If you’d asked me last year what the most-beautiful bike ride I’d ever been on was, I’d have probably given you half a dozen different answers – none of them definitive.
The Alps would have got a mention, as would the Torridon area and some southern English woodland at sunset.
But the whole lot were trumped in June when we dropped into Morvich to ride the Beinn Fhada loop on our way back down through the north west of Scotland.
It helped that we had a perfect summer day of course, with the temperature in the low twenties and just a few wisps of cloud – but the star of the show was the almost-impossibly green hills of Kintail – the slightly-out-of-the-way bit of the Highlands we were visiting.
Our route began in a little parking spot next to a stream at Morvich, starting off with an easy almost-flat pedal south east along the valley floor for about 5km. This should have been a gentle warm up, but we’d done a series of big rides on the three days before and I found myself struggling a bit with the really gentle incline.
Never mind, we were only going to cover about 25km so it couldn’t be too bad, could it?
We soon arrived at a little hut where we departed from the easy-but-boring access road and headed onto the singletrack to begin the climb up around the flank of the hill.
Unfortunately (or fortunately that day) the trail was just a bit too steep and awkward to get into much of a pedaling rhythm – so one minute we were carrying our bikes, then pushing them and then back in the saddle for 30 seconds before the next unrideable bit.
We went on like this, quickly gaining height as we swung eastwards. It felt like we were really out in the hills now, with stunning views across to the chain of hills known as “the five sisters of Kintail”.
Rain earlier in the week meant there was an impressive waterfall across on the hill opposite us as Allt Grannda tumbled down the mountainside – and this combined with the startlingly vivid green of the hills and the utter tranquility to create a pretty memorable lunch stop.
After scoffing our sarnies we pushed (and pedaled) on up the hill, managing more riding as the path became easier.
There was nothing particularly challenging about the singletrack trail, but it was pleasant enough to ride. And once the path topped out at just over 300m it began rising and falling for the next few kilometers.
Making four-legged friends
We’d been puzzled to spot a few piles of what appeared to be fresh horse poo on the trail, an unusual sight in the proper mountains but one that we’d also seen on the classic Torridon loop two days earlier.
Our curiosity was satisfied when we reached the bothy on the far side of the mountain – as there was already a group of horseriders relaxing in the sun.
We joined them for a chat and a snack and it emerged that they were on a multi-day point-to-point trip across the Highlands, and yes it was their poo we’d seen in Torridon the other day.
They were kind enough to let us set off first and now we were riding mostly downhill into Glen Affric, albeit very gradually.
A stretch of rocky doubletrack took us down to the river (Allt Beithe Garbh), which had a sturdy new bridge built across it – after which we began heading back west towards the day’s start point, travelling on a good track cut into the side of the glen.
Unfortunately what looked like a reasonably easy journey to Bealach a Sgairne – the pass we’d be using to access the final descent and to get back to Morvich – turned out to be a lengthy and frustrating exercise in bog-trotting across sodden grass to pass from one side of the glen to the other.
It was a good job the scenery was still stunningly beautiful or I might have got a bit grumpy.
Eventually we reached the bottom of the bealach and it was time for the day’s biggest stint of hike-a-bike – which I welcomed as a refreshing change from the bog below.
We only had to gain around 100 or 150m, so it didn’t take long to get to the top – where we were greeted by a stunning picture-postcard view through the dramatically parted mountains down into Gleann Choinneachain below.
It felt like the mountain pass from the first Lord Of The Rings movie – but sunny and green instead of snowy and blowing a blizzard.
A hidden classic
The riding up to this point had been decent enough, just good old-fashioned mountain biking really – nothing very technical at all. But that was about to change with the 400m descent that lay ahead of us.
We’d ridden some amazing descents already that week – but this one stands out as possibly the best of the lot, one of the most enjoyable bits of trail I’ve ever ridden.
It starts out rocky and mildly technical, at the top, like a classic bit of Lake District or Snowdonia gnar – but still with great flow. Chris and myself were riding wheel-to-wheel down this, my 130mm 29er just about staying in front of his 160mm enduro weapon.
But then the trail abruptly tilted downwards and suddenly felt more like a high alpine footpath, complete with exposed switchbacks. I fluffed the second one and let Chris through, doing my best to keep him in sight as we whizzed down the gloriously exposed trail.
Although this trail was undoubtedly superb there was one thing (actually quite a lot of them) keeping it from “best trail ever” status – water bars.
And it was about half-way down that one of them claimed its first victim as Chris got a hole in his tyre that wouldn’t seal straight away.
Ribbon of perfect singletrack
We stopped on what may have been the most stunning bit of the ride, looking back up the pass we could see a ribbon of perfect singletrack cut into the diagonal green flank of the mountain – it was achingly beautiful and made us feel so lucky to have caught it in such perfect conditions.
Once Chris had slung a tube in his wheel we continued to race down the wonderful singletrack, exercising just a bit more caution with the water bars until the gradient started to slacken off a bit and the grass gave way to heather encroaching on the twisty and rocky trail.
This was such fun to ride that we were soon back at full speed – crashing over the increasingly frequent water bars and reacting instantly to hop or swerve trail obstacles obscured by the heather.
Both of us managed to cock it up and go over the bars into the heather at different points, fortunately avoiding injury, but then getting straight back up to speed again.
As we neared the bottom of the glen we had the chance to head up to the Falls of Glomach for a bonus techy descent, but I’d run out of water and was feeling knackered so we decided to save it for next time and just head back to the vans.
Still buzzing as we fettled our battered bikes, we wondered why this wasn’t a famous descent like some of the other Scottish trails we’d ridden that week. It certainly deserves to be better known than it is.
I’ve just checked again and there are still no user-generated Strava segments on the entire loop – which would be unthinkable south of the border, or even in southern Scotland.
I can’t help finding it quite satisfying though. It’s nice to know there are still some places where KOM-chasing isn’t a competitive sport.
And we had to stop for that puncture, so I’d have a crap time anyway.
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