Evening Mass

The long dark is slowly easing.

Each day is noticably a little bit brighter when the end of the working day rolls around. It is by no means time to pack away the riding lights, we have need of all those lumins for a good few weeks, if not months, yet.

But it certainly feels like a corner has been turned, and we can start to remember and feel the excitement of the mid-week ride. The wonder that a few stolen hours of an evening can do for a rider is hard to quantify, but we all feel it. Especially if the spring and summer are as endless as those of 2018.

Heres to the evening ride. Heres to seeing the long shadows, to feeling the setting suns warmth on your back. We’re not there yet, but its close enough to almost touch. Almost.

Riding Mastermind

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.

Mastermind Ballater trail time stravaigingMastermind Ballater trail time MTB enduro.png

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.

Chapeau to the trail faeries.

Mastermind Mountain Biking Enduro singletrack

Lochnagar

“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.

Loch Muick.jpgThe 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.

Looking to the east Cappel Road.jpgThe 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.

Peat PoolsThis 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.

Estate Boundary lines.jpgSitting 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.

EndlessSo 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.

This is why.

Lochnagar Route.png

Death of a Trail

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.

Death of a trail stravaiging crushed berm

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.

Death of a trail stravaiging MTB Scotland

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.

Death of a trail stravaiging land use

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.

Death of a trail stravaiging scotland land access

For further reading on the issues I’ve skirted around here I thoroughly recommend any or all these books.

George Monbiot – Feral

Gaia Vince – Adventures in the Anthropocene

Nan Shepard – The Living Mountain

Fungle Road

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.

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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.

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Its a stiff old climb.

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.

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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.

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Bike wash.

Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride adder
Genuine snakes in Scotland.

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.

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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.

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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.

All in all a great wee section of trail to build into a larger loop, or, if your short of time but want a taste of some wilder riding riding, enough to scratch that itch.

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Scolty/Goauch

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.

Scolty trails.png

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.

Scolty

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.

Goauch

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.

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.

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.


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.

Stravaiging Enduro Scolty February 10

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Glenlivet

“How big is Big Red?”

“Big Red’s pretty big…”

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.

Blue 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.

Glenlivet trail centre blue.png

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

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.

Glenlivet trail centre red tomintoul.png

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.

glenlivet-trail-centre-red-view

“That climb though”

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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!

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2016 – What a Year

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.

Shed Life
Shed time

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

Dawn light over the Cairngorms.

DCIM101DRIFT

Clachnaben Tor

Mount Battock desert Mountain Bike Scotland Stravaiging

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