TransScotland 2022

https://www.theracingcollective.com/transscotland.html

Distance: 470km

Climbing: 5325m

The start of June brought an event I have been waiting a while to take part in. With life, COVID and scheduling conflicts having thwarted me before, this was to be the year I finally had a go at TransScotland! I pretty much plan a route through the checkpoints every year as part of my mapping obsession, so to do it with the knowledge I might actually be able to try and ride it was a real buzz! So, onto the train I climbed after work on Thursday, hoping my knees which had been aching for the last three weeks would survive the abuse I had planned.

Ready to go at Aberdeen station

As I hooked my bike onto the rack, I was mildly annoyed to note that there were at least 4 bicycle spaces on this service, which had shown up as having none the first few times I tried to book tickets! I got into Inverness at 2030 and checked in to the Premier Inn, hoping to squeeze as much sleep in as possible before my planned very early start. I opted for dinner at the hotel restaurant for the same reason, though the food seemed to take forever to arrive, negating any perceived time savings. After my massive burger-based meal, I went for a wee stretch of the legs to try and aid digestion before heading for bed.

Sunset on the River Ness

No-one had batted an eyelid at me wheeling the bike into the hotel, which had two advantages: I could get everything packed in comfort to just roll out the next morning and I was on the top floor, which gave me a good bike carrying warm up for what was to come tomorrow! I struggled to sleep, partly in anticipation and partly due to the fact I was in bed way earlier than normal, but I didn’t feel too bad for my 0415 alarm call as I silently crept from the hotel and over the bridge to Inverness Castle.

So much for my shortcut to the start
Close as I could manage for a start photo

My intricate route preparation had even gone so far as planning to pop up the back way into the castle and save myself a few yards before the start, but I was denied by the building works going on around the entire site. I circled round to the main entrance, took my start picture and then spent five minutes trying to work out how to get it onto Twitter properly, before rolling down to the river for my first leg. I’d cycled a fair bit of this during various iterations of Ride the North and cruised along in a daydream, until rudely awaken by two young guns, who gave a cheery hello as they passed. I had been a little worried I was the only person who had gone for an early start, so it was good to see someone else out and about, though I did worry I was going to spend most of the day being passed like this!

First of the morning’s overtakers
View along Loch Ness

No doubt I added a little more effort to my morning cruise, as I kept them in view for a good while along the shore of Loch Ness, before eventually losing them just before the first substantial climb, where I was joined by another trio this time, who swept up behind me and kept a similar pace for a couple of hauls up before letting them go to keep to my easy-going plan. The first checkpoint was now approaching and the higher I got, the less clement the weather appeared, eventually depositing me in the clouds above the loch.

My spinny gearing allowed me the luxury of taking photos on steep climbs

Finally, the last climb to the Suidhe Viewpoint checkpoint was reached and I stopped for a quick chat with the trio, before letting them head off whilst I soaked up the view and got my shot for Twitter.

The later you left, the more view you got

Jacket on and away to Fort Augustus which promised to be practically all downhill from here and what a downhill it was! All that climbing lost in the blink of an eye, which was to be a recurring theme for the weekend. I didn’t take the obvious road before the village, but instead carried on down to the locks and made my way along the towpath towards Loch Oich. This way was a bit longer, but saved my knees 50m of climbing and is just a lovely bit of riding along the mostly smooth towpath, reliving my Highland Trail glory days without the pain!

View back up the loch, allegedly the only place in the UK that has a freshwater horizon
Smooth speedy towpath
One day I’ll ride along here and not be in a rush

As I rejoined the road, I was caught by yet another rider and kept up this time for a proper chat. Steve had left half an hour after me and was planning to stick to the road regardless of extra distance incurred, so I said we could race it out at the end of Loch Oich and see who had made the right call. Steve pulled ahead just before the end and I took my right turn onto the unclassified road at Laggan, which was a nice intro to my first offroad stretch of the day. I knew exactly where the road petered out and that it was rougher than the towpath, but if I wasn’t too gung ho I could get by perfectly well on 28mm slicks.

