Naomi Freireich, an endurance mountain biker based in Edinburgh, Scotland is back with another blog post written exclusively for Chain Reaction Cycles.
In her latest blog, Naomi chats about taking on another epic bikepacking epic – if this doesn’t make you want to grab a gravel bike and head for adventure, we don’t know what will!
Scotland’s forgotten Coast to Coast route
It all started with bike-packing through Skye’s remote ghost villages of the clearances, beer round a camping stove and a crazy night wild camping in the howling wind and rain. Fired up with enthusiasm and a thirst for more exploring after what was an incredible weekend in Skye, I set about planning another weekend of bike-packing. Somewhere remote, with with big landscapes was the brief. And something that you can ride on a gravel bike. Interesting! This was going to need some research!
Gravel riding (and racing) is a relatively new style of cycling to the UK, originating in the US where there are over 1.3 million miles of unpaved roads, from hard-packed dirt to fist-sized gravel and everything in between. This is where races like Trans-Iowa and the Dirty Kanza 200 were dreamt up and bikes morphed from the 700cc wheeled Cyclocross bike, to the 650b, wider gravel-tyred bikes that are available today.
We packed the van up early on Friday morning before work then drove in so we could get away ahead of traffic (usually we’ll commute to work by bike, or Charlie will run). Charlie, my husband and partner-in-grime is a Gastroenterologist here in Edinburgh and I’m Head of Operations for a digital solutions agency so we both have pretty full-on jobs which we have to squeeze our adventuring around. He’s a really keen ultra-runner but since meeting me has developed a very healthy biking addiction, so the weekend would be a treat for him too.
We still weren’t completely sure what the weekend plans would entail, nor would we until after we’d started, and so with that in mind we packed for all eventualities; camping gear, enough food for two days and spare warm/dry clothes. We were promised proper Scottish weather so it’s best to pack for all eventualities.
As Saturday morning turned into late morning, with cups of tea and chat about the days ahead chewing through the earlier, wetter hours of the morning, we strapped the bags on our bikes and headed off on another adventure! From the off I was like a child with a new toy. The ride was smooth over the rough tarmac climb out of Ullapool and past the quarries, and I was enjoying pushing my new steed to see what it could do. As it turned out, this would definitely be a route to test its every detail. The path wound up through a valley alongside the fast flowing Ullapool River and up to Loch Achall and the Rhidorroch Estate. Or at least that’s what the map said.
The wet and misty morning had turned into a wet and very misty afternoon, and now there was a cloud cover so thick on the hillside that we missed much of what I had hoped we would experience on our way across the narrowest part of Scotland; dramatic crags, wind-wizened trees that looked like they were from a Tolkien tale, waterfalls flowing from high, heather-clad mountains and red deer gracefully leaping along the ridge lines. None of that. Just grey, driech smir*.
That wasn’t to deter us though; while Scottish weather can be daunting, we were prepared, and big weather just makes for a more dramatic adventure! From the Rhiddoroch estate the terrain changed dramatically. Gone was the relative smooth of the landcover track used by the landowners in their 4x4s, replaced by rough, stoney terrain, with knee-deep puddles, ruts and loose rocks aplenty. Here is where I noticed the increased agility of a 650b wheel. While still having that extra size over an older 26” wheel to make rolling over obstacles more comfortable, the 650b is still nimble when trying to avoid them and weave your way around the trail. And I noticed too my riding style change. Line selection became key to carrying your speed and so I felt my mountain biking skills come to the fore. I was skipping round the rocks, sailing up steep, rough climbs, splashing through the streams now bloated from the rainfall and loving the ride! Bad weather? What bad weather?!
In no time we made it to Loch an Daimh where the trail opened out and the sky cleared enough for us to just see Beinn Damh in the background, the top shrouded in mist. We could hear stags calling through the grey; this is rutting season and they were gathering females for their harems. But still no sign. Knockdamph bothy is at the far side of the Loch, and we were pleased to get there and make a warm cup of tea. Mountain bothies are an amazing resource available to all. They rely on the goodwill of the patrons to keep them in good order, and this is a popular one for people wishing to climb Beinn Damh. We filled our pan with water from the stream outside, cracked out the stove and made a cup of tea using bags that some kind walker had left. Sadly, the milk powder was a bit sub-optimal. Black tea it was then!
