It proved to be a mountain bike race of many firsts for me. The first time I'd cycled for more than 12 hours. The first time I'd hiked-a-bike for almost 14 consecutive kilometres. The first time I'd broken up 37 hours of continual effort with only 3 hours sleep. And, as I ascended the steep slopes of Culardoch, a 900m high Corbett near Braemar, c.200km into Scotland's 300km Cairngorms Loop, the first time I'd fallen asleep whilst standing up, as I pushed my mountain bike up a hill. I recall blinking heavily as I'd stared into the darkness. It was 11pm on a Sunday night. I still had 15 hours to go before I was finished.
"You always want to run before you can walk" said my friend Davy, metaphorically speaking. Over lunch, I'd expressed interest in making a second attempt at the Cairngorms Loop, an unsupported 300km (186-mile) mountain bike time trial around the Cairngorms National Park in the Eastern Highlands of Scotland. My first attempt at this long-distance, off-road cycling route, which you're challenged to finish within 56 hours, ended ignomiously on a cold, wet and windy weekend in 2014. Nothing other than apathy from constantly numb fingers and cold feet led me to bail not even halfway through. I'd suffered from pins and needles in many appendages for several months afterwards.
In the case of mountain biking, what Davy said about 'running before I could walk' was true. On paper, I was completely unqualified for something like the Cairngorms Loop. Other than my first attempt at the route, the only long-distance mountain biking I'd done previously was in a pair, with Davy, at the 2015 Strathpuffer, a 24-hour winter mountain bike endurance event in the North-West Highlands of Scotland (I'd also previously completed the 'Puffer as a part of a team of four). Aside from that, I didn't regularly bike, unless you count a daily 15-minute commute and 4 hours of indoor cycling every week at my local spinning studio (Lifescycle in Edinburgh). But I'd done a little mountain biking in our local hills and we'd fared okay at Strathpuffer (completing 20 laps and finishing in 18th position in the pairs category). Granted, a finish at Strathpuffer wasn't much of an achievement for Davy - he'd previously competed in the solo category, on a single speed, and finished on the podium - but it cemented an idea for me that I could sit on a bike for a decent length of time and keep going. Coupled with my experience hiking and backpacking outdoors and a stubborness I have to keep moving for long hours, summer or winter, I felt confident I could finish the Cairngorms Loop. I just wasn't sure if I could do it in the 56-hour time limit. But as another friend said, “Well, there's nothing to stop you from finding out”.
The Cairngorms Loop is organised by Steve Wilkinson, a mountain biker from the north-east of England. Steve describes the Cairngorms Loop as an 'independent time trial based on the classic Tour of the Cairngorms mountain bike route, using different trails to loop twice around the central Cairngorm Mountains with the intent being to ride the route as fast as you are able, whilst adhering to a set of rules for self-supported mountain biking'. There is 'no entry fee or prize money' and 'there are no waymarkers or checkpoints and no support and you are expected to navigate the unmarked course entirely on your own, with no caches or pre-arranged support'. Steve also shares that 'the inspiration for this challenge, and the self-supported philosophy based rule-set, came from North American events the Tour Divide, Colorado Trail Race, and Arizona Trail Race. The guiding principal being that you 'do it all yourself'.
The Cairngorms Loop can be attempted at any time of year but a group ride is historically held at the end of April, when there's still snow on Scotland's hills, the temperature can drop to below zero degrees C and the threat of hypothermia is very real (the route ascends twice above 700m and crosses 11 rivers, at least one that can be thigh-deep, and if you've no spare clothes the only way to dry off is to keep moving).
The start and finish of the Cairngorms Loop is the sleepy village of Blair Atholl in the southern limits of Cairngorms National Park. The idea is you leave Blair Atholl at 10am Saturday morning and you have to be back in Blair Atholl by 6pm on Monday. In between, you travel north through the Gaick Pass to Aviemore, over the shoulder of 1090m high Bynack More and the Lairig an Laiogh to Linn of Dee, back to Aviemore via Glen Feshie then east to Tomintoul, continuing over the shoulder of 900m high Culardoch to Braemar, then heading back to the Linn of Dee and down Glen Tilt. A sting in the tail being, as you approach Blair Atholl, the route crosses over to the remote outpost of Fealar Lodge and traverses the bulk of three Munros that make up the Beinn a'Ghlo massif before it leads you to the finish.
