The inuagural No Fuss Intro-(En)duro was held a few weekends back at the hallowed ground that is the Nevis Range. Hallowed however it may be, one thing the ground certainly was, was wet!
The forecast had been for heavy snow fall with a weather warning for the day preceeding the race with only rain and/or snow on the day itself. That however did little to deter over 200 riders from turning up on the day.
The race itself had a bit of a so called mash-up format to procedings. Whilst being an enduro, it was an enduro with a twist. The course was made up of three relatively short stages that all shared the same access road and finished within a stones throw of one another at the car park and a coffee. The twist was that each stage can be run as many times as you wanted with only your best times counting.
The race was pitched as being a race for those who wanted to dip a toe in the enduro waters. But judging from the vans and rigs rolling through the car park, this was not the first rodeo for the majority of those turning out to race. A pre-season race to get through those winter blues.
What the race was however, was destinctly un-racey.
The stages were hard packed and impervious (mostly) to the weather. They were fast flowing blues and red graded trail centre fair. So whilst lacking in technicality, the shortness meant that times were tight, with sub 1:45 times necessary to be at the sharp end.
What the race was however, was destinctly un-racey. With everyone able to repeat stages and socialise at the cafe created a really relaxed atmosphere. Groups could split up and run different stages but meet up again for a catch up at the bottom. Mechanicals were a non-issue, sure you lost one run, but you were back at the car to get it fixed and go again, day saved.
The weather was to put it politely, absolutely horrendous. Vearing from rain to snow to stong winds to sidways rain. But again, you could wait out 20 minutes to get warm and get back at it without penalty. Your dibber could only store 9 runs, which again, you could easily clock up in the time allowed without breaking yourself.
Enduro racing is probably at a bit of a tipping point. Racing a whole series is an expensive affair both financially and in time commitment. For a race series to continue it needs fresh blood. It needs new riders to enter the races, even if they are only trying one or two, an organiser can’t rely on repeat racers to sustain. That is why I think single weekend festival style events are so popular, its a lot easier to justify one big blow out weekend than four or five smalelr ones across a year.
And that is where events like this come in. Not sure if your up to it but want to try it? Then this is a gateway event. Something to let people get a taste for runs between the tape and hopefully, they will come along to a national race or two. The format has potential, but might be hard to roll out at some venues. But as for relaxed racing experiences, this one like the rain, was horizontal.
It’s also been a while since my last ride there so it was worth a visit to see what’s what.
Most of the adjustments can be filed under “estate maintenance“, and is mostly clear felling. Whilst this does open up the views in the top sectors of the red and blue, it also opens it up to the wind. These trails really suffer from the wind, and it took a lot of pace and energy out of you when it wasn’t at your back.
It also made some of the jumps early on in the red a little dicey, blowing me clean off the track at one point. Now I may have just have been unlucky with the weather, but I suspect there is never a day without a stiff breeze up top.
More excitingly, down at the hub cafe the changes are much more positive with the addition of a new skills park. The feature rich little skills park works as a great compliment to the already excellent pump track.
This development, along with the felling and trail maintenance work is really encouraging to see. All too often when you return to a trail centre a year apart, you find wear and tear, not new features and resolved drainage issues.
All in all, Glenlivet might not be to everyone’s taste, but it is always worth the visit in my view.
A destination trail, a single ribbon of singletrack sublime enough to make any amount of journey time worth while.
Mastermind and the Ridge are to be found on opposite sides of the Dee next to Ballater. The Ridge is a long rugged natural trail that goes steep once it re-enters the treeline. Mastermind however, is a different kettle of fish and a trail worthy of almost any length of drive.
A lovingly crafted ribbon of singletrack of the highest order, steep and fast, technical yet flowing. Sinuous and supportive turns roll through the trees, with hero lines booting over the berms for those willing (or skilled enough) to hit full send. A true test of skill and bravery, this trail is one to measure yourself against, a litmus test of a trail and one well worth the pilgrimage.
