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I Know What You Did Last Summer: Tour of the Cairngorms

A post that I wrote for the Velo Club Moulin blog…

Tap tap. Is this thing on? Time to blow the cobwebs off the VCM blog. The lack of posts suggest that everyone has been too busy making the most of the first Scottish summer for about five years. More riding, less writing. You can’t waste opportunities like these. Dusty trails needed to be shredded before everything reverts to standard Scottish dreich (like today).

I can’t speak for the other few dozen VCM reprobates, but one of the highlights of my summer was a cracking two days riding a Cairngorm loop with Simon Fairfull in late May. We dismissed THE Cairngorm Loop as we only had two days, and whilst the full 300k route is of course more than do-able in that time, we elected to do a slightly shorter version so that we could enjoy it, rather than making it feel too much like a race.

After some scouring of maps and consultation with Scottish bikepacking oracle Russell Stout, we settled on the lesser known “Tour of the Cairngorms” route:- most of the outer loop of the Cairngorm Loop, but eschewing the Aviemore section in favour of Loch Morlich and Glenmore, and then finishing down Glen Tilt rather than climbing up to Fealar Lodge and the south east side of Beinn a’Ghlo.

Basking in late May sunshine we set off as pasty faced Scots on a Sunday morning (I elected to ride some of the first day in a running vest to keep cool, but the less said about that the better). The first few hours out of Blair Atholl were ticked off at a worryingly easy pace. Without trying, we were averaging over 12mph for several hours. This didn’t feel like the bikepacking I’m used to. Gaick Lodge was dispatched and onwards down to Feshiebridge and a brief return to civilisation at Loch Insh. After seeing barely anyone for the first few hours, we knew that the section through Rothiemurchus and Loch Morlich would be the busiest of the route, but nothing could prepare us the bank holiday Sunday on Costa del Loch Morlich that faced us. Thousands of lounging Scots completely covered the beach and the main Cairngorm road was a double-parked strip of tarmac carnage. We stopped for a drink and ice-cream to soak up the hilarity of it all for 15 minutes before getting the hell out of there as quickly as our laden bikes could carry us. As expected, 20 minutes later and after passing the Ryvoan Bothy, Highland normality was restored and all was blissfully quiet again, save for the crunch of tyre on gravel, dust and pine needles. The next few hours saw a gradual slowing of pace as weary legs began to take their toll and the route became just a little rougher.

We had set our sights on Tomintoul for dinner and a camp spot somewhere along the river just out of town, so we rolled into the town square eager to fill hungry stomachs. Perhaps it was the sight (and smell) of two tired cyclists that caused the reception (or lack of), but something felt decidedly odd about the town. In a town square filled with restaurants and hotels we eventually honed in on the one with outside tables and the most buzz about it. That was our first mistake. Apparently we would have to wait over an hour for food (on a Sunday evening in May?!) so shuffled across the road to the next pub. Despite a close call where our requested ‘orange and lemonade’ was almost served as a bowl of sliced oranges and lemons, we were filled with generic greasy food which at least replenished some burnt calories. Limiting our losses we set out for a third hostelry for our post-dinner pint, and nipped into what looked like the smartest / newest hotel in town. Despite the white tablecloth attempt at an upmarket look, the barman was at pains to stress that grubby bikers would still be welcome, and so our cold pint was enjoyed over a discussion with a barman who turned out to be a mountain biker (and a pretty fast sounding enduro rider). Result. Oddly, the only other family in the bar elected to leave soon after we arrived. My damp shoes from that river crossing must have been smelling pretty bad by that point.

We had planned to ride a few miles out of town and pitch near the river somewhere, but our helpful barman pointed out that the Highland Games field would be empty, flat, closer, and suffer less from the evening midges which were undoubtedly congregating by the river keen for an evening feast. In a win-win for everyone we ordered a few more pints since we wouldn’t have to pedal far to our new not-so-wildcamping spot.

Day two was due to provide a shorter ride (85km vs 120km on day one, and only 1,000m of climbing vs 1,700m). The first few miles south down the River Avon road and track were easily dispatched, although in a slightly annoying fashion as every punchy climb was followed in short order by a descent back to the river. “Somebody” had glanced at the map on his Garmin screen and naively assumed that the high point of the morning’s climb over to Braemar was at Loch Builg. It therefore came as something of a surprise to have to climb a further few hundred metres over the shoulder of the adjacent Corbett. Oops. All good character (and appetite) building. A fast descent to Braemar and welcome coffee and brunch followed in the always excellent “The Bothy”.

