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.

Saturday 15 March 2014


Ever get to the point where going for a ride feels more like a chore than a pleasure? It seems I'm hitting that about now. With the Highland Trail Race just some ten weeks away I've been trying to get out as much as possible, riding further and harder. Thing is, I seem to be losing my motivation. Despite any previously made plans, I'll just sit about prevaricating instead of getting on my bike. The slightest whiff of bad weather and I'm all for cancelling it altogether. Is it possible I'm missing the "competitive" gene? On the way back from Laggan earlier this evening I passed a camper at the side of the road with a lovely view and a brew on, I couldn't help but think "that looks like a better way of enjoying the countryside"

I'm still researching, and getting together, a better kit list. A new frame should be with me in a few weeks, I now have to build a new wheel around a dynamo hub and I'm thinking on the whole issue of sleeping kit. It's just the whole riding bit that's starting to get me down. Having the eight day target means I really have to be much fitter than I am now and getting there seems to be taking the fun out of my riding. 

Maybe I should have a break from it all for a week or so. Do a bit of walking, rafting, or just jump in the van for a wee drive and plant myself somewhere scenic for a day or two. I'll feel guilty as hell for doing so - after all it's all missed "training" - but it might get my head back together.

Wednesday 26 February 2014

Revisiting an old haunt

The flu/cold/virus thing that afflicted me throughout January has slowly been lifting and I've gradually been increasing my riding again. With February being such a short month I'd been keeping an eye on the weather and trying to make plans for my regular outdoor overnighter. If anything, it's been wind as much as cold that's limited my choice this year and with a last weekend in which to complete it I was flicking through weather websites to find a spot that would be reasonably dry for camping. Typically, East Lothian soon singled itself out. This is an area of Scotland without high hills and the rain which those tend to generate and is often sunny when everywhere else is shrouded in wet and damp (on the other hand it can be covered by the East Coast haar when other areas are basking in sunshine). As luck would have it, I wanted to make a trip to Edinburgh in any case to do a little shopping and to visit some relatives. 

Driving down the A9 was a little strange. It's been five months since I've been further south than Newtonmore - somewhat ironic given how much I was driving up and down last summer. The weather was certainly looking OK and I reached Aberlady in the early evening as planned. I'd originally thought about setting up camp and then cooking but I was already hungry so opted for a chippy in Gullane before setting out for a few miles along the John Muir Way to Yellowcraigs beach. Here, it was easy enough to get into the dunes and attempt to find some reasonable shelter from the strengthening winds. However, getting a combination of flattish ground, shelter and a view of some sorts was somewhat problematic and I must have spent a good 30 minutes pacing up and down with my torch before finally settling on a spot. As it was, I should have taken a bit longer. It was only once I had the tent pitched that I discovered it was on top of numerous buckthorn twigs. That saw me spend another good while pulling them out from under the groundsheet before I dared inflate my mattress.

It seemed flatter in the dark!
By now, the combination of late drive, cycle and subsequent activity meant I was already feeling a bit tired so with not much more than a quick nightcap (of the malt whisky variety) I settled down to listen to the wind and the waves. 

It was around 1am that I first awoke, aware that the wind seemed to have increased and that one of the guy ropes had pulled out with the foot of the tent caving in as a result. Getting out of the tent, I positioned the bike at the windward end and attached the guy ropes through the wheel spokes as a sort of anchor. I wasn't too miffed at having been wakened though. The wind had blown away the clouds revealing a fantastic starlit sky. The winds had definitely turned though and the rest of the rest of the night turned out to be extremely noisy despite me trying to bury my head in the sleeping bag.

Fidra Lighthouse was a constant companion through the night
Being restless, I awoke early and quickly packed, not even bothering to set up the cooker for any sort of breakfast. As a result, I was off along the coast very early and had the beached all to myself for a change. The headwind was cruel at times, especially in the area of Aberlady Bay but a last effort saw me back at the van and an opportunity for an early breakfast courtesy of Ikea!!

