Cairngorm loops – into the unknown.

I failed miserably at English language at School, so forgive the lack of flowery wank in this tale, hopefully you can read through the bad grammar.  I had no real idea what to expect out there and if your reading this in the same boat, hopefully it will help you in your quest. To that purpose its turned into quite a ramble so grab yourself a coffee.

Having done the multi-day bivy ride thing this was to be my step up into the new world of wilderness racing, and I have to admit I was rather in awe of the location, the Cairngorms.

When I first decided to enter this a sleep deprivation plan was hatched to travel light and go through the night nonstop for the 190 miles. The organizer Steve Wilkinson had posted pictures of an Epic 56 hour reccie ride over Easter which changed all that though! Tales of deep rivers in spate to ford and pictures of snow meant this was a ride where the landscape and elements had to be treated with respect.

The river crossings scared me, my feet get cold easily and over the years good roomy shoes and Merino socks have kept pain at bay, but with a forecast of temperatures below freezing at night I needed another option. A last minute Impulse buy of some NorthWave Arctic boots arrived just in time, an expensive crutch maybe, they turned out to be a superb buy. Having ridden exclusively on Specialized Body geometry wedged inserts previously I was a little worried that the untried footwear could cause knee problems. I shoehorned in the inserts and hoped a test ride once there would show up any issues.

Cairngorm Loops setup

I went for a testing option on the kit front, as much as I would require on a multiday trip including full bivy kit, and shelter. The PDH down jacket, spare Merino socks, base layer and legs, and massive Pearl Izumi bear paw like gloves for safety, this meant the seat pack was looking stuffed. With al l the sleeping kit on the bars the frame bag was available for a big stash of food, nothing on my back achieved, a result.

Continuing the testing philosophy I was running the Dynamo hub and had a stash of leads to test different ideas on lighting and GPS power in action. Huge overkill but there’s nothing like real world action to find the flaws, and it could add a valuable distraction.

After a good nights sleep and as much breakfast as I could manage in Pitlochry I decide to park at the finish point of the Blair Atoll train station. This could serve a dual purpose, allowing a short shakedown spin before the start, and an instant collapse point at the end. An ideal option would be to book yourself in the Hotel right next to the station for Friday and Sunday night, this would provide a super relaxed start, and the opportunity for a great celebration on your return, their food is recommended.

Making contact with the few riders I knew, Steve Heading, Jenn Hopkins and John Fettis meant the very informal start crept up unnoticed and we were off. Into the brisk Northerly wind and bright skies, It was a steady start but still I was happy to watch a Peloton pull away and sit at my own pace. Chatting with Jenn as we cruised along she asked if I was riding slow or if she was going fast; I had seen it many times, soft pedal and play the waiting game, and I was enjoying the company. I have to admit to some niggling thoughts of being heavily loaded compared to most other riders as the gradients came.

As we crossed the A9 the easy start opened out into gravel tracks and epic wilderness, big scenery started here and signaled the start of my long solitary ride. Riding solo for me concentrates the mind, selfish but I was happy to soak up the surroundings and concentrate on a constant feeding and drinking strategy rather than be distracted by company.

Riders then started to appear, a handy glimpse of bodies scrabbling up through the Gauze stopped me dropping into the deep river crossing that the GPS track would have had me in, a bit of a plod but it was too early for wet feet. Soon I was passing three of them as the Lochside trail became more exposed as you dodged the encroaching rocks on the off camber singletrack. The TD-1 felt good loaded on this first real test, but my constant  recurring problem of the front wheel buzzing the Alpkit stuffsack on the bars was there once more.  24 Hour racer Tom Hill was a brief acquaintance as the route speeded up along firm gravel once more. He’d stopped to doff a jacket in the warming sun, me I was content with just opening zips on the 3 layers I wore.  Tom soon zoomed off out of sight as I admired his very lightweight setup on his Carbon On-One, but not his back pack. Riding with a non sweaty back was one of my better choices this trip.

