With a lot of complex stuff going on in my life recently, I decided that the time was right to take a couple of days off work and head away by myself for some pondering and reflecting time. For me, that always means heading north, and preferably as far north west as I can get. On this occasion, it also gave me the chance to try a track I'd walked a few years back and which, since then, has had me wondering what it would be like on a bike.
I'd originally thought about camping but the spate of foul weather we'd been having made me reconsider. A phone call to The Old Inn in Gairloch had me sorted for a couple of nights and Monday saw me heading off in the clag and rain. The weather got gradually colder as I drove north and the snowploughs and gritters had been clearing a foot or so of snow off the A9 at Drumochter. As I'd hoped, and on cue with the weather forecast, the farther north I travelled, the better the weather got. By the time I reached Gairloch, the skies had almost cleared, the wind had died down and everything was drying out. A light smattering of snow on the Torridon Mountains promised lovely views the next day.
Tuesday morning and I was up and dead keen to head off. Breakfast was consumed and a hearty packed lunch added to my stores for the day. A short drive to Poolewe and the Blur was unpacked, boots on and I was off. Yes - the Blur. That might be a bit of a surprise as I've been enthusing about the mmmbop so much recently. However, I reckoned that I'd appreciate the extra comfort of rear suspension and anyway, these sort of tracks were exactly why I'd built a lightweight FS.
Heading off along the short stretch of tarmac road, it wasn't long before I came to the sign - "Cyclists are welcome on estate tracks only". Oh - and the other one "Cyclists use the estate tracks at their own risk". OK if you're a walker on on horse-back then? Of course, I knew that these signs could be ignored from a legal perspective, but I so wanted to avoid any antagonism. Kernsary is the last habitation on the route and I passed through here un-noticed other than by a couple of yappy dogs safely held back in their kennels and pens. Up the hill, up the hill again over very broken, but dry, tracks and then the view started to open out. West to Loch Ewe, East to Fionn Loch and the mountains in the South...... err, hang on a mo..... a quick look at the map and a look around me confirmed it - I had missed the turn-off through the forest.
I back-tracked quickly, covering the ground with some speed. Just over 2km, but 160 metres of climbing I didn't need. Seeing the gate into the forest, I really couldn't work out how I'd missed it. This track proved to be a lot wetter but it gained a height a loss less rapidly so progress was fairly easy. Leaving the forest, I could see that I was now where I expected to be and the footpath shown on the map turned out to be very well constructed and well drained with a decent gravel surface interspersed with rocks and boulders. As an MTB route, I'd say it was just about perfect. Lots of water bars at one point had me cursing - Letterewe Forest on my own in November was no place to be experiencing multiple punctures or bent rims so quite a few were carried. A couple of soft spots also had me carrying for short distances, but overall I'd say the route was 95% rideable. The views were, quite frankly, stunning. As long as the sun was out, there was enough heat in the day to be comfortable but a cold breeze warned that any enforced stoppages would be punished.
Reaching the causeway between the Fionn Loch and Dubh Loch, I literally laughed out loud. This feature, spotted on a map many years ago, has always held a fascination for me and I was so happy to be here for the second time. A quick look around, a huge doorstep of a sandwich and it was already time to head back. I'd have loved to sit and ponder here some more but it's short days hereabouts and that wind was still blowing cold.
On the way back, I braved a few more of the water-bars, happy I was making good progress and when the track started downhill before the forest I was really motoring, the Blur living up to its name as we flicked and weaved our way along the track, between heather and up and over the various wee step-ups and mini-drops. Once again, I found myself high with the exhiliration of it all and was laughing out loud again as I re-entered the forest. All that was left now was the ride to Kernsary and then along the road to Poolewe, whereupon I saw the first human being I'd seen since setting out that morning.
A classic, classic route which could have been made for biking. Why this isn't reglarly brought up as "the best ride in the UK" I'll never know. Perhaps the locals are trying to keep it to themselves?
The Blur was also absolutely excellent btw. Even with the 120mm forks, it steers quickly and can be flicked around some of the more nadgery stuff in a way that the mmmbop can't manage. Any doubts I've been harbouring about keeping it were thoroughly dissolved in the course of that one ride and I'm sooo looking forward to more of that stuff next year.
On the way back home the next day, I decided to take a little detour at Contin and walk some of the trails used for the Strathpuffer. I'd actually been harbouring a notion about entering the Puffer 2011, but got caught out when I an appointment with a lawyer co-incided with the entry process. This would give me an opportunity to see if I wanted to do some arm-twisting and so-on to try to get an entry.
For those that rather look down on the whole hill-walking thing, I really do suggest you give it a go. While I'd count myself as one of the two-wheeled ramblers, there's still nothing quite so relaxing and de-stressing as a nice walk, especially on your own. Thoughts stream through your brain in a way that they just don't when biking.
The track through the forest at Contin was lovely, but it felt like there was something missing. It's like there's no history, no connection to the land. It made me consider the difference between purpose-built MTB trails and some of the long-established long-distance routes. Travel some of the old drove roads or coffin roads and you can feel the history as you go. There's a connection between you, the land and the folk who have used them for generations, sometimes centuries. It's as if the old trails are steak and the MTB centres are just soya burgers. No matter how much cheese and relish you add to the meal, they'll always be a somewhat ersatz experience.
As for the Puffer, well I came to realise, as I walked, that I'd no real incentive for doing it, that for me, it would all be about credibility and bragging rights - "look at how hard I am" - but that was it. I realised that I didn't need that sort of affirmation when there are other, more interesting rides to do. Hats off to those that do it though - you'll always have my admiration.
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