Ready for the off - poor old Krampus dragged out again!
The morning forecast of mist and drizzle was nowhere to be seen - the sun beat down and my decision not to bring sun cream suddenly seemed like a deal breaker... Oh well it won't last... At the inauspicious time of 9.48 am I hit the trail. The route starts at the Glen Tilt car park and heads north to the Gaik pass. I'll not go into the route details for a change but the single track up the Gaick showed signs of the previous days rain being by far the wettest I'd seen it this year.
In the Gaik
However over the watershed past the lodge the landscape became parched once again - it looked like Aviemore had missed the worst of the rain as forecast - a good sign for the route ahead. After various wrong turns through Inshriach and Rothiemurchus forest I got to the Glen more cafe for some much needed coffee and calories. I'm crap at following a line on a GPS as I tend to keep riding by the line of least resistance in a world of my own. This not helped by my sat maps extremely quiet beeps when you reach a turning...
The cafe had cairngorm ales on tap which I steadfastly avoided, instead fueled and rested I headed off into the depths of the Cairngorm massif. I and three friends did this route in 2007 as a circuit from Aviemore - we started at 7.30 am and took 14 hours to do the 60 mile route which we thought was pretty bloody impressive at the time. Now here I was starting it at 2.30pm which seemed madness given what I was about to tackle. I guess this was the point I knew I wasn't going to do the outer loop. My hands were already hurting despite only having done 50 miles or so of easy riding and the approaching trail seemed like a perfectly satisfactory challenge for a day ride.
The climb ahead - I remember this from my 2007 ride and knew it to be the biggest climb of the cairngorms loop. If you didn't know this route you'd be forgiven at this point for uttering the prayer of the adventure racer following someone elses GPX file - "Oh god where the f*** is he taking us!" There are plenty of opportunities for this in the next 20 odd miles...
The climb is steep but in general not hard. All of the path up to the shoulder of Bynack beg has been improved and the only challenge is hopping over the stone cross drains. I failed on a couple which had steps immediately after them, and was forced to push on one section with several steps but overall I was pleased with my riding. This boded well for what was to come. The first part of the descent is pure natural trail - in this case a wide-ish line of large bolders and ruts, all bone dry on this fine summers day. Confusingly after a spell it goes back to a made path before dumping you into a large wetland area at the head of Coire Odhar. On this day it was largely dry with barely a squelch from under tyre.
A wee tasty - this looks hard but you aint seen nothing yet. The trick is to jam it in your granny gear and to try to thread a line between the worst of the rocks. that said, some times hoisting over one large boulder is a way of avoiding several others. My riding was accompanied with the constant sound of knard scraping off rock. The granite hereabouts is incredibly grippy wet or dry but rather hard on tyres.
Onwards and upwards over the shoulder of Bynack more into the main event - a long strath actually comprising 2 watersheds and a valley but with no serious gradients - all praise glaciation. Interesting point for all you Geographers out there - you follow the first river upstream for a km to its source which is about 2k from the fords of Avon. However it flows the other way and joins the Avon at Tomitoul some 30k downstream - good eh? I paused to dunk my head in the river and wash out my lid. It was incredibly warm - 25 degrees at a guess and the sun was beating down. I was drinking constantly but still my head ached with dehydration and cramp kept hitting hands and legs suggesting salt and mineral deficiency....
What looked like a cluster of huts resolved itself into... a cluster of huts - a couple of guys were working on the path and this was their accommodation. Fortunately the work they were doing was all of the 'Light Touch' variety so no gargantuan cross drains, just some nice sections of path with the odd stone feature entirely in context with this boulder field maskerading as a path. This was also the scene of my first hike a bike - they were busy levering large rocks to make a stone causeway over a wet area but it was work in progress and my bike skills don't stretch to back wheel hopping... I got back on again but I knew that this would not be the last time I carried the bugger.
About 2k short of the fords of Avon the trail becomes utterly hardcore. The whole landscape is basically rock covered in rocks and the trail no exception. Suddenly my whole attention became focused on the ground in front of me, sussing out lines, hoisting the front wheel over boulders, moving my body around to counter balance an unwieldy bike determined to hit every rock in its path... fantastic! I have to say this is my favourite kind of riding and the whole reason for being here. It seems in recent years every trail worthy of the name has to 'flow' which in my book means its easy; the only challenge being to see how fast you can go and how high you can get over the jumps. This is fine (in moderation) but its only part of the picture that is mountainbiking and its easy to get suckered into the hype surrounding them. Tight, nadgery, techy trails are the antidote and this path was the creme de la creme of such riding. Of course its utterly knackering and the sweat was pouring off me but I was in seventh heaven. The odd times I did stop was to take in the amazing panorama of cairngorm mountains around me.
The fords of Avon at last and low enough to cross with barely wet boots - The 6km from the summit of the main climb had taken me nearly 2 hours...