I was quite surprised by how quick the next section passed all the way to Aviemore, I picked up John Fettis along the way and as we dove into the woods at Feshibridge a lost Tom made it a trio as he joined us for the singletrack past the Aviemore locks. John and I started speeding up, many miles of Thetford hammering making the rooty, sandy twisty singletrack seeming so familiar. We were in our comfort zone now as Tom dropped back not to be seen for now anyway.

I had no intention of stopping, I was cruising and felt great and I was loaded with food, I had a plan. I knew of the cafe/shop at Glenmore  and reckoned riders would stop there, and suggest to John he should, not before a brief sandy foray onto the loch beach as he headed for the temporary café there. By the stash of bikes outside the shop it looked like most of the early runners were here, and it seemed rude not to at least introduce myself to them as the start gathering had been so brief.  A quick Tea and cake stop and I was the first to leave, service seemed very slow and I did curse a little that I’d veered from my plan already, the fact I’m lugging all this food with me played heavily on my mind. These events are as much about the social camaraderie as the time, so in the end I’m glad I did at least pop in.

Big snack meals are available here, but I didn’t fancy the climb up to the routes highpoint with a full stomach, and what a climb it is. The path is neatly manufactured one to avoid erosion, with numerous technical step ups and rock rain gullies. It was quite an effort to pull and hop over some of the wheel sized channels whilst your bikes pointing up and loaded, but really rewarding despite the draining of reserves in doing so.

The long climb to the snow line

The scenery now changed to snow capped flanks to the side, eventually the pushing had to start, sometimes through drifts of snow, but mainly sections that took just to much effort to ride through. From this point on it was an on/off bike battle always wary of the risk of a silly mistake and mainly being plain too tired to wrestle the bike, I glanced back occasionally looking for the pursuers I knew would come.

I was conscious I was nursing my bike, cursing the fact I couldn’t enjoy my usual gung ho attitude to the rocky descents. The front tyre was buzzing the bar bag almost constantly and the brakes were squealing like pigs, whilst feeling more and more wooden as I guess the fine sand caused them to glaze over. I was trying to be smooth to stop the front dipping unnecessarily, which in the end just meant I was slower that usual.

I had made sure I had certain trigger points in my head, and one the Avon refuge was approaching slowly, this to me was the end of the high section, and possibly the hardest and coldest river crossing. As I approached I glimpsed 4 forms behind me in the distance, here come the cavalry I said to myself. Almost at the same instant I glimpsed a yellow jersey ahead, it was Kev Roderick who I had ridden across Wales with last year. The crossing was tricky but the new boots showed their prowess, as long as I pulled the foot back out of the water quickly they felt totally waterproof. Calming my racing mind, urging me to chase Kev, I stopped at the refuge for a feed and oh yes the odd picture would be a good idea too.

Avon Refuge

As it was Kev was easily caught, he himself will admit to finding the very technical bits hard, although he seemed to think 29” wheels were the whole answer. We walked, chatted and struggled together for a while but conscious of the fact I’d slowed I said goodbye and pressed on. From our conversation and the guys I’d seen at the Glenmore shop it was now apparent that I was 3rd rider on the road…..wow the tortoise strikes back, but I knew it was just a brief state. This and the start of the descent spurred me on, jumping water bars, flying through tight corners, anything not to pull on those noisy brakes. Consequences went out of my head for quite some time, well there’s 5 riders following who can help me pick up the bits my inner self added. The main consequenses being I was damaging my bar mounted bag.

Hitting the turn into the Linn of Dee a solid track brings civilization and speed back to the ride, guys with 24 packs of beer heading out to overnight camps and the start of some heavier snow. Here there is an option to backtrack up the 2nd loop to Braemar , perhaps for a warm bed, it’s  a 5 mile road diversion but could be an option for a struggling or leisurely rider.

Sitting in the snow eating

About 8pm I sat down on the grass admiring the valley views, collected water and treated it although it looked perfect, while I ate a hearty meal of a whole Malt loaf and about 2000 calories of Resses Peanut butter cups. The snow was falling hard now, fluffy and settling I did think it would look such a bizarre scene to an outsider as I sat in the grass oblivious to the cold.  One of the big plusses for me on this ride was discovering Cola flavoured Nunn tablets, simple to carry and made every mouthful a pleasure to swallow. I’m sure the nutrients in them balanced my super suggery diet a bit too.

