They say you should never meet your heroes. Well, the Cairngorms have always held a heroic place in my mind. I’d never been there, barely even seen many photographs. I just had the impression that it was wild. It was a place where the foolish could come unstuck and the hardy could find beauty and solitude.
The Cairngorms Loop is an event born out of the same sorts of inspirations as EWE. A desire to put a British spin on ultra-distance racing. A desire to keep it lo-fi. And, frankly, an excuse for some of us to get together in the same place and have some fun. Steve Wilkinson organised in as minimal a way as possible with little more than a great route and a start time. I have a lot to thank him for there.
The night before the race, I bivied up in the woods near the start. Whenever possible, I’m too cheap for hotels – I prefer a bed of moss to a noisy dormitory or an expensive bed any day. Plus it kept me away from the other riders for a little while. I was unsure of what the event would hold. I planned to try to finish without sleeping but it had taken Steve 56 hours (including 2x 12 hour overnight stops) so that seemed like an aggressive goal. The weather potential was troubling. Strong winds, temperatures around 0C, and getting wet are a lethal cocktail. Like many others, I’d take a good honest -20C for preference. At least you know where you are. So, I didn’t want to mess with my head by hearing other people’s worries. I just took a nip of whiskey and some podcasts to a secluded spot for the night.
The pre-ride hour was a funny one. Steve was fitting a new rear mech to his still-muddy bike. I was packing gear into new bags for the first time ever. People who knew each other indirectly were making swift and sure acquaintance. It felt like a gathering of what I cared about in riding. Independence. Fortitude. And not taking yourself too seriously.
I was happy with my bike and I had prioritised my clothing. I took big ice climbing mittens in addition to cycling gloves: losing dexterity in your fingers is step one on a spiral to getting yourself into real trouble. I took moderately thick wool hiking socks and neoprene overshoes. I took a fleece that I have only ever worn while cycling in Alaska – and then only in the strongest winds or the coldest temperatures. I took a proper hard shell Goretex jacket: my experience of soft shells when your energy output is reduced by having to fix/push a bike has been cold and unpleasant. I felt confident that I had enough to keep going in most conditions. And I would survive (but probably not enjoy) a night in my light weight bivi down to the forecast low of -6C.
Steve shouted, “Go!”, and we went. I chatted to a few people as the first few miles slipped by, but soon I found myself braking downhill on tarmac to stay out of the people in front. I did not like this. I knew that my resources (energy, wakefulness, food) were limited, and I knew that the good weather we had at that moment can soon close in, so I went. I rode away from the group like an antisocial git. But you’ve got to make miles while the going is good.
When the off-road started, it was still gentle. Zipping along a meandering boulder-strewn river, I was enjoying the moment. Putting some credit in the bank before the pushing began. When the GPS track first lead me through a river, I didn’t hesitate to get my feet wet. Soon enough, I had to get them wet again as I had been too keen to break the spell of dry feet and gone the wrong way.
Back on track, the trail started to lay out it’s intent. A vein of singletrack cut up and down the contour of a steep hill. Again and again my tyres twanged on rocks as I mishandled my lines. I was going to have to get my head for riding rocks back – this was not like riding in the South East. The engagement of riding was pure, though: no thought other than keeping up some poise and momentum, then satisfaction as I emerged onto easier trails once more.
The miles went by unbelievably quickly. I was lucky enough to have hooked up with Steve Heading after my little wrong turn and we passed time easily. It was a real pleasure to ride with him, but I did feel as if we were drawing each other towards an overly ambitious pace. It served a purpose, though, as I started to make guesses about when we might emerge from the inner loop on the route. The inner part was really the meat of the ride: more elevation and more hike-a-bike than anywhere else. If I could get down from there before sunset, I would be happy.
The inner loop soon kicked into more fun singletrack. I was even throwing little jumps in and playing with the bike. I hadn’t eaten much yet, relying on energy drink in the first fill of my bottles. But, with a little wisdom, I filled up from a river and started taking solid food. I wanted to stay on top of things, not have to come back from the brink of bonk.
Later, the pushing really started. Heading up An Lurg was beyond the effort I was prepared to put in under these circumstances: climb hard for 10 meters, hop a rain channel climb hard again, repeat until you’ve gained over 400 metres of elevation. Or just walk up the damned thing.
It was about here that the snow started. Really just for atmosphere and blown in on a gentle tailwind. When the trail finally did turn downwards again, I was in a “moment”. Again, it took full concentration to deal with the rocks. Now there was nothing between them, just more rocks. My friend speed and I rolled through as fast as we dared. As I saw Steve H a little ahead, I appreciated everything that had brought me here. Years of riding had given me the skills to find some flow on this rocky concoction even with rigid forks. Months of training had given me the strength to get up here. The luck to be born in the right place, and a lifetime of decisions, accidents and chances had put me right here: using all of my skill to ride in the wilderness, comfortable in the snow, and enjoying it.
