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Cairngorms: Big Ride

Trevor Ward
30 Oct 2015

Cyclist discovers a ride of barren beauty and dark history in the mountains of north-east Scotland.

A series of global catastrophes ranging from the Ice Age to World War One conspired to shape and sculpt the landscape of the Scottish Highlands. All those slowly moving glaciers carved the distinctive topography of the Cairngorm mountains, while the call to arms was answered by hundreds of men from the Cabrach, where their abandoned, crumbling farmhouses still stand today like neglected tombstones. One historian called this expanse of bleak, rolling moorland ‘the biggest war memorial in Europe’.

But Wilma, the landlady of the Grouse Inn, is having none of this. While she doesn’t dispute the geological origins of northern Scotland’s glens and Munros, she’s unequivocal about who’s to blame for the derelict settlements that haunt this remote part of Aberdeenshire.

‘It’s all your fault,’ she says after I’ve popped in to view the pub’s famous collection of more than 700 bottles of whisky. She’s referring to my aristocratic English ancestors who owned vast swathes of land up here and evicted hundreds of tenant crofters during the 18th and 19th centuries in what became known as the Highland Clearances. But even with my limited grasp of ‘historical atrocities committed by the English’, I know this isn’t true. As local historian Norman Harper told a BBC Scotland TV documentary: ‘The Cabrach is Scotland’s testament to the waste of young life in wartime. The great numbers of tumbledown crofts and steadings you see happened not because of land policy or the Depression or a series of bad farming years. They happened because virtually all the fighting-age men and boys went off to war in 1914. Many did not return.’

Cairngorms road cycling

I think better of correcting Wilma. Her pub is literally in the middle of nowhere, there’s some burly agricultural types sitting in a corner, and the sudden, unexplained disappearance of an English cyclist in these parts would probably be considered no more newsworthy than rain. 

So, in a bid to diffuse the situation, I change the subject to something less emotive, like why I’ve clip-clopped into her pub wearing Lycra and a helmet. Big mistake. Her antipathy towards cyclists appears more ingrained than her historical revisionism. Referring to a local sportive that uses the road outside, she says, ‘All those cyclists affect my business. How are my locals supposed to get here?’ 

Little does she know that my riding companions today are the organisers of the event – the King of the Mountains Sportive – but they have opted to wait outside, having previously experienced Wilma’s obstinacy (she wouldn’t let them use her car park as a feed station). As if walking across a slippery pub floor in cleats isn’t difficult enough, I now feel as if I’m treading on eggshells too. 

I’m just about to ask Wilma about the ‘locals’ she refers to when a minibus of American tourists arrives – the most expensive whisky
is £13 a nip – so I make my excuses and leave. 

Cairngorms riding

Outside, Jon Entwistle and Richard Lawes aren’t at all surprised by my experience.  

‘When we were planning the route of our event, we offered to make it profitable for her by either making a donation or steering riders into the pub for alternative refreshments, but she really wasn’t interested,’ says Jon. ‘I don’t think she’s in any danger of appearing on Dragon’s Den or The Apprentice any time soon.’

Back to the start

When I begin the ride with Jon and Richard, I’m surprised they’re not wearing capes and masks. The pair are self-styled cycling crusaders, but instead of wearing helmet cams and waving burning crucifixes at anyone driving a car, they prefer a more subtle campaign of education rather than confrontation. As we leave the pretty village of Ballater on the banks of the Dee and follow the undulating, leafy road in the direction of Balmoral, Jon explains their mission: to make this part of Scotland like a ‘mini-Holland’.

‘Most people own a TV which they regularly use,’ he explains. ‘Most people own a car, which they regularly drive. And most people have a bike in their house but they don’t tend to use it. We want to see children cycling to school, families cycling to the shops and parents cycling to work.’

Though schools, shops and places of work will be few and far between on today’s ride, across some of the most sparsely-inhabited landscape in the UK, it’s easy to see how this part of Scotland could become the seat of a cycling revolution – the roads are quiet and in decent nick, and there’s no heavy traffic. It’s just a shame about the mountains; three of the climbs ahead of us today are among the eight highest roads in the country.

Cairngorms forest

The first of these is a narrow strip that threads through forested lower slopes before emerging onto an expanse of purple-hued moorland that offers views of the cauldron of snow-capped Cairngorms to our left. By the time we reach the top of the final ramp, we have risen 200m in less than 5km, and yet I notice that Jon and Richard have remained seated all the way up. It turns out they are advocates of the Chris Froome school of ascending. Both British Cycling-certified coaches, they believe staying seated and spinning a high cadence is the most energy-efficient way to get up a mountain. In photos, however, this technique doesn’t look particularly exciting – they may as well be sitting on the sofa at home reading a phone  directory. So with a bit of polite cajoling from our photographer, they agree to click down a sprocket and climb out of the saddle. Now at least it doesn’t look as though it’s only me putting in some effort on the 15% slopes.

At the top of this first climb, the Strone, we pull in to a passing place to enjoy the views. ‘See that patch of snow over there?’ says Jon, pointing to a distant peak with a barely pronounceable Gaelic name. ‘That’s one of the top-three longest lasting patches of snow in the UK. It was in Weather magazine.’

I look in the direction Jon is pointing and consider what he’s just told me. ‘I know,’ he says, ‘I should probably get out more.’

Fat chance

Cairngorms bridge

I notice Jon doesn’t have a bottle cage on his bike. This is because he’s currently testing the theory of ‘fat oxidation’ aka glycogen depleted training, which means he regularly goes for four or five hour rides without eating or drinking anything. He is, he explains, training his body to rely on its natural fat reserves for energy, rather than its glycogen stores – or carbs – that need regular replenishing with food and water.

