Scotland; Bitten by the Gravel Bug

Tales from a three day bikepacking expedition from Fort William in the Highlands, Scotland, hosted by Evans Cycles. A team of seven put the Limited Edition Pinnacle Arkose, Evans’ in-house designed mixed terrain adventure bike, to the test, including James Olsen, Pinnacle bike designer and product manager, James Booth, PR, videographer Toby Martin, guests Stuart Wright, Ella Wredenfors and myself, as well as local MTB guide Emma Holgate.

 

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Waking up on the Caledonian Sleeper train wasn’t as magical as I had anticipated. In fact, I was awoken almost hourly, as the train jolted, the guard rapped on another cabin door, or the dodgy fire signal bleeped in the narrow corridor. However, when I’d decided that I’d tried hard enough, I gingerly descended from my top bunk and slid out into the hallway to see where we’d got to. I wasn’t disappointed.

Heading up into the Trossachs, we chugged along the lakeside, making our way further North and deeper into more remote territory. Smoked salmon, eggs and coffee were gratefully received, but only distracted us for a little while from leaning eagerly out of the train windows, impatient to get out into the wilderness that we were passing through.

 

Fort William to Laggan

Arriving at the train station in Fort William, we acquainted ourselves with our steeds for the week; fitting pedals, best-loved saddles, bikepacking bags and other mounts. Having seen the lower end of the Arkose collection in my local Evans store, I wasn’t expecting the flashiest of rides, and certainly not an electronic Di2 groupset.

Emma from West Coast Biking was our guide for the three day expedition, a valuable fount of local knowledge and relaxed leader with a fantastic sense of humour. Saddled on a Pinnacle Arkose herself, she led us out of the town on her first gravel-specific tour, specially planned for us.We were keen to get going, with 70km ahead of us, especially with the promise of a chef preparing a delicious meal at our bunkhouse for the night.

We barely needed to take the road as we left Fort William, with abundant cycle trails snaking off up into the hills a good sign of how popular this area is with mountain bikers. In fact, each year it hosts a round of the UCI MTB World Cup, with keen cyclists from across the country flocking in to spectate. It was set to be a real test for me having never ridden gravel before, only a few days at various trail centres on an entry level hardtail. However the prospect of three days riding in bonnie Scotland was not one to be passed by.

 

The first taste of gravel straight out of Fort William

With Ben Nevis in clear sight, we headed into the trails at the base of the mountain on our journey North East. Fastened to our Ortlieb bikepacking bags by elastic cords, bananas soon lept out left, right and centre as started on the rougher terrain, and were promptly either relegated to jersey pockets or scoffed. I breathed in sharply once or twice as we pointed our Arkose bikes down loose gravel tracks and then some narrow singletrack in the woods; I was adamant to avoid ‘the fear’ setting in as I have previously experienced with mountain biking. Slowly but surely I was getting the hang of it, trusting the 45mm wide tyres and the familiarity of drop handlebars, trying to relax and just let the Arkose roll over what came out way.

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Poorly stowed bananas didn’t take well to gravel

A short stretch of the main road from Spean Bridge to Roybridge then gave way to one of the most incredible stretches of tarmac I have ever experienced. Despite being a gradual climb, the traffic-free back lane heading into Glen Roy filled me with the sort of euphoria that I only usually experience on a long, exhilarating descent. The sun was shining, much unexpectedly given the forecast for heavy rain seen earlier in the week, and our team keenly flew up the little kickers and teasers of descents as we made our way through the farms and woodland, into the more remote valley.

Taking a pause where the tarmac gave way to gravel on General Wade’s Military Road, we took stock of this striking glacial landscape, so far removed from the hills and vales of Southern England that most of us were more accustomed to. The much famed parallel roads, great stripes across the sides of the valley, indicating ancient ice-dammed lake shores, attract geologists the world over.

The trail deeper into Glen Roy was kind at first, and gradually became more testing. Puddles across the track spooked me at first, whilst the other, more experienced riders ploughed through. Trudging around them a little embarrassed, I built up the nerve to tackle the smaller ones and soon learnt there was nothing to fear. Next thing I know we’re pedalling through long stretches on track-wide puddles no problem at all! With our guide and MTB coach Emma, as well as Bare Bones Bikepacking guru and MTB coach Stuart Wright (who coached Emily Chappell to Strathpuffer victory) as a fellow rider, I was in excellent company for tips and advice.

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Possibly one of the most spectacular stretches of tarmac that our island has to offer

Mixed terrain really was the theme of the day, as we rode off-piste on a grassy track to go and check out the Luib Chonnal bothy. The downstairs of this spacious building was a workshop set up with tools for collecting and splitting firewood, whilst upstairs featured a small, basic kitchen, a table to dine at and most importantly of all; the wood burning stove. On a bright sunny day like today, it was difficult to imagine how life-saving this place could be, on a wild and wintery Scottish day here in the Highlands.

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Checking out the bothy, not time for us to rest up quite yet

Next we learnt the true meaning of hike-a-bike. Attempts to keep feet dry were in vain; dry stepping stones and tufts of marram grass were not enough to stop us inevitably slipping into the bogs and streams that we crossed as we continued Eastwards, alongside the river Spey. Despite best efforts to emulate Sven Nys and ‘ride everything’, we soon learnt that it was easier, and quicker to push in parts. Glad to reach the track again, our few kilometres of bog walking had certainly added adventure to the ride!

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Getting your feet wet is par for the course; if not the river you’ll be claimed by the bogs

The wider, undulating gravel track headed on to Laggan now, passing a group of Army mountain bikers training to tackle the Great Divide on their Sonders, and a fifty-strong herd of Red Deer in the valley not so far away. Stomachs were rumbling and the thought of a hearty meal fuelled our legs, along with the snack bars and marzipan that we had packed at the start. Into the little hamlet of Laggan, we rolled into our home for the night at the Pottery Bunkhouse, greeted by a much-welcomed pot of tea and hot showers. A fantastic meal laid on by ex-professional chef Will with the best custard I’ve ever tasted. The night was finished off with a wee dram of local Dalwhinnie that bike designer James had been carrying all day; the perfect end to an awesome first day in the saddle.

Laggan to Corrour Station

Day two was set to be a day of ‘classic gravel’ according to Emma, and that it certainly was. With 50km ahead of us stretching out to the remote Corrour Estate, simply a railway station and pub with nearby Scottish YHA bunkhouse on the edge of Loch Ossian. How it was still delightfully sunny and dry, we had no idea.

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Brilliant blue skies departing the bunkhouse for the second day’s ride

After a hearty breakfast in Laggan, we took in a short stretch of road before riding through the grand entrance gates to the Ardverikie Estate, more commonly known as home to Monarch of the Glen. The beautiful driveway wound beneath the tall pine trees, before we peeled off to slip across the sand, revealing the golden beach at the edge of Loch Laggan.

Carrying on along the Southern shore of the Loch, we glimpsed the stunning estate house, moving onto rockier tracks to start gradually climbing up onto the farmed forestry land. For once we had to share the wide gravel track, with a few lorries passing installing hydroelectric power plants on the estate.

 

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No wonder TV producers fell in love with the Ardverikie Estate for Monarch of the Glen

After a stretch of headwind on the Highland Trail 550 past Lochan Na H Earba and a little more hike-a-bike across the sandy shore, it wasn’t long before we were back into the wild again due South. The gorgeous weather that we had been spoilt with turned almost instantaneously as we rode out of the shelter of the trees and out into the moorland, forcing us all to stop and don our Gore jackets to defend against the wind and spitting rain. Thankfully it lasted no more than ten minutes before the sun broke through, and we were bathed in warm sunshine once again.

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Why ride when you can walk? Sand claims more riders…

 

Past Loch Ghuilbinn, the scale of this wilderness on the edge of the Cairngorms was something else. Classic glacial U-shaped valleys were flooded with light, yielding meandering rivers and streams and vast swathes of boggy moorland at the base. Gravel tracks leading across the mountainside captured the curiosity, and left us wondering just where they would lead and what they might reveal.

With my growing confidence on the loose gravel, we descended fast down to the head of Loch Ossian, led out by Emma onto one of the rocky outcrops across the water to sneak a peak of a Grand Designs-esque estate house nestled behind the trees. There were a few midges to be spotted, or swallowed, along the edge of the Loch as we headed along the undulating track in the forest. Incredibly luckily again, they weren’t out in force and certainly not hungry.

