"You're supposed to be my FRIEND!"
I'm lying on my back, head down on a 40 degree slope of wet heather above a turbulent River Tilt nearing the end of this year's Cairngorms Loop. My bike is on top of me with my lower leg jammed between the chainring and the bottom bracket. I've been walking this bit because of the wind and still ended up like this. It's actually the second fall, the first saw me fall onto rocks with my elbow. It's not really my bike's fault.
I struggle to push the bike away, any potential injuries to my leg aren't of concern, I lean over the bike holding back sobs.
"Look," I say out loud because no-one's near enough to hear "you are just really tired. Get on with it."
Just sixteen loosely congregated riders were in the car park at the start on Saturday morning. Colin Cadden, who'd taken on the organiser's role from Steve Wilkinson for this year, was trying to get us all ready in time but herding cats would have been simpler. There were one or two who I knew already and a couple who I'd conversed with online so there were bits of chats going on. In the end we rolled out four minutes late, not that it would make any difference over the course of a day or two. Cath had entered but decided her fitness wasn't up to it so was doing the Tour of the Cairngorms which is basically the outer loop less the sting in the tail.
There'd been talk of people going for fast times but Huw Oliver had broken the record a couple of weeks earlier so that particular hare wasn't riding this weekend. My plan was just to get round.
The initial pace was quick but tempered by a decent headwind. I rode alongside Phil Clarke who I'd not seen for a while, he was on a singlespeed Jones so speed was limited on the flatter sections. There was also a rider on a singlespeed fat bike. I'd joked about bringing mine along but decided against it. Pretty soon we were at the crossing of the A9 and Phil pulled away on the climb because, well, he had a single speed. "That's the last I'll see of him." I thought.
The track to Sronpadruigh Lodge was fast, helped by the now tailwind. The burn crossings were low which augured well in comparison to three years ago. Then it was a bit of bog trotting to get to the singletrack alongside Loch an Dun.
This is just ace and all rideable though I did get blown off by gusts of wind a couple of times near the end. A rider caught me here and we rode together as far as Rothiemurchus. The next river crossing which had stopped last year's group ride in its tracks was low and we just rode through it. My companion lived at the foot of the glen so we got the turn off the road right unlike the pair ahead of us who shot past it.
We head into the lower reaches of Glen Feshie and wend our way along the singletrack through the meadows. A slight confusion as to the exact route at Feshie Bridge and we are heading through the woods on Feshie Moor quickly followed by Rothiemurchus Forest. This always seems to take longer than it should. Still we pop out onto the road and arrive at the shop in Glenmore in just 4hrs30mins, really quick and some forty five minutes quicker than previously. I'm surprised to see Phil there, he'd only been a few minutes ahead but of course in the woods even 30 seconds is out of sight. A quick loo visit, a drink and I'm ready to go. Phil leaves at the same time.
|Simon and Hamish|
The Nethy is low, last time it was a brown torrent, so I refill with water again. Then it's the climb up Bynack Mor, I get so far then get off and push, no point in red-lining just for the sake of it - there's another 220km to go. As I near the top of the steepest section a rider passes me - he's managed the whole climb without dabbing which is very impressive in the windy conditions. I do see him dab once a little later but I think we can let him off with that. "I'm Hamish" he says as I catch him "I'm waiting here for my mate" - he spent most of this section as intervals, riding off and then waiting for his mate.
I struggle on the next section to the Fords of Avon (pronounced A'an) and take one OTB where I bash and bruise my legs. The first burn, the Uisge Dubh, is crossed dry, last time it was waist deep! The fords themselves are low and the crossing is easy.
Compare the above with these shots from 2017
I don't think I rode any more of the section from there to the Lairig an Loaigh on the Spearfish as I did last time on the rigid Solaris, maybe the wind played a part but I just couldn't get going. Four of us reached the pass together and then it was the blast down into Glen Derry. The others were quicker than me but I catch one up, Hamish's mate, - "puncture or valve playing up" - he'd got kit to sort it so no point stopping. Further down we pass a chap on a gravel bike heading to the Fords, we think he was under the misapprehension it was rideable!
Once in the glen floor it's very quick riding again apart from the occasional water bar. Most of these have now got bypass lines to ride but there's still one or two "big" ones that can catch you unawares, I'd taken a tumble on one last time as then the light was fading. We reach Bob Scott's in full daylight, in fact I'm nearly two hours up on last time. I've now just one companion who introduces himself as Ian. "You rode that glen smoothly" he says "you just swept away from me." - I'm confused as he must mean me since there's no-one else around.
