For December, I had been planning to get my BAM in at some point over the Christmas period when family were around to entertain the kids. Obviously that option was taken away and it looked like a stricter lockdown was coming, so I opted for an earlier date on the Solstice weekend. I’d also spotted an email from Restrap promoting a Solstice Century ride which involved doing 100 miles over the weekend to claim yourself a badge. Always a sucker for a badge, I decided to go for it. Originally planning to go out on the Saturday night, I delayed by a day as Yvonne was particularly knackered on Saturday and I didn’t want to leave her getting up early with the kids next day. So, prompt as ever I headed out about 10pm on Sunday night, wandering if this even counted for the Solstice Century.
Since I was going to be riding 100 miles, I had hastily plotted out a route that would gather me up some new VVE tiles. Due to the size of max square I have now, it takes nearly two hours to get to the edge and start adding new ones! My route was going to the north west corner of my square to tick off a bunch near Insch, heading towards Huntly. Despite the late hour, I stuck to my planned and complicated route, ticking off tiles with the odd out and back diversion or occasional offroad stretch. Despite being fine in Aberdeen, the temperatures were much colder than forecast and I began to hit patches where the entire road had frosted over, that I had to descend very gingerly to keep upright.
Finally I reached my planned turn off and climbed up into the forest at Gartly Moor. I’d done a quick Google Street View recce beforehand and had spotted a track going onto the forest that should suit my needs. I turned off into the layby and spotted a path heading off through the undergrowth, which I followed uphill for a short while before looking for likely hammock spots off to the side. It didn’t take too long and I got everything up and ready in no time. The tree cover meant that I couldn’t feel a breath of wind, despite it being quite strong on the way here. I took my chances with the forecast and left the tarp in my frame bag, so I could catch glimpses of the stars through the canopy above. I’d not bothered with a stove or flask in favour of carrying more water, so I drank the wee can of coke I’d picked up in the Co-Op and had a cranberry pork pie and some stollen from home before turning in.
The sheltered location did the trick – I could hear the wind raging through the trees nearby, but not a breath of it reached me, meaning a pleasant night’s kip. I had an alarm set for half seven, but snoozed for a wee bit to allow the light to build. The main reason for this was so I could switch my dynamo to charging the Garmin as soon as possible rather than powering the lights, as I had decided to try out a battery pack-free ride and had less than 20% on the Garmin after last night. When I eventually emerged from the trees, it was much lighter than I realised, so I immediately switched to the Sinewave Revolution that was stashed in the frame bag to ease my GPS battery woes.
As I emerged from the forest, it immediately became apparent that the frost had deepened overnight, with my first turn off looking particularly frosty. One of the hazards of always sticking to the backroads when possible, but I just took it easy and never left myself in a position where I’d have to brake or turn sharply on one of the white patches. Having the old Continental GP 4 Seasons was a help too as the softer rubber compound always seems to give that tiniest extra bit of traction, enabling to keep pedalling uphill on it as long as I didn’t push too hard.
My route back home was similar to the previous night, with lots of offshoots to pick off VVE tiles and the odd cheeky bit of offroad, despite the inappropriate tyres.
Eventually I looped back towards the opposite side of Insch from last night and turned on my Co-Op Spidey-sense to take a little diversion which swung me right past one. Don’t know how I do it, but it never fails if there’s one about! After a quick stock up and a nice chat with an old chap who was wondering where I’d been, I was ready to polish off the rest of this ride.
As I passed Keig, the stretches of ice finally eased up for good and I was able to get my head down and make a beeline for home, ensuring I kept the distance up over 100 miles by the time I reached home to complete my kind-of Solstice Century. More importantly, this got me to another complete year of BAM to make it 3 in a row. I was glad I hadn’t jacked it in during the pointless garden lockdown bivies in the spring, as I’d have missed out on the motivation to complete in the winter months, although these are often my favourite rides of the lot.
