and one mountainbike tyre but the gravel tyre print was shallow. i.e. the bike was being pushed..... Gravel Bike friendly? hmmm.....

A brief respite of flatish road along Littondale gave a fine view of the next climb - a super steep and loose track up out of the dale and alongside the flanks of Pennyghent - much loved by cyclocrossers! The afternoon was wearing on but I was starting to feel increasingly confident of my ability to do this thing. 

The track over to Helwith Bridge seemed to be indicating I was now only following one bike and noone had caught me up despite my lowered pace.... There followed some more pleasant riding and a first use of lights in a couple of tunnels going into Clapham. As I entered first person on the trail was just leaving. A brief fizzle of competitiveness nearly made me give chase but I had other priorities - namely the public loo and a cafe that was closing but supplied a glorious cup of tea, juice and crisps. 

Next up was a lengthy road climb. Not exactly plus tyre territory but my limbs seemed happy to propell me steadily up it with not much effort. Bombing through Gisburn Forest was a hoot and I started to grin to myself as this was all coming together. Of course there was still two enormous climbs on the cards but I was getting that feeling of unstoppability which always seems to strike at around 6pm. True to the map out of Long Preston was steep but this was old news now. The trail above it was plastered with signs indicating some kind of event was about to take place - "Caution - Technical Descent", "Slow, Sharp Corner", " Feed station" etc. were all totally ignored. In Settle I once again felt the need to feed.

Thank god for the Co-Op. This establishment really is the bike packers best friend. A Whole range of food and drink and opening hours ideally suited to the sleep avoiders. I felt I had enough solid food on board so drank several hundred calories and got stuck into the last (and worst) major climb of the route. Actually its not that bad and the worst of it is tarmac. Once you hit the gravel it eases off after a bit and puts you into a really quite amazing piece of landscape. The Limestone bones of the earth are much in evidence around here and the terrain is quite unique. Not quite the scale of the Highlands or the drama of the Lakes but still as fine a piece of geography as you will find on these sceptic isles. The last section of trail is seriously nice - a smooth dust path across the moor with only a token bit of climbing and a fine decent to the road above Malham.

Dusk was falling as I screamed down the tarmac descent into Malham. This is a beaut and often covered in glaikit walkers heading up to the famous cove but this evening it was desterted. I bombed through Malham itself at high speed with a huge grin on my face as I knew I'd cracked this. The Malham show had been on but most folk were away apart from a few diehards in the beer tent. I was mightly tempted but pushed on knowing that the end was in sight.

Of course there were still plenty of ups and downs to do but nothing compared to what had gone before. The last road section had more traffic than I was expecting and I got paranoid about my back light failing as if it did I'd be stuffed. Fifth car to pass was the polis but they carried on without stopping me so I must have been visible. Skipton was reached at last and I bombed through the town centre eyeing up all the folk in the glad rags on a night out. I'm as keen as anyone to have a few beers of a saturday night but this evening I was on a massive buzz from having ridden 200k and still be in good shape. I reached Riders Cycle Centre at about 9.20pm, 13hours 20minutes after I'd left. First Rider back Danny had only been back 15 minutes or so and I was well happy to be the second person home. Stuart Rider himself appeared just before 10 and we chatted about the route and our experiences until I felt the tiredness come on at half past and so left to drive back to my bed for the night.

I've done a fair bit of bike riding this year but this is the stand out hardest days biking I've done.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Deeside Holiday

I had a week booked off work at the end of July. As usual I had various plans in my head as to what to do but in the event rather than another epic bikepacking trip went for the easy  option of a proper holiday in Ballater, upper Deeside i.e. - luxury accommodation (Vango cyclone 200+) Fine food (courtesy of Co-op and my full sized trangia), fine ales (courtesy of the Alexandra Hotel) and (gasp) amazing sunny weather.

