The wind is uncharacteristically still at the tower.
The heat of the climb is emanating from my jacket and I breathe deeply. In through my mouth then out through my nose, deep in and deep out. I am slowing my breathing and can hear the exhalations loudly in my ears. The usual dog walkers and families burning the Christmas energy are about, but my gaze is elsewhere.
On the other side of the valley the trees are breathing as well.
The warmth of their cover rising in tendrils of mist with every exhalation of their limbs. Thin threads of moisture slowly rising and intertwining in infinitely complex and delicate forms. Barely rising above the uppermost boughs of the plantation, just high enough to meet the cold December air.
The grey sky cracks, and the woodland’s mist illuminates, golden fleece hanging pristenely in the air. The heat from the sun energising and exciting the droplets, they rise and dance. Rapids and eddies of warm and cool air, revealed by the shifting of the subtle density of the woodland’s breath.
The clouds above roll in their own waves, suddenly washing over the crease in the flat grey blanket cover, blinking out the shaft of golden “God ray” light. The mist has risen too high and now begins to dissipate. Like cotton wool in water, it has spread too thin, and slows, and fades.
The whole dance was probably no more than five minutes long. A brief canto in the hills and woodland. One that I would have missed had I been within the canopy, and one I would have missed had I pushed on to get as much riding into the time available. But sometimes, well, most rides, these moments occur. Some are not as delicate as this, but there are always those moments where you can see the land breathe.
They are important. Yet they do not always present themselves obviously, but sometimes, it’s worth stopping just to breathe.
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.
One of the wonders of living in Scotland is the landscape in which we live.
Sometimes, you need to step out and journey into those hills. Riding with a former student I taught, (Callum Grant) we took in a 45km route that sampled flowing natural singletrack, warp speed loose fire roads and a hike a bike up a Munro.
This route was an attempt to tie together some classic trails and descents whilst racking up some respectable distance and climbing. It would be the longest day on the Banshee and a good bedding in for the new fork. It would also be a good indicator to see if the TDB would be fun (or even achievable for me) on the longer travel bike.
Starting in Aboyne we climbed to the start of the iconic Fungle singletrack via New Mill. After this perfect ribbon of Aberdeenshire trail, we climbed up onto the slopes of Baudy Meg. From here it was a rip roaring descent on a loose and ever so slightly fast fire road down into Glentanar.
Then it is a long grind past the tree line to the foot of Mount Keen (the most easterly munro in Scotland), then comes the hike-a-bike. You can try and ride the first part of the climb, but I always decide to try and conserve energy at a fairly early stage and push. Hiking up the rutted, washed out and rock strewn climb lets you fully take in the tech this descent has on offer.
More than once during the hike-a-bike I reminded myself that I’d only ever done this descent on a 100mm HT. The additional squish that my Spitfire offered, would open up a lot more possibilities and line choices, hopefully preventing the need for too much vitamin I by the time I was back down!
The descent was a wild ride, starting from above the Grouse buttes the trail is fast, sandy and with enough rocks to keep you focussed on line choice. Once you get to the buttes though line choice becomes a whole other story. The trail morphs into a delta of washed out ruts, the peat and sand cleaned from the hill side revealing a mine field of loose rock and boulders.
With drops and wheel grabbing holes littering the trail speed may not exactly be your friend, but the front brake certainly was your enemy. Focussing hard on the trail ahead , I was feathering brakes and shifting weight, all whilst trying to not get drawn into a rut that would result in a dead end or a wheel killing drop. Venturing onto the open heather whilst initially appearing smoother, still had some surprises as all it did was disguise the rocks and holes on the hill side.
After a few close calls we rattled over the cattle grid and back on to a wide and rough as you’d like it land rover track. this was a short and simple strip of orange rubble with enough snipper rocks to keep you guessing, a strong tubeless game is a must for this descent.
With the heat of over exerted muscles building in my thighs we were back to the river at the base of the hill. With adrenaline and stoke high, the long drag in became a fast pedal smash back, with both of us surprised at home much elevation we had gained on the approach to Keen.
After reaching the tarmac of the south Deeside road, its a short spin back to Aboyne. The weather had played fair, The trails were fantastic and the Spitfire had done itself proud, another great day playing bikes in proper hills.
Now this has complicated matters as now I have to decide on 160/140mm or100mm XC HTfor TDB, #MTBproblems
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.
Mount Keen is a good day on the bikes, doubly so when taken with the Fungle road.
The loop is a long shift taking in everything from some superb singletrack through to long tough climbs and fast fire road descents. Its has been a tradition for me to do the loop at least once a year for a while now and I’m still undecided whether it is best tackled clockwise or anticlockwise.
Clockwise, you unfortunately climb the absolutely sublime Fungle singletrack but Descend the north side of mount keen, which is as testing a natural descent your likely to find. Anticlockwise you get the ridiculously fast LRT down from Keen to Tarfside with its water bars giving you ample opportunities to boost off of, as well as the glorious ribbon down to Birse Castle finishing off with the Fungle in the downward and correct direction.
They both have their charms
It is a great litmus test for fitness and as training loop for events like the Tour de Ben Nevis, the route being only slightly shorter with essentially the same climb, albeit on a faster course than the Tour De ben’s.
My course record was clockwise as 4:21:22, If I did the Tour at that pace I would be incredibly happy with my fastest Tour time being 5:33:15 in 2014. Frustrating as I knew that race could of been faster had I ran it smarter and keep my food intake up and drank more to avoid cramping, but we’re not here to talk about failed race strategy.
Here are some shots from the loop collected over a few years.