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.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Loch Loyne and the Atlantis Bridge

I've often told folk that I enjoy "reading" a map in the same way as lots enjoy reading books. It's during these sessions that interesting features come to light and these can inspire trips to spots one might otherwise overlook.

An example of this was while I was looking at OS Landranger 34. There. leaving from the Tomdoun Hotel is a clearly-marked track which simply heads north and disappears into Loch Loyne, only to emerge 800metres or so later and carry on over to the Cluanie Inn. My curiosity led me to do some digging and I discovered that this track is actually the remnants of the old motor road north - the actual "Road to the Isles" - which was closed when the dam at Loch Loyne was built and the water level raised. By the wonders of modern technology, I was also able to follow the track on satellite/aerial imagery and on some images the road was still clearly visible for its whole length beneath the water. My instincts told me that there must be some occasions when the water level would be low enough to see the road in its entirety. A couple of emails to Scottish Hydro confirmed that this was, indeed, the case and the best time would be late September/early October as the water levels are drawn down in preparation for the winter. However, no one would be able to confirm when the required level had been reached. The idea went on the back-burner for a while - 18 months or so - but eventually, I decided to head up and have a look. In order to make it more of an adventure, I also decided to do some bike-packing and spend a couple of days on some tracks I knew, and some I wanted to explore.

Day 1
The ride started at Invergarry. Looking around for somewhere to lave the car safely, I decided to ask in the Invergarry Hotel and was very pleased when they suggested I just leave it in the car park. From there, I was able to get onto the riverside path, signposted as a Right of Way to Tomdoun. After a few km and a short stint o the road, I reached the car park and the forest road. I had a really pleasant trip along here, in countryside I'd often seen from afar and was delighted when, after a while, I recognised the route of the A87 high up on my right and I could even make out the car park where everyone stops to see the famous view of Loch Garry - the one that makes it look like a map of Scotland. 

Looking up to the A87

The bike, which had being going great guns, then decided to let me down. Well, to be specific, the bottle cage did. Spurred on by the thought of saving a few extra grammes, I'd bought a Titanium bottle holder. Here was I on only the third outing and it had snapped in two, expelling the bottle which caught, momentarily, in my legs before hitting the track. Soon after, I reached the bridge over the loch - around the central belt if you like - and the road to Tomdoun where I stopped for a pint and a sandwich. This was a very friendly little place, the staff genuinely interested in where I was off to. When I told them, they were able to confirm that the road was in fact completely uncovered and in fact they kept a key to the gate so that car drivers (a 4x4 would be recommended) could drive up for a look. I was very comfy at the Tomdoun, so much so that I could have quite happily had another, but having some distance to go, I thought I'd best press on.

After passing the locked gate, I found the old road. Patchy tarmac in most places, with roots and grass breaking up the surface. A short climb and then the view opened out over Loch Loyne. Vaguely, ahead of me, I could make out the road crossing the bed of the dried up loch and a Land Rover parked just before the first of two bridges. 

Un-named island, Loch Loyne

The first, lower, bridge was pretty much intact. Much of the tarmac layer had been removed through the action of the water, but it was sturdy and firm. The remains of the second bridge also looked, at fist glance, to be fairly sound. Only upon closer inspection was it clear that half of the road width had collapsed. That, and the stripping of the tarmac layer, left a jaggedy puzzle of rocks which I crossed (on foot) with some trepidation. It did, however, stay up at least long enough for me to get a passing couple to get a photo of me on it, just for scale. 

North Bridge

Beyond this, a causeway led over to the higher ground and I was soon on that, now heading for Cluanie.

The old road carried on in the same patchy tarmac way until it crossed the shoulder of the South Glen Shiel ridge, and now I was on familiar ground again. Dropping down to the Cluanie Inn was really quick and then I found myself at the bar for the second time today - ordering beer and a fantastic toastie. As a bonus, it was even warm enough to sit outside and take in the fantastic scenery. All too soon though, I knew it was time to get going and so headed back along the road again to pick up the track in to Glen Affric via An Caorann Mor . This started really well, a steep gravelly track led up off the road and I was gaining height reasonably quickly and making good progress until I reached a little quarry and then my heart sunk. The way ahead was clear enough, but it involved ankle-deep mud, heather and bracken and was almost completely unrideable. 

Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan from An Caorann Mor

Resolve got me through. 5-6km of ankle-grabbing heather, of cursing and swearing, later and I was, at last, descending towards the hostel. The track east of this point was very bouldery and rough, but I didn't mind as at least I was pedalling and not walking. As a bonus, I knew I was very close to my chosen camp spot for the evening and so would be able to get myself organised and fed before the fast approaching dusk turned into full-blown dark. 

I recognised the little hillock from a previous visit and dragged the bike over the last heathery peat-hag towards it, absolutely done in. Hunger, however will not just lie down and take it, so it was on with the stove while I got the tent set up. I took the precaution of pitching on top of the hill to get the most of any midge-diverting breeze. In what seemed like only minutes later, it was full-blown dark and I settled down to dinner with that warm, fuzzy glow that is often the payback for these strenuous days.

Day 2
Morning dawned (I have no recollection of waking up through the night) and it was a perfect day. 

Camp spot, Glen Affric

After some porridge it was to time to pack up and head towards Loch Affric. I knew the first part of the path was going to be very bouldery, but I was now fresh and enjoyed picking a good line through the worst of it. Getting to Strawberry Cottage, I was now on a much better surface and I made good time along the south side of the loch looking for my next turn off. This was easily spotted, with a Right of Way sign at the start, but the track quickly disintegrated into a rocky, rooty, muddy mess. I was off the bike again, pushing it through the mud and bracken and trying to find a route past various tress and bushes. After what seemed like 30 minutes or more, I took a good look at my progress and had to make a decision; carry on uphill not knowing how long this would go on, or divert on the longer, but faster forest roads. It didn't take me long to decide and soon I was back at the lochside, spinning away.

No through road :-(

The track along here is completely non-technical but the scenery is completely awesome and well worth exploring. Before too long, I'd arrived at the road end and headed down the tarmac for the turn-off to Tomich. Once through that charming little village, the tarmac again ends and it's back on forest road to Cougie - another of those places I'd spotted on a map and determined I'd one day visit. Have a look on the OS map. Cougie appears as this little clearing, surrounded by trees and yet at the meeting point of so many through trails. 

I was lucky enough to bump into one of the owners and spend a good 30-40 minutes just chatting away about everything and nothing - including some of the trails, his exploits in doing long-distance off-road routes on horse back and a forthcoming movie shot in Glen Affric. He also explained that the track I'd turned back on would have improved after a kilometre or so and would have been rideable. Not only that, but the signpost I's spotted is actually in the wrong place an should have been installed a hundred metres or so further West.  I was kicking myself for lack of patience! I could have stayed longer, but it was getting increasingly overcast and it looked like I was about to get very wet.

My trail to the South West started off well, heading gently but relentlessly uphill it got boggier nearer the wide and open col, which is where the rain caught me too. Finally speeding away downhill was fun, but the amount of water being sprayed up by the tyres was of biblical proportions and it was no surprise that by the time I reached the River Doe I was completely sodden. I managed to cross at a fairly wide and shallow section and picked up the landrover track to Ceannacroc on the opposite bank.

The track to Ceannacroc

My original plan had been to head along the A887 to Achlain and then over he old military road to Fort Augustus but by now, I was cold and wet and the overcast sky was bringing on an early nightfall. After a short snack and some map work, I decided that I would, instead, head directly back to Invergarry via the A87. 

The climb up past Loch Loyne, whilst a bit of a drag, was fabulous for giving me the chance to look back along the Loch to where I had crossed the previous day and I did, of course, get a chance for a photo of Loch Garry :-)

Loch Garry

At Invergarry, I quickly dumped the bike in the car, grabbed some dry clothes and availed myself of the hospitality on offer in the. A wee half and a decent meal was a fabulous way to round of a memorable trip!

Sunday 16 October 2011

Tour de Ben Lomond

I always like to give some background to the inspiration for my rides. This one goes way, way back....