Road above North Laggan
Dragged the brakes a wee bit to avoid a mishap

I made the mistake of having a quick check of my live tracking on the website and saw that it wasn’t showing anything, leaving me doing the usual dance of logging in to my SPOT and Spotwalla sites to try and sort the feed out, so family could see I was actually moving. Eventually I got annoyed and left it alone, figuring I’d have a chance whilst waiting for a ferry at some point! I also stopped for something to eat before I got hungry, whilst enjoying a view along Loch Long and to the snow-dappled mountains beyond.

Loch Lochy

When I rejoined the road at Clunes, I was still fairly confident I’d be ahead of Steve, as he had a fair few extra km to go and sure enough, he eventually came round the corner behind me grinning – 1-0 to me! There followed a very pleasant ride along the banks of Loch Arkaig chatting about our plans and life in general, the good company keeping my pace up as I didn’t pay too much attention to the dips and rises.

Lovely spot near the start of Loch Arkaig
Steve in action along the loch

Steve’s plan at the end of the loch was to turn round and go back to the Great Glen before taking the long way round to Glenfinnan and Checkpoint 4, Corryhully Bothy. My plan was to save myself an extra 60km of riding and take my bike for a walk over the pass for 11km. As we met groups of riders coming back along the loch after getting their checkpoint shot, I began to wonder if anyone had opted for the rough and ready option. I’d made up my mind anyway, it would give my dodgy cycling knees and rear end a break from the bike, as I knew it was far too rough to do any riding. I figured it would have taken me a pessimistic 3 hours to do the road option, so surely I could walk a pass in that? I said goodbye to Steve at the checkpoint, ready for our second on/off road race and moved along the estate track which should be fine until the turn off for the hill track proper.

Not all slow on this stretch

As I reached the turn off in the forest, I finally met some other foolhardy souls who were taking on the pass. Calum and his crew had set out an hour before me, but had had been delayed by several punctures, I found out as we dropped down the muddy chute through the trees. There followed some slippy burn crossings and a gradual realisation that the ground was holding on to a lot more water than I had hoped. I opted for the path on the east side whilst they took the west, before they came together further up. One of my obscure talents is the ability to find firm dry spots to hop between when navigating bogs quickly. This ability totally escaped me as every tuft of grass or patch of gravel gave way to the sodden ground beneath, forcing me to accept my feet were not coming out of this without a proper soaking!

Shoes were useless on wet rocks

My fellow sufferers eventually let me pass as the ground opened up and I got back a bit of rhythm, hopping and veering about to find the firmest route, whilst acknowledging there looked to be a devilishly steep sting in the tail up ahead.

It went on a bit
Crawling up to the crux

I’d been able to see a couple of colourful figures in the distance on that climb, and could see them surveying the view or taking on oxygen once they had topped out. It was really hard going, with various manipulations of the bike to keep it on the right side for the next bit of montane gymnastics. For all the cycling energy I had saved, I was deep into my walking bank, though my knees hadn’t hurt a bit once I’d left the saddle! When I looked back from the top I couldn’t see the boys any more, so on I went for a pleasant trudge along the bealach to see what the downhill would bring!

Please close the gate

After a bit more slipping and sliding, the way down eventually firmed up and I even started to hop on the bike to roll sections very carefully. Once I reached the double track path, I was on all the time, annoyed not be on a mountain bike, but glad to be moving quicker than walking pace!

Tentative riding
Short chance to stop dragging the brakes

As the gradient eased, my speed increased and I was able to reach the surroundings of the bothy fairly quickly. I made one enforced stop at a beautiful ford next to a cascade, where I tramped about in the water for a couple of minutes to flush the mud out of my shoes and give my socks a ring out and dry on a rock.

Could have hung around here all day
If it weren’t for the smell
Beautiful Glen Finnan above Corryhully

When I finally reached Corryhully Bothy, a crowd was beginning to gather. First I met Ritchie and Lyndsey, who had been the figures on the horizon over the pass. As we chatted, various groups came in, including future friends Team Caroline who had taken the road option and expressed their horror/amusement/surprise to hear a gang of us had gone for the walk. It was universally agreed by all the sufferers that the pass was the wrong choice, though I secretly didn’t mind – I figured I’d lost half an hour at most with the 3 hours I’d spent in the hills, plus, what a stunning place to suffer! I got my picture and headed down the welcome tarmac towards the viaduct accompanied by Lyndsey, who whizzed ahead whilst I was faffing with my phone for pictures as always.

