In each of the last 4 years, I’ve reached the end of summer feeling like I haven’t travelled enough on my bike. That’s never actually the case, but as the days start to shorten I panic that I haven’t spent enough time outside and I quickly plot one last domestic escapade. By the time I finally get out on the trip, summer is way past it’s best-before date. It’s cold and the days are short, and I spend the time wondering why on earth I felt compelled to embrace Autumn when – in hindsight – I’d already seen more than enough from my saddle that summer.
That was the case once again this year. In the middle of August, I still hadn’t headed off for Greece and the Torino-Nice Rally – so my feet were at their itchiest state of the year. With Ali (my Dales Divide partner in crime), we schemed a trip on our MTBs to anywhere vaguely mountainous.
Once again, I was drawn to the Scottish Highlands. Ali had never been riding up there before, and it seems I can’t help but return to that part of the country time and time again. Since my first ride across Scotland at the end of my RTW, I’ve been back 3 times to cycle. The first was my initial foray into MTB-touring on the Highland Trail 550 back in 2018, followed by the Cairngorms Loop last year, and now the Deeside Trail – the last ‘long-distance’ off-road bikepacking route on my bucket list for Scotland.
Ali didn’t take much persuading. I’m not sure he ever does. We booked in a trip over the first weekend of October and I forgot all about it.
As September rolled into its close and summer drew to an end, I was still recovering from summer excursions – my feet weren’t itchy at all. I wasn’t feeling particularly ‘pumped at all’ to head back up to Scotland, especially as the weather forecast looked worse the closer we approached the weekend.
Still, after spending so much time touring over rough stuff on my rigid Dawes I was excited about some proper Scottish singletrack on a hardtail, and as we sat on the train heading north I might even have been excited about embracing a little rain.
Every time I’ve squeezed in one last trip for the year in October/November the weather has been so punishing that I’ve been completely put-off bikepacking until the following spring. That’s exactly what I wanted this time round.
There’s something quite appealing in sitting on a train and heading almost as far as it travels. From London Liverpool Street Station (a 25 minute cycle from where I live), we sat on the train for nearly 7 hours until we reached Stonehaven on Scotland’s East Coast. The Deeside Trail actually starts in Banchory, but I’d plotted an extra stretch from the coast via Fetteresso Forest.
The Deeside Trail is a 140 mile circular route, linking up ‘some of the best trails and scenery Aberdeenshire, Deeside and the Eastern Cairngorm mountains’. It overlaps with the Cairngorms Loops ever so slightly in the middle, so I’d pedal a few miles that I had last summer. Last year I rode into the Cairngorms from the West Coast, so it was interesting to do the same from the opposite coast this summer.
The route was conceived along the lines of the Capital Trail, Cairngorms Loop and the Highland Trail 550 etc, and is run as a group start every year. You’re also welcome to take a crack as an individual time trial, but simply riding these routes is tough enough for me and we had about 3 days to complete my 280km DIY route in order to catch our return train from Aberdeen.
After a rushed 30km once we’d disembarked from the train, we arrived at Banchory just after dark. We pitched up in a patch of woods I’d eyed up from Google Maps Street View, before hopping back on our bikes and riding the 2 miles into town for a pub dinner. It was Friday night, after all. We could have stayed in a hotel for £100, but why do that when you legally camp wild camp for free around the corner and spend the money on fish and chips washed down with a pint of Guinness instead? An important amount of carbs right there.
We started the official Deeside Trail route the following morning after I burned our porridge for breakfast. I crashed within the first 5km, while showing off to Ali about how much faster I was on the downhills. I’d been lured into false confidence now I had a suspension fork beneath me again, but slipped into a rivet and flipped straight over the handlebars. Luckily I was totally fine, but I rode a little more cautiously after that.
The rest of the morning was pleasant riding, across rolling farmland and along woodland singletrack. It was much colder than it had been down in London – summer seemed to be drawing to its conclusion, but then again… it often feels like that in Scotland, regardless which month you are up there.
A nasty storm had been forecast to arrive that afternoon and eventually it turned up while we were stopped for lunch in Ballater. We tucked into a Coop meal-deal under shelter while plotting our next move, watching the rain lash against the road in front of us.
Progress had been slow going and we’d covered less ground than I’d expected. It looked like we’d be spending the next few hours getting soaked, so we felt we deserved somewhere dry to look forward to for the night. Bob Scott’s bothy was an option, but only if we skipped the next off-road sections in favour of the road. We opted for that and cycled off into the rain.
We paused in Braemar to pick up dinner, both drenched after a wet slog. I had a real feeling of déjà vu – last year I rode through this town on the Cairngorms Loop, and also arrived cold and damp having been caught by a storm on the pass coming down from Tomintoul.
Having deviated from the route to follow the road along the river Dee, I was on a familiar route again. In many ways the Cairngorms Loop is an easier route, with less singletrack and more road riding. The Deeside Trail kept pulling you up onto unrideable moorland sections, which were tough to deal with when you knew there was an easier option so close by.
When we arrived at the bothy, we were disappointed to see a couple of people already hanging around outside. “Do you mind if we join you in there”, I asked, keen to check they were happy to share the space in the current pandemic-climate. “Sure”, they replied, “but there’s already quite a few of us in there”.
In fact, there were about 7 of them crammed in. 3 separate parties all in one little room. We took one look inside and decided to pitch our tents outside. It had finally stopped raining and although the fire looked inviting, we were too tired to talk to strangers in a claustrophobic little hut. We’d rather get into our tents wet and sip our miniature wine bottles in the dark.
When I was here last year, all the bothies had been closed. This one was unlocked, but with a sign on the door saying ‘closed due to covid-19’ – so I had camped outside. And now here I was, of all the places in the UK I was camped in almost exactly the same spot a year later.
I’ve never been in a bothy with other people, perhaps I’ve been lucky. Bob Scott’s is a particularly accessible hut, just 5km from a road. We asked the others where they had travelled from – “oh, we’ve just walked over from the car”. Wonderful.
The riding was gorgeous the next morning. The rain had passed and there was plenty of pushing, but it was worth it to be deep in the Cairngorms again. We didn’t see a soul for hours.
We stayed true to the Deeside Trail route all day and pushed on until the very last light, before camping on one of the last fells after Tarland.
We woke up early, as we had done the previous two mornings, and were treated to a magnificent sunrise. It had been a cold and damp night, suddenly dropping down to below 5C and I’d been cold even in my winter sleeping bag. We brewed coffee and watched the horizon brighten. Not the worst of ways to start the day.
We had to skip a few of the final sections on our way back to Banchory. There was a train to catch and we didn’t want to take any chances. A mechanical or tubeless failure can always jeopardise timings, but most importantly – we wanted enough time for a pint or two before our train.
We followed the Dee Trail all the way back to Aberdeen. An easy, flat ride along a paved bike path all the way into town where we rode straight up to the Wetherspoons for lunch. Don’t ask me what Aberdeen was like, because all I’d be going off would be the harbour, a Wetherspoons and the train station.
7 hours later we were pulling into London, both with puffy faces from tins on the train coupled with a physically exhausting few days. The indoors heat melted us after being outside all weekend and we arrived in a sleep deprived state from dozing on the train as we motored south.
Perhaps we bit off more than we could chew. The days were short and we’d not managed to cycle the entire route, but we’d still seen more than enough. Most importantly, I never wanted to ride my bike again. And that’s exactly how I like to approach winter. Ask me how I feel about cycling in spring, and I’ll probably be ready for another big one.