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.

Feel free to leave comments.

Friday 21 August 2015

Cycling the Great Glen Way

After completing our northerly C2C2C, Shaun and I immediately pressed on with arranging the next ride on our bucket list. This was to be the Great Glen Way, running between Fort William and Inverness. I also had a professional interest in this as we get lots of customers hiring bikes to go this route and I was curious to see exactly what it was like, having only previously cycled the section between Fort William and Fort Augustus. I was also wanting to understand why so many mountain bikers seemed to write it off, and what might be the best type of bike/tyre for it.

Our logistics this time were much simpler. Shaun would drive us both to Fort William and my wife would meet us in Inverness, ready to drive south back to Fort William.

On arrival Shaun and I set about readying the bikes. Shaun had obviously thought about the need for a little top-up of energy reserves given the time elapsed since breakfast and had brought a couple of extra cereal bars, of which he offered me one. I had also thought about this and headed for McDonalds......

The GGW makes a strange start through the streets of Fort William and Inverlochy and it's sometime necessary to differentiate between NCN78 and the Great Glen Way as you go. Of course, it's all easy pedalling out to the end of the canal, up the side of Neptunes Staircase and onto the long, flat canal section all the way to Gairlochy. For us, the weather was fine - a few puddles and a mild tailwind - but I've cycled against a howler of a wind along here and so know that the canal-side can be very exposed. 

At Gairlochy there's a short section of road before the Great Glen Way is signposted off to the left. This section, and the part by the loch that follows it, is a pleasant singletrack diversion through some lovely woods and a couple of decent picnic/bivvy spots. 

Artful angles

The road along here is signposted as NCN78 and is quiet enough too, so anyone looking to stick to easier surfaces has an option. The two options (GGW and NCN78) come together again for a short distance before both carrying on along some forest track at Clunes. This undulates enough to provide a bit of height and the occasional view along Loch Lochy before returning to tarmac at Kilfinnan.

Looks a lot like summer
It was here that I spotted two cyclists coming towards us, both loaded up with camping gear. I recognised them as participants in the Highland Trail Race and stopped for a quick natter. I think they were both surprised at the amount of attention their exploits had been achieving and as we left them to carry on South I couldn't help feeling it was putting our little expedition into some sort of perspective!

Past Laggan Locks and we were back on to the newly-surfaced NCN78. While I can appreciate the difference this makes for easier cycling, I couldn't help but look on at the old loch-side route that can often be seen alongside, gravelly, muddy and root-strewn, with a little sadness. 
It's big, but is it clever?

More angles

Just outside Fort William, we had to cross a set of locks and saw the largest boat I'd ever seen on the Caledonian Canal. We stopped for a brief chat with the lock-keeper who confirmed that it was just below the maximum dimensions for the locks - and had, in fact, been shortened as it was originally 2 metres too long. It certainly filled the lock, especially as the water level lowered.

We definitely don't need a bigger boat!

Always keen to keep the tummy occupied, it was time for a lunch stop in Fort Augustus. Luckily, it was pleasant enough outside so we commandeered a table overlooking the canal. It had taken us a little over 3 hours to reach here, despite a couple of wee stops, so I was happy that we were making decent progress. I also knew that all of the climbing was yet to be encountered so didn't want to hang around too long. Leaving Fort Augustus, it wasn't long before we encountered the first steep climb. Having already decided that we should take the High Level variation of the GGW, I knew that there would be quite a bit more climbing and wanted to make sure I had legs for the rest of the day so it was off the bike to push up for a while. A look at the figures shows that this was a 300m climb in around 5km. The big advantage of this though was that we were treated to some great views back to Fort Augustus and beyond and also up along the rest of the Great Glen. The track along here swoops over the terrain and we found it about 95% rideable, with just a couple of very steep sections to test the legs a bit. 

Dropping down into Invermoriston, the path was more reminiscent of a Blue/Red graded MTB Trail with suitably impressive drop-offs. Of course, reaching the loch level at Invergarry required another big climb out and this time there was a lot more pushing as we negotiated the zig-zags through the woods. 

High again
It would be fair to say that I was in some need of refreshment by the time we reached Drumnadrochit. Thankfully, the scones at the Fiddlers did not disappoint, coming with a massive dollop of fresh cream. I was, however, keen not to sit around too long as I know my legs get difficult to "re-start" and that there was yet another big climb coming up. In fact, Shaun almost missed the start of this one where it turns off the A82 pavement. Either that, or he was secretly trying to find a faster way to the end. The scenery hereabouts was quite different to that we'd been seeing earlier, with more farmland and signs of actual human habitation. The GGW was lovely though, with sections through a narrow tunnel of gorse and whin that swept to and fro.

Having heard about the wonderful cafe at Abriachan Woods, I was keen to try it out and all the lovely handmade signs as we approached it lent it a strange charm of its own. However, knowing the end was almost in sight, we agreed to plough on to Inverness so I'll have to make a special effort to pass this way again sometime soon. 

Having got all this way on what were surprisingly dry tracks, the wet and mud through the forest at Craig Dunain came as a wee bit of a shock. It certainly went some way to explaining why so many of the bikes I see arriving in Inverness are filthy. Coming into the suburbs of Inverness, the GGW gets a massive amount of signposting to take into account the various streets and paths meaning we had to pay a bit of attention lest one be missed. 