First bothy I’ve been in that has electricity
If I’d hung on for five minutes I’d have seen the steam train

It was a long climb out of the glen heading towards Mallaig on the main road, which was dotted with discarded cars on the verges, as people tried to get a good vatage point for the Hogwarts Express, whose whistle I could hear in the distance. I kept an eye out, but never saw it somehow. I was moving along nicely, with the rest of the walking gang somewhere behind me, though momentum was seriously compromised by a series of temporary traffic lights, none of which I managed to hit on green. On the last and longest wait, a whole crowd of us regrouped for a natter and headed onwards for the junction that would take us to Moidart on a mercifully less busy road.

Calum catches up
Welcome to Moidart

After turn off, I got chatting to Lyndsey again and we made good speed along the coastline before realising we were pushing it a bit too fast, as always seems to happen when you ride along side by side with someone! The climbs and descents back down to sea level started to hit as we neared Ardnamurchan and we picked up Ritchie outside a shop in Glenuig. We had realised that making the 1645 ferry from Kilchoan to Tobermory wasn’t going to happen without a serious increase in pace, so we allowed ourselves an picnic bench ice cream stop at Acharacle. This was a lovely idea, right up until the only rain showers of the weekend passed overhead! The rain was short lived and we were soon riding along in the sun again, catching the groups who had passed through during our break.

Lots of this through Moidart
Sometimes it feels like the road signs are mocking you
Super smooth on the way to Dalnabreck

The next stretch of coastal road through Ardnamurchan was why I had given up so easily on making the penultimate ferry to Mull, as it only goes up or down with nothing in between. I decided to pull away a little to avoid any inadvertent drafting in the gaggle of ferry chasers, by dive bombing the descents to gain a bit of extra free hill on the up. I was out on my own for a bit, until Calum winched his way up to me on the endless climb away from Ardslignish, where the road turns inwards to circumnavigate Ben Hiant. After a sociable ascent we reached the high point and it was downhill all the way to the ferry terminal, with time to spare before the 1820 ferry. We had a welcoming party of three there already and whiled away the time discussing the day so far and adding layers to combat the fresh sea breeze. By the time the ferry arrived, everyone was present and accounted for, so no last ferry dramas for this stage at least!

Parked up for the voyage
Inspirational message on the cliff near Tobermory

Once everyone had warmed up in the cosy cabin on board, talk turned to the prospect of getting round Mull in time to make the last ferry to Oban at 2245. This ferry would dock at 1915, giving 3 and a half hours to get to Caliach Point for CP4 and then back down to Craignure at the bottom of the island. This was a ride of about 75km, but with an unknown quantity of walking to get to the trig point for the photo. Team Caroline had made the decision that they would take it easy and aim for the first ferry in the morning. I was right on the fence, as my original aim had been to get off Mull tonight, but that had been predicated on me making the earlier ferry from Kilchoan. From fresh, I would have been confident, but with 200km in the legs and some steep climbs on the way to the point, I decided to stock up on overnight food at the Co-Op and then see how things were looking when I reached it. Calum, Lyndsey, Ritchie and Simon had decided to go for it and I followed them out of town a minute or so behind.

Exiting the ferry with purpose

I made slow and laboured progress across the island in the evening light, with a wee lift as I waved to a couple of groups of riders I recognised on their way back from the checkpoint, who had obviously been on the earlier ferry. I passed through the farm at the end of the road and hopped off to navigate a bit of boggy ground, to be met by Simon, hurtling down the hill in his socks, which was more spirit than I could muster at this point!

Lovely views clouded by pain
Had to slow down and appreciate at least some of this light

I stuck to my recce plan of contouring round the hill and almost coming back to the trig point up shallower slopes as I waved to Calum, Ritchie and Lyndsey throwing themselves down the steeper side of the hill on their way back to their bikes. I wheeled mine all the way up for my checkpoint shot and then lingered, having made the decision I wasn’t getting to that ferry. The spot was too attractive to just run away from and what was the rush, now I’d accepted I was stuck on Mull until 0700 tomorrow? If I’d actually brought my bivy bag I would have got myself set up to sleep right here and just finished off Mull in the early morning.

