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Aberfoyle: UK ride

Marc Abbott
4 Oct 2016

Typical Scottish weather can’t spoil a ride that reveals stunningly beautiful scenery around the Trossachs region of Stirlingshire.

'You might want to put it in the wee ring about now.’ We’re only 1km into our ride and already I’m getting a sense of trepidation at what the day ahead holds for us.

I’ve spent the past hour or so taking breakfast in a guesthouse overlooking the fields that divide our lodgings from the small town of Aberfoyle, trying to second-guess the wind direction and the likelihood of rain appearing above the tree-covered edifice of Craigmore looming behind the town’s main street. 

Our route out of Aberfoyle towards Loch Katrine and further into the Trossachs National Park takes us immediately on to the Duke’s Pass, up and over the 420m hill and into a Forestry Commission wonderland of fern, pine and multiple undulations.

My ride partner is Campbell, a man who knows these roads well and who has kindly offered to guide Cyclist around his local routes, so I heed his advice and click into the small ring. Despite slathering my legs in embrocation this morning, I’ve been feeling the cold, so the effort of the climb provides some extra warmth as we ascend through dense air heavy with mist, and I silently ponder the Duke of Montrose’s motivation behind this faintly sadistic example of late-19th century highway engineering.

Drinking it in

The short, sharp climb of Craigmore has no distinct summit to speak of, no single crest to call its top. Instead the road levels briefly, then continues on for hundreds of metres in ramps and dips. A brief effort to see us over each successive mini-summit is sufficient before it’s heads down and on the drops as we carve racing lines across perfectly smooth tarmac that’s laid like unspooled cassette tape through the russet forest landscape.

Our final descent is straight and rapid, bringing to an end 12km of deserted playground on the slopes. Before us lies the expansive beauty of Loch Katrine, and I take a moment to drink in the view, serene even under greying skies. Campbell, fount of all local knowledge, tells me the loch is the source of most of Glasgow’s drinking water.

As we cruise past the visitor’s car park, we jokingly suggest that taking the Sir Walter Scott steamboat across the water might be a smart plan. Instead, we take the road along the north shore. It’s closed to traffic, allowing us unimpeded passage along another deserted road, and we settle into a steady tempo that allows us to chat as we skirt the water’s edge.

To our left stretches the loch, waves whipped into miniature white horses as wind unsettles its surface. Sheltered by the treeline, we put in short, hard efforts to power over brief rises in the road, and take respite in freewheeling down equally short-lived descents. The road narrows on occasion and we line out, increasing our speed in the hope that we can complete the first loop of the ride to our planned lunch stop before the brooding heavens decide to break. 

I’m following Campbell down a roughly surfaced incline when I hear a load crack like a gun going off. I flinch and scan the trees for a camo-clad lunatic, preparing to flee the scene thinking we've been mistaken for stags. Then I see Campbell slowing to a halt 20 metres ahead of me, leg out, steadying himself. A spoke has blown out of the rim of his rear wheel, and now flaps pitifully from its hub.

It’s beyond repair, but the fantastically resourceful Campbell has a spare bike safely locked away in the boot of his car in Aberfoyle. He requisitions the photographer’s car and chugs off into the distance, while I silently
curse his proximity to a heater and go it alone to complete the final 20km of this loop back to our starting point. 

With nothing more on the road to contend with than a few fallen leaves, I soak up the views across the loch, stopping for a moment at a spit of land jutting out into the water. Apparently, the burial ground of the MacGregor clan is located at the end point of the grassy causeway, guarded by a stone wall. Its furthestmost point is lapped by waves, lending it the appearance of a small ship moored to the shore. 

I can feel the first spots of rain, so decide to get a move on. Motoring back to the promise of a warm pub and a bowl of pasta bigger than my head seems the best option. Leaving the water’s edge at Stronachlachar, negotiating a closed gate and squeezing my bike through a nearby opening in the hedgerow, I know there is 18km between here and much-needed food. I neck a gel as the rain gets harder, with big drops of water beginning to obscure the view through my optimistically worn sunglasses. 

As I start my descent to the shore of Loch Ard the skies open fully and the rain turns to a downpour. My progress becomes teeth-grittingly determined. ‘What would Tom Boonen do?’ I ask myself. I empty the tanks, hammering the cranks so hard that each pedal stroke is accompanied by an audible squelch from my saturated socks. For one thing, Boonen would probably have worn shoe covers.

Gimme shelter

My pace eases as I reach the outskirts of Aberfoyle, and my spirits rise as I spot the right-hand turning off the main road and into the car park that leads to the Forth Inn. Dripping from every extremity onto the flagstone flooring I locate a table, perform a wet-cleated slip on the smooth floor and join Campbell, who is looking disturbingly dry and comfortable. 

