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.
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.
Problem is, most of them are rubbish. The video is shaky, the image blurred and you can’t quite see enough of the action. If worn in the classic chest mount there is either too much bike and hairy knee going on and not enough trail or its shaking your retinas loose just watching it. If worn in the UCI bothering helmet mount, it is smoother, but still not great. The trail is flattened out by the effect of being higher and you don’t feel as “in the bike” as you do with the chest mount.
It doesn’t matter how well your suspension is set up either, unless it is a groomed blue trail, that video is going to be shaking like the camera is going through the DTs.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, enter the wearable gimbal. This little gadget mounts between the camera (GoPro Hero Session in this example) and the chest mount.
It uses a giroscope and 3 brushless motors to compensate for body movement keeping the camera stable and the horizon level, which in theory, results in smoother footage.
Does it work? The difference is night and day when comparing the two traditional mounting options against the gimbal footage. It took me a few rides to get mounting the gimbal dialed in so it was stable enough to work effectively, but once secure it works really, really well!
Would I recommend a gimbal to a GoPro user? Yes and no, they are expensive bits of kit, effectively doubling the price of a GoPro setup. So think carefully, if you are getting serious about your video then absolutely, if you just like filming the odd ride, I’d maybe spend my money elsewhere.
I’ll be documenting some notable trails on myYouTubechannelusing this set up so make you you give the channel a subscribe to see the outcome.
200+ Miles in and the Spitfire has lived up to the promises made by modern geometry.
Thought I would share my thoughts on this bike and have a wee bike check of the build and how its holding up. To summerise, the frame is amazing and well balanced now the fork is behaving. Starting to build pace and confidence, but its still a newish bike to me and I don’t put in as many miles as I did when I got its predecessor.
That said I rarely get less than a top 3 time on any given trail I ride on it, not half bad.
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.
Loamy moss and pine needles rooster tailing off your back wheel, endless grip and at the end of another great ride, a clean bike to go back into the shed.
Then as the nights draw in and the lights come out, the trees shed their foliage and stop drawing water from the ground. The heavens open more often, the mercury is a little lower on the scale and the ground starts to hold a little bit more water than it had a few weeks before.
It happens every year and every year it catches you out, there is always at least one ride where you ride like a total squid as you have forgotten how to surf the slop. Winter riding, (or Autumn, Winter and Spring riding in Scotland) is a particular type of wet, and the wetter the better once the ground starts to get slick.
A change of rubber is usually when things start to click again, the spikes come back out and the wheels start digging for grip. Once confidence in your grip starts to return (slowly) you remember braking works differently in the slop. In that, you brake less and have to look harder for safe braking points. The soft mud is scrubbing speed off your wheels for you anyway.
there is a special kind of panic reserved for when both wheels try and drift in different directions
Your body movements have a different effect as well and you work harder to keep momentum. Or more accurately, you let the bike move around more and your body has to instinctively react to counter the bikes sudden wiggles in the mud.
Then there are the unexpected drifts, moments when the back end just lets go and makes a pretty good attempt to overtake the front wheel. The front end likes to wander as well, cutting loose and sliding downhill on both wheels is hilarious fun. That said, there is a special kind of panic reserved for when both wheels try and drift in different directions.
The important thing is to stay loose, the moment you panic and get tense is the moment your over the bars and you get muddier than you already where.
The winter is when I usually remember how to properly control a bike and when I usually notice some improvement in my skills. The pace may be slower but I love this kind of riding, I find myself hollering and laughing out loud to myself as I drift into a deeply ruddered corner hoping to hook into it.
I love hardtails for this kind of riding, a simpler bike for slower, more comical pleasures, less linkage to clean out as well.
2016, what a year, memorable, for all the wrong reasons, and some good ones too.
A years worth of riding, starting with a frozen Aviemore and a flooded Aberdeenshire through to dust and sun (honest). It was a year of extremes and contrasts, political upheaval and tragic loss, but for all of it the riding and escapism from all that bad news was always there.
It was also a year when I enjoyed 6 months of parental leave being a full time dad with my wee boy which was just the greatest time ever. Coming up in 2017 I have some exciting projects which I’m looking forward too and will share more on when the details are confirmed.