In the 1980s, the authorities in Scotland did something very strange - they opened up a long distance footpath called the West Highland Way. This was unusual because we'd never had any official LDPs before - the historic "right to roam" made them largely unnecessary and folk just went about their business, finding routes themselves. The WHW did attract a large following though and it wasn't long before one Jimmie Macgregor did a whole TV series covering the walk. I was really in to hillwalking at this time and was intrigues by the way that Jimmie would just walk along for a while and then suddenly meet the local laird/ farmer / craftsman and be taken on a tour of some description. It all seemed very chummy compared to the normal walk where you'd be lucky to see anyone! Jimmie was also the butt of a few jokes at the time within the hillwalking community. In particular, the one about the helicopter appearing outside the pub and someone shouting "Taxi for Macgregor". Anyway, I digress. During one of his shows on the WHW, he passes a cyclist, scrambling over a wee wooden bridge on the shores of Loch Lomond and makes a comment to the effect that this was quite common, cyclists using it as a way of completing a loop from Balmaha to Aberfoyle and Inversnaid. Of course, the cyclist was carrying what I would now recognise as a CycloCross bike and was clad in lycra, but this type of off-roading had been going on for decades (so much for the claims of some Californians to have invented mountain biking).

Spin forward 25 years and here I am with a CycloCross bike (of sorts), ready to try out this very same section of track....

My day didn't start well. On a mere hunch, I decided to drive to Balmaha via Glasgow and the Erskine Bridge. Bad mistake. I arrived more than 30 minutes later than I'd planned and scoffed a sandwich I'd picked up en route before packing the rucksack and heading off. The weather looked overcast but otherwise decent, so I opted for lycra all round and packed a lightweight waterproof jacket "just in case". The first section was a wee bit of road, then some decent forest track through Garabhan, following some WHW markers. Before long, I was back on the tarmac again - the wee backroad to Aberfoyle. Paying close attention to my GPS, I soon found the turn off into the forest and was surprised to find that this was still tarmac. Based on previous experience of walking through this section of forest, I'd expected a hard-packed, fast, sandy surface. It didn't take me long to realise why. all along this section there were various small building and aqueducts. This was the route of the main water pipe fro Loch Katrine to Glasgow. 

The good surface carried on for some time, until I reached a larger aqueduct, whereupon it became very rough. After a couple of kms, at a crossroads, it became much rougher still and very overgrown - so much so that my helmet was being used to fend of errant branches as I rode along. The number of tracks hereabouts is very confusing and I found I was relying on the GPS a lot to keep me right, sometimes heading up a track for 100 metres or so, then checking the GPS to see I was on the right one. Progress, overall, was a lot slower than I'd expected but I ploughed on regardless, looking forward to the better tracks. As the track eventually reached the Duchray Water, it actually went across the top of the aqueduct for a while, on some of the slippiest wood I've ever encountered. From here, it took a few zig-zags to get up and over a hill and as it did so, the rain started. Oh joy. 

Descending off the other side, I eventually hit the faster tracks I'd been expecting, some of which I'd walked in the past, and now was my chance to step up the pace a bit. As I headed past the turn-off for Kinlochard, I was aware that this was me now committing to completing the planned route rather than taking the road back through Aberfoyle to the start. I was damp and muddy, but enjoying myself immensely and with a good torch in my bag, I was pretty confident. 

Reaching the road again after Loch Chon, I noticed a new foot/cyclepath still under construction. It wasn't surfaced yet, so I opted for the incredibly bumpy road. I was genuinely intrigued by the choice of building a whole new path when the road was in such desperate need of repair! It's not like it's a particularly busy road, though I guess it'll see quite a few coaches in the summer. 

Approaching the Inversnaid Hotel - via the fast zig-zags, I saw my first other people of the day, generally mooching around and taking photos of the falls in between rain showers. I just huddled into some shelter and gobbled an energy bar in preparation for what I expected to be a hard slog. As it turned out, the next section wasn't too bad at all. I knew there would be some carrying and pushing involved and there were some sections which involved tip-toeing along damp, greasy rocks carrying a bike and looking at a long fall into the loch, but there were pretty few and I'm sure I'd have carried even less had I been on a mountain bike and/or I had more skillz. Still, it was a pleasure to see the house at Cailness knowing it was all cycling again from here. 