There was a brief interlude of easier trail for a bit after the ford and then it was back into it
The Krampus was proving its worth but I'll be back with the fat bike as it would make such terrain a much easier prospect, or at least reduce the amount of bodily input into the riding. When I did this in 2007 I was on an Orange patriot with 6" of bounce at each end. I can't remember how much I rode of this back then but probably not any more than today, albeit in a bit more comfort.... Finally the last km before the col over to Glen Derry defeated me. The rocks suddenly became a lot bigger and the sections of smooth trail between them a lot smaller. I was happy with what I had achieved however and the pushing / carrying to get me to the top was done without much drama.
Looking back north to the Fords - only a few k but a lot of the best kind of hard work. Descending into Glen derry was the reward. In 2007 this path had just been done up and the water bars and cross drains were brutal but 7 years of erosion had softened the path with many sections reverting back to a natural rocky trail.
Looking up to Corrie Etchachan - another trail for another day. Should be doable from Linn of dee as a loop over to Fords of Avon, up into Loch Avon and then over a wee rise to the top of this. Now that would be hardcore!
The last section of trail to Derry lodge would be a blast if it wasn't for a series of huge dips with wheel (and face) destroying rock channels in the bottom. Fortunately most of these have neat little bypasses caused by years of cyclists gleefully ignoring NTS's anti bike policy (they still have a sign up at the Linn of dee car park telling cyclists not to ride on 'footpaths' aye right!) so you can ride through all of these, not at speed, but without the need to hop(!) The track out of Derry lodge was a blessed relief but it was clear that it had been seriously raining here and recently. I'd actually had a few sprinkles of rain coming out of Glen derry but the cause of all this rain wasn't clear - above it was cloudy but nothing too ominous. I stopped at the Linn of Dee for some serious calorie consumption. I'd been experimenting with different types of foods in recent rides and today was the turn of a new discovery - rice cakes - pretty good all in all particularly as a jam sandwich as the jam soaks in resulting in a satisfyingly gooey mess. Snack pork pies also featured heavily in my repetoire along with my latest favourite energy generator, the humble banana. I'd managed to keep this one in reasonable shape despite several hours of battering and it went down a treat.
This was also the point I finally decided to miss the outer loop. My legs were good and I knew I had the energy (and food) to get to Aviemore and its 24hr petrol station. However my sore hands (and derriere) were of greater concern. Carrying on would require serious pain management and the prospect of long term damage to nerves in my hands. I'd thought my current set up of high(er) bars and thick grips would sort the problems I had with my hands on the Highland trail but in fact they had started hurting long before I hit the serious rough stuff. This was a problem for another solution, another day and wrecking them today for the sake of a technically easy but physically demanding 120 miles seemed stupid. There would be time yet to knock off the whole route in a more reasonable 2 and a half days to qualify for an official time and a ticket into the highland trail.
Riding out down Glen Tilt in the evening sun seemed a far more pleasing way to end what had been the best days biking I'd done for many a year. The only thing that would change my mind was the Geldie burn being an un-fordable raging torrent but it was low enough to cross without incident or wet feet (aside - whilst crossing a tiny wee burn somewhere before the fords of Avon, my foot slipped and dunked my left leg in above both goretex boots and sealskin socks resulting in wet tootsies - hey ho)
Flat, smooth and fast. This is one of my favourite places in the Cairngorms / Scotland / UK - hard to say why, something to do with the vastness of the landscape with hills on all sides and little evidence of civilisation. That and the various routes leading away from it into places both wild and extreme.
A large rain cloud was passing to my right over the Geldie, further justifying my decision to head home. I did catch the tail end of it however but the short lived deluge of hail and rain just served to cool me down to a tolerable level. The only downside was the effect it had on the single track in the upper Glen Tilt. Its an ace descent with plenty of rocks and rock to keep you on your toes but these are of the slippy when wet variety which makes an unplanned excursion into the deepening abyss to your left as you descend all the more likely. Furthermore there were frogs all over the path, obviously brought out by the rain shower after such a scorching day, and I was determined to avoid them. That morning riding out of Glen Tromie I'd been about to ride over what I thought was a twig when it suddenly moved. A desperate hop meant I just skimmed the slow worm that had been basking in the sun which wriggled off hissing curses at all cyclists no doubt but I feel terribly guilty about mowing down wildlife at the best of times hence the need for me to avoid wholesale frog squashing.
A last look back at the rain storm that would have been making my traverse of the geldie / feshie watershed rather damp.
And looking ahead down a sun drenched Glen Tilt. The single track passed without incident (or squashed frogs I hope) and soon it was the usual transition of rocky trail to easy trail to rough track to easy track, all with a gradual descent to Blair Atholl. I got back to the car at 8.48pm, exactly 11 hours and 90 miles after leaving and was happy to drive home and finish a fabulous day with a large glass of whisky. It don't get much better than this!