The winter of 2015 has not been a classic winter,
with record rainfall combined with warm temperatures keeping the snow off the high tops and the rain in the rivers, it has been a disaster for many. Thankfully the worst we and our neighbours have suffered is being cut off with road and bridge closures.
That being said, there is no such thing as poor weather just poor clothing, so with the family packed we set off to Aviemore for the annual New Year trip. After an occasionally fraught journey we safely reached Speyside and found a very different weather picture. The northern Cairngorms were significantly colder and drier with the snow staying on the mountains.
There was standing water in some fields but the flooding was incomparable with what was happening in the southern Cairngorms and Deeside. Importantly for us this also meant the woodlands were mostly dry and frozen solid, not the mud baths of my local trails.
With the drive and weather being what they were, I thought it prudent to leave my bikes at home saving the bearings from a fate worse than death, and to hire a bike there. As it transpired, this was a good plan.
A quick trip to the excellent Bothy Bikes was in order and a Genesis High Latitude was acquired. This steel 29er fitted with Suntour forks, Maxxis Ardents and a 3×9 drivetrain was a weighty beast, but I thought if I was riding a radio rental for a weekend, then why not wagon wheels? My main concern would be how well mannered the budget forks and XC tyres would be on steeper natural tech, but we would have to wait and see.
We were meeting with family in Aviemore and riding was planned for two days. The first day would be a gentle XC jaunt round Loch An Eilen with my brother-in-law (Jonny) and his partner, the rest of the group (my wife, wee boy and mother-in-law) walking the route with me joining the walking group part way round. The second day would be Jonny and myself exploring the natural trails behind Aviemore in High Burnside.
The Genesis, as I expected, was an XC mile muncher with the spin from Aviemore to Loch an Eilen passing quickly and easily. I was surprised by how well the Genesis handled rooty climbs and at how easily it maintained speed, albeit being slower to accelerate.
Round the loch the larger wheels were starting to make sense, as when on pedally sections the bike flew with Jonny’s Zesty 514 being easily outpaced. Although not a fair comparison between an XC and more all-mountain bike it was certainly an eye opener.
We had planned a dawn raid on Burnside and were greeted with a stunning morning and incredible views. The bikes had been left outside as there was nowhere to keep them indoors, not a problem, but we hadn’t thought about the minus temperature overnight.
My drive train was frozen solid as were the pivots on Jonny’s Zesty, a little persuasion with some hot water and GT85 was in order to get the bikes moving again. This may have delayed play but was a good omen for the trails higher up and a preview of what we could expect.
Having been given a comprehensive trail map by Bothy Bikes we had decided to take a suck it and see approach. We quickly gained height with the fire roads being frozen solid with only the occasional sheet of ice to keep you on your toes.
We reached the first trailhead (which transpired was Richards Down) taking a walk downtrail to look before we leaped. It looked a little water-logged to begin with, but no worse than we expected.
Rolling into the wet and stacatto start, the flow soon kicked in as a tight sinew of trail with roots and drops wove its way through the trees. The further in we got, the drier and more frozen the mud became and the faster the trail rolled.
The 29er was still making sense, even as the trail steepened with little chutes and wooden kickers providing plenty of scope to be playful on the bike.
Buoyed by the flavour of the first trail we took a quick gander at the map and headed further up and into High Burnside. The plethora of trails was abundantly clear as we passed trail after trail ending and crossing the fire road as the road climbed higher.
We were surprised by the number and the quality of some fairly substantial park style jumps, they were cunningly hidden and immaculately dug into the edges of the fireroad, a few were hucks too flat, but not what you normally expect to find on a jaunt into natural trails.
Finding the next trail we dropped our saddles and let gravity take over, starting with a similar feel to the first trail, it soon provided a little spice with punchy little ups and exposed rock that was slick with ice. Not to mention the deer skull nailed to a tree at the end of the trail
Strava is a wonderful thing and Strava is a terrible thing, it turns every ride into a race whilst giving you a scale to measure yourself and your progress against. It also discourages certain behaviours on the trail, such as sessioning and stopping for a social or to allow a group to reform if it is strung out on a trail.
Ignoring the Garmins, we decided to stop if we found a good techy section or series of turns to session and see where we could improve. Standing at the start of Christ Almighty it was plain to see that this was going to be the steepest trail so far with the trees sharply disappearing on the down slope.
It wasn’t far into this brilliant trail that a series of steep rocky switchbacks appeared, the perfect place to session some turns, there was even a push up path. After smashing out some turns the differences in the handling and turning speed of the 29er HT over my usual 26er were becoming apparent. With more time on the bike you could adapt your riding style, but this steel XC machine certainly needed some nursing over the techier sections.
With the temperature still hovering around zero my front deraileur also needed a little persuasion from my foot to move and change gear. With a solid block of frozen mud immobilizing the mech I was reminded of why I love 1X drivetrains so much.
Having worked on line choice and braking it was time to move on and see what the rest of the trail had in store. Cleaning the switchbacks one more time I followed Jonny down the trail, the gradient eased off and a more flowing and relaxed character emerged. It was the sort of trail you could really enjoy a cruise down or if the mood took you, absolutely cane it on.
Back on the fire roads and with time moving on, we made our way back to the house, knowing full well whilst sampling the flavour of what was on offer, we had barely scratched the surface of the full riding potential of High Burnside.