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.

Thursday 29 May 2014

Back in the saddle

I guess that I should have expected some sort of psychological backlash after pulling out of the Highland Tail Race. The hours and miles I'd put in all suddenly seemed a bit worthless and, after a day out round Loch Katrine, the bikes had been hanging up in the garage, unused. Somehow, I just didn't have any enthusiasm to ride them for a day or two, a week, a fortnight...

Thankfully Ian, one of my occasional riding buddies, had been rounding folk up for a day round part of Perthshire and this had caught my eye for a couple of reasons; if there's such a thing as a "bucket list" of Scottish mountain-biking then the Atholl passes of the Minigaig and the Gaick are surely found in it. These old routes had caught my eye as a hillwalker and yet I've somehow never managed to cross them. I guess that the logistics of the long day between Blair Atholl and Kingussie, and then getting back to the start, never quite worked out for me. However, with a bicycle available, it suddenly looked feasible to do them both on the same day. 

The second reason is that I'd seen bit of both routes from the north end last year and I was keen to see how they both arrived in Glen Tromie. That would give me some possible long distance routes from home.

On the day, the weather wasn't that great looking - in fact, it was lashing it down as I passed Drumochter. However, it was at least holding off as Andrew, Ian and I geared up for the ride in Calvine. 

It's a bit of a sharp start after crossing the A9, but once some height is gained there's a fairly easy spin along Glen Bruar. The track is certainly a lot less rough than when I'd previously cycled here - all of 20 years ago on my way to climb Beinn Dearg. The other thing that had changed was that the river was almost dry - a result of a new hydro scheme perhaps. Certainly, the approach to Glen Bruar from Glen Banvie is now a lot easier. After passing the lodge, the track starts to get a little steeper and then it's the end of the glen with a steep rise up ahead. 

Where the walking starts
We'd already worked out that this was the time to get off and push and, though it rose steeply, it was reasonably easy going. As the plateau was reached, and the ground started to flatten out, it was off/on the bikes for a while until we eventually reached the summit and started the fun bit! 

On or off the bike - you choose
Finally, some downhill
Bruar Big Ride
Still plenty of snow up here too.
Sadly, that was to end all too soon as the track deteriorated into a muddy, squelchy quad track and then through wet bog and heather. Having made the mistake of choosing neither waterproof boots nor waterproof socks, my feet were now sodden. Still, it made fording the numerous rivers and streams easier as I just ploughed through rather than delicately selecting stepping stones. 

Once in Glen Tromie, I recognised part of the track I'd done last year from Glen Feshie. I knew that the percentage rideability was increasing, which was a wee boost. Descending down to the weir, I'd taken a slightly different line from Andrew and Ian and almost ran over an adder sunning him(her)self. Leaving the bike as a marker I called out to the guys to take a look but it was a bit shy and they only managed to catch a glimpse of its tail as it slunk into a wee hole under some heather. 

Another river crossing saw us onto a decent track for a while and then it was up along the Gaick. This is a much lower, faster, easier route than the Minigaig (it was once considered as an option for the main road north rather than Drumochter) so we made pretty good time despite the headwind. 
Bruar Big Ride
Looking back through the Gaick
Another river forded and we were at Loch an Duin. Here, again, there was some on/off bike action, especially given legs were beginning to tire. Still, it was all downhill from here (Andrew would disagree) and the weather was as good as we'd had all day, so it made for a pleasant end to a grand day out in the hills.

I was really pleased to be able to tick off two routes I'd long want to do and it was great to get a bit of a leg-stretch again after my withdrawal from the HTR. A massive thanks has to go to Ian for arranging it and giving me sufficient incentive. 

(and thanks to both Ian and Andrew for the use of their photos)

Thursday 24 April 2014

Count me Out

The past few months have seen me obsess over the forthcoming Highland Trail Race. I've been poring over maps, doing lots of extra riding, tweaking my equipment choices, planning stops and logistics and basically boring the hell out of my wife. I've certainly been making the most of any opportunity to get out on my bike, though it's sometimes felt like a bit of a chore rather than just being for fun

Last weekend I took the opportunity to do a reconnaissance of part of the HTR route and to get in an overnight bivvy. Starting at Laggan gave me the opportunity to cross the Corrieyairack East to West for the first time, something I'd been thinking about all year but had delayed due to the record levels of snowfall in the mountains. The weather was excellent as I started out, with not a cloud to be seen. 

Cloudless morning at Loch Spey
The road section up to Garva Bridge and then to Melgarve bothy went in easily enough and then it was on to the rougher (but recently resurfaced) track. A few of the stone water-bars proved to be deep and tricky and I opted to get off the bike for a couple. No point in having a stupid accident this early! The foot of the zig-zags was soon reached and I reverted to a little pushing up his section, climbing up through some large patches of snow to the little hut on top. 

Last of the snow patches on the Corrieyairack
Hills, hills and more hills
From here, the view west was amazing with snow-mottled mountains ringing the horizon. The descent is a full-on blast with the only major hazard being watering eyes. A couple of smaller climbs and descents and I was soon at a very busy Fort Augustus. 

