I’ve been riding my mountain bike a bit this year, including the Deeside trail and brilliant tours around the HT550 northern loop and inner Cairngorms loop over two days each with Fi in August. The latter was a bit of a nostalgic repeat, albeit in reverse, of a ride I first did in 1994 with Stuart Mitchell and Graeme Livingston. It seemed like a big adventure 26 years ago, not really aware of anyone else doing rides like that, and I came back with a bit more respect for my younger self and 26 x 1.7″ wheeled cantilever braked steel forked MTB exploits. Also reminded me how wild it is over the Geldie burn, and how much I like being out and about in the Cairngorms. It’s also the middle of the Cairngorms Loop, and I fancied riding the group start, for the craic, the motivation to get out on the ride, and to test cumulative changes to bike and kit I’ve been making. I also haven’t ridden a group start like this before, and was curious about other riders’ kit, pace etc .. curiosity never killed anything .. did it?
I sorted the bike and went down in the van on Friday night to the start at the old bridge of Tilt carpark above Blair Athol. A couple of other vans there, but pretty quiet. Went for a ride up the hill to stretch my legs and have a nosey about the final descent – I’d been here with Fi in May 2019 to ride around the Beinn a’Ghlo circuit, largely the last twenty or so miles of the Cairngorms loop in reverse – Blair Athol to Fealar lodge, along with the easy run down glen Tilt, but my recollections weren’t entirely clear or accurate. Nice to stretch the legs, then I drove down to Blair Athol for chips and had an early night.
Good to chat, socially distanced, with other riders as vans and cars arrived in the morning, quite a bit of variety in rigs and kit, and interest in my fatty. Steve Wilkinson who is responsible for the thing came over and introduced himself, as did Colin Cadden who was taking over the organisation mantle from Steve. No one seemed in too much of a hurry to be off, and it wasn’t until 10:04 that we rolled out.
Very quickly everyone was however going very quickly! I was single speed and expected that the geared bikes would be going up the tarmac quicker than I wanted to spin, but there was another guy riding a single speed Jones who rode away from me too. The overhead conditions were nice with a gusty wind from the north west, and I was sort of glad the wind gave me something to work against as we wound our way upwards towards the A9 crossing, but I think probably there was only one bike behind me – I kept John Williamson in my field of view ahead but had in mind not to beast myself at the start.
After we crossed the A9 John and I rode together for a bit up the hill, chatting about bikes mostly, the wind coming nicely around behind us. This was a section I’d never been on before – new ground for me until Feshie Bridge, and the landscape didn’t disappoint. At the first river crossing I passed three other riders, who were looking a bit shell shocked! then on to some boggy ground then some nice single track around loch an Duin, Gaick, then a long tailwind assisted whiz down the fast doubletrack of Glen Tromie.
After dropping back on the singletrack John caught me up down here and we leap frogged or rode together until the singletrack into Feshibridge, when he stopped and I didn’t see him again. Lovely riding followed, infact a brilliant flowy trail for miles and miles all the way through to Rothiemurchus and Loch Morlich. Familiar ground , and enjoying the solitude and music from headphones, but as I’m riding round the loch there is a rider grinning at me coming the other way – I’m sure I should know who, and thankfully main man Colin Cadden re-introduced himself from the morning. Quick chat then onwards. I didn’t really have a plan but wanted to get out of Glen Feshie that night. Partly because the weather forecast was really grim and I was worried about the river crossings, but also I figured if I didn’t it would be late Monday before I finished!
Right now though the weather was great, as was the tailwind! There was a rider outside the cafe as I went past, but I didn’t stop. A family walking the other way past the green loch, young lad wide eyed at my wheels, Mum commenting that she wouldn’t hear the end of it – there is always (always!) someone who comments on my wheels … like I never noticed they were fat! Onwards through to the Garbh Allt bridge before the Bynack More climb, where I stopped to fill up bottles and put on warmer clothes – windy it was and going to get windier. The rider from the Cafe came through, and we had a quick chat – although I wasn’t really listening in the wind, and distracted by the wind blowing over one of my re-filled bottles before I could spoon tailwind into it. Off he went and I sorted my bottles, had a bite to eat, and rode on catching him up as he was pushing up ahead – but as it steepened I got off to push too and when I came up to the cairn he was no where in sight, or visible on the descent/next climb. I was taking it pretty conservatively on the way down, bags and all and being on my own in quite a wild place, but wasn’t going that slowly – surely he must have stopped? At that point snatches of the conversation about stopping to record a podcast came back to me, but I have no idea where he went. There were curiously a group of large diggers parked up on the hill at 700m too, again I have no idea why?!?
