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 steady 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 nowhere 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. I was keen to check out the next bit of the Deeside Trail so climbed away from the firmounth road up a rocky track up onto the moor. This picks up the DST where it climbs up from the Fungle Road at The Guard. After a bit I descended another steep track, did a bit more of the Firmounth past the camp spot from my May 2011 tour, then carried on down to the Glen bottom. The drizzle had cleared up and it was 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....

I put my feet up and relaxed for some time, reflecting that this trip was just the thing after my labours of earlier in the year, culminating in my successful ride round the Highland Trail. Eventually I headed further up the glen, now in sunshine, climbed up over the moor to the north and followed a fine grassy descent back to the road. Some overgrown riverside trail followed, finishing with the day sat in the sunshine with 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 down a ways then it was a sharp turn for more singletrack up to Pittenderich. There was a monster cairn on the summit and more views, then the trail continued down to more double track and a road and easy trail descent to Aboyne. I wandered along to the shop I've used before to get a drink and a snack, sat out in the sun. Then another leisurely cruise back along the Deeside way back to base. The evening was passed in the same manor as the others - why change a winning formula!

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 hard riding 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 daft 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 between Banchory and Aboyne. I had a leisurely breakfast, packed up the tent and drove down to Aboyne. First up was to get back on the trail. I'd traced a route up through the woods to avoid the road I'd descended the other day but this ended up in a bracken covered slope with no sign of the track marked on the OS. I got back on track eventually, after much pushing and sweating, and more fine singletrack followed. A bit of road work (there isn't much on this route) took me to a fine bit of military road - actually a smooth loamy and gravelly trail to Lumphanan. More road then obscure double track up into the hills. Singletrack up to Hill of Fair and Craigrath (More views) then a mix of single and double track down a fairly lengthy descent to Banchory. 

From Banchory the route is a real mix and would be a great start. I was feeling a bit weary so missed some of the singletrack in Scolty woods and another climb near to Potarch down by the Dee. I stopped here for tea, sandwiches and cake at an excellent cafe. I sat out in the sun reflecting that this had been a great few days with some of the nicest riding I'd done anywhere in Scotland. 

Eventually I headed off as there were a few miles to go. I did avoid the temptation to just roll back along the Deeside way and instead climbed back up through the woods onto a fab singletrack which climbed right up to the Fungle Road. Overall there is a fair bit of climbing on this route but there is nothing too horrible in terms of gradient / length. After a pause on this fine Right of Way for final views I descended back to Aboyne. I then took a leisurely run up to my pals place in Speyside for (you guessed it) more beer. The next day was spent with Iona riding some of their newly discovered local trails.

The Deeside Trail is a cracker and doing it in a oner as an ITT is defo on my radar for next spring!

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