Warmed from within and champing at the bit to get moving to keep us that way, we started on the descent to join the trail that ran alongside Rappach Water and the river crossing we knew awaited us as rite of passage to the next part of our adventure. And when we got there we knew we’d have to really work for it! The river was swollen up the banks and flowing fast. Crossing would be challenging for a walker, even more so someone carrying a bike, and one laden with bike packing gear at that! The boulders on the river bed were slippery under foot, bike shoes not being built with walking as their primary purpose, and the water so fast that you could feel the icy flow pushing your legs downstream. At one point I almost lost hold of my bike, so buoyant it was in the water, grappling in the torrent to keep one hand on the bars as the bags acted like paddles, pushing the bike further away. We made it across and everything was still dry and attached! Passage granted.
It seemed that the trail gods were now shining on us. Gone were the rock-strewn trails and welcomed back were the smoother forestry-style tracks of before, still incredibly waterlogged and boggy, but easier going than before. We had earned the change. Just a short climb on and we came to the second bothy along the way, the School House bothy. A former school up until as late as the 1930s, it was hard to imagine children coming here, so remote from any signs of population. And yet inside a blackboard shared stories of visitors whose grandparents had been schooled there. It was incredible and quite humbling to think of the privilege we have these days of an education.
This bothy marked the half way mark, and it was here that we needed to make a call. Do we stay or do we carry on. It was 3pm (we’d made a later start than I’d have liked) but we were keen to push on, the lure of a warm pub meal and a pint pulling us eastward.
The path remained kind to us, and the mist lifted a bit to afford us better views of what had now become a copper grass-blanketed, rolling moorland. And when the sun peaked out from behind the mist occasionally, we were treated to an array of golds and bronzes, ochres and reds as we wound our way away from Rappach Water and down into the wide, lush green valley with the Abhainn an t-Strath Chuileannach river snaking through it. It was here, 40 kilometres into our 60km journey, we finally saw our red deer. Suddenly, right ahead on the path, a majestic stag stood, eyeing us up, and then lept up towards a tree line higher up along the hills to the north. We couldn’t believe our luck. And then, looking round we saw two does following closely behind. Then the calling sounds again, this time from across the water to the south. A spectacular sight which took our breath away.
What must have been close to a hundred red deer were gathered on the grassy banks of the river, and, as if prompted by the call of the stag warning them of our presence, they started to scatter, splashing through the water and up the other side of the valley into their thick, wooded shelter. As we rode along the track, muddy puddles splattering our grinning faces, we ‘wow’ed at just what an incredible sight it had been. Nature in its element, wild and free.
We must have been grinning and buzzing about the experience until we reached the gate marking the Croik Estate. Croick is famous for the church, built in the early 1800s, which housed in its grounds some 18 families, comprising over 90 people who had been forceably evicted from their homes during the clearances of Highland Scotland in the mid 1800s; rich landowners evicting their tenants in favour of more profitable sheep. Many of these evictions were bloody, with families who refused to move on massacred. The church windows have been etched with messages by these families and serve for a haunting reminder of just how bloody this country was, all too recently.
We rode on in silence for a time, contemplating what we’d just seen. It’s quite difficult to imagine the life of one of those Highlanders, so remote from anything we experience in Scotland today, and you could tell we both took the time to count our blessings. The path had turned back into tarmac, and from here we knew the end was in sight. Buoyed by the tangible feelings of accomplishment, we powered along the road, effortlessly chewing up the miles, past the first signs of civilisation we’d seen since leaving Ullapool. The wild open grassland of the valley turned into manicured fields of farmland and Estate homes as we crossed over the river Carron and chatted our way along the road to our end point, the village of Ardgay and the point on the West of Scotland that our journey for the day would finish, front wheels in the water, a shared experience to rival the best of my life.
The evening was spent reliving what we’d lived through together that day over beer and well earned food. The route through the Northern Highlands of Scotland from Ullapool to Ardgay had been completely unknown to me before planning for this trip, and I suspect it will be to many others. But what a beautiful, rich route it is, steeped in history and the aching wilderness that only Scotland can boast.
Bikepacking unlocks so many possibilities for adventure, and adventure is one of the greatest, life-enriching gifts we can give ourselves.