Anyway perhaps better not to wonder why – very windy up there, and just starting to rain. Rain was a worry, as much of it would get into the the Avon, which needed crossing shortly. There are three ups and downs to go to the fords under the looming trolls of the Barns of Bynack, and mostly ridable for the first two at least, with some rocky, some boggy sections, along with the ever present ‘gorms water bars to negotiate. Riding down one section a group of big back-pack hikers stopped me to ask if I was alright? Even more curious I thought, I’m fine! Perhaps I didn’t look it!
Coming down to the fords it was very gloomy with rain, wind, and dense low cloud which made it feel like it was getting dark. I could see a couple of figures at tents at the refuge, and went over for a quick chat – seemed like a pretty grim time to be camping there. The fords themselves though were a doddle, very low indeed. Over the other side and more walkers, another quick chat, and around the loch side more tents. What is going on I thought? When we were here in August we were surprised to be at the refuge with another bike packer on a solo ITT around the loop, and that was it pretty much. The last group of walkers coming down to the fords asked me where I was going to camp, and I was thinking aloud – bottom of Glen Feshie probably. Wide eyes, and comments about it going to be dark! Yup, defo going to be dark!
The push up to the summit of the Lairig an Laoigh went quickly enough, and the low cloud lifted on the Derry side, the brighter skies lifting my spirits. Wind dropped a bit, rain stopped, and I enjoyed the run down into Glen Derry. Glad I had been here a few weeks before and knew that most of the water bars could be bypassed on the left, but there were a couple that weren’t – caution required. It was getting dark as I climbed up into the woods lower down, and I put my light on there. I was taken aback to see what I thought were really bright deer eyes reflecting back at me a little further on, then even more surprised to see them so close to a bonfire with a reasonable sized group of folk gathered round … before it dawned on me that the ‘eyes’ were reflective fabric on their tents. What are all these people doing here?
On down, Derry lodge, Linn of Dee, and on to White bridge. The wind had dropped but the Geldie burn crossing was going to be wild in the dark as the heavy rain forecast started to pick up. Biving always an option but I thought if it’s raining hard and I’m worried about getting over river crossings I’m not going to sleep anyway. The double track was easy riding, I stopped to fill bottles at white bridge, then surprised to see vehicles up ahead. As I got closer there were three 4×4 vehicles in the track and tents at the red house – presumed MBA work party, but no lights on and all quiet as I rode on into the dark and the rain. Fords then single track. When we rode around here in August it was really dry and more ridable than not. In the dark and the rain it was more hike-a-bike than ridable. Eventually the roar of the falls and the Eidart bridge came into view. Scary intimidating bridge, with an apt ‘cross at your own risk’ sign. The wind had got up again here, and in the dark and the rain I could see broken slats over the scaffolding frame, and glimpses of the torrent below. Getting the bike up onto it not easy, I went across gingerly keeping my feet above the metal frame!
The path on the other side bogging, wet, and unridable by me in the dark and rain. Hike a bike down to past the howf and the argocat track was bottomless goo. I took the single track but much of it was beyond my ability to ride in heavy rain and dark too. Down though and eventually the double track firmed up and I was at the Feshie Fords. Having been here before the line of the crossings were pretty easy but up over my knees. Pleased to get across, with this rain they could only keep going up. Riding again was warming me up, and round a corner suddenly two bikes parked next a nice dry looking bivy. Some of the larger trees lower down were tempting but I was keen to get out of Glen Feshie. I knew from the August trip the diversion upstream around the washed out Alt Garbhlach, then ever quicker down and out onto tarmac at Achlean. Pleased to get out of Glen Feshie!