Below Caliach Point
That would have been my dinner bench

I ate one of my last well-travelled sausage rolls as I lingered and decided I was done with them and pork pies for this ride. I headed down the hill, meeting Team Caroline on their way up and pointed them towards the easier ascent with a recommendation to set up camp there, which they smartly did!

Sun setting in the bay below Caliach Point

Riding back the way I had come was surprisingly a lot easier than I had expected and I reached the turn off to cut across Mull without too much delay, which got me wondering if I should have gone all out for the ferry. I climbed gradually over the moors as the light faded, feeling like this was about as quick as my body wanted me to go and started thinking of where I was going to stop for the night. I had a hammock and no sleeping bag, as my plan had been to rest for a couple of hours somewhere beyond Oban and then continue once I got too cold to hang about. Now, however I was facing at least 6 hours in one spot, which seemed particularly uninviting in the wet mist on the hills.

Just had to pause to soak it in at Dervaig
Last light on the way to Glen Aros

I was lightly chilled by the time I reached the coast at Aros, so I paused to start putting on some layers whilst the midges started to swarm in. I wanted to keep the heat I had left in me without building up another sweat and the easy road along the shore helped immensely with this. My extensive Street View reconnaissance had identified a decent forest for a hammock pitch near the Fishnish ferry road, but I started scoping earlier and found a path dropping from the road into a magical patch of wood near the airstrip that I didn’t realise was there till afterwards. I say magical, because it was both sheltered from the wind and almost completely midge free. I threw up the hammock and net over the mossy forest floor, had a late dinner and got into bed wearing every bit of clothing I had with me.

Only thing missing was the paltry 500g that my sleeping bag would have added

With my knee warmers slid down to meet my socks, I had full body coverage and was actually pretty comfortable to start with. I must have gone to sleep pretty quickly, as the next thing I knew it was at least an hour and a half later and I was shivering violently. I let the shivering go on to get me warmed up and started vigorously wriggling my feet and toes to try and get some heat into them. As the shivering subsided, I would nod off again, until my body woke me up for another bout. This went on for a few more hours, before I decided to start packing up around 0430 to do a slow ride to Craignure, to generate some heat and then hopefully laze around in the sun for the last hour before the ferry left. Once up and moving I didn’t feel half as bad, as I cruised the coast road again, luxuriating in the sunny patches like a bicycle-bound lizard. I also noticed that the forecast 13 degree temperatures overnight were way off, as it was currently only hitting 7!

Quiet and pleasant dawn riding to Craignure

There were a few cars already waiting for the ferry and I spotted at least one person bivied in the glass waiting shelter. I prowled around in the sun and ditched my highly unappetising pork pies with the promise of much more food choices on the mainland. Calum eventually emerged from the shelter and said he and Ritchie had gone for it in the night but had missed the ferry by less than 15 minutes. Lyndsey had called it early like me and bivied elsewhere on the way down. I boarded as soon as I was able and got myself a cup of tea and a comfy seat for the journey.

Early ferry
Executive spot at the front – note the jubilee hardhat to the left!

As I drank yet more tea and pastries, I caught up with Team Caroline who had enjoyed the lovely camp spot, but hardly managed any sleep thanks to a lack of darkness and distracting 4G reception! An hour later we docked in Oban and went our separate ways. Everyone was planning to take the cycle route over to Taynuilt, which was ideal, but I had decided to go around the coast route to save myself yet more climbing and get up more speed on the smoother road. I’d been expecting to do this bit in the night/early hours when it was quiet, but I hoped it would be too bad at 8 in the morning on a Saturday. After replenishing my food reserves at the excellently stocked garage just outside of town, I enjoyed some easy cycling and lovely views round the coast. The road got quieter after Connel and I was in Taynuilt without any delay.