All the locations on the Cairngorms Loop had been burnt into my brain by the time I stood on the start line at the Old Bridge of Tilt car park in 2017. I'd felt a bit of a bikepacking fraud as I spoke to Steve and some of the the other competitors. My first attempt at the route had, it's fair to say, been a bit Macgyver. I'd treated it as a backpacking expedition on a bike and I'd carried far too much of the wrong gear (enough to fill both the 40-litre rucksack and the panniers I carried with me, which included a tent) and not enough of the right (e.g. warm shoes and plenty of spare gloves). This year, despite a resolve to carry less stuff and the purchase of new bikepacking gear to put the weight on (my also new) bike, I still had a hillwalker's mentality and had brought with me a fair amount of things that weren't essential but that I *might* need (given it had been snowing at 600m above sea level three days previously). I clearly had more gear than others. But that was fine. My strategy for the race was to go slow and steady and to keep moving as long as possible. It's a strategy that needs fuelled with a healthy amount of gear and food but the challenge for me in a race like this is invariably against myself, not the other competitors. A few extra kilos in weight wasn't going to make or break my attempt.
Saturday 10:00am - The race starts
Steve started us on the 2017 Cairngorms Loop with a simple two minute warning. We departed Blair Atholl and followed the old road alongside the A9 to the House of Bruar, I chatted to Donald McIntosh. who'd introduced himself as a software developer from Glasgow. Donald was competing in his first Cairngorms Loop (you can read Donald's account here). I also caught up with Lucy Greenhill, from Oban, whom I knew from Oban Mountain Rescue Team. Lucy was also in her first race, using the experience as practice for her upcoming (and successful) attempt on the Highland Trail 550, the Cairngorms Loop's 'bigger brother/sister'. Lucy zoomed away from me very quickly (she went on to finish the Cairngorms Loop with a female FKT of 36 hours 42 minutes). It wasn't long before Donald was also ahead of me as well and I was on my own and could settle into the challenge ahead.
The route through the Gaick Pass was as enjoyable as I remembered. Most of the route is on a good landrover track, the rivers we crossed were low and there was only a little hike-a-bike (across some marshy land to reach the singletrack alongside Loch an Duin). A good tailwind helped me leave the track behind and speed down the tarmac into Glen Trolmie, reaching a top speed of 48km/h as I'd drafted behind a car. I navigated the Thieves’ Road and crossed the woods on the great trails around Loch an Eilein into Glenmore Forest. By the time I reached Loch Morlich, I was an hour up on my 2014 time. I'd learnt from my first attempt at the Cairngorms Loop that 6 hours is the longest I can go on quick breaks and snack food before I get tired and grumpy so I stopped at the bridge at the foot of Bynack More for a 30 minute break and some energy food. I knew I'd appreciate the boost it would give me before the long climb to the Fords of Avon refuge and the hike-a-bike that I knew would follow as I crossed the Lairig an Laoigh into Glen Derry.
Donald McIntosh passed me again as I rested. I'd only moved in front of him because he'd taken a few wrong turnings and stopped for a cake and a Coca-Cola at Glenmore. I watched Donald as he cycled up the hill. He looked strong, much stronger than I felt. As I contemplated this, I was passed by another two competitors, who I presumed were racing together, as a couple. I don't think I was in last position but I didn’t see either Donald or them (or anyone else) for the rest of the race. It was 4pm Saturday.
Saturday 4.00pm - Bynack More and the Lairig an Laoigh
The climb over the shoulder of Bynack More across the Lairig an Laoigh to the Linn of Dee was never not enjoyable but it did test my patience. Numerous waterbars on the ascent plus a mixture of ground that was too technical for me to ride and numerous snow patches where I ground to a halt meant I pushed my laden bike for nearly 13 consecutive kilometres before I was able to get back in the saddle and speed up my descent into Glen Derry. I then misjudged a tree root in the dark and went over the handlebars. To add insult to injury, I soaked my feet and legs as I crossed the river to reach Derry Lodge.
