(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.
But this is no bucket list race that you simply tick off and move on from, it gets under your skin. Once raced and short term memory loss helps you to forget the lactic acid and oxygen debt, you are left only with the memory of a real adventure. Of a truly wild route, with some spectacular scenery and the nagging mistakes you made that you know you can improve on, next time.
Any bike is both the perfect bike and totally the wrong bike for this race. A XC whippet will get you so far (pretty far in fact), but a 140-160mm enduro weapon will get you further on some of the special stages. Your final place is based on points earned from each stage so bike choice and tactics play a big part of your day. Are you racing some stages and winching the distance, or racing the distance and losing time on the gravity stages?
This was the second time I had entered the Tour, I had ramped up my training with gym work and a lot more long distance training rides on natural and rugged terrain. I was feeling fit and the bike was riding well.
The previous year it had rained for a prolonged period in the run up and it showered throughout the day. This brought on certain challenges but kept the temperature and the dust down, the wet conditions made the loose land rover tracks a good bit firmer and easier to climb on. This time the sun shone down with the mercury hovering in the low twenties, the trails were bone dry and some key climbs were loose and dusty.
The race always starts with an atmosphere that is unique to the tour, the sense of pent up tension is palpable as the racers follow a Pipe band down Fort William High street in a rolling start. Reaching the start line the race breaks with the contenders going full gas up the road climb that helps to thin the pack out. The race is self seeding, so you quickly discover how optimistic or unrealistic your performance expectations were.
You gain height fast during the first few kilometres, climbing the road out of Fort William towards the West Highland Way the pack naturally thins out. Upon reaching the end of the tarmac, the long, loose and rocky road begins, the races rhythm changes and the work truly begins.
The undulating trail is flanked by some jaw dropping scenery that helps to distract from the fact that you are still climbing. The usual bottleneck at the start of the first of the special stage gives you a nice break and a chance to refuel and taking in the view. You clock out once you get there so the queue doesn’t affect your overall time, its not far off of one third of the race route, but you would be a fool to think the rest will be straight forward, that was the easy bit!
This stage is a descent from the WHW down into Kinlochleven, it starts on open hillside and is rough, rocky and loose with the kind of water bars that would stop a small tank.
It is a trail that will bite you hard in the tubes if ridden clumsily and requires your A game to take at race pace. Having brought my A game the previous year and still flatted hard I was determined for a clean, if not a competitively paced run.
Dropping through the rocks and keeping it light on the rear wheel I was passing fellow XCers with tyres around there feet as they had been bitten by the trail. A tyre change on the stage could be considered a tactical error as the clock is still counting, last year I shouldered the bike and ran the remainder of the stage, another tactical error as it was a waste of energy when the stage (and arguably your race) was already done.
On meeting the tree line the trail mellows, slightly, with a wet roots and rock adding to the mix with grippy wet loam in the damper turns with a final sprint down a shaley rut.
Dibbing out I was instantly hit with cramp in my hands and calves, this would a recurring feature of the rest of the race. The hands eased up with some ibuprofen to keep it at bay. My legs were another story, fives minutes of crippled crouching and I was able to straighten my legs enough to get back on the bike, it was going to be a long day.
I think preferred doing it in last years rain.
The next stage was the first climbing stage of the day and one many riders will be familiar with, the long haul out of Mamore Lodge up to Loch Eilde Mor is a 3.5km thigh burner with 135m vertical gain. Easy, knuckle down and grind it out, or so you would hope. The unseasonal heat had turned the land rover track into a morass of bone dry sand and pea sized stones that robbed you of all traction and momentum, having to keep changing your cadence so you wouldn’t dig into the trail meant the burn was pretty fierce. All under the blazing sun that still showed no sign of remembering it was the end of September, in Scotland. I think preferred doing it in last years rain.
Not far after the end of the stage was the river crossing and the fabled hike-a-bike climbing stage, at least the dry weather was on our side for the river crossing. The previous year it was thigh high this year you could ride straight across, well, almost.
The Goat track that forces you to shoulder your bike goes 250m up a narrow rutted peat bog between Meall a’ Bhuirich and Meall Mor in a mere 2.7km, before a sprawling delta of slab and rock take you down to the bothy and the second feed station. When saturated with a fortnights worth of rain the previous year it felt like a full on rout. Curtains of rain washed over muddied and broken riders who were sinking into mud and peat, this year, who know what we would find.