Here I also plugged in the Garmin to the charging circuit, but unknown to me at the same time I must have pressed stop. I had elapsed time running in the map view so never noticed this untill the next morning which was annoying. The dynamo to USB charge circuit worked fine, but on the many slow sections where the volts drops out the Garmin then puts up a map blocking message stating “external power lost” . These power spikes might have upset the unit, Mk2 will have a small Li-ion battery unit Te-ed into the circuit so the 5v is always present.

At the current rate of progress I started to believe I could reach Aviemore in good time. I was sure the section before and after Feshibridge was fast going, perfect for night riding. That all came tumbling down literally, I missed a turn back onto the open moors, backtracking I then cut a corner dropping wheel deep into a bog and throwing myself over the bars. Starting a really tricky slow trail like that nearly broke me. I started to slow and could feel the lack of interest in battling with the trail creeping up on me. I wasn’t prepared for such a tough time as darkness encroached on the the trail and ate into my mind. I seemed to be stopping more than riding now. The snow had been constant for a few hours now and athough not intrusive, it was settling quite firm on the bar bag building quite a layer.

On one such stop whilst transferring water from my fork mounted litre bottle to the stem mounted bottle I was caught by the Cavelry. Steve, Lawrence Tring, Rob Waller and Jonny May caught me en masse, asked if I was ok and then effortlessly passed and rode the same trail I was floundering on. I set off again in a dark mood which was lifted as I caught them, I gave myself a mental slap to drag myself out of the hole I’d sunk and started riding with purpose again. With my brakes squealing even more in the still night I appologised  as we approached the huge waterfall as the Eidart poors into the Feshie. The big step up to a snow covered steel platform was quite a tricky move and I was relieved to overcome it without a stupid back strain.

Here I dropped back from the pack, it didn’t feel right following them I wanted to be in my own space. I hurtled down towards the river, as I missed the turn for the dangerous landslide hit riverside area. The other riders were clambering up an impossible looking section as I floundered going the wrong way again.  If you look at the GPS track of any  rider doing this event you’ll see many backtrack sections where they missed a turn (why do these always happen on super fast descents), and on this ride I was to trudge through many bogs and gauze bushes trying to get back on a vague track.

Lights went on after this point, and with them my common sense failed me, just as I saw the guys ahead stopped over a water crossing fiddling with lights, I tried to ride through it. I hit a rock stopped and fell, submerged my left leg and arm and filled my glove and boot with water, what a dumb mistake. I screamed at my stupidity as I realized just how cold it suddenly felt, I’d been oblivious to the temperature untill now.

I didn’t know the location of the Bothy but I spotted the fliker of light in the window soon after, the track passes right by, but I rode straight past. Little did I know the group had stopped there and it was to become a focal point of action for most riders.  I briefly considered turning back as the sensible option, if only to dry out, but in my mind I considered it an easy hop to Aviemore now we were in the Feshie valley. This was not to be the case, the next 10 miles saw some really tricky navigation which again had me floundering losing the track and a plethora of fast deep water crossing saw the feet linger in just too long with that horrible cold seeping feeling as both boots filled with ice cold water.

Hitting the road to Feshibridge I felt great the transformation to gravel then tarmac made the ride suddenly seem so easy, as I dropped to high gears and sped along things started to decline quickly. The gears and drive train had frozen, I was stuck in one gear, my feet were crying in pain and I could feel the sodden glove starting to freeze into a fixed shape. I decided I had to stop to get warm, one stupid mistake and poor navigation had cost me dear, just a change of socks and Gloves was not the answer.

I pulled off the road into the wood on the outskirts of Aviemore, I didn’t even look at the time. I just set up my Zpaks shelter and blew up the mattress, got into my sleeping bag and silk liner, listening to the thump of disco music from some nearby club while scoffing more food. My feet were like ice blocks and the dry socks didn’t seem to have much effect so I crammed my toes into my spare big gloves as far as they would go and drifted off to sleep very quickly. No alarm set, I didn’t really care I decided to let my body and daylight wake me.

