Coast to Coast Scotland

For my 40th birthday I decided something special was in order. Not for me a drunken night of debauchery in a local hostelry, nor a day out firing paint pellets at a bunch of gung-ho fighting friends. No indeed. I fancied something a little more memorable, and as I think is true of most memories, if you can associate pain with them then the memory lasts a lot longer…..

Coast to Coast Scotland

I’d been considering a coast to coast trip across Scotland for years, but the logistics, route planning, kit preparation, and general hugeness of the ride had all been rather too daunting to contemplate fully. Now though, I figured that if I didn’t do it soon then I’d probably never do it at all, given that my partner was expecting our first child, and my knees had begun to creak like a rusty door. So, after a general invite to all of my riding friends illicited positive responses from exactly those I expected, I invested in some maps and began the route plan.

For several weeks I pored over the maps, looking at potential trails, planning where to stay, and trying to anticipate every eventuality, only occasionally interrupted by my better half exclaiming “You’re looking at those sodding maps again?!?”

Initially I planned to ride from Fort William to Montrose – a route that’s used by some Scottish guiding companies. However, as my ever-accurate friend Ian pointed out, “Fort William isn’t exactly on the coast!” and so the start point was changed to Mallaig, adding another 90 or so kilometres to the route. Definitely a coast to coast then.

When the date of the trip arrived I felt confident that I had everything in hand. The route was sorted, the overnight stops were booked, and we were all to meet in Glasgow, from where we’d catch the train to Mallaig to start the ride. It was only when we actually all assembled at Glasgow station that I realised I’d forgotten to book the bikes onto the train to Mallaig. Oops.

Day One – 97km from Mallaig to Spean Bridge (1540m climbing) : Route Card

Heading south on the A830 out of Mallaig it was already raining. Not quite the start I’d hoped for, not least due to the amount of tarmac we’d have to ride before we headed off road. Whilst planning the ride I’d looked at a potential off-road route along the northern edge of Loch Morar, but with the distance we needed to cover to reach civilisation in a single day, my lack of knowledge of the area, and the apparent dwindling of the track to nothing along steep cliffs, I opted for the slightly longer yet easier A830 route via Glenfinnan.

Flat Stuff

Flat Stuff

My rucksack felt like a hod on my back. Dave’s panniers were threatening to buckle his wheel. They’d been made only slightly less dangerous by an evening spent assessing and repacking most of his luggage. It had turned out that most of his luggage consisted of food: packs of garibaldi biscuits, loaves of malt, racks of lamb, sides of ham, mustard, custard and cheesy bunion wafers taking up the majority of the space. Fortunately Dave had travelled up with Clive so most of the food had “mysteriously disappeared” by the first morning.

There was a brief excursion off-road near Arisaig, during which the rain stopped, the sky cleared a little, and the sun began to pour through.

Back on the road though it was more spinning, the packs felt heavier, the rain got colder, and I began to wonder about the task I’d set for us. 380 miles through the wilderness of the highlands, loaded up with kit, and guided only by a handful of route cards. I looked at the grins on the others’ faces. We’d be just fine.

After a dreary lunch in the cafe at Glenfinnan, taking it in turns to abuse the hand-dryer for a little warmth (it overheated), we finally turned off the A-road and headed into the hills. And boy, what a climb – 472m in 8km!

Glenfinnan Pass

Finally off the main drag and onto a climb.

As we climbed the road dwindled. At first it turned into a reasonable forest track, then as we climbed higher it degraded into a rough double track. As we edged closer to the top an abandoned Landrover marked the end of what passed as a vehicle trail, and after passing a rather large dead stag, we finally had to get off and push.

At the top of the climb, with the looming hulks of Sgurr Thilm and Streap each side of us, we met the laird, wandering across the moor shotgun in hand and blooded henchmen at his side. He seemed rather taken aback to see five heavily laden fellows pushing bikes past him and, after laughing at our footwear and chastising us for scaring off the rest of the deer herd, bid us good luck and waved us on. One of his henchmen, the blooded one, grinned and thanked us for saving him more work hauling yet another dead carcass back down the mountain.

