My First Mountain Bike Adventure: Tour of the Cairngorms

Having joined everyone else during lockdown and treated myself to a bike, what better way to introduce myself to big days out than attempting the Tour of the Cairngorms route over 2 days. This 123 mile route is part of the longer ‘Cairngorms Loop’ but with only 2 days available I thought the outer loop was more than enough. This challenge was up there with the toughest things I’ve ever done, but I’ve definitely now caught the bug for big adventures by bike.

[Sep ’20]

The Tour of the Cairngorms is a 123 mile route that circumnavigates much of the Cairngorms National Park, typically starting and finishing in Bridge of Tilt. There’s over 3000m of climbing and the route follows everything from tarmac cycle tracks and roads to land rover tracks and rough hike-a-bike sections. The Cairngorms loop incorporates this outer loop as well as an additional inner loop around Glen Feshie and the Lairig and Laoigh – these intersect at Feshiebridge and the Linn of Dee.

I had considered a number of options and start/finish points for tackling the route. My first thought was starting and finishing in Aviemore, breaking up the route with a wild camp around Bynack Lodge at the head of Glen Tilt. This would give me two fairly even days in terms of distance and ascent, but would involve some bikepacking kit, so I opted for a slightly more luxurious alternative. By starting and finishing at the Linn of Dee, I could break up my journey with a stay at Cairngorm Lodge Youth Hostel, which meant I could carry less kit and get a decent night’s sleep as well as stop for supplies in Aviemore at the end of day 1. The lockdown had also influenced some of my planning decisions as many Youth Hostels were not open for individual bookings (including Braemar YH, which would have worked as an overnight halt too). Stopping at Cairngorm Lodge meant my days were slightly uneven – 75 miles on day 1 and 47 on day 2 – but the Linn of Dee was a good place to leave the car and Aviemore was a good resupply option.

With my plan sorted, I booked my accommodation and eagerly waited for mid September to set off on my first big biking adventure!

The first part of my adventure involved a drive to Perth and a stay in a hotel the evening before, simply to allow me an earlier start and less of a drive on morning 1. I was up sharp and got to the Linn of Dee around 0715, with my kit and bike ready to go just before 0730.

Seeing the green Scottish Rights of Way Society signs always gets me excited as they’re usually in remote and wild places – it always feels like a proper adventure heading off in the direction of somewhere on the sign.

A long way to anywhere

The first part of my journey was from the Linn of Dee to Blair Atholl via the long and wild Glen Tilt. The section from the car park as far as Bynack Lodge was also a nice gentle warm up with a good track and no real climbing (although I was already riding into a stiff breeze), so it was a pleasant start to what would be a very long day indeed.

There are a couple of river crossings between White Bridge and Bynack Lodge, but there hadn’t been a great deal of rain so the water levels were manageable. A couple of the smaller rivers were also rideable so I could avoid even getting off the bike.

The river Dee
Approaching Bynack Lodge

Around a mile after Bynack Lodge the good track disappeared and there were a few miles of very rough track where it really wasn’t possible to do much riding (unless you’re Danny MacAskill…). The rain was also now on, but only very slightly, and thankfully I was sheltered from the wind by the steep sides of upper Glen Tilt.

The upper reaches of Glen Tilt

The hike-a-bike continued as far as the Falls of Tarf, where after crossing the bridge the track became much better again. The falls were also absolutely spectacular and the bridge is certainly up there with the most remote pieces of engineering I’ve visited.

Bedford Bridge
Some interesting reading
Falls of Tarf

From the Falls of Tarf it was a steady and enjoyable descent all the way to Blair Atholl. One thing I did notice on a biking adventure is the lack of photos I took compared to travelling on foot – it’s certainly a little more difficult to snap away whilst on the move.

I reached Blair Atholl (about 23 miles of the journey) just after 1030, 3 hours after setting off from the Linn of Dee. I wasn’t far off the pace I thought I’d be able to keep, but the hike-a-bike section between Bynack and the Falls of Tarf was a bit of an energy sapper. I made use of the excellent wee shop in Blair Atholl to get something to eat and enjoyed a picnic next to the river Tilt, before setting off on the next stage of the journey, which involved about 12 miles of tarmac following NCN Route 7. I was also travelling almost due west into a westerly wind, which wasn’t particularly fun.