“Eye and foot acquire in rough walking a co-ordination that makes one distinctly aware of where the next step is to fall, even while watching sky and land.”
Whilst I was grateful for how true this was, I was also acutely aware that this would be a mighty foul place to twist or break an ankle. It was at this point that I felt my foot give way and the strength fail in my ankle, bugger.
Lochnagar, an iconic hill and one of the most popular and recognisable in the southern Cairngorms. Not so much a peak, as a promontory that juts from a jagged ridge line into its equally impressive coire. Whilst being the main objective of the days ride, it is in fact one of five munros that can be bagged by foot or bike from this route. Whilst the stats suggest a big day, the numbers can be misleading as to just how big, with more than 1000m of climbing over the 30km of frequently tough ground.
The day started on the shores of Loch Muick, the weather gods had blessed and cursed me with blue skies and a blistering temperature to match. I had ample provisions and camera gear and was prepared for a big day on the hill.
Rolling out of the car park the route took me along the southern shores of Loch Muick, I covered quick ground before the wall of the Capel road climb came to dominate my field of view. This stiff and completely dried out sand dune of a climb is an early introduction in what to expect higher on the plateau.
The loose trail surface and record breaking drought had conspired to rob me of any and all climbing traction. But with a mix of pushing and zig-zagging up the unforgiving trail I was rewarded with views over the plateau and towards Mount Keen in the east.
The deep sandy nature of the trail persisted as I gained more elevation, the deer grass slowly encroaching into the centre of the trail, rooting it to more solid ground. The drought had also wrought its withering work on the peat bogs. Normally a broken collection of dark black pools would greet you, the depths hidden by the darkness of the peat filtered water. Even with the weeks without rain, I was still surprised to find them dried up. A cracked skin of white glistening sand and gravel reflecting the light where the ripples on the water’s surface should have been.
This made me aware that burns to refill my water would be few and far between and that even with the heat, I would need to be careful with my fluids, mindful not to over exert or over heat myself.
After a few quick kms I passed the wind battered pony hut that marks the start of the climb towards Broad Cairn. The initial strides of the climb are on a stretch of newly resurfaced walkers’ path. With large steps and water bars it was very tempting to turn around and rip back down, if it wasn’t for the fact I would have to climb back up again.
I’ve tried this route before, a good few years ago but lack of time and high winds turned me back, that attempt ended at Broad Cairn. I am sure a more efficient route through this munros boulder field exists, I’m sure one time I will find it, this would not be that day. The trail melted into a morass of increasingly large boulders, the route through fading into the chaotic yet perfectly balanced hillside. I didn’t want to climb over the top, the map told me a path around the shoulder was there, I thought I had found it, I had in fact found a deer path.
With the bike shouldered across my back I methodically picked my way, one step following the next. The desiccated moss and lichen squeaked unnaturally as I walked over it, the land was more of a desert than normal. With my mind beginning to wander I remembered a passage from Nan Shepard’s “The Living Mountain” that I had read the day before.
“Eye and foot acquire in rough walking a co-ordination that makes one distinctly aware of where the next step is to fall, even while watching sky and land.”
Whilst I was grateful for how true this was, I was also acutely aware that this would be a mighty foul place to twist or break an ankle. It was at this point that I felt my foot give way and the strength fail in my ankle, bugger.
Sitting on the moss and lichen covered slope I looked at the coire below, shapes moved and gathered. A large herd was rallying to move on, they had no doubt caught my scent on the warm breeze and felt that my presence was too great a risk. The grace and speed that they covered ground with was beautiful to watch. The deer here are used to gamekeepers stalking and rifle cracks echoing off the cliffs from higher ground. Yet had I not slipped I would not have seen them, and if I had kept moving they would have remained still. To see them was to disturb them.