Will I carry it on? Probably – I don’t know when I’ll next be able to commit the time needed to do a big group start ride like the HT550 again, as family health is something I need to keep an eye on before knowing if its possible. Just because I am capable of it doesn’t mean I have to do it and BAM has been a good way of keeping a small sense of adventure and maintaining my sanity in the meantime!
November was a wet and miserable month, resulting in me putting off my bivy continuously so that I was stuck with the last night of the month yet again. I couldn’t be bothered heading out to a soggy forest somewhere so went for a safe bet along the coast. It was a late start to the ride at about half ten and I went straight through town to reach the beach front, pausing to take in the eerily empty Union Street.
High tide was due at 1 am, so I skipped the bit of headland at Donmouth and used the golf course access road to make some decent progress before rejoining the coastline round the back of a tee. This had been handily discovered on a late evening ride with Kerr a couple of weeks previously. Once down on the sand, the tide line seemed ominously close, especially along the stretches that were bounded by vertical cliffs of dunes.
Despite not being in full fat mode, the 29+ setup was working as fine as ever and I hugged the moist bits of shoreline were the waves came and went, occasionally veering further up the beach when a bigger wave came in. So far, I’m still not seeing a need to finally make this into the full fat bike it’s supposed to be. If I did veer too far into the softer sand then it would bog down a bit, but not too much to prevent me finding a firmer line elsewhere.
I kept moving, wanting to get as far long as possible before the tide came in too far for me to use the firmest sand. I had a few burns to cross, which I thought would dictate how far north I got, as the option of swinging around their emptying channels to cross the shallow water was going to be less likely. The first couple were manageable but I had to think about the last one before Balmedie, eventually deciding to just go for it and jump off into the channel and wheelie up the opposite bank. It wasn’t pretty, but it did the job. Past Balmedie, I began to think about stopping for the night, as I wanted to get back handy in the morning. The beach had widened a bit by now and the tide wasn’t going to be getting much higher, so I hopped up to a higher level in the dunes and found myself a nice sheltered scrape out of the wind.
Once stopped, I popped off my single pannier and rolled out the kit. Usual drill, bit of food, cup of tea and off to bed. No need for an alarm, I figured I’d be up before sunrise.
Once I was awake, I polished off the tea from the flask, took a few pictures and packed up – dead simple with the pannier.
The tide was now well out, so I had the whole beach to pick a line on the way home and enjoy the unexpected bonus of the sun.
I strung out my return on such a beautiful morning, taking pictures and snacking and finally reaching the mouth of the Don, which is much more easily navigable at low tide.
Once I reached the Bridge of Don, I took the direct route home, rather than milk it any longer. As soon as I got in, I also hosed down the bike to remove as much salt and sand as I could, making it the cleanest it’s been since the HT550 start line! I hadn’t been feeling it this month at all, but the night out and lovely morning ride had worked its magic as always.
I had big plans for October, since I was going to be in Nethy Bridge for the first week of the half term holiday as usual. This meant I had the northern Cairngorms as my playground if I could manage to sneak out one night of our stay. I had managed to stuff my bivy gear in as I packed the car with everything we needed, so I just needed to pick a decent night. The weather however, had other ideas and was particularly wet from the minute we arrived. Coupled to this I was feeling rough with a pounding headache, as was Yvonne, meaning I couldn’t abandon her even if I did feel up to it. We still managed to squeeze in plenty of fun with the kids and I even recced the track from Ryvoan back to the house with Kerr, riding back from a canoe day at Loch Morlich on a mostly dry afternoon. The track was an absolute state, thanks to the diggers that have used it to access the hills, though Kerr seemed happy enough getting covered head to toe in mud!