Finally crossing through the Ness Islands left us with a wee carry up some steps to get onto the last wee kicker to the castle and the official end of the GGW. 

So, that was the Great Glen Way. Having completed it, I can honestly say it's a great route. The new high level sections obviously make it more of a challenge (in fact, I'm now planning to do the low level options to see what they are like) and it felt like a perfect, long day out in the hills. 

Channeling Vitruvian Man

The figures show we did 119km with 2,148m of ascent. We were riding for just under 8hrs30m.

A ride of two halves!

Thursday 9 July 2015

Not quite idle

I could just pick up where I left off with this blog and just pretend I've been incarcerated or in a coma for the past six months but the truth is I've simply been too lazy to do any updates. It's a shame really; this winter Mim and I really got into the skiing on Cairngorm and made good use of our uplift passes and the ski gear we bought at Decathlon. We're even thinking of a little foreign skiing trip later this year in order to develop our new skills. On the cycling front, I started to build up my fitness again after double illness finished off 2014. However, with no "events" planned I found it a bit tougher to keep up momentum so I decided to make some commitments as a bit of an incentive. The main part of this was to set out a list of longer mountain bike rides I'd been thinking of and had previously been discussing with Shaun. We'd both meant to get some of these done last year but time just seemed to fly by too fast so 2015 was going to be the big year.

The first on our list has been on my radar for several years since I read about it on a now defunct website that had all sorts of wilderness mountain biking routes. It's the northern coast-to-coast, from Ardgay on the East to Ullapool on the West. Now, the problem with most C2Cs is the logistics. How are you supposed to get back to your start point if you've just ridden across the breadth of the country - especially in the Scottish Highlands where roads are few and circuitous and public transport is almost non-existent? In this case, the answer is pretty simple - just turn around and ride back again. Yep, this little coast-to-coast rocks in at a mere 59km each way making a C2C2C possible. 

Courtesy of an early start from home, we were in Ardgay ready to set off at 8am. A good few miles of tarmac at the Ardgay end gets you to Croik and its church before you head off onto estate road. 

No more tarmac
We were blessed by a bit of a tailwind along this section and made decent time, passing massive herds of deer, though we were confused by the topology and kept expecting some sort of steep climb to get out of Strath Cuileannach. Although it never really came, there was a wonderful moment topping the crest of a rise to be greeted by the view of Suilven in the west. 

Feels like the West Coast now
Suddenly, it felt like a "proper" mountainbike adventure. The track between here and Loch Achall is of varying quality and is obviously prone to a bit of flooding but we were fairly lucky with the conditions and it was a while before one rock-strewn puddle had us both off the bike. A few metres later, I discovered this little aquatic incident had knocked my mech hanger out of alignment as I was struggling to get any clean gear changes. Concerned that bending it back might snap it and being foolish enough not to have brought a spare, I had to make the decision whether to turn back now, less than half way across the country, or nurse  it through for the rest of the day. I opted to carry on, trying to avoid changes where possible and crunching through a few others. 

By the time we reached the last, steep, descent into Loch Achall the wind had picked up a wee bit more and we flew along the side of the loch to the quarry track and the short road ride into Ullapool. 

Lunch was a fairly relaxed affair. We'd arrived ahead of schedule and had no need to hurry back. However, it's never a good idea to let the body think the days exertions are over prematurely so it was back up the hill to start the return journey. Of course, what goes around comes around and the wind now presented a stiff obstacle. The climb after the farm at East Rhiddoroch Lodge was going to be a challenge in the best of conditions but this reduced it to a walk. Once the track levelled out though, we were able to make decent progress again. Just chatting to Shaun on one of the steeper ascents, I heard a bang and suddenly saw his feet spinning wildly. Irony of ironies, it was his chain that snapped, not my gear-tortured one. A few minutes with a chain tool had it a link shorter (it was humongously long anyway) and we were both underway again.

Maybe I need to invest in some brighter clothing?
While we had a wee stop (not a wee stop) beside the bothy at Duag Bridge we got chatting to a Dutch couple who were touring the area on hybrid bikes and who'd got stuck on their way out of the bothy that day, not really being prepared for the deteriorating state of some of the tracks. We passed on a bit of advice, suggesting they could make Ullapool the way we'd come if they were prepared for a bit of pushing in places.

We almost missed the climb after the bothy as it's on a minor track and we were "hurtling" along a better one. However, a small bit of backtracking got us sorted and once that climb was out of the way it seemed it would be only minutes before we were back at Croick and then Ardgay. These assumptions turned out to be false as the glen seemed to have been seriously extended in some unknown but fast-acting geological progress (OK, maybe it was a combination of headwind and tired legs). I was certainly glad to see the outskirts of Ardgay again and fall into the van almost 11 hours after we'd left.

No caption necessary
Not a bad day all-in-all. If not technical it was at least an enjoyable day exploring an area most won't see and getting a fascinating view of some mountains from an unusual angle. The Coast-to-Coast thing adds another angle and I'm already thinking of another, a bit further South.

Straightforward enough