One of the benefits of this chosen route is that we knew the following section would be relatively flat and easy, and so it proved. The ride past Mar Lodge was uneventful on the way to the Geldie ‘Fords’. A bone dry May allowed the river to be pedalled over without difficulty and onwards to the top of Glen Tilt. A momentary SPD-fail style topple saw Simon turning his leg into a quite impressive balloon which wasn’t ideal, but thankfully the mystical properties of some recovery Haribo allowed us to continue southwards, with the promise of a dip in the river still to come. Having ridden this section before a couple of times, I knew it would be an easy blast to the finish after tight singletrack at the top of the glen. Pedalling back into the promised land of well-earned sugary drinks and ice-creams in Blair Atholl we passed a couple of fresh looking riders heading up towards the loop. Knowing nods were exchanged. This was Scottish summer bikepacking at its best – memories of great riding that will last even longer than those sunburn marks.

Beinn Bhuidhe – Grinding up the hydro track by bike

A quick post to share a track that isn’t yet on the OS map…

A work appointment in Dunoon this morning led to a 200mi round trip for a couple of hours of work, so the only sensible thing to do was take a half day and pack the FF29. Beinn Bhuidhe is the only munro in the “Arrochar Alps” area I have not yet climbed, but a look at the forecast convinced me that ticking off the summit today (on my own and in driving rain) would probably  not be a sensible idea.

Instead, I decided to stick to the main track built for a recently constructed hydro scheme, and get some much needed riding in the legs, scoping out the route for a ride next time I have a work commitment down this way. This looks like a munro where the top section will be a steep walk, but I planned to just ride up and down the track this time round (and didn’t even bother packing the walking boots).

The track is pretty much as you would expect for hill tracks made for these kind of schemes – rough and steep. A couple of short pitches (about 70m of climbing at 450m) required walking, but the rest could be grunted up in a granny gear. Definitely not as rideable as the local climb up Ben Chonzie, but a lot quicker to get up (and down!) than walking the whole route in from the road. For going on to the summit, the usual walking path apparently crosses this track a bit before the point where I turned round, but I must have missed it when trying to keep my head down out of the rain. The track down over the side of Newton Hill is steeper, but works okay as a descent, and allows for a bit of variety on the return leg.

Given that the track is not yet plotted by Ordnance Survey, I have posted the GPX file for use when planning your own route.

Beinn Bhuidhe Hydro Track Map


Always Exploring

This was never supposed to be some sort of New Year resolution post, or a pat on the back for rides in 2016, but the reality is that I only ever manage to sit down and type these things in the Christmas holidays.

Choinneachain Hill

Choinneachain Hill

I’ll not claim to be the most adventurous rider (exploits of VCMers around Europe and further afield are far more glamorous) so this is more a call to arms to the local adventurers. A show of solidarity to those who, like me, currently lack the time, the money or the “family passes” to get further afield for their riding.

I’ve been lucky in having a new backyard since May, so having spent years getting to know the Pentlands like the back of my hand, I now have a vast new playground in Highland Perthshire. Every ride offers the opportunity for a new bit of trail, a new way to link things up, or a bit of “I wonder where that goes…”. Evenings are spent hunched over OS maps (or their digital equivalent). Weekends are spent riding my trusty Kinesis hardtail or CX bike (now a combined 10 years old) from the back door with a new horizon over every hill.

Sure, you might get some weird looks in the office on a Monday morning (or from the hill runner who laughed in my face as I slid my CX bike down a section of muddy hillside that it was completely inappropriate for), but I’ve (almost) never come back from a ride in a worse mood than I left in, and there is beauty to be found in those hills.

Ben Vorlich and Stuc a Chroin

Ben Vorlich and Stuc a Chroin

Today, despite the 0 degree temperatures and the northerly headwind, I shouldered my bike over a heathery hike-a-bike section to be greeted with one of those “this is why we ride” moments: a genuinely stunning view of the Lawers hills covered in snow set against a blue sky. 5 minutes later I was metres from the herd of deer that had generously formed the “path” I was riding. An hour later, rays of sun between sleety squalls were illuminating stripes of snow covered glen, made all the more striking by the contrast with the surrounding greyness. Even in the gloom of midwinter, there is natural beauty to be found. There is nothing that a few extra layers of Endura kit and a positive attitude can’t overcome.

As the ever wise(?!) Chris Duncan often says after his usual Pitlochry based forest loops, outside is free folks. Get out there and ride.

PS – This was also posted over on VCM

The Scottish National Trail: Part 4 – Milngavie to Comrie

The next leg of my ride on the Scottish National Trail has been a long time coming. The last day on the trail was back in April of this year, but a dry September and a free weekend finally coincided to get a few more miles under the tyres.

I plotted out the route some time ago with the next leg being Milngavie to Comrie, followed by a separate, slightly shorter day for Comrie to Pitlochry. With a lack of train lines in the Comrie area, the obvious solution is an overnight there, but a full calendar put pay to that plan, so I found myself on the 4.50am sleeper from Edinburgh to Westerton, and pedalling up to Milngavie for a 6am start with the intention of reaching Pitlochry in the evening. Combining the two sections would give a total length of around 90 miles.

