Cairngorms Loop. The long version.
***Apologies for the lack of photos. I was concentrating on the ride so much, I didn’t really think to stop and get pictures. Luckily a few other competitors did. I’ll do a separate post with links to their photos and blog write ups***
Dancing around the incident pit
It’s dark. If I’m being honest, I’m as much following tyre tracks in my lights as I am the map. The direction feels right. What on earth am I doing?
I see a light ahead. Or is it a reflection? Or hallucination? No… its a reflection. It can’t be the bothy yet though. There are bikes outside. There are people outside. It’s the bothy. It doesn’t matter. I’m carrying on.Ten minutes later, I climb into my sleeping bag and bothy bag. I have every single piece of clothing that i brought with me on. I wouldn’t describe myself as warm, but I’m not cold.
The last few hours were not pleasant. A slow plod through bog was demoralising and exhausting. Push, climb on, ride 30 metres, spin out, climb off, push. Repeat. And again. The sun setting was a beautiful distraction. Snow flakes gently fell. The glow of my GPS offered reassurance and company. But, body, machinery and electronics slowed down in the heavy cold of dusk. First, I noticed that my GPS screen had remained fixed for a suspicious length of time. I wasn’t quick, but I wasn’t that slow. Hmm. I switched it off, then back on. That made matters worse. An odd collection of lines and patterns was all it could offer. Luckily, I brought a print out of the route, so dug that out of my bag, found the right page and carried on. I was increasingly aware that I no longer had a flashing blob to let me know if I wandered off from the blue line mapped out before me. Stops became more frequent to reassure myself that I was going in the right direction. The cold started clawing at my body. Extremities showed the signs first. On went the warm softshell, warm hat and winter gloves. Snug and cosy. I ignored that I could see ice crystals trying to form on my shoes. Or that shifting gears was becoming a clumsy, noisy and generally ineffectual exercise. Wet cables froze, as did the mechs themselves.
Still, I was making forward progress. Over the precarious Eidart bridge, then high above the Feshie, cruising along fun singletrack. The way ahead was nicely lit by my USE Exposure 6 Pack/Joystick combo, and despite feeling tired, I didn’t feel like I was considerably slower than if I had been riding in the daylight. Then it got a little more technical. And then I hit the first of a number of landslides. Goodbye trail. I tiptoed across where the trail should be, carefully pointing my light one footstep ahead and deliberately watched each foot placement, a mistake now was not something I wanted to spend time thinking about. Events could very, very easily spiral out of control if I rushed.
Slowly but surely, the trail mellowed and dropped down into the Glen, following a damp line by the side of the river. My lights caught the bothy. I was a few miles south of Aviemore. I had been riding for around 13 hours. It was some time after 11pm. I had covered approximately 90 miles of the 195 Cairngorms Loop.
I guess every epic tale has a start
I pulled up in the car park outside Blair Atholl train station. A few bikes were propped up about the place. They had bags strapped to them, and there was the usual pre-ride faffing taking place, as you would expect at any National Park, or trail centre car park on any weekend of the year. I unloaded my bike, and uneasily surveyed other people. They had a lot less on their back, and a lot more on their bike than me. Too late to worry about that. Jack wandered over and introduced himself. We rode the short tarmac climb up to Old Blair and the official start together. I think he was more talkative than I was. I was still tired and mentally drained after a hard week. I didn’t feel prepared. Other people’s apparent calm and superior experience magnified and intensified my own deficiencies.
Steve W read out a quick register. Tom? “Here sir”. Straps were tightened, GPS switched on, photos taken. Then, without drama and in a manner fitting of the low key event, Steve said, “right, lets go”. And we did. 20 riders headed out along the cycle way that runs north, parallel to the A9. The sky was cloudless above us, and the pace was relaxed. I chatted with other riders, some of whom’s names were familiar from the start list and their previous achievements. The usual questions about bikes, home town, experience were repeated and answered. Anyone watching on would have seen a group of relaxed riders, presumably friends, enjoying each other’s company on a casual Saturday ride.
After the SI unit of time/distance combined; “a while”, we turned off on to landrover track, and pointed towards the hills.