Straight through the Linn of Dee woods and the long drag up to the Geldie Burn. This is straight into the wind and I begin to struggle but we're catching another rider. It turns out to be Steve Waters and we'll end up riding together to Aviemore. The Geldie looked wide but really low, good news for later. Part of this year's rules was no use of bothies (the MBA have closed all of theirs due to Covid-19) but was surprised to see lights at the Red House. It turned out to be an MBA working party getting it refurbished for future use. No stopping, on over the watershed.
Lights went on at the end of the vehicle track and we managed to ride a surprising amount given that some of the "holes" cast by our lights were rather deep. Steve took a couple of tumbles, no injury as they were into bog not stone. Ahead were a couple of lights but we didn't catch them. Ian noted that he felt quite spooked by this terrain and scenario but having grown up in the country it felt quite normal to me. In fact it felt a bit weird having company on a night section of an ITT, I was totally on my own the last time I crossed here. Eventually the Eidart appeared, or rather the sound of the waterfall began to be heard over the wind, and the rickety bridge was more rickety with a board or two now broken. This time I managed to find the singletrack that winds in and out of the muddy argo-cat trail - much nicer riding. The forecast rain is just starting.
As we are dropping down towards the Feshie my light starts to flash. Surely it can't be running out of juice? Unless it had turned on in the bag and been discharging for most of the ride. My recharging system only really works when I'm not riding so I was stuffed. Fortunately Steve had a spare Joystick! Game back on! Then we came to the Feshie.
"Err, we've gone wrong lads, should have turned off about 50m back".
We find the track leading to the landslip and drop into the tracks in the glen. "Your mudguard is flapping around" I'd wondered what the buzzing sound was, turned out a couple of the zip ties holding the Mudhugger on had snapped. A simple fix. Hmm, bad luck comes in threes?
Then we drop into the Feshie river bed, err, this is wrong. We back track through the undergrowth and get on the track. Then my chain breaks! Fortunately I've a quicklink so we get that fitted. While getting out my tools and spares I notice I've no spare brake pads, I'd moved them to the Solaris for the YD300 and not moved them back. I say nothing. Lights appear, "Who's coming up the glen at this time of night?" It turned out that we'd set off on the track in the wrong direction and it was us going the wrong way. The lights turned out to be Sean Belson, Hamish and his mate. The glen is mostly a blast, we pass the bothy, this turns out to be "locked" by the simple expedient of the estate renting it out as accommodation! I notice that two of our group were missing - nothing untoward they'd planned to bivy in the Glen so had stopped. It later transpired that they scratched at that point.
The tracks were fast until we got to the Allt Garbhlach, last time I'd crossed this higher up but now we'd reached the bit where it had really washed out and it involved a steep downclimb and climb out manhandling our bikes. After this things sped up and soon we were on the road. Rear lights on (don't know why we didn't see a single car!) and then it was time trial mode to get to the 24hr filling station in Aviemore.
Where the fuck did all the time go? The two hours I'd been "ahead" had all gone and I arrived here at the same time as last time. Sean had arrived a little earlier and had ordered his grub. You couldn't go into the shop so you ordered at the kiosk, not easy when you don't know what they stock. A coffee and a bacon butty later, oh, and a bollocking from the Polis for using a mobile on the forecourt (actually I'm turning it off as there's only 7% battery left - hence no more shots), and I'm ready to go.
"You don't hang around" notes Sean
"Starting to get cold and I've nothing else to do here."
"Where are you bivvying?" Ian asks.
"I'm just heading on the route through the woods until I find a dry shelter or somewhere to bivy."
"Mind if I join you?"
"Not at all"
And with that I set off. I turn off the Glenmore road and notice there's no lights behind me, oh well. I need to get some warmth into me before bivvying, fortunately the butty has done its job and I've plenty of energy. I pass where I bivvied last time and turn into the woods. A few km along the tracks and there's an old horsebox next to the track. Perfect. A bit of rearranging of the dry hay on the floor (really) and I'm just settling down when Sean rides past.
"I'm riding through. Steve's light is playing up so he and Ian have bivvied just outside Aviemore"
With that he rides on and I get into my quilt. It's 0200.
"What's that?" Something moves nearby. I'm not sure if it's a mouse or rat nestled in the hay near me or something just outside the horse box. I'm too tired to worry and drift off to sleep.
I wake at 0530 and there's just a bit of light in the sky so back on with my wet cycling kit (euch!), pack everything away and get going by 0550. No chance of using my stove because of all the hay. I notice that I'm only 100m away from a group of houses, shows how close you can bivy to folk. About fifteen minutes later there's a light at the side of the track. It's Phil who was putting away his bivy kit. Again we ride together, noting potential bivy spots amongst general chatter until again he pulls away his single speed being well the single speed he has to ride.
