Having turned 40 the previous September, I decided I wanted to set myself a real challenge as a gift to myself. The challenge in mind was to take part in the Highland Trail 550 group start, but to get to the required fitness level I planned to give myself a year to increase my mileage, whilst also completing a ride that counts as qualifying for a chance of entry. Having completed the Capital Trail earlier in the year at a more relaxed pace with a friend, I was ready to push myself and see if I could get round the Cairngorms Loop under the 56 hour deadline. I had an advantage in that the vast majority of my mountain biking and bikepacking has always been done in and around the Cairngorms, so there was very little of the route that would be new to me. My disadvantage would be a cold and a restless 1 year old limiting me to about 3 hours sleep a night in the build up to the event! I was up bright and early on Saturday to drive over to Blair Atholl, which gave me an hour to fiddle with my gear near the station car park before rolling up the the Bridge of Tilt car park with Lucy and Jenny, who had parked in the same place, for the informal start off by Steve.
People seemed reluctant to take the lead and get going, but eventually we all rolled out for the easy road section up the A9 cycle route. I ended up going along in the lead group as the pace seemed comfortable and the people were nice and chatty.
We crossed the A9 and started heading North up the Gaick Pass, as I followed along behind the lead pair up to Loch an Duin.
They pulled away along the lochside, as I made it look difficult and then forded across to the track leading to Gaick Lodge.This was the first time my feet got wet and also the last time they would be dry until the finish. Back on decent tracks, the going should have been really quick all the way down Glen Tromie, but a brisk headwind made you work a bit harder than expected. Down to Tromie Bridge and a short climb through the forest dropped back down by the River Feshie, with a little stretch of riverside singletrack I hadn’t done before on the way to Feshiebridge.
As I climbed away from the bridge towards the trail to Loch Gamhna, the promised rain came in and as I stopped to get my jacket on, Jenny breezed past before swapping places again after she stopped to do the same at Loch an Eilein. It was a very soggy ride through Rothiemurchus across to Loch Morlich, where we found ourselves in the midst of an adventure triathlon. After a stop to stock up on some extra food for the long stretch ahead and a brief meeting with Bob who arrived as I left, I made my way along towards Ryvoan.
I took the right towards the Lairig an Laoigh and made my way up Bynack More. I rode for a while, but decided that this was no time to see how far I could get up the path, as the effort of popping over the drainage ditches wasn’t worth it on a ride of this scale. As the path levelled out, Bob caught me up and we bumped our way along and down the first descent. The burn crossing here was much deeper than I’d seen it before and the general waterlogged nature of all the tracks we’d been on so far didn’t bode well for crossings coming up. We’d met a couple of walkers at the top who had met Jenny passing through the burn: “She didn’t even pause, just went through on a mission!”.
We went up and over a couple of times before finally dropping down towards the Fords of Avon refuge and had a quick stop at the shelter. As we set off towards the ford, Bob’s words “Well here it is, the crux!” were certainly prescient. We took a look and the water was deep, moving very quickly with what looked like real power. After the two of us paced up and down the bank, Bob had decided to be sensible and said he was going to head for Faindouran instead, but he’d hang on if I wanted to attempt it. As my free weekends are limited with two young children to entertain, there was no way I was putting this ride off until another day! I went in, straight up to my thighs initially and eventually waist deep. The flow was strong, but not enough to put me too off balance. The main issue was the bike, as every time I tried to move it forward, the wheels would catch the flow and it would take off downriver, requiring a massive upper body effort to bring back. I inched my way across, wedging the wheels in rocks under the current where possible and eventually heaved it out onto the far bank. I looked back, expecting to see Bob waving me off, but he was already in and on his way over!
He picked a better route and got over with a bit less drama, with his first words out of the water being “You mad ba@#%@rd!”. As we were about to head off, Ian Fitz turned up on the far bank, so we directed him over and started to make our way over the Lairig an Laoigh proper. Ian soon started to pull away and I could feel the constant pushing and tripping over rocks beginning to wear me down, so I was happy to take it easy as Bob distanced me on the final descent into Glen Derry, as I could get a bit of food on board and psych myself up for the coming section through Glen Geldie. I put my light on just I reached the Linn of Dee.