The Yorkshire Dales on steriods
For those who don’t know the Cairngorms, they are a little different to the mountains in the west Highlands. They have a rolling bulk to them, rather pointy triangles. On the southern fringes, there was definitely a hint of the Yorkshire Dales or Brecon Beacons in their form. The only clue to the true size of the landmass was hints of snow on the higher land to which we were heading.
By this stage, we were split into smaller groups, although most people were in eyesight. As we reached the first true singletrack of the ride, a ribbon of tricky and exposed trail above a loch, I was quickly by myself. Absorbed in the task at hand, I didn’t even really notice. This was the first time I had ridden with a bar bag, and it was taking a little bit of getting used to. Floppy steering does not lend itself to making technical riding easier. At the end of the loch, the trail widened back out, and was beautifully smooth. I rode for a short time with Jack, who I think caught me up while I was having a wee stop. I was feeling fairly strong though, and wanted to make the most of the good going while it was still on offer. I slowly pulled away as trail turned to tarmac, turned back to trail.
I reached Drumguish, home of my least favourite single malt, and carried straight on through. Then tracked back and took the right hand turn I had missed. GPS doesn’t turn the handlebars for you. The landscape changed once more, as I entered pine forest and rode past John, who was sat having a quick snack at the side of the trail. I got my first experience of Glen Feshie of the weekend, making quick progress up to Feshiebridge. After crossing the bridge, it took me a little while to work out the correct trail to take, and as I was beginning to point up in the wrong direction, I heard a shout from Jack and John calling me. I tucked in behind, with a slightly bruised ego… I’d have realised my own mistake in no time. We pedalled as a threesome into Rothiemurchus forest. Buff trails guided us through the trees and again, I was happy in my own world of riding. Simply riding. In fact, I wanted to enjoy it by myself. There were points were I wanted to carry a line more quickly through a corner, or span out on a climb, and either had my momentum stalled, or stripped one of the others of their hard earned mph. My water bottle was getting low, and my tummy started to let me know that I hadn’t taken on much food so far. I took the opportunity and allowed myself to drift off the back and stopped by a stream. An unusual, but effective combination of jelly, Dairylea and Pepperami was quickly consumed, and I set off once more. The trails here were one of the few times we had to share our ride with significant numbers of other people. Families were out walking with pushchairs, others were cruising on hire bikes with smiles on their faces. We were all enjoying the same land, possibly sharing the same emotions. Achieving them in different ways.
As I neared Glenmore Lodge, snow started to fall. The sky had gradually becoming greyer as Cairn Gorm grey larger in my sights. Thankfully it was oxymoronic dry precipitation and rolled off my jacket harmlessly.
And, for the first time, the lure of company caused me to change plan, and upon hearing a shout from John (I think), I pulled into the Glenmore Lodge cafe and enjoyed a sausage roll, Irn Bru (well, I was in Scotland) and a coffee. Steve W and his pals, John, Rob and some others (I think…my memory has let me down a bit here) were all in there. I set off by myself, but there were others near by. Rob was in the distance as we started the climb, and John quickly caught, then slowly passed me on the climb. The gradient was steep, but ridable. The water bars and steps were annoying though. I was thankful for 29er wheels and tubeless tyres after a couple of clumsier manoeuvres. The higher we climbed, the closer John, Rob and I got, until we climbed as a threesome. Off bikes and pushing at this stage, I was enjoying the company that previously had felt jarring and uncomfortable. Snow flurries blew over us, then cleared. Layers were put on, and then removed. We moved as three individuals, although could have been attached by elastic. Occasionally the elastic stretched. Didn’t break though. Upon reaching higher ground, the terrain deteriorated to bouldery hike-a-bike. Again, the elastic didn’t break. We talked. We stayed quiet. We ate. I maintained my sweet/savoury combo. Rob devoured his “secret weapon” of Cadbury’s Creme Eggs. At some point I think John fell back. I can’t remember exactly when.