The forest track came up more quickly than I'd expected and meant that my pace increased again, enjoying each wee climb and each wee rocky descent. It was, however, gradually getting darker, especially with the heavy cloud, so when I reached Rowardennan I decided to stay on teh road and avoid all the little WHW detours. That meant I arrrived back at the van at Balmaha after 4.5 hours. 

So - another great little day out. I got a bit wet (especially my feet) and didn't see much scenery through the drizzle, but the route is a goodie and definitely worth a repeat visit. The minimal carrying was no bother at all and I'd leave a bit more time in future so that I could explore the bays and headlands on Loch Lomond. Another good, fun day on my CX tyres too. 

Monday 3 October 2011

X = N+1

It's true. The perfect number of bikes to own is N+1, where N = the number of bikes you already have. It's a debate I often have with my non-cycling friends and neighbours - "why do you have so many bikes?" they'll ask. My retort is usually - "how many pairs of shoes do you have?" and then I have to explain that each bike is best at a specific task. I mean, you wouldn't go to a ball wearing hiking boots, or up Ben Nevis in high heels. Actually, strike that last bit - I've seen it done....

Thing is, no matter how good each bike is, there's always some factor which stops it being perfect in every role and with the bike manufacturers keen to keep sales going, there'll always be a niche which you just need to fill. 

With all of this in mind, I've been thinking about my current bike collection. The Cube Agree is pretty much perfect for its intended use. Sportives, long training rides on the road, short blasts when I just want to feel the experience of speed, it handles all of these with some aplomb and does so without being uncomfortable or uneasy. The Amazon has been a bit of a revelation for me. As a commuter, it was just great. As a tourer, just as good. Fitting some knobblies has revealed a whole other character and it has become a wonderful cross-bike. I suspect it'll also be putting a lot of miles over the winter when the roads are a bit more treacherous than the 23mm tyres on the Cube really want to deal with.

Then there's the three mountain bikes. Last year, the Blur hung in the garage almost forgotten. I'd occasionally look at it when taking out something else and ponder on whether or not it should just go. A great trip to Wester Ross changed my mind. I'd forgotten how lively, flickable and fun it was. Since then, I've been using it a bit more and it has been feeling better each time. I'm also (age?) appreciating the full-suspension comfort. The Ti Ragley was bought to replace a very similar mmmbop which had been a bit of an experiment for me. The relaxed steering angle had encouraged me downhill a bit faster, but the aluminium frame was a tad harsh for longer rides. A titanium equivalent would surely address that latter fault and this might be a great bike-packer. That would then take one role away from my Onion - the wee Taiwanese Ti hardtail. As a commuter, it suffered last winter, with road salt eating away at the components. However, it's amazingly lightweight with the carbon forks and is still my off-road tourer. 

Why change then? Well, the Ragley just isn't going to be all I wanted it to be. Compared with the Blur, it feels long and a bit of a boat. Great when going fast downhill, and climbs great, but just feels a bit unwieldy sometimes - and not as compliant at the rear as I'd perhaps hoped. I just can't imagine bike-packing with its so it would be relegated mostly to trail centre duties. Riding it has, however, upped my confidence - a lot - and the speed I gained with it has more-or-less transferred to my Blur. So, it begins to look a bit redundant.

Riding the Amazon off-road has convinced me that there might be some merit in looking at the larger-wheeled 29er MTBs. For off-road touring and for local trails like the Pentlands, this might be just the ticket. But that potentially puts the Onion on the scrapheap too.....

And then there's the forecast of a severe and long winter to consider. Only 18 months ago, we were all laughing at the Fatbike fad. By February, I was seriously seeing the advantage of having one, but it was, of course, too late to get one. Now, seeing what other use folk are putting them to and having just returned from a very wet and boggy Pentlands ride, I'm thinking it's time I scratched that itch too. 

