Last week, up a mountain in north west Scotland, I had a watershed moment.
I’d been climbing for several hours, riding and pushing the bike alternatively. I’d seen no-one apart from my boyfriend, who I was riding with, for the last four hours. The sun was shining, the huge glacial valley we were in was empty. I could see for miles in every direction, and the landscape was vast, mountainous and empty. It was amazing.
A big all-mountain day was on my checklist to do as part of my Mediocre to Mega preparations. All my previous attempts, first on Snowdon and then the Lake District, had ended disastrously. And very wetly.
[Find out more about the Megavalanche, and what on earth I am doing, in my first Mediocre to Mega article.]
But this time, everything came together, and I had what I will quite confidently say was my best day out on my mountain bike. Ever.
The ride is out around a mountain called Sgorr Ruadh, south east of Torridon, with the nearest landmark being Achnashellach train station. By train station, I mean one platform, a single lane of tracks and a request stop system. This area is pretty remote.
We parked up in a tiny car park on the side of the A890, by a small hamlet called Coulags. From there, the foot path up the valley begins. Unlike in England and Wales, Scotland has a ‘right to roam’ which means mountain bikers can use most foot paths. Obviously, it goes without saying that consideration and courtesy to walkers and other users is essential.
I decided to give the new Zimtstern kit a try; the weather was warm enough, and I have to confess to being slightly motivated by the fact that the bright colours looked fab and would turn out well in photographs. Yes, I do take that into consideration with my clothing (but not at the expense of performance).
The path is rocky, gravelly, climbs gradually and is mostly rideable for long sections, but regular drainage channels and sudden bouldery sections did mean I had to dismount frequently. I’m not quite that good at technical climbs yet!
After the initial uphill, the path flattens out as it reaches the bottom of the valley. There’s a bothy here that would be a grand place to stay and camp if you fancied doing this route with an early start.
The path snakes its way along, with a few little ups and downs as the trail rolls over hillocks and bumps until you come to Loch Corrie Fionnaraich, a scenic lake and the perfect picnic stop. Doing the ride in April meant a blissful absence of midges, which I am sure could blight later attempts at picnicking.
This is where the climbing really begins. The trail circles and climbs up around the head of the valley, until it reaches a pass. Huge flat rock slabs proved irresistible at this point and we stopped for a little play. Not far off there were even bigger slick rock sections, sloping down invitingly, but sadly we didn’t have time to ride them. I plan to go back for a longer play in the future, and if you are there in summer, leave time to explore!
More climbing and the path crosses over the ridge at the back of Sgorr Ruadh, and around the mountain. The view across the valley behind the mountain is breath taking. If there were ever an antidote to the oppressive and overbearing buildings of the city, this is it. It felt like my sense of scale shifted completely. There was so much space, such a huge wild area with – it felt like – no-one but the two of us in it.
After another flat section came a fun down and up on brilliant white quartzite rubble, and then the path turns for the journey back. With huge walls of rock rearing on each side, we headed toward the last and toughest climb of the day. This was definite hike-a-bike territory; there really was no other way to get up the short and sharp uphill section, which was really more of an uphill scramble than a path.
The other joy of wild mountain rides is the wildlife you can spot. My ornithology skills aren’t that great, but there was certainly a bird of prey circling the mountain top at one point, and on that final climb I heard a distinctive croaking sound to my left and spotted a pair of Ptarmigans nesting in the cliff above my head.
At the top, the wind whipped up and the view down the valley ahead, the path home, opens up. From this point it’s one long, glorious, fun downhill the whole way to the road. There were a few more people at this point, including a family having a picnic at the lake at the top, which made it feel a little less remote, but no less beautiful.
The trail back has a gradual downhill incline for most of the way. Not too steep, it’s fast enough to get a steady smooth speed up, and the drainage channels here are narrow enough to roll for the most part. The trail is loose gravel at the top, and a packed rocky path further down. Navigating rocks, boulders and small drops stopped becoming a chore and became a laugh.
It seemed I’d reached a good enough skill level to enjoy a whole ride, without any wobbly moments. I was in mountain biking heaven! As I successfully rode more and more technical sections, my confidence increased, which in turn meant I tried (and usually succeeded) rolling over harder obstacles. It was positive feedback of the best kind.
The Zimtstern kit performed brilliantly. I even had cause to use the ventilation zips on the shorts as I got quite warm on the way down. One niggle was the fact I caught the shorts on my saddle once or twice – not ideal. Otherwise they were comfy, full of handy pockets, and bright!
By the time we reached the bottom I had nailed rocky corners the like of which would have had me bawling my eyes out just a few months ago. God, I felt amazing!
The last section dropped you down through the trees and past the railway station, and then it was a long roll along the road and back to the carpark, as we emerged in the valley next to the one we started in for this ride. The whole way back, I was glowing.
This is what I want from mountain biking. I want to be able to go out and explore, to ride the terrain and react to the trail. I want to be out in the great outdoors, in the wild, riding my bike.
We finished up the day with a loch-side barbecue as the sun set. Beer in hand, hot food for a hungry stomach, and a sit down for tired legs. Quite possibly the perfect end to the perfect day.
So one last thing – if you’ve never done a big all mountain day, then I wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s a very different experience to trail centres and shorter routes, it’s physically hard work, but it’s a ride I’ll never forget.
[PS This ride was also cool for another reason; I rode a Juliana Furtado, which is based on the 5010 by Santa Cruz bikes. If you haven’t seen it already, there’s a rather nifty bike video that was released as part of the 5010 launch. Guess where it was filmed?]