Loamy moss and pine needles rooster tailing off your back wheel, endless grip and at the end of another great ride, a clean bike to go back into the shed.
Then as the nights draw in and the lights come out, the trees shed their foliage and stop drawing water from the ground. The heavens open more often, the mercury is a little lower on the scale and the ground starts to hold a little bit more water than it had a few weeks before.
It happens every year and every year it catches you out, there is always at least one ride where you ride like a total squid as you have forgotten how to surf the slop. Winter riding, (or Autumn, Winter and Spring riding in Scotland) is a particular type of wet, and the wetter the better once the ground starts to get slick.
A change of rubber is usually when things start to click again, the spikes come back out and the wheels start digging for grip. Once confidence in your grip starts to return (slowly) you remember braking works differently in the slop. In that, you brake less and have to look harder for safe braking points. The soft mud is scrubbing speed off your wheels for you anyway.
there is a special kind of panic reserved for when both wheels try and drift in different directions
Your body movements have a different effect as well and you work harder to keep momentum. Or more accurately, you let the bike move around more and your body has to instinctively react to counter the bikes sudden wiggles in the mud.
Then there are the unexpected drifts, moments when the back end just lets go and makes a pretty good attempt to overtake the front wheel. The front end likes to wander as well, cutting loose and sliding downhill on both wheels is hilarious fun. That said, there is a special kind of panic reserved for when both wheels try and drift in different directions.
The important thing is to stay loose, the moment you panic and get tense is the moment your over the bars and you get muddier than you already where.
The winter is when I usually remember how to properly control a bike and when I usually notice some improvement in my skills. The pace may be slower but I love this kind of riding, I find myself hollering and laughing out loud to myself as I drift into a deeply ruddered corner hoping to hook into it.
I love hardtails for this kind of riding, a simpler bike for slower, more comical pleasures, less linkage to clean out as well.
2016, what a year, memorable, for all the wrong reasons, and some good ones too.
A years worth of riding, starting with a frozen Aviemore and a flooded Aberdeenshire through to dust and sun (honest). It was a year of extremes and contrasts, political upheaval and tragic loss, but for all of it the riding and escapism from all that bad news was always there.
It was also a year when I enjoyed 6 months of parental leave being a full time dad with my wee boy which was just the greatest time ever. Coming up in 2017 I have some exciting projects which I’m looking forward too and will share more on when the details are confirmed.
Roll on 2017, hope the world chills out a bit, but if it doesn’t you know were to find me.
It’s still dark, the rain is the heavy wet kind, its a Saturday morning in late October and I find myself loading the bike onto the car for a drive to Perth. It can only mean the Muckmedden Fair City Enduro.
The Fair City Enduro is a little bit different to your usual one day enduro, with its proximity to Halloween, those participating are encouraged to don fancy dress and race in costume. This instantly lightens the mood, with untimed transitions and no stage start times its a very laid back affair. Last years outing was not really a clean run for me, so I was out to improve on on that performance whilst just having a really good day on the bike.
Time to remind myself how to ride in the wet!
Like last year, the heavens where fully open with heavy showers interspersed with smearing drizzle. Unlike the previous year however, the rain never really broke and was a constant feature of the day. With six downhill stages taking in some new and some old, it was going to be a loose, greasy, back wheel drifting sort of day. Time to remind myself how to ride in the wet!
The long slow burner of a climb brought us up to stage one. A new addition for this year, it started dark, slick and rooted, before breaking cover and diving nose first down a steep loamy turn. It was a complete sea change to the trail so far and caught a few people out (myself included). Then it was an of camber thigh burning sprint over wet grass before sliding sideways on grassy flat turns to the dibber.
It was a run to wake you up, riders had been warned that it was probably the stage you were most likely to crash on. My over the bars done, it was back up the hill to stage two.
Stage two was a subtle variant of the same stage the year before, the top section was an exercise in keeping momentum as you searched for grip in the super slick, super muddy ruts and berms. Once the trail dropped back into the trees you soon joined the bike park for a fast blast through the berms and jumps.
