I’d ridden this organized trip last year, and my mate Iain wanted to have a go at it. As it was such fun, and rather than the hard-tail I had last year, I was now the proud owner of a full suspension mountain bike, we found ourselves signed up again!
During the week of cycling I was posting to my blog via email from my smartphone. While this worked, GSM constraints and availability of WiFi would limit what I could post. So here’s the full report! Sorry it’s a bit long, but do persevere – the scenery and weather were amazing, so there are some good photographs to enjoy!
The drive north (22 August)
Iain was driving up on Friday from Newbury. As it would be easier to fit two bikes in his car, we’d take that on to Stirling, where I’d booked us accommodation and sorted out food.
Acclimatization day (23 August)
As a result of our overnight stop in Stirling a much more relaxed first day was in order. Heading up the A9 to meet up with the other folk on the adventure, we had a quick ride around some local trails before heading off to our accommodation in Dornoch and a team dinner.
Bonar Bridge to Ullapool (24 August)
A quick morning transfer to Bonar Bridge and photo by the North Sea saw us begin the ride.
Today we would be crossing from East to West, planning to arrive in Ullapool. This is a long, but not too technical day. One of the first stops (before we even got off road) was at Croick Church, where the evidence of the highland clearances is still painfully visible by messages etched into the church window.
Once past the church, we are off the tarmac for the day and onto gradually rougher-and-rougher trails. We take a lunch stop at the bothy by Duag Bridge, and afterwards inspect the river: the Abhainn Dubhag has clearly recently been around 3 metres higher than the normal flow judging by the flattened bracken along the shores. This is the legacy of the recent former hurricane Bertha that caused the downpour that I rode through in London. The damage caused by this recent storm would become a theme through the week.
Despite the perfect weather, the conditions under-wheel would get wetter-and-wetter, eventually leading to a river crossing that was feet-wet time.
Having made our crossing of the watershed, we rest up at Loch Achalt and watch Sea Eagles soaring above the cliffs.
Leaving the landrover track we head up into the heather and singletrack, with views appearing over the western coast.
The normal descent to Ullapool has become overgrown with gorse, so we take an alternative that has been somewhat washed out by the recent rain, and also has a fair helping of gorse. However, we eventually arrive, and Ullapool harbor is, as ever, beautiful.
Fisherfield (25 August)
Today is “the big day” – a full traverse of the Fisherfield wilderness, with two big climbs and descents, loch crossings, and to spice things up, starts off by us taking a high speed rib around the headland.
We then begin a big day of cycling by riding around to Dundonnell on the road. We’re immediately onto our first climb up Gleann Chaorachain to complete the first of two BIG climbs in the day.
We then have a great descent down into Strath na Sealga and work our way along to the bothy at Shenevall.
Following a lunch break, we push on, and have to cross the river Abhainn Srath na Sealga. This is best done along the shore of the loch, so we heft our bikes into the air and wander through the thigh-deep waters of the loch to the other side.
Once through, we have a long ride Gleann na Muice past Larachantivore. We turn up the smaller Gleann na Muice Beag and the ride degenerates into a steep carry.
However, the carry is well worth it. We have a ride along the top of Clach na Frithealaidh and then the descent of Allt Bruthach an Easain to Dubh Loch. Normally this is a fast, technical descent, but do-able. Today the path has been severely eroded by recent rain, and several of the gullies have produced rockfalls across the path, making parts unrideable.
We arrive at the causeway in good form, but time is pushing on. We are obliged to race along the singletrack above Fionn Loch, and blast through Kernsary Forest (which is unpleasant due to the farmer feeding his cattle on the path, so we all end-up covered in manure). The final kilometers along the River Ewe are at racing pace, as we need to make the Poolewe Hotel for 9pm to place our food order. This is successfully done, but means we’re eating in our riding clothes!
Another day done.
Loch Maree (26 August)
Today would normally be a ride over the Thollaidh path to Loch Maree, and along the shores on the road to Kinlochewe for the evening. However, the descent from the high point was always “challenging” and “rough,” but the recent weather has transformed that to “unrideable.” So we ride up the path to the high point to get the view over Loch Maree, and then back the way we came to enjoy the singletrack descent.
There’s then a bit of a road ride around to Gairloch and on to Charlestown for lunch at the café, stopping just above the town to take in the view of Skye.