The initial riding from Milngavie northwards will be familiar to many Scottish mountain bikers – the easy, fast start section of the West Highland Way (interspersed with those bloody gates). My speed was kept in check by the pre-dawn light, but the miles were ticked off and Drymen approached. A lapse in concentration saw me continue on the West Highland Way for a couple of miles more than necessary until I realised that Conic Hill was alarming close, and re-traced my steps to pick up the Rob Roy Way. The riding here was similarly easy – fast forest fire tracks and roads into Aberfoyle, bypassing the Victorian industrial heritage of Glasgow’s water supply.

The route from Aberfoyle started by Dounans Centre, bringing back memories of many a Scottish XC race (thankfully no need for 4 laps up Heart Attack Hill today). Today’s path climbed more gradually eastwards, petering out to single track interspersed with a series of rocky step ups that wouldn’t have been out of place in a manmade trail centre. Mostly rideable with fresh legs on a good dry day, this was a dry day, but I was already 25 miles in by this stage. Remounting was followed by an over the bars in an invisible hole in the grass, but it was good to be riding a good mountain bikers’ trail. The singletrack spat me out on to familiar forest trails by Loch Venachar, and the run into Callendar was broken up by a short detour into the woodland trails at Coilhallan – not technical, but a welcome alternative to the obvious road link.

After a first lunch in Callander (at 9.30am?!) I bumped into some friendly company in the form of another rider for a slog up by Bracklinn Falls and on to a good track towards the south side of Ben Vorlich. The bridge shown on the OS map by Arivurichardich has long since disappeared, and even after a dry September, it was tricky crossing without getting wet feet. It turned out to be tricky to cross without getting a wet backside too, as a cleat to green rock interface ended with the inevitable sit down in the river. At least it gave me a chance to check whether my rear light would work underwater. It turns out that CatEye lights can withstand a full dunking: it fared better than my bruised coccyx.

The track eastwards was a well worn land rover track, giving two good single track grooves, livened up slightly by some overhanging bracken to catch out the unwary. For the first time on the Scottish National Trail, the views felt almost Highland – empty glens accessible only to the determined, backdropped by impressive slopes that only proper Scottish mountains can provide. At this point I pressed on solo, as my fellow rider, John, headed off towards Ben Vorlich for some hike-a-bike. Continuing on towards the top of the road by Auchinner, the suggested route eschews the good access road in favour of the track on the north side of the river. Only the most generous cartographer could describe this as a track though – the reality was a rough line of flattened marshy grass, lightly trodden by sheep. Anyone riding this on anything other than the driest summer’s day might prefer the easier option of the access road towards Comrie. Eventually the track does improve after passing a couple of bothys though, and the run into Comrie was easy enough.

By this time, I had been on the go for the best part of 6 hours, so a second lunch (at noon, so at least it was lunchtime this time) and a bit of recuperation in Comrie was in order. A calf niggle at the start of the ride 60 miles ago was making itself known. In hindsight, a tweaked muscle after a recent race had been ignored, and a new misaligned cleat was probably to blame. Despite adjusting that back in Callander, I wasn’t sure how much further I could push on for. I ordered a recovery coffee only to be told (in the friendliest way) that I looked a bit muddy. I lacked the energy for banter and the best I could manage was an apologetic explanation that I would be taking away rather than sitting in. At this point all I could think of was that this would be a great place to break the ride with an overnight in a hotel with the family, as had been the original plan.

After a caffeine boost, the climb out of Comrie through the “Deil’s Caldron” offered a nice piece of trail through the wood below the single track road. Turning off to cross the River Lednock, a short link on the route plan turned out to be a push through waist high bracken, before rejoining a better track following the east side of the river. Arriving at the car park at Invergeldie, I knew I was faced with a 25 mile relatively remote section towards Aberfeldy. With a calf muscle that was now making its presence known on every pedal stroke, I sat in the sun for a few minutes and made the difficult decision to abandon, heading back down the road to Comrie and onwards over the 20 miles to the nearest train station at Dunblane. Game over.

Doing an about turn at least allowed me to descend through the woods by the Deil’s Caldron again. Even that didn’t got quite to plan though, as I rounded an almost blind bend at speed to be confronted with a narrow bridge over a burn. Realising that I wasn’t going to make the bridge, and that falling off the side of it would result in certain death (well, possibly), I made the quick decision to hammer on the anchors and ditch the bike – face brake fully deployed. After picking myself up and dusting down the bike, I realised that there was a rideable line through the burn beside the bridge. Idiot.

As I hobbled back on the road (freewheeling the downhills, riding one legged on the flats and standing up on the climbs to stretch that dodgy calf muscle out better) I knew I had made the right decision. It was frustrating to abandon a ride, knowing that my legs were otherwise fit enough to make the 90mi to Pitlochry, (that would still have been shorter than last year’s South Downs Way), but I was heartened by the thought that I would enjoy the next section soon as a shorter 40 mile day out with fresh legs.