Roll on 2017, hope the world chills out a bit, but if it doesn’t you know were to find me.
Feedback, that sense of feeling the trail, the bike instantly responding to your every input.
Every half turn of the cranks propelling you forwards, the tyres telling you what they find through your hands and feet. The wheels turn and the tyres buzz, the frames silence only broken by the occasional chink of chain on stay.
I love hardtails, I have two of them, their characters may be totally different but the solid connection between rider, the trail and the sensation of riding that they provide are the same.
Convention says you should ride a hardtail first. Learn your bike handling skills before getting a full suss or risk having your lack of abilities hidden by a more capable bike. Whilst I agree with this to a point, riding a hardtail will teach you bike handling, and how to ride a hardtail whilst riding a full suss will teach you bike handling and how to ride with suspension.
Hardtails teach you to be smooth, to refine your line choice and control your speed. Riding smooth can be fast, but the smoothest line is not always the fastest line.
Full suss teaches you the fastest line, how to not brake and to trust the suspension. Trusting the bike to do its job is not always a short coming of skill. It takes confidence and bike handling to hit a section of roots and drops knowing the bike will work, and will work better if you don’t grab a fist full of brake.
Hardtails teach you about pedaling, climbing and body position, riding a full suss teaches you the same.
There is a place for both kinds of bikes, I am faster on certain types of trail on one and slower on others, it depends. Almost all my PB’s at trail centres are on hardtails and almost all my natural descents are on full sussers.
I wouldn’t pick one over the other but if I could only ride one bike for the rest of my life, it probably wouldn’t have a rear shock.
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.
An iconic Aberdeenshire hill with a wild and punishing descent, a loop of Clachnaben is nothing short of a mini epic.
We all love wild natural rides, big days on big hills with big distances. But sometimes you want the feeling of remote riding and the challenge of truly rugged terrain, but only have a few hours to spare.
With its distinctive tor of rock visible from as far as Aberdeen, Clachnaben is a popular hill for walkers and trail runners. It benefits from a well maintained path, with substantial water bars and when required, uneven but substantial stairs. Which comes as a welcome relief as the sustained climb hovers between 15% to over 25% gradient. Once at the top looking down, when that gradient starts being measured in the negative, it becomes one beast of a descent.
It is a modest loop when measured in kilometres, at 15.7km its not that far. But when you take into account the 582m elevation gain, it takes on a much more formidable guise.
The loop starts in the walkers carpark and rounds the shoulder of the hill. Climbing from the rear so to speak, before topping out west of the summit. Then downhill essentially all the way back to the carpark.
I was blessed with blue skies and temperatures in the 20’s, the ground was baked dry and dusty with a light (for now) wind keeping things tolerable.
Following the course of the river into Glen Dye, the first leg was a fairly sedate and fast spin on smooth fire road. Its not long before I reached the natural rest break of the Charr Bothy. Worth a visit as part of a longer trip, today it merely provided me with some shade before rallying myself for the climb.
The climb is a hard one, the sandy track giving little traction with a slow zig-zagging grind being the only option. It starts as it means to continue, with the gradient rarely straying out of the low 20%’s. Gradient isn’t usually a measurement mountain bikers concern themselves with, its a “Roadie thing”, but its something that you come to fully appreciate whilst on this trail.
The traction slipped away in little roosts of sand
The heats oppression was only slightly moderated by the wind that started to grow with the Elevation. The traction slipped away in little roosts of sand with each pedal stroke as my resolve to stay in the saddle started to slip away. My heart rate monitor (a very thoughtful gift from my wife) was not needed to tell me how hard my heart was working, I knew how hard it was working as I tried to breathe through the work.
Stalling out completely on the loose sand, I was glad of the rest and resigned myself to push the rest of the way. It was not far before a reminder (if one were needed) that the climb is a suitable challenge for even motorised vehicles.
Peering over the heather the frame of a crashed WW2 aircraft stands in equal parts of rusting steel and immaculate aluminium. The wreckage, deemed to difficult and costly to remove, has been left for time and the elements to reclaim. Crash sites from this period are a surprisingly common feature of our hillsides, but serve as a poignant reminder of past sacrifices.
The final push of the climb was a more forgiving affair, with slight undulations and short downs giving free speed for the next up. Hauling myself to the top, the view offered a suitable reward for my efforts, literally being able to see my house from here.
