This is a bit of a rambling script, and is mostly made up of pictures from this winters bike-pack journeys…
You have to love the winter as we have so much of it, but you have to be opportunist to make the best of it, especially for us in the UK with its nortoriously unpredictable weather. It would be nice to move to Spain or somewhere and enjoy those blue sky winter days …but this is not really possible when you have a life that revolves around a 101 home based commitments. This winter (2018-2019) has all in all been a pretty kind one to us – generally mild, dry and not that windy, with only a small handful of ‘named’ storms trying to get the better of us.
During the winter I believe that it is also important to try to maintain a base fitness, it is also the time you are most likely to get colds and illness and avoiding these is always a good thing, keeping active, involved and in tune with yourself is important, likewise is having good rests and recovery.
In winter time the mountain biking is sometimes superb, okay, you do have to pick your trails as everything will be wetter, but mountain biking and mud / wet is par for the course, unlike road cycling which can be pretty miserable when it is wet, windy and cold.
With the onset of late November and the shorter days it is easy to go and hibernate, but sometime you can still get a good weather window pop-up. This leads me on to an amazing ‘smash-n-grab’ opportunity to head to the far north. Incidentally after the freekishly good summer I have become addicted to Scotland and not just the Highlands, it is my mission to explore it all, the wilderness there is my new second home. I often keep an eye on the weather up that way, usually a quick peek on a Monday morning when back at work – it helps me get through the working week, and to start planning the next weekend adventure…
A Smash-n-Grab Ride Along Some of The North Coast Route
NC500 – Empty roads, near to Gairloch.
I have long fancied doing a simple, unsupported no-faff North Coast 500 ride, ideally going minimal on the road bike, but with bike-packing kit and having a couple of camps. So with a ‘weather window’ of several days over the North Highlands and some ‘Brownie Points’ that i’d somehow managed to credit I blagged 3 days away. I decided I would do a variation of the NC500, thus avoiding the A9 return and also starting / finishing at Dingwall, as I knew that to do the full route would have been a big undertaking (in November) and that was not what I really wanted, I wished for long days on quiet roads of around 110 -130 miles, rather than 170 mile days of just churning it out! I got some well priced advanced train tickets, splitting the route, the ticket machine spewed out 28 orange cards – crazy! and off I went…
I will tell the story in pictures, but to get you started I roll out of Dingwall station at 7pm Friday evening and start heading west on a clear and quite warmish night…
Road side camp spot, just after Applecross 130km in, pitching up at just after midnight, the highlight was most surely the monster Bealach na Baa pass under the moon and stars.
R.I.P. Whistlestop Cafe!
Very sad to see this lovely place close, I hope that it gets re-opened, it was closing that weekend. I did manage a very nice breakfast and stole some warmth from the wood stove.
Lock Maree and Slioch – possibly no finer Loch and no finer mountain. And all to myself in November!
Seaside village of Gairloch, just further on I watch some whales surfacing in the flat almost oily waters.
Half way through and a change of plan, I decided to miss-off the far North West loop and head back east from Ledmore Junction, I think I had bitten off more than I wanted to chew! The second night I happened to stumble on this amazing wooden chalet, perfect place to sleep in – but it was cold and I wished that it had a door! After a clear crisp start and a further 70km I was back in Dingwall midday Sunday for my train home. I only really managed one full days riding, but I think it was worth the effort of getting there and I amassed almost 420km (260 miles) of riding. I quite like not finishing things, as it means you have a reason to go back again!
A Pre-Xmas Escape – A Girt Lush Mid Wales Bike-Pack – and a very wet Mid Wales too!
Wet weather kit testing in the Elan Valley (on the 2015 Chiru Pulse)
Bothy life – getting dried out and re-hydrated. I could not persuade anyone else to join me on this ‘ratch’, maybe the weather… My memories from this ride are, spending much time in PC’s under the hand driers trying to warm everything up! I also remember lots and I mean lots of Red Kites and finding two bothies, both well stocked with wood, to get dry and cosy in.
