Most riders who’ve ridden at Torridon in the North West Highlands of Scotland will be familiar with the classic lollipop route – a bit of an all-mountain epic which takes in two of the most enjoyable and testing long descents in the UK.
However that’s not the only lollipop worth a lick in this amazing part of the world, as we found on our trip up there this spring.
Having already done “the classic” (along with another three rides) that week we were looking for a half-day route – and decided to head up the Annat descent as usual before branching right at Loch an Eoin, and plodding on up to Bealach a Choire Ghairbh, on the flank of the 933m-high Maol Chean-dearg.
If you’re feeling energetic it’s possible to ride much of the climb from Annat, however after four days in the saddle, Ian and myself opted to push a lot of it – taking around 1.5 hours to eventually get up to 577m (having started from sea level).
After a quick breather we dropped over the bealach, with me taking the lead before stopping in a panic at the first corner as my bike tried to wash out on the marbley surface. My rear brake wasn’t biting, so only the front wheel was locking up and leaving me in constant fear of washing out.
Discretion became the better part of valour as Ian took the lead on the marbley switchback turns at the top and I followed cautiously.
Fortunately the trails then changed in character to more rugged, fixed rock with longer straights.
This was still steeper and a step up in technicality from almost anything else I’d ridden in the area – taking a punishing toll on our arms and legs as we wrestled to keep our bikes going in the right direction.
I managed to find my rhythm here and put a bit of distance into Ian, with the 170mm Radon Swoop in its element, but was dismayed see the bottom of the descent was made up of the same marbley zig-zags as the top.
However there wasn’t actually that much left and I soon realised I’d overshot the cairn that marked our “turning back” point and was riding towards Coulags instead.
A swift re-group and we settled down for lunch on a rock before beginning the long slog up to Bealach na Lice and Loch an Eion.
Back down the stick
Once there, and round the sloppy edge of the lochan, we only had the “stick” of the lollipop back to Annat to go – so just 5km of the best descent in the world.
This is a trail which I always underestimate in terms of length and gradient. What I mean by that is that 5km is quite a distance to be charging as hard as you can and the track is consistently rocky throughout that length, but isn’t very steep at all.
The upshot of this is that it’s necessary to pedal and pump the bike if you want to keep your speed up, and timing those pedal strokes is a bit of a skill.
I wanted to see if I could improve on my Strava time from a few years’ previously, so set off at a fair clip – totally forgetting the numerous small rises awaiting me just down the trail.
Soon breathing out of my arse, I found myself more motivated by the sound of Ian catching up me (repeatedly) than by the virtual race I was involved in.
My rims were playing a tune, my cranks were pinging off rocks and my arms felt stiffer than a sailor on Viagra – but there was (probably) still a smile on my face when I reached the gate at the bottom of the descent.
I may have forgotten to check my Strava stats when I got home from the trip and uploaded all the rides, but looking now I am 15th out of more than 1,200 riders on that descent – so we must have put in a decent time.
Ben Damph Bonus
Ian had had enough at this point and spun back along the road to the hostel, I had done an easier ride than him the day before to be fair – and I decided to have a go at pushing up the Ben Damph descent which finished nearby.
In previous years we have ridden up the road and then along the (very wet) loch-side, before the slog of a climb up to the bealach for the excellent descent.
This time I pushed up through the woods, crossed the burn and took my time heading up the descent in the warm April sunshine.
The woods were steeper than they feel on the descent, but once across the burn the rest of the climb was surprisingly easy and I managed to pedal a fair bit of it despite being pretty mullered by this point of the trip.
After a quick breather and an energy bar at the bealach, I set off back down at a steady pace. It was nice to take in this awesome rocky, flowy descent without the strong winds or rain that we’d had on previous trips.
But my previous exertions had left me empty and I struggled to put any real effort in on the pedally bits.
Twenty minutes later I was back at the road, smiling and peeling my fingers off the handlebars. The whole add-on had taken less than two hours if memory serves, less than half the time the usual Ben Damph loop took and with zero annoying underwater trail and a more-pleasant climb.
I must admit I felt quite pleased with myself for working that one out.
So the total ride was about 36km and just under 1,400km riding, not bad for what had started as a smaller day out – and all killer and no filler.
Recommended if you’re in the area and want an alternative to the main lollipop but don’t fancy the normal Ben Damph bogfest.
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