My first run of the day is usually a bust. Its not that I’m not warmed up physically, but it usually takes me at least one trail to both sharpen up and loosen off. Not a luxury availabile on this ride, in front of me lay a 2.2km descent that I had to get right first time.
Starting with a technical mine field of rocky steps and water bars followed by drifty sandy trails and narrow steps with genuine exposure at times. All this before entering a rooty narrow wooded section with blind turns that are usually occupied by sheep and/or ramblers.
At this point in a post you might expect to find a POV video of the descent, a short edit of the day perhaps. Due my own ham fistedness, I managed to turn my Drift camera’s lens into portrait mode, smooth. So stills it is.
Breathing deeply in and out, it was time to clip in.
Rolling in slowly the granite steps were an uneven jumble of square edged drops and awkward turns, staying as light as I dared on the brakes, the key was to keep momentum. The grip of the granite slabs became punctuated with sandy trail, the acceleration was incredible, as soon as I stopped feathering the anchors the bike just took off.
The back end let loose on the corners, the rear tyre buzzing the heather as I relied on the bike to find grip. Bunny hopping water bars and looking as far down trail as I could, I rounded the shoulder of the hill. Taking on a series of exposed narrow stairs it was slow in and fast out.
the prolonged descent had steam practically pouring from the pistons
The brakes were starting to lose their edge, the prolonged descent had steam practically pouring from the pistons as the tree line fast approached.
A robust lattice work of roots encroached on the trail, the game changed as I entered the wooded section that was more within my comfort zone. Letting completely loose the anchors I was popping over the roots and down drops, this short section was over far too soon as it has real rhythm and pace, when dry. All this fun comes to an end when you reach a deer fence, a quick hop over a stile followed by a mellow pedal for the final push back to the carpark.
A clean run, no matter how fast, on this EWS worthy trails always delivers a sense accomplishment and adrenalin that only comes from a mountain bike.
Your strengths are those you practice most, and your weaknesses those that are too hard or to rare an opportunity to perform.
A few things have caused my riding to change and progress over the years, one of the biggest influences has been the local loop. We all have a local loop, somewhere we can crank straight from the house or after a short drive, long drives eat into riding time. What the local terrain has on offer and the style of the trails to be had there will dictate the strengths and weaknesses of your riding (unless you travel to ride a broader variety).
Whilst on a skills course aimed at steep and natural terrain I was told that I was riding with an XC style. This didn’t surprise me all that much, as my local loop for most of my time on a bike had been just that, cross country. My strengths on the bike reflected this, as did my weaknesses.
Strong in the climbs, fast on undulating terrain where constant power is needed and trails with climbs or sprints in them. Conversely I was slow on steep terrain, lacking in confidence with jumps and drops, and relied to much on my fitness to build and keep speed.
This started to change a few years ago when after moving house my local loop changed, I went from averaging 160m of elevation in 10km to 260m in 10km. The change of local riding spot had a pronounced effect on my riding, but it was not without teething problems. Crashes, broken bike parts and sliced tyres, as not only did my skill level have to adapt to the more technical terrain but my bike setup had to change too. The challenge was rewarding and riding bike became thrilling again and not just a test of physical ability.
My progression was apparent when I next visited Glentress with my brother, who traditionally I had always been chasing. My new local loop had been beasting me for a few months by this point and I was now out in front, my power in the climbs had also grown as the greater elevation had made an impact.
However I still found myself chasing the pack whilst on my LBS shop rides, when I realised, I was on the groups local loop, not mine. When on home turf you are faster, more confident and have the trails memorised. When on unfamiliar trails its a new learning curve, new challenges and new terrain to master.
There will always be scope for improvement on your local trails but variety is the spice of life after all. I try to mix it up with as broad a variety of trails as possible but time spent traveling is time spent not riding. My local loop has taught me a lot, and has many lesson still to school me. But weaknesses still remain and new ones have been brought to light, and again they reflect my local loop.
So the only way to address those is ride somewhere that forces me to address those weaknesses and gives me the scope to progress those elements of my riding, making me a faster and more rounded rider.
But and hours driving is an hour not riding, its a tough call sometimes.
