After series of ferry crossings, bike rides, train travels and hikes we finally arrive in Aviemore, a small town hugging the foothills of the Cairngorms. Being on the move basically nonstop for more than two weeks our bodies are asking for some rest before heading out into the trails again. The sun never really sets since we had left Glasgow north, we cycle in the dim night sun into a nearby forest to find home for the next two days. We find shelter riding past a farm and on the first night pitch our tent to curious views of cows who came to watch the show, on the second night deer are our companions. Their pasture grounds meet the edge of our forest and it all feels like our own private safari.
The whole woodland has an eerily familiar feeling and reminds us heavily of our backyards in Poland and Slovenia. Gone are the tree farms we have seen the past weeks, where the profit gets maximized by squeezing as many trees in a square meter of land as possible. This place feels natural.
Tomorrow we will pack the tent and go back for a hot soup at mom’s. This place feels like home, and we are happy to call it that for those two nights. We spend mornings eating yogurt breakfasts in the park, afternoons dealing with things pending and evening making up for lost calories. I spend some time researching the route and it’s clear from the very beginning that our bikes are too heavy for what we want to attempt. We decide to follow Huw’s advice and look up David at his shop Bothy Bikes to see if he can store some of our gear.
Bothy Bikes gets quite busy in the early hours when swarms of people come in to rent bicycles for a day ride around Aviemore or just browse for some of the best gear the bicycle industry has to offer. Surly, Genesis, Jones and Santa Cruz are brands well represented in the shop’s display area. Fortunately, David finds some free time for a chat with us and to help go through Cairngorms Loop route we intend to ride, offering some sage advice on trail conditions and what to expect from the Cairngorms. “You’ll have a great time” – he says as he puts our excess gear into storage.
Without electronics, rack and guitar, and unnecessary gear the bikes get nimble again and we swiftly leave Aviemore north on local bike paths.
The rest is pure mountain biking poetry.
Quite country roads.
Gravel tracks climbing above forest level, into the domain of lone, ancient Caledonian Pines which seem to remember William Wallace himself.
Tight single track meandering blueberry floors, marsh and heather.
Hike-a-bikes through empty marshland and exposed highland.
Warm bothy nights in good company (thanks Rachel and Johnny!).
Fog and rain.
Sun and shade.
Best time we had riding in Scotland.
Listen to Huw and David. Go. Now. Ride the Cairngorms. You’ll have a great time.
Out of practical reasons we started the journey in Aviemore instead of Blair Atholl as per the original route found on http://www.cairngormsloop.net/ – it’s were our train arrived. In retrospective it seems like a better option for touring oriented cyclists as Aviemore’s Tesco offers food options unavailable else were along the route, riders connecting longer trips also have a better restocking position on anything camping related. Some part of the trail can be quite punishing and the last bit of trail before arriving back in Aviemore is a mellow fade out to a great ride, whereas the original racing route serves riders with a last muscle crunching hike-a-bike up a steep hill.
The hike-a-bike before Blair Atholl can be avoided by not crossing the river west continuing south on singletrack down Glen Tilt.
There are two longer hike-a-bikes on the trail. One being the inner loop section between White Bridge and Feshie Lodge which can get very boggy in wet weather; other, the highlands around Fords of Avon, with the worst section coming after the ford.
Five bothies are located along the inner loop: Ruigh Aiteachain, Inshriach, Ryvoan, Fords of Avon refuge and Bob Scott’s Bothy. Inshriach and Fords of Avon offer only basic shelter whereas the others have simple wood stoves to provide heat. Bothies tend to get busy, especially on bank holidays and weekends, keep that in mind. More info on how to use bothies ca be found on the Mountain Bothies Association webpage http://www.mountainbothies.org.uk/
Be aware of deer stalking season http://www.deerstalkingscotland.co.uk/ that runs from July 1st to 15th February, reaching peak August to October. Best, go early. May is historically the driest month of the year and you’ll avoid the worst of the dreaded midges.
Drinking water is not a concern, there’s plenty of it along the route.
Resupply points are Blair Atholl and Braemar and small shops in Tomintoul and Glenmore, don’t expect them to be open late.