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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Saturday 6 April 2013

Making Connections

I hadn't been able to fathom out quite what was wrong. The newest addition to my collection of bikes - a Salsa El Mariachi - looked nice, I'd made sure the size was correct and I'd built it with a good choice of components. However, I just wasn't feeling "the love" for it. Maybe it was all due to lack of ride time. The ongoing wintery conditions meant I was still using the Fatbike for all my off-roading and hence for the bikepacking trips I'd been so keen to make more of this year. Then two things happened; 

The first was that I managed to obtain a second hand set of carbon rigid forks to replace the suspension forks I'd originally built it with. I've used rigid forks on my old Titanium hardtail and I've always like the feel of them and it had always been my intention to go down a similar road with this bike. It's an easy job to swap them over - I'd even bought a headset and two crown races to make the job simpler. After fitting them, the bike immediately felt better balanced and a quick spin up and down the street suggested the steering wasn't impaired.

The second was an opportunity to get an early bid in for Aprils bivvy-per-month. I'd been watching the weather forecast and there was a suggestion that the settled cold weather was coming to an end, to be replaced with milder, but wetter, conditions. Having survived out at -10C a couple of weeks previously I reckoned a quick overnight trip would go down just fine. 

The only dampener on all of this was that I'd just managed to contract some sort of virus and was feeling pretty ropey. However, I decided to press on regardless.

The usual map-studying routine began. I really didn't have anywhere in mind but I knew I didn't want it to be too far away. A wee while later I came up with the idea of following the Rob Roy Way. This is normally walked from Drymen to Pitlochry but with a prevailing Easterly and the logistical issues of a train to and from the start and end, it worked out better that I head West, ending at Drymen and then picking up the West Highland Way to Milngavie. A look at route maps suggested that a fair chunk of the route was on good tracks and with the ground still likely to be hard, I reckoned that a thinner, faster rolling tyre was the best option so I fitted the Schwalbe Marathon Mondials. Everything I needed for the trip - including the 4 season sleeping bag - fitted into the Revelate Viscacha saddle bag and Sweet Roll handlebar bag so I seemed to be all set.

Off we go again
I do love setting off from home without a car or van. There's a certain sense of freedom that comes with it and I was still in that state of contentment when I rolled in to Haymarket station for the train to Pitlochry. Despite it still being the school holidays, the train wasn't very busy and even Pitlochry seemed quite quiet. After a few minutes orientation I headed off towards the Right of Way to Strathtay, across the A9 and then up the long climb to Dunfallandy. I'd been up this way a couple of years back but this time I was forced to take the singletrack ascent as there were some forestry operations making the easier, more gradually ascending forest track out of bounds.  The lingering snow and ice, the climb, the lack of traction from my tyres and the weight of the bike meant that it wasn't long before I was forced to push and I was only able to get back on and ride when the slope levelled off before the end of the forest and the lovely view over to Aberfeldy.

Looking across to Aberfeldy and the route onward
From here, it is a fun descent all the way to Strathtay and, being south-facing at this point - the snow had largely disappeared too. As long as I was careful, the tyres were providing just the right amount of grip and I wasn't really missing the suspension forks either. Down at the road, I crossed over the Tay to Grandtully and then picked up the old railway line for a while. Patches of snow and ice remained in the more sheltered spots but I was enjoying getting some decent miles in and made it to Aberfeldy for lunch.

From here, the Rob Roy Way climbs up past the Birks of Aberfeldy. I recalled that there were some steps up this wee gorge but reckoned It wouldn't be too bad, even with the loaded bike. I was wrong. It proved to be a very tiring and time-consuming mistake and by the time I reached the top bridge I was completely puggled. Some of this might have been due to my health and I'm sure the route would work better in reverse when some of the steps would be rideable too. 

A quick chat with Rabbie

Thone's jist braw but dinnae be an erse an' bring a bike here
Still, it confirmed my thoughts on the next part of the route. Some foolhardy person had decided to scope out an optional 13-mile detour to the Rob Roy Way, all the way to Amulree and back. I'd already almost discounted this as a good deal of it was on public roads, I'd walked some of the off-road sections previously and it was taking me a long way from civilization. Seeing the ground conditions so far, I could now add the likelihood of snow and ice, inappropriate tyres and my general ill-health to the list of reasons to avoid it. So, I made my way gingerly along toward Kenmore on more snow- and ice-covered tracks. At least the weather was nice.