My plan for the first 24 hours of the race had been to reach and bivvy in the woods in Glen Feshie (Ruigh Aiteachain bothy was closed in 2017 for renovation). However, the hike-a-bike across the Lairig an Laoigh had taken me some 6 hours and, with some time out for a late feast at Linn of Dee, it was 01:00am before I crossed the Moor of Feshie and started to follow the Geldie Burn. The Cairngorms Loop is not a navigational exercise - you follow an established .gpx route - but the light on my GPS only came on when I pressed it and I was mainly travelling by feel. Tiredness had kicked in and I made an error, mistaking the tributary river Allt Dhaidh Mor for the Geldie Burn itself. I followed a wet ATV track for 200m before I realised something wasn't right. A quick check of the compass confirmed I was headed North and not West and I splashed my way back to the river. It was 01:37am and I’d been on the go for 15.5 hours. I decided it was time to stop and bivvy.
Sunday 9:00am - Wading across the River Feshie
A 4-hour sleep left me feeling fairly refreshed. For breakfast, I'd decided I'd eat snacks on the move (I did have a stove with me, to heat water for soup and hot chocolate, but I never used it). It does seem odd to want to graze on junk food at such an early hour but in the past I've been prone to not eating regularly when I'm on the hills (I'm reminded of a memorable Winter’s day on Beinn a’Ghlo when I hiked for 12 hours in deep snow and strong winds on some boiled sweets and a single slice of buttered malt loaf). These day, I generally go by the principle that any calories are good calories and I rarely, if ever, bonk. To that end, I'd prioritised Tailwind drinks powder and snack food that I knew from past experience I was happy to eat whilst exercising and I could consume easily whilst I was on the move. My breakfast consisted of chunks of Nak’d bars, M&Ms, liquorice torpedoes, a broken-up chocolate hazelnut bar, cheddar cheese cubes and Twiglets, all of which I ate periodically throughout the day as a handful of 'pot luck' out of a bar bag (though after my first taste of this savoury/sweet concoction I realised it was a bad idea to combine the Twiglets, which went soft in the cheese and didn't go with the liquorice. I usually like savoury and sweet foods together but you live and learn). Aside from these snacks, I also had with me a number of sachets of coconut-flavoured almond butter (Pip & Nut), a much healthier snack that I love but I found them to be tricky to open whilst on the move (I’ve not yet been able to replicate my childhood feats of riding my bike with no hands on the handlebars) and I wasn't fond of the taste when I swallowed the butter with fruit-flavoured water (which I needed to because it can be quite dry). A much healthier diet is something I'd want to focus on for future trips.
The nature of the terrain across the Moor of Feshie meant I was off my bike a lot in the morning (I can't really remember why - I don't recall it being particularly rocky or wet). There are definitely worse places to push a bike but I do remember being glad when I crossed the river at Ruighe nan Leum and climbed the short slope to reach the landrover track that descended into Glen Feshie.
Glen Feshie is surely a contender for one of the loveliest glens in Scotland. The head of the glen has a really wild feel about it, with tall Scots pine trees adorning its steep sides, which are scarred by landslip, and a braided river that needs crossed twice. This river, the River Feshie, has the deepest water on the route and I got soaking wet feet and legs on both occasions (I almost swam for a bit on my second crossing but this was mainly due to poor route choice - I'm glad I didn't do it in the dark). The landslip at the head of Glen Feshie posed little problem, much less so than the landslip you encounter after the bothy - I found this really tricky terrain to haul a laden bike up - but I'd soon left the difficulties behind and dried off as I raced past the car park at Auchlean, headed for Inverdruie.
Sunday 10.44am - Onto the outer loop
The inner loop of the Cairngorms Loop crosses onto the outer loop near Feshiebridge. The point of no return though for the outer loop, I'd say, is at Inverdruie, near Coylumbridge, where you're closest to the 'fleshpots' of Aviemore. For no particular reason, I'd stopped at Inverdruie, opposite the adventure playground. As I'd sat on the ground and watched a family walk by, I felt frustrated and pondered whether I should jack the race in and get a train home. There wasn't any pressing need for me to do this as the weather was fair and I still felt quite strong but the sheer amount of pushing I'd done, regularly since 4pm the previous day, caused me to question my enthusiasm to continue. Fortunately, I'd picked up a fair amount of speed on the tarmac road from Auchlean to Inverdruie, and the route ahead continued for a bit on a paved road, so I gave myself a mental slap and started moving again before I changed my mind.