The Indian summer had dried the bog all the deepest pools and was a quick scarper up the stair like ledges of turf and stone. The cramp was never far behind as the acid build up caused me the hunker down on more than one occasion. Cresting the many false peaks it was starting to look like something you could ride down rather than climb up. letting the bike run and using the trail, the decent from the saddle was a total blast of natural terrain. Line options were abundant with some sneaky dead ends to catch you out, it rewarded heads up and looking long down the trail.
Reaching the bothy, the barbeque was in full flow, quickly feeding up and changing socks it was a short spin to the 5.5km of unbroken descent on fast and rough Landrover tracks down the other side. Back into the respite of the forest after a day without shade, the relief from the heat was soon tempered by yet more cramp followed soon after by the slow, creeping, hollow feeling of being on the edge of bonking (ahem).
slow, creeping, hollow, feeling of being on the edge of bonking (ahem)
For cyclists that have never properly bonked, it is a feeling of near desperation and helplessness that makes you want to lie down by the side of the trail, and to wait for the woodland creatures to finish you off. Your body has run out of fuel and has nothing left to give.
Once you’ve bonked its too late, you cant get back to feeling fresh and recovering on the ride, the best you can hope for is a limp home. Eating like mad and pleading with the velo gods that I could eat enough, fast enough, to arrest the bonk and get enough steam to get me home. I tried to block out the knowledge that another special stage was at the end of the forest slog.
Crossing the classic Puggy Line at the Nevis Rangethe noise and fury of the SDA downhill race roared over head as we Tour De Benners quietly made our way underneath the track.
Making the final push to the top of the stage four, it was a mix tape of brilliant trails linked together with a punishing fire road sprint. Starting With Blue crane and bomb hole then on to Nessie before dibbing out.
The final push is through to Torlundy and onto Fort William, the race actually ends before you reach the main road to keep riders safe and not racing on the roads. That said the group that had built up at the end of the course couldn’t help but slowly build into a sprint to the finish.
Totally smashed and grinning from ear to ear, it was time to collect the timings and make plans for next time.
First time on the tour and the weather had been playing against us in the weeks and days leading up to the race, the day itself wasn’t looking to hot either.
Waiting for the rolling start to kick off I was wondering if my decision to stick with my XC rubber and to not go with mud spikes had been a good idea. it was to late for that now as the pipe band were warmed up and the procession down Fort William Highstreet that marks the start of the race had begun.
Reaching the start point the pace accelerated quickly as racers didn’t want to get caught by slower riders or parked cars.
The pack started to thin as the first climb was long road haul out of Fort William and towards the West Highland way, this road section rose and fell and rose again. The road was wet and slick with a few moments of two wheel drift on the fast descents as we finally went off road and the real work began.
The rain had washed out the already rough West Highland way turning it into a rocky river bed, some sections had flowing water moving over the trail which retained a surprising level of grip if you trusted your tyres. The peaks of the hills that towered over the route were lost in cloud and fog, whisps of rain drifted down the hill on the race going on below them.
Reaching the queue for the first special stage (stage 2 stage 1 is the complete journey) I dibbed out so the wait wouldn’t affect my overall time. Taking a breather and a feed I nervously dropped my post as I started to notice the number of 140/160mm bikes around and worried that my 100mm HT was going to be under biked at some point.
Reaching the head of the line a marshal counted me in, charging blind down a line that would be technical for me in normal circumstances, I had no idea what was round the corner. I was not expecting the waterbars gouged so deep in the rock that they could swallow a 29er whole, or the loose shale over everything. Picking my way through the rock minefield (rock garden is to gentle a term) pleased not to have been over taken, seeing the tree line up ahead it happened, I’d flatted the rear.
With the clock still ticking I shouldered the bike and made like this was cyclocross and ran the rest of the way. Passing a marshal who said something to me which I later decided was “your my hero” whilst being passed by several Orange Fives, I also ran past people wrestling with tubes in the driech conditions. finally reaching the end I dibbed out and looking around there was at least a dozen fellow riders fixing mechanicals and flats which I joined and performed a puncture repair at F1 pitcrew speed.