Monday 3 February 2014

A wee cough (or three)

Bloody typical. I get the festive season out of the way after a couple of months upping my mileage on the bike and then I get one of those cold/flu type things. First the funny taste, then the painful sinuses, then the dribbly nose before getting into my lungs with those threads of thick green gunge. Thankfully, it arrived just as I was finishing up the job in Blacks and I had a brief delay between that and starting at Square Wheels. Of course, that gave me even more time to mope around the house, feeling sorry for myself, and looking at the mostly calm and settled weather through the windows. I've been in this position before and I know that it becomes a battle of will-power. On the one hand there's a desire to get out there and avoid cabin fever. On the other, not giving my body time to repair itself seems to make everything drag on even longer. One week, two weeks, three weeks and it's almost the end of the month. 

By this point, two things are beginning to worry me; First of all, my "training" for the Highland Trail Race is being impacted and I feel I'm further behind than I was at the start of December. That's two months effectively lost. Secondly, having achieved my "bivvy-a-month" target for 2013, I'm running out of days to get a start on 2014. 

So, with only a couple of days to go, I managed a short bike ride and then made plans for a high-level bivvy on Meall a'Bhuachaille. This turned out to be a bit of a disaster.  Rather than bike up, I packed up a rucksack and headed up from Glenmore. Despite not having walked with this sort of load for around a year, I was surprised at how quickly I was making progress up the path. There was plenty of snow cover in the Northern Corries but I didn't reach the snowline until I was at the shallow col. From here, I was plodding up through some soft snow, though with patches of grass and rock still around. So far, so good. However, the wind was gaining strength as I climbed and by the time I reached the summit it was both stronger and much, much colder than I'd anticipated. I ducked behind the cairn for a bit of respite and to consider my options. Bivvying up here was plainly out of the question. Even if I could have found a spot behind the cairn, the wind was whipping snow over and dumping it where I sat. Nowhere else on the broad ridge provided any better cover. I thought about an exit towards Ryvoan but was unsure as to how icy that route might be - a worry with no crampons. While I was cogitating, I was getting colder and colder, so in the end, I decided to bale out completely, head home and think about a plan for the following evening - the last of the month. 

As it happened, Mim had a couple of days off and was showing an interest in coming out with me. We therefore decided to head for a local bothy. She's never spent the night in a bothy before so a short walk in, in the dark, would be a wee bit of an adventure. We made sure we were well fed and stocked up with biscuits before heading in to Drakes Bothy from Dalnavert. It's an easy, straightforward walk with little chance of getting lost and I was experimenting with my LED Lenser H7 headtorch, comparing it to the little Zipka I've used in the past. Frankly, the amount of light this thing throws out is amazing, even on the lowest power setting and with the beam tuned in tight and power up high it was like wearing a wee laser beam. The weather was mild - remarkably so given my previous afternoons experience. 

The lower bunk was easier to get into!
Making myself at home
The bothy was unoccupied (though whoever had last been in had left the door unlocked) so we made ourselves comfy, got the tea and coffee on and settled down for the evening listening to Runrig from my phone. All in all, it's a pleasant wee spot and we soon warmed it up before turning in for the evening. 

We must have been cosy as we slept in a bit later than planned, so made a swift exit, making sure we tidied up after ourselves - to the extent of taking out some other folks rubbish (why do folk leave it - who do they think is coming to take it away?). By now, the weather had turned again and the puddles we'd been splashing through on the walk in had all turned solid. Passing a husky team out training, we were soon back at the van and home in a matter of minutes.

A cosy wee spot

So - 1/1 for 2014 now in the bag and already thinking about somewhere for February - and NOT leaving it to the last night this time!!!

Sunday 5 January 2014

Rounding off the year

As the end of December approached I was engaged in the normal pre-festive arrangements but also thinking of how and where I might fit in my final night out of the year. Amongst the advantages of moving to Aviemore I'd weighed up that we'd be much closer to the North West coast and yet hadn't quite made it through since we moved. This seemed like an excellent opportunity to correct that oversight. Looking around at a suitable bike route did, however, make things a bit more complicated and I eventually settled on a plan of camping one night and doing a separate, unladen, ride along the northernmost section of the Highland Trail route the following day.   