The red hills
Rob and I carried on, comfortable in each other’s company, matching pace without trying to do so. Hitting the Linn of Dee, our mood was good, and confidence high. It was here that I voiced my thoughts on trying to push through all night, or until I wanted to drop. Rob liked the idea. There was never any agreed partnership. It certainly wasn’t discussed, but there was a level of camaraderie. We were enjoying this. We definitely got a boost as we briefly caught Steve W and buddies, after they had stopped for a quick cup of tea. And the two of us continued up the valley, into the evening as the good trail petered out and we settled into boggy hike-a-bike. Rob was moving a little quicker than I was, and soon disappeared behind a hillock, or a corner. I would glimpse him now and then, but I was content with my own company. The sun was low in the sky, and the Cairngorms were true to their gaelic name of Am Monadh Ruadh or “red hills”. I settled into fighting a battle against the frustrating terrain, the growing cold and my just dead GPS…
On entering the hut, I squinted, covering my head torch, simply using it to find a spot to lay out my minimalist mat, dig out every stitch of clothing I had and hide myself inside my bivvy and summer sleeping bag (sorry Jenn, I changed my mind and left the warmer one in the car). I halfheartedly chewed on a malt loaf, while rubbing my feet together to try and generate some warmth. It didn’t work. I gradually grabbed fitful sleep, but my head was too focused on the task ahead. I couldn’t stop myself from making mental calculations about who I was sharing the hut with, how far I had to go, where I would be able to stop for food tomorrow, how I would I find navigating with just my map if my GPS didn’t come back to life? Others arrived after me. An alarm went off at 2am. The A-team (Steve W and boys) were up and out quickly. I lay in my bag. I wasn’t ready to move. At 3.30ish I thought about moving. I’m not sure, but I think Rob might have woken me when he started packing up. I quickly followed suit. I needed to break out from my relative comfort.
The bike was frozen. Actually frozen. The chain links wouldn’t bend, the mechs refused to move. Frost crystals dusted my bags and saddle. I wished I hadn’t urinated before realising this. Luckily the shock of the cold triggered a physiological reaction and my bladder obliged. At least I now had a singlespeed. With non-functioning brakes. I think there was ice on the rotors. Rob and I set off with all our layers still on. There was light in the early morning sky already. A beautiful inky blue, as we hit tarmac south of Feshiebridge. With the tarmac our speeds increased. Cold, wet feet became numb, useless appendages. I swung my arms and wiggled my fingers to keep some blood flow to them. Despite the cold, we both felt good. We chatted and began to fantasise about breakfast. Aviemore wasn’t far away. Unfortunately it was a 5am and a Sunday. We carried on riding, and didn’t even waste time looking for somewhere. Next stop Tomintoul. Lights were switched off, and miles were easily won on the tarmac. We were riding together still. Side by side. Neither pushing the pace, neither hanging back. Sometimes in silence, sometimes talking. We hit some beautiful woodland singletrack, missed a turning, got wet feet again. My recollection of the next section is sketchy, but in my head it was largely steady away riding. Jack caught us up as we all made a slight wrong turn. It turns out he had bivvied just south of Aviemore and was moving smoothly today. He wasn’t with us for long as I realised my right cleat had loosened, so I stopped to reset it.
“Your biggest breakfast please”
The tarmac to Tomintoul filled me with mixed emotions. It was 9.30am. Would there be anything open when we arrived? I had already decided that I would wait until 10am if necessary. While I had food in my bag, it wasn’t the right food. A wave of unbridled joy washed over me as I rode ahead up Tomintoul high street (maybe a slightly grand term, but any signs of civilisation felt grand). The Old Firestation Cafe had a familiar looking bike propped up outside. It was open. Without looking at the menu, and barely greeting Jack, I walked straight to the counter and (with a twinkly in my eye) requested the biggest breakfast they did. Incredibly, I had managed to find a greasy spoon in Scotland that didn’t serve a fry-up. No matter. Two bacon and egg butties, a scone, a bakewell tart, cup of sweet tea and two cans of coke saw me right. It did for Rob too. Profits must have trebled for the owners that day.
Refuelled, Rob and I set off while Jack digested, although were overtaken pretty quickly. Next stop was Braemar. A good psychological target. a long way off. Again my memory of this section is sketchy, I remember Rob snapping a chain. I remember a beautiful long downhill to reach the small town. This makes up my memories of a ride that took us from mid morning to mid afternoon. As we pedalled the couple of tarmac miles to Braemar, Stuart joined us. He set off from the bothy a couple of hours after us, so had been making strong progress all day. Another epic food order was placed, and while we ate, John saw the bikes outside and came in to join us.
