An iconic Aberdeenshire hill with a wild and punishing descent, a loop of Clachnaben is nothing short of a mini epic.
We all love wild natural rides, big days on big hills with big distances. But sometimes you want the feeling of remote riding and the challenge of truly rugged terrain, but only have a few hours to spare.
With its distinctive tor of rock visible from as far as Aberdeen, Clachnaben is a popular hill for walkers and trail runners. It benefits from a well maintained path, with substantial water bars and when required, uneven but substantial stairs. Which comes as a welcome relief as the sustained climb hovers between 15% to over 25% gradient. Once at the top looking down, when that gradient starts being measured in the negative, it becomes one beast of a descent.
It is a modest loop when measured in kilometres, at 15.7km its not that far. But when you take into account the 582m elevation gain, it takes on a much more formidable guise.
The loop starts in the walkers carpark and rounds the shoulder of the hill. Climbing from the rear so to speak, before topping out west of the summit. Then downhill essentially all the way back to the carpark.
I was blessed with blue skies and temperatures in the 20’s, the ground was baked dry and dusty with a light (for now) wind keeping things tolerable.
Following the course of the river into Glen Dye, the first leg was a fairly sedate and fast spin on smooth fire road. Its not long before I reached the natural rest break of the Charr Bothy. Worth a visit as part of a longer trip, today it merely provided me with some shade before rallying myself for the climb.
The climb is a hard one, the sandy track giving little traction with a slow zig-zagging grind being the only option. It starts as it means to continue, with the gradient rarely straying out of the low 20%’s. Gradient isn’t usually a measurement mountain bikers concern themselves with, its a “Roadie thing”, but its something that you come to fully appreciate whilst on this trail.
The traction slipped away in little roosts of sand
The heats oppression was only slightly moderated by the wind that started to grow with the Elevation. The traction slipped away in little roosts of sand with each pedal stroke as my resolve to stay in the saddle started to slip away. My heart rate monitor (a very thoughtful gift from my wife) was not needed to tell me how hard my heart was working, I knew how hard it was working as I tried to breathe through the work.
Stalling out completely on the loose sand, I was glad of the rest and resigned myself to push the rest of the way. It was not far before a reminder (if one were needed) that the climb is a suitable challenge for even motorised vehicles.
Peering over the heather the frame of a crashed WW2 aircraft stands in equal parts of rusting steel and immaculate aluminium. The wreckage, deemed to difficult and costly to remove, has been left for time and the elements to reclaim. Crash sites from this period are a surprisingly common feature of our hillsides, but serve as a poignant reminder of past sacrifices.
The final push of the climb was a more forgiving affair, with slight undulations and short downs giving free speed for the next up. Hauling myself to the top, the view offered a suitable reward for my efforts, literally being able to see my house from here.
My first run of the day is usually a bust. Its not that I’m not warmed up physically, but it usually takes me at least one trail to both sharpen up and loosen off. Not a luxury availabile on this ride, in front of me lay a 2.2km descent that I had to get right first time.
Starting with a technical mine field of rocky steps and water bars followed by drifty sandy trails and narrow steps with genuine exposure at times. All this before entering a rooty narrow wooded section with blind turns that are usually occupied by sheep and/or ramblers.
At this point in a post you might expect to find a POV video of the descent, a short edit of the day perhaps. Due my own ham fistedness, I managed to turn my Drift camera’s lens into portrait mode, smooth. So stills it is.
Breathing deeply in and out, it was time to clip in.
Rolling in slowly the granite steps were an uneven jumble of square edged drops and awkward turns, staying as light as I dared on the brakes, the key was to keep momentum. The grip of the granite slabs became punctuated with sandy trail, the acceleration was incredible, as soon as I stopped feathering the anchors the bike just took off.
The back end let loose on the corners, the rear tyre buzzing the heather as I relied on the bike to find grip. Bunny hopping water bars and looking as far down trail as I could, I rounded the shoulder of the hill. Taking on a series of exposed narrow stairs it was slow in and fast out.
the prolonged descent had steam practically pouring from the pistons
The brakes were starting to lose their edge, the prolonged descent had steam practically pouring from the pistons as the tree line fast approached.
A robust lattice work of roots encroached on the trail, the game changed as I entered the wooded section that was more within my comfort zone. Letting completely loose the anchors I was popping over the roots and down drops, this short section was over far too soon as it has real rhythm and pace, when dry. All this fun comes to an end when you reach a deer fence, a quick hop over a stile followed by a mellow pedal for the final push back to the carpark.
A clean run, no matter how fast, on this EWS worthy trails always delivers a sense accomplishment and adrenalin that only comes from a mountain bike.