Mostly, this is random stories from my various trips as I collect them, but I've a wee backlog to get through too and those will pop up occasionally.

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Monday, 23 September 2019

Cairngorms Loop 300


It's 3:20 am and I'm lying in bed wishing I was still asleep. Despite an early night, a last-ditch attempt to "bank" some sleep, I've been fidgeting and slowly watching the clock tick over. I can't switch off my brain though. Details of the route are going through my head, I'm anxious over equipment  - do I have enough, what have I forgotten etc. Eventually, at 4:00 I've had enough, get up, shower and head downstairs to eat. Everything is packed so I open the front door and BOOM the cold clear air of the morning hits me. The sky is loaded with stars and a bright moon. Throwing everything in the van, I switch on the ignition and the dashboard tells me it's 3C....


This is to be my second attempt at the Cairngorms Loop 300, a 300km double loop around and through the Cairngorm mountains. Three weeks previously eight of us had set off from Blair Atholl after a couple of days of heavy rain. The conditions were atrocious and all but one of us were stymied by the waters of the Allt Garbh Gaick, a mere 30km into the ride (Howard wandered away upstream and managed to find an un-mapped bridge but  later pulled out of the ride too). 



This one was even higher on the way back

Conditions this time were very different. Highs of 22-23C were forecast, dropping to only 9 or 10C overnight. I'd packed accordingly but suddenly hitting this cold air had me looking at piles of gloves and other clothing as I shut the garage door. Driving down to Blair Atholl it got colder still and by the time I was there it had dropped to zero. 



It's still dark as I pedal to the start line in the Glen Tilt car park and at 6:20 I'm on my way West, the sun slowly rising behind me. 






Once on the old road at Calvine, I switch off the lights to preserve battery power. I'm not sure how long it's going to take me for the whole route and how much night riding I'll do so it's a sensible precaution.  


Loch an Dúin. So calm.

All the river crossings that had troubled us pass without incident and I'm able to pedal straight across, hardly getting my boots wet. It's not as warm as had been forecast though with the temperature inversion and I'm still riding with my jacket on.


Glen Tromie and Speyside ahead.

I'm easily in Glenmore in time for lunch. This is the last provisions stop for quite a while but, despite feeling quite hungry, I can't quite force it all down. No matter, I set off along to Bynack Stable and the big climb up Bynack Mor. This would usually be mostly ridable but I'm being very wary of the type of short-sharp power needed to get up the steeper bits and opt to preserve myself for the more spinny bits of the route. It's a lovely clear day, wall to wall sunshine, but as I climb I can feel that Southerly wind getting stronger and it's a real struggle across the plateau before dropping (carefully) down the first decent.


Looking North after the big climb

There's a rough banging noise and I realise that the clip holding my saddle bag on has come undone. I put it back together but it only lasts a few minutes. After three attempts I use one of the FixPlus straps I'd packed for contigency. No shame to Ortlieb for the clip failure either. the bag is at least 10 years old and I don't think they had this type of terrain in mind when they designed it.

Shortly later, when I'm pushing a little, my rear wheel jams. Expecting to see a piece of heather caught in it, I actually see one of my armwarmers. It has somehow fallen out of my rucksack. It's twin is nowhere in sight though.

The riding along here is a bit on and off and I'm happy to see the Fords of Avon refuge. The Fords themselves are remarkable. The water level is so low that I make it across on the stepping stones.There's a first time for everything!


Water levels at Fords of Avon were remarkably low.


There's a lot of this boulder field to be crossed before Glen Derry

There's a lot more pushing and shoving to clear the Lairig an Laoigh before I finally reach the easier tracks in Glen Derry. The colours here are amazing as the sun is turning the corner and hiding behind Derry Cairngorm. 


An old pine in Glen Derry catching the last of the days rays.


I'm particularly relived to reach Derry Lodge and get a chance to spin along the track and then the road Westwards, partially shielded now from the wind. I stop at the Red House for a bit of a breather and some food before hitting the watershed but the wind has suddenly dropped and the sun is setting so midges appear from nowhere and I'm forced to hurriedly put the backpack back on and set off.


More beautiful colours and I'm aware I've been on the go a whole day.


The Eidart bridge. It feels a bit precarious even in daylight.


I was so pleased to see this wee guy as I was riding. Made me feel less lonely!

I'd fully expected to be doing all of this bit in the dark so I end up making better progress than expected. I'd sort of imagined getting to Ruigh Aitchechean bothy around midnight but it's clear I'm ahead of that schedule. Just as the path starts to improve I hit a deep mud hole and land sideways. My right leg has disappeared up to the thigh in thick mud and the bars of my bike are buried in it up to the stem. Grabbing handfuls of wet moss, I attempt to wipe it all down. I make some improvement, at least restoring my ability to grip the bars and use the controls. 