I was back on the road at 6.30am getting water from the river at Aviemore, not exactly the actions of a true racer, over 6 hours sleep, but I was warm again and the sun was having an effect even then. Progress was fast again, full allocation of gears, freshly oiled chain, great views life was good. True to expectations the next long section to and through Abernethy Forest would have been ideal for night riding and if doing this again I will definitely head for this wood to bivy.

The Alpkit bar bag was holed, a spinning tyre and sand make for a good abrasive action, luckily the only thing scuffed inside was my silk sleeping bag liner and its sack, nothing fatal. But I was conscious that I will have to find an alternative mounting arrangement to the Wildcat harness in future, and for the rest of this trip rotate the bag and hope.

Alpkit bag is Toast

Though some of the first real muddy sections of the ride in the wood, I tried to count the tyre tracks. About 6 sets I reckoned, some of them Maxxis Ikon’s if I wasn’t mistaken. The same as I was running on the rear, expensive but turning out to be very fast and Ideal tool for the job. I’d gone more cautious with a Advantage on the front in respect for the rocks, but a pair of Ikon’s would work fine (turned out that’s exactly what the two front runners had)

Closing in on Tomintoul and there seemed to be two fresher tracks in the morning dew, it intrigued me who was ahead, how many other tortoises had survived on minimum sleep, would I ever know. Another missed turn when, will I learn not to follow the obvious trail, and I glanced up from cursing at the Garmin to meet Tom Hill and Rob Wickes returning from the same error. After a brief exchange of words they stopped for a mechanical as I carried on, the next section was a maze of crossing and re-crossing the same stretch of water, the Burn of Brown  whilst glimpsing the odd tyre track in the shaded snowy sections from last nights fall.

St Jessies Well

Onto the road again it was just after 8am, I expected Tomintoul to be shut so I stopped at the Saint Jessies Well and had a leisurely water fill, still alone I rolled into town and as expected all looked very quiet, Sunday in the Boonies most cafes will be open at 10am…oh wait. The Fluttering flags outside the Old Fire station café, an Oasis to be grabbed despite my ample stocks.

Tomintoul Cafe Breakfast with Rob and Tom

On my second glorious cup of Tea, my order for two breakfast rolls in, Tom and Rob arrived, to join in the feast. Huge amounts of food cake, coke and tea were quaffed as we exchanged tales of the night. They had stopped at the packed Bothy disturbing Steve’s gang of 4’ sleep in the process, who then returned the favour with a booming 2 am alarm, think I made the right choice there then. I did feel a slight fraud having so much sleep, but I did feel good and I think it showed when I passed easily once were mobile again.

A nice fast valley track followed but then the second real climbing section followed. Here I took off my windproof for the first time this trip, the sun was out and a heavy belly made the climb tough. I started to take time out on the top of each sharp rise, and as the track deteriated into boggy sections once more I could feel another low point creeping up on me. Eventually with the aid of a huge Resses Peanut Butter sugar rush I made the final summit and the downhill came, and how. One of the fastest smoothest tracks I’ve had the pleasure of bombing down in some time, it finishes with a fast forest section onto the A93. Is this the longest section of downhill I’ve ever done on these shores, could be.

The relief of the road and the proximity of Braemar, another mental target on the route were tempered slightly by the now cold headwind. A brief tea stop and bike check over and then back onto the part of the ride you do for the first loop. Mental calculations from here for the final 50 miles had me back before last orders even if I slumped to a 5mph average, mentally I was home and dry which is always a good feeling.

Crossing the Dee wasn’t as bad as expected, on the whole the dry spell in Scotland had been kind to us, and the grim forecasts of high winds, freezing nights and snow had been as perfect as you could have asked for. Yes that is a bizarre statement but I think future riders will be lucky to have it as good.

