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 1 October 2013

Home from home

After a few delays and false-starts, it's finally happened - I've moved to Aviemore. A move north has been a bit of a dream for a few years now although I had no definite destination in mind. Once we started looking round, we realised that Aviemore and the Cairngorms had almost everything we were looking for - after all, we've been coming on holiday to the area for years!

House removals were done with a bit of help from friends and a few trips in the van. However, I was careful to leave one bike behind as I intended riding up. With everything else done, I had a trip to the estate agent to drop off a set of keys so headed for Edinburgh in the van. Having attended to that duty, I had dinner and drinks with Mark then set off for "home". 

It was a bit weird sleeping in an empty house with just a sleeping bag on the floor, especially when the house had recently been full of my belongings. I slept OK though and was up at 6am for a quick spot of breakfast and coffee, then dump the last of my stuff in the van and park it in the street. That left just me, a bike and a minimum of kit to set off just after 7am. 

With a lengthy downhill start, I was well wrapped up and soon scooted down towards the airport just as the sun was rising over the Pentland Hills.

A short spin later and I was on the Forth Road Bridge, slightly amused at the sight of all the commuters heading to work. 

The section across Fife wasn't as tedious as I'd remembered it. Maybe it was just the weather doing its part. By the time I reached Kinross, I was ready for a bite to eat and remembered that I'd previously eaten in Cafe 39 on the main street. Once again, it did not disappoint and I set off replenished for Perth which has always been a significant waypoint for me going north as I feel it is where the Highlands start.

I'd given some thought to what route I would take out of Perth. The most direct approach is to use the cycle path alongside the A9 to Luncarty and then jump on to the main road for a while to Bankfoot. However, being in no particular hurry, I opted to take the signposted NCN77 which was a bit hillier but was pleasant nonetheless. I was already thinking about a second food stop but opted to bypass the Perthshire Visitor Centre at Bankfoot as I'd been in there so many times recently on my various travels to and fro with furniture and other belongings.

Howies Bistro in Dunkeld served up a great coffee and a cream scone to fuel me on the next stage where I had once again opted to stick with the main NCN cycle route. This starts by heading past the hotel and a rather rough forest track. Still, at least it wasn't muddy and the 28mm Marathons coped with it just fine. From here to Pitlochry it's all quiet roads and once Logierait was reached I was on familiar ground as I'd cycled this as part of the Etape Caledonia. The hills along here weren't as bad as I remembered. Perhaps it was the gearing on the Amazon or that I had just been taking things a bit easier up to this point. 

A brief detour in Pitlochry took me to Escape Route Cycles. I'd been hearing the noisy grinding of my chain all morning and my mechanical sympathies forced me to buy and apply some chain lube. I also bought a spare Powerlock chain link. I'd noticed I'd somehow forgotten to pack one and it had been praying on my mind all morning. With the prospect of the path over Drumochter to come, I thought it was best to correct that oversight.

In Blair Atholl roughly on schedule, it was time for another food stop to provide some reserves for the next, exposed, section. The Watermill was fairly quiet (for a change) and I had an excellent bagel. The warning at the start of the cycle path in Calvine is a little over the top!!

From here, it's a steady climb up to Drumochter Summit and for much of the ride you are far enough away from the A9 that you can enjoy the old road. Once Dalnacardoch and the "new" cycle path are reached though you are constantly aware of the traffic. 

Symbolic milestones passed quickly along here. With just over 100 miles done, I passed the hillside that marks the geographic centre of Scotland. After 7 hours of cycling, I could really say I was now in the North of Scotland. A little later, it's the high point of Drumochter Summit and then, finally, the signpost indicating the start of Highland Region. 

I was actually a little emotional at this point. After years of being a visitor, here I was on my way to being a resident. It's like a dream come true and I really felt that I'd followed my heart to be here.  

Ironically, given I was supposed to have left the traffic of the "big city" behind me, I was rather surprised to see the road completely stopped up, with cars sitting, engines switched off in some sort of road closure. As I whizzed along the now mostly downhill cycle path I received various jealous comments from car, bus and lorry drivers. Luckily, the accident that had caused the closure hadn't resulted in any fatalities (this time) and the road was being cleared just as I passed the spot. 