Awaking myself from my reverie, I took some vitamin I with flapjacks and pressed on. The elation I felt when I finally contoured the shoulder and saw the small marker cairn signalling the path, pure joy. Building momentum I joined the line of cairns together, the ibuprofen had kicked in and I was back on the bike and flying across the short alpine grass.
Making up for time, the stretch over Cairn Bannoch to beneath Carn an Sagairt Mor was a euphoric fast blast. Smooth trail, short grass and glacial smooth rocks for booting off of. This is why.
So far I had seen no-one since the shores of Loch Muick, but it was now late enough in the day for the hillwalkers to have made it this far in. Small patches of coloured goretex came and passed cordially moving aside allowing me to keep rhythm.
The tempo slowed and after crossing the first hint of running water on the high tops it was on to possibly the stiffest climb of the day. An unrelenting push up the western flanks of Carn a Choire Bhoidheach, it was part of the price for the final descent, re-gaining elevation and being rewarded with yet more sublime views.
A brief spell of implied, if not real, exposure around the edge of the coire cliffs above Loch Nan Eun delivered me to the final push up Lochnagar itself. Steeling myself for the main descent of the day, I could see the trail precipitously falling from view. I had heard rumours of the Glas Allt, a long unforgiving and at times, arguably, the most technical trail this side of Scotland. Hoping the Ibuprofen would hold I saddled up and dropped in.
The rock strewn trail was fast yet deceptive, drops and wheel sized hollows lay hidden from view until you were on top of them. The Glas Allt is famous for its staircases, huge unshaped rocks wrenched into place. The first of these was intimidating as I rolled in, a feeling that only increased the further I went down. Speed control was vital, a little too much or too little of either brake at the wrong point would lead to a high consequence crash.
With my heart rate fully elevated and adrenalin coursing it was on to the first more open high speed stretch. Water bars measured in feet not inches started to punctuate the trail. I tried to pre-hop or use a natural lip to boost across these bars but I started to come up increasingly short, the strength in my ankle started to fail and the pain increase with each loading of the bike. This already long descent was going to take a whole lot longer than expected.
With the whispers starting to become audible in my head, caution and stiffness started to enter into my riding. I was aware that I was riding defensively and features well within my limits were stalling me in a way that they wouldn’t have on any other ride. Breathing deep I knew I would not clean this descent. The main techfest was yet to come and the way I was riding would make the water fall towards the shores of Loch Muick too great a risk. Sometimes caution is the better part of valour.
When I reached the falls the pain in my ankle was constant and quite intense, with that and my head not in the game I dismounted and carried the bike back to the treeline. There is nothing more soul destroying than a downhill hike-a-bike.
Back within the comforting blanket of the treeline a fast spin delivered me back along Loch Muick to the car park. With a day spent amongst proper mountains, returning both sunburnt and hollowed out, yet with memories and emotions that will remain long after the body has recovered.
Land-use, a polorizing and often controversial topic of conversation.
One person can look at a hillside and see the epitome of rugged, untouched natural landscape. Another will look upon the same slope, and see a burnt, over exploited desert, perpetuated for one exclusive activity at the expense of all others. Some will just see heather.
How you view the land is coloured and predetermined by many factors. These notions of what the land “should be” rather than what it pragmatically is, tends to skew our assessments. We see the land as we wish to see it, rather than for what it is. This is frequently more convenient for us than accepting the often hard truths about our environment and the extent that we have altered it.
If we look at Scotland for example, in all of its rugged beauty and splendor. We must first accept the fact that the “country side“, in its entirety, is a man altered landscape.
If you measure the land in convenient terms, with a short enough timescale. You will find pockets of wild ground, ground that is self determining in terms of the flora and fauna it supports. But extend that timescale backwards by a few decades and you will find human actions, of often industrial activities, shaping what the land could and does support.