The game had changed, the flat had effectively ended my race but for the overall time, changing strategy I had to go full gas on the transitions and not do to much damage to my time during the remaining special stages. Easier said than done as the next two stages where climbs, tough climbs.
Having lost all our elevation in one not so swift descent it was now a prolonged climb out of Kinlochleven past Mamore Lodge, made all the more interesting as climb was the third special stage.
making steady progress on the climb and passing riders who had flown past me on the descent, I started to appreciate the wide spacing of my 8 speed cassette, the water washing the mud and grit from my drive train, it never skipped a beat the whole race. The now considered narrow ratio also necessitated a fast climb as there was no 36 tooth to fall back on, that said the granny on the triple up front saw plenty of action.
The race was starting to feel like a shared ordeal that only riders who had raced this year would truly understand, riders had the middle distance stare of a true physical ordeal. The full gamut of mechanicals where starting to rack up along the route with more and more riders dropping out, I even saw a race ended by a snapped Renthal single ring.
Reaching the end of the climb and the stage I could see I was mid pack and was keen to try and maintain my position. Clouds were still rolling off the hillsides with misting showers drifting over the route. The next transition was a straightforward and fairly flat landy track to a river crossing and the next and toughest special stage, a hike a bike up a peat bog.
Cresting a rise the river came into sight with a undulating descent to the river bank, letting the bike move beneath me and enjoying some free speed a sniper rock suddenly shot out the front wheel beneath me. Sliding out side ways a fairly substantial rock came towards my face in slow motion, “well here it comes” was the surprisingly calm thought that drifted through my head as I hit the dirt like a sack of spuds.
Abandoning their bikes other racers huddled round me, no doubt expecting a bloodied mess and a broken face. To everyone’s surprise I was completely unscathed, my wrist was a little sore but nothing that would stop me holding onto the bars. Checking the bike was fine it was onto the river crossing and the dreaded hike-a-bike up the goat track.
Fording the swollen torrent the bank on the far side was no more dry or inviting than the river itself, the trail leading to the dibber and the start of the stage was a muddy unridable mess with pushing the only reasonable option. This was to be the theme for this stage, once committed to the climb it was a slow jog uphill with the bike on my shoulders, here the XC bike made sense as I was able to make good time with the lighter bike. The climb was without flow over a saturated and flooded peat bog. Hints of granite slab teased at what would become the descent as the vertical metres were slowly counted up.
Topping out the climb transitioned into a sprawling delta of narrow rocky ruts charging down towards the bothy and final feed station. A barbeque for a feed station is a fairly unique feature for any race, so a quick feed and change of socks before getting back to it.
After an incredibly fast storm down a drifty fire road it was onto a traverse through the wood land leading to the Nevis Range and the final special stage. This would be a fairly uneventful clocking of kilometers if it wasn’t for the second puncture of the day. Another fast tube change and I was back on in, but something was up, having had so many free kilometers on the fireroad I had forgotten to eat and I was starting on the road to bonking.
I knew it was coming, I could eat now but it would get worse before it got better. Forcing myself to turn the pedals the fireroad just went on to the horizon, the incline went back towards the heavens and the emotional breakdown and numbing of the full on bonk was in the periphery of my vision. Then finally, I reached it, Shangri-La, the promised final stage and a rest to allow the feed to kick in before the final sprint.
With my emotions returning to a harmonius state and with some more fuel in the legs the last stage awaited, this “Enduro” style trail incorporates some of the Nevis Range classics. Starting off with Blue Crane, Bomb Hole, Cackle and Drop and Nessie all making an appearance with a straight out fire road sprint in the middle. This 1.9km greatest hits mix tape has become a trail classic in itself and having visited it again on the big bike the red mist of a run between tape has always resulted in my PB time.
leaving the North Face car park and the final few KM to Fort William, you could catch your breath and allow your legs to recover but that wont happen as this is still racing even after 60km+. A small pack of similar paced riders had gathered together and none of us wanted to be the last over the line, it was purely pride making us hurt ourselfs on this final leg as the points system meant it was irrelevant who actually came first out of us. But right now that didn’t matter.
Rolling onto the opposite end of the High Street from which we had left that morning the circle was complete, Sven was done, I was done, it was done.