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Rich Rothwell recently did the Cairngorms loop in one day, a pretty amazing ride, it would be great if one day Rich maybe put this on as an organised ride, I’m sure it would be well received! Here’s his story...
We are really lucky in the north to have so many amazing and easily accessible riding locations literally on our doorstep. The Cheviots, Lake District, Pennines, or Yorkshire, road or off road, there are rides to suit all interests and abilities. Perhaps my favourite place to ride a bike though, has to be the Scottish Highlands. Some of the big mountains are not as far as you might think. I learned this last year on a winter trip to the mighty Cairngorms. It’s just over there hours from Morpeth to Blair Atholl; the southern fringe of the range.
Slightly on a whim, and perhaps because I remembered that it wasn’t actually a million miles away, I found myself in the van on Saturday night, driving up the A9. Arriving at a deserted Blair Athol, I quickly prepped my stuff and curled up in my sleeping bag, ready for a 7am start.
I was woken early by the steady thrum of rain on the Transit roof… The forecast was for rain till mid day but otherwise a breezy and clear day. Heading north and west, the wind had a lot of calming down to do before I called it ‘breezy’! After some road and rough farm track sections, I was soon enjoying the singletrack and stunning backdrop of Loch Bhrodiann.
Wind and rain continued to chill me and it was clear that there would be little stopping; staying warm was paramount and would very important in the often remote and exposed terrain of the central Cairngorms. I was following the Cairngorm Loop; a classic long distance mountain bike route that is essentially a smaller inner loop followed by a larger outer one. It is 186 miles with some very technical sections and almost 4,000m of climbing. It was going to be tough, especially in what was starting to feel like winter conditions.
THE 800M ASCENT
After a few hours I met the junction at Feshiebridge to take me to the foreboding, (in these conditions at least) inner loop. Heading east, I passed Glenmore Lodge to face the massive climb and hike a bike up the Brynack Plateau ascent to 800m, and the really isolated central range. It was tough, but a good tailwind and a chat with a couple of mountain bikers broke up the wall of a climb.
Once up, the riding is superb; rocky and in a trials riding style. It was bitterly cold, and that ‘breeze’ was now a blasting icy gale. I was concerned about the Fords of Avon; a sometimes impassable river crossing which you do not want to take any risks on, especially in winter conditions. Luckily, it was fairly low and just required some careful foot placements and a bit of patience.
More rocks then the stunning long rocky Derry Burn descent. From here on, things got tough! Heading west and eventually north towards Glenfeshie Lodge, the full force of the wind hit me, making any forward progress challenging. It was cold, isolated, and the light was now fading.
THE OUTER LOOP
I returned to Feshiebridge and committed to the left now turn; I was heading out on the outer loop. Darkness was total by the time I reached Aviemore, and I came off the route to resupply at a petrol station. I had a real laugh with the lady working there whose husband, she classified as equally crazy, (until I told her just what I was doing; he’s not THAT crazy she laughed). I stood in the doorway hugging a cup of coffee. I really needed a bit of time out to warm up. It was going to be a long cold night with few places to hide from here on in.
Abernathy Forest was stunning in the dark as clouds danced across the almost full moon and, through to Tomintoul, I got some welcomed wind assistance. Heading south now, the wind turned to my side, and here it would remain until Braemar, over two and half hours later. Reaching Braemar required the ascent and descent of the flanks of Cullardoch. The sky had cleared now, the wind was howling, and it was bitingly cold. I did NOT want any form of mechanical; even when climbing, body heat was at a minimum. The descent was challenging and high speed. Frozen hands and feet felt numb, arms and legs lacked subtlety and flex, so extra care was taken.
Eventually down to Braemar (coldest average annual temperatures in the UK apparently) and I stopped to put a fresh dry top on. The impact was huge. My core temperature rose dramatically, and I pulled myself out of the mental slump the last couple of hours had dragged me into.
THE LAST LEG
'Just’ the headwind through Inverey, the Linn of Dee (for the second time) and Glen Tilt to go! Challenging, with a number of river crossings to navigate but beautiful nonetheless and the singletrack down Glen Tilt was fantastic, even if a little precipitous at times! The ‘official’ route takes you east up to Faeler Lodge for one final very tough climb and hike a bike. However, the route I had plotted took me directly down Glen Tilt and on to Blair Atholl via farm tracks. This turned out to be a good move time wise.
20 hours and 38 minutes after leaving Blair Atholl I returned. It was after 3am. I was frozen, wet but happy after an amazing adventure. My sleeping bag felt like pure luxury and I instantly fell asleep for three precious hours. I awoke feeling pretty good before driving back for work. Adventure is not a million miles away in the north of England! The Cairngorm Loop is an incredible ride, possibly my favourite UK long distance mountain bike route. OK, this was a big one, but pick your route, do a bit of planning, make the most of your weekend, and enjoy our great outdoors!