The route…. Wales was deserted…
Borders Bothy Raid… Objective to visit the 10 bothies in around the North Pennines / Borders / Kielder Area …oh and starting that from home (Settle) …oh and going over Cross Fell…
Late evening, not really a good place to be on bike in a blizzard – time to get moving!
To spend the night here – an all time favourite!
Early morning over the Pennines.
The beautiful Langley Viaduct on the South Tyne Cycle Path.
(in Scotland) a small hut or cottage, especially one for housing farm labourers or for use as a mountain refuge.
Super cosy night spent at Kershope Head, having visited: Gregs Hut, Shepherds Hut, Melmerby Shop, Haughton Green, Green, Roughside, Flittingford, Spithope, Wills Bothy. Many miles! (or Kilometres – I am trying to positively switch to the metric distance… and its hard!) I was very pleased to report that all the bothy’s visited were all in pretty good shape, clean and looking well cared for – very gratifying. One day I will be a Bothy MO (Maintenance Organiser) …its my retirement ambition! (or one of them)
A Whisky Tasting visit with the MO …and the odd job to do as well.
I have helped at this bothy on a number of occasions, the fancy stove door you see above was made by my brother Roger, this has turned out to be a popular attraction at the boutique bothy, that Greensykes is – This is Bothy TV and it does not get any better! Get it glowing and sit and watch it, while sipping whisky and talking about noodles, fish and stuff…
Waking up to a winter wonderland!
Leysburnfoot (aka Will’s)
Eastern Highlands and then Glasgow
The odd month of February, it was unseasonally warm. At the end of half term I had some days free and combined a forray into the East Highlands then a meet up in Glasgow with my eldest son – Henry. I have to say it felt odd going from 3 nights in bothies to the Hilton in Glasgow. Strangely (but not un-surprisingly) I preferred the bothies!
Night one in a lovely ‘off-the-grid’ bothy, met a nice couple from Perth who arrived a little later than me, with mucho whisky!
Bothy Bus-stop – I gave up waiting in the end!
The road over to Glen Shee, mid-Feb and no snow. Quite sad seeing the ski station empty, it looked ugly and forlorn. I stopped in Breamar at the Mountain Rescue Centre to catch up with an old friend for an hour (but really to warm-up!) and have a couple of cups of tea. Lots of interesting rescue stories and a shed full of ace kit to look round, from skidoos to pisten-bullys. My night two destination was Faindoran, the most remote of bothy’s – 30km to the nearest road-head.
The super-remote Faindoran Bothy in the centre of the Cairngorm Massif, quite how it ended up with ten Bike-Packers and Belgium Girl staying in it was beyond me – but what a crazy night it was – stove roaring, more whisky and quite a lot of fine cheese’s and putting the world to rights!
After Faindoran, I had no real fixed destination for the coming day (and had a bit of a sore head as well) and the only main thing on the itinerary was a coffee and a proper greasy breakfast. The route out from the bothy to the north, heading towards Glenmore Lodge was advised against, as it was banked out with soft, wet snow – which is horrible to make progress over, so the decision was made to head into Tomintoul about 35km away and then make plans.
Exiting Tomintoul I saw the sign for the Speyside Way (Whisky Trail) and decided to ride along that. The route headed east with great riding, going past Glenlivet, then Tomnavoulin, then Knockandhu, then Dufftown, then Aberlour – this was Whisky country for sure – and a great trail too. For the evening I had decided to try the boutique bothy up in Glen Feshie and it was great as the Speyside Way took me most of the way there.
Distillery’s and the Rothiemurchus Forest – endless forested trails …and so to the boutique bothy…
The magnificent Ruighaiteachain Bothy in Glen Feshie, its Danish owner, is very in tune with the re-wilding activities and encouraging people into the mountains. [Editor’s note – modern life is terribly cruel and there are people who commit heinous acts against mankind – In the Sri Lankan bombings 3 of his 4 children were killed. This is so sad.]
And then back to the city of Glasgow… what a great journey!
Towards the end of February our lives were also shattered, as my father-in-law passed away. His death was sudden an unexpected, he was mid seventies and had a stroke while playing tennis. He was a massive part of our lives and his absence has taken a lot of adjusting too.