Off-roading. Scottish style.

Off-roading. Scottish style.

Unfortunately for us the work wasn’t over and we had to haul our own carcasses down the mountain through Gleann Cuirnean. The descent was as tough as the climb, and the track had now disappeared completely into bog. As we plugged our way down, a stream emerged, turned steadily into a river, and cut a deep gorge into the hillside. This made for an interesting trail feature, and we crossed the river several times trying to find the best route through it. Swimming down it might have been easier.

No track. Just bog.

Gleann Cuirnean. No track. Just bog.

After what seemed like an eternity of pushing, crossing the river, pushing, and then pushing some more, we finally neared the slopes of Monadh Gorm and descended into Glen Pean. A small footbridge crossed the narrow, yet deep and beautifully clear River Pean, and then we plunged into the darkness of the forest. It was here I assured the others that a track lay only a little distance ahead, but without maps to convince them, they looked at me with eyes full of weariness and disbelief. Their faces lit with joy though when, after about 100 yards, and one last steep push, we emerged from the darkness onto a proper, firm, rideable track, heading east to west through the trees. Happiness is a track you can pedal on.

Happiness is a track you can pedal on.

Happiness is a track you can pedal on.

As we left the forest the clouds evaporated and we were bathed in the rays of the late evening sun. All 13 miles of Loch Arkaig stretched out before us, and we made steady (comparatively rapid) progress westwards towards the Great Glen, stopping only once to bathe our feet in the icy waters of the loch. All of us that was except Clive, who, never one to miss the opportunity to demonstrate quite how insane he is, opted to go for a swim instead.

Loch Arkaig

Loch Arkaig. Rather cold in late October, but not too cold for Clive.

With fresh feet, we got back on the bikes and pedalled alongside the loch until the sun went down. Eventually, the Great Glen and Loch Lomond arrived accompanied by the dark. Lights on, we turned south to Gairlochy, crossed the Caledonian Canal, and followed the River Spean to our lodgings at Spean Bridge. Sweet, sweet relief (and beer) at the end of the first day.

Day 2 – 65km from Spean Bridge to Auchmore : Route Card

We woke to find the sun shining, grabbed breakfast from the nearby Spar, headed south out of Spean Bridge, and turned east onto the trail. It wasn’t long before we stopped though, as the weight of all the tools and kit I was carrying had rubbed the skin from my back, so a little patching up was required. Fortunately this gave us the opportunity to admire the splendour of Ben Nevis in the morning sun (apparently on average the summit is lost in cloud for 329 days of the year), and then we were back riding.

Under the Ben

Under the Ben

We spent longer than anticipated crossing and recrossing the river Spean as the trail disappeared in and out of the bogginess, so at Inverlair we headed north, crossed the river again and then sprinted along the A86 for a couple of miles to Laggan Dam to make up some time.

Here we intended to rejoin the planned route by crossing the dam, but 6 foot high railings blocked our path. I climbed over, headed to the other side to make sure it was clear (a smaller fence), and then headed back to help the others lift their bikes and kit over. Nothing ventured, nothing gained eh?

Crossing Laggan Dam

Crossing Laggan Dam - One Slip and the Ride's Over

Over the other side the trail wound on. We stopped for lunch, sitting about 15 feet apart from each other, perched on individual tree stumps like hungry gnomes enjoying the sun. The scent of pine hung heavy in the air as we tucked into the squashed bread rolls and warm crisps we’d been carrying in our overladen packs. Heaven.

Back on the bikes we continued eastwards for another 10km before I proffered the others a choice: continue alongside Loch Laggan, or head south to the next valley to edge along what I suspected might be the most stunning loch in the world. Not really much of a choice then eh?

