Flying with bikes.
So, we’re off to the land of rain and rock. Let’s hope our bikes and equipment make it there in one piece. I was considering getting some hard cases for the bikes but my LBS guy recommended using the OEM shipping boxes instead. We had already used these boxes for the trip to Tenerife, and they were pretty beaten up to begin with. Well there’s nothing a few meters of gaffer tape won’t fix, so we decided to reuse the cardboard boxes.
During our approach to Frankfurt we had another aircraft landing on a parallel runway.
Our first day in Scotland consisted of being reminded of how seriously the locals take their breakfast and some up and downhill in Laggan Wolftrax.
There is no lift and some riders had small buses to take them uphill wit their bikes. We could only look enviously while cranking uphill with our enduros. It was well worth it though. The runs were nice and consistent. Especially both red routes were very enjoyable, with the upper red being our favourite. I also dropped down the black, which was steep and technical here and there. Enjoyable too.
There was a bit of a crowd on the hill, with several women riding too. I was happily reminded how much bigger the sport is in the UK, without the traditional gender roles we have in Finland.
Our adventure would start in Inverness. Driving up there, we took the opportunity for some sightseeing. TKS-1 was up to her normal mischief.
My Slash 7 had developed an irritating glitch on the rear mech. It just wouldn’t line up the chain would rattle and ghost shift every now and then. I assumed the dropout had been damaged during air transport. Just to be sure, I took the bike to Bikes of Inverness. They changed the dropout and tuned the gears. It was a lot better but not perfect. This would be the condition during the rest of the trip. Little did I know, that the mech itself was bent and would be replaced two weeks later in Finland. Replaced with a lot of other parts. The bikes took a beating on this trip.
Scotland coast to coast. Day 1. Learnie Red Rock and van riding.
I have to admit I’m not a big fan of group things. With group things I mean commercial trips involving a group of strangers partaking in a leisure activity. I mean I like people just fine but committing yourself to a week long mountain bike ride with strangers is risky business. Having said that, this was the first group thing I ever partook in. Naturally, I was more than a little wary, when eyeing my companions to be for the next week or so.
The trip TKS-1 and I found ourselves on was organized by H&I Adventures
. We chose them as they seemed to have good grip on things. We had been in contact earlier during the year and all communication had been prompt, friendly and intelligent. The trip we decided to go on was Scotland coast to coast.
We chose this, as it was a long continuous trip in the Highlands as opposed to light biking around the lakes or a DH centre type of event. We decided to go on this commercially as it would have been a lot of hassle trying to organize this by ourselves.
We met outside Inverness Railway Station and unloaded our kit from the rental car to the H&I van. Our bikes were strapped to their bike trailer. We also met up with the rest of the group. Our companions would be a Swiss couple, a French couple, an American woman and a British guy. Adding us and the two guides, there would be ten sets of tyres on the trails. The Brit was riding a hard tail with everyone else on full suspension bikes.
We had a brief supply stop at a supermarket where we shopped for all trail and recovery food. The guides gave some solid advice on what to think about in terms of keeping fit to ride long days back to back. We also got a full briefing of the following days during lunch, after which we got on the van and drove north.
After lunch we headed to a local mountain bike park. I’m not sure which one it was but Learnie Red Rock sounds familiar. It may have been that one. Anyhow, we unloaded the bikes and took a spin in the trails. The guides also did a skill check and gave people a hand if they weren’t familiar with shifting weight around the bike or bunny hopping. Apparently the trails would contain a lot of rocky water bars which punish careless riders with snakebites without hesitation.
After the skill stuff we did some more cycling before heading back to the van. We spent our night in fantastic accommodation in Dornoch.
Scotland coast to coast, Day 2. Bonar Bridge to Ullapool. 60 km / 1000m.
Our first day of riding dawned grey and drizzly. Breakfast was as Scottish as it gets, which was just fine as we would need the energy. After a short van shuttle to Bonar bridge we were ready to properly start this thing. We would not see the van for almost a week. Except for a planned boat ride we and would have to rely on ourselves and our bikes to get this thing done. I was a little nervous as the group had seemed pretty solid climbers at Learnie. Us, coming from a flat country, were struggling on the uphills. Well, especially me. TKS-1 climbs well but the Specialized Enduro is a heavy bike for her weight.
The ride was pleasant. We rode started off on tarmac in increasing rain. Apparently the weather conditions in Finland and Scotland are very similar. Everyone had proper rain gear so it wasn’t an issue. Apparently nobody had any misconceptions of the local conditions. There was some climbing to be done but the inclines were long and gentle.