Late in the week, I finally felt up to a night out, setting out just after the kids’ bedtime. The forecast wasn’t great, but I was hoping to do something similar to last year’s October bivy on the Bynack More summit, but this time on Cairn Gorm itself. I headed straight up the road and into Abernethy Forest, making a beeline for the Forest Lodge track. I nearly had an off before I even left the tarmac, as I met some mountain bikers coming the other way, who collectively gave a cheery wave whilst pointing around 2 million lumens of lights and head torches in my face, causing me to lose the edge of the road and fall into the ditch there. This was quite a contrast, as I was currently only using the light off one of the kids bikes in an effort to save the Joystick until I needed it, thanks to them having taken it somewhere below 50% battery running around the cottage in the dark on previous nights! I still wasn’t feeling 100%, so I just trundled along uphill, only pausing for a snack at the edge of the forest before heading on to Ryvoan.
I reached An Lochan Uaine and stopped for a wee bit to think about my plans. I was feeling crappy and it was going to take me a good while to reach the top of Cairn Gorm. I had a faint hope there might be a cloud inversion so I actually saw something in the morning, but it was unlikely. As I pondered my options I noticed rain drops passing in front of my headlight, meaning it was only going to get more persistent and pervasive as I climbed. Finally I came to my senses – it was neither productive or responsible to carry on to the summit and try to bivy in my state and these conditions. Instead I rolled up to the fancy viewing platform and started to get my kit out, occasionally pausing as I had second thoughts, such is my stubborn nature.
I drank my tea and had a snack, sitting on the luxurious bench and not feeling particularly sorry for myself. I eventually got into bed well before midnight and arranged my kit so the rain wouldn’t find its way into my boots. One bonus of the level sleeping area was that my ultra slippy bivy bag didn’t go AWOL during the night – it was also its first test in some proper rain, though the surrounding trees helped too. After a cosy night’s low altitude sleep I woke in the grey drizzle and gradually worked up the energy to get myself up and going.
I could have packed up and gone back the way I came, but my lack of riding the night before and my severe case of antiloopophobia would have kicked in, so I made for Loch Morlich instead and straight onto the old logging way.
I turned off to the north at the end of the loch and started heading for An Slugan, which is a handy shortcut for getting back towards Abernethy offroad.
Once down the other side, I just needed to whip along the old declassified road past Tulloch Moor and I’d be just about home. First of all I had to stop and admire the boardwalk bypassing the puddle of doom which beat the semi-submerged pallets that were there on my last crossing.
After my North Shore excursion, I continued onto the roads near Loch Garten, hopping off into the Forest as soon as possible to enjoy some lovely forest riding on my way back to join in for breakfast with the kids. I’d done nothing like what I’d planned, but who’s keeping score anyway?
September had been a busy month keeping the kids entertained and I left it as late as always, heading out on a Tuesday night with a plan to be back for the school run. I couldn’t go too far without needing to get up stupidly early, so I aimed for Kirkhill Forest, keeping to a mix of my usual offroad tracks and trails on the Amazon. I’d brought a proper camera with me so I could get some decent night time shots for once in the mild evening air.
Despite being as late as ever, it was a pleasant night to be out and about and I was through Kirkhill and doing the last climb to the Tappie Tower before I knew it. The wind was blowing hard here, so I set about scouting for a couple of decent trees off the summit with a bit of shelter after a few more long exposures.
I found a decent spot off the north side of the hill and got the hammock strung up. It still had the midge net attached from August, but I flipped it underneath as no midges would be flying in these winds! I also left the tarp in the bag, trusting the forecast and having my usual snack and a brew before bedtime.
The spot proved ideal – I could hear the wind roaring all night, but barely felt it in my little copse. I had an early alarm set and took a stroll up to the top of the hill for some sunrise pictures before breakfast.
A quick snack and the rest of my tea and I got packed and decided to follow the track I was on down the flank of the hill. It was much more suited to a mountain bike, but I slipped and slid my way down to the forestry track, where I could get cracking on my way home.
The ride home took me round the edge of Kirkhill Forest and over the AWPR, before dropping to the delights of Dyce industrial estate and the airport. A quicker ride home completed a loop and got me there in time to to walk Kerr to school before starting yet another day of home working, for once charged up with a healthy dose of outdoor exercise.