Oban in the morning
Still sunny in Connel

After climbing out of Taynuilt, the road followed along the banks of Loch Awe, where I was continually distracted by the reflections of the hills in the still dark water, eventually stopping to take a few pictures before Cruachan power station. The day was shaping up to be a hot one, though the air was cool enough to feel comfortable as long as you were moving with a bit of pace. On reaching Lochawe, I was tempted in by a bench in a lovely spot outside the hotel and basked for a while, munching on my fresh chicken and sweetcorn baguette, whilst downing half my Irn Bru ration for the morning. I was surprised no-one had caught me during my little stops, so I began to wonder if they’d gone over the hill faster than I realised. As I pulled in yet again to take a picture of Castle Kilchurn on the other side of the loch, Team Caroline skidded to a halt behind me to do the same. I got moving a few seconds before them, but they soon caught me. After swapping postions a few times on the ups and downs I left them to pull away on the big climb from the loch, as I had knees to preserve, which were reaching peak pain levels.

Leaving Taynuilt
Loch Awe layby

Eventually the hill was conquered and I sped down towards Inveraray, planning for a Co-Op stop. Conveniently there was another shop just as I reached the village, with my other three ferry buddies outside enjoying a cuppa in the sun. I didn’t plan to dwell too long after my chilled out morning so far, so just topped up my drinks and waved farewell, figuring they’d catch me pretty soon along the way. I also gave Team Caroline a wave as I passed under the arch, where they were sunning themselves on the lochside grass.

Team Caroline in chillout mode

The road was busy out of Inveraray, though I timed my arrival at the bridge traffic lights to keep my momentum up and follow over behind the queue, so that was some energy saved! Next was a frustrating ride towards Dalmally, before turning off the main road at the head of Loch Fyne to come back down the other side, looking across at where I’d just been. Team Caroline cruised past at some point before I turned inland, but I didn’t even attempt to go with them and just kept nursing my knee along. Leaving Loch Fyne, I was forced to pull over on the first steep pitch and take some Ibuprofen to try and dull the pain in my knee, as well as raise my saddle the slightest bit. After a bit of a climb I reached the shore of Loch Eck which was lovely and inviting in the afternoon sun, though I resisted temptation to jump in and vowed to take the kids here instead in the near future. It was a pleasant stretch, but the loch seemed endless and I couldn’t get it out of my head that there must be some monster climbs coming if my elevation gained so far was accurate. It turned out there wasn’t and before I knew it I was in striking distance of Dunoon, with just a brisk headwind to worry about.

Climbing gradually from Strachur
Peeking at Loch Eck
Pinpoint timing for the Hunter’s Quay ferry

I had a note of the ferry timetables and knew the Hunter’s Quay ferry was running every 15 minutes at this time of day, rolling up just as it docked. I congratulated myself on my perfect timing, only to be outdone by Calum, Lyndsey and Ritchie, who rocked up a few seconds before departure! We had our usual ferry catch up on the short stint to Gourock and all rolled out together with me at the head of the gang. The road was busy and I checked over my shoulder to see I wasn’t holding anyone up behind me with my steady pace, only to realise they had all disappeared! Calum had said he had a plan for getting through to the next checkpoint, but it obviously didn’t match with mine! As usual mine involved keeping things as flat as possible on a mix of bike paths and roads along the coast line through Greenock, before one big climb up from Port Glasgow towards CP5. This last climb wasn’t bad at all, possibly thanks to the adjustment of expectations over the last day or so! I got my photo and Tweet, then moved along the road a little to eat, in case the inhabitants of the Happy Hound Hotel were getting fed up of sweaty cyclists turning up outside their house all weekend.

Contrasting photo opportunities on the final stretch
The most photographed dog hotel in Scotland for Jubilee weekend, I would wager

It felt good to know I was going to make it to the finish, as I expected a pretty easy run into Glasgow. I set off on the undulating country road and dived down one of the dips, only to clatter through a ruined section of road that was hidden by the tree shade. I winced along listening for something to be wrong – the tubeless tyres had survived again but I could detect a slight clinking of the spokes which got me paranoid about a breakage. Rather than do the sensible thing and check, I couldn’t bear to find out the bad news and just carried on a bit more carefully than before. I had intricately plotted the final kilometres and it all went smoothly, apart from one stretch of bike path being under reconstruction. Soon enough, I was in Glasgow itself, using my slightly dated local knowledge to get me to George Square as simply as possible. After a stop-starting through a stubborn batch of traffic lights, I finally rolled onto the square with delight and took a few pictures for posterity and Twitter. 470 km in 36 hours, which was a nice round day and a half. No-one else was here yet, so I decided to hang around for the pint we had been mentioning on and off over the weekend. As I waited, a friend of Ritchie and Lyndsey rode up to wait for them with a backpack full of Fab ice lollies which she was happy to share – bonus!

