My personal account of the Cairngorm Loop.
This year being my 40th year has been a great year to date. It has seen my cycling mojo fuel injected with adventure and personal challenges. The May bank holiday weekend brought upon my hardest challenge to date. The Cairngorm Loop. A 195mile individual time trial through the beautiful Cairngorm Mountains. This unsupported ride aboard my Ragley TD1 rigid 29er required some specific adventure racer kit and that meant light weight and minimalist. My Local outdoor shop Ruggedways helped me with some great kit from Montana, Petzle lights and Osprey ruck sacks.
An evening trip to Blair Atholl and a stay at the local hostel gave me a chance to mingle with the other riders, chat, share stories and discuss the tactics for the upcoming marathon.
10am Saturday morning saw 22 souls gather round and await the command “GO”. To keep things on an edge a 56hr time limit was set but after some -on -the -fly calculations I prepared a personal challenge of 36hrs.
The opening 10mile prologue gave everyone a chance to ride themselves in, adjust clothing layers to match the cold northerly breeze and contemplate what lay ahead.
This was my first visit to the great Scottish highlands. I had visited the trail centres in Scotland but the real mountain biking experience was laid before me and as I made my way off-road towards my first beautiful view I felt excited as to what lay round the corner.
Mechanical, damn. Only 15miles in and I suffer a ride destroying seat post drama. As I pondered my predicament the others cycled on. I’ve always believed if I stare at something long enough a solution will present itself. After some pen knife magic that included the file and freezing hands I was able to fix the problem, reassemble the bike, pack the seat bag and continue on my now solo effort into the valleys.
1hr behind schedule. Not a good start. Get the problems over with now whilst I’m able to deal with them with a fully functioning brain. Tiredness will soon turn a simple task into a colossal problem.
With my seat post sorted but my mind wondering if it will hold I ventured into the wilderness. My first taste of Scottish wild single track soon found me struggling for line and technique. A fully laden 29er needs a bit more finesse than I was expecting but my skill level rose with the terrain and I soon felt at home threading my Maxxis Crossmark tyres through the patchwork of rock and roots.
The pre event emails contained the important GPX files that where downloaded onto my GPS. For me it was to be a follow the arrow type ride. I must admit that I had not undertaken as much homework as the other riders who carried detailed maps and plans that indicated café stops and other helpful rendezvous’ spots to help a tiring racer. Due to unforeseen mechanicals I had some catching up to do so cycling past the temptation of a warm sit down coffee and cake was a test of character and a test that would show dividends at the rides conclusion.
The panoramic views of the Cairngorms and the smell of pine forests seemed to subdue the aching sensation that I had grew to expect after 6hrs of cycling. As I entered yet another trail I caught my first glimpse of Cairn Gorm and her snow caped summit. I soon climbed out of the forest and made my way to the foot of my first hike-a-bike section. Scotland welcomes us mountain bikers with a lesson in solidarity between cyclists and walkers. Their Access all areas meant I shared the hike with fellow walkers who seemed a little perplexed to see bikes resting on the back of rucksacks and a rider bent over and striding up and over stone bars and steps. The higher I climbed the more I wanted to stop and appreciate my well earned view but height reduced temperature and my increasing view indicated snow blowing its way towards me. The summit provided a short spell of pedal time and the rocky slow descent tested my brakes but the true test of my fledgling endurance racer career was soon to be put to the test.
The stiff cold breeze brought forth a snow blizzard, not on an arctic scale but enough to give the upcoming yomp through a boulder strewn trail a touch of wildness and desolation. The fact the snow was blowing and piling up on my back reminded me that it could be worse but the hick through the rocky trail was a test of patience. My ungainly bike was not playing ball and my pedal picked a fight with my shin and calf. How many times can I ignore a metal pedal on shin clash before you tire and find yourself shouting to the gods?. “Remember where you are and how much you are enjoying yourself” Jenn Hopkins later told me she had taken a photo of me looking a little glum. I told Jenn that I was just relaxing my smile. I was having a ball and enjoying every moment.
Follow the blue arrow, don’t stray off the trail, tick off the miles and reach your next mile stone.