I made possibly the best dib in the history of dibbing
As I popped off the last drop of the stage, I made possibly the best dib in the history of dibbing. Coming in hot I managed to clock the dibber perfectly into the timer whilst still skidding the rear wheel. No dibber dance, perfect first time, I could not of done it twice if I tried.
Stage three was the same as last year, It was a fun trail and my best stage of the previous year. A nasty wee drop at the gate led to a fast sprint with plenty of scope to pop off logs and small drops, before a sudden short climb robbed you of all momentum. Any attempt of mine to regain some pace was moderated by the flat turns and pedal heavy nature of the last stretch of trail.
The transition of the final three stages brought us closer to Perth and to the cliffs overlooking the river and valley below. The low cloud cover refused to lift and a misty haze clung to the hillside that made you question if it was the scotch mist or your steamed up googles obscuring your view.
Stage four was probably my favorite of the day, fast, flowing and with many high “enduro lines” to keep things interesting. The whole trail was carpeted in a colourful display of freshly fallen autumn leaves. Pretty it may be, but the slick leaves led to plenty of moments when your rear wheel tried to overtake your front.
The climbs were sociable affairs, with no stage start times you could catch up with friends and share stories of the near misses and perfect lines from your past stages.
The fifth stage was the shortest of the day. A short run in gave you just enough time to get both feet clipped in before an all to short rock garden spat you out onto a fast grassy trail. Blind turns and drops were followed by wide flat greasy corners where keeping on the wet grass was for a change, your best hope for finding grip!
The sixth and final stage of the day is a local classic, the cliff run mixed techy chutes, fast open single track and stiff thigh destroying climbs. being the last stage of the day, I was absolutely emptying the tank whilst trying to ignore the fire in my legs. The last hundred yards was rudely interrupted by some freshly cut flat turns that robbed you of all momentum as you fought to keep within the tape without staling out completely.
I was by no means bother the podium (or even the top 50% of my category) but that isn’t the point of racing for me. I was there to do better than myself, to push hard and have a great day riding bikes with friends, mission accomplished.
It was also the last ride on my faithful stead, Kaspir the Santa Cruz Heckler. He moved on to new adventures near Bike Park Wales the day after, and what a parting rip round the woods it was.
A evenings ride towards the end of summer, some final days of late northern light to play in, but be sure to be home before the street lights are on.
With the wee man settled and the chores done there was still enough light for a stolen hours or so of riding, yearning for some wilder terrain than the local woods (the local woods has some fairly wild trails mind you) I loaded up the wagon for a raid on the infamous Fungle Road single track.
The Fungle Road is an old drovers road that links Aboyne and northern Deeside with Tarfside and Glen Esk, it is a classic stretch of natural trail mixing rough LRT with single track, fast descents and steep, persistent climbs. but when people refer to the Fungle singletrack, they mean a ribbon of perfect natural trail that nestles between Ballochan and Aboyne. It is the kind of rare naturally occurring single track that perfectly blends flow, speed and light tech with some drops to keep you sharp. It is the kind of trail that when you have a clean run, it instantly becomes your new favourite trail.
Parking up at the Forest of Birse Kirk I set off with Sven for a hardtail mission, this ride was about attacking the climbs and getting some pace on a prolonged natural trail, it certainly wasn’t going to be volume training but it would be a fun jaunt. The sky was showing the first signs of dusk as the hillsides darkened with slithers of golden light streaking illuminated ribbons across the heather. It wont be long until the get you home lights will be mandatory kit once more.
The south climb from Birse castle is very much the lesser of the two options, it may only be a cat4 climb, but on a very sandy track which only adds to the effort. Thinking ahead to the climb out from Mamore lodge in a few weeks time, I concentrated on keeping my weight balanced and the power even, ground it out and focused on the work. Once your elevation is earned its a quickly sprint to the trailhead, the sky’s where still light but the ground was quickly darkening as the late evening light was starting to pale out.