My planned rides roughly revolved around a little known bikepacking ITT route, the Deeside trail:- this 150 mile route traverses a large chunk of Deeside and includes some of the best mountainbiking in the UK. A bold claim but if you ride it you'll agree, believe me....

Friday early morning saw me taking a leisurely drive up to Ballater, abandoning the heap and setting off at 9.30 am on the first of several ace day rides. Glen Muik is part of the Balmoral Estate as owned by HMQE2. In days gone by there was a lot of anti mountainbiking bullshit in this place but these days its pretty much a free for all as long as you behave yourself (and doff your lid to any Royals encountered). The climb out of Glen Muik up the flanks of Lochnagar is a beast with a fine mix of gradient, rocks and gravel. I got up a respectable amount of it past numerous walkers out to bag the 'gar, Munro as it is. Past the turn off to the summit I was alone on the trail. Clouds were gathering but a diversion to Geldershiel bothy allowed a late morning snack whilst the shower passed through.

Well posh bothy courtesy of HM QE2. Full pine cladding, a water tap and a loo.

More easy double track followed with the promise of sun on the horizon

Top of descent from near Gelder Shiel to Lizzies Scottish back garden. This descent is an absolute gem - steep, rocky and rooty. Best of all was no-one but me and the bike to be seen. After a brief section of double track the next obstacle was Glen An-ti-Sluggain. This is a stead climb which gets rougher and steeper as you gain height. I spent (wasted) a good hour trying to find the Sluggain Howf here but failed dismally. I'd been directed to its alleged location by a Geordie Teacher I met in a bothy back in April but he obviously gave me a bum steer as it was nowwhere to be seen.

One final heave out of the glen took me into what is my favourite trail anywhere - Glen Gairn. This is Nadgery central - no big scary drops or fast bits, just a technical, engaging, hardcore trail with zero 'flow' and much grin inducement. If you are bored of trail centres, ride this.
Approach to Ben Avon and the climb over to Glen Gairn. No photos of Glen gairn but its a lovely trail - some seriously nadgery bits but with lots of nice riding too.

The easy roll out of Glen Gairn on double track was a fitting end to a great day. Once back in Ballater I checked into the campsite, pitched my 5 star digs and settled in for a night of fine food, ale and sleep. Ballater Campsite got it bad during storm Frank in 2016 - most of the static caravans got washed away, never to be seen again. The owners did a great job of getting it back in order for the coming season. However a walk around the town indicated still a few properties that are uninhabitable after the devastation this storm wreaked.

Saturday dawned somewhat grey with a forecast of much rain. Not to be deterred I headed east down the glen and rode various double track in the forest of Tanar to a background of light but incessant drizzle. This cleared up towards lunchtime as I approached the Halfway Hut - a tiny wee bothy that you could bivvy in at a push but today served as a useful lunch stop.

The halfway hut - one day I will bivvy here....

The day ended in the sunshine and an ice cream in Ballater.

Another evening passed with more food and drink. The forecast for Sunday was better and I was keen to bag more new trails. My route took me up a dead end C road that runs up the Gairn parallel to the A939. beyond the farm at Lary it becomes gravel and climbs steadily towards Morvern Lodge. The sun shone, the trails were dry and all was well with the world. My route took me around the Flanks of Morvern and into a single track descent which really was a beaut. Ultra narrow, endless rock steps and all downhill. Back roads and obscure double track followed - for all I love sussing out routes and finding out if they 'go' its great following the route of someone with local knowledge.

This took me into Tarland by way of a small trail centre - its amazing the places these mini bike parks are cropping up. A guy on a Haro cruiser BMX complemented my bike and I complemented his. Next up was more climbing into the strengthening sun and increasing temperatures. First a farm track North west out of Tarland and then a series of overgrown and obviously little used or maintained trails all still signed by the now defunct Upper Deeside Access Trust. This organisation developed many trails in upper Deeside (obviously) but then got absorbed into the National Park as its main deliver of infrastructure. Many of its old trails get followed by the Deeside Trail but many seem to have fallen into obscurity as they fall outside the National Park Boundary. A shame as they offer a good network of walking or riding routes. Anyway much climbing took me out of the woods and onto Broomhill, a fast descent and another hard climb then took me onto Pressendry 620m above sea level.

