It’s been an itch I’ve been meaning to scratch for ages and eventually got the opportunity with some time off following a busy summer. The itch in question is the Cairngorm Loop, but I didn’t have the time or the fitness to do it justice, so opted for a truncated route that is essentially the outer loop with a variation that left out Nethy Bridge, but took in more off-road via Ryvoan Bothy north of Glenmore Lodge.
The itch was intensified with the amazing weather we’ve had this summer, but the forecast said it was due to break the morning of the outward journey. As so it was, departing Blair Athol, there was low cloud and showers combined with a stiff westerly as I headed towards Glen Gaick along the old A9. Having only planned the route proper the night before I wasn’t that familiar with the details, but figured that although remote it wasn’t too exposed in the early stages and happily pressed on with the wind now at my back as I headed up and into the Glen.
The route was fairly uneventful, but the hills ahead were stunning along with some fun singletrack beside Loch an Duin before the trail opened again into gravel access road. Leaving the Drumochter hills behind, the weather was improving into Glen Feshie and Rothiemurchus Forest. I just love this part of the Cairngorms and as the sun came out on the ride into Feshie Bridge it felt like summer again whilst blasting through the remenants of Caledonian forest and onto Loch Morlich. The approach to the loch was signaled by the appearance of people on the trail and it was good to stop for a Coke and munch on a sandwich at the campsite shop and café.
With 50 miles in the bag there was only 20 left to reach Tomintoul (the destination for the night), but as I wasn’t familiar with the trails north of Ryvoan Bothy I wasn’t sure if it would be the same fast pace or more of a slog across rough moorland paths. In the end it was pretty straightforward aside from a high speed tumble on some single-track off the Braes of Abernethy, followed by a drenching in an hour of torrential rain on the most exposed part the route that day.
I felt really stupid being thrown over the handlebars and thought I’d broken my collar bone having wrenched my shoulder and hearing a crack, but after puling myself together the bit that hurt the most was a dead leg courtesy of a bar end. However, this was somewhat soothed by oncoming rain now transforming the trail into a small river.
The rain was perhaps a blessing-in-disguise as with wet feet the numerous river crossings along Glen Brown weren’t noticed. Dropping off the hills the rain began to ease, finally stopping on the decent into Tomintoul and providing an opportunity to dry out a bit before arriving at the B&B.
Day 1: 70 miles – 6 hrs, 40 mins moving time.
The next morning started with a monster breakfast and some fun chat with a Belgian couple who seem to enjoy taking pictures of their faire with an equally monster camera. Bike packed, it was time to head south in the morning sunshine towards Glen Builg passing some campers enjoying breakfast in a beautiful spot just before the climb to the loch.
Up until now there hadn’t been much noticeable climbing (around 1,300m over the previous day), so it was good to have a grind to get my teeth into heading over Bealach Beag towards Deeside. The views from the Bealach were stunning and a huge grin came over my face seeing the long ribbon of trail that wound its way in the sunshine down towards Braemar. The final part of this rapid decent has to be the most memorable ride of the year with sun flickering through the Scots pines, their familiar smell combined with the dew from the long grass soaking my lower legs and flooding the senses.
The endorphin high was not to last long, however, and the Spar in Braemar brought me back to reality with a stale pastry and packet of Liquorice Allsorts. The sun was still out and getting hotter as I cruised the Dee-side road, once more joining gravel leading on towards Bynack Lodge. From here it was only around 20 miles back to Blair Athol and with two thirds of the day’s distance in the bag I pushed on over the undulating single track leading into the head of Glen Tilt.
At the Falls of Tarf, the official Cairngorm Loop route heads southward towards Fealar Lodge (instead of a sensible decent down the glen to Blair Athol), and I was soon cursing Steve Wilkinson, the route’s creator, as I slogged the hike-a-bike track towards the lodge in the heat. The access road after the lodge was easy riding again, but with some steep climbs I was beginning to feel tired and was grateful for the gravity assisted freewheel down to Daldhu.
From Daldhu the trail turns north-west towards Beinn a’Ghlo and then over the bealach on its south-eastern flank – and it was here that the metaphorical wheels came off as I stopped beside a stream to take on some water, food and get my head together. As I sat in the baking heat, brain dead in the still silence, I realised I hadn’t taken on enough water or food, foolishly thinking that with only 20 miles to go it wouldn’t take long – a bit of a schoolboy error.
Suitably rested, it was time for some more hike-a-bike up to the bealach and into a welcome breeze and ribbon of singletrack that weaved its way down to Glen Girnaig. The path wasn’t particularly technical, but I couldn’t help thinking that it would be suitably tricky after nearly 200 miles of riding against the clock in an ITT (independent time trial).
The final decent into Blair Athol was fast, but uneventful and timed perfectly as the local Spar was just about to close. Having purchased an enormous bag of tortilla chips and a bottle of sarsaparilla root beer I lay back on a bench outside, tired but happy – munching, drinking and pointing tourists seeking snacks and groceries towards the nearest petrol station.
Day 2: 61 miles – 7 hrs, 15 mins moving time.
A good couple of days indeed and the seeds have been suitably sown for completing the full route next year.