These industrial activities are often so long established, that they are perceived as part of the natural order. The land MUST be managed. Farming, shooting and clearcutting are all heritage industries on a man inhabited landscape. They have an impact on the shape of that land, but they are not naturally occurring systems. A forester given the right conditions does not populate a woodland in the same way as a Crossbill or a Blaeberry bush. These industrial activities are decisions made on a societal and governmental level. No one likes the slate being scraped clean by clearfetting, but we as a society allow it to occur, we pick other battles to fight.
To a certain extent that is OK, as long as those decisions are made from an informed standpoint, rather than one based on the pitfall that afflicts much of conservation policy. That which can best be described as “when I were a lad“. The approach that holds the landscape in stasis against a measure set by one generation previous.
This antiquated methodology works against natural processes and inhibits areas where growth can be naturally sustained. It props up parts of an environmental mix which cannot be sustained at a that level without continued intervention.
Now this is a gross over simplification of the complex web of environmental factors on the ground and the people and policies trying to do good things by it. But like the spider silk heavy with morning dew, the threads holding this system up are weighed down and prone to breaking.
“The Forestry” is the enemy after all. To ask permission is to be told no.
Now I thought this was a MTB blog? well it is, but we as a group have a vested interest, as well as an impact on that landscape. We are a user group with our own agenda and view point, just like all of the other groups working on and with the same landscape. We may be small and less well established than some, but that does not mean we are immune to viewing the landscape through the lens of our own biases.
This is no less true in Scotland, a place often held as an example of progressive land access law and tolerance towards those who view the landscape with less than traditional eyes. This subject can (and has) filled many books and long essays, I am by no means trying to explore the topic in depth in this post, I am just looking to discuss it and how it pertains to us as a tribe.
In Scotland we have some very permissive land access laws. Essentially it allows anyone to have universal access to all land and inland waters (with a few noted exceptions) within Scotland. These rights and responsibilities are outlined in some detail within Scottish Outdoor Access Code. Whilst it is broad in scope, it cannot cover every eventuality. But it essentially boils down to these core principles.
Respect the interests of other people;
Care for the environment;
Take responsibility for your own actions.
Now Scotland has a strong culture of wild trails, trails dug illicitly and without the permission of the landowner. We also have a strong network of trail centers (bike parks), albeit more centralized within the borders.
They have taken up occupancy, and the understory beneath the pines is their garden.
Now one could say that a symptom of the trail centers not being evenly spread is the proliferation of these, now quite large and mature in some cases, wild trail networks. The requirement for riding locations is there, but not being met due to a three hour round trip for two hours riding. So, a group of stereo-typically male riders in their early twenties go scratch a line through the woods.
The problem here is, they are not taking into account the presence of that Crossbill or Blaeberry bush. The local environmental factors concerning the flora and fauna that may be disturbed, the suitability of the soil or the long term plans for that area of forest are not considered. “The Forestry” is the enemy after all. To ask permission is to be told no.
The permissive nature of land access also lends itself towards taking emotional ownership over a landscape. I ride a network of trails from my house on a regular basis, I do not own the land, I have never spoken nor could I tell you the name of the person/s who own it. But they are my trails. This emotional ownership, in my view, further encourages the trail builder, they have taken up occupancy, and the understory beneath the pines is their garden.
Ownership and competition do not in my experience, lend themselves to co-operation. The Forestry Commission tend to allow these trails to exist, generally because they do not possess the resources to stop them. So when the Forresty move onto a site, resentment on both sides can take hold. For example, I know of no rider, myself included who has ever paid attention to a sign warning that tree felling is taking place. Lack of respect increases the lack of cooperation, or so it would seem.
Trail centers are complex and expensive beasts to establish, and they need to be good to draw riders away from the wild natural trails.
In the north east where I am based there are at least 4 trail center schemes at different scales of ambition and stages of development trying to do just that. A trail center not only centralizes the impact that riders have, giving the un-armoured surfaces of wild trails time to recover. It also gives the opportunity to formalize and quantify the impact that a user group has on both the landscape and its surrounding economy. But it needs time and money. Trail centers still affect a landscape, just like any other industry based on using the land. But it is in a managed and planned fashion, the soil and Crossbill, the longevity and the Blaeberry are taken into account.