Lochan Na H Earba

Lochan Na H Earba

We turned south and weren’t disappointed. Lochan Na h Earba was truly awesome, stretching along the valley floor between the high peaks of Binnein Shuas and Binnein Shios, and the hulky mass of Geal Charn. The dark outlines of the rocky hillsides cast long shadows along the valley in the afternoon sunlight, and the loch shone deep blue against the pale sky. “This is why” said the sticker on my bike. Everyone agreed.

The trail meandered alongside the loch before dropping through a forest to rejoin Loch Laggan at Adverikie House (famed for being the location of Monarch of the Glen). Here we joined the road and headed for the cafe at Laggan Wolftrax a few miles further on where we enjoyed a much needed cup of tea, and then headed off on the trails towards our dwellings at Auchmore.

The term “bunkhouse” doesn’t properly describe the dwelling we stayed in at Uvie Farm. As we approached it the roof was visible above the tree tops. “Look at that roof” exclaimed Ian. “I wish we were staying there”. It turned out we were.

Uvie Farm consists of a couple of wooden houses built on top of granite rocks where they break through the surface of the ground. One is a round house and the other a split level house, the two joined by a raised ash walkway and a balcony overlooking the spectacular valley floor. Deer were heading down from the distant forest in the sunset to drink at the river below. It was truly breathtaking.

Uvie Farm Roundhouse

Uvie Farm Roundhouse - What a place!

Roy (the genial proprietor) kindly gave me a lift to town for provisions and the evening was spent eating pasta and drinking wine, laughing, and relishing the beauty of the building and its surrounds.

Day 3 – 70km – Auchmore to Aviemore : Route Card

We rose to a low mist carpeting the valley floor all the way to the feet of the mountains on the other side. Looking across at it from the balcony was a most serene experience. The bikes looked like happy beasts grazing against the ash trunks of the balcony rails. The sight of Ian wandering across the view in his undies blew away the air of peaceful reflection replacing it with a sharp blast of icy reality.

Frosty Cattle

Frosty Cattle

Today to Aviemore. The start of the proper mountains.

In principle it should be a relaxing ride along the valley, heading off into the forests at the foothills of the Cairngorms to Feshiebridge and following the river Feshie north into Inverduie and Aviemore. What could be simpler?

200 yards in and the creaking in my pedal suddenly became a grinding noise. We stopped by the side of the road and watched the bearings roll (‘pour’ might be a more accurate term to use) out of the axle into Cliff’s hand as he slid the pedal from side to side on the spindle. “Did you service these before we came away?” he asked, looking down at the slimy black grit in his palm. “The problem with being a busy mechanic is that you always service other peoples bikes before your own” I said. “I did oil the chain before we left.” I decided that the pedal would have to last the journey. After all, the cage wasn’t coming off the axle and it was stuck to my foot. Oh, and there wasn’t a bike shop for miles either. We pressed on.

Joining General Wade’s military road again, we crossed and recrossed the A9 before passing the impending Ruthven barracks near Kingussie. “What’s this place then, Steve?” asked Ian. “Kinggussie Castle” I explained. “It was built by the last black King of Scotland – a man named Gus (Gussie to his friends), in order to defend the highland back passage”. I think he nearly believed me.

After a short while we turned off the track up a steep hill into the woods of Drumguish and were passed by a young Lance Armstrong type on a road bike. The little sod didn’t even slow down to say hello, and was positively ignorant of my pleas for him to carry my rucksack. The youth of today eh?

Past Drumguish itself we entered the pine fresh forest and rode some fast fire tracks before sweeping through tight bends down to a choice of ford or footbridge (we all, being rather forded-out, went for the footbridge) and then ventured out onto a wide plain with a large sheepfold. A rather provident log sufficed as a pretty decent chair for our packed lunch. The lunch log was becoming a bit of a habit.

The lunch log. Cairngorms ahead.