I was more interested in the way forward and, as the light started to fade, drew into the Ralia Cafe for a final rest, coffee and food. With so little distance left to travel, I was happy to take my time. I'd thought about rushing along to beat the sunset but I've really taken to riding in the evenings and in the dark so I was happy to see the sun dropping below the ridge of hills, switch the lights on and head through Newtonmore and Kingussie. 

It was all feeling quite effortless now, spinning along in the twilight and thinking of the fact that I was actually heading home. By the time I saw the lights of Aviemore I was feeling quite elated.

So, that's it. After 50+ years of living in and around Edinburgh I've finally relocated. The house isn't the wee, rural cottage I'd imagined but having weighed up all the options we have a terrific location, great views and so much on our doorstep. No wonder we've returned to the Cairngorms time and time again. The one downside is that we'll have to find somewhere different to go on holiday!!

Now the skylines reach my eyes
The ridge stands out in Highland skies
I just can't believe I'm going home

Monday 9 September 2013

It's not a race you know......

About to cross the line
I've always been a bit ambivalent about cycling as a sport rather than a hobby or pastime. It seems that, as a nation, we concentrate too much on the former and don't really translate that into what is, for most participants, a fun activity. However, a few years ago I was persuaded to take part in a triathlon where I would just be doing the cycling stint. It was the first time I'd donned a number for biking and it was actually a bit of a buzz competing against other riders.

When I started to take the road biking a bit more seriously, I reckoned that the incentive of some sort of competitive event would help me get out more on those colder, darker, wetter days and it seemed to work. By entering a few more Sportives, I found I was pitting myself against mostly like-minded folk - they weren't in it for the "racing", had no intention of joining up to some road club with its regimen of training and diet, but it was a bit more committing than a ride to a cafe. One down-side of this was that I found it was starting to interfere with my "other" riding. If I had an event a few weeks away, I'd be thinking about that, wondering if I was going to hurt myself off on some mountain somewhere and I found myself turning down other riding opportunities accordingly. So, I decided to give it a rest for a while. However, around September last year (2012) I got a bit caught up in the excitement of the Pedal for Scotland rides and found myself entering for 2013. 

When summer 2013 came along I'd not really been out on any fast road rides and with a lot of upheaval at home, I'd more or less written it off. However, as the date finally approached, I found myself getting a bit keener and so it was that I got up at 4am for a drive to Murrayfield and a bus to Glasgow for a (supposed) 6:45 start. As it happened, we were late getting through and barely made the cut-off for the start.

Setting off, I felt distinctly under-dressed so I decided to pedal a bit harder and generate more heat. That worked fairly well and I found I was soon getting into a bit of a rhythm and slowly catching some of the riders who had started earlier. I did have one brief stop, to help a chap with a "puncture". It turned out that a valve core was loose so I helped him set that straight and set off again before I could cool down too much. 

The first feed station was in Galston but I saw no need to stop and whizzed past. I'm glad really as this was immediately followed by a bit of a hill and I'd not have enjoyed it with cold legs. The course undulated much as I'd expected and before long I found myself on a little bit I actually recognised passing Glengavel reservoir. However, the headwind along here was a bit brutal and I found myself all alone with no one to share the work with. After the descent into Muirkirk I seemed to get a little kick of energy again and overtook lots of other riders. I had one chap tucked in behind me for most of this section and while I'd have liked him to take a wee turn ahead of me, it was at least nice of him to thank me before we headed south again toward Crawfordjohn. This was actually a bit of a surprise as I was expecting to go straight on to Douglas (as per the PfS route map). It was about here that I found myself tiring quite a lot. With 55 miles down it was only half way and I wasn't sure I had another 55 mies in me. It was therefore with some relief that I made it to the second feed station. Again, I didn't want to cool down too much so I ate quickly, had a pee and set off up the road.

Now, my GPS was counting down I seemed to get a whole new perspective on the ride. I knew that Carnwath would soon be putting in an appearance and that's almost home! First though were the little twiddly bits round Roberton and up to Carmichael. This latter almost had me off the bike but I persevered, zig-zagging my way up the slope to help ease the gradient. 

When Carnwath eventually appeared, I was again in no mood to stop. With the field having thinned out now, it was mostly like a normal ride for me and I and just set out for Balerno as fast as my legs would carry me. I turned off for the timing mat, had a brief breather and then just pootled sedately down to Murrayfield for the "proper" finish line. 