Looking up Deeside with Lochnagar in the distance, Mount Keen to the left and Morvern to the right. A fast descent took me back towards Tarland and then an easy run back to base camp.

Day 3 was to be the crux of my trip - a ride to the upper reaches of the Dee and a chance to pit myself against one of the hardest trails in the UK.

The day started fine with promise of more heat and sun to come. I'd driven for the first time to Bramaer to save on road miles and once started I was straight into the rough stuff. The Deeside trail misses out the road to Linn of Dee for a while and instead follows a lovely bit of single track which crosses a moor and enters woods with views all around the glen. The route takes you through the NTS's place at Mar lodge and out to Linn of Dee before the fun really begins. I've ridden the route from Linn of Dee down to Blair Atholl loads of times so it was with much excitement that I finally turned right of the main track at White bridge up 'that' trail that I had passed many times but never had the chance to ride. Today was the day and off I went into what would be a serious piece of technical riding. As usual the first bit was easy on made trail. This didn't last long before it deteriorated into a mix of totally natural and washed out made trail with the odd random section of newly made trail.

In the early 2000's the NTS threw a vast amount of cash at the whole route through the Lairig Ghru. Previously it had been a hard route through boulder fields, bog and rock, a dubious prospect by bike. For a few short years it was a reasonable trail and worth doing but the weather quickly wrecked all the good work and what is left is little different to what was there before.

Looking up towards the Devils Point and the Lairig Ghru on a rare easy bit. Its an absolute nadge-core tech fest. Most trails (like the Glen gairn trail) comprise shortish sections of rocky bits with nice bits of easier riding. Not this one - it just goes from one section to another with little or no breaks (section as in trials). I hate to boast but I rode 90% of this and I was thoroughly chuffed with myself. Being pretty dry helped as well!

Corour bothy (Another posh one avec a WC). I slept in this in 1987 along with 12 other school kids and a few adults. Looking into it now its hard to see how (it was a bit of a squeeze!) as its tiny. I sat outside in the sun eating a late lunch before heading back to the outward route and the long climb out of the 'ghru and into Glen Luibeg. This is more head f*ck stuff but the following descent justifies it.

The descent into Glen Luibeg.

Yeeharr this was bloody amazing. Most guide books suggest you do this circuit the other way round (ie anticlockwise from Linn of Dee) but this is bollocks as the trail down the Dee to whitebridge is no more rideable downhill than up and doing it clockwise leaves this descent as a finisher! Note there are some gargantuan open cross drains on this route but to be honest these are the least of your problems. There are also a few of the ones with a central rock. The trick is to hop your back wheel on the central rock and then hop again onto the far bank. My one attempt at this nearly ended in disaster....

Oddly the last section is a mess of lines over a boggy field despite all of the rest of it having been constructed. The NTS really don't have a clue how to manage a trail properly despite much money and experience. Whatever I enjoyed an easy roll out down Glen Derry but instead of following it out to the road took a left over a trail I'd only ever walked. This climbs steeply out of the glen and then traverses a narrow defile - the Clas Fhernaigh.

Another gem of a trail with evidence of a few minor 'improvements' most have which have eroded back to natural. Oddly there was a line of bags full of aggregate on the last bit (despite there being nothing wrong with it) however these seem to have sat there for a long time so there doesn't appear to be any immediate threat of the NTS spoiling another nice descent. The track out of Glen Quoich got clobbered by Hurricane Bertha in 2014 and its yet to be fixed. Stupidly I followed the signed diversion up off the track and through a frustrating kilometre of heather. Looking back the track was in tact apart from one bit where the river had trashed it but this was easily bypassed given the low water levels.... Rather than ride back out on the road I felt compelled to reverse the first bit of single track - good move as it was a lovely descent all the way back to the car.