As I dry out and warm up, we gorge on carbs and glug pints of Coke. Occasionally one of us will peer through the pub’s windows in search of blue skies. After an hour it becomes abundantly clear that shades of grey will be the only colours today, so we don our rain jackets, collect Campbell’s reserve bike from the car and accept the fact that neither of us is going to end the day with anything less than wrinkled toes.

There’s a distinctly different topographical theme to the second half of today’s figure-of-eight. As we head south on shining roads along the edge of the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, trees become less plentiful, the landscape increasingly barren. Deforested expanses of land stretch left and right as we dig in for a climb of the ‘pipeline’ – a local Strava favourite typified by its long, straight, seemingly ceaseless ascent through the windswept wilds. 

We’re both in the little ring again, and not for the first time we’re forced to climb seated, searching for grip on the slippery road surface, eyeing the tarmac ahead for the path of least resistance. The cold of late morning is quickly forgotten as both our engines are once again up to operating temperature.

Cresting the hill, distant pine plantations pepper the horizon; slumping over the hoods I regain my breath and take some time to appreciate the tranquility of the scene. We’ve barely encountered a motorised vehicle since leaving Aberfoyle. These lanes offer an escape, time to think, time to breathe in truly fresh air. 

Hurtling into the small town of Drymen, we push speeds that are probably not sensible in these weather conditions, but the fun is worth the risk. I dodge round cracks in the road and patches of loose chippings, and dash through the bottom of the descent before powering up the other side. It’s exhilarating – right up to the point a stone enters my tyre. 

Small and sharp, the little blighter, lubricated by rainwater, penetrates the rubber casing and into my inner tube. The air expels in seconds and I slither to a stop by a small copse. Changing a tyre by the roadside is never a pleasant job, but this one is made far, far worse by the rain and the difficulty of attempting to seat a new inner tube while swatting at midges. They really are voracious and they plainly find me delicious.

Roadside fix complete, our route takes us through Drymen and south-east to the small village of Gartness. This community’s sense of fair play and closeness extends to an ‘honesty shop’. Two fridges positioned at the front of a house offer ice creams, lollies, bottled water and chocolate for £1, and a money tin sits above them. On a sunny day, you could quite easily while away an afternoon here, lazily enjoying drinks and ices, becoming hypnotised by the fast-running stream coursing around polished stones. 

The sound of the babbling brook is the only noise as we ponder whether chocolate is on the cards. Deciding against it, I squeeze another gel down my throat instead, take a sip from my bottle, turn sharply right and take the bridge over the water and upwards, out of this picture-postcard hamlet. 

Knock, knock

I should have had the chocolate. Little more than half an hour later I’m struggling, my legs feel drained and I can feel the inevitable arrival of the dreaded ‘knock’. My pockets are empty, but my ever-resourceful riding companion whips sustenance from his jersey (he must have been the best boy scout in his troop), and offers me some ‘real food’ – none of that gel nonsense. I nibble eagerly, each mouthful stocking up my reserves. I imagine a computer game ‘energy’ indicator transforming from an empty, flashing oblong on the bottom of the screen to a rapidly extending, green ingot. After five minutes I’m ready to push on through Stirling’s narrow lanes once more, giving everything to the final push.

Riding due east to Fintry we appear to have timed our run perfectly for school kicking-out time. In truth, however, a school bus and a few parental taxis is the largest accumulation of traffic we’ve seen all day. A few minutes of cautiously threading through it focuses the mind, and as we leave the village the road once more becomes quiet as we approach the final climb of the day. 

Known locally as the Top of the World, we rise above lush fields, mooed on by bovine spectators. This isn’t an out-and-out attack, but a constant gradient that requires a slow siege. I’m happy to leave much of what is left in my legs on the damp hillside, safe in the knowledge that we are about to hit a descent that will last for the next 11km. I slap the chain onto the big ring, hunker down and enjoy the free energy of the downhill run. 

The clouds have steadfastly refused to budge, but at least they are looking less threatening now, and the views are becoming clearer. A T-junction signals a turn left and we join the marvellous smoothness of the A81, before commencing an 8km masterclass in through-and-off. Attacks are made, chased down and countered as Campbell and I ride the rollercoaster west to Aberfoyle. 

The skies are beginning to darken as our full day in the saddle nears its close, and our speed picks up with our growing concerns that we’ll run out of daylight. Spurred on by the thought of the bath waiting at the end of the ride, I grip the drops and push the biggest gear I can manage all the way to the hotel. 

After I’ve said my thanks and farewell to Campbell, I return to my room to reward my efforts with a hot bath. As I climb in, I realise that today’s ride has one more punishment in store for my weary legs. I really should have remembered to clean off the embrocation first. 

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