Overall, I really quite enjoyed that. I think I was a bit quicker than I'd expected to be as once I saw other riders ahead of me it gave me a bit of a push to catch them up. I reckon a couple of Sportives might now be on the cards for 2014 - one early season, one late. 

For those who think it is a race, here's the finishing order.......

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Protracted Farewells

Re-organising my life around a move north carries on apace. In the meantime, I've been looking at the calendar and wondering how I can fit in Augusts bivvy-a-month. It was clear it would have to be a time-constrained effort and that really meant local. As a bonus,that would give me a chance to  try somewhere that's been on my mind for some time. So, after dinner on Sunday night, I threw a sleeping bag, bivvy bag, a couple of snack bars and the ubiquitous hipflask into the Viscacha saddle pack and headed off up the Pentlands.

As I rode along, the evening sun was just setting behind me so I stopped for a quick photo. 

Sun setting over Bonaly

I arrived at my destination, Allermuir Hill, just before 9pm and found an ideal little spot where a semi-circular ring of stones had been formed into a low, crude shelter. The centre was still grassy so I knew I'd be comfy enough even without a sleeping mat. Having arrived slightly sweaty, I was now beginning to cool down so, spreading out the bivvy, I slipped into it and started to warm up while watching the street lights below. 

Sharing my adventure with 500,000 other folk. I had the best view though

Before long, i began to see the sea haar spreading in off the Forth, casting a weird spell on the capital city, gradually extinguishing the lights and leaving a glow instead.

Haar enveloping Edinburgh Castle
Those who decry the use of a bivvy, preferring a tent (I was one of them) are missing something. How often have you sat in one place for three hours, just watching nature takes its course? While I sat here, the moon rose, the haar waxed and waned and gradually the stars popped out. 

Moon over East Lothian

Eventually, tiredness caught up with me and I nodded off to a lovely sleep. I woke up a couple of times in the night, to turn over or adjust my body "just so" to avoid a rough patch of ground and I was aware of the mist having slid up the side of the hills to wrap me in damp air. When I woke to find the sky a bit lighter, I decided to get ready to head off and managed to catch the first rays of the sun as it rose through the mist. 

Early sun over Caerketton

Bike packed ready to head home

Thankfully, the mist also started to recede off the hill tops, leaving me with some stunning views of Edinburghs high points poking out. 

The distinctive "sleeping lion" of Arthurs Seat
As I turned away for home, I was aware that I was gradually letting go of Edinburgh and the Pentlands, where I've done so much riding these past few years. It's still pretty amazing that we are blessed with an area of relative wilderness so close to the city and that it has survived the explosion in recreational use. Here's hoping it stays like that and that I'll be back to enjoy it before too long. 

Thursday 22 August 2013

Still exploring


As the countdown to our move north carries on, I find myself looking even more intently at maps of the local area, identifying routes and trails I've never quite got round to following. It's a remarkable testimony to both the Scottish land access laws and the flexibility shown by the land managers that the network of trails continues to expand. 

Some fairly recent additions can be found at the Southern Uplands Partnership website. These trails have been marked and delineated primarily for horses and riders but they are also suitable for walkers and cyclists. Using some of their maps I was able to piece together a mostly off-road route between my home in Balerno and Peebles in the Borders so I thought it would be fun to use this as a way of visiting the 7 Stanes centre at Glentress. 

The first part of the route was completely familiar as it took me over the Pentland Hills to Ninemileburn, Carlops and then to West Linton. From here, it took a bit more map-reading and signpost-spotting to locate the preferred route to Newlands on the Edinburgh-Moffat Road. Truth is, some of the route hereabouts is downright awkward and I had to avoid one small section as it was shoulder-deep in brambles and nettles. The other issue is that it often follows field margins and so has lots of gates involving constant dismounting of the bike. 

After Newlands the route enters the Cloich Hills. This was all new terrain to me and despite a couple of questionable route choices - where the signposts didn't seem to match the map - I was soon in some very lonely glens. It occurred to me that these were, in their way, even more wild than some of the areas up north on account of the very low number of visitors and that a fall or injury might leave me lying here for days, or even weeks, before being discovered. 

Despite a few route alterations, I was soon overlooking Peebles from a very unfamiliar position. 


I then decided to take in a little of the Glentress MTB trails so headed up Janets Brae to the Buzzards Nest area and down the red/blue descent. The El Mariachi felt pretty good on these fast trails with a bit of gravity to help it gain speed.