There wasn’t however anywhere appealing in the rain to Bivi in the glen so red light on the back and just rode on with my eye out for a spot. Back on tarmac I could ride on in the dark without speed penalty but thought I should sleep somewhere and didn’t want to waste the daylight when it came. Everywhere was however soaking wet, and it was raining heavily. The increased speed on the road was cooling me down too, so it was either more clothes (I had leg warmers and a dry thermal to go) or Bivi somewhere. Eventually picked a dryish bit of path in the woods on the left, and once the decision was made into the bag as quick as possible, with phone/headphones/watch to put on charge. The phone however refused to charge reporting that the lightning port was too wet. Sent Fi a text, and thought I’d try the battery again in the morning, even if there was little chance of anything drying in a hurry. As I was thinking this I remembered that I’d taken the batteries out of the top tube bag on the bike, which was still open. Back out the bag, and as I tried to zip it up in the dark out dropped my sunnies into the heather. I found them but one leg came off as I stuffed them back in. Argghhh!!! head torch out, but couldn’t see it. Arrghh!!, sort it in the morning – time to sleep. Sort of. Very wet Bivi. Bag unzipped a bit with a midge net but wet fabric kept closing the vent hole and I slowly asphyxiated. I came too several times breathing hard and had to flap air in. Eventually must have slept though because woken by alarm, and no rain sound! Out the bag into midges and a calm misty morning. Quickly sorted against midge with leg warmers, shorts, and waterproof back on, midge hat and buff under helmet, but took me a while to find the brown sunnies leg in the heather – white characters spelling POC miraculously turning over just as I was about to give up!
The phone still wouldn’t charge though, which was a bit frustrating given I had plenty of battery. 20% left on the phone – that would limit music and pictures, and maps if I needed them. …
Moving warmed me up and cleared the midges and twenty odd minutes later after passing many lovely looking dryer bivi’s under ancient beach trees I rolled through Inverdruie – I don’t know why I didn’t think to bivi there, the wooden information point thing in the carpark even has a roof!
Onwards, Fi phoned as I was rolling on towards Pitioulish, eating butteries and cheese for breakfast. Lovely morning, but heavy rain forecast Aviemore … but the further east I went the clearer it got!
The next section was also new to me, and possibly my favourite on the whole route, lovely trails through Abernethy, with a slight navigation error diversion after Forest Lodge to set me back and forth a half a km looking for the right singletrack … but then fantastic woodland reminiscent of the magical Quoich woods going through to Dorback. The river crossing was fine, up the hill and tarmac again. I had been aware of a camper van on the horizon from the river and as I approached a bike rider jumped out, kissed his better half and rode off ahead of me, with bags on his bike I wondered whether he was in the group start, but better half jumped back in the van before I passed, and he went around to the lodge while I followed the .gpx track up the back and on over the hill to the burn of Brown. This section went really quickly, and the river was very low, with bike tracks easy to follow – a few weeks ago I’d ridden around here and come down the right hand bank, which was OK but lots of young trees in the way and sometimes washed out path, it is I think a better ride straight down the middle, but with river crossings twice each meander – plenty of fresh bike tracks to show the way and this low crossings were all ridable. There is a fallen tree to bypass going up the hill, and then I stopped to wring my socks out – no more rivers for a while!
The weather was now beautiful, up the road into and through Tomintoul without stopping – I had plenty of food and just rolled on. A strong warm wind in my face up the side of the Avon, but such a great day. About half way to Inchrory I could see a couple walking down towards me, and lo and behold as I approached it was old colleagues and friends Ian and Sarah. Ian ran the spine race (and lots of other epic stuff) since I’d last spoken to him and we chatted for 15 minutes or so, before rolling on. It was so warm and sunny here I should have pulled the wet bivi kit out and dried it, 50 miles away but I was at this point thinking I’d hopefully be rolling in to Blair Athol later that night anyway.