Map - Milngavie to Comrie (to Dunblane)

Scores on the doors:
Total miles: 134.5km from Milngavie to Dunblane (of which about 100km was on the SNT – the rest being the road ride back to the Scotrail Recovery Service)
Rideability: 99.9%
Red squirrel count: 1
OTBs: 1
Face brake applications: 1
Dents added to the top tube: 1
Sit down protests during river crossings: 1
Visits from the puncture fairy: 2 (1 small tubeless hole which took two shorts stops to fully seal)

The planned GPX for Part 4 from Milngavie to Comrie can be found here.
The GPX for the ride (including a few short wrong turns, a forestry diversion and the escape to Dunblane can be found here.

A Better Way to Glentress

With limited time to ride at weekends, I have been thinking about making better use of my time when riding at places like Glentress, and cutting out the wasted hour or two in the car occasionally. The trip to Peebles from south Edinburgh takes little over an hour on the road bike, but there is no obvious route for a mountain biker.

Map - Glentress to Bonaly

Map – Glentress to Bonaly

If riding to meet others, any route would need to be reasonably fun, short enough to be achievable (ideally both ways) and avoid too much road (which always feels like a bit of a slog on a mountain bike). There is obviously the Scottish National Trail section used on a previous ride, but I felt that something slightly more direct must be possible. After a few nights poring over OS maps, a handful of candidates were drawn up (more on some of the others in future no doubt), and a favourite was selected – a fairly direct route, and also using a fair amount of what looked on the map to be good rideable trails.

After months of busy weekends of racing and other plans, an ideal opportunity presented itself with my sister keen to be shown around Glentress. Originally I had planned to ride both ways (perhaps with a different route on one leg) to try out these routes, but this way allowed a slightly more sensible distance – driving to Glentress in the morning for a good first ride round the blue with my sister (and a walk for wife and son), the obligatory lunch in the cafe, and then a solo ride home.

The proper planned route starts close to the top of the black climb, so it made sense to tweak the start slightly and ride right to the highest point of the black (at the mast at Dunslair Heights), before cutting left on to a fire track, and heading north. Those keen to cut a mile or two will find a track on the map from the bottom of the “Britney Spears” section of the Glentress Black loop, which cuts across to the adjacent fire track, and would save the final climb up to the mast.

After a brisk, warm climb up the black route, the fire road descent allowed the legs a bit of recovery, but the drop in height is a bit disappointing – I have envisaged a flattish traverse across to the wind farm rather than wasting that well earned height.

The route is relatively obvious, being the main fire track for most of the way, although being a Forestry Commission forest, it is worth having some navigation aid since there are always a few generic looking junctions to confuse matters, and the trees do a fine job of masking any navigational landmarks.

After feeling liking dropping most of the height gained on the Black route (in fact only about 300m is lost), the route kicks up again past a barren felled hillside, and on to Bowbeat Hill. The wind farm at the top of the hill is a welcome distraction from the climb, and the track through to the northmost turbine is easy riding.  Here, the track abruptly ends, and I was left to partly ride and partly walk across a heathery section, through a gate and follow my nose towards the edge of the valley I knew contained a good track out.

After a couple of minutes following what could only be described as sheep tracks if you were feeling particularly generous, I picked up a slightly better grassy track which took me down to the valley floor and on to the gravel double track. Ridden in reverse, I suspect that there would be 5 minutes of walking for anybody slogging up a steep hillside on a faint track through the heather.

A fast blast to Gladhouse Reservoir made up for any time spent wading through heather (although look out for the axle-deep puddles in a couple of places on the main track). There is no obvious way of completely avoiding the roads here, but the quiet roads round Gladhouse are pleasant enough, and there are a couple of fire track options through Toxside Moss too. Back roads are the obvious way from here to Mount Lothian and on towards Penicuik (although it remains to be seen if this road will remain when the mine at Cauldhall expands soon).

Riding through Penicuik did have me wondering if there are probably better options for avoiding a bit more of the road, but these are easy miles, and the total percentage on the road still isn’t huge. From here, I chose to ride alongside Glencorse and over the Pentlands using The Phantom’s Cleugh (allowing me to drop down to Bonaly without any serious climbing), but the tarmac miles by Glencorse could probably be avoided. Unfortunately the obvious alternative is the grind up the Castlelaw climb, and I’m not sure that the legs could stand for that on a long, warm ride.

Generally a good and achievable route. Only a few minutes through the heather at the end of the wind farm is tricky to ride, and the road sections through Penicuik can definitely be reduced. There is a reasonable amount of bland forestry commission fire track, but at least those miles are quickly ticked off. I probably need to ride this in reverse to see how rideable the final pull up to the wind farm is, but this is definitely a candidate for a good way to leave the car at home.

Distance: 53km (from the Glentress Trailhead, up the black and finishing in Bonaly)
Height climbed: 1,191m (a munro and a bit – mostly up the black and on to Bowbeat Hill – it is relatively flat thereafter, with the exception of the Pentlands crossing)
Water bottles used: 1
Water bottles I should have used: about 4!
Minutes walking: 1(ish)
Axle deep puddles: 1 (and 2 others ridden around after the previous lesson)
Hours taken: 3 (with a few photo stops en route)
Quad bike riding men carrying shotguns seen: 1

Strava link: here
GPX file: here
Bunnet to: @Stellite who ran the track up towards the wind farm after discussing this earlier in the year.