All done in George Square

Calum and his posse turned up shortly afterwards, with tales of horrendously steep bike routes above Gourock, which I was relieved to have dodged! The celebrations eventually retired to a bar at the side of the square for a few pints, where we were eventually joined by Team Caroline, who had caught the other ferry and lost a bit of time waiting on it, as well as a fried egg roll of dubious quality. I resisted getting food, as I thought there may be a dinner awaiting me at the grandparent’s house, who were looking after the kids for the weekend. Little did I know they were away to the beach for the day and there was no-one even in yet! I was having too much fun getting to know people better, with everyone geeking out about kit and future ride plans. This is one of the best things about rides like this – you get a chance to socialise with people who totally “get” what you’re on about when you mention events or experiences.

Calum plays it cool at the finish
The ferry crew

After more drinks than I had intended, I finally peeled myself away from George Square and said goodbye to my new friends, hoping to see them at some other ride in future. I meandered my way to Bishopbriggs, finding this 7 km harder to navigate than the entire 470 that had proceeded it. If real life allows, I’ll do the TransScotland every year, so roll on 2023!

Slap bang in the middle of the pack, as 13th person to the finish

BAM 2021 – June

I felt like I wanted to do something a bit bigger for June, ideally maximising all that lovely daylight. Inspiration came in the shape of an email from Restrap, exhorting riders to do a Solstice Century and earn a badge. Always a sucker for earning a free badge I will never get round to sewing into a cap, I signed up and got thinking. As much as I’d love to do something more exotic, the travel time to get somewhere away from home always reverts me to riding from the house to minimise domestic disruption. Luckily Aberdeen has plenty of interesting options once the ride distance goes beyond a hundred miles!

My last century for the winter solstice had taken me north, but I fancied heading out to do a loop taking in Glenshee, which I have gone over several times in the past, but always heading south. This time I would head over to Angus and along before turning north to tackle Glenshee from the steeper side. I finally headed out on Saturday night at 7pm, knowing I still had lots of daylight to play with, despite having to double back for repairs after my brake pads fell out at the first set of traffic lights! Unfortunately, the weather had also gone downhill from the beautiful conditions we’d been seeing earlier in the week. so I was surrounded by warm greyness as I climbed up and over the Netherley road to Stonehaven.

I’ve always meant to stop and take a photo of this local landmark
Short refreshment stop near the Huskyhaven
Lots of speed on the drop into Stonehaven

I’d gone slightly off course to stock up on food at the M&S in Peterculter before climbing over the Netherley road, completely forgetting I would pass right by a Co-Op in Stonehaven. Never mind, I’m sure the weight training would do me some good! I climbed away from the coast on the back roads, with Fetteresso Forest on my right. Normally, I would take the route past Drumtochty to avoid traffic, but it was unlikely to be an issue at this time of night. I wanted to make as quick progress as possible, so I dived down through Auchenblae and joined the B road for Fettercairn as early as possible. This was the right choice, as it was smooth and fast and I barely saw a single car.

Through the arch as darkness fell

After resisting the temptation to stop at the pub, my next waypoint was Edzell and I rolled along at decent speed, though I still had a fair way to go to reach my tentative bivy area.

Quickfire Edzell photo
Never quite fully dark

Time dragged on as I headed westwards, impatiently waiting for the junction I would take to climb a hill and get some sleep in the trees at the top. I’d thought of not bivying and riding through the night, but then I’d be a BAM down for no good reason. I pushed ever onwards into the dark, finally reaching the turn off I wanted some time after midnight. I’d prevaricated over what I was going to sleep in all day, eventually deciding on just my Exped hammock and light sleeping bag. I’d toyed with the idea of my SOL bivy and a warm jacket, but it added up to practically the same weight (More If I took a mat) and wouldn’t be as comfortable. I got the hammock slung up in the trees just over the crest of the hill and settled in after some food and drink.