The lunch log. Cairngorms for pudding.

Cheese and onion pasty. Mmmm. The other lads tucked into home made steak pies and yoghurts. Personally, I’ve never understood why you’d even think about carrying a creamy liquid in your bag – it seems like dangerous territory to be venturing into, especially when you have a limited supply of clothes. I had fewer issues however with the steak pies (despite being a confirmed veggie) – they looked delicious.

Crossing the plain, we headed back into the forest for a short blast down to the river and then a roll south before the first serious technical section of the trip – a steep 12 foot downhill to the footbridge. Woot! (No-one fell off)

By now the route card system was working really well – every obstacle/turning/feature was properly marked and I was even mastering ripping the waterproof card-folder from Dave’s bar bag without crashing. We headed north along some lovely single track, until the expected hostel appeared and we veered right into the woods. At the next junction the whole thing fell apart. What should have been a three way split turned out to be only a two-way split. I chose to go left as we were supposed to go left at the 3-way. Left at the two-way however, turned out to be the middle route of the 3 way (that left turn must have been lost to the forest). Straight on then into a technical and steep climb, shaded from the cooling wind by the thick forest canopy and mountain side. The sun though didn’t care about the thick forest canopy or mountain side, and beat down on us like never before. After a kilometre or so we were sweating but a left turn arrived as expected, so we carried on. The climb got steeper. We sweated more. And as we sweated we climbed. And as we climbed the track got narrower. And as the track got narrower the heather got thicker and our shins got redder. The sun beat down. The top finally became visible. At a height of 650m. “Erm. This can’t be right!”

Overheated Climb

Overheated Climb

It was now that I realised my error. We’d pushed our bikes up a mountain we had no need to climb, but at least the view across to Aviemore was fantastic. We’d also earned an inevitable downhill too, so that was something to look forward to. Except we were back in the same situation as day 1 – there was no downhill. The hillside was covered in even thicker heather with no trail at all. Dave wasn’t amused. Cliff tried to ride down it, predictably ending up over the bars. Twice. To add insult to injury my pedal finally gave up the ghost and separated into its component parts. I searched frantically for the pedal cage, only to discover it was still attached to my foot.

Just Heather

No way down.

So, we clambered through the heather, pedals scraping fresh wounds on our legs, and tried to look on the bright side – we knew there was double track in the forest at the foot of the hill. It was just a matter of finding it. Dave hauled his bike over, through and occasionally under the heather until we reached the trees. There was no sign of the track. Desperation began to set in. Where the hell was the track? We split up to look for it, but in the end Ian’s iPhone came to the rescue, locating the track for us with a helpful little arrow guiding us to it. Don’t you just hate technology?

After finding the track (by cheating) I was determined to get the lads lost again as soon as possible, and so after suddenly recognising where we were (I’d visited the same spot a couple of years before in mid-Winter) I led them through some overgrown bushes to a nearby footbridge across the river. We then hauled the bikes up a steep, wet overgrown bank into the woodland. Very steep. Very overgrown. And slippy. It was at this point that rebellion set in. I’m not sure whether it was the constant dragging the bikes instead of riding them, the desire to finish before dark for a change, or the imagined beckoning of the distant youth hostel, but the lads were determined not to scramble through the mud any further. Sometimes I just don’t understand what makes people tick.

We headed south instead, coming back onto the planned route at last, only going the wrong way. Still, at least we were making some decent speed the wrong way. And it was a relief not to be tearing our shins off in the heather. It also meant I didn’t have to try as hard to keep my pedal on its axle. Bonus.

We made it to Inverdruie in time to find the bike shop still open. Thanks here go to Ian for putting metal to the pedal, and buying me a lovely new pair of Crank Brothers’ Candy Cs – super sweet. I added a left hand crank arm to the shopping list (that pedal really was stuck), and my bike was almost as good as new again.

