A momentary idea on the Torino-Nice Rally kept on coming back to me for more attention. But an idea is a flimsy thing on its own, it needed some substance. Bike? Check – the Shand Stooshie. ‘Spare’ time? Hmmm, check. Functional body? Well, sometimes, check’ish. Commitment to map obsessing. Oh yes, double check! Imagining a route up the centre of Scotland from my home in Edinburgh to my childhood home near Inverness, the spine of Scotland began to emerge, a foundation and a scaffold around which to build.
I set to work in late September, enticing others to join me or setting off solo. I traumatised Andy P on some 20%+ inclines up grouse shooting tracks in Perthshire; I froze with Gavin on a bright but ice encrusted foray into the Ochils; and I press-ganged the Goddess into some Christmas reccies up North.
There were new wind farm access roads with solid foundations and slick surfaces. Old drove roads and estate tracks, sometimes crude and lumpy, but layered with the history of hooves, boots and tyres. Occasional encounters with others pursuing their rural livelihoods – foresting, game-keeping, or in hospitality, providing welcome warmth, food and fluids. Contrasting landscapes and people brought flesh to the bones of a route.
I reached the final weekend of testing in late March in the company of the Goddess and two club-mates. Patrick and Hamish joined us on a joyful rampage up Strath Vaich and into Glen Cuilleanach on a crisp bright day.
A short way up Glen Cuilleanach, needing a wee pick-me-up, we concocted a new tradition. I collected the highland stream water, Patrick brewed up the coffee, the goddess tipped in a good slug of Highland Park, Hamish cracked out the dark chocolate and the weather gods played along with a patch of sunshine. A Cuilleanach coffee – highly recommended.
The next day was a return journey to my parents’ house that was more unpleasant than we’d bargained for, lashed by a 60mile/hour side-wind laced with sleat and snow. Numb bodies and minds, we eventually stumbled into the house, totally drookit. Revived by a large whisky from my dad and a good feed from my mum, Hamish succinctly captured our weekends’ experience – ‘brutiful’. Such vagaries of the Scottish weather were, unfortunately, to become familiar to the RSR riders.
I was a little nervous. Who was I to think I could make a decent bike-packing route, never mind subject other folk to my map meanderings? Thirty-four riders pitched up at Castello Coffee for last minute fuel before trundling out of Edinburgh along the Union canal tow path. The cheerfulness among the group eased my nerves, but I was still glad to get to the Forth Bridge with no reports of unscheduled dips in the canal.
Old companions were there too. I’d climbed Highland hills with Robin and explored Europe on bikes with Col. They escaped London with their virginal bike-packing kit, intrigued to dip their toes in this new scene. I remember two twenty year olds on a hill top overlooking Köln making excited vows to ride around the world. There’s still time Col! Great to be making new memories and galvanising our bonds
We awoke in Killin to snow on the hills. The Goddess’s cold-wet-windy Scottish weather rule: two out of three doable, all three = stay in the warm. Thankfully the wind was light. In fact over the high passes between Glen Lochay, Glen Lyon and Loch Rannoch, we experienced that lovely dampened peacefulness that a light tail wind and a dusting of snow can give you. Our companions that morning didn’t seem that troubled by the unexpected chill, riding on appreciating the added element in the landscape.
However by the time we reached Kinloch Rannoch for a late lunch, we were cold and damp, with much riding still to do. Spirits were waning. Step up the tough guys.
Gaick Pass Heroes
Steve had come all the way from the white cliffs doon sooth. You quickly warm to his unrelenting cheerfulness. The pairing with Jim, our Canadian randonneur, emerged on day two in the bowl of Glen Almond as it snakes through to Loch Tay.
Jim and Steve have ridden too many wild places to be cowed by the Scottish weather. As the rest of us considered the shortest least painful route through Drummochter Pass to somewhere warm to sleep, they committed to the Gaick Pass. A true wilderness section running 35km North via a bog trot, challenging single track and a river crossing.
Joining us in our glamping pod that night, they eventually rolled in at 9.45pm, numb with the cold but exhilarated after 150km and 2000m of tough riding. Brain function was perhaps a bit glitchy. Steve’s enthusiastic purchase of a pizza on route, had lacked the association of ‘glamping pod’ and ‘no oven’. So he abandoned the pizza in favour of the higher culinary treat of a super-noodle butty. Tough legs, tough brains, tough stomachs. Ladies and gentleman, I give you the Gaick Pass two:
Dreich to Drumnadrochit
Let’s be honest, day four was a bit miserable. Barely mustering 5 or 6 degrees all day. Those who took on the cima coppi over the Corrieyairack pass in the snow, like Tobi here – chapeau.