On reaching the bothy, I decide to press on. I know it's not long to Aviemore now and a chance for some hot food at the 24 hour filling station. I'm also on "local" territory again so I know what to expect, where the hills are and when to make up a bit of time. Passing the Old Bridge Inn, I see they are still serving. Without a second thought, I park the bike and dash in for a cold lager. 



Midnight at the oasis

This is just surreal. I'm sat in my local, drinking beer, half way round an ITT!! 

Thoughts now are of food and finding somewhere to get the head down. The M&S at the filling station supplies coffee and a toasty which I consume while the drunks from the pubs are queuing up for their own refreshments. The temperatures are dropping rapidly too so I don't hang about too long and start to consider where to stop. I briefly consider switching my tracker off and just going home but that would be cheating :-)

I know of a nice wee spot by a loch but I also know that it'll be very cold there due to the water. As I'm making my way towards Forest Lodge, the road climbs away from the river and, as it does so, I start to pass through little bubbles of warmer air. One of these coincides with a small clearing so I step off the bike again, pump up my air mattress, lay out the SOL Escape bivvy bag and just crawl straight in. I'm damp, a bit chilled and tired but I reckon this'll do for a break. It's just after 2am so I set my alarm for 5am.

It doesn't take me long to drop off to sleep but I awake with bright moonlight on my face. Checking the time, it's just after 4am and I've gotten a wee bit colder. Rather than dig out warm or dry clothing I decide to pack up and set off, target Tomintoul.




I'm 30 minutes early for breakfast at the Richmond Arms so I head for the public toilets to get cleaned up a little. I manage to get the worst of the mud off and try to look a bit more human so as not to upset the hotel residents over breakfast. The staff are on to me though and sit me through in the bar area away from the other guests! 

Despite being aware that I need to keep my energy levels up I actually struggle with the full breakfast and just can't eat it all. I still have lots of snacks with me though and I know that I will make Braemar by late afternoon.

Setting off up Glen Avon the winds are now ferocious. It's a lovely glen but there is no shelter and I'm often struggling to make progress. The climb up to Loch Builg has me off the bike again after being blown off sideways a couple of times. 

Glen Avon. Lovely to look at......


....can't see the wind though!

There's no respite either on the climb up Culardoch. I'm forced to count a few steps, stop, re-start until I eventually see the slope levelling out and the view over to Lochnagar. What follows should be a fast downhill but I'm aware of the cross-winds now so I have to rein it in a bit. After another climb I hit the pine woods and then the main road for a tired schlepp into Braemar. 


Culardoch climb complete

Lochnagar - and about as much cloud as I saw over two days.

At this lower altitude, and with the shelter of the buildings, it has suddenly become much warmer but I opt to get out of the sun and have a toastie in the Bothy Bistro. I'm sat beside the wide-open door though so any odours are at least escaping. Again, I struggle to eat much. Then I'm off towards Linn of Dee again. There is more shelter here so I'm out of the wind and it's really very pleasant. Part of me wants to stop, maybe overnight, just to rest and enjoy the evening. However, I'm not carrying enough for a comfortable long stop so it's time to crack onwards.


Obligatory selfie


Bynack Lodge. A potential lazy stopover.
At Linn of Dee I'm back on the track I passed over less than a day before. This feels a bit weird, like I'm doing laps of some huge race, but at the Red House (no midge this time) I cross the Geldie and start my way south - back into the headwind - again. The top end of the Glen is fine but as the Tilt develops the track deteriorates again and I'm simply too tired to deal with it. Again, I'm reduced to pushing the bike, maybe getting on for short sections.

And then there's the "sting in the tail". A less sadistic route-setter would have ended the circuit by heading straight down the Tilt to Blair Atholl on a good, fast track. Steve Wilkinson isn't that man though and It's off up to Fealar Lodge after crossing the river. I'm reckoning on this taking up to 5 hours on account of my fatigue and give myself a wee target of trying to be back at the van by midnight.  I'd completely forgotten how steep the climb out of the glen is and it's a case of pushing up a metre or so, then stopping, then pushing, then stopping. When the track flattens out a little I can see the good estate road I'll be on but it's a long and frustrating detour to get to it. Once there though, I'm slightly happier. At least I can mostly ride now, despite the further climbs. Hitting the Allt Fearnach descent gives me a huge buzz. Suddenly I'm moving very quickly and closing the distance between myself and the end of the loop. I'm very glad of having full suspension too as I'm getting tired and lazy and I can just let the bike handle all the rough stuff. 

Turning Westwards at Daldhu the sun has set again and It's back to using the lights. I'm happier to up the power levels though as I know I'll have enough juice to get me back to the van. Inevitably, I'm again forced to push uphill and then I seem to struggle to find the turn-off I need. I keep looking at the GPS, and it's clearly marked on the map, so I ride a while, check the GPS and I don't seem to be any closer. It's frustrating and I reckon my mind is just now starting to struggle. Eventually, I see the turn off and head down towards the river crossing. My exuberance is too much and I have another over-the-bars but land on the heather, cushioning any damage. This is stupid. I'm within just a few km of the end so risk-taking really isn't warranted. 

The final climb gets me to a new piece of hard-packed track and from there it's another fast descent past the weirded-out fishers at Loch Moraig, onto the tarmac and the final couple of twists and turns down to Blair Atholl.

The route officially ends at the railway station so I head straight there to get a customary selfie with the station clock. When I look at the photo I see it's around 10:20 so I convince myself it's not been re-set since the start of BST. Only when I check the time again on my phone do I see that's it's actually correct and I'd made it back much quicker than I'd expected.


Aye - it's all smiles now....



That's a pretty significant tick in the box for me. I've upped my mileage this year, refined my kit list and even opted to change bikes for this one. Making it back in just under 40 hours was as much (more) than I'd expected. I was frustrated by the wind, which never really seemed to work in my favour and struggled to eat properly. I also think I made some sensible tactical decisions - like not pushing too hard on the difficult trails and saving my energy for the fast ones. 



A ready-reckoner for a tired mind
301km, 4,866m of ascent



I reckon my next trip might involve quiet roads, B&Bs and pubs...

More info on the Cairngorms Loop route and the "rules" around self-sufficient bikepacking ITTs can be found here: http://cairngormsloop.net/

Big thanks to Steve W for having the foresight to set this up.

And the best bike for bikepacking is....

The one you already own…

It’s a bit of a meme, I know. Oft asserted by the old hands who have carefully built up their bike collections and have a bike for every possible niche.

For a bit of a change, I thought I’d go against the grain a bit and do away with that, choosing to take out my “Less than appropriate” Orbea Occam on a trip I’ve been thinking about since I moved to Aviemore 6 years ago. Simply enough, it’s 50km to the trail centre at Glenlivet, so ride there, bivvy, do the red descent, then ride home.

To help with the load bearing, I fitted a Gorilla Cage to the one set of bottle mounts on the frame. That gave me some storage space low down. My insulated jacket squeezed into a small drybag there. I also fitted an old Ortlieb 3L saddle bag that I bought years ago for commuting. That held a couple of inner tubes, tool, levers, some snacks and a few items of clothing I might want through the day. Having packed those, the rest of my overnight kit went in a 25L rucksack. It was by no means full and the weight wasn’t so great as to feel uncomfortable.




It’s a fairly well-kent route, heading up past Ryvoan Bothy, past Dorback Lodge and on to the Burn of Brown.




There are various bits of singletrack to be enjoyed on the way.













The trails were all very dry and I managed to make all the river crossings dryshod. However, at this point, disaster struck. A bottle of Smidge I’d been carrying in the side pocket of my rucksack had bounced out. This was potentially the end of my ride. Bivvying with just a tarp and no midge protection at this time of year was likely to be fatal. A quick check of the time and I reckoned I might just make it to the one shop in Tomintoul before it closed – though I had no idea what time that was. What had been a leisurely ride became a sweaty race and I pulled up to the Tomintoul Post Office at 18:05. Thankfully, they were still open and I managed to come away with a bottle of Jungle Formula.

I was now desperate for food and drink so popped into one of the hotels for a cold beer and some hot food. I made the mistake of taking my GPS with me and, when browsing through the maps, came up with another option for the night – to head to Faindouran with a view to the Fords of Avon and Loch Avon in the morning and a climb up Coire Raibert to get back home. This was only really an option due to my choice of bike and carrying most kit in my rucksack. The thought of lugging a laden bike up Coire Raibert would never have occurred to me.

In the end, I opted to stick with Plan A. There is something particularly refreshing about camping high. As I left Tomintoul, dusk was settling in and I took the Speyside Way to the top of Carn Daimh. Given previous experience with other sections of the Speyside Way, I should have known better…

I was suckered in at the beginning as there has obviously been some recent pathworks on this section. This flock of sheep were certainly making good use of it.




After that, it did the SSW trick of running around field margins over tussocks, before making a beeline up a hill. I was just able to keep enough momentum going, particularly thankful for the rear suspension. As I climbed, the sun was just beginning to dip below the nearby hills.



 By the time I made it to the summit, the sky had become a deep red.


Despite the quite fierce wind, I hung around sheltered by the viewpoint as the world around me went dark. It didn’t look like the wind was about to drop any time so I headed downhill into the lee and came across a great little spot for my tarp. As I was setting it up, the wind DID drop and I was suddenly engulfed by the flying hordes. I scrambled to put on a midge hood and leg warmers and considered decamping to the top of the hill. However, the lull was only brief and the wind picked up again, just as strong. Decision made, I was here for the night.