I eventually made it to Tombuie Cottage where a quick glance up the still snow-covered road confirmed that my decision to avoid Amulree had been the correct one. 
The road to Amulree - still blocked by snow just past this bend
From here, one of the most enjoyable sections of the day - The Queens Drive - to Acharn was a real pleasure. However, by the time I'd hit the south Loch Tay road I'd already made up my mind to bypass the next high-level section of the RRW, the section from Ardeonaig to Lochan Breachlaich. That meant a well-timed arrival at Killin for dinner and a relaxing pint of cider before a last stint of riding took me to the top of Glen Ogle and a lovely sheltered spot to pitch the tent.

Tucked away
My routine is quite well-practiced now so it wasn't long before I was in the sleeping bag and the stove was on for some hot chocolate. While it was a wee bit chilly, it was nowhere near as cold as I'd already slept through this winter and, if anything, I was feeling a bit too warm at times. With the feeling of a long, hard day under my belt I was soon fast asleep and didn't really awaken until the sun was popping up.

On paper, day 2 looked to be much easier but having woken up with a bout of hard coughing and full of green phlegm I wasn't taking anything for granted. It was therefore with some pleasure that the first section of todays ride was all downhill through Glen Ogle. At Balquhidder Station I found that, due to more forestry work,s the RRW had been diverted along another section of old railway. This was in some way ironic as I'd seen this path the last time I'd come along this way and had been interested then to see where it went. As it was, it provided a fairly direct and flat, if bumpy and muddy, way in to Strathyre, avoiding the tedious ups and downs on the road section of NCN7. 

As it was still quite early, I had second breakfast at the shop in Strathyre. I seem to have developed a craving for chocolate milk recently so bought some extra and filled a water bottle with it. From here to Callander is another track I'm familiar with and it went by in no time at all, leaving me to turn off onto the RRW again on the Brig of Turk Road then over the bridge into Invertrossachs. A few miles along this cul-de-sac I found the turn off for the Mentieth Hills. I knew that this would be the first decent climb of the day but just grabbed a low gear and ground it out in the morning sunshine. 
Loch Achray and Ben Venue
The track was really chopped up in places as yet more extraction is taking place but it was still cold enough to be hard rather than muddy. As I climbed, I could just make out a low col through the trees and I was relieved when the forest section eventually ended and I was on to more open ground. 

This path was one of the very first I ever cycled on, back in 2005. I'd been going in the other direction that time and I reckon it would be better heading north. However, the little sections of boulder-strewn singletrack were still great fun after doing so much road and track work. The descent into Aberfoyle is very fast and long and I arrived easily 30 minutes ahead of the schedule I'd created in my head. Lunch was pancakes, maple syrup and bacon - and very nice it was too!

More forest tracks lay ahead now and with the help of map and GPS I was able to make up for the inconsistent waymarking through Achray Forest, passing the occasional walker or cyclist. Soon enough I met the old Drymen Road and with a sustained bit of effort topped out to see the Campsies looking very majestic on my left and then made the fast road descent down to Drymen.

Campsie Fells
From here, I picked up the West Highland Way to Gartness where a little honesty box at the roadside provided me with a choc-ice. 

Well - it would be rude not to!!
Picking up another old railway track made progress south fast enough - and it would have been even faster if it hadn't been for the numerous gates. The final climb of the trip was up to the road at Carbeth. The track was smooth to begin with but got very rough near the top. However, determination and the knowledge that I was almost finished was enough to see me up it, past the huts at Carbeth and then in to Mugdock Country Park for a pleasant wee ending to the trip in Milngavie before catching the train home.

And home.....dirtier, but feeling more like "my" bike and not "a" bike
Overall, I'd covered just over 100 miles in the two days. I seemed to spend more time pushing than riding on day 1, due to all the points already raised. Had I been fitter and the tracks less icy I'd have made better progress but I was happy enough with what I'd managed. 

As a cycle route, the Rob Roy Way works in places (like the Queens Drive) and fails in others (Birks of Aberfeldy). Much of the waymarking assumes you are travelling north though and it was only through careful use of the GPS that I avoided some mis-turns.

The bike, however, turned out to be a revelation. Despite all my previous concerns, after two days in the saddle I can now feel I've made a good choice. It carried the load easily, was well balanced, stable when it needed to be and just flickable enough in tighter spots. The 29" wheels behave just as I expected, making the lack of suspension a non-issue. Suddenly, I feel an emotional attachment to it that I'd previously been lacking and I'm already looking at some more road/off-road trips in Argyll and further West that I've had my eye on for some time. 

Day 1

Day 2