My final day was spent doing (most of) the lower section of the route (i.e. the bit from Banchory to above Ballater and the last 50 miles). This is more straightforward going but with plenty of climbs and some really nice trails. Doing it in a oner as an ITT is defo on my radar for next spring as it's a great route!

Monday, 3 July 2017

Epic Fail on the Borders 350

This is my second attempt at this route. In 2015 it was a lamer attempt - my head wasn't in it and I was desperate for an excuse to stop. This year I was motivated but carrying injuries which I told myself I wouldn't knock the arse out of. And that's the problem - this is hard route and not one that tolerates either lack of motivation or any other physical or mental reticence you may be experiencing at the start line.

Route setter Ray Young has put a lot of work into this (he's still the only person to have done it - chapeau) and it shows. On the face of it the Border Hills and Southern Uplands suggest easy riding and pleasant terrain. The reality is very different - think Wales and the Yorkshire Dales rolled into one. Rays write up of his ride last year says it all really so I'll not pontificate.

Saturday 8am saw myself, Karl Booth and Ollie from Newbury waiting for the off. First bit of good news - Karl had a bag of banana and choc chip muffins provided by Bear Bones regular Bridget aka Borderer for the intrepid riders / idiots. My pre-ride banana turned out to be rotten mush so this was very welcome.

Karl went off like a bullet out of a gun so me and Ollie took a more leisurely start to warm up. The first climb sets the scene - steep fire road then straight into the first of many rough, peaty, boggy trails. Heavy rain the week before meant lots of surface water so it was defo gonna be a wet one. I caught Karl and we chatted a bit about what was to come. Neither of us was underestimating this route. On the descent my nav skills left me - first a missed line then a total inability too find the route along the first of many heather, tussock and bog infested 'trails' down to woodland and then into a fire break which is seriously wet. Cue first above ankle plunge and water into my totally waterproof boots....

Thereafter it was the Southern Upland Way over to and round Meggat Resevoir. On the climb up to Dollar Law the sun was beating down and the track was at a grade requiring max effort. From the track Ray has scoped a reasonable way to pick up the path but once again I was struggling to follow the line on the GPS. The first person to invent a heads up GPS display will get my money.... Eventually I got on track and onto a trail that was dry and fun. A fast descent was followed by back roads and a really nice section round the John Buchan Way to Broughton and its excellent village store.
View from the summit of Dollar Law
It was very pleasant sitting outside the shop chomping my way through a wide selection of foodstuffs. Hmm. No sign of Karl or Ollie despite me being there for half an hour. Was I going too fast?? I've pretty much got my pace off pat these days but I still have this tendency to get carried away...

The next track over Common Law was nice. Well, nice apart from the locked gates and snotty signs. I really don't get this. The landowner will have got government grant to plant the woodland and will be getting further grants and tax breaks 'maintaining' it and yet they still can't get their heads round Land Reform. I was almost hoping some estate worker pitched up so I could tell him exactly what I thought of their 'Land Management' policies and who was paying for them. OK rant over but given that most landowners seem to manage this fine, it really pisses me off when you come across the ones who are still stuck in the 18th century.

Up to Cocklie Rigg was a max effort push and then it was wind farm world. I run hot and cold with these things. On the one hand if we are going to burn so many ions charging up a vast array of gadgets then we can't complain about any method of generating said ions (including nuclear) but I just wish they would make a bit more effort to landscape the roads post construction. Hey ho, at least it made for easy pedalling and another flat out descent to Kingledores (ROW goes right through the Farm yard - they don't appear to mind) more nav errors then onto an old railway line parallel to the A701. 

