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Saturday, 13 August 2011

Day Six: Tuesday 26th July Ballater to Stonehaven

We did consider this as a viable form of transport to get to the top of Mt Keen but then decided that it wouldn't really be in the spirit of the trip. It was a strange thing to see around the side of the guest house but then again, this was Ballater, anything could happen!

I was looking forward to this part of the trip. On one hand this did not hold the same sense of adventure as the previous days as this was the only part of the route that I had previously ridden. We were due to cycle through Glen Tanar but we were given a fun-sounding singletrack route over Pannanich Hill from the guys at the bike shop. It was free of charge too!

So off we went up the landrover track towards the hill. It was a long and steady climb but my level of fitness must have improved over the week because I wasn't struggling at all. It was a really nice ride before heading off towards the singletrack. However, we had been warned that the path up the hill was less of a path and more of a slight scar through bogs and heather.  Again, the reassuring cry from Sven confirming that this was his favourite kind of terrain. It was my least favourite. My front wheel got sucked in so many times and my legs simply couldn't get the bike through and up over the terrain. I was getting frustrated but at least the pedal was fixed.

It wasn't too long before we reached the top and could see Mt Keen. This was by far a shorter route than going through Glen Tanar even if it was hard work getting up. Getting down was great. A very thin deer track took us down through the heather. The adrenaline was rushing as the heather hid the big rocks until they were almost upon us. There were a few boggy puddles to suck in the wheel and I was comforted to hear that Sven had gone over the handlebars too. Although I don't think he went over quite as often as me but I did get to the bottom well before him, just with a few more bruises!

At the bottom we were greeted with the lovely looking rocky path chiseled into the side of Mt Keen. Having been up before I knew that this was near impossible. Therefore I thought it safe to bet that Sven wouldn't pedal all the way up. In fact if he did, I was prepared to eat a sheep's testicle. Of course I only said this to camera until I saw Sven walking. When I finally told him he'd lost the bet he decided he really would bike up the rest of the way... he did. Amazing robot man!!

It was a lovely walk to the top and after some food and photos and chat we began our descent. I knew this was a good one with lots of little jumps over drainage ditches. Unfortunately the Mt Keen Management had built up the humps on the lower part of the descent making it impossible to hit at speed. I'm sure someone is going to come a cropper. Luckily it wasn't either of us but it did slow us down and spoil the fun a little.

Once through the splash at the bottom we carried on towards Edzell. We turned off just before Tarfside and followed the other side of the River North Esk all the way. It was fairly flat and so we could enjoy the view, the lovely weather (of which we had lots of) and the masses of grouse or pheasant hiding along the route. I'm not sure which they were but I was definitely hoping to apply the old rule that if you hit and kill one you musn't pick it up but the person behind you can. Unfortunately we didn't have one for our tea that evening.

To be honest I thought that my legs would be finished upon arriving in Edzell but I think that was when the adrenaline began to kick in. We stopped for a coffee and another look over the map and after confirming our road route to Stonehaven we headed off. Several miles from Edzell my legs did give way and I really struggled. It took a lot of determination and the thought of a nice cuppa and warm bed at home to keep the wheels turning. I really thought I might end up walking most of the way but Sven kept me pushing on.

With about 7 miles to go Sven stopped and used my phone to call Christine. I kept on going, having established a rhythm, and it wasn't long before the realisation that over one of these hills I would see the sea. I knew that Sven would be behind me but in my mind he was miles away. I'm not saying for a second that I haven't enjoyed his company and support for the entire trip. I have and he's been a life saver but the only thing that kept me going was my own rhythm, my own heartbeat and my own monologue. I was my own motivator and I was going to get to Stonehaven. Moreover, I was going to get to Stonehaven on my own, without relying on motivation from Sven. I wanted to do this bit alone.

Every hill was a sprint and every descent was too slow, I just kept pedalling and pedalling. I never did see the sea until after I had spotted what I thought was Stonehaven

I waited for Sven on the bridge over the bypass and was pleased that he was not right behind me. I had been too afraid to look back before incase he was on my back wheel. That would have crushed my motivation as I really was pushing it flat out. He was a few minutes behind and we gently rolled down to the town square. This took us right past my house. I could actually see it but we had to get to the sea to make it a true coast to coast. Also, I'd promised Sven fish and chips!