A wee bit of googling suggested that I might find a nice spot at Achnahaird just north of Ullapool. Getting there was an easy drive but I was determined to not simply pitch outside the van so I'd loaded all the backpacking requirements into a recently-acquired rucksack figuring I'd give that a wee test too. Heading off in the dark, albeit with a headtorch was a bit daunting on account of the cliffs I knew were nearby but by keeping an ear open and scanning the horizon as I went I was able to make it down to the flatter, less rocky round near the beach. I managed to find a reasonably sheltered pitch and settled down to listen to the breakers and look at the stars overhead. I'd brought the tent rather than the bivvy bag but ended up lying mostly outside of it for a good part of the night. 

A fairly good night followed but I was awoken just before 7am by the noise of the wind - and the flapping of the tent. The wind direction had turned overnight and was now full-on into the doorway. Rather than struggle trying to get everything sorted again I decided to just strike camp immediately and made my way back to the van before preparing breakfast.

The rather improbable looking peak of Stac Polly
The drive round the coast to the start point of the ride at Achfary was interesting enough. The roads are narrow and windy and the by-now near gale force winds were threatening to have me in a ditch. Things hadn't improved any by the time I reached the little parking spot at the end of the road to Lone. As I sat in the van I could feel it rock and standing outside confirmed it was both cold and damp. Frankly, the prospect of heading into some of the UKs most remote countryside with a forecast of low cloud and the occasional snow shower was feeling somewhat daunting and I swithered about simply heading back home, maybe stopping somewhere more sheltered for a ride. 

Eventually, I gathered up the courage to get dressed, get my stuff together onto the bike and set off down the road to West Merkland. I'd originally hoped that this would be a nice wee warm-up but I was now heading straight into the wind and as I got alongside Loch Stack the exposure meant I was struggling to make anything beyond walking pace. Almost an hour later I reached the end of the track that would take me north. Although I was still a little reluctant, I was happy to have the wind behind me for a while and the climb up to the watershed started OK. However, it wasn't long before I was again being severely buffeted as the wind swirled amongst the neighbouring peaks. 

Looking north from the Bealach nam Meirleach (pass of the thieves)
Happy to reach the end of the climb it was finally time to enjoy the long and fast descent to Gobernuisgach. Just before the lodge I noticed a new bridge off to the left, marking the start of the second half of the loop. I was just two hours into it now, but I knew that the hardest section was still before me. The track along Glen Golly looked OK, wider and in better condition than I'd expected. However, the record December rainfall had made the whole thing completely soggy and I found the tyres were churning it up, impeding progress. I was frequently on and off the bike, chancing my arm for a bit before the front wheel would sink into axle-deep mud. By now, it was well into the afternoon and I was starting to calculate how far I'd get in the remaining daylight. I reckoned that my target had to be the Bealach Horn, leaving me just the downhill to the van to complete by torchlight. 

Creag Dubh track snaking uphill in the background
The end of Glen Golly was marked by a steep zig-zag climb up Creag Dubh which was a push all the way. A short section of more muddy track took me to within sight of the Bealach Horn but the track was fast deteriorating and I was walking more than riding. Meall Horn looked awesome, with the cliffs falling away to the two lochans but after my initial excitement at the thought of a bit of downhill riding I was more and more aware of the fact that I'd have to climb out of the glen in front of me. The track was also becoming increasingly difficult to follow as it fell away over deep peat hags. I was having to drop the bike down in front of me then jump down into the soft peat before lifting up to the next piece of "solid" ground, all the time aware of the darkening sky. The final obstacle was the Allt an Easain Ghil, the outflow from the lochan I'd spotted earlier. It looked like there would be a simple way across in shallower waters but it took me a few minutes to get across the slimy rocks using the bike to steady myself.

