A spot of reminiscing back to my first overnight mountain bike ride in 2003.
I’d just become the proud owner of a Scott Expert Racing hardtail, the first brand new bike I had ever owned and somehow got the idea in my head I was going to ride it through the Cairngorms and stop overnight somewhere. I had a distinct lack of lightweight camping gear as well as a non existent budget. Luckily, my buddy Paul had a few bits and bobs from his time with the TA, so I raided his gear and packed up for the weekend. My kit list:
- Berghaus 15l Freeflow Rucksack
- British Army Goretex bivy bag
- Thermarest 3/4 self-inflating mat
- Cheapest, smallest, lightest sleeping bag I could find in Blacks
- Hexamine stove and blocks
- Small mess tin
- Couple of army ration packs
- Hot chocolate sachets
- Ancient Regatta fleece
- Edinburgh Bicycles windproof jacket
- Helly Hansen base layer
- Altura MTB shorts and liner
- Salomon trail running shoes
- DEET midge repellent
This all just about packed into my rucksack, which was totally unsuited to mountain biking, due to its rigid construction and curved back, which moved the weight outwards to allow a back cooling air gap. I don’t think I’ve ever packed so lightly for an overnighter since and probably never will again!
My route was mainly inspired by Ralph Storer’s excellent Scottish Hill Tracks, which was basically my cycling bible back then. I was planning to take an early train from Aberdeen to Aviemore, ride around the edge of the Cairngorms and finish up in Braemar after an overnight bivy, where Paul would pick me up, since he was planning to go for a drive up to Loch Muick on the Sunday.
I got down to the station on the Saturday morning for the first train to Inverness, which went smoothly enough. Unfortunately my bike booking only got me this far and I was ejected from the next train by an overzealous conductor, leaving me with the option to either try and ride to Aviemore, or wait a couple of hours for the next train and hope i was allowed on it. Since I only had a map of the Cairngorms with me and had no idea of the roads round there at the time, I opted for the latter!
Luckily, it paid off and I rolled out of Aviemore station at lunch time, heading for Loch an Eilein and the first stage of my trip, through beautiful Rothiemurchus Forest. It was a beautiful August day and the summer had been very dry, so the tracks were dusty and the going was good. It was my first time in the area and I’ve basically never stopped visiting since, it left such an impression on me. I worked my way through the forest without any navigational hiccups, eventually being deposited onto the road at Loch Morlich. I popped into the shop for drinks and extra food and continued towards Ryvoan.
An Lochan Uaine was a spectacular green in the summer light and I lingered here for a while, drinking in the ambience of the place and making note to come back with Yvonne some time soon. On past the bothy and I just about caught my turn off rather than flying downhill to Forest Lodge. After fording the river, I climbed back up onto the track that heads for the Eag Mhor as the sun continued to beat down.
An easy river crossing, followed by a push through the trees took me to the narrowest part of the gap, where I gingerly crossed the electric fence and aimed across the Braes of Abernethy towards Dorback Lodge. I got to the Dorback Burn and spent several minutes wandering up and down looking for a dry way across. Eventually I gave in and accepted the inevitable, wringing out my socks on the other side. I made a meal of getting to the lodge, dragging the bike through rough, tussocky grass to hit a sandy track that got me onto the road.
As I rode away from the lodge and the sound of shotguns on an adjacent track, I started to feel a bit tired heading up the big climb before the drop to the Burn on Brown. My inexperience was beginning to show, as I’d ridden every climb like I was on a BMX, rather than making the most of the mountain bike gearing. I also hadn’t noticed that the ridiculously well greased seatpost had been slipping down all day, which was knackering my knees!
Luckily, the many crossings of the burn had me hopping on and off the bike constantly, giving my knees a break. The river was so low, I got right the way along without getting my feet any wetter. Another climb, followed by a fast descent down to the Bridge of Brown, saw me rolling along the road to Tomintoul. As the day was getting on, I decided to fill my face at the chippy and bask for a while in the late afternoon sun. I had a wee chat with a couple of blokes in an old convertible, who were on a distillery tour and handed me a whisky miniature to help me on my way.
Eventually, I started rolling again down Glen Avon, where I was planning to bivy for the night. I was struggling to find a place I felt comfortable in, due to there being a few dwellings in the upper section, eventually settling for a wide grassy area down by the river. As I unpacked my bed for the night, the midges soon closed in, leaving me to set up in bursts of activity, punctuated by running away to get them off my scent. Once ready, I dived into the bivy bag and cocooned myself inside, with the tiniest of cracks to allow for oxygen entry. A combination of a poorly inflated Thermarest and a sleeping bag with no insulating properties whatsoever made for a cold night’s sleep, as the temperatures plummeted in the glen with clear skies above.
I stirred in the morning and tentatively poked out my head to find midge levels had decreased sufficiently to allow me to get my cooking kit down to the rocks on the riverbank so I could very slowly boil some water for a heated breakfast and hot drink, without being eaten alive. The steep sides of the glen kept me in shadow, so I headed off wearing every item of clothing I had, until the effort and a gap in the hillside allowing the sun to thaw me, let me dress a bit more appropriately. As I went along, I glanced up to my right and was treated to the sight of a massive stag posing on the edge of an outcrop in as stereotypically Scottish a scene as I could possibly imagine. I vowed to get myself a digital camera and take it with me on any future rides like this!
I passed the impressively remote and well looked after Inchrory lodge and made my way up Glen Builg, eventually reaching Loch Builg, where I bumped my way along the awkward singletrack, before speeding down into Glen Gairn. I had a big climb to come and the bridge over the Gairn was midge-free, so I took the opportunity to lay down in the sun and get an extra 30 minutes. Refreshed, I got going up the glen and ready for the monster climb up Cullardoch. For some reason I decided to turn on my phone and was greeted with a message saying my first niece had been born that morning, making the weekend doubly special.
My knees creaked their way up, occasionally hopping off for a walk when the going got too steep. I’d made the mistake of being squeamish about filling up my water bottle from the rivers below and was completely out of water, with the sun baking down on me. As I topped out, I was so desperate I decided to take a sip from the whisky miniature I had been gifted. Big mistake! Throat burning, I ripped down the descents towards Invercauld House and made my sorry way along the tarmac into Braemar, where I bought myself as many cold drinks as I could carry and went for another lie down in the sun.
As a sting in the tail, when I called my lift to see when he’d be there, he was just reaching the summit of Lochnagar, meaning he was a long way off. Always a glutton for punishment, I re-mounted, rolled off towards Ballater and took the turn off for Loch Muick and a welcome car ride home.