So - what to do? With 5 bikes in the garage, do I sell the Ragley and invest in a 29er and a Fatbike? N=N+1?? Or do I do the sensible thing and retire the Onion too? 

Wednesday 28 September 2011


I've being doing some experimentation lately. The Ti-framed Amazon tourer has being doing splendidly well at getting me around the country but I thought I'd give it a go in another guise. Removing the mudguards, fitting some Maxxis Raze 700x35c knobblies and flipping the stem has transformed it into a pseudo Cyclocross machine. I was a bit tentative taking it out at first. Despite  running the little Ti hardtail MTB with rigid forks, the bigger wheels seemed a bit unwieldy. However, I was soon getting the hang of it and taking on some rougher terrain. 

What I have noticed is that the bigger wheels do seem to run over minor obstacles better than 26" wheels and I was soon getting used to a more detached feeling from the back tyre - grip being great longitudinally, but poorer laterally than a MTB equivalent. Braking is well sorted with BB7 cable discs at both ends too. 

So much have I been enjoying this new experience, it's become my favourite bike - the one I'll grab and just head out on. The combination of decent road speed and its go-anywhere ability is allowing time to just make up routes as I ride and I've been finding little bits of track I'd perhaps pass on a road bike but not be able to explore and that might be outwith my normal MTB riding due to the amount of tarmac riding necessary to get there. 

Typical of this was a ride I did last Sunday. Without really knowing where I was gonna go, I headed up the Pentlands, came out at Flotterstone dropped into Glencorse and Penicuik and then followed signed cycle tracks all the way to Dalkeith, Wallyford, Niddrie, Duddingston and back home. 57km or thereabouts with no more than 10km of that on the road. 

What other rides do I have planned?? Well, a ride to Glentress, a circuit of Green/Blue and a return home would seem possible. I also have a circuit of Ben Lomond in mind. All I need now is for the weather to stay in my favour!!

Oh - it looks the dogs danglies too. I was in Princes St today, having a bagel by the art galleries. This guy walked past, turned to look at it and walked into a lampost!

Friday 23 September 2011

Isle of Man End2End

Well, that was certainly a different experience for me. Despite having participated in a few Sportives in the last couple of years, I've never really considered a mountain biking equivalent. My only previous experience of competitive MTB was a deeply muddy SITS which was more about the craic than the time. Even this trip was more about socialising, meeting up with some mates and visiting a part of the world which had so far eluded me - despite my history as a motor-cyclist.

First of all though, I was clever enough to take a road bike with me too. Despite some naff weather on the Friday, I managed to sneak out for a couple of hours for a quick tour around the south of the island and I must say that I was very impressed with what I saw. A flatter, greener east coast is contrasted by a rougher, more natural and forested west coast and there’s a cracking wee range of hills between them. Road surfaces were a bit dodgy in places but there’s so little traffic that there’s plenty of room for manoeuvre. What I did miss, is that the 61km TT circuit would be an even better ride. There’s a 396m mountain “pass”, some beautifully maintained smooth tarmac, an absence of cats-eyes and loads of padding on parapets and the like should the worst happen :-)   Definitely worth a return visit and I’d encourage any cyclist to pop over for a look.

Saturday was a bit of a rest day for the mates and I, though we did go to see some 4x4 shenanigans, wandering about a muddy hillside watching some real enthusiasts get themselves into- and out-of some challenging positions. We also registered for the race, got our timing chips, etc. The whole process was very efficient.

In addition to tyres, clothing etc I’d also been prevaricating about nutrition during the run-up to setting off for the ferry. As Saturday evening arrived, I realised I’d still not decided, so set off round the local Co-op to see what I could stock up with. “Not much” was the result! I eventually decided I’d wing it with some gels and a couple of Torq energy bars and see what I could snaffle en route.

“Race” day morning saw us up early and heading to the Point of Ayre for the start line. The wet weather we’d had since arriving looked to be drying up as we got there and cycled down to the mass start. While a couple of the guys were keen to get near the front, the rest of us just tagged on at the back of the 1200+ strong crowd and waited for the start. Quite a range of machinery on display and it was obvious from various team jerseys and the like that the event is attracting a lot of off-island interest.