Alone again I push on, little energy in my legs or body, there's a tarp fluttering in the wind up above the track, it turns out to be a guy bivvying but I don't know if he's a rider or not. Quite how his tarp is offering any protection as it's set at about 2 metres above the ground. He waves and I wave back. I catch Phil up in Eag Mhor and we ride on through heather to the Dorbach burn. "One of my favourite bits of riding" he notes. Again he pushes on and I won't see him again.
The Burn of Brown is an easy crossing, it was this burn that was impassable three years ago, I say crossing, you actually cross it back and forth seven times. Tomintoul is still shut, I don't even ease up pedalling and turn into Glen Avon. Breakfast will have to be in Braemar 40km on. "Glen Avon's going to be a bitch in a headwind" Phil had noted. Actually it wasn't that bad for the most part. The worst bit was my drive train, it was making an awful racket. A five minute stop and application of oil sorted that out.
The singletrack around Loch Builg was nice apart from the gusting wind. The loch is meant to be in a wind funnel so if this wasn't so bad then it boded well for the rest of the route. No chance! I dropped into Glen Gairn and almost came to a halt. Even the flat sections along the glen floor were a real effort. Light showers hid the view and added to the fun. I'd already walked sections by the time I got to the fancy shooting hut at the foot of the Cullardoch climb. I walked nearly all of that. I'm at the summit when I notice a figure on the climb, probably Ian.
Even the descent from Cullardoch was a bit dicy with a cross wind but then I was on the descent through the trees to Invercauld, lovely. Braemar looked so close but you ride for a couple of km in the other direction to get to the bridge. Of course you then had that couple of km plus some more into a headwind to get to the village. Straight to the cafe.
"Only customers using our app allowed" stated the sign. WTF!
"How am I supposed to know that in advance? Plus my phone battery is dead."
"Just fill out the card".
While waiting for my food to arrive, Steve Waters turns up. It turns out Ian was struggling a bit and since he'd arrived by train had realised he wasn't going make any of the Sunday services to get back home so was taking it a bit easier. An hour had gone by by the time we'd finished eating and chattering. I needed some medication for my arse which was really sore so headed to the Co-op.
Steve was long gone by now. I ate my ice cream while riding along looking for somewhere I could pull off the road and apply the arse cream. Slightly better. It's all road to the Linn of Dee but it's also into the wind and is hard work. Not as hard as the next section which is the only bit of the route that repeats, Linn of Dee to the Geldie Burn. This takes me an hour. My mood's worsening, I'm screaming obscenities at the wind. Just before the White Bridge I have to walk as I feel the first twinges of cramp. Normally I get this after about twelve hours so to get a day and a half into a ride is good for me. Doesn't do anything for speed though.
Then the Geldie. Yesterday this was benign, now it had risen substantially and was brown with flood water. Nothing for it but to wade across. It wasn't particularly deep, maybe knee high at worst but I knew there was more to come. Almost immediately there's two crossings of the Bynack Burn, the first of which looked really deep and strong flowing. A slight detour to find shallows meant trudging upstream along the middle of the burn until more shallows led to the other side.
The wind still hadn't let up and was pushing me around making what would normally be easy riding very hard work. As I approached the Tilt watershed there was more and more walking involved. I note the Tilt flowing down from the opposite side of the strath, I'm finally on the home stretch, just the Tilt to cross to get to the Sting in the Tail.
Then the wheels came off. By the time I got to the Tilt crossing I was in no mood to continue. Looking down the glen there were black clouds heading my way. I really didn't want to be up high in that lot, I really didn't want to have to cross the Tilt. I headed down the glen.
Even this was hard work - normally you'd do a couple of pedal strokes and freewheel for a minute or two. Not today, half a dozen pedal strokes and you got maybe three bike lengths before you had to pedal again. Plus my sore arse meant that I had to do all this standing up! It took nearly an hour and forty minutes to reach the car park. Cath had got there about ten minutes earlier. We got changed staccato due to all the dog walkers going past then headed to the pub for something to eat. Even the pint felt heavy.
I think my lack of mileage showed. The first 80km to Glenmore were really fast even accounting for being on a full suss rather than a rigid with the amount of road involved. Even with the high winds the section over Bynack Mor and Lairig an Loaigh I was over half an hour faster. Mechanicals and faffing/getting lost then ate up all that time gain. I ate reasonably well but probably not enough given how I felt on the second day, I should have stopped somewhere sheltered and cooked the food I'd brought with me rather than just pushing on.