Now it was fast going on the way out past White Bridge and on to the ford at Geldie Lodge, before turning off into the bogs. The path can be quite rideable for a while here at times, but this was not one of those times, so I settled in for a long wet walk, with occasional moments of optimistic riding. The night was clear and cold, but that suited me as it wasn’t raining and I eventually hit the Eidart Bridge, feeling very low on energy. It was tempting to bivy here, but I wanted to be in Glen Feshie, so I’d feel like I’d almost closed off the first loop.
I kept on and was able to ride again along the firm singletrack that parallels the horrible muddy land rover track at the top of Glen Feshie. I had a spot in mind that I’d always fancied camping at and my energy levels had returned, so I arrived there with no issue and got ready for a good night’s kip.
I quickly cooked up some food and pretty much passed out without bothering to set an alarm, not even the spectacular starscape above could keep my eyes open. I was planning on catching up on the beauty sleep I wasn’t getting at home! My GPS told me the temperature had dropped to -2, but I felt comfortable apart from my frozen feet, which had suffered from the constant soakings. I slept well enough and woke up at some point before sunrise. Now if I was one of these expert racer types, I’d have been up and away – however as a man with two insomniac kids, I took this chance for an extra couple of hours. I eventually surfaced at about half six and decided to pack and go, rather than waste more time on breakfast.
As I was finishing up, Pete suddenly appeared on the horizon above the ford I was camped at and dropped down to say hello. I hadn’t expected to see him again as he had been one of the front two that had left me behind on the way down from the Gaick, but he’d done similar to me and had a good sleep up at the Eidart bridge – not sure I could have slept there with all the noise of the falls below! I let him crack on, as the midges has also woken up and followed shortly after.
It was nice to be able to actually ride for a while and the sky even made its first appearance of the weekend with a bit of sun to wake me up fully as I made my way along Glen Feshie.
On one of the faster downhill stretches, I noticed a black drybag to the side of the track and skidded to a halt to retrieve it. It looked like it had a bivy bag and sleeping bag inside, so I figured it must be Pete’s stuff. I attached it to my bar bag with the unused straps and prayed I wouldn’t have to carry the extra weight the whole way round! Next was the turn off onto the high singletrack and across the first landslide.
The trees are starting to overgrow the trail a bit up here, so I was pretty much soaked through from brushing against the dew-soaked branches as I passed by. Not long after I dropped back down to the main track I saw Pete winding his way back through the trees looking worried. I was very happy to hand him his gear and let him push on ahead on towards Ruigh Aiteachain. The bothy is still under reconstruction, but looks like it’s going to be very nice when finished. There were also a lot of wooden beams and construction materials down by the site of the old bridge, which leads me to believe they might finally be replacing it. More straightforward riding, apart from the odd landslide and dead-end washed away tracks brought me to Auchlean.
As I hit the tarmac, it was time for a waterproof, as Pete also popped up from a different track and we made our way down the glen at good speed in the rain. The route stays on tarmac to Inverdruie where I planned to stock up on energy with a leisurely breakfast whilst drying out a bit. I suggested we head for the Rothiemurchus Centre cafe rather than go off route into Aviemore itself – we arrived a few minutes after it opened and I filled my face with a large bacon and egg roll along with some extremely calorific fruit toast. Pete was checking his mails and came across one from the organiser Steve the previous night, advising that the Fords of Avon and route into Tomintoul were impassable due to river levels! Since we’d already done the first, we figured we’d just see how we got on with the latter. Cake to go and sandwiches and snacks from the farm shop left me with plenty of stocks for the remainder of the ride. Pete was away a good 10 minutes before me, but the sun was out so I was happy.
Next was more tarmac to Pityoulish and then across the abandoned road across Tulloch Moor, around the puddle of doom and on to the turn off to Forest Lodge in Abernethy Forest. After the lodge, the route takes you up a nice singletrack climb through the trees which I imagine would be very fast in less sodden conditions. It was a quick roll down the main track to more singletrack leading me into the Eag Mhor after yet another knee deep river crossing.
