Words: Pete Scullion
Photos: Rosie Holdsworth
The idea behind this trip to the North West Highlands of Scotland was simple. My intrepid co-pilot Rosie Holdsworth and I both have our birthdays in the first week of April. Why not celebrate our existence by riding bikes for as long as humanly possible on the best trails available while taking full advantage of the ‘free’ days off on Easter weekend?
Part 1 - Barcachd
Originally we’d planned to start the trip with the final ‘Innerduro’ series at Innerleithen before heading north, rounding off the week with more riding closer to Edinburgh. This would be a test of our own ability to keep banging out massive rides day-on-day without succumbing to fatigue or bike failures.
On Good Friday, after half a day’s sleep, I decided that I’d be lazy and just pack all the riding kit I owned, plus my bike and all the usual ancillaries. The beauty of travelling in a 5-seater van with one other person is space, lots of it. We didn’t swing any cats, but we did do the trigonometry based on average cat size, and found there to be more than enough room available. Fuel costs go up as space per head increases, but it’s refreshing not to have to think of excess baggage or what you can humanly carry onto a train. It soon became clear that Rosie had clearly thought the same and for some reason decided to pack most of her things into a Dutch fishbox she’d found on a beach in Northumberland a few weeks prior. This packing method did, however, allow for a ridiculous quantity of double-entendres throughout the trip and I forgave the fact that it could fit nowhere comfortably in the van very quickly. With the fairly mundane task of putting items in a van complete, we headed off to the M65 where we’d be on cruise control until we met the A702 several hours later.
Our opening weekend’s plan went out the window when the Innerleithen race was cancelled due to a prodigious quantity of snow in the Tweed Valley. Riding at Aberfoyle became a very good alternative. And after we’d finished our second day of riding some of the best trails Stirlingshire had to offer, we trucked north up the A84/82 to Fort William for a curry and some chat with the baeys, before heading north again on Easter Monday.
Heading even further north
Heading north from Fort William might seem a little daft, especially 2 hours driving, but do stay with me. This is where choosing your co-pilot comes in most crucial. Iron Maiden’s lengthy and most excellent live albums really come into their own on this kind of drive, especially if you have two of them (albums, not co-pilots). We made the standard stop at the Commando Memorial above Spean Bridge that remembers those who have fallen serving our country but more specifically those who trained at the Marine camp in nearby Achnacharry. From the memorial onwards, the standard of the views increases exponentially.
Straight out of Spean Bridge, you follow Loch Lochy down a large part of its length before it is joined to Loch Oich by the Caledonian Canal. From there the road climbs relentlessly up to the spectacular Glengarry viewpoint, where all of the 360º available gives you a postcard photo. The road from here drops into the magnificent Glen Shiel, where, on a similar trip in October, we saw the spot where the red deer stags come off their lonely homes high on the mountains to smash seven bells out of each other to impress the ladies. Not a spot of alcohol in sight. A 12-pointer, quarter of a tonne cervus elaphus stag is an impressive sight alone, but even more so in battle. Out of Glen Shiel and past Eilan Donan castle, home of Conor McLeod, the road to Lochcarron becomes increasingly Alpine. 14% gradients are the norm with some concrete tunnels protecting the single-track road and the single railway line from the rocks falling from above.
Coire Fionnaraich Bridge Wrestling Championship
As we’d set off fairly early, we still had time to grab a few hours out on the bikes while the sun was up. It’s worth pointing out that all our routes started and finished at the car park near the bridge at Coulags, rather than from Torridon or Sheildaig. We opted for less driving and perhaps not riding the ‘classic’ Torridon routes. That said, as long as we were getting big days out in the hills, we wouldn’t be complaining.
Neither Rosie nor Sam (we’d picked Rosie’s brother Sam up in Fort William) had ridden the routes we’d planned to do and although I had, it didn’t seem to make me any less excited than them. In fact I’d say it would be safe in saying that we hit every available surface while rattling off the inside of the van en-route to Coulags. Bruce Dickinson was giving the mic a real hammering and we were ‘singing’ along like a brace of freshly neutered dogs. Once we’d parked up, so commenced the faff. Having two Holdsworths in tow, it took some time before we were ready to get going, and once we were, plenty of things had been left in the van as we were swinging legs over the bikes. That said, time was on our side at that point with the sun unusually high and strong for an April afternoon.