A short roll and we were in Aviemore looking for the youth hostel. It was located at the opposite end of the street we’d just ridden down of course, and so a return blast through the town and we were there. Taking off our shoes. Carrying our bikes through the reception into the courtyard, and then piling into our way too small room.

Delicious ale and curry that evening from a great little hidden-away Aviemore pub – the Old Bridge Inn.

Day 4 – Aviemore to Tomintoul (The Highlands’ highest village) : Route Card

There was no breakfast at the Youth Hostel. I suppose we could have bought some from a nearby shop, but the prospect of an amazing coffee and an awesome fry up from the Mountain Cafe was too much to resist. It was about 11:00am by the time we’d sated our appetites and set off on the next leg of the journey.

Out of Aviemore to Inverdruie then left to the far end of the Glenmore Forest, before turning back south through the woods to meet Loch Muich at the turning into Glen More itself. It was here that we ought to have made the decision whether to head into the mountains (around Cairngorm and along Glen Avon, before heading north along Strath Avon) or take the lower, slightly shorter route northwards. Fortunately, tired legs and a late start had already made the decision for us, and so in Glen More we followed the track northwards to the bothy.

The Bothy

The Bothy. Shortly before The Rain.

We stopped to look in just as the rain caught up with us, and so took the opportunity to change into waterproofs before continuing north to the first of several river crossings of the day. Into the woods then and some beautiful singletrack, before farm buildings, a few houses, and an impossible to find ford across yet another river.


Somewhere near here is a ford.

I thought my feet were already pretty wet, so decided to try hopping over the rocks to the other side. Unfortunately my hopping technique leaves a lot to be desired and I soon discovered what it meant to have really wet feet. Not happy. Goretex works fine at keeping out water unless you completely circumnavigate it by filling your socks from the top.

With the others across less damply, we trudged through a farm into a beautiful woodland where a cold wet log invited us to sit for lunch. Several thousand small biting creatures also took the opportunity to dine. On us.

Feeding time.

Feeding time.

After lunch and the wood came a small swampy field to cross, and by the end of the crossing I felt much happier – everyone else now had wet feet. A problem shared is a problem halved – isn’t that what ‘they’ say?

Then a long road ride (4 miles) skirting another woodland, before we turned off the road past a derelict old hunting lodge (deer skulls decorated the eaves) and into the hills. The track wound up and up, 2 long steep climbs past more ruins into an ever more desolate landscape, before it ended suddenly in a narrow ravine. Here I took a bearing and we began to push the bikes over the summit of the nearest hill, looking to meet the end of a similar track further on.

Climbing to Tomintoul

Climbing to Tomintoul

By now everyone was knackered, and it was with some relief that we stopped to watch a hare jump up from its cover and race across the summit ahead of us, its silhouette clear in the setting sun. Clive was of course, already further ahead than the rest of us and was actively chasing the hare that he’d spotted.

With more relief still we spotted the track, and were soon edging (quite literally) along the edge of a huge gorge down to the river Avon and then into the grid-based layout of Tomintoul.

Looking at Tomintoul from the map, one could be forgiven for thinking it possibly a dismal place – the rows of houses reminded me of the small single street village we’d ridden through on a previous trip where women eyed us suspiciously from behind net curtains and doorways as we drifted through the town on saddleback. Men pulled aside their ponchos to reveal Smith and Westerns etc. etc. So it was a pleasant surprise to arrive in the pretty town of Tomintoul and and even lovelier surprise to find such a welcoming B&B. A couple from South Africa were the proprietors and were expecting us to be more depressed than we were, I think. The landlady intimated that most people arrived feeling rather tetchy after a long day in the saddle. We didn’t choose the route most people do, opting for an extra helping of climbing and moorland slogging, but I think we were still happier than most of their guests. Dinner was organised in a whisk thanks to the landlady, and we were showered, changed and ordering dinner in the nearby Clockhouse Restaurant within half an hour. And what a dinner. Words can’t describe how delicious it was. Or how big the nearby whiskey bottle was.