Memory lane - the line goes past a CTC owned hut which was an annual destination for the Heriot Watt Uni cycling club. We'd ride down from Edinburgh on a Friday evening, get wrecked at the Crook Inn, do the Tweedsmuir / Moffat / Boreland / Eskdalemuir / Megget circuit on the Saturday, get wrecked in the Crook Inn, Ride home Sunday via Innerleithen. Happy days. Sadly the Crook Inn is long shut but I was pleased to see signs indicating that it was to be run as a Community owned facility.

Pedalling alongside Fruid resevoir I contemplated the next section. I was in good shape, mentally and physically so felt ready for anything. Another nav error climbing away from the resevoir spoiled my mood. Somehow I missed a turn and ended up following a quad track which would have taken me fully into No-Mans land. Back on track it was actually pretty rideable. Wet in places and tussock central but 3" tyres deal with this stuff well. Not as good as a fat bike but good enough to make steady progress. Higher up it got progressively worse. Then the weather closed in - no drama, one second I could see, the next I couldn't.

I was in a narrow world of grey and green. I'm no stranger to this but I was struggling today. With views and sun its easy to ignore the immediate problem of the terrain your crossing. Without the view you just end up staring at, and cursing, the terrain you are crossing. I guess this is where a music player would help. I rarely bother with such a device as they are too much faff plus high speed dreich and electronic components don't mix. So someone needs to invent a faff free, waterproof music player that automatically responds to your moods. Mainlining some Shostakovitch would definitely have helped here....

On and on it went. I was now largely pushing but a sudden change to descent confused me. My pre ride map appraisal hadn't shown this. Give or take 50m I was still on 'the line' but not being able to see feck all made it hard to work out what the hell was going on. Hmm. I had no map back up so if the GPS failed I was screwed (yes I know this is stupid - I've never claimed to be otherwise). After a while I was again climbing and then, finally, the Annandale way. Except there was no respite. The path was now clear but it was still a bog and inevitably more climbing ensued. And more. And more. Up and down with little sign of the end. One final monster climb loomed out of the now lifting cloud followed by a final short descent to the A701.
Rising cloud on the top of the last climb on the Annandale Way
Yet another wet climb and then finally the reward - fast single then double track descent with only cowshit and a bit of mud to spoil the party. Not that I cared by this stage. The bike was covered in peat, grass and vegetation so just as well its green! Rolling into Moffat it felt like I'd taken hours over this section. In reality it was 2 1/2 hours which is actually not that long considering what I'd just done. But my mood was at rock bottom. I vowed I would never ride that again. I was done with this route and wouldn't be back. Pizza in the sunshine revived me somewhat. Co-op provided food for the next morning and then it was off again.

That's when it all went wrong really as the first climb produced much knee pain and worse, sharp stabs of pain from my lower back. Also my legs were totally shot and barely able to produce enough power to get up this (tailwind assisted) climb in my lowest gear (which is LOW).

The Southern Upland Way from Moffat to Overphawhope is a gem - nice singletrack and a suitably dramatic bit over the pass. Buzzing down towards the bothy I got a glimpse of fire light and on entering was greeted cheerfully by Stuart (I think that was his name), his son and a his sons Italian exchange pal. They had biked in from Ettrick and were planning on a circuit of the SUW / Romans and Reiver route the next day - a true mini adventure. We chatted for a while and then I turned in.

Sleep came instantly but my bladder woke me at midnight. I lay awake not willing to leave my cosy cocoon when the front door went. After a few vague noises a light shone into my one bed on-suite. 
"Is that you Karl?"
"No its Ollie, whats the score?"
"Plenty of space on the floor here or there is another room through the back"
"Cool I'll investigate"

Hmm - great news that Ollie had made it this far but where the hell was Karl? I figured he must have seen the lights in the bothy and pushed on. Bladder emptied I drifted off again and then was rudely awakened by my alarm. On autopilot I got up, made a brew, ate food and packed up. 5 am saw me leave into a breezy but bright dawn.