Many struggled even on the easier alternative route up the Great Glen Way. The wisest of the crew sought lubrication and sustenance on the Eagle Barge at Laggan locks. Sam a Yorkshireman and Sandro from Switzerland enjoying a pint together on a canal in Scotland, hearing about the history of the barge as a German troop transporter in the war. It’s a funny old world.
The Lock Ness Inn in Drumnadrochit served me up a personal reward for ploughing on that day. A fan of fish & chips, I’d contrived to have it every night of the trip, and this was the best. The Goddess kept mumbling about scurvy, but I’m still alive. Scotland doesn’t have much by way of ‘signature cuisine’- unless oatmeal with sheep heart, liver and lungs, boiled in the poor wee things’ stomach, counts as cuisine. Fortunately Scots-Italians have saved us from haggis with fish & chips and macaroni pies!
The remote far north on day 6 through Strath Vaich, Glen Calvie and Strath Rusdale, offered up some wildlife. The red deer are abundant up there, but posing for selfies?? The Highland cows are pretty benign beasts too, but we edged our way past this fine specimen’s horns nonetheless.
My next reward, after the gorgeous climb to the head of Strath Rusdale, was to watch an eagle circling right above us until it nonchalantly floated over the hillside without a flap. Safe to say none of these encounters were as scary as the sight of Inverness’ finest out on the lash on the Saturday night – another kind of wild life I guess.
There was a group within the group. I started thinking of them like a rock band. They’d debuted as a three-piece German-Swiss outfit with Christof, Anskar and Sandro arriving at the 3rd Torino-Nice Rally, then picking up Sam along the way. So an established super-group foursome arrived in Edinburgh, seeking inspiration for that difficult second album.
Anskar has to be the lead singer – just see his perfectly colour-coordinated bike set-up. Yet they were a team, greater than the sum of their parts. In harmony, looking out for one another. The driving force of our socialising and the first to get the beers and whisky in.
Worthy of note
Bike-packers seem to be modest self-effacing folk. So I’ll not get drawn into hyperbole, but there were many riders of note.
Vanessa apparently towed un-named male through Drummochter Pass in the drizzle. Her wheel-sucking chagrin only placated a number of days later on learning of the chest infection also being carried behind her that day.
Elizabeth dragged her husband John on an extra untested ‘track’ excursion up the mountain of Ben Wyvis. The only conquerors of the true cima coppi in the snow!
Roam Scotland Rally wouldn’t have happened without James Olsen and the alchemy of wilderness, hard riding and sociability he has conjured in the Torino-Nice Rally. I doff my tweedy cap to you James.
In the same understated mould, Jim Raddatz of the Gaick pass two. Maybe a career as a vet in Canada makes you tough – “there’s no point in wearing a watch in my line of work” he tells me, referring to the frequency with which his arm is deep in the rear end of a large animal. RSR was just a warm up for Jim. Next up at 68 years young he took on the 4,400km of the Tour Divide, and of course completed it no problem!
Gathering, sharing & reflections
Whilst a select few ploughed on venturing further North, a gaggle of us gathered around the Velocity Café and later the Black Isle Brewery bar in Inverness at the end of our ride. Beer was drunk, pizza eaten, stories swapped and friendships cemented.
On tarmac, gravel, pine needles and mud, roads and tracks carried us through varied landscapes and between small communities. We all faced challenges at times, getting enough food, keeping warm, and keeping our tired legs turning. Sometimes we had to rely on ourselves and that self-sufficient bike-packing spirit; other times turning to others, making connections and finding acceptance of each other’s foibles and eccentricities. It was the bonds we forged between us, which breathed life into this route.
We all took different paths. Some seeking the rough stuff, some the smooth ride. Long stretches of solitude or constant companionship. A comfortable bed or a wild camping spot. We each found our own way to meet the physical and psychological challenges of navigating a journey by bike up the spine of Scotland. We may each prefer a different blend, but we all need enough of the good stuff: safety, food, sleep, exercise, connection with others, care and acceptance, and the freedom to be the author of our own destiny. Oh aye, and the odd nip of single malt of course.
Bike-packing in a group of like-minded folk is a fine way to meet these basic human needs. Come and join us next year or gather a group yourself to ride the route when it suits you. Ride, roam and replenish.