Up the climbs to the loch. I’d been here last week of August riding out of Corgarf and back via Gairnshiel and had charged up all the hills, but with bags on I found myself jumping off and walking some of the steeper sections, perhaps it was the stiff headwind. At the last rise looking back down I could see a couple more bikes away down the glen behind me, but up ahead weather coming. By the time I was around the loch it was on me, gusty squalls and really hard work to make progress into the wind up towards Culardoch. I stopped in the lee of the Troll’s house to see if it would pass quickly and put on a brew, and water to rehydrate hot food, and lubed the chain which was running dry after all the rain and rivers. Feeling fuelled up the weather had eased a bit from the first squall front, but still windy I rode some, pushed more up the climb. Easy run down to Invercauld, and as I’m rolling along feeling pleased with myself a bike comes up from behind … I recognised the yellow bike, a Santa Cruz Tallboy I think, from the bivi I passed in glen Feshie. Hamish introduced himself along with tales of woe about his pal’s broken rear mech. He was riding hard to Blair Atholl via glen tilt to fetch a car, while said pal walked to Braemar. I was heading for Blair Atholl too, but via Fealar lodge. Hamish pressed on and I was impressed how quickly he got away from me down the hill, pumping his full suss into the wind.
Lovely ride down though! I stopped at the toilet at the Invercauld car park and familiar with Sunday A93 traffic put my headtorch on the seat pack in red mode for the tarmac up to and beyond Braemar. Still plenty of light to ride by but the end of the day was drawing in. Braemar was quiet and felt largely shut and I didn’t stop, on up to the Linn of Dee and repeating yesterday’s route, just earlier in the day with less rain, more wind, and more light. The river was ominously up though – the section from the Geldie crossing to Glen Tilt the last bit which was unknown to me, but I knew it had rivers! The crossings were ok though, one had a deep fast channel which needed a bit of a dog leg down stream to connect shingle banks. I passed a couple walking the other way mid stream with big rucksacks and shorts, and another couple a km further on who asked me about the crossing – the girl was wearing flip flops with her boots around her neck in anticipation, but the crossings were fine, excluding the shingle diversion about knee high. On up to the ruins of Bynack lodge – I was a bit perplexed why the .gpx went up there, largely because with my unchargable phone switched off I didn’t have easy access to a map and wasn’t sure which valley was the route. It turned out to be rocky and broken double track, with a lot of long puddles mostly, but firm ground and ridable and good progress was made which I was pleased with – hoping I’d get over the Allt Garbh Buidhe crossing at the top of Tilt and up the Fealar lodge climb in reasonable light.
All good things come to an end though, and the double track petered out into on/off single track across the watershed, then into a steep sided gorge as the light was fading. Joystick back on my helmet, hood up underneath it against the now increasing rain. This section was the crux for me, hard hike a bike on a narrow path contouring wet steep ground. There were a couple of wet slabby gullies crossing the path with a lot of water coming down them, and the ever-present thunder of flowing water in the dark down below – I did think on one of them that if I dropped the bike here, the situation would be pretty unrecoverable! However with relentless forward progress the difficult sections also come to an end, and as the track started descending I was startled by a torch up ahead of me – another rider perhaps?
As I dropped down to the river crossing there was a tent below me with the light on in it, and a packed bike outside. I went over to say hello, but not one of the group start, a guy with a gravel bike who had come down from Fealar – in his words ‘pretty full on!’ I’d never been up the track, but I have been down it, and I was keen to get going, but it was somewhat re-assuring that there was someone at least in the vicinity!
The river crossing was knee deep again, and then steeply up. The track is steep loose chuckies and switchbacks at the bottom, turning softer and wetter as the climb went on. No riding, just a push/manhandle up, with a few awkward steps in the dark, wind, rain, and accompanied by the ever-present sound of flowing water. Eventually gates, and fences, then the signs directing bikes around the lodge. Excellent I thought, ridable double track here I come! The weather was improving, definitely dry and then stars started appearing too – pretty stunning when it all cleared and nice to get my hood off! I was naively thinking that the double track from here was largely down, and rudely awakened to find that no – it is largely up to 630m over Carn an t-Sionnaich, and into a massive headwind. A lot of it wasn’t ridable for me singlespeed into the wind, but progress nevertheless. Eventually the descent to and turn at Daldhu came, then into what seemed like the final leg. In the dark though I found it hard to reconcile the track with my memory of riding in the other direction in sunshine a year or so ago! I remembered a short climb where I’d broken a chain, and a ruin beside a river after a long grassy descent, but not much else. In the dark it was very ridable but it seemed grassier than I recalled … and then as if by magic I realised I was back up at 600m at the top of the last climb!