First view of Loch Ness
A great day for messing about in boats
My plan here had been to check out a little cafe I'd eaten in on a previous trip and to check out what time they opened for breakfast but, despite it being a busy Easter Sunday, they were closed. I found a little chippie-type restaurant round the corner but after standing in a stationary queue for ten minutes opted just to grab some stuff from the supermarket and eat it al fresco. 

The next section follows the Great Glen Way all the way to Fort William so it's partly canal towpath, partly old railway bed and partly forest track. Another little detour en route took me to the shop at the Well of the Seven Heads, again to check opening times. I made it just as they were closing up for the day so opted for an ice-cream pick-me-up. 
Ben Nevis backdrop
Reaching the public road to Loch Arkaig then had me searching for a little detour by the lochside - the signpost for which was hidden behind a cunningly-parked car. This was a lovely little section with definite potential for some wild camping. I was running fairly close to my planned schedule at this point so opted for food in Fort William - an unashamed indulgence at McDonalds proved just the thing. 

Nom, nom, nom

I'd also realised just before here that the second days riding would see me pass no food stops of any kind, so stocked up with some snacks to carry me through. It was just before 6pm when I headed along Glen Nevis on the West Highland Way and I reckoned a couple of hours riding would get me well into the Lairigmor as planned. 
On the West Highland Way above Glen Nevis
The initial climb out of the glen proved to be OK, until I met a "track closed" sign. It was obvious that some timber extraction was in progress but I (correctly) reckoned there would be no one working on a Sunday evening so skipped around the gates for the short distance involved. I was very glad I had as the signposted detour from a lower forest track ended up with an incredibly steep ascent back to the normal route. 

Once the forest track ended, the WHW simply got steeper and more difficult to ride and I was eventually reduced to pushing and hauling the bike along, including a steep section of steps with a handrail on only one side and a potentially high penalty for loss of balance. I was therefore happy when the path started to level off again and I could get in some more riding. The sweeping singletrack along here towards Lundavra proved to be a highlight of the trip with some easy inclines and rocky steps. After the pleasure however, comes the pain and as the track carried on up again it developed into a massive boulder field. To exacerbate matters, I seemed to be riding into a wind-tunnel and the combination of tired legs, boulders, a laden bike and the headwind meant I was reduced to walking long sections. As I did so, I became increasingly aware of falling behind schedule. 
Tigh na sluebhaich
I passed three French guys who were pitching their tents, watching the setting sun out west while I pushed on eastwards, determined to reduce the distance I'd need to ride the next day. The strong wind threatened to make any overnight stop up here a bit of a pain, so I decided to push on to the relative shelter of Kinlochleven. With darkness falling fast, I reached the final descent, making reasonable time until the path disappeared into the woods, whereupon I was, once again, reduced to pushing the bike downhill. 

Last of the daylight with the Pap of Glencoe in the background
By now, I was fed up of chasing a target time and distance, of concentrating only on getting somewhere and not being able to stop to take in my surroundings. A stunning West Highland evening had come and gone and all I'd been able to think about was plodding on regardless. When I came to a little spot in the woods just outside Kinlochleven, I decided to adjourn to the pub for a couple of beers to analyse my feelings in some comfort before retiring for the night. It didn't actually take me long to reach my decision - the HTR just wasn't going to happen for me. 

I weighed up all the pros and cons; the challenge aspect remained, a big eight-day outing in stunning scenery. However, I was already sick of the single-minded focus needed to maintain the required pace and the thought of riding alone for eight or more days was just depressing. With that out of the way, I set off up the hill a little to set up camp for the night and settle in a little less pressured. The combination of tiredness and a couple of pints of Trade Winds meant it wasn't long before I was fast asleep.

Bivvy above Kinlochleven

If Sunday had been all about decision making, Monday served to absolutely confirm I'd made the correct choice. My mood hadn't changed much the next morning as I ate breakfast and started to pack up and wasn't helped any by the huge climb required out of Kinlochleven towards Loch Eilde Mor. 

A bit of a climb from my sea-level campsite
Room with a view
The headwind I'd hit yesterday had got worse and I knew that I'd basically be heading into it all day. Ride, walk, push was the repeated pattern for the next couple of hours until I eventually spotted the buildings at Luibielt.  
Luibeilt and Meannanach Bothy

The Abhainn Rath and the Grey Corries
Here, the combination of big snow deposits and high temperatures had resulted in a fast-flowing, relatively deep Abhainn Rath and it took me a little while to find a decent crossing spot. Boots and socks off, boots back on to cross and thankfully the water wasn't very cold. I'd passed this way several years ago and had a recollection of there being many deep ditches along the route following the river downstream. That meltwater had made them even worse and I found myself once again manhandling the bike up, down and across them all. 

