I’ve ridden the Cairngorms Loop twice now, it’s become an annual tradition for me. 185 miles of amazing riding in under 56 hours, a worthy challenge and great training for the Highland Trail later in May.
This time I signed up for the mass start, and was ready to set off at 10am on the first Saturday in May. Through the week, the weather was doing its worst to dissuade me, with constant snow forecast for all Sunday. Decision time – to fat bike or not?
In the end, I went back to my original choice, the Stooge. More about the Stooge here as I finally got around to writing a review of it.
Anyway, at the start line, Steve, the organiser, relays the weather warnings. 60mph winds and a lot of snow, heavy rain at lower level. Still snow on Bynack Mor, and most of the Cairngorms really. This might be a year to cut the ride short.
Starting quickly, I soon got onto the Sustrans that runs along the old A9, chatting to Gary and Graham. Gary Tompsett is a fellow Highland Trail Race veteran, albeit one considerably faster than I, so we shared stories and experiences. There is a shared pain and camaraderie among riders of this, we all hated the same bits and loved the same bits, truly a brilliant experience.
Anyway, back on the race, and we hit the Gaick Pass. The scenery opens up in front of me, and the off-road begins properly. Some techy singletrack along the side of a loch, and then a fast double track and road descent. 30 miles down, this is easy!
Moving into more singletrack following a river for a while, and then we start to skirt Loch an Eilean’s simply sublime singletrack. Lovely riding here, worth visiting Aviemore just for this. Loch Morlich approaches and then Glenmore shops. A stop for some food sees me meeting up with several other riders all mulling their options. Alan, Greg and Steve all opt for the outer loop diversion, Phil F-T and I look at the inner instead. Bynack Mor might be snowy and the Lairig an Laoigh brutal but it’s the race route I still want to finish.
I start my push, overtaking another pushing rider, Mark Aston, who would later go on to finish the route. The snow starts, first on the ground and then in the sky and then both. Drainage ditches become knee high leg traps, the risk of stepping into one through the snow becoming ever higher. Riding is possible for short stages, but moreso with my choice of big tyre up front (3″ Knard) than without. I contemplate my choice to not take the fat bike, but am having so much fun on the Stooge that this is soon forgotten.
Reaching the Fords of Avon, I stop for a photo.
It’s quite snowy. Last year at the same time there was a twenty foot patch of snow to navigate through on the whole course; things are slightly different now…
Pushing on past the Ford, the end of the Lairig an Laoigh is reached. I do hate the Lairig due to the lack of riding it offers, but love it at the same time as it’s tough going and stunning scenery. I make a mental note to climb these mountains instead of pass between them.
I immediately regret having not taken a photo on any of the three times prior, especially the one where Glen Derry is lit by the sun yet the surrounding hills remain dark under clouds.
Some lovely singletrack (not counting the drainage ditch) and Derry Lodge is reached. I decide to press on, my route decision still not made.
Reaching the Geldie after Linn of Dee and White Bridge, I have a choice. Ride through to the bothy at Feshiebridge and onwards, or bin it and ride down Glen Tilt. At this point I feel great, about 75 miles in and legs are fine, I’m certain I could ride for hours more. However, I know how badly the Geldie floods after heavy rain, so it is a tough call for me to abandon the race and head down Glen Tilt. I could have kept going onwards but the exit down Glen Tilt is to my car, whereas Glen Feshie is to a train from Aviemore.
I ride down Glen Tilt, the narrow and techy singletrack, while not particularly difficult, taking on a completely different element being ridden in the dark. The option to complete the route comes up, but is ignored, common sense prevailing.
Double track becomes estate road, becomes road, and I’m back at the car, 13hrs after I started. A good day’s biking and definitely the right decision to exit where I did. I don’t regret it as the day wasn’t right to continue, it was just a tough break with the weather. Great training though, and it’s put me in the right frame of mind for the HTR…