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In-depth
17 Jun 2019
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Words: Joseph Delves  Photography: George Marshall

When Thomas Telford finished building the Caledonian Canal in 1822, he effectively sliced the top of Scotland clean off. By excavating the stretches between a number of large lochs along the Great Glen, the Scottish engineer created a navigable waterway from Inverness on the east coast to Fort William on the west, allowing ships to avoid the hazardous journey around Cape Wrath to the far north.

It’s along Telford’s handiwork that we begin our trip. Our plan, sketched out using Komoot’s mapping platform, is to ride west from Fort Augustus along the canal before following a series of lochs and streams through the hills and over to the west coast. From here we’ll head back into the mountains and return to our starting point. Unsure 
of what we might find on the way, we’ve packed supplies and shelter for three days and two nights out in the hills.

That it’s raining as we set off is as unlucky as it is unsurprising. At least it gives us reason to linger over coffee in town and observe one of the canal’s engineering marvels. Taking an hour to work their way along, a flotilla of boats passes through the staircase of five lochs from Loch Ness, through Fort Augustus, and out onto the canal 40 feet above. By the time they’re done the weather has cleared up and soon we’re chasing after them.

We head south on a path as flat as the waterway it follows. Crossing the swing bridge at Loch Oich, we’re soon into the hills, past Invergarry and up to the eponymous loch above. We make good time through lanes hemmed in by pine forests, yet by the time we’ve reached the water’s end there are no trees to be seen. We climb the barren terrain between Loch Garry and the higher Loch Quoich towards the blank concrete face of a massive dam.

The dam itself is a bleak-looking thing, sitting grey and fortress-like in the landscape. It was built as part of a hydroelectric scheme in 1955, and at the time was the biggest of its kind in Scotland. Raising the water behind by 30m, this was enough to sink the grand Glenquoich Lodge, which formerly sat beside the loch. Now lost beneath its surface, an incongruous streak of rhododendrons at the roadside still marks the site of its gardens.

We don’t see a single car along the bleak road between the hillside and the water. We ride across an inlet on a high bridge, then follow the narrowing road as it heads away from the loch and up into the folds of the valley.

The road becomes a track that winds its way up for several kilometres until a final kick of a climb and a technical descent brings us out next to a wide body of water. Sitting in the far corner is a little yacht. At first, it seems strange that someone would drag it over the hills just to trap it in some mountain pond. Then I realise this is the edge of Loch Beag, the first in a series of winding lochs that twist and turn for 20km out towards the North Sea.

End of the roads

We hoped to be able to stop for a coffee by the water’s edge, but find that the cafe here not only appears to be shut, it looks as if it hasn’t been open in years.

We make do with flapjacks and press on. Passing back behind the estuary at the top of the loch, we enter through a grand gate and past the keeper’s lodge at Kinlochourn. On a public right of way leading behind the house, we push up through the landscaped hillside, imported cypress trees and rhododendrons lending the trail a Jurassic feel.

On the map, the next section looks to be a vehicle track, but its rapid dash up the contour lines suggests it will be a slog. In reality, while the telltale wheel tracks are there, whoever got a 4x4 over this lot achieved something akin to Hannibal marching his elephants over the Alps. I have zero chance of staying on my bike over this particular mountain.

A big push up then. It takes about half an hour, but by its end we’ve escaped the loch-side valley and are looking at a misty plateau from the top of a sizable hill. The route down isn’t obvious, but it’s going to be steep. Slithering about at the edge of what you’d want to ride on a gravel bike, we pick our way down with occasional stops to stretch out our stinging hands and check Komoot for reassurance that we’re still on track.

Eventually we make it down with bodies and bikes intact, and the way returns to a rugged 4x4 track. Picking our way across hillocks and streams, the trail deposits us next to a river. Up to our ankles as we pick our way across, this precarious operation is made harder thanks to our laden machines. I think about how much I don’t want my sleeping bag to get soaked as I try to stay upright 
in the rushing water. It’s a relief when we’re across.

We haven’t seen anyone since leaving the road, and the going is increasingly wild. Following alongside the river, soon we’re beside a small lake. At its far side, huge slabs of rock have been piled up to create a causeway alongside the stream exiting downstream.

Like something from The Lord Of The Rings, we inch along its edge, before a thin wooden bridge takes us back into the hills. At the top we can see the sea for the first time. A further steep descent and we’re back alongside the stream and a gate takes us out into open fields full of burly Highland cattle.

With daylight and our energy nearing an end we hit tarmac and arrive at the coast. We like the idea of a relaxed drink to end the ride, but our hopes are dashed when we get chatting to a man pulling his boat up onto the shore at Arnisdale.

Unfortunately, he tells us, the area’s only makeshift bar closed five years ago when its proprietor decided to return his living room to its original purpose.

By way of consolation our new friend suggests a good camping spot a little way along the coast and soon we’re unfurling tents and bivvy bags on the shore. We dare each other to jump into the sea to freshen up, and spend some time scouring the beach for driftwood in time to build a fire just as the sun is setting. After pasta for dinner and a shared flask of whisky (Scotch, of course), it’s not long before we are all asleep.

Back to the wilderness

The next morning I wake to a gorgeous view out over the sea. With porridge made and coffee brewing, none of us seems in a hurry to get going. Deconstructing our camp, it is eventually stashed into a Tardis-like collection of Apidura bikepacking bags.