I took about an hour and 20 minutes to reach the start of the Gaick Pass, where I turned off the cycle track and carefully crossed the busy A9 to set off on the next big off-road section of the day.

Off road again

After an initial steep climb, the track towards Sronphadruig Lodge was steady and enjoyable, with great views and a tremendous feeling of remoteness. The wind was almost at my back now too and it hadn’t really rained since the Falls of Tarf, so I had been pretty lucky with the weather so far.

After passing the Lodge and overtaking a couple of diggers that looked very out of place, there was a slippy river crossing followed by another rough section of hike-a-bike along the western shore of Loch an Duin. Again, this was rideable in very short bursts, but it was easier to push the bike rather than hopping on and off every 10-20m or so. The narrow path continued along the length of the 2km loch and met another good track at the start of the Allt Loch an Duin. I had now covered just over 40 miles and knowing that I had almost 35 still to go wasn’t filling me with much confidence. I was low on energy and wondered if I’d perhaps bitten off a little more than I could chew, but I knew there was no option but to carry on as I certainly wasn’t phoning for a lift out here!

Loch an Duin

The almost constant descent from Loch an Duin past Gaick Lodge and down through Glen Tromie did help to lift my spirits and the great views and feeling of remoteness brought a smile to my face on a number of occasions. This was definitely a proper adventure!

Much to my surprise, a lot of the track down Glen Tromie to Drumguish was on tarmac so I was able to make good progress and eat up the many miles I still had left to go. I reached the end of Glen Tromie after 55+ miles and around 8 hours of effort and knew from here that it was a simple end to the day, so I stopped for my last decent rest and had a bite to eat before setting off along the road towards Aviemore. It was along here that I was deviating from the proper Tour of the Cairngorms route as I had opted to follow NCN Route 7 to Aviemore for supplies rather than staying on the tracks through Rothiemurchus and past Loch an Eilean.

Hardest part of the day done

It took around an hour to reach Aviemore from Drumguish and I rolled into the town excited for my dinner and a chance to have a wander about the supermarket to give my backside a wee rest from the saddle! After a quick trip around an extremely busy Tesco I headed to the Happy Haggis for a very tasty (but probably not particularly healthy) dinner. It tasted absolutely superb and I practically inhaled my meal, but the downside of eating something from the chip shop was that I now had about 7 miles of uphill cycling still to go with a full stomach – not fun!

The final stage of my day from Aviemore to Glenmore via the Old Logging Way wasn’t particularly quick and a few choice words were muttered along the way, but I knew that I was only minutes away from a hot shower and a comfy bed. In reality, this turned out to be more like an hour, but I eventually pulled into the Cairngorm Lodge Youth Hostel car park absolutely exhausted and definitely ready to never see my bike again!

I had to dig pretty deep at times and battling the headwind between Blair Atholl and Dalnacardoch was tough, but I managed the 75 mile journey (with 1200+ m of ascent) in 10hrs 20mins (moving time was around 9hrs 15mins) including all of my stops and any shopping. After a long shower, another wee snack and plenty of stretching, I headed off to bed for an early night to prepare for another big day.

Not a bad view to enjoy for the evening

My second day was a ‘mere’ 45 miles, which wasn’t anywhere near as far as the previous day but involved slightly more ascent at 1400m. I was up and ready to go just before 0800 and had estimated I would take around 8 hours to complete the day’s riding, giving me plenty of time to finish in daylight should there be any complications along the way.

A beautiful morning

Once again the first part of the day was a fairly gentle warm up, involving a steady climb on good tracks toward Ryvoan bothy, a few miles from Glenmore. I didn’t enter the bothy as all bothies were closed due to Covid-19, but I wasn’t overly surprised to hear voices inside the bothy as I stopped off to take a few photos. It was certainly a lovely setting though and I’ll definitely be back to visit during less difficult times.