We reached the sea, went to get chips where I spent 30 minutes in a queue smelling like I'd just cycled 250miles! Then it was home to my girls who were very excited as I'd not told them about the detour to Stonehaven but as they were tracking us they had reached the moment where they realised we were heading towards Stoney. I got my cup of tea and it felt good.

I'd never attempted any distance cycling before and was worried that this would be out of my ability. It wasn't. Although I would have struggled without Sven's help and without the good weather, this trip is a must. Spend the money on B&Bs or hostels if you can afford it and take a sense of humour and it will be a ride of a lifetime. It's the best bike ride I've done... so far!

Friday, 12 August 2011

Day Five: Monday 25th July Tomintoul to Ballater

Yesterday was the first day (other than the spoke incident) where my bike really did start to object to the hammering that it was being given. With our focus being on eating and sleeping, last night was not the time to be tinkering with bikes. So, after a hearty breakfast (of oats!) we borrowed a bucket of soapy water and using a pair of boxer shorts, I gave my steed a clean. The gear cables needed lubrication, chain needed lubed (though this has been a once or twice a day occurrence) and my pedal needed inspecting. One of my main gripes of the previous day was that I couldn't clip into my right pedal. Well, it looks like today would be much the same as it was beyond my technical capability.

We set off and the route was pretty easy going through the glen. Even with the first sign of rain of the whole trip so far, it wasn't long before our jackets came back off and we enjoyed the landrover track that followed the flowing river beneath us.

Eventually we were treated to a nice long climb up in and into the wilderness. When I say 'long climb' I really mean 'pleasant walk'! We both agreed that this was one of the few times of the trip where we really felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, miles from civilisation. Admittedly we were. All we could hear and see was the trickling of water, the gentle whistle of wind and the occasional shock wave from a passing jet.

When we finally made it to the top of our climb, skirting around the peak of Culardoch, we were treated to another of the extremely straight, long and fast descents. I felt like this was definitely the fastest of the trip so far and was surprised that it was recorded at a meagre 35ish mph. However, that was fast enough on the landrover track, skimming over the drainage ditches and around one corner that made me consider that this was actually too fast and I should slow down again.

After a bite to eat in the trees and a look at the huge dragonfly that Sven almost sat on, we continued to the road, savouring the last of the fast, downhill track as we went.

Eventually we arrived at Balmoral and took the opportunity to stop for another of Sven's 'treats'. I generally knew that when Sven said he had a treat it would be in the form of high sugar and chocolate but that didn't spoil the enjoyment of discovering just what kind of sugary delight he had at just the moment when I needed it most. This time it was a Snickers (Marathon is still a better name!)

My faulty pedal hadn't been giving me a huge amount of grief. I had developed the technique needed to spin the pedal 180 degrees quickly to enable me to clip in to the other side. No, this time it was Sven to experience a breakdown and this time it was close to a disaster. One of his chainring bolts had completely vanished and two others were very loose. It was no wonder that he was having difficulty changing gear. We pulled over and tightened the remaining bolts but we knew that if he lost another, there was a changes his chainring would come off and thus render his pedalling pretty ineffectual.

Luckily we were only 6 miles from Ballater where we stopped off at the bike shop before finding a place to stay for the night. Ballater turned out to be an expensive place. In this time of recession, some places were ensuring their future for sure. As the mechanic tried to fix the pedal, a valiant attempt I must add, the boss wasn't having any of it and either I paid for the mechanics time or I bought a second hand pair of pedals for 20 quid.  I bought a pair of pedals which was the only option since I doubt I'll be able to fix my old one. Sven spent some time rummaging through the bolt box and found the replacement bolts he needed, paid the fiver and fitted them on his bike. Sven being far braver than me asked if he could use a hose. He was offered a brush and the water butt. Alternatively there was a garage nearby with a jet wash. Sven borrowed the hose from the other bike hire place and washed both bikes while I paced around looking nervous... the bike hire place was in fact closed and the hose in question was tucked round the corner. I've become so frightened of being told off in my old age. Probably due to living in a house full of girls!