Day 5 – Tomintoul to Ballater 46km : Route Card

Thank god we hadn’t started on the whiskey. Today was to be wild enough.

After breakfast, and disposing of a pair of cold, damp socks into the bin, we managed to fit everything back into our bags, and headed to the local shop to buy supplies. The vegetarian choice wasn’t great and I ended up with a small packet containing some kind of flat bread cakes. Very odd. I supplemented that with a banana. Nice. Everyone else had steak pie. Oh, and Dave was already carrying an emergency sausage snaffled from breakfast (by this point in the ride the contents of his panniers had been depleted by at least a half!)

Heading south west from town we followed the road back to the river and then turned due south along its easterly bank. The road rose and fell along the side of the valley and appeared in far too good a condition for it to go nowhere. About 10km along the trail we discovered the large lodge that gave the road its purpose, and past this the going wasn’t so smooth. It was however more beautiful, despite the clouds now lingering on the tops of the low hills. Cliff took the opportunity of a wide river crossing to demonstrate his considerable dismounting skills…..

River Crossing. Or not.

River Crossing. Or not.

As we continued we began to climb steadily and, after the first puncture of the trip, we reached Loch Builg and some exquisite technical single track riding alongside. Past the loch we crossed a small river by footbridge and then followed boggy landrover tracks higher into the hills and clouds. The tracks became almost unrideable; deep ruts with soft mud meant it was difficult to pedal and balance at the same time. Cliff waited till he was atop one of the ruts before toppling down into a ditch running alongside (he was having a bad day). The track went on for ever. Then it went round a corner and continued some more. At one point my bike rusted away completely in the damp cloud-swamp, and soon after that everyone died. Eventually though we made the top. The view was stunning – a solitary cairn , and a full blanket of grey cloud surrounding it completely.

It's life captain.

It's life captain.

We decided not to hang about on the top, but instead to descend on the recent 2 lane highway we’d come across. Well, it was actually visible as 2 firm(ish) tracks as opposed to 2 sodden ruts.

Soon we re-entered the real world, dropping below the clouds for the first time in some hours. Balmoral Castle sat peacefully in the green world below us and I descended slowly, taking in the tranquil atmosphere. The others forced their way through the atmosphere at break-neck speed, glad to be finally going in the right direction (down). I even witnessed Dave getting some air – quite how he managed to get all the weight off the ground I still haven’t fathomed.

At the bottom we met the A9. We were frozen. “Is there anything at Balmoral?” someone croaked. “Erm, a castle?”

It turned out there was a visitor centre too, and fierce cries echoed through the valley upon Cliff’s discovery that it served “HOT DRINKS! HOT DRINKS!” As well as an instant-hot-flavoured-liquid dispenser, the visitor centre was also equipped with a roving CTC member on classic steel tourer, and had the most ferocious hand drier known to man. Despite melting through gloves, skin and bone in seconds, the drier finally succumbed to our determined efforts to absorb any and all heat, and gave up the ghost. Time to get back on the bikes then.

Instead of continuing off-road into the next valley we opted for an ‘easy’ ride along the valley floor to Ballater. This meant tearing along as fast as possible practising our chain gang technique: Ian and I took turns in the front and Clive just sat at the back. By the time he came through to lead (about 5 miles in) I didn’t even have the strength to get on his wheel, so decided to stop for some energy bar. Oh, I haven’t mentioned the energy bars! Whilst delicious on the first day, full of chewy banana and random fruit-filled goodness, by day 5 they were becoming a little tedious. I looked at them as hobbits might look at Lambas bread; I longed for peas.

We arrived in Ballater early. It was actually still daylight. We found the nearest bike shop, tea shop and map shop and then relaxed outside the first. Dave bought me some Seal Skin waterproof socks for my birthday (Nice one Dave!) I’m not exactly sure what other people did here. I remember that at one point I was talking to a Second World War veteran about his medals, how he’d met his wife (from Swadlincote) and his famous friend who used to own a fishing tackle shop, when I saw Ian wander by, but what the others did is a mystery. I’m not sure I was wholly with it. A large bucket of tea brought me round though.

We headed off to the Old Schoolhouse, our bed and breakfast for the night, and were enthusiastically welcomed at the door by our hostess, Cathy. She pointed out that we didn’t need to get entirely naked before entering as she had no carpets (though she didn’t mind if we did), so we dumped our bikes in the back garden and dragged ourselves through to the bedroom, where the daily race for the shower took place. (Actually, that’s not exactly true; I was always the first one in the shower all week. I think the others might have been being kind as it was my birthday, but it was more probably due to the fact that I was always the first one ready)

The landlady had lit a fire for us, so we stacked our boots up in front of the guard and lazed about soaking up the warmth, looking at maps, reading books and playing guitar. Very, very, lovely. Dinner was at a nearby pub. I’ll just say that I wish I hadn’t had the lasagne.

Day 6 –  Ballater to Glen Clova (Planned route: 39.2km). : Actual: 90km : Route Card

Toast and porridge for breakfast today. The toast was delicious, but the porridge was very traditional – salted and made with water. Looking outside at the clouds tearing across the sky I think it may have been a foretaste of what was to come.

We made a good start (9am) knowing that we were in for a long day. We were to climb Mount Keen at 939m (our first Munro of the ride) and then three more Corbets before reaching the bunkhouse at the hotel.

We headed south over the bridge and then on a way-marked track through a small wood before emerging onto our first climb of the day. It was a good one. We were all suffering now after 5 days in the saddle, our legs like dead logs, and it was a long slog into a strong wind before we collapsed behind cover near the top of the first ridge. At times like these you just focus on getting yourself to the top and as we all spread out across the climb I looked up only occasionally at the others, wondering if they were in as much pain as I was.

We dropped and climbed again – another long, killer slog – and then crossed peaty heathery bog land before finally winding our way on narrow paths down to the foot of Mount Keen. We stared at it from the footbridge. It didn’t look too hard. Steep, but the track was visible.

Mount Keen.

Mount Keen. Keen? Not very.

As we set off we were caught by a couple of mountain bikers from Leeds. Apparently she had a penchant for peaks and so they had to bag this one as it was “mostly ridable” according got a magazine article they’d read. We all laughed as we looked and the boulder strewn track, getting ever steeper, and ever more boulder-strewn, ascending into the clouds, then began pushing our bikes. They soon made ground ahead (they had fresh legs and unloaded bikes) so we plodded on behind, perfecting our ‘lift/push, brake, climb’ technique. The ground beneath us became ever more treacherous, damp, and slippy, as we entered the clouds, and we finally lost sight of the couple ahead of us.

As we neared the top, the wind picked up and the clouds closed in. It was bitter cold. The bikes began acting like kites, almost blowing out of our grip into the sodden air. The Leeds couple blew back past us, heading back down to the peace of the valley below.

Atop a mountain?

The summit is up here somewhere.

The Cairn

The Cairn.

After scrambling over rocks for some time, we eventually stumbled across the summit cairn, visible from only about 10 feet away. The cold and biting wind forced a very short stop for a very quick photograph and then it was time to head on down.

There was a little concern amongst some members of the group that we would be lost on top and head off the wrong way, but I took a bearing, led the way over more rocks and further into the cloud and, after about 100 yards, the well marked path emerged as if by magic beneath our feet.