Dropping into the trail I rode within myself to begin with, having not been here in over a year, a lot might have changed in that time, would it still be passable or even worth riding? I soon forgot these question and let the bike run as the trail was exactly as I remembered it. Speed was easily gained with a narrow heather dodging rut giving way to rocky stream bed followed soon after by a root strewn, drop filled wooded trail. The bike was flying, a full sus would of been faster but the connection of a hardtail on natural terrain is just indescribable.
that deflating feeling, like the battery is just running out as the bunny claps the cymbals lethargically one, last, time.
The sensation of every once of power, every hip shift, wrist flick all having a direct and instantaneous output on the bike as you feel the trail through your hands and feet. Looking ahead and working as one with the bike to make the trail as smooth and fast as possible. A full sus may of been faster, but the connection of a hardtail on natural terrain is just indescribable and whilst a well set up full susser can feel like this, those who know, know.
But like all those who “know” know, that deflating feeling, like the battery is just running out as the bunny claps the cymbals lethargically one, last, time. Tubeless fails can happen to the best of us.
Sorting the puncture took more air than I would like and far more time to seal than I had. CO2 carts’ and mini pumps combined as I resorted to walking out of the trail hoping that by shouldering the bike and leaving the pierced section of tyre at the bottom of the wheel would bath it in enough sealant to stem the leak, I hoped. Reaching the landrover track the hills where dark and the sky threatening, the hiss from the rear wheel had ceased but the tyre was almost flat, pumping it back up to road bike pressures and cursing my misfortune I was ready to try pedalling. The air seemed to be holding and some how my phone had signal, I sent a message to my wife asking her to still love me when I got home much later than I had promised and tentatively saddled up and slowly built my speed to make sure things where as they should be.
Soon I was careening down what I had just climbed, skipping over water bars and dancing round rocks, trying to stop myself having to much fun incase the sealant failed and the rear gave way again. Cautions aside I was soon passing Birse Castle and scaring the livestock as I made it back to the carpark. What was meant as a short training ride had escalated into more of a training exercise than anything else, however practising remote servicing in anger is never a bad skill to keep sharp.
That said I got a unexpected personal best on the climb landing a 20 out of 196, and whilst I wasn’t going to be PB’ing the singletrack on the hard tail, I was feeling fast and the bike was running smooth, silver linings and all that.
The summers sun still shines, but the post work ride will soon need some additional lumens as our northern skies darken.
With night riding comes a new sense of your surroundings, the trail becomes a tunnel, peripheral distractions are obscured by the velvet night. Trail features are held in sharp contrast, the head torch both helping and hiding what rolls beneath our tyres. This sharper focus has led me to some PB’s that have taken years in the daylight to topple.
I am comfortable in the dark, I spent years walking my labrador as a teenager in the kind of night that only those in the true countryside can enjoy. I walked in the dark for a few reasons, I realised my night vision quickly adapted to the woodland and I could see perfectly. I didn’t interrupt the natural flow of the woodland by disturbing the fauna with artificial light. And finally the cost of batteries would of eaten away the meagre pay packet from my weekend jobs.
That being said, once accustomed to the low light, you do see some strange things in the night.
On clear nights I saw on regular occasion pinpricks of light amongst the stars moving in controlled ways. Satellites move in a constant arc across the heavens, shooting stars burn a line of brilliant, but soon fading light. I also saw dots of light move then stop, then move in a different direction. Once I saw two lights move toward each other then make 90 degree turns to avoid colliding and then glide away from each other.
In the dark your eyes and mind can play tricks, your black and white night vision is in the periphery of your field of view, the centre of your vision has more colour receptors and therefore needs more light to see clearly. Easy to think that there is something in the corner of your eye that disappears when you turn to get a better look. The mind interrupts the eye with what the mind wants to see.
