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!
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.
|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.