We then headed off on our clean bikes to look for a bed and breakfast that we fancied giving some money to. Well, there are some lovely looking B&Bs in Ballater but there are also a lot of No Vacancy signs. Almost at a ratio of 1:1, but not quite. After a visit to the Tourist Information we were directed to the only B&B in Ballater with a room and it turned out to be a stunner. A former house of the Royal doctor is now a beautiful B&B with clean, warm and spacious rooms, en-suite bath and shower and the best breakfast I've had in a long long time. After a quick nip round Co-op we ate, bathed (not together!) and went for a pint ready to pour over the map for the following day and consider a detour to take us straight to Stonehaven rather than finishing in Montrose as planned but having to drive back to Stonehaven.

VIDEO TO FOLLOW (eventually!)

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Day Four: Sunday 24th July aprx 65km + unexpected detour

Today we set off from our nicely manicured camping spot. We got some funny looks from the golfers but no one seemed to mind. We had camped off to the side and were in nobody's way. Maybe it was because we were in the rough that the golfers didn't want to confront us as it would have meant that they were admitting the possibility of needing the space we were on. Positive thinking would keep them on the green!

After a big breakfast eating as much food as we could stomach, we repacked our daybags with the essentials we would need for the trip and headed to the hotel to drop off the trailer. This was it. From this moment on we were free of the trailer and could pick up the pace a little. The distance to be covered was less than the previous days and so not too daunting either.

We headed out to Kingussie and were surprised at how close it was. We could have easily kept going and arrived the night before but it didn't really matter. The guide did suggest that we should have camped at Glen Feshie which was well into the forest beyond Kingussie but we were not at all worried about making up the distance. After all, we had no trailer. We were free!

A couple of mild climbs through the trees and some nice fast tracks, over several footbridges and towards Feshiebridge. Again the weather was on our side having been sunny and dry for the whole trip so far. There were a few walkers out in the glen and many seemed to be taken by Sven's GoPro helmet camera. Having such an odd looking thing on your helmet wakes people smile and wave. Lovely!

Heading into Rothiemurcus Forest is wasn't long before Sven was singing about how much he was enjoying the ride. Through the trees, rooty singletrack, smooth forest track, winding landrover tracks, the ride was varied and fun and much faster than with a trailer. Again, as we rounded the edge of Loch Morlich Sven was grinning ear to ear. It gave me a sense of relief that the trailer hadn't dampened his spirits.

Maybe Sven was also in higher spirits because we were passing the Reindeer Centre. I was excited as we were passing Glenmore Lodge, Scotland's national outdoor centre. Sven was less than impressed with the 'Norwegian Lodge' near the Reindeer Centre which he felt did not resemble a Norwegian lodge at all. I was disappointed as I expected Glenmore Lodge to being a bustling outdoor centre full of various bodies with tales of adventures. I also hoped that they would have a bike maintenance workshop being Scotland's leading mountain bike leader training centre. No such luck! I was faced with a modern looking building and a straight-talking receptionist. Not even a cafe on sight!

So, back down to the visitor centre we cycled. We both ate our sandwiches and enjoyed a cuppa and I managed to get a little bit of charge in my phone with a little help from the nice man in the gift shop. We spent longer than expected at the visitor centre partly because of the welcome sunshine but also partly as the ghastly photographs from Oslo had made it on to the newspapers. It was a pretty solemn time after that as the images fired up a lot of sadness as the events became clearer. I was glad to finally get on the bike again. Usually being on the bike somehow blocks all the stresses and clears the head but we found ourselves discussing Norway for a little while longer. I really felt for how helpless Sven must have found being so far away.

After a rocky but gentle climb we stopped at a bothy. This was my chance to show Sven the Scottish bothies. From what he has told me about the Norwegian cabins, our bothies are, let's say, a little bit basic. However, still basic, Ryvoan Bothy is still one of the more luxurious complete with a metal fire surround & raised sleeping area.