Once you're north-east of Aviemore, the Cairngorms Loop starts to head East towards Conie Hill and Forest Lodge. I got lost in this section on a couple of occasions but soon found my way back onto the route. I passed a man and woman on the bridge just after Forest Lodge as I entered the trails of Abernethy Forest. I went the wrong way here too before I found the almost hidden path that led me deeper into the forest onto some of the most delightful singletrack I've ridden, a gradual uphill through great greenery and beautiful Scots pine that brought me out to a superb view towards the direction of Bynack More.
I was in great spirits as I continued heading East and cycled past Loch a'Chnuic. I'd got over my funk at Inverdruie, I was enjoying the route again and my head was filled with grand thoughts about how I was going to reach Tomintoul much earlier than planned and how maybe I'd be able to finish on Sunday night. The trail through Abernethy Forest really had cheered me up no end. It appeared though to have caused me to become somewhat irrational. As I'd stopped for a drink and admired the view, I turned the map over and realised I still had a whole page to cover before I reached Tomintoul. A whole page of a map that was encased in an Ortlieb map case. That's about 10 squares. 10km still to go. Just to reach Tomintoul. Which was 36km from Braemar. Which was 27km from Fealar Lodge. Which itself was still 30km from the finish. As this realisation sank it, it brought me back down to earth with a massive bump. I still had a huge distance to go. At the pace I was going, it really was going to be a difficult challenge to finish before Monday 6pm.
Sunday 6.00pm - 24 hours to go
I'd laughed out loud when I truly realised how little concept I had of the distances the Cairngorms Loop covers. I'd thought about it, yes (I'd been thinking about it almost daily since December 2016) but, with no experience of long-distance mountain biking (if you discount lapping the 11km track at the Strathpuffer) I had nothing to properly compare it with. My mental model was so skewed it was laughable. As it turned out, this wasn't so bad as it enabled me to put all thoughts about finishing the race on time out of my head. It was simply too far to get my head around. I resorted instead to something I'm good at. I concentrated on surveying my horizon and setting myself challenges. If I can get to x, I can get to y. If I can get to y, I can get to z. If I repeat that, I'll eventually be where I need to be. It's an approach I've honed over many years as I've hiked hundreds of kilometres across Scotland's hills (including trekking most of the way from Fort William to Cape Wrath).
My change in mindset helped me to enjoy the rest of my journey to Tomintoul. I'm not usually a fan of the rolling, farmed land that is typical of the East of Scotland, preferring the rougher highlands to the North and West but it was nice to travel through parts of the country that I'd not usually visit. That's not to say it wasn't hard going. There were a couple of tough climbs and I went the wrong way just before Glen Brown and its multiple river crossings. But the countryside was scenic enough and my good mood had continued as I cycled into Tomintoul at 6.00pm on Sunday night.
Sunday 11:00pm - The climb over Culardoch
I'd felt fairly fresh when I arrived in Tomintoul. Which was good, as I was cycling back to Blair Atholl, no matter what. The only question in my mind was how long would it take me. As I rode through Tomintoul's main street, the thought of stopping for a hot meal in the hotel bar attracted my attention. I decided to keep going. My digestive system doesn't take kindly to too much exercise after food - one of the reasons I decided to carry food for the whole route - but, more-so, I really wanted to finish within 56 hours and I still had no idea how long it would take me. The threat that I'd get to Blair Atholl after the cut-off and know I'd missed it because I'd stopped unneccesarily spurred me on. I put the thought out my head and got back to the task in hand.
There's a distance of 36km between Tomintoul and Braemar and then a further 7 kilometres to reach Linn of Dee, where the River Dee threads its way through a narrow rock gorge. I wanted to reach Linn of Dee for two reasons - for the mental boost it would give me when I revisited ground I'd already covered (the outer loop joins the inner loop here for a bit) and because the distance home seemed much more manageable. All that barred my way was two long glens, a traverse along the shores of a remote mountain loch (Loch Builg) and a climb over a 900m high lump of a hill called Culardoch. Oh, and the fact I’d been on the move for 30+ hours.