I had a pretty good nights sleep. One pee break at 2am, then an alarm call at 5:45 for the dawn. It was overcast and dull so nothing to write home about. Another nap ensued before I packed up and headed to the top of the red trail.







Not my fastest descent and the amount of seat drop I could manage was limited by the bag I’d fitted, but great fun and even better knowing I’d not have to take that dumb-assed route back to the trail head. Instead, I headed back to Tomintoul for breakfast.



After breakfast, the route back also gave me the opportunity to stop at the viewpoint I’d had to speed past the night before, en route to the shop and midge salvation.







I wasn’t the only busy soul around, especially now that the heather is in full bloom.






So, a great trip. Proof enough for me that you don’t need to spend a couple of thousand on Ti-framed, B-Plus bikes with expensive, niche bags (though feel free to do so). If I lost out on some road/gravel sections, I certainly made up for it on the fun singletrack and descents. There are also other routes (like my Loch Avon idea) that suddenly become a lot more do-able. My one piece of advice though would be to, instead, spend some of that money on lightweight overnight kit. Once you can cut the weight and bulk, opting for a rucksack is nowhere near as bad as it might be (and I’ve made that mistake in the past).

Of course, I’m probably now blacklisted by the Guild of Bikepackers for my heresy, but at least my Orbea is in British Bikepacking Orange 🙂



Home to home

Piemonster (Shaun) had a plan that we should do a 2-day ride from his house in Burntisland to mine in Aviemore. I left all the route planning in his hands, other than adding a compulsory stop at Stewart Tower Farm. Shaun booked annual leave, I booked a train to Burntisland. Then Shaun contacted me the day before to tell me he wasn't feeling too well. Rather than let the plan be wasted I decided to do it solo, though Shaun accompanied me for the ride through Dunfermline. 

Bikes on trains are great. It always spells a.d.v.e.n.t.u.r.e.




Weather on the day turned out to be much better than forecast. It was weird to be looking at Edinburgh after having lived there for over 50 years.



We had a second breakfast at Aberdour before hitting the delights of Dunfermline (lots of houses but almost continuous cycle path), whereupon Shaun headed back and I headed up and over the Cleish Hills. It's a gradual climb up but gives great views over Loch Leven and a nice descent.



Soon enough I was on the shores of Loch Leven, following Shauns carefully mapped route and thus ignoring shorter/faster options.



I saw lots of these signs on the byways near Glenfarg



Almost every one was right before a climb  :roll: 

Before long, I was thinking about food again and considered stopping in Perth but I still had a goal in mind.



For those that haven't been, the cows that make the milk used in the ice cream are in the field next door. It's as close to zero food miles as you can get so I always "support their business".  :lol: 


Some of Shauns route choices were, err, eccentric.



I'd no idea of how deep this was going to be but escaped with just damp soles.


Not a bad gateway for a Sustrans route.



Just don't expect the same standards everywhere.


At Killiecrankie I took another Shaun bypass option.




By this time, I'd already planned to stop for food in Blair Atholl but was now left wondering what my next step would be. With no sparkling and witty banter to be had, I didn't fancy hugging the bar for a couple of hours, so the original plan of bivvying in Blair and then heading for breakfast at House of Bruar was cast aside. It was all now about how far it was worth pedalling on. I even considered just riding home. I'd likely arrive about 1 am. However, I really enjoy sleeping outdoors so, after finding out that the Newtonmore Grill opened at 6:30, I decided to head north and see how the legs were. 


You can check out, but you can never leave.


I obviously had a tailwind coming over Drumochter as I found myself reaching Dalwhinnie before 10. And then the rain started. That made up my mind and I decided to find somewhere to pitch. With two roads and a rail line to consider I reckoned on a spot at the end of Loch Ericht for a bit pf peace. While it hadn't been too windy, I now had a wind coming right up the loch. Ignoring thoughts of recent dam bursts I found a sheltered spot on the dam wall. 



In fact, it was so sheltered that I was even getting midged.

What followed was, I think, the worst nights "sleep" I've ever had. I was comfy, warm, tired and sheltered from the wind I could hear gently roaring over the dam but I just couldn't get to sleep. I reckon I had maybe 2-3 hours in total, broken up through the night. I was also getting various cramps, possibly from dehydration. Maybe I was subconsciously just wishing I'd cycled through the night and gone home.


By 5 am I was ready to strike camp (in the rain) and head north to Newtonmore.


I arrived just as the cafe was opening and sat eating my roll surrounded by drowsy truck drivers, obviously all wondering what the hell I was doing there. A constant light drizzle followed me home, with me getting there at 9 am. 


All in all, a funny old trip. Not as planned and a lousy nights sleep. Still, all good miles though and enough nice food to help make up for it all.