Somewhere at the back of a cupboard during a recent clear out, a friend of Just Cycle rediscovered a copy of an April 1999 Mountain Bike Rider for the princely sum of £2.95! Okay, so apart from the obvious price comparison of yesteryear, there’s nothing much exciting about that I hear you holler… well just hang on a minute!! If you quickly flick your way through to page 100, there – right across the centre pages you will find featured our very own Workshop Wizard – Grant Martin! (Steady – this is a family show!)
The mountain biker’s favourite magazine features ‘Weekend Away’ – begging the question; “How far north dare we go in January’? before immediately answering said question “Gairloch in Scotland, that’s how far!!
The adventure continues…. With gritted teeth and acid breath, mbr headed off into the Highlands to battle it out with technical singletrack and glasses of sweet sherry. There are two Gairlochs in Scotland apparently, one near Glasgow – OK, it’s actually Gare Loch if you want to be pedantic – and the other a long way further up the west coast. In the middle of winter, it might seem more sensible to take a mountain biking weekend away in Gare Loch, Strathclyde, but, for spectacular rides, Gairloch, situated on one of the highest and wildest edges of Scotland and over four hours’ drive north of Edinburgh, is a far more appealing proposition.
For those who wouldn’t even venture north of the Firth of Forth at this time of year, don’t believe the hype. It’s not that grim north of the border. Even in January. Having said that, the rain was pelting down as we negotiated the final 50 miles of narrow, winding roads to Badachro, a tiny village five miles from the relative metropolis of Gairloch, which has three public houses.
Convinced every corner would be my last, I gently reminded the driver that I didn’t want to go off-road until daylight, and not at all in a car. Then, not so gently, bearing in mind the fact that, if you miss one these bends, you will probably never ever be found – not ever! I knew this for a fact because I’d read earlier that the parish of Gairloch, one of the four largest in Scotland encompasses 200,00 acres of moors and mountains; that it has 23 peaks more than 2,000 feet high and another five exceeding 3,000 feet.
The blurb also boasted that, “In this area of natural beauty and peach, one can spend one’s time either watching the justly famous cloud patterns and the sunsets or strike deep into the hills often seeing no one all day” Quite. We were staying in Caspar, a “traditional croft house modernised and fully equipped.” Just as well really, with the tourist in continuing: “Gairloch is an area where one needs to return to hot baths, an open fire and good drying facilities”. Rigorous preparations… This was perceptive stuff, as we soon realised. Arriving late in the evening, we ducked in the Badachro Inn, receiving a friendly – if restrained – welcome. However, we soon realised that the main action would be under way in Caspar. Right enough, the open fire was roaring, the Pringles had been popped (no one could stop) and the Guinness and sherry were flowing freely among the six already in residence. And we evidently had a bit of catching up to do…
Consequently, the morning started a little later than planned. After kicking ourselves for missing precious hours of sunlight, we drew the curtains and discovered that, in fact the clouds were blocking out any light that might, somewhere, be out there. My claim that it’s not that grim up north could be open to reasonable debate at this stage but bear with me. The Gairloch veterans in our party suggested that, instead of attempting anything too ambitious, we should head for a good track only four miles away by road.
The one or two who expressed the desire to go to a pub and play snooker were silenced and we headed along the B8056 towards the aforementioned metropolis, before taking a right along the A832 towards Loch Maree. Two miles on, just past Loch Bad an Sgalaig, we left the road, following a well-established six-mile track up into the hills leading to the similarly unpronounceable Loch na h-Oidhche. (Spellcheck is having a meltdown!) I almost forgot: the rain had stopped (hooray!) and then there was light! Compared to what we’d dressed for this was positively tropical.
The track we tackled is one of many in the parish, all more or less rideable and all climbing into the hills. Apparently, they are used solely, though rarely, by rich people in four-wheel-drive vehicles to fish in secluded lochs miles away from common folk. There are even huts by several of the lochs, offering welcome shelter from wind and rain. Of which there is of course, plenty. The wind was the main factor; one of our party couldn’t even throw up (very shortly after the first climb) in a straight line. We battled against a raging headwind all the way up until we came across a river roughly a mile from the loch and the paths end. On this occasion, the river was a little deeper than usual and presented a bit of an obstacle.
Three of our party turned back (no names, a-hem), but the rest waded, jumped, swam or fell through the river and carried on to the hut. Respect to Craig, who carried on after losing his breakfast so recently. It was worth it though, with a stunning view to Torridon from the top and an awesome descent back to the road. Including the road rides, we were out for around two and half hours, and were ready to sample some Gairloch nightlife. A short paragraph should suffice but then, you don’t go to Gairloch in the middle of January for the nightlife, do you? The pubs are warm, the people are friendly, the beer is cheap and the same rules apply for snooker and darts. With that in mind, the Fish Box Bar is worth a visit.
For Sunday, we had a provisional, weather-permitting plan to tackle the ‘Redpoint Route’, an allegedly highly technical track along the coast between Redpoint and Lower Diabaig. The only complication is that, unless you fancy riding all the way back to Redpoint, you need transport at the other end. It’s a ride that comes highly recommended but which, unfortunately proved logistically impossible on this particular weekend, despite a bright, rain-free day on Sunday.
With no shortage of potential routes, however, we set off to try a nearby and unexplored track going from Shieldaig Hotel to Loch a ‘Bhealaich, approximately nine miles in total. The first mile might be described in mountain biking circles as ‘technical’. Having not mixed much in these circles thus far, I call it ‘unrideable’. Not just on the way up, but also on the way down. I was proved wrong: step forward Andrew Davies, former Scottish mtb champ and exceptionally smooth operator when it comes to boulders, thick mud and deceptively deep puddles.
After my third crash I had to walk as I didn’t have any brakes left. Beyond the first steep mile, however, the path levelled out and turned into a mountain bikers paradise. We were all in agreement that this was one of the best tracks we had ridden, with a nice loch, a wooden bridge, a couple of awesome waterfalls and -best of all – a rideable 100-metre stretch of river, replacing a section of path. Unfortunately, with daylight fading, we had to turn back before reaching the hut. So, Gairloch in January was far from being a failed experiment, even though we were unable, or unwilling, to tackle the ‘routes for hard men’ I’d heard so much about in the build-up to the weekend. Thank God for that, say I.
One of these routes is worth mentioning, since I am assured that on its own it renders worthwhile the long journey. Its a fantastic 90 per cent ridable out-and-back single track that takes you from the A832 – just after Loch Tollaidh, if you’re heading from Gairloch – up Creag Mhor to Slattadale Forest, with incredible views of Loch Maree in between. It’s for ‘real’ mountain bikers and mountain goats only. Of course, I could have ridden it. And one day, perhaps, I’ll do just that.
(As told to mbr by the great, late, Richard Moore.)