After I'd left Tomintoul, I passed through the gates of the Glen Avon estate. Unfortunately, they were locked and they didn't open grandly for me like a Lord entering his manor but a side door gave way to continued easy terrain - a landrover track that leads past the settlements at Torbain, Dalestie and Inchrory. A strong headwind built up as I made my way up Glen Avon towards Glen Builg. This kept my pace slow and continued to test my patience. I'd also began to suffer from pain in my right knee (which I still have as I type these words, 12 weeks later). My knee had ached slightly for a few weeks before the race but the terrain had aggravated it and by the time I’d reached Loch Builg and negotiated the 1km+ singletrack along its shoreline there was a fair amount of grimacing going on. I was glad when I reached the landrover track that took me to the foot of Culardoch. I started the steep climb. I think it was around 10.30pm. There wasn't enough lack of light to warrant the use of my bike light but my head torch was on. I kept moving uphill, slowly. Pushing my bike in front of me and taking a few steps. Then pausing for a moment before repeating the process, over and over again. In a little pool of light, on my own, moving up the side of a hill at the pace of an ant. With each step, I complained to no-one in particular about the jabbing pain in my knee.
My climb in the dark up Culardoch felt like it went on forever. It definitely took longer than it should - I recall closing my eyes for a bit whilst I leant against my bike and I nodded off to sleep. If there was any consolation, it was that the hill track doesn't go all the way to the summit - it climbs over a shoulder - and the pain of the ascent is soon a distant memory once you've encountered the amazing descent all the way to Invercauld Bridge.
I'd been considering stopping and having a sleep, first when I reached Invercauld (at the car park for Ben A'an and Beinn a'Bhuird) and again as I cycled into Braemar around 01:00am (I'd eyed up the tables outside the butchers opposite the outdoor shop). I decided I'd keep moving and I gradually ground my way along the road west of Braemar to reach the forest just short of Linn of Dee. At 02:30am, I rolled out my sleeping bag and bivvy bag in the forest, blew up my sleeping mat and I was asleep within minutes. I'd been on the go for 21 hours.
Monday 6:30am - Revisiting the Linn of Dee
When I awoke a few hours later, the pain in my knee was sharp and I had difficulty bending it. I was concerned I wasn't going to able to exit my sleeping bag, never mind cycle anywhere. After a fashion, I was on my feet and I found the pain eased off with movement and a few painkillers. As long as I bent my leg the way you're supposed to and I didn't move it too much laterally, I could cycle with relative ease.
It was a good feeling to rejoin the inner loop at the Linn of Dee, if only for a while. The route repeats a portion of the ground you've crossed earlier past White Bridge until you continue south over the Geldie Burn and the Bynack Burn and head into Glen Tilt. Despite my knee pain, I felt strong and the sleep had rejuvenated me. The sun was shining and I knew it was going to be a good day. Was I going to finish within the 56 hours? I still had no idea. But I was enjoying myself and all I had to do was to keep moving.
Glen Tilt is a popular Scottish glen for mountain biking. Recognition-wise, I'd suggest it's on a par with Torridon in the North-West Highlands. The terrain as you cross the watershed into Glen Tilt is very scenic and the technical singletrack high up on the side of the glen is good fun, if a little unnerving at times due to the drop-off. Instead of descending the full length of the glen to Blair Atholl, the Cairngorms Loop crosses the waters of the Allt Garbh Buidhe far up and heads out to the remote Fealar Lodge. After the inclement weather we experienced in 2014, one competitor described to me how he felt very close to hypothermia at Fealar Lodge. He'd found it a very barren place, despite the farm, and was concerned about what little protection he'd had from the bad weather.
Monday 9:45am - Fealar Lodge to the finish
In 2017, the weather was warm and sunny and the river crossing to Fealar Lodge was easy enough. There was little flow in the water despite the snow that had fallen earlier in the week. On the opposite bank of the river, there is a steep ascent and a long traverse before you reach the lodge (I struggled to orientate myself here, despite having a map, possibly an indication I was more tired than I felt). Once you've circumnavigated the buildings at Fealar Lodge, there's a fun, fast descent on a vehicle track that I'd been able to anticipate for a while from the other side of the glen. Unfortunately, the descent was over all too quickly and I had another push up a hill as I passed the Munro of Carn Righ on my left. Once I'd reached the bealach (which I recall had great views back towards the Cairngorms hills), I realised I wasn't that many pedals away from the home straight. There's a fantastically fast, flowing descent to the farmhouse at Daldhu. All that's left is some fun singletrack up to the west side of Beinn a'Ghlo, another section of 'this is going on forever' hike-a-bike up to the bealach opposite Airgiod Bheinn and a great, grassy descent to the foot of Carn Liath before the final, easy river crossing and a glorious, glorious glide on tarmac downhill all the way into Blair Atholl.
