Day One – Monday – Fort William to Fort Augustus
Having travelled up to my brothers in Glenrinnes at the weekend, we set off down to Fort William on the Monday morning to start the adventure. We arrived at Fort William late morning (about 11.30), parked up and set off.
It was a calm, cool and slightly overcast day – perfect for cycling!
All of today’s route was on the marked trail – the Great Glen way. Adrian had done this before so we pretty much knew what to expect. Though what I did not expect was for my recent gear repair to start to completely unravel itself within the first mile of the journey! Little did I know at the time that this was just the start of things to come. In having my bike laid flat in the car, the gear cable had gotten stretched and frayed (one could also blame the slightly slap-dash repair job done by myself). Still a bit of electrical tape and fiddling and we were soon back on our way. The fact I could only turn left was a minor issue…
The going was good as we made our way alongside the Caledonian canal on good paths with a tail wind. We dived off into a good forest section around the edge of Lock Lochey (really, could they not think of a more imaginative name?!) through Clunes and South Laggan forest before rejoining the edge of the Caledonian canal at the end of the lochs. Here we were hoping to grab some lunch on “The Eagle Barge Inn” – a floating bar/restaurant – but sadly it was closed. Instead we carried on a little further and stopped at the Great Glen Water Park.
The route then followed the shore of Loch Oich before continuing along the Caledonian Canal to the foot of Loch Ness at our end point for the day – Fort Augustus. We arrived at the very sociable time of 4pm and got settled in to our digs for the night – Marthas Bunkhouse. We gave the bikes a clean bikes and attempted a slightly more permanent fix to my gear troubles (so just more electrical tape,basically). We then headed back into town to grab some food at the Lock Inn. Here I had some posh variation of bangers and mash (venison sausages) a very sticky toffee pudding washed down with a few local bitters. I was so full I could have been barrel rolled back to hostel! With the “Sexy Haggis Tour” bus staying at our hostel, we had an interesting evenings entertainment as the Hostel quiz got into full flight with all kinds of crazy antics going on. We just chilled with a few beers and quietly contemplated what was coming up tomorrow – the Corriey Airack pass!
Day two – Tuesday – Fort Augustus to Kingussie – And the CorrieyAirack pass.
Another bright and calm day (is this really Scotland?!) With my gears still not working – I found and strategically placed a stone in my front gear mechanism to force it into the middle cog for the start of the day. Things got worse as soon as we got off road when the rear deraillure wrapped itself in the back wheel. This was a further warning sign for what was to come! With this small matter resolved and my bike once again semi ridable, I ditched the stone as we started to climb on narrow single track.
The single track soon widened out to a large track at the start of the pass a track put in place for access to build new pylons across the landscape. We zig zagged our way up these paths and then onto general wades military road where we got a great view of the end of Loch Ness. I thought at this point we must have been pretty much half way up/over the pass, but boy did I get that wrong! There was a very long, arduous and relentless slog before we finally made the highest point. At one point, we were on just a long straight hill which seemed to carry on way past where the horizon should end, and this last section was full of really annoying drainage gutters built into the path. With the going slow anyway, these were so obtrusive that it was difficult to get any sort of rhythm into the pedalling, and as such it was a very slow, stop-start climb. Luckily I had plenty of Haribo to keep me going! At least the weather was on our side with just a bit of wind to contend with.
When we did reach the top we found a group of Germans waiting with a bottle of whiskey! Nutters! At the top of the pass, I replaced my stone, for one calibrated to give me middle cog again for the downhill and rest of the day. The downhill section was great. Fast and not too technical, but good fun terrain. It was a pretty cool view too as the pass disappeared and descended down into the valley. As always though, it was over all too soon!
We stopped for a break and a bit of shelter at a Bothy at the end of the pass before continuing along the valley on meandering and gently undulating trail on good path / road following the course of the river Spey to the Spey Dam before a road section through Laggan and eventually to Kingussie and our home for the night – the Tipsy Laird. Once again, we made it there for about 4pm. Easy this bike ride 😉 We visited a friend of Adrian’s in Kingussie where I had a most welcome cuppa! We washed and parked the bikes up there before heading back to the Laird for the night. The Laird happened to have Cairngorm brewery beer on tap, so there was a fair bit of Sheepshagging went on that night, as well as an immense apple crumble 🙂
Day 3 – Wednesday – Kingussie to Tomintoul
Day three was a misleading tough one! Again another fine day weather wise – all good this! The day started with a brief road section, passing Ruthven Barracks before heading into Inshriach forest. Forest trails were pretty much the order of the day. There were some good technical sections, and some nice forest trails and all in all this was probably my favourite day of the ride.
