Thursday, 16 June 2016


Monday, started in an overwhelming haze of mindbuzz. There was so much to get through in the digital work world as I sat fidgety and restless, watching the remote IT guy work on my machine. The weight of the to-do list was heavy, as was my heart.

Until I remembered the blissful insignificance of these matters last week, spent laughing, riding and taking stock in the Highlands with Steve. He's insane, and I love him for it!

We had such a wonderful break.

Of course it wasn't all plain sailing. After a Friday evening watching the dumbfounding tricks of the Nitro Circus tour, we decided on a midnight drive and thus avoid the horrors of the M5 and M6 motorway daytime traffic.

It was a great idea in principle but, even with the four hours sleep at a truck stop, I was exhausted for the Saturday. A whole week of rushing around to pack and prep had taken its toll. It was obvious how much when I struggled to find the energy to lap a normally fun and flowy trail centre. I felt bad. Physically overheating and exhausted and mentally stressed, concerned the exhaustion would last the entire trip.

It's times like that, that really reveal the depth of a good relationship. Steve, like always, was happy to wait, and we sat in the grass at the top of a climb chilling as I finally started to remember it was a holiday, and there were no deadlines. He made me smile and so did the trails.

By the end of our visit to Mabie we'd had the immense privilege to see a wild Golden Eagle, and the de-tune had begun.

A steady drive through the Highlands to Fort William followed. In a last minute moment of 'glamping' sensibility I had booked the van into the wonderful Glen Nevis campsite. It was not the availability of showers, easy access to clean running water and free WiFi to watch Isle of Man TT footage that made the decision, although these were indeed very beneficial side effects. No, it was the panic brought about when I realised the very reason we were heading up, the downhill mountain bike world cup, would be the same reason for thousands of others. The competition for free overnight parking would be high.

So our plans to rough-it were transformed, and I admit I smiled with contentment as we drove into our reserved pitch, past the 'no vacancies ' signage and the mass of tents, and bikes.

We really came up trumps on the Sunday. World Cup day. I had told Steve I really needed a full nights sleep to catch up with myself so we didn't set an alarm. It was still cool and quiet when I woke up, laying in the van. Figuring it must still be early (as there was no ruckus of the masses heading to watch the racing)  I asked Steve what the time was. 10:30 am....seems I slept right through that ruckus!

It had been a 12 hour sleep. Much needed, but there was racing to get to and we weren't sure we'd make it in time.

We made it, in perfect time to watch the start of the ladies race, and found some great view points in the shade of the hill. It was an amazing day, dry as a bone as the top pros tore down the hill, focused only on those extra few seconds that make them better than their rivals. This is Rachel Atherton, without a doubt, the very best female downhiller in the world right now, on her way to a ninth consecutive win at world cup level.

So much talent, so much skill and so great to watch the pros. Stitching together complicated line choices and hitting warp speed before landing in the arena entertaining the masses of spectators.

I spent the entire day trying to get the best out of my TG4 compact camera. Of course it's never going to produce SLR type images, but there is something rewarding about getting a rider in focus, in shot and without the need to edit after. My favourite pic of the day captured the amazing Aaron Gwin as he flew over the pedestrian course-crossing. 

The day was, as expected, full of buzz, noise and hero worship, most notably for the legendary Steve Peat, on his last season as a downhill pro after a 21 career at the top end of the game. Peaty deserves the acclaim, those who have had the pleasure of meeting him will know he remains soundly down-to-earth and happy to engage with fans, despite his A-list MTB celebrity status.

In contrast, the silence during the Stevie Smith 'Ghost Run' was deeply moving. To hear the hill hush in  memory of a young life. Taken too young? Maybe, but certainly better to loose a life lived fully, than waste a lifetime never living.

The next day we lived our lives at Laggan, the first part of the day spent in the wonderful company of Bobby, 3 years old and already riding a bike well. With a little help from his dad, he made it up the climbs on the green trail, but no help was needed for the descents. He was a proper downhiller in the making!  Best of all was his huge smiles and obvious love for riding. Apparently it was 'like a boy's ride, but there's a girl'

After the trip around the green route, a tired Bobby was left with his mum and baby brother, and Neil joined Steve and I on the infamous Laggan techfest. The red is challenging enough, although the descents are uncomplicated with lots of lovely drops, rock gardens and a great big slab to ride down. But the climbs...oh boy, did they ever show how weak my technical climbing has become. With relentless determination I did manage to clear the few sections that had me stuck, and it was useful practice for out-of-the-saddle-stand-up-and-stomp climbing which I find exceptionally difficult on flat pedals.

It was definitely worth the frustrating climbs to get the amazing views at the top. And did I mention the descents? They were superb.

Even being submerged into the normal 'trail centre' style of riding (fun, but mostly unadventurous), there was still time to stop and stare, to take photos of the beautiful grasses and generally just appreciate the location. We may not have had to think about direction, but this just gave more time to focus on the good stuff.

Physically the routes are not long, but the technical aspect is tiring, so an evening roadtrip around the western coast was a welcome way to relax. Some time to really become immersed in the best of Scotland.

We has escaped the storms over the mountains for the tranquility of the crystal clear waters of the pre-cambrian coast.

Thunder grumbled in the distance, but the brewing clouds stayed away and the sea was calm. We chilled, sat on rocks with the water gently, but relatively quickly, rising around our legs.

