This great tale of a mountain biking adventure is brought to you by Rob Penn from The Guardian – it sounds like the kind of journey that you have to do to be able to call yourself a ‘mountain biker’. Pictured below is Rob at the head of Glen Cairn.
‘I have found a new place for my ashes to be scattered. It’s in heart of the Highlands, on the north-south watershed in the Cairngorms, at a glacial T-junction looking up towards the central massif. Such places may abound in the Australian Outback and Alaska, but on our busy little island they are rare. And this one’s a gem. The grid reference is NJ193026. Go there as soon as you can.
It’s not easy to get to, of course. Antony, Dave, Spencer and I arrived there under a lowering sky after two hard days in the saddle. We were a third of the way into a 200-mile, off-road, mountain biking ride from the North Sea to the Atlantic, across the broad waist of Scotland, an adventure billed by the influential American magazine Outside as one of its ’10 trips of a lifetime’.
The Scottish coast-to-coast is an epic and deserves respect. We had assiduously planned our four-day ride from Aberdeen to Fort William following disused railway lines, Land Rover tracks, medieval drovers’ routes, forest footpaths, 18th-century military roads, canal towpaths and, inevitably, sections of road. We had carefully chosen the time of year (mid-May), plotted the route on a stack of OS maps, booked accommodation, serviced our bikes, bought the right kit and trained.
On the first morning, we sped out of Aberdeen along the old Deeside railway, lined with electric yellow broom. At Banchory, we crossed the tan-brown river Dee in sunshine. Climbing beside the Water of Feugh, we caught the first glimpses of the dark, heather-clad hills, burnt-back with rectangular shapes like a Rothko painting. The world seemed right; our progress was good.
But climbing into the Birse forest, there was a metallic crunch and Spencer’s bike stopped dead. The damage – a mangled chain and a shorn mech hanger – was beyond our limited tool kit. Salvation, however, came in the form of Moira Gray, a shepherd’s wife, who drove home to pick up the very tool we lacked. ‘Ah remember be-ann stuck ah Glenshee un a snowstorm wi’oot a chain tool,’ she said in her delightful brogue. ‘An ah heed ta help ya oot.’
But we were papering over cracks, and limping over the Hill of Duchery on the ‘Fungle Road’, an ancient drovers’ thoroughfare connecting Deeside with Glen Esk in Aberdeenshire, the bike seized again.
Next morning, the chef at the Loch Kinord Hotel drove Spencer into Ballater with the crippled bike. At Cyclehighlands, the excellent shop on the town square, Richard did his best, without success. He was, however, so keen for us continue on our adventure, he agreed to rent us a bike and drive to Fort William to collect it.
By midday, we were heading up Glen Gairn into the mountains. The gentrified scenery of the Dee valley gave way to rough farmland, stone walls and granite cottages with antlers above the porches. Beside the humpback bridge at Gairnshiel, we turned north-west onto the moors, passing flocks of plovers, curlews and oystercatchers on the flats beside the peaty river. Lapwings with their conspicuous, wavering flight, flapped and ducked overhead. Further up the glen, the air was filled with the liquid song of skylarks, and approaching Corndavon bothy we put up the first grouse: the plump, slightly comical bird sprang from the heather beside the track and wheeled away from us, cackling.
After two days of almost unbroken sunshine, the sky darkened as we neared the snow-dappled mountains. ‘This is big country,’ Dave said tremulously, at the confluence of Glens Gairn and Builg, where I would like my ashes to be scattered. On the footpath past Loch Builg, a section that tested our riding skills, the first pellets of rain began to fall. Descending steep-sided Glen Builg, the intensity redoubled and roared back and forth across the Builg burn; we were soon soaked. At Inchrory, a grand Highland stalking lodge above the river Avon, the track improved dramatically and, with the scent of a pub apparent, we tore through the last eight miles to Tomintoul.
Grey skies, stiff bodies and perhaps a dram too many made for a slow start on day three. Snipe zigzagged out of the rushes as we struggled across a bog to reach the river in Glen Brown, but the avian highlight was passing through a picturesque rock-cleavage in the delightfully named Braes of Abernethy. Dave and I were waiting in the heather when a golden eagle with a 2m wingspan wafted silently overhead. It was an electrifying sight.
Descending from the braes, we made our way into a stand of Caledonian pine forest. The like covered most of Scotland at the end of the last Ice Age; less than 1 per cent remains. This landscape of scattered birch, rowan, juniper and statuesque Scots pines has a profound sense of antiquity. ‘You half expect to see a grey wolf bounding up the hill,’ Spencer said.
Hunched over our bikes, we hurtled down the track past Ryvoan bothy into the Rothiemurchus forest. Increasingly confident in our mountain biking skills, we negotiated the fine mix of single-track and forest rides to reach the river Spey as the lights illuminating the Ruthven Barracks by Kingussie began to glow.
Our last day was always going to be a struggle – 70-plus miles, crossing the Monadhliath mountains via the 750m Corrieyairack Pass. The Hermitage Guesthouse set us up with a mighty breakfast and the first 20 miles, following the Spey through Newtownmore and Laggan, were a good warm-up.
The English General Wade built the road in 1731 as part of a grand scheme to suppress Jacobite rebellion in the Highlands with troop mobility and good communications. It didn’t work, of course – the Jacobites rose again in 1745 and, ironically, passed this way.
Yet Wade’s roads are enduring feats of engineering, expertly tracing the contours of the land, and they’re as busy today with walkers and mountain bikers as they were with English soldiers 250 years ago.
Evans Cycles had generously leant us bikes for the ride, to assess whether a full-suspension or a hard-tail (front suspension only) was most suitable. On the long, tough ascent to the Corrieyairack Pass, much of it pushing the steeds amid patches of thick snow, we concluded that the lighter, hard-tail bikes were ideal for a multi-day adventure in Scotland. We gave the bikes, and our back teeth, a rattling on the hour-long belter of a descent from the pass down to Fort Augustus in the Great Glen.
As we reached Loch Oich, the sun was waning slowly, like us. We had three hours to cycle 30 miles to reach Fort William and catch the Caledonian Sleeper. As lambent light filled the glen, we raced beneath Ben Nevis, dreaming of being lulled to sleep by the ‘ta-dum, ta-dum’ of the lolloping train.’
Wilderness Scotland (0131 625 6635; wildernessscotland.com) runs seven-day guided and supported coast-to-coast trips, from Aberdeen to the tip of the Ardnamurchan peninsula.
First ScotRail (08457 55 00 33 ; firstgroup.com/scotrail) operates a daily sleeper from Fort William to London Euston; one-way ‘Bargain Berth’ tickets, booked in advance, cost from £19.
The Hermitage Guesthouse in Kingussie (01540 662137; thehermitage.clara.net) has five en-suite bedrooms and serves a great cyclists’ breakfast (from £28 per person).