But sometimes there is no mistaking what you saw.
On a night ride on terrain I ride on a nearly weekly basis I had an encounter with what you could probably call an apex predator. That is, if you are one of those people who know our hills and woods are home to such animals.
Having climbed a farm track I was pushing across a field to access a fire road and some single track on the other side. The L shaped field was usually full of sheep and I thought that it was funny that all the sheep had gathered in the furthest corner from me. Literally as this thought dawned on me I turned the corner in the field, looked up and was met by two pairs of feline eyes glowing back at me from the light of my head torch.
One pair was significantly higher off the ground than the other, we paused. As I took a step tentatively forward the eyes turned and bounded high over Broom and Gorse bushes, over the boundary fence and sat on the fire road behind the field. Turning, they stopped and watched me. Not processing what sort of animal I could have disturbed I kept light in their direction and watched the eyes and carried on walking forwards. The hairs on the back of my neck were fully on end when I found the object of their interest.
A full grown ewe lay dead on the ground, drag marks showed where it had been pulled from concealment from under the Gorse and Broom. The front quarters were untouched, no puncture marks or goring around the neck. The hind haunches where a different matter, a scalpel like precision had removed the skin, organs and a lot of the muscle tissue leaving the open cavity of this poor animal. Now realising that most likely the taller eyes had taken down the sheep, cleaned part of the kill and hidden it, before returning with the shorter eyes that were presumably her young. The adrenaline started to seep into my system.
The eyes stood still, both pairs unmoving, watching me with their kill.
I decided, rightly or wrongly that turning my back on an ambush predator was a mistake, so for some unknown reason, I carried on walking towards them. I didn’t get far before they turned and slunk into the dense under story, I still kept walking towards them, struggled through the Broom and climbed the fence.
The adrenaline was really starting to hit now and I finally decided that a mother cat with young was not something I wanted to disturb. Flight had finally won out over fight, I have never pedalled so hard, for so long in my life. it was only a few kilometers to a road but but it felt like a full length time trial.
Maybe they were pine martins, possibly wild or feral cats. I don’t know, all I know is the size of the gorse and the steep of verge they jump in two bounds whilst clearing the fence means that it was unlikely to be either of those. Things are different in the dark but one thing is certain, something took down that ewe.
Standing silently behind Clachnaben, Mount Battock looks a innocuous little peak behind its more popular sibling.
Not one to be underestimated, it is nearly 200m higher than Clachers and enjoys unbroken views in all directions. Sometimes, all you need is a proper hardtail hoof, a stiff climb and to go 40-50km on the way back down.
On these sorts of rides I like to listen to music, tunes help me keep a good rhythm in the climbs and off the anchors on the way back down. But a playlist on random can be a funny thing, when your going full gas and Belle and Sebastian’s “The Boy With the Arab Strap” comes on, it is a little incongruous to be on the attack, if you know what I mean.
So heres the soundtrack to a ride, a great climb (almost) up a stonking big hill and a fast charge back down.
Often when riding, I get the nagging feeling that even though I’m trying to progress my skills and become a smoother, faster rider. That last year, I was fitter and faster.
Turning the cranks, trying to move forward, deliberately practicing skills and sessioning challenging trails, yet sometimes I feel like I’m just going backwards. Mostly I am sure it is a confidence issue, I lack a certain confidence, not in my ability to ride at a pace but that my current “form” is always weaker than it has previously been.
For me, the doubt was probably always there, but it started to creep in more last year when my wife and I were blessed with our first child. As you can Imagine, towards the end of the pregnancy and for the first few months riding took a back seat with not many miles being clocked and my “form” began to stiffen in my mind.
But how much of these feelings are just that, feelings.
So much of our sport is psychological, intangible feelings of form and flow, yet anything we can measure and quantify needs to be placed within context. The condition of the trails changes with the seasons, meaning comparing any two runs made at different times should only be done with a pinch of salt.