By the time we hit the bottom of the valley, everyone was knackered. The planned route headed west along the northern shore of Loch Lee, before climbing again to 840m on the slopes of Ben Tirran. No-one fancied it. Instead we opted to continue east along the floor of Glen Mark and Glen Esk to Edzell and see how we felt once we got there. Once we got to Edzell however, we decided, after a quick call to the hotel, and without much consensus, to continue to our planned destination at Glen Clova. By now the rain had begun to pour down and the light was fading. Morale quickly followed suit. The day ended with Clive and myself racing through the darkness to reach the hotel before the Chef packed up and went home, leaving the others to drag themselves along behind us.

On arrival at the hotel the waitress looked at us solemnly before announcing that the kitchens were closed. We’d missed out by 6 minutes. The she burst out laughing, and the rest of the guests in the restaurant cheered. I nearly killed her there and then.

11 hrs in the saddle. Tired and slightly hysterical.

11 hrs in the saddle. Tired and slightly hysterical.

A hearty meal and a couple of beers later, and we were all much more cheerful. Well, we would have been if we weren’t so bloody tired.

Only one more day to go though, so our spirits were definitely lifted by the realisation that we were actually going to make it. That, and a more general trauma-induced hysteria.


Day 7 – Glen Clova to Montrose

My 40th birthday. It was raining. Dark grey curtains of black rain, drops the size of your fists.

I arrived at the bike to find it decorated with balloons. Thinking that this might actually make the bike a little lighter, I decided to ride with them attached.

Happy bloody birthday!

Happy bloody birthday!

We headed out from the bunkhouse for one last off-road section, climbing out of Glen Clova to drop into the next valley of Glen Prosen, before the final road slog across the plain to Montrose.

The rain got heavier. I’m not really sure how that was possible, but it did. Within about 200m we were all soaked to the skin. Goretex schmoretex. Scottish rain finds its way through (or past) anything. The trail was just a stream, which slowly turned into a river, then became a bog, before transforming itself into a lake. I was getting a bit worried that we’d arrive at the sea and not even notice.

After dropping into Glen Prosen, it was all road to Montrose. 35 miles. One long wet drag. We stopped for lunch in Brechin, where a kindly cafe owner allowed us to drench the floor with our wetness, whilst we scoffed almost everything she was selling. She said the rain was quite bad; the local brewery had been forced to close due to flooding.

Once we’d finished eating, she swilled us out of the door and back onto our bikes for the final stretch. It was bitterly cold, so we just pushed hard to get warm. And then it happened; Montrose arrived. We headed to the sea for the obligatory coastal photograph, and then dashed for the luxurious dryness of our hotel. The ride was finally over.

At the sea! The ride is over!

At the sea! The ride is over!

Is 40. Looks 50. Feels 60.

Is 40. Looks 50. Feels 60.

The ride proper ended of course with a grand piss-up and a slap up meal to celebrate the end of the ride and my 40th birthday. What better way to spend a milestone occasion, then with great friends after an awesome ride. Roll on 50!

Useful info:

Check the route cards for info on accommodation, local bike shops etc. but bear in mind that these may be somewhat out of date: Bothy Bikes in Aviemore for instance has moved. Prices are likely to be wrong.

A Kit List for the stuff I carried is here. Carry less at your peril. Spread tools out amongst group members and try not to duplicate!

One Response to Coast to Coast Scotland

  1. Bruce says:

    Whilst planning my next mtb adventure , I decided to put the obligatory words into google “coast to coast , Scotland , bike” . After a few pages of organised trips , I came across your story and proceeded to read . I’m not much of a spirited reader , but after a few lines I was captivated and the tears were running down my face with laughing . I know the feeling well to have this image of a beautiful sunlit mtb track heading off into the glorious scenery , only to be dashed by the reality of freezing rain , peat bogs and trails that dont go where you thought they would . Recently I had an experience on an epic day trip that made me want to track down Mr Bartholomew ( of ordnance survey fame ) , with map in hand , and remove the need for him to ever use toilet paper again . Many thanks for sharing your story , and I’m sure those memories will last a lifetime . As you rightly said , there would be little memory of a piss-up in years to come . All the best . Bruce.

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