The climb up to the Coire Fionnaraich bothy is an awesome way to take in the views, get the legs warmed up and get your technical climbing/drainage bar hopping skills tuned up. Large parts of the path are loose quartzite, requiring a slow, methodical approach rather than just stamping on the pedals. Grip on the surfaced patches is unique in the fact that it is immeasurable. The dark gneiss seems to hate letting go of tyres and makes climbing fairly rapid where the legs allow.
Soon enough you come to a small wooden bridge, ideal for topping up the water supplies, as the H2O here is clean as you like and super tasty. I also saw it as a good opportunity to become Coire Fionnaraich Bridge Wrestling Champion of 2013. Think table wrestling, but with a river underneath the table. Heading past the bothy there’s a few big double rock water bars that you can launch over but require full commitment to avoid flats as I’d find out on the last day of the trip.
Above here the path looks groomed but it’s just an awesome piece of singletrack climbing that takes you to the first junction. We’d originally planned to head up to the Bealach a Choire Gairbh to make a loop around the western face of Maol Chean-deag, but with Rosie getting close to Grumplstiltskin and it being later in the day, we decided to turn back rather than risk being out in the dark. The ascent up to the Bealach is a tough one. Loose quartzite makes up the surface in various sizes and is too loose, steep and unpredictable to push the bike. This is proper hike-a-bike territory and we soon had bikes on backs looking like a right set of freeradders. Sam and Rosie had opted for sunglasses and they were looking like they’d come riding as Roy Orbison and Bono.
I’d kept my eyes fully exposed to the UV and continued looking like a cave-dweller. The hike to the top was slow going and in poor weather likely might not have been worth it, thankfully, being warm and sunny makes things very bearable, especially as the midgies were yet to appear. Once at the top of the bealach, me and Sam got wild for the camera while Rosie did her best to look like a pro spodder with a camera. The view from here is another postcard-fest. Sgorr Ruadh one way, Moal Chean-deag above us and An Ruadh-stac just obscuring the sun. Once Rosie had finished playing pro photographer, we headed off down one of the wildest descents I’ve ever ridden.
What made the climb tough going, made the descent equally as involved. Loose rock on a steep gradient is mental fun but can bite you at any time. All three of us just went floppy and allowed the bike to find its way down the hill, that was until Sam tried to ride a sheet of ice into a gulley, which still has me scratching my head as to how he rode it out... Big lumps of bedrock make an appearance and the ability to think fast and make the best of your chosen line is the only way to ride this trail. Speed is high and so is the risk of tomahawking off into the valley floor.
Sam and I chose to try and buzz each other’s tyres down here just to make things more interesting and it certainly led to a few close calls. Just before the final plummet to the bottom, a series of horrendously tight, loose switchbacks appear that need some Jedi mind tricks to conquer clean. So tight in fact that some serious weight needs to be placed on the front wheel, but so loose that you want all your weight anywhere other than where it is. On one corner I went for a front wheel washout to back wheel trials hop and had pretty much said my goodbyes. Once the paths link up again it’s all about the staying power. Descending past the bothy and the bridge is a hoot, favours the fit and the brave. So many lines are available but it’s far too good being a bit reckless and full bore tanking into corners or launching off a rock to clear a few others.
Moving on and the scalping shower
Spirits were high after the ride as it showed that even a short ride in this part of the world can take four and a half hours. A very good omen indeed. Stoke-O-Meters sumped out when we only got to the Lochcarron Hotel in time enough for mains, dessert would have to wait for another time. Rosie and I had opted to go for the ‘birthday present from the parents’ option of staying indoors. The Loch Dubh B&B in Lochcarron is the flippin’ business. £30 pppn, a bed that was possibly better to sleep in than my own, a shower that almost took your scalp off (that’s a good thing), plus some mighty breakfast options. Porridge and a Scottish breakfast were very much on the cards. Our host Emma was most welcoming, as was Woody, the 18-month old Collie that we almost stole.
Time to rest up for day 2!