Sitting in the Peel cafe at Glentress, enjoying the macaroni cheese, milkshake and coffee I'd ordered I was struck by how late in the day it had become and by how far I'd now have to travel home. With that in mind, I didn't hang about long and opted for what I thought would be a faster route. With a little road work up the A703 and then on to some minor roads it wasn't long before I was back in the Cloich Forest, with a whole different set of views. 

I've always thought that one type of riding we were lacking near Edinburgh was these long forest roads, and now I'd found loads of them in this small area.

I'd thought about using the roads to get me back to West Linton again rather than suffer the interminable series of gates I'd endured on the outward route but I persevered. It was supposed to be moutain biking after all! In West Linton itself, the little Co-Op was still open and that proved the perfect opportunity to pop in and get some cold drinks before the longer off-road section ahead. 

Popping back onto the roman road towards Carlops I was once again on familiar territory. On the climb up Monks Rig the combination of slope and headwind proved too much for me and I resorted to pushing for a little while until the gradient eased and I could get back into pedalling mode.  


Overall, a great day out and that lovely sensation of returning home just as the sun sets - a sure sign you've made the most of the day.

As for the trails, I thoroughly recommend them. Take a map,  be prepared for a few diversions and don't be afraid to wander and explore. Who knows what you'll find.


Monday 22 July 2013

Pushing the envelope

Kirkudbright - one of the many lovely coastal villages on the route
This seems to be my year for trying out new ways of enjoying the outdoors. This time I found myself wanting to see how my endurance and stamina were doing. This was all brought about when I started to follow an "event" called the Highland Trail 400. This is a self-supported mountain bike route through Scotland. The theory is that anyone can set off to do it anytime they want, but in May this year a couple of dozen riders set off to do it as a race. I was initially very sceptical about this; something about racing through the lonely gems just jarred with me. However, as the start day approached I found myself getting increasingly caught up in it. What made it even more fascinating was that the competitors were carrying Spot Tracker devices so that their progress could be followed by folks at home. For the 5 or so days it took, I found I was constantly updating the website, keen to see how they were getting on. What became very apparent is that most of the riders were surviving on very little sleep, riding well into the night and getting up at dawn. What's more, they were obviously pitching up in all sorts of unplanned locations. 

Now, to me, this is a complete anathema. My various trips are planned out in military fashion. Ride times are calculated, maps are studied, overnight locations are carefully chosen and very, very seldom does it involve riding after dark. Another difference is that these folks were going out much, much less laden than I would with kit stripped back to the minimum.

With a few days of warm, dry weather promised I thought this was the perfect time to try out this more unplanned approach. I'd already started to consider some of the challenges. I thought I'd stick to the roads for this first attempt and instantly had a route in mind. I bolted on an extra water bottle cage (nowhere to fill up overnight) and took enough food to get me through the 12 hours or so between opportunities to shop. My overnight kit was basically reduced to a bivvy bag and a sleeping bag. I reckoned I'd be too warm and dirty for the latter but at least it might provide a cosy mattress. 

Heading out of the station at Carlisle I was once again into the land of NCN signs. It seems that every spare sign Sustrans had ended up here and they point everywhere. This'll be the third time if cycled from Carlisle and I'm still no clearer as to the best route out of the station. However, I soon locate the route North and arrive at Gretna, safely back in Scotland.

Last time I was here I headed East across the borders, this time it was all the way West and I opted to follow NCN 7 as it ducked and dived through various stretches of farmland and campsites. It's slower than sticking to one main route but I reckoned my planned overall average of 15kph wasn't going to be affected, despite the occasional missed turning and short back-track. The day was heating up too. I was aware of a mild tailwind that made pedalling slightly easier but this also served to keep me warmer than I'd have liked and it was with some relief that I reached Dumfries for a quick food/drink stop. The only problem was finding somewhere cool to eat and I eventually plonked myself under a tree in a car park.

The section to Dalbeattie is one I'd cycled previously as part of a sportive. The major change in the scenery here is that Criffel, having been the commanding landscape feature all day, is now hidden and the road meanders more following the coast. I was happy to see the campsite at Sandyhills for an ice cream, a cold drink and a water-bottle top-up before carrying on into more unfamiliar territory again. Just before Dundrennan, I spotted some going on in a field. It turned out to be preparations for the annual Wickerman festival.