I am not advocating a boycott on wild trails, not at all, that would be both madness and impossible to police. Just remember the next time you are on the hill or in the woods that you are but one piece of a puzzle that we cannot understand. That you have an impact, both positive and negative. And as such, the next time you see a harvester driving through your trail be sad for that ribbon of singletrack, but don’t be angry.
For further reading on the issues I’ve skirted around here I thoroughly recommend any or all these books.
Chosen by NETCO as the proposed site of their ambitious trail and adventure sports centre.
Durris has a compact, yet challenging network of trails. Infamous among local riders for being perpetually slow at drying after any wet weather, yet I only ever seem to make it during the autumn and winter months.
So with this all in the background and with the recent fast rolling freeze giving way to the thaw, it was time to revisit Durris and take stock of the trails.
Nestled far enough of the normal drag Moray Monster trails doesn’t get the rep it deserves.
Outside Fochabers and set over two hills with a road running between them, the trails are a superb mix of flowing jump and berm filled blue, red and technical blacks. Whilst having a tight natural character, the loops themselves aren’t too long. So a few laps of the red or a mix of all three trails is perfectly achievable in a few hours riding.
The trails are in a really good state of repair, probably partially to do with the lack of traffic compared to other remote centres like Wolftraxs.
The Lord of the Rings themed red has a few big features like some drops and beefy sized kickers, but they are so well made and with clear landings that they are very easy to send. Alongside the red is a sadly short, steep, northshore infested orange “freeride” trail. The flipside is that the short nature of the trail means pushing back up is pleasingly quick.
The other hill has a a blue figure of eight loop and the infamous Gully Monster trail. The Gully Monster is a very different beastie to the other trails on offer and I cant really think of any other trail like it. Whilst being a fairly fast and undulating red, the thing that sets this trail apart is its exposure.
Tightly hugging the side a decidedly steep gully, the trail is flanked by thick ferns and blae berries hiding both the precipitous drop and the trail ahead. The trail may be mostly flowing narrow singletrack, but there are a few steep chutes and rooty sections with little room for error which keeps you on your toes.
So in short, its a rad little trail centre. It has a very distinct flavour and is well worth the trip over other bigger names if your looking for something a little bit different from your trail centre this winter.
On a recent ride I went to find a local legendary trail called Heart Break Ridge.
A long sinuous line flowing singletrack cutting over a open hillside along a wide ridge before dropping steeplly into the tree line for a rooty technical finale. Or so I was hoping for.
Setting off up a burner of a fireroad climb, the elevation grew quickly, as did the wind chill. Hoping to get some higher routes before the winter settled in, I hadn’t fully appreciated the conditions higher up.
With the climb put to bed, I found frozen trails and high cross winds. The climb was followed by an undulating plateau of frozen trail, a sugar dusting of snow covered the frozen puddles. The wind chill steadily grew, and I regretted not digging out all my winter riding gear as my feet began to really feel the chill.
Reaching the start of Heart Break Ridge the cross wind was what you could call, bracing. Remembering caution is the better part of valour, I took a different descent to get into the tree line faster and down into the ley side of the hill.
The Panannich DH was still a good trail, but having seen the ribbon of frozen single track that is Heart Break ridge extending into the distance. I just want to go back in better weather and get that trail under the belt!
Heading south from the Fungle singletrack is the Fungle Road itself.
The old drovers road connects Deeside in the north with Tarfside in the south and is usually part of a larger loop. I have a favourite section, from Birse Castle up to the edge of the estate. It is a real leg burner of a climb but one fast descent coming back down.
I love my shins.
The little touchs.
I normally take the Fungle on my XC whip as the climb can be a little, intimidating, it is the sort of constant grind that benefits from a lithe XC machine.
But I thought I’d take the big bike for a change, not being on the gas for the climb was a good plan. The weather God’s looked on me kindly and the temperature was around 17-19 degrees. Pretty toasty for early April.