We stopped at Glenmore to get ourselves a brief snack, and sacrifice ourselves as a brief snack for the local midgies (though that was nothing compared to what it was like when we stopped for 5 minutes in the forest and got totally eaten alive!).
We then had a brief stop at Glenmore lodge – Scotlands National Outdoor Training Centre, where a very nice man gave me a replacement gear cable and a full on proper repair was done. With the bike now up to 24 gears rather than 8, I was flying from that point on! For today at least!
The scenery around here was of course spectacular, with the Cairngorms as the back drop. Would have looked much better with a nice covering of snow on there though!
Things got a bit tougher as we left the forests and hit the Dorback estate which was essentially boggy field riding and as such not easy going. We also managed to lose the trail at this point and in order to get back on to the road to Tomintoul, we had our first real “epic” of the ride as we took what seemed to be the easiest route (i.e. the direct line of sight route), but involved making our way into a gorge, crossing a river and climbing back up the other side!
Following that there was an unnecessarily beastly road climb, but then it was pretty much downhill all the way to Tomintoul. Following the precedent set the day before, I shunned beer in the pub for a nice cup of tea!
We were staying at my Adrians that night so sat and chilled in the pub for a short while before Yvonne came to pick us up.
Day 4 – Tomintoul to Ballater – the windy day!
After a late start we got dropped off at Tomintoul to continue the journey. It was windy. Very windy. We were hoping this would be a tail wind…
The trail started along the banks of the River Avon in the beautiful Glen Buig. Beautiful on any other day perhaps! The wind was “blowing a hooley” as they’d say in these parts. The headwind was so strong it was making it very very hard going – to the point where I was genuinely struggling to keep going, and even was so strong that it literally blew me off the bike on at least a couple of occasions.
There was some good technical single track around Loch Buig and by this point we were a little more sheltered so this was quite enjoyable.
From Loch Buig we followed the path of the River Gairn and with the wind no with us, this was far more pleasant. Despite setting off late, we were into Ballater by about 3pm, so this had been a very short day.
We got checked into the Hostel (Habitat) which was very clean and modern (but felt a bit like staying in a hospital!) gave the bikes a wash and then headed into town for a couple of pints and to grab some grub from the chippy (did they pour grease on the pizza and then just forget to deep fry it?!) before heading back to the hostel to sit and chill in front of the telly with a few beers. Tomorrow was going to be another big day with Mount Keen to summit!
Day 5 – Ballater to Edzil – Mount Keen and Epic bike breakage
Day 5 was always going to be a big, tough one, but it turned out to be bigger and tougher than we had imagined due to some pretty serious bike breakages!
It all started so serenely. A nice gentle warm up along the Deesside was and then a long but gentle climb through the pretty forest trails of Glenn Tanar before emerging from the forest at the foot of the imposing Mount Keen. According to the guide a “superhero effort will get you up the first 200m”. Adrian set off walking, I was feeing like a superhero…
Unfortunately, my bike was not… After a couple of attempts to get going, and the bike having none of it, it then well and truly gave in in spectacular fashion. The gears wrapped up in the wheel as they had the other day and then the bracket mounting the deraillure to the rest of the frame sheered and snapped off completely!
And so I set off walking! Reminiscent of the lakes day of the English Coast to Coast, it was a pretty long and difficult walk with a bike but after about an hour and a half of slog, I finally made it to the top, where Adrian and an incredible panaromic view was waiting. We could even see as far as the coast, and Montrose, our final destination.
After taking in the view, and a spot of lunch, we took to bodging the bike back together for the downhill section (no gaffer tape, electrical tape or stones involved). “Simply” a case of unlinking the chain, taking the gear mechanism off completely, and shortening the chain so my bike was essentially a one-speed – an oversized BMX, you could say!! Although I had luckily brought my chain link tool with me, this still proved to be a particularly fiddly and irritating procedure to be carrying out at the top of a mountain!
