As we rolled up to the beginning of a rotten bridge that abruptly ended 10 feet out into a roaring river, I turned to one of our guides, Chris Gibbs, and jokingly asked, “so let me guess: now we’re going to wade across this 200-foot-wide river, in 35°F weather, then pedal up that mountain, and bomb down the other side?”
“Yeah, you got it!” he responded.
“Wait, you’re serious?!” I asked with a sense of incredulity, as I looked across the river to the far side. I don’t think I had ever in my life rolled up to a river this wide and thought to myself, “oh, I’ll just wade on through, and there’ll be a trail on the other side.” The river was so wide and the trail was so faint, that I could barely make out a track working its way up the opposite bank. “Well, I guess we’re getting wet,” I thought.
Once we’d reached the other side of the river, I sat down on the bank and pulled out my change of socks, which the guides from H+I Adventures had recommended the day before. I think I was the only person who actually took them at their word, and while the fresh change helped somewhat, my sopping shoes instantly infected my dry socks with frigid Scottish river water.
“I was wondering why you were trying so hard to keep your feet dry,” Chris quipped. I had been trying really hard all day to stay dry. Despite several deep stream crossings earlier where most people succumbed to frozen feet, I managed to tip-toe across on ice-slicked rocks, staying mostly dry.
But when you face a river where the other bank is literally over a stone’s throw away, there’s no getting around it: you’re getting wet and cold. I felt like I was on a true adventure ride, but when you’re mountain biking in Scotland, fording a river here and there is simply par for the course!
We had begun our ride that day directly from the Macdonald Aviemore Resort Hotel, in the town of Aviemore. Aviemore is a quaint mountain town located inside Cairngorms National Park, the largest national park in the United Kingdom. After pedaling some paved bike paths to reach Rothiemurchus Forest, we dove off the main trail into some slippery singletrack filled with off-camber roots.
Rothiemurchus is an ancient woodland steeped in history and legend. While it seems like every location is history-laden in Scotland, when we rolled up to the shores of Loch an Eilein to see a castle sitting on an island in the middle of the lake, it really hit home: we’re not in Colorado anymore! The castle dates back to the 1400s, and legend has it that it was the fortress of Alexander Stewart, the Wolf of Badenoch, a historical character made famous by Braveheart.
Shortly after leaving the loch, we turned down an ancient trail known as the “Rocky Road,” and for good reason–it was definitely rocky, with mud holes filled with icy muck bridging the gaps between the rocks. Welcome to Scotland! Legend has it that the Rocky Road began life as a witches path, formed as the witches traveled from one forest glen to another to perform their pagan ceremonies.
Eventually we left the spooky low-lying woodlands, gaining gradual elevation as we pedaled toward the River Feshie.
Our track turned to parallel the river, but recent flash floods had radically reshaped the shoreline, meaning that at times the old trail would plummet off the edge into the river 10-15 feet below, with a new trail forming further away from the bank.
Originally there was a tributary stream feeding into the main river that could be crossed using a small log bridge. However, the flash flooding had turned that small stream into a gaping chasm in the ground! To get across we had to hand our bikes down the hill from one person to another, scramble down into the gorge, wade across the icy water (or attempt to tiptoe across the rocks as I did), and then scramble back up the opposite bank.
After some flowy riverside singletrack, we arrived at the dilapidated bridge foundations and braved a thigh-deep wade through swirling arctic water.
By the time we crossed the river, we were already 17 miles into our ride–but the hard part was just beginning. After spending a few minutes futilely attempting to warm our toes, we finally began to climb in earnest, grinding straight up and out of the river bottom to the top of a low mountain. The sharp 400-foot climb over about half a mile served as a quick punch in the gut and a nice warm up. While I’m probably not even as tough as the average Scottish toddler, thankfully I did have my high-altitude lungs working for me–our top elevation for the ride was only 1,582 feet.
But finally–finally it was time to descend! We pinned it down the Lodge Descent, with flowy sections through the trees leading into mud-slicked boulders and logs, back to flow, and back out into the moorlands.
It was all over so fast, but we exchanged high-fives for finally getting some true adrenaline-fueled descending, as we wiped the mud from our glasses and faces.
As we popped out onto a doubletrack through what has now permanently registered in my mind as the quintessential Scottish moor, we rolled past a couple of hunters leaning against their Mule ATV, a train of 12 mountain bikers obviously disturbing their hunt. They didn’t look too pleased until just after I had rolled by, and I heard one of them holler after me, “That’s a proper hearty beard laddy!” with the thickest of accents.
Only in Scotland!
Thankfully we weren’t done with the descending for the day, but in order to earn another descent we had to power straight up the next mountain on a slick, narrow singletrack, that was just on the verge of not being pedal-able (for me, at least).
Dropping off the top of Creag Dhubh, we bombed down the Green Dream trail, aptly-named as the tightly-spaced trees whizzed by just on the outside of our handlebars, the singletrack eventually straightening out into one of the fastest sections of the week.
The smooth, fast section lured me into a sense of complacency, which quickly turned hairy as I flew into a section of boulders and wet logs separated by wheel-sucking mud holes. The harsh hits and holes quickly overwhelmed the Fox 32 fork on the Scott Scale hardtail I was riding, bottoming out the suspension and shooting me off the track for a wild ride through the heather. I managed to ride it out, turn my tire back on the trail, and finish the descent.
As I pulled up to the couple of guys in front of me, I grabbed the brakes to come to a stop, promptly sliding out the front end of the bike on a section of muddy grass that was slick as snot, and of a similar consistency. “Aye, we Scots know to look out for spots like that one,” said Pete Scullion as I picked myself up and wiped the mud off, succeeding in just smearing it around a bit more.
It didn’t help that I had discovered early on in the ride that my brakes were backwards, set up moto style with the rear brake on the lefthand side and the front brake on the right. I should have known that the brakes would come this way in the UK, having learned this lesson the hard way in France just a couple months earlier. Thankfully there were only two real descents on this ride today, and aside from this one tumble in the mud, I came away from five hours of riding with backward brakes unscathed.
Regrouping after the final descent, we pedaled some more beautiful singletrack back down the River Feshie, then picked up some pavement for a mellow pedal back to Aviemore.
The day before, our guides from H+I had said that the ride would take 5-6 hours, which I assumed would include a lot of stop time to shoot photos. But once we were out on the trail, despite having a group of 12, our guides hustled us along, giving us just a minute here or there to grab a bite to eat along the trail. I thought for sure with how quickly the guides were pushing the group that we’d finish in plenty of time, but as I stopped my GPS back at the hotel, I saw that we had been out for exactly 6 hours and 5 minutes (including a bike wash stop at the end of the ride)–right on the money for the time estimate. Despite having such a large group, which generally means more standing around time, we clocked 4 hours and 54 minutes of moving time, and 34.4 miles of riding.
Considering the large size of the group, for the guides to keep us moving as rapidly as we did, through such challenging terrain, and meeting our time estimate right as night began to fall (at all of 3:30pm… thanks, winter), was a truly impressive feat of guiding and group management.
My first foray into Scottish mountain bike was a true challenge, and for me it qualified as true adventure riding. It was one of my top 5 most adventurous rides of the year, yet for a Scot, it was just par for the course.
While I didn’t think it possible, the ride the next day turned out to be even MORE challenging! Stay tuned for the next installment…
Thanks to DMBinS and H+I Adventures for making this trip possible!