The night brought high winds that whip-cracked my tarp about my head as I fought to sleep, cocooned in my kip sack. I was experimenting with a new pole set up for my Mountain Laurel Designs Cricket tarp and I was a little nervous that it would not hold up, but I had no need to worry – it was bomber.
The morning was cold. Very cold. Getting into damp wool was pretty nasty but I was stoked about my Endura PrimaLoft gilet, a new product from the masters of Scotland-ready cycling kit, that allowed me to warm up with a bit of jigging and jumping as I packed up my kit.
I had around 112km to ride until I reached my destination, Montrose, on the coast of the North Sea. Normally, I do not have any time anxieties, but in this instance I had been required to book myself on a specific train to return home, to the south of Scotland. I knew the trains following the one I had booked had no space for bikes, so my target was fixed. That meant working backwards from this end point and estimating how long the ride wold take me.
I had planned the trip in a kind of disaster style: in other words, I had quickly looked at the map online and gone point to point on a macro scale, leading me to believe that I had around 90km to ride. I gave myself an arbitrary amount of time to make it, based loosely on a vague and unverified report of another’s adventure. Twenty km is not a huge difference and in my defence I allowed two extra hours for the journey, but it was a mistake that was going to make life interesting for me.
The major obstacle for the day was Mount Keen, Scotland’s most easterly Munro. This is accessed from the north by Glen Tanar. I knew the trails alongside the River Dee and love the impressive scenery and remnant Caledonian pine forest along side the gorgeous river corridor.
The Deeside Way allowed rapid progress in the morning once I had packed up and powered by bacon rolls from a cozy cafe in Ballater, I made quick work of the first section of the journey.
As I turned south into Glen Tanar, following one of the region’s premier spring salmon fishing rivers, I enjoyed the company of the winding, babbling, crystal clear water as I climbed the gentle grades, past the Half Way Hut and out of the tree line towards the great lump of Mount Keen.
I have never climbed this mountain and had no idea how rideable the trail would be. From the south, Glen Mark, it is well known as one of the most rideable Munro trails. However, it was clear that the gradient on the North side would make riding very difficult.
Indeed, as I got closer and closer, the trail deteriorated into broken rock garden that required prolonged hike-a-bike.
I had mixed feelings about going over the top. Geograph had shown me a singletrack that circled the summit ‘cone’ and rejoined the trail on the south side of the peak and given the terrible surface on the ascent I settled on finding this rather than continuing to the top: no Munro bagging on this day! The Mounth Road I was following is a historical droving route: I am amazed anyone would try and get over it with animals in tow.
Carrying water is always a balancing act when bike-packing. In Scotland, there are any number of water sources – often straight from the ground – that offer clear, clean water to refill the bottles without having to resort to sterilisation. I do carry a SteriPen and occasionally use it if I am concerned about contamination from animals. This was my first bike-pack where I had completely eschewed a back pack or bladder. As a result, I only had the option of refilling my two bottles. Perhaps because of the morning’s cold temperatures, I had not filled them when I could in Glen Tanar, but had concluded that Mount Keen would offer streams or perhaps even snow to recharge them. No such luck! By the time I finished the steep descent I was parched and stopped to drink several bottles of water from the Ladder Burn.
As I sat beside the Water of Mark, admiring the water falls and shear faces of Craig of Doune, it became clear to me that I was pushing it time wise. The tiny screen of my eTrex does not help judging terrain over large distances but I knew I had a fair old ride to get to Montrose and the hours were ticking by.
The report I had vaguely read of riding the Phil McKane coast to coast route, which I had joined at Braemar, suggested that the section I was doing that day took just over seven hours. There was no way I was going to make it in that time.
I sped down Glen Mark then around the Monument Hill of Rowan with a welcome tail wind, but after another stop to see if any detours would afford me a little advantage in attaining my goal with less chance of missing the train, I realised I had to start shifting a bit faster. Unfortunately, the route up the Clash of Wirren initially gave me more poor track then steep climbing.
The descent to Tillybardine, as described by Phil McKane in his guide to the c-2-c, is a singletrack classic. It starts thusly, but as it continues, it is a fairly broken sheep track – requiring some dismounting to clear some particularly broken, tussocky and boggy sections. I refilled again with water at a small stream and admit to being a bit dejected. I was pretty sure I was going to miss my train and that meant some complications to return home.
Soon after this point, the route becomes primarily sealed road – albeit narrow and pleasant. Fat bike tyres don’t roll with ease on tarmac, though, and I had to push very hard indeed in order to make it in time. The Mike n’ Ikes yet again saved the day, offering a boost of energy at the critical moment, seeing me into Montrose and the bitterly cold on-shore wind. I made the train and finally could let myself relax fully. The legs were shot – but the route had been a good one.
Whether I would bookend a bike-pack with train journeys again is a contentious point, but it had allowed me to do a point to point route along side the southern Cairngorm’s waterways and experience a diverse and beautiful landscape.