It was actually a very nice introduction into the beautiful local scenery and terrain. Unfortunately we also made first contact with the local nuisance; midges
. We’re used to mosquitoes in Finland and also have midges, but in small numbers. I had no idea how irritating the little vermin could be in large numbers. With mosquitoes you can at least see them and have something to aim. With midges, there’s nothing to do except keep moving.
Another interesting local speciality was the Scottish bothy
. We have hundreds of these in northern Finland. I always thought it’s a bit of a Nordic thing, deriving from the generous freedom to roam legislation of the northern social democratic states. I’d seen some in the French alps in my climbing days but had no idea they also existed here. Anyhow, they were a nice way to have a break from the midges and have a bit of lunch in peace.
The ride ended sweetly. A nice long downhill single track to Ullapool. A very good day indeed. It was great to finally start this thing and also get acquainted with our group. All my fears were washed away with the Scottish rain. The people of the group were great. A fun bunch to be around.
Scotland coast to coast, Day 3. Ullapool to Poolewe. 60 km / 1500 m.
Dawn broke in beautiful weather. We were lucky, as foul weather would have meant a van transfer to the beginning of the trail. Now we had the luxury of a RIB ride from Poolewe to Badluarach Ferry Landing on Little Loch Broom. This would be the biggest day.
The ride started with a long climb in a beautiful setting. We were pushing over the hills towards Achneigie cottage, east of Loch Na Sealga. The long climb was rewarded with a spirited downhill on good dual track. It was hard keeping eyes on the track as the scenery from the road was truly breathtaking. Everything had completely changed from the other side of the hills. You could have would back your clock a hundred years and see little change. This was apparently as remote as it gets in Scotland.
We dropped down on to the valley floor and continued on the north ban k of the river to Achneigie cottage. Nobody needed a break so we continued west towards Loch Na Sealga. Alex, our guide, had warned us that this section of trail is very prone to dealing out damage to the bikes. It has some narrow sections with high turf that rear mech tend to get caught on. It was warm and sweaty. Luckily there was a lot of running water so we could refill our Camelbaks frequently.
We arrived on Loch Na Sealga. The trail had claimed a casualty as the Frenchman’s rear mech had been tagged. The dropout had sheared off instead of breaking. There was no way to fix it. We devised a workaround by chopping the chain and turning the bike into a single speed. It wasn’t perfect but at least it wasn’t a long walk ahead. We crossed Loch Na Sealga and headed in a generally southwestern direction towards the hills. This would be the last long climb of the day, but it would be tough.
The trail got steeper and steeper with some carrying action for the last half hour or so. Reaching the col was bliss, and we were treated to more beautiful scenery. The last section had been punishing so we took a break before the long rocky downhill to Dubh Loch.
The downhill section was rocky and fast with several water bars. Everyone made it down in one piece. I was pretty impressed with Brit riding all this on a hard tail. I was wishing I had had a Session or Demo for this stuff. Not to mention body armour. Even with the Slash I had to pick lines and bunny hop water bars. With a DH bike you could have just gone straight through the obstacles.
There was a strange causeways between Dubh Loch and Fionn Loch. We stopped there for some faffing about and what not. Weather was turning sour so after putting on my rain gear I was anxious to get moving. Bloodthirsty midges not being the smallest reason.
The afternoon was marked with a lot of punctures and the group split into two. TKS-1, myself and the Swiss were riding out with Alex. Our other guide, Kevin the poet, was bringing in the rear. I must say this section was probably the highlight of the trip for me. It was a long twisting single track with good surface. We were in pouring rain with the trails becoming stream. Water was everywhere and I could almost feel my brake pads wearing out with every squeeze of the lever. I ended up changing my pads every second day. Water and grit will do that to pads.
As we descended the single track turned into a forest road. It just got even better and better. Or actually absurd. Apparently a local farmer had been feeding his cattle on the road so there were huge piles of dung littered on the road. It had mixed with the rain and the mud. We were still going pretty fast and dung piles were not my main main concern. Having said that I made sure I had my mouth shut every time I went over a pile, and the front tyre sprayed me with the Scottish chocolate shake. Lovely.
Scotland coast to coast, Day 4. Poolewe to Kinlochewe. 40 km / 850 m.
Waking up, we were pretty worn from the previous day. Luckily this would be a shorter ride. The route was nice, but nothing compared to the previous day. The highlights were some steep technical sections and a road that wasn’t really a road. Rather a trail that had suffered some serious water damage and picking a line through it was challenging and fun.
Scotland coast to coast, Day 5. Kinlochewe to Annat. 50 km / 1500m.