The Scottish National Trail: Part 1 – Kirk Yetholm to Peebles

After months of procrastinating, a sunny April finally allowed a chance to ride the first leg of The Scottish National Trail from Kirk Yetholm (close to the English Border) to Peebles. After riding the second and third legs solo last year, I was joined by XC whippet Dougie Shearer for this part.

Kirk Yetholm to Peebles - Route Profile

Having left a car in Peebles at 8am, driving across the gentle rolling hills around Kelso didn’t quite prepare us for the slog which lay at the start of the ride. Although the “official” start of the trail is in the village square in Kirk Yetholm, it seemed rude to come this far south and not actually visit the border, so we set out southwards from Kirk Yetholm, up and down the minor road, up a grassy mound and on to a ridge along the Pennine Way. The border at this point is an inauspicious fence and stone wall which provided a handy spot for leaning a bike for the obligatory border photo, but little in the way of  grandeur. For all Cameron McNeish’s talk about discovering Scotland through his National Trail walk ahead of the referendum in September, the English side of the wall looked much like the Scottish side – rolling hills and scattered sheep as far as the eye could see. From here, a cloudless blue sky covered the whole of the eastern Scottish Borders in front of us, and it was easy to pick out where the route would head next. First though, we continued briefly southwards, climbing the ridge alongside the border and passing White Law and beneath the 549m summit of Black Hag, before performing an abrupt U-turn and finally being rewarded for the grassy slog with a fast single track and double track descent back towards the valley floor and on towards Kirk Yetholm.

Rejoining the trail northwards at our start point in the village square, the national trail at this point follows the waymarked “St Cuthberts Way” across fields, alongside rivers and joins the dots of the few notable mounds in the area – Crookedshaws Hill and Wideopen Hill. After the efforts of the initial start loop climb and these grassy mounds, I was starting to wonder about the 1×10 with 34t chainring I was running on the XC bike. Just managing to stay on top of the gear, I managed to spin and gurn upwards (thankful for bone dry grass at least) and on down to flatter sections through Morebattle and along minor roads past Cessford Castle.

Although expecting the arrow straight Roman Road of Dere Street shown on the map to be a straight boring slog, in fact it turned out to be a lumpy single track trail through grassland and woods. I suspect the Romans didn’t have to put up with a relentless barrage of stiles and gates though. Or perhaps that’s why they didn’t venture too far north in Scotland. Almost as frustrating was a section alongside the River Tweed which I expected from the map to be flat and smooth, but which often involved a series of wooden stairs – sometimes inviting stair rides, but often time sapping walks. Continuing with the Borders tradition of ransacking and pillaging by marauding visitors from the south, a shortcut along the road allowed us to empty the local Co-op in St Boswells before turning towards Melrose. The route again makes a bee-line for the only notable hills in the area – the steep twin mounds of the Eildon Hills which I knew well from childhood walks. Thankfully the route passed relatively painlessly through the middle before descending in to Melrose and resuming the march along the Tweed and picking up the NCN cycle route. The easy miles of the old railway line were cut abruptly short as the new Borders railway line re-emerged on to the old route, necessitating a slight detour on to the main road before traversing the side of Gala Hill.

By now the long climbs were taking their toll – my legs were still working, but only at a slower pace and Dougie had been off colour but ploughing on all day. After debating the merits of lassoing a few lambs to tow us up the hill, we instead settled for haribo and strawberry laces as a better source of fuel. Passing by the summit of Hog Hill, it slowly dawned on us that although the Three Brethern looked teasingly close, the Selkirk road still lay in the way, and sure enough, our hard won height was again lost as we dived down to the road and immediately back up into the Yair Hill Forest.

Early evening sun on the Three Brethren

Early evening sun on the Three Brethren

The impressive stone cairns of the Three Brethern will be a welcome sight to anyone who has ever raced the Selkirk MTB Marathon. Thankfully the late afternoon weather was a little more welcoming than some previous trips where we had struggled to stand upright here, so final fuel was taken on board before the fast ride along the ridge on familiar trails on to Minch Moor. Eschewing the tempting swoopy trails of Innerleithen, we bee-lined down the Southern Upland Way path, startling some poor chap relieving himself against a wall as we zipped by at 30mph. By this time I was already pushing my luck for time, so we time trialled along the road past Traquair and into Peebles, skipping McNeish’s short detour into the adjacent woods, and arriving back at the car almost 10 hours after setting off from Kirk Yetholm.

Although the long grassy climbs, relentless gates and Dougie’s illness had added to the time (we had both expected 7 hours to be sufficient), there was a good sense of smug satisfaction after ticking off almost 70 miles of off road riding on dusty trails. Again, the route had been mostly rideable (with a bit of gurning required for some of the steeper climbs, and a bit of walking required for a few riverside steps) but it would certainly have been a bit more of a muddy slide in wetter weather.

Personally, I have now ticked off a total of around 150 miles from Kirk Yetholm to Milngavie, and once I have re-earned the brownie points required to make up for being 3 hours late home from this part, I’m looking forward to a two day stint from Milngavie to Pitlochry next. As the route heads further north, this first stage has reminded me that (i) a lower gearing might be sensible, (ii) I always get sunburnt on the first big sunny day out of the year, and (iii) I need to pack more Haribo. Hopefully a few words on Parts 4 and 5 might follow later in the year.

Finally, a tip of the hat to Dougie for still having the presence of mind after 10 hours in the saddle to stand on the brakes and avoid the wild boar that wandered in front of the car on the return to Kirk Yetholm in the evening. That certainly woke me up, not least with thoughts of wild boar burgers. Mmm….

Heading west from Kirk Yetholm after a border raid start loop

Heading west from Kirk Yetholm after a border raid start loop

The GPX for my “Part 1” (which uses a couple of km of road shortcut at St Boswells and past Cardrona) can be found here.

Racing Roundup – Chasing Hills and Podiums

In the past few weeks and months I have been busy racing duathlons, getting back into Scottish XC, trying my hand at a bit more road racing and chasing hills. As I am keen to avoid too many words about my mediocre racing here, you will find a couple of reports of my efforts in the Fastafarian colours of Velo Club Moulin (along with the interesting exploits of the other riders) on the club blog.

More Scottish National Trail write-ups coming soon. In the meantime, keep it rubber side down (except where appropriate) and enjoy the dust while it lasts.

The Scottish National Trail: Part 3 – Slateford to Milngavie

As the end of 2013 approaches, it recently dawned on me that my limited miles (a single day in March) on the Scottish National Trail was a poor show, and so with Christmas turkey still weighing me down, I found time to ride the “easy” Slateford to Milngavie section (which I am labelling as “Part 3”, Peebles to Slateford having been “Part 2“, and “Part 1” still to be ridden).

In between 40mph winds and torrential downpours, the forecast suggested a couple of dry days. Boxing Day looked tempting, but the need to rely on my long suffering wife’s taxi services (in the absence of a Scotrail service) saw me delaying slightly to 29 December. Probably a wise move as I’m quite sure I’ll be cashing in lots of brownie points for her taxi services for other sections.

Whilst I intend to ride the mountain bike for the rest of the trail, the Slateford to Milngavie section is along the flat and relatively smooth Union and Forth and Clyde Canal paths for the most part, and so the lighter cyclocross bike with skinnier tyres seemed the better option. Having ridden to Linlithgow in early January before, I know how wet the canal towpaths can be, even on dry days, and so the Shimano waterproof boots were donned and the rear mudguard added to the bike.

The Slateford start is only a couple of miles from home (I pass the Scottish National Trail plaque at the Water of Leith visitor centre almost daily on my cycle to work as a constant reminder of my dilatoriness), so after a quick ride down the hill and the obligatory start photo shot, I was climbing the steps onto the Union Canal path.

The relative simplicity of this section of the trail means that I can keep the route description brief. The Union Canal allowed a brisk start, and although the prevailing westerly wind provided a bit of resistance, this day would be by far the flattest of the trail, and ideal for weary legs after a hard season of cyclocross racing and a long lingering cold. The section to Ratho was quickly dispatched, before the towpath began to resemble more of a cyclocross racecourse – skinny cyclocross tyres cutting through a sodden mulch of rotting leaves and mud. The plywood childrens’ television characters lining the banks towards Newbridge kept a colourful, if slightly menacing eye on my progress before the trail opened out on to more exposed sections through Winchburgh and Broxburn, where the leafy mulch was replaced by puddle after puddle and a slightly stronger headwind.

The flattest ride you will ever see? The lumpiest bits are actually before and after the proper Scottish National Trail sections.

The flattest ride you will ever see? The lumpiest bits are actually before and after the proper Scottish National Trail sections.

The flat nature of the route reflects the impressive engineering involved – there is just a single lock between Edinburgh and the canal end by Falkirk. I always wonder if engineering like this would be undertaken nowadays – I’m sure it would be voted down by some quango as too expensive and not worth the bother. The tunnel a couple of miles before the Falkirk wheel is no less impressive, with jagged bare rock still visible on the roof and now well illuminated. Shortly afterwards the shiny and relatively new Falkirk wheel looms into view, alongside the only descent on the canal part of the route. The last time I visited here by bike was when at university in Glasgow – riding home with a friend was good way to avoid the Scotrail and Citylink fares, although we probably spent more than that in extra mars bars along the way. It was definitely a bit warmer then.