As a tribe, mountain bikers have always tried to go faster, we have always raced, but when your racing yourself we do have some tools to help us measure our progress.
Lets do the math!
Pulling timings from Strava, I plotted the top 10 fastest times for two regular trails in chronological order. The first trail (Roots Manova) is fast, steep and with some proper technical sections to catch you unawares, the second (Log Ride) has less vertical drop and more pedal but still has plenty of teeth to bite you. Both are regulars and I have ridden them a few dozen times each so I know them well.
The trails are both natural in style so have eroded, been dug and have evolved over time. Runs two months apart can be on noticeably different trails, so as I said previously, any comparison has to be with a pinch of salt. All that being said, once the times are plotted chronologically we can see the trend.
The progression is visible as the trend is for the time to decrease, ie for me to get faster, and I would certainly hope so. I have been riding these trails for a good few years, and whilst erosion has made them more challenging, I would hope my skills would have grown to match the evolving trail. I can also see that my recent times, albeit whilst not feeling fully back to pace, are still landing within the top 5 of my times.
You can also see that whilst the trend is saying I’m getting faster, there clearly is a spell in the spring of 2015 when I was faster, on form. Once a level of speed and confidence is felt it is oft remember fondly in the rear view mirror and when the mojo is a little rusty, it can feel like the faster times where faster and you are more off the pace than you actually are.
Strangely, I do feel that I am riding cleaner from a technical stand point, cornering better, braking better, hitting technical sections more smoothly. Just without some of the small amount of speed I once had.
Ultimately even without timing we know when we are riding fast and when we are just cruising. Not every run has to be a “YOLO” run, but it is important not to let the gremlins into your head. Once there, target fixation and doubt creep in, thoughts of past crashes and crashes still to come make you jam on the anchors. And that is when it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, I’m off form so I’ll ride conservatively, I used to be faster here and that drop is bigger than I remember so I’ll just roll it, thus making you slower and stiffer on the bike.
Better to ignore past pace and just enjoy the ride and remember.
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.
The rains have eased, the waters may have subsided, but the trails are still saturated.
The heavy sodden ground can be a blessing and a curse, the falling mercury freezing the ground hard and fast rolling. As the thaw creeps in and the ground softens, traction is easy to find, but too far into the melt and a mud bath ensues – you can’t have it all.
It was a month of regular rides and of building pace, revisiting old trails, riding them in a way that only served as a reminder of lost speed and gains to be made.
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 wasRichards 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.
The trail head gives nothing away
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.
I ride bikes to test myself, make a measure of where I am and to go inside.
To lose myself in the work, the trail, the flow, repeating the rites that make up the routine of riding bikes. Routine it may sometimes be but the anticipation for the ceremony can begin days in advance, the thoughts and lessons from the last observance repeated in my mind.
On the day of the ride wearing clean kit with bottles filled and bags packed I perform the rituals, I check the bike, the tyre pressures, the brakes, some bolts but not all. Turning the cranks I pass the chain rosary like through my hands, applying oil one last time before I depart.
leaving early the dawn yet to fully break around me I enter the woodland, the early light slowly working through the canopy, mature trees buttressing high above the trail-head. The cold has worked into my fingers but my core is warm with the effort of the climb, it is never long before my hands have acclimatized and I become unmoved by the cold.
The climb is fast as winter has frozen the long autumns worth of water and rain in the ground, giving cold sure grip. Breathing slow and deep I take in the woodland, drinking deep from the ever changing yet familiar trails, time disappears as vertical metres are gained.
I run through the little motions that precede descending, clipping in I begin to build momentum, I ease around turns with the bike telling me what the ground feels like beneath its tyres, he lets me know when it is safe to attack and when to be prudent. The silent song of the trail plays loud in my ears, the satisfying silence of a well prepped bike broken only by the whirring click of the freehub and the buzz from tyres compressing through turns.
Breaking through the tree line and back onto the fire road that punctuates the landscape, it marks the end of the single track. Carving to a stop I lean heavy on the bars and breath deep, I pause and let it soak into me.