Passing through Kirkudbright I was beginning to think about food again. I didn't want to miss an opportunity for a decent meal but I didn't see anything that really took my fancy and as I set off West again I was dreaming of a country pub. As luck would have it, that's exactly what I discovered in the little hamlet of Borgue so I was able to kick my feet up for a little while and enjoy some chat with the owner over a spot of food. 

Dinner was assimilated
I was now heading into more unknown territory. Not in a geographical sense so much as a psychological one. With the sun slowly setting and nowhere planned to stop I was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable and started setting some interim goals in my head. The first of these was to decide on a route beyond Gatehouse of Fleet. There are three options here; the first is to stick to the coast as closely as possible. That means the A75 and with warnings from the owner of the pub in Borgue still in my head I decided that wasn't going to work. NCN 7 takes a leisurely diversion to Creetown, sticking to the valley on a quiet road. However, I had been intrigued by a middle way - the Corse of Slakes Road. This is an old military (though not Wade/Cauldfield) road that took to the higher ground. My curiosity being what it was, I opted for this and made my way uphill to Anwoth Church. I was then faced with a rapidly deteriorating surface, a sign saying "not suitable for motor vehicles" and a couple of gates, one of which required a lift over. This wasn't what I'd expected at all and as I made my way along I was already contemplating a strategic withdrawal. However, despite the lack of grip and suspension I teetered along until it eventually caught up with another tarmac road. I'd hoped for some great views up here but the surrounding hills were just a little close and I pressed on reaching the fast downhill into Creetown. 

I was relieved to have got this section over with just as the sun was finally setting and then NCN 7 then put in a re-appearance to provide a good route into Newton Stewart. I made it here at 10:15, just minutes before the filling station closed for the night. That made it possible to have another snack and a final take on of fluids. It also gave me the opportunity to fit the lights that would be needed until I decided to stop. This next, night-time, session was actually one of the most enjoyable of the whole trip. It was cooler - though I was still only wearing a short-sleeved top - and the roads were completely dead. That wonderful feeling of cutting through the night was with me all the way to Isle of Whithorn and then I knew I was heading North again, much closer to my original 300km goal. 

As the miles clicked by, I started to think about where I would stop for the night. The road started to hug the beach for a while and I began to see the occasional camper van. All I needed was somewhere I could hide the bike out of sight and then I finally saw a section of tall, grassy dunes that would be ideal. There wasn't much prepping to do. I hauled the bivvy bag out of the saddle bag and lay it on the beach, put some legwarmers and a jacket on - as much for cleanliness as for warmth - and crawled in to lie on top of the sleeping bag. It was around 1:30 and though I didn't actually feel that tired, I wanted to get a couple of hours of sleep so that I could be up to see the sunrise.

As it was, I slept fitfully, eventually being woken by an invasion of midges that I'd failed to prepare for by not zipping up the bivvy bag. No matter, a quick splash of Smidge and I got my few possessions packed away before starting off on the bike again. I was feeling pretty good too. The sun was just beginning to come up behind me and it was much cooler than it had been the day before. I watched 300km come up in 20.5 hours of riding and was pleased I'd managed to maintain a 15kph overall time. However, on the last, hilly, stretch to the Mull of Galloway I could feel my strength slowly ebbing away and I knew I really needed to get some food in me. I made it to the Lighthouse before having to stop. 

I figured that the optional Stranraer-Glasgow ride was not going to be enjoyable so settled in for a slow day round the Rhinns of Galloway instead. Although pleasant enough, the scenery here wasn't a patch on the previous day and, being so early, I was finding nowhere open for breakfast, or even a cup of coffee. It was therefore with some enthusiasm that I found myself hurtling down into Portpatrick. knowing I'd get a decent feed.

With a relaxing hour or so spent over breakfast I was eventually happy to progress round the final section of the Rhinns round to Stranraer. With 390km on the trip computer I thought I might round it off with a wee 10km loop but I arrived at the railway station just in time to catch a train and with a two hour wait for the next one declined this opportunity to round it up. Besides, that leaves a target for the next long trip.

390km and 26 hours of squiggly road
All in all, not a bad introduction to a bit more endurance riding. Not having done even one 100 mile ride this year I was happy that I managed almost 250 and I reckon I've picked up a few wee tips of how to cope with longer, multi-day trips of this kind too.