Ready for a very short sleep

I slept okay, thanks to the hill deflecting the worst of the wind, a lack of midges and the luxury of a sleeping bag. My faith in the weather forecast paid off and I didn’t need to pack up and go due to any late night showers. I was up and about around 4am, though my hopes of getting some nice sunrise shots were dashed by the continued cloud cover. Never mind, at least I was warm, dry and slightly rested! I hopped back over the fence to rejoin the road, which would drop me quickly to my onward route.

Would have been nice on a clear morning
Accidentally enhanced morning clouds
Must have been a bit cold to warrant the waterproof

From this point onwards the route was going to trend upwards all the way to the ski centre, so I knuckled down and headed up Glenisla, at one point distracted by a hare that insisted on running up the road ahead of me for a good mile or so before hunkering down in an adjacent field fully in my view. It was interesting to take this stretch at a more sedate pace, as I’ve always flown down here pretty quickly in the opposite direction, aided by gravity.

Idyllic Glenisla
Hello Perth and Kinross
Goodbye Angus
Excitable deer just after the Shee Water crossing

The deserted roads were a joy to ride on at this hour and I eventually emerged onto the A93, where the climbing would soon start in earnest. Although this was supposed to be all uphill, it felt fine for the time being, though I knew what was coming in the last stretch to the ski centre. It was around 0700 by now and I was seeing the odd car coming along, but still peaceful enough to feel the whole road was mine to enjoy.

What a sight to wake me up

Finally the climb began to ramp up properly and I settled in for a tough slog. I’ve only ever come down this side of Glenshee, but I knew it was a lot steeper than the northern side by the speeds I’ve hit during the descent! It very gradually gets tougher and tougher, right up to the last agonising drag over the top, where I paused to gather my thoughts and alveoli.

Entering my third county in the last hour

Despite the fact I was hot and sweaty after the climb, I stuck on an extra layer for the descent, which was going to go on a while! My reward for the steeper climb should be a longer descent towards Braemar, where I planned to stop for second breakfast. I went into a nice aero tuck and flew down the first section, eventually resorting to casually turning the pedals as the gradient eased. Soon enough, I reached the wee bridge onto the old military road, which would make for a nicer entry to the village than the main road.

View from the old bridge
Bloke rides bike over bridge
Old military road with frequent “wild” camper scorch marks on the grass.

As I reached sleepy Braemar the sun was warming things up nicely, so I basked on a bench for a while, working my way through my treats from the Co-Op, before availing myself of the toilets nearby.

Parked up for 2nd breakfast

I wasn’t going to hang about for the rest of the ride, as it was all trending downhill and I wanted to be home handy for taking the kids swimming. I stuck to the A93 the whole way, as it never got too busy until I passed Banchory and it was good to ride on a road that wasn’t mainly constructed out of potholes for a change.

Motivational roadside message outside Braemar
One day I will do a ride where I have time to linger in these spots
Some peace from the traffic by Loch Kinord
Finally back to short sleeve weather
Potarch marked the return to busy roads

I arrived home a few minutes after midday, feeling great for my little adventure – 153 miles in the bag and only a morning missed with the family. It’s not a bad compromise I suppose!

BAM 2021 – April

Finally, the latest lockdown had ended and I needed to sleep somewhere different. As usual my time was scarce, so I headed out on a Friday night to go to a nice spot I had been with the kids just a couple of weeks before, whilst keeping to the 5 mile limit from the Aberdeen City boundary. As I rolled west the skies looked gloomy and threatening, but I put my faith in the forecast that I might be able to dodge the rain on the way to my spot and possibly even see the sky in the morning!

Not exactly enticing near Peterculter
It really wants to rain, but I’m sure it won’t?

I used the Deeside Way to get me to Drumoak and crossed the now pedestrian bridge and started climbing up to Durris. I’ve had a couple of bivvies round here in the past, but wanted to ride through the forest to reach the point where the Elsick Mounth route leaves the trees at the far side. I’d had a lovely picnic with the kids here and had been meaning to try it out for a good while.

Tree felling apocalypse on the Elsick Mount
Edge of the forest and time to find my spot for the night

I could have brought a bivy bag and slept on the grass outside the trees, but I’d gone for my hammock instead to keep me off the sodden ground, also opting to put the tarp up for once as rain was due overnight. I settled in with a cuppa and a cake before bed time, hoping to see some sort of sunrise in the morning.