The fire starting to recede in my legs I clip back in and crank it back up the hill to earn another descent, I climb then descend, climb then descend.
I climb then descend, climb then descend.
The light is growing now as we enter the golden hour, shafts of light break through the canopy creating pools of rippling gold in the under story either side of the trail. The sounds to have started to change, as melt water drips heavy from the boughs above, disturbed by the birds flitting from tree to tree.
Time has again disappeared and the day is starting to dawn for those back indoors, its time to thread a path through fire road and trail back to home. The route possibilities running through my mind I quickly decide on the best use of time and height to return home on singletrack, I clip in once more.
Sometimes words are an inadequate medium. Sometimes pictures are all that you need.
In John Berger’s fabulous book Ways of Seeing, a collection of seven essays, three consist solely of images. These essays are no less detailed or illuminating than the other four which use both words and pictures.
So, here we have the story of a thwarted adventure at Loch Muick, a Munro bagged, and a plan B route taken. But I didn’t need to tell you that, if the pictures do their job properly.
they don’t think they are “proper” mountain biking. They think the guaranteed conditions and sanitized nature of the trails dilutes the challenge, complementing a poor rider’s lack of skill or fitness.
Right or wrong, these people have obviously never been to Fort William and ridden the NevisRange.
Looking through old photos, I am reminded how lucky I was to get out there three times last year; twice racing (1o Under the Ben and Tour De Ben Nevis), and once on a guided ride session and general jolly.
For me, Fort William (not “Fort Bill”) has a special feel about it. There is something in the air or dirt that makes it different from other riding spots. It carries a heritage for our sport that few places, and nowhere else in the UK, can match.
I grew up not far from Fort William, but the sense of home I feel when I return to Kingussie or Aviemore is present here as well; it’s like coming up for air. The town itself can be a bit bleak, with the backs of shop units and hotels bizarrely facing out on to the waterfront with anonymous housing estates fringing the town like so many places, but its somehow different here.
The natural riding from the town is next level, with short, steep tech through to long-and-arduous all being catered for, but we’re talking about trail centres here.
The Nevis Range itself is a little way out of town just past Torlundy, the road snaking its way through mature woodland, the views of Aonach Mòr and Nevis itself obscured by the canopy and clouds. The hill has an elevation gain we’re not used to in the UK, from sea level to the UK’s highest peak in such a short distance gives the hill a monolithic quality.
Ben Nevis above
Fort William below
Ben Nevis rarely seen
The trails here present an embarrassment of riches. Two are accessed by the gondola, whilst below the deer fence among the trees, lies a full network of testing ribbons of singletrack. From the sublime World Cup XC Red and Witches Trails, through to stalwart stages of both the SES and Tour De Ben, to name but a few.
Gondola-accessed trails are a rare thing, the Nevis Centre is the only place in the UK to boast such a luxury, and if you have travelled to Fort William to ride, chances are these two trails brought you: the infamous World Cup Downhill course, and the “red” graded Red Giant XC route.
If you like mountain bikes, then the Fort William stage of the World Cup needs no introduction. The track is legendary, and has been a consistent stage on the race circuit since it was first included back in 2002. The track is as tough on bikes as it is on riders; it will reward you for going big, but will punish you for getting over-ambitious. I once rode it on a 100mm XC HT, it was like descending into the heart of darkness. I am surprised that my hands still work.
Setting off down the other side of AonachMòr, there is the XC red option if the downhill track is a bit too much. If you’re thinking a red route is a groomed Spooky Wood, prepare to adjust your expectations and true your wheels afterwards. Before you embark on the gondola you have to sign a waiver and fill in medical details. This is for the XC red as much as the DH; if they called it an XC orange or a pedally DH, less people would come.
It is both fast and slow, flowing and technical, it is a trail to measure yourself against, to see where you have progressed, and to be humbled by the hill as it shines a light on your weaknesses.