Proportional vs actual mileage to go
So, again it was Rob and I who left Braemar together. Stuart and John would follow shortly, and I was expecting to be passed by them both. I felt as though the back of the ride had been broken. 50 or so kilometres remained. But, a quick glimpse at the route profile and a few murmurs from Jenn (who had ridden the last section as part of a route guide at some point in the past) stopped me from running away with myself. Optimism is a strange thing though. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad? The first 10k certainly wasn’t. Blasting along familiar landrover tracks into the Linn of Dee once more. This time however, we were to cross the Dee and head due south. A good feeling. It didn’t last for long, as the track deteriorated into more bog trotting. Joy. It was around here that I had to remind myself to keep drinking and eating. Proportionally we were on the home straight, but actually distance still to cover was easily that of a “normal” ride. The kind of ride that I wouldn’t dream of doing without a bit to eat and plenty of drink. The day had been warm. On occasions I was down to just my jersey. The sun had also been bright, and I could feel my face was a little sunburnt. The cold, dry air of the last 30 hours had given me a hacking cough. My body was beginning to deteriorate. Just. Keep. Going.
Hike a bike turned into more technical singletrack. High above a river. It is my favourite kind of riding… when I’m fresh, riding an unladen bike and I’m awake. Careful riding was the order of the day. And more pushing than I would otherwise have liked. Points for style were not on offer though. It was all about completing he ride. The gorge continued south into Glen Tilt – one of the few parts of the ride I was familiar with, after a Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon took it in back in 2003. We didn’t continue south though. As a sting in the tail, we turned left, and up. Up an impossibly steep spur. It was thankful short though. Back on the bike, and my front wheel slipped down a ledge in the trail and I rolled my tyre. My tubeless set up was definitely the way to go, bet the front has always had a tendency to lose pressure. I guess it had imperceptibly been leaking air. Quick tube change and I was expecting Rob to ride on, but he graciously waited for me and took the opportunity to eat.
It wasn’t long before we hit some of the fastest track in the loop and were flying along. My mood lifted, and I tried to ignore the niggling voice reminding me of the big bumps in the route profile. The first was actually relatively pain free. Steep track meant eventually dismounting, and eating a tuna sandwich as I walked. Again, details are now a bit hazy, but at some stage we turned off the good track – completing a dog leg and now pointing straight for Blair Atholl. Unfortunately this also meant a return to less good track for a while. And another climb. Were it not for the impending end I could have suffered a sense of humour failure.
Finally. Finally, the climbing was done. I could sense Blair Atholl in the valley. I could taste my celebratory beer. The descent was fast. Track, then narrow tarmac. We whooped and laughed. My eyes filled briefly. A quick glance at my watch confirmed that not only would we beat 36hrs, we’d sneak in under 35hrs too. Turning on to the main street in Blair, we sprinted out of the saddle. In the wrong direction. A sign for the train station pointed out our error after 20 metres. Oops. I grabbed my photographs and waited for Rob to do the same. He’d been a fantastic companion during the ride. His company and sense of humour had us both laughing at points were I’m sure if I was by myself I’d have been having a quiet word with myself , expending mental energy in the quest to stay motivated. There were times we rode separately for long sections. A trail length apart, a glance over the shoulder or up ahead confirming that the other was still “there”. It felt right that we ended the ride together. My first photo was of both our bikes in front of the clock. Evidence we completed at the same time.
Stuart wandered over. He had passed us on the steep climb out of the gorge, and finished around 20 minutes before hand. He told us of Aidan’s epic effort to finish in 22 hours, before we propped bikes up and headed into the pub. Pints of Braveheart all round felt fitting. Haggis, neeps and tatties the perfect comfort food with which to celebrate. Excited tales were shared. John finished not long after us. Jenn came in a couple of hours later, a fantastic achievement as she was feeling ill. Three pints later, and my sleeping bag was calling. The adventure was over. I cannot wait for the next.