Apparently in Scotland the long days always involve two long climbs and two descents. At least that’s the pattern I’ve found. This day would be testament to that theorem. We started off on tarmac before peeling off to a dirt track, climbing up into the hills. Some of the group wanted to take an easier route so the went their separate way at some point. We would meet them later on down the trail.
Climbing up to the first col was pretty rough. I was mostly walking my bike instead of riding it. We took a short break on the col. It was very windy so we took shelter behind some rocks. After a maybe half an hour more on the trail we hooked up with the rest of our group. They were huddled at a bothy, where we also took a break before pushing on.
We climbed up the valley for quite a while. I remember thinking that this trail is really getting pretty bad and wondering where it was going. At some point I realized that the only exit would be over the huge wall towering in front of me. I had already been skeptical of the trail and now made up my mind that Scotland was not suitable for mountain biking. Then again that’s probably the feeling you get anywhere in the world if you’re exhausted and carrying your bike uphill. It just doesn’t make too much sense at that point. All those thoughts would evaporate shortly though.
None of the hills are very high compared to the Alps for example. So no climb is really that long. Sure enough we made it to the col and the payoff would be good. A long technical single track downhill all the way down to Torridon.
The ride down really was superb, but I was seriously slowed down by sheer fatigue. I think everyone was. Also a lot of the bikes had punctures which was nipping at peoples nerves. We’d start downhill and get warmed up only to stop and spend twenty minutes waiting for a tube being changed. Then start cold again. I was getting tired and managed to go over the handlebars once. Luckily without damage. We all finally made it down in one piece and stumbled into a pub conveniently at the bottom of the run.
After some quick pints we packed our stuff into the van and shuttled from Annat to Shieldaig, where our home would be for the next two days. The next day would be a long awaited rest day.
Scotland coast to coast, Day 6. Do nothing day.
This was a day off. Some people went for a walk. I sat in all day and read a book and ate chocolate. A perfect day to break the pace.
Scotland coast to coast, Day 7. Shieldaig to Applecross. 40 km / 1000 m.
Our last day of the trip started with a long section of tarmac. The terrain was….undulating. I think I must have heard that description a hundred times during the week. Anyhow, we kept climbing up towards a trail head. My rear shifter had gotten stiffer and stiffer and finally, with a loud snap stopped working. I was stuck on third gear in the back I think. Pushing the bike up the hill I was mentally recapping the last four weeks. We had been riding a lot in tough conditions. We’d had several water crossings in Finland and Scotland as well as riding in rain for days. So it was no wonder that the bike was starting to yield to the pressure.
The ride consisted of a climb, undulating highland terrain and a descent. It was beautiful, but it was nothing we hadn’t already seen. Except maybe for the sunshine and extremely fierce wind.
It was bittersweet. Every kilometer gained put us closer to the end. It had been a very good week with new friends made and outstanding riding done. I felt a little sad knowing that I would soon have to say goodbye to everyone I had shared all this with. Most of these people I would never meet again. You always exchange contacts but the fact of the matter is that you forget what has passed, during the things to come.
After a descent plagued by the high winds, we arrived in our destination, Applecross. There, on the shore of Applecross Bay, we had some cake and a glass of Irn-Bru, before packing our bikes on the rack for the last time. The ride was over.
SCOTLAND COAST TO COAST, the post-mortem.
We had a final dinner with our friends in Inverenss, before parting ways. The next day we packed up our bikes and left them with H&I to be couriered home. We still had a couple of days to kill and didn’t want to drag the bikes around. On the train to Edinburgh TKS-1 and I were of course discussing the week.
It had been a very good week. I felt very fortunate of the companionship in the group. The guides and the other riders. It felt like a ride with friends. So a big thank you to Tintti, Barbara, Mike, Andy, Sarah, Gareth, Lena, Florian and Kevin.
Also big thanks go to Cat and Euan with H&I Adventures. H&I really had the trip planned and executed perfectly. Not only were the trails great and the guides professional and fun to be around. It was also the level of all arrangements outside of the cycling that amazed me. This would mean accommodation, restaurants, transport etc. H&I really had even the finest details sorted. I would definitely go on another trip with them. Actually I probably would have gone next summer, but my enduro project will keep me busy somewhere else. Anyhow, H&I are highly recommended. As for the riding, it was a tough trip. If I had fully known what I was getting into, I probably would not have gone. Which would have been a real shame as I’m incredibly happy that I did go in the end. Most progress happens outside of your comfort zone, and doing the thing you know doesn’t really take you that far. Sometimes progress happens, while carrying your bike up a Scottish hill, totally not suited for mountain biking.