Active Traveller: Mud, midges and majesty - cycling in Scotland

Riding coast-to-coast in Scotland is anything but bog-standard

"I can't believe I flew all the way from my home in California just to take my bike for a walk!" It's remarkable that James has the energy to crack a joke. We're both breathless from hauling our bikes across the endless sodden bog. The freezing rain has started to hammer down again and we've got to wade across another swollen stream with our bikes slung over our shoulders.

We're in the remote and empty heart of the Highlands, midway through a monster mountain bike ride across Scotland. This is mud-splattered, muscle-straining mountain biking in the raw - a world away from cycling in purpose-built trail centres.

If you like your outdoor action served up in great big chunks of adrenaline-fuelled adventure, then you'll love getting your teeth into the Scottish coast-to-coast route, an epic off-road trip that starts from Aberdeen on the east coast and ends up in Ardnamurchan way over on the west. Covering a massive 375km in six long days, the route takes in every kind of trail, from sweetly swooping singletrack and lung-busting rocky climbs, to punishingly long hauls across moor and bog.

The adventure began easily enough at the Girdle Ness lighthouse, which stands watch over Aberdeen's harbour. From here our group of five Brits, plus James from California, rode out in bright spring sunshine past a flotilla of plump eider ducks happily bobbing about in the crashing surf. Led by our guide Dave, we crossed over the peat-stained river Dee and soon picked up the Deeside Way, a cycle track built along the old railway line to Braemar. This is a supported ride, so our luggage was being ferried ahead in a van, leaving us free to carry feather-light daypacks.

We'd all trained for the ride, so we clocked up these first kilometres fairly easily. Then the trail cranked up a gear as we climbed steeply through the Forest of Birse before emerging at the top by a small shooting lodge. With the clear evening sky filled with calling curlews and a stunning view of the distant hills, we could have happily lingered. We had to keep moving, though, if we weren't to miss dinner. A cracking descent through the forest delivered us to our hotel in the genteel town of Aboyne and after a quick shower I was soon enjoying a plate of Scottish salmon steak, washed down with locally brewed beer at the cosy Boat Inn.

Next morning the blue skies were replaced by monochrome cloud and a warning, delivered over porridge. "There's a vicious storm heading our way, so things could get a little interesting," said Dave, with what turned out to be measured understatement. At first there wasn't any hint of scary weather as we re-joined the Deeside Way, riding past dippers as they whirred up and down the Dee. But as soon as we climbed out from the shelter of the valley and headed into Glen Muick, things got interesting pretty quickly.

What would have been a good, steady climb, turned into one long, grunting slog against a merciless headwind. There was more relentless grind as we later pushed our bikes up a steep rocky track to a col on the misty and snowy flanks of Lochnagar. At 700m the col marked the highest point of the ride. Our reward was a long, fabulously fast descent down a rough moorland track - except for one member of our group who was blown over by a gust of wind as they bombed downhill.

By the time we finally approached the Highland village of Braemar, my fuel tanks were nearing empty. But no sooner had we checked into the Moorfield House Hotel than I was being revived with a mug of steaming tea, a vast slice of cake and a blissfully warming fire.

This is what really makes the trip such a success: no matter how cold, wet and tired you got during the day, come evening there's always a good hotel, great food and a warm bed to look forward to.

We were still buffeted by the wind the next morning as we followed the Dee west, skirting the mighty Cairngorms that reared up just to the north. Lapwings and oystercatchers flew up and scolded us as we rode along the easy tracks that ran by the side of the river. The tracks soon petered out as we swung north and headed off-road, where we had to rely on faint trails which disappeared as we pushed our bikes for three sweaty hours across a bog. Eventually we made it into the remote and stunning Glen Feshie, with gnarled old Caledonian pines and - thank goodness - dry, bog-free trails.

The day finished fabulously with a superb descent through the forests above Newtonmore, with a spectacular view of the snow-topped Cairngorms before our final drop down to the town.

From Newtonmore we snaked our way through lonely glens riding along ancient drovers' trails that led us right under the shadow of some of Scotland's biggest mountains, including the mighty Ben Nevis.

After a short ferry hop across Loch Eil, we left these Scottish giants behind and from then on we had a sea-breeze in our faces and a soundtrack of seagulls and oystercatchers as we rode alongside sea lochs towards of our goal of Ardnamurchan Point, the most westerly point on the UK mainland. Here we'd been promised riding along deserted golden beaches and cliff-top singletrack with superlative views of the islands of the Inner Hebrides. However, as we rode out from our base in Strontian on our final day we were greeted instead by with clouds of drenching drizzle, mist and that curse of the Scottish Highlands: midges.

Despite the drizzle, Dave still managed to celebrate our arrival at Ardnamurchan lighthouse by whipping out a bottle of cava. "It's awesome what we've achieved," concluded Richard from Manchester as Dave topped up his glass. "Why go overseas when you can have an adventure like this in the UK?"

And did James think it was worth flying all the way here from LA?

"Definitely," he replied in a John Wayne- style drawl. "The way that we were able to get away from people reminded me of the remote backcountry in California."

"Pushing the bikes across the bog though," he added, finishing his cava. "Now, that was pure baloney."

TRAVEL ESSENTIALS

Cycling there

The Coast to Coast mountain biking adventure in the Scottish Highlands with Wilderness Scotland (01479 420020; wildernessscotland.com) costs £925 per person including six nights’ B&B accommodation, six lunches, and the services of a qualified guide. The trip starts and finishes in Inverness. Scheduled departures with availability are: 15-21 Jun, 10-16 Aug and 7-13 Sep.

More information

visitscotland.com

Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Automotive Service Advisor - Franchised Main Dealer

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful, family owned m...

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable