I’m almost ashamed to admit that despite spending about quarter of a century as a mountain biker, it wasn’t until this year that I finally put wheels to dirt in the Cairngorms. I’ve tended to stay west on previous trips to the Scottish Highlands, only zipping through the Cairngorm National Park on my way back from Torridon a few years ago.
I was determined to move round a bit more on this year’s Scottish road trip however, and we drew up an itinerary that saw us getting a sunny half day’s riding in on the brilliant trails at Dunkeld before camping overnight near Aviemore and heading out for a big mountain effort on day two of our week-long holiday.
We had originally been eyeing up Ben MacDui, but we were there in April and there was still plenty of snow at the highest level – so our planned route was a loop taking in the slightly lower Feshie Hills.
Recommended to Chris by a friendly staff member at Bothy Bikes in Aviemore and promisingly billed as “adventurous”, it apparently included some epic views and a great, lesser-known descent.
Parking up by the glider club near Kingussie, we started out with an energy sapping 5km road spin on a false flat gradient. It never felt like we were actually riding uphill, but to my amzement we’d gained 100m altitude by the time we branched off road.
Ascending the famous Carn Ban Mor path, the riding quickly became more involving, with regular steps to hop up on a gradient that was never severe but – because of those steps – was difficult to settle into a rhythm on.
It began to snow after we’d gained a few hundred metres in altitude, lovely fluffy, dry snowflakes like you see in the movies. It wasn’t settling and we found it quite refreshing as we toiled away at the climb.
A few hundred more vertical metres later as we began to crest the hill, there was snow on the ground – and we had to squint through the falling snow to spot our intended turn left onto the ridge, Fortunately a walker was coming the other way at the same time and confirmed we had the correct track up to Sgor Gaoith.
Initially we were able to pedal but the combination of the gradient and snow soon had us off and pushing up to the first summit, which was quickly followed by a fun blast down a short distance before another climb to the next lump on the ridge.
As we got just a bit higher the snow became noticeably thicker and we could see thick drifts off the cliff edge to the east – which fell away into a giddying abyss.
Reaching the ridge summit, we were getting occasional glimpses of the bigger mountains to the east – with the monumental bulk of Breareach and some other big mountains across from us providing one of the most impressive vistas I’ve ever witnessed.
Keeping our eyes in front of us, we started gingerly down the gradual descent from the top. It was both hilarious and scary, and I found myself riding much more off the back of the bike than normal – ready to bail out as soon as the front wheel disappeared into a hole in the unpredictable snow.
Fortunately the snow thinned out again quickly as we lost a bit of height again and we found ourselves on a trail unlike anything else I’ve ridden in the UK.
Well, I say a trail but it was really just a wide area of slightly less lumpy rocks than the rest of the hillside – the reddish tinge making it feel just a tiny bit like riding on Mars.
There was a bit more gentle up and down as we progressed along the ridge, but most of it was rideable now and we were enjoying the fast, multiple-line-choice mini-descents.
Stopping only to climb on oddly eroded rocks and check the map – because one of them was our signal to turn westwards down a subsidiary ridge – we made a slight detour to a high point at the end of the ridge to enjoy the epic view northwards as well, before setting off down in search of our descent.
With no clearly defined path, we knew we had to pick up a small trail zig-zagging down the steeper southern flank of the hill – it wasn’t easy to find but we eventually got it, helped by a weather station that let us know we’d gone a bit too far.
Dropping into the descent it started as tight, open singletrack with nice switchbacks, getting slightly more technical and rocky as we got further down the hill – where vegetation close to the trail also began to play a part.
The trail obviously didn’t see a huge amount of traffic as we were dodging saplings and crashing through bushes encroaching onto the track. The low-level vegetation also made riding something of a guessing game. I was in front and poised to jump from my bike at a split-second’s notice should I snag a pedal on a trailside rock.
Fortunately that didn’t happen – although my pedals did pick up a few new scrapes – and we were able to ride the trail fast enough to get over some of the flatter and thrutchy sections without coming to a halt, giving the trail a surprising sense of flow.
We each had a story of how we’d almost come a cropper by the time we reached the bottom, and we swapped these as we rolled down through the woods to the vans.
It started raining just as we were finished the ride, which was the icing on the cake for a most excellent ride.
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