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 22 March 2014

Just another bike ride - OK?

With many negative thoughts still going through my head ( see my last blog entry) I thought I'd try to get in a decent long overnighter to get a measure of my stamina and just to enjoy a bit of a change of scenery. My initial plans were to head out West but the forecast of severe upland gales and persistent showers rather put me off. I therefore opted to head down to the (seemingly permanently) blessed Moray coast again. 

The last time I'd ridden down this way was in December and much of the ride was in the dark. I don't mind night riding. In fact, I find it very enjoyable. It's usually less busy, there are fewer distractions and my mind can concentrate in whatever I can see in the little bubble of light provided by my headlamp. This time though, I set off quite a bit earlier and, of course, the days are now longer. Still, i was determined to make a good long ride out of it and was therefore kitted out accordingly.

From home to To Nethybridge along the Speyside Way is now very familiar and seems to go by in no time. From there to to Grantown on Spey seems to take a lot longer on account of the number of gates to be negotiated. I count twelve that I need to open or cross and another similar number that just happen to be open. Crossing the High Street I soon pick up the Dava Way. There are a few steps to climb to get up to railway level and then it's a steady, gradual ascent up to Dava Moor. The scenery change en route, with more greenery, a few wild flowers and some lambs putting in an appearance. Spring seems to be much further advanced here than at the foot of the Cairngorms just a few miles away.

On the way to Forres I notice that the track has been improved in several places since my visit in December. One part that hasn't changed is the large section of gravel railbed just north of the half-way hut. 

Unfortunately, it's around here that I notice my garmin GPS has managed to eject itself from the handlebar mount. I have to about turn, carefully looking for a grey plastic lump in amongst the large grey chuckies. After a slow three kilometres, I actually find it on a grassy section (go figure). When I re-fit it, I pass the battery cable of my headlight through a little lanyard on the GPS so that it can't fly off again. I take a mental note to attach a piece of bright, dayglo cord to it before my next trip too.

Before long I get my first view of the coast, with Caithness and Morven visible on the far horizon. So far, the wind has mainly been across my path but it starts to feel a lot stronger as I head into Forres. Outside the Co-op I get chatting with another couple of cyclists who've just come west along the coast road and they warn me of the strength of the wind. Luckily for me, I'm heading east! 

Just before Kinloss the road passes through some freshly-ploughed fields and the wind is whipping up a genuine sandstorm. It's so bad that, in some places, patches of sand a couple of inches deep has built up. With that in mind, I opt to avoid the section out to Findhorn and along the beach, instead passing RAF Kinloss on the road before heading into the Roseisle Forest. This is the first time I've been here and, although following the Moray Coastal Trail marker signs, I'm spotting lots of promising little tracks heading up and down through the trees. It looks like a great place for a wee visit one day.

That takes me to Burghead with it's regular, but rather confusing, layout and onto the old rail track and then some coastal singletrack that rather reminds me of East Lothian. The sand is, at least, firm enough that I'm not regretting the lack of a fatbike. Approaching the golf course at Covesea the light is beginning to fail and with the lighthouse in view I decide to turn away from the coast and on to the road for the last couple of kilometres to Lossiemouth. Trying to judge how best to juggle the rest of the evening, I decide to find somewhere to eat and then to continue riding later. I actually find dusk by far the most difficult time to cycle, much preferring full dark. Just as I'm about to go into the bistro I catch sight of a full, red moon sneaking across the gap between the horizon and the low cloud.

Heading out again after dinner, I rely on a rough sense of direction to take me through and past Lossie Woods, sometimes on forest tracks and sometimes along the foreshore. In the beam of my bike light, the old wartime anti-tank blocks cast weird shadows on the high shingle bank of the beach beyond. Eventually, I see the street lights of Kingston ahead and decide on the spot to give up my plan of camping at the beach and to carry on a bit further, thereby knocking a few miles off the following days ride. 

Reaching the bridge over the River Spey, I realise I'm truly on the return leg now and start looking for suitable camping spots. A few pop up in the woods and then I'm very tempted by a lovely, grassy field margin. However, it's in sight of the road and I decide to crack on a bit further. By the time I reach Fochabers, I realise that there are some significant hills coming up and, just in time, I see the Forestry Commission car park at the Ordiequish MTB trails. Perfect! I'll not be on anyones private land and I soon find a decent flat spot in amongst the trees. Once I've cleared away a few fallen branches there's plenty of space for the tent and I spend little time setting it up and getting inside.

It's another windy night, continuing the trend of my last two camping experiences. However, although the trees are amplifying the wind noise, it's quite calm at ground level and I'm tired enough to pop off to sleep almost right away.

The following morning, I awake around 6:30. There's already enough daylight to get up and set off, but I decide just to relax and manage another hour or so of comfortable sleep. A breakfast of homemade porridge-in-a-bag takes little time to prepare, though somewhat longer to eat and it's 8:30 before I'm packed and ready to go.

The inevitable consequence of having quit riding just before the hills last night is, of course, that they are the first thing to hit me this morning. That, coupled with the strong south-westerly and cold legs has me crawling along towards the Earth Pillars Viewpoint. I'd already planned to stop here in any case so rode out to the lookout high over the River Spey. I'd seen these pillars from the riverbank last year and, I have to say, they are much more impressive that way. Still, it was great to look out across the river valley on such a fine morning.

Immediately on re-starting, the road makes a very steep descent and even steeper climb that has me off and walking a short distance. I reckon it's going to be a long day and there's no point in doing myself in so early. By the time I reach the turn off the road at Boat o' Brig and the next major climb around Ben Aigan I've warmed up a good bit and manage almost all of this pedalling. However, I'm still glad to see the last of the big climbs and to start the long descent into Craigellachie. Unfortunately, this coincides with a prolonged shower so I find myself getting cold and wet pretty quickly. Being a bit more familiar with the route hereabouts I decide to stop in Aberlour for some food and, with a couple of cups of coffee and two filled rolls inside me, I'm replenished enough to carry on. 

I had expected the valley to shelter me from the strong headwinds but I find that, if anything, it seems to be creating a bit of a funnel effect. As I reach Cragganmore, I have to make another decision. I know that the section of Speyside Way ahead of me is well fenced in, is in poor, muddy condition and has probably the most gates per mile of any track I've ever ridden. The alternative is to stick to the B road on the north side of the river - even though this could be even more exposed to the wind. I eventually opt for the latter, figuring it'll be over sooner! 

While the wind remains in my face the whole way, it at least stays pretty dry and the road is a pleasant enough, almost traffic-free cycle. It's only as I'm on the outskirts of Grantown on Spey that I start to wonder if this road is ever going to end and then I hear the call of the Curlew in some fields on my right and my mood is immediately lifted. This sound must be my all-time favourite (perhaps after the buzz of a Hope Pro 2 hub freewheeling down a hill) and takes me right back to many childhood memories. Right on cue, Grantown appears and I wheel along the high street for a final stop of a scone and coffee.

The final section home is just the repeat of my route to here of the day before. It's familiar, fun (after the gated section) and with a last bit of effort I'm soon home. 

216km altogether. I'm relatively pleased with my performance, though I know it's mostly been on easy tracks and paths, 

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?