As I squelched and slid my way out of the gap, the Braes of Abernethy opened up before me.
Another big river crossing through the Dorback Burn, then round the back of the Lodge, over the hill and down at speed towards the Burn of Brown to see if it was going to be an issue.
The crossings got progressively deeper as the track meandered its way along the glen, but I avoided the worst of it by eventually sticking to the bank nearest the forest where there was a faint, narrow trail. Then it was a question of climbing up the main waterlogged track next to the trees before popping out onto a nice fast track which deposited me on the road to Tomintoul in no time. A quick sandwich and drink stop and I pressed on into Glen Avon which was fast going all to the way to Inchrory, where the track gradually grew rougher as I made my way up Glen Builg.
I bumped my way along Loch Builg in an ungainly fashion and shot down the track to the River Gairn, fully aware of the large climb up Cullardoch ahead of me. I’d been a bit worried that my aching knees wouldn’t enjoy this, but I kept it slow and steady and got up and over without too much trouble as the rain came back with a vengeance. Now for some extremely quick descending down to Invercauld and on to Braemar where the Hungry Highlander was calling my name.
I chatted to another loop rider whilst I inhaled my haggis supper and many cans of juice. He’d had a nightmare and mistakenly gone straight onto the outer loop on the first day at Feshiebridge, only realising his mistake 20 miles on. Then he’d backtracked to the correct course, fought through the Fords of Avon the following day and had a bad crash which had torn a big hole in his 3/4 undershorts. He was ready to call it a day and ride back over the Glenshee road to Pitlochry the following morning. Good on him for persevering that far though!
With the chippy dinner weighing heavy on my stomach, I set out to Linn of Dee again, wanting to get to the Geldie crossing before it was too dark to see if it looked bad or not. The sun peeked out from behind the clouds on its way down ahead of me, bathing me in an uplifting sunset glow.
I sped out to White Bridge as fast as I could manage and got across the Geldie with no problems at all.
In theory, this was the home straight, but I knew I had two big climbs to come after turning out of Glen Tilt. The initial stage was okay and that got my hopes up, but I was soon in the awkward singletrack along the side of the hillside – this is an enjoyable challenge when fresh and unladen, but in my fatigued state I frequently resorted to pushing or scooching along with one leg on the hillside, after a couple of rock strikes threatened to pitch me off into the black chasm below.
After what felt like a long time, the turn off to the Fealar Lodge track finally arrived and I dropped down, crossed the Tilt and climbed up the preposterously steep path which eventually eased off as it contoured round the hillside. I was thoroughly beaten by now and the act of getting on and off the bike every time it sank into a boggy patch became too much, so I resorted to walking most of the time. Those 2km to the lodge were definitely the longest of the entire route and typically one of the only bits I hadn’t done before. After trudging round through the mist and freaky spider encrusted gates, I arrived at a beautiful estate road outside the lodge and got myself a snack.
Next was a fair bit of climbing alongside Carn an Righ to the head of the pass, where I ate my last butty and stuck on some layers for a super fast and long descent into Gleann Fearnach, where I performed a u-turn and headed back along the Allt Glen Loch towards the Allt Coire Lagain. This was another climb, which I’d only done in the reverse direction before but wasn’t half as bad as I expected for once. I still took ages to do it though! Eventually it levelled out and started to drop towards the water on a fun track through the heather. Quickly through the burn and a short climb got me up to the Beinn a Ghlo hill track, which looks to have had a lot of work done to it since my last visit. This meant I could finally get some speed up and flew through the frigid night air toward Blair Atholl. I arrived at the station at 0250, meaning I hadn’t quite managed a sub 40 hour ride, but I really had no idea how quickly I could do a ride of this scale so I was just happy to have finished.
After taking the requisite photos, I quietly packed my gear into the car so as not to wake Jenny who was obviously fast asleep in her camper after finishing many hours ahead of me and drove off somewhere more discreet to lower the back seats and pass out for however long I needed.