At this point though my joystick started flashing low battery warnings, It had done well with an exposure piggy back battery plugged in, but it would be helpful if it could hang on just a little longer! The descent was ok and largely ridable, but would have been much better, and quicker, with more light. Eventually I was what I thought nearly down, and expecting to skirt around the back of steadings and a wood, but no sign of that. in fact with my fading light no sign of anything really … and then I lost the track. The .gpx track on my watch had been diverging a little for about half a km, but now it was clear I should be on the other side of a river, and about 250m from where I was. I didn’t recall a river crossing at all and was a bit confused, but eventually committed to cross the river and up the steep bank on the other side, then wandering in deep heather trying to find the track again. Some time later I emerged on to really good double track, which I could have been on from the missed river crossing close to where I went off piste. Better light, and my phone accessible with a proper 1:25k map would have helped, but glad nonetheless to get out on to the double track. Then my watch bleeped that it was about to auto shut down as it was flat too! Arghhh!!! Nearly there but I am in the dark fumbling for a battery to keep my watch charged to record the track and show me where to go! ArghHHH!. The watch died. I found the battery. Plugged it in, and waited, seemingly an age but probably minutes, for it to come back to life. Glad that hadn’t happened in the heather excursion! At this point I realised the route I had taken riding up in the other direction the year before wasn’t the same, and that explained my confusion. Nice double track here though, and moving again, quickly on to tarmac, then just a few miles downhill into Blair Atholl.
As I’m rolling the joystick keeps flashing it’s imminent death, each time the light emitted getting dimmer. It was definitely holding me up not being able to see, and I took the head torch off the seat pack to give me some extra light forward. Down I rolled, and I started wondering what time it was. Into Blair Atholl and everything dark. On to the station. The End! Whoohooo! Stopped the watch, it was twenty past two, 40 hours 23 minutes of riding. Re-boot the phone for a quick picture, head torch back on the back, and spin back up the hill to the van. Bike on the back, heating on, text Fi, comfy bed, sleep!
I really enjoyed this ride, it felt quite adventurous and a bit out there particularly in the dark, but I also learned a lot. My Strava track is here.
I didn’t give enough thought to a plan, other than ride around probably with one bivi somewhere along the way. I was concerned to get out of Glen Feshie on the first day, but hadn’t thought about it much more than that. Life would have been much easier if I’d worked harder earlier and consequently got through the more technical sections in daylight on both days. I wasn’t anywhere near done at the end, I felt like I’d had a long ride, but it was at a very sustainable pace – I could have pushed on much harder much sooner. I could equally I think have sustained the pace forward for days without too much fuss. Partly this is how and why I like to ride single speed, but food for thought. My timings/distance/speeds are here:
The slowest sections were as expected the hike-a-bike climbs, the quickest on tarmac and easy rolling double track, but the long section of flowy single track Feshiebridge to Morlich felt quick too. I don’t think I could up my pace a huge amount on the hike a bike, but could have gone harder on a lot of the easy rolling terrain, particularly with gears or a bigger gear.
I didn’t think about the night riding much either, other than taking a joystick and a piggy back battery for it. When it died, I could have (had I been more alert) plugged the cache battery I had for the phone into it as I had a USB exposure cable with me. In fact I had plenty of charge available. Why this didn’t occur to me I don’t know, I was pre-occupied with getting the last few miles done, but I think with hindsight if I’d plugged a battery into it when it started to fade at the top before the last descent, or riding in daylight, I would have saved a lot of time. I was aware that if I’d needed to bivi again I could have charged it, but didn’t think to just plug it in while riding.
Battery management aside, the lesson for me is that I should have anticipated more night riding – I ended up riding ~7 hours each night in the dark, and consequently would have gone quicker, particularly on the technical bits, if I’d taken another light – I like night riding and have Hope R2, R4, and a diablo in the garage, any one of which on the bars casts shadows which along with a head mounted light greatly increase the ride-ability of terrain in the dark. A few hundred grams of extra lights would have payed dividends I think.