My well prepared pre race tactics where to cover 100miles on the first day. A plan that always remained flexible and the thought of a night in a dry and possibly warm bothy soon filled my thoughts but this meant only covering 90miles thus leaving a longer second day but as the sun set and temperatures dipped below freezing and wet socks and shoes brought on the chill pains my flexible plan catered for the conditions. Seeing some torches in the distance meant company and I soon met up with John and Tom. John joined me for the next section of trail which had us scrambling over and through landslides. If the steep drop down to the river below was not enough to make the route a little precarious then the fact I was attempting this at night with only my lightweight Petzle head torch to navigate by again heightened my scenes of adventure and fortitude.
As we left the technical challenge behind and battled the freezing temperatures the glint of bikes against the bothy was a temptation to much and we pulled over to finish our days riding. 13hrs and 90 miles and what lay before us was 4 hrs of restless, sleepless tossing and turning in our sleeping bags as riders arrived and prepared their boil in the bag meals. The comical 2am Bourne Ultimatum alarm call brought a moment of laughter from the freezing shelter and Steve and his group climbed from their cocoons and continued into the darkness sucking on energy gels as they closed the door behind them. Silence brought the opportunity for some sleep but a fellow racer beat me to the zz’s. His snoring prevented any sleep for me and as the sky lightened outside I prepared to leave my warm bag and once more step into the breach.
So what awaits me today. Another long day in the saddle. In fact longer than yesterdays but now I’m suffering sleep deprivation and my limbs already ache but once outside the morning view and the frozen dew glistening filled me with smiles and an eagerness to see more of this wonderful ride.
Jack Frost had bitten my bike. My chain and rear mech where frozen solid. I had also left my GPS on my bike and it to had suffered at the hands of Mr Frost. This was not a good start. Assess the situation and overcome. A grand moto. As I squeezed the on button I expected the inevitable but to my surprise my Garmin sprung into life. I winked at my digital Sat Nav and appreciated it’s resilience.
My next task was to unfreeze my steed but my gas canister would not take a spark. The freezing temperatures prevented any way of heating some water to deice my gears so again I assessed the situation and I overcame the problem. Do what needs to be done. Where else can I get my hands on a supply of warm liquid at 4am. No need to elaborate but I did what was needed to get me on my way. Today was to be a great day.
The sun had yet to shine into the valleys and the road section heading towards Aviemore required some effort to raise the body temperature. My plan for the day was to get a 3 hour stint in before breakfast. Eat regularly and keep hydrated with carbo loaded water. I had regulated my Jelly baby intake and I had a spare bag of Chocolate chips and nuts. I knew from conversations with other riders that we would be passing through Tomintoul and Braemar so I intended to stop and make the most of any Cafes or restaurants that might take pity on me and be generous with the servings.
Just outside Aviemore the route entered a wooded section and a great trail that rose gently through the trees. The sun shone through the canopy and the haze hanging amongst the trees illuminated from the sun. The atmosphere made me forget about my cold feet and again I smiled and continued to turn the pedals.
Every meter, every mile and I’m getting closer to the finish line.
I had already encountered a few stream crossings during my morning stint but my first river crossing of the day brought upon a different game plan. My feet had gained some normality and I was not going to get my socks wet again so off they came, thrown across to the opposite river bank, bike on shoulder and I steadily crossed the river. Once across I sat down to dry my feet with my Buff and put my socks and shoes onto some very pale and wrinkly looking feet. As I prepared to venture on I noticed my location. A flat bottomed valley with a meandering river of boulders and mini water falls. Rolling hills to my west and steep grassy hills to my east. This was to be a great spot for breakfast. I unpacked my cooker and boiled up my eagerly anticipated freeze dried Pasta Carbonara.
Some packet instant Coffee, milk and sugar washed the mulch down and I packed and continued on.