Still, as it was “downhill all the way to Montrose now” (the famous words of my bro repeated several times from this point on to the end of the trip- even on the up hill bits 🙂 ), then this should have been enough to get me through. So, all looking relatively good again as we look to enjoy the long descent…. until…!! More disaster! only a few hundred metres in to the descent and Adrian got a puncture! We both had spares, so no big deal, you’d think, until the was doubled up with complete hand pump failure! Annoyingly I’d used the last of my gas canisters in the morning to give mine a top up. So, though I could have looked on smugly with my gunge filled, puncture proof tyres, the thought of missing out on the downhill and a 30km walk to Edzill from near enough the top of Mount Keen was a sobering one! Luckily, with much hullabaloo, we finally managed to get enough air in the tyre (later found out to be a hysterical 5 psi!) to make the bike ridable – so long as Adrian leaned over the handlebars pretty much all of the way!!
The downhill from Mt Keen was indeed good fun though. Some great views to accompany a fast and furious but really quite hard ride on very loose rocky terrain, which meant I couldn’t really just let rip, and had to keep dabbing the breaks to check my speed.
Once at the bottom we still had about 20k to limp to Edzill with our various bike issues. My one-speed was ok for a short while before the chain started to jump up into a gear which it was too short for. This led to frequent stops to drop the chain back down. Varying attempts to stop the chain from jumping up the cogs (more electrical tape involved) were unsuccessful. Eventually, we let it have it’s way and jump on to the higher cog. Putting the whole thing under a lot of tension, but at least it was consistently ridable… (this was to prove a mistake…!). Eventually we limped, relieved and delighted into Edzill. It had definitely been the most monster day of the ride!
Having got settled into our luxury hotel accommodation for the evening, and grabbed some food in the hotel restaurant, including an impressively burnt chicken kiev, we headed off to explore the delights of Edzill, planning a mini-bar crawl down the single main road of the town(?) and back. This did not go well. Having wandered the full length of the street, we found only one other hotel bar at the other end… open to residents only! – what a happening place :). So, our wild party plans were put on ice and we headed back to the hotel and stayed their for a few pints whilst reflecting on a quite epic day.
Day 6 – Edzil to Montrose – “Downhill all the way”
The last day was, in theory a simple on road trundle into Montrose. However, on these bike rides, rarely are things simple! :). Though Adrian was back up to speed after finding a garage to top up his 5psi tyre to a rather more healthy level of inflation, I was still stuck with my one speed. Certainly no bike shops here!! Still, with only 15 miles to do today, I wasn’t too concerned. That is until, after 7 miles my chain buckled under the pressure it had been under and snapped clean in two! With only 8 miles of “downhill” to do, we decided it really wasn’t worth fixing. I spent the next 8 miles walking/pushing/freewheeling/scooting my way along. At least it was a nice sunny day for a walk!!
As such, when we finally rolled into Montrose beach at around midday, the feeling was one more of relief than real celebration! With the obligatory photos taken we headed into the centre for some grub and a celebratory pint, which sadly was interrupted by issues going on with my work. Still we were able to have a bit more of a celebration on the evening back at my brothers house.
Overall thoughts on the trip
Despite the various bike breakages, this was a really enjoyable trip. Only the trek up mount keen was completely unridable and unpleasant, and to be fair, that would probably have been less irritating had it not been for the complete bike breakage which put me in a huff! The rest of the ride was doable – even the CorrieyAirack pass, on reflection was OK. We definitely broke it up into the right amount of days and stops to make it much less stressful than previous trips where we had often rolled in just it time for beers and pringles for tea.
We got very lucky with the weather with only really one day of bad wind to contend with, and some light rain. Most days we were blessed with fairly calm – even on occasion sunny weather which made the whole ride much more pleasant. Though it did mean that we got almost bitten to death by midgies one day!
As you’d expect there was some great scenery to be had, and the daunting thought of doing a coast to coast across the highlands of Scotland was mostly tapered by the fact that much of the route stuck to the valleys.. sorry glens in between the hills, as opposed to going right over the top of them!
Another good achievement, and some lessons learnt for the next one…! 🙂