The first climb revealed my worst fears. Knee pain was instant and my back joined in shortly after. Not only that but my legs had nothing in them. In effect I was in the same place as I was at mile 530 on the Highland Trail. Except I had 250 miles still to do. Then the weather closed in again. I stopped and stared into space for a while. Then I checked my GPS. I was right at a turn that would take me out of the forest for an easy return to Peebles. The decision was made and I departed the route.

Driving home my mood lifted and I hatched a plan. I would do the rest of the route at some point this summer (Start at Inners, follow the SUW to Ettrick and pick up the route there). Assuming Ray hosts another group start next year (and assuming he'll let me back after two fails!) I'd make it my main / only goal for next spring / summer.

Reading the above you'd be forgiven for avoiding this route like the plague. Don't be put off as there is a lot of excellent riding, fine scenery, fine food and bothies! But; its a beast and on a par with anything else out there, including the Highland Trail so don't underestimate it! In terms of distance it fills a gap between the likes of the YD300 or Cairngorms Loop and the HT so in that respect is unique (for now!) The Scottish Borders and Northumberland tend to get ignored as destinations as most people heading up to Scotland are looking for mountains, lochs, tweed and haggis. This is a shame as they provide excellent mountainbiking opportunities, with as much to amuse the avid bikepacker as there is the legions of trail centre warriors that come here.

Borders 350 - I will be back!

Monday, 26 June 2017

Adventures Begin at Home

The Fife Coastal Path provides some fine riding and if you are into fat bikes some excellent beach riding to rival anywhere in the UK. I've ridden it end to end in various day rides of various durations however I've always had a hankering too do it as an overnighter as there are numerous great bivi / camp spots along its length. The opportunity came at midsummer with an early depart for the train to work in the gloom and drizzle. That said it was a fine forecast for Friday afternoon / evening and the following morning so my hopes were high.
What better way to end the working week than to depart the office on your bike into the evening sunshine, great trails ahead and no particular destination.
From an earlier trip - don't worry there is a nice grassy path just off the beach!

Fife sits between Edinburgh and Perthshire and is generally only known for St. Andrews with its posh uni and golf courses. The coastline is a mix of flat sand and rocky shorelines which catch a lot of migratory birds heading north and south and so has earned a number of conservation designations and is actually a particularly fine place to be. The Coastal Path runs from Kincardine to Newport. Between Kincardine and Leven its all pretty easy going but thereafter gets progressively more interesting. Your never far from civilisation but the sections in between feel much wilder and remoter than the distance suggests.

On this occasion my plan was to join it at West Weymss and head round the coast to near to Newburgh then turn in land back home. Normally I would choose the fat bike for this route but a lot of the north section is on trail and back road. The forecast was for hard westerlies therefore I elected to go for 29+ to make the return ride a bit easier. There are several sections of the FCP which follow the beach but high tide alternatives exist making this a route suitable for all bike types.
After some easy gravel paths the route takes you through Buckaven, Methil and Leven. Not the most scenic of places but towns of character in their own way and all played a part in the considerable industry that grew up and then died in this part of Fife. Beyond you hit the first of many golf courses. A quick check for low flying golf balls and shouts of "fore!" and its into Lower Largo - a very different place from the previous towns with vast houses and far too many posh cars. I think I prefer Methill.... 
Beyond Largo is where the fun starts with a nice length of sandy singletrack to Shell bay caravan park. I took a diversion off the coastal path here to pick up some woodland single track and an easy farm track to miss a section of path with lots of steps. If your ever walking this section don't miss the Elie Chainwalk. If you think your hard enough, take your bike - the Fife branch of the CTC Rough Stuff Fellowship did it in 2004!