The start of the climb is literally at the end of the road, the tarmac ends and the dirt begins. You quickly cross the sheep pastures then the landscape begins to change in character to a more rugged austerity as the hillside grow in front of you.
The sparse heather covered hillsides hide burns that cross the trail, they grow and recede with the rains, thankfully they are never more than a quick rinse for the bike.
Once that climb has been defeated its time to make your way back down. From the top you can climb further and explore other back country options that take you into Glen Tanar or down the shooting estate fire road into Tarfside.
Or, do like I did, turn around and burn straight back down the way you came.
Being a historic walkers path your not going to find berms and lips to send off, but if your out here your not looking for that kind of riding experience. What you will find though is a very, very fast trail, with plenty of ruts and drainage ditches to get playful on.
Plenty to play on.
The 5km+ of descent quickly fly by, and all to quickly, the heather fades away with the grassy pastures on the boundary of farm and heath coming back into view.
Everyone has a local spot, it might need a drive to get there but it is their default place for riding.
For many people these are local woods or, if they are lucky, a trail centre. There aren’t any full sized trail centres in Aberdeenshire, but that doesn’t mean we are lacking riding spots. My local spot is Scolty, or Hill of Goauch (depending on what side you start on).
Because it is my local, I never really think to write ride or trail reports about it as a location for riding, but that is doing it a disservice. I have written posts on other topics that were inspired by riding there, but never about the hill itself.
So here is a long overdue trail review of one of Aberdeenshire’s more popular spots.
On the outskirts of Banchory, nestled between the river Dee to it’s north and farmland to it’s south. Scolty is a large woodland covering two main hills with a heath land saddle spanning the two.
People have been riding bikes here for a very, very long time, and the wealth and breadth of the trail network is testament to that and the years of work by local builders. The trails mostly converge on two hills, Scolty and Hill of Goauch.
Radiating out form the tower at the top, this hill has arguably the greater density of trails. Historically this is where the downhill trails were and they can be broadly characterised by being both short and steep. That is not to say that variety cannot be found here too. From trails that are flowy crafted berms through to natural thin flat cornered ribbons, you can even find big drops and hucks all on this modest sized hill.
Downhill from The Tower
Nice bit of tech
Goauch is a little further out and has trails that have a subtlety different feel, if I was introducing someone to the hill I would say that this side had the “enduro” trails. The trails start to get longer, tighter and more ruddered in. There is some properly technical riding to be found here.
Hill of Goauch “XC” trails
The trails tend to have a good mix of flat out speed, awkward slow technical corners and with plenty of sneaky drops and chutes. In the wet the place can be a real warzone but in the dry the riding is superlative.
Tree Hugging Hippy
Steep roll in
Cheeky wee down
Descent times start to creep up as well, with some trails having deviations or can be tagged together to get upwards of 8 to 10 minutes of down time. That being said, the more down, the more you have to climb back up. There are also plenty of features all over the hill to scare yourself on and get the adrenaline pumping. Something that the builders have been really creative in joining up in places.
Looks innocent at the start
The thing that unites all these trails is their full gas nature, Scolty and Goauch are not a place for cruisy trails. This is not somewhere you ride if you want a blue or straightforward red, here you need to keep your wits about you and the best thing to do is to commit and attack.
This makes it a great venue for progression, my riding progressed faster than at any other point once I moved to within 15 minutes riding of these woods. I crashed more, broke more components, learned more about terrain and bike set-up in one year, than I had in the previous three.
Trails I have ridden regularly for 4 years still surprise me, the natural shifting and evolution that typifies natural riding keeps things exciting and unpredictable. A day without a botched run or at least a near miss is a day when your not riding fast enough. Once you can consistently and cleanly ride a trail, there is always another, more technical line just down the fire road to keep the challenge high. The satisfaction of getting a PB (sorry Strava) is so great as to keep you coming back thirsty for more and to try and finally clean that trail that has been scaring you.