Tomintoul drew closer and a chance to replenish my snacks. The rivers and streams had kept me supplied with water and my High 5 carbo drinks were doing a good job of fuelling my engine. A bacon butty and fresh coffee in an old Fire Station café gave me a chance to sit down and relax for a while but to my pleasant surprise I wanted to get back on the bike. I wanted to sit on my saddle and continue with my adventure, my challenge. I can rest and relax once I have completed my task. This felt great. I popped into the men’s room and applied yet more chamois cream and joined my bike outside in the sunshine. After a few minutes sprawled on the ground stretching my back and legs I cycled out of Tomintoul and headed south.
More beautiful trails and more wonderful views kept my tiring mind busy. My rigid ride and the rocky trails beneath me where not a match made in heaven and I often looked forward to a short road section or a downhill run that would allow me to relax and take a break. The route took me up and over ridges and valleys, over moorland and grassy single-track. Steep climbs reward you with a fast downhill run which was forever to damn short. The descent down to Braemar was a memorable one. A 4×4 track snacking down a grassy hill. The trench that accommodated vehicle wheels was full of rocks and obstacles but the flat smooth ridge between them offered a fast challenging line down. Keep off the brakes, outside pedal down and look at the exit of the corner. Techniques I teach and ones that I had to remind myself of as I raced towards Braemar. The fun filled descent ended far to soon and as I joined the road to Braemar I could see two fellow riders in the distance.
I joined Tom & Rob just as we entered Braemar. As I paid the local camping shop a visit for some chain lube and a fresh gas canister they headed for the nearest eatery. Lunch in Braemar consisted of 3 can’s of Coke. 1 fresh coffee. 1 large serving of Chilli and rice and a crumble dessert The worrying thing was I could’ve eaten more. As we digested our meals we shared our stories of woe. Rob had suffered from 2 broken chains but his handy DIY skills has saved the day. John soon joined us and his order overflowed our table with plates and glasses. We needed the waitress to save us before something toppled and smashed. Over a coffee John and Tom examined their printed route cards and made plans on their final assault on the Cairngorm Loop. I wanted to show some interest but I knew we had 40 miles to go and I go by a phrase “it is what it is”, but when I heard the words “sting in the tail” my ears pricked to attention and I enquired as to what the sting in the tail enquired to. John explained “ I was chatting to Alan on Friday night about the route and he said that they had chosen a rather testing finally to the ride”. This meant only one thing, hills and climbing.
Rob and Tim headed off out of Braemar and I left John to finish his food. I enjoyed cycling by myself but welcomed the short rendezvous with the other riders. As I climbed towards our next off road trail my spokes let loose and with a crack and twang two spokes snapped at the hub. Thankfully they broke on opposite sides and the ensuing buckle was not to affect my handling but never the less I was going to be careful from now on. I say careful, that was until the next well earned descent. As I crested a lung and leg busting climb I adopted the tuck position and raced down a rocky trail reaching speeds of 40mph. My Ragley bounced and skipped over rocks and drainage channels. Tight turns resulted in some two wheel drifting and my aching forearms soon felt the effects of arm pump. Death grip time on my handlebars.
30 miles to go, 25 miles to go, 20 miles to go. 19, 18, 17, 16, is my bloody GPS working because all this effort is not reducing the mileage quick enough. I was mile watching. Not a good idea. I was nearing the end and longing for Blair Atthol to appear on my GPS display. More hills and more climbing. More Jelly babies. 10 miles to go. 9, 8, 7, 6. Please end soon. I’ve done beautiful now. Scotland has wowed me. I have been riding for almost 15hrs now and I think I want to stop. 5, 4, 3, 2. I reach the last section. A downhill run into Blair Atthol. I followed the blue arrow making sure I don’t take a wrong turn whilst descending off the hill side. I reached the entrance to the train station and the finish line.
My instructions are to have a photo of you, your bike and the station clock to register your finish time. A local tourist helped me with that simple task but even talking seemed a struggle.
Done and dusted. I had finished my adventure, my challenge. Steve came over to me and shook my hand. I felt emotional. 34 hours of sensory overload. I felt proud and content in what I has accomplished. I gave my all and had nothing left. I gave my bike a pat. She had done very well. My partner in this ride. I mentioned to Steve what I still feel summed up the Cairngorm Loop for me, brutal and beautiful.