The Cairngorms has always been a special place to me. It’s where I first started mountain biking in the 90s, when my partner, Andy McKenna, who introduced me to mountain biking, dragged me around the Cairngorms to do the infamous Cairngorms tour. I wasn’t very experienced back then and what I remember most is the suffering, thinking how many more miles have we got to go, not really taking in the scenery or much of anything. If you asked me what I rode I wouldn’t be able to tell you because all my energy was focused on the physical effort to get me around the loop.
Times have changed. 20 years on and I have taken to love my bike and the places it takes me. I’ve been lucky to ride all over the world and meet the most amazing people along the way. But for some reason, at the start of this year, I had a strange urge to go back and do the tour, although a version which would would keep me motivated and challenged. I wanted to go back, not just as the passenger but to do it because I wanted to do it and knowing I have the confidence to take myself and my friends away into the mountains for four days. I had also ruptured my calf the year before and I was keen to do the tour around the one year anniversary to show myself I could do something substantial on a bike again.
So early in the year, I started to plan.
The first thing on the list was knowing who to do it with. Lynne, Anna and Emma immediately came to mind, strong, resilient women that I knew could cope with anything thrown at them. These skills were essential, what if the weather turns, we get lost, we run out of daylight, someone gets injured – all eventualities had to be covered.
Lynne was too busy coaching for Air Maiden, Anna got sick two days before the trip so that left me and Emma. At this point I didn’t think the trip would happen. I felt it was important for there to be three of us, for safety reasons, but more importantly if the banter dried up, would there be enough of us to spread it around. But I knew Emma would be the right person for the job, she is tough, her banter is certainly of a very high standard and she was training for the Trans Provence, which was in 6 weeks time. She’d never done a four day trip around the mountains before so it was going to be a good experience for her before heading to France.
Our trip started in Blair Atholl on what was a very sunny day. It was the beginning of May and this was the first of the sunshine we’d had after a long winter. Andy, my other half drove us to start of the the trail head, we compared our EVOC bike packs for weight distribution, discussed spares, tools, food, water and had a quick check on the map.
It was the first time Emma had carried so much on her back which I found quite amusing. I am used to the weight with being a MTB guide for Go Where Scotland but for Emma it was a first. For someone who is a top end rider, it was funny to see her wobble on single track as we made our way across the Gaick. But she soon got used to it.
It was a fantastic first day. We talked the whole way until we came to the junction for Inveruglas for Aviemore where we had our first stop of the day. The sandwiches were out, and just as we were starting to chill in the lovely sunshine, a young Ozzy Osbourne look-alike stopped his vehicle on the dirt track and asked, ‘Hi girls are you alright? Do you know where you are going? Have you got enough scoobie snacks? ‘You got everything you need?’ We politely said we were fine and off he went with his business disappointed that we didn’t take up his offer. We were surprised by his chat, we couldn’t believe that in the middle of nowhere, we would come with no map, nor would we have enough ‘scoobie snacks’ to keep us going!
In fact, this kind of chat happened to us for the rest of the trip, like ‘have you got enough medical supplies on you’ to ‘I hope you have an emergency signal up the top’ to ‘have you been watching too much Danny Macaskill’? We wondered if we were two men would we have received the same chat? Were we not capable of looking after ourselves? Surely not! I think they couldn’t believe seeing us carrying bikes in places they might not have ever imagined seeing a bike. Our ‘Danny Macaskill’ comment was on day 2 where our ‘alternative’ tour took us over Ben Macdui, Scotland’s second highest mountain. We wanted to ask back but were too polite ‘have you been watching too much Bear Grylls?’
Day 2 and again the sun was shining but we knew that there would be snow near the top, but didn’t realise how much. Our hike a bike took us longer than expected and we were pleased when we got to the top. We also had plenty of friendly walkers to keep us entertained as we climbed to the summit. ‘Nice bikes‘ was a comment we heard often.
But when we got there a funny thing happened. We wanted to get down as soon as possible! Quick photo and a snack and off we went looking for the trail that would take us to Braemar.
On the plateau there is no defined path, the snow was covering large sections of the mountain but our map reading skills were spot on and we found our path after descending snow fields that were hiding the path. It was down all the way to the Lin of Dee. From here we took to the road to Braemar.
Our next day took us up Lochnagar. We knew this was going to be another big day, but for some reason it was more chilled than the day before. Think it was something to do with knowing that we had got over Ben Macdui even though the technical and endurance skills needed were just as hard. My favourite part of the day was when a cloud came over as we passed the waterfall route down to Loch Muick. We hadn’t had felt a cloud in the sky for three days. Emma even named her strava day as the ‘one cloud in the sky’ route.
After a couple of hours hike a bike we took the descent all the way to the bothy at Glen Callater which we could see in the distance. We had all that to descend, it made us happy.
When arriving at the bothy we had a wander inside and had a debrief on our aches and pains and started to laugh at ourselves at how much of our conversation focused on this!
From there we carried on back to Braemar. Another epic day in the bag.
Our final day was through Glen Tilt. For some reason we were on a mission (or maybe I was on a mission) to get to our final destination.
Again we had beautiful sunshine and even had time to stop and see the waterfalls before we made our last leg towards Blair Atholl. We hardly saw anyone, we talked less and enjoyed the peace and tranquility. After 5 hours it was over. We were in Blair Atholl and back a lot quicker than was planned.
If you asked me if I remembered anything from the last time I rode around the Cairngorms, my honest answer is that I wouldn’t have even known that I’d been there before. It certainly felt a lot easier, there was no suffering and agreed that we could have done that trip in three days instead of four. It was a good feeling to know that we both still had lots more to give. We’d already started talking about plans for the next one during the journey back home.
Thanks to Emma for being such a brilliant partner, I couldn’t have asked for one better and all her hard work paid off with an amazing 5th place at Trans Provence 2017!