This was the paraphrasing of a conversation between myself and one of my riding buddies. Joe was selling the virtues of Bike Glenlivet and how it was worth the round trip, well aware that travel time eats into ride time. This would be the first proper ride on the new Banshee Spitfire, a pretty special present from my wife for my 30th birthday and I was itching to give it a proper test ride.
“Its different to everywhere else, and it will be dry”
Stop, you had me at dry.
Bike Glenlivet is one of Scotland’s most recent trail centres, nestled in the Glenlivet estate’s hills and woodlands near Tomintoul, it is somewhat a unique beast. featuring all elements we have come expect of a fully fledged trail centre, you will find a cafe in the Coffee Still, pump track, 24 hour toilet and car parking for those early starts and late nights and two graded loops.
The feel of the trails and the exceptionally long nature of the red’s descent are the things that set this place apart. Unlike centres like Glentress or Laggan, where you climb to the top and then a series of descents linked by fire roads take you back to the carpark. Here most of the reds descending has been condensed in one, long, trail.
Everything starts on the blue, the trail consists of a 9km loop of fast seamless flow interspersed with some single track and fire road climbs.
Everything you want from a blue is here, but it is also a sneaky trail. You very quickly build up some proper speed, which you only realise when you over cook a turn. Tune out for a second and before you know it your hauling 10km faster than your comfortable with into a surprisingly flat turn. People talk about the fireroad climbs but they are a very small part of what can be a very fast trail, a hot lap being between 30 – 35 minutes.
Big red is an interesting red, being honest, the trail is not that technically demanding. It is essentially a slightly narrower (in places) blue trail with well sign posted red and black features. It could be argued that the red grading comes from the length and physicality of the trail, not the technicality of it.
You start on the blue trail, tackling the first climb and flowing down the other side before diverting onto the red. Your on the blue just long enough to get warmed up before the real climbing begins.
A mixture of singletrack and smooth fireroad brings up up to the top of the red, its a persistent 5km+ climb with a nasty kick right at the end.
The usual banter and abuse were dished out on the climb to pass the time. A stand out moment was when Charlie tried to shift me into a harder gear. With perfect timing, I reached out and gave his rear brake a little nudge. Almost in slow motion, Charlie arched backward and landed in a mossy ditch. Thankfully he was unhurt and requiring a lift home I was free of reprisals, although the thought of revenge helped power me up the climb.
Upon reaching the summit the wind had really picked up, none of us wanted to hang around for too long, plus 6km+ of singletrack descent awaited us.
“That climb though”
Starting out on open hillside, you build momentum into the first of many drops, it is so smooth that you instantly gain confidence and want to see how fast you can push it. once you enter the trees the speed keeps on coming, with rollers and jumps to keep your momentum on.
The trail soon reveals that it is a tale of three chapters with the middle third having a far more pedally character after the fast flowing opening verses. The final third kicks back into the fast flow, with whoops, rollers and tight little compressions to throw yourself into. This culminates in a final set of drops that are the biggest on the trail and spit you out at rocket ship speeds into the final few corners and rock gardens.
A full 15/16 minutes of singletrack joy comes as a slight shock to the system when we (and our legs) here in scotland are used to far shorter descents before finding the fireroad again. After recovering and getting some gels and snacks down you the temptation to go back up to do it all again is pretty strong. If you do, just remember about the other climb back to the carpark and make sure you’ve got enough Scoobie snacks to make it back without bonking!
(depending on what side you approach the hill), is a hidden gem in the southern edges of Aberdeenshire.
From the steep old growth of Drumtochty Glen, to the tight dark stands on the Auchenblae side, this hill has a lot of character and range of trails on offer. For the committed downhill rider and enduronaut the Drumtochty slopes provide plenty of challenge and speed for those willing to tame the gnar. On the mellower side of things, the tight trails of the Auchenblae side are woven over and through deep furrows cut between dense crops of pine trees, on ground that is apparently impervious to rain.