The last ride of the winter, in fact I think that it was probably Spring, just, was the…
Barkley Marathons of Bike-Packs
Another bike-pack and another highland train journey. It had the sign of an exciting trip at the point of stepping off the late train. Corrour Station at 9.30pm, I left the warmth and comfort of the train and was the only person getting off into the dark, silent wilderness. I was buzzing with excitement and anticipation already, my planned bothy for the night was ‘Staoneag’ (Mammore Forest), which lay about 20km away, with a mixture of estate tracks and mountain path to get there, it was my first visit, which always adds to the interest. I arrived at around 11.30pm and it was all dark and silent and empty – I think it was pleased to have me as guest that night. I collected wind blown twigs and got small fire going, lit some candles, had some food and enjoyed a tin of craft ale, popping out occasional to check the stars.
My destination for day 2 was the remote and rugged Morvern Peninsula, (via the Corran ferry) then onwards to Arisaig around 160km ride in all and mostly road, which was good, because the weather had turned sour – very wet and a measly 5-6 degC. Despite the wet, the riding was nice going along sea loch coasts then wild moorland terrain, with the moody weather egging me along, the destination was a secret coastal bothy…
The view from the room – nice hey!
Amusing log bog entries. It was indeed an idylic place and I recommend sniffing it out!
After Arisaig the plan was heading south to Mull, the picture above is the mighty Loch Sheil, it has a lovely estate road running down the side of its 22km length, connecting Glen Finnian to Strontian. After Strontian the plan was to go off piste a little and explore a ‘coffin route’.
I found some great swim holes! The riding started well but soon turned into a tussocky bush-whack, uphill for 3km, it took me 90mins and I was pretty shattered. At the top I realised I was rewarded with more pushing and carrying for the best part of 5km down. Some routes you win some you lose, still I thought it would make for a good ‘Barkley Marathons of MTB’! I was ready for getting to a bothy for food, warmth and rest.
So it was to an old favourite on the Ardtornish Estate. In the morning I was greeted with a stunning sunrise over the Loch, which is meant to be full of ‘brownies’. [Editors note – bothy is currently closed April / May ’19 for re-roofing and internal improvements].
Day 3 involved a couple of ferries, which also have nice toilets to clean up in! I was heading south to eventually make Glasgow, but first Mull (for 10km) then Oban and then through the fingers of Argyll.
Loch Avich single-track and the iconic bridge to Seil Island – worth a small detour. Argyll is very forested and full of trails and quiet roads to explore, also the odd nice cafe, like the one at Dallavich on Loch Awe. The plan for the evening was Carron Cottage, but still 80 or 90km to go. I was expecting Carron to be empty as it was a Monday, but surprisingly on arrival it was pretty full, with a bunch of sailors from the Merchant Navy and enough beer to sink a Merchant Ship. I enjoyed a Sol beer with them and was given one for the road (or to bugger off!), so I thought best to go elsewhere – I just hope they cleared up and left the place nice, as it was a pretty sweet bothy. My plan B was either Abysinia or Mark Cottage, a further 50 – 70km away. Hmmm, at least it was a nice evening for some more riding… I decided on Mark Cottage on the west side of Loch Long and unbeknown to me just opposite a massive and well illuminated oil depot, which detracted greatly from the cottages ambience. There was one other guest, surprised to have company when I arrived at 9pm, he had a good fire going and cooked me a fried Pollock – very good it was too!
The morning of Day 3 and a moderate 90km to get me to the ferry at Dunoon. After a 450m climb, I was rewarded and surprised to have a lovely 10km single track, it was narrow forest paths that followed the fingery coastline. It went past more castles, quaint villages and quiet beaches.
Almost at the end of the journey, I mis-calculated the distance and I had 20km to do and 60 minutes to get to the ferry it was a real push and I made it with 6 minutes to spare – another nice crossing to Gourock station, then to Glasgow Central and back home, to start earning brownie points again… I am very lucky to have an understanding wife and family and it’s not all about my own adventures, most other weekends we have slightly easier family outings, club rides or just rest (quite rare) .
Next up is the inaugural Dales Divide Race and then in May the Highland Trail 550, let’s hope the good weather keeps going!
Go on get out on your adventures too!