Ryvoan bothy

From Ryvoan there were a few ups and downs along the track to Forest Lodge, where I crossed a bridge over the River Nethy. The good track continued from here, passing Loch a’Chnuic and eventually heading for the slopes of Ben Avon. I turned off the landrover track just after the loch and crossed the Faeshellach Burn, where there was a great wee singletrack section as far as Eag Mhor, an interesting rocky pass.

Looking back towards Rothiemurchus Forest
Eag Mhor

After Eag Mhor there was a grassy descent towards Dorback Burn, which after crossing I joined a track and eventually a tarmac road to reach Dorback Lodge, where there’s a sign directing people around the edge of the estate. The subsequent section of track was one of the prettiest sections of my journey so far, with great views across the rolling hills north of the Cairngorms. I was sheltered from the wind here too and there wasn’t much in the way of cloud, so it was a lovely setting indeed.

Rolling hills of the northern Cairngorms

After the high point on the track there was a fast descent into Glen Brown, where I must have crossed the Burn of Brown about half a dozen times as the track wound its way in between the meanders. Here was one of the only navigational ‘challenges’ of the route as there isn’t an obvious path on the other side of the river – only an old rusty farm gate to aim for. Once across the burn though, there’s a good track all the way to Bridge of Avon where I joined the A939 to head into Tomintoul.

The first section of my day was around 20 miles and had taken me 3 and a half hours. I was a little under half way and I knew that I still had the biggest climb of my journey ahead of me, but the first port of call was another excellent wee shop in Tomintoul for a spot of lunch.

I headed off once more after lunch and a wee rest and followed the tarmac road into the very pretty Glen Avon. Other than the annoying ups and downs, the road along the east side of the river Avon allowed me to make reasonable progress, but I was also now met with a strong southerly breeze and, surprise surprise, I was heading directly into it!

The tarmac road ended around Inchrory, but there was still a good land rover track from here and onwards up Glen Builg. At the fork in the path I met a couple of bikers who were headed up Glen Avon on e-bikes – that sounded like a great idea whilst I had the head wind to negotiate!

Heading into Glen Builg

After another couple of stops on the way up Glen Builg, I reached Loch Builg where I was faced with the last hike-a-bike section of the journey. Once again there were short rideable sections, but it was very muddy in places and generally easier to just push the bike. This lasted for a little over a kilometre where another good track is joined at Lochan Oir.

Approaching Loch Builg

The section from Lochan Oir up the shoulder of Cullardoch (a Corbett) was by far the toughest section of my trip and was absolutely no fun at all. By now there was probably a 30+ mph wind heading straight for me and combined with the steep sustained climb up the western side of Cullardoch, meant that I was pushing my bike for most of the way. I would have gladly thrown my bike away here and given up, but being miles from civilisation still meant I had no choice but to dig deep and continue. I knew that after reaching the high point of the track I’d have a long descent to enjoy, so I kept that at the back of my mind and pressed on.

Unfortunately, the wind only strengthened when I reached the high point at 730m and I found myself having to pedal hard on the descents to keep up any speed. The high winds continued for a few miles until I reached Invercauld estate and was amongst some trees. From here I had 2 options: follow the track to Invercauld Bridge and then the A93 into Braemar, or cut off a couple of miles and stay on the north side of the river Dee past the Linn of Quoich. The latter was chosen!

I was nearing the end of my journey now and although it was extremely tough in places, I was feeling proud to have covered such a distance over 2 days being a complete newbie when it comes to mountain biking and covering long distances by bike. The final section along the road from the Linn of Quoich to the Linn of Dee allowed me to think about my adventure and I was already starting to think of new challenges that I could set myself by bike. I was definitely hooked now!

With a great sigh of relief, I pulled into the Linn of Dee car park at around 1615, 8hrs 15 mins (7hrs 5mins moving time) after setting off from Glenmore. This was only slightly over my 8 hour estimate and with a reasonable amount of stops, I was over the moon with what I had achieved. I packed everything in the car and headed off home, spending the majority of the 3-and-a-bit hour drive thinking about the many thousands of calories I could enjoy when I got home. After all, I had earned it!

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