The fire road climbs snake lazily upwards and is dispatched without much fuss allowing the main business of descending to soon begin. The “trail” singletrack on the Auchenblae side of the hill provides singletrack with a character quite different to offerings elsewhere in the region. The dense growth of harvest timber has led to quite a barren understory, that is both fast draining and thick with the loam created by years of shed pine needles.
These trails are short fun blasts that reward the committed who work their body english as much as they turn the cranks. They can be linked together to create long flowing runs that build in pace the further you run, before breaking the tree line and climbing back up the fireroad for another blast on the roller coaster.
The impossibly weather proofed trails have a deep soft loam that rips into high roster tails as you bob and weave between the furrows. Yet with all that grip, sniper roots still lurk in the shadowy corners waiting to grab a wheel out from under you and set you pin balling from side to side down the trail.
Then there are the longer newly dug steep “enduro” lines. Off camber, with steep chutes and rooty drops. The newer lines are best attempted with repeat viewings, as once on the bike blind drops always appear larger than they are in reality.
You can’t simply steam roller these trails if you want to go fast.
The proximity of the trails to each other and the modest climbs of the hill may lead you to expect a less demanding character of singletrack. Yet a trail can be as challenging as you make it, with precision and bike handling levels increasing dramatically the faster you go. You can’t simply steam roller these trails if you want to go fast.
It may not have the number and length of the trails at other local spots like Scolty, but this is one hill not to be overlooked.
It was the Saturday evening after his World Championship winning run, they had T-Shirts for sale at the Mondraker pits. Danny Hart on the Front and Redcar Rocket it on the back, they were pretty special and very cool, only being for sale there and then. Thing is, I wasn’t in Val De Sole.
I saw a post he put on his facebook page briefly mentioning the T-Shirts, I thought I would join in with the social media storm and send Danny a short message wishing him luck and cheekily asking if I could buy one of the shirts. I thought little of this and did not expect a reply.
To my complete surprise, a few days after his win, he replied.
I like many other fans watched the live feed with building anticipation and excitement, it was a hard track, one that had taken out some of the sports very best. With rider after rider coming down the hill the tension grew and would surely get to our man. Then Harts run came, the beeps counted down and he threw himself at the course. Equal parts perfect precision and on the absolute ragged edge, it was a run that you couldn’t believe was happening. Then when he crossed the line and the light went green, a cool shirt became a prized piece of memorabilia. And to my complete surprise, a few days after his win, he replied.
A few quick messages and a Paypal transfer later and one of the shirts was mine. Now this might not seem like a big deal, it is after all, just a T-shirt but it is symptomatic of a few things in our sport, both very very good and really quite bad.
The level of access between the top players of our sport and the normal rider is almost unparalleled. Events like the Fox Hunts and Peaty’s Steel City Down Hill race are a prime example of this, what other sport can a normal rider rock up to and race the current world champion and other top tier legends? The barriers between the public and the pro’s are so small as to almost not exist. You you can visit the pits and watch the wrenches and support crew prep the racers on race morning.
Now DH is like the F1 of mountain biking and when you compare the access between them it is quite startling, but truly refreshing and something that our sport should be applauded.
And sadly, me buying a shirt from Hart via Facebook is also practically like buying merchandise from the lead singer of a band outside of a small venue gig, except he is the reigning world champion. The fact that our sport is, relatively speaking, cash poor when it comes to the pros salaries and bonuses is a travesty. Even for the biggest names. Now Hart wasn’t selling the shirts to put some money in the meter, he does it because he a humble down to earth guy who takes time for his fans and supporters. But many racers sell similar wares because they need to fund the vans drive to the next round of the season.
I would hope that if downhill was ever televised again and money came into the sport, that it would filter down to the riders, and that the velvet rope of other sports (and cycling disciplines) wouldn’t descend between rider and fan.
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.