I wanted to get a decent ride in before the end of summer. About 3 weeks ago I had set off from my friend’s near Chirk, to get onto Stuart’s Big Bear 530, in mid-Wales, but on the third day having reached Knighton, I abandoned it and got the train back to Chirk. Very wet conditions, very muddy trail, too much road (single track and no traffic, but more than a bit of road is too much for me).
So I downloaded the Deeside Trail gpx, it looked good, and if I set off from Blair Atholl it’s less driving plus more good riding up Glen Tilt, and I can do the best bits in the mountains.
So on Tuesday 5th September, after a 5 hour drive of 282 miles, torrential rain for the first hour or so, I arrived in Blair Atholl, found my pre-planned parking spot, unpacked the bike and gear, then spent half an hour pfaffing with my front tyre which was slowly leaking… (it was a sticky inner valve). So I finally got going at 2:34pm.
Wonderful easy riding up Glen Tilt:
as far as the Falls Of Tarf at 13 miles:
then the tricky 2 miles or so of single-track (ST) above the Allt Garbh Buidhe.
Past Bynack Lodge and Geldie Burn to arrive at White Bridge at about 6:30pm.
From here it was about 5 miles of seriously gnarly track only bits of it were rideable. It was going dark after 8:30 but I didn’t want to put my light on, I could just about see but with increasing difficulty. There’s always that little “ping” of anxiety when you’re on new ground, the weather is not peaceful, you’re tired, and you know that in the last few miles there was not one possible place to get a small tent up, just heather and boggy scrub strewn with rocks, so Corrour Bothy becomes something of a lifeline. I finally reached there at 9pm to find it full – it only sleeps 4 or 5 – there was room for one but it meant sleeping next to a dog (nothing against dogs as such but I need space and besides that I was on guard for ticks)… but there is suitable ground roundabout to pitch a tent… so I had the tent up in 10 minutes, and the food on, and by 11pm I was ready to sleep.
It was far too windy for the midge but these Corrour midges are super intelligent ! They’ve worked out that the doorway to your tent is out of the wind, so a few of them did manage a meal out of me as I was cooking.
Magic place underneath the Devils Point (my tent on the right)
Following day (Wednesday) I was ready for off at 7:30am having had a good breakfast of porridge and sultanas (800 cals freeze dried)
Again a lot of pushing for the first hour on the track over to Glen Derry:
The Bothy can be seen in the distance. then some very special ST and very rideable track dropping down into Glen Derry:
After Derry Lodge I had a confusing time trying to locate the track which goes uphill then eastwards to the wonderfully remote Clais Fhearnaig. A lot of this is rideable but I also took a lot of falls too (I still have a sore hand and a bruised right arm – I couldn’t unclip from my Eggbeaters fast enough and took a few tumbles, would have been better and safer with flats).
Eventually you descend into Glen Quoich, and continue north on a good track. After nearly a mile you turn right on another track and head eastwards, river on the right. You come to a point close to the river where, across the river, there is a distinct track which doglegs back to the south….(more later !). But the track keeps north of the river on a small ST through the pines and heather.
A strange thing happened after this… After riding for a mile or so I thought I should check my route. I couldn’t work out why I was going directly south of the river ! I should have been north of it and going east !
So I had to go back north to get to the point I was at earlier – I was somehow on the track which I mentioned earlier, which “doglegged south”.
The only explanation I have is that after making a mental note of the track on the other side of the river, and proceeding on a ST through the trees and heather, which was rideable but hard work, I do remember stopping a few times to take my jacket off, ride a bit, then the drizzle came, so stop again to put jacket on… and this happened a lot, and every time I stopped the midge congregated, so a bit of a rush to get moving again. On one if these stops I must have somehow turned the bike sideways, then unknowingly gone back the way I had come ! (nothing very distinctive about the scenery except that it all looked the same with pines and heather and little knolls everywhere). I do remember gingerly crossing the river to keep feet dry (to pick up a track on the other side) not realising that this track was the “dogleg” !!!
So I had to backtrack to where the dogleg starts and do all the hard work again on the ST through the pines and the heather, eventually coming out in open country with great views of the north top of Beinn a Bhuird.
Time to eat a bit near this stream:
Tricky navigation after this, about 2 miles from Craig an Dail Mhor and Craig an Dail Bheag:
Totally remote, the track somehow finds a way through this pass, on and off riding but when you reach the flat bottom of the pass, there is a little sliver of a track dodging boulders and rocks but sometimes you are forced to push…
This section seemed to go on for ages, very tiring with technical riding, then jumping off and pushing, then back on again until when you can see Culardoch you know there is a totally rideable Land Rover track, which takes you towards Loch Builg, then heads eastwards towards Ballater.
Had a chat with two locals in their seventies who had just descended Culardoch and had seen me in the distance and wondered if there was a rideable track… they had very smart looking mtb e-bikes, so we rode together towards Loch Builg.
After a few miles on this very good track I missed a turning (again ! ) probably due to problems with the Garmin Dakota 20…
1) it turns itself off from time to time
2) the touch screen must be nearing the end of its life because to bring the screen up you have to prod it half a dozen times
This time though it had gone flat, so I quickly put new batteries in.
I’ll have to think about replacing it – but I need something that takes batteries.
(what’s a good replacement ?)