We roll off somewhere past 10am and we’re sad to be leaving our seaside idyll, especially as the day starts with a series of tough climbs along the headland. Taking it slow, out over the water we can see the Isle of Skye. Its proximity makes it appear connected to the jumble of rocks we’re riding along.

After an hour we make it to Glenelg, where we raid the local shop for a second breakfast. There aren’t many food options to choose from, but with an ungodly mix of Super Noodles and shortbread stuffed into my bags at least I’m confident I’ve secured enough calories for the rest of the trip.

Outside Glenelg, we follow the road alongside the Glenmore river. Looking ahead, our digital route plan shows a brutal-looking spike rising straight up, and within a few miles we’re onto a climb that wouldn’t feel out of place in the Alps. Steep, winding and penned in by pines, it’s actually no more than 350 vertical metres, but with the weight strapped to my bike it feels much higher.

The more enjoyable descent off the other side drops us at the edge of Loch Duich and Shiel Bridge. From here a stretch along the A87 takes us to the Loch Cluanie and, more importantly, the Cluanie Inn, where we stuff ourselves in preparation for one of the toughest sections just ahead.

What starts off as a tarmac road soon breaks up to become a rough track leading into the hills. The going is steep and soon the path has degraded to little more than a walking track. After around an hour pedalling and pushing we reach the top and cross the River Affric via a mini suspension bridge to find ourselves back on a more navigable track.

The going is easier now, although the weather is looking less fair. Soon we swing onto a broader path, and minutes later we’re overlooking the Loch Affric.

With the rain falling and everyone dog tired we decide to call it a day. We choose a camping spot for expediency rather than comfort, and following a quick freshen up in the cold water I crawl into bed early. With a fair bit of light left, I’m glad that I thought to bring a book.

Heading for home

With the morning comes the midges. Fortunately they’re not the most ferocious I’ve encountered, and at least the weather has perked up.

We turn back onto the path beside the loch. Flying compared to the previous slog-fest over the mountains, soon we’re past Loch Affric and beside the larger Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin. At this early hour we are the only people around, and it’s not long before we turn off before the dam at the head of the valley and make our way down towards the model village of Tomich.

Popping onto the first tarmac we’ve seen since yesterday, we swing south onto a more remote access road. From here there are 10 solid kilometres of gravel to be climbed, which after two fitful nights in a tent means a slow toil up to Loch na Beinne Baine. Passing this body of water marks the high point of our trip, and from here all that’s left to do is follow the power lines off the mountain and rattle down to the main road.

As we turn onto the A887, it feels odd to be dodging traffic again and I know there is 20km of rolling terrain still to tick off, but at least the going is smooth. With three days of riding in my legs, the route refuses to go down without a fight, and my pace is barely above a crawl, but all of a sudden we’re spat back into Fort Augustus conveniently right next to the chip shop.

A few hours later we find ourselves propping up the bar at The Bothy pub. Staying after most of the customers have left, we get talking to the landlord over a few whiskies. Expecting him to be impressed when we recount the exploits of the last few days, he makes some appreciative noises.

Then he tells us how the navvies building the Loch Quoich dam would walk the route we cycled to get to the cèilidh at Arnisdale, returning to work the next morning. That’s a 40km round trek through the hills to have a drink, a dance and a chat to some girls.

He also tells us how before Glenquoich Lodge was to due to be flooded, its owner burned it down rather than watch it be swallowed by the rising water. I’m not sure where that story fits in, but it sticks in my head as I crawl into my sleeping bag for one last night in the Scottish Highlands.

The rider’s ride

Specialized S-Works Diverge, £8,750, specialized.com

Loaded with every imaginable bikepacking bag, the flying Diverge just about met its match on our testing route.

Nippy when on the tarmac and better tended gravel tracks, it was less happy over seriously rocky ground, where it could have done with slightly wider tyres than the 38mm rubber supplied and a broader handlebar to boost stability and control.

More positive was its dropper seatpost, which allowed me to get the saddle out of the way when taking on tricky descents.

The wide-range 1x electronic gearing was also a hit.

Borrowing the rear derailleur from Shimano’s top-tier XTR mountain bike groupset, it showed no inclination to let the chain break loose, and kept everything quiet as we bashed along.

In terms of comfort, Specialized’s Future Shock suspension system isolates the handlebars from the front of the bike.

Providing a couple of centimetres of movement, it left my hands and arms feeling fresher than I would have expected.

Ultimately, it is a great compromise between a road bike and a mountain bike, being fast, rugged and – most of all – fun.

Route

Thanks to Komoot for support with our trip. We used Komoot's ride mapping services to find our way on the varied roads and tracks of the highlands. For more information on how to plan your next adventure with Komoot, click here, and use the code CYCLISTMAG19 to unlock a region bundle of choice.

How we did it

Accommodation

When not camping we stayed at Morag’s Lodge in Fort Augustus. Four of us bunked together for £81, while double rooms cost from £60pn.

Food

Ideally you should take food with you, but there are shops at Glenelg (90km), Shiel Bridge (100km), the Cluanie Inn (123km), Glen Affric Youth Hostel (129km), and finally the Tomich Hotel (160km).

Bike

Make sure you bring spares, but Alpine Bikes outside Inverness is excellent, if a long way from Fort Augustus.

At a push, Girvans Hardware in Fort Augustus might be able to help with simple repairs.

Thanks

Thanks to Fiola Foley and Komoot for planning the trip and arranging accommodation. Gratitude is also due to Instagram’s @kellbellandbikes for perseverance in the face of being asked to ride the same corner multiple times.