X-Scotland Mountain Bike Epic

, August 28, 2012

It all started with a phone call in the dark depths of a Scottish winter.  Fed up with the snow on the ground, fellow Zafiri blogger, Richard Lawes had got an itch he had to scratch.  Richard had devised a plan to carry out a serious mountain bike expedition across Scotland, spanning several days and taking in some varied terrain. After agreeing on some dates and penning them in the diary the maps came out and we started to visualise a formidable route.

Initial chats lead to a cross-Scotland format, but no mincing like the last time the pair of us crossed the country on foot.  This time, with the aid of bikes, it had to be brutal.  Richard’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the Scottish trail network worked with a few trusted guide books to slot together a route which joined West to East.  A few more phone calls, some emails back and forth and the first hash of the route was drafted.  ‘Pathetic’ I complained – 50km per day, we wanted epic, not a casual jaunt.  I uncompromisingly rejected Richard’s route.  The price I paid for my cheek… Richard and I then devised a truly epic trip, one that would have forced many to tears and one which left those who completed the trip broken.  A team was compiled, 2 massive 6’5” Germans (relatives of Richard’s), Greig Walker, a XC racing whippet, Rich and myself.

Day 1

We arrived at Kyle of Lochalsh after a moderately stressful journey, battling with a power-tripping, anti-bike conductor who was less than helpful. Thankfully with the aid of a second friendlier conductor at Aberdeen train station, we were allowed to board.  Beyond Inverness, the train meandered west through spectacular, and increasingly remote countryside.  A gentle spin to camp beneath a dramatic sunset, and we were in position to attack the Sleighan route the next morning.

The Sleighan route is regarded as a classic Scottish mountain bike trail and it sure did live up to expectations.  Leaving the tents pitched and trailers at camp meant that we were light and fast and able to smash the route.  Tricky singletrack followed Lochs and threaded through valleys.  The stunning Cullin Mountains looming around up reminded us of our location as we took on the return leg of the route, heading south into some boggy, heathery terrain that skirts Loch na Sguabaidh. This stretch slowed our pace and sucked more energy from our legs.

We returned to our camp and began the long road transition to the south of the island to catch the ferry to Mallaig from Armadale, now with trailers in tow. The ferry offered a chance for a rest, a coffee and an injection of calories.  Back on the mainland we began to follow Loch Morar, a trail which matured from road, to double track to sweet undulating, technical singletrack paradise.  Spurred on by the challenging riding we continued till 9pm.  A wash in the Loch, and choking down of Richard’s magic chili rations and we conked out.

Day 2

Day 2 was, to quote the route master, ‘the crux of the route,’ including an ‘I am sure it will be fine’ section which had no marked trail on the map and a passage through the aggressively named ‘Rough Bounds of Noidark’.  As you could have guessed, the ‘I am sure it will be fine’ section proved to be significantly more challenging than expected.

Upon reaching an isolated dwelling at Tarbet we saw a motorboat moored in the bay, perhaps we could commandeer the vessel to shuttle us to the end of the inlet, thus eliminating the 7km section of unknown terrain.  We were welcomed into the house by a friendly young woman and she made a few phone calls. We could charter a boat for £80.  Seemed a bit steep for the sake of a 7km saving.  We naively declined the offer, after all, how hard could 7km be?

Following a sea inlet, the 7km stretch linked two sections of the route and opened up a more interesting Scotland crossing.  On the map the contours indicate that the steep coast flattens next to the sea and would thus offer a route to walk along, the reality was savagely steep terrain, with waste deep foliage, cliffs, trees and boulder strewn beaches.  We removed the bags, and detached the trailers from the bikes to began the walk to the inlets end.

Progress was painfully slow with the majority of the route requiring shuttling of kit.  We soon began cursing our decision – we had taken 2 hrs to cover only 2km and no end was in sight.  The rain was now coming down hard and at a moment of difficulty that only the weather on west coast of Scotland found humour in.  We were cooling quickly during short stops so we had little option but to keep pushing on. Round another bay, up a cliff to clear a headland, eventually we saw the lochs end.  With more cliffs to scale we decided that this time the sea offered the most attractive option and so, wading knee-deep in the water, we stumbled on with bikes on our backs.