Along with not taking much consideration of timing I’d taken enough food not to have to re-supply, although I’d thought Braemar if necessary. At the end I had a reserve of one bar, some tailwind, and 465 calories of dehydrated meal. I ended up consuming about 200 calories an hour over the whole ride, which is about the max I can absorb. In total I had 2kg food at the start, and a couple of hundred of grams at the end. Perhaps planning to buy re-supplies on route would be slightly quicker, perhaps not.
All the kit and food I carried is here:
With the proviso that another light would be good I think this worked pretty well. I havered but in the end took a stove, which I rationalised as being counter balanced by the weight saved by taking dehydrated food … however I only used it once … but then again it was a really tasty hot meal and a cup of tea, just when I wanted it!
I have up to now carried bivi bag and sleeping mat in the seat pack, and sleeping bag in its own dry bag inside the handlebar roll (along with a dry thermal and glasses/contact lenses). After bivying wet in heavy rain I think putting the sleeping bag in the bivy bag, ditching the RAB dry bag, and carrying the bivi in the (also dry bag) handlebar roll would be more efficient to get into and pack up.
I carried two standard 750ml bike bidons in two bar mounted stem cells. Handy having one for water and one for tailwind, which was a reasonable chunk of the calories I had going in. I think when it’s wet and not too warm though that one 1l bottle in one stem cell would work just as well, leaving the other stem cell for easy access to food on the go. Bags would be neater at the start before I consumed some of the load and easier to pack too.
Minor things. Largely used everything, largely nothing surplus. In this forecast could have left the sunnies behind and saved some hassle after I dropped them in the heather in the dark!
I rode on the first day with my phone on a quad lock mount on my stem. This was new for me and it worked really well, handy to see the route in detail on the OS maps app, handy to DJ music for bluetooth (aeropex) headphones. Liked that. The phone is waterproof. However after hours and hours of persistent rain I hadn’t anticipated that it would refuse to charge when the port was wet (incidentally it was fine on Monday morning after drying out in the van). A lesson learned. I’ve added a quad lock poncho to keep the port dry when using it like this. Maybe I should get a dedicated gps unit, but I like using the watch (Garmin Fennix 5s+) for recording and navigation, it’s familiar to me from running ultras and triathlon and I like to feel it buzz warnings on my wrist – it works for me, although it does need a 20 minute charge every 8-10 hours. No dedicated gps is going to have the same resolution of OS maps as my phone either, and I’m going to take the phone anyway … but must work on keeping the thing charged.
The bike is a carbon Farley, set up single speed with jones style bars and a reverb dropper post, and was as usual very comfy. I am a fan of this bike! I rode 30×22 with the big diameter 27.5″x4.5″ Barbegazi tyres smoothing things out and providing lots of grip. I run these tubeless, and they are actually lighter than big enduro tyres with tubes, and roll really well over many different surfaces. Maybe I should build some 29+ wheels, might be able to save a couple of hundred grams a wheel in the rims and have almost the same diameter rolling over stuff, and there are lighter tyre options out there for 29+ … but I like the feel of these wheels. I also have a set of wheels mounted up with studdable Gnarwhals, which are much better in mud and epic on ice with the studs in, but slower and heavier. Barbegazi is a good rolling vs grip compromise. Apropos of the gear – I have used this ratio largely because the 22 tooth sprocket was the magic gear for my last ti 29er which didn’t have adjustable dropouts, so I had 22 tooth sprockets lying around when I singlepseeded the Farley … and they have worked for me. The Farley fat BB will only really run a 30 tooth chainring, but I have considered a smaller sprocket for a while. Following this ride my chain needed changed, so I’ve put a 21 on with the new chain to see how that works.
Finally I think familiarity with the route is a really important factor. To be fair I knew much of the route – some of it very well – at Inchrory, or Loch Builg I could ride home in an hour and a half or so. It is really nice to explore new trails, but some of the sections I didn’t know I think I could get through quicker second time around.
Great ride, good craic with the other riders I met, many thanks to Steve Wilkinson for thinking this up, and Colin Cadden for organising! Please note guys – less of the wind and rain be nice next time!