Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Scotland - Day 2: What a day!

Rolling out of Blairgowrie at bleary-eyed o’clock, the drive up to the North highlands took a couple of hours so to be warmly greeted by the proprietors of the fantastic Kinross House in Granton-on-Spey was most welcome – as was the news that the morning’s mizzle was forecast to be replaced by glorious sunshine. In Scotland. In October. Who knew?! The ride planned for the day was the longest of the trip: a 90-odd mile leg stretcher across the Highland ski stations of Cairn Gorm and the Lecht. As I rolled out of the door the skies had cleared up, and the reason for this sea-change in the weather was the gale blowing in from the West. This is great news when it’s at your back and blowing you along (as it was for the first 20 miles), but less so as you turn the corner up the mountain, and find that there’s not only the gradient but also a block headwind to contend with.

The road up to the Cairn Gorm ski station is wide and gradually graded allowing large vehicles all the way to the top. So although an iconic climb, it’s not hugely challenging from a steepness perspective and on the day I went up it was more a case of trying to keep hold of the bike in the howling crosswinds on the hairpin turns more than anything else – bladed spokes are not your friends on days like that. Still, the views from the top are suitably spectacular, so long as you avoid turning round to look at the rest of the mountain which has been scarred by ski-lifts and machinery (which somehow only fit in when covered by 3 feet of snow…)
Top of Cairn Gorm

All smiles in the Highland sunshine
Deep blue skies - the view from Cairn Gorm
Loch Morlich
Back down the mountain there were the same crosswinds to contend with, which are even less fun at 35mph. But I made it down in one piece, and managed to meet up with another cyclist (Andy) heading the same way who fancied swapping turns and so we hared back while he shared his knowledge of the area. Apparently Bob Dylan and Billy Connolly both have houses around there, and the reason that drivers in the Scottish Highlands are so considerate to cyclists is that there is bugger all else to do so, they all spend way too much time on their bikes themselves. I didn’t hang around to see if I could hear the croaky strains of His Bob-ness “blowin’ in the wind”, but I’m sure if you had a pack of Marlboro and a bottle of whiskey on you then he’d be at your side in the blink of an eye. When we parted company, you might be able to tell that I got a bit bored and started experimenting with my camera
Wouldn't be Scotland without at least one picture of a thistle
Proof of sunshine


Arty bike shot #4
After stopping for a bite to eat – which barely touched the sides – I headed back out West towards the Lecht with my legs feeling pretty much ok. That said, I had been told by Andy that the climb over the Lecht was the hardest in the area, and knew that I had to go over it from one side to be able to climb in back in the direction specified in the Good Book. Not only that, but in between there was also a fantastically-Scottish-named climb called the ‘Bridge of Broooooon’ (translation: The Bridge of Brown) that I had been warned about (again I’d have to face on the way there, and back) - the predictability and result of an out-and-back route (must be what it feels like to be a time-trialist...except they like riding on dual carriageways at 5am on a Sunday morning wearing pointy helmets)

On my first approach to the Lecht, the climb was hidden around the corner of a valley until the very last minute, until I was suddenly presented with a long and steep climb up to a set of gondolas and chair lifts. Not to be deterred, I made it up, only to find an enormous descent on the other side – funnily enough this was the side I was to go down, pull a u-turn, and ride straight back up be to able to climb the mountain in the direction in the 100 Climbs book
Backside of the Lecht
Fantastic starting point in Cock Bridge - couldn't resist :)
The Lecht - final push
By the time I got to the top, I was definitely in a position to attest to the climb’s difficulty – a proper leg stinger which isn’t done justice by the pictures or the view from the top. Initially starting with a very steep section just out of Cock Bridge, the road levels out slightly before kicking around a corner to give you a view up to what looks like the summit (unless you know better having just come down the bloody thing). Finally reaching that false summit, you get a view of the hill which is in all the picture books: a series of steps up the side of the mountain, reaching a bleakly developed pinnacle topped by pylons and a ski centre. Despite the lacklustre view, it’s still a top, top climb and highly recommended.
Scottish pylons - how picturesque
After that, it was just a case of 'head down and pedal for home', all the way into the wind. Oh the wind. Not so much a feature of the weather, it felt more like riding with your brakes permanently half on. Joy. That said, pie, chips and a pint at the local was an absolute joy. Who says riding a bike is all about the pedalling?
Salt crystal residue - yum!

Pie, pint and chips - don't forget the lashings of vinegar. Lush

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