Mountain biking in Torridon and Skye, Scotland. By Bruce Duncan of Haglöfs
Grey winds whip around us as we stand in the supermarket car park, shopping list in hand, to buy enough supplies to last eight people for five days. Top of the list is enough beer and whisky to last us the week!
I was part of the advance party for a week-long mountain biking foray into the Torridon and Skye mountains situated in the northwest coast of Scotland and had joined, Euan Wilson, guide and owner of H&I Adventures, to help set up a base camp in a traditional cottage situated smack bang in the middle of these two fantastic landscapes.
Haglöfs had designed a new range of mountain biking clothing and we wanted to expose the equipment to an array of challenging environments and riding styles. We’d enlisted H&I Adventures to host our riders and product designers from Sweden.
As we drive west from Inverness, the weather is improving from overcast and windy to a calm and sunny 22 degrees. Things are looking up. Once we arrive at the cottage we set about furnishing the cupboards and fridge with food, before settling down to a map, beer and open-fire evening:The Planning. I awake in the small hours of the morning to hear talking, but not English − the rest of the team have made it!
After breakfast, Euan gathers us around the kitchen table to discuss the day ahead. The words ‘epic’, ‘challenging’ and ‘spicy’ are being tossed around the table like rubbish on a windy day. Nobody knows what he means by ‘spicy’, but we set off nonetheless following our fearless leader into the Torridon hills.
Shortly after our first climb to a 650m pass, the ‘epic’ part of this tour starts to unfold. The views are akin to full-blown 3,000m alpine scenes, but we are only 650m up on a Scottish mountain side! A ribbon of pristine singletrack weaves its way out in front of us and disappears out of sight, teasing us with the unknown. We chase after it to find it delivers us right back down to sea level.
In eight hours we tackle singletrack technical climbs, four snakebite punctures, hike-a-bike sections and two 8km descents – Euan is certainly delivering the ‘challenging’ part of the tour.
Day two starts on a similar vein, but with the added bonus of riding the best descent in the country in to the Torridon valley!
As ever, we have to work hard for our descents, but it’s always worth it. Scotland is not like any other riding that I have done. In the Alps, you can climb for a couple of hours and then enjoy an hour-long descent. Scotland, on the other hand, is ‘undulating’: short sharp climbs and technical descents. It offers. a new way of riding and being able to conserve energy for later in the day is crucial.
By late afternoon, we are deep in the Torridon mountains surrounded by kilometre-high grey mountains, beams of sunlight shooting through the clouds like laser beams, as the clouds race across the sky. As if that wasn’t dramatic enough, Euan turns to us and announces: “saddles down, suspension on downhill mode, and buckle up, things are about to get ‘spicy’ around here!” We race down drops, over drainage bars, and big rocks, and loose rocks, and cobbled sections.
A truly awesome, technical, fast-flowing descent, the likes of which I have never seen before. I have to employ every trick and skill in the book to make it down in one piece!
That night, we relive the day’s excitement over a glass of whisky.
On day three, we head to the Isle of Skye for some fun and frolicking. We pass by Broadford and Portree on our way to the far north of the island, passing the imposing Lord of The Rings-style landscape of the Quiraing. Once there, we set about a 320m road climb, a mountain biker’s dream… or not! As soon as we reach the top of the climb, we peel off the trail and wrestle our way along a ribbon of perfect singletrack that cuts its way along the cliff edge.
We have to negotiate technical terrain while keeping an eye on the 45 degree slope to our right, that falls 150m to the sea below. Euan’s words, “Fall to the left if you fall!” are ringing in my ears all the way along. We enjoy an extended lunch and sunbathing session beneath a bluebird sunny sky, the light winds keeping the midges at bay. Then negotiate a rocky descent down to the beach below, where we find a dinosaur footprint hidden amongst the seaweed.
We return to the van tired and sore, but with a healthy glow from our day in the Scottish sun. The following day we sail back to Skye and set off along an old quartz mine railway track. It slowly gains altitude and opens up with views over the Cuillin Ridge that cuts through the centre of the island and is world famous for its impressive skyline. It’s the only Munro that requires ropes to summit and is the perfect winter training ground for climbers heading out to the Alps or other far-flung climbing destinations.
At the top, the nature of the descent becomes apparent: a grassy trail weaves its way through old abandoned homes – that have lain empty for nearly 200 years – and out onto a rocky beach bejeweled with fossils! They’re hard to find: we turn over a million rocks with no luck, so head along the coastline to pick up our trail. It hugs the lower flanks of an impressive sea cliff, before dishing out a couple of gold-star climbs. Even Euan, our intrepid guide, walks some of the route.
Throughout the ride (and indeed all this week) we haven’t seen another human being. That is, until we round the corner to find the Blue Shed Café serving a selection of coffees to put a London coffee merchant to shame and some rather spectacular home baking to help replace calories lost on today’s ride.
The day of our final adventure together dawns. As we mount our steeds for the final time, Euan explains that a part of this ride has been washed out over the past winter, but not to worry. It is a circular loop near the banks of Loch Maree that starts off with a very challenging climb up a steep dirt road, but he assures us we’ll be rewarded with one of the best views in the Highlands at the top.
For about an hour we pick our way along a fantastic singletrack before we hit the washed-out section. We see Euan skipping around rocks and over drops, but we choose to take the safe option and walk.
Once the trail picks up again it is hard to keep our eyes on the track due to the stunning views over Loch Maree and beyond it to the Torridon Valley. When we arrive back at the van it is high-fives, man hugs and ‘congratulations’ all round. We celebrate with a feast of smoked salmon, venison and Orkney fudge cheesecake, while watching the sun setting out west over the Isle of Skye.
It has been an eventful week with plenty of ups and down, literally, and we raise our beers and make a toast to ‘spicy, epic’ Scotland!