‘Your glycogen will only last for one or two hours depending on the intensity of exercise whereas your fat stores are effectively infinite – even Chris Froome has about 3kg of fat available to burn, or 22,000kcals,’ says Jon, who is a qualified physicist with a PhD in fluid dynamics. 

A vertical strip of tarmac appears to have been painted on to a wall. A ‘20%’ warning sign confirms it is not some kind of optical illusion.

The proof appears to be in the pudding (or lack of), as Jon has won virtually every race and TT he’s entered so far this year, including one 50-mile TT during which he broke the course record without drinking or eating a morsel. 

Ahead of us we can see the road rising steeply above the treeline towards the next summit. But first there’s a twisting, technical descent down to Gairnshiel and its famous hump-backed stone bridge. ‘Minibuses can’t get over it without making their passengers get off and walk first,’ says Richard. Once over the bridge, the real climbing starts with a slope that gradually rears up to 20% before slackening off at the wild, desolate plateau of Glas-allt-Choille (pronounced like a bronchial cough) which marks the border between the Dee and Don valleys. By the time we reach its highest point and Jon has been distracted by another snow patch, we’ve climbed almost 300m in less than 8km. And the toughest climb is still to come.

The last refuge

Cairngorms cycling

The Goodbrand and Ross cafe in Corgarff is like an edge-of-the-world frontier post. It’s full of desperate-looking characters cradling large cappuccinos and talking in hushed tones about the wilderness outside. They are dressed in tweed Norfolk jackets, leather biker jackets, shiny anoraks or garish Lycra, depending on whether they’ve arrived by vintage sports car, Harley Davidson motorbike, rusting motorhome or bicycle. Some are glowing with a sense of achievement, others – including us – are pale with trepidation. This is the last refuge before the start of the climb over the Lecht, a mountain whose fearsome reputation stretches back to 1869 when 500 local residents searched in vain for a young servant girl lost in a blizzard (her body lies in a cemetery across the road from us now) and continues today with 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs awarding it 10/10. As we polish off our coffees, there is a tangible sense of ‘Abandon all hope’ in the air.

The reason becomes all too apparent as we round the next bend and approach the snow gates. A vertical strip of tarmac appears to have been painted on to a wall. A ‘20%’ warning sign confirms it is not some kind of optical illusion. This is a no-nonsense piece of road shorn of fripperies such as gradient-softening hairpins. We click through the gears until our chains settle on the biggest sprockets, and begin the steady grind up the slope. Jon begins a conversation about our respective wattage – he’s testing a new power meter. ‘I’ve just ridden 400 watts for that first minute,’ he says, as if he’s relaxing at home rather than pedalling up a 20% hill. ‘You’re doing the same pace as I am, so how heavy are you and I’ll tell you what you’re putting out.’

I’m finding it difficult to remember how heavy I am, but manage to blurt out ‘90 kilos’.

‘Well the rough rule of thumb is five watts for each kilo difference in body weight. I am 70 kilos, which means you’re pumping out an extra 100 – so about 500 watts,’ he says, but I can hardly hear him over my pounding heartbeat.

Cairngorms climbing

When the slope finally flattens, we get a view of the climb in all its glory. It may not be the longest, steepest or highest, but what makes it one of the most dramatic is the absence of hairpins. The line of asphalt strikes out for the summit without compromise. Barely another vehicle passes us on the way to the top, where the deserted ski lifts swing eerily in the wind.

Our route plunges down towards Tomintoul before we take a right turn and head in to the heart of Scotland’s ‘Malt Whisky Country’. The road threads through lush, rolling countryside and past a couple of distilleries before we start the descent into the handsome Speyside town of Dufftown. From here it’s only a couple of kilometres before we’re back in the remote Scottish countryside and starting the long drag up to the Cabrach and my slightly frosty encounter with Wilma at the Grouse Inn. 

After my chat with Wilma, we clip in and continue our ride across the empty, rolling vastness of the Cabrach. To our right the tops of the highest Cairngorm peaks are smothered in cloud, while to our left the moorland tumbles away towards the coast and the North Sea. 

I wait for Jon to start a conversation about the new chamois pad he’s testing, but he stays silent. We’re all feeling a little chastened by my encounter at the Grouse Inn, which has been a reminder of how cyclists continue to be treated as second-class citizens, even amid the empty roads and glorious scenery of rural Scotland. 

It’s an attitude Jon and Richard regularly encounter in their roles as cycling crusaders. The occasional, overgrown ruin of a farmhouse, defiantly preserving the memory of a lost generation, puts everything into perspective. 

Do it yourself

Travel

The nearest railway station and airport to Ballater are both in Aberdeen, from where it’s a straightforward 90-minute drive.

Accommodation

We stayed at the beautiful Glen Lui Hotel in Ballater where a pine wood chalet – ‘recommended for cyclists because they have baths as well as showers,’ says owner Susan Bell – costs from £80 single B&B. Or you can pay £160 for a night in their luxury four-poster suite. The hotel also has an award-winning restaurant, where we feasted on a dinner of herb-crusted rack of Deeside lamb followed by dessert of chocolate ganache torte for £30. 

Thanks

Thanks to Richard Lawes of Firetrail Events and Jon Entwistle (enthdegree.co.uk) for helping us with all the logistical support during our ride, and to Richard’s wife, Alex, for driving our photographer. Richard’s company organises the annual King of the Mountains sportive, which includes part of the route covered by our UK Ride. The 2016 event will take place on 21st May. Full details at komsportive.co.uk. Thanks also to Steve Smith at Angus Bike Chain, Arbroath, for providing the bike.

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