Home for the night
Supper of kings

With my winter bag and sleep mat in the hammock I was nice and cosy, bar the odd wrestling match to keep the mat in place, due to it being far too long to sit comfortably in the Exped hammock. I’m not sure if the rain ever showed up in earnest, but at least I had bothered to be prepared for it for once. When the sun started to rise, it was still a bit dull to be worth getting up for pictures, so it was a while before I ventured out of my bed for breakfast and packing up. Emerging from the trees for a proper look, I realised there had been a hard frost overnight, with the grass I would have bivvied on frozen solid. Feeling smug about my life choices, I packed up and took some pictures in the now beaming morning sun.

Frosty monument
Big slicks and frozen ground is a winning combination
Loving the Alpkit frame bag as always
Stunning morning makes the moody night worthwhile

To get home, I just needed to drop down the Elsick Mounth towards Stonehaven before doubling back on the tarmac for a pleasantly quiet ride towards home over the Netherley Road. It was a short excursion, but much appreciated, as was second breakfast when I got in!

Down to Stonehaven
Bit of history

BAM 2021 – January to March

I couldn’t quite believe that this was coming round again, but here I was, kipping in the back garden as a poor substitute for a proper bivvy. I could have maybe squeezed in a New Year bivvy before the COVID restrictions came down again, but I missed that ship. As with last year I’m lumping the garden bivvies into one blog post.

January

I held on for a few weeks just in case a miracle occurred and I was allowed out, but no. On a stunning cold night, I went out for a late 11pm ride around the rapidly freezing roads nearby before coming home and settling down in my SOL bivy bag on the back step I had used for my last garden bivy in 2020.

Streets were a bit frosty for singlespeeding
Dynamotastic
My now standard garden sleep spot
The dusting of snow in the face overnight was surprisingly pleasant
Went for grippy studs for the morning ride
Firm, fast and slippy

February

Not quite down to the wire as usual, I even did my pre-bivy ride by daylight, thanks to having the Friday afternoon off. Another cold clear night required only a bivy bag as shelter.

Feels like Spring out by Countesswells
Chilled Friday afternoon ride
Super bright moon overnight
Quiet Hazelhead at sunrise
Back to natural light in the AM

March

March was a work night bivvy, which isn’t really a hassle when you’re sleeping in your back garden during Work From Home. Still, I fancied a decent ride so I did my out ride first thing in the morning, taking the mountain bike up and over Brimmond Hill just at dawn on a beautiful day. Payback was a ride through the mist the following morning!

Dead on for dawn
Bucks Burn crossing
Kingswells North Shore…
Brimmond summit
Hairy selfie
Gratuitous picture of bike with miniscule wheels
Brimmond descent
Speedy Countesswells trails
Another moony night
Moody morning
Not quite wet local trails

The three months had dragged on a bit, especially with people only a few miles west having the whole of Aberdeenshire as their playground, but the garden BAMs helped a little. I still couldn’t wait for late April to roll around for the chance of a proper forest ditch bivvy!

BAM 2020 – August

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.

On the way to Loch Garry

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…

Where’s your oversized gravel now?
The watershed walk was just short enough to avoid an early mutiny

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.

Flying through Craiganour Forest
Rolling by 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.

Jon loves signs

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.

Into the sun
Soul food
Late summer splendour

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.

Peloton reformed

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!

Plunging towards Loch Ossian and dinner
Like Jon read my mind
Beer and bikepacking – a match made in heaven

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.

Moonshot over Loch Ossian

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 tarp peeking
Camping peninsula
Sock airing

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.

Bike check – Jon’s Singular has a certain panache
Titanium crew – one predates gravel, the other doesn’t. What’s the difference?

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.

Surprisingly perky for someone who feels knackered
Srath Ossian gravel perfection
The sun eventually returned

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.

Level lochside lollygagging
Jon does the tourist thing

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.

The view opened up nicely but was unfortunately blocked by Jon
At the end of a pleasant, straightforward and very un-HT550 like section

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.

Another good feed and excellent hot drinks at Laggan Stores Coffee Bothy

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.

Binning off Brian
Glentruim bound

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.

Always time for sightseeing

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!).

Looking fine near Phones
Mostly flat the whole way

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.

Jon takes it all in
Should have really done this signpost shot at the start

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!