And that was my finish to what proved to be a successful Cairngorms Loop for me in 2017. I'd tried in 2014 and failed. I'm sure I'd decided 'never again' but I'm glad I didn't. There wasn't any grand finish (though I'll admit to raising my hands aloft, Tour de France-style, as I arrived through some grand gates into Blair Atholl) but I think this ties nicely into the nature of the event. There's minimal rules. There's no prizes. You get nothing other than your name on a website. It seemed fitting therefore that my arrival at the station was a muted affair. I was greeted quietly by a dog walker and two hikers, one of whom kindly captured the photographic evidence Steve asks you to capture to demonstrate you've completed the route within 56 hours (I arrived at 2.33pm on the Monday, with an overall time of 52 hours 19 minutes). Within a minute, the dog walker highlighted that the Edinburgh train was approaching the station and it was time for me to leave. The ice-cold can of Coca-Cola I'd been looking forward to for hours would have to wait. I boarded the train, secured my bike and grabbed a seat. (Annoyingly, I forgot to switch off my GPS so my top speed was recorded as 108km/h). As the train pulled out the station and the landscape raced by, I leant back and stared absent-mindedly out the window, enjoying the simple fact that there was no effort needed to move. I'd like to say I was thinking to myself "never again' but, despite how hard the Cairngorms Loop was, I'd kind of enjoyed myself. Thoughts of how I could apply for the Highland Trail 550 Trail had already started to enter my mind.
- Strong legs - One of the benefits of the many hours I spend each week indoor cycling at Lifescyle
- Strong head - At my level of exerience, these types of long-distance time trials are as much, if not more so, of a mental challenge rather than physical. I'm pleased I kept going despite a few thoughts of bailing out
- Deer - As I'd descended Culardoch into Invercauld Estate I surprised a herd of deer in the dark and cycled downhill as they ran beside me, just on the peripheral of my head-torch
- Far too much hike-a-bike - An indication of my failure, not the course. I'd need to be a much stronger rider to be able to muscle my way over the more technical bits (and the snow, and the wet bits)
- Body damage - I had pins and needles in my hands/feet for many weeks after the route (I'll wear padded gloves next time) plus the small finger on one hand stuck out at a funny angle, which is a sign I believe to be damage to the ulnar nerve. I have Morton's Neuroma in both feet and they significantly played up near Fealar Lodge and my right knee is still sore in August 2017, three months after.
- Underwear, powerstretch tights, wool socks, hiking boots, neoprene overshoes; merino wool t-shirt (short-sleeve), synthetic t-shirt (long sleeve), pertex windshirt
On bike (Bird Zero TR Hardtail)
- Revelate Designs Harness + Salty Roll - Rab Winter Guide Jacket, pile mitts, spare pile mitts*, waterproof mitts*, waterproof hat*, spare base layer (top and bottoms)*, spare socks*
- Alpkit Stingray frame bag - stove (MSR Pocket Rocket)*, pot* (MSR kettle) with 100g gas canister*, Fire Steel* and soup / chocolate sachets packed inside*), bike repair kit*, tools*, food (coconut almond butter sachets x6 and chocolate hazelnut bars x2), phone*, compass, bike lock*
- Revelate Designs Vicacha seat pack - spare 27.5" inner tube (x2)*, sleeping bag (Rab Summit Alpine 400, rated to -4 degrees C) sleeping mat, bivvy bag, primaloft jacket (Rab Xenon Hoody)
- Revelate Designs Mountain Feed Bag - chocolate m&ms, twiglets, licourice torpedoes, chocolate eclairs, cheese cubes, salted peanuts
- Camelbak backpack (18l) - 3-litre hydration pack, neoprene gloves*, fleece top*, waterproofs*, Tailwind drinks powder
(*Item not used)