Finally we had made it to the next section of trail. It had taken us 7 hours to cover 7km.  It’s safe to say this route won’t be making an appearance in the mountain bike guidebooks anytime soon!  At this stage we were tired and hungry.  We stopped in the rain and brewed-up and ate salami and instant mash potato.  The mountains that lay before us clearly deserved there Lord of the Rings inspired name and The Rough Bounds of Noidark looked hideous, with clouds covering the upper peaks. Next we waded through an incredibly lush and clearly well watered, patch of tall bracken, crossed the river and began the climb.

The hill jutted uncompromisingly from the sea and a rocky stalkers path was most definitely unridable, although from the other direction it would make a sweet descent!  The ‘flat’ section crossing through the boggy pass was no easier and at one point I plummeted waste deep into a bog.  We finally began the long decent towards Glen Dessarry and, with effort levels reduced along the downhill track, our body temperatures dropped.

We started looking for a suitable campsite, and given the torrential rain decided to keep going in the hope that the rain would clear and we could dry out before clambering into our tents.  We came out of a forest and ahead we could see a small dwelling.  ‘Bothy?’ Richard queried.  I nipped ahead, and ran down the hill to inspect the small building.  To my delight a plaque on the door indicated this was indeed a Mountain Bothy Association bothy.  Win!  I whooped back to the guys, at last some good fortune after a very testing day.  We were now behind schedule, running low on food and in need of a good nights sleep.

Day 3

Fortunately we were able to dry out our kit by the bothy fire and get a proper sleep before we had to face a haul our stiff bodies towards the Great Glen.  After a morning chewing our handlebars, we eventually picked up food in Fort Augustus, keeping pace up the Corriearch Pass, a good challenge when towing trailers, and down towards Laggan. Things were going more smoothly now. Over a tarmac stretch we relished the opportunity to make up some lost ground, eventually stopping at 2130 in Kingussie to camp.

Day 4

The forth day’s riding took us in to the picturesque Rothiemurchus Forest and through to Aviemore before stopping for coffee and cake at Glenmore.  Now high on caffeine we blasted through Abernethy Forest and on to Tomintoul. Then the thoughts started emerging, could we make the coast today?  The original plan was for this trip to be a 5 day expedition.  However, with the end so close and a clear Scottish summers evening ahead, perhaps we could just keep going?

Up the hill from Inchrory and lapping up the excellent singletrack around Loch Builg, we met the road at Gairnsheil.  A quick text to organise some dinner upon arrival in Rich’s home of Aboyne, then we timetrialled along the old railway line.  Arriving very hungry at 2130, Rich’s wife Alex had put on a feast.  We troughed down our first real meal in several days and then considered the option of completing the coast to coast that night.  It was 2230 when we began kitting up.  Trailers were unhitched from bikes, lights put on and warm kit stuffed into our rucksacks.  It was decided – Greig, Rich and myself would make an attack on the coast.

The Germans both tagged out – they were after all here on holiday! Now on home turf, Rich and myself dispensed with maps, using local knowledge to good effect.  We stopped at my parent’s house around 2330 for a can of coke and some cake.  Greig was now looking like death.  150km already covered in the day, it was stick or split time.  Despite the offer of a bed, he opted to keep going.  We plodded off into the night.

An unusually cool night presented itself, the temperature hovering just above freezing.  With the pace reigned in and regular food stops we kept going and after a seemingly endless decent arrived into Stonehaven.  We had reached the coast.  3 am and we had completed the coast to coast.  A shake of hands and a dram on the beach to warm our throats and mark the achievement, before turning around and retraced our tracks back to mine.  As we continued back to my Mum and Dad’s house the sun rose and our lights could be switched off.  We arrived back at 0430.  Here Greig and I dismounted and Rich kept plodding on to Aboyne, enjoying that sweet-spot in a summers day observed as most our still in their beds.  220km to finish an epic – this surely counts as a ‘big day’.