Scotland 2015

Well, I’m back.

Me and Rik went to Scotland to ride bikes and watch the Fort William Downhill World Cup. It rained, lots, but we had an ace time anyway.

We drove up on Thursday, originally intending to ride up and back down Ben Lomond, but rain and low cloud led us to divert to Laggan Wolftrax instead. This turned out to be an excellent idea. Laggan is reputedly quite technical (for a trail centre), and a couple of features on the black certainly merit stopping and considering rather than blindly riding in.  It is all technically rollable, though. We did the three main loops in more-or-less sensible order, bar a few diversions due to dodgy signage. The two red loops are good fun and the black is entertaining, with scary looking features that turn out to be quite flattering to ride, provided you don’t choose a stupid line (obviously I chose a couple of stupid lines, but still lived to tell the tale). Also kicking around the track were a few staff members of the Canyon Enduro team, who took a sideways look at my knackered old Nerve AM before blasting down the huge qualifier rocks like they were insignificant pebbles. Must have been down to the fancy new bikes.

Friday saw us emerge from a rain-sodden tent and make our rain-sodden way to rain-sodden Glencoe to ride the Devil’s Staircase and Ciaran Path (both rain-sodden). The push up the staircase was amusing, if you find the sight of very miserable, very wet ramblers amusing (I do). The ride down the other side was brilliant and I didn’t puncture, unlike the last time I was here. We turned right at the penstock and rode up to the scary-looking Blackwater dam, which felt like approaching the gates of Mordor, only soggier. You’re not supposed to use the dam to get across the valley, there are big signs warning you about deep water and whatnot (which is daft, there’s a four foot concrete wall in the way of the water, you’re more likely to fall off the front of the dam). Duly noting the warnings, we somehow magically found ourselves on the north side of the valley, no, I have no recollection of how we got there yer honour. We then promptly rode off in the wrong direction through a massive bog and had to climb back up before setting off down the real route. People rave about the Ciaran Path, apparently. Presumably they rode it during one of the Highlands’ bi-centennial dry periods. I can only say that I’m sure it’s fun when you can differentiate it from the thousands of burns that cross it. I don’t mean to imply that the riding was bad, it wasn’t, it was excellent in parts, but all the excellent bits were punctuated by swamps and rivers and mostly submerged under half a foot of water. When we finally made it down to Kinlochleven we were very wet and very cold and sorely in need of refuelling. The Ice Factory café sorted us out and we began to climb back up, slowly and painfully, towards the top of the Devil’s Staircase again. And then the rain stopped. The wind dropped. The clouds reluctantly loosed their grip on the summits and the whole world altered its aspect completely in a matter of minutes. We forgave Scotland for the previous four hours and had a cracking final half hour riding down an amazing trail in glorious sunshine.

The brief break in the weather turned out to be a minor blip and proceedings reverted to type for Saturday. In fact the weather was so bad that practice and qualification for the Fort William round of the UCI Downhill World Cup was called off completely. We squelched around the event village ogling fancy bikes and spotting mountain-bike celebrities (Manon Carpenter! Loic Bruni! Nigel Page! Danny MacAskill! Danny MacAskill’s mum!). We took the gondola up  and walked down the course, which was muddy and terrifying and cold and wet. We retreated to a pub, then retreated to our tent to hide from the weather, worrying vaguely about the trees overhead dropping limbs on us in the night. Sunday dawned much better – the sun even came out later on, and the racing was excellent to watch.  We set off for Torridon almost immediately after Greg Minnaar clinched the win, and three hours later set up our tent in the free camp site below the imposing mass of Liathach.

The next morning we set out on our Big Mountain Day. The weather was pretty good but everything was still soaking wet from the previous week’s downpours, so we ended up soaking wet in pretty short order. It barely mattered, the scenery was superlative, and the trails astonishing. A wrong turn led us to complete a different route to that originally intended but we didn’t feel that we’d missed out as the riding was pretty much perfect. The hills were almost deserted, we saw one other group of riders and a total of four walkers in almost seven hours of riding. The paths we rode were incredible, rocky and challenging but immensely rewarding. The only midgie in the ointment was the obligatory stupid square-edged water-culverts, one of which booted me over the bars on the last descent – but these were happily fairly rare and didn’t detract from an excellent day’s riding. We finished off with a fancy meal at the incongruous Torridon Hotel, a swish establishment in the middle of nowhere, proper posh like.

On Tuesday morning, after a night disturbed by the loudest cuckoos I’ve ever heard, we set out on the Ben Damph loop. “Damph” is a typically Scottish understatement: the entire hill was utterly sodden. Three hours, mostly of slog over boggy, wet paths led us to the top of an excellent rocky descent. It wasn’t a bad ride at all, but I feel that it’s probably one best reserved for a dry day, one preceded by at least a week of no rain.

And that was it. We arrived at the tent utterly knackered, and abandoned vague plans of riding somewhere else on the way home in favour of a nine-hour drive straight back. A week of Scottish water erosion had taken it’s toll: all our kit was soaked, our bikes were making some very alarming noises, and we were twitching involuntarily at every drip or splashing sound. We broke camp, chucked everything in the back of the car and set off for home. It was a brilliant holiday, we had a great time, shame about the weather. I will definitely head back to the Highlands and to Torridon in particular one day, there’s riding to be had there like nowhere else I’ve ever been. I might factor in alternative activities in case of rain, though.