Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Scotland - Day 1: Not so many miles by bike...

Travelling by train and bike means that you have to travel light – however packing for 5 days of riding in Scotland in October means quite the opposite: layers, waterproofs, spare kit etc. After some fraught last minute packing in between fielding conference calls on Friday, I eventually rolled out of the door in the early hours of Saturday morning with what I considered to be the bare minimum (how these round-the-world tourers do it, I do not know – except I imagine the smell of their kit is enough to kill flies at 50 paces):

Packed and ready to go
Fortunately the train guard remembered 5 minutes before setting off that he might have passengers with bicycles, and kindly unlocked the door after a nerve-jangling few walks up and down the length of the train – getting sweaty and anxious is exactly the kind of thing before settling into a long 4 hour journey North. Thanks pal! Fortunately by the time I had gotten up to Edinburgh, things had brightened up as the forecasted rain had not yet hit, and the helpful chaps at Avis had happily upgraded my rental car from a "standard 5-door" to an Audi A3…much better than the last hire car I drove, (a spluttering Fiat Panda full to the brim with passengers and luggage):
Must have been the winning smile
A quick trip to Tesco (home sweet home) later and fully stocked up with food, I was back on the road and on my way to the Highlands. This is where the standard ‘BBC Weathermap’ view of the world starts getting a bit misleading, and as many John O Groats – Lands End cyclists will tell you: by the time you’ve got out of Scotland then you’re only halfway. That is to say, Scotland is a very large place and it takes a deceptively long time to get around by car.

Destination 1 was the small town of Fettercain, and more specifically the climb of Cairn O’Mount: the highest mountain pass in Aberdeenshire. Satnav told me that this would take 2.5 hours in the car, but I have a heavy foot and an eye for speed cameras (or at least I think so – nothing has come through the post from the DVLA just yet…)

Funnily enough, over 6 hours of travelling isn’t the best preparation for riding uphill. After unpacking the bike at the foot of the climb, I felt like I was pedalling squares from the very start (and still suffering from a sore throat it also felt like I was breathing triangles at the same time). The Cairn O’Mount is a long climb which softens up the rider with some steep early slopes before relenting for the middle few kms, and kicking up again towards the end, so it was very much appreciated to have a few truckers from the army cheering me on past the halfway point. If you’ve not been to the Highlands before, the bleakness and remoteness of the Scottish hills is quite breathtaking – something evident in the abandoned, crumbling house on the side of the road up the hill:
Bleak House
The Cairn at the top of Cairn O'Mount
Being so high up, it was incredibly windy at the top – so much so that the young family who had pulled over at the summit were forced to dip down into a foxhole and shelter their toddler son from the gale with their coats, while he crouched for a pee. Pretty sure I would have joined them if that wasn't massively inappropriate. Something for his 18-th birthday photo montage though, I’m sure.

Up next was the Cairnwell, and another hour of driving to it’s base. Starting in the fabulously named “Spit of Glenshee”, as I parked up the light was starting to fade so I was pushing a brisk pace on the lower approach slopes. The Cairnwell is a 10k climb and as you round the valley base the road stretches out way ahead in front of you, climbing very gradually at 1-2% before reaching the foot of the climb proper:
Stunning: The Cairnwell
As much as this was a beautiful sight, it did mean heading out full gas to make sure I wasn’t going up or down in the darkness which wouldn’t have been a whole lot of fun. Still, heading up a magnificent valley road in the falling dusk was a stunning experience. There's a peace that settles in to a Highland evening that rivals anything I've experienced - although living and working in Central London probably doesn't make be the best arbiter...
Not so stunning: the bicycle salute


  1. Another cracking ride report Nathan, you write better than you can ride ... ! :-)

  2. Clive you flatter to deceive - we all know my writing's not that good!