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The guys behind Evans Cycles; bike designer James Olsen, trendy videographer Toby Martin and PR guru James Booth

 

We spotted the lakeside cabin from a while away and instantly fell in love. The only sign of civilisation for miles bar the station house and pub a mere 5 minute ride up the gravel track, it was like an oasis in the desert – only this landscape could never be described as barren or boring. Rolling down to the hostel, we met our fellow roommates for the night, a couple of hikers and a few fishermen, all come to escape the dull normality of daily life.

The meal at Corrour Station House surpassed all expectations and skipping lunch each day in favour of sweet snacks on the move left us all with a keen appetite. Leaving the delightfully remote, yet somehow packed pub a few hours later, we were faced with the beginnings of a spectacular sunset, with pink tones strewn across the sky, reflected in the water gently lapping against the shore of Loch Ossian. We stood, soaking in the atmosphere to the shrieks of the nesting Herons on the island, toasting the day with a wee dram as the last light faded to black.

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Corrour Station to Fort William

Authentic boil-in-the-bag full english breakfasts started the day in the cabin at Loch Ossian, as we prepared ourselves for the last ride and did our best to avoid the compost toilets. With another mixed terrain day of around 50km in store before heading back home overnight on the Caledonian Sleeper train, we got going early, making our way West. 

Our first stretch of gravel took us past Loch Trieg, before we traversed the boggy marshland. There was plenty of walking with bikes, following the meandering Abhainn Rath river, sometimes carrying bikes on the shoulder along steep banks and leaping over divots and wet bogs. Again, it was pointless trying to keep dry, as we soon came to cross the river, wading knee deep in the fresh mountain water to reach the start of the trail on the other side.

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Hiking towards Ben Nevis, crossing countless divots and jumping streams

 

The gravel track to Kinlochleven was very loose and rocky in places, but we were glad to be making some greater progress than walking. The little climbs were tricky trying to pick out the best line over the larger, offset rocks, but I came to learn that with enough momentum the Arkose just bumbled over everything. I was speeding up to send the bike through the deep, long puddles now rather than cautiously bimble up to them with dread and wobble, and my newfound confidence showed in the beaming smile across my face. Every now and then I would accidently maneuver over a huge rock set which left me bemused but thankful that I hadn’t come off, yet smaller, seemingly more innocuous stones would jolt the bike across the track with little warning.

At the top of the climb we looked down to Kinlochleven and the coffee stop that was greatly anticipated. Emma warned us about the impending gravel descent, where we agreed that we’d all really rather get down there in once piece to have our cake. Nevertheless, as soon as we set off, the three Evans boys flew off. I was cautious at first, but soon let the descending bug get the better of me, as I clung on for dear life and hurled myself down the rocky drop. Halfway down the total descent we were greeted with tarmac, where the Arkose continued to fly at quite some speed down the twisting, exhilarating descent.

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Gravel descent heaven

 

A hearty lunch was enjoyed by all in the climbing centre cafe at Kinlochleven, followed by some rather unusual cakes such as a green Matcha Tea number and a bright Jaffa cake, cake. The morning’s push had taken longer than anticipated, so Emma opted for the road alternative for our last leg back to Fort William. The undulating road along the North shore of the sea loch was gorgeous, despite being back in the realms of road traffic again, and forms part of a hilly 25 mile TT around the loch, as Emma explained. What I would do to revisit this on my road bike…

Reaching the A82, we spent a stretch along the cycle path next to the road before joining the main carriageway for the final stint into Fort William. Despite feeling relatively safe for a major road, it was a stark contrast to the serenity and wilderness that we had become accustomed to over the previous few days. Having been to somewhere where very few people go; and even less ride, opting in favour of more serious MTB trails elsewhere nearby, this route was a real gem, and perfectly matched with the capability of the Arkose.

A huge thank you to Evans Cycles for organising the trip, and Emma at West Coast Biking for being our fantastic guide, as well as Ortlieb and Gore Apparel also supported the ride.

Look out for the full review of the Limited Edition Arkose 2017 on the 7th June at Total Women’s Cycling.  

 

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