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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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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Fungle Road Infection

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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Mount Battock

Standing silently behind Clachnaben, Mount Battock looks a innocuous little peak behind its more popular sibling.

Not one to be underestimated, it is nearly 200m higher than Clachers and enjoys unbroken views in all directions. Sometimes, all you need is a proper hardtail hoof, a stiff climb and to go 40-50km on the way back down.

On these sorts of rides I like to listen to music, tunes help me keep a good rhythm in the climbs and off the anchors on the way back down. But a playlist on random can be a funny thing, when your going full gas and Belle and Sebastian’s “The Boy With the Arab Strap” comes on, it is a little incongruous to be on the attack, if you know what I mean.

So heres the soundtrack to a ride, a great climb (almost) up a stonking big hill and a fast charge back down.

Clachnaben Mount Battock cycling
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Gold Lion

Glen Dye Mount Battock Mountain Bike
Get Innocuous – LCD Soundsystem

Glen Dye Mount Battock Cross Country Scotland
Without You – Junip

Glen Dye Mount Battock sheep shed
Hey – The Pixies

Mount Battock Climb out of Glen Dye Mountain Bike
White Light – Gorillaz

Mount Battock Climb Enduro Scotland
King Of The Mountain – Kate Bush

Mount Battock Shooting Cabin
Crimes Against Pop – Motormark

Mount Battock desert Mountain Bike Scotland Stravaiging
The Beat That My Heart Skipped – Dan Le Sac Vs Scroobius Pip

Glen Dye to Mount Battock Mountain Bike
Under Your Spell – Desire


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Clachnaben

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.

Clachnaben Stravaiging MTB Scotland

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.

Clachnaben loop OS Map
Expect the loop to take two to three hours.

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.

Glen Dye ww2 Plane wreck

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.

Good times.

Clachers Profile

Mount Keen & the Fungle

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.

Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 15Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride bridgeMount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 18Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 17

Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 20 Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride Hill Fog 2 Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 1Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 21 Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 22Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 4

Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 24 Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 26 Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 27 Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 28Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 9 Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 8

Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 5Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 10 Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 12 Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 7

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Tour De Ben Nevis – 2013

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.

Tour De Ben NEvis 2013 Stravaiging

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.

Pipe band Tour De Ben NEvis 2013

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.

Tour De Ben NEvis 2013 Stravaiging 13

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.

Tour De Ben NEvis 2013 Stravaiging 20

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.

Tour De Ben NEvis 2013 Stravaiging 14

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.

Tour De Ben NEvis 2013 Stravaiging 6

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.

time  position points
 Stage 1
05:36:04  140 461
 Stage 2
00:11:17 290 111
 Stage 3
00:19:46 122 279
 Stage 4
00:59:13 168 233
 Stage 5
00:09:21 247 154

Total Points: 1238

Overall: 95

Tour De Ben NEvis 2013 Stravaiging 16