We met a helpful fellow cyclist who knew the route we were taking. He helpfully plotted out our route on the OS map and told us what to look out for. Our excitement for cutting out a few kms and having ago at fording the River Nethy maybe distracted from the instructions that we had been given. It wasn't long before we were slowly climbing the rocky road then the heathery paths, then just bog to the top of Geal Charn, 821m. Oops, after two hours we found ourselves facing deep into the Cairngorms with not a trace of civilization. It didn't take us long to get back down the way we came. In fact, the fast and rocky downhill was worth the hike up. The lack of energy over the remaining miles was not worth the detour!

Eventually we arrived at the Youth Hostel in Tomintoul, caked in mud and aching. Sven had to push me up the last off-road climb. At 9:00pm we were worried that we were not going to eat. We hadn't made it to a shop to buy food and the local lads reckoned that the pub stopped serving food at 9. Luckily the guy on duty at the hostel kindly phoned the pub and while they kept the kitchen open we were whisked down in the car. Haggis, oatcakes, beef, Yorkshire puddings, veg, potatoes, gravy, extra chips and more chips were lubricated with a nice cold pint and we dried our shoes by the fire. This felt like a well deserved taste of being human again. Gone were the days of wild mountain men. From there it was off to bed following a brief chat with fellow hostel guest Ian, the gold panning lorry driver from Aberdeen.


Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Day Three: Saturday 23rd July

After camping at Invergarry, we had decided to take the low level route around the Lochs and past Laggan to Newtonmore. We still had the trailer but this was to be a much easier day as there were few big climbs as most of the route followed the edge of Loch Oich and Loch Lochy.

The beginning of the day was spend gliding through some fantastic forest roads, every now and then catching a wonderful view of the lochs before heading past Gairlochy where we stopped by the Caledonian Canal and rested our legs in the gorgeous sunshine. The day had begun well and it was as if there was no trailer at all... or maybe that was because Sven was pulling it so far!

After stopping in Spean Bridge to refill our water bladders and check the phones for messages from home, I took over with the trailer and we managed to pick up a great little single track which led on to a beautiful stretch of farm track that took us alongside the river, past herds of cows, herds of Boy Scouts, grumpy farmer's wives and a helpful old farmer who pointed us towards a footbridge. However, he failed to tell us which fork in the track to take and so following the prominent downhill one, I had to pull the trailer all the way up again after it led down to a ford in the river that only a very hardy Landrover would have managed. Certainly too rocky, deep, wide and fast for us. The footbridge on the other hand was a much better way to cross, even if it did have a 4 person weight limit. How many people would 60lb be equivalent to? Well, I'm sure it was less risky than trying to climb down the slippery cliffs to fill a water bottle with water from the rapids below which is what one boy was trying to do and paying little heed to Sven's shouts of advice from the bridge! He did see sense in the end though.

Having by-passed Roybridge we joined the main road and from here and it was a long slog to Newtonmore. We tried a short sprint thinking that we could get to Strathmashie to the bike shop in order to get my wheel fixed but that was just too much. Having passed Loch Laggen I really ran out of steam and even though I had managed to consume a handful of wholemeal bread whilst cycling, I welcomed a rest, sandwiches and shortbread.

The road to Laggon was much easier after refuelling. Especially as we enjoyed a hard earned rest on the beach at Glenbogle. I was surprised that the estate was so open to visitors and the guy from the quad bike hire across the road said that wild campers were welcome. It was very tempting but we had to push on and by the time we reached the little shop we were only in need of some groceries for the next day as well as taking the opportunity for a treat. My treat was an orange Lucozade whilst Sven opted to try a Monster energy drink. He seemed to enjoy it at first with the little rocket propulsion apparent between Laggan and Newtonmore.

We were both running on empty by the time we reached Newtonmore and after finding a convenient place to pitch the tent (not so convenient if you were trying to play golf on Newtonmore's golf course the following morning though!) and headed to the nearest hotel.

After a pint at The Highlander, a phone charge and a freshen up, the staff were unbelievably helpful and even agreed to lock our trailer away on the condition that someone came to pick it up in the next couple of days. I had a great sleep that night in the knowledge that this was really the start of a great mountain bike experience for Sven who up until now had been doing the majority of the trailer pulling. Sven, on the other hand, was not dreaming of much. He found that Monster energy drinks and coffee do not equal a good nights sleep. Well, other than the risk of golfer's using us as target practice, nothing was going to stop us now. The dead boar would no longer be hauled!