When we did eventually get going, it took us a full 12 minutes to reach the start line and the beginning of the 20+ km road stretch south. It was obvious from the off that we’d be doing some overtaking and soon little groups were forming and breaking up as we passed though some pleasant wee villages, locals lining the roads as we went. Hitting the first real off-road hill was a bit of a shock. The lane narrowed and most folk were simply pushing up. Attempts to cycle past were, at first, successful but eventually I succumbed to the inevitable and joined the throng, looking for the best line up for boots and struggling in places to get grip in the lee of 1,000 other pairs of feet. The first climb ended and what was in prospect was a muddy, braided track, obviously cut up by motorbikes and by many, many cyclists. Avoiding the mud was impossible and it was a case of hop on, cycle for a bit then a quick dismount and carry/push he bike onto a more manageable section of track. To be fair, the track improved the further it went on and as the field thinned out a bit, I started to pass a few more challengers, even getting the bike airborne on a couple of occasions, much to the delight of some of the spectators.

One “disaster” had befallen me though. My new Garmin Dakota GPS had reported “Low Battery” and I’d had to switch it off else I wanted to use it later in the day. It was totally my fault. Rather than invest in some new NiMH rechargeables, or even to buy some alkaline AAs I’d tried to use some older rechargeables and they’d obviously not charged properly. I knew that with all the signing and the number of competitors I’d not get lost but I was using the GPS as a way of checking my progress. Suddenly, without it, I felt a bit under stress, not knowing how far we’d to go and so how hard to push myself. As we progressed further south, I kept looking at the surrounding hills, hoping I’d spot something I was familiar with from my recent travels, but it seemed to be ages before that happened. Querying some of the marshalls and onlookers, I was getting some wild estimates of distance remaining. One thing though, we were down to the last 10km or so.

Having congratulated myself on getting on so well, I was passing one spectator when he simply said the wrong thing - “you’re going really well!!”. No sooner had his lips closed and I was off my bike and into the surrounding gorse bushes. Well, I had to laugh, especially as he looked so concerned. Quickly picking myself up and carrying on it, it was only another few minutes before I was off again. This time, my right calf had simply locked up with cramp and as I lay on the track swearing, I saw some of the folk I’d just passed  getting through on me again. A quick rub down and stretch and I was back into the fray - for only another couple of minutes. As a little rocky step-down appeared in the narrow heather track, the rider in front of me hesitated and when I tried to put my left foot down to steady myself, that one cramped up too! This was just getting beyond a joke!

Soon though, it was the fast, grassy descent down to Port Erin and the rather sadistically placed 1:4 final road climb to the finish line. Not knowing how I was going, I was pleased to see the clock at 5h29m as I crossed the timing mat.

How was it then? Well, other than the two long sections of uphill pushing and one rather muddy forest descent when my front wheel became so clogged up that it locked, I’d rather enjoyed it. I was as muddy as I’ve ever been and the effect of the calf cramps had me walking round the refreshment tent very gingerly but I was already thinking of how I could be quicker in future.
  • Starting nearer the front would have meant less bottlenecks and what there was would be with folk who were likely to be a bit faster anyway.
  • The conditions should also be better with fewer riders mashing up the muddy bits before I arrived.
  • I could break the habit of a lifetime and go a bit more lightweight. I was carrying a full 3 Litres of water, a jacket and more, whereas the quicker folk were topping up as they went and just carrying less.
  • I’d treated the whole event as a bit of a laugh, but a better training, sleeping, eating plan would show results on the day.
  • Having now ridden the course, I’d be more aware of how far I had to go, what was coming up next and how hard to push myself.
Sub-5 hours next year??

I should say that the whole event is superbly well run and it seems like the whole island chips in to help out. Lots of my fellow challengers seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, though there was also a significant number who seemed to have their "race face" on and couldn't even manage to exchange pleasantries as we cycled along. I'd like to think I'm never like that - but I may be wrong!