I'd been keeping an eye on the Deeside Trail website and group since it's inception over a year ago. Since then there have been 2 group rides and various people doing it as an individual time trial (ITT) using GPS data to prove times and routes.
I wanted to join them. Looking at the route on the website I could see it stretched westwards from it's start point in Banchory, into the Cairngorm National Park past the market town of Ballater and then into the mountains around Braemar. It then looped back around northwards taking in more remote mountain passes before some of the steepest and longest climbs in the last third as it headed back to Banchory again. It looked a challenging route. Others who'd done it already didn't disagree.
I couldn't make this years group ride. However, I was free the following weekend. And so, early in the morning, I made my way northwards by car. By lunch time I was ready to go. I took a photo of my bike on the Dee Bridge start point as tradition dictates, and then I was off.
I didn't know what to expect of this route. I wanted to enjoy the ride rather than kill myself getting a good time, so I was loaded up with my small tent, stove and various other things which prioritised comfort and safety over speed.
The first section to Ballater consisted of relatively easy track roads broken up with mad single-track downhill sections through thick undergrowth. I'd possibly not chosen the best weekend for doing this. The vegetation was at it's overgrown summer maximum, and the previous week had had some record rainfalls. As I passed down the single track sections, it was like squeezing between two fully loaded sponges. No matter that I was wearing waterproofs, in moments, I was soaked though. All hope of getting a chance to dry out disappeared as section after section of overhanging trees and huge ferns blocked the path. There was nothing for it but to accept that I was going to be horribly cold and wet for a bit, and push on through.
It was about here when I took my phone out of a damp pocket to take a photo, that I realised it was dead. This was a problem as, doing this alone, I'd promised to give my partner a call every so often so that she would know that I was still alive and where I was.
Soon enough (6 hours later) I finally arrived at the town of Ballater. The route passes by, but it was 6.30pm and the next town of Braemar was a few hours away, so I made a small detour to buy some food from the co-op, and made a visit to the pretty good chip shop hidden down a back street. I found a phone box, was surprised to find that the minimum payment is now 60 pence, and for the first time in years, dialled my home number using those big metal buttons.
The next section was possibly the easiest and fastest of the whole route. I climbed away from Ballater on smoothish track roads towards the mountain of Lochnagar. The sun was getting low in the sky as I rode along. Dusk bringing the deer out from the cover of the forest. Several jumped across the road just in front as I crunched along the gravel. A bit further on a a big herd of deer got spooked and ran alongside.
It was here that my gears started acting up. I could switch up to bigger cogs, but if I switched down, the derailleur didn't move. I stopped to take a look. After deciding that the gear cable was sticking somewhere unseen between the gear levers and the derailleur and that there wasn't a whole lot I could do about it, I carried on. Soon I discovered that by unclipping my right foot, stretching my leg back, hooking my toe gently under the derailleur and pulling upwards I could change the gear without having to get off the bike. This was a pain in the arse to say the least, but at least I could keep going.
Turning off the track at the old granite house 'Allt-na Guibhsaich', there was bit of push up a steep path. I was now close to the mountains of Meikle Pap and Lochnagar, the highest summit of which is called Cac Carn Beag, which apparently means "small cairn of faeces".
From here it was easy. A never ending long sweeping descent on smooth track roads took me for miles with barely a pedal turn required to keep going. Once over the moor tops, I descended into lovely old forest, finishing with a quick drop down to the main road just short of Braemar. At the end of the road I stopped on a scenic bridge over a river. The waters were impressive due to the rain from the week before. As I enjoyed the moment of rest, I looked at my watch to see it was 9:45 pm. I knew the shop in Braemar closed at 10. I probably had enough food for the night, but suddenly the thought of a coke and some extra snacks entered my head. I wasn't sure if I could make it, but decided to give it a go.
I floored it along the road...of course it wasn't quite as easy as it looked on the map. Not much on this route is. It was slightly uphill and into the wind. As the minutes passed I wasn't sure if I'd miscalculated and was actually a lot further away than I'd thought, but then, at 9.55 I passed Braemar castle which I knew was just a short ride from the town. I pushed on up the hill, took a right past the closed chip shop, crossed the bridge, and found the co-op on the main street. I leant my bike against the wall and pushed the door to find it locked.....balls!....I looked at my watch it was 10:01.
I needed to give Lucy, my partner, a call again, so spotting a couple of phone boxes across the street I pushed my bike towards them. Suddenly, a voice behind me shouted "Hello!!....You wanting something in the shop?". I turned to see a woman waving at me from the previously locked door. "I was just closing up, but I saw your bike and thought I'd check if you needed anything".
Coke, an apple, and several bags of crisps in hand (they were on special offer). I happily sat on a nearby bench and devoured the lot.
At this point it was time to make a decision. There's two route options here, a shorter, easier one, or a longer and tougher route. The weather was looking ok, although it was going to get dark soon. I decided that the long option was the one for me even though it lead to some of the remotest and roughest terrain of the whole route.