After lunch we go exploring along the singletrack in Flowerdale and Kerrysdale. This is beautiful, not too technical, but is always uphill and has some gorse. It drops us out at Loch Bad an Sgalaig on the road, and we then ride over to Loch Maree, and along the shore to the Kinlochewe Hotel where we’re staying and eating.
Torridon (27 August)
Another big day to rival the Fisherfield day.
We ride out along the road to Loch Clair, and then go off-road along to Loch Coulin. We ride past Coulin and up to where the river junction is crossed by a bridge. Here, most of the party go up to Drochaid Coire Laire, which is a rather technical ascent, and followed by a technical descent to Achnashellach. Iain and I, however, take the Coulin Pass, which is much less technical, less steep, but still has amazing views back to the hills around Loch Maree.
As we descend to Achnashellach Station, the views open up towards the West.
Heading west along the road, in a few short miles we reach Coulags, and head up the valley towards Coire Fionaraich. We refresh our water at the bridge, and spend a while at the Coulags bothy.
However, not knowing how far the rest of the group are behind us, we take the opportunity to push on in perfect weather and try to get the climb to Bealach na Lice out of the way before the others catch us. This was successful, and we had an hour to relax, refuel and chat to the odd passing walker and mountain biker.
When the rest of the group arrive, their morning has been much more challenging than ours, with the odd crash, and they’re suffering from not having the rest we’ve enjoyed. Time to regroup and everything is downhill from here!
We ride the singletrack around Loch an Eion, then onto the bedrock slabs by Lochan Domhain before finally committing to the descent to Annat. All of the riding on this descent is rewarded by a bold approach, remembering that “speed is your friend.” Many times on the descent I’m amazed at the work being done by the suspension: the right speed and body position just push the bike through choss, boulders and drop-offs, and while it isn’t a smooth ride, it’s a controlled ride.
At the bottom of the descent after immense fun, we cycle the few hundred metres to The Torridon Inn, where we will be spending the next two nights.
Rest Day (28 August)
The rest day is spent resting: late breakfast, sorting out the bags, reading, and then in the evening an excellent meal in Torridon with one of the guides, Ross, jumping out of the meal periodically to go mackerel fishing.
Applecross (29 August)
Final day 😦
We ride out along the rough track along the shore to avoid the road, before being forced back onto the tarmac just before Sheildaig. Then there is a roller-coaster of a road ride around to Kenmore with just a short stretch of downhill singletrack at A’Bhainlir.
We climb to the plateau and enjoy the easy singletrack across the peninsula. There are amazing views back to the Torridon hills we’ve recently been riding amongst.
Before too long, we’re on the descent to Applecross and riding along the landrover track to the beach. Our crossing of Scotland is over, the weather has been amazing throughout, the company excellent, organization perfect, and now to round it off, we have lunch in The Applecross Inn before heading back to Inverness.
A few words of thanks
The week was absolutely made by our guides: Alex, Tim and Ross. Besides guiding us on an amazing journey across a beautiful part of Scotland, their endless energy, humour, knowledge and bringing together a group of strangers into what rapidly became a group of old friends was truly inspirational. It was also great to have a mobile bike repair team, fishing tutor and photographic instruction along as bonus. Thanks to all three of you, and hope to see you soon.
Also to Euan and Cat. An amazing company, with all the organisation sorted down to the last detail. H&I Adventures have now twice delivered fantastic mountain biking holidays for me, taught me a lot about biking, and a fair bit about myself.
And finally, to the team I was riding with all week. You made the trip – what a bunch of chilled folk, of varying ability, all happy to muck-in, ride and chat together, laugh at the crashes, help out when needed, wade through the rivers, plod through the bogs and, most importantly, share the beer and post-ride banter in the pubs. I’m looking forward to riding with you all again soon. Slovenia…?
Besides the trip just being immense fun in my favourite part of the world, this also showed my training for the Ride Across Britain, now less than a week away, has paid off: back-to-back hard days, and still on the final day around Applecross I was able to power away on the hills as we rode around the peninsula. Alex, no mean athlete, said this trip was ideal training, especially with the recovery week before LEJOG begins. Soon I’ll be discovering what back-to-back hundred mile days feel like.