Starting off on a fast sprint where speed comes for free, you all too quickly reach the boardwalk. When dry, the acceleration only increases as you traverse the hillside with the roaring thunder of the boards beneath your wheels. Large slabs of grippy granite, interspersed with stacatto drops and bridges, bring you steeply down the hill before a slight uphill reminds you this is a cross country trail.
Crossing the saddle
The gradient soon drops again with multiple line choices, more drops and bridges. Painted dots on the stone guide the way, but not always on the fastest or smoothest path. Switchbacks punctuate the descent but this alpine trail is devoid of berms. Soon the deer fence approaches as you enter the tree line. Once in the woods, the trail changes character; turns begin to berm, and jumps begin to appear, but the trail still has a sting in its tail if you let your guard down too soon.
In some ways, this trail is my white whale. A clean run has always eluded me, clearing sections that have previously challenged me and being schooled as soon as I got complacent.
I’ll get there one day, maybe next year.
Laggan Loch Beach
Loch Washed Peat
Also, a visit to Fort William is not complete without a visit to Loch Laggan beach on the return journey.
The seasons march on, the contracting of daylight hours mirroring the trees receding sap, falling like the leaves that blanket the trails on which we play. The sap in the legs also slowing as we are ironically in the best condition of the year if not our lives but tired from a year of training and riding, riding and training, the wheel always spinning. There are those who move away to other pursuits waiting out the wet months for fairer weather and dryer times. There are those who change tyres, clothing, pack lights and every autumn relearn how to let a bike slide. There are those who change discipline and count miles rather than meters descended, on the road or on the trail trying to stem the tide of seasonal decline.
On any given Sunday we can be any of those riders, Struggling to find the motivation to maintain our gains, work on our weaknesses or ride trails that challenge us as they will be too loose, too wet, too sketchy, almost too easy to find reason not to ride. These months are long and many in Scotland, if you don’t ride in the wet here then you won’t ride at all, with the same hill frequently having dusty corners and deep scarred muddy ruts that will never fully dry.
Even so when the mist clings to the hills, the air wet with the slow creeping cold that only a dreich autumn day can provide it can be especially tough to step out the door and turn those wheels. It may be canon to road culture but Rule #9 still applies here, it is still acknowledged by people who ride mountain bikes even if they don’t know its cultural significance to our lycra clad cousins. If such a manifesto as The Rules were ever written for mountain bikes it would be a much shorter tome, probably along the lines of like bikes, like beer and don’t be a dick to your fellow rider, but that is an argument for another time.
Once on the trail and turning into the wind the rain gathering on your helmets visor as your eyes narrow to see, goggles and glasses are useless here, pray you don’t get grit in your eyes at the wrong time. Your feet cold but the worst held off by water proof socks, the wet slowly working its way through the outer layers. You know you are the only person on the hill, everyone else is warm and inside, your mind wanders as you try to keep focus as a tough climb is round the corner.
Low cadence, just south of top of the block you keep the pedals moving, forcing yourself to look up trail rather than the ground in front of your wheel, each oncoming turn is a new goal, somewhere else too aim for. Metronomic in movement the grit in the drive train equaling that in the limbs, counting your breaths to clear the mind. The meditation of the climb settling in as the heat in your legs starts to mount, you start to enjoy the work as the flow comes from the ups as well as the downs.
Flow comes in the ups as well as the downs.
Transitioning onto the plateau the deraileaur moves the chain through the block to keep a constant cadence whilst building speed, nursing the changes as any oil has long been washed from the chain. Moving into a descent, heals dropping and moving over the back wheel, keeping your weight low carving turns and letting the bike move beneath you. The flow brought on from the climb still in control of your thoughts.
Reaching home you wrap yourself in the warmth and sanctuary, the ride that is begun is never regretted but if taking those first steps to go for a ride are hard and the conditions poor just remember there is always Rule #5 to help motivate us.