The correct track is a bit more vague than the one leading up the hill, which is not the way, and I only realised this at the top of the hill, where on checking the Garmin I found it stone dead ! New batteries needed. I couldn’t be bothered going back again, albeit downhill, so I carried on to reach the Old Military Road and headed north to pick up the route again. However I missed the turning for the off-road section so just took the A939 to Ballater, where at about 7:45pm I found the campsite, got the tent up, ate, and went to sleep despite the “street lights” and the steady hum of the electrics in the toilet block 50 yards away.
No great rush, I was going to have a sit down breakfast in Ballater. I left the campsite at 9ish, found a cafe, but it was too hot for me inside so I opted to sit outside in the rain (but there was a canopy so it was fine). A fine breakfast of porridge and sultanas with honey, beans and tomatoes on toast, and a pot of tea.
As I set off it was pouring down, and not warm, so after a mile I found enough shelter under a tree to strip off and put my lightweight fleece on under my Paramo jacket. Following the route, I took the track to the left which eventually reaches the minor road up Glen Muick, and at this point my route crosses the river to get on the track through the woods all the way to the Spittal of Glen Muick. Great difficulty because there was a track leading to a couple of cottages, then another one just ahead, so I went round in circles for a bit before deciding it must be the one ahead, where there was a sign “Road Closed”. After a couple of hundred yards on this the tarmac stopped abruptly leading to a cliff edge 20 feet above the river ! The road had collapsed and there was no sign of any bridge, so I had no other option but to take the road on the west of the river, 6 miles to the Spittal of Glen Muick.
Could have done with a cafe at this point but no chance, so ever onward in the rain to start the ascent between Lochnagar and Conachraig…
Some pushing but after a bit I could ride, albeit in the lowest gear, and with a lot of effort. On top the rain and wind was worse so I sped on hoping to escape it. It was cold going down and I needed to get my fleece back on, but there was no way I was going to ‘undress’ in the rain… eventually towards Gelder Shiel I found a mound which gave enough shelter to do this. The track heads west then a steady but easy climb uphill (towards Cnap a Choire Bhuidhe) – confusion here because my Garmin route took the black dotted path west (I couldn’t even see the start of it, never mind attempt to ride it) but my phone gpx went north west on an excellent track. There was a neat little shelter which allowed me to consider my options and shelter from the wind and rain:
As to which way was a no brainer ! I had already done too much Hike a Bike, so got going on the good track towards the River Dee:
(Whereas the heather at home has already flowered here it was in bloom )
I reached the road at Invercauld Bridge then about 3 miles on the A93 to Braemar, where I had some good food and brews, then set off again in frequent showers (on the road) towards the Linn of Dee (via Mar Lodge).
As I got to open country it was raining heavily, but it’s a good track and I soon reached White Bridge, where I stopped to put a fleece on.
Now it was just a case of going south down Glen Tilt back to Blair Atholl, but I had already decided I would camp just before the Allt Garbh Buidhe. I got across the Geldy Burn without any problems but as I approached the Bynack Burn I made a quick decision not to try and ride across… I would only come off and get wet… just a foot or so from the water I tried to unclip with my right foot, but the foot would not come out, and over I went landing on my already bruised right arm, on the hard, very hard pebbles. And I still could not get my foot out, and eventually had to undo my boot… a good job this hadn’t happened in the water, I would have been well and truly wet through, not nice in the middle of nowhere in the rain, with about an hour of daylight left !
On inspection one of the screws holding the cleat had come out so by twisting my foot to unclip it had twisted all of the cleat, which was well stuck in the peddle. I got my small screwdriver out, but no good, it was in danger of snapping it. I tried an allen key to prise it off, but nothing ! And I thought what the F do I do now ? Walk with only one boot on and push the bike ? Not funny. After 10 minutes I managed to get it free, put the cleat away, and ride with only one foot clipped in.
At home in preparation I had carefully copper slipped all my bolts and screws, so I wonder if that had helped to undo it ? The idea of copper slip is stop things seizing up, but if you use it perhaps you should tighten just that little bit more ?
I reached my camp spot at 7:40pm, and by 8:20 I was in the sleeping bag listening to the stream, the wind, and the rain, ready for a good rest.
Time to relax a bit so I was in no hurry to leave such a magic place:
And even manage half a smile !
I soon reached Falls of Tarf again:
And the plaque in memory of Francis John Bedford:
Steady riding all the way down, following the River Tilt:
I was a bit past Forest Lodge when I heard the roar of an engine coming up behind, at what seemed to be ninety miles an hour, so I instinctively steered the bike off the track and into the grass, applied the brakes and swung round…
What a sight ! A Hercules Transport plane right behind me only a hundred feet above ground… The pilot must have laughed at that !
Soon back in Blair Atholl, where I changed and headed for Pitlochry for some lunch. My socks were smelling so bad I binned them.
All in all an amazing 4 days ! I wondered what the riding would have been like after Ballater towards Banchory. I know there is some hike-a-bike up the Hill of Fare which I wouldn’t have minded, but I wouldn’t have liked any more bits similar to what I had done, gnarly and narrow single track with awkward boulders all over the place (I have to be able to place my left foot down properly otherwse after some time I’m in a bad way) .
If I’d done the whole of it, it would have been 196 miles. Guessing a bit because of the Garmin turning itself off, I think I did 120 miles. What was nice was just going with it instead of trying to achieve a certain target each day…