With the spring rain keeping the natural trails slick and muddy a little dry trail action goes a long way.
There isn’t a trail centre in Aberdeenshire, the nearest is the Glenlivet trail centre near Tomintoul. We enjoy a plethora of every style of natural trail, just not a lot of weatherproofed hardpacked trails
The Tarland Trails are a collection of three graded trails and a expansive pump track out in rural Deeside. Its not as big as a full trail centre, but its not a small “bike park” either, it sits comfortably in between. The three trails are roughly 0.5km each starting and stopping at the same place, this gives you great value for time as its a quick winch back to the start for another run. You wont be clocking up any huge miles or big vertical gains/losses, if your looking for that in a ride you have plenty of other options.
Due to the fact that I just don’t ride that sort of trail very often means jumps and getting an aggressive lean in berms is a weakness of my riding. With improving my skills being on the agenda for this year it was time to pay the trails a visit.
The trails were only recently opened but they were badly damaged by flooding in January and have been closed for a rebuild. Back open the drainage improvements and tweaks have set the trails in a perfectly groomed and smooth state.
The blue is a ribbon of fast brakeless flow,
The blue is a ribbon of fast brakeless flow, crafted berms are punctuated by smooth jumps and rollers that encourage you to jump into the turns. It is an unashamed flow trail, perfect for younger or new riders, but the more experienced will still find their kicks trying for that perfect run.
with plenty of rollers
and small drops
The red has the same fast flow of the blue with added rock gardens and drops. Smooth berms are joined with flat turns that do their best to break your momentum, so you have to keep your concentration for a clean run. Some jumps are armored with hand placed slabs of granite on the up and down slopes, this gives you the added challenge of pumping the jump and bunny hopping a rock garden simultaneously.
The orange has all the charms of the red, only with the rock gardens making way for some impressive tables and the odd awkward double to catch you out.
The big surprise for me was how physical the trails were, unlike the more gradual undulations and gravity assisted nature of a blue trail at say Glentress. The Tarland trails whilst not having the vertical drop turn the trails into an extended pump track that has been beefed up into a full blue or red run. An argument could easily be made that my fitness isn’t what it has been, (having a baby will do that) but the additional pumping and pedaling required really does make for a very physical if short trail.
If you are looking for something a little different than the usual Aberdeenshire fair, or for somewhere to session some turns and jumps then you could do a lot worse. It might not hold you for a day but for a few hours fun it is worth the visit.
At first you understood, you were new and you were exciting but the longer you’ve been there the more complicated it has become. You made rides exciting and were a reason to explore and to try and better myself on the bike. You made it easy to equate that feeling of speed into actual performance gains, you encouraged a joined up type of riding, of keeping momentum and of going full gas when ever possible. You made me faster.
But as time has past, things became routine and the excitement ebbed, and you made me ride differently than I would have ridden if you weren’t there. You changed how I rode for good and for bad, you changed how others (myself included) acted and behaved, you never said I couldn’t ride like before but it was always implied.
A trail becomes a race on the internet, against people you don’t know.
I know the foundation and the driving force of our sports progress going right back to Repack has and always will be racing, but racing is an event with real people. Fighting for a KOM with a stranger on the internet started to feel more and more like trolling.
You took away the exploration, the hard work of the trail builder became exposed by the “social” aspect, of segments and heatmaps. No trail is secret, no trail knowledge is local. If you have ridden it someone has named a segment on it and if the ride isn’t on strava for all to see, then it just didn’t happen.
You changed how I and others rode a trail, parts of a social ride that have been there since the beginning, that in fact made you a better rider were forgotten as the invisible clock in your head was always ticking. Forget the view, forget sublime moments of clarity, forget stopping to shoot the breeze with friends. Forget finding a great set of turns or drops and pushing back up mid trail to ride them again, the clock is always ticking.
Sessioning is not strava.
But you did help make me a faster, fitter rider, you helped me track rides and build on weaknesses, you let me see when I did better or when feeling fast was just cruising.
All of this said I, like Heath Ledger, wish I knew how to quit you, Happy valentines day strava, I’ll see you next time I go ride my bike.
My strava account is still active but a fairly serious affair with Veloviewer has been going on for a while. Strava doesn’t mind as it knows I will always come home to it.