Of course the ride involved toil. Jumping over bogs, dragging the bike over bouldery climbs. Emptying pebbles from my shoes. Putting my wheel back in when the QR got undone during a river-crossing. But toiling to a special place made it all the more special.
In the latter stages of that inner loop, the hail/rain/cold-wet-stuff was blowing in my face. I was glad to be there in daylight and still seemed to be OK for my aim of coming out before dusk. In places, rivers raged and land had slipped towards it. The land was breathing all around me, and I could work with it.
As it turned out, I was back to Feshiebridge and ready to continue around the outer loop at 9pm. 11 hours had elapsed and I felt like I had broken the back of the hardest section. It was time for caffeine pills. On the Divide, I had been schooled by Kurt Refsnider and Jefe Branham. They had shown a whole new level of commitment and sleep deprivation. I had toyed with this once before and was about to go without sleep again. 100mg of caffeine for me, new AAs for the GPS, let’s go!
The light of the far north is something that I always feel privileged to enjoy. Golden light and pure skies watched granite turn to shadow as I pedalled through. As the shadows began to win, I lit up the trail and kept up the speed.
Singletrack, moorland, gates, forests. The moon kept catching my eye and I kept scanning the hills around looking for bike lights out there. I started to get paranoid that Steve H had overtaken me. At gates I would turn my light at the tyre tracks ahead of me, looking out for the Ikon tread pattern that both of us were using. He had had a puncture earlier (lighter sidewalls than my Ikons), and I couldn’t see how he could have got past, but my mind was playing tricks.
Eating was getting boring, but I had to keep it up. I had Tomintoul to myself that night – the street lights offered me nothing. Back into the looming shadows of the hills. A fast trail along Glen Bullig was eating up the miles again. I could hear the river and feel the landscape around me. I could only imagine that it would be beautiful by day. It brought back memories of The Master of Ballantrae – deeds by moonlight and people born in this land.
There was real snow now, heavy flakes that hung long enough to sting my eyes as I rode on through. Easy trails became climbing, which became pushing, and the temperature dropped. My hands lost feeling and the brakes were almost too painful to pull on the way down to Invercauld Bridge. Too late, but not way too late, I switched to my mitts and ate some food. My water was painfully cold to drink. After that short break the cold had really set in and I shivered uncontrollably down the last bit of road descending. It didn’t seem cold enough for a fleece, so I just zipped my jacket up to the neck and pedalled hard to get some heat going again.
The temperature continued to drop. Ice formed on the outside of my neoprene overshoes and I worried a little for my feet. They were very cold, but not (I thought) in danger of frostbite. My only option to warm them up would have been plastic bags – I was wearing the rest of my footwear. I just hoped not to have to make too many river crossings before daylight brought more warmth. My hands and the rest of my body were toasty now, but my water bottles were frozen solid and my chocolate was brittle.
The inner and outer loops ran together for a short while at the Linn of Dee. I gnawed at my frozen food and walked for a while to warm up my feet. This felt like the homeward leg, and I had come through enough of the night to start speculating about when I would see the sun again. My feet ached for its warmth.
There were more rivers to walk through, now they stuck mud and ice to my bike. A clinking noise tuned out to be a frozen bit of torn overshoe knocking against the chainstay. All I was doing was keeping forward progress and waiting for dawn. Bog-trotting came back, but much of it was frozen so somewhat rideable. And eventually, light came back to the Cairngorms.
My spirits had yet to lift, though. There was no warmth, just illumination. And I was now riding singletrack along Allt Garbh Buidhe. The trail ran along a steep slope, and was punctuated with tricky rock sections. My useless brain couldn’t handle this. I peg-legged along keeping the bike tilted away from a fall down to the river. It took forever and irritated me, only to be followed by a brutal push up and over to Fealar Lodge. I took comfort in the hope that those who had decided to send the route this way would soon be regretting it as well.
I hit a rough road out of there and the sun was finally warming me up. Suddenly, I could climb again and every inch I didn’t walk took me closer to finishing soon.
Things moved fast now. Although I kept mistaking sheep for people, the end was near. By the time I hit tarmac near Blair Athol, I felt ready for another loop (I wasn’t).
Down at the train station, I took a photo of my bike by the clock. I attempted a self-portrait with the timer but was obviously too confused to operate a camera properly, there was no photo taken. I peeled off my jacket in the sun, and called Emily. Cairngorms Loop was done in 22 hours 30 minutes. I thought I had probably won, but still couldn’t tell. Satisfied, I rode back to my car and ate some olives.