I turned 41 a few days ago. For me, There is always a degree of introspection around birthdays. I never feel entirely happy or settled as I consider another lap around the sun. Combine this with the relentlessly shortening days of winter and I’ll admit to a little despondency. The whys and wherefores are not subject material for a web log, but it has helped to look back over the year and remember some of the high points.
Mind cast back: early September. If memory serves, I had been a bit under the weather – one of the benefits of being surrounded by ill folk all the time, I guess – and had taken some time off work with one thing in mind: riding! Time on the bike had been minimised for a little while prior in order to try and let my knee settle. It had been plaguing me for some months but I had come to the conclusion it was a soft tissue strain rather than anything serious.
My love of the Cairngorm runs deep. It seemed the perfect destination as the weather in the region was stable and I decided to use a well established route – the Cairngorms Loop.
I knew it would be a long shot to shoot for an ITT on the loop, but on the other hand, why the hell not?
Starting early, around 7 am, gave me a long daylight window to get as far around the loop as possible. The whole route is 186 miles – the record, set by Aidan Harding, is 22 hours 30 minutes. The average seems to be around 30-33 hours. My plan was simply to get round if possible, whilst enjoying myself.
It is almost transgressive to set targets in the backcountry, however, I had a vague goal of getting around to Glen Feshie for a bivi. I had my Mountain Laurel Designs Cricket with me and optimistically hoped for enough time to sit and enjoy a dram next to the river before settling down for the night.
The initial part of the loop passed under tyre easily. Moving through the Gaick and past the lodge before emerging near Aviemore. All was going well, my mind and body working as one and the weather was pleasant.
The climb up the shoulder of Bynack More was steady after a hearty bacon roll by the side of Loch Morlich. I felt that the initial parts of the Lairig an Laoigh were more rideable than in previous missions – there has been significant amounts of work to improve the trail. In saying that, the section after the Hutchy hut was still pretty rough and the descent down Glen Derry was eroded beyond belief – several sections wiped out by land lides.
As I cursed and dragged my way across rough ground and through streams, it became clear my knee was beginning to tweak again. I had felt some aching in the upper, portage parts of the Lairig, but while pedaling it had been ok. As I came down to the point of no return at the Geldie Burn, a decision needed to be made. On the one hand I was about 10 and a bit hours in, with a likely bog trot through at least a portion of Feshie, until I would bed down. I had plenty of light, but I could tell I was damaging my knee. So: go on and ride a further 90 odd miles the next day, with a bit of walking before Tomintoul and another section on the climb up after Loch Builig to Deeside, most likely, or turn south and down Glen Tilt, back to base, and consider my options once my wounds were licked.
In the end, I knew that I might pay dearly for carrying on and giving myself a big task the next day – the possibility of several more months of knee disfunction was the crux. I backed down.
It felt hard to give up on a route yet again, even though I had tried to convince myself I was out there to have fun – not to chase times and achievements. Nevertheless, it was a very good loop – 95 miles or so in 12 and a half hours.
The next day I spent a pleasant time pootling around Loch Garten and trying to keep my stiff knee from seizing entirely. Following a brief stay at the Nethybridge Hotel, I cut north and decided on a route out to Sandalwood bay.
I am not generally a beach person, unless I have a kite with me, but Sandalwood is reputedly the most beautiful beach in the UK. I think those from the Outer Hebrides might argue the point, but it was stunning. An inital thought had been to bivi by the dunes, listening to the sound of the breakers rushing onto the shore, but in the end I took off south again, back towards civilisation.
The light is fading on the year, although it is incredibly mild for November. I have a lot to be thankful for and a lot of experiences from this year that will keep me going through the dark and busy period we are about to enter. Next year, once more around the sun, what will it bring?
As a brief aside – I will write more on this again – the Cricket is an amazing tent. Design, execution and materials are all top notch. Recommended.