A rather belated write-up. The last year has been busy with non-cycling work, mainly a house restoration, so cycling and sport has been pushed to the wayside for a little while – normal service should resume in 2022! This journey was made at the end May and was one of my all-time favourites. The route is available on ‘All-Trails’ and ‘Komoot’, or just message me for the GPX.
It all started on the train.
Travel by train, sometimes you love it, some times you hate it. Taking bikes on trains in the UK is never that straightforward, with all the regional rail franchises all offering some thing different. On the plus side Scotrail seem to have grasped the bike-on-trains issue the best and now offer more bike spaces and are sometimes a more flexible to the pre-booking rule. This for me is the issue, all too often you book your ticket by the App then have to make a separate call to reserve the bike space, which is not always available – so the conclusion is rail travel with a bike is often hit and miss and frustrating, particularly if you are not able to plan well in advance.
But anyway back in June I was wanting a ‘mountains detox’ and had planned to travel to Glasgow and start a bike-packing route called the ‘Badger Divide’, which is a pretty do-able 3-4 day affair to Inverness.
The trains had other plans for me (and my bike).
At Oxenholme the Glasgow train was double booked and they offered me a later train, rather than wait I asked if I could swap to the Edinburgh train 10 minutes later – yes – no problem. All was good on the train! However I soon realised Edinburgh didn’t offer the quick access to the Highlands that Glasgow’s position does, so I then looked at continuing on to Perth or even Aberdeen. Aberdeen looked appealing as I had not been there before on bike and I was aware of the ‘Deeside Way’ route that heads up into the Cairngorm. So Aberdeen it was.
Where I would head after that would be decided on the fly along the route – I like travelling this way, my goal destination would be Glasgow in 4 days time – Perfect!
How the weather can change between destinations, on arrival at Aberdeen, by now well past 11pm it was cold and foggy, an east coast ‘Harr’ was in force, ten degrees cooler than were I boarded the train and a thick damp fog.
My plan was to exit the city environs then look for a suitable camp spot just off the path somewhere. Within an hour a good little spot presented itself and I was soon tucked up. I was up early as my pitch was not as ideal as it could have been – sloping! I hate camping on a slope, you constantly roll off your mat and can’t get comfy. At Banachory I was able to get a coffee and some breakfast and enjoyed it along the riverside watching the morning mist slowly lift. It was here that I worked out the next part of the route. As nice as the Deeside way was, it wasn’t particularly challenging and I was aware of another ‘saved’ route that I wished to make use of – Trans-Scotland-Mtb, I decided to vaguely follow this until Blair Atholl – about 150km away. It would take me up into the hills and use some of the old drovers roads, with exciting names like ‘The Fungle Road’.
Lunch was taken by the burn in the wild Glen Tanar, famous for its rare Capercaillie, but it was a different bird that was making its presence known today – the infamous Cuckoo – a constant backdrop of birdsong.
Soon after rising out of the Glen, the trails stretched dry and dusty into the far distance. It was along one of these while quietly pedalling up a long hill, that another bike-packer came up along side me and made jump out of my skin. The face was familiar and so was the voice and it was an old riding buddy who I used to bump into on the HT550 rides – Philip! It was great to see him and we shared the journey for a while on to Lochnagar and then he talked me into continuing my ride a bit further than I’d intended to and stay at the remote and idilic Faindoran Bothy – deep in the Cairngorms. So on we went, the sprightly Phil and not so sprightly me!
The journey onto Faindoran was lovely, but was hard going on what were by now tired legs. Expecting to find it empty, it most certainly was not, as there was an Eastern Cairngorm Group Work-Party there. As the repair work stopped, the musical instruments started to come out. It turned into a great night, with a range of music and singing like I’ve never heard before – so much talent, I felt privileged and humbled to be there (having no musical talent of my own), not to mention the food and whisky that they plied us with…
I have stopped over at Faindoran Bothy twice and both times woken the day after with a hangover!
The ride up to the ‘Fords of Avon’ was a techie single-track, not an ideal starter while nursing a groggy head, but the scenery was just stunning and I was feeling so alive!
…all too soon there was ‘the’ river crossing, it was high as the snow was melting, made trickier still, as I took off my shoes so as to keep them dry.
It is worth noting that this point in the route could be a ‘gamechanger’ if the river is higher still as it would not be safe to cross and the options are limited to either back tracking or heading north on more tricky path towards Ryovan and then around the Cairngorm massif.
The exit route from this central and isolated point was to head south on good paths, down into Glen Derry and then on to Glen Tilt, some 60km south. The paths are well made and almost all rideable and are a great joy to descend.
Fast gravel trails enable a quick exit of Glen Derry to connect with the long (circa 25km) Glen Tilt. Soon the double track gives way to more twisty single track and this gets exciting and engaging as you start the steep sided descent into the main Glen. This is what I relish on these long journeys – the ever changing terrain and landscapes. At the bottom of the Glen is the village of Blair Atholl and an opportunity to re-stock or get a meal – the first civilisation for over 100km!
After a food and rest-up at Blair I used a mix of the NCN route and footpaths, the hidden highlight here was the lovely twisty path down the Killiecrankie Gorge, almost under the railway and A9. I would leave the road again at Kinnaird to begin the climb up to Loch Skiach, which would be my destination for the day, as there is an old fishing hut that is used as a bothy.
What a stunning location, the bothy itself was a little ‘ropey’ inside and need a good dose of TLC, however feeling a bit beaten and lazy I opted to stop in it rather than camp besides it. It was a pleasant place, to freshen in the Loch and then enjoy dinner watching the sunset, also with a beer that I’d picked up in Blair – Perfect end to a perfect day!
Looking at the map that evening and planning day 3, my objective was to try to reach Loch Lomond, it was almost impossible to gauge the distance, or time it would take, but I knew that it would be a ‘big day’, around 130km perhaps, the town of Creiff would be the first town to aim for, getting there using as much ‘off-road’ as possible.
I decided not to divert into Crieff town centre as I had got a noodle lunch to enjoy… So I pushed on through and decided to find a spot in Glen Artney some 20km further. The riding was really varied and interesting and all along trails that were new to me – always a bonus!
The constantly changing vistas – especially the bealach where the view of Loch Lomond and the Arrochar Alps great you. However hunger was beckoning and a camping spot was needed, I hoped that the Loch Shore would provide a small patch of grass for me… and it did.
Day 4 required a bit of an earlier start as I was booked on to a train from Glasgow at 11am. Early starts mid-summer are not such a pain as it starts to become light at 4am, the other bonus is that I would be down the WHW path before all the punters are up and on it!
So back into the city, the Central Station being my final destination for this ride. The whole journey really blew me away – the chance encounters with old friends, bothy nights, the flora and fauna, the ever changing landscapes and vistas and the riding itself so many interesting and exciting trails. I’ll definitely do this ride again! And thank you Avanti-Trains for cocking up my original travel plans and allowing this one to unfurl.