The north of Scotland will always hold a small piece of my heart. In another life I travelled through the Highlands with a climbing rope and rack in my rucksack, in search of some of mountaineering’s most prized possessions. From the famous Munros to soaring rock faces, it is an adventurer’s playground, and if you happen to hit the high pressure bringing sunshine, Scotland is simply world class. But it would be fair to say, those days can be few and far between.
In late March this year, my friend Ibrahim (actually my best man) and I embarked on a 5-day bike-packing voyage through some of the wild places most precious to me. The stars aligned, high pressure was forecast, and my brand new Sonder Vir Fortis fat bike was ready to go. Leaving Contin just north of Inverness with bike-packing bags loaded, we travelled off-road via farm tracks, forestry roads, and mountainous footpaths, thanks to the Scottish Access Code passed in 2003. This allows people to travel all wild paths and land, as long as they do so in a responsible manner. A very-forward thinking government bill, and one that mountain bikers relish.
After the first day’s riding, we had only seen three people in 6 hours, and this theme continued throughout the journey. March weather can be unpredictable in this country, however we were privileged to enjoy clear blue skies and no wind, leaving the lochs like giant mirrors reflecting the mountainous skylines. We rolled into small Scottish towns like Ullapool, Poolewe and Loch Carron to resupply with food for the following days. Quaint small towns with friendly locals, overwhelmed by the size of our tyres and our plans to ride over mountain ranges in the distance, as far as the eye could see.
On day three we were joined by friends, old and new, and we chased each other down the rocky technical single track, crossed knee-deep freezing rivers, swam naked in icy lochs, and shouldered our bikes up relentlessly steep mountain paths. We stopped to take in the breathtaking views when the load became a burden. Our fat bikes monstered though the rough terrain, the big fat tyres soaking up whatever the lay of the land could throw at us, mostly rocky paths or bottomless bogs. This is the most fun I’d ever had on two wheels. The evenings were spent in bivi bags or remote bothies (unused old mountain huts), free for whoever is in need of shelter. These are scattered all over the Highlands, and a treat for travellers looking to get out of the weather for an evening. You come across other like-minded hill folk, and share tales of your day over a roaring fire, before kipping down on the timber bunks if you are lucky, often listening to the howling winds and the driving rain, but not this time.
We carried our bikes up the side of the Falls of Glomach (one of the highest in the country at 113 metres), on narrow slippery goat tracks which kept our minds focused, as falling was not an option. Pushing our bikes through peat hags seemed a luxury after this. Sinking to the brim of our boots before we leapt to the next sinking footprint, laughing at each other as we gambled in our route of choice. The weather held for the first four days, before we woke high in the Glen Affric mountains. The visibility was down to 20 meters, which can only be described as pea soup. We were back on the stoney single track before long, which then turned into land rover tracks, and then forestry tracks. A sure sign our adventure was coming to an end as we headed back to our starting point and civilisation.
Bike-packing is a great way to see the countryside, travelling light and as fast as you like. I’ve walked many of the hills and glens that we rode through, but to link them all as we did would take at least twice the time. It always amazes me how we can find such great adventures in our own backyard. This is likely to be my last big adventure of the summer as my focus now turns back to the racing season and my search for a rainbow jersey, a feeling similar to the search for the famous mountain haggis, which has also eluded me. But I’ll be sure to keep up those little local mircoadventures to keep me sane in the world of elite sport.
The huge thanks to Alpkit for the bike and luggage, SRAM for the XX1 Gold Eagle Drive Chain, and Dirty Dog for the bad ass eye wear.