Final view of Ben Nevis
Pace now had slowed to less even than normal walking speed and I was starting to do all sorts of mental calculations about my ETA at Laggan. An initial 2pm guess soon became 4pm and as the "walk with a bike" progressed, became 6pm and even later. I was even starting to consider get-out options such as detouring to Corrour Station and getting the train north for my wife to come pick me up. However, I pressed on, glad of any longer rideable sections and was relieved to see Loch Ossian on the horizon. 

Loch Ossian (the Youth Hostel in the trees on the right)
From here, the path on the south side of the loch had been repaired a little since my last visit and I found it much easier going. Once the lodge was reached, the track became a vast, smooth motorway and, with some wind assistance, I found myself belting along it, going at a decent speed for the first time since yesterday afternoon. Thoughts of an early bale-out soon disappeared and I set off from Moy to Lochan na h-Earba with a bit of renewed vigour. Here, the wind hit me full-on on again but with the miles counting down and an end in sight it was easier to dig in and find the reserves required. the final couple of miles along the road to Laggan went in pretty simply, arriving just after 5pm, and I don't think I was ever so glad to see my van parked there.  

197km/3200m of ascent

Over the two days, I'd ridden for some 20 hours and covered about 122 miles. An eight day HTR pace suggests 70 miles per day. So, overall, I'd eventually managed a reasonable average pace, but I knew that there was little left to give and the thought of having to do another 20 miles or so would have driven me to despair - let alone having to repeat the exercise for six more days with an even more laden bike.

My admiration for the participants has certainly increased a couple of notches (it was already incredibly high). I guess it's not just about fitness but also having the mental fortitude to press on for so long. For me, I reckon I'm on the limit of being fit enough to complete it but not to enjoy it en route. I considered turning up at the start and simply cycling at my own pace regardless but I know there's a waiting list so much better that someone more able, more driven, gets the opportunity to participate. On reflection, I reckon I'll plan to take things a bit easier, spend more time looking around me and enjoying being outside without having to be somewhere in particular. I'll be following the HTR with increased interest this year and might even turn up to take photos as participants complete the route. My best wishes go to each and every one of them.

Wednesday 23 April 2014

On foreign shores

It's not often I've had the chance to ride anywhere other than the UK so when we'd decided to head out to Spain for a spring week, I took the chance to do some research on what my options might be. Fair to say that the Costa del Sol isn't exactly the best for mountain biking - too many busy roads / built up areas. However, I knew that not far inland there is a massive change of scenery and pace. Googling around, I managed to locate a couple of outfits based in Ronda and was soon in touch with Wayne from Hike and Bike. A couple of emails later and I'd arranged the rental of a bike and for Wayne to suggest a couple of routes for me.

Turning up on day 1, I was introduced to the bike, had my pedals fitted, a route downloaded to my GPS, a hardcopy map and given some advice by Wayne before setting off north of Ronda. The route turned out to be pretty inspired as it initially followed the railway line, making navigation a dawdle. Before long I was out into "proper" rural Spain and enjoying the mix of tracks and quiet roads. A couple of wrong turnings were involved - mostly when I was too busy looking at the scenery to pay attention to the route - but I was easily able to correct them. 

The town of Olvera, looking just stunning

The only major issue of the day occurred on an incredibly steep descent when my rear brake pads just wore out. A couple of messages to and from Wayne and I figured I'd opt to return by the "out" route to save any more steep stuff. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I was able to spend a bit more time (including a cake-stop) in the amazing little town of Setenil de las Bodegas, where the houses are built under the overhanging rocks. 

After a bit of further route-finding through some small farms and larger estates (complete with goats), the railway-side track made for an easy and fast return. 

Getting back to Waynes, I noticed that the rear wheel was actually wobbling - the result of a loose bearing. That would have accelerated the brake pad wear, so at least we had an explanation.

After a lazier day by the beach, I was back again for a different route. This one was a bit shorter, but included some more mountainous terrain. 

Looking back at Ronda from the first big climb of the day (into a headwind!)
This was definitely even more off the beaten track and had some amazing views. 

I could add a caption here but it's all explained in the next photo!


Looking towards the South East, low cloud covering the coast

Local wildlife

Not the best place to stop for a drink

The GPS route also, handily, took me to a bar where a good sandwich and some local beer was thankfully consumed. 

Just the one occifer, honest!

The return to Ronda was mostly less hilly and led along a narrow gorge for quite a distance. The river looked superb - I wonder if anyone ever rafts it? 

Narrow, with a steep drop off. I was careful.

I met a group of women from Edinburgh of all places. One was kind enough to take this photo for me.

At the Cueva del Gato
Spot the cat yet?
Maybe this will help
The day ended with a view of Rondas famous bridge  - from the bottom - and a really steep climb up an old Roman cobbled road. Just enough to finish me off!!

Ronda across the valley
Fantastic old cobbled road
The famous Puente Nuevo
All in all, a really great experience. I loved the mix of tracks and roads, without anything too gnarly. It was just what I was looking for to get in some decent mileage. Wayne and Heather were really friendly and took some time to make sure I was happy with everything. Cycling in Spain looks like something I'd do again and I've now seen there's even a 2,000km circular route through Andalucia........

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.