I flatter myself that I am a resilient mountain biker. I am fine carrying my bike up snow-covered hills in the dark, or slogging my way over every last sodden lump in central Wales through incessant rain, or grinding out the miles through the dark, long winter nights. Waterproofs and mudguards and decent lights can ameliorate most problems, and I enjoy a challenge, so I am pretty well adapted to British off-road riding at its worst. I take a certain satisfaction from battering through the grimmest, wettest, most mud-caked rides, in the same way that roadies enjoy turning themselves inside out up massive hills, or climbers enjoy having their fingerprints erased by gritstone, or runners enjoy, well, running. This is not to say, however, that I prefer riding in our customarily horrible British weather; I do not.
To use a hypothetical, average any-given-bike-ride as an analogy, the best bit is never going to be the climb to the top of the hill; however satisfying it may be to haul yourself upwards, maybe even beating a personal best on the way, or cleaning that nadgery bit that always defeats you, all things being equal it’s always going to be more fun coming back down. The best descent in the world kicks the crap out of the best climb, and if you disagree with that you’re some sort of perverted freak, and I suggest you take up cyclocross or time-trialling.
In the same way, whilst bad-weather rides are good, and even fun sometimes, good weather rides are better. If it was all bad weather rides, all the time, I’d just give up and find a new hobby. In the middle of winter (and sometimes in the middle of our so-called summer too) I wonder if I can face another N hours of grinding, sodden slog through headwinds and rain and slimy ruts. I sink into the sofa, guiltily poring over maps of places I’d like to ride in better conditions. I dream idly of dusty, sinuous trails under blue skies, perhaps with a gentle breeze softening the heat. The thought of some idealised summer ride, out on big hills in perfect weather is often the only thing that gets me out of the door to squelch my way around yet another dark, drizzle-soaked, bog-dodging Pennine tour-de-grim.
On Monday, almost unexpectedly, I managed to go on one of those idealised summer rides, in Torridon, on the last day of our Scotland 2016 bike trip. Having monitored the precipitation in the far north-west for the weeks leading up to our Fort William visit, and having noted that things were somewhat drier than in 2015, we decided to add on a second attempt at the well-known “Lollipop” route, which I had screwed up last year by taking a wrong turn on the first hill. From the outset things went swimmingly, the day dawned still and warm, with barely a cloud in the sky.The climb from Annat was dry and grippy, and the views spectacular, and as we had set off relatively early things weren’t too hot. We were soon off and pushing in places, but made good progress up towards the stepping stones at Lochan Domhain. The bulk of Liathach which had loomed above our camp as we set out sank back and expanded into a vast panorama behind us as we climbed, with Ben Alligin and Ben Eighe flanking the huge ridge on either side. The sandstone that makes the bones of these giants, and also the hills we were crossing, is wonderful stuff; the aeons-worth of pulverised igneous rock, compressed into dense sedimentary strata, create surfaces of pure traction even in the wet, and after several weeks of next-to-no rain the rocks and slabs comprising these paths flatter even the most inept mountain biker (you can take my personal assurance on that).
Contouring round Loch an Eion and over Bealach na Lice we reached the point where I had misdirected us the previous year, perhaps the only point where it’s possible to go significantly wrong on the entire route. The descent to Coulags is not bad at all, but it loses height fast and the remaining drop down the valley is littered with square-edged water bars, so it works better as a climb. Taking the left fork this time, and traversing the head of the valley over Bealach Bàn into Coire Grannda meant another few hundred meters of ascent, but it took us (via yet more stunning views of the Torridon mountains) to the top of one of the most incredible trails I have ever had the pleasure of riding.After skirting a nameless lochan we dropped down a series of lose, fast chutes of white limestone pebbles, drifting on the edge of control between the two imposing Munros of Sgorr Ruadh and Beinn Liath Mhòr. Exiting Coire Làir the gradient eased and short sections of uphill had us pedalling to maintain momentum, but the winding track lost none of its charm. We met a couple of walkers at this point, our first sighting of humanity for over two hours, and politely acknowledged the usual incomprehension at our mode of transport. “Is it not too rocky?” they asked. “No, we love the rocks, they’re the best bit!” The trail steepened again towards the woods, and a series of switchbacks and rockeries strung together into a crescendo of technical fun, just on the edge of my capabilities, a brilliant closing movement to a sublime singletrack symphony. The last kilometre or so through the woods, muddy, vague and overgrown, ending in a detour along the railway track, couldn’t take the shine off riding down what is undoubtedly one of the best bits of trail I have ever encountered, in some of the best conditions I’ve ever experienced.After a flat, tarmac interlude down Glen Carron to Coulags, and a brief chat with a little old lady, of whom I begged a refill of water, we paused for a bite to eat in the shade beside a stream. It was about noon and the thermometer on my Garmin was reading an alarming 35°C; certainly this was an exaggeration due to the black-plastic gadget being in direct sunlight, but still an indication of just how hot it was – I shared the detail with a pair of ramblers, who appeared to be almost melting in the blazing sunshine. A surprising amount of the valley was rideable, certainly compared to the swampy paths we had encountered here last year, and with a few clouds building up above the peaks the temperature began to drop a little. It was refreshing to leave the path and splash along the shoreline of Loch Coire Fionnaraich for a while before starting the final push back up to Bealach na Lice.
Retracing our tracks back down to Annat from the top took us around half an hour, including stops for photos and view-admiring (and resting our by-now fatigued limbs). The Annat descent is not quite as intense as the Achnashellach trail, but it still comprises some of the best mountain biking in the UK: rocky, fast, swooping singletrack of the highest order. We clattered our way down towards the sea, encountering at the last moment a couple more walkers, only the third pair of people we had seen out on the hills in six hours of riding. I was silent on the spin back to the campsite, looking around at the mountains for one last time. Lost for words, I was rerunning the ride over and over in my mind to fix it in memory: a bright, shining day when I was happy, like a piece of armour for the soul, ready for the return of those dark, cold winter rides, and for all the other things in this life that demand a reason why.