There’s a silly V in the track here, you head up to a ruin and then I could not find the track out on the ground, 5 minutes of cursing and stomping in ankle deep flood plain marsh had me once again dwelling on just how much route knowledge can save time. A brilliant fun section then followed, narrow rising and falling rock strewn singletrack that eventually became a quite exposed off camber trails test. I was all to conscious of the consequences of a wheel out of place here, but the confidence the front tyre gave just begged for caution to be put on the back burner. The right turn and cliff face that followed soon brought on another low point.

Mentally I’m quite weak, I’m also crap on my feet, I think I should have been born with wheels, just call me Chorlton (ask your mum!). The next hour was really tough for me, seeing the GPS track double back over an impossible looking rock Gorge had me confused, was there a huge brideg across we were heading for? The tough moor track ends at the most unfathomable collection of pink houses, complete with a pack of rabid caged dogs it sure is a seriously isolated spot. It is served by a good gravel road though, I’m guessing a Military road and it was a welcome relief. As the descents come I dared not dream this was it, I had to keep convincing myself that anything could be round the corner to ward off anymore dark thoughts.

Sure enough after a wonderfull fast section, the turn back into hills comes once more. The final water stop and a push up a hill, one I’d normally ride. There was fine rain in the air, and on the grass I could see tyre tracks that had broken the carpet of settling dew, they were very fresh was I catching someone. My mind started to invent riders out of all the rock lumps ahead as this last section started to bite, so many false summits. A very Welsh Dothie valley like section of riding along a valley side was tricky at this point and somewhere I slammed into my saddle hard tilting it back, this was a pain but I was past stopping now. (turned out I was lucky I had actually snapped the clamping cone on my USE Sumo post)

One last sting as the trail once more became so vague that it was a random  stomp aided by the GPS blue line as a heading only. The final river crossing and then that welcome sign civilization returning. The sight of a bike and canoe laden car and caravan signaled the return to tarmacadam and a mental fast swooping finish.

One last Burst of big ring stomp on the main road to the train station, then a comedy fumble for what seemed like ages as I took finishing photos, bloody iphone camera, I could not get my head in the shot with the clock. 7:37pm. My mind could not work out the time, all it knew was that the bar was open and food was waiting.

Finish at Blair Atholl

Lawrence welcomed me by throwing up in the pub car park, it seemed it was his tyre tracks I was chasing as he suffered towards the end. Aiden Harding had completed it non stop in 22hrs30 and Steve Heading was next with the four that passed me in the dusk of Saturday next

RESULTS           FINISH PHOTOS       SOME RIDE PHOTOS

33hrs 37 minutes for a 189 mile wilderness ride with over 6 hours of sleep, I was elated at that.  I’d optimistically hoped for a 30 hr ride without stopping in truth I’ll never know if without the problems the freezing brought that was possible. Realistically the sections you would do in the dark at this pace are ideal for that plan, but I think that last 50 mile section with a very tired mind and body could break all but the strongest. Aiden and Steve proved themselves above that weakness in spades, well done to them.

Thanks to Steve and anyone else involved for allowing me the chance to be involved in such a great experience, hopefully he will entice some Americans and Europeans over next year to chase the awesome marker Aiden has set down. I think it will stand for some time though unless Aiden with his route knowledge attacks it again.

And I did take too much food, but if I’d hit Tomintoul earlier I’d have needed it, but then bizarrely I put weight on over the whole weekend so guess I should start counting calories as unlike most people I have no problem at all shoving sweet foods down all night and day.

  • Things I learnt this weekend.
    Northface Arctic boots are worth every penny, and are very robust.
    Dont ride across fords in the dark.
    Scotlands trails dont get the plaudits they deserve
    Soft front suspension and bar bags are not good bedfellows.
    Scottish sand and Aligator brake pads dont mix.
    My hands have problems with long distances, quite worrying actually.
    I broke a USE Sumo seatclamp and then realized another one on a bike has gone too.
    GrannyRings are essential to my riding style.
    Nothing on your back is the way to go, no doubt.
    Nunn Cola tablets are the future.
    Oh and Chocolate Coffee beans rock.

Tom Hills story of the same trip  – http://projectenduranceracer.com/2012/05/15/cairngorms-loop-the-long-version

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