G&T

Rental bikes, love or hate them, we all need the convenience of them at sometime in our riding lives.

Rental bikes can be a lot of fun, they are like rental cars. Which as we all know, are the fastest cars around as the wear and tear of ragging them silly is not going to come back to bite you. But like all things there are good and bad examples of the breed.

Last year I rode a brilliant rental from Bothy Bikes in Aviemore. It was a well maintained, fast and well thought out bike with a good solid build and a sensible cockpit. Occasionally a rental is an opportunity to ride something different, a new bike (to you) on unfamiliar trails or a chance to try a 29er or a fat bike for example.

At the start of the year whilst visiting family in south Lanarkshire and close to Glentress I found myself with some time free, but without a bike. Alpine bikes do a rental service at GT, so it seemed a good opportunity to sample their rental fleet and get a new year spin in the legs. I thought another run on a 29er HT would be fun as the red and blue trails would suit a bike like the one I rode from Bothy bikes. Unfortunately, this was not like the bike from Bothy Bikes.

Collecting the bike at the Peel centre shop was an fast and easy process, however they had lost my pre-booking so I was charged £5 more for my hire. The bike was a Trek X-Caliber 7, the entry level model, with a build that did nothing to hide its price point.

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Featured a 3 x 9 speed Acera drive train and Shimano M355 disc brakes, with 80mm of travel up front handled by a Rockshox XC30. The finishing kit was all Trek’s in house brand Bontrager and to be fair, was fairly solid. All this weighed in at a mighty 30/31 lbs so it was fair to say this was no feather weight cross country whippet.

Sadly, even though this was a large sized frame and the 2016 model, the cockpit was both long and narrow, with a 90mm stem and sub 700mm bars.

It became quickly apparent that things where not entirely well, this was not a healthy bike and it had had a very hard rental life. If you put down any power the chain would jump the rear cassette when in the middle of the block. Convenient.  When the bike was lent to the right would drop gears and shift down and in a left turn it would shift up. And to top it off, the front brake was as useful as one of those plastic display puddings you get at a chain restaurant. Fully pulled to the bar, I could still pedal uphill.

It was a lazy diesel engine, and a heavy one at that

But I didn’t come here for the climb. Finally topping out at the familiar benches at the start of Spooky Wood, probably the most famous trail in Scotland after the Fort William WC track.

It was my turn to drop in, time to see if this 29er came to life when gravity was assisting. Handling like all the things you expect a middling 29er to be, slow to accelerate and was at its best when it was allowed to carry its momentum. Turns needing initiating earlier, but it was the heavy feel at the crank and the lack of any acceleration that was the most notable. It was a lazy diesel engine, and a heavy one at that.

However this was soon to be over shadowed by a far more uncomfortable sensation.

The tyres, I discovered, had at the very least 60psi in them, presumably to ensure they didn’t puncture. This meant every small stone was communicated to the fork with the tyres lacking composure on even the most groomed sections of trail. The most basic of basic forks, predictably, lacked any small bump sensitivity. So by half way down Super Gee I could feel my knuckles rattling apart. This bone shaker ride quality only got worse the fast you went and eventually I had to slow to walking pace as it was getting acutely painful.

With the ride comfort simulating acute arthritis, I opted to let as much air out the tyres that I dared and head back on blue trails, in hope of saving my hands from becoming useless claws for the rest of the day. While this took the edge of I was reminded of the tyres in every berm and gee out as the squired under the now lack of pressure.

Arriving back at the Peel centre I handed over my rental donkey to the shop mech, who asked how it was. “Rough” was about all I could muster in summery, along with “You might want to look at the front brake”.

Elsewhere

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High Burnside

The winter of 2015 has not been a classic winter,

with record rainfall combined with warm temperatures keeping the snow off the high tops and the rain in the rivers, it has been a disaster for many. Thankfully the worst we and our neighbours have suffered is being cut off with road and bridge closures.

That being said, there is no such thing as poor weather just poor clothing, so with the family packed we set off to Aviemore for the annual New Year trip. After an occasionally fraught journey we safely reached Speyside and found a very different weather picture. The northern Cairngorms were significantly colder and drier with the snow staying on the mountains.

There was standing water in some fields but the flooding was incomparable with what was happening in the southern Cairngorms and Deeside. Importantly for us this also meant the woodlands were mostly dry and frozen solid, not the mud baths of my local trails.

With the drive and weather being what they were, I thought it prudent to leave my bikes at home saving the bearings from a fate worse than death, and to hire a bike there. As it transpired, this was a good plan.

The rental was a Hoot
The rental was a hoot

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.

Loch An Eilien Cairngorms Winter Landscape Scotland Cross Country

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.

Cairngorm Golden light Dawn Winter Snow Clear Sky All Mountain Enduro SCotland

We had planned a dawn raid on Burnside and were greeted with a stunning morning and incredible views. The bikes had been left outside as there was nowhere to keep them indoors, not a problem, but we hadn’t thought about the minus temperature overnight.

My drive train was frozen solid as were the pivots on Jonny’s Zesty, a little persuasion with some hot water and GT85 was in order to get the bikes moving again. This may have delayed play but was a good omen for the trails higher up and a preview of what we could expect.

Having been given a comprehensive trail map by Bothy Bikes we had decided to take a suck it and see approach. We quickly gained height with the fire roads being frozen solid with only the occasional sheet of ice to keep you on your toes.

We reached the first trailhead (which transpired was Richards Down) taking a walk downtrail to look before we leaped. It looked a little water-logged to begin with, but no worse than we expected.

Jonny mcconnell Riding Enduro Trails Lapierre High Burnside Aviemore

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.

Winter woodland frozen landscape

Buoyed by the flavour of the first trail we took a quick gander at the map and headed further up and into High Burnside. The plethora of trails was abundantly clear as we passed trail after trail ending and crossing the fire road as the road climbed higher.

We were surprised by the number and the quality of some fairly substantial park style jumps, they were cunningly hidden and immaculately dug into the edges of the fireroad, a few were hucks too flat, but not what you normally expect to find on a jaunt into natural trails.

Finding the next trail we dropped our saddles and let gravity take over, starting with a similar feel to the first trail, it soon provided a little spice with punchy little ups and exposed rock that was slick with ice. Not to mention the deer skull nailed to a tree at the end of the trail

High Burnside Deer Skull Scotland Mountain bike Enduro XC DH Trail nature
The trails have eyes.

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.

Jonny McConnell Enduro MTB Mountain Bike

Burnside Profile