The fun continues beyond Elie and I was making good progress with the stiff tailwind. You then tick off St. Monans, Pittenweem and finally Anstruther. These places still have a fishing industry of sorts (Shell fish mainly) but are the dictionary definition of "Quaint". Anstruther has a fine Fish and Chip shop but as usual it was queued out the door so I pushed onto Crail. Crail provided an excellent chippy and the Bikepackers best friend, the Co-op. 

Caiplie Caves - one of many wacky rock formations along the route
I grabbed food and drink for the rest of the trip as I wasn't sure what would be open when. Between Crail and St. Andrews the coastal path is pretty hard going. Its definitely worth doing as far as Boarhills on a Fat bike as there is some good sections of beach and rocky shore riding but it can be a bit fiddly on a normal bike as there are two sections on the beach with no high tide alternative. No big deal but best follow, as I did this evening, the cycleway which follows farm tracks then a short section of disused railway, a back road and then a core path link to the coast just south of Boarhills.

You can't see it but in the distance is the Bell Rock Lighthouse - some 20miles off shore!
The Coastal path is easy here and its worth doing this bit, particularly the woodland single track by the Kennly Water.
From Boarhills the Coastal path is a series of short climbs and descents, all with stone steps. I've done it but its not really worth the hassle so I jumped onto the A917 and buzzed into St. Andrews the quick way. I must scope out a better alternative to this but at 9.30pm there was little traffic on it.

St. Andrews was ridden straight through as I didn't fancy risking my bike outside any of the pubs. From St. A to Guardbridge its all surfaced cycleway. The light was starting to fail but slowly, slowly so close to Midsummer. Leuchars follows Guardbridge, once an Airbase but now home to the Royal Engineers. All was quiet as I rode past the airfield and out towards Tentsmuir Forest. 

This is another nice section of the Coastal path with a mix of grass single track and bog spanning boardwalk. I was now looking for bivi spots but a brief pause in the trees confirmed my worst fears - the midges were out in force. The wind from the west was still blowing strong so I went up the west side of the forest in the hope of finding a suitable spot that was nice and breezy. Sure enough in amongst some spaced out trees just in the boundary of the forest was a perfect spot. The time was 11pm and I'd clocked 85km.

Now part of the purpose of this trip was to get some bivi bag time as I've been meaning to get some more use out of my Rab Ascent bag for ages. I'm too much of a wimp for it to be honest and much prefer the sanctity and security of my not much heavier tent. The speed of getting it out and getting into it impressed me however and the midge beating breezy and clear evening made it a fine choice. Sleep took a while but I finally nodded off at about midnight.
Tayport looking back to Tentsmuir Forest at 6am
4.30 am and my bladder got me up and out. A quick brew of the stove made porridge and a cuppa and then I was off once more. This was all to the good as it meant I'd likely not meet a soul on the path and would be home for a late breakfast. Less good was the hard westerly wind but at least most of the route along the coast would be sheltered. Out of the woods and through a sleeping Tayport, then more surfaced cycleway to Newport. The Tay Bridge was empty of traffic and the railbridge gleamed in the morning sun, freshly painted to match the silvery Tay. Beyond Wormit the coastal path hugs the wooded slope above the shore line. Its good and bad - some great sections of singletrack but some annoying kissing gates and a couple of stepped climbs and descents. 

At Balmerino there was a surprise - a new section of route continuing along the shore following an old Right of Way. This was fabulous - a narrow winding path through the trees with no steps or gates. Eventually the coast was left as the route climbed on path, track and then road to the foot of Normans Law. Fortunately the Coastal Path follows a route that is really quite sheltered so good progress was made despite the strengthening wind. I departed the FCP above Newburgh and then followed a fine mix of farm and forest tracks to Auchtermuchty and then Strathmiglo.
Gathering clouds and wind - in the Eastern Ochills above 'Muchty

Thereafter it was me and the wind - no hiding just a steady grind straight into its face. One last section of dirt down to and round Loch Leven then it was more headwinds and back roads home to a large fry up. Total distance 170k.