Pausing to admire the view, mountain biking in the Cairngorms
Our guide, and resident poet, Kevin shares his experiences with a super-fun group on a thoroughly successful mountain bike adventure tour in the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.
There is more than one undeniable truth ascribed to mountain biking, but I’d like you to think about this one: as soon as you begin to turn the pedals, you accelerate yourself into a world of surprise. What will the trails bring me this time? What unforgettable moments will I witness today? How will the light play on a lochan: like a mirror reflecting in dazzling detail the world back on itself at the dawn of summer, in the autumn the surface ruffled by a playful breeze … The Cairngorms Adventure Tour, while “gentler” than other trips (I’ll come back to this), nonetheless lived up to such expectations with private and shared moments of surprise, epiphany, apercu —hard not to, when you’re riding the best singletrack in Highland Speyside and around Loch Ness.
I said “gentler” than other trips, the Coast-to-Coast Scotland tour for example, but such an observation is relative: there is still plenty to challenge riders of varied ability on this trip, and all of the clients – most of whom were women – progressed their riding, and their experience of natural trails well beyond where they were at the start of the week. However this tour is characterised by the inclusion and opportunity to undertake other activities as well. There is a day in open canoes on the Spey, and a day walking in the Rothiemurchus Estate, both with appropriately experienced guides. And underlying this is what I think is particularly special about this adventure: it enables the attentive mind to experience a mountainous Highland landscape at a varied and unique pace depending on the nature of the activity.
A day off the bike to spot some wildlife in the Cairngorms
The world appears different when you are riding a mountain bike, walking, or surprising the world from the middle of a river; there’s time for things up close, for being in the landscape in unexpected ways … The Cairngorm landscape – landscape period – is not just a physical space, it is a cultural one too, and each of us who visit, play in it, care for it, contemplate it … remake it anew each time we do so.
Following the group’s arrival on Saturday, the settling into the accommodation that we would share for the rest of the week and a short, late afternoon ride around Loch Morlich, we enjoyed an excellent dinner in Aviemore at ‘International Starters’. Sunday morning arrived with a big breakfast and excited anticipation of the first day-long ride, a route that would take us past the Green Lochan to Ryvoan, to Nethy Bridge, Loch Garten (and the Osprey Centre), before riding back into town on the Speyside Way.
The next day, after a breakfast of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, the group went paddling on the River Spey with a local guide, while I, with H&I Adventures’ owner and main guide Euan took the opportunity to explore and check out another potential route in the area.
Mountain biking in the sunshine in Scotland
World-class singletrack took over again in Feshiebridge on Tuesday, and while skills tuition is freely provided on the trails, this ride was followed, after a cup of tea, with a specific session at the accommodation which focused on front and rear wheel lifts, and the bunny hop … real lifelong learning!
On Thursday, on their ‘rest day’, the group said they all wanted to ride! and this for all of them really was the memorable riding moment of the week, partly because of where we were, in the Baden, but equally because by now they were truly dialled into the terrain, their enhanced skill set and their bikes… some tough climbs had the group digging deep, but their reward was flowy descents on the sweetest singletrack the Highlands has to offer: energy didn’t seem much of an issue and we couldn’t get enough of it on this day!
Friday, and the last day of the tour was spent in Inverness and on the banks of Loch Ness. A ride from Torbreck to Dores on the shores of the loch, through a coconut alley of gorse flowers (it is one of the most surprising and uncanny smells to encounter in Scotland) and, after some lunch, a ride back to the van on yet more lovely singletrack. Surprise then, from my perspective, at every turn throughout the week.
Celebrating a great week in Scotland
There is much that I have not mentioned, it necessarily must remain in memory, fleeting moments, things seen which in isolation would make little sense to anyone else, but what I have perhaps been trying to write about here is more idiosyncratic and personal than just the logistics, the timetable and description of an adventure holiday; it is as if the bloodstream of the narrative —the people (Dorothy, Sam, Sylvie, Claire, Gary), the trails, the conversation, the food and wine and laughter, the light and sharp breeze first thing in the morning, those fragmentary glimpses of deer, the moments of bliss, quietude and physical endurance, the smell of ozone and trees …as the world appears … joins the bloodstream of our life’s story, contributing to our becoming what we will become and will continue to become.
Kevin Henderson, mountain bike guide – and poet – in Scotland