Pressing on past pedestrians staggering around the path, the route continues along the Forth and Clyde Canal towards Glasgow on wider but similarly puddly paths. By now the dog walkers were out in slightly greater numbers, and I was glad I had added the bell to the cyclocross bike. Ting ting.

By the time I approached Cadder, I was growing weary of the long, flat miles and relentless (but thankfully not terribly strong) headwind, and was glad to turn off on to the road for a short climb up past the church and descent towards Cawder Golf Club. A brief wrong turn saw me heading along a tempting driveway towards the clubhouse before about turning and picking up the path through a line of trees that I should have seen the first time around.

After cutting through the village of Balmore, I continued over the second golf course – sneaking round the clubhouse and on to a good path. At separate points I passed two groundsmen – both exchanged brief pleasantries and neither seemed perturbed by a mucky cyclocrosser nipping round the course – right to roam working well in practice. The path through the club was relatively easy to follow (although not signposted, so I was glad of my Garmin mapping) and aside from cutting across a deserted fairway, followed a path which would trouble only the most wayward tee shot. From here, pleasant backroads (through Baldernock and a third golf course in as many miles – they love lairy polo necks, checked trousers and Jaguars in East Dunbartonshire) led onwards and down into Milngavie. Thankfully I followed a car through the fast flowing ford on Baldernock Road. I might otherwise have been tempted to power through, but going arse over tit on slippy cobbles in the final mile would have been an embarrassing way to finish the day.

Having briefly flirted with the idea of picking up the canal again near Kirkintilloch and riding home (making a 110mi round trip), I decided not to spoil a pleasant enough ride by turning it into a do-able but slightly wearing epic. Shunning the tempting tailwind back along the canal, I pedalled down the Kelvin Walkway and on to Glasgow Queen Street for a train back to Edinburgh. Just over 100km all in, confirmed by the muddy spray covering bike and legs. I’m sure the virtually empty carriage at my end of the train was nothing to do with that though.

All done, a pleasant day of riding, although I am looking forward to the more rugged sections more. The prevailing wind was never quite strong enough to make me wish I had ridden west to east (which seems sensible, but not quite in the spirit of the SNT) and the canal miles were easily ticked off. I was slightly unsure what to expect of the sections through golf courses, but all were walker friendly and posed no issues for considerate cyclocrossers either.

A paltry two days of riding on the Scottish National Trail in 2013, but I’m now itching to crack on in 2014. I will let the trails dry out a bit first, and hopefully tick off several days in March, April and May. Not least, Part 1 from Kirk Yetholm still needs tackled.

The trimmed down GPX file, showing only the part of the ride from Slateford to Milngavie is here.

The Scottish National Trail: Part 2 – Peebles to Slateford

I like having a bike project on the go. Something to look forward to. Something to take up time when I should be working and to ponder whenever glancing idling at the calendar. Recently, meticulously planned new bike builds with geeky spreadsheets have filled much of that time, but now that the FF29 is built, the singlespeed CX bike is re-modelled and a few other bits and pieces have been upgraded, it is time to put the materialistic part of me to one side and get on and ride the damn things.

The current itch and long running project is to ride the Scottish National Trail. I am writing this post over a year after Cameron McNeish’s route launch, and almost a year after BBC’s Adventure Show covered the route. Although it was always to be a long term plan, progress has been rather slow.

To date, I have spent multiple evenings poring over OS maps (on paper and in Garmin BaseCamp), often with Cameron’s book as a handy reference for his suggested route. In riding terms, sadly only one day has been undertaken thus far, and whilst I had intended to write that up after riding a few sections, I had better press on before my hazy memories disappear forever.

Getting my route planning on

More on the route in later posts, but the basic premise in creating the trail was a trail for walkers running the length of Scotland using existing routes and tracks. Whether it will all be suitable for riding remains to be seen and I suspect that a few sections might require a bit of a rethink. The trail runs from Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders, to Cape Wrath in the far north west. The appeal for me lies in exploring new trails and more than that, new areas. I have never ventured to areas such as Torridon, never visited Kirk Yetholm and never been much further north that Ullapool and Inchnadamph. Even in areas I have visited, there will be new paths I have never stumbled across.

Peebles to Slateford

Foregoing the intended first “stage” from Kirk Yetholm to Peebles (I am breaking it down into day sized chunks for mountain biking) , I instead began the second leg from Glentress to Slateford on a chilly but sunny early March day. Logistically, this worked well – a bimble around Glentress with friends in the morning, a spot of lunch in the cafe and then a solo ride home via Slateford (handily only a mile or two from home). Although not the proper first stage, this would include a neat finish by the trail’s plaque at the Water of Leith centre in Slateford (oddly lying neither at the start nor the finish of the official route, but 80 miles in). Presumably Alex Salmond could not be persuaded to get his wellies muddy in Kirk Yetholm or Cape Wrath when unveiling the plaque.