I'd been told that the extended section should take about 3 hours. By which I'd be back around the other end where it joined back onto the shorter loop. There was also a bothy (Bob Scott's bothy) at the end of the section, which I thought I might use.
3 hours would take me to about 1:30am which seemed do-able.
I headed onwards for some easy riding through the woods and then up a wide, open, valley which I recognised from doing the Cairngorm loop a few years earlier.
Soon I found myself at 'White Bridge' and a junction. I chose the literal path of insanity to the right leading off from the main track. It was now properly dark, and I pulled out my trust helmet light, clipped it in and set off up the path. The first section was easy, but soon enough I was off the bike and pushing it up steep rutted paths. Next came a long section of bog, also impossible to cycle more than a few meters at a time. I was thinking, "Yeah, this is hard, but it not as bad as I was expecting" as I pushed onwards through the dark, stopping to take a look at the raging torrent of a river as it dropped over a waterfall to my right. From here it just became progressively harder. The rocks in the path got larger, it now wasn't even possible to push the bike for more than a few meters at a time without having to lift, drag, scrape, or otherwise manoeuvre it around, and over the rocks. This continued for a long 4 km. All the while I could see that the path just double backed and was continuing back from where I came, but about 50 meters up the mountain to my right. I was getting frustrated by the route, for a few moments I considered just cutting straight up the hill to the other path instead of continuing along. But continue along I did. Maybe with the daylight, the views would help with motivation.
I turned the corner and started on the hairpin path back the way I'd come, but still climbing up. Although there was still plenty of pushing and lifting, this path was maybe slightly better than the previous. It still took a long time to traverse the 3km until I reached the highest point of the extended section. Next came an interesting descent over large flat granite slabs. It was tricky, but fun, and cheered me up considerably. It reminded me why I was doing this. A bit more pushing along a shorter valley and I'd made it. In front of me, lit up in my torch light, were the reflective outlines of a couple of hiker's tents. I'd made it to Derry Lodge, the site of the bothy. It was 2:30am.
I was actually feeling quite good by this point so decided that doing some actual cycling, rather than pushing, might be an idea.
I felt like I was flying down the track, it was suddenly all so easy. Too easy. I looked down at my GPS to see a complete lack of the red line indicating the route I should be following....Bollocks! I zoomed out to find I'd missed a turning about a kilometre back.
A tiny path lead off of the track road, and straight up a steep hill. It was too steep to cycle up with my tired legs, so I was back to pushing. At least it didn't last too long, maybe 500 meters. At the top it flattened out before diving into a steep sided gully. I noticed it was very sheltered in here and decided I'd had enough for the day. It was time to camp. I think it was about 4 am when I finally lay down and instantly fell sleep. I slept very well.
A quick breakfast of coffee and brioche the next morning and I set off for a bit more pushing. It was a much nicer day. The sun was out. It was warm. Unfortunately not warm enough to quickly dry out the boggy patches though.
This was another long, remote section. 10 km later, just next to Loch Builg, I was directed back on track roads for miles of amazing cycling, followed by an easy ride back into Ballater for the 2nd time. It was 12:30 pm...lunch time. I visited the co-op once more for a pot of pasta and a pie. The route notes said that it can be difficult to find water for the remainder of the route so, given that it was now getting actually hot outside, I refilled my water bottles, bought a couple of other bottled drinks to carry and downed a load of water. After another call home to say I'd survived the night, I headed off past some confused looking pensioners enjoying scones while wondering why a crazy looking cyclist was trying to squeeze past them and down a small alleyway.
A fast section along the Deeside Way walking trail was followed by the first of many steep climbs. Still, at least it was cyclable. In fact, it soon became fun. Twisty, fast, needle strewn paths leading around a beautiful nature reserve.
Some road sections led to the town of Tarland where the route takes in the local trail centre. A mountain biking man staring, smiling and nodding as I sped my laden bike over the jumps and berms.
More quiet road, and then another long climb took me up to the top of Broom Hill and then along the ridge to Pressendye at a height of 619meters. It may not have been the highest of hills, but the wide glaciated valleys surrounding it meant that the views were spectacular. As was the long descent off of the hill.
The end was now not far in terms of distance. However, there were still several hills between me and Banchory. Before the last of which I enjoyed the fun and long descent down an old, overgrown drovers road at Lumphanan. Finally, I was on the last hill. Of course it involved a long push up a boggy peaty path. I was really out of energy by now and so it was a real struggle to reach the top. But knowing the end was near was motivation enough to reach the top, where I lay back on a old cairn/folly for a while to enjoy the view.
A last zoom though the countryside, through a forest, and finally I found myself back at Banchory where strangely the route took a detour around a golf course before reaching the Bridge of Dee where I'd started 34 hours earlier.
I was knackered, but happy. The route had been a lot tougher than I'd expected, but nonetheless I'd really enjoyed it.
As I drove myself back over the hills to the south I found myself already thinking about how I could do it better next time. I think I'll be back.....