Plans to wade to the island changed as we soon realised the speed in tidal change would require a swim back, and the jelly fish were numerous. I was happy to stay planted on the shoreline!

Continuing the drive, we encountered this critter. A good lifelike representation we felt, looking at our savaged arms and legs from three days of Scottish-summer midge bites, and the furious scratching that follows.

Passing the Ardgour-Corran ferry terminal (far too expensive to cross with a large van) we found these fellas. I stopped to take a photo of the boat, and they came running over. Steve was waiting in anticipation for me to be bunted, but they were just friendly and inquistive, probably off to eat someone's garden and cause trouble along the way.

The evening light was stunning as we turned west, the earlier rain evident on the ground, but the air still and the waters calm. It had been the perfect way to spend the evening.

The following day we returned to Laggan for a few hours, passing through on the way to Aviemore, as it is a really great trail centre. Third time down this slab, and the third time it sounded like the bike was broken when it hit the g-out at the bottom. These carbon bikes though, amazingly tough.

So tough in fact, Steve's survived this quality over the bars moment! I can't even begin to explain how loud it was when he hit the ground. It was a massive surprise to find he wasn't broken, and neither was the frame.

His knee was pretty swollen though, cut and bruised through the pads, showing just how hard the impact had been. Thus we called it a day, and rolled back down the fireroad as an intense storm kicked in.

It rained and rained and rained, yet it was of no issue to us, sat in the van, sheltered by the awning and brewing up on the stove.

The rain had left an imprint of Steve's bike in the carpark. Like a memory that wouldn't be washed away.

The knee injury meant no more riding for Steve that day, and left me in the capable hands of our friendly tour guide Colin on the Tuesday evening tour of Aviemore.

What a wonderful tour it was! With Colin's knowledge of the area, fascinating tales of tree ladies, and why Fairy Glen is so beautifully coloured (because the fairies wash their clothes there, of course!) it was a enchanting trip around Rothiemurchus and Loch Morlich

The most memorable thing about the evening was the smell. Not Colin! But the intense oily depth of tree pollen in the heavy evening air. That, and the snow covered mountains in the distance, revealed occassionally beyond the heavy cloud.

The next day Steve decided to try a spin to loosen up the knee so I offered to show him as much of the route as I could remember. The pollen was still on the ground, dried in streaks and bright yellow. The smell was much lessened though. Daytime lacks those heady scents of evening, but makes up for it with warmth.

The pine forests are just beautiful. We rode mainly the flat gravelled fire roads, but did explore a little singletrack until we were lost and had to backtrack with the aid of the Garmin

There was an obligatory photo stop at Loch Morlich, as we baked in the humidity of midday. Not a place to pause for long however, lest you get eaten alive by midges!

 The ducks didn't seem to notice as they swam in circles gobbling the nutritious pollen.

I took too many photos of yellow globules in my fascination. 38 years old and having never seen a mass pollen shed before, it was a little too exciting for this once-was-botanist.

We pedaled to Fairy Glen and found this little fella. Maybe he could have done with some of that pollen too, for he didn't look well and was probably on his way out. However, he was happy to share my Trek bar and I hope it gave him happiness, if nothing else.

It was supposed to be a totally non-technical ride for Steve's knee. Of course, he forgot all about that as soon as he saw the steps to the water. I couldn't resist either, just too much fun!

The evening before, Colin had explained the route to the Bothy a little further on, and I was keen to investigate, in hope of a future wild camping tour, utilising bothies where possible. It didn't take long to find as we travelled upwards in the exposed hills, away from the groomed gravel of the tourist forests.

It was exactly the kind of riding I was hoping to see in Scotland, and, although our time on the route was brief, it was one of my favourite parts of the trip. Next time (with four working knees, maps and preparation) we plan to explore this area much further, following the trails into the wilderness.

Before long the storms started to threaten again, and we headed back to the van, passing back through dominating towers of trees and vibrant low lying vegetation beneath.

I was sad to know my riding time was over, for work was calling and we had to head to a hotel in Ayr. There was a big difficult site to survey, and an early morning wake up planned to meet my second man the next day; the return to worklife was not going to be gentle. Of course, it wasn't all over, there was still the extended drive down, through the shadow-cast mountains of Glen Coe

We stopped to clamber up the waterfall, and just spend time appreciating the change in seasons, and absolute love of van-life since we first visited in January. Having a van in which to tour is just so massively liberating, and the freedom is something I will never take for granted.

Two days of work followed for me, but Steve stayed in Scotland and rode Ae in the sunshine, whilst I scrabbled around dark disused shops with torches and hammers. I wasn't that jealous, honest, the work was pretty rewarding and, most important, we got to continue the roadtrip back home on the Friday afternoon, leaving my colleague free to leave early, rush back and fight the traffic whilst we toured, stopping at picnic sites, and generally taking it very easy.

I could get used to being chauffered around, having driven many thousands of miles a year, every year, for many many years, it's great being a passenger (see gratuitous selfie below).

Once home, after the initial shock of daily life, the holiday inspiration really kicked in and bikepacking kit and adventure planning restarted in earnest. There is a Dechutes tarp on it's way from the States, and new panniers from the local bike shop. The last few items required to complete the bivvy kit. I am now awaiting the arrival of my custom frame with anticipation, there will be a blog entry about that soon.........