The long months of lockdown had left myself and Jon hankering for some kind of adventure to make up for it and constant chatter on WhatsApp wasn’t doing anything to assuage that craving. Eventually we got ourselves organised for a kind of lads’ weekend which consisted of a half day Friday and whole Saturday to go and play. My brief for the route was “A ride where we don’t have to kill ourselves for once”, which was a struggle for me as I like to get my money’s worth!
So it was, we hatched a plan which seems to be becoming our standard setup, whereby Jon chills out on the train from Edinburgh to Blair Atholl, whilst I race down there in the car to pick him up and deposit him somewhere for a magical mystery tour. Talking of the Beatles, I also doubled our Scouse contingent by persuading Brian to pop up to Scotland for the weekend and join us on a nice easy ride for once…
Traffic was ridiculous on the way down, but Jon was happy enough to wait for his pickup after lunch and a pint in the Atholl Arms. We only had to drive a few minutes to Dalnaspidal Lodge, where we ditched the car and got rolling up Glen Garry. Much later than was ideal, but optimistic of reaching Loch Ossian before nightfall, where I had scoped an ideal bivy spot on a previous passage.
I had guaranteed an ideal ride for gravel style bikes with one short walking section, but the whinging about the gravel diameter started after about 5 minutes, when they went beyond pebble size to very small rocks. I happily ignored the complaints, knowing a treat was in store…
The watershed was surprisingly firm in places, given the rain that had fallen recently and we reached the hydro tracks near Duinish bothy in no time, with a chance to enjoy a long downhill to Loch Rannoch.
The shores of Loch Rannoch were busy, with every single layby or picnic area inundated with cars, campers, tents and even caravans, along with mandatory loud music. This was also accompanied by the first sightings of midge swarms, which got me worried about the night ahead, as I had seen too many horror show pictures from people over the last few weeks. As it was, we were able to pass through unscathed, though I didn’t fancy the car campers’ chances.
We turned right before reaching Rannoch Station to head up and over the Road to the Isles, which has become an extremely popular route in recent years and with good reason. The quality of light and the view along there never seems to disappoint at any time of year.
As the long climb began, Brian was beginning to flag a little, with various mutterings about being quicker on his fat bike. I could see where he was coming from, as you lose the ability to just sit and spin like you can on a mountain bike when you go offroad with gravel bike gearing, especially loaded. A few more of these trips and he’ll never notice though! As it was, we all just continued at our own speed until the track levelled out slightly, where Jon and I stopped to chat with a cycling photographer set up to get some shots across towards Rannoch Moor in the evening light. We had time to kill whilst we waited on Brian, so had a pleasant chat – it turns out he was from a film crew that had been shooting the GBduro a few weeks previous. With the tight time schedule, he’d come back to get more scenery footage along the route for the final film.
Reunited, we continued along and started to think of food for the night. Although we had food to cook and eat, what we really wanted was to reach Corrour Station in time to get dinner at the restaurant. Jon had been keeping in touch to see when they would stop serving and they had kindly said they’d hang on for us for a bit if we were late. With time pressing and not wanting to take advantage of their patience, we sent Jon on ahead to get there handy and order us something nice, which he did!
After lovely food and hospitality as always, we reluctantly put all our kit back on and headed out into the dark to head for the bivy spot I had memorised the last time I rode through here. I was looking for a spur that jutted out into the loch, which I’d seen on a hot summer’s day and figured would be good for getting us into whatever breeze was available to avoid a midge-fest. After about 15 minutes, we were there and pushing our bikes into position, checking for trees with the right spacing for mine and Jon’s hammocks. Brian had gone for ignoring my advice to bring a hammock and had his bivy bag instead, to lay on the rooty lumpy ground below.
There wasn’t rain in the forecast, but the showers that had caught us on the way down to the station made it worth putting up the tarps and shortly after getting set up, another light shower passed over, prompting us to overlap them to provide a large dry area and Brian to attempt a comedy upright caterpillar hop manoeuvre to get himself underneath it. A mostly dry midge-free sleep was had by all, with just enough wind to keep the beasts down without making the hammock sleepers cold.
Morning came bright and breezy, so we decided to pack up and get out of the wind a little for brewing up and breakfast. Re-joining the main track and setting up our stoves to the side showed us how effective the breezy camp spot had been, as the midges came out in earnest, though they could be mostly avoided by just walking around whilst the water was boiling.
Breakfast done with, Jon and I lingered for a while talking about life and bikes – okay, just bikes. This gave Brian a chance to get a nice gap without feeling like he had to push himself too hard as he was feeling the previous afternoon’s exertions a bit. There’s only a slight rise up from the loch when you are heading towards Laggan, so it took a fair while to catch him up. We carried on as a group into the headwind, with the odd shower flying through.
A whole load of perfect gravel bike riding took us on a slowly downward trend to the end of Loch Laggan, where we doubled back on ourselves to hit the end of the lochside track towards Ardverikie.
The ride along the loch was pleasant and before long we passed the beach and were deposited onto the A86. Now I dislike riding on this stretch of road intensely, so I had decided to take the track over to Glen Shirra which would also be a handy recce for the next time I get to do the HT550, whenever that might be. We had less than a mile of tarmac to deal with and yet still three morons managed to put our lives at risk by all trying to overtake on a blind bend, with the third driving alongside us with nowhere to go as a van rounded the corner in the opposite direction. We gladly left the road at the first turn off to the right and started up the short steep push above the tree line.
I had planned to be in Laggan just before lunch time, but as usual had been wildly optimistic. We got a move on and whizzed down the upper Spey with coffee and cakes on our mind at the old Laggan Stores. Our tardiness saw us arrive in the midst of a lunch scrum, with cars and motorbikes everywhere, but it was all very civilised and we scored ourselves an outside table in the alternating hot sun/light showers.
Suitably fed, we rejoined the road and started making our way towards Glentruim. Brian was still feeling goosed from the effects of no granny gears coupled with no sleep on his rooty bed and I gave him an escape option as we reached Catlodge. Instead of doing the planned out and back along the old military road past Phones, he could just carry on along the main road to the south at his own speed to rejoin the A9 cycle path much earlier than we would reach it. In addition, if he got to the car first he could have a sleep before heading down the road.
We had a lovely chilled out section ahead of us, with great views across the Spey valley as we made our way to Milton of Nuide. Here we would scoot across the A9 to join General Wade’s Military Road heading south, finally gaining that elusive tailwind.
I’m not sure why, but I love this track that parallels the A9 for a few miles. Despite the proximity of the road, you’d never know it was just behind the hills to the west of you. It was looking particularly fine today surrounded by a sea of purple heather and was one of the stretches I’d been looking forward to introducing Jon too (Luckily Brian had seen it the year before!).
I had wanted to add in a bonus climb up to Loch Cuaich to string out our return to the A9, but we both figured we wouldn’t be riding much of the climb and also didn’t want to leave Brian hanging on too long for us. The sensible option was taken and we rolled down to the road at Etteridge for another A9 scuttle, followed by a hop over the barrier to drop onto the cycle path. We fired along towards Dalnaspidal, to make sure Brian got as short a nap as possible.
We returned to the cars triumphant and woke Brian from his slumber to set him on his way back to Liverpool. I dropped Jon off at Pitlochry train station to save him a 3 hour wait for the next train from Blair Atholl and made my way home in time for the kids bedtime. I think my brief not to kill ourselves was mostly fulfilled – we actually finished in daylight! The almost weekend away was just what we needed after all that time dreaming of going somewhere, hopefully not the last time this year. It was also an an opportunity to give my new Alpkit Stingray frame bag a proper run out, which it passed with flying colours. I only wish I hadn’t prevaricated for years about getting one, as the accessible convenience of the pockets is a total winner for me. I only added both the bar bag and seatpack so the others wouldn’t get too angry at my lightweight setup!