Creagan Meall Horn above An Dubh Loch
That took me to the fairly decent estate track up to the bealach which I was, again, having to push up. A few false summits went past and some sections of track were knee deep in snow but I made it just before the last of the daylight faded away. What followed, I still don't understand. What should have been a fast, balls-out descent back to Lone was, instead, a complete mince-fest. It felt like my bike was trying to throw me off. I couldn't tell if it was tyre pressures or something loose but I'd have sworn someone had put a hinge in the middle of the frame and I was struggling to keep it pointing in a straight line. This was particularly a problem due to the steep drop on my left and the fact that I was, by now, mostly operating by torchlight. I was just relieved to be able make out the occasional car headlamp in the distance, a sure sign that I was at least getting to a reasonable distance of the van and even more relieved when the track levelled out again for the final section - through a herd of deer - to the road.

In all, it had taken me 6 hours to complete the 47km circuit. About an hour of that was stationary at various points and an hour was on the initial 13km road section. On the way home, I cajoled myself with the notion that the rest of the Highland Trail route couldn't be any tougher...could it? 

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Back on Track

There seems to be something in the air up here. It seems I've only just put all my overnight gear away and it's suddenly the end of the month with my planned monthly bivvy/camp not yet ticked off. With that in mind, and the desire to get in a decent cycle, I opted to explore a mostly off-road route from Aviemore down to the sea. I'd tried the Speyside way before but I knew I simply couldn't face all those gates and, in any case, it's always good to explore. So, I opted for the Dava Way this time. Like much of the Speyside Way, this follows the track of an old railway bed. That means gentle gradients and often little architectural delights.

It's a good spin. Pretty easy miles and through some gentle, rolling scenery usually away from the roads but with occasional loops towards them in the event a change of plan is required. Aware of it being a long night in November, I left after lunchtime, planning to ride the last few miles in the dark. This is all part of my "training" for the Highland Trail 550 in May and it's good to be able to assess lighting and comfort when there's nothing much at stake and I'm in no hurry. From home to Grantown on Spey, I stuck to the Speyside Way. This has a few gates at the Grantown end but nothing to slow me down too much. Through Grantown and it's straight onto the 24 mile Dava Way. There are a couple of minor detours of the railway bed but mostly it's just a case of spinning along. 

Reaching Dava itself means it's basically all downhill to the coast and I reached the  forests on the outskirts of Forres just as it started to get dark. I got a bit of a shock when I reached the High Street as it's been closed to traffic and the Christmas Market is just finishing. 

Thoughts of grabbing something in a cafe or from a chippy were put to one side as everywhere is completely packed and I then decided to head straight to Findhorn and take my chances there. On the way, I passed Sueno's Stone and took a couple of photos. It looks fantastic lit up in the dark night. In fact I think the relief-work is enhanced that way. 

Leaving Forres along Findhorn Bay I was exposed to the strong Westerly wind. I'd been mostly sheltered from it before and I was  suddenly aware that I'd be a wee bit exposed in my tent tonight. In Findhorn, I found the Kimberley Inn. It looked lovely and welcoming so I was in like a shot for some food and a beer (or two). Again, I was in no hurry to leave as it would be a long enough night in any case. 

Finding a pitch on the beach turns out to be fairly tricky. I was trying to find a sheltered enough spot with a view of the sea and with some sort of soil able to take a tent peg. After much searching around, I eventually found somewhere and tried to get settled in for the night. However, it wasn't long before one wall of the tent came crashing in and I was out again, trying to sort things out. Eventually, I moved the bike upwind of the tent and lay it down on the sandy soil. The three guy-lines were then attached to the bike and - lo and behold - the tent was finally stabilised. A wee dram or two completed my night and I was soon asleep despite the roaring of the wind.

A mid-night pee break had me scurrying out of the tent for a few minutes into a complete, flat calm and with the wind having died right down I was also feeling the heat a bit so left the zips open for some extra air when I got back in. 

Early morning and the wind had returned. Still, I made the most of breakfast before packing everything quickly away and heading back the way I'd come the night before. I was expecting the return trip to be quite a bit slower and harder work as I was now fighting the headwind all the way but despite this, and the fact that I was  generally trending uphill all day, I actually made good progress and had enough time to stop in Macleans Bakery in Grantown on Spey for a bit of lunch. 

In total, I covered over 140km and took around 13 hours over the two days. Thinking about this, I reflect that I'll need to do that sort of distance every day, for 8 days in a row and over much rougher terrain if I'm to complete the Highland Trail Race in May!!