After a gentle start along the river from Glentress towards Peebles, the route soon turned uphill out of Peebles onto Hamilton Hill – already a new hill and path to me. The early afternoon sun had me down to shorts and top on only the 2nd of March, which was probably a bit ambitious (I was layering up again half an hour later). For the most part the tracks were good, although became a bit indistinct as I waded through farmyard mud by Upper Kidston Farm on my way to the Meldons. Briefly dropping down to the minor road from Eddleston (a favourite of mine on the road bike), the tarmac is short lived, giving way to a firebreak track and eventually an open climb round Drum Maw and down to Romano Bridge. Avoiding the obvious minor road (as the route often does, sometimes frustratingly) I added a bit of distance and fair amount of time skirting through farmland before eventually joining the very same minor road for the run into West Linton and on to more familiar trails – the Roman Road which connects West Linton to Carlops – a handy link for anyone mountain biking in the Pentlands. Very good of those Romans.

From here, I knew I could look forward to a stiff climb on a good track to North Esk Reservoir and then an often muddy track up to the Bore Stane. There are various trails in the Pentlands I only ride when bone dry and this is one such trail. Thankfully February had been relatively dry and the trail was mostly rideable with just a few dabs and a little wheel spinning. Over the top and on to  “Xylophone”: an inviting looking path, but made from a long line of greasy, polished logs placed side by side for a few kilometres. Polished logs lead to bum notes in the wet so I generally used the peaty singletrack to the side where available. Down to Listonshiels and avoiding the fast road down to Balerno I slogged through the slightly boggy “path” (sheep track is probably more accurate these days) towards West Rigg before a spin through Balerno to clean the tyres on the road (mostly in my face) and on to the Water of Leith walkway to Slateford. 4 hours 40 minutes after leaving Glentress was a reasonable ride – the time not helped by various stop to add layers, remove layers, add layers again, and a few short detours through muddy fields trying to find paths through farms.

A good start to the trail – 99% rideable, some new trails, some old friends, and not a drop of rain. Now, about that first leg…

The GPX for my “Part 2” from Glentress to Slateford can be found here.

The South Downs Way

The South Downs Way has become something of a classic in British mountain biking, particularly for the “double” efforts of a number of ultra fit endurance riders in the South. For that reason, plenty has been written about the route in the past, and so only a few short words are probably justified here.



Originally intending to ride West to East (as is probably more common), a relentless north easterly wind in early April 2013 saw me changing my plans and hopping on a (very) early morning train to London, and onwards to Eastbourne. I rolled up to the start line and up the aptly named first climb at “Warren Hill” in temperatures of about 2 degrees and glorious sunshine which lasted for all of 20 minutes before it became cloudy but reasonably bright for the rest of the day.

XCPro3 on the South Downs Way

Not being terribly familiar with the route, I had downloaded a GPX file from which I stuck on my Garmin 800 to keep me on route. This was not really essential, but did prove quite handy a couple of times for alerting me when I had my head down and overshot a junction. At least the angry “chirp” from the Garmin saved me from descending too far down the wrong track. The route linked to above diverged slightly from the current waymarked route in the final third, but I stuck with the GPX route to follow the tracks of dozens of riders before me. I had no real ambitions for a fast time – I knew I would still be some way off of any records, so settled for aiming to finish in daylight and enjoying the ride.

The relentless north easterly wind was a mixed blessing. A week of dry weather and strong winds had meant that the dreaded wet clay was dry and fast and on the whole, and the wind was more behind me than in front of me. A constant wind is quite wearing though, and being a side wind really, it wasn’t all plain sailing. I recall pedalling ridiculously hard down one north easterly facing descent which looked like it should be much faster than it was, and a few gruelling climbs which were a bit more into the headwind than I would have liked. I shouldn’t complain though – I passed walkers at one point with hoods up and heads down so low to shelter from the wind that despite walking towards me up an open hillside, they didn’t spot me until I gave them a cheery hello when passing. That certainly woke them up.

The route on the whole was fairly pleasant – good open views for much of the route, completely rideable climbs and, being a weekday, not too many walkers to slow down for. The route profile suggested bigger climbs in the first half, with a slightly flatter section higher up the ridge on the final half before the run down to Winchester. I told myself that a few times in the first half, trying to convince myself that the second half would be faster. By the time I was on to the last third, I kept telling myself that “surely this is the last notable climb”? In looking at the route before hand, I had clearly missed Butser Hill, which at that point in the ride can be best described as a big grassy wall. Granny ring engaged, I was satisfied just getting up it without wobbling to a standstill.


After that last serious climb, I pedalled squares over every little rise thinking “I’ll be able to see Winchester from the other side of here”. That became a bit of a hollow sentiment after half a dozen such climbs though, and I was glad to eventually find some fast, smooth roads to roll towards Winchester on.

Overall a great day out, but a few headwind sections took a bit more out of me than I had expected. I rolled up to the statue in Winchester after a little over 11 hours and just under 100 miles, technically after